The Rifleman – The Next Generation Pt 27 (by BluewindFarm)

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

Category:  The Rifleman
Genre:  Western
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  22,470


 

The Next Generation… Chapter 117 – A Tearful Christmas

Mark anxiously awaited Micah and Hattie’s return from Denver as he paced back and forth on the platform at the train depot’ holding his rifle in the crook of his arm while rubbing his hands together, berating himself for forgetting his gloves.

Upon hearing the train whistle in the distance, Mark looked at the train station clock and noted the train was a half hour late.

*****

“See, I told you North Fork would survive without you,” teased Mark as he helped Hattie to the platform and offered to take their luggage.

“That remains to be seen,” Micah teased back.

“Mark you were right, Denver was so much fun. The wives and ladies at the agency had me going every which way one could,” declared Hattie. “I didn’t have a chance to miss all of you, until we stepped back on the train. Oh, and the shops…”

“The shops?! You should say the shopping! We’ve a chest in the baggage car for everything she purchased,” smiled Micah.

“Well Christmas is a little over a week away; I bet you both did a lot of Christmas shopping.”

“You’ll just have to wait until Christmas morning, just like everyone else,” replied a teasing Hattie.

Mark borrowed a flat cart to load the luggage and accompanied Hattie and Micah to the safety of their home.

“Won’t you come in for a moment?” asked Hattie, removing her heavy shawl and gloves.

“Sure, I can spare a few minutes,” replied Mark.

As Micah removed their luggage from the cart, Mark saw the case, “Micah, what’s this?”

“It’s my newest shotgun,” Micah replied with pride.

“So, Hattie wasn’t the only one who went shopping up in Denver,” teased Mark.

“No sir, this is compliments from my colleagues,” boasted Micah.

Micah carried the case to the dining room table and opened it, Mark let out a whistle upon seeing the weapon.

“A one barrel shotgun?” asked Mark. “That doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Micah emptied the magazine.

“Five?” queried Mark.

“Yep,” answered Micah.

“But how does it feed?” a perplexed Mark asked as he took the shotgun in hand.

Micah smiled as he informed Mark, “It’s a pump action. Put one hand here,” he pointed “and pull it towards you, then fire. The spent cartridge ejects when you ‘pump’ the next round in.”

Mark whistled, “Pretty slick. And you don’t have any trouble operating it?”

“Guess I’ve always seen my arm as useless, but the guys up there pointed out to me just how much I use it without realizing it. This beauty is something to behold and fire,” Micah commented as he took the weapon back and rubbed his hands over the varnished wood stock.

“It sure is something…” Mark smiled, seeing a hint of the younger Micah Torrance standing in front of him. “Well, I best be getting home, let you two get settled.”

*****

In eager anticipation of Christmas, some of the schoolchildren were talking during lunch recess of their Christmas’ past. As each child told of some of their special memories, their classmates listened intently. When it was Myra’s turn, she told the others of how the previous year she saw her Mama kissing Santa Claus.

“There ain’t no such thing as Santa Claus! You’re such a baby!” Bobby Bolton taunted as he and a group of other boys came up behind the group of younger children. “Myra McCain, a baby…believing in Santa Claus! There ain’t no Santa!”

“There is too!” Myra called back as she stood to her feet, fists clinched.

A number of other boys who hung around Bobby Bolton started laughing, pointing their fingers towards Myra, and continued to taunt her.

With tears forming her eyes, Myra ran from the school grounds as Percy Bullock and Isaiah Cooperton stepped from the schoolhouse.

“What’s this all about?!” Percy demanded.

“The baby believes in Santa Claus!” Bobby harshly taunted, folding double in laughter and slapping his knee.

“ENOUGH!” Percy demanded, catching every student by surprise. “Bobby, Cory, Marcus, you three just gave up the rest of your recess. Inside and open your readers to page 56. I expect you to be able to answer my questions on the next chapter by the end of school today.”

“What for? We ain’t done nothing wrong,” Marcus called. “Everybody knows there ain’t no Santa. Only babies believe in something that ain’t real.”

“You will do as instructed or I will also keep you after school and give you extra assignments for the duration of the semester.” Percy pointed the three boys back to the schoolhouse.

After watching the three enter, Percy turned to look at the other students who gathered nearby.

“Mr. Bullock?” Anna called.

“Yes, Anna.”

“Is what them boys say true? There’s no Santa Claus?”

“I take it that all of you want to know the answer?” Percy asked as he saw the inquiring and unsure looks on the faces of the children. They nodded in response.

“Why don’t you follow me over to the tree,” Percy walked to sit down on the bench under the tree in front of the schoolhouse and motioned for the students have a seat.

“Santa Claus, Saint Nicklaus… He goes by so many names,” Percy mused.

“Is he real?” Anna asked.

“Maybe you should know a little bit more about him; not just that he brings presents. It was the Dutch settlers who came to America in the 17th century, who introduced us to Santa Claus, only they called him Sinter Klaas. And, over the decades, Sinter Klaas became very dear to the children of the American settlers and he became very much a part of our Christmas tradition. But as the years passed, and he knew he was soon to be called ‘home’…”

“You mean he died?” Charlie asked.

“Yes, the original Sinter Klaas died… See there is only so much happiness that he could provide throughout the world and when his heart became full, from all the happiness and joy he delivered… he chose another person who would love the children and who wished to spread joy at Christmas by delivering presents to good little boys and girls. Through the years, we came to call him Santa Claus.”

Percy looked to each child in the group and most of them he could tell they didn’t exactly understand his explanation. Most wanted to believe in Santa Claus, but the taunting they had witnessed gave them doubts.

“Regardless of what Bobby Bolton and his friends said, I think it is important for each one of you to believe in all the good memories Santa Claus has brought you. Those can’t be taken away from you.” Percy smiled as each child started remembering back. “I have a special assignment for you, I’d like for each one of you to write a story of your favorite Christmas memory. Everyone, run inside pull out your papers and pencils and write your stories. Go on.”

As the other children scampered to return to the schoolroom to collect their writing supplies, Percy watched as Jonathan Morrowicz stayed seated.

“Jonathan?”

“Sir, we’re Jewish… We don’t observe Christmas or Santa Claus.”

“You’re family observes Hanukkah?” Percy watched as Jonathan nodded. “Then you may write a story of your favorite Hanukkah memories.”

A smile spread across Jonathan’s face; he stood to his feet and ran into the schoolhouse.

“Mr. Bullock?” Isaiah asked as he walked to where his teacher sat.

“Yes, Isaiah,” Percy answered.

“What of Myra. She ran away, I’m sure Mr. McCain or her brother should know what happened.”

“I know, but I can’t leave the children unattended.”

“Sir, I can ride and let the Marshal know, if he’s in town.”

“Isaiah, I’ll let you ride, but just let her brother know I’d like to see him here. Ask that he return to school with you.”

Yes sir.” Isaiah tightened the cinch to his saddle before climbing onboard.

“And if he’s not working today?” asked Isaiah.

“Then ask Deputy Lane to come.”

“Yes sir.”

Isaiah mounted his horse and rode to the other end of town where the Marshal’s Office was located.

*****

Mark and Isaiah arrived back at the schoolhouse and entered to find Percy walking up and down the aisle of the quiet classroom; he smiled as he saw his brother and sons…

Upon seeing Mark, Percy stated, “Isaiah take your seat and work on your assignment. Students, you are instructed to continue on your assignments, I’ll be back in a few moments.”

Percy closed the schoolhouse door behind them and motioned Mark to step to the ground.

“Where’s Gabby?” asked Mark.

“Mark, I’m sorry, but… Bobby Bolton and some of his friends weren’t very nice to your sister. They overheard her talking about Santa Claus during lunch recess. I stepped from the schoolhouse to see Myra running away.”

“Which way did she run?” asked Mark.

Percy pointed the direction he last saw the girl running.

“Mark, once you find her, if your parents wish to keep her home until after the holidays, I’ll honor their wishes. Most of the children who observed the taunting are at that age where they want to still believe, but aren’t sure.” Percy told Mark what he had told the students.

“Thanks Percy, I appreciate your letting me know.”

“Mark, when you find your sister, please wish her a Merry Christmas from me and Tessa.”

Mark walked to the hitching rail and untied BlueGirl’s reins and led the two horses as he tracked his sister. He didn’t have too far to go before he heard Myra crying and found her sitting under a tree.

“Hi Gabby, I hear you had a rough day at school today,” Mark answered as he dropped the reins and walked over to sit down next to his sister.

“Are you upset that I ran away?” Myra asked without looking up.

“A little, but I’m more upset that you’re upset. Care to tell me what happened?”

“Didn’t Mr. Bullock tell you?”

“He told me a little, but I’d like to hear your side of what happened.”

“Bobby Bolton called me a baby,” Myra quietly answered.

“Because he overheard you talking about Santa?”

“He overheard me telling the others how I saw Mama kissing Santa Claus last year.”

“You never told me that,” Mark answered as a smile spread across his face.

“Mark, is what Bobby said true?” Myra asked.

“That there’s no such thing as Santa?”

Myra nodded.

“You said you saw him last year.”

“It could have been a dream,” whispered Myra.

“Gabby, there is a Santa Claus, but not everybody believes in him.”

“Why?”

“Santa is a part of Christmas and as Christians, we believe in Christmas and all the history associated with the holiday.”

“But aren’t all people Christians?” Myra asked.

“Not all. There are many religions in this world. Your friend, Jonathan Morrowicz, and his family observe Jewish traditions and at this time of year, they don’t observe Christmas, but instead, they observe Hanakkuh.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s where the people of their faith celebrate their religious freedom though a celebration called Festival of Lights. Over eight days, they light one of the candles on the Menorah, sort of a special candelabrum, commemorating the rededication of their Holy Temple in Jerusalem.”

“Who’s faith is better?” Myra asked.

“Faith is what a person believes, but I think you meant to ask, which religion is better?”

Myra nodded her answer to her brother.

“Neither. It is what the person believes. Our religion has its roots in Judaism. I guess it’s like our country had its roots in England, but the American settlers decided that…”

“We were tired of paying the King of England for nothing,” Myra interrupted.

“You can say that. So, we decided to form our own government. And in ancient times, there were followers of Jesus who decided that, for them, Christianity was the path they wanted to follow.”

“But Santa Claus?” Myra asked.

“He wasn’t originally part of our observance of Christmas, but if you remember you bible, there were three wise kings who followed the star to Bethlehem and presented presents to the Christ Child.”

“But Santa Claus…”

“Christians learned of Sinter Klaas from the Dutch settlers, and we made him part of our tradition for the holidays. Sort of like the way the Three Kings brought gifts to the Christ Child… So to celebrate the birth of Christ, Sinter Klaas brought gifts to the children of the world.”

“And he became Santa Claus?”

“Yes.”

“But why would Bobby say he doesn’t exist?”

“Because he no longer believes,” Mark answered regretfully.

“Because he’s not real?” Myra couldn’t let go of the reason behind the teasing.

“Could there be another reason Bobby doesn’t believe?” asked Mark.

“Bobby doesn’t believe because he’s so mean,” Myra answered and pouted her face.

“Maybe he’s so mean, because he doesn’t believe,” Mark corrected. “Gabby, to believe in Santa is something special. And it’s what you believe in your heart that matters, not just because someone says it is or isn’t so.”

“Do you believe in Santa Claus?” Myra cautiously asked.

“Yes, I believe.”

“You’re just saying that to make me feel better?” Myra asked, still unsure.

“No I’m not. Gabby, you have to decide for yourself if you wish to believe.”

“It’s my decision to believe in Santa or not?” Myra tried her best to understand what Mark was saying.

“Yes,” Mark replied.

“Will Santa be mad at me if I don’t believe?”

“No, he won’t.”

“But then I wouldn’t get any Christmas presents,” Myra answered.

“That’s not true,” Mark replied.

“But I shouldn’t believe in Santa Claus just to get presents,” Myra stated.

“Are you sure you’re my sister?” Mark asked.

“Why would you ask that?”

“Because you sure are smart for an eight year old.”

“I’m almost nine!” declared Myra.

“Why don’t you come with me back to the office?”

“I guess I’m in trouble for running away from school?”

“No, not this time. Mr. Bullock stated that you could be excused for the next few days from school.”

Brother and sister quietly led their horses as they returned to town and walked to the Marshal’s Office. Percy smiled as he looked out the schoolhouse window and saw them walking together.

*****

With Eloise sitting in front of the saddle in front of him, Mark escorted the McCain and Trumble children home from school. He motioned for the twins to take their horses to the barn, while he told Myra, Robbie, and Little Ted to take care of their horses, “I want to talk with Ma and Pa.”

*****

“So, is Myra in trouble for running away from school?” Little Ted called as he ran inside his home.

“Excuse me, but this isn’t a barn,” scolded Milly. “Where’s your sister?”

“Out in the barn…”

“Doing what?” asked Mark.

“Taking care of BlueGirl, what else?”

“Did you take care of Cappy?” Lucas asked, knowing his middle son had not had the time to properly take care of his horse and equipment.

“I… I…” replied Little Ted.

“I think someone needs to return to the barn and take care of his horse, the right way, and clean his saddle and bridle,” Lucas stated.

“Ah man…” Little Ted stated as Lucas turned his son around and pushed him back out the door.

Returning the conversation to Mark, Lucas stated, “I think you and Percy handled the situation as best you could…”

“Pa, she’s still unsure.”

“Mark, I’m sure once you and your father bring the tree in tomorrow evening, and we start decorating it, Myra will get back into the Christmas spirit.”

“I sure hope so. I don’t like to see my sister so sad…”

“None of us do. We’ll take it from here. Go on home and tend to your brood, son,” Lucas suggested.

“Thanks, Pa,” replied Mark as he placed his hat on his head to leave.

*****

The following evening, the boys sang Christmas carols as they decorated the tree, while Myra stated she wasn’t in the mood.

“Myra, will you help Eloise and me string the popcorn?” asked Milly.

“I guess so,” she replied as she took the needle and thread, and a bowl of popcorn from her Mama and sat next to Eloise.

