The Rifleman – The Next Generation Pt 25 (by BluewindFarm)

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

Category:  The Rifleman
Genre:  Western
Rating:  PG
Word Count: 18,560


 

The Next Generation… Chapter 111 – Only the Good Die Young

The second day in his search for Seth Lane and his prisoner, Mark came upon a small ranch house and stopped in the squalid front yard.

“Anyone home?!” he called.

The door opened only enough to allow the barrel of a rifle to poke out.

“I’m a law man, I’m not here to hurt anyone,” called Mark.

The door opened farther, allowing an old man, hunched over as he was, to step to the porch.

“You a law man?” the old man asked, tilting he left ear towards Mark in an effort to hear better.

Looking at the little old man, in his tattered overalls and threadbare shirt, Mark felt sympathy for the man. “Yes, I am. I’m the territorial U.S. Marshal, from over in North Fork. I’m looking for our town’s deputy, thought he might have stopped by here or you may have seen him?”

“Ain’t no body but you come by here in a month of Sundays,” sounded a teasing, younger voice from within the house. A young man stepped from the house, holding two handguns on Mark. “Why don’t you step down from your horse, nice and easy like.”

“Mister, I’m not here to cause any trouble for you,” stated Mark.

“No, but it seems you rode into it,” the young man taunted.

The young man stepped over a broken plank as he avoided the middle step. He walked across the dirt to stand in front of Mark. He put one of his guns into his holster belt before he pushed Mark’s hat off his head.

“Pa, guess today is my lucky day…”

“Morgan, what are you talking about?” the old man asked as he slightly tripped over the broken plank his son had stepped across.

“Can’t you see it? Look at him Pa,” said Morgan.

Still keeping his rifle handy, the old man stepped close to Mark. “Why there is some resemblance.”

“Resemblance, why if I didn’t know any better, we could almost be twins. Same height, same hair color, same color eyes, same build. How old are you?”

“Listen, I don’t know what you’re getting at… I’m a U.S. Marshal.”

“I’m getting at you being my ticket out of here and across the border,” Morgan answered as he circled around Mark and brought the butt of his handgun down upon the back of Mark’s head.

“Morgan, why’d you do that?”

“Pa, listen, I need to get away from here. I’ve had a lawman on my trail for the past three weeks, he’s my ticket to slipping away,” Morgan stated as he pointed to Mark lying unconscious on the ground.

“He’s the one who’s been after ya?”

“Naw, never laid eyes on this one before, but man… he’s the golden egg.”

After removing Mark’s badge and pinning it to his own shirt, he grabbed Mark’s arms and drug him across the yard and into the barn, dropping him to the ground so he could grab a length of rope hanging on the wall. Before returning to Mark, he opened the double doors to a hidden cellar. Morgan positioned Mark in front of the hole and gave him a shove into the darkened cellar.

“Pa, get that lantern over here!” ordered Morgan.

The old man picked up the lantern, pulled a match from his pocket, and struck it on the barn wall to light the lantern. Slowly he followed his son down into the cellar.

“You keep him here,” ordered Morgan as he bound Mark’s hands and feet.

“What am I supposed to do with him? I can’t keep him here forever, people will start asking questions.”

Morgan angrily retorted, “Look old man, no one ever comes out here. Just keep him here, make him help you, but keep your rifle on him. Don’t let him get away.”

“Morgan, we can’t do this. It ain’t right…”

“Right? Pa, I’m the only kin you got. ‘Sides, you’re as guilty as I am, you took all the money I ever gave you.”

“But I never knew you stole it…”

“You never asked.” Straightening up, Morgan towered over his father. “Don’t you let him get away! You hear me?!”

Morgan climbed up the ladder and ran back to the house, after grabbing a few items he returned to the front yard and stuffed them in the saddlebag hanging behind the saddle on Rainmaker.

Once in the saddle, Morgan turned Rainmaker to face the barn, he pointed as he warned, “Pa, you let him get free and I’m as good as dead. You hear me?! With me dead, who’ll watch out for ya? You’ll be left here all alone.”

With a heavy heart, the old man watched his son ride away.

*****

The old man sat in the rocking chair on the dilapidated porch with his rifle across his knees. Slowly rocking back and forth, marking time as the sun sank behind the hills, the old man worried about the words his son had threatened and about the man lying bound in the cellar under the barn.

*****

Morning had dawned, but as Mark rolled over to lie on his side, he struggled to see in his darkened surroundings. He smelled the earth laden with dank moisture stinging bitterly at his nostrils. Before yelling out, he listened as he thought he heard the sounds of creaking boards above him and felt something tiny pelting his face and clothes.

Turning over to sit up, Mark looked on as a bright opening appeared above him, causing him to shut his eyes and turn his head away. He heard someone slowly stepping down the ladder, while he cautiously opened his eyes to a squint and allowed them to adjust to the brightness. Only seeing a silhouette, he knew his visitor was the old man, from…

“How long have I been down here?” asked Mark.

“Since yesterday,” the old man answered.

“Why?”

“He’s… he’s my boy. He’s all the family I got. I couldn’t have you taking him away from me. Good or bad, he’s my son.” The old man’s voice was laden with regret.

“Mister, I don’t know who he is or who you are, I’m out here looking for my father-in-law,” answered Mark.

“Yesterday you said you’s looking for a deputy.”

“I am, my father-in-law is a deputy. Mister…” Mark paused hoping the old man would tell him his name.

“Birch Leydon’s the name.”

“Mr. Leydon, keeping me here ain’t going to do anybody any good.”

Though he couldn’t see the man’s face, he could see him cock his head to the side.

“You called me mister, don’t remember anybody calling me mister before.”

“Mr. Leydon, please… Put down your rifle, untie me, and let me go,” stated Mark.

“I can’t, not yet. Not ‘til I know you can’t follow by boy.”

“Whether I leave today or tomorrow, I don’t have to track him; all I have to do is wire the Marshal’s Service in Denver and they’ll put a poster out on your son, if there’s not one out already.”

“Then you’re gonna have to stay here until you forget,” Leydon stated.

“Forget? How am I supposed to forget you’re keeping me a prisoner?”

“You will, in time, you’ll see. Now, you lie down on your stomach and I’ll untie your hands, then you can untie your feet. Don’t try nothing.”

Mark watched as the man brought his rifle to bear on him.

*****

The old man told Mark to sit still while climbed the ladder; he yelled down for Mark to come up. Stepping from the hole, Mark rubbed at his wrists and walked in the direction the man told him. Humidity hung in the air and what the day before had been dry dirt was now mud and puddles of water. Wiping his feet on the dilapidated porch, Mark entered the home. He ate what little porridge the man spooned into a bowl and handed him.

“You seem able enough to do some wood chopping, I ain’t got the strength to do it no more,” Leydon stated.

“Morgan couldn’t do it for you?” queried Mark.

“He don’t live here that much. Outside,” the old man stated as he pointed his rifle towards Mark.

Mark walked outside, picked up the ax, and ran his thumb over the dull edge. “I’ll sharpen the blade if you’ll show me your grinding wheel.”

“Ain’t got one of those fancy things, but I got a sharpening stone.”

Once Mark had a sharp enough edge to the ax, he walked to the woodpile and started splitting logs. After about twenty minutes, Mark set the ax down, removed his hat, and wiped his shirtsleeve across his brow. Mark looked up as the cry of a hawk pierced the silence around him. Having worked up a sweat, Mark removed his shirt and hung it over the splintered porch railing before he returned to his chore. Leydon watched as Mark diligently worked at splitting the wood and stacking it proper.

“Come inside and we can have a late lunch, all I got to offer is sandwiches.”

Mark followed Leydon inside and took a seat at the backside of the table, where the old man pointed.

“I noticed you had some lumber board in the barn, if you have nails and a hammer, I can fix that front porch step for you,” offered Mark as he pushed his empty plate to the center of the table, having finished eating.

“That step’s been needing fixing for a mighty long time,” mused the man. “Why are you being so helpful?”

“Listen, I know you are afraid for your son, and he’s the only reason you’re keeping me here. But I can also tell, you need help around here. It’s a shame your own son wouldn’t help you out.”

“You got family?” the man dared ask.

“Yes, I’ve a family,” Mark answered truthfully.

“You got a… Pa?”

“Yes.”

“Do you help him?” Leydon asked.

“We work our ranch together.”

“I guess you think I could have raised Morgan better than I done.” Leydon’s attitude and demeanor changed. “Maybe I spoiled him in his growing up. That I didn’t raise him right.”

“It’s not for me to pass judgment on how Morgan was raised. Even the best efforts can produce a sour apple.”

“He ain’t no sour apple!” Leydon showed Mark a hint of his true feelings… “He just got pride, he wanted better than I could give.”

“Pride? Pride isnt’ wanting better; pride is what you have in working the land and being rewarded with the fruits of your labor, harvesting a crop or seeing your livestock multiply. Pride is what you accomplish. Pride is having a son who helps or someone who cares…”

“I care! All my life I cared!”

“But he doesn’t. He’s in it for him…not you. You’re just someone he can use, all in the name of family.”

“You don’t know my boy!”

“No, I don’t. But I’ve known plenty of men like him. He could have made something out of this place with a little bit of effort, but he found the easy way out… He’s using you.”

“You stop right there! You’re done here,” the old man said as he reached for his rifle. “Get back to that cellar.”

Mark saw the regret in the old man’s eyes as he realized what could have been, but his own pride was getting in the way of seeing Mark’s reason. Mark stood up and did as the old man told him. He knew he had struck a nerve, hopefully in time he’d be able to get Birch Leydon to see reason and set him free.

*****

Each day during his captivity, Mark carefully worded his conversations with the old man while he worked to fix up the place. On the morning of the sixth day of his captivity, Mark was surprised when the old man opened the door to the cellar, but did not have his rifle with him.

“You can come on up here,” Leydon weakly called. “That lawman’s gone.”

Mark followed Leydon, concerned when he saw the old man appeared to be in some kind of physical pain.

“Mr. Leydon, are you alright?” asked Mark.

“Mr. Leydon? You ain’t never called me that before. Son, I wish I done better by you. Your Ma, she tried to live, she didn’t want to leave us,” Leydon sank down to the porch. “Now it seems like I’m gonna leave ya too.”

“Sir, if you’ll point me in the direction, I’ll go fetch a doctor for you,” offered Mark.

“No, I got no time for no doctor. I’m glad you came home, son. I’m glad you saw fit to stay with me for a while, this old place ain’t looked so good since your Ma died.”

“Please sir, let me help you inside and out of the sun.”

“Sir,” the old man p’shawed Mark. “I raised ya good. I raised ya with manners. Didn’t I?”

Leydon looked into the concerned eyes of Mark McCain as he tried to help the old man to his feet, where upon his eyes filled with regret.

“No, I didn’t raise ya, did I?”

“You raised me right,” answered Mark. “Pa.”

“I almost think you mean that. The way you said Pa, it sounded with love…”

“That’s the only was Pa should be spoken, with love.”

“No, you ain’t my boy.” Leydon patted Mark’s arm. “He don’t love no one but himself. I know’d the truth. You look so much like him, I wish you had been my… son.”

Leydon sighed as he slipped from Mark’s helping hands. Mark knelt down and cradled the old man’s head and shoulders in his lap.

“Your Pa, he raised you right,” Leydon whispered. “Go home to him… tell him, I’m sorry…”

Mark placed his hand over the old man’s face and closed his eyes, and lowered him all the way to the ground. He stood and walked into the house and pulled a blanket from the bunk, and used it to wrap around Leydon’s body.

