Synopsis: A storm and marauders threaten Lucas and Mark; leaving Mark to experience events much too soon.
Category: The Rifleman
Word Count: 9,900
Lucas McCain returned to the ranch from the meeting held in North Fork later than he had planned that night. Upon his arrival, he found Mark already asleep in his bed; and didn’t want to wake him. He took a few moments of fatherly pride and watched his son peacefully sleep. It saddened him to think Mark was growing up and wasn’t going to be his “little boy” for much longer; Mark would soon be fifteen-years old. He had been working very hard over the summer break from school, taking on more chores around the homestead, as well as keeping an eye on the cattle and the fences. He’d also taken to helping out some of the other ranchers when they needed extra help. Lucas was proud of his son, yet, he felt he needed to have a talk with the boy in the morning; he was beginning to feel that Mark was trying to bear too many of the responsibilities around the ranch. He knew how much Mark wanted to hold up his share of their partnership, however, Lucas wanted Mark to be a boy for as long as possible. Once you leave your childhood, you can never return.
“Margaret,” Lucas thought to himself as he sat down on his bed, “he reminds me so much of your gentleness. I wish you were here to watch him grow into a young man we can be proud of.”
Lucas removed his boots, shirt, and belt and lay down to try to fall to sleep. As tired as he was, sleep wouldn’t come easy. He’d fretted all the way home after the town meeting; word had come from Denver that the Cordova Gang might be heading farther into the New Mexico Territory. A ruthless bunch of murderers and thieves, inflicting cruelty whenever and however they saw fit. This gang had no fear of the law. Too many times, dead bodies of settlers and charred out buildings were all that remained when the gang moved on. Numerous towns were warned to be on the alert and towns thought to be in imminent danger would see the arrival of Cavalry soldiers within the week.
North Fork was a growing community, yet it was still a small town, with ranches spread out over the territory, young families working hard to bring their children up proper. The main discussion of the town meeting involved what would happen if the Cordova Gang showed up in North Fork? How could such a small town defend themselves against the likes of this men?
Exhaustion won out as sleep finally over took Lucas. When he did wake, he found the sun well up for the morning. Walking out of their sleeping room, Lucas called out, “Boy that coffee smells mighty good this morning, could sure use some…” He looked around the front room, only to realize Mark was not in the house. Lucas buttoned his shirt and tucked his shirt tail into his pants as he walked to the front door to see if his son was sitting on the porch. Looking to the left of the door, he noticed that the firewood had been chopped and neatly stacked; he couldn’t believe he’d slept through the noise. Stepping from the porch, Lucas continued on to the barn in search of his son. On the backside of the barn, he saw Razor and the wagon horses contentedly munching hay in the corral. Inside, the stalls were already cleaned and hay placed in the mangers for when they were brought in for the night. Yet… no sign of Mark or BlueBoy.
“Well, guess he must be out on the range already,” Lucas spoke aloud as he walked over, picked up his saddle and bridle, and strode out to Razor. “Can’t let that boy do all the work, I’ll never hear the end of it for sleeping in so late.” He quietly talked to himself while saddling his horse.
It was almost noon when Lucas finally caught up with Mark; he saw BlueBoy first, and then the cow that was down and on the far side Mark was attempting to help the cow give birth. Lucas’ teenage son held the front hooves protruding from the cow and pulling with all his might. As Lucas rode closer, he noticed the calf was good-sized and the struggle Mark was having in trying to pull it out. The cow wasn’t cooperating as she fought against the contractions; Lucas watched the cow striking backwards with her hind legs, catching Mark unawares by sweeping his legs out from under him and knocking him to the ground. Lucas reined in Razor, and jumped down to run to Mark’s side.
“Mark, you alright?! Are you hurt boy?” Lucas asked as he offered a hand to help his son stand.
“I’m alright, just my pride’s hurt, Pa. Found her down about an hour ago, realized she was struggling in labor, I thought I could help her. ” Mark stood to his feet, swatting the dirt off his pant legs and his rear-end with his hat.
“You did a mighty fine job son, can see why she was struggling. Guess when she knocked you backwards that was the trick to get the calf the rest of the way out. Pretty good looking bull calf, put together rather well. Well worth your efforts to save it. ”
Lucas and Mark stood nearby and waited for both the cow and the calf to get up so they could get them back to the herd. Thinking to himself, ‘My boy’s going to make a fine rancher some day.’ Looking out over the horizon, Lucas felt a pride swell inside of him.
Turning back to Mark, “Why didn’t you wake me this morning before you headed out, son? Or at least come back and get me when you found the cow down?”
“I heard you come in late last night and I could tell you had a lot on your mind, so I pretended to still be asleep, later I heard you tossing and turning. When I woke, I saw you were finally asleep I decided to let you be. Besides, once I was out here I saw tracks of a cougar, didn’t want to leave her unprotected.”
“Cougar! Mark you know better than…” Lucas started to reprimand his son.
But Mark quickly interrupted, “Pa, I had my rifle. You’ve taught me how and when to use it. Besides, I only saw the tracks. I never saw or even heard the cat. I kept my eyes open, guess that’s why I didn’t see the cow getting ready to kick out.”
“Mark, I still don’t like you taking on so much responsibility. You’re still a young boy, yes I know, soon to be a young man, but as your father, I worry you’re doing too much growing up too fast.”
“Pa, I know no matter how old I get, you’ll still think of me as your ‘little boy’, but I am growing up and it means a lot to me to be able to help you out on the ranch. Kind of making up for all the times I was too little to do more than be anything more than a nuisance.” Mark said with a sheepish grin on his face. Changing the subject, he asked, “Can you tell me what happened at the town meeting that had you so worried?”
“Let’s mount up and get them back to the herd. I’ll tell you as we ride.”
