Synopsis: A WHN for the fifth season episode, Gun Shy.
Category: The Riflman
Word Count: 13,440
Prior to reading this story, I recommend the reading of my story The Final Witness and understanding The Rifleman, episode “Gun Shy”. The timeline of this story is immediately following Gun Shy (synopsis below):
During the Gun Shy, Mark’s friend brought his cousin over to see Lucas’ rifle. At first, Mark is reluctant to show the boy the weapon, but after being taunted, he gave in. With Lucas working on chores in the barn, Mark rethought his decision and tried to take back the rifle, and as he tried to wrestle it away from the boy, it accidentally fired.
Hearing the shot, Lucas ran from the barn and yelled at the boys. He saw both of them looking over toward the wagon where he saw a boy lying on the ground. As Lucas picked the boy up, he declared, “This boy’s dead.”
After the funeral, Mark was tormented and his guilt became hatred towards his father’s rifle. Knowing his son was struggling, Lucas tried to explain the weapon is only a tool, it has no mind of its own. Lucas also related a story from his own childhood. He also told his son, how, if it had not been for the rifle, that his son may never have been born. Not wanting to hear any of it, Mark yelled that he wished he had never been born. That night, Mark decided to run away to California, stopping at the Mallory House hotel in order to get an early start in the morning.
Finding his son missing, Lucas followed his tracks to town and to the hotel. Lou Mallory greeted Lucas wearing a very pretty dress she just recently purchased from a traveling dress salesman who was spending the night in one of the rooms upstairs. She informed Lucas that his son was there and he had a tough choice to make, either set aside his rifle or risk losing his son; forever. She pleaded with him to see things through the eyes of his son.
Unbeknownst to the McCains, a posse has been formed to trail an escaped outlaw named Vantine. The man had taken to hiding in the hotel. Lou became trapped in the hotel kitchen with the outlaw and eventually Lucas came down to request a glass of milk for his son. Vantine decided right then and there his escape rests on these two people; if the posse inquires, they’re on their way to get hitched. Unfortunately, Mark came to the kitchen to check on his pa and now the three of them are hostages.
Vantine forces the small group to the lobby of the hotel, where Lou proceeds to faint, a ploy to tell Mark his father’s rifle is on the other side of the check-in desk. Vantine orders them apart, shoving Mark to the desk. Without saying anything more, Lou and Lucas beg, through the use of their eyes, for Mark to get the rifle. Both know the torment the boy is going through as he battled his internal demons. Mark finally reached for the rifle, tossed it to his father, and Lucas ultimately killed Vantine in the lobby of the hotel.
This story starts upon their return home that night. The scene upon their arrival home is directly from the episode Gun Shy. The scenes beginning the following morning are from my own active imagination.
Within this story are references to the character Dan Maury from the episode ‘The Deadly Wait’, The Sheltons from the episode ‘The Marshal’, Charlie Gordo from the episode ‘Gunfire’, and Andy and Jax from the episode ‘The Score is Even’.
Lucas sat back in his chair in front of the fireplace and watched his teenage son pull items from his carpetbag; he smiled as Mark set aside the apples and oranges on the table in their front room. It felt good to have his son home.
“Well, I’ll tell you one thing, you wouldn’t have been hungry,” teased Lucas.
Mark gave a short laugh and continued to unpack.
“But you sure would have been warm in those in California!” declared Lucas, after his son pulled out a set of long underwear. Lucas inhaled from his cigar and slowly exhaled, gathering his thoughts. “You know son,” Lucas stated as he reached behind the chair he sat in and said, “the only thing you forgot was your twenty-two,” as he pulled forward his son’s rifle.
Mark half-smiled and answered, “You know I didn’t forget it, Pa.” He hesitated, before continuing. “You know… what you said about a rifle not having a mind of its own…” Mark rested his hands on top of his carpetbag while he looked to Lucas for re-assurance. “I knew you were right… I mean… inside of me. I just didn’t want to believe it. I guess it was easier to blame the rifle. But… I know now. I guess its all part of growing up.”
“Everything is, son,” Lucas replied. Knowing the past few hours still weighed heavily on his son, Lucas offered, “Why don’t you leave that for morning?”
Mark nodded and bid goodnight to his Pa. Upon hearing the bedroom door close, Lucas started to put Mark’s rifle back from where he had pulled it, but something inside Lucas told him, ‘no’. He stood, twenty-two in hand, walked over to the door, and placed his son’s rifle next to his Winchester.
A rightful feeling came over Lucas that this was where the rifle belonged. He regretted the hard lessons and the pain it caused his fourteen-year old son, but he knew his son would be stronger in the long run; because of what happened.
Lucas blew out the lantern that sat in of the window, turned, and walked into the bedroom.
A rooster’s crowing woke Lucas the following morning, after swinging his legs over the side of his bunk and sitting up; he opened his eyes wider at see his son’s bunk empty. Lucas listened and settled back when he heard the sounds of an ax splitting wood. After dressing, Lucas walked into the front room; while buttoning his shirt, he looked towards the stove when he smelled the aroma of fresh coffee brewing.
As he walked to the door, Lucas noticed his son’s twenty-two wasn’t where he placed it the night before. Stepping across the threshold and onto the porch, Lucas greeted his son for the morning.
“Morning, Pa. Didn’t mean to wake you,” Mark replied as he set another piece of wood on the chopping block.
“You didn’t,” Lucas answered as he stepped from the porch and stopped next to his son, “Bernice’s boyfriend did.” Lucas pointed as the rooster crowed again. “Here, I’ll take the ax, while you stack the wood.”
Lucas balanced the ax in his hands and gave it a mighty swing, bringing it down on the piece of wood, and in one effort, split the piece of wood in two. He bent over to pick up another piece of wood and saw his son’s rifle leaning up against the porch deck. Absent-mindedly, Lucas smiled, his son had chosen to move on with his life; knowing a rifle was a tool, and it was the person wielding it, who defined the weapon – not the other way around.
After splitting wood for about fifteen minutes Lucas declared, “I think we have enough to last us for the rest of the week. Why don’t you go see if Bernice and the other hens laid enough eggs for breakfast?”
“Sure Pa,” answered Mark as he stacked the remaining wood in the woodbin next to the house.
Mark was only a few yards away from the porch when Lucas asked, “Didn’t you forget something?”
A curious Mark stopped and turned around; his expression indicated he didn’t understand what Lucas was asking.
Lucas walked over and picked up his son’s rifle, and carried it to him. “It’s a tool Mark. You’re old enough, and you know the repercussions of its improper use, but now you need to learn how to keep it at hand.”
“Pa, I’m just going to the barn,” explained Mark, pointing towards the barn.
“And if a coyote made its way inside through that broken board in back, that you haven’t gotten around to fixing, and it decided to curl up and sleep… Son it’s a tool. Keep it with you. Next time we go to town, I’ll buy you a scabbard to attach to BlueBoy’s saddle, for when you’re out on the ranch.”
Mark took his rifle from his pa, he didn’t know what it was that he felt, but carrying it with him and the responsibilities that came with it, he realized were a big step in his growing up.
After breakfast was eaten and dishes washed and put away, Lucas saddled the horses in preparation of riding to town.
“I thought we were working around the ranchhouse today. We kind of got behind on our chores,” stated Mark as Lucas led Razor and BlueBoy from the barn.
“I want to ride into town to… Well, I’m sure Micah has plenty of questions for me about what happened at the hotel last night.”
As Mark climbed into the saddle he asked, “Are you sure you don’t want to check in on Miss Lou and see if she’s wearing that dress… I mean… recovered after the shock of last night, having Vantine threaten to kill us and you shooting him in the lobby…”
Looking to his son Lucas answered, “Now that you mention it, we might want to check in on Lou. I think you also need to repay the money she loaned you.” He raised his eyebrows in askance.
“Sure Pa,” replied Mark as he signaled BlueBoy into a trot, to keep up with Razor.
Father and son were on the outskirts of town when Mark halted his horse, “Pa, about last night.”
Lucas reined in Razor and turned to face his son, “What about it?”
“Pa, I know I said I hated your rifle and I know I felt sick just by looking at it.” A sense of guilt swept over Mark. “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings when I said I wish I hadn’t been born.”
“Mark, I know it was your hurt talking,” acknowledged Lucas.
“But… I don’t understand, how…, if I hated your rifle so much… I mean… it was so revolting to me… just the idea of touching it…” Mark crinkled his brow at remembering.
