“You will need to have your science diagrams to me tomorrow!” Mr. Griswald announced as we began gathering up our books.
I ran outside. Tomorrow was Friday. It had been a long, hard week and I could hardly wait for the week-end when I could spend two whole days on the ranch with my Pa. I’m sure he was looking forward to it too.
I jumped on my horse and raced into town. After the kidnapping, Pa got pretty anxious anytime I left his sight. Not wanting to worry him too much, I decided it best to hurry into town to meet him as quickly as possible. But as I rode down Main Street, I didn’t see him. “Mark!” I heard Micah’s voice. Stopping, I turned to see Micah running across the street. Fear immediately grabbed me. I was afraid something had happened. “Relax boy, your Pa’s at home.”
I was surprised to hear that. “Something wrong?” I asked.
“No, son. I think he’s going to be okay.” I saw the gleam in Micah’s eyes and knew he had something to do with that. I dug my heels into Blue Boy’s flank and raced for home.
I could smell food cooking from way out here. I sniffed the air as a grin spread across my face. Apple pie! Pa hardly ever made apple pie! I raced inside. “Well, hello son.” Pa smiled at me as he worked on peeling potatoes. “How was school?”
“Fine,” I answered. “I was surprised to hear you were at home.”
Pa didn’t even acknowledge that he heard me. He turned back to the sink and kept peeling the potatoes. “ What’s for supper?”
“Fried chicken.” Pa turned back to me. “I killed the chicken. You reckon you can clean it and start cutting it?”
“You want I should do my chores first?” I asked. I was so happy to see Pa back to normal! He no longer seemed anxious.
“You can do your chores after you clean and cut up that chicken, boy!” Pa declared. “If you want fried chicken tonight, you best get to it.”
I smiled in spite of the fact that Pa was yelling at me. It was so nice to hear the warning in his voice. It had been a really rough week, after all. I turned to go outside as I smiled, but I suddenly turned back. “Oh…Yes sir.”
“Got homework?” Pa asked.
“Oh uh…yes sir, Pa. I sure do. Uh…I have to finish my science diagram.”
Pa nodded. “Then you best get to the chicken so you can do your chores and then your homework, boy.”
It was a couple hours later that we were sitting down to a right fine supper! Pa only fixed this for special occasions, so I knew something was up. Pa took my hand and said grace then I started in on eating. It was quiet for awhile then Pa cleared his throat. “I’ll…uh…be in to talk to Mr. Griswald tomorrow.”
I suddenly looked up at Pa. Swallowing the chicken I had in my mouth, I asked, “What for?”
“Oh well…we’re taking a little trip and I want you to take your school work you’ll miss,” Pa answered without looking up.
The fact that he couldn’t look at me told me this wasn’t just an ordinary trip. “Pa?” Pa looked up at me. “Where are we going?”
“Hunting for about a week. We have to get our winter meat.” Pa took his eyes off me and looked back down at his plate.
“Oh. I like to go hunting with you, Pa.” I smiled at the prospect.
“Well…” Pa sat back in his chair and wiped his mouth. “It ain’t just a hunting trip, son.”
“What then?” I asked.
“You and I are going away and we aren’t coming back until we’re better.”
Pa nodded. “You are going to face your fear of the dark while I learn to let go. It’s going to happen. This week.”
Suddenly, it dawned on me that we’d be in the darkness. I gasped and looked up at Pa. Pa held up his hand to stop me from saying anything. “It’ for our own good, son.”
“Pa, I can’t!” I protested then. “I can’t!”
“Hey, hey, hey…” Pa laid his hand on top of mine and looked me in the eye. “You can, son. I know you can.”
I stood up then and went to the window. “I won’t go!” I turned and glared at him. “You hear me? I won’t go!”
“You will go, Mark,” Pa stated harshly. “As long as you live under my roof, you will obey my orders.”
“Pa, you told me we’d get through this together – you’d be patient with me.”
Pa stood up then and walked to the window. He laid a hand on my shoulder. “Mark, you aren’t getting any better. There’s too many…ways for you to avoid facing the reality.”
“What reality?” I asked.
Pa turned and looked at me. “That maybe it’s not just the darkness you’re running from.” I didn’t say anything. I walked over to the table and started clearing the dishes.
We left early Saturday morning. I continued to argue with Pa, but he insisted he was doing “this” for my own good. He told me this trip was as much for him as it was for me. I grumbled, but Pa didn’t want to hear it. “Not another word, son,” Pa suddenly stated in a stern voice.
We found the camping spot by noon that day. After setting up camp, Pa took out the sandwiches for us to eat before our first hunting expedition. As I cleaned up from lunch, I watched Pa load his rifle. He looked nervous for some reason. “As soon as I get these done, I’ll be ready to go, Pa.”
