Synopsis: Death arrives in North Fork awaiting the final verdict on who he will escort to Heaven, or possibly Hell.
Category: The Rifleman
Genre: Western, hurt/comfort, angst
Word Count: 11,560
References within my story where Lucas sent Mark away while in the desert and in the foothills were the episodes The Ordeal and The Score is Even, respectively. The episode where Mark contracted typhoid was entitled The Vision.
During The Rifleman, there were several occasions where reference was made to Mark’s age when his mother died; one episode indicated Mark was six and another that Mark was three. I’ve chosen to remain with Mark being six years old when Margaret passed.
I’ve borrowed several characters from various episodes during The Rifleman’s five-year run.
In “Home Ranch” we met Sam Montgomery and Billy Lehigh, ranch hands for Oat Jackford, who was the largest cattle rancher in the New Mexico and Arizona territories.
Micah Torrance arrived in North Fork during the season one episode, The Marshal, and remained as the town’s marshal throughout the series run, with the exception of the episode The Day the Town Slept. (Paul Fix would ultimately star alongside movie-greats like John Wayne and Elizabeth Taylor. He was the father-in-law to cowboy/actor Harry Carry, Jr.)
In “The Schoolmaster” we met Stevan Griswald, the school teacher.
In “Panic” we met Brett, a braggart and trouble maker. (Brett was portrayed by Dabbs Greer, who played the role of Reverend Alden in Little House on the Prairie.)
Various times throughout the series, the character of John Hamilton appeared as the town’s banker.
Doc Burrage was portrayed by at least six different actors throughout The Rifleman’s run; the best known actor was Edgar Buchanan (who went on to portray Uncle Joe in Petticoat Junction and Green Acres).
We met Lou Mallory in the self-title episode during season five and stayed for the remainder of the final season. Lou Mallory, a strong-will, feisty, red-headed Irish woman. (Patricia Blaire went on to play Rebecca Boone, beside Fess Parker’s Daniel Boone.)
And Death Waited…
The cloaked figure of Death stood waiting, knowing another soul would eventually write their name or make their mark in his Book of the Dead, whether they went to heaven or to hell didn’t matter to him, the judgment was not his, but God’s. All he knew was it was his responsibility to see his charges across to the other side. Today, tomorrow or years in the future, all would one day make their journey at his side. The decree for some of his charges was to be taken swiftly to ease their long-suffering; others were taken swiftly to prevent their cruelty from reigning. Yet others, God had only said that they would one day pass into his Kingdom. And so Death waited…
The inner turmoil of Lucas McCain’s torment was evident as people on the train would sit next to him, try to start a conversation, and quickly stand to find another seat. The tall rancher sat on the bench, his long left leg bent at the knee with his foot resting on the bench facing him. His right index finger fidgeted over the trigger of his ever-present rifle as it rested on the thigh of his right leg, his right foot on the floor; his posture rarely changing. The man faced towards the front of the train and watched out the window, scanning the far horizon in front of them as the train snaked around a bend.
Wondering what lay ahead; he couldn’t resist the compelling feeling; the urgent need for his return to North Fork several days before the Cattlemen’s Meeting was scheduled to end. Tension forced the blood vessels at his temples to strongly pulse as he clinched his jaw and ground his teeth, out of synch with the clickity-clack as the trained wheels rolled from one length of railway iron to the next.
“Why God? Has something happened to my boy?” Lucas sorely pondered as the dreaded feeling pulled at him.
The bond between this father and his child was strong and had faced many trials since they had left Enid, Oklahoma in search of somewhere else to call home ten years prior. Their trials continued well after they decided to call North Fork, New Mexico their home. The tall rancher carried a proud sense of right and wrong, and a desire to see justice served. Too many times, times that he refused to count, he had faced dangers that threatened his town, his friends, and even his son. He had learned over the years to trust his inner voice – not his conscience but the voice that kept him vigilant. It was this persistent voice that drove his urgency to return.
The colorful hues of the land and sky shrank as the waning sun allowed the grays and black to take hold while night settled across the land. As the animals settled down and parents tucked their children into bed, sixteen year-old Mark McCain raced BlueBoy across the land, anxious to get to his destination, he knew the necessity behind his swift race. Had he not exhilarated in the joys of racing his horse across their land for fun, he would never have dared this trip on his horse at these speeds, but he knew the sure-footedness of BlueBoy and that they were both capable of making the journey.
As the pair crested Jacob’s Crossing, Mark grabbed the reins and yelled, “Whoa Boy!”, and brought BlueBoy to an abrupt halt, trying his best to avoid crashing into the imposing figure, wearing a cloak against the chill of the night, who blocked their way. Not realizing his heart could pound any louder or faster, Mark struggled to catch his breath, knowing had he struck the person in front of him, he could have critically injured the man. However, the man did not move, he didn’t even seem fazed that a horse and rider had almost run him down.
“I’m sorry sir… I didn’t see you,” a winded Mark called out as an apology. “Please… I need to get past.”
“Youth are always in a hurry, never taking time to see what’s before them; always wanting to get to the next hill,” the figure stated.
“Sir, it’s an emergency… I have to get this medicine to Picocho,” Mark struggled to call out as he tried to catch his breath and BlueBoy danced in place, restless about stopping so suddenly.
The man stepped aside and allowed the young man to continue on his journey. As he raced ahead, the figure continued on his path to Picocho.
“He will be one, but when and how?” looking skyward, the figure asked.
Earlier in the day, Mark McCain had been happily chatting with Marshal Micah Torrance when Amos, the telegrapher, came running in with a wire addressed to the lawman.
“What’s the wire say, Micah?” curiously Mark asked.
“Nothing, just lawman stuff,” Micah absently answered, tucking tucked the wire in the left hand pocket of his vest.
The lawman stood from his chair, walked to one of the rifle racks on the wall and pulled down a scattergun, opened the breech before returning to his desk, opening a drawer, and pulling out a box of shells and loaded the weapon; taking the rest of the box with him.
“Micah?” inquired a curious Mark.
“Mark, why don’t you go on to the Mallory House,” it was a suggestion, not a question.
The marshal walked to stand in front his friend’s son, “Son, I need to get a posse together and it’d be a lot easier on me if I knew you were safe at Lou’s.”
“Why? What’s happened?”
“The train was robbed, halfway between here and Roswell. Roswell’s sending out a posse, too.”
“Okay, Micah. Bet you wish Pa was here instead of at the cattlemen’s meeting,” answered Mark; while placing his hat on his head, he left the office.
Quietly answering to himself, the lawman said, “That I do.”
Half an hour later, Mark stood in front of the General Store and watched as the posse raced from town, while store manager Mrs. Donner stood to his side with a hand on his shoulder. Standing next to the woman Mark stood shoulder to shoulder with her, Mark would never reach the height of his father; most folks understood that he took more after his mother in his looks and his height.
The petite woman, with her brunette hair pulled into a bun on the back of her head, understood her responsibilities in Lucas’ and Micah’s absence, as did everyone else in North Fork; Mark was their charge to watch over.
