The Rifleman – The Next Generation Pt 28 (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:  17,200


 

The Next Generation… Chapter 121 – Parts Unknown

Sitting behind his desk in the Marshal’s Office, Drako listened as John Hamilton placed two stacks of money on his desk, “This here is the money that you brought back with the outlaws, and this here is the money that was left behind. Money that Mark said might be counterfeit.”

“Counterfeit? That’s a Federal offense,” Micah stated as he walked over and began to compare bills from the two stacks.

“I brought Lucas to town, like you asked,” Reese Randall stated as he entered the Marshal’s Office with Lucas McCain on his heels.

*****

Reese Randall pointed his gun towards the open jail cell while Johnny Drako handcuffed each outlaw before he allowed them to step into the office area. Pulling his own weapon, Drako pointed for the three men to take a seat in the chairs in front of his desk.

Lucas held tight to his rifle, not taking his eyes off the three men as they sat down. Lucas sat on the edge of his son’s desk while Reese sat in the chair behind the desk. Micah sat in the chair at his desk. Drako reholstered his Colt .45 before leaning against the edge of his desk, crossing his arms.

“I want to hear the truth, and only the truth,” Drako began.

The three outlaws squirmed in their chairs, not saying anything.

“You abandoned Dohrn and allowed us to catch up with him. He’s currently buried in our cemetery. Things would go mighty easier on you if you talk.”

“We ain’t got nuten to say,” mumbled one of the men.

“Nothing?” asked Micah. “Robbery is one thing, but counterfeiting, that’s a Federal offense boys. I’ve confirmation that an agent of the Secret Service will arrive on the train tomorrow, and I’m sure he’ll be interested in confirming the difference between the money you boys just ‘happened to forget’ and the money we recovered in your saddlebags.”

Micah returned to his desk picked up the three wanted posters and walked to where the outlaws sat. “I say this bears an uncanny resemblance to you,” as he held the poster in front of the first outlaw. “Oren Roberts, wanted on bank robbery.” Micah moved to the middle outlaw, “Hall Pickett, another bank robber.” And finally, to the third outlaw, “Will Latimer, you must have been Dohrn’s second in command, bank robbery and assault.” Micah took a couple of steps towards Lucas and handed the posters to him.

As the interrogation drug on, with no real information being divulged, Lucas found it difficult to sit, listen, and do nothing. Without any warning, Lucas was quickly to his feet, and kicked the chair out from under the nearest of the outlaws as he balanced on the two back legs of the chair. With his rifle firmly gripped in his left hand, Lucas’ knee pinned the man down, and with his right hand, he held the man by the front of his shirt.

“Wait ‘til my lawyer finds out what you dun!” declared Latimer. “He’ll have a field day suing the law of this town.”

“I’m not the law!” Lucas declared; his eyes held warning to the man. “Now, either you start talking or I’ll let my rifle do the talking instead.”

“You can’t…”

“Oh, I can’t, can’t I? These fine lawman have wasted enough breath trying to get some answers to their questions.” Lucas spoke calmly and deliberately. “You don’t know who I am, do you?”

“Some sodbuster,” laughed the outlaw.

“You heard of The Rifleman?” Lucas asked as he held his rifle in front of the outlaw’s face.

“The Ri-Rifleman?” gulped the man. His demeanor changed from one of smugness to one of fear.

Lucas nodded slowly.

*****

Lucas pulled the man to his feet as Reese set the chair on its four legs. The outlaw grabbed the arm of the chair and lowered himself to sit down.

The three outlaws didn’t move their eyes from the towering figure of Lucas McCain, as he quietly spoke, “Now that you know who I am, care to guess our marshal’s name?”

Slowly they shook their heads.

“You ever heard of Johnny Drako?” asked Reese Randall.

The expression on each man’s face showed they knew exactly who stood before them, leaning against the desk, arms refolded.

“Maybe we should have introduced ourselves before you began your interrogation?” Micah spoke, unable to keep the laughter from his voice.

Lucas hid the smile on his face behind his hand, as he recognized the consternation on Drako’s face.

*****

The outlaws divulged all the details of the counterfeit operation that they knew; Tecumseh would leave for a while and come back with a bunch of fake money.

“What about Tecumseh’s brother?” Lucas asked.

“What about him?” Roberts asked.

“He part of your gang?” Reese asked.

“Not while Tecumseh was alive. He never said why, but we know there was bad blood between the two of them,” replied Roberts.

Pickett chose to talk, “We met up with him once. He brought news that the law was setting a trap for us.”

“And that’s bad blood?” Micah asked.

“Nah, had something to do with Tecumseh’s wife, before she left him. But I never seen two brothers get into such an argument and fight. Hallelujah lit out the next morning. A few days later, Tecumseh’s wife up and left.”

In an attempt to direct the interrogation back to the case at hand, Drako asked, “Where were did Tecumseh meet with the counterfeiters?”

“There’s a small mining community call Jarilla Junction,” Latimer stated.

*****

After the outlaws returned to their cells, Lucas declared, “I’m going after Mark.”

Reese objected, “But you’re not a lawman.”

“And you’re not his father!” scowled Lucas as he turned to face the deputy.

“LucasBoy,” Micah interrupted.

“Don’t Lucasboy me. Mark’s out there alone, believing he’s with an agent of the Secret Service. You know Mark, he’s too trusting; and this time it’s going to get him killed.”

“Lucas,” Drako simply spoke, looking straight at his friend. “You don’t know that.”

“If Dohrn really was an agent of the Secret Service, why would he have warned his brother about a trap? Can you honestly stand there and tell me Mark’s not in danger?”

“We’ll go after him, together.” Drako turned to the others, “Reese, you’ll stay here as backup for Micah. If there is counterfeiting involved, the federal government will take charge of these three, meaning this case truly belongs to the U.S. Marshals. You’ll be in charge of watching over MY town, and keeping her in one piece until Lucas and I return.”

“Just the two of you,” Reese queried, unbelieving the risk these two were willing to take.

“No different than the two of us going after those three,” countered Drako.

“But there were only three,” proclaimed Reese. “You have no idea how many or who all is involved.”

“You have your orders,” Drako declared, placing his hat to his head. “Lucas you ride home and let your families know. We’ll meet back here by one o’clock. Micah, will you arrange provisions for us at the general store?”

“And what will you be doing?” asked Micah.

“Saying goodbye to my wife and family.”

*****

Lou closed the front door to their home behind her as she followed her husband to the porch.

“Johnny, ye’ll be careful, won’t ye?”

“You know I’m always careful, besides, your ‘cowboy’ will be with me,” answered Johnny, knowing there was still an affection his wife held towards Lucas McCain.

“Ye’ll see they both come back safe to their families?” pleaded Lou.

“And what about me?” Johnny asked as he wrapped his arms around his wife’s waist.

“If ye see them both home, that means ye’ll come home safe… to me.” With worry in her heart, Lou kissed her husband goodbye.

*****

Lucas, leading the packhorse, and Drako left North Fork and their families behind as they set out towards Jarilla Junction and parts unknown.

While riding their horses and giving them a breather, Drako stated, “I wish Mark hadn’t just up and left with Dohrn. Damn! What was that boy thinking?”

“I know… I know… It’s just…” Lucas started to answer.

“He’s your son. And one man…” Drako didn’t need to have Lucas answer, he understood how his friend felt. He worried on his own, should the boy be harmed; he had helped shape Mark McCain’s path as a lawman.

*****

The landscape the threesome surveyed was barren, only the scrub brush and boulders broke up the endless dirt that stretched between where they stood and the old mine buildings; which they were sure housed the gunrunners’ operation. Though the day was cool, a nervous sweet beaded their foreheads.

“It has to be them. I just wish we could get closer to those buildings and get a look inside…” complained Dohrn.

“With those guards on the lookout, who else could it be… That and what Mark found out in Jarilla Junction, there’s been plenty of freight coming in and out of this place. Could only be the gun runners,” replied Books.

“Well, since this isn’t my case…´ stated Dohrn. “Mark, how do you suggest we make your arrests?”

“Guess gun running would fall under the auspices of the U.S. Marshal’s Service.” Hesitating and looking at their surroundings, Mark continued, “I’d say wait until nightfall. The owner of the saloon stated he’s kept them well stocked with liquor. Pray they get drunk enough that the three of us can get the upper hand?” Mark wished he felt as confident as he words, but that wasn’t saying much. He’d heard his own voice quiver.

The three slipped back to where they left their mounts, and waited for the sun to set.

*****

As Lucas and Johnny neared Jarilla Junction, they encountered a man struggling to drive a buckboard with a broken wheel.

“Looks like he could use some help…” suggested Johnny.

“Drako, we don’t have time…”

“Lucas, who else is going to happen along to help?” Johnny raised an eyebrow to emphasize his point.

While pointing towards his friend, Lucas stated, “But the minute he’s helped…”

“We’ll be back on Mark’s trail.”

The man appeared fearful, holding a leather case tightly to his chest, as Johnny and Lucas approached him.

“Seems like you need a friend,” suggested Drako.

“A f-friend? You’re not outlaws?” the man timidly asked.

“No we’re not outlaws,” Lucas replied.

“I’m thankful you happened along then…, they struck my employer… and I barely got away with my life. I… I… I thought you might have been a couple of them come after me.”

“No sir. We’re not outlaws,” Johnny confirmed, he opened his jacket, showing his badge.

“If you’d like, we can help you unhitch your horse and get you to Jarilla Junction. That’s where we’re heading.”

The man clutched the leather case again, and looked around. “Well…”

“Your options are pretty slim…” offered Drako.

The man stepped down and watched as the two men from North Fork unhitched his horse.

As Drako offered to help the man up on the horse, Lucas said, “Here let me take the bag for you.”

“No!” the man quickly exclaimed, clutching the bag even tighter. “Uh… I don’t mean to be so rude, but these are papers that are valuable to my employer.”

“He’ll give them back to you as soon as you’re up on the horse,” Johnny stated.

*****

The sun had set by the time they saw their traveling companion safely to what served as a small hotel in Jarilla Junction, Johnny and Lucas headed to what appeared to be a small jail.

“How long do you think it’s been since it’s been used?” asked Lucas, as he ran his fingertips along the edge of the dust covered desk.

“Never, least not since I’ve been here,” stated a voice behind them, causing them to quickly turn around. “Can I help you?”

“I’m Marshal Drako from North Fork and this is Lucas McCain, a member of my posse.”

“Mighty small posse, just the two of you?” queried the small man, wearing a light-weight, leather apron over his white shirt and black pants. On his face, his nose held up a set of spectacles.

“The rest of the posse is waiting for us, we helped a stranded traveler into town,” Lucas offered.

“The town got a sheriff or a marshal?” Drako inquired.

“We got Abernathy, he’s as close as we got to the law. Big man, bout as tall as you, but a lot bigger around the middle, if you get my meaning,” the man answered while looking to Lucas.

“Where is he?” Drako asked.

“He don’t come into town until late night, that’s when any trouble starts.”

“Trouble?” asked Lucas.

“Sure, miners come to town with their findings, and a lot of them trade it in for liquor and get drunk.”

