The Writer's Corner
Written by Clara aka CTW
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?
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
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
“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,
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
“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
“Now that you’ve won, do I get to read this marvelous piece of
“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
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.
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
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!
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
“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
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
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
“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
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.
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
“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
“Of course, Father Quinn. It would be a pleasure.”
Father Quinn beckoned Mark to follow him, and led him to the organ
“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?”
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
“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
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
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?”
“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
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
“Mark McCain, representing New Mexico Territory,” Mr. Brady
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,
“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
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.
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.
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
“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
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
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
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
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
“Mark,” Brady replied. “In my estimation, being proud to admit love
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
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
“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
“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
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.”
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
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
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
“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
“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.
“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.”
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
“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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
“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, 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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
“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
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 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
· The pictures of the Windsor Hotel and the 24th Street Public
School are from www.worldcat.org and www.denverlibrary.org.
· Other sources:
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
The Rifleman episodes referenced or dialogue quoted from in this
1 The railroad reference is from
Outlaw’s Inheritance, Season 1,
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
* 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
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!
This story is
based on the TV series The Rifleman
Here are some other great stories. Enjoy!
around The McCain Ranch