It was so hot in the church this Sunday morning. I tried to keep my mind on the sermon as I desperately fanned myself with the leaflet the preacher had handed us on the way in this morning, but I was still gasping. I pulled at my clothes a couple times because they were sticking to me like a fly sticks to glue. Pa gave me the evil eye when I sighed out loud or pulled at my clothes. I knew he was just as miserable, and he wasn’t making any indication of it, so he expected the same action from me.
I was glad it was finally August. That meant the extreme heat would be ending soon. We weren’t exactly in a drought, but we were certainly having some really hot days! I looked across the isle at Billy who made a motion to go swimming. I smiled and nodded my head. Suddenly, I felt an elbow jab my side and almost cried out loud because it hurt, but I held myself, straightened up in my seat, and looked forward the remainder of the time. I knew well enough to know that that elbow served a stern warning. I learned what that was a warning for once when I was ten and dragged out of church by the ear.
Believe me, you don’t ever want to be taken out of church by my Pa – it ain’t a pretty sight and you don’t soon forget what happens outside the church! No matter how old you get, if your behavior is less the reverent during church, Pa will deal with you swiftly and harshly!
The minute the preacher said Amen, I jumped up and ran outside. I immediately ran to the wagon and peeled off my jacket and tie. Then I began rolling up my sleeves. “Hey Mark!” Billy ran up to me. “The Connor boys are going swimming. You wanta come too?”
“Yes!” I nodded. “Just let me run and tell Pa.”
Suddenly, Lucille Banning was standing there. I suddenly felt embarrassed having just ripped off my Sunday best and still standing in the church yard with my sleeves rolled up. “Hello Mark,” she smiled sweetly at me.
“H-Hi, Lucille.” I smiled at her as I took my hat off.
She twirled her finger around a lock of hair and batted her eyelashes at me. “It sure is hot out here. Isn’t it, Mark?” She smiled at me.
“Y…Yes ma’am, it is.” I smiled back.
“We’re gonna go wading. You boys wanta come with us?”
My face suddenly reddened. We used to swim all the time when we were younger – even a year ago. But suddenly, it felt wrong. I felt silly going swimming in the lake with this young woman. I played with the hat in my hand nervously as my face reddened. “Come on, Mark!” Kevin Connors called.
I turned and waved at him. Then I turned back around. “Um…gee, I’d love to go swimming with you but I told the boys that I’d-“
“Well, can’t you break your promise just this once, Mark?” She asked. “I’d really like you to go.”
If I had thought it was hot before, it was suddenly like being inside a wood stove now! I could feel myself catching on fire and I wished that someone would come rescue me right away! “Mark, you ready?” Pa suddenly called from behind me.
I closed my eyes, thanking God Pa had shown up just then. He was my answer to getting out of an embarrassing situation. “I better…go talk to my Pa.” I smiled at her.
“About swimming with me?” Lucille asked, again flashing me that smile that made my heart flutter.
“Oh…n-no ma’am. I-“ I put my hat on my head, tipped it to her, then stood there and smiled at her for another few moments. “I-I’ll see ya!” Then I hurried over to Pa.
“Talking to Lucille again?” Pa asked.
I nodded. “She wanted me to go swimming with her.”
Pa cocked his head to one side and narrowed his eyes at me. “So? Is there a…problem with that?”
I turned and looked over my shoulder, then turned back around. “Pa, she’s a…a girl!”
Pa raised an eyebrow at me and folded his arms. “So?”
“So? I can’t go swimming with a…a girl like her!”
“You used to go swimming with her all the time, son.” Pa said, not changing his pose.
“Well, I know,” I stated. “But it’s…it’s different now.”
Pa screwed up his face as he studied me intently. “Oh, I see.” He put a hand on my shoulder. “Son, I thought you’d rather go fishing.”
I turned and smiled at Lucille as she waved at me from the edge of the church yard. Several of the girls were on their way to the swimming hole. I waved back and watched her leave. “Mark?” I turned and looked at Pa. “I said I thought you’d rather go fishing.”
“Oh,” I scooted my hat back on my head – a habit I picked up from my Pa. “Yeah. I’d rather go fishing.”
