The Rifleman – The Next Generation Pt 18 (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 88 – The Main Events

After seeing her husband returned to the clinic, Hope was alarmed to find her brother coming from one of the examination rooms.

“You can keep it unwrapped at night,” Thadd was stating, “just remember to put the ointment on it morning and night.”

“Ethan?” Hope inquired.

“Oh, it’s nothing sis. Just a scratch, had a bullet graze my leg,” Ethan replied and tried to change the subject from himself. “I see you finally got your husband corralled.”

“Yes, I want Doc to examine his eyes one more time and to tell me he’s going to be alright.”

“Now, Hope…” Mark started.

“No, you march yourself inside,” Hope stated as she pointed a finger to the room Ethan just exited.

“I’m gonna go spend a little time with my family before we head to the church, see you both later,” Ethan stated as he left the clinic.

*****

After watching Thadd flush out Mark’s eyes one last time, Hope was pleased to overhear their conversation, after Thadd had Mark read the eye chart.

“Okay, Mark. Your eyes are going to be a little bloodshot for a few more days, just from being irritated. I’m glad your father insisted on wrapping your eyes. It could have been a lot worse, irreparable damage could have been done to the surface of your eyes just by your blinking.”

“Will I need to wear my glasses more?” Mark asked.

“That’s up to you. I think you’re seeing well enough, just continue to wear them when you read reports or the newspaper. But if your eyes start feeling tired, go ahead and wear them. It won’t hurt.”

Hope wrapped her arm through her husband’s before they returned to her father’s home.

Upon entering the home, Zach was there to greet his parents.

“Papa?”

“Yes, Zach,” Mark answered.

“Little Ted said you got dirt in your eyes. Did the sandman surprise you?”

“Who?” Hope asked.

“The sandman,” Josh answered. “You know, the man who comes around at night and puts sand in your eyes.”

Kneeling down, Mark answered, “No, the sandman wasn’t there. We were trying to rescue Little Ted and Peter when there was an explosion and it blew a lot of dirt into the air and I got some in my eyes. But Doc Burrage cleaned them up proper.”

“Oh, then you can see real good?” Zach asked.

“Why do you ask?” Hope asked, fearing what her son was about to say.

“Uh, we tried to clean it up. We wanted to surprise you, only…”

“Where,” Mark said as he stood.

Zach took his father’s hand and led his parents to the back of the house, to the bathing room.

“Oh, boys!” Hope declared when she saw the mess. The water from the tub had overflowed onto the floor.

“We’re sorry,” Josh stated as he stood in the middle of the room holding a towel dripping with water.

“Come out of there and let me clean up the mess,” Hope instructed.

“No, I’ll take care of it,” Mark stated. Seeing the look on his wife’s face, “In your condition, you don’t need to be on your hands and knees. Why don’t you take the boys to the front room and I’ll let you know when I’m done.”

After cleaning up the bathing room and carrying a basket with the soaking, wet towels outside, Mark and Hope hung them on the clothesline behind Seth’s house to dry. Later that afternoon, the two of them worked diligently to see that their children were bathed and properly dressed for the wedding, before they bathed and dressed as well.

*****

Milly and Lucas spent the rest of the morning over at Hattie and Micah’s listening to Little Ted tell of everything that happened after those men had kidnapped him and Peter. That afternoon, they too worked diligently to see that they and their children were cleaned and dressed for the wedding that night.

*****

Seth stood in front of the full-length dressing mirror and struggled to tie his tie straight.

“Seth, would you like some help?” Mark asked as he peeked into his father-in-law’s bedroom.

“I’m all thumbs. I can’t believe I’m this nervous. I mean, I’ve been married before…” Seth answered as he dropped his arms to his side.

“Yes, but not to Lilah. Guess you and Pa should have had a man to man talk about what to expect today and tonight,” Mark teased.

“What?” Seth asked a little surprised.

“I remember Pa being just as nervous when he married Miss Milly. It’s new because you’re marrying Lilah. Just remember, she’s probably just a nervous as you are, if not more so. And you had better remember that tonight when you’re alone with her.”

“Imagine, me getting advice from my son-in-law,” Seth answered as he gave a little laugh. “Mark, I really do appreciate having you as a member of my family.”

“Likewise… Come on, before your intended decides to send someone to make sure you aren’t going to change your mind?” Mark teased.

“Too late,” Ethan stated as he leaned against the door frame, arms folded. “Mark, my family is already over at the church. Why don’t you get my sister and the rest of your family over to the church and then come back here and the three of us can get Father to the church.”

“Three?” Seth asked.

“Yeah, Johnny Drako’s at the back door making sure you don’t evade capture,” Ethan laughingly answered.

“Evade capture, you make it sound like I’m a prisoner,” Seth retorted back.

“Take it as you like, but you are about to be married and…” Ethan laughed.

“I’ll just let Annie know your feelings about being married,” Mark teased.

“Don’t you dare!”

*****

At the front of the church stood Reverend McCafferty and Seth Lane. Next to Seth stood Ethan, as his best man. As the matron of honor, Hope stood on the other side of Reverend McCafferty and waited for the bride to enter.

Everyone turned as Lilah made her way down the aisle on the arm of Johnny Drako. They stopped a short distance from the others and waited as Reverend McCafferty welcomed everyone and asked, “Who gives away this woman to be wed to this man?”

Johnny answered, “I do, on behalf of the town of North Fork.” Johnny placed Lilah’s hand in Seth’s before he turned to join Lou and their family in one of the pews.

At the end of the ceremony, Reverend McCafferty declared, “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder. You may kiss your bride.”

Seth just stood there, holding Lilah’s hands in his.

“Well? Kiss her already,” came from somewhere in the back of the church.

“May I?” Seth quietly asked.

“You better.” Lilah blushed as she whispered her reply.

Slowly, Seth pulled Lilah near to him and the kiss they shared expressed their love for one another.

As their lips separated, Reverend McCafferty declared, “I now present to you, Mr. and Mrs. Seth Lane.”

*****

Many of the ranch hands present took the reception as time to drink and have fun, insisting on keeping Seth from dancing with his new wife. Johnny and Mark had their hands full in cutting off those they felt a little too drunk, before they could cause a scene. Regardless, everyone present enjoyed the distraction the wedding and reception offered from the struggles in dealing with the on-going drought.

As the reception wound down and the guests left, Lucas started to bid Seth and Lilah goodbye, “Guess we won’t be seeing you again until after your honeymoon.”

“Grandpa, you going away?” Eli asked as he stood beside Lucas.

“Just for a few weeks,” Seth answered as he knelt down in front of his grandson.

“What’s a honeymoon,” Zach asked as he stood to the other side of Lucas.

“It’s when a husband and wife spend the night sitting out on the porch looking at the moon and talking all kind of lovey, dovey to each other. And check out each other’s teeth. Stupid,” Josh answered as he punched his brother in the arm.

“Your brother is not stupid,” Mark stated as he tugged at his eldest’s ear, having overheard his son upon rejoining his family. “And just where did you hear that piece of information regarding a honeymoon?”

“Oh, uh…”

“Out with it,” Mark ordered.

“Uh… You know Spin Whitcomb?”

Mark nodded.

“He told me about his older sister. She and her fee-and-see were sitting on the porch talking about getting married and stuff. Spin said it was… uh… kinda gross, the way they were talking and then the way they were checking out each other’s teeth.”

The adults present struggled to keep a straight face as they listened to Josh recount the story his friend had told him.

“Seth, Hope and I’ll see you and Lilah off at the train station tomorrow.”

The families bid goodnight to each other as Lucas and his family returned to Micah and Hattie’s, Mark and his family returned to Seth’s home, and Ethan and his family returned to the boarding house. Leaving Seth and Lilah in the lobby of the hotel.

*****

After seeing his children to bed, Mark returned to the bedroom and changed into street clothes.

“Mark, just what do you think you’re doing?” Hope asked.

“It’s just going to be a small shivaree!”

“You will not!” Hope declared.

“Hope, Ethan organized this one.”

“I don’t care, he’s my father!”

“You could come along…” Mark’s eyes held a mischievous gleam.

*****

Lucas saw Mark approaching the side of the hotel, “Surprised Hope let you come,” Lucas teased.

