The Rifleman
"Mark's Memories"
You've heard Lucas' story, now hear Mark's Story
written by Michelle Palmer

The Sixteenth Cousin Episode 159
Mark’s story

I could feel my heart beat as I stepped up onto the platform. From up there, I could see the people as they lined the streets. Men waved their hats in the air as they looked one way than the other. Their mouths drooped open, having never seen anything so amazing before in their whole lives. Women stood beside their husbands and held tight to their small children as the big, black beast stood in front of them. Everyone was excited and uneasy at the same time. They had no idea what would be coming in only mere moments.

I smiled as I looked inside the small door. I stood on the end car as the door slowly opened. “Tickets!” The man called loudly as he held a small puncher in his hand. I slowly handed the man, all dressed in black and with a flat hat on his head, my ticket. My hand shook as I took it back and started inside the door.

As I stood inside, I looked down. My feet were no longer standing on a boardwalk. They were no longer walking down a dirty street. No, below me, my feet sunk in as they stood on the soft red and black designed carpet. A small aisle separated soft cushioned seats on either side. People sat in the seat already. They all looked at me – I was still in awe at all the luxury in this train that had arrived in North Fork. I noticed the windows with the rolled up blinds. Lanterns sat on the overhang waiting to be lit when the night came upon the traveling train. “Third car!” the conductor called. I walked to the end of the aisle and went inside. I gasped at the golden handles above the seats. The red, plush carpet below was thicker and my booted toes sunk into it even more. Men and women finely dressed didn’t look up as I slowly made my way down the aisle.

Then I opened the door. I sat down in a seat and scooted against the window. I smiled as I looked outside. Men waved their hats, woman waved nervously, and children tried to get out of the grasp of their mother’s hands. Some succeeded, yet others broke the grasp and raced to get a closer look at the beast.

Suddenly, the whistle blew. My heart raced faster as I heard the whistle. It was announcing the train was about to pull out. “Ding, ding, ding, ding…” The bell rang over and over. My heart pumped in the rhythm of the bell as the train made a big hissing noise and jerked forward.

I was sitting backwards. The train began moving faster and faster. Soon, the trees outside were whizzing by. My heart raced. My throat dried up as I grew nervous. Soon I found myself hanging over a bridge that really didn’t have much to connect to. On my right was the side of a mountain. On my left, all I could see was air. I felt the train sway with the bridge that seemed suspended in the air. I suddenly felt as if I was flying…flying…

“Mark! Mark!” My eyes slowly opened as I heard my name being called. I lifted my head from the ground where I had laid. The magazine I had been reading slipped off my chest. “What are you doing?”

I slowly stood up. I held the magazine in one hand as my eyes adjusted. “Pa!” I declared as I wiped my eyes. “I guess I fell asleep.”

Pa held out his hand. No words were needed as he gave me one of his famous looks. I slowly handed him the magazine I’d been reading. He pointed toward the wagon and I climbed in. We rode down the street and stopped in front of Lou’s hotel. As we walked inside, we came upon a group of men talking. “9:00 in the morning!” One man declared. The man took a giant chug from the bottle he held in his hand. “Yessiree! Miss Lou, you sech a purty thing…you be there, huh?” I noticed Lou was right in the middle of all these drunken, laughing men.

Pa pushed me back then hurried into the middle of the group of excited men. Again, without a word, he protectively grabbed Lou by the arm and pulled her out. A man reached out to grab her arm. Pa didn’t miss a beat. He reared back and punched the drunken cowboy hard. The man reared back to punch my Pa. “Why you…” he started as he clinched his fist.

Another man close beside him grabbed him by the arm. “Watch it, Ed…that’s the Rifleman.”

I watched with a mixture of amusement and pride as Pa took a protective hold of Lou’s arm and pulled her away from the group. “What’s going on?”

Again, I smiled as I pushed my hat way back on my head. Lou got a sour look on her face as she pressed her lips together. “Let go of me, Lucas McCain! I was doing just fine in there without you feeling like you have to rescue me!” Lou declared in her Irish brogue.

Pa’s eyes widened as he looked Lou up and down. “Those drunken men were too close to you for my comfort, Lou!” Pa declared.

“And what do ye got to do with it?” Lou asked.

“I don’t like it. Men should keep their distance.” I could hear the protective, jealous sound in his voice.

Pa still had a firm hold on Lou’s arm and he was standing very close to her. Any closer and… “Like you, Pa?” I couldn’t keep the smile out of my voice. Both Pa and Lou rewarded me by turning and glaring at me.

Pa cleared his throat and widened his eyes at her again as he again looked her up and down. He was still standing very close to her – closer than those cowboys were! “What are all these men doing here?”

“Well, if you’ll let go of me…” Lou forced her arm from Pa’s grip. Then she smoothed her skirt and stepped away from him. “Those men are a bunch of animals…” she declared. Suddenly, she realized her vulnerability was showing. “I mean…gentle animals, but animals!” Lou declared with a stubborn nod of her head.

It was then I knew that she was glad Pa showed up when he did. Pa’s eyes widened again. He planted his hands on his hips and looked her up and down AGAIN! “What do they want?” Pa asked protectively. His voice also held a sterness in it meaning Lou better tell it to him straight.

“Oh…the railroad men have finished laying the track, Lucas. They will begin building the station tomorrow. They are having a big ground breaking ceremony at 9:00!”

“Oh boy!” I cried excitedly.

Pa didn’t take his eyes from Lou. “You have school, Mark,” Pa reminded me as he…you guessed it…looked Lou up and down AGAIN.

I was disappointed in his answer. “But Pa, this is a learning…” I started. Pa jerked his head around and raised his eyebrows. I sighed and nodded my head. “Yes sir.”

Pa shifted his rifle to his other hand then turned and looked at the men who were laughing and staring at Lou. He took a step forward. That one step and the look on his face suddenly made the men take a step back. “Alright, the fun’s not until tomorrow, men! And it’s not in the hotel lobby, so get moving!”

The drunken cowboy took another drink from his bottle and whistled as he stepped closer to Lou. “I don’t know, McCain…you jest might be wrong ‘bout that…”

Pa cocked his rifle and shoved the barrel in the cowboy’s chest. “Move it!”

The cowboy lifted his hands and backed up. “Alright, McCain…alright…” he laughed. Pa held a really sour look on his face. He’s looked at me that way a couple times. If he told me to dig a hole to China with that look on his face, I’d surely do it! You don’t mess with those looks! It’s your final warning before he starts acting…

Some of the men moved on while others just looked at Pa. Pa turned and lifted his rifle toward the ones who didn’t wish to move. “Come on!” The remainder of the men grumbled but began moving out.

That sour look remained on Lou’s face. “Now, Lucas McCain...” Lou declared as she put her hands on her hips and looked up at Pa. “Look what you did!” She pointed to the men slowly exiting the hotel. “I had lots of business and now you went and chased ‘em all out of here!”

Pa nodded. “There was about to be trouble, Lou.”

“I’d say there was!” I declared. Pa turned and glared at me. I decided it best to keep my mouth shut.

“Those men were touching you they were so close!” Pa’s voice held anger in it.

“I told ye I can…” Lou started.

“I know what you told me, Lou.” Pa turned from her.

“Lucas McCain, you are…are…are…” she sputtered as she tried to find the words.

Pa turned back and grinned at her. “I’m what?” Lou continued sputtering as she tried to find the word. Pa walked up and stood really close to her again as his grin widened. “Sweet?” he asked. Lou shook her head. “Adorable?” Lou raised an eyebrow. “Impossible?”

Lou nodded as she pointed at Pa. “Impossible!” Lou declared. “You are impossible!”

Pa took my arm as we headed back onto the street. He stopped and turned. With a grin, he asked, “But what would you do without me?”

Lou didn’t answer. I turned to look at her as Pa led me toward the wagon. She had her hands on her hips and was smiling at Pa as she shook her head. “She thinks your adorable, Pa,” I teased him.

“Yeah…” Pa grunted. “Women!”

“I heard that, Lucas McCain!”

We rode for home. When we got home, Pa ordered me to start on my chores. “What about my homework?” I asked.

“After your chores.”

“Oh.” I decided to give it a try. “And uh…the railroading magazine?” I asked.

Pa turned and narrowed his eyes at me. “What about it?”

I nodded. That tone of voice told me all I needed to know – another fifty cents was about to be thrown into the fire.

The next morning, I could hardly stand the excitement! Today they would be breaking ground to build the new station. When I asked Pa about it, he merely stated he had seen lots of ground broken and it didn’t really amount to much. He had a hundred things to do at the ranch and expected me home by one o’clock. That’s all that needed said. I turned, got on my horse, and rode toward school.

But I took the long way to school and it just happened to go by the location of the new train station. I dismounted Blue Boy and watched the men setting up for the festivities. Food stands were being set up along the grass on one side. On the other side was a large overhanging tent with a shovel under it. I saw a photographer setting up for the event as well. The smell of carnival food was in the air. “Mark!” Freddie ran up to me. “You gonna stay and watch?”

I shook my head and told Freddie I had school. But as I turned to leave, Freddie said, “I asked my Pa if he was coming and he said he’s got a lot of work to do.”

“My Pa ain’t coming either! Adults…they just don’t have an imagination,” I declared with a shake of my head. “I don’t think it’s fair of them either…This is a part of history and they ain’t even gonna let us see it!

“Well…” Freddie lowered his head as he allowed his words to fade away.

I saw the look in his eye as he slowly lifted his head. If the idea had never been presented to me, maybe it would have never surfaced. Maybe I would have mounted my horse and ridden on to school.

But not today. “They wouldn’t know, Mark.”

I turned my head to look behind me to make sure no one was listening. Then I turned back to Freddie. “Are you suggesting that we…” I lowered my voice. “…that we play hooky?”

“It’s been awhile since we played hooky, Mark!” Freddie declared. “It won’t hurt nothing! Why, we deserve to watch it, don’t ya think?”

I rolled my eyes at him…but maybe I was really rolling them at myself. The fact is…I was actually considering his idea. “Freddie, we’re 14 years old now! You’re getting a little too old for such childish pranks, don’t ya think?” I crossed my arms. “Besides, aren’t you afraid of what your Pa would do to you if you get caught?”

“Mark, it’ll be worth it! We’re watching history!” Freddie declared.

“My Pa said a very firm ‘no’ yesterday. And when he says ‘no,’…” I started. “I’m going to school!”

I started for my horse. But that’s as far as I got, because suddenly, I heard a noise. I froze and slowly turned around. There, coming down the tracks was a single railroad engine pulling the coal car and one passenger car. I gasped as it slowed. I turned and looked at Freddie. Without a word, we turned and hurried to the track as a man sitting inside the engine waved.

“Wow!” I declared as I raced up to the track with Freddie. Suddenly, the man pulled on a long string. “Toot Toot!” My heart began racing as the train made its sound. Freddie and I just stood there with our mouths open. We could hardly believe what we were seeing and hearing!

“Ya sure it ain’t worth it, Mark?” Freddie hollered over the noise.

“Oh, it’s worth it!” I shouted with a great big smile on my face. “It’s definitely worth it!”

People poured in from the town and their homes after the train whistled. Everyone was shouting excitedly as they hurried up to stand around the engine where the man sat. They all wondered what this was all about. I stood beside Billy Lehigh. He held his daughter up on his shoulder so she could see. As she watched, she pointed to the train and laughed excitedly. “North Fork will never be the same again!” Billy declared.

“Yeah.” I smiled. “As soon as the train starts going through here, we’ll hear that whistle every day!” I shook my head. “Progress has finally come to North Fork.” I folded my arms as the man climbed down from the car. “I wonder what the cows will think of this?”

Billy looked down at me and laughed. We began clapping as the man stood on a platform. “Ladies and gentlemen…” he shouted as he raised his hands up in the air. “Today you have witnessed a piece of history for your small town of uh…” the man looked down at Micah. Micah mouthed something to him. “…North Fork!”

Everyone cheered.

“Never before has North Fork heard the sound of a train whistle..not until this very moment! And never again will this wilderness be silent from modern miracles!”

Everyone cheered again – including me.

“In a few short weeks, this car will be attached to many other cars. North Fork will no long receive its mail and supplies via the slow, dusty stagecoach. No…when the train begins coming through, you can get your mail in mere days instead of weeks or months. You will receive the words of your loved one’s only 3 or 4 days after its written. And you will receive your loved ones in days instead of a week…or longer…via the stage!”

I gave a loud yahoo.

“You will no longer have to drive your cattle across the hot dusty trail! No, you can ship them to Santa Fe or Albuquerque via the train while you sit inside a nice, comfortable car and let us do the work for you!”

I gave a loud yahoo at that too as I clapped along with a lot of other people. Billy looked down at me with a raised eyebrow. “Maybe so, Mark…But there’s something about driving your cattle across the trail. I…think your father would agree with me.”

No doubt about that!

“In 45 minutes, we will have the breaking of the ground. Soon carpenters will be here to build the last stages of the progress. When this building is finished, you will be able to watch the train as it comes down those tracks. After today, it will never stop! It will bring with it progress, people, and prosperity!”

Again, everyone cheered! A band started playing. “Boy, Pa said this would just be another ground-breaking! He was wrong!” I declared as Freddie and I hurried over to the booths. “If he knew…there’s no way he’d have made us go to school!”

They were selling candied apples. I stuck my hand in my pocket and dug out a nickel. Then I took the apple. Freddie and I walked along the street as we ate. I kept a look out for Miss Lou and Micah. I certainly didn’t want them catching us here! They’d tell our Pa’s! “Mark, look!” Freddie gasped suddenly.

I swallowed the peace of candied apple I had in my mouth and stared. There was a tall man in one of those really fancy suits. “Who is he?” I asked. We started up toward him, but suddenly realized that Micah was talking to him. “Let’s get out of here!”

We hurried away. Hiding behind a tree, we peeked out. “I feel like a six year old sneaking to see what all the fuss is about in a saloon or something!” I declared. “I’m too old to be sneaking around like this!”

“Shush!” Freddie declared.

The time passed fast as we watched all the activities. Finally, the man stepped up under the overhanging tent where the shovel was. He held up his hand and cleared his throat. “As a vice-president of the railroad, I am honored to welcome you all here today for the ground-breaking. Tomorrow, in this very spot, men will be beginning the construction of the final portion of the railroad in North Fork. The station will only take a couple weeks to build. Then the train will roll down those tracks!

