The Rifleman
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Fan Fiction

Remembering Wyoming
Written by Clara aka CTW
 

Preface

Aside from his mother’s death, perhaps the most difficult experience of Mark McCain’s youth was enduring the nearly two months that his father was away on an unexplained trip, following the loss of their entire herd to Hoof and Mouth disease. This experience, told in “The Wyoming Story,” may have been even more difficult for Mark than working through the death of his mother.

There is no denying the tragedy and trauma of her death for six-year-old Mark, the long struggle to move past it, nor the empty place that it left in his heart for the rest of his life. However, he had one thing then that he did not have in “The Wyoming Story”: his father. Also, though six-year-old Mark struggled with the concept of death, he knew what had happened to his mother: a terrible illness consumed and quickly claimed her. Twelve-year-old Mark had no idea where his father had gone nor when he would return. There was no explanation for his absence. While Lucas was away, Mark had no way of knowing whether or not his father was safe, or if he was even alive.

The second half of this story offers an adult Mark’s reflection on this time of deep emotional struggle, and on the impact that the relationship with his father continues to have, even as Mark enters his waning years. It begins, though, with a time of joy and opportunity for father and son that occurs just before the events of “The Wyoming Story.”

Readers who are unfamiliar with “The Wyoming Story” are encouraged to read Lucas’ account of it before reading this story. The account can be found on this Website.


Pride and Joy

The first day back at school after the spring planting break was unbearably long, but 3:00 finally came and Mr. Griswald dismissed the children. Mark McCain raced along the dirt road toward home as fast as Blue Boy would carry him. He was bursting with a joy that he never associated with anything related to school. Today was different. Today, he was looking at an opportunity few children of modest means in late 19th century New Mexico Territory enjoyed. Not only that: today, he would make his father very proud.
As soon as Mark was within shouting distance of the ranch house, his excitement exploded in loud cries of, “Pa! Pa!” He was off of his horse before Blue Boy had fully stopped, running from house to barn, searching for his pa. “Pa! Where are you?”

Lucas hurried around from the back of the barn. “What is it, Mark? What’s wrong?”

Mark ran to him, jumping up and down like a five-year-old at Christmas and waving a large envelope in Lucas’ face. “Guess what, Pa? You won’t believe it! Not in a million years! Guess what happened today?”

Before Lucas could venture a guess, Mark exclaimed, “I won! I won! We’re going to Denver, Pa!”

“Going to Denver? What are you talking about, son?”

“Pa, don’t you remember the essay contest that Mr. Griswald made all us kids enter before the spring planting break?” Mark was still pacing and waving the envelope, his face lit up with a happiness that made Lucas’ heart swell.

Mark continued in a rush of words. “Well, the results of the contest came in on Friday and Mr. Griswald told us today. Pa, I won! Not just for North Fork, but for the whole New Mexico Territory! Me, Pa! My essay won!”

At that, Lucas swooped up his twelve-year-old son, tossing him in the air, catching him and spinning him around as he had not done since his boy was eight or nine years old. Then, he pulled Mark to him in a great bear hug, father and son laughing with pride and delight. Mark wrapped his legs around his pa’s waist and returned the hug. He stayed in Lucas’ arms while he reminded his pa of the prize for the territorial winners.

“All the Western Territory winners get to go to Denver, Pa. We get to stay there for a whole week! We’ll study writing and other things at a college there, and get to see all the sights in the city. Then, at the end of the week, we each read our essays to a crowd of people, and the judges pick two winners. Those two get to go to Washington, Pa! Can you imagine? The nation’s capital! Then, they’ll compete with winners from the whole entire country for a scholarship to college. And guess what, Pa? You get to go, too!”

“Me?” Lucas was drinking in his son’s enthusiasm. Mark was a boy who much preferred to work on the ranch with his pa than go to school, yet now he was spilling over with uncontained joy about a school assignment.

“Yes, you!” Mark shouted with glee. “The people that run the contest pay for our train fare, and we get to stay in rooms at the college, and they pay for our meals … everything, Pa! It’s good timing, too!”

“How’s that, son?”

“Well, we just got the spring planting done. There aren’t any really big chores that have to be done right away, are there? If Billy can keep an eye on the stock, the crops will be okay until we get back, won’t they?”

Still holding his boy in his arms, Lucas looked him straight in the eye and said, “Mark, it is not every day that my son wins an essay contest and a trip to Denver. The crops will indeed be okay until we get back.”

“Really, Pa? Honest? So we can go?”

“Yes, son. We can go!”

“Whoopee!” Mark yelled, practically in his father’s ear. He gave Lucas another hug and then slipped down out of his perch in his 6' 5'' father’s arms and ran toward the house.

“Where are you going, son?” Lucas called to him.
“To start making a list of everything we need to do for the trip.”

“What if we take care of our chores first? We can start making our plans while supper cooks.”

“Yes, Pa,” came the dutiful but reluctant reply, and Mark set about his afternoon tasks.

By the time he finished his chores, Mark had calmed down enough to eat supper. In the middle of the meal, Lucas said, “Mark, I don’t recall seeing this winning essay of yours.”

“Oh, well, when I wrote it, I decided to keep it … well … kind of a secret. On the off chance that I did win anything, I wanted it to be a surprise – not that I entered the contest, but what I chose for my subject.”

“Now that you’ve won, do I get to read this marvelous piece of work?”

“Well, Pa, I’ve been thinking about that. On the one hand, I’m very anxious for you to read it. On the other, I’d kind of like you to hear it for the first time when I read it in Denver. I can’t quite decide. It doesn’t matter right now anyhow ‘cause Mr. Griswald has my paper. He’s afraid I might lose it if he gives it back to me before time to leave town.”

“I wonder whatever caused him to worry about that?” Lucas teased. Mark just grimaced and finished the last bite of his food.

After supper, Mark tended to his homework while Lucas studied the information that Mr. Griswald had sent home about the trip.

They were to take the stagecoach from North Fork to Santa Fe, where they would board the train for Denver. It was about 390 miles from Santa Fe to Denver, and the train would travel between 40 and 50 miles per hour. Figuring in station stops along the way and a break for dinner, the ride would take approximately 14 hours. They were scheduled to leave in two weeks.
Lucas used the two weeks to make sure all was in good order at the ranch, and to arrange for Billy Lehigh to tend the stock in his and Mark’s absence. He took care, too, to see that Mark’s Sunday suit was in good repair, and that he had sufficient appropriate attire for the classes and other activities that were planned for his week in Denver.

Mark was hard pressed to keep his mind on school and homework. Lucas threatened to tie him to his chair if he didn’t stop bouncing and start concentrating on his studies.

In the evenings, after supper, homework, and chores were finished, the two sat at the table and studied a travel book about Denver that Mr. Griswald had loaned to them. They made a list of all of the things they would like to see and do during Mark’s free time. Once they felt the list was complete, they began to prioritize and narrow it down to a number of activities that would fit into the allotted time. It wasn’t long before Lucas caught himself almost bouncing with excitement just like his son.


All Aboard

At last, the day came to begin their trip. Their good friends Micah Torrance, the town marshal, John Hamilton, the banker, and Milly Scott, the general store owner, saw them off amid handshakes, embraces, and good wishes for safe travel. Along with a gentle kiss for her two good friends, Miss Milly gave Mark and Lucas a basket filled with goodies for the trip – sandwiches, hardboiled eggs, apples, and freshly baked oatmeal-raisin cookies. Well-stocked and cheered, Lucas and Mark boarded the stagecoach and pulled out of North Fork on what was to be the prelude to a very long emotional journey.

Once in Santa Fe, Mark and Lucas had time for lunch before boarding the train. Lucas decided to splurge on a restaurant lunch and save Milly’s basket of goodies for the train ride.

This was not Mark’s first experience of train travel, but this train of the Denver and Rio Grande Line was far fancier than the last one he had ridden. Lucas figured their car to be about 6'5" feet long and a few inches shy of 10 feet wide. There were 27 roomy chairs, 13 on one side of the center aisle and 14 on the other. Except for the one odd chair, they were placed two by two. Most were positioned facing forward, but a few were situated in groups of four chairs that faced each other.

Long glass windows ran the length of the car. They were draped with deep blue satin curtains that the conductor closed at night and opened at sunup. Oil-burning lamps in gold housing were mounted at intervals just above the windows, one lamp at each group of chairs. The conductor lit these at dusk and dimmed them about 9:00 at night.

There was a smoking room in another car, but Lucas did not take advantage of it.

Mark’s concern about the lack of an outhouse was put to rest when the conductor pointed out the “convenience” at the end of the car. Also at the end of the car was a large glass water container bolted to the wall. All one had to do was pull a plug at its base to release water into a cup. Several tin cups hung on hooks next to the container. No need for canteens on this trip!

Unlike Mark’s last train ride, this train had attendants that served coffee, tea, cigars, and light lunches. A newsboy walked through the cars selling books, newspapers, fruit, and candy. Having been well supplied with snacks for the journey, Lucas – much to Mark’s dismay – did not spend money on any edibles, but did treat himself to a copy of the Denver paper. While not interested in that at first, Mark perked up when he saw an article about a band that would be playing in the city that week. Maybe he could talk Lucas into taking him to hear it.

Because there had been a good bit of discussion in North Fork about the rapid expansion of the railroad and the possibility of bringing a spur through North Fork1, Mark was anxious to engage the conductor in a discussion about train travel. Lucas discouraged his son from imposing on the conductor’s time, but that did not stop Mark from striking up a conversation with one of the attendants. In the short exchange – Lucas put a stop to it after a few questions, explaining that the attendant had work to do – Mark learned that at last count there were over 100,000 miles of railroad spanning the country. Such a length was more than Mark could fathom. Imagine how many men worked on all those miles of rails to make them stretch so far across the land! Could it be long, he wondered, before rails stretched all the way from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific?

Although snacks were available on the train, supper was not. There was a 40-minute stop at about 6:00 for a family-style meal at what was called an “eating station.” The fried chicken, beans, and potatoes didn’t quite measure up to Lucas’ cooking, but the meal wasn’t bad. It greatly improved, in Mark’s estimation, when chocolate cake was served for dessert. It sure felt good to have a chance to stand up and stretch, too!