“She tried to dissuade me from coming. I offered to let her come and join the fun,” Mark answered.

“Bet that went over like a ton of bricks.”

“Guess I should be thankful Hope and I were as young as we were when we married.”

“Maybe I shouldn’t have forbid the shivaree,” Lucas jested.

“Come on, before they start without us.”

Father and son laughed as they jogged the rest of the way to join the others in celebrating Seth and Lilah’s wedding night.

*****

The families gathered at the train station Saturday morning to see Seth and Lilah off on their honeymoon.

“Father, don’t worry about your place, Annie and I will lock it up before we return to Fort Stanton on Monday,” Ethan offered.

“And Johnny and I’ll keep an eye on it until the two of you return,” Mark offered.

“I want to thank all of you for your blessings,” Seth answered as he placed his hand to the small of Lilah’s back and followed her as she stepped onto the train. Once at their seat, they waved goodbye.

The station platform didn’t empty until the train was well out of sight.

*****

“It’s going to be rather lonely,” Hope stated as she walked with her family to collect their belongings before returning home to the ranch.

“Would you rather live in town?” Mark asked, he had so looked forward to returning to his own home.

“It’s not that, it’s just…”

“What?” Mark asked.

“It’s been a while and I kinda got used to having Father… close,” Hope quietly answered.

“Hope, if you regret living out on the ranch…”

“Mark, no! I love living out on the ranch, it’s so peaceful and quiet and not so… crowded. I’m just going to miss Father.”

“Just remember, once they return, you’ll have a new mother, too.”

That thought brought a smile to Hope’s face.

*****

After seeing his family safely home and returning the boys’ beds to their home, Mark saddled Rainmaker and returned to North Fork.

“Didn’t expect to see you back in town so soon,” Johnny teased as Mark entered the Marshal’s Office.

“I want to get to the bottom concerning these two, before Jennifer and Wykestrom return,” Mark stated as he placed his rifle on his desk.

Standing in front of the cells, Mark listened as the two complained and demanded to be set free.

“If it is determined that you have… diplomatic immunity, you will be set free, but we will also see that you are returned to your home country and refused entry back into America. But until then, I want answers.”

“You’ll get nothing from us,” Dochlichter bitterly stated. “I want to see the doctor and have him look at my shoulder.”

“You’ll get nothing from our doctor. He declared your arm well enough to release you yesterday.”

“You can’t do this! I’ll have you drawn and quartered!” Dochlichter yelled as Mark turned from the cells and closed the door behind him.

“Didn’t think you’d get anything from them,” Johnny stated as he drank from his cup of coffee.

“It was worth a shot,” Mark answered. “Guess we’ll have to wait until Jennifer and Wykestrom return. When did Charles send the wire? I thought they’d be here on the morning train.”

“He didn’t send it until after you returned with Peter,” Johnny stated.

“Yesterday?”

“Wasn’t anything they could do except worry. This way, they know he’s safe. I’m sure they’ll arrive on the train Monday.”

In an effort to distract Mark from brooding about what had happened, Johnny stated, “Too bad Seth and Lilah didn’t stay until Monday.”

“How so?” Mark asked.

“The church social and fighting exhibition is tomorrow, or did you forget?”

“Guess I kinda forgot. Are there any good wagers being placed?” Mark asked.

“Betting? On an exhibition?”

“Don’t tell me you haven’t placed a bet or two.”

“Just don’t let Lou know,” Johnny answered with a gleam in his eyes. “Mark, things are fairly quiet since the hands have been learning how to box and it’s been a while since you’ve stayed at your place, why don’t you head on home for the night. I’m sure Hope could use your help getting things back in order.” Johnny peered over his coffee cup and stated, “So that’s the real reason you returned to town. Boy, get back to your home before I throw you in jail for dereliction of your responsibilities at home!”

“You’re no fun,” Mark teased.

“Yes I am, that’s why I’m sending you back home. Now get out of here!”

*****

Mark left the Marshal’s Office and headed to the hotel. He knocked on the door to the room where Charles and Peter had spent the night.

“Afternoon, Charles. Didn’t know if you wanted to keep Peter here or if he would be returning to the ranch. I know Ma and Pa are real sorry about his…”

“Mark, it wasn’t their fault and I won’t have your family taking blame. I think that Peter would really like to spend what time he can, back at the ranch with your sons and brothers.”

“You really mean it?!” Peter excitedly asked.

“Sure,” Charles answered as he looked to his nephew.

“Have you heard from Jennifer?” Mark asked.

“She and Wykestrom should be in on Monday’s train.”

*****

Mark and Peter returned to the McCain ranch and were rowdily greeted by the boys.

“Boys?” Mark tried to call to order.

“Oh, hi Pa!” Josh answered.

Mark shook his head as he watch all six boys run to the side of the house, chasing each other, playing a game of tag.

“Didn’t think you’d be back so soon,” Hope stated as she stepped from the porch.

“Johnny kicked me out and told me to get home. Said you’d probably need some help getting our home back in order.”

“I can do most of the work, but there are a few items I’ll need your help with. In the mean time, once you get the horses taken care of, why don’t you stay out here with all the boys.”

“Oh,” Mark stopped. “Johnny reminded me of the church social tomorrow.”

“I remembered, I’ve already planned our picnic lunch,” Hope answered and smiled. “And I’ve invited Charles and Amelia to join us and your parents.”

*****

The North Fork church was almost full to capacity for Sunday services. Knowing the reason why, Reverend McCafferty had planned a shorter than usual sermon, but one still based on tolerance and turning the other cheek. At the conclusion, the parishioners streamed outside and collected their picnic baskets from their wagons or buckboards.

Everyone enjoyed the wonderful weather the day brought. Amelia was awestruck with all the festivities and how freely everyone interacted. She smiled as she watched the children playing and shouting.

“Hope, may I help you with anything?” Amelia asked.

“If you wouldn’t mind helping in keeping an eye on Mykaela?”

The men left their wives to help set up the ring for the boxing exhibition that would be held later in the afternoon.

Gwen walked over to Hope and inquired if she needed any help.

“Gwen, why don’t you spend the afternoon with Jake and his family. You shouldn’t spend all your time worrying about helping me out.”

“But Hope…”

“Today is your day off. Now go and enjoy yourself,” Hope ordered.

Before Gwen could say anything more, Jake ran up and grabbed her hand and pulled her along behind him saying, “See, I told ya.”

*****

The sun progressed across the sky and found Micah Torrance shooting his scatter gun to get everyone’s attention.

“Hear Ye! Hear Ye! Come one and all! The boxing exhibition will begin shortly. Come and get your seats.”

North Fork’s citizens were excited to root for their friends and the various ranches being represented.

Leon Cooperton stood in the middle of the ring next to Micah and welcomed everyone to North Fork’s First Boxing Exhibition.

“Now folks, as you can guess it wouldn’t be fair to have certain boxers in the arena together, because of the discrepancy in the men’s sizes, so we’ve split the contestants up into categories. Feather weights, mid weights, and heavy weights. Each match will involve three rounds of three minutes apiece, with Micah being the official time keeper. After every man within a category has boxed, we will proceed to the next category, giving the earlier contestants time to catch their breath. After the heavy weight, we’ll return to the feather weights, and continue in such manner. Each match will be a process of elimination until we have only one man remaining from each category.”

The contestants strode from the back of the church and gathered around the arena.

“Now, as the boxers know, there are certain maneuvers that are not allowed and a boxer will be eliminated for any punches thrown below the belt. If necessary, when I yell break, you will go to your respective corners and wait until I say it okay to resume the match.”

Johnny Drako stepped up to the ring, “Just so you know, anyone who doesn’t break when Leon tells them too, will see the inside of my jail for the night. This is an exhibition and an exhibition only!”

The crowd cheered and laughed as each match progressed. Some of the contestants took to boxing and could go all three scheduled rounds, while others didn’t last beyond the first round of their match.

Eventually winners were declared. Oat Jackford’s hand took the heavy weight title, while one of Dave Merar’s men took home the feather weight title. As for the mid weight title, a new rancher to the territory, Mike Thomkins took home the title.

*****

Mark saw that Charles and Amelia were safely returned to the hotel for the night before he headed back home with his family, and Peter.

