Synopsis: An AU story surrounding the McCains and their friends after the end of the series’ five-year run. A continuing saga of an idea begun in my story, Timing.
Category: The Rifleman
Word Count: 15,300
The Next Generation… Chapter 93 – A Belated Celebration
Johnny watched for Seth and Lilah’s return, to show them the wire Amos had brought to him.
“You were right, he’s made it to Clovis? Sounds like he might be heading to Amarillo,” Seth commented. “Are you planning to take this to Hope tonight?”
“I figure I’d do it come morning. Let them think no news is good news. Maybe they’ll get some sleep,” answered Johnny.
“They sure could use some. Both Hope and Milly look so exhausted. I wish there was something I could do,” Lilah offered.
“There sure is, we can go out there tomorrow and bring them here. I declare…” Lou stated as she joined the group.
“Lou, they don’t want to come to town,” Lilah stated.
“Well, I don’t care what they want. They’re your family and they should listen to ye. Ye can tell them we’re only going to bring them to town to do their shopping,” Lou offered.
“They gave us their shopping list before we left. Asked if we’d bring it out to them on Saturday,” replied Seth.
“Did they invite you out to celebrate Myra’s birthday on Friday?” Lou asked.
“Lou, I take it you’ve not been inside their homes…” said Seth.
“No, why?” asked a curious Lou.
“Because their Christmas presents are still wrapped and sitting in the corner of the front room in Hope and Mark’s home. And I presume the same can be said at Milly and Lucas’. The children weren’t in the mood for the holidays, so I really don’t think Myra is going to be wanting to celebrate her birthday without Lucas or Mark being there,” Seth answered
“Well they have to come to town on Sunday. That’s when we’ve rescheduled Gwen and Jake’s wedding reception, right after church.” Those present weren’t sure whether Lou was stating fact or asking a question.
“Ma, I know you can’t really want to go to town today?” Hope asked as she stared out the window.
Walking over to stand next to Hope and placing a hand on her shoulder Milly replied, “Hope, I miss Lucas and I’m worried about both of them too, but this afternoon it’s not about us. This is for Jake and Gwen.”
“I know, I just… I don’t…”
“Hope, we need to do this. We can’t shut ourselves away from our friends. Hattie’s had this party planned for Gwen since the middle of December. We have to be strong, for ourselves and for our children. Besides, we can pray for their safe return while at church.”
“It’ll feel awkward not having Mark or Pa at our sides.”
Hope looked to the picnic basket sitting on the table for the box social.
“I know, it’s awkward just not knowing…”
Hope and Milly hugged each other until they heard Faith start crying.
“I need to nurse her before we leave.”
“I’ll help Mykaela get dressed,” Milly stated.
Seth drove the surrey to the McCain’s ranch Sunday morning to pick up Hope and Milly, and their children to return them to town for church and the wedding reception.
Hattie and Micah were the first to greet the McCains at the steps to the church.
“Glad to see you came,” Micah stated as he knelt down to hug each one of the children, while Hope held Faith.
“We weren’t so sure that Seth would be able to convince you to still come,” Hattie stated as she took Faith from Hope.
“Ma said something before Father arrived,” Hope answered as she hugged Lilah.
“What was it Milly said,” Lilah asked.
“I told her we shouldn’t shut ourselves away from our friends, so from now on… We will do our own shopping and we will come to town as we normally would. And we’ll accept our friends into our homes. It’s what Lucas and Mark would want of us.”
The parishioners of North Fork’s church made their way to the town hall after Sunday service concluded. The women carried their picnic baskets, many gaily decorated in a manner that the husband or boyfriend would recognize the basket and bid on the correct one.
Upon entering the town hall, Jake and Gwen, as well as Reverend and Mrs. McCafferty welcomed everyone inside. Several tables had been set up along one of the walls for the picnic baskets, and another table had been set up on the opposite wall for the wedding cake, baked by Ethyl Cooperton.
Micah and Hattie handed out cups containing punch as people walked by the table they stood behind. Hattie motioned for the bandleader to begin playing. Prior to anyone arriving, she had requested the band keep the music a little in reserve, in anticipation that Hope and Milly would attend.
Gwen and Jake happily accepted many congratulating hugs and kisses, as each person wished them a long, happy marriage.
“Attention, attention,” called the bandleader. “May I have the bride and groom, front and center!”
Jake escorted his bride on his arm as the two of them made their way to the podium.
“Jake, Gwen, I know your reception is being held a little later than it should have, but regardless… This town wants you to know how much they care about the two of you. This dance is for you, if you’ll take your bride to the middle of the dance floor?”
As the music started, Gwen and Jake only had eyes for each other as they slowly danced to the music. Halfway through the number, the conductor changed up the tempo, and their friends immediately began to clap their hands and/or tap their feet in beat with the new tempo. Hoots and hollers sounded throughout the room. As Jake and Gwen carouseled around the floor, they motioned for others to join them in the fun.
The band started to play another song as some people left the floor and others joined in the dancing. Hope sat on a bench, set out for the guests, with Mykaela sitting on her lap; she was helping her daughter clap her hands. Beside her, Lilah sat cuddling with Faith. Much to Milly’s surprise, Isaiah Cooperton stopped in front of her and bowed, “Mrs. McCain, if I may?” he held out his hand.
Milly accompanied Isaiah to the dance floor, where they danced to a mildly upbeat tune.
At the conclusion of the song, Isaiah bowed to Milly before extending his hand to escort her back to her seat.
“Mrs. McCain, normally I know a man would ask the father if it would be permissible, but,” Isaiah looked to where Myra stood and blurted out his request, “May I please have a dance with Myra?”
Milly smiled as she nodded.
In time, Hattie announced it was time for the men to bid on the picnic baskets. “And men, it’s up to you to bid on the correct basket. I hear tell the circuit judge is due later in the week and we don’t want nobody being threatened with divorce.”
“Mama, what’s divorce,” Myra asked.
“Nothing you need to concern yourself with,” Milly replied.
Micah held up a simply decorated basket and looked around the room, attempting to determine who had brought this basket.
“Well now, this is a mighty pretty basket, made by someone I hold dear as a granddaughter, so boys, you best bid up.”
The other men present started the bid out low, knowing that Myra had made the basket. As the amount of money increased, the number of men bidding dropped off until there was only Isaiah Cooperton left.
“Sold! Seventy-five cents to Isaiah Cooperton. Miss Myra McCain, if you’ll present Mr. Cooperton with his basket.”
Myra squealed when she realized how much money her basket had fetched and that Isaiah was the winning bidder.
Finally, there were two baskets remaining on the bench. Micah knew they belonged to the McCain women.
He held up the next to last basket and though several men had already bid on their own wife’s basket, they felt obligated to bid on this one. “I know that Milly McCain makes a fried chicken to die for!” As the price of the basket neared five dollars a voice from the doorway called out, “I’ll see that bid and raise it to fifty dollars!”
Everyone turned in hopes to see Lucas McCain standing in the doorway. Milly’s heart sunk as she saw a friend of Lucas’ instead.
“Now, don’t tell me Lucas McCain isn’t wanting to outbid me?” the man declared as he removed his hat and entered the room. “Luke, where are you?”
Milly stood to her feet to go greet Lariat Jones.
“Lariat, it’s nice to see you, again.” She lifted to her tiptoes and gave Lariat a welcome kiss on the cheek.
“Where is that old dog of a man you call a husband?”
“Please, just come aside.”
“Miss Milly, where’s Lucas? Something’s not right here.”
“You can call it a witch’s brew,” Milly answered as she took the basket from Micah and handed it to Lariat.
Micah returned to the podium and held up the last basket, Hope’s.
Numerous men bid on the basket Hope had created, but Jake ended up with the winning bid.
“I owe you and Mark this much,” Jake stated as he paid his bid and took the basket from Hope.
‘You don’t owe us anything, Jake,” Hope replied as she graciously handed the basket to Jake.
Gwen was there by his side, “Hope, we have to have faith that they’ll both return safely. I agree with Jake, if it weren’t for you and Mark, we wouldn’t be married. We owe it to you to not leave your basket on the table.”
Once everyone had finished the picnic baskets, Micah called Gwen and Jake to the table where Micah invited them to cut their wedding cake.
“I know had certain members of our town been present today, they’d both be here to offer a toast to the two of you,” Micah stated. “You have been tested early in your married lives and it is those trials that I believe will make your marriage stronger. As long as you listen to your hearts, this marriage will grow stronger. Remember to talk with each other and never go to bed mad at each other.”
Micah handed the knife to Jake who positioned his hand so that Gwen could hold the knife too, while together they cut the cake. Everyone laughed as husband and wife attempted to stuff a piece of cake in the other’s mouth. By the end, they kissed each other and held tight.
Gwen and Jake thanked all their guests for sharing their afternoon and making their wedding reception memorable.
“Okay, now tell me, what’s going on?” Lariat asked of Milly after most of the other guests had left.
“Lariat, Lucas disappeared two days before Christmas. We don’t know anything other than Mark’s trailing after who ever took him.”
“What word have you heard from Mark?” Lariat asked, looking to Hope.
“We only hear when he makes it to another town. He just wires where he is,” Hope answered.
“And who’s helping out at the ranch?”
“Jake’s still with us and the other ranchers send hands out to help,” Milly replied.
“Anyone staying at the ranch of a night?”
“Just us,” Hope answered.
“Not any more. Lucas would skin me alive if he found out I was here and didn’t stay. We’ll set up a cot in the barn,” Lariat stated.