“Son, I think I understand what’s gnawing at you. You had the courage…”
“Courage?! I was scared to death,” interrupted Mark.
Placing his hand to his son’s shoulder, Lucas continued, “You had the courage to face your fear, because there was a greater danger at hand, had you not acted. I think your subconscious knew it was a choice between the lesser of two evils. Hate the rifle and do nothing… or accept the fact the rifle could save all three of our lives…” Lucas answered.
“Four, if you counted Shorty,” Mark gave a half-hearted laugh at remembering the dress merchant and the striped nightgown and nightcap he’d worn as he came down the stairs.
“Son, you’ve taken a huge step forward in growing up, and I don’t expect you to understand everything that’s happened. The past few days won’t be easily forgotten, so I want you to talk with me when things don’t seem to make heads or tails anymore. Promise?” Lucas inclined his head forward.
“Promise,” Mark answered with a smile.
Lucas turned to greet Lou as she entered Angus’ gun shop and greeted the McCains, “Good morning, Lucas, Mark. How are ye this fine morning?”
Lucas couldn’t help smiling at her bright Gaelic brogue, “Morning Lou.”
“Morning, morning he says.” Lou humf’d and placed the back of her balled fists on her hips. “Tis a glorious morning and all ye can offer me is – morning.” Lou crossed her arms as she finished speaking, in an effort to express her displeasure at the brief greeting.
“Miss Lou, Pa was…” Mark quit talking as Lucas elbowed him in the arm.
“He what?” Lou asked.
Knowing his original thought could really get him in trouble, Mark answered, “I was going to say, you just surprised Pa, he… we didn’t expect to see you in the gun shop. We were going to stop by to see how you were doing after Pa gave his statement to Micah.”
“Is that right?” Lou asked, her voice hinted at her doubt.
“That’s the truth, Lou,” answered Mark.
“Then why are ye in here and not over at the Marshal’s?” asked Lou.
“My boy here needed a scabbard for his rifle. Angus, I think this one will do the job, how much?”
Lucas paid for their purchase as Mark carried the scabbard outside and positioned it under the stirrup and attached it to his saddle. Lou exited the gun shop as Lucas held the door open for her.
“Then ye’ll be by for lunch this afternoon?”
“Lou, I was reminded by my boy this morning that we have plenty of chores that need to get done. I’m glad you saved us the time from stopping in at the hotel. We’ll see you Sunday? At church?” asked Lucas.
“Sunday. Sunday!” declared an upset Lou as she left the two McCains watching her walk across the street.
“Mark,” Micah called as he came up behind the McCains, “you better come see me when you want to know anything about women.”
“Micah,” warned Lucas.
“Don’t Micah, me. I heard what happened last night and I saw the dress Lou was wearing, too. And you barely give her the time of day this morning?” Micah couldn’t stop the grin on his face or the rise of his eyebrows.
“I’ve a ranch to run…” answered Lucas.
“Mark, come see me…” again Micah teased. “Well, LucasBoy, what brings you to town this morning if it weren’t to check to see how Lou is faring after last night?”
“Thought you’d want my statement regarding Vantine and what happened last night, to put it in your report.”
“Sure, you can help fill in a few of the missing pieces.”
After giving his statement, Lucas and Mark remounted their horses. As they approached the Mallory House, both waved when they saw Lou standing on the porch, only to see her turn and walk inside.
“I think Micah was right,” teased Mark. “Pa, you should at least stop in and have a cup of coffee or something…”
“And what do you know about ‘or something’?”
“Nothing…” answered Mark. “Only I need to stop in and repay Lou the money she loaned me. You coming?”
As the days and weeks passed, Lucas enjoyed working their ranch; and watching his son improve his skills using his twenty-two to hunt rabbits or to scare off the occasional coyote that crossed their land.
“Mark, wake up!” hollered Lucas as he served up a plate of scrambled eggs for his son’s breakfast.
“Is breakfast ready?” greeted Mark as he entered their home through the kitchen door.
“I thought…” Lucas paused as he looked from his son to the bedroom doorway.
“You thought what? That I was still in bed?”
“Pa, if you’d like, I can try to come up with a good excuse to stay home from school,” teased Mark.
“I can honestly state that I don’t miss those days. Have a seat, your breakfast is ready.”
Lucas held Mark’s plate while his son finished washing and drying his hands. Lucas served a plate of scrambled eggs for himself and followed his son to the table.
“So, today’s your last day of school and tomorrow starts your summer break.”
“Bet you’ll be happy to have your full-time partner, back,” teased Mark.
“Now that you mention it, the work’s become a lot easier to do since you started growing up. Why don’t we wait until Monday to start our summer chores, you can spend the weekend hunting or fishing,” suggested Lucas.
Mark hesitated as he lifted a forkful of eggs to his mouth, “Are you sure you’re feeling well? Not like you to procrastinate.”
“I’m not procrastinating, I’m just giving you a few days to recover from all the time you’ve spent at school, before the easy work begins…” teased Lucas.
“Would you like to come hunting with me, tomorrow?” inquired Mark.
“No, tomorrow’s your day,” replied Lucas grinning as he knew his son was growing up.
“Well, how about joining me for some fishing after church on Sunday?” Mark asked.
“Okay, son. Sunday.”
Saturday morning, Lucas waited on the porch until his son was out of sight, over the hills that surrounded their homestead. He stepped inside their home to place his coffee cup in the sink before he returned outside to start chopping and stacking the firewood. Lucas took a break and drank from a tin cup at the water well when the riders rode in from the far side of the barn.
“Good afternoon,” greeted Lucas as the riders, by appearances Mexicans, settled their horses.
“Good afternoon,” replied one of the riders. “You live here?” the man asked.
“Yes, I own this land…” replied Lucas, wary of the ragged appearance of the men in front of him.
“That is where you are wrong, Señor. You are a squatter!” declared a better-attired man who made his way through the group of riders.
“Mister, I don’t know where you’re getting your information, but I’ve owned this land for over four years,” declared Lucas as he regretted his rifle was so far away from him. “I’ve a title of deed recorded in town at the land office.
The Mexican nodded his head and several of the riders dismounted from their horses and rushed Lucas, preventing him from reaching his rifle.
With two strong Mexicans restraining Lucas, their leader approached him.
“This land is not yours, Señor. It was not yours to purchase. It belongs to my people.”
“You’re loco!” declared Lucas, only to have the leader throw a punch into his midsection.
Lucas struggled to catch his breath.
“You have one week to gather your belongings and leave.”
“And why should I?”
“Because Vicente Silva says so,” declared the man, as he threw another punch to Lucas’ stomach.
“Silva, it takes a ‘big’ man strike another, especially when he’s being restrained,” taunted Lucas, winded from the punches.
The man threw another punch, striking Lucas across his left cheekbone.
“I am not Silva, but I do take my orders from him. And Vicente Silva wants his land back.” Signaling for his riders to mount up, they dropped Lucas to the ground. “One week, that is all the time you have remaining. Do not waste Señor Silva’s leniency by ignoring us.”
The Mexican mounted his horse, signaled his riders, and rode away.
Lucas stood to his feet, angered that the men thought they could come in and take his land.
Later that afternoon, Mark called to his Pa as he rode into the yard, holding up the two rabbits he’d shot, “Pa! Look what…” his words trailed off when he saw shiner developing under Lucas’ left eye. “Pa, what happened?”
“I tripped, that’s all,” replied Lucas as he reached for the reins to his son’s horse.
“Tripped, on what?”
“I wasn’t watching where I was going and tripped over the rake,” answered Lucas.
“The rake, but I put it…”
“One shot each, you’re getting better,” Lucas stated after looking over the rabbits he’d taken from his son.
“Yeah, well, I remember the first few rabbits, and you almost broke a tooth when I didn’t get all the lead out,” remembered Mark.
“How many shots in total?” Lucas asked.
“Three, I shot a little in front of the first one. Guess I was too excited and wanted to get a jump on it,” boasted Mark.
“Come on, let’s get these skinned and soaking.”
Lucas chose not to tell Mark of the strangers, he figured there was no need as long as they were working the ranch together; his boy would be near him at all times. After enjoying a Sunday afternoon of fishing, Lucas and Mark returned home, to enjoy a supper of their day’s endeavors. While eating, their conversation turned to their plans for the week, checking fences, clearing the debris from one of the ponds, the general work required on a working cattle ranch.
“Pa, you’ve been talking about replacing the roof on the barn…” Mark hinted.