*****

Monday afternoon, Mark and Hope left their children with his parents while they returned to North Fork with Peter.

“Sir,” Peter asked as he stood behind the seat.

“Yes, Peter,” Mark answered.

“I wish we could stay here.”

“Don’t you want to return home with your parents?” Hope asked.

“I want to stay with my parents, but America is so different from home. Here, people could care less who I am. You’ve let me be a boy.”

“That’s why your parents left you with us. They just didn’t plan on Edgerton and Dochlichter kidnapping you.”

“Sir, I understand why my mother and father left me here. I’m ashamed for the way I was behaving at home.”

“From what I understand, it wasn’t all your fault, Peter,” Mark offered.

“No sir, but I’ll remember what we talked about last night. I’m just a person with a title, but that title doesn’t make me any better than anyone else.”

“Sounds like a good lesson to remember,” Mark answered. “Hope, I’ll drop you and Peter off at the daycare, I’m sure Jennifer and Wykestrom will want to talk regarding what happened.”

“No sir,” Peter interrupted. “I think my mother will want to make sure I’m okay first.”

Mark halted the buckboard at the livery and watched as Peter climbed down from the back. Mark made his way around and helped Hope down, before telling Nils they would be back when they could and thanked him for looking after the team.

They were met at the platform by Charles and Amelia and waited for the train to halt and for Peter’s parents to exit the train.

Wykestrom was the first to step to the platform and extended his hand to Jennifer. Peter patiently waited for them to approach, he looked at his mother, surprised she didn’t immediately run to him.

“Mother, Father,” Peter stated. “Welcome back to North Fork.”

“How are you son?” Wykestrom asked.

“I missed you. Oh Mama, I want a hug,” Peter cried as Jennifer knelt down and wrapped her arms around her son.

“Your Majesties, we’re awfully sorry about Peter being kidnapped. We didn’t receive the wire from Denver until after he had already been taken,” Mark stated.

“Mark we don’t blame you,” Wykestrom answered as he too knelt to hug his son. “I hope the bastards are dead or in custody!”

“Wykestrom!” Jennifer exclaimed.

“We have them in custody, but first, I think we need to talk,” Mark answered.

Jennifer held Peter at arms’ length and turned him one way or the other, looking him over.

“Mother, I want to be your little boy. I don’t want to be a prince, least not until I’m older,” Peter stated.

“What brought this change of heart on?” Jennifer asked.

“I made some wonderful friends and I learned that I need to respect you and Father, but more importantly, those people back home are wrong it putting me on a ped… ped… Well, they tell me I’m better than everyone else and I learned I’m not.”

“Jennifer, if I may,” Hope interrupted. “Why don’t you let me take Peter over to the daycare so the three of you can talk.”

*****

Upon entering the Marshal’s Office, Mark offered his desk chair to Jennifer.

“So are those responsible in your jail?” Wykestrom asked.

“Yes,” Johnny answered.

“I want to face them.”

Mark opened the door to the cells and allowed Wykestrom to enter first. “Edgerton! What?!” he declared.

Jennifer was immediately at her husband’s side. “You said you had a family emergency and had to return home?”

“Your Majesty, when he arrived at the outlaws’ hideout, he called for his Uncle Henry. The other man is Henry Dochlichter,” Mark stated.

“Dochlichter?” Wykestrom asked. “You! Why?!”

“How could you?” Jennifer demanded.

“You have no right to the throne,” Dochlichter spat as he pulled his hat from his face and sat up on the bed. “By eldest blood, I should be King.”

“Your grandfather was renounced as a member of the royal family when he plotted to kill his own father!” Jennifer argued.

“Jennifer, is he a diplomat?” Mark asked. “Does he have diplomatic immunity?”

“Not anymore.” Looking straight at Dochlichter, with anger in her voice, “Your family had been allowed to hold their titles as long as they did not contest the line of ascension, but now, you have no title or land. Your title and your land, and that of your get is forfeit.”

“Then he can be charged with kidnapping and stand trial here in America?” Johnny asked.

“Would your country press those charges even though my son is not a citizen?” Jennifer asked.

“Ma’am,” Johnny Drako stated. “It wasn’t just your son they kidnapped. They also kidnapped Mark’s brother, Little Ted.”

“We didn’t know,” Wykestrom stated.

“He’ll be okay. All the boys had fun playing at the ranch once we returned home. They’ve practically forgotten about it, or at least look on it as a big adventure,” Mark replied.

“Marshal, do with these two as you see fit. They are no longer citizens of our home country,” Jennifer declared. “I pray God has mercy on your souls, but you will pay for your crime against our friends.” Jennifer turned to her husband, “I wish to leave, to be with our son.”

*****

Two days later, Mark transferred the prisoners to the custody of Deputy U.S. Marshal James Jandl as they had waived their rights to trial and were to be transported to McNeil Island, in Washington State. He watched as Jandl secured the handcuffs both men wore and saw them to the last car of the train, where no one would be bothered by the men. Mark stood alone at the train station after the royal family boarded the first passenger car, to leave North Fork and return to their home. Bringing his thoughts to the present, Mark wiped his brow and headed back home.

The Next Generation… Chapter 89 – The Terrible Three

The late-summer sun beat down on Lucas and Mark as they spent longer days out on the range, working the McCain crops and tending to the cattle and fences. It took more effort to keep the ranch going as Lucas had insisted that Jake take time off to finish working on the home where he and Gwen would live, after they were married. The drought continued to take a hard toll on all the ranches in the territory.

“Pa, I know we’ve weathered droughts before, but, I don’t remember loosing this many calves,” Mark stated as he straightened up and bent backwards, after jamming the shovel in the ground.

Lucas removed his hat, pulled a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe his brow, and answered, “You were a lot younger the last time we suffered a drought this bad, but I know what you mean. There’s nothing we can do except keep doing what we’re doing, until God decides to bless us with rain.”

“I wish Mr. Jonas could make a return visit,” Mark commented as he remembered that particular drought.

*****

Hope and Milly spent their days, keeping their homes tidy, taking care of the children, and cooking for their tired husbands. In the mornings, Milly restricted Hope from helping with the laundry, instead, Gwen helped with the chore. During the afternoons, Hope and Milly worked with the twins and Little Ted to prepare them for school. Gwen helped by putting Eli and Mykaela down for their naps, before she worked on plans for her upcoming wedding. As the days passed, summer slipped to the beginning of fall and there was plenty of activity in North Fork and the McCain homes. The General Store was bustling with activity as parents purchased supplies and clothes, in order to prepare the children to return to school, while others would attend for the first time.

*****

Though Lucas had always insisted that Sunday was God’s day, as the drought continued, each day necessitated time out on the range. While waiting for Lucas to return home, Milly was dealing with two excited children and one very sad little boy.

“When do I get to have fun?” Levi asked.

“You get to have fun all the time?” Little Ted stated. “I have to go to work tomorrow.”

“You don’t go to work tomorrow, you’re going to school,” Myra corrected in a taunting manner.

“That’s work!” Little Ted argued.

“But nobody here to pway with me,” Levi pouted.

“Oh, sweetie,” Milly stated, picking Levi up and placing him on her lap. “Eli will still be home. And I’m sure Gwen will read you a story during the afternoon, before your nap. And after your nap, maybe we can bake a batch of cookies.”

Sniffling, Levi asked, “Can I lick the bowl?”

“That’s my job!” Little Ted declared.

“Your little brother gets to lick the bowl tomorrow, because you will be at school,” Milly stated and laughed when she heard Little Ted state, “Ah, that’s not fair.”

Milly looked up as a tired and sweaty Lucas walked through the kitchen door.

Little Ted ran over and tried to jump up in his Pa’s arms, only to hear Lucas give out a little moan.

“Papa, you hurt?”

“No, not hurt, just tired. It’s been a long, hot day.”

“Can I get you a glass of water?” Myra asked.

“That sounds good,” Lucas answered as he set his rifle in the stand next to the door and hung his hat on the peg on the wall.

Myra carried the water glass to her father and handed it to him as he sat down on a chair at the table.

“So, are you two excited about school tomorrow?” Lucas asked.

“Sure am!” Little Ted answered.

“Yes, Papa,” Myra replied.