Lucas told Mark of the Cordova Gang, and the possibility of the Cavalry coming, and that was another reason he wanted Mark to let him know at all times where he planned to be and not stray too far from the house, unless they were together.
As they finished checking the rest of the herd and fence on that section of their land, dark clouds began rolling over the hill. Father and son felt the temperature beginning to drop as they headed for home; in the distance they could see the torrential rain and lightning bolts and hear thunder, and felt the winds approaching.
“Looks like we should pick up the pace, Pa. I think that storm’s going to be upon us before we get home,” Mark encouraged.
Lucas and Mark kicked their mounts into a gallop as they crossed their land in a race to outrun the thunderstorm. The brilliance of daylight was replaced by dark, ominous clouds and sheets of rain dulling the scenery. However, as they approached the small river crossing their property, they saw a wagon attempting be caught up in the torrents of a flash flood as it attempted to cross the normally quiet river. Lucas and Mark reached for and pulled out their lariats in an attempt to lasso the mules in order to guide them to the riverbank. Lucas swung his lariat overhead and released it, his aim was true; however, the mule Mark was aiming for, struggled against the current and slipped, the animal went down causing Mark’s lariat to miss.
In the wagon appeared to be a young husband and wife, and two young children. The man and woman were barely able to hang on to the wagon seat as a rain-soaked Lucas kicked Razor to drag the team and wagon to the riverbank. The rising water struck the side of the wagon as it lurched when the one mule lost its footing; the two small children couldn’t keep their hold on the slickened railing, and were tossed into the waters raging down on them.
Mark reacted when he saw the two children fall into the water, he kicked BlueBoy into the waters as he went after them, he didn’t feel he had the time to loop his lariat to make a throw, and he didn’t want to take a chance on missing again. Mark was able to grab the boy and get him on BlueBoy, yelling above the sound of the storm for the boy to hold on tight to the saddle horn, before he dove into the waters to go after the girl.
A relieved Lucas led the mules safely to the shore, and was coiling his lariat as he rode back to greet the young couple. From the corner of his eye he saw movement and turned to look for Mark; to his horror, he saw BlueBoy come out of the water carrying the small boy. As a bolt of lightning illuminated the scene, Lucas witnessed Mark being swept away down the river. As BlueBoy began to shy, Lucas dropped his lariat and went after the horse and the child. Having a firm grip on the reins to his son’s horse, he was torn between going after his son and getting these strangers to shelter. Lucas grabbed the scared boy and carried him back to his parents. Lucas hated to leave, but he knew he had no choice, they were still in danger from the water that continued to spill over the banks of the river and the lightning that continued to flash in the ever-growing darkness.
Another bolt of lightning struck nearby, shattering a tree, followed by the ever-rolling thunderclap. The full furry of the storm was upon the group; everyone was soaked through and chilled as the temperature continued to drop. Lucas kept looking over his shoulder and up at the skies as he led the small family back to the ranch. He ushered the people into the house and stirred the fire in the hearth to warm and dry the family. Knowing he still needed to tend to Razor and mules, Lucas left without saying a word.
Leading Razor across the yard, Lucas opened the doors to the barn wide and slapped his horse to encourage him to get out of the rain. The tall rancher ran back to where the mules stood, grabbed hold of the reins and led them inside the barn and closed the doors behind them. Lucas lit the lantern hanging from one of the posts in the barn before he proceeded to unsaddle his horse, and unhitch the mules and lead them into BlueBoy’s stall so he could unharness them.
Once he returned to the house, he stopped on the porch and leaned against one of the support posts. Fear gripped his very being as he fought against the tears. “Mark!!! Why God?!” he screamed, a mixture of tears and rain fell down his face. Despair tore at Lucas as knew he couldn’t do anything until the weather broke. The best he could do would be to ride to town; get the doc for these people and ask for help in forming a search party to look for Mark and the other child. He couldn’t admit to himself it would only be to retrieve their bodies.
Lucas steeled himself as he stepped to enter his home. The sight that greeted him reminded him of what he once had; the husband and wife were holding their son tightly, trying to get him dry and to stop him from shaking uncontrollably. The husband was also trying to calm his wife, “Maggie, Maggie, we’re alive, we’ll find Sarah.”
The husband was the first one who noticed Lucas standing in the doorway. “Mister, I don’t know how to thank you for saving the three of us. Our daughter is still out there. Please we have to find her. She’s only six. Please…”
“Folks, there’s nothing we can do until the storm breaks. If my boy got to your little girl, he’ll do anything he can to keep her safe.”
“Your boy?” the woman asked. “Your son’s still out there?”
“Mother, he pulled me from the water and put me on his horse. He, he told me to hold on tight and not to let go. Then he fell into the water and his horse took me to the riverbank.”
Everyone stared at each other, each fearing for their loved one who was missing. Lucas went to the stove to heat up the stew to help these people get warm. He knew being wet and taking a chill could mean trouble.
“Mark, where are our manners, we must introduce ourselves,” said the woman.
“I’m sorry, sir,” started the man, “I’m Mark McCafferty, this is my wife, Margaret, she prefers to be called Maggie, and our ten-year old son Jacob.”
“Jake,” the boy interrupted.
Hearing their names, Lucas hoped the people didn’t notice the tremble that shot through his core. “Pleased to meet you folks, my name is Lucas McCain.”
“Are you alright?” Maggie asked. She noticed how Lucas reacted when he heard their names.
Lucas hesitated, “My late wife’s name was Margaret, and… my son’s name is Mark. I’ve lost my wife, I….” and Lucas lost his fortitude once more. After a few moments Lucas regained his composure, he knew he needed to be strong for these people and for Mark.