“Mm Hm,” Pa grinned at me.
“Oh actually Pa, me and the boys are going to the lake to swim for awhile since we’re so hot. I’ll be home in a couple-“
“You’re what?” Pa held a stern expression on his face and stared into my eyes.
“Oh.” I swallowed. “I mean may I go swimming with the boys for awhile, sir?”
Pa walked over to the wagon and handed me my tie and jacket. “We are eating at the hotel, son.” I opened my mouth to protest, but Pa shook his head. “We are eating.” I nodded, knowing I had no choice.
“Then can I go swimming?” I asked, groaning as I put the hot jacket back on and Pa put my tie on. I knew getting rid of these cursed articles of clothing was too good to be true!
“You may leave after you finish eating politely, son. That means you don’t bolt your food and dessert in order to leave. I want you to be socialable.”
“We having guests joining us today?”
“We have Micah and Milly as usual, son.” Pa laughed.
“Oh, but they’re family. I have to be socialble with them?” Pa gave me one of his mean looks. “Yes sir,” I answered as I started pulling at my tie.
We started for the hotel. “Mark, do you recall one of your Friday chores that is not done yet?”
“Chopping wood?” Pa nodded. “It’s so hot and-“ I didn’t look to Pa, but I knew how he felt on it. “I guess the ‘No chores on Sunday’ excuse won’t work either?”
“Not when the chore’s already two days late, son. That is…unless…you want another week of extra chores?”
“Oh, NO SIR!” I declared. “I just got over a six week stint of extra chores!” Just thinking on that made me cringe!
I did stay and eat slowly and talk with Milly and Micah. After I finished my Pie, I looked at Pa, but he shook his head slightly, letting me know I had to stay and talk with them for a while longer. I reckon he was teaching me how to be polite. It seemed the older I got, the more manners I had to learn. It seemed I was learning to be a gentleman more these days then I was playing with the kids. Of course, I reckon that was another part of my growing up – Pa expected me to behave more like a man and less like a child.
Finally, Pa cleared his throat and sat back in his chair. He looked at me and winked. I started to stand, but Pa cleared his throat. I sat back in my chair again. “Oh, it was…wonderful talking with you Miss Milly and Micah. If you don’t mind, I have another…engagement I have to get to.” I stood and nodded to them. “Excuse me.”
Pa raised his eyebrow at me and shook his head. I think he figured I was overdoing it, but I wanted to make sure to get that “gentleman” thing in good with him.
As I pushed my chair in and grabbed my hat, Pa said, “Have fun swimming son! And don’t be too late – there’s another…engagement…waiting for you at home.”
I turned and looked at Pa. He had a playful grin on his face. He was grinning into his coffee cup. “Bye, Pa!”
I had again stripped off my tie and jacket before running out of town to the swimming hole. The water felt so cool and refreshing and I sure was happy to feel it! The boys and I played for quite a spell racing and dunking each other. Then feeling all refreshed, we got out of the swimming hole and hurried back to town.
I got there just in time. Pa was just coming out of Miss Milly’s. Here lately, he had taken to “visiting” with her on Sunday afternoon, walking her home on his arm, then going inside and sitting in her living room for a spell while they talked quietly. Sometimes I had to join them and would roll my eyes at the looks they gave each other. But Pa told me someday I’d be giving those same looks to a girl in her living room – or parlor – if she was so lucky as to have one. The whole idea still made me nervous. I didn’t like the fact that Lucille’s face popped up in my head when that happened.
“I was just about to come fetch you, Mark,” Pa stated when I climbed up on the wagon seat. “It was either that or you’d have to walk the three miles home. I didn’t figure you’d be too keen on that idea – what with the hot weather and all.”
“You’re right, Pa. Thank you!” I declared. Milly stood on the porch to her General Store. She waved at us as we rode away.
When we got home, Pa told me the sooner I got my chore done, the sooner I could get to relaxing. Then after supper, it was homework as usual. I went to work on the wood chopping. Pa had plenty of work to do around the ranch – he rarely took Sunday afternoon off in the summer time when there was so much work to do. It wasn’t long before we both had our shirts stripped off. It was so hot!