“What ‘bout me?” Levi asked.

“You? Well, I might need a partner out on the range tomorrow. I’ll probably need someone to help keep Mark in line,” Lucas answered.

“I stay and bake cookies with Mama,” Levi stated.

Lucas and Milly both smiled.

“Lucas, let me put the children to bed and I’ll set out your supper. You should have time enough to wash up out back,” Milly offered.

*****

Mark walked into their bedroom, from washing up outside to hear Hope say, “Mark, you can’t keep me here!” as she stood at the side of the bed. “Tomorrow’s the twins first day of school!”

“Hope, I’d prefer you to stay here and take it easy. I don’t want you and our baby being jostled around, sitting on the wagon seat.” Mark crawled across the bed and wrapped his arms around Hope, petting her pregnant belly as she sat down. “Besides, who would hold Emmy on the seat? I hate to say it, but your lap kind of shrunk.” Mark ducked as Hope swatted backwards at him with her pillow.

“Please, I don’t want to miss seeing them walk into school on their first day,” Hope pleaded. “It only happens once in their life…”

‘It’s so hot outside… I don’t want you exerting yourself,” Mark tried to reason.

“Hot outside? It’s hot in the kitchen, cooking your supper each night you’re home.”

“Hope, I saw how uncomfortable you were today riding into town and back home for church.”

“That was just today, I didn’t sleep well last night, he was quite active,” Hope stated as she placed a hand over her pregnant belly. “Besides, just sitting on a wagon seat isn’t exerting. I’d be more anxious, waiting for you to get home to tell me all that happened. I’d be pacing the floor the whole time you’re gone.”

Placing his face close to Hope’s belly, “Hey little fella, let your mama sleep tonight. She has a big day planned tomorrow.” Reluctantly Mark gave into his wife. “Okay, but you don’t get down from the wagon seat until I get you back home!”

“And if I wanted to do some shopping while in town?”

“I did all your shopping yesterday, or are you trying to tell me you forgot to put something on the list?”

*****

Hope had figured the twins would be excited about going to school and immediately jump from bed when she called their names. Much to her surprise, the only response she received were groans proclaiming it was too early in the morning.

“Either both of you climb from your beds, right now or I’ll get your father to wake you from your beds,” Hope called.

“Mama, it’s too early to get up,” Josh replied again. “Just a little bit more, please?”

“No!” Mark called over Hope’s shoulder. “Your Mama called you to wake up and you’ll get from those beds right now and make them. You’ve time to get dressed and have a good breakfast while I go hitch the team.”

Both Hope and Mark grinned as they watched three boys squirm under their covers with two eventually climbing from their beds, eyes half closed.

By the time Mark returned to the house, Hope was removing the boy’s breakfast dishes from the table and placing them to soak in the sink.

“Now, let me look at the two of you,” Hope declared as she knelt in front of her oldest sons. “I can’t believe the two of you are old enough to start school.”

“If you don’t want us to go to school, we can stay here with you,” Zach replied.

“We can help Papa,” Josh chimed in.

“No, like your Grandpa Lucas always told me, a good education is more important. I’ll get along fine without you, until you’re old enough.”

“Don’t seem fair,” Zach stated as he fussed at his shirt collar.

“What doesn’t seem fair?” Hope asked.

“Having to dress up like we’re going to church,” Josh answered as he too fussed with his shirt collar.

“I want Mr. Bullock to think you both have been raised properly,” Hope answered.

“Come on everyone, the wagon train is about to leave,” Mark called from the doorway after he took his rifle down from over the mantle.

While Mark was helping to load his children, Hope, and Gwen in their buckboard; across the yard, Lucas was helping to load his family into their buckboard. Once in the driver’s seat, Mark rein slapped his team, turning them around to follow the rest of his family for the trip to school.

The closer they came to the school grounds they heard the laughter and squeals of other children playing before the morning bell rang. They saw numerous other families dropping their children off for the first day of school – parents lifting children from the back of buckboards, parents trying to make sure their children were presentable, and parents holding each other as their children went to school for the first time.

“I’m first!” Mark heard from behind as he turned and watched Josh and Zach jump down before he had the team to a full stop. He heard the gasp escape Hope. “They’re okay. They’re McCain’s,” Mark whispered as he squeezed her hand. He noticed Eli pouting in the back of the wagon, while Mykaela continued to play a hand clapping game with Gwen.

Mark climbed from the buckboard and called after his sons, “Joshua Lucas! Zachariah James!” He watched as the boys stopped running with a group of boys. With heads hung, they made their way back to the buckboard.

“Papa, we’s just wanting to play,” Josh answered.

“I know, but you will give your Mama a goodbye kiss and tell her you love her,” Mark quietly replied as he knelt down in front of the twins. “This is hard on her. She’s had you all to herself ever since you were born, now today; you’re growing up and starting school. She’s going to miss you.”

The twins looked at each other and then to their Ma. Mark lifted each one to the front seat of the buckboard.

“Mama, we’re gonna miss you. Will you make us some cookies today?” Josh asked.

“With a glass of milk when we get home?” Zach asked.

“I’ll have cookies and milk waiting for both of you when you get home. You mind everything that Mr. Bullock tells you today and behave yourselves?”

“Ah Ma, it’s not church,” Josh moaned. Seeing the look on his Pa’s face, Josh immediately stated, “Yes Mama.”

After both boys had hugged and kissed their Mama goodbye, Mark set them to the ground and pointed his finger at them, warning them, “You behave yourselves today. I don’t want to hear that either of you got into any trouble.”

“Yes, Papa!” they both answered as the school bell rang.

Mark turned to see tears streaming down Hope’s face. He looked to his parents’ buckboard and realized that practically the same scene was playing out there, as well.

“Well, Eli? What shall we do today?” Mark asked.

“Me?” Eli answered.

“Yes, you. We have to get your Mama, sister, and Gwen home, but then it’ll just be the two of us this morning.”

Mark watched as a smile spread over Eli’s face.

Mark climbed to the seat of the buckboard and watched as Johnny Drako walked away with one arm around Lou’s shoulders and Danielle on his other hip. He watched Abigail lay her head on Thadd’s shoulder while he carried Steven away from the school grounds. At a distance, he saw Micah and Hattie watching. At his parents’ buckboard. he saw Johnny Gibbs shaking hands with Lucas, while Milly and Colleen hugged each other. Realizing the separation anxiety that Hope must be feeling, Mark pulled her into a hug.

“I’ll be back this afternoon to pick them up. They’ll be fine,” Mark whispered.

Not trusting her voice, Hope only nodded.

The McCain’s waved as they drove past their families and friends, as they headed their buckboards home.

*****

After helping Hope inside, Mark insisted that she go lie down and take a small nap. Even though he had tried to be careful, there was still some jolting that couldn’t be avoided. He watched as Gwen carried Mykaela into the bedroom and placed her on the bed with Hope.

“Okay, Partner,” Mark called to Eli while he leaned over, hands to his knees.

“Part-ner?”

“Sure, why don’t you come and make sure I do things properly while I unhitch the team.”

Mark sat Eli on a stack of hay bales before he led the geldings inside. Chip and Poco came racing to the corral door and squealed as the two larger horses entered their stalls. As Mark unharnessed the horses, he answered the questions Eli asked about what happens at school.

As they returned to the house, Mark sent Eli to play in his room. Once the door was closed, he asked Gwen, “Is she sleeping?”

“Didn’t take too long before she fell asleep.”

“Good, let her sleep until she wakes on her own. Hopefully, it will be closer to lunch. I need to go out and check on the crops. Will you be okay with Eli and Emmy?”

Gwen nodded.

“I’ll be back in time to go after the twins.”

*****

The first month of school ended with progress cards sent home to the parents of every child, listing the child’s strengths and weaknesses. Both McCain households were pleased with the reports received from Mr. Bullock.

Mark and his family were spending the evening at his parents’ home, listening to the boys talk about how fun school was and how easy everything was that they were learning.

“Mark, can’t believe these are really your sons, considering how much trouble your mother had in working with you and your book learning,” Lucas commented.

“I’m thankful they’re finding school more enjoyable than I did at their age,” Mark replied.

“Still, can’t believe how well all three are doing in school,” Lucas stated.

