Mark’s Posse (by BluewindFarm)

Synopsis:  With Lucas and so many men out of town, Micah feels extreme apprehension in deputizing the on person who can lead the posse — Mark McCain.

This story falls outside of canon for The Rifleman; taking place after the series ended its television run and continues an idea started in my story, ‘Leaving Childhood Behind’.

Category:  The Rifleman
Genre:   Western
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  23,270


 

Introduction:

In this story, I’ve borrowed or made reference to the following guest characters from The Rifleman’s five year television run.

In “First Wages” (season four) we met Dave Merrar a fellow rancher in North Fork.

In “Guilty Conscience” (season four) we met Norman Carraway, a husband, father, and gambler who abandoned his wife and young son years before. Ironically, Norman bears an uncanny resemblance to Marshal Micah Torrance.

In “The Guest” (season five) me met Ralph Hayden, a man bitter after suffering a gunshot wound that left him in a wheelchair. He hired an international assassin, Mario Rosati, with instructions to kill Lucas McCain. The assassin failed in his duty when he realized the resemblance between Mark and Lucas mirrored the relationship he had with his own father, who was murdered.

In “Death Never Rides Alone” (season five), we’re introduced to Johnny Drako, a long-time friend of Lucas McCain. Drako was a known gunslinger, who was always within the law when his reputation was forged. Drako was looking for a nice, quiet place to live and figured North Fork would suit him, just fine; specially since his friend called the town home. However, events beyond his control made him see the impact his arrival would have if he stayed and he decided to leave town.

In my mind’s eye, I always believed that one day, Drako would return to North Fork, after lying low and letting others gain their reputations; his own would simply fade into history. Thus was the idea for my story The Return of Johnny Drako. (Bits n Pieces: Lee Van Cleef portrayed Johnny Drako)

 

Mark’s Posse

 

People who were attempting to cross to the other side of the street jumped out of the way as the stagecoach rushed into North Fork while the shotgun rider yelled, “We’ve been robbed!”

Dust stirred up by the horses’ hooves and wheels of the stage coated everything and everyone as the wind blew the dust towards the milling people and the coach. The driver had hauled the four-horse hitch to a halt in front of the Marshal’s Office and jumped down, while the shotgun rider continued to loudly proclaim outlaws had robbed the stage and its passengers about five miles from town.

At hearing the commotion, Mark McCain exited the general store, along with the other patrons, to witness the arrival of the stage. After several male passengers exited the vehicle, Mark ran over and conspicuously followed them into the Marshal’s Office; and as he entered, he heard Micah talking to Chuck Sheppard, the stagecoach driver.

“It’s going to be a small posse going after those outlaws, most folks are at the county seat enjoying the fair and rodeo over in Little Butte; and Drako’s delivering a prisoner to Roswell,” Micah declared as he realized what he was up against. Turning to the three male passengers standing in his office, Micah asked, “You up to riding with the posse?”

Each man came up with some excuse that they were just businessmen and hoped that would suffice to explain why they couldn’t. Micah grumbled and silently asked himself if he expected anything different from the three strangers.

“All right, I understand riding on a posse is strictly voluntary, however each of you has cause to ride.” He paused and slowly looked at each one, hoping they would change their mind, “But since you won’t, I need each of you to write down a statement, describe in your own words what happened and how much money was stolen from you personally.”

The men protested the need to give a written statement, insisting they had important business in Arizona.

“If you want your money back, you’ll do as I instruct. Otherwise, once we return with your money, it will be donated to the town’s church fund.”

“You can’t do that!” proclaimed the smallest of the men.

“I can and I will! You’ve time to write out your statements while Chuck and Aaron write theirs. Besides, the team of horses needs changed before you catch the next leg of your trip,” declared Micah.

Chuck Sheppard realized the predicament Micah was in and hoped that someone would ride from town to get Lucas McCain. When he saw the man’s son standing by the door he inquired, “Mark, what about your Pa? Would he be available to ride? We had twenty thousand dollars on this run, plus whatever the passengers had. Would you ride your horse home to get him?”

“I’m Sorry, Mr. Sheppard, but Pa’s up in Santa Fe and won’t be back until the beginning of next week,” Mark answered.

Micah turned his attention from the passengers who were beginning to give him a headache as they bickered among themselves; he asked Mark to ride out to Dave Merrar’s ranch while he headed over to Oat Jackford’s place, “See who they have available to ride with the posse.”

“But Micah, most of the ranchers and their crews are at the fair competing in the rodeo. Especially Mr. Jackford; he only a left skeleton crew to run his place.” Gulping as the men starting to bemoan the presumption of his youthfulness, Mark quickly stated, “I’ll get who I can from Mr. Merrar’s. I know he and a few of his hands didn’t go this year. Didn’t want to cause any trouble between his hands and Oat’s like last year.”

Micah remembered the trouble that brewed for several weekends after hands from both ranches returned the previous year. Any good-natured camaraderie they had felt towards each other before the rodeo was ruined when it came down to naming the overall ranch winner. . Many barroom brawls were broken up by Micah during the ensuing weekends as the hands bragged and others defended; tempers finally simmered down after Micah declared the town off limits to hands both ranches for a month.

*****

The stage and the passengers had already left to continue their journey into Arizona territory when Mark returned to town, accompanied by Dave Merrar and two other men who had agreed to ride with the posse.

“Don’t know that a posse of four is enough.” Micah stated as he shook his head having no better luck in rounding up more men.

“Micah, there’s five of us.” Mark answered.

“Five…” Micah sputtered, “Mark, your Pa would have my hide if I let you ride with us after those outlaws.”

“If Pa were here, he’d ride. You hurt North Fork and you hurt a McCain. You hurt one McCain, you hurt us both.” Mark boldly announced. He hesitated a moment before continuing, “Micah, I’ll be seventeen in a few months. Besides, all of you know I’m just as good a tracker as my Pa is and over the years I’ve heard each one of you complain you’re nowhere near as good at tracking as my pa. You need me. I promise I’ll follow your orders, but you need all the riders you can get,” Mark stated with conviction.

“Well Micah,” Tony Jepsom stated. “The boy… Mark is right about his abilities to track. I wouldn’t want to bet against him or his old man.”

Micah looked to Merrar, wishing for someone else to back him up and say no as well. Dave just gave him a look to say, ‘The boy’s right’. Seems more people in North Fork were noticing that Mark was growing up and no longer the little boy they all so fondly remembered.

Micah walked to the gun rack, pulled down a rifle, and tossed the weapon to the young man so eagerly hoping to prove his worth and be able to ride with the posse.

“Here Mark, you’re going to need something stronger than your .22 since you’re coming with us,” Micah stated while shaking his head, he only prayed they would safely return before Lucas McCain ever got wind that Mark was riding with the posse.

Though he wanted to, Mark was able to refrain from jumping up and down; a child would have done that after getting his way, but this wasn’t a moment to be a child. This was a moment for Mark to be a man, and prove to the others that he was mature enough to ride with them. As he looked the rifle over, he opened the breach and inspected the firing mechanism. Next, Mark played with the lever action and noticed how smoothly it operated. Before settling on that rifle, he butted it to his shoulder a couple of times, determining if the stock was the right length and if he could properly sight down the barrel. The rifle fit Mark almost as good as his own smaller caliber rifle. He played with the balance of the rifle having noticed that it was significantly heavier than his own rifle.

“Thank you Micah,” Mark said as he stepped back in line with the others and waited so the Marshal could properly deputize them.

Micah hesitated for a moment as he went to place the deputy badge on Mark’s shirt. “Boy…, guess I shouldn’t call you that anymore. You’ve proven so much lately that you’re becoming a man.” Micah’s fingers fumbled a little as he finished pinning the badge. To himself Micah thought, ‘God, please forgive me, if anything happens to this boy.’

Without embarrassing the man by mentioning it, Mark noticed Micah’s eyes were glistening more than usual.

Micah stepped back, requested the men to raise their right hand and administered the oath, requiring them to faithfully execute the duties of this office. They all swore to uphold the letter of the law.

*****

Before leaving town, Micah deputized the somewhat portly, liveryman Nils Swenson to keep watch over North Fork until his deputy Johnny Drako returned. While Micah wrote a note for Nils to give to Drako upon his return, Mark wrote a note for his Pa.

“Nils, when my Pa gets back from Santa Fe, if we’re not back, would you give him this note? Please?” Mark asked.

“Sure Mark. I’ll see that he gets it,” Nils replied, while at the same time dreading what would happen should the posse not be back before Lucas returned to town. Of all people, Nils wanted to be the last person to have to give the note to his friend.

*****

While Micah and Mark were writing their notes, Dave Merrar, and two of his ranch hands, Tony Jepsom and Rick Youngston, proceeded to the general store to stock up on supplies and packed them on a horse they borrowed from Nils.

*****

With little instruction, the posse mounted their horses, with Mark staying towards the back of the group, in charge of the packhorse. As the posse was preparing to leave, hotel owner, Lou Mallory, ran from the hotel; she was momentarily speechless in finding Mark wearing a deputy’s badge.

“Micah, ye can’t be serious. He’s just a boy,” Lou complained as they rode past her.

Mark halted BlueBoy next to Lou, “Lou, would you tell my Pa, I…” Mark kicked BlueBoy to catch up with the others. He couldn’t bring himself to say what he wanted to.  Partly because he felt the tears welling in his eyes and partly because knew he wouldn’t be able to speak without his voice breaking.

*****

Micah led the posse; it wouldn’t be necessary for Mark to ride up front until they reached the location where Sheppard stated the robbery occurred. Upon reaching their destination, Rick took the lead rope for the packhorse as Mark stepped down from his horse, BlueBoy, to search the ground to begin tracking.

“It appears they waited quite a while over here, Micah,” Mark indicated. “Lots of cigarette butts… and boot prints.”

“They must have known the money was on that coach, indicating this wasn’t just a simple robbery of the passengers,” answered Micah as he agreed with Mark’s observations.

“I can make out three distinct hoof/shoe prints among the horses,” Mark stated as he read the signs.

“Chuck said there were three men in the gang…” Micah offered.

Mark took his time to scout the entire location to figure out the whole story. “From the various indentations of their boots, there couldn’t be any more… But there was one man who stayed over here; away from the others. It doesn’t appear he actively participated in the hold-up.”

“Could be a stranger came along and saw the robbery and kept hidden?” Merrar suggested.

“I don’t know,” answered Mark.

“Or it could be someone who came along afterwards and just stopped here… not knowing about the robbery” Tony offered.

“I can’t say,” admitted Mark.

*****

It took little effort to agree on the direction the outlaws took, their trail was easy to follow from the saddle since the outlaws were running their horses flat out. After an hour or so of tracking, Mark realized that the outlaws had reined back their horses. He stopped and dismounted BlueBoy, knelt down and examined the tracks.

“What’s up, Mark?” Micah inquired.

“Micah, they’re starting to think instead of just running,” Mark said as he remounted BlueBoy and proceeded. In time, the posse came to a small river and Mark kept everyone back until he could decipher the trail. “It’s safe to water the horses now; they didn’t double back from here.”

The posse rested and allowed their horses to drink. Mark handed BlueBoy’s reins to Tony as the others dismounted and watched as the teenager walked along the banks of the stream, trying to figure out which direction the outlaws took. It was evident they didn’t exit the river across from where they entered.

The others had been quietly chatting among themselves while standing by their horses when Mark came running back to the group, arriving out of breath, calling out, “Micah…, they headed upstream… about a half mile… and they’re headed west.”

Mark grabbed BlueBoy’s reins and quickly climbed into the saddle, only to hear Micah say, “Mark, you take a break first. We’re not leaving here until you catch your breath and take a good drink from your canteen and refill it.”

“But they’re getting…” protested Mark.

“You’ll do as I say. The trail will still be there in five minutes,” Micah announced.

From the tone of Micah’s voice and the fact that no one else had started to get in their saddles, Mark new better than to argue. Besides he had promised Micah he would follow orders.

Once Micah was convinced that Mark had sufficiently recovered from his efforts, they followed the trail again.

*****

The sun was starting to set when Micah called for a halt to make camp. Mark took a rope from the packhorse and strung it between two trees and proceeded to help tie out the horses. Micah and Merrar proceeded to make a campfire and fix food to eat, while Mark, Tony, and Rick took care of the unsaddling the horses; and taking them to a nearby stream to water them.

Once all the horses were back at the picket line, Mark took time to pick out their hooves and ran his hands down each leg, checking for signs of soreness or swelling; no sense having one come up lame because of a stone bruise or strained muscle. After he finished with the horses, Mark returned to join the others around the fire.

As he approached, Micah handed him a plate with some beef jerky, beans, and biscuits and asked, “What took you so long boy?”

“Took time to clean out the horses’ hooves and checked their legs.”

“You doing some thinking, too?” Micah quietly inquired.

“Yes sir,” Mark said as he took his plate from Micah.

Mark sat down and slowly ate his food. It was a quiet camp as they sat around the fire that night. The men hesitated to say anything they felt would put any undue pressure on Mark. After Mark finished eating, he proceeded to collect all the dishes and took them to the stream to wash.

Over the gurgling of the stream, Mark heard the faint sounds of a harmonica playing ‘Red River Valley’. The song was such a melancholy tune and for a moment Mark felt more alone than he realized, because he missed is Pa. As he walked back to camp, he looked to the opposite side of the fire and saw was Rick was playing the tune. Mark put the dishes back in the sack lying on the ground, next to the packhorse before he rejoined the men around the campfire.

Micah called out, “Mark, I’ve already got your bedroll laid out over here. Come on, time for us to get some shut eye.”

Mark walked over to lie down next to Micah. He pulled off his boots, set his hat down next to him, and pulled the cover over his shoulders. Soon, he heard the sound of snoring from the others. Mark felt tired, but his emotions had him too keyed up to sleep. His thoughts drifted to his Pa, ‘Wonder what Pa is doing right now?’ ‘Is this how Pa felt every time he was on a posse?’