Discoveries

Mid-morning of the next day, the McCains’ train pulled into the station at Denver. Slightly nervous about finding their way in the big city, the stiff and tired pair collected their bag and exited the passenger car. When they stepped onto the platform, Mark’s anxiety shot up several notches. Bustling up and down the platform were more people than he had ever seen in one place at one time. There seemed to be no pattern to their movement. They were racing helter-skelter in all directions, dodging this way and that to avoid bumping into one another.

Carrying their overnight bag and his rifle in one hand, Lucas took firm hold of Mark’s arm with the other and pushed through the throng of people. They had not gone far before they saw a man holding a sign up above the crowd that read, “Essay Contest Winner – McCain.” Mark and Lucas exchanged puzzled glances, and then approached the man.

“Yes, sir,” the man said in reply to Lucas’ question. “I am here to take you to the university. It is a service that the contest organizers provide. It wouldn’t do to have the winners and their parents getting lost in the city as soon as they get off the train!”

The man led Lucas and Mark to an open carriage. Painted black and polished to a smooth gloss, the words “The University of Denver” were painted on the door in gold lettering. Mark had never seen such a fine carriage, nor one that required opening a door to enter it. The deep red cushioned and tufted seats were a surprise, too. They reminded him of the fancy divan in Miss Milly’s living room. It had a collapsible cover that could be raised to protect the occupants in the case of inclement weather. Mark considered that a great improvement upon covered wagons! The deep black coat of the Morgan horse that pulled the carriage was such a perfect match to the black of the carriage that Mark briefly wondered if the horse had been painted, too!


As they were driven through the busy streets, Mark and Lucas were in awe of the number of people coming and going, the density of the street traffic, and the height and mass of several of the buildings. Horses, carts, wagons, and buggies inched along so close behind each other that they made Mark think of a twisting, turning, hodge-podge of a train.


Mark had read that Denver had a population of over 35,000 people, but he was still at a loss to believe it. Even as he witnessed the crowded streets along the way to the university, he wondered that so many people could live in one city.

They passed by the Windsor Hotel, an opulent hotel in Denver that was billed as “the largest and most complete hotel between Chicago and San Francisco.” Its five stories of sandstone and imposing corner tower dwarfed the surrounding buildings. Mark later learned that it was the largest hotel in the world at the time.
Telegraph wires running overhead were strung from posts erected up and down the street. “Imagine,” Mark thought to himself. “Telegraph signals going into almost every building!”

Several churches lined the street, and the spires of others peeked out above the shorter buildings. Some were clapboard, like the one in North Fork, but all were much larger than North Fork’s lone church. Some were elegant, seemingly built with the finest brick or stone with steeples reaching high to the sky. One had a domed roof. Two boasted rotund columns and long, broad concrete steps that made them look more like banks than churches. Mark supposed it was a necessary thing to have so many churches, given that 35,000 people lived in Denver. He wondered, though, if each church had its own preacher, and how people decided which one to attend. Later, he would ask his pa if they could visit one to see if the interior was as ornate as the exterior.

The driver turned a corner and they found themselves on a quieter street that seemed to be intended for smaller businesses. The tree-lined street and Victorian architecture lent an aura of prosperity and gentility to the area. Not too far along this street, there was a break in the trees and Mark and Lucas saw another imposing building standing alone in a clearing. It was square, built of brick, and seemed to be three stories tall. Several smoke stacks poked up out of the roof. The building was bordered by wrought-iron fencing and rows of perfectly spaced trees. Mark wondered if it was the University of Denver. As their carriage approached, a sign came into view that announced it to be the 24th Street Public School. Being a product of one-room schoolhouses, it had never occurred to Mark that a school building could be any different from the one he attended in North Fork.

Mark and Lucas knew that the University was housed in a single building in the city. They had learned from Mr. Griswald that it had been established in 1864 as Colorado Seminary. After a few years, it had to close temporarily because of economic problems sparked by Denver’s gold rush. It reopened in a new location in 1880 – just three years ago – as the University of Denver.

Mark and Lucas had been riding in silence, both busy marveling at the wonders they were seeing. Soon, the University of Denver came into view. “Pa,” Mark breathed. “That’s it!”

Sure enough, as they turned onto another street, the tall red brick building that housed the University stood before them. It was situated in the midst of lush plantings of green shrubs and colorful blooms, with the snow-capped Rocky Mountains serving as a majestic backdrop.

The driver pulled up to the main entrance, escorted Mark and Lucas inside, and directed them to a registration table that had been set up in the entryway. After Lucas handled the necessary paperwork, a university student showed the pair to their dormitory room.

The dormitory building was a separate three-story clapboard edifice located behind the main building. Mark and Lucas had a room on the second floor. After all of the crowds, street traffic, and massive buildings looming over them, they were relieved that the dorm room was simple. Two beds, two desks and chairs, two plain bureaus with a water basin and pitcher on top of each, a mirror, and a small closet were housed within the four walls. Without a word, both collapsed on a bed and let out a sigh.

“Pa, how did Denver get to be so big?”

Through a yawn, Lucas replied, “Well, son, as I understand it, it’s all thanks to the gold and silver mines. You know about the Pikes Peak Gold Rush of 1858. That’s when Denver was established. More mines have been opened in the last ten or fifteen years. People have been making a beeline to Denver for quite a while now, all hoping to strike it rich. Some prospered; others were ruined by greed.”

“Oh,” was the extent of Mark’s response. In spite of his excitement about being in the city, he was too tired to pursue the conversation.

“Mark,” Lucas said in a drowsy voice. “I don’t know about you, but I sure could use a nap. We have a couple of hours before the orientation meeting. I think I will indulge myself.”
“Well, Pa, as you know, I am not overly fond of naps,” Mark mumbled, “but I think I’ll join you this once.”

“Alright, son. Let’s hope one of us wakes up on time.”

Neither moved from his position. Both were sound asleep in seconds.

Lucas woke about an hour later, unpacked their bag, and went down the hall to the common washroom to freshen up. Thirty minutes later, he woke Mark so that he would have time to clean up, too. Mark dallied when he discovered the indoor plumbing in the washroom, but the two had time to spare, so Lucas didn’t fuss.

They found their way to the auditorium and were gratified to find refreshments had been laid out. Both were famished and supper was still a couple of hours off.

Entering the auditorium, they were impressed by the expansive ceiling and polished wood throughout. Mark was particularly taken with the number of chairs that filled the room, facing the stage in semi-circular rows. He figured there were at least a hundred. Never had he seen so many chairs in one room! He was taken, too, with the discovery that the seat of each shiny wooden chair was attached to the back by hinges, allowing it to be lifted up when unoccupied.

There were only eleven students in this phase of the competition, each accompanied by one parent. The students represented the territories of New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Dakota, and Washington, and the states of Colorado, Nevada, and California. The group felt very small in the spacious auditorium, but the students soon would be glad they had a chance to get acquainted with the room in which they would be speaking.

The chairman of The Grange, the organization sponsoring the essay competition, was John Brady. After calling the group to order, he explained the schedule for the week, as well as various items of housekeeping business.
A welcoming reception followed in the university president’s parlor. Mark loved meeting people, so he took to the reception like a fish to water. Lucas, on the other hand, was an introvert by nature. He bore up as best he could, lingering in the background, proudly observing his son, and chatting politely as required. He was relieved when they were all escorted to the cafeteria for supper.

Mark and Lucas both slept well that night. Mark awoke the next morning without any prompting from his pa, ready and anxious to begin the week.


Opportunities

Each day began with breakfast at 7:00 followed by classes for the students at 8:00 and a lecture or sightseeing activity for the parents. Being ranchers, Mark and Lucas were awake before 5:00 the first couple of days, ready to get busy. By midweek, though, both were enjoying the luxury of sleeping late.

Mark had classes in composition, government, agriculture, and oration. The contest was intended to target youngsters that had the drive and potential to represent the agriculture industry as leaders in local, state, and federal government. Classes, then, were designed to develop skills that would be of particular use to those in such positions. The classes were so well presented that Mark found himself looking forward to them more than he ever had for school. Like the proverbial sponge, he was soaking up every word and idea that his teachers had to offer. He enjoyed the classes so much that lunchtime came as a surprise every day. Mark could hardly believe that four hours in a classroom could fly by so quickly!

Parents met their children for lunch in the cafeteria. One more class followed lunch and then they all had the rest of the afternoon free for sightseeing. A few activities were scheduled and conducted by the University, but for the most part, parents and children were left to explore on their own.

On their first free afternoon, Mark and Lucas visited the Denver Branch Mint where they observed the melting, refining, assaying, and stamping of bullion. Such had been the function of this branch since 1863. Soon after Mark and Lucas’ visit, it would be authorized to coin gold and silver.

On two occasions, to wrap up an afternoon of sightseeing, they sat on a park bench and simply gawked at the multi-story buildings and the passersby. They marveled at the fashions for both men and women, which were so much more elaborate than anything either had seen in the small towns of New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Wyoming in which they had lived. Not everyone was so well turned out: Mark was perplexed by the number of people he saw that seemed to be down on their luck. “How could there be so many people without food or work in such a big city, Pa?” Lucas had no answer to his son’s question.

Another day, they went to one of the churches that Mark had admired during the carriage ride on the day of their arrival. They happened to stop in while the choir was rehearsing for the coming Sunday’s service. Mark’s initial interest had been in the architecture, but when he heard the choir and pipe organ, all else was forgotten.

Mark’s exposure to music had been limited to instruments used for hoe-downs and town socials – fiddle, guitar, banjo, harmonica – and hymns sung unaccompanied at church services. He had never heard an organ or a choir. The blend of harmonizing voices soaring through the reverberant space of the high-ceilinged church caused the fine hairs on Mark’s arms to stand up. The organ, varying from warm, mellow sounds to powerful crescendos that made the floor beneath him vibrate, filled him with a sense of awe unlike anything he had ever experienced. Hearing the music made him feel a connection to the omniscience and majesty of God that no sermon or congregational hymn had ever done.