“You best head on over to the hotel, Mark,” stated Mrs. Donner as she lowered her hand, turned, and walked through the doorway. Hesitating at the threshold, the woman called, “Mark?”
“Yes, Ma’am, I’m going.”
Giving a sigh, Mark shoved his hands into his pockets and crossed the dirt street to the Mallory House hotel.
Nearing lunch, Amos entered the General Store, “Mrs. Donner?” he called.
“Amos, good to see you. What can I do for you?” asked the woman.
“It’s not what you can do for me, it’s what we can do for Picocho,” Amos replied.
“What do you mean?”
“Got a wire here they’re in need of medicine and I hoped you’d know if Doc has some.”
“You know he’s gone to visit his sister, won’t be back for several more days,” she answered.
“I know, but if you know whether he’s recently received an order…” Amos quieted, “We could break into his office, get some… and get it over to Picocho.”
“Break into Doc’s?!” exclaimed a surprised Mrs. Donner.
“Ma’am, they’re sending the wire all over the place. They’re desperate…” the man’s eyes pleaded.
“What medicine do they need?” asked Mrs. Donner.
The telegrapher handed the sheet of paper to the store manager and said, “I ain’t good on speaking it, but I sure can write it.”
Reading the wire, the store manager absently lifted her hand to her chin, the expression on her face indicated she was trying to remember.
“Yes, just a couple of weeks ago,” she finally announced.
“Will you come with me to look for it?” Amos sheepishly asked. He didn’t want to be the only one to bear the wrath of Doc Burrage upon finding his clinic broken into.
“First, I know for a fact that Lou Mallory has a key to the doctor’s office, he made sure since the hotel was so close that she’d have a key to get people inside if he weren’t there. Doesn’t make sense to break in, if we don’t have to.”
Amos was anxiously explaining the reason for needing the key to hotel owner, Lou Mallory. Even if she had wanted to ask, the red-headed Irishwoman could not have gotten a word in to ask a question. Hoping to do more than stand in the background, Mark offered to help search the doctor’s office upon overhearing the explanation. Pulling the key from the cabinet under the front desk, Lou nodded and led the small group to the doctor’s office. Upon entering the clinic, each one started looking through all the cabinets and desk drawers before Mark announced, “I think I found it!”
Lou, Amos, and Mrs. Donner turned to see the boy holding a small, brown glass bottle in his hands.
“That’s it!” exclaimed the telegrapher after looking over Mark’s shoulder and reading the label on the bottle.
“How do we get it to Picocho?” asked Lou.
“I will,” stated Amos.
“But you have to mind the telegraph office!” Mark answered. “I mean with the train being robbed and all those reports that have been burning up the wire… You can’t go!”
“What about Nils?” asked Lou.
“He and a bunch of others are out with the posse,” Mark answered, inside he hoped one of them would ask; he knew if he volunteered, he’d only be told he was too young.
The three adults present continued to mull over their situation; they had the medicine that was in dire need, but no way to deliver it.
“I’ll take it,” Mark finally stated as Lou and Mrs. Donner turned to see him search the doctor’s office.
“Ye’ll what?!” exclaimed Lou, her Irish brogue more pronounced.
Mark found what he was looking for, newspaper to wrap around the bottle and stuff in his saddlebag.
“It’s the only way. Lou, you’re a fair rider when it comes to a leisurely ride with Pa, but the trail between here and Picocho ain’t exactly built for a buggy. You know the freight wagons take the long way there. And Amos needs to stay to mind the office, so it only makes sense to send me. Who else is there? I mean, anyone else in town who could make the ride is out with Micah on the posse.”
“And what would yer father say?” Lou asked, planting both fists firmly on her hips, her posture expressing her displeasure.
“He’d be proud I stepped up to help. ‘sides, I’d be there and back before Pa got home; he’s not due for another four days.”
Mark hoped the bravado in his voice would convince the others that this was the only choice Picocho had to receive the much needed medicine.
“Do we have any other choice, Lou?” asked Amos.
“I guess not,” admitted Lou. “Amos, send the wire telling Picocho we’re sending the medicine. Mark, come with me… Mrs. Donner and I’ll see that ye get provisions for the long trip.”
Fifteen minutes later, Mark sat on BlueBoy in front of the General Store, listening.
“Are ye sure ye know the way?” Lou asked.
“Amos drew me out a map, just to make sure,” answered Mark as he patted his jacket pocket where he’d placed the map.
“Ye’ll take care and listen to BlueBoy?” Lou inquired.
Mark scrunched his face at the question.
“Ye’re always telling me how he knows when something’s not right…” Lou answered.
“Oh sure, but what could happen between here and there? I promise I’ll wire as soon as I get there.”
“And ye’ll rest a whole day before you come home, and ye’ll wire me before ye return,” a worried Lou stated, her hand still on the reins, not wanting to let go.
“I promise,” answered a sincere Mark.
Mark smiled, picked up the reins to turn his horse, and signaled BlueBoy into a trot. He waited until he was out of town before he signaled BlueBoy into a gallop.
He continued until he thought he’d raced his horse long enough and brought him back to a trot allowing his horse to recover his breath. For half an hour he trotted the horse until he felt BlueBoy tense, as if he was telling his rider he was ready to resume their race.
“I’m sorry sir… I didn’t see you,” a winded Mark called out as an apology having pulled BlueBoy to an abrupt halt. “Please… I need to get past.”
“Youth are always in a hurry, never taking time to see what’s before them; always wanting to get to the next hill,” the cloaked figure stated.
“Sir, it’s an emergency… I have to get this medicine to Picocho,” Mark struggled to call out as he tried to catch his breath and BlueBoy danced in place, anxious about stopping so suddenly.
The man stepped aside and allowed the young man to continue on his journey. As he raced ahead, the figure continued on his path to Picocho.
“He will be one, but when and how?” looking skywards, the figure asked.
Mark had passed the cloaked stranger earlier in the evening, he again stopped, pulling out the map Amos had given him. From his jacket pocket, he pulled out a small pencil and crossed off the various landmarks he remembered passing. After returning the map and pencil to his pocket, he decided it would be best to ride his horse at a walk until the morning sun came up, no sense breaking BlueBoy’s leg while not being able to see during the new moon. Before he signaled his horse on, he drank from his canteen and reached for a piece of jerky from the brown paper bag Mrs. Donner had packed for him, deciding to save the canned peaches for the morning.
As the night progressed to the darkest hours of night, long before dawn, Mark couldn’t resist the heavy pull at his eyelid as BlueBoy continued to follow the trail as his rider’s head bobbed in rhythm to his footfalls. Oblivious to the chirp of the crickets, the hoot of the occasional owl, and the far off howl of a lonesome wolf, Mark dozed in the saddle, until BlueBoy shied. Mark’s hands grabbed for the saddle horn and gripped tight to the reins as he came full awake, curious what had alarmed his horse, Mark strained his eyes to see what lie ahead. His attention riveted to the sound as he heard the scream of a cougar; not extremely close, but not far enough away. Gathering his courage, Mark signaled his horse into a trot, hoping his ears had been right and the animal was behind them. For the rest of the night, Mark was too alert to sleep in the saddle.
