I ran out of the General Store holding a big bag of candy in my hand. “All ready, Pa!” I declared.
“Mark!” Pa turned from talking to Mr. and Mrs. Wingate. “Don’t interrupt, son!” He turned back to the couple. “Well, we haven’t had a social in a long time! It will be fun, I’m sure!”
“You bet it will!” Mr. Wingate declared. “Dancing, food, singing…Maybe your boy can bring his guitar to play.”
I smiled as I popped another piece of candy in my mouth. Pa held out his hand for the bag. “Not too close to supper, son.” I looked down at the candy and hesitated. I wasn’t too interested on the idea of giving it up yet. I’d just spent the rest of my allowance on this! But Pa wiggled his fingers, and I knew I had no choice. “Come on son, give it up!’ I sighed and slapped the bag into Pa’s hand.
“We could use a few strong backs to help us get ready for the party. You know, set up tables, games, and help clean the town hall up…
Pa patted my shoulder. “Well, I’ve got one really strong back right here! It comes in handy all the time. I’ll be more than willing to loan it to you.”
“Pa! You’re talking about me like I’m some sort of plow horse or something! I’m your son!”
Pa nodded. “Exactly. And that’s exactly why you’ll be very, very willing to help get ready for this shin dig on Friday night.” Pa raised his eyebrows and gave me a look that told me I would indeed be more than happy to help out.
“Oh, yes ma’am. I’ll be there…” I turned and looked at Pa. Pa’s face held a smile of satisfaction. “Uh…what time?”
“Can you be there by around three? That will give us plenty of time to get ready. It starts at sundown.”
“You mean…we can’t eat until sundown?” I suddenly asked. “Why sun down isn’t until…OH!” I suddenly felt an elbow jab into my ribs. “Oh, yes ma’am…I mean…that sounds perfect!”
We waved goodbye and watched them leave. Pa put an arm around my shoulders and chuckled. “Let’s go!”
That was on Thursday. Today was Friday and Pa was trying to hurry me out the door to get to school. “Pa, why did you volunteer me for this job anyhow?”
“Well, because you didn’t volunteer yourself,” Pa answered.
“Yeah…Why didn’t YOU volunteer YOURSELF?” I asked then as I shot an accusing eye toward Pa.
Pa threw me my lunch sack, which I caught. I picked up my schoolbooks and slung them over my shoulder. “Because son, I have plans already.”
I rolled my eyes. “What? You and Milly going out somewhere alone again?”
Pa raised an eyebrow. “No, Smarty-pants! It just so happens that Micah asked me to watch things while he traveled over to a trial.”
“Oh.” I shrugged. “Well, I guess that trumps getting ready for the party. Don’t you need a good, strong deputy?”
“Yeah. One who can shoot!” Pa reached out and smacked my backside. “Now, get ready before you’re late and have to stay after!”
I went to school – same as usual…same teacher…same kids…same ol’ homework! I was certainly glad I got off at noon now! I went into town and started toward the café to grab something to eat before heading home. Pa was in there. He looked up at me and raised his eyebrows. “I figured you’d be on your way home.”
“Well…” I turned and looked over my shoulder. “Well…I was hungry.”
“Oh.” Pa motioned for me to sit down. I took my hat off and slapped it on the table as the waitress came over. “I want some roast beef with green beans, pota-“ I started.
“A ham sandwich and a glass of milk,” Pa declared. He turned and looked back at me. “Exactly how were you going to pay for this, son? You spent the rest of your allowance on candy yesterday.”
“Well…I…” I was going to charge it. I looked down at the table.
Pa didn’t say anything as we ate in silence for awhile. “I have some errands to do here in town, son. When you’re done, I want you to go on home and work on your chores.” I nodded as Pa slapped some money on the table. He looked at me squarely.
“Now Pa…” I stated. “I am your boy and it’s your responsibility to make sure I’m clean, fed, and get a proper education remember?” I cocked my head to one side. “’Sides, you were here.”
“Then this one’s on me…” He pointed a finger at me. “This time!” Then he snapped a finger. “But don’t go charging my hard-earned money. Understand?”
“Yes sir.” I bolted down my milk, wiped my hand on my sleeve, and stood up to leave. Pa shook his head at me. He put his hands on his hips as he watched me jump on my horse and ride for home. After kicking my heels into Blue Boy’s flank, I turned and looked at Pa. I couldn’t help but smile when I saw the amusing look on his face and his shaking head.
I rode for home as I thought about all the chores Pa had given me to complete this afternoon. He wanted me to clean the chicken coop, sweep the floors, chop the wood, and check on my garden. I shook my head, knowing I better hurry. But as I rounded a corner, I suddenly stopped when I saw a man standing on the road pointing a gun at me. It startled me a bit. A boy doesn’t expect to be minding his own business and suddenly find a gun on him, after all! “Hi,” I managed to say.
“Hi, boy,” the man said. He holstered his gun, then bent down to look at his horse. Now, anyone who knows me knows that I don’t make enemies easily. And when I see a four-legged critter in trouble, I get really concerned. You see, I’ve always had a huge love for horses. “Something I can do to help?” I asked from my saddle.