“And how is it the jail’s never been used?” asked Drako.

Oh, no one wants to go up against Abernathey; once he arrives, trouble sort of… dies down.”

“You seem to know the comings and going on around here,” Lucas stated. “Any chance you know about a counterfeiting operation?”

“What’s that?”

“People making fake money,” answered Lucas.

“With the gold around here; who needs fake money?” the man stated as he turned to leave.

“Why didn’t you ask about Mark?” asked Lucas as the door closed behind the little man.

“If he’s using an assumed name, I don’t want to risk blowing his cover. Let’s say we grab a room at that hotel for the night.”

“Johnny, I told you the minute…”

“Lucas, I know, but without a moon… Let’s survey the town in the morning, listen to see what we can find out before we go traipsing across the territory.”

“We’re already doing that!” deadpanned Lucas.

*****

After the last shot was fire, and clutching his arm, Mark entered the clearing declaring, “You said you never killed anyone who didn’t need killing.”

“Well, ya ain’t dead are ya?” Books opened the cylinder to his Colt, allowing the spent cartridges to fall to the ground. “Sides, you moved into my line of fire.”

Books turned, pointed to prove where his next shot struck. Mark saw one more outlaw lying sprawled on the ground. Books gruffed, “You got your target,” using his gun to point towards the man Mark had shot, “and I got mine.” Books curtly nodded his head to emphasize his point.

“Guess I owe you thanks,” Mark gratefully commented. After examining his injury, he rub his bloody hand across his pants.

“You don’t owe me anything except keeping my helping you, out of your report.”

“Books, if that’s the way you want it, you’ve got yourself a deal…”

“Deal!” Books replied as he accepted Mark’s extended hand and gave it a gruff downward thrust.

Dohrn joined them and inquired, “What do we do now?”

“Search each building to locate the guns and ammunition,” suggested Mark. The three split up, with only the lanterns hung in front of the buildings to light their way, they were still wary of any outlaws who might be in hiding.

Mark searched what served as the livery and found several horses and a buckboard they could use to transport weapons and ammunition, but no boxes. He exited the livery and rubbed his injured arm when he heard Dohrn yelling. Mark started running in the direction; and soon was joined by Books. Yes, Mark had been right in his earlier assumption, when need be, the big man could run.

The three nearly collided as Dohrn came running out of a small building, “In here, you’re never gonna believe it!”

Books and Mark followed him back inside.

Taking off his hat and scratching his head, Books stated, “That ain’t a gun.”

“What is it? asked Mark holding the lantern high.

“A counterfeit printing press,” Dohrn answered.

“The counterfeiters were in cahoots with the gun runners?” asked a confused Mark.

“No, I think we’re back on your original case,” Books replied. “I ain’t seen any boxes in any of the buildings I’ve searched.”

“Well, then what cargo has been coming in and out of here?” Mark inquired.

“I found crates in a back room that could have held the press, looks like they shipped it in pieces. There’s also boxes of paper and jugs of ink, and several cutting boards. And some boxes I didn’t open yet.”

“But what about the gun runners? Books, you said…” Mark started to say.

“I know what I said, and I guess I heard wrong.”

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence… It biases the judgment,” Dohrn replied.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Books sourly asked as he stared at Dohrn.

“Just quoting something written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.”

“If you two are through…” Mark interrupted, realizing Books’ irritability was growing.

“Well, at least we have the press and the…Damn!” Dohrn exclaimed as he opened the top of the printing press.

“What’s wrong?” asked Mark, bringing his rifle to bear, fearing an outlaw had come into the room behind them.

“The plates are missing,” Dohrn stated.

“The plates? Oh, the engraved plates…” replied Mark. “If it’s any consolation, I found a buckboard and a team of horses you can load all this stuff onto.”

“Us? What about you?” Books gruffly asked.

“This is back to being a case for the Secret Service, and besides, did you forget you shot me in the arm?” Mark asked jovially.

“Didn’t seem to stop you from lifting that lantern a few minutes ago,” boasted Books.

“Okay… okay. WE” Mark emphasized, “can load all this stuff up and take… Just where do we take it?”

“Jarilla Junction for starters. If they have a telegraph, we can wire my superiors and let them know the case has been cracked,” Dohrn quipped.

“Cracked?” Books asked.

“That’s the latest terminology meaning the case has been solved,” Dohrn replied.

“Another quotation?” Books sourly stated.

“Sir Arthur…”

“I only want to know about him if he’s related to this case. Otherwise, shutup and start helping to pack,” Books ordered.

Several hours passed before they had everything loaded in the buckboard.

Before heading to Jarilla Junction, Mark asked, “What about them?” pointing to the dead bodies scattered across the ground.

“Guess we shouldn’t leave them out in the open like that,” Dohrn commented.

“Well, you two ‘lawmen’ can take care of them. I’m gonna sit down and open then here bottle of brandy and enjoy relaxing.”

Mark and Hallelujah stood and watched as Books held true to his words. Shaking their heads, the two lawmen wrapped the dead bodies in sheets.

“My turn to sit and relax,” commented Dohrn after Mark suggested rounding up the horses and tying the bodies across the saddles.

“Relax? We’ve lost daylight. We can’t leave them lying around,” Mark complained.

“You’ve got youth on your side,” Books declared as he handed Hallelujah the half-empty bottle.

“What about him? He can’t be that much older than me?”

“No,” Dohrn snickered. “But I’ve been on the run for quite a spell. You know, the life of an outlaw? You’ve been sleeping in a nice comfy bed…”

“Not since I met up with you…” Watching the old man pat his holster Mark stated, “Okay, I’ll round up the horses, but it’s more than a one-person job getting them across the saddles.”

*****

Having spent the morning in the saloon, Lucas and Drako swung up into the saddles and started to race their horses from the town. Halfway down the rutted road, they rounded a turn, and pulled their horses up short; in front of them was a wagon being driven by an unshaven burly, older man, followed closely by another unshaved man leading a string of three horses with bodies draped across, and in the rear, “MARK!” Lucas declared and urged Blade into a lope.

Lucas turned his horse around to walk next to his son.

“Pa, what are you…” commented Mark, as he tried to stifle a yawn.

“Trailing after you. You take these two and these… all by yourself?” Drako asked, pointing to the bodies, he took the rope to the two horses and bodies that Mark led.

“I’ll tell you once we find Abernathy,” Mark answered.

“He’s probably asleep still, but it looks like most of your ‘prisoners’ are in need of an undertaker, more than a jail cell,” teased Lucas.

“We need someplace secure to lock up this equipment… Mr. McCain, I presume?” answered Dohrn.

“Lock up equipment? And just who are you?” asked Drako.

“Johnny, I’ll make full introductions after we get these bodies to an undertaker and those crates locked up,” answered Mark.

“What about these two?” asked Drako.

“We’re not under arrest,” a humorless Books answered.

*****

A half hour later, Mark had introduced his Pa and Marshal Drako to his traveling companions.

“So you’re Hallelujah Dohrn. This is one set of lawmen you won’t slip away from,” Drako boasted as he stared the man down.

“Johnny, he’s not an outlaw,” replied Mark.

“Boy, he’s a known outlaw, with a wanted poster out on him,” declared Drako. “Do you know how many lawmen he’s managed to embarrass by slipping away?”

“Excuse me, Drako, but it seems you don’t take this young man seriously,” Books interrupted, standing to his full height. “He IS a U.S. Marshal, and I can vouch for what he’s saying about Dohrn, here.”

“Well, excuse me if I don’t take your word on it either. Though you don’t have any posters out on you, your reputation far…”

“MY REPUTATION!” Books roared. “Ain’t no worse than…”

“QUIET!” yelled Mark, attempting to prevent any possible bloodshed. “Gentlemen, please. Johnny, I know this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but you don’t know all the facts, and besides, we solved the case.”

“The case? What case? You let a known outlaw convince you to do his bidding in trying to take down his brother’s gang! You’re blind to the truth!” Drako spoke, unbelieving Mark’s demeanor.

“Yes, we took down the gang, but it wasn’t my brother’s gang. They’re still out there somewhere,” Dohrn stated.

“They’re locked up back in North Fork, where you will be too,” Drako seriously stated.

“Johnny, he’s not…” Mark tried to explain.

“Mark,” Lucas tried to interrupt.

While at the same time, Drako walked over and stopped a few feet from Mark; while pointing a finger towards Mark he said, “Now look here…”, while pulling his handgun with his other hand.

“JUST SHUT UP! Now listen to me,” Mark declared as loud as he could. “Johnny, put your gun away. I know you won’t believe the truth until you see it for yourself; so for the time being, Hallelujah is in my protective custody.”

“Protective custody!” declared Drako.

“Yes, in the custody of the U.S. Marshal Service. And Books here; thought he was leading us to a gun running operation and ended up leaded us to the counterfeiters. And since there is no wanted poster on him; as far as I’m concerned, he was never here!”

“Mark,” Lucas tried to interrupt again.

“Those five at the undertakers were all that remained of the counterfeiters. We got everyone,” Mark stated.

“Except for the leader,” stated Dohrn.

“How do you know he isn’t among the dead?” asked Lucas.

“The plates are missing,” answered Dohrn.

“Dishes…” Drako stated.

Mark took a deep breath and answered, “The engraved plates the outlaws used to make the counterfeit money. We found the press, and their supplies, and money they printed, but not the actual plates. That’s what we have locked up.”

“And since there are no plates, that tells me the leader got away with them,” Dohrn stated.

“Johnny,” Lucas cleared his throat. “That stranded traveler we brought to town yesterday… He was mighty peculiar about me taking that case of his…while you helped him get on the horse. He said it was important papers for his employer, but now that I think of it, it felt like more than paper to me.”

Mark and Hallelujah quickly looked at each other, both thinking and asked the same thing, “Where’d you leave him?”

“The hotel, down the road,” answered Lucas.

Mark and Dohrn left the others calling their names as they ran from the jail.

*****

“When did he check out?” demanded Dohrn.

“Earlier this morning, he left after getting a buggy from the livery,” nervously replied the woman standing behind the counter; alarmed at the appearance and demeanor of the two men standing in front of her.

Mark bumped into his Pa as he and Dohrn ran from the hotel.

Grabbing hold of his son’s arm, Lucas reined him in and asked, “Mark’s what’s going on here?”

“Pa, you yourself suggested it; the man you helped yesterday… has to be the leader of the gang!”

Upon releasing his son’s arm, Lucas noticed the blood on his hand, “Mark!”

“I’ll be back!” Mark yelled as he swung up into the saddle and followed Dohrn.

*****

Books, Drako, and Lucas stood and watched the dust settle as the two riders raced their horses from town.

“If you don’t mind, I think I’ll take my leave,” declared Books, setting his hat to his head he stepped from the boardwalk.

“I do mind. You won’t be going anywhere until I get my questions answered.”

“Marshal Drako, it takes a lot to rile me, and the number one thing that riles me is people not trusting my word or…”

“I don’t care,” declared Drako. “Until that boy gets back…”

“You don’t get it do you,” Books stated, stepping back to the boardwalk. “He ain’t a boy. He’s a man, doing a man’s job. You and his Pa come here thinking he needed looking after. Worse yet, you don’t trust his word… as a lawman.” Books jabbed his index finger into Johnny Drako’s chest.