“Please, Mr. McCain, we’re so sorry. We don’t mean to distress you any more than you already are.” Turning to her husband, “Maybe we should try to reach the town?”
“No!” Lucas was adamant. “You can’t go anywhere in this weather.” Lucas let his gaze go to the window. He was forced to stay in the house, to help these people, when his son was out there on his own.
The weather continued unabated throughout night, changing over to hail, and back to rain. Lucas was awake when the storm finally broke, just before sunrise. Knowing the day wouldn’t get any easier, he left a note for the McCafferty family.
Riding to town for the doctor and a search party. Breakfast fixings are in the kitchen.
Be back soon.”
Lucas galloped Razor as hard as he had ever remembered pushing him. Once he arrived in North Fork, he witnessed the damage the storm had done to the town; broken windows, pools of water standing in the street, signs hanging precariously from the front of various establishments. Lucas’ first stop was to see Doc Burrage, who said he would come out as soon as he finished with his patient, setting Nils broken arm. Afterwards, Lucas went to the Marshal’s Office.
“Micah!” Lucas yelled as he entered the office. “I need people.”
“Easy there Lucas, what’s wrong?” inquired the marshal as he closed the door to one of his cells, after letting a drifter out.
“Mark’s missing, got swept away in a flash flood last night and there’s a little girl missing too. I got her folks at my place. The waters…the waters took him from me. I feel so helpless. Please, Micah?”
When it came to anything to do with his son there weren’t too many people who witnessed Lucas’ weakness; most people compared the tall rancher to a she-bear with a cub, wild and deadly.
“Lucas, that storm did a might bit of damage to the town last night. I’ll see who all’s available to form a search party. We’ll be at your place within the hour.”
“Thanks Micah,” Lucas replied having regained his composure.
Alone, Lucas headed back to the ranch to wait for the doctor and for help to arrive. When he arrived, he found Mrs. McCafferty up and fixing breakfast. Mr. McCafferty was stirring the embers in the fireplace and adding wood to the fire. Through the open door to their bedroom, Lucas saw their boy was still sound asleep in Mark’s bed. The child looked so innocent asleep. ‘Like Mark did,’ Lucas faltered, ‘when he was that age.’
“Mrs. McCafferty, that smells quite delicious,” Lucas commented.
“Please call me Maggie and my husband Mark.” She looked into Lucas’s eyes to make sure he was going to be okay hearing his son’s name.
“Only, if you’ll call me Lucas. I just returned from North Fork, the doctor will be here soon to check all three of you to make sure you’re no worse for wear and Marshal Torrance is rounding up some people to form a search party. They should be here within the hour. Not sure how many people will come, that storm struck town last night and did a fair piece of damage.”
Doc Burrage arrived shortly after the group finished eating breakfast, and afterwards, gave everyone a clean bill of health. Soon thereafter, Micah arrived with those from town who suffered the least amount of damage.
The search party headed out towards the river.
Upon their arrival, Mark McCafferty stated, “It seems so tame compared to last night.”
Mark dove into the water; he knew he needed to reach the girl. The water hit him harder than he anticipated, as it tried to drive the breath from his lungs. He struggled to keep his head above the water and keep an eye on the girl as he tried to swim closer to her. With each stroke, she was so close…, just a little more…, stretch. Mark felt the cloth of her dress in his fingers, and closed his hand into a fist, hoping the fabric would not tear. He pulled the girl close to his chest. He had her, but now he realized they were at the mercy of the river and the storm. They were tossed about like rag dolls, no control over where they went. As the river carried them downstream, Mark’s back was slammed into a rock outcropping; he was spun around and he tried to grab hold, but the rock was worn smooth. In time, the furry of the waters subsided and Mark reached for a low hanging tree branch with one hand. ‘Got it!’ He told the child to hold on around his neck as he dragged both himself and the child to the riverbank; and with all his strength he walked towards the rocks. Mark put both his arms around the child in a protective manner and passed out as he slumped against a tree trunk.
It was early morning when Mark woke o find he still had the child sleeping in his arms. He was stiff, sore, and cold, he turned his attention to the little girl when he realized she was starting to wake up. As she looked around, her eyes grew with fear and she started crying. Mark hugged her tighter and started rocking her, trying to hum a lullaby in an effort to comfort her. Movement made his back hurt, but it seemed to calm the child and after a while, his muscles seemed to relax. After a few minutes the girl quieted and Mark said, “My name’s Mark, what’s yours?”
“Sarah” she answered quietly.
“Well Sarah, we had quite an adventure last night, didn’t we?”
“I want my ma, where’s my pa?”
“Sarah, I’ll get you back to your ma and pa as soon as I can. First I need to figure out where we are and how best to get us home.”
It was the first time that Mark looked into just where he had pulled them out of the water; they were in a small alcove, with rock formations that appeared to reach for the sky. Mark was trying to figure out how he was going climb out and get the girl out too. He had no rope or tools to use.
Mark decided to take a chance and yell for help; hoping his Pa was close by and would hear. Mark started yelling, “Help! Can anyone hear me? Help!” He was quieted and waited for a response. Again, he yelled, over and over. After what seemed like forever, small rocks started raining down on them. Then he heard a voice, “Hello down there. What you doing down there?” And saw a head peer over the edge.
“We were swept away in the storm last night. Please can you get a rope and help us get out of here?”
After a few moments, a rope was tossed down. Mark tied the rope around the girl and watched as those above pulled her up. Next, the rope came down for him. As he was pulled over the top, Mark stared in disbelief. The two men who had rescued them, weren’t folks from the town, they had the look of bandits; and both wore double guns.
“Th, thanks. Misters,” Mark stammered out.
