Synopsis: The date holds a special meaning to the McCains.
Category: The Rifleman
Word Count: 3,070
Had this story been an episode, it would have taken place during the middle part of the fourth season. Mark McCain would have been about fourteen years old during this timeframe.
Millie Scott is the owner of the General Store in North Fork, and a good friend to the McCains.
Mark McCain woke before dawn. As he sat up on his bunk, he didn’t know why, but he felt compelled to get out of the house before his Pa woke. It was Sunday and the circuit preacher wasn’t due in North Fork that week, so they didn’t have to get up early to get ready for church. He hadn’t made plans to go fishing, so there was no reason to get up early to get his chores done. He didn’t know why, but all week long he’d been feeling out of sorts. He’d helped his Pa work on the ranch and it was hard, tiring work, enough work to keep one’s mind off your troubles, but something still gnawed at him, it was always there, just below the surface, never allowing a complete understanding of what it was. The more he tried to understand his feelings, the more confused he became.
Over dinner, the night before, Lucas had noticed the pensiveness in his boy, but chalked it up to him being tired from all the hard work they’d done during week. Later that night, Lucas smiled to himself as he sat on the porch, smoking his cigar, feeling proud of working side by side with his boy. As he leaned against one of the posts to the front porch, it didn’t surprise Lucas when after Mark had finished the dishes he bade, “Good night Pa, I’m going to turn in early.”
“Good night son. Pleasant dreams,” Lucas answered.
As his body refused to relax into his bunk and his eyes closed in an effort to encourage sleep, Mark didn’t have pleasant dreams, he never got to a point where he could dream at all. He’d tried to force himself to sleep, but the more he tried, the more agitated his mood became. Finally, he heard his Pa shut the front door, saw him blow out the lamp in the front room, and walk into their bedroom. Mark feigned sleep while his Pa undressed and lay down on his bunk across the room. Soon he heard his Pa gently snoring, blissfully sleeping.
The monotonous ticking of the clock on the table beside his father’s bunk couldn’t drawn him to sleep, nor could the gentle sounds of nature’s night outside their bedroom window.
The room was still dark when Mark quietly dressed before he stepped from their bedroom, quietly pulling the door closed behind him; he stopped at his Pa’s desk, lit the lamp, but kept the wick low and wrote his Pa a note.
Went for a thinking ride, be home soon.
Without looking back, he quietly walked from the house and headed for the barn. Deciding to do his morning chores first, Mark fed and watered the horses, picked the stalls and laid down fresh bedding, all before he finally stepped to the yard between the house and the barn to feed the chickens. Setting the feed pail back inside the barn, Mark turned and saddled his horse, BlueBoy. Dawn was just starting to paint the morning sky as he led his horse from the barn. Mark climbed in the saddle and headed nowhere in particular.
Mark eventually found himself on the outskirts of North Fork. As he arrived, the town was just starting to come alive for the morning; people were greeting each other on the street, smiling as they wished each other a good morning. For a brief moment, Mark felt his heart lighten, but soon enough he was pulled back down.
Mark found himself stopped in front of the church. As he looked to the opened doors, in welcome for those who wished to observe Sunday in the church, he had hoped that maybe the church would offer him an answer, but he didn’t even know the question he wanted to ask. Reluctantly, he nudged BlueBoy on, neck reining his horse around, he headed back towards the ranch.
Lucas woke to find his son already up for the day. He reached for his pants and slipped them on before pulling on his boots. As he stood, he reached for his shirt hanging from the back of the chair next to his bunk and slipped it on. He hadn’t begun to button the shirt when he walked into the front room, about to call his son’s name but stopped when he saw the note on his desk. As he picked it up to read; Lucas ran his fingers through his hair, once read, he lowered his hand holding the note. With his other hand, he rubbed his index finger under his stubbled chin, as he remembered the night before and remembered how much quieter Mark had been all week. Lucas had chalked it up to the hard work they had accomplished, but now, the father sensed there was something wrong with his boy and he felt a wave of guilt that he hadn’t realized it for what it was.
Grabbing his rifle, Lucas left the house, crossing the yard to the barn. Upon entering, he saw Mark had already completed his morning chores… and BlueBoy’s empty stall. Lucas walked out of the barn and scanned the horizon, hoping to see his boy returning home, wondering how early his son had risen and how long his son had been gone. His gaze returned to the rise over the hill when movement caught his attention; coming down the road was a single-horse buggy carrying Millie Scott. Lucas had forgotten he’d invited Millie to the ranch for breakfast and to read from the bible in lieu of church services.
The tall rancher had finished buttoning his shirt when Millie stopped the buggy in front of the house and gaily greeted him, “Good Morning Lucas!”
“Morning Millie,” he said as he offered his hand to assist her out of the buggy.
“Where’s Mark? Don’t tell me he’s sleeping in on such a glorious morning?” Millie asked with laughter in her voice.