*****

It was Christmas Eve when Lucas sat down in his chair, a book in hand; and looked to his children and grandchildren, and two children to be, who sat around the front room of the house as he prepared to read, ’Twas the Night Before Christmas. He hesitated when he saw his daughter and her troubled expression. Lucas could tell his daughter was still upset, but whether it was from the taunting Bobby Bolton and his friends had done or her struggling in whether to believe or not, neither Lucas nor Milly had been able to brighten her mood.

Lucas began to read,

“’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.

Lucas stopped reading when Myra stood and ran to her bedroom.

As Lucas stood, they all heard a knock on the front door. Milly stood from her chair to answer.

“Stevan?” Milly stated in surprise at their Christmas Eve visitor.

“I hope you don’t mind my dropping by unannounced,” Stevan Griswald stated as he stepped inside and removed his hat.

“Not at all Stevan, I was just reading ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” Lucas stated.

“And Myra?” Stevan asked as he realized she wasn’t in the room.

“She just ran to her bedroom,” Hope answered.

“She’s still unsure about what happened the other day at school,” Mark replied.

“Yes, Percy told me what had happened. Well, I think I have the solution,” Stevan answered as he pulled out a newspaper from his satchel. “If I may?”

Lucas nodded, “Milly, would you mind taking the other children into their rooms?”

Milly and Hope maneuvered the children into the bedrooms.

Stevan continued, “I subscribe to a newspaper from New York, the New York Sun, though this was printed back in September, I thought one of the articles was amusing and kept it. Unfortunately, I had put it away and forgot where I placed it; otherwise I would have brought it the other day… when Myra was first upset by Bobby Bolton’s taunting.”

Lucas took a few minutes to read the newspaper article from the New York Sun.

Dear Editor,
I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?
Virginia O’Hanlon
Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours, man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.
Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies. You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if you did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.
You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernatural beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.
No Santa Claus! Thank God! He lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

“Stevan, thank you,” Lucas answered. “Milly would you bring Myra out here.”

Milly nodded and walked to Myra’s bedroom door and opened it.

“Myra, Mr. Griswald is here. Would you please come to the front room?”

Quietly Myra walked beside her Mama into the front room.

“Merry Christmas Myra,” Mr. Griswald offered.

“I guess,” Myra answered.

“Myra, please come here,” Lucas asked of his daughter.

Upon reaching Lucas, he lifted her to sit her on his lap.

“Mr. Griswald brought something that I think will help your predicament.” Lucas handed the folded newspaper to Myra and pointed to the story. He gave her time to read.

“What’s skep.. skep…ti…cis…m?” Myra asked as she stumbled over the word.

“It’s when people don’t believe that something is true,” Lucas answered.

“And com… pre…”

“Comprehensible?” Stevan smiled as he asked.

“Com-pre-hen-si-ble.”

“That’s when people, children or adults, try to understand,” Stevan answered.

As Myra continued reading, Milly, Hope, and Mark waited to see what would happen.

Milly offered Stevan a cup of coffee.

“I’d be delighted to accept your hospitality,” Stevan answered.

Myra finished reading the article and set the newspaper upon her lap. “So, Virginia wrote a letter?”

“Yes,” Lucas answered.

“And a big newspaper printed it and they wrote an answer to her, in the paper?”

“Yes, Myra,” Stevan answered.

“Why? I mean, why did they print her letter? They coulda just wrote her a letter and put it in the mail service.”

“Myra,” Stevan stated as he walked over and knelt next to Myra, still sitting on Lucas’ lap. “Because you’re not the only child or adult who has doubted the existence of Santa Claus. He is love and generosity, everything that’s good inside one’s heart at Christmastime.”

“Do you believe?” Myra dared ask.

“Oh yes, Myra. I believe in Santa Claus and I believe that a part of Santa Claus lives inside each and every one of us who believe.”

Myra looked to Lucas, “Papa, do you believe?”

“Yes, sweetie. I believe in Santa Claus.”

“But the paper said he lives and lives forever. Mark said, he died but other’s…” Myra scrunched her face in confusion.

Lucas thought for a moment, “Sweetie, it is true, the first Sinter Klaas died, but no one can live forever and before St. Nick’s dies, he chooses someone to carry on, as he did. And over the years, that individual becomes Santa Claus.”

“I think I understand, but how does he visit everybody on one night?” Myra asked.

“See Santa tries his best, but the world is a big place,” Lucas answered.

“North Fork is a big place,” Myra interrupted, causing the adults to smile.

“Well, the world is a really big place, and Santa has helpers; people who carry the spirit and the love of Santa, and see that no child who truly believes is disappointed Christmas morning,” answered Lucas.

Myra curled her index finger around her chin, and after thinking for a few moments stated, “So, Papa, last year…”

“Yes, Myra?” Lucas asked.

“Are you one of Santa’s helpers?” Myra quietly asked after looking around the room.

Lucas looked to his oldest as Mark let out a quick laugh and said, “Pa, I’d answer that question truthfully, seeing as how I’m a marshal. I can pull out your bible and make you swear to tell the truth.”

“Yes, I’m one of Santa’s helpers,” Lucas answered, curious why Myra asked and why Mark replied as he did.

“Then it was you!” a smiling Myra declared as she jumped from Lucas’ lap and ran to hug her Ma. “Oh Mama! Did you know you weren’t kissing Santa Claus, you were kissing Papa!”

“I was what?” Milly asked as she knelt to return her daughter’s hug.

“Last year, I heard a noise and I peeked out my room and I saw you kissing Santa Claus!” Myra exclaimed. “Only it wasn’t Santa Claus, it was Papa! Did you know?”

“I always wondered what Mrs. Claus would think if she found out about her husband kissing me,” Milly answered trying to hid her amusement.

“Papa, I wish I were a boy,” Myra stated as she turned to look at Lucas. Her voice held a small amount of disappointment.

“Gabby, why would you say that? I love having you as a sister,” Mark stated as he knelt next to her.

“Well, if I were a boy, when I grow up… I could be one of Santa’s helpers. But as a girl, I can’t.”

“And who says that Mrs. Claus doesn’t have helpers? How do you think Santa got so fat so that his belly shakes like a bowl full of jelly?” Hope asked.

“Then I can be a Santa’s helper?” Myra squealed, her face lit with the spirit of the holidays.

“Would you like to hear the rest of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas?”

“Please Papa. Yes,” Myra beamed as once again she believed.

Milly and Hope brought the other children back into the front room.

“Is Myra in trouble?” Little Ted asked.

“No, I’m not in trouble!” Myra responded.

“We just needed to have a conversation with your sister. And you young man, be careful with how you behave,” advised Lucas.

“I’m sorry. You won’t let Santa bring me a lump of coal, will you?” nervously Little Ted asked.

*****

The children settled back to sitting on the floor, Little Ted and Robbie sat next to each other while Eloise sat on Robbie’s other side. Myra allowed Levi to sit in her lap. Josh, Zach, and Eli sat together while Mykaela sat with her Grandma and Hope held Faith. Mark pulled up a chair so Stevan could join the family for the reading.

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.”

Lucas continued to read the entire poem, pausing every now and then to cherish the memory of those sitting before him.

*****

Later, Mark escorted Stevan to the front door.

“Stevan, thank you. I’ve not seen Gabby so excited since this all began.”

“My pleasure Mark, I’m just happy to be able to help. Can’t have our star pupil unhappy around Christmas.”

*****

“It’s good to see you smiling,” Milly stated after pulling the blanket to Myra’s chest and sitting down on the edge of her bed.

“I’m sorry.”

“No need for you to be sorry, Myra,” Lucas stated.

“Papa, as one of Santa’s helpers, just make sure there’s no mushy stuff with the other Mama’s when you’re delivering packages to other boys and girls. I don’t think Mama would like that.”

Milly tried to hide her giggle.

“So you do believe in Santa Claus?” Milly asked.

“Of course! I mean, if Marshal Johnny has to have Grandpa Seth as a helper and Mark has all those deputy marshals… I don’t see what’s wrong with Santa having helpers. I mean, the world is a LOT bigger than North Fork.”

Myra turned on her side, curled up, hugging one of her dolls, while Milly repositioned the cover over her shoulder. Lucas and Milly kissed their daughter goodnight. Next, they pulled the covers over Eloise, who had fallen asleep before Lucas had finished reading the story. Lucas blew out the lantern and they left the bedroom.

Before retiring to their own beds, they checked in on Little Ted, Levi, and Robbie; all three were sound asleep.

The Next Generation… Chapter 118 – Loss

Milly lay in their bed, resting back against Lucas and asked, “Lucas, how did you tell Mark about Santa Claus?”

Lucas remained quiet for a few moments, growing concerned, Milly turned to look at him, “Lucas?”

“I didn’t… After Margaret died… Well, we didn’t celebrate the holidays anymore; we were never in one place long enough. And, Margaret so loved them, that…it hurt just thinking about Christmas, so instead, we read passages from the bible. Once we settled in North Fork, we just continued to read from the bible on Christmas morning and that became our tradition. I never had the opportunity to need to tell Mark about Santa…”

“Lucas, I’m so sorry… I shouldn’t have asked…” as she leaned back against him.

“Milly, don’t be. As I’ve told you before, I’ll answer any question you want to ask about my past.” Lucas needed to squelch the regret he felt creeping inside, he took Milly by the shoulders, turned her around and pulled her close, and passionately kissed her. Milly understood the emotions behind Lucas’ passion and willingly gave into to his needs; she enjoyed the pleasures that marriage afforded a husband and wife.

“Happy Anniversary, Mrs. McCain,” Lucas whispered in his wife’s ear before he fell asleep with her in his arms.

*****

Lucas and Milly were dressing for the day when Milly asked, “When is Robert supposed to come with the documents?”

“He said he’d be out early in the week for our signatures and he’d file the official paperwork after the New Year.”

“When do we tell Robbie and Eloise?” inquired Milly.

“I was thinking it could be their final Christmas present this morning,” answered Lucas.

“I hope they love their Christmas present.”

Lucas walked up behind his wife, pulled her close, and kissed the back of her neck.

“Lucas McCain, if you want any breakfast…” she teased, as she worked to tie her hair into a ponytail.

“Yes, ma’am,” Lucas full-well understood her comment.

*****

The McCain families shared what started as a quiet Christmas together, as quiet as it could be with eight young children, but when Lucas and Milly informed Robbie and Eloise that their adoptions would be official after the New Year, it was difficult for any of the children to keep their excitement in check.

*****

Two days after Christmas, Robert Garrison rode to the McCain ranch, and a man and a woman followed behind him in a surrey.

Lucas stepped from the house calling, “Good Morning Robert.”

“Lucas, we need to talk… In private,” answered Robert, not quite as cordial. “Can you take the children over to Mark and Hope’s home?”

“Welcome Robert!” Milly happily called as she stepped to the porch. Wiping her hands on her apron, Milly sensed that something was amiss when she saw his expression.

“Milly,” Lucas stated. “Take the children over to Hope.”

*****

Milly re-entered her home and saw Robert and the strangers standing in front of the fireplace. She noticed the fashionable hat upon the woman’s head, as well as the stylish, well-tailored clothing they both wore as they removed their coats.

“I don’t know exactly how to tell you…” Robert started to say as Milly took their coats and hung them on the coat rack behind the door. “Except to come right out and say it. This is Adam and Regina Weyrling, they’re Robbie and Eloise’s aunt and uncle.”

Milly gasped in understanding at what the introduction meant, she stepped closer to Lucas.

“Their aunt and uncle, I thought Martha said they didn’t have any relatives…” Lucas stated; his mind racing to how the children would react.

“Mr. McCain, Martha was my half-sister; we had the same father, but different mothers…” the woman started to explain. “Martha was ten years younger than me and we weren’t raised together…so she probably didn’t think she had any family.”

“Why now?” Milly asked, trying to keep emotion from her voice.

“Milly, Lucas, they came in response to the notices we placed in the newspapers. You knew there was a chance someone could claim relation…” Robert stated.

“But we placed those notices in the paper two months ago and it was a month ago we expected to receive a response,” Milly cried.

Lucas wrapped his arms around his wife.

“We only saw the notice in the newspaper a week ago and made immediate arrangements to travel here,” Mr. Weyrling stated. “Mr. Garrison has informed us of how you have cared for Robbie and Eloise. We appreciate all that you have done for the children, and would be willing to reimburse you for your troubles.”

“We didn’t do it for money!” exclaimed Milly as she turned to face the strangers who stood in her home. “Those children needed someone to love them, they sure weren’t getting enough at home! Why weren’t you sooner?!”

“We arrived as soon as we could. We just returned from a lecture series in England and I was catching up in reading some of the newspapers… I almost missed the notification,” replied Mr. Wyerling.

“Adam, Regina, please. Lucas, Milly, I think we should all take a seat,” Robert stated.

After everyone was seated, Mr. Wyerling asked, “How did Martha and Quinton die?”

“The report of the events surrounding Quinton and Martha’s deaths are on file at the Marshal’s Office, but you should know that it all started because Quinton had prevented the children from going to school for a whole week before that Monday,” Robert stated.

“They could have been sick,” Mrs. Weyrling offered.

“They could have been, but there were too many other times where Quinton refused the children schooling; and they had not called our town’s doctor out to their home. Quinton had a history of not making sure the children attended school. As a result, one of our teacher’s grew concerned and he insisted that one of our Marshals address the situation. The following Monday, our senior teacher, who is also holds a seat on our town council, rode out with the Marshal to your sister’s and the end result was that Quinton murdered his wife and wounded our school teacher, as well as the marshal,” Robert answered, thankful that Lucas and Milly were allowing him to do the talking.

“My God!” exclaimed Mrs. Weyrling, covering her mouth with her hand.

“Good heavens,” commented Mr. Weyrling.

“Robbie and Eloise have been treated as members of our family ever since…” Milly stated. “Our children already call them their brother and sister…”

“I know this is going to be difficult for the children, but we are blood relations…” Mrs. Weyrling answered.

Mr. Weyrling added, “And we have the law on our side.”

“I don’t care about the law; I care about the children…” Milly stated. “You don’t know how much they’ve been looking forward to becoming members of our family.”

