“Smallpox.” That word dared to be uttered again as I listened at yet another door!
My heart began racing as I walked away. I watched as Pa closed the door firmly behind me. He was keeping me away – just like last time. It was nine years ago…Nine years ago I heard those very words uttered from the lips of a doctor. “Smallpox.”
“Oh Dear God, no!” I heard my father breathe out then. The door to my parents’ bedroom was firmly closed. I had been told to work on my alphabet at the table. “Oh, my sweet Margaret!” I heard Pa say next.
I was only six, but I still remember that word as if it were yesterday. “Smallpox.” It was a word we didn’t utter in the McCain house – not ever! Before today, people only knew my mother died from an “epidemic.” But we’d never given a name for it. We couldn’t utter that word again. Not until…today…
I walked down the road toward the Blacksmith’s shop, but suddenly stopped and turned. I looked toward the hotel where that disease now lived and I thought back to that horrible day…
I don’t remember everything about those days, but I do remember it was a busy time of the year. It seems like it was harvest time. We lived on a ranch, but Pa was just starting out and still had to rely pretty heavily on crops. He worked the fields from sun up to sundown.
I remember school being canceled. At first I was happy, but the canceling made my folks sad. I didn’t quite understand why. One night, I listened to Pa pray at the dinner table. He prayed for all the sick people in town. He prayed that God would make them all better and would make the horrible disease to go away.
I also remember not getting to play with my best friend, Matthew Dodd. Pa said he wasn’t feeling well. I asked him how long before he got better and Pa just shook his head.
Then I remembered the morning my Pa got me out of bed. He didn’t smile as he went to the stove and put on some oatmeal. I’d never seen Pa cooking in the kitchen before, though my Ma told me once that he had. Pa seemed so very tired and worried. He sat down next to me and ran a hand through his hair as he heaved a heavy sigh. “Where’s Ma?” I asked.
“She’s in bed, son.” Pa said it so quietly that I hardly heard him. “She’s sick.”
“Just like Matthew?” I asked then. Pa nodded. “She have the disease?”
I watched as Pa closed his eyes and let out a quiet moan. I sat down my spoon. “Pa? Did I say somethin’ bad?”
Pa merely shook his head. “You didn’t say anything bad, son. I’m sure your Ma will be up in a few days. She’s just tuckered from taking care of us all these years.”
After Pa put me at the table to work on my alphabet, there was a knock at the door. I looked up to see who it was. It was the doctor looking really, really tired. “I’m glad you came.”
Now, even at the age of six, I knew that a doctor’s coming so early in the morning wasn’t good. Pa wasn’t very talkative to me either, and he seemed really worried. “Son, you stay right there and work. You hear me?” Pa lifted those eyebrows up that warned me to do as he said.
I didn’t nod my head. Instead, I waited until the door closed then quietly crept over to it. I put my ear up to the door and listened. I could hear Ma’s voice – but it sounded quiet and muffled. Then I heard Pa and Doc’s voices as they spoke softly to each other.
“Smallpox.” I heard that single word and then I heard something I’d never heard before, I heard Pa cry. I couldn’t stand to hear him cry. I’d only seen my Mama cry once – that’s when my grandma died when I was little. If that word made my Pa cry that much, then I knew it was bad.
I heard them walking toward the door. I hurried back to the table so I wouldn’t get caught eaves dropping. When Pa came out, he was clearing his throat. I watched Doc leave. He looked so very sad.
Then I looked at my Pa. He looked really, really sad. Pa just stood and stared at the front door. I watched as he suddenly pressed his hand on the wall next to the door and lowered his head. Even his shoulders looked sad. “Pa?” I called. But he didn’t even hear me. I slowly stood up and walked over to him. I tugged on his shirtsleeve. “Pa?”
Pa turned around. I gasped when I saw tears in his eyes. I reached a hand up as if to wipe one off his face, but I was too short. “Hug?”
Pa bent over and lifted me up. He put his arms around me and squeezed me really tight. “Oh, I do love you, Mark.”
“Can I see Mama now?” I asked.
Pa looked toward the room. “Mark…” Pa started to say something. But then he changed his mind. He sat me down and walked to the kitchen. Picking up the water pail, he said, “You stay at the table and work on your alphabet. I’m going to the well to get some water.” But his voice sounded strange at the end – as if he was loosing his voice.
I stood there and watched as the door closed. Then I turned and looked toward my folks’ bedroom door. Slowly, I walked over to it. I put my hand on the knob and turned it. I was scared at what I would find on the inside. As I walked in, I slowly made my way to the foot of the bed. I could see Ma laying in the bed. She was breathing really funny. I swallowed really hard then said, “Ma?”