Pa looked up at me. “No son. You’re staying here.” I hurried over to Pa and started to protest. Pa held up his hand. “This is my…healing time. Yours will start tonight.”
“Can I go fishing while you’re gone?” I asked. “There’s a creek just below us and-“ I started.
But Pa shook his head. “Be easy on your old man, huh? I want you to stay here in camp. Don’t leave for any reason. If you see someone…” Pa stopped and sighed. He took his hat off and ran a finger through his hair. Putting his hat pushed back on his head to reveal some of his hair, he said, “Well, nobody said this was going to be easy.”
Pa didn’t know it, but for some reason, this wasn’t easy for me either! I promised him I’d stay in camp then watched him leave. He wouldn’t be gone too long I figured.
Sure enough, Pa was back in thirty minutes with a rabbit. He announced we could fix it for supper tonight. “Tomorrow, we’ll read the Good Book like we always do. Then I plan on hunting…all afternoon.”
“You were gone 30 minutes today and nothing happened to me, Pa. You see? I’m okay.” Pa nodded but said nothing.
I was okay after that until the sun started going down. At least we had the fire though. As long as we had it, I’d be okay. I became a bit nervous as it became dark, but Pa stayed close beside me. After supper, we sat by the fire and talked about our past camping trips. I always enjoyed remembering back.
Then it was time for me to go to bed. Pa stood up and straightened out his bedroll. Then he pointed quite a distance away for me. “We’ll leave the fire tonight. But tomorrow night, they’ll be no fire.” I stared at him. “It’s for your own good. Now go to bed.”
I saw the look of sorrow that covered Pa’s face. Through the light of the fire, I could see the moisture shining in his eyes. I just stood there staring at him. “Mark?” Pa’s voice warned. But it wasn’t as sternly as It could be. I remembered when I was just a little kid and I would cry to get something I wanted. I always knew how hard it was for Pa to stay firm with me, yet crying got me nothing but into a lot of trouble. I turned from him and slowly walked to my bedroll. It was dark there because he had put me a ways from the fire.
The darkness was all around me. But worse than that, Pa wasn’t there. I needed him to protect me and he wasn’t there. I closed my eyes and tried to shut out the darkness, but it still loomed there. It was everywhere and my Pa wasn’t there.
I was so scared, but I finally fell in a restless sleep. The nightmares came that night worse than ever. I dreamed I was alone…alone in the darkness.
And Pa wasn’t there.
Pa came to me during my nightmares, but he didn’t hold me like before. He woke me up and sat there with me, but he didn’t draw me into his arms and protect me anymore. I didn’t understand what was going on.
The next day, Pa did as he said he would. He left me all afternoon and hunted. I stayed in camp, working on my studies. When he came back, I could tell things had been hard on him, yet as he looked at me, I saw relief in his eyes as he smiled.
“Is it getting easier for you, Pa?” I asked.
“Yes son,” he answered. “You’ll be okay. We’ll both be okay.
As the sun went down that night, things got edgy again though. I was suddenly in the darkness once again. It seemed to stay all around me. When it was time for bed, Pa put out the fire as I sat on my bedroll. I heard him walk to the horses, heard him give each one of them a good pat as he checked them for the night. I stared at the ambers as they smoldered to nothing. I was suddenly alone…all alone…in the darkness. Fear gripped me. “Pa! Pa!” I screamed loudly as my heart started racing. “Help me, Pa! Help me!”
Pa hurried over to me. He grabbed me. “Mark!”
Suddenly, I got angry. “Where were you? You were supposed to be there! I called and I called, but you didn’t come! You didn’t come that first night or that second night…I needed you and you weren’t there!” I lashed out at him. I balled my fists and started pounding on his chest, like I did that door. I began crying uncontrollably. “You weren’t there! You weren’t…”
Pa held me away at arms length and gave me a shake. I could see the shadow on his face, but I wasn’t really looking. “You said you’d always be there for me, but you weren’t! You…You…” My voice died.
Pa bent down in front of me. He touched my face then, but he said nothing. He ran his hand across my cheek. “I was there, son. I was inside you, don’t you know that? You mother was there…God was there…and I was there…”
I listened to Pa’s broken voice speak to me in the dark. I lifted my face to look at his. The moonlight cast shadows on his face and I saw that it was wet with tears. “I was so scared…I didn’t…didn’t know what to do, Pa. The darkness was so deep all around me. I felt Ma’s arms around me that last night, but I couldn’t feel you. I didn’t…”
“Didn’t you know that I would be out looking for you? Huh?” Pa’s voice held a touch of hurt.
