The Rifleman
"Mark's Memories"
You've heard Lucas' story, now hear Mark's Story
written by Michelle Palmer

Which Way'd They Go? Episode 167
Mark’s story

Pa had just declared “Monday Afternoon, as I walked into Micah’s office.

I jumped as Micah pounded his fist on the desk. “I MUST be in Yuma next Wednesday, Lucas! I have to leave on Monday afternoon!” Micah stood and poured a cup of coffee as he shook his head. “I can’t be in two places at one time, nor can I leave this town unguarded! The judge in Yuma is insisting I be there…I have absolutely NO choice!”

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“Nothing, Mark.” Pa stood and walked over to Micah. “Look, Micah…You have a whole town full of good, strong men who can handle the town for a few days and…”

“Now see here, Lucas! Don’t you think I’ve talked to all of them? I have! None of them have the time to…” Micah sputtered the coffee out. “Oh, this is cold!”

I hurried up to the two arguing men. “What’s going on? Why are you both going out of town?” I asked then

Pa turned and rolled his eyes at me. “Mark, will you wait outside, son?”

“But Pa, I just want to know…” I started.

“Wait outside!” Micah boomed. I turned and hurried outside.

I shoved my hands into my pockets and walked across the street, kicking dirt up as I went. Lou hurried out of the hotel as I kicked some dirt up. She suddenly coughed and sputtered. “Mark McCain!” she declared as she placed her hands on her hips. I apologized, but she kept those hands on her hips. “Now, you march right inside and get the broom! I expect this whole boardwalk clean!”

“Miss Lou, I’m almost 15 years old! I…” I started.

“I don’t care if your 15 or 50 – I gave you an order and expect ye to follow it!” She pointed toward the hotel. “Now go!” I knew I had no choice. She would make no hesitation in giving me a hard smack on the backside if she had a mind to, and Pa wouldn’t dare interfere with it! After my job was done, I again apologized for kicking dirt up.

I started to leave. Lou thanked me for cleaning the boardwalk – she said it needed sweeping mighty bad. “And if you don’t mind, when you’re here next week, I would appreciate you helping out a bit with the sweeping and such.”

I had turned to leave, but froze in my tracks. Slowly, I turned around. “What?”

“Not much, Mark. Just keeping outside clean. You know, cleaning up the manure and keeping the out doors presentable.” I just stared at her. She put her hands on her hips. “I’ll bake ye some apple pie for the job!”

That prospect didn’t make me feel any better! I slowly shook my head. “It’s not that, Lou it’s…why would I be staying…here?”

“When your father leaves…you need someplace to stay!”
“My father…leaves?” I cocked my head to one side and stared at her. “Where is he going?”

Lou suddenly threw a hand to her mouth. “Oh jumping June bugs! I did it again!” She shook her head. “I suppose your father hasn’t told ye.”

“I heard him and Micah talking but Pa didn’t tell me why he was leaving.” I stuck my hands in my back pockets. “Besides, even if he DOES leave for a few days…I can stay by myself at the ranch. I…”

I turned and walked across the street. I walked back into Micah’s office. After closing the door, I leaned against it. They were still at it. “Why don’t you ask Nils?” Pa asked.

“Nils…” Micah gave a short laugh. He turned from the stove. “It just so happens, Lucas that I DID ask Nils. He told me that after what happened the last time he stood deputy, he didn’t feel it appropriate.” Micah handed Pa a fresh cup of coffee. “By the way, what DID happen when I was out of town? I never did get the whole story. Why, when I came back and saw three men in my cell, I thought Nils deserved a medal!”

Pa sighed. “Well, let’s just say everything isn’t always as it seems.”

“Meaning?” Micah asked then.

“Meaning…” Pa shook his head.

“Oh, Micah! Nils made a great deputy! Why, he learned a mighty good lesson, and I think that-“ I started forward.

“What lesson?” Micah asked.

