The Rifleman – The Next Generation Pt 17 (by BluewindFarm)

Synopsis:  An AU story surrounding the McCains and their friends after the end of the series’ five-year run.  A continuing story of an idea begun in my story, Timing.

Category:  The Rifleman
Genre:  Western
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  43,120


 

The Next Generation… Chapter 83 – The Defenders

The last day of school before summer break had finally arrived. Milly had fallen back asleep after Lucas climbed from bed, well before the sun rose. She startled awake after hearing a knock on the front door to their home, and Mark calling, “Gabby are you read for your last day of school?” Hurriedly, Milly climbed from bed and pulled on her robe.

“Mark, I fell back asleep. Would you get the boys up, I’ll get Myra.”

Milly worked feverishly to make sure Myra had something to eat for breakfast, tied her schoolbooks together, and packed a lunch for her daughter.

“Ma, slow down, we can make up a few minutes in getting her to school.”

“Mark, I can’t believe I fell back asleep!” Milly exclaimed.

Myra stepped from her room, seeing how rushed her mother was she exclaimed, “What the hell…”

Milly dropped the pan of oatmeal back to the stove, whirled around with a look of shock on her face. “Just where did you hear that word?!” Pointing the spatula to Mark, “And you, wipe that smirk from your face.” Returning her attention to Myra, “Young lady, where did you hear that word used like that?”

“Uh, I guess I should have kept my mouth shut,” Myra answered.

“Well don’t start now, answer my question.”

Myra looked to Mark to help her.

“Don’t look at me Gabby. I can’t help you this time,” Mark replied and tried to keep a straight face.

“Well?” Milly asked.

“Papa said it before he and Marshal Drako went to bring Mark back home,” Myra answered.

“Your father?!” Milly asked surprised.

“Yes, Mama. He yelled it after he looked at the piece of paper that Mr. Montana handed them.”

“Ma, that would probably be the wanted poster with my picture on it,” Mark added.

“I don’t care what the paper was. Your father should know better.”

“Gabby, get your bowl and eat quickly. We’ll have to ride double time to get you to school,” Mark told his sister.

Milly spooned the oatmeal into her daughter’s bowl, as well as bowls for her two sons.

*****

They made it to the school grounds just as the bell was starting to ring.

“Do you think Papa will take me to the barn tonight for a whippin?”

“Has Pa ever whipped you?” Mark replied.

“No.”

“Pa will be here this afternoon to pick you up.”

“Aren’t you marshaling in town today?” Myra asked, glumly.

“No, I’ve got chores to do at the ranch. Hey, cheer up.”

“I don’t think I can.”

“Well, think on this, maybe it’ll cheer you up. Ma might take Pa to the barn for a whipping, for saying that word so that you could hear it,” Mark smiled and waved goodbye to his sister as he headed back home.

*****

A hot and tired Lucas was thankful that this would be the last day that he, or Mark, would need to ride into town to escort Myra home from school. Though both enjoyed the duty of seeing her home safely, but the heat of summer was already full upon the territory and it had been sometime since adequate rainfall had crossed the land. Everyone was working tirelessly in an effort to keep their crops and their herds alive.

Approaching the schoolyard, Lucas heard the sounds of a fight, children yelling and hollering, encouraging one or another of the opponents on. Stepping from his horse, Lucas saw Percy Bullock trying to make his way through the crowd of children, from one side of the group while he tried making his way through from the other side. Lucas reached the center first and was surprised to see the smaller of the two opponents sitting upon the stomach of the larger boy. The smaller boy had the other boy’s shirt held tightly in his right fist, with his left fist raised in the air. The boy on the ground had both his arms protectively over his face.

Lucas heard the boy demand, “Apologize! You will apologize to her!” Lucas placed one hand on the back of the boy’s collar and grabbed the boy’s belt with his other hand. He pulled the boy off the larger boy. “NO!” the boy yelled. “Not until he apologizes!”

Lucas watched as Percy hauled the larger boy to his feet; both saw the bloody nose. Lucas set the boy he was holding to his feet and let go of his belt, but not the back of his collar. The boy still felt as if he would attempt to bolt forward, towards his opponent, again.

“Easy there,” Lucas called.

“He will apologize!”

“Isaiah, what’s this all about?” Percy demanded.

“He will apologize to her!” Isaiah announced.

“We already know that, but for what and to whom?” Lucas asked.

“I ain’t done nuttin’” the larger boy taunted.

“You’re a bully and you made her cry!” Isaiah yelled and tried to lunge forward.

Again, Lucas had to grab tight to Isaiah’s collar.

“I’s jist havin’ some fun. We’s playin’ a game,” the boy called out.

“Fun! It’s no game when the other party doesn’t agree to play your ‘game’ and you made her cry!” Isaiah yelled and attempted to throw another punch.

“Isaiah!” Percy’s voice warned.

“I won’t apologize Mr. Bullock. I was defending her honor! The brute pulled her pigtails. We were just sitting on the bench, talking about how excited we were for summer break and what we planned to do. I was waiting for Mr. McCain to arrive. Myra shouldn’t sit alone out here.”

Lucas took a deep breath when he realized the offended party was his daughter. For the first time, Lucas looked around to see where she was in the group of children. Lucas saw her standing towards the back of the crowd, evident that she had been crying. He noticed the dirt on her dress.

Isaiah relaxed his stance when he realized it was none other than Lucas McCain who held him by the scruff of his collar.

“Mr. McCain, I was only doing what my father said a gentleman would do to defend the honor of a young woman who had been disparaged. She did nothing wrong. I’m sorry if my actions upset her any further. But she must have a champion!”

Trying to hide his grin, Lucas replied, “Isaiah, I thank you for looking out for my daughter, but fighting…”

“He threw the first punch, sir,” Isaiah stated.

Isaiah’s opponent proclaimed, “My Pa taught me a’body raise deir fists ta me, I git ta punch ‘em first. Don’t wait ta giv da other body time ta punch.”

“Bobby Bolton, I’ll see you to your parents’ home and I will have words concerning your actions today. I hope your father will feel justified with a trip to the woodshed for you. And I will also see about your being tutored over the summer. Your comprehension of the English language is atrocious.”

“Ain’t need no learning. Pa only sends me ta school ‘cause he says I gotta,” Bobby pointed to Lucas.

“Every child needs an education and I’m in agreement with Mr. McCain and the entire school board. Come on, let’s get you over to the clinic and have Doc take a look at you before I take you home.”

“My Pa’s gonna teach yur Pa a lesson, Cooperton! Jist you wait ta see!” Bobby hollered as Percy held tight to his arm and led him to the clinic.

But before leaving, Percy ordered, “The rest of you children will go home or I will see to it that you also join Bobby for summer school. I can just imagine reading all the compositions regarding why it is NOT proper to fight or to encourage those who are fighting!”

The crowd of children ran from schoolyard, fearing their teacher would hold true to his word.

“Papa, please…” Myra stated as she walked to her father. “Don’t be angry with Isaiah. He was telling the truth. We were just sitting on the bench, waiting for you. He was talking about what it was like living in Boston, before his family moved to North Fork. Bobby came up from behind and pulled my hair so hard, it hurt. I couldn’t help but yell out and cry. He’s just a bully. He doesn’t pay attention in school and so often Percy… Mr. Bullock makes him stay in at lunch so he can try to teach him… Papa, please don’t be mad at Isaiah.”

Lucas knelt to his daughter and placed his hands to her shoulders, “I’m not mad. Are you okay, now?”

“Yes sir. It doesn’t hurt as much,” Myra answered while rubbing her head, as her father pulled her into a hug.

“Isaiah, I would like to thank you for standing up for my little girl.”

“Sir, you don’t need to thank me. It was the only thing that a gentleman could have done.” Turning to Myra, “Now that your father is here, I’ll head on home.”

“One moment, Isaiah,” Lucas said as he stood. “You still need to explain to your father what you did, that you were in a fight. Justified or not…”

“Yes sir. I know I have too. Mr. McCain, my Pa taught me how to box when we lived back in Boston, because I was always smaller than the other boys my age and because of who he was, they always thought they could pick on me. That’s sort of why we moved out west, to get away from those kinds of people. Ma and Pa have been so much happier since we moved here. I just hope they don’t feel they need to move again, because of me.”

“Come on, let’s get you home,” Lucas announced. He was curious of Isaiah’s statement, but decided to let it be. He picked up Myra, carried her to and set her in the saddle on top of BlueBoy.

“Papa, can Isaiah ride BlueBoy with me?” Myra asked.

“Oh, it wouldn’t be proper for me to ride with you.”

“Isaiah, you can ride in the saddle on Blade and I’ll walk you home.”

“Yes sir,” Isaiah answered. “Thank you, sir.”

*****

Milly sat at the table attempting to instruct Little Ted in his alphabet.

“I don’t wanna. I’m gonna be a rancher, I don’t need to learn letters,” Little Ted stated as he pouted.

“You’ve seen your father sitting in his chair, reading from the bible, you won’t be able to read if you don’t know your alphabet.”

“Why can’t I just ride my pony and work the cattle?” Little Ted complained.

“Because your father and I want you to have a good education so that you can grow up and be better educated than we were. You could be a doctor or a lawyer,” Milly answered.

“I want to be a rancher,” Little Ted stated as he crossed his arms.

“Okay, you can be a rancher but you have to know how to read contracts for purchasing cattle, you have to know how to do math, so you can keep your books to know how many cattle you have and if you’ll have money to take care of them,” Milly patiently explained.

“Then why do I have to go to school. You can teach me.”

“Little Ted, Mr. Bullock will be pleased in the fall when you start school and sees that you already know your alphabet. He’s a very good teacher, and besides, he’s friends with Mark, they went to school together.”

“Did Mark like going to school when he was my age?

“Well, I don’t know…” Milly answered without thinking.

“You don’t know?” Little Ted asked. “How can you… don’t know?”

“Ted, I’m not Mark’s mother,” Milly answered with regret in her voice.

“You’re not Mark’s Mama, but he calls you…”

“Mark’s real mother died a long time ago,” regretfully, Milly answered and saw confusion on her son’s face.

Little Ted jumped down from his chair and ran out the front door, leaving it open as he ran. Milly watched from the table as he ran to the barn. She regretted the slip of her tongue. It had been a long time since Myra had found out about Mark’s Ma… right after the twins and Little Ted had been born. Milly remembered the tailspin Mark started down, that day.

Milly walked out across the yard and into the barn. She heard sobs coming from the hayloft.

“Little Ted?” Milly called.

“Go away!”

“Little Ted, please, come talk with me?”

“No!” Sobbing. “Leave me alone!”

Milly returned to her home and sat on the front porch.

A half hour later, Milly heard a rider approaching and looked up to see Mark riding in.

“Mark!” Milly called as she stood.

“Hi Ma,” he replied as he halted Rainmaker at the hitching rail and stepped down. “Is Pa back from getting Gabby at school?”

“Not yet, but…”

Mark looked up from dusting his pants off when he heard the tone in Milly’s voice. “What’s wrong?”

“I was working with Little Ted and his alphabet a little while ago…”

“Uh, oh, it’s the McCain boys. He didn’t take to learning,” Mark laughed.

“Not exactly, well… Mark, he asked me if you liked going to school when you were his age. I wasn’t thinking and I told him I didn’t know. I tried to explain to him that I wasn’t your real mother, that Margaret had died a long time ago…”

Mark heard the hurt in Milly’s voice.

“Mark, I’m…”

“Where is he?” Mark asked. He too remembered when Gabby found out.

“He ran to the barn. I tried to get him to come talk to me… He was in the hayloft crying.”

“Ma, why don’t you go inside and let me talk with my brother.”

“Mark, I am sorry….”

Mark pulled Milly into a hug and said, “There’s nothing for you to be sorry about.” Mark put his hands to Milly’s shoulders, turned her around and gave her a gentle push towards the house. “He was bound to find out some day…”

*****

Lucas led the two horses through town, to Isaiah’s home. Mrs. Cooperton was sitting on the porch, peeling potatoes when they entered the yard. “Leon,” she called.

Isaiah was dusting himself of after Lucas set him to his feet when Leon came from the barn, “Mr. McCain?” Leon called as he saw evidence his boy had been in a fight. His attempt at brushing himself off had failed as the dust had clung to the sweat from Isaiah’s exertions in defending Myra’s honor.

“Father, I’m sorry. I know you’ve taught me better, but Bobby Bolton…”

“You were fighting with him?” Leon asked, with a look of disapproval on his face.

“Yes sir, but he pulled Myra’s pigtails and made her cry. I only fought to defend her. It’s not right for him, or anybody, to be so mean!”

“Inside and to your room. We’ll discuss this later.”

“Yes sir. Myra, I hope I’ll see you at church, come Sunday.”

“I’m sure we’ll be there,” Myra answered as she looked to her father.

The group watched as Isaiah climbed the three steps of the front porch. They heard him apologize to his mother and excuse himself.

“Mighty fine boy you have there Mr. Cooperton,” Lucas stated. “His actions are of someone more than ten years old.”

“Please call me Leon. And thank you. Lord knows we’ve tried, but him being an only child… Ethyl was a schoolteacher back in Boston. We both felt the school system was lacking in ‘encouraging’ the children to grow beyond what was required, so my misses started home schooling him. He is a good boy and he’s smart too. Uses a lot of words that I have to ask Ethyl about later. We were pleased when we met Stevan and Percy, they seem to want to challenge the children who really want to learn and they’ll work with those who are reluctant to learn. But Isaiah’s fighting…”

“He was telling the truth, Mr. Cooperton,” Myra stated. “Please don’t whip him.”

“I won’t whip him. He knows each time he gets into a fight we have a long discussion and we try to find another solution that could have prevented the situation.”

“He could have not sat with me while I waited for my Pa,” Myra answered and looked down to her feet.

“Myra, would you mind asking my wife if you can help her peel the potatoes, I’d like to talk with your father.”

Lucas nodded as Myra looked to him in askance. While Myra skipped up the walk and climbed the steps of the porch, the two men walked into the barn.

“Leon, your boy stated that you lived in Boston and I take it you were in the fighting ring?”

“How?…” Leon asked, surprised at Lucas’ question.

“He said you taught him to box, most boys around these parts would say fight, not box,” Lucas stated.

“Lucas, I was known as Leon the Lion. I was ferocious in the ring. I won every one of the matches I fought. Had a boxing promoter and everything. People came from miles around just to see me in the ring.”

“I’ve heard of boxing matches back east. They have rules and referees to see that the rules are followed.”

“Isaiah is so much like his Ma, can’t believe a big brute like me can have such a son. I’m thankful though, he’ll never be forced to fight… because of his size.”

“Isaiah said you taught him how to box, because of his size.”

“As a means to defend himself, only. Being my son, the other boys in school would pick on him, bully him. He knows each time he fights, I’ll be the final judge on whether he was right or wrong. Just because one knows how to fight, doesn’t mean he has to fight, but maybe… just having someone knowing that you know how to fight, might make your opponent think twice about fighting you.” Leon hesitated before he continued, “Sort of like you and your reputation with your rifle. We heard about you back east from the stories in the newspapers.”

“I think I know what you’re meaning. But your son also stated that he hoped you wouldn’t have to move again, because of him?”

“Lucas, you spoke of the boxing matches having rules and referees, but one lucky or unfortunate punch can destroy two men at the same time,” Leon stopped speaking as his memories returned to that night from his past. He relived the crowd, the smells of sweat and cigars, the noise… “I was the one who got in the unfortunate punch… It was a fluke accident. I killed a man.”

Lucas waited for Leon to continue.

“My promoter wanted to use that to advertise that I was the greatest boxer ever, but he didn’t realize how much that night was weighing on my soul. Lucas, I’m a God-fearing man, and once people find out who I am, they tend to want to always challenge me. Every town we’ve settled in, once people find out… Some ‘man’ has to see who’s better. I won’t fight anymore. I’ll not risk taking another’s life.”

“I understand. Like you said, we’re a lot alike, you with your fists and me with my rifle. It’s a strong and courageous man who can find a different path to turn away conflict. Lord knows how tormented I’ve been when I’ve been forced to take a life with this.”

“Yes sir. I hope this is between us and you’ll understand Isaiah a little better.”

“Leon, I raised a son, too. I worried about what life would be like for him, because of my reputation. That’s also why I waited so long before letting Mark ever have a rifle.”

“Yes, one seems to forget that Mark is your son, what with the difference in ages between your chil.. I’m sorry Lucas, that was uncalled for.”

“No, it’s the truth. Never apologize for speaking the truth. Leon, you should know that Bobby Bolton threatened he’d tell his Pa about what Isaiah did. But I’m sure, once Jack Bolton sees the difference in size between the boys. You can count that Bobby will forget to tell his Pa, just how much bigger he was than the boy who beat him up. Come Sunday, stay close to Mark or myself before and after services. Just in case Jack Bolton tries to cause trouble.”

“Lucas,” Leon held out his hand. “Thank you for your friendship and understanding. I’ll do as you ask.”

*****

Mark led Rainmaker into his Pa’s barn, put him in one of the empty stalls and removed his saddle and bridle, before closing the stall door. Overhead, he heard his little brother shifting around.

“I know you’re up there, Little Brother,” Mark called.

“You not my brother!” Little Ted answered.

“I’m not?” Mark asked with surprise in his voice.

“No!”

Mark slowly climbed the ladder. As he crawled across the floor to his brother, he watched as he wiped away the tears that were falling down his cheeks.

“How come I’m not your brother?”

“We don’t have the same Mama,” Little Ted answered, without looking to Mark. “Mama said she’s not your Mama.”

“No, she didn’t give birth to me. But your Mama and I love each other as if we were mother and son.”

“Pauley stated that just because horses have the same father, don’t mean they’re related, only if they have the same mothers are they considered family,” Little Ted sniffled.

“That’s true for horses, but we’re not horses. We’re people.”

“So?”

“Ted, please. I know it’s difficult for you to understand. Can I tell you about my growing up and my Ma?”

“If you want,” a sulking Little Ted replied.

“I was born in a town called Enid, Oklahoma…” Mark continued to talk of what he remembered from his childhood. As he told of his growing up, Mark could tell that Little Ted was getting interested in his story. “I was six when there was illness and my Ma took sick.”

“Like Mama did last year?”

“Yeah, like Ma did, only my Ma… My Ma wasn’t strong like your Mama, her body couldn’t fight off the sickness, and she went to heaven.”

“She’s with Jesus?”

“Yes.”

“But isn’t she sad you call someone else Mama?”

“I hope not, see, after Ma died, I wanted more than anything else to have a Ma. But Pa, his heart hurt and we left home, never to return.”

“You and Papa, ran away from home and never went back?”

“No, we didn’t. Pa and I spent four years of traveling and staying in one town or another for a while, only to move on. Pa was looking for some place special. We finally found it and decided to make a new home, here in North Fork.”

“And Mama became your Mama?” Little Ted asked.

“Not at first. Miss Milly arrived in North Fork two years after we did.”

“That’s when she became your Mama?”

“No quite. She was a real good friend to Pa and me, and I secretly hoped that she would become my new Ma,” Mark answered.

“Really?”

“More than anything. And, I could tell that Pa really liked her, but he still loved my Ma. And I don’t think Ma was ready to marry Pa, even if he’d of asked.”

“Why not?”

“See, like Pa was trying to find a place where we could call home again. Ma… she was running away from a bad memory.”

“She was scared?”

“Sort of, see…” Mark worried about what he was about to tell his little brother… and if he could really understand. “Little Ted, do you know you were named after somebody?”

“I’m named Theodore Scott McCain,” Little Ted boldly stated.

“That’s right, and you’re named after Ma’s brother.”

“I am? Is he happy I’m named after him?”

“I would hope he would be. See Ma’s brother was killed during the Civil War, you’ll learn about the war after you start school.”

“Is he with Jesus and your Ma?” Little Ted asked.

“Yes, I’m sure he is.”

“Did you know him?”

“No, he died before I was born. Ma and her brother were very close growing up, and when Ma and her family received word of her brother’s death, she sort of, refused to accept it. She left Philadelphia and headed west, anywhere so she wouldn’t have to face the memory that her brother wasn’t coming home. She wanted to live somewhere that she could believe that he was still alive…”

“Why?”

“Because she really missed him. He was her big brother.”

“Like you’re my big brother?”

“Yeah, like I’m your big brother.”

“I want you to be my big brother,” Little Ted stated as he dried another tear. “Do I make Ma sad by having his name?”

“No, because through you, his memory can live on. And Ma hopes that you’ll grow up and be just as smart as he was.”

“Because he went to school?”

“Yes, because he went to school.”

“Did you love learning? When you were my age?”

“No, I fought it and it made my Ma so upset. But I did learn to love school.”

“When? How?” Little Ted asked, curiously.

“Oh my… I thought this was going to be a simple conversation. You know, you really do like learning, otherwise you wouldn’t be asking me all these questions.”

“Come on, then teach me…”

“See, after we left home, Pa did his best to work with me in my school books. He always made sure I read. Even when we settled here, I wanted so much to be like Pa, a Rancher. I did well enough in school to try to please Pa, but I knew if Ma had been alive, she’d of made me work harder.”

“But you said you learned to love school?”

“I learned to love school after I met Percy, Mr. Bullock, and his father. Their home is filled with books from all over the world. Literature is what Mr. Bullock called them. He read to Percy and me from the books and let me borrow a few of them. While he read, I listened as a whole new world opened up in front of me.”

“And you learned to love school, just from him reading?”

“That was the start. Then Reverend McCafferty and his family arrived in town. Jake and Sarah had trouble making friends at school, so I kind of started a game with them through their school work and the other children took to it. Mr. Griwald asked me if I’d agree to be his student teacher, working with the younger children.”

“Did you?”

“After talking with Pa I agreed. It was so much fun watching the younger children get the answers correct and their eyes would brighten.”

“Wow, I didn’t know you were a teacher,” Little Ted stated.

“I wasn’t really a teacher, I just helped out. But Ma, she is a teacher. At least she used to be before you were born.”

“Was Mama your Mama then?”

“When you were born, yes, Mama was my Ma.”

“When did she become your Ma? When Mr. Bullock was reading to you?”

“No, she had left town before Percy and his father arrived. Little Ted, I don’t know how to tell you this, but… see.. There was another man who came to North Fork and he told Ma stories about knowing her brother. Actually, he wasn’t very nice in what he did. He upset Ma very much and she ended up returning to Philadelphia to face the fact that her brother had died, so many years before.”

“She ran away?”

“Yeah.”

“But she came back, otherwise she wouldn’t be here!” Little Ted declared.

“Yes, she read an article in a newspaper and she just had to come back.”

“And then she became your Mama?”

“Only after Pa realized that he really did love her, then she became my Ma,” Mark answered.

“How old were you?”

“I was seventeen when they married. Ted, whether we have the same parents or not, what matters is in our hearts. We have the same Pa and we’re considered half-brothers. But I think it’s better to say we’re just plain and simple, brothers.”

“So you really are my brother and your really want me to be your brother?” Little Ted asked.

“I had always wished that Pa would remarry and I’d have a mother, but more than that, I wanted a little brother or a little sister.”

“Does Myra know about your Mama?”

“Yes, she found out shortly after you and the twins were born,” Mark replied. “Little Ted, we didn’t mean to keep this a secret from you, we just didn’t think it mattered. We’re a family and I love your Ma as if she were my Ma. It takes a special woman to be a mother and love someone as a son, even if she didn’t give birth to them.”

After being quiet for a few minutes, Little Ted asked, “Do you think I upset Ma?”

“What do you think?” Mark replied.

“Will you be with me when I tell her I’m sorry?”

“Only if I can be your brother again.”

Little Ted reached up and hugged Mark, “You’re my big brother! I’m sorry if I made you sad when you were remembering your Ma.”

“I’m sad that she’s not here, but remembering her, I’ll never be sad.”

“Mark, I may not like learning, but I’ll try. I want to be just like you when I grow up!” Little Ted hollered as he crawled his way over to the ladder and climbed down.

‘I don’t know if Pa is ready for another me!’ Mark quietly said as he looked up and shook his head, before following his brother down the ladder.

*****

During their ride home, Lucas asked Myra if she was involved in the fight.

She replied, “Me, fighting?”

“Your dress is mighty dirty for someone who wasn’t involved in the fight.”

Myra halted BlueBoy as tears welled in her eyes, “Papa honest, I wasn’t fighting.”

“Okay, can you explain the dirt on your dress?”

“Papa, I don’t want to get Bobby in any more trouble,” she sniffled.

“What else did Bobby do?” Lucas asked, seriously. He was going to get to the secret Myra was holding. “Myra, the one rule that I will not see broken is to keep secrets. Especially if you’re upset or don’t understand what happened. Tell me what happened, please…”

“Papa, when… when he pulled my hair…”

“Yes.”

“He pulled it so hard that he pulled me off the back of the bench, I fell and got my dress all dirty and I hit my head. Oh Papa, why was he so mean to me? I didn’t do anything to him,” Myra stated as the tears streaked her face.

“He pulled you backwards off the bench?!”

“Papa, please, I just want to go home.”

Lucas maneuvered Blade even closer to BlueBoy and reached for BlueBoy’s reins and tied them to his saddle horn. Next, he reached for his daughter. He lifted her from her saddle and sat her in front of him, sideways in the saddle, so he could wrap a protective arm around her and she could lean against him. Lucas felt her sobs against his chest and tried to quiet her. Lucas continued to ride Blade at a walk and soon felt Myra’s sobs stop, upon looking down, he saw that she had fallen asleep in his arms.

Lucas arrived home with Myra still sleeping in front of him as Mark exited the barn with Little Ted on his hip, head resting on his shoulder.

*****

Through the remainder of the afternoon and during supper, Myra was quiet. Lucas was concerned for his daughter, and could tell she was still upset by what happened. That night, as the boys were put to bed, Lucas overheard Little Ted state, “Mama, I’m glad you named me after your brother and you know what? You are special. Thank you for letting Mark be my brother.” Milly was a little taken back at her son’s comments.

As they left the room, Lucas asked Milly what Little Ted meant, “I’ll tell you about that later, right now we need to help Myra.” Milly and Lucas stepped to Myra’s room, she was kneeling at the foot of her bed, “Myra, it’s not your bedtime, just yet.” Milly stated. They invited Myra to the porch.

“But that’s where you grownups talk…” Myra stated, surprised at the invitation.

“I think tonight, you deserve to join us on the porch. I think we still need to talk to help you understand and be able to put today behind you,” Milly answered.

In talking with Myra, they tried to explain the reasons for Bobby Bolton’s actions.

Myra finally asked why Isaiah picked the fight with Bobby, as Mark and Hope join them on the front porch.

“Myra, Isaiah was raised to respect young ladies. He was upset that someone like Bobby had hurt you. Since I wasn’t there, he chose to defend you, since you couldn’t because you are a young lady,” Lucas replied.