“That’s only because they didn’t know they had other options. I’m sure if they knew about us, they would gladly come with us from the start,” Mrs. Weyrling replied.

“But you weren’t here!” cried Milly.

“How can we be sure you are relatives?” asked Lucas.

“Lucas, Milly” Robert cautioned. “I’ve seen the paperwork and everything is in order.”

“Mr. Garrison,” Mrs. Weyrling stated. “You said, Quinton killed Martha, and wounded the others; how bad were the teacher and the marshal injured?”

“Mr. Griswald was on crutches for about a month while his leg healed and the marshal received a flesh wound to the arm,” Robert answered.

“And Quinton’s death?” Mr. Weyrling asked. “Marshal Drako killed him, I presume?”

“No, it was my son,” Lucas coldly replied.

“Your son…” interrupted Mrs. Weyrling. “They’re just children…” and she looked out the window towards the other house where Milly had taken the children.

“Our eldest son lives next door and is the U.S. Marshal for the territory,” Milly stoically answered.

Lucas continued, “He doesn’t relish taking any life, and tried not to in this case, but Trumble fired and the bullet struck my son as he fired to disarm him.”

“I’m sorry, but in regard to the children, you have to understand Robbie and Eloise will be cared for as if they were our own. We have three other children who are looking forward to meeting their younger cousins,” Mr. Weyrling stated.

“Cared for, they need love!” exclaimed Milly.

“Believe me,” Mrs. Weyrling replied. “They will be loved.”

“We were supposed to sign the adoption papers this week and they were to be filed after the New Year,” Milly stated, wanting these people just to go away.

Though the words he was about to speak, hurt, but Lucas knew he had to ask, “How soon are you wanting to take the children?”

“Lucas?!” cried Milly.

“Milly, if they didn’t have the law on their side, Robert wouldn’t be here.”

“We can stay only stay until Wednesday, we need to return home to New Orleans so I will have enough time to prepare to return to court on Monday,” Adam stated.

“Lucas, Milly, Mr. Weyrling is a judge back east,” Robert added.

“We’ll be able to provide a comfortable home for the children. Two more mouths to feed won’t be a burden to us,” Mr. Weyrling interrupted.

“You think Robbie and Eloise were a burden to us? They were loved! You think they’ll be more comfortable, just because you have money; the children have a comfortable home here! They’re not a burden! There’s more to being comfortable than having money!” exclaimed Milly at the insult she perceived.

“My husband didn’t mean to insult you, you have a lovely home, but you must understand, the children will be loved and we can provide better for them back home,” Mrs. Weyrling explained.

“Lucas, if you’d like, I’ll go get the children from Mark’s home,” offered Robert.

“No, I’ll inform them,” Lucas stood and headed to the front door of their home.

*****

Lucas took a deep breath before he knocked and opened the door, “Hope, I need to talk to Robbie and Eloise.”

Hope shooed the other children from around the table and into the bedrooms.

“Papa Lucas, you don’t look happy,” Eloise stated as Lucas pulled a chair to sit at the table.

“You’re right, I’m not,” Lucas replied.

“Did we do something wrong?” asked Robbie.

“No, you didn’t do anything wrong. I just have some news that’s… It’s…” Lucas struggled with how to tell the children. “The couple who came with Mr. Garrison, they’re your aunt and uncle.”

“Pa?” queried Hope, knowing what Lucas’ statement meant.

“You know that we had to place notices in the papers back east, inquiring if you had any other family,” stated Lucas.

“Sure, you told us,” answered Robbie.

“It also meant that if you did have any other family, and if they were able, they would take you into their family.”

“Their family? We’re part of your family. You and Mama Milly are adopting us,” a confused Robbie stated.

“We wanted to, as long as no one else stepped forward.”

“You don’t want us no more?” Eloise asked, her lip quivered as tears started to form in her eyes.

“No, we want you, but the law says they’re blood relatives and you have to go with them.”

“The law? Tell Marshal Mark we want to stay here!” pleaded Robbie.

“It’s not Mark’s decision, I don’t even know if he knows.”

“Then tell him! He said he wanted me as a brother! He can’t go back on his word!” Robbie cried. He tried to run away, but Lucas restrained him. “No! I won’t go! You can’t make me go!”

Little Ted opened the bedroom and ran out, yelling, “You can’t let them take ‘em.”

“Little Ted, back inside, please,” begged Hope as she tried to usher him back into her sons’ bedroom.

“No! You can’t let them take Robbie!” Little Ted yelled louder.

“Theodore!” Lucas sternly called, stopping his son in his tracks by his tone of voice.

“Children, I’ve tried to explain this the best that I can. Now Robbie, Eloise, I’ll take you back to the house to meet your aunt and uncle, and you’ll show them the respect you’d give any other adult.”

“Yes sir,” Robbie answered, while Eloise nodded.

“Little Ted, we’ll talk when I come back,” stated Lucas.

Little Ted ran for the front door yelling, “NO!”

*****

Mark returned home Monday afternoon, earlier than planned, he had waited as Robert Garrison had asked. He tied Rainmaker to the hitching rail, meeting Milly on the porch.

“Robert told me the news,” stated an incredulous Mark. “He asked me to give him an hour before I came home.”

Milly could only answer by nodding her head, she knew if she said anything she would start crying again.

Mark walked over and pulled Milly into his arms and held her, “Ma, I’m so sorry. How did they take the news?”

Milly couldn’t answer she just shook her head. Both looked to Hope and Mark’s home when they heard Hope yell, “Little Ted!” and saw the boy running across the yard to the barn.

*****

Hope followed as Lucas led Robbie and Eloise into the home they had known for the past few months.

After listening to Hope tell what happened at the house, Mark followed Little Ted into the barn and was surprised to see he had saddled and bridled Cappy all by himself.

“What do you think you’re doing?” asked Mark.

“I’m not talking to you.”

“Why?”

“Pa said you wouldn’t stop them from taking Robbie away.”

“Little Ted, you have to understand, I have to follow the law and the law says that Robbie and Eloise have to go with their aunt and uncle.”

“I HATE YOU! GO AWAY!”

“Is that anyway to talk to me?” asked a sympathetic Mark, understanding the hurt his brother was feeling.

“You’re not my pa and you’re not my brother!” Little Ted angrily replied as he climbed into the saddle.

“No, I’m not our Pa and yes, I am your brother. And if I were you, I’d changed my attitude.” Mark’s tone indicated his disapproval for how his brother was behaving; he reached for the rein to prevent Little Ted from leaving.

“You’re not me! LET GO!” Little Ted slapped the ends of the reins across Mark’s face, kicked his horse into a gallop, and rode from the barn.

“TED!” Mark yelled as he ran out the barn behind his brother, ignoring the smarting of his cheek.

*****

Mark ran to Rainmaker and swung up into the saddle, pausing when he heard, “Mark!”

Wheeling his horse around Mark called, “Pa, it’s Little Ted, he raced Cappy out of here, heading North. He’s upset that I wouldn’t stop Mr. and Mrs. Weyrling from taking Robbie and Eloise.”

Lucas watched Mark race from the yard as he ran to the barn to hurriedly saddled Blade. Shaking her head, Milly watched as Hope return to her home and turned her attention to Lucas as he raced Blade from the barn, after two of his sons.

*****

To keep her children occupied and their minds off the news concerning Robbie and Eloise, Hope decided everyone should work on chores. Hope told the boys to climb the ladder to see if any of the chickens had laid eggs in the hayloft. She set Mykaela on the stool and told her to stay put. Hope allowed her mind to drift from her task of milking one of the cows, and was oblivious to the chicken fluttering down to get away from the boys. It landed on the cow’s spine, startling the animal. The cow kicked sideways, striking Hope in the abdomen. She screamed in shock at the strike and landed a few feet away from where she had sat; she curled into a fetal position, her arms wrapped around her stomach, crying from the pain.

*****

The twins ran to the edge of the loft as the chicken took flight, saw it land on the cow, heard the cow bawl and the chicken cackle, and then their Mama screamed as the cow kicked her.

“Mama!” the twins yelled as they ran for the ladder. Eli sat on the hayloft, scared and crying.

Zach tried to cradle Hope’s head in his lap, while Josh ran to get his Grandpa.

*****

“Mrs. McCain, I think it’s best if we head back to town,” Mrs. Weyrling suggested.

“Grandpa! Grandpa!” Josh yelled as he ran into his grandparents’ home.

“Josh? What’s wrong?” Milly asked as she stopped her grandson.

“We tried to be quiet,” Josh paused trying to catch his breath, “but we spooked the chicken and the cow hurt Mama!”

Josh waited for Milly to excuse herself from Robert and the strangers; he tried to follow as she ran from the house to the barn. The man restrained him from following his Grandma, “Wait here, son.”

“My Mama’s hurt!” Josh declared and tried to pull away from the grip the man had on his shoulder.

The strangers watched as Robert Garrison followed Milly out the door.

*****

Upon arriving in the barn and assessing the situation, Robert stated, “Milly, take the other children to your home, I’ll use the Weyrling’s surrey and we can take her to town.”

“Hope,” Milly called as she laid Hope back to the ground, “I need to get the children to the house. I’ll be right back and we’ll get you to town.”

Only a few minutes later, Robert carried Hope to the surrey, trying not to cause her any additional pain, and placed her so she rested against Milly. He ran behind the surrey, climbed in the seat, rein slapped the horse, and raced back to town.

*****

Lucas crested the rise to see Mark pulling a fighting Little Ted from the saddle; he urged Blade forward.

“Stop this right now!” Lucas heard Mark declare as the younger brother continued to struggle from Mark’s arms.

“I HATE YOU!”

“THEODORE!” Lucas declared upon arriving and jumping down from his horse.

“PUT ME DOWN!” Little Ted yelled, still kicking with his legs and striking out with his fists.

“Only when you stop fighting me,” replied Mark as Little Ted kicked out, catching Mark in the knee.

Lucas forcefully took Ted from Mark; giving him a shake before setting him to his feet.

“STOP THIS, RIGHT NOW!” declared Lucas.

“NO!”

Without relinquishing his grip, Lucas knelt in front of his crying son, “Ted, I know you’re hurting, but behaving like this isn’t the answer.”

“Then don’t let them take my brother!”

Mark knelt beside his brother, “Ted, they’re Robbie’s family.”

“It’s all your fault! You don’t want me to have another brother!”

“That’s not true,” Lucas answered before Mark could say anything.

“Ted, if the Weyrling’s hadn’t come, I’d love to have another brother. How would you feel if you were Robbie?” asked Mark.

“I’d want to stay here!”

“Yes, I’m sure he does, but that’s not what Mark meant. How do you think he feels knowing you ran out on him? That you couldn’t be happy for him to have an Aunt and an Uncle come all this way just for him and Eloise?” asked Lucas.

“Don’t you think we’re all hurting?” asked Mark. “I’ve looked forward to them becoming members of our family as long as you have.” Mark paused waiting to hear his brother say something. “Or are you the only one who’s allowed to hurt?”

“But you…” Little Ted tried to talk but his words were choked by tears and he reached up and wrapped his arms around his Pa’s neck and buried his face in his Pa’s shoulder.

“I don’t want them to go,” Little Ted whimpered.

“I don’t either. But they are Robbie and Eloise’s family, just like we’re family. Would you want someone else to keep you away from your family?” asked Mark, placing a hand to his brother’s shoulder and rubbing his back.

“Son, it may not be the best for us, but it is the best for Robbie and Eloise,” Lucas stated as he stood to his feet, carrying his son. “Can you be happy for them to have real family?”

Sniffling and wiping his running nose with the back of his sleeve, Little Ted replied, “I guess so.”

“Little Ted, you’ll have to be brave. Let Robbie know that you’re happy for him. Can you do that?” asked Lucas.

Little Ted nodded.

Holding Blade steady so Lucas could mount while still holding his son, Mark choked back his own tears.

After mounting Rainmaker, Mark reached for Cappy’s reins and rode for home next to Lucas.

*****

Seth and Lilah sat with Milly as they waited for news on Hope.

Aaron exited the examination room and quietly announced, “She’s in a lot of pain.”

“Can we see her?” Lilah asked.

“Not yet, Thadd’s still examining her. Do you know where the Marshal is? I think he should be here.”

“He’s out with Lucas,” Milly replied.

“Is Hope going to be okay?” a worried Seth asked.

“I hope so. We want to keep her here for a while longer, to keep an eye on her. We need to evaluate the cause of her pain,” Aaron answered.

“From taking a tumble?” Lilah asked.

“Mrs. Lane, it not that simple, a cow’s kick can be powerful. We’re concerned about possible internal injuries from the blow; it would be best to keep her here, under observation, until we know for certain,” Aaron stated.

“You’re saying she might require…surgery?” Milly asked.

“I pray not, but you have to understand our concerns, we won’t know for a while if there was any damage inflicted internally,” Thadd stated as he stepped from the examination room. “It’s going to be a while before we know, why don’t you go to the hotel; I’ll send Abigail or Sarah for you, if it comes to that.”

*****

Over the course of the next hour, Hope’s appearance grew paler and the pain increased in intensity. Aaron and Thadd examined Hope again and couldn’t help but notice the deepening bruise to her abdomen. Thadd gently pressed on the bruised area, noted it was hardening and Hope couldn’t help but cry out from the pain.

“This isn’t just a bruise, is it? You think she’s bleeding internally,” Aaron whispered.

“I’m sure of it, we can’t wait any longer for Mark to arrive,” Thadd replied. “Sarah, please prep Hope for surgery, I’ll go inform her family.”

*****

Mark and Lucas return home with Little Ted, only to find Mr. and Mrs. Weyrling watching all the children.

“Mr. McCain, there’s been an accident…” the woman started to say as she stepped to the porch.

“An accident?” Mark asked.

“Robert drove the women to town…” Mr. Weyrling stated as he stood beside his wife.

“Who’s hurt,” demanded Lucas, dreading the answer as a coldness settled in the pit of his stomach.

“The younger Mrs. McCain,” Mrs. Weyrling answered.

“Without waiting to hear any more, Mark dropped Cappy’s reins and whirled his horse around and raced Rainmaker to North Fork.