“Lariat, we have an extra room at our home. We can set up a cot in that room…” Hope offered.
“Now Miss Hope, I’d appreciate that. Now introduce me to all the children. Last time I was here, I remember the twins and you’d just given birth to your second son, and Milly… I remember you have three.”
Hope pointed out her children, by name, to Lariat and Milly pointed out hers.
“How did you ladies get to town?” Lariat asked.
“My father brought us in the surrey.”
Seth and Lilah joined the McCains and Lariat.
“Father, you remember Lariat Jones?” Hope asked.
“Lariat, welcome back to North Fork.”
“Why thank you deputy. Now who’s this pretty filly on your arm?” Lariat asked as he placed a kiss on Lilah’s proffered hand. “That’s not a wedding ring I see on your left hand…”
“Lariat, I’d like to introduce you to my wife, Lilah Lane,” Seth stated with a grin on his face.
“Pleasure is mine,” Lariat smiled back.
After the group had chitchatted for a little while longer, Lariat stated, “If you don’t mind, I think I’ll return the ladies and their children to their homes.”
Lariat followed Seth outside.
“Lariat, I appreciate your offering to stay at the ranch with them. It’ll make everyone feel a bit better knowing that someone is out there to keep an eye on their place.”
“You honestly don’t know any more than Mark’s tracking after Lucas?” Lariat asked.
“Lilah and I were spending Christmas with Ethan and Annie up at Fort Stanton. We didn’t know anything until we returned. Amos informs Johnny of any wires and he lets me know…”
“You’ll keep me posted?”
Lariat dropped Milly and her children off at her house and made sure their front door was locked before he returned to the surrey to see Hope and her children across the yard.
“Now Miss Hope, let’s get these young ‘en inside. I’ll take care of the horses and the surrey.”
“There’s a cot in the corner storage locker. I’ll get some blankets and covers for you.”
Within a half an hour of arriving, Lariat lay stretched out on the cot in the spare room in Mark and Hope’s home. “Lucas, what witch’s brew have you gotten yourself and Mark into this time?” Lariat wondered aloud.
The Next Generation… Chapter 94 – The Waiting Game
“Hey Johnny!” Martin, Amos’ apprentice telegrapher, called as he stepped from the telegraph office.
“What’s up Martin?” Johnny asked as he crossed the street.
“Got this here wire for you. Came from Yuma.”
Johnny read the wire Martin handed him and thanked him, before heading to the Marshal’s Office.
“Anything of importance?” Seth asked as Johnny stepped to the boardwalk.
“Yuma wired, notifying us of another prisoner’s release. The man served his time. I’ll match it with one of his wanted posters, if we have one, and file it away in the drawer with all the other notifications.”
Mark made it to Amarillo, Texas and after confirming with the captain of the Texas Rangers stationed there, that Turpin had been spotted in Amarillo, he figured the bounty hunter would turn North and head to the Oklahoma panhandle; Boise City, the closest location to claim a reward payable in Oklahoma.
Having been gone from home for over three weeks already, Mark made it to Masterson when he realized he had made a terrible mistake. Upon checking in with the town Sheriff, he found out that no bounty hunter had been through there in months, but the Sheriff had heard about a bounty hunter causing trouble in Washburn. Without bothering to send a wire home, Mark left town and headed southeast, frustrated that he was now even further away from his Pa.
Johnny Drako was the first person to see the steely-eyed man ride into town. Johnny’s eyes followed as the rider stepped from his horse and strode into the saloon. Pulling his hat from his desk, Drako left the Marshal’s Office and walked across the street, stopping in front of the saloon. The stranger was sitting at the table just inside the door, back to the window, hat on the table; Johnny saw the graying of the man’s hair.
“You’re a long way from Yuma,” Johnny spoke as he stepped inside and placed his hand on the butt of his gun. He took time to read the hard, weathered face of the man, wrinkles resembling crow’s feet played out from his eyes, an ugly scar along the man’s neck showing above his collar, and a part of the man’s left ear was missing. Understanding, this man had lived a hard life inside fifteen years of prison.
“Any law against my traveling?” the man asked as he looked to Drako.
To Johnny, those eyes were dark with evil.
“No, but I strongly suggest you get on your horse and leave. We have a peaceful town and the likes of you aren’t welcome.”
“The likes of me?” the man asked.
“I received the wire you were released from prison two weeks ago.”
“I’m just a man who’s served his time. I just want to sit on something not moving and wash the dust down my throat,” the stranger said.
“You can do that in the next town.”
“I don’t think so, Marshal Drako.” With a laugh more of a snicker, the stranger continued, “You once had a reputation as a gunslinger, now, I see you’re nothing more than a street sweeper.”
“I’ll be a street sweeper if it means keeping the likes of you out of North Fork. You once had a reputation as a low life, and I see it hasn’t changed,” Drako mimicked, before turning dead serious. “You have thirty minutes to enjoy your whiskey and sitting still. Any longer than that and I’ll personally run you out of town.”
“You’re not the first person to try to run me out of town.”
“You best not be here when I return in twenty-nine minutes,” Drako’s eyes narrowed as he sized up the man.
Drako turned and left the saloon, closely followed by Sweeney.
“Drako!’ Sweeney called, once outside.
“What is it Sweeney?”
“You can’t seriously be thinking of letting him stay in my saloon?” Sweeney nervously asked, looking back to his saloon.
“I gave him thirty minutes to get out of town.” Watching Sweeney’s nervousness, Drako continued, “You can always refuse to serve him.”
“Refuse? That’s Dan Maury, no one refuses Dan Maury…”
“I know who he is,” Drako replied. ‘It’s your establishment. You can refuse whoever you want.”
“You don’t get it. It’s different for you. You know how to use a gun… Me? …I’m just a saloon keeper…”
“He’ll be gone in twenty-seven minutes,” Drako replied as he replaced his pocket watch in his vest pocket.
“Man, the last time Maury was here, he sat in that same chair arriving in the afternoon and didn’t step to the bar until the following morning. The whole time he kept an eye on the Marshal’s Office. I heard the stories that Maury was the one who ambushed Micah and bummed his arm. That morning… Lucas rode into town, he came in here to tell him to move on out. Warned him if anything happened to Micah, he’d answer to him. Shot a glass out of his hand to prove he wasn’t afraid of Maury. Found out later, it didn’t phase Maury one bit. He’d left town, went out and shot Lucas in the back. Was by the grace of God that Lucas survived. Had little Mark not found him when he did… Maury called Micah out later that night. Lucas, practically on death’s door, somehow made his way to the street and created a diversion for Micah to get the upper hand. Anyway, later, we all told Lucas that Maury was dead, it’s the way Micah wanted it… We didn’t figure he’d survive in prison long enough to be released.”
“I hadn’t heard that. I just knew that he’d been in prison after serving time on multiple charges of murder and attempted murder. I get notified of any outlaw being released.”
“You think he’s here for Lucas or Micah?” Sweeney asked.
“Sweeney, right now, I don’t know. I’m pretty sure Maury doesn’t know that Lucas is missing. If he did, that’s dangerous for Hope and Milly. Whether he knows Mark grew up to be the territorial marshal… Damn it!” Drako cursed. “Sweeney, thanks for the information…”
“Drako?!” Sweeney called out as Johnny returned to the Marshal’s Office.
With moments to spare, Maury exited the saloon and climbed aboard his horse, slowly he left town. Johnny and Seth nervously watched as he headed in the opposite direction of the McCain Ranch.
“What’s he doing in town?” Micah demanded upon entering the Marshal’s office as he pointed to the man riding down the street.
“We’re handling it, Micah,” Johnny answered.
“Handling it? Letting him ride nonchalant through town? I’ll ask again, what’s he doing here?”
“Micah, he’s just passing through. Wanted to just sit a spell and have a drink.”
“Johnny you know damn well and good that Dan Maury never just ‘wanted’ to do anything. He’s planning something. You get out there and order him out of town!”
“Micah, he’s leaving. I talked with him thirty minutes ago and he’s leaving by my deadline. Now, why don’t you just go on back to Hattie’s and take it easy. We’ve got everything handled,” Johnny stated as he escorted Micah from the office.
“I ain’t a helpless old man! Never realized how anxious you were to put me out to pasture!”
Micah pulled his arm from Johnny’s grip, stormed out of the office and to the saloon.
Upon the hill overlooking the ranch houses and barns…he watched as two woman and numerous children went on with their lives, none the wiser of his presence. The figure’s curiosity was piqued when a lone rider stopped in front of the barn. Pulling a spyglass from his saddlebag, the man gave a sigh as he didn’t recognize the rider…
Micah was on his second beer in his attempt to drown his anger. Two men stood at the middle of the bar, talking of Dan Maury and how Drako had handled the situation.
“That’s a real lawman, ordering an outlaw from town,” one of the men stated. “Gave him fair warning of how long he could stay. Still, letting the likes of him just vamoose, I’d feel a whole lot better knowing he were dead.”
“Sweeney, another beer!” Micah ordered.
“Yeah, from what I heerd, some other lawman was such a poor shot, he allowed that outlaw to live and stand trial instead of planting him six feet under.”
Micah heard enough. The men talking were relatively new citizens to North Fork and didn’t know the history of her people; he threw his beer glass shattering it against the far wall. Micah promptly grabbed for the beerglass from Sweeney and downed it as quick as Sweeney had ever seen anyone down a beer.
“You think you know what you’re talking about?! You think you know how to handle the situation?! See how better you fare when Maury returns to town. See if you upstanding citizens will support your lawman or will you cower in your homes,” Micah hollered as three beers took affect he started slurring his words.
