Synopsis: A continuation of my story, ‘Before Your Time.’
Category: The Rifleman
Word Count: 4,430
This story is a continuation and a conclusion to my story ‘Before Your Time’. I realized that so much was left unfinished. I recommend reading my previous story to understand the events that lead up to the beginning of this story.
Lucas and Mark reined in Razor and Blue Boy as they rode up to the church. Most all of the town’s folks were sure to attend; this was the first Sunday that Reverend McCafferty would lead church services. As more of the folks realized that Lucas and Mark had arrived; they stopped and waited for them to dismount. Everyone knew that Mark had gone missing and ended up being a captive of the Cordova Gang and how he protected little Sarah McCafferty, but Mark had told no one other than Reverend McCafferty all the details.
Many people, who Lucas and Mark considered friends, were standing outside the church; all waited to tell Mark how good it was to have him home and ask how he was doing. All the women folk it seems wanted to hug him and kiss him on the cheek.
A little embarrassed, Mark extended his hand and replied each time, “I’m okay. Thank you for asking.” Finally, he looked to his Pa, his eyes pleading, “Can’t we go in?”
Lucas put a hand on his boy’s shoulder and pushed him into church. Marshal Micah Torrance motioned for Lucas and Mark to proceed to the front pew, Mrs. McCafferty had requested that the McCains sit with her and her children.
With the congregation seated, Reverend McCafferty stepped to the pulpit. A few people settled more comfortably in their seats and a few coughs were heard from the back of the church.
“Good morning good people of North Fork. I’m Reverend Mark McCafferty. I’d like to introduce my wife Maggie, our son Jake, and our daughter Sarah. And thank you for inviting us to North Fork.
“Today’s sermon won’t come directly from the bible. I’ve come to realize that sometimes, a sermon can come from life’s experiences. After all, isn’t the bible about the life experiences of Jesus and His Disciples?
“I think that you folks have a right to know about us. My family…we set out to North Fork, to bring the Word of God to a town that didn’t have a Minister to call their own. We left Cincinnati knowing we would be strangers in the place we hoped to eventually call our home.
“Our travels here were fairly uneventful, until the night we arrived…my wife and I were struggling to get our team across a creek when we were caught in the raging waters of a flash flood. We foolishly didn’t understand the dangers that could be present with what we thought as a harmless thunderstorm. But, from the dark of the land, a lightning bolt illuminated the landscape. And that’s when two strangers came into our vision. Without hesitation, they acted. They knew right away what to do. Without our askance, they chose to help save my small family. The taller of the two strangers rescued my wife and myself, once he was able to rope our mule. However, as the waters pressed against our wagon, our two children were thrown out the back and into the waters. It was later that we realized the smaller stranger rode his horse into the waters and rescued my son. Yet… the waters still had my daughter. The same small stranger didn’t hesitate once he realized he had my boy safe. He continued to act, and jumped from his horse into the waters, waters that very well could have taken his own life, in an attempt to save the life of another.
“The smaller of the two strangers was swept away as the tall stranger watched in horror. As you have undoubtedly heard, he did rescue the child and while they were out there alone, he took her under his wings to protect her. But to continue today’s lesson…
“We hadn’t even arrived, properly, into North Fork, when a stranger opened his home to us. Yet, while he was opening his home to us, his own heart was breaking. That’s when we found out the other stranger was but a child himself.
“Yes, I’m talking about Lucas and Mark McCain.” Reverend McCafferty tried to get his thoughts organized before he continued. “I guess everyone can tell who was the ‘taller’ of the two strangers.” There were a few hearty laughs from the congregation.
“This sermon could be about how a young boy was forced to become a man before he should have. The child,” turning his eyes to Mark, “yes Mark, you are a child, and to your father, you’ll always be his child.”
Mark felt very uncomfortable and looked at his Pa. Lucas nodded at him.
“Since his return, I’ve had a number of occasions to speak with Mark. He is a child on the verge of becoming a young man; and like most young men, he is struggling with this new aspect of his life. During our discussions, he’s told me what he feels comfortable in talking about. I’ve tried to help him understand his feelings, his confusion, his doubts, his uncertainties.” There were murmurs among the members of the congregation and everyone turned their eyes to Mark. Everyone wondering, what had the boy endured?