Watching his son race away, Lucas asked, “What happened?”

“Grandpa!” Josh and Zach called as they stepped to the porch.

Lucas stepped from Blade, leaving Little Ted sitting in the saddle, he hugged his grandsons.

“The cow kicked Mama,” Josh stated, tears still streaking his face.

“We didn’t mean to startle the chicken, Mama sent us up to the hayloft to look for eggs,” Zach replied, having been crying as well.

“We tried to be quiet,” Josh answered, as he tried to be brave.

“Mr. McCain, if you’d like, I’ll take the horses to the barn, and you can be with the children, I think it would be best for them to be with family,” Adam offered.

“Go away! It’s all your fault!” Little Ted declared.

“Theodore!” Lucas reprimanded.

“None of this would of happened if they hadn’t come!”

“We’ve talked about this already! To your bedroom, NOW!” Lucas ordered. “You will not be disrespectful to guests while they are in our home.”

“Then it’s not my home!” Little Ted jumped from the saddle and ran to the barn.

“Mr. Weyrling, Mrs. Weyrling, I’m sorry for my son’s behavior,” Lucas begged to apologize.

“No Mr. McCain, in a way, your son is right. I think its best we return to town, as soon as Mr. Garrison returns with our surrey.”

As they spoke a small cloud of dust appeared on the horizon, as they watched the surrey came closer.

“Nils?” Lucas asked.

“Lucas, Robert asked me to come back and get the Weyrlings,” Nils answered, turning to the couple stepping to the porch, “Sorry, I didn’t get back sooner, but I had to change out the horse and…”

“Mr. McCain, we will expect the children in town tomorrow so we may leave on the Wednesday train,” Mr. Weyrling stated as he escorted his wife to the surrey.

*****

Sarah McCafferty prepped Hope for surgery and administered the ether as instructed. A few minutes later, she silently watched as Thadd made the first incision through Hope’s skin. Aaron worked to wipe away the darkened blood that seeped from the incision as Thadd cut deeper. In time, the incision revealed the origination of the loss of blood; feverishly the two physicians worked to stem the flow of blood and repair the damage done.

Aaron was first to see it, “Thadd, her liver…”

“I see it; looks like bottom section of the lower lobe is lacerated. Damn…”

“What do we do? I mean…” Aaron stated.

“I think its best to remove the lacerated section to prevent any necrosis and hopefully, if I suture the rest of it closed, maybe it will heal and still properly function.”

“The rest of the liver does appear to be healthy,” answered Aaron. “I wish we could study the internal working of the human body in more detail.”

“Maybe someday there will be a way to do it, but right now, we best focus on saving Hope’s life.”

“Yes, doctor,” Aaron stated as he followed the instructions given to him by Thadd.

The two doctors worked to remove the damaged section of Hope’s liver and suture the remaining portion. With as much attention as they could give, they examined the other internal organs near the liver to make sure there was no further damage. An hour and a half after the surgery started, Aaron cut the thread of the last suture to close the incision Thadd had made.

“How’s is Hope’s respiration?” Thadd asked as he stepped to the head of the table where Sarah was removing the ether mask from Hope’s face.

“She’s breathing shallow, but it is steady and regular.”

“Thadd, her pulse is strong,” Aaron added as he placed Hope’s arm back to her side, having lifted it to take her pulse.

Abigail entered the room and operated the sink pump to allow her husband and Aaron to wash their hands and arms. Afterwards, she helped Sarah clean up the inevitable mess that had been made during the surgery.

“Let’s move her to the resting room at the end of the hallway,” Aaron stated.

Having settled their patient in her new room, the two doctors headed to the hotel to talk with her family.

*****

Mark arrived at the clinic and pleaded with Abigail to tell him what was wrong with Hope.

“Mark, I wasn’t here when they brought Hope in, I’ve been taking care of other patients while they’re performing surgery.”

“Surgery?” cried Mark. “Why?”

“Mark, please… Milly, Lilah, and Seth are over at the hotel. Go to the hotel. We’ll come get you when she’s out of surgery.”

Mark entered the hotel to be greeted by Lou, “Come along Mark, yer family is in the kitchen.”

Lou escorted Mark to the back of the hotel. Milly stood and hugged Mark as he entered. Lou walked to the stove and picked up the coffee pot, grabbed another coffee cup and filled it for Mark, before she refilled other’s.

“Ma, what happened?” Mark asked.

“The boys said the cow kicked her. It caught her in the abdomen,” answered Seth when Milly couldn’t bring herself to explain. “Thadd thinks she might be bleeding internally.”

Seth placed a chair behind Mark as his knees buckled.

*****

“Milly, I’ll have Nils hitch our surrey and I’ll drive you back home. I’m sure Lucas is frantic to hear any news,” Seth stated as he placed a hand under Milly’s arm to help her to her feet.

“Mark?” pleaded Milly.

“Ma, please… Go home with Seth, and I’d appreciate it you could take care of…”

“Mark, you don’t have to ask…” Milly replied as she and Seth left the kitchen.

“Mark, can I refresh your cup of coffee?” Lilah asked.

“Lilah, thanks, but no sense all of us sitting here worrying,” replied Mark without thinking.

“Mark, she’s my daughter and you’re my son-in-law. I’ll stay here with you. You don’t need to be alone at a time like this,” replied Lilah.

*****

Lilah made herself busy around the kitchen by helping Lou and her cook fix supper for the hotel guests; she set a plate of steak and fried potatoes in front of Mark.

“I’m not hungry,” Mark answered, pushing the plate aside.

“Lilah put food in front of ye young man and ye will eat it. I’ll not see food served in my restaurant go to waste!” Lou stated and humpf’d, crossing her arms.

Mark looked to Lou, knowing he best eat something. Fifteen minutes later, Mark pushed the plate aside and wiped his mouth.

“Not hungry, huh?” Lilah asked.

“Guess I was…”

*****

The sun had set by the time Thadd and Aaron entered the kitchen to get Mark.

“Mark,” Thadd called quietly.

“Doc?”

“She’s out of surgery and should be waking soon.”

Mark followed Thadd out the hotel, across the street, and down the boardwalk to the clinic, while Aaron stayed behind and spoke with Lilah.

*****

Mark stopped in the doorway as he looked upon his sleeping wife.

“Thadd, will she?”

“In a few days she’ll be up and around, but it will take a few weeks until she’s fully recovered,” answered Thadd.

“What happened?”

“The kick lacerated her liver… Mark, if we hadn’t performed surgery, she would have bled to death. We had no choice but to start surgery without your consent.”

“If it saved her life, you didn’t need my consent,” answered Mark. “Can I stay with her?”

“Sure, just try not to jostle her when you sit on the bed beside her.”

Thadd left the room, closing the door behind him.

Mark slipped off his boots and quietly set them to the floor, before climbing onto the bed and lying down on his side next to his wife, on top of the sheet. He took her hand in his, placing a kiss to it and waited.

An hour had passed when Mark roused, realizing he had fallen asleep, he heard Hope whimpering.

“I’m right here Hope.”

He gave her hand a gentle squeeze and watched as her eyes fluttered, and stilled.

“I’m right here beside you, always and forever.”

“Mark?” Hope breathily whispered.

“Who else?” he teased as relief swept through him. “How are you feeling?”

“I hurt,” she quietly answered.

“I’ll be right back, I’ll get Doc,” Mark stated as he swung his legs over the bed and sat up.

“I’m right here Mark. I was coming to check in on her.”

Mark watched as Doc twisted off the top to the bottle he carried, measured out some of it’s contents and mixed it with a glass of water he picked up from the side table.

“Here Mark,” Thadd handed the glass to Mark. “Make sure she drinks it all. I mixed some laudanum in the water to help alleviate the pain.”

Holding Hope’s head, Mark placed the glass to her lips and encouraged her to drink.

Thadd smiled when Mark handed him back the empty glass.

“She’ll still be groggy for the rest of the night, but that should clear up in the morning by the time I come back to examine her. If you need anything, just come get me from the office.”

*****

Mark woke to a rooster crowing in the distance and the door to the room opening, “Morning Mark,” Thadd stated. “How’s our patient?”

“I guess we both slept through the night.”

“Mark, if you wouldn’t mind stepping out into the hallway so I can examine Hope?”

*****

Ten minutes later Thadd exited the room, “She woke while I was examining her. She’ll be in pain for a while yet, and I’ve given her some pain medication that won’t make her as sleepy, but if she wants to sleep, it would be for the best. We’ll plan to get her on her feet tomorrow.”

“So soon?” asked Mark.

“It will be for the best to get her up and about. Just a few steps here and there. Mark, you’ll be right beside her, and Aaron and I will be right here with you.”

*****

Late Tuesday afternoon, Lucas returned to North Fork and escorted Robbie and Eloise to the entrance of hotel.

“I expect both of you to behave yourselves and show the Weyrlings that you have proper manners,” Lucas stated.

“You won’t forget us, will you?” Robbie asked, trying to be brave.

“Do we have to go?” Eloise asked.

“We won’t forget you. And yes, the law says you have to go with your aunt and uncle,” replied Lucas.

The Weyrlings met Lucas in the lobby, smiling they greeted Robbie and Eloise.

“Thank you for taking us in, Mr. and Mrs. Weyrling,” Robbie answered.

“No need to be so formal, we’re family, you may call us Uncle Adam, Aunt Regina,” Mrs. Werling stated.

“Yes, ma’am,” replied Robbie.

“My, you’re a very pretty young lady, with a very pretty bonnet,” Mrs. Weyrling stated as she knelt in front of Eloise and began to untie her niece’s bonnet.

Eloise stepped closer to Robbie and held tighter to her doll, but didn’t speak.

“Do you not speak when spoken to?” Mr. Weyrling asked, his tone indicated he was not amused.

“Judge Weyrling, she didn’t speak for over a week when she first came to live with us,” Lucas answered. “Give her time to adjust, this is traumatic for her.”

“Adam, please…” Mrs. Weyrling stated, more accepting of the child’s behavior.

He nodded, “Thank you for bringing them to town. We’re scheduled on the eleven o’clock train tomorrow morning.”

Mrs. Weyrling ushered the children upstairs. Lou rushed into the kitchen to keep anyone else from seeing her tears as she watched events unfold.

“Mr. McCain,” Mr. Weyrling called as Lucas started to leave.

“Judge Weyrling?” Lucas replied.

“I wanted to let you know, there will be no formal charges brought against your son for his part in the death of Quinton Trumble.”

“Formal charges? Why you…” Lucas came close to losing his temper.

“Mr. McCain,” Judge Weyrling interrupted. “I spoke with Marshal Drako, as well as Mr. Griswald. I would be remiss in my job as a judge had I not fully reviewed the facts of the case.”

“You have no jurisdiction in this territory. How much trouble did you hope to stir up?” Lucas asked, as he stepped closer to the judge, the difference in the two men’s height was more apparent.

“None, I just wanted to make sure there was nothing amiss in what happened. I mean, your son killed the children’s parents and you take them in? Anyhow, the reports are accurate enough and enough differences in how the reports were written that I’m relieved that everyone gave their individual account, and weren’t repeating something they were told to say.”

“You would sink so low as to try to stir up trouble, just to ensure you took custody of the children?” Lucas insinuated.

“Mr. McCain, when I returned to town Monday, that was a small part of my wanting to review the case, but after reading the reports and talking with the others involved, I probably asked more questions than I should have, but…”

“But what?” a disgusted Lucas asked.

“After talking with others around town, I wanted to make sure I understood all the facts so that I could talk with Robbie and Eloise when they’re older. I’m sure they will have questions…children always do. I understand there was no malice in the actions your oldest son took.”

“My son bears no malice against anyone. He does his job, by the book!” Lucas boldly stated as he jabbed his index finger into Judge Weyrling’s chest.

“I know sir.” He averted his eyes for a moment. “In talking with people of this town, I realized Quinton had set his actions in motions a long time ago. Your son acted in the only possible way that Quinton left open for him. You know, from what others say, you eldest isn’t exactly the way I envisioned a lawman out here. In fact, what I wouldn’t give to see him in Washington some day; a person of his character is refreshing. I hope you’ll accept my hand as a thank you for taking in the children and providing them a comfortable family life and as an apology for my original intentions,” said Judge Weyrling as he offered his hand.

Lucas stood back, surprised at the turn of words; he accepted the offer and shook hands.

“Regina and I will keep your family and the younger Mrs. McCain in our prayers.”

Judge Weyrling turned and proceeded upstairs to be with his family.

*****

The following morning, Lucas and Milly returned to town with all the McCain children and watched as Judge and Mrs. Weyrling left on the train with Robbie and Eloise. As they tried to comfort the crying children, they didn’t see Ethan Lane step from the train.

Wearing civilian attire, Ethan headed straight to his father’s home, eager of the news he bore.

*****

“They can’t do this! I retired!” Seth yelled to his son as he crumpled the letter in his hand.

“Father, I know you retired. But these orders are direct from Washington. When I learned about the orders, I requested to be the one to give you the news; I thought you’d be happy to know you’re needed.”

“Why am I needed, we’re not a war!” declared Seth.

“Father, its taken time, and the army has calmed the settlers near Fort Wingate over the uprising of the Navajo nation and we’ve helped the Arizona troops quell the trouble with the Hopis, but there are still people on both sides who are bitter. The garrison is crumbling from faulty leadership, we have a temporary command in place, but they’re not ready for this assignment full time. If the right person doesn’t lead the troops, another bloody Indian uprising can, and I fear, will happen. We need someone of strong character and someone the men will respect to take command.”

“Then let them send you!” demanded Seth.

“They already are, I’ll be your Lieutenant Colonel, reporting directly to you, Colonel,” Ethan proudly saluted. “Father, you have no choice. These orders are signed by the President…”

Lilah entered the parlor and offered a greeting only to see Seth storm from his home declaring, “President, be damned!”

“Ethan?” Lilah asked.

“I know father would prefer to inform you,” replied Ethan as he turned and walked after Seth.

*****

The McCains stepped from the train depot and headed towards their buckboard.

“Mama, can we go see Hope?” Myra asked, not wanting to go home an empty bedroom.