“Micah, come on now. They don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re only talking hearsay,” Sweeney said as he came around the bar and tried to persuade Micah to go home. “We know the truth.”
“The truth, maybe I was washed up, but see how you do standing in front of your ghost. What would you do?”
“The same as you did, try your best to defend your town,” Sweeney answered.
The two men stood at the bar and watch Sweeney lead Micah out the door and down the boardwalk.
Hattie stood at the door, “What happened?” she asked as Sweeney helped Micah to the sofa in the parlor.
“Dan Maury’s back in town,” Sweeney bluntly answered.
“Dan Maury?” asked a fearful Hattie.
“I’ll let Johnny and Seth know that Micah got into it with two men in the saloon. They’ll keep Micah safe.”
“Safe! I can keep myself safe!” Micah slurred.
“You’re drunk!” Hattie declared.
“I ain’t drunk, woman!”
“Sweeney, please, let Johnny and Seth know. Thank you,” Hattie stated as she showed Sweeney out the front door.
“I tell ya, Seth, you should have seen Micah. I ain’t seen him this way since Lucas rode out and told Ansel Bain where to find Micah.”
“He’ll thank you in the morning for seeing him home,” Seth offered. “Maury rode out of here this afternoon. I’m sure he won’t be back.”
“That’s just it. That’s what we thought the last time. Lucas almost ended up dead, because he and Micah figured wrong.”
“Sweeney, Johnny’s headed out to Lucas’ place to let Lariat know.”
“I just don’t like it. Dan Maury showing up now. After all these years, why now?” Sweeney asked.
“He was released from prison two weeks ago. He’s just traveling through.”
“If you say so.” Sweeney turned and left the Marshal’s Office.
Johnny called out to Lariat as he stepped down from his horse.
“Hey Johnny, did you receive another wire from Mark?” Lariat asked.
“Not today. I came to let you know that a man named Dan Maury is in town.”
“Dan Maury, am I supposed to recognize the name?”
“No, he was released from prison two weeks ago. I didn’t know there was history between him and Micah and Lucas until Sweeney told me. Maybe it is a good thing that Lucas and Mark aren’t here. Unfortunately, Micah knows he’s been in town. He rode out of town earlier this afternoon, but I thought it might be best to warn you, just so you’d know.”
“Thanks for the heads up. How long ago was this ‘history’?”
“From what Sweeney said, fifteen years ago and as far as Lucas or Mark know, Micah killed Maury that night.”
“Lucas don’t know he’s alive and in prison? Boy, whose hare-brained idea was that?”
“Unfortunately, it was Micah’s. Everyone went along with it because no one thought he’d survive in prison long enough to serve his sentence and be released.”
“Well, let’s hope that when he realizes Lucas and Mark aren’t here, he’ll just move along,” Lariat replied.
Johnny Drako returned to the Marshal’s Office to find Seth looking through one of the drawers in the filing cabinet in the office.
“What are you looking for?” Johnny asked.
“Sweeney stopped by here after you left. Seems Micah got into it with a couple of men over at the saloon. He’d already had three beers when he started going off on them. Sweeney saw him home.”
“Johnny I was hoping to maybe find some notes that Micah might have written regarding the last time Maury was in town. There has to be more than just Maury injuring Micah.”
“Some men can’t handle losing. They’re always seeking to settle the score.”
“I know, but still. Why would Micah go off and get drunk… I’ve never seen him drink a quarter of a glass of beer. Sweeney said he downed three…”
“I came down on him pretty hard. I only wanted to get him out of here and safe. Keep him hid so Maury will just go away. Told Lariat it might be a blessing that Lucas and Mark aren’t here. With no one to antagonize, we can only hope that Maury decides North Fork isn’t for him.”
“Still, he came all this way for something. Lucas or Micah, I just wanted to find out more about what happened,” Seth stated as he pushed shut the drawer, not finding anything to enlighten the situation.
“If you’re looking for information,” Thadd stated as he entered the Marshal’s Office, “You might want to come to the clinic. I got to looking through some of Uncle Jay’s old records and there’s plenty of information regarding Dan Maury.”
After reviewing the records of the Late Dr. Burrage, Johnny and Seth sat back and pondered, “I can’t believe it,” Seth was the first to speak.
“Maury was pure vindictive back then. Micah was right, he said that Maury didn’t just ‘want’ to do something for the sake of doing it. He has reason and motive enough to come back here.”
“Can you believe they’ve kept this secret from Lucas for all this time. I can’t imagine how he would react, if he were here,” Thadd replied.
“For one thing, we’re doing right in keeping Micah away from Maury,” Johnny spoke.
Nils came running into the clinic, “Drako, Sweeney told me to come get you. Said you’d want to know that Maury’s back.”
Johnny and Seth looked at each other.
“Now look here Marshal. I ain’t causing no trouble. I’m paying my tab as I go and I’m just sitting here minding my own business.”
“I told you to get out of town,” Johnny replied.
“And I did, but… You said something that got me to thinking… How this is a nice quiet town. I’m tired of always being on the move.”
“You’ve only been on the move for two weeks, you can keep on moving,” Seth added.
“You keep North Fork real peaceable. Maybe this is where I want to spend my final years.”
“There’s no maybe about it, Maury,” Johnny added insistently.
“If you have charges to prefer against me, then take me to your jail… Otherwise, I’d appreciate being able to enjoy my whiskey, quietly,” Maury stated as he raised the shot glass to his lips and took a sip. “Good, quality whiskey. Missed this while I was in prison.”
Johnny motioned for Seth to follow him from the saloon.
“You’re just gonna let him stay?” Nils asked as he followed the two lawmen.
“Nils, I’ll tell you the same as I’ll tell Sweeney. The man’s served his time and I have nothing to charge him with.”
“But, Micah and Lu… What about Micah?” Nils insisted.
“We’ll keep an eye on Micah and we’ve already warned Lariat, just in case. He might not have done anything I can charge him with, but that doesn’t mean I’m not prepared to act if he steps one inch out of line.”
After three days on a drinking binge, and ultimately some strong words from Hattie threatening to leave him, Micah forced himself to put the bottle down. Two days later, the whips and jingles found him cowering behind a locked door in his own home. Refusing Hattie’s desperate pleas to let her help him. Desperately wanting another drink, Micah remembered the words a young boy named Mark asked him, “Whiskey make you feel better?”
“I can do this. I done it before.”
The following morning, standing tall as he could, Micah opened the door to find Hattie waiting in the hallway, “Hattie, I think I could stand a cold bath. Nothing like a cold bath to firm one’s resolution to get through the whips and jingles.”
Hattie hurried down the steps to prepare a bath for her husband, content that he was going to make it.
For the past week, Maury affected an air of enjoying the quietness of North Fork, tipping his hat as he passed any woman walking along the street. Most of the women turned their heads and hurried on by without even acknowledging him. The men looked at him and quickly averted their eyes as they passed. Entering the general store, Maury was looking over some of the clothing when he overheard two women talking…talking about how difficult it must be for Mrs. McCain, what with both of the men in the family missing for over a month. Maury slipped a wiley smile on his face as he tipped his hat to the ladies and left the store.
“So, that ranch still belongs to the sodbuster and he has himself a family… Too bad he left the women and children all alone. Wonder who the man is?” Maury asked aloud, not noticing the figure in the shadows.
Maury believed he had quietly slipped from North Fork and directed his horse to the McCain’s ranch. From the hill overlooking the homestead, he watched the comings and goings for several hours, not realizing that he too had someone watching him.
Lariat Jones exited the barn to find a man sitting on a horse, with his leg hooked over the saddle horn.
“Well… well… well…” Maury spoke. “When the cat’s away, the mice will play. Wonder what Lucas McCain would say about some saddle tramp moving in on his woman? Which one is Lucas’ wife. I’m thinking the brunette; the redhead seems a little too young for the sodbuster. Maybe that’s why you come and go from her home.”
“I take it you’re Dan Maury?” Lariat asked.
He watched as Maury slid from his saddle, landing on his feet.
“I’m touched, you’ve heard of me.” Maury removed his hat and bowed deeply. Standing up and placing his hat back on his head, “So, how is the redhead? Is she as much fun as I hear tell redheads are? Or maybe you’re sneaking around and sampling the brunette?”
“Maury, you’re not welcome here.”
“You know… I’m getting tired of people telling me where I am and where I’m not welcome. I heard from Marshal Drako himself how nice and peaceable North Fork was. You’re making your marshal out to be a liar.”
“When it comes to the likes of you, he can lie all he wants,” Lariat declared.
Without warning, Maury reached for his gun. Lariat saw Maury’s hand moving and quickly went to draw his own gun. He fired his weapon as he felt the searing pain in his right shoulder, spinning him around and knocking him to the ground. As Lariat looked up, he saw the streak of red along Maury’s ribs where his bullet had only grazed his opponent.
“You know, that old man of a marshal wounded me worse than you done,” Maury stated.
With one hand over his ribs, Dan Maury walked to stand over Lariat as he lay on the ground cradling his shoulder. A crooked smile played on Maury’s face as he brought his gun to bear on the one man keeping him from Lucas McCain’s family. Maury cocked his gun and tightened his finger on the trigger, “Say goodbye.” From the corner of his eye, Maury saw movement in the barn. He turned, raised and pointed this gun in the direction. Two shots rang out…the first belonged to Maury’s handgun, the second a rifle. The crooked smile turned to one of disbelief, as Maury looked down and his grip on the gun lessened; it fell from his hand.