The first pink rays of morning began to highlight the sky as Mark came to the final landmark to cross off his map.
“Straight ahead and we should make it by late breakfast, sooner if you’re up to another gallop, Boy,” Mark commented as he petted his horse. Feeling the gnawing in his own stomach, Mark stopped before signaling his horse. “Guess you’d like to eat some of this grass, huh boy.”
Mark slipped from his saddle and loosened the cinch from his saddle, allowing BlueBoy to graze without the pressure around his girth. Pulling the canned peaches from his saddlebag, Mark reached in one more time and pulled out the can opener. Realizing Mrs. Donner hadn’t packed a fork for his use, Mark used his fingers to pull the peaches from the can, slurping on his fingers before he stuck them back in the can to grab another piece. When the last of the peaches were gone, Mark lifted the can and titled back his head as he poured the last of the remaining juice into his mouth. Using the back of his hand, he wiped it across his mouth, before wiping his hand on his pants.
Mark silently cursed when realized he’d deeply sliced his hand on the jagged edge of the lid as he pushed it down into the can before he placed it in his saddlebag. After sucking on the long wound on the fleshy part of his palm and seeing no more blood, Mark tightened the cinch before swinging up into the saddle and signaling BlueBoy into a slow lope before finally asking him to give him his all.
The clock outside the town hall registered just past ten when Mark entered the quiet town of Picocho, wondering why the streets were empty; on a Sunday morning, Mark expected the town’s folks to be making their way to church.
‘Maybe they don’t have a church, or the Sunday Preacher ain’t here,’ Mark thought to himself.
Mark startled from a voice to his left side, demanding, “Why’re you here boy?!”
Turning to see an old man wearing tattered overalls Mark hurriedly replied, “I brought the medicine.”
“Medicine, you said?” Mark heard from well in front of him.
“Yes sir, I’m from North Fork. We wired saying we were bringing the medicine.”
The man in front of Mark approached and Mark saw the edges of a sheriff’s badge peeking out from behind the vest as the man moved.
“Thank God, our people really need this. I’ll get it to Doc.”
Turning in the saddle, Mark untied the string to his saddlebag and pulled out the newspaper stuffing before he gently pulled out the bottle and handed it to the lawman.
“That’s all you brought?” the lawman asked in dismay.
“That’s all we had,” Mark innocently replied.
Mark saw the man’s demeanor change to one of defeat; until hearing the man’s tone of voice and seeing his posture, Mark had felt pleased they were able to help, but now, he felt guilty that they should have somehow done more.
“Guess it will have to do. Hope the army has more,” replied the lawman as he turned and walked towards the middle of town where Mark saw the sign reading, ‘Medical Clinic’.
Stepping down from his saddle Mark asked the old man in the tattered overalls if the town had a livery and, if he would point the way to the telegraph office.
“Livery’s over there, about four buildings down” the man pointed off to the right. “And the telegraph office is just the other side of the doctor’s place.”
“Thank you, sir,” replied Mark as he loosened BlueBoy’s cinch and led the horse to the livery. Once he was sure his horse would be properly looked after, Mark returned to the main street and headed for the telegraph office.
“I need to send a wire, sir,” Mark stated as he entered the room.
“Write it out on that pad,” the man with wire-rimmed glasses that perched on his nose stated.
Mark stared when he realized the glasses didn’t have any arms to hook over the back of the man’s ears.
“You can write?” the man asked without intent of sarcasm.
Realizing his folly, Mark mumbled an apology and wrote his message.
North Fork, New Mexico
Arrived safe /stop/
Wire before return /stop/
After taking the slip of paper and reading the message, the telegrapher stated, “That’ll be twenty-five cents.”
Mark pulled the coins from his pocket to pay the man, “Is there a café where I can eat?”
“Sorry sonny, but with the epidemic, ain’t no one eating out.”
The man returned to his desk and began tapping out the message.
Mark left the telegraph office and wondered, ‘Have I been exposed?’ He never thought of the reason behind the need for the medicine.
Stepping across the street to the other boardwalk, Mark stopped when he heard, “Hey there!” and turned to see the sheriff jogging towards him.
“Doc told me to tell ya thanks.”
“You can tell him I said, ‘You’re welcome’.”
“I’m sorry about earlier, my tone of voice. Doc said what you brought was plenty enough for our people.”
Mark felt better upon hearing the Sheriff’s apology, “Apology accepted,” he answered as he held out his hand. The lawman smiled as he pumped Mark’s hand up and down.
“You already put up your horse?”
“Yes sir, at the livery,” replied Mark and unable to stifle the yawn, he apologized.
“What time did you leave North Fork?”
“Just after lunch yesterday,” replied Mark.
“Lunch time… You rode through the night?”
“Yes sir, the wire sounded desperate.” Mark was unable to prevent a second yawn.
“Come with me young man, I’ll see you get some undisturbed sleep.”
“Sir, if I may ask, what kind of epidemic is it?”
“Anthrax, had a cattle drive come through here a few days back and they brought it; didn’t know until after they’d left.”
“My horse?!” Mark worriedly asked.
“You came from down south, you should be okay. The problem lies north of us, ranchers having to kill their cattle and people worrying about dying. You did a good job getting the medicine to us.”
Mark nodded as he struggled to keep pace with the sheriff as he followed him to the town’s jail.
“May not be as comfy as home, but it’s a place to lie back and sleep without being disturbed. Doc’s using the hotel as a make-shift clinic for those who swear they’ve been exposed.” the sheriff stated as he opened the door to one of the cells in the back of his office.
Seeing the young man’s look of apprehension, the sheriff stated, “Don’t worry, I’ll keep the door open. Doc’s using the hotel as a make shift clinic, otherwise I’d put you up there.”
“You said, folks who swear they’ve been exposed?”
“Sure, plenty of people panic when there’s no need. Doc’s keeps those who are truly at risk at his clinic. But you don’t need those other worry-warts tittering about and disturbing your sleep. So, just lie back and sleep yourself out.”
“Thanks,” answered Mark as he sat down on the bunk.
Mark had pulled off one boot and set it on the floor and had just pulled off the second boot when the sheriff heard it thud on the floor. He turned around to see his guest sleeping, leaning over at a crooked angle. Stepping into the cell, the sheriff lifted the young man’s legs from hanging down from the bunk and placed them straight out before the pulled the cover over Mark’s shoulder.
The following morning, Mark woke from the throbbing in his hand. Sitting up and looking down at his hand, he regretted his actions of not washing the cut out with water from his canteen.
‘Maybe the doc can look at it and clean it up,’ Mark thought.
Stepping from the cell, he noticed the front of the office was empty, so he continued to the boardwalk. He heard the commotion down the street, in front of the medical clinic and saw the crowd, men demanding their families be vaccinated.
“Guess he’s going to be too busy,”’ Mark stated as he walked past the clinic and into the telegraph office.
“Good morning sir, I’d like to send another wire,” Mark stated as he reached for the pad and pencil.
Looking at his hand, Mark stretched his fingers out, hoping to alleviate the throbbing so he could write.