I was surprised at the man’s answer. “Yeah, you can trade horses with me.”
But I could tell something was wrong with the horse. “Wouldn’t be such a good swap from where I look,” I declared as I tipped my hat further back on my head. I jumped out of the saddle and walked over to the stranger. He thought his horse was better. “Might be you have a better horse, but I’ve raised mine up form a colt and I sort of like him.”
Okay, that may have been a bit of an understatement. Nobody could EVER take Blue Boy from me! There were a few times I worried. He’d been sick, and once he had a really sore leg. That scared me really bad, knowing what happens to horses that go lame and stay that way…that had happened to my colt I had before Blue boy. Blue Boy was special because he was a gift to me from my Pa’s cousin, Chuck. He had left Blue Boy to me in his dying breath. Ever since then, Blue Boy has been my best friend. We love each other.
Of course, I didn’t tell the stranger all that. I didn’t want to sound like a sentimental little kid or anything!
I could tell his horse was in a bad way. He wasn’t standing on his leg very well. I hated to see this horse have to walk all the way back into town with his tendon all swollen up like that. I could put myself in this man’s shoes. And I knew that it would break my heart to walk Blue Boy such a long way. I offered to take him to my ranch.
As I tended to Cocoa’s leg, I stared at the stranger. I wondered exactly who he was and where he came from. He was wearing buckskins. I wondered if he was a wagon train scout. I started to ask a few times, but Pa’s words kept coming back to me. He always warned me not to pry into other people’s affairs. But I was a social person, Pa knew that. I reckon that’s why he continued to warn me over and over again…and to scold me when I didn’t take his advice.
But it wasn’t just curiosity of his occupation. I was curious about something else. This man…there was something about it. He seemed so very, very sad…like he’d lost something and he was looking for it. I felt a connection with him, but I wasn’t sure what. It was nothing I could explain…it was just a feeling – deep inside me.
I wanted to know him – to understand what it was that made me feel so sorry for him. I wanted to know what the loss was in his eyes that seemed to tear him up inside. I wanted to see him smile…just once…to see how he’d look if he were happy.
I worked quietly at bandaging the horse leg. I turned and looked at him as he bent down beside me. “Uh…my…my name’s Mark McCain.”
“McCain?” Corey looked at me. “I’ve heard that name.”
“You and everybody else!” I declared as I smiled proudly. “My Pa…he’s known as the Rifleman.”
“The rifleman.” Mr. Corey shook his head. “I never would have guessed.”
“Guessed what?” I asked, suddenly confused.
“That he was a family man…that he had a fine son…a nice little ranch…” I turned and looked at him. “My name’s Mr. Corey.”
But I was curious on his words. “Why did you say that? About my Pa, I mean? Why do I surprise you so much?”
“Well…” Mr. Corey picked up a stick and began drawing in the dirt. His eyes stayed diverted from mine. “It’s just…when you hear about him…a person thinks he’s a gunfighter – a man with a reputation like that is rough…mean…”
“Not my Pa!” I declared with a smile. “He’s the nicest man in the world!” I looked toward Mr. Corey. “Why, he’d give you the shirt off his back if you needed it.”
Mr. Corey’s eyes shot toward mine. I saw a look in his eyes…That look only stayed there for a second. “I….I’m sorry. That reminded me of someone I used to know. You…You remind me of someone I used to know.”
I saw the regret in his eyes. There was a deep, deep sadness. I wondered if I could remove that sadness from his eyes.
When I finished, he reached into his pocket to pay me. I told him he didn’t have to do that. I was only being neighborly, after all. That’s what Pa and me do all the time – help other people. Mr. Corey started saddling his horse. I knew it was only a matter of moments before this man mounted his horse and rode off, never to be seen again. I had to question him.
He suddenly turned. I saw a wishful look in his eyes as he spoke. "Nice farm, real nice. There's something about standing on your own land. Workin' it. Knowin' that you'll get out of it what you put into it.”
“I guess the harder you work, the better the crops. That’s the way it usually turns out,” I mumbled as I remembered how hard Pa and I were always working here.
As Mr. Corey spoke, he had a lonesome tone in his voice. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. He seemed to be missing something, something that he was looking for. I wondered what it was. “Sleeping good, eating good and being with people…” As he said those words, I suddenly remembered we were having a town hall meeting tonight with a picnic, games, and such.
The lost look in his eyes grew deeper as he stared at me. "Listen to me! Don't ever leave the land boy. Always be a part of it, part of the community, people looking at you, smiling at you, always being glad to see you."
Are there things he wished he could take back? Choices he wished he could make again? Was there a life he felt he missed out on? Maybe I was just reading those things into his expression, but I suddenly felt a deep connection to him – like we shared something really special.
I decided to ask the question then. If anything, it would show him that I did care – that I merely wanted to…well, to be his friend. I asked him if he was a wagon train scout. “Huh?” My question confused me and I informed him that people in these parts didn’t usually wear buckskin.
He looked down at what he was wearing and suddenly realized how out of place he must look. He told me that buckskins were a habit with him. “I used to work with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Guess I got kinda used to wearing them.”