I went to the well to get a drink of water, then I went over on the other side of the barn to get something – I don’t remember quiet what. My wood-chopping chore was nearing completion and I was looking forward to a little relaxation. But then I saw something riding up.
It was a prison wagon. I had seen one once before in North Fork. I hadn’t known what it was and seeing as how I’ve always been curious – one of those things Pa said was gonna get me into some real trouble someday – I had to get a closer look to figure out what it was. I still remember how I slowly crept up to it and peered inside to get a closer look. Then I remember my Pa’s hollering, “Mark!” Then this evil man grabbed me and Pa smashed his hand. Oh, and the yelling that followed – not only from the prisoners, but from my Pa. And as usual, Micah was there to protect me from Pa’s wrath. I still shudder to think what would have happened if Micah hadn’t been there to protect me from Pa!
I’ll never forget how guilty I felt later when Pa and Micah were fighting against the seven prisoners that had escaped. Oh boy, but they came out on top as usual! “Pa, you better come out here!” I didn’t want to be out there alone without him!
The prison wagon stopped just outside our house and one of the men got down and walked over to Pa. He wanted whisky. Pa got mad and pretty much threatened to tell Micah about it. They left – but they weren’t happy.
We watched the man climb back up on the prison wagon. Pa told me we needed to get back to work. I followed him into the barn where Pa was working. I folded my arms and watched him work. “Don’t you have some wood chopping to finish up?” Pa asked without lifting his head from his work.
“Pa?” Pa stopped what he was doing when he heard the question in my voice. “You think they’ll cause trouble?”
“I don’t think so,” Pa answered. But I wasn’t so sure. Pa pitched a couple scoops of hay then stopped again. “Son, you’re thinking of that prison wagon that hit North Fork a year ago. Aren’t you?”
“Yeah, I guess I am,” I answered with a sigh.
Pa walked over to me and put a hand on my shoulder. “They’re on their way to Yuma, son. They’re gone.” Pa took my arm and led me to the door. “See? There they go.” I nodded, but I was still a bit worried. I couldn’t help remembering a year ago. Pa handed me the pitchfork. “Listen, if it’ll make you feel better, I’ll ride into town and tell Micah.”
I looked down at the pitchfork. “Oh Pa, I don’t wanta sound like a fraidy cat! I just…” I sighed and looked toward the road. “I just can’t help remembering how scared I was when those men…” I handed him the pitchfork. “It’s okay, Pa. I’ll get back to work.”
Pa put a hand to my arm. “Son listen, there’s nothing wrong about being afraid of something you aren’t sure about.” Pa put a hand on my shoulder then. “Listen, Mark. Sometimes God gives us a sense – a feeling – that something’s wrong. Do you feel something’s wrong? If you do, you should act on it.”
I looked back toward the road and those men. Then I turned to Pa and nodded. “I do, Pa. I really do.”
Pa smiled and handed me the pitchfork again. “Okay son. You finish up my chore and the chopping. I’ll ride in and tell Micah.”
I looked toward the road. “What if…” I stopped. I didn’t want to sound like a baby.
Pa nodded with a smile. “You’re right, son. It’s best you come in with me. I don’t want to leave you alone.” I smiled. Pa put his arm around me as we started toward the house. “Like I said, God gives us sense to know if something’s amiss and the only foolish thing about it is ignoring it.”
I hitched up the wagon while Pa freshened up. I drove the team with Pa up beside me and we rode into town. We did small talk all the way there. “So,” Pa said as we pulled into town. “You want to tell Micah, or do you want me to?”
I turned and looked toward the General Store. Pa laughed then handed me a penny. “Go knock on the door and see if Milly will let you have some candy.”
“You know Pa,” I said with a grin. “There are advantages to being the son of the man who courts the store-keeper.”
Pa put his hands on his hips. “Will you get over there, boy?” I laughed.
I knocked on the side door where Milly’s living quarters were located. She opened the door and smiled at me. “What are you doing in town?”
“Oh, Pa needed to talk to Micah,” I answered. Then I held up my penny. “Pa sent me over to get some candy.”
