The Rifleman – The Next Generation Pt 11 (by BluewindFarm)

Synopsis:  An AU look at the lives of the McCains and their friends after the end of the series’ five-year run.  A continuing saga of an idea that began in my story, Timing.

Category:  The Rifleman
Genre:  Western
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  32,860


 

The Next Generation… Chapter 59 – Sugar and Spice

Through what remained of June, a member of Mark’s family was always close by. He had finally talked out his fears with his family, but they still were concerned. Could he slip back down that road again? Mark knew of his families’ concerns because it concerned him. He worked hard to regain his physical strength and he chose to talk of his future, rather than his near death experience.

One afternoon while Lucas and Mark were working on the corral, Mark said, “Pa, I know we’ve talked about what happened and don’t worry, I’m not slipping backwards. But, there was one little thing that stood out in the dream Ma showed me about my future.”

“Your future in having to deal with a daughter who’s just so much like you?” Lucas asked as he gave a little laugh as he remembered Mark describing his dream and dealing with a daughter who didn’t want to go to school.

“Well, it’s getting to be that, maybe, Hope and I should purchase our own buckboard. I mean you and Ma have your hands full with Myra, Little Ted, and Levi, and Hope and I have the twins and Eli, with one more on the way.” Mark looked to Lucas and smiled as he said, “It’s getting a little crowded in the back of the family buckboard.”

“And…” Lucas asked.

“It also would mean to purchase a second team of horses. We’d need to build a second barn for all the horses we have. Money-wise it wouldn’t be a problem. Hope and I can afford it, it’s just that…”

“Go on.”

“This is still your ranch. I mean, I know it’s our ranch, together, but such a big undertaking to build a new barn, I felt I should have your approval first.”

“Mark, we’re partners. You don’t need my approval to build a barn. Especially since I’m not paying for it. This ranch is as much yours as it is mine.”

“Once we finish fixing the corral, do you think we could measure and stake it out and then put together a list of everything we’d need to purchase?”

“Sure Mark. So is this going to be a father and son project?” Lucas asked.

“No, I think it’s time the McCain’s celebrated. I was thinking about a good, ole fashion barn raising. We could start passing the word at the Fourth of July celebration. And schedule it for the end of July. That’ll give us enough time to get all the lumber ordered from the Hardware Store and people to put it on their calendars. Figured it would take the weekend and Saturday night we could have a hog roast with all the trimmings.”

“Sounds mighty wonderful. Been a while since the McCain’s have had a big celebration out here.”

“Yeah, the boys’ first birthday. I can’t believe they’re going to be three already,” Mark replied as he let out a whistle.

“I can’t believe you’re twenty-three.”

*****

As a family, the McCain’s headed to North Fork to celebrate Independence Day and to start spreading the word about the barn raising and hog roast.

Oat Jackford and his crew came into town and after he heard the news, he headed directly for Mark McCain.

“And just what’s the big idea?” Oat demanded, catching Mark off guard.

“Big idea?” Mark sputtered out.

Lucas tried to intervene.

“McCain, you stay out of this. This is between Mark and me.”

“Sir?” Mark replied.

“I hear tell you’re planning a barn raising with a cookout. Ain’t Jackford cattle good enough for you?”

“Jackford cattle?”

“Boy, you can’t have a barn building and a cookout without Jackford cattle being served!” Oat laughed and slapped Mark on the back as he sat down next to him. “Well, come on. Tell me about this shindig you have planned?”

Lucas stepped aside, laughing at himself for forgetting just how ‘soft’ Oat really was when it came to Mark McCain.

*****

Through the next several weeks, Mark pushed himself to get stronger, he wanted to be ready to really work while his barn was being built. It was the Friday before the big weekend, when Hope informed Mark, “You have an appointment with Doc Burrage this afternoon.”

“What? Why?”

“Because I said so. Mark, you’ve been pushing yourself to get better so you can do your fair share when it comes to building our barn. I just want to have Doc say that you’re really doing okay. Please? Besides, I have an appointment for him to see how our baby is doing, too.”

“Okay. If it will put your mind to ease,” Mark stated as he pulled Hope to his lap after she set their breakfast on the table.

“We go too?” Josh asked.

“Don’t you want to stay here with Grandma and Grandpa?” Mark asked.

“We see Grandpa Seth?” Zach asked quietly as he looked at his parents.

“See Ganpa,” Eli mimicked.

“Okay,” Mark answered as he allowed Hope to get off his lap and sit down in her chair.

*****

They arrived in town that afternoon to have Nils holler over to them, “Hey Mark!?”

Mark pulled up the team.

“Got a wire that your buckboard is coming in on today’s freight train. I let Billy Lehigh know yesterday and he said that he or Oat was going to bring to town those two horses your purchased. If you’d like, later this afternoon, I can hitch the team and bring them over to the hardware store and we can use your new buckboard to load your supplies for this weekend. If you want, I can even drive the new team for you.”

“Thanks Nils, I’d appreciate it if you would hitch the team and buckboard and get them to the Hardware store, Pa said he’d ride in later this afternoon and he can help me get the new team and everything back home.”

“No problem Mark. We’re still on to start at eight o’clock tomorrow morning?”

“Only if my wife let’s me get to sleep tonight.”

“Mark!” Hope exclaimed.

“See ya Nils!”

*****

Mark drove the buckboard on to Seth’s home and dropped his three sons off.

“Father, I hope you don’t mind. But they wanted to come to town and spend a little time with you.”

“No problem. Come here boys and give your Grandpa a big, ole hug.”

Both Hope and Mark smiled at the scene before they headed on to the clinic.

*****

“Hope, everything is as it should be. Your baby’s heartbeat is strong. You’re to start taking things a little easier, seeing as you’re in your final two months of pregnancy. I don’t want you over doing it this weekend.”

“I don’t think anyone will let me lift a finger,” Hope stated as she saw Mark about to reply.

“The only thing she’ll be lifting is a fork to eat with,” Mark answered.

“Good, now Mark, your turn. Go ahead and unbutton your shirt please.”

Seth proceeded to examine Mark, checking out how well the scars had healed. Only faint traces remained. He listened to Mark’s heart and lungs.

“Okay, Hope, I declare Mark fit enough for this barn building shindig, but if you see him tiring in the least little bit…”

“I know, I know,” Mark answered.

“Okay, well, Abigail, Savannah and I should arrive around ten o’clock tomorrow morning and then we’ll be there for the rest of the day.”

*****

The morning dawned bright at the McCain Ranch, Hattie and Micah along with the McCafferty’s were the first to arrive. Mark and Hope’s home was set up to handle all the children five and under, while Lucas and Milly’s home would house the children up to ten years old.

Sarah McCafferty walked to Milly after Lucas had helped her down from their buggy.

“Miss Milly?” she asked.

“Yes Sarah,”

“I was wondering, if…”

Milly looked at Sarah and waited patiently.

“Well, I don’t know if you know it, but, I’ve been helping Miss Hattie and Mr. Micah at the day care and I’ve also been spending a lot of time at the clinic, helping Miss Abigail and… I was wondering, if today, I could watch over the young children. I’m so much wanting to be a nurse and Doc says I have good instincts about what to do.”

“Sarah and I think that Hope would love to have someone else help her watch out over all the young children who will be here today. She’s far enough along in her pregnancy that I’m sure she’ll appreciate your help.”

“I didn’t want to say something and have her think poorly of me.”

“Sarah, no one will think poorly of anyone today, when it comes to people wanting to help out. Go on, get over to Hope’s and ask her.”

*****

The bulk of the barn had been framed, the deck of the hayloft had been constructed, and the roof was in place when Lucas and Mark called an end to the day’s construction. Only a few smashed thumbs had to be tended to by Doc Burrage.

Most all the town’s men folk had come out to help build and their wives came to cook or had baked pies and cakes for the occasion. It was shortly after the sun had set when the final person left to head home. As each person left, Lucas made sure everyone realized that church was to be observed on Sunday and for those who wished to return, they’d see them back to the ranch no sooner than one o’clock.

Milly had put their young children to bed and went out to help Lucas and Mark finish cleaning up for the night.

*****

“We had a wonderful turnout for Mark and Hope’s barn raising,” Milly stated as they entered their home.

“That we did.”

“It was so good to see Mark laughing and doing. I mean, if someone hadn’t known what happened the beginning of June…”

“I know how you feel.”

“It was also good to hear and see you laughing, too.”

“Me?” Lucas replied as he sat down in his chair, he pulled Milly close to him.

“Lucas, I know you too well. Admit it, until today, you still had a little doubt that Mark could truly put that whole episode behind him.”

“I did have that little bit of doubt, but today, it totally disappeared.”

“You know Lucas, you could really use a bath right now,” Milly stated as she stood up from sitting on Lucas’s lap.

“I’ve been working all day.”

“I know you have and you smell that way,” Milly replied with a laugh.

“Okay, I know you won’t want to share my bed until after I’ve bathed. I’ll just head down to the creek…”

“No you won’t Lucas McCain. I’ve the tub already filled with warm water in our bedroom.”

Lucas looked to his wife, “Lucas you’ve also been worried about me. Could I put behind me the fact that I can no longer have children? Lucas, it’s been almost five months. Tonight, I’m going to be your wife and I’ll not hear any protesting from you.”

Lucas stood and with his arm around Milly’s waist, he closed the door behind them as they entered their bedroom. Lucas saw the lantern turned down low on the table. He saw the wash cloth and soap on a small crate next to the tub. On one of the kitchen chairs, Milly had brought into the room, he saw several towels neatly folded as well as his shaving blade and shaving cream.

Lucas proceeded to strip, stepped into the tub, and sat down. As he reached for the wash cloth and soap, Milly batted his hand away, “This is my responsibility tonight,” she said as she picked them up and worked to soap the wash cloth into a good lather. Lovingly Milly scrubbed Lucas’ back and then from behind, enjoyed reaching around and bathing his chest. She was as gentle with Lucas as if he was her child, but she knew he was her husband, and deep down she yearned. She allowed Lucas to rinse himself off before she sat on the edge of the tub and proceeded to shave away the stubble from his face. As she set the blade back to the seat of the chair, Lucas reached for Milly and pulled her into the tub with him. He didn’t feel her tense; in fact, he felt as if Milly had planned the whole evening to happen as it was. Passionately he kissed her and he felt her respond. Lucas reached around and unbuttoned the back of Milly’s dress. In time, Lucas stood and set Milly to her feet. He carefully pulled her dress from over her shoulders, letting it fall into the tub. Milly slipped off her camisole and slip and let them fall into the water as well. Lucas lifted Milly and carried her to their bed.

Neither had been asleep for very long when the rooster outside announced that the sun was rising.

*****

By the time Lucas and Milly had their family ready for church and out the door, Mark had already harnessed and hitched both teams. Mark smiled as he saw his parents exit their home and walk with their youngest children to their buckboard and loaded the children into the back.

“Sorry if we worked you too hard, yesterday, Pa,” Mark stated as he handed the reins to Lucas.

“You’ll be even sorrier if you don’t wipe that smile off your face. Today is Sunday,” Lucas answered.

“I know and last night was Saturday night.” Mark replied then he ran to help his family get in their buckboard.

“You little imp!” Lucas hollered.

“I don’t think the ‘acorn’ fell too far from the ‘tree’, Pa.”

With Lucas and Milly leading the way, Mark and Hope followed.

“What was that all about?” Hope asked.

“Don’t you know?”

“If I did, I don’t think I’d be asking,” Hope replied.

“Didn’t you see the expressions on Ma’s and Pa’s faces as they came from the house?”

“So?”

“Guess your pregnancy really has you out of sorts, if you can’t pick up on what happened in their home last night.”

“Mark McCain, they’re your parents!” Hope exclaimed.

“I know. How do you think all their children came to be born?” Mark couldn’t help the devilish smile that spread across his face.

“You better put an extra offering in the plate today to atone for your thoughts!” Hope laughed as she covered her mouth with her hand.

“So you do understand.” Mark laughed and rein slapped the team to catch up. “Should I give extra for you, too?”

*****

It was the beginning of August when Mark was allowed to return to standing watch over North Fork. His first night back, Seth and Johnny insisted on being present. Both had known the struggles Mark had faced, and even though he had come to terms with what had happened and had seen him enjoying himself like never before at the barn raising, no one knew exactly what would be in store on Mark’s first night back.

That night, a number of trail hands and drifters were having a good time and getting drunk over at Sweeney’s. It was approaching midnight and the party appeared to still be in full steam. Sweeney had tried to close the bar down, without any luck, when he finally went to the Marshal’s Office.

“I need your help, and I know it might…” Sweeney started as he entered.

“What’s up Sweeney?” Johnny asked.

“They won’t leave. Say they’re having too good of a time. I need to close the bar down for the night,” Sweeney replied.

All three, Johnny, Seth, and Mark returned to the saloon with Sweeney. Outside the door, Mark hesitated as his thoughts flashed back to that night. Soon he felt hands on his shoulders and a firm squeeze. He looked left to see Johnny and right to see Seth.

“You okay? We can do this if you’re not up to it,” Seth stated. “I was there too Mark. No cause for shame.”

“No, I’m alive. We can do this.” Mark stood a few inches taller as they walked into the saloon.

The noise in the saloon quieted as the patrons realized who had just walked in the room. Slowly, one by one, every man turned around.

“Now men. The owner of this establishment has requested that closing hours be observed. You are asked to quietly leave this establishment and sleep off your liquor,” Johnny stated.

“And who says so?” one man asked.

“The marshal of this town,” Johnny replied.

“And his deputy,” stated Seth.

“And a U.S. Marshal,” Mark said last.

“U.S. Marshal?” someone else managed to squeak out.

“So if any of you are more willing to spend a night in our jail, sobering up…?”

Slowly, the men filed out of the saloon.

“You be okay Sweeney?” Johnny asked.

“Thanks, I appreciate it.”

Seth and Mark watched as the men walked or staggered to wherever they were heading. From behind, they both felt a hand placed on their shoulders, as Johnny came up between them and said, “You did good, real good. You ready to head back to the office?”

“Yeah, Johnny, thanks for the understanding and support,” Mark stated.

As they were half way across the street, the sound of a running horse could be heard approaching. Mark steeled himself, took a deep breath, and turned around.

“Marshal, Marshal, where’s the doc?” the rider yelled.

“Sleeping at home, like you should be. Freddie Toomey, what are you doing racing your horse through North Fork at this hour?” Johnny called.

“It’s Carolina, the baby, I think the baby’s coming!”

“I’ll go get Doc,” Mark said as he finally exhaled and ran to Doc Burrage’s.

*****

The McCain ranch was full of activity as summer wound down and Mark and Lucas, with the help of Jake McCafferty, prepared for harvesting their crops and weaning the cattle in preparation for winter. September was close to an end and since Hope was still pregnant, Mark had moved her into town, and stayed at the hotel with her. Milly had insisted she could take care of all the children, however, Hattie and Micah would not hear of it. They insisted on their being allowed to care for the twins and Eli until the blessed event happened.

“I can’t believe I’m still pregnant,” Hope said as she and Mark lay in bed, Mark massaging her back. “I must look like a pregnant cow!”

“Well, you know women are the ones to always keep men waiting, guess she’s letting us know she’s all female,” Mark laughed as Hope laughed and then reacted to Mark getting the right spot and relieving the discomfort in her back. “Are you so sure of the date when we made this little one? Maybe you got the date wrong.”

“Mark McCain!” Hope stated with a little bit of a mocked tone in her voice. “Oh how I wish she would just get this over with.”

“All in due time. All in due time.”

In time Hope and Mark fell asleep for the night. It was close to three o’clock when Mark woke after Hope let out an involuntary groan and bolted upright in bed. “Mark! I think it’s time!”

Mark jumped from bed and quickly pulled on his pants and boots. He helped Hope get up from bed and helped her pull on a robe. Carefully, he helped her down the stairs and out the front door of the hotel. Another groan escaped from Hope as she doubled over from the pain, grabbing at her belly, “Mark, I can’t. It hurts.”

Mark leaned over and picked Hope up in his arms and carried his wife the rest of the way to the clinic. He entered the clinic and carried Hope into the first available room.

“Hope, I’ll be right back, let me run and get Doc.”

“Oh hurry Mark! She’s not waiting,” Hope called and let out another groan.

*****

The sun was peeking over the hills surrounding North Fork when the sound of a baby crying came from the room. Thadd handed the baby to Abigail, who took the baby to the basin filled with warm water and proceeded to bathe the child.

“Doc?” Mark asked as Hope laid back against him, exhausted.

“Well, I think that’s the quickest you’ve ever delivered a child Hope,” Doc commented and he proceeded to tend to Hope.

“Doc, do we have… a son or… a daughter?” Hope asked as she tried to relax.

“Oh, the baby. Did you have a preference?”

“Doc?!” Mark asked.

“You have a beautiful baby daughter,” Abigail replied. “Thadd shame on you for teasing them in such a manner.”

“Typical female! Makes you wait forever and then quick to demand everyone’s attention!” Mark commented.

“Mark!” Hope quietly said as she looked up to Mark.

“Abigail, once you have the baby cleaned up, why don’t you bring her over here so the proud parents can look her over.” Then turning to Mark, “Mark just let Hope rest back against you until Abigail brings the baby over, then you can help her sit up so she can nurse the baby.”

Mark and Hope were oblivious to Thadd and Abigail leaving the room. Mark was amazed at the newest member of his family. He smiled and looked over his wife’s shoulder as she placed the baby to her breast.

“Your dream came true,” Hope whispered.

“Are we really ready for a daughter?” Mark asked.

“Were we really ready for the twins?” Hope replied. “As long as our house is filled with love, we’ll do fine.”

A rider could be heard whooping it up outside the clinic and the voice faded away as the rider raced from town.

“I guess Uncle Johnny’s on his way to let Pa and Ma know that their newest grandchild has arrived,” Mark commented.

“He’s just proud of his sister’s boy,” Hope whispered.

After the baby stopped suckling and had fallen asleep, Hope laid their daughter in her lap and re-buttoned her nightgown.

“I love you,” Mark whispered and then pressed a kiss to Hope’s cheek.

*****

Mark had fallen asleep with Hope and their daughter in his arms. Abigail opened the door to the room to allow Lucas, Milly, and Seth to slip inside. After all these years, Lucas was still amazed that this was his eldest child and that he was old enough to have children of his own.

Seth looked on in amazement at his youngest child. Thankful that it had been Mark, not that many years ago, who had managed to bring Hope back to her family. Honestly, he was proud to be a part of the family the two of them were creating.

Lucas picked up a chair and set it beside the bed for Milly to sit down in. Mark heard the noise and started to wake, “Huh?”

“Congratulations Mark, we heard we have a granddaughter,” Milly whispered.

“Guess we fell asleep,” Mark stated still not fully awake.

“That’s okay son. We just wanted a peek and didn’t mean to wake you,” Lucas replied.

“We can come back later,” Seth stated.

“No, give me a minute…”

Mark crawled from the bed, trying hard not to disturb Hope. He walked to the wash basin and pulled a rag from the ring on the wall, wet it and then wiped his face.

“We were up sort of late last night talking and Hope’s back was really bothering her. Then this morning, Mykaela demanded to make her appearance.”

“So your dream came true?” Lucas asked.

“Yes sir.” Mark walked over and picked up the bundle that held his daughter, from lying next to her mother. He carried the bundle and handed her to his Ma. The baby started fussing a little bit. “Mykaela Elyse, I’d like you to meet your grandparents. Ma, this is Mykaela Elyse. She’s sort of named after Hope’s mother.”

Milly commented, “Myra is going to be so happy to have another girl in the family.”

The quietness of introductions was interrupted when they heard a child screaming for his Mama. Hope woke at hearing the child’s cries even louder as Abigail opened the door, all she said was, “Mark, its Josh.”

