The Rifleman – The Next Generation Pt 24 (by BluewindFarm)

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
Genre:  Western
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  19,660


 

The Next Generation… Chapter 107 – The Four Guns of North Fork

The Friday afternoon train was full of visitors arriving in North Fork, more than any other time; Seth pushed his hat back as he answered question after question about restaurants and lodging. As the final passengers stepped from the train, Seth did a double take, at first not believing his eyes as Ethan Lane and his wife, Annie, and their children, Seth Edward and Marissa, walked towards him.

“You’re the last people I expected to see step from the train. Why didn’t you wire that you were coming?” Seth asked. “Lilah’s going to be so pleased to see all of you.”

“We gonna cheer for you Grandpa!” declared Seth Edward as he jumped up into his Grandfather’s arms.

“Wait a minute! What do you mean, cheer for me?” Seth asked.

“Father, it’s in all the papers, The Four Guns of North Fork,” Ethan answered as he produced a copy of one of the newspapers.

“He didn’t,” anger edged Seth’s voice upon reading the advertisement.

“Who didn’t,” Annie asked.

“I’ll see you to the house, but then I need to ride to Lucas and Mark’s,” Seth announced.

*****

“HE WHAT?!” yelled Lucas, loud enough to practically be heard all the way in North Fork.

“That was about my reaction,” answered Seth. “We can always refuse to go.”

“Has there been an influx of people in town?” asked Mark.

“Yeah, there were an unusual number of people getting off the train today.”

“And I’m sure it will continue tomorrow, right up to our one and only performance,” commented Mark.

“Only one?” asked Lucas as Mark handed him back the paper.

“Right under The Four Guns of North Fork it boldly states, one performance only.”

“Well, do we go through with it?” asked Seth.

“We could always forget to take our guns with us,” replied Lucas.

“Like that would ever happen. People know us. When are we ever without our rifles?” asked Mark.

“Mark that’s not the point,” Seth replied.

“I know what the point is, but I can’t see us disappointing family. Can you, Pa? Seth said Ethan and his family were here to cheer us on,” stated Mark.

“Guess not, but just wait until I get my hands on Cody.”

“Pa, keep your temper, you’re talking with lawmen present,” teased Mark.

“Are your ribs going to be healed enough?” asked Seth.

“I’ll see Doc Burrage tomorrow morning and ask that he wrap them, again.”

“Wrap them again?”

“I sort of unwrapped them the other night, the bandaging was bothering me,” Mark sheepishly replied.

“What did Johnny have to say?” Lucas curiously asked.

“I didn’t tell him, yet,” Seth answered.

*****

Johnny’s reaction was the same as Lucas’, angered that Cody would have gone behind their backs.

“Johnny, he’s a showman. What else was he supposed to do?”

“He could have accepted our answers!”

“Well, Lucas and Mark are up to going through with this, as it is only one show.”

“One show, and how many outlaws will come to town after one show?”

“How many outlaws have come to town before? Johnny, we’re trained lawmen, maybe this will prove our reputations and the outlaws won’t want to try us…”

*****

Saturday dawned with excitement in both the McCain homes, the children were eager to get dressed and help with chores before the big event; the only thing the boys regretted was taking a bath before heading into town.

While the twins were drying off Josh stated, “Still wish we had a tub room like our other Grandpa and Grandma.”

“Keep wishing,” Mark replied. “You just get to your bedroom and get dressed.”

“Where you going?” Eli asked upon seeing Mark head for the kitchen back door.

“Outside to take a shower. Go get dressed,” was Mark’s response as he pointed back to the boys’ bedroom.

“Yes sir,” all three boys answered.

*****

There was just as much eagerness at Milly and Lucas’ home when it came time for the boys to bathe.

“You know, maybe we should look into building on a tub room,” Milly suggested.

“A tub room?” Lucas asked. His question was more a question to see if he heard his wife’s suggestion correctly.

“And why not? We’re not that far from the turn of the century and tubs in home are becoming the normal.”

“Next there’ll be outhouses inside.”

“Pew!” Levi answered as he stepped from the bedroom and heard Lucas’ comment.

*****

Having stopped by the clinic for Thadd to re-wrap his ribs, Mark pulled the team to a stop outside the show grounds, surprised at how much they had expanded the arena for additional spectators.

“There they are Pa!,” Zach yelled and pointed to where Lucas, Milly, and their family were waiting.

“Pa? Since when do you call me Pa?” asked Mark, surprised his son didn’t call him Papa.

“We’re six, we’re not little babies anymore,” Josh answered.

Mark guided the team to his family and tied the horses to one of the shade trees, after helping his family down from the buckboard.

“Well,” Johnny Gibbs called as he and his family joined the McCains. “Who’s going to be the victor today? You both have some stiff competition with Annie Oakley and Frank Butler.”

“Uncle Johnny, does it really matter who’s best?” asked Mark.

“Brother, we were roped into this event, but it will be fun seeing how we measure up,” commented Lucas.

*****

The crowd filled every seat in the arena and leaving many others standing, waiting in anticipation to see the world famous Buffalo Bill Cody, Frank Butler, and ‘Little Miss Sure Shot’ go up against ‘The Four Guns of North Fork’. The crowd excitedly talked of the North Fork Lawmen as they placed wagers openly against all participants.

Regardless of whom the crowd was there to see, they enjoyed the whole performance, so far.

The roustabout had staged the arena when Buffalo Bill Cody rode his white horse into the center of the arena and raised his arms, motioning for the crowd to quiet.

“LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, BOYS AND GIRLS! We now have come to what you have all come from near and far to see.”

The crowd cheered forcing Cody to wait until they quieted, before he continued.

“Never before has the Wild West met such formidable gunmen. We’ve met outlaws and military marksmen, but never have we had the opportunity to match our own abilities against lawmen the likes as those who call North Fork and New Mexico their home.”

The crowd cheered again.

“Last week, I proposed our little shooting match and I received a resounding refusal by all four. Maybe you can help convince your esteemed representatives of the law to agree, today.”

Quietly a chant started in the crowd, and gained momentum and noise as others picked up the chant, stomping their feet, clapping their hands as they called out, “Four Guns of North Fork! Four Guns of North Fork!”

Johnny Baker jumped down from the railing and ran to where Cody had stepped down from his horse; he took the reins and ran with the horse to the end of the arena where the gates opened and two people walked out and across the grounds. The woman wore a buckskin skirt and a long-sleeve blouse with medals across the front, and she carried a rifle. Next to the woman walked a man, wearing a fringed buckskin jacket over military pants and he too carried a rifle. They walked until the woman stood between the two men in the middle of the arena. Cody’s hand was on the butt of his holstered handgun and the other two held their rifles in their crossed arms.

The crowd quieted to a small murmur, wondering if there really would be a show.

“Buffalo Bill Cody!” was yelled from somewhere in the crowd. “You throw down a challenge?”

“That I have!” Cody yelled in reply as he tucked his thumbs into his gun belt and rocked back on his heels. “Are the lawmen of North Fork brave enough to accept my challenge?”

A small portion of the crowd started laughing when they heard a young girl yell out, “My Pa’s the best shot in the world!” only to be countered by a young boy yelling out, “No he ain’t, my Pa is!”

One by one, four men made their way from the stands, climbed over the railing and jumped to the floor of the arena. The crowd silenced, in hopes of hearing the acceptance of the challenge. The four men stood together in a circle before they formed a line, shoulder to shoulder, and stride for stride, they crossed the ground, stopping about thirty feet away from the others.

“So are you here to accept my challenge?” Cody called out, loud enough for the crowd to hear.

The four men let their weapons do the talking, mindful of the setup of the arena and the targets in relationship to the crowd. Lucas and Mark dropped to their knees, firing their rifles from their hips taking out the targets on the outer portion of a large wheel. Johnny and Seth pulled their guns from their holsters and fired at several of the bottles sitting on a railing. Not wanting to be out gunned, Buffalo Bill Cody pulled his gun from his holster and fired at the smaller targets sitting on the railing, while Annie Oakley and Frank Butler fired their shouldered rifles from a standing position, towards targets on the inner portion of the wheel.

By the time the first barrage of gunfire stopped and the smoke cleared, the crowd was on their feet, cheering, yelling out the name of the gunman who was their favorite.

The seven gunmen cleared their rifles or holstered their handguns before they met in the middle of the arena and exchanged handshakes.

“You gave me a scare, wasn’t sure if you would be willing to go through with this,” Cody stated.

“We almost didn’t,” answered Lucas.

“What changed your minds?”

“If we beat you, maybe we’ll be able to prevent outlaws from ever wanting to try their guns in our town,” answered Drako. “But mind you, we’re not doing this for our reputations; we’re doing this because of the people.”

Roustabouts reset the targets and one by one, the seven marksmen struck target for target, round for round. As the demonstration progressed, the challenges became more difficult, from stationary targets shrinking in size to moving targets. The crowd continued cheering, but eventually, Buffalo Bill and Seth were the first to miss their intended targets in the same round, followed in the next round by Johnny. Two rounds later Frank Butler missed his first target. Six rounds later, Lucas and Mark still stood with Annie Oakley.

While the roustabouts attempted to figure out new targets, Buffalo Bill strode back to the middle of the arena, arms raised to quiet the crowd.

“Well, ladies and gentlemen, I think you’ve all gotten your monies worth out of today’s performance.” Cody paused allowing the crowd to cheer. “I must declare, I was not prepared to call a draw today, at least not with three still standing.” The crowd cheered again. “The best has met the best and all three are entitled to be considered the best!”

The sharpshooters all returned to the center of the arena and bowed to the crowd. Slowly the crowd filed from the show grounds, excitedly talking at having witnessed such a great show.

***

Lucas was the first to notice Mark leaning against side of one of the trailers, hand to his side, as they waited for their families, “Son, are you okay?”

“I think I need to have Doc look at my ribs again, that last shot I took, my rifle felt funny with its recoil. I caught myself in the ribs.” His pain was evident on his face as he pressed his hand to his side.

“So you’re saying that had there been one more round, Lucas would have stood alone with Annie?” Johnny asked.

“That’s not what I’m saying, I’m just saying, it was going to take a lot of concentration for me to shoot again,” replied Mark.

“Mark, why don’t you head on over to Doc’s, I’ll tell Hope and we’ll be over as soon as we can.”

“It’s not like I rode Rainmaker, Pa. I can wait for the family. I think Hope would be more upset if I headed on over without her.”

*****

“I don’t think you did any more damage, just take two of those pain pills tonight and tomorrow, if you need to tomorrow night, that’s okay too,” Thadd replied after rebandaging Mark’s ribs, for a second time that day. “Just take it easy, please?”

“I’ll try,” answered Mark as he buttoned his shirt.

The Next Generation… Chapter 108 – Bittersweet

Buffalo Bill Cody had his show, and it was better than he had even hoped, he had been totally unprepared to call a three-way tie. As the crowd left the arena, the newspapermen who had been lucky enough to come, crowded around him and listened as he announced their plans to head back east, and possibly to Europe. Cody was pleased with their reaction, boasting of the stories they planned to write; many commenting how they wanted to tag along, eager to see who would be next. Cody was pleased with the new air of excitement surrounding the show.

*****

Monday afternoon, the McCains and the Lanes returned to the Kiowa camp, to say their goodbyes to Iron Heart and the others. Upon arrival, they were surprised at the efficiency of the tribe, actually the whole show; trampled down grass, rings of rocks that had surrounded the locations of the campfires, horses laden down with travois, or loaded wagons with people waiting to strike out greeted them, as far as the eye could see. The horse and cattle herds were already en route to the train.

*****

Hope’s families allowed her to speak privately to Iron Heart and Silver Moon, “I wish to thank you for this past week, for opening my heart to see that you are the same as when I lived with you. To see the people eager to learn…it is wonderful. Iron Heart, you were right, at first, I saw only with my eyes, but now I know different. I have enjoyed myself immensely.”

“It is a wise person who can see with their heart,” Iron Heart replied as he hugged Hope.

“We too have enjoyed your visits, and meeting your family,” said Silver Moon. “You have grown into a beautiful woman.”

*****

Upon joining the rest of Hope’s family, Silver Moon presented a small packet to each of the McCain children. As each child opened their present, they found a differently designed and decorated small reed hoop with what looked like a spider’s web inside.