As they stood looking up toward the choir loft, Mark became so engrossed in listening that he lost all sense of time and place. At some point, he became aware of a tapping on his shoulder. He looked up to see Lucas motioning that they should leave.

“Please, Pa,” Mark whispered. “It’s so beautiful. Can’t we listen just a little longer?”

Lucas relented, and they took a seat in a pew. Mark closed his eyes and let the music wash over him, once again losing awareness of everything except its beauty.

Feeling another tap on his shoulder, Mark looked up into the kindly brown eyes of a priest. “Would you like to see the organ?” the priest asked.

“Oh, could I?” Mark breathed.

“Come with me,” the priest smilingly replied.

Mark and Lucas followed him up a tall spiral staircase to the choir loft. As they followed, Mark noticed that the priest wore a long, black dress-like garment over black trousers. He stored up this curious discovery among several others that he planned to ask his pa about on the return trip to North Fork.

When the choir ended the piece they were practicing, the priest approached the choirmaster.

“I apologize for the interruption, Isaac, but you all have a young admirer. Might you take a short break and allow him to see the organ?”

“Of course, Father Quinn. It would be a pleasure.”

Father Quinn beckoned Mark to follow him, and led him to the organ console.

“Young man, this is Mr. Cyprian. He is our organist.”

Mark extended his hand. “How you do, sir. My name is Mark McCain and this is my pa.”
“I am pleased to meet you, Mark. Mr. McCain,” Mr. Cyprian replied as he shook Mark’s hand and nodded to Lucas. “Is this the first time you have heard an organ, Mark?”

“Yes, sir. It’s … it’s … I don’t know how to describe it. It’s like nothing I’ve ever heard or felt.”

“It does have the power to touch the soul, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, sir. The singing is mighty fine, too.”

“Thank you, Mark.” He smiled over at Isaac, the choirmaster. “Would you like to see how the organ works?”

“Yes, sir!”

Mr. Cyprian told Mark that a pipe organ could be thought of as a collection of big whistles. Basically, when air is pushed through the pipes (whistles), they make a sound. Each pipe is tuned to a certain pitch. Air blows through the pipes constantly so that when the organist presses a key on the keyboard, the pipe to which it is attached “speaks.” The organ can make a wide variety of sounds, ranging from those that mimic flutes and strings to others that resemble oboes and trumpets, depending on the type of “stops” that are built into the organ and the size of each pipe.

Mr. Cyprian showed Mark how he had to push two wide pedals, connected to a bellows, to keep air flowing through the pipes. He explained that when organs were first invented, someone had to stand on an oversize bellows, pumping it up and down, to keep the air flowing while the organist played.

Mr. Cyprian pulled different stops (levers) on the console to demonstrate the range of sounds that the organ could produce. Then, he showed Mark that an organist not only plays two or more keyboards with his hands, but he also plays a pedal board with his feet.

“Boy, oh boy!” Mark quietly exclaimed. “You have to play with your hands and your feet and keep pushing air through the pipes and pull those levers to change the sounds? Boy, oh boy! I don’t know how you do it!”

“You know, Mark, there is a church in town that is getting ready to have a new organ installed. They are just in the early stages right now, but enough of the old pipes have been removed that you would be able to get a close-up look at the inner workings to see how sound is produced. Mr. McCain, if your schedule permits and if the two of you are interested, the church is Trinity United Methodist.* It’s over on Broadway Street. I am sure the organist there would be happy to show you around and answer questions.”

“Oh, could we, Pa?” Mark begged.

“We’ll see, son. Mr. Cyprian, shouldn’t we make an appointment for something like this? I would not want to interrupt the organist’s work – as we have done to all of you today.”

“Not at all, Mr. McCain. George Hiatt likes nothing better than to show off a pipe organ and explain how it works. He would be delighted by your visit, just as all of us are.”

Before Mark and Lucas left, the choirmaster invited Mark to sing “Amazing Grace” with the choir so that he could experience the feeling of being surrounding by voices singing in four-part harmony. Mark could hardly sing, so swept away was he by the voices around him.

Mark and Lucas thanked the choir, organist, choirmaster, and priest profusely, and then began a quiet walk back to the university. Lucas smiled to himself. It wasn’t often that Mark was speechless. He was pleased to see that his son could be so deeply moved in this way.

As for Mark, he decided that the day’s excursion might well be the highlight of his time in Denver. It made him want music to be more a part of his life. He didn’t know how that could happen in North Fork, but he sure knew that he wanted it. He sure did hope they could go see that organ at the Methodist church, too. If they didn’t, though, Mark decided that he would not be too upset. What he heard today was one of the most wonderful and satisfying things he had experienced so far in his life.

The night before the contest winners were to read their essays to an audience of parents, spectators, and the judging panel, Mark began to grow nervous. While he was getting ready for bed, he shared his concerns with his pa.

“I didn’t realize we’d be reading to such a big crowd, Pa. The whole auditorium will be full. Mr. Brady said that the judges are going to consider how well we read as much as the essay itself. What if I mess up?”

Lucas was at the bureau, washing his hands and face in the basin. “You’ve read essays in front of your class many times, and you’ve spoken in public more than once. You did a good job every time. This won’t be any different.”

“But it is different, Pa,” Mark insisted. “First, there’s going to be a whole auditorium full of strangers. Maybe a hundred people! Then, I’m being judged on how well I speak. All those times at school, it didn’t really matter. I was being graded on the essay, not on reading it out loud. But the biggest difference is how important the essay is. What I wrote … it means a lot to me, Pa. I don’t want to mess it up just because I got scared.”

Lucas led Mark to one of the chairs in their dormitory room and sat down opposite him, taking both of Mark’s hands in his. “Son, you are going to do just fine. You have a talent for public speaking. You are a good reader. You will have your words in front of you. Just read what you wrote, and you will be fine. I promise.”

“What if …”

“No ‘what ifs’, Mark,” Lucas interrupted firmly. “You said the essay is important to you. Right?”

Mark nodded.

“Try this: Instead of thinking about the crowd, think about the words and your feelings about what you wrote. Concentrate on that and read from your heart.”

“I’ll try, Pa.”

“You know,” Lucas added with a twinkle in his eye, “you’ve got something else going for you.”

“What’s that, Pa?”

“You’ll have me in that crowd. Read your essay to me, Mark. No one else. Read it to me.”

Mark rewarded Lucas with a big smile, a hug, and a “Thanks, Pa.”

The next morning, the contest winners and their parents had a subdued breakfast. Mark wasn’t the only nervous student; no one had much of an appetite. They soon gave up on breakfast and headed to the auditorium.

When he was seated on the stage with the other students, Mark scanned the audience for his pa. He did not have to look hard because, as usual, his father was the tallest person there. They locked eyes with each other and Lucas sent his boy a silent message of encouragement. Then, the competition began.

All of the students ahead of Mark seemed to handle themselves well. Mark was sure he would be the first of the group to stumble, but tried hard to push past that fear by remembering his father’s words of the night before.

While the student before him was reading, Mark kept his eyes on his pa, trying to fill himself up with the feeling of his father’s unconditional love. It helped. He felt calmer and ready to face the crowd.

“Mark McCain, representing New Mexico Territory,” Mr. Brady announced.

Mark approached the podium, laid his essay on its angled top, pulled himself up to his full height, found his father’s eyes, and then began to read in a strong, clear voice.

“ ‘Leadership in the Late 19th Century’ by Mark McCain.

“Being only twelve, my life experiences are limited, but it seems to me that all too often ‘leaders’ are seen only as those in public office or other positions of public importance. Some examples that come to mind are law officers, senators and congressmen, doctors, lawyers, and, yes, even preachers. While individuals in these roles certainly can provide leadership that influences communities for the good, I would like to propose that leaders can be found in ordinary folks and that leadership perhaps has its greatest effect in normal, everyday living.

“I think of the mercantile owner, banker, blacksmith, and teacher in my town. The way they run their businesses and care about the citizens of the town provides the whole community with examples of how to live a good life. The same can be said about the ranchers and the way that they help each other in times of need.

“I think that parents, though, might be the best example of this kind of ‘everyday’ leadership. After all, it is from parents that children learn how to exist in the world. All of our public leaders were children who first learned from their parents. The best ones took what they learned from caring parents and added life lessons from their teachers, preachers, and other members of their community. Then, they went out into the world to apply these lessons in their chosen careers. Those who learn from good leaders pass on good values to those they serve.

“Let us consider an example of one of these everyday leaders. What I know best about this particular person starts when his wife, whom he loved more than life itself, died after suffering a terrible illness. He was full of unimaginable grief and loss, and had a six-year-old son who was struggling with his own hurt. I have known of other men who suffered similarly and chose to shut out their loved ones and think only of their own pain.

“This leader about whom I am writing chose a different path. He fought through his own pain to put his son’s needs first and foremost. He worked long and hard to build a new life for the two of them and to help his son work through his grief. He became both mother and father to his son. On top of running a ranch, he took on cooking and cleaning and sewing and doctoring and teaching and comforting. He is teaching his son manners and courtesy and respect, and the value of hard work and a good education. He teaches him about ranching and financial responsibility. He teaches him, too, about faith in God, about love and laughter and appreciating the world around us. I could go on, but there is a limit to the length of this essay, and I am sure you get my point.”

This last earned a chuckle from the audience. Once they quieted down, Mark continued.

“Through his self-sacrifice, daily example, and all of the life lessons he teaches his son, he is imparting skills and characteristics that will allow his son to be a valuable member of the community in whatever occupation he chooses, as well as a good leader in his own right – both in his home and in his community.

“In my opinion, it is the everyday leaders – such as parents, teachers, and mercantile owners – who are the most influential leaders in our country. As we move toward a new century and the changes and challenges it holds, a strong foundation of responsibility, integrity, education, and, yes, love, are necessary to shaping trustworthy leaders for our country.

“Incidentally, the everyday leader that I cited as an example is not so ‘everyday’ to me. He is my father and is the greatest ‘everything’ that I know.”

Mark delivered this last sentence directly to his father and was so caught up in the moment that he was not immediately aware of the hearty applause that his essay earned. He smiled shyly, stepped away from the podium, bowed, and returned to his seat.