“Oh,” Milly answered as she looked over my shoulder. “Is your father coming over here?” She motioned for me to come in. I did so and we made our way into the store. She held the candy jar out to me and I took my pick of a sourball.
Another knock sounded on the door not long after. Pa came in and we sat down to talk to Milly. She sure seemed happy as Pa sat in a chair across from her. “Something wrong at the ranch?” Milly asked.
Pa smiled into her eyes. I watched their interaction and I saw Milly blush and lower her head. “No, I just needed to make Micah aware of something.”
“What?” Milly asked.
“Oh…” Pa looked toward me and shook his head. I closed my mouth.
“Lucas-“ Milly started.
“It’s okay, honey,” Pa stated as he grabbed her hand. “We had some visitors and Mark felt uneasy about them. That’s all.”
Pa stood. I just sat in the chair watching Pa and Milly’s interaction. Milly looked toward me and raised her eyebrows. “Mark?”
“Oh!” I stood up suddenly. “I…I’ll see you tomorrow, Miss Milly.”
Pa reached out his hand to Milly and she grabbed it. He pulled her up to stand next to him. “Um…Mark? Would you get the horses please, son?” Pa looked toward the door.
“Oh! Right, Pa!” I grinned. I walked to the door. Then I paused and turned back around. Pa raised his eyebrows and motioned for me to go on. I pulled the team up in front of the store and waited. It was about five minutes when Pa finally came out and climbed up on the wagon.
I turned and smiled at him. Pa held a great big grin on his face. He turned to me then. “You have something to say?”
I continued smiling. I heard the challenge in his voice, and for once I took him up on it. “Well, now I see why I didn’t have to do too much convincing to get you back into town,” I answered.
Pa suddenly squinted his eyes and looked deeply into mine. “You know something, Mark?”
I narrowed mine, knowing he was about to tell me something important. “You have firewood to finish so you can get started on your homework.”
I laughed as I started the horses toward home. “You think your pretty clever, but don’t you forget I can still bend you over my knee, boy!” Pa bellowed out. I laughed even harder.
Pretty soon, I heard Pa’s laugh too.
When we got home, I finished chopping the firewood while Pa finished up with the barn. Then he went inside and started supper. After supper, I did my homework and went to bed.
I woke up the next morning not feeling quite right. I don’t know what it was exactly, but I just had this feeling that I needed to stay home from school. I didn’t say much at breakfast and Pa finally asked me if something was bothering me. “Pa, I have this feeling that…that your in danger.”
“What kind of danger?” Pa asked as he looked into his coffee cup.
“Well…I don’t know exactly, but I’m just…uneasy.”
Pa looked up at me and tilted his head to one side. “You aren’t just saying that to get out of school. Are you?”
“No sir. Honest, Pa. I just feel…”
Pa nodded. “Okay son, I’ll be extra careful today.”
“That’s it? I still have to go to school?”
Pa sat down his up and looked at me. “Son, I get that feeling for you sometimes. I just keep an extra eye on you those days. Sometimes I realize it was just love – and sometimes I think my worry was for a reason. But you can’t put me in a cage just because something MIGHT happen. We have to go on.”
I knew Pa was right. “You will be careful though?”
Pa smiled and laid a hand on my shoulder. Giving me a slight nod, he said, “Yes son, I’ll be careful.”
I went to school, but I still felt like something was wrong. It was nothing I could put my finger on – just a feeling! Later as I sat in the classroom, I began to feel a bit easier.
At lunch, Lucille walked up to me. As she did almost every day at lunch, she offered me a cookie that she had baked. And, like I did everyday, I graciously – but bashfully – accepted.
As soon as school was over that afternoon, I jumped on my horse and hurried home. I tried not to let the negative feeling inside me get the best of me. I rode into the yard and tied my horse up. “Pa, I’m home!” I announced as I jumped up onto the porch. But there was no answer.
I stepped off the porch and looked around the yard. Scooting my hat back on my head, I called his name again, but there was still no answer. “Pa, where are ya?” I asked as I walked into the open barn door.