“Mark! I thought I told you to wait outside!” Pa demanded impatiently.

“Yes sir, you did.” I crossed my arms and came forward. “Lou just informed me you were going out of town and I was staying with her for a few days. Now I want to know…” I started.

“I want to know who’s going to protect this town and make sure law and order is kept while I’m gone!” Micah declared as he again banged his fist on the desk.

“Well, Mark can’t do it,” Pa stated sarcastically.

I gasped. “Boy, it sure would be a fine thing if I was a little older! I could stand deputy for Micah!”

Pa closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. “Mark…” Pa sighed. “Somehow that prospect doesn’t thrill me…” Pa turned back to Micah. “Look…I’ll talk to Nils for ya. If he says no, I’ll talk to some of the others. Surely someone would take time out to…”

“Where ARE you going, Pa?” I asked for the third or fourth time…I don’t know, I lost count!

“Your father is going to go buy some cattle, Mark. From the urgency of it, I surely hope they are prized cattle!” Micah held a hint of anger in his voice.

“Look, Micah…I…” Pa started.

“Oh, I know, I know!” Micah sat down at his desk and looked down at some papers. He groaned. “Oh, could you at least take care of the eviction for me? I can’t deal with these people! Just tell them to clear on out! Don’t let the door hit them in the…” Micah stopped and looked at me. “I hope you can talk someone into standing deputy for me, Lucas.”

Pa took the paper from Micah and groaned. “Micah, I have so much work at the ranch. Can’t you…” Pa stopped as Micah slowly started to stand from the chair. I put a hand to my mouth to stifle laughter, but some escaped anyhow. Boy, I sure would like to see a fist fight between these two – even if Pa COULD win hands down! “Alright, Micah…I’ll do it!”

“Pa, I still want to know…” I started.

“Later, son…Later!” Pa looked down at the paper. “Right now I have to evict the Jackman’s.”

“The Jackman’s?” I let out a joyful noise. “Boy howdy, ain’t I glad to see them leave!”

“Mark!”

I gasped and looked toward pa who was holding a half-serious warning look on his face.

“Now Pa, you know them Jackman’s have done nothing but give North Fork a dirty name! They are some of the dumbest…”

“Seems to me you had your mouth washed out with soap a few months back, Mark. I believe Lou still has some of that at the hotel. And you know it’s a short walk.”

I closed my mouth. “Yes sir.” I started for the door. “Well, since you have official business, pa. I’ll go home and start repairing the corral. See ya…”

Pa grabbed the back of my collar to stop my forward motion. “Not so fast there, boy.” Pa held up the paper. “I think this is a father-son event.” I opened my mouth to speak. “I’d hate to have to get that soap. Last time I used it, you did so much hollering and made some pretty nasty faces…I don’t hanker to do it again!”

I plopped my hat back on my head. “Let’s get this over with!” Though I was wondering if staying in town while Miss Lou gave me a nice, long tongue lashing and mouth washing wouldn’t have been less painful then facing those stupid, no good Jackman’s and listening to their talk!

As we stepped outside, we almost ran smack into a stranger. “Oh, excuse me!” I declared as I pulled my hat back on my head.

“Say…” Pa pointed at the man who couldn’t have been past 25. “Don’t I know you?”

The man nodded. “From Enid.” He pulled out a letter. “The Marshal there told me to look you up when I got here. Have family just outside of North Fork and am in need of a job.”

“You rode deputy for the Marshal?” Pa looked up at the stranger. “Say, aren’t you Dave Pratt’s son?”

“Certainly am!” He held a hand out to my Pa. “Name’s Charlie. Charlie Pratt.”

“Well, I’ll be dog gone!” Pa pumped his hand happily. “Last time I saw you, you were only…”

“Seventeen.” Charlie smiled. “I’ve grown a bit since then. I’m wiser and stronger and…” Charlie stopped. “Well, anyhow, I could really use the money.”