At that latest announcement, I grew very, very excited! It wasn’t everyday that I found out a big piece of news like that! Stuff like wild west shows, circuses, gunslingers, and marshals – those things excited a boy like me who wasn’t too old yet to still dream about adventure.
I was also excited about the fact that he knew Buffalo Bill. I remembered going to one of his shows…what…was it only a year ago? I had me an adventure with a missing elephant.
Corey had been with Buffalo Bill for four years! He had done fancy shooting mostly while in the circus. I wanted him to show me what he used to do. He agreed to show me, and pointed for me to sit “over there.” As I sat down, my pulse began racing in excitement,
“That’ll be the best seat in the house, right there!” I watched excitedly as Corey did his act. “The ring master comes in and he says, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen! We present to you the fastest gun in the West, Tip Corey! And I’d come riding in with Cocoa over there. He slows down just enough to let me slide off nice and easy. Then I give it one of these here.” Corey took out his gun and started twirling it around. Boy oh boy! I’d never seen such fast gun-tricking in all my life!
“Then all of a sudden, the crowd kinda goes to a quiet. Then I start my tricks.” Mr. Corey started doing all kinds of fancy tricks with his gun. He spun it and tossed it up in the air. The whole time, he continued talking. He starts walking closer and closer to me as he spun the gun around and around on his finger. All I could do was stare at the gun. I could hardly believe my eyes! He did it so fast that I could hardly even see it! It was all just a blur.
As I watched Mr. Corey talk and demonstrate the act he’d done for Buffalo Bill, I saw a life in his eyes. I no longer saw the sadness from when I first met him and then when I was bandaging his horse. He was happy to be sharing the happier times of his life with someone.
Corey then grabbed a tin can and threw it up in the air. He drew, shot it twice, then holstered his gun as the can fell to the ground. Then he showed me the big trick. He took a nail and drew a circle on the barn wall. Then he took out his knife. “I’m gonna put a bullet hole right in the middle of that mark. Then I’m gonna put the knife right over the bullet hole.” I stared as he did it. I couldn’t believe it! "Now for the last lesson."
"Hold it” I turned to see Pa riding into the yard. “There won't be any last lesson." Pa climbed off of his horse and started toward Mr. Corey. He had a look of anger on his face. I was confused. "Get off this ranch and be quick!"
I knew Pa was always leery of my talking to strangers, but I was upset with his rudeness all the same! I didn’t understand why Pa didn’t even check out to see who this man was. Now granted, Pa didn’t like any man shooting for sport, and he didn’t like a man there shooting off his gun with me there unsupervised. "But Pa, Mr. Corey was just..." I started to explain.
But he wouldn’t even give me a chance! "You heard me Corey, mount up and get out of here." He was being awfully rude about it! I was confused.
Mr. Corey took out his gloves and put them on as he thanked me for the bandage. Then he got on his horse and rode off.
I watched him leave, ashamed of my Pa’s actions. I again started to explain what he was doing there but Pa wouldn’t let me. “Mark, Tip Corey’s a killer.”
After he spoke, he walked over to the well to get a drink while I allowed his words to sink in. “Killer…” It just didn’t fit with what I saw in the man’s eyes…his actions…listening to him talk about his time with Buffalo Bill.
"Where ever he goes he leaves a dead man behind. There must be twelve men in their grave because of him.” I just couldn’t believe Mr. Corey was all that bad. I told Pa that Mr. Corey said he used to be in the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. “Then he discovered there was more money in hiring his gun out,” Pa stated.
It just didn’t add up! He didn’t seem like a hired gun…he didn’t seem like a man who was motivated to kill. I saw how much he cared about his horse. To me, killers wouldn’t care about a hurt animal.
"He draws so fast...you can just barely see him," I stated. Pa told me to get washed up so I could get to town and help Mrs. Wingate at the town hall tonight. He reminded me he had to hold down Micah's desk for him. Micah had proof that a boy was innocent and so he had to go to the county court. Pa would be his deputy.
I started inside, but then I stopped and turned back towards Pa. "Pa...have you ever seen Corey's circus act?" He asked me why "The things he can do with that gun." I had just been so amazed at Mr. Corey’s skills…I just couldn’t believe how fast and skilled he was… But then to find out he was a killer…
“Come on.” Pa led me inside.
I walked up to the wash basin and cupped my hands. I started to scoop up the water to wash my face. “Pa?” Pa came out of the bedroom as he unbuttoned his shirt. “Pa…Mr. Corey…I think he has something missing.”
“Love, son. No man who sees to kill people, has love.”
“No…It’s not that, Pa…I get the feeling that he’s lost something that he’s looking for.” Pa studied me. I saw his concern for me in his eyes. “I just can’t believe that-“
“He’s a killer, Mark!” Pa’s voice held a hint of warning in it. “Now, let’s not discuss it anymore.”
Pa turned and glared at me. He put his hands on his hips. “Son, regardless of who Corey is, you had no right in letting him shoot his gun like that!”
“He was just showing me his act-“ I started.