Lariat did his best to move out of the line of fire as Maury dropped to his knees, the red of blood spreading out over the blue of the shirt he wore. Looking to the barn Lariat saw where Maury’s bullet had struck the open door, but walking from the barn…
“You were warned a long time ago, you don’t mess with me or the McCains!” called a determined voice as Micah stepped from the barn, rifle still pointed at his nemesis.
“Old man! You and that mangy sodbuster…” Maury’s eyes rolled backwards in his head as he collapsed to the ground with a thud.
Micah turned at the sound of riders approaching to see Johnny and Seth riding their mounts hard, guns in their hands.
“Micah, what the hell do you think you’re doing?” Johnny yelled as he and Seth reined their horses to a stop, the animals’ flanks heaving from the race to get to the McCain’s.
Seth had already dismounted, turned Maury over as he knelt next to him, and declared, “He’s dead.”
“As he should have been fifteen years ago. Had I been a better shot and not so exhausted, he would have been.”
“You should have left this for us to handle,” Johnny proclaimed.
“I might be a retired lawman but I ain’t no invalid! I only did what should have been done a long time ago. Besides, had we left it up to you, Lariat would be dead.”
Micah watched as Milly ran from her home to Lariat, and he asked, “How’s Lariat?” as he ejected the spent cartridge from his rifle.
“Thanks for worrying about me. Just a scratch,” Lariat jovially replied as he stood to his feet, supported by Milly.
“Just a scratch? You need to see a doctor!” Milly declared.
Hope came running from her home and stopped by Micah, wrapping an arm around his arm, “Micah who is he?”
“You two women get back into your homes and keep your children from the windows,” Micah ordered.
“Micah!” Milly called.
“Do it. You know Lucas wouldn’t want either of you out here. We’ll explain later.”
Hope and Milly turned to walk to their respective homes.
“What about me?” Lariat asked.
“Can you ride?” Micah asked, not giving Johnny or Seth time to ask.
“Yeah, I can ride. Didn’t even get a kiss for saving the day,” Lariat commented as Micah helped him into the saddle.
“I didn’t do it to get a kiss from Hope or Milly,” Micah replied.
“You…” Lariat gave a brief laugh as he pushed his hat back on his head. “I guess it was you who saved the day. Thanks for saving my bacon.”
“Johnny, I’ll stay here for a while,” Seth stated as he looked to the two homes.
Having left Maury with the undertaker and Lariat at the clinic, they returned to the Marshal’s Office, Johnny pushed Micah to sit down in the chair in front of his desk. Taking a page from Tom Benton’s book, he walked to his side of the desk, turned to look at Micah, leaned forward with both hands on his desk and yelled, “JUST WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU WERE DOING?! You could have gotten yourself killed!”
“But I didn’t!”
“That doesn’t change the facts!” Johnny yelled.
“Oh, you’d prefer that I’d been killed?” Micah asked as his bantering, old self settled into the chair.
“That’s not what I mean and you know it, old man!”
“I ain’t an old man. I stepped aside to give you and Mark the respect you were due as lawmen. It’s been a long time since I felt this good.”
“Four days ago you were a drunk!”
“And this morning, I’m stone sober and more alive than ever. Johnny, I miss this office. Maury’s coming back to town made me realize that.”
“What are you talking about?” Johnny asked as he sat down.
“Come on, North Fork’s grown and God only knows when Mark will return. You and Seth can’t always be in the office. You need someone here, to keep an eye on things and let North Fork’s citizens know they have protection.”
“Old man… and I use that term the same as you call Mark, boy…”
“I know,” Micah stated with half a laugh. “With old age comes wisdom. I still have plenty to teach you and your deputies about upholding the law and figuring out the facts and keeping people under surveillance.”
“Such as?” Johnny asked.
“You totally missed the signs that Maury left indicating what his intentions were…” Micah raised his eyebrows.
“We figured it out.”
“And it could have been too late for Lariat and possibly Lucas’ and Mark’s families.”
“So what are you proposing?” Johnny asked as he finally sat back in his chair and crossed his arms.
“Re-deputize me. I can help keep an eye on the town.”
Shaking his head, Seth stated, “And Lucas is going to shoot me when he returns and finds out.”
Thadd knocked on the door to the Marshal’s Office before he opened it.
“Well, how’s Lariat?” Micah asked.
Thadd was quiet for a few moments while he tried to comprehend what his eyes saw.
“Don’t stand there gaping your mouth. I asked you, how is Lariat?” Micah asked again.
“Didn’t mean to keep you waiting, Deputy? He’s going to make a full recovery, in time. Won’t be using his arm for a while. He’ll sleep through the night. Oat Jackford stopped by and said he was going to send a couple of his men out the McCain’s.”
“Thanks Doc…” Johnny stated as he watched Micah shine up the badge pinned to his vest.
The Next Generation… Chapter 95 – Words of Warning
Having traveled through Conway, Lark, Jericho, McLean, and Shamrock, Texas, Mark prepared to leave Erick, Oklahoma, realizing how far behind he was from Archie Turpin and his Pa.
Approaching Hext, Oklahoma, Mark took note of the brightly painted symbols on many of the barns he rode past. He came across one homestead and stopped in the shadows of a stand of trees, watching several children laughing as they played. The scene brought to mind those he had left behind; he saw the smiling face of each member of his family. Without fail, Mark blocked out those thoughts and returned to trailing after Lucas.
Stopping early for the night, Mark was feeling the more than four weeks of being in the saddle and the toll it was taking on him and Rainmaker. Before leaving the livery, Mark paid the manager to give extra rations to his horse.
As he had hoped, the town Sheriff confirmed that Archie Turpin had passed through Hext, “I even ended up keeping him in jail overnight, three nights ago.”
Mark’s hopes bolstered as he was still on the correct trail. Later that night, Mark wrote in his journal of his guilt in how today was the first time in a long time that he thought of his own young family. In his attempts to write of his feelings, he struggled to keep his eyes open. Sleep soon won out. However, just after midnight Mark woke and listened…trying to hear whatever had caused him to wake.
He heard the noise again. Reaching for his rifle, Mark stepped from his bed and walked to the door, placed his ear against it, and listened. He sensed someone was on the other side and quickly opened it. In the dimly lit hallway, an old woman waited with her hand raised as if to knock again.
“May I help you?” Mark asked.
“It is I who can help you. You seek a certain man?”
“I do,” answered Mark.
“This man… he is not wanted by the law… Why does the law seek him?”
“I have my reasons. Listen, I don’t mean to be rude, but it is late…”
“May I come in? There is more I need to tell you,” the woman spoke as she lowered her shawl from over her head to her shoulders.
Mark stepped aside for the woman to enter. He walked to the table, set down his rifle, and turned up the wick to the lamp.
“So tell me, what is it you have to tell me?” asked a curious Mark.
“My name is Marnie. The man you seek is a tall man…taller than many others who walk. Am I correct?”
“You could have overheard me talking to your sheriff…”
“That is true, but the tall man is special to you, that information you have not divulged. The two of you have a special bond, that of a father and a son?”
“Go on…” Mark warily encouraged.
“You need to know that I have seen him, and you, in my dreams. He is still alive… But know this, when you find him he will no longer be standing tall. Take care that the spider does not pull you into her web of death.”
“A spider…” Mark stated, putting little stock in her comments.
“Your father you will find, of that I am certain. I have seen your arrival and have patiently waited.”
“I appreciate your concern, but…”
“I also know he is not the only one you choose to seek. IF you continue…”
“If I continue? Ma’am, if you think you know me, then you’ll know there is no ‘if’ to my continuing,” Mark interrupted.
“If you continue to follow the path I’ve seen, it will bring you heartache. You will seek another who is much dearer to your heart and a divide it will cause. Beware the truths you seek, for you may not like what you find,” Marnie told.
“Your Halloween riddles of spiders and webs might frighten children, but not me,” a skeptic Mark replied.
“My words are not meant to frighten, only as a possibility of what may come…your future. Know this, your wife and sons grieve your absence, but have hopes of your return. Your daughters are too young to understand. Watch your steps or they will grieve for more than just your absence. Listen with your ears, but believe with your heart. Do not trust your eyes, for they will see… a clouded truth. Your heart will know the truth, if you believe.”
“Thank you, but I really do need to leave early in the morning,” Mark stated as he opened the door.
“I do have one word of warning; the spider does not easily give up those that become its prey.”
With that, the old woman draped her shawl over her head and left the room. Mark watched the woman walk down the hallway and turn the corner.
Mark turned the lamp down before he crawled back into bed. “Spiders and webs…” he mumbled as he fell back asleep.
The following morning, Mark walked into the lobby of the hotel and was met by the Sheriff who asked if he could speak with him.
“I was hoping to get an early start,” Mark answered.
“I think I have information that you need to know.”
“Okay,” Mark stated and motioned to the Sheriff to follow him to a corner table in the restaurant. The waitress poured each man a cup of coffee.
“I did some wiring last night and received a couple of responses. I received word from Sayre that Turpin has passed through there and word from Elk City is that Turpin arrived last night.”
“That is good news,” Mark replied.
“Marshal, I’ll warn you. If you head on to Elk City, watch your step. I’d hide that badge of yours.”
“Best to go in quiet like. Elk City and some of the surrounding areas are reporting men missing… Now I’m not saying anything about my counterpart, but there are plenty of rumors getting spread around. He’s not a marshal or a sheriff, calls himself a constable. Like one of them British lawmen. Elk City is getting the reputation of being welcome to the lawless.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Mark answered as he stood to leave.