After retrieving a shovel from the barn, Mark walked to an old Oak tree and began digging a grave. The sun was setting when Mark finished inscribing the man’s name and date of death on a piece of board he had discarded after repairing the front porch.

Pulling his hat from his head Mark offered a quiet prayer over the man’s grave.

“Lord, forgive him for what he did to me, because I already have. Welcome him into your Heavenly Kingdom and see that his eternity is peaceful. He deserves that much.”

Returning the shovel to the barn, Mark looked at the old draft horse standing in the stall, “Well, I guess it’s up to you to get me home.” He put some hay into the horse’s stall and returned to the house for the night. Before falling asleep, Mark wrote a note, in case Morgan Leydon ever returned.

Morgan Leydon

You father passed on and is buried under the old oak tree. His passing was peaceful.

A warning for you, you had better pray I never find you.

Marshal Mark McCain

Before the sun rose, Mark had a rope tied to the halter of the old horse, and using a boulder outside, climbed up on the horse’s back and pointed him towards North Fork.

*****

The congregation’s mournful singing greeted the rider as he entered the town just after sunset, aback an old draft horse. Halting the horse, Mark removed his hat and bowed his head in respect to the recently departed as he listened.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
The hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promised good to me.
His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

When we’ve been here ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

Slipping down from the horse, Mark replaced his hat and led the horse down the main street and into the livery, where he gave the animal a small amount of grain, plenty of hay, and fresh water. Upon exiting the livery, he looked up and down the street, surprised that no music came from Sweeney’s saloon.

Shaking his head, Mark walked to the Marshal’s Office and upon entering, he lit a lantern and sat down behind one of the desks. From a drawer, he pulled out a sheet of paper and pen, and began to write his report.

*****

“As the son of Mark McCain, you reflect poorly of who your father was,” Sam Buckhart stated as he held Zach by the arm and led him from the town hall.

“I don’t care!” Zach replied as he fought against the marshal.

Sam stopped and sternly spoke, “You should. Your father was a good friend of mine. I care about his family and I know he raised you to be better than you are behaving.”

“So what! He ain’t here no more!” Zach lashed out and with his fist balled, struck out at Sam. “He ain’t here!” Zach kicked at Sam, striking him in the shinbone.

Sam shook Zach, “Why do you behave such? You have upset your mother, why do you not behave and be good?”

The defiance in Zach’s eyes indicated he wasn’t going to talk anymore.

“Come, if you are not going to be good, then you will be put where you belong.”

Having not relinquished his grip on Zach’s arm, Sam continued to lead a struggling Zach to the Marshal’s Office.

*****

As Mark continued to write out his report, he didn’t hear the door open, only the sound of the gun being cocked and a steely voice stating, “You are sitting where you do not belong.”

“What?” Mark asked as he looked up from his writing and pushed his hat back on his head to see Sam Buckhart holding a gun on him with one hand and with his other, trying to hide Zach behind him.

“Mark?!” gasped Buckhart as he loosened the grip on his gun and Zach, his mouth gaping open.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost, Sam,” stated Mark, he hollered out his son’s name as he watched the boy pull free of Sam and run from the office.

“Tell me you are not a ghost; are you really alive?”

“Yes, I’m alive. What are you doing here? Why was Zach with you? Did something happen to Hope?”

Mark saw a man jog past the office window before stopping in the doorway, he noticed the man was wearing a deputy’s badge.

“It can’t be,” declared the deputy as he too stared at Mark.

“Would someone please tell me what’s going on?” asked Mark. Shaking his head, “If you two are going to just stand there… Look, I’ve finished my report; I really need to go find my son.”

“Hold on there,” Sam stated, walking to stand next to Mark, as he stood from his desk.

“What was that for?” demanded Mark grabbing his arm after Sam pinched him.

“You really are live. Your family will not be very pleased with you,” Sam replied seriously.

“Sam, quit talking non-sense. As I said, I need to go find Zach.”

“Is he who I think he is?” McKay asked.

“I’m Mark McCain. I’m the…”

“The U.S. Marshal for the territory,” McKay finished. “Only we just had a memorial service for you over at the church.” He turned at the waist and pointed over his shoulder.

“A memorial service? Would someone care to explain how I came to be dead?” asked Mark as he crossed his arms.

“You are not dead!” Sam declared, matter-of-factly.

“I know I’m not dead, but somehow I must be if you…” Confused with what he’d heard, but worried about his son, Mark continued, “I’d like to stay and listen to someone explain this, but I need to find Zach.” He tried to push his way past Sam and the other deputy.

“McKay, will you take Mark to the town hall? I will find his son.”

“Why do I need taking to the town hall?” asked Mark.

“It is where your family mourns your death,” answered Sam.

Mark was torn between finding his son and proving to his family that he lived.

“Oh, by the way, my name’s Johnny McKay, from Laramie. Let’s get you to the rest of your family.”

“Please to meet you, I think,” replied Mark.

“I’m happy to meet you, for real,” McKay replied.

*****

Mark entered the town hall and was surprised by the startled looks his friends gave him. The crowd parted as they walked to where the McCain family gathered.

From behind, Mark heard someone say, “See I told you it was a ruse!” Mark looked over his shoulder to see who had spoken and when turned around, Johnny Drako and Tom Benton stood before him. One time before Mark had seen the expression Tom wore on his face, but this time, Johnny Drako also wore the same look.

“I’ll try to explain later, Sam said you’re holding my memorial service and I’d really like to stop it,” was the only explanation Mark gave.

As Tom and Johnny stepped aside, Mark looked to his family and saw a tearful Milly wearing a black dress as she sat next to where Lucas stood; her hands covering her mouth. Lucas wore his Sunday best and stood with his fists clinched, and his face pale. Hope also was dressed in a simple, black dress and the first thought Mark had was how she didn’t look pretty wearing it. Mark thought to himself how she looked tired and so much older.

As the room quieted further, Hope looked up from tending to Faith; and the look on her face was one of shock and disbelief, which slowly turned to a look Mark couldn’t recognize, before she slumped over. Mark was quickly to her side, picked her up in his arms, and carried her out the door and down the boardwalk to the clinic.

With his wife still in his arms and hearing his Pa call out his name, Mark open the door and made his way to the nearest room where he laid his wife on a bed, walked to fill a pitcher with water, grabbed a rag and sat down on the edge of the bed. He tended to his wife, while ignoring the voices outside.

“Mark?” Lucas asked from the doorway.

“It’s me, yes I’m alive, only I didn’t know I was supposed to be dead. Would you please get Doc Burrage?”

“I’m here Mark,” stated Thadd as he made his way into the room, removed his pocket watch from his vest pocket, flipped it open, while with his other hand he reached for Hope’s wrist.

Abigail entered the room and handed Thadd his stethoscope.

After listening to her heart Thadd stated, “She’ll be okay, I imagine she just fainted, the shock from seeing you resurrected.”

“Resurrected, would someone please tell me what happened?” asked Mark only he didn’t wait for an answer as Hope started to rouse.

Tears fell from her closed eyes as she moved her head from side to side, with her hands covering her face she called out, “Oh Pa, I thought I saw him. He was standing right in front of us.”

“Hey sleepyhead, wake up,” Mark lovingly called to his wife as he reached to remove her hands from her face.

Hope batted her eyes and worked to focus her vision, she pushed herself deeper into the bed, not trusting what she saw.

“It’s me,” Mark stated as he smiled.

Mark was not prepared for Hope’s reaction; she slapped him resoundingly across the face.

“What’s that for?” a surprised Mark asked, rubbing his face.

“For getting yourself killed!” declared Hope, the fire in her eyes flashed as bright as Lou’s ever had.

“Getting myself killed?” Looking to the others who stood in the room he asked, “I’d really like to know why everyone thinks I’m dead.”

Hope answered, “At least the last time you ‘killed yourself’ you had the common decency to let us know in advance!”

“But I didn’t get myself killed.”

“We can see that now, son. But last week, I identified your body,” Lucas commented as he walked to stand beside his son and placed a hand upon his shoulder.

“You identified MY body? Where? How?” an incredulous Mark asked.

“It was after the storm. Deputy McKay brought Rainmaker to town with a story that he found your body under a tree. Evidently a tree had fallen during the night and killed you,” Drako answered.

“I wish everyone would stop talking as if I was killed. Wait a minute, Rainmaker is here?”

“Yes, I brought him and your gear to North Fork. I was trailing an outlaw when I came upon your… a camp. I looked through the saddlebag and found your identification. From what I remember the other man looked like, well, the two of you could practically be twins,” offered Johnny McKay.

“Twins… then you’ll be happy to know it was Morgan Leydon who was killed, AND NOT ME!” Mark stated the last, sternly.

“Morgan Leydon, never heard of him,” Drako answered.

“I have,” McKay stated. “I had a hunch I might have been trailing him.”

“And you didn’t recognize him when you found him?!” Drako demanded.

“Hey! I only know him by name, I’ve never seen him or his picture, nobody has.”

“I don’t care!” interrupted Hope. “I want to know how you came to still be alive and for a week no word!”

Hope sat back against the headboard of the bed and crossed her arms, still upset at the turn of events.

“Aren’t you happy to have me home?” Mark asked innocently.

“Happy to have you home? For a week, I’ve been living as a widow! My oldest son felt he was the man of the house and it was up to him to take care of me! My middle son has acted out in such a manner that…that… I’ll have you know, I’ve cried myself to sleep every night because I mourned your death! I… I…”

“I get the picture.”

“You get the picture! Of all the inconsiderate…” Hope exclaimed.

“I didn’t plan for this to happen,” Mark replied.

“And you couldn’t wire?!” Hope angrily asked.

“No I couldn’t. I encountered Birch and Morgan Leydon the morning after I left North Fork. Morgan and I looked so alike that we could have been twins. He knocked me out and tied me up, and he took Rainmaker and all my gear. I woke up the next morning in a cellar in their barn, tied hand and foot. His father kept me captive…”

“And you couldn’t convince an old man to let you go?” retorted Hope.

“I tried, but he was a proud man… who loved his son, for good or bad; but in the end, I think he realized and regretted the truth.”

“And he let you go?” Lucas asked.

Mark replied with remorse in his voice, “In a way… Pa, he was an old man. I think his heart gave out on him. I spent that afternoon burying him and by the time I was done, it was too late to start home so I waited until morning.”

“And you couldn’t wire?” asked Hope.

“There aren’t any towns between where I was and here that has a telegraph office, besides, I didn’t know you thought I was dead.”

“Well Lucas,” Drako stated, smiling as walked to stand next to his friend and clapped his hand onto Lucas’ shoulder, “Guess we get to go out and change that grave marker.”

“Why don’t you go and disburse the crowd that’s outside,” stated Lucas as he nodded his head towards those outside the room.

As the others left the clinic, Milly was finally able to join her family in the examination room.

“How could you?!” Milly didn’t give Mark time to answer before she continued, “The last time you were man enough to let us know in advance. And when you killed your father, well, we weren’t married yet. But to put Hope through such torment, and your father! Did you even think how this would affect your children?!”

“Ma, please,” Mark forcefully stated. “I didn’t do anything except get myself taken as a prisoner and let the man steal all my gear. Believe me, if I had known that this town thought me dead, I would have somehow tried to return home faster.”

Seeing the truth in Mark’s eyes, Milly stated, “Mark if you ever pull such a stunt again…” she walked over to him, pointing, yet, when she stood next to him, Milly pulled Mark into an embrace. “I’m glad you’re alive.”