“I don’t care!” Pa’s voice was booming now. “You know my rules. I don’t like you being around people who are shooting guns! You know how I feel about that – I’ve made it very clear!”
“Pa, I-“ I started, but Pa’s eyes narrowed. “Yes sir.” I sighed. I needed to understand Mr. Corey better. What drove a man, who could be so kind to an animal and so eager in remembering his days with Buffalo Bill, what could drive a man to become a killer. But in Pa’s current frame of mind I knew that I’d have to do that without his help. As I finished cleaning myself up, I wondered if I’d ever see Tip Corey again.
Pa and I rode into town, side by side as usual. But, Pa was quiet and reserved. I wanted to talk to him, but I could tell he was upset and worried. I knew he was upset with me because I had some sort of respect for this man who my Pa hated. We took our horses to the livery. Pa told me to get them some food and water then head straight to the town hall.
Pa was already at Micah’s when I saw Mr. Corey ride into town. I was happy because I wanted to talk to him. I felt he could use a friend. I turned back to the horses. Then after getting them settled, I hurried to find Mr. Corey.
I know I would get in trouble for disobeying my father, if he found out. Pa never could stand it when I didn’t obey his strict orders, but I had to see this man. There was something pulling at me when it came to Tip Corey and I had to find out what it was. I wanted to know what he had lost. I could see it clearly in his eyes and it put a passion in my heart that couldn’t be stopped.
I turned the corner. “Mr. McCain!” I heard Mr. Corey yell. I froze in my steps. Pa was standing on the porch to Micah’s office and Mr. Corey was standing outside the hotel. I saw the expression on Pa’s face. He saw me and I knew he wished I wasn’t there.
I walked up behind Mr. Corey as he spoke. “McCain, you got about an hour to think it over whether you should die for a badge that don’t even belong to you.”
I couldn’t believe this! Mr. Corey – the man I wanted to befriend was threatening to kill my father! “You happen to have the same hour, Corey,” Pa answered as he looked at me.
Worry filled me. I’d seen Mr. Corey in action with the gun. Now, I love my Pa dearly, but my Pa couldn’t do half the tricks Mr. Corey could do. Nor could he draw and shoot as fast. This man I wanted to help was now about to kill my father…in one hour!
“I’ll be moving on, McCain. But when I do, I’ll be looking down in the dirt and I’ll be seeing that badge. But rather it’s pinned to your shirt or not is your choice to make, not mine.”
Mr. Corey walked back into the hotel. I started over toward Pa. I wanted to plead with him not to fight him. I wanted to try to explain to him what I saw in Mr. Corey’s eyes. But Pa stopped me. His words were stern and final. “Mark, you go on back to the townhouse until I come for you.” I said nothing, but I didn’t want to go back. “Go on, son.”
I turned and walked away.
But I didn’t go back to the townhouse. I couldn’t. My Pa’s life was at stake and I was really scared for him. Yet, my heart ached for Mr. Corey. I was so confused! I didn’t know what to do. I had to talk to Mr. Corey and beg him not to kill my Pa. I had to find out what he had lost…what was eating him up inside.
Most importantly, I had to save my father’s life.
I waited behind the corner until Pa went back inside Micah’s office. Then I snuck to the hotel and waited. I sat in the lobby while Mr. Corey got his hotel room. I watched him walk up the stairs. I waited a few minutes, then, making sure Pa was no where around, I made my way up the stairs to his room.
I knocked on the door. “Who is it?” Mr. Corey called.
“It’s me, Mr. Corey. Mark McCain,” I called.
I waited. The door opened and I found myself looking into those same tired, sad, lost eyes I’d looked into before. I wanted to reach out to him…to help him with whatever had caused that extreme hurt. “Your Pa send you to talk to me, boy?” His words sounded angry.
But I just looked him right in the eye. I wanted him to see that, in spite of the threats against my Pa, I still cared about him. "No sir,” Mark answered.
“Good.” He walked back into his room. I came in and closed the door. “I’d hate to change my opinion about him.”
I sighed. "I just can't understand you Mr. Corey. My Pa's only a rancher; he never did anything to you."
"I know he didn't," Mr. Corey answered.
"Well then why do you want to fight him?” I desperately wanted to understand.
“I don’t,” Mr. Corey said. “I like your Pa, boy. I like a man who stands up straight, says what he means. It's that badge he's wearin'! What it means to this town.”
I was confused. After our talk from earlier, his words didn’t add up. I had to get to the truth – for both of their sakes. “Doesn’t seem like you’d want to make a fool out of this town. But…well, that’s what you’d be doing if…if the Marshal’s badge was thrown in the dirt.”
Mr. Corey just looked down at the table and played solitaire as he spoke. He couldn’t look at me. “Boy, behind your ranch on a hill is a graveyard. In that graveyard, there’s a cross up there that has unknown written on it.”
“I know the one you mean.” I remembered the first time I saw that small cemetery with the unmarked grave. I was ten years old out exploring. I’d gone as far down the road as Pa had allowed me to go by myself and I’d seen it. I remember standing in front of it and feeling so very, very sad that the person in that grave no longer had a name. It was just an unknown man with an unknown past…maybe a good one and maybe not…but he (for I felt that it was a man) was just a nobody.