Milly answered her daughter, “We’ll need to check with Mark to make sure it isn’t too soon after her accident.”

“Weren’t no accident, those people came on purpose!” Little Ted stubbornly answered.

“Theodore!” Milly demanded as she grabbed her son’s arm.

“I don’t want to be here,” Little Ted hollered and tried to pull away. “I don’t wanna go!”

“Young man,” Lucas sternly voiced. “You will stop this attitude. With the way you’re behaving I don’t think Hope would appreciate you visiting her.”

“Then let me go home!” replied Little Ted.

“No! You know you’re too young to ride home on your own,” ordered Lucas.

“Then let me go to Papaw Micah’s.”

“You will stay with us,” ordered Lucas.

*****

Ethan followed Seth to Sweeney’s, motioning that he’d have what his father was having. Sweeney poured a glass of beer and delivered it to the table where the two men sat.

“They can’t do this to me,” Seth stated as his son sat down.

“Father, they can and they have. Whether you remember or not, any soldier can be recalled, if the circumstances warrant their expertise.”

“They’ve not given me enough time!” Seth declared as he again lost his temper.

“Father, when you retired, you didn’t even take a week to move to North Fork.”

“I wasn’t married back then, and only had two grandchildren. Besides, North Fork still needs a second Marshal. Mark’s not going to be in any condition to stand his watch for a while.”

“What happened to Mark?”

“Not Mark, Hope. She barely survived surgery two days ago, and you show up today…”

“Father, I didn’t know Hope had surgery, what happened?”

“Damn cow kicked her. Mark’s going to need to stay home to help take care of their children until Hope can get on her feet, and that means I’m needed here, standing watch.”

“I’m sure Hope will be on her feet by the end of January, it’s still a month away.”

“What will I tell my grandchildren?”

“Father, what do you want me to tell my children? Like I said, I’m being reassigned too; Annie and the children are coming with me.”

*****

Mark stepped from the room when Sarah had informed him that his family was in the waiting room. He eagerly knelt down to hug his sons and daughter, telling them that their Mama was going to be okay. As he took his youngest daughter from Milly, he noticed is brother sitting in one of the chairs, arms crossed, looking upset.

“The children would like to see Hope and wish her a speedy recovery,” Milly offered as she hugged Mark.

“I’m sorry. She not ready to see anyone, just yet,” answered Mark.

“You mean she doesn’t want to see me,” Little Ted pouted.

“That’s not what I said, Little Ted,” Mark couldn’t keep the tiredness from his voice. But to Little Ted, he sounded upset.

“You mad at me, too.”

“Ted, I’m not mad at you or anybody. Hope’s in a lot of pain, and I’m just tired,” Mark stated as an apology.

“Mark, I’m sorry. We shouldn’t have brought the children…” Milly offered.

“No, I need to see them. Have you had lunch?” asked Mark, his spirits a little brighter. “Doc said she’d be asleep for a while longer, we got her up from bed this morning and had her walk the hallway, it exhausted her.”

“I’m not hungry,” pouted Little Ted.

“Young man!” Lucas’ voice warned.

“What happened?” Mark asked.

“The Weyrlings left with Robbie and Eloise today,” Lucas replied.

“Pa… I forgot all about. I…”

“You’ve a lot on your mind,” stated Milly as she took Faith back into her arms. “Come on, we can at least see that you eat a good meal.”

Mark and his family headed to the hotel restaurant.

*****

That evening, Seth returned to the Marshal’s Office.

“Have you told Hope and Mark?” asked Johnny after Seth informed him of the orders he had received from Washington.

“Haven’t had the heart; Hope’s still recovering from surgery. I don’t know what to do. Hope and the grandchildren are so much a part of my life now…”

“Seth, you have other grandchildren, Ethan and Annie’s.”

“That’s what Ethan stated; he’s being promoted and reassigned to be my second in command.”

“Seth, you’ll be a lot closer to North Fork at Fort Wingate than they were at Fort Stanton.”

“That’s not the point, I retired.”

“Seth, you can take the man from the army, but you can’t take the army from the man; that’s why you made such a great deputy. It’ll be hard to replace you. When do you have to report?”

“No later than the end of January.”

“Has Ethan been to see Hope since he arrived?” Drako asked.

“No, didn’t want to intrude. Guess my attitude didn’t help any.”

“Seth, why don’t you and Ethan spend a little time visiting with Hope. I’m sure by his being here, Mark and Hope will want to know why. You won’t have to figure out a way to tell them.” When Seth didn’t reply, Johnny continued, “You know the longer you put off telling them, the harder it will become.”

“It just doesn’t seem right to burden them now…” Seth debated.

“When will it seem the right time? When you’re boarding the train?”

“That’s not fair!”

“Tell them.”

The Next Generation… Chapter 119 – The Goodbye

Seth returned home to find Lilah at the door, asking what had upset him earlier.

“Ethan didn’t tell you?” replied Seth as he removed his hat and hung it on the rack on the wall next to the door.

“No, he said you’d want to be the one to tell me. Seth, please…what happened? Why is Ethan here?”

Taking his wife by the hand, he escorted her into the parlor of their home and saw her seated on the couch. Taking a deep breath, Seth sat down beside her.

“I’ve been reactivated.”

“Reactivated…”

“I’ve been reactivated and promoted to the rank of Colonel.”

“But why? You retired.”

“So I thought. Lilah, I’m being reassigned to Fort Wingate…”

“Fort Wingate… Last I heard that place was… It…” the reputation of the fort disgusted Lilah.

“I know. The army has positioned a temporary command at the garrison, until I arrive. It will be my job to return honor and conduct at the post. Ethan thinks there’s a possibility the government will be relocating several Indian tribes in the future; and the settlers…” shaking his head, “It’s just a mess.” Seth heaved a heavy sigh.

“And they expect you to handle this…all by yourself?” an appalled Lilah asked. “Those soldiers there…”

“No, Ethan is being promoted to Lt. Colonel and reassigned as my second-in-command.”

“And?”

“I hope you’ll come with me…” knowing that his reassignment would put Lilah in a difficult position.

“Come with you?” Lilah hesitated, curious to why Seth would even ask. “I’m your wife. Why wouldn’t I…” Lilah’s eyes lit with understanding. “What of Annie and their children.”

“They’ll be relocating as well.”

“But, you’ve not told Hope or Mark,” Lilah inferred.

Seth cast his eyes to the floor and shook his head.

“Oh Seth…” Lilah wrapped her arms around her husband, torn she was soon to be separated from one set of grandchildren, yet reunited with another set.

Seth heard someone clearing their throat and looked up to see Ethan standing in the archway of the parlor, hat in hand, “Guess we should go see your sister and inform her…” Seth stated.

Ethan nodded.

*****

Father and son entered the clinic and held the door open for Sarah to carry out a tray bearing empty dishes.

“Deputy, Major…” Sarah acknowledged.

“Miss,” Ethan replied, removing his hat.

From within the room Mark called, “Major?”

Hope opened her eyes and tried to sit up as the members of her family entered.

“No you don’t,” Mark stated as he helped her sit up and propped the pillows behind her.

“Ethan, don’t tell me you came all this way just because a cow kicked me?” Hope weakly spoke, her eyes lit upon seeing her brother, but those present heard the weariness and pain in her voice.

“Sorry sis, but I didn’t know anything about your accident until after I stepped off the train.”

Ethan walked up next to the bed, leaned over, and placed a kiss on his sister’s cheek.

“What brought you from Fort Stanton?” inquired Mark.

“I brought news to Father…”

“News?” asked Hope, looking between the two.

Ethan picked up two chairs from next to the desk and setting them beside the bed, offering one to his father, they took their seats.

“I’ve been reactivated,” Seth stated, trying not to hold his breath, he couldn’t help it as he avoided looking into the face of his daughter.

“Reactivated?” Hope repeated.

“The United States Army has reactivated my commission,” replied Seth.

“Why would they do that? There hasn’t been any trouble around these parts that requires the Cavalry,” commented Mark.

“Not here, Fort Wingate; I’m being relocated. Hope I know this couldn’t have come at a worse time. North Fork’s going to be down one deputy… and Mark…”

“Seth, Johnny and I can get along for a while. I can wire Denver or who knows, maybe Uncle Johnny will step up to want to wear the badge,” jested Mark.

“Worse, is the predicament it’s going to put you two in…”

“Us?” asked Hope.

“It’s going to be a while before you’re fully back on your feet and neither Lilah nor I will be here to help you with the children.”

“How soon do you have to leave, Father?” asked Hope, fearing it would be too soon.

“Father and I have until the end of January to relocate,” commented Ethan.

“You? You’re being reassigned, too?” Hope queried.

“Yes, I’ll be Father’s second-in-command,” Ethan answered.

“Ethan I’m so happy for you…that means you’re being promoted!” Hope squealed as she reached out to give her brother a hug and regretted it as she gave a small cry at the pain and reached for her abdomen.

Ethan stood and sat down on the edge of the bed and hugged his sister, accepting her congratulations and offering her comfort.

“There you go, trying to draw attention back to yourself,” teased Ethan. “Just breathe easy and I’m sure the pain will pass.”

“Do you want me to fetch Doc?” asked Seth.

Hope shook her head and loosened her arms from around her stomach, “Guess I shouldn’t have moved so fast. What of Lilah?” she asked as she looked to Seth, “and Annie and the children?” as she looked to her brother.

“We’re all relocating…” Seth replied with disappointment in his voice.

“Father, I’m happy for you. The Army was always your life, yours and Ethan’s.”

“But I retired to be here…”

Feeling an awkward silence settle over the group Mark inquired, “I take it you’ve already told Johnny?”

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you first. I should have because you’re family. I had hoped that Johnny might come up with a reason why…”

“We understand, besides we were a little indisposed earlier today,” Mark replied trying to lessen Seth’s apparent guilt.

The door to the room opened after a brief knock.

“How’s our patient?” Aaron asked as he entered. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know you had company.”

“Aaron, I’d like you to meet Hope’s brother, Major Ethan Lane or is that Lieutenant Colonel Ethan Lane?” Mark introduced.

“Major for now,” answered Ethan.

“Ethan, this is Doc Aaron Jamison, he and Doc Burrage saved Hope’s life,” Mark introduced.

The two men shook hands and exchanged greetings.

“Well, since you’re family, maybe you can be of some help,” commented Aaron.

“Help?” asked Seth.

“We need to get Hope up again and have her walk around for a little while. I’m sure the two of you could help cheer her on.”

“I don’t need any spectators,” Hope answered with a little bit of pain in her voice.

“Afraid you’re going to fall and skin your knees again? I remember when you first learned to walk,” dared Ethan.

Mark stood up, swept the covers from Hope’s legs, and helped turn her to sit on the bed. With Seth on one side and Mark on the other for support, Hope stood.

“Come on sis, bet you can’t take ten steps without falling down,” teased Ethan.

Carefully, Hope concentrated as she placed one foot in front of the other to walk across the floor.

“My, my… my little sister can walk. Wonder just how far you can walk?” Ethan taunted.

Under her own power, but with Mark and Seth close, Hope walked out the door and to the end of the hallway.

“Do you want to sit for a little while?” asked a concerned Seth.

“No, my big brother doesn’t think I can do this,” Hope boldly replied.

Placing one hand to Mark’s hand and the other to Seth’s, in order to steady herself, Hope turned around and walked back to the room and to her bed.

Mark sensed Hope’s knees were about to buckle when he picked her up in his arms and in two steps had her back in the bed.

“Well, maybe I should have your brother stay here to oversee your recovery,” smiled Aaron.

“You men are incorrigible!” Sarah stated as she entered the room behind the others. She walked to the bed, handed Hope a glass of water, and handed her two pills. “These will help lessen some of the pain.”

Turning to the men standing behind her, Sarah placed the knuckles of her fisted hands on her hips.

“Now out of here, all of you, so I can tend to Hope and change her bandage,” Sarah ordered.

“But I’m the doctor,” Aaron replied with a teasing voice.

“Doctor, right now you are no better than the lot of these three. And they’re her family. Shame on all of you!” scolded Sarah.

Sarah motioned all four men to leave the room, but Aaron hesitated, “You know she needed to get up and walk today.”

“Yes, but not that much!”

Casting his eyes to the floor, Aaron allowed himself to be escorted to the door, but before leaving, he snuck a kiss to Sarah’s cheek, and commented, “I promise I’ll be more considerate in the future.”

“As you should,” Sarah replied as her cheeks reddened. Upon closing the door, she turned and watched as Hope sank deeper into the bed.

“The lot of them are enough to try a healthy person, let alone someone recovering from surgery.” Sarah crossed the floor and began to examine Hope’s wound. “I really do need to change the bandage.”

Sarah pulled out a pair of scissors from the drawer in the table next to the bed and cut away the gauze wrapping, steadily pulling it from under Hope.

“Your incision looks so much better this evening. In time, you’ll barely be able to see the scar.”

Sarah helped Hope sit up so she could place a fresh gauze pad and rewrap the bandage around Hope’s middle. A few minutes later, she helped an exhausted Hope lie back down, and pulled the covers over her.

“You sleep. I’m sending Mark home to be with your children for the night. That way you can get some real sleep.”

“Sarah,” Hope tiredly called.

“Yes?” she asked as she turned to look at Hope.

“Thank you.”

“It’s all part of my job; nurses have to have more common sense than the doctors.”

Sarah turned the wick of the lantern down low and smiled to herself as she walked from the room.

*****

Later that evening, Mark slowly rode for home and was eagerly greeted by his children in the living room of his parents’ home. After giving Lucas and Milly an update on Hope’s recovery, he lifted Faith to his hip and motioned the others out the door, across the yard, and into their own home. After seeing his children to bed, Mark crawled into his own bed, but sleep wouldn’t come. It felt strange to sleep in their bed without Hope lying next to him. He turned on his side, pulled her pillow to his chest, and cried.

*****

Lucas and Milly oversaw their three children to bed and returned to the front room to talk. Lucas sat in his chair and reached for his bible. Milly sat in her chair, near the fireplace and began sewing the hem for Myra’s dress.

“Lucas, Mark looks so exhausted. Isn’t there something more we can do to help?” asked Milly.