“Why don’t we save that for later in the week, let’s make sure everything out on the range is in good order. Besides the order I placed for the boards won’t be ready from the mill until at least Wednesday.”
A week of hard work had passed and the warning had slipped from his active thinking since no further incidents had occurred. Stepping to the front porch, Lucas called out his son’s name, “Mark!” Upon not hearing a response, Lucas headed to the barn and called his son’s name again.
From outside, Lucas heard the riders approach, and the warning returned; he cautiously looked out the barn door. With his rifle at the ready, Lucas stepped from the barn, “Get off my land!” he declared, twirl cocking his rifle.
With a pathetic laugh the leader replied, “I warned you the last time, this is not your land. And, since you did not take Señor Silva’s warning, maybe you’ll take mine,” the Mexican declared.
“You’re not scaring me off my property,” Lucas retorted, his anger seething in his words.
Due to the number of horses milling about, Lucas didn’t hear the Mexican approaching him from behind, and their shadows were to his back. The Mexican raised a small log from the chopping pile and swung it down towards the back of Lucas’ head. Lucas saw something in the face of the man next to the leader and shifted his weight to the right; he bore the brunt of the strike on his left shoulder.
Trying to keep a grip on his rifle, Lucas pulled the trigger; the bullet struck the ground in front of the horses, causing a few to rear and shy sideways. Lucas felt the fire in his side as a bullet penetrated his skin, pushing him backwards and to the ground.
The Mexican, who initially struck Lucas, kicked him, forcing the rifle from Lucas’ grip.
Lucas attempted to ignore the fire in his side as he crawled to reach his rifle; the leader of the group jumped from his horse and kicked Lucas’ rifle farther away, while pointing his own handgun at the wounded rancher.
“Better think again. Oh, and if anyone asks you can tell them that Gabriel Sandoval was here,” the man stated. “Not right for a man to not know who shot him.”
Lucas looked up to see the crooked grin and gold teeth within the man’s mouth.
“Take this as your last warning, leave this land. I gave you one week,” Sandoval stated as he remounted his horse and motioned his men to circle up. “Tomorrow Señor McCain, tomorrow there will be no more time.”
Lucas watched the gang ride away before he gathered his strength to pull himself across the ground to the front porch of their home. After resting a few moments, Lucas stood to his feet by pulling himself up one of the front porch posts; unsteadily he entered their home and headed for the kitchen.
Mark rode BlueBoy into the yard between the barn and house, and noticed his pa’s rifle lying on the ground near the sawhorse, but no Lucas in sight. Surveying the land around him, Mark slowly dismounted his horse, drawing his rifle as he did. He noticed the chickens were strangely missing from the yard, and as he continued to look around, he found an impression in the dirt of someone having lain, and dragged themselves across the ground to their home. Mark ran to the porch, he stopped when he saw the blood pooled on the step, “PA!”
Dropping his rifle, Mark ran inside and couldn’t believe he was seeing his pa standing at the sink, blood soaking the side of his shirt, again.
“Pa?! What happened?” Mark asked as he ran to help support Lucas.
“Pa, can you ride? Or should I hitch…”
“Get Razor…” Lucas stated as he wrapped the makeshift bandage around his middle.
A few minutes later, Mark helped Lucas into the saddle, and grabbed Razor’s reins.
“I can ride,” Lucas stated and let out a groan.
“No Pa, you hold on, I’ll get you to town.”
Mark put his foot into his stirrup but stopped, turned, and ran towards the sawhorse; he picked up his pa’s rifle from the dirt, ran back to the front porch and picked up his own rifle. Once both rifles were secured in their scabbards, Mark swung into the saddle and lead Razor in a race to town.
As he reached the middle of town and slowed the horses, Mark saw Doc Burrage exiting the General Store, “Doc! Pa’s shot!” Mark didn’t notice their friends and neighbors stop what they were doing and stare as he continued on to the clinic, stopping both horses at the hitching rail.
Mark helped steady Lucas down from his horse and allowed a weakened Lucas to lean on him as they entered the clinic, followed closely by old Doc Burrage.
“Lucas, lie down and let me examine you,” stated Doc as he stopped in front of a cabinet before proceeding to the examination table.
“What happened?” inquired Micah upon entering the clinic.
“Micah, men…” Lucas tried to explain; he cringed and let out a groan as the doctor examined the wound.
“Out! Out!” demanded Doc, not taking the time to turn around to address those to whom he spoke. “I’ve a patient who needs my full attention and I don’t need your distraction.”
Lucas no longer had the strength to fight to stay conscious as Doc Burrage placed a cloth laced with ether over his nose, “Just breathe in Lucas, just breathe in.”
Looking backwards over his shoulder, Mark allowed Micah to lead him from the clinic.
“Mark,” Micah stated for a second time. “What happened? Did you see who did this?”
“No. I wanted to surprise Pa this morning… I got up early to go check the weanling herd and I returned home… Micah, it’s like Dan Maury all over again. Pa’s rifle and no Pa… The blood…” Mark didn’t take his eyes off the clinic door as he spoke.
“Boy, he’s long dead…”
“I know that Micah, it’s just…”
“Micah!” Lou called as she ran from the hotel. “What’s this about Lucas being shot?!”
“That’s all we know. Lou, why don’t you take Mark to the hotel, get him something to eat.”
“I’m not hungry,” answered Mark, as Lou placed her hand under his arm, to lead him away.
“Hungry or not, ye have to eat,” Lou answered in her own stubborn way.
Mark sat at the table in the kitchen, while Lou went about fixing him a sandwich to eat. Time passed agonizingly slow as he listened to the clock on the mantle ticking off the time. He startled in his seat when Lou placed a plate with a sandwich and a glass of milk in front of him.
Mark pushed the plate of food away; with his elbows on the table; he rested his forehead upon the heels of his hands and cried.
“Mark, ye have to eat. Ye have to keep up ye’re strength. Tis what ye’re father would want.” Lou hoped her words would comfort; she couldn’t believe it had only been three weeks since the last time Mark had sat at the same table, and cried.
“Lou, how could this happen, again?” asked Mark, looking up and wiping his tears from his face. “Four years ago, I arrived home to find Pa shot. It’s so… surreal.”
“Lucas will pull through this time, just like the last time,” answered Lou.
“Last time it was an outlaw gunning for Micah. This time… All Pa said was ‘men’ when I asked him what happened.”
“Men?” queried Lou.
Both turned when they heard a brief knock and the back door to the kitchen opened, “We’re going to head to your place,” they heard as Micah entered.
“I’m coming with you!” declared Mark as he stood, knocking his chair over backwards.
“No son, you’re staying here, for when your pa regains consciousness,” replied Micah as he righted the char.
“But I can track, just as good as Pa can,” pleaded Mark.
“Ye know ye’re father would have Micah’s hide if’n he knew ye went on a posse,” Lou offered.
“But I can’t just sit here! Last time… I was only ten, I’m almost fifteen. Micah please, let me do… something.”
“You’ll do something by staying in town, out of trouble,” ordered Micah. “I’ve a small posse and we’ll follow the tracks as long as we can.”
Later that afternoon, Doc allowed Mark into the room where Lucas slept, “I’ll only let you stay here for a few minutes. He’s still sedated, so he won’t know you’re here.”
“Will he be okay?” asked Mark.
“In time… With proper restraint, he’ll be just as good as new.”
Mark sat on the edge of the bed, and listened while Doc continued to explain Lucas’ condition.
That night, as he laid in the bed in room five at the hotel, sleep didn’t come easily to Mark; while staring at the ceiling, he focused on the words Doc Burrage said, “He won’t be awake tonight, son. He lost a lot of blood. The good news is, the bullet missed his vital organs… but it still did a fair piece of damage. It won’t be until the morning before he regains consciousness from the ether…”
As exhaustion and emotions took their toll, Mark tossed and turned while his dreams replayed the various times of him finding his Pa shot… The Sheltons… Dan Maury… Charlie Gordo, and Andy and Jax… His dreams changed to just a few weeks before… showing his friend Charlie lying next to the buckboard. Again Mark’s dream changed… he strained to see… his dream was out of focus, but he could make out a man approaching, but in front of the man, he saw a child’s hands trembling with a Colt Peacemaker, he heard a gunshot, and eventually saw a man lying on the ground, blood staining the front of his shirt. Mark startled awake, and tried to understand the last scene of his dream, aloud he stated, “I shot…someone?” and looked at his hands.
A confused Mark walked from room five, down the back staircase and into the kitchen. He read the clock on the mantle, “four, fifteen.”