North Fork, New Mexico
Returning home /stop/
As promised /stop/
“That’ll be fifteen cents,” the telegrapher stated.
Mark turned and left after counting out the coins and handing them to the man.
Returning to the livery, Mark saw evidence of BlueBoy having been feed and provided a bucket of clean water already for the morning.
“You ready to head home, boy?” Mark asked of his horse as he scratched him behind his ear.
“Sure a good looking horse you got there, real gentle in his stall,” stated the livery owner having watched as Mark saddled his horse. He approached Mark who began pulling his bridle from the peg on the wall.
“That he is. Pa made real sure of that before he ever let me saddle him on my own.”
“How long you had ‘em?”
“Be six years later this fall; got him when I was ten.”
“Ya heading for home?”
“Yes, sir. How much do I owe you for taking care of him for the night?”
“Consider your bill paid,” the man stated with a smile.
“But I didn’t pay you…” Mark turned after slipping the reins over BlueBoy’s neck.
“No, but ya brung the medicine.”
“Can I at least pay you for his feed?”
“Won’t hear nothing of it. Ya just take it easy going home.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you.”
Mark waved to the livery owner after he stepped into the saddle and he trotted from town.
Micah and the North Fork posse met up with the posse from Roswell at the designated location before they proceeded to the train junction.
It was late afternoon two days after they’d left North Fork when they arrived at the train and saw the damage done.
“They had plenty of dynamite, took out one of the front shafts to the engine wheels while they were doing that,” the conductor stated as he showed them what remained of the safe in the baggage car.
“People on board tried to put up a good fight, as best they could…” continued the engineer.
“Anybody hurt?” asked Sheriff Frakes from Roswell.
“A few minor injuries among the passengers who tried to help, but two are serious. One man took a bullet to the leg and it doesn’t want to seem to stop bleeding, the other man got a real nasty wound to the side of his chest,” answered the engineer.
“Did you happen to have a doctor on board?” asked the Sheriff.
“No, and those two really need one, especially the tall one, he really needs one the worst. A couple of the passengers were working to fashion a travois hoping ya’ll might use it to get them to a town and a doctor. We’re stuck here until they can send another engine and pull us out. Don’t know how long that’s going to take.”
Turning at a sound, the conductor lifted the rifle he’d held in the crook of his arm and swung it towards the noise, as the lawmen drew their own weapons. Seeing it was one of the outriders from the posse returning, the men lowered their weapons.
“I know that rifle. May I?” Micah asked and looked the rifle over to verify. “Lucas McCain owns this. Where is he?” Micah felt the knot in the pit of his stomach growing, ‘If Lucas’ rifle is here, he’d be one of the first to come out to greet the posse.’ But then Micah remembered the conductor stated, ‘especially the tall one’.
“Take me to him!” demanded Micah as he gripped the rifle tighter.
The conductor led the marshal into one of the passenger cars where Micah couldn’t stop the sharp intake of breath in seeing his friend lying on the floor, blood staining the man’s shirt beneath the makeshift bandage wrapped around his chest. Even unconscious, the pain showed in the rancher’s face.
Micah made his way towards his friend, whose head was comforted in the lap of a pleasantly plump woman who might have tempted the marshal’s heart years ago, before her looks had faded. But still… her face and her voice could soothe an aching man, unconscious or not.
“How is he ma’am?” Micah asked.
“Not so good. He’s struggling mighty fierce to breathe and he keeps mumbling Mark,” the woman answered.
“Mark is his son,” Micah responded.
“You know him?”
“He’s my best friend, his name’s Lucas McCain.”
The woman returned her attention to Lucas as he started moaning again.
“Take it easy, LucasBoy. I’m here,” Micah stated as he knelt down and rested a hand on the rancher’s shoulder.
“Maarrkk…” Lucas spoke with a fading voice.
“He’s back home. He’s safe,” Micah answered before returning his attention the woman. “Ma’am…”
“The name’s Mrs. Dowler, but most folks call me Dottie.”
“Ma’am, I’m Marshal Micah Torrance,” Micah offered.
Micah’s attention was drawn outside when he heard the posse members leave to follow the tracks of the outlaws.
The conductor returned to the passenger car and announced, “The men have finished rigging the travois to your horses.”
“I don’t understand why Lucas was on this train, he wasn’t due back for another couple of days,” Micah stated, not realizing he’d spoke his words aloud.
“He seemed mighty pensive during his trip,” Dottie stated. “Looked like he was brooding over something… something he couldn’t change.”
“Must have been something at the meeting…” Micah mumbled, knowing everything back home was as it should be.
Lucas was unaware of his moaning as they moved him from the floor, carried him out, and laid him on the flat surface of the travois made from pieces of wood from some of the seats. Curtains were used as ropes to secure the rancher so he wouldn’t fall off.
Micah turned when he heard another woman inside the passenger car wail, “He’s dead!”
The conductor stated, “The other man must a bled to death. Ain’t never lost a passenger to train robbers…”
Death greeted the wounded man and accompanied him to heaven where he was greeted by his wife who had previously passed. A small child jumped up into his arms, wrapping their arms around the man’s neck, and kissing his cheek. A wide smile spread across the man’s face as he wrapped his arm around the woman’s waist and they walked away, heads tilted towards each other.
Death returned to the scene of the train robbery; only to watch and wait. He hadn’t given much thought to why the tall rancher was still holding on; but as time passed, he grew curious, surely God would spare the man any additional suffering.
Micah climbed into his saddle, the travois flanked by Nils Swenson, the blacksmith from North Fork, and Sam Montgomery, one of Oat Jackford’s ranch hands. The solemn group began their task of returning to North Fork; the remainder of the North Fork posse had left earlier with the posse from Roswell.
With the sun straight overhead, Mark found a small stand of trees and stepped down from his horse in order to eat one of the sandwiches Mrs. Donner had packed. Before eating, he loosened BlueBoy’s cinch and allowed his horse to graze for a while. After eating and drinking from his canteen, Mark opened and closed his hand into and out of a fist, hoping to alleviate the throbbing and painful ache of his hand. As he looked at it, he realized how red and angry the skin around the cut looked. Mark rubbed his hand, hoping to open the scab, thinking he could squeeze out what must be a growing infection. A little bit of opaque fluid made its way from the cut, but the more he squeezed the more it hurt. Pulling a bandana from his back pocket, Mark wrapped it around his hand and made preparations to continue home.
In Sweeney’s saloon, the town’s know-it-all and braggart, Brett, was talking with anyone who would listen, he knew a bunch of hands from various ranches were in his audience. He began telling them what he’d heard about the medicine the McCain boy had taken to Picocho. Most people in North Fork paid the man little mind, choosing to ignore the man as he would stick his nose into places where it didn’t belong. But if information he learned could be used to make himself seem bigger or more important to others, he’d use the information to his advantage.
With anticipation, he continued, “That medicine, ain’t that what they use for Anthrax?”
“Anthrax?” several of the ranch hands called out.
“What trouble are you trying to stir up Brett?” Billy Lehigh, a hand from Oat Jackford’s ranch, called out as he stood at the bar, nursing a half-drank mug of beer.