“But you weren’t there when I needed you!” I cried again.
He cried out the next words in an angry relief, to know that we were getting to the heart of the problem. “Mark, don’t you know, son, that there is no valley too deep…no mountain to high…no dark place on this earth so dark that…that I won’t find you? It doesn’t matter if you are three or eighty-three, if you need me, I’ll be there. I’ll be right there! It may not be right away, but I will be there.”
It was then that I realized what the problem was. I was growing up and I was scared of losing something. I was afraid of losing this bond I had with my father. That was the heart of the matter. It kept me afraid at night because I knew he’d be there for me, to protect me. Everything made sense now. I turned from him and looked towards the woods. The moonlight shone beautifully on the top of the trees. The stars twinkled in the sky. God was all around us. I knew Pa was right beside me, yet, I felt something different this time. This time, I felt the warmth of him in my soul.
“I’m not scared anymore, Pa,” I whispered. “It’s…it’s beautiful.”
No other words were needed.. He laid me down and tucked the cover of my bedroll around me. “Mark, you’ll never get too grown up for my protection. A father will always protect his child. But…” Pa sighed. “You ARE getting too big for my constant supervision. I’m not scared anymore Mark because I know…I know that when I’m not there, God and your mother are there protecting you. That’s why you survived that horrid experience in the closet because they were there, when I couldn’t be.”
I smiled. “Pa, I know that now.”
That night, I did sleep. I slept better than I had since the kidnapping. I would be lying if I admitted that I wasn’t scared just a little, but now that I knew I’d never get to big for Pa’s love and protection, I knew I would be okay.
The next morning, Pa went hunting. He came back at noon with his first deer. I could tell Pa was a bit disappointed that he hadn’t had more luck. “I think I should go with you, Pa.” I stated with a grin. “I think I’m your good luck charm, least wise, that’s what you told me when I was younger!
Pa stood right in front of me and looked down at me with a grin. “That so?” he asked. I nodded.
“Homework all done for the week?” I looked down at the ground.
Pa walked over to the fire and picked up the coffee pot. “Well then, you can’t go until your schoolwork’s all finished!”
“Oh, but Pa!” I started to moan.
Pa turned and pointed at me. “You get all that schoolwork done this afternoon and I’ll let you go hunting with me tomorrow. Is that a deal?” I sighed but didn’t answer. “Why weren’t you working on it this morning?”
“How do you know I wasn’t?” I asked then.
Pa crossed his arm. “Were you, Mark?”
“Well…no sir. You told me I could go fishing down at the creek this morning.” I showed him the mess I caught. “We’ll have these for supper tonight!”
“Great,” Pa nodded. “Now, let’s eat lunch so I can get back to hunting. And you can get to your schoolwork!”
And that’s what I did all afternoon. Pa came back mid-afternoon all frustrated. “What’s wrong, Pa?” I asked.
“Ohhhhhh….” Pa sat down and started fiddling with his rifle. “I had a deer right there in my sights and he got away! I can’t believe it got away!”
I couldn’t help but to grin at Pa’s frustration. “Kinda like that big fish of mine always seems to get away?” I asked.
Pa cocked his rifle and fired it into the air a few times. Then he turned and glared at me. “What’s that?”
“Oh…uh…I got my schoolwork done.”
“Fine son, I’ll check it over while you gather firewood.” I started gathering the firewood. I had to go hunting it down in the woods. Pa came riding up on Razor. “Son, I’m going to go ride over on the other side of the hill before it gets dark, see if I can pick up any fresh tracks.”
I had hoped he’d tell me if my studies passed his approval, but I reckon he would tell me in good time. I decided not to bring the topic up. I also hoped he wouldn’t stay out too late passed dark. I didn’t relish staying in the darkness to long by myself yet.
“I’ll have supper ready by the time you get back,” I announced thinking on the fish. I’m sure Pa wouldn’t be too long knowing I was cooking the fish! He’d want to be back in time to make sure they weren’t overcooked!
“Good, maybe we’ll have better luck tomorrow!” Pa stated as he rode away. That sounded like I was going with him!
“I hope so!” I stated. I turned to go back to my chore of building a campfire, but suddenly I saw a nice big buck! Hey, maybe that was the one Pa was talking about getting away! I turned to holler for him, but he was already gone. Maybe I could track him myself and come back to tell Pa all about where we could find him tomorrow.
I knew what Pa’s orders were – to stay put and not leave camp without him. I had pleaded hard and long to go fishing this morning. Since it was a healing trip, Pa had finally given in. But I knew Pa would never approve of what I was about to do. I thought about it, but I suppose my boyish curiosity won out in the end and off I went!