From the cold box he pulled out a pitcher of milk and poured himself a glass; after returning the pitcher to the cold box, he sat at the table and tried to remember the last part of his dream, it was in a barn… some of the barn looked familiar, but…
After setting the empty glass in the sink, Mark pulled out a sheet of paper from the desk in the corner of the kitchen and wrote:
Going home to do a few chores. Tell Pa I should be back before lunch.
Mark rode BlueBoy into the front yard as the sun crested the hills to the east of their homestead. He sat in the saddle and remembered the first time he found his Pa shot in the yard, when Dan Maury came after Micah. He remembered his father’s haunting words from a few weeks prior, “This boy is dead.” Mark shivered as his guilt returned. Mark stepped down from his horse, dropped his reins, and walked over next to the sawhorses; the tools his Pa had been using were still where he last used them. They had been so tired from working to replace the barn roof that Lucas suggested they leave them until morning.
Looking down at the ground, Mark couldn’t tell which hoof prints might have belonged to those who shot his Pa versus Micah and the posse. Mark walked back to BlueBoy and led him into the barn where he unsaddled him and turned him loose in the corral.
Mark started gathering the tools and returning them to their storage location, “No sense leaving them out to get rusty,” he commented as he sensed rain would soon arrive.
At the well, Mark lowered the bucket and pulled it back up, setting it on the edge of the wall to unhook it, before he carried it into the house. From under the kitchen sink, he pulled out a scrub brush, knelt down, and started cleaning the blood from the floor.
On the porch, Mark rocked back on his heels, feeling satisfied about the job he had accomplished. He just hoped none of the blood would leech back to the surface. Picking up the bucket, he tossed out the water and returned the bucket to the well.
Mark turned and looked to the barn as he remembered his Pa’s words regarding the broken board. He walked into the barn and collected a hammer and the bucket of nails. He walked over to the back wall and began to repair the broken board, as he’d promised he would. Putting his tools away, he turned and looked, and again, he wasn’t able to shake the sensation that he should remember his dream.
‘The dream’s familiar, but still…’
Mark walked about the barn, stopping in different locations, trying to make sense, perplexed on why the barn in his dream didn’t look the same as where he stood.
‘Why would I be dreaming of a child’s hands holding a Peacemaker?’ he thought to himself.
“I wish Pa were here,” Mark said aloud.
Mark walked to the barn door when he heard riders arrive.
“You boy, you live here?” called someone within the group of riders. Mark observed their dirty clothes, and the thinness of their sweated horses.
“Yeah,” Mark warily answered, as also he noticed some of the men wore double bandoliers, across their chests.
“Where’s yer pa?” asked one of the men, with a thick Mexican accent.
From the pit of his stomach, Mark began to feel that he shouldn’t have come home, and replied, “He’ll be back from checking our weanling herd any minute.”
“I know differently,” stated a rider who maneuvered his horse to the front of the group of riders. Mark noticed this man was better dressed than the rest and his horse appeared better fleshed than the other horses. “Not easy to ‘ranch’ when you have a bullet in your side.”
Mark regretted forgetting his father’s other words, ‘Mark it’s a tool…you need to learn how to keep it at hand.’ Instinctively, Mark reacted, he ran towards the barn, trying to get to his saddle, and his rifle.
“Stop him!” Sandoval yelled.
One of the men spurred his horse forward, following Mark into the barn, knocking him to the ground. Another man jumped from his horse and ran inside. Mark scrambled to reach his rifle, but couldn’t get there before the other man did.
“Hey boss, da keed got a rifle.” The Mexican laughed as he pulled Mark’s twenty-two from the scabbard. “So, ya tink ya coulda stop us wi’ dis?”
“You better leave!” yelled Mark.
“Leave?! But we just arrived,” the leader boasted as he walked into the barn and pulled Mark to his feet. “Your Pa must not care for you that much, otherwise he wouldn’t have left you here alone. I gave him fair warning.”
“Warning… warning for what?” Mark asked as a sense of panic swept over him.
“To leave this land.”
“Who are you?” Mark dared ask.
“We’re Silva’s Gang,” answered one of the Mexicans.
“You’re Gabriel Sandoval,” Mark stated, without meaning to say it aloud.
“Boss, dey’s heerd of us, don heer!”
“But, since you’re still here, and it looks like your Pa didn’t take us seriously, you’re coming with us. One way or the other, your Pa will understand this land will be ours.”
“With you?” Mark struggled to pull away from the outlaw holding him. “You best let me go!”
“Go?!” Sandoval grabbed Mark by the front of his shirt and pulled him to within inches of his face. “I gave your Pa fair warning to leave. He chose to ignore me… So…, he will learn the consequences of refusing Vicente Silva.”
Lucas woke the morning after his surgery to find Micah sitting in a chair across the room, leaning back with the front two legs of the chair off the floor.
“You feeling up to answering some questions?” asked Micah as he rocked forward and sat on all four legs of the chair, upon seeing his friend’s eyes open.
“A group of Mexicans came, demanding I leave. Said they were the rightful owners of my property,” Lucas answered. He groaned as he tried to sit up in the bed.
“Did you recognize any of them? Did they give you any indication who they were?” Micah queried, not offering to help his friend sit up. Hoping the effort would tire Lucas to the point he would lie back down.
“The man said his name was Gabriel Sandoval,” Lucas stated.
“Sandoval! Damn it Lucas! He’s second in command of Vicente Silva’s gang.”
“Silva, why…” Lucas started to ask.
Micah continued without hearing Lucas, “I’ve received bulletins from the U.S. Marshal Service on them. They stay more up north, never ventured this far south. Lucas they’re a mean mob. Was yesterday their first visit?”
“No, they showed up a week ago.”
“A week ago!! Why didn’t you come tell me right away? I could have wired the army for help.”
“I don’t need the Army’s help. Besides, I’ve been able to hold off others who’ve tried to take my land.”
“But none the likes of Silva. Lucas they give the homesteader three chances to leave; and then all bets are off.”
Both turned to look at the door, upon hearing it open.
“Good morning, Lucas,” Lou gaily greeted as she carried a tray of food into the room. “I hope ye’re hungry, I’ve fixed ye a big plate of hotcakes and sausages, and… Micah, I didn’t know ye’d be back so soon.”
“Just taking Lucas’ statement. We searched the ranch and found some tracks, but we lost their trail about ten miles out of town. Well Lucas, you rest easy, I’ll wire the army.”
“The Army? Why would ye be wiring the Army?” Lou inquired as she set the tray on the table in the room.
“It’s nothing for you to be concerned about Lou,” Micah answered, not wanting to cause any alarm. “Be seeing ya LucasBoy.”
“So, how’s Mark this morning?” asked Lucas as he slipped his legs over the side of the bed. “Surprised he wasn’t sleeping in my room overnight.”
“Oh, he wanted to, but Doc Burrage wouldn’t let him. I gave him a room at the hotel for the night,” answered Lou. “He wrote me a note this morning that he was going to the ranch to do a few chores and planned to be back before lunch.”
“He what?! Alone?!” Lucas declared as he tried to stand from the bed.
“DOC!!” Lou yelled as she tried to support Lucas when his knees buckled.
Doc Burrage and Micah entered the room, both demanding to know what Lucas thought he was doing.
“Mark’s at the ranch!” Lucas stated as he struggled against his friends returning him to bed.
“I told the boy to stay in town, and out of trouble,” Micah answered.
“That was yesterday afternoon, when ye were going to the ranch with the posse,” replied Lou.
“Let me up!” demanded Lucas. “Micah, you said the third time, all bets were off!” he pleaded. “Sandoval said today there would be no more time! Micah, they’re planning to return today and Mark’s there!”
Knowing that they wouldn’t be able to talk Lucas out of returning home, Doc Burrage wrapped the bandage around Lucas’ middle even tighter.
“I should wrap this so tight that you can’t breathe… But I know you Lucas. One way or the other, you’re leaving my clinic. Micah’s getting the horses ready and Lou’s in my office packing some additional bandages for you.”
“Horses?” Lucas asked to see if he had heard the doctor correctly.
“You don’t seriously think you’re going after Sandoval, alone!”
“One way or the other, Doc,” Lucas replied, using Doc’s words.
An out of breath Dave Merar entered the clinic, calling for Micah.
“I’m here,” called Micah as he entered the clinic a few moments behind the rancher.
“I heard Lucas was shot,” Dave stated.
“He was, yesterday. Doc says he’ll recover.”
