I wanted to call this one “The Rifle,” because to me that’s what this is all about. You see, most of the boys my age had already learned to shoot, but then here I was at the ripe old age of twelve, and I still hadn’t learned to shoot. Granted, Pa had let me shoot at some tin cans and such from time to time, but he had a strict rule with me – I’m not to use a gun no matter what unless he had given his permission.
I remember one time when I went over to Freddie’s house. He had a rifle there and his Pa was watching him shoot at some targets with it. Naturally, Freddie asked me if I wanted to give his rifle a try and I had seen nothing wrong with it. But when I got home and Pa found out, there was definitely something wrong with it. He had sternly reminded me of his rule and restricted me to the ranch for an entire week. I even had to explain to him at the end of my week exactly what I had done wrong and why it was wrong. I must admit, though, that I still didn’t know why it was wrong! A boy learns fast what he wants his folks to hear though!
So, there I was…twelve years old and still not aloud to use a rifle. I remember the day I cam home from school and Pa had just come back from hunting. He had killed himself a great big buck and was mighty proud of it too! “When can I shoot my first buck?” I asked Pa.
Pa worked on cleaning his rifle while we talked. He didn’t even look up at me when he spoke. “When you get old enough to use a rifle.”
“Well, I think I’m old enough to use one now!” I stated.
Pa suddenly did look up. “Mark!” His voice held that warning. This was an age-old conversation we were having, and one that Pa usually ended up winning. But I knew someday I’d win the argument.
I hurried up to Pa and bent down next to him. “But I am!” I declared.
Pa nodded. “Did you remember to put the axe up last night?”
From the look on his face, I’d say I hadn’t. I lowered my head. “No sir,” I answered.
“And did you remember to make your bed this morning?” Again, it needed no answer. I shook my head, knowing where this conversation was going. “What about your books? Where are they?”
I suddenly gasped. I had left them at school. Pa sighed and gave me that look – you know, the one that told me he was about to start hollering. I backed out of the door. “I’ll get started on my chores right now, sir!” I declared.
“Right now, you will ride back into town and get your books, young man!” Pa declared.
“Oh,” I nodded. “Yes sir.” I started out the door, but suddenly turned. “I’m sorry, Pa.”
Pa nodded. “Now do you see why you can’t have a rifle?”
“Well, if I had a rifle, I would be more responsible. I’d-“ I suddenly stopped when I saw the annoyed look on Pa’s face. “I’ll go to town and get my books.”
By the time I got back, Pa had supper started. From the look on his face, I’d say he had to do some of my chores. I’d probably hear all about my chores being doubled for tomorrow.
But boy was I surprised when he didn’t even bring it up! In fact, as I sat my fork down after eating his delicious apple pie, Pa stood up, walked over to his desk, picked up a piece of paper and handed it to me. I read it. “Golly!” I cried excitedly. “A turkey shoot! Tomorrow!” I was suddenly excited.
So guess where we went bright an early the next morning? Pa was actually surprised that I was up at the crack of dawn hurriedly working on my chores that morning! Not only did I do my chores, but by the time Pa came out to announce the flapjacks were ready, I already had our horses groomed and saddled and was working on currying the other horses. Pa folded his arms as he looked at the fine job I’d done on the horses.
I smiled proudly. Pa scratched under his nose. By that action, I could tell there was something he had to tell me that he didn’t want to. “Oh Pa, if you tell me I have to stay here for punishment, I-“
“Punishment for what?” Pa asked as he raised his eyebrows and put a hand on my shoulder.
“For forgetting my books at school and-“ I stopped. “What do you not want to tell me?”
Pa smiled. “Well, I’m certainly happy to see you working so hard on saddling the horses, son. That indeed makes me proud, but…” Pa stopped and scratched his nose again. “I’m afraid you will have to unsaddle them.”
“Unsaddle?” I asked suddenly. Then I remembered what Pa had told me the day before – we were going into town for supplies, not for the turkey shoot! I guess I had another job cut out for me!
As we rode into town, I gasped at all the extra people in North Fork. “Pa, look at that man! I remember him from the very first turkey shoot! Remember that day, Pa?”