I followed him quite a ways but lost sight of him. I climbed up onto a big group of boulders to get a better look. I saw him and smiled as I started to climb down and go after him. But suddenly, my foot slipped. I felt myself falling, then I was out cold.
When I came to, it was dark. At first, I didn’t know where I was. But as I sat up, my mind started clearing. I was in a ravine – away from camp. And it was dark.
My head was throbbing from where I had apparently hit it, but I tried to ignore it and hurry back to camp. Oh, but I knew Pa would be angry and worried – what after what happened the last time he left me alone!
I hurried back to the camp only to find Pa gone. A fire had been started, so I’d known Pa had been back.
He must be out looking for me. “Pa!” I called. But there was no answer. “Pa!” I said louder this time, but there was still no answer.
I looked down at the fire and saw a note stuck on a stick. I grabbed it and read the words:
“Mark, I went looking for you. When you get back, stay put. Pa.”
I knew he was angry and very worried. I knew I’d made a wrong decision in leaving the camp. And I knew that I would be in a lot of trouble when he got back.
I shivered. It wasn’t cold, but the darkness was eerie. I felt alone and knew the fire had been built so I’d have a little light when I got back. I sat and waited, hoping he’d be back soon.
I heard a noise. “Pa?” I cried out. But there was no answer. I heard it again. I gasped and spun around, but I still didn’t know what it was.
My heart began racing as I sat down close the fire. “God just turned the lights out – that’s all. I’m perfectly safe. Nothing will hurt me.” I wanted to believe that with everything. It helped me some.
I looked at the note again and read the words. His words were angry. I knew I was in trouble – big trouble! I’m thinking this may be whipping trouble! After all Pa and I had been through, I went and did something stupid like this. I was mad at myself!
Suddenly, I heard a horse. “Pa!” I cried, rejoicing he was finally back. I jumped up and threw down the note. “Pa, over here!” But then two men came into the clearing. They weren’t my Pa. They were strangers and I knew Pa would want me to run from them. I should have been more cautious!
How many times had Pa lectured me on being leery of strangers? He always told me to sit quiet before I hollered out – to never run into a situation blind. Yet, what did I do? I was completely blind when I hollered out his name. If I hadn’t…maybe I could have hidden. But then I wouldn’t have been able to save my Pa.
“Oh, I thought you were my Pa,” I stuttered nervously. I had a bad feeling about this! “Who are ya?”
The two men climbed off their horses and came to stand in front of me. “Is Luke McCain your father?” one of them asked.
“Yeah,” I answered.
“Alright, boy. Saddle up.”
Pa told me not to leave camp. He also told me to never go anywhere with someone I didn’t know! These two men approached me as if they were bad, and my gut told me they were bad. Pa’s note had told me to stay here. When Pa tells me to stay put, he means it! I slowly began backing up. “What for?”
Suddenly, both men grabbed me. “Come on, kid. We haven’t got all night!” They started dragging me over to their horses. “Wait! You can’t do this!” I cried. “I gotta wait for my Pa! Let me go!”
Fear gripped me! It was a fear like I’d never felt before. I began remembering the last man to grab me and threaten to kill my Pa if I went with him. Now it was happening all over again – except this time it was two men! It was dark! Oh, I hoped they weren’t going to shove me into yet another dark closet!
I began screaming. “Help me! Somebody help me!” But as the man put me on his horse, he climbed up behind me and smacked my mouth. “You stop that shouting right now or I’ll kill your Pa!”
Not again! I screamed to myself. Not again! “Please, Mister! Tell me where you’re taking me.”
“None of your business! You know all you need to know!”
Oh, why did Pa leave me alone in the darkness? Why was my first experience with darkness by myself like fear all over again? I couldn’t live through this nightmare again! I just couldn’t!
I was told not to talk as we rode. We rode for awhile – an eerie silence amid us.
We got to a house. A man came out and ordered my kidnappers to stay put. They lifted me down and told me not to move. I waited – waited to see what would happen next. Would they lock me in a dark room again?
I stood there in the darkness with the two strangers. Suddenly, the front door opened and a man poked his hand out the door. “Take a look outside!” he shouted.
I waited to see who was coming. His tall frame filled the doorway. “Pa!” I screamed. I ran to him, but the two men grabbed me and held him back.
Someone hit him over the head right in front of me and he fell to the ground – out cold. I struggled to get away as tears filled my eyes. “Lock the kid in the barn,” the new man ordered.