After not being able to fall asleep, Mark slipped from his bedroll and walked over to the fire. He sat down and stared into the flames. He kept going over in his mind all the lessons his Pa had given him on tracking and trailing. Mark prayed he wasn’t forgetting anything that would end up harming any one of them. His eyes drifted to the heavens and he watched as a few stars shot across the sky. In the distance, he heard a wolf pack howling to each other.

Finally, Mark realized that he really did need to get to sleep, and maybe this time, he would be tired enough that sleep would come as he returned to his bedroll.

*****

Mark thought he no sooner had fallen asleep than he felt a hand on his shoulder and a quiet voice, gently calling him awake.

“Morning Mark, breakfast will be ready in a few minutes. We’ll eat and then be ready ride by the time the sun comes up,” Merrar said as he knelt next to Mark.

“Okay, Mr. Merrar, just let me help saddle the horses,” Mark replied as he started to pull on his boots.

“Mark, Tony and Rick have already taken care of that,” Merrar replied.

“But?” Mark started to say.

“No Mark. I know you want to feel you’re doing your fair share of the work and believe me… you have the hardest part right now, tracking. I heard you being restless last night and you didn’t settle down to get to sleep until well after midnight. I asked Micah to let you sleep a while longer, so don’t go getting upset.”

“Yes sir,” Mark answered. Though he felt the others were treating him as if he were still a child, he welcomed the few extra minutes of sleep they allowed him.

*****

The terrain rarely varied as the posse continued, the hills and mountains looked just as far away as they had been the day before. The land was barren and stretched out for miles in front of them, with the occasional scrub tree or brush or boulders dotting the landscape.

Just before noon, Mark stopped the posse, because something had changed.

“What’s wrong b… Mark?” Micah asked.

“Micah, you’re too set in your ways, if you want to keep calling me boy, it’s okay. You call my Pa LucasBoy all the time and he doesn’t mind, so why should I mind if you call me boy?” Mark answered with a grin on his face. He realized it wasn’t a reflection of his age, but rather a term of endearment.

Mark knelt down, re-examined the tracks and pushed his hat back on his head as he started to look from side to side. Standing, Mark circled around the others and turning like a top as he tried to decipher what had changed.

“Mark?” Merrar asked.

Still perplexed, Mark stated, “If I read these tracks correctly, they’ve met up with two others. So, now there are five of them together.”

“Damn!” escaped Rick’s lips.

“Are you sure?” Tony asked. “Could be the tracks just crossed…”

“I don’t think so,” Mark commented aloud, but to himself he thought, ‘God, please let me be reading these wrong.’ He understood the implications that additional outlaws had joined those they were trailing; they now stood equal in number.

*****

Not one of the riders took time to appreciate the mixture of colors the fading sun painted across the evening sky when Micah called for camp for the second night. After supper and dishes, Mark returned to lie down next to Micah.

“Mark, how are you holding up? You care to talk?” Micah asked as Mark sat next to him and pulled off his hat.

“I’m doing good Micah. Just nervous,” Mark answered, as he played with his hat. His eyes were staring off in the distance. The others were close enough to hear the conversation.

“Nervous? About what?” Micah asked.

“Am I remembering everything Pa taught me? Am I reading the tracks correctly? Can I really lead us to those outlaws? It’s one thing to have Pa right by my side and confirming that I’m reading the tracks properly. This is totally different, to be on my own. Pa always made it look so easy and…” Mark let his voice fade away.

“The one thing you need to realize is, you’re not on your own. We’re here with you,” Micah answered, but still seeing the uncertainty in the young man’s face the marshal continued, “Mark, you sure are your father’s son,” Micah couldn’t stop the laugh that erupted from deep within as he continued, “Your Pa made everything look easy, except when it came to raising you. I think that has been the hardest part of his life. Taking care of you, providing for you, and protecting…” Micah stopped.

“I know Micah. I’ve already been wondering how he’s going to react when he gets back home and finds out I’m with the posse.” Without giving anyone time to say anything else, Mark quickly added, “But Micah, if he didn’t want me to use my skills for tracking, why did he teach me?”

“Get some sleep Mark. We’ve another long day ahead of us tomorrow.” The marshal patted Mark’s thigh before he lay down and pulled the blanket from his bedroll over his shoulder.

“Good night Micah,” answered Mark as he curled up in his own bedroll.

It wasn’t long before Mark was sleep under the starry sky, tired from too little sleep the night before; and it didn’t hurt that Rick was trying to lull him to sleep by quietly playing ‘Shenandoah’ on his harmonica. Micah smiled over at Rick, knowing and thankful for what he was doing.

*****

After Mark had fallen asleep, Micah stood up, walked over, and knelt down next to Dave Merrar.

“The boy’s trying to take too much upon himself Dave. I’m worried that, well… maybe I shouldn’t have brought him along. He wants so much to prove to everyone he’s up to this. I’m worried that without Lucas here, he might keep too much inside. And if something were to happen…”

“Micah, you know as well as I do that we needed his skills for tracking. But I understand what you’re saying. Yeah, he is growing up, but he’s not yet a full, grown man.”

“I’m thinking about calling this posse quits…” Micah looked the rancher in the face to see his reaction. “If we don’t find them by noon tomorrow…”

“Before you call it quits, think about how the boy will take it?”

“It’s my decision,” Micah answered.

“And will he accept it for face value or would he think he failed?”

Micah took a few moments to think about the man’s words. He knew the son as well as he knew the father, and neither would give up easily. And neither would gracefully accept the decision… feeling they should have, could have done something more.

“So? How long do we keep going?”

“Let’s see how tomorrow goes. See how the boy holds up… He’s done as good a job as his Pa could do, so I’d really like to see this posse succeed. Give me some time to have a few words with Mark in the morning.”

Micah looked at Dave, questioning.

“Micah, it would probably come better from me, seeing as how close you are to his Pa and him. I’m not family, so he’d realize I’m not just saying my piece. Hopefully, he’ll understand that I really mean what I’m going to say. If we’re going to call it quits, I think he should be part of the discussion. It wouldn’t do his confidence any favors if we make the decision without him.”

“Okay, Dave. In the morning… I just hope he can sleep through the night. If he keeps awake like he did last night, he won’t last too long and I’ll have to call it quits anyway.”

*****

Morning came early for Mark. He made sure he was alert to any sound indicating the others were rousing; he wasn’t going to be caught sleeping again. He was a man and deep down, he did feel angry that Merrar and Micah had treated him differently than the others.

He sat up to find Tony and Rick pulling on their boots. Mark quickly followed suit and followed them to saddle up all the horses and get the packhorse geared up. Mark spent some extra time with BlueBoy, talking to him and apologizing for keeping him away from home for so long. Tony and Rick left when Dave Merrar approached and pointed a thumb over his shoulder, indicating he wanted to talk alone with Mark.

“Mark,” he called.

”Yes, Mr. Merrar?” Mark answered.

“Can we talk for a few minutes?”

“Sir?”

“Mark, I asked Micah if I could have a few words with you. We all overheard your conversation before you fell asleep last night.”

Mark finished tightening the cinch on BlueBoy’s saddle, then turned and looked at Mr. Merrar.

“Mark, I just wanted to tell you how impressed I’ve been with how you’ve handled yourself these past few days. Even though we don’t know anywhere near as much in tracking as your Pa has taught you, I want you to know you can talk with us. Ask us questions when you’re in doubt, maybe by reasoning we can all come up with the right answer. Guess what I’m trying to say is, I don’t want you to feel you have to bear the burden of leading this posse by yourself. We’re here for you and if you have doubts, don’t keep them to yourself, because they can only compound and make you doubt yourself more, later. We won’t think any less of you for asking our help or opinions. It takes a man to admit that he doesn’t know everything and an even bigger man to ask for help.”

“Mr. Merrar, I appreciate what you’ve said. I guess down deep, it comes to, I don’t want to disappoint Micah, or my Pa.”

“Mark, right now, don’t worry about what your Pa thinks, there will be plenty of time once those outlaws are behind bars to find out what your Pa thinks. Just believe in everything he’s taught you and trust your instincts.”

“There’s something else, isn’t there?” Mark asked.

“Yes, yes there is. Mark there does come a time when a posse, any posse has to decide when it’s time to call it quits. We can’t keep blindly following a trail.”

“I know… Pa told me once that, sometimes there’s no right answer to when to say you did your best and your best that day wasn’t good enough. The best thing to do is make note of all the details and file it with the territorial marshal.” Taking deep breath, Mark continued, “Is Micah wanting to give up because of me?”

“No, not because of you… but because this chase just isn’t panning out like he… like we all had hoped. We’ll all have a say in making the decision, but the final say will be the Marshal’s. Can you accept that?”

“I can accept that,” answered Mark.

Mr. Merrar put an arm around Mark’s shoulders and led him back to the fire, “Come on, we’ve got time for a quick bite of breakfast before we head out again.”

*****

Late in the morning, Mark halted the posse. “Micah, I think they’ve split up. It appears that two headed northeast and three are still headed west. I don’t know which group we should follow.” Mark realized this was one of those times that Mr. Merrar had been talking about.

“Mark, can you tell which group had the original outlaws versus the new comers? Did the newcomers split off from the outlaws and maybe, they were just travelers sharing the same path?” Merrar asked, knowing that would mean they were only after the three original riders.

After looking the tracks over again, he answered. “There’s a new comer riding with each group.” Mark wore a confused look on his face as he tried to understand what the tracks were trying to tell him.

As the men discussed this new change of events, Mark stood to the outside of the group. He knew part of their discussion included, if they did split up, which group he would ride with. Mark knew regardless, he would be with Micah.

It was decided that Merrar and Tony would follow the two tracks heading northeast and Micah, Rick, and Mark would continue west. Mark helped divide their provisions and then watched as Merrar and Tony left the group.

*****

The trail Merrar and Tony followed was obvious to those following. It was as if the outlaws didn’t care if they were followed. As night fell, Merrar and Tony came across a body off to the side of the road they were traveling. Based on the description Micah said the stage driver provided, this had to be one of the outlaws.

“Guess we know who one of the new comers was,” Tony stated in disgust as he rolled the body over. “One shot to the head.”

“The newcomer probably didn’t want to split the money among so many,” Merrar replied.

They didn’t carry with them the tools to dig a grave, but they did find enough rocks to pile over the body. Afterwards, they made camp for the night a distance away from the grave, in a thicket of trees with a canopy so dense that they didn’t realize a gentle rain shower had begun to fall, until they woke the following morning.

Merrar and Tony attempted to follow the trail of their one remaining outlaw. Before they had traveled too far, Tony stated, “Mark made it look so easy.”

“He learned from the best,” Merrar stated as fact.

“It doesn’t make sense, last night their trail was so vivid a blind man could follow it.”

“The only thing I can think is that once this one killed his accomplice, he started covering his trail,” Merrar replied. “And with that rain that fell last night, it obliterated any trail there might have been for us to follow.”

*****

When they returned to where they had separated from Micah, Rick, and Mark, Merrar and Tony tried following their companions’ trail, but soon realized it too had been washed away.

“I guess we should have paid more attention to Mark so we’d know what we were trying to follow. That boy and his Pa both have an innate ability to track. I hate to say it Tony, but we should probably return to North Fork.”

Merrar and Tony rode in silence, both dejected and feeling guilty at their failure.

*****

Micah, Rick, and Mark broke camp Saturday morning and continued to follow the trail towards the mountains. Mark started doubting himself as he struggled to follow the tracks as they became harder to read; partly because of the terrain and partly because of the gentle rain shower from the night before.

“Just do the best you can, Mark. If it’s gone, it’s gone,” Micah stated after watching Mark for a few minutes.

“That’s just it Micah. I don’t know if my best is good enough,” Mark pulled his hat off and slapped it against his leg in disgust.

“Mark,” Rick started. “Don’t get upset with yourself. You’re four years younger than I am and I’m amazed that you’ve been able to follow the trail this long. I lost being able to follow it a long time ago.”

“Micah, I hate to say it, but… I’m sorry, I’ve lost their trail…” Mark miserably announced.

Taking a moment to find some way to encourage the young man who stood in front of him, Micah hit upon an idea. “Boys, we’re not too far from Socorro, why don’t we head there. Seems that’s the general direction this trail is heading. And if they have a telegraph office, we can send word back to North Fork letting them know you’re alright.”

“Micah, Pa wouldn’t be back yet. Do you stop and send wires home when you’re leading any other posse? Any other posse that I’m not on?” Mark couldn’t stop himself from asking.

“Mark’s right Marshal. We don’t know anything about this town of Socorro. It could be a stronghold for the outlaws or at least friendly with them,” he understood the tone in Mark’s voice and wanted to help Mark save face, but thinking the situation through as thoroughly as he could, he wondered what they really should do.

Taking his lead from Rick, Micah decided to ignore Mark’s comment, not wanting to make the boy feel guiltier for his sudden outburst. “So just how would you two plan to proceed, if we go into Socorro?” The lawman was very curious to hear what the two youngsters would come up with.

Surprise etched Mark’s face when he realized that Micah hadn’t given up on him just because he’d lost the trail. He turned to Rick and a small grin broke upon his face.

“We’ll,” Mark started wondering if his idea could really work. “You’re always telling me how much we’re like a family. If we put away the badges and just go into Socorro… say as a grandpa and his two grandsons, we could check out the town and just listen to find out any news. At least this way the town wouldn’t be on the defensive if they are friendly to the outlaws…”

“And you think anyone would believe that you two are brothers?” Micah laughed as Mark and Rick again looked at each other. Both had fair complexions and stood about five foot, eight, and five foot, ten, respectively, but that’s where the comparison stopped. Mark had dark hair and eyes. Rick had bold red hair, freckles, and green eyes. Mark was slight of build and Rick was heavier of build.

Rick answered with a laugh, “Well, he didn’t say we were brothers, we could just be cousins. Since we all have different lasts name, our Ma’s could have been sisters; your daughters.”

All three burst out laughing; and as Micah laughed with them, he appreciated the ingenuity the young man had come up with the idea that showed he wasn’t totally defeated by his failure in losing the trail.

“Mark, speaking of names, if anyone asks, I don’t think you should use your real last name. Your Pa’s reputation and all…” Micah commented.