“I take it Marnie came to you last night?” the sheriff asked.
“If I were you, I’d keep all she said fresh in your mind. Don’t know how she does it, but she’s right more times than she’s wrong. She knows things… things that she just shouldn’t know…”
“I’ll remember what you both have said. Sheriff, thank you for your help.”
“I wish you luck, marshal.”
Mark headed to the livery, saddled Rainmaker, and headed for Sayre.
The quiet, sleepy town of Sayre greeted Mark as he arrived at a little past midnight. Finding no one in the livery, Mark helped himself to an empty stall and promptly removed Rainmaker’s saddle and bridle. From his saddlebag, Mark wrote a note to the livery manager saying that he would be staying at the hotel.
Taking both rifles and his saddlebags, Mark walked to the hotel. As he approached, he saw one lone person sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch, smoking a cigar.
“Evening, Marshal,” the man greeted Mark and turned up his coat collar to show his Sheriff’s badge.
“Evening,” replied Mark.
“I’m Sheriff Gusstafson, I won’t keep you, I take it the Sheriff in Hext has warned you about Elk City?”
“I’ve a number of families arriving here and the stories they’re telling, if true, it’s going to take the U.S. Army to clear out those outlaws that have been calling it home.”
“You said families… from what the Sheriff said, quite a few men are missing.”
“Some families with their husbands and some families with an elder son take care of their ma. You watch your step.”
“You saw Turpin?”
“Ya, but no one was with him,” Gusstafson stated as the stood. “Got rounds to make. If you want, meet me at the café for breakfast in the morning. You look too tired for me to give you any other information that you could understand.”
The roosters around town were just beginning to crow when Mark made his way to the café. Over breakfast, Sheriff Gusstafson drew for Mark a layout of Elk City and its surrounding ranches, and answered any questions that he could.
“If you’re looking for someone to share your confidence, Doc Brubaker can be trusted,” Sheriff Gusstafson stated as Mark bid his leave.
“Thanks for your hospitality.”
Upon leading Rainmaker from the livery, Mark overheard firsthand the account of a woman reporting her husband missing to the Sheriff.
“I begged him to find my husband…for two nights he’d been gone,” the woman wailed as she told her story. “All I got for my worry was for that constable to tell me, ‘Lady, I’ve things to do to keep the people of this town safe and that don’t include traipsing across the countryside looking for your drunk of a husband. He’s probably sleeping off a good drunk somewhere.’ But I tell you this, my husband does not drink!”
Keeping both sheriffs’ words of warning in mind, Mark removed his marshal’s badge and pinned it to the inside of his pant leg, “This seems to keep happening,” Mark commented as he put his foot back in the stirrup. Casually he rode towards Elk City and hopefully, his Pa.
The Next Generation… Chapter 96 – Battle for Burns Flatt
Upon hearing the news that the wanted poster for Lucas McCain wasn’t valid, Turpin argued with the Elk City Constable.
“It says he’s wanted in Oklahoma!” Turpin pointed to the poster lying on the desk.
“That’s what it says, but I tell you it ain’t valid. Look it don’t even state what he’s wanted for or the amount of the reward,” Constable Gerard replied.
“You don’t waste paper printing wanted posters. You trying to keep the reward for yourself!” Turpin accused.
“If I was, I’d ask you to bring in this McCain and I’d put him in jail. I tell you, I’ve never seen this poster in any of the official publications. Just let the man go before he decides to press charges against you for kidnapping and unlawful restraint.”
“I’ll take him somewhere else. Another town, a bigger town with Lawmen who’ll do their job,” Turpin proclaimed.
Turpin folded the poster and stuffed it in his pocket.
“Do what you want old man. You’re still gonna get the same reply.”
Cursing the constable and angered over not getting the reward he had banked on, Turpin missed the two men entering the jail while he walked over to the saloon. Ordering a bottle of whiskey, he grabbed at the glass and bottle and began his attempt to drown his misfortune. Muttering over the lost reward, he poured a glass and hurriedly gulped its contents down before he refilled the glass.
The evening wore on as patrons came and went; two men entered and sat at a table close to Turpin and listened to his mutterings, with curiosity. The taller of the two men stood, walked over, pulled out a chair, and without waiting for an invitation sat down.
“I ain’t in no mood for no company,” Turpin growled.
“I’m not offering company. I’m offering a business proposal. Couldn’t help but overhear part of your predicament.”
“What’s it to you?”
“Let me introduce myself. My name is Aaron Holden and my associate,” Holden paused and pointed to the man sitting at the other table, “is Myron Lantree. We might be able to turn your luck around.”
“You figure you can make this wanted poster good?” Turpin pulled the folded piece of paper from his pocket and tossed it on the table.
Holden picked it up and unfolded the heavily worn and tattered piece of paper.
aka The Rifleman
“It doesn’t have a reward listed,” Holden mused aloud.
“No, but you don’t put out no wanted posted without there being a reward! Tried to tell that to the Constable.”
“How much you figured this Rifleman is worth?”
“Least two hundred.”
“What if my associate and I paid you a ‘finder’s fee’ and took McCain off your hands? I presume you’ve got him holed up somewhere outside of town.”
“Yeah, didn’t wanna bring him to town and have someone else try an’ claim my money,” Turpin slurred his words.
“So do we have a deal?” Holden pulled a wallet from the inside pocket of the jacket he wore and counted out two hundred dollars in twenty dollar bills.
“The constable said the poster weren’t worth the paper it was written on… Why you give me two hundred dollars?” Turpin asked.
“We have our reasons.”
Licking his lips as his eyes enlarged, Turpin nodded his head and reached for the money.
Holding the money back, “You’ll be obliged to take us to your camp?” asked Holden.
“Shore, shore, my horse is right outside.”
“Let me inform my partner. We’ll be with you presently.”
Holden returned to Lantree’s table and collected his hat.
“Why’d you give that bum all our money?” Lantree demanded.
“Because he won’t have it for too long. Listen, we need to find a replacement. Why not take this McCain? That bounty hunter is so drunk he won’t know what hit him before he hits the ground. Why do you think Gerard told us about him?” Holden pointed his thumb over his shoulder, pointing towards Turpin.
“I told you I wasn’t a fugitive from the law,” Lucas proclaimed when Archie Turpin returned from town and removed the gag from his mouth.
“Shut your yap! I ain’t traveled all dis way ta not see a profit,” Turpin grumbled. “My new friends paid me two hundred to take ya off my hands.”
Lucas looked up and tried to warn Turpin of the two others who rode into the camp with him, Lantree had already drawn and fired before Lucas could get a word out. Having been shot in the bank, Turpin fell at Lucas’ feet. Lantree slid down from his horse, returning his handgun to his holster, before he retrieved the money from Turpin’s coat pocket.
“What’s the meaning of this?” Lucas demanded.
“A business transaction, pure and simple. Only we didn’t care to take on a third partner,” Holden declared.
“Then you’re going to kill me too?” Lucas asked as he struggled to his feet.
“No. Aaron, he might just be what we been looking for. You’re what six, six?” Lantree stated as he approached Lucas.
“What’s it to you?”
Without warning, Lantree threw a hard punch into Lucas’ midsection, knocking him backwards to the ground.
“I’ll do the asking of questions. From now on… You keep your mouth shut unless we give you permission to speak. Prove yourself in the arena and you might get to live. Disappoint us, and more than likely you’ll end up dead,” Lantree declared.
“McCain, I’d listen to Lantree, he’s the brawn end of our partnership. Me, I’m the brains and I can’t always stop him before he… acts.”
Lantree and Holden rode with Lucas as their prisoner through a series of narrow canyons. Had he not been with the other two, Lucas would never have seen the entrance. Lucas had lost all track of time when they finally came around a bend and the canyon opened up to a small valley. Before them, stood a house, a couple of bunkhouses, several storage buildings and barns.
“Little late for visitors, ain’t it boys?” came a deep feminine voice. The light from the lanterns inside the building illuminated her silhouette. Upon being hauled off his horse and pushed to the porch, Lucas noticed the woman wore a red satin dress, which she amply filled out.
“Miss Mable, we’re sorry about the hour, but it couldn’t be helped. We hope that we’ve found the right man to suit your needs,” Holden answered.
“Bring him inside.” Miss Mable turned and without waiting for the others, retreated into the house.
With his hands tied behind his back and a gag in his mouth, the men push Lucas into the house, a six-shooter poked into the small of his back.
The room was richly decorated with thick curtains and deep, colored upholstery on the furniture. A few bookshelves lined one of the walls with some books standing on end and others lying on their sides. The carpet was plush, as it quieted the sounds of their boots on the floor. Opposite the desk where the woman walked to, Lucas noticed a large mirror in a gold, gilded frame.
“So, promising. Nice and tall. Welcome to Burns Flatt,” Miss Mable stated as she rubbed at her chin, and sighed as if in anticipation of the man standing in front of her. Putting her hands on her hips, “Untie him and have him remove his shirt,” Mable instructed as she walked around Lucas and looked him up and down.
Lantree cocked the hammer of his weapon as Holden cut the ropes. Lucas didn’t hesitate before he threw his shoulder into Lantree and grabbed for the man’s gun. Lucas didn’t duck fast enough before Holden had his weapon drawn and brought it down on the back of his head.
“DON’T DAMAGE MY PROPERTY!” was the last Lucas heard before he blacked out.