With an unbelieving expression on his face Mark answered, “I didn’t pull any stunt. Honest. What do I have to do to convince all of you?” Not letting anyone answer, Mark asked, “What of Seth, was there any word on your father?” Mark asked as he sat back down on the bed next to Hope.

“Father returned home the other day, with a broken leg,” Hope answered.

“A broken leg? How’d he do that?” asked Mark.

“I stepped into a gopher hole as I got down from my horse that first night. Took me a while to convince Goldsmith that I could ride, but by the time we made it to Separ and their doctor set my leg, well, I was out for another day. I wired when I could,” answered Seth as he made his way into the clinic room. “But by then, you had already left to go looking for me.”

The expression on his face softened when Mark asked, “Why did Sam have Zach?”

“Sam was trying to help us help Zach, he’s been acting out so…” Hope stated, upset again. “Pa’s tried to talk to him, but it didn’t do any good. And tonight… Mark, he’s never behaved in such a manner. Sam offered to see if he could talk to him.”

Looking to his wife, Mark stated, “I don’t know why I’m asking, but, am I forgiven?”

“Don’t you ever!’ warned Hope as she pulled her husband into her arms and passionately kissed him.

“Folks,” Thadd spoke up after clearing his throat, “I’ve said it before, this is a hospital, not a hotel…it’s across the street.”

“Why don’t you go back with Ma and Pa to the town hall, I’m sure I’ll have some explaining to do. But first, I think I need to help Sam with Zach. I’ll be there as soon as I can.” Mark smiled as he reached for Hope’s hand and he led her from the clinic.

*****

After watching the rest of his family enter the town hall, Mark looked up and down the street trying to figure out where his son might have run.

“Mark, this way,” he heard Sam call.

“Sam?”

“He is over at the church. He would not talk to me. He has struggled this week with the news of your death.”

“I’m sure they all have Sam. Hope told me he’s been acting out.”

“Yes, I have seen with my own eyes. Never would I have believed a son of Mark McCain could behave in such a manner.”

“Sam, I’m sorry, and, thank you.”

Mark entered the church and heard the sniffles of his son before he saw him. Mark walked up the aisle, looking to each pew on his left and right, but not finding his son in any of them.

“Zach?” Mark called out. “Zach, it’s me.”

Mark followed the sounds of the sniffles until he found his son sitting behind the pulpit, hands wrapped around his knees as they were drawn to his chest.

“Mind if I have a seat?” asked Mark.

Zach didn’t answer, but Mark went ahead and sat down.

“I’m not exactly sure what to say,” stated Mark as he removed his hat and set it down on the floor. “I heard that you’ve not exactly been good while I was gone.”

“You was dead,” answered Zach.

“Yeah, so they tell me. You want to talk about why you were misbehaving? Why you weren’t being good?”

“No.”

“So you’re not happy to see me?”

Zach didn’t answer.

“Zach, I left here to go find your Grandpa Seth, I came across a couple of men who took me prisoner. It was one of those men who was killed; he was an outlaw.”

“He wasn’t you?” Zach asked as he looked to Mark for the first time. “You’re not a ghost?”

“No, I’m not a ghost. I’m real flesh and blood. You can pinch me if you like,” answered Mark.

“Then, it was a bad man who got killed?”

“Yes,” Mark replied.

“Then you didn’t die?”

“No, I didn’t die, but I almost did when I heard how you’ve been acting out. I’ll ask again, do you want to tell me why?”

Mark patiently waited for his son, allowing him to come to terms and tell him in his own way.

“I heard Uncle Johnny and Marshal Buckhart talking…”

“Were you eavesdropping?” asked Mark.

“No sir, not really, they didn’t know I was crying in the barn when they came in.”

“And you couldn’t let them know you were there?”

“You and Mama always say how we shouldn’t inter… inter…”

“Interrupt?” Mark suggested.

“Yeah, interrupt when adults are talking…”

“Go on.”

“So I waited while they talked, and then they left.”

“What did they say?”

“I didn’t hear a lot of what they said, but they did say that only the good die young. Pa, you’re good and I didn’t want to die young, too.”

“Either,” corrected Mark.

“Either?”

You didn’t want to die young, either.”

“No sir.”

“What am I going to do with you?”

“Pa, if you’re not dead, does that mean the good don’t die young?”

Mark raised both eyebrows in askance.

“Well, if you are good and you’re alive, and that other fella was bad and he’s dead, then I don’t want to misbehave, I want to be good so I can stay alive.”

Mark had to restrain his wanting to laugh at his son’s logic.

“First, I think you need to do some apologizing.”

“It’s going to be a long list…” Zach commented as he scratched at his nose.

“Just how long?”

Shaking his head, Zach answered, “You don’t want to know.”

*****

Mark held Zach’s hand as the two walked back to the Town Hall. The other McCain children reacted pretty much the same way the adults had when Mark stood in front of them and knelt down to welcome them into his embrace. The boys and Myra were confused, while Mykaela ran away, but in a few moments, Mark convinced his daughter to come back. He hugged and kissed each one and apologized for hurting them, even though it wasn’t his fault. Hattie handed Mark his youngest daughter.

By the time each child was comforted, Josh let out an ‘oh!’.

“What’s wrong?” asked Mark. “Do I need to send for Doc Burrage?”

“No sir, it’s just that… with you coming home…”

“Yes?”

The expression on Josh’s face sent the adults present to light-heartedly laughing at his predicament.

“I get to go to school instead of having to help Grandpa all the time out on the ranch. That’s hard work, a lot harder than the work Mr. Bullock gives us.”

Mark looked to his Pa, in askance, only for Lucas to mouth later.

*****

Mark saw his family asleep in the hotel before he left the room and walked down the stairs to be greeted by his Pa, sitting in one of the chairs in the lobby.

“Mark?” Lucas asked as Mark looked to him.

“Honest Pa, there was nothing I could do.”

“I understand. You just need to understand what your family and this whole town went through. Come on, I’ll pour you a cup of coffee.”

Father and son entered the restaurant and chose a table to sit down, with it being so late, they had the whole restaurant to themselves.

“Pa, McKay said you helped identify the body. How could you have not known it wasn’t me?” Mark finally allowed himself to become upset. “You of all people…”

“Mark, the man had your rifle, your saddlebags and saddle, your identification, and Rainmaker…”

Pulling up his sleeve Mark asked, “But my birthmark?”

“Mark, by the time McKay arrived in North Fork and I was informed, and we traveled to the camp, scavengers had already found the body. From what Johnny and I saw, it wasn’t pretty…”

Lucas paused, allowing Mark to understand what he was implying.

Mark remembered the time, when they had gone for their winter salt; he shivered at the memory of having to travel alone to save Lucas. He remembered when he returned with help, the flock of buzzards surrounding what he originally had feared to be his Pa, but turned out to be the carcass of a wolf.

“Mark, you yourself said you could have passed for twins. Anyway, now you’ll understand why we buried him out there and didn’t bring him back to North Fork.”

“Pa, I’m sorry… If I had known, I would have done more to come back faster. I had to choose my words and actions carefully in dealing with Birch Leydon. After I buried him, his plow horse was old and I could tell he wasn’t used to having someone on his back, but he was the only horse…”

“I’m just thankful you’re home.”

“What was that all about with Josh and getting to go back to school? Don’t tell me you let him quit school.”

“No, he told Hope that he was going to quit school since he was now the man of the house. We kept all of them home and had planned to return them to school when we felt they were ready; Hope and Milly kept them up on their studies.” With a gleam in his eye, Lucas allowed himself to laugh.

“What’s so funny?”

“I did take him out yesterday and put him to work, as a way to try to convince him that he wasn’t really ready to work full time out on the range.”

“You what?”

“All we did was move the yearling herd to another meadow and ride along the fence line. He was practically asleep in the saddle by the time we made it home; reminded me a lot of you, when you were his age.”

“Am I really going to have as much trouble with them as you had with me?” asked Mark as he looked towards the stairs.

“Mark, you weren’t trouble, trying at times, but you are my son and I’m proud of you.”

Seeing something different in his son’s expression, Lucas asked, “Something else happen while you were out there?” asked Lucas.

“I had to remember a lot of the lessons you tried to teach me when I was growing up…especially that even under the best efforts, a rotten apple can still happen. Birch Leydon loved his son, he’d of done almost anything for him…”

“Including keeping you a prisoner?”

“I just wonder… that last morning… for a few minutes he talked to me as if I was his loving son… I felt sorry for him.”

“You played along?” asked Lucas.

“Like we did with Mrs. Havecourt. I didn’t want him to die thinking he was alone in the world, it wasn’t his fault his son turned out as he did.”

“Mark, I think you learned those lessons better than I could ever imagine.”

The two McCains finished their coffee in silence, before they returned upstairs to join their families in their hotel rooms.

*****

The following morning all McCain and Gibbs family members were seated in the restaurant for breakfast when Mark realized Robbie and Eloise were sitting between his sister and one of his brothers.

“How are they adjusting?” asked Mark.

“They’re settling in just fine, like part of the family,” Lucas cryptically stated.

“Is there something I should know?” Mark looked to his Pa.

“Now that the prodigal son has returned, I think I’ll make that appointment with Robert Garrison, I was planning to make it before we received news of your ‘untimely’ death.”

“Why do you need a lawyer?” asked Mark.

“Mark,” Milly answered as she walked over to pick Eloise up and returned with her to her seat. “Your father and I have been talking about possibly adopting Robbie and Eloise.”

“For real?” Robbie asked.

“You mean it?” asked Little Ted.

“I’m gonna have a little sister!” exclaimed Myra. “Hurray, another girl in the family!”

“But we boys still outnumber you girls,” Josh boasted.

Congratulations were offered by Johnny and Colleen Gibbs, and the patrons who heard the news. The other patrons in the restaurant stared at the spectacle of the McCain children and smiled.

“McCAIN!’ Oat Jackford yelled as he barged into the lobby of the hotel.

Mark and Lucas looked to each other before they both stood.

“McCAIN!” Jackford yelled again, stepping into the restaurant, chest puffed. “I demand you put a stop to your getting yourself killed!”

Oat stopped a few feet in front of Mark, with his index finger pushing Mark in the chest, repeatedly.

“Oat!” Mary Jackford called from the lobby.

“He’s in here,” called Lucas.

“Mark, I’m happy to see the latest news is true; you’re alive,” declared Mary. “You don’t know how much of a bear my husband has been since he received word of your death.”

“He must be a pussy cat now,” Johnny Gibbs whispered behind his cup of coffee.

The Next Generation… Chapter 112 – The Expansions

It was a crisp early October morning when Mark entered the Marshal’s office to hear an argument brewing between Johnny and Seth, both had previously spoken with their respective wife to schedule their vacations, not realizing they had chosen the same time to be gone.

“I’ll just have to tell Lou that we’ll need to post-pone our vacation, that’s all there is to it,” Johnny stated.

“I won’t hear of it. You have seniority, I’ll tell Lilah that we need to wait until you return,” countered Seth.

“No, you and Lilah go on with your plans,” answered Johnny.

Mark stood just inside the door; listening as both men tried to defer their vacation, “You’ll both go!” Mark finally stated.

“I’m the Marshal of North Fork, so what I say goes,” Johnny retorted.

“And as the Marshal, you have the right to keep your planned vacation,” Seth stated as he stood from his desk and walked over to stand just in front of Johnny’s desk.

“And I’m a U.S. Marshal, and my title trumps both of you,” laughed Mark.