Drako stood, flabbergasted at the man’s comments.

“You know, when I first met him, I wasn’t exactly sure he’d be up to the job at hand, but the way he’s handled himself and this job, says a lot for his character. You insult him, when you call him a boy. I’ll admit that first night I called him a boy, he sure looks it, but he doesn’t handle himself like any boy I’ve ever met. And I’ll not have anyone try to put him down. Especially you standing there, wearing a badge yourself.”

“I’m not putting him down. I’ve known him for better than ten years…”

“Then its time you realized he’s grown up and deserves to be treated with more respect than I’ve seen you give him.” Books arched his eyebrows and walked away. “I’ll be at the hotel. Tell Mark I’ll be wanting to shake his hand and say goodbye.”

*****

“Of all the nerve,” mumbled Drako as he watched Books walk away.

“You know, he’s right,” admitted Lucas. “I thought I had gotten used to the idea my son was a grown man…” Lucas pulled off his hat and scratched his head. “But dang it, if I didn’t fall into thinking he was a little boy who needed my protection, again. I receive word my son’s left town with a known gunfighter and all of a sudden, I think he needs my protection, even when he wrote the man was an agent of the Secret Service. I began thinking he was too trusting again. I shouldn’t have come after him, like he wasn’t capable of doing his job.”

“Lucas, WE shouldn’t have,” agreed Drako. “Do you think he’ll forgive us?”

“This isn’t exactly like what happened with Rigby and Dahl…” answered Lucas.

“No, but still…should we wait here or return to North Fork?”

“I think as long as those crates remain in the jail, we need to stand guard over them,” answered Lucas. “But in the mean time, let’s get something to eat.”

“You’re not going after him? Drako asked.

“I want to… I really want to…”

*****

Crossing the rolling hills of the landscape, Mark and Hallelujah followed the dead-end road to the next town. The sun was close to setting; and Mark and Hallelujah felt they were close to catching up with the counterfeit operation’s leader. As they rounded a bend in the hills, they came upon a horse and buggy; they dismounted their horses with weapons at the ready.

“This horse is spent,” declared Mark upon examining the horse.

“He can’t be too far away, can he?” Dohrn asked innocently.

“I don’t know, but he’s leaving a trail that even a blind man could follow…”

Leading his horse, Mark trailed after their quarry, followed by Dohrn.

The sun had finally set when Dohrn declared, “He couldn’t…” as a small campfire came into their view.

“If he’s a tenderfoot, I wouldn’t doubt it,” Mark incredulously answered.

The two walked closer and observed only one person in the camp, “Hello in the camp!” Mark hollered.

Neither could prevent the small laughter upon seeing the man startle and scramble towards a large tree.

“Just two weary travelers looking to share a campfire for the night,” called Dohrn.

Mark and Hallelujah walked into camp, weapons holstered.

“Can we picket our horse with yours?” asked Dohrn.

“I… I lost my horse…” the man answered.

“Mighty rough country to lose your horse. Guess you should be lucky we happened upon you,” Dohrn stated, and tried to prevent the smile from spreading across his face.

“Where’re you traveling to?” asked the man.

“Where ever you are,” answered Mark.

“Me?” gulped the man.

Dohrn continued, “See, if my friend and I are right, you have something that we want in that leather bag of yours.”

As Mark moved his hand, the man stumbled backwards and fell to the ground, declaring, “Don’t kill me!” Mark reached into his back pocket and pulled out his badge, and proceeded to pin it to his shirt.

“Should have known…” the man stated as he dejectedly sat on the ground. “Should of kept going instead of letting them other two take me to that mangy town. It was all supposed to be so easy, make a little money and spread it around…”

“Living outside the law is never easy,” Dohrn rebutted.

“Hallelujah, I’ll go back and get his horse. If that’s okay with you,” Mark stated before he swung up on Rainmaker.

*****

Day was breaking over Jarilla Junction when Lucas and Johnny felt relief at the sight that greeted them as they stepped to the boardwalk. Two weary riders, one leading a horse and buggy with the occupant asleep in the front seat, his hands cuffed together.

“Could you use some help, Marhsal?” Drako asked.

“Sure. If they have room in the jail for our prisoner,” answered Mark as he tossed the rope hooked to the horse’s bit. Mark was about to asked a question, but stopped when Johnny stepped to the buggy and led it away.

“I vaguely remember a telegraph office,” commented Dohrn. “Need to send a wire to my superiors in Washington.”

“Probably wouldn’t hurt to send one to Denver, too,” Mark added and yawned.

“Looks like both of you could use a nice hot bath and a good meal,” Lucas stated as the two riders stepped from their horses.

“Now that you mention it, Mr. McCain,” answered Hallelujah as he scratched at the short growth of beard on his face.

With an even scragglier looking short beard, Mark ran his hand across his chin and said, “Didn’t realize it had been so long.”

“Tell you what, the two of you send your wires and get a shave and a bath, Johnny and I’ll meet you at the café across the street and buy you breakfast,” offered Lucas. “I’ll take care of your horses. Oh, Mark, you might want to send a wire home, just a suggestion.”

*****

Though both felt refreshed after their showers and shave, they struggled to keep their eyes open while the waitress took their orders.

“Welcome back, Marshal McCain, Agent Dohrn,” greeted Books as he joined the group sitting at the table.

“Least it looks like someone slept in a nice bed last night,” teased Dohrn. “You know Mark, I might just take you up on your original offer.”

“What offer was that?” asked Lucas, as Mark again yawned.

“To come back to the respectable side of the law. Give up being undercover,” Dohrn replied.

“You really are a Federal Agent?” asked Drako.

“For the past ten years. I told Mark that the Secret Service was the only agency who would take me, and ended up undercover in an effort to bring my brother and his gang in.”

“What about Latimer saying you tipped them off to a trap?” Drako inquired.

Dohrn sat back in his chair as the waitress refilled his cup of coffee. “Oh, well, a little subterfuge. Tried to convince my brother a trap was being laid in one town, hoping he’d choose a different town, one where we really were laying a trap…”

“What happened?” asked Mark.

“He didn’t show up in any town. For some reason he and his gang disappeared; didn’t hear anything of them for six months.”

“Bet that went over well with your superiors,” commented Mark.

“Yeah, his vanishing went over like a lead balloon. But at least during those six months, things were pretty quiet.”

The fivesome briefly chatted while eating their breakfast. As the waitress removed the empty plates, Johnny asked, “So Marshal McCain…”

“What’s got into you, Johnny? Since when am I Marshal to you?” asked Mark, as he leaned forward in his chair.

Johnny cleared his throat before he spoke. “It was pointed out that maybe I don’t give you the respect you’re due. And I admit, I know you’re grown and a U.S. Marshal, but sometimes, it’s hard to change old ways of thinking because you’re so young.”

“Son, Johnny and I realized, we probably had no right in trailing after you. It’s just I was fearful that you’d been duped by a gunslinger. You’re my son… Can you forgive us?”

“I guess so…” Mark stopped, not knowing what to say. He was tired and hadn’t thought about why the others were in Jarilla Junction.

“So, Marshal McCain,” Books spoke. “If you’ll hold to your end of our deal… I’ll take my leave. It’s been a pleasure working with you.”

Mark stood as Books did, and offered his hand, “There’ll be no mention in my report. Thanks for your help.”

“Agent Dohrn, Marshal Drako, Mr. McCain.” Books tipped his hat as he bid goodbye.

“No mention?” inquired Dohrn.

“Reputations and all…you know,” laughed Mark.

“You could leave us out of your report as well, Mark,” suggested Drako.

“What and miss the fun of writing how you almost helped the counterfeiter get away with the plates. No way…” teased Mark, yet he couldn’t prevent the yawn.

“When was the last time you slept?” asked Lucas.

“Maybe two days ago?” Mark answered looking to Dohrn as he too began yawning and nodding in agreement.

“If you’ll allow a town marshal and his posse to guard your prisoner and contraband, you can catch up on your sleep,” suggested Drako.

“Sounds like a good idea. I don’t know if I could sit my horse,” Dohrn answered.

“What about your arm, Mark?” asked Lucas.

“Oh, the barber patched me up, but once we get home, I plan to have Doc Burrage look at it.”

*****

The following morning, Mark woke with a start, and immediately relaxed after he remembered where he was. Stretching, he reached for his boots, pulled them on, grabbed his hat and rifle, and left the room.

“Morning, Marshal,” Johnny Drako greeted.

“Now let’s not start this again. Johnny, I didn’t think anything about you two being here. And honestly, I’m glad you are. It felt good to just let go and sleep last night.”

“Morning!” greeted Hallelujah Dohrn as he walked into the jail.

Lucas watched with amusement the three lawmen in the room with him.

“You’ll be happy to know you received a response to your wires…” Lucas stated as he handed out the coffee cups and filled them.

“North Fork? Doesn’t make any sense to have to take Moneymaker to North Fork,” Dohrn stated, looking at the telegram he held.

“Maybe this will make sense, Tom Benton is to meet us in North Fork and take custody of your prisoner,” answered Mark as he finished reading his telegram.

“Oh, Mark, there is one more wire for you,” teased Johnny as he handed the folded sheet of paper to Mark.

Safe trip.
Love, Me

*****

The train was at the depot when Lucas, Johnny, Mark, and Hallelujah, along with their prisoner and cargo crossed the railroad tracks and entered North Fork.

Johnny addressed the small group, “Dohrn and I’ll see his prisoner to the jail. Why don’t you meet us there once Doc’s had a chance to look at your arm. Lucas, I presume you’ll want to…”

“Come on Pa, I know you’re anxious to hear I’ll survive,” teased Mark.

As they stopped their horses in front of the clinic, Mark asked, “By the way, you don’t happen to know what today is, do you?”

“From the looks of the church, I’d guess it’s Sunday.”

*****

Milly drove the buckboard containing her family from the church into town, to join Lou at the Mallory House restaurant for lunch.

“Ma?!” Hope called, reaching her left hand to Milly’s upper arm, while pointing with her right hand to the two horses tied in front of the clinic.

The children in the back of the buckboard stood and started calling “Pa!” or “Papa!”

As she climbed down from the driver’s seat, Milly warned all the children to stay put until she and Hope came back.

“No butts!” Hope stated, pointing to her own children as she stepped to the ground.

The two women entered the clinic to be greeted by Sarah McCafferty, “They’re in room, two. It’s just a minor wound, Aaron cleaned and rebandaged it.”

*****

The door opened just as Milly was about to knock.

“Well hello there!” Lucas greeted his wife by wrapping his arms around her waist and picking her up.

“Welcome home,” Milly greeted and kissed her husband.

“If you two lovebirds will move out of the way, I’d sure like to see if my wife is on the other side of the doorway,” taunted Mark.

Lucas didn’t set Milly to her feet until Mark could see Hope anxiously waiting for him.

“Do I get a welcome home kiss?” Mark asked.

Hope was quickly into his arms, “Are you okay?”

“Just a graze, I moved when I shouldn’t have. Doc said it would heal in a few more days.”