“I know, but what I wouldn’t have given to punch mean Bobby in the nose. Let him explain to his Papa that a girl beat him up,” Myra answered as she balled her fish and playfully punched her other hand.

“As Isaiah has probably had a long talk with his father, regarding his actions, so would you, had you punched him,” Lucas scolded.

“Yes sir,” Myra stated as she looked downwards. “Papa, will Bobby’s Papa cause trouble for Isaiah’s Papa at church?”

“Gabby, if he tries anything, I’ll be there to make sure Mr. Bolton knows who was in the right and who was in the wrong,” Mark replied.

“Are you feeling better?” Lucas asked.

“I am, goodnight,” Myra hopped from her place and started to run into the house. “Oh!” she exclaimed, turned around, and kissed her parents, Mark, and Hope, before turning to run inside.

*****

Once it was just the adults, Milly asked Hope, “How are you and the baby?”

“Three months along and I’m starting to show.” She pressed her hands against her growing belly.

“So are you going to give me a grandson or granddaughter?” Lucas asked with a smile, as Milly leaned back against his chest.

“Lucas, it doesn’t matter, as long as the baby is healthy!” Milly declared as she looked over her shoulder. Lucas promptly kissed the lovely lips that belonged to his wife.

As their lips parted, Lucas asked, “So you mind telling me what happened today with Little Ted?”

“He and I needed a ‘brother to brother’ talk,” Mark replied when he realized that Milly was still a little upset over what had happened. “He asked an innocent question and Ma answered it.”

Seeing Lucas raise his eyebrows in askance, Mark stated, “He asked if I liked going to school when I was his age.”

“Oh?” Lucas answered.

“I got home from checking the calves and Ma told me he was crying in the barn. He was upset because he thought I wasn’t his brother.”

“How could he say that?” Lucas’ voice held surprise.

“Because his friend, Pauley, was telling him about horses and how they are only considered ‘related’ if they share the same mother. Pa, I told him that we weren’t horses and that didn’t apply to us.”

“And he accepted that?” Milly asked.

“Not at first. I told him about Enid and my Ma. And how Milly came to be my Ma. I also told him it took a real special woman to be a mother.”

“As we were putting him to bed he told us he was glad we named him after my brother. Mark, I’ve never told Little Ted about my brother,” Milly stated.

“Well, our conversation kind of went all over the place in telling of how you became my Ma. I’m sorry, I hope it didn’t up set you,” Mark sincerely commented.

“No, I’m not upset, he seemed happy that he was named after someone, and I think even more happy to have you back as his brother,” Milly replied.

“He was upset because Ma’s not your mother?” Hope asked.

“I think he was upset at losing me as a brother, more than us not having the same Ma.”

*****

Mark and Hope returned to their home, allowing Lucas and Milly to retire to their bedroom.

Lucas stretched himself long in bed and patted the spot beside him, motioning for Milly to join him.

“We need to talk,” Milly stated as she turned from sitting at her dressing table, having brushed her hair, she crossed her arms.

Lucas turned over on his side and propped his head up with his hand, “We’ve helped Myra. Mark’s helped Little Ted. What else do we need to talk about?” Lucas jested.

“Your language,” Milly answered.

“My language?”

“Yes, seems that my daughter overheard you swear and she used the word today.”

“She what?”

“My daughter came from her bedroom this morning and said, ‘what the hell…’ I stopped her before she could say anything more.”

“And what caused her to say that?”

“I fell back asleep and woke when Mark arrived to take her to school. I was rushing around to get their breakfast made and get her out the door…”

“Oh! So because…” Lucas started to say.

“Don’t you change this to being my fault, Lucas McCain! She wouldn’t have said it had she not heard you say it.”

“Honest, I watch what I say around the children,” Lucas pleaded.

“Evidently, you forgot she was around when you and Johnny were looking at the wanted poster bearing Mark’s picture.”

Lucas cringed as he accepted his guilt. “Milly, there were extenuating circumstances…” Lucas stood from the bed, wearing only his long john bottoms and walked to where Milly still sat. “Milly, once in how many years did I forget to watch my language. Can’t you forgive me?”

Milly couldn’t help but laugh at the expression Lucas gave her as he extended his hands to her. She took his hands and let him help her to her feet and walked her to their bed. As a gentleman, Lucas lifted the covers for Milly to slip under, before he walked around the end of the bed to lie down on his side.

“So, am I forgiven?” Lucas asked.

“Yes, but please… talk with your daughter in the morning?”

“Now she’s my daughter?”

“Lucas!”

“Yes, my love.”

*****

After breakfast dishes were washed and put away, Lucas asked for Myra to come with him to the barn.

“Do I have to?”

“Myra, do as your father asks,” Milly replied.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Lucas walked with his daughter to the barn; he motioned for her to sit on a bale of hay.

“You do know that you shouldn’t say what you said, yesterday morning.”

“I kinda figured that out from the way Mama acted. I’m sorry.”

“I know you are,” Lucas answered.

“You gonna whup me?”

“Well, since your Mama and I talked last night, I think you’ll get by with just a talking to from me.”

“Did you get in trouble with Mama?”

“Sort of. Promise me you’ll never use that word, at least until you’re as old as your Mama.”

“How old is she?”

“Myra!”

“Yes, Papa.”

*****

Before church services, the Cooperton family stayed close to the McCain’s, Leon wanted to avoid any trouble.

Jack Bolton called, “COOPERTON!” and purposefully strode to the church. “I want words with you. Your boy beat up on my son.”

“Bolton!” Lucas countered. “I was there and that’s not the whole truth.

“Stay out of this McCain! I’m warning ya!”

“Mr. Bolton, it is true. But did your boy tell you why?” Leon stated.

“A bully don’t need no excuse to beat up on another. Where is he? Where’s your son who sent my son home black and blue?”

Isaiah tried to step forward, but his mother restrained him.

“No, let me go!” Isaiah called out. “I’m the one.”

Bolton laughed, “No, your other son!”

“I only have one son,” Leon replied.

“One son!” The mirth on Bolton’s face turned to one of anger. “BOBBY BOLTON! Front and center!”

Those in front of the church parted as Bobby Bolton stepped forward, his pa grabbing him by the ear, “Is that him? Is this the bully who beat you?”

“Y… Yes sir…” Bobby stuttered.

“Mr. Bolton, it wasn’t Isaiah’s fault,” Myra called as she ran forward. “He was only protecting me!”

“Gabby!” Mark called and prevented his sister from running any further into the crowd.

“What’s this about him protecting that girl?” Bolton asked of his son. “Answer me, boy!”

Bobby shook his head.

“Mr. Bolton, from the report I took from Mr. Bullock, your son was bullying my sister and Isaiah was only protecting her until her father arrived.”

“You, picking on a girl? What kind of a son did I raise? You get home and you wait for me in the barn.”

The crowd tried to contain their laughter while they watched Bobby run down the road.

“Mr. Cooperton, guess we got off on the wrong foot. I’m sorry for not realizing what my boy was doing. He’ll get the tanning of his life when I get home. Accept my apologies.”

“Yes, they’re accepted.”

“Marshal, I’m thankful that you didn’t arrest him for assaulting your sister. I’ll see to it that he reports to you Monday after school. I’m sure the jail can use a good scrubbing.”

“Sir, school’s out for the summer,” Myra answered.

“Not for him. Mr. Bullock, you’ll see to it that he learns what he needs to learn and if he gives you any grief, he’ll get more grief from me.”

*****

Lucas helped load his family into the buckboard, after sharing lunch in town with the Cooperton’s. Isaiah stopped next to the McCain buckboard and spoke to Lucas, “Mr. McCain, when the time comes, I’ll do things proper, but just so you know, I want to marry Myra when we’re both old enough and have finished our educations.”

Lucas couldn’t help but hear the giggle that escaped from Milly, he was sure she was remembering back to Mark and his feelings towards her niece.

“We’ll see. When the time comes. But that’s quite a few years ahead of you, Isaiah.”

“Yes sir, I know.”

Isaiah ran back to his parents as they called his name.

“Now Lucas, it’s truly sweet of Isaiah,” Milly spoke as she tried to hide her grin behind her hand.

“Never thought of what it would be like to be on the other end of a boy making that statement. It was difficult enough with Mark… And Sally… But Isaiah is so much younger than Mark was.”

“Lucas, just get up here and we can talk, when the children aren’t present.”

Mark stopped the buckboard containing his family next to his Pa’s. Lucas climbed to his seat turned to look at Myra waving goodbye to Isaiah, a big smile on her face. The McCain’s headed for home.

*****

The boys were down for their afternoon naps and Myra was over at Mark’s helping Hope.

“Lucas, do you think Isaiah could really be serious? I mean, he’s just a child…”

“Milly, you weren’t there at school on Friday to see him. I don’t think his wanting to defend Myra could have been just because of how his father raised him…”

“It was precious today, and watching Myra waving goodbye to him. She reminded me so much of how Mark acted towards Sally.”

“Have you read the letter from Sally?”

“Lucas! Just like a man, change the subject when you don’t care to talk about something. And yes I did, she gave birth to a daughter, Millicent Anne Maguire, they’re planning to call her Milly for short.”

“So that’s your real name?” Lucas laughed as he walked up behind and wrapped his arms around his wife.

“No, that’s not my real name. You know very well my name is Mildred.” Milly turned and wrapped her arms around Lucas’ neck and responded to his playful kissing, only to be interrupted by Myra coming in the door, “Not again!” she moaned. “More mushy stuff!”

Parting as her cheeks blushed, Milly stated, “I thought you were supposed to be helping Hope this afternoon.”

“I am, I am. I want to change out of my dress and put on my pants.”

The Next Generation… Chapter 84 – The Spark

Tension in the town of North Fork was elevating. The ranch owners, their hands, and the farmers worried about the ever-increasing dry spell and it didn’t take much to spark fights over at Sweeney’s. Saturday night, Mark and Seth had their hands full breaking up the latest in a long line of fights.

After getting the brawlers under control, Sweeney called out, “Mark, you okay?”

“Yeah, just think I’m gonna have one heck of a shiner in the morning.” He winced as he touched his cheekbone.

*****

After closing the cell door on the latest brawlers, Seth returned to the office area and sat down at the desk opposite Mark.

“Yep, Hope should love to see that shiner. Which one got in the lucky punch?” Seth teasingly asked.

“Can’t remember. It’s never been that bad over at Sweeney’s,” Mark complained.

“With this drought, the hands are working harder to keep the herds alive. All it takes is one small spark and the whole place will go up in flames. Speaking of tempers, what happened Sunday with Jack Bolton and Leon Cooperton?” Seth asked.

“Not much, especially when Bolton realized how his son had exaggerated or failed to mention Isaiah’s size. Here tell Bobby might finally be able to sit down today after the trip to the woodshed. You seemed to slip out of church pretty quick last Sunday. Care to tell me why?” Mark asked.

“No. It’s none of your business,” Seth replied defensively.

“You take Lilah out for a buggy ride?”

“Mark!”

“I’m just curious. I mean Pa was informed by Isaiah that he was going to marry Myra, after they completed their education…”

“He what? How did your father take that statement?” Seth laughed.

“About as well as when I told him I wanted to buy a piece of land so I could build a home for Sally. I think it surprised him, but Sunday evening all Ma and Pa wanted to do was to talk of my infatuation over Sally.”

“Well, if you’ll remember your embarrassment, then leave me to mine,” Seth stated.

“Is there something for you to be embarrassed about? You do… You took her out!”

“And what if I did?”

“Nothing, nothing,” Mark cajoled

“And keep it that way,” Seth stated.

*****

Sunday morning, Mark opened the jail cell doors and allowed those inside to leave. “Boys, I’ll expect you back here no later than Friday afternoon with your fines — ten dollars each.”

Without much grumbling, the cowboys collected their hats and guns and left the jail.

“Oh, and don’t forget you also owe Nils for keeping your horses overnight!” Mark called out.

*****

Dave Merar stopped at the Marshal’s Office after church, “Mark, I hate to do this to Sweeney, but I’m restricting my hands to the ranch.”

“You think that’s a wise thing to do?” Seth asked.

“I can’t keep dealing with busted up hired hands and Sweeney deserves better than having his place used as a weekly powder keg.”

“Dave,” Mark stated. “I understand your reasoning, but restricting them to the ranch can only make things worse. They have to be allowed to blow off steam somehow, hopefully without trying to kill each other.”

“Mark, you come up with an idea and I’m all for it. I lost four hours of work by three of my hands this morning because they were in your jail.”

“It’s Sunday!” Seth declared.

“I know it is, but with this drought, I need every hand working every day keeping an eye on my cattle and fixing the fence lines them thirsty cows bust through.”

“Dave, I’ve an idea. Give me a few days to work out the details. But I assure you that my idea will be just the ticket.”

Dave shook hands with Seth and Mark before leaving the jail.

“And just what are you thinking?”

“Leon, the Lion.”

“What?” Seth asked.

“Not what, who. I’ll be back.” Mark left the jail, placing his hat on his head, rifle in hand, practically knocking over Micah as he entered the office.

“What was that all about?” Micah asked.

“Beats me, something about him having an idea.”

Micah turned and watched as Mark jogged down the street.

*****

“Afternoon Marshal,” Mrs. Cooperton called.

“Mrs. Cooperton. Won’t you please call me Mark?” Mark replied.

Laughingly she answered, “Only if you’ll stop calling me Mrs. Cooperton. My name is Ethyl. What can I do for you?”

“Ma’am, I’m sorry to intrude on your Sunday, but… is your husband home?”

“He’s over in the barn.”

“Thanks.”

Mark strode to the barn and called, “Mr. Cooperton?”

“Just a moment.”

Shortly Mr. Cooperton appeared up in the hayloft.

“Marshal, how can I help you?”

“Mr. Cooperton, I know you asked my Pa to keep a secret for you, but he did tell me… only because I’m a marshal and he felt I needed to know to be able to squelch any trouble that might come your way.”

“I understand. So is trouble coming my way?” Leon asked as he stepped from the ladder.

“No sir, but I was hoping you could help diffuse trouble that is brewing in town.”

“I’m just a leather worker, how can I help you?” Leon asked.

“Leon, with the drought… tempers are short in town. Johnny, Seth, and I… seems like we can’t get through the weekend without breaking up fights over at Sweeney’s. The ranchers are ready to refuse their hands permission to come to town and I know that will only breed more discontent and tempers will rise even more.”

“So, what can I do?”

“Start a fight club.”

“A what?”

“Leon, if they want to fight, I’d prefer it be organized. Teach them the rules and give them structure…”

“Mark, I…”

“Leon, I know your fear… But this isn’t for money… and for most of the cowboys; it will be just to blow off steam. I’d rather it be organized than an all out brawl where someone can seriously be injured. Besides, if this works the way I think it can, it can become something to claim pride for the winner’s ranch. Sort of like rodeos.”

“I’m not sure my wife would approve,” Leon answered, looking for any way to refuse.

“Your wife feels it’s about time you stepped back into the ring,” Ethyl called from the doorway.

“Ethyl, I can’t.”

“Yes, you can. It’s about time we stopped running and letting others fight our fights.” Walking to her husband, “Leon, I want to stay here. I love the people, and if we can do something to help… You have to.”

Turning to Mark, “So, are you and the other marshals going to be out there helping me?” Leon asked.

“No, but I know someone who has plenty of time on his hands. I’m sure he’d be more than happy to help you.”

“Who else besides you would have the influence to help keep the ranch hands in place?”

“How about a former marshal, Micah Torrance.”

Leon and Mark shook hands.

*****

Friday evening, Seth nervously walked to the boarding house, bouquet of flowers in his hand. He entered the parlor to be greeted by Jonas Tolliver.

“Evening Deputy,” Jonas called.

“Evening Jonas, is Delilah ready?”

“Have a seat, the way those two have been talking upstairs, I’d say it’s going to be a while before you go anywhere. Care for a drink?”

“Brandy,” Seth answered.

About twenty minutes later, the men heard footsteps coming down the stairs. Quickly they stood as the ladies approached.

“Deputy you’re here already,” Mrs. Tolliver stated in a greeting.

“Yes Ma’am, I told Lilah, Mrs. Stovers I’d be here at seven o’clock.” He held out the bouquet of flowers.

From behind Jonas Tolliver cleared his throat and Seth turned to see him thumb to the clock on the mantle. Both women looked to see the clock displaying seven, fifteen.

Taking the flowers, Lilah stated, “I’m sorry for being late. These flowers are beautiful. Thank you.” She inhaled deeply of their fragrance.

Mrs. Tolliver offered to get a vase of water. Lilah took a few minutes to arrange the bouquet before setting it in the middle of the table.

“Well, if I may?” Seth raised his arm, inviting Lilah to take it.

As they walked down the path from the house, they heard Jonas teasingly call out, “Make sure you get her back here at a reasonable hour.”

*****

Arm in arm they strolled down the street to the restaurant. Once inside, Lou showed them to a table. Oblivious to others coming and going, Seth and Lilah only had eyes for each other as they ate their supper and talked of old times and of Seth’s family. The two had finished dessert when they were interrupted.

“I received a complaint on you a little while ago,” Mark stated, trying to keep his voice serious.

“Mark, we’ve been sitting here, minding our own business,” Seth answered.

“Yep, but from what I hear, you were also told to have this young woman back to her home at a reasonable hour.”

“Reasonable, we’ve only been…”

“Only been gone long enough for me to do my rounds and to get stopped as I started to head back to the jail. Seth, it’s almost ten.”

“Aye, ten o’clock,” was repeated in an Irish brogue as Lou walked up to join the small group.

“It can’t be, can it?” Lilah asked with embarrassment.

“Deputy, please see the young lady home, after you pay your tab,” Mark teased as he turned and walked away.

*****

Saturday afternoon, Mark waited for his Pa to arrive in town to make their weekly purchases; he couldn’t wait to get home to tell Hope what was happening.

*****

“He what?” Hope laughed.

“You heard me. Jonas stopped me on my rounds, asked if I would mind checking to make sure Lilah was okay.”

“You think father would have said something to me,” Hope stated.

“Well, I guess it could sort of be like Pa and me, a father doesn’t exactly know how to talk of such things to their child. Usually the courting happens before there’s a child involved,” Mark laughed. “Besides I’ve sorta been teasing him about it.”

“Teasing… Mark McCain!”

“I’m only looking out for your best interest.”

“My best interest?!” Hope asked.

“Yes,” Mark stated as he came up behind Hope and wrapped his arms around her pregnant belly. “She just may become your new mother.”

“My new mother… I hadn’t thought of that.”

*****

It was the last Saturday in June when Amos stopped Seth while he was walking the town, “Seth!”

“Everything okay Amos?” Seth turned and asked as Amos jogged up to him.

“Sure, got this letter for you. It’s from Ethan.”

“Thanks Amos.” Seth took the letter and returned to the Marshal’s Office. Once inside, he sat at the desk and opened the envelope. Nervously he unfolded the letter and read.

Dear Father,

Annie and I hope this letter finds you well. We received Mark and Hope’s letter earlier this month and are happy to hear that they are expecting again. Please tell them congratulations from us.

As for the other news contained in your letter, we are happy for you. I wish we could be there in person to give our blessings, but I’m scheduled to leave on a two-week patrol soon. I’ll probably already be out when you receive this letter.

Please send a wire when you receive your answer.

We send our love, always,

Ethan and Annie Lane

PS: Seth Edward and Marissa send their love, too.

‘One down, one to go,’ Seth whispered.

*****

Johnny and Seth stepped from the jail and saw the long line of ranch owners followed by their hired hands riding into town.

“What’s this all about?” Johnny asked, of no one in particular. “Oat!”

“Hey Johnny, Seth,” Oat answered back as he reined his horse to a stop.

“What’s this all about? Never seen so many of your hands coming into town.”

“Especially on a Sunday morning,” Seth added.

“Got word from Mark that we needed to be here for services and an announcement.”

“Announcement?” Turning to Seth, Johnny asked, “You know what he’s planning.”

“Not exactly. Just that Dave Merar was wanting to forbid his hands from coming to town, after their involvement in that brawl at Sweeney’s last weekend.”

*****

Reverend McCafferty chose the topic of his sermon carefully, tolerance. He knew the ranch hands were hard pressed in their duties to keep their boss’ cattle safe and the fences in place. The heat made for long, tiring hours in the saddle, and they needed a night in the town to refresh themselves. Before closing services for the day, he informed the congregation that Mark McCain had an announcement to make. Oat Jackford, Dave Merar, and the other ranch owners gave a few of their hands a hard glare after hearing them groan.

“Reverend, thank you. I know everyone is anxious to get out of here, so I’ll keep this brief. I’ve talked with Leon Cooperton regarding the brawls that have been happening all too frequently over at Sweeney’s and we’ve decided if you’re all so set on beating each other up, you’re going to learn the proper way of fighting, meaning no cheap shots. Leon will be teaching the art of boxing and right now, everyone who we’ve had locked up in the jail is a student. We’ll divide the classes based on the size of the fighters and you’ll all help build a boxing arena. And just to make sure the rules are followed, Micah Torrance will also be present during each training session. Once Leon says you’re ready, we’ll have ourselves a boxing exhibition. And the fines that have been paid as a result of the fights over at Sweeney’s will be put up as purse. Any other hand who wishes to participate, you’ll talk directly to Leon. Oh, everyone will pay five dollars, on top of what you’ve already paid in fines, this will be split between Leon and Micah for their time. Reverend I know we’ve been taught to turn the other cheek…”

“Mark, nothing wrong with a good old fashion boxing exhibition. Beats a barroom brawl any day. Sounds like a perfect timing for a church social, too.”

As the congregation left the church, the comments Mark overheard we just what he had hoped, the hands were interested.

“Seth, you and Lilah are still planning to come out for supper tonight, aren’t you?” Mark asked.

“Sure, about four?”

“We’ll see you then.”

*****

Gwen helped Hope fix a wonderful meal of chicken and dumplings with all the fixings. Mark and Hope’s children were on their best behavior at the table. After supper, Lilah told Hope to have a seat, she and Gwen would take care of the dishes.

“But you’re a guest in our home,” Hope pleaded.

“But I’m not the one who’s pregnant. You need to sit down and relax. Don’t be ashamed to accept help.”

Seth escorted Hope to her chair. Once dishes were done, the boys wanted to show Lilah their ponies.

“Please Papa?” Zach asked.

“It’s up to Miss Lilah,” Mark answered.

“Please Miss Lilah,” Josh pleaded.

“I’d love to see your ponies.”

Mark and Lilah followed the twins as they ran from the house.

“Oh, to be so young again. I feel young just being around them,” Lilah stated with a smile beaming across her face.

*****

When it was just Hope and Seth, he stated, “Hope, I have something I’d like to talk with you about.”

“Is this about you and Lilah?” Hope asked.

“I won’t if you’re against it.

‘Father, if marrying Lilah will make you happy. I’m happy for you.”

“But can you accept her as…”

“As my new mother? I can. Father, she’s a wonderful woman and I see the way she looks at you. And the way the children have taken to her, I think she’d make a wonderful grandmother.”

“Thank you. After I lost your mother… and then we found you… It never occurred to me to try to find another woman.”

“Sometimes the best things happen without trying. When are you planning to propose?”

“I’m not sure. I didn’t think that I’d get your approval.”

“I presume you’ve already asked Ethan?”

“Yes, he and Annie gave me their blessings.”

“As do I. Father, why didn’t you think I would give you my blessings?”

“I don’t exactly know, just that girls can be particular about a new woman coming into the house.”

“Father, it’s your home. Mark and I have our own home. Besides, with the way that Mark welcomed Miss Milly into his family, could I do anything less?”

Seth hugged his daughter. “You don’t know how much this means to me. I didn’t think I could love another woman after Emma, your Ma.” Changing the subject, “How’s that new grandbaby coming along?”

“Just fine, so far. I have another appointment with Doc Burrage next week. I’ll do my best to keep your secret; just don’t make me keep it that long.”

*****

Seth had asked Johnny for Saturday night off. He had arranged with Lou for a picnic basket supper and with Nils to rent the surrey and a horse. Seth arrived at the boarding house at three o’clock in the afternoon. After informing Jonas and Evelyn Tolliver he would have Lilah home before dark, he escorted her to the surrey and helped her get in.

Trying his best to act as if today was no different than any other day, Seth asked Lilah if she were comfortable, or if the wind was too much.

*****

“And just where do you think you’re going?” Hope asked of Mark.

“Out,” he answered.

“Where?”

“Just out!” Mark sheepishly stated.

“No you don’t. You’re not going anywhere near Miller’s Creek today!”

“Miller’s Creek? Why would I go there?”

“You know very well that father is planning to take Lilah on a picnic supper to Miller’s Creek today.”

“I just want to peek,” Mark pleaded.

“Don’t you remember how nervous you were when you asked me?”

“Yeah, but I asked in front of both our families. I only want to return the favor,” Mark laughed.

“You’re impossible! You’ve teased father enough since Lilah moved to North Fork. Let him have some dignity and privacy.”

“You’re no fun!” Mark teased as he walked up behind Hope and laughed, wrapping his hands over her pregnant belly. “So, do you think they’ll get married before or after their grandchild is born?”

“Oh, you!”

Mark stole a kiss before he reached for his hat and rifle.

“Mark!” Hope exclaimed.

“Tonight was supposed to be your father’s shift in town, so I get to work with Johnny. I promise I won’t go anywhere near Miller’s Creek.”

“Promise?”

“Promise,” Mark stated as he raised his hand.

*****

Seth drove the horse and buggy out to Miller’s Creek, he couldn’t bring himself to do much talking, he didn’t trust his voice to give away how nervous he felt. He smiled as he looked at Lilah sitting next him. The color of her dress made the color of her eyes appear even deeper.

“Well, here we are,” Seth stated as he pulled the horse to a halt. He relaxed the pressure on the reins as he leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. “What do you think?”

“Seth, it’s beautiful. I can’t get over how spectacular the land is,” Lilah answered.

“It pales in comparison to…”

“To what?”

“Lilah, let me help you down,” Seth replied as he stepped from the surrey, walked around the horse, and presented his hand to help Lilah down. Once she was to her feet, he picked up the picnic basket from behind their seat while Lilah reached for the blanket draped over the back of the seat.

The two laid out the blanket and Seth helped Lilah sit down before he sat down beside her. She set out the fried chicken and mashed potatoes after setting out the rolls and butter. Seth pulled two glasses from the basket and filled them with lemonade from the canteen.

“How are you settling in to North Fork?” Seth asked while they were eating.

“Seth, I’ve been here for over six months, I think we’re beyond me settling in to North Fork,” Lilah laughed.

“Oh, yeah, uh. Are you enjoying working in the dress shop?”

