“I have an announcement to make,” Mr. Griswald spoke as he stood in front of the class that day. I swallowed in anticipation and nervousness, knowing what the announcement was. “One of our students won’t be with us as much as he has been. This is an example that education pays off. I’m talking about a young man who for years argued with his father against book-learning and attending school all day, every day. Even when tragedy struck this young lad’s life and turned his world upside down, his father cared about his education enough to teach him as they traveled from town-to-town looking for that place to settle down.”
Mr. Griswald stepped off the platform in the front of the room and walked down the aisle. His hands were folded behind his back as he eyed each child in the room. “Many of his lessons came over an open campfire after a hard day’s travel, on horseback, as they traveled to a new town, and even at the kitchen table late at night. Mark McCain, would you stand up?”
I turned and looked at Pa who stood in the back of the room with a big grin on his face. Right next to him was Micah. I’m not sure whose smile was bigger, Pa’s or Micah’s. Pa gave me a slight nod and a wink. I swallowed as I stood up nervously. My heart was pounding. Mr. Griswald placed a hand on my shoulder and gave it a squeeze and then continued proudly. “As mostall of you know, Mark McCain began school at the age of six in Enid, Oklahoma. But while still in his first year of school, he lost his mother during a small pox epidemic. His father packed up a few of their belongings, tucked Mark under his arm, and left. For the next three or four years, the McCain’s traveled from town to town looking for a place to call home. “
Mr. Griswald dropped his hand from my shoulder, and again began walking around the classroom as he spoke. “Mark didn’t attend much school during that time. They did travel to Wyoming where he attended school for a few months. But Mark’s father spent tireless hours educating him and keeping up with his studies. So Mark never fell behind. If anything, with his father’s teachings combined with those he received in public education, Mark has jumped ahead of many people.”
Mr. Griswald turned and smiled at me. “Now, I admit that there have been times up to recently when I wondered if Mark would ever get to this day.” His smile widened. I saw pride in his eyes. “He has.” I smiled back at him. “That’s why today will be Mark’s last day to attend school in the afternoons. From here on out, he will attend the morning session and use the remainder of the time learning ranching and farming with his father, while furthering his learning in independent study. I’m sure this will be closely monitored by his father.”
I couldn’t help but look back toward Pa. He gave me a firm nod. I knew he’d take his duty very seriously. “Mark will also be available for tutoring those who are having trouble as part of his furthering his education.” Mr. Griswald walked to the front of the room and picked up the books. He came to stand in front of me.
“Mark McCain, I present you with your new books that arrived in the mail just two days ago. In the morning, you will continue working on composition, grammar, history, and arithmetic. But independently, Mark will begin studying more advanced studies.” Mr. Griswald held up each book. “Advanced Agriculture. Chemistry. Political Science.” These further studies will help him become a better rancher, farmer, and citizen. It will also help him decide what he wants to do, once he graduates.”
Mr. Griswald stopped talking and turned from the class. I saw him walk a ways away. His shoulders slumped as if he bore a great burden. Then he turned back to the class. “Let’s congratulate Mark McCain.”
I heard many cheers. I saw Pa’s and Micah’s eyes wet with tears as they smiled with pride. My heart swelled as I watched Mr. Griswald walk to the back and give Pa a hearty handshake. Then he turned to me. “Mark McCain,” he said in that voice he’d used the very first day he came to North Fork school. “You are dismissed. We’ll see you in the morning.” He turned to the others. “I’ll see the rest of you after lunch recess. Class dismissed.”
Everyone hurried up and gave me hearty handshakes. Jeff Connors was the only one who made any rude comments. He simply stated it wasn’t fair. I smiled inside as we went to our horses and mounted. Pa and I had a long talk the night before about how some of my friends wouldn’t understand and some would be mean about it. I wasn’t to be smug or anything, else there would be more “responsibilities” waiting for me at home. We rode into town, Micah, my Pa, and me, to have our celebration lunch at the hotel.
When we walked inside, I saw all those who had helped raise me waiting: Milly, Eddie, Nils, and John among many others. They had all played a part in helping me and we all knew it. Pa allowed me to have the chair at the head of the table, then I was allowed to order whatever I wanted on the menu.
