It was at supper one night that Pa announced to me he was setting a section aside for me to start my own garden. I had helped him in his in years past, but I had never had my very own. Pa told me, though, that I was ten years old now and it was time for me to start learning to raise my own crops. He didn’t want me trying anything to difficult or too outrageous yet, though, so he gave me a choice: beans or corn.
While I was doing the dishes, Pa told me he was going into town for something. I couldn’t imagine what he needed this late at night, but he simply told me that when I was done with the dishes to start on my homework, and I would find out the big secret when he got home. I did as I was told and was just finishing up my grammar assignment when he walked in the door. He had the ice cream maker. I big smile spread across my face. “Oh boy!” I suddenly shouted.
Pa’s face lit up as he laughed out loud. “I had a craving for ice cream all of a sudden!” He stated.
“Pa, sometimes I have a craving for ice cream, and you don’t give it to me,” I stated.
Pa grinned, “Well,” he said. “I guess that’s one of the advantages of being an adult – we can choose to act on our cravings.”
I stood up to watch him start to make it, but he told me to finish my homework. “I’m done!” I announced.
Pa came over and picked up my notebook. He looked at the answers and raised his eyebrows in a couple places, but he never said anything. “Grammar’s all you had tonight?”
“Well, I had some math too, but I got most of it done right after school,” I answered. Then I showed him my math and he announced that five of the problems were wrong. I did them over and showed them to him again. “If you didn’t get in a hurry, you wouldn’t have to do them over!” He reminded me.
“Yes sir.” I put my books together so they would be all ready in the morning. “Now can I help?
Pa shook his head. “I sat the Almanac on my desk. Get it and see what it says about planting.
I read it for awhile as Pa worked on the ice cream. The almanac wasn’t much help in my deciding, because it didn’t favor one over the other. It just told me to plant whichever one I was hungry for! “Well, that sounds like a practical book,” Pa stated. As I thought on this, Pa asked me to come give the ice cream maker a few cranks while he went for more ice.
I continued sitting at the table for a few moments as I tried to decide what to plant. Then I slowly stood up, still deep in thought. “Of course, if I were to plant beans, I’d have to string ‘em,” I stated. I didn’t relish in a lot of extra work if I didn’t need it.
“And if you were to plant corn, you would have to husk it!” Pa stated as he pointed toward the ice cream maker, hinting for me to get a move on.
Both of them sounded like a lot of work, but I knew those were the only choices pa was giving me. This would take a lot of thought. For now, though, I would settle with cranking the ice cream maker.
When Pa came back in a minute later, he wasn’t alone. There was a really nice man with him, and I smiled when I realized he must have known me. He complimented me on how big I had gotten. But when Pa told me who he was – Tom Birch – I lost my smile. I was suddenly not happy to have this man in our house, and I couldn’t believe my pa would allow him in here.
You see, Tom Birch was the head of a gang of outlaws who went around robbing banks. Pa had told me that he and Mr. Birch used to be friends and that he had saved his life once, but pa also told me that he had done some things outside the law. And at school, us kids all talked about the latest on what the Birch gang had done. So, I made it apparent by the expression on my face that I wasn’t happy to have him there, and I wasn’t happy that my own father was allowing him to be here as if nothing was wrong with it.
But pa suddenly reminded me that I needed to mind my manners. He didn’t come right out and say it, but he asked me, “Well, aren’t you gonna shake hands son?” The way he said it made it very clear it wasn’t a question. The expression on his face made me see that my manners would be as good with this man as with any other person that walked in the front door. So, reluctantly, I shook his hand.
Evidently, Mr. Birch hadn’t stayed in contact with Pa, because he didn’t even know my mother had died. Pa didn’t really like to talk about it around me, because he didn’t like to upset me any more then I had to be. So he sent me to get the dishes. Immediately, though, Mr. Birch realized the truth. I tried to shut the conversation out of my head, not wanting to think on it.
I found the way my pa and Mr. Birch acted together to be quite disturbing. As we sat and ate ice cream, they talked about the old times, and I couldn’t help but to wonder if my pa had done any of those bad things back in the old days before I came along. I didn’t like some of the things they were talking about. Once, they started talking about fighting some Indians, and pa was laughing along with Mr. Birch’s bragging about killing them. That didn’t sound like my pa!
Mr. Birch even made my pa do an old wrestling thing they used to do. I watched, naturally wanting my pa to whip this bad guy. But Mr. Birch finally poked Pa and made him fall. That made me mad – not only because I felt he had cheated, but because I thought my pa was the better one of the two and should have showed him that!