Mark hurried from the room while Lucas tried to prevent Hope from getting out of bed. A few moments later, Mark carried Josh into the room, followed by Doc Burrage. Tears stained Josh’s face. Mark held his son as he climbed into the bed so Hope could be there.

“I’m sorry Mark,” Micah stated as he came into the room. “He was so excited to hear he had a baby sister that he ran out the front door and tripped running down the steps.”

Doc Burrage asked Abigail to prepare a syringe with a sedative for the boy. Mark handed Josh over to Hope.

“There, there, Josh. Mama’s here,” Hope quietly spoke as she rocked her son.

“Hope, I’m just going to give him a sedative to make him sleep for a little while. This way we can set his broken arm and put it in a cast.”

Hope nodded. Josh cried out when the needle pierced his skin and Mark flinched as he hurt for his son. A few minutes later, Josh was asleep in Hope’s arms.

“Hope, let’s go ahead and lay him down on the bed. It’ll be easier for me to set his arm that way.”

A half hour after arriving at the clinic, a cast was around Josh’s arm.

“Mark, I’m so sorry, I…”

“Micah, he’s a boy, he’ll mend.” Mark replied.

Lucas corrected him, “No, he’s a McCain. Don’t worry Micah. This was bound to happen sooner or later. At least it doesn’t appear that he knocked out any teeth like his Pa did.”

*****

Mark returned with Micah to collect his other children, and Hattie, so they could meet the newest member of the family.

“Don’t worry Hattie, Josh will be fine. If you don’t mind, I’d still like leave them with you and Micah until Doc allows Hope to head home.”

They returned to the clinic. Before they entered the room, Mark reminded his sons that they needed to be quiet and careful around the new baby.

“What about Josh?” Zach asked.

“He’s already in the room with your Mama. He broke his arm, but Doc fixed it up and he’ll be okay.”

Mark slowly opened the door, he didn’t think the room was big enough for all the people he saw in addition to his parents and Seth, his Uncle Johnny and Aunt Colleen and his cousin, Lillian were there, as was Johnny and Lou Drako and Abigail. Carefully and diligently, the boys walked in. Mark lifted them from the floor to the bed. Hope held their sister and opened the blanket for them to see her. Next Hope handed Mykaela to Hattie, who had tears in her eyes.

After a while, Josh started moaning just as Thadd came back into the room.

“Thought it should be about time for Josh to wake up. Folks, if you don’t mind, could I have a little time with my patients.” One by one their friends and families bid another round of congratulations as they left the room. After looking over Josh’s arm one last time, Thadd stated, “I’ll want to send home something to help ease the pain from his arm.”

“Thank you Doc,” Hope answered.

“When can Hope go home?” Mark asked.

“Tomorrow is soon enough. I do have a favor to ask of you and Hope. You both know that Sara McCafferty is really interested in becoming a nurse and she wants to specialize in pediatrics.”

“Pedi-what?” Mark asked.

“Pediatrics. It’s a medical specialty focusing on young children and babies. Anyway, I’ve been really pleased with how she’s been helping Abigail and I’d like for her to get a little more exposure to working with babies. Just for today and tomorrow, I’d like for you to agree that she can be in here while I’m examining your baby. It’ll be good for her education.”

Hope and Mark nodded.

*****

The following afternoon, Mark drove the team to Hattie and Micah’s. He picked up Zach and Eli and the bags with their clothes and toys.

“Thank you so much for watching them,” Mark stated as he put Eli in the back.

“We’re just sorry about Josh,” Hattie stated.

“Don’t be. You’re still their great-grandparents, nothing to be sorry about.”

Mark climbed into the seat and drove the team to the clinic. Seth waited by the buckboard while Mark entered the clinic and in time he brought Josh out and put him in the back. Before he turned go to back into the clinic, he pointed his finger at his eldest and gave him one of those, ‘behave yourself’ looks. A few minutes later, Mark with Hope carrying Mykaela came from the clinic. Hope handed her daughter to her father and with Mark’s help, she climbed up to the seat of the buckboard. Seth handed his granddaughter, back to Hope.

“Take care of the family Mark and we’ll see you next week!” Seth hollered as Mark picked up the reins.

“Next week?” Mark asked.

“Mark, you need time with your family. My daughter just gave birth to your fourth child and I’ll not have you abandoning her just when she needs you.”

“But… Yes sir. Thank you,” Mark replied.

Looking in the back to make sure his three sons were sitting down, Mark turned and rein slapped the team to head for home.

*****

Milly, Lucas, and Myra were standing on the porch when Mark drove the team to the yard.

“Welcome Home!” Milly called as they stepped to the buckboard.

Hope handed Mykaela to Milly and then allowed Mark to help her from her seat. Lucas had stepped to the back of the buckboard and helped his grandsons down.

“GrandPa, look at my arm!” Josh yelled.

“I see. Has your Papa told you of the time he broke his arm?” Lucas asked.

“No!” Mark hollered. “And I do not want to give any of them any ideas that could lead them to do what I did when I broke my arm.”

Laughingly Lucas said, “Come on boys, Grandma has some cookies and milk for you inside.”

Lucas and Milly followed the three boys inside.

Little Ted was already at the table inside. “It’s about time,” he called. “Ma said I couldn’t have any ‘til you got home.”

*****

Hope walked to the front porch and sat down in the chair. Mark pulled a second chair next to Hope and allowed his sister to sit in it.

“Myra, we’d like you to meet you niece, Mykaela,” Hope stated as she handed Mykaela to Myra.

“Hello Mykaela, I’m your Aunt Myra.” Then looking to Mark she said, “It’s going to be a while before she can play with me, isn’t it?”

“I’m afraid so sis.”

*****

That evening, after Mark had put their sons to bed and Hope had finish nursing their daughter and tucked her into her cradle, Mark pulled their family bible from the chest and set it on the table. From his desk, he brought over the pen and ink well. Hope returned to the front room and sat down next to Mark and lovingly recorded the birth of their daughter.

The Next Generation… Chapter 60 – On the Trail

Lucas stood on the front porch to his home, enjoying a cup of coffee and watching as the sun set and vividly painted the evening sky, before he spotted a rider coming towards their home. Lucas stepped down from the porch as he greeted Tom Benton, having pulled his horse to a stop.

“Tom! What brings you back to North Fork?” Lucas asked.

“I need to talk with you. old friend,” Tom stated as he stepped down from his horse.

“I don’t think I like the sound of that.”

Milly stepped from the house and greeted Tom; and asked him if he’d like a cup of coffee.

“As long as you were the one who brewed it. Uh, Lucas, Milly, can we go inside? We need to talk.”

The three entered the front room.

“Myra, I think it’s time for bed,” Milly stated as she walked to the table and helped Myra gather her schoolwork and escorted her to her bedroom.

“Okay, ‘old friend’, just what’s up?” Lucas asked as he poured a cup of coffee and handed it to Tom.

“I’ve got a problem.”

“That’s obvious,” Lucas replied without meaning any sarcasm.

“Lucas, I received word that some outlaws are trying to start up Skull Ranch again.”

“That is a problem. But why tell me? You’ve got deputy marshals all over the territory,” Lucas replied.

“I know, but…” Tom hesitated when Milly came back to the front room.

“Go on Tom. I don’t keep secrets from my wife.”

“This may be one time you might want to,” Tom answered, he used a moment to carefully blow over the top of the coffee cup before taking a sip, as an excuse to put off informing Lucas what he really didn’t want to say.

“Just spit it out,” Lucas encouraged.

“Lucas, I’ve credible evidence that Artie Rigby and Toby Dahl are there. I don’t think I can ask Mark…”

“No you can’t. You do have a problem. But why not ask your other deputies?”

“Because I don’t want word getting back to Mark.”

“Why don’t you want Mark to know about these outlaws? Isn’t it his job?” Milly asked, confused.

“Milly,” Lucas started. “These two were the ones who almost killed Mark.”

Milly pulled her hand to cover her mouth. Lucas could see the tears starting to form in her eyes as she understood the implications.

“Sorry old pal, but I never rescinded the oath we swore you to when you took over for Mark. You understand why I can’t send Mark out after them. If I have to Lucas, I’ll order you to accompany me.”

“Some pal you are,” Lucas replied, torn one way, knowing he didn’t want to make Mark relive his memories. Mark had finally gotten on with his life. Torn another way, for the lie he and his family were going to have to tell his son.

“Lucas, as far as I know, no one saw me get off the train in North Fork. I stayed in the livestock car with my horse. The conductor opened the door and I was on my way here. I can start ahead of you and make my way to Lordsburg. I can wait for you in Separ.”

It was decided that upon Tom’s arrival in Separ he would send a wire requesting Lucas McCain’s urgent presence in Santa Fe on Cattlemen’s Association business.

*****

While Lucas was gone, Mark took over the duties of escorting Myra to and from school. Mark would normally ride with her to school, but Lucas would come of an afternoon and see her home. With Lucas being gone and Mark having to stay certain nights at the Marshal’s office, it was decided that Myra would spend those nights with Colleen and Johnny and then return to school the next morning. When Mark was done with his shift, Mark would meet his sister at the school, or if he wasn’t there shortly after the dismissal, Mr. Griswald would see her to the daycare. Then Mark would ride home with her. This day, Mark was delayed in heading home by taking a report from one of his deputies. It was late enough that Mark decided to take Myra to the hotel for supper before heading home.

“So, are ye going to get to go trick or treating tomorrow night?” Lou asked.

“I don’t think so. Pa’s away on business and I been helping Ma and Hope with the boys and Mykaela.”

“Tis a shame. But regardless, ye are one beautiful angel! I’m sure your Ma and Hope appreciate ever thing ye do for them.” Lou smiled and left to tend to her other patrons.

*****

Mark and Myra bid Lou goodnight and started for home. The temperature had dropped while they were in the restaurant so Mark gave Myra his jacket and made sure she was wrapped in it as well as he could. As they rode homeward, the sky darkened and the wind blew in a fury. Mark grabbed Blue Boy’s rein and kicked the horses into a faster pace. They were more than half way home when the thunderstorm struck. Mark knew of a large cave where they and their horses could take refuge and wait out the storm.

As they approached the cave, a lightning bolt illuminated the landscape and Mark saw a figure crouched about fifty yards from the opening of the cave. Over the noise of the rain and thunder, Mark yelled, “Gabby, take Blue Boy and get in that cave. I’ll be there in a minute!”

Mark watched as his sister rode into the cave and disappeared into the darkness. Mark stepped down from his horse a short distance away from the crouching figure.

“I’m not here to hurt you!” he yelled. “Come on! Let’s get you inside the cave and out of this rain!”

As the next bolt of lightning flashed, Mark saw the gleam of a knife blade. He kept his distance, “I only want to help you. I’m a U.S. Marshal!” He pulled his badge from his shirt and held it out to the person.

Mark saw the knife placed on the ground and he tentatively stepped closer. He held out his hand to help the person up. In the next flash of lightning, Mark realized the reason the person hadn’t moved, their foot was caught in a bear trap. Mark dropped to his knees and attempted to pry open the blades of the trap. He said a quick prayer, thankful that it wasn’t a jagged trap, but still, the force of the blades snapping closed could very well break the ankle of a person. Finally he was able to free the person. Not hesitating, he picked the person up, threw them over his shoulder, and carried them into the cave. He set the person down against the wall and ran back out into the storm for Copper.

Mark had discovered the cave years previously and had stocked it with dry wood for just such an occasion. He’d remembered once, a long time ago, of being caught out in a storm and not being able to find any dry wood to start a fire once he was safely inside the cave. He started a small fire and made sure Myra and the stranger would be warm enough. Next he stripped the horses of their gear. He returned to the fire carrying the water canteens and offered one to their ‘guest’.

“I’m sorry I don’t have any fixings for coffee, but at least the water will quench your thirst.”

The hand that Mark saw reach for the canteen was petite and delicate looking, but he could also see the dirt and scratches upon it.

“My name’s Mark McCain and this is my sister Myra. I’d like to take a look at your ankle, check to see if it’s broken?”

Mark waited to see how the ‘girl’ would react.

“It’s okay. My brother’s a Marshal. He also knows how to help doctor people,” Myra spoke.

“My name is Gwenivere Shawnesee,” the girl spoke in a soft voice, a voice that also held tears.

“Pleased to meet you Gwenivere,” Mark replied as the girl moved her leg for Mark to look at it.

Even without removing her short boot, Mark could tell the ankle was broken. He went to his log pile and found a few pieces that he felt would do as splints. He pulled his bandana from his back pocket and removed his belt to use to secure the splints once they were around Gwenivere’s ankle.

“It can’t be helped, but this is going to hurt. I need to set your leg before I can splint it.”

Mark watched as the girl nodded and closed her eyes. He saw her ball her fists. Mark acted quickly to set the ankle. The girl couldn’t hold her scream from the pain, nor the tears falling down her cheeks. Myra knelt beside the girl, trying to comfort her.

Once the ankle was set and splinted, Mark said, “Sorry, it’s rather crude, but once the storm subsides, I’ll get you to our home, then I’ll head back to North Fork and get our doctor.”

Mark stood and walked to get a few more pieces of wood to place on the fire. He’d seen the girl starting to shiver and knew that Myra probably was cold, too. Mark stood watch with his rifle in his folded arms at the entrance to the cave; wanting to make sure they didn’t have any unexpected visitors – man or beast. He listened to Myra telling Gwenivere of their life at the ranch and of going to school. He’d look back inside every now and then and smiled at how strong his sister was behaving. It had been a little while since he had heard anything from either of the girls when he looked back and saw both girls, curled up asleep. Mark sat down and sent up a quiet prayer hoping that in some way it could offer some comfort to his family, knowing they must be worried about Myra and him.

As time passed and the storm continued to rage on, Mark remembered back to the last time he’d been caught out in such a fierce storm. He had been just shy of fifteen when he tried to rescue a young girl and the two of them had been swept away in a flash flood. Mark couldn’t stop the shivers caused by the memories of the outlaws who had found them and then forced Mark to take up a hand gun, playing a practical joke on him. Telling him, he was now one of them. The only things that got him through those dark days were taking care of Sarah McCafferty and praying the two of them would, somehow, be reunited with their families. Now here he was again, caught out in a storm, but this time, he had his sister in addition to a stranger to try to keep safe.

While Mark, Myra, and Gwenivere waited out the storm in the cave, Lucas and Tom were entering into a storm themselves.

*****

Night had fallen as Tom and Lucas arrived in Lordsburg and headed straight for the Sheriff’s. They observed that most of the businesses were dark. The only place besides the hotel that showed any activity was the saloon. They halted their horses and tied them to the hitching rail in front of the Sheriff’s Office and entered to find the Sheriff sitting at his desk reading over some wanted posters.

He looked up, “Good eve…” he hesitated. “McCain?” he asked as he struggled with the recognition. “Lucas McCain! Good to see you!” The Sheriff stood from his desk, walked around and extended his hand.

“Good to see you again Sheriff Mercer. I’d like to introduce a friend of mine, U.S. Marshal Tom Benton.”

After introductions were made and pleasantries exchanged, they got down to business. Tom explained that the U.S. Marshals had received word that Skull Ranch was being re-established.

“I know, I have one of them locked up in my cell. Funny though, he don’t act like any of the others I’ve had to deal with.”

“How so?” Tom asked.

“The others, they’re boisterous, loud, and obnoxious. This one, he stands proud, a loner, but quiet… Got me on edge, like he’s planning something. I don’t like it.”

“Why’d you arrest him?” Lucas asked.

“That’s just it. Strangest thing, he was disturbing the peace and falling down drunk, passed out in the middle of main street. Other than sliding food into him, I ain’t been back there since I put him there last night. Didn’t want to get caught in a trap.”

“Do you know who he is?” Tom asked.

“Naw. Ain’t seen no poster on him, but you don’t stay at the Skull Ranch for your health. You know that better than anyone Mr. McCain.”

Tom looked to his friend, “Lucas? Care to explain?”

“Tom, don’t look at me that way. Mark and I had come out this way hunting, think he was thirteen, maybe fourteen. Anyway, I’d left Mark at camp, working on his studies while I went out and scouted around. When I arrived back at camp, Mark wasn’t there. I got worried. I searched around but lost track of him in the high rocks. I rode out looking for a ranch, for anyone to help me find Mark… Before I knew it, I had a number of guns pointed at me and was being ‘escorted’ to the main house. That’s when I met Holt Coyle. I begged for them to send someone out to help me find Mark. He was just a boy… I didn’t know it, but Coyle did sent men out to look for Mark. And they found him. Anyway, Coyle had heard about me and my rifle, planned for me to be the ‘executioner’ when he headed to town to get some of his men out of jail. Threatened they’d kill me and the boy, if I didn’t do exactly as they said.”

The sheriff continued the story, “My man, Applegate, had gone to Las Cruces to see if he could get any men we could deputize to help out. He returned to town with a half drowned boy, telling a wild tale about him and his Pa being held captive at Skull Ranch. I couldn’t believe it when Mr. McCain took on the whole bunch he rode in with him after he saw that his boy was safe. Never seen nothing like it before and nothing since.” Mercer shook his head. “So you two, just the two of you are here to clean out Skull Ranch again?”

“Depends on who all’s there,” Tom answered. “We’re looking for two men, Artie Rigby and Toby Dahl.”

“I seem to have heard those names. What are they wanted for?”

“Attempted murder of a U.S. Marshal,” Tom replied. “Well, would you like for me to interrogate your prisoner? He might have vital information we could use.”

“Be my guest.”

Mercer opened the door and let Tom and Lucas into the cell area of his jail. They approached the cell and saw a man lying on his side, with his back to the door.

“Wake up!” the sheriff hollered. “You have visitors.”

The man slowly began moving, stretching his arms. They heard him yawn before he rolled over and sat up. The man scratched the back of his head and stretched his arms again and raised his head and bent it from side to side. Lucas jumped at the cell, “It can’t be!”

The man opened his eyes and looked at his visitors, “Mr. McCain? Marshal Benton?”

“I can’t believe you turned outlaw! Grid Maule, how?” Lucas asked, surprise in his voice. “I thought you had changed. I thought you were going to make a respectable life for yourself.”

“Mr. McCain, if you’d let me explain…” Maule stated.

“You two know each other?” Tom asked, looking to Grid.

“It was Mr. McCain who I wanted to kill when I was fourteen. I even tried to force his son into a gun fight, believe me when I say it was with unloaded guns. He and the Marshal were all ready to send me back East to a school for troubled youths.”

“Guess we should have at that!” Lucas stated in disgust.

“No, you did right Mr. McCain. Actually, it was your boy who did right.” Grid stood up and walked to the bars. “Mr. McCain, you remember your boy talking to me?” Lucas nodded. “He got me to seeing how I was wrong. He got me to seeing how it very well could have been the other way around. That he could have been the one gunning for me. After I rode from town, I got to thinking, and… I know my choices were my own, but I realized, one day, I’d have to answer for them, right, wrong, or indifferent, I’d have to answer for what I did. And it wasn’t to you, the marshal, or a judge and jury. But to God, I’d have to answer to God. It meant a lot to me that your boy told me, a stranger who had threatened his life as well as your life, that he was sorry my Pa was dead. That’s why I went back to your home that night. I needed you to know that… it mattered.”

Lucas took a step back, he finally began listening not just to what Grid was saying, but how he said it.

“I returned to Oklahoma Territory and started to finish my schooling. There was a store owner in my home town that had lost his son to sickness. He found me one night, trying to study on my own in the livery. We got to talking. He offered me a place to live in exchange that I would help him out in the store, after my studies were done. He knew how good I was with my guns and told me that there were conditions to his offer. I had to agree to put away my guns, until I turned eighteen. And then, he said he’d pay for me to attend college, but if I wanted to take up my guns again, I had to go into law enforcement. I had to stand up for what’s right.”