“Yes. Mrs. Dahlrimple is a pleasure to work for. At first she watched over all my work, but now, she knows the quality of work I can do. She’s even asking for my input on some of her designs. The dress that Lou wore to the Summer Celebration, I helped design the bodice. She looked so beautiful that night,” Lilah answered.

“She looked pretty, but you, you were beautiful. That blue dress you wore, it was almost as nice as the dress you’re wearing tonight.”

“I didn’t think you really noticed.”

“You forget I was once a Major. I have to pay attention to detail, many a times it was by paying attention to the detail that I got my unit back to the fort in one piece.”

Once they had finished eating and packed everything back in the basket, Seth asked Lilah to walk with him. They stopped to look out over a large tree overhanging the creek. Seth escorted Lilah to a large boulder and sat down.

The sun was just starting to sink below the horizon when Seth reached in his pocket.

“Lilah, are you happy here in North Fork?” Seth asked.

“I am. So much more than I was back in Laramie.”

“You came here from Laramie because I asked you to. If I were to ask you another question, could you see yourself moving out of the boarding house?”

“And just where would I move to?”

Seth opened his hand to show a ring in his palm, “I was hoping into my home, you’re already in my heart.”

“Seth…” Lilah gasped and she clasped both of her hands to her chest.

“I know it’s only been six months, but… I never expected to find another woman who could make me feel the way my Emma did. I mean while I raised Ethan and mourned Hope, it just never appealed to me, to look for another woman. I figured I’d just be a confirmed bachelor or I guess a widower would be more appropriate. I wasn’t looking when you showed up on the train. I forgot what that part of my life felt like. Lilah, I’m asking you to marry me.”

“And if I said yes, what would Ethan and Hope say?”

“They’d say I was extremely lucky. I’ve already talked with them and both have given me their blessings,” Seth answered.

“Hope gave you her blessings?”

“It surprised me too. She said she wants me to be happy and Lilah, having you as my wife would make me very happy.”

“Aren’t we too old?” Lilah asked.

“We’re younger than Micah and Hattie were when they got married. Are you going to give me an answer or are you going to keep asking questions?”

“Are you sure you really want me for a wife? I’m mean, I’m not at all as pretty as I remember Emma being.”

“Lilah, I’ve taken a page from the McCain book of life, I don’t want to look back. I want to look forward, with you by my side.”

“If you’re so sure, then yes. I’ll be your wife,” Lilah finally answered.

“Yes. You said, yes?”

“Yes,” Lilah giddily replied as Seth slipped the ring on her finger.

*****

Lilah rested her head on Seth’s shoulder while he drove the horse and surrey back to the boarding house. Jonas and Evelyn Tolliver and Mark McCain were standing on the porch as they drove up.

“Deputy, do you realize the fright you put in the Tolliver’s? You stated you’d have this young woman home before the sun set. I might just have to throw you in jail to get the point across,” Mark called as Seth escorted Lilah up the walkway.

“You’ll do no such thing!” Lilah declared. “Or else I’ll inform my future daughter-in-law how unfair you are.”

“Future daughter-in-law?” Evelyn asked and then squealed, “He proposed?!”

The two women hugged and cried.

“Mrs. Tolliver, I suggest you get her inside. As I was once informed, there are proprieties to be observed once a woman is engaged.” Mark couldn’t keep the laughter in as he extended his hand to congratulate his father-in-law.

The Next Generation… Chapter 85 – A Royal Pain

Hope’s monthly check-up in July found Mark arriving late at the clinic, “Sorry I’m late. Is the baby’s okay?” Mark asked as he entered the room and saw Hope stepping from behind the partition, fastening the belt of her dress a little looser.

“Yes, the baby is fine, as is Hope,” Thadd answered.

“Doc? There is only one baby, this time? Isn’t there?” Mark asked.

“So far as I can tell. Well, if you two will excuse me, these rooms are for people who are in real need of a doctor.” As he watched Mark pull Hope into his arms, he added, ”This ain’t no hotel. It’s located down the street.”

“You’re just jealous,” Mark jested as he kissed his wife.

“No, I’m not. We’re only a couple of months behind the two of you.”

“Abigail’s pregnant?” Hope asked.

Doc beamed a smile.

*****

Hope was excitedly looking forward to getting to know her, soon to be, mother and helping her with the arrangements for the upcoming wedding. Seth and Lilah had set a date at the end of August for their wedding. As the days passed, Mark grew concerned about Hope driving the team to and from town each day, especially in her condition.

“Seth, I have a favor to ask you,” Mark stated as he looked over at Seth leafing through a stack of wanted posters.

“What kind of a favor?”

“Well, Hope’s been traveling from our home to yours to spend time with Lilah, getting to know her better and helping with the wedding arrangements. I don’t know that I like her spending so much time on the road, now I don’t mind the reason. It’s just that… I was wondering, if until your wedding, what if I moved my family into your house. I mean you have plenty of room for us and the children. And it would only be for six weeks.”

“Have you talked this over with Hope? I mean, who’s going to take care of your place?”

“I’ll still do that and Jake still works with Pa when I’m required to be in town. But I’d really prefer if Hope weren’t driving the team so much. I just worry about her…”

“Mark, no need to justify your reasons. If Hope is agreeable to moving in until the wedding, then I think it’s a great idea. Lilah was just commenting the other day, about how much time they lose in getting to know each other by Hope having to travel so much.”

*****

Lucas and Milly stood on their porch waving goodbye as Mark left to move Hope and the children to town. They understood Mark’s reasons, but still… It was difficult watching them drive away.

“They’ll be back home in six weeks,” Lucas stated. “Besides, we’ll still see them when we go to town and Mark will be here for a little while each day after we’re finished working the range.”

“What about Gwen?” Milly asked.

“Mark said that she’s offered to help Hattie at the day care. North Fork’s a growing town…”

*****

Mark noticed how much Hope did enjoy living in town, the ease of shopping and visiting with friends. Something to do all the time when he was standing his watch over North Fork.

“Are you regretting living out on the ranch?” Mark asked one night as they prepared for bed.

“What?” Hope answered as she stood from the dressing table, after brushing her hair.

“You seem so much more happier, staying here in town. I was just…” Mark couldn’t help the hurt tone in his voice.

Hope slipped into bed and curled up close to Mark, “No. I don’t regret living on the ranch. I’m happy now, but this is something so… new. I don’t know that I could really stand living in town every day. The hustle and the bustle… I like our home and it’s quiet…”

“Mama!” they heard Eli yell.

“You were saying something about quiet?” Mark asked as Hope slipped from the bed.

*****

As the weeks passed, when not taking care of the children, Hope and Lilah spent time shopping and making arrangements for the upcoming wedding. She and Lilah had just finished enjoying lunch at the hotel restaurant and were about to leave when a group of people made their way from the train station into the hotel. An elegantly dressed young woman stood to the side, removing her long gloves, as an older, austere woman rang the bell on the desk.

“May I help ye?” Lou asked as she walked behind the counter.

“I am Governess Madilyn Watson, I believe you should have received a wire requesting reservations for Princess Sophia Truddeau de LaRue,” the woman stated.

“Yes, I did. Three rooms at the front of the hotel,” Lou answered.

Lilah and Hope, as well as others in the restaurant, stared as the young woman of royalty arrived in North Fork. Hope noticed that she was extremely attractive, with her blonde hair curled and cascading down her face, to her shoulders. Color was applied to her cheeks, eyes, and lips to accentuate her features. She stood to the side of the group, well aware of how she looked and how the others, especially men, reacted to her. One of the porters carrying her luggage tripped as he saw her look at him. Her clothing was quite exquisite, leaving most of the citizens in North Fork to talk about the low neckline. She affected the air of a young woman who knew what she wanted and got it, one way, or another.

“Maddie, ask about the safe. I’ll not dare leave my jewels… for any commoner to snatch,” demanded the princess.

Madilyn nodded as she accepted instructions from the princess.

“I have a safe here in the lobby, but if ye would feel more comfortable, I’m sure that John Hamilton over at the bank would be happy to talk with ye,” Lou stated.

“Maddie, make it so. Oh I am so tired. We have been forever on that ghastly train.”

“Right this way, I’ll show ye to yer rooms,” Lou stated as she pulled three keys and led the group upstairs.

Hope reflected on the clothing the woman who declared herself the governess wore. Even in the heat of the day, she wore long sleeves and kept the gloves over her hands. The neckline of her dress was quite the contrast to the princess’. The dress buttoned all the way to just under the woman’s chin. Her hairstyle was not at all as attractive as the others in the party, maybe that was because she stood so much taller than the others or she was so much older.

*****

Later in the afternoon, Lou escorted the princess and her governess to the bank and introduced them to John Hamilton.

“And this is our town marshal, Johnny Drako,” Lou informed the group.

The governess discussed the need for the princess to be provided security while staying in town.

“Ma’am, our town isn’t like the big cities back east. We’re a small community and we know practically everyone,” Johnny offered.

“Marshal, I have a letter here from your State Department authorizing you to provide security for her highness.” The governess’ posture and tone of voice left no doubt that she expected the orders to be followed.

“Well, as the Marshal of this town, I’ll provide the security,” Johnny offered.

The look the princess gave to Johnny left no doubt she was not thrilled with the idea. “Oh, I don’t mean to be rude, but while I’m in your fair, …burgh, I feel I should have someone closer to my age for my security protection. It just wouldn’t appear proper to have someone my father’s age protecting me. I mean, I’m young and …”

“We do have another marshal in town, he’ll be back on duty this evening. His name is Mark McCain,” John offered.

“This other marshal, when can we expect to meet him?” asked the Governess.

“Who cares, as long as he is young, he will be the one responsible for seeing that my jewels are safely deposited in your bank of an evening and retrieving them of a morning. Until then, I’ll keep my jewels with me. Marshal Drako, Mister Hamilton. ”

“It is not just your jewels, your highness. They can be replaced, however you cannot,” the governess replied as if she were scolding a child. “I expect one of you to go get him and bring him to our hotel room.”

“Ma’am he’s working on his family’s ranch today. He’ll be back in town tonight.”

“I don’t care what he’s doing. He has an obligation to my ward and I will not see that she is put at any risk! Good day.”

The princess and her governess left the bank.

“From someone of her station, her manners leave a lot to be desired,” Lou commented.

“Well, now if that don’t beat all,” Drako answered.

“Guess I’ll need to take it up with the Town Council that you’re a little too old to adequately watch over our fair, …burgh,” John Hamilton laughed.

“I wonder how well Mark’s going to take the fact that you volunteered him for this assignment?” Johnny asked.

“Guess it would be more appropriate to ask how Hope’s going to take this news,” Lou announced.

“Well, I do feel sorry for Mark,” Drako stated. “I’m relieved I won’t have to deal with the princess.”

“Honestly, I don’t envy him the duty of providing security for the likes of her,” John answered. “Are you going to ride out and tell him?”

“We’ll provide security for her, but I have no idea where on the McCain ranch to even begin to look for Mark. She’ll just have to wait until he comes to town.”

*****

Two hours later, Johnny had a very unpleasant visitor in the Marshal’s office.

“And just where is this marshal who is supposed to be providing security for her highness. I told you to ride out to get him!” the governess argued.

“Ma’am, if you’ll let us explain. In addition to being a U.S. Marshal, Mark McCain also has responsibilities of working a cattle ranch with his father.”

“You’re saying that this marshal thinks cattle are more important than a princess?!”

Taking a deep breath to keep calm, Johnny answered, “No, that’s not what I’m saying. Cattle ranches in this part of the country are wide and expansive. I could search for hours trying to find him in order to bring him to town and still not find him. It’s best to wait until he returns to town. He’ll be here before sundown. And until then, the princess will have to accept that either myself or my deputy will provide her protection.”

“The princess is not flattered with you or your deputy providing protection!”

“I don’t care if she is flattered or not. This is the way it is going to be until I say otherwise! Now, should I escort you back to the…”

“You, you must be the marshal! You shall come with me at once!” the governess declared as Mark entered the office.

“Excuse me?” Mark answered, taken back at the abrupt nature in which the woman addressed him.

“You will come with me. You are under orders to provide security for her Royal Highness, Princess Sophia Truddeau de LaRue.”

“Ma’am, I don’t know what you’re talking about, but if you’ll give me a few minutes to check in with the marshal.”

“Well, of all the impertinent!” the governess declared.

“Mark,” Johnny introduced, “this is Governess Madilyn Watson. We’re under orders from the State Department to provide security to her and her ward. Neither Seth nor I passed muster. And John Hamilton let slip that you were a marshal…”

“This is taking too long. The princess has been without protection for too long.” The governess let it be known she wasn’t pleased with the delay.

“Ma’am, my deputy is at the hotel.” The look Johnny gave Mark indicated he would greatly appreciate anything Mark could do to get the woman out of his office.

Mark returned with the governess to the hotel, “This way!” she stated as she started up the stairs.

“Seth, I guess I have it from here,” Mark stated as he entered the lobby.

“Good luck. You’re going to need it,” Seth whispered.

“Are you coming?”

“I’m right behind you,” Mark replied.

The governess barely knocked on the door before she opened it and entered the room. Mark followed, remembering to remove his hat.

“Your Highness, this is Marshal Mark McCain,” the governess introduced.

Mark saw a blonde haired woman sitting at the settee, brushing her hair and without even looking up she stated, “Well, it’s about time!”

“I’m sorry Ma’am, but had I known of your arrival…,” Mark explained.

The young woman turned on the bench and extended her arm, her hand hanging from her wrist, palm down.

“Well, greet her, or are you that uncivilized?” the governess demanded.

Mark closed the distance between the princess and himself, bent forward, took her hand in his and politely kissed the backside of her hand.

“Well, there just might be some redeeming qualities about you, yet,” stated the princess.

“Pleased to meet you ma’am. How long will you be staying in our town?” Mark asked.

“Ma’am? Maddie can be addressed as Ma’am. You may address me as Sophia.” She stood and wrapped her arm around Mark’s arm. “Now, let us sit and talk about your responsibilities while I’m in your… town.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“I shall have you drawn and quartered if you continue to use such an ‘old’ expression when addressing me.” She batted her eyelids as she escorted Mark to sit down on the couch in the room. “Now, I shall require security protection anytime I leave this hotel, I expect you to join me for my meals in the restaurant and you shall take my jewels to and from the bank, as required.”

“Yes, your Highness,” Mark replied.

And so the next half hour went with the princess and her governess explaining to Mark their expectations of him.

“Now, I’m quite tired from the train ride and having to wait for you. Maddie, please give my jewel case to Mark so he may take them to the bank. I’ll expect you to return with my jewels no later than seven o’clock tomorrow morning.”

“The bank doesn’t open until nine,” Mark tried to explain.

“Then you will make arrangements with the financier to open early for you each morning,” the governess replied.

“I’ll see what I can do.”

Stepping to the hallway, Mark heard the door close behind him. He placed his hat back on his head and let out a low whistle.

*****

Mark headed to his father-in-law’s home to eat supper with his family before he returned to the Marshal’s Office for the night.

“Well?” Seth teased as Mark walked in.

“Well what?” Mark answered.

“Did you pass muster?”

“Pass muster?” Hope asked as she brought supper to the dining room to serve her family.

“Guess I did,” Mark replied.

“Did what?” Hope asked again.

“There’s a European princess in town and we’re obligated to provide security for her and her jewels for the duration of her stay,” Seth answered.

“And what does passing muster have to do with that?”

“Well, seems neither Johnny nor I were worthy enough for ‘her highness’ and Mark was nominated for the job,” Seth laughed.

“I saw them when Lilah and I finished eating lunch at the restaurant. She’s quite beautiful,” Hope stated.

“If you go for that kind of woman,” Seth replied.

“Father, the children,” Hope exclaimed as she saw the twins curiosity was piqued and they were about to start asking questions.

“Oh, come on now. She’s not that bad. They’re just not used to our way of doing things. Though I will admit, the governess wasn’t very pleasant to deal with. I’d prefer if we could forget about them for the duration of supper,” Mark stated.

“You mean there’s a real live princess in North Fork?” an excited Zach asked.

“Yes, but for now, eat your supper,” Mark stated as he pointed his fork towards his middle son.

“Yes sir,” Zach stated.

*****

After spending the better part of five days on the outside watching Mark spending most all his time with the princess, Johnny and Seth were talking about her and her assistants.

“Well, I guess it’s not too bad for Mark, escorting the princess everywhere. She is mighty pleasing to the eyes,” Johnny jested.

“Just don’t let Lou hear you talking that way,” Seth teased.

“It really wouldn’t be that bad of an assignment if it weren’t for that governess.” A shiver ran down Johnny’s back. “Not so sure about her. I mean, for someone who appears as prudish as she is, to have a ward as vibrant as the princess,” Johnny teased.

“Never seen a woman quite like her,” Seth stated.

“Yeah. Lucky we don’t have to deal with her day in and day out like Mark.”

“I’ve seen some prudish women in my time. But she beats all. You’d think she’d have more attractive clothing to wear. Guess that’s the way spinsters dress in Europe and why she’s a governess,” Johnny stated.

“Has Mark stated the reason why they’re here in North Fork?” Seth asked.

“Well, with all the time Mark is having to spend with her. You’d think she was looking for a husband.” Seeing the expression on Seth’s face, “Come on now man, you know Mark is in love with his wife. Besides, you saw the orders from the State Department, there’s not much we can do except accommodate the princess and her party until they leave town.”

“Still, wish the State Department had sent one of their own to keep an eye on her and her jewelry. Hope’s got enough on her hands without having to deal with Mark’s parading around town with that woman on his arm.”

*****

The boys and Mykaela were sitting at the table and Hope was fixing breakfast for her children when she was asked an unexpected question by Zach.

“Mama, when Papa marries the princess will we be princes?”

“When Papa what?” Hope asked in alarm.

“When Papa marries…” Zach started to restate.

“Where did you come up with an idea like that?”

“Tommy said his Papa said that the way Papa was acting with the princess, said they were getting married,” Zach answered.

*****

Later that morning, Hope was nervously waiting to meet Mark for lunch at the hotel restaurant. The question her son asked earlier in the morning was still weighing on her mind, when she couldn’t help but overhear the two women in front of her talking. Though she didn’t immediately recognize them, from their accents she knew they were with the princess.

“I couldn’t believe it when I saw it,” the first woman said.

“Saw what?” the other asked.

“Him, making such a fool of himself over her.”

“Who?”

“That young marshal.”

“What did he do?”

“What did he do?! The marshal kissed the princess and the way she pressed herself against him. He sure didn’t try to stop her.”

“Well, he is really handsome. And you do know whatever the princess wants, the princess gets. I hope her father approves of this one.”

*****

Lou returned to the lobby, having seated the two women at a table. The two women smiled while they watched through the window, as Hope ran down the boardwalk, ignoring Lou as she called after her. Hope momentarily paused as she looked into the Marshal’s Office, before continuing on her way. She entered her father’s home and didn’t acknowledge him or Lilah as she made her way up the stairs, crying.

“I thought she was having lunch with Mark at the hotel,” Seth stated.

“Not with tears like those. I’ll be right back,” Lilah answered.

*****

“Marshal,” Princess Sophia coyly called as she entered the Marshal’s Office. “You must do something about those, those….I don’t know what you call them, but all they do is stare at me,” wrapping her arm around Mark’s arm.

“Ma’am, if you’ll excuse me.”

“Now Marshal, that ain’t no way to treat someone of royal blood,” Princess Sophia pouted. “Especially when I enjoy your company so much.”

“Please, Princess de LaRue,” Mark tried to remove his arm from the princess’ grip.

“Now how many times do I have to tell you to call me Sophie? All my close friends do,” she spoke as she continued to affect an air of coyness and moved herself closer to Mark.

“Please, I have a job to do,” Mark said as he tried to explain.

“Then do it. I demand you arrest those men for being so vulgar towards me.”

“Maybe you should think about dressing a little more appropriately!” Mark commented.

“Appropriately? You mean dowdy, like a beggar’s wife?” A shiver ran through the princess’ body as she pressed herself against Mark.

“Look, the way you dress might be all right in Europe or even back East, but out here… Women wear clothing that is a little more practical and a lot less revealing,” Mark stated with a little bit of embarrassment as he finally was able to extricate himself from her grasp and walked to the rack where his rifle was placed.

“Oh, so you have noticed.” She leaned forward across the desk so that when Mark turned around he couldn’t’ help but see. “I was about to think that you didn’t like beautiful woman.”

“Princess, I’ve told you before, I have a beautiful wife and I’m happily married.”

Ignoring Mark’s statement the princess continued, “Tell you what. Since you seem to know what a woman should wear, why don’t you accompany me shopping this afternoon. You can help me pick out ‘practical’ attire. But first I insist, we have lunch together.”

“Lunch! Oh, please ma’am, why don’t you return to the hotel,” Mark realized he was late. “I’ll have Mrs. Donner come to your room. I’m late in meeting my wife for lunch.”

“Wife! Pish, posh. You’re supposed to protect me,” Princess Sophia whined as she pressed herself against Mark and attempted to kiss him.

“Then get to your hotel room and stay there,” Mark tersely replied.

*****

Lilah carefully walked down the steps, pausing at not seeing Seth in the parlor, she continued on to the kitchen.

“Well, have the two of you finished your girl chatting?” Seth asked.

“Seth, something’s going on between Mark and… You work with him. Has he talked with you at all?” Lilah answered.

“Talked with me? About what?”

“Seth your daughter is upstairs crying because Zach asked her this morning if they would be princes when their father married the princess and Hope overheard two women at the restaurant talking about Mark kissing that princess.”

“Mark and the princess? He’s just doing his job. Mark’s in love with his wife!”

“Well, right now your daughter doesn’t feel that way. After she overheard two women talking of seeing Mark kissing the princess, she ran from the hotel and stopped in front of the Marshal’s Office and saw her husband too close to her. The way Mark and the princess had a hold of each other… Your daughter is mortified.”

“I can’t believe he would…” Seth stated.

Lilah’s look expressed her anger.

Seth decided to confront Mark, before talking with his daughter. Running down the boardwalk, he paused to look through the window into the Marshal’s Office and watched as Princess Sophia left the office sashaying through the door.

“Deputy,” she called as she winked to Seth.

Mark turned around, “Didn’t expect to see you here today,” he stated after seeing Seth’s reflection in the mirror.

“That’s quite evident.”

“Have you seen Hope? I lost track of time and was supposed to meet her at the restaurant…”

Mark didn’t get chance to finish his sentence before Seth threw a right cross to Mark’s cheek, forcing Mark backwards against the wall.

With an accusing tone Seth demanded, “Next time, finish wiping the other woman’s lipstick from your cheek!”

“Oh, that,” Mark stated, rubbing his cheek.

“Oh, that!” Seth mocked. “You asked me a few days ago if I thought everything was okay with Hope. And I was chalking her change in temperament up to her being pregnant and nervous about Lilah becoming her new mother. And all the time, you’ve been…”

“Been what?” Mark demanded.

“Carrying on with another woman, that European princess? My daughter’s not good enough for you anymore?! She’s pregnant with your child and you bring her to town only to flaunt in her face that you’re… you’re… with that woman!”

“I’m not ‘with’ that woman. I’m doing my job. I’m not doing anything except trying to avoid her,” Mark stated as he approached Seth, trying to explain.

“Trying to avoid your wife?!” Seth swung at Mark one more time, landing the punch on his jaw. Not wanting to talk anymore and having already made up his mind, Seth stormed from the Marshal’s Office. Slamming the door behind him.

“Seth!” he heard Johnny yell from behind. Seth shook his right hand and immediately regretted it. He purposely strode down the boardwalk, ignoring Johnny’s calling after him.

*****

Drako entered the jail to find Mark getting to his feet, rubbing at his jaw, dabbing at the blood trickling from the corner of his mouth.

“What the hell is going on between you and Seth?” Drako asked as he came up beside Mark.

“I’m not sure. Johnny, if I have to deal with that ‘princess’ any more…” Mark’s distaste for the woman was evident in his voice.

“You mean Sophie?” Johnny spoke her name coyly and laughed.

Mark rolled his eyes. “Can you watch the office? I need to get to Seth’s. I’m not sure exactly what just happened, but I have to try to straighten out the trouble I think I’m in with Hope.”

“You’re having wife problems?”

“Something like that.”

“Go on Mark. Just make sure your wife knows she’s the queen of your heart,” Johnny laughed as he closed the door behind him.

*****

Mark removed his hat as he stood on the porch to his father-in-law’s home. He knocked and waited. Lilah came to the door, “I’m sorry, but you’re not welcome in the house today.”

“Lilah, please. It’s not what it appears…”

“Not what it appears? Seth found you with another woman’s lipstick on your cheek and the way you parade her around town on your arms. You should be ashamed of yourself.”

“I’ve nothing to be ashamed for. I’ve done nothing wrong!” Mark pleaded.

“Then why is your wife upstairs crying her eyes out? It’s not healthy for the baby, for the mother to be this upset.”

“Please Lilah, let me in. I know I can straighten all this out, if you’ll just let me in.”

“Not tonight. You can stay at the Marshal’s Office and if Hope is up to seeing you tomorrow, maybe then. But I wouldn’t count on it!” Lilah closed the door.

*****

Lucas and Milly, and their children, arrived in town late Friday afternoon for supper with Mark and his family.

Milly took Mark’s face in her hands so she could get a good look at the bruising.

“Another rough night at Sweeney’s? I thought everything was settled with Leon training the hands…” Lucas commented.

“That’s going as planned. This was compliments of Seth,” Mark

“Seth?” Lucas and Milly ask together.

Mark explained the past few days, how he’d been providing security for the princess and how she kept forcing herself upon him.

“Pa, she’s not at all like Jennifer,” Mark stated. “I mean, Jennifer was proper. This princess… She doesn’t even seem to understand that I’m married.”

“Have you talked with Hope,” Milly asked.

“Until this afternoon I thought she understood I was doing my job,” Mark answered. “Even Johnny and Seth had been teasing me as of yesterday… But today…”

“Lucas, I’ll take the children over to Hattie and Micah’s. You and Mark need to talk,” Milly stated as she kissed Lucas goodbye.

*****

Sitting down at his desk Mark continued, “Pa, the last time Hope got this riled at me, I knew I did wrong by keeping secrets from her after the twins were born. This time, honest, it’s all been above board.” Lucas heard the exasperation in Mark’s voice. “Princess Sophia came in here today and I’ll admit I had lost track of time before she arrived, but Pa, I’m fed up with her. She’s so, presumptuous and the way she dresses and plays up to it,” Mark shivered. “And then pretends to be all coy about it.”

“Mark, you have to remember she was raised in a different country with different customs, where men and women act differently towards each other.”

“Pa, her dresses are so low cut and she deliberately leans forward…”

“I can see…” a smile crept to Lucas’ face.