“They are beautiful,” Hope commented as she looked at each one her children held out.

“What are they Mama?” Josh asked.

“They’re called dream catchers. They only allow good dreams to visit you,” replied Hope as she swept back a lock of her son’s hair from his face. “Every Indian child has one over their bed.”

“Silver Moon, thank you,” stated Milly as she admired those presented to her children. “They are beautiful.”

“Mama?” asked Zach. “Does this mean we’re Indians?”

“No, but it means that they have accepted that you have the heart of an Indian, that you understand their ways, and that they care about you,” Hope answered.

“Dawn Fire, this is for you,” Silver Moon replied as she handed a package to Hope. Upon opening it, Hope realized her present was the dream catcher that had hung above her bed when she lived among the Kiowa.

*****

The men stood to the side allowing the women to talk and the children to play.

Iron Heart motioned to Running Wolf and Iron Talon, who led two horses to Lucas and Mark, “These are for young Levi and Elijah. This is my thank you, I know you would not take any gift for yourselves, but for your children you would dare not offend me.”

“Iron Heart, these gifts are too much,” Lucas tried to explain.

“A gift from the heart is never too much. Silver Moon has longed to know what became of Dawn Fire, after she married. You brought a smile to my wife’s face that I never could. We mourned Dawn Fire’s leaving and now we know she has a life that has been blessed with children…that she is happy.”

“We accept your gifts, however, you must let us make equal thanks, for teaching our children a lesson we never could. To see them playing with the children of your camp, makes me think that they just might be the future where the color of one’s skin doesn’t matter,” answered Lucas, knowing the insult he would give if he tried any more to refuse the gifts. “With the number of young ones in your own camp, I would be pleased to gift you with two fine milk cows and several other strong breeding cows, I noticed the other day you’ve a very good bull out with the cattle.”

“It is agreed, your gifts are accepted,” Iron Heart acknowledged.

*****

Iron Heart took Seth aside to speak, “It is as a father that I speak to you. I know how you must have grieved when you thought your daughter dead. I too grieved, when she was first taken from us, I feared what those men would do; she was to me as a daughter. I am shamed that I have nothing worthy to present to you.”

“You need not give me anything, you already gave me my daughter’s life, and that means more than anything, other than your friendship,” replied Seth.

“I have not ever told Silver Moon, my first thoughts were to leave her where I found her, I don’t know why I didn’t, but I am grateful I did not. Had it not been for your past, she would not have taught me that there are those among the white man who have the courage to learn, that we can all be brothers and sisters. I thank you for allowing her to be part of my family.”

“Sometimes adults can learn our most valuable lessons from our children. Iron Heart, it is I who should be thanking you, for becoming a part of her family, and mine.”

The two fathers grasped the other’s forearm and stood there, each with the understanding of what it meant to have Hope/Dawn Fire as a daughter, thankful that she lived.

*****

Soaring Hawk led a black mare, with a slip of a star shaped like a new moon, to Myra.

“But I already have a horse,” a confused Myra stated in askance as she looked to Lucas.

Iron Heart had returned to the group and knelt before Myra, “I know you are fond of the horse you ride, but he is coming to a time when he will prefer to be turned out. He has served you well, and deserves the respect of an elder; this young horse, she is well started on the path to being trained, and will serve you for many years to come.”

“Papa?” asked Myra. “Blue Boy…”

“He is getting up there in years, sweetheart. Remember, he was Mark’s horse, long before he was your horse.”

“But what will he think?” tears started to well in Myra’s eyes at the thought of no longer riding Blue Boy.

“I went through the same thing regarding Razor, when Mark gave me Blade, but I knew that it would be the right thing to allow Razor his retirement. And every now and then, I used to ride him to see you to school. And Mark went through the same thing when he bought Copper, but he knew you would do well by Blue Boy. Myra, you know he can’t keep up with the others, even though he tries.”

“I don’t care about that…” Turning to Iron Heart, Myra stated, “Sir… It’s not that I’m not grateful for your offer, but Mark gave me Blue Boy to be my horse.”

“Then it should be up to Mark to say you may or may not take the mare I offer,” Iron Heart understood Myra’s feelings.

“Gabby, I know how much you love Blue Boy, as much as I ever did. He won’t think poorly of you.”

“But he’ll be all alone at the ranch…”

“He’ll have plenty of company.”

“But…”

Mark knelt in front of his sister, “Gabby, a young lady needs a fine young horse to carry her to and from school. Blue Boy has been a good horse to both of us. Pa once explained to me about ‘looking back time’, a time when life slows down, and a person will reflect back on their life. I think the same thing can be true for horses, it’s time for Blue Boy’s looking back years. I asked Iron Heart if he had a horse good enough to give to you. I wanted you to know what it was like to race your horse across the land, like Blue Boy and I raced.”

“Then she’s really from you?”

“I had wanted to purchase you a new horse, but Iron Heart would not allow me to pay for her. He said that since you were my little sister, he would be honored to give you a mare. This mare is the last foal of the mare that Hope rode, when she lived with the Kiowa.”

“Does Hope know?”

“I haven’t told her yet. I didn’t know if you would accept Iron Heart’s offer.”

After thinking for a few moments, Myra stated, “Mr. Iron Heart, I thank you for your gift. I’ll take real good care of her.”

“What are you going to name her?” Iron Heart asked.

“She doesn’t have one?”

Iron Heart shook his head.

“You mean I can name her?”

“Yes, it is proper,” answered Iron Heart.

“Well, she is so black, she almost looks blue… Can I call her BlueGirl?”

“I think that’s a noble name,” replied Iron Heart.

Mark smiled.

*****

It was time for final goodbyes to be said, “My heart will mourn your loss again,” stated Silver Moon. “But my heart is glad to see the fine woman and mother you have become.”

“I’ll miss you too,” Hope answered, wiping the tears from her eyes as they hugged.

Seth shook hands with Iron Heart, again, thankful that the Kiowa Chief had chosen to act with compassion all those years ago.

“Iron Heart, we’ll meet you with the cattle out by the train before you leave,” Lucas stated.

“Until then,” Iron Heart replied as he mounted his horse and signaled for the tribe to move.

Heavy hearts watched them leave, but the hearts were joyous in that they had met and reaffirmed life.

*****

The following morning, Mark returned to stand his watch in North Fork, “So Seth and Johnny are taking today off?”

“Yeah, I guess they figure that North Fork is safe with me watching over her after that shooting demonstration the lot of you put on.”

“Micah, North Fork was safe with you watching over her when you stood alone wearing that badge,” Mark answered as he added several spoons of sugar into his coffee.

Mark barely sat down at his desk with the train whistle sounded, “I forgot the train was due in today. You cover the office?”

“I think I can manage from being bucked off this desk. Get out of here and do your duty,” Micah good-naturedly teased.

Mark tipped his hat as he passed various women on the boardwalk, while making his way to the train depot. He felt relaxed that most of the visitors who had come for Buffalo Bill’s show had left town and most everything was back to normal.

Two men wearing identical black cowboy hats and tan dusters, pulled back allowing easy access to their handguns, caught Mark’s attention as they stepped from the last passenger car. Mark cocked his rifle and readied himself for possible trouble.

“Excuse us?” one of the men asked as he unbuttoned and opened his duster to show he wore the badge of a Texas Ranger.

“Yes sir, how can I help you?” replied Mark. After looking from one to the other and not telling the two apart he asked, “Kaleb or Keifer?”

“You have us at a disadvantage, Marshal,” the other stated.

“I guess it has been a long time since the two of you were in North Fork, how is your father, the judge… and Khalyn?”

“Mark… Mark McCain? Well I’ll be… look at you! All grown up! I’m Keifer.” He extended his hand.

“Can’t be Mark, why he weren’t no more than…” Pushing his hat back and scratching his head, “I guess it has been a while.” He extended his hand and said, “I’m Kaleb. How are you Mark?”

“Just fine. Johnny didn’t say anything about you coming for a visit.”

“This isn’t a social call. We’re here to take custody of your two prisoners, Nelson Warrenson and Estaban Rodriguez,” Keifer replied.

“I remember Johnny said they were wanted out of Texas. Come on, I’ll get you where you’re going.”

Walking through town, Kaleb commented, “I can’t believe how much North Fork has grown,” he let out a whistle.

Mark led the brothers to the hotel and called out, “Mrs. Drako, the U.S. Marshal Service requires two rooms…”

Lou stood on a step stool and twisted around, her hair tied up in a kerchief, a dirty apron over her dress, pointing a feather duster towards Mark, “Mark McCain, people came from all around, in and out of my hotel at all hours, just ta see yer gunfight. Tis a fine day when they’re all departed and I finally get a chance ta clean my hotel and the Marshal Service brings me ‘guests’. If they’re here for ye, ye can put them up at the jail where I’m sure they belong.”

“Ouch!” declared Kaleb, hearing Lou’s tirade.

“Maybe we should see about staying with family,” Keifer teased as he too heard Lou.

“Ye do that. This hotel has never been so unkept since I…” Lou stopped speaking mid-sentence after looking at the two men who stood on either side of Mark. Having removed their hats, a riled Lou retorted, “Ye wipe those silly grins off yer faces right now. Mark Warren McCain, just wait until I tell yer wife.” Again, she shook the feather duster at Mark.

“Okay, please… just don’t kill me with your dust,” Mark teased, waving his hand back and forth trying to disburse the dust floating his way.

Lou was helped down from her step stool, and both men hugged her, “Good to see you too, Lou,” both stated as they stepped back.

Keiffer asked, “So, do you think you have a room here at the hotel, or should we see if our Aunt and Uncle can put us up for the night?”

“I’ll have ye know that there is no finer a hotel in all of North Fork, of course ye can stay here. I’ve two rooms that are clean.”

“Guess here would be a sight better than the livery,” teased Kaleb.

“Or the jail,” teased Keifer.

“Oh ye!” declared Lou as she mock, pushed them away.

“Hold it right there fellas!” Johnny Drako called as he entered the lobby, gun drawn.

With Johnny to their backs, Keifer and Kaleb raised their arms, they heard the turn and click of the cylinder from Johnny’s gun.

“Johnny, that isn’t necessary,” Mark stated.

“You of all people, just stand there while these two men accost my wife.”

“I think you’re going to regret those words,” replied Mark. “They aren’t who you think they are.”

“Well then, just who are they?”

“Yer nephews!” Lou declared, her hands balled up and set to her hips. “Johnny Drako, is that any way ta greet yer family?”

Kaleb and Keifer, still with their hands raised, turned around, “Hello Johnny.”

Looking from one to the other, Johnny shook his head while he slipped his gun back into his holster. “You’ll have to forgive me, but from where I stood…”

“That’s okay Johnny, we understand. You know, if she weren’t already taken, I think I’d be vying for her affections myself,” stated Keifer.

“And what would Frances have to say about that?” Kaleb asked.

“I’ll take your horses to the livery so you folks can get reacquainted. Whenever you’re ready to see your prisoners, just come on over,” Mark stated as he headed for the exit.

*****

“Anything exciting happen while you were out and about?” Micah asked as he looked up from reading the newspaper.

“Remember when we had that change of venue trial for Dak Yates?” Mark paused giving Micah time to think.

“That was back when Johnny’s family came to town, the Rangers…”

“Well, they’re back in town. They’re here for our prisoners.”

*****

The heat of the afternoon had driven Mark and Micah outside the jail, where they leaned their chairs back against the wall.

“And what’s this Lou said about a gunfight?” Kaleb asked as he and Keifer stopped at the hitching rail.

“Didn’t Johnny tell you about it? Guess not. Oh, you remember Micah Torrance?” Mark allowed the men to exchange handshakes before he continued, “Buffalo Bill Cody brought his show to town, he conspired against us for a shootout.”

“Who went up against Annie Oakley and Frank Butler?” Keifer asked.

“The Four Guns of North Fork,” teased Micah.

“Besides Pa and me? Johnny and my father-in-law.”

“Your father-in-law?” Kaleb choked out.

“Lou did say something about telling on you to your wife, are you really old enough to be married?” Keifer asked.

“He sure is and he has a brood of young ‘ens,” answered Micah.

“Yep,” Mark smiled contentedly as he saw his family riding down the middle of Main Street. “In fact, here they come.”