“Was it Silva’s gang?” Dave inquired.
“Yeah, Gabriel Sandoval was leading them. How do you know about them?”
“One of my hands, Rupert Kopp, he lived up north before coming here. He had a few run-ins with the gang with his previous employer.”
The rancher looked around before he asked, “Do you know where Mark is?”
“Out at Lucas’ place. We’re getting ready to ride to go get him.”
“Micah, Rupert and Hal Cagle were checking fences, Rupert said they saw at group of Mexicans riding, and swore Mark McCain was with them.”
“Where?!” demanded Lucas as he stepped from the back room.
“Half way between here and my place,” Dave answered.
“Dave, who’s left at your ranch?” Micah asked.
“Just my misses, my boy, and a few hands, the rest are out branding. You don’t think they’re on their way to my place?”
“We ride,” Lucas demanded as he put his hat on his head and grabbed his rifle from Lou.
Lucas, Micah, and Dave Merar rode hard towards the Merar Ranch, as they approached they saw evidence of Sandoval and his men having visited. Mrs. Merar was helping a limping ranch hand across the yard, towards the bunkhouse. While several men lay sprawled on the ground, Dave Merar stopped next to Rupert Kopp, who was tying a tourniquet around his left thigh and Micah stepped down from his horse next to Hal Cagle as he sat up on the ground, pressing his hand to his right shoulder.
“Hal, did you see Mark McCain?” Micah asked.
“Lucas you can’t seriously be thinking of riding after them alone?!” demanded Dave Merar upon hearing Lucas turn his horse around.
“It’s not your son those men have,” Lucas answered as he kicked Razor and rode away, looking down at the tracks the gang left.
“LUCAS!!” Micah turned from tending to the ranch hand and yelled. “WAIT FOR THE ARMY!!”
“God have mercy on those who took Mark, if any harm comes to that boy,” Merar stated as he turned his attention back to Rupert.
“You call that measly ranch big? Who’s the biggest rancher around?!” Sandoval demanded as he pulled Mark down from his horse.
“I ain’t telling!” answered Mark, struggling to keep to his feet as the man pushed him backwards.
“Brave are you? We’ll see how brave you really are.” Turning to call to one of his men, “Ramone, what do you know about this town, this North Fork?”
“Boss, lots of small ranches and a few big ones… That one should have been big.”
Turning back to Mark, “I’ll ask you one more time, who’s the biggest rancher around?”
Mark gritted his teeth and refused to answer and for his lack of cooperation, Sandoval pulled the boy towards him, and fiercely backhanded him across his face. Mark’s head whipped sideways and he immediately felt the burn as his blood rushed from the ruptured capillaries and filled the site, he felt blood trickling from the corner of his mouth.
Without warning, Sandoval pushed Mark to the ground and stepped over the boy, cursing in Spanish.
A strong hand grabbed Mark’s shirt collar from behind and yanked him to his feet.
“Get wood for fire!” the Mexican demanded.
After Mark collected the wood and started the fire, another Mexican handed him all the canteens, demanding he fill them with water.
“No!” Mark replied as he dropped them to the ground.
Sandoval pulled his weapon and pointed it at Mark, who took several steps backwards. “You will do as you are told, when you are told. There will be consequences for any refusal.” Sandoval cocked the hammer of his weapon, and tapped Mark on his chest. “Now… go… fill… the canteens.”
Mark picked up the canteens from the ground, with a big Mexican carrying a rifle following behind him; he made his way to the nearby creek. As he twisted the top of last of the canteens, he felt a swift kick to his back, pushing him into the water and heard the Mexican laughing.
“Get up!” the Mexican ordered and pointed his rifle towards the angered, soaking wet Mark.
Upon their return to camp, Mark set the canteens where the Mexican told him and watched as the others ate from various cans of food. He tried to get close to the fire, only to be pushed out of the way by the big Mexican who had followed him to the creek. The man nodded with his head, indicating the direction Mark should go, “Take care of the horses,” the man ordered.
The sun was setting as Mark shivered upon unsaddling the last horse, as the temperatures dropped. He returned to the camp with BlueBoy’s saddle blanket wrapped around his shoulders. He found a secluded spot he hoped would shield him from the evening breeze and hopefully where he could sleep.
The discomfort in his shoulders due to his wrists being bound behind his back and worry surrounding his Pa, in addition to the snores from the Mexicans kept him from falling into a deep, restful sleep.
Mark heard, “Wake up!” and bolted wide-awake at feeling something wet poured on him, followed by a swift kick to his ribs. “Get more wood,” the Mexican demanded.
Mark sat up and scrunched his nose at smell of the rank coffee soaking into his shirt, he tried to sweep away the coffee grounds and ring out his shirt the best he could.
As the Mexicans ate their breakfast, Sandoval tossed Mark several pieces of beef jerky and said, “Once you’ve ate, saddle the horses, and don’t think of loosening any of the cinches… One loose cinch and there will be consequences.”
Ready to break camp, Sandoval motioned for all his men to mount as he stood in front of Mark. “Now, I’ll ask you one more time, who has the biggest ranch in this area?” His hand rested on the butt of his weapon.
“Oat Jackford,” answered Mark.
“And his ranch is?”
“TAKE COVER!! Be careful with your shots men!” Oat ordered as the Mexican gang bore down on them, firing as they charged into the branding camp. “They’ve got Mark McCain with them!”
Oat dove for cover behind a large, fallen tree and heard several of his men cry out after taking bullets. As the Mexicans circled their camp and continued to fire, he and a few of his men carefully selected their targets and each one prayed their aim to be true. He noticed one of the Mexicans had a firm hold of BlueBoy’s reins and directed where they were going. Oat took a good long look at Mark, his disheveled clothing and the deep bruise across the boy’s cheek; he wanted to be able to tell Lucas everything he could about his son.
Lucas halted Razor and stepped from the saddle; he examined all the footprints intermixed with hoof prints in the dirt and determined he was still on the right track. Lucas heard riders approaching, raised his rifle and ran to hide behind a tree, he hoped and prayed it would be Sandoval; so he could rescue Mark.
“Troop halt!” Lucas heard. “In the camp, we know someone is there. Come out with your hands raised!”
Lucas stepped from behind the tree, his arms out to this side, rifle in his left hand.
“Who are you?” asked the man with captain’s bars.
“Lucas McCain, from North Fork.”
“What are you doing out here, alone?” asked the captain.
“Trailing Sandoval and his gang of outlaws,” Lucas replied as he lowered his arms.
“One man, against all them? How can we be sure you’re not trying to meet up with them?” asked the lieutenant who sat on a horse next to the captain.
“Do I look Mexican to you?” Lucas clutched his rifle in both hands. “They were here last night, and if I’m right, their trail leads to Oat Jackford’s ranch.” Lucas pointed in the direction the outlaws rode as he walked to his horse.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“Captain, don’t get in my way,” Lucas replied.
“Your way? Mister we’ve been on the trail of Sandoval and his bunch for the past two weeks. If you think you’re going after him, you’ll be interfering with official government business.”
“I don’t care whose business I’m interfering, they have my son and I aim to get him back.” Lucas’ tone of voice dared any man of them to stop him.
“Mr. McCain, I’m sorry for your loss,” the lieutenant stated.
“You talk like my boy’s dead.”
“He might as well be,” declared the lieutenant. “They don’t keep hostages.”
“Well, for two days they have. And, Lieutenant…”
“O’Haver, sir. And this is Captain Wilcox, this patrol is out of Fort Stanton.”
“I don’t care where you’re from, Lieutenant O’Haver, the longer you keep me from following those tracks, the longer those men will have my son. Either you join me, or you stay out of my way.”
Lucas signaled Razor into a trot, before he signaled him into a lope.
“We can’t let him go alone,” commented Captain Wilcox.
“You can’t be serious?!”
“Lieutenant, he found them before we did… Motion the patrol to move out and follow Mr. McCain.”
The army patrol, twenty strong, followed after Lucas McCain.
Lucas and the soldiers follow Sandoval’s tracks straight to Oat’s branding camp. Upon cresting the rise, Lucas kicked Razor into a gallop.
“Oat, how many were killed?” Lucas hollered as he pulled Razor to a halt.
“Luckily, none. Three took minor wounds that need Doc; I sent Sam Montgomery into town. Lucas, your boy… they have him.”
“You saw him?” Lucas asked, desperate for answers.
“I presume their leader kept him front and center, letting everyone know they had a hostage. Lucas, they ain’t treating him good. From what I saw… now Lucas, your boy’s still alive,” Oat stated, he saw Lucas’ temper change. “Lucas, who are they?”