There was nobody to put flowers on that grave. I had taken flower seeds and planted there. I’d planted some of my mother’s marigolds there. I’d even tried transplanting flowers there – nothing ever worked. It was like…they had no reason to live over this grave. I had shed tears over that grave for the man who was buried there. It pained me to see a grave that no one cared enough to put the person’s name on the marker..
“Every so often, I pass it and I put some flowers on it,” I said then as I remembered all those times I’d just stood there, aching for the unknown man.
“You planted flowers on that grave?”
“Well, it’s the only gravestone without a name on it. I guess I’ve always felt kind of sorry for who…whoever’s buried there.”
I watched silently as Mr. Corey slowly stood up and took a drink from his glass. He suddenly looked a lot sadder then before. He still couldn’t look at me. When he spoke, his voice held a deep emotion. "My Pa's buried there boy!”
I felt my heart sink. So, that’s why I always felt so sorry for the unknown man. He was a father who had died and now I knew he had been a family man. “He was killed right out here in the street...by some drunken trail hands."
"I'm sorry." I couldn’t say anything else.
He stared out the window as he spoke. My heart grieved. "I was seven. We rode into town we saw these drunken trail hands, they were funnin' with a young Indian girl. He said to me, boy...you go over to the marshal's office and you fetch him. I went over there. I got the marshal out alright. He took one look at what was goin' on, he turned around and went right back into the office. Them drunken trail hands...they killed him. They knew there was nobody going to stop them from what they were going to do so they killed my Pa."
As he spoke, I began to understand why he was angry, but I had to make him understand that what he was trying to do was meaningless. He was planning to take his pain out on someone who didn’t even live in North Fork, at the time.
“But that was a long time ago,” I reminded him. I told him that neither Pa nor Micah were here when that happened.
Suddenly, Corey became angry. "But the law was here! My Pa believed in that law! Because he believed he died! But I found them boy. And I killed them. Now there's only one thing left. The Marshal's badge!" Those last three words brought more fear into my heart.
I saw his eyes. I saw the sadness he was still suffering…he was still grieving for his father after all these years. A young boy left fatherless, out here, I was beginning to understand the look in his eyes. Now, he only had one mission – to avenge his father’s death. Hate, that was the look. He hated the law. I’m not saying he had good reason to or not, but the fact that someone I dearly loved was standing behind that badge was enough to make me fight him with everything I had.
I knew my father. I knew what he stood for and what he believed in. I knew that nothing…and nobody…could make him back down or throw the badge in the dirt. My Pa was always explaining to me about principle. It was very important to him. There were times in my life when I knew my father was facing death – but he did it bravely, and he fought to the end. I never understood why he fought so hard. It was one of those things Pa told me I’d understand when I was older. It still didn’t make any sense each time my Pa told me that, but as I grew older, it did start to make sense and I was beginning to understand. Now that I was becoming a man, I was beginning to understand that without principles…I’d be no better off than Mr. Corey.
I spoke the sad reality. "My Pa will never throw that badge in the street. He's got too much pride.”
Corey had walked back over to stand by me. He was facing me, but he still couldn’t look at me. I knew why. Because if he looked into my eyes, he’d see himself back when he was seven years old. He’d see what he could have been if his father hadn’t died senselessly on the street that day.
Suddenly, he turned from me. He couldn’t speak. He was struggling with the man he was and the little boy he used to be. I was causing that struggle and could see which person was winning. My eyes filled up with tears. “Please Mr. Corey. You’re so good with that gun. I don't want nothing to happen to my Pa."
Mr. Corey didn’t move or say anything.
I saw the little boy standing on the street over his father’s body. I could hear the words he said to his Pa at such a young age – that he’d get them when he was older. His heart had closed up that day. It had hardened and grown so hard nothing could penetrate it now. It was too late for him.
Inside, I was crying now. "Please!" Mark begged.
"You better go boy." He said it so quietly and so softly…I realized Mr. Corey was too far gone to help. Yet, I heard the regret in his voice. He didn’t want to do it – but he had to…for his Pa.
I turned away sadly as tears began welling in my eyes. I felt bad for Mr. Corey. I couldn’t imagine what he was going through. But I felt bad for my Pa too. I found myself torn between right and wrong…good and evil…What I would do if-
“Boy!” He broke into my thoughts. I turned from the door. “Thank you for planting the flowers on the grave." For the first time since I entered his room, he looked straight at me.
There my heart went again, wanting to reach out to this man…give him some sort of comfort…but I just didn’t know what to say. "They never took, I don't know why but they just never grew.”
Mr. Corey walked over to me. We stood face to face. He looked me straight in the eye. "Maybe they never grew 'cause he wanted you to come back and plant some more."
His words penetrated me. I knew what he was saying. He hadn’t been there to care for his father’s grave. His father needed someone to care about him after his death. He needed someone to visit his grave – and that’s why they never took…so I’d come back.