Mark stood and walked to Two-Bits , he reached up and took Eli as Hope handed him down from sitting in front of her, Mark set him to the ground, “Papaw Micah,” he called and ran to him.

Mark held Two-Bits while Hope stepped down.

“Where are the girls?” asked Mark.

“They wanted to stay with their Grandma, Ma said she didn’t mind. And the boys really wanted to ride.”

“You didn’t let Eli ride his horse?”

“Mark, he’s only received the horse yesterday, you need to work with him at the ranch, just like you did with the twins. They’re not ready to ride off the ranch yet.”

“Hey Mark, care to introduce us?” teased Keifer, raising his eyebrows and resting his forearms against the hitching rail.

“She’s married,” Mark dead-panned.

“Mark!”

“That’s okay ma’am. Keifer was teasing earlier about vying for Lou’s affections.”

“She’s a married woman!” Hope declared.

“Hope, I’d like to introduce you to Kaleb and Keifer Marten, Johnny is their uncle,” Mark stated before any further misconceptions arose. “This is my wife, Hope.”

“Mama, they’re wearing funny badges,” Josh stated as he pointed.

“Josh!” chided Hope.

“So, you’re another set of twins in town,” Kaleb stated.

“Sure are, I’m Josh, and he’s…”

“I’m Zach, hey, you two look alike!”

“My brother and I are identical twins, too.”

“We’re not identical,” Josh stated.

“We would be if you didn’t have that birthmark!” Zach stated and bumped into his brother.

“Boys!” Mark called, his tone of voice indicated they were to mind their manners. “Kaleb, Keifer, the one with Micah is our youngest son, Eli.”

“You’ve got quite a full house,” Keifer stated.

“In more ways than you now, Hope didn’t bring in their daughters to town, they’ve two of them,” Micah stated as Eli jumped from his lap.

Turning serious, “Micah, Kaleb and Keifer are here to see our prisoners. If it’s okay with you, I have a lunch date with my family.”

*****

After lunch, Hope informed Mark they were going to stop by Seth and Lilah’s to spend some time with Ethan and Annie. Mark kissed Hope goodbye and said, “Have fun. I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon.”

“Papa, will you teach me to ride when you come home?” Eli asked.

“Only if you mind your Mama. If she says you’ve been good, I’ll teach you to ride.”

*****

After waving, Mark entered the office to hear Micah ask, “So when do you think you’ll take them off our hands?”

“The eastbound train comes through tomorrow morning,” Keifer answered. “Are you alright with us leaving them here for one more night?”

“No problem,” Micah answered.

*****

The following morning, Mark and Micah stood guard over the prisoners while Kaleb and Keifer said goodbye to Johnny and Lou and their children.

“Are ye sure ye can’t stay any longer? Ye just got here,” Lou stated.

“I’m sure. A quick visit is better than no visit at all,” Keifer offered.

“Tis not the same,” complained Lou. “Ye barely got to meet the children.”

“Why don’t you bring your family to Lubbock, and meet our children. I know Father would be pleased to have you stop and stay for a while,” Kaleb stated.

“Khalyn was upset she couldn’t come with us, but this wasn’t exactly a social trip and with her being so close to her due date, she couldn’t travel this far,” said Keifer.

“Ye didn’t say Khalyn was pregnant,” Lou declared.

“Well, maybe later this fall, when the children are on harvest break; we’ll see about coming for a visit,” Johnny stated. “Tell your father and your sister we said hello.”

The Marten twins took custody of their prisoners and pointed them to board the train.

“Still, tis not fair they couldn’t stay longer…”

“I know Lou, but they were here on business. Come on, ye need to feed yer husband before he as to stand his watch,” Johnny replied with a little Irish brogue to his voice, trying to cheer his wife.

The Next Generation… Chapter 109 – No Choice

Levi had chosen Chief as the name for his horse; since it was the Chief of the Kiowa’s who gave him his horse, a brown and white pinto gelding with a medicine hat. Eli chose Thumper for his horse, a chestnut colored horse with a white star on his face and two white hind legs, who stomped his front hoof anytime he wanted Eli to give him a sugar cube.

While Lucas and Mark worked with Eli and Levi to teach them how to ride in one of the corrals, Hope spent time with Myra helping her become acquainted with her new horse, BlueGirl. Together they’d go for brief rides around the ranch, never straying too far.

“You’re doing an excellent job riding her,” Hope said to Myra.

“Hope, she’s such a beautiful mare. Did Mark tell you her mama was your horse?” Myra petted Blue Girl.

“He did.”

“Do you miss her?” Myra dared ask.

“I guess, in a way I do, I never really thought about her after I started living in North Fork.”

“What was she like?”

Hope took a moment to think, before she answered. “She was spirited; we wanted to run all the time. Iron Heart was always after me to take it easy. Her coat was black as night, all four legs had white stockings, and she had a wide blaze down her face.”

*****

Myra, Little Ted, Josh, and Zach were thrilled when they finally could ride with the new riders as Lucas and Mark took them for brief trips around the homestead.

*****

A beautiful Saturday dawned when Lucas, Mark, and Hope followed behind as their children rode their horses, and Milly drove the buckboard with Mykaela, Faith, and the picnic baskets with their lunches and blankets to spread out on the ground as the family planned to enjoy their day together.

The children were thrilled to see Seth and Lilah already at the pond when they arrived.

“Children, we need to tend to your horses first,” Mark called out, preventing the children from jumping down from their horses and running off.

One by one, Mark and Lucas worked to unsaddle the horses while the children held them. With help from Seth, Hope stretched out the rope for the picket line, as Lilah and Milly set out the blankets and their picnic baskets. After tying all the riding horses and the team to the picket line, Mark untied BlueBoy from the back of the buckboard and led him to the line. Myra had insisted he couldn’t stay home alone.

*****

The sun was sinking from the sky when the families said goodbye and headed home, “Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to let everyone ride their horses,” Mark commented as he watched the children yawning and fighting to stay awake while in their saddles.

“If you’d prefer to sleep instead of ride, you can lie down in the back of the buckboard,” Lucas called out.

“No sir!’ was the reply, but it didn’t keep the children from yawning, having tired themselves out swimming and playing the whole afternoon.

*****

Activities picked up throughout North Fork; parents purchasing new clothing and school supplies in preparation for their children to return to school as August turned into September.

*****

School had been in session for two weeks when Myra woke with a nagging cough.

“I can’t miss school,” Myra tried speaking through her irritated throat. “Please, I want to go to school.”

Having placed the back of her hand to Myra’s forehead and feeling no fever, Milly reluctantly agreed. “But if your throat gets any worse or you start running a fever, I want you to tell Mr. Bullock and ask for him to send for Mark.”

“Mama, I’ll be all right.”

Milly spoke with Mark, as he was to chaperone the McCain children to school. Before leaving the children, Mark gave Myra one of ‘those’ looks.

“I’m fine. I told Mama it was nothing,” Myra answered.

“Okay, Gabby, but still, take it easy over lunch and no running around,” Mark kissed his sister and waved goodbye to the boys as he headed to work.

*****

Over the next several days, Myra did her best to hide the growing discomfort in her throat, but eventually, she fell asleep at her desk. Mark came quickly when Percy Bullock sent Isaiah to get him. Upon his arrival, he found Percy had dismissed the class for an early morning recess, allowing Mark to tend to his sister.

“She’s tried, but she hasn’t seemed herself this week,” Percy stated.

“She’s had a sore throat since Monday. I know she’s been trying to hide it from Ma and Pa. I’ll take her to Lilah’s for the day. I’ll be back after school to get the others and take them home.”

“Tell Myra that I hope she gets feeling better.”

“Thanks, Percy.”

Lovingly, Mark lifted his sleeping sister from her desk and carried her, her head on his shoulder, arms draped to her side, out the school doors. Lou was first to see Mark carrying her down the boardwalk.

“Mark, tis she okay?”

“Just not feeling well.”

“Ye can put her up in one of the rooms upstairs… If ye like…” Lou offered.

“Thanks, but you’ve already got your hands full with all your guests Johnny told me you had a full house registered at the hotel. I’ll take her over to Lilah’s and let her sleep there.”

*****

Myra woke to find herself in strange surroundings; she quickly sat up on the bed and threw the covers off.

“Hey sleepyhead,” teased Mark upon entering the room.

“How’d I get here?”

“Mr. Bullock sent for me. You fell asleep at school.”

“I did not!” claimed Myra, her voice crackling.

“Oh, then how do you explain the fact that I carried you here this morning, you slept through lunch, AND school was dismissed about fifteen minutes ago?”

“But I didn’t fall asleep…I just didn’t… feel… good,” Myra rubbed at her throat.

“I know. Come on, the others are waiting to go home.”

Mark lifted Myra from the bed and carried her downstairs, before placing her in the saddle.

“Miss Lilah… thank… you…,” Myra’s voice gave out.

*****

Mark saw the children home; he motioned for Little Ted to lead his horse to the barn, as well as the twins to take their horses to their own barn. Mark led BlueGirl with Myra to the front porch of his parents’ home where Milly greeted them; she immediately sensed something was amiss with her daughter.

“I see your sore throat got worse?” asked Milly.

Myra nodded as she reached for Milly, who helped her down from the saddle and carried her straight to her bedroom.

Mark tied Rainmaker to the hitching rail and led BlueGirl to the barn where he unsaddled her and helped his brother turn the two horses out in the corral with Blue Boy and Chief.

As Mark walked his brother home, through the open door, he saw his parents heading into Myra’s room, concern on both their faces. Mark untied Rainmaker and led him to his own barn where he helped his sons finish unsaddling their own horses and turned them out in the appropriate corrals.

*****

Friday afternoon, Mark waited outside for the younger McCain children to exit school. As they went to get their horses, Percy asked for a moment of Mark’s time.

“Sure, what’s up?” Mark asked.

“Tell your sister I’ve missed having my star pupil in class today…”

“I will, but is that all you wanted to talk about?” asked Mark.

“No, it’s not, Stevan and I need to talk to you.” Percy pointed to Stevan Griswald hurriedly walking along the boardwalk.

Stevan looked around before he spoke, “The Trumble children weren’t in school again today.”

“Maybe they’ve been sick, like Gabby,” suggested Mark.

“If that were the case, I wouldn’t be concerned,” Stevan stated.

“How many days did they make it to school this week?” asked Mark.

“They haven’t. Mark, every child deserves a proper education. It is mandated by the town charter…” Stevan proclaimed.

“Stevan, I know that all too well. Listen, Pa and I are tied up this weekend… Let’s wait to see if they return to school on Monday; if they’re not in school on Monday, I promise, I’ll ride with you to their place… Okay?”

Stevan appeared resigned to accept Mark’s stance and nodded, “Robbie just seemed so eager to learn. He’s come a long way with Milly tutoring him over the summer. It’s just so disappointing for him to miss a whole week; he was really making progress. All right, Mark. I’ll wait until Monday.

“See you Monday.” Turning to his oldest brother and his oldest sons, Mark called out, “Head ‘em up!”

“Move ‘em out!” the boys called out in reply and laughed as the bounced along in their saddles as their horses trotted.

*****

Sunday evening, Hope found Mark in a contemplative mood, “Care to talk?”

“Just dreading tomorrow afternoon,” Mark quietly replied as Hope snuggled back to his chest as she sat down in front of him on the porch step.

“Trumble?”

“Yeah, Robbie and Eloise missed all of last week and if they’re not in school tomorrow, I promised Stevan I’d ride with him out to their place.”

“They could be ill; you know Myra missed several days last week…”

“Yes, and Thadd knows about Gabby. I checked with him after church and he’s not heard anything from the Trumble’s…”

“Maybe they’re too proud to ask for his help.”

“I’m afraid it might be Mr. Trumble is too drunk to ask for any help,” Mark replied and pulled Hope nearer.

“I feel sorry for Mrs. Trumble, any time I’ve seen her, she just seems so timid, so… scared.”

“I’ve had the same feelings too.”

“Mama?” both heard from the doorway.

“Mykaela, you should be in bed, asleep,” Hope called as she turned to look to her oldest daughter.

“Me want some wadder,” Mykaela stood holding a doll and rubbing her throat.

“Come here Emmy,” invited Mark as they stood from the porch. Mark picked up his daughter and carried her into the house and back to her bed.