“Mark, I understand what you’re trying to do,” Johnny spoke as he stood from his desk and walked to refill his coffee cup at the pot-bellied stove. “But you know it takes two to watch over North Fork.”

“Have you forgotten you pinned the badge on Micah earlier this year?” answered Mark as he followed Johnny to the pot-bellied stove and accepted a cup from Johnny.

“Mark, Micah…”

Mark interrupted, “Johnny, you pinned the badge on him. I’ve not seen him look so full of life in a long time. Besides, don’t you think our reputations keep outlaws from riding into town, especially after that show we put on with Buffalo Bill? When was the last time we had any…” Seeing his father-in-law about to speak, Mark pointed, using his hand that was holding the coffee mug, and stated, “Now you can’t count Warrenson and Rodriguez, they were here because of the Wild West show. You think the two of us can’t take care of this quiet, little town?”

“Mark, it’s not that…” Johnny added.

“Then what?” A boyish grin started to spread across Mark’s face. “Do you really want to tell Lou that you’re going to post-pone your vacation? You know how she’s been talking about going back to see your family and how excited she is to meet the newest members… she’s not seen any of their babies. The last time you went to visit was on your honeymoon. Do you really want to suffer her wrath?”

“That’s a low blow,” Johnny retorted.

“All the more reason for you to go. Lilah and I…” commented Seth.

Mark wasn’t through with his tactics to see his friends and family take some well deserved time off, “Seth, do you want my wife to tell your wife you could have gone on your vacation, as planned, to visit her other grandchildren?”

“Mark!” Seth demanded.

“You’ll both go and that’s final. I’ll move Hope and the family into the hotel, and Micah can keep watch from the office when I need to work the ranch or make my rounds. Besides, I’m sure John Hamilton or Nils or even Uncle Johnny would gladly help out for a few hours here and there.”

“Then I insist you stay at our house while we’re gone,” Seth ordered.

“Yes, sir,” agreed Mark.

*****

Johnny, Lou, and their family had already left North Fork two days prior when Hope, Mark, and their children stood at the train depot to see Seth and Lilah off.

The conductor had made his final call for “All aboard!” when the train started pulling out of the station, while he held Faith, Mark and Hope waved goodbye while their four oldest children ran to the end of the platform, trying to keep up with the window where Seth and Lilah were waving.

*****

Mark opened the door and allowed his family to enter, before he started carrying in their bags.

“You four go upstairs and start to unpack your bags,” stated Mark while Hope set Faith to her feet in the parlor.

The last item Mark carried in was the bassinet for Faith to sleep in; he placed it in the same upstairs bedroom where Mykaela would sleep.

“She’s not sleeping in the bedroom with us?” asked Hope, slightly perplexed.

“She’ll be a year old the end of the month. Don’t you think it’s about time? Besides, I’d like a little private time with my wife.”

“Mark! This is my parents’ home!”

“So?”

“Would you want to do as you suggest in your parents’ home?” answered Hope.

“Have you forgotten all the times we did? After we were married? Before we built our own home?” teased a smiling Mark.

Hope blushed at forgetting, but also at remembering.

“Are you going to be okay settling everyone in?” Mark asked as he wrapped his arms around Hope’s waist and pulled her close.

“Sure, why do you ask?” Hope replied as she wrapped her arms around Mark’s neck.

“Just wanted to make sure before I leave; I need to take all the horses over to Nils’ before I head to the office. What time would you like to meet to go to supper tonight at the hotel?”

“I’d planned on fixing supper here,” answered Hope.

From the top of the stairway, they both heard the disappointed “oh, man,” cries of their sons.

“I think we have eavesdroppers,” Mark quietly stated, before speaking louder, “What have we said about eavesdropping?” Mark turned to look up the stairs, but didn’t let Hope go from his embrace.

“We weren’t eavesdropping, we were coming back downstairs and heard ya,” Zach answered.

“I think you can go right back into your rooms.

“Come on guys,” Josh stated. “They’re doing kissy-face stuff.”

Mark and Hope couldn’t quiet their own soft laughter.

*****

The twins enjoyed staying in town, though they were disappointed they couldn’t ride their horses to school, they did enjoy the benefit of being able to stop by the Marshal’s Office after school and talk with Papaw Micah and listening to him tell stories from his years of marshaling.

Mr. Bullock closed the school doors as he let the children out for the weekend and most all the schoolboys followed Josh and Zach as they made their way to the Marshal’s Office.

“Just what do I have here? If you’re a lynch mob, I don’t have any prisoners in my jail,” teased Micah.

“Papaw Micah,” Josh stated. “The guys want to hear your stories too. Please?”

A chorus of ‘Please?’ went up from each boy.

“Well now, can’t disappoint those I’m sworn to protect can I?”

“No sir,” Isaiah Cooperton answered.

Micah waited for the boys to settle themselves while he thought on which story to tell. Some of the boys climbed up on top of the desks, while others sat on the floor and patiently waited.

“Now, let me think, what story should I tell you?” Micah decided to tell the story of when Johnny Drako first came to North Fork and stood with Lucas and himself against Billie Graves, Mac Jones, and Red Evans.

*****

Lucas and Mark entered town later than planned, and Mark stopped talking when they saw a large group of parents making their way from the schoolhouse to the Marshal’s Office.

“Marshal!” a few of the parents called and started to run towards them.

Halting Rainmaker, Mark replied, “How can I help you?”

“Our boys, none of them returned home after school today.”

“None of your boys?” asked Mark as he watched the group of parents shake their heads. Urging his horse into a trot, Mark headed to the Marshal’s Office.

Reaching for the office door, Mark called, “Micah!”

“Afternoon Mark… What’s wrong, something happen?” Micah asked upon seeing Mark enter.

Mark’s posture and tone of voice changed from alarm over the missing boys to ease upon finding them. “I’d say. Seems most of the boys from school didn’t arrive home when they should have. I’ve a mob of worried parents making their way… here.”

“Missing boys… Uh oh,” Micah answered, embarrassed as he stood. “Guess I should have asked if their parents knew where they were.”

“That would have been a good idea,” Mark answered.

Hearing the parents nearing the jail, Mark stepped outside the building and tried to quiet the group.

“Folks, all your sons are safe.”

“Where are they?” Lance Tunneson asked.

“Seems they needed to do some community service; they’re all inside. Boys?!” Mark called.

One by one, the boys exited the jail and walked to their parents. The last boys to leave stopped in their tracks when they heard their names, “Little Ted, Robbie, Josh, Zach,” slowly they turned around to face Mark.

“Why didn’t you go home after school?”

“We’re living at Grandma and Grandpa Lane’s until they get home,” Zach answered.

“You know what I mean.”

“We been stopping by here and talking with Papaw Micah, listening to his adventures after school this week. Mama knows,” answered Josh.

“I take it you told the others about Micah’s stories?” asked Mark.

“Sure, but they didn’t believe us, so we told them to come along today and hear Papaw Micah for themselves. He’s got lots of stories to tell,” Zach answered.

“It didn’t occur to you that by inviting your friends you’d worry their parents?” asked Mark as Lucas stepped down from his horse behind Mark.

“Our Mama knew where we were. Not our fault they didn’t let theirs know,” Josh replied with the sincerity of child.

“And what about you, Little Ted, Robbie?” asked Lucas.

“Mama told us to stay with Josh and Zach, to wait for you, that we weren’t to try to go home on our own,” Little Ted honestly answered.

“Where’s your sister?” asked Lucas looking to his middle son.

“Mama told her to go help Hope after school,” answered Little Ted.

Lucas raised his hand, pretending to scratch his face, more so to hide his grin.

“Now don’t be too hard on the boys,” Micah stated in defense of his extended family.

“Micah, of all people you should know better,” Mark replied.

“And as someone who was once a young boy, you should know better too. Can you really expect anyone of them to done differently than they did?”

Mark shook his head, “No, but that’s not the point.”

“They didn’t do no differently than you did when you were growing up.” Micah continued as he stood tall, “Now that you’re finally back in town, I’m gonna go have supper with my wife.” He tipped his hat as he left the group.

“Guess I better round up my daughter and see these other two desperados home,” Lucas commented. “We’ll be back in town tomorrow to do our shopping.”

“You also got to meet with the lawyer, right?” Robbie stated.

“Yes, Milly and I have an appointment in the afternoon with Robert Garrison.”

Robbie smiled when Lucas confirmed his statement.

*****

Hope and Milly were in the general store Saturday morning when they heard, “What a gorgeous basket. Where did you purchase it?”

Turning, Hope realized the woman was talking to her, “I didn’t purchase it. I made it.”

“You made it, may I?” the woman asked. Hope handed her basket to the woman who turned it all the way around, admiring the craftsmanship in its construction and design. “This is truly beautiful. What is it made from?”

“Ash and oak wood,” Hope answered.

“I’ve only seen baskets made of reed or cane, and a few I’ve seen were made of pine. And the die? Did you die the wood yourself?”

“Yes, I did.”

“It is absolutely beautiful. How long did it take you to make it?”

“I don’t exactly know, I mean, I whittled the wood into strips and soaked it for a few hours in the die or plain warm water and probably about two hours once I started weaving. I let it dry overnight on the hearth.”

“I must commission you to make me several of these. Can you do larger or smaller baskets? What of baskets with lids?”

“It is possible, but…”

“Oh please, I’ll pay you well,” the woman opened her pocket book.

“Ma’am,” Hope started to say.

“Ma’am?” the woman laughed. “Shame on me, we haven’t even properly introduced ourselves. My name is Gloria Longaberger.”

“Pleased to meet you Miss Longaberger, my name is Hope McCain and this is Milly McCain,” Hope answered.

“You must be thrilled with your daughter’s talents,” Gloria Longaberger stated.

“Yes, she surprised us when we couldn’t find just the right sized baskets and she made them for us,” Milly answered.

“Ma,” Mark called from the doorway as he entered and came up behind Hope and placed a kiss to her cheek. “Pa’s over at the hardware store and he’s not sure about the handle you asked him to purchase.”

“Tell your father I’ll be over shortly. Mark, I’d like to introduce you to Gloria Longaberger. Miss Longaberger, my son…”

“Marshal… McCain?”

“Yes ma’am,” Mark answered as he tipped his hat.

“And Hope is your wife?”

With a smile on his face, Mark answered, “Yes ma’am.”

“Oh, Mrs. McCain, I’m so sorry to have presumed that Hope was your daughter,” replied a slightly embarrassed Gloria.

“She is my daughter-in-law, but she is more like a daughter to me,” smiled Milly.

“Please Marshal, I was admiring the craftsmanship your wife put into making this basket. I’d love to commission her to make several for me, if that’s alright with you.”

“It’s Hope’s decision,” Mark answered. “I need to get back to the office, we’ll see you at the restaurant for lunch around twelve, thirty?”

Hope nodded before she kissed Mark goodbye.

“You’ve quite the catch in him, if I might be so bold,” Gloria stated, her gaze following Mark out the door and across the street. She returned her attention to Hope. “Now that your husband has agreed that this is your decision, I own a small store in Blanding, Utah. Please your basket is absolutely to die for.”

Hope replied, “It’s just a basket, I wouldn’t know what to charge?”

“Well, I would pay you a fair amount.”

“They’re just baskets. We use them for laundry and collecting vegetables from the garden…” Hope answered.

“And so will the women who purchase them from my shop. Oh, please… I’ve never seen any baskets as well crafted or as beautiful. I can tell the pride you took in creating this. Hope, it’s not just a basket; it’s a talent.”

“I’d like to discuss this further with my husband.”