*****

Those citizens who remained in North Fork observed a quiet Saturday night and while he watched over the town, Nils prayed that Johnny Drako would return, soon. He didn’t mind filling in for the Marshal or the Deputy, but the longer both were gone, the more the likelihood was that he’d have to be the one to give Lucas the note from Mark. Nils didn’t even want to be in town when Lucas read it.

Nils was just leaving the Marshal’s Office to head over to The Mallory House Hotel for supper, when he saw Drako ride up to and halt his horse in front of the hotel. The temporary deputy went back inside the office, pulled out the letter that Micah had written to Johnny, and gladly headed towards the hotel.

“Drako!” Nils yelled. “Man, am I glad you’re back in town.” Nils lumbered over and stopped next to Drako as he stood on the boardwalk in front of the hotel, having wrapped his horse’s reins around the hitching rail.

“Nils, care to tell me what happened? Why’re you wearing a badge?” Drako asked as he pushed his hat back on his head.

“Drako, you’re not going to believe everything that’s happened. Micah gave me this here note to give to you once you returned. It explains it ALL.”

Taking the note from the liveryman, Drako opened it and read.

“Johnny, stage was robbed of $20,000, plus another $2,000 from passengers. I deputized Nils to keep watch over North Fork, until your return. I deputized Dave Merrar, Tony Jepsom, and Rick Youngston for the posse and Mark McCain as a tracker. Don’t know when we’ll be back. We’ll wire you when we expect to return.”

“Now I understand why you’re glad I’m back in town. Lucas is going to explode when he finds out. I take it he’s not back yet, is he?”

“No siree, if he was… do you think this town would still be standing?” Nils asked.

Shaking his head from side to side, Drako replied, “Couldn’t Micah find anyone else other than Mark for the posse?”

“Drako, you know the county fair and annual rodeo are going on over in Little Butte this week. There weren’t anyone else around here who could track. The fair ends tomorrow and most people won’t be back until tomorrow night or Monday. It’s been like a ghost town around here. Micah was lucky to get those others…”

“When are John Hamilton and Lucas due back from Santa Fe?” Drako asked.

“Either tomorrow or Monday at the latest… Oh, and Mark left a note for Lucas in case they weren’t back by the time Lucas returned. It’s in the office. Sorry, Drako.” Nils removed the badge and handed it to Johnny before he hurriedly headed for the livery.

Johnny walked into the hotel lobby and into the restaurant. He barely removed his hat before Lou was calling for him.

“Johnny Drako, ye get right back outside, get on yer horse and trail after Micah. He took Mark along on the posse, he deputized him!” Lou’s eyes flashed with fire.

“Now Lou, from what Nils told me, they’ve been gone for four days. Just how am I supposed to follow tracks that are four days old?” Drako asked as he tried to quiet Lou. The lawman deeply cared for the fiery, red-headed Irish-woman and wished she wouldn’t openly display her temper towards the other man.

“I don’t care. Ye just go out there and do it. Ye have to do it before Lucas returns!”

From in the lobby they heard a voice ask, “Do what before Lucas returns?” Both turned to see Lucas McCain and banker, John Hamilton walk into the restaurant.

“You’re back early,” Drako said, trying to stall for time. He couldn’t believe the timing of his luck, barely back in town to find out Mark was with the posse and now, no time to prepare how to inform Lucas that his son was with the posse. Not just with the posse, but leading it.

“The meeting of the Cattlemen’s Associations ran smoothly and we accomplished all our business, so John and I came home a day early. We just got off the stage and figured to stop in for a bite of supper, before I head home to surprise Mark.”

Then looking to Lou and then to Drako, “So answer my question, what were you supposed to do before I returned?”

“Lucas, I just got back to town from taking a prisoner over to Roswell, so don’t blame me. I just found the news out, same as you.”

“What news? Something happen to Mark?” Apprehension tainted Lucas’s voice.

“Not that we know of. Lucas, you better come with me to the office. I think it would be best if we spoke somewhere a little more… private.”

“Private?! Now see here, Drako…” Lucas began to argue.

“The office, Lucas,” Drako coldly replied, turned and left the restaurant.

Lucas and John followed Drako and Lou over to the Marshal’s Office; Drako closed the door behind them once they were all inside.

“Now, Drako. Out with it! What are you keeping from me?” Lucas demanded.

“I’m not keeping anything from you Lucas. Just felt it would be better if the explosion happened here, instead of the hotel.”

“Explosion?! Drako, you’re not making any sense. Spit it out,” answered Lucas.

Johnny searched the desk and finally pulled an envelope from a drawer and handed it to Lucas.

“I think it better if you sit down and read it, it’s from Mark.”

“From Mark?” Lucas asked as he reached for the envelope and refused to sit down. On the front, in Mark’s handwriting, was clearly written ‘Pa’. He opened the envelope, slipped out the sheet of paper, unfolded it and read.

“Dear Pa,

Please don’t be angry with me or anyone else. Micah needed help.

There were too few people in town for the posse and you weren’t here to track. I’m with Micah, Dave Merrar, Tony Jepsom, and Rick Youngston. I’ll try to remember everything you taught me.

Pa, please pray for our safe return.

I love you, Mark”

“Posse, I don’t understand?” Lucas sat down heavily in the chair Drako had pushed up behind him. John took the letter from Lucas’ hand and read it.

Lou started to tell Lucas what had happened. “Lucas, the stage arrived early on Wednesday. They were transporting $20,000 when it was robbed, as well as the passengers. Anyone who normally would ride in a posse was over at the county fair and rodeo. Ye and John were up in Santa Fe. Micah was only able to get Dave, Tony, and Rick for the posse. Nils told me he had heard from Micah that Mark stated there would be five of them in the posse. Said that with ye gone, he felt obligated to help track. Lucas ye know how well ye’ve taught Mark how to track through the years. They all agreed that they needed Mark’s tracking ability.” As Lou recounted the story, the Irish tone of her voice softened.

Lucas sat in the chair, scared, his mind reeling as he remembered times he had ridden with a posse, how rough they could be on a man. He knew that Micah would do everything possible to keep Mark safe, but things happened and this was just too small of a posse.

“Lucas, before he rode out, he tried to ask me to give ye a message, but… Well, it looked like he was about to cry and he kicked BlueBoy forward to catch up with the others. Lucas, I’m sorry,” Lou felt as if her heart was going to break just watching the distraught father sitting there.

Drako walked to Lou and whispered in her ear, “Darling, why not head to the hotel. Give Lucas a little bit of dignity. John and I’ll take care of him.” Drako escorted Lou out the front door and gave her a kiss on the cheek. He watched her walk slowly to the hotel.

Everyone in North Fork knew Lucas to be a strong, God-fearing man. But everyone also knew he had one weakness, an Achilles heel – Mark.

*****

Before returning to the office, the deputy looked up and down the quiet street of town, it was as if the whole town knew Lucas would return that night and no one wanted to be present to suffer his wrath once he learned the where abouts of his son. As Drako re-entered the office, he heard John stating, “Lucas, you knew this day would come. I mean, after all the years of Mark watching you wear the badge, you helping Micah and now Drako, the times you’ve ridden with a posse, or helping to transport prisoners… And from what you told me happened a few months back with Simon Battle and the army*, it was only normal that he would feel obligated to join this posse with so few men in town. You can’t fault the lad for growing up.”

(*refers to events in my story, ‘Leaving Childhood Behind’)

“I know John, it’s just that… this time it’s different. When he was with Battle, he was just there, he wasn’t…” With rambling thoughts Lucas continued, “It didn’t really matter if he was with that posse or not, Battle and the others knew where they were going. This… this posse is relying on my son’s untested abilities. That’s a huge burden for a sixteen year old b…” Hearing Drako clear his throat he continued, “I know, he’s not a little boy anymore.” Lucas leaned forward, placed his elbows on his knees and lowered his head into his hands.

“Lucas,” Drako said. “Have faith in all you’ve taught him.”

Drako watched as Lucas sat back in the chair, scratched his nose, then stood and walked to the potbelly stove and poured himself a cup of coffee.

Drako continued, “You seem to be taking this better than anyone expected. Nils was so anxious to give me back the badge, it was like it was too hot to handle, all because he feared your reaction after reading that note.”

“Johnny, I exploded a few months back when I found out that Mark accompanied Battle and the soldiers to stop those outlaws from robbing that Army payroll detail. After their return, Battle and I were able to talk one night; and a lot of what he said made sense. As I listened, I started seeing Mark not just as my little boy, but as a young man. And since we returned home, Mark and I have talked a lot. I know he’s growing up and I have to accept the fact that there will be times when I won’t or can’t be there to protect him. I have to believe that I’ve taught him well enough to live his life and pray that he’ll come home safe.” Lucas walked to the window. “Strangers brought him back to me that time. I just have to have faith that friends will do the same, this time.”

*****

Micah, Rick, and Mark rode into Socorro. To Mark it felt worse than being in a ghost town. Though no one was out on the streets, he felt eyes burning holes in his back. He twisted in his saddle looking one way and then the other. He heard laughter and shouting coming from the saloon as they rode past.

“Boy, just keep your mind on our business and don’t go prying into other’s affairs,” Micah called back to Mark.

“Yes, Grandpa,” Mark replied as he turned straight in the saddle.

They rode up to the livery and dismounted. A balding, heavy-set man wearing a blacksmith apron greeted them. They were shown stalls for their horses and told where they could place their gear once they had unsaddled them. Carrying their bedrolls and saddle bags, they headed for the hotel in the middle of the town.

Behind the counter stood a bald-headed, little, old man, he inquired how many rooms.

“We only need one room,” Micah answered gruffly. “If you gots two cots that’s fine, otherwise the young ‘ens can just sleep on da floor.” Micah signed the register ‘Norman Carraway’.

Mark tried to hide a smile as he remembered Norman, Leotta, and Hab Carraway.

The man showed them to their room upstairs, located in the back. Micah observed they were close to the back stairs leading out to the alley. They entered the room and dropped their gear on the floor. Mark and Rick sat down and flopped backwards on the one bed in the room.

“Ssshhh, boys.” Micah stood with his ear to the door, listening. After a few moments he quickly opened the door. “Can I help you mister?” He gruffly asked of the little, old man.

“Uh, No. Just wanting to make sure you’re satisfied with your room,” he said as he cowered backwards.

“I’ll be more satisfied if you go get those two cots I paid for.” Micah slammed the door closed.

Mark and Rick both slapped their hands over their mouths to keep their laughter in.

Micah walked over to where the boys were sitting, pointed at them, and whispered. “Boys, seems like you had a darn good idea in not letting these people know who we really are. You’re both going to have to play your parts now. I’m your gruffy, old grandpa, you two need to be leery of me.”

Shortly, they heard a light knock at the door. Micah opened it, saw the old man with two cots and motioned him inside.

“Mister, my two grandsons could sure use a bath.”

“Yes, sir,” answered the man, scrunching his nose.

“We’ve been eating dust for almost a week now. You got tubs in this hotel or do we go to the barber shop.”

“Grandpa, we don’t need no bath,” Rick spoke up.

“Boy, it’s one thing to sleep next to you outside, it’s totally different sleeping in a room. Why do you think I’ve been riding up wind of you both? Now, you’ll take a bath or in the livery you sleep.”

“Yes, sir.” Rick said and lowered his eyes, trying to keep a smile from his face.

“Guess Gramps is right, it is Saturday…” Mark quietly stated.

The hotel proprietor showed Rick and Mark to the washroom and pointed out where everything was. He thoroughly boasted about their constant hot water.

*****

Slipping down into the hot water, Mark stretched the entire length of his body before grabbing the washrag and soap. It didn’t take long before he submerged his whole body beneath the water to rinse the suds from his body.

“Hey there cuz,” Rick called from the other side of the partitioned room. “Make sure you get yerself real clean, you don’t want Gramps sending you back.”

“Alright, alright,” Mark teased back as he pulled the plug to allow the dirty water to flow from the tub before refilled it with clean water.

Mark deeply sighed as the heat from the warm water penetrated his muscles, sore from spending so many long hours in the saddle.

*****

Shortly before dinnertime, Micah returned from taking his own bath and had to wake both the boys from a sound slumber. The ‘family’ headed downstairs and out to walk the town. Micah stepped in to the saloon, walked to the bar and ordered drinks, two beers and one sarsaparilla. Rick and Mark hesitantly followed and sat down at a table along the side wall. As Micah turned to walk to the boys, the bartender yelled,

“Hey, he’s too young to be in here. Get him out of here.”

“He stays where I say. You have a problem with that, get the Sheriff,” Micah answered as he sat down.

Mark started to get up, but Micah motioned him to sit back down.

“But, I don’t want to cause any trouble,” Mark replied. Also knowing how upset his Pa would be to find out he had spent time in a saloon. He tried to avert his eyes as a woman dressed in what he felt was inappropriate clothing walked from the bar to the piano player. Mark couldn’t believe the low neckline of her dress displaying the roundness of the top of her breasts, or the fact that her shoulders were bare, just straps going up and over. And her legs… She turned and smiled when she saw Mark blushing.

“We don’t let no one push us around. As I said, you stay where I tell you to,” Micah ordered.

A few minutes later the bartender returned with the Sheriff following him.

“Mister, I’m Sheriff Cooper Dobbs. This here saloon don’t take to children his age inside.”

“He’ll leave when I say he can,” Micah stated as he refrained from looking at the Sheriff.

“Don’t think I caught your name,” the Sheriff stated.

“Didn’t give it.” Micah continued to play it cool and took a drink of his beer. “We’ll leave when we’ve finished with our drinks, and not before then.” Micah moved his hand to the scattergun lying in his lap. “We don’t want no trouble; just want to wash down the parchness of our throats.”

“Thirty minutes, Mister. Thirty minutes to ease your throats and then you get back to the hotel,” Sheriff Dobbs stated.

As the Sheriff exited and the barkeeper returned to stand behind the counter, the saloon girl walked over to the table where Micah, Mark, and Rick sat. Pulling out a chair, she sat down close to Mark.

“Well, ain’t you just as sweet as apple pie, sugar,” the gal drawled out as she ran her thumb over Mark’s cheek before settling her arm around his shoulders.