I couldn’t wait for this man to leave! I didn’t like having him here. Pa was acting different – like he was his best friend. My pa was such a good man that I didn’t even want to think about him and this man together as buddies. Why, Mr. Birch even tried to give me a baby present of some moccasins that were way too little for me!
Pa finally realized that I wasn’t too happy with being there and sent me on to bed, telling me that they would clean up the mess. I was a little hesitant on leaving them alone. I didn’t like the way pa had changed since Mr. Birch had gotten here. I just wanted my old Pa back!
As I sat on the bed and unbuttoned my shirt, I thought about those two in there talking and living it up. I wanted him to leave really bad! And if Pa came in here, I would tell him as much. Sure enough, just a few moments later, Pa walked into the bedroom and grabbed the bedding stuff. I knew what he was doing, and I was none too happy with it! “Can I talk to you for a minute, Pa?” I suddenly asked.
Pa came over and sat on the bed beside me. I was happy for that, because I needed to talk to my pa, not the man he was when Mr. Birch was around. Pa sat down and looked at me. The loving look for me was back in his eyes. “You aren’t gonna ask him to stay, are ya, Pa?” I put it in the form of a question, but I think he could tell by the look on my face what I wanted his answer to be.
He didn’t answer me directly. He didn’t have to because he knew I already knew the answer to that. “Tom and I were like brothers a long time ago, Mark. He even saved my life once. I think I told you about that.” He had, but that was a long time ago. He was my pa now, and I wanted him to stay my pa! Pa went on to tell me that they did a lot of crazy things together. I knew this, though pa never told me, because he stated it wasn’t important. I knew he probably regretted some of the things he did. Pa went on to tell me that after he married Ma, him and Mr. Birch went off in different directions. Pa settled down, but Mr. Birch became an outlaw.
I guess the expression on my face told it all. In his gentle voice, Pa told me that Mr. Birch had done a lot of bad things. “But he came to visit us anyways, knowing that since we were old friends that…well, that it would be all right.”
I still wasn’t so sure it was all right for my pa to have a good friend like Mr. Birch who was a known outlaw. But Pa was the adult and I had to respect his choices. I could see the truth in my Pa’s eyes. But, I still wasn’t completely convinced that his being here was okay. I couldn’t understand how Pa could still be friends with a man who was a known outlaw!
Pa told me that friendship was a funny thing. I guess it’s another one of those things I’d understand better when I got older. I could tell that was all I was going to get, so I told Pa I would try to understand. Pa knew I felt like I hadn’t gotten to talk to him tonight like we did most nights. He promised me that we would talk more tomorrow, and I knew we would.
As I lay down in bed to go to sleep, I thought on this. I lay awake for awhile, and I finally heard Pa come into the bedroom. I was happy he came, because I knew everything would be okay. I turned over and closed my eyes, pretending I was asleep. He walked up to my bed and tucked the covers around me. Then he smoothed my hair back from my head.
It didn’t take me long to go to sleep after that. That’s what I needed the most – to feel his gentle touch and know that everything would be okay.
When I woke up the next morning, I heard a horse. I looked out the window and saw Mr. Birch riding away from the ranch. I can’t say that I wasn’t relieved to see him go. It wasn’t because I didn’t want my pa to have him as a friend, because as I lay awake the night before I realized that even if my friends were bad I’d want to stay friends with them. Pa always said that sometimes all it took was showing a little bit of love and devotion to those around you to change their hearts.
I turned and looked at Pa. He was still sleeping. So I went outside to do my chores. Pa called me when breakfast was fixed. Since I was running late, he requested that I didn’t talk during breakfast – just eat. So I stayed silent, thinking once again on which I wanted to plant in my garden.
I quickly drunk my milk down and sat the empty cup in the sink. Pa had already cleared the table off. As he walked out the door, he told me I better be out mounting my horse in five minutes. So I hurriedly finished getting ready for school. Pa had already taken my books and lunch out for me, so I just walked out and climbed on Blue Boy.
I rode over to where Pa was unloading the wagon. “Beans,” I stated.
He turned and looked at me, trying to figure out what I was talking about. “I decided on beans,” I stated.
“Even if you have to string them?” he asked.
I didn’t really want to think on that! So I ignored his question. I decided that stringing them might be a bit easier then husking corn, and I didn’t want pa getting me to thinking on that anymore! “Tell Hattie I want enough for the whole garden, will ya, Pa?” I asked.