“No you can’t! That’s the problem. With everyone else, she acts as I think royalty should act, but towards me, it’s like she has to flaunt herself at me. This afternoon she sashays in here, all coy, asks me to take her shopping and to lunch… I barely get her out of the office so I can go meet Hope at the restaurant and this,” pointing to his face, “is what I receive from Seth.”

“Maybe you should give both of them a little time to cool down,” Lucas stated.

Mark and Lucas continued to talk until Mark announced, “Pa, I don’t know what to do. I’m sorry I ruined your evening.”

“You didn’t ruin it. Maybe once they sleep on it and think on what happened, they’ll come around. I hope things are easier for you tomorrow.”

“Thanks, Pa. It’s time for my rounds. Goodnight.”

*****

That evening, the princess and her governess were in their room. “Oh Maddie, I’m bored. I just want to have fun…”

“You’re not having fun with the Marshal?” Maddie asked.

“Him? He’s such a bore. He’s so proper and so… married… Any other man alive would jump at a body like mine.” Sophia’s eyes gleamed as a child dreaming of mischief, while she stood in front of the full-length mirror and ran her hands over her well endowed breasts, pausing before continuing down to her flat stomach, turning sideways to see the reflection of her profile . “How much longer do we have to stay in this dreary town?”

“Not too much longer,” the governess answered as she finished unbuttoning the back of her charge’s dress and helped her step from the gown. She picked the dress from off the floor and hung the beautifully embroidered gown over the dressing partition standing in the corner of the room. Maddie returned to Princess Sophia and untied her corset.

“Oh, my… To finally breathe,” Sophia stated as she inhaled deeply and stretched her arms up, exhaling slowly.

Maddie stepped in front of the Princess as she lowered her arms, resting her hands on Maddie’s shoulders.

“One more day and we’ll be able to leave this town, my poppet,” Maddie answered, leaned forward and kissed Sophia on her forehead. Maddie’s hands wrapped around Sophia’s waist, taking hold of the corset, and pulled it over her head. Sophia tilted her head and rose to her tiptoes so that when Maddie looked down to her, their lips would touch. Sophia attempted to turn her governess’ playful kiss into a passionate kiss as she wrapped her arms around Maddie’s neck before lowering her hands, bringing them to the front to unbutton Maddie’s dress, pleading, “Please Maddie, it’s been too long… Make love to me tonight,” as she continued her attempt to unbutton the dress.

“What would the others think?” Maddie asked in a hushed tone and pushed Sophia away to arms length. Maddie walked the princess to the bed and pushed her gently to sit down. Maddie watched as the princess sat on the bed and began teasingly rolling down her stockings, first unclasping them from her garter. Slipping the first one from her foot, holding it and letting it unroll before dropping it to the floor. She repeated the exercise with the second stocking. As one schooled in the art of pleasing men, the princess slowly slipped her camisole up over her head, she closed her eyes as she lowered her arms, allowing the camisole to float from her hands. Next, Sophia slowly leaned forward to slip her petticoat from her hips, past her knees, lifting one foot and then the other to the bed; allowing the undergarment to lie on the floor. Maddie couldn’t stop smiling while watching Sophia lay back on the bed, as she teasingly posed her body before she reached for the sheet at her feet and pulled it up to cover herself.

“Who cares what they think,” Sophia answered, giggling as she watched Maddie finish unbuttoning her dress and walk to the dressing table. “If Mark McCain only knew what he was missing.”

Maddie reached up and removed a few hairpins before removing the grey-haired wig, revealing a head of rich, black hair, and set the wig down beside the washbasin. Having made sure the pitcher was full of water; Maddie leaned forward and enjoyed the water’s cooling effects on one’s scalp. Maddie reached for the washrag and soap, lathering the rag before washing and finally rinsing off the make-up.

In a lower-pitched voice Maddie stated, “I’ll be relieved to get out of this dress, once and for all.” Maddie slipped from the dress and turned around as the dress fell to the floor, “Well my love?” he asked as he walked to Sophia’s bed.

“Oh, I think I’ll enjoy you so much more than I ever would Mark McCain,” she replied with a devilish gleam in her eyes.

“I better never find him in my bed.”

“Your bed?”

“Okay, in bed with my wife,” Maddie laughed. “Is that better?”

“If they only knew, Madigan, if they only knew,” Sophia answered as she lifted the sheet allowing Madigan to slip under the covers; her lust consumed her.

*****

Once their desires had been satisfied, Sophia rolled over in the bed, allowing the sheet to drape across her. Lying on her side, “You said one more day? When does the bank transfer arrive?”

“Saturday afternoon,” Maddie answered while Sophia toyed with the hair on his chest.

“Mark’s not said anything to me about its arrival or that he wouldn’t be available to provide security for me while they transfer the money.”

“I wouldn’t expect him to, not until right before it arrives. But tomorrow, the plan is that after the bank is closed, you’ll receive a wire from an uncle in San Francisco informing you of your father’s death. We’ll get the banker to open the safe so we can get your jewels.”

“And the money,” Sophia giggled as she thought on their plan.

*****

Hope was preparing breakfast for her family Saturday morning when Lilah knocked on the kitchen door, “May I come in?”

Hope nodded.

“How are you feeling this morning?”

“It still hurts. Lilah, I don’t know what to do,” Hope quietly cried.

“If you love him…”

“Oh I do!”

“Then fight for him!”

“I can’t. I mean, I thought long and hard about this last night… If he’s no longer happy in this marriage then I won’t stop him. I love him so much that I want him to be happy. And if she makes him happy…, I’ll just have to accept that. No matter how much it hurts.” She wiped away the tears falling down her face.

*****

Mark woke from the bunk in one of the cells upon hearing the door to the office rattle.

“Oh, the king has been kicked out of his castle?” Johnny teased.

“That’s not funny,” Mark replied sourly.

“You didn’t get stuff resolved last night?” Johnny asked.

“No, they wouldn’t even let me explain. Johnny, I didn’t do anything wrong!”

“Don’t suppose that Seth will be standing his shift today?” Johnny asked.

“I wouldn’t count on it. I’ll stay the night so you can spend time with Lou and your family. Seeing as I’m not allowed to see mine.”

“Mark, what happened?” Johnny asked.

“Nothing,” Mark started to say, but his emotions wouldn’t let it stay bottled up inside. “She came in here yesterday trying to get me to arrest some of the working hands in town. I tried to explain how inappropriate her dress was and… she kept trying to press herself up against me. Johnny, she kissed me. I didn’t get all the lipstick off my face before Seth comes in here. He looked as if he was already out for blood before he even entered the door. Then he starts declaring that I’ve been carrying on with the princess. Lilah wouldn’t even let me in the house yesterday so I could explain. Johnny, I miss them.”

Johnny heard the hurt in Mark’s voice.

*****

Mark met his parents and sibling for breakfast before they did their weekly shopping and returned home.

“Mark,” Milly spoke. “Would you like for me to see if they’ll listen to me?”

“No, Ma. I appreciate it, but this is something I’ll need to work out with them. Thanks for letting me talk with Pa last night.”

“I could see that you needed it. No need to thank me.”

After saying goodbye to his Pa’s family, Mark returned to the bank to remove the princess’ jewels before walking to the hotel. As he passed the Marshal’s Office, Johnny reminded him, “We’ve the stage coming through here at six o’clock tonight. You’ll need to delay your supper with the princess.”

“Johnny, can’t you have supper with her tonight? I’d really like the chance to try to mend things with Hope.”

“Mark, I have an idea of what you’re going through, but if you try pushing it, you might push Hope further away.”

“And you don’t think my having supper with the princess will push Hope further away?”

Agreeing, “If the princess says it’s okay, I’ll provide security during supper tonight.”

*****

As the arrival time for the stage neared, Mark tried to excuse himself from the princess. “Please, I have an obligation to this town and I’ll need to ask that you stay in your room until I return.”

Wrapping her arms around his waist, she asked, “How long will you be gone?”

“No more than an hour,” Mark replied, forcefully removing her arms from around him.

*****

The special stage run arrived in North Fork. Johnny and Mark met the stage, guns and rifle at the ready, keeping a wary eye on everyone walking near them.

John Hamilton opened the bank, allowing the driver and shotgun rider to off load the bags containing the money and carry them into the bank and set them in the safe. After the last bag was safely in the vault, he let out a deep breath as he shut the door, turned the handle, and spun the dial.

“Now, that that’s done, I feel a whole lot better. Caleb, Sam, when are you scheduled to head out tomorrow?”

“We’re not. We leave tonight. The bank is sending another stage and set of drivers to finish the trip,” Caleb answered.

“Why wasn’t I informed?” John asked.

“They didn’t want too many people knowing their plans. We only found out about it just before we left.” Sam went on to add, “I was looking forward to taking this load clean through and seeing my sister in Abilene, Texas. Guess it’ll have to wait for a future trip.”

Sam and Caleb waved goodbye to North Fork as Johnny headed for home while Mark waited for John to finish locking the bank.

*****

Hope was walking from the boarding house to her new home. She did not intend to return to what had been her home; she couldn’t face walking into the home that had once been so filled with love… Spending the afternoon with Lilah had helped to take her mind off her troubles. Hope decided to go to the daycare and collect her children. Walking along the boardwalk, Hope returned the greetings from the people of North Fork that she passed. As she turned the corner, she encountered the princess, without Mark present.

“Well, now. If it isn’t the little misses,” Princess Sophia stated with rudeness in her voice.

“If you’ll excuse me,” Hope stated as she tried to pass by.

“Not very hospitable. And I thought all Americans were polite.” The princess blocked Hope’s path.

“I have nothing to say to you,” Hope declared as she again tried to walk by.

“Nothing to say to me? A woman who won’t even fight for her man. I can’t believe he ever saw anything in you to want to marry you. He’s so vibrant and alive.” The princess stretched her arms tall before wrapping them around herself. “I plan to give him so much more than you ever could. He deserves so much better than the likes of you and those…”

The princess didn’t get a chance to finish. Before she knew it, she was on her backside with her crinolines and petticoats a showing; her hand to her cheek.

“It’s because I love him! If you ever truly loved someone, you’d understand. You’d give up the world to see that they were happy!” Hope declared as she stood over the princess, glaring down at her.

Flustered and stammering, unable to say what she wanted to say, the princess sat there and watched as Hope turned and walked away.

Once Hope was out of sight from the princess, she couldn’t stop the tears from falling as she started to run, as best she could, to her father’s home.

*****

Mark returned to the hotel and the princess’ room. Upon seeing the bruise forming on the princess’ left cheek he demanded, “What happened? I told you not to leave your room!”

“I was assaulted!” the princess declared.

“Who assaulted you?”

“I don’t know. I just wanted to see what took you away from me and… Oh Mark, it hurts so much.” Sophia wrapped her arms around Mark’s neck and rested her head on his shoulder.

“I’ll take you to see Doc Burrage,” Mark stated.

In a panic, Sophia proclaimed, “No! I can’t go out. That person might still be out there.”

“Okay, then I’ll go get Doc Burrage and have him come here to take a look at you. Where’s your governess?”

“I don’t know, she said she had an errand to run. She wasn’t here or in the other rooms when I returned.”

“Stay here. I’ll be back when I can.”

A few minutes later, Mark returned to the princess’ room with Thadd. After examining the bruise and determining that it was only a bruise, Thadd bathed it with witch-hazel. Before leaving, based on how upset the princess was acting, Thadd decided to give her a sedative.

“Take two of these pills and drink a full glass of water,” Thadd instructed and watched as she did as told.

Within fifteen minutes Thadd and Mark saw the princess’ eyes begin to droop and soon she was asleep.

“Mark, those should keep her asleep through the night.”

“Thanks, Thadd. Least I can catch up with Johnny before doing my rounds tonight.”

Both men left the room, Mark locking the door behind him.

“By the way, how did Seth break his hand?” Thadd asked.

“Break his hand?” Mark replied.

“He came to the clinic late last night and his right hand was busted. I asked, but he wouldn’t tell me, except in the line of duty.”

“Don’t know,” Mark answered.

“If I didn’t know any better, I’d say his right fist collided with your left cheek. Do you want me to take a look at it?”

“It won’t be necessary. Good night,” Mark replied.

*****

Mark stepped to the darkened street of North Fork, looking up and down, before turning his attention to the laughter coming from Sweeney’s.

Talking to himself, Mark stated, ‘No one should mind if I do my rounds earlier than usual.”

With his rifle in hand, Mark started his nightly rounds of North Fork.

*****

Johnny returned to the Marshal’s Office Sunday morning to find a note slipped under the door.

Johnny,

After having plenty of time to think over the last two nights, I decided to leave town in order to follow my true heart. Will send word of a forwarding address where you can have Robert Garrison send the divorce papers.

Please tell my father that I couldn’t stand the witch’s brew any longer.

Mark McCain

Johnny ran to the livery, saddled his horse, and raced to Lucas’.

After reading the note for the second time, Lucas stated, “He’s in trouble.”

“Damn right he is! He abandoned his obligations to this town AND his pregnant wife! And he leaves town for some floozy of a princess?”

“No, he didn’t leave town, least not of his own accord. Johnny, since when has Mark ever called me father? Also, you remember Lariat Jones, my old card-playing buddy? He was here… when I was paralyzed.”

“Yeah, I remember him. But what’s he have to do with Mark leaving town with this princess?”

“Lariat and I always had a warning phrase to indicate when one of us was in trouble. Mark used our code phrase in…”

“Witch’s brew?” Johnny asked.

“Yeah, witch’s brew. He wasn’t referring to Hope.”

Johnny waited for Lucas to saddle Blade. Milly stood on the porch, praying for God to watch over their family, as Lucas and Johnny rode for town.

*****

Johnny had just closed the door to the Marshal’s Office when they turned at hearing, “Drako!” John Hamilton threw open the door, clutching a rag to the back of his head. “The bank was robbed last night.”

“What happened?”

“Princess Sophia received a wire that her father passed away suddenly. She said she needed her jewels. When I opened my personal safe at the bank, an outlaw barged in. He placed a gun to the princess’ head and demanded I open the large safe,” John answered.

“Where we put the fifty thousand dollar transfer?” Johnny asked.

John nodded.

“Lucas, you best go get Seth and tell him,” Johnny stated.

“Tell him what?”

“Just that the bank was robbed.”

*****

“Damn it, Seth! You’re a deputy for this town. The bank was robbed and Johnny needs you. I don’t know exactly what happened, but Mark is missing and I’m sure they have him.”

“Let him run away with that hussy!” Hope declared from the top of staircase, only having heard the last part of the conversation.

Turning to address Hope, “And what if they kill him? What are you going to tell my grandchildren about their father?!” Lucas demanded angrily, striding purposefully to the base of the staircase.

“Kill him?” Seth asked. “What are you talking about?”

“Johnny arrived at the jail this morning. Mark wasn’t there. Now just listen to me. He left a note and I believe he was coerced into writing it. Johnny rode to my house this morning to show it to me. Mark used a warning phrase that Lariat Jones and I always used. After we were back in town, John Hamilton came in declaring someone robbed the bank last night. Seth, I’m asking for you to put aside whatever it is you’re feeling to help me save the life of your grandchildren’s father. Can you really just stand there and not believe the two events aren’t related?”

“Related?”

“Seth, think man! If this Sophia were a real princess, would she really behave as she has, even after Mark has told her time and time again that he’s married and in love with his wife. This princess and her entourage played their game to perfection. It’s the oldest trick in the book, divide and conquer, and they sure did. If this princess was here to rob the bank, I’m sure they have Mark as a hostage.”

“Father?” Hope started to realize how irrational she had been; not giving Mark the chance to explain. Allowing herself to be duped by… that… “If I was wrong. They used me against Mark… If they kill him, he’ll die thinking I no longer love him.”

Lilah entered Seth’s home, having heard everything while she stood in the doorway, “Child, we were all wrong. Seth, go with Lucas. Bring your daughter’s husband back and this time, if he wants to talk, we’ll listen.”

“Let’s go talk to John, then I’ll decide,” Seth answered as he reached for his hat and gun belt, still not trusting what he was being told.

*****

“It makes perfect sense,” Drako commented.

“How so?” Seth asked.

“If the Princess was used against her will to rob the bank, why hasn’t she been here to report the robbery? I’m sure the outlaw has also taken her jewels,” Drako answered. “Right John?”

John Hamilton nodded.

“She could be tied up in her hotel room,” Seth tried to give a reason.

“I just heard the news about the bank,” Nils stated as he entered the Marshal’s Office a few minutes earlier. “Last night, the governess came to the livery, stated they needed to rent a team and buckboard. They received word the princess’ father had died. The next train wouldn’t be here for three days, so they wanted to get on the road as soon as possible,” Nils commented.

“All of them and their luggage in one buckboard?” Lucas asked.

“No, just the princess and her governess. The others were to catch up on the train.”

“Well then, where’s Mark?” Seth asked.

“Mark?” Nils asked.

“Yeah, he was supposed to be here this morning and wasn’t,” Johnny answered.

“If he’s missing, they probably caught him doing his rounds and he’s probably tied up somewhere in town. I didn’t see him in their room, and they didn’t take anything with them but their trunk. I helped them carry it down the stairs and load it in the buckboard out back,” Nils answered. “Tell you what, I’ll get some of the men together, and we’ll search the town.”

“Could they have him in one of the other room?” Drako asked. “One of her servants’ rooms?”

*****

Lucas led the way to the hotel, demanding Lou give them the keys to the rooms of the princess and her entourage. Having taken the steps two at a time, Lucas entered the room Lou indicated the princess had used.

Lucas walked to the chair and saw the pieces of cut rope and Mark’s badge lying on the floor.

“They had him here,” Lucas stated as he picked up the badge.

Lucas and Seth turned around, hearing the commotion in the hallway as Johnny pushed the others into the room.

“Mark wasn’t in their rooms,” Drako stated.

“Where’d they take my son?” Lucas demanded as he towered over the staff.

“Your son? We don’t know. We were just hired to play our parts. They paid us twenty-five dollars apiece to act as if we were their servants for a week,” the first man stated.

“Actors?” Seth asked.

“That’s right,” one young woman answered.

“You are all under arrest. I don’t have time to get you to the jail. But believe me, if you’re not here when I return, I’ll have wanted posters out on you so quick, you won’t be able to hide,” Drako stated as he turned to leave.

Lucas pushed his way out the room, ran down the stairs, and to the back of the hotel. Re-entering the hotel, he ran through the lobby, across the street, and jumped in the saddle. The others weren’t too far behind Lucas as he raced from town.

*****

Maddie helped Sophia to the seat of the buckboard, having rested the horses, and laughing at how well their plan had worked; the only hitch being the marshal making his evening rounds earlier than usual.

“What do we do with him?” Sophia asked as she looked over her shoulder to her steamer trunk.

“I’ll take care of him later tonight,” Maddie answered. They were just about to get back on the trail when they saw a cloud of dust approaching them fast. Maddie didn’t spare the horses as he whipped their haunches, urging them faster.

“Here, take the reins.” They could make out the riders racing after them. Still dressed as the governess, Maddie shoved the reins to Sophia before climbing over the seat. At first he used the trunk as cover while he fired his gun at their pursuers. But in time, he realized they needed to lighten the load. As they rounded a bend, he shoved the trunk off the back of buckboard and laughed as it rolled down the hill, heading for the river.

Lucas, Seth, and Johnny continued to trail after the buckboard. From the back of the buckboard, Maddie repeatedly fired towards their pursuers.

The small posse from North Fork watched as one of Johnny’s bullets found its target, striking the governess in the shoulder, knocking her off the buckboard. The princess strained to pull the team to a halt, jumped down, and ran back to Maddie.

“Where’s my son?!” Lucas demanded as they halted their horses, surrounding the duo.

“You had best answer him,” Drako added.

“Probably drowned,” the Princess laughed haughtily. “Steamers don’t float and by now, it’s at the bottom of the river.”

“The trunk!” Seth hollered.

“Johnny, can you…?” Lucas asked.

“Get! If I can’t handle two women and deliver them back to town. You go find Mark!”

*****

Seth and Lucas returned to find the steamer trunk sitting in about six inches of water at the river’s edge.

“Thank God there’s something good that’s come from this damn drought,” Seth stated as the two made their way down the hill.

Together they worked to pull the trunk from the shallow water.

“It’s locked,” Lucas stated, pulling at the lock.

“Stand back.”

Seth pulled his handgun and aimed it at the lock so the bullet wouldn’t penetrate the trunk. The lock shattered on the second shot fired. Together Lucas and Seth pulled open the trunk to find Mark crumpled and unconscious.

“What’s that smell?” Lucas asked as he knelt to pull Mark from the steamer, becoming lightheaded for a moment. Shaking his head brought his senses back.

“Chloroform. That’s how they kept him quiet. They knocked him out with it. Lucas pull him out, it can’t be good for him breathing that stuff.”

Lucas drug Mark away from the trunk, while Seth closed it. Pulling his bandana from his back pocket, Seth wet it in the river and carried it to Lucas.

“Here, see if this will bring him around,” Seth stated.

“Seth, he’s barely breathing,” Lucas commented as he wiped the wet rag over his son’s face.

“When they shoved the trunk off the buckboard, with it tumbling, the bottle probably broke when he landed on it. Look, his shoulder is bleeding.”

Lucas ripped Mark’s sleeve and saw a few shards of glass protruding from his son’s shoulder. Seth pulled what glass he could from Mark’s arm. A sore was already evident where the liquid had penetrated the skin.

“You said, chloroform. I remember from back in the war, they said too much exposure could kill a person,” a fearful Lucas said.

Moments later, Lucas looked up to see Johnny driving the buckboard, with the governess and the princess sitting in the back with their hands tied to the side railing, his horse tied to the back.

“Johnny, get on your horse and ride ahead. Tell Doc we’re bringing Mark in and he’s been over exposed to chloroform.”

“Chloroform, that’s…

“Get going Johnny!” Seth ordered.

Father and father-in-law carried an unconscious Mark to the buckboard and carefully placed him in back. Seth returned to his horse, “Lucas, I’ll ride ahead and let Hope know you’re bringing him in. Hopefully he’ll be awake when you arrive.” He rode as fast as he could.

“You ladies had best pray that my son recovers. I don’t make idle threats,” Lucas informed the women as he rein slapped the team and drove them back to North Fork.

*****

Thadd showed Lucas the way to a back room, with a window opened to the late afternoon breeze.

“What’s the prognosis?” Lucas asked.

“I don’t know. Chloroform can be quite…”

“…deadly,” Lucas finished.

“Yes, in large enough quantities, it can be deadly. It suppresses the nervous system and forces the body’s vital organs to shut down. The best thing for Mark right now is fresh air and plenty of it.” After listening to Mark’s heart and lungs and treating Mark’s shoulder, Thadd stated, “Lucas, right now there’s nothing more I can do for him. I’m sorry. Though it does look like I have at least one patient in Drako’s custody that needs a bullet removed. I’ll be back when I can, but until then, you can best help your son by stripping him. His clothes still reek of chloroform, they’ll need to be burned.”

*****

Abigail prepared the surgical room for the governess. Drako kept his gun trained on her as Abigail administered the ether.

“Drako, she’s unconscious. You can leave the room so I can undress her.”

“I’ll be right outside the door, if you need anything.”

Thadd was about to step into the surgical room when he and Johnny heard Abigail scream, “DRAKO!”

Both men burst through the door, Johnny with his gun drawn.

“What’s wrong?” Thadd asked.

“Her, I mean, him. She’s not a she,” Abigail called out, clearly agitated.

“Slow down and breathe deeply. What are you trying to say?” Thadd asked as he put his hands to his wife’s shoulders.

Having taken several deep breaths to get her over her initial shock, “I was removing her dress to expose the bullet wound. She… They’re fake!” Abigail held up the padded corset. “She’s a man! Under her clothes and the makeup and the wig, she’s a man!”

“Abigail, you get out of here!” Drako ordered as he pushed Abigail out the door.

*****

Lucas sat on the edge of the bed, wringing out the rag before placing it back to Mark’s forehead. He turned at hearing the door behind him open.

“Mr. McCain?” Hope stated as she stopped in the doorway with her father right behind her.

“Since when am I Mr. McCain to you?”

“I’ll understand if you don’t want me, us, here,” Hope answered.

“You’re his wife and the mother of my grandchildren. Right now, you belong here.”

Seth assisted his daughter to a chair in the room, before taking a seat for himself.

The three heard the commotion in the hallway. They looked one to another, before returning their attention to Mark.

*****

Thadd waited for Madigan to regain consciousness after the successful surgery. Once word had spread through town, Lou went through their luggage left in the hotel room and took appropriate clothing for the prisoner to the clinic. After watching his prisoner get dressed, Drako ordered him to his feet and paraded him across the street and into the jail.

*****

After securing both his prisoners, Drako searched through the carpetbags under the seat of the buckboard, locating all the stolen money, and promptly returned it to the bank.

*****

Thadd returned to Mark’s room where Lucas, Seth, and Hope sat in chairs around the room, suffering through an uneasy silence.

“How is he? Any change?” Thadd asked as he walked over to the bed, removed his stethoscope, and placed it to Mark’s chest.

“Thadd, he looks as if he’s barely breathing,” Lucas answered.

“It’s to be expected, just keep the window open, and pray the breeze continues through the night. Fresh air is the best medicine right now.”

“How are the two of you doing?” Thadd asked, looking to Seth and Hope.

“Us?” Seth asked.

“Yes, you. Or have you just sat in here wallowing in your own remorse.”

“He wouldn’t be here if I had trusted him,” Hope answered as she cried. “How he must hate me.”

“Do you really think he hates you?” Lucas asked.

“Oh, he must. And you must too. I didn’t even give him the chance to explain. I just accepted what I overheard those two women say and when I saw him in the marshal’s office with her… Father, I was willing to let him go to make him happy. If I had just taken a moment to listen to him, I would have known the truth.”

Seth offered up, “He tried to explain to me about the lipstick on his check, but I wouldn’t let him get a word in. I trusted my daughter’s hurt and what my eyes saw. I just slugged him. It’s not easy for a man to watch his daughter be devastated…”

“Both of you beating yourselves up like this isn’t necessary,” Lucas stated.

“I believed the words of strangers over letting my husband explain… If I had just talked with him, he wouldn’t have been there. He wouldn’t be here right now, half dead,” Hope cried.

“Hope, working yourself up like this isn’t good for the baby,” Thadd stated.

Hope couldn’t stand just sitting around or suffering through her guilt anymore, she ran from the room. Seth started to follow, “Let me, Seth,” Lucas offered. He followed Hope out of the clinic and caught up with her on the boardwalk, “Hope, wait a minute. Talk to me.” Lucas reached for and took hold of her arm.

“I can’t. I can’t.” She cried and tried to beat her fists against Lucas’ chest. “You have to hate me!”