I got no answer so I walked closer to the bed. I could see Ma’s face peaking out form the load of blankets that were on top of her. I reached out and touched her face. “Ma?”
I heard Ma moan then. But she didn’t answer. Her face felt really hot and it was really wet too. I wondered then if she had been crying too. I saw red spots all over her face and on her arm that peaked out from the cover. Her breathing was really bad. “Ma? What’s th’ matter?”
“Mark Warren McCain!” I suddenly heard Pa yell from the doorway. I shot my hand back and turned around. Pa had a really angry look on his face. “Get out!” he shouted. “Get out of here now!”
I didn’t’ like Pa’s yelling at me. I suddenly felt like I had done something wrong. Tears filled my eyes and hurried down my cheeks as I hurried out the door. I heard Pa slam the door to the bedroom as I ran out.
I ran to my own bedroom and threw myself down on the bed. I didn’t understand what I had done so wrong. As I cried, after a long time, I watched as my room darken and realized, I must have done something terribly wrong, because neither Ma or Pa had come in to light the lantern and watch over me as I said my bed time prayers. I curled up and told God I was sorry, I didn’t mean to make my parents mad. I had just wanted to see my Ma. “God, please forgive me?” I asked.
Later that night, I woke at hearing voices. Grandpa Samuel and Pa were talking. I wanted to run out and hug Grandpa, it had been so long since I’d seen him, but the sound of Pa’s voice told me he was still upset. I heard Pa demand for Grandpa to get out and ride hard. I sat in my bed and started crying. I had done something so wrong, that Pa didn’t even want Grandpa to see me. Eventually, I managed to cry myself to sleep, again.
When I woke up the next morning, it was still dark. I slowly opened my door and, through the open doorway of the house, I saw Pa smoking his cigar, but Pa’s head was lowered. The only time I ever saw Pa with his head down, was when he was looking down to me or praying to God. But when he prayed, he never, EVER had his cigar in hand. “Pa?” Pa slowly turned around. “I…” I lowered my head in shame. “I’m sorry.” I sniffed then.
Before I knew it, Pa was down in front of me. He drew me to him. He squeezed me really hard and softly cried. “Oh Mark…” I felt Pa shaking. “Oh son, what are we going to do?”
I tried to push away from Pa and look at him. “Is it my fault? You mad at me?”
“N-no son.” Pa put a hand to my cheek. “I’m not mad at you.”
“What’s…” I lowered my head again. “Smallpox?”
“You heard that?” Pa asked softly now. I nodded. “It’s a bad disease, son. A person gets it and somehow gives it to somebody else and somebody else. You get really sick, son. Really, really sick.”
I remembered now my Ma telling me about Grandma dying. She told me that Grandma had been really, really sick. Then she died. Tears filled my eyes and scurried down my cheeks. “Is…” I swallowed the tears in my throat. “Is Ma gonna…” I couldn’t finish the sentence.
“Your mother is very, very sick, son.” Pa put a hand on each of my shoulders. I lifted my head up to look at him. “The Doc said her case is really, really bad. “
“Then is she going to…die?” I asked.
I again saw tears fall from Pa’s eyes. “I…I don’t know, son. Right now it looks very likely.”
“Oh no, Pa!” I cried. “Oh no!” I threw my arms around him and wept. “I want Mama!”
Pa couldn’t speak. All he could do was cry with me. We held each other for a long time. I listened as Pa talked to God.
I saw the door to the bedroom open. Mrs. Dodd walked out and looked at Pa. Pa stood up. “You stay here, son.”
Pa walked in and closed the door. Mrs. Dodd picked me up and sat down in the rocking chair with me. “I miss Matthew,” I said. “Is he as sick as my Ma?”
Mrs. Dodd looked down at me. “No, Mark. Not quite as sick. But he and Mr. Dodd are both very sick.”
“Mrs. Dodd?” She looked down at me. “Is my Ma gonna die?”
She didn’t answer but just held me.
We sat together and watched the sun rise for the morning. It was bright and happy looking, but nothing it could do would brighten the mood of our home. Mrs. Dodd sat me down in the chair and told me to read my book and she would make our breakfast.
Throughout the day, Pa would come out of their bedroom and look out the front window as if he were waiting for someone…or something... Sometimes he’d hit the door jam in anger, other times he’d just turn around and walk over to me. A couple of times he forced a smile to his face and would ruffle my hair, but I could tell he wasn’t with me, he was still in the room with Ma.