“Ain’t no trouble. I was talking to Amos and told me about the wire and medicine they needed in Picocho. I also heard Mrs. Donner at the General Store, talking with someone else and she mentioned the name of the medicine. It’s what they use for Anthrax… Shore as the day is long,” Brett continued and smiled.
Once the word Antrax was out, many of the hands became very nervous. They knew the implications of the disease. Slowly, they left to head back to their ranches and inform their bosses.
Mark McCain hope Lou would realize he would take it easier returning home and not be worried that he hadn’t arrived before nightfall. Mark found a secluded location where he unsaddled his horse and hobbled him, allowing the horse to graze, knowing he couldn’t get too far. Mark made a small campfire and heated the last can of beans he had. He had one more can of peaches and some bread that was becoming dried out, that he planned to eat for breakfast.
The throbbing in his hand made him second-guess his decision to stop for the night and start out early in the morning, but he knew his small discomfort wasn’t worth risking BlueBoy’s life.
As sleep pulled at him, Mark decided to retrieve his horse and tie him to one of the trees for the night.
After settling down in his bedroll, sleep pleasantly took Mark.
“PA!” Mark bolted awake screaming as the first faint light of dawn barely streaked the sky.
Looking around, BlueBoy was where he left him, the embers from the fire were faintly glowing, and only the sounds of nocturnal animals were heard. Stilling his nerves, Mark reached for his canteen and took a long drink, but before he could finish, a spasm struck his hand causing him to drop the canteen. With his left hand, he hurriedly reached for the canteen to prevent any more water from gushing out and leeching into the ground.
After capping his canteen, Mark used the thumb of his left hand to massage the palm of his right hand. Mark grew worried when he saw the angry lines that stretched across his hand, beginning to travel up his wrist.
Shaking his head, he mumbled, “That can’t be good.”
Not trusting himself to operate the can opener and hold the can of peaches, Mark decided to eat the bread by itself. He had hoped to sop the bread in the juice in the can, but instead he bit off a piece and took a swig of water before chewing, until the small loaf of bread was gone.
Positioning his saddle wasn’t quite so difficult, but cinching it up proved more difficult, it took two strong hands. By the time he was through, he experienced stronger spasms in his hand.
While meandering through the town, Brett was waiting and watching; he knew he’d stirred up the town’s folks with his talk of Anthrax. In the far distance, he saw what he was finally looking for, Mark McCain.
Returning to the saloon Brett announced, “He’s back and he’s bringing death with him! We gotta stop ‘em!”
Slightly struggling against the pain in his hand, Mark breathed a sigh of relief when North Fork came into sight. He halted BlueBoy when he saw the group of riders heading his way.
“Hold it right there McCain!” Brett yelled, as he led the group of riders.
“I don’t understand,” Mark stated.
“Sorry Mark, but we can’t let you back in town,” stated one of the hands new to Oat Jackford’s ranch.
“Why not?” Mark asked in confusion.
“Boy you’re carrying ANTHRAX!” Brett hollered, emphasizing the disease.
“No! No I’m not. The Sheriff stated it was up north, I was never there!”
“But you took medicine to those people! Ya been exposed!” Brett declared, relishing in hearing the fear in the voices from the men behind him. “He’s spread it all across the valley riding that mangy horse of his! I tell ya, that boy and his horse are gonna be the death of good people and your livestock!”
“NO!” Mark screamed as one of the men approaching closer and tried to take BlueBoy’s reins.
Without warning, Mark wheeled his horse and raced him away from the group of men.
“Get after him men!” Brett hollered.
“NO!” demanded one of the ranch hands. “We need to protect the town, ain’t no ranches that way anyhow.”
“No, but the boy can circle around and get to his Pa’s place,” Brett stated, clearly not wanting to give up.
“If he does, two of you’ll head out there and prevent him from stopping. Send him back north,” stated the man who had prevented the group from going after Mark.
Brett internally giggled at all that happened while he rode with the men as they returned to North Fork.
Stevan Griswald, the town’s schoolmaster, stepped into the Mallory House Hotel and proceeded to the restaurant, curiously searching the room for someone. When he saw who he was looking for, he walked over and touched her on the shoulder and quietly called her name, “Miss Mallory, a word please.”
“Stevan, how may I help ye today?” Lou gaily greeted the teacher.
“It’s about Mark McCain, has he returned?”
“Returned? Mark, he should have…” Lou stopped mid-sentence and realized the boy should have returned long before. “I’ve been so busy here at the hotel and in the restaurant this morning, I’ve not seen him. Maybe he saw I was busy and headed on up to his room.”
“I don’t think so…” Stevan stated cautiously. “The marshal isn’t here and Brett seems to be stirring up a hornets’ nest…And I think part of it involves Mark.”
“And what would the likes of Brett want with Mark?” Lou painfully asked, all too aware of the trouble the man continually caused in and around North Fork.
“I overheard him mention the boy’s name earlier and thought nothing of it; Mark wouldn’t pay him any mind. But, Brett and a bunch of others just returned to town and I heard some of them bragging about having prevented a major outbreak of Anthrax and others saying they should have killed the boy and his horse.”
“Killed?! Stevan, we have to do something!” exclaimed Lou.
Choosing to race BlueBoy away from the angry mob, Mark had been startled by the talk he’d heard from men who knew his Pa. He was thankful none of the crowd followed him.
“So it’s just us. Let’s circle around and get home,” Mark stated; ignoring the throbbing in his hand.
Mark rode over the rise behind his home and saw several horses he didn’t recognize, nor did he recognize the two men standing in the front yard, rifles in hand.
“Boy, we can’t go home,” Mark realized he was on his own. “Hey boy! Why don’t we try to find Micah, he’ll put Brett in his place until Pa gets back. But Micah’s with the posse…” Mark dejectedly answered himself. “Guess we’re on our own for a few more days, least until Pa comes back on the train.”
Absently Mark opened and stretched his right hand as he signaled BlueBoy into a trot and headed towards his favorite spot by the fishing hole on their property.
Death hovered over the scene before him, men seeking shelter behind boulders or trees, anything to block the path of a bullet in flight. He nodded as two men fell to the ground, one grabbing his chest; the other, oblivious to the bullet that struck him in the head. Quickly, Death made his way to the fallen and accompanied them on their downward trip.
As the sun set, the joint posses from North Fork and Roswell felt accomplished in a job well done, two outlaws dead, three more in custody, and the money was recovered.
Death acknowledged his presence was no longer required and left.
“Men, we need to stop for the night and rest our horses and give Lucas a few hours of not being jostled,” called Marshal Torrance as they approached a stand of trees with boulders offering a natural windbreak from the cool night breeze.
As if reading each other’s minds, the men quietly set about their tasks in preparing the camp and removing the travois from the marshal’s horse and carrying it near the fire.
While the others slept, Micah sat beside his friend, listening to him quietly calling for his son, “Mark, Mark.”
“Rest easy Lucas, conserve your strength.”
Somewhere in the darkest part of the night, Micah woke upon hearing a pleading for water. He looked over and saw the blue eyes of his friend open, pain shining from within.