“I’m spending the next two nights at the hotel and won’t be leaving until Monday. Milly, Hope, it was a pleasure meeting both of you and I hope we can come to an understanding in a business arrangement.”

The women agreed they would meet again, after church to discuss the arrangement.

*****

Having made their purchases, Milly and Hope left the general store and set their purchases in the back of the buckboard.

“Can you really believe that someone would want to pay me to make baskets?” asked Hope.

“Hope, it’s no different than someone commissioning Lilah to sew them a dress or make alterations to clothing,” Milly answered.

“I hadn’t thought on it in those terms. But I do want to discuss this more with Mark before I agree.”

“Mark already supports your decision.”

Changing the subject, “So, are we going to the Hardware Store?”

“This is their project,” Milly answered. “Let them surprise us.”

“But Mark said Pa had a question on handles,” Hope stated.

“Okay, climb up and I’ll drive the team over so they can load up whatever they’ve purchased.”

Hope and Milly were seated when Milly reached for the reins, and said, “Can you believe it, our own tub rooms?”

“No more bathing in the kitchen,” Hope mused.

“I told Lucas I wanted a latch on the inside to prevent the children from barging in on me. I can just imagine stretching myself long in a real tub, full of hot water.”

“I can just imagine, oh… I can’t wait for them to finish. I saw Mark sketching something and when I asked about it, he said he was designing something so I wouldn’t have to lug buckets into or out of the room.”

Both women giggled at the vision of their own private baths.

*****

“Lucas, Milly,” Robert Garrison stated as he stood to see them to the door. “I don’t see that there should be any difficulties with your planning to adopt the Trumble children. I’ll go ahead and place the notice in several east coast papers, if after thirty days we don’t receive any response. We can go ahead with the filing.”

“Thank you Robert,” Lucas stated, extending his hand.

*****

After Sunday church services, Hope and Mark met with Gloria Longaberger in the parlor of Seth and Lilah’s home to discuss their arrangement, that Hope would make as many baskets in different variations and send a wire to let her know they would be ready to ship the beginning of December, in time for Christmas. Once Gloria received the wire, she would have her bank initiate a money transfer to the Bank of North Fork to pay for the baskets.

“And if you could continue make say a dozen or so, and we can make arrangements to ship them to me once a quarter…”

Gloria had left to return to the hotel when Hope stated, “I can’t believe she would pay me so much… just for making baskets.”

“What are you going to do with your fortune?” asked Mark as he walked to stand behind Hope, and wrapped his arms around her shoulders.

“I hadn’t thought on it… You can use it to pay for the order at the hardware store or…”

“Hope, this is your money.”

“But you pay for everything with the money you make as a Marshal, and when you and Pa sell part of the herd,” Hope replied.

“Hope, this is your money. We’re not in any financial hurt that we need this money to help us get by.”

“But I want to help with expenses. It’s not…”

“Okay, but I want you to save at least half of what you’ll be earning. We’ll need to open an account at the bank in your name so the money can be wired.”

“Who knows, maybe our children will want to go to college, we should start thinking on that,” suggested Hope.

“The twins are only in their second year,” Mark answered.

“And look how fast the past six years have gone… If they’re anything like their father, they’ll be graduating earlier than we think.”

“Let’s hope scholastically they’re like I was in my later years…”

*****

On Monday, Percy dismissed school for the day, but asked Robbie to stay after for a few minutes.

“Robbie, I’d like to talk with you about the homework assignment you turned in.”

“Did I not do a good job?” Robbie asked.

“You did a very good job; however, you can’t sign your name, Robbie McCain.”

“But Papa Lucas said we were going to be part of his family.”

“I know. Mark’s told me of his father wanting to adopt you, but it’s not legal; not yet. Your last name is still Trumble.”

“But I want to be a McCain! I don’t want to be a Trumble. My first Pa was no good, I want to be respected, I want people to like me. They’ll like me with a name like McCain…” Robbie was in tears when he finished talking.

“Robbie?” Mark called from the back of the classroom, having overheard the conversation.

“I don’t wanna talk to you,” Robbie replied as he tried to wipe the tears from his face.

“Percy, would you see to others to the Marshal’s Office? I’ll lock up the school when Robbie and I leave.”

Percy walked to the back of the classroom, where he quietly spoke to Mark, “I didn’t mean to upset him, its just that he signed his homework Robbie McCain… I tried to tell him he needed to use his proper last name, at least until the adoption is finalized.”

“Thanks Percy, let me talk with him,” Mark answered. He watched his friend gather his sons and siblings and lead them to the Marshal’s Office.

Removing his hat, Mark walked to where Robbie sat in the schoolroom, and took a seat across the aisle from him.

“Robbie, I heard what you told Mr. Bullock. You don’t have to be a McCain to have people respect you.”

“Do too. My first pa was a good for nothing drunk and nobody like him.”

“He didn’t make it easy for people to like him. But you’re not your Pa, and people do like you and your sister.”

“They’d like us more if we were McCains.”

“Not necessarily. A name is just a name, it’s not who you are. Who you are comes from within your heart. You have to be willing to like yourself before people can truly like you. And, you have to give others the same respect that you want for yourself,” Mark replied.

Sniffling, Robbie asked, “Like the Golden Rule?”

“Yes, do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Even if your last name was McCain, if you didn’t like yourself or treat others fairly, you wouldn’t have many friends.”

“How did you get so many friends? Is it because you’re a lawman?”

“No, its not because I’m a lawman. I’ve lived here a long time but have only worn the badge for part of that time. Pa and I arrived here when I was just a little older than you.”

“How did you become a marshal?”

“That’s a long story…”

“Please?”

“It wasn’t planned… Growing up I’d fancied any number of ideas on what I wanted to be when I grew up, but being a lawman never was one of them.”

“Then how’s you become a lawman if you didn’t want to be one?”

“Back then, Deputy Torrance was our marshal, and at first was against deputizing me.”

“How come?”

“I wasn’t seventeen years old yet.”

“But he did deputize you?”

“Eventually, he and the others agreed I was the only one available who could track as good as my Pa.”

“Papa Lucas couldn’t help?”

“He was out of town at a Cattlemen’s Association Meeting.”

“So you helped the Marshal get the bad guys?” Robbie’s eyes brightened as he imagined a wild shoot out with Mark leading the charge.

“In a way, but not like you’re thinking. The whole ordeal didn’t exactly turn out as anyone could have imagined. The trail I was following lead to Socorro and… I ended up being kidnapped and used against my Pa.” Mark continued to tell the tale of Mark’s Posse.

“Afterwards, Micah chose to leave me as a deputy. After I recovered, he’d stated he’d seen me grow in ways he never really imagined. Anyway, I’d come to town and stand watch with him or Marshal Drako on Friday and Saturday nights, and they taught me what it truly meant to be a lawman.”

“And you got everyone’s respect because you wore the badge?”

“No, the people respected the badge, I had to prove I had the right wear it. I had to do the job that Micah hired me to do, I couldn’t take it for granted or make myself better than anyone else. I had to believe and trust myself, and give respect to those in town who I swore to protect.”

“Marshal Mark… Do you want your Pa to adopt us?” Robbie cautiously asked.

“I think it would be neat to have another brother and sister, but we have to wait until the law says it’s okay.”

“Guess it wouldn’t be right for the family of a marshal to break the law… I think I can wait until the law says I have a new last name. Are you gonna tell Papa Lucas that I got into trouble?”

“Now why would I tattle on my future little brother… Come on, let’s go get the others and get you home.”

The Next Generation… Chapter 113 – The Train

During Johnny’s and Seth’s vacations, Mark temporarily deputized Nils to help Micah in town while he went out to help Lucas and Jake with the construction of the tub room addition to Lucas and Milly’s home. With Johnny Gibbs help, it wasn’t necessary for Mark to be there all four days, just the first day when they were framing the floor, the walls, and the roof.

Once they had finished as much as they could at Lucas’, Nils had other obligations so, Mark temporarily deputized his Uncle Johnny to help Micah, while they worked to make the necessary modifications , to the rooms that had once been Gwen’s.

After finishing for the day; and Jake had left for home, Lucas stated, “It’s quite sudden notice for Reverend McCafferty and Maggie to have to return east.”

“Well, I guess when your superiors order you back, you have to go. Though it does seem strange they would send word of his recall with the replacement parson. I can’t imagine why they would recall him,” commented Mark. “I feel for Jake, his parents traveling east and Gwen having difficulties this late in her pregnancy.”

“I didn’t know she was having difficulties?” queried Lucas

“Nothing bad, just signs of a possible early labor. Thadd wants someone around all the time, I’m happy we’re staying in town so Hope can be there to help Hattie at their place, while Jake is here.”

“If that’s the situation, why did you insist on Jake being out here helping us, he should be home with his wife,” Lucas admonished his son.

“I didn’t insist, Gwen did; Jake’s doing nothing but hovering over her all the time and it makes her scared that something bad is going to happen.”

“Oh,” Lucas replied, remembering how nervous he had been as it neared time for each one of his children to be born.

*****

Several days later Mark and Micah were sitting, leaned back in the chairs, outside the Marshal’s Office; watching as the activity along the street slowed down and listening to the piano music coming from Sweeney’s.

“That Thelma sure has a sweet sounding voice,” commented Micah.

“Almost as pleasant to listen to as Hope’s singing.”

“I think you’re partial to your wife.”

“You think?” teased Mark.

“So, only a few more days until North Fork’s regular lawmen return,” stated Micah, giving a brief sigh afterwards.

Mark heard the sorrow in his voice, “Micah, you’re a member of North Fork’s regular lawmen. Johnny pinned that badge on your shirt earlier this year, or have you forgotten?”

“I haven’t forgotten. I’ve kind of enjoyed being in the office every day. I didn’t realize how much I missed this job, thought I was doing right in stepping down to let you and Johnny handle things…”

“With the training you gave us, I think we’ve done a pretty fair job.” Mark teasingly asked, “You think you can handle the office while I walk the town?”

“You’ve asked me that question every night since Johnny and Seth left. If you don’t know the answer by now…” Micah teased back. “Maybe that badge doesn’t belong on your shirt.”

Mark smiled as he stood and reached for his rifle, “I’ll be back in a little while.”

Night had settled over North Fork while Mark walked the town; most businesses had already closed for the day. Mark started to run along the boardwalk after hearing a disturbance at Sweeney’s. Pausing to look through the window, assessing the situation, “Just a drunk,” Mark mused to himself, before he entered the swinging doors.

Mark’s attention focused on the troublemaker that he didn’t see the man reaching from behind to take his rifle from his grasp.

“Now Pogues!” the man yelled while yanking Mark’s rifle from his hand, and drawing Mark’s attention to behind him, away from the ‘drunk’.

The drunk turned while drawing his weapon and aimed it towards Mark, as he pulled the trigger a patron trying to get out of the way bumped into the man causing his bullet to change its trajectory. Mark felt the burn across his temple and his vision blurred; he staggered and reached out his hand to steady himself, but his weight flipped the table, causing all the money, cards, and drinks to spill to the floor. Mark attempted to rise to his feet; however, unconsciousness slowly forced him back down to the floor.

Having heard the gunshot, Micah grabbed his shotgun and ran to the saloon. Through the window, he didn’t recognize anyone in the saloon, except for Sweeney, Thelma, a salesman who had come in on the train several days before, and the crumpled form of Mark lying on the floor. Realizing it would be foolhardy for him to take on the others alone, Micah ran for the livery, saddled his horse, and rode for the McCain Ranch.