Suddenly, this man jumped out and grabbed me. He scared me something awful and stated that my Pa was doing him a favor. I was shaking, but I told him that he didn’t know my Pa – if he did, I’d know him too.
This man…I can’t even describe him. He was unshaven, had soars on his face, and looked like an outlaw. He acted like he was in a pain – like he had been shot or something. He kept asking me to help him, and I kept saying no.
The man wanted me to get him a gun, but I broke away from him and ran toward the house. Pa had another rifle inside – it was for emergencies only. I didn’t know if I’d be able to use it or not, but I ran toward the house to get it.
But then the man collapsed. I started toward him and realized he was out cold. I turned and ran to my horse. Jumping on him, I ran him to town just as fast as I could. I had this feeling something was wrong and I was right! I was shaking so hard. Many bad thought ran through my head about where Pa could be – who could have him – what they did to him. I had that feeling this morning and I told Pa to be careful!
The sun was going down when I got into town. “Micah!” I yelled. “Micah!”
Micah came hurrying out of the saloon, shotgun in hand. “What is it boy? Where’s your Pa?”
Then Milly came running up to me. “Mark, what is it?”
I jumped down and put my hands on Micah’s arms. I was gasping for breath. “I…I told him to be careful! I warned him he was in danger but he didn’t listen! I’m afraid he’s been taken – hurt somehow! Oh Micah…we’ve got to…to find him!”
Milly grabbed my arm and turned me around. Her eyes were filled with tears as she laid her hands on my cheeks and looked into my eyes. “Mark, slow down and tell us what’s going on!” Milly ordered.
“Pa’s missing!” I declared. “There’s a…a man…He’s…He’s out cold at the ranch…shot…” I shook my head. “Micah, we’ve got to go now!”
“Alright boy, we’ll go.”
“No!” Milly stated. She grabbed my arm. “Mark stays here. I don’t want him in that danger.”
Micah shook his head. “Milly, I know you’re worried, but I need Mark with me. He needs to help me figure out what’s happening.”
I looked at Milly. She hesitated, still unsure rather to allow this. “Milly, he’s my Pa!” I cried. “Please!”
Milly ran her hand down my arm and grabbed my hand. “Okay,” she answered as she squeezed my hand. “But please…be careful!”
I nodded. Then we jumped on our horses and took off for the ranch. When we got there, the man was gone. Micah and I started looking around and found him just outside the front door – he hadn’t made it very far. He was dead. “If he’s done something to Pa, how are we gonna find out?” I asked suddenly.
Micah lifted his belt buckle. I read the name on it - Rudy Croft.. I gasped. “Why, this is the man they had in that prison wagon!” I declared worriedly. I told Micah he had told me Pa was doing a favor for him.
Micah and I headed back to town. As we ran to our horses, though, I stopped. “Micah, I need to go find Pa.”
“You can’t in the dark, Mark,” Micah answered.
“But I have to! Don’t you understand, Micah? My Pa’s out there! We have to-“
Micah shook his head. “We’ll track the wagon first thing in the morning, Mark. Tonight we need to get into town. I’ll send someone out to get the body and clean up here.”
I didn’t want to go, but Micah gave me no choice. “Come on, boy.”
We rode back to town. Milly hurried out of the Marshal’s office. “Did you find Lucas?”
I jumped off the horse and hurried over to her “We’ll find him in the morning, Milly.”
“In the morning. What-“ I looked at Micah. I was awful scared for Pa, but I had to be strong for Milly. I mustered up my courage. “Milly, we have a pretty good idea where Pa is,” I stated as I laid my hands on her shoulders. “At first light, we’ll find him.”
Milly looked at Micah who only nodded. Then she looked back at me. “Try to sleep, Milly. Pa wouldn’t want you fretting for him all night. I’ll bring him to you when I find him. I promise.”
Milly laid a hand on my cheek and nodded. She slowly made her way across the street to the store. Then she walked inside and closed the door.
After we made sure Milly was safely inside, Micah and I went to his office. “Okay,” Micah said as he poured himself a cup of coffee. “Your father told me those prison guards wanted whisky. You reckon they got some somewhere else?”