“What will you be doing now that you only have half-days of school, Mark?” Milly asked as Pa laid his hand on top of hers and squeezed it. It almost looked like he needed her to support him.
“Oh, now Milly, Mark’s still got plenty of studying to do,” Pa declared.
“But, I can do it when it’s more convenient,” I stated. “For instance, while we are about to round up cattle, I’ll probably help with that in the afternoons then do my studies at night. I’m also taking over the responsibility of the crops with Pa’s supervision.”
“It’s wonderful, of course, Mark,” Milly smiled proudly at me.
Everyone got wine to propose a toast. I got punch in a wine glass. “Here’s to Mark McCain, who just took a bigger step to manhood today,” Pa stated as we all stood. Glasses clinked together as we took a drink.
I was a little embarrassed, but this was as much for my Pa as for me, so I sat there, happy to be, the center of attention for sure! Pa, though, seemed to really have a hard time with my taking the next step. I knew Milly understood his struggle by the way she leaned to him and quietly whispered in his ear. And I had no doubt she would help him understand and accept this new level in my life.
After supper, Pa and I rode for home. When we got there, we sat down and studied the books for an hour – just looking to see all that I would learn. Mr. Griswald said that through independent study, pre-prepared tests would come to him and he’d administer them to me in the afternoons every couple of weeks. I shook my head as I looked through the books, but Pa smiled at me and stated that he knew I could do it. I was a McCain!
That evening, we sat at the table and ate a small supper I had prepared. I wanted to ask Pa a question, but had to approach the subject delicately. “Is your stew alright, Pa?” I asked in a quiet voice.
“Yes, son. It’s fine,” Pa smiled at me.
I sighed, closed my eyes, and sent up a prayer to God. “Uh Pa, I’m 13 ½ now..I’ll be 14 in just a few months and uh…well…” I played with my food.
Pa lifted his head from his plate. “And what, son?” Pa asked.
“Well…I was sort of wondering if maybe…you know…maybe I can uh…have a rifle.”
The explosion happened then – the same one that had been happening for the last 3 ½ years. “A rifle?” Pa repeated in a loud voice. “What do you need a rifle for?”
“Well…I expect I’m old enough to-Besides, with more responsibilities around the ranch…“
“You’re not old enough, Mark!” Pa boomed out.
I sighed. I knew I was old enough. I tried to understand his position on making me wait until I was older, but I kept getting older – and he kept saying no. “How old do I have to be?” I asked. “Twenty? Thirty?”
Pa’s eye grew angry. I watched them change. But as he silently studied my eyes, his eyes softened and he shook his head with a sigh. He stood up from the table and went to look out the window. “Son, you’re old enough to understand now that being old enough for something isn’t about age. It’s about how mature you are.”
Pa turned form the window. “Mark, you are becoming a man – I’ve watched you really mature since you turned 13. But Mark, there are many childish ways still in you. Things only a father can see. I hate saying this, because I hated hearing it from my father, but I’m going to say it anyhow. Son, it’s something you’ll understand when you are older.”
I didn’t agree with him. I knew I was plenty old enough to have a rifle. “Mark, I know you are upset with me for denying you this request that you’ve been asking for since you were ten. And I know that most boys by now are shooting and carrying their own rifle to hunt and such. But Mark…” Pa walked over and sat back down at the table. He put his hands on my shoulders and stared into my eyes. “Son, I remember being your age. I was much younger then you when I started using a rifle and it’s…well…it took me a long time to learn not to be cocky about it. Please respect my wishes. I’ll know when the time is right.”
I said nothing, but went back to eating my food. After the dishes were washed, I went to do my evening chores then went to bed.
By the end of the week, a pattern was established. When I got off school at noon, I hurried home to a lunch Pa had prepared for us. Then we worked all afternoon. I worked with the crops while Pa worked with the cattle and repairs of the ranch. After supper, Pa took over the evening chores while I tended to my studies. It was rough, but I was able to ask Pa questions as he worked and he helped me understand agriculture better. Pa said I was on my own on chemistry because he didn’t understand it. I laughed, telling him that chemistry was actually very interesting.