When it was all over, the contestants exchanged polite congratulations and then scattered to find their parents. Mark found his pa waiting at the back of the auditorium. When Mark reached him, Lucas bent down to look his son in the eye. He put one hand on Mark’s shoulder and stroked his head with the other. “I am so very proud of you, son.”

Before Lucas could say anything more, one of Mark’s classmates ran up with his father close behind.

“Hey, Mark! You did a great job! See, there was no reason for you to be so nervous.”

“Thanks, Eddie. You did a great job, too!”

“Well, I’m glad it’s over. Say, can you and your pa join us for lunch? My pa’s been wanting to talk with yours about ranching ever since I told him about you two.”

Eddie’s father caught up with his son. “Hello, Mr. McCain. I’m Richard Allen. This is my son, Edward. I apologize for the interruption.”

Lucas extended his hand to a wiry, bearded, and balding man that stood a good ten inches shorter than the 6¢5² Lucas. “Lucas McCain. No need for apologies. It’s good to meet you.”

“My son is right,” Mr. Allen replied. “I am new at this and anxious to talk with someone about starting up a small ranch. Would you and Mark consider joining us for lunch?”

“What do you say, Mark?”

“That’d be great! Can we, please, Pa?”

“Well, I think it’s unanimous. We would be pleased to join you, Mr. Allen.”

And so it was that they spent the afternoon together. After lunch, the boys prevailed upon their fathers to take them on one last walking tour of the city. Mark suggested that they go to the Methodist church to see the organ. They arrived at the church only to learn that the organist was at home with a sick child and would not be in that day. Mark thought that perhaps they could just look at the organ, but no one was available to escort them.

“Well, we tried, son. I’m sorry it didn’t work out.”

“That’s okay, Pa. It was enough to hear that music the other day. I don’t think I’ll ever forget how beautiful it sounded.”

By the time they returned to the dormitory, it was suppertime. After eating, Lucas and Mark packed for the return trip home. Their train was scheduled to leave at 1:00 the next afternoon. They would be busy that morning with the announcement of the winners of the Western Territories phase of the competition and, if Mark were selected, a meeting with one of the judges to discuss the trip to the nation’s capital. To be sure they had time for a good lunch before meeting the train, Lucas wanted to finish packing that night.

Opportunity

Breakfast the next morning was more relaxed than the previous day. The students’ work was behind them and few of them were especially concerned about the announcement of the winners. After the meal, everyone returned to the auditorium one last time.

Mr. Brady called the group to order and then proceeded to address the students.

“I want to thank all of you students for participating in this year’s contest. The entries seem to get better every year! I want to thank you parents, too, for supporting your children’s efforts. I think one of our students made a very good point yesterday about the importance of parents as leaders. Nothing that The Grange does to promote future leaders would have much value without your interest and encouragement at home.”

Mr. Brady continued. “The panel spent a good deal of time discussing the merits of your essays. Deciding which two students to send to Washington was a difficult process indeed. Nevertheless, we have made our choices.

“The two students who will advance to the next and final stage of the competition are Richard Wyatt of Tucson, Arizona, and Edward Allen of Russell Springs, Kansas. Congratulations!”

The remaining students buckled up under their disappointment to join their parents in a hearty round of applause for the winners. Goodbyes were said and the group began to scatter.

“Mr. McCain! Mr. McCain!” was heard across the room. Lucas turned in the direction of the call to see Mr. Brady hurrying toward him.

“I’m glad I caught you, Mr. McCain. I wonder if I might have a word with you and Mark.”

“Certainly, Mr. Brady.”

“Thank you. Let’s find an empty classroom so that we will have some privacy.”

Mark and Lucas followed him to a nearby classroom and they all took seats at student desks. Mr. Brady moved directly to the point.

“Mr. McCain, as I stated a few minutes ago, the judges discussed the contestants’ essays and presentations at some length. I will not go into the reasons that Mark’s essay was not selected for the next level of competition, but I will tell you that all of us were duly impressed with your son.”

Mr. Brady directed his attention to Mark. “Mark, your essay was exceptionally well written, the thoughts clearly laid out. Your performance in classes this week, the way you conducted yourself with both instructors and fellow students, and the obviously strong values that you possess caught the attention of all of us. We – the judging panel and instructors – believe that you have the potential to become a strong leader.”

Mark and his pa exchanged expectant glances.

Mr. Brady continued. “Mark, Mr. McCain, there is another essay contest that offers similar opportunities to its winners. It is sponsored by the Cattlemen’s Association. The regional prize is participation in the Future Leaders of America Institute that is held in Texas. It is offered twice a year – fall and spring. I would like to put Mark on their roll for next spring’s Institute. Based on his essay and overall performance this week, and my recommendation, it would not be necessary for him to enter the contest. They would consider his accomplishments with The Grange’s competition to be sufficient.”

Both Mark and Lucas were silent. Neither knew how to respond. Luke was overwhelmed with pride in his son. This was both an honor and a fine opportunity for Mark. It was a prospect that neither would have imagined would come his way.
Then Mr. Brady delivered the hard news. Unlike The Grange, the Cattlemen’s Association did not pay for parents to accompany their children to the Institute. So, considering the travel time together with the two-week Institute, Mark and Lucas would be separated for three weeks.

Lucas was not quite ready for his boy to be on his own for that long, let along travel such a distance by himself. He felt a bit overwhelmed by all of the generosity that had been showered on them so unexpectedly, too, and was somewhat uncertain about how to handle it.

For his part, Mark did not think he could bear to be away from his father for three weeks.

Suddenly, the prospect changed from promising to grim. Lucas could go at his own expense, of course, but the cost of stagecoach and train fare, hotel, and meals would be beyond his means.

“Mr. Brady,” Lucas began. “This is indeed a marvelous opportunity for my son. I am grateful to you and the rest of the staff for your kindness and your efforts to encourage his education and interests.

“This week here in Denver provided an experience that I never would have imagined possible for Mark. Now to consider another such chance to further his learning – within the space of a year, no less – is unexpected, to say the least.

“As grateful as I am, this is something that Mark and I need to discuss and consider together before deciding whether or not to accept your offer.”

“I certainly understand that, Mr. McCain,” Brady replied. “Mark, what are your thoughts?”

“Well, I feel like maybe I’m in a dream. Like Pa said, we wouldn’t have imagined something like this happening. I mean, I never even liked school much until this week!”
Mr. Brady laughed.

“The truth is, Mr. Brady, my pa and me are partners, and … well … I can’t imagine being away from him for so long. Maybe that means I’m still just a kid and not as grown up as I’d like to think. If so, well, that’s okay with me. I love my pa and I’m not ashamed to say so.”

“Mark,” Brady replied. “In my estimation, being proud to admit love for another
person – especially a parent – is an indication of an individual’s maturity. It is not childish or weak at all. My father and I had a close relationship. I can understand what you’re telling me.”

“Mr. McCain,” he continued. “Take some time and think it over with Mark.”

He pulled a small card from his coat pocket and handed it to Lucas. “Here is my mailing address, as well as how your town’s telegrapher can contact me by wire. When you reach a decision, let me know. We’ll take it from there.”

“Thank you, Mr. Brady. How soon do you need an answer?”

“Since we’re looking at next spring’s Institute, how about before Christmas?”

“That’s fine. Thank you again, Mr. Brady. Not only for this, but for all you’ve done for my son this past week.”

“It truly has been my pleasure, Mr. McCain, and I know I speak for the instructors, as well.”

The two men shook hands, and then Mr. Brady shook hands with Mark.

“Thank you, Mr. Brady. I won’t ever forget all that I saw and learned here.”

“I expect to hear good things about you ten years or so from now, after you finish college. Keep up the good work, Mark!”

Mr. Brady walked away. Mark and Lucas just stood there in stunned silence, staring straight ahead at nothing in particular.

“Well, son. What do you think?”

“I think this has been an amazing week, Pa. Thank you for letting us come.”

Spotting a chair a step or two behind him, Lucas sat down and drew Mark over to stand in front of him.

Placing his hands on Mark’s shoulders and looking him squarely in the eyes, Lucas said, "Son, I think I should be thanking you.”

Mark gave him a quizzical look.

“You’re right. This has been an amazing week. We had this experience because of the work you did on that essay. This possibility in Texas was presented because of your essay, but also because of the way you conducted yourself in class this week. Mark, I am so very proud of you, son. I am proud of the person that are and of the person you are becoming. I am proud that my son has a loving and compassionate heart, and a capacity for gratitude. I am proud that, even though he does not especially like school, he is willing to work and learn all that he can.

“Your mother would be proud, too. We are both very blessed indeed that God saw fit to send you to us. I am honored to be your father.”

Lucas always made sure that Mark knew of his love for him, but he did not often speak at such length of his feelings. The rarity of it made the words all the more special to Mark, and he would think back on them in the hard days to come.
“If I am all those things, Pa, I wouldn’t be any of them without you. I love you, Pa.”

Lucas took another moment to gaze at his child, then stood up, and said, “How about lunch before we climb back on that train?”

“Sounds good, Pa.”


Foreshadowing

For the return trip, Mark and Lucas were seated in one of the sections that had four chairs facing each other, two on each side. No one occupied the two chairs facing them so, when the time came to sleep, Mark stretched out across those two chairs. He felt bad that there wasn’t a place roomy enough for his pa to stretch his long legs.

Both soon nodded off with good thoughts of the week behind them. Sometime in the night, though, Mark’s thoughts drifted to a fearful place and an old nightmare returned to taunt him.

In the dream, he was standing alone in the yard of an abandoned ranch. He thought it was his ranch, but why would his ranch be abandoned? That part of the dream didn’t matter so much to him. What mattered was that as he stood alone, his pa was walking away from him. Mark’s feet wouldn’t move, but he yelled and yelled, “Come back, Pa! Don’t leave me, Pa!” Still, his pa kept walking and walking, and Mark knew he had lost his father forever.

“Don’t go, Pa! Please don’t leave me!” he sobbed.

Then, finally, he heard his name. “Mark! Mark!” His father was gone, yet Mark heard his voice.