“He’s not your type,” Micah answered, settling his beer glass heavily on the tabletop, slopping some of his beer over the side. “Go find…”

“Oh, but I could surely make him my type… Your mama been keeping her baby at home all sweet and innocent? Let ol’ Matilda further your education.”

“I… I…” Mark stammered, his cheeks reddening.

“He don’t need your kinda education,” gruffed Micah.

“Maybe you would, Gramps?” Matilda hinted as she sat back in her chair before moving it closer to Rick. “Or maybe your other boy would enjoy furthering his education with a fair lady? He looks like he’s old enough to have tango’d a few times.”

“Ma’am, I’m just here with my cousin and Grandpa, I… I appreciate the offer, but I’m to be married and… and Petunia just wouldn’t understand,” Rick hid his grin behind the beer mug as he lifted the glass to take a drink.

“What Petunia don’t know won’t hurt her,” Matilda purred in Rick’s ear.

“But I’d know,” Rick seriously gulped as he tried to come up with a way to get rid of the saloon girl, and then came up with the idea. “Ma’am, why should I pay for an education tonight when in just a few days… I can have it as free as I want.”

“Why I never!” Matilda’s humiliation deepened the rouge painted on her cheeks.

Micah stated, “I told you, we’re not interested. We’ve been in the saddle a long time and all we want to do is enjoy our drinks and get some sleep over at the hotel.”

*****

After finishing their drinks, Micah got up and motioned for the boys to follow. They walked back to the hotel and sat down in the chairs out front and watched the few people out on the street.

Mark leaned over and whispered to Rick, “You wouldn’t have, would you?”

“You mean Matilda?”

Mark nodded.

“Believe me Mark, I wouldn’t have gone upstairs with her had you and ‘Grandpa’ not been here, nor if she were the only saloon gal around.”

“Do they always dress like that?” asked Mark.

“Most of ‘em. Some only act as hostesses getting patrons to buy drinks, but others… well… Upstairs is a totally different experience and I’m not sure that Grandpa would appreciate you having that kind of an education.”

“What happens upstairs?” queried Mark.

“Your Pa would skin me alive!” Micah declared as the turned to look at Mark. “Let’s just forget about telling Lucas that you were in a saloon.”

Rick grinned at the uncomfortable way Micah began sitting in his chair.

“It’s my own damn fault,” Micah mumbled as he pushed his chair to where he balance on the back two legs and pulled his hat down over his eyes.

Thinking it safe to talk, Mark asked, “Rick, who’s Petunia?”

“Petunia is just a name I came up with. Trying to get rid a Matilda.”

“Oh… Well, what did you mean my getting it free in a couple of days?”

“You really don’t know what goes on upstairs?”

“Like Sweeney’s has saloon gals or an upstairs,” Mark sarcastically answered.

“Mark, oh brother…” Rick leaned close to Mark an explained, “In some towns, the saloon gal dresses as she does as sort of an… sort of like advertising her services and she goes upstairs with any man willing to pay her for her services. Once upstairs she and he… It don’t matter that they’re not married.” He raised his eyebrows in hopes Mark would get his drift.

“Pay her? You mean…” Mark’s face reddened and he gulped. “She wears them skimpy clothes to advertise her body? And… they… upstairs…”

“They say it’s one of the oldest professions in the world, dating back to them Roman Gladiator times and even before then, I hear,” Rick replied.

“And Matilda… she wanted… to educate me?” Mark gulped again.

Rick nodded, “I think so.”

A shocked Mark blurted out, “But she looked older than Pa!”

“Mark, never, NEVER discuss or disclose a woman’s age. But I agree with you,” Rick answered.

“Mark, you make one mention of this to your Pa and I’ll lock you up in my jail and I’ll leave town without telling anyone where I put the key,” grumbled Micah. “Now come on, let’s just forget about that saloon gal.”

*****

It was nearly seven o’clock when they walked to the restaurant and had dinner before returning to their room for the night.

*****

Micah was fast asleep in his bed. And soon Mark heard Rick snoring as well. Between the two of them snoring and Mark having slept for a few hours earlier, try as he might, he couldn’t sleep. Stepping from his cot, he quietly left the room to go downstairs and maybe get a glass of warm milk to help him fall asleep.

He wasn’t halfway down the stairs when he heard voices talking. Mark paused and listened.

“I tell you, I don’t like it.” Mark thought it was the voice of the old man from behind the counter.

“Pate, how’d they register?” the voice asked.

“Norman Carraway,” Pate answered. “It’s just a harmless old man and his two grandsons. What harm can they cause?” the other voice stated. The more Mark listened, the more he thought the second voice was that of the Sheriff.

“Harmless!” Sheriff Dobbs replied. “We need to make sure who they are. All we have to do is…”

The voices quieted as the two men began whispering. Mark leaned forward, hoping to be able to hear more of their conversation. Before he could catch himself, his foot slipped off the step and he slid down a couple of steps, landing in plain sight of the Sheriff and the hotel owner.

Mark tried to get to his feet, but he didn’t get anywhere before the Sheriff had him by the arm.

“Boy, just what are you doing? How long you been standing there?” Sheriff Dobbs asked.

“I, I got thirsty, couldn’t sleep, came down to see if I could get a glass of milk,” Mark replied. “Sheriff, you’re hurting my arm.”

Pate and Dobbs stood with Mark in between them.

“Like I said, I don’t like it.” Pate spoke in a loud whisper. “He had to hear you talking.”

“Boy, either you tell me what you heard or so help me….” Dobbs demanded.

“Honest, I didn’t hear anything,” Mark answered again, trying to sound convincing, hoping they couldn’t hear his heart racing.

“Pate, you get back to whatever it is you do. I’ll take care of the boy.”

Realizing what the Sheriff meant, Mark started to yell. Before he could voice anything, the Sheriff had an arm around Mark’s chest and a hand over his mouth. Mark tried fighting back by kicking and struggling to get his arms free, but the Sheriff was a big man; not as tall as Pa, but had at least fifty pounds more on him.

Mark continued to struggle to get out of the Sheriff’s grasp as he was physically carried to the Sheriff’s Office. Mark saw a man inside the office open the door as they approached the jail. Before he knew it, the Sheriff shoved him into the office and Mark was free-falling, before everything went black.

*****

It was a small group of the town’s folks who attended Sunday Services in North Fork. There wasn’t a sermon given; Reverend McCafferty felt it would best serve the people of North Fork to sit in quiet reflection and pray for the safe return of the posse. Mrs. McCafferty led the group in several appropriate hymns. At the conclusion, those in attendance quietly left the church and returned to their homes.

*****

Micah woke, as he sat up in his bed, he looked over towards the boys’ cots. Rick was just rousing, but the cot just beyond him was empty. At first Micah thought Mark must have woke earlier and just left the room to maybe take care his personal business or to take care of the horses, but then he saw Mark’s hat still by the cot.

“Rick, where’s Mark?” an alarmed Micah asked.

Rick’s eyes flashed wide awake as he heard Micah’s question and turned to see that Mark wasn’t in the room.

“I don’t know, he was here when we went to sleep last night.”

As they hurriedly dressed, they looked to see if Mark had left them a note on the dresser. Finding nothing, they went downstairs. The hotel owner was standing behind the counter as they approached.

Acting casual at first, Micah inquired, “My Grandson, he must of gotten up early this morning. Did you see where he went?”

“No sir. You’re the first ones up this morning. Now he might have come down when I was in the kitchen, but I didn’t see anything,” the man stated nervously. “Can I get you anything for breakfast?”

“No.” Micah and Rick left the hotel.

“So what do we do, Grandpa?” Rick asked, with the emphasis on Grandpa.

“We look for Mark. First let’s start at the livery.”

They walked to the livery and found no one inside. The stall that BlueBoy should have been in was empty.

Micah looked to Rick and stated, “This ain’t good. Let’s get to the telegraph office. I want to send a wire.”

*****

Mark regained consciousness and found himself slung over a saddle with a burlap bag tied over his head. He hurt, the blood flowing to his head from hanging upside down, made his head hurt even more than just from the blow he had taken. The horse he was draped across had a smooth gate, but still his gate jostled Mark too and fro. His hands were tied to one stirrup and his feet to the other. He heard the unmistakable sounds of two other horses with him. Where ever they were going, they were running the horses hard.

The horses finally stopped allowing Mark to relax his aching muscles before they started to spasm or cramp; he’d tensed his muscled in an effort to stop from bouncing across the saddle. Mark heard the men dismount and he felt a knife cut the ropes around his boots and followed quickly by his wrists. Without warning, he felt a hand on his shoulder and was pushed from the saddle. A groan escaped Mark’s lips at the sharp pain in his ankle as he hit the ground hard.

“Well boy, how’d you sleep last night?” Mark recognized the voice as belonging to the Sheriff. He remained quiet as he was hauled to his feet, the bag taken off his head, and he was pushed forward. Mark struggled to walk as he limped forward. The dizziness he felt didn’t help. Each time he slowed, he felt the jab of a gun in his back.

They group entered a small house. Mark was pushed to sit down on the floor in a corner of the room. The Sheriff knelt beside Mark and bound his hands. Mark lowered his head into his bound hands, hoping the pounding in his head would soon subside.

Mark didn’t even look up when another man entered the room and asked, “Who the hell is he and why’d you bring him here?”

“Couldn’t leave him in town to tell the others, he overheard me talking with Pate last night.”

The Sheriff reached into his pocket and pulled something out and tossed it to the desk. Mark looked up as he heard the object hit the desk and saw the sun coming through the window reflect off the silver surface of the object. To Mark’s horror, he realized it was the deputy badge he’d put in his back pocket.

“A deputy? He’s just a boy! You said others, what others?” the man angrily asked.

“Him and another boy, probably a few years older than this one, and a man claiming to be their Grandpa. They arrived in town yesterday afternoon,” Sheriff Dobbs answered.

“Him, the law?” someone else the room gaffed.

“Naw, probably just members of a posse out searching for you and those other two drifters you hired to rob that stage.”

“So, why’d you bring him here? He’s seen us now!”

“Jackers, I couldn’t very well keep him in town and we need to find out what they know. Even if they’re just ‘pick up’ members of a posse.”

Mark’s mind was whirling. ‘How do I get myself out of this? Just keep calm,’ he kept telling himself. Oh, how his head was throbbing now.

*****

It was shortly after one o’clock in the afternoon when Eddie ran from the telegraph office and barged into the Marshal’s.

“Drako, got this wire for Lou, but I don’t understand, it says it’s from her Pa – Norman Carraway, but her ‘dearly departed father’ has been dead since before she came to North Fork.” Eddie exclaimed as he came to a halt and Lucas took the wire from his hands.

Lou Mallory

Mallory House Hotel

North Fork, New Mexico

Daughter, unexpected delay in Socorro. Wish JD was here. Love, Pa – Norman Carraway.”

Lucas looked up from reading the wire and said, “It’s not from Lou’s father, it’s from Micah.

“Micah?” Eddie asked, a puzzled expression on his face.

“Micah?” Johnny Drako queried after reading the wire himself.

“This could only come from Micah. He’s letting us know where they are. And I presume he’s asking for Johnny to join them,” explained Lucas.

“But who’s Norman Carraway?” Johnny asked.

Not wanting to get involved in a long story, the telegrapher slipped out of the office.

“It’s a long story, ask Micah to tell you about it someday,” Lucas replied.

“Lucas, if Micah’s having to be that cryptic in using his name in a message, they must be in some kind of trouble,” Drako commented.

Lou almost ran into Eddie, just inside the office door, as she ran into the Marshal’s office.

“Johnny, I saw Eddie over here. Is there any news?” Lou asked.

“Yes, seems your ‘dearly departed father’ isn’t so dearly departed,” Drako quipped.

“Johnny Drako, tis no time for funning me,” Lou cried.

“Sorry, Eddie brought me a wire he received for you, from ‘your Pa’. Lucas figured it’s really from Micah, letting us know where they are and asking for our help.” Drako handed the wire to Lou for her to read.

“Then ye have to go!” exclaimed Lou.

*****

The Sheriff hauled Mark to his feet, dragged him across the room, and threw him backwards into a chair.

“Now Deputy,” Sheriff Dobbs stated sarcastically, as he sat down on the desk. “Why don’t you tell me what you’re doing in Socorro and wearing a badge? Ain’t you a little too young?”

Mark stared at the man, defiantly and kept quiet.

“I asked you a question or didn’t your ‘Grandpa’ teach you any manners when it comes to your elders?”

Mark continued to keep quiet.

Before Mark could react, Dobbs backhanded him. The side of Mark’s face burned from the force of the blow and he felt blood trickle down from the corner of his mouth.

“Now, one more time or your ‘Grandpa’ is going to have one less grandson. Tell me what you are doing in Socorro?”

“We was in North Fork when the stage was robbed. The Marshal stated he needed men for a posse, paid two dollars a day per man. Grandpa thought, why not, free money,” Mark finally replied.

“So they took a little whelp like you, thinking you’re a man?” Dobbs gave a loud, hearty laugh.

“Most their folks were at some rodeo,” replied as he tried to not let his temper show through.

“Why are you here in Socorro and not out with the posse?”

Mark was quiet.

“Boy, don’t make me back hand you again. I may just decide to put a hole in your chest the next time,” Dobbs said as he drew his right hand back and put it on the handle of his gun.

“They’s followin’ the tracks and the tracks split. The Marshal and others headed Nor’east and we were supposed to go with the other group. Those we rode with weren’t so good at trackin’ so Grandpa decided to come here. Said he wanted to get a beer and sleep in a bed. That Marshal didn’t allow no drinking, threw Grandpa’s flask away the first night.”

*****

Lucas and Drako stocked up on provisions and headed out to Socorro. The two men rode in silence, neither taking in the beauty of the land they rode across. When they finally stopped for the night, Lucas couldn’t keep his emotions inside and he allowed himself to cry. Night was always the worst time for worrying. Nothing else to keep one’s mind occupied and the ‘what if’ scenarios grew harder to block out.