“Shhh. I could never hate you,” Lucas answered and wrapped his arms protectively around his daughter-in-law, pulling her close. Quietly Lucas led Hope to the hotel, thankful the lobby and restaurant were empty. Lucas led Hope inside and helped her to a chair. From the pots on the pot-bellied stove, Lucas poured himself a cup of coffee and prepared a cup of hot tea for Hope.

“Here, drink this,” Lucas told Hope as he set the two cups on the table and took a seat next to her. “I know the past few days have been difficult for you.”

“How can you sit there and act as if I’ve not hurt your son? Or refuse to accept the truth that I’m the one responsible for him lying there, half dead?” Hope asked as she stared at the cup of tea cupped in her hands.

“You’re not the one responsible for him being at the clinic. But I have an idea what you’re going through. I remember what happened when Margaret was pregnant with Mark. Margaret knew in her heart that she was the only woman I loved, but her mind saw stuff that wasn’t real. I even came home one day to find all my clothes tossed out on the front porch, she said I could find myself someone else to do my laundry since I seemed taken by the women in town. Some were her best friends, others were strangers. All I did was say hello and tip my hat as we’d pass on the street. Margaret was about six months along and she doubted herself, just as you did and still are. You became jealous of another woman, because Mark was required to spend so much time with her. You probably even thought she was more attractive than you are. Margaret thought the same way.”

“She is prettier than me,” Hope quietly answered, still without looking to Lucas.

“Just as those women weren’t prettier than Margaret, that woman isn’t anywhere near as pretty as you are. Not where it matters. She has to use makeup to let her beauty shine. Hope, you have a natural beauty about you that that woman could only dream of having.“

“She’s so much more…” Hope didn’t know how to express what she wanted to say.

“Hope, you’re pregnant, You’re carrying my grandchild. You’re thinking you’re no longer beautiful, well listen to me young lady, pregnancy is when a woman is the most beautiful. I’m sure that when Mark recovers, the two of you will end up laughing about this whole episode. Margaret and I eventually laughed.”

“I’m tired, I’d like to go back to my father’s and lie down,” Hope said.

“No, if you’re going anywhere, you’re going back to the clinic. I know my son and he’ll be extremely worried about you if you’re not there when he wakes.”

“He won’t want to see me when he does wake.”

“If that’s what he chooses, let him tell you that. Right now, you’re coming with me,” Lucas stated as he raised both eyebrows, letting Hope know she had no choice in the matter.

Lucas stood up, helped Hope from her seat, and escorted her back to the clinic.

They entered the room to hear Seth inform them there was no change in Mark’s condition.

“Seth, I need to ride home and let Milly know what’s happening and I think you should go talk with their children and let them know,”

“Know what? That I killed their father?” Hope declared.

“Stop it! You didn’t killer their father. They just need to know that he’s at the clinic and is being treated by the doctor. I’ll be back when I can.” Lucas left the clinic and rode for home.

*****

They left Hope alone in the room with Mark. Regardless of her guilt, she sat on the edge of the bed, took the rag from Mark’s forehead, dipped it in the bowl, and wiped his face. She re-wet the rag before replacing it to his forehead.

“Oh, how you must hate me. You must think I’m the worst wife in the world. I’ll understand if you never want to see me again. I should have known better… Your father was right, I was jealous. Jealous of that hussy… The way she flaunted herself at you… Believing the words those women said… And Zach was repeating what Tommy’s father said… All the time you spent with her. It hurt, but in the end, all I wanted was for you to be happy. If going with her would have made you happy… I promise, give me a chance and I’ll prove how much I love you.”

It had been over an hour when Hope leaned forward and tenderly kissed Mark on the lips. She whispered, “I love you. Please come back to me.”

Hope gasped when she heard the word, can’t. “Mark?” Hope asked, she couldn’t stop the tears because she thought Mark was saying he couldn’t come back to her.

“I can’t write that,” Mark whispered as he tossed his head from side to side.

“Write? Write what?” Hope asked.

“He must be dreaming of them forcing him to write the note,” Seth stated as he re-entered the room. “Lucas told me about it while we were riding after him.”

“Witch’s brew,” Mark mumbled. “Pa will understand.”

“Witch’s brew?” Hope asked. “Isn’t that the warning phrase that Lariat Jones used?”

“Even if he hadn’t used that phrase in the note, Lucas would have known his son was in trouble. You’re not the only one who’s feeling remorse about what happened. We’ll make it right,” Seth stated as he placed a hand on Hope’s shoulder. “We both should have trusted Mark better than what we did.”

“Yes, you should have,” they heard whispered.

“Mark?” Hope asked, praying that she had heard what she heard.

Getting no response, Hope put her hand to Mark’s shoulder and gently shook him, “Mark?”

“I’m here,” he answered. “Can I have some water?”

Seth hurried to pour a glass and handed it to Hope, who held the glass so Mark could drink.

“How do you feel?” Hope asked.

“Stiff and sore. Feels like I got trampled by a stampede. What happened?” Mark asked.

“Don’t you remember?” Hope replied.

Mark’s last waking moments rushed back to his memory, “Yeah, I do. I was walking the town and came across the bank being robbed. The princess… She’s a fake. That hussy robbed the bank!” Mark exclaimed as he tried to sit up and get out of bed, only to be restrained by Seth. “That governess ain’t a governess! Seth, they’re gonna get away. We have to go after them! They knocked John Hamilton out at the bank. And they have the money transfer…”

“Mark, that was last night. It’s Sunday night,” Seth stated.

Mark looked around the room, his eyes stopping on Hope, “You believe me, don’t you?”

“We believe you,” Seth answered. “Sophia and Madigan are over in the jail. We caught up with them and you early this afternoon.”

“Do you forgive me?” Hope asked. “I’ve never felt so… jealous in all my life.”

“Jealous…, of her? Seth you punched me out because Hope was jealous?” a surprised Mark asked.

“Well, my little girl comes home and tells of two women talking about you kissing that princess and I came to talk to you about it and find lipstick on your cheek… What’s a father supposed to do?”

“You could have let me explain that I tried to push her away. That I was trying to avoid, the princess except when absolutely necessary. You’ve been teasing me all week about her, and thankful that you weren’t the one providing security. You know I’ve hated this assignment all week!”

“Yeah, I kind of misinterpreted what you were trying to say. So you have two free punches,” Seth joked.

“I might just take you up on that offer, the night before you and Lilah get married,” Mark jested. “You’re not going to let that broken wrist keep you from making the trip down the aisle are you?”

“No, but I’m hoping I’ll have served my penance between now and then,” Seth answered.

“Where’s Pa? I’m surprised he’s not here,” Mark stated having looked around the room.

“He was earlier. He went home to let Ma know you were found and I think to get you a fresh change of clothes,” Hope answered.

“Well, I think I’ll go let your children know that you’re okay,” Seth answered as he turned to leave the room.

*****

It was late when Lucas returned to town and entered the clinic. He opened the door to the room where he had left Mark. He smiled at the scene that greeted him. He saw his son, with his hand over his sleeping wife’s pregnant belly, Mark sleeping on his side, his head resting on the crook of his arm. Lucas entered the room and placed Mark’s fresh clothing on the table.

Thadd came up behind Lucas, “He came too about a half hour ago. Seth went home to be with their children.”

“Is he okay?” Lucas asked.

“From what I overheard, he will be. I won’t be surprised if there are a few things that are foggy in his memory. It’s a blessing that he survived.”

“It was really that close?”

Nodding, Thadd stated, “Lucas, go back home and tell Milly your eldest will be home, just as soon as his father-in-law gets married.”

*****

Monday afternoon, Johnny read the wire aloud as Mark, Seth, Hope, and Lucas sat in the room at the clinic. “Congratulations on capturing Sophia and Madigan Watson. Wanted in ten different states for bank robbery and making / passing counterfeit money. Pinkerton’s have been on their trail for years.”

“Guess the twins are going to be disappointed they’re not going to be princes,” Seth teased.

“See, you’re not the only ones they duped,” Mark laughed as he pulled Hope closer. “Still, you both should have had a little bit more faith in me.”

Lucas laughed as he saw the guilty expressions on Hope’s and Seth’s faces.”

“Like I said, all’s forgiven. I do have one question… Seth… your wrist, you didn’t break it punching Sophia, did you?”

“No, this was off your hard head,” Seth ruefully answered.

“Then who punched her? She had a pretty wicked bruise Saturday evening,” Mark explained.

“That would be me,” Hope quietly answered.

“You?! Why’d you punch her when you wouldn’t even talk with me?”

“She just got me all flustered and said that you didn’t deserve the likes of me and…”

“And what?” Mark stated, cupping his hand to Hope’s chin.

“I didn’t give her a chance to say the children.”

Mark took Hope’s right hand in his, “Did it hurt?”

“Not nearly as bad as thinking I had lost you.”

“You can’t get rid of me that easily. I’m not so easily taken in by royalty. Besides, there’s only one queen for my heart.”

Lucas had to have a laugh at Mark’s expense, “Son, I do remember two royal visitors you were taken by…”

“Yeah, but Pa, I was a kid back then. Besides, Jennifer was more taken by you, if I remember correctly.”

“Lucas, you said two royal visitors?” Seth stated.

“Don’t worry Seth,” Mark stated. “The other was her much younger brother, Charles.”

The Next Generation… Chapter 86 – A Queen Returns

Thadd entered the room and happily suggested, “Let’s give Mark some privacy so he can get dressed to head home to Seth’s. I need this room for sick people.”

“When can I return to work?” Mark asked as Lucas tossed him his clothes.

“Work?! Mark McCain, how can you think of work? You could have died,” Hope proclaimed.

“But I didn’t. I feel fine. Besides I have a job to do.”

Seth informed the group, “Mark, I’ll see you at the house later tonight. I probably should relieve Johnny, considering all the trouble I caused.”

“With your hand in a cast, Father?” Hope inquired.

“We have a nice quiet town, for the most part,” Seth answered.

*****

After dressing, Mark stepped from the room and into the arms of his waiting wife.

“Mark,” Thadd stated. “If you’re feeling up to it, I think you can return to work tomorrow, just take it easy with your shoulder.”

“No problem with that. We got ourselves a nice quiet town,” Mark laughed as he moved the shoulder around to show he was in no discomfort before he wrapped his arm around Hope’s shoulders.

As they stepped from the clinic, Mark bid Lucas goodbye. Continuing towards Seth’s home, they heard the train whistle announcing its arrival, causing Mark to hesitate in his steps.

“No you don’t!” Hope stated as she held tight to Mark’s arm.

“But…”

“No buts about it. You’re coming to Father’s home and spending some time with OUR children. This town has two other very capable law officers!”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

Upon entering Seth’s home, Mark was overrun by his children attempting to climb on him, calling “Papa.”

“Children,” Lilah called from the hallway.

“They’re okay, Lilah,” Mark happily replied as he knelt down to hug his children.

“Mark, I want you to know how really sorry I am for not allowing you to come inside the other day. Will you accept my apology?” Lilah asked with sincerity.

“Lilah, I’m beginning to understand why all of you acted the way you did. It hurt that you wouldn’t allow me to explain, but if it will make you feel better, yes, I’ll accept your apology. Sure would be a shame for Seth to call off the wedding because I didn’t,” Mark teased.

“Mark!” Hope exclaimed.

“I deserve that Hope. Let him have his fun with us.” Turning to the children Lilah stated, “Come along, we’ve cookies in the oven and we can’t have them burning.”

Mark shook his head and laughed as all four ran back through the hallway to the kitchen.

*****

Lilah and Hope were putting a late supper on the table when Seth arrived home for the meal.

“You’re never going to guess who came into town on the train today,” Seth stated after saying grace.

“Who?” Lilah asked as she placed her napkin in her lap.

“We’ve royalty in town,” Seth answered, keeping a straight face.

“Now Father, don’t you think we’ve put Mark through enough?” Hope asked, as she began filling the plate for one of their children.

“She’s specifically requested to see Mark.”

“Father!”

“Hope, let your father have his fun, if this will make him feel better,” Mark answered as he placed his hand over Hope’s hand.

“Queen…” Seth started to say.

“A queen, now Father, you’ve taken this much too far!” Hope scolded.

“If you’ll let me finish… Mark, I know after what we just went through, you probably think I’m jesting…” Seth stated. “I’m serious.”

Seth took notice of the look on his daughter’s face, but continued to talk to Mark. “Queen Jennifer and her family, including Prince Charles arrived on the train today. They were hoping that they could talk with you and your father.

“Jennifer? Here?!” Mark asked. “I can’t wait to introduce Hope and the children to them. Are they really here?”

“Father, you’re serious?” Hope asked. “There really is a queen in town?”

Seth nodded his answer to their questions.

“Mark, who is this Queen Jennifer?” Lilah asked as she set a plate filled with food in front of Mykaela.

“I was probably thirteen when I found her and her brother hiding in our hayloft.” Mark paused as he remembered back. “Now she was only a princess back then. They were visiting the States and slipped away from their security detail, they wanted to see what the American west was really like. Anyway, Charles had come down with the measles and they stayed with us until he recovered. While here, they received word their father had passed away, and Jennifer and Charles had to return to their home country so she could assume the throne.”

“A queen?” Mykaela asked.

“Yes, a real queen, Emmy.” Mark stated and turned to Hope, “Don’t you fret none. She’s real royalty. You’ll like her.”

“Can we meet her brother?” Josh asked.

“Don’t see why not. I’ll need to get that approved through her security detail. But first, you eat! Your Mama and Miss Lilah fixed this supper for us.”

*****

While Seth walked Lilah to the boarding house before returning to the Marshal’s Office, Mark assisted Hope in putting their children to bed for the night.

“A real prince?” Zach asked.

“Yes, Charles is a real prince,” Mark replied. “Now, I want you three to go sleep and no talking.”

After covering their sons and kissing them goodnight, Hope pulled the door to the room closed and together they walked across the hall to kiss their daughter goodnight, before returning to their own bedroom.

*****

“Are you going to the hotel to meet her, tonight?” Hope inquisitively asked.

“Not tonight. Tonight is a night for us. But in the morning… Will you come with me? I really want you to meet her.”

“Are you sure it will be alright?” Hope replied.

“I know it will be.”

*****

The following morning, Hope stood in front of the full-length mirror in the bedroom she and Mark were using.

“Ohhh!” Hope let out as she looked at herself, turning left and then right.

“What’s wrong?” Mark asked.

“I can’t wear this to meet a queen. And I don’t have anything that would even begin to be proper.”

Walking up behind Hope, Mark turned her around to face him, and placed his hand to her chin.

“Hope, Jennifer won’t mind what you’re wearing. Besides, I’m the one you have to impress and you look beautiful to me. Come on, it’s about time we get the children over to the daycare.”

*****

After dropping their children off, Mark wrapped an arm around Hope’s waist and held his rifle in his other hand. Entering into the lobby of the hotel, they greeted Lou and asked about Queen Jennifer and Prince Charles.

“They’re waiting for ye, in the restaurant,” Lou stated and nodded her head towards the restaurant.

Mark started to escort Hope into the restaurant and was stopped just before the archway.

“You’ll have to leave your rifle with me,” the man stated as he blocked Mark’s path.

“Edgerton! I have asked you before, do not make a scene,” a feminine voice called from farther in the room.

“Your Highness, he’s carrying a rifle.”

“Find out who he is,” another voice, a man’s voice stated.

“Mark and Hope McCain,” Mark stated.

“Edgerton, let him in and why don’t you go outside,” the man replied.

Removing his hat, Mark stepped farther into the restaurant, “Jennifer?” he stated as he briefly bowed and Hope curtsied.

“Mark, how wonderful to see you again after all these years. Can you really be this grown up, married and about to become a father,” Jennifer stated as she stepped from the table. “Mrs. McCain, I am pleased to meet you, I’d like to introduce to you my husband, Prince Wykestrom and our son, Prince Peter.”

After greeting the two, Mark inquired, “How is Prince Charles?”

“Don’t you recognize me?” a younger man asked as he came from behind. “A lot taller than you remember me being.”

While shaking hands, Mark stated, “Charles, how are you? I’d like you to meet my wife, Hope.”

“And I’d like to introduce my fiancée, Amelia,” Charles replied.

Pleasantries continued to be exchanged, as Jennifer invited Mark and Hope to join them at their table.

After having taken their seats, “Your father Mark, is he well?” Jennifer asked.

“Yes, and I’m sure he’ll be happy to see you and your family. I’d really like for you to meet the rest of our family.”

“The rest of your family?” Jennifer inquired.

“Pa finally remarried, and I’ve a sister and two brothers.”

“I’m so happy for you Mark. And, is this your first child?” Jennifer asked, looking to Hope.

“Actually, this will be our fifth,” Hope answered.

“Fifth!” Charles squeaked out.

Jennifer scolded, “Charles, don’t be so rude.” At the same time, Charles took an elbow in the ribs from Amelia.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean any…”

“Charles, don’t apologize. I’d like for you and Jennifer to meet our children later today,” Mark stated.

“Oh, Mark, we’d love to meet your children. How old are they?” Jennifer asked of Hope.

“The twins, Joshua and Zachariah, are five, Elijah is three, and Mykaela is two.”

Amelia asked, “And when is your next child due?”

“Around Thanksgiving,” Hope replied.

“To be a mother, how I’ve dreamed of… I’m sorry, I…” Amelia stated as her cheeks blushed.

“Carrying a child is an amazing experience and raising them…” Hope started to say.

“You raise them?” Amelia asked. “You don’t have nannies?”

“We have a nanny who lives with us and helps out, but yes, we raise our children,” Mark answered.

“It’s a wonderful dream to raise a child, don’t let anyone tell you any differently,” Hope stated as she looked at her pregnant belly and ran her hand over the top.

Mark turned to Jennifer and asked, “How long will you be staying in North Fork?”

“We have a few extra days before we have to be in San Francisco.”

“Why that’s great! Prince Wykestrom, do you shoot?” Mark asked.

“I’m not so good with a pistol, but I figure I’m fair with a rifle. Why do you ask?”

“I’m sure the ladies would like a chance to talk without the men present and I thought that we could take you pheasant or grouse hunting.”

“Does the offer include me?” Charles asked.

“Sure,” Mark answered.

*****

Patrons started to fill the restaurant as lunchtime approached, causing the group to realize how long they had been talking.

“Can we meet your children?” Jennifer asked.

Mark and Hope escorted the royal family over to the daycare where they also introduced Hattie and Gwen.

Peter stood beside his father as he was introduced to the McCain children.

“Your children are precious,” Jennifer stated as she knelt in front of them.

“You a queen?” Mykaela asked.

“Why, yes, I am,” Jennifer answered as she turned back to Mykaela.

“You don’t look like a queen,” Josh stated.

“And just what is a queen supposed to look like,” an intrigued Prince Wykestrom asked.

“Old,’ Mykaela answered.

“Oh, old. I see.” The prince answered as he raised his eyebrows and gave a brief laugh. “I for one am thankful this queen is not old.”

Josh asked, “Can Peter play with us?”

“Please Papa?” Zach chimed in.

“Would it be okay for us to leave Peter here?” Jennifer cautiously asked.

“Sure you can leave the boy here,” Hattie declared as she extended a hand to take Peter to introduce him the other children in the daycare.

*****

“Your Majesty, there’s something else?” Hope asked as they started to leave the daycare.

“If you need to talk with a little more privacy, we can go to Hope’s father’s home,” Mark suggested.

“Edgerton, you will stay here and keep an eye on Peter,” Wykestrom ordered. “Make sure he doesn’t cause any trouble.”

“Yes, Your Highness.”

*****

Upon arrival back at Seth Lane’s home, Mark opened the door, allowing the others to enter first. Hope proceeded to the kitchen and prepared cups of coffee and tea to serve to their guests in the parlor.

“Mark, we do have a favor to ask of you and your father,” Jennifer stated. “I know we probably should have written or wired, but…”

“What kind of a favor can we do for you?” Mark replied.

“Well…” Jennifer started.

“Our son is seven,” Wykestrom replied. “Though compared to your sons, he looks to be their age. Mark, he’s the favor we were hoping to ask of you.”

“I don’t understand,” Mark replied.

“Mark, when Charles and I were here before, I marveled at the way of your American west. And I loved the relationship between you and your father, and how you took pride in working the land.”

“We still do,” a curious Mark stated.

“As Hope said earlier, it is something special to raise a child and I’ve tried my best, but with the staff at the palace… Mark, we want our son to know that being a Prince is nothing, if you don’t respect the people and the land. Back home, he’s too recognizable to do what we want to do. And with the way he’s starting to behave, others would only encourage him to continue to misbehave,” Jennifer stated.

“Misbehave, he’s precious,” Hope stated.

“Well, maybe misbehave is the wrong word, but the staff treats him as if he can do no wrong and he’s starting to act in a manner that I fear he could think he’s better than the other citizens of our country,” Jennifer answered. “I may not be explaining this properly…”

Wykestrom tried to explain, “We’d like to leave him here for a few weeks. Let him realize how real people live, and here, he’d just be another child. No better than anyone else. He would have rules to follow, not give.”

“Would you leave Edgerton here?” Mark asked.

“No, but Jennifer was hoping that you’d be able to convince the deputy or the marshal we met last night to offer him some form of protection,” Charles stated.

“That won’t be necessary,” Hope said.

Amelia gave a small gasp when she thought Hope was suggesting Peter go without someone of authority to protect him.

“What Hope means is, it won’t be necessary to convince Johnny or Seth to keep an eye on Peter. I’m the U.S. Marshal for the Territory. And the deputy you met last night…”

“He’s my father,” Hope completed Mark’s sentence.

“We’d love to help you out, but are you sure?” Mark stated, realizing the responsibilities this would entail.

“Maybe it’s not a good idea, I mean, with your wife expecting. It was unfair of us to ask,” Jennifer replied as if having second thoughts.

“Jennifer, we’ve talked of this. Having him spend time on a ranch is something you dreamed of,” Wykestrom stated, sensing the change of mood in his wife.

“Jennifer if you’re concerned about leaving Peter here because Hope is expecting, don’t be. Tell, you what, why don’t we all ride out to the ranch this afternoon and talk with Pa. I’m sure my parents would be happy to help out.”

“Mark, you have to stand your shift this afternoon,” Hope reminded.

“Oh, I forgot,” Mark answered. “We could ride out tomorrow morning, once I get off shift.”

“Do you no longer live on the ranch?” Jennifer asked.

“Normally we do, but we’ve been living here, with my father, just until the wedding. I’ve been helping with the preparations,” Hope answered.

“Who’s the lucky groom?” Charles asked.

“My father,” Hope answered. “He’s marrying a lovely woman.”

“How exciting,” Amelia answered. “Are you really doing all the planning yourselves?”

“Yes, that makes the wedding ceremony all the more special. Aren’t you going to plan your wedding to Charles?”

“No, I’m not allowed. My mother will have others plan everything, I just show up for the dress fittings and at the church,” Amelia answered.

Hope could see the disappointment in Amelia’s face and hear it in her voice.

“When is your father to be married?” Jennifer asked.

“A week from Friday night,” Mark stated with a grin on his face as Seth and Lilah came through the front door.

Introductions and offers of congratulations on the impending wedding were made.

*****

As the afternoon progressed, Mark stated he needed to collect their children from the daycare and bring them back to Seth’s, before heading to the Marshal’s Office.

“We should go too. I’m sure Edgerton is beside himself with so many children around,” Wykestrom stated.

*****

“Papa,” Zach called as he ran to Mark.

“What is it Zach?” Mark asked.

“Can Peter spend the night with us? Please?”

“Please Papa?” Josh echoed.

“I don’t know,” Mark answered.

“Mark,” Jennifer stated. “Peter’s not had that many friends who are close to his age. I have a better suggestion, why don’t you let the twins spend the night at the hotel with us?”

“Papa, can we?” an excited Josh asked.

“Jennifer, are you sure you want to do this?” Mark asked. “They can be pretty rowdy.”

“Oh Mark, it will be so much fun to hear children laughing,” Jennifer stated.

“Mark, your boys are welcome to spend the night at the hotel with us,” Wykestrom confirmed.

Talking to his sons, “Well, let’s go get an overnight bag packed.” After watching the three boys circle around, Mark looked to Wykestrom, “I’ll bring them over before I report for duty.”

Josh and Zach rapidly talked between themselves as they walked in front of Mark, back to Seth’s home.

After Mark informed Hope of the boys’ invitation, she prepared an overnight bag. Kneeling in front of the twins, Hope slicked back their hair and made sure they were as presentable as possible.

“Now you will both behave yourselves and not cause any trouble?” Hope carefully stated and asked.

“Mama, Peter’s fun. We won’t get into trouble,” Josh answered.

Hope stood on the porch, watching as Mark led the twins to the hotel. “Have a fun adventure, sons,” she quietly spoke.

*****

Later that night, Mark was contemplating stopping by the hotel while walking the town, walking past the front of the hotel twice before continuing on with his rounds. Once Mark was satisfied that North Fork was at peace, he finally stopped at the hotel before returning to the Marshal’s Office.

“Lou,” Mark called to Lou as she was cleaning up in the restaurant. “How have they been? Any trouble?”

“Trouble? Twice ye’ve stopped and looked in the window and twice ye’ve walked on. There’s been quite the laughter coming from the room the boys are sharing,” Lou answered. “I think the three of them finally settled down and fell asleep about twenty minutes ago.” Taking on the tone of a genuine friend, Lou stated, “They’re in good hands.”

“I know they’re in good hands, I just don’t want to hear they’ve not been good.”

“They’re McCain’s…”

“I know and that’s what has me worried.”

“Oh, ye… Ye’re sons haven’t given anyone near any much trouble as I remember ye given us. Go back to the Marshal’s Office. I’ll see ye in the morning.”

*****

The following morning, after being relieved by Johnny, Mark stopped at the hotel to collect the twins and Peter, before he and Edgerton took them to the daycare. Edgerton didn’t say a word to Mark as they walked along the boardwalk. He stopped outside the door and took a seat as Mark took the boys inside.

Next, Mark headed to Seth’s, collected Hope and their two youngest children, before returning to the daycare. After escorting Hope to the hotel where she would wait with the royal families, Mark ran to the livery to harness a team and hitch them to a surrey, before saddling Rainmaker.

“Can I help?” Charles asked as he came up behind Mark.

“I can… Sure,” Mark answered as he saw that this was something that Charles really wanted to do.

“Mark, can we talk?” Charles asked in between Mark instructing him in what to do.

“What’s on your mind?”

“When Jennifer stated the family was invited to San Francisco, I was happy to hear we would return to America. As we crossed the ocean, I asked if we could manage to come to North Fork. Mark, I’m now second in line to the throne, and if Jennifer and Wykestrom were to have any more children, I get pushed further down the line of succession. I don’t really care to be King and actually, I don’t want to return home. I mean, just spending the day with you and your wife, and then your sons spending the night with us at the hotel… That’s the kind of life I want with Amelia. I want to make my future wife happy and I know she’s not.”