The men dragged me away as tears suddenly escaped my eyes. “No!” I cried weakly. “Not the darkness again! Please!” I begged. “You don’t understand…You don’t…”
My heart began racing and I grabbed on to the side of the door, fighting. I felt a hard smack across the back side of my head and I cried out in pain. “Up there in the hayloft!” one of them men ordered.
They shoved me up the steps. I looked around. It was dark – very dark. There was light squeezing in through a crack, but that was it. “Please! You can’t leave me up here!’ I screamed. They locked the door that led up to the hayloft. I began banging on it. “Please! You gotta let me out! You just gotta…”
“Oh, mama…Ma…Please hold me…” I suddenly cried as I threw myself down in the hay. “Ma…please…”
I laid quietly in the hay waiting for the safe feeling to come over me. I heard the door open. I heard dragging. I ran over to a crack in the floor, but I couldn’t see much – just shadows. “He can sleep it off in here!” I heard a man’s voice declare. “When he comes through, we’ll give him our orders. Perhaps then he’ll be more cooperative knowing what we have up there!”
I swallowed. Pa was here in the barn with me. I had to be strong for him – he needed me now! The door slammed and all was quiet…quiet and dark!
I sat down against the wall and waited. The moon was soon high in the sky. I was happy to see it because it shed some light. I had to help my Pa – I had to stay strong and brave for him. I sat quietly trying to make some sense out of what was going on, but I couldn’t. I simply had no idea!
I don’t know how long I sat there, but I began to realize I wasn’t afraid of the darkness. Perhaps it was because my Pa was there. Or perhaps it was because I knew my Pa needed me. Whatever the case, I knew that…that the fear was no longer there. I was just afraid – afraid of this situation.
I heard noise. Someone was wiggling the doors down below. Pa must be awake! I got up and went to the crack in the floor. “Pa?” I cried. There was no answer. “Pa?” Again, I waited.
“Mark, is that you?” Pa’s face suddenly appeared below. I was so happy to see him awake and okay!
But I had to hear it. “You alright?” I asked in a shaky voice.
“Yes son, I’m alright.” Pa tried to assure me. But I heard something in his voice – something that told me he wasn’t alright.
“What do they want?” I suddenly asked.
“I don’t know, Mark.” I knew he was lying. He said it too plainly – there was too much emotion. I knew he didn’t want me to know. “What happened to you this afternoon?”
I knew that question would come. I heard the unspoken words in his voice. I knew the truth. This was all my fault. But I didn’t hesitate to tell Pa the truth. After I explained, I suddenly realized just what my boyish decision had caused. “And those men came…” I suddenly couldn’t go on. The guilt was eating me alive.
Somehow, saying the words out loud made me understand just how much damage my disobedience had caused. “Oh Pa…This is all my fault!”
Pa’s voice was quiet, but it rang loud and clear. “Forget about that,” Pa ordered. I knew there were more important things to worry about. “Now listen to me.”
Suddenly, Pa’s voice was closer. I wished he could touch me – to assure me we would be okay. But he couldn’t. “Is there any way you can get out of there, son?”
I lifted my head and looked around. For the first time, I saw the window. “There’s a boarded up window. Maybe I could break through and drop to the ground.
But Pa, I couldn’t leave you!”
“Don’t worry about me. You gotta get out of here and get help. Now can you do it?” Pa asked.
He was asking too much. He was asking me to go out there into the darkness…alone…The darkness where my fears lived…especially when Pa wasn’t there. He was asking me to leave him here in the situation…alone…to fight. I couldn’t leave him! I just couldn’t!
“What about your pocket knife? Do you still have it?” Pa’s voice broke through my thoughts.
“Yeah,” I answered.
“Well can you use it? Maybe pry through that window?”
Did Pa know what he was asking me to do? He wanted me to go out there…in the dark alone! “I’ll try but…but I just can’t leave you, Pa!” I answered.
“Mark, you’ll do it. That’s an order, son. You’ll do it.” His voice was firm. He knew of my fears, but he was making me face them for our sake…or maybe for my own sake…”You gotta get out of here and get help. That’s the most important thing.”
I understood what he was saying. Nobody knew we were here. I had to put my fears aside and do what was important. “Alright.” I knew I had to do this. “But…I wish you’d tell me why this was happening!”
Suddenly, Pa told me this was Skull Ranch. He had told me about it a long time ago. It was a place nobody knew where exactly it was – but everyone knew that every outlaw in the country knew where it was. There were special codes that brought them here. Anybody good…they never left here alive.
I knew Pa was in trouble. Suddenly, I realized how important it was for me to get help. I looked toward the darkened window. I had to do this! I had to face my fear and do this! “Now get to work on that window!” Pa’s voice was harsh and firm, but it was because he knew how much danger we were in and how afraid I was. He wanted me to know he had faith in me.