“But you’re in jail!” Lucas said.

“Lucas,” Tom spoke and tried to pull Lucas away from the bars, “Easy.”

“You know this man?” Lucas asked, turning to Tom.

“Yeah, he’s my credible witness.”

“Your witness?” Lucas asked, confused.

“Mr. McCain, I’m a Deputy U.S. Marshal. Marshal Benton sent me in from Oklahoma to help him on this case. He needed someone who wasn’t known in these parts.”

“Deputy Marshal?” Lucas asked again.

“Yes. Sheriff, if you don’t mind. Would you let my deputy out of your jail?”

As Sheriff Mercer opened the door to the cell, Grid spoke, “Getting thrown in jail was the only way I knew that I could speak with whoever the Marshal Service sent and those at Skull not get spooked.”

The group walked to the front of the sheriff’s office and Grid took his guns from the sheriff.

“Mr. McCain, how is Mark? I mean…” Grid asked.

“I know what you mean Grid. He’s a grown man, like you are,” Lucas replied.

“Hope he followed your boot prints and went into ranching,” Grid spoke as he strapped his guns to his legs.

“Grid, you’re more alike than you know. The two men you wired me about? They’re wanted for attempted murder on Mark’s life,” Tom replied.

Grid was shocked at the news.

“I thought you said they were wanted for attempted murder on a U.S. Marshal,” Sheriff Mercer stated.

“They are. Mark McCain’s the U.S. Marshal assigned to this territory,” Tom answered.

*****

The storm had broken long before the sun rose over the hills. Mark stood and stretched, tried to massage at his aching back. He walked to where Myra and Gwenivere slept. He gently shook Myra’s shoulder to wake her.

“Come on sleepy head, time I got you home. Ma must be having a fit worrying about you,” Mark stated as Myra sat up and wiped the sleep from her eyes.

Next he walked to where Gwenivere slept, carefully he put a hand to her shoulder, she bolted wide awake.

“It’s okay. It’s just morning time. Time to get you home and fetch the doc for you. Sorry, I only have a little jerky in my saddle bags, but it’ll have to do you and Gabby until I can get you home and fix some real food.”

Mark walked to his saddle bags and pulled out the jerky, picked up the canteens and took them back to the girls. He kicked at the dirt to extinguish the fire before he stomped it out. He returned and begun saddling the horses.

Myra walked over and tugged on Marks pant leg, “Mark?”

“Yes, Gabby,” Mark replied as he worked to tighten the cinch on Blue Boy’s saddle.

“Is Mama going to be mad at me?”

“No, but she’ll probably be riled at me for getting you into this mess.”

Mark and Myra led the horses out the opening of the cave. Mark helped Myra up into the saddle and handed Copper’s reins to her, “Here, you hold on to Copper until I get Gwenivere in the saddle.”

Mark walked inside and returned carrying the girl in his arms. He lifted the girl up into his saddle, then swung up behind her.

*****

Milly was on the front porch shaking out the rug when she saw the riders coming into the yard. She ran out as she recognized them and saw the sad state of their clothing, “Myra! Mark! What happened?”

“Mama, we got caught in the storm last night and Mark led us to a cave and he found Gwenivere and he fixed her leg and…” Myra stated, her words rushing out and she jumped down from Blue Boy and ran to hug her Ma.

“Hold on there one minute young lady!” Milly stated.

“Ma, I’m real sorry. I got delayed in town and figured it was late enough that I needed to feed Gabby so we stopped by the restaurant and had supper, then when we were heading home, the storm let loose on us and I didn’t want to risk coming the rest of the way home last night. I’m sorry Ma. I really didn’t mean to worry you,” Mark said as he climbed down from Copper.

Once both his feet were on the ground he heard Hope calling his name. He turned to see her running across the yard towards him; he pulled her into his embrace.

“Hope, would you mind. Myra and I found Gwenivere out in the storm last night. She’d stepped in a bear trap.”

“Mark, get her down from Copper and bring her into the house right now!” Hope ordered.

Mark reached up and carried Gwenivere into their home and followed Hope into their bedroom.

“Go on now, go fetch Doc Burrage,” Hope told him. “Let me tend to her. Git!”

Mark returned to the horses. He led Blue Boy into the barn, unsaddled him, and turned him loose in the corral. Mark exited the barn and swung up into the saddle, seeing his Ma walk from her home towards him, he called, “I’ll be back, Ma, and we can talk, after I get Doc Burrage.”

He kicked Copper into a lope and rode for town. Upon his arrival he was informed that Doc Burrage was due back anytime from Oat Jackford’s place. Seems Oat wasn’t paying that good of attention to where he was walking and took a hard fall.

Mark waited outside the clinic until he saw a friend of his Pa’s walking by, “Mr. Galveston?” he called.

The man stopped and turned, “Yes? May I help you… Marshal?”

“Mr. Galveston, I’m Mark McCain, Lucas McCain is my Pa,” Mark answered hoping the man would recognize him.

“Oh, my, it’s been quite a while since we’ve seen each other. You sure have grown up. How may I help you?”

“I thought Pa was with you up in Santa Fe.”

“No, I haven’t been in Santa Fe for…for almost a year.”

“Ma said that Pa received a wire, saying there was urgent Cattlemen Association business and he had to leave to head to Santa Fe.”

“Nothing that I’m aware of. In fact, we’re going to have great news at the next Association Meeting after the first of the year.”

“Well, maybe I misunderstood Ma. It was a pleasure seeing you again sir. I hope you enjoy your stay in North Fork.”

Mr. Galveston tipped his hat and continued on to the hotel. Mark headed for the telegraph office.

“Amos,” he called as he entered. “Oh, excuse me, Mrs. Marris.”

“No need Marshal. I’m done with my business,” she replied as she turned and walked out the door. “Tell you mother and your wife that I hope to see them Sunday at the social.”

“Yes Ma’am.”

“Well now, Mark,” Amos stated. “How can I help you? Personal or official business?”

“You tell me Amos. The wire Pa received calling him to Santa Fe, where’d it come from?”

“Well, I thought it was funny that the wire called him to Santa Fe when it originated in Separ. I mean, if someone’s planning to meet him in Santa Fe, I expect they’d be in Santa Fe, considering Separ is a might bit closer to North Fork.”

“Separ… Who was it from?”

“I don’t rightly remember,” Amos answered as he went about trying to straighten the papers on his desk.

“Amos, you remember more details than anybody about anything. Come on, there’s a chance that Pa’s been lured into a trap. I have to know!”

“Mark, you know that anything I get off the telegraph is confidential between the sending party and the receiving party. I just can’t,” Amos declared.

“I can arrest you for withholding information…” Mark threatened.

“Well, two nights before the wire arrived, I saw Tom Benton lead his horse off the train and then ride out of town. I thought it was funny that he’d head out the direction towards your ranch when you was at the Marshal’s Office that night. Then the wire came, two mornings later, and was initialed T.B.”

“Tom Benton, here?” Mark ran from the telegraph office and back to the clinic. Thadd was just arriving as Mark grabbed for Copper’s reins.

“Thadd, we have a slight emergency out at the ranch.”

“One of the children?” Thadd asked.

“No, I found a stranger out on the road last night during the storm and she’d stepped in a bear trap. Her ankle is broken.”

“Okay, give me a few minutes to get my things together and I’ll ride back with you.”

“Thadd, something’s come up and I need to get home fast. I can’t wait for you,” Mark replied as he swung up into the saddle and ran Copper from town.

*****

Mark noticed that Myra had been bathed and had changed her clothes as he entered his parents’ home.

“Ma, where’s Pa?” he asked, as he walked to the kitchen.

“You know he’s up in Santa Fe on Cattlemen Association business.”

“That’s quite interesting since Mr. Galveston is here in North Fork and isn’t expecting any meeting until after the first of the year. Said he didn’t know anything about any emergency. I’ll ask you again, where’s Pa?”

“Mark…”

“Ma, what was Tom Benton doing here last week?”

“Tom Benton? Here?” Milly panicked.

Mark walked over and placed a hand on Milly’s shoulder, then placed his other hand beneath her chin and raised it so he could look her in the eyes.

“Ma, what are Tom Benton and Pa up to? Where are they?”

“I can’t Mark. Your father wanted to protect you. He’d die if he knew you found out.” Tears started welling in Milly’s eyes.

“Find out what?” Mark demanded.

“When Tom and Johnny deputized your Pa, back in the summer, Tom never rescinded the oath after you returned to duty. Your father is still considered a Deputy U.S. Marshal,” Milly said as she turned her head and walked away.

“What does this have to do with why Tom returned to North Fork and why Pa isn’t here?”

“Uncle Tom found a skeleton,” Myra called from sitting at the table.

“A skeleton?” Mark repeated.

“Myra!” Milly reprimanded.

“He did!” Myra proclaimed. “I heard him and Papa. I couldn’t sleep and I heard him talking about skulls and such.”

“Skulls… Skulls?… Skull Ranch! Ma, Tom and Pa are headed to Skull Ranch?! Is that what you’re hiding from me?”

“Part,” Milly answered as she sat down in her chair.

“What’s the rest? And don’t tell me you don’t know. I know Pa doesn’t keep anything from you.”

“Tom came here last week needing your father’s help. He had word that the Skull Ranch was being re-organized.”

“Why come to Pa and not to me? I’m the marshal in this territory.”

“Because two men he was looking for were there. He was torn about asking you to go and your father agreed he shouldn’t.” Milly slumped her shoulders and hung her head as she spoke.

“Who were the two men?!” Mark demanded.

“Mark, please? Don’t make me tell you their names,” Milly pleaded.

“Why? Who are they? ”

“They’re the men who tried to kill you, Rigby and Dahl,” Hope spoke from the doorway. “Thadd just arrived and is taking care of Gwenivere. Mark, your father didn’t want you to have to relive those memories.”

“Rigby and Dahl, the ones who tried to kill me AND YOUR FATHER!” Mark yelled towards Hope. Then turning to Milly, “You both knew?!”

“Mark, you’re alive and living your life. We couldn’t stand to see you pulled down again!” Milly begged.

“So Tom Benton shows up and coerces my Pa to accompany him? If those two had no qualms about trying to kill a U.S. Marshal and a deputy marshal in North Fork, what makes you think they won’t try it again, in Lordsburg? Huh?! This is my territory! None of you had the right to withhold this information from me! NONE OF YOU!”

Mark stormed from his parents’ home, Hope followed, begging for Mark to understand. He pulled his saddle bags down from Copper and headed to his home.

“Understand, my Pa is out there trying to do MY JOB because everyone was scared about ME?!” Mark demanded.

“No Mark! Not scared. We were worried, concerned. Mark, you’ve put your life back together, we didn’t …”

“You didn’t think I could handle my job? Then what have I been doing since I was just shy of seventeen? Have I been a joke to all of you? Look at the boy thinking he’s a Marshal?”

“Mark, you’re not thinking rational,” Hope declared.

“No, I’m scared for my Pa. That he’s going to get killed because no one had faith in me. Seems I’m the only one who cares about him!”

Mark threw several clean shirts and some supplies into his saddle bags. From the locked cabinet he pulled several boxes of cartridges.

“Mark! That’s not fair!” Hope yelled back.

“Fair? Fair?” He returned outside and mounted Copper, “I’ll be home after I find my Pa! Just pray I’m not too late!”

Mark roughly turned Copper around and rode for Lordsburg.

*****

“So, seeing as how this is your show,” Lucas spoke. “Just how do we proceed from here?”

“I don’t rightly know,” Grid answered.

“How many are there?” Tom asked.

“There were only a dozen, besides me. I was advised to get in, look around, take a count, and get out. Also was told to be on the lookout for those two.”

“Did you spend enough time at the Skull to find out who else is there?” Tom asked.

“Sure, Black Jack Ketchum and his brother, Sam. There was Will Carver and Ben Kilpatrick and Elza Lay. There were three others, but they weren’t any recognizable names.”

“I know Ben Kilpatrick rode with Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch. Didn’t figure he’d team up with another gang,” Tom replied.

“You figure to have Grid get us back inside?” Lucas asked.

“He’d have to come up with one hell of a good reason for being able to escape from my jail,” Sheriff Mercer offered.

“What if we wire for other Deputy U.S. Marshals to meet us here? We can surely take out those at the Skull,” Grid commented.

“May not be that bad of an idea. Lucas, what do you think?” Tom asked.

“If we do this, we have to get them out in the open,” Lucas replied.

Tom and Lucas headed to the telegraph office and sent a wire out for any and all Deputy Marshals to make their way to Lordsburg, by nightfall the next night.

*****

By the following evening, six additional Deputy U.S. Marshals were waiting in the livery. Tom indicated that everyone was to mount up and ride. They rode hard and fast from Lordsburg. In their haste, they missed seeing two men ride into town from an alleyway. The newcomers heard the posse riding hard and fast and held to the shadows.

“Well Dahl, seems we did right in coming to town. Ketchum and the others are gonna get caught tonight.”

Once they were sure the posse was well beyond seeing them, they rode from the shadows and pulled up at the saloon.

“Let’s go have some fun!” Dahl replied.

*****

Nearing midnight, a solitary rider entered town. He stopped his horse in front of the Sheriff’s Office and noticed no one was inside. He pulled his rifle from his scabbard and carefully, proceeded further into town. He stepped down from his horse and looped the reins over the hitching rail in front of the General Store, just across the street from the saloon. He walked across the street and looked over the swinging doors. Above the noise, he heard the laugh and then tried to find the man who went with it. He located the man standing at the far end of the bar. He recognized the man standing beside him as well. Taking a deep breath, he entered the saloon, rifle at the ready.

The noise in the saloon quieted as one by one the patrons realized someone new, of authority, had entered. As he passed each table, he thumbed over his shoulder indicating those people had best get out.

“Hey, what happened to the music?” the shorter man called, slurring his speech.

“I told him to get out.”

“And just who do you think you are breaking up our fun?”

“I’m the one who’s going to see you finally jailed.”

“Jailed,” the taller of the two asked. “Try it. Others have. One got stuck like a pig, the last time.” The man roared out a hollow, drunken laugh.

From the corner of his eye, the rider saw the saloon keeper reach under the bar top. “I wouldn’t if I were you. Unless you want brought up on Federal charges,” said the rider as he kept his rifle trained on the two men at the end of the bar. He saw the saloon keeper jump the bar and head out the front doors.

“So, just you left. How do you expect to see both of us to the jail?”

“I can just as soon plug both of you and drag you to the undertakers. Better yet, I heard a mean sow over by the livery. Maybe I’ll drag your sorry carcasses and feed you to her.”

“Hey Rigby, he thinks he’s gonna get the better of us.”

“Shut up!”

“So, it’s your call,” the rider cocked his rifle. In the silence of the stilled saloon, it was loud.

The shorter of the two men charged the rider. The rider slammed the stock of his rifle across the side of the man’s face and watched him drop to the ground. He spun around and fired one shot as the tall man cleared his holster with his gun. He dropped hold of his gun as the bullet shattered his wrist.

“What the hell?” Rigby called, as he held his broken wrist to his stomach.

The rider kept his rifle trained on Rigby as he stepped over Dahl. Several town’s people had watched the events unfold through the saloon windows and started back inside. He approached Rigby and stepped behind him. He planted his rifle at the base of Rigby’s spine.

“I can just as quickly pull this trigger as you can flinch. Your call, if you live or die tonight.”

The rider reached up and pulled the hidden knife from the collar of Rigby’s shirt and slid it along the bar top.

“Next time you try to kill a man, make sure he’s good and dead before you ride away.”

With that, the rider swiftly used the butt of his rifle and hit the man up the backside of his head, knocking him out cold. A murmur went through the crowd, they heard the cold tone of the rider’s voice.

He pulled open his jacket and showed those inside his U.S. Marshal’s badge, “I’m ordering you upstanding citizens to drag their carcasses to the jail.”

****

One lone man from Lordsburg remained in the Sheriff’s Office after everyone else had left.

“Those two are from Skull Ranch,” the older man stated.

“Your Sheriff, where is he?” the Marshal asked.

“He and a U.S. Marshal and a bunch of deputies headed out to Skull earlier this evening, I heard.”

“Thank you Mr. Applegate. Head on back to your family,” the Marshal said.

“You know me?” Applegate asked.

“You saved my life once. Just go home.”

“Marshal?”

The marshal motioned him away.

Applegate left the office as the Marshal stood and stared out the window. Applegate tried to remember when he would have saved the life of a U.S. Marshal.

*****

The posse rode from Lordsburg. When they arrived at Skull Ranch, they spread out. Each man kept an eye out for signs of an ambush. They cautiously arrived at the main house to find it dark. After searching the property, they found no one there. The barn was even empty of horses.

“I don’t get it,” Benton stated. “What happened? Where’d everyone go?”

“It’s like they knew we were coming and disappeared,” a deputy stated as he returned to the group.

“There’s even food left on the table,” another reported.

“Grid,” Tom spoke. “Do you think your being thrown in jail could have spooked them? Could they have figure out you’re a lawman?”

“How could it? I didn’t come begging them to let me in.”

“Just how did you get inside?” Lucas asked.

“I was doing what I needed and stopped at the saloon. One of them, I think his name was Angel Chavez, bumped into me and I drew on him. That caused the saloon to quiet down considerably. Later that night, they cornered me on the street, said they didn’t know of too many cowboys who wore double guns slung so low. I told them what I did with my guns was my business and I didn’t appreciate anything they were insinuating.”

“And they invited you to Skull?” Tom asked.

Grid didn’t answer. He slowly kept his eyes on the move, trying to figure out what could have spooked the outlaws to leave in such a hurry.

“If he affected the attitude he had when we first met…” Lucas commented. “It would be easy for anyone to think Grid was on the wrong side of the law.”

Tom asked Grid, “While you were here, was there any time where the entire gang left the property?”

“Naw, no more than three or four were gone at any one time,” Grid answered.

“Don’t make any sense,” Tom stated. “They just up and left.”

“We can be thankful that no one lost their lives or was wounded tonight,” Lucas commented.

“Amen to that,” another voice said.

“Grid, we’ll talk once we get back to the Sheriff’s Office,” Tom said. “I want to know everything that happened once you arrived at Skull.”

Tom turned to the group and told everyone to mount up. As they rode back to Lordsburg, Tom mulled over in his mind how he was going to write up this report. All the manpower he had pulled to Lordsburg to get this gang and not one member could be accounted for.

*****

Those in the posse, not from Lordsburg, stopped at the hotel and took rooms for the night. The Sheriff proceeded on to his office. Wearily he sat on his horse before noticing the lanterns inside were lit. Slowly he stepped down from his horse and entered his office. He saw a man sitting behind his desk, writing.

“Excuse me, but that’s my desk you’re behind,” Sheriff Mercer stated.

“Sorry for the intrusion Sheriff, but I was just writing you a note and getting ready to head to the hotel. Did you have any casualties tonight? I heard you and a group of U.S. Marshals headed out to the Skull Ranch.”

“We did. But when we got to Skull, it was empty. They vanished. Maybe we’ll return tomorrow and try to trail them,” the Sheriff stated as he noticed the badge the man wore. “Sorry you made your trip for nothing and we left before you arrived.”

“I wasn’t invited. Lucas McCain and Tom Benton, you know where they are?”

“Yeah, they’re over at the hotel.”

The Marshal stood from the desk, picked his hat up and placed it on his head, then picked up his rifle.

“I know you from somewhere?” Mercer asked.

“Some when,” he spoke as he walked to the door. “Oh, I have two prisoners in your jail cells. In the morning, tell Marshal Benton they’re a present for him and McCain.”

“Should I tell them who left them these ‘presents’?”

“They’ll know.”

He walked out the door and pulled it closed behind him.

*****

The hotel owner was just stepping from behind the counter when he saw one more Marshal enter, “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought I had rooms for everyone already assigned.”