*****

Monday afternoon, Mark left Josh, Zach, and Little Ted at the Marshal’s Office and asked Seth if he would mind taking the children home.

“Sure, no problem. I wanted to ride out to your place today anyway and ask Hope if she would be interested in making a basket for Lilah to hang laundry. I saw the ones that Hope made for Milly and herself and thought it would make a nice present for Lilah’s birthday next month.”

“You think she’d like something as a birthday present to remind her of chores she has to do?” a curious Mark asked.

“Now that you put it that way… Maybe I’ll ask Hope to just make her one and get her something else as a birthday present,” Seth replied with half a smile.

“Good idea,” laughed Mark. “I know that Hope would love to make one for Lilah. She’s made several for herself and Ma. She told me the other day she forgot how much fun they were to make; having spent so much time with Silver Moon over the summer, she remembered.”

*****

Before heading out, Mark waited with Stevan Griswald as he watched Seth and the boys head for home.

“You can’t put this off any longer, Mark,” Stevan commented as he turned his horse next to Mark.

“Guess not.”

*****

Mark and Stephan Griswald rode up what passed for a road to the Trumble’s when they witnessed Mrs. Trumble run from the house. She hadn’t made it too far when she looked over her shoulder and trip over a rock causing her to fall to the ground, the expression on her face held unmistakable fear. They heard Trumble boisterously yelling, calling to his wife to “Get back here!” as he flung the door open. It didn’t take any time for Quinton Trumble to catch up to his wife and yank her from the ground, causing her to cry out in pain and grab for her shoulder. In horror, they watched as he backhanded her hard, yelling, “Why you lousy, no good…”, they kicked their horses faster.

“TRUMBLE! Stop it right there!” Mark yelled as he reined his horse to a halt and pulled his rifle from his scabbard.

“She’s my wife, what’s it too you, sodbuster?” Trumble belligerently called back, grabbing his wife around the waist and pulling her to him.

“She may be your wife, but that’s no way to treat a lady,” Mark replied.

“Lady? Did you hear that? This mangy man-cub thinks you’re a lady.” Stepping backwards, Trumble moved to the porch, keeping his wife firmly in his grasp.

“Trumble, let her go,” Mark called out as he pointed his rifle towards the two.

Stevan reached for Mark’s shoulder and started to say, “Mark, maybe we should…” but stopped when he saw Trumble pulled his gun.

“Whacha gonna do now? Man-cub,” Trumble taunted. “You got no call…”

“As the law, I have every right, I’ll see that you let her go, then I’m going to see that she and your children get to safety.”

“Law?! You ain’t nothin’ and you ain’t gonna do nothin’. Them brats, they got chores to do, same as her. I rule this house! They do as I say! Same for you!”

Mark watched the fear in the woman’s eyes grow as her husband raised his gun to her head.

“She’s mine, until death us do part. Ain’t that what the preacher said?” Trumble cruelly asked as he roughly tightened his grip on his wife.

“Mama?!” called Robbie as he stepped to the porch.

Trumble turned at the child’s voice and in his distraction; his grip on his wife loosened enough for her to pull away and dare to yell, “Get back inside!” Trumble, realizing his wife was running away, fired one shot in her direction. Mark hesitated in firing at Trumble because if he missed, he could strike the child. Mark jumped down the offside of Rainmaker and followed Stevan as he ran towards what was the smokehouse. Trumble fired a second shot, in their direction, and Mark watched as his former schoolteacher cried out and fell to the ground. Regardless, Mark realized he had to take the shot, somersaulting to the ground and coming up to a kneeling position, Mark didn’t sight in his rifle, he fired from his hip as Trumble’s third shot struck him in the right arm.

Ignoring the pain, Mark watched as Trumble’s weapon slowly slipped from his fingers and his eyes rolled back in their sockets, showing only the whites, before he crumpled to the ground.

“Stevan? Are you okay?” Mark called out, his eyes and rifle still on the man he had shot.

“Yeah, he just got me in the thigh,” Stevan answered.

Slowly Mark stood to his feet and walked to where the big man lay on the ground, he kicked the man’s handgun from his reach before he knelt to see if the man still lived. From where he knelt, he smelled the sour odor of whiskey mixed with the man’s foul body odor. After a few moments of watching the man’s chest fail to rise, Mark placed his ear to the man’s chest and cursed when he didn’t hear a heartbeat. Looking over his shoulder, Mark saw Stevan sitting up and tying a handkerchief round his thigh. Mark looked over to where Mrs. Trumble lie, “Please God, let her be okay,” he prayed as he sprinted across the ground.

Mark closed his eyes at the sight of the blood spreading across the back of the flower-print dress Mrs. Trumble wore; the once vivid colors were faded and patches of wear were apparent. Carefully, Mark turned her over and realized she lived. Lifting her to a somewhat seated position, allowing her to rest against him, he listened as she struggled to talk, “Please, my babies, take care of my…”

“Hold on Mrs. Trumble, I’ll get you to Doc’s,” begged Mark. “Don’t try to talk.”

“Please… They’re… only… babies…” Her breath was raspy as she fought to speak; her grip on Mark’s arm conveyed her pain and fear.

Tears streamed down Mark’s face as the woman’s eyes fluttered and she slowly went limp in his arms. He moved his left hand to close her eyelids.

“Mama in heaven now?” spoke a quiet voice from behind Mark.

“She’s in heaven. I’m sorry,” answered Mark as he laid the woman back to the ground and turned to see the two young children standing behind him. “I’m Marshal McCain, you remember me from the time you spent with Miss Milly?”

“I do,” whispered Robbie.

“Let’s get you to the house. I need to get some blankets to cover your folks,” it tore Mark up to talk.

“We can do it. We’ll get the blankets,” Robbie said.

As Mark stood up, he watched the two children run into the house. While they were inside, Mark ran over to help Stevan get to his feet.

“Do you think you can ride to town and get a buckboard and bring it back here?” asked Mark.

“Just get me to my horse and help me into the saddle.”

*****

After seeing Stevan on his horse and down the road, Mark turned to go into the house, as he stepped to the porch, he saw the little boy return carrying a couple of blankets.

“Where’s your sister?”

“She’s inside. Sir, she’s crying,” Robbie replied.

“Why don’t you go back inside and take her to your bedroom. I’ll come get you in a little while.”

Once the two bodies were covered over, Mark entered the home and was appalled at the sight that greeted him; not much had changed over the summer except now the shabby furniture was upturned, the dining room table and chairs were broken, and dirty dishes were strewn across the floor. Mark explored the rest of the house and finally came to a back bedroom with two small bunks.

“May I come in?” Mark asked as he knocked upon the opened door.

The boy nodded.

Kneeling in front of the two, Mark’s heart fluttered as he realized he had been forced to kill, again, and it cost these two children their parents.

“I’m sorry for what happened outside.”

“Nothing for you to be sorry, he hurt Mama all the time.”

“Robbie, would you help me pack some things for you and your sister?”

“Who’s gonna take care of us?” asked Robbie.

“For the time being, I’ll take you home with me. I’ll try to find out if you have any other family.”

“Sir, we don’t have no one. Mama told me a long time ago, that if anything happened to her, she prayed God would look out for us and find us a new family to take care of us,” Robbie replied.

“Just get an overnight bag packed, some clothes and some toys if you like,” was all Mark could manage to say.

*****

Mark was just about ready to abandon his search of the house, when he finally found a bible stuffed inside one of the pillows on the bed. He opened it to find a folded note:

To whoever is reading this, my fears must have come true. All I can ask is that you find someone to raise my children and give them the love they deserve. Quinton nor I have any other family. Tell my babies, I’ll be watching them from heaven and I’ll miss them. –Martha Trumble

Mark tucked the letter into his shirt pocket when he heard a buckboard arrive. Stopping on the porch, he was surprised it was Johnny Drako wrapping the reins around the brake lever before he stepped down.

“Mark! Are you okay? Stevan is at the clinic, he wanted to come back, but I insisted he let Doc take a look at his leg. Looks like you’ll need Doc’s services too.”

“It’s just a scratch,” replied Mark shrugging off the reference to his injury.

“Stevan told us what happened. What about the children?”

“They’re inside. I found a note Mrs. Trumble wrote, they’re orphans…” quieted Mark as he looked back to the house. “I’ll help you get their parents loaded.”

It only took a few minutes before the bodies of both Trumble’s were loaded into the back of the buckboard.

“What about them?” Johnny asked as he pointed to the two children standing on the porch.

“I thought about taking them home. Can’t bring myself to ask them to ride into town with their parents dead in the back of the buckboard.”

“I’ll send Thadd out to your place, after I get their parents to the undertaker.”

“Johnny, thanks for coming out.”

Once Johnny and the buckboard were out of sight, Mark turned toward the children, “How would you like to come home with me? Wait right here, I’ll saddle one of the horses in the barn…” Mark hesitated in talking as the little girl took his hand.

Having saddled a horse, he took the small bags both held and tied them to the saddle horn, next he lifted the little girl to the front of the saddle, before he lifted the boy to sit behind her.

After stepping to his own saddle, Mark said, “Hold on” as he kneed Rainmaker and pulled the other horse beside him.

*****

Lucas was sitting on the porch and stood to his feet when he saw the riders coming down the road, “Milly, we’ve company,” he called into the house.

“Who?” she asked as she wiped her hands on her apron and stopped next to Lucas.

“That’s Rainmaker, and Mark…” Lucas answered as he recognized one horse and rider.

“Mark?” asked Lucas stepping down from to the porch.

“Pa, I want to get these two settled at home, can we talk… later?” asked Mark.

“Here, hand them down to me,” Milly stated. “Hope’s been busy with Mykaela being sick all day and Faith has been fussy.”

“I didn’t know Emmy was sick?” a worried Mark asked.

“She’ll be fine, just a sore throat. Lucas and I’ll take care of Robbie and Eloise.”

Lucas lifted Robbie down from the saddle and set him to the ground. He turned around and reached for Eloise who eagerly jumped from the saddle into his arms, yet she didn’t want to be set to the ground. Mark watched as his parents took the two children into their home.

Mark led the horses to the barn and had them unsaddled by the time Lucas entered his son’s barn.

“You said you needed to talk. I take it Trumble’s in jail, again? How bad did he hurt Martha this time?”

With his back to his Pa, Mark whispered, “Pa, he killed her.”

Lucas couldn’t answer his son, what could he to say at a time like this.

“He killed her in front of Stevan and me. Johnny said he’d send Thadd out here after he took their parents to the undertaker.”

“Parents? What of Quinton?”

“Pa, I…” Mark tried to collect his words, it still seemed so surreal. “Stevan and I went out there to check on the children. They hadn’t been in school last week or today.” Mark told Lucas of the discussion he’d had with Stevan the previous Friday. “He shot his wife. He stood there, drunk and arguing with me. I didn’t want to shoot him because Robbie was behind him and if I missed… Pa, he started shooting at us. He shot Stevan and I realized I had to shoot. I had to stop him. I had no choice. Pa… I didn’t mean to kill him; I thought I was on target to hit him in the shoulder…”

“Hello Lucas, Mark. After Stevan told me more detail about what happened, I decided I might be needed out here. By the way, he’s going to be okay. The bullet didn’t do too much damage to his leg, but enough that he’s going to be on crutches for a little while,” Seth stated as he entered the barn.

“I killed their father,” Mark stated as he turned around looked out the door to his parents’ home. “Damn it!” he slammed the side of his fist against a post in the barn before turning to face Lucas and Seth.

“Mark!” both men declared when they saw the blood upon Mark’s pants and shirt.

“It’s not my blood,” Mark stated.

“From the beginning, tell me what happened,” suggested Lucas as he led Mark to sit down on the stack of hay.

Seth took a seat on the opposite side of Mark and listened as he explained all that transpired.

“I can only imagine what some are saying, that I deliberately killed Trumble to get even with him for what he said about Hope earlier this summer.” Mark shivered as different consequences to his actions raced through his head.

“Mark, anyone who knows you would never think that. And if anyone does, be thankful Stevan was there. The only difference between your story and Stevan’s is, you didn’t include your being shot. Trumble’s bullet striking your arm, that’s what caused you to kill him,” stated Seth as he took hold of Mark’s arms and pointed out the blood on his son-in-law’s sleeve.