Mark tried to reach Sarah to protect her, but before he could, one of the men grabbed her and put her on his horse before he mounted. The other, already in the saddle, indicated that Mark should get on behind him; the man offered his arm as he removed his foot from his stirrup. The small group rode in silence for the better part of the morning.
Soon they came to a camp, these men looked rougher than the two who had rescued them, thought Mark. Mark remembered what his Pa said about the Cordova Gang. Could this be them? It had yet been twenty-four hours since Mark had learned about the Cordova Gang and Mark feared he and Sarah were in the middle of the gang.
As the rode deeper into the camp, there was a crowd of men surrounding them yelling, “Welcome back Loki.” “Who you got there?” “Where’d you find them?” “Where’s our whiskey?” The men parted as someone walked through their ranks; kicking or pushing those who did not get out of his way quick enough.
“Reg,” said the rider carrying Sarah, “We found these fish in the river, they were too big to toss back!” He laughed a cruel laugh. Mark didn’t like the look he saw in this man’s eye.
“So who do have we here?” The one called Reg asked. Neither Mark or Sarah said anything as they were pulled from the horses. Reg could see the defiance in Mark’s eyes and the fear in Sarah’s.
“So, the big fishes don’t want to talk to you,” said the rider who had ridden in with Mark.
Mark reached for Sarah and pulled her close.
“Tell me who you are and where you’re from or…,” Said the one called Reg as he looked at Sarah.
“My name’s Mark and this is my sister Sarah. We’re traveling through with our parents.” Mark felt it wasn’t a lie if he said it to protect the girl. He wasn’t sure what these bandits would do if they knew they weren’t related.
“So Loki’s fish do have a voice. Do you know where you are boy?” Reg asked.
“No sir. We were caught in a flash flood last night trying to cross the river. We were separated from our family. We were in the water for a long time,” Mark replied.
“Do you know who I am?”
Sarah answered, “He called you Reg.” Pointing to the one called Loki.
With that, Reg let out a howling laugh and the others joined in. “Yes, my name is Reg. Reginald Cordova, these are my men and this,” he said while spreading his arms wide, “this is MY country. No one comes here unless I say they can. No one leaves here unless I say they can.”
The search party reached the spot in the river where Mark and Sarah were swept away the night before. The riders split into two groups, to ride on either side of the river. They followed the river without seeing any footprints exiting, or bodies. Lucas kept telling himself, ‘As long as we don’t find their bodies, they’re alive.’
It was dusk when the riders stopped for the night to make camp. It was a quiet night, no one talked while they ate, no one knew what to say; two fathers, each alone in their own grief.
Morning dawned, and Lucas felt lost. “God, why are you doing this to me?” He cried as he looked out over the water and up to the heavens. “I’m down here with my heart breaking. I don’t know how much more I can take. I read the Good Book and taught my son to do right by the book. I raised him the best I could without his Ma. Please God, just let him be alive.”
Mark McCafferty watched Lucas from the campfire. He was amazed at the man’s strength and ashamed he couldn’t bring himself to talk to God. All he could do was blame God for letting this happen in the first place.
Micah was torn between comforting his best friend or letting him have his conversation alone. Soon, camp was broke and everyone mounted back up.
The riders continued to follow along both sides of the river, riding in silence. The only noise to be heard was the footfall of the horses and an occasional cough.
Soon, the ground started to rise above the river and the dirt turned to rock. As time pass, the other riders came to feel the search seemed hopeless. They continued until dusk and made camp one more time.
“Micah,” Lucas started. “You and the rest should return to North Fork in the morning. This is my burden to bear. I thought we’d find them yesterday. I just can’t ask any more of you. Everyone should go back to their loved ones in town. Take care of the ranch for me.” His eyes cast down as he spoke.
“LucasBoy, don’t give up. We’re here for you,” pleaded Micah.
“No Micah, you need to go back, you have a town to marshal and the others have families and establishments they need to take care of. I just can’t ask any of you to stay out here, not without some hope of finding them alive.”
“Micah,” Mark McCafferty interrupted, “Lucas won’t be out here alone, I’m staying. I may not be as qualified a tracker as Lucas, but I couldn’t face my wife without our daughter, not knowing for sure if she’s dead.”
“Micah, tell Mrs. McCafferty she can stay at my place until we return. Tell her to make it her home, and see if any of the others in town will help with the livestock. Sell what you need to in order to keep the place running. I don’t know when we’ll be back.”
“LucasBoy, the words you’re using, it sounds as if you’ve given up on finding them alive. Lucas! Believe in your boy as he’s believed in you when you’ve been separated.”
With that, everyone turned in for the night. In the morning, the search party headed back to North Fork. The two fathers again followed the river.
Mark was being forced to do chores for the Cordova Gang. They made him fetch plenty of water from a creek, find wood for their fires, tend to the horses, and unfortunately he was made to clean the dishes. Sarah made sure she always kept near Mark.
He looked at Sarah, quite a cute child, he wondered what it would have been like if his ma and pa had had another child; maybe a sister. Mark felt he needed to be a ‘big brother’ to this girl, no he needed to be a grownup, she need someone more than another child. It also kept his mind from wondering about their predicament. By the time night fell, he was always too exhausted to do more than pull Sarah close to him to keep her safe as he fell to sleep.
As day broke, Reg told everyone to pack up, informing all they were moving out; they had rested long enough.
Mark asked, “What about Sarah and I?”
Reg answered, “You’re both going with us. You’ve been our good luck charms. We’ve never been able to have this much of a rest before. The Army’s always been too close on our tails. So we’re keeping you with us.”
Several days later the gang rode into a small relay station. Several of the men ran into the station and drug out the station manager and a medium-sized strong box.