Mark arrived in Elk City just before noon on the twenty-seventh of January. He took time to curry Rainmaker at the livery before he headed to the hotel.
After looking at the register, the man behind the counter commented, “Mr. Jones, there’s a doctor down the end of the street if you need your hand looked after.”
“Guess I should have someone look at it,” Mark replied as he looked at the dirty, bloody bandage around his left hand. “Which way?”
The clerk handed Mark the key to his room, “Out the door, turn right, last door on the left.”
Mark left the lobby with his saddlebag slung over his shoulder, his Pa’s rifle slung over the crook of his left arm, and his own rifle in his right hand.
Mark was greeted by a middle-age, portly looking man, wearing spectacles half-way down his nose as he entered the doctor’s office. Mark held up his hand and followed the doctor as he motioned for Mark to an examination room.
After removing the crude and filthy bandage, Doctor Brubaker commented, “Pretty minor injury for such a messy bandage,” as he examined the injury. Peering over the rims of his glasses, the doctor tried to assess why the charade.
“I’m told you can be trusted,” Mark hesitated in asking.
“Depends on what I’m expected to keep a secret. Just so you know. If you’re an outlaw, I’ll fix up your hand, but that’s it.”
“And if I’m not an outlaw?” Mark asked.
“Not an outlaw…,” the doctor scoffed. “Ain’t nobody but outlaws come to Elk City any more. Any good, decent folk been driven off or are too scared to come to town anymore.”
“Then why do you stay? Why not pack up and head to Sayre?”
“Sayre? You know Sheriff James?”
“The man I met wearing the badge was named Gusstafson…” Mark worriedly answered, wondering if the others were skillfully laying a trap or was he already in it?
“James Gusstafson. He’s married to my sister; been trying to get me out of here for quite a while. I would, only there are a few decent folks around here that still need a good doctor.”
“He said you could be trusted,” Mark said again.
“I need to leave something with you,” Mark stated as he reached for his saddlebag.
“I don’t have a safe,” Doc replied.
“As long as your desk can lock, I guess that’s good enough,” Mark replied as he pulled out his journal. “I can’t leave this at the livery with my saddle, nor can I leave it in the hotel. If this town is as corrupt as I’ve been informed, this journal…”
“What are you hiding?” Doc Brubaker asked.
“Doc, I’m not an outlaw…” Mark stated, handing the journal to Doc.
“You wear a badge?” Doc Brubaker asked, looking over the top of the rims to his glasses.
“They only sent one man to help clean up this town?!” Doc Brubaker’s voice elevated, and quickly lowered to a whisper, “I had hoped the Army might come in.”
“I’m not here in any official capacity, but I can’t just walk away and leave what good folks there are, in trouble. Let me ask you, have I jumped straight into the fire. ”
“That pretty well sums it up,” replied Doc Brubaker.
“I also would like to leave this rifle in town. Can your gunsmith be trusted?” inquired Mark.
“I was curious about the double rifles. Sure he can be trusted, but I wouldn’t let on to him that you are the law.”
Realizing he needed an excuse, Mark broke off the firing pin to his Pa’s rifle; effectively disabling it from possibly being used against him. Finally, he allowed the doctor to re-wrap his hand.
“You take care of yourself. I’ll do my best to help you.”
Upon leaving the doctor’s office, Mark located the gunsmith and left his Pa’s rifle for repair.
“I got a number of other weapons that were here before you… Could take me three to four days to get the firing pin fixed and make sure it’s working properly.”
“That’s fine. Been looking to spend some time out of the saddle anyway and Elk City seems just the right place.”
“And your other rifle?” the man asked as he eyed it still in Mark’s hand.
“I can always clean it up for you, compliments of the house. Since I won’t be able to get the other back to you so quick…”
“No, I prefer to clean it myself. Never know when a body might need it…”
For the next three days, Mark kept his true-identity a secret and learned as much about Elk City as he could. Regretting the delay this was causing him, but as a U.S. Marshal, he could not stand by and allow good, God fearing people to suffer.
After retiring to his room and having kicked his boots off, Mark crawled into the hotel bed and slept so soundly, that he didn’t hear the door to his room open, let alone the quiet footsteps of the man who walked across the floor in the early morning hours. Mark’s eyes bolted open with fear as a hand was placed across his mouth, “Easy there Mark, it is me,” came the quiet voice that belonged to the hand, “Sam Buckhart.”
As rationale thinking returned to Mark’s mind, he took the time to confirm the voice as his friend, U.S. Marshal Sam Buckhart. Mark’s taunt body relaxed as he tried to slow the rapid beat of his heart.
“I presume Tom Benton sent you to help me find my Pa?”
“Find Lucas? He’s missing?”
“I’ve trailed him this far… If you’re not here to help me, what are you doing here?” Mark asked.
“I’m on assignment. Mark, you’re being watched in this town.”
“That’s what I had hoped for,” Mark replied.
“This town and Burns Flatt are full of outlaws. What are you up to and how did Lucas end up missing?”
“A bounty hunter took him before Christmas.”
“Christmas? That was over six weeks ago?” Sam stated.
“I know, I’ve been in the saddle since the day after he turned up missing.” Swinging his legs over the side of the bed, Mark continued, “It was a ruse from so long ago. Micah and the Marshal up in La Mesa, Wyoming put out a wanted poster on Pa. It’s not valid…”
“But how did you end up here?”
“It said Pa was wanted in Oklahoma. I presume this bounty hunter Turpin found it and is trying to claim a reward. Elk City is the largest city he’s been through in the territory.”
“Turpin is dead,” Sam stated.
Not believing, Mark asked, “What are you talking about?”
“That bounty hunter was killed not quite a week ago. I buried him out on the trail.”
“Killed… If he was killed, where’s Pa?”
“Mark, if Lucas was with Turpin, then he has been pulled into a terrible situation, the reason that I am here. And the only way he is going to get out, is for you and me to think rationally and on our feet.”
“I know some about missing men, that’s why I came in here without wearing my badge. I was hoping if I can catch up with Pa, then together, we can help deal with whoever is responsible.”
“There are too many men in the camp for the two of you to handle,” Sam answered.
“But you make three?” Mark asked.
“Mark this situation is bigger than your looking for your father. This bounty hunter was last seen in the company of two men I’ve been trailing after. I followed their tracks only to find the man dead and evidence of someone who put up a struggle. I now believe that man was your father. And if that is the case, I fear your father has been taken to Burns Flatt and that place is a stronghold all its own.”
“Then let’s go!” Mark stated as he jumped to his feet.
“Mark, from what I’ve learned, this camp is run by a woman who has a flair for the ancient world. At Harvard I learn of the Roman Gladiators and evidently the men who are taken are made to fight in her arena.”
“Fight?” the word died on Mark’s lips. “Sam, if they have Pa, then I have to get inside. I have to make it so they take me too.”
“No, your father would not hear of it,” Sam replied.
“He’s not here, besides, I’m your superior…” replied Mark, knowing full well his pulling rank was dirty handed.
Knowing both McCains as well as he did, Sam realized now was not the time to argue with Mark. Better to stay close where he could keep an eye on Lucas’ son versus alienating him and forcing him to go it alone.
“Tell me what you want me to do,” Sam answered.
“I’ll get into a brawl in the saloon tomorrow afternoon, if you indicate the men who killed Turpin are present.”
“Why not today?”
“Today is Sunday… At least it will after the town wakes,” answered Mark, raising his eyebrows.
Mark stood at the far end of the bar, casually drinking from the beer mug in his hand. In the reflection of the mirror, Mark watched Sam give him the signal and pointed out the two men he had been trailing as they entered the saloon.
Flipping a couple extra coins on the bar, Mark turned to leave, bending down to pickup his rifle, he deliberately bumped into a patron stepping to the bar, “Watch where you’re going!” Mark demanded.
“Watch it yourself,” the man replied.
With the speed of a rattlesnake, Mark reacted as the man threw a punch in Mark’s direction. Mark ducked and landed a hard punch of his own along the side of the man’s ribcage. The man bellowed and dove for Mark, catching him in a bear hug and lifting Mark off the ground. Mark used both hands and boxed the man’s ears. The man dropped Mark as he reached for his ears, to ease his pain. Upon gaining his balance, Mark threw a right hook landing solidly on the man’s left jaw and quickly backed away. Again, the man charged for Mark, who readily sidestepped his opponent but landed another punch to the man’s ribcage as he fell past Mark.
As the fight continued, the man did manage to land a few punches to Mark’s jaw and a couple to his ribs. The patrons inside the bar were readily enjoying the brawl, yelling encouragement with a few placing side bets. The disappointed in the room was staggering when Mark landed just the right punch and sent his opponent to the ground, unconscious. Standing, both hands to his knees, heavily breathing from his exertions, Mark accepted the congratulations and offers for drinks on the house.
The bartender handed Mark a full glass of beer as a skimpily dressed, young woman wrapped her arm around Mark’s right arm. Pulling a handkerchief from between her breasts, she dipped a corner of it in Mark’s beer before dabbing at the blood coming from the corner of his mouth.
“Ow, that stings,” complained Mark.
“Cowboy, you take out Goliath there singlehandedly and complain about my ministrations to cleaning your wound…” the woman’s voice purred.
“The name’s Joel Jones. Maybe I should have let him beat up on me a little more,” Mark stated as he sipped from the glass of beer. Remembering to play his role, Mark’s gaze traveled from the woman’s face, pausing as her bosoms lifted with her deep breath.
“I can fulfill all your pleasures, and ease your hurts a bit too…” she spoke as she leaned against Mark.