“Allow me to be the first to welcome North Fork into what will soon be the twentieth century! With the progress of the railroad, you will soon find all the comforts from the East! Changes will rapidly happen and you will be pleased with the comforts progress will bring you! Gentlemen…”

I turned to see a line of men with rifles. They hollered, then pointed their rifles up into the sky and began rapidly firing. I saw the photographer taking pictures. The band began playing. I turned and watched as the vice-president stomped the shovel into the dirt. My heart raced as I imagined what this would mean for our sleepy little town that up to this point had only been visited by means of horses. No longer would that be the case! A coal and fuel-powered horseless train would now deliver people to our very town quickly and easily as they traveled 50…60 miles an hour! The speed of a train always made my heart race. I smiled as I imagined the prospect!

But my smile was just about to disappear.

“Mark McCain!” I suddenly felt a hand on my ear. “Mark McCain!” Pa shouted again as he gave my ear a hard pull.

“Ow!” I shouted suddenly.

“You come with me, young man!” Pa turned and looked at Freddie. He grabbed Freddie by the arm. “And you too!”

“Pa, we were just…” I shouted as he kept a firm hold on my ear. I felt my face growing red as people watched us being dragged away from the festivities. From the corner of my eye, I saw Mr. Griswald and all the students standing there. I groaned at the realization.

All the way to town, Pa kept a firm hold on my ear. I cried out as my ear started smarting. Freddie cried out as Pa’s firm grip made his arm smart. Pa let go of my ear to open the door to Micah’s office, then he grabbed my arm and dragged us both inside. “Sit down!” he boomed.

“Mr. McCain, we were just…” Freddie started.

Pa turned and raised an eyebrow as he pressed his lips together in a very ugly scowl. “Silence!” he demanded.

He grabbed the keys from the wall. “March…inside!” he demanded.

“We didn’t break any laws!” I argued then. I don’t know why I didn’t just learn to keep my mouth shut, because as soon as those words were out, Pa grabbed my other ear – the one that wasn’t throbbing – and led me into the jail.

“Inside! Both of you!” He slammed the cell door shut and locked it. Then he walked out. Freddie and I both jumped at the sound of the door to the jail slamming hard.

“Boy oh boy!” Freddie groaned.

We sat down on the cot and put our face in our hands. “Wow…I knew we’d be in trouble if we got caught, but I didn’t know it would be this much!” I shook my head. “Pa is awful mad!”

Freddie sighed. “Your Pa’s gonna tell MY Pa…I just know it! Then MY Pa’s gonna be awful mad!”

I shot my head up and glared at my best friend. “This was your idea in the first place, Freddie!” I shouted.

Freddie shot his head up and glared at me. “My fault? I didn’t twist your arm and make you stay!” He shouted back.

“Pa should have dragged you in here by the ear!” I argued as I rubbed my smarting ear. “You sure got off lucky!”

“Yeah…I’m sure my hind end will be smarting soon enough,” Freddie assured me. “Pa don’t seem to understand I’m getting too old to lick.”

“That’s cause you keep getting in trouble!” I declared.

“I keep getting into trouble?” Freddie laughed. “You’ve been on restrictions so many times this year that I’m beginning to think you LIKE doing extra chores!”

We sat there for several moments without saying a word. The silence did little to calm me down. In fact, the more I thought about it, the madder I got! “I oughta punch you right in the nose for this, Freddie Toomey!” I shouted suddenly. “You sure got me into a lot of trouble this time!”

Freddie stood up and turned toward me. “Oh yeah? Well like I said…I didn’t twist your arm!”

I stood up and faced Freddie. “In fact, I may just…” I started.

Suddenly, Freddie gave me a hard shove. I fell to the floor of the cell. Freddie started to sit back down on the cot but I grabbed his ankle. We rolled back and forth on the ground as I tried to pin him down. Freddie gave me a hard punch in the side as I punched him just under the cheek.

“Here…here!” I heard from the jail. But I almost had Freddie pinned down. I put one hand on his shoulder and started to press on the other one when I suddenly felt myself being lifted from him. “Stop it! Stop it right now!” Mr. Toomey demanded as he lifted Freddie up.

Pa kept a firm grip on my arm while Mr. Toomey held on to Freddie’s. Pa just glared at me. “Now, sit down!” he ordered through clinched teeth.

You know that look he gave the drunken cowboy earlier? Well…there it was – except he didn’t have the barrel of his rifle pressed into my chest.

I sat on the cot. Freddie stood against the wall on the other side. He crossed his arms and refused to look at me. “You’ll stay in here until you calm down,” Micah stated. With that, the door slammed shut, again. Micah, Mr. Toomey, and Pa exited the jail and closed the door for the second time.

“You said it would be worth it, Freddie.” Freddie didn’t say anything. I narrowed my eyes at him. “Well?”

“Well…I didn’t think your Pa would LOCK us up in JAIL!” Freddie declared. “Treating us like criminals!”

“He did it once before when we were having ourselves a fist fight if you remember. Why would this time be any different?” I reminded Freddie…and myself…

Freddie groaned as he leaned against the wall. “Oh yeah!”

“Well…” I sighed as I leaned my own head against the wall. “I suspect it has something to do with being 14 ½ year old. I’m expected to listen to those in authority – and my Pa is definitely the highest authority on this earth as far as he’s concerned. He’s telling us that when we don’t follow the rules of authority, jail is the punishment.”

“Yeah.” Freddie kicked the wall. Then he turned and sat on the cot beside me. He grinned at me. “Oh, but did your heart start racing when you heard that train whistle?” Freddie suddenly declared.

“Yeah!” I shouted. “North Fork has never heard a sound like that around these parts before! It was so loud it echoed everywhere!”

“Have you ever been on a train, Mark?”

I nodded. “Pa and I went to visit relatives once. We rode a train. We were on there with an outlaw…oh…oh…what was his name?” I snapped my fingers as I tried to remember. “Anyhow, our train got stuck on the tracks because of grasshoppers and we were stuck with this outlaw. Well, then my Pa went to investigate and I was left in the car alone with the outlaw! He and his brothers, that is…they held me hostage and wouldn’t let Pa in!”

“What did you do?” Freddie asked then.

“Well…” I pulled my knees up to my chest. “He was shot and I told him that the only way he’d get out alive was to let my Pa take a look at the leg. Pa was finally allowed in and he shot one of the holdup men. He took that outlaw…oh…what was his name?…Anyway, he was taken in alive!”

“Wow, Mark! That’s some exciting train ride!” Freddie was impressed.

“Yeah…” I smiled at the memory.

We grew silent. We wondered just how long we would be left in this cell to think about our transgressions. “Say, that was awful crummy of Mr. Griswald!” Freddie groaned then. “He should have told us he’d allow the class to go witness history! It sure would have saved us a bunch of trouble.”

“Yeah!” I shook my head. “Pa’s gonna put me on restrictions until my children get married!”

Freddie lifted his head from the wall. “Say Mark…how will you have children if you’re on restrictions? You couldn’t even court a girl…”

My eyes grew wide at that prospect. “Yeah!” I shrugged. “Well…so much for giving him those grandchildren he always wanted! Reckon I’ll be his servant for the rest of my life.”

“I might eventually let you off for good behavior,” Pa declared from the other side of the cell.

I jumped up and hurried over to the bars. “Pa, you gonna let us out now?”

Pa shook his head as he pointed behind me. “Sit down.”

I sighed and walked back over to the cot. As I sat down, Micah unlocked the cell doors and our Pa’s walked inside. Micah followed close behind them. “Well, you boys sure got yourself into a mess this time!”

I turned and looked at Freddie. I jabbed a finger toward him. “It was his hair-brained idea!”

“Somehow, Mark…I have a feeling you played a part in this scheme.” Pa shook his head as he raised an eyebrow. “You know…apart, these two boys can be as grown up and mature as all get out…but put them together and…”

“Yeah.” Mr. Toomey walked over to Freddie and grabbed him by the arm. “I suppose you know what’s going to happen to you, son.”

“A trip to the barn?” Freddie asked.

“For starters,” Mr. Toomey declared.

Freddie shook his head. “It sure was something to see that though…to hear the whistle and…”

“I’m glad you enjoyed it because it’s the last thing you’ll be enjoying for some time, son.” Mr. Toomey pulled on Freddie’s arm.

“Hey Pa?” Freddie suddenly gasped. “Did you know Mark rode a train once and got trapped in a car alone with a dangerous criminal? He had to talk the criminal into letting his Pa inside!”

“Let’s go!” Mr. Toomey replied. Freddie turned and waved at me as he exited the jail.

Pa put his hands on his hips and slowly turned to look at me. “So…” he said as he raised an eyebrow. I hated it when he raised that eyebrow!

I gasped suddenly. “Ryerson!” I snapped my fingers. “Walt Ryerson! That was his name!”

“Well, that part’s right. I didn’t know you were in the car alone though, son…” Pa started.

“Well… In a sense I was in there alone, you weren’t in there with me…” I shrugged. “It was a long time ago. Some of the details are a little…sketchy…”

“Mm hm…” Pa nodded doubtfully. “Or maybe your details made for a better story to impress your friend?” Pa sighed. “Alright…” He folded his arms. “Your horse is out front and your school session is over. I want you to ride for home. I’ll be there shortly. And when I get home, I expect to find you…in the barn.”

“The barn?” I swallowed. “Boy, I AM in trouble!”

Pa nodded. I gave my head a shake. “But boy…it sure was…” I stopped before I finished that train of thought (no pun intended)…”Uh…I mean…what are you doing in town?”

“I’ll tell you later. After our talk …I just DON’T think you will find that your transgressions were uh…’worth’ it.” Pa pointed a finger toward the door. As I walked by, I felt a hard smack on my back side.

***

I sat in the barn silently wondering what was taking Pa so long to get home. I rolled my eyes. He was probably at the hotel having a nice dinner with Lou and Micah as the three of them discussed the situation. I knew Micah would defend me; but Lou…well, I was never sure about her. Sometimes she would chastise Pa for getting onto me while other times she would tell Pa I should be severely punished for my actions. The last time that happened was when I’d pulled the stunts at the restaurant that resulted in a good mouth-washing.

My stomach growled as I sat on the bench waiting for Pa to get back. Finally, I heard a horse gallop into the yard. The barn door opened and Pa walked in leading Razor. I stood up. “Hel…Hello, Pa.”

“Hello son.” Pa took razor to his stall and removed the saddle without saying another word. Finally, he turned toward me. “Well…” He slowly walked up to me. “Well…well…well…well…”

I swallowed as he crossed his arms and towered over me. “When you asked to go to this uh…historic event yesterday, what was my answer?”

“No.”

Pa shook his head. “That’s not what my answer was, son…but that could have been implied by the information you were given. I told you that you had school.”

I lowered my head. “Yes sir.”

“And you’ll continue to look at me like a man – not hold your head in shame like a boy.” I lifted my head. “Why did you deliberately disobey me?”

Instead of answering his question, I asked one of my own. “Did you know the class was going to the celebration?”

“Does it matter?” Pa shot back.

“Well…” I swallowed as I blinked my eyes. “Yes.”

“Why?” Pa narrowed his eyes.

“Well…” I swallowed again. “Be..because I…” I stopped.

“I’m upset with you, Mark, because you knew you were going behind my back.”

“Pa, it wasn’t like that!” I argued. “I mean…I didn’t mean to disobey you!”

“Did you or did you not ask me yesterday if you could go to this event, Mark?”

“Ye…Yes sir I did.”

“And did I or did I not say a firm NO?”

“No sir,” I smarted.

“What?” Pa’s voice suddenly grew louder.

“You said I had school.”

Up went that eyebrow again! “Right.” Pa uncrossed his arms as he started pacing the barn. He put a hand his mouth and hid some emotion from me. “So how can you stand there and tell me you didn’t mean to disobey me?” I started to answer, but Pa turned and hurried back to me. He was only inches from my face. “You DELIBERATELY disobeyed me, Mark!” Pa shouted.

“Not at first, Pa!” I argued.

“When you left here, you were on your way to school, son. You’re saying BLUEBOY made you go way out of your way to the sight?”

“Well…not exactly.”

“Did Mark McCain go there on his own free will?” Pa yelled then.

“Ye-yes sir.”

Pa’s face came even closer to mine. His eyes became angrier. “So how did you not ‘mean’ to disobey me, son?”

“Well…” I sighed. “I just went there to see…before school.”

“Did I tell you that you could do that?”

“N-no sir.” I licked my lips. “Then Freddie was there and…”

Pa groaned. “Ohhhhhh…..yes! Freddie…I don’t know what it is with you two! When you get together, you seem to turn into two little kids!”

“Yes sir…I guess that’s cause we’ve been best friends since we were little kids.” I shook my head as I remembered all the trouble we had gotten into together over the years. “Well, Freddie said that since our Pa’s weren’t going to be in town, we could play hooky and you’d never know.”

“I see.” Pa sighed.

“But I told him no, that you said no, and no means no!” I put my hands on my hips and shook my head. “And then I went to my horse and started to leave.”

“And that’s when Freddie pulled a gun on you and told you that you HAD to stay…”

“No sir!” I declared. “Well…” I sighed. “I mean, I heard the train whistle and something inside me just…Pa, I just HAD to stay! It was history being made in North Fork!. Something that, well, if I’m ever allowed to marry and have children, I’ll be able to tell them I was there. But I guess that, maybe, I won’t get the chance to meet my future wife, considering how long I’m going to be on restrictions.”

“Sit down, son.” Pa’s voice was soft as he spoke. I sat down. Pa pulled up a chair and sat down right in front of me. “Now…it just so happens, Mark, that yesterday I ran into Mr. Griswald. He told me he was taking you kids to see the ground breaking ceremony. I didn’t tell you because I thought it would be a nice surprise for you. I never thought my 14 year old son would act so childish and go behind my back and-“

“Pa, I didn’t go behind your back! I…” I started.

Pa had stood up and begun pacing while he talked again. He suddenly swung around and pointed a finger at me. “Don’t you DARE interrupt me when I’m talking to you, Mark!” His voice boomed and his eyes lit afire.

“Yes sir.”

“Now…” Pa crossed his arms and sighed. “You should have NEVER gone there in the first place – it’s definitely not on your way to school.” I knew he was right. That was my first transgression. “And after so many years of getting punished after listening to Freddie, I figure by now you should have learned your lesson!”

“Yes sir.”

“So, I don’t want any excuses, Mark!” Pa’s voice had turned angry again. “If you had listened to me, you would have…” Pa stopped and looked down. I looked down too. Then I groaned. Slowly, Pa picked up the stick from the candied apple I had eaten earlier. It had fallen out of my pocket. “What…is this?”

“It was a candied apple…sir…” Boy, now I was scared!

“And…” Pa sighed. “Was this also one of your transgressions?”