Later that night, Mrs. Dodd picked me up after Pa returned to the bedroom. She rocked me in her arms and I laid there for a long time. I was almost asleep when the door opened. I looked up to see Pa standing in the doorway. “Come here, son.” His voice sounded so sad.
I stood up and started towards Pa. I turned to see Mrs. Dodd walk out the front door. Pa took my hand and led me inside. There was light in the room. I could smell something awful in the room. Pa led me to Ma. I saw red spots all over her and she didn’t look anything like my Ma anymore.
Pa sat down in a chair right near Ma’s head. He held me close to him. “She’s about to leave us, son,” Pa said quietly.
I didn’t want to hear it. I looked up at Pa. “What’s all those dots?”
“Those are the pox, son. Those are what’s making her so sick.”
“Can’t we just take ‘em off, Pa?” I asked. “I’ll help you if there’s too many for you. I’ll take ‘em all off.”
Pa began weeping as he held me tight. “You need to say goodbye now, son. Tell Ma you love her.”
“No, Pa!” I threw my arms around his neck. “I don’t want to!”
Pa pulled me away from his neck and took my face in his hands. He stared into my eyes. “Mark, you…” His voice broke and his lips began trembling. “Mark, you…”
“Mark?” I heard Ma faintly call my name. “My son?” She lifted a finger. That’s all she could do. Pa put me down on the floor and I grabbed her finger. “I…” Ma groaned as she tried to speak. “I…lo…” She couldn’t say anymore.
“Tell her she can go, son. Tell her so her pain will end.”
At the age of six, there was a lot I didn’t understand. But I did understand that. Ma told me that when people die, their pain goes away. “Isn’t there some other way, Pa? Any other way?” Pa sadly shook his head. I turned back and stared at my Ma. “I love you, Ma!”
“Mark…Mark…” Ma mumbled. I could hardly hear her.
But I couldn’t say goodbye. Instead, I said, “I love you, Ma.”
Pa got on his knees by the bed. He grabbed Ma’s hand and bowed his head. “Our Father who art in heaven…”
I wept as she closed her eyes. .
Now, here I was living my past all over again. Only this time, if my fears came true, I wouldn’t have a father. I felt my eyes moisten as I walked into the livery. “Nils?” I called, but there was no answer. The livery was empty. It gave me time to think. Could I really go through that again? This time I understood more. This time, if Pa came down sick, I knew I’d be the one taking care of Pa. This time…
Nils came in then. He tried to avoid the subject about the smallpox. Did he know that’s what my mother had died from? I wasn’t sure…I needed to talk about what was happening. I was so worried. But Nils didn’t want me to talk to about it – he just wanted to play checkers. Then Nils said something that really hit me hard. He told me that if I was going to beat him, I’d have to concentrate on the game. My head lifted as I just stared at him. Those were the last words my father had said to me!
I had to be near him…I had to…
I left the livery and slowly walked back down the street. I remembered some more about that dark time in my life.
Two men arrived a little later. Pa stood behind me with his arms around my neck as they came in and took my mother out on a cot. “Where they taking her, Pa?” I asked.
Pa didn’t answer. I lifted my head and looked at him. He was just staring as they slowly made their way out the door. Pa left me and walked to the door. I walked up beside him and he put his hand on my shoulder. “Pa, where are they taking her?” I asked again. Again, I got no answer. I pulled away from Pa and started running out the door.
“No!” I cried as I hurried up to the wagon. “No! Don’t take my Ma! Don’t take her!” I screamed. I grabbed a firm hold on the back of the wagon. “I love my Ma! Don’t take her!”
I felt someone grab me then and lift me. But I kept a firm hand on the wagon. “They have to take her in town, son!”
My mind was wheeling. “No! I want her to stay here with me!”
Pa didn’t say anything. He just lifted me into his arms and wrapped his arms around me really tight as he began weeping again. “She’s gone, Mark!”
I heard the wagon start to move and turned my head around. “No!” I screamed. “Bring her back! Bring her back!” I turned and looked at Pa again. “They taking her to see Doc, Pa? Is that where they’re taking my mother?”
“No,” Pa answered.
“Then where?” I cried.
Pa closed his eyes and leaned his big forehead against my little one. “They’re gonna get her all prettied up for heaven, son. We want her to look her best, right? Heaven’s a beautiful place.”
Pa then walked inside and sat down in Ma’s rocking chair. He held me like I was a baby and began weakly singing. I heard his voice crack many times as he sang one of Ma’s favorite hymns softly. Even in the sad voice, it soothed me. I was soon asleep.