Pa looked at me. I smiled. Pa looked down at the letter again. “Would you be interested in deputying?”

“Well….I…I don’t know…” Charlie looked around. “This town’s not quite as big as Enid, but…”

Pa laughed. “It’s not nearly as old as Enid either. Say, you seen any McCain’s there lately?”

“As a matter of fact, I saw a couple of your brothers before I left! Their kids are getting so big – said for me to look you up special. They sure do talk about you.”

I saw a look of sadness come over Pa’s face. “I sure do miss them.” His voice broke. “I’d do almost anything to…”

Charlie cleared his throat. “You seem to be doing okay.” He suddenly looked at me, as if noticing me for the first time. “Say…this isn’t that six-year old sad little boy I saw the day of Mrs. McCain’s funeral, is it?”

“It sure is!” Pa put a proud arm around my shoulders. “He’s grown a bit since you last saw him.” He turned to me. “Son, Charlie and his family here…they lived in Enid. Charlie’s sister and mother died during the epidemic.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.” I shook my head. “Seems everybody lost somebody…”

“It was a bad epidemic,” Charlie declared. “Bad indeed.” We grew silent.

“Well…” Pa patted Charlie on the back. “Come on in. You can meet Micah and see about that deputy job.” We hurried back inside. I listened as Pa and Micah talked for awhile. Micah was still not sure about hiring a stranger. “I tell you what, Micah…Charlie’s father did my family a lot of favors over the years. I’d like to return the favor. I’ll take him with me to evict the Jackman’s. You deputize him and I’ll go out there with him. Keep him with you for the next couple of days to get a better feel. Come on, Micah. He’s a family friend.”

Micah drummed his fingers on the desk. He looked at me and Pa, then at Charlie. Slowly, he opened the desk. He pulled out a deputy’s badge. “Alright.” He stood up. “Raise your right hand. Do you solemnly swear to uphold the letter of the law to the best of your ability?”

“I do.”

“Then I hereby deputize you as deputy of North Fork.” As Charlie pinned the badge on, I couldn’t help wonder if I’d ever be able to stand in his place – if I’d ever be able to pin a badge on my shirt and hold a rifle…go out on a posse…step into a saloon to stop a drunken brawl…stop a shootout on-

“Mark!”

“Huh?” I turned my head. Pa put his hands on his hips and raised his eyebrows. “I mean…yes sir?”

“Where did you go?” Pa asked.

“Oh…” I put my hat back on as we started out the door. “Nowhere you’d approve of, Pa.”

***

“I sure don’t remember him!” I declared later as we sat eating supper at home. We had gotten the Jackman’s evicted. I sure was glad to see them go, but I said nothing more about it to Pa.

“You were only six, son,” Pa said. “You didn’t much remember Ann Dodd or her family either. Little boys that young only have mostly short-term memories.”

“I remember my mother.”

Pa smiled. “Your mother was someone special, son. She gave birth to you. She loved you unconditionally. You are bound to remember her.”

“Yeah.” I smiled. Then I took a bite of my pinto beans. I ate silently for a few minutes. “Pa?” Pa looked up at me as he sat his coffee down. “I heard from Lou you’re going to be out of town?” I hesitantly asked. “Why?”

“Mark, you know those cattle I’ve been so excited to buy? I received wire that I have to buy them next week. If I don’t, the owner has someone else who wants to buy them. He can’t hold them for me until you get out on school break.”

“-How long will you be gone?”

“Only about four or five days, son.”

“Then…” I looked down at my plate, then back up. “Then why are you making me stay in town? I thought we had an understanding that…I mean, I’ve been staying here at the ranch when you’ve been gone.”

“I know.” Pa sat down his fork and folded his arms on the table. “Mark…Lou is worried about you. She knows the year you’ve had and she’s a bit concerned you’ll have trouble dealing with it.”

