The Rifleman – The Next Generation Pt 16 (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 story of an idea began in my story, Timing.

Category:  The Rifleman
Genre:  Western
Rating: PG
Word Count:  18,847


 

The Next Generation… Chapter 81 – Vengeance Returns

Spring returned to North Fork and a band of riders stood beside their horses overlooking the valley, watching as the dust cloud slowly made its way towards them. The leader removed a cylindrical object from his saddlebag and stretched it out to its full length before placing the spyglass to his eye. Observing the moving dust cloud traveling across the land, the leader saw a two-horse team pulling a prison wagon. Two guards sat erect on the front seat, one driving the team, the other — rifle in hand.

Each man in the group went about his business around the camp while they waited. Waited for the time when their leader signaled they would break the prisoner out of the wagon.

“Black Jack, how much longer we gonna wait?” the curly blonde haired man asked as he stood behind him and watched.

“When the time’s right,” was the response he received.

“That’s what you been saying for five days. How much longer?”

“You don’t have much patience do you, Curry?”

“Not when it comes to getting my cousin out of prison. Why? Why are we waiting? We can take them easily.”

“Yes, but I need time for my plan to come to fruition?” Black Jack answered.

“Fru what?”

“You want your cousin out of jail and I don’t want the law after us any time soon. I’ve got a plan to keep the law and any bounty hunters busy while we get away. I want my plan to succeed.”

“Then why didn’t you say that in the first place?” Curry asked.

*****

Before the sun gave any hint of rising, the men were on their horses and quietly making their way to the prison wagon. Kidd Curry slowly made his way to the nearest guard, leaning back against a tree, sleeping. Curry pulled the rifle from his lap. The man startled awake, realizing his lapse could very well have just cost him his life.

Black Jack Ketchum held his rifle pointed at the second guard, who groggily woke before bolting upright in his bedroll.

“Get the ropes!” Ketchum ordered.

“We ain’t gonna kill ‘em?” Curry asked as he pulled his revolver from his holster.

“No, we tie them up and let them figure out how to get loose and to the nearest town. I don’t need no lawman man on my trail, for murder.”

“Like you ain’t already a murderer,” another voice called out.

“No, but none of thems were lawmen. You get a different breed of man on your trail when you murder a lawman. Now, do as I say!”

Taking the keys from the guard in the bedroll, Curry walked to the back of the wagon, “Heyes, rise and shine old buddy! You’re…” Curry’s voice changed to one of surprise when he realized the prisoner inside wasn’t whom he expected. “You’re not Heyes! Who are you? Where’s Heyes?”

‘No, I’m not Heyes. They changed him to a different prison wagon on its way to Cheyenne, Wyoming,” the prisoner spoke.

“So…? Who are you?” Black Jack asked as he held his gun on the man stepping from the wagon.

“Someone who expected for the rest of his life to lie in the bed he made.”

Both noticed his easygoing way of talking and the dignified air his posture affected.

“Say what?” Curry asked.

“It means that he’s accepted his lot in life, he made his bed and it’s the one he’s expecting to spend the rest of his life sleeping in. I take it you were on your way to swing?”

“Not quite. My sentence was commuted to life in prison, because of a charitable act towards a child years ago.”

“Then who are you?”

“The name’s Renolds, Harlan Renolds,” he held his hand out to thank his benefactors.

Regardless of the fact he wasn’t the man they intended to break out of prison, he was invited to mount the spare horse they had brought along.

“Gentlemen, thank you for your hospitality!” he called towards the guards as the gang rode away.

*****

That night, Renolds spoke to the men as they settled down for the night, “Gentlemen, not that I don’t appreciate your valiant rescue of me, but I feel that my luck is best served if we split up. You’re heading in a direction that’s bound to bring me a little too close for comfort to someone who’d… let’s say… would rather see my neck strung up, than living the rest of my natural days in prison.”

“How do we know that you won’t head straight for the marshals?” one of the gang asked.

“Because like you, I value my freedom. If you’ll remember, YOU broke ME out of jail, to which I will forever be eternally grateful. And because of that, I’ll not say a word. Besides, you were the ones who left the prison guards alive.”

The sun rose to see Harlan Renolds ride the opposite direction than the Ketchum Gang.

*****

As the sun rose higher above the hills, those in camp listened as Kidd Curry voiced his displeasure in the turn of events, “Your plan was supposed to get Heyes out of prison!”

“It would have, had he been in the prison wagon. How was I supposed to know that they changed destinations?”

“I thought you had a contact at the prison?” Curry demanded.

“I do! He must have done something that caused them to become suspicious of him and they changed their plans.”

“Great! Just Great!” Curry stated sarcastically and threw up his hands. Before continuing, Curry pointed his index finger into Black Jack’s chest, “I ain’t leaving my cousin to rot in no Wyoming prison.”

“Renolds said Heyes was being transported to Cheyenne, and I’m not hankering to travel that far,” Black Jack stated.

“And what about your plan? Your plan that was supposed to…”

“It’s still in motion,” Black Jack answered.

“Still in motion, Hannibal’s probably no longer in New Mexico by now! How can your plan still be in motion?”

“I’ve pretty much ensured that most all the marshals and bounty hunters in this and any surrounding territories are pre-occupied.”

“Care to tell me about it?”

“What’s the one way to keep the law and any bounty hunters away from us?” Black Jack answered with a question.

After thinking for a few moments, “Create a diversion. Send them on a wild goose chase.”

“Exactly!”

“And how do you do that?” Curry asked.

“By offering the bounty hunters a reward they can’t pass up and make the law focus on saving one of their own, both at the same time and after the same quarry.”

Curry raised his eyebrows.

Ketchum gave a brief description of his plan, “I had wanted posters printed offering a reward and the picture I used was of the marshal for the territory. Word should have gotten to the marshals by now and I’m sure they’re scampering about in an effort to save his life. At the same time, what bounty hunter would care to pass up the chance at three thousand dollars?”

“Can you imagine the face on the bounty hunter when he brings in the wrong man and won’t get paid? Especially tragic when he learns the man was a marshal.” Curry laughed at the simplicity and sheer genius of the plan. “But how does that help us get Heyes out of prison?”

“Doesn’t help us, but it does offer us some time to breathe and not worry about the law being after us. Kidd, this is where we part company. I’m heading back to Texas until things cool down. Wish things had gone better for ya! If you get your cousin out, we’ll meet you in Channing, Texas.”

“Yeah, thanks!” Curry stated as he slapped his hat to his thigh.

The riders went about breaking their camp, with Curry heading north and the Ketchum Gang heading east.

*****

The lone rider arrived in North Fork and slowly trotted his horse down the main street, turning his head from side to side, observing the town and its people. He stopped his horse in front of the Marshal’s Office and carefully stepped down, still surveying those coming and going along the boardwalks, as well as those riding horses or driving wagons through town. He stepped to the boardwalk, tipping his hat as two women walked by. He turned the doorknob and pushed the door open to find an old friend sitting behind the desk and wearing a badge.

“Been a long time there, Johnny,” he stated as he removed his hat and stretched out his hand.

It took the man behind the badge a few moments to remember the face and the voice, “Montana? Montana Wainright! Man, it’s been years!” Johnny called as he stepped around the desk and shook the man’s hand.

“Heard you took to wearing a badge. Also heard a rumor that you got married and sprouted a few young ’ens?”

“You’re keeping up with current happenings pretty well. Montana, I’d like to introduce you to the only man I trust more than you, Lucas McCain, and his daughter, Myra.”

Montana turned and extended his hand to Lucas. Lucas noticed his eyes, steel cold and calculating, as Johnny’s had been before he decided to settle down. “Pleased to meet you. McCain… Seems I heard that name before.”

“Montana, he’s been known to be called the Rifleman,” Johnny offered.

“Oh, I see.” Turning to Myra, “I’m pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Myra.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Myra answered as she curtsied. “But…”

“But?” Montana asked.

“Your name, it’s not a person’s name, it’s the name of a state,” Myra stated with a perplexed look on her face, causing the three men in the room to burst out with laughter. “But it is! Mr. Bullock’s teaching us about The States in school and Montana was just admitted in… in… 1889.” She folded her arms and pouted because of the men laughing at her earlier comment.

“I’m sorry, Miss Myra. I shouldn’t have laughed at you. None of us should. You’re right. Montana is the name of one of the United States, however,” he leaned real close to Myra and stated, “It’s a lot easier to say than my real name.”

“Your real name? You an outlaw?” Myra asked loud enough for everyone to hear.

Smiling, Johnny Drako answered, “No, he’s not an outlaw. Next to your father, he’s one of very few men that I called a friend, back before I arrived in North Fork.”

“My real name is Montague Aloysius Jedidiah Wainwright, the fourth,” Montana stated.

“Whew, that is a mouthful,” Myra declared as she stared at the man.

“Myra!” Lucas scolded.

“That’s all right Mr. McCain. As I said, easier to go by Montana.”

“Well,” Johnny said. “What brings you to North Fork?”

Montana reached into his pocket and pulled out a folded sheet of paper. “Got this here wanted poster and been tracking the outlaw. The trail led here,” and handed it to Johnny Drako.

“Wanted, Dead or Alive, George Ulysses Morgan, aka “Little Boy” Morgan. Wanted for murder and bank robbery… Oh MY GOD!”

“What’s wrong?” Lucas asked when he heard Johnny’s exclamation and saw the shocked look on his friend’s face.

“Lucas…” Johnny handed the paper to Lucas. “Montana, where’d you get this?”

“What the… What kind of a joke is this?” Lucas demanded as he stood to his full height and looked directly at Montana.

“Not sure what you two are getting at, but I got that sheet of paper from the Sheriff over in Bismuth. Been showing it around to people and they said it looked a lot like someone who kept around these parts,” Montana answered.

“Sure the hell does, only he’s not an outlaw. He’s my son! This picture is my son, Mark. He’s the territorial Marshal for New Mexico!”

“The Marshal…” Montana mused.

“Who the hell would put out a wanted poster with Mark’s picture?” Lucas demanded.

“Lucas, it says that payment can only be made over in Red Wing,” Johnny stated after he took the piece of paper back. Both knew the reward offered, three thousand dollars, would draw every bounty hunter, real or not, in the territory to Red Wing. It would also give any outlaw an opportunity to kill Mark and claim they were only following the reward poster.

“That’s two days ride,” Lucas stated. “I’ll get my…”

“Papa?” Myra called as Lucas started to leave the Marshal’s Office.

Lucas stopped in his tracks as he realized he couldn’t just ride out of town. He walked back towards the desk and knelt in front of Myra.

“Myra, I’m going take you to Uncle Johnny and Aunt Colleen’s, they’ll see that you get home.”

“Papa, is Mark in trouble?” Myra asked.

“I hope not. I pray he’s okay,” Lucas answered as he picked Myra up from the floor and placed her to his hip. Grabbing his rifle, Lucas stated, “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

“Montana, you up to being deputized?” Johnny asked.

“Sure, but can I ask why?”

“Because Mark headed up towards Red Wing to track an escaped prisoner who was being transferred from the New Mexico Territorial Prison over to Yuma. Seems Hannibal Heyes still has friends who wanted to see him out of prison.”

“Hannibal Heyes, didn’t he ride with Kid Curry?” Montana asked.

“Yeah, I think they were partners. Mark left here about a week ago. Based on this poster, he’s gonna be in a mess of trouble and needing all the help he can get,” Johnny declared. “I need to wire Denver. Don’t know how long this poster’s been circulating, but if this goes as bad as I fear it could, Mark’s going to need more than just the three of us. We’re gonna need a LOT of help to pull these posters and to get to the bottom of this. I’ll send the wire and stop by Seth’s place. Montana, you get to the livery and tell Nils to get a packhorse ready and I’ll meet you at the General Store. If I’m not there, tell Mrs. Donner I’ll be in shortly to authorize the supplies we’re gonna need.”