“Me being shot? I don’t understand,” Mark looked to the underside of his arm, realizing he had been shot. “What does that have to do with my killing a man?” asked Mark. His voice held no anger, just remorse and seeking answers to why.

“Mark, he shot you in the right arm, it altered your aim. You couldn’t have kept your sight true.”

“I didn’t shoulder my rifle, I rolled and fired from the hip…”

“Hip or shoulder, Trumble’s bullet turned you to the right and caused your bullet to strike him dead.”

“Son, listen to what Seth is saying, you know about calculating trajectory, Lord knows how you and Percy took to Geometry after you two first met. You know how one small movement can mean a larger difference at the intended target…” offered Lucas.

“I don’t remember the bullet striking me…” Continuing to look at his bloodied sleeve, Mark sighed, accepting that he had no choice but to stop Trumble… any way he could.

“Mark, why don’t you go into your home and let Hope tend to your arm. Once Thadd gets here and has had a chance to check on Robbie and Eloise, I’ll send him your way,” stated Lucas as he helped Mark to his feet.

The three left the barn, Lucas to go to his own home, while Seth walked with Mark.

“Mark! You’re bleeding!” declared Hope as she turned to see her husband and father cross the threshold to her home. “Father?! What happened?”

“He’ll be okay, most of the blood isn’t his. Doc Burrage will be over a little later to check his arm.”

“This didn’t happen in town?” asked a confused Hope.

“Trumble’s,” was all Mark could say.

“What happened?!” an angered Hope asked as she pulled out the first aid kit and walked to Mark.

“I’ll tend to him. You take care of Mykaela,” Seth offered as he heard his oldest granddaughter call for her Mama.

“Seth, they don’t have anyone.” Mark pulled out the piece of paper from his pocket and handed it to his father-in-law, after he had cleaned and wrapped Mark’s arm in a bandage.

“No one else.” Seth shook his head. “Right now they have the McCain family to comfort them, as do you.”

“Me?”

“Mark, you’re probably suffering a mild case of shock; being forced to take another life. You didn’t even realize you’d been shot.”

“How could he kill her?!” Mark’s anger was working its way through his grief; he slammed his fist on the table.

“Anger and being drunk, it was all he knew,” Seth answered.

“Who was killed?” asked Hope as she returned from Mykaela’s room.

“Hope, Quinton Trumble killed his wife. He also shot Stevan Griswald and Mark while they were checking on the family,” her father answered.

“Mark…”

“He gave me no choice, I aimed my rifle…” Mark stated as his explanation.

“Hope, Stevan said Trumble’s bullet struck Mark’s arm as he pulled the trigger. It changed the bullet’s trajectory.”

“I’ll not talk bad about the recently departed, but… this town won’t miss the trouble that man’s caused. What about their children?!”

“They’re over at Milly and Lucas’, Mark brought them home,” Seth answered.

*****

“Mark, you’re lucky. The bullet went clean through,” Thadd stated as he applied a new bandage to Mark’s right arm. “Don’t think you’ll need to keep your arm in a sling, but you’ll know how much you can or cannot use it.”

“How are Robbie and Eloise?” asked Mark.

“I gave them something to help them sleep. Robbie seems to understand what happened and he told us what happened earlier. Mark, Trumble was physically abusing all of them. The marks on the children, from being whipped and the bruises on their arms, tell the story.”

“We should have checked on them over the weekend… Stevan wanted to, but I was too busy here on the ranch with Pa.” Mark conveyed his guilt through his words.

“Stop it Mark!” ordered Thadd. “Whether it happened today or over the weekend, they both would still be dead. Both children have bruises and welts, some recent others… not so recent. The abuse has been happening for some time. So a few days didn’t really matter. I’ve asked Milly and Lucas if they would mind keeping the children for a while, at least until I can find others from their family.”

“They don’t have any.” Mark handed over the note for Thadd to read. “While you’re here, would you mind looking in on Emmy? Ma said she’d been sick all day.”

“Sure Mark.”

Thadd walked over and knocked on the bedroom door, he opened it when he heard Hope say, “Come in.”

After an examination, Thadd put his stethoscope and tongue depressor back in his black bag. “Well young lady. I think those tonsils need to come out.”

“It is really that bad?” asked Hope.

“They are inflamed, and it’s only going to get worse. I’d rather remove the tonsils before they get to a point where they can cause a major infection. Right now, it’s a simple procedure, later, it can get more complicated.”

“How soon?” asked Hope.

“It can wait until things in this household get a little more settled. Hope, I remember what Mark’s gone through in the past when he’s taken a life. Let him accept his part in what happened and then we’ll talk about surgery for Mykaela.”

“Surgery? Doc?” Mark asked as he entered his daughter’s bedroom.

“Just her tonsils, it can wait until sometime next week. Looks like I’ll have to offer my two for one pricing.”

“Two for one?” asked Hope.

“When I was over checking on the Trumble children, Milly asked that I take a look at Myra. She’s had a sore throat too. It’s best to perform surgery on both of them. It will make it easier for their recovery to have someone else who’s recovering.”

*****

With little ceremony, Quinton and MarthaTrumble’s burial happened at the cemetery on the outskirts of town the following afternoon. A few townspeople attended, in addition to Johnny Drako, Seth and Lilah Lane, and Mark and Lucas McCain, with the Trumble children.

Lucas was there to support his son. This was the first time Mark had attended the burial of someone he had killed. Lucas remembered the incident when Mark’s friend Charlie was accidentally killed; his cousin had wanted to operate Lucas’ rifle and Mark attempted to pull it back.

“What about their children?” Johnny asked as he placed his hat on his head.

“For now, they can stay with us,” Lucas answered after he motioned for the children to walk ahead to the buckboard.

“Okay Lucas. Let me know when I should contact one of the orphanages about taking them in.”

“First, let’s give them time to grieve before we uproot them and send them away.” Placing his hand upon his son’s shoulder, “How are you doing, Mark?”

“I’m okay Pa. I’ve accepted that I had no choice and I was forced into it in order to protect the lives of others. After our talk last night, Hope and I talked some more and we read from the bible. Pa, I’ll be okay.”

“Okay, but if you still need to talk, I’m here for you,” Lucas replied as he gave his son’s shoulder a squeeze.

“We just need to decide what to do with the Trumble children,” mused Mark.

“As I told Johnny, for now, they can stay with us. Robbie is talking with your brothers and sister, Eloise hasn’t said a word. She does as we ask, but she’s not talked.”

“I’m sorry to bring trouble to your house.”

“It’s no trouble.”

“Yeah, but now you have five children under your roof and Gabby needs surgery next week,” implored Mark.

“And if you had taken them in, you’d have seven under your roof and Mykaela is going to have surgery too. Mark, Milly and I are okay with them staying with us for a while.”

“Thanks, Pa.”

*****

Later that night, Milly talked with Lucas as they readied for bed.

“Lucas, how is Mark handling this?”

“You mean killing Trumble?”

“Yes. I remember the other times…”

“Remarkably well. He’s…” Lucas paused and gave thought.

“He’s what?” asked Milly.

“Ever since we returned from Enid… I’ve been trying to put a finger on something that’s… different about him… And today, I realized just what it is, he’s so much more mature, more confident of himself… understanding and accepting the consequences of events. I mean in the immediate aftermath of killing, he’s taken it hard, but afterwards…he’s willing to talk, not keep it inside. And when he does talk, it’s not by rote, it’s like he’s reanalyzing everything, every detail. I’m not sure exactly when it happened, just… I think I finally lost him as my little boy…”

“He’ll always been your little boy, in his heart. Lucas, you did a wonderful job raising Mark as a single father. The trials and heartache the two of you experienced, any one of them could have turned him cold and uncaring, but Mark is who he is because of you… and Margaret.”

*****

Sunday morning, Mark was unprepared for the questions the twins asked, “But why do we have to go to Church? Why do we have to pray to God when he let Robbie and Eloise’s Pa hurt them?” asked Josh.

“Why should we give thanks and pray to him?” Zach echoed.

Mark didn’t know what to say, except, “It’s Sunday and we’re going to church.”

*****

Upon entering the church and walking to take their seats, Eloise tugged on Lucas’ pant leg, “Papa Lucas?” she whispered and wiggled her index finger, asking Lucas to lean down.

“Yes Eloise?” a surprised Lucas responded. This was the first time Eloise had spoken since Mark had brought her and her brother home.

“That man…”

“What man?” Lucas lifted Eloise to his hip.

“That man.” Eloise continued to whisper as she pointed to a picture on the wall. “I seen him. Why’s he on that wood?”

“That man is Jesus Christ. He is the son of God,” Lucas started. “He was crucified on the cross to pay for our sins.”

“He’s not there no more.”

Milly answered, “That’s right. After he died, they removed his body from the cross before they buried him.”

“No, he didn’t die.”

“He did, but he was resurrected. The bible tells us that,” Lucas answered.

“I don’t know about no bible, but he was there,” Eloise continued to talk. “He put his arms around me.”

“When was that?” Milly asked.

“When Papa was hurting Mama,” Eloise whispered.

Johnny Drako overheard the last part of what Eloise said and asked, “Eloise, was that the only time you saw your Papa, hurt your Mama?”

Eloise didn’t answer; she buried her face in Lucas’ shoulder.

“It’s too soon Johnny,” Lucas answered. “This is the first time she’s spoken.”

“No, Marshal Drako,” Robbie answered, “it weren’t, but Marshal Mark made sure it was the last time.”

Throughout church service, Eloise kept a hold of Lucas’ hand; afterwards, they walked to the restaurant for lunch.

*****

Before entering the hotel restaurant, Mark took Josh and Zach aside to talk with them.

“So, what are you feeling now?” asked Mark.

“We’re sorry Pa,” stated Josh and Zach.

“And why are you sorry?”

“Because we weren’t the ones Mr. Trumble was hurting and we thought poorly of God. Robbie and Eloise, with all their Pa done to them…they believed,” answered Zach.

“Boys, you forgot something very important… God can only provide us the guidance with which to live our lives. It’s up to us to listen and learn the lessons he teaches.”

“Just like Mr. Bullock teaches us?” asked Josh, “and Mr. Griswald?” Zach added.

“Yes, we all have lessons to learn.”

“Even you Pa?” Zach asked in surprise.

“Even me and your Grandpa’s.”

“Don’t let our Grandma’s or Mama know that,” Josh stated, shaking his head.

“Okay, this can be our little secret,” agreed Mark.

The Next Generation… Chapter 110 – McCain Blood

The twins were working hard in their effort to surprise Mark upon his arrival home, they spent the afternoon ‘working’ in the barn, cleaning out the stalls, and sweeping down the cobwebs. A tired Mark stepped down from Rainmaker in front of the barn to hear “Yeehaw!” yelled from within the barn, followed by someone crying out, “You’re bleeding!” Forgetting his horse, Mark ran into the barn to find, Little Ted and one of the twins standing over the other twin, who had his hand over his mouth, blood seeping through his fingers.

“What’s going on here?!” demanded Mark.

“Zach’s bleeding,” Josh called out.

“Wook, bwood,” Zach stated has he lowered his hands from his mouth and held them out.

Picking up his son, Mark ran with him to the house, calling for Hope as he ran across the yard, Little Ted and Josh slowly followed, looking guiltily to each other.

“Mark, what’s all the… What happened?” an alarmed Hope asked when she saw the blood; she followed Mark to the kitchen where he sat Zach upon the counter.

“What happened?” Milly called out upon entering their home. “I saw Mark running with one of the boys.”

“We were taking a break from working in the barn,” Josh stated.

“And?” Mark asked as he stepped away from his son, allowing the women to tend to Zach.

“We just wanted to have a little fun,” said Little Ted.

“Fun doing what?” asked Mark as he walked to stand over his younger brother.

“Jumping off the stack of hay,” Little Ted answered while averting his eyes.

“Why would you do something like that? Don’t you know you could have broken an arm or a leg?” Milly warned.

“He dared him,” tattled Josh.

“Little Ted! You know better than to dare someone to do something!” scolded Milly.

“And Zach, you know better than to let someone dare you into doing something. If Little Ted dared you to jump off a bridge into raging waters, would you do it?” asked Hope.

Zach tried to answer through the wet cloth his Ma had pushed into his mouth, but only mumbling came out.