“No problem, I didn’t come with them.”

“Then you be the one who took out the two in the saloon?”

“I was. Did you say anything to the others?”

“Others? Oh, no, weren’t my business to mess in Marshal business.”

The hotel owner turned the register around so he could look at the name written – Mark McCain, North Fork, NM.

“McCain, you any relation to the other McCain? Guess you have to be, since you’re both from North Fork. I can give you a second key to his room, if you want. Or I can give you your own room?”

“I’ll take my own room.” With that, he took the key and headed to the room third floor, back side.

*****

The following morning, Tom and Lucas headed to the Sheriff’s Office.

“Morning Sheriff,” Lucas called as they entered.

“Morning. I got two presents locked up for you. I’m just about to check in on Doc. He should almost be done looking them over one more time.”

Lucas and Tom looked at each other and then back to Mercer. They watched as he took the keys and walked back into the cell area, they followed.

“Let us out of here!” Rigby demanded. “We’re gonna press charges against that Marshal. He had no right to shoot me!”

“I heard from witnesses that he had every right. Your buddy tried to assault him first and then you tried to draw your handgun,” Mercer replied.

“Sheriff, let me out of here,” Doc said as he stood and stepped to the door. The Sheriff closed and locked the door behind him. “He’ll never hold a gun in that hand again. You know Sheriff, from what I heard tell from those who saw it last night, no one’s ever seen anyone as good with the rifle. Other than that Rifleman who was here a number of years back.”

“The Marshal who left us these presents?” Tom asked. “Who was he? Did he leave his name?”

“Not exactly. He looked familiar and when I asked him if I knew him from somewhere, he said some when. He told me you’d know who he was when you saw the prisoners.”

Lucas’ heart dropped, “He couldn’t have. It couldn’t be.”

“Lucas I’m sure he’s back in North Fork,” Tom replied.

“Can you describe him? Where is he?” Lucas asked.

“Mid-twenties, dark haired. I don’t know exactly. He was a Marshal for sakes,” Mercer replied. “Last I saw him, he was heading to the hotel last night.”

Lucas and Tom turned and ran to the hotel. A different clerk waited behind the counter than from the night before. He started to protest as they turned the register around and looked at the last name entered.

“That’s p-private in-information,” the clerk stammered out.

“What room?” Lucas demanded.

“Room?” the clerk replied.

“Mark McCain, he registered here last night after we did. What room?” Tom demanded.

“He ain’t here no more. He checked out shortly after you headed to the Sheriff’s Office, said I was to give you this if you came back looking.” The clerk bent down and pulled out an envelope from a shelf on the back side of the front counter.

Lucas tore open the envelope and pulled out a badge bearing the stamp of U.S. Marshal.

“Damn!” Tom replied and slammed his fist on the counter top.

“Tom, I have to go after him. But…”

“Lucas, I can get Grid and one of the other deputies to help me get these two back to North Fork.”

“North Fork?!” Lucas inquired. The tone in his voice indicated his displeasure at hearing these two would be brought to his home town.

“Lucas, we took Red Evans to Denver because that’s where he was originally wanted on Federal charges. Rigby and Dahl, their crimes occurred in North Fork. I’ll wire Marshal Barker and start the paperwork to have a Federal Judge be sent down to North Fork to preside over the trial.”

“I don’t want them near my family!” Lucas demanded as he pointed to Tom.

“Lucas, it can’t be helped. Unless their attorney requests a change of venue, their warrants are sworn out of North Fork and that’s where the trial will have to be. I’m sorry Lucas. If it could be any other way… You best track down Mark.”

Lucas stood, mournfully aware of the hurt they had caused his son.

“Lucas, it wasn’t only you. I guess none of us were ready to admit that Mark has grown up and can handle more than we think he can. We were all so worried about him slipping back into his depression. I guess we should have been more concerned about ourselves and given him more credit for his comeback. When you find him, give him back his badge. I won’t accept his resignation.”

Lucas rode for home.

*****

Tom and Grid returned to the Sheriff’s Office after sending the wire to Denver, informing Cole Barker the two responsible for the attempted murder on Mark McCain and Seth Lane were in custody. They wired they would wait in Lordsburg for instructions, before returning the prisoners to North Fork. As they entered, Grid took note of the layout of the Sheriff’s Office, the solid door that led to the cell area. He noted the Sheriff’s desk just to the side of the closed door. He looked over the placement of the file cabinets and the lone table, next to the window, the farther corner from the jail cell door. They helped themselves to a cup of coffee.

“If you want, I’ve some cream in the cold box in back,” Mercer offered.

“Naw, been drinking it black since I was ten. Besides thinking on revenge, it was the only thing that kept me awake while I was learning how to handle my guns.”

Mercer took a hard look at Grid as he took a seat on the table. Benton took a seat in front of the Sheriff’s desk. Grid proceeded to tell Benton and Mercer what happened, after he arrived at Skull Ranch. He talked quietly, not letting his words reach beyond the room, he talked without emotion. “Like I said, I arrived in Lordsburg, didn’t ask any questions, kept to myself, but they took it upon themselves to think I was an outlaw and invited me to Skull. Once there, they showed me around and told me to make myself at home. I didn’t do anything to make them think I was a lawman. I’ve had to infiltrate gangs before. I know how to do my job.”

“Did you hear them doing any talking?” Mercer asked.

“Sure there was plenty of talking going on. But nothing that would incriminate anyone or stand up in a court of law. Most of it was hearsay,” Grid responded.

“Why would they just up and leave? They had to be planning something?” Mercer stated.

“No one said anything that would make me think they was planning a job, least not while I was around,” Grid spoke.

“Could they have been on to you from the beginning, keep your allies close and your enemies closer?” Benton asked.

“You sent me down here, said I wasn’t known in these parts. You figure it out,” Grid coolly answered. His voice displaying an attitude that he didn’t ‘mess up’ this assignment.

“Did you hear any names while you were there? Names of people who weren’t known outlaws?”

“They did a lot of bragging about what they heard of other outlaws, doing this or doing that. Is there any one name in particular you looking to hear?” Grid was starting to get indifferent to the questioning. Treating him as if they thought he had become a member of the gang.

Before anyone could say anything more, Applegate returned to the Sheriff’s Office and was introduced to the marshals. Grid pulled his foot up onto the table and rested his elbow on his knee, holding his cup of coffee in that hand. Applegate took the chair next to Benton.

“Sheriff, the Marshal that was in here last night, the one who apprehended those two from the saloon?” Applegate asked.

“What about him?” Mercer asked.

“He looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him. He said I saved his life before. I don’t recall saving any U.S. Marshal’s life.”

“Mr. Applegate, he wasn’t a marshal when you saved his life. From what I heard earlier, he was about thirteen years old when you first met him,” Benton stated. “A boy, half-drowned that you brought back when you and the Sheriff were standing against Holt Coyle and his bunch from the Skull Ranch?” As recognition hit Applegate, Benton continued. “He grew up and became the man you saw in here last night.”

“That was the boy?” Applegate let out a whistle and pushed his hat back on his head. “Time sure does fly. Feels it was only a few years back, now it makes me realize it was… what… ten years ago?”

Tom turned the conversation back to Grid’s story, “Were you able to think of any names?”

“If you’re looking to hear McCain, I would have included that in my wire. If I’d heard them mention Lucas or Mark, don’t you think I’d of informed you?”

“What about Johnny Drako?” Tom asked.

“The gunfighter?” Grid asked. He continued when Tom nodded. “Heard ramblings, someone having heard from someone, about him being killed in a street fight somewhere, but nothing concrete. Besides, a dead gunfighter’s the best kind. One less I have to worry about.”

Grid stood and walked to the pot bellied stove and poured himself another cup of coffee.

“Grid, Johnny Drako ain’t no outlaw, never was. Sure he has a reputation as a gunfighter, but every one of his killings was in self defense or in defense of another person. About seven years ago, he saved the lives of Mark and Lucas McCain and tracked down the gang responsible,” Tom answered.

“Someone tried to kill Mark before?”

“Yeah, only that time, he was just badly beaten up from the story that I remember hearing from Drako.” Benton continued to tell the story of Johnny Drako, “Anyway, soon after he returned Mark to North Fork, he decided to settle down and call the town his home. He’d tired to put down roots there once before, but changed his mind. This time, the Town’s Marshal offered him a deputy’s badge and a couple of years ago, he became the Town Marshal. He got married and has a family. Rigby and Dahl, they were trying to kill Drako, but instead they damn near killed Mark and his father-in-law.”

“Mark and his father-in-law? Mark got married?” Unguardedly, Grid beamed a smile and shook his head in disbelief as he remembered the boy standing the other side of the jail bars, his body language that of someone who was scared; yet, his voice indicated the courage he had deep within. Grid mused to himself, wondering just how his life would have turned out, had Mark McCain not been there, that day.

Grid’s attention and his demeanor returned to the present as Agglegate proceeded to tell them how Mark had apprehended Rigby and Dahl.

*****

Mark arrived back home to find Gwenivere and Myra on the front porch of his parents’ home, playing a game of checkers.

“Mark!” Myra called. “Welcome home! Is Papa coming home soon?”

“He’ll be home soon, Gabby. Why don’t you and Gwenivere go inside and play. The temperature is starting to drop and I don’t think Ma would want either of you to take cold.”

He watched as Myra picked up the board game and Gwenivere followed, hobbling along on her crutches. He entered his own home. Hope turned from fixing supper at the stove, worry and concern on her face.

“Mark? Is Pa all right?”

“He’ll be home later.” Mark headed for their bedroom. He placed his hand to the doorknob and stopped turning it when Hope called, “Please Mark? I didn’t mean to hurt you. Neither did Ma or Pa. We only did what we thought was best.”

“Best for who?” Mark answered without turning around.

“We thought it would be best for you,” Hope answered as she wiped her hands on her apron and walked to where Mark stood. “Guess we weren’t ready to let you go.”

“Let me go? Go where?” Mark asked; his back still to his wife.

“To stand on your own. We’re weren’t ready to admit that you didn’t need us anymore.”

Mark turned and faced Hope, “Didn’t need you anymore? You’re my family, I’ll always need you. But I also needed to be able to do what was my job.”

“Was your job? I don’t understand… Mark your badge?!” Hope exclaimed as she realized Mark was no longer wearing his badge.

“I gave it back. I remember telling Micah a long time ago that if he didn’t trust me to perform all the responsibilities of being a deputy, then he should just take my badge back. I was still a teenager back then, so I could understand Micah being a little leery of my taking a prisoner to Clovis. I’m twenty-three years old! I’m not a child! Yet you’ve all been treating me like I would break, ever since I returned to duty.”

“No Mark. Since we almost lost you, Mark,” Lucas called from the open door and stepped into the front room. “I’m sorry son. You were able to get over your fears after you were almost killed, but we didn’t. When Tom came, we still saw you as we remembered; when you were scared to live. We didn’t learn our lesson. Can you forgive us?”

“In time. Right now, if I’m to be a rancher, I have work to do. I need to change.” Mark opened the door and proceeded into their bedroom.

Hope looked to Lucas, her eyes pleading.

“Hope, it’s not your fault. You were only doing what I asked. I should have trusted you to know him better. You’re his wife.”

“But you’re his father. I’ve only know him for seven years, you’ve known him his whole life.”

*****

The sun was setting over the McCain Ranch when Johnny Drako rode into the yard. Lucas stepped from his home and greeted him, “Evening Johnny. What brings you out this way?”

“Evening, Lucas. Got word that you and Mark were back. I have some news that I thought both of you should hear. It’s from Tom Benton. I’d like to tell you and Mark at the same time.”

Johnny stepped down from his horse and tied him in to the hitching rail. Lucas stepped down from the porch and together they walked to Mark’s home. Lucas knocked and the door was answered by Hope.

“Evening Pa, Johnny? What brings you here this late?” Hope asked.

“We need to talk with Mark,” Johnny answered.

“He’s putting the boys to bed. Come in.”

Lucas and Johnny entered the front room, Johnny removed his hat. Gwen stood from where she was sitting and excused herself and went to the bedroom opposite from the boys’. A few moments later, Mark came from the boys’ room.

“Welcome home Mark. Got some news from Tom Benton. Thought we should discuss the arrangements for the prisoners that will be coming to town for the trial,” Johnny stated.

“That’s between you and Marshal Benton,” Mark answered. Seeing the perplexed look on Johnny’s face, Mark continued, “I turned in my badge. I’m just Mark McCain, rancher.”

“I don’t understand?” Drako replied, looking first to Lucas and then to Mark.

“It’s easy to understand. I wasn’t trusted enough to do my job, so I resigned,” Mark replied. The bitterness could still be heard in his voice.

Mark stepped to the fireplace and stirred the logs and placed another long on the fire to increase the warmth in the room.

“Mark, I’m not sure what happened, but regardless, I need every man available in this town to help guard North Fork while the trial is underway.”

“What trial, Johnny?” Hope asked.

“Benton’s bringing the two… He’s transporting Rigby and Dahl and then there are others bringing the three we tracked down in Willow Point, Janes, Roush, and Tell. All five are standing trial here in North Fork on Federal charges for attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder.”

“Don’t think the judge would appreciate one of his witnesses standing guard against the defendants. He might see it as a conflict of interest,” Mark replied.

“Mark, what’s gotten in to you, boy?” Johnny demanded. “I need you, back in town to help.”

“Maybe you should speak to my Pa, seems he knows better what I can or can’t do? I have to get up early in the morning, so if you’ll excuse me.”

*****

Johnny and Lucas stepped from the house, Johnny asked, “What was that all about?”

“Tom and I overstepped our boundaries. We didn’t tell Mark we were going after the two who tried to kill him and Seth. We were just trying to protect him.”

“Lucas, I don’t care what’s between the two of you, but I damn well need all the deputies, all MY deputies. I don’t care what it takes…” Then pointing his finger towards Lucas, “You get him back to wearing that badge or so help me, I …”

Johnny placed his hat back on his head and got on his horse and returned to North Fork.

*****

“Mark, your actions are totally uncalled for!” Hope declared.

“Hope, it’s my life. I’ll deal with this on my own.”

“On your own? We’re a family. I’m your wife!”

“I know you are. But you should have told me. Tom and Pa, they could have had a little more faith in me. Trusted me to do my job.”

“Johnny just did. He asked you for your help. You know, you’re acting like a… Worse than your three year old sons when they don’t get their way!”

Hope turned and headed towards their bedroom, slamming the door behind her.

*****

Mark stepped to the porch and sat down on the steps. He looked up as he heard an owl fly across the night sky. About fifteen minute later, he heard the door open behind him.

“Hope, please. I… just let it be.”

“I’m sorry, I’m not Hope,” Gwenivere stated as she managed to sit down in one of the chairs.

“How are you getting along with…?” Mark said as he pointed to her leg.

“Okay, Doc says it’ll be another four weeks before the cast comes off.”

“Have you been able to send word to your family that you’re safe?”

“I don’t have any family, least none that’ll have me. I’ve an Aunt somewhere back East, but she never approved of my Ma marrying my Pa and them having me, I’m just trash to her.”

“You’re not trash. Don’t let anyone talk down to you like that. Stand up for yourself,” Mark said.

“Is that what you’re doing?” Gwenivere asked. “I couldn’t help but hear the discussions between you and Hope before you left and just a few minutes ago.”

“Gwenivere, I…”

“Please, my name is a mouthful. People I consider friends, call me Gwen.”

“Gwen, I don’t think it’s any of your concern. You need to focus on taking it easy so your leg can heal. I take it that Hope has made you feel comfortable while you’re staying with us?”

“She’s a lovely woman and your children are beautiful. I’m sure that once you get over this little misunderstanding, the real love will return to your home.”

“Gwen…”

“Please Marshal…”

“If you were listening, you’ll remember hearing, I’m no longer a Marshal.”

“That might be how you feel right now… I’m sure they were only doing what they did, because they love you. Give yourself time to heal.”

“I healed from my injuries and fears back in the summer.”

“You’re feeling hurt, now. It takes time to heal from that, too. My Aunt never got over the hurt she felt my Ma caused her.”

“That’s different,” Mark replied.

“How? Because you feel your family hurt you over their lack of trusting you to do your job? My Aunt hurt me, by not trusting my Ma’s love for my Pa or his love for her. My Aunt hurt a person she never met, me. She never wanted anything to do with me. My Ma died during childbirth when I was eight. Pa wrote to her, to let her know of Ma’s death, and the letter we received back said that to her, Ma died the day she married my Pa and she wanted nothing to do with his child. I’ll be eighteen next year, how would you feel knowing you had family out there who wanted nothing to do with you?” Gwen’s tone of voice changed and disgust could be heard. “And you feel hurt because you have a family who loves you and wanted to do nothing more than protect you.”

Gwen stood up with the aid of her crutches and returned to the house.

*****

Mark thought back on the conversation, ‘Guess I should be thankful that I do have a family who cares…’ He stood, slapped his hat in his leg, and walked to the barn, saddled Copper, and headed to North Fork. He halted his horse in front of the Marshal’s Office, saw that Johnny and Seth were inside. He got down from his horse, tied him to the hitching rail, and then stepped to the boardwalk. Before entering, he took a deep breath and then knocked on the door. There was an eerie quiet among the three as he entered the office.

“Johnny, I owe you an apology. My actions earlier, as my wife pointed out to me, were totally uncalled for. I’m sorry for sulking. You came asking for my help, I’m here, if you’ll still have me.”

“Mark regardless of what happened at your home, Seth and I still need you to help out. Here, put this on.” Johnny tossed a deputy’s badge to Mark.

“When do the first prisoners arrive?” Mark asked.

“Day after tomorrow,” Seth replied. “We received a wire from Marshal Benton that he and two other deputies would be transporting the two he has. They were assigning four deputies to go after the three being held at the New Mexico Territorial Prison.”

“If they’re already in prison, why bring them here?” Mark asked.

“They were charged with conspiracy to commit murder, not the attempted murder charges. Everything will get sorted out once Benton and Cole Barker arrive. Barker’s accompanying Judge Jules Oury down from Denver to preside over the trial.”

“Mark, I understand how difficult this is going to be for you and Seth. But I want to see these men tried fair and convicted in a legal court of law. I know the people of North Fork, but my concern is the outsiders coming in. The trial will start two days after the last prisoners arrive.”

For the next two hours, the three formulated their plan of how to protect North Fork, her citizens, and the prisoners. Before he left the office, Mark shook hands with Johnny and Seth, knowing the easiest part of his apologies were done.

*****

Mark returned to his home. He saw the lamp beside the door was lit. Through the window, he also saw the lamp on the table turned down low. He walked Copper into the barn, unsaddled and unbridled him. Mark gave all the horses a late-night flake of hay. He turned to find Hope standing in the doorway, leaning back against the frame, hands behind her back.

“I hope your ride helped?” Hope asked.

“No, actually…”

“Mark, we can’t go on this way,” Hope interrupted.

“I know. I was about to say that you helped me out by pointing out how childish I was behaving. Worse than the twins, huh?”

Hope nodded.

“Then, when I was sitting out on the porch, Gwen reminded me, I have a family who cares for and loves me. Hope, can you forgive me for behaving so childishly?” Mark asked as he walked towards his wife and pulled her into his arms.

“I’ll forgive you, but, can you understand how your father felt when Tom arrived and was informed he knew where the two men were who tried to kill you?”

Mark escorted Hope to sit down on the stack of hay bales. He sat down behind her and wrapped her in his arms.

“I do. He was being a father. My Pa. Wanting to protect me. But that’s just it; neither of them gave me the chance to ask for help. Or gave me the chance to say I didn’t think could do it. I had a responsibility to this territory and between the two of them… How do you think the deputies who reported to me reacted when they heard that Tom didn’t trust me to do my job, but instead, asked my Pa?”