Suddenly, something snapped in me. I couldn’t take anymore! “Since when was eating a candied apple a sin, Pa?” Okay…maybe I was being a little TOO smart, but I had a feeling I was about to be smarting some place else soon enough anyhow.

My words hit Pa like a freight train out of control. Pa’s eyes widened and his face turned red. He opened his mouth to say something then closed it. If I thought his eyes held fire before, they surely did now! I was actually in shock myself from what I had said. Pa clinched his fists together and turned away from me. I felt that I should say something to ease the situations. “If you want the truth, Pa, I’m a bit embarrassed about today.” My voice held strength as I spoke these words. But they also held something else – defiance.

“Embar…” Pa’s booming voice started as he turned around to face me. “YOU’RE embarrassed? How do you think I feel?”

“Pa, you grabbed me by the ear in public and dragged me out of there like some little kid! Then you threw me AND my best friend in jail like we are criminals! I’m sorry if this makes you angry, but I'M angry at you too! Furthermore, if you had told me what was going on in the first place, NONE of this would have happened!

Pa’s eyes widened again. He couldn’t believe I was speaking to him this way – neither could I, honestly. “So this is suddenly all my fault?” Pa asked in an irate voice. “Mark McCain is innocent? Lucas McCain is suddenly guilty?”

“I didn’t say that, Pa! All I’m saying is that…” I closed my eyes and sighed. I could feel anger boiling up inside me. “I’m saying that you embarrassed me by pulling me by the ear in front of everyone!”

“And I’m saying, Mark that…” Pa stopped and closed his eyes. I could tell he was trying to regain control of his emotions. He turned around and walked to the barn door. He clinched his fists to his side. “I don’t understand this attitude, Mark. It’s not like you…not at all!”

“I don’t understand why you continue to treat me like a child!” I declared defiantly.

Pa spun around to face me. “Because you are acting like a child! Playing hooky from school…going somewhere I told you not to…I…” Pa had suddenly exploded. He stopped and again turned from me.

I bit my lip. I suddenly wanted to lit into him, and that scared me. Instead, I sat down and buried my face in my hands. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me, Pa. I feel so…”

Pa heard the sincerity in my voice. He turned and walked back to me and again sat down in front of me. “What, son? What do you feel?”

“I feel so…so…” I sighed and shook my head. “Like I want to do my own thing…make my own decisions – I don’t want to be your little boy anymore, and yet I do.”

Pa nodded. He suddenly took my hand. “Son, you are 14. Not only is your body going through changes physically, but you are going through changes inside as well.”

I nodded. “We’ve had this discussion several times already, Pa.” I really didn’t want to hear it again.

Pa nodded. “Then we’ll have it several times more if we have to. Teenage years aren’t only hard on the teenagers, Mark. They are also hard on the parents.” Pa reached out and grabbed my hand. “Do you know why I was so angry with you today?”

I nodded. “Because I disobeyed you.”

“That’s part of it.” Pa took off his hat and threw it on a nearby peg. He ran a hand through his hair. “I walked to the school today, Mark. I was all excited at the surprise I had waiting for you. We were going to walk over together – father and son…and together we were going to experience history. I knew this was an important moment in your life because I knew how important progress is to you. I felt like it was your birthday as I anticipated the look on your face when you realized what was about to happen. Then when I got there, Mr. Griswald informed me in that annoying little way of his that you and Freddie did not come to school. “They are undoubtedly at the ceremony together.” Those were his words, son. But I knew something had happened…my son does wrong, but he would never out-right disobey me or do something so childish as to play hooky, again!”

“I’m sorry,” I whispered.

“When I realized you had indeed done just that, I was angry, Mark! The plan was for you and the kids to be there for the ground-breaking at nine o’clock. Then you would stay there for the picnic that followed. Some of us were going to stay and deliver history lessons of the frontier – how it evolved over the last 100 plus years – from Daniel Boone and Davey Crocket to today…but you boys got too excited.”

“Yes sir. I’m sorry.”

“And pulling you by the ear to Micah’s office may have been embarrassing for you, Mark…But the whole class knew you were disobeying me and they knew you were playing hooky. I was so angry that my son would pull a stunt like this. As for locking you up in jail…I wanted you to understand that as a man – not a child – when you disobey authority, THAT is the consequence. Parenting, son, is a life-long process. It doesn’t stop when you get married. When you are thirty years old, you may do something deserving of some discipline. Now, at 30, I can’t necessarily pull you by the ear – though I may be tempted – but I can still lecture you and tell you why you are wrong. I know, son, that if my father were still alive and saw some of the things I did…I would be lectured to.”

“Yes sir. I understand.”

“You act like a child, you will be treated like a child. You carry yourself like a man, I’m going to treat you like a man. You can express your opinions to me – such as thinking my ear-pulling was wrong, but I expect it done the way a man would do it – maturely and calmly. No son, I will not promise I won’t embarrass you like that in public again. I will continue to punish you the way I see fit.” Pa stood up. “Which leads me to your punishment.”

“Yes sir.”

“I spoke with Mr. Griswald. For skipping school today, you will attend a special session on Saturday. Miss Mallory has agreed to be your teacher for the day.” I interrupted with a loud groan. Pa turned and glared at me. “Tomorrow after school – and Friday – you will go to the sight you so desperately wanted to go to. You and Freddie will check in with Micah. He will assign you your tasks. You will be cleaning up from the ceremony of today. All next week during break, you will put in full day shifts here at the ranch all morning – then at the sight in the afternoon.” Pa got right in my face as he spoke very firmly and in a very loud, orderly voice. “You will be digging where you are told to dig; doing what you are told to do; and nailing what you are told to nail. You will not wipe your nose unless you are told. You will not even cough unless Micah gives you permission.” Pa’s voice became faster and louder as he dished out my punishment. Then he pointed a finger straight at me. “And if you or Freddie get out of line one time, Micah has my permission to take you straight to jail until I get there. And when I get there, you WILL be sorry! It’s time you and Freddie learn how to get along!” I stayed quiet after he stopped. Pa spoke in an even louder voice as he asked, “Do I make myself perfectly clear?”

“Yes sir.” I looked him straight in the eye. I think he could tell I didn’t agree he was being fair. I saw a look in his eye that told me so. But he stayed strong.

“Now…” Pa sighed. “Do you have any questions?”

“Yes sir.”

“What?”

I shook my head then. I decided to ask a lighter question instead. “Why Miss Mallory?” I groaned. Pa stared at me. His face broke into a smile and he shook his head. But he never did answer. “Did you…go to the picnic?” Pa nodded. “And did the kids?” Pa nodded. “Am I on restrictions?” Pa nodded.

“Well…” I stood up. “I suppose that’s all the questions I have. Would you like me to go to my room now?”

Pa nodded.

***

Mr. Griswald closed his roll book and stood up. “Well…I must say that yesterday was quite an adventure. We will be having a test now on what you heard as various men spoke to you yesterday.” I groaned. Mr. Griswald looked towards me. “One of you had a note from your mother as to the reason you were absent from the festivities yesterday. Two of you didn’t. The two that didn’t will not be excused from the exam and will receive an automatic zero, which, I’m confident will result in disciplinary action by your fathers. I believe, however, that you will be attending a special session on Saturday and will learn a lot about Ireland.” I groaned again.

At lunch, both Freddie and I were dismissed. We silently walked to the sight as told. When we got there, Micah had us “sign in” on his clipboard. Freddie and I looked at each other as Micah handed us shovels. “Dig.” So, for the next four hours, we dug. Micah allowed us to take two fifteen minute breaks, and of course we had brought our lunch to eat before leaving the school. I told Micah this punishment felt a little like prison, and he said that was the idea, but believe him, what we were doing was nothing compared to prison – so I should chalk that up in my memory and learn a lesson. And here I thought Micah would try to talk Pa out of punishing me!

By Friday evening, I was falling asleep at the table. Pa sent me to bed as soon as my plate was cleaned. Being Friday night, it seemed so wrong to go to bed so early, yet I couldn’t do anything else! I was EXHAUSTED!

Saturday, I groaned as Pa woke me up and told me to get ready for school. Freddie and I arrived at the school at the same time. Lou stood in the doorway with her arms crossed and a narrow smile on her face. “Come on inside, boys.” She sat at the desk all morning while Freddie and I worked. We were again forced to work on our assignments as we sat side by side. Miss Mallory came to check the progress of our work every now and then, but we were indeed expected to figure things out on our own.

My hand was cramping from so much writing by noon. We had gone through three pages of math – geometry. We had also read a chapter out of our history books, written a report on it, and read aloud about the scientific method. After a short lunch, Lou stood up and announced it was now time for a history lesson. Today’s history lesson was on Ireland. I got lost many times as Lou would start to reminisce and stray from the lesson she was teaching us.


***

That evening as I sat outside, Pa came to sit down beside me. I sighed. “Pa, doesn’t it seem to you that I’ve been on restrictions more than not this year?”

“Mm hm…” Pa answered as he twirled the cigar around through his fingers.

“I wonder why…” I mumbled.

Pa leaned back. He propped himself up with his elbows. “Well, we’ve been through this before, but we’ll go through it again. Son…around your age, every boy…and girl…goes through many changes. Before this, you think differently – like your parents and others in authority. But then, God matures you. He allows your body to change into a man…as well as your mind and your Spirit.”

I leaned back and looked up at the stars. “You’ve told me that, but I still don’t understand.”

“You’re starting to have your own thoughts…your own mind…you are starting to have your own opinions and maybe you are fighting against them. You don’t agree with me anymore like you used to. There’s something inside you…deep inside you …that wants to rebel – to do the opposite of what I say because…well, because you want to make your own decisions and do your own thinking.”

“Nothing wrong with that, is there?” I asked

“No…But you are still growing and maturing. And I am still your father. You are expected to learn how to deal with these new feelings and emotions because you will be stuck with them for a long, long time. That’s why I still punish you. Because you should learn to have control over your body and mind and though you can do your own thinking, your body is still developing and changing, and during that time you MUST grow with it. I am still in charge.”

Pa grew silent. The things he said still didn’t make sense to me. I just nodded and stood up. “Goodnight, Pa.”

Pa smiled. “Goodnight, son.”

***

“When I was a child I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.”

The preacher looked up from his Bible and looked squarely at me. My heart raced as he looked back down at his Bible. He read the verse again. Again, he looked up, but this time he didn’t look at me.

Freddie and I had been forced to sit together again this morning. Our Pa’s sat right behind us. As the preacher read the verse the second time, Freddie and I looked at each other and slouched a bit lower in our seats. There was no doubt in our minds this morning that the preacher was preaching right at us! Suddenly, I felt a hard tap on the top of my head. I threw a hand to the smarting spot and shot straight up. Freddie did the same.

“Just because we become a man, don’t think you will always do the right thing.” He stepped down from the platform and lifted his hands up. “We all make wrong decisions, no matter how old we get. No…this verse is saying that we all have to grow up sometime. Being part of a man means leaving childhood behind. There is no moment we do this, but there is a moment when we find it harder to do so.”

He put his hands behind his back and looked up towards the ceiling. “I remember when I was about 14 or 15. Those were hard years for me…Hard years indeed. You see…those are the years when a boy finds himself somewhere between a boy…” he held up one hand. “…and a man.” The preacher held up the other hand. “And those are the most difficult years of our lives. We suddenly develop our own method of thinking and reasoning. We develop a method of rebellion. Most of us learn to deal with that through severe punishment from our parents. Others…well…They don’t learn, and many times because the parents don’t take their responsibilities seriously.”

The preacher stepped back up onto the platform. He took off his glasses. “This week, a concerned father came to me. He was almost in tears as he told me his story…oh, he told me I could use his concerns in my sermon this morning. You see…he has a child that is at that age where he’s not quite a man, but he’s not a boy. This father had concerns because his child seems to get in more trouble as he’s maturing then when he was younger. He wondered if he should stop being so strict and stern with the child…maybe allow the child to make the decisions – good or bad. I gave this father an interesting answer.

“Yes, we should allow our children to make mistakes. That’s how they learn. But it is our God-given duty to punish our children so they will learn that in real life, when we make mistakes, we also have consequences. The father knew his child did not agree with the way he was treated and with his punishment. He wondered if he should have handled it differently. But after listening to his reasoning and his punishment, I find the punishment just…” He looked straight at me. “…and very, very fair! I am here to tell you that God has given us as parents a big responsibility – to teach and discipline our children. I’m also here to tell you, children, that it would be much easier for a parent to let you do wrong and go unpunished than to punish you. But if we truly love our children…we MUST do the painful process of punishment. And children, this process is very…very painful.

“’Train up a child in the way he should go and he will not depart from you…’ That verse has been quoted to me many times by many parents. This parent quoted that same verse to me this week. He wondered why – when he’s trained his child his whole life – why now he faces such rebellion and turmoil. But the verse doesn’t stop there.”

I felt my heart sink into my stomach as the preacher stepped off the platform again. He looked at Freddie and me. “The verse ends with four little words. Without them, the verse loses its meaning. Those four words are: “…when he is old.” So how long must we discipline our children? When is our parenting done? Never.

“Children, listen to me. Every parent knows…and understands…that these are difficult years, but we MUST MUST MUST continue to punish you when you do wrong. It’s because we love you so much. We want you to grow into fine, young men so that when you are old, your father’s teachings will stay with you.”

I felt Pa’s hand on my shoulder as something inside me twisted and made me feel sick. “Parents, please don’t stop punishing your children. Love them…Teach them…and Discipline them. Without those three things, they will never become the young men we need. A couple verses down from the verse I’ve read, 1 Corinthians 13:13 declares this:

‘And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.’”

I prayed right there in my seat as we had prayer time. When it was over, we headed over to the hotel. Lou was her own jolly self. Micah reached for the roast as she set it on the table. Lou smacked his hand away. “Now, we jest got from church and ye are already forgetting your manners!” Lou declared.

Pa led us in prayer and we started eating. I wasn’t hungry. What little roast I did manage to eat felt like leather inside my stomach. I couldn’t stand all the joking that was going on around me. I could hear Lou’s Irish brogue, but I paid no mind. “Pa, may I be excused?” I didn’t wait to see Pa nod.

I jumped up and hurried out of the room. I didn’t hear Lou softly say, “Lucas, let me.”

I went outside and sat on the back steps as I put my head in my lap. I felt a gentle hand on my back. I looked up into Lou’s face. She had tears on her cheeks as she cried for my hurt. That made me hurt even worse. She didn’t say a word as I laid my head on her shoulder and softly cried. “These years are so hard. How does Pa put up with me, Lou?”

Lou smiled as she patted my head. “Because he loves ye, I imagine,” she answered. “Your father was your age once, Mark. He understands.”

I lifted my head. Lou put a hand on my cheek. “I misbehaved when I was your age too, Mark.”