The McCains stepped from the clinic and were excitedly greeted by their children.

“You gonna have lunch with us?” the chorus of children asked.

“Sure!” beamed Lucas.

“I need to stop by the Marshal’s Office, can I join you in a little while?” asked Mark.

“You won’t be too long, will you?” asked Hope.

“I hope not,” answered Mark.

*****

Mark entered the Marshal’s Office to find Tom Benton already inside and taking a report from Hallelujah Dohrn, while sitting at his desk.

“Since when does the Secret Service report to the U.S. Marshals,” asked Mark as he removed his hat and walked to his desk, and sat on the edge.

“Since his skills are being wasted with the Service, after a month-long vacation to visit his family, he’ll report to me,” answered Benton.

“Now hold on!” answered Dohrn. “Don’t I get a say in this?”

“No!” declared Benton. “I’ve already talked with your superiors. It’s one thing for a brief undercover investigation; it’s totally uncalled for the way they kept you out in the cold.”

“Welcome to the family,” offered Mark.

“Now, you on the other hand…” Benton stopped writing and pointed the end of his pen towards Mark. “Going off like you did with a known outlaw?”

“An Agent of the Secret Service,” corrected Mark. “At least I didn’t fake my death…”

“This time,” Benton completed the statement. “So be thankful you’re not facing a suspension. But next time…”

“Next time, I’ll continue do my job as a U.S. Marshal… period,” Mark stated, letting his boss know that he did what he needed to do in order to get the job done.

“Benton,” Drako interrupted. “We were reminded by … a… a stranger, that the Marshal here is a grown man, doing a grown man’s job. And we should treat him as such. Besides, we both trained him to be the type of lawman he is. We only have ourselves to blame if we don’t like how he does his job.”

“Then, Mr. Lawman, I’ll look forward to reading your report, tomorrow,” Benton stated as an order, not a request.

“Yes sir. Since it seems you have everything in order, I’m going to go enjoy some time with my family, before I begin writing.”

Turning to leave, Mark stated, “See you later, Johnny, Hallelujah, Tom.”

Mark left the office with a grin of satisfaction on his face.

The Next Generation… Chapter 122 – A Brave Man Chooses to Act

Upon their return home, Mark and Lucas enjoyed spending time with their families; settling life into a routine, but neither man sat around and waited the arrival of spring; they began preparations for the work they needed to complete in order to keep their ranch running.

*****

It was well after dark when Mark returned home from standing his shift in town. He pulled out his pocket watch and from light of the full moon read its face, ‘ten o’clock’. He entered the barn and found a lit lantern hanging from one of the support posts. Looking around Mark couldn’t understand why Hope or the boys would have left the lantern burning.

Leading Rainmaker into his stall, Mark looked towards Two-Bits’ stall when he heard the mare grunt; he flipped the reins over his horse’s head, and walked out of the stall, over to the mare’s stall; peering over the half-wall he found his wife sitting on the ground, leaning back against the wall below him, cradling her mare’s head.

“Hope?” Mark asked, opened the stall door, and entered.

“She’s been in labor for a while.”

Mark pulled Hope away from her mare as the horse started struggling, nipping at her flanks before laying out flat again. The mare grunted and struck out with her legs as the contractions continued rippling across her pregnant belly.

“Mark?” Hope called out, as her husband carefully walked near the wall, to the back end of the horse.

“She’s struggling too much. If she needs help, I can help her,” Mark answered.

As he positioned himself in order to help, yet out of striking distance, Mark saw two black hooves protruding. After the mare gave another hard push, Mark saw the foal’s nose and knees emerge. After another push, the foal’s front legs, head, and neck were visible. Mark witnessed another contraction ripple across the mare, but didn’t see the mare push. He grabbed the foal’s front hooves and as the next contraction hit, he pulled. In time, he had pulled the foal out past its shoulders. The contractions seemed to subside for a few minutes, but soon, one more heavy contraction caused Two-Bits to loudly grunt and push, the foal slipped the rest of the way out, rupturing the amniotic sack. Mark ripped the silky membrane away from the foal’s nose as it started moving its head and took its first breath of life.

“Is it a filly or a colt?” Hope inquisitively asked.

“Haven’t looked yet, but it’s beautifully marked. Come on back in.”

Mark took his wife’s hand and helped her sit down in the corner before he sat down next to her. With his arms wrapped around his wife, he watched the miracle of life unfold as a half hour later Two-Bits stood and began nuzzling the baby, licking it clean. Within another half hour, the foal was on his feet, nursing.

“I think we should leave them alone,” Mark stated, helping his wife to her feet. Latching the door behind them, Mark stopped when he heard Rainmaker snorting.

“Oh, sorry big guy. Hope, go on to the house, I’ll be in as soon as I get him unsaddled” Mark walked to his stallion’s stall, entered, and unsaddled his horse. “So, what do you think about your son?”

Rainmaker nuzzled Mark, looking for sugar cubes.

Before leaving the barn for the night, Mark gave all the horses a helping of hay, and blew out the lantern.

*****

Mark and Hope enjoyed the quiet dawn at their home; until after breakfast, when Hope announced her mare had given birth. All three boys and their oldest sister ran from the house wanting to see the new baby.

“Mark!” Hope exclaimed. “Get them back here!”

Mark turned and gave his wife a look, implying that returning their children to the house would be an impossible feat. “Well, at least you didn’t say anything before they ate their breakfast.”

Mark jogged across the yard, calling for the children to wait. Before he opened the barn door, he talked to them, “Now children, you don’t want to scare the foal, do you?”

Mark’s children looked to each other and shook their heads.

“So we’ll walk in slowly and be real quiet, right?”

Mark couldn’t help but smile when he saw them nod their heads. Mark waited as Hope walked across the yard, carrying Faith in her arms.

As the children climbed upon the bales of hay stacked in front of the stall, they looked over the half-wall; wide-eye in amazement.

“Is it a boy or a girl?” Mykaela asked.

“A colt,” answered Mark.

“Mark?!” Lucas called as he entered the barn. “Is everything alright?”

“Sure Pa, they just found out that Two-Bits had her foal last night.”

Lucas walked over and stood next to Hope, placing a hand on her shoulder.

“Wow,” Lucas stated, pushing his hat back on his head. “…quite a stunning foal.”

“Colt, Grandpa, he’s a colt!” Eli exclaimed.

“Does he have a name?” Josh asked.

Hope looked to Mark and shrugged her shoulders, “I really hadn’t thought on a name.”

“You could call him Dasher,” Josh suggested.

Zach shoved his shoulder into his brother’s shoulder, declaring, “He ain’t a reindeer!” Only to be pushed back by Josh.

Mark reprimanded his eldest sons, before saying, “Your Ma will name him.”

“Okay,” the twins guiltily replied.

The black and white colt squealed and ran around Two-Bits who stood in the middle of the stall, contentedly munching on hay.

*****

Later that morning, with Lucas driving his family in their buckboard, and Mark and his family following, the McCain families made their way into town for their usual Saturday shopping.

“Hello Micah!” Lucas greeted as the stopped the buckboard in front of the jail, after seeing Micah step to the hitching rail as they approached.

“Morning Lucas, Milly, kids. Lucas you’ll want to stop by and see Amos, he stopped by earlier and said he had a telegraph for you.”

“Thanks Micah,” stated Lucas.

Milly asked, “You and Hattie are still coming out for supper tonight, aren’t you?”

“And miss your famous chicken and dumplings? We’ll be out around four.”

“See you later.”

Lucas signaled the team to walk on; Micah waved a greeting to Hope, Mark, and their children as they drove by. The smile on Micah’s face indicated how much he relished hearing the children calling him Papaw Micah.

*****

Lucas loaded the last of their purchases in the back of the buckboard as Little Ted, holding Levi’s hand, came running along the boardwalk.

“Pa!” Little Ted called. “Mr. Amos asked us to take you this letter.”

Lucas took the note that Levi handed him.

“Thanks boys.”

Milly walked out from the General Store and stopped next to Lucas, “Who’s it from?”

“It’s from Franklin Galveston, they’re calling an urgent meeting of all the Cattlemen Associations,” answered Lucas.

“When?” asked Milly.

“Next weekend, I’d need to leave on Wednesday; Franklin wants me there to meet with him on Friday.”

“Where is the meeting?”

“Santa Fe.”

*****

Lucas had left the day prior, when Mark detoured from his normal evening walk through the town after hearing the train’s whistle echo across the land. Stepping to the platform, he greeted those exiting from the passenger cars, and gave answers to their questions. Almost ready to resume his walk of North Fork, a tall man walking the ramp into the livestock car drew Mark’s attention. Mark prepared to call out, but refrained as the man stepped back out, leading a striking paint horse, and opened his duster to show a holster and handgun hanging from his right hip.

Holding his rifle with his arms crossed, Mark waited for the man’s approach.

“Well I’ll be!” The man called as he stepped closer to Mark, but soon apologized, “I’m sorry. I mistook you for someone else.”

“That’s all right; I think we’re even on that score,” answered Mark. With the lanterns illuminating the platform, he couldn’t help but noticed the man’s weathered features, his short-cropped hair tinged with grey at the temples, and his blue eyes. “Do you have business in North Fork?”

“Yes, I’m here to survey and map out the land about five miles south of town,” the man stated and started to walk away.

“Survey?” asked Mark as he tried to match the man stride for stride.

“The Army contracted with my employers,” the man stated as he led his horse down the ramp to the street.

“Can I inquire why the Army has commissioned a survey?”

“I’m not privy to that information, just paid to do a job. Well, I can see the hotel from here, guess this is where we part company, Marshal.”

“The name’s McCain, Mark McCain.”

“McCord, Jason McCord.”

The man tipped his hat, turned, and led his horse to and tied him to the hitching rail. McCord pulled his bedroll and saddlebag from the horse and stepped to the porch of the hotel; he looked up and down the street before entering the lobby.

Mark finished his walk of North Fork, satisfied that all was as it should be. He was about to re-enter the Marshal’s Office when he saw Jason McCord walking from the livery to the hotel. Mark waited until the man disappeared inside and shook his head, wondering if he should wire Seth Lane to inquire if he knew why the Army commissioned a survey.

“Well, Mark? Everything quiet?” Johnny Drako asked.

“Sure, just the way we like it,” replied Mark. As Johnny prepared to leave the office Mark said, “See you in the morning.”

*****

Johnny Drako called “Mark!” as he entered the Marshal’s Office for the morning.

“Coffee’s ready,” Mark replied as he looked up from reading a report from one of his deputies.

“I could of sworn I just saw Lucas walking into the livery… I thought he was in Santa Fe,” Johnny removed his hat, setting it on his desk, before he poured himself a cup of coffee.

“He is. That was Jason McCord you saw.”

“Jason Mc…”

“McCord. He’s a surveyor. He’s doing a survey about five miles south of town.”

“McCord…” Johnny mumbled, holding his cup of coffee, as he looked out the window and watched the man ride out of town.

“Do you know him Johnny?” Mark asked.

“No, I don’t know him. But I sure do know of him.”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed, indicating he didn’t like the fact the man was in his town.