No one in the gang noticed the two women in the barn. They witnessed a gang of men riding to the station and moved away from the door. As they were looking out a window, the women saw a young boy on a horse with a blonde haired girl behind him with her hands around his waist, waiting towards the back of the gang. The boy yelled, “Sarah, look away,” as he turned his own head.
Mark watched in horror as they tormented the man. Upon seeing Reginald Cordova pull out his revolver, Mark realized what was about happened and yelled for Sarah to look away. Mark flinched upon hearing the shot that killed the station manager. A second shot sounded as they shot the lock off the strong box to steal the money. The image of the man being killed would always be with him, he hoped Sarah didn’t see it.
The one called Reg saw Mark flinch and turn away as the station manager was shot. He rode his horse over and ordered, “Look at it, look at it real good boy! I want you to look at your future!”
Mark kept his head turned away. Reg got down from his horse and pull Mark off his. Reg drew his gun and Mark started to back away in fear.
Reg tossed his gun to Mark and as it fell at his feet, Reg yelled, “Pick it up, boy!”
Mark just stared at Reg.
“Pick it up, boy!” he said with more authority in his voice.
“No! I’ve never handled a handgun before. Pa says I’m too young.”
“Pa? I’m your Pa now boy. You do as I say and pick up the gun!”
Mark looked down and slowly bent over to pick up the gun. He picked it up by the barrel. Shuddered at the touch of the coldness of the steel. Reg yelled for him to hold it like he was going to shoot it. Mark slowly fumbled to hold the gun as Reg ordered. He couldn’t look up. All he could do was stare at the gun.
“Pa?” Mark said quietly.
Then Reg yelled, “Point the gun at the station manager.”
There was fear in Mark’s eyes as he jerked his head up to look at Reg. He had both hands around the handle to hold the gun. His hands were shaking and his knees felt weak.
“I told you to point the gun at the station manager.” Mark complied, he felt it was all a nightmare, he prayed he would wake up soon. Reg walked up behind Mark to make sure he did have the gun pointed at the Station Manager, “Now, pull trigger. I SAID PULL THE TRIGGER!”
Mark closed his eyes and pulled the trigger, click. The gun was empty. All the men around were howling with laughter. Mark dropped to his knees, crying, his body wracked with dry heaves. ‘How could they be so mean? I’m just a kid.’ “Pa, where are you?” as he slammed his fist into the ground.
Sarah ran over to Mark yelling his name.
After watching the scene, the two women scurried up the ladder to the hayloft to hide.
The first town Lucas and Mark came to was Lincoln Hills, and upon hearing there was a Cavalry Regiment stationed, Lucas asked to see the commanding officer.
“Captain,” Lucas started to introduce himself, “I’m Lucas McCain and this is Mark McCafferty, we’re from North Fork and were looking for two lost children. A six year old girl named Sarah and a 14 year old boy named Mark, they were swept away from us in a flash flood six nights ago.”
“Mr. McCain and Mr. McCafferty, my name is Captain Kaleb James, my men and I are posted in this town because it is the Army’s belief that it is at risk from an attack from the Cordova Gang.”
“Yes, we received the warning back in North Fork a week ago.”
Mark stood behind Lucas, trying to comprehend the words. Not only was his Sarah missing, but now he and Lucas had rode into the middle of a town the Army felt was at threat by the Cordova Gang. How much more would he be forced to endure? Why was God punishing him so?
“Gentlemen, I’m sure you can understand my position. I can’t afford to give you any of my men to assist in your search. Two days ago, the Cordova Gang looted and burned a stage-coach station not far from here. They murdered the station manager and robbed the strong box. They’ve been steadily working their way in this direction. Luckily, one of my patrols found survivors and brought them here. I’m charged with protecting this town. I wish I could assist you. Good day gentlemen.” The captain returned his attention to the map spread out on the Marshal’s desk.
Lucas and Mark walked out of the Marshal’s office and stood, lost. Just then, two women came over to address them, “Excuse me, I couldn’t help but over hear what you told Capt. James. I think my sister and I might be able to help you.”
“Ma’am?” Lucas couldn’t understand what the woman meant.
“Please, let us return to the Marshal’s office. I think once you and the Captain hear our story…”
Lucas, Mark, and Abigail and Sally Anderson, entered the Marshal’s office. The captain saw everyone enter and started to talk, but before he could get a word out Abigail started to speak.
“Captain, my sister, Sally, and I were the two survivors from the station. We were walking by when we heard Mr. McCain tell their story. I think we can be of assistance.”
“Ma’am, I don’t know what you think you can do, but the Cordova Gang is ruthless. It’s a miracle you and your sister weren’t found by those men, raped, and murdered. Sorry to be so blunt. If I could, I would have put you on a stage out of here yesterday. But it’s not safe for anyone to be out on the roads until this Cordova Gang is behind bars or dead.”
“Captain, the children these men are looking for are riding with the Cordova Gang. We heard a boy yell for Sarah to look away. And then the girl ran over to him yelling Mark!” Sally blurted out, putting the kerchief in her hand to her face.
The Captain, Lucas, and Mark stared at the women and told them to proceed with their story from the beginning.
It was too incredible to be true. Mark and Sarah were alive, at least two days ago. Lucas was horrified to hear the women recount the trick the gang had pulled on Mark. He knew how gentle his boy was, even though he was trying to grow up, how much of Mark’s spirit was being broken by this gang; treating him to this cruel joke.
That evening a small scouting patrol rode in to report the location of the Cordova Gang.
“Sir, they’re about 20 strong. Sir, I couldn’t get a good look, but it appears they have two children with them. Possibly taken from a settlement?”
Mark quickly asked, “Are you sure?”
Lucas and Mark were present at the request of the Captain. Hearing that Lucas had been a lieutenant during the Civil War, the Captain was more obliged to let him know what they were planning. Hoping the man could help and keep to the plan.