“Really?”

Lou nodded. “I was always back talking those who loved me the most. I had to get the last word in – was full of opinions and thought I had all the answers. Then one day somebody put me in my place. I was severely reprimanded and that was my punishment.”

“I got pretty ugly with Pa in the barn the other day.” I sighed. “I was angry because he…he…” I shook my head.

“He what” Lou inquired.

“Miss Lou, have you ever had your ear pulled?” Lou shook her head. “Well, it hurts something awful! Ever since I was little, other kids got whippin’s…Me…? I got an ear-pulling like you wouldn’t believe! Anyways, Pa dragged me from the ceremony by the ear with Freddie and he threw us in…” I sighed. “Anyhow, I was awfully embarrassed and…and…” I suddenly looked up into Lou’s eyes. “Ashamed.”

Lou smiled. “Oh Mark, our father love ye so much! Ye know we are close and talk about everything. He talks about you a lot. He was so upset about having to punish you. He was even more upset…and close to tears…that you were angry with him for punishing you. Mark, he’s your father! He loves you! I’m the one who suggested he go talk to the preacher. I knew he’d find his answer there.” Lou brushed her fingers through my hair. “These are the hardest years, Mark…at least in right and wrong.” Lou nodded toward the street. “Do you know how many people died on that street because they weren’t reprimanded and punished when they started acting out at 14?” I nodded. “Your father said you’ve always been mischievous, but this year, your mischief has changed. That’s natural and it will pass in time.”

“I hope so!” I declared. “Right now it doesn’t seem I’ll ever have a chance to court a girl and give Pa those grandchildren he wants so bad.”

Lou laughed. “Yes you will, Mark. Because you are learning through the punishments. If you weren’t learning, you wouldn’t have felt ashamed the other day…and we wouldn’t be sitting here talking about this. Ye are learning…maybe a little slow, but ye are learning.”

“I should apologize to Pa.”

“You just did.” Lou and I turned to see Pa standing behind us.

“I’ll leave ye ta talk.” She smiled at me. “When you’re done, you can come in for my apple pie.”

Pa sat down beside me. He lifted his eyebrows as he looked at me. “Pretty rough, huh?”

“Yeah. Pretty rough.”

“Need to talk?”

“I need say to thank you.”

“For what?” Pa asked as he put his arm around my shoulders.

“For going to talk to the preacher. It showed me that you really are struggling with this too. Pa, in the barn the other day I…I said some pretty awful things. I’m…sorry.”

Pa nodded. “I must admit I was angry! You almost got a licking for that, but I suddenly remembered me and my Pa, in that very same situation when I was 14. I knew it was your guilt talking. I also knew that in time we would work it out.”

“Such a silly thing to get so messed up over, ain’t it?” Pa studied me. “I mean…shovels full of dirt…You’re right, it wasn’t worth the punishment. I know what the worst punishment was – your disappointment in me.”

I looked to Pa, but had one more question to ask, “When will I stop making mistakes?”

"If you were listening to the preacher this morning, never. You'll always make mistakes, but I pray they won't be as bad as some of the one's you've made this year," Pa grinned as he finished speaking. “I forgive you, son. But if you pull anything like this again…”

“I know…I know…” I laughed. “I will be punished, again!”

“Well, shall we go back inside? You need to eat. You are a growing boy after all.”

“Uh, Pa?” Pa turned back to me. “Pa…there’s something I’ve been wanting to talk to you about…It concerns Lou.”

Concern shone on Pa’s face. “Okay, son.”

“Well…you and Lou are pretty good friends. I mean, you are closer to her than anyone else in North Fork, right?”

“Yeah. Why?” Pa raised an eyebrow at me.

“Well, someone should tell Lou to throw out her pie recipe, and as her friend…”

Pa sighed as he looked down at his boots. “Son…there are a lot of things I’d do for you. I’d rescue you from a burning building. I’d walk on a mile of hot coals for you. I would even die in your place…But one thing I would not do for you is get myself in the middle of Lou’s wrath by telling her something bad about her apple pie!”

“You mean, you’d rather eat her apple pie?”

Pa smiled. “It’s the principle, son. She enjoys making it for us so we should enjoy eating it.”

“I don’t think I can! Since I’ve been so bad, could you tell me I can’t have dessert like when I was little? Please?”

Pa shook his head. “No son, but we’ll just say part of your punishment is uh…learning to live with ‘sour apples.’”

“Ohhhhhh…” I groaned. “That was bad, Pa! That was really bad!”

***

That next week was tiring! Even though I had admitted to my wrong and gotten Pa’s forgiveness, he wasn’t one to let me off the hook early. Pa believed that the only way a lesson was really ever learned was to serve your whole sentence – no shortcuts. I had to work my entire week at the ranch and in town. When I came home Friday, I sat down in Pa’s chair and heaved a big sigh as Pa stayed busy fixing the pinto beans and cornbread. “It’s over! It’s finally over!” I declared.

Pa turned and smiled at me. “Would you like to do another week?”

“No!” I declared. “Unless I’m being paid to do so!”

Pa laughed. “So I can assume you are going to be my good little boy for the rest of your life, huh?”

“Well…” I looked at him and raised my eyebrow.

Pa nodded. “It was a nice thought, son. A father can’t help but hope!”

Pa turned from the stove. “Could you set the table, son?”

I groaned as I lifted myself from the chair. I reached out to grab the plates from the cabinet. “Mark!” My hand shot back as if a rattlesnake was about to strike! “Wash up first!” Boy, that sure didn’t take long!

“Oh. Yeah.” Pa shook his head at me. I knew what he was thinking.

“That boy!”

After washing up, I went to clear the table. Then I saw it – a letter on pink stationary lying on the table. “What’s this?”

“Oh, that’s a letter. Read it.” There was honey in Pa’s voice. I studied him and narrowed my eyes. He only grinned. I knew it was one of “those” letters.

Slowly, I opened it. It was written by someone with beautiful handwriting – handwriting I hadn’t seen in a long time. As I read, the realization hit me. This was from an old family friend!

My Dearest Lucas and Mark,

I certainly hope this letter finds you well. It has now been two years since the wedding, and I’m happy to report that we now have two wonderful children who were born to us last night – a boy and a girl.

The father is happy but exhausted. He’s not able to do much law practice now, what with having to care for the twins and work out so much at the ranch. But we are so very happy.

Lucas, I will never forget the memories we shared, but as someone once told me, our time has ended. It’s time for a new life to begin, and it is a good one.

Lakota sends his love, as does little Joy and little Alex. I can’t wait until you return to Albuquerque so you can see these precious babies! Lakota said he’d be happy with half a dozen, but I think he’ll be happy with just these two as well.

God bless you and Mark. Please know that you two will always have a special place in my heart.

Warm regards,

Ann and Lakota Taylor

I smiled as I sat the letter on the desk. Then I went to set the table.

***

The next morning was Saturday. As I did my morning chores, Freddie came riding into the yard. I watched him from where I was laying fresh hay down in the barn as he tied his horse to the hitching post and raced over to me. “Your restrictions ended last night, right?”

“Yep!” I answered happily.

“Then…” Freddie folded his arms. “Can you maybe come into town? We’re gonna play baseball at the school!” Then we’re gonna eat at the café for lunch and go swimming.”

“Oh!” I threw my pitchfork down and hurried toward the corral where Pa was checking on a cow that had been sick before riding out onto the range. “Pa, can I go in town and play baseball with the boys? Afterward they’re gonna eat at the café and go swimming! Can I? Please?”

Pa sighed and shook his head. “There’s my little boy again!”

“Oh…” I turned and looked at Freddie as I shrugged my shoulders. I cleared my throat. “Uh…Pa, if it’s okay with you I thought I’d ride into town and play some ball with the other men. Then we’re going to sit down for a nice meal and uh…” I cleared my throat again. “…guy talk. After that we’re planning on going down the water hole to check the temperature and uh…” I turned and looked at Freedie.

“Quality,” Freddie whispered.

I turned back to Pa who had a grin on his face. “Oh yea…” I cleared my throat again. ‘…quality…’ of the water.”

Pa raised an eyebrow and cocked his head to one side. “Yes, you can go, but you CANNOT have “guy” talk. I know what that consists of at your age, ya hear?”

“Oh…I guess I’m not as grown up as I thought I was.” I shrugged and turned to leave.

“Mark.” I turned back around. “And a man only ‘plays’ or uh…’socializes,’ if you will…after his work is done.” Pa nodded toward the barn. “Oh…and that includes…” Pa nodded toward the diminished wood pile. I knew THAT would take me most of the morning.

I went to get to work on it.

Later, I hurried inside in time to see Pa smiling as he again read Ann Dodd…er…Taylor’s letter. “Pa, I got all the wood chopped and stacked! Now can I go into town to play with the boys?” I asked as I bounded inside.

Pa folded the letter as he smiled. “No, son.” He looked up at me. “We have a trip to make.”

“Oh? Where?”

Pa nodded. “Albuquerque. I want to see some very special friends.”

I grinned as I took my hat off and walked over to the desk. “Pa? Are you actually doing an impulse trip?” I asked in surprise.

“Not exactly,” Pa smiled. “I reckon we can run the cattle to Albuquerque as well as we can to Santa Fe.”

“What cattle?” I asked.

“Oh…well, we have a few head that are ready for the market. I figured now’s as good a time to sell them as any. Albuquerque is asking for a good price right now.” Pa picked up the letter and looked at it. “In fact…I know just the man who may want to buy them.”

“Pa?”

Pa suddenly looked up at me. “Let’s get ready. We’ll leave first thing in the morning.”

***

It was five days later when we pulled into Albuquerque. Pa asked me to stay with the cattle outside town while he rode on in. It was a good hour before anyone came back. I stood and smiled as I saw the rider with him. “Mr. Taylor!” I declared. He shook my hand as he smiled. “Your right, Pa. Mrs. Taylor did put a big smile on his face!”

“Mark!” Pa gave me one of those looks then turned back to Mr. Taylor.

Mr. Taylor either didn’t hear the comment or chose to ignore it as he looked at the five head of cattle we had. He shook his head. “I sure will take them, Lucas. Those are some of the finest I’ve seen!”

“Well, the McCain cattle are the finest cattle you’ll ever see!” I declared. “Why, even Mr. John Chisolm would cry if he got a good look at our cattle!”

Pa and Mr. Taylor both raised their eyebrows at me. “Chisolm has something like 80,000 head of cattle, son. I don’t think the two of us could handle that many!”

“We’ll discuss price late then, Lakota.” Pa turned to me. “There’s a bath waiting for you in town, son. Go to the barber. He’s getting it all ready for you.”

“Oh Pa!”

“I want you shining like a new baby when we go to the Taylor Ranch!” Pa declared.

“We staying at the hotel?” I asked then.

“No!” Mr. Taylor declared. “We’ve plenty of room and Ann would never let me hear the end of it if I didn’t insist you stay there!”

I hurried into town and got cleaned up. By the time I was done, Pa was ready for his bath. “How did you and Ann meet?” I asked as we sat and waited for Pa to get cleaned up.

Mr. Taylor grinned. “She just fell into my life one day.” He laughed as I raised an eyebrow. “No really. She was on some stairs and fell. I caught her. It was love at first sight.”

“I didn’t get to come to the wedding…I’m sorry, but I had testing at school and Pa had to come without me. Besides that, he said Ann had just been hurt and didn’t need a lot of extra company at the time.”

Mr. Taylor nodded as he remembered. “That was a really hard time for her, your father was right – we kept the wedding pretty simple and quiet while she recovered.” He sighed then looked at me. “She’s all better now, Mark. Her cousin’s wife had tried to kill her – shot her…The fact that she’s alive today is nothing short of a miracle. The doctor told me she didn’t have a chance, but she pulled through alright.” I watched as Mr. Taylor smiled. “She’s my miracle.”

Pa came out. He was clean and ready to go. We rode in silence. Pa was nervous about seeing Mrs. Dodd…er…Taylor again, I could tell. When we pulled up to the Taylor Ranch, I whistled. “Wow!” I declared as I stepped down from the wagon. It was a two story white framed house with a wrap-around porch. There were flowers everywhere! A large vegetable garden sat just outside the white picket fence that surrounded the whole entire yard. “Wow!” I said again. “Makes our ranch house look like a shack!”

Pa looked at me and raised an eyebrow. “But…a very NICE shack!” I quickly added. He put a hand on my shoulder as we walked through the gate Mr. Taylor held open for us.

Suddenly, the door swung open. I smiled at Mrs. Taylor. “Lucas?” Mrs. Taylor stood on the porch. “Lucas McCain!” She ran down the steps and jumped into Pa’s arms. Pa kissed her cheek and swung her around.

“Hello, Ann…er…Mrs. Taylor.” Pa grinned.

Mrs. Taylor put a hand on Pa’s chest. “It’s Ann to you…” Suddenly, she saw me. “Mark?” She hurried forward. “Mark!” She hugged me tight. As she parted she held me at arms length and looked me up and down. I saw tears suddenly fill her eyes. “Oh Lucas,” she whispered. Then she threw a hand to her mouth, turned, and hurried inside.

“What did I do wrong?” I asked, suddenly surprised at her reaction.

Mr. Taylor put a hand on my shoulder. “Nothing, Mark. Since the babies, Ann’s been suffering from a form of depression. The doctor says some women get this way after giving birth. It’s just all the pressures – it weighs on them. She’ll be okay in a bit.”

“I figured having a baby was a happy time for a woman…I don’t reckon I’ll ever understand them.” Pa cleared his throat. I felt guilty for upsetting her. “If…if it’s me…I can stay out here, Mr. Taylor.”

Mr. Taylor held up a hand. “Please…we’re too close for misters. Call me Lakota. And call her Ann. We’d be honored.”

“Alright.” We walked inside. I gasped at the beauty as I stepped into what Lakota called a foyer. I was embarrassed to wear my boots in the house, but I watched Lakota wipe his boots off then walk on inside. I did the same thing.

“Lucas, let me show you around the ranch!” Lakota turned to me. He turned back and looked at Pa. Pa nodded, then Lakota spoke to me. “If you don’t mind, Mark…I’d like you to be here when Ann comes down. I feel you can help her the most.”

I nodded, but felt butterflies in my stomach. I wasn’t sure how I’d be able to help her.

I was looking around the spacious parlor when Ann came back into the room. She paused just inside the door and wiped at her eyes again. “I can leave if…” I started.

“No, Mark…please…I think I owe you an explanation.” I looked around, uncomfortable that Pa wasn’t here. I didn’t know anything about handling a weeping woman! “Sit down, Mark.”