“Mark, you’re dreaming. Wake up, son!” He felt someone gently shaking him and lifting his shoulders. He began to rouse enough to know he was in a nightmare, and started pushing himself to fully awaken.

When he did, his pa was right there beside him. “Oh, Pa!” Mark sat up and flung his arms around Lucas’ middle, squeezing tight. “Pa, you left me!”

“No, son. I didn’t leave you. It was just that pesky old nightmare. I will never leave you.”

Lucas held Mark securely, gently rubbing his back to soothe him and ease the trembling that had taken hold. When Mark settled down, he tried to shake off the fear by pondering the reason for the recurrence of the old nightmare.

“Why, Pa? Could it be the idea of going to Texas without you? Or is something wrong?”

“Wrong? What do you mean, son?”

“I don’t know, but you know how sometimes both of us get a feeling that something just isn’t right, and we need to look out for the other?”

“Mmmhmm. Do you have that feeling now?”

“I don’t know. I just don’t see a reason for the dream.”

“Maybe it is about Texas, like you said. I know the idea of us being separated for so long isn’t one you especially like. It’s usually things that threaten us being together that trigger the nightmare. Right?”

“Right.”
“Don’t dwell on it, son. It’s only a dream. We’re fine. Try thinking about that beautiful music we heard in the church, and see if you can’t go back to sleep.”

“Okay, Pa.”

Mark laid back on the chair and tried his father’s suggestion. Lucas smoothed Mark’s hair back, then kept a hand on his until he sensed that his child had relaxed.

In spite of his words to Mark, he was a bit concerned. The nightmares were always triggered by something, and never occurred in isolation. One nightmare usually set off a series of two or three days of bad dreams, and a very miserable time for Mark.


Fear

The next morning, Mark was unsettled. He was quiet but restless and worried. Luke understood what it was about, and tried alternately to reassure and distract his son. Mark did his part by attempting to ignore the feelings, but couldn’t shake the sense that something was amiss.

They got into Santa Fe shortly after 5:00 that afternoon, had supper at a café, took a bath to wash away the thin layer of coal dust that the train had blown over them, and then crawled into a soft bed at the hotel. Mark was restless throughout the night but, thankfully, had no nightmares.

They rose early enough the next morning to have a hot breakfast before boarding the stagecoach to North Fork.

Mark was still quiet, but not wanting to worry his father further, did his best to smile and engage in conversation. Try as he might, he could not fool Lucas, so it was a tense return trip with each McCain mulling over his worries about the other.

Lucas had wired ahead to let Micah know when to expect their arrival. When the stage reached North Fork, there was a welcoming party waiting for the travelers. Micah, Miss Milly, and Mr. Hamilton were joined by Nils, the blacksmith.

As Mark and Lucas stepped off of the stagecoach, they were greeted with cheers and hugs.

“Welcome home! Welcome home!” their friends all shouted.

“There is a welcome-home lunch waiting at my house,” said Milly. “You boys can clean up there. Let’s go!”

Mark and Lucas told of their adventures over lunch. Everyone listened attentively, smiled and laughed as appropriate, but both the McCains could tell that something wasn’t quite right.

When the conversation finally waned and dessert had been eaten, Lucas decided to broach the subject.

“Okay. Out with it. Something’s not right. What’s going on?”

Nervous glances were exchanged among Micah, Milly, John, and Nils. Micah heaved a deep sigh and spoke.

“Lucas, there’s no easy way to say this, so I’m just going to jump right to it. There’s been an outbreak of Hoof and Mouth disease.”

Lucas paled and his face lost all expression. He braced himself for the rest of the story.

“It’s hit everyone. Wiped out several ranches. Some businesses have had to close. Several families have left to find work elsewhere. The Toomeys and Davises are among them. I don’t know about your herd, Lucas. Billy hasn’t been into town recently, so I haven’t seen him to ask. I’m sure he’s had his hands full trying to save at least some of Jackford’s herd and tend to yours as well.”

Mark had no experience with Hoof and Mouth, but he could easily see that it was bad. One look at his father’s face made that all too clear. He wore a look of fear and defeat. Mark had to look hard to see any trace of determination. That was very worrisome. Is this what his unsettled feelings were about? If so, how did it explain the nightmare?

After a moment, Lucas offered Mark an attempt at a smile. “Mark, I guess we better go home and see what’s waiting for us.”

Turning to his friends, “Thank you all for lunch and welcoming us home. Mark and I are truly grateful for your friendship.”

Mark and Lucas walked silently to the livery stable, saddled Blue Boy and Razor, and headed for home.

When they rode into the yard, Lucas told Mark to unpack their bag, check on the woodpile, sweep out the house, clean out the stalls if they needed it, and put out fresh feed and water for the horses. Lucas was going to check on the herd.

Mark wanted to go with his father, but he knew that now was not the time to do anything other than obey.

Lucas found a few cattle that were not yet infected, including two calves. He spent the afternoon and early evening methodically shooting the diseased animals. He would return the next day to bury or burn the carcasses. For now, he would take the calves home and hope that they could be saved.

He tried to put on an upbeat face for Mark. No matter how devastated he felt, he had to project an attitude of hope for his son’s sake. They would rebuild the herd. Somehow, they would rally and start over. Surviving the whims of nature was the way of a rancher’s life.

Within a week, Lucas’ entire herd was dead, including the two calves. He had to kill every member of the herd that he had scrimped and saved and sweated so long to build up. And now, he had to do it all again.


Broken Hearts

Looking back on that time over the expanse of many years, I still feel the pain of it almost as sharply as I did then. I knew my pa’s heart was broken. Mine was, too, but more for him than for the loss of the cattle. Yes, I shared the dream of the ranch with my pa, but it had been his dream far longer than it had been mine, and it was his hard work and years of saving that had built it up. It was another big hurt in his life, and when you love someone as much as I loved my pa … well, you don’t want him to have to experience that kind of pain.

Like everyone else in and around North Fork, we were now in a position of having to scrape by. We actually ate pretty well, even if there wasn’t much variety. As the vegetable garden hadn’t come in yet, our menu consisted of flapjacks, beans, cornmeal, eggs, and an occasional rabbit. There wasn’t a penny to be spared. We had given all but two of the laying hens to neighbors who were worse of than us. Pa thought about selling the cow for extra cash, but decided it was more important that his growing boy have fresh milk every day. No one around town had cash to spare, anyway.

There were only a few of us still in school because so many families had left town in search of jobs. Quite frankly, I didn’t see the need to keep going to school but Pa insisted that education still was a priority.

One day, after I had told him of my desire to get a job so I could have a role in helping us get back on our feet, Pa told me that he hoped someone like me would one day find a cure for Hoof and Mouth disease and other such things. The only way for that to happen was for boys like me to stay in school.

I remembered the educational experience I had in Denver. We had been back only two weeks, yet it seemed a lifetime ago. The whole point of that experience was to build up future leaders who could make a difference in the quality of life for ranchers and farmers … just like Pa was talking about now.

I have to stop my story for a moment to recall how gentle Pa was with me that day. He acknowledged my desire to help and tried to soothe my anxiety. In spite of the lack of extra money, he even suggested we have dinner in town that night. I knew it was his way of trying to keep a positive outlook on the situation for me. In spite of my fears, I was determined to be strong for him – no complaining or pestering him about why this terrible thing had to happen or when it would get better. So, I assured him I liked flapjacks just fine and knew we needed to save our money.

There was one pleasant thing about this whole situation: Because there were so few chores to do now that we had no cattle to tend, my pa and I had a lot more time to spend together. For one thing, Pa had more time to help me with my homework. We had some lively conversations about American history and he helped me better understand decimals. He dreamed with me about ways we could bring more music to North Fork. I think he enjoyed that choir and organ in Denver almost as much as I did. We read to each other or played checkers in the evenings before retiring to the porch for a chat or just to look at the stars. Thanks to the loan of a chess set from Micah, Pa even started teaching me how to play “the game of kings.” He didn’t get very far in my lessons, though, before things took an even more unwelcome turn.

It was a few days after his gentle talk about staying in school that my resolve to be strong for Pa fell apart. While we were relaxing on the porch after supper, he told me that he was thinking about going away to look for “something else” for us. Now, I did not know at the time what “something else” meant. He would not explain. He would not tell me where he was going, what he planned to do, or when he would be back. Worst of all, he refused to let me go with him. He said he didn’t know what he might run into and wanted me to be safe. That reasoning made absolutely no sense to me! After all, we had spent four years roaming between Oklahoma, Texas, Wyoming, and New Mexico together. All of these things combined to make my fears churn together and grow so thick and dark that I felt I could hardly breathe.

In this moment, the reason for the worry that started gnawing at me the day we left Denver became crystal clear. It wasn’t about the Hoof and Mouth business at all. It was about what was happening right now: my pa was leaving me.

Now, I can see how that might sound overly dramatic, but you have to understand. It wasn’t just about my pa and I being exceptionally close and me worrying about missing him. After my ma died, I developed this fear … no, it was more than a fear; it was a conviction … that one day my pa would leave me, too. For a long time after my ma’s death, I had nightmares several times a week about him leaving me – very much like the one I had on the train. They were so real and so terrifying that I would wake up drenched in sweat, trembling fiercely, and screaming for him to come back. It always took a couple of days to get over the feeling that the dream was about to come true.

As time passed, the frequency of the nightmare lessened but it never completely went away. It would return whenever my pa found himself in a particularly dangerous situation, and sometimes for no discernable reason at all. Even without the nightmare, I became anxious whenever my pa got involved in a shootout or had to deal with violent criminals when he was standing in for the marshal. There was always a worry inside me that the two of us would somehow be separated – a worry that never quite went away no matter how much my father reassured me, and in spite of the fact that I knew without a doubt that he loved me and would never leave me on purpose.
So, now, when he tells me that he is going away without me and doesn’t explain … well, perhaps you can see why I would be so afraid. It was as if my nightmare were coming true.

I tried to wage a protest – even to the point of stamping my foot at my pa! It was no use. His mind was made up.

Two days after he broke the news to me, he left. On that awful day, I rode into town with him in almost total silence. My stomach was churning, my chest was tight, my heart racing, and my head spinning with the unfathomable notion that my pa was really and truly leaving me.