*****

Three days before Montana Wainright arrived in North Fork, a single rider rode through an arroyo, following tracks that were invisible to most men. The rider took time to dismount from his paint horse, knelt, and touched the ground with his hand that wasn’t holding his rifle. He was confused as to why the rider he was tracking had separated from those who had broken him out of the prison wagon. Standing up, he looked at his surroundings, listening for what had disrupted the natural sounds that should fill the air. Finally, the rider stood, remounted his horse, and picked up a slow trot.

The sky looked to hold an ominous warning, as the setting sun painted a dark violet and blood red mixture across the horizon. The rider heard a shot and almost immediately felt the searing pain in his left thigh. Without hesitation, the rider had his horse in a gallop, as he laid as close to the horse’s neck as he could, urging his mount to run even faster.

The sky had given up its colors and turned pitch black with a few white dots twinkling in the heavens, by the time the rider pulled up his winded horse and listened. Crickets, owls, and wolves were the only other sounds that he heard over his blowing horse. No hoof beats indicating he was being followed, or if he was, he had lost his pursuers in the darkness.

A gentle rain started falling as the rider continued to ride his horse further away from the location where he had been ambushed. Finally, he gave into his heavy eyelids and slid from his horse. Barely able to keep to his feet, he pulled a set of hobbles from his saddlebag. Once the rider had fallen to the ground, he hobbled his horse and crawled over to a grouping of large boulders hoping they would afford him some protection. The rider couldn’t keep his eyes open any longer.

*****

After seeing Myra to his brother-in-law’s home and explaining what was happening, Lucas met Drako and Montana at the General Store. After packing provisions on the packhorse and filling their own saddlebags, the three mounted and rode from town.

When Drako ordered a halt to rest the horses, Montana asked, “So, how do we know what the Marshal Service is going to do about this?”

“Don’t know,” Johnny answered. “All I care about is getting to Red Wing and preventing somebody from cashing in on that reward poster.”

“This outlaw that your Marshal is supposed to be tracking…” Montana asked.

“From what I heard Mark say before he left, Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry rode with…” Drako started to say.

“The Ketchum Gang,” Montana answered. “I know that. Do you really thing they’re gonna hang around here to get captured again?”

“You think the wanted posted with Mark’s picture has anything to do with Heyes escaping?” Lucas asked.

“I don’t know. Won’t know until Denver finds out where that posted was printed. All I can say is it has to be a mistake, no rightful marshal would print a poster with the wrong picture on it,” Drako said as he replaced his hat to his head after wiping his brow.

Montana took a drag from his cigarette and asked, “Any chance this might be a trap to get either one of you, instead of the Marshal?”

“Why would you ask that?” Johnny queried.

“Well, you both have reputations.”

“I’ve not noticed any strangers, other than you in town or crossing my land. What about you Johnny? You work and live in town.”

“Only businessmen traveling through, no one I’d consider to be a bounty hunter. They come, eat supper at the hotel or café, spend the night, and leave the following morning.”

Montana told briefly of how he ended up in North Fork, “Me, once I found the poster, I started asking around and the answers led me to your town, most bounty hunters would start in Red Wing and work their way out from there. Could be I’m the first bounty hunter to make it to North Fork.”

“Well, at least Seth knows to be on the lookout for any bounty hunters who come looking and can try to set the matter straight,” Johnny answered.

“If they believe him,” Lucas mumbled. “Let’s get a move on.”

The threesome spent several more hours traveling before the sun finally set and they agreed to make camp for the night. Lucas removed provisions from the packhorse before walking to the small campfire Montana had started. The three ate in quiet before turning in for the night.

*****

‘Old Man’ Wilkins still enjoyed working at the livery, even though he no longer owned the business; he still felt the need to be around horses and people. He had finished his work in town and was slowly riding his old mule home, when fairly close by he heard a horse snorting. In the afternoon sunlight, he looked around his surroundings and thought he spied a horse, ground tied in a thicket of trees, not too far off the road. He dismounted his mule and cautiously crept towards the horse and saw a young man attempting to doctor what appeared to be a bullet wound to his left thigh.

Quietly, ‘Old Man’ Wilkins ran back to where he’d left his mule, pulled out his shotgun and returned to where the man sat.

“The wanted poster says you’re wanted dead or alive,” he called out as he stepped into the thicket so the man could see that he was armed.

“I don’t know what wanted poster you’re talking about,” the man replied.

“You telling me you ain’t ‘Little Boy’ Morgan?” Wilkins shouldered the rifle.

“I don’t know anything about any ‘Little Boy’ Morgan. My name’s Mark McCain and I am a U.S. Marshal.” Mark opened his jacket to show the badge pinned to his shirt.

“You coulda gotten that offa Marshal, after ya killed him.”

“Mister, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I was ambushed two days ago,” Mark stated, wincing as he pulled tight the rag around his leg and attempted to stand.

“Stay right there. This here scattergun is loaded,” Wilkins declared.

“I need to get to the nearest town and wire for help from North Fork.”

“North Fork…” Wilkins scratched at his beard. “You said your name was… McCain?”

The young man nodded.

“I met a fella once… He and a Marshal came looking for a young boy. I helped take them back home to North Fork. You be… You be Lucas McCain’s boy?”

“That’s right…” Mark fell when he placed weight on his injured leg as he tried to walk to his horse.

Wilkins lowered his scattergun and ran to where Mark struggled to get up. He cupped a hand under Mark’s arm and helped him to his feet.

“My name’s Wilkins, Robert Wilkins. Here, let me help you.”

Wilkins set his scattergun to the ground in order to help Mark mount his horse. It took some effort for Mark to get in the saddle; he deeply exhaled once the pain lessened.

“If you is a Marshal, like you say, then you best not go into Red Wing. It’s the closest town around here.”

“Why?”

“Like I said, there’s a wanted poster with your picture, dead or alive, and a bounty of three thousand dollars. Bank robbery and murder is what it says ya done. Been seeing some pretty unsavory characters riding into town ever since that poster arrived.”

“No, I mean, you thought I was that wanted poster. Why are you helping me? I don’t understand.”

“Don’t mind me, but if you is who you is, then we best get you hid before some real bounty hunter comes looking for ya and decides dead is better than alive. I know some place where ya can hide until that leg of yours gets better. Won’t nobody bother ya where I’m taking ya.”

Mark signaled Rainmaker to follow Wilkins to where he left his mule. Together, they headed towards the mountains. Even though the sun was brightly shining, the temperature dropped the higher they went. Wilkins’ mule was surefooted as they climbed. Rainmaker struggled occasionally with the footing, but Mark kept his wits about him and gave his horse his reins so he could use his head to balance himself. Mark unbuttoned his jacket in an attempt to cool himself.

With the last faint traces of sun to light their way, they finally reached an old dilapidated shack. Wilkins slid down from his mule and turned to help Mark from his horse; he noticed the flushed look on his companion and knew the beads of sweat dotting his face weren’t a good sign.

With Mark’s arm over his shoulder, Old Man Wilkins helped Mark into the shack and eased him down as he collapsed on the bunk. Looking around Wilkins said, “I’ll be right back, there’s a small lean-to where I can put the horses to get them out of the weather that looks to be rolling in.”

Upon returning to the shack, Wilkins said, “That leg looks like the bullet is still inside.”

“It is,” Mark answered as he sat up, unbuttoned his jacket, and tried to pull it off.

“I wouldn’t do that, you’ll catch a chill. Let me get a fire going.”

Wilkins returned from outside with an armload of wood. Pulling a pouch of cigarette fixings from his jacket, he pulled out a match, struck it, and watched as the flames took hold of the wood in the crumbling fireplace. He thought to himself, ‘Well, at least he’s a little better sheltered here, than down on the road. No strangers would happen on him up here.’

“I know a little about doctoring, ya want me to see if I can get that bullet out of your leg?”

“Mister, if you could remove it and stop the fire, I’d be ever so mighty grateful.”

“Fire?”

“It burns like crazy, all up and down my leg. Not just where the bullet entered,” Mark replied as he used his sleeve to wipe the sweat from his brow.

“I can do my best, but it’s gonna hurt, I ain’t got no whiskey with me. Though it seems like someone had a whiskey-binge up here at some time,” Wilkins commented as he looked around the interior.

Wilkins walked to the fireplace and pulled his knife from its sheath on his belt. He held it in the flames for a few minutes before turning back to Mark, “Like I said, this ain’t gonna be easy or pretty. Got a piece of wood here for you to bite down on. Scream out, don’t be ashamed.”

Wilkins removed the rag tied around Mark’s leg and opened the cut pant leg. The sight of the angry flesh around the bullet wound caused Wilkins to grimace and shake his head. He sat down on the lower portion of Mark’s leg to hold it still.

“You grab onto the sides of the mattress while I’m cutting. Don’t be worried about screaming, it’ll help lessen the pain a little bit. ‘sides, ain’t nobody gonna hear ya way up here.”

With the first incision, Mark gripped what remained of the mattress he was lying on with both hands, tensed his body, closed his eyes tightly, and bit down on the piece of wood as hard as he could. He wasn’t about to give into screaming, until Wilkins probed deeper into his leg. Mark couldn’t help himself; the pain demanded that he scream. By the time Mark passed out, Wilkins thought he could hear Mark’s screams echoing off the mountainside. With the leg muscles relaxed, in no time, Wilkins had located the bullet, close to the thighbone, and pulled it out.

Not seeing any clean rags about the shack, Wilkins pulled the sleeve from his own shirt and used it as a makeshift bandage to wrap around Mark’s leg.

****

That night, an ugly, twisted, tormented face invaded his sleep. “I’m gonna kill me a sodbuster, heh heh, heh.” The smell of whiskey wafted through the air as Mark tried to turn his face away from the foul breath that came from the man’s mouth that was mere inches from Mark’s face. The man’s smell was enough to turn anyone’s stomach. “He killed my brothers, now I’m gonna kill him, heh, heh, heh.” Pulling a whiskey bottle from his lips, the man looked to Mark and said, “I’m gonna be yor Pa.”

Through his delirium, Mark called out, “No! You can’t!” At other times, calling out, “You’re not my Pa!”

Throughout the night, Wilkins watched as Mark struggled with his unseen foe; raising his arms over his head as if to ward off a blow and at other times, wrapping his arms around his middle, grabbing at a pain worse than what he was feeling in his leg.

*****

Wilkins searched what remained of the shack and found two things he was could use, a battered pot and a bottle. The encrusted pot contained the remnants of a stew cooked long ago, and the bottle, Wilkins couldn’t believe his luck, a full bottle of whiskey rolled under the bunk on the far side of the room… The old man thought, ‘Well, whoever’s loss is this man’s gain.’ After chipping away the dried-out stew, Wilkins was thankful for the remaining snow outside as he scooped some into the battered pot. After searching through Mark’s saddlebags, he found a few shirts to use as rags. After ripping one shirt, he dipped it in the melting snow before placing it across Mark’s fevered forehead. He ripped more of the shirt to re-wrap Mark’s leg, after he poured the whiskey over the wound.

Morning broke to find Mark coughing. Wilkins remembered back to his first meeting with Mark McCain and the worry returned that he was coming down with pneumonia, but Wilkins didn’t hear the young man rattling as he breathed, ‘must be more of his remembering’, he thought to himself.

Wilkins used more of the melting snow to fill Mark’s canteen. When Mark roused enough from his dreams, Wilkins placed the canteen to his lips, encouraging him to drink. When he’d return to the darkness, he’d call out “No, you can’t!” or “I have to get away, I have to save Pa!”