“Here LucasBoy, just a sip. Just a few sips,” Micah stated as he offered the canteen and held it and his friend’s head. “We’ll get you back to town sometime later today.”
“Mark, find Mark,” Lucas mumbled before the pain drove him to unconsciousness.
“I don’t understand why Lucas is out of his head in worry,” Micah stated as he joined the others around the campfire.
“Too many memories,” Nils absently replied. “Now you know I like Lucas, but seeing him like that,” the man pointed to where Lucas lie, “I’d give anything to have remained with the others on the posse.”
As the small group entered North Fork, the marshal was glad Nils had insisted in attaching the travois to his horse. Micah raced towards the middle of town after seeing the angry mob that stood on the boardwalk outside of Sweeney’s saloon. Bill Sweeney, John Hamilton, the town’s banker, and Stevan Griswald stood in the middle of the street, each held a shotgun or a rifle trying to keep the men from progressing any farther.
“What’s going on here?!” demanded Micah as he pulled his scatter gun from its scabbard.
“They’ve got the whole town in an uproar over Anthrax,” Stevan replied.
“Anthrax!” Micah breathed out as if sucker-punched.
“Mark delivered medicine to Picocho because of an outbreak. Brett there stirred up the town and they ran Mark off somewhere,” Hamilton stated.
“Mark?!” Micah whispered as he looked back up the road to the others with Lucas. Turning his attention back to the ugly crowd, Micah stated, “Either the lot of you settle down or I’ll put the whole of you in jail and call in the army to quiet you!”
“We’re only protecting our own,” Brett called out.
“You’re protecting no one, Brett. You’re good for nothing and a trouble maker,” Micah replied. Without hesitation Micah declared, “For the good of this town, I’m arresting you Brett,” and he stepped from his saddle.
“What for?!” the man cried out as the marshal lowered his scattergun and pointed it at him. “Men, you can’t let him take me!” he pleaded as the crowd stepped aside and allowed the marshal to grab hold of the man’s arm and forcefully led him to the jail.
Micah hesitated and turned, “Men, if ANYTHING happens to Mark McCain, you’ll answer to me; each and every one of you. Now, get on back to your homes or your jobs!”
Micah pushed Brett to continue walking.
Having squelched the trouble and placed Brett in jail, Micah stepped from his office to see an old sight, a stagecoach coming into town.
“Hey Jake, I see they pulled you out of the mothballs!” Micah called out.
“Yep, that train being stuck is rolling us out and around,” Jake answered. “Got a couple of passengers, including one cranky old man.”
“Doc!” Micah called before he saw Doctor Burrage step from the stopped coach. Hurrying, Micah pulled the doctor quickly to the boardwalk.
“Just hold on!” Doc Burrage declared. “I’ve had a quiet vacation and I don’t intend for you to ruin my rest.”
“Sorry, Doc. But Lucas needs you bad, he was on the train that got robbed and he took a bullet to the chest.”
Without saying another word, Doc Burrage quickly made his way to his office, ignoring Jake trying to toss down his luggage.
Sitting in front of the small fire, Mark pulled the collar of his jacket tighter around his neck and couldn’t stop the shivers that had hold of him. He looked to the right upon hearing his horse give a soft snort, and was surprised to see two identical horses standing side by side. Blinking his eyes, Mark shook his head and looked again, still the same two look-alike horses.
“Guess you found yourself a buddy…” Mark murmured.
Tossing another piece of wood onto the fire, Mark watched as the area around him brightened, driving back the darkness of night and illuminating the sweat upon his face; however, it didn’t prevent the darkness of sleep from pulling at the tired and hungry young man.
Standing, Mark tilted as he walked to the edge of the pond, knelt and cupped his left hand to lift a little bit of water to his dried lips. Enjoying the coolness as the water slipped down his throat, Mark drank a few more handfuls before he shivered and returned to his campfire, and to sleep.
Death had watched the progress of the posse carrying the wounded rancher into North Fork and stayed until the doctor entered his office. He continued to wait for God’s decision… waited until he felt the needs of another nearby.
Upon reaching the bubbling brook that flowed into a pond, surrounded by lush grass, Death observed the fevered young man struggle to maintain his footing as he walked from the pond back to his campfire.
As the young man sat down, he quietly cried, “Oh Pa, I need ya,” as he held his right hand close to his chest, tears slipping from his eyes.
Death watched as the figure slipped sideways, his eyes closed.
And Death waited, curiously he spoke, “Father and son…“
The sun rose over a somber North Fork, three days of quiet with Brett still in jail.
Three days without a sign of Anthrax.
Three days since Micah Torrance had called a meeting of the various ranchers to chastise their hands and to discuss the need to find Mark McCain.
Three days with no sign of the young man.
Three days since Doc Burrage had operated to save the life of the tall rancher.
Three days and Lucas McCain was finally returning to consciousness. A rooster somewhere in the town crowed as Lucas’ eyelashes began quivering. Lou Mallory continued to sit by his side, having wiped the sweat from his brow and his chest for the previous three days.
“Lucas?” Lou quietly spoke as she saw his eyes move behind his closed eyelids. “Come on Lucas, ye need to wake up. Ye’re wasting away.”
A brief moan escaped from the rancher’s lips as he tried harder to open his eyes.
“That’s it Lucas!,” encouraged the hotel owner.
“Mark?” Lucas barely whispered.
Lou sharply inhaled, realizing she should have expected that to be Lucas’ first word.
“Here Lucas, let me get ye some water. Ye have to be practically parched.”
“Thanks,” Lucas stated before falling back asleep.
Lou heard the door begin to open and then the doctor’s voice, “Lou, did you need something?”
“Doc, he woke. Drank a little bit of water and then fell back asleep.”
Pulling his stethoscope from around his neck, positioning the two earpieces in his ears, he placed the metal bell shaped end against Lucas’ chest, and hmmmm’d.
“Yes, blessed sleep; it’s what the man needs. Thankfully, his lungs sound clearer and stronger this morning,” answered the doctor.
Death heard the doctor’s words and thought, ‘God has made one decision.’
With none the wiser, Death slipped from North Fork.
Oat Jackford had sorely berated his men who had gone with Brett and accosted Mark McCain. He informed them that for every day the young man remained missing, he was going to dock their pay two dollars. After plenty of grumbles, the men spread out and began their search.
Hearing the man with him continue to grumble, ranch hand Sam Montgomery stated, “You’ve no one to blame but yourself Hank. You let a braggart over ride your common sense.”
“But I’ve seen what Anthrax can do! ‘Sides the boy didn’t look too good,” the man defended himself.
“He didn’t look too good?! He was probably scared by the mob of you riding down on him. There’s been no Anthrax outbreak here. You best hope someone finds Mark McCain and fast. If his Pa wasn’t at the doc’s I’m sure ya’ll’d be sporting black eyes and busted ribs; that is if he didn’t shoot you first on sight!”
The rest of the posse returned to North Fork. They had been pleased upon their success in helping to capture the outlaws and recover the money, but as the rode for home, their thoughts turned somber as they remembered the last vision of their neighbor and friend.