From the corner of his eye, Mark saw one of the men approaching. Pretending not to notice, Mark rested an elbow on the bar, leaned close to the woman, “You are quite…” Mark whispered in her ear.
“Hazel, leave us,” the man demanded as he pushed Hazel aside.
“Mister, I don’t know who you are, but the woman and I are having a conversation,” Mark stated as he stood straight, his posture daring the man to fight.
“I’m not here to fight you. You two can talk later. Right now I have a proposition for you.”
“A proposition? Ain’t that some kind of grammar ya learn in school,” Mark wily asked.
Figuring Mark wasn’t that well educated, the man corrected, “I would like to talk with you about a business arrangement.”
“Do I get paid for this… arrangement?” Mark asked.
“Let’s go into the back room and talk.”
The man stepped away from the bar, turned and walked through the doorway, encouraging Mark to follow him.
Setting his beer mug down, Mark picked up his rifle from leaning against the front of the bar and followed the man.
Mable tried to hand Lucas a drink as he relaxed back on the couch in her office.
“Well Doc?” Mable asked after he had finished wrapping bandages round Lucas’ ribs.
“He won’t be able to fight in your next tournament,” Doc stated as he stood. “That’ll be fifteen dollars.”
“Fifteen, that’s robbery!” Mable declared.
“You want my services, you pay my price.”
Sashaying to her desk, Mable opened a drawer and pulled out a moneybox. She let those present in the room know her displeasure as she counted out the money.
“I just may have to find another doctor to fulfill our requirements,” Mable stated as she turned her back on the doctor and walked to her desk. “Leave us!” she demanded as she flipped her hand over her shoulder.
Holden closed the door after the others left Mable’s office.
“That means you too, Aaron,” Mable ordered.
Sulking, Holden left the office, slamming the door behind him.
“It’s so hard finding good help,” Mable stated as she stood from her desk and proceeded to sit down on the couch, next to Lucas. “Now, you’ve done quite well for yourself in the arena the last four times. And, you’ve made me very, very rich.”
“I’ve done what I’ve had to do in order to survive. The men talk, if a man doesn’t fight, you order his execution,” Lucas stated as he placed his hand to his side, as if it would take away some of the pain.
“Execution is such a graphic word. But you,” Mable leaned into Lucas. “I can make your life easy or I can make your life… end. It’s your choice.”
“I just want out of here and to get back to my home,” Lucas stated, looking straight ahead.
“Home? I take it you’ve family… and a wife…”
Mable opened her hand for Lucas to see his own wedding band. The wedding band Turpin had taken from him their first meeting.
“Yes, I’m married to a woman I love.”
“We’ll see about that. In time…”
Mark returned to his hotel room and closed the door behind him. Sitting down at the foot of the bed, Mark worried about his Pa, and how all of this was going to pan out.
“Enter…” Mark called upon hearing a knock on the door.
“You were pulled away before we could finish our conversation…” Hazel entered the room carrying two glasses and a bottle. “I thought we could celebrate your win over Goliath. Have our own private party.”
“Hazel, I’ve spent too many days in the saddle and taking on that gorilla… I’m plumb tired…”
“Men say my hands work magic in nursing the weary traveler… or fighter…”
“Not tonight,” answered Mark.
“You don’t know what you’re missing…” Hazel sorrowfully answered while approaching Mark. Hazel knew how to move her body to tease a man.
“If you’ve been with one woman, the next…” Mark answered and quickly ducked as Hazel threw the bottle towards him.
“Ewwwwwww, MEN!” Hazel yelled as she turned and slammed the door behind her as she left the room.
After seeing Lucas returned to one of the bunkhouses, Mable called Holden into her office.
“Well, Lucas is unable to fight for a few days; I need someone new, exciting, and just as crafty…”
“There’s a young poke in town.”
“I don’t want young, I want STRONG,” Mable stated wrapping her arms around herself.
“Strong? You asked Goliath about his black eye?”
“This young man you’re talking about took on Goliath?”
“Bring him to me.”
Even though he heard them enter his room, Mark found himself being roughly rousted from bed, “Jones, get dressed! Time to meet your new employer.”
“In the middle of the night?”
“Either that or you meet the undertaker…” Lantree snickered.
Holden and Lantree led Mark into the dimly lit office.
“You’re the scrapper who took down Goliath?” Mable asked as she stood from her desk.
“What’s it to you?” Mark answered.
“A man with your talents can… let’s just say bring a new breed of money into my fights.”
“Money’s money,” stated Mark.
“Good looks, very muscular arms…” Mable stated as she ran her hands down Mark’s upper arm, squeezing his arm in admiration. “Remove your shirt.”
“Do as Miss Mable says,” Lantree barked and jabbed his handgun in Mark’s back when he didn’t move.
“Don’t tell me you’re embarrassed by little ole me,” Mable added a little southern accent to her voice.
“You want my shirt off…”
Receiving a stronger jab in the back, “Mind yourself in front of Miss Mable.”
“Oh, I do like a man who knows how to give a woman a treat,” Mable whispered as she stood in front of Mark.
Mable reached up toward the first fastened button on Mark’s shirt and started to unbutton it, lingering before moving down to the next button. She pulled up on the shirt to unbutton the last button. Letting the shirt hang open, Mable sighed as she looked at the sinewy muscles across Mark’s chest.
Running her hands across his chest, Mable pushed Mark’s shirt off his shoulders, as she walked around to his back, lingering her fingers as she toyed them over his bare skin.
Mark remembered Marnie’s warning of a spider and her web; he couldn’t help his revulsion at the way this woman was treating him. ‘Like a prize breeding bull,’ slipped into Mark’s consciousness and he could not prevent the shudder that coursed through his body.
“Oh, you’ll more than do,” Mable whispered in Mark’s ear. Turning to Lantree, “Take him to Bunkhouse B.”
“He’ll do?” Holden queried. “And just how will he do?”
“Don’t tell me you’re getting jealous, Aaron?” Mable asked.
“I just don’t like you getting so involved with these men,” Holden stated, pulling Mable into his arms and burying his face at the base of her neck. Mable tilted her head backwards and to the side; allowing her long blonde hair to fall off her shoulders, revealing the cut of her dress and exposing plenty of cleavage. Holden breathed in deeply of her perfume.
“Haven’t you noticed the men are bringing escorts and the women are getting interested in the fighting? They’re even betting.” Pushing Holden’s head away from approaching her breasts, “We need good looking men in the arena. Lucas will do once he’s healed, but we also need to address the other women who are coming… Some of the women go for mature men like Lucas… Others… let’s just say young, vibrant women need young, vibrant men.”
“And you being a young and vibrant woman?” Holden asked and pulled Mable closer, if it was even possible.
“You’re the only one man enough to bed me. But keep up this jealous streak and I might have to train one of my gladiators in just how to please me when I take him to bed.”
“Mable, don’t make threats you can’t keep.”
“Threats? Who said anything about threats, my love…” Mable playfully removed Holden’s jacket and lingered even longer as she unbuttoned his shirt. “That Jones might be well built, but you know there’s just something about you that he’ll never measure up to…” Mable twirled a lock of hair from Holden’s chest around her finger.
“Thompson, just what’s this all about?” Holden asked as he blew smoke from the cigar he was enjoying into the air.
“I gotta see Miss Mable.”
“You don’t get it. Miss Mable doesn’t want to see you. You’re just supposed to clean up the bunkhouses, the arena, and this office, behind the scenes.”
“I know and I done that. But she’s gotta know…”
“I gotta know what?” Mable asked as she walked up from behind Thompson and ran her hand over the top of his head, pushing his engineer’s hat off.
“Oh, Miss Mable, please don’t do that,” Thompson begged, grabbing for his hat.
“What do I need to know?” Mable femininely asked as she sat on the edge of her desk.
“One of the new men…” Thompson stopped talking as Mable leaned forward to scratch at her ankle.
“What about one of the new men?” Mable asked.
“I don’t think he is who he says he is. I worked the trains and he ain’t no drifting cowboy. It’s been a long time ago, but I swear he’s the same man I saw. For two days I been thinking on this.”
“Same man you saw? Who? Where? When?” Mable raised up, her interested piqued, and stood to her feet.
“Now it’s been nigh on eight years, but I remember lawmen,” Thompson fretted.
“LAWMAN!” Mable declared. Her eyes expressed her anger towards Holden. “You bring a lawman here?!”
“Lawman? Thompson, you’re a drunk!” Holden declared.
“I weren’t a drunk back then. But I remember him, his name, McCain, same as the tall man.”
“McCain? You think he’s related to McCain?” Holden asked.
“I never saw the tall man before he arrived here, but the one calling himself Jones I heard him say he came here from New Mexico and I remember the lawman from New Mexico.”
“Oh, you…” Mable dared Holden to say anything. “If Jones is a lawman, this McCain… Then his first fight will be his last fight. If he manages to win his match, you’ll see that he doesn’t live to see dawn.”
“What about the other… Your Lucas?” Holden asked.
“Imagine the fun I’ll have, watching him watching his son die…”
“Mable,” Holden stated as he came to stand behind her and wrapped his arms around her shoulders. “You’re enjoying this as much as a cat toying with a mouse.”
“Toying is so much more fun…” Mable whispered. “Now, get the arena ready. We’ve a fight to put on tonight. Oh, and keep them two separate.”
“McCain ain’t been out of the bunkhouse since Doc left,” Holden answered.
Lucas had endured, but at a cost, an eye practically swollen shut and badly bruised ribs. As uncomfortable as he was, he tried to sleep and not think about the pain.