*****

Wilkins had drifted off to sleep only to be woken by Mark rambling, “shackled like an animal!… Kill him… KILL HIM!… Kill him the way you should have two years ago! …you didn’t…you didn’t! You had your chance and you didn’t! YOU let him do this to me! YOU LET HIM DO THIS TO ME!” Wilkins jumped to his feet and hurried over to where Mark lie on the bed and tried to restrain him.

By the time Mark quieted, aloud Wilkins asked, “What did you go through, back when you’s just a boy?”

*****

It was the second evening after they arrived at the shack before Mark opened his eyes again. He looked around the darkened room and saw a shadowy figure crouching in front of the fire.

“Pa?” Mark called out from the bunk.

Mark saw the man rise to his feet; his mind saw a figure much larger than the man actually was, “I’m not your Pa…” flashed through Mark’s mind.

“No!” Mark screamed and tried to back away. “Stay away from me!”

Slowly the man approached, words of comfort he spoke, “It’s gonna be okay. You’re over the worst of your fever. I helped ya. Look, my shotgun, its set in the corner… That’s it, look around, whatever happened to ya up here, it’s long gone…”

“You… You’re not… not him…”

“No, I’m not that fella. From what I remember, your Pa and the marshal brought him back to town slung over the saddle. He’s been buried… ten years now… Planted a good six feet under.”

Wilkins pulled a canteen from the table and walked towards Mark, unscrewing the top as he approached. “Here, drink some water; it’ll clear out what’s got your brain addled. Get some water into you, will make ya feel better.”

Mark gratefully took the canteen and slowly, at first, he let the water trickle into his mouth. Never had water tasted so good, he started gulping the water down… Wilkins was beside him as a coughing fit took Mark.

“Too much at once is like trying to drink the whole ocean. Can’t be done. Nice and easy. That’s the best way.”

When Mark finally could speak, he asked, “You said you helped Pa and Micah?”

“Yes siree, they come looking for ya, they did. Said a big man had taken you. When I saw you for the first time back in Red Wing, ya didn’t look so good. That man musta been awful mean. I won’t ask no questions about what happened up here. While you was fevered, you did a whole lotta remembering. I knew when I first saw ya, you was bad off, but I had no idear why. If I’d a put two and two together, I’d a never brought you here. You was talking about a shackle while you were out. It’s still there on the floor; looks like someone took target practice at it.”

Mark quickly sucked in his breath as the long, buried memories raced into his consciousness.

*****

Their second night out of North Fork, Montana was curious how the gunslinger Johnny Drako came to be a married, having children, and a marshal.

“Just don’t seem to add up,” Montana stated.

“Montana, you know how life can get, always looking over your shoulder. A man grows tired of living that life. I heard North Fork was a quiet town because of Lucas. I was looking to fade away from living that life. Have people forget about me in time. During my first visit, trouble followed me and I left.”

“Not for long,” Lucas quipped as he raised his coffee cup to his lips. “It was about two years later you returned, for good.”

“That’s only because you went and got yourself beat up and shot, and I wanted to see whoever did it brought to justice.”

“Justice? You mean revenge?” Montana asked.

“No, justice. See, I realized while I was trailing the Ortega gang, that if I really wanted to change my lot in life, I’d have to change how I went about doing things. I met up with Marshal Sam Buckhart…”

“The apache marshal?”

“None other. We trailed the outlaws together, before meeting up with a cavalry unit. A few of them outlaws didn’t allow themselves to be brought in alive.”

“So how’d you end up back in North Fork?” Montana asked.

“Turns out Lucas’ son was trailing after them too. He’d been there and gotten beaten up himself. Only when he came too at the doctor’s office, he thought Lucas was dead. I had to see my best friend’s son back home. Once I was there, the marshal realized how he was in need of a deputy.”

“That’s not the way I remember it,” Lucas teased. “I seem to remember you being taken by a certain business woman.”

“Yeah, with an Irish temper and…” Johnny cleared his throat. “So I admired a beautiful woman, nothing wrong with that.”

“…who he married a few years later and now has four children,” Lucas answered.

“You’ve got the life Johnny,” Montana stated with envy.

“We still have outlaws come through and create problems…”

“Man, what a life. Wish it were that easy to change. Ah, ain’t no woman be interested in settling down with me anyhow.”

“It’s getting late, the sun will be up before we know it,” Lucas stated as he dumped what little remained from his coffee cup.

*****

The dawning of their third day of traveling, the small posse from North Fork sat around the fire, discussing how they would go about looking for Mark. Lucas and Johnny agreed that Montana could be right, this could be part of an elaborate trap to get either one of them, and not just Mark.

“Well, if they know about the Lawman, then they for sure know about the Rifleman,” Johnny stated as he took a drink from his coffee cup.

Lucas retorted, “Well, if anybody is expecting Lucas McCain to come to rescue his son, they’d know that Johnny Drako wouldn’t be too far from my side!”

Both agreed to not use their real names once they arrived in Red Wing, they were going to pretend to be bounty hunters.

*****

Once camp was broke, the three rode into Red Wing, and headed directly to the Sheriff’s office and inquired if anyone had claimed the bounty.

“Naw, not yet. Though you ain’t the first ones to come looking,” the sheriff said.

They spent time at the saloon listening as other bounty hunters talked and compared notes. Lucas could tell that some were hoping to throw their fellow hunters off the trail. Montana returned from the livery, not fairing any better in obtaining any news on Mark. Though they were disappointed, each agreed that no news was good news, in this instance.

*****

Once they had eaten supper, the three took rooms in Red Wing’s hotel. Lucas entered a room, hung his saddlebags over the wrought iron footboard of the bed and placed his rifle on the small table, before collapsing in the overstuffed chair in the corner of the room. As sleep pulled at his tired body, memories played in his mind, returning to that early spring ten years prior – the year that Earl Bantry came back into their lives. Even the realization that this was the room they had stayed in, after he and Micah had rescued Mark from Bantry, couldn’t prevent the darkness from taking Lucas’ last waking thoughts.

*****

He didn’t hear the gentle knock at the door, at first. When the knock became a little more insistent, Lucas roused. He rose to his feet and walked to the door, asking, “Who’s there?”

“Mr. Gibbs?” came a voice from outside the room.

Slightly opening the door, he peered out and saw an older gentleman standing in the hallway.

“Mr. Gibbs. I used to run the livery in town.”

“A little late to be calling on a man,” Lucas stated.

Lucas opened the door and invited the man into his room.

“I heerd ya been looking for someone,” the man answered.

Lucas closed the door behind the old man before he handed the wanted poster to his visitor.

“Have you seen this man?”

“I thought I recognized you when you rode into town. But… you’re calling yourself Gibbs? Just in case you are who I think ya really are, I waited until now to come see ya.”

“You came to me with information, have you seen this man?” Lucas asked insistently.

“You.. You’re not a bounty hunter.” Taking on the tone of a rationale person, “And yes, I have. With you here, my brain can accept what my heart’s been telling me.”

“You know who this man is?” Lucas insisted.

“Mr. McCain, he’s your son and a U.S. Marshal. You’ve raised a fine son. Glad I helped ya out so long ago.

“Wilkins?” Lucas stated as he recognized the old man.

“That’s right, Robert Wilkins. But what I don’t get is all these wanted posters and you calling yourself by another name.”

“We don’t know who put these posters out.”

“And the other two who rode into town with ya?”

“Friends of mine. Can I trust you to keep our secret?” Lucas asked.

“He’s trusted me to keep his, so I thinks you can trust me. Ya did once before.”

“And I’m beholden to you for helping us out. We’re not sure if whoever put these posters out is after Mark, or using Mark to lure me here. That’s why we’re not using our real names.”

“Thought as much. Maybe I should tell you he was ambushed a few days back. I got the bullet out, but he’s taken a fever. I’m not sure that I done that great a job a helpin’ him, this time. The wound just doesn’t look like it wants to heal. The bullet had been in his leg for two days before I came across him.”

“He was shot? Where’s my son?!” Lucas asked.

“You probably ain’t gonna like my answer.”

“I don’t care, as long as he’s alive. Will you take me to him?”

“I can.”

“Now!” Lucas urgently spoke as he collected his hat and rifle.

“It’s past midnight and there’s no moon out there…”

“Harder for anyone to follow us,” Lucas answered.

“You wake the others you rode in with?”

“He’s not their son. I’ll leave them a note.”

Before leaving the hotel, Lucas scribbled a note and slipped it under the door of Johnny Drako’s room. He followed Wilkins to the livery, where he saddled Blade before they left town.

*****

Still running a fever, Mark woke to find himself alone in the shack. After receiving no response to calling out Wilkin’s name, Mark finally felt composed enough to look at his injured leg, it still felt as if his leg was on fire. Steeling himself for the sight, as he unwrapped the bandage, didn’t prevent the gag-reflex that hit him once he saw the discoloration in the flesh of his thigh. Looking around the shack, Mark crawled from the bunk and drug himself to the table where Wilkins had left his knife and the bottle of whiskey. Grabbing the items from the table, he pulled himself across the floor, stopping in front of the fireplace. He poured a little of the whiskey over the blade before he placed it in the flames. Listening as the whiskey on the blade sizzled from the heat. While waiting for the blade to get hot enough, Mark drank a good swig of the whiskey, cringing at the bitter taste, before pouring some of the whiskey over the wound. He clamped his teeth tight to prevent himself from crying out. He took another longer drink from the bottle. He closed his eyes and gasped as the whiskey burned at his throat.

Less than half a bottle remained when Mark looked at the knife and saw the blade glowing white, he pulled it from the flames. Before the whiskey could convince himself otherwise, Mark pressed the blade to his leg, gagging at the smell of his burning flesh. Pain and the foul smell caused tears to stream down Mark’s face. He gritted his teeth as he pressed harder, fighting against the pain and the woozy feeling from the whiskey. Pulling the knife from his leg, he set it on the bricks of the fireplace. Mark tried to take a deep breath, but it did no good, the pain finally got the better of him as the darkness overcame him.

*****

Quietly the two men rode towards the mountains, Blade struggled with his footing at times, causing Lucas to dismount and lead his horse along the path as he followed Wilkins on his mule. The horizon was just starting to show the first, faint signs of daybreak when they came to the clearing. Lucas inhaled sharply as he recognized the place.

“I told ya, you wouldn’t like it. Had I been athinking, I wouldn’t a brought him here, but I decided to trust him and that he needed protecting, before I remembered what had happened to him.”

“What do you mean, decided to trust him?”

“When I saw him a few days back, I thought he was who the poster said. I had my shotgun on him. I couldn’t believe my luck, three thousand dollars was sitting there in front of me. But… When he spoke, there was something about him that made me believe he weren’t no outlaw. I tried to convince myself that he coulda stolen the badge after he killed a marshal, but my heart wouldn’t believe my head. So I brung him here. He’s been fevered and his memories of this place are… Well, he’s remembering back to what that man done to him.” Stepping down from his mule, “He’s inside the shack. I’ll take your horse and put it in the lean-to.”

Cautiously, Lucas walked to the shack and opened the door. The inside was almost as they had left it so long ago, but this time…

“Mark?” Lucas called. Once his eyes adjusted to the darkness inside the shack, he saw the figure sprawled on the floor in front of the fireplace. “Mark!” Lucas ran inside and dropped his rifle next to his son as he lifted him into his arms, trying to see what injuries his son took. “Mark,” Lucas pleaded.

“What?” Wilkins called as he entered the shack. “What’s he doing on the floor? He was in the bunk when I left yesterday.”

Wilkins walked over to where Lucas sat with Mark in his arms. Sunlight started to stream through the doorway, glinting off the blade of the knife.

“My God!” Wilkins exclaimed as he turned Mark’s leg so he could see. “I cain’t believe he did it,” Wilkins whispered.