Drako looked up from his cup of coffee and saw their small campfire reflecting off the tears running down Lucas’ face.

“Lucas, we have to keep faith. Micah, Merrar, and the others will keep Mark safe.”

*****

Once Sheriff Dobbs was done questioning Mark, he ordered Jackers take the boy outside.

“Put him in the cold cellar for now. I’ll let A.J. decide what to do with him when he gets back.”

Jackers held a gun on Mark as he pointed the way to the cold cellar and made Mark open the door. Ask Mark stepped over the threshold, Jackers pushed him. In an effort to regain his balance, Mark stepped hard on his already sore ankle and felt a sharp pain. He couldn’t stop himself as he let out a yelp and fell down the five steps. He tried to fight back tears as he lay on his side. He heard Jackers laughing as he closed the door to the cold cellar.

*****

They searched Socorro until they realized that Mark just wasn’t in town. Micah finally decided it would probably be best if they left town. They returned to their hotel room and gathered their belongings, including Mark’s hat and saddlebags, and returned to the livery for their horses.

As they rode from town Rick asked, “Okay, so what do we do now? How do we find Mark?”

“We wait for Drako to get here.”

“Micah, if those outlaws have Mark and get wind of that wire…” there was fear in Rick’s voice as he spoke.

“Now I might be old, but I’m not senile. I made it cryptic enough that if those outlaws find out about it, they won’t understand. I sent the wire to Lou, told her we were delayed and that I wished JD was here. I’m sure Johnny will figure out the wire. Just hope Lucas hasn’t returned yet.”

They rode in silence for two hours before stopping. They’d found an area where they could hide and not been seen from the road, yet they could keep an eye on the road. Praying it wouldn’t take Johnny Drako that long to arrive.

*****

Johnny and Lucas were walking their horses when they spotted two riders approaching them.

“Lucas, it’s Merrar and Jepsom.”

They stopped and waited for the men to reach them. Lucas couldn’t keep the concern from growing inside of him. Where were the others, and Mark?

As they met up, Merrar and Tony dismounted their horses. Merrar took time to tell Drako and Lucas what had happened while tracking the outlaws and then having to split up, finding one of the outlaws dead on the road, and finally losing the trail. Drako told them of the wire they received from Micah. The four mounted their horses and rode for Socorro.

*****

The cellar was so dark Mark couldn’t see his bound hands in front of his face. He crawled and felt around until he came to an earthen wall. He tried to stand up, but soon encountered the roof to the cellar. He figured the room wasn’t four feet tall. Mark sank back to his crawling position and sat down on the ground and leaned back against the wall. He wasn’t sure which hurt more, his throbbing head or his throbbing ankle. Eventually, the coolness of the cellar and fatigue overtook Mark, and he fell asleep.

*****

Mark wasn’t sure how much time had elapsed when he heard the door open, yet no light entered. How long it had been dark, Mark had no way of telling. He heard a voice call down to him and a lantern was lowered through the entrance.

“Boy you better crawl over here to me. Don’t make me come get you.”

Mark obeyed. As Mark crawled up the cellar steps, Jackers grabbed his arm and pulled him to his feet then pushed him forward. Mark gasped as the pain shot through his ankle and he fell to the ground.

From the dark, Mark heard Dobbs yell, “What the hell’s going on Jackers? Quit pushing the boy around and let him walk.”

“I can’t walk!” Mark yelled back, fighting back the tears of pain in his eyes.

For that, Mark received a swift kick to the ribs as he started to push himself into a sitting position on the ground.

“What do you, mean you can’t walk?” Dobbs demanded.

“I’m not sure if my ankle is twisted or broken. He pushed me down the steps!” Mark spoke with bitterness in his voice. He got angry as he felt another kick to his ribs.

“Jackers, help the boy up and get him inside. NOW!” Dobbs’ ordered.

Mark felt himself roughly hauled to his feet, picked up, and slung over Jackers’ shoulder. He wanted to beat the man, but not at the expense of the man retaliating and throwing him down. He was carried into the same room as before and dropped in the same chair.

On the table in the middle of the room, Mark saw stacks of money. His eyes widened as he took it all in. Asking himself, ‘Is that the money from the stage?’

“So you ever see so much money before, boy?” a man asked.

“N-no s-sir.” Mark stammered.

“Guess you’re wondering what we’re going to do with all this money?” the stranger asked.

Mark nodded.

“In time, boy, all in due time. Now, let’s see if you’ll answer my other questions.”

Mark turned his attention back to the Sheriff.

“So, you told me, you and your Grandpa and your brother were riding with the posse.”

“We ain’t brothers, he’s my cousin,” Mark answered.

“Tell me your name.”

“Mark.”

“Mark what?”

“Mark Davis,” he replied.

“Are you sure about that?” the same man asked.

“Don’t you think I’d know my own name?” Mark tartly replied.

“No, I was just wondering about the wire your ‘Grandpa’ sent to North Fork. Sent it to a Lou Mallory. Kind of figured she might be your Ma.”

“Well, she ain’t.”

“So who is your Ma?”

Mark’s voice got quiet as he said, “She’s dead.”

“Now, what about your Pa?”

“Why do you want to know?” Mark asked with a little more fire in his voice.

“Just answer my question boy.”

“No!” was Mark’s defiant answer and for that he receive another backhanded blow from the Sheriff.

“Dobbs!” called a new voice, as a man entered into the room behind Mark’s back. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“A.J., we caught this ‘deputy’ in Socorro. Said him and his family were tracking Jackers with a posse from North Fork. Says his name’s Mark Davis.”

The man stepped around in front of Mark.

“Deputy? Why he’s nothing more than a 16 year old boy!” A.J. laughed.

“So what if the Marshal from North Fork deputized me and my Grandpa. They needed riders,” Mark replied.

“Mark, you might want to rethink your answers.” A.J. pulled a cigar from his pocket; he leaned back and sat down on the edge of the desk, and lit the cigar. He took one long draw and then slowly blew the smoke into the air. Then looking directly at Mark, he continued, “Considering I just finished spending a few days with your Pa up in Santa Fe while he was at the Cattlemen’s Association Meeting.”

“Grayson, what does it matter if his Pa’s some big cattleman?” Some else asked from behind Mark.

“Shut your mouth up!” A.J. Grayson yelled to the one standing behind Mark.

Then returning his attention and train of thought to Mark, “Oh it matters, and not because his Pa is a cattleman. You see, this boy isn’t Mark Davis. His name is Mark McCain and his father is Lucas McCain, better known in this territory as the Rifleman. Your Pa sure is proud of you boy.” He walked behind Mark and bent over and spoke quietly in his ear. “Saw your picture in his wallet when he went to pay for dinner one night. We spent a couple of hours talking about ‘family’. Oh if he only knew the truth.” Grayson realized the boy in front of him was a few years older than the one pictured, but the expressive eyes were still the same, and his facial features could only mature as he grew up. “All the way home I was trying to figure out how to get to him. Logically, I thought, it would be through his son. But how, was my problem. Then I arrive here this morning and find that you saved me all the trouble.”

Fear flooded through Mark. If these men knew who he was and who his Pa was, what would they do with him? Then his thoughts turned to Micah and Rick. Were they still in Socorro?

“The Rifleman?” the voice behind Mark questioned. The man’s voice was tinged with fear.

“You know Corbin,” Grayson stepped to the voice behind Mark. “I’m getting tired of your whining.” Turning to Jackers, “Deal with him.”

Jackers pulled his gun on Corbin and motioned for him to walk out the room. Mark watched them leave and thought Corbin couldn’t be that much older than Rick.

“So, now, do you want to tell me the truth? Who were the two men you were riding with?” Grayson asked.

“They were just men who volunteered for the posse,” Mark stated with no emotion in his voice.

“If that’s the way you want to play it.” Then turning to the Sheriff, “Dobbs, get his ankle looked after and then put him back in the cold cellar. I saw him limping in here earlier. Don’t argue! Take care of his ankle.”

*****

Lucas, Drako, Merrar, and Tony would be in Socorro late the following morning, but before then, they planned to stop for the night.

As they made camp, Lucas became more restless and worried. He grabbed his rifle and walked out of camp.

“Lucas?” Drako asked.

“I’ll be back. Just want to be alone to think.”

As Lucas strolled around the outskirts of the camp, he came across tracks of two men and followed them. Quietly he came upon the two men, crouched a short distance from the camp. Lucas stood and cocked his rifle. In the quiet of the night, it was loud enough that it accomplished what Lucas had hoped. He just didn’t expect the results he received.

“Lucas?” a voice called out that sounded a lot like Micah. “Lucas McCain?”

“Micah? Or should I ask Norman Ambrose Carraway?”

Micah and Rick stood at Lucas’ approach.

“Where’s Mark? Merrar said he was with you.”

“Let’s get to your camp and we’ll talk.”

“Micah?” Lucas asked with fear in his voice.

They walked into camp, Micah and Rick helped themselves to coffee.

*****

Knowing he couldn’t put off tell Lucas what had happened any longer, Micah let the story unfold, “Mark disappeared Sunday morning. We stopped in Socorro for the night. We pretended to be family and didn’t use our real names, just in case. We woke up the next morning and Mark was missing from the room. We searched the town, BlueBoy was even missing. That’s when I sent the wire. LucasBoy, I’ve been kicking myself over allowing him to join the posse. But we needed some one who could track.”

Lucas stood next to a tree and slammed the side of his fist against it.

“Lucas, don’t beat yourself up over this. We’ll get him back,” Drako said as he came up behind Lucas and place a hand on his shoulder.

“Micah, tell us about this town.” Lucas stated as he turned back to the fire.

“That town just didn’t feel right. We arrived on a Saturday afternoon and the streets should have been busy with people. Mark commented on how it felt worse than a ghost town. No one out and about but he said he felt eyes burning holes in his back.”

Rick offered, “Mr. McCain, it’s like they were scared of strangers. We knew people were about, we could hear them in the saloon. They was just plain hiding from us.”

The men continued their conversation in how to find Mark. The only logical place to start was Socorro. One by one the men returned to their bedrolls; sleep proved elusive as each man worried about what happened to Mark McCain.

*****

Dobbs created a splint and wrapped Mark’s ankle. It still hurt to walk, but at least he could walk. Mark spent the night in the cold cellar, again. When morning came, they pulled him out and mounted their horses. Jackers made sure Mark’s hands were bound in front of him and handed him the reins and said, “Don’t try anything boy.”

While they rode, Mark continued to worry about what Grayson meant about getting his pa. When the group stopped, Mark asked, “So what is it you want with my Pa?”

“Just drink your water and be quiet,” Jackers replied as he handed him a canteen.

“I won’t! Tell me what you want with me and my Pa!” Mark yelled.

“Boy,” Dobbs declared as he turned in his saddle. “Either you keep your mouth shut or I’ll have Jackers gag you. It’s your choice, quiet and get water to drink or gagged and no water.”

Frustrated, Mark realized the man meant what he said; he gratefully drank the water.

*****

Mark continued to ride in silence until Grayson signaled for them to stop just before dark. Jackers pulled Mark from the saddle and pushed him to the ground.

“Jackers, treat him nicely. You don’t want his Pa upset at you roughing up his ‘little boy’, now do you?” Dobbs stated.

“I don’t care who he or his Pa are. I don’t see why we’re tagging him along. Dobbs, you should have gotten rid of him before bringing him to the hideout,” Jackers snarled back.

Wanting to shut the fool up, Grayson stated, “I for one am thankful that Dobbs was thinking, Jackers. See, I have a new employer who wants the boy’s Pa dead and…”

“If someone wants the boy’s Pa dead, why didn’t you kill him up in Santa Fe?” Jackers interrupted.

“Because, there were certain stipulations as to how McCain’s death is supposed to happen. First, my employer wants to know why the first attempt failed. Second, McCain had to know who ordered his execution, sort… flaunting it in his face. My employer was quite upset with my predecessor. Seems he’s waited over two years since the last attempt to kill Lucas McCain.”

Mark listened intently to the men as they talked. They weren’t trying to conceal their conversations and for that reason, Mark knew he had good cause to be scared.

Grayson continued to speak, “I found out that my employer had previously hired an international assassin. Based on what I found out, that boy over there had a lot to do with McCain’s survival.”

“How do you know that?” Dobbs asked.

“I have contacts in the Denver Marshal’s office. Told them I was investigating a story and needed to see the report that was submitted. I won’t make the same mistake my predecessor did.”

“Who wants my Pa dead?” Mark yelled to the men.

A.J. Grayson turned and walked towards Mark and knelt in front of him.

“You ever hear of Ralph Hayden?” Grayson asked.

“No,”

“Seems your Pa shot him a long time ago. Since then, he’s spent every waking moment and will spend the rest of his life in a wheel chair. Day and night, he lives to see your Pa dead.”

“Then he had to be doing something against the law and my Pa was just defending himself or defending someone else,” Mark declared.

“Doesn’t matter to me. All that I know is Mr. Hayden has paid good money and wants your Pa dead. He was, and still is, quite upset that his first assassin failed. Just how did you do it?”

“Do what?” Mark asked.

“Break through the hard shell of Mario Rosati. Hayden stated he came highly recommended and that he had never failed to complete an assignment.”

Mark didn’t hear anything else after hearing the name Mario Rosati. He remembered back to that day. He’d come home from school at lunch to see a man that they had accepted as a friend, holding a derringer on his Pa. Mark didn’t think, he only reacted by picking up his Pa’s rifle, yelled, and threw the rifle to his Pa. He watched as the man his Pa had welcomed into their home, because he claimed he was an acquaintance of one of his Pa’s closest friends back in Enid, fell dead. Mario had even told Mark of the ‘Society’, back in the old country, and how, when he was a boy, the ‘Society’ had killed his father in front of his eyes.

When Mark’s attention turned back to Grayson, he was saying, “Guess I could kill your old man, twice. First, by watching you die and then for me to actually kill the Rifleman.” Grayson laughed as he stood, turned, and walked away.

Mark’s mind started racing. They were planning to kill him in front of his Pa and then to kill his Pa. Struggling against his restraints, Mark was desperate to escape.