I couldn’t let Pa down. I just couldn’t! “Yes sir,” I answered quite sadly. I hated leaving him behind, but I knew this was the only way. Somehow I knew that I was the only one who could save my Pa!
I took the knife out of my pocket and slowly opened it. Then I went to the window. Quietly as I could, I tore the board off the window. “Careful, son,” Pa whispered loudly. I tore off another board. I could see outside into the darkness.
The darkness. I knew there was no time to waste on worrying about what was out there. I tore another board away. “Careful, son!” I heard the doors opening. I had to make my escape now if I was to save Pa. I looked down and realized I’d have to climb down quickly. Hanging onto the bottom of the window, I dropped down. I fell on my knees and cried out in pain. They stung. I knew they were both skinned really bad, but I couldn’t’ think on that now.
My Pa needed me! I didn’t look back, but jumped and ran away from Skull Ranch as fast as my aching knees would allow.
I stopped when I was quite a ways from the ranch. I had to determine which way to go. I didn’t know. I had no way of knowing where I was. “Help me God!” I prayed. “Help me for my Pa.”
I looked down the road one way, then another. Which way? Which way? I knew there was nothing in the direction I had come from, so I turned and went the other way.
A coyote howled. I gasped and shivered as fear raced through me. “There’s nothing in the darkness that isn’t out there during the day,” I whispered to myself.
“God’s still here.” I continued walking as fast as I could somewhere…anywhere…but backwards. Eventually, I had to run into someone or something.
Suddenly, I heard a cougar cry out. He was pretty close to me. I ran through the trees in the woods. My heart was beating something awful. Fear clinched my very being. “I’m here with you, Mark. There is no valley too deep…no mountain to high…no dark place on this earth so dark that I can’t find you.” Pa’s words echoed in my head. “I’m always with you, Mark. I’m always with you. Your Ma is here. She’s here.”
I tripped and fell. “Ow!” I cried out. A log had been in front of me and I hadn’t seen it. My hands stung. My knees burned even worse. I sat down in frustration. What do I do? What?
“Mark…Mark…My son.” I could hear Ma’s voice as if she were here.
“Help me, Ma!” I cried. “Help me help Pa!”
Suddenly, a voice answered from deep within me. “Get up and walk, Mark. Don’t stop – just walk straight ahead.”
I wiped the tears from my face that I didn’t even realize they were there. I heard the cougar cry out again. “Just walk, my son. Just walk.”
“Yes, Ma,” I whispered as I stood up and started forward. I put one foot in front of the other and walked for two hours. I could see the sun coming up far ahead. My mouth was so dry. The wound on my head ached and I felt woozy.
I stopped again, falling over, almost too weak to walk. “Keep going my son. Keep going.”
Suddenly, I felt as if someone lifted me up and carried me. I suddenly had the ability to walk without much trouble. I hurried forward as the sun climbed higher and higher into the sky. “Just a little further, Mark. Just a little further, my son.”
I looked up to see the sun greeting me. I smiled. “Ma, I made it through the darkness! I made it!’ I cried. “Thank you, Ma!”
Suddenly, there was water ahead. I walked toward it, suddenly feeling heavy again. I knew she was no longer carrying me. I didn’t understand what had happened. I fell into the water and drank big gulps of it. My head hurt…my knees and hands and elbows…they all hurt and I was so thirsty.
Suddenly, someone was there again, lifting me up and turning me over. I heard a voice. I couldn’t make out what the voice was saying. Was it Ma? Pa? God? Who was speaking?
I fell passed out.
When I woke up, I was on the grass. A cool cloth was wiping my face. I opened my eyes to see a stranger. “No! No! Stay away from me,” I cried.
“Hold on there, boy!” a man cried. “It’s okay. Who are you running from?”
I swallowed. “It’s my P-Pa…” I could hardly speak. I sat up but the world was spinning…spinning…”It’s my Pa!” I cried again.
“Take it easy, boy. What about your Pa?” He gave me a drink of water. “Take it slow.”
My senses were beginning to come back. I touched the back of my head and gasped at the pain. “They took my Pa and are holding him prisoner.”
“They? Who, boy?” the man asked.
“The men…The…They came and got me from my camp last night. I had gone missing cause I chased a buck and hit my head on a rock.” I touched my head where it hit. “So they…they…kidnapped me and…” MY head was foggy. I knew I wasn’t making much sense. “Skull Ranch.”
“Skull Ranch!” The man suddenly sat me straight up and clinched the top of my arms hard with his hands. “What about Skull Ranch?”