“Did what?” Lucas asked as his eyes followed Wilkins’ hands to Mark’s leg.

“I feared his leg was getting infected, but I don’t know enough about this stuff. Back in the war… man if he could sear his leg like he done.”

Together, the two men carried the unconscious Mark back to the bunk and pulled the tattered blankets up over him. Lucas pushed Mark’s bangs from his face and acknowledged his son was still running a fever. Wilkins put more wood on the fire, fanning it to take hold quicker.

“Was it a good thing or a bad thing for him to do?” Lucas asked, looking over his shoulder.

“I don’t know. If his fever gets worse, we’ll know it was bad. If his temperature returns to normal, then we’ll know it was good. Guess we won’t be heading down the mountain today, glad I got some vittles in my bags. I’ll be right back.”

*****

“Damn!” Lucas heard Wilkins call out. He looked up and saw Wilkins walking backwards, stepping inside the shack, arms raised. Lucas tensed as he prepared to lunge for his rifle, but relaxed when he recognized the guns Wilkins faced.

“Johnny, put your guns away. Wilkins is a friend,” Lucas yelled out. “Keep an eye out for others. If you followed us, then I’m sure others will be on our trail too.”

*****

Wilkins returned to the shack carrying his saddlebags and listened as Johnny explained how he couldn’t sleep and heard someone walk to the door of his hotel room. He had reached for his guns, before he saw a note being slipped under the door. “I read your note and was headed down the hallway when Montana came out of his room.”

From outside, Montana called, “We got company!”

Wilkins and Johnny ran from the shack. Lucas reached for his rifle and looked back to Mark one more time, before he ran to help the others protect his son. The men positioned themselves behind any boulder or tree that would afford them protection. Each aimed and fired at their attackers. Uncaringly, they heard one of their pursuers yell as the first bullet struck its intended target, instead of ricocheting.

*****

Memories of gunshots filtered through the darkness; it took time for Mark to realize what he thought was a memory, was real. He heard his Pa’s rifle followed by a shotgun blast and at least one handgun being fired from close by. Other shots he heard answered, but from farther away.

Mark threw back the blankets covering him and looked around the room. On the table, he saw his rifle and with every ounce of tenacity he could muster; Mark got to his feet. Using each piece of furniture as a crutch, he sorely limped to his rifle, fighting against the pain he felt in his leg. Once his rifle was in his hands, he turned and struggled to the closed door. Leaning heavily against the wall, Mark opened the door, and without thinking, he shouldered his rifle and fired. Mark watched as the man dropped his gun and sank to his knees, before falling crumpled to the ground.

Hearing a shot behind them, the four men turned, ready to fire their weapons at their enemy. Relief shone in their postures when they saw the man fall, they returned their attention to those down the mountain. Mark slid down the doorway of the shack, but kept his rifle at hand.

*****

It had been sometime since he had consciously heard a gunshot when Mark felt a hand on his shoulder and his name being called; momentarily he tensed. Mark opened his eyes to see his Pa kneeling in front of him while ‘Old Man’ Wilkins was taking his rifle from his hands.

“It’s alright Mark. The others, they rode down the mountain a little while ago,” Lucas stated as he kept a firm hand on his son’s shoulder, preventing him from getting up. “Wilkins, the canteen.”

Lucas took the canteen handed to him by Wilkins and held it to his son’s lips. Mark took hold of the canteen and tipped it higher.

“Easy boy,” Wilkins laughed. “No need to swallow the ocean.”

Mark’s eyes smiled as he remembered the reference and slowed his drinking. When he had his fill, he let his hands fall from the canteen as his Pa pulled it away from his mouth.

“How are you feeling?” Lucas asked as he placed his hand to his son’s forehead.

“Better,” Mark answered.

“Your fever seems to have broken,” Lucas replied.

Catching movement out of the corner of his eye, Mark turned his head and saw Johnny Drako and another man wearing a deputy badge leading several men with their hands tied behind their backs.

“Who are they?” Mark asked.

“Could be bounty hunters,” Lucas stated.

“Or those who were behind the ambush on you… and the poster,” Wilkins answered.

“But why? Pa, Wilkins told me of a wanted poster with my picture… Who?…”

“I don’t know son. Before we left North Fork, Johnny wired Tom Benton and informed him what was happening. We’ve been on the trail and just arrived last night. Wilkins came to my hotel room and told me you were in pretty rough shape.”

“Pa, my leg…” Mark tried to say as he reached for his Pa’s arm. “I…”

“Mark, we know you seared it, but I don’t know if it was the right or wrong thing to do. Only Doc Burrage will be able to tell us for sure.”

*****

Unable to bear any weight on the leg, Lucas half-carried Mark back to the bunk and helped him lie down.

“Mark, why’d you do it?” Lucas asked as he stepped back from the bunk.

“Pa, my leg, it hurt all, up and down. And it didn’t smell too good, even after Mr. Wilkins got the bullet out. I remembered reading in one of Doc’s books about cauterizing a wound, to prevent the spread of infection. Pa, it hurt like nothing I’d ever felt before, and then burning the knife into it… I was afraid gangrene was setting in. Pa, I don’t want to lose my leg!”

“I know son. I know,” Lucas replied as he saw the fear in his son’s eyes.

“Pa, this is the shack where Bantry tried to…”

Lucas nodded.

“Please, get me out of here…”

“We will, soon.”

*****

The group decided to stay up on the mountain one more night before they saddled their captives’ horses and took them, and Mark, down the mountain.

As Mark fell asleep Lucas was at his side, “Don’t worry son. You’re safe.”

Though he took comfort in his Pa’s words, his subconscious returned him to the last time. “Heh, heh, heh!” Mark moaned as he fought against his dreams. “Heh, heh, heh!”

*****

Lucas helped Mark hobble into Wilkins home, “Where can I put him? He needs to lie down.”

“There’s a room at the top of the steps, on the right, you can put him in,” Wilkins answered.

Wilkins entered his kitchen to find a gun trained on him.

“Old man, I ain’t looking for trouble, just needed some provisions to get where I’m going.”

“You an outlaw?” Wilkins asked.

“Was. Right now, I’m a free man thanks to circumstances beyond my control. Now, you got any smokes?” as he set the burlap sack on the counter top.

Wilkins ignored his question, “If’n I was you, I’d just git. The two I came with, they’s a U.S. Marshal and a deputy.”

“What are they doing here?”

“Looking for you. You’re the escaped prisoner, ain’t you?.”

*****

From outside they heard, “Lucas! It’s gonna be dark soon.”

From above they heard a window open, “I’ll be right down, Johnny,” before they heard the window close.

A few minutes later boot steps of a man coming down the stairs sounded down the hallway. “Wilkins, we’ll be back soon. You keep an eye on Mark?”

The stranger held his gun on the old man, “Sure, he’ll be in good hands,” Wilkins answered.

From the kitchen window, he watched as three men wearing badges rode away with their guns and a rifle held on three men with their hands bound.

“Why do you need to keep an eye on the one upstairs?”

“He got shot about a week back, developed a fever and infection. He’s doing okay, but not out of the woods. His leg might possibly need to be amputated because of the infection, they won’t know for sure until they get him back to North Fork.”

“North Fork…”

“Yeah, that’s where they call home.”

“The one who left, what’s his name?”

“Lucas McCain, and if you know what’s good for you, I’ll say again, git while the getting is good. He’s known as the….”

“Rifleman. I know. So who’s upstairs?”

“His son!” Wilkins answered with defiance in his voice.

“That’s his little boy upstairs?”

“Ain’t little, he’s a grown man!”

“That’d be something to see,” he laughed.

“You just stay away from him. He’s had a rough go of it and don’t need you aggravating the situation.”

“Now, I kind a liked the kid. I saved his life, twice.”

“Yeah, like his father would allow anyone the likes of you near his boy,” Wilkins voiced his anger. He wanted the man out of his house and away from his ‘patient’. “Sides, he ain’t no kid, he’s a U.S. Marshal.”

The man motioned with his gun, indicating Wilkins was to lead the way upstairs. They observed the opened door to the room as they reached the top of the stairs. Wilkins didn’t trust the man behind him at all. He turned and tried to push the man backwards, down the stairs. The stranger had the advantage in height and youth. In their struggle, the gun fired, striking the wall. The sound distracted Wilkins allowing the stranger to gain the upper hand.

“Now old man, be thankful I’m in a charitable mood today. Inside.”

Again, he motioned with his gun. They entered the room and saw a Mark trying to get to his feet and reaching for his rifle.

“Easy there, son,” the man called as he pulled the rifle from Mark’s reach.

Mark fell back to the bed, cringing as he banged his leg on the bunk frame.

“There’ll be three other lawmen back here soon,” Mark spoke

“I know that, son.”

“What do you want?” Mark demanded, but the others heard pain, not authority, in his voice.

“I heard you was here and came to see you.”

“If you’re here to try to claim the bounty, you’re sadly mistaken. I’m the territorial marshal.”

“So the old man said. And just look at how well you growed up.” Not seeing recognition in Mark’s eyes, he continued, “Guess in your predicament, you wouldn’t be up to joining me for another trip to Mexico, would you?”

“Another?” Mark asked.

“Sure, but if you’ll remember the last time, we didn’t make it to Mexico, we kind of got sidetracked. You put kerosene in the canteens instead of water?” his eyes laughed and he smiled as he remembered, shaking his head in disbelief, “Can’t believe you growed up to be a U.S. Marshal.”

“Renolds?” Mark finally recognized him. “But you’re supposed to be in prison, for life!”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought too. Only I didn’t figure on the Ketchum Gang busting me out of the prison transfer wagon.”

“You? But Hannibal Heyes was supposed to be in that wagon,” Mark stated.

“Seems the warden was ‘on to’ one of his men. He changed the transfer orders at the last minute and voila, I’m a free man.”

“Then you’re the one I’ve been after, this whole time?” Mark asked.

“Probably,” Renolds replied.

“And you shot me.” Mark reached down and rubbed his leg.

“Now hold on now, I didn’t do no shooting of nobody. Especially you! If anyone did any shooting it had to be Kidd Curry. He was riding with Ketchum and he’s known to be a little too quick to draw a gun, if you get my meaning.”

“I heerd of him, too,” Wilkins stated. “Also hear tell that he never killed nobody either. That might be why you got a bullet in your leg and not your head.”

From downstairs, they heard glass breaking. From outside they heard, “You in the house! Come out with your hands raised! We want Little Boy Morgan!”

“Who?” Renolds asked as he dropped to the floor, pulling Wilkins with him.

“Someone put out a wanted poster for ‘Little Boy’ Morgan, only they used the marshal’s picture. Them out there are probably those who tried to ambush us up on the mountain. There’s a bunch who rode away once they realized that they couldn’t get the drop on us. Marshal, I’m sorry, they must a followed us down,” Wilkins stated.

Renolds hollered loud enough so those outside could hear, “Don’t know who you think is in here, but there ain’t no Little Boy Morgan inside.”

“So you say! We be trailing them since they left that mountain! We’ve put in a lot of effort into tracking that outlaw and you ain’t gonna get our reward!”

“How much bounty did that…” Renolds started to ask.

“Three thousand dollars, dead or alive…” Wilkins said as he looked to where Mark lie to the floor.

*****

Lucas, Johnny, and Montana rode into Red Wing, ever vigilant. Stopping their horses in front of the Sheriff’s Office, they signaled their prisoners to get down from their horses and walk inside.

“What’s the meaning of this?!” Sheriff Marle declared as the three from North Fork pushed the bounty hunters into the office.

“Need you to hold these men until the District U.S. Marshal from Denver arrives,” Johnny ordered.