I ran up to the hotel. Micah was talking to the Doc through the door. I asked to see my Pa, but Doc said he was busy. I looked at Micah, hoping that meant he was busy with the outlaw that was in there and not because he was sick. I slowly turned and sat down on the step outside the hotel. Micah turned and sat down beside me. “What’s wrong?”
I shook my head. “Nothing’,” I answered sadly.
“Oh. He sighed. “You’re thinking back to another time, aren’t you?”
I nodded. “Doc said he was…busy.”
“It’s only been an hour, Mark,” Micah stated. “You don’t get sick that fast.”
“That morning…” I swallowed. “That morning I woke up and my Pa fixed me breakfast...” It hurt to remember back. “My Ma had kissed me goodnight just the night before. She died sometime in the night the next night. She was gone…” I snapped my fingers. “Just like that!” I shook my head. “One day she was there laughing and caring for me, and then…”
“Your Pa is a strong, healthy man, Mark. As I understand it, your mother wasn’t. Her body was weakened from…” I shot my head up. We just looked at each other.
“I know, Micah. Pa never told me, but somehow I know now. I’ve put the pieces together and know that it was partly my fault to-“
“No!” Micah put a hand on my shoulder. “Don’t ever think that, Mark! You were the best thing that ever happened to your mother! Don’t EVER doubt that! The fact that she had trouble birthing you does not make her death your fault.”
“Yes sir, I know.” I nodded. “I didn’t mean that…” I stomped my foot really hard on the ground. “Oh…I wish I could be with Pa!”
“You know he’s protecting you, Mark…Just like he always has.” Micah looked at me without saying a word for a few moments. Finally, he put a hand on my shoulder. “Look son, if anything were to ever happen to your father, you know you have a place to stay…with me. You know that, don’t you?”
“But nothing’s going to happen.” We half-heartedly smiled at each other. Then I stood up. “Well, I best get back to that checker game!”
But as Nils and I started playing checkers, I couldn’t help but think on the past again.
I don’t remember what I had been dreaming that night, but I remember waking up in my bed in the middle of the night. I was suddenly terrified. “Ma!” I screamed. “I want my Ma!” I remember being so fearful. Suddenly, a hand reached out to me in the darkness. I heard Pa calling my name, but I sat up and began crying. “I want my Ma! I want my Ma!” I felt strong hands grab a hold of my arms. I heard Pa’s voice again call my name. “Ma!”
Suddenly, I felt these strong, protective arms enfold me. I felt safe there in those arms and hushed my screams. I felt myself being lifted from the bed as Pa carried me into the living. He sat down in the rocking chair and again began rocking me back and forth. In the darkness, I listened to the rhythm the chair made as it went back and forth – back and forth…
I heard Pa’s heartbeat as my head laid against his chest. I heard the silence and felt the loneliness that seemed to creep over our home. As my head lay against Pa’s chest, I looked toward the bedroom door that was firmly closed. That’s where my Ma had died.
I could still remember that smell. I remembered everything about those moments, and I could never forget them. “When will she be back?” I asked then.
“Who?” Pa’s voice was quiet.
“Ma? When’s she coming back?”
Suddenly, the rocking stopped. I lifted my head from Pa’s chest as he sucked in his breath and stared at me. Pa suddenly turned me around. “She won’t be back, Mark. She’s in Heaven.”
“She can come back from Heaven when she’s done visiting God,” I explained.
Pa shook his head. “No son. She won’t.”
I couldn’t understand. When a small child doesn’t understand something, he gets angry. I got very angry. I took a moment to listen to that. Then I banged my fists against Pa’s chest. “You let them take her from me! You took my Ma! Bring her back! Bring her back now!” I screamed.
“She’s with God, Mark!” Pa stated above my cries.
“God can’t have her! She’s MY Ma, not his!” I continued hitting him on the chest.
Pa finally grabbed my wrists. He firmly held them still. Pa didn’t say anything after that, but just stared into my eyes for a long time. Then he slowly stood up and walked toward his bedroom. He stared at the closed door and shook his head. I just stood there in the middle of the room and watched Pa. He looked so…lost. He looked so…
Suddenly, Pa turned and rushed to the front door. He banged his fist as hard as he could then picked up his rifle and quickly packed it full of shells. He opened the door and rushed out screaming. “Why? Why? Why?” as he shot his rifle in the air over and over. When he emptied it, he refilled it and fired again. “Why?” He kept saying that over and over and over.