Death watched, no one had yet come near where the young man feverishly slept in oblivion, still crying out, “Pa…” Stepping close, Death looked upon the tormented face. “He looks so innocent, so much younger than I thought. Why have you not made your decision?” Death asked as he looked to the heavens.
Mark woke as the land rumbled with thunder, his hand and head pounding as loud as the thunder itself. Pulling himself to sit up, he looked to his horse as the animal stood over him, nudging him as if to say, “Enough already, can’t we go home?”
“Boy, it smells like rain,” Mark commented as he tried to pull himself to stand, but fell hard to the ground, landing on his right hand. Mark couldn’t stop the scream or the tears.
An hour later, soaked to the skin and so filled with regret, Mark looked to the heavens, and painfully spoke, “Shepherd me O’ God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life. God is my shepherd, so nothing shall I want, I rest in the meadows of faithfulness and love, I walk by the quiet waters of peace. Gently you raise me and heal my weary soul, You lead me by pathways of righteousness and truth, my spirit shall sing the music of Your Name. You have set me a banquet of love in the face of hatred, crowning me with love beyond my power to hold. Surely your kindness and mercy follow me all the days of my life; I will dwell in the house of my God forevermore.
“Lord, I wanted Pa here, but you’ve seen fit not to send him. Will you let him know I loved him?” asked Mark as he allowed the darkness to consume him, hoping the light would lead him home.
Death waited and questioned, “Why God? Why have you not decided?”
Lucas moved his head back and forth, quietly speaking, “Mark, please… Come home.”
“Lucas?” Lou asked.
“He’s out there, alone,” Lucas whispered not hearing the words Lou spoke.
“They’re look for him Lucas. They all are,” Lou answered.
“He lie down in green pastures… still waters… valley…” Lucas whispered and fell asleep.
“Lou, just thought I’d let you know were heading out again,” Micah stated as he opened the door and poked his head into the room.
“Micah, Lucas woke. He knows the boy’s missing. He said something about green pastures, still waters and a valley.”
Without another word, Micah hurriedly left the doctor’s office; those he passed on the street heard him swearing under his breath.
As he neared the Marshal’s Office, Sam Montgomery called his name.
“I know that mob of riders probably scared Mark away from town, but I can’t for the likes of me understand why he’s not tried to sneak back in. I mean he has to hear all of us out there yelling for him and riding all over the territory looking for him.”
“He’s not heard us, we’ve not been anywhere near him,” Micah answered as he pulled the reins to his horse from around the hitching rail. “You remember Clem saying he and Pritch were at the McCain Ranch?”
“I think the boy might have tried to go home, saw them, and headed to his fishing hole.”
“The Pond!” the thought struck Sam as he cursed his not thinking of that in the first place. “Well, if he’s there, he’s probably spent a few days fishing and enjoying being on his own.”
“I don’t know, something inside tells me no. You want to ride with me out there?”
“Sure Micah, and maybe we can join Mark for a little bit of fishing before bringing him back to town.”
As they rode from town, a worrisome rain fell across the land as thunder rumbled in the far distance.
Death watched, knowing he could not interfere; should he take a life before the decision was made he knew he would be condemned as an outcast, no longer in God’s good graces. Death had been chosen by God; and for that reason, he accepted the magnitude of his responsibility for eternity.
“I see babies die before they have had a chance to draw a breath, parents dying and leaving young ones alone in the world. My job is to comfort those who walk beside me as they ascended to heaven. Others who walk beside me walk quickly from the burning of the souls, or should that be soles…” Death had a sense of humor.
He knew people were afraid of him, but they did not understand the responsibilities God placed upon him. He accepted the title given to him, ‘The Grim Reaper’, by those ignorant of his true purpose. But, when Death calls, his true purpose is revealed.
And so he waited, but still the decision was not his. He could not choose the time, nor the place, nor the reason, but he always waited, ever the faithful servant, waited until the moment his services were required.
His attention was drawn back to the young man lying on the ground next to the smoldering fire, “Will the flame of your life finally be extinguished?” Death asked. “Will the rains that extinguished the flame of your fire also extinguish your life?”
“Death?” A shivering and fevered Mark called out in his mind, his eyes still closed. “Death, have you come for me?”
“I do not know. I have not been told. Just know that I am near and will comfort you on your journey as you walk beside me.”
“I wish Pa was here.”
“His decision has already been made,” Death stated.
“Is he with Ma?”
“Death, will it hurt?”
“No, you will not hurt anymore,” Death’s voice spoke with compassion.
“Death… Take me,” Mark called aloud.
“I can’t,” Death stated as two riders entered the clearing. “The decision has not been made, yet.”
“My God, Micah!” Sam yelled as he heard Mark call out for death to take him.
“Mark!” Micah called as he halted his horse and ran to the boy. “Boy, I’m here. Grandpa Micah’s here!”
“Death…” Mark whispered. “…is near.”
“Not if I have anything to do with it. If your pa can survive a gunshot wound to his chest, you can survive this. A little bit of rain never killed anyone,” declared Micah as he lifted the boy.
“Micah,” Sam call as he helped turn the boy over. Both saw the painfully swollen hand and arm.
“A tourniquet?” Sam asked.
Micah nodded and watched as Sam removed the neckerchief from his throat and tied it around the boy’s arm.
Knowing Sam weighed less than him, and his horse was used to running the range after cattle, Micah lifted Mark McCain and placed him in the saddle in front of Sam.
“Ride like death is on your tail!” Micah yelled as he used his hat to swat Sam’s horse on the rump, encouraging the horse to run faster. “This is one race we have to win!”
“I am always near, you cannot out run me because in the end, all will walk by my side when the decision is made,” stated Death as he followed along beside the riders racing to North Fork.
Sam gently slipped Mark from the saddle into the waiting arms of Micah, the boy’s head rested on Micah’s shoulder while the marshal held his limp body from under his shoulders and knees.
“DOC!” Sam yelled as he opened the door, allowing the marshal to carry Mark inside. “DOC!”
“Quiet, I’ve a patie…” Doc’s words died on his lips when he saw the scene before him. “What happened?”
“Don’t know, but his hand and arm are swelled, surprised it ain’t burst,” Sam answered as Micah laid the unconscious body of Mark McCain on the examination table.
“Doc?!” Lou squealed in alarm as she entered the room.
Without taking time to explain what he was doing, Doc cut away the jacket and shirt from his patient. Lou took the ruined items from Doc as she watched.
Hmm’ing, Doc turned to the various instruments contained in a glass jar full of alcohol. He whipped the scalpel to fling off as much of the liquid as possible, so he could grip it tighter. Turning from the shelf, Doc picked up a metal bowl and returned to the table, he placed the bowl under the boy’s hand.
“Boy, I’m thankful you’re out cold; this isn’t going to be easy on you,” commented the doctor.
Instructing the marshal to hold a lantern close, Doc made a deep incision along the same line as the cut on Mark’s hand. Sam almost lost his breakfast as the blood and puss oozed from the open wound, the immediate skin having turned a brownish black with red streaks stretching to the wrist and up the arm. Doc pared away as much flesh as he dared until he found the beginning of pink skin. Reaching for a swab, the doctor poured alcohol over it before he used it to bathe the site of the injury.