“Vicente Silva’s men.”
“Sir,” Captain Wilcox stated as he approached the portly rancher. “Which direction did they head?”
“Well they sure the hell didn’t go in the direction you came from.”
“Oat, which way?” Lucas asked, turning the rancher by the shoulder to face him.
“Northeast Lucas, they headed Northeast.”
Lucas, and the patrol, left Oat and his ranch hands and followed the trail.
On his third night of captivity, the men found a large, abandoned bunkhouse up in the hills to make their camp. Using provisions on the shelves, the Mexican ordered Mark to fix a stew; while tending to it in the fireplace, he watched as the Mexicans sat throughout the building, passing around and drinking from several bottles of whiskey. Realizing these men were nothing without Sandoval around, Mark contemplated his possible escape. Mark cringed as the one Mexican who always kicked him approached; without a real plan, a determined Mark grabbed the stew pan and threw it and its hot contents towards the man, causing him to scream in pain. Mark ran out the open door, towards the line of horses, he heard an outlaw from the building yell, “Watch the horses!”, causing him to change course and decide it would be best to try to get away by the river they had crossed a quarter of a mile from their hideout. Besides, a swim in the river would wash away some of the stench from days of coffee grounds being dumped upon him, and the dirt and sweat that accumulated as they rode.
The drunk Mexicans were slow to give chase, but Mark didn’t slow down. As he rounded a large boulder at a bend in the path, he ran into a horse ridden by Gabriel Sandoval returning to camp. Pushing himself away from the horse, Mark jumped over a shrub bush on the opposite side of the path. Mark thought he caught his foot within the bush, when, without warning, he felt his right leg pulled against its forward movement and yanked backwards; and as his leg reached its full extension, Mark felt and heard a loud pop from his knee, as he fell to the ground. Pulling his knee up to his chest Mark saw the lariat around his ankle and struggled to loosen the loop. Sandoval spurred his horse sideways, pulling Mark’s leg again, causing him to cry out in pain. The Mexican leader continued to drag Mark back to camp.
Sandoval pulled Mark to the front door of the bunkhouse and threw the lariat to the large Mexican, “I told you to keep an eye on him.” Stepping down from his horse, he walked to Mark and hauled him to his feet. “I warned you about consequences.”
“I won’t help you anymore!” Mark dared reply, trying to balance himself by holding onto Sandoval’s wrists as the man held Mark off the ground.
“Whether you want to or not, is of no concern of mine. You will help us as you did this morning.”
“I won’t!” declared Mark.”
“Would you like a matching bruise to the one upon the right side of your face?”
“You’re gonna kill me anyway, why wait?” Mark asked, believing that Doc Burrage had been wrong when he said Lucas would recover. Mark worried why his pa had not found him.
Dropping Mark to the ground, Sandoval laughed. “No, not yet… In due time… You’re still of great value to us.”
Mark woke to a foot nudging his arm, he bolted sideways in anticipation of an imminent kick; Sandoval smirked at the boy’s reaction, “Get up and get the horses saddled.”
“Where is everyone?” Mark asked upon seeing they were the only two remaining.
“You don’t need to worry about them, you best worry about yourself.”
“I told you I won’t help you anymore!” declared Mark.
“Boy, and I told you there would be consequences. Maybe I kill your Pa and then kill you.”
“You mean he’s still alive? You’ve seen him?” Mark desperately asked.
“Now, that’s more like it. Get up and saddle the horses!”
Mark walked across the floor, sorely limping and hoping he wouldn’t fall. He held onto the front porch post as he stepped to the ground. Once he made it to the barn, Mark headed straight for his horse and saddle.
“My horse first,” Sandoval stated as he entered the barn. “I ain’t that stupid, boy.”
With the outlaw watching his every move, Mark complied. He hoped and prayed his pa would soon find him.
At mid-morning, Sandoval motioned Mark to dismount and stand where he was. The outlaw led the two horses into a thicket of trees, and returned a few moments later, “Walk.”
“Where?” Mark asked.
Sandoval pointed up a small rise in the land. Mark continued to struggle to walk, tripping over the uneven ground as they walked through the stand of trees that lined the hill.
As they entered a clearing, Sandoval told Mark to halt. “See that fallen tree over there, go sit down next to it.”
Mark thankfully sat down on the ground, and began rubbing his knee. Sandoval’s shadow cast downwards over Mark as the outlaw reached for and pulled Mark’s arms behind him; Mark struggled.
“What are you doing?” Mark wanted to know.
“Setting a trap.”
“A trap… PA! PA! IT’S A TRAP!” screamed Mark before Sandoval gagged him.
“Keep it up boy and you’re sure to draw your pa here. And just to make sure you don’t get away…” Sandoval pulled out another length of rope and bound Mark’s ankles together. “You’ve been most… hospitable in your assistance today…Niño.”
Mark struggled against his restraints, but ultimately gave up when he realized it was no use.
Lucas and the Army unit followed the tracks leading from Oat’s ranch and the following morning found the abandoned bunkhouse.
“Well, it looks like they spent the night here, Captain,” Lieutenant O’Haver stated, as they looked the building over.
As the soldiers stepped from the bunkhouse, they watched as Lucas stepped from the barn, looking down.
“McCain, what do you see?” Captain Wilcox asked.
“Tracks, the main bunch; and a second set of tracks heading a different direction. These tracks are from my son’s horse,” Lucas pointed out.
Without any warning, a soldier cried out as a bullet struck him. Rifles from the hills surrounding them sounded as Lucas and the soldiers realized they were in a trap. Running for cover, the group returned fire. The sounds of weapons’ fire lasted for a quarter of an hour before they heard the sounds of horses racing away.
“Hold your fire men!” yelled Captain Wilcox as he stepped into the open.
“Who all’s injured?” yelled Lieutenant O’Haver.
“Just Jenkins, took a bullet in the shoulder,” replied a soldier.
“Lieutenant stay here with half the patrol, I’ll take the other half and follow that group.”
“I’m going after my son,” Lucas declared.
“Mr. McCain…” O’Haver answered.
“I’m not one of your soldiers,” replied Lucas.
“I was going to say, give us a few minutes for our corpsman to tend to Jenkins. Since you know your son’s horse’s tracks, we’ll follow your lead.”
“You believe he’s still alive?” inquired Lucas, remembering the day before when the Lieutenant had implied Silva’s Gang didn’t keep hostages.
“We’ve not found his body, and there’s no reason for them to separate, unless your boy was alive.”
Lucas and the soldiers followed the tracks and halted when the trail changed, Lucas saw two horses being led away, by one set of footprints. He read the footprints coming back and two sets of footprints continuing. As they stood, discussing the possible implication, they came under fire in a poorly planned ambush. With training and discipline, they managed to ride past it without any further injury. Lucas continued to follow the footprints while the soldiers followed the horsemen.
Lucas set his rifle down as he knelt beside the tree where he found his son lying, bound and gagged. He tried to ignore the condition of the clothes his son wore, filthy and tattered in places.
“Mark? Are you alright?” Lucas asked as he untied the gag. As he did, he saw the bruise upon his son’s cheek.
“I am, now that you’re here,” replied Mark.
“Are any of the outlaws here?” Lucas asked as he removed the rope around his son’s wrists.
“The others were missing this morning, Sandoval was the only one at the bunkhouse.”
“Do you know where he is?”
“He left me here sometime late morning. Pa, he said he was setting a trap for you? Why?”
“They want our land.” Looking at the abrasions around his son’s wrists Lucas became infuriated. “Did they hurt you?”
“Not really,” answered Mark, and exclaimed in pain when Lucas pulled his legs around so he could untie them.
“What hurts?” asked a worried Lucas.
“My knee, I twisted it pretty good yesterday.”
“I can sort of walk, but it really hurts. Pa, if you hadn’t found me…” Mark was unable to voice his fears.
“Don’t think about that. Just stay put, I’ll see if I can find something to use as a splint,” replied Lucas.
Lucas stood and went in search for a couple pieces of wood he could use to support his son’s leg, until they could get him to town.
“Big man,” called Sandoval as he stepped out from behind a large tree.
Lucas realized how foolish he’d been, leaving his rifle next to his son, he’d let his guard down after being relieved at having found his son.
“What do you want?” Lucas demanded.
“To see you dead, so we can take your land; and return it to its rightful owners.”
“I told you before, I legally own my property.”