On Friday, I rode home only to find that Pa wasn’t there. I gasped when I realized I was supposed to meet Pa in town that day. We had a lot of chores to do and were going to do our supply shopping that afternoon. I jumped on my horse and raced back into town. I found him at the hotel drinking coffee. When he saw me, he didn’t’ look happy. “Lunch is over, boy.” Pa jabbed a thumb over his shoulder. “Get on over to the hardware store and pick up the stuff there in the wagon.
Then you can meet me at the general store.”
“I’m…sorry, Pa.” I said. My stomach grumbled. “When can I eat?”
Pa turned and gave me a look. I hurried out the door, guessing that I’d learn a hard lesson today to be more responsible about remembering what I was supposed to do and where I was supposed to be and when.
As ordered, I loaded up the things we needed at the hardware store and headed over to Milly’s. Pa was there waiting for Milly to gather up the supplies. He was grumpy all the way home. As we rode down the trail, I apologized to him for forgetting I was supposed to meet him in town after school I told him I didn’t mean to cause to upset him. He gave a short laugh. “I wish it were you. I know how to handle you, been doing it for over thirteen years!” He declared. “Got a man all the way from England who uh…” Pa gave me a sideways glance. “Who wants to kill me.”
I suddenly turned so fast in my seat,, that I almost fell out of the wagon! “He wants to what?”
“He wants to kill me.”
“Why?” I suddenly asked. I was frightened!
“He’s from England and uh…wants to make a reputation for himself. If he kills me, the Rifleman, then he’d have a better reputation.”
“Reputation?!” I studied the road ahead of us for a few moments as I thought on this. “Well…is he a gunfighter?”
“Nope,” Pa answered. “My guess is that he’s never pointed his rifle at another man.” We pulled into the yard. “As a matter of fact, he has an expertise of making his own rifles and cases. He’s a gunsmith-gunfighter wanta be, you might say.”
“Oh.” I hopped down from the wagon as we started picking up the supplies. “So? He wants to challenge you to a gunfight?”
“No,” Pa said as he lifted a heavy sack of grain from the wagon. “He did challenge me to a gunfight.”
“Oh.” I added another bag of oats to the growing pile. “So…are you gonna do it?”
Pa stopped at the wagon and gave me an annoyed look. “What do you mean am I gonna do it? Son, you know I’m not a gunfighter!”
I shook my head as I lifted out the crate of food. “Yeah, but if a man challenges you, you can’t just turn him down.” Pa looked at me again in that way only Pa can…It told me I should quit while I was ahead. “I’d sure like to meet him!”
“You will,” Pa answered. “Tomorrow.”
I cocked my head to one side and studied Pa. “Tomorrow? I thought you turned him down!”
“Well…” Pa picked up another crate as we started for the house together. “I didn’t exactly…turn him down.”
“You…You didn’t?” I asked, now I was confused..
“No, but I’m going to show him in the morning that he doesn’t want to go up against me. We’re having a shooting match.”
“What will that prove?” I suddenly asked.
Pa sat the crate down on the table. He put his hands on his hips and glared at me again. “Well son, I hope it proves to him that he doesn’t want to go up against me.” I must have looked disappointed, because Pa suddenly asked, “Well what do you want me to do? Kill him to prove my point?”
“Well no,” I answered with a shake of my head. “But it certainly would show who’s the better gunfighter!”
I’m sorry! I couldn’t help myself! It came out before I even thought about it. “Mark,” Pa said as he pointed toward the door. “Go tend to your crops!”
I hurried out the door and decided that I should stay away until supper time, which I did!
Pa sent me to bed early that night. I reminded him that I was thirteen years old, and he still reminded me that I wasn’t too old to be punished. I decided that pushing him on that fact would not be to my best benefit, so I went to bed. The next morning, Pa fixed a hurried breakfast and left me to clean up the dishes while he went to get ready for the shooting match.
I don’t think it went as well as Pa had hoped. When I first met this man, I was a bit taken aback! He was just a squawky, little man! Why, I’d say any gunfighter in the West could take this man hands down!