“She’s not?” Mark asked.

“She’s the fourth daughter and her family is extremely well thought of in our country, it’s just that, she’s read the novels of your American west and has fallen in love with it.”

“Charles, you know better than anyone, those novels aren’t the real America,” Mark tried to explain.

“I’m not talking the dime-store novels, I’m talking the true novels, your history. We talked last night before retiring and we want to make our own wedding arrangements and to raise our own children… That’s the life we want…”

“It’s a good life in America, but you’re a prince…”

“A prince, who will never be king.”

“How can I help?” Mark asked.

“Convince Jennifer to let me stay here, while Peter is here. Hire me on to help on your ranch. Find some way for Amelia to decide if this is what she really wants, and if so… I just need a chance to get Jennifer to allow us to stay.”

“I don’t know I can convince her to let you stay permanently, but maybe until they return for Peter.”

“Mark, please, for the little boy I used to be?”

Tying his horse to the back of the surrey, Mark climbed in the seat and allowed Charles to drive the team to the hotel.

After helping Hope into the surrey, Mark stepped aside and watched as Charles and Wykestrom helped Amelia and Jennifer to their seat, before taking their own seats in preparation to drive the team. Mark swung up into the saddle, and signaled Rainmaker to keep pace with the surrey as he rode beside it, while heading for the McCain Ranch.

*****

As they rode, Amelia asked about the reception they had received from the owner of the hotel upon their arrival, “She acted as if she didn’t believe us when we told her who we were.”

“Well, I don’t blame her or anyone else, see, we just finished dealing with a couple claiming to be royalty when they really were here to steal a money transfer from the bank. They were quite the pair,” Hope answered, embarrassment showed on her face.

“Oh?” Wykestrom stated.

“Please, I’d prefer if we could just forget about them. They are being transferred to Denver today. And it’s pretty much a closed subject,” Mark stated.

*****

Pulling into the yard, the group was greeted by Lucas walking from the barn.

“Mark? Hope?” Lucas called as he recognized them while wiping grease from his hands.

“Pa, you’ll never guess who came to town,” Mark called as he stepped from his horse.

“Do I want to?” Lucas replied as he didn’t recognize the men stepping from the surrey.

“Mark, Hope!” Milly called as she stepped down from the porch. She stopped short as the younger of the two male strangers offered Hope his hand and assisted her down from the surrey.

“Ma!” Hope called as she made her way to give Milly a hug.

“Ma,” Mark called. “I’d like to introduce you to Queen Jennifer and her husband Prince Wykestrom, and her brother, Prince Charles, and his fiancée Amelia.”

“Queen Jennifer,” Lucas called. “Welcome back, Your Majesty.”

Milly attempted to wipe her hands on her apron and gave Mark the un-approving look of a woman who realized company had arrived and her home was in need of attention.

“Ma, don’t fret. Jennifer and Charles stayed with us once before,” Mark answered. “They’re not here to be impressed by us.”

“Your Majesty,” Milly called as she curtsied.

“Please, won’t you call us by our given names?” Jennifer pleaded.

“Only if you call us Lucas and Milly,” Lucas stated as he offered his hand to Wykestrom and then to Charles.

*****

During their visit, Jennifer and Wykestrom explained how they had been invited to San Francisco where wealthy benefactors had scheduled a reception in their honor.

“We donated money for the establishment of the Morosco’s Grand Opera House in San Francisco. My father was passionate about San Francisco and the opera, so what better way to honor him.”

“Sounds as if you’ll have a wonderful time,” Milly stated.

“Most all of us will,” Jennifer replied. “Lucas, we know that our son Peter would be terribly bored while we stay in San Francisco. And I remembered what a wonderful time Charles and I had here, the first time we visited America.”

“Lucas, what Jennifer is trying to say is that we’d like to let him stay here, with you. To understand what it is to work the land. We’d be more than happy to pay you for your inconvenience in watching after Peter,” Wykestrom stated.

“I won’t hear of it. We’d be happy to have the boy stay with us,” Lucas stated.

“Pa, if it wouldn’t be any problem, why don’t I bring the twins over tomorrow when I bring Peter. That way the four of them can have fun playing together. I know the boys are getting a little bored staying in town all the time.”

“You most certainly will bring the twins. I’ve missed them,” Milly replied.

From behind one of the closed bedroom doors all in the front room heard a loud “Yippee!” and sound of a someone jumping up and down.

Milly stood from her chair, walked to the door, and opened it to see Little Ted jumping around in his bedroom.

“You’re supposed to be cleaning your room,” Milly stated with one hand still on the doorknob and the other on her hip.

“But Ma, Josh and Zach are coming home! They won’t care if my toys are put away. We’ll be playing with them anyhow!”

Milly stood to the side when Lucas called Little Ted to the front room.

“It seems someone was eavesdropping at the door instead of doing his chores,” Lucas scolded.

“But Papa,” Little Ted pleaded.

“Lucas, he’s precious. Please don’t be too mad at him,” Jennifer stated.

“Young man, I can’t go against the Queen’s request.”

“She’s a queen?” Little Ted asked.

“Don’t tell me she doesn’t look like a queen because she’s not old,” Wykestrom stated.

“No sir. But she does look too pretty to be a queen,” Little Ted stated, sending the adults into laughter.

From the doorway, Amelia saw Levi peeking around the door jam, “And who is this little prince?”

“Me not a prince. Me Levi.”

“Mark, you said you also have a sister?” Jennifer asked.

Milly opened the door to the other bedroom and asked for Myra to come into the front room.

Upon being introduced, Lucas told Myra why the others were there.

“Another boy! Geesh, why couldn’t you bring a girl? All we got around here is boys,” Myra declared.

“Myra!” Milly scolded.

“But what of Mykaela?” Amelia asked.

“She’s in town.” Upon seeing her mother’s expression Myra added, “I’m sorry. That wasn’t nice of me.”

“I think its darling. I only wish I had a younger sister like you,” Amelia added.

By mid-afternoon, it was agreed that Mark would bring the twins and Peter to the McCain Ranch and they would stay with Lucas and Milly until after Seth and Lilah’s wedding, when Mark and Hope would return home and Peter would stay with them.

“Pa, do you think we could take Wykestrom and Charles hunting tomorrow?” Mark asked.

“You most certainly will. I need plenty of time in the house to make sure it is properly cleaned before royalty returns,” Milly stated adamantly.

“Please, Milly. Do not be embarrassed by your homestead. It is quite charming and I wish I could stay here instead of traveling on to San Francisco. But a person of my station knows where her duty lies,” Jennifer answered.

*****

Upon their return to North Fork, Charles announced that since there was no real business for him to attend to in San Francisco, he wanted to stay in North Fork, with Amelia.

“Jennifer, you want your son to respect the people and the land, let Charles stay. I can put him to work on the ranch and he can learn that being a ‘commoner’ isn’t that easy,” Mark offered.

“Charles? Is this what you really want?” Jennifer asked.

“It is. I promise, I won’t interfere with the McCain’s taking care of Peter, but I just can’t see tagging along to San Francisco. Everyone really wants to talk with you. I’m just extra baggage. Please sis?” Charles asked.

“Mark, I didn’t mean to saddle you with my entire family,” Jennifer stated as she gave into Charles.

“That means I can stay?! And Amelia too?”

Jennifer nodded.

*****

The next morning, after leaving the women at the hotel and the younger children at the daycare, Mark, Wykestrom, Charles, the twins, and Peter headed to the livery. Wykestrom and Charles rented horses from Nils and watched as Mark also saddled the twins ponies.

“Is there another pony for me?” Peter dared to ask.

From the doorway Nils called, “I don’t know, this one is pretty wild,” as he lead another already saddled pony into the livery from outside.

After seeing the questioning expression on Mark’s face, Nils answered, “Well there are quite a number of children living in town anymore, what’s one pony to take care of…”

After making sure the stirrups to the borrowed saddles were set to the proper lengths, the men helped the children mount their ponies and soon the six were on their way to the McCain Ranch.

*****

After unsaddling the horses and ponies, the boys were told to play in the front yard together while the men helped move the Twin’s and Eli’s beds into Lucas and Milly’s home.

Milly finally shooed the men out of her home so she could properly prepare everything in the boys’ bedroom. She didn’t even wave goodbye as they left to go hunting. Before setting to her task, she asked Myra to keep an eye on the boys while they continued to play.

“Yes, Mama,” Myra respectfully answered.

*****

The afternoon was waning as four riders rode back into the yard, causing the young boys to run, whooping and hollering about the pheasants and grouse the men had hanging from their saddle horns. After tending to their horses, they proceeded to task in cleaning the birds and setting them to soak in a brine solution.

“These should make you quite a fine feast,” Wykestrom stated.

“You’ll come back and enjoy a supper with us, won’t you?” Milly asked.

“I’m sorry, but we must depart on tomorrow’s train. We have truly enjoyed your hospitality.”

Before leaving Mark offered, “Ma, why don’t I bring the family back Saturday afternoon and we’ll help out and stay for supper. Hope and Lilah don’t have that much left to do for the wedding.”

“I’ve missed certain members of my family. I’d love to see all of you again,” Milly answered as a smile spread across her face.

“I do have a favor to ask. Let Gabby come to town and stay with Hope and me. Seems the least we can do seeing as you’re taking care of two of ours.”

“Please, Mama?” Myra asked.

Milly nodded.

“Mark, why don’t you leave the twins here tonight and bring Peter back after his parents leave,” Lucas suggested.

*****

After leaving the horses at Nils’, Mark and Myra said good night to the royal family and made their way to Seth’s home.

“Now sis, Hope doesn’t know that you’re coming home with me.”

“She doesn’t?”

“No, I kind of had a feeling you might enjoy spending some time with Hope, away from all the boys.”

Mark knew he had made the right suggestion when he saw his sister’s and his wife’s faces light up when they saw each other in the foyer.

*****

The following morning, at the train station, saw a tearful Jennifer saying goodbye and telling her son to behave himself and not to cause the McCain’s any problems.

“Mother!?” Prince Peter pleaded as he rolled his eyes.

“This is the first time you will be away from your father and me,” Jennifer stated.

“Son, think of this as an adventure, but you must respect and mind your hosts.”

“I promise I’ll behave,” Peter stated as he hugged his mother and father goodbye.

“And Charles,” Jennifer said as she turned to look at her brother.

“I shall work to pay my room and board. Thank you sis,” Charles whispered as he leaned down to place a kiss on his sister’s cheek. Jennifer and Amelia hugged each other goodbye, as Charles and Wykestrom shook hands.

*****

After watching the train until it could no longer be seen, Peter stated, “Sir,” as he looked up to Mark.

“Yes Peter,” Mark answered.

“They will be back, won’t they?”

“Yes, they’ll be back. They just want you to know what it’s like to be a regular boy for a while.”

“May I still play with Zach and Josh and Little Ted?”

“Yes. Come along with me and I’ll get you back to my parents’ home and get you all settled.”

“What about me?” Charles asked in childish voice.

“Guess you’re in my protective custody, too. Peter, seems we need to get your uncle back to the hotel before I can get you to my parents,” Mark laughed as Charles placed his hand on Peter’s shoulder.

The Next Generation… Chapter 87 – Kidnapped

Mark and Peter rode into the yard of the McCain Ranch unprepared for the explosion of three boys rushing from the house to welcome their new friend.

“You came back!” “You’re here!” “Yippeee!” the boys yelled back and forth.

“Peter, hand me your reins and you can go play with the others. I’ll take care of your pony,” Mark stated above the ruckus.

“Thank you, sir,” Peter answered as he jumped down and joined in the melee’ of boys running around and tackling one another.

Mark stepped from Rainmaker and led the two horses to his father’s barn, where he greeted Lucas as he stepped out the big door.

“Morning, Pa.”

“For a moment I thought we were being raided by banshees,” Lucas commented.

“Do you ever miss the peace and quiet of just the two of us?” Mark asked.

“I wouldn’t exchange all the peace and quiet in the world, for the love this family shares. And I don’t think you would either.”

“No sir. Let me get this pony unsaddled and turned loose with the others and I’ll be ready to head out with you.”

*****

Lucas and Mark returned to a much quieter ranch than the one they left earlier that morning. Stepping into the main house, Mark asked, “Is everything okay?”

“After a day of playing like they did, the five of them crashed a couple of hours ago. They’re all taking naps.”

“They let Levi play with them?” Lucas asked.

“It was their request too. I didn’t have to bribe them with licking the cake batter from the bowl, either,” Milly answered. “Can you stay for supper, Mark?”

“I promised Hope, Emmy, and Gabby I’d take the ladies of my family out for supper tonight,” Mark answered.

“What about Eli?” Lucas asked.

“Oh, Great-grandparents Micah and Hattie invited him to supper and to spend the night. He was feeling sort of like Gabby was, only his was ‘girl problems’.”

“Too many in the house?” Milly asked.

“And no brothers to play with. But once Micah asked him over and said something about fishing tomorrow morning, he perked right up. You should have heard his comment that he was looking forward to his brother being born.”

“He thinks this baby is going to be a boy?”

“Yep, and so does Hope. She says this pregnancy feels more like when she was pregnant with Eli than with Emmy. What time would you like the rest of us to show up for supper tomorrow, Ma?”

“You can come anytime you want, but I hope you’ll bring them out early tomorrow afternoon. I’ve missed everyone. Just so you know, I plan to have supper on the table around five o’clock,” Milly answered.

Mark kissed his Ma on the check and bid goodbye to his parents.

*****

“Were you able to get any work done today with the boys running about?” Lucas asked as he followed Milly into the kitchen.

“Enough that I’ll have a proper supper on the table for you, once you’ve bathed,” Milly good-naturedly teased.

“Can’t I have a welcome home kiss first?” Lucas asked as he stood behind Milly and wrapped his arms around her shoulders, resting his chin on top of her head.

“Lucas McCain, you go clean up, otherwise with the mood I sense you’re in, I’ll end up burning your supper. Besides, we have a full house tonight.”

“Can’t I have one small kiss first? Myra’s not here to complain about mushy stuff,” Lucas whispered in her ear.

Turning around in Lucas’ arms, Milly wrapped her arms around his neck and stood on her tiptoes, and shared a loving kiss with her husband. She enjoyed the good-natured teasing that was such a part of their marriage. Hearing little feet hit the floor and voices behind the closed door, they parted with Milly again telling Lucas, “Now, go wash up or there’ll be no supper for you.”

After retrieving clean clothes and a washcloth and towel, Lucas left the house.

A few minutes later, the bedroom door opened and Milly heard, “Ma’am?”

“Yes Peter,” Milly answered.

“Is it all right for us to come out?”

“Are all of you awake?” Milly asked.

“All but Levi, he’s still asleep,” a giggling Little Ted answered.

“Me awake,” she heard Levi call out. “Is Papa home?”

Pushing the door all the way open Milly stated, “Yes, he’s out washing up. You know, as hard as the five of you played today, maybe you should join Lucas over at Mark’s and use the shower out back.”

Milly helped the boys choose clean clothes to wear and handed each a dry towel before shooing them out of the house.

*****

Lucas finished rinsing the soap from his face and hair, and gave his head a quick shake before he peered over the shower door to see five boys standing in line.

“Well, what do we have here?” Lucas asked.

“Mama said we needed to shower before supper,” Little Ted answered.

After taking a towel to himself, Lucas reached over the wall to pull in his clean clothes. Having dressed, but with his shirt un-buttoned, Lucas stepped from the shower allowing Little Ted and Levi to enter. Lucas stood outside and collected the boys’ dirty clothes. Next, he operated the pull chain that released the water, both boys laughed and splashed at each other as they washed themselves. Once Lucas was sure his sons were clean enough, he handed them towels to dry off before handing their clothes over the wall.

Milly stepped from the house carrying an empty laundry basket. “Well?” she asked.

“Three down, three to go,” Lucas answered with a grin. “Leave that here, I’ll bring it back when we’re done. You best get back and make sure you don’t burn my supper,” Lucas teased as he stole a quick kiss before Milly could turn.

Opening the door, Lucas called, “Next,” as his sons stepped out, fully dressed.

“Shouldn’t guests be first?” Josh asked.

“You’re just trying to get out of bathing,” Zach retorted.

“Am not!”

“Are too!”

“I think there’s plenty enough room inside for all three of you to shower up!” Lucas sternly stated.

Once all three boys were inside, they stripped and tossed their clothing over the wall. As he had with his sons, Lucas operated the chain, releasing the water from the cistern above. Lucas couldn’t help laughing at the antics of the three boys.

“Josh, you have to lather the washrag with the soap,” Lucas commented. “And don’t forget behind your ears and the back of your neck. And Zach…”

“How…” Zach asked

“You forgetting I raised your pa?” Lucas asked with a gleam in his eyes.

“You sure weren’t a boy,” Zach replied.

“For your information, I was your age once,” Lucas laughed.

“When?” Josh couldn’t stop himself from asking.

“When I was your age.” Lucas had to smile, as he thought how much the twins really were like their Pa. “Now, mind what I say. Use water and soap to wash.”

“Yes, Grandpa,” Josh and Zach mumbled.

“Okay, final rinse coming up,” Lucas stated when he was satisfied with their efforts in cleaning themselves. Lucas reached up and fully released the water on the boys.

“Grandpa!” the twins called and Peter yelled, “Hey!”

Lucas handed three towels over the wall and once the boys were dried, he handed their clothes to them.

After inspecting each boy Lucas stated, “Okay, back to the house, supper should be ready.” Before following, he buttoned his own shirt and picked up the basket containing their dirty laundry, while watching the five run to the house.

*****

The sight that greeted Mark as he entered Seth’s home put a large smile across his face.

“Now I really feel like a saddle tramp. Does this dirty ol’ cowpoke have time to clean up proper?”

“You better, Mark. We three are respectable ladies,” Hope smiled mischievously and gave Mark a welcome back kiss.

Twenty minutes later, a more presentable Mark walked down the steps. Upon reaching the bottom of the staircase, he spread out his arms and asked, “Well, how do I look?”

“Quite dashing,” Hope answered as she stood from a chair.

“A prince,” Mykaela answered as she ran and held out her arms, wanting her Papa to pick her up.

“Almost as handsome as Papa,” Myra stated.

*****

Carrying Mykaela on his hip, Mark holding hands with Myra and Hope holding her other hand, the group walked from Seth’s home to the hotel restaurant. For the night, Mark left his rifle at Seth’s.

“My, my, ‘tis a sight. Do ye have reservations?” Lou asked as the foursome entered the restaurant.

“Yes, Ma’am,” Myra stated. “The name’s McCain.”

*****

If Lucas had thought putting a young Mark to bed was difficult, he wasn’t ready for trying to put five boys to bed at the same time. Not one was ready to fall asleep and each kept asking Lucas questions. After answering as many questions as he could, Lucas finally put his foot down, “It’s nine, thirty and way past your bedtimes. No more questions; or I won’t take you with me when I go to check on the weanling herd tomorrow.”

“What about me?” Levi asked.

“He said no more questions,” Josh complained.

“Now you done it,” Little Ted snickered.

“Now we don’t get to go,” Zach moaned.

“What about you, Levi?” Lucas asked.

“I don’t have a pony to ride.”

“You can ride with me,” Peter offered.

“Peter I appreciate your offer but I had something better in mind for Levi.” Turning to his youngest, “You’ll ride with me, like Mark used to, when he was little,” Lucas said with a smile as he remembered back.

“You mean it? I can go with you?” Levi’s eyes danced with excitement as he asked.

“You’re all going with me,” Lucas answered. “But only if you get to sleep by the time I count, one… two…”

Lucas grinned at the flurry of activity as the boys pulled their blankets over their heads and pretended to snore. A feeling of contentment consumed Lucas as he bent over to blow out the lantern. Closing the bedroom door behind him as he stepped into the front room, Lucas continued to shake his head. Turning around, he almost knocked Milly over.

“Are you sure you can handle all five boys tomorrow?” Milly teasingly asked.

“Well, you handled all five today, so I think I can too. And since Jake is supposed to be here…”

“Then, I guess you’ll need to get your sleep.” Milly wrapped her arm around Lucas’ waist as they walked to their bedroom.

As they climbed into bed, Lucas asked, “So, who do you think is going to be the first to call out they need a glass of water?”

“Hopefully none of them,” Milly replied as she snuggled into Lucas’ arms.

*****

“Good morning, Lucas!” Jake greeted as Lucas stepped from the porch. “Is today the day we check on the weanlings?”

“Yes, but we’re going to have some new hands that need to be broke in,” Lucas answered.

“Oh, I heard about all the hands you hired on. You need any help getting their mounts ready?” Jake asked as he saw the others step from the house to the porch.

“Will you help us, Mr. Jake?” Peter asked.

“Shore ‘nuff. Come on!” Jake stepped down from his horse and tied him to the hitching rail before proceeding to the barn to help get all the horses ready.

“Lucas, don’t forget Mark and the others are coming this afternoon,” Milly called as she brought a couple of saddlebags out to the barn.

“I won’t. What’s this?” Lucas asked as he took the bags from Milly.

“I thought you’d like to have your lunch out on the range.”

“Only thing missing is the chuck wagon,” Little Ted called out as he climbed up to the saddle, Cappy was the first horse saddled.

Within a half hour, six horses and seven riders were traveling across McCain land, the boys singing cowboy songs as they rode.

Upon reaching the valley where the weanling herd lived, Peter let out an exclamation, “Wow! Are they all yours Mr. McCain?”

“They’re all McCain beef,” Lucas answered with pride.

“How many are there?” Peter asked.

“Let’s count them,” Josh called out and got ready to race Chip towards the herd.

“Easy there, cowboy. You want to start a stampede?” Jake called out as he took hold of Chip’s bridle.

“Guess I wasn’t thinking like a cowboy,” Josh answered.

“We can quietly ride to the hill over there and you boys can count them. Jake and I’ll check on their water supply and be back shortly.”

“You leaving us alone?” Zach asked.

“No, I’ll be able to see you. The water hole is just the other side of the hill. But you four are to stay on the hill. You hear me?” Lucas pointed at each one.

“Yes sir,” they responded.

*****

Two men stood hidden in a grove of trees on the far side of the valley and watched the activity of the two men and five young boys.

“Well?” asked the smaller, pockmark-faced man with several days growth of beard on his face.

“I don’t know. The old man said he’d be the oldest boy and dark haired. From this distance, I can’t tell. I know two of them look alike and one’s too young, but the other two. Either one could be the boy,” answered the larger man, with a full mustache, as he scratched at the several days growth of beard on his face.

“Let me see,” the other man demanded as he reached for the binoculars. “Them’s two are twins. And you’re right ‘bout the other two. Hard to tell. When do we take ‘em.”

“Monday.”

“Why Monday?”

“Heard tell the marshal in town is the Pa to them look-alikes and he was taking the rest of his family back home today. Don’t want no marshal that close. And tomorrow’s Sunday… There’s Sunday services and afterwards the parents‘ll probably keep an eye on the whole brood… That leaves Monday.”

“Monday…” the smaller man repeated as he handed back the binoculars and the two scrambled back to their horses.

*****

Upon their return to the house, the boys ran inside to tell Milly all about their adventure, leaving Lucas and Jake to take care of the horses.

“How are your wedding plans coming along?” Lucas asked as they unsaddled the animals.

“Gwen says everything is coming along just the way she wants it.”

“Bet you’re anxious for Thanksgiving to get here.”

“No sir, not yet, I mean I’m looking forward to taking Gwen as my wife, but there’s just so much that needs to get done…”

“Jake, if you’re feeling overwhelmed between working for us and Dave Merar and building your homestead, why don’t you take some time off and do for you. Mark and I can handle the ranch.”

“Are you sure? I mean, I really would like to finish getting the roof on the house and barn before the rains come back.”

“The rate this summer is going you’ll have plenty of time, but I understand your need,” Lucas answered.

As Lucas and Jake stepped from the barn, they watched as Mark assisted Myra down from the back of the buckboard.

“Papa!” Myra called out as she ran and jumped in his arms. “Did you miss me?”

“Sure did. The house hasn’t been the same since you left.”

“Gandpa!” Mykaela called as she toddled over to Lucas.

Picking his granddaughter up in his other arm, “Now, the two sweetest girls in the world, and I have them all to me. Jake, I meant what I said. You have stuff you need to do, you do it and don’t worry about coming back here until you feel better about getting your own work done.”

“Thank you, Lucas. Mark! Hope! Goodbye!” Jake called as he swung up into the saddle of his horse.

“Jake, Gwen told me she was invited to your parents for supper tonight, so you best hurry home and get cleaned up.”

Kicking his horse into a lope, Jake waved his hat over his head and headed down the road.

Carrying the girls back to the buckboard, Lucas watched as Mark carefully helped his pregnant wife down.

“Pa, how are you?” Hope asked as she lifted up to her tiptoes to give Lucas a kiss on the cheek.

“Better now that the whole family is here.”

“What about me?” Eli sorrowfully called from the back of the buckboard.

“Now, what about you?” Mark called as he turned to allow Eli to climb onto his back. “You know that ladies are always first.”

“Yippee!” Eli squealed and held on to Mark’s collar for the ride into the house.

Milly smiled as the rest of the family walked inside.

“We’re here,” Mark called as he entered.

Milly took time to hug Mykaela and Eli before welcoming her daughter home.

“Ma, what can I help you do?” Hope asked as she stepped into the kitchen. Seeing Milly’s expression out of the corner of her eye, Hope turned and stated, ”I’m not that far along in my pregnancy that I can’t help.” Raising both eyebrows, she put her hands on her hips.

Smiling, Milly walked into the kitchen and hugged Hope before pointing out the need for making rolls for supper.

*****

The sun was setting as Mark stated they really needed to get back to town, but once he saw Hope’s look of discomfort, “Well, maybe we could spend the night at home. I do miss sleeping in my own bed. But I’m sure Seth is going to worry when we don’t get back.”

“Mark, I told Father that we were going to spend the night at home. I miss sleeping in my own bed too. I’ve missed the quietness of the ranch. I hope you don’t mind?”

The apologetic look on Hope’s face expressed her feelings as Mark pulled her into his arms.

“We’re spending the night at home?” Eli asked. “But my bed’s in Little Ted’s room.”

“Yes,” Mark answered. “I think Levi would let you share his bed.”

“And I can play with the boys tomorrow?” Eli excitedly asked.

“Tomorrow is Sunday and this family will go to church,” Hope replied and couldn’t help the giggle as she saw the look of disappointment on Eli’s face. “We’ll be home, for good, Saturday afternoon, and you can play with the boys all you want.”

“Okay,” Eli stated as he went to hug his parents goodbye.