Mark stood from his desk and walked to stand next to Johnny, “Is that good or bad?”

“Bad… I’m afraid it means trouble.”

“He didn’t appear to be a trouble maker when I met him last night.”

“He doesn’t make the trouble but trouble always seems to follow him.”

“Are you calling him a Jonas? Johnny, I didn’t think you believed in that sort of stuff.”

“He’s not a Jonas, but… You don’t know who he is, do you?”

Shaking his head in reply, Mark stated, “Other than his name and occupation, no. Why don’t you tell me.”

Johnny walked to the front of his desk, sat on the edge, and folded his arms.

“You ever heard of Bitter Creek?” Johnny asked.

“Can’t say that I have…” answered Mark, having walked to the pot-bellied stove, he heaped plenty of sugar into the coffee he’d poured for himself.

“It happened before Little Big Horn…”

Mark listened as Johnny continued to tell of the lone survivor, court-martialed and drummed out of the army.

“It’s been a long time…” Johnny quieted.

“Johnny, it was a long time ago. A man pays his dues to society or the army and they’re allowed to live their life.”

“A lot of family members don’t see it that way. They feel he should have been executed by a firing squad. They believe his cowardice led to the deaths of their loved ones.”

“Cowardice? Johnny, you can’t seriously…”

“It’s in the record books…He’s a coward! Anyway, I don’t like the fact that he’s here.”

“You want me to keep an eye on him?”

“You probably should,” replied Johnny. “I don’t think I could stomach being any closer to him than I am.”

“Johnny…, did you lose a family member because of him?” Mark hesitantly asked.

“No, but I knew good men who served under him…” Standing to walk back to the window, Johnny continued to look out over the street as he spoke. “Mark, just keep his distance from this office.”

“What about the hotel?”

“He’s a guest at the hotel… If Lou wants him gone, that’s her decision.”

“Are you going to tell her?”

Johnny looked to Mark, “No, I’ll keep my distance from there as well.”

*****

It was the fourth day since Jason McCord arrived in North Fork that Mark rode with him to the land five miles south of town to assist him with the survey. Jason was happy to have someone to help and for the chance to just talk about anything, without being pre-judged for his past.

“If we can beat that rain front, we should be able to finish this project today,” Jason stated as he looked towards the ominous clouds lining the horizon. “I appreciate all your help.”

“I don’t understand why they sent you alone. Last time any surveyors came through here, there were three of them.”

“Last time?” Jason asked as he returned to his calculations.

“Don’t worry; it was a long time ago, before the train came to town.” Mark stated, shoving his hat firmer onto his head as the wind picked up.

Jason bent over the small table, hurriedly jotting down numbers and adding to the rough drawing of the landscape, while at the same time, trying to prevent the sheets of paper from being blown away by the wind.

“Jason, I think you best pack it up, you’re not gonna be able to finish before the weather arrives, least not today,” Mark stated as he turned his back to the increasing wind.

The two had just finish packing their gear into the back of the buckboard when they both reacted to the sounds of gunfire, as a bullet struck the canteen hanging from the front seat, and other bullets whistled past them. Both dove for cover behind the buckboard, regretting they hadn’t thought to hitch the team or keep Mark’s horse nearby; all three horses stood hobbled in the grass clearing, in the direction the gunfire originated. Not knowing their assailants, they tried to choose their targets as they returned fire.

“We’re sitting ducks out here,” Jason commented as he reloaded his pistol.

“Are you striking anything with that?” Mark asked as he ducked, having fired all the bullets in his rifle. “I think they’re too far out of range for you, why don’t you save your ammunition, if they come closer.”

“Be careful what you wish,” Jason declared.

As they continued to defend their position, the wind drove the rain over them. Between the heavy downpour and the wind blowing, neither heard the riders approaching to their backs, until they were only a few yards away.

Jason looked up as he turned to re-load to see a rider bearing down on them. Jason ran towards the horse and grabbed the reins, and pulled the man from the saddle. The man struggled against Jason, both men twisting and turning, throwing and avoiding punches. During the fight, Jason was unaware of this handgun having slipped from his holster to the ground.

The wind drove the rain harder, turning the dirt to mud; it was an effort for Jason and his assailant to keep to their feet as they fought.

Mark looked up to see a second rider approach and fired his rifle, striking the horse as it reared when the rider abruptly hauled him to a halt. Mark ran towards the rider who jumped away from his horse as it collapsed to the ground. The man landed on his feet and charged Mark, driving him backwards into the mud.

As Jason McCord fought with his assailant, another assailant sighted down the barrel of his rifle; aiming at the center of his back. As Mark’s opponent slipped in the mud and fell to the ground, Mark saw Jason’s imminent danger; he lowered his shoulder, and ran into McCord, pushing him out of the direct line of fire. In doing so, Mark cried out as the bullet intended for Jason McCord struck him in the right shoulder, flipping and dropping him to the muddy ground.

Jason regained his balance, turned and saw Mark, blood seeping through his shirt as he lay on his back in the mud. Jason charged the man, who struggled with a jammed rifle. Before the assailant turned and ran, the man threw his weapon towards Jason, who batted it aside.

Jason’s long legs allowed him to catch up to the runner in short order; grabbing the man by the collar of his shirt, Jason pulled him backwards. Turning the man so they faced each other, Jason grabbed the front of the man’s shirt and threw a punch, striking him across the cheek, causing the man’s head to snap sideways. As the man went limp in his hand, Jason dropped him as he looked in the direction to see more of their assailants running in their direction. He turned and ran back to where Mark, shakily, was getting to his feet.

“Can you run?” Jason asked as a bullet ricocheted nearby; he reached for his weapon to find his holster empty.

With his left hand pressing into his shoulder, Mark nodded. Jason pushed him forward, before he stopped and picked up a weapon from the ground, and followed Mark. Through the continued rain, the two mud-coated men ran into the woods that lined the valley, only stopping when a winded Mark couldn’t continue.

“How bad’s… your shoulder?” an out of breath Jason asked, as he hid behind a tree, looking back the way they had come.

Leaning back against a tree, bent forward, with his hands on his knees, a winded Mark answered, “Bad… I don’t think… it went clean… through” Turning his head sideways to look at McCord, Mark asked, “Do you… have any… bullets… for that?”

After hearing Mark’s question, Jason took a moment to look at the gun in his hand, and realized the truth, “Damn.” The gun he held in his hand used a different caliber bullet than those in his gun belt.

“How many… are there?” Mark asked.

“Besides the three… we fought… don’t know,” answered Jason.

“Can you see ‘em?” Mark asked, worried about their assailants approach.

“No, but I can hear them. I don’t think they’ve come too far into the woods.”

“This rain won’t stop them… ” it was easier for Mark to talk as he recovered his breath.

“Let’s get you deeper into these woods, maybe find a dry spot, and take a look at your shoulder.”

*****

“Hey Reese!” Amos hollered as he stepped from the telegraph office, waving a piece of paper in the air.

“Howdy Amos, what’s up?” Reese Randall asked, turning his horse around to wait for the telegrapher.

“You seen Johnny?”

“He’s having lunch with Lou. Can I give him a message?”

“Sure, this is for both of you. It’s from Hallelujah Dohrn.”

Reese took the sheet of paper and read:

North Fork,

Gunrunners in your area /stop/
Bad ammo and faulty guns /stop/
U.S. Army patrol coming /stop/

Deputy U.S. Marshal Hallelujah Dohrn

*****

Having sufficiently recovered their breaths, Mark and Jason continue deeper into the woods, hoping to find a location they could hide from their assailants and the storm.

Jason helped push Mark up the steep hill that rose in front of them; the slippery footing made their ascent difficult. Both prayed there would be sufficient cover at the top.

*****

Having found refuge under a deep overhang of rock, both men rested back against the walls of the cave.

“So, are any of these ‘friends’ of yours,” Jason asked.

“Mine? I thought… they might have… been yours,” replied Mark.

“Guess you wouldn’t know why they’re after us?” Jason asked.

Mark shook his head and tried to keep his groan inwards.

“Let me see your shoulder,” Jason stated as he crawled over to Mark and unbuttoned his shirt. “You’re right, it didn’t go through.”

Pulling his bandanna from around his neck, Jason pushed it deep into the bullet hole, as he kept his fears to himself; concern for his companion from the bullet wound, his loss of blood, and the possibility of an infection.

*****

Reese entered the lobby of the hotel, causing several female guests to gasp and cling to each other in fear at seeing a black man walking casually among them, as he continued into the restaurant.

“Johnny, we got trouble,” Reese quietly stated, pulling out a chair and handing Johnny the wire.

“When it rains it pours,” Johnny commented as he folded the sheet of paper and set it to the table.

“Johnny, what’s wrong?” Lou asked.

“Nothing…” Johnny answered.

“Don’t nothing, me. I’ve been married to ye for too long to know that look in yer eyes.”

“Lou… We’ve been notified about a gun running operation.”

“And that causes it to pour?” Lou asked.

“Now, Miss Lou. It’s just that one of your guests…”

“Reese!” Johnny declared.

“One of my guests, what?” Lou wanted to know. “If it affects my hotel, I have a right to know.”

“One of your guests has a past history…” Reese answered.

“Well, don’t we all?” Lou emphatically stated.

“From what I’ve heard, trouble seems to follow the man and Johnny’s been having Mark keep an eye on him,” Reese replied, not going into any further detail.

“Is he involved with these gunrunners?” Lou inquired.

Johnny shook his head.

“Then why…” Lou barely voiced her question, when she answered, “It’s the man who looks like Lucas… That’s who. Johnny, what did he do?” Without giving Johnny a chance to speak, Lou continued, “Shame on ye for making Mark keep an eye on an outlaw who looks like his father. Why are ye avoiding him?”

“He’s not an outlaw…” Reese answered.

“Then what is he if ye’re having Mark keep an eye on him and ye’re avoiding him?” Lou’s fiery Irish eyes bore into Johnny when he didn’t answer.

Johnny curtly answered, “A man who dredges up memories of friends, long dead; a man whose very name causes men to lose track of their sanity and allows hatred to get the better of them!”

Johnny stood from the table, grabbed his hat, and angrily placed it on his head as he stormed out, into the lobby.

*****

“Where’s Mark?” Johnny asked as Reese followed him into the Marshal’s Office.

“He left earlier this morning, rode out with McCord, as he has for the past three days.”

“Damn it, we need him here.” A frustrated Johnny threw his hat on to his desk, “You had no right to tell Lou about McCord.”

Reese let Johnny’s words go, he knew the marshal’s emotions were tainted by the fact that Jason McCord was in town, only to be compounded by the news contained in the wire.

“Johnny, we don’t even know who or where these gunrunners are. You need to forget about McCord, he’s not done anything wrong. And there was no call getting riled at your wife like you did.”

“I know, it’s just… Ever since McCord arrived here, I’ve been waiting for something to happen… I hope and pray that Mark can keep the man out of my way and he’d be gone. And now… He’s still here and there’s more trouble coming.”

*****

Johnny and Reese finished placing several boxes of shells for their guns and rifles in their saddlebags.