But then he started shooting. Boy, but I was impressed! For a man like him, he certainly gave Pa a run from his money! They tied on target practicing, shooting the can, and other targets they shot at. But the one he flaked on was shooting the bottles off a fallen tree. He lost by one!
Pa thought that would be the end of it, but it wasn’t! The little man still wanted to take my Pa in a shooting match! The boyish excitement inside me mounted and I couldn’t help but smile. But Pa said no. Then he left Micah to get the little man back to town while we left to tend our work.
Boy, but Pa wasn’t in a good mood as we walked back to the ranch! “Pa?” I finally built enough courage to talk to him about it.
“Nevermind, Mark,” Pa answered.
“But Pa,” I started again.
Pa nodded his head toward the woodpile. “Best get started, boy.”
That was Pa’s way of telling me to mind my own business.
When Monday morning came, it was hard for me to go to school. I loved working my crops and working on the ranch more. Pa reminded me that it was important to keep up with my studies – and I would as long as he was alive. I rode through town that morning. Pa frowned on it, but I did it anyhow. Pa said that my going through town to school always seemed to get me into trouble – especially when he wasn’t with me. I expected I was getting old enough to stay out of mischief though.
I saw several people gathered around a sign. I walked up to see what was going on, but there were too many adults gathered around it. Billy ran up to me. “Well Mark, what’s your Pa gonna do?”
“About what?” I asked.
I turned and stared at Billy. “What are you talking about?” I asked. I wondered if that man had been spreading it around town that the Rifleman had turned down his challenge.
“The sign.” Billy pointed.
Suddenly, Jeff Connors appeared. He certainly wasn’t afraid to tell me all about the sign. “Pennebroke is challenging your Pa to a gunfight!”
“You mean…that sign is-“ My eyes grew wide. I squeezed through those gathered around the sign and stared at what it read:
“Mr. Jeremy Pennebroke challenges Mr. Lucas McCain to meet him face-to-face with appropriate weapons at whatever time and whatever place Mr. McCain so chooses.”
“Wilickers!” I declared as I read it. I saw Mr. Pennebroke standing in the doorway of the hotel with a smirk on his face. I looked back at the sign. When Pa got wind of this, he’d fight Penenbroke for sure! I had to tell him right away! I turned again and looked at Mr. Pennebroke. “Wilickers!” I declared again. Then I hurried toward my horse.
“Mark!” I stopped at the sound of Micah’s voice. “Shouldn’t you be at school, boy?”
“Oh…I was heading there when I heard about the sign and-“
“Seems to me like your father’s told you not to ride through town on your way to school. Seems you’ve gotten in trouble for doing that before.” Micah crossed his arms as he looked me up and down.
“Oh, yes sir!” I turned to mount my horse. “Well, I’ve got to go warn Pa!’
Micah stepped forward and grabbed Blue Boy’s harness. “Hold on there, boy. Shouldn’t you be getting to school?”
“Oh, yes sir. But I’ve got to warn Pa! He-“ I started.
“I’m sure your father will find out soon enough, son. I don’t think waiting four hours to tell him will make that much of a difference.”
“Yes, but-“ I started.
“Get yourself to school, boy.” Micah’s voice held warning in it. Now, I could say I didn’t know what the warnings meant, but I must say I do. Micah had certain ways of getting me to obey him like forcing me into hard labor – mopping his office. He also had the ear-pulling trick down pretty good too.
“Yes sir,” I answered.
I didn’t think noon was ever going to come! When Mr. Griswald dismissed us for lunch, I hurried outside. “Hey Mark, your Pa gonna come into town to face his challenger tonight?” Jeff asked.
There was a new boy in school who had just started last week. His name was Jimmy Daniels. “Nah, his Pa ain’t gonna come in!”
Jeff turned, suddenly in my defense. “His Pa’s killed many a man on the street of North Fork! I’ve even watched him do it a few times!” Jeff turned and looked at Jimmy. “You have heard of the Rifleman?”
“So? That don’t mean nothing! Maybe his Pa’s getting’ yellow in his old age!”
I bolted forward and gave Jimmy a hard push. “My Pa will deal with this like he always had!” I promised him. Jimmy stood up and gave me a hard push. Before I knew it, we were rolling around in the dirt.