I put my hands on my hips and shook my head. I couldn’t imagine anyone around here giving them whisky! “Sweeny! Sweeny would know!”
We ran out the door toward the saloon. The room was filled. At the door, Micah turned and put a hand on my chest. “This is as far as you go.”
Micah brought Sweeny outside and we talked to him. I described the man that had talked to my Pa yesterday, and Sweeny confirmed that it was indeed the same man. “They were probably drunk then,” Micah stated as we walked away from the saloon. “They got careless and Croft escaped.”
I paced his office back and forth. Suddenly, an idea popped in my head and I ran up to Micah. “You reckon they were planning on using my Pa as the prisoner?”
Micah turned and looked at me. “That’s exactly what I’m beginning to think!” He looked at the clock. “It’s 10:00. The sun will rise around 6. We’ll be ready to leave then.” I yawned. “Let’s get you to the hotel.”
“No sir,” I stated. “I’ll-“
“You’ll do as I say!” Micah declared. “I’ll have Eddie warm you up something to eat, then you’ll go to bed. I want you bright eyed and bushy tailed for our search in the morning!”
I obeyed, but it took a long time for me to fall asleep. I was so worried for Pa. Those guards were so desperate – I knew they planned on killing Pa before they got to Yuma, otherwise the officials there would know right off Pa wasn’t Croft. “God, protect my Pa!” I prayed as I fell asleep.
The next morning, I felt Micah shaking me. “Eddie has breakfast for us downstairs,” he declared. “I want to get going at first light.” We ate quickly. Then we went out to our already-saddled horses and rode back to the ranch.
We saw the tracks of the prison wagon and began following them. We didn’t have to search very long, however, before we saw the prison wagon come up over a hill. Micah and I looked at each other then took off for it. Pa was driving! “Pa!” I screamed. Pa stopped the wagon and allowed us to ride up next to him. I asked him why he was driving the prison wagon. He told me he’d tell me at home.
Micah and I followed him back to the ranch. Pa climbed down. He looked terrible! “Pa, are you okay?” I ran up and hugged him.
Pa nodded. “I’m find, son. But I’m tired.”
“What happened, Pa? You look like you’ve been through a battle!”
“Mark,” Micah started as he laid a hand on my arm. “Let your father get some sleep. Then we’ll talk.”
Pa thanked Micah and went into the bedroom. I started to follow him in, but Micah told me to stay out here. Micah walked into the bedroom and closed the door.
I busied myself with coffee. Micah came out of the bedroom and sat down at the table. I handed him a cup of coffee. “When your father wakes up, tell him I’ll be back. I’ll take care of the bodies.”
“Body?” I asked suddenly.
Micah nodded. “My hunch was right, Mark. Those prison guards…they kidnapped your father. Your father locked one of them up in the prison wagon.”
“He what?” I suddenly started out the door but Micah grabbed me.
“Nevermind, Mark. You stay inside with your father. I’ll tend to this and be back.”
I busied myself with chores while Pa slept. Finally, the door opened and Pa came out dressed in clean clothes. I ran up to him. “How you feeling, Pa?”
Pa nodded. “Hungry!” He declared. I fixed him a sandwich and sat down. Pa finished it off pretty quick and I poured him a second cup of coffee.
“Well?” I asked.
Pa leaned back in his chair. “Alright, son.” He cleared his throat. “Well now this prison wagon rode into the yard and stopped yesterday. Then suddenly…” Pa smacked his hands together. “Whack! I was out like a light. Well sir, when I woke up, I was locked in this prison wagon and we were traveling down the road! Then magic happened and I unlocked the wagon and locked the man in. The end.”
“That’s it?” I asked.
“Oh,” I groaned disappointedly. Pa raised an eyebrow at me. “Well, your bear story was better!”
Pa’s laughter filled the house. I didn’t care if he was laughing at me or with me. I just was thankful to have my Pa back once again!!!
*A special thanks goes out to Michelle Palmer for her insight on how Mark had seen these episodes.
The Journey Back
Mark's Memories ― Table of Contents
You've heard Lucas' story, now hear Mark's Story
around The McCain Ranch