I was awful excited that Pa and I were going on a trip during my weeks out of school. But when he told me where we were going, some of the excitement left me. I groaned and Pa suddenly looked sharply at me. “Why can’t we buy our own salt?” I asked.
Pa folded his arms and looked down at me as I sat at the table finishing up my last assignment for fifth grade. I would be promoted when I returned to school in a few weeks. “We’ll leave first thing in the morning.” I knew that was the only answer I would get.
Now, I wish I could have taken my complaining back. I can’t tell you how many times I complained as we rode our wagon out into the desert and dug for salt. But at this moment, I would take every negative thing I said back.
I turned and looked at my father as he sat there beside the rock. He was becoming smaller with each step. I’m sure I was small to him also, but he continued to stare at me as if he would never see me again.
I remembered Pa hollering at me for dawdling instead of working hard at digging the salt with him. It had been just so hot that I couldn’t concentrate on our task at hand.
I sure wish he could holler at me right now. I wish he would get up and run out to me and yell at me for walking off into the desert I had no business to be crossing all by myself. But he never came. I turned again. I could barely see him this time.
I remembered the fear that clinched my heart as I watched my father try to stop the horses from taking off with the wagon. I remember Pa’s tumble down the incline as the horses broke away from the wagon. I remember the way my legs seemed to fly down that hill as I reached him and laid his head in my lap.
I turned around to take another look at my Pa. He was gone. There was no one here with me any longer. I was the only one out in this wasteland that was trying to steal my Pa from me. A tear trickled down my cheek and I wiped away the rebel tear. I needed every ounce of water in my body that I could get! How dare that tear try to steal those precious moments from me?
My father’s voice echoed in my head now. “It’s broken. We have no choice.” Then the sound of the one lonely shot as it echoed through the quiet, pathetic desert as our horse lost his life. I remembered Pa’s strong voice as he walked over to me. That has stuck with me all these years. My father was strong – even when his heart was breaking for having to do something that was against his nature – kill another living thing.
I sat down and took a swallow of water. “Not too much at one time, son.” I could hear his voice as if he was standing right here beside me. I turned my head in every direction, almost expecting him to be there – but he wasn’t. I looked back in the direction my father was in. Then I looked up at the sky. “Please God, help him!” I prayed. Those words echoed several times over the lonely, empty desert. Maybe that would help my prayer.
I remembered riding that horse across the desert. I told Pa to stop and jumped down. I couldn’t stand riding that horse when my Pa was hurting. I knew Pa was stubborn, but I could be just as stubborn as he was. “Suit yourself,” I heard Pa’s voice echo in my head again.
It was the hottest part of the day. My clothes were soaked with sweat. I was already dragging my feet and I still had a long way to go. I turned back and looked in the direction I had come from. With renewed confidence and strength, I turned and walked at a steady pace.
I remember the joy when Pa announced the water hole was just ahead. And I remember the disappointment that followed. The water we so desperately needed was gone. We would have to survive on the old hot water we had dipped from that barrel of water just a couple days ago.
Then the dreadful climb up that rocky, rough mountain. I felt ashamed because I couldn’t go up it by myself. My Pa was already injured, yet he had to still help me over the rocks. And, I must admit that I was very worried about him. His injuries were tiring him out fast and I could see the pain in his eyes. It was a terrible pain, and I knew his lifting me over those rocks only added to that pain.
Then suddenly, something dreadful had happened. And that happening is the sole reason I was walking across this desert alone. That happening is why I kept mumbling to myself, “The jagged peaks with the base of that mountain.” That’s why my father was lying back there in the hot son possibly dying-
“Watch out!” I warned my Pa. But I saw the pain that crossed his face the moment that rock hit his foot. Pa did his best to cover it, to make me believe he was okay. But he wasn’t okay. He was hurt very much. I had to somehow get him over this mountain. I held my hand out offering to help me, but he shook his head and did it himself. Again, I felt like a burden. Pa knew I was too little to help him – I felt useless.
My feet were dragging again. It was time for me to sit down and take another drink of the hot water. But much to my horror, I discovered that there was no water left. I desperately poured the remaining drops on my hand and licked them. There was no reason to stop now. I knew there would be a full moon tonight, and I prayed the moon would be light enough for me to find my way. “Please God; give me the light I need tonight!” Pa would have wanted me to stop and sleep, but I couldn’t sleep knowing that my father was dying back there. I had to keep going, even if it killed me. I was willing to lay down my life for my father.