Unfortunately, Mr. Griswald stepped out then. He hurried up to us and grabbed me roughly by the arm. “This is no way to welcome a new student, Mark McCain!”
I dusted myself off and glared at Jimmy. “He started saying things about my Pa!”
Mr. Griswald gave a short nod of the head. “I believe school is over for you, Mr. McCain. You best go or you’ll be staying the rest of the day. I’m sure your father will have a few things to say about it then.”
I looked down at my shirt and groaned. Pa would already have a few choice words for me! I had once again managed to rip one of my new shirts! I hurried into town and glanced toward the hotel. The sign was still there and men were laughing. I hurried to the General Store. Hurrying in, I saw Milly at the counter working on her books. “Milly, you’ve got to help me or Pa will be mad!”
Milly looked over my shoulder. “Why will I be mad?”
I closed my eyes as I realized I’d once again managed to get myself into a load of trouble! I turned with a smile on my face. “Your horse wasn’t outside.”
Pa nodded. “He’s at the livery. He threw a shoe while I was checking the cattle.” He didn’t even stop for air as he put his hands on his hips and stared at me with a sideways head. “What happened to your shirt?”
“I…” I swallowed hard. “I sort of got into a fight.”
Pa groaned. “Who with?”
I lowered my head. “I’m sorry, sir. I had good cause. Milly can sew it up to look like new. Can’t you Milly?”
Milly started to answer, but Pa gently grabbed my arm and turned me around. “Who with?” he repeated.
“Just a kid at school,” I answered.
Pa crossed his arms again. “I’ll only ask this one more time, Mark McCain! Who…with?”
Pa’s voice held a heavy warning. I looked toward Milly who only looked at me. “Jimmy Daniels.” I swallowed as I looked down at the floor. “He’s a new kid.”
“Pa, he was calling you names! I couldn’t stand by and let him-“ I started.
“That’s no reason to get in a fight with a new kid, Mark,” Pa declared.
“Yes sir, but I can remember you punching someone for bad-mouthing me! I-“
“That’s different,” Pa stated in a final voice. “Now, I want you to get home and eat. Then after your crops are tended, I want you to clean out the coop.”
I reckon that was some sort of punishment for what I had done. I wanted to argue. I never understood why adults could do something and call it right, but when a kid did it, it was wrong! But I also knew Pa well enough to know he was in no mood to hear my arguments. For that reason, I turned and went toward the door.
“So, I assume you know about the sign.”
“I do,” Pa answered as he turned his attention to Milly.
“What are you gonna do? You gonna fight him?”
“I’ll take care of it, son. You get home!”
I walked out the door. “Oh Mark!” Milly called. I turned around. “Drop that shirt off on your way to school in the morning. I’ll see if I can fix it.”
“Yeah,” I answered as I gave Pa one more quick look. “Thanks Milly.”
I did as told when I got home. By the time Pa returned, I was sitting at the table tending to my studies. Pa walked in the door and got a cup of coffee as he sat down at the table. “How’s it coming, son?”
“Oh, fine Pa.” I looked up from my chemistry book. “Listen Pa…I’ve been studying for an hour. I can help you with your work if you want.”
“I’m fixing the roof, son. I’ll tend to it. You might ride out and check the cattle.”
I nodded as I closed my book and stood up. “Uh…how’d things go in town?” I asked. “Did you…talk to Mr. Pennebroke?”
“I did. I talked to him.” Pa sat down his cup. “Didn’t do any good.”
“So you uh…took his challenge?”
Pa looked at me then. “No Mark, I didn’t. Nor do I intend to. Now uh…go check those cattle.”
That sign stayed up there day after day…week after week. Two weeks passed - and then a third. I tried my best to tolerate the kids at school, knowing Pa’s warning was very firm. He told me I couldn’t’ go through town as long as that sign was up unless he was there. He said there was no telling what outlaw would ride in expecting a challenge from him. I obeyed him.