I sat down on the couch. Ann sat in a chair just on the other side of the couch. She played with her hands. “My…you’re…you’re getting so big!” She looked down at her hands. “It just surprised me, Mark. I…I just had twins and there are all these emotions inside that…the doctor said some women cry a lot after having a baby.” She sniffed. “I had another son, you know…”

I nodded. “Seeing me reminded you of him?” I hadn’t known that earlier. Ann nodded, but didn’t say anything. “If you want me to leave…I mean, I understand. I…”

“Oh, no Mark! I don’t want you to leave!” Ann reached out and grabbed my hands. “I’m so happy to see you!” She stood up. “Come…see the babies!”

She led me up the stairs and down a hall. I gasped at how many bedrooms this house had. From what Pa told me, Ann and Lakota would probably have a whole house full of children someday!

I smiled as we walked up to the cradles with the sleeping babies. “They sleep a lot?” I asked as I gently touched a finger of a baby covered in a blue blanket. Ann nodded. “I was never this little!”

Ann bent down beside me. “Oh, but you were, Mark. I remember the first time I laid eyes on you. You were just…three days old. My time for my own son was near and I remember as I held you in my arms thinking how tiny you were. You couldn’t weigh more than seven pounds!”

I smiled as I looked at the baby. He moved his lips as he slept. His plump little cheeks wiggled. “What’s his name?”

“Alex.”

I smiled. “Hello, Alex. You gonna be a rancher someday?”

I felt Ann staring at me. When I turned and looked at her, she suddenly smiled. I saw the sadness in her eyes. “It still hurts, huh?” Ann nodded. I turned back and looked at the baby. “Remembering Ma still hurts too. A few months ago, we had a small pox scare in North Fork.” I looked up at Ann. “My Pa was quarantined in the hotel – the doctor feared he was exposed. All those memories from those last days were there.” I looked up at her. “You were there.” Ann nodded. “Why?”

“Why what, Mark?” Ann asked suddenly.

“Why were you there caring for my mother when your own family was sick? I remember you holding me as I cried for my mother. I remembered you leaving…I didn’t remember you when I was 12, but I remember you now.”

Ann smiled as tears filled her eyes. She brushed the hair from my forehead. She sniffed as she spoke. “If my son had lived…I imagine he would be a lot like you, Mark.”

She never got a chance to explain. Suddenly, the other baby started crying. Then Alex woke up and cried. Ann hurried over to her. “Oh…there there, little Joy!” She lifted her out of the cradle. Then she turned to me and smiled. “Go sit down. You can hold her while I feed her brother.” Ann picked up Alex and hurried out of the room.

I suddenly found myself alone with a baby. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it, so I sat back and held her close to me as I softly rocked back and forth. I hummed softly, but she cried. Finally, I cleared my throat and sang softly to her:

The first time that I looked at her,
It wasn’t hard to see
She is something special
Especially for me.

The bluest eyes that I’ve ever seen
And pretty as can be
She is something special
Especially for me!

I’m lucky that I found her
On that special day
I want so much to tell her
The Things I cannot Say

If she would only look my way
I know that she would see
She is something special,
Especially for me!

I smiled as I rubbed the back of my fingertips against her soft cheek. Tears filled my eyes as I realized the special gift I was holding. I changed the words to the refrain of my song as I smiled through my tears.

I’m lucky that I found her
On this special day
I want so much to tell her
The Things I cannot Say…

My voice drifted off. She was awake but quiet as she stared into my face. Maybe she DID know what I was saying to her. “Well…” I looked up to see Pa standing in the doorway. He pushed himself off as he walked inside. “The last time I heard you sing that song, you had fallen head over hears for an older girl. This time it’s for a younger one.”

I smiled as I touched her little hand. “Oh Pa, isn’t she the most beautiful baby?” I shook my head. “I wish she was mine.”

“Mark!” Pa gasped in shock.

“I mean…my sister…or something! Pa, you reckon you’ll ever…” I raised my eyebrows as I smiled at him. I felt tears still on my cheeks.

Pa smiled as he brushed a hand on my cheek. “Only God knows, son. If it’s meant to be, he’ll send someone to me. If not…I’ll always have the memories of my little calf.”

“Oh Pa…” I rolled my eyes. “You haven’t called me that in a long time!”

Pa chuckled as he bent down beside the chair and smiled at the baby. He touched the baby’s soft head while he again brushed his hand against my cheek. “Lakota sure has his work cut out for him, Pa!” I declared.

“Oh? How so?” Pa asked as he raised an eyebrow.

I looked up at Pa and smiled. “There’s gonna be men lining up to court this pretty gal!”

We smiled at each other as Pa finished wiping my tears. Our eyes spoke volumes. It was a wonderful, indescribable father-son moment. I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d ever have a little baby girl to hold in my arms.

“Now, don’t marry her off just yet!” Lakota declared from the door. We lifted our heads and looked at him. He smiled as he walked over to us. “Have you ever babysat before, Mark?”

“Well, I…I took care of a little baby once when there was some trouble in North Fork.” I looked up at Pa as we smiled at the memory. “She was another heart-breaker! Her name was Fancy!”

“I wonder if you…” Lakota turned and looked at Pa. “You reckon he could watch the twins tomorrow night? Remember the dance I was telling you about?”

Pa smiled as he looked at me. “Might be a good idea at that. In a few years he’ll be marrying. This could be good practice for him.”

“Oh Pa!” I rolled my eyes.

“I’ll have to do some sweet talking to convince Ann to leave the babies long enough.”

“Well…the dance is at the neighboring ranch, right? If there’s a problem, we won’t be far away.”

I looked up. “You serious?”

“Yes, son…I am!” Pa declared. “You wouldn’t mind staying with these babies…would ya?” Pa raised his eyebrows to remind me I was not to be rude.

“Yes sir.” I looked down at Joy as she started to fuss. “What if they both start crying at the same time?”

“Well…” Pa and Lakota smiled at each other. “Sing to them!” Again, I rolled my eyes at my father.

***

The announcement was made at supper as we enjoyed Ann’s goose. It was one of Pa’s favorite meals, and she cooked it for him anytime they saw each other. Lakota cleared his throat and made the announcement. “What? You mean leave my babies? No!” Ann declared.

“Honey, we’ll be just down the road!” Lakota declared. “Mark’s 14 years old. He can take care of them. I promise.”

“Lakota, what if they get hungry?” Ann asked in a panicked voice.

“You can feed them before you go. They’ll be okay for a couple hours!” Lakota declared. He reached out and took her hand. “I want to dance with my wife.” He smiled at her. I watched all the fight leave her as she smiled into Lakota’s eyes. “Well?”

Ann nodded. “I’d love to dance with you. If you’re sure it’s alright.”

“It’s fine.”

“Mark, you sure you don’t mind?” Ann asked, half-hoping I would say I DID mind.

“Well…” I started. Suddenly, I felt a hard kick under the table. “I mean, of course I don’t mind!” I declared enthusiastically as I rubbed my leg.

Ann looked from me to Lakota, then to Pa. “I don’t know….” She shook her head.

“Well, I do!” Pa said. “Lakota, I happen to know Ann’s a wonderful dancer! I’ve seen her dance with…” Pa suddenly stopped. He lowered his head.

But Ann surprised me by laughing. “Alright, Lucas. I’ll go. If you’re sure it’s alright, Mark.”

“I’m…quite sure!” I said loudly. I sure didn’t want kicked in the shin again!

***
The next day was nice! I listened as Ann and Pa told me and Lakota story after story of the “good ol’ days.” Ann seemed to smile most of the time. There were a couple times when Lakota had to hug her tighter to him and wipe a tear from her cheek, but she held herself together really good…at least that’s how Pa put it later.

We heard the distant sound of a train. I shook my head as my heart beat hard. “Wow…we’ll hear that sound in North fFork very soon, Pa!” Pa wasn’t listening. He had his hat tipped way down on his head and was napping. “Hey Pa!”

Pa suddenly sat straight up in his chair. “Hm? What?” He pushed his hat back on his head.

“I said…we’ll be hearing that sound soon.”

“What sound, son?” Pa asked as he cocked his head to one side.

“Pa…how can you be laying there napping when we have sounds of train whistles going by?”

“Mark…” Pa sighed as he slouched back down in his chair. “It is very, very rare that we get a holiday. When one comes around, I like to spend some of that time catching up on my napping!”

“Yes sir…” I sighed.

Lakota chuckled as he put his arm around Ann and she laid her head on his shoulder. The babies lay sleeping in the carriages beside them. “But I can’t wait to see the first train riding into North Fork.”

“Hate to disappoint you, son…” Pa mumbled. “But you won’t get to see it…”

I suddenly sat up and gasped. “Why not?”

“Because…” Pa said as he pushed his hat back down over his eyes. “You’ll be on it.”

“Oh.” At first his words didn’t sink in. Suddenly, I realized what he was saying. “WHAT?” I cried. “I will?” I jumped up. My sudden excitement woke Pa up again. He jumped from his chair as the babies started crying.

“MARK!” All three adults yelled at the same time.

Pa shook his head at me and gave me one of his looks. “Son…” Pa sighed. “Go for a walk…or something!”

“When are we riding the train, Pa?”

“We leave on the train tomorrow, son. It leaves at noon.”

“What about our horses, Pa?”

“They’ll ride along in the stock car, son.”

“You mean we’ll be on the first train into North Fork?”

“Yep.”

“Did you plan this the whole time?”

“Nope.”

“How long have you been planning it?” I asked then.

Pa grinned. “Found out this morning when I was in town with Lakota.” Pa reached in his pockets and pulled out the tickets. I reached for them, but he pulled them out of my reach. “Uh…go take a walk, son. I’m going to be up late tonight and would like to snooze a little more before getting ready for the party.”

“Yes sir.” I knew I was being what Pa called a “pest.” Besides me, the only other things he called a pest was the bugs that ate the plants and the poisonous snakes that crawled into our yard every now and then. I don’t reckon I liked Pa referring to me like that, so I left before he had to use the word.

***

I whistled as Pa came out of the bedroom he was using while staying at the Taylor’s. “Boy, oh boy!” I declared as I walked around him and looked him up and down. “Slicked down hair…shiny boots..fancy shirt..and uh…” I sniffed the air. “Nice smelling cologne!” I shook my head at Pa as I stood in front and looked up at him. “What would Miss Lou say?”

Pa suddenly grabbed me by the front of the shirt and pulled me toward him. “Absolutely nothing, because you are going to keep your mouth shut about this…” Pa drew me even closer as he opened his eyes really wide and gave me a warning look. “If you want to see your 15th birthday.”

I gulped. “Is that a threat?” I asked.

Pa lifted his eyebrows. “What do you think?”

“I think you just don’t want to get a red-headed wolverine after ya!” I held up my hands in surrender. “Alright, Pa…not a word to Lou.” Pa let me go. “But I must admit that would be one fight I’d love to…”

Pa turned back. “Mark…”

I straightened up. “…I’d love to avoid. That’s what I was going to say! I don’t want to see you coming home all black and blue!”

“Lou would never hit me son….” Pa stopped at the head of the stairs and turned back to me. “…I don’t think…Least wise, I don’t plan on making her angry enough to ever see if she would!”

I laughed at the prospect. Ann came out just then. She had on a pink dress with yellow flowers running down the front. A big bow tied it back. In her hair, she had it laying down her back and a pink bow lifting it off her face. “WOW!” I declared. “You look beautiful!”

“Why, thank you, Mark!” Ann smiled then lifted her head to Pa.

I turned to look at Pa. He was speechless as he stared at Ann’s beauty. “Lucas?” Ann said softly as she continued smiling at him.

“Huh?” Pa blinked his eyes. “Ann, you will be the most beautiful woman there. In fact…” Pa stepped forward and held out his arm to her. “If your husband wouldn’t mind, I’d love to escort you into his waiting arms. He’s downstairs.”

Ann smiled. “I’d love it!”

Suddenly, one of the babies started crying. “Oh…oh my!” Ann turned.

Pa kept a firm hand on her arm. “Not tonight, Ann. Mark’s got it covered.” Pa lifted an eyebrow to me and nodded toward the nursery. “Right, son?”

“Oh sure.”

“Now Mark, I put a couple bottles in the cold box in the kitchen just in case they get hungry before I get back.” I nodded as they started down the stairs. The baby kept crying. Ann stopped halfway down the stairs and turned to look back up. “Oh…I can’t…”

“Yes…you can, Ann!” Pa turned and gave me a hard look. Through clinched teeth, he said, “Mark?”

“Oh! Right!” I hurried into the nursery and picked up Alex. I put him on my shoulder and started to walk with him, but I felt the bottom and realized I had a little problem. “Oh…right!” I sighed. I laid Alex down on the table Ann had for changing them. I took off the diaper and inspected the damage. “OHHHHHH!” I groaned. The diaper wasn’t just wet. “You are disgusting! Why, this ain’t no way to treat a guest!” I shook my head. “Why do adults get to have all the fun? Maybe it’s okay if Pa don’t remarry and give me a brother or sister. I’m afraid I’d be stuck changing diapers and entertaining while he keeps the wife busy!”

I shook my head as I began washing the baby up. “When I get married, my wife is gonna do all this! I’ll just tell her plain out – YOU clean them…this is your job…I’ll teach my boy how to fish and hunt, but as for the diaper changing…”

Suddenly, the other baby woke up crying. I groaned and turned around to look at her. “Now, don’t you start too!” I turned back to work on Alex. She cried even louder. I turned around. “Didn’t your folks teach ya to be patient and wait your turn?” I turned back and grabbed a diaper. I shook my head. “Ann made it so easy,” I mumbled. Joy screamed even louder. “Hey, can’t you give a guy a break here?”

Her response was a louder cry. Her face was turning red. “Alright, alright!” I started to leave the table, but turned, realizing I couldn’t leave Alex laying there by himself. He had no diaper on but his bottom was clean so I simply picked him up and held him against my chest while I hurried over to Joy. “Alright, I’m here. Don’t tell me you made a mess in your britches too!” I sighed. “You want me to sing you a song?” I balanced on one foot and started rocking the cradle back and forth. She screamed even louder. “Alright alright!” I rolled my eyes and bent over to console her.

Suddenly, I felt wetness on my shirt. It leaked inside and ran all the way down my front. I lifted Baby Alex away from me. “Ohhhhhh!” I cried. “Now look what you went and done!”

They both started screaming. I rolled my eyes and looked up toward the ceiling. “Why me, Lord? What did I ever do???”

***

When I woke up the next morning, the sun was shining in the window. I groaned and put my head under the pillow trying to go back to sleep. Suddenly, the door opened. “Mark, Ann’s got pancakes on the table. We expect you down in five minutes.” I groaned from under the pillow. “Did you hear me?” Pa asked in a stern voice.