I started crying. It scared me something awful. Finally, Pa threw his empty rifle down on the ground. I watched him sit down and weep harder than he had wept before. He wept until he was so tired he could hardly stand. I heard him praying. “Help us, God. Oh, give me the strength.”
I was terrified! Finally, Pa walked inside and picked me up. We walked into my bedroom. Pa undressed and got in my bed. Then he pulled me down beside him and we fell asleep.
Two days later, we left Oklahoma.
I thought on that now as I stared down at the checker board. At the age of six, I didn’t understand what Pa was doing. But now that I was 14, I understood better. Pa was trying to fight the enemy of death the only way he knew how – with his rifle. My pain made his pain much, much worse. Pa never went back into the room after they took Ma’s body out. He simply shut the door behind them and never opened it again.
Nils was speaking, but I had no idea what he was saying. “Have you ever seen smallpox, Nils?” I asked quietly. I don’t know that I really realized I had said it out loud. I don’t even remember what Nils answered. “I saw it once back in Oklahoma. I was only six, but…but I remember the sight like it was yesterday.”
Suddenly, playing checkers was the last thing I felt like doing. I had to do something to help Pa. I had to…
I hurried over to the telegraph office to check on the serum that was supposed to be coming to help us. “It just came, Mark!” The telegrapher handed me a telegram. I read it. They did have serum close by! I hurried over to tell Micah. He was standing outside the hotel doors.
Suddenly, I turned. The outlaw, Coyle, was laying on the floor. My Pa was standing there. He looked healthy. Then Dr. Burrage told me I could come inside. But the look on Pa’s face made me freeze in my tracks. Then he made the announcement.
There was no smallpox after all – only measles. I watched Pa walk up to Lou. “Measles, huh?” Pa asked.
Lou gave Pa a mischievous smile. “Well, I had to think of something.”
But I didn’t feel like laughing. I took one look at Pa and Lou, then I turned and hurried outside. I ran around the building and sat down on the back steps. I put my face in my hands and wept quietly. It wasn’t long before I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Son?” Pa spoke softly.
I lifted my head. “The memories are still so painful, Pa.”
Pa sat down beside me. He folded his hands in front of himself. “I’m sorry son. You’ve been uh…remembering back?” He lifted his eyebrows at me.
“I can’t believe how much I remember.” I looked at him. Pa’s eyes gave me permission to go on. “The smell of death in the room when Ma died…The way she looked…The way you yelled at me when you found me in that room…The way you grabbed your rifle and tried to kill death…” I turned away from him. “Everything.”
Pa sighed as he wrapped his arm around my shoulder. “Son, I wish you hadn’t had to remember it all… by yourself. I…I guess there’s a lot I didn’t explain to you back then. My pain was so deep that I didn’t understand myself. Do you know why I yelled that day?”
“I didn’t for a long time,” I admitted. “But now I…I think I understand.” I turned back toward Pa. “You were scared I’d catch what Ma had.”
Pa nodded. “In the end, I was scared what you would catch if you didn’t see her.” Pa sighed. “I reckon my shooting and yelling like that scared you something awful too.”
I couldn’t help but smile then. “But I reckon you got your point across alright!” Pa chuckled with a nod of his head. Then we were both grew quiet as we remembered back. “Sometimes, it’s hard not to…look back.” Pa’s sad eyes looked into mine and nodded. “I miss her, Pa.”
“Yeah,” Pa sighed. “Me too.” Night had fallen as we sat there talking. Pa looked up at the starry sky. “Which one do you think she is?”
“Which one what?” I asked.
“Well son, a very special lady told me once that each of those stars is the soul of a person who died. They’re watching us through the floor of Heaven.”
I smiled. “Well, stars are beautiful, Pa. But none of them are as beautiful as Ma was.”
Pa stood up. “Let’s go home, son.”
I stood up with him. “Pa?” I suddenly called. Pa turned and looked at me. “Well, I…” I raised my eyebrows as I spoke. “I’m glad it wasn’t smallpox and I…I wish they had had medicine that could have helped Ma back then.”
I saw something flash in Pa’s eyes. He quickly turned away and started to hurry off toward the horses. “Let’s go, son.” I stared at him as he walked off. His voice had cracked. I wanted to ask him what I had said to upset him so much, but I decided it was time to stop looking back. After all, it’s like Pa always tells me. We’ve come way too far!
*A special thanks goes out to Michelle Palmer for her insight on how Mark had seen these episodes.
Death Never Rides Alone
Mark's Memories ― Table of Contents
You've heard Lucas' story, now hear Mark's Story
around The McCain Ranch