I suddenly turned and looked at Pa. He stared at me, a strange look on his face. Then a slow smile spread across his face. “We rode onto the land for the first time the day before.”
“And when we rode into town-“ I started.
“We saw the signs for the first turkey shoot,” Pa stated with a smile.
I nodded. “You gonna enter, Pa?”
Pa turned and looked at me with a smile. “Might give it a shot,” he answered. Then he shook his head. “500 Dollars…” he mumbled.
“You lost that day,” I remembered.
“It was for a good reason though.” Pa said as he laid his hand on top of my head.
I suddenly cocked my head to one side. “You never did tell me why you lost.”
Pa smiled at me. “I had a good reason.”
He suddenly laid a hand on my cheek and smiled. “You were so much smaller then, son. Seeing that man’s big, evil hands on your shoulders…it just put a fear in me.”
Pa suddenly smiled and shook his head. “Let’s go watch this turnkey shoot, son.”
He grabbed my arm and I jumped down from the wagon. “What happened?”
“I had to save you,” he answered softly. Then he put his hand on the back of my neck. “Now let’s not talk about it, huh?”
I nodded. But I smiled as I walked beside him. He looked down at me and put his hand around my shoulder as we walked. I watched his eyes twinkle. Then I hurried across the street to the General Store.
I had been walking down memory lane so hard that seeing Miss Millie behind the counter kind of took my by surprise there for a minute. I had forgotten only for a moment that Miss Hattie was no longer there. But the same candy jars that were there that first day were still lining the counter. I still remember Miss Hattie giving me my first piece of candy as a welcome to North Fork. I remember how she complimented me on my manners.
“How are you today, Mark?” Miss Millie asked.
I smiled. “Fine, Miss Millie!” I looked at the jelly beans. “How much are these today?”
She folded her arms. “I’ll give you a bag full for a nickel, Mark.”
But suddenly, Pa’s hand grabbed the back of my neck and he pulled me away from the candy. “Nu uh, boy!” he stated. “Get yourself outside!” Then he gave me a hard swat on the backside. Pa handed Miss Millie the list of supplies then followed me out the door.
We walked over to the stage depot – that’s where the sharpshooting man was. As we stood there he explained the instructions. I couldn’t help but remember the day Judge Hanavan had been there telling us the rules. He didn’t think my Pa could do it, but Pa stated he’d give it a try.
I touched the rifle – this time, that was the prize: a shiny new rifle. I told Pa that I figured anyone would want a prize like that. “Meaning you,” he stated. He had no use for it, but he’d try to win it for me. That excited me, but then he firmly told me I’d get it when I was old enough to use it.
I watched as Pa fired. The first time he’d shot at a target in North Fork, I was watching a friend of mine shoot too. His name was Vernon. As Pa stepped up to the target, he had looked down at me. “Mark, go congratulate your friend. That was mighty fine shooting.”
Now that I look back on it, I remember one of those men walking up to him. I can’t rightly recollect what his name was now, but he was mean! My Pa had sent me away so they could talk. I looked at my Pa now and smiled. There was so much I didn’t know about that day. But whatever the talk was, he wasn’t phased. He shot as good then as he did this time – five all in dead center!
Pa must have been thinking on that time too, because as he watched one of the other sharpshooters shoot, he turned to me and said, “That’s mighty fine shootin’, son.”
I looked at him, remembering those exact same words two years ago. I smiled, “Just try, Pa.”
Then I remembered back to that day again…funny how that day was suddenly so powerful on my mind! Pa had been ready to shoot, but the man – the bad guy from the saloon – had called Pa’s name. Pa had turned…Suddenly I remembered that his hands were on my shoulders. A look came over Pa’s face, and at the time I didn’t even recognize it. But now I did. Now I understood.
Pa shot his second round as good as his first. I had the rifle! I looked at it and smiled. “My very own rifle.”
Pa folded his arms and looked at me. “Yes, but a rifle’s useless without ammunition, son.”
“Oh, well I’m sure Miss Millie has-“ I started. But when I looked at Pa he shook his head. “Well, you can’t blame me for trying!”
“Mm…” he answered. “Let’s go get some lunch.”