“On who’s authority?” Marle asked as he stood from behind his desk.

“Mine!” Johnny pulled his badge from his pocket. “You’ve seen the wanted posters on ‘Little Boy’ Morgan?”

“Shore, every new person in town lately seems to be after him.”

“You best pull every one of them from circulation. The man everyone is looking for isn’t an outlaw.”

“And just how do you know? You could be playing your cards to pull all your fellow bounty hunters off the trail so you get the reward.”

Lucas stormed over to the Sheriff, grabbed him by the front of his shirt and pushed him backwards, “I’m not interested in the bounty on my son! I’m interested in saving his life! He’s the territorial U.S. Marshal for New Mexico.”

“Well, how do I know what you’re saying in true?” Marle stammered out.

“Because I can confirm it,” a new voice from behind Lucas spoke. “I’m U.S. Marshal Tom Benton.” Tom walked up behind Lucas and put a hand to his shoulder, “Lucas, let him go.”

Before letting go of the Sheriff, Lucas pushed him to let him know that he did not appreciate the man.

“Gentlemen, with me are Deputy U.S. Marshals Sam Buckhart and Gordon Westerfield. Deputy Coltrane Walker should be here later today.”

“Thanks for coming so quickly,” Johnny stated.

“No problem. Have you found him?”

“Yesterday. We left him with a friend on the outskirts of town while we brought these three in,” Johnny replied.

“Who are they?” Sam asked.

“Bounty hunters. They followed us when we went to find Mark; figured they had a sure thing in claiming the reward. Tried to make sure no one else could claim it,” Johnny replied.

“Hey, we ain’t done nothing wrong! We’re entitled to go after anyone on a wanted poster,” one of the bounty hunters called out.

“A bounty hunter can claim their reward, but you don’t try killing others who already have your quarry in custody,” Montana offered. “You need to verify your facts, like I done. That’s how I ended up on the right side of that poster.”

“Lucas, if you found him, why is Mark not with you?” Sam asked.

“Someone tried cashing in on the poster about a week ago,” Lucas stated. “I’d like to get back to him and get him back home. Have Doc Burrage take a look at his leg, the bullet wound looked pretty ugly.”

“This town not have a doctor?” Westerfield asked.

“Na, we’re too small to get any doctor who wants to stay,” Sheriff Marle stated.

“Sheriff, I take it I have your complete cooperation to ensure the safety of my Marshal?” Tom asked.

“Yea, yea. But…”

“No buts, you keep these three here until I say otherwise.”

“Marshal, seems to me just taking down the posters ain’t gonna stop everyone. Why not mark them up indicating this ‘Little Boy’ Morgan’s been apprehended,” Montana stated.

“And have one floating around to turn up some day in the future. Mark’s life would still be at risk,” Lucas declared.

“Marle, I want you to have your telegrapher…” Benton started.

“We ain’t got one of them either,” Marle answered. “There’s one about ten miles west of here, town called, Lone Meadow.”

“Westerfield, you ride and send word that the posters are void.”

Following orders, Westerfield left the office, mounted his horse, and rode out of town.

“Sam, you stay here and keep an eye on the town and make sure that any other bounty hunters know that if Mark McCain is harmed in any way, they’ll be put on trial,” Benton stated. “Lucas, Drako, let’s get back to Mark.”

“I’ll come with you,” Marle offered.

“No! This is U.S. Marshal business!” Benton’s tone let those present know that he meant business. “You’ve helped enough already.”

“How was I supposed to know the picture on poster weren’t for real?” Marle pleaded as he tried to follow the others out the door.

“I’ll stay here and help the deputy,” Montana stated as he blocked the sheriff from following.

*****

Lucas breathed a sigh of relief as they rode back to Wilkins and Mark. The silence surrounding the three was welcomed, however, not long enough. A single shot came from a stand of trees further up the trail, striking Benton out of the saddle. Johnny and Lucas immediately dropped from their horses, ran to where Tom lay, and drug him off the road.

“More bounty hunters?” Johnny asked.

“If they are, I’ll see that they’re tarred and feathered,” Benton moaned as he rubbed at his chest.

“How bad are you hit?” Lucas asked.

“Just my breath knocked out of me. My guardian angel must have been with me today. The bullet stuck my badge.”

“If you two are done catching up on old times, can we focus on whoever it is who’s trying to prevent us from getting to Mark,” Johnny stated sarcastically as he watched Tom pin his badge back on his shirt.

“Seems like every bounty hunter in the country is here looking for Mark,” Johnny commented. “And they’re all in cahoots?”

“They can’t all be bounty hunters!” Lucas replied.

“My guess, some are probably outlaws who recognized his picture. They probably feel perfectly justified in being able to kill a Marshal and get away with it,” Tom stated.

“Get away with it!!” Lucas declared.

“In their minds only. Like I said, any further injury inflicted upon Mark will be severely dealt with,” Tom replied.

After surveying their surroundings, “Lucas, you think you can make it up that ridge?” Johnny asked, pointing off to the right. “You’d have the best chance of getting the drop on whoever with your rifle from up there.” Lucas and Tom’s gaze followed to where Johnny pointed.

With a nod of his head, Lucas prepared to run across the dirt road. With a quick ‘Go!’ Tom and Johnny fired their guns to force their adversaries to duck, giving Lucas time to make it to the ridge. Once across the road, Lucas slid behind a boulder and looked back to where he had just come from. Carefully, he picked his way up the ridge, occasionally peering over the edge to gauge how much further he needed to climb in order to get the drop on those who had them cornered.

Once in position, Lucas fired his rifle towards one of the men, deliberately missing the man, “You’re surrounded, give it up!” he hollered. From a different direction, gunfire vectored in on Lucas and the others. The gunfight had lasted a little more than five minutes before Lucas saw two men running to where they, presumably, had their horses hidden, leaving one man lying on the ground, writhing in pain. Lucas fired at the two, dropping one to the ground. His companion returned to him and helped him to his feet. Lucas fired again, but they were out of range. In frustration he watched as one sorely limped his way to his horse, before the two rode away.

Johnny and Tom made their way up the road while Lucas kept them covered. With his boot toe, Tom rolled the man over. “Who are you?” he demanded.

“Ringo Malone,” Johnny whispered. “I knew him years ago, hires out to anyone for the right price.” Kneeling over the man Johnny demanded, “Who hired you?!”

“No one!” the man answered as blood trickled from his mouth.

“No one? You don’t do anything until you’re sure to get paid. Going after a bounty ain’t your style.” Grabbing the man’s shirt, “Who hired you!”

The man’s eyes rolled backwards in their sockets as he went limp in Johnny’s grasp. Setting the man back to the ground, Johnny placed his ear to the man’s chest, and cursed. Getting to his feet, Johnny shook his head as Lucas joined them.

“Two others rode off down the road. One’s limping, badly,” Lucas informed the others.

“Let’s get our horses and follow them,” Tom answered.

The three ran back to their mounts and left a trail of dust in no time.

*****

Those outside worked their way around Wilkins home, taking potshots through the windows.

“Old man, you got a cellar in this house?” Renolds whispered.

“Shore, got a cold storage cellar.”

“Can you access it from inside the house, and out?”

“Yeah, there’s a trap door under the kitchen table.”

“You get there and stay put.”

“What about you and the Marshal?” Wilkins asked.

“I’m gonna get him out of here.”

“How? You think Mr. McCain’s gonna let you take him?”

“Old man, like I said, I like the boy. Listen, they’re eventually gonna rush the house, do you want them to get him? Or would you rather he have a chance at living and getting back to his Pa? We stay here, he doesn’t stand a chance. There’s nothing we can do to convince them he ain’t this ‘Little Boy’ Morgan. He’ll be safer with me than here.”

“Why not wait for his Pa to return?” Wilkins asked.

“Because we don’t know they haven’t barricaded the road to prevent the others from getting back.”

“You stay in the cellar and I’ll get the Marshal out to the barn and away from here. When his old man arrives, you tell him, I’m gonna do my best to get him home.”

Wilkins and Renolds crawled over to where Mark lie, avoiding the incoming gunshots.

“Come on, boy. We’re gonna get you out of here,” Renolds informed Mark.

“How?”

“Through the cold cellar and out to the barn.” Renolds grabbed Mark’s rifle and one of Mark’s arms, while Wilkins grabbed the other, keeping their heads down while the three slid across the floor.

*****

Night had settled when Lucas, Johnny, and Tom noticed the growing orange glow on the northern horizon and urged their mounts faster. Despair sat heavy in their stomachs when they saw the house fully engulfed in flames.

“NO!!!” Lucas screamed while Johnny and Tom restrained him. “Mark!”

From behind they heard, “He weren’t in there!”

Relieved to hear those words, Lucas stopped struggling and turned. “Where is he?” he asked as they saw Wilkins walking from the barn and carrying his scattergun.

“I don’t exactly know. A man was in the house when we arrive earlier.”

“A man? Who?” Lucas worriedly asked.

“I figured he was the outlaw your boy was tracking, but he wasn’t who the Marshal thought he was, your boy called him Renolds.”

“Renolds? Harlan Renolds?!” Lucas asked in alarm.

“Your boy didn’t say his first name and the man didn’t introduce himself,” Wilkins answered.

“If Mark’s not here, where is he?” Johnny asked.

“Renolds took him.”

“Where?” Lucas and Tom asked simultaneously.

“He said he’d do his best to see your boy home. Mr. McCain, he said he’s saved your boy’s life, twice?” Wilkins spoke.

“Yeah, but that was a long time ago.” Turning to Tom, “You think he’s here for the reward?”

“No sir,” Wilkins answered quickly. “He didn’t know anything about the wanted posters. He said he liked your boy.”

Lucas remembered the harsh words he had spoken to his son that day. His anger eventually turned to fear when he realized the outlaw had his son as a hostage. After he and Micah had followed them to that ghost town, he felt relief tempered with regret. Relief his boy was safe, but regretting how he had lost his temper. If there had been any time in Mark’s life where he deserved a trip to the woodshed, that should have been the day. But with Lucas’ self-inflicted guilt and Micah championing for him, Lucas settled for a long discussion and an even longer duration of working on the ranch as his punishment. Lucas knew Mark was too much like his mother in trusting strangers. He still feared for his son’s life, he could only pray that Wilkins was right. He prayed that Renolds would keep Mark from harm and do his best to see him home.

While Lucas’ thoughts took him back in time, Tom asked Wilkins if the bounty hunters had set fire to his home.

“Naw, I did.”

“You did?” Johnny asked.

“Needed to make sure those two had time enough to get away. I waited until I heard them varmints enter my home and I set the kerosene lanterns ablaze while I hollered out to make them think I was trying to get ‘Morgan’ into the cellar. Once down there, I ran out the outside cellar door and to the barn. Ye can’t see the cellar door for all the bushes around the house. That’s how Renolds got Mark out.”

“But your home,” Johnny stated.

“It’s just a house.”

“We best get some water on the barn to make sure it doesn’t catch fire from any of the embers.”

The four set to work pumping water into the trough and filling the water buckets and splashing water on the barn and anywhere that the embers started smoldering in the nearby shrubs and grass.

All that remained of Wilkins home was smoldering beams and ash when Tom stated, “We can spend the night in the barn, and trail after them first thing in the morning.”

“First thing in the morning,” Lucas repeated.

The Next Generation… Chapter 82 – The Debt Repaid

Renolds helped an exhausted Mark from his horse. With a supporting arm, Renolds led him to a stand of trees next to a bubbling brook.

“Sorry for the rough ride,” Renolds stated apologetically.

“I know it couldn’t be helped.”

“I got some provisions, gonna have to settle for a can of cold beans.”

Mark nodded.

After finishing eating, Mark watched while Renolds carried the cans to the brook and used one of the cans to dig a hole big enough for both cans and covered it over.