His sudden change scared me. I stared at him. “They have my Pa prisoner there…I…I was too but I escaped…I don’t know what-“ I stopped again. My mind was reeling.
“Your father is prisoner at Skull Ranch?”
“That’s right,” I nodded. “He needs help now!”
My head hurt something awful. I was exhausted and I didn’t understand everything that was happening. I was in a fog. “You gotta help my Pa!” I suddenly cried. My eyes grew wide. “My Pa! My Pa!” I screamed.
“Okay, let’s get you to the Sheriff.” He helped to my feet but I could hardly stand. He mounted his horse then reached down and somehow got me up behind him. . “Hold on tight, boy.”
“Okay, Pa.” I put my arms around his waist and leaned my head against his back.
It felt different from Pa’s waist. It wasn’t my Pa. Pa was back there. “I’m sorry,” I said as I swallowed. “I’m…”
“It’s alright, boy. I understand.”
We rode into a town as fast as we could. I started slipping so the stranger slowed down his horse. After he stopped, he lowered me down and I went to lean against the hitching post.
I was so tired and in so much pain I could hardly stand it. I wanted to go to sleep, but I couldn’t! Not yet – not until my Pa was safe. I had to stay awake…to help him…
I couldn’t clear the fog from my brain. The men talked but I didn’t make out what they were saying. “My Pa…You gotta help him,” I begged tiredly. “They got him.” I began gasping. I couldn’t’ think…I couldn’t…
Then the stranger – the one that found me…he grabbed me and led me inside. I didn’t want to go in – I wanted them to go with me, but I couldn’t get the word out. I felt someone…or something…touching my head. I flinched. “That’s a nasty wound,” the Sheriff stated. “We need to get him looked after.”
“We can’t!” the other man declared. “The men are on their way.”
“My Pa.” I sank down to something hard. “You gotta help him.”
The sheriff sat down in front of me. “Look boy…” He suddenly grabbed my face. “You need to focus. We can’t help if you don’t stay focused.”
I swallowed and nodded my head. “They got my Pa. They knocked him over the head and locked him in the barn. I was locked in the hayloft and…and…” Tears filled my eyes. My hands were shaking so bad.
“It’s alright, boy.” He patted me. “Just stay there.”
I bent down and put my head to my hands as I moaned from the pain. Then I bolted up. “You gotta help my Pa! They could kill him!” The didn’t seem to understand…I didn’t understand.
The Sheriff began blabbing off some stuff that didn’t make complete sense to me. He had some of the people from the Skull Ranch locked up and they had to fight them…I didn’t understand what he was saying. I just stared at him blankly without saying a word. Oh, when was this throbbing in my head going to stop?
But then the stranger came in and told the Sheriff they were coming. I suddenly felt something inside me…from deep inside me give me strength. I hurried out the door and looked out. “Pa!” Pa was with the men from Skull.
The Sheriff grabbed me and pushed me back inside. He was suddenly angry with me. “I thought you said your father was a prisoner out at Skull!’ He yelled.
“He was,” I answered. I was confused. I didn’t know why he was with them.
He must be in trouble!
I felt myself weakening again, but I had to help my Pa! I had to let him know…
I ran out onto the street. “Pa!” I screamed. “Pa! Pa!”
“Get back, son!” There was fear in Pa’s voice. “Get back.”
I felt someone grab me. The man that found me forced me back into the Sheriff’s office. They locked the door. “That’s my Pa!” I screamed.
“Stay here!” Suddenly, gunshot erupted. I cried as I heard the shots fire over and over! My Pa! My Pa!
My heart started beating and the fear of darkness began crawling all over me again.
Then the gunfire stopped. Everything was quiet…so very…quiet!
I ran to the door and ran out. Pa was standing there! I didn’t hesitate, but ran straight into his arms. “Pa…Pa…Pa…” I cried over and over.
Pa put his arms around me. I felt myself weakening in his arms. I heard Pa’s rifle drop to the ground as he lifted me up into his strong arms. “Pa…Pa…Pa…” I cried quietly.
Then everything went black.
I opened my eyes. It was dark. Out of the darkness, I saw something move toward me. A light was lit and Pa’s face came into view. “What…” I started weakly.
Pa’s smile filled my eyes. He touched my cheek gently. “I’m here, Mark. I’m right here.”
“Water?” I asked. I groaned as Pa put his hand at the back of my head and lifted it up. I took large gulps of water.
“Easy, son…Easy…” He took the cup from my lips and laid my head back onto the pillow.
“Where…Where am I?” I asked then.
“You’re at the Lordsburg Hotel,” Pa answered as he smoothed my hair. “You had a bad gash on the head. You’ve been asleep for hours.” I nodded. “How you feeling?”