I left. I allowed the tears to fall down my face before wiping them away and walking across the street. I had my own struggle brewing inside me as I thought on the connection I had with Mr. Corey. Like his love for his father, I had the same deep love for mine. I lost count of how many times I feared my father’s death.
I couldn’t help but to wonder. If someone senselessly shot down my father…would I become the same way as Mr. Corey and walk the ends of this earth to avenge his death? We were so much alike, he and I…When we were seven, we loved our fathers so much. There was one big difference then – he lost his father while I still had mine…for now…And that got me to thinking.
I walked out and hid behind the hotel to keep an eye on Micah’s office. I waited to see what would happen. I would fight for my Pa’s life if I had to. I didn’t want either to die.
Then I saw Mr. Corey leave the hotel and walk into the Marshal’s office. I wanted to go and see what was being said, but I knew I’d be in a lot of trouble if I was caught there. I watched anxiously. Once in a while I could hear a voice speak. They weren’t friendly voices. Then when Mr. Corey walked out, he was angry and rushed passed me.
I knew the hour was almost up. It was time for Pa to meet him on the street. I was suddenly very nervous. What would happen? What could I do to stop this?
One of them was going to die – and I didn’t want either one of them to be the one. Was there anything I could say…anything I could do…to change these events?
Just then, I saw Mr. Corey ride up the street. He got off his horse and faced the Marshal’s office. “Marshal McCain,” he called.
My heart started beating. I prayed Pa wouldn’t come out that door. I prayed something…anything would happen to keep these events from occurring. Oh, how many times had excitement filled me about stories of outlaws facing the town Marshal on the street? How many times did Pa scold me for having such excitement?
This time it was real…it was personal – and I was here to watch. For the first time, I didn’t want the man facing the Marshal to die anymore then I wanted the Marshal to die. For the first time, I didn’t pray my Pa would win. Instead, I prayed that somehow…some way…neither gun would be fired. I prayed that…well…that peace and common sense would kick in.
“I’m waitin’ for that badge you’re wearing!” Mr. Corey called.
My heart pounded as I watched my Pa step out the door and onto the boardwalk. “Oh God, no…Oh God no…” I kept praying over and over.
“Unpin it, McCain. Unpin it and let it drop in the dirt or so help me you’ll drop with it still pinned to your shirt!” I closed my eyes as I heard those hateful words. It was his hurt talking. He was looking at my loving, caring, fair father as if he were that selfish, poor excuse for a Marshal that used to be here on this very street so many years ago.
Pa spoke bravely. Part of me wanted him to do as Mr. Corey said. Part of me was proud for his standing up against Mr. Corey. But there wasn’t a single part of me that wanted one single bullet to fire. I wished I could make them both understand. “That’s the only way you’ll get it in the dirt, Corey! By dropping me with it,” my Pa declared. He stepped into the street. “But somebody else will pick it up. That’s the one thing you don’t understand. They’ll always be somebody around to pick up for what’s right.”
"You mean somebody picking up that badge?” Mr. Corey asked. “McCain, you've got a lot to learn about this world. When this is all over and you’re lying in the dirt that tin star will be shining white hot. It’ll be much too hot for anybody to touch. And when you’re lying there in the dirt there McCain, I want you to look
around...take one look...and you tell me who will pick it up?" He looked around. I did the same. I suddenly felt what he was feeling that day. My Pa was about to be killed by this man, yet no one in the town was willing to help him. Not one single person would step forward to support my father. Pa had done so much for them over the years, yet there they stood unwilling to help Pa…unwilling to stand up for what was right. Lord could it only have been a few months back when my Pa was standing alone? Then it had been very few men in town and four outlaws… But now? How could they all just stand there, watching, not saying anything, not acting?
My heart wept. "Nobody McCain! Not a soul!" Mr. Corey started yelling. "Go ahead McCain, go ahead and ask them! Ask them who will pick up the badge?"
I could no longer stand back and watch. If no one else would, I would stand up for my father, for the law. "I'll pick it up!” Mr. Corey’s head bolted around in surprise. He hadn’t expected to see me there, but there I was. I stepped out from around the corner.
"Maybe not right away, but someday somewhere I'll pick it up and I'll come after you! Won't be for a long time yet! But someday, someday you’re gonna see that badge again and I'll be behind it! So you just be ready Mr. Corey. Ya' hear? Cause someday...somewhere..." my heart was breaking, my caring and compassion for him was turning to… I could no longer go on.
With everything in my being, I wanted him to understand, that I was this loving boy full of hope and dreams. As long as I had my father at my side. But, if my father were killed for a senseless reason in a senseless gunfight…I wanted him to see that there would be more than one life destroyed.. I wanted to show him…
He knew I had liked him. Yet in this instant, I wanted him to see that no matter how much I may care for him, hatred could come out inside me…a hatred, was that what I was truly feeling, a hatred that, for the rest of my life…would slowly kill me, a bright boy full of hopes, like it killed him. Maybe that’s why I spoke, to show him the cycle would just be repeating itself. I would be just like he was there, that day when his father was killed – right there…watching the men who did it. Only this time, he’d be on the outside looking in. I’d be the one watching the man who killed my Pa.