The scout replied, “Well, at least I’m sure there’s a little blonde haired girl with them. I think it could be a boy that she’s been spotted riding behind.”
Captain James dismissed the scout.
The Cordova Gang was heading straight for Lincoln Hills; they rode strong and fearless. Needed to stock up on supplies, ammunition, and get more whiskey, they set their path to the nearest town. And if a little looting and burning occurred, the men looked forward to some excitement.
Mark kept up with the other riders, but always kept close to the back. This time Reg was by his side, saying that this was going to be his official initiation into the gang.
That night, they made cold camp. Reg came over to Mark, “You’re going to grow up tomorrow, boy. I’m going to make you a man. You’re going to make me proud that I adopted you. I’ll teach you the tricks of my trade.”
“You didn’t adopt me! My Pa’s out there looking for me right now!” Mark yelled only to have Reg backhand him across the face, knocking him to the ground.
Anger was in Reg’s voice when he spoke, “I don’t want to hear no more talk about your Pa. You’re mine now. You, and your sister.”
Mark got to his feet, rubbing his face where Reg had slapped him.
Reg continued, “Such a pretty little girl. My own sister would just love to have a child like her. Maybe once we’re stocked up, I’ll take her to my sister.” Reg started walk over to Sarah.
“You’re not taking her anywhere.” Mark yelled and started hitting Reg.
Reg stood and laughed, grabbed Mark and held him tight. Letting Mark fight against himself until he didn’t fight any more. Turning Mark around to look him straight in the eye and grabbing him by the front of his shirt.
“Now, you listen here, boy. We found you! We saved you! You’ll do as you’re told! Do I make myself clear?” He threatened to strike Mark again.
Mark closed his eyes and said aloud, “Yes, sir.” But under his breath, he said, ‘Until my Pa catches up with us.
Once the patrol confirmed Cordova and his men were heading for Lincoln Hills, the Captain ordered his men into action. Every soldier was in civilian clothing; the captain didn’t want to tip the gang off that a trap was waiting to be sprung.
It was shortly after sun up when the first of the Cordova Gang rode into town. They rode fast and hard; shooting at signs and windows. More of the riders came in from the opposite end of town. All were yelling and hollering, and firing their guns.
The soldiers knew what was expected of them. They waited. They had to get all the gang in town in order to spring their trap. Soldiers pretending to be town’s folk, worked furiously shutting doors and covering windows; pretending to run for cover. In reality, they were running to their assigned stations. A few soldiers received minor wounds as the gang members took pot shots at any one or anything still in the streets.
Then the sight that Lucas and Mark had searched for over a week to see was in front of them. There they were. Mark, riding with Sarah in the saddle behind him. Dirty, tired, but alive! They were riding into town with Reginald Cordova right beside them. Cordova had one of his handguns in his hand.
He handed the gun to Mark. Told Mark to take the gun and shoot it. He didn’t care where, a window, a sign, a door, just shoot it. Lucas watched as Mark took the handgun in both hands. He looked dazed. Mark cocked the gun and pointed it towards a sign. The gunsmith. Mark squeezed the trigger as Cordova yelled for him to “Shoot it!” The gun was loaded. Mark dropped his hands to his lap and hung his head. Cordova reached over to pat Mark on the shoulder and then took the gun from Mark’s hands.
“That’s my boy!” Lucas heard Cordova yell.
Hatred welled up in Lucas. That was his boy out there, not Cordova’s. The Captain approached Lucas and put a restraining hand on Lucas’ shoulder. “Wait, just a few more minutes. Don’t lose your temper and ruin our best chance at capturing this gang and getting your children back.”
The gang split up, each going after their assigned task, ammunition, food, whiskey, kerosene. The men left in the street kept yelling at their compadres to hurry up, they wanted to tree and burn the town.
Cordova started to move his horse closer to the center of town; encouraging his men every step of the way.
Then the soldiers sprung their traps, the soldiers in the saloon and shops fired at their targets. The soldiers on the roofs fired at the riders still in the street; knowing that two innocent children could be in the crossfire. Gang members fired back. Bullets were flying in every direction. Men could be heard screaming as bullets tore through their bodies. Both fathers did as they had been instructed, yet each kept an eye on Mark and Sarah.
Mark was trying to get his horse out-of-the-way, but Cordova’s men were scattering everywhere.
Cordova, realizing they had ridden into a trap, wheeled his horse straight for Mark and Sarah. Mark got his horse turned around and running. He reached around behind him, grabbed Sarah, and as he rode past a wagon full of grain sacks, he threw Sarah out of the saddle and into the wagon. Mark kept riding, urging the horse to run faster. Cordova was too close behind him.
There was a soldier next to the wagon, who grabbed Sarah and ran with her to the Church, where the town folk were waiting for the ordeal to be over. The first two women to hug Sarah were Abigail and Sally. They comforted Sarah as best they could. Told her that her father was in town and he was fighting to get her back.
“My Pa, he’s here? He’s got ta help Mark! Please!” cried Sarah. Both women continued to hold the child as her Pa burst through the door; tears in his eyes, heading straight for his precious daughter.
Lucas and the Captain watched in disbelief what Mark had accomplished. The Captain ran for the nearest horse to take chase after Cordova. Lucas ran to the end of the street, braced against the side of the Church, took aim with his rifle, and squeezed the trigger. Cordova fell dead out of the saddle, but not before he got a last shot off at Mark. The horse Mark was riding collapsed, throwing Mark out of the saddle.
Lucas felt his heart skip a beat. ‘No! No! I can’t lose him now, not when I’ve come so far.’ Lucas ran as fast as his body and spirit would let him go. He reached Mark’s motionless body and fell to his knees beside his son.