“No sense us carrying dead weight or leaving proof we stopped here,” Renolds answered of Mark’s unvoiced question, while he walked to Mark’s horse and pulled down his bedroll.

“Renolds, Pa nor Micah ever said why you were supposed to be hung?”

“The law called it murder.”

“Murder is murder,” Mark responded.

“I said they called it murder, because to me, I believe it was self defense. But I didn’t have any friends around to stand up and testify for me. Maybe I did pull my gun first, he called me a card shark, said I was pulling cards. I thought he was going for his gun. I don’t remember pulling my gun, just going for it. Afterwards, I woke up in jail with big lump on the back of my head. The sheriff informed me I had killed the judge’s son. The judge tried me and the jury convicted me.”

“The judge didn’t recuse himself from the trial?”

“When the judge owns the town and most of the land around, what do you think?”

“Guess you should be thankful they didn’t hang you without the benefit of a trial.”

“If you can call it a trial. No matter the truth, I was going to swing.”

“How’d you get away?”

“The Sheriff got sloppy while they were building the scaffold, and I was able to break out of jail.”

“Were you on the run when… we first met? After I’d been snake bit?”

“Yeah.” Renolds cast his eyes downward. “Continued to be on the run until I met up with your marshal a few years later. It was actually a relief to know it would all soon be over.”

“But you don’t think you killed him? The judge’s son?” Mark asked.

“They said I did. My pa always preached that I’d end up swinging for being too free with my temper and carrying a gun… Said someday I’d end up buried six feet under and I’d have no choice than to lie in the bed I‘d made.”

“But if you didn’t kill him…”

“Boy… Mark, being on the run for all those years, it takes something out of a man. I didn’t care to live anymore. Knowing my pa’s prophecies came true. Besides, who’d believe my story?”

“If you didn’t care to live anymore, why convince me to let you get away when Pa and Micah were checking on the horses?”

Renolds gave a brief laugh as he scratched his head, “I don’t rightly know. Maybe I didn’t want you to know that no matter what I done to help you out that the law wouldn’t think it mattered. I guess I wanted to protect you from the harsh realities of life. If you could know that I was out there… alive. I heard your Pa talking to you…”

“And once you were free?”

“What do you mean?”

“If you were resigned to swing, why kidnap me and head to Mexico…”

“Guess I thought there was something to live for. Mark, I can’t explain it, because I don’t understand it myself. Let’s just leave it at that.”

“I can’t. I remember when you took that first drink from the canteen, you went for your gun,” Mark stated.

“But I didn’t pull it…”

“No, you didn’t. You laughed and said ‘wait until the boys get a load of this’. What boys?” Mark wouldn’t let go.

“Friends down in Mexico.”

“Your gang?”

“Not exactly. Just friends I visit when I need to try to lie low.”

“Have you ever killed anyone?”

Renolds was surprised by that question.

“Why didn’t you stand up for yourself when we went to the governor?” Mark asked.

“He was a judge’s son…”

“You’ve never heard of crooked judges or people who try to manipulate the law for their benefit?” Mark yawned as the events from the past week took their toll. “I’m not letting this drop.” Mark’s eyes drooped heavier and heavier. Renolds watched as sleep overcame Mark.

‘What if he’s right?’ Renolds thought to himself. ‘First, I gotta get him home.’

*****

Smoke still rose from what remained of Wilkins’ home and hung heavy in the morning air, blanketing the land like a thick fog.

“Which way do we go?” Tom asked as he looped his reins over his horse’s neck.

“He told Wilkins he was going to get Mark home,” Lucas answered climbing into the saddle.

“Then to North Fork it is,” Johnny commented as he too stepped into the saddle.

“Wilkins, I’m sorry you got pulled into all this trouble,” Lucas stated. “I can’t ask you to ride with us.”

“You don’t need to ask. Besides, you didn’t pull me into this trouble; I jumped in feet first when I thought I was lucky enough to get the drop on an outlaw.”

The four turned their horses and mule towards North Fork and prayed they would eventually catch up with Renolds and Mark.

*****

Renolds poured a cup of coffee, “How you doing this morning?”

Mark stretched out his arms and legs, in doing so he felt his hip pop and the pull of skin from where he had seared his leg. “Anxious to get back where people aren’t going to think I’m an outlaw and try to kill me without giving me a chance to prove who I am.” He worked to unwrap his leg, cringing at the smell of burned fleshed escaping from the bandage. He let out an involuntary groan.

“What happened to your leg?” Renolds asked. “Wilkins stated you were shot.” He carried a cup of coffee and handed it to Mark.

“Yeah, someone took a pot shot at me. It got infected.”

“It looks a whole lot worse than an infection.” Renolds cringed his nose.

“I tried to cauterize the wound to kill the infection.”

“Think I’d rather deal with the infection than that.”

Mark rewrapped his leg and took the cup of coffee.

“You ready to get back in the saddle?”

“Anything to get me back home so Doc Burrage can take a look at this,” Mark answered.

Within a short time, they were riding and hoping to continue to evade the bounty hunters.

*****

Mark and Renolds saw the dust cloud on the horizon behind them and realized the bounty hunters were still after them, when they stopped for a break. Spying a fallen tree at the bottom of the ravine, Renolds ordered, “Mark, get down from your horse.”

“Why?”

“You’re going to hide in that hollow log. I’ll take your horse and lead them away from you.”

“We ride together,” Mark tried to insist.

“Sorry, but with your leg… You’re struggling to stay in the saddle and we can’t ride as fast as we need to.” Stepping down from his horse, Renolds walked to Mark and helped him down into the ravine.

After seeing Mark into the tree and covering it over, Renolds picked up a leafy branch and began wiping away their tracks leading down and his leading back up. Grabbing Rainmaker’s reins and tying them to his horse’s saddle, he kicked the horse into a gallop and continued heading south.

*****

Following the trail, Lucas, Johnny, Tom, and Wilkins heard the unmistakable sounds of a gunfight and urged their mounts faster. During the momentary pause in the gunfight that their arrival caused, Tom yelled, “Drop your weapons, I’m a U.S. Marshal.” A few chose to holster their weapons and run for their horses while two others continued to fire in both directions, to their original quarry and towards the new comers. The last bounty hunters’ gun was silent when Lucas yelled, “Mark!”

A few moments later, he yelled again and brought his rifle to bear on the solitary figure walking from behind a stand of trees, hands raised above his head, holding a rifle.

“Mr. McCain?”

”Renolds, where’s my son!” Lucas demanded when he jumped down from his horse and pulled the rifle from Renold’s hands.

“I left him back on the trail. He was slowing me down.”

Lucas held both rifles in his right hand when he threw a left punch, knocking Renolds to the ground.

“Renolds I swear…”

“Let me finish…” Renolds pleaded as he rubbed at his jaw.

“Finish? I thought we were finished with you a long time ago,” Lucas remarked.

“I left him buried at the bottom of a ravine,” quickly he added, “In a dead, hollow log. I covered it over hoping those bounty hunters wouldn’t pay any mind to it. I assure you, he was as good as he could be when I left him.” Seeing Tom Benton approach, Renolds added, “Guess this means I’m in your custody?”

“For your sake, and for Lucas’, you best pray Mark’s okay.” Tom followed Renolds to where he had hidden the horses.

They returned to be informed that Lucas and Johnny hadn’t found any identification on the dead ‘bounty hunters’, “But I recognized both of them. They used to ride with the Ketchum Gang,” Johnny offered.

“Curry?” Renolds asked.

“Naw, two others.”

Tom spoke after he’d had a few moments to assess their situation, “Lucas, why don’t you, Wilkins, and Renolds head back to where he left Mark. Johnny and I’ll bury these two and catch up with you.”

“Bury them? Leave them for the vultures,” Lucas declared.

*****

The three backtracked their route in order to reunite Lucas with Mark.

“I’m fairly certain this is the ravine, see…” Renolds pointed to the bottom, “there’s the log I covered over.”

Lucas half ran, half slid, into the ravine, calling out “Mark!” in his rush to get to the bottom. Renolds was soon beside him, helping to dig out the opening.

“Renolds, if he’s…” Lucas started to say.

“I had no choice. In his condition, he was a sitting target.”

Mark’s head and shoulders finally came into view. Lucas reached for his son and slowly pulled him from the log. “Mark,” Lucas fearfully called as he held his son and placed his hand over his son’s heart.

“He’s breathing, he’s alive,” Renolds called watching Mark’s chest rise and fall. “I’ll get a canteen.”

Mark started to rouse as Lucas wiped the dirt from his face and clothes.

Barely having his eyes open, Mark called, “Pa?”

“You gave me quite a scare, son.”

“Renolds, he saved my life again.”

“I know son, he and Wilkins told me. Are you okay?”

“Guess I fell asleep, with the sun beating down on the log and the ends closed over, it got kinda warm inside.”

“You awake enough to get heading for home?” Lucas asked.

“I sure am. But how are you going to get me out of this ravine?” I can’t climb…”

“After you fill yourself with water, we’ll tie this rope around you Mark,” Renolds said as he returned to the father and son. “We’ll be up top, pulling you up while your father helps to steady you.”

“We’ll?”

“Wilkins is up top with the horses, son.”

*****

After getting Mark into the saddle, Mark called, “Renolds, you’re still under arrest. You’re in my custody.”

“Sorry to trump you Mark,” Tom Benton called as he and Johnny arrived. “He’s in my custody.”

“Didn’t know you were here,” Mark half smiled.

“I thought you were going to bury them?” Lucas asked, observing the dead bodies hung over the saddles.

“We were, until we found their horses. Figured save ourselves some time and sore backs by taking them with us back to North Fork, we should be there by mid-morning tomorrow,” Johnny answered.

*****

Thadd asked, “Have you heard any word from Mark?”

“No,” Hope replied. “And it’s been over two weeks since he left. Lucas and Johnny have been gone for a week as well. Thadd…”

“Hope, I’m sure if something had happened that they would have sent word,” Thadd stated, he heard the fear in her voice.

“Unless…”

“Don’t think of that. Keep that from your mind. Just send prayers for God to watch over them, all of them.”

After listening to Hope describe her symptoms, and completing the examination, Thadd started quietly laughing as he told Hope to get dressed. As she came from behind the partition, she asked, “Doc, what’s so funny?” Her tone indicating she was a little upset at Thadd’s amusement.

“Well, I remember back in November you wished you weren’t suffering food poisoning…,” Thadd raised his eyebrows as he continued to laugh.

“Then I am pregnant?” Hope asked, a smile beamed across her face and she ran her hands over her belly.

Thadd nodded. It was all he could do before they heard a knock at the door and saw it open to have Abigail stick her head inside and state, “Thadd, we need you in room two.”

“Tell them I’ll be there in a few minutes. Let me finish with Hope,” Thadd stated.

“Oh, I didn’t realize Hope was in here, you should know, Lucas just brought Mark in.” Seeing Hope’s expression Abigail quickly added, “He’s okay, just that he’s injured his leg pretty badly by the looks of things.”

Thadd, Abigail, and Hope entered examination room two.

“Mark?” Hope asked as she saw the tattered pants that Mark wore and the bandage around his leg.

Mark reached his hand to Hope and invited her into his hug.

“I missed you,” he replied.

“I missed you too. What happened?”

“Hope, why don’t you come out into the waiting area with me,” Lucas stated as he placed a hand on her shoulder and led her to the door she’d just come through.

*****

Johnny Drako saw to it that Harlan Renolds was securely locked in his jail.

“Well, Benton, what do we do with your prisoner?”

“Not exactly sure. Mark put up a convincing argument last night. I’m tempted to leave him here until I can further investigate Renolds’ story.”