“Oh Zach, how could you?” asked Hope, disappointment in her voice.

“Well, all three of us jumped,” offered Josh in defense of his brother. “Zach just got his foot caught in the rope around one of the bales and he fell flat on his face. ‘sides, his tooth was as loose as my tooth is.”

“Loose… You knocked out a tooth, too?!” exclaimed Hope.

“I got a loose tooth too, Mama,” Little Ted declared as he used his tongue to wiggled one of his top, front teeth back and forth.

“So my little boys are becoming little men?” a relieved Mark asked.

“Mark, how can you be so relaxed about his?” a nervous Hope chided.

“Mark? What’s wrong?” Lucas asked as he entered his oldest son’s home, having seen him carrying one of the twins across the yard, as he rode Blade down the road from checking on their weanling herd.

“Hope, I think we can relax a little bit. All three of them are old enough to start losing their baby teeth,” a relieved Milly answered. “Myra was six when she started losing her baby teeth.”

“Pa, remember all those times you told me I’d understand when I was older? Well, this is one of them,” laughed Mark.

Hope removed the bloodied cloth from Zach’s mouth and examined the damage done.

“Both front teeth. Oh, Zach…” sighed Hope.

“I’ were’n no’ing Mama. ‘ey were alwea’y woose,” boasted Zach. “I woss mine firss,” he managed to say as he pointed to his brother and uncle.

“Well, if the tooth fairy is going to stop by tonight, guess someone better go to the barn to find those teeth. Josh, Little Ted, you’ll both come with me,” ordered Mark.

“Papa’s home, I gotta go help him finish chores,” Little Ted replied.

“I think you’ll help the twins. I have a feeling someone was doing something they weren’t supposed to be doing,” accused Lucas, having planted both fists on his hips.

“They were daring each other to jump off the stack of hay bales in the barn,” Hope stated as she finally set Zach to his feet. “You’ll go out to the barn and help find your teeth. And I know of two young men who will not eat any cake for dessert tonight.”

“Make that three,” added Milly.

“Was Robbie involved with this?” asked Lucas.

“No, they asked him to help them work in the barn, but…”

“But what?”

”Eloise… Lucas she’s having a real tough time,” answered Milly.

Lucas nodded in understanding.

*****

Mark followed behind as three little boys walked dejectedly across the yard to the barn. It took time, but eventually both front teeth were found and handed to Mark.

“Okay, Little Ted, get home and see what else Ma and Pa have in mind for you to do,” Mark said as he attempted to keep a somber face.

“Yes, sir,” Little Ted answered as he put both hands in his front pockets, shuffling his feet as he left the barn.

“Pa?” Josh queried.

Mark looked down to his eldest and raised both eyebrows.

“Guess we should be thankful you’re not going to tan our britches?” Josh dared asked.

“That remains to be seen. What am I going to do with you two?”

“Pa, we’re really sorry,” said Josh while Zach nodded. “We spent the afternoon cleaning the barn for you and…”

“And?” asked Mark.

“We sho a kep cweaning,” Zach managed to state as he grabbed his brother’s arm, “Come on.”

Mark shook his head and smiled as he watched his sons leave the barn. After tending to Rainmaker, Mark looked around the barn and was impressed with the work his sons had done. Smiling, he headed back to his home, looked to the sky and quietly stated, “Lord, I guess there’s a lot more in store for me now that the boys are growing up, but please, I beg of you, don’t let them be as much trouble as I was.”

Mark could only hope and pray that God would answer his prayer.

*****

Two days later, Mark was recounting the boys’ adventure when Johnny Drako entered the office, pushing a man in front of him to one of the cells.

“Johnny?” Seth asked. “What happened?”

“Kelby Goldsmith, from what I remember, he has a wanted posted out on him from Separ,” Johnny answered as he closed and locked the door to the cell.

“I vaguely remember… embezzlement?” Seth replied.

“Yep.”

“Who’s going to take him to Separ?” asked Mark.

“Well, it surely isn’t going to be you, not with Mykaela’s surgery scheduled in a couple of days,” Johnny teased.

“Guess you’re out too Johnny, with the way Lou’s been after you to spend more time helping her with YOUR children,” teased Seth.

“So, are you up to taking Goldsmith back to Separ?” asked Johnny.

“Sure, let me inform Lilah and I can probably head out tomorrow.”

*****

The following morning saw Seth sitting on his horse next to Kelby Goldsmith.

“I should make it to Separ by tomorrow evening. I’ll wire when I get there. Mark, tell my granddaughter I’ll bring her back a present if she’s a good girl for Doc Burrage.”

“Will do Seth, take care,” Mark called out.

Motioning for his prisoner to move out, Seth waved as they left North Fork.

*****

Thadd stepped from the operating room and walked to the waiting room to talk with the parents of his young patients.

“Doc?” they all asked upon seeing Thadd enter.

“Both girls did fine. Their tonsils are out and I don’t think they’ll have any more trouble with sore throats. I want to keep them overnight and check them one more time before sending them home. Hope, Milly, if you’d like, I already set up cots in the room where the girls will be once they wake up. I presume you both would like to stay until I send them home.”

Both mothers nodded.

“You can come to the operating room to see them for a few minutes, but a few minutes only.”

*****

Lilah enjoyed having all the McCain children spend time with her during Mykaela’s and Myra’s operations; it didn’t hurt to have Gwen helping keep an eye on them either, while their parents patiently and nervously waited during the girls’ operations.

“Seems the McCains are giving you plenty of practice taking care of young ‘ens,” teased Lilah as she offered Gwen a cup of hot tea in the parlor.

“I only hope that I’m ready to take care of my own once she arrives,” Gwen answered, moving her hand over her very pregnant stomach.

“You’ll be ready. Why with the way you helped Milly and Hope take care of all the children, there’s no doubt in my mind you’ll be able to take care of your own. Do you think you’re going to have a girl?”

“I call the baby a she, Jake refers to the baby as a he.”

“Well, regardless, once Thadd places that bundle in your arms you won’t care one way or the other.”

*****

That evening, Mark wore a worried expression on his face as he joined Lucas at the restaurant.

“Mark, Doc Burrage said Mykaela would be fine, the same as Myra,” offered Lucas as he poured a cup of coffee for each of them.

“It’s not Emmy I’m worried about, we should have heard from Seth by now.”

“You think he had trouble delivering the prisoner?”

“Pa, I do. I want Hope to stay in town with Lilah while I’m gone, but she’s insisting in returning to the ranch. If we’ve not heard from Seth in the morning, I’m heading out after him.”

“I can see Hope and your family home.”

*****

Mark planned to leave North Fork the morning after Thadd discharged both girls from the clinic to return home.

Upon kissing her daughter good night one last time, Milly asked, “What’s this?” as Myra handed her a folded piece of paper. Milly unfolded the sheet and read what Myra had written:

“Can Eloise live with us, always?”

Looking over to where the little girl slept, Myra replied, “Myra, we don’t even know if they have other family.” and watched as Myra wrote again:

Mark said they didn’t have any other family. Please, she needs a big sister.”

“We can talk about this once you’re recovered from your surgery. You get to sleep.”

A reluctant Myra sank down beneath the covers and allowed her Mama to drape the blankets over her shoulder.

*****

“Lucas,” Milly stated as she entered their bedroom and closed the door. “What would you say to having Robbie and Eloise live with us?”

“They already do.”

“I mean, permanently.”

“Why do you ask?” was Lucas’ reply, he furrowed his brow ever so gently.

“Myra showed me a note she wrote, asking if Eloise could live with us, always. Said she needs a big sister.”

Lucas lifted the covers for Milly to join him in bed.

“They are nice children, more so that I would have counted on considering what their father was…”

“Lucas, we can make room. Myra’s room is big enough for the two girls; and we can always expand the boys’ room for Robbie… Maybe I can take up teaching again, to earn more money.”

“Milly, if you want to return to teaching, it has to be because you want to and not because you feel we don’t have enough money to live on.”

“You work so hard to provide for us and with two more mouths…”

“If it is to be, we’ll manage. I’m not even sure how to proceed in doing what you’re suggesting. Guess I’ll be making an appointment with Robert Garrison.”

“Lucas, thank you,” stated Milly as she snuggled contentedly against her husband.

*****

Lucas wanted to get Hope out of her home for a little while.

“I’ve a situation out on the range and I won’t be able to see the boys home from school this afternoon.”

“But Pa, Mykaela needs me…” answered Hope. “Thadd just discharged her yesterday…”

“I know she does, but I think for a little while, Milly can watch your three youngest. You need time to think, what with Mark looking for Seth. Please just for a little while, I think it will do you good to ride after them.”

Hope finally agreed, and after seeing Eli, Mykaela, and Faith to Milly’s, she enjoyed riding the pregnant Two-Bits to town; feeling a little bit of relief to get a sometime to just ride on her own.

As Hope returned home with the boys, her mind drifted to Mark out searching for her father.

*****

Little Ted curried his horse and put away all the brushes when Lucas entered the barn and told him to go get started on his homework.

Hesitant to leave the barn, Little Ted asked, “Pa, can we talk?”

“Sure, you know we can always talk.”

Lucas led the two of them to sit down on the stack of hay bales.

“So, what’s on your mind?” asked Lucas as he watched Little Ted stand up and walk over to the ladder leading to the hayloft.

“Pa, I remember Mark telling me about Mama and how… she didn’t give birth to him, yet she’s still his Ma.”

“I remember, and since when do you call me Pa?” asked a curious Lucas.

“Well, I am growing up and Mark calls you Pa… If you don’t like me calling you Pa… I can call you Papa,” replied Little Ted as he lowered his head to avoid looking to Lucas.

“No, it just surprised me… My son is growing up, is that what you wanted to talk with me about?” Lucas asked as he stood and walked over to where his middle son stood. “You can call me Pa, if you want to.”

“No sir… I mean, that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about,” kicking at a clod of dirt on the ground, “Robbie had another fight today at school, and I’m not tattling on him, but… Why can’t he be my brother? He ain’t got nobody ‘cept for his sister… It ain’t right the others in school making fun of him for being without parents. Why can’t he be your son too? I mean if Mama can have Mark for a son, why can’t you have Robbie for a son too?” the words came out in a rush.

Lucas thought for a few moments, pushing his hat back and trying to gather his thoughts, “Have you talked with your Mama about this?” asked Lucas as he thought about what Milly had said the night before.

“No sir. I remember how much I upset her that time, I wanted to talk with you, man to man, before I talked with Mama. It’s been fun having him live here with us, I like having an older brother closer to my age. You won’t tell Mark about that… will you?”

“I won’t tell Mark, but answer me this, have you talked with your sister about this?”

“How can I talk with her? She can’t really talk since she got her tonsils out,” declared Little Ted.

Smiling as he shook his head back and forth, Lucas gave out a brief laugh, “Your Ma was asking me the same thing last night when we were getting ready for bed, said your sister asked her about it.”

Lucas maneuvered his son to walk back to the hay pile and to sit down, “Now, why don’t you tell me everything about his fight that Robbie got into.”

Little Ted proceeded to tell Lucas all that had happened, how one of the other boys was taunting Robbie because he had no folks and that when he did, his Pa was a good for nothing, no account drunk, and how his sister and him were nothing more than ‘white trash’. “Pa, honestly it weren’t Robbie’s fault! How could he not get into a fight when someone called him a name like that!”

“So, where is Robbie?” asked Lucas.

“Mr. Bullock said he’d bring him home later.”

“Okay, you go get washed up for supper,” suggested Lucas, he swatted towards his son’s backside as the boy ran from the barn.

“You heard?” Lucas asked as Hope came into the barn.

“Yes sir, it’s the same that Percy said. Robbie tried to walk away until the other boy called him and Eloise ‘white trash’.”

“Guess I need to have a talk with Robbie when he gets home.”

“They get the darnedest ideas, don’t they?” stated Hope as she looked over her shoulder and watched as Little Ted called, ‘I’m home’ jumping up the steps to the front porch.

“Seems we need to have a long family discussion once Mark gets home.”

“Pa, I checked with Amos when I arrived in town, there’s no word on Father or Mark.”

“Hope, Mark just left this morning and your father has led numerous detachments with the army; I’m sure he’s alright.”

“If that’s the case, why did Mark go out looking for him?”