Mark fidgeted with his hat and squirmed in his seat. Lucas put a comforting arm around his boy. And, young Sarah took Mark’s hand in hers.
“In time, I hope he will be able to tell his Pa, in detail, what he has told me as well as what he has not felt comfortable in retelling. But, for now, the most important thing is for a Father to show compassion and be there to support His son. And, when the time comes, listen. But then, I don’t have to tell that to Lucas.
“This sermon is about a loss of faith. Not Mark’s, not Lucas’, though by every right, either one of them could be forgiven for wavering.
“No, this is about me. See, I left Cincinnati because I heard that there was a shortage of ministers out west. I believed so much in God, that I packed up my family in order to share His word with others who were not as fortunate to have regular church services.
“Yet, at my first trial out here in this huge country, my faith wavered. I lost my way. Yes, at times, I witnessed Lucas questioning God, but he never blamed God. I can’t believe, now, how quickly I was to blame God. I turned my back on Him. I hated Him.”
Many in the congregation were shocked to hear those words. Revered McCafferty let the congregation quiet themselves before he continued to bear his sole.
“You see, while I’m not ready to tell you Mark’s story, I am ready to stand before you and tell you mine.
“You might ask, ‘How can he stand in front of us and say he hated God?’ You have every right to ask that question. I need you to know that I am only human. I have faults. I want you to understand that I’m not perfect and I am fallible. And maybe in knowing my weaknesses, you’ll see that I’ll never ‘judge’ anyone, but work with you through your troubles.
“I also need you to understand how my faith started to be restored. It was by the innocence of a child, my own. I had been reunited with my Sarah. Lucas had found Mark, but had not yet been really reunite; when Lucas reached Mark he was unconscious after being thrown from a horse. As the soldier’s led the small procession and returned to the town with Lucas and Mark, I still was blaming God. I was mad He had let this happen. That he had allowed those outlaws to take my Sarah away from me. Yet… as Lucas and the soldier’s carried Mark into the doctor’s office, my child asked if we could pray for Mark.”
Taking a moment to shake his head and lower his eyes, Reverend McCafferty vividly remembered the scene.
“She’d been separated from her family for over a week and I could feel her trembling in my arms because of her experiences, yet she showed compassion to, to someone who only a week earlier was a stranger. My faith in myself crumbled even further.
“Later, I overheard Mark and Lucas talk. I heard Mark tell his Pa how he was so scared and felt so alone. How he prayed his father would find him. He had prayed to God for the strength to help him keep Sarah safe. To keep My Sarah safe.
“After our return to North Fork, I talked with a boy to help him through his anguish, yet while I thought I was helping him, it was he who was helping me. Restoring my faith in myself, in people; and most of all in God.
“With all they were going through, these three stood firm in their faith; believing without wavering… In witnessing these three, they reminded me that God can only guide us. It’s what we choose to do with that guidance in our lives that makes the difference. If one keeps their hearts open…”
Ashamed of his own guilt, but feeling a heavy weight lifted, the Reverend wiped the unshed tears from his eyes.
“God’s guidance can take many forms, even the form of a child.” Again looking to Mark, “Mark, I look forward to our conversations in the future.
“The lesson from this sermon is that not all lessons are to be learned from the bible and not all lessons are to be taught by an adult to a child. Sometimes, adults need to listen to the children. Children can be great teachers.
“I stand before you to ask your forgiveness. I’ve talked with Our Heavenly Father and I believe He has listened as I’ve asked for and feel blessed with His forgiveness. If you choose to accept me as your new preacher, my family and I would be blessed to call North Fork our home.”
With that, Reverend McCafferty left the pulpit. As he stepped to the front row, he reached out for his wife’s hand and looked to Lucas and Mark, and motioned for them to accompany them out to the front of the church. Mark felt a tug on his hand and realized Sarah still had a hold of his hand. He reached down, picked Sarah up in his arms and set her on his hip. Lucas looked down at his boy, concerned how Mark was handling what had been revealed, concerned until he saw Mark’s smile. Then, Lucas picked Jake up in his arms and followed the McCafferty family outside.