“No, he’s not sleeping in. He rose early this morning, did his chores, and left a note saying he was going for a thinking ride,” Lucas stated as he escorted Millie inside.
Once inside, Lucas set his rifle in its stand, just inside the door, before he took Millie’s shawl and saw her seated a chair, he glanced out the window.
“Lucas, you’re concerned,” Millie said seeing the expression on Lucas’ face.
“I am. We were working so hard this week that I didn’t realize until I read his note that… that something was wrong. I…”
“Lucas, what it is?” Millie asked.
“I don’t know. I thought at first his quietness was because we were working so hard this week, ever since he got out of school for the summer, but now… Usually I can sense when he’s troubled, this time, I didn’t.”
“Lucas, sometimes a boy needs to figure things out on their own. You know how much he wants to grow up. Maybe he just wants to think on his own before talking with you.”
“But we’ve always talked in the past…” Lucas answered.
“Yes, but not always right away. He’s growing up… A boy needs to learn how to make decisions on his own, understanding what it means to be a young man,” hoping she wasn’t overstepping what was right for her to say.
Lucas nodded and accepted Millie’s reasoning, he couldn’t think of any other explanation or even why his son was troubled. Millie assisted Lucas by going out to milk the cow for the morning. While she was busy in the barn, Lucas took a few moments to shave his face. As he fixed breakfast, he kept hoping that any minute Mark would ride up to the yard.
By the time Millie returned to the house, Lucas was placing breakfast on the table. They both ate, but neither said anything, each watching out the front door; Millie worrying about Lucas, Lucas worrying about his son.
It was almost lunch time when Lucas had enough, he was beyond worry and had grown upset that his son had rode off early in the morning and didn’t have the courtesy of returning when he knew they were expecting company for the morning. He’d raised his son to have better manners and respect.
“Millie, Mark knew you were coming for breakfast and that we were going to read from the bible as a…,” Lucas hesitated as realization sank in; he’d almost said, ‘family’.
“Lucas? What’s wrong?” Millie asked, she’d heard how abruptly Lucas has stopped speaking.
“I think know what’s been bothering Mark.” A moment of guilt washed over Lucas. “I need to find him. Millie, would you mind returning back to North Fork, I think I know where Mark is.”
Millie looked at Lucas, trying to understand what he wasn’t saying.
“Millie, I…” Lucas was struggling to find the words to explain to Millie what was happening, but as he was trying to think how best to explain it, he felt the longing…, the heartache. It had been so long…, so long that he had somehow forgotten the ache; forgotten the ache because of Millie. “Millie, today’s the anniversary of Margaret’s death; it’s been eight years. Generally Mark and I spend the day together, alone. This is the first time since Margaret’s death that I’ve invited anyone to share the day with us. Only…, I didn’t remember what today was.”
Tears formed in Millie’s eyes she listened to Lucas and understood the implications. “Lucas, I’m sorry, if I had known, I wouldn’t have accepted your offer.” She turned and headed for the door.
Lucas quickly prevented Millie from leaving by placing a hand on her shoulder and turned her so he could look into her eyes. As he placed his hand to her chin and lifted her face he said, “Millie, it’s not your fault. You know I’m not a talkative man, that, well…, I keep my hurt to myself. I’ve enjoyed all the time we’ve spent together and being with you eased some of the ache in my heart.” Lucas waited to see Millie’s reaction, he lowered his hand from her chin to her shoulder. “Right now I think I have a boy whose heart is aching only he can’t tell me. Maybe…maybe he doesn’t even realize why, and that’s why he left so early this morning.”
“Lucas, go find Mark. I’ll ride on back to town. I’ll be alright.”
Lucas removed his hand from Millie’s shoulder and escorted her as she walked out the door in front of him; she was still quietly shedding tears as he assisted her into the buggy.
After seeing Millie off, Lucas hurriedly saddled Razor and headed out. He knew the location where Mark would be when he needed to be alone and not so quick for his Pa to reach him.
Mark was up on the hill that overlooked the flatlands behind the house. He was leaning back against a tree, sitting next to a cross marked ‘unknown’ that overlooked the pond. He was struggling to understand why he was so upset. As he stood, he picked up a stone and skipped it across the water. He saw the ripples spread out as the rock hit the water and then was airborne and then hit the water again, skipping across the surface. Three times the rock skipped the water before it sank beneath the smooth surface.
“Three. Why three?” a frustrated Mark asked himself. “Now why should three upset me so?”
Mark turned his attention back to the grave marker, “Doesn’t seem fair. Here you lie… You had a life, I don’t know why or how you died, but to be unknown in death…” Mark hesitated and shivered as he thought about his feelings. Whoever was buried there had at one time been someone’s child, someone’s friend, someone’s responsibility to bury, but no one knew who he was when he died.
“I don’t know why I’m feeling so, so… Hell, I don’t even know how I feel.”