With no explanation of any sort, “leaving me” is exactly what it felt like. I had an intuitive sense that he would not be back. Pa and I both had intuitive feelings about each other and most of the time the feelings were justified, so I had every reason to trust the feeling now.

I was determined not to cry, though I desperately wanted to do so. I wanted to jump into his arms and cling to him with every ounce of strength I possessed, but I tried hard to act like a 12-year-old instead of a six-year-old. I have to confess that I was still angry with Pa, too. How he could leave in this way was beyond my ability to comprehend.

We were standing outside of Micah’s office. As Pa was getting ready to mount his horse, he said, “You be good, Mark,” and I heard his voice break with emotion. My anger crumbled. I went to him and buried my head in his chest, wrapped my arms around his middle, held on as tight as I could, and begged him, “Please take me with you, Pa! Please!”

He lifted my head and tilted my chin up to look into his eyes. I saw the distress in his as he spoke in a strained voice. “I can’t, son.”

He mounted his horse and was gone. I just knew that I would not see him again.

As was usually the case in Pa’s absence, Micah and Miss Milly were to be my caretakers while he was away. I had school and homework and helped Miss Milly with a few chores in the general store. From time to time, Micah had a chore or two for me to do in his office. Mostly, though, my time with Micah was spent going fishing or listening to stories about his marshalling adventures. Micah was good to try to distract me in these ways, but I missed my pa too deeply for his efforts to be very successful.

Pa had told me that there was no need to do any chores at the ranch, but I could not stay away. At first, I tried to keep the house and barn tidy and the recently planted vegetable garden weeded. There was no stock to tend. Nils, the blacksmith, was boarding Blue Boy at the livery stable, and Pa had loaned the cow for the hotel and Miss Milly’s use while he was away. The chickens were gone; Pa had cooked the last one for our final meal together before he left. So, you see, an occasional sweeping out was all the house and barn really needed. After a while, though, I saw no need for even that. The longer Pa was gone, the less reason I saw to tend the garden and soon stopped caring about that, too.

Going to the ranch was purely and simply a way for me to feel close to my pa. I spent time sitting on the porch, gazing across the property, thinking of how much the ranch had grown in two and a half short years, and of all that Pa and I had been through together in that time. I remembered Pa’s words as we first looked down on this land, shortly before we bought it. “There’s no looking back, son. What do you say we start from here?”2 We both had worked hard to let go of our sadness over losing Ma and to start building a new life for ourselves. Now, it felt like everything had come to a sudden halt.

I am not ashamed to admit that I physically ached for my pa or to confess what I did to try to cope with it. When I visited the ranch, I would walk in and around the house and barn. Then, I went into our bedroom, pulled off my boots, and curled up on Pa’s bed. I wrapped my arms around his pillow, burying my face in it and breathing deeply of his scent, and cried myself to sleep. Somehow, I always managed to awaken in time to ride back to town before the curfew that Miss Milly had set for me.

Not long after Pa left, I searched through the bureau drawers in our bedroom for something of his that I could have with me all the time. I found two things: a handkerchief that I could keep in my pocket during the day and a shirt that I could tuck under my pillow and hold onto at night. If you think me silly or childish, so be it. If you know what is to love a parent the way I loved my pa, then you will understand.

As I said, Micah tried to distract me with fishing or stories that, under normal circumstances, I would have clamored to hear. Miss Milly found chores to occupy my time after homework was finished. When the Toomeys returned to North Fork, both Micah and Milly encouraged me to spend time playing with my best friend, Freddie. Although I was glad my friend was back, I had no desire to spend time with him. You see, I was absolutely and desperately lost without my pa. I could hardly breathe. I could not eat. When sleep came, it was riddled with nightmares. I had no interest in anything. I went to school and did my homework because that’s what Pa wanted me to do. Micah and Milly insisted upon it, too. I listened to Micah’s stories and went fishing with him only out of respect for him. I knew he was trying to help me and I was grateful. All I really wanted, though, was to be at the ranch, nestled on Pa’s bed, and praying to God that somehow he would come home.

Considering the way my pa raised me and how much I loved him, you might wonder why I didn’t manage better. In the years since, I have sometimes wondered why I was not able to have a better outlook. Why didn’t I maintain the house and barn so that both would be clean and tidy when Pa returned? Knowing without question that my pa loved me, why did I worry that he might not come back? He had never given me any reason to think that he would even dream of abandoning me. He told me on many occasions that I was his life. Why was I so full of fear?

Micah had a theory on that. He accused me of losing faith in my pa. It shames me to think that I may have done just that. Did I really lose faith, or did my fears overwhelm me? Either way, I did not trust in his love. How could I possibly have believed that my devoted father who put me first above everything and everyone, would all of a sudden decide to walk away?

The problem wasn’t just the terrible deep loss that I felt in his absence. I was still angry with him, too. He had not sent a letter or a telegram in all the weeks he had been gone. I had no idea where he was or if he was safe. Although I believed that I would have sensed it if he had died, I didn’t know for sure that he was even still alive.

While my anger might have been somewhat justified, I hated that I felt it. I could not reconcile being angry with someone I loved and missed so very much.

I was mad at myself, too, for giving Micah and Milly cause for concern. I was mad at myself for shaming my pa by not acting more grown-up about this whole situation.

That was my mindset on the day that I decided to begin carving out yet another new start. This one, though, would be for me alone. I was angry with Pa and with myself, desperately afraid of living life without him, and missing him more than I could possibly express. I decided to channel all of these miserable feelings into cleaning up the ranch and getting started on life as a farmer.

I sold my beloved Blue Boy to Nils and bought a mule. What need did a farmer have for such a fine horse as Blue Boy? A farmer needs a sturdy plow mule; nothing more.

I held off on buying seed because I had not fully decided on the best crop to plant. I needed to make that decision with a clearer head, and hoped that by the time I cleaned up the cobwebs in the house and the tumbleweeds in the yard, maybe my head would be clear, too.

It was while I was sweeping cobwebs from the porch that Micah and Milly drove up. Their worry for me was etched all over their faces. Seeing that only added to the ugly feelings that were consuming my heart and mind.

“Mark, what on earth are you doing?”3 Miss Milly demanded.

“I’m cleaning the place up,” I tersely replied and continued sweeping.

“Well, wouldn’t it be a lot easier to wait? I mean, until your father comes back?” asked Micah.

“He’s not coming back.”

“Oh Mark,” Milly responded sympathetically.

“Well, it’s been most of two months. He hasn’t written … no word. He didn’t want to be a dirt farmer, and there are no cattle around here.”

“Lucas will be back. You’ve got to believe that,” said Milly. “You’ve got to have faith.”

“I tried!” I almost shouted at her.

Milly continued gently, “Well, you must believe in you father. After all, look at what you’re doing.”

“I figured on maybe moving back in,” I explained.

Micah wouldn’t hear of that. “You can’t do that, Mark. You’re staying with Milly. That’s the way Lucas wanted it.”

“Pa’s not here anymore,” I reminded him, trying to restrain my frustration with his refusal to see the truth of the situation.

I stopped sweeping, remembering how Pa and I had rebuilt the house with the help of Billy Lehigh and Sam Montgomery after the two of them had burned it down. Pa and I set up housekeeping with furniture and dishes and curtains that came from our house in Enid, Oklahoma – tangible reminders of my ma.

“Pa and I built this house together,” I told Micah and Milly. “I guess that makes it half mine, and since Pa doesn’t see it fit to live in it anymore ... why ... why ... I guess that makes it all mine now.”

That further realization that Pa was gone squeezed my insides like an iron fist. Tears were threatening to get the best of me yet again. I leaned my head against one of the porch posts and grabbed hold of it, trying to keep tight rein on my emotions as I continued to state my case.

“Of course, I’d rather be a cattle rancher, but you can’t do that without any cattle. And besides, I don’t see anything wrong with being a dirt farmer. You eat good and … and beans are always good for the market. I like beans, and I was figuring on maybe some corn, too. And who knows … I heard that people are starting wheat around here.”

Seeing that the gentle approach didn’t seem to be working, Micah laid into me with harsh words.

“When are you going to do all this, boy? After school? You can’t do it alone. Somebody will have to help you. Of course, there’s another thing: dirt farming’s a lot like cattle raising. A man’s got to have faith like Miss Milly said. I don’t think you’ve got enough, Mark – not if you’ve lost faith in your own father.”

He continued on, “Mark, you’re just a boy and I’ve seen grown men buckle up doing what you’re trying to do. Then, there are men like Lucas who’ve lost everything they have, except their house and a piece of land, going off and doing whatever they can to save it and then coming back and trying again. Now Mark, that’s faith.”

I gritted my teeth, working with every fiber of my being to control the multitude of feelings that were ready to erupt. Now, Micah’s words had added a sense of shame to all the other dark thoughts.

“I tried to think he’d come back,” I told him. “But how much faith is a person suppose to have?” It was all too much to bear. “I lost everything when he did, didn’t I? I even lost him.”

It was then that a strange sensation abruptly spread over me. I don’t know how to describe it, but I will never forget the power of it. I remember that I didn’t hear Micah any longer; his voice seemed to fade into the distance. My heart seemed to stop and my breath to come quicker. Then, I felt my pa’s presence. It was so strong, so close, that I almost expected to feel his hand on my shoulder – just where it belonged. As I tried to make sense of the feeling, I looked around me. Could he possibly be here somewhere? If I looked hard enough, would I find him, or was this some kind of waking dream?

I looked behind me. Nothing. Sure enough, though, as I scanned the land, I saw movement far to my left. It was indistinct, too far away to distinguish what it might be. I knew, though. I just knew! It was him! It was my pa! Finally, I could breathe! Air rushed into my lungs, joy filled my heart and carried me as if on the wind toward him!

Every trace of anger, fear, and despair vanished. Only one longing remained … a joy-filled longing to reach him and be lifted up into his arms and held close and tight.

As I drew nearer, I saw that he was running toward me, too, and his face was shining with what must have been the same joy that I felt. Then, at long last, I was exactly where I belonged. We covered each other with kisses and then held tight. My whole being was flooded with joy, gratitude, and perfect contentment.