One of the hands entered the bunkhouse and declared, “Listen up!! Tonight’s combatants are, Washburn, Pulaski, Howell, and McCain!”
Lucas closed his eyes and sighed deeply as a he pushed the vision of Milly further from his thoughts.
Not a vacant seat remained around the arena, men and women alike brought the house to capacity, many dressed for a high social occasion. In the middle of the arena, Mable began announcing to those present, “Not all of our gladiators are big men. Same as in Roman times, we have gladiators of various sizes. Various levels of training. As fighting skills increase, so does the reward and the gladiator’s status. So, ladies and gentlemen, for the first time, I present to you the feather-weights!”
Mark watched from the sidelines and thought ‘black widow, indeed.’ Mable was dressed in another low cut dress, black with sparkles and a red belt around her waist. Mark noticed the easy smile she held on her face as she exited the floor. From behind, Mark felt a set of strong hands push him into the arena as another man eagerly entered the arena from the opposite side; both stripped to their waists. Mark was curious about the wrapping around his opponent’s hands while he danced about the floor, jabbing his fists into the air.
After leaving the arena floor, Mable maneuvered next to Lucas, intently watching his expression. Mable wickedly delighted in the anticipation, as ‘Jones’ turned around to keep an eye his opponent as the man danced around the floor. Holden prevented Lucas’ attempt to bolt forward and yell, by pulling his gun, “I wouldn’t if I were you McCain.”
“So what Thompson told us is true? Let’s see if the son is as good as the father,” Mable purred, teasing Lucas.
The crowd started yelling, encouraging the fight to begin. Everyone present saw that Mark’s opponent was a scrapper; and to Lucas he appeared to be someone who enjoyed fighting on the bowery, be that east coast or west coast. Even though he wasn’t overly tall, he had weight behind him.
The women present began to take notice of Mark, as tall as his opponent but… One of the women reached out to the shirtless Mark as he passed in front of her. Mark was oblivious to the woman’s actions as he attempted to evaluate his opponent.
Mark’s opponent was the first to throw a punch, Mark had seen it coming and was able to step aside, barely evading the blow to his cheekbone. Mark felt the air push against his cheek as the fist missed. Raising his own fists in a defensive posture, Mark saw an opening and threw a jab towards the other man’s exposed ribs.
“Ow!” roared from the crowd as fist on flesh sounded throughout the room.
Both fighters landed punches and both fighters caused their opponent to miss. Those present were thoroughly enjoying Mable’s newest gladiators.
From the sidelines, Lucas tried his best to think of a way for him to protect his son.
Mark was growing tired, each punch he landed coursed through his arm and into his chest and across his back. With each punch missed, Mark felt the waste of his energy. Worse was each punch that his opponent landed. As with Goliath previously, Mark saw his opening and landed a lucky punch knocking his opponent off his feet. The crowd yelled wildly. Mark stepped back as the man tried to crawl to his feet. The crowd started yelling for Mark to ‘kill him’. The mere thought of the brutally these people expected was sickening. It only took a few more moments before the man’s arms gave way and he dropped to the ground unconscious.
Lantree entered the arena with his weapon holstered and tossed a towel to Mark, and pointed the direction for him to exit the arena. Upon reaching the sidelines, two other men took positions on either side of Mark.
“You stay put, we’ve a surprise for you… later,” Lantree spoke.
Mable assumed her position in the middle of the arena, “Ladies and Gentlemen, I hope you’ve enjoyed your visit this evening and all the previous matches?”
The throng yelled “Yes!” as cheers echoed through the room.
“Since no one brought from their own stable any man for this a match, our final battle this evening pits my current champion against one of my own who has displeased me.” Turning around with her arms held wide, “Let the battle begin!” Mable declared and quickly left the floor.
Each man standing next to Mark grabbed hold of one of his arms while Lantree whispered, “One move and you’re dead, not to mention your papa.”
Mark cringed upon seeing his Pa’s eye swollen shut and the discoloration along his ribs. Mark recognized the man who stood opposite his Pa, ‘Goliath’.
Even in as much pain as he had to be, Lucas fought for his life, because he realized his and his son’s lives depended upon him winning this fight and staying alive.
The crowd roared, giving Mark the distraction he needed to break away from those standing guard over him after he watched his father fall to the ground and struggle rise. Goliath threw several savage kicks to Lucas’ ribs and one last stomp on Lucas’ leg. Running across the floor, Mark jumped on the fighter’s back and wrapped his legs around the man’s waist. His arms held a death lock around the man’s neck. The fighter spun around as he threw his elbows backwards, striking Mark hard in the ribs. Each time, Mark struggled to take in a breath and keep his arms’ grip. The man continued to spin around as his vision started to fade and he lost consciousness. Mark didn’t have time to react as his weight caused the man to fall backwards, collapsing on top of Mark. Mark’s head struck the ground causing his vision to become blurry, but he struggled to remain conscious.
Lucas and Mark were oblivious to everything happening outside of the arena as men started yelling and women started screaming. The crowd broke and ran in every direction. Lucas managed to drag himself over to where Mark lie and pulled his son out from underneath the unconscious Goliath.
Shaking his head to help regain his senses, Mark looked to Lucas, “Pa, are you alright?”
“I’ve been better, son.”
The room had quieted when Mark finally looked up to see men wearing badges surrounding the spectators and competitors alike. They both heard, “I’m looking for Lucas or Mark McCain.”
Weakly Mark called out, “Over here.”
A corridor slowly appeared through the throng and Mark recognized a few of their rescuers walking towards them, Tom Benton and Coltrane Walker, in addition to Sam Buckhart.
“Unhand me!” Mable called as another deputy escorted her to the arena floor.
Lucas gave a brief laugh followed by a groan as even that little movement agitated his ribs, he collapsed to lay flat out on the floor.
“Pa!” Mark called out. “Tom, get a doctor in here! Pa’s beat up!”
The rescuers loaded Lucas and Mark in the back of a wagon and with Tom Benton volunteering to drive the buckboard; they were made ready to travel.
Before leaving Tom hollered, “Coltrane, I want names and addresses from everyone present. Figure out who were spectators and who were running the fight. Separate the fighters and I’ll be back once Lucas and Mark are tended to.”
Tom rein slapped the horses to get them moving as they proceeded to Elk City and Doctor Brubaker’s clinic.
“Your father will be okay, but he’s going to be sore for quite a long time. He received at least three broken ribs on his left side, and his ribs on the right are bruised. His left leg is fractured so he won’t be walking for a while. I’ve sedated him; he should sleep through the night. Now, what about you?” the Doc Brubaker asked.
“Just been used as a punching bag, though not nearly as bad as my Pa,” Mark answered as he looked to the room where his pa slept.
Once Doc Brubaker saw for himself that Mark was telling the truth, he released Mark from the clinic with orders to head to the café for a bite to eat.
Mark stepped into the telegraph office first.
Milly and Hope McCain
North Fork, New Mexico
Pa sends his love /stop/
So do I /stop/
Not realizing anyone was behind him, Mark startled when he heard, “Not mentioning Lucas’ injuries?”
“Tom, no. I’m sure they’ve been worried enough. No need to add to it.”
“Your call,” Tom replied.
“Tom can I ask you a question?”
“Sure, Mark,” Tom answered, curiously.
“What is today? I’ve totally lost track of how long I’ve been gone from home.”
“Today’s February fourth.”
Mark took a moment for the date to sink in, “I’ve been gone for almost seven weeks?”
“Yes,” Tom replied as he put a hand to Mark’s shoulder. “I can’t wait to read this report.”
“Mark, whether you realize it or not, we’ve been trying to bust Mable Kargen for years. Never were able to get a man in here. So you might think you were just trailing after Lucas, but considering how this excursion ended, you’re considered — on duty the whole time you’ve been trailing Lucas.”
“Thanks,” said Mark a little sarcastically.
“Don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of time to write your report while you’re heading home. I’ll see that two train tickets are sent over to the hotel. Once the doc says Lucas is ready to travel, you two can get out of here.”
“Tom, how did you get here? I mean…” spoke Mark as they stepped from the telegraph office.
“After you disappeared,” Sam stated as he stood from the bench out front. “I rode hi-tail for Sayre. We were already working this case when you showed up, and Tom was waiting for my signal once I found a way inside… I know that I should not have allowed you to become involved, but I saw no other way to get inside their camp.”
Shaking his head, “Can’t you write the report?” Mark asked of Sam.
“I will write my part, but you need to fill in the blanks and your own observations.”
As the threesome headed to the café’ they heard Doc Brubaker call out for Mark.
“Think you’ll be wanting this later tonight.”
“Thanks doc,” Mark answered as he gladly accepted his journal.
“I hope you have some notes in there to help you write your report, Marshal McCain,” Tom smiled as he slapped Mark on the back. “Come on, I know you have to be hungry.”
Throughout the night, Tom Benton and the others rounded up any known outlaws unfortunate enough to have not left Elk City and handled arrangements for their transportation to whichever jurisdiction had warrants out for their arrests. Those who hadn’t heard the news gave up their weapons upon seeing the sheer number of U.S. Marshals and Deputies throughout the town.
The following morning, Mark was present when Tom read the charges against Mable. Tom had put the ‘constable’ in one of his own cells, pending formal charges being filed against him. Looking at one of the pictures on the wall, Mark recognized the map of the Oklahoma Territory and his attention drifted from the conversation.
This story continues in The Rifleman – The Next Generation Pt 21