As we walked into the hotel I carried my rifle proudly. “Look Eddie! Pa won it for me!” I held it out for him to see.
“Well now, I’d say it’s about time you got your own rifle!” he declared.
Pa cleared his throat. “Having a rifle, and being able to shoot it are two different things!”
I walked into the dining room and sat down, still holding my rifle. Pa opened the menu and started studying it. I rubbed my hand up and down the rifle, pleased as could be. “Mark?” I looked up at Pa. “Table.”
“Yes sir,” I answered as I laid the rifle on the table.
“Oh,” I grabbed my hat off my head. “Uh…sorry, Pa.”
The waiter came and Pa ordered our food. As we began eating, I asked Pa a question. “Pa, that day of the first turkey shoot…you threw that match cause he was going to kill me, huh?”
Pa raised his eyebrows at me. “How’d you figure that out?”
I shrugged. “Just remembering it, I guess. You sorry you threw it?”
Pa put a hand on my cheek and smiled. “Not a bit.”
I hurried and ate. I asked Pa if I could be excused and he gave me permission to leave. I grabbed my rifle. “Where you going with that?” he asked suddenly. I told him I was just going outside.
“Alright, but don’t stray off too far!” I thanked him and assured him I wouldn’t.
The first person I saw was Billy Davis. He looked at it and was amazed, but then he informed me that his own rifle was much better then this one. “No it ain’t!” I declared.
“Is too!” Billy stated.
“Is not!” Then I looked at it. “Sides, I be yours just shoots BB’s.”
Billy hurried off. I pretended to shoot at some ducks in the air then. That’s when I met a nice young man named Ruben. He told me that he learned how to target practice with a rifle when he was my age. I didn’t think it was fair that I was the only one who hadn’t learned to shoot a rifle yet. He said he was a good shot – no one came up against him!
Then Pa was there, and he told me to go move the wagon so we could load up our supplies. I moved the wagon over to the General Store. Miss Millie brought me a load out and I started packing it in the wagon. I saw Ruben coming. I hurried up to him and my Pa. “Pa, did you know that Ruben learned to shoot when he was my age?”
Pa let out a loud sigh. “Mark,” he warned.
“Ruben, why don’t ya wear your gun in town?”
“I told you, Mark,” Ruben answered as he put a sack on the wagon. “It’s too dangerous.”
“Cause someone might challenge ya?” I asked. Ruben nodded. “You ever been in a gunfight?”
“Mark, that’s enough.” I heard the warning in Pa’s voice.
“Go grab that box from Millie, son.” I left, but I could feel Pa’s eyes on me and I’m sure he was shaking his head.
After everything was loaded, Ruben picked up a whole sack of potatoes! I sure was surprised!
But then something happened. I had gone into the store to tell Miss Millie we’d be back in next Friday. “And can I have just one jelly bean?” Millie looked toward the door and back at me. “Alright, Mark. But eat it fast before your father hangs me for giving it to you!”
I walked back outside. Pa told me it was time for us to leave, but then Ruben turned on him. He started accusing my Pa of saying mean things about him! I must admit that I had no idea what he was talking about! Why did he suddenly want to fight my Pa when we’d just been nice to him? Why did he turn on him like that?
I watched as he punched my Pa. I wasn’t sure what to do! Micah suddenly came out and stopped the fight, but I never did understand why they were fighting. As Pa, Micah, and I walked to Micah’s office, I asked him. “Pa, why’d he fight you? Why’d he turn on you like that?”
“I don’t know, Mark,” Pa answered.
“Well, there ought to be a reason!” I exclaimed. “He was so nice!”
Pa walked over to the basin and muttered for me to sit down and let him think. I sat quietly while he and Micah talked about Ruben. He was a young gunfighter who was apparently pretty quick on the draw. “Pa,” I started after Pa and Micah stopped talking. “You mean that maybe this ain’t Ruben’s fault at all?”
“Of course it’s Ruben’s fault!” Pa exclaimed. “He’s a man same as me. He can think for himself.” That’s all that was said.
Suddenly, we heard gunshots from the saloon. I started to go outside, but Pa grabbed my arm. “Micah can handle it, son.”
“Guns sure do cause lots of trouble, huh Pa?” I asked.