*****

Behind the bar, Sweeney attempted to strengthen his resolve, too many times before he’d been used as a pawn, like when those seven broke from the prison transfer wagon. Daring to glance at the shelf under the bar, Sweeney took comfort that he knew how to use the shotgun, ‘Don’t have to be accurate, just aim in their direction,’ Mark had said when he was teaching him how to use the weapon. ‘Best to wait to see what this is all about, before I decide when to act,’ Sweeney thought to himself. His confidence was bolstered from earlier in the summer, even though the man had been a lawman, Sweeney hadn’t known that fact when he pulled his shotgun and held the man until Marshal Drako arrived.

The hostess at the saloon, Thelma, attempted to check on Mark.

“LEAVE HIM!” a man ordered.

Sweeney’s attention turned to the man, dressed in all black; he was about as tall as Lucas, but heavier set, as he pushed his chair back and stood. The scar down the man’s face indicated the rough life he lived; the angry looking scar started well above the man’s left eyebrow, disappeared behind an eye patch, continued down his cheek, and under his chin.

“He could be bleeding to death! Do you want his death on your hands?” Thelma pleaded.

“Won’t be the first lawman, won’t be the last. Barkeep, when’s the evening train due through here?” the man demanded.

“It don’t exactly know,” Sweeney replied.

“You don’t know?!” Pogues reached over the bar, grabbed Sweeney, and pulled him half way over the bar. “What do you mean you don’t know?!”

“That’s just the way of it. The train is known for being delayed. We have trains that come through from all parts of the territory, and ain’t one of them ever exactly on time.”

“Damn it!” cursed the man.

“Sheddron, what do we do now?” asked Pogues of the man dressed in black.

“Randler, go to the parsonage and get Riley,” ordered Sheddron.

*****

An exhausted and winded Micah arrived at the home of Milly and Lucas McCain. Unable to catch his breath and grabbing at his chest, he struggled to climb the two steps and to pound on the door to their home; yelling “Lucas!” as best he could. When Lucas answered, Micah barely had the strength or breath to whisper, “Lucas… boy… trouble…saloon” before he collapsed into Lucas’ arms.

Lucas and Milly carried Micah into their home and to their bedroom. Gently they placed him on their bed, Lucas untied Micah’s string tie and unbuttoned his shirt, while Milly went to the kitchen to fill a bowl full of water and grab a towel. Micah struggled to catch his breath.

“Here Lucas, place this wet towel across his forehead,” Milly suggested as she pulled off Micah’s boots. “Did he say anything before he collapsed?”

“Something about trouble at the saloon,” a worried Lucas replied.

“Lucas, go saddle Blade and get to town. If what ever happened forced Micah to come all the way out here…Mark must need your help…”

“Mama, Pa?” Little Ted called as he stood at the bedroom doorway, wiping sleep from his eyes.

“Ted, go back to bed,” Milly called as she rinsed out the towel and replaced it to Micah’s forehead.

Micah groaned and continued to grab at his chest.

“Papa Lucas?” Robbie called, standing behind Little Ted.

“Ted, Robbie, please, do as we say.” Lucas maneuvered the boys out of the doorway so he could get to the front room. “Milly, I’ll send Doc out as soon as I can.”

Grabbing his jacket, rifle, and hat, Lucas headed to the barn and to North Fork.

*****

By the time Micah had reached the home of Mark’s parents, Mark was regaining consciousness at the saloon. Slowly he lifted himself to his hands and knees; without any warning, the man named Pogues struck the back of his head, using the butt of Mark’s rifle. Thelma screamed when she saw Mark crumple to the floor again. Sweeney cursed the situation, but knew he still had to bide his time before he could act – he knew he could, but not one against this many.

*****

Micah felt himself being carried and heard the man’s and the woman’s voices, but he couldn’t understand what they were saying. Soon, he felt a soft bed underneath his body, but even that comfort wouldn’t take away the tightness he felt across his chest, nor the pain shooting down his left arm.

He wanted to yell for whoever was removing his boots to leave them, but he couldn’t get the words out. He tried swatting the hands of whoever was opening the collar of his shirt, but his hands wouldn’t obey his mind, but their actions allowed a little bit of the pressure to ease.

The man and the woman continue to talk in muffled voices, all he wanted to do was sleep, but the voices wouldn’t let him. The cool rag placed across his forehead only took his mind off his pain for a moment.

In time, he no longer heard the man’s voice, just the woman’s and other voices, voices of small… angels…

“Papaw, we’re here.”

“Papaw, don’t make Mama cry.”

“Micah, please drink this,” he somewhat heard as his head was lifted from the pillow.

He felt the coolness of the glass placed to his lips, the aroma smelled… ‘Brandy, just what a body needs,’ Micah thought to himself as he sipped the drink.

Another sharp pain caused him to grab at his chest and he couldn’t help the groan he let out.

“Easy Micah,” the woman’s voice stated. “Just another sip or two, please…”

“Papaw!” cried the angels.

*****

Quietly, Lucas slipped into town and headed to the clinic; not seeing any lanterns lit, Lucas turned and headed to the Burrages’ home.

“Lucas? Is everything okay at the ranch?” Thadd asked as he opened the door and saw a worried Lucas standing there.

“Micah’s out there. Doc, he rode out because there’s trouble in town, he collapsed in my arms; clutching at his chest. I need you ride out to the ranch. Milly is caring for him in our bedroom.”

“Let me get dressed, but what of the trouble in town?”

“I don’t know. All Micah said was ‘trouble… saloon’. I’m heading there now.”

“I’ll get my horse saddled…”

“Thadd, take Blade. I don’t want you anywhere close to the saloon.”

The two men went their separate ways.

*****

“You’re the prettiest girl in the Montana Territory,” Micah heard himself saying.

“Now Micah, you know that’s not true,” replied the woman dressed in a pretty floral dress, her light colored hair pulled back into a pony tail, the sun’s rays highlighted the color.

“Elizabeth…” Micah whispered.

“I’m here Micah.”

“Prettiest girl.”

“Maybe.”

“I miss you.”

“I know you do, but… you’re going to have to miss me for a while longer.”

“No…”

“Micah, now is not your time… You’ve a lovely wife in Hattie and her eyes shouldn’t cry tears for you. And the children…”

“The children…

“The children who call you Grandpa. I smile every time I hear them call you Papaw. I’m glad you finally have a family. I’ll keep watch over you. I’ll be here for you, when it’s your time. I love you, always.”

A glass was pressed to his lips again and he sipped the brandy.

*****

Milly heard Micah say the name, Elizabeth.

“Micah, it’s me, Milly.”

“Prettiest girl,” stated Micah.

“Micah, don’t let Hattie catch you saying that to me,” Milly replied.

Milly grew curious with who Elizabeth was, when she heard Micah say, “I miss you.” She wondered why he said ‘No’, did he know she was going to give him more brandy?

“Don’t worry about the children seeing you drink this brandy,” Milly stated.

*****

Lucas pulled back around the corner upon hearing the sounds of boots running along the boardwalk. As the footfalls quieted, Lucas peeked around the corner and saw two men enter Sweeney’s. Carefully he followed, doing his best to make sure no one saw him.

Slowly Lucas looked through the window to assess the situation, when he pulled back; John Hamilton was at his side, rifle at the ready.

“I was taking a walk when I saw you making your way here, what’s up, Lucas?”

“Not exactly sure, except its trouble. Micah’s out at our place, I sent Doc out to check on him. Sweeney’s behind the counter, Mark is crumpled on the floor next to an upturned table, and Thelma it at the far end of the bar.”

“Do you recognize anyone?”

“Besides our people? Only the substitute parson, he and another man ran inside a few minutes ago,” Luca answered.

“The parson? What’s the parson doing in there?”

“Lucas,” Nils quietly called as he stood at the corner on the other side of the saloon doors, revolver in his hand.

Lucas held up his hand to indicate for Nils to stay put. Nils nodded in reply.

*****

“That’s right Milly, brandy was an excellent idea,” Thadd stated as he placed the stethoscope to his ears and placed the other end to Micah’s chest. “Irregular heartbeat…”

Reaching for his medical bag, Thadd pulled out a small vial and removed the lid, “Milly a glass of water please,” he dispensed two tablets into his hand.

Placing the two tablets into Micah’s mouth, Thadd took the glass of water from Milly, lifted Micah’s head, and held the glass to Micah’s lips.

“Micah, drink this. You have to swallow the pills I placed in your mouth.”

Pleased to see Micah obey his instructions, Thadd continued to coax Micah to drink the rest of the water. He handed the glass back to Milly and allowed Micah to rest his head back on the pillow.

“Doc, what were those pills?” asked Milly.

“Glyceryl trinitrate, it will help relax the muscle spasm his heart is experiencing.”

“Muscle spasm?”

“Milly, the heart is a muscle, similar to the muscles in your arms or legs, only it beats to keep the human body alive. Micah experienced a heart attack, an irregular beating of his heart. You helped buy him some time until I could get here by giving him that brandy. The brandy helped to warm and relax the body. Had you not done as you did, his heart muscle would have seized, and he very well could have died.”

“Is he going to be okay?”

“For now, but the next twenty-four hours will be critical. We need to keep him calm…to prevent another onset.”

*****

Those outside couldn’t hear the discussion happening inside the saloon.

“Why the hell did you have to stir up trouble?” Parson Riley asked.

“The boys just wanted to let off a little steam,” Sheddron replied.

“A little steam… Do you know what you’ve done? I presume that’s the marshal over there?” Riley motioned with a tilt of his head, “What of the deputy? Anyone keeping tabs on him? Why couldn’t you wait until after the train arrived?”

“The barkeep said the train might not get here tonight,” responded Pogues.

“Was that before or after you assaulted the marshal?” asked Riley.

“After I shot him,” the man answered, proud of what he had done.

“Have you checked to see if he is dead? Tooey, check on him,” ordered Riley.

A tall Indian, who had been standing near the corner of the bar, dressed in buckskin, walked over and knelt next to Mark’s body. He grabbed Mark by the hair on the back of his head, lifted him from the floor, heard Mark moan, and dropped him.

“Him still breathing,” Tooey answered, standing back to his feet.

“Damn it!” muttered Riley.

“Then let me kill him,” Pogues’ eyes gleamed at the thought of killing a marshal.

“I’m not cursing he’s alive, I’m cursing you idiots. We had a good thing. All we needed to do was to wait until later tonight when we could get Billy off the train, with none the wiser.”

“None the wiser? You still have Ballard watching the preacher’s daughter,” spoke Sheddron.

“Minor inconvenience. All we had to do was get Billy, leave town and wire the real preacher where he could find his daughter. You just had to go let off some steam.” Riley shook his head as he pushed the man called Randler out of his way. “Randler, go do something useful, go check on the old man of a deputy this town has.”

Those outside drew back to the sides of the saloon when they saw one man run for the doors.

*****

Randler returned after a few minutes, “He ain’t in the office.”

“Great! Just great!” Riley fumed. “That deputy probably went to get help.”

“Who? From what I heard, the Marshal and the other deputy ain’t due back for a few more days. There ain’t nobody else to help,” Randler boasted. “The old man’s probably home, asleep.”

*****

The sun was setting Friday night when the train made an unexpected layover in Marionette. Stepping from the train, Johnny Drako planned to check in with Sheriff Collingwood when he encountered Reverend McCafferty exiting the telegraph office.

At first, their conversation was casual, but Johnny grew suspicious and ordered the reverend to explain why he was in Marionette.

“I can’t,” Reverend Mark stated.

“Or you won’t” Johnny stated.