“It only hurts if you touch it now, Pa,” I answered. “Can I sit up?”
Pa turned and looked to the man standing at the door. He nodded. Pa helped me sit up . The room spun at first. The doc came over and gave me some medicine. “This will help you, son.”
I smiled my thanks and took the medicine. “I’m glad you’re okay, Pa.”
Pa looked up at the doctor. The doctor walked out. “Pa, Ma took my fear away last night.”
Pa’s face suddenly winkled. “What?”
“She was there, Pa. She got me to the man…the man that found me.”
“Applegate,” Pa answered.
My eyes focused on Pa’s. “What?”
Pa smiled. “Applegate. That’s the man’s name that found you.”
“Oh.” I sighed and shook my head. “But I fell, Pa. I couldn’t get back up. Ma…she kept saying keep going…keep going…Then when I couldn’t go, she carried me.” I saw the doubt in Pa’s eyes. “You don’t believe me?”
Pa studied my eyes. I saw understanding enter them. “You’re mother loved you very much. I’ve no doubt she’s watching over you from Heaven. God sent her.”
“There’s something I don’t understand, Pa.”
“What’s that?” Pa asked.
“I don’t understand…why she stopped carrying me.” Pa’s eyes turned to confusion again. “Before I got to the lake, she stopped carrying me.”
Pa smiled. He rubbed a thumb across my cheek. “You’re mother loves you so much, son. She wanted to show you that…well, that you could do it on your own.”
“I’m not scared of the dark anymore, Pa.”
I closed my eyes and laid back on the pillows. “I’m glad son.”
It took me a couple days to recover. Pa said we had to finish our hunting trip so we could get home. He sent Milly a telegram before we left town, telling her all was fine.
That evening after our big hunting trip with the Sheriff and his deputy, Pa and I had a fine bunch of meat to store up for the winter. We sat around the camp fire talking and laughing. Pa saw the men off and thanked them again for all their help.
“Now then young man,” Pa said as he sat down across from me. “Let’s talk.”
“Do you remember how this whole thing started?” Pa asked.
I knew what whole thing he was talking about, but I decided to play dumb. “Oh yeah Pa. You made me go home while you went to the council meeting.”
“Mm hm…” Pa nodded his head. “That’s not what I was talking about. I’m talking about Skull Ranch.”
“Oh.” I looked down at the fire. “I kinda thought you might be.” I looked up at Pa. “I reckon you’re gonna yell at me now?”
Pa folded his arms and cocked his head to one side. “Well, I should…shouldn’t I?”
“Yes sir,” I answered.
“What did you do wrong, Mark?”
“Well, I…I reckon that I left camp when I should have stayed here.”
“Yes,” Pa answered. “I was scared, son. You weren’t where you were supposed to be.”
“Yes, I know, Pa but…” I stopped.
I started to stand, but Pa pushed me back down. “There is something. What?”
“Well, I wasn’t doing nothing wrong, Pa! You said yourself that you can’t keep holding me back like a kid!”
“Only when you don’t act responsibly.” Pa sighed. “Before I left camp that night, did I tell you where I was going?”
“If I didn’t’ come back, would you have an idea where I was?”
“When you go to school, what happens when you get done? You just go off to wherever without telling anyone?”
“No sir,” I answered with a sigh. I knew where this was going.
“Alright.” Pa stood. “When you get home from school and I’m not there, do you worry?”
“Yes sir. But it’s because you usually leave a note and tell me-“ I stopped. “I should have left a note.”
“No son,” Pa answered. “My thirteen year old boy should have stayed at the camp where I told him to.” I nodded my head. “Well?”
“Yes sir,” I answered.
“Alright. We’re headed back home tomorrow. When we get there, you will be restricted to school and chores for three weeks. I worry about you, Mark. I’ve re-learned to let go, but you have to learn what my conditions are of letting go. You understand?”
“Yes sir,” I answered.
“And I’m proud of you, Mark.”
“Proud?” I asked then.
“Yes,” Pa nodded his head. ‘Proud. Because when you needed to save my life, you were able to face your fear of the dark. And when you did, you learned something. You learned there was no fear in the dark.”
“God’s there when it gets dark. So is Ma,” I answered.
“And,” Pa said as he lightly smacked my backside. “So am I!”
*A special thanks goes out to Michelle Palmer for her insight on how Mark had seen these episodes.
Holt Coyle Welcomes you to The Skull Ranch
Skull - Don Drysdale
Skull - George Willeford
Episode #124 — Skull
Mark's Memories ― Table of Contents
You've heard Lucas' story, now hear Mark's Story
A Friend in Need
around The McCain Ranch