“And why not?” Milly asked.

“Yeah, Pa, why not? With Milly and Hope instilling their lessons…” Mark teased.

“That’s not what I meant, and you know it. It’s just that as much as you struggled in school.”

“Oh, Lucas,” Milly teased. “We know what you meant. But at times, it’s taken everything we can think of, to get through to them… Believe me, dealing with all three is just as difficult as dealing with one Mark.”

“Hey!” Mark called out.

*****

The end of October was fast approaching when Percy Bullock made a late evening visit to Mark and Hope. After tying his horse to the hitching rail, he stepped to the porch and knocked on the door.

“Come in,” Mark called.

Percy entered the home to find Hope sitting in her chair and Mark sitting on a chair from the table pulled in front of where she sat. Percy snickered as he saw Mark tenderly massaging Hope’s feet and ankles.

“How’s the baby doing?” Percy asked as he removed his hat and tried to compose himself.

“Cooking right along,” Mark laughed.

“I’m down right miserable, with this heat…I feel as if I’m in an oven,” Hope replied, fanning herself. “But, Doc Burrage stated everything seems to be progressing well. We’ve only one more month to go.”

“I’m glad to hear. Tessa says to send her love,” Percy stated.

“So, what brings you all the way out here this late in the evening?” Mark asked.

“Um… Are the boys asleep?”

“Have been for probably a half hour,” Mark answered. “Why?”

“Well, I seem to be having some trouble in the classroom and though nobody will actually say who, I think Josh, Zach, and Little Ted are up to mischief.”

“Mischief?” Hope quietly exclaimed, trying to sit up in her chair, pulling her feet from Mark’s hands.

“I think some of the younger children overheard the older boys talking about mischief night. It’s less than a week away.”

“I forgot all about mischief night, I remember when I rode with Billy and Freddie…”

“What type of mischief are the boys up too?” Hope asked.

“Nothing serious, but definitely starting to disrupt the class. I mean, in the beginning, their swapping places and trying to convince me one’s the other was no big deal. I know about Josh’s birthmark. I’ve not found any slingshots at school, but paper wads are being thrown around and items aren’t where I know I left them. I’ve talked with Stevan and if you’d agree, we’d like to change classrooms tomorrow.”

“You don’t need my permission to change classrooms,” Mark stated.

“See, I think the boys are misbehaving because of our friendship… Regardless, I’d like for you to be outside the classroom, and if they do act up…”

“I’ll see that McCain Law is imposed upon them,” Mark declared.

“Mark, the three of them are really bright students. I have no qualms with their school work, it’s just that…”

“You don’t need to explain. I remember the trouble Freddie, Billy, and I got into, only we were a lot older. Pa called us the Three Musketeers.” Mark grinned. “Percy, you and Stevan set your plan into motion. I’ll talk with Ma and Pa tonight and let them know what’s happening.”

“Mark, I’m real sorry…” Percy stated.

“No need to be. After all, the three of them are McCain’s…” Mark answered as he shook his head. “I should have known things were proceeding too smoothly.”

*****

Mark escorted the four McCain children to school the following morning. The three boys spent the ride excitedly talking amongst themselves while Myra and Mark rode behind them. After saying goodbye to Mark and tying their ponies to the hitching rail, the three boys ran into the classroom, only to stop dead in their tracks, with Little Ted bumping into the twins, when they saw Mr. Griswald standing at the front of their schoolroom, lesson book in hand. They quickly took their seats when one of the older children rang the school bell.

The children sat straight in their seats as Mr. Griswald took roll call. After roll call, he walked up and down the aisles, stopping when he came to where the McCain’s sat.

“I understand that there has been quite the disruption in this classroom because of certain students, who are yet unidentified. This is a school for learning and I know each and every one of your parents expect you to receive a proper education. Let this be a warning, there will be order in this classroom, anyone who does not follow my instructions or those of Mr. Bullock will find themselves at the front of the classroom to receive a sound switching.”

“Uh uh,” one of the twins mumbled under his breath.

“What was that?” Mr. Griswald inquired; piqued that someone would be so bold.

“Nothing,” Little Ted declared as he jabbed Josh in the ribs.

Mr. Griswald turned to walk to the front of the classroom, when he felt something strike him on the back of his shoulder.

“Students, who did that?”

Not one of the children in the classroom said anything.

“Okay, since none of you will point out the guilty party, every one of you is considered guilty by association.”

“Mr. McCain, front and center,” Mr. Griswald ordered.

“Which one?” Josh snickered.

The voice Josh heard answer was not the voice he expected. “The one who used a rubber band to sling that paper wad, striking Mr. Griswald.” Josh started to look up as a shadow fell over him. He turned in his seat to see a U.S. Marshal’s badge pinned to the shirt. He didn’t have to look up any further to know the badge was being worn by his father. He sank lower in his seat.

“Front and center, Mr. McCain,” Mark stated, arms crossed in front of him. “Don’t make me pick you up from your seat.”

Mark watched as his son slowly stood. Josh looked to his Pa before walking to the front of the classroom, with his Pa right behind him. Once there, Josh asked, “You’re not gonna switch me, are you?”

“No, I’m not,” Mark answered. “But your teacher is.”

Mark stepped back two steps and motioned for his son to turn around. Mr. Griswald picked up the switch and stepped beside Josh. The look on Mr. Griswald’s face expressed his apology to Mark for what he was about to do. Mark nodded that he understood.

Two switches later, Josh was rubbing his backside as he returned to his seat, mumbling under his breath, “I’m gonna tell Mama.”

“You’ll find no sympathy from her, either. Mr. Bullock stopped by the house after you went to bed last night. How do you think I knew to be standing at the door today,” Mark answered. “Now, there will be three McCain boys who will stay inside while the other children play during recess. And, after school, you will stay in your seats until I return,” Mark stated.

“But I didn’t do anything,” Little Ted stated.

“Not today, but according to Mr. Bullock, the three of you have been up to mischief and for your actions, there are consequences.”

“What’s that?” Zach asked as he began to realize they were in trouble.

“Punishment,” Myra giggled.

“Miss McCain, mind yourself or else you just might end up joining your brother and… the twins,” Mr. Griswald replied.

“Yes sir,” Myra answered.

“Marshal McCain, thank you for helping to restore order to this classroom,” Mr. Griswald stated as Mark walked to the door.

“Just let me know if any charges are to be filed against them. They can work off their sentences at the jail.”

“Jail?” Josh asked.

“Yes, jail with bread and water for food. The jail needs a good scrubbing…”

After seeing his son back to his seat, Mark walked out the door. Once the door was closed, he laughed to himself. Yes, it pained him to watch as his eldest son was switched, but he knew that it wasn’t anywhere near as hard a switching as the one he had received, all those years ago.

*****

As ordered, the twins and Little Ted stayed in their seats during recess and lunch. Mr. Griswald gave them extra words to learn and copy down, adding that there would be more words for them to learn at home that week.

*****

Mr. Griswald rang the bell indicating the end of school for the other students. All three McCain boys jumped from their seats, but stopped when they heard Mr. Griswald clear his throat. Slowly they returned to their seats and waited.

*****

Looking up from grading papers, “Yes, Mr. McCain,” Stevan answered when he saw one of the twins raise his hand.

“I gotta go!”

“Alright, but you come straight back here. You were instructed to wait here for your father.”

Stevan watched as the boy walked out the door before he returned to his task.

Unsure how much time had passed, Stevan looked up when he heard boots sounding on the steps at the back of the schoolroom.

“Good afternoon, Mark,” Mr. Griswald called.

“Where’s Josh?” was his response. “Chip’s not out front.”

“Josh, why he…”

“He left saying he had to go,” Myra explained.

“Go where?” Mark asked.

“I thought he meant to the outhouse,” Stevan answered.

Pointing his finger to his son and his brother, Mark demanded, “You stay put! Gabby, keep an eye on them.” Mark ran from the schoolhouse to the outhouse, followed by Stevan. Mark knocked on the door and received no response, causing him to pull open the door to see it unoccupied.

Trying hard to apologize, Stevan stated, “Mark, I’m so sorry, I didn’t…”

“I should have remembered…” Mark felt the guilt worse than Stevan did.