“Seems you’re going to be our guest for a while,” Johnny called to his prisoner.

“Right comfortable bunk you have here,” Renolds replied as he stretched out, pulling his hat over his eyes.

“Well you have yourself a nice nap. I’m going to go to the clinic to check on my deputy,” Johnny spoke.

As he walked out the door, Johnny encountered Milly stepping to the boardwalk, “Milly?” he called.

“Johnny, you’re home. Where are Lucas… and Mark?” she asked worriedly while looking through the door.

“Lucas is fine, Mark took a bullet to the leg that became infected, they’re having Doc check him out over at the clinic.

*****

Once they were alone in the room, Thadd asked Mark what happened.

“I was ambushed. It was better than two days before the bullet got removed. But by then, all up and down my leg felt as if it was on fire. Doc, I don’t know if it’s right or wrong, but the wound didn’t look so good and I remember reading about cauterizing flesh to kill an infection…”

“Cauterizing?” Thadd asked as he finished cutting through the bandage and pulled it away. He averted his eyes after he looked into the wound.

“Doc?” Mark asked.

“Well, it doesn’t look pretty. Whoever did this did a pretty good job. A little bit of it still needs to be treated… It’s going to hurt while I work to clean it up a bit.”

The pain Mark felt while Thadd tended to his leg was nothing compared to the pain he experienced earlier. After wrapping Mark’s leg in a clean bandage, Thadd stepped away and stretched his back.

“I think I have some medication to help fight any further infection. Who was the doctor who did this?”

“Wasn’t a doctor,” Mark answered.

“Anyway, it’s going to be painful for a while as the dead skin sloughs off and new healthy skin grows. Keep it wrapped during the day and keep this ointment on it day and night. Of an evening, I think it would be best to leave it unwrapped. Fresh air would be the best thing for it.”

Doc finished re-wrapping the leg and asked Abigail to go get Lucas and Hope, “Bring his family back in. I’m sure Hope is worried sick.”

“Doc, what was Hope doing here?” Mark asked. “Is she alright, and the children?”

“Yep, your family is fine and growing like wild flowers,” Thadd answered with a laugh.

Abigail showed Lucas, Hope, and Milly into the room.

“Well Doc,” Lucas started to ask, “How bad is it? Did Mark searing his leg make the injury worse?”

“Mark… searing his leg?” Thadd looked to Mark after hearing Lucas’ question. “You did this? You cauterized your own wound?! My God! Mark.”

“Is he going to be okay?” Hope asked.

Thadd shook his head in disbelief.

“Doc?!” Hope asked in alarm, thinking Thadd’s headshake was an answer to her question.

Thadd answered, “Hope, relax. It’ll take time, but yes, Mark will be fine. Just going to hurt like the dickens until it fully heals. The leg will always have a bit of a scar, but in time, new flesh will grow over the wound.” Thadd stood and washed his hands in the basin. “Lucas, you still have those crutches don’t you?”

Lucas nodded.

“Good. Mark, use them as you feel the need. Don’t avoid using your leg, but if you feel it starting to weaken… You’ll know. Now, if you’ll excuse me. I think Hope would like to have a little privacy to share her diagnosis.”

“DOC?!” Mark exclaimed as Thadd and Abigail walked out the door. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong,” Hope said as she smiled towards Mark.

“But Thadd said he had diagnosed…” Hope placed her fingers over Mark’s lips. She looked over her shoulder and extended a hand towards Lucas and Milly.

“He did diagnose… honestly he just confirmed my suspicions.” Hope paused as she felt Mark’s hands squeeze hers. “An after effect, if you’ll remember back to February, when two of you got me drunk. I’m pregnant!”

Mark broke out laughing. Milly started giggling and pulled her hand to her mouth as she realized what else had transpired that night. Lucas coughed in an attempt to hide his laughter. Their mirth caused a little bit of hurt to Hope. “That’s twice in the last half hour that people have laughed at me. Just what do you see that’s so funny?”

“Just that before Abigail brought you in, I asked Thadd why you were here, if everything was okay with you and the children. He replied everyone was fine and the ‘family was growing like wild flowers’. Hope, I love you.” Mark pulled his wife into his arms and attempted to kiss her.

“Not until you get rid of those whiskers. I want to kiss the Mark I married, not some saddle tramp,” Hope pushed herself away from her husband.

“You’re that set against my beard?” Mark replied.

“It’s not very becoming on you, now Uncle Johnny, he can wear a beard, but you… I’m sorry, my love, but that has to go!” Hope declared. “And you could stand a bath, really.”

Lucas laughed as he watched the interaction between his son and Hope. He tried to steal a quick kiss from Milly only to be pushed away. “You too can use a shave and a bath before I’ll allow you to kiss me.” Milly laughed as Lucas pulled her into a hug.

“Okay, Mark let’s get you back home, so we can get bathed, shaved, and then enjoy our wives,” Lucas stated while opening the door.

“From the news I just heard, someone has already ‘enjoyed’ his wife. Congratulations Mark, Hope!” Johnny Drako declared as he pulled Hope into an embrace.

“What are you doing here instead of being with your wife?” Hope asked teasingly. “You’ve been gone for over a week and you probably haven’t even stopped by the hotel to tell her you’re home. And that you missed her!”

“Oh, uh… I’ll see you Sunday, at church!” Johnny laughed and exited a quick retreat.

*****

Once Mark was settled in the back of the buckboard, Lucas gave a steadying hand while Hope climbed in back. He walked to the front, turned, and helped Milly to the seat. Before climbing into the seat himself, Lucas tied Blade and Rainmaker to the back of the buckboard.

“I take it Jake and Gwen are watching the children while you two were enjoying yourselves in town?” Lucas asked.

“Sure Pa, it’ll be good practice for when they start their own family,” Mark teased as he pulled Hope into his arms. “After watching after the McCain seven, maybe they’ll decide not to have children.”

“Not have children! And what’s wrong with having as many children as God provides us?!”

“Nothing, nothing at all,” Mark answered as he tried to sneak a kiss. “Pa, hold up!” Mark hollered.

Lucas halted the team and turned in the seat. The family saw Robert Wilkins and Seth Lane walking up the street towards them.

“How’s the leg, Marshal?” Wilkins asked.

“It’ll mend. Mr. Wilkins, thank you. Thank you for what you did to help save my life.”

“Wasn’t much, glad to help get you home. The deputy here said you had a beautiful wife to get home to. And I can see he weren’t lying.”

“I think he might be a little bit prejudiced,” Mark replied.

“Mr. Wilkins,” Hope spoke as she swatted at Mark. “I’m Hope McCain, Mark’s wife and the deputy is my father. Thank you for helping save my husband’s life.”

Wilkins removed his hat and nodded, a little embarrassed at the fuss that was being made over him.

“Mr. Wilkins,” Milly stated. “I’m Milly, Lucas’ wife. If you don’t have to get home soon, we’d love to have you out to the ranch for supper…as a way to thank you.”

“I’m pleased to make your acquaintances and that ain’t necessary ma’am. I best get on home, got to figure out what to do.”

“To do?” Hope asked.

“Nothing… Nothing…”

“Nothing?” Lucas asked.

“Nothing. I’ll be heading back to Red Wing in the morning. I’m glad I was in the right place at the right time. Little gal, you keep an eye on him.” Old Man Wilkins smiled. “He sure has a knack for getting into the darnedest trouble.”

“I will,” Hope answered as Mark pulled her back into his arms.

*****

The boys and Mykaela were excited to see their father finally home. Lucas started to help his son to his chair, but Hope asked for him to sit at the table instead. Mark lifted his daughter to his arms and tried to give her a kiss, only to have her protest.

“No, you scratch me!” Mykaela called.

Hope brought out a bowl, a towel, and Mark’s shaving kit. While lathering up the brush, their three sons sat on the floor in front of Mark, watching, while Mykaela sat in Mark’s chair.

“Papa’s got a white beard,” Eli laughed and pointed.

Lovingly, Hope ran the blade across Mark’s cheek, wiping off the shaving crème on the towel, before making another pass.

“I ain’t ever letting a woman take a knife to my face,” Josh stated.

“And why not,” Hoped asked.

“She might cut me,” he answered.

“Not if she loved you…” Hope replied as she scraped another pass along Mark’s cheek.

“Ouch!” Mark exclaimed.

“What?” Hope asked.

“You almost cut me,” he teased, causing all three of his sons to roll on the floor in laughter.

“Mark McCain, you do realize, I AM holding a knife in my hand? And I know how to use it!” Hope teased back as she pointed the knife to Mark’s Adam’s apple.

“Mama cut Papa!” Mykaela called.

“I wouldn’t hurt him. I’m just taking off his whiskers,” Hope answered.

*****

While Hope began fixing supper, Mark enjoyed a shower using the cistern he had installed behind the house before he had left. Allowing the water to roll off his body, Mark stretched and dreamed of sleeping in his own bed.

Later that evening, Mark was relieved that Doc Burrage stated his leg would heal. He returned to the front room after helping Hope put their children to bed. His mind returned to his first meeting with Renolds, an outlaw on the run who didn’t have to stop and save his life. “How does one pay that kind of debt?” he had asked his Pa so long ago.

The next time Renolds came into their lives, Micah had him in custody. After hearing that cougar scream, Lucas and Micah went to check on the horses, leaving Mark to find himself in a situation that no one could have foreseen… Should he yell for his Pa when he realized that Renolds found the key to the handcuffs or should he repay a debt, long overdue? Renolds had been a smooth talker. Yes, as a thirteen-year-old child, Mark knew what he was about to do was wrong, but still… if it hadn’t been for Renolds, he would have died from that snakebite.

With his lips pulling at a smile, Mark remembered how livid his Pa had been and how Micah had tried to stand up for him. The whole time they rode to Abe Merar’s place, there was an uneasy silence between the two. Mark knew his Pa was upset, but he just couldn’t get his Pa to understand. He remembered when Lucas turned to ride way, he didn’t even say goodbye… just, ‘Be back when I can’. Mark remembered how the tone of voice Lucas used in speaking those words hurt him, probably about as much as his actions had hurt his Pa.

Mark remembered how he thought he was so smart in putting kerosene instead of water in the canteens. The dread returned, when he feared for his life as Renolds spit out the kerosene and hollered, “You figured on slowing us down, didn’t you boy?! Well you did! In fact you slowed yourself down to a stop.” Renolds’ hand went for his gun, but he hesitated. After spitting out the taste of kerosene, he ended up laughing, said ‘it took guts’.

Mark stood from his chair and limped over to his desk and pulled out paper and pen.

William Taylor Thornton
Territorial Governor of New Mexico
Albuquerque, New Mexico

Dear Governor Thornton,

I write this letter in an effort to pay a debt to a man who three times, has saved my life.

The first time I was but eleven years old and had been bitten by a rattlesnake. At that time, I didn’t know he was on the run when he came across me, already unconscious. He could have left me for dead, but instead, tended to the wound and took me to a doctor in the nearest town.

The second time I was almost fourteen. I was torn between right and wrong, all because of the debt I felt I owed this man for saving my life. As a confused child, I watched as he slipped from his handcuffs. I should have alerted my Pa or the marshal, who had him in custody, but I didn’t. This man ended up saving my life again by rescuing me from a burning building in a ghost town, though as my Pa stated later, had I not interfered in the first place, I would not have needed rescuing. At that time, Governor Sheldon ordered Harlan Renolds’ sentence be commuted from hanging until dead to life in prison. Because he had twice saved my life.

I am enclosing a written copy of the report I am filing with the U.S. Marshal’s Office in Denver. Though I believed my quarry to be Hannibal Heyes, it turns out the Ketchum Gang erroneously broke Harlan Renolds from the prison transfer wagon. There are extenuating circumstances surrounding the third time Mr. Renolds saved my life, but I do know, had it not been for the Ketchum Gang breaking him out of prison, he would not have been in the position to save my life, as well as the life of a friend, Robert Wilkins.