I took the pillow off my head and looked up at Pa. He put a hand to his mouth and chuckled as he shut the door. I rolled my eyes. “Ohhhhh….” I groaned.

After washing up and dressing, I made my way down the stairs. As soon as I sat down, we joined hands and Lakota asked God to bless the food. Slowly, I started eating. I felt all the eyes on me but said nothing. Suddenly, Lakota started chuckling. Soon, Pa started chuckling with him. Finally, Ann’s laugh joined in. I sat down my fork and took a long drink of milk. “What is so funny?” I asked.

Pa put a fist to his mouth and cleared his throat. “Well son…” Pa choked down his laughter as the Taylors swallowed their own laughter down. “When we came home last night, we found three children all nestled together in your bed. You all looked so cute and we just couldn’t help ourselves!”

“I do hope they weren’t too much trouble, Mark,” Ann said.

“Too much trouble? Are you kidding me?” I shook my head. “Those two babies may seem like little angels, but believe you me, Ann, they are nothing but…OUCH!” I rubbed my shin. I looked at Pa as the Taylor’s laughed. “Pa, it’s getting to where I don’t want to sit near you when we’re having dinner outside our own house!” I declared.

“Then mind the manners your Ma wanted you to have, son.” Pa declared.

I picked up my fork and started eating again. “Well…” I just couldn’t help myself. “One thing’s for darn sure…when I get married and my wife has a baby, she’s doing all the feeding and diaper changing! I won’t have any part of that!”

“Uh huh,” Pa nodded. “I want to be there when you tell her that.” I shrugged. “Your luck son, you’ll marry some red head with a temper!” Pa cleared his throat. “You should know, Mark, that Ann had all the women at that party red with envy…She was a knockout!”

I watched as Pa’s eyes twinkled as he looked at her. I looked at Lakota who only smiled lovingly at his wife. I shook my head. He didn’t even seem jealous that Pa was looking at her that way. He must be quite a man!

Pa cleared his throat. “I must say that I was very, very honored to have the privilege to dance with her, Lakota.”

Lakota nodded. “You and the marshal were the only two I trusted enough to dance with my wife, Lucas. I was honored to do it.” I smiled as Pa’s eyes twinkled.

“I sure wish I could have been there!” I suddenly declared.

“Oh, I’m sure you do!” Pa laughed.

Later, while we were packing up our things, Pa came into my room. He stood in the doorway. “So, uh…you still requesting that brother or sister?” Pa asked.

I turned and glared at him. “I decided, Pa. If you were to have a baby…er…your wife were to have a baby I should say…I realize now that I’d be stuck with all the babysitting while you and your wife went to dances and uh…well, anyway I just don’t like the dirty diapers and that rebel cowboy…why, he didn’t even wait for me to get another diaper back on him!” I fastened the bag shut and turned to him. “After I got them both into new diapers, I just decided to lay down and sing them a song. I reckon I just sung myself to sleep…

Pa laughed. “Well…let that be a lesson to ya, son.” He took my bag from me. “Come on, let’s go meet the train!”

Suddenly, the frustrations from last night died. Excitement filled me as Pa handed me my jacket. He always made us dress up when we rode a train. He said it was proper when riding a train – you were expected to dress up like church. If you ask me, I thought it was a bunch of craziness…

“Oh boy!” I declared as I started racing down the stairs. Pa yelled at me, but I was already down by the time he realized what I was doing. I ran smack into Lakota. “Oh, I’m sorry…”

Lakota laughed and patted my shoulder, but I suddenly felt a firm hand on my arm as Pa led me out the door. We got up onto the buckboard. Our horses were tied behind as we all rode in to meet the train together. My heart raced! All the way there I talked excitedly about the train. Pa finally nudged me and told me silence was golden. Ann laughed softly as she held her babies tighter to her.

I stood on the platform and watched the train pull into the station. My heart raced as the train hissed and came to a stop. I watched the travelers leave the train and meet their loved ones. Some cried and clung to each other. Others shook hands. Yet others just walked away, having no one to meet them. I smiled as a child looked at me as his Pa held him and walked away. I laughed at the wonderment in his eyes. Suddenly, I wondered what it would be like to…“He wet my shirt…he wet my shirt…” I reminded myself.

The conductor stepped off the train and held up his hands. Finally, he was allowed to speak. “On behalf of the train company, I would like to welcome you on the first train going into North Fork.”

“Yahoo!” I yelled. I suddenly turned and looked around. Everyone was staring at me. I felt my face redden. Pa put a hand on my shoulder and gave a short laugh.

“Well…I’m happy to see one young man excited.” The conductor laughed as he stepped toward me. “Gerald P. Shriver at your service, my lad. Do you have a ticket to North Fork?”

I nodded and started to reach in my pocket. I rolled my eyes and sighed as I realized Pa still had them. Pa cleared his throat and handed the conductor our tickets. “Well…since you are so enthusiastic about this ride, you can be the first passenger on our fine train!”

“Really?” I gasped. “You really mean it?”

The conductor laughed and gave me the ticket. “And you keep this as a souvenir of your first train ride into North Fork!”

“Why thank ya!” I declared. “Thank ya very much!” I started to climb the step onto the train, but Pa grabbed me by the back of the neck and we turned. “Oh…” I took my hat off. I held out my hand. “Good –bye, Ann.”

She shook her head and wrapped her arms around me. “Good-bye, Mark.” She put her hands on my cheeks and looked into my eyes. I suddenly saw tears in her eyes. “Now that only a train separates us, I do hope we’ll be seeing you more, Mark.”

“I’ll come when I can, ma’am.”

Ann nodded. She turned toward my Pa. “Good-bye Lucas.” She grasped Pa’s hands as they looked into each others’ eyes.

Pa nodded. “Good-bye, Ann.”

“Oh, go ahead and kiss her!” Lakota declared.

Pa chuckled as he brushed a kiss on her cheek. “Thank you for everything. We’ll be back…really soon.” Pa held her hand a little longer. Finally, he forced his eyes off of her and turned. “Come on, son.”

We stepped onto the train and Pa led me to our seat. I scooted in to the window and watched Ann smiling up at us. I saw her cry and put her arms around Lakota. Lakota kissed the top of her head and led her away. “Pa?”

“Hm?”

“About Ann…why do you continue to look at her like this? I mean…she’s married and…”

Pa sighed. “Look, son…it’s really complicated…I…”

I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, I know..adult stuff! But how am I ever going to understand it as an adult myself if you don’t explain it to me now?”

“Alright, son.” He turned me to look into his eyes. “Your mother and Ann were childhood friends. You never saw one without the other. Even after they were married they remained very, very close. So when I see Ann, I see your mother. When I look at Ann, I look at your mother.” Pa ran a hand through my hair. “I told you your mother lives through you. Well, in a way, she lives through Ann as well. When I danced with Ann last night, I felt like…” Pa closed his eyes and leaned against the back of his seat. “Well…I felt like I was dancing with your mother.”

“Lakota’s not even jealous.”

“Lakota understands, son. He lost his own wife and daughters in an accident. He knows what I see in Ann and why and he accepts it. I’m not in love with Ann…or even in lust…I never was. When she came to North Fork it was your mother I was seeing – not Ann…I reckon I always will. Like I said, it’s complicated.”

The train started forward. I smiled at Pa. “I understand, Pa…a little.”

“Good.” Pa nodded and smiled at me. “Now, uh…let me take a nap while I do some remembering, okay?”

I stared out the window as the train made it’s way slowly down the tracks. I was surprised it didn’t go faster – only 30 mph instead of 50 or 60 like it could go. Pa said there were several stops the train had to make before heading into North Fork. Pa slept while I watched. Each time we got to another station, I poked Pa who was sleeping. Sometimes he mumbled something and sometimes he opened his eyes and mostly looked. I was disappointed he wasn’t the least bit interested in the train ride though!

Night fell and I watched the man light the lamps. A man came around selling food and milk. “Oh yeah, I’d love a…” I started.

“Ann fixed us sandwiches for our supper, son.” Arguing wouldn’t work. If Ann made it, I knew we’d eat it! I continued watching out the window. The lights were dimmed to allow people to go to sleep, but I kept looking out the window. Every now and then I saw a dim light as it shone from someone’s cabin or something, but for the most part it was pitch darkness. But it was the excitement!

As Pa slept, I could see people standing on the North Fork platform waving and playing as the train slowly rolled into the station. “Boy oh boy!” I mumbled.

I felt Pa push on my arm. I turned and looked at him. “Go to sleep, Mark,” he growled as he closed his eyes and went back to sleep.

The next morning, I woke up to find us stopped. Pa wasn’t in his seat. I jumped up and hurried down the aisle, but didn’t find Pa anywhere. From the window, I saw him standing out on the platform. “Pa!” I hurried out to him.

“Mark, we’re in Santa Fe, son. The train will leave for North Fork soon.” Pa turned back to Sam Buckhart.

“Oh, hello Mr. Buckhart!” I greeted him. “Tess…” I looked around. Where’s Mrs. Buckhart?”

“She’s…not feeling well.” Sam smiled. “Her time’s near and things are pretty rough for her right now.”

“Oh, I’m sorry!” I apologized.

“Tess is really helping out a lot! Things will be fine.” Mr. Buckhart put a hand to Tess’s back. “Well, shall we go? I’ll treat you two to the finest breakfast in town!”

We ate quickly. I, of course, ate a little too quickly for Pa’s liking. We enjoyed eating together, but the time to leave came too soon. As we settled back into our seats, I smiled at Tess as I waved goodbye. Then I turned to Pa. “This sure has been some adventure!” I declared excitedly.

The train hissed and we were soon moving down the tracks. “How long, Pa?”

Pa tipped his hat down over his eyes. “Awhile, son. How about getting more sleep.”

“No Way!” I practically shouted. “Now’s the time to watch! Pa, if you sleep, you’ll miss out on a lot!”

“Mark…” Pa mumbled. “Just don’t disturb me.

I turned back to the window and watched the trees whiz by. I sure wished Blue Boy could ride this fast! Wouldn’t that be something? I stared out the window. Once in a while I could see someone working in their yard. Once a child even stopped during his play to turn and watch the train fly by. I felt like a bird in the air! People would be there and then gone! I couldn’t believe that in only a few hours we would be in North Fork.

Suddenly, I heard an announcement that we would be approaching Marinette stage junction very soon. I stared out the window. The mounds of New Mexico and open range raced by. My heart beat faster as I realized we were almost to Marinette. I looked over at Pa. I couldn’t help shake my head as he just slept. How could he sleep at such an exciting time as this? I shook him gently. “Pa, Pa, Wake up! We’re almost to Marinette!”

“Huh?” Pa mumbled as he slowly opened his eyes.

“Marinette, the stage junction!” I shouted excitedly.

Pa sat up and looked at me. “Oh yeah…that’s fine!”

“Pa, here we are on the first train ever to go into North Fork, and you are sleeping the whole way!” I chided Pa.

“And you don’t want me to miss anything, huh?” Pa joked.

“I just figured there would be plenty of time for sleeping after we get there!” I declared.

I watched as we pulled into the final station before going into North Fork. “We’ll should be there in another hour…Micah and Lou will be right there to meet us!”

“I bet ya half the town will be out to meet the first train to North Fork!” Pa declared.

Suddenly, there were two men there. They were carrying a lot of luggage, and it didn’t take a genius to figure out that they were not from New Mexico!

“Excuse please! You occupy…both seats?”

Pa looked at them and quickly recovered from his own surprise. He quickly moved to sit beside me so they could occupy the seat across from us. He even helped them with their luggage. I must admit that as Pa sat back down and the train started moving out, I was curious about these two men. I looked at Pa, unsure what to do or say, but Pa just smiled at them. Well…maybe our adventure wasn’t over yet!

Pa introduced us and they introduced themselves. Okay…this is where the story gets really, really strange. One of the men spoke. “I am called…Soto…I present my master…Honorable Hikaru Yamanaka...Imperial Lord...fifth warrior of the Samurai...sixteenth cousin in the family of his Imperial Highness...Emperor Japan…”

I told you it would get strange!!! "Most pleased to make you acquaintance honorable...McCain," said Hikaru Yamanaka.

Pa nodded, then turned and looked at me. Oh boy! I better occupy myself with looking out the window before I feel a kick in my shin for opening my mouth again!

As we rode, there was an uncomfortable silence for awhile…at least as far as I was concerned. I had a million questions, but I wasn’t sure which would get me a kick or a dirty look, so I decided not to ask any for the moment. Finally, the Imperial…well, ya know…he noticed my Pa’s rifle sitting there and picked it up. Pa tried to stop him, warning him that he has it set up to automatically go off if the lever is cocked. He quickly put the pin in it then let the men look at it. “Most amazing weapon…” he commented. Soto agreed. “See how the ring is fashioned…for good speed…swiftness! I congratulate you, Mr. McCain.”

“Why’s that?” Pa asked.

“You have weapon only foolish man would face. I come to America to see…learn western people and take knowledge back to respective homeland. I see many people bent on peace. They are happy. Also see many people who carry gun here. See many take gun…shoot…kill…” They tried to pronounce Wichita. I couldn’t keep the smile off my face as they tried to pronounce it.

Again, I stayed quiet for reasons I’ve already discussed.

“Your gun nothing like sword of Samurai.”

Okay…now I had to ask…”What’s that?”

Soto opened a case he was holding. Pa and I both stared inside. I gasped in excitement! “Could ya take it out?” I begged.

“Please, little one…sword of Samurai most impressive weapon…but what is more…it’s use of sword…that is – to kill…nothing else.”

“Have you ever killed anyone?” I started. “Oh!”

Yep, I guess it was time to keep my mouth shut! I rubbed my side where Pa’s elbow had just landed.

I turned and watched out the window. I started bouncing in my seat like a three year old. “Pa! Pa! Here it comes! It’s coming!” I cried excitedly.

“Mark!” Pa warned. He turned and smiled at our seatmates. “He’s fourteen going on five today.” He nodded at them.

I smiled and waved at the kids who ran down the tracks. I stood to my feet and waved. I felt a firm, tight hand grab my arm and silently pull me back down on the seat. “Oh Pa, this is so exciting!” I declared. I started to stand again when I saw Freddie jumping up and down. I waved frantically.

Pa again grabbed my arm. “Don’t make me sit on you!” Pa ordered. “You wait until the train is stopped, boy!”

I smiled and waved fiercely. “Pa, there’s Lou and Micah! Hi Lou!” I yelled.

“Your son…very excited…very young…”

I heard that. “I’m fourteen!” I declared.