*****

The posse from North Fork rode into to Socorro. This time, Micah was wearing his badge as they entered the town, six strong; rifles at the ready on their knees. They stopped in front of the hotel. As Pate was sweeping the porch, he looked up and his eyes widened as he saw six riders in front of him, all wearing badges.

“Now, maybe you’ll answer my question.” Micah said and lowered his scatter gun towards the hotel owner. “Where’s the boy who came into town with me Saturday?”

Pate stood and stared, looking from one man to the next, his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down as he loudly gulped down his fear.

Johnny Drako was the next to speak, “Mister, you better answer the Marshal. You don’t want the boy’s father asking. If it comes to that, I don’t think we’ll stop him.” The coldness in Drako’s voice was reflected with more steely determination in his eyes.

“I d-don’t know. H-honest. Marshal, this town’s sc-scared. We were forced to accept Sheriff Dobbs and his gang. We’re sc-scared in our own homes. Ain’t… Ain’t nothing we could do. We had to do as they t-told us.”

“Do you know who took him? Because I know for sure he didn’t go willingly,” Micah stated.

“D-Dobbs took him. The boy over heard us talking that night. Dobbs wanted information on…on you. I told him I didn’t like it. I know they’re outlaws, but as far as I knew, you were who you said you were, just an old man and his grandsons. Then, the boy, he came downstairs, and Dobbs figured he’d been listening in. Boy tried to get away, but Dobbs took him to the office. Last I saw, they had him slung over a saddle and headed out of town. P-probably taken him out to their place.”

“Where does this Dobbs live?” Lucas demanded.

“He and his gang stayed at a place about three miles from town,” Pate answered.

Johnny motioned, “Maybe you should show us the way.”

The hotel owner nervously ran to the livery stable while the six-man posse followed him on horseback. Pate kept looking over his shoulder, fearing the horsemen would run him down.

The posse followed Pate to the farmhouse just off the main road. Upon arrival, Tony and Rick stood guard over the hotel owner. Johnny searched the farmhouse, while Micah and Lucas searched the barn. Having found no sign of Mark inside the barn, they were walking around the barn, when they came to the double doors to the cold cellar. Lucas opened the doors and saw a body lying on the ground below. The sun shone on the still form through the open door, highlighting the blood stained back of the shirt; Lucas felt his heart hesitate. Micah forced his way in front of Lucas and stepped down into the cellar. The marshal slowly rolled the body over and relief flooded through him as he looked down, saw the face, and it wasn’t Mark.

“Lucas, it’s not your boy!” Micah hollered.

The posse re-grouped in front of the farmhouse. “Micah, there’s a footlocker in one of the rooms, when I opened it… there was a whole bunch of money inside, and it could be close to twenty thousand dollars. My guess is, wefound the ones who robbed the stage,” Johnny stated.

“We’ve not found them, yet,” Lucas stated.

“We will McCain. We’ll find them and we’ll find your boy,” Dave Merrar stated.

“But, the stage robbers, and the sheriff… Why would they take Mark?” Rick asked. “It don’t make sense.”

“There’s no real proof that Mark was here,” Tony stated.

“Let’s bag up that money and put in on the packhorse. No sense leaving it here,” Micah replied.

*****

With their tasks at the farmhouse finished, they returned to their horses, Lucas took a moment to look at the tracks and recognized a horseshoe print he was all too familiar with, BlueBoy’s.

“Here’s your proof that Mark was here,” Lucas stated as he stood.

“You found something?” Drako called out as he neared Lucas.

“BlueBoy’s shoeprint. Remember that quarter crack in his rear hoof?” Lucas asked.

“Yeah, I was there when Nils put that bar shoe on,” Merrar stated as he joined the room.

Lucas continued, “All these hoof and shoe prints and one bar shoe print.”

Before leaving the farmhouse, the posse discussed what to do with the hotel owner.

“Let him go,” Lucas stated. “Can’t hold him responsible for the likes of Dobbs and his gang.”

With gratitude, the hotel owner quickly left the farmhouse and raced his horse back to town.

*****

Silently the group followed the outlaw tracks and as the sun was setting the found where they had rested their horses, but saw no signs that anyone had dismounted from the horses..

With a full moon rising overhead, the group decided to continue to ride through, but at a slower pace. As the sun rose, the group stopped to rest their horses and grab a bite to each. Each man set about tending to the horses or to camp in an effort to stay away from the agitated father as he paced and worried.

It was mid-morning when the tracks let to a small stream where the outlaws had camped for the night.

“Micah, we can’t be but a few hours behind them,” Lucas stated after examining the signs about the camp.  “But I don’t understand, these new tracks, they’re heading back South. They left here, heading south. They rob the stage outside of North Fork, head to Socorro, and now they’re heading back South. It just doesn’t make sense.”

“Maybe they’re taking Mark home?” Tony suggested.

“North Fork, they’re heading to North Fork!” Lucas declared.

*****

Without needing to be careful in following the tracks, the posse rode hard and strong as the tracks continued to lead straight to North Fork.

*****

As they entered the town, John Hamilton came running out to greet them, stopping short when he realized Mark wasn’t with them.

“John, take the bags off the packhorse and put the contents in your safe,” Micah called over.

“You want supplies in my safe?” John Hamilton inquired.

“We found the money from the stage robbery,” Rick said as he halted his horse and the packhorse before the banker.

Nils Swenson stopped at the livery door and watched the somber group ride past him; he closed his eyes and prayed when he didn’t see Mark among the group of riders.

*****

Every man knew they needed to plan how to locate and rescue the missing youth, but each man was exhausted and didn’t have the heart to try to come up with a plan only to witness a father’s heartache.

“We’ll meet back here at first light,” Micah stated.

Dave Merrar, Tony Jepsom, and Rick Youngston headed back to the Merrar Ranch for the night. Micah stopped in front of the telegraph office after telling the other he was going to send a wire to the Stage Company asking them to send someone to collect their money. Drako headed to Lou’s hotel and restaurant. Lucas returned to the ranch.

*****

Lucas rode to the barn, unsaddled Razor and slowly walked to the house. He entered the darkened room, set his rifle in the stand by the door, walked to the table and removed his hat and set in on the table. He leaned over, rested both of his hands on the table and lowered his head; lost in what to do. Confused in why the tracks led back to North Fork. Why? Scared for his son. Where was his son?

He heard a match strike and saw a flame illuminate a small portion of the room. The lit match was placed in the hearth and slowly the fireplace came to light.

“Well, Lucas McCain. So pleased to finally meet you. Quite cozy little home that you and your boy share. Too bad, after tonight, it will be abandoned. Too bad, after tonight the legend of the Rifleman will die,” Sheriff Dobbs said as he stood facing the fire, watching as the flames grew.

Lucas heard the barrel of a handgun being spun behind him and turned his head to see who was standing behind him.

“Who are you?” Lucas asked, trying to remain calm.

“Us? It doesn’t matter who we are, really. All you need to know is that we are the one’s who will see you dead before sunset tomorrow.” The big man turned around, allowing Lucas to see the badge on his vest.

“Dobbs, if you’re here to kill me, get it over with,” Lucas stated.

“Not, quite yet, Mr. McCain. See, our associate has been hired to kill you, and it wouldn’t be fitting for me to take away his, pleasure.”

“Quit playing games!” Lucas demanded.

“Games? Believe me Mr. McCain, this is no game. Its life or death, yours and maybe your boy’s.”

Lucas heart skipped a beat. The sheriff just confirmed his worst fears, these were the men who had Mark. Regardless why, Mark was being used as a pawn.

“Oh yes, we know all about your precious boy. See, before my associate can kill you, he has to find out how the first assassin failed.”

“Assassin?”

Continuing as if he didn’t hear Lucas, “The report your marshal filed up in Denver was quite interesting reading, according to him. And because of that, we’ve taken the liberty of removing your boy from the equation, for now,” Sheriff Dobbs stated.

Stalling for time, Lucas dared, “You’re bluffing, my boy’s not been home.”

“True. He’s been up in Socorro with the posse, and now, he’s close to home. Uh, uh, uh, Mr. McCain. I don’t like the look that just played across your face. See, your little boy is our… guest, for the time being. There’s a note on the table. Read it and follow directions. And I wouldn’t leave the house until sunrise, if you want to see your boy alive again.”

*****

Dobbs and Jackers exited the homestead, climbed into their saddles and rode away from the ranch.

*****

Having read the note, Lucas wouldn’t allow sleep to come; his mind kept replaying the conversation. He tried to put all the pieces together to determine who was after him and why. What did they have in store for Mark, and for him? He blew out the lanterns in the front room and sat in his chair and watched out the window.

*****

The sun was just starting to rise, when he heard gun fire out near the barn. Lucas grabbed his rifle and ran out the door. Jumping down from the front porch, he stopped as he recognized Johnny Drako walking from behind the barn, removing empty casings from his pistol and replacing them with bullets. Micah rode up with Johnny’s horse in tow.

“Micah, Johnny, what the hell?” Lucas yelled as he ran to where they stood.

“Sorry, Lucas, but Lou didn’t like the idea of you being out here all by yourself last night. Made me come and keep an eye on your place. Micah saw me leaving town and came along for the company. We saw a man, hiding behind your barn, gun drawn. Honestly Lucas, he took the first shot.” As they walked to the back of the barn, Drako continued to where a dead man lay. Using the toe of his boot, he turned the man over and asked, “Do you know who he is?”

“He’s one of the outlaws who has Mark. He and another man, Dobbs,were waiting for me in the house last night. Left me instructions to follow this morning to get Mark back.” Lucas didn’t say anything about the death threat against him.

“What do you have to do?” Micah asked.

“There’s a box canyon on the ranch. They want me there by noon today.”

“Why?” Drako asked.

Lucas left the two lawmen and walked into the barn to get Razor ready.

“Lucas, why do they have Mark?” He waited a moment for Lucas’ answer. “Man, either you answer my question or… LUCAS!” Drako yelled and followed the tall rancher.

Lucas continued to saddle Razor as he spoke, in the early morning hours he’d finally put the pieces together. “Drako, almost three years ago, Mark and I welcomed a man into our home because he said he was an acquaintance of a good friend of mine back in Enid. Turns out he was nothing more than an assassin, hired to kill me. Ralph Hayden… Ralph Hayden still wants me dead and has hired someone else to finish what Mario Rosati didn’t. Only this time, Mark’s life is at stake.”

“LucasBoy, let us come with you!” Micah pleaded.

“I have to do this alone Micah. I can’t risk it. I can’t trust anyone else to do what needs to be done. Not with my boy’s life at stake,” Lucas turned to mount Razor; not realizing the hurt his words caused Micah.

The words stung Micah. He knew it was his fault Mark was missing. He should have never sworn the boy in to the posse.

*****

Lucas rode to the opening of the box canyon, as directed in the note. He pulled his rifle from the scabbard and rode with it standing on his thigh.

In the distance, Lucas saw three riders sitting on horses. Two together, one separate, waiting.

“Hold it right there, McCain!” the single rider called when Lucas got close enough to them.

Lucas halted Razor. Of the two together, even though one had a burlap sack over his head and his hands tied behind his back, from the build of the rider Lucas knew he was Mark and the horse he was on, BlueBoy.

 

“Let my boy go!” Lucas yelled back.

The outlaw next to Mark pointed his hand gun at Mark’s chest, Lucas watched as he cocked the gun.

“See Mr. McCain, there are two of us, and even with your reputation with that rifle, I don’t think you are good enough to shoot both of use before one of us kills your boy.”

Lucas had to turn his head away from Mark to watch the man talking to him. He realized they knew tactics of facing a single gunman.

“I’m sure Hayden is only paying you to kill me, let my boy go!”

“So, you know who my employer is. Impressive,” Grayson called out and nodded his head in recognition of his opponent.

“Not so hard to figure out base on what the sheriff there told me last night.” There was pure disgust in Lucas’ voice when he used the word sheriff.

“Where’s Jackers?” Dobbs called out.

“Seems he wanted to have a go at me this morning. Thought he could take me, maybe earn the money for himself. He got what he deserved for thinking,” Lucas replied.

“No bother. Fewer people to split the money with,” Grayson laughed.

“Even less money than you think,” Lucas retorted. “We recovered the stage money.”

From his distance away, Lucas could hear Dobbs grumbling about the lost money.

*****

Mark sat in the saddle, listening to the exchange. Knowing one of the outlaws, Dobbs, was to his left. He’d heard the cocking of the gun. He knew he had to do something to save the life of his Pa. Acting out of love, eh pulled his legs up and launched himself out of his saddle, towards the rider next to him, he felt the impact of his shoulder against the man, felt BlueBoy try to steady himself, finally, he sensed he was falling. His motion came to an abrupt halt; his landing was softer than he expected. Momentarily he realized he had been successful in knocking the sheriff out of the saddle as he landed on the man. But, in the fraction of the second between Dobbs hitting the ground and Mark landing on Dobbs, Mark heard the discharge of a gun and felt a searing pain into the side of his chest. In the distance, he heard the unmistakable sound of his Pa’s rifle being rapid fired. Fighting the darkness and searing pain that threatened to overtake him, Mark felt the outlaw underneath him push him aside.

As if in a dream, from a greater distance, Mark heard another rifle shot and felt a heavy weight fall over him. Mark couldn’t prevent the scream that he let out as the weight pressed into his injured chest. Gasping for breath, Mark felt the weight being lifted off his body, heard his father’s voice. Fighting to open his eyes, he felt guilty when he saw the tears falling down his Pa’s face after Lucas pulled the burlap bag off his head. Wanting desperately to say something, Mark remembered no more, as his world turned black.

*****

Lucas’ attention was on Grayson when he heard the first gun shot. Instinctively, Lucas fired his rifle from his hip as Grayson looked to see what had happened. As Grayson fell from his saddle in slow motion as he tried to grab for the saddle horn. Lucas turned to face the other two riders only to see both on the ground and Dobbs pushing Mark off of him before the man rose to his feet. Then from a distance, Lucas heard another rifle shot and watched as Dobbs crumpled and fell across Mark.