It was that very morning that I woke up only to hear that Pa was sending me ahead to get help. I can’t tell you the mountain of fear that came over me when he told me that. My whole heart was screaming no. But as I listened to Pa, I knew that he couldn’t go. He was hurt, and he had too much pride to tell me how badly. But I knew. I knew he couldn’t take another step. I watched my Pa’s strength as he did one of the hardest things he had to do in his entire life – say good-bye to me.
He handed me my food and water, and I knew they were fuller now then they had been before. I looked into my father’s eyes. How could he? But I saw something there. I saw a weakness in the midst of his strength. That weakness, in my eyes, made him even stronger. I knew the sacrifice he was making. But I also knew that I was the only one who could go for help.
I suddenly tried to become strong for my Pa. I didn’t let on that I knew what he was doing. He had too much pride, and this was too important to him to spoil. Besides that, my staying here would kill him for sure. My going for help was the only way my father could have life.
As I realized the sacrifice my father was making for me, I was overcome with emotion. In that embrace, I felt his hands trembling as they touched me. The trembling hands made me proud. He was strong, even in death, and he would never tell me how hard saying goodbye to me was on him.
But I promised myself that he would not die. I would push myself until I dropped dead myself. I would get help and bring it back. I would not stop until I reached that ranch.
Then as I started to leave, Pa tried to give me his gun. His gun was the one thing that my Pa would never give up. That was his admitting defeat. If I took his gun, I would be taking his right arm (or left arm in Pa’s case). It was a part of him as much as I was a part of him. He had to keep it.
It was 24 hours since I left my father beside that rock. I could go no further. The sun had melted every once of liquid from my body. I couldn’t even sweat anymore because there was nothing to sweat. I fell down in the grass exhausted and alone. I had failed. I had let my Pa down. We were both going to die out here in this desert. Help me God. I couldn’t even voice that. Do something!
I heard something. As if God was suddenly answering my prayer (and I believe He was), I heard hammering in the distance. Some of my strength returned to me as I realized that there was someone who could help me. I crawled forward. Oh, give me strength! I suddenly stood and took just a few steps forward before I suddenly collapsed again. “Help!” That’s all that would come out of my mouth. “Help!”
I suddenly heard horses. They were going away. “Help!” I called again. The horses suddenly turned. I rejoiced as a young man towered over me.
Another man lifted a canteen to my lips, but I didn’t have time to drink. I had to get back to my Pa. “Drink it, son. Then you can talk.”
I did drink then. I drank several large gulps before the man suddenly pulled the canteen from my lips. “Too much will make you sick.”
I gasped and licked my lips. “My…my Pa!” I swallowed. “Out there…” I swallowed again as I gasped. The man put the canteen to my lips again and I took another sip. “His foot is broken…I think…” I stopped. I was so weak.
“How far away?” The young man was asking that as he suddenly picked me up and sat me on the horse. I laid my head down though. I couldn’t sit up. He quickly jumped on the saddle behind me and leaned me into his body. He wrapped his arms securely around me. “Where’s your father?”
“It took me…about…24 hours of straight walking.”
The man on the other horse was talking now. “Let’s get him up to the house and feed him while I saddle a fresh horse.”
“No,” I suddenly shot up. “No time to eat!”
“You must. If you don’t get something inside you, you’ll never make it,” the young man stated from behind me.
“You don’t understand!” I licked my lips again. “He’s without…food…and water…”
We were at the ranch house now and the young man lifted me from the horse. “Listen son.” He bent right in front of me and looked me straight in the eye. “We need you to show us where he is. You must put something in your stomach. We won’t go until you do.”
It was thirty minutes when Brent came in and announced we would go look for my father. Mr. Casey (I can’t remember his real name) ordered the other ranch hand who found me (his name was Tom) to go for the doctor.
I was still pretty weak, so Brent lifted me up into the saddle and we took off across the desert. He made me stop every now and then to take a drink of water. But we finally made it to the place I had left my Pa.