Pa turned from the window and looked at me. Then he walked over and bent down in front of me. Looking into my eyes, he said quite sternly, “No, son. It’s not the guns that cause the trouble. Guns are nothing without a person behind them. Don’t you ever forget that!”
I began thinking on that. I knew what Pa was saying. The only man behind a gun should be a calm, confident, and careful man. I looked out the window and saw Micah outside talking with Ruben’s friend. “People kill people,” I muttered. I thought on that. I thought of all the people who had worn guns – many of them shot now because they didn’t wear the gun right.
I suddenly felt small in such a sight I was placing in my mind. I didn’t ever want to shoot another human being. I prayed I would never have to. I wanted to shoot a gun – had for a long time. But it wasn’t because I wanted to go hunting and it wasn’t because I needed protected. To tell the truth of the matter, I wanted a rifle because…well, because every boy here in the West had one.
But that was the wrong reason. A reason like that could kill. A reason like that could cause me to make a mistake. I was always forgetting things – an axe blade I was supposed to pick up for my Pa, making my bed, doing the laundry, gathering the eggs. Thos were just little things. What if I forgot to uncock the lever or some other important aspect of owning a rifle. What if I got mad and picked up my gun instead of using my fists? Those were things that could never be taken back.
Suddenly, Pa looked at me and put an arm around me. I had to tell him, but I didn’t want him to think I was just a kid. How did I tell him and- “Let’s go home, son.”
We tried again. As we headed for the wagon though I couldn’t stop but think about the rifle. As I stepped into the wagon, I picked up my rifle and looked at it. Then I looked at my Pa. “A rifle is a tool, Mark. It’s used to shoot animals for food, nothing else. It’s as dangerous as an axe or a hammer, and they are just as deadly. If you use these tools right and with respect, there’s nothing to worry about. But when it’s used wrong…it’s deadly.”
His words echoed into my head now as I looked at this rifle. Suddenly, in my heart I realized that I wasn’t ready. I was just about to tell Pa so as we started down the street. But suddenly, Ruben stopped us again, and you know the confrontation that followed. As I look back on that now, though, I realize something. It was that confrontation – the evilness of it – that was the clincher for me. If I had any doubt before about my inability to be responsible enough with a rifle, I had none now. I knew…in my heart…that I wasn’t ready for such a responsibility.
These two men in their own way were using their guns for evil. Ruben used it to please a man who claimed to be his friend, the other man used it for murder and for financial gain. Neither reason was good. I knew mine wasn’t either.
So as Pa started to get back into the wagon, I shoved it toward him as if it were a deadly snake about to bite me. “Here Pa, you keep it,” I practically cried.
There was a strange concerned sound in Pa’s voice. He could tell I was upset. “Why?” he asked.
"You told me I couldn't use it till I was old enough. I didn't understand before but now I do." That was all I could say.
But Pa and I had this way of communicating without saying a word. All he had to do was look into my eyes, and he knew my every thought. It was both a downfall and a blessing. It was a downfall because I couldn’t get by with anything – he could always see my crime in my eyes. But it was even more a blessing because when I couldn’t find the words inside me to express what I was feeling, he knew by looking into my eyes. “Alright, Mark.” He took the rifle without asking for anymore of an explanation then that. “I’ll keep it. Until your ready for it.” He sat it in the back of the wagon.
"I guess it's good sense, not age that makes the difference.” I stated.
“Well,” Pa stated surprised (though I don’t know why he was). “You’re getting smarter all the time!” Pa hopped on the wagon. “Let’s go home.”
I must say that I was glad we were going home. I turned and looked at that rifle a few times wondering when I would be ready for it.
You know…I didn’t think about that rifle ever again! When we got home, I watched Pa take it into the barn. Many years later, I was cleaning out the barn one day. In the back of an old locker we hadn’t even used in years, I found that rifle. Pa had wrapped it in a piece of old canvas and put it in there. As I unwrapped it and studied it, I still remembered those words he had spoken so long ago. “A rifle is a tool.”
I was glad Pa had made me wait all those years, because in all my days I had never picked up a rifle without first wondering if I really needed it in my hand, and I knew that was my father’s intention the whole time!
*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
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