“We can’t force our help upon him. I’m afraid he learned about being proud and stubborn from me.”

“But there’s nothing wrong with accepting help from family.”

“We just need to give him time to realize he needs our help. Right now, he’s still dealing with Hope’s pain.”

“Lucas, there was something else, something else Mark didn’t tell us tonight,” commented Milly as she set her sewing to her lap.

“What makes you say that?” asked Lucas.

“A woman’s intuition.”

“What does your woman’s intuition tell you about Little Ted?” Lucas stated, changing the subject. “I don’t know what to do with him. He’s never been so disrespectful.”

“Lucas, can you blame him for being so upset? Having the Weyrlings show up like they did…it blind-sided all of us.”

“I want to tan his hide,” Lucas ruefully stated, looking to the bedroom door.

“You know that wouldn’t solve his problems. He just needs to understand there are consequences for his actions. It’s not just how he reacted when he found out about Robbie and Eloise’s aunt and uncle, or his attitude… He just needs to see how others handle adversity.”

“You can sit there and accept his attitude?” Lucas asked, unbelievingly.

“No, I can sit here and understand he is hurting. We have to be patient and let him know we still love him. When he’s ready to listen, only then will he understand how his attitude affected others; if we were to punish him now, he’ll remain bitter about it. We just have to show him we love him.”

“It will be a difficult lesson for him to learn about the consequences for his actions…”

Milly looked over her shoulder when she heard one of the bedroom doors open.

“Aren’t you supposed to be in bed?” asked Milly.

“I couldn’t sleep,” answered Little Ted.

“Do you want to talk about it?” asked Lucas.

“About me not sleeping?” replied Little Ted.

“Do you want to talk about what it is that’s keeping you from sleeping,” answered Lucas.

“Pa, Mama said you still love me. Do you? Do you really still love me?”

Lucas nodded and motioned for Little Ted to come to him, he lifted his son to his lap.

“Little Ted, a father never stops loving their child…”

“But Robbie’s Pa did, otherwise, he wouldn’t have beat them.”

Lucas could finally understand the conflict plaguing his son.

“If they stayed here, they wouldn’t be beat no more,” Little Ted stated.

“Ted, I’m sure the Weyrlings are good people. They wouldn’t have come all this way if they weren’t,” replied Lucas.

Looking to Milly, Little Ted asked, “Do you think Mark didn’t stay any longer because of me?”

“Why would you ask that?” answered Milly.

“I’m the reason Hope got hurt, my additute,” replied Little Ted.

“Ted, you’re not the reason Hope was hurt, but you are right, your attitude didn’t make it any easier on the rest of us,” Lucas answered.

“Do you think they still love me?”

“I think that’s a question best answered by Mark, why don’t you ask Mark that question, tomorrow. Now, I think you need to get back to bed.”

Lucas set his son to his feet and pointed him in the direction of his bedroom.

“Pa, I’m really sorry…” Little Ted hesitated in saying.

“I know you are”

“And you do love me?”

“Yes, I love you,” replied Lucas.

“And I love you too,” Milly stated as she stood and walked to her son, kissed him on top of the head, and gave him a pat on the behind, to get him moving back to bed.

Waiting until she heard the door close, Milly gave a brief giggle, “Do you think he understands?”

“Guess your women’s intuition was right,” Lucas stated as he shook his head.

*****

Mark returned his children to his parents’ home shortly after daybreak.

Lucas followed Mark to the porch and with concern asked, “Is there something else, son?”

“Seems the world is crashing down around us, Robbie and Eloise, Little Ted, Hope…”

“And?”

“Pa, did you know Ethan was in town?”

Lucas shook his head.

“He came in on the train Wednesday, he brought news that Seth’s been reactivated. He received orders to relocate to Fort Wingate. Pa, its like everything is being ripped away. I don’t know which way is up anymore… I want to spend time with Little Ted, to make sure he knows I still love him, and I need to spend time with my own children, but Hope’s…” Mark shook his head, feeling defeated as he leaned again the post.

“Mark, you’re human. Let Milly and I help you. If you want to, stay in town, I don’t need you getting sick again; running back and forth and trying to do everything for everybody. Take care of yourself and Hope. Milly and I can watch the children. As for the ranch, Jake’s here, like he always is.”

“What about Little Ted? I haven’t had a chance to really talk with him…”

“Well,” mused Lucas. “I think he understands how wrong he was…”

“Pa, I just want to crawl back in bed and forget this whole past week…”

“We’re all feeling the same way. Mark, just remember, I’m here, when you want to talk…” Lucas stated as he took his eldest by the shoulders and turned him so he could look him in the eye.

“Pa…” Mark’s words faltered.

“Mark, why don’t you head on into town, I’m sure you’ll start feeling better once you see Hope. Don’t worry about having to come home this evening.”

*****

Mark was finishing bridling Rainmaker when he heard the front door to the barn open and a voice call, “Mark?”

“Ted?” queried Mark as he looked over his shoulder.

“Can we talk?”

“Can this wait until later? I want to get to town to see Hope,” answered a tired Mark.

“She is going to be okay, isn’t she?”

“From what Doc Burrage and Doc Jamison say, yes, but she’ll need to say at the clinic for a while longer.”

“Mark…Can I go with you?” Little Ted asked, averting his eyes and shifting on his feet.

Mark curiously looked at his brother for a few moments, remembering his brother’s attitude the last he came to town, but also remembering his Pa’s words a few minutes before…

“Please Mark, I gotta go with ya,” declared Little Ted.

“Okay, let me tell Ma and Pa you’re going into town with me.”

*****

Mark quietly rode, his mind focusing on Hope and the news Seth had given them.

“Do you think I can see Hope today?” Little Ted asked for a second time before Mark heard him.

“That’ll be up to Doc.”

“Mark,” Little Ted stated, halting Cappy.

Mark halted Rainmaker and turned him around to face his brother.

“I’m really sorry. It was all my fault.”

“What was your fault?” asked Mark.

“Hope got hurt because you and Pa had to come after me. Mark, I didn’t mean for the cow to hurt her…”

“Whoa right there. You had nothing to do with the cow.”

“But I got mad at you and ran away…”

“You couldn’t have known what was going to happen.”

“But if I hadn’t gotten mad at you, if I’d a listened to Pa… You tried to tell me that the law couldn’t stop them from taking Robbie and Eloise.”

“We all know you were hurting. I know how difficult it can be growing up, trying to understand things that even us adults have a hard time understanding.”

“Can we still be brothers? I don’t hate you. I didn’t really mean it when I said it. I really want you as my big brother,” Little Ted couldn’t prevent the tears from streaming down his face as he honestly spoke those words.

Kneeing Rainmaker closer, Mark set his hand to his brother’s shoulder, “You never, weren’t my brother.”

“I’d like to tell Hope I’m sorry….”

“That won’t be necessary. But you can wish her to get well real quick,” grinned Mark.

“I can do that. And while we’re in town, I can give Rainmaker a good grooming and clean your stuff, and help out at the Marshal’s Office with the cleaning.”

“You, offering to do chores? Did Ma or Pa put you up to this?” asked Mark as he raised his eyebrows.

“Not really, I heard them talking ‘bout consa… consa…”

“Consequences?”

“That’s it. And because of you having to spend so much time with Hope, I overheard Mama and Pa talking…”

“Tell you what. Let’s get to town and visit with Hope. Afterwards, we’ll see if Marshal Johnny needs any hired help for the day.”

“Hired help? You mean I’d get paid?” Little Ted’s eyes lit at the thought.

“Yes, but this is between the two of us.”

“Yes sir,” answered Little Ted as he heeled his horse on.

*****

After spending some time with Hope and being kicked out of the clinic so that Sarah could help her bathe for the morning, Mark escorted Little Ted to the Marshal’s Office.

“Johnny,” Mark called as he entered the office and pointed his brother where to stand.

“Morning, Mark. How’s Hope?”

“Getting stronger each day, maybe Doc will discharge her this weekend.” Mark walked around the office, running his finger over the bars to the cells and across the table on the far side of the room. “Seems that we need to do a little housekeeping in here.”

“Sorry about that, but with everything that’s been going on, keeping things tidy was relegated to the bottom of the list,” replied Drako as he stood and walked to the potbellied stove to pour himself a cup of coffee.

“Well, what would you think about hiring someone for the day?” asked Mark.

Looking at the younger McCain standing in the middle of the room with his hat in hand, Johnny asked, “You have anyone in particular in mind?”

“Marshal Johnny? I promise to do my best and make this office look rebestacle.”

Johnny tried hard to keep from laughing at the boy’s pronunciation, “I think the word is respectable.”

“That’s what I said, rebestacle.”

“Okay, how about twenty-five cents for the day?”

“Really?! You mean it?!”

Without waiting for Drako to answer, Little Ted looked around the office and saw the closet, he ran over and opened the door, finding the brooms, and a mop and bucket, and all kinds of rags. Industriously, he set to work, determined to make his brother and the Marshal proud of the job he did.

“Johnny, I need to wire Denver.”

“Someone to help out once Seth leaves?”

Mark nodded.

“Go on Boy, do what you have to do. Just make sure they understand the deputy they send will have dual responsibilities, to you and to me.”

*****

Little Ted pulled the linens from the bunks in the cell and ran them over to the laundry, telling the laundryman, “No starch! These are for the jail.”

Pulling a chair over from the table, he climbed on it to wash down the bars in the cells. He set to dusting off the desks and table, as well as the racks holding the rifles. Next, he stood on the chair to wash the inside of the windows. From the water trough down the street, John Hamilton operated the pump to help Little Ted refill the bucket in order to mop the floor. As he finished, he carried the bucket with the dirty water out the back door and threw it out on the ground. The last chore Little Ted attempted to do was take a broom and reach for the cobwebs hanging in the corners at the ceiling.

The long broom proved unwieldy and Johnny caught it just before it fell on his desk.

“Sorry Marshal Johnny,” Little Ted embarrassedly spoke.

“Apology accepted. Tell you what, why don’t we leave this job for your brother?”

“But you paid me to do the job…”

“And a fine job you’ve done.”

Johnny helped Little Ted put away all the cleaning supplies before reaching in his pocket and pulling out a quarter, handing it to the younger McCain.

“For real?” Little Ted asked, wide-eyed.

“For real.”

Little Ted extended his other hand and offered a handshake to the Marshal.

*****

Mark and Little Ted rode for home later that afternoon. Mark looked to his brother, seeing him stifle a yawn, “Tired?”

“A little, never new women’s work was so hard,” Little Ted answered.

“Women’s work? At the jail? You don’t see any women working there do you?”

“Guess not.” Little Ted yawned again. “Mark, are you doing… women’s work… at home?”

“Not tonight.”

“Do you need help when you do?” Little Ted’s head started to bob as he spoke, “I can help… around the house… like Mr. Jake helps you and Pa.”

“I think supper and to bed are in your near future.”

Mark reached over and lifted Little Ted, and set his sleeping brother in front of him in the saddle. Even without a rider, Cappy stayed next to Rainmaker as they continued home.

*****

An anxious Milly stood on the porch as she saw Mark returning down the lane, with a riderless Cappy next to him.

“Mark?” Milly called.

“He’s just a sleep,” answered Mark as he handed his brother down.

“Mark?” asked Lucas as he stepped from the barn.

“I’ll explain while we put away the horses.”

Mark followed Lucas into the barn and told his Pa of the conversation during their ride into town. He explained how apologetic Little Ted had been and how sincere he was as he was visiting Hope. Mark told of Little Ted cleaning the Marshal’s Office, and offering to help him with housework, until Hope got better.

“You don’t know how close I came to tanning his backside,” Lucas grinned. “I think he overheard Milly and I talking last night.”

“I kind of figured that out. But Pa, you never took me for any woodshed yelping, I can’t see you changing.”

“No, but he sorely tried my patience.”

Luca and Mark laughed as they left the barn.

*****

Upon returning to town Friday morning, Martin handed Mark a wire.

Marshal Mark McCain
North Fork, New Mexico Territory

Sorry to hear about Seth. /stop
Requesting volunteer. /stop
Understand requirements. /stop

Marshal Cole Barker
Denver, Colorado

*****

The weekend finally arrived with Hope being discharged from the clinic to return home.

Mark drove the buckboard to the porch of their home; Hope started giggling as she saw the small figure wearing an apron opening the door.

“Welcome Home Hope!” Little Ted called, but turned around upon hearing Milly call Faith’s name, he prevented her from toddling out the door.

Mark carried Hope into their home and set her in his overstuffed chair. He allowed his little brother to guide his youngest daughter to her mother. Mark lifted her and set her in Hope’s lap.

“Ted what are you doing wearing my apron?”

“I’m doing con-se-quens-es,” answered Little Ted.

Hope raised her eyebrows to see Mark mouth, “Later.”

Milly walked over and gave Hope a hug, telling her, “Supper is on the stove, and should be ready in about five minutes.”

“I’ll fetch you a bowl of stew,” stated Little Ted.

“Ted, I think you’ve done enough work today. Why don’t you go with Ma and have supper at home tonight,” suggested Mark.

“You want me to return tomorrow?”

“I think you deserve a day of rest, after all tomorrow is Sunday, AND you return to school on Monday.”

“Oh… I forgot about that…” Turning to Hope, Little Ted stated, “If you need anything, you call for me?”

Hope nodded.

*****

Mark closed the door behind Milly and Little Ted and was halfway across the floor to the kitchen when the door opened, “Sorry,” Little Ted called as he pulled the apron over his head and handed it to Hope. He ran from the house, pulling the door closed.

“What was that all about?” asked Hope.

“His offering penance for how he behaved earlier in the week. AND it was all his idea, least Ma and Pa won’t admit to saying they told him he had to help.”

*****

Over a week had passed since Mark has sent his wire when the people in town were caught unawares hearing someone yell out, “Hey Gramps!” and turned to see a slender man of colored-skin, wearing buckskin clothing, jogging down the street, towards Micah.

“Reese? Reese Randall?!” Micah answered as he held out both hands.

Holding out his hands, he took Micah’s hand in his and vigorously pumped it up and down.