“Micah, you keep an eye on my town, and when Mark returns, tell him to forget about McCord for the time being. Dohrn will probably wire once they have more news.”

“And how do I get any news to you?” Micah called out as Johnny and Reese grabbed their rain slickers and left the office.

*****

Night had fallen under the blanket of storm clouds when the rain finally stopped and Johnny and Reese removed their slickers to discuss making camp for the night.

“Seems someone else beat us to camp,” Johnny stated, as both saw a campfire in the distance.

“If it’s the gunrunners…” Reese asked,

“We’ll quietly take them by surprise,” Johnny answered as he checked his handgun and returned it to his holster.

“Do you think we’d be that lucky? Find them our first night out?” inquired Reese.

“Not the way my luck is going…” answered Johnny.

*****

Johnny and Reese slowly approached the camp and were surprised to find a cavalry outfit settling down for the night.

“Hello in the camp!” Johnny called.

“Enter slow and with your hands up,” a voice called out.

As they entered the light of the campfire, they watched as several soldiers with weapons drawn surrounded them.

“I’m Marshal Johnny…”

“Drako, from North Fork. Men holster your weapons and at ease. Good to see you Johnny,” called the soldier, the insignia on his collar indicated the rank of a Lt. Colonel, walking from the far side of the fire.

“Ethan?!” Johnny called out.

“Step down and have a cup of coffee,” Ethan invited. “You too deputy…”

“The name’s Reese Randall,” Reese answered as a private took his and Johnny’s horses.

“The name’s Ethan Lane and I hope you’re doing as good a job as Father did,” Ethan stated as he shook hands with the deputy.

“He’ll more than do. Least I don’t have to worry about the army recalling him,” Johnny answered.

“Then you’d be Mark’s brother-in-law?” Reese asked.

Ethan nodded before he asked, “What brings you two out this way?”

“Received a wire from the Marshal Service about gunrunners, bad ammo and weapons,” Johnny replied. “Said they were known to be headed our way from Lordsburg.”

“It’s bad, too,” commented Ethan.

“How so?” asked Reese.

The three settled around the fire as Ethan told his story, “We’ve heard rumblings of gunrunners peddling bad ammunition and weapons that won’t work.”

“Who are they selling them too?” Johnny asked.

“Settlers. That’s not the worst part, they’re telling the settlers the Indians in the area are up in arms and planning to bolt from the reservation. Father and I fear they’re setting up for a war.”

“I thought the Indians were…”

“It’s not the Indians; they’re not causing any trouble. The gunrunners are setting the settlers up, we fear they’re trying to drive the settlers out, and the Indians will be blamed.”

Reese commented after he gave out a long whistle, “Blame the Indians and they’ll be shipped off to reservations…”

“Florida, to your point,” Ethan answered.

“If they’re operating out of Lordsburg, why are you out here?” Johnny asked.

“Your information is somewhat dated… They’re somewhere south of North Fork,” Ethan answered. “We have it from reliable sources, there’s a location somewhere around five miles or so south of your town.”

“That’s where Mark…” Reese started to say.

“If they’re that close, why didn’t you wire?” Johnny ignored Reese’s statement.

“We only found out this morning, when we captured one of them, he’s on his way back to the fort. And we’ve not been near any town with a telegraph.”

*****

McCord cursed their situation, clothes soaked with rain and mud and the temperature falling as night settled around them; he looked towards Mark and watched him shiver.

“Forget what you’re thinking,” Jason stated as watched Mark open his eyes and sit up.

“What am I thinking?” Mark asked.

“You’re trying to figure out a way to get me out of here…” replied Jason. “We’re in this together.”

“But you’re not wounded; you could sneak out of here tonight, under the cover of darkness and get to the horses, return to North Fork, and get help.”

“They probably already have our horses rounded up with theirs, and I’m supposed to just walk into their camp…”

“Makes better sense for you to try,” replied Mark.

“No, I can sit over there and keep an eye on them, if they start up the hill, then we’ll try to figure out a way for both of us to get out of here. Right now, at least we’re not getting soaked. They probably won’t try anything more until morning.”

*****

The light of dawn shown into Mark’s face; waking him for the day. Looking around, he startled in not seeing Jason McCord in the cave with him. Mark groaned as he tried to sit up straighter. He closed his eyes against his discomfort as he heard Johnny’s words repeated in his head, “He’s a coward.”

Mark opened his eyes in hearing rocks falling, fearing their assailants were starting an avalanche; he relaxed when he recognized McCord.

“What are you doing?” Mark asked.

“Trying to figure a way to get us out of here, and set a little trap for them…”

Mark realized that Jason had been busy during the night in piling up rocks and small boulders along the ledge.

“If they try to climb up here, we’ll shower this down on them,” Jason finished speaking. “How’s your shoulder?”

“Still bleeding,” answered Mark.

Jason crawled over and looked at the wound, “At least it doesn’t look infected, guess the continued blood flow is keeping anything out.”

*****

As morning dawned across the valley, lawmen and soldiers were already in the saddle, heading east. By mid-afternoon, the patrol rode towards a lone rider sitting on his halted horse, waiting for them.

“Scottson, what did you find?” Ethan asked his scout, as he reined his horse in and motioned for the detail to halt.

“About two miles ahead, found evidence of a fight and I followed the tracks until I found the gunrunners’ camp. Looks like they got somebody holed up, I don’t know who or how much longer they can last. Looks like whoever it is didn’t have a chance to hitch up their team to the buckboard, stuff was loaded, but their horses were still hobbled. There was also a dead horse near the buckboard.”

“Surveying stuff?” Johnny asked.

“I didn’t get a chance to really look at the stuff, but there was something that looked like it could have been one of them tripod things.”

Ethan ordered the army scout to lead on as the patrol fell in behind him.

*****

Johnny and Scottson returned to where Reese, Ethan, and patrol waited. “Through them trees, they’ve got them holed up, midway up the hill. Whoever it is at least has some cover. It’s not a real cave, but it’s affording them good protection from below and above.

“How do you want to proceed?” Ethan asked.

“If it’s who I think it is, I’d rather let them have him,” Drako replied.

“You know who they have?” Ethan asked.

“A surveyor who’s been in town for a while,” Drako answered.

As Ethan turned to pass orders along to his men, Reese retorted, “You’re sworn to protect…”

“Don’t tell me my job. I’m only here to stop those gunrunners.”

“And if Mark…” Reese asked.

“He would have stayed in town this morning…” Drako replied. “Remember, I told Micah to have Mark forget about McCord for the time being.”

*****

Johnny and Ethan oversaw the implementation of their plan of attack and everyone set out to ensure they took as many men alive, if possible. Leaving several men behind to keep their horses, the patrol headed out on foot, through the woods in order to spring their own ambush.

Using hand signals, Ethan motioned his men into action upon hearing the gunfight begin. As they reach the edge of the woods, he realized the gunrunners were providing covering fire as several other carried small boxes marked dynamite up the hill.

The soldiers carefully selected their targets and as Ethan signaled, they begin their assault. Ethan gave the signal the moment he saw an avalanche of rocks start down the hill. The gunrunners on the hill dropped their crates and ran to get out of the way. The rock fall collected the crates and men, and at the base of the hill, one of the crates exploded. The gunrunners who were out in the open attempted to put up a fight, but upon realizing a troop of soldiers were in the line of trees, slowly threw down their weapons, and raised their hands above their heads.

“HOLD YOUR FIRE MEN!” Ethan ordered and watched as the men of his patrol took the outlaws into custody and verified others were killed in the explosion caused by the rockfall.

*****

Ethan, Reese, and Johnny looked up when they heard from above, “I’ve a wounded man up here!”

“Go on,” Ethan stated. “We’ll take care of these outlaws.”

Johnny and Reese carefully made their way up the hillside.

“How can we help?” Reese asked, being the first one to the ledge.

“Your marshal’s been shot.”

“What the hell?!” Drako declared, after reaching the ledge and seeing Mark lying again the wall; Johnny’s steely eyes narrowed. “What the hell did you do?!” Johnny grabbed Jason by the front of the shirt, shoving him backwards.

“DRAKO!” Reese yelled, grabbing Johnny’s arms, trying to pull him away. “Forget him, Mark needs our help.”

In disgust, Drako turned from his adversary and focused his attention on Mark, who lay unconscious a few yards away.

“Reese, go back to…” Johnny started to say.

“If my buckboard is still in the clearing, I’ve rope in the back…” Jason answered.

Reese quickly made his way down the hillside, “Colonel!” he yelled, “Where’s your scout?!”

“Scottson?!” Ethan yelled.

As the scout ran towards them, Reese yelled, “Where’s their buckboard? We’re gonna need it!”

Reese followed the scout through the woods, and as they entered the clearing, they found the soldiers who were left behind had already found the team and hitched them to buckboard, in addition to finding Rainmaker.

Grabbing the rope and a blanket, Reese turned and ran back through the woods, out of breath, he reached the base of the hill and started his climb.

“It’s soaking wet,” Johnny declared in taking the blanket Reese handed him. “How’s this supposed to keep him warm?”

“It’s not, I thought we could lay him on it, tie the rope around his torso and it, and we could grab hold the ends to carry him down.”

“Good thinking man,” Jason answered, as the three prepared to get Mark down the hillside.

With Jason holding the blanket at Mark’s head, Johnny and Reese grabbed hold of the blanket on either side of Mark’s feet. After slipping and sliding and gathering their footing, they arrived at the base of the hill, Scottson met them and grabbed hold of the fourth corner of the blanket, next to Jason.

*****

Mark moaned as they placed him in the back of the buckboard, Johnny climbed to the seat, grabbed the reins and slapped the horses on their haunches, yelling, “YA!”, urging the horses to race to North Fork. Jason McCord grabbed hold of Rainmaker’s reins, swung up in the saddle and followed.

*****

After having carried Mark McCain into the clinic, Jason McCord followed Johnny Drako back to the office, where the marshal slammed the door shut after him.

“Marshal…” Jason started to say.

“Don’t marshal me! Get out of my town!”

“I thought you’d want answers to what happened out there… but since you don’t, I’ll be heading to the hotel. I don’t mean to be causing you any more trouble,” McCord answered.

“Too late for that; you best hope Mark McCain can answer all my questions after Doc’s removed that bullet.” The tone of Johnny’s voice and his posture held accusations.

“You think I had something to do with his being shot?” Jason strode to stand in front of Johnny, “He was shot, taking a bullet that was meant for me.”

“Should have let you…”

“And you… a lawman,” Jason stated in disgust. “You saw what we were up against! Besides, I thought a man was presumed innocent until proven guilty.”

“You were proven guilty. You stood trial and were convicted; you were drummed out of the army…”

“I’m not talking Bitter Creek. I’m talking what happened yesterday… and this morning.”

“You best pray that boy recovers,” Johnny started to speak. “You’ll stand trial for his murder, as an accessory, if he dies.”

“When Mark McCain recovers, he’ll answer all your questions, to your satisfaction,” Jason stated, turned, and left the office.

*****

Milly, and Hope, exited the daycare when she called out, “LUCAS!” and ran along the boardwalk towards the Marshal’s Office.