"Mark! Stand back son!" I heard it in Pa’s voice too. He hated my being there. He hated seeing me go through this. But still…he had to go through with this. He had to stand up for the law.
As I stepped back, I searched Mr. Corey’s face. It no longer held anger or hate. It held years of regret, an extreme sadness…and something…something I didn’t recognize. "A long time ago on this very spot I said words very much like that.” He whispered. I’m not even sure my Pa heard his words.
He just stood there starring at me. He was crying. In that instant, I ached for him. I wanted to run to him and hug him – tell him everything would be okay.
But then I saw it. That look I hadn’t recognized suddenly became recognizable. It was a look of peace. I stared at him as I saw the decision in his eyes as he cried his last tears and for the first time, actually gave me a very, very weak smile. If you weren’t looking for it, you would miss it.
I knew what he was about to do. I wanted to stop him – to beg him not to do it. He acted before I could.
He turned to my Pa. "I'm calling you McCain!" Mr. Corey stated. It all happened so fast.
"Don't do it!" Pa yelled. Pa saw that look, but he saw it differently. Pa knew it was life or death.
Then, it was over. Pa looked to me as I stepped to the street. Then he saw that Mr. Corey was still alive. I knelt down next to Pa as he lifted Mr. Corey’s dying body into his arms and held him. I was crying too. How could I express the pain and agony that was in my heart. How could I ever explain to Pa…
"You were slow," Pa said softly.
"A man gets tired McCain." From the tone in his voice, I think Pa knew the truth, but didn’t understand why -- that I had made him slow. My heart was breaking. Mr. Corey looked up me. "Flowers?"
"All right," I answered softly.
Pain etched Mr. Corey’s face as he laid taking his last few breaths. He moaned as the pain grew worse. As Pa held him, he cried out, “Pa!” Then he died in my father’s arms. After he was gone, Pa looked up at me. He had a hundred questions on his mind I could tell. The one worded question held so many emotions. "Flowers?" He asked softly.
"I know what he meant Pa." I looked down at his lifeless body. I suddenly found myself lowering my head to his as Pa lowered his body to the ground. I laid my head on his chest and listened to the silence there.
“Mark,” Pa whispered softly. There was pain in his voice. He wanted to understand what just happened.
I slowly lifted my head from Mr. Corey’s chest and looked at him. Tears were streaming down my face. I just shook my head at Pa’s unasked questions. I slowly stood up on shaky legs. “He…” I closed my eyes and swallowed as I took off my hat and stared down at him. “He’s to be b…buried…in the ce-ce-cemetary above our place.” I met Pa’s eyes. They held questions. I slowly turned and ran to the livery.
I rode like the devil for home, forgetting all about the party that was to be held in town at sundown. I rode to the cemetery and sat down in front of the cross. I ran my hand against the word “unknown” on the cross. Tears filled my eyes as I remembered being in the hotel room earlier in the day. In my mind, I listened again as Mr. Corey told me the story of his father.
“You aren’t unknown anymore, sir,” I swallowed. “I wish I knew your first name but…” I lowered my head and buried my face in my hands as I allowed myself to sob hard, loud sobs.
As I was crying, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I didn’t have to lift my head to know it was Pa kneeling down behind me. As I did look to him, he had confusion on his face as he looked at the cross. Then he looked into my eyes. “You know who is in the grave, don’t you son?” I nodded. I couldn’t speak, but I nodded.
Pa sat down beside me. I wanted to tell him I wanted to be alone, but from the look on his face, my guess was he wouldn’t leave even if I asked. He was worried…concerned…confused. I turned and looked back at the grave as I wiped at my tears with the back of my hands. Pa suddenly leaned forward and gave me his kerchief. I started to take it, but he held tightly to it.
I saw the look in his eyes. I was in his arms in only a moment as I allowed his arms to wrap around me and hold me. I sobbed some more until I was spent. Then he whispered quietly. “Let’s go home.”
I allowed him to pull me up. He walked me to my horse and helped me into the saddle. After we rode into the yard, I just stared toward the corral where I had doctored Cocoa’s leg up. Pa sat on Razor right beside me. We just stared straight ahead. “It seems so…lost…” I swallowed as I looked down into the dirt.
“A lot of lives are,” Pa stated.
I shook my head slowly. “Pa, I…I never made it to the townhouse. I…I…” I turned and looked at him. “There are some things about Mr. Corey you don’t know. He had good reason for what he did.”
Pa’s face turned from concern to a stern teachable expression. “Good reason, son?” I could hear it in Pa’s voice, there’s never a good reason to murder someone.
I turned away from him, I couldn’t look him in the eye, just yet. “You…you didn’t hear his story, Pa, what happened to him so long ago. He had so much…so much pain and hurt and…” I stopped then. I lost count of how many times Pa had lectured me on unforgiveness and anger. He said those were two things we had to rid ourselves of right quick. Anytime I was angry about something, Pa went out of his way to make sure I got those emotions out. I wasn’t allowed to stay angry too long, nor was I allowed to live in unforgiveness. Pa told me he knew what those things did to a person.