“Oh Pa!” I rolled my eyes. “Lou’s just a worry wart! I…”

“Lou’s a woman, son. Women, they tend to worry…” Pa sighed. “The truth is, men do to. Look son, I’m not saying that I won’t worry while I’m gone because I will. You’re my son and I expect it’ll take some getting used to. The truth is, Lou’s short on help. You know some of her help has quit recently to help with the railroad. She’s had to hire some extra help for the store and…Well, this is a busy time of year. Micah’s going to be gone and there won’t be as much protection in the town.” Pa sighed. “I’d feel better if a…man I knew and…trusted was with her to make sure everything’s okay. I want that man to be you.”

I smiled. “You really like her…don’t you?”

Pa smiled back as he raised his eyebrows. “Son, our relationship is complicated. It’s more complicated than the one Milly and I have…or…had…still have…Lou and I are closer than friends, but we aren’t a couple. I know it’s hard for a 14 year old to…”

“Pa, I’m almost 15.”

Pa chuckled. “Alright. I know it’s hard for an almost 15 year old to understand, but adults – they need to keep company with someone of the opposite sex. We have an understanding, son, that I can only give her a little piece of my heart. The truth is…a big piece of it is still back in Enid. The rest is with a lovely lady in Kansas City. She understands…and accepts that. I’m asking you to do the same.”

I smiled. “Sure Pa.” Pa started to say more. I held up my hand. “Uh, Pa…I’ll stay with Lou.”

“Thanks son.”

As I washed dishes that evening, I got to thinking about Charlie and the excitement of standing Marshal. I wondered how old I would be when I was asked to stand deputy. I wondered what it would feel like to stand in front of the Marshal with my hand raised…I imagined it would make me feel proud! I wondered what it was like to have the weight of the whole town weighing on your shoulders – to watch people walking past you and looking at that tin star on your shirt. I husked out my chest just thinking on it!

“Mark, that water’s going to get cold if you don’t hurry with those dishes! What are you doing? Trying to get soft hands or something? Come on, shake a leg!”

I turned and looked at Pa. “What?”

“I said…” Pa stopped and cocked his head to one side as he slowly sat down his rifle and walked over to me. “What’s going on, son? You’ve been somewhere else all evening.”

“I’m…just thinking.”

“About what?” Pa asked as he leaned against the counter and picked up a dish towel.

“The future.”

“Oh?” Pa took the plate from my hand and started drying it. “What do you see in this future?”

I smiled. “It’s silly.”

“Maybe not…What is it, son?” Pa paused in his drying to look at me.

“Well…” I looked down at the plate I was washing. Then I looked back up at him. “I was just wondering what…what it would be like to…to stand deputy.”

“Oh.” Pa turned from me and put the plate away. I went back to my washing. “Well…if it’s your destiny to do that, I can’t change it. Only…” Pa allowed his voice to die.

“Only what, Pa?” I asked.

“Well…” Pa turned back to me as he took another plate from me. “To tell you the truth, son, you standing deputy…it never crossed my mind.” Pa turned and propped an elbow on the counter. He sat down that plate and put a hand on my shoulder. “But if it’s what you really want to do, son…I can’t stand in your way.”

“How will I know, Pa?”

“Well…” Pa sighed. “You’ll just know, son. It’s like…” He shook his head as he tried to find the words to say. “Well, it’s like I’ve always wanted to be a rancher. It’s been my passion ever since I was a little boy. There’s nothing I’d rather do. Oh, I know I have the skills to Marshal and would be good at it, but it’s not where my heart lays. I still do it though.” Pa squeezed my shoulder. “Mark…here in a few years, you’ll know. Sometimes it’s a series of events that leads you to the understanding. Sometimes it’s something deep inside you, it’s something you have no control over.”

“Well…” I licked my lips as I handed him a bowl I’d been washing all throughout his speech. “I feel I want to be your partner and work on the ranch.” Pa nodded. “But what if someday I find that I DO want to work with the law in town?”