“Stevan, will you see the others to Seth at the Marshal’s Office? Ask him to take them home and let Hope know what happened.” Mark asked.

“Mark, I’d like to help…”

“Stevan, this wasn’t your fault. You can best help by getting the others to Seth,” Mark stated as he walked back to the front of the schoolhouse and identified the tracks of the pony heading away. Mark grabbed Rainmaker’s reins and walked alongside the tracks.

*****

Stevan led the small procession of McCain children to the Marshal’s Office.

“Well, if you’re not the pied piper, but you seem to be missing one,” Seth stated, as he looked the group over.

“I know. I’m so sorry, but Josh seems to have run away,” Stevan stated.

“Because you switched him!” Zach bitterly pouted.

A knowing Seth answered, “I know what happened. Your father told me this morning. You’ll get no sympathy from me. A just punishment for throwing a paper wad at your teacher. You should be thankful that you didn’t get switched for all the trouble the three of you have been causing.”

“Seth, Mark asked if you would see them home and tell Hope what happened. He’s tracking Josh as we speak. I offered to go with him…”

“No, you did right in bringing the others here. Thank you Stevan, I’ll see that they get home.”

Johnny returned to the Marshal’s Office as Stevan was leaving, “So, more charges are being preferred against the lot of you?” he teased.

“Johnny, Josh ran away,” was all Seth said.

Johnny’s teasing tone of voice turned somber as he said, “Get them home. I’ll watch the town.”

*****

An older gentleman was giving his horse a break as he walked along beside it. With nowhere in particular to go, he was enjoying the changing colors of the sky as the sun sank behind the hills. He approached what remained of a small river, stopping to offer his horse a drink. Kneeling down to fill his canteen, he heard a high-pitched whinny from the trees on the other side of the river. Leaving his horse ground tied, he sprang across the river to investigate. The closer he approached he thought he heard someone. Stepping into the opening the man saw a young boy sitting next to a tree, his pony’s reins in his hands, crying.

“Well now, look what I found.” the man stated.

“Go way!” the boy called.

“You out here all by yourself?”

“What’s it matter to you? No one cares about me!”

Surprised at the boy’s response, the man asked, “Oh…, what about your parents?”

“Ain’t got none,” the boy answered.

The man walked over and knelt next to the boy, placing one hand on his shoulder and the other he placed under the boy’s chin to lift his face. “You don’t have no mama or papa?”

“I did, once. But not no more,” he answered while he tried to wipe away his tears.

“Well, if’n you were my boy, I’d be pretty worried if I didn’t know where you were,” the man said sympathetically.

“A man has to grown up some time,” the boy stated.

The stranger tried hard to hide his amusement, a mere child talking of being a man and growing up. “My I do envy you, living the life without a care in the world. So, you got this here piece of ground staked out for yourself?”

Wiping his tears, the boy asked, “Staked out?”

“Why sure, a man on his own needs land, good land, for building a home, planting crops, and raising cattle.”

“I know about raising cattle.”

“You got your herd around here somewhere?”

“No, my Papa and Grandpa, they got herds.”

With an understanding, the man said, “Oh?” He stood and continued, “My name’s Reed, Reed Young.” He held out his hand to the boy, who looked up to him from where he sat.

“Now that’s not very neighborly. I hold out my hand and introduce myself as a friend and you just sit there,” Reed spoke.

Getting to his feet and dusting off his backside, the boy stuck out his hand and said, “My name’s Josh, Josh… Josh Lucas.”

“Pleased to meet you Mr. Lucas,” Reed answered as he firmly shook the boy’s hand. “Care if I join you around your campfire for the night?”

“I don’t have one. Papa says I’m not old enough to use matches,” Josh answered.

“Well, I think I’m old enough.” Looking around the clearing, Reed stated, “You’ve got a good location here, why don’t you go search up some firewood and I’ll go get my horse. We can make camp here tonight. Unless you’d rather spend the night by yourself… out here… in the dark. The sun will be setting soon.”

It didn’t take much thinking before Josh answered, “No, I… I … I think I’d like your company.”

“Well, I been meaning to find me a partner. You might be the one I been looking for.”

“I was partners with Papa…”

*****

Lucas was waiting on the porch when Seth rode into the yard followed by three of the McCain children, “Seth?” he asked as he stepped down.

“Mark’s out looking for Josh. He took getting switched pretty hard and ran away after school. Stevan’s pretty torn up about it,” Seth replied.

“Thank you for bringing them home,” Lucas answered as he motioned Myra and Little Ted inside.

Seth followed Zach to his house and put a restraining hand on his grandson’s shoulder as they stepped to the porch. “Zach, your Mama was upset last night when she heard the report from your teacher about you and your brother misbehaving. Now she’s going to be even more upset when she finds out that Josh ran off.”

“He wouldn’t a run off if Papa hadn’t made Mr. Griswald switch him!”

“What did you expect? Your father’s a lawman, as am I. You three were reported to be breaking the school’s rules, and your brother was caught in the act. Do you think because your father’s a marshal and a friend of your teachers that you’re not supposed to be punished?”

After thinking for a few moments, Zach replied, “Guess not,” and hung his head.

“Straight to your room. I want to talk with your Mama.”

“Yes, sir.”

Seth followed his grandson into his home and watched as he headed straight to his bedroom.

“Father, what a surprise! I didn’t know you were coming home with… Where’s Mark… and Josh?” Hope asked as she greeted her father.

“Hope, sit down.” After waiting for his daughter to sit down, Seth continued, “Seems Josh was upset about the switching and ran away after school. Mark’s out searching for him right now.”

“He’s out there… alone?”

“He won’t be for long. You know how good a tracker Mark is. He’ll find him,” Seth offered to his daughter.

Hope looked out the window, past the horizon; hands clutched to her chest.

*****

Upon returning to where he’d met the boy, Reed instructed his ‘partner’ to help unsaddle his pony.

“Mighty fine looking horse you got here. This your brand Mc2?”

“Uh, yeah, Chip is mine,” Josh answered as he struggled to carry the saddle over to a fallen tree, after Reed handed it to him.

“I seen some cattle on the other side of town… North Fork, I think. They had this same brand.”

“We… They got lots of cattle.”

“They a good outfit?”

“Outfit?” Josh asked.

“Yeah, the people, are they good people to do business with? Would they feed a stranger traveling through, if’n he were hungry?”

“I think so.”

“They got a woman cook or a man cook?”

“A woman.”

“Is she a real good cook?”

“Yeah. Mama makes real good cookies and lets me lick the batter bowl…”

Reed smiled as he realized where the boy really belonged.

The sun had finished setting as Reed sliced some meat off the rabbit he had on the small spit. He glanced over at the boy and saw his head nodding, trying to fight sleep, while he ate. After waiting for the boy to fall asleep, Reed kicked dirt onto the fire and made sure it was out. As dry as the summer and fall had been, he knew the risk of fire on the plains. Keeping an eye on the boy, he saddled both his horse and the pony.

Having tied the pony’s reins to the saddle horn of his horse’s saddle, Reed knelt down and picked the sleeping boy up in his arms. In his sleep, the boy wrapped his arms around Reed’s neck. “I’m sorry, Papa.” he heard the boy mumble. Carefully, he mounted his horse and headed to the home where he hoped he would find two worried parents.

It had been ages ago when Reed rode with his young son in front of him. He could imagine the heartache the parents were experiencing in knowing their boy was missing; least Reed hoped that was the case. His horse sure-footedly picked his way over the terrain as the moon shown down on the travelers. Reed hummed a tune he remembered from long ago.

*****

Mark followed Chip’s tracks until he lost them among the sheer number of horses and wagons that traveled the road to and from North Fork. Worry gnawed at him, knowing once the sun set it would be all the more difficult to track. At a loss, Mark set off from the main road, yelling his son’s name. Worried that something could happen to his boy. Remembering the trouble he got himself into when he ran away and decided to play hooky after a switching.

‘Were there any caves nearby where Josh could hide with his pony?’ Mark asked himself.

Late afternoon turned to evening, and evening turned to night as Mark continued his search, over each hill and through each valley, around every shrub and behind every boulder. His throat could barely squeak out his son’s name when he admitted to himself that he couldn’t go on any more, not alone. With a heavy heart, Mark turned his horse for home. Grief surrounded Mark as he rode, and he knew it wouldn’t be easy to face his wife and admit to her… he couldn’t locate their son.