But as the weeks passed, the jokes from the kids at school got worse. I had to endure every day the jokes that my Pa had turned yellow from a scrawny, little man I listened to that dumb ol’ Jimmy Daniels call my Pa a coward. But the day finally came when as I was walking toward my house, I suddenly turned toward him with clinched fists. “You best stop!” I warned him. “Pa said I can’t fight ya but-“
“Like father like son!” Jimmy laughed. “He’s a chicken! He’s a chicken scared of another chicken!”
That was it! I raised my fist and reared it back to punch him. “Mark!” Billy grabbed my arm. “He ain’t worth it, Mark!” Billy held my arm tight.
I glared at him. “Let me go, Billy Davis! Nobody calls my Pa that and gets away with it!”
“He’s trying to make you fight, Mark! You’ll get in trouble!” Billy warned me.
I slowly lowered my fist and hurried to my horse. I hurried away before I heard anything else. I knew that tomorrow he’d get it for sure!
I didn’t go through town. When I got home, Pa told me to get started on my chores while he got lunch ready. He was running behind. “We got lots of brush to gather up this afternoon, son.
I didn’t have time to talk to Pa about what was on my mind. I was so tired by supper time that I didn’t even talk. Then after supper, I had studies to finish up. I had my first round of test tomorrow afternoon and I wasn’t looking forward to it!
Pa sat with me and worked with me until my bedtime. I wasn’t ready to go to bed. I felt I needed to study more. Pa shook his head and declared I either knew it or didn’t know it by now. I needed to go to bed to get a good night’s sleep.
But the truth is, I couldn’t sleep. I wasn’t only worried about the tests. I was concerned about Pa loosing face. Pa was the Rifleman. He had the reputation of keeping the town cleaned up. But now, everyone was laughing at him. I couldn’t stand it.
I rolled over and sighed. How could I show Pa that he had to get people’s respect back? He was good with a rifle and yet he wouldn’t use it! Not using it was making him out to be a coward and a yellow chicken. I knew the truth – he was a wonderful man and I still held a lot of respect for him.
But he didn’t understand…he didn’t know the pressure I was under at school. I had mentioned it to him a few times over the weeks, and he simply told me that I needed to learn endurance.
The next morning, I woke up late. Pa ordered me to get a move on – he’d do my morning chores, but I’d be expected to do extra chores Saturday. I hurried outside and strapped my books over the saddle horn. Then I stopped.
I started thinking. I knew Pa wouldn’t approve, but I thought all the same.
"What's the matter son?" I heard Pa suddenly behind me.
"Oh...nothing," I answered.
Pa knew better then that! He could tell something was bothering me. "Come on...out with it!" He ordered.
"I guess it's that Mr. Pennebroke. Pa, the kids at school...I don't like what they're saying. That Jimmy Daniels...I almost punched him yesterday! He said that you were chicken! Chicken scared of another chicken. They’re all laughing at ya Pa!" Just thinking on it made my blood boil!
"Laughter never hurt anybody Mark!"
"Well this kind does...you loosin' face, people's respect," I answered.
Pa studied me. "Yours too?"
I looked up at him. "Of course not! You know that would never happen. It's just that..." My voice died.
"It's just what, son?" Pa coaxed me to go on.
"I think you ought to do something." I walked away from him a bit. I didn’t look at him.
"Do I have to kill a man to save face, gain people's respect?” Pa walked toward me and stood behind me. He bent down behind me as he spoke gently. “If I do son, I don't want it! And besides what good would it do you or me or anybody else if Pennebroke got off the first shot?"
That got me to thinking. I turned my head to look at him. "I see what you mean. Of course, that won't happen!”
"No because I'm not gonna give him the chance."
"You mean you’re just gonna wait him out?"
"I'll wait but I'll also talk to him to see if I can get him to change his mind."
"Yeah ya' know how far that'll get ya'!" I declared.
Pa laughed. “You’re not gonna get to school on time unless you get started.” He gave me a smack on the backside to get me started. “Go on.”
I smiled at Pa as I mounted my horse and rode off. But when I got to school, I saw Jimmy Daniels and knew there would be trouble.
I walked past him into the school. I ignored his words all morning. I stayed in during recess to study for my exams. Mr. Griswald walked up to me. He sat down beside me. “Did you study last night, Mark?”
“Yes sir,” I answered. “Pa made me go to bed at nine, same as usual. He said either I knew it or I didn’t.’