“I couldn’t believe my ears when Barker asked for a volunteer.” Turning around he pushed his hat back on his head, “Uh, uh, uh. Can’t believe it. What I wouldn’t give to see my Pop’s face when he reads my letter telling him I was being reassigned to none other than North Fork.” He finished speaking he held his arms out to his side and inhaled deeply.

“So you’re gonna be our deputy?” Micah asked, slapping Reese upon the back and maneuvering him back to where he abandoned his horse. “Let’s get your horse to the livery. Say, we weren’t expecting you until next week sometime.”

“Thought I’d come and get myself acquainted before I had to start working.”

*****

The weekend before Seth and Lilah were to leave, Mark drove his family to town to help them pack their household goods and furniture. Though Mark would have preferred to leave the children at the daycare while they were working, Lilah insisted on the children being at the house. She also kept an eye on Hope, not letting her exert herself, but still letting her help.

*****

Too soon, it was time for Seth and Lilah to leave to ensure they would arrive in time for him to report as ordered to Fort Wingate; Seth, Lilah, and all the McCains stood on the platform at the train depot.

“Hope, I remember the first time I left you here…in the hands of North Fork.” Seth paused as he looked towards the town, before returning his gaze to Lucas and Mark. “Back then, we hadn’t been reunited that long, and having a daughter again…was new…and leaving didn’t hurt so much. But each time I visited and had to say goodbye, it became harder and harder, that’s why I retired and moved here. I didn’t want to have to say goodbye again. This time… Hope, it’s tearing me up inside. I wish I didn’t have to go. You, your children…”

“Father, you have to go. Even without your orders, I realize that I’ve been selfish.”

“Selfish?”

“Father, Seth Edward and Marissa have a right to have their Grandparents in their lives, and not just an occasional visit. As long as you’ll promise to visit, either announced or unannounced…”

Not being able to continue to say what she wanted, Hope wrapped her arms around her father, and hugged him. Mark placed a hand to his wife’s back, offering comfort as he watched, understanding how difficult this was for his wife and their children. He tried to think how he would feel, ‘I can’t imagine having to say goodbye to Pa like this.’

*****

Holding their youngest daughter on his hip, and his other arm around his wife, Mark watched the train pull away. He felt a strong hand placed to his shoulder, giving him a reassuring squeeze. Mark looked over his shoulder to see his Pa standing behind him, other arm around Milly.

The Next Generation… Chapter 120 – The Assignment

The McCains made their way to the Mallory House and entered the lobby to be greeted by Reese Randall, “Well, if isn’t all my buckaroos!” Not seeing a smile on the faces of the younger McCains he asked, “Why so glum?”

“Our other grandparents left us,” Josh answered.

“The President said they had to leave us…” answered Zach.

“Now, they didn’t leave you… Look at it this way… they’re going on a grand adventure. You should be happy, my my my, none other than the President of the United States requested none other than your Grandpa. Don’t you know how many other grandpas are out there who didn’t get chosen…”

The manner in which Reese spoke drew the young children to him.

“You know where they’re going?” asked Eli.

“Why sure I do. Won’t be but a day or so ride away by train. It’s not like the President ordered your Grandpa back to the Capital…”

Curiously, Josh asked, “The Capital?”

“Washington,” answered Myra.

“Oh, that’s a lot farther away…”replied Zach.

“Still, Grandpa won’t be at the Marshal’s Office,” stated Josh.

“And Grandma can’t bake us cookies…” Zach offered.

“No, but your PaPaw Micah will be there, and I’m sure your Mama and Grandma Milly will be baking you cookies…”

“Yeah!”

Their faces weren’t ecstatic, but the boys did enter the restaurant with a smile.

*****

Four days after Seth and Lilah’s departure, Martin, the assistant telegrapher ran into Marshal’s Office declaring outlaws had just robbed the ticket counter at train depot. Johnny Drako ordered Martin to send someone after Mark and tell him to watch the town, declaring he and Reese would secure a small posse to trail after the outlaws.

*****

Two hours out of town, the posse arrived at a fork in the road, and halted as Reese examined the horse lying on the side of the road, “His leg’s busted.” Without any hesitation, he pulled out his handgun and fired point-blank, putting the animal out of its misery.

Before he could climb back into his own saddle, another shot rang out and ricocheted against a nearby boulder.

The posse fervently ran for cover and returned fire. Ten minutes into the gunfight, Drako timed his shot, afterwards he hollered out, “Hold your fire!” upon hearing a man’s scream, and saw the man fall down the face of the outcropping.

Slowly, the posse approached the prone figure lying sprawled on the ground. With the toe of his boot, Drako turned the man over.

“Anybody recognize him?” Reese asked, returning his gun to its holster.

“Dohrn,” Johnny replied.

“Dohrn?” murmured through the posse.

“Tecumseh Dohrn, didn’t know he and his band of outlaws were operating in this part of the territory,” stated Johnny.

Looking back to the posse, Johnny called out to Nils, “Help me sling him over your saddle. You and John can back track to North Fork and take him to the Undertaker’s. Reese and I’ll continue on.”

“Just the two of you?” John Hamilton asked as Nils tied the dead outlaw to his saddle.

“It would be better that way; two can sneak in quieter than four. Tell Lou I’ll wire when I can.”

“But this is Dohrn’s gang!” Nils declared, his plea ignored, as Johnny and Reese rode away.

*****

Several days later, the people of North Fork stood and stared as a single rider rode into town, each wondering, ‘Was this the man?’

The rider, dressed in black, rode through the middle of Main Street, before stopping in front of Sweeney’s; where he dismounted his horse and tied him to the hitching rail. The stranger stepped to the boardwalk, paused, and looked up and down the street, before he sauntered into the saloon.

*****

“Marshal, he’s here!” young Corey Hannebury yelled out as he ran into the Marshal’s Office.

“Who’s here?” asked Mark as he finished spooning sugar into the cup of coffee he’d poured for himself.

“Tecumseh Dohrn’s brother.”

“Are you sure?” asked Mark.

“Cain’t be nobody else.”

“Is he causing any trouble?”

“No, but just him being here. I know he’s gunning for the Marshal.”

“Corey, you don’t know that.”

“But Marshal…”

“Go back home, Cory,” stated Mark with a stern voice.

Mark watched as Corey left the office, complaining that no one took him seriously. Nevertheless, Mark did take him seriously, he knew of Hallelujah Dohrn’s reputation; how he was fast with a gun and how he always managed to escape from the custody of too many lawmen, including the U.S. Marshal Service. Mark decided he wouldn’t go courting trouble, if Dohrn was there seeking vengeance on his brother, ‘let him come to me’.

*****

Later that afternoon, Mark left the Marshal’s Office to walk the town, double clutching his rifle in his right hand as he asked God to look out for North Fork. With nothing out of the ordinary found, Mark decided to eat his supper at the café, across the street from the office.

Hearing “MARSHAL!” caused Mark to stop and slowly turn around, “Can I help you?” he asked of the man pushing the swinging doors open from Sweeney’s.

“Help me? You want to help me? If you wanted to help me you wouldn’t have killed my brother,” the man yelled.

“Killed your brother, just who was your brother?” asked Mark, stalling.

“My brother was Tecumseh Dohrn!”

“And you are?”

“Hallelujah Dohrn,” the man answered. He stood squared and determined.

“Then you should know your brother was killed after firing upon the posse that was after him for committing a robbery,” Mark replied, as he raised the barrel of his rifle and clasped it with his left hand.

“That’s what he does,” sneered the man.

“And just to set the record straight, I didn’t kill him.”

“You’re the marshal; I heard tell it was the marshal who pulled the trigger.”

“Then you’ve not paid attention to my badge, I’m a U.S. Marshal, this town’s marshal is out tracking the other three who rode with your brother.”

“A chicken wearing a badge… You shoot a man in the back, but when it comes to facing a man, you turn coward by blaming someone else?”

“Your brother wasn’t shot in the back. You can ask the undertaker yourself.”

“Coward!!” yelled the Hallelujah.

“I’m standing here in front of you aren’t I? I wouldn’t call that being coward,” replied Mark, watching the man’s right hand as he held it calmly over the butt of his still holstered handgun, his left hand held his coat tail behind his back. “Besides, ask anyone in this town how many marshals she boasts.”

All along the boardwalk, the people of North Fork ran from the street, seeking shelter inside the buildings, out of harm’s way from any stray bullet, yet… they couldn’t stop watching the events unfold, by watching out the windows, or peeking from around the doorframes.

“Then why ain’t you out after them too?” Hallelujah asked.

“I wasn’t in town when the robbery occurred. The posse was already gone when I was requested back to town.”

Mark watched the man as he continued to stand in the street.

Dohrn moved his hand, Mark reacted by yelling, “Don’t do it!” and somersaulted sideways. As he came to a kneeling position he shouldered his rifle, but he didn’t fire; Mark saw something in Dohrn’s face, that, and he had barely cleared his gun out of his holster. Allowing his gun to slip back into its holster, Dohrn raised his arms.

After Mark stood and walked over to the outlaw, he took the man’s gun, Dohrn asked. “Why didn’t you come looking for me when I got here?”

“No sense courting trouble,” replied Mark.

“You didn’t fire when I called you out.”

“I didn’t take it as you calling me out.”

“But you knew who I was…even before I told you. No doubt you know my reputation.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard of you,” Mark replied, his rifle still aimed at Dohrn, confused at how he could have gotten such an easy drop on the outlaw.

“We need to talk…” Dohrn quietly spoke; he turned and walked to the Marshal’s Office.

*****

The citizens of North Fork talked amongst themselves as to what they witnessed; one of their own bested a gunfighter with a fast reputation. North Fork had bragging rights that two of her own bested Buffalo Bill and matched Annie Oakley shot for shot, in a shooting match, but that was for show. This was life or death bragging rights for the citizens of North Fork. News spread like wildfire through the town and to the outlying ranches; and for those who hadn’t seen it for themselves they shook their heads in disbelief upon hearing the news. Later that night, Sweeney’s would be full of activity as the encounter was retold and embellished.

*****

Upon shutting the office door, Mark heard Dohrn ask, “How’d your marshal get the drop on my brother?”

“He didn’t. Your brother’s gun misfired…” Mark honestly answered, but still, he grew wary that Dohrn was attempting to distract him.

“Misfired?”

“The gun’s over at our gunsmith’s shop. He’s trying to figure out what happened. Believe me, had your brother’s gun not ‘exploded’ our marshal or any member of the posse would have been seriously wounded, if not dead.”

Still trying to figure out the man’s motive, Mark asked, “Just what happened out in the street? I know your reputation; I’m good, but not that good…” Mark motioned the outlaw to the cell.

“Let me start by saying I’m pleased to finally get to meet The Lawman,” stated Dohrn as he complied with Mark and walked to the cell. “Maybe this will clear up some of your confusion.”

“Please to meet me?” an even more confused Mark asked.

Dohrn set his foot to the bunk and raised his pant leg. Mark elevated his rifle, fearing the man was pulling a hidden weapon. Dohrn retrieved an object from his boot, and with his hand out flat, he handed it to Mark.

“Special Agent, Secret Service?” incredulously asked Mark as he returned the badge to Dohrn.

“Yeah, my cover gets help here and there by having Tecumseh as my brother.”

“Having an outlaw for a brother… helps you…as a lawman? Seems to me it would make people more suspicious of you. I don’t get it…” a confused Mark spoke. “Out on the street…”

“You might call it a test… to see if I could trust you.”

“A test…to trust me?” Mark retorted angrily. “I don’t appreciate strangers coming into my town, calling me out, and…and…”

Dohrn didn’t let Mark finish his statement, “Tom Benton informed me you were a different kind of lawman. I’ve run into too many bad lawmen in my day. But dang, if I didn’t figure you out wrong,” stated Dohrn.

“Why the charade? Why not come to me right away?” asked Mark. “Especially if Benton…”

“Well, I’ve created a ‘reputation’ and most folks would expect me to come after the lawman that killed my brother; so I kind of had to play my part.”

“Play your part! I could have killed you!”

“It was a chance I had to take, to trust what Benton had to say about you.”

“Just what did Tom have to say about me?” asked Mark.

“That you’d prefer to see me in a cell than in a pine box; you don’t take for granted the opportunity to kill a man just because you wear a badge.”

“Tom had a lot to do with my training… But I still don’t understand, why?”

“McCain, I’m on a case and it’s a case that too many Secret Service men have struggled to crack.”

In an attempt to let go of his frustration at the turn of events, Mark set his rifle on his desk and walked over to pour himself a cup of coffee.

“Listen, I’m sorry about your brother, he was buried two days ago in our cemetery on the edge of town.”

“I knew he’d meet a rotten end, but still… I’ll see to it that your undertaker is paid for his services.” After accepting a cup of coffee Mark handed him, Dohrn continued, “I can understand you getting the drop on me, but it doesn’t explain your marshal getting the drop on my brother.”

“From what I was told when they brought his body to town, his gun either jammed or misfired…” replied Mark.

“He trusted his gun like no other, I can’t see his gun jamming or misfiring…”

“Angus, our gunsmith, is examining it. They found it next to his body after he died. He did manage to get off a couple of shots at the posse. Nils, our blacksmith, stated there was plenty of time for him to get off more shots and there were still three bullets in the chamber and plenty in his holster.”

“I’ve heard rumblings of bad ammunition. Similar to what happened with the Navajo’s, crooks sold them rifles with bad ammunition…” mused Dohrn.

“But the Navajos aren’t near hear, they’re in Arizona territory.” Scratching his head Mark stated, “I still don’t understand what brings an agent of the Secret Service to North Fork… I mean… if you’ve talked with Benton, why didn’t he alert me?”

“Marshal, I have a reputation to keep up, but now that Tecumseh is dead… Listen, in the past, whenever my brother and his gang pull a robbery, they don’t get away with all the money…at least that’s the way it first appears.”

“You said at first. They come back after the law’s been drawn away from town and hit the bank?” Mark inquired, an uneasy feeling settling in the pit of his stomach.

“Nah, just that upon closer examination of the remaining money, the outlaws did get away with everything, the money that was left behind was…”

“Counterfeit.”