“White man’s law, not law of the land.” Sandoval leaned back against the tree. “You come all the way out here, all alone, looking for Niño. Shame, no one knows where to look for you when you don’t return. Tisk, tisk, tisk,” Sandoval proclaimed.
“The Army knows where I am,” replied Lucas.
“Not anymore. My men will soon dispose of them,” Sandoval replied as he drew his weapon.
From the corner of his eye, Lucas saw something move. Instinctively he turned and ran when he heard, “PA!” and saw his rifle flying through the air. With Sandoval firing, Lucas caught his rifle and made a diving roll to the ground, and from the point of his hip, he began firing, striking Sandoval multiple times, spinning him to the ground. As the outlaw fell, the impact caused his gun to discharge.
From behind him, Lucas heard his son cry out in pain.
“Mark!!” With his rifle in his hand, Lucas ran towards where he’d last seen his son. “Mark! Where are you?”
“I’m over here Pa!” Mark hollered in reply.
Lucas found Mark leaning up against a tree, holding his right leg off the ground, tears falling down his face, and cradling his upper left arm.
“I don’t think it’s too bad,” Mark answered while blood seeped between his fingers. “Pa, I feel funny…” Mark’s one good knee started to buckle and Lucas guided his son to slide down the tree to sit upon the ground.
“Just breathe son, breathe in and out. Let me see.” It didn’t take much for Lucas to rip open his son’s shirtsleeve, relieved to see the bullet had only deeply grazed his son’s arm. “Good news is it’s only a flesh wound.”
“Flesh wound?” asked Mark.
While looking at the injury to his arm, Mark began to feel queasy; he couldn’t prevent the dry heaves as his stomach began rolling. Lucas helped him to his hands and knees, and supported his son, offering words he hoped might comfort his boy.
Once the heaves stopped, Lucas helped Mark sit back down. “Just breathe in and out. Just keep breathing deeply, son.”
Mark finally opened his eyes, and looked into his Pa’s face, as his gaze drifted down, Mark saw the red staining his pa’s shirt, exclaimed, “Pa, you’re bleeding!”
“It’s nothing,” answered Lucas as he tended to his son.
“Nothing… nothing…” Mark whispered and quieted as he tried to remember something.
Returning his attention to his Pa, Mark said, “Pa, Sandoval shot you.”
“No son, not this time,” Lucas replied.
“Where he shot you before? You opened your wound again?”
“I’ll tend to it once I’ve taken care of you.”
“PA!” Mark pointed and called out as he saw Sandoval rise to his feet.
Lucas pushed his son down, to lay flat on the ground, he reached for his rifle, twisted, and rapidly fired his rifle, striking Sandoval several more times, only this time Lucas aimed for the middle of the outlaw’s chest; Lucas wasn’t about to give the man a another chance. He walked over to where the man laid, pulled the weapon from the man’s hand and threw it away. He knelt down and closed the man’s vacant eyes, after making sure the outlaw was dead.
“Mr. McCain!” called the arriving Lieutenant O’Haver, who motioned for his men to halt. “Are there any survivors?”
As Lucas stood to his feet and walked towards Mark, “Just my son. Where’s your corpsman?”
“Sergeant Keith, front and center!” ordered the Lieutenant. As the sergeant approached, the lieutenant pointed towards Mark’s location, the men watched as the boy tried to sit up.
“What of the ones you went after?” Lucas asked as he stepped aside to allow the Sergeant room to examine Mark.
“The captain and the rest of the patrol have them in custody. He ordered me back to make sure any others didn’t circle back and try to return.”
Double clutching his rifle, Lucas pointed, and said, “One tried.” He relaxed his guard as he accepted the fact the others would help keep the area secure until they could get Mark back to town.
“Sergeant Keith, once you’ve tended to the young man, see to his father,” ordered the Lieutenant.
“My son is more important,” stated Lucas.
“To you he may be, but to me, you’re equally important.” Realizing Lucas wouldn’t easily cooperate, the lieutenant stated, “Mr. McCain, don’t make me declare martial law.”
The lieutenant motioned for Lucas to take a seat near his son.
Lucas knelt next to his son and watched the Sergeant tend to the boy’s arm.
“Little green around the gills there, aren’t ya. Well, don’t worry, I’ve not met a man who’s died from an itty, bitty flesh wound like this,” this Sergeant spoke with a thick Texas accent.
“Just keep breathing in and out, son. It’ll help calm your nerves,” answered Lucas.
“I’ve got something here that’ll help with that too,” Sergeant Keith stated as he pulled out a flask from inside his shirt.
“I don’t think so,” Lucas responded, his eyebrows arched.
“Uh, right. Little too young for this.” The sergeant slipped his flask back into his shirt and hollered. “Private Draeden, bring me a canteen of water!”
After watching his son take a long drink from the canteen Lucas asked, “How did you wretch your knee?”
Mark didn’t answer, he looked away.
“Son? Answer me,” ordered Lucas, with his hand, he gently moved his son’s head to look at him.
“I didn’t exactly… I tried to get away yesterday. Pa, I know in the past you’ve told me to cooperate, and you’d find me. But you were at Doc’s and when you didn’t find me that first day… I… I didn’t think he or Micah would let you come after me… or…”
“What happened when you tried to run away?” asked Lucas, understand his son’s reasoning.
“I would have gotten away if Sandoval hadn’t returned when he did. I thought I could get away from him, only he managed to get his lasso around my ankle as I jumped over a bush, and he yanked my leg out from under me. After I fell, I tried to loosen his lasso, but he drug me back to their camp. Pa, I’m sorry… I just wanted to get back home.”
Lucas heard the guilt in his son’s voice.
“Don’t be so hard on the young man,” Sergeant Keith stated. “Takes gumption not to be scared out of your wits, and to be able to think about an escape.”
Lucas stood upon hearing horses arrive, but relaxed when saw the rider was in uniform and yelling, “Lieutenant!”
“Report, corporal,” ordered Lieutenant.
“Found these two horses in a thicket of trees about a half mile away.”
“That’s BlueBoy!” hollered Mark as he pointed to his horse.
“Lieutenant, the bay belongs to my son,” answered Lucas as he walked over and took the reins from the corporal.
“How much longer until the boy can ride?” the Lieutenant asked.
“Any time,” answered the sergeant.
Lucas helped Mark to his feet, “Think you can ride?”
“How else are you going to get me back?” Mark asked. With his pa’s help, he hopped over to his horse.
The Sergeant came up behind Mark and asked, “Need some help?”
“No sir,” Mark answered and gave a brief laugh.
“Son?” Lucas queried.
“Been a long time since I’ve done what I’m about to do to get in the saddle,” replied Mark.
The sergeant stayed just behind Mark, in anticipation of the boy needing help. He crossed both his arms after watching Mark grab the pommel of his saddle with his left hand and the back of his saddle with his right hand, and began hopping. With just the right timing, Mark pulled himself up as he jumped; his left foot landing securely in his stirrup.
Lucas saw Mark wince as he hung his left arm at his side, and stood in the stirrup, without swinging his right leg over the back of his saddle.
“Would you like some help now?” asked the sergeant.
“Yeah, I guess now would be a good time for a little help,” replied Mark.
“Sergeant, I’ll lift his leg over the top and you help him bring it down on the other side,” suggested Lucas. He waited for the sergeant to walk to the other side of BlueBoy before he started to lift Mark’s leg over the back of his saddle.
The Lieutenant knew the boy was clinching his teeth in an effort not to cry out because of the pain in his leg, he saw it reflected in the boy’s face.
As his son deeply exhaled, Lucas stated, “I’m sorry son, it couldn’t be helped,” and he patted his son’s left thigh.
Mark nodded in reply.
With Lucas riding Razor on one side of Mark, and the sergeant riding on the other side, they supported Mark between them for the ride to the North Fork.
Lucas was thankful his boy was asleep in the saddle when they arrived in town.
“Here,” the sergeant called to Lucas. “I’ll support him and you just give him a gentle nudge to slip him from the saddle. I’ll keep him from banging his right knee.”
Lieutenant O’Haver forced open the door to the clinic as Lucas walked to the where the sergeant held his son; together they carried the sleeping Mark into the clinic.
As Doc Burrage unbuttoned Mark’s filthy shirt, Lucas became appalled at the bruises and abrasions to his son’s torso, “My God son, what did those men do to you?”
“Lucas, I’m sure the boy will be stiff and sore.” Doc poked and prodded Mark’s ribcage. “But I don’t believe anything is broken. He’s just bruised.”