Buzzards! That’s what met my eyes the moment I got there. Brent shot his gun into the air to scare them away. I grabbed Pa’s rifle and clung to it. How could he not have it with him? I clasped the rifle as if it would lead me to my Pa. I was relieved when Brent came back to tell me that it was a coyote the buzzards were eating. “Where’s my Pa?” I asked as I grasped the rifle even tighter. As long as I held this in my hand, there was hope.
We followed a trail. Then I saw him. I raced down the hill as fast as I could and fell down beside my Pa. “Raise the boy right, Micah!”
I smiled. He was alive! My father was still alive. My heart began beating really fast. “We made it Pa! We made it!” I hugged him.
Then Brent was there giving him a drink of water. Pa did like me and tried to drink the whole canteen full. I pulled it from his lips and rubbed his cheek as Pa gasped, begging for more water. “Take it easy, Pa. You’ll get sick if you drink too fast.”
I just continued rubbing his cheek. Brent left the canteen with me and went to gather up the few things we had left there. I continued giving Pa small sips. Brent returned with some broth Mrs. Casey had packed in the saddle bag. He bent down in front of us. Pa tried to sit up the best he could, but he was hurting really bad. Brent gave him small spoonfuls of the broth.
“I need to get him to a doctor,” I suddenly gasped out. “Can’t we go and feed him later?”
Brent shook his head and patted my shoulder. “Your father is very weak. He must regain some strength, son.”
I watched some of that strength slowly return. I stood as Brent brought the horse to my Pa’s side. “Can you stand?” I asked him.
Pa nodded. I tried to fight off the tears as I watched Brent and Pa work painstakingly to get Pa up onto the horse. I stepped in to help, but Brent told me to get back. I didn’t listen to him, so Pa suddenly told me to get back. I stood and watched.
Pa moaned loudly as he finally got into the saddle. His foot was really swollen. Brent tied my Pa’s reins to his horse so they could walk side-by-side. I rode beside my Pa, so much on my mind.
I couldn’t talk as we rode back. I felt helpless, not being able to help my Pa when he needed me. He was so much bigger then me – so much stronger. I felt a deep relief of my Pa being alive. The whole ordeal had shaken me up something awful. I thought on that now as I allowed the tears to flow. I didn’t care who saw me.
When we got back to the ranch, I saw Mr. Casey come out and help Brent take Pa off the horse. Then they carried him inside. I hurried away to cry. I found myself by the stable. I scooted myself down the side and put my head in my hands. Now I could let it all out for sure. I allowed my body to shake with sobs.
Suddenly, I felt a familiar hand on my shoulder. “Mark,” the familiar voice suddenly said.
I looked up. “Micah!” I gasped. I threw my arms around him and cried even harder. “Oh Micah! It was awful! I tried to stay strong.”
Micah wrapped his arms around me and allowed me to cry. I cried until all my strength was spent. “I’m sorry,” I suddenly said when I pulled away from him and wiped my eyes. He handed me his kerchief and I blew my nose. “I’m sorry,” I said again.
Micah sat down beside me on the ground. He put his arm around my shoulders. “Sorry for what?” He asked.
“I didn’t man to cry like that. It’s just-“I choked on more tears.
“You’ve had to be strong for your father since this started. I think if it were reversed, your father would be sitting here crying just like you.”
I shook my head. “Pa’s strong.”
Micah smiled. “So are you, son. All those fears were buried deep inside you because you knew you had to keep your Pa safe. You couldn’t allow your emotions to take over. Mark, you deserve a medal for bravery! There aren’t many twelve year olds who could have taken out across a desert like that.”
I suddenly wanted to tell Micah everything. When I was done, Micah smiled down at me. “After hearing that story, I think I need a good cry too!” He declared.
I laughed for the first time since this all happened. “I think I’m strong again, Micah. Can I go see Pa now?” Micah nodded. Suddenly, I stopped. “Wait a minute! What are you doing here?”
“Well, when you two didn’t get back, I went looking for you. I was worried. I asked around in town, and Mr. Casey knew who I was looking for. When they sent for the doc, they let me know you two were out here. I figured if you would show up somewhere, it would be here.”
We went inside then. Pa was sitting up in the bed. I stood frozen in the doorway and stared at him. He really was alive! Pa smiled at me and held out his arms.