McCafferty came out of the church, holding Sarah, hearing Lucas yell, “God, please, don’t do this to him. He’s so young, please, he’s just a boy!”
After making sure Cordova was dead, the Captain ran up behind Lucas, placing both hands on Lucas’ shoulders. “Don’t move him! You don’t know what kind of injuries he sustained in the fall. Let us get a gurney and carry him back to town.” The Captain got back on the horse and returned to town. He called for one of the corpsman to get in the wagon and follow him out.
Twelve of Cordova’s men lay dead or dying in town, another four were in need of doctoring, those remaining had their hands up in the air.
The wagon with Lucas and Mark McCain returned slowly to town when the town folks were coming out of the church. Mark McCafferty, holding Sarah in his arms, met the McCain’s at the doctor’s office.
“Pa, is Mark going to be okay?”
“I hope so.”
“Pa, should we pray for him?”
“Honey, I, I…” McCafferty felt lost. He had betrayed his faith in God, yet with all his precious daughter had been through, she still believed. The innocence of a child. Believing. “Yes we’ll pray that Mark will be alright.”
The Captain came up behind McCafferty and touched him on the shoulder. “Sir, I’d be happy to send one of my scouts to North Fork to carry a personal dispatch from you and Mr. McCain.”
McCafferty followed the Captain to the Marshal’s office and wrote his letter to his wife. He also included a message on Lucas’ behalf, telling the town the children were found, but they were waiting on word to the extent of Mark’s injuries and when he would recover enough to travel home.
After the town doctor did a thorough examination of Mark, he concluded the boy hadn’t suffered any broken bones when he was thrown, but probably had a concussion. Lucas gently picked Mark up and followed the doctor into his personal living quarters. It had been a long time since the doctor’s own son had lived in the house and the doctor felt that it would be kinder for Mark and Lucas to be in a home-like setting versus in an austere doctor’s office.
McCafferty held his daughter’s hand tightly as they walked over to the Church. He walked to the front of the church, to the altar, got down on his knees, folded his hands, and bowed his head.
“Lord…, I owe you an apology. I should have known that faith would see us through this ordeal. However, I’m only human. I have my faults. I can only ask your Divine forgiveness and lead me back on the right path.
“Lord, for Lucas, that man has borne more heartache than one should have to bear alone. Please let him have Mark, he needs that boy. Please allow Mark to be alright.”
After her father had finished, Sarah quietly said, “Amen.”
Lucas stayed by Mark’s side through the afternoon. Around dinnertime, Mark started moaning and squirming in his sleep. Mark rolled on his side and his father started rubbing his back. Mark had always been slight of build, took after his Ma, but Lucas also felt the muscles; muscles developed from a summer of working the ranch. He also felt his son trembling. The doctor came in to check on Mark. “I think he might have regained consciousness and right now he’s just asleep.”
“Doc, when will my son wake up?”
“Why don’t you pretend you’re at home and you’re trying to wake him to go to school. Sometimes that does the trick.”
“Mark, time to wake up son. Mark, are you listening? You need to wake up. Mark, do as I say, open your eyes, it’s time to get up.” Each statement was said a little firmer; Lucas willing Mark to open his eyes.
Mark rolled onto his back and his eyelids started to flutter. Mark moaned some more. Then his eyes were fully open. Lucas waited, he needed to see into his son’s eyes. Was his spirit broken, would he be the same boy he was before this ordeal started?
Mark looked around the dimly lit room until he saw his Pa. Tears started to run down Mark’s face. He didn’t say anything, he just cried. Lucas grabbed his son up in his arms and held him, held him tight.
“Hold him Lucas, let him cry, let him get it all out of his system. He needs to be a boy again. He needs to feel the love of his father,” the doctor said.
The doctor left the room to inform the Captain and McCafferty that Mark was awake.
Before her father could stop her, Sarah was running into Mark’s room and jumped on the bed.
“Mark, you’re awake. Get up so we can go home?”
McCafferty was appalled at his daughter’s actions. He tried to get Sarah’s attention to come out of the room to let Mark and his Pa be alone.
“Now, young lady. Mark needs time with his Pa.”
“Mark, thank you. Get up when you want.” Sarah planted a kiss on Mark’s cheek.
Lucas lifted Sarah off Mark’s bed and turned back to his son. He didn’t see that McCafferty was still standing in the doorway.
“Mark, please say something. God, give me the strength to help my son.” Lucas lifted his eyes up looking for answers.
“Pa,” Mark said quietly, “I was so scared. I kept praying that you’d find me. I prayed for God to give me the strength to watch after Sarah. How do you do it all the time?”
“Do what Mark?”
“Take care of me and worry about me and face everything you’ve faced with your rifle. I felt so scared and alone, and yet I had to be a grown up for Sarah…” Mark’s voice faltered.
“Mark, I never faced anything as young as you have. And as you said, I have my rifle. I’ve been scared since the day you were born. I was scared the day your Ma died, God rest her soul.” Mark started to interrupt, “Let me speak son… Scared that I didn’t know how to take care of you proper. I prayed to God to give me the guidance to raise you to be a young man your ma and I could be proud of. Mark, even grownups get scared; we just hide it from our children. You did everything you could to make sure you kept Sarah safe. You’ve nothing to be ashamed of, son. I’m just sorry you had to grow up so fast in this way.”
“Pa, I want to go home.”
“If the doctor say’s okay, we’ll leave in the morning.”
Captain James entered the room. “Mr. McCain. I heard what you told your boy and I owe you both an apology. I should have been more sympathetic to your situation.” Turning to Mark, “Boy you endured more than most men would, I’m not sure if I were in your shoes at your age, that I could have been as strong, you did what was needed to keep that girl safe as well as yourself.”