“When can I take him home?” asked Lucas.
“In the morning. I want to examine him once he’s awake.” Turning to Lucas, “Now, let me see how much damage you did to yourself.”
After checking Lucas’ gunshot wound, Doc shook his head. “Don’t know why I even bother. Let me clean this up, and re-bandage you.”
“Doc? I hear Lucas…” Micah stated as he entered the clinic to see Doc re-bandaging Lucas’ midsection.
“Did you find Mark? Is he okay?” Micah asked.
“We found him. Doc wants him here for the night,” Lucas replied.
“You too. Neither of you are getting out of this clinic until I examine you one more time.”
“What happened to the boy?” inquired Micah.
“Wretch knee, bruises and contusions, and a bullet graze across the arm,” Doc answered.
“Bullet? They shot him?” an appalled Micah asked.
“We don’t have to worry about Sandoval anymore. He’s paid for what he did to Mark.”
“I hope he’s dead,” Doc commented.
“Lucas are ye okay? Is Mark with ye?” Lou anxiously asked as she entered the clinic.
“In the back room,” answered Doc. “He’ll be wanting a hearty breakfast in the morning. But right now, I prescribe his Pa to join him in sleeping. It’s the best medicine for the two of you.”
“Doc, it’s not too late that a good friend can’t stay and visit with me,” Lucas answered.
“Ye? Ye?!” Lou’s posture became defiant as she placed her fisted hands on her hips, “Ye, the one who barely would give me the time of day after I was nearly killed by that madman Vantine, and ye think I’m here to visit with ye?” Lou announced with her strong Irish brogue.
“Now Lou, admit you were genuinely concerned about me,” Lucas teased.
“I’m concerned about ye only because of Mark.”
“Only because of my son… And it was my son for whom you purchased that… um… dress,” Lucas couldn’t help but ask.
“Ye’re impossible!” Lou declared and crossed her arms.
“As I said, my patients need their rest,” Doc motioned for Micah and Lou to leave as he escorted Lucas to the room where Mark already slept.
For three nights, Lucas watched as his son experienced a restless sleep, but as he would sit down on the side of his son’s bunk and place his hand to his son’s shoulder, Mark would eventually settle into a quieter sleep. During the days, they talked of what happened or of work necessary around the ranch, all the while, Lucas assessing his son’s mental condition. Even with a sprained knee, Lucas allowed Mark to ride out with him, doing something to help keep him from dwelling on the past; and better for Lucas to keep an eye on his son. Lucas had hoped tonight would be the night his son would be able to sleep as he blew out the lantern on the wall outside their bedroom door. However, as Lucas prepared for bed he noticed Mark began experiencing an even more troubled sleep.
Mark startled awake to find Lucas sitting down on the edge of his bunk.
“I’m sorry Pa, I didn’t mean to wake you,” Mark commented as he scratched at the bandage around his arm. He tried to slow his breathing as he realized he was safe, at home.
“You didn’t wake me… Doc said if you woke during the night, you could have some of the medicine, to help with the pain…”
Mark started rubbing at his knee, “It’s not really a pain.”
“Is your knee bothering you?” asked Lucas.
“No sir, I…”
Lucas felt concerned for his son, and the ordeal he’d gone through at the hands of Gabriel Sandoval and his men.
“My dream was so vivid, but now…” Mark stated as his eyes settled back on his pa.
“Do you want to talk about it?” asked Lucas.
“Pa, parts of my dream were of Sandoval… and the others,” replied Mark.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about Sandoval and him trying to take our property after their first visit.”
“You mean when you weren’t watching where you were going and tripped over the rake?” Mark sheepishly asked.
Lucas nodded, “Son, I know if I’d of told you up front, you wouldn’t have come home and been here when they returned.”
“Pa, I know you were only trying to protect me. But… by keeping that news from me… Pa, I’m not a little boy anymore.”
“I know son, I guess I’m not really sure how to be a father of a young man… It may be difficult for me to learn to let you in on my grown-up concerns, but… I promise I’ll try my best.”
“I know, but it’s strange…, it seems like…”
“Like what,” prompted Lucas.
“Well, when we first arrived in North Fork, there was Mr. Jackford, and then there was Mr. Packer and Mr. Prescott. And now Mr. Silva. They were all trying to take our land from us; we must have the best property in the whole territory.” Mark smiled at the thought.
Lucas half laughed at his son’s description, yet he still had to ask, “Was that what had you worried in your dream? The possibility of us losing our home?”
“No sir…” Mark quieted his voice when he answered.
“Do you remember any more of your dream?”
“Pa, I know I promised you I’d talk to you… when things didn’t seem to make heads or tails… but, you were still unconscious at Doc’s. Part of the reason I came home that morning was to figure out another dream I had.”
“What’s troubling you son?”
“Pa, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and I think I know… Do you remember when you were going to testify against Slade Burrows…?”
Lucas thought back in his effort to remember, before he eventually said, “Yes.”
“Did I… did I kill Brad?” Mark hesitantly asked.
The events flooded back to Lucas’ consciousness. “Why would you ask that?” he asked not wanting to confirm what happened.
“Because I keep having dreams about a child’s hands holding a Peacemaker and the gun firing… Please don’t lie to me. I can accept I had a hand in killing Charlie… but… there was something else… I… I killed Brad, didn’t I?”
Lucas regretfully nodded, “After I found you, I heard the shots and thought Brad had killed you… the gun’s kickback threw you backwards and you struck your head. I held you in my arms, and when you came to you asked me if I got him… I looked over and saw the blood on the front of his shirt. I knew you had killed him, because my shot struck him in the back of the shoulder. Son… I wanted to protect you from the grief I knew you wouldn’t be able to understand. I thought you wouldn’t remember any different.”
“I didn’t… at least not until after Charlie. Pa, I’m not upset you didn’t tell me the truth back then, but now that I know the truth, it sure makes a lot more sense,” answered Mark.
“What does?” Lucas asked.
“Why I hated your rifle so much. It wasn’t just seeing Charlie lying there… Pa, when Fred and I fought over your rifle and it fired… I saw my hands, these hands,” Mark held his hand in front of him, palms up, “and afterwards I… I heard your voice, and I saw a child’s hands… and I couldn’t shake the image… After Charlie’s funeral, I kept seeing those same, small, hands…”
“But you didn’t shoot Brad with my rifle,” answered Lucas.
“No, but I guess, knowing somewhere in here,” Mark tapped the side of his head, “that I had previously killed a man, and knowing that I helped cause Charlie’s death, even though it was an accident, it all jumbled together to make me hate your rifle.”
“Mark I’ll not understand how your mind managed to put all the pieces together…” Lucas admitted.
Mark looked to Lucas, and Lucas saw something else in his son’s eyes, he wasn’t scared, and the confusion that was upon his son’s face earlier was gone.
“Pa… Is that why you were so reluctant to buy me a rifle and to teach me how to use it? You thought I’d remember killing Brad?”
“It was a small part of it, but over time, the memory got pushed aside and I forgot about it as well. I just truly hoped that by the time you were grown enough to understand the responsibilities that come with owning a weapon, we wouldn’t still be relying on having to carry guns around all the time.”
“But rifles will always be needed for hunting? I mean, it’s not like we can go to Milly’s General Store and asked for her for a cut of prime beef for a steak or for chunks of stew beef, or for a plucked chicken for cooking. And what about rabbit meat for your wilderness stew… We’ll always need rifles.”
“You’re right, son. And, I’m impressed with your abilities when it comes to hunting. Pretty soon, you’ll be as good as I am.”
“There is one problem, Pa.”
“What’s that?” asked Lucas.
“My rifle, Sandoval and his men took it. I can get a job in town, to earn enough money to buy a replacement.”
“No son, it wasn’t your fault you lost it. I’ll purchase you a new rifle once your knee is fully healed.”
“Pa, thank you for letting me know the truth.”
“And you’ll remember our promise, any time you need to talk…” Lucas stated.
“I will. And Pa, maybe, if it’s okay, I think I could use a little of Doc’s medicine, just to help me sleep.” Mark slipped back under the covers before Lucas handed him the glass of water laced with a small amount of laudanum. Lucas helped support Mark as he drank the full glass.
Lucas set the empty glass on the table at the head of his son’s bed before he walked over and sat on his own bunk; he watched over his son as his breathing slowed, indicating he was in a peaceful asleep.
“Margaret, I hope I’m ready for whatever our son’s future holds…” Lucas whispered as he lay back on his bunk.