After some time, I heard him whisper, “Let’s go home, son.”

Had I remembered that Micah and Milly were at the house, I would have noticed that they were gone by the time Pa and I returned. We spent the rest of that day cleaning up the house, washing sheets, and scouring the overrun garden for enough ripe vegetables to make soup for supper. Together with what Pa had left over from his trail rations, we would get by. Neither of us wanted to spoil our reunion with a trip into town for supplies!

Pa had brought home a few cattle, so we tended to their needs and left them in the corral for the night.

After all of these chores were finished, Pa treated himself to a leisurely bath to wash off all of the trail dust. When he “suggested” that I do the same, I had not one complaint. True, it felt good to wash away the dust and sweat and cobwebs that clung to me from all the cleaning we had done, but it also felt like that bath washed away the dark feelings that had clung to me while Pa was away.

We talked very little that day. Mostly, we just savored being together again. Neither of us could keep the smiles from our faces. I cast away all thoughts of acting like an almost-teenager and gave in to my need to be close to my pa. When we sat out on the porch after supper, I cuddled up next to him the way I had when I was younger. In that moment, I did not care where he had been or why. I cared only that he was home, his arm firmly encircling my shoulders to pull me into his reassuring embrace.

The next day, we began our healing time.

Both of us slept late. Pa was exhausted from his traveling and I from the emotional ordeal I had been through. Although I slept better than I had for almost two months, I woke up several times during the night just to be sure Pa was really there.

Once we were up and about the next morning, Pa suggested that we walk down to the pond and try our luck at catching a few fish for breakfast. It turned out that luck was on our side, and we cooked a fine mess of catfish right there at the edge of the pond. When we had eaten our fill, Pa announced that we hadn’t much choice but to go into town for supplies and to get Blue Boy and our cow. I don’t think he was any more anxious to go than me, but the cupboards were bare.
Our first stop was at Micah’s office. No sooner had we stepped in than Dr. Burrage, Mr. Hamilton, and Miss Milly were there – all to welcome Pa home. I hung back to give them time with Pa. If the truth were told, I was feeling a little bit embarrassed after the talk that Micah and Milly had given me the day before. There was no need to be because they both loved and cared about me. Not a single word was said about the difficulties of the past two months. Everyone was busy rejoicing that Pa was home safe, and that he and I were back together again.

Pa kept the visit short, explaining to everyone that we had lots of supplies to pick up, and that he was in a hurry to get back home with “his boy” so we could catch up on all of our lost time.

So it was that we loaded the wagon with food items, nails (to repair pasture fencing), feed, and a few chickens – one for supper and the rest for eggs. We returned the mule for Blue Boy, and Pa tied him and the cow to the back of the wagon and home we headed.

It sure was good to sit down that evening to Pa’s tasty chicken and dumplings. “Pa, there’s no question that Miss Milly is a good cook, but I sure have missed your cooking. I don’t reckon anybody does it better!”

“Well, now, that’s a mighty fine compliment, especially coming from an expert such as yourself. I must say I’ve missed my home cooking, too. That trail food loses its appeal after a day or two.”

We both laughed, knowing he spoke the truth.

As good as the chicken and dumplings were, I couldn’t wait to slice into the cherry pie that Pa had made for dessert. Biting into it was sort of like getting confirmation that he really was home and things were going to be fine.

Pa didn’t say a word about the weight I had lost or the dark circles under my eyes, but I caught him watching me as we ate. As I got older, I realized he was concerned but didn’t want to add to my worries by remarking on my condition. He knew that I would recover now that he was home. There certainly was nothing wrong with my appetite that night! I expect that served to reassure him.

We washed and dried the dishes together, then Pa said, “Come sit at the table, son. I want to tell you about my trip.”

When Pa wanted to talk at the table instead of at his chair or on the porch, it usually meant that I was in trouble or that the subject was serious.

“Mark, I want to tell you where I’ve been and why.” He seemed to study my face for a moment, wondering, I suppose, if I was ready to hear the story. In retrospect, I imagine he was concerned about how angry I would be. He spoke calmly and gently.

“Soon after the last of our cattle died, I heard about a government job in Wyoming that paid well enough to help us get started rebuilding our herd. Up in Wind River Mountain, in the western part of Wyoming, the Cheyenne had broken out of the reservation. They were stealing cattle and terrorizing settlers with guns assigned to the Indian agents in the area. The government needed someone to go up there to see how they were getting the guns and help the local marshal put a stop to it.

“Well, because of the possibility that the agents were involved, the government needed to send in someone that would not be recognized as a lawman. They didn’t want to take a chance that the criminals might realize the law was onto their scheme.

“It was important, too, that the person who took the job not tell a single soul anything about it. To do so would run the risk of tipping off the criminals, as well as putting this person’s life in danger – or the lives of his loved ones. Are you with me so far?”

“Yes, Pa,” I answered quietly.

“When I first learned about this, I didn’t think I could possibly go. How could I be away from my son for what might be a fairly long time? How could I go away without telling you anything at all about the trip? I knew it would be very hard on you. It would be hard on me, too. I knew I would miss you and that I would worry about how you were handling being left without any understanding of the circumstances.

“The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that I had to take the job. Here was an opportunity to get us back on our feet. Who knew when another such opportunity would come up? I had an obligation to provide for my family – for you and me. I couldn’t risk not being able to feed, clothe, and educate my son, whom I love so dearly.

“So, even knowing how hurt and angry you were about my leaving, I decided that I had no other choice than to take the job.

“I did come close to telling you about it, Mark. North Fork being so far away from western Wyoming, I didn’t think it likely that you would come in contact with anyone who would have the remotest interest in what I was doing. I talked it over with Micah and he said that the government’s orders were very strict. No chances whatsoever could be taken. It was in everyone’s best interest and for the safety of everyone involved. If, for example the criminals found out who I was, they could come to North Fork and try to harm you just to retaliate. As hard as it was, I decided to obey orders.”

I had been listening quietly all this time. What registered on me was that my pa went away to do important work for the government, that he did it for us, that he struggled with the decision because of his love for me … and that Micah knew where he was the whole time.

A lot of conflicting feelings were running through me: pride in my father, gratitude for his love for me, sadness that he had to go through such a hard emotional battle, and anger that he couldn’t have told me something before he left to ease my worry just a little bit. In spite of his explanation, I could not understand why that would not have been possible.
The feeling that rose up in me the strongest, though, was a sudden and powerful rage at Micah. The moment I realized that he knew all along where Pa was and what he was doing, fury swelled up in me like a fierce springtime thunderstorm.

“Micah knew?” I asked through clenched teeth, fighting mightily to keep my anger in check.

“Yes, son, he did.”

“Micah knew? The whole time, he knew?” My voice grew louder with each question. I felt the explosion coming. Not wanting to lash out at my father, I sprang out of my chair, darted out the door, and ran and ran through the darkening evening. I didn’t think I could ever run far enough or long enough, or scream out my hurt loud enough, to purge that burning rage from my soul.

When I finally stopped, I was knee-deep in our pond. I didn’t even realize I was in the pond until it became hard to keep running. I looked down, puzzled, and in the dim moonlight saw the reason. Then, I just stood there, crying. I didn’t know what else to do. Nothing made sense.

When Pa came, he didn’t say a word; he didn’t touch me. I suppose he knew it wasn’t the time; that I was too filled with rage. I just felt him there, standing beside me.

When my tears subsided, he said, “Talk to me, son.” Those marvelous, beautiful words that reminded me how blessed I was to have been born to Lucas McCain! Although I felt that stirring even now, the anger was stronger, and my response was a strangled, agonized, “Why?”

“Why what, son?”

I stared straight ahead, seeing nothing, feeling nothing but choking agony.

“He knew how much I was hurting! How much I was missing you! Why couldn’t he have told me something … anything?”

I turned to face my father. “Why couldn’t he have just said that he knew where you were and that you were safe? Or that he knew where you were and what you were doing; that he couldn’t tell me about it, but you were safe and would be coming home. Why, Pa? Why couldn’t he have told me something to take away some of the hurt and worry?”

Pa got down on one knee – right there in more than a foot of pond water – so we could be eye to eye.

“Mark, Micah was hurting, too. He knew how I worried about keeping this a secret from you. He knew how you were worrying about me. I’m sure he wanted to tell you just as much as I did, but he had his orders from a high authority, son. Those orders were meant to protect all of us.”

Still with hardness in my voice, I answered, “I understand that part, Pa. I don’t understand why he couldn’t just tell me he knew where you were and that you were coming back, and that everything would be okay. What harm would it have done to say those words?
I don’t understand, Pa!”

There was a log-shaped rock a few feet to my right. I worked my way over to it, violently kicking through the water as I went. When I reached it, I sat down, rested my elbows on my knees, and buried my face in my hands. I put my effort into getting control of myself. I was going on thirteen, after all. I had just lived through my first real awareness that Pa would not always be around to help me through hard times. I needed to grow up and act like a man – or so I thought.

Pa came over and sat beside me.

“I’m trying to understand, Pa. I don’t want to be angry at Micah.”
“I know, son.”

“Were you mad at him … when he told you that you couldn’t tell me anything about the job?”

“No, I wasn’t mad at him. It wasn’t his fault. I was mad at the whole situation: The loss of our herd, the prospect of not being able to provide for my family, going away without telling you where or why and leaving you to worry. I told myself that you had Micah and Milly, but I know that’s not the same.”

I wanted to agree that it wasn’t the same. Micah and Milly were not my pa; they couldn’t really understand what I was feeling. Only Pa could. Not wanting to make things any harder on him, I kept quiet.

“Son, I understand why you’re angry. I think I would be, too, if I were in your position. When you’re feeling a little calmer, it might help to talk about it with Micah. I am proud of you for trying to understand his position. Hearing him explain it might make it a little easier.”

“Yes, sir.”

I felt ugly inside. It wasn’t often that I had hateful feelings; having them towards my good friend was a new and unwelcome experience. I had no idea how I would get past it. I didn’t want to see Micah, let alone talk to him.

I lifted my head from my hands and stared out into the darkness for a moment. “I guess it’s time to bed down the stock,” I said, glumly.