“Because he knows you and knows that you’re worried. I’m sure they’ll both be home soon and when Mark brings Seth home, we’ll be laughing about the whole situation.”

“I hope so, Pa. I truly hope so.” Trying to cheer herself up, Hope stated, “Why don’t you help me get Eli, Mykaela, and Faith back home. Seems you’ve enough children under your roof that you don’t need mine compounding the situation.”

“Hope, you and your children are family and are always welcome in our home. Don’t you forget that, young lady.”

*****

On his first night out from North Fork, Mark made camp and decided to try to catch a fish to have for supper. He fashioned a fishing pole and a hook on a string. After sitting on the side of the brook for a half hour without any luck, Mark gave up and returned to his camp, resigned to eat beans and biscuits.

Mark didn’t relish the storm that his bones felt was heading his way, but the horizon appeared clear. Remembering back, to other times, he knew it could be a day or two before the storm actually arrived. Laying out his bedroll, he pulled the blanket over his shoulder and fell asleep.

*****

Night had long fallen yet the rider continued on having not found any shelter to take refuge from the downpour, wearily he prodded his horse to continue walking, his head bobbing as he dozed in the saddle and waking when his horse would falter or another bolt of lightning and crash of thunder would cross the land. The darkened sky ebbed at showing the first pink of daybreak when the rider came across a camp. A short distance away, he saw the hobbled, rain soaked, paint horse nibbling on grass, but within the camp, he didn’t see anyone. Upon entering the camp, he found a man under a tree that evidently had fallen during the storm.

Making his way to the man, the rider hoped the man’s death had been swift. After examining the body, he determined the man probably didn’t even know what happened. As he stood, he looked around the camp and saw a saddle and bridle for the horse, a rifle, and saddlebags, which he rummaged through to find identification, Mark McCain, U.S. Marshal, North Fork, New Mexico Territory.

“Damn, wish you’d been an outlaw instead of a marshal,” the man spoke as he dropped the identification back into the saddlebag and closed the flap. Slowly, but assuredly, the man walked over to the hobbled horse, removed the hobbles, and led him by the halter back to the camp. “I’ll take you back home and let them know your rider was killed during the storm last night.” As he ran his hands over the horse’s back he let out a whistle of admiration. “Well, when I return you, maybe I can find out if there’s deputy who might know about the man I’m after.”

After saddling the paint and climbing back into the saddle of his own horse, the rider said, “Sorry to leave you here like this, but it’ll take more than me to get that tree off you.”

The rider turned both horses and headed in the direction of North Fork.

*****

Sweeney had been thinking of closing the saloon early because the only ones there were himself, Thelma, and a couple of town’s folks who had already settled their tabs, when he saw a rider leading a very familiar horse and tying both to the railing outside.

“You just made it,” Sweeney stated as the man entered. “I almost gave up and closed early.”

“Won’t keep you very long, just a small beer and some information,” the man stated.

Sweeney poured the man a small glass of beer and asked, “What kind of information?” He warily looked the stranger over, tall, slender build, dark hair that was just beginning to show grey. The man wore his holster low on his hip.

“Does this town have a deputy?”

“Sure does, only he’s not here. He left a few days ago to deliver a prisoner to Separ. We have a marshal…”

“Not anymore,” the man stated as he set the empty beer glass to the bar.

“What do you mean? I saw Johnny Drako not more than half an hour ago, making his rounds,” Sweeney declared as he reached for his shotgun from under the bar, and taking aim directly at the stranger.

“Now, hold on!” the stranger declared raising both hands to the height of his shoulders and taking a couple of steps back from the bar.

“Thelma!” yelled Sweeney. “Go get Marshal Drako! Not sure who this man is or what he’s up to, but I got a funny feeling about him.”

Thelma ran from the saloon, pausing in front of the Marshal’s Office and continuing on to the Drako residence.

“Marshal Drako!!! Marshal Drako!!” Thelma yelled while she pounded on the front door.

“Thelma? What’s all the ruckus?” Johnny asked upon opening the door.

“Sweeney sent me to get you. There’s a stranger at the saloon and Sweeney has his shotgun on the man.”

Grabbing for his hat and his gun, Johnny called back into the house, “Lou, I’ll be back when I can.”

Without waiting for Thelma to keep up with him, Johnny ran for the saloon. He slowed as he approached, carefully evaluating the scene from outside the window; a stranger standing still, arms raised, Sweeney holding his shotgun on the man. Two citizens of North Fork were standing next to the piano, waiting and watching. Before he entered the saloon, Johnny drew his gun.

“Sweeney, what’s wrong?”

“This rider came in here asking if we had a deputy and I told him we did, but he wasn’t here. I also told him we had you, he said you were dead.” Sweeney answered.

“Now that ain’t exactly right,” the stranger interrupted, but never attempted to lower his arms.

“Keep quiet, and keep your hands up,” ordered Sweeney as he thrust the barrel of his shotgun towards the man.

“Anyway, he insinuated that you were killed.”

“Me, killed?” Johnny raised an eyebrow as he sized up the stranger standing in front of him.

“Marshal, if you’ll let me explain…”

“Maybe you better,” Johnny stated as he pulled the man’s gun from his holster and stepped back, putting his own gun back in his holster. Johnny began to unload the bullets from the man’s gun.

The man kept his arms raised. “I did ask if this town had a deputy and the barkeep here said you did, but that he was gone. He also stated that this town had a marshal, to which my reply was, not any more. But I didn’t know about you…”

“You didn’t know about Johnny Drako? Marshal, ask him about the paint horse he rode in with, its out front…” Sweeney interrupted.

“Paint horse?” Drako asked as he looked over his shoulder.

“I found him,” the stranger answered. “Please if you’ll just let me have a few minutes of your time to tell you everything that happened… I can understand how hearing bits and pieces of the story can make you think something that ain’t rightly so.”

The man was softspoken and sincere, but yet, his tone of voice held authority, Johnny decided, “You have five minutes to tell your tale before I start asking questions that I’m sure you’re not going to like answering.” Still, he gave the stranger a cold and calculating stare.

“If I may?” the man pointed that he’d like to open his jacket.

“Slowly…” Drako replied.

The man opened his jacket slowly to show a deputy badge pinned to his shirt.

“So you’re wearing a badge, could be you stole it,” Sweeney proclaimed.

“Sweeney, I said he has five minutes to talk, let him talk.”

“My name is Johnny McKay, I’m a deputy up in Laramie, Wyoming.”

“Quite a ways from your territory,” Drako replied.

“I know sir, but… I’ve been trailing a couple of outlaws who robbed our bank and shot Marshal Troop three weeks ago. All the others are in custody, except the one I’ve trailed this far. I’m sure he’s making a run for the Mexican border … I know it. Anyway, I don’t even know if Mr. Troop is alive or dead. I just… I can’t let someone who brazenly rides into our town, robs our bank, and shoots our Marshal get away. Can I?”

“So what is the rest of your tale?” Drako prompted.

“Did a storm hit here yesterday?” McKay asked.

Drako nodded.

“This morning, I came across a camp and found a man… dead, he’d been killed by a falling tree. I went through his saddlebags and found his identification and decided to bring it and his horse to town.”

“Likely story he’s telling you Marshal,” Sweeney stated, not trusting the man he still held his shotgun on.

“Why didn’t you come to me first?” Drako asked.

“Your office was dark, besides, I thought you’d been killed, or at least the town’s marshal had been killed. Anyone knows the best place for information is the saloon, so I came here. And the barkeep told me about the deputy being out…”

“Can you describe the man you found?” Drako asked.

“Sure, probably mid twenties, dark haired, fair complexion. From what I could tell, he was about my build, but shorter than me.”

“Sounds like Mark…” Sweeney mournfully stated as he lowered his shotgun to the countertop.

“Sweeney,” Drako turned back to McKay, “What kind of weapon did the man have?”

“Saw what looked like a gun belt on the ground next to his bedroll. Found a rifle in the scabbard with the saddle.”

“Mark ain’t never worn a gun belt that I know of,” Sweeney stated as he grasped at the slim hope that the dead man wasn’t Mark.

“Sweeney, I’ll handle this, and I’d like to thank you for your concern. This way, McKay,” Johnny motioned.

“Can I lower my arms?”

Drako nodded.

*****

“Sorry, but until I can confirm who you are and verify your story…”

“I understand,” McKay answered.

After locking Johnny McKay in the jail, Drako headed over to the telegraph office, he saw a lantern still lit on the desk along the back wall. He knocked before entering.

“Amos, have a wire I need to send.”

Marshal Troop or Town Council President
Laramie, Wyoming

URGENT /stop/

Confirm identify of Deputy McKay /stop/
Confirm status of Marshal Troop /stop/

Marshal Johnny Drako
North Fork, New Mexico

“I’ll be at my office when a response comes back.”

“I’ll bring it over as soon as I receive it,” Amos replied.

*****

“Marshal?” came from the cell area.

“I’m here McKay,” Drako answered as he placed his hat on his desk and walked to the cell.

“I’ll re-imburse you for your expense if you’ll wire Laramie and let them know I’m here and… if you could ask about Mr. Troop?”

“I already did that. Figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask two questions at the same time. First to confirm you are who you say you are, and secondly, to find out if your marshal survived.”

“Thank you, he means a lot. My Pa was killed when I was still a teenager. Our town marshal was killed shortly thereafter and… well… Mr. Troop became our marshal and kind of took me under his wing. Been teaching me everything to learn about the law ever since.”

“How old are you?” Drako asked.

“I’ll be thirty-eight my next birthday. Guess that sounds kinda stupid…going on about something that happened so long ago, but he taught me what it meant to be a lawman. How to think like a lawman. It wasn’t just wearing a badge… He was the only one who gave me a chance to be something…”

Johnny McKay bowed his head as sat back down on the bunk, rested his elbows on his knees, and interlaced his fingers.

“Not stupid, I know what you mean. I did the same for a young man some time back, only his Pa is still a live and if what you say is true, and the man you found is Marshal McCain, this is just going to destroy his family.”

“He was well respected?”

“Yeah, well respected… It’s not going to be any easier if my deputy stays missing too.”

“Your deputy’s missing?”

“He was delivering a prisoner to Separ and we’ve not heard from him. He’s five days overdue.”

“Is this town so bad it needs three lawmen?” McKay hesitated to ask.

“North Fork is a good town and she just happens to have three lawmen. See… I’m the town marshal. Mark McCain is the U.S. Marshal for the New Mexico Territory and he’s based out of here. His father-in-law is my deputy.”

“Quite a family affair,” McKay commented.

“You ever heard of The Rifleman?” Drako’s eyes darkened when he asked the question.

“Sure, him and The Law… That’s who I found?”

“I pray not,” Drako stated, before turning his attention to Amos coming in the door. “You received a reply already?”

Amos handed the wire to Johnny and looked towards the cell area when he heard McKay ask, “Well?”

Drako took a few moments to read the wire before he thanked Amos.

“If you are Johnny McKay, you’ll be happy to know that Marshal Troop is alive and well, and thankful to know the same holds true for you. And based on this here description, it could fit you…”

“Did they happen to mention a scar on my left leg?” McKay bent down to pull his pant leg up over the top of his boot to show the scar he asked about.

“No mention of a scar. You said that you’ve been Laramie’s deputy for some time…”

“Sure have,” McKay answered.

“Based on a vague description, I can’t rightly let you out of there, but I do know of someone who once lived in Laramie and has lived here for a few years… She might be able to positively identify you in the morning.”

“She… Lilah? Lilah Stovers?” McKay snapped his fingers, “Mrs. Stovers left Laramie a few years back, saying she was moving closer to her sister. But I thought her sister was in Texas…”

“We’ll find out in the morning.”

“Sorry to cause you so much trouble, but I promise you, I am who I say I am and I won’t give you any more trouble.”

*****

Drako had finished making his morning rounds when he returned to the Marshal’s Office only to be met by Lilah, “Marshal Drako, Amos said you received a wire last night…” Drako could see the hope and desperation in her eyes.

“I did, but it wasn’t from Seth or Mark. Lilah, I need you to do me a favor.”

“Sure, if I can?” Lilah questioned.

“I have someone in the jail who says he’s from Laramie…”

“Laramie?”

Johnny opened the door and led Lilah to the cell area and rattled the door to wake his ‘guest’.