Lucas yelled Mark’s name and ran to where he lay. Without any compassion, the anxious father pulled Dobb’s body off of his son. It was only then that he saw the blood on Mark’s shirt and prayed it was from Dobb’s. He knelt beside Mark and kept calling his name.   As he untied the twine around Mark’s neck and pulled the burlap bag from his son’s head, he realized the blood stain on Mark’s shirt had grown larger. The distraught father knew the first shot fired had hit his son. Tears were streaming down Lucas’ face as he saw his boy’s eyes flutter open, he thought he saw guilt in his son’s eyesbefore they closed and his son went limp. Lucas removed the gag from Mark’s mouth and pulled his boy up into his arms.

Johnny Drako rode up and brought his horse to a sliding stop as he dismounted. Dobbs was still alive and had just retrieved the gun he had dropped. The ex-sheriff was bringing it around to aim at Lucas’ back, when Drako pulled his hand gun from his holster and fired one more shot. Point blank, he didn’t miss his target, dead, center, chest.

“Lucas… Mark?” Drako tentatively asked. He saw the blood spreading through the boy’s shirt.

Drako turned around to see Lucas had laid Mark on his back after untying the ropes that bound his hands. The deputy watched as Lucas tore the sleeve off his own shirt, wadded it up, and pressed it against the side of Mark’s chest.

“Lucas, did it go clean through or is the bullet…?”

“Drako, it’s still in his chest.” Then turning his face to the sky, “God, please…, let him live.”

Drako knelt beside Lucas, he’d removed his vest and wadded it up. He gave it to Lucas to help stem the flood of blood from Mark’s chest. He pulled off his belt, and with Lucas’ help, he wrapped it around Mark and tightened it as much as he could.

Lucas heard his son unconsciously grunt at the tightening of the belt, and felt guilty for inflicting more pain upon his son.

“Lucas, get in the saddle, I’ll hand him up to you for the ride into town.”

“Johnny, what if Doc’s not in town?” fear resounded in Lucas’ voice.

“Lucas, Micah was taking the outlaw’s body from your place to town. I’m sure if Doc’s not there when he arrived, he’ll of gotten him there. Just pray that Doc is Lucas, just pray.”

Drako lifted Mark and helped Lucas get him positioned in the saddle, in front of him. Knowing they had to get Mark to town fast and that he would need both hands to keep an unconscious Mark in the saddle, he tossed his reins to Drako.

As they rode to town, Lucas’ mind played over the times he had ridden Mark in front of him in the saddle. Happier times. Times before Margaret had passed. Then his boy had grown up and insisted he could ride on his own. Lucas never imagined riding Mark in front of him under these circumstances.

*****

The people of North Fork stopped and stared at the riders racing into town, Drako yelling for people to get out of their way, and stopping in front of the doctor’s office. It took all of Lucas’ effort to keep Mark in the saddle as Razor shied sideways at the abrupt halt.

Micah opened the door and looked out at the sound of the approaching riders. Grief was written all over his face as he watched Johnny help Lucas carry Mark inside.

Doc didn’t say anything or ask any questions. He cut the belt holding the pressure bandage around Mark’s chest and pulled the bloody rags away. He cut away Mark’s shirt so he could examine the wound.

Mark started moaning and moving his head from side to side, “No, you can’t. No, please don’t. You can’t!” he called.

Doc pulled out his stethoscope and listened to Mark’s chest. He heard the steady beat of Mark’s heart and heard his left lung was as clear as his right. Doc didn’t pay any attention to the three men still standing in his office as he started to administer the ether, he had work to do. Whether fighting unseen assailants or fighting the anesthesia, Doc didn’t care, he needed to get Mark under sedation, needed to make sure the young man didn’t feel what was going to happen next.

*****

Doc Burrage worked steadily with his tools to cut into the side of the boys chest in an effort to locate the bullet. When he thought he saw metal, he set aside the scalpel, picked up an extractor from the tray lying on the surgical bed, and slow inserted the implement into the gaping wound. Carefully, he tried to clamp the tool around the bullet; his first attempt failed, pushing the bullet deeper into the wound. Upon his second attempt with the extractor, the doctor was success in remov the bullet.

*****

With the doctor diligently working to save his patient’s life, Micah pushed Lucas to sit down at the Doc’s desk. Micah sat on the corner of the desk as Johnny sat in the chair by the door. Lucas folded his hands in prayer as he bent his head forward, resting his chin on his thumbs and his elbows on his knees, allowing the tears to fall from his eyes. He watched as Doc took a scalpel and cut more into his son’s chest. In time, he inserted the extractor, and then inserted it, again. Lucas closed his eyes and prayed harder.

Lucas raised his head when he heard the sound of metal being dropped in a glass bowl. He opened his eyes and saw Doc Burrage preparing to thread a needle, to begin suturing the hole the bullet had left and the incision. Slowly the physician worked to close the wound, using stitches that would have impressed the finest of seamstresses.

Once Doc was finished suturing the wound, he stepped to the sink and began running water over his hands to remove all the blood, he slightly startled as Johnny pumped the handle.

Drying his hands, he turned to face the room to see Lucas and Micah still here. He should have known they would have stayed.

“Lucas, you can be thankful he’ll pull through. The bullet struck a rib and followed it around to his side. It didn’t pierce his lung. His heart and lungs are all clear.”

“When will he wake up?” Lucas asked.

“He’ll probably start to wake around dinner time. Why don’t you go to the hotel and get some sleep.”

“I’m not leaving him, Doc.”

Knowing it would be useless to argue with his friend, he turned to the others and said, “Let’s carry him into the back room. That way if I have any other patients… But first, I need to wrap his chest, would you mind sitting your boy up for me?”

Pleased with the work he had done, the doctor stepped back to allow Drako and Lucas to gently lift Mark from the examination table and carry him to the back room while Micah walked ahead of them to open the door.

After laying his son down on the bed, Lucas removed Mark’s belt and boots.

“Doc, take a look at his ankle, it’s been splinted and wrapped,” Lucas called before Doc left the room.

Doc returned to stand next to the bed; he bade Lucas to remove his son’s dirty pants.

As Lucas supported Mark’s leg, Doc unwrapped the bandages surrounding it. After a few minutes Doc declared, “Lucas, it’s not a complete break, but it is fractured. At least someone was looking out for him before. Let me get a couple of splints and I’ll rebandage the ankle.”

Once the doctor was satisfied with the additional ministrations to the young man lying on the bed, Lucas pulled the covers up over Mark. The father held onto Mark’s hand as he sat on the side of the bed.

*****

Micah and Johnny left the room to give Lucas privacy in his grief for Mark. They knew they needed to return get the bodies of the men responsible for the tall rancher’s heartache. They also had left a number ofhorses out there, including BlueBoy.

*****

After eating his own lunch, Doc Burrage brought a bible from the church and handed it to Lucas, then left the room.

*****

The afternoon progressed towards evening and so intently focused on trying to derive answers from the bible, at first, Lucas didn’t hear Mark speaking. Startled, Lucas brought his full attention to Mark, hoping he was waking.

But instead, he heard Mark say, “Just remember what Pa taught me. Just have faith in what Pa taught me. Remember…”  He repeated the words over and over again, before he quieted.

*****

Drako was sitting in the room with Lucas, the next time Mark spoke, “Please God, just let me save my Pa. — I have to save him. — They can’t kill my Pa, I still need him. — God, please, …give Pa the strength to live… if I don’t.” The final words were faintly a whisper.

Lucas lost all composure at hearing these words from his son. He slipped off the edge of the bed Mark was lying on and fell to his knees, hands folded, bowed his head, and he prayed.

Drako left the room in tears. He knew the bond that Lucas and Mark shared was strong and knew that both would willingly give their own life to save the life of the other. From what Drako had seen, that’s exactly what Mark had tried to do earlier.

*****

The sun had set the next time that Doc returned to the room to check on Mark. As Doc lit the lamp he saw Lucas still kneeling at the side of the bed, head resting on the bed, Mark’s hand in his. Doc looked at Mark and saw him moving his head, his eyelids started to flutter. Doc placed a hand on Lucas’ shoulder, which immediately brought him wide awake.

“Lucas, I think he’s coming to,” Doc quietly said.

Lucas struggled to get up to sit on the edge of the bed and looked at Mark as the boy started to moan. Tears fell from his eyes as he looked to Doc, his eyes pleading for something to take away his son’s pain.

“Let him wake Lucas. If necessary, I’ll give him some medication, but I need to see how much pain he’s feeling.”

“Pa?” Mark called out softly.

“I’m here Mark. I’m right here,” Lucas answered.

“Pa? Please, don’t be angry with me… or anyone else. I had to.”

“Mark, I know.” Lucas asked.

“Micah needed help. There were too few… for the posse.”

“Mark, you’re safe. You’re home.” Lucas answered.

“The posse needed…”

“Mark, don’t worry about the posse. You’re home.” Lucas said a little more firmly. Realizing Mark wasn’t really awake, he was remembering again.

Mark’s eyes opened a little wider. “Pa… Pa?!” Mark called a little louder and panicked.

“I’m here Mark,” pleaded Lucas.

Mark turned his head to look at his Pa. “Pa? Those men? They didn’t…”

Mark tried to sit up, but in doing so, a groan escaped his lips as he grabbed for the side of his chest, and Lucas pushed him back down into the bed. “No son, don’t try to sit up.”

“Aargh… They were going to kill you. Pa, they were…” Mark stated as he closed his eyes. Lucas saw tears seeping through the closed eyelids. Mark kept a tight hold of his Pa’s hand as he fought through the pain.

“I know it hurts. Do you want Doc Burrage to give you something to ease the pain?”

Mark shook his head no in answer to his Pa. “I need to feel it Pa. Just to remind me that you’re alive. That we survived.”

“Doc, he can’t do this to himself. Go ahead and give him something to ease his pain.”

A few moments later, Mark felt a gentle prick in his arm, he heard his Pa and Doc talking, but the words became muffled and he was asleep.

“Lucas, you should be pleased with how he came through the night,” Doc stated as he placed his hand to the young man’s forehead. “He didn’t develop that much of a fever.”

“Fever?” queried Lucas.

“I expected him to develop a fever. He’s a little warmer than he should be, but I think that’s just a reaction to the trauma suffered. No fever means, no infection.” The doctor smiled and patted Lucas on the shoulder before leaving the room.

*****

Mark woke the following morning to find the sun streaming in the room. As he looked around he saw Doc sitting in a chair, reading the paper.

“Doc, Pa? Is he okay? Please Doc, tell me… they didn’t kill… my Pa?” Mark rapidly spoke as he tried to sit up in bed and fell backwards from the pain, grabbing at the side of his chest.

“Don’t try to sit up boy. Your Pa’s alive and healthy. Don’t you remember the conversation you had last night with your Pa?

“Last night? I… I don’t remember,” Mark answered and struggled to accept the pain he was feeling.

“Your Pa will be back in a few minutes. Here, let me give you some medication to ease the pain.”

“No Doc. Please I have to know, don’t make me sleep. Is Pa okay?”

“Mark, yes, your father is okay and he’ll be even better when he sees you’re awake. But first, this is for your own good. I won’t put you to sleep this time, but this will ease the pain you’re feeling.”

After Doc administered the shot, Mark relaxed back into the bed and tried to remember the conversation Doc said he’d had with his Pa. His mind drew a blank. He turned his head as he heard the door open. He saw Lou enter the room first followed by his Pa carrying a tray. He saw the tired look on his Pa’s face.

“Thanks Lou, I appreciate it,” Lucas stated. “Doc, how’s Mark doing?” he quietly asked as he set the tray down on the desk.

Doc just grinned as Mark quietly answered, “Why don’t you ask me?”

Lucas turned around quickly and saw Mark lying in bed, eyes open, and a small smile on his lips, but he saw the pain in Mark’s face.

“Mark!” Lucas strode the bed, sat down, and pulled his son into his embrace. Mark grimaced at the movement, but eagerly returned his father’s hug. Before Lucas released Mark, he asked Doc to prop some more pillows behind Mark so he could sit up in bed to eat his breakfast.

Lucas had just placed the tray on Mark’s lap when Drako came in for the morning.

“So, how’s our young man this morning?” Drako asked as he walked over, stood behind Lou, put his arms around her waist, and rested his head down on her shoulder.

“I’ll let you know as soon as I’m finished eating. I’m starving!” Mark exclaimed as he started eating the soft boiled eggs and oatmeal they had brought.

“Well, that is a good sign Lucas,” Doc grinned. “But soft foods for the next few days… We’ll progress to something more substantial after I see how you tolerate what you’re eating.”

*****

Lou and Johnny left the clinic once they realized that Mark was really going to be fine.

Doc Burrage finished examining Mark for the morning when Lucas asked, “When can I take him home Doc?”

“Not for a week I’d say. There’s no sign of infection around the stitches, but still… I want to make sure that bullet wound is healing before I let him go home. He’s going to have to use crutches to get around for about six weeks because of his ankle and that’s going to put stress on his ribs. I’ll make arrangements with Lou to have a room ready at the hotel for the two of you this afternoon. I don’t think I need to keep him here.” Then turning to Mark, he said, “Mark, I want you to rest here for the time being, we’ll get the room set up for you and move you this afternoon.”

Lucas turned to Mark and said, “Mark, I need to tend to some business at Micah’s office. Will you be okay here?”

“Sure Pa.”

In a better frame of mind, Lucas left the clinic, but once on the street, his anger returned.

*****

Lucas walked into the Marshal’s office. Johnny Drako and Lou were chatting as he entered. Micah was sitting behind his desk, listening to the two.

Without any ‘Excuse me,’ for interrupting Lucas demanded, “Micah, I want to prefer charges against Ralph Hayden. The last time I let it go, because he didn’t succeed. But this time, his hatred almost cost my son his life.”

“Lucas, that won’t be necessary,” Johnny calmly answered.

“NOT NECESSARY!” Turning his hostility towards the deputy, Lucas continued, “Drako because of him, my son is lying in the doctor’s office, recovering from a bullet wound. In my book THAT’S ATTEMPTED MURDER!” Lucas yelled as he leaned over the end of the Marshal’s desk and pointed a finger at Johnny on the far side.