“Ma’am?” greeted a mud-caked Jason McCord, removing his hat as Milly stopped in front of him.

“I’m sorry,” Milly stated, pulling the tips of her fingers to her mouth. “I thought you were someone else.”

“Seems to be a lot of that going around,” Jason answered.

“I’m sorry for bothering you…” Milly answered.

“It was no bother ma’am, it was my pleasure Miss…?”

“Mrs. McCain, Milly McCain…”

“Are you related to the Marshal?” Jason asked.

“I’m his mother,” answered Milly. “And this is Hope, she’s Mark’s wife.”

“And neither of you know?”

“Know what?” Hope cried as she covered her mouth with her hand, feeling her felt her stomach drop.

“We brought him in a little while ago, he’s at the…” Jason pointed to the clinic as he spoke, “clinic.”

Hope turned, picked up the skirt of her dress, and ran across the street to the clinic.

“Ma’am,” Jason immediately took hold of Milly’s upper arm, looked both ways and waited as a freight wagon passed, before he saw her across the street; he opened the door and showed her inside. Hope was pleading with Sarah McCafferty.

“Hope, please, he’ll be okay. Aaron and Thadd are operating on him as we speak.”

“How bad?” asked a crying Hope.

“Ma’am, if I may?” Jason inquired of Sarah, “Do you have somewhere a little more private?”

Sarah nodded and showed them to Thadd’s office.

“Ma’am, your husband took a bullet to the shoulder, saving my life. For which I am most grateful. However, he lost a fair amount of blood.”

Hope took a moment to look at the stranger who stood before her, “You’re the surveyor?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Mark told me about you, but he didn’t say anything about you looking…”

Milly still couldn’t believe the similarity between the man who stood before her, and Lucas, as she looked up from comforting Hope to say, “You said, Mark saved your life?”

“Yes ma’am, we were ambushed yesterday late-morning. We were able to find a spot where we could hold off our attackers… If your marshal and the army detail hadn’t shown up with they did…”

From the other side of the door Milly and Hope heard a male voice call out, “Where’s Mark?!”

“Ethan?” Hope curiously asked, looking from Jason to Milly to the door. Breaking Milly’s embrace, Hope stood to her feet and ran to the doorway, “Ethan!”

“Sis,” Ethan called as he entered the office. “How’s Mark? Johnny and someone else rode ahead with him. I’m sorry I couldn’t get here any sooner.”

“He’s in surgery,” Hope answered as she accepted her brother’s embrace.

“Lucas…?” Ethan asked and shook his head questioningly, after he saw the other man in the office.

*****

Johnny Drako entered the clinic where Sarah informed him that Mark was still in surgery and that Hope and Milly were in Thadd’s office. Johnny stopped outside the door and listened when he heard Jason McCord say, “Pleased to meet you. Thanks for arriving when you did. I don’t know how much longer the Marshal, or I, would have lasted has you not come when you did.”

“How did you and Mark happen to be out there?” Ethan asked.

Johnny continued to stew as he listen as Jason McCord told the story of his job surveying the land, their ambush, and his trying to save their lives.

*****

Johnny and Micah were sitting in the room when Mark woke later that evening.

“Good to see you awake, boy,” Micah stated, breathing a sigh of relief.

“Where?” Mark barely voiced out.

“You’re in North Fork, at the clinic.”

“Hope…” Mark tried to speak.

“She knows, she and Milly were in town when we brought you in,” Johnny answered. “They’re at the hotel. Micah, why don’t you go get his family, I’m sure they’re eager to see him awake.”

Micah left the room and Johnny shut the door behind him.

“How could you try to take on that gang by yourself?!” demanded Johnny. “I told you to stay in town.”

“Johnny, could I have… some water.”

Johnny handed a glass of water to Mark and waited while he drank.

“I don’t know why you’re so upset, we were the ones who were ambushed… Wait a minute, when did you tell me to stay in town?”

“Yesterday, I left word with Micah.”

“If it’s all the same to you, I didn’t come back to town; we were ambushed and spent the night out there. And for your information, we didn’t ‘take on that gang’ by ourselves.”

“I’m sorry, Mark…” Johnny admitted. “Just… we received word from Hallelujah that a gang of gunrunners was in the area…”

“Guess they were the ones that we were after earlier…” Mark took another drink of water.

Hope and Milly knocked and opened the clinic room door and entered. Hope ran to embrace her husband; grateful tears that her husband was alive fell down her face.

*****

The following morning, Johnny again was in Mark’s room at the clinic. He informed Mark, in more detail, who their attackers were. When the subject of their conversation turned to Jason McCord, Johnny demanded, “I want him gone!”

“Johnny, Jason’s done nothing wrong.”

“If he weren’t here, you wouldn’t have been out there!” argued Johnny.

“If anyone’s is to blame, it’s you!”

“What?!” exclaimed Johnny.

“I’ll admit I was curious why the army commissioned a survey, but you were the one who wanted me to keep an eye on him, to keep him away from you.”

“Now wait one minute!” argued Johnny.

“No Johnny, I won’t. Your impression of Jason is wrong. I’ve spent enough time over the past few days with him to know him. I’ll tell you one thing, he’s not a coward!”

“Then how do you explain that?” Johnny asked pointing to Mark’s arm.

“Damn it Johnny! I got shot doing my job, protecting a man. One of your gunrunners was going to shoot him in the back.” Mark’s aggravation was evident in his voice and by the redness of his face.

“You should have let him!” retorted Johnny.

“If that’s how you feel, maybe you better quit being a marshal,” Mark answered. “Johnny when you first arrived, you had a reputation, and if it weren’t for Pa, Lou probably would have had Micah run you out of town.”

“What does my past have to…”

“Johnny, you of all people know reputations grow with each retelling… Along the way, the story gets retold and distorted into something that no longer resembles the truth.”

“You’re sticking up for him?!”

“I’m sticking up for the truth.”

“The truth is, a lot of good men died that day! The Army found him guilty!”

“And Jason won’t dispute those points, either. Johnny…”

“Grow up McCain! You’re just being naïve …,” argued Johnny.

“Johnny, you have no right!” yelled Mark.

“What’s going on here?!” demanded Aaron Jamison. “I said you could see my patient, not get in an argument with him.”

“We’re not arguing,” responded Mark.

“Not arguing? I could hear the two of you out on the street,” an upset Aaron stated as he began to examine his patient.

“The boy said we weren’t arguing,” Johnny stated as he left the room, brushing past Hope.

“Boy…?! What’s going on?” asked a confused Hope as she entered her husband’s room, having heard Johnny’s comment.

“Just a difference of opinion…” Mark replied.

“Mark, I told you, you need to be quiet, and take it easy,” chastised Aaron. “You’ve opened your wound.”

“Ouch!” Mark exclaimed as Aaron prodded his wound. “I can’t help it if he’s pig…”

“Mark!” Hope declared.

‘headed,” finished Mark.

Hope watched as Aaron redressed Mark’s shoulder, binding it tighter than he had previously.

“Hope, try to keep your husband quiet,” Aaron stated as he left the room and closed the door behind him.

“What was your argument about?” inquired Hope.

“A difference of opinion.”

“Regarding Jason McCord?”” asked Hope.

“How?”

“Ma and I met him on the street, you were already in surgery.”

“McCord was the lone survivor of an Indian attack at Bitter Creek…”

“And Johnny?”

“He lost some good friends that day…” Mark answered, shaking his head.

“So how does that…”

“Hope, Johnny can’t let go of the past, what he thinks he knows about Jason’s past…”

“What he ‘thinks’ he knows? Mark what happened?” asked Hope as she sat down on the edge of the bed.

“Hope, if you’d of seen him out there… Jason saved my life and what he did isn’t the act of someone who’s a coward.”

“A coward? Johnny thinks he’s a coward?”

“I’ll explain later, once things have settled down.”

“I’m just glad all of them met up and were able to find you,” stated Hope.

“All?” Mark asked.

“Johnny and Jason brought you home. Reese, Ethan and his patrol followed later with the gunrunners in custody.”

“Ethan?” asked Mark.

“Yes, he told Ma and me yesterday that he was on assignment looking for the gunrunners. He happened upon Johnny and Reese, who had been notified by Agent Dohrn the gunrunners were in the area.” Hope stopped speaking when she heard Mark groan a little. “Are you okay?”

“Just a headache, too much to think about.”

“I can get Doc?”

Mark nodded.

Thadd returned to the room with Hope and after he examined Mark he said, “Between what Aaron told me happened earlier, plus the amount of blood you lost and the effects of the ether, you’re going to experience headaches for a few more days. That’s why you need to keep quiet.”

“I didn’t start the argument,” Mark answered.

Thadd removed two pills from a bottle, handed them and a glass of water to Mark, “Drink up and swallow these. I recommend that you sleep for a few more hours. You’ll feel better.”

“Ethan said he’d stop by to see you later,” Hope stated, her eyes shining bright in seeing her husband setting down and knowing her brother was in town.

“Ethan? What’s he doing here? I thought…”

“I just told you, he was leading the detachment that rescued you…,” voiced a concerned Hope.

“I sorry, I was…”

“…sleeping on the job,” Ethan teased, upon entering the room. “Good to see you awake. How’s the shoulder.”

“Doc says it will heal,” replied Mark.

“If you get some sleep,” Thadd stated. “I’m sorry, but I really would prefer if you come back later.”

Before he escorted his sister from the room, Ethan said, “I’ll stop by later. Get some sleep, Mark.”

*****

As they left the clinic, Hope asked, “Ethan, what do you know about Bitter Creek?”

“Bitter Creek? Wow. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard that name,” Ethan exhaled upon pushing his hat back.

“Tell me,” Hope insisted.

“I know the official record, but from what Father says, there’s a lot more to it.”

“What happened?” Hope asked.

“The Army sent a detachment to search for Indians off the reservation. There was a lone survivor…”

Hope commented, “Jason McCord.”

“How’d you…?”

“Ethan, he’s been in North Fork for almost a week. You met him yesterday.”

“I’m sorry Sis… I didn’t put it together. McCord was one of few officers who knew the plan behind the rendezvous… and being the only survivor… the Army charged him with desertion and cowardice. He was drummed out of the Army.”

“But Mark said he doesn’t believe it…”

“There’s scuttlebutt, I heard from Father…a long time ago.” Taking his sister by the upper arm, Ethan stopped, “Why do you want to know?”

“Mark and Johnny got into an argument over Jason McCord.”

“Think I better stick around for a while, at least until the fire dies down,” Ethan commented.

*****

The next day, Ethan and Johnny entered Mark’s room at the clinic.

“What do I owe the pleasure of both of you coming in here?” asked Mark as he pushed himself to sit up in the bed.

“I need to know what happened so I can add it to my report,” Johnny stated.

“You’ve not wanted to listen before,” replied Mark.

“Mark.” Ethan’s voice held an edge of warning.

After listening to Mark recount what he could remember from the time the attack began, until he woke in the clinic, Ethan asked, “Well?”

“His story matches what McCord said happened,” Drako answered; disappointment tinted his voice that he had hoped there would have been some discrepancy.

“What did he say happened when I lost consciousness that night?” asked Mark.