“He’s right, Mark. You need to eat. Go on and eat. The test will be here when you get back.”
“Oh, well I-“ I started. But Mr. Griswald shook his head and scooted me out the door.
I was nervous when I walked back inside. He put me in a corner off to myself so his teaching wouldn’t disturb me. I worked on my test for two hours. Then Mr. Griswald announced the dismissal of school. “Put down your pencil, Mark.”
I sighed as I took the tests up to him. “I don’t know, sir. They were hard.”
“This is really important to you isn’t it?” Mr. Griswald asked as he looked at me intently.
I hadn’t realized it, but it was. I really wanted to learn this stuff and do well on my tests! I even surprised myself! “Yes. Yes, I guess it is,” I smiled.
“Well, I’ll grade these tonight. As soon as I get them graded and submitted, I’ll let you know what your grade is.”
I walked outside. I had to get home and help Pa. Mr. Griswald gave me the remainder of the week off from my independent studies and I was glad! That test had taken a lot out of me.
I was nervous that afternoon, evening, and even the next morning. I waited impatiently for the time to come to go to school. Pa rode in with me so he’d be there to hear the test results as well. As we rode into the school yard, Mr. Griswald approached us. “Mr. McCain,” he greeted Pa with a handshake.
They engaged in small talk while I stood there impatiently. Finally, I threw my arms up and gasped. “Enough already! What’s my results?”
We walked inside and up to the front of the classroom. Mr. Griswald opened his satchel and pulled out the tests. He handed them to me while Pa looked over my shoulder. “B+” was written at the top of my chemistry test. I turned and looked up at Pa as big matching smiles spread across our faces. “I can’t believe it!” I declared. “I just…I can’t believe it!”
“Wonderful, Mark! Good boy! This makes me very proud!”
I stared down at my paper, then looked back up into Pa’s eyes. “Makes me very proud too, Pa. Because I knew that the thousands of hours of your arguing with me over school and working with me to learn all I know has paid off. You made this happen.”
“Well, I say we’ll be having dinner at the hotel tonight. I’ll invite Micah. You can give him your news while we eat.”
“Yes sir!” I stated.“Come home at noon. I’ll have sandwiches fixed. Then this afternoon we’ll tend to the crops and cattle together.” Pa turned to leave. “Mark?” I turned to look at him. “I’m very proud of you
I smiled. I was glad.
I felt I was being rewarded that afternoon as Pa and I tackled the chores together. We smiled at each other as we worked pulling the weeds in the garden, checking the crops in the fields, and riding the range to check our cattle. That afternoon, as I was in the barn, I asked Pa how he was dealing with my growing up.
“I’m dealing with it,” Pa answered as he threw his saddle over Razor. “In my own fatherly way, I’m dealing with it. The older you get, son, the more real that father/son partnership thing becomes. I love seeing you grow and mature.”
He led Razor out of the barn and went to work on Blue Boy while I worked on gathering more corn to feed the pigs. “But because I hate to see you grow up too fast, I love seeing the boyish, mischievous side of you too.” We laughed together.
We rode into town side-by-side. “Pa, do you remember the first time we rode down this road toward North Fork together?” I asked.
Pa grinned as he thought back. “You were…only ten years old then. Such a little lad…You’ve grown a lot since then.”
“You’ve noticed it since I have. I remember wondering at the time if we’d still ride side-by-side when I became older. I remember hoping that we’d always be like this.”
We rode into town. Micah was there with an announcement. “He’s leaving, Lucas.”
Pa looked at me. “He…Who’s leaving?” Pa asked. He probably thought it was too good to be true.
“Pennebroke.” Micah picked up his hat to walk out the door of his office. “He’s leaving on the stage. Tomorrow.”
“Yahoo!” I yelled as we walked out the door.
Pa and Micah both turned to me and laughed. “My sentiments exactly, son!”
But then Micah announced a gunslinger was in town. He was laughing it up all over town about my Pa. Well, it doesn’t matter. Pennebroke’s leaving. It’ll all be over tomorrow,” Pa assured Micah.