Letting Johnny bear the brunt of Lucas’ anger, Micah sat back in his chair and watched.

“Lucas, I’m not disagreeing with you. We received a wire. Micah sent a wire to the Sheriff in the town where Hayden lived, wanted to let him know about the second assassination attempt against you and how we had a number of dead outlaws because of him.   Seems Ralph Hayden died three days ago.”

“He’s dead?” a surprised Lucas asked.

“Lucas, you don’t have anything to worry about any more from him. Just relax and focus on taking care of Mark. He’s going to need you to get him through this experience.”

Lou walked over to Lucas and stated, I’ve a room already for Mark and you, whenever you want to move into the hotel. Here’s the key to room ten.

*****

Lucas returned to the back room at Doc’s and found Mark sleeping. Before he sat down in the chair, he brushed Mark’s hair from his forehead with his hand. Mark started to rouse.

“Pa?”

“I’m here son.”

Mark opened his eyes again.

“Pa, can we talk?”

“Mark you know we can always talk.”

Mark licked his lips as he tried to sit up. He fought back against crying out from the pain. Lucas helped Mark sit up and propped some pillows behind him, then rested him back into them.

“Mark, until the Doc says otherwise, if you need to sit up, don’t do it all yourself. Ask for help.” Mark averted his eyes from his Pa’s. “And don’t feel ashamed to ask for help. Right now, it’s more important for you to heal properly. Believe me, once that is healed,” Lucas said pointing towards Mark’s side. “It’s only the beginning. Doc says you’ll be on crutches for about six weeks with that ankle of yours. Mark, I’m only stating facts, I’m not upset with you.”

“Pa, earlier, Doc said… we talked last night,” Mark stated.

“I wouldn’t say we ‘talked’ last night. It was more a re-affirmation that we were both alive. And then dealing with the pain you were feeling. While you were unconscious, you said some things that, well… I hurt for you, son. Then when you woke, you were so worried about me.”

“I don’t remember any of it, Pa. Last thing I remember is sitting on BlueBoy, listening to Dobbs and Grayson threatening you. I knew I had to do something. Pa, I might be a young man and all, but I still need you. There’s so much you haven’t taught me yet. I still have a lot to learn from you.”

“Mark, I’m grateful for the distraction you caused… when you knocked Dobbs from his horse. It gave me the time to deal with Grayson. It was Johnny who took care of Dobbs. Mark… When I saw the blood on your shirt…” Lucas faltered.

“Pa, Doc says I’m going to be alright.”

“Yes, but last night, while you were still under the effects of the ether, you were talking about needing to do something to save my life. I guess you were reliving those last few moments. ” Lucas hesitated. “You asked God to give me the strength to go on living if you didn’t.”

“Pa, I only did what you would have done, had the situation been reversed.”

“I know son.” Trying to change the subject, “Tell you what. Lou has a room ready for you over at the hotel. How about us letting Doc have the rest of his office back. Nils stopped me on the way back here and said he’d put together a make-shift wheel chair to get you around while in town. First, we need to get you get dressed.” Lucas stood and walked to the desk and picked up the new clothes he had purchased and handed them to Mark. At almost seventeen, it had been a number of years since Mark needed anyone to help get him dressed. But he was grateful for his father’s assistance.

Before leaving the room Lucas said, “I think you can carry your boots, since you won’t be doing any walking for a while.”

*****

As they arrived in the hotel, Lucas looked up at the stairs, wondering how he was going to get Mark upstairs in the chair.

“You can always carry me Pa.”

“No, Doc doesn’t want any pressure on your ribs until that wound is healed. And carrying you, I’d put pressure on your ribs.”

“Not if you carried me piggy-back,” Mark had a smile on his face as he remembered all the times when he was smaller that he’d ridden aback his Pa.

Lou, Johnny, and Micah entered the hotel to see the two of them laughing as they went up the stairs together, Mark being carried on Lucas’ back.

*****

As Lucas sat Mark down on the bed, he said, “Mark, I have some chores that need to be done at the ranch. Lou said she and Alice would keep an ear out for you if you needed anything. But more importantly, Doc said you need to rest. So I want you to sleep while I’m gone. I’ll return in time for supper tonight.”

Lucas assisted Mark in lying down and pulled the covers over him.

*****

During the days of the week that Doc insisted Mark stay in town, while Lucas was out doing chores around the ranch, many of the town’s people stopped by to check in on Mark. Lou made sure to tell everyone, if they stopped in to talk with him, to keep the door open when they left, so she could her Mark call if he needed anything. She’d put Mark in a room towards the back where it would be a quick jaunt up the stairs from the kitchen to his room. She kept most of the other guests towards the front of the hotel, so they wouldn’t disturb Mark when he was sleeping. When he wasn’t sleeping, his friends would knock on the open door and enter his room.

Johnny made sure to stop by at appropriate times to assist Mark in and out of the ‘necessary’ to attend to his ‘personal business’.

Tony and Rick were some of the visitors who stopped in that week. They talked of their experiences in riding with the posse. Rick and Mark were laughing as they told Tony how they’d pretended to be family. Tony did the same thing they had done as he looked back and forth between them when hearing about Micah’s comment on them being taken for brothers. They talked up to the point where Mark went missing. When Rick asked about it, Mark stated, “I think I’d like to finish talking with my Pa about it first, before I talk with anyone else. I know you mean well Rick, it’s just that… I’m doing some growing up and not exactly understanding everything. Pa and I are slowly talking about it at night. It helps to talk about it a little at a time, instead of everything all at once. I hope you understand.”

The look in Mark’s eyes was apologetic and the two cowboys understood.

*****

One night after Lucas returned to see Mark to their hotel room, he asked his Pa when Doc Burrage might let him go home.

“Doc’s coming tomorrow and if he likes how you’re healing, I’m sure he’ll let you go home… And here I thought you’d be enjoying staying in town all this time,” Lucas teased.

“It’s just not the same being stuck in bed. At least a lot of my friends have stopped by to see me and we can talk or play checkers to help pass the day. Mr. Griswald has even brought me my studies.”

Lucas noticed that Mark’s voice grew quiet, “Son, is there something else?”

Mark told his Pa the only one he was disappointed not to see was Micah. “Pa, I don’t understand why he’s not stopped by. Practically everyone else has.”

Lucas thought long and hard before answering Mark, he knew exactly who his son was referring to. “I think he might be feeling guilty over what happened to you.”

“But why? He wasn’t there when Dobbs shot me.”

“Mark, think about it. He was the Marshal in charge and he let you, no, he deputized you to join the posse because I wasn’t in town. He knew he needed a good tracker and you were the only choice. If he hadn’t taken you on the posse, I think he feels you wouldn’t have been shot.”

“But Pa, that’s not true. I mean, sure, those men wouldn’t have kidnapped me in Socorro, but they could have still gotten to me here in North Fork. Grayson was hired to kill you. He knew why Mr. Rosati didn’t kill you. He read the report Micah filed with the Territorial Marshal up in Denver. Pa, I over heard them say they were planning to kill you twice over. First when they planned to kill me, knowing that it would kill you inside, and second when they were to actually kill you,” Mark pleaded.

“You knew they were planning to shoot you and you still tried to knock Dobbs off his horse? Why didn’t you just kick BlueBoy and ride away? Why did you put yourself at such risk?” Lucas was shocked to realize why his boy had deliberately put himself in such danger.

“Because it’s what I’ve seen you do time and time again. You stand up for those who can’t.” Mark lowered his voice, “Pa, you couldn’t stand up for yourself because I was there. In the past, you’ve always said your choices were limited when ever I was present… because you were too worried about me. This time…, Pa, I knew their plan and you didn’t, there was no way you could have saved me, if I hadn’t acted. It was up to me to save both our lives. Pa, I did it out of love for you. I just didn’t expect to get shot.”

Lucas was taken back by the words Mark spoke. Realizing all the times he had put himself at risk protecting North Fork, there was a lesson that Mark had learned. Mark had learned to put others ahead of himself. Lucas pulled Mark into his arms and held him and thought to himself, ‘Margaret, I can’t believe how blessed we are to have such a son.’

*****

The day had finally arrived when Doc declared Mark healed enough to give up on the wheel chair and using his Pa as a pack mule, up and down the hotel stairs. He brought a set of crutches and handed them to Mark.

“Lucas, if he can get around in the hotel lobby and the restaurant today; and maybe just a little bit out around town, I’ll let you take him home later. Let’s give him some time to adjust to using the crutches before you take him back to the ranch.”

With Lucas standing behind him to begin with, Mark tried using the crutches. At first he was wobbly on them, but soon, he got the knack of balancing himself. Just that small effort tired Mark. But, he also really wanted to go see Micah. With Lucas following, he hobbled over to the Marshal’s Office. The people of North Fork stepped aside, smiled, and allowed Mark to pass. As they reached the Marshal’s Office Lucas opened the door for him. Johnny stood up and moved the chair he was sitting in so Mark could get to the chaise. Mark sat down with a heavy plop. He leaned over to set the crutches down on the floor and before he knew it, he was asleep. After spending a week in bed recovering, he tired quickly.

Lucas smiled and shook his head as he looked at his son. Lucas closed the door to keep the sounds from the street from waking Mark. He walked over and placed his son’s legs on the chaise. He pulled a blanket from the back and covered his boy.

“Good to see the boy up and around Lucas.” Johnny stated with a grin on his face and started to laugh at his own words, “Well at least he was ‘up and around’ for a little while. I take it Doc’s letting him go home today?” Johnny asked.

“Guess as soon as he wakes.” Then, broaching the subject he’d hadn’t realized he’d been avoiding until his talk with Mark, Lucas turned to Micah. “Micah, I know you’ve been feeling guilty about what happened to Mark and maybe that’s why you’ve kept your distance. Mark asked me about it last night. He said you hadn’t stopped by all week while he’s been at the hotel. I just wanted to let you know, there are no hard feelings. Mark reminded me that he was only doing what I would have done, had I been in town that day. And as I told Johnny, when I found out you had deputized Mark, I have to trust that I’ve raised him to do the right thing. It’s just as his father…, realizing he’s becoming a man is the hardest part. I want to invite you to supper tonight, just to make sure things are right between the three us.”

Lucas looked at Micah and saw the hesitation in the marshal’s eyes.

“Micah, either you agree to come or I’ll have Johnny arrest you for breach of promise.”

Hearing the teasing tone in his friend’s voice, Micah answered, “I accept, Lucas. Mind if I ride out with you when you take Mark home?”

“I was hoping you’d ask. Now, if you don’t mind watching him for a little while, I have some shopping to do at the general store; seems we’re having company tonight.”

*****

Mark was just starting to wake when Lucas returned. “Son, you ready to go home?”

“Pa, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to fall asleep.”

“No problem, Mark. Gave your Pa and me a few moments to talk,” Micah stated as knelt down and picked up the crutches and handed them to Mark. “Come on boy, let’s get you home. This is a jail, not a hotel.”

Micah escorted Mark to the buckboard and helped him get in the seat. He placed Mark’s crutches under the seat. Mark wanted to talk to Micah, but he didn’t know how to begin, so he just sat in silence as his Pa climbed on board. Mark watched as Micah walked to the livery. “Come on Pa, I want to go home,” he dejectedly stated.

“First, we’ll wait for our guest,” Lucas replied.

“Guest?”

“I asked Micah to join us for supper tonight. While you were sleeping, I told him of our talk last night. I told him I hold nothing against him for what happened to you. But more importantly, I think the three of us need to talk. We’ll be okay Mark, this is just another step for the ‘both’ of us, learning how to deal with you becoming a man.”

*****

After supper, Lucas, Micah, and Mark talked. Lucas and Mark had talked throughout the past week about his ordeal, but to hear Mark talking to Micah and explaining everything that had happened, Lucas saw an new air of maturity in his son. By the time Mark finished his account of what happened, Micah realized there was nothing for him to be forgiven for. They were family and family sticks together. There was no reason for him to beat himself up or keep his distance.

“Well, it is getting late, best be getting back to town. Lucas, Mark, thank you.” As he stood to leave, Micah reached into his vest pocket. “Mark, I think this belongs to you.” And he tossed an object to Mark.

Mark reached out and caught it between both his hands. As he opened his hands, he saw the deputy badge. “Micah, I don’t understand?” Mark stated.

“Mark, it’s yours, I never took it back from you. As far as I’m concerned, you earned it. I’d be proud to have you as a deputy.”

*****

Lucas followed Micah out the door and pulled it closed behind them.

“I know LucasBoy. Any future posse, I’ll make sure you’re with us.” Then stepping down from the porch and untying his horse, “Lucas, you know that you and Mark are my family. I’d be proud to have him follow in my footsteps.”

“I know Micah. I should have seen this coming. Thanks for all the fatherly lessons you’ve given me while he’s been growing up. Guess Mark’s proving that neither you nor I are too old to learn new lessons, ourselves.”

Micah mounted and left the McCain ranch to ride to town.

*****

After seeing Micah off, Lucas returned to the house to see Mark leaning into the crutches in front of the fireplace, staring at the badge. Lucas closed the door behind him.

“Pa, do you think he meant it?”

“I’m sure he did. He didn’t release you from the oath you took when he deputized you to join the posse.   Guess, I’m not the only one who’s realizing you’re growing up. Come on, let’s get you to bed, it’s past your bedtime.”

“Bedtime Pa? Don’t you think I’m a little too old to have a bedtime?”

“As long as I can swat your britches, you’ll always have a bedtime.” With that, Lucas came up behind Mark and gave him a firm swat in the backside.

“Understand son, it’s always with love.”

~The End

 

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2 thoughts on “Mark’s Posse (by BluewindFarm)

  1. Yet another crisis lived through. Yay!

    I had to actually watch a couple of eps — not having ever seen this show, it was hard to picture people … 😄 And in one of the eps, Little Joe Cartwright (ahem, I mean, Michael Landon) saved Mark. I was like, hey I know him! 😝

    Like

    1. Lots of drama! 🙂

      Actually, ML was in two, first-season episodes: The End of a Young Gun and The Mind Reader.

      Like

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