Still quiet, the doctor walked to a cabinet and pulled out a vial and a syringe, from the upturned vial, he drew the plunger down and watched the liquid fill.
Returning to his patient, he lifted an arm and looked for the vein. A few moments later, he slowly pushed the plunger back into the syringe, injecting the medicine into the boy’s arm.
Again, he stepped away from his patient and returned with a roll of gauze and a wadding of the material.
“Aren’t you going to stitch it,” Micah asked as the doctor placed the wadding into the gaping wound and began wrapping the gauze gently around the hand.
“Can’t, I need the hand to continue to drain, get as much infection out. I’ll be needing to change this every hour or so.”
Everyone turned as they heard, “Can you save his hand?” to see Lucas barely standing in the doorway.
“Lucas!” Lou called.
The hotel owner hurried back to the tall rancher, allowing him to rest his weight against her shoulder.
“Back to bed ye go!” Lou ordered and tried to turn the worried father around.
“Lucas, you get back to bed. I’ll have Micah and Sam bring a cot for the boy into your room, but only if you get back to your room this instant!” ordered the good doctor.
Outside the clinic the crowd was growing angry, Micah stepped out from the clinic to disperse them.
“All of you know the boy in here; he’s fighting for his life and doesn’t need the likes of you standing out here disturbing him.”
“He brought anthrax to town!” someone yelled.
Doc Burrage stepped from the clinic, “SHUT UP!!!” Having startled the crowd to quiet he continued, “This boy was vaccinated against the disease years ago.”
“His horse!” someone else yelled.
“BlueBoy’s been quarantined and I’ll not have anyone harm that horse!” Micah declared.
Micah watched as the group turned away from the clinic.
“Of all the nerve,” Doc Burrage commented as he turned.
“They’re good people, Doc. Just scared. Lucas told me that years ago,” Micah replied. “Fear does bad things to good people, taints their judgment.”
“Scared or not, to turn on a boy?” Doc said in disgust.
Gently, Mark was placed on the cot in the same room with his father. Doc Burrage checked his youngest patient was settled comfortably and heard Lou quietly chastising the tall rancher for being out of bed and for asking such a horrid question.
“Lou, Lucas was right in asking,” the doctor stated as he stood straight. He waited as he heard the quick intake of breath from the others in the room. “His hand, his arm… it’s all infected. I don’t know how long or how far the infection has really spread. If the skin continues to die, I’ll have no recourse but to amputate.
“The next twenty-four to forty-eight hours will be most critical. We have to get his fever down, encourage the wound to drain, and keep administering the antibiosis serum, in hopes it will help the boy’s body fight.”
“But to amputate?” Lou asked as tears brimmed her eyes.
“In order to save his life? Yes, I would,” answered the doctor.
Lucas knew exactly what the doctor was stating. Many times over during the War Between the States, he’d witnessed soldiers ignoring injuries and die from infection, he’d witnessed others’ lives being saved by the doctors in the field performing amputations. He knew his friend would do everything in his power to spare his son the anguish of losing his hand or his arm, but if it meant saving his son’s life, the doctor would do what was necessary.
Stripped to his longjohn bottoms, Mark lay on the cot next to his father’s bed. Night and day, Lucas and Lou took turns wiping the sweat from the young man’s face and body; encouraging Mark to swallow the broth Lou brought from the hotel restaurant.
“He’s nothing but skin and bones, he’s wasting away,” Lucas quietly stated when Doc entered.
“But he’s fighting this Lucas. You have to have faith,” Doc answered. “Once the infection is gone, he’ll bounce back.”
And so Death waited. He would leave upon learning of the decision of others, but always he returned to the North Fork clinic.
Forty-eight hours had almost lapsed when Death felt a gentle hand on his shoulder.
“Why do you wait so near?”
The voice would have startled a mortal man, but Death always took comfort as he waited to hear the voice. The fullness, the warmth, the compassion, the sorrow, and the wrath; the richness of the voice conveyed who stood behind Death.
“This young man has suffered so much; I wanted to be close when his decision is made so I may be of comfort.”
“And if I do not decide?”
“I will continue to wait. Many times, I have been near, once in Enid when I took his mother and others. Twice his father sent him away, once in the desert and another time at the foothills, there was the time when the son was sick with Typhoid, time and again, you draw me near. Never has his decision been made. Many times, I have been much closer to walking with his father… I have waited between him and his father this week, yet…”
“And still you wait…” God spoke, he understood the unasked question. “There is a bond between this one and his father and between his father and him, a strong bond that echoes silently across time and place.”
“They are only human.” Death was not condescending, he merely spoke fact.
“The father knew something was not right before he decided to return home.”
“And because of his ‘foresight’ he was on the train and was shot trying to stop the robbery. I waited after the train was robbed; one other did not survive.”
“He has raised a son of excellent courage and maturity.”
“But what of the son?” Death inquired as his gaze returned to the fevered young man.
“It is the young man’s strength that has brought the father through his trials.”
“But if the father is so weak?” asked Death, confused if the father was that weak, why had God allowed the man to live. Death did not question God’s decision; he just wanted to understand.
“I did not say that. Both are fighters, they fight to live for each other, and as long as they fight, I will not make that decision.”
“The young one begged for me to take him,” Death curiously replied.
“The decision was not his to make, but knowing the other would die if I decided… I could not make that decision. Maybe after they have both lived long lives I will make the decision. But not today; Death, your services are not required here.”
Death knew that God had given his only son for mankind’s sins and the son had been resurrected. Curiously, Death came to understand the bond between this father and son, and knew the reason behind God’s choice; father and son, the embodiment of life eternal.
“Come on Pa! Doc said I could go home, I want to go home!” Mark McCain impatiently called out as he waited behind the seat in the back of the buckboard. BlueBoy’s and Razor’s reins were tied to the saddle horn on Micah’s horse. Their saddles, upturned in the back of the buckboard, providing sort of a pillow for the young man to lie against.
Lou Mallory still fussed over Mark, making sure he was comfortable, while Steven Griswald stood to the side smiling that he’d played a small part in saving North Fork from itself.
“Mark, when you’re settled, I’ll bring some books for you to read,” the teacher spoke as he rested a hand on Mark’s shoulder.
Lou stated, “Mark, ye and yer Pa take it easy. I’ll be out later this week to check to see how both of you are doing and bring out some of my Irish stew.”
“I look forward to it. Both of you,” Mark replied.
“I’ll see they get safely home and settled,” Micah smiled at Lou’s smothering of the boy.
Lucas warmly shook his head sideways over his son, who still wore his arm in a sling, before turning to the doctor, “Thank you. Thank you for saving both our lives.”
“I’m just thankful this old doctor could keep death from my doorstep,” Doc answered as he assisted Lucas to step to the front seat of the buckboard where he sat next to Nils who held the reins.
Ever present and knowing, “You did not keep me from your doorstep, good Doctor. I am always near, waiting.” Death turned, beckoned to his next charge.
Shepherd Me, O’ God is from Psalm 23