*****

Monday morning, leading Blade from the barn, Lucas greeted Billy as he rode up to the McCain Ranch, “Don’t tell me more fencing is down.”

“Sorry Lucas. This drought is driving them through the fences. Sam went back to the ranch to get the buckboard and wire.”

“Papa, can we come with you?” Little Ted asked.

“Not today boys. We’re going to be working with barbed wire and I don’t want to take a chance on any of you getting hurt.”

“We understand, Grandpa,” Zach answered.

“We can help?” Josh sort of asked. “We can do chores in the barn while you’re gone.”

“Okay, but no heavy lifting. Just clean the stalls and corrals, you know where to dump the manure.”

Lucas watched as the boys ran into the barn. Before riding out with Billy, Lucas informed Milly the boys would be ‘working’ in the barn during the morning.

*****

The two men watched as five little boys ran into the barn and Lucas and Billy rode from the ranch house.

“Now?”

“In a few minutes. Give them riders time to get out of sight to make sure they didn’t forget anything they have to come back for.”

“That woman sure is purdy,” the smaller man said.

“We’re not here for no woman. Get your mind to the job we’re getting paid for.”

“Gandy, we can have just a little fun with her.”

“Santos, we’re here for the boy and the boy only.”

Twenty minutes had passed before the two crept along the backside of the McCain barn and quietly entered. The boys were actively working on chores in the barn and didn’t hear the men enter.

“Hi there boys,” Gandy called out. “We’s hoping to offer our horses some water.”

“The well’s out front,” Josh answered.

“My, you two twins?” Santos asked.

“Sure are,” Zach answered in boast.

“And you two, you brothers?” Santos asked pointing to Peter and Little Ted.

“No,” Peter answered.

“Where’s the other boy? There’s five of you come in here,” Gandy stated as he looked around.

“He went back to the house,” Little Ted answered as he got a funny feeling that he didn’t like these men.

Levi stuck his head over the floor of the loft and quickly ducked back as he watched the men draw their guns.

“Now, which one of you two is Peter?” Gandy asked.

Neither answered.

“I’ll ask you again,” Gandy stated as he walked over and stood over the two boys. “Santos, the look-alikes!”

Santos ran and tackled Josh and Zach to keep them from leaving the barn; carrying both the boys, he returned to stand next to Gandy.

“What we do now?” Santos asked, struggling to hold both the twins as they squirmed in his arms.

“We take ‘em both. Tie up those two brats.”

With Josh and Zach bound and gagged and placed into the storage locker, Santos and Gandy gagged Little Ted and Peter and bound their hands. Slung over their shoulders, the two men carried the boys out the back of the barn and to their waiting horses.

In the dark of the locker, Josh and Zach struggled at their restraints. In time, Levi gathered enough courage to climb down, carefully he looked out the open barn door before running to the house.

“Mama! Mama!” Levi called as he ran.

“What’s wrong? Are the boys not letting you help?” Milly asked as she stepped to the porch.

“Mama, they took Little Ted and Peter!”

“What? Who took your brother and Peter?” Milly asked.

“Men.”

“Where are Josh and Zach?” Milly asked in alarm.

“I don’t know,” Levi cried as he followed Milly back to the barn.

Milly entered the barn calling each of the boys’ names, “Little Ted! Josh! Zach! Peter!” Hearing noise emanating from the storage locker, Milly ran and opened the top to see Josh and Zach squirming. Milly fumbled with removing the gags in her grandsons’ mouths, eventually she was able to untie the knots.

“Grandma, they wanted Peter. We didn’t tell them. They took him and Little Ted,” the twins cried as Milly worked to untie the knots binding their hands and feet.

Fear gripped Milly; someone had taken her son and the prince. Tears fell down her face as she realized she had no way of knowing where Lucas was and that she couldn’t leave the children to ride to town to get Mark, even if she could saddle Two-Bits. Struggling to calm herself, Milly helped the twins climb out of the storage locker and told all three boys to get to the house. As they ran, Milly prayed that Lucas would come home soon.

*****

An hour had passed when Milly heard the sound of a rider. Coldness spread in the pit of her stomach as she reach for the rifle that Lucas had purchased after she and Hope had been kidnapped. She heard Lucas’ voice in her mind, “Milly, there will be many times that you’ll be home alone. If only for show… I don’t expect you to use it, but maybe by your holding it, it will dissuade someone from trying anything.” Milly stepped to the porch, rifle in her trembling hands.

“Johnny!” Milly quietly screamed as she recognized her brother-in-law stopping in front of the barn.

“Milly? My God, you’re ash white. What’s wrong?” Johnny called as he stepped from his horse and ran to Milly.

“Someone took Little Ted and Peter. They tied up the twins.”

“Where’s Lucas? Did he go after them?” Johnny asked.

“He left with Billy Lehigh to mend the fence somewhere on the range, he doesn’t know!” Milly cried.

“You get back in the house and lock the doors. I’ll ride back to town and get Mark.”

*****

“He’s my nephew!” Charles yelled and slammed his fist on top of the desk.

“I know he is! And, they have my little brother! I can’t risk you riding with us!” Mark declared.

“You can’t stop me!”

“I can too. Charles, you have to stay here and protect Amelia. They could be after all of you. You’re no longer in your home country. Don’t make me put you in jail,” Mark warned as he pulled a box of cartridges from the desk drawer.

“Mark, please?” Charles begged.

“Charles, you’re a foreign dignitary. If anything happened to you, I’d be shanghaied and strung up from the yardarm. It’s bad enough they have Peter. Let me do my job. Your job is to keep out of danger and protect Amelia. Also, if we’re not back in three days, someone needs to wire Jennifer.”

“Three days?” Johnny Drako asked.

“Johnny, based on the wire Benton sent, someone has planned this kidnapping for some time. Three days will hopefully give us time to find the boys and get back to town,” Mark answered. “I pray this won’t become an international incident.”

*****

Lucas was just riding onto the road to his home when he heard two riders coming from behind him, riding hard. Turning, Lucas recognized the riders and realized they weren’t slowing down. “Mark!” he urged Blade to keep pace with the others.

“Pa, someone took Little Ted and Peter!” Mark called and kept riding.

*****

Milly opened the door when she saw the three riders enter the yard.

“Lucas!” Milly cried as she ran to her husband and threw her arms around his neck. “Men came and they took Little Ted and Peter!”

Holding his wife tight while she cried in his arms, Lucas looked to Milly and asked, “Are you okay? Did they hurt you?”

Milly shook her head.

“What happened?” Lucas asked as he looked to Mark.

“Lucas, I showed up here earlier, Jake needed a tool that I knew you had,” Johnny answered. “When I arrived, Milly came to the porch, carrying a rifle, and looking like death. She told me what she just told you and that you were out on the range. I rode back to town to get Mark.”

“Ma,” Mark spoke after stepping from his horse. He put a comforting hand to Milly’s shoulder. “Seth’s coming with the buckboard, he’ll take you and the boys back to town.”

“No!” Milly cried. “They have my boy!”

Lucas pried Milly’s arms from him and said, “Milly, when Seth gets here, you will take the boys and go to town. I don’t want you here alone.” Turning to his brother-in-law, “Johnny will you stay here?”

“Then I’ll stay here too!” Milly cried in answer.

“No, he’ll go back to town with you.”

“Now Luke, I can help,” Johnny argued.

“Johnny, we don’t know how many or who or why,” Lucas replied.

“All the more reason you need me to ride with you,” Johnny again protested.

“Pa, I need to talk to the twins to find out what happened and if they can give us a description. I’d feel a lot better if there were three of us when we ride out.”

Mark took ten minutes to ask the boys questions and listen to their story, and tried to keep them calm so he could understand what they were saying. Once he had all the information he felt his sons could give him, Mark stated, “Ma, Seth should be here in ten, fifteen minutes tops. Are you okay to stay alone with the boys until Seth gets here?”

Milly nodded and handed a saddlebag filled with provisions to Mark.

“Lock the door behind me,” Mark ordered.

Lucas saw Mark running from the house, “Over here, we’ve found their tracks!”

“Hold up, Pa!” Mark yelled.

“What for? They’re getting away!” Lucas called back.

“We need to do this legal. I already deputized Johnny back in town. Raise your right hand. Do you swear to uphold the letter of the law?”

Mark knew the hatred his Pa was feeling, he saw the tension in Lucas’ jaw, “Pa, either we do this by the law, or you stay here. There’ll be no shooting unless we have no choice. Pa, I know what you went through with me growing up. He’s my little brother, but I have to do this by the law. Do you swear to uphold the letter of the law?” Mark urged.

Raising his right hand, “I promise to uphold the letter of the law. But if they harm one hair!” Lucas growled as he pointed his left index finger at Mark.

“They’ll be dealt with!” Mark stated as he and Johnny followed Lucas after the kidnappers.

*****

The trail took the family members further than they expected, to just outside of Weed, New Mexico. The rays from the morning sun were reaching over the hills when the three crawled to the edge of the canyon wall and lay on their stomachs as they peered over. Gandy and Santos were sitting around a campfire with others milling about. The camp was laid out with a corral for the remuda at the far end, in the middle was what appeared to be a main building, possibly used long ago as an office. The group also saw three large U.S. Army tents and a small storage shack. Halted throughout the camp were three covered wagons, also bearing the insignia of U.S. Army.

“Guess you’re glad Mark wanted me to come along?” Johnny asked trying to lighten the tension.

“Not now, Johnny,” Lucas stated as he drew back from the edge.

“Pretty farfetched to believe any of them are Regulation Army,” Mark answered as he followed his father.

“No, none of those men are Army. They’ve probably taken those wagons and tents during raids on Army patrols.”

“I hope none of them involved a patrol Ethan was leading,” Mark commented and closed his eyes as he said a small prayer.

“How many men do you think are down there?” Johnny asked.

“I saw at least five,” Mark commented.

“There’s at least two dozen horses in that remuda,” Lucas replied.

“But that doesn’t mean there’s a man for every horse,” Mark stated. “Pa do you think this is an abandoned relay station?”

“No, only one way in and out. I’m sure if we search deeper we’d find it’s probably an abandoned mining camp.”

“That means there could be caves for more men to hide in?” Johnny asked.

“Just like those tents down there,” Lucas replied.

“Pa, you and Johnny keep an eye out from up here. I’m going to get Rainmaker and make my way into camp.”

“What for?” Johnny asked.

“I need to find out where the boys are. Once I find them, I’ll get them out….”

“Mark, no!” Lucas adamantly stated.

“Pa, it’s the only way.”

“Mark…”

“Pa, let me do my job. You and Johnny are here to back me up. If the three of us go in there together, we’re bound to tip our hand before we even find out where the boys are. This way, I pray they won’t be alarmed by one lone rider. Pa, as a U.S. Marshal, I’m ordering you and Johnny to stay here and keep an eye on things. I’ll try to get word to you, somehow.”

Lucas realized his son had developed a strong, stubborn streak from years of being a marshal.

“Here, you keep my badge until I get back.” Mark unpinned the marshal badge from his shirt and handed it to his Pa.

“Mark…”

“Pa, if need be, I’m counting on you and Uncle Johnny… and your rifles.” Mark scrambled back to where they had left the horses and rode away.

“Lucas, just how are we supposed to rescue him?” Johnny asked.

“Pray that he doesn’t need rescuing,” Lucas answered as they made their way back to the edge.

*****

An hour had passed before they heard the sound of a rider casually approaching the camp. Peering over the edge, both breathed a sigh of relief to see Mark riding in. “You, hold it right there!” they faintly heard from below.

Lucas and Johnny scoured the surrounding canyon walls in search of the man whose voice they heard. Johnny was the first to see the glint of sun off metal. “Lucas there.” Johnny pointed down below them. Lucas held tight to his rifle as his eyes followed to where Johnny pointed. Together they watched as Mark held his hands away from his body.

Lucas’ curiosity was piqued when he saw the disheveled appearance of his son. His previously clean shirt was soiled, as were the pants he wore. This was the first time that Lucas also noticed that Mark wasn’t riding in his usual black saddle. His mind had totally been focused on the fact that his son had been taken that he hadn’t observed the little things.

“Easy there mister. I’m just looking for a place to set out a stake. Didn’t know this canyon was already spoken for,” Mark answered.

He nudged his horse forward as another man walked up the trail and asked for his weapons.

“All I got here is this old rifle,” Mark answered.

Lucas realized the rifle Mark handed the man wasn’t his own rifle.

“Where’s his rifle?” Lucas asked, turning to face his brother-in-law.

“It’s in my scabbard. Didn’t you wonder why I kept mine at the ready?” Johnny answered.

“You’ve not ridden on too many posse’s… What else do you know that you’ve not told me?” Lucas demanded as he moved to reposition himself so he could keep Mark in sight.

Following his brother-in-law, Johnny answered, “Mark figured that whoever took the boys, was there for Peter, not Little Ted. His own rifle, as well as your rifle, are too well know in the territory. He borrowed an old carbine from Angus before we left town, just in case.”

“And his saddle?” Lucas asked.

“His saddle… I didn’t notice,” Johnny replied.

“Anything else you’d like to tell me. Or better yet, is there anything else that you’re not supposed to tell me?” Lucas asked as he sank lower to keep from being seen.

“Honest, Luke. If there is more, Mark didn’t tell me.” Seeing that Lucas didn’t believe him, “Lucas, all I know is that they received a wire from Tom Benton, just before I arrived. Then I came in and announced Peter and Little Ted were taken, Mark started doing stuff without explaining.”

*****

With two men holding guns on him, Mark reached the main building, only to watch as one man stepped out to the veranda.

“Get down from your horse,” the man ordered.

Mark casually did as instructed. He observed the posture and body language of the man standing in front of him. With what few words the man had spoken Mark noticed the man’s accent and wished he had an idea from where the man came.

Another man came up behind him and placed the barrel of a weapon to the back of Mark’s head as the other man ordered, “Check him for any hidden weapons.”

Mark forced himself to relax as he felt the man’s hands work their way up and down his pant legs before feeling around his waist and under his arms.

“He’s as clean as a baby’s bottom,” the man stated as he removed the gun from Mark’s head. “Except for a pocket knife.”

“What about his saddle bags?” the man with an accent spoke.

“Just a few pans and utensils for cooking and shaving stuff,” a man answered.

“The flat pan also gets used for panning streams,” Mark stated.

“Panning streams?” the accented man asked.

“You know, looking for ingots of gold, silver, anything I can trade for supplies or lead me to the mother lode,” Mark stated.

“You don’t look like no prospector,” Mark heard off to his side.

“Just trying to survive. Happen along some wagon trains and they don’t take to saddlebums wanting to tag along, so I keep myself clean shaved. ‘Sides, once I had a beard and mustache and got mistook for some bandit. Didn’t care for the three days I spent in jail until they got the matter straightened out.”

Gandy walked over to the man with an accent and whispered in his ear. Shortly, the outlaws allowed Mark open access to their camp, since he didn’t have any weapons they considered a threat. Acting nonchalantly, Mark walked the camp, in his mind he measured the distances between buildings and calculating how long it would take him to run from one to the next, if he had to make a quick get-away. Making sure no one was watching, Mark snuck a peek into the small shack behind the main building. Pleased with what he found inside, Mark shut the door, hung his thumbs through his belt loops and continued walking to the remuda to check on his horse.

Hearing a triangle bell ringing, Mark followed the others as they came from the tents. Upon entering the main building for lunch, Mark looked through an open doorway as a man exited a side room. He prayed no one noticed his change in demeanor when he saw two small sleeping figures in the bed on the far side of the room, before the door closed.

“What you looking at?” Santos asked.

“Nothing, just remember sharing a bed with my own brother when I was younger. Pa kept us on the move, so we’d catch sleep whenever we could,” Mark replied.

“What brings you to our little haven?” a voice asked from behind Mark.

“Just traveling. Ain’t got no place to call home, ‘cept my saddle and the stars.”

“You always travel around without any handgun?” Gandy asked while walking to a desk where he picked up Mark’s rifle, and looked it over. He ran his hands over the worn wood of the stock.

“Had to sell them a few months back, traded them for that old carbine and some cash for grub.”

“This thing’s seen some better days,” Gandy replied as he handed it back to Mark.

“Well, when it’s a matter of eating or starving… Figure someday I’ll luck out an happen on an old abandoned mine, maybe strike it rich and get one of them fancy rifles and handguns I heard tell about.”

*****

Biding his time, Mark hoped his Pa and uncle would keep an eye on his comings and goings within the camp, as he realized with all the men in camp, he wouldn’t be able to get a message to them about his plans. He only wished he had a better plan in mind. Taking a seat on the porch of the main building, he pulled out a knife, reached for a fair-sized piece of wood from the ground and started whittling. The afternoon progressed and finally he heard the voices of young boys from inside, asking when they were going home. He cringed at the gruff tone the man called Gandy used in answering the boys. Mark prayed he wouldn’t be called into the building while the boys were awake, lest they give him away upon seeing him.

Strolling over to the remuda, Mark pulled out a few sugar cubes and offered them to Rainmaker.

The man with the accent came up behind Mark, “Supper should be ready soon.”

“Thanks, but I’ll pass,” Mark replied.

“Oh? You sell your handguns for grub and here we offer you free food and you ain’t hungry?”

“It’s not that I’m not hungry, just when you been without like I’ve been, sometimes eating too well is just as bad.”

“Have it your way. We’ll be pulling out in the morning, so you’re welcome to stay here or tag along.”

“If I tag along, just what will be expected of me, riding with your gang?” Mark asked.

“No gang, just men I’ve hired to see a job done.”

“You hired? You’re the boss then? I mean, you got money and you’re living here with your boys?”

“Boys?”

“Sure, I saw one of the men coming from a side room in the building and saw two young ‘ens sharing a bed. Figured they had to be yours, if you’re running this outfit.”

“No, those boys aren’t mine. They’re a means to an end. They are the key to the rightful heirs being restored to the throne.”

“You trying to get America back to a colony of England?” Mark asked.

“No, but my home country has a line of usurpers on the throne. One of those two boys is our ticket.”

“One of? Why do you have two of them if only one is your ticket?” Mark asked.

“We ain’t been able to figure out which boy is the one we wanted. Doesn’t matter, tomorrow we’ll know.”

“When you figure it out, what about the other?”

“Don’t you worry about the other. We just need to keep both of them safe until we find out which is which.”

“You need help watching over them?” Mark offered.

“You offering?”

“Well, if I’m gonna ride with ya, maybe I should pull my weight,” Mark suggested.

“Not that you have much weight to pull,” the man laughed. “But I’m sure that Santos will be happy not to have to stand the mid-night shift. If you’re still not up to eating, you best get a few hours shut eye. By the way, what’s your name?”

“Brody,” Mark answered.

“That your first name or last name?”

“Last. Ain’t used my first name in years. But if it matters to you, its Cyrus. And yours?”

“Henry Dochlichter.”

“Pleased to meet your acquaintance… boss,” Mark answered as he turned and headed to retrieve his bedroll from his saddle.

*****

While the others ate, Mark returned to the small storage shed and removed what he needed to aid in their escape, if necessary, and placed it in a position where he hoped his Pa could strike it.

*****

Johnny and Lucas intently watched the outlaws make their way to the main building as the triangle bell rang for a second time that day. At a distance, they watched as Mark entered the shack and stepped out carrying a small barrel and he placed it at the base of a boulder before assumed the posture of a man holding a rifle, pointed at the barrel. They continued to watch Mark as he returned to his bedroll and laid out under a tree.

“What’s he doing?” Johnny asked.

“Not sure, but I guess he wants us to shoot the barrel. We just have to trust him and be ready to act whenever he gives the signal.”

“You two, don’t move. Push your rifles to the side and crawl back here,” they heard called from behind them. “Slowly! Don’t give me a reason to shoot you. I’ve a regiment not a quarter mile from here,” the man whispered.

Lucas and Johnny did as instructed.

“Now slowly, you tall man, turn over and sit up. Keep your hands where I can see them.”

Lucas watched as a Sergeant stepped forward and collected his rifle.

“You, shorty, you’re next. Slowly.”

“Sergeant, I don’t know who you figure we are, but were not outlaws,” Lucas stated as he reached to show his badge.

“Don’t matter to me. I’m under orders to bring anyone I find outside that canyon back to the major,” the sergeant stated. “Get to your feet and let’s get to your horses.”

With his gun still trained on Lucas and Johnny, the three crested a small hill to see a regiment of U.S. Cavalry soldiers waiting.

“Sergeant, report,” a soldier with lieutenant’s bars on his collar ordered.

“Lucas! Johnny!” they heard as a soldier with Major’s clusters on his lapel rode up. “What are you doing out here?”

“Trying to rescue my son and a friend,” Lucas answered. “I only pray nothing’s happened while we were brought back here, Ethan.”

“Sergeant, give them back their weapons,” Ethan ordered.

“But sir, they were watching over the canyon where those outlaws are hiding.”

“Yes we were, but they’ve Lucas’ son and another boy,” Johnny answered. “We trailed them this far.”

“Mark’s in trouble?” Ethan asked.

“He wasn’t when we last saw him.” Lucas answered.

Johnny stated, “They took Little Ted and a friend who was staying at the McCain ranch.”

“Little Ted… Lucas, I’m sorry. What can we do to help?”

“You can let us get back to the canyon. Mark’s concocted a plan and I can only hope we’re not too late.”

Ethan and the Lieutenant rode back to the canyon and joined Lucas and Johnny as they crawled to lookout over the outlaws’ camp.

“Ethan, that person sleeping under the tree over there?” Lucas pointed. “That’s Mark.”

“Where’s Little Ted and the other boy?” Ethan asked.

“We don’t know,” Johnny replied. “But before your sergeant got the drop on us, Mark planted a keg over by that boulder.” Ethan’s gaze followed the line where Johnny pointed. “He made a gesture like he wanted someone to shoot it.”

“When?” the lieutenant asked.

“We’ll have to wait for his signal,” Lucas answered.

*****

In an effort to pass the time, Lucas asked, “I take it you’re here because of those tents and wagons?”

“Yeah, we had a patrol from Nogales, Arizona get hit. A number of the soldiers survived and were able to make their way to Fort Stanton.”

Lucas and Johnny listened as Ethan recounted the story the soldiers had told.

*****

Mark felt a sharp jab in his ribs followed by, “The Count said you’re to stand watch over them brats.”

Gathering his bedroll, Mark tied it to the back of his saddle before heading to the main building. Upon entering, Mark heard the ruckus of snoring and was thankful he had decided to catch some shuteye outside. After glancing around to make sure all the men were asleep, Mark entered the room where the boys slept. Quietly, he made his way to his brother and placed his hand over his mouth, praying Little Ted wouldn’t struggle too much to sound an alarm. He felt Little Ted struggle as he abruptly woke.

“Little Ted, stop struggling. It’s me, Mark.”

Little Ted stopped struggling as his eyes focused in the dark and confirmed the truth.

“Get your boots on, I’m getting the two of you out of here.”

Mark quietly moved to the other end of the bunk where Peter slept and repeated what he had told his brother.

*****

In the dark of the night, Mark led the boys to where he had Rainmaker stabled. After saddling his horse and retrieving the discarded burlap bags, he cut squares and long strips to tie around Rainmakers hooves in an effort to quiet the possible sound of metal shoes striking a rock.

“Mark, hurry! What if they wake up?”

“Little Ted, I’m working as fast as I can.”

When his task was finished, first up, Mark lifted Peter and placed him in the saddle.

“What about you Mark?” Little Ted asked.

“I’m going to lead you out of here, but if they hear us, you two are going to ride and ride hard. Ted, Pa and Uncle Johnny are up on the ridge. Follow this canyon and when it opens, turn left. You can’t miss the trail, follow it until you come to a watering hole. I’m sure Pa will be there shortly, if he doesn’t catch up with you before then.”

“But sir? If we take your horse, how will you get away?” Peter asked.

“Don’t worry about me. I’ve got a plan that I hope we don’t have to use. Anyway, you two are more important. Ted, this is the way I want it. It’s the way it has to be. If necessary, can you be brave enough and see that Peter makes it out of here?”

“Mark, I can’t…” Little Ted cried.

“Yes, you can. You’re a McCain, just like me.”

Next, Mark lifted Little Ted, “Peter, scoot to the back of the saddle,” and put his brother in front of the prince. “Peter hold on tight around Little Ted’s waist.” Mark handed the reins to his brother.

As Mark led his horse and passengers from the corral, several of the remuda horses started whinnying.

“Mark?!” Little Ted called. Mark heard the fear in his brother’s voice.

From somewhere behind them, Mark heard, “Who’s out there?” yelled.

“Ted, Peter, hold tight, YAH!” Mark yelled and slapped his horse on the haunches. Rainmaker didn’t hesitate as he bolted forward, barely giving Mark time to grab the rifle from his scabbard.

Mark ran as fast as he could to where he hoped he could get into position. As he rounded a boulder, he lost his footing and slid to a stop. Scrambling to position himself to take the shot, Mark realized his folly, he wasn’t close to the trajectory required to get a clear shot at the barrel. Voices of men shouting and sounds of men and horses running filled the air as the outlaws bore down on him.

“PA! NOW!” Mark screamed as he stood to fire at the approaching outlaws. He heard the first shot ricochet, but the second shot struck pay dirt.

From where he stood, the night sky lit up in a brilliant explosion. Mark hadn’t realized how close he was to the barrel as the blast threw him backwards. As he lost consciousness, he heard horses and men screaming as the darkness of the night reclaimed the canyon. The last sound Mark thought he heard was the call of a bugler.

*****

The sun had set and those high on the canyon had trouble making out what was happening in the camp. After midnight, they saw a lone figure step to the front of the main building and vaguely made out the door opening and closing. Five minutes later they watched as the door opened and closed again. The lantern hanging next to the door outlined one man followed by two smaller figures.

“He’s got them, Lucas,” Johnny whispered while he grabbed for Lucas’ arm.

A gentle breeze pushed the clouds as they slipped past the night moon, allowing the moon to bathe the canyon in a soft glow.

“Lucas, you remember where the barrel is?” Ethan asked.

“I can barely make it out,” Lucas replied.

From the canyon floor below, the men faintly heard, “Who’s out there?” They looked to where they last knew Mark and the boys were. Clearly audible from the camp, Lucas heard a horse running away followed a few moments later by Mark yelling, “PA! NOW!”

Lucas didn’t hesitate; he sighted in his rifle and fired. The unmistakable sound of a ricochet reached them as Lucas fired his second shot. Lucas turned his head and shielded his eyes with the crook of his elbow as the explosion lit the night.

With Johnny and the others close to his heels, Lucas ran to Blade as he heard the bugler sounding charge in the distance. By the time they reached the opening of the canyon, Lucas reined Blade in hard at the sight of Mark’s horse racing towards them. Lucas turned his mount, urging his horse to match the horse stride for stride as Lucas reached for the reins, bringing the two horses slowly to a stop.