The Imerpial highness smiled. “Boys at fourteen in my country…they are almost grown…do not jump in seat and yell in excite.”

“Yeah…” Pa said. “I think he’ll still be like this when he’s my age!” Pa rolled his eyes at me. I guess I wasn’t born with the boring nature Pa seemed to be born with…

I was sure happy when the train stopped! I was ready to jump up and hurry out, but the Imperial Highness stopped us. He wanted to stay in North Fork and study us…I thought that was exciting!

“Come on, let’s go!” I said as the line moved slowly.

“Mark.” Pa turned and looked down at me. He held up a finger to me. “Now, I want you on your best behavior. You smile all you want, but act your age. It’s time you learned some self-control! After all, you ARE 14!”

So when we got off the train, I walked like a gentleman as Pa introduced the Japanese men to Micah and Lou. Lou was under the impression that we had gone just to sell cattle, and I recon he had told Micah as much because all Micah asked about was if we got our cattle sold. I just smiled, but kept my mouth shut! I thought that Pa’s words back in Albuquerque were a threat, but I wasn’t going to test them to find out! I DID want to live to see my 15th birthday after all!

Soto again started to introduce the Imperial Highness. But he interrupted Soto and told us to call him Hikaru. Okay, that was a lot easier! “They stopped off in our town to see all the goings on!” I explained in terms a cowboy would understand!

Pa decided to take them over to the hotel and get them settled. When we got close to the hotel, there were two cowboys standing outside. They tripped Soto. These were two of the cowboys that had been inside the hotel one day “insulting” Lou, as Pa puts it. So Pa didn’t like them too much anyhow! He was just looking for an excuse to ASSAULT them, I think. Pa demanded they pick up what Soto dropped, but Soto begged Pa not to make them. Pa angrily ordered me to go ahead of him into the hotel as he kept an eye on those men. I turned and looked at them. I wished Pa HAD punched them!

Lou sent the men up to their room. “So Lucas, how was Albuquerque?” Lou asked. “You didn’t dance with any pretty girls or anything, did ya?”

“Well, I…” Pa started. I suddenly busted into a fit of laughter.

Lou put her hands to her hips. “What is so funny, might I ask?” Lou asked.

“Oh…uh…uh…uh…” I swallowed. “I just was trying to picture Pa dancing with a pretty girl.” Boy, I must say I did recover myself from that pretty well!

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Lou asked as she took a step toward me and pressed her lips together.

“Oh…uh…uh…” I reckon I didn’t do as well as I thought I had.

“Ye saying I ain’t a pretty girl?”

“Well no ma’am!” I declared honestly. “You’re a lady, Miss Lou!”

Lou folded her arms. “Uh…Mark, I think maybe it’s best if you scoot on over to the train and claim our horses.” Pa handed me the claiming tickets. “Then take them to the livery and feed them.” He threw me a coin. “Then we’ll head on home.”

“Oh, gee Pa…I’m starving! Haven’t had anything to eat since breakfast this morning!” I argued.

“Oh.” Pa sighed. “If you can TRY to keep out of trouble long enough, we’ll stay and eat with Miss Lou.”

“Yes sir!” I hurried off to do Pa’s bidding. When I was done, I rushed to the back of the hotel. As the door opened, Lou gasped and moved away from Pa really fast. Pa wiped his mouth with his hand. I couldn’t keep the grin off my face. “Oh…guess I was interrupting something.”

“Mark, the restaurant is that way!” Pa yelled. I jumped at the sound in his voice and hurried out of the kitchen.

I took a seat in the dining room. As Pa and Lou came inside, I grinned. Pa sat down at the table and glared at me. “You can wipe that boyish grin off your face NOW, Mark!” Pa ordered.

“I’m…sorry, Pa…” I said as I cleared my throat.

“Yeah…I just bet you are.”

As we were eating, the two Japanese men walked in. The two drunken cowboys from earlier were there too. Pa quickly invited our guests to sit with us. They accepted humbly. The cowboys continued joking and laughing. Their attitude was bothering Pa. I knew that they were on the edge of suffering the wrath of Lucas McCain, and from recent experience, I knew that was not a good feeling!

Mr. Hikaru could tell Pa was upset. “He’s no consequence,” Mr. Hikaru assured Pa. “In Japan, your customs would be strange to our people as well.”

Soto agreed. “But, in Japan…we welcome opportunity to teach lesson.”

Pa offered Soto a seat, but he informed us that it wasn’t proper for servant to have food with his master.

Lou came into the dining room and asked if there was anything special that she could prepare for them. Mr. Hikaru asked what Lou would suggest. She recommended the mulligan stew. Soto explained to Mr. Hikaru what mulligan stew was. Mr. Hikaru found it funny that they came to America and was now going to eat food from Ireland. Mr. Hikaru ordered the stew and asked Lou to join us. She thanked him, but said she had some things to tend to. Mr. Hikaru offered ‘some’ of us a drink of rice wine, sake. He sent Soto for a bottle of the wine. I wondered what rice wine was. He explained that Sake to Japan is what the American west called red eye.

"Oh I don't guess I better be havin' any of that," I stammered.

"No...I don't guess you better!" Pa agreed sternly.

While we were waiting for Soto to return from getting the rice wine, Mr. Hikaru and I started up a conversation. I told Mr. Hikaru that they were reading in school about when America’s first council general went to Japan in 1856. “He said…your people sure seemed strange to him.”

Lucky for me, Pa chose not to kick me this time, but you should have seen the look Pa shot me! I figured there’d be consequences for that later…

“I could say same thing,” Hikaru agreed. “Western American people very different.”

“Yeah,” Mark nodded. “I guess they are.” I then questioned him on his and Soto’s relationship. Soto was his servant, but they acted more like really good friends when they were together.

He said Soto was a very good friend. He’d lay down his life for his friend. “When Soto very small, he came to me as a servant.” At the age of ten, he already knew his duties. He said Soto was a very good Japanese wrestler. I figured that wrestling was wrestling. “Not quite. Perhaps before departing, Soto could have opportunity to teach young one lines of duty.”

“Oh, that would be great!” I declared excitedly.

Woops! I was being a little too excited again! Pa rolled his eyes and looked at me. “Mark, don’t you think it’s been a…long day?” The tone of his voice held so many unspoken words. I knew I should get when the getting was good!

“I know, Pa and…I’ve got chores to do in the morning,” I stated. I excused myself and hurried away.

When I got home, I did my chores. It was nine o’clock and Pa was still not home. I went to bed.

The next morning, Pa walked into the kitchen while I was attempting to fix breakfast. Pa groaned a good morning and grabbed the coffee I had just poured for him. “What happened to you last night? You and Lou uh…”

“Don’t finish that thought, Mark!” Pa demanded.

“It was nothing bad, Pa…I just thought maybe you took her for a midnight ride.”

“No. Soto and the Mr. Hikaru were insulted by those cowboys. They sure taught them a lesson!” pa declared.

“Oh? What happened? They kill ‘em with the sword, Pa?”

“Nevermind, Mark!” Pa said.

“Yeah…” I took a bite of my eggs. “They gonna live?”

“They’ll live,” Pa nodded.

“They leaving North Fork?” I asked then.

“If they know what’s good for them, they will!” Pa declared.

“Oh. Well, how did they manage to…”

“With their hands, son.”

“With their hands? Really? That little guy and…” I stated.

“Mark,” Pa warned. He took a sip of his coffee. “Hurry so you can get to school.”

“School? Oh, but Pa, I-“

“You’ve been off for two weeks, Mark. It’s time for you to go back to school!” Pa declared.

“Yes sir.”

“And meet me at Micah’s office after school.”
***

I sat down in Micah’s office after school Monday afternoon. “Where’s Pa?” I asked.

“He’ll be here directly, Mark. He said when you got here to stay put.” I watched Micah pour himself a cup of coffee. “We didn’t get much of a chance to discuss your trip yesterday, Mark. So tell me…how was…uh…Albuquerque?” He grinned.

“Fine, Micah. Just fine. Why, you should have seen those twins! They are just so cute!” I smiled as I thought on it.

“How’s uh…Ann?” Micah asked again as he grinned.

“Ann’s fine. She and Pa sure did have a fine time together!” I declared. “I can only imagine how great they looked together dancing the other night. They sure were something to look at as they left the house. Its been a long time since Pa’s looked ‘that way’ at anyone. He explained to me about Ann and I think I understand.” I allowed my thought to die.

“I know what you mean. I remember when Ann came for a visit. I watched them and really thought they had something special going on there.”

“I sure was disappointed when Pa just let her go like that!” I declared. “Why, she made her own trout flies…she baked GREAT apple pie – the best apple pie in this world…and she cooked a special goose…she made Pa so happy.”

“Did she cook your Pa that goose in Albuquerque?” Micah asked then as the grin spread.

I nodded. “You bet!” I chuckled. “You know, ever since he got that letter from Ann, I noticed the smile on his face. Then when he announced we were going all the way to Albuquerque to sell our cattle, I knew what was going on! He can’t fool me, Micah…He was really going there to see her.”

“Oh, I figured that was true. I had heard Ann had settled down there.”

I heard a noise at the door. Micah and I looked at each other. “Ouch!” I heard Pa yell.

I ran to the door. Lou was standing there with her hands on her hips. Her face was beet red and her lips pressed tightly together. “What’d you hit me for?” Pa demanded.

“Lucas McCain, I…I…” Lou paused as she took a deep breath. “You’re… You’re… I don’t want to talk to you…NOW!”

I couldn’t help but smile as I shook my head. I watched as Pa followed Lou across the street asking her to tell him what was wrong. “Boy oh boy!” I declared.

Micah shook his head. “I think our little talk has gotten your Pa into some HOT water with the red head!” Micah declared.

I wanted to hear that conversation…no! I just HAD to hear that conversation! Suddenly, the little boy in me took over again as I raced across the street. “Oh, I have to uh…go…uh run an errand for Pa!” I shouted as I hurried away. I made my way to the back of the hotel and snuck up to the back door. I put my ear to the door and listened.

Lou was sure yelling alright! “…and I demand to know what your intentions were in going to Albuquerque instead of Santa Fe!”

“What do you mean what were my intentions?” Pa yelled back. “My intentions, Miss Lou Mallory, were to sell my cattle!”

“Oh really?” I could just see her crossing her arms and pressing her lips together as she gave Pa her famous look! “Then why didn’t you go to Santa Fe?”

“Uh…why?” Pa asked.

“Yes…why did you go so far out of your way to sell five head of cattle?” There was silence. “Well?”

Pa sighed. “Okay, I wanted to visit an old friend.”

“An ‘old’ friend, huh? How ‘old’ is this friend?” Lou asked.

“Lou, look…” Pa started.

“How old?”

“Has my boy been talking when he shouldn’t again? I’ll have to speak to him about his manners!”

“No, Lucas. He was talking to Micah in his office.”

“Oh.” I could just see Pa crossing his arms and cocking his head to one side. He was probably looking Lou up and down. I could tell he really liked her when she was angry. “So I’ll have to talk to both of them about their manners! They shouldn’t discuss such things in the presence of a lady as fine as you!”

“Oh, don’t bother with the sweet talk! I’m not a bee and you aren’t a pot of honey!” Lou ordered.

I shot a hand to my mouth to stifle my laughter. Nope, Pa definitely wasn’t honey – but Lou may very well be a great big bumble bee just about to sting!

Pa must have been giving her some look. I heard Lou gasp. “Alright, Lucas. I was outside the office listening!”

Pa gasped in mock surprise. “Lou Mallory, I am shocked that you would stoop so low!”

“Well, I…” Boy, she was mad now! “Cowboy! You’re not turning this around! I want to know exactly who this Ann is!”

“Are you…jealous?” I bet his eyebrow popped up as he looked at her with a boyish grin on his face. Lou didn’t say anything that I heard. “Well…” Pa declared. “…you ARE jealous! I’m flattered!”

“Lucas, I’ll ask you one more time before I wipe that smirk off your face…WHO is this Ann?”

“For your information, my red-headed nosey one…Ann Dodd-Taylor was my wife’s best friend. She lost her husband and son during the epidemic back in Oklahoma. She moved to Albuquerque after she inherited her uncle’s ranch. ”

“And so you are…courting her?” I cringed. I could tell it hurt Lou to ask that question.

“The only one I am trying to court at the moment, Lou…is you! You are all I can handle and…” suddenly Pa stopped. I put a hand to my mouth as I realized my foot had shuffled on the floor. “…I believe you are setting a bad example for my son!”

Suddenly, the door opened and I fell in onto the floor. Pa crossed his arms as he looked down at me. “What do you think you’re doing, young man?” Pa asked in a very angry tone.

“Being a boy,” I answered with question in my voice.

“Mark…” Pa closed his eyes and sighed. “Would you please tell Lou about Ann?”

I was still on the floor. I felt safer that way…actually my ear felt…”Ouch…ouch…ouch!” I cried as Pa grabbed me by the ear and lifted me to my feet.

“NOW…”

“Will it get me out of punishment?” I asked.

“No.”

“Are you going to punish Lou?” I asked with a mischievous grin.

Pa turned and looked at her. Lou again had her hands on her hips as she raised her eyebrows and stared into Pa’s eyes. Pa sighed. “Not much I can do to her, son. I can’t very well pull her by the ear or bend her over my knee!” I grinned at the image. Pa pointed at me. “Don’t say a word!”

I stayed silent.

“Well?” Pa raised an eyebrow and glared at me.

“You told me not to say a word!” I argued.

“Mark McCain! If you don’t explain to Lou, I’m going to add more punishment!”

“Uh…” I gulped. “Ann Dodd was a friend of my Ma’s.”

“As you know, Mark, she knows that already!” Pa reminded me.

“Oh yeah. She lives on a ranch in Albuquerque.”

“Mark!” Pa warned me. Lou lifted her eyebrows even higher as she continued to glare at Pa.

I grinned. “She uh…sent Pa a letter a couple weeks ago.”

“Warren…” Pa warned through clinched teeth.

I tipped my hat way back on my head and winked at Lou. “They danced together while we were there.”

“McCain!” Pa’s voice boomed.

“Okay, Pa! Okay!” I cleared my throat. “We went there because in her letter, she told us about twins she had just given birth to. She’s been married for two years.”

“Married?” Lou raised an eyebrow.

“Happily married,” Pa assured her. “Very happily married.”

“I see.”

Lou turned from us. Pa slowly walked up behind her. He stood very close to her as he bent over and whispered something in her ear. Lou turned and I watched as his lips touched her cheek. I’m not sure if this movement was on accident or on purpose, but all the same, it sure looked like they both enjoyed it! Pa suddenly turned back toward me. “Don’t you have someplace to go, Mark?”