Looking around Mark felt guilty for using the curse word and mumbled an apology; he kicked a stone as an expression of his frustrations, sending it rolling across the ground.
“There’s been times in the past when I’ve kept things from my Pa when I knew I could of or should have talked with Pa. This time, I don’t know what to say. I don’t even know why I’m feeling this way…” Returning to stand in front of the grave marker, Mark continued, “I don’t even know why the number three upset me today?”
Quietly, Lucas rode up to the pond and saw Mark on the far side, standing, holding his hat in his hand, facing the grave marker. Lucas kneed Razor to walk on. Lucas stopped and dismounted Razor next to BlueBoy. He walked over to Mark to hear him ask about the number three.
“Mark,” Lucas quietly called. Mark turned around to face his Pa, “Mark, I’m sorry. Please forgive me?”
“Pa? Forgive you? I don’t understand why you would ask for my forgiveness?”
“After I read your note this morning, I realized that something had been bothering you this whole week, only I didn’t know. Then I was telling Millie why I was upset that you’d gone off on your own and… it came to me, the reason you were bothered.” Lucas quietly walked closer to his son and placed his hands upon his son’s shoulders. “Mark, when I arrived, you said you were upset today because of the number three.”
“But why Pa? All week long I’ve been feeling… I don’t know… The best way to describe it is…lost. A little while ago I threw a rock and it skipped three times. It… It upset me, but I don’t know why. I’ve skipped rocks plenty of times and they’ve skipped three or four times…” Mark crossed his legs as he sat down next to the tree again. He plopped his hat down in front of him.
Lucas knelt down next to his son and removed his hat before he spoke, “Mark, I shouldn’t have invited Millie over for today. Of all days, not today.”
“But Pa, Millie’s been over before to share bible reading with us when the circuit preacher wasn’t here.” Mark’s eyes pleaded to understand why he felt as he did.
“Mark, you’ve known for this past week that Millie was going to come over. With all the work we’ve been doing on the ranch since you got out of school for your summer break, it’s easy to lose track of the days. Do you remember what today is?” Lucas asked. He braced himself for Mark’s reaction. “Mark, it’s been a long time since it was more than just the ‘two’ of us on this day.” Lucas could have said ‘more than just you and me’, but he knew the number was the reason for his son’s discomfort.
After a few moments pause, “Today’s the anniversary of Ma’s death,” Mark quietly said. It had been eight years since it had been the three of them, and today was June third…
Lucas looked at his boy’s face, it wasn’t as devastated as he had expected, he witnessed relief pass through his son as the understanding settled over him. All the pensiveness that had been building during the week slipped away, as if it had never existed, but he could tell sorrow was welling inside his boy.
“Pa, I know when we settled here you said there was no looking back… But… Were we wrong?” Mark asked, choosing not to look his Pa in the eye as he asked the question.
“Wrong, that both of us forgot what today was.” Tears slowly slipped from Mark’s eyes. “Pa, Millie’s been so kind to both of us…”
“Son, no, we weren’t wrong; I think it was just a matter of both of us… ‘not looking back’. North Fork is our home. Your Ma will always be with us, but her memory shouldn’t consume us, shouldn’t prevent us from living in the now. I’m proud of the life we’ve made here. I’m happy we have Millie as a friend. We just have to remember that, we’ll always have your Ma’s love.”
Lucas finally sat down next to his son. They continued to sit next to each other and talked for several hours. Lucas talked of the six years they had shared together as a small family, laughing at the memories and the love they contained.
“Pa, I think maybe we should head into town,” Mark finally suggested.
“Oh?” asked Lucas as he raised an eyebrow.
“Well, I guess with all that happened this morning and this afternoon, I thought that maybe… I owe Miss Millie an apology.”
“Mark, Millie understands what happened, I told her before I came out here to talk with you.”
“She knows today’s…” Mark couldn’t exactly bring himself to say the words, again. “Was she okay… afterwards?”
Nodding, Lucas told his son, “She felt our pain Mark. She cares about both of us.”
“As you care about her?” Mark inquired; he’d seen his Pa and Millie together when they thought he wasn’t watching.
“I do care about her Mark, as any friend would.” Lucas wasn’t sure he wanted to have that discussion with his son, at least not on this day. Millie did mean a great deal to him, and he knew Millie cared about him. It came down to whether Lucas was ready to let someone else in…was he ready to make such a commitment; after so many years of it being just the two of them. “Come on boy, let’s get to town.”
As the afternoon sun slowly crossed the sky, Lucas and Mark McCain rode next to each other, both quietly remembering Margaret Gibbs McCain, loving wife and loving mother.
In the episode Tension, we learned that Lucas McCain’s beloved wife, Margaret Gibbs McCain, died on June 3rd.
This story is set before the episode Two Ounces of Tin, where we found out about the grave marked ‘unknown’ on the McCain property.