‘Maybe if I can get others to help, get a search party, we’d have a better chance in finding Josh,’ Mark thought and tried to think of other areas where Josh could have gone. He thought on the faces of the many strangers who came and went from town on a daily basis.

“Josh, where are you son?” Mark squawked out. The only response was the flutter of an owl flying through the night sky.

Mark continued to ride, stopping at the river to water his horse. Scanning his surroundings through the darkness, Mark thought he smelled faint wisps of smoke and followed the smell into a clearing. Kneeling at the small mound covering what once had been a campfire, it didn’t take but a few seconds to realize someone had recently abandoned the camp. In looking around, he spotted the tracks, pony tracks. Running back to Rainmaker, he swung himself into the saddle without placing his foot to the stirrup. He followed the tracks until they were lost in the hardpan. He kicked his horse for all he could, urging his horse home. He needed to get a proper search party together to search for his son. Someone had his son.

*****

Reed followed the dirt trail and rode into the yard. He thought he vaguely remembered the one house and barn, but it had been so long… Maybe he was thinking of somewhere else.

A man wearing a badge stepped from the far house and jogged over to where Reed stopped.

“Mister…” Seth started to call.

“I found him on the other side of town. I figured from the brand on his pony and the cattle I saw on the range earlier, he might belong here.”

“If he is who I pray he is, he’s my grandson,” Seth stated as he reached to take the boy into his arms.

From the near house, Lucas was shortly behind Seth.

“It’s him Lucas, it’s Josh.”

The two grandfathers breathed a sigh of relief.

“Is he okay?” Lucas worriedly answered.

“He’s just sleeping,” Reed answered.

“Let’s get him inside to his Ma,” Seth stated as they heard Milly call questioningly to Lucas.

*****

Hope cried when she saw her father carry her son into the front room. She tried to take her son into her arms, but Seth wouldn’t allow her, considering how far along in her pregnancy she was. “Hope, open his bedroom door, I’ll carry him in.”

Once Josh was laid in his bed, Hope sat down and removed his boots and socks. Seth pulled the boys pants from him, while Hope lovingly unbuttoned and removed his shirt. Milly brought a nightshirt from the dresser and helped Hope slip it over his head. Seth pulled the covers over his grandson, while Hope placed a kiss to his forehead, before the three returned to the front room.

*****

“The name’s Reed, Reed Young.”

“Mr. Young, thank you for bringing my son home,” Hope professed.

“You’re welcome.” He removed his hat. “If you don’t mind my asking, how long before the next one is due?”

“Thankfully, not tonight,” Milly stated, in seeing how Hope labored to sit down in her chair. “Hope you need your rest. You’ve been on your feet since Seth brought the others home from school. Please, I think it would be best if you were to go lie down, and try to sleep.”

“Mark’s out there! He’s got to be worried sick!” Hope declared.

“He’ll come home when he can’t find him,” Lucas stated. Seeing Hope’s expression, “I know how he must feel, but we have to wait for him to come home. It won’t do anyone any good for us to go looking over the territory in the dark, and possibly miss him.”

“Lucas, I should head back to town, just in case Mark stops by there, before heading here… I can let him know Josh is home,” Seth stated.

“Thank you, Seth,” Milly stated as she saw Seth to the front door. Milly returned to stand in front of Hope, hands on her hips, “Hope?” Milly assisted Hope to stand from her chair and followed her into her bedroom. Once she was lying down, Milly pulled the covers over Hope, “Try to get some sleep. Mark can take care of himself. He’ll be home.”

*****

“I do remember this place, don’t I,” Reed asked as he looked out the front window. “It’s been a long time, the other house and the barn… You’re Lucas McCain?”

“I am, but I’m sorry, I don’t remember you,” Lucas replied.

“It’s been a long time. You hired me on to help around the place… It had to be… fifteen years ago?”

Lucas shook his head; he still couldn’t place the man.

“You helped me get squared away with the law. I’d been wrongly convicted of murder, and you helped convince me to go back to jail, to tell my story, and because of that, I got a second chance at life. Actually, your little boy believed in me enough that he convinced you to believe in me.”

“Your story sounds familiar, but not your name,” Lucas replied.

“I was going by Walter Hake back then.”

“Hake?! You convinced Mark to release the hawk!”

“That’s right.”

“Lucas?” Milly stated as she came back to the front room.

“Why don’t you go back home. I’ll stay here and wait for Mark.”

Milly nodded, “Mr. Young, thank you. Thank you so much for bringing our grandson home.”

Reed and Lucas watched as Milly left the home.

“She looks to be a mighty fine woman, they both do,” Reed stated.

“Yes, the boy’s mother is married to Mark,” Lucas told him.

“Can he really be old enough to have a son?” Reed asked.

“That one has a twin brother, as well as a younger brother and sister, plus the one that’s due next month,” Lucas answered.

“Doesn’t seem possible,” Reed answered as he scratched at his scalp.

*****

Worry, fear, and exhaustion had taken their toll on Mark as he struggled to keep his eyes open. Rainmaker crested the hill with his rider half-asleep in the saddle for the last part of the trip down the road home. Mark didn’t notice the lanterns on his parents’ porch lit. He didn’t see the lanterns on his own porch lit, nor the lanterns in the front room of his home.

Rainmaker snorted when he stopped at the hitching rail, where he had been tied so many times. A tall figure looked out the window in hearing the noise. The front door quickly opened and Lucas stepped to the porch, and to his son. Mark roused as Lucas placed his hand on Mark’s knee.

“Pa, I couldn’t find him. Someone has him. I found signs,” Mark struggled to say through his swollen throat as tears fell from his eyes. “I…”

“Mark, he’s home. Josh is safe.”

Welling in his grief Mark said, “Pa, how do I tell Hope?”

Lucas helped Mark down from his horse and turned his son to face him, giving him a gentle shake. “Mark, Josh is inside, he’s sleeping. He’s home.”

“He’s here? He’s home?!” Mark was fully awake.

Lucas nodded.

Mark pushed aside his Pa to enter his home and walked to the bedroom his sons shared. He opened the door and watched as the lantern from the front room shown on three sleeping boys occupying the beds.

“Thank you, God. Thank you,” Mark whispered in a raspy voice as he closed the door. Walking to the sink, he primed the pump, filled a glass with water, and drank heavily.

Lucas stood next to his son, “Where’s Hope?” Mark asked.

“Milly saw her to bed right after they put Josh to bed, after he was brought home,” Lucas answered.

“Brought home? Who?”

Lucas turned and pointed Mark to the man standing on the far side of the table, looking at the pictures hanging on the wall.

Mark walked over and profusely thanked the man. “Mister, thank you so much. You don’t know how much it hurt not finding him out there and knowing I was coming home and tell my wife… I guess it was your camp I came across?”

“Well, I knew there had to be a family mighty worried about him. Sorry, but I tricked him into giving me clues as to where he lived. Don’t think he realized it though. He’s probably going to be upset in the morning when he finds out he slept in his own bed.”

“Don’t be sorry. You did what was necessary to see him home. And I can’t thank you enough, Mr. …”

“Mark,” Lucas said. “This is Reed Young.”

“Mr. Young, thank you…” Mark quieted as thought he recognized the name but couldn’t quite place it.

“You were probably ten when we first met.” Reed answered Mark’s unanswered question. “You were kind of disappointed to find your rabbit snares empty.”

Still not seeing Mark place his name, “I see you outgrew the rattlesnake hatband.”

“Hake…”

“That’s the name I went by back then. I’m glad your boy is safe and that you’re home too. I best be going. I wish you well with the newest member of your family.”

“Please, Mr. Hake, I mean Mr. Young, I insist, my home is your home tonight. Least I can do, seeing what you did for me… us.” Mark looked to his Pa.

“Well, I could stay out in the barn…”

“I won’t hear of that. I’ll bring the cot inside; we can set it up here in the front room.”

“Thank you. I’ll accept on the condition that you call me Reed.”

‘Thank you, Reed,” Mark replied and took Reed’s hand in both of his.