As the members of the congregation filed out of the Church, everyone stopped and shook the reverend’s hand, hugged his wife, and welcomed them to North Fork. People also shook the hands of Lucas and Mark, where in the past they might have ruffled Mark’s hair or just nodded to him in acknowledgement. Some of the schools girls blushed and giggled as they walked past Mark. The older boys from school punched him in the arm. The town had a new respect for Mark. Yes, in the past, he had been that mischievous boy, but people were realizing he was growing up, growing up in front of their eyes.
Lucas invited the McCafferty family to join him and Mark for lunch over at the Mallory House hotel. Mark put Sarah up on Blue Boy as Lucas put Jake on Razor. The McCains and the McCaffertys walked over to the hotel.
As they sat down at the table, the reverend turned to Mark and apologized if he had made Mark uncomfortable with his words. “I needed the congregation to know how humbled I was and was sincere when I asked for their forgiveness.”
“I understand, but gee, did you have to lay it on so thick?” Mark said while grimacing about what was going to happen when school restarted in a few weeks. He hoped everyone would just forget about it.
Mark and Maggie McCafferty and their family were settling into the parsonage and getting to know the people of North Fork. They had truly become part of the community, not just a preacher’s family. It seemed everyday, a different family was inviting them over to dinner. No one asked any questions about the first Sermon, conversations drifted to many different topics; the weather, ranching, babies being born, and questions about back East. How North Fork compared to some of the bigger cities. Excitement as the railroad was heading out West.
The McCafferty children were spending a lot of time out at the McCain ranch before school started. Mark was teaching them how to ride and teaching them about ranching. They loved it. Lucas noticed that Mark seemed to walk a little taller of late.
‘Was he walking taller or had he just grown that much?’ Lucas asked of himself.
Mark never lost his patience with these children. There was more laughter around the McCain Ranch, laughter of multiple children, not just one.
As he sat on the front porch of their home, smoking a thin cigar, and listening as the sounds of night replace the quieted sounds of day, Lucas was pleased to know how well the three children were getting along, yet, he longed… What if Margaret hadn’t died…, What if….
‘That’s the problem with “What ifs” you can get lost with them,’ Lucas thought to himself.
The new school year had been in session for a few months. As promised, Mark picked up Sarah and Jake and walked with them to school each day, many days leading them as they sat in the saddle on Blue Boy. Mr. Griswold had returned to North Fork after a summer visit to his own family back east. One day, shortly after Halloween, he was grading papers over lunch when he came to Mark McCain’s assignment. It just now dawned on him that there had been a remarkable improvement in Mark’s grades this school year. He sat back and tried to reflect on just when the change had occurred.
It was a few days later when Mr. Griswold decided to go outside and observe the children during recess. As he walked around, he noticed how the two McCafferty children had taken to Mark. They seemed to idolize him. He couldn’t fault them; he had heard that Mark had saved both of their lives. And Mark seemed genuinely attached to them, he didn’t act irritated at having youngsters tag along behind him all the time. At lunch, the boys were playing stickball, however Mr. Griswold didn’t see Mark in the group. This gave him cause for concern. Mr. Griswold then noticed the older schoolgirls standing under the tree, giggling and pointing to the side of the schoolhouse. As Mr. Griswold walked to the side of the building, he paused as he saw Mark had all the young children sitting around him. They were focusing intently on what Mark was telling them. He continued to watch for a few minutes without interrupting.
Mr. Griswold was curious. In school year’s past, Mark would spend time with the boys his age, playing games and making plans to torment the girls. Finally, he couldn’t squelch his curiosity and approached Mark from behind, he realized Mark was reading to Sarah and Jake, and the others. None of the children looked away from Mark, their full attention was wrapped up in what he was reading. As Mr. Griswold’s shadow fell over Mark, he quickly stood up and accidentally dropped the book. Mr. Griswold bent down and picked up the book.