We saw Mr. Pennebroke coming towards us. But just then, the gunslinger started walking toward us as well. “Mark, wait in the dining room, son.”
I knew better then to argue. I left without question and waited. I waited for a long time, wondering what was going on. Pa came inside. “Son, go fetch Milly. She’ll keep you company until I get back.”
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“Pennebroke challenged Carr. Micah and I are going to see that everything gets done right.”
I watched Pa turn and leave without any more explanation. I hurried to get Milly and we walked together in silence. Something was bothering me. This seemed wrong…ugly all of a sudden. The gunslinger had to have known that even with a gun, Mr. Pennebroke was defenseless against him. Why would he even allow…”Penny for your thoughts,” Milly said as we sat down in the dining room.
“Why would he do such a thing?” I asked suddenly.
We ordered our food. After the waiter left, Milly folded her arms on the table and said, “Do what, Mark?”
“It’s murder what that gunslinger’s doing, Milly! Pennebroke is just a defenseless man. He doesn’t know how to draw on a man.”
Milly nodded. Then she looked me in the eye. “Seems to me a boy’s been giving his father grief because he wouldn’t take up a challenge. Now he’s bad mouthing the man who does.”
She might as well have punched me in the gut. I stayed quiet. Milly allowed me to my own thoughts knowing she’d given me something to think about. We engaged in small talk as we ate, but my heart wasn’t in it. Pa and Micah soon came in with Mr. Pennebroke. I looked up at Pa. “Is Carr…” I started.
“He’s alive. I don’t think he’ll be gun fighting anymore,” Pa announced.
“Oh.” I looked at Mr. Pennebroke then. “You shot him?”
“No,” Mr. Pennebroke answered. “Your father did. He tired to shoot me after I…fainted.” Mr. Pennebroke studied the menu. “I’m afraid, Mark, that shooting another man isn’t a fun sport. It’s not a sport at all – but a very bad sport.
Everyone was looking at me. I looked at Pa and knew that I had just learned yet another hard lesson. “Excuse me,” I said as I stood. I hurried out of the restaurant.
I walked over to the gun shop and studied the rifles that hung in the racks.
“Being old enough for something isn’t about age.” Pa’s words echoed in my head now as I reached out and touched the hard, cold steel. My hand was shaking. Pa had told me he saw some childish ways in me still. At the time I resented the statement. He was seeing me more clearly then I had seen myself.
“Mark?” I heard Pa’s soft voice behind me.
I turned. “You’re right, Pa. I’m not old enough to have a rifle yet. I still have some growing up to do.”
I walked out onto the boardwalk and stared onto the dark street. Pa walked up behind me. “How’s that, son?”
“I guess I’m still holding onto that childhood fantasy of you being a hero – shooting the bad guys. But when that gunslinger challenged the Mr. Pennebroke tonight…I realized something.” I turned to look at Pa. “You were the hero today, Pa. You’ve been a real hero this month not giving in to a man who was bent on something stupid like…” I hung my head. “Like gun fighting.”
Pa sat down on the step and pulled me down beside me. “A rifle has it’s purpose, son. It’s a tool. A tool that deserves a lot of respect.” Pa looked up toward the sky, then back down at me. “I reckon you’re old enough to hear this now, son. Before you came along, I was wild. I’m not going to tell you everything because I want to leave it buried. Nor do I want you to tell anyone. But I killed men in fair gunfights that I could have walked away from. I killed men I could have just wounded. It’s something you…you never get over. You see Mark, a rifle was put in my hand before I understood how to respect it and how to use it right. It should never be used against another man unless your life – or another’s life – is in danger. And you should never…ever…try to kill a man. I have to live with the choices I made for the rest of my life.”
I had suspected what Pa told me, and it didn’t matter. Ma turned Pa into a different person – and I was happy. “Pa, you could have killed that gunslinger tonight but you didn’t. That makes you a real hero. You’re a hero because you…you walked away.”
Pa put his arm around me. We sat on the step together watching the people go by and enjoying being father and son.
*A special thanks goes out to Michelle Palmer for her insight on how Mark had seen these episodes.
A Young Man's Fancy
Mark's Memories ― Table of Contents
You've heard Lucas' story, now hear Mark's Story
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