“And what?” Pa asked quietly.
“…And unforgiveness…” I answered. I looked up at him again. Our eyes locked and I saw the understanding in his eyes.
Pa gave me lots of thinking time that night. As he came in to say goodnight to me, he silently sat down on the side of my bed and just looked at me. I knew the time had come for me to move on. “Will you bury him in the cemetery?” Pa nodded. “It’s his father’s grave that I cared for all these years. Can you believe that?”
“His father was killed?” Pa asked.
I nodded. “He…He was shot by some drunks because…well..., because he tried to protect an Indian girl. No one tried to stop those drunks from hurting the girl, Pa. Not the townspeople…not even the Marshal. And because Mr. Corey’s father tried to do right and was killed, I guess when Mr. Corey grew up, that anger, hatred and unforgiveness ate away at him.”
Pa lowered his head. “And that’s why you said what you said on the street while ago? You were showing him how he sounded that day.” I sort of nodded. “It seemed like you really meant it, son.”
I sat up and laid a hand on Pa’s forearm. “I…I guess I did. I stood there and saw all our friends just standing… I didn’t realize what I said, until after I said it. I honestly don’t know if I said it for him… or for me.”
We looked at each other. Pa’s eyes showed me that my thoughts concerned him, but he didn’t say anything else. He allowed me to my thoughts. “Pa?” I asked as he stood up to leave.
Pa stood in the doorway. His back was toward me. I saw him sigh as he looked up toward the ceiling. Then slowly he turned around. “I had a father once too, son.” Then I watched as he walked out of the room.
I don’t know what I would have done if Pa had been killed that day. But I do know one thing: Mr. Corey did a brave thing that day. He gave me my father – allowing him to live because for the first time in his life…he found someone who could soften his heart. He cared for me – and it was his care that killed him.
No one, except the two closest to us, came to the funeral. Milly came because Pa asked her to. I think he wanted me to have some support to show that he understood the way I felt. He accepted it. He knew that I’d seen a different side, no, that Mr. Corey had allowed me to see a different side of him. Micah came also.
I watched as Pa and Micah slowly lowered the box in the ground. I played a song on my guitar:
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost…but now I’m found
Was blind, but now I see…
Tears fell from my eyes. My words choked in my throat. Milly softly walked up behind me and placed her hands around my shoulders and pulled me close to her. She bent over and placed her cheek against mine as she began singing the next verse softly. I could no longer play my guitar.
There were no other words spoken. We stood in silence…Milly and me…as we watched Pa and Micah cover the box. I listened as the dirt hit the wooden box with a thump. I listened to the rhythm Micah and Pa’s shovels made as they dug into the dirt and dumped it.
Silence…such silence…I closed my eyes and remembered the stories Mr. Corey told me about his working in the wild west show. Such noise and excitement filled my thoughts as I pictured him riding Cocoa around the arena and shooting his rifle. I imagined the smile on his face as the audience cheered. They had no idea they were cheering for a little boy who had died beside his father at the age of seven.
I slowly walked to Micah, as he paused to wipe the sweat from his brown, and put my hands on the shovel. Micah paused and looked down at me. His eyes met mine. He nodded, knowing it was now time for him to step aside. Father and son…that’s how it should be. I, the son, worked with my father as we buried the son next to his father.
When it was done, Pa took my shovel. I kneeled down beside the grave and folded my hands together as I prayed in silence that father and son had been reunited and were now at peace. More tears sprang to my eyes as I prayed. I felt as the three others kneeled beside me. Pa started the Lord’s prayer…followed by Micah…then Milly…and finally my shaky voice helped finish it.
I slowly reached into my pocket and pulled out the flower seeds. I planted them first over Tip Corey’s grave, then over his father’s. Pa placed a new cross on each grave. Milly and Micah left as I sat there in silence thinking on this father and son. Pa placed a hand on my shoulder and patted it. “A chapter’s ending, son.”
I nodded as I stood. “Makes me realize something, Pa.” I looked up at him. “How thankful I am to have you.” Our eyes met and we smiled at each other.
“Let’s go home, son.”
I turned and looked at Cocoa who was tied to a tree. “First, there’s something I have to do.” I untied him, removed the halter, and gave him a slap on his shoulder, and as he turned, I slapped him on the rump. “I know he’ll probably die out there…but at least he’ll die free…like Mr. Corey was.” I looked up at Pa and again smiled. “That last instance, Pa…he was free.”
Pa nodded. He patted my shoulder as we looked towards Cocoa. He ran through the woods and neighed. “Yes, son. He was.”
I knew it would take me a long time to get over the hurt I experienced, knowing that I had something to do with a man being killed, but as I had talked with my Pa, the more we both came to realize, it was Mr. Corey who chose to finally come home to his Pa and that he had given a name to the unknown grave. I guess this was another one of my growing up moments as I, Mark McCain, walked home with my father.
*A special thanks goes out to Michelle Palmer for her insight on how Mark had seen these episodes.
Mark's Memories ― Table of Contents
You've heard Lucas' story, now hear Mark's Story
Man from Salinas
around The McCain Ranch