“Johnny I can’t!” Reverend Mark pleaded. “They said they’d kill Sarah!”

“Who’d kill Sarah?” Johnny asked, his eyes narrowing.

“I don’t know, strangers came into town.”

“Tell me what happened.”

“Last Saturday,” Reverend Mark finally stated. He wanted to do everything the men had told him, but deep down…he needed to tell someone what was happening. He was tired of feeling helpless and waiting for a wire that he feared might never come.

“Reverend, I understand your fears, but I can’t help you, or Sarah, if I don’t know what happened.”

“A man showed up at the church when I was working on Sunday’s sermon. He appeared to be a preacher, but… They told me I had to get out of town, if I didn’t… They said they already had Sarah, he showed me the locket she always wore.”

“What did you tell Mark?”

“I didn’t tell him anything, I just asked Jake to tell him I’d been recalled back east for a while and that Sarah and Maggie were going with me. Jake was to tell Mark that Reverend Riley had been sent as my replacement.”

“Riley… Riley… Describe him.”

“About your height and build, blonde hair, green eyes, maybe your age… He was missing the lobe off his left ear.”

“I’m riding to North Fork.”

“Johnny, please you can’t go back to North Fork, not yet!” begged Reverend Mark.

“And if something happens to Micah or Mark, because they don’t know the truth?”

“Riley said they’d wire and let me know where I could find Sarah, when they were ready to leave town.”

“Mark,” Johnny’s voice was serious, trying to hide his fears. “If these men are who I think they may be, I doubt you’ll get any wire.”

“You don’t know who they are. What if those men kill Sarah because you returned early? They know that Mark and Micah are the only lawmen in town. I’m sorry, but Mark and Micah are lawmen. She’s my daughter… Please Johnny, I beg of you?!”

“How do you know they’re not going to kill Sarah anyway or that they haven’t already killed her?”

“They said they’d send a wire letting me know where she was…” pleaded Reverend Mark.

“I’m gonna have Lou and the children stay with Maggie. Mark, either you ride with me, or you stay here; I have no choice, I have to return to North Fork. If you’re coming with me, get changed into street clothes. Meet me at the livery in ten minutes.”

Before heading to the livery, Johnny returned to the train depot and told Lou what he wanted her to do. Lou put up a good resistance, but ultimately gave into Johnny’s request. Next, he talked with the conductor and demanded to know who was being held in the baggage car.

“What do you mean, who’s being held?” the conductor gulped before he asked.

“I saw someone being slipped onboard right as we were pulling out of Roswell. I’m the marshal of North Fork, now tell me!”

“There’s two lawmen with a prisoner bound for Yuma.”

“And the prisoner?”

“I think he’s one of the Wildcat Bunch, I heard one of the lawmen say ‘tag-a-long’.”

“You tell the engineer to hold the train for two more hours.”

“But…but…” the conductor stuttered.

“If this train arrives before I can set things into motion, a lot of good people are going to die. Do you want their deaths on your conscience?”

“I’ll have them hold the train.”

“Good.”

“What do I tell them lawmen?”

“Nothing, just that you’re working on the locomotive.”

*****

The liveryman saddled two of his best horses when Johnny showed him his marshal’s badge.

*****

On the outskirts of North Fork, Johnny ordered the Reverend to ride to Jake and Gwen’s. “Reverend, I need Lucas, ask to borrow a horse from Jake, and ride on to Lucas’. The one you’re on is spent.”

Without any argument, Mark nodded his head and turned his horse for his son’s home.

*****

Johnny stopped first at the church and found it empty. He continued into town and tied his borrowed horse at the livery, and quietly made his way to the side of the cafe, across from the Marshal’s Office. He noticed the lit lantern in his office, but grew concerned in seeing the office door standing wide open. Knowing if trouble was in North Fork, ultimately, it always made its way to the saloon; Johnny followed his instincts.

Making his way to the back of the saloon, Johnny slowly crept up behind the large man, hunched over and looking around the front corner of the building, “Drop your weapon,” Johnny whispered as he placed the barrel of his gun to the man’s back.

The man set his handgun to the ground and held his hands away from his body.

“Slowly stand up and turn around…”

The man did exactly as Drako stated.

“Nils?!”

“Drako?! You about gave me a heart attack.”

“What’s going on?” Drako asked.

“There’s men inside, they’ve knocked Mark unconscious. They’ve been in there for a long time,” Nils answered.

“What of Micah? Has anyone gone for Lucas?”

“Uh, Lucas is on the other front corner with John Hamilton. I ain’t seen Micah.”

Johnny motioned for Nils to follow him as he made his way around the backside of the saloon. Lucas turned quickly around, rifle cocked and aimed, as he heard muffled footfalls behind him.

“Easy Lucas, it’s me, Drako.”

Lucas brought Johnny up-to-date on everything that had happened.

“I have no idea who they are or what they want. It doesn’t make any sense,” Lucas stated. “They’ve not caused any trouble outside the saloon; they’re just in there talking… like they’re waiting for something.”

“Someone. Your fake preacher is Wildcat Riley,” Johnny answered.

“Of The Wildcat Bunch?” Nils asked.

“If you want out, I’ll not hold it against you.”

“No, no. I mean… Are you sure this is the Wildcat Bunch?”

“Yeah, I’m sure. Found out that Billy ‘Tag-a-long’ Riley is on the train coming through tonight, he’s on his way to Yuma. I had the conductor hold the train for a couple of hours in Marionette, long enough for Reverend McCafferty and me to get here.”

“The Reverend?” Lucas asked. “He was recalled back east.”

“No, they’ve Sarah somewhere and ordered him out of town.”

“Why?” asked John Hamilton.

“I presume the preacher’s been asking questions about the town and her lawmen?” John nodded. “What better way to find out about a town and her lawman than to pose as a preacher, no one would question a new preacher asking questions.”

“Damn!” Lucas cursed.

*****

The whistle finally announced the train’s arrival as the train slowed to enter the town; Johnny ordered the others to take the outlaws alive, if at all possible, “We need someone alive to tell us where Sarah is being held.”

*****

Those inside the saloon heard the train whistle and started to organize themselves to put their plan into motion.

“Pogues, you stay here and keep the others for leaving and going for help,” Riley ordered.

“But I want in on the fun,” whined Pogues.

“You’ve had your fun, stay here… and don’t disappoint me.”

The train let out its final exhaust when Johnny Drako fired a shot through the open door, shattering the base of the lantern, the second shot was fired by Lucas, shattering the chimney of the lamp and extinguishing the flame.

“Inside the saloon, you’re surrounded; throw out your weapons and come out with your hands up!” ordered Johnny.

Those inside the saloon scrambled to take cover; the salesman and Thelma ran behind the bar and stayed close to Sweeney. A few of the Wildcat Bunch up-ended the other tables and used them as shields, while others used the door frame as cover and began firing.

*****

As the gun battle continued, North Fork heard two of the Wildcat Bunch yell out after being struck by bullets. Lucas hesitated when he heard Johnny Drako yell out, and watched as his friend collapsed in the street, having tried to run for different cover to gain an advantage over those firing at them. From within Sweeney’s they heard, “I got me one!” Lucas, John, and Nils continued to fire into the saloon.

Another weapon joined the battle as the sound of a shotgun was heard from within the saloon and a man’s body was thrown through one of the front windows. It wasn’t much longer when silence echoed along the street. Slowly, Lucas ran to the saloon, looking inside before entering with John Hamilton on his heels, while Nils ran to check on Johnny.

Wildcat Riley was barely alive when Lucas knelt beside him, startled to again hear the shotgun discharge followed by breaking glass. Lucas turned to see a tall Indian falling backwards through the other remaining saloon window, gun in hand. Turning to look over his shoulder, he saw Sweeney shakily setting his shotgun to the top of the bar.

Thelma hurried to Mark’s side and knelt down next to him, ignoring the spilled whiskey and beer on the floor. She rolled him over and cradled his head in her lap, upon hearing a slight moan she called out, “Mr. McCain, he’s still alive.”

Lucas returned his attention to the man on the floor next to him; he grabbed the front of Riley’s jacket, pulling him up from the floor. “Where’s Sarah?!”

Riley moaned and coughed.

Backhanding him across the face, “Tell me where Sarah is!” Lucas demanded.

“She’ll be dead… before you can get to her.” Riley started laughing vilely as he started coughing up blood.

Grabbing Riley’s jacket with both his hands, Lucas violently shook the man, “Where do you have Sarah?! TELL ME!” Lucas angrily demanded.

The man was still laughing as he died in Lucas’ hands.

John placed a hand on Lucas’ shoulder, “Did he tell you of Sarah?”

Lucas shook his head, “What of the others?”

“None of them are in any condition to talk,” answered John.

A crowd gathered out in the street and along the boardwalk, the gunfight had drawn North Fork’s citizens from their homes and beds.

Lucas walked to the street, “Folks!” he yelled. “The preacher was a fake. He and his gang have Sarah McCafferty somewhere. Has anyone seen these men coming and going from town? Anything you can tell us to help us locate her.”

Voices talked throughout the crowd, but no one stepped forward, except Madelyn Donner, “Lucas, I’d see the preacher coming and going to the west of town. His black boots and trousers would be clean when he’d leave, but when he’d return, I saw red clay on them.”

“Red Clay?” John Hamilton asked as he stood behind Lucas, holding his injured arm. Lucas didn’t notice the blood seeping between John’s fingers.

“The mines!” exclaimed Nils as he helped Johnny Drako sit up. “Those abandoned mines have plenty of red clay around.”

“I need every man for a posse!” yelled Lucas.

“NO!” came from behind Lucas.

Lucas turned to see his son standing, leaning heavily against the doorframe to the saloon, Thelma helping to support him.

“Mark!” Lucas replied and ran to his son.

“Pa, no posse.”

“They have Sarah McCafferty.”

“Pa, I’m the one with the addled brain, but…” Lucas saw Mark’s knees buckle and caught him. Sweeney came from the saloon, carrying a chair and placed it for Lucas to set Mark down. “Small group would be quieter. Pa, do you swear to uphold the letter of the law, no matter what?”

Lucas raised his right hand and said, “I swear.”

“Small group, deputy,” were the last words Mark said before he passed out, again.

Lucas turned and looked at those standing in front of him.

“John, you can’t go, not with your arm.”

“I’m in charge of any posse,” Drako spoke as he stumbled to the boardwalk in front of the saloon, holding his shoulder.

“Sorry friend, not with that shoulder. You’d be too much of a liability.” Turning to Nils, “You and…”

“I’ll go!”

Lucas looked to see Percy Bullock walking towards him, gun strapped to his leg.

“Percy, you’re a scholar…”

“Mr. McCain, once before your son prevented me from going on a posse after outlaws shot Micah and Johnny. He used those same words. It took a while for me to draw up the courage to tell him how much those words hurt. This is my town too. As a citizen, I have a right to help protect her. Mark understood what I was trying to say and he taught me how to handle a gun. I may not be able to take a man’s life, but I can keep an outlaw from taking mine. At best, I can help create a diversion, if needed.”

“I need two more men for the posse!”

“That won’t be necessary,” an authority-bearing voice said as the man jogged down the boardwalk with two others.

“Walker!” Drako yelled.

“I heard the gunfight when we arrived. The conductor told me you held us up. You could have told us your plan back in Marionette,” Deputy Coltrane Walker stated as he joined the group.

“Didn’t exactly know what my plan was going to be until a little while ago,” Drako replied.