“Papa!” Little Ted called as he finally opened his eyes. Still in the saddle, Lucas wrapped his arms around the two crying boys.

Johnny and Ethan were quickly to Lucas’s side as he tried to push the two boys back to take a good look at them.

“Are you two okay?” Lucas asked.

“Papa, Mark’s back there!” Little Ted cried.

“Johnny, can you keep an eye on these two? I’m going back for Mark,” Without waiting for an answer, Lucas reined his horse around and raced him into the canyon with Ethan a short distance behind.

*****

Slowing his horse as he approached the camp, Lucas witnessed those nearest the blast were either dead or in custody of the soldiers. Without time to think, the sergeant came running to report, “We got more holed up in the main building!”

Lucas and Ethan followed the sergeant back to the main camp and took positions behind one of the wagons. A gun battle continued for an agonizing length of time as Lucas worried about Mark.

“We have no idea how well provisioned they are,” Lucas commented.

“They can keep us at bay for as long as they want, considering all the provisions that were in the wagons,” Ethan answered.

“Major, before you arrived, word filtered in from some of the other men, they ain’t unloaded the wagons,” a lieutenant answered.

Ethan’s attention returned to the building, “Lucas, there’s a window near the backside, there on the right, can you make it out?” Ethan asked.

“What do you have in mind?” Lucas asked as he crouched down after having returned fire.

“Slip in there and get them by surprise from inside. I want as many of these men alive, to stand trial,” Ethan vehemently replied. “Men, cover us!”

Running in a crouched position, Ethan and Lucas made their way safely to the side of the building. Taking a moment to catch their breath, Ethan carefully opened the window and the two climbed through the window without being detected by those inside.

As they entered the main room, Ethan ordered those who stood at the windows to drop their weapons. Without warning, one of them turned and fired in their direction. Dropping to his left, Lucas instinctively fired his rifle from his hip. As he looked on, the man fell to the floor, grabbing at his shoulder. Lucas twirl cocked his rifle as he stood to his full height, “Ethan, you okay?” Lucas asked without taking his eyes off the men slowly raising their hands in front of them.

“Just nicked me in the leg,” Ethan answered as he kept his gun pointed at the outlaws, who one by one dropped their weapons.

Lucas walked to the man he shot and grabbed the front of the man’s shirt.

“Why? Why did you take my boy?” Lucas demanded.

The man grabbed Lucas’ wrists in an effort to get away and defiantly stared back at him.

As other soldiers entered the building to take the men into custody, Lucas dropped the man and ran outside and yelled, “Who can tell me what’s going on out here?”

“I can,” came the response from the lieutenant.

“My son? Where is he?” Lucas asked.

“Your son? I thought he was on the horse with the other boy? The one’s riding out of here in the beginning…” the Lieutenant answered.

“My other son, the marshal. Where are the injured?”

“Over there. We got three dead and two unconscious outlaws,” the lieutenant pointed and followed as Lucas ran past a corpsman working on an injured soldier.

Dreading it, Lucas looked at the bodies of the three dead men and felt relief as none of them were Mark. Lucas looked up as another soldier started struggling with one of the men as he regained consciousness. “Mark!” Lucas yelled as he ran over to where Mark was struggling to sit up. “Soldier let go of my son!” Lucas called out.

“Under who’s orders?” the private daringly answered.

“Mine,” Ethan voice from behind Lucas. The soldier stood up straight and saluted his superior officer.

“Mark?” Lucas asked quietly as he set his rifle down and knelt beside his son.

“Pa? Little Ted? Peter?” Mark asked as he looked around. “Did they get out?”

“They’re safe. Rainmaker got them away from here and I left them at the canyon entrance with Johnny. Are you okay? Are you hurt?” Lucas asked.

“I don’t think so,” Mark answered.

“Come on let’s get you to your feet.” Lucas took Mark by the arm and helped him stand.

“Thanks for helping us out Mark,” Ethan stated as Mark looked in his direction.

“Who’s there?” Mark asked.

“It’s me, Ethan.”

“Sorry, I couldn’t see you that well in the dark,” Mark answered.

“The dark? The moon’s out…” Ethan’s voice trailed off. “Sergeant, over here with that torch!”

“Mark,” Lucas stated as he looked at his soot covered son. “Tell me what you see.”

“See? It’s dark…” Mark answered as he held his hand out to brace himself against his Pa.

“Private!” Ethan yelled and pointed at the soldier walking away from them.

“Mark, sit back down,” Lucas ordered as he help Mark sit down on a small boulder. “The explosion. Did you shield you eyes from the explosion?”

“I closed them… guess not fast enough. I should have closed them when I heard the ricochet, but I wanted to make sure none of the outlaws got past me. Pa, are you sure the boys are okay?”

“Yes, sir,” the private answered as he returned to address Ethan.

“Take a couple of soldiers and get our horses in the corral harnessed and hitched to those wagons. One of them will take our injured to North Fork and the others will take the outlaw’s to Fort Stanton.”

“Ethan, what about Dochlichter?” Mark asked. “He was the one who ordered Prince Peter to be kidnapped. They took both boys because they didn’t know which one was Peter, but someone was supposed to arrive in the morning who would point out Peter.”

“Dochlichter? I don’t know the name,” Ethan answered.

Mark proceeded to give a brief description of the man behind the kidnapping.

“He’s inside; took a bullet from your Pa. One of the corpsmen is tending to him by now.”

“Bring him out here. I want to interrogate him,” Mark ordered.

“Mark, let the army deal with this,” Lucas stated. “We need to get you to a doctor.”

“No! He orchestrated the kidnapping of the prince and my little brother! I want to know why!”

“Mark, they also killed soldiers and stole from the Army. Leave this to Ethan,” Lucas again stated.

“NO!” Mark fired back angrily.

Seeing how agitated his brother-in-law was, Ethan ordered two of his soldiers to bring the one called Dochlichter out to them.

“You have no cause to hold me. I’m a civilian!” the man yelled as the was restrained on both sides by the two soldiers.

“Then you’ll answer to me,” Mark stated as he struggled to stand.

“Boyd, what are you talking about?” Dochlichter asked.

“His name is U.S. Marshal Mark McCain,” Lucas stated, pinning Mark’s badge back on his shirt. “And be thankful he’s the one asking questions. You can thank him for your still being able to breathe.”

Lucas turned his attention away from Mark when he heard more horses riding in, turning he saw Johnny Gibbs approaching, leading Rainmaker and the boys back to the outlaws’ camp.

“Papa,” Little Ted called as he climbed down and ran to Lucas, who held his arms wide, allowing his son to jump into his arms. “Mark, are you okay?” Little Ted called out.

“I’ll be fine, little brother,” Mark answered.

“Little brother? This one isn’t the prince?” Dochlichter asked staring at Little Ted.

“No, he’s not. But he acted as a true defender of the realm when he refused to tell you and those men which one of us you were really after,” Peter answered as Johnny helped him down from Rainmaker.

“Dochlichter, why did you kidnap them? Who put you up to this?” Mark asked.

“I claim diplomatic immunity. You can’t charge me or hold me. I don’t have to answer to the laws of this… pathetic country.”

“Until we can prove who you are, you are under my arrest. Ethan, get one of your soldiers to get him out of my sight,” Mark asked as he started to collapse back to the boulder.

“Mark! You hurt?” Little Ted asked.

“Not really. Just got the wind knocked out of me,” Mark answered.

Knowing he needed to help Mark, but not wanting to alarm Little Ted, Lucas stated, “Little Ted, why don’t you and Uncle Johnny take Peter and go into the building over there and see if you two can get some sleep,” Lucas ordered.

“But Pa?” Little Ted objected.

“Son, please. While we take care of these men, I want you safe.” Looking to Johnny, “Get them inside.”

“Okay, Luke.” Johnny placed one hand on Peter’s shoulder and the other hand on Little Ted’s shoulder and led them to the main building. Once inside, he steered them to a side room where he’d seen a bed through the open door they had started to pass. “Don’t try to fight sleep boys. I saw both of you yawning. Into bed. I’ll wake you in the morning.”

“Uncle Johnny,” Little Ted stated.

“Yes.”

“Is Mark going to be okay?”

“Sure with your Pa and the Army looking after him. He’ll be fine by morning.”

“I was scared,” Little Ted admitted after climbing into the bunk.

Kneeling at the side of the bunk, Johnny stated, “I’m sure you were.”

“I prayed Papa and Mark would come get us. I’m glad you’re here too.”

“I’m glad I’m here too. Now, under the sheet, both of you.”

Johnny smiled as he blew out the lantern on the table and closed the door.

*****

“Mark, we need to get you back to Doc Burrage,” Lucas stated.

“Not yet. We stay here until we find out who put Dochlichter up to the kidnapping.”

“We’ll talk about this when we get them back to North Fork. For now, the least you can do is let one of the corpsmen look at you, bandage your eyes. I want you to get some rest, until whoever it is, arrives.”

“I’ll be fine Pa,” Mark answered.

“As your father, I’m ordering you to get some rest,”

“I’m a U.S. Marshal and this is my case…” Mark started to say but was interrupted.

“I’m a Major in the United States Army, I can declare martial law in effect. Now, listen to Lucas. We’ll wake you as soon as anyone arrives. We need time to clean up this mess and make it look as though nothing happened.”

Even as unwilling as he felt, Mark gave in. Lucas assisted Mark to his feet and helped him make his way to the main building. Mark tripped up the steps when Lucas forgot to warn him to step up.

“Do you two have to barge in here like a herd of buffalo? The boys just got to sleep,” Johnny chastised.

“Sorry Uncle Johnny,” Mark whispered as he held a hand out in front of him, trying to make sure he didn’t bump into anything.

“Johnny, help me get Mark to the cot over there,” Lucas requested.

“Luke?”

“Just a little trouble in seeing,” Mark answered. “I’ll be okay.”

After seeing Mark lie down on the cot, Lucas left the building with Johnny Gibbs right behind him.

“Trouble in seeing? Mark’s blind?”

“He was too close and didn’t get his eyes closed fast enough when I shot the barrel of blasting powder.”

Johnny heard the guilt in Lucas voice. “You couldn’t have known, Luke. If it wasn’t you shooting that barrel, it could have been me or even Ethan. You only shot when you heard Mark yell. How were you supposed to know he was too close?”

“Don’t you think I know that,” Lucas harshly answered.

“I’m sorry Luke,” his voice held remorse.

“No, I’m the one who should be sorry. I shouldn’t have yelled at you. I just wish I knew that Mark was going to be okay.”

*****

As day broke over the canyon, Lucas walked to where Mark slept and observed that other than the soot on his clothing and skin, there was no indication of the trauma inflicted upon his son. Lucas turned quickly at hearing Little Ted and Peter come from the room where they had slept, “Boys, you need to be a little quieter.”

“I’m awake Pa,” Mark stated as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes before he sat up on the cot.

“Boys,” Johnny called as he sat up. “Let’s get you two washed up for the morning.” He took both by the hand and led them out a back door.

“Any change?” Lucas asked as his attention returned to Mark.

“Change… oh, my vision. Well, it’s not pitch black like it was last night. It feels like I’ve got a desert full of sand in my eyes.”

“Well, try not to rub your eyes. I remember Doc telling me that it could make the situation even worse.”

“I’ll try Pa,” Mark answered.

*****

The soldiers in the camp ate a cold breakfast before they sequestered themselves so that any one riding into the camp wouldn’t see them until it was too late. Not too much time had elapsed when those inside the main building looked out the windows to see a lone rider enter the camp.

“Hello inside!” the man yelled.

Johnny Gibbs pushed the two boys to the back of the room and crouched behind a large desk.

“Pa,” Mark stated as he strained to hear the man. “Pa, get me to the window.”

Knowing it was little use to argue with his son, Lucas took Mark by the arm and led him to the window.

“Uncle Henry?” the man called. “Are you in there?”

“Dochlichter’s first name was Henry,” Mark whispered. “Pa, that man sounds like Edgerton.”

“Edgerton, who’s he?” Lucas asked.

“He’s Jennifer’s chief of security. But he left with Jennifer and Wykestrom to go to San Francisco.”

The man stepped from his horse as the front door opened.

“Where’s Dochlichter?” Edgerton asked.

Mark stepped through the door, following behind Lucas.

“Edgerton, you’re under arrest,” Mark announced.

“What are you talking about, Mark? What’s going on here?” Edgerton asked in surprise, panicking as soldiers came from their hiding places, weapons drawn.

“Your attempt to kidnap Peter failed,” Mark answered.

“Why?!” Prince Peter demanded as he ran towards Edgerton and began kicking at him and beating him with his fists.

Johnny was quick to restrain Peter and pulled him from harm’s way.

“Your uncle is in my custody until we can figure out everything. His associates are already on their way to Fort Stanton for crimes against the U.S. Army. Pa, as my deputy, relieve Edgerton of any weapons. He’ll join his uncle for the trip back to North Fork.” Calling back into the main building, “Ethan, can you accompany us back to North Fork?”

“I better, considering my Father is getting married Friday. Annie was livid when she found I was assigned this patrol.”

“Married? I forgot!” Mark exclaimed.

“If we leave within the hour, we should make it back home by noon on Friday,” Lucas announced. “But first, I want your eyes wrapped, Mark. We’ve been lucky the clouds have covered the sun, but I don’t want to take any more chances with your sight.”

*****

As Mark and the few injured soldiers were assisted into one wagon and Edgerton and Dochlichter into another, Little Ted asked, “Papa, do we have to ride in the wagon? If Mark’s going to ride in the wagon, can’t we ride Rainmaker?”

“You’ll need to ask your brother,” Lucas answered.

“Mark? Hey, did you hurt your eyes?” Little Ted asked as he climbed upon the wagon wheel.

“I just got some dirt in them and the army corpsman thought it best to keep my eyes covered until we can get back home and have Doc Burrage take a look at them. I’ll let you ride Rainmaker, but you’ll keep pace with the wagon and ride beside Pa!” Mark ordered. “No racing!”

“Yippee!” both Peter and Little Ted hollered, grabbed each other’s arms and danced around.

After helping the young boys into the saddle, Lucas turned to Mark and said, “You’re taking this a lot better than I remember myself handling the same situation.”

“Pa, I’m scared to death, but I can’t let them see that,” Mark answered as he reached for his Pa’s arm.

“Guess I did the same thing, too.”

Already in the saddle, Johnny Gibbs stopped next to the wagon, “Lucas, we’re not too far from Weed and if I know anything about parenting, Milly’s not had a moment without worry since Little Ted was taken. Why don’t I ride into Weed and send a wire that we have the boys and they’re safe?”

“I’m glad someone is thinking,” Lucas answered. “Go ahead and meet us back on the trail when you can.”

“Uncle Johnny, don’t say anything about me, please. No need worrying Hope until we know for sure.”

“Okay, if that’s the way you want it.”

“It is,” Mark answered as he settled back into buckboard for the return trip to North Fork.

*****

Camp had been set up for their first night and Lucas had made sure that the boys ate a good meal and that he and Peter were snuggled in bedrolls in the back of the wagon. Lucas slowly made his way to Mark and sat down next to him.

“So, you want to tell me the whole story?” Lucas asked.

“The whole story?” Mark answered.

“Your uncle riding with your rife, you riding in your old saddle… Johnny said you received a wire before leaving town. You knew more than you told either of us.”

“Pa, before they left, Wykestrom told me the real reason they wanted to leave Peter with us. They had heard rumors of a kidnapping attempt and presumed it would be upon Jennifer. They wanted him out of harm’s way. Some of the reports they had heard indicated a distant uncle of hers was trying to reclaim the throne. Guess Dochlichter thought they were the usurpers. I still have to figure out who Dochlichter is and how Edgerton ties into this. I don’t think Jennifer or Wykestrom knew about Edgerton…”

“And the wire you received?” Lucas inquired.

“From Tom?” Mark answered back.

“From Tom.”

“He wired that an agent he had undercover lost track of his quarry, but had managed to confirm the potential kidnapping plot. Benton also had another agent helping the Army track down those responsible for stealing supplies. I know it was a long shot, but I put two and two together.”

“And you couldn’t let the two of us in on your theory?” Lucas’ voice held an edge to it.

“Pa, I didn’t know exactly what I was getting us in to. It’s a parent’s obligation to keep their family safe, and you’re my family,” Mark spoke, trying to ease the air between them. “I took a shot in the dark. I’m just thankful that you and Uncle Johnny played your parts right.”

“Shot in the dark? You’re blind because of me,” Lucas demanded.

“No! If I am blind, it’s because I lost concentration in what I had planned. I don’t hold you responsible and I refuse to let you take any blame upon yourself,” Mark argued back.

“Just when did you get so stubborn?” Lucas asked as his voice took on the tone of a father understanding his child is an adult.

“Guess it’s from watching you all these years.” Mark teasingly stated. “Just be thankful I didn’t say it’s something you’ll understand when you’re older.”

*****

The small caravan of travelers pulled into North Fork shortly after daybreak Friday, having traveled later into the night and starting earlier in the morning. The lead wagon stopped in front of the Marshal’s Office with Johnny Gibbs and the Lieutenant ordering their two prisoners inside.

“What about me? I was shot. I demand to see a doctor!” Dochlichter demanded.

“You’ll get to see a doctor after he tends to the others,” Johnny answered.

“This is deplorable! I protest!” Dochlichter argued.

“Protest all you want,” Johnny pushed the two men inside.

The second wagon proceeded to the clinic. Lucas tied Blade and Rainmaker to the hitching rail outside before helping the wounded soldiers get Mark from the wagon.

“Mr. McCain, let the doc see your son first. We can wait,” one of the injured soldiers stated as the two of them took seats in front of the clinic.

“Thanks,” Lucas answered.

“Pa, what about the boys?” Mark asked.

“Let them sleep,” Lucas answered.

“Lucas, I’ll drive the wagon to Father’s. Based on what Johnny said last night, I believe Miss Milly will be there, anxiously waiting to see for herself.”

Ethan barely had the wagon turned around when he saw several people running along the boardwalk. Pulling the team to a halt, Ethan waited as Milly and Seth ran towards him. Ethan, reached around and gently shook Little Ted awake. Rubbing sleep from his eyes, Little Ted rose to his knees and looked to see where they were.

“You’re home, son,” Ethan stated.

“Little Ted!” Milly called upon seeing her son.

Little Ted climbed over the front seat and jumped down, he ran to his mother and proceeded to let her hug him. His Grandpa was soon hugging him, too.

“Oh Little Ted, I was so worried,” Milly cried. “Thank God you’re safe.”

“Mama, I’m sorry you worried,” Little Ted stated.

*****

In the wagon, Peter stood and climbed into the front seat. “Wonder if my mother knows of our little adventure?”

“Little adventure?” Ethan asked as he raised his eyebrows.

“Guess parents wouldn’t see it that way.”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Is that your father with Little Ted?” Peter asked.

“Yes, he is my father.”

From behind them, they turned at hearing, “Peter!” and saw Charles and Amelia running from the entrance of the hotel.

Peter climbed down from the wagon and ran across the street and jumped into his Uncle’s arms and allowed Amelia to smother him with kisses.

*****

Milly finally set Little Ted to the boardwalk and made sure to check to see that he was uninjured.

“Has Doc Burrage looked you over to make sure you’re okay?” Milly asked.

“I don’t need to see Doc Burrage. He’s looking at Mark and two of the soldiers,” Little Ted answered.

“Mark?” Seth asked. “Did he get shot?”

“No, he got dirt in his eyes,” Little Ted replied.

With Little Ted’s hand in hers, Milly headed towards the clinic. Before she could cross the street, Johnny Gibbs exited the Marshal’s Office.

“Johnny, Little Ted said Mark got dirt in his eyes,” Milly worriedly asked.

“Yeah, you could say that,” Johnny answered.

“What happened?” Milly asked. The expression on her face told Johnny she wouldn’t take anything but the truth.

“He was too close to the explosion,” Johnny quietly answered.

“Is he… blind?” Milly asked.

“I… don’t know. He was having trouble seeing right afterwards.”

“How long ago?” Milly’s voice was barely above a whisper.

“Wednesday late night. His vision didn’t improved on the trip home.”

Placing her hand on Johnny’s forearm, she squeezed it, not trusting her voice any more. Milly quickly took Little Ted’s hand and tried to keep the tears from falling as she hurried to the clinic. She remember the day, a dark day in North Fork when a young Mark had raced an injured Lucas to town. Milly remembered standing next to Mark when old Doc Burrage announced, “You see boy… your Pa is blind.” Again she felt her heart sink… ‘What news would this Doc Burrage deliver?’

******

Seth accompanied Milly and Little Ted until he arrived at the front of the hotel, where he stopped to greet his son.

“Father, it’s good to see you,” Ethan addressed his father.

“Cutting it kind of close aren’t you?” Seth replied.

“Well, we didn’t figure we’d get here until afternoon, but we pushed it to get here in time. Are Annie, Seth Edward, and Marissa already here?”

“They arrived Wednesday saying that you had gone out on patrol. How did you meet up with Lucas and Mark?”

“Our cases kind of intertwined. Enough of that, why don’t you help me get the wagon to the livery and then I’d like to see my family.”

*****

“How’s Mark, really?” Seth asked as they unhitched and unharnessed the horses.

“Praying it’s only a temporary blindness. He was too close to a powder keg when he shouted for Lucas to fire. The force of the explosion knocked him backwards and he couldn’t see afterwards.”

*****

With the shades drawn, Doc carefully unwrapped the bandages around Mark’s head.

“Keep your eyes closed Mark,” Thadd stated. ‘Okay, now I’m going to lay you backwards on the table.”

Pulling a bottle containing a liquid solution from one of the cabinets, Thadd returned to the examination table and squeezed the bottle and watched as the fluid inside squirted out the top.

“Mark, I’m going to open your eyes and try to flush out any of the irritants. While I’m doing this, just try to relax,” Thadd stated.

“Okay, Doc.”

After irrigating both of Mark’s eyes, Thadd handed Mark a towel and told him to blot at the water on his face, before he helped him sit up on the table.

Hearing voices outside in the hallway, “Mark keep your eyes closed, I’ll be right back.” Before stepping from the room, Thadd motioned to Lucas to follow him.

Milly anxiously waited in the hallway and hugged Lucas the moment he stepped from the room and asked, “How’s Mark?”

“That’s why I asked you out here Lucas. I need your help,” Thadd stated.

“Name it.”

“I need to find out if his eyes will react to light. When we return inside, I’m going to light a lantern and keep the wick turned low. I want you to hold it close to Mark, but not too close. I don’t want the lantern close enough for him to feel the heat. I’ll hold a mirror to the side of Mark’s face to reflect the light into his eyes. If his eye’s react, we’ll know his blindness is only temporary. If he shies away from the light given off as I move the mirror, then we’ll know he can see some. And only then will I allow the shades in the room to be raised to allow a little bit of sunlight inside.”

Leaving Little Ted with Abigail, Milly, Lucas, and Thadd returned to the examination room.

“Well, Mark… Go ahead and lower the towel. I’m going to open your eyes and I want you to tell me if you can see.”

Milly held her breath as Lucas lit the lantern and Thadd picked up the mirror. She squealed with joy when Mark turned his head away from the mirrored light and flinched.

“Mark, what did you see?” Thadd asked.

“Whiteness,” Mark answered.

“Well, I didn’t exactly expect you to react so quickly. Okay Lucas you can set the lantern on the desk. Mark, I’m going to raise one of the shades just a little bit and you can slowly open your eyes.”

Thadd opened the shade only a few inches. “So what do you see?”

Mark turned his head in the direction of Thadd’s voice.

“I see that we got you out of bed this morning. Nice pajama top,” Mark laughed as he spoke.

“You can really see?” Lucas asked.

“It’s a little blurry and my eyes feel itchy. But yeah, I can see,” Mark answered. “Wouldn’t want to miss seeing my father-in-law walking down the aisle tonight.”

“Mark, tell me the truth. Can you really see?” Milly asked.

“I can see your bloodshot eyes, Ma,” Mark answered as he turned to face Milly.

“Anyone would know that I’ve been crying with everything that’s happened this week,” Milly stated.

“Let’s put it this way, the red of your eyes doesn’t go that well with the yellow flowers on your dress.”

Mark stepped down from the examination table and walked to Milly and wrapped her in his arms, and he held out his hand to his Pa.

“Doc, you have some real patients outside, a couple of soldiers took bullet wounds the other day,” Mark stated as he led Milly and Lucas from the examination room.

“Mark, I’ve not released you yet,” Thadd called. “I still want to flush your eyes, one more time.”

“I’ll be back after I see my family, Doc.”

With Lucas on one side and Milly on the other, they walked into the waiting room. Mark reached forward and picked up his brother as Little Ted ran towards them.

“Doc got the dirt out of your eyes?”

“Sure did. Guess we kind of look like tramps. What do you say that we return to Grandpa Seth’s and get cleaned up?”

“I think he’d like it if we were prespicable for his wedding,” Little Ted answered.

“Prespicable?” Milly asked.

“Yeah, you know, all cleaned up.”

Lucas laughed, “I think you mean presentable.”

“I guess so,” Little Ted replied.

Together they laughed and the McCain’s continued to walk from the clinic.

*****

While North Fork came to life for the morning, word slowly filtered that the missing were safely home.

*****

Upon entering his father-in-law’s home, Mark set Little Ted to the floor and took the stairs two at a time to get to his wife, as she stopped at the top, her hands to her mouth.

Wrapping his wife in his arms, Mark stated, “We made it back with plenty of time to spare.” Pushing his wife out of the way against the wall, Mark made room for his sons and youngest brother as they bolted from one of the bedrooms.

“You’re home!” “How’d ya get away?!” “Are they dead?” “The kidnappers in jail!” were declared as the boys ran down the stairs to greet Little Ted.

*****

Mark took another moment to kiss his wife, “Did you miss me?”

“You know the answer to that. Your eyes?” Hope asked, a little alarmed in seeing the soot covering his clothes and the redness in his eyes.

“Just a little dirt in them. Doc wanted to flush them out one more time…”

“Then why are you here?” Hope demanded.

“Because I just had to see you, the most beautiful person in the world.”

Hope stated, “Ma, if you don’t mind watching the younger children, I’m going to get your oldest child back to the clinic.” She grabbed Mark’s arm and led him down the stairs.

“Ouch, that hurts,” Mark complained.

“And so it should. I declare, you’re so much worse than your children.”

“Guess I should be thankful you grabbed my arm and not my ear,” Mark teased.

“That, can be arranged,” Hope warned.

 

This story continues in The Rifleman – The Next Generation Pt 18

 

Return to BluewindFarm’s Author Page

Return to WWB Library

Return to WWB Author Index

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.