“Uh…I don’t…” Pa lifted his eyebrows and started toward me. “Oh yes! I believe I have some extra chores waiting for me at home!”

“And later you and I will talk…again!” Pa promised me.

“By the way!” Lou said as I started out the door. “What’s Ann…what’s-her-names’s apple pie got that mine ain’t?”

I grinned as Pa groaned. “You were close, Pa…so very, very close!” I declared. Then I hurried out the door. I heard something hit the door as it closed. I opened it back up as I saw Pa stretch out his arms toward Lou. I looked down at the floor and noticed the spatula “Like I said…you were SO close!”

“Get out of here!” Pa demanded with a point of his finger.

I laughed. Boy, I wish I could be a fly on the wall so I could check and see how Pa “made it up” to Lou. After all, even though Lou transgressed, I had a feeling Pa would be the one having to “make it up” to her; and a 14 year old boy could only imagine just how he managed to do that!

***

It was late when I heard Pa ride up on his horse outside. I had been waiting up for him. I must admit that I was worried I’d have to ride back into town and report a missing person to Micah, then inform him that Lou had probably hidden the body someplace, and we’d never find it!

As Pa walked into the house, I heard him whistling. I grinned to myself. I reckon they had made up after all. I quickly went to sleep after that, and while I slept I had visions of extra chores and angry words dancing in my head.

The next morning, I woke to find Pa still asleep. I quickly dressed and hurried to start on the morning chores. I know it had never worked before, but there was always that chance…as good of a mood Pa was in last night that maybe…just maybe…I would get off from my transgressions this morning. I suppose there are some lessons a boy never learns because in my head, I was thinking that the punishment would be well worth hearing that conversation.

By the time I got back inside, Pa was in the kitchen cooking breakfast. He had his shirt on but not buttoned or tucked in as he drank his coffee while cooking. I gathered my books together. “Breakfast all ready? I’m gonna be late for school if I don’t hustle!” I declared.

“Sit down, Mark. You will be late for school this morning,” Pa said. “Don’t you worry…I’ll write a note.”

I sat down at the table. Pa turned from the stove. My eyes grew wide as I stared at him. I couldn’t BELIVE what I was seeing! Slowly I stood up and walked over to him. “Pa, your eye sure is smartin’!” I declared. I folded my arms and shook my head as a grin again spread across my face. “Boy, I knew Lou was upset, but…”

“Oh Mark, why must things always be such a joke to you?” Pa slammed the bowl of eggs down on the table. “I didn’t get this from Lou!”

“Oh. Well, I just figured with how angry she was at you and all…”

“Lou is not angry with me…” Pa turned from me. “…anymore.” I heard the smile in his voice.

While his back was turned, I reached for a piece of bacon. “Ouch!” I cried as Pa turned and smacked my hand. “I guess Pa’s really DO have eyes in the back of their heads!”

“No. But after living with you for 14 years, I know what to expect…most of the time…”

Pa sat down at the table and bowed his head. After a quick blessing, we started eating. “So uh…who DID give you that black eye?” I asked.

“Oh, there was a brawl over at the saloon. I had to help Micah throw a couple cowboys in jail. One punched me as I tried to apprehend him.”

“Don’t tell me it was the two cowboys that insulted Miss Lou the other day!” I started.

“It was.” Pa looked up at me. “They also insulted Soto and Mr. Hikaru, son.”

“Oh…I know!”

“Yeah. I know you do, son.” Pa sighed. “The truth is, they started saying some pretty insulting things about Lou after he punched me. I didn’t like what he was saying either…”

“Boy oh boy…I’d love to see what that guy looks like!” I mumbled.

“Mark!”

“I’m sorry, Pa. Guess I’m in an ornery mood this morning.”

“Yeah…I noticed!” Pa agreed.

We ate in silence for a bit. I couldn’t help asking the question. “So uh…this brawl…was it before – or after you and Lou made up?”

“Well…in the middle of…” Pa suddenly stopped and glared at me. “That, my BOY is none of your business!”

I laughed devilishly as we ate in silence. As I popped the last bite of food in my mouth, I stood up. “Well, I best get to school, Pa. I’ll see you…”

“Not so fast, Mark!” Pa stood up and crossed his arms. “We still have a little matter to discuss…a matter of some punishment you have coming.”

“Oh, but Pa!” I argued. Pa lifted his eyebrows. I must have been in a really ornery mood this morning because what I said next was DEFINITELY not my proudest moment! “Lou did it first!”

“Mm hm…” Pa nodded. “I’ve talked to Lou about her bad manners, and now I’m going to talk to you, boy!”

I suddenly shot a hand to my mouth and laughed. Pa put his hands on his hips and gave me a really mean look. “Alright, just to get any image out of that adolescent brain of yours, yes…I DID spend some time making up to Lou and yes…I did do it in an ADULT way, the way a man would appease the woman he is courting. BUT, let me tell you one thing and let me make it clear!” Pa pointed a finger at me. “My intentions toward Lou were completely honorable! She may not act it all the time, but Lou is still a lady, and all ladies must be respected and treated as such! And if you are waiting for me to tell you exactly what honorable ways I used to get back into Lou Mallory’s good graces, I’m afraid, my boy, that you will have to keep wondering because there is no power on earth that will get me to reveal the secrets of how Lucas McCain ‘makes up’ with a lady! But if your thoughts are normal thoughts of a 14 year old, I dare say my methods were nowhere as glamorous and exciting as you are picturing in that head of yours!”

“Uh…yes sir, Pa…”

Pa rolled his eyes as he scratched his nose. “Now, your only punishable transgression is eaves dropping on what was a very “private” conversation. I’ve talked to Micah about the ‘talk’ you two had in his office, and I must say that ‘talk’ in itself was inappropriate! Mark, Ann Dodd…er…Taylor…is a wonderful lady and I will always hold her high in respect. My intentions and thoughts – spoken and unspoken – were completely honorable. I see Ann as a good friend and the fact that you and Micah were having your hormone-driven thoughts in his office is no fault of mine. The only thing that ‘talk’ did was to get me into a lot of trouble…but then, I can’t punish you for that although at the moment I sure wish I could!”

Pa folded his arms and began pacing. “But what I can punish you for is eaves-dropping. Yes, Mark, Lou did it and I’ve spoken to her harshly about her actions…” Pa rolled his eyes at me. I suppose I must have made some look on my face that told him what I was thinking…”In the middle of our making up, Mark!” Pa sighed. “And she finally agreed that what she did was also punishable. So since she wishes to set a good example for you, she has agreed to join you in whatever punishment I decide on.”

My eyes grew wide! I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! Lou was actually allowing my Pa to ‘punish’ her? I couldn’t believe this! What sort of punishment could Pa dish out that would be appropriate and life-learning for the both of us?

***

Lou put her hands on her hips. “You want me to do what?????”

“I want you and Mark to…” Pa pointed to the dirty, muddy pig pen. “…clean the pig pen!”

It was Tuesday afternoon. I had stopped in town after school to let Lou know Pa would be waiting for us at the ranch to get our punishment over with. Lou was a good sport about it until we got to the ranch and saw the big grin on Pa’s face. That’s when we both realized we were going to be sorry!

“Oh Pa!”I declared. “I mean, I know that we deserve punishing, but it rained last night! That pen is nice and muddy!”

Pa grinned. “I know.”

“Lucas McCain, if you think I’m going to get in there with these clothes on you…” Lou started.

“Oh, don’t ya worry!” Pa said as his grin turned into a deep smile. “I think I can find some…uh…pants for you to wear.”

“PANTS?”

“Oh, and Mark…you can stop looking at me like that.” Pa folded his arms and looked at me. “Don’t you think I know what you’ve been thinking?”

“What have I been thinking?” I asked as I narrowed my eyes.

“That this time…the punishment would be worth it.” Pa raised his eyebrows.

“Lucas McCain, I refuse to…”

“Uh uh uh, Lou.” Pa wagged a finger at his pretty red-headed wolverine. “Remember… you agreed to go along with whatever punishment I deemed appropriate.”

“That was before I thought…” Pa cleared his throat. “Uh Mark, would you go get those old pants from the trunk?” I reckon Pa didn’t think my hearing was as good as his, because as I started into the house, I heard Pa say in a low voice. “Don’t you worry, Lou. I’ll make it up to you tonight….”

Pa made me change into some old clothes. Lou was waiting by the pig pen when I got out there. I put a hand to my mouth and burst out laughing when I saw her in pants. Lou narrowed her eyes and put her hands on her hips. “Lucas, do something!” Lou yelled over my loud laughter.

“Mark!”

“I…I…I’m s-sorry, Pa…It’s just that…that…th…” I burst into laughter again. Tears were rolling down my face. “Oh Pa…she looks so…so…so…”

“Lucas!” Lou yelled even louder.

“Mark!” Pa yelled. I tried to control my laughter. I grabbed my middle as another fit started. Suddenly, Pa roughly grabbed my ear and pulled my head up.

I was no longer laughing. Pa let go and brushed his hands off. “Alright, come on!” Pa motioned toward the gate. “Let’s go!”

“Couldn’t we do this on another day, Pa?” I begged. “Like…when there’s not so much mud?”

“NO!” Pa answered.

“Oh, he’s right, Lucas.” Boy, Lou’s voice sure could turn from lemon to chocolate really fast! “You don’t want Mark to get mud all over him! He does have school tomorrow and…”

“Get…in the pen!” Pa ordered as he pointed inside. “Or I’ll throw you in there!”

We both groaned and started forward. As we started working, Pa shook his head. “Now, those who eavesdrop on personal conversations are just hankering to dig up the mire and muck of a person’s life. Just like these pigs like to wallow in this mud, so a boy and uh…woman…likes to wallow in things that don’t concern them.”

Pa turned and walked away. We worked together for quite awhile. As Lou and I started to dump water from the trough, a young pig ran between her legs. “OH!” Lou shouted. Suddenly, she landed face-down into the mud.

I hurried over to her as she sat up. She was completely covered in mud! I broke out into hysterical laughter at that point. I couldn’t even speak, nor could I tell what expression she held on her face. That mud was in her mouth and eyes and everywhere! I watched as she began wiping the mud from her face, but all she really did was smear mud with mud!

“What’s wrong, Mark? I…” Pa stopped as he saw what was wrong. “Oh…” I looked at Pa’s face as he shot a hand to his mouth. He turned and hurried away. I laughed the whole time. I just couldn’t help myself! Pa hurried back with a towel and held it out to me. “Well, stop cackling and help her!” Pa demanded.

I began wiping the mud from her mouth and eyes. She sputtered as we saw actual skin again. “Mark McCain, wait until I get my hands on you! I’m gonna turn you over my knee and…”

Suddenly, I felt a great bit glob of mud hit me smack in the face. I wiped the mud from my eyes just in time to see another big glob of mud hit me. I bolted forward to stop Lou from doing anymore, but the mud was slick and I suddenly fell face down in the mud. I lifted myself up and sputtered. “Oh!” I cried as I began shaking the mud off.

Pa burst out into uncontrollable laughter then as we both started slinging mud at each other. Suddenly, we got fed up with Pa’s laughter. Lou and I looked at each other. Then we picked up a great big bunch of mud and slung it at Pa. We burst into laughter at the look on his face! Oh, if only I could capture that look on a piece of paper…

Finally, Pa stood up and nodded his head. “I think you have both learned a lesson. You can come out now.” He wiped the mud from his face – which was really nothing compared to what we had. As we came outside the gate, Pa went around the side of the house.

Suddenly, Pa reappeared. He had a full bucket of water. I saw it, but Lou didn’t. Pa dumped that whole bucket of water over Lou’s head. Lou gasped in horror as I again burst out laughing. “Lucas McCain!”

She turned and began chasing Pa around the yard. Pa laughed as he ran in circles around the front yard. I stood by the front of the barn and watched as Lou continued yelling at Pa. Pa didn’t know it, but she was gaining on him.

I gasped in surprise as she fell to the ground. Pa stopped and turned as Lou lay on the ground. He hurried over to her to help her up. But when he was stooping down beside her, Lou suddenly reached out and grabbed Pa’s ankle and tripped him. Then she picked up a bucket, dipped it in the water trough that she had conveniently fallen beside, and dumped the whole bucket of water over him.

I sure was enjoying this show! I watched as Lou dipped the bucked into the water trough again and dumped the second bucket of water onto Pa. They were both on the ground laughing now. I watched Pa as he sat up and helped Lou into a sitting position. I don’t think they were even aware that I was still here. “Well, your face is clean anyhow,” Pa declared.

Lou grabbed her wet hair and rung it out. She twisted it and put it over her shoulder as Pa reached out and brushed a hand against her cheek. “No more eaves dropping?” Pa said softly. Lou smiled and nodded as she stared into Pa’s eyes. “Promise?”

I took a step forward. But what happened next made me pretty sure they didn’t know I was there. Because as Pa brushed her cheek with his fingertips, he started lowering his face down to hers. I knew what was about to happen, and I couldn’t stop it in time!

He KISSED HER! And I’m not talking about a little kiss…I’m talking about a kiss that lasts a long time. I hurried forward and dipped the bucket in the trough. Then I went and dumped it over the unsuspecting love birds. They broke the kiss in shock and looked up at me.

Pa slowly stood up and started toward me. I threw the bucket down and started running myself, but Pa ran one way and Lou the other. They tacked me at the same time. Lou held me down while Pa dipped bucket after bucket of water on me.

Finally, he stopped. I sat on the ground as Pa walked over to Lou. “I’ll fix the tub in the barn for you, Lou. Mark, you head on down to the creek and start washing!” I watched in astonishment as Pa put his arm around Lou’s shoulders and led her into the barn. I walked to get a closer look and again saw Pa turn and pull Lou toward him. He wrapped his arms around her as they kissed again. This time the kiss was deeper and more passionate.

My eyes grew big. I watched as the barn door closed.

***

“Mark! Mark!” I heard Pa say my name.

“Huh? What?” I blinked my eyes and looked at Lou. There she was in those pants. She didn’t have a spot of mud on her. “Did you hear a word I was saying, son?”

“About what, Pa?” I asked.

“Mark, your father was just lecturing us on the importance of not eavesdropping.”

“Yes.” I nodded my head. “You said that people who eavesdrop are like pigs who wallow in mud…”

“I said a lot more than that, son!” Pa said. “Where did you go during my lecture.”

I grinned as I looked at Lou. “Oh…nowhere, Pa. But I think cleaning the pig pen is going to turn out to be a good idea after all!”

*A special thanks goes out to Michelle Palmer for her insight on how Mark had seen these episodes.

Hostage to Fortune

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