I ran into them and sat on the bed as we both cried. Pa kissed my cheek and held me close. “Oh Mark! I never thought I’d see you again.”
I nodded. “Pa, I know what you did.” I bit my lip as I choked back more tears. “I knew it then, but I knew I had to stay strong for you.”
“You knew, and you didn’t try to fight me?” Pa smiled. “Mark, that takes a real man!” Then he hugged me again.
“Pa, I have another confession.” I pulled the note from my pocket and placed it in his hand. “I read it once while I was resting. After reading that, I didn’t stop to rest anymore.”
Then I patted his leg. “How is it?” I asked.
Pa rubbed it. “My foot’s fractured. I won’t be walking on it for a few weeks.”
There was a knock on the door. “Now, it’s time for you to get in bed, boy. The doc wants to have a good look at you to make sure your okay. Then when you wake up, I’ll have a hearty meal fixed for you and your Pa!”
I was tired. I wanted to stay right here with my Pa – to sleep right beside him like we did when we stayed at a hotel. But Pa only smiled at me. “I’ll be here when you wake up. I promise.”
Suddenly, I realized that he hadn’t promised me before. He never promised me that he would be there when I returned. I think pa was thinking of the same thing, because we just stared into each other’s eyes before Mrs. Casey dragged me out.
When I woke up, Micah was at the table telling his Marshal stories to Mr. Casey and Brent. I hurried up to Brent and stuck out my hand. “I…I want to thank you for what you did,” I stated.
Brent smiled and shook his head. “I only did the right thing, son. But you are welcome.” Then he looked at Micah and Micah winked at me.
“Son, we’d like to discuss something with you. We have to do this in a way that father can’t refuse.” Brent leaned forward to look into my eyes.
I suddenly sat straight up and squared my shoulders. This was important, and I felt really grown up being in this conversation. Micah cleared his throat. “They want to give you and your father the salt for the winter.”
I smiled. But then I shook my head at Micah. “You know Pa would never allow it.”
“Yes,” Micah answered gruffly. “But we aren’t going to give him a choice. I’m pitching in some money too. The Casey’s are going to loan us a wagon and team to haul it back.”
I suddenly shook my head and waved my hands back and forth in front of me. “Pardon me, Marshal, but I’m not going back across the desert!” I stated.
Micah laughed. “We’ll take the road. You see, Brent here is going to drive one wagon with your Pa in the back and I’m going to drive the other with the salt. We aren’t going to ask your father. You two are partners in the ranch, so I’ll ask you if it’s okay.”
I smiled. “So, you want me to get the punishment for saying yes?”
Micah waved a finger at me. “There will be no punishment! I’ll see to that. I’ve gotten you out of worse scrapes before, haven’t I?” Micah shook his head. “Lucas McCain is the proudest and stubbornness man I’ve ever met. It’s not charity! After what you two have been through, the Casey’s just don’t want to worry about a young boy showing up half dead on their range again!”
We left a week later. Pa used a crutch to hobble on as his foot quickly healed. I wanted to wait inside while the explosion happened when Pa walked out. But Micah held tight to my collar so I couldn’t leave. I closed my eyes as Pa walked out the front door. “Well, I’d say that would be enough salt to last the winter!” Pa declared as he got into the back of the wagon without being ordered to do so.
Micah and I both looked at each other in shock. I ran to Pa. “Pa, the salt’s for us.”
“I know that, son,” Pa smiled.
“Well…” My voice drifted off.
“Oh, well the stubbornest and proudest man can let his friends and uh…family…spoil him once in a while,” Pa grinned.
“You were listening!” I declared.
Pa chuckled. “The walls are pretty thin. I couldn’t help but to hear the talk. Then Pa put his hand on my head. “Besides, I don’t relish ever going through that desert again!”
I hugged Pa as the wagons started moving. Then Pa mumbled silently, “Besides, I’m aiming to pay them back every last penny!”
I laughed. That’s my Pa!
Here is a great article about The Rifleman — October 1959 TV Guide
Pardon our dust.....
*A special thanks goes out to Michelle Palmer for her insight on how Mark had seen these episodes.
Mark's Memories ― Table of Contents
You've heard Lucas' story, now hear Mark's Story
around The McCain Ranch