“Mark, Tom does trust you, as does your Pa. They didn’t want to bring back those memories and make you relive them.”

“And just how am I not going to relive the memories of the attack, since I have to give testimony at the trial? Were they hoping there would be a shootout and the outlaws would be killed? That’s not what my badge was all about. That’s not what all my years of training to be a Marshal was all about. Tom told me a long time ago, he needed new blood, men who think before they act. Those two men need to stand trial…”

“And they will Mark,” Lucas answered from the doorway.

Mark and Hope turned to the direction of Lucas’ voice.

“I’m sorry for eavesdropping, but I got worried when I saw you ride out and I’ve been waiting for you to return. I just wanted to apologize again for my actions.”

“No Pa, it’s not for you to apologize for doing your job, wanting to protect your son,” Mark said. “I should have remembered all our talks, where no matter how old I get, you’ll always be there to do your best to protect me. I was the one who wasn’t living up to my responsibility of being your son.”

Lucas finished walking into the barn and sat down on the hay stack, just opposite from Mark and Hope.

“I see you changed your mind about helping Johnny and Seth?” Lucas asked.

“That’s where I went. We have a plan in place for when the prisoners start arriving. I’m sure the judge will want to change it some, but at least we have a starting point.”

Lucas reached into his shirt pocket; he tossed the object to Mark. “I think you’d look a lot better wearing your own badge. Tom told me he wouldn’t accept your resignation.”

“Is Ma still awake?” Mark asked.

“No, she went to bed shortly after you left.”

“I’ll wait to apologize to her in the morning then,” Mark answered as he rubbed at his U.S. Marshal badge.

“I won’t accept your apology in the morning, Mark,” Milly called as she walked into the barn and sat down next to Lucas, allowing him to wrap his arms around her.

“I’m sorry Ma. I really am. I should have accepted that you were only doing what you thought best, for me.”

“Mark, it’s not for you to apologize, we shouldn’t have kept this from you to begin with. We should have remembered this family doesn’t keep secrets,” Milly answered. “Can you forgive all of us?”

“We’re family, I guess there’s nothing to forgive,” Mark replied. He pulled Hope into a tighter hug.

“So now that we’re one big happy family again,” Lucas stated. “You care to tell us how you managed to capture Rigby and Dahl by yourself?”

“You what?!” both Hope and Milly exclaimed.

For the next half hour, Mark told of what happened in Lordsburg. As his family asked questions, Mark honestly and sincerely answered. The foursome finally stood and walked out of the barn to return to their homes.

“By the way Mark, Milly was telling me a little about Gwenivere earlier this evening. What are your intentions for her?” Lucas asked.

“Intentions?” Mark asked.

“Yeah, this is the second time you’ve brought a young woman in trouble back to this ranch. The first time, you ended up marrying the gal.”

“PA!” Hope exclaimed.

Lucas couldn’t stop the laughter. Even through the dim light of the half moon, he could see Mark’s cheeks turn red.

The Next Generation… Chapter 61 – Shock

The night before they headed out to North Fork, Tom and Grid were standing in front of the Sheriff’s office. The town was quiet, with most folks having already turned in for the night. Tom was leaning forward, his hands on the hitching rail, looking out onto the deserted street of Lordsburg. Grid was leaning back against the hitching rail, his back to the street. Grid asked, “You don’t like being my being here, do you?” as he flicked away the match he used to light his cigarette.

“Can’t exactly figure you out. Your superiors talk highly of you, but I get the feeling you could go either way. You don’t like my questioning your actions… Yet, you follow my orders even though I can tell you don’t care for some of them. I get the feeling if you had a good enough reason, you’d turn outlaw,” Tom replied.

“Ain’t that what you want when you send someone in to infiltrate a gang?” he took another drag on his cigarette and slowly exhaled into the night-time sky. “You’d rather McCain was here beside you?” Grid asked.

“Lucas and I go way back. I’ve known him since the war. He was a good Lieutenant.”

“Men change,” Grid stated.

“Yes, some do. Some for the better, others not,” Tom stood straight and looked at Grid.

“I figure you and Mace Aubrey can handle getting them two to North Fork,” Grid said, knowing Tom was looking at him, but he continued to look back to the Sheriff’s Office.

“And you’re planning to just leave?” Tom asked.

“No, I’m gonna track the others,” Grid replied and then inhaled deeply and exhaled the smoke from his cigarette.

“The others?”

“Yeah, as many as I can. They may not be wanted for attempted murder on Mark McCain, but, as the Sheriff said, you don’t stay for your health at Skull.”

“You figure to set out alone?”

“Sure, when I catch up with them I’ll play along to figure out what they’re up to.”

“And when they ask you how you got away?”

“I’ll tell them the truth. You found out I was at Skull, you made me lead you to the ranch, but when you got there, no one was there, so you had no reason to keep me in jail once I was sobered up, and set me free. First off, I’ll make sure you make it to North Fork. I’ll keep an eye on you from the distance. Scout around and make sure they ain’t following you.”

“And if they are?”

“Then I’m just on your trail, trying to keep an eye on where you’re going so I can maybe free Dahl and Rigby so they don’t make it to North Fork,” Grid stated as he dropped his cigarette and ground it out with his boot heel. “I’ll head out early in the morning. Be seeing ya, Marshal.”

*****

Grid headed out of Lordsburg before daybreak. He rode towards the hills where he could stand and watch for a good long time as Tom and Mace rode with their prisoners to face justice. Once he reached a favorable location, he hooked his leg over the saddle horn and pulled out and lit a cigarette and proceeded to smoke.

In time he spotted four riders, one in front, two side by side, and one behind. Grid ground his cigarette out on his saddle horn before he dropped the butt to the ground. He signaled his horse to move out.

The surrounding landscape was quiet and no trace of any others following could be seen. The solitude of the land suited Grid just fine. Being around too many people at one time unnerved him. It was easier to read a person one on one than in a large group, people tended to change, not really be themselves, when they weren’t alone. Grid watched as Benton and Aubrey made camp for the night. After the sun set, Grid set up his own cold camp, pulling his bedroll down from his horse and laying it out on the ground. He wrapped his saddle blanket around his shoulders as he leaned back against the tree to catch some sleep.

*****

It was the evening before their arrival in North Fork. Grid had reached the next hill he planned to use as a vantage point. He stepped from his horse after he spotted evidence that three riders had recently waited, in the same location. There were cigar and cigarette butts lying on the ground and signs of men pacing back and forth, within the stand of trees and bushes.

‘So, there is someone else watching,’ Grid smiled to himself. As he stood to return to his horse, from behind, he heard the unmistakable sound of a gun being cocked. Slowly Grid raised his arms.

“Be real careful and ya won’t get plugged,” the voice called with a slight Mexican accent.

“Chavez?” Grid asked.

“Who you?”

“Grid Maule.”

“Grid, you got out of jail?” The one called Angel Chavez came around and looked Grid in the face. He turned and yelled, “Hey, Ralph, Brice, its Grid. He got free!”

Chavez was still holding his gun on Grid. Before Chavez could turn back from yelling to the others, Grid had grabbed Chavez’ gun and slugged him across the jaw, knocking him to the ground.

“You should know better than holding your gun on me, Chavez,” Grid spoke as he stood over Chavez.

Grid looked up, and from the corner of his eye, he saw the others walking from their hiding places, he tossed Chavez his gun. Slowly Chavez got to his feet, rubbing his jaw, before the others returned their guns to their holsters.

“Why’d ya go an’ do that?” Chavez asked.

“I already told you.”

“What you doing here?” Brice Stringfellow asked.

“Following Dahl and Rigby. Trying to figure out how to get them away from the law. Here tell they’re headed to North Fork to stand trial,” Grid answered.

“Yeah, so we heard. We thought maybe you turned them in. Heard you got thrown in jail,” Ralph Claysin said.

“Yeah, the one day of the year I always get drunk and it had to be in Lordsburg,” Grid coolly stated.

“You always get drunk?” Chavez asked.

“Yeah, it’s personal”.

“Personal ain’t good enough!” Stringfellow demanded.

“It’s the anniversary that my Pa was killed. Gunned down, murdered, by some mangy sodbuster,” Grid replied. “They brought my Pa’s body home and I was left to bury him, by myself. I was just a kid. My whole life, I’ve wanted nothing more than to see that murderer dead. Taught myself how to use a six-shooter, you want proof on how good I am?”

“How’d you get free?” Chavez asked.

“Some U.S. Marshal showed up, they heard tell Skull Ranch was back in operation. The Sheriff told ‘em he heard I’d spent some time out at Skull. They made me lead the way out there. What happened to you guys? The place was empty.”

“I saw the posse heading our way and rode back to tell everyone,” Claysin replied.

“Still didn’t answer our question, how’d you get out?” Chavez asked again.

“What charges could they hold me on?” The tone of his voice affecting his displeasure at answering to the three. “Staying at Skull? Nothing against the law for that. I was sobered and didn’t cause no damage in town. They had no choice but to let me go.”

“So how did Rigby and Dahl get captured?” Brice asked.

“I heard tell some Marshal showed up late that night and caught them drunk in the saloon. Happened while we were out chasing your ghosts. Rigby’s wrist is busted and I heard the doc say he‘ll never be able to shoot with that hand again.”

“So, you have any idea on getting Rigby and Dahl away from the law?” Claysin asked.

“Yeah, one. Heard tell they tried to kill a lawman in North Fork,” Grid answered.

“Yeah, thought they were killing Drako and his deputy. Only they got a U.S. Marshal and a deputy instead,” Chavez replied.

“What I heard about this lawman, his father-in-law was the deputy, and the lawman has a wife and a number of brats. If we kill him, leave his wife a widow, do you think daddy’s gonna wanna testify? Will ‘daddy’ want his precious daughter to lose her ‘daddy’ as well as her husband?” Grid thinned his lips and smiled.

“You’re crazy!” Brice replied.

“Yeah, but you got any better idea?” Grid asked.

“How is killing the U.S. Marshal gonna get Rigby and Dahl set free?” Claysin asked.

“You think that little town of North Fork is gonna hold the trial, knowing how easy it was for me to kill their star witness? They’ll set them free, easy,” Grid replied.

“Why don’t we just ride down and get Rigby and Dahl, now. They’s asleep. Be easy as shootin’ tin cans off a log,” Claysin boasted.

“Because I want the reputation of killing The Lawman,” Grid replied.

“So what, ya kill a lawman. We’ve all done it,” Chavez replied.

“No, not A lawman. THE Lawman. He’s famous in these parts, some newspaper editor even wrote about him a few years back. I want the Lawman, because if I get the Lawman, then I get the Rifleman,” a wicked grin came across Grid’s face. “And the Rifleman was the man who murdered my father.”

“The Rifleman?! He’s trouble,” Claysin mumbled.

“Yeah, I’ll finally get my revenge. Could it be any better?”

“You’re fixing to stir up a hornet’s nest,” Brice called.

“You want out, ride. I been putting this together for a few days. Don’t really need your help,” Grid replied.

*****

The trip returning the prisoners to North Fork was uneventful. Rigby and Dahl were both grumbling as they were safely locked behind bars in the North Fork jail.

That night, Mark arrived to stand watch in North Fork. Later than expected, he rode into town and halted Copper in front of the livery. He stepped down and led his horse inside.

“I can get even with one McCain just as good as another,” a voice coolly called from the shadows as Mark entered and stopped in his tracks. “See your Pa finally let you learn how to use a rifle. Heard you might be pretty good with it, too. Still, you probably ain’t as good as your old man.”

“Don’t expect so,” Mark replied as he raised his hands. “I’ll let you know, you gun me down, there’ll be a whole town after you and you’ll be brought up on Federal charges for killing a U.S. Marshal.” Mark wrinkled his nose as he smell the smoke from a cigarette waft his way.

“That right?” the voice replied. “What if I give you a chance to go for your rifle?”

“I won’t,” Mark answered.

“Thought so. Just like your old man, a coward.”

“My Pa ain’t no coward.” Mark replied back, just as coolly as the man had spoken. He turned to see a man grinding out a cigarette in the dirt and then walk from the shadows, guns still in his gun belt. The man was dressed in black and walked slowly and deliberately. From his body posture Mark felt the man was still trying to size him up.

“I wouldn’t of recognized you ‘cept Benton told me about the horse you ride and then there’s that rifle in your scabbard. Plus your not wearing a gun belt,” the man stated.

“Benton? Tom Benton?” Mark asked as he started to lower his hands.

“Now Mark, you work for any other Benton?”

Mark noticed the change of tone in the man’s voice.

“See you grown up some. Sure don’t believe it, the boy of Lucas McCain being a U.S. Marshal and married at that. First time we met you was… fourteen and never used a gun.” Grid continued to walk towards Mark and held out his hand. His body posture changing to one of ease. “No, Lucas McCain ain’t no coward and neither’s his boy.”

“Do I know you?” Mark asked as he tried to get a good look at the man walking towards him.

“How many thirteen year olds you know, got away with slapping your Pa, calling him out to a gun fight, and then got away with calling him a coward?”

It took a moment before the name came to Mark, “Grid? Grid Maule?”

“Good to see you too, Mark.”

“I don’t understand. What are you doing in North Fork?”

“My job,” Grid said as he opened his jacket and showed the Deputy U.S. Marshal badge pinned to the inside of his black jacket.

“You? You became a lawman?” Mark asked, quite surprise, as he led Copper into his stall and started to unsaddle him.

“No more surprising than you,” Grid affected an air of indifference. “A store owner, back home, made a bargain with me. He gave me a place to eat and sleep and in exchange I’d help him out at his store. He said he’d pay for me to go to college, if I wanted to go. Told me one condition was that I put away my guns, until I was 18. If I wanted to pick them back up, I had to go into law enforcement.”

“Wow!” Mark replied. “It’s just… I mean…”

“I was a kid back then. I may not like the hand that life dealt me, but once I make a deal, I keep it. I don’t go back on my word. No one ever accused Grid Maule, Jr. of reneging on a deal.”

“I didn’t say anything like that,” Mark stated as he closed the door to the stall. He heard the change of tone in Grid’s voice and realized that he probably still had to watch his words around Grid.

“You do know that I’m gonna have ta kill you?” Grid asked.

A shocked Mark replied, “Say that again?”

“Listen, I was there in Lordsburg when you single handedly brought in Dahl and Rigby. When the marshals got to Skull, no one was there.”

“I heard,” Mark replied.

“Any way, I figured the others made tracks and I decided I’d trail out after them, but first, I told Benton I wanted to make sure he and Aubrey made it here with the prisoners. I rode separate from them. Last night I encountered Angel Chavez, Ralph Claysin, and Brice Stringfellow. They was making their way to North Fork, they heard about the trial already. Anyway, they’re wanting to bust their friends out of jail. I figured if we killed the number one witness against them, the marshal might just let them go.”

“If you kill… There were two of us they tried to kill,” Mark answered. “You kill me, Seth will still be there to testify.”

“Probably, but do you really think your father-in-law will testify? I mean, his daughter just became a widow and his grandsons have no father. Do you think he also wants his daughter to lose her father, too?”

“You are just joking about killing me? Right?” Mark asked.

“No. But don’t worry. It won’t hurt a bit. Of course, everyone in town will have to believe it, I need a way to get back in the good graces of the others, need to find out if they were planning anything while they were staying at Skull. Benton might have been right. They might have been leery talking with me around. So, if I kill you, then they’ll have to believe I’m an outlaw. Listen, I need to do this tomorrow and fast. No one can know about this or both our lives are in jeopardy.”

“Do you think that our marshal is just going to up and let two men accused of attempted murder go free? And I don’t get it, I can understand your story to the other three, but why is it so important for Dahl and Rigby to be set free?”

“I figured they might know more of what the Ketchum Gang is planning. If I can get Rigby and Dahl free and then prove my loyalty, they might just let me in on what’s being planned. Then we can stop ‘em.”

“Drako ain’t gonna just let them out,” Mark replied.

“I figured he’d be riding with the posse, chasing after me, and leave someone else in charge. Once the posse is gone, then you can let who ever that person is, in on our plan and they can let Rigby and Dahl go. Mark, no one else in North Fork can know you’re alive until AFTER we re-capture those two and get the other three in custody.”

“Grid, just how do you plan on killing me? I mean…”

“Mark, I carry blanks. They sure come in handy. I’ll plan to shoot you in the chest.”

“So, somehow we need to make it look like the bullet struck me.” Mark thought for a moment. “I can use one of those rubber balloons Gabby got, maybe… If we slaughter a chicken, I could drain the blood into the balloon and keep it in my hand. Then when I hear your shot, I can fall down and then grab at my chest and squirt the blood out before anyone on the street gets to me.”

“Sounds like a plan. We’ll have to do it early in the morning. You make rounds?”

“Yeah, I start around eight o’clock and usually return to the office by nine,” Mark replied.

“Good, then nine o’clock.”

“Grid, I can’t ask my wife or my parents to go through something like this, again. Even if it is to catch outlaws. They went through hell this summer, when I…” Mark couldn’t say it. He’d put that part of his life away.

“If you have to tell them, do so. Ride out in the middle of the night when the whole town would be asleep, but no one else. Can you sneak out of the Marshal’s Office?”

“Damn it, Grid! Do you know how much trouble we’re going to be in with Benton over this?”

“Only if we fail, Mark. Only if we fail. And even then, it won’t matter. If we do fail, we’re gonna be dead.”

“Okay, where do I meet up with you once they’re out of jail?”

After Grid and Mark finalized their plan, they went their separate ways.

*****

Mark fretted over what he and Grid were about to put North Fork through. ‘Guess it won’t be any worse that killing Micah, Pa, and Johnny to get Stedman,’ Mark thought to himself.

He waited until close to two in the morning before he decided to sneak from town and head home. Carefully, he entered his home and his bedroom. He lit the lantern on the table next to their bed and sat down on the edge, scaring Hope awake. As Mark reached his hand to cover her mouth to keep her from screaming, he saw the fear in her eyes before he quietly stated, “Hope, it’s me, Mark.”

Once Hope’s eyes focused, she realized who was in their bedroom with her, she relaxed, but her face held concern, “Mark, what are you doing here? What time is it?”

“I need to talk to you, and my parents,” Mark replied.

“Couldn’t it wait until daylight?”

“No, it can’t. Get your robe on and please come with me.”

Together they walked to his parents’ home and entered. Hope lit the lamp on the front room table while Mark knocked on the bedroom door.

Startled from their sleep, Lucas jumped from bed and managed to pull on his pants before he threw the door open. It took a moment before he realized who was standing in his front room.

“Mark, do you realize the time?!” Lucas demanded, then he saw Hope placing the glass chimney back on the lantern.

“I do, but I don’t have a lot of time. Please just listen. Grid’s going to kill me in the morning,” Mark answered, not giving anyone time to sit down in the front room before he told them. Not realizing how what he said sounded.

“What?!” they all three exclaimed.

“Pa, it’s like when we were trying to get Stedman, when Hope first came into our lives. It’s part of Grid’s plan to capture some of the others who were at Skull. I had to let you know before someone comes and gets you later this morning. I couldn’t put you through that again, but you’ll have to put on the best performance of your lives – believing I’m really dead.”

“Who else knows? Does Tom?” Hope asked.

“No, we don’t have time and everyone else’s reactions have to be genuine. Please, I can’t spend much more time here before there’s a chance I might be missed in town.” Then turning to Milly, “Ma do you have one of those balloons that Gabby’s been playing with? I hate to do this, but I thought to slaughter a chicken and drain the blood to use to fake my being killed. You can always fry the chicken up for supper…”

Quickly, the four set out to do what needed to be done. Mark was back in the saddle on Copper when Lucas stopped him, “Mark, when you trail after them, you can’t use Copper and you can’t put Blue Boy through that kind of a chase, how are you going to…”

“He can use Two-Bits,” Hope stated. “Pa, we’ll both ride into town together, you on Blade and me on Two-Bits. Then when you ride from town to ‘hunt’ Grid down, you can take her and then wait for Mark.”