“Mark, as I’ve said before, each book has a soul.” Remembering their first encounter with ‘juju beans’ in a book. “No sense letting this one get dirty.” Then he looked at the title My First Alphabet. This is not the Mark McCain I remember, Mr. Griswold thought to himself.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Griswold, I didn’t’ hear you come up behind me,” Mark tried to explain.
“That’s okay Mark. Guess I shouldn’t have startled you.” He handed the book back to Mark, turned and walked back to ring the school bell.
School continued for the day and was later dismissed, but still, Mr. Griswold couldn’t place his finger on exactly what was occurring, but knew he had a few questions to ask.
“Mr. McCain,” said Griswold as all the children rose to leave.
“Yes sir?” answered Mark.
“Would you stay after for a few minutes?”
Mark motioned for Sarah and Jake to go outside and told them to wait for him. Then he walked to the front of the classroom, unsure what he had done wrong. He hadn’t remembered doing anything to get himself into trouble, except dropping the book.
“Mark, I just wanted to talk to you about happened over lunch today. It surprised me at first. You sure are a different Mark McCain than the one who left this schoolroom before summer. You’ve done some growing up. “
Mark was unsure what to say. Uncomfortable with the thought this discussion was going to lead to the events of the summer and he wasn’t ready to talk to anyone else, especially since he hadn’t come to terms to talk to his Pa about it.
Mr. Griswold continued, “Rest assured Mark, I’m not going to pry into this summer. Since I saw you at lunch, I started thinking. I realized recently that your schoolwork has improved as is reflected by your test scores. I’ve also been pleased with how the younger children have recently shown an improvement in their own grades and now I see that it wasn’t all because of my tutelage. What I am going to ask, if you’d be interested, I think you’d be an excellent teacher’s assistant, to help out with the younger children. They seem to take direction from you a little easier than me.”
“Mr. Griswold, I’m not ready yet. I’m still a kid.”
“Mark, I seem to remember the Reverend McCafferty saying that children can be great teachers. All you have to do is to continue what you did at lunch today. I’ve witnessed sparkles in their eyes when they answer my questions correctly. They are excited. They don’t see you as a school teacher because you’re closer to their age. They kind of take to you as their big brother. You make learning fun.
“I think I need to talk to my Pa.” Marked looked down at the floor, unsure what to do.
Realizing there was an internal struggle that Mark was experiencing; Mr. Griswold thought how to bring Mark back into the present; it appeared Mark was going to bolt like a startled jack rabbit. “Mark, this improvement in your studies, I think it has something to do with your friendship with Percy Bullock. Am I right?”
“Yes sir.” Mark’s eyes started to shine again. “His home is full of books, thick books. Wonderful literature as his Pa says. Percy’s father has been reading from them to Percy and me. I remember the first time I took Percy home and saw all those books. I told Mr. Bullock ‘You must think we’re pretty ignorant around here’.”
Mr. Griswold replied, “Mark, I’ve always thought of you as a bright boy, if you’d just apply yourself to your studies. I’m glad you’ve proven me correct. I also think that with your improved attitude towards school, you’re smart enough to take on some advance studies. I’d be willing to work with you over recess on your new studies and you can work with the younger children over lunch on their spellers and readers.”
“I don’t know.” Mark still didn’t feel he wanted to take on any grown up responsibilities.
“Mark,” came his Pa’s voice from the back of the room. Lucas had arrived just as school was being dismissed and after not seeing Mark come out, he walked into the classroom to overhear the entire conversation. “I think this is a decision you need to make for yourself. But if you’re looking for my permission, you have it. Mr. Griswold, it pleases me to hear your words to my b…, my son. I’ve always taken pride in seeing that he received a proper education.”
Mr. Griswold spoke to Mark, “Take your time. You don’t have to give me an answer right away. I’ll see you in the morning.” And all three left the classroom.
Lucas and Mark rode back to the ranch, side by side, after dropping Sarah and Jake off at the parsonage.
After dinner and the dishes were washed and put away, Mark sat down opposite his father and started to read part of his homework assignment for the night. Lucas was reading his bible and every now and then, when Mark looked at his Pa, he could tell his attention was wandering. Mark was concerned, when his Pa usually read the bible, his eyes never strayed from the words printed on the pages.