“He said he kept an eye on you and he managed to come and go, gathering rocks and stones for the avalanche,” Johnny answered.

“Johnny, once I was out, he could have easily left me there, to be found by those gun runners,” replied Mark. “I even tried to get him to leave, once night fell… Johnny… His eyes and the tone of his voice held conviction; he was going to stay there and see that both of us got out.”

“You really believe in him?” Johnny asked, trying to understand his friend.

“Johnny, there’s something about him that I can’t really describe; but I know, a coward would have left me. To me, actions speak louder than words. I can’t explain what happened at Bitter Creek, but sometimes people lie for reasons other than protecting themselves.”

“ Mark, from what I remember overhearing Father say, he didn’t lie at his court martial, he didn’t offer any material defense,” Ethan stated.

“So, how do I stand as the Marshal of North Fork?” Johnny asked.

“What?” Mark asked, somewhat surprised at the question.

“Well, you told me I should turn in my badge,” Johnny stated, raising an eyebrow.

“If I said that, then it must have been a side effect of the ether. Johnny, you’re good for this town. I don’t want your badge,” replied Mark.

“I’ll admit, I did a little soul searching last night and realized just how much I allowed my hatred to get the better of me. I even told Lou that McCord could make a man question his sanity.”

“I…” Mark didn’t know what to say.

“Can you work with me, knowing how I feel about the man’s past?”

Mark answered Johnny with another question, “Can you work with me, knowing how I feel about the man’s present?”

Ethan smiled as the two lawmen reconciled; he also knew his sister would be extremely happy to hear his report.

*****

Later the following day, Aaron examined Mark’s wound and stated, “If you’ll take it easy…” he raised his eyebrows, “You can return to light duty. But please, listen to your body and if you become fatigued…rest.”

“I’ll do my best,” Mark stated as Aaron retied the sling around his neck. “By the way, you might want to know that Mr. McCord bought a ticket on this afternoon’s train.”

“Does that mean you’re discharging me?” asked Mark.

“For the time being, until you overdo it,” Aaron laughed.

Mark arrived at the station in time to see Jason lead his horse into the livestock car and return to the platform.

“It’s been a pleasure working with you,” stated Mark as he offered his left hand. “Jason, when we first met, you said you mistook me for someone you once knew.”

“I remember.”

“Who was he?” asked Mark.

“He was a lawman, a young deputy, only…” McCord’s eyes softened in his remembering.

“Only?” curiously, Mark asked.

“He was a lot like you; he believed in the people of his town, and the town itself, maybe he was even a little too trusting of those he shouldn’t have… He was still wet behind the ears, more than you, but I’d like to think as he grew in his responsibilities, he’d be just like you are today. Or… Maybe I wish you could be a little more naïve. As young as you are, I guess you’ve seen your fair share of the dark side of man.”

“Yeah, at times, more than my Pa wished,” replied Mark.

“I’ve not met him, but from what I’ve witnessed, he’s a man blessed,” Jason quietly responded.

“If you’d like, he’s stepping off the train. I’d like to introduce the two of you…” Mark pointed to the tall, slender man stepping to the platform, carpetbag in one hand, rifle in the other.

“Mark!” hollered Lucas as he recognized his son; concern etched his face upon seeing his son’s right arm in a sling.

“Welcome home, Pa!” called Mark.

Lucas hesitated in his stride as he looked at the stranger standing next to his son.

“Pa, I’d like you to meet Jason McCord.” Turning to Jason, “Jason, this is my Pa, Lucas McCain.”

“Welcome to North Fork,” greeted Lucas as he placed his carpetbag to the ground and extended his hand.

“Sorry, but it’s goodbye. I need to make my reports and file my survey. You should be proud of the fine son you’ve raised,” greeted Jason as he accepted Lucas’ handshake.

A humbled Lucas replied, “I am.”

“Jason, can I ask question?” asked Mark as the conductor called “All aboard!”

“Sure.”

“You didn’t step aside the other day, and I can’t see you stepping aside back then.”

Pulling his hat forward on his head, McCord looked Mark in the eye and said, “That’s not a question.”

Mark understood McCord’s response, “I didn’t think so. You know, I do have pull with the army.”

“Mark, its old history… long, buried, forgotten,” replied McCord. “It’s best to leave it buried, most people will have forgotten.”

“But you haven’t…”

“Good men died that day…”

“But…” interrupted Mark.

“Son, it’s something I chose to live with.”

“To live with a lie… Above all else, to thine ownself be true…” pleaded Mark, struggling to understand why. “I don’t know why you’d allow men to believe about you like you do.”

“Mark, I hope you live a long life and are never put in a position where you have to make that decision. Only then, would you understand. Goodbye.” McCord tapped the brim of his hat and climbed the steps to the passenger car.

“McCord, it’s not over!” Mark yelled as the train started pulling away. He watched until Jason stepped inside.

Turning to his Pa, Mark smiled, knowing how happy his family would be upon Lucas’ early return.

“We weren’t expecting you for a couple of more days,” stated Mark.

“I can see that. Care to let your old man in on what happened and why your arm is in a sling?”

“Come on, we can talk about it on our way home,” suggested Mark as he started to grab Lucas’ carpetbag.

“I think I can handle it, son. By the way, your friend’s name sounded familiar…”

Father and son walked across the main street.

“At first I thought he was you returning…”

“He did look a little like me…” stated Lucas as he scratched his cheek.

“A little?! Other than his short-cropped hair and a little more gray around his temples, he could be your twin… More so than…” Mark couldn’t bring himself to say the outlaw’s name.

“Still, who was he?” asked Lucas.

“A surveyor for the Army,” Mark stated as they entered the livery stable.

“What were you saying about ‘not being over’?” Lucas asked; nodding in acknowledgment as Nils Swenson approached.

“Welcome home Lucas!” Nils called out, “Mark you want me to get Rainmaker ready?”

Mark nodded. “Pa, have you ever deliberately let a lie get perpetuated? A lie that was so wrong, it ruined your reputation. The mere mention of your name would turn people against you?”

“What are you getting at?” asked Lucas.

“Pa, Jason McCord… he rode at Bitter Creek…”

“That’s where I know the name. And you think…?”

“It’s all a lie.”

“Maybe you’re seeing him as me and can’t get past…” Lucas stated as he started to saddle Blade.

“No,” Mark interrupted. “Not after what we went through… A man doesn’t change that much over time. If he were the coward, they all say he was… Pa, his actions prove different. While I was sleeping, he could have left me out there. Yet, he accepts what others say about him and refuses to defend that he wasn’t a coward… Something else had to happen that day at Bitter Creek, I get the feeling there’s something else that he’s fighting hard to keep hidden… He’s protecting someone…”

“Mark, you have to let it go…if he’s chosen to live the lie for this long in order to protect someone else… Remember, we chose to lie once, to protect others…”

“But Pa, that wasn’t at the cost of our reputations…”

“Son, why don’t you tell me what happened while I was gone.”

As Nils handed Mark Rainmaker’s reins, he began his story.

*****

Mark finished his story as they rode over the rise just beyond their homesteads; Mark asked about the urgent business in Santa Fe.

“Seems the army is requisitioning a substantial amount of beef from this area.”

“Cattle? What for?”

“They wouldn’t say, only stated that we would be expected to round up and deliver our quota by the beginning of September.”

“September? Pa, Jason is a surveyor, and the Army contracted his employers to conduct a survey…”

“And your brain is connecting the two?” inquired Lucas.

“Wouldn’t you?”

“So, why the survey?” asked Lucas.

“That I don’t know…” Mark stated as they stopped in their front yard. “But they have to be connected.”

“How does Hope feel about that?” Lucas asked, pointing to Mark’s sling.

“Well, she and Ma were in town when they brought me back.”

“Are you able to unsaddle your horse or would you like some help?”

“I think Hope is here to help. Goodnight, Pa,” answered Mark as he stepped from his horse in front of Lucas’ barn, and attempted to hug his wife, only to have her evade him, until she was able to take the reins from his hand.

“Welcome home, Pa,” Hope called after hugging her husband.

*****

Mark led his horse into its stall and began to loosen the cinch, only to have Hope lovingly push him aside. He smiled as he watched his wife unsaddle and unbridle his horse. Hearing the high-pitched squeal, Mark walked over to Two-Bits’ stall and fed her and her colt a sugar cube.

“So, have you decided on a name?” Mark asked as he scratched the foal behind the ear.

“We’ll, I was thinking…since Rainmaker is his sire…” Hope answered as she hefted Mark’s saddle to its rack and turned to walk over to where Mark stood, “what do you think of Storm Shadow?”

“Storm Shadow? I like it…” answered Mark as he swept and errant strand of his wife’s hair from her face to behind her ear.

*****

Mark entered his home and greeted his brother-in-law.

“Good to see that’s not slowing you down,” teased Ethan.

“It aches and itches, but that’s about it. So, how much longer do we get to enjoy your company?”

“I’ll need to be returning tomorrow. Father wired that my company returned to Fort Wingate without any incident, with the remaining gun runners under arrest.”

“I’m glad those gunrunners didn’t stay in town any longer than they did,” commented Hope.

“Why does the army have jurisdiction over them? It sounded like a civilian case to me,” stated Mark as he pulled out a chair from the table in their front room and sat down.

“It did, until we found out the reason why they were running guns. It was a deliberate case of trying to reclaim the land.”

“Reclaim the land?” asked Hope as she handed her brother a cup of coffee and sat down at the table next to Mark.

“Thanks, sis. Yes, they were hoping to start an uprising, Indians against settler, with both sides losing.”

“But there aren’t any Indians around here, at least not in any numbers,” Mark commented, trying to figure out why.

“I have news that I’m not privy to divulge, but believe me, it would have been bad for the settlers, and the Indians, with those who survived probably being shipped to the swamps of Florida, had we not apprehended the bunch.”

“Ethan, what can you tell me about Jason McCord?” Mark asked.

“Mark,” Hope interrupted before her brother could answer, “Have you and Johnny resolved your differences?”

“In a way… He won’t admit his feelings regarding Jason are wrong, as far as Bitter Creek is concerned. But at least he doesn’t blame Jason for this,” stated Mark as he raised his slinged-arm.

“Mark, I know you and he struck up a friendship of sorts, but I strongly advise you against asking any more questions.”

“Why? Why should a man have to live his life as a lie? There has to be more to the story… He’s hiding something,” Mark stated as he stood from the table and walked to stand in front of the fireplace to his home, and rested his forearm against the mantle, and stared into the fire.

“It’s what he wants,” Ethan answered.

“What he wants?!” a surprised Mark asked as he turned to face his brother-in-law.

“Mark, Father won’t go into details, but there’s a lot that was never revealed at the trial. As long as people like you, make up their own minds based on the man’s actions… That’s all that matters to him.” Knowing his brother-in law, Ethan continued, “Mark, please… for his sake and for the memory of those who died, let it go. Don’t open up old wounds.”

“There’s no other way?”

Ethan shook his head.

 

Author’s Note:  At this time, this is where this saga stops.  I do have addition chapters in the works, but they are not finished.  Maybe someday my muse will inspire me to continue.

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