“Son, what time is this supposed to go down?” Lucas asked.

“Nine o’clock.”

Mark bent down and kissed Hope and whispered into her ear, “Remember, I love you,” and was on his way back to town.

*****

“McCAIN!!” echoed through the streets of North Fork. “I can get even with one McCain, just as good as another!”

Slowly Mark turned, but before he could bring his rifle up, the figure dressed in black had one of his guns drawn, he crouched down, and fired at Mark. For a brief second, Mark clutched to his chest, before he fell in a heap in the middle of the street, his rifle falling at his feet. Drako and Seth watched in horror as Mark was gunned down. Benton watched it happen as he stepped from the hotel. Grid holstered his gun, jumped on his horse and whirled him around and blazed a trail as he rode from town, hearing Tom Benton yelling, “GRID, YOU’LL HANG!!”

Drako and Seth ran to where Mark’s body lay in the street. In shock that this had happened and seeing the blood stain over his heart, they quickly picked him up and delivered him to Doc’s. They didn’t wait. They rushed out to join the posse.

As Benton formed the posse, he declared that “Anyone who shoots Grid Maule will face charges of murder themselves. I want Grid Maule to be brought to justice, to stand trial, and to HANG!” The posse trailed after him.

*****

Someone had run to Doc’s home to get him. In time, Doc entered the room and closed the door behind him. As he saw the blood stain on Mark’s shirt, over his heart, he quietly stated, “Damn it, Mark.”

Doc fell backwards against the door and a gasp escaped his lips as he saw Mark’s body sit up. “Sorry Doc, but it had to be this way,” Mark said. “I’ll need you to keep up my charade.”

“Mark, how can you do this to Hope?!” Doc asked, appalled that Mark would put his family through something like this.

Mark stood and unbuttoned his shirt and took it off. He walked to the sink and primed the pump to rinse the ‘blood’ from his shirt.

“I couldn’t. Only she, my parents, and now you, know the truth. Grid’s trying to catch more of the outlaws who were staying at Skull and find out what they’re up to. I rode home during the night and let them know what Grid and I were planning. I didn’t have time to let anyone else know. I’m presuming Drako and Seth went with Tom on the posse?”

“I saw them ride out of here not five minutes ago.”

“Who’d Drako leave in charge?”

“I heard your uncle, Johnny Gibbs.”

“Go get him, please?” Mark asked.

Before Thadd could leave, they heard someone walk to the door and the door knob rattle.

“Mark hurry!” Thadd quietly called.

Mark finished putting his shirt on and jumped back up on the examination table as Thadd placed a sheet over him.

*****

Dreading what he was about to have to do, Johnny Gibbs walked into the clinic. Johnny had been at the Hardware store when he heard the gun shot. He ran to the boardwalk and saw Mark crumple in the street. Time stopped and before he realized, Nils was racing from town. It hadn’t been that long ago that he’d had to race in the middle of the night to inform Lucas that Mark had been seriously hurt. In a sense, he was relieved he wouldn’t be the one telling Lucas, this time… Johnny stopped and looked to Abigail, who sat in a chair in the waiting area, tears falling down her face. “Room 10, Johnny,” was all she could manage to say.

Slowly Johnny arrived in front of the door and placed his hand to the doorknob. The door opened before he could turn the knob.

“Johnny, I… uh… I thought you might have gone to get Lucas,” Thadd shakily spoke.

“No, I saw Nils ride out. Doc? Is he…?”

“I think you need to come in.”

Johnny stepped inside and saw his nephew lying on the examination table, a sheet pulled up to his chin.

“At least he can be with Margaret now,” Johnny stated as Doc shut the door behind them. “I don’t know how Lucas is going to take this… it’s too soon since…”

Johnny jumped back and grabbed at his chest when he saw Mark’s head turn towards him as he sat up and then heard him say, “I think he’s gonna take it better than you, Uncle Johnny.” Mark’s face held an apologetic grin. “I’m sorry Uncle Johnny, but it had to be this way.”

“Nephew, you’re bound to give a man a heart attack! I surely don’t want to be in your shoes when your wife and your father find out you’re alive,” Johnny stated as he pushed his hat back from his forehead. “They might just decide to kill you themselves for putting them through this. Boy, how could you?”

“They already know. After what they went through over the summer, I could… I couldn’t do this without letting them know in advance. You’re in on the secret, now. No one else can know.”

“Your Aunt Colleen’s going to skin me alive if I don’t tell her. She’s already getting moody with her pregnancy.”

“Aunt Colleen’s pregnant?” Mark asked.

“Oh, that was our secret. We were going to tell the whole family at Thanksgiving.”

“I’ll trade you secret for secret?” Mark asked.

They heard Hattie’s and Micah’s and Lou’s voices out in the hallway.

“I think I better get out there. Mark, lie down boy,” Thadd stated as he turned to leave the room. Once Mark was lying back down and Johnny placed the sheet back over Mark and had affected a posture of grief, Thadd opened the door. They all heard Lou scream, “NO!” before the door closed.

“Boy, I don’t know how you’re going to apologize to everyone,” Johnny quietly whispered.

“We did it once before when we ‘killed’ Micah, Pa, and Drako. I hope everybody will be as understanding when I’m resurrected,” Mark replied.

They heard Thadd calling for Abigail to prepare a sedative to give to Lou.

“I have to see for myself. I can’t believe the boy’s dead, he can’t be! They say Grid Maule did this! It’s just a bad dream, right Doc?” Micah pleaded. Both could hear the heartache and grief in his voice.

“Please, I can’t let you inside until after Hope, Lucas, and Milly get here. As much as you all mean to… meant to Mark, you’re not blood relations. I’m sorry. Please, go to the hotel and wait. I’m sure the McCain family will need all your help after they arrive in town and see for themselves,” Thadd requested.

“Mark, this better be worth it, is all I can say,” Johnny stated after hearing Thadd’s words.

“Me too. If we don’t get the outlaws, then Grid and I both might end up in pine boxes, for real.”

Soon, they both heard the commotion out in front of the clinic and Mark knew he needed to ‘play dead’ again. Johnny pulled the sheet up over Mark as he laid back down. Mark tried hard to make his face as expressionless as possible and relax, but hearing Hope outside, even though he knew she was pretending, was hard. He could only imagine what she had gone through that night back in June.

*****

Those elsewhere in the clinic heard Lucas yell out, “NO!!” He opened the door with such force that it slammed against the wall and then closed on its own as Lucas ran from the room, yelling, “I’LL KILL HIM!”. He jumped on his own horse, grabbed Two-Bits reins, and rode from town.

With Hope wailing in the background, Johnny agreed keep quiet that Mark was alive. After Grid’s plan was explained, he agreed to set Rigby and Dahl free.

Johnny escorted Hope from the clinic. The crowd in front of the clinic parted to let them pass. The people were in shock that his had happened for a second time in their town. As the town’s people started to disburse from in front of the clinic and the Marshal’s Office, no one saw the figure leave the back of the clinic. Mark quietly slipped out of town and met up with Lucas. It took Mark a few minutes to adjust the stirrup length on the saddle, but soon, together, they trailed after Grid, side-by-side.

“Side-by-side, Pa. I remember long time ago you told me of my growing up years and said some day, we’d stand side-by-side,” Mark spoke as they rode.

“I pray this one will end better than the last time,” Lucas replied.

“Amen to that.”

Within the hour, they arrived where Mark had arranged to meet up with Grid, however, Grid was nowhere to be seen.

“Well?” Lucas asked.

“I don’t know. He said he’d be here. He should have been here by now. You don’t suppose?” Mark asked.

They turned as they heard a rider approaching.

“Grid, where’ve you been?” Mark demanded as he reined Two-Bits around to face Grid.

“Taking a pot shot at your Marshal’s Office. Figured it might encourage who ever your Marshal left in charge to set the prisoners free.”

“You took a shot at MY UNCLE?!” Mark demanded.

“No, just the sign. Weren’t too long before Dahl and Rigby rode out of there.” Grid halted his horse next to Lucas and apologized for the trouble his plan was causing North Fork.

“Well, North Fork has survived Micah’s, Johnny’s, and my untimely deaths, I’m sure the town will survive Mark’s.” Lucas asked, “So why are you with us and not with them?”

“I just wanted to make sure everything was going as planned. So, who all knows the truth?” Grid asked of Mark.

“Just Doc and my Uncle, besides Hope and my parents,” Mark replied.

“So, Grid, what next?” Lucas asked.

“You two keep to the shadows. I’m gonna ride ahead and try to catch up with Rigby and Dahl and let them know where the others are waiting.” Grid turned his horse to ride, “Oh, and if you do see the posse, try to keep them from killing me!”

*****

Mark and Lucas watched as Grid rode away from them.

“I sure hope you two can pull this off, Mark,” Lucas commented.

“You mean the three of us. Don’t you, Pa?”

“Three?” Lucas asked as he realized the mess he had allowed Mark to pull him into. “Yeah, but if anything goes wrong, you’re the one who will explain it all to Tom…As the Marshal of this territory.”

“Yeah, I know. Come on, let’s trail after Grid.”

Lucas and Mark split up to make it less obvious to anyone that Grid was being trailed and to keep the posse from seeing any dust to lead them in their direction.

*****

Grid found it easy to pick up and follow the trail that Rigby and Dahl were leaving. From the length of the horses’ strides he knew how hard they were pushing the animals in their get-away. Grid kept his horse to a steady pace, knowing in time, the others would have to rest their horses, giving Grid time to catch up.

Coming around a rock outcropping, Grid found his quarry standing in front of him. Dahl holding a rifle on him.

“So just what the hell do you think you’re doing… Marshal?” Dahl demanded.

“Following you! If you’re that scared of me, why haven’t you pulled the trigger?”

“Tell me why I shouldn’t?”

“Because I know where Chavez, Claysin, and Stringfellow are waiting for you,” Grid affected a disinterested attitude. “You could just go ahead an’ shoot me and take my weapons. But then, there’s a chance the posse would hear the shot and come looking to investigate. You that interested in getting thrown back in jail and standing trial?” Grid asked.

“I don’t trust you!” Rigby spat.

“No more than I trust you, I’m sure.” Motioning his horse past the two, Grid stated, “Well, come on. We’ve a ways to go to meet up with the others.”

“No!” Dahl spat out. “Not until you tell us what happened!”

“What happened? I gunned down the Marshal and they let you go, what else do you want to know?” Grid asked as he turned his horse.

“Why? You’re a deputy, why kill the Marshal?” Rigby asked.

“It’s a matter of keeping your friends close and your enemies closer? Do you know how many outlaws I’ve been able to help back home because of this badge? I came out west because I heard tell of where a murderer was living.”

“Still don’t answer my question.”

“Look, turns out the U.S. Marshal I gunned down this morning — he’s the brat kid of the man who murdered my Pa when I was eight years old. So what if my getting you two set free also let’s me get justice for my Pa.”

“I heard tell of the Marshal. They call his Pa…” Dahl stated.

“Yeah, they call him the Rifleman. He’s nothing but a mangy sodbuster who has a trick rifle. Still, ain’t gonna be anything but dead when I get through with him. You think he’ll be that careful coming after me? He won’t be thinking straight and I can lay a trap and kill him easy. He won’t know what hit him.”

“You shoot him down cold, without him knowing who done it?” Dahl asked.

“Dead’s dead,” Grid replied. “Now, you coming with me or do I head out on my own?”

“We’ll go with you for now, but I’m still keeping an eye on you,” Rigby replied.

“Just don’t get in my way. Until I see the Rifleman dead at my feet, anyone who gets in my way is just as fair game.”

*****

The outlaws insisted Grid ride first into the camp, where Chavez, Claysin, and Stringfellow waited, “If anyone’s gonna get shot, it best be you,” Rigby stated.

“Shot? Your own companions would shoot you? Maybe I should have rode out on my own,” Maule stated.

Dahl and Rigby were heartily greeted by the others.

“See, I told ya,” Chavez said. “He got them out.”

“So he did,” Claysin replied.

Stringfellow walked over to Dahl, “Good to see you again big brother.”

“Same here. Any trouble?” Dahl asked.

“Na. Everything’s just as Grid said it would be. He promised when he returned he’d have you out. Did he really kill the marshal?” Stringfellow replied.

“I couldn’t believe it when I heard from the one they left in charge, but when we rode from that mangy town, you could see it in the eyes of everyone. The town was scared.”

“So what do we do now?” Stringfellow wanted to know. “We go back and tree the town?”

“No!” Rigby answered. “I want to get as far away as possible. Too close to a hangman’s noose for my liking.”

“But they let you go!” Claysin stated. “Let’s go back!”

“The only reason we got let go was some simpleton was left in charge. All the other Deputies and Marshals are out chasing us. We head for Mexico!” Rigby boldly stated.

“I ain’t leaving until I kill me the Rifleman!” Grid coldly informed the others.

“Grid, you got The Lawman, why push it?” Stringfellow asked.

“Because he’s got to pay for killing my old man. He may not have been much, but he was all I had. I killed his son and now I’m gonna kill him.” Grid opened the cylinder of one of his guns and looked down the barrel, then snapped it closed.

“It’s a stupid risk!” Chavez quietly stated.

“Then you leave. Run like little old women,” Grid replied.

*****

That night, they found Grid camped with the outlaws. Mark and Lucas unsaddled their horses and waited out the night, hoping for Grid to make a report to them.

Lucas was standing watch when someone attempted to quietly enter their camp.

“Hold it right there,” Lucas called as he came up from behind.

“Morning Lucas,” Grid replied.

“Well?” Mark asked.

“The groups truly split up. Seems Ketchum and company didn’t really approve of Rigby and Dahl or their companions. Stringfellow said something about Ketchum and his friends heading to Northern New Mexico.”

“So the three others, they just want to get those two out of jail?” Lucas asked.

“Yeah. Found out the reason though. Stringfellow is Dahl’s younger, half-brother. Same father, different ma’s, his folks never married so he went by his ma’s last name.”

“So as far as you can find out, they’re not planning anything?” Mark asked.

“Na. To me, they don’t seem the kind who’s that creative. They’re opportunists. They let someone else be the brains and they’re the ones who pull the jobs.”

“So, how do we take them?” Lucas asked.

“First, I get to murder the Rifleman,” Grid stated just as calculatingly as he had when he told Mark he was going to kill him.

“Excuse me?” Lucas stated.

“That was my reaction the other night,” Mark commented.

“Lucas, it’s part of the cover story I gave to the outlaws. I gunned down Mark because I found out he was your son and you were the man who murdered my Pa. It’s gonna mean that the two of you need to split up.”

“How so?” Mark asked.

“Mark, you’re supposed to be dead. Lucas is trailing after me, separate from the posse, which I’m thankful to say, I’ve not seen any trace of.” Then turning back to Lucas, “The only snag is that my bullet will travel faster than it’s sound. I’ll plan it so I’ll be high on the hills and I’ll let the sun glint off my rifle.”

“Your rifle?! When did you start carrying a rifle?” Mark asked incredulously.

“About the time I returned to North Fork and realized how good the two of you were. By the way, you can return it to your gunsmith when we get back to town,” Grid replied.

“You stole the rifle?” Lucas asked.

“McCain, once you see the flash, remove your hat and wipe your brow. That way I’ll know you saw my signal. Once you put your hat back on your head, count to five and then you can fall from your horse. That should be perfect timing for me to fire a blank round and fake killing you. I’ll tell the others I’ll meet up with them, I just have to make sure you’re good and dead.”

“And if they come down to check on me?”

“Then Mark will be there to back me up,” Grid stated.

“Grid, why do you have to make everything so damn complicated?” Mark asked.

“Because that’s what I’m good at,” Grid replied.

“So what happens next?” Lucas asked.

“Once you’re dead, we’re planning on riding towards White City tomorrow,” Grid replied. “They’re wanting to head to Mexico until things cools off.”

“Pa, you remember?” Mark turned and look to Lucas. “There’s that old hangman’s tree, they call it…” Mark thought for a moment.

“Gallows Crossing,” Lucas answered.

“Yeah, from here, they’d have to ride by there. We can set a trap. It’s a canyon that narrows out as they ride through. We can set a trap on the far side and they’d never see it coming.”

“I think I know what you’re planning.” Turning to Grid, “Grid, you’re gonna have to ride near the back of the pack as they ride through there. We’ll take out the front half of the riders as they exit with a rope across the opening. The canyon’s about a mile in length, so maybe three quarters of the way through, you can think you hear someone coming from behind and then push them faster.”

“I like your thinking Lucas. Okay, but I got to be getting back. I’m on guard.”

*****

As promised, Grid kept to the high ground, when he found the right spot for his ambush, he waited for Lucas to draw nearer. He knew the others were well enough behind him to not notice what he was really doing, but finally, the sun struck his rifle just right. A few moments later, Grid watched as the rider halted his horse, removed his hat, and wiped his brow. Grid took a moment and fired, quickly counted to five and saw the rider fall from the saddle.

“What’d I tell ya! I got him!” Grid yelled as he ran back to his horse.

“So you did, now let’s get going,” Dahl stated.

“I want to make sure he’s dead.”

“Don’t trust yourself with a rifle?” Claysin asked.

“If it were my six-shooter, I’d never doubt myself. I’ll be right back.”

The outlaws watched as Grid rode his horse recklessly down the embankment. He galloped the horse and was dismounted before his horse was stopped. They watched as he turned the body over and placed his ear to Lucas’ chest. Grid raised his fist in the air and pumped it. He jumped back on his horse and rode to meet back up with the outlaws.

When he arrived, Chavez asked, “Why’d you leave his horse and rifle?”

“Because I want anyone, especially those in the posse, to know I did this. I didn’t do it to rob him, I did it to see him dead,” Grid slapped his reins on his horse’s flank and spurred him forward.

*****

“So, Pa, how does it feel to be dead?” Mark asked.

“No different than the last time, except…”

“You don’t have to worry about being surprised that Miss Milly came back to take care of me,” Mark stated with a grin.

“Yeah, something like that,” Lucas stated, but Mark heard the concern in his voice.

“Like the last time, things will work out for the best Pa.”

“Last time we were only after one outlaw. This time, there are five,” Lucas replied.

“But there are three of us.” After thinking for a moment, “Yeah, I guess there were more than three of us after Stedman.”

They worked hard in preparing to spring their trap, taking a moment to quietly ask God to look out for them. It was a little before noon as Lucas and Mark were just finishing, when they heard the riders coming. Quickly they ran for their horses and pulled their rifles, and took cover behind the boulders next to the rock outcroppings.

The first three outlaws were strung off their horses while the final two pulled their mounts to a halt. Mark and Lucas ran from their hiding places, rifles cocked and ready. At the back, Grid barely had both his guns drawn, when Dahl struck him over the head. Grid was out cold before he hit the ground.

“It’s a trap” Dahl hollered, whirling his horse around with Rigby shortly on his heels.

Mark ran to Two-Bits and gave chase.

Lucas quickly disarmed the three outlaws on the ground and bound them with rawhide string he’d taken from his own saddlebag. Once Lucas had all three outlaws secured, he walked over to check on Grid.

Carefully Lucas turned Grid over onto his back, only to find the barrel of one of Grid’s guns held to his stomach.

“Easy there Grid,” Lucas called as he stood up and took a step back, his arms away from his sides.

“Maule, what’s going on?” Stringfellow demanded as Grid got to his feet.

“The three of you are heading for prison,” Grid replied.

“Prison?” Chavez asked.

“Then Dahl and Rigby were right? They said you could be the law!” Claysin proclaimed.

“They knew?” Lucas asked as he turned to look to Grid.