“You got it,” Dohrn stated.

“It still doesn’t make sense, your allowing people to think you’re an outlaw…”

“I guess it wouldn’t but… years ago, my brother and his gang pulled a robbery in our own home town. I saw my folks and their friends struggle in the aftermath. I swore I’d get my brother and make him pay. The only agency that would accept me was the Secret Service. It took a while for me to earn the trust of my superiors and… well… when my first case started going south and… We just kinda decided to let my reputation play out. It worked, I got the outlaws and the reputation… and others get the credit.”

“And every time you’ve escaped…”

“It’s been without any bloodshed and with the full cooperation of the law.”

“And just how do I cooperate?”

“I need to resolve this counterfeit case; I’m the closest any one has ever gotten. If I don’t crack it, our whole fiduciary system will be in peril, if people won’t trust the banks.”

“I’ve read in the papers about account holders demanding their money back from banks, back East,” responded Mark.

“Yeah, and the banks can’t do that. The money they keep on account, they pay the depositor interest in order to allow them to use that money to make loans for mortgages and stuff, but not all of the money that is deposited is actually kept in that particular bank. I’ve seen a couple of runs on banks in small towns… It ain’t pretty.”

“So, how can I help you?” asked Mark.

“You get to help me escape tonight.”

“You know, the last time I helped an outlaw escape from jail, Tom Benton almost had my head, and I was suspended for a two weeks.”

“You were lucky it was a suspension. He can be a bear.”

Mark laughed at Dohrn’s description of Tom Benton, remembering him roaring as he and Grid sat in their chairs, “But I do have one problem with helping you escape… How do you get away?”

“We could stage a gunfight, after you bring me my supper. Make it like I got the drop on you.”

“No one would believe your getting the drop on me.”

“We could fake your death for a few days,” Hallelujah suggested.

“Right now, this town wouldn’t accept my death and eventual resurrection. They’d bury me alive;” Mark started to smile. “I’ve burned that bridge one too many times.”

“I take you with me.”

“As a hostage?”

“You got any better idea?”

“Yeah, I force you to lead me to your brother’s gang… Your reputation and all… And seeing as how I bested you out on the street,” Mark stated with humor in his voice.

“That’s no fun…” teased Dohrn.

“With your brother dead, maybe now would be the right time to come in out of the cold,” suggested Mark.

“What do you mean?”

“Dohrn, it can’t be fun having to watch over your shoulder every step you take, even if it is in the line of duty. And, if your parents are alive, I’m sure they’d appreciate knowing the truth… That one of their sons was raised right…”

Dohrn finally gave into Mark’s idea.

*****

The sun was setting when Mark slipped out of the Marshal’s Office and made his way to John Hamilton’s residence. After obtaining more information about the direction Drako and Randall took, he explained he was forcing Dohrn to take him to the outlaw gang. He asked John to wait until morning to get word to Micah and to get a note to Hope and Lucas.

As Mark jogged away from his home, John opened and read the note:

“Hope/Pa, Don’t have time to explain, working with an Agent from the Secret Service. Help Micah cover North Fork until Johnny or Reese return. Will wire, when I can. Mark”

“Secret Service?” John asked as he looked in the direction Mark ran.

Deciding not to wait until morning, John blew out the lantern, closed the door behind him, and headed to the barn behind his home to saddle his horse and ride to the McCain Ranch.

*****

Under cover of darkness, horses saddled and loaded with provisions, Mark and Dohrn left town.

“Our posse left here three days ago, how do you propose we track the gang?” asked Mark.

“I know where they might be heading… And the information your banker gave you, I’m positive we can catch and apprehend them.”

*****

John knocked on the front door to Lucas and Milly’s home; he looked back the way he came as he waited.

“John?” asked a sleepy Lucas.

“I’m sorry, but this couldn’t wait until morning…” he handed Lucas the note and followed him into the home.

“Secret Service?” Lucas asked as he turned from reading the note by the lantern on the front table.

“Lucas, he was almost in gunfight this afternoon. Hallelujah Dohrn showed up in town, he called Mark out and Mark got the drop on him. A few hours later, Mark’s at my home, asking me to get that note to you.”

“And it’s just the two of them?” asked Lucas.

“As far as I know. Lucas, he didn’t want me to inform Micah or you until morning. There’s no one in the Marshal’s Office…”

“Let me tell Milly and Hope, I’ll be in town within the hour. Can you keep an eye on things until I get there?”

“Sure Lucas, anything you need. But Mark…”

“I have to trust him…” Lucas stated as he worriedly ran his fingers through his hair.

*****

The sun rose over North Fork when Lucas opened the door to the Marshal’s Office and stepped out to see Johnny Drako and Reese Randall return with three outlaws, two alive and one draped over the saddle of a horse.

“Lucas, what are you doing in town?” Drako called out.

“Standing in for Mark, he… headed out overnight after those three…” Lucas answered.

“He what?” Randall asked.

“Reese, let’s get these two inside, Lucas, will you take the other over to the undertakers. I’ll expect to hear all about what happened while I was gone… when you return.”

*****

John Hamilton exited the bank as Lucas strode by, “Lucas? Is Johnny back?”

“Yeah, and he’s wanting to know what happened while he was gone,” answered Lucas.

“Guess I should tag along.”

*****

With the door to the cell area closed, John Hamilton tried to explain to the others what transpired the previous day, leading up to his taking the note to Lucas.

“Mark left with Tecumseh Dohrn’s brother, and he claims… It doesn’t make any sense…” Drako stated as he set his cup of coffee to the desk top.

“Nothing’s made sense ever since the depot was robbed…” John Hamilton stated, scratching behind his ear.

“Hallelujah Dohrn has almost as bad a reputation as his brother does… did, and he’s managed to escape custody… And now he’s claiming to be an agent of the Secret Service?!” Drako stated as he slammed his fist down on his desk.

“Johnny,” Lucas started to say. “We have to trust Mark and that he knows what he’s doing. I’m sure if there were any doubt in Mark’s mind that this was a trap, he…”

“He’d what?” dared Drako.

*****

Twenty-four hours had elapsed since Dohrn and Mark rode out of North Fork and even with darkness surrounding them, they continued to ride choosing their path with caution, until they spotted a campfire nearby.

“How do you know that’s not a trap by your brother’s gang?” asked Mark restraining Rainmaker from following Dohrn’s horse.

“Too quiet, sides, you really think they’d have a campfire and still be this close to North Fork?”

*****

Since the new moon didn’t afford Mark any light to illuminate the expression on his companion’s face, he reached for his rifle, praying he hadn’t jumped in feet first into more trouble than he could handle.

From within the camp they heard a graveled voice call out, “If you’re gonna come in, come in, otherwise ride on and quit disturbing my peace!”

“Well, I’ll be,” declared Dohrn as they maneuvered their horses into the light of the campfire.

“Long time, Hallelujah…” the man paused, his eyes focused on Mark’s badge.

“Mark, I’d like to introduce you to J.B. Books,” Dohrn introduced.

“John Bernard Books?” inquired Mark, holding his rifle a little tighter on his thigh.

“You have a problem with my name, boy?” the older man asked in return.

The man standing before him was an imposing figure, tall and burly, yet Mark was sure that when necessary this man could move fast. His face spoke of the rough life he lived; his eyes appearing to pierce through a man, but for a brief moment, Mark saw something else in the man’s demeanor.

“No sir, just inquiring if you were THE John Bernard Books, the gunfighter,” answered Mark.

Using his hand holding his coffee cup, the man pointed towards Mark and said, “Then you’d be Mark McCain, the Lawman,” his other hand rested on his holstered gun.

“How’d…?” asked Mark.

“Ain’t too many lawmen made a name for themselves carrying a rifle, I know your reputation. Son of the Rifleman; if I remember, another ‘gunfighter’.” The tone of the man’s voice indicated he didn’t appreciate the insinuation Mark made in using the work ‘gunfighter’.

“My Pa only killed when he was given no other choice…” Mark defended.

“And I never killed nobody who didn’t need killin’.” The tone of the man’s voice was firm and calculating. “Sometimes a body can choose their life, other times, life chooses them. Don’t call me a gunfighter just because I use this.” The man patted the holster holding his Colt single-action army revolver. “I’d prefer never to have to use it again, but I ain’t gonna give no man the chance to kill me, unless they damn well prove they’re better ‘an me. Every man has a constitutional right to protect themselves, and that includes me.”

Books turned around and walked to his bedroll, “If you care to sheath your rifle, you can tie your horses over there with mine, otherwise, you’ll have to shoot me in the back.”

Mark slipped his rifle into its scabbard before he climbed down from his saddle, “Fairly gutsy move, turning your back on me.”

“Like I said, I know your reputation and… you’re riding with him.”

The big man labored to sit down and stretch out his legs, before leaning back against his upturned saddle, near the fire. He grimaced after he drank his coffee, threw out the contents of his cup, and poured himself another. Setting the cup aside, Books removed his gun belt and placed it within easy reach.

“You two working together…?” queried Mark, trying to comprehend the relationship between a gunfighter and an agent of the Secret Service, if he really was.

“He’s helped my cover on occasion,” Dohrn replied.

“Occasion! I’ve saved your sorry ass any number of times,” gruffed Books. “You can help yourself to some coffee… I’ll warn you I don’t make the best pot.”

“So was this little rendezvous planned or circumstantial?” asked Mark.

“Kind of both,” Dohrn answered as he handed a tin cup to Mark who declined.

“Little rude there,” Books offered.

“You yourself said you don’t make the best pot…” Mark answered apologetically.

“I’ll give you that one, boy,” laughed Books. “What causes a U.S. Marshal to team up with the Secret Service? Or is it the other way around?” asked Books.

“TrackingTecumseh’s gang,” Dohrn answered.

“Sorry, I heard tell he’d been killed. But how does teaming up McCain get you in with Tecumseh’s gang?”

“You know as well as I do, they need to be brought to justice and we need to destroy those plates. If that money continues to get passed as real, it can undermine the faith the American people have placed in their financial institutions.” Looking at Books doubting expression, Dohrn continued, “Well, I’m trying to figure that out as we trail them”

“Damn you Hallelujah, I’ve warned you about riding in blind…”

“This is the closest I’ve ever come to them. I had to act fast and the only way for me to get into jail was to call McCain out,” Dohrn answered.

“And you’re still alive? Living dangerously,” Books commented.

“J.B., I’ve still a reputation to protect… But I had to find some way to gain Mark’s confidence so I could see that money.”

“I hate to upstage you, but you’re gonna have to leave that trail,” commented Books.

“Why?” inquired Mark. “He’s the perfect cover to meet up with the gang and take them into custody.”

“One Agent and One Marshal…. It will never happen. Hallelujah, I’ve heard rumors that take precedence over counterfeiters, have you heard anything of bad ammunition making its way into the territory.”

“Bad ammunition? Is it that bad?” Dohrn asked.

“Dohrn, your brother’s gun…” Mark stated.

“Yeah, it’s that bad if I know about it. Right now, the Indians are still on their reservations. But the first time a brave gets killed while hunting… It’ll set them off sure as the sun rises in the East.”

“If you’ve heard about the ammunition, have you heard who or where?” Mark couldn’t help but ask.

“Down near the border. Boy, you best get rid of that badge you’re wearing. I don’t care to get shot or shot at because some fool mistakes this as a posse. We need to get in quiet and out even quieter.”

“And the bad ammunition?” asked Mark.

“If it is bad and it makes its way to any of the tribes, it could cause them to bolt from the reservation. Worse yet, if any of that ammunition makes its way into civilian hands, they wouldn’t be able to defend themselves.”

“Who would be selling guns and ammunition to the Indians?” asked Mark.

“I’ve heard inklings that another tribe might be relocated out this way. Not sure which tribe, but it wouldn’t surprise me if some of them Indian agents pulling favors in Washington aren’t setting two tribes against each other, or against the settlers…” stated Books.

“Why would they put settlers at risk?” asked Mark.

“Pit two tribes against the other, let them fight it out and hope they wipe the other out. Or, if the Indians start an uprising against the settlers, the government would be forced to send in the Army and relocate the tribe or tribes to new reservations; possibly outside the swamplands in Florida. Either way, the cattle barons of the territory swoop in and claim back their land,” explained Books.

“The only reservation nearby is Fort Wingate, and I know the man in charge won’t tolerate any black marketing,” commented Mark.

“One man, out this far, it’s a rarity to find an honest commander at the posts now a days. Any more they’re all looking to make money on the side to look the other way, realizing the government ain’t paying them enough to risk their lives. There’re plenty of cattlemen or land grabbers willing to pay top dollar to stir up trouble and pay even more for the army to look the other way,” scorned Books.

“Yeah, but not at Fort Wingate, Colonel Lane is above reproach,” declared Mark, daring Books to go against him.

“Don’t know the man, but he must be on someone’s blacklist to be posted at that hell-hole,” answered Dohrn.

“He was posted there to restore order to the command. Like I said, no one can say anything against his reputation,” Mark factually stated.

“You’re so sure? That’s how most of them work. Get the law to trust them, and the law looks the other way…” Books answered.

“Not Lane, and not on my watch,” Mark boldly declared.

“And just how sure are you? Care to risk your life on one man?” Books asked, unbelieving the gullibility of the young Marshal.

“I’ve done it before…he’s my father-in-law.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know. Just that I’ve seen too many commanders who choose to look the other way, all to line their own greedy pockets or make a name for themselves,” Books stated as an apology. “I suggest you get rid of your badge and get some sleep. And Hallelujah, don’t get to preaching in the morning, I wake up mean and get meaner when I hear any preaching.”

Books pulled his hat down over his eyes, pulled the sheet from his bedroll over his shoulder, and within ten minutes was snoring loud enough to wake the dead.

“He always that hospitable?” asked Mark.

“Don’t let his demeanor fool you. He’s a pussy cat once you really get to know him.”

“Just like Tom Benton is a bear?” asked Mark, raising an eyebrow.

“Yep.”

Warily, Mark laid down in his bedroll, his mind actively replaying the last thirty-six hours.

 

This story continues in The Rifleman – The Next Generation Pt 28

 

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