Turning his attention back to Lucas, “If you’ll permit, me and my men, we’ll ride escort for your return to North Fork. I don’t think my commanding officer would allow me back into the fort if I left you to return on your own.”
The next morning, two military processions left Lincoln Hills. One group would ride to the fort with their prisoners and the injured soldiers. The other, accompanied a wagon carrying Lucas McCain and his boy Mark and Mark McCafferty and his daughter Sarah.
Mark’s mood brightened the closer they rode to North Fork. Sarah was looking up to Mark as her big, big brother. She kept telling him tales of her home back in Cincinnati and all the trouble her brother Jacob kept getting into. “Ma always said the Good Lord was surely trying her soul with Jacob around.” That brought a smile to his face as he remember how he surely tried his father’s patience as he was growing up.
It was early in the morning when they arrived, quietly, back into North Fork. Lucas carried Mark into Doc Burrage’s office for one more look over before he took him the rest of the way home.
Micah and some of the other town folk noticed the arrival of a Cavalry unit and that they had stopped in front of the doc’s office. Micah was walking over to question the soldiers if this meant the Cordova Gang was close. Worried in seeing so few soldiers, maybe they had already encountered the gang out on the road and this was all that remained. North Fork wasn’t prepared to deal with a group like the Cordova Gang if they had wiped out almost a whole Cavalry unit.
Micah stopped and stared as Lucas led Mark out of the doctor’s office. “LucasBoy! Mark! We’re glad to see you back.” Then looking at Lucas, “Them soldiers, does that mean the Cordova Gang is coming?”
“No Marshal,” said Captain James, “Thanks to these outstanding citizens of North Fork, I can say that Cordova and his gang are no longer a threat. Cordova is dead as well as the majority of his gang. The rest are heading for the gallows.”
As Lucas assisted Mark back in the wagon and prepared to return to the ranch, he finally had time to ask McCafferty, “We never talked. What was bringing you through North Fork that night?”
“Please forgive me, but I think I need to confess something first. As we rode back that night to your ranch house, I heard you questioning God as to why this was happening. Praying to God, to keep your boy safe. I let my faith in God slip; actually, I lost my faith that night. I couldn’t believe He took my Sarah from us. I blamed Him. I wanted nothing more to do with Him. I put away my collar before you came back in from taking care of the horses. I didn’t want to put any more of an undue burden on you, and I wasn’t sure that I could answer your questions… as a man of God, considering what we both were going through. During our search, I knew you were struggling with your faith, wanting someone to blame, but not quite blaming God. Yet you still had strength to talk to God. I felt ashamed because I gave up on my faith. I couldn’t even bring myself to talk to God, I couldn’t bring myself to question why. I couldn’t pray that He watch over my Sarah and if it had to be, welcome her into His Kingdom. But after they were found, it took these two precious children” he looked from Sarah and then over to Mark, ”to remind me that God can only guide us, it’s what we choose to do with that guidance in our lives that makes the difference. I witnessed a boy struggling to come to terms that he was changed into a man before his time, in order to protect the life of another. I watched the innocence of a girl, still believing, after everything she had been through. Ashamed it was a man/child who allowed her to feel safe and loved, instead of her Pa. Yet, as an adult I know I had acted more like a child than either of them, I had lashed out and refused the one solid foundation in my life. The one thing I trained and believed in. I have some penance to do. If you don’t mind Lucas, I’d like to get back to your ranch so I can get properly dressed. I was sent to North Fork to be your new church pastor; that is if this town will have someone whose faith still needs a little mending.”
“Reverend, I know this town will understand. I don’t think any man has a right to judge you. Especially, if they put themselves in your shoes.” Lucas replied.
Mark had many conversations with Reverend McCafferty that first week after he returned to the ranch. Each time his Pa could see the burden on his son’s face had eased some more. Lucas knew that Mark needed someone else to talk to, someone who didn’t think of him as a “little boy”. And the Reverend was healing as well. His faith was being restored as he talked with the….. It scared Lucas when he realized that Mark, had become a young man. Soon Mark was laughing and being his old self. The first Sunday after their return, Mark was eager to get to town for Church.
As they rode together, Mark stopped BlueBoy, “Pa?”
“I’m sorry, Pa.”
“Sorry for what?”
“Sorry for not talking with you and going to Reverend McCafferty. I know we don’t keep secrets. It’s just that, I just needed to talk to someone who would let me talk. I didn’t want to see you hurt when I retold my story. I’m sorry if I hurt you Pa.” Mark’s voice quieted as he dropped his eyes from looking at his pa.
“Son, you didn’t hurt me. I knew you needed to talk, I’m glad you found you could talk to Reverend McCafferty. And I know he needed to talk to someone as well. I guess I would have gotten too emotional and tried to stop you from remembering… Sometimes a man just needs to talk it out.”
“Pa, can I ask you a question?” Mark asked in a more childlike voice as he looked to his Pa.
Lucas tried to figure out where this was leading. “Spit it out son.”
Mark’s word came out in a rush. “Can I go back to being ‘your little boy’? Just for a while? I kind of feel I don’t want all the responsibilities of being a grownup, yet.” Mark averted his eyes from his Pa, not knowing if his Pa would understand.
Lucas reached over to turn Mark’s face to him so Mark could see he had a wide smile on his face, and replied, “Mark, I want you to know how proud I am to have you as my son, to see the fine young man you’ve become. You just let me know when you are ready to grow up. I never wanted to push you into growing up before your time. Now, let’s get to church before they close the doors.” Lucas pushed Mark’s hat down over his eyes as he kicked Razor into a lope. Lucas looked over his shoulder and saw Mark push his hat up. Lucas saw that impish grin on Mark’s face that let Lucas know he was thinking of something mischievous in order to get even with his Pa. “That’s my boy.”