Walker looked into the saloon, turned to those with him, “Morees, get back to the train and tell Pritcherd to bring Riley to the jail, then you and Arngrin help these citizens get those others to the undertaker’s or to the clinic.”

“Yes sir,” the two men replied.

“Walker, I don’t know how many there are in the Wildcat Bunch, but they have a young woman held hostage outside of town,” Lucas stated.

“Well, seeing who all is in there, there’s only one other person that I’m aware of – Ballard. We’ve been apprehending a lot of the Wildcat Bunch lately. Ballard is pretty much a coward, acts brave, but when it really matters, he turns tail. He’s their cook.”

*****

Lucas led the posse to the old abandoned mines; leaving their horses behind as they reached the narrow entrance to the canyon. They made their way to the abandoned cart train, and took cover when the front door to the dilapidated building that once had been the office opened, and a short man ran from the building screaming, “NO! Get away from me!”

Coltrane Walker ran with his gun drawn to apprehend the running man, who pleaded, “Take me away! I give up! You have to protect me!” when he saw the man wearing a badge.

“Protect you?” Lucas stated, rifle in hand, as he stopped next to Coltrane.

“She’s a hellcat, she is. Please…”

Coltrane pulled a pair of handcuffs from his back pocket while Lucas jogged to the office.

“Sarah?!” Lucas yelled, as he stood with his back to the side of the building, still not sure the small man had been the only outlaw inside.

“I warn you, you come in here and you’ll get the same thing Ballard did!”

“Sarah, it’s me, Lucas McCain.”

“Mr. McCain?”

“That’s right Sarah. Are you alone?”

“Just me and the frying pan,” Sarah answered.

“You can’t make me go in there!” the one called Ballard declared as Walker pushed the man to the porch.

Nils and Percy were right behind with their weapons in hand. The men entered the office to see Sarah holding a frying pan over her shoulder, still ready to swing.

Percy couldn’t contain his laughter, Lucas turned to him and saw him pointing, Ballard’s face had several days’ worth of beard growth, and a developing black eye, just below a reddened lump on his forehead.

“Keep her away from me!” Ballard declared as he cowered backwards, holding out his handcuffed hands protectively in front of him.

“Marshal Walker,” Sarah sighed as she lowered the frying pan and sank down to a chair.

Lucas was to her side, “Are you okay? Did he hurt you?”

“I’m alright, Mr. McCain, but just wait…” the men heard the anger in her voice.

“Riley didn’t tell me she was such a hellcat. All I was supposed to do was make sure she stayed here and feed her… that’s all,” proclaimed Ballard.

“Lucas, you and the others see Miss McCafferty back to North Fork,” stated Walker. “I’ll bring Ballard back. I want to search to see if there’s any loot from their robberies around here.”

“If there is, Riley put stuff in the office over there,” Ballard stated, pointing the direction with his cuffed hands.

Percy helped Sarah get in the saddle behind Lucas for the ride back to town.

*****

Dawn’s first rays were streaking the sky pink when the foursome rode into town, Lucas halted his horse, the one Johnny had left at the livery, in front of the clinic.

“Sarah!” Reverend Mark exclaimed upon opening the front door and seeing Lucas and Percy helping Sarah down from behind Lucas.

“Father!”

Lucas watched the tearful reunion, as Sarah insisted to her father that those men hadn’t hurt her.

“Lucas, thank you!” Reverend Mark stated as he continued to hug his daughter.

“How’s Mark?” Lucas asked.

“I think he’s sleeping. He keeps waking and falling back unconscious.”

Lucas stepped from the horse, “Is Doc here?”

“He’s still out at your place,” Reverend Mark answered. “Johnny sent me to fetch you, but when I got there, you already knew about the trouble and had come to town.”

Lucas turned to Nils, “I need to borrow a buggy, would you get a horse hitched? I need to get Hattie out to my place.”

“Lucas, I’ll get Hattie while Nils takes care of the horses,” Percy offered. “I know you’re probably wanting to see Mark.”

“Thanks, Percy.”

*****

Lucas entered the room where Mark slept. Hope was sitting on the edge of the bed; Mark stirred when a rooster started crowing at the morning sun.

“Ohhhhh,” moaned Mark as he pressed the heel of his hand to his head.

“Abigail cleaned the bullet graze and wrapped his head,” John Hamilton stated, coming up behind Lucas.

“What about your arm?” asked Lucas seeing the sling.

“Bullet went clean through.” John lifted his wounded arm. “Abigail wrapped it and told me to keep it in the sling for a few weeks.”

“And Johnny?”

“Lou’s in the room with him. Abigail has him dosed with laudanum, she’s packed the wound to stop it from bleeding, but he’ll still need surgery once Thadd returns.”

“Pa?” called Mark, trying to sit up.

“Mark, please, lie back down until Thadd can examine you,” Hope answered.

“Easy there, son,” Lucas offered.

“Pa, the saloon,” Mark managed to say before he sank back into the darkness.

“Pa, he probably has a concussion. I heard Abigail say he’ll be in and out of being conscious for a while.”

“Seems we’ve been here too often,” Lucas commented.

“I was thinking the same thing. Pa? Thadd is at the ranch?” Hope asked.

“I sent him out there to tend to Micah, I’m getting ready to take Hattie to our place.”

“Tell her I’ll be praying for Micah…”

*****

Thadd carried his doctor’s bag as he closed the door to the bedroom where Micah slept, a lack of sleep and the effort to save Micah’s life showed in his posture. He looked up when the front door opened.

“Doctor?” Hattie asked as she grabbed at the shawl wrapped around her shoulders.

Thadd looked to Lucas before he spoke. “Hattie, please, have a seat.”

Lucas escorted Hattie to his chair, while Thadd set his bag on the table and pulled a chair out and sat down next to her.

“Hattie, Micah’s suffered a heart attack.”

“Is he…” Hattie’s tears choked off her voice.

“He’s still alive and resting comfortably.”

“Thank the heavens,” Hattie whispered.

“Lucas, I don’t want to move him for a few days, so it looks like you and Milly will need to bring in a couple of cots for sleeping.”

“What happened?” Hattie asked.

“He’s not a young man and the exertion of coming here to get Lucas… It was too much on his heart. Lucas, how did things turn out in town?”

“You’ve a couple of patients waiting for you.”

“I take it that Mark is one of them?”

Lucas nodded.

“Then why are you not in town with your son?” Hattie scolded.

“Because his wife and our town’s nurse are looking after him. Micah needed you.” Addressing Thadd, “What’s your prognosis for Micah?”

“He’ll need to take it easy from here on out. No stresses, he needs to let Johnny, Seth, and Mark take care of North Fork. He was lucky this time…”

“Thank you, Doc,” offered Hattie.

“Milly will take you in to see Micah, I’ve left some medicine and told her how much and when to give it to him. Hattie, it’s going to be up to you to make sure he understands his restrictions.”

Thadd stood, gathered his bag and jacket, and headed for the front door.

“Lucas, if you don’t mind, I’ll take the buggy back to town. Blade is a good horse, but I think I’d like a horse who’s a little bit easier to handle.”

“Would you let Hope know I’ll be back in town later to check on Mark,” Lucas replied.

Hattie was about to enter the bedroom when she said, “You’ll do no such thing, you’ll go right now. Your wife can help me tend to my husband.”

*****

Thadd stepped from the operating room and walked to where Lou was curled up, sleeping on the chaise in the waiting area. He knelt down and gently covered her over with the blanket that had slipped to the floor.

“What?” Lou groggily asked.

“It’s just me.”

“Doc, how is Johnny?” Lou asked as she sat up.

“I removed the bullet and have patched him up. He’ll need to keep his arm in a sling for a few weeks.”

“Can I see him?”

“Sure, he’s still under the effects of the ether, but he should wake in a couple of hours.”

“Have ye checked on Mark?”

“He’s my next patient. Go on, go see your husband.”

Thadd watched Lou walk into the room and close the door behind her, he wished he could curl up on the chaise; he let out a weary groan as he pushed himself to stand and walk to the room to examine Mark.

*****

“I’m fine,” Thadd heard Mark say as he stopped outside the door.

“Fine? Fine, you’ve been in and out of consciousness all night. Between getting shot across the temple, pistol whipped, and having your head bounced off the floor…”

“Hope, please, just let me get out of here before Thadd comes in…”

“I will not,” a defiant Hope proclaimed. “If you want to get out of here before Thadd can look at you… that means you’re trying to hide something.”

Hope stood and crossed her arms, her expression dared Mark to defy her.

“Hope, thank you. I couldn’t have said it better,” Thadd stated as he entered the room. “So Nurse Hope, will you please tell me all you know regarding our patient’s condition?”

Thadd turned at hearing someone behind him laugh/cough, he saw Lucas standing in the corner, a look of relief on his face, even though his hand covered his mouth.

“Doctor, he’s lucky to be alive, from what Thelma told me, had things not turned out as they did, he’d be dead.” Hope stood next to Mark’s bed, fists on her hips. “We’re lucky someone bumped into the gunman’s arm and caused the bullet to graze his temple. Later, Mark came around and when he tried to get up, one of the outlaws stuck him over the back of the head with the butt of his rifle. Then that FAKE parson entered and had one of his men see if Mark was alive or dead. He lifted Mark’s head off the floor and dropped him.”

After a cursory examination Thadd stated, “Okay Mark, let’s see how your body reacts to sitting up.”

With Hope and Thadd’s help, Mark sat up on the bed and swung his feet over the edge.

“Light headed?” Thadd asked, seeing Mark close his eyes.

Mark nodded, and immediately regretted it; he pulled his hand to cover his mouth as a convulsion coursed through his body.

“Hope, the waste basket,” Thadd ordered.

Hope strategically positioned the wastebasket, as Mark couldn’t prevent the emptying of the contents of his stomach. Lucas was quickly to his son’s side, supporting his shoulders. When Mark finally stopped retching Lucas helped Mark lie back down in bed.

“All the classical signs of a concussion, you’re gonna be here for a while. Mark, I want to unbandage your head and take a look at the bullet wound.”

Mark barely said, “Okay.”

Hope returned to the room with a bowl of cool water and a towel.

“I think for right now, I want the wound unbandaged. Hope, you know what to do. Yell out if you need anything.”

*****

Upon returning from eating lunch at the café, Thadd was not expecting to hear the argument coming from the room where he’d left Johnny Drako.

“Yes, I came in on the train last night and yes I left our children with Maggie McCafferty in Marionette. Johnny, when ye told me what was possibly happening, I felt it in me bones… I knew I had to come home. And I was right.”

“I told you to stay in Marionette!” Johnny countered.

“And I’m telling you both to save your argument for when you get home,” Thadd stated as he entered the room. “Johnny, how are you feeling…your shoulder?”

“Don’t ye lie to him husband,” Lou sternly stated.

“My shoulder hurts, how else is it supposed to feel?”

Thadd looked at the bandage, pleased there was no seepage of blood.

“When can I get out of here?” Johnny asked.

“In a day or two.”

“A day or two?! I’ve a town…”

“Ye’re a patient right now, not a lawman,” declared Lou.

“Woman…”

“Yes I am!” Lou retorted, her eyes flashing her Irish ire, as she punctuated the placing of her balled fists on her hips with a nod of her head.

“How’s Mark? He…” Johnny started to ask.

“He’s in the other room and no, that does not give you the right to get out of bed. North Fork can get along without the two of you for now. I saw Marshal Walker a little while ago; he’s been temporarily re-assigned to North Fork until I release the two of you.”

 

This story continues in The Rifleman – The Next Generation Pt 26

 

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