“You’ve got company,” Johnny declared.

At first the man slowly rolled over and stretched, but quickly looked up, remembering where he was and why.

“Deputy McKay!” Lilah declared as she moved her right hand to cover her mouth.

“That’s all I needed Lilah,” Johnny replied.

“But… why’s he in jail? He was just a sweet young man…”

Johnny walked to the desk in his office, opened a drawer, and removed the key ring.

“Just needed verification of who he said he was.”

“You could have wired Marshal Troop last night…” Lilah suggested.

“I did, but the description was too vague, especially considering…” Drako stopped short of saying ‘considering the news he brought’.

“Considering? Considering what? Marshal, please, if there’s news of Seth?” pleaded Lilah.

“I can promise you, it doesn’t involved Seth. Why don’t you go back home. I’ll send word once I hear anything from your husband.”

“Mrs. Stovers, congratulations! I didn’t know you came here to marry.”

“I didn’t exactly plan it. Ran into an old friend of mine and met his family… My married name is Lilah Lane.”

“Forgive me, Mrs. Lane.”

Lilah nodded and turned back to Drako, “Please… what’s this all about?”

“Lilah, I have to confirm the information before I can tell you. Please, let me do my job.”

Drako escorted Lilah to the boardwalk and tipped his hat before re-entering the Marshal’s Office.

*****

Watching as Drako opened the door to the cell, McKay asked, “I take it that Mrs. Lane is married to your missing deputy?”

“She is.”

“And the Marshal I found…”

“Married to her step-daughter.”

“Do they have any children?”

“Mark and Hope have five children.”

“For all their sakes, I wish I were wrong about who I found,” McKay shook his head as he accepted his gun back.

Drako asked, “You care to ride out with me to the McCain ranch to see Lucas?”

“If that’s his father, yeah, I’ll ride. I’ve been too long off the trail that I’ll probably never pick it back up again anyhow.” McKay slapped his hat on his leg and a cloud of dust surrounded his hat.

“Trail?”

“Yeah, like I said, I was trailing the man who robbed our bank…”

“Come on, let’s get our horses.”

*****

Drako and McKay arrived at the McCain ranch to find Lucas and Jake ready to ride out for the morning.

Upon seeing the second man wearing a deputy badge, Lucas became worried, but jested in a way to attempt to deal with his fears, “Didn’t think Seth had been gone long enough for you to hire a stranger to replace him…”

“Lucas, this here is Deputy Johnny McKay, from Laramie, Wyoming…”

“Please to meet you. What brings the two of you out this way?” asked Lucas.

“Lucas, we need to talk, privately…” answered Drako.

“Lucas, I’ll head on out and check that fence line,” Jake spoke as he turned his horse to ride away.

*****

Lucas sat down heavily upon hearing the news. “Are you sure? Are you positive it was Mark?”

“No, I’m not positive, but I thought you should know and be asked to come with us to identify the body.”

“Identify who’s body?” Hope asked as she entered the barn, the expression on Lucas’ face answered her question, “Father?!”

With his long legs, Lucas was at Hope’s side and caught her before she fell to the ground.

“Johnny, let me get her inside,” begged Lucas.

*****

With tears in her own eyes, Milly rinsed out the cloth before replacing it to Hope’s forehead. A few moments later, Hope started moving her head from side to side.

“Father? Father!” she screamed and tried to sit up.

“Shhhh. Lie back down,” suggested Milly as she tried to push Hope back to the bed.

“Ma, Father’s dead?” cried Hope.

“We don’t know for sure. Lucas went with Johnny and the other deputy to identify the body.”

“How did it happen?” a clearly agitated Hope asked.

“They didn’t say, please Hope take slow breaths,” Milly stated upon hearing her daughter-in-law’s breaths coming faster and faster.

“Oh, Ma… Please, he can’t be dead!” Hope cried out as she rolled onto her side and grabbed at her middle. “Oh, God, please, no…”

Milly sat at Hope’s side rubbing her back, hoping it would calm both of them, and knowing what she was doing was cruel in letting Hope fear it was her father and instead of her husband.

*****

The small group from North Fork arrived at the camp and rapidly pulled their weapons to fire at the scavengers surrounding the dead man’s body. Lucas killed the wolf that had been circling the perimeter, Johnny Drako and Johnny McKay jumped from their horses and threw aside the carcasses of several buzzards.

Stoically, Lucas stood a short distance from the body, unable to will himself to move any closer.

“I can’t,” Lucas stated when Johnny placed a hand to his shoulder, having returned from viewing the
body.

“He looks too much like Mark, not to be him…” Drako offered. “Even with what those scavengers did…”

“Mr. McCain, I pulled this handgun from beside the body. Would you recognize your son’s handgun? It’s got some pretty fancy carvings on the handle.”

Bringing his attention to the deputy, Lucas asked, “What?”

“Could you recognize your son’s hand gun?” McKay held the weapon out to Lucas.

“My son never carried a hand gun. He preferred a rifle, same as me.”

“Guess we’ll never know why he was carrying it then,” McKay answered as he put the gun back into the holster and slung the holster over his shoulder.

“Johnny, we can’t take him back… not like this…” faltered Lucas.

“I packed a few tools, we can saw the tree enough to retrieve his body and bury him out here; no one back in North Fork needs to see him like this,” Drako stated.

Lucas nodded in agreement.

Drako and McKay worked to remove enough of the tree while Lucas dug a grave deep enough to keep any other wolves from getting to… his son.

*****

Amos walked back to the Marshal’s Office with a wire in hand.

“That had best be good news,” Micah called out having seen Amos walk in front of the window.

“I think so, it’s from Seth,” replied Amos.

Marshal Drako
North Fork, New Mexico

Delayed in Separ, broke leg /stop/
Will wire before return /stop/
Please tell Lilah & Hope /stop/

Seth

“Amos, get this over to Lilah,” stated Micah. “Least it will stop the worrying we’re doing over Seth, now if we could only hear good news about Mark… I’ll ride out to let Hope know.”

*****

“Ma, he’s alive!” declared Hope upon hearing the news from Micah. “But, if Father is okay? Who’s body…. No… No… It can’t be Mark… Ma, please… Tell me it wasn’t Mark!”

Wrapping her arms around her daughter-in-law Milly allowed her own tears to fall.

“I sorry, we can’t. Lucas went with Johnny and the deputy to identify the body. He found Mark’s horse and belongings and returned them to town,” Micah stated when Milly couldn’t bring herself to answer.

*****

Knowing how his daughter-in-law reacted thinking her father was dead, Lucas stopped in town to request Doc Burrage to come to the ranch; he wished he could ask Doc for something to make him forget his own pain.

Lucas arrived at the ranch to find Micah stepping from the porch, “Micah?” Lucas called out.

“We received word from Seth, he’s in Separ with a broken leg,” answered Micah. Seeing Thadd next to Lucas, he asked, “What of Mark?”

Lucas shook his head and closed his eyes, “It was… him.”

“LucasBoy…” Micah’s voice failed him, he walked to his horse; he didn’t know what else he could do, except try to escape the memories that invaded his mind… His first meeting with Mark… when Mark came down with Typhoid… telling Mark about the Letter of the Law… the time when Neff Packer and Carl Avery had kidnapped Mark… when he pinned the badge on Mark in order to lead the posse in tracking… on and on… Micah began to regret the McCains ever sobering him up.

Hearing Hope scream, Micah urged his horse to run faster.

*****

News regarding the death of Marshal McCain slowly made its way around North Fork. Some who had lived in North Fork long enough talked that it was probably just another ruse in order for Mark to flush out an outlaw, other’s weren’t so sure, especially when Oat Jackford came racing into town. Harshly he pulled his horse to a stop in front of the Marshal’s Office and stormed inside.

When Oat exited the office, he slammed the door closed, shattering the window. Pulling himself into the saddle, Oat spurred his horse in the direction of the McCain ranch.

*****

Lilah ran across the stepping-stones that lined the walkway when the wagon stopped in from of their home.

“Seth!” she called, excited her husband was home, yet still mourning the news of her son-in-law.

“Is it true?” asked Seth as he stepped down from the front seat of the buckboard. “How is Hope?”

“Grief-stricken, Lucas confirmed the body was Mark’s, they buried him out there. They wouldn’t say why they didn’t bring him home.”

“They? Who found him?”

“Johnny was chasing an outlaw who robbed the Bank of Laramie and shot Marshal Troop.”

“Johnny? What’s Johnny doing up in Laramie? I wasn’t gone long enough…”

“Seth, I was talking about Deputy Johnny McKay, from Laramie. He was the one who found Mark’s body and horse; he brought Rainmaker back to town. I confirmed to Marshal Drako that Johnny McKay was who he said he was.”

“Where is this McKay?”

“He’s taken a room at the boarding house, and he’s been helping Jake McCafferty out the ranch. He heads out at first light and returns just before dark. Come on, I want to get you inside. You need to rest.”

Before allowing his wife to escort him to their home, Seth turned and thanked the livery owner from Separ for bringing him home.

“Like I said, I needed to come here anyway, got a delivery coming in the next day or so on the train. Little Lady, he’s been a bear to keep down once he received your wire.”

*****

Word made its way to the McCain ranch that Seth was home, but the news did little to bring cheer to the grieving families.

That night, Lucas looked out the front window to see a grieving Hope sitting on the front porch to her home.

“Milly, I’ll be back, I’m going next door,” stated Lucas as he left.

Milly walked to the window and watched her husband walk across the yard, his shoulders slumped and his feet dragging, reflecting a weariness and age that she’d never seen and hoped she never would. She knew Mark was Lucas’ life, even though she and the children were part of his family there was a… had been a special bond between the father and son that she had been blessed to witness.

*****

“Hope,” Lucas quietly spoke as he stopped.

“Pa,” Hope quietly cried as she looked up and wiped the tears from her face.

Lucas sat down next to his daughter-in-law and wrapped an arm around her shoulder, pulling her close so he could wrap his other arm around her.

“I don’t know how to live without him… The children…”

Hope pushed herself back, wiped at her tears again, and re-wrapped her shawl around her shoulders.

“I remember telling him once that I would pray to God to see him safely home to me, I knew he had a job to do, and I told him if I asked him to stop being a marshal, he would no longer be the one I grew to love.”

“Many a times I wished he had grown to follow in my footsteps, to become a rancher. But I’ve come to realize, he is more like me than I could have ever imagined; his love for his family and this town is strong and he put on the badge to protect both.”

“How do I…”

“It’s going to be difficult for a while, but Milly and I will be here for you. We’ll help you out as best we can. And your father and Lilah will be here to help as well.”

“Pa…” Hope looked up as Lucas wiped the tears from his own face. “Mr. Jackford stopped by earlier, he’s sending one of his hands to help out full time, said he was going to give Murphy Quorman instructions that he was to stay here and expected him to sleep in the barn.”

“I’m sorry I wasn’t here when Oat arrived. I’ll let Quorman know his help is appreciated, but not necessary.”

Lucas and Hope sat side by side, looking out over the land they called home; in the distance, a wolf called out a mournful howl.

Seeing something else in Hope’s face, Lucas asked, “Is there anything else I can do for you?”

Hope hesitated before she answered, “It’s the twins, would you talk with them in the morning?”

“How hard are they taking Mark’s death?”

“The boys are taking it about as good as can be expected and the girls are too young to understand. Pa… it’s just that Josh informed me tonight that he was going to drop out of school so he could take care of me and help you and Jake. I tried to tell him that Mr. Jackford was making arrangements, but he argued with me, said he was the man of the house and it’s what… his Pa would want. And then there’s Zach, he’s hurting in such a way, that he’s started acting out.”

“I’ll talk with them tomorrow. Why don’t you go on inside and try to get some sleep.”

“Pa, I…”

“No arguing, we can grieve, but we also have to continue to live… The only thought that I’m holding onto that’s keeping me… functioning, is that he’s in heaven with Margaret.”

Lucas pulled Hope into another embrace and kissed her on top of her head. He helped her to her feet and watched her walk inside and blow out the lantern in the front room.

*****

Lucas slowly returned to his home, stopping on the front porch he turned and looked to the sky with tears falling down his face. “Margaret, watch over our boy. Tell him… I miss him.”

 

This story continues in The Rifleman – The Next Generation Pt 25

 

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