But pa told me he had too much to do around the ranch, so I would have to wait until the next day. I guess that was fine since I wouldn’t have time to start planting until Saturday anyhow. Suddenly, I felt guilty for how I had behaved the night before. “I’m sorry I didn’t say goodbye to Tom.”
Pa simply stated that it was a long way to Denver. Now, I’ll admit that my geography wasn’t the best in the world, but I knew that Denver wasn’t in the direction of North Fork. And when I told Pa I saw him heading in that direction, he suddenly got a funny look on his face – sort of like he was concerned there would be trouble. But I knew that I wasn’t to ask any questions. So when Pa told me to get going, I obeyed him immediately.
As soon as school let out, I came back home. I knew Pa would probably be needing my help since he had been working on the ranch all day. But as I rode into the yard, I didn’t see him anywhere. Razor and his rifle were gone, so I figured he was out working on the range. Still though, it hit me as kind of strange, because usually if he wasn’t going to be home when I got there, he told me that morning. Otherwise, he tried to be there when I got home, just to make sure I got home all right and to give me any marching orders that were necessary.
But I didn’t think on it too much, figuring that he was probably on his way back from checking the cattle or something. I finished my chores and was on the porch giving my saddle a good polish when Pa rode up. I told him I figured he was out mending fences or something, but Pa announced that he had to go into town after all. I smiled, hoping he had gotten my seed. Pa got a really regretful look on his face, stating he had forgotten.
Now, my Pa has one of the sharpest memories of practically everyone in North Fork – in the world, actually! So if he forgot, I knew that something must have happened. I immediately asked him what had happened. I could tell he didn’t want to get into it now. He told me he’d tell me at supper. I immediately thought about that morning, and the look on his face when he realized Mr. Birch was in town. I was right. He had seen Mr. Birch.
I went in to get washed up for supper, but turned from the door to ask Pa what we were having. “Beans,” he answered.
At supper, Pa began telling me about how Mr. Birch and his gang were planning on robbing the bank. He told me that one of the members had gotten a hotel room the night before and sat it on fire in order to distract the town while they robbed the bank. Then he told me about the man they had hiding in the bank to shoot the robbers, which he did. Then Pa suddenly got quiet as he took a bite of his food.
I softly sat my cup down and looked at Pa. “Did Mr. Birch die too?”
Pa looked up at me with sad, tired eyes. He gave me a weak smile. “No,” he answered. “You see, Mr. Birch was in the saloon where I kept him until it was all over.”
“Well then, what’s wrong?” I asked.
Pa sighed. “I spent all afternoon in Micah’s office just thinking about my life, son.” Pa sat his fork down and gently laid his hand on top of mine as he looked deeply into my eyes. “I’m a lot more strict and protective of you in some ways then my folks were with me. I want you to understand why.”
I nodded, knowing he wasn’t just talking about not letting me have a gun, but about my treatment toward my fellow man and making me respect others, no matter who they were. “You see son, today I had to decide on rather I should shoot my friend or not. I couldn’t do it. As I aimed my rifle at him, I remembered all the things we had done together. Mark, I’ve done some things in my past I’m not proud of.”
I nodded and went back to eating. “Pa, we don’t have to talk about this,” I stated.
“Oh, but we do. Because I want you to understand, son. I don’t want you to have those same regrets when you grow up. I want you to look back on your childhood and remember it all with joy. But I also want you to make mistakes – small mistakes – and learn from them, so you won’t make the bigger ones. I want you to be friends with the Tom Birches of the world, but I don’t want you to become who they are.” Pa suddenly stopped talking. He silently ate for awhile.
I ate in silence. Then when I was done, I sat down my fork and looked at my pa. “I know that you have regrets. And I honestly don’t want to know what they are. Pa, all I know is that you are a wonderful man, and I love you just the way you are. I’m…I’m sorry that you lost your friend today.”
“Oh, I didn’t loose him, son. I guess I’ll always have the past. It’s my future that’s important, though. And I actually proved something to myself today.”
I raised my eyebrows at him, silently waiting for him to tell me what that was. Pa smiled. “No matter how much I cared for Tom as a friend, I was still able to do the right thing and turn him in. It was hard to do, but I knew it was the only thing I could do!”
“Pa?” I said suddenly. Pa looked up at me. “I’m glad Mr. Birch had you for a friend. Maybe he’ll think about that in jail.”
Pa smiled at me. I could tell he was proud of how mature I was being.
*A special thanks goes out to Michelle Palmer for her insight on how Mark had seen these episodes.
The Deadly Wait
Mark's Memories ― Table of Contents
You've heard Lucas' story, now hear Mark's Story
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