“Yeah, they overheard Mercer and Applegate back in Lordsburg, but I told them that I could be an asset because of my badge. Told them, they had no idea how many outlaws I had helped because I wore the badge.”

“You could have told us,” Lucas stated angrily.

“Where’s Mark?” Grid asked.

“He took off after them,” Lucas replied.

“And you didn’t go with him?”

“And just what was I supposed to do? Three outlaws on the ground and …” Lucas demanded.

“I don’t need your help! I could have handled them.”

Grid picked his hat up from the dirt and slapped it against his leg.

“How? You were out cold for a couple of minutes,” Lucas stated. “Come on, let get these three back to town.”

“I’m trailing after Mark,” Grid informed Lucas as he tried to head towards his horse.

“You’re heading to town with me,” Lucas stated as he grabbed Grid’s arm as he staggered by.

“You can handle getting these three to town. I have to get the two who got away! Let go of arm!” Grid’s voice held a warning.

“Or what? You can’t even walk a straight line. If Doc Burrage says you’re okay, then you can go out after those two.”

“And Mark? He wouldn’t be out there alone it I hadn’t convinced him too…”

“Mark can handle himself,” Lucas forcefully stated. “Right now, I’m worried about you. Look at you, Maule. You can barely stand on your own two feet! I’m worried about him too, but none of this would have happened if Benton and I had given Mark the chance to face his ghosts in the first place. It’s taken me a long while to realize, but I have to have trust in my son to be the man I raised him to be. Trust that he can be the Marshal that Tom Benton saw in him so long ago. The Rangers have a saying, ‘one riot, one Ranger’.”

“He ain’t a Ranger!” Grid yelled and stumbled, as the headache grew in his head.

“What I’m trying to say is, he captured them once before, he can do it again. I’ve learned my lesson. Now, you need to learn yours, to accept help when you need it. Get in your saddle so I can get his prisoners and the ‘mastermind’ back to town.”

*****

As soon as Mark saw the one called Dahl strike Grid over the head, he reacted. He raced back towards his horse, jumped in the saddle and took chase. The good news was that nether outlaw had hand guns to shoot at Mark. One, however, did have a rifle in the scabbard of his saddle. Though Two-Bits was slowly gaining, Mark’s mind raced on just how he would handle capturing both outlaws. Mark urged the mare on faster, yet knowing each stride took him further from those who could help him. Quickly he looked over his shoulder in hopes of seeing evidence that his Pa was somewhere behind him, following him, but Mark didn’t see any dust cloud on the horizon. Mark’s attention returned to the two in front of him as he pulled his rifle from his scabbard.

In time, Mark pulled his horse to a stop and raised his rifle. He said a quiet prayer for his aim to be true as he attempted to shoot one of the outlaws from the saddle. The trigger was pulled and Mark heard the sound of his shot echo from the hills and then he watched as the outlaw fell from his horse. Mark returned his rifle to its place and urged his horse on again. The few moments it took Mark to aim and fire, gave Two-Bits the chance to regain a little of her breath. Mark felt the mare come alive underneath him as his wife’s horse’s stride was stronger and faster than he’d ever realized. Soon, Mark was even with Rigby, he leapt from his horse and tackled the rider to the ground.

The two fought and rolled, until Mark had the upper hand, and with one swift punch to the jaw with his left hand, Mark had knocked Rigby unconscious. As he stood, he held his wrist; he couldn’t believe how much it ached. He went and retrieved his hat from the ground, slapped it on his leg to get the dirt off it, and looked around to see where their horses were. The two had stopped no more than a hundred yards away, both had their heads down and as Mark approached, he could see how lathered they were and both their flanks were heaving from the exertion of the chase. He picked up the reins to Rigby’s horse and then went to gather Two-Bits.

It only took a few more minutes for Rigby to regain consciousness, but by that time, Mark had him restrained. Mark sat in the saddle and had his rifle on trained on Rigby.

“Get in the saddle,” Mark ordered.

As they rode back in the direction they had come from, they encountered Dahl’s horse. Mark grabbed the reins and lead the horse back to where Dahl was sitting, cradling his arm and shoulder.

“Just who the hell do you think you are?” Dahl yelled as Mark motioned him to his feet.

“Mark McCain, U.S. Marshal. I’m the one who’s going to see that justice is served. Now get on your horse.”

“You?!! Maule said he killed you!” Dahl replied.

“He lied,” Mark replied with a laugh.

*****

Lucas and Grid were riding towards the setting sun when they spotted a large dust cloud approaching them. Lucas called for a halt and they readied their weapons. As the group of riders neared, the leader motioned for those behind him to pull up, while Lucas lowered his rifle and Grid returned his gun to his holster.

“Grid Maule! I arrest you for the cold-blooded murder of Mark McCain! I’ll see you hung!” Tom pulled his gun and hollered as he got close enough to see who was in the group. Every man in the posse had their guns pointed straight for Grid, who slowly raised his hands above his head. “Hand over your badge. You’re a disgrace! Lucas, I can’t believe you’re riding right next to him and haven’t taken his guns! He killed Mark!”

Tom became even more infuriated as Lucas and Grid looked to each other. Lucas wanted to laugh, but he could tell that Grid was still smarting that Lucas had dared to talk to him as if he were a child, instead of letting him go after Mark and the outlaws.

“It’s a long story, Tom. But I need to transfer custody of these three outlaws to you so you can get them to jail,” Lucas stated.

“There are four outlaws who’ll be in jail as soon as we get to town.”

“Tom, Grid didn’t kill Mark. They plotted his death to get these three. Right now I have to head back and trail after Mark.”

“Trail after Mark?” Benton asked, still confused.

“Yes, he’s trailing two others who got away.”

“McCain?!” Benton called as Lucas raced away.

As Lucas rode away, Benton moved his horse closer to Grid, gun still on him, and pulled his guns, “I don’t care what Lucas thinks, but I saw you gun down a fine lawman in broad daylight. I’ll see you hang!”

Tom and the posse motioned their prisoners forward.

*****

Lucas returned to Gallows Crossing, where they had set their trap, he found and started following the hoof prints that would lead him to Mark.

It had been over three hours since Lucas had left the posse and started his search for Mark, when he finally saw three riders coming around an outcropping of rocks. When he was close enough to realize it was Mark and the outlaws, he drew his rifle, and surveyed the scene. He saw one outlaw with his hands bound, the other had an arm hanging limply from the shoulder, then he saw Mark, realized something had to be wrong for the way he was holding his rifle. Lucas urged Blade forward.

“See you got your prisoners!” Lucas called as he approached. ‘You need any help?”

Lucas saw the relief in Mark’s eyes as he nodded and returned his rifle to his scabbard. Lucas motioned the two outlaws to continue on as he moved Blade to ride next to Mark.

“Where are Grid and the others?” Mark asked.

“We met up with the posse. Right now, I believe Grid is in Tom’s custody. I don’t think Tom will believe you’re alive until he sees it for himself.”

Lucas laughed as he saw Mark cringe at his comment.

“Something wrong?” Lucas asked.

“Yeah, just wondering how loud he’s going to yell when he realizes what we did.”

Lucas started to speak, but stopped when he heard Mark say, “I know, I know. We made our beds and we’ll have to sleep in them.”

“The way you were holding your rifle when I rode up,” Lucas spoke.

“I think I busted my wrist when I was fighting Rigby,” Mark replied.

“We’ll get Doc Burrage to look at it when we get back to North Fork.”

*****

They were an hour from North Fork when the posse came into view. Lucas and Mark called for their prisoners to keep moving when they saw the posse halt. They rode direct for Tom Benton and Johnny Drako.

“Can you tell your posse to lower their weapons, Tom? I don’t rightly feel like being killed for real,” Mark said as he halted Two-Bits and pushed his hat back on his head and rested his elbow on his saddle horn.

“Mark?!” was mumbled from one rider to the next, through the posse.

Everyone was shocked and pleased to see Mark resurrected from the dead.

“Would someone tell me what’s going on here?” While waiting for a response, Benton looked towards the two men who rode in with Mark and Lucas. When he finally realized that Rigby and Dahl were the riders, he yelled, “What the HELL are they doing out of jail?!”

“You see Tom,” Lucas started as Grid rode up to them.

“No! NO! I don’t want to hear this right now. Damn it McCain and Maule, just… Get these prisoners back to North Fork so they can stand trial!”

With that he turned he horse and rode away, the posse closely following.

Lucas looked to his son and Maule and gave them the look to say, “You’re on your own,” before he set after Tom Benton.

*****

As they returned to North Fork, Johnny Drako was riding at the back of the group, between Mark and Grid, smiling and shaking his head.

“What’s up?” Mark asked.

“I take it Hope knows you’re alive?”

“Yes sir, she and Pa both knew before we attempted to pull this off,” Mark stated as he looked over towards Grid.

“Boy, I sure don’t want to be in your shoes. Either of you.”

“Yeah, he’s not said one word since he found out I was alive. The look he gave me, I’ve never even seen Pa that mad.”

“He’ll probably go easier on you since I was the one who came up with the idea. I can’t wait to hear what he has to say when we get these prisoners back in jail.”

“I think the whole town will be able to hear what he has to say to the two of you,” Drako replied.

“Maybe we could just sneak away, I’m already cringing at what’s going to happen after we get these prisoners in jail,” Mark commented.

“You attempt to sneak away and I’ll arrest both of you. Why do you think I’m riding back here in all this dust with the two of you? It ain’t for my health,” Drako said, but couldn’t keep the smile from his face.

“You think Pa can get him to simmer down some before we reach town?” Mark looked over to Johnny and saw him shaking his head. “Didn’t think so. So much for side-by-side.”

Grid asked about Mark’s comment.

“Guess this will be another one of those ‘growing up times’. Pa’s reminding me that for each action, there is a consequence. And I’m expected accept the consequences like a man AND to remember the lesson learned.”

“I seem to remember a story about a boy who cried wolf,” Johnny commented.

“Meaning?” Grid asked.

“From the Aesop’s Fables, Grid,” Mark replied. “Meaning, the next time I need help, people might not believe me when someone I care about is killed, because twice before they’ve believed when a member of my family was ‘claimed’ to be killed, when they weren’t.”

Quietly they rode on.

*****

Tom and Johnny closed the cell doors and started to return to the office, “Don’t go too hard on them, Tom.”

“Drako, they report to me.”

“Just remember, you’re the one telling Mark all the time about ‘thinking’ of new ideas and ways of being a Marshal, it’s not just about the gun or gunning the outlaws down. You’ve preached enough to that boy over the years and he’s seen the consequences for people relying on the gun… I’m sure he and Maule had a good reason for handling things the way they did.”

Johnny grinned, thinking on the uproar that was about to happen in the next few minutes. He could still see the anger in Tom’s face. Johnny closed the door from the office to the cell and went to stand between Lucas and Seth, with Johnny Gibbs on the far side of Lucas. He leaned up against the back wall in his own office.

Mark entered the Marshal’s office with a cast on his arm. He pulled off his hat and walked to stand next to Grid. Tom walked across the office and sat down in Johnny’s chair. He placed his elbows on the chair arms and steepled his hands, looking back and forth between Grid and Mark.

To their credit, Mark and Grid stood in front of the marshal’s desk, hats in their hands held behind their backs. They looked straight head, neither daring to look at the other or at their boss.

They heard the crowd outside the office talking as people looked in and realized Mark McCain was alive. From inside the office, the only thing that was heard was the clock ticking and Tom Benton’s breathing.

For five, long minutes, Tom waited before speaking. “Okay, at ease you two. Sit down.”

Mark and Grid had barely sat down when Tom stood up, leaned forward, hands on the desk and yelled, “JUST WHAT THE HELL DO YOU TWO THINK YOU WERE DOING?!”

Mark and Grid jumped at the sound of his voice overpowering the quiet of the office. Everyone present could see the veins popping out on his forehead and his neck. Both swallowed hard.

“Well?!” Benton demanded.

“We brought the prisoners to jail?!” Mark asked and stated.

“I KNOW THEY’RE IN JAIL!” Taking a deep breath, Tom stood upright and walked around from behind the desk, as he approached Grid and Mark, he saw the grins on the faces of the four men at the back side of the office, he grinned, and then affected his demeanor.

“Do you two have any idea how many rules and regulations you broke over the past thirty-six hours?”

They both shook their heads. Tom stopped between them, his hands on the back of the chairs they sat in.

“Too many to count! I can understand Mark McCain as a child coming up with an idea to ‘kill off’ his Pa and two others to get Stedman. But Mark McCain as a U.S. Marshal should have known better! Didn’t you two think about the trauma you’d inflict on Mark’s family?!”

“Yes, sir. I told them in advance,” Mark quietly stated.

“You told…!” Tom turned and looked to Lucas, who closed his eyes and nodded. “You told your family… in advance…”

“Yes sir, but only some of them. Uncle Johnny didn’t know, until…” Mark stopped speaking before he got his uncle into trouble.

“Until…”

Mark swallowed again.

“Until I sat up in the doctor’s office and told him.”

“Was this Before or After he turned MY prisoners loose?”

“Uh…” Mark tried to squawk out.

“Marshal Benton…” Gibbs tried to say.

“I’ll deal with you later,” Benton declared as he looked over his shoulder to those behind him. “Right now I want to know what these two have to say for themselves.”

“We did our job,” Grid sullenly replied.

“We’re sorry,” Mark answered.

“Not as much as you will be when I get through with you. Okay, McCain, you still haven’t answered my question. Do I need to repeat it?”

“No sir. Uncle Johnny knew I was alive before he let the prisoners loose,” Mark humbly stated.

“So, if you were alive AND the man I left in charge as acting deputy knew it… Just why were MY prisoners set free?!”

“Because I asked him to,” Mark answered.

“So, you’re guilty of assisting known outlaws in escaping…”

Everyone could hear Mark gulp.

“Marshal…” Grid tried to interrupt. “It ain’t his fault.”

“You’ll have your chance to speak in your own defense when I’m through with McCain,” Tom flatly stated.

“I don’t need no charity by him taking the blame… Yes sir,” Grid said as he saw the expression on Tom’s face.

“So you participated in a gun fight in the middle of the street of North Fork, placing any one of her citizens who were present at great risk…” Tom continued to talk directly to Mark.

“No sir, I used blanks…” Grid’s voice faded as Tom slowly turned his head to Grid, and raised an eyebrow.

Then, looking back to Mark, “You scared about a dozen years off the lives of everyone present. Set free two men accused of attempting to murder you and your father-in-law…”

“But we got them back! We sorta knew where they were going and Pa and I knew we could track ‘em…” Mark’s voice quieted as he saw the look on Tom’s face.

“You got them back,” Benton sarcastically repeated. “YOU WOULDN’T HAVE NEEDED TO GET THEM BACK IF THEY HAD STAYED PUT, IN JAIL, IN THE FIRST PLACE!”

Tom stood up straight, walked around, and sat down at Johnny Drako’s desk.

“Just what in blazes made you two decide to pull off such a… I’m at a loss of words for what to call what you two did. It goes beyond reason to understand how you came up with this… this…”

Before he could finish saying what his was struggling to say, the crowd outside the door parted to let Milly and Hope through. Tom looked to see Milly opening the door. Mark sneaked a peek to see who was entering.

“Mrs. McCain and Mrs. McCain,” Tom nodded his head. “This is a formal inquest by the U.S. Marshal’s service. You presence is an intrusion,” Tom informed them.

“We just came to see that our husbands took no harm while they were out there doing their jobs!” Milly curtly informed Tom.

“Ladies, as you can see, one of them is perfectly fine. As for the other, the jury is still out!” Tom answered looking directly at Mark.

“Prosecutor, Judge, and Jury! Will you also be the executioner?” Hope asked as she walked to Mark, leaned forward and gave him a brief kiss, before she said, “Welcome back.” Hope turned and left the office, followed shortly by Milly, who paused by the door.

“I expect to see both my husband and my son returned home, shortly!” Milly declared before she left, firmly closing the door behind them.

Mark saw the incredulous look on Benton’s face. Mark slouched in his seat and raised his hand to his mouth to try to hide the brief smirk he let out in hearing the tone of his wife’s voice, as well as the tone of voice from his ma.

“McCain! You will sit straight in that chair!” Benton hollered.

“Yes sir, she has that affect on Pa too.” Mark immediately regretted his comment, when he saw the look on Benton’s face change.

“Okay, now, from the beginning. And don’t leave out a single detail. I don’t care how insignificant you think it is. I want to know EVERYTHING!” Pausing, Tom looked to the others, “You four are dismissed. I’ll expect your full statements tomorrow. Tonight belongs to these two.”

Picking up their hats, and Lucas grabbing his rifle, they left the office. Each one in turn whistled, thankful they weren’t bearing the full wrath of Tom Benton, but regretting that they could no longer watch as Mark and Grid squirmed.

*****

“Come on Lucas, why don’t you get your wife, my daughter, and the children, then come to my home,” Seth stated. “I think you should all plan to spend the night.”

“Thanks, Seth. We’ll be there shortly. I think I saw them leave the office and head in the direction of Johnny and Colleen’s.”

“Come on brother. I’ll help you get your family to Seth’s,” Johnny stated.

Together the three bid good night to Johnny Drako as he headed to his home.

The Next Generation… Chapter 62 – The Verdicts

Night had long fallen when Johnny Drako finally made it home. He barely had his hat off his head when Lou started in on him.

“Just how dare ye keep the news that Mark is alive from me! I’ve been here grieving fer almost two days, the whole time ye’ve been gone! Ye know how I feel about Mark! He’s like a son to me! Me own flesh and blood!”

“Lou, I didn’t know myself until earlier today. Mark and Grid cooked it up between them,” Johnny replied as he untied and unbuckled his gun belt and placed them on the peg next to his hat.

“I don’t care who cooked it up, I tell ye, it was wrong of ye to keep it from me! I had to hear it from strangers that Mark was alive!”

“You don’t know any strangers,” Drako teasingly shot back.

“Johnny Drako, ye know what I mean! The least ye coulda done was to tell me yerself!”

“I couldn’t come home any sooner,” Johnny answered as he walked to Lou.

“Yer the Marshal! Ye can do anything ye want!”

“Lou, I couldn’t leave until Benton dismissed me,” Johnny said as he pulled Lou into his arms.

“Ye don’t report to the U.S. Marshals. Ye report to this town. Ye coulda taken five minutes. Five minutes to tell yer wife, who is a resident of this town, that Mark was alive. Or maybe ye…”

“Lou, please. From what Mark and Grid told me earlier this evening, they had to act quickly. The only ones Mark told were Hope, Lucas, and Milly,” Johnny answered.

“What about Tom Benton?” Lou asked.

“He didn’t know either. Anyway, both Mark and Grid are still at the office hearing an earful and answering Tom’s questions. Watching Mark squirm under Tom’s verbal assault was almost as fun as watching Mark squirm when Lucas got after him for doing something wrong when he was younger.”

“I don’t care. Ye coulda…” Lou replied.

“Lou you seem more upset in finding out that Mark wasn’t killed, than you were when you found out I hadn’t been killed a few years back,” Drako commented as he held Lou tightly.

“I wasn’t married to ye, back then!”

“And you’re not married to Mark McCain, now!” Drako retorted. Truly enjoying bringing out even more of Lou’s Irish temper.

“MR. DRAKO!” Lou called and tried to push herself from Johnny’s arms.

“You know Mrs. Drako, when you get riled like this…” Johnny replied as he held tight and led her to their bedroom. He quieted his voice before he said, “Calm down or you’ll wake the children.”

“Quit changing the subject,” Lou demanded as she walked along beside her husband.

“I’m not, you are,” Johnny stated as he closed the door behind them.

“I still don’t like it!” Lou pouted.

“I know something that you will like,” Johnny stated as a boyish grin spread across his face. “You know what you do to me when I see you get all riled up like this.”