*****

Mark told Reed to strip his horse and turn him loose in the corral, while he pulled the cot out from the closet in the corner of the barn. After returning to the house, they worked to set up the cot in the front room for Reed. Mark didn’t want to disturb Hope, but he wanted to check on her. Quietly he opened the bedroom door to peek inside, and saw Hope was peacefully asleep. For a few minutes, he knelt at the side of their bed and watched as she slept, he couldn’t help the feeling of contentment that filled his soul. As he returned to the front room, he saw Reed had already fallen asleep on the cot. Mark sat down in his chair and leaned back, praying he could fall asleep. His mind refused to allow sleep to come promptly, he kept thinking of not being able to locate Josh and the fear that someone had his son. In time, exhaustion won over and quieted his mind.

*****

The following morning, the first rays of daylight made their way in the home, shining on where Mark slept in his chair in the front room. Hope woke early and entered the front room to see Reed Young sitting up on the cot.

“Mrs. McCain, he got home a few hours after you went to sleep.” Reed offered after he saw the relief on her face.

“Have you known Mark for long?” Hope asked.

“I met him when he was but a boy. He convinced his Pa to believe in me enough to give me a job. The two of them convince me to go back to prison and their Marshal… Torr… Torr…”

“Torrance?” Hope completed.

“Yeah, Torrance. He took me back and presented my story to the warden. I got a second chance and my verdict was set aside and eventually I was a free man.”

Mark woke as Hope started to prepare breakfast for her family and their guest.

“You’ll stay for breakfast Reed?” Mark asked.

“Yes, I think I at least owe your boy an apology,” Reed stated.

“No, he’ll owe you an apology,” Mark stated as he stretched. “I’ll be back in a little while, I’ve chores to see to this morning.”

“Mind if I join you, seeing as you put me and my horse up for the night?” Reed asked.

“No, come along,” Mark replied.

*****

As they entered the barn, Reed asked Mark about feed for the horses. Mark pointed to the grain bin. Mark was haying the stock when Lucas entered, “Mark?”

“Over here Pa,” Mark answered.

“Just came to see how you are doing?”

“Me?”

“I saw how you looked when you first arrived home last night. I wanted to make sure you were okay.”

“You mean that I wasn’t mad and ready to tan Josh’s britches this morning?” Mark replied.

“No, I know you better than that. I mean, you looked devastated. I know how you must have felt…”

“I guess you’re thinking about Dochlichter and Edgerton a couple of months back with Little Ted?” Mark asked.

“No I was thinking of further back, you.”

“Oh, Neff Packer and Carl Avery?” Mark stopped what he was doing and shivered.

“Yes. When I realized you hadn’t gotten home that day, and I returned to town and Milly said you left exactly when you were supposed to. Mark, when Micah found that note and I realized you weren’t just missing, but you had been taken… I’m sure I felt then, the same way you did last night when you found Reed’s camp.”

“Pa, I felt so helpless… I mean, I’m practically as good a tracker as you are, and I couldn’t trail after one small pony. I couldn’t find my own child! If he had gotten hurt or…”

“Mark, I couldn’t find your tracks, either. So stop it right there… We were fortunate that a friend found Josh and brought him home. Focus on that.”

“Pa? How long did it take before you got over your fear of the nightmares?”

“The nightmares?”

“Remember when we went camping?” Mark asked as he shivered again, remembering the reason for their trip that ended at Skull Ranch, outside of Lordsburg.

“Oh, it took a little longer than that trip. The good news is that you probably won’t have to deal with your son having nightmares at the same time, like I did.”

“Pa, the good news is, I’ll have you and Hope to help me through this.”

*****

Mark and Reed returned to the house to see the door to his sons’ bedroom open ever so slightly.

“Josh, come on out here.”

Mark watched as the door opened wider for Josh to peek out and all of a sudden, “Hey!” Josh yelled as he went sprawling to the floor.

Mark walked over to where his son sat on the floor; standing with his arms folded in front of him, Mark asked, “Josh, what do you have to say for yourself?”

“Josh? I’m Zach. Josh pushed me.”

Mark reached for his son’s left wrist, “Have you forgotten about your birthmark?”

“Uh…”

“Uh… Yeah. We’ll talk about you pretending to be your brother later. I’m talking about yesterday, your running away!” Mark answered with more than a hint of anger in his voice.

“You made the teacher switch me in front of everyone!” Josh replied.

“A just punishment.”

“Not if you loved me,” Josh whispered.

“Josh, come over here and sit down.” Mark walked over to the table and pulled out two chairs, pointing for Josh to sit in one, while he sat down in the other.

Reed stood just inside the doorway, Hope stood at the stove, while Gwen held Mykaela by the kitchen sink, as everyone watched Mark talk with his eldest.

Taking a deep breath, Mark spoke, “Josh, it’s because that I love you that I allowed Mr. Griswald to switch you. You know that I’m a lawman and that I uphold the laws?”

Josh nodded.

“And when rules are broken, I put those who break the law in jail until a judge arrives and can try them. And when found guilty, they are sentenced for their crime.”

“That’s what Grandpa Seth tried to tell me yesterday,” Zach said from the doorway to their bedroom.

“But, you not a judge,” Josh stated, still feeling hurt.

“No, but as your father, I have the right to set down discipline. I could have brought you home and tanned your britches here, and believe me it would have hurt more had I switched you.”

“You gonna tan my britches now?” Josh asked as he looked to Mark, yet tried to keep his head down.

“What do you think I should do?”

After giving Josh a few minutes to think, Mark stated, “I think you should apologize to your Mama for causing her such worry and I think you should apologize to Mr. Young for having to go out of his way to bring you home.”

Josh couldn’t look to his parents as Mark heard a sniffle.

“Did I cause you worry, Papa?” Josh asked as he sniffled again.

“A parent always worries when they don’t know where their child is. Josh, I’m not mad at you and for now, you’ll not have your britches tanned, but, you will do extra chores around here to make sure you understand what you did was wrong.”

“More con… con-seck…”

“Consequences, yes.”

“Papa, I’m sorry I ran away… And I’m sorry I pretended to be Zach. I won’t do it again.” Josh stood from his chair to jump up and wrap his arms around his Papa’s neck.

Mark wrapped his arms around his son and patted his back. After a few moments, Mark set Josh to the floor and steered him towards his Mama. After hearing his son apologize, Mark next pointed to Mr. Young.

*****

After breakfast, Josh helped his Mama with the dishes before following his Papa and Mr. Young out to the barn. Mark pointed to the brush box and said, “You can also thank Mr. Young by brushing his horse this morning. And I want him to shine better than Chip does.”

“Yes sir,” Josh stated as he picked up a brush.

Standing to the side, Mark and Reed watched and grinned while Josh worked at grooming the horse.

“My, my, don’t know when the last time I saw Buzzard looking so good,” Reed stated fifteen minutes later.

“Buzzard?” Josh asked.

“Sure, I found him a few years back and he was practically buzzard food. I nursed him back to health and look at how good he looks.”

“I did a good job?” Josh asked.

“I never thought his coat could shine this bright. Yes, you did an excellent job in grooming him,” Reed answered.

By late-morning, Mark was bidding Reed goodbye and thanking him one last time for bringing Josh home.

*****

“Papa, can I go play with Zach and Little Ted?” Josh asked as he looked out the door and saw his brother and uncle playing in the yard.

“I think you still have some chores to do. The manure in the corrals needs to be picked out. I’ll move the wheel barrow in there and you can put the manure in it.”

Shortly before lunch, Hope walked to the barn and asked Mark, “Don’t you think you’re over-punishing him?”

“Maybe, but do you think he’ll try any of this again if he knows what the consequences are going to be?”

“Can he have a break for lunch?”

“Is it ready?”

Hope nodded.

“Josh, you’re granted a temporary reprieve?” Mark hollered.

“A what?” Josh asked as he leaned into the pitchfork and used the back of his forearm to wipe the sweat from his forehead.

“Lunch,” Hope answered. “Come on now, the two of you need to wash up before you eat.”

*****

The nightmares Mark feared; didn’t come. Just the one that first night home, when he his emotions over rode his senses and he wasn’t able to acknowledge that his son was really home, safe and unharmed.

 

The story continues in The Rifleman – The Next Generation Pt 19

 

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.