Sir, there has to be something good deep down in this man for him to keep risking his life to save mine. The burden of the debt I feel I owe to this man weighs heavy on my conscious. I ask that you consider a parole for Harlan Renolds. I’ll take full responsibility for his actions, if you require this as a condition of his parole.

Respectfully submitted,

Mark Warren McCain
U.S. Marshal
New Mexico Territory

Mark had just placed his pen on the desk when he heard Hope call his name. “Mark? Aren’t you coming to bed?”

“I am now.” Mark stood, blew out the lantern and limped his way to their bedroom.

“What were you doing?”

“Trying to repay a debt,” Mark answered as he climbed into bed. Though he was tired, his mind wouldn’t let him sleep.

“Can you tell me what happened?” Hope asked as she rested back against him.

Mark proceeded to tell Hope all that had happened while he was tracking the escaped outlaw. He told her of his first meeting with Renolds, and the events that happened during their second meeting. And now, for a third time, Renolds had saved his life.

*****

The following morning, Lucas rose early and rode into town, hoping to arrive before Wilkins left. Lucas saw him leading his mule from the livery.

“Wilkins, wait a minute!” Lucas hollered.

“Yes Mr. McCain?”

“Why leave so soon?”

“Don’t you remember I burned my house down? Gotta figure out what to do now.”

“I can’t forget. I feel I owe you more than a thank you, for all you’ve done. Stay here a while.”

“Don’t want no charity,” Wilkins offered.

“It isn’t charity. Robert, twice now you’ve had a hand in helping to save my son’s life. You burned down your home in an effort to make sure he got away from others who would just as well kill him for the bounty.”

“I don’t know…”

“Stay here. What I’m offering you isn’t charity, its gratitude and friendship.” Lucas held out his hand.

*****

Two weeks after Mark mailed his letter, Seth stepped from the Marshal’s Office to see an Army detail stopping in front of the Mallory House. The citizens of North Fork also took note as the captain handed out orders and his men promptly went about their business.

The captain and his lieutenant headed to the Marshal’s Office, once inside they inquired about Marshal Mark McCain.

“He’s off duty today. I’m Deputy Seth Lane, can I help you?”

“We need to secure your town for the next two days.”

“Trouble coming our way?” Seth asked.

“No sir, not trouble. The Governor William Taylor Thornton is coming for a visit. He’ll arrive on the train tonight.”

*****

The army detail made their way to the McCain ranch as the sun rose pink in the eastern sky. In the midst of the procession was a carriage and men in black suits.

Mark and Lucas were working up a sweat by chopping wood. Strike for strike, they kept up a steady rhythm, chop, set another log to be split, pick up the ax, raise and swing. They would stop for a drink, allowing their sons to run around, picking up the split wood, and stacking them, as neatly as small boys could.

“Lucas, we have visitors,” Milly called as she, Hope, and Myra worked on the laundry.

“Seth?” Lucas inquired, as he led the procession stopping in front of their homes.

“Lucas, Mark, the Governor is here to talk with Mark.”

“Governor?…” Lucas stopped talking as he saw a well-dressed man in a top hat step from the carriage, followed by two other men.

“Mr. McCain?” the man asked.

“Governor,” Seth started the introductions, “This is Lucas McCain, and on the left is his son, Mark McCain.”

“The Rifleman and The Lawman, if I remember correctly. I’m Governor William Thornton.”

“Pleased to meet you sir,” Lucas stated as he extended his hand.

“Welcome to our homes,” Mark said as he wait for his turn to shake hands with the governor. “Sorry neither of us are properly dressed to be presented…”

“Non-sense. I’m the one who came here unannounced. If you’d like some time to freshen up…” He motioned as he saw two women bringing linens and fresh shirts from their respective homes.

“Governor,” Lucas stated as he took the wet washrag from Milly and began wiping himself down. “This is my wife, Milly. And tending to Mark is his wife, Hope. Who also happens to be Deputy Lane’s daughter.”

“Pleased to make your acquaintances.” He bowed slightly, removing his hat. “Quite an abundance of children you have here.” He smiled as he watched the boys mimic their fathers, standing tall. Myra had stepped to the porch and was leaning up against the post.

“Governor, we’re honored. May we offer you something for breakfast?” Milly asked.

“No ma’am, we’re too large a group to inconvenience you in such a manner. However, I would like to have a conversation with the Marshal. If you’ll excuse us?”

The last remains of Mark’s limp, caused by his recent ordeal, had disappeared. Mark showed the Governor to a chair on his porch. From inside, they heard a young child start to cry. Hope hurried past them, without so much as an ‘excuse me’. A few moments later Hope carried their daughter from the house and went to Lucas and Milly’s.

The Governor shook his head slightly, amazed at all the young children on the property.

“I’ll get right to the point Marshal. I’m intrigued by the letter you wrote. Surprised that a lawman would take the side of an outlaw, regardless of their past. I understand one of my predecessors, Lionel Allen Sheldon, commuted this Harlan Renolds’ sentence from hanging to life in prison… Why should I consider paroling or pardoning him?

“Sir, I know you have a reputation as a hanging governor… You’ve not commuted one request for clemency…”

“Damn right! These outlaws need to know we mean business! Guilty of murder, means you hang!”

“Yes, there are circumstances where I’m all for seeing that the sentence is carried out. But sir, since I sent the letter, I’ve found out some interesting facts on Mr. Renolds’ behalf. I was prohibited from traveling, so my boss, Marshal Tom Benton did some investigating and we’ve received sworn, written testimony from the man who was the sheriff, according to him it was self-defense as Renolds claims. No one at that time would dare go against the judge, so they all allowed an innocent man to be convicted of murder. The sheriff tried his best to see that justice was ‘delayed’ by allowing Renolds to escape. Hoping he’d just leave the territory and never come back.”

“Well, this does put a whole new light on the matter,” the Governor spoke as he mulled over Mark’s statements. “Where is this testimony and Renolds?”

“Back in town, in our jail.”

“Would you mind accompanying me back to town? I’d like to meet this man for myself. I’ll give you a few minutes to get dressed and your horse saddled.”

Seth accompanied the detail, Mark, and the governor back to the Marshal’s Office.

Johnny escorted Renolds from the cell and told him to have a seat in front of the desk.

“Do you know who this man is?” Johnny asked as he pointed to the man sitting in his chair.

“Never seen him before,” Renolds answered.

“He’s the Governor of the territory and he wants to ask you a few questions. And you will answer him, truthfully.”

Renolds nodded.

“I want to know why, if you were on the run from a murder charge and a hanging, why did you help a child?

“Guess it was all my growing up years, my Pa preaching about caring for the innocent and less fortunate. I guess one of his sermons finally rubbed off on me.”

“And the second time… you used your previous encounter to convince him to let you escape?”

“Not at first, I accepted my lot in life. But listening to the boy try to convince his Pa and the Marshal that he felt it wasn’t fair. That my saving his life would have no affect on the fact that I was set to be hung. I listened to his Pa talk to him about the good in life, and the bad. And when the opportunity presented itself, I thought it would be better for him to know that I was out there somewhere, and not delivered for a sure, fire hanging.”

“And you later kidnapped him?”

“It wasn’t planned. I don’t know why, but I ended up at that farmhouse and there he was. I figured there had to be some reason. Little did I know how mischievous a young man he was.”

“Tell me,” the governor stated.

They listened while Renolds recounted the Kerosene and their trip to the ghost town. In the end he stated, “Guess the Good Lord brought Mark McCain into my life so that I could get a second chance at living. I mean, prison ain’t no easy life, but at least its living.”

“What if I were to tell you that there’s a possibility that your sentence would be commuted?”

“You’re going to re-impose the hanging sentence?” Renolds asked.

“From the reports I’ve read and based on new evidence presented, I believe you were wrongly convicted of murder. Usually, requests for clemency that come across my desk are tossed out, but the letter that Marshal McCain wrote on your behalf, intrigued me. Felt I needed to come and see for myself, how is it that these two strangers would keep encountering each other. The Marshal stated there had to be some good in you, to have saved this life three times.”

“You did that for me?” Renolds asked.

Mark nodded.

“Tell you what. I’m going to parole you to the Marshal’s custody for six months. You keep out of trouble during that time and I’ll grant you a full pardon.”

“I don’t know what to say,” Renolds stated as he stood to shake the governor’s hand.

“You can start by thanking a young boy who grew up to be a Marshal for believing in you.”

“Believe me, I do thank him.”

“Marshal, it’ll take a week or so to get all the paperwork processed, so he’ll still be in your ‘official’ custody until then. During the days he can come and go, maybe get an honest job.” Governor Thornton looked hard at Renolds to let him know that there was no ‘maybe’ about it.

*****

The governor and the army detail had left town the evening before. Mark arrived at the jail earlier than normal.

“So, are you set to be a free man today?” Mark asked.

“Just as soon as you unlock the cell,” Renolds commented as he stretched.

“Ain’t locked. Just pushed too.”

Renolds stood from the bunk and tentatively pushed at the door, truly surprised when it moved freely.

“My Uncle Johnny states you have a job waiting for you over at the Hardware Store, if you want it.”

“Me, holding down a real job,” Renolds laughed as he scratched at his head. “Can I ask you why?”

“Didn’t you hear the Governor suggest you get a job?”

“No, not that. Why’d you go out on a limb for me?”

“Didn’t go out that far on a limb for you.”

“No, but you’re the only person I’ve ever met, who cared about the truth or asked if I ever killed anybody. Everyone else just kind of… presumed I had… What made you do it?”

“A debt. Mr. Renolds…”

“No, I’m not Mr. Renolds. My name is Harlan.”

“You saved my life a long time ago. You didn’t have to stop or go out of your way to get me to a doctor. It’s been fourteen years that I’ve been carrying that debt around.”

“I can understand how I used you as a child into letting me get away that night. But you’re a grown man now…”

“Like the governor stated, there had to be something that kept pulling us together at different times. Why couldn’t it be for you to keep saving my life until I could be in a position to save yours? You’re a free man, at least, you’re sort of free for the next six months. Why don’t you find out if your father is still alive and if is he, wire him that one of his sheep is soon to return home to the flock.”

Renolds looked to Mark curiously.

“You said how your father preached… I presume he’s a minister…”

“Yeah, a preacher’s son turned outlaw.”

“No, not an outlaw, you just had some unfair trials. Do us both a favor, live this second chance at life and make something of yourself. Look forward to going home and let your father know he raised his son right.”

*****

Mark stepped from the Office to see Robert Wilkins stopping his mule in front of the hitching rail.

“You’re heading home?” Mark asked.

“Don’t you think it’s about time? You and your family been good to me. The meals your wife and your Ma cook, umm. Almost makes me want to stay.”

“Why don’t you? You’ve friends here.”

“But my wife… she’s back in Red Wing,” Wilkins spoke quietly.

“I didn’t know you were married,” Mark answered apologetically.

“She and my son are buried there. Their graves are up on the hill, behind the barn. My boy, he’d be about your age, maybe a little older. Cholera got them when he was four. No, your life is here. My life is in Red Wing.”

“I’ll see that the reward money is sent your way.”

“Reward money?” Wilkins asked.

“Sure. There was a reward out on Renolds… I hope it will be enough to help rebuild your home.”

“I won’t take it. Put it towards college for your children. If you don’t mind, I best be getting home.”

“Robert, thank you. You’re always welcome in North Fork,” Mark answered as he stepped to the boardwalk and waved goodbye.

 

This story continues in The Rifleman – The Next Generation Pt 17

 

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