“Mark, we can stay here and talk just as long as you need to.”

“Thanks, Pa, but I reckon I need some thinking time before we talk about it anymore.”

“Alright, son. Whatever you say.”

Pa took my arm gently, helping me stand. He kept a hand on my shoulder most of the walk to the house. It didn’t take my hurt away, but I was glad to feel it there. I knew I wasn’t alone, and that he understood. Only a few days before, I was aching for my pa’s hand on my shoulder and to pour my heart out to the one person I knew would understand. I hoped I would never again take those two things for granted.

We situated the horses and cow for the night, left our damp boots and socks on the porch to dry out, and then went inside where Pa settled into his chair and picked up his Bible.

I walked over to him. “Pa, I think I’ll just go to bed. I’m pretty tired.”

“Alright, son. Try to put these worries aside for tonight and have a good sleep. We can talk more tomorrow … when you’re ready.”

“I’ll try, Pa.” I leaned over and gave him a kiss on his cheek, then turned and went into the bedroom.

Exhausted by emotion, I fell asleep quickly, but it wasn’t to be a restful night.

I found myself standing in the yard of our house in Enid. The horses and cow and chickens were gone. The barn and house stood empty. Endless gray sky arched above me and endless gray prairie rolled from beneath my feet to the edge of the horizon. There was nothing in the world except earth, sky, empty house and barn, me … and my father, mounted on Razor, riding away from me toward the horizon. He didn’t say goodbye, he didn’t look back. He just kept riding away.

I called out, “Pa! Pa!” No response.

I screamed, “Pa! Pa! Come back, Pa!” He kept riding. He gave no sign, no look, no wave. He just kept riding away.

“Pa!” I screamed until my throat felt raw. “Pa! Come back! Don’t leave me, Pa! Please don’t leave me!”

“Mark! Mark!” He was still riding away from me, yet I heard his voice in my ear, calling my name. I felt him gently shaking me. How could he be riding away and shaking me at the same time? I didn’t care as long as he was with me.

“Mark! Wake up, son. You’re dreaming. Wake up, Mark!”

And then his voice became clear. I opened my eyes and there he was. It had been a dream. It was that terrible, awful dream that I had for so long after Ma died, but it was just a dream. My pa was here with me!

I reached up and threw my arms around his neck. He pulled me close and held me to his chest. I thought of being wrapped in a cocoon. I was safe; nothing could get in to hurt me. That’s when I realized something important to my getting over this whole Wyoming business.

I pushed away from Pa as the realization hit me. “You did leave me, Pa! The dream came true! I was so afraid for so long that it would come true, and it did. You did leave me!”

Pa had kept a hold on my shoulders and his grip tightened. “But I came back, son! If I ever go away, I will always come back. Always! I couldn’t leave you if I tried, Mark. You are my heart; you are my life! I love you more than anything!”

That is when I finally broke down, and all the fears and worries and loss and anger of the past two months came spewing out between wrenching sobs.

“But you did, Pa! You didn’t mean it, but you did. That’s how it felt. It was that terrible nightmare come true when you left without a word of explanation. I couldn’t breathe, Pa! I couldn’t think! I couldn’t feel anything but needing you! It felt like everything had been ripped out of me! I didn’t know if you were safe or hurt, dead or alive, if or when I would see you again. Oh, Pa! I couldn’t breathe! Pa, it was worse than … worse than …”

I realized what I was about to say and checked myself. Finally, I was getting everything out. I needed to say it, but I knew it might hurt Pa and that, somehow, it would seem like a betrayal of my mother. Should I say it?

I was still sobbing and gasping for breath.

“Worse than what, son? Get it out, Mark.”

“I’m sorry, Pa, but it was worse than … than when Ma died … because … because I was all alone. I didn’t have you.”

I was struggling to breathe. Pa pulled me close to him again, rubbed my back, and tried to calm me down.

“Shhh. It’s alright, son. I understand. It’s alright. Take a minute and try to calm down. Shhh. Breathe with me, Mark. Listen to my voice and breathe with me. In … and out. In … and out.”

He tried to pace my breathing for me. I did my best to obey but couldn’t push away the agony in my spirit.

“Mark, try to make yourself listen to my heartbeat. If you get still, you can hear my heartbeat. Can you hear it? Listen, son.”

I concentrated on listening for his heartbeat. Nothing else. Just his heartbeat. Soon, I quieted enough to hear it. I focused on listening to it, and on the feeling of his arms wrapped around me.

“Good, son. Now, keep listening to my heartbeat and breathe with me. In … and out.
In … and out.”

He paced my breathing again. This time, I was able to comply; shakily at first, but it gradually became easier.

I don’t know how long we sat there, breathing, but I eventually calmed down. The tears continued falling but the sobs were gone.

“That’s it, Mark,” Pa whispered, still rubbing my back. “That’s it. Now, whenever you’re ready, talk to me, son. Tell me everything.”

___________________________________
 

I am an old man now, and my pa has been gone for more than twenty-five years. I have been blessed with a loving wife, and with children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren whom I adore. We have had struggles of various types over the years, but the constant throughout was being part of a loving family.

I have always been surrounded by love. I learned when I was still a child that the kind of love with which I have been blessed is not something that everyone experiences. I have tried to remain mindful of that fact and keep gratitude foremost in my thoughts. Still, in spite of all of my blessings, I miss my pa more than I can express.

When I sit on the porch in the evenings, thinking over my life, I remember what my pa said to me the time that the Confederate soldier with the mangled shoulder visited us. I was ten years old and had seen little of the cruelties of the world. Shocked and repulsed by the veteran’s unhealed, wounded shoulder, I ran off to try to escape the horrible sight.
Pa found me sitting under a tree near the house. When he told me that part of becoming a man is learning to accept the suffering in the world, I told him I would never be able to do so. He crouched down next to me, laid his head against mine, and answered: “You will, son, because you have to. It’s the price you pay on staying alive and in your right senses. It’s manhood. And I can promise that when you come to the far end of it, you’ll raise your old hands to bless this wonderful life you’ve been given, taking it all together with the roast beef, and the moon rises, and a boy and his father riding out in the morning … after you’re grown up to be a father yourself.” 4

He promised me truly. I am at the far end of it now, and I do give thanks for the life I’ve been given. When my time to pass on comes, I will not be sad. Oh, I might have a tinge of regret to leave my children and grandchildren, and my precious wife. But, yes, when my time comes, I will give thanks for the blessings of my life and then welcome the invitation to go home. Home to my dear gentle mother … to the waiting arms of my beloved father … to being a whole family again with my ma and pa … and, most of all, to hearing my pa say those sweet, sweet words that contain all of his love for me: “Talk to me, son.”
 

The End


Notes
· The device of Mark’s recurring nightmare is borrowed from Michelle Palmer’s “Mark’s Memories” stories. Any other similarities to stories at www.riflemanconnors.com or The Rifleman lore created by The Writer’s Corner authors are unintentional.
 
· The information provided regarding the University of Denver, the Windsor Hotel, the Denver Branch Mint, the design of the train car, travel time estimate, and the population of Denver in 1880 are accurate to the best of the author’s knowledge and research limitations. The 24th Street Public School really existed.
 
· The location of the above-mentioned buildings in Denver in relation to one another is fictional, as is the description of streets and the description of the University of Denver buildings.
 
· The Grange and the Cattlemen’s Association are actual organizations that still exist today, but the essay competitions are fictional.
 
·  The pictures of the Windsor Hotel and the 24th Street Public School are from www.worldcat.org and www.denverlibrary.org.

·  Other sources: www.coloradogambler.com, http://memory.loc.gov, www.wiki.answers.com, www.denver.org, www.westernmininghistory.com, www.american-rails.com, The Amateur Immigrant by Robert Louis Stevenson, various internet map sites.

· Curious as to whether or not the term Hoof and Mouth disease is capitalized, I did a little research and found an abundance of information about the disease at http://www.livestocktrail.illinois.edu/dairynet/paperDisplay.cfm?ContentID=603.

The Rifleman episodes referenced or dialogue quoted from in this story:

1 The railroad reference is from Outlaw’s Inheritance, Season 1, Episode 38.

2 Dialogue quoted is from Home Ranch, Season 1, Episode 2.

3 Dialogue quoted on pp. 39-42 is from The Wyoming Story, Season 3, Episode 21.

4 Dialogue quoted is from The Sheridan Story, Season 1, Episode 16.

* The organ at Trinity Methodist Church (referenced on p. 16), located at 1820 Broadway Street in Denver, was completed in 1888. It was built under the supervision of Frank Roosevelt of the Roosevelt Organ Company of New York, who designed the instrument. The $30,000 cost of the organ was donated by one of Trinity's founding fathers, Isaac Blake, who directed the Trinity choir. The console was revolutionary in that it utilized electro-pneumatic action, decades before Denver had electricity. A water wheel, driven by pressure from an artesian well under the building, turned a DC generator, which in turn provided the current to the console. The original key contacts were completed with trays of mercury underneath the keyboards. Lighting in the choir loft, however, was provided by gas lamps. The organ has 4,277 pipes and has been carefully maintained over the years.

Rifleman fans will recall that Mark frequently dreamed of inventions that would ease his domestic chores. More than once, the creation of a device to wash dishes was at the top of his wish list. While researching inventions that were in use in the 1880s, I learned that the first dishwasher was invented in 1850. Essentially, it consisted of a wheel that was turned by hand to splash water on dishes. Obviously, it was not effective.

The first automatic dishwasher was invented in the 1880s by Mrs. Josephine Garis Cochran in Shelby County, Illinois. This corresponds to the time that Mark was trying to dream up the same invention. The machine was displayed at the 1893 World’s Fair. The company that Mrs. Cochran founded to manufacture the dishwashers became Kitchen Aid. Read about it at http://www.alincolnlearning.us/dishwasher.html.
 

It is too bad that the writers of The Rifleman didn’t know about Mrs. Cochran. Mark might have been thrilled to read about her!
Thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed the story!

CTW


 

This story is based on the TV series The Rifleman

Here are some other great stories.  Enjoy!
 

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