‘Unless he was trying to come up with some way to set me back on the right path after getting into more mischief than I should,” Mark thought to himself.
“Pa, you seem preoccupied this evening. Have I done something wrong?”
“No, Mark, you’ve not done anything wrong. I am proud of you, proud that you’re my son.”
Lucas’ thoughts seemed to drift again.
“Pa?” inquired Mark.
“I know you might think that what I’m about to say, might seem a little too adult for you, but I want you to understand. It’s just that, I’ve seen how you’ve taken to the McCafferty children. And to hear the laughter from the three of you around the house, well, it’s something that I never thought I’d hear within these walls. I’m sorry that your Ma passed and you were left an only child. Maybe I should have tried to find a woman to marry and become a Ma for you. Then hearing Mr. Griswold’s words today…. As for your education…..” Lucas faltered. He knew he didn’t want to push Mark into doing something that Mark thought was a ‘grown up thing’. Especially since Mark still hadn’t come to terms to tell him about events of the summer, but this was an opportunity that Mark couldn’t pass up; an opportunity to better himself.
“Pa, it wasn’t your fault my Ma died. And you’ve been many things to me. You’ve had to be both my Pa and my Ma. I consider you my best friend, my teacher, and my confidant…” Mark hesitated, he realized now might be the right time to talk to his Pa about the ordeal. Lucas spent the next several hours listening to his son. Even though it had happened several months before, every detail was still brilliant in Mark’s memory. But Lucas noticed that Mark was calm in his retelling, that the words Mark was saying showed a maturity in his son. He wanted to stop his son and tell him to forget about all the bad memories. Hearing Mark talk of his ordeal did cause him an emotional pain, and that’s why Mark had hesitated to talk.
‘That boy of mine sure wants to protect me,’ Lucas thought, but he knew his son needed to talk and he listened more intently; knowing this might be the final step towards Mark finally putting the matter in the past. Lucas now had a better understanding of just how much growing up Mark had done when he was missing. And why he asked to be “my little boy” again that Sunday and why he was now hesitant to accept Mr. Griswold’s offer now.
Morning came and Lucas found that Mark was already up, dressed for school, and re-checking a few math problems before breakfast.
“Son, never seen you so eager to do your studies.”
“Pa, after our talk last night, I realized that I can’t stop myself from growing up. Some days I feel I want to grow up to make sure you’re proud of me and that you can trust me to do things around the ranch. Other days I want to be your little boy again.” Mark paused as he looked his Pa in the eye. “I will grow up, that’s what life is all about. The lessons learned. You’ve spent my whole life teaching me right from wrong. Impressing on me the importance of a good education. Mr. Bullock opened my eyes to literature and the more I listened to him read, the more I understood what you’ve been teaching me all along.
“The words written in all those books, the history, the creativity…. Someone took the time to put it all in writing. As I drifted off to sleep last night I realized my eyes have been opened to a whole new world. I want to be a part of the future. I can’t do that if I insist on staying a child.
“Yesterday, when Mr. Griswold asked me to help him with the younger children…” Mark paused.
“Just how did you become the pied piper of North Fork?” his Pa asked, not knowing if he really wanted to know the answer, but he couldn’t help ask the question.
“At first it started just with Sarah and Jake, they were having trouble making new friends with some of the others and were unsure of themselves, so I just started making their lessons into games with them. Next thing I knew, I had a few more youngsters, and then I had all the youngsters surrounding me. The eagerness in their eyes…, Pa its….” Mark stopped to think about what to say next.
“Pa, I saw the look in Mr. Griswold’s eyes when he asked me to be his assistant and it reminded me of you, when I’ve done things to make you proud of me. I think, maybe, I can handle growing up a little bit more today. That is, if you’re ready to let me grow up a little too. I want to accept Mr. Griswold’s invitation for advanced studies and I want to help him out with the younger children. Maybe they won’t try to get out of their studies quite as much as I did.”
Yes, a new day had dawned in the life of Mark McCain. New adventures and new struggles yet to be experienced awaited him.