“How dare ye?” Lou demanded. “We’re not done talking about ye keeping me in the dark.”

Johnny sat down on the bed and pulled Lou to sit on his lap, he playfully kiss his wife. He laid down backwards on the bed and pulled Lou to lie down on top of him.

“You’ve never objected to us being in the dark before,” Johnny replied, still trying to change the subject.

“Johnny Drako, I’ll not have ye…” Lou quieted as her body started to respond to her husband’s advances.

“But I’ll have you,” Johnny replied and then smothered Lou in kisses.

Slowly, Johnny unbuttoned the front of Lou’s blouse, as she unbuttoned his shirt. Lovingly he caressed her as he slipped her blouse from her shoulders. Soon, they were both under the covers.

The fiery anger Lou held towards Johnny when she thought he had hid the truth from her about Mark really being alive, was transferred into a fiery passion as she made love to her husband that night. Ever since Johnny Drako had returned and decided to call North Fork home, there was just something about him that drew her towards him. From their wedding night, she couldn’t stop herself from giving in to his desires. Yet, she found that his desires were just a mirror of her own. Until Johnny had come into her life, she had wanted to be a strong, independent woman, but now, she enjoyed the pleasures of being his wife.

*****

It was well after two in the morning before Tom Benton dismissed Mark and Grid. Slowly they stood from their chairs after Tom left the Marshal’s Office.

“Wow, never knew I could get into so much trouble for upholding the law,” Mark replied, rubbing the sides of his temples.

“It’s not that we upheld the law, it’s how we went about doing it,” Grid replied as he rubbed at the back of his neck. “I’m heading to the livery, be seeing ya.”

“You leaving town?” Mark asked.

“Na, can’t leave you to face the hangman’s noose by yourself. I’ll climb into the hayloft and grab some shut eye. You take the chaise in here.”

“Good night, Grid.”

Grid turned, waved his hand, and placed his hat on his head.

*****

The sun was barely coming through the windows in the Marshal’s Office when Mark felt a soft hand caressing the stubble on his face.

“Been a while since you’ve shaved?” the voice asked.

“Yeah, being dead does have that affect. Maybe you might want the honor, seeing as your husband is back among the living?” Mark stated as he opened his eyes to see his wife sitting next to him. Propping himself up on his elbow, “How come you’re in town so early? Who’s watching the children?”

“The entire family stayed at Father’s last night. How long did Tom keep interrogating you two?”

“Until two o’clock this morning,” Mark replied, trying to stifle a yawn.

“He looked pretty upset when Ma and I stopped by.”

“Yeah, we sure asked for it,” Mark said as he sat up and pulled on his boots.

“How bad did you break your wrist?” Hope asked.

“Thadd didn’t think it was broken, just sorely sprained. Though he did feel it was better to put this cast on my arm for support.” Mark looked up to see Johnny walking in the door, grinning.

“Pa and Father are planning to walk the town in a little while and then bring some breakfast to your prisoners. Come on, you could really stand to bathe and shave.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

Before leaving the office, Mark asked Johnny if the verdict was in yet.

“No, but I don’t expect to hear about it before he hands it down.” Johnny was still grinning as he started to fix a pot of coffee. “You two sure got yourself into a pile of trouble.”

“Don’t I know it,” Mark stated as he pulled his hat from the peg on the wall and placed it on his head. He wrapped his arm around Hope’s waist and left the office.

*****

After bathing and enjoying Hope shaving his face, Mark sat at the kitchen table eating breakfast with his family. He held his infant daughter in his lap.

“So, Mark,” Seth stated. “What are your plans for today?”

“Steering clear of Tom Benton for starters,” Mark stated as he stirred plenty of sugar into his coffee.

“Things can’t be that bad, can they?” Milly asked.

“You were only in the office with Tom for a few minutes last night. Grid and I were in there until two this morning. Least Grid had the right idea of heading over and sleeping in the livery. Though it’s more like he’s hiding out. Took Hope and I a lot longer to get from the Marshal’s Office to here with everyone we saw stopping us and telling me how good they felt over the fact that I wasn’t dead,” Mark replied before he took a drink from the cup.

“Mark,” Hope started. “Josh has an appointment with Doc Burrage today to get the cast off his arm. Maybe the two of you can tend to that today.”

“Sure.”

*****

The train from Denver arrived that afternoon, carrying Judge Jules Oury and Marshal Cole Barker. They proceeded directly to the Marshal’s Office. Once inside, they informed Tom Benton and Johnny Drako that the three outlaws who were taken into custody in Willow Point, would not be traveling to North Fork.

“They are to remain in prison and the facts presented in this trial will determine whether they will stand trial for additional crimes,” Cole Barker informed all.

The four discussed the possible charges against Angel Chavez, Ralph Claysin, and Brice Stringfellow. It was determined that the three were not involved in the attempted murders of Mark McCain or Seth Lane, so they would be transferred to the jurisdictions where their wanted posters were issued.

Judge Oury stated the trial for Rigby and Dahl would begin the following day.

*****

For two days, North Fork was the setting for the trial of Artie Rigby and Toby Dahl. Each time the prisoners were moved from the Marshal’s Office to the courthouse, it was a parade of U.S. Marshals blocking the route. Parents shooed their young children off the streets and turned their heads so as to not see.

The first part of the morning was spent selecting people from the town to sit on the jury. Each person was questioned quite extensively on their ability to be impartial and to weigh all the evidence before coming to any decision. Once the jury was seated, viewing the proceedings was restricted to only those required to be in attendance, as witnesses, and members of the town council, the town’s Marshal, as well as Reverend McCafferty.

Lucas temporarily stepped aside as President of North Fork’s town council, considering who the victims were to him. Mark had insisted that Lucas, Milly, and Hope be allowed to attend the trial. Judge Oury agreed but insisted they had to sit in the back of the room.

The prosecution presented sworn testimony from the Willow Point three, Dean Janes, Micky Roysen, and Harvey Tell, regarding their involvement in the planning of the murder attempt on Johnny Drako. The defense objected to not being allowed to cross examine the prosecutions ‘witnesses’.

“Your Honor, this testimony isn’t the only evidence we have against the two defendants. But this testimony is crucial to establish that the acts were premeditated,” the prosecutions lawyer stated.

“We didn’t premeditate to kill McCain, it were supposed to be Drako,” Dahl yelled as he stood up.

“Shut up! You idiot! You just placed the noose around your necks!” the defense lawyer hissed.

Those in attendance mumbled and tried to hide their laughs, as they heard the exchange.

Testimony presented next, was from Sweeney. Talking of how the two strangers came into the saloon, appearing to already be intoxicated. How he tried to refuse service to them, suggesting they go sleep it off.

“They started fighting and tearing up the place. So, I went to go get the Marshal and Deputy, so they could stop ‘em. They returned with me and broke the fight up. Then, as they were leading to the Marshal’s Office so they could sleep it off, I watched as they no longer looked drunk and started fighting. First with Seth and then next with Mark. Others came riding into town, fast and furious. One took a potshot at me and also shot Mark in the back!”

The prosecution attorney continued to question Sweeney about various details. When he was done, the defense tried to lessen Sweeney’s credibility and put doubt in the minds of the jury as to the kind of man he was or that his memory might not be that good. The prosecution took objection to questioning a man’s reputation just because the establishment he owned and operated was a saloon. Judge Oury agreed.

By late afternoon, the prosecution had finished hearing Seth Lane’s testimony as to the events that transpired that night in June. After years of being a soldier in the U.S. Army and finishing his career as a Major, the defense had no luck in shaking his confidence or getting Seth to admit that things might not have happened as he remembered.

Judge Oury excused Seth from the witness stand, then announced, “Considering the lateness of the hour and we still have more testimony to hear from one more key witness, I’m adjourning this trial until tomorrow morning. Proceedings will start promptly at nine o’clock. Marshals, take your prisoners back to their cells.

The following morning, the trial was back in session and the first person called to testify was Mark. The Prosecutor requested for Mark to tell the jury in his own words, what led up to the events that happened that night.

Mark allowed the memories from that night to return to his consciousness. He closed his eyes as he saw the scene play itself out in his mind. Slowly and deliberately he told the jury of what had happened. Breaking up a fight at Sweeney’s saloon. Starting to lead the men who were fighting across the street to the Marshal’s Office. Hearing the sounds of horses’ hooves running and splashing through the mud puddles as the rain continued to pour. He saw the first man turn and struggle to take Seth’s gun away from him. He heard the shot. Next, he felt his rifle being torn from his hands. He struggled to retain control. Next he saw the light from a street lamp flash off the blade of a knife and then that knife was plunged into him below his ribcage. He felt another punch across his face as he crumpled to the ground and felt the knife being pulled from his body.

“That’s all I remember,” Mark stated in conclusion. He let out a deep sigh, thankful this part was over.

“Marshal McCain, are the men who attacked you in this courtroom?” the prosecution asked.

“I OBJECT!” the defense roared.

“Oh what grounds?” Judge Oury asked.

“The defendant, by his own account, was only attacked by one man,” the defense attorney declared.

“I will rephrase the question. Marshal McCain, is the man who attacked Deputy Seth Lane and the man who attacked you, are either or both of these men present in this room?”

“Yes sir, they’re sitting at that table.” Mark pointed to the defense table.

“I’m through with this witness,” the prosecutor stated as he returned to his seat.

For the next two hours, the defense attorney took time trying to tear apart Mark’s testimony, but Mark stood firm in his resolve.

The final witness was Thaddeus Burrage, MD. He was questioned as to the extent of the injuries suffered by the victims. For those present, who were not members of Mark’s immediate family, it was a shock to hear the exact extent of his injuries.

After both sides rested their cases and had given their closing arguments, Judge Oury ordered the jury to exit the courtroom and to determine their verdict.

*****

The following morning, the court was back in session when Judge Oury requested John Hamilton, the jury foreman, to stand.

“Has the jury reached its verdict?”

“Yes, your Honor.”

“I’ll call out each defendant’s name and the charge against that person, then you will inform the court of the decision of the jury on each charge. Do you understand?”

“Yes sir,” John answered.

Artie Rigby, Disturbing the Peace
Drunk and Disorderly Conduct
Resisting arrest
Two counts Attempted Murder
Two counts Conspiracy to Commit Murder

Toby Dahl, Disturbing the Peace
Drunk and Disorderly Conduct
Resisting arrest
Two counts Attempted Murder
Two counts conspiracy to commit murder

After each defendant’s name and charges were announced, John Hamilton stated guilty. The crowd murmured as the final verdict was announced. The only charge the defendants were acquitted on was charge of being drunk at the time.

“Artie Rigby and Toby Dahl, you have been found guilty as charged. You will now hear your sentence, but first, there is one formality. Is there anyone present who wishes to speak prior to handing down the sentence against these two men for their crimes?”

One lone person stood from those in attendance, “I do, your Honor,” came from the back of the room. The spectators turned to see who had spoken. Another murmur rumbled through the room.

“Order, I will have order in this courtroom!” Judge Oury demanded as he banged his gavel to quiet the room.

“Come forward and state your name,” the judge stated as he tried to look over the top rim of his glasses.

“U.S. Marshal, Mark McCain.”

“Oh, one of the victims?”

“Yes sir, but right now, I want to speak as a citizen of this community. If I may?” Mark asked.

Judge Oury motioned for Mark to proceed. He walked forward until he was about ten feet away from the judge’s bench.

“Your Honor, I know it’s your responsibility to see that justice is carried out, once these men were found guilty of their crimes. I know that their punishment is in your hands and the law gives you guidelines on appropriate punishments… I just wanted to say that… Though I’m sure that hanging is one of the choices you have, I don’t know how North Fork would react to a hanging. We’re a growing community, with newcomers arriving daily — families with young children. People are traveling through here from locations in the East, on their way to new homes. Maybe they might stop and say, “North Fork is where we want to call home.” We’re trying to convey an image that communities in the West can be as civilized as communities back East. North Fork has seen one hanging since my Pa and I started calling this town our home, it wasn’t pretty and it took a while for the community to get past it. It was my life these men almost took, but through the skills of our town doctor and through the prayers offered by my family and friends, and I’m sure by the Grace of God, I still stand here before you. I guess what I’m trying to ask, is… Don’t give these men death sentences. I ask that you sentence them spend the rest of their lives in prison. That’s all I have to say your Honor.”

There was a surprised tone in the voices as those present started murmuring when Mark turned and walked back to his seat in the back row, and sat down between Hope and his father.

*****

“Well,” Judge Oury declared. “Never in my tenure on the bench have I witnessed a victim request leniency against those accused of attempted murder. The law is specific as to what sentences I can hand down based on the crime or crimes committed. But, based on the request of one of the victims, I am reminded of Leviticus 24:19-21 and Exodus 21:22-25, and Deuteronomy 19:21, in which a person who has injured the eye of another is instructed to give their own eye in compensation. The purposes of our laws are to provide equitable retribution for an offended party.

“But an eye for an eye is not just about retribution, but also implies mercy and I must believe that a sentence of hanging, though I am sorely tempted, such a sentence would far exceed the crime of attempted murder, even though there were extenuating circumstances.

“I will grant the request of U.S. Marshal Mark McCain in sentencing the defendants to life without parole in a federal prison. During your stay, you will be put to hard labor to pay for your sins against these two men and your sins against God.

“This court is adjourned!” Judge Oury banged his gavel one final time before ordering the defendants to be immediately removed and escorted to the waiting train. Once the defendants were removed, he requested the court room to be cleared of all persons.

*****

The courtroom was clearing when Tom Benton called for Mark and Grid to remain behind. Mark leaned over and gave Hope a kiss and told her to wait for him at her father’s.

Slowly, Mark and Grid walked to the front of the courtroom and stood in front of the judge. Tom Benton and Cole Barker stood to the side.

“Now I understand the two of you used an ‘unorthodox’ method of bringing the outlaws to trial?” Judge Oury asked.

“Yes sir,” Mark replied.

“I’ve reviewed the report that Marshal Benton has planned to file and I am quite appalled that you would contemplate such a scheme. In your effort to ascertain what other crimes the criminals might potentially be planning, this community was put at great risk…”

“But it wasn’t!” Grid interrupted.

“I haven’t finished speaking young man.” Judge Oury wasn’t used to being interrupted and his voice and face showed it. “Now, as I was saying. This scheme of yours put this community and possibly a number of other communities at great risk, had you not be able to re-capture those you set free. Because you were able to recapture Rigby and Dahl, and bring a number of known outlaws into custody, and because you both are thought of so highly by your superiors, your sentences won’t be as long as they might have been. Both Marshal Benton and Marshal Barker have made recommendations as to your sentences. You’ll both face a two week suspension, without pay, beginning tomorrow.”

“Suspension?” Mark asked.

“There are repercussions to your actions, be thankful you both still have badges to wear, the U.S. Marshal Service could very well have terminated both of your appointments.” Looking to Mark, “As a U.S. Marshal.” Then looking to Grid, “And as a Deputy U.S. Marshal. I take it you both will remember this lesson?”

Both nodded as they accepted their sentencing.

“Good, then case closed and this court’s adjourned,” Judge Oury declared and banged his gavel on the bench top.

Mark and Grid turned to leave the court room. As Judge Oury gathered up his personal affects he did call out. “Though I personally think it was mighty brazen of the two of you. Damn it, if I didn’t wish I had thought of doing the same when I was your age, given the proper circumstances. But that doesn’t leave this room!”

*****

Feeling a little more justified, in hearing Judge Oury’s final comments, Mark and Grid left the courtroom. They stood and watched as Barker, Benton and Aubrey loaded the prisoners on the train and closed the door to the rail car.

“Well, I guess it could have been worse,” Mark quietly stated.

“Yeah. Well, November ain’t exactly the best time of year for a vacation,” Grid replied.

“You’ll survive, Grid. Tell you what, why don’t you come to the house tonight. Have supper with the family.”

“Naw… I probably should get back home.”

“Grid, not on this train. Wait until tomorrow. Hope and I will plan for you to arrive at the house around four o’clock?”

Grid nodded, turned and walked away.

*****

Mark turned and headed towards his father-in-law’ home to meet up with his families and tell them the news. Everyone was surprised to hear Mark tell them of his, and Grid’s, two week suspension.

“Pa, you’ve always said there are always consequences to one’s actions. I’ve accepted the fact. But Grid sure is taking it harder than I thought.”

“What do you mean?” Milly asked.

“I think under that gruff exterior he carries around, he puts his heart and soul into wearing the badge. He’s good at what he does. Ma, his growing up was a lot more difficult than mine and maybe he didn’t get the opportunities to be taught all the lessons I did… He doesn’t take kindly to people telling him he did wrong. He’ll accept it, but he buries the hurt deep inside. No one ever took the time to explain to him how to accept criticism and how it can be constructive.”

“I feel sorry for him,” Hope answered.

“Don’t. That’s the last thing he needs. Just treat him as you would any friend. I’ve invited him to supper at the house tonight. I said we’d expected him to arrive around four.”

*****

After supper, as their sons asked questions of Grid and listened intently to his every word, Mark saw a change in Grid. He wasn’t that ‘gruff’ loner he tried to portray. Once the children were in bed for the night, Mark, Hope, and Grid decided to take advantage of the unusually warm November evening and sat on the front porch. Hope sat one step down from Mark and leaned back to him.

They talked for a long while, finally Grid got up to leave. Hope stood up and walked to the door of their home. Mark got to his feet and followed Grid to his horse. Before he put his foot in the stirrup, Grid paused and turned to Mark, “You know, some day, I hope to have me a place like this to call home.”

“Grid, all you have to do is stop running.”

“Running?”

“You’re not as ‘gruff’ as you make yourself out to be.”

“What do you mean?” Grid asked, a gruffness having returned to his voice.

“You let me and Pa in a long time ago. Why don’t you put a window in that wall around your heart? If you’d soften your act a little, I’m sure you’ll find yourself a nice gal and maybe you’ll even fall in love.”

“Love’s for fools.”

“Yeah, love makes you do silly things, but it’s a nice place to be. It’s awful nice to have someone besides your horse to talk to or keep you warm on a cold winter’s night.” Grid stepped into the saddle and Mark offered his hand up to Grid. “Remember, we’ll always consider you a part of our family, whether you want to or not. You’ll have a place to take your boots off next time you visit North Fork.”

“Maybe… But I am who I am. I ain’t gonna let no gal tell me what to do and who to be.”

“Grid, I hope you find a gal who can be to you, what Hope is to me. Someone who accepts you for who you are and understands you have a past. When you find the right one, you’ll understand that she won’t want to change you, because then you won’t be the person she fell in love with. Grid, Pa once told me there’s no looking back. You have to let go of the past, so you can live for today and tomorrow. You take care, Grid.”

“You too, McCain.”

Mark stepped back to the porch and wrapped an arm around Hope’s waist as they waved goodbye to Grid.

“You think he’ll ever find what he’s looking for?” Hope asked.

“He just might. I changed his mind nine years ago when he wanted to kill Pa. Maybe, I… Maybe we changed his mind tonight; I saw a change in him as he talked to the boys and then again as he shook my hand. I think… maybe he already has a gal back in Oklahoma. A gal that he hadn’t been ready to commit too. Sort of like Pa and Miss Milly, before she left.”

“How so?” Hope asked.

“Pa was too worried about raising me and he was still hurting from losing Ma. It took losing Milly for him to realize that he really did love her, and then by then it was too late.”

“But she came back,” Hope stated.

“And tonight, Grid’s heading back home. Maybe he’ll allow whoever’s waiting for him to finally heal his hurt. I think when he gets back to Oklahoma life will be a whole lot different for Grid Maule, Jr.”

Both turned and walked into their home and closed the door.

 

This story continues in The Rifleman – The Next Generation Pt 12

 

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