“You can do both, I suppose.” Pa smiled at me. “You’re a McCain. I believe you’ll get married, have a family of your own, and have your own mind. You won’t do something just because it’s what I want you to do. You’ll do it because it’s…well…it’s what Mark McCain and God want you to do. You’ll do what you think is best for your family – not what’s best for your old man. It’s the way life goes, son.”

“Yeah.” I smiled. “Pa, how did it feel for you…I mean, the first time you put on a badge?”

“The truth?” I nodded. “Well son, the truth is…I was nervous…scared…and felt very inadequate.”

“Oh.” I handed Pa another dish. Somehow, I felt something deep inside me swelling up. It was powerful…strong…and I didn’t think now was the time to tell Pa just how it made me feel. Because Pa’s right – at almost 15, there was a lot I still didn’t understand.

***

I watched Pa leave Monday afternoon. Then I went to work on my chores. I really did enjoy working the ranch. There was something that made you feel good deep inside as you fed the animals, ran out on the range and discovered a new calf or helped a cow give birth…Riding the fence line to make sure no tears were in the fence made me feel responsible. I loved feeding the animals knowing that I was caring for God’s creation. As I made my way back into the house, I packed up a few clothes, turned and gave the house one more look, then walked out. After strapping my satchel on Blue Boy, I walked to the barn and made sure everything was secure. It made me feel like a man.

I couldn’t kid myself. I knew Pa wanted me to stay in town because he was worried about Lou and Lou was worried about me. But the truth was, it had been a pretty emotional year. With all the tragedies that had occurred and all the dark trials I had been through, the most recent one was still nagging at me. I had found the truth out about my grandfather. And though I had forgiven him, there were still unanswered questions and doubts that lingered in the back of my mind. I understood Pa’s leeriness and respected his wish not to worry so much. He had began holding onto me a little tighter this past year and I understood it completely, because for the first time, I found myself wanting to hold my Pa’s hand again so he could keep all the danger away.

But as the months went by, I was beginning to realize that holding onto my father’s hand wouldn’t keep the problems I’d been having away. It was now time for me to face them head-on, and I accepted the challenge. It was everything combined that made me sort of happy I was going to the hotel to stay. I felt I was helping Pa out by “protecting” Lou when he and Micah were gone, yet it made Lou feel like she could “mother” me, something she may never be able to experience.

“Hi Lou!” I called as I walked into the hotel with my bag. Lou lifted her head from the ledger and smiled. I braced myself for her mothering that I was sure would come.

“Oh, hi Mark.” Lou looked back down at her ledger.

I reckon now was the time for me to help her out the way Pa would do were he here. I dropped my satchel and leaned over on the counter. “Something…wrong?”

“Hm?” She rubbed her neck as she looked up at me. “What?”

“What’s wrong, Lou?” I asked gently and with feeling.

Lou gave me a smile. “Oh, nothing…It’s just…nothing.” I just stood there and waited. “Well…to be honest with you, Mark, I’m a little worried.”

“About what Lou?”

“Well…” Lou worked her eyebrows as she thought. “I had a ten dollar bill in the ledger…” She looked up at me. “It was to give to the Reverend for the church social next Saturday…and I stuck it in the ledger. Now it’s…gone.”

“Ten dollars?” I cringed. “That’s a lot of money. You sure it didn’t fall out?”

“No, Mark.”

“You sure it was in there?”

“Mark…” Lou chewed on her bottom lip. Then she closed the ledger and looked up at me. “I’m absolutely positive it was there.” I went in to seat a couple in the dining room. Then when I came back, it was…gone!”

“Oh.” I was going to study on this, but I didn’t say anything to Lou. “Well, have you told the deputy?”

“He isn’t over there, Mark.”

I looked out onto the street. “What…What do you mean he’s not over there?” I asked, a bit riled. “He’s supposed to be watching the office.”

“Well…” Lou shook her head. “Perhaps he had some business to tend to.”

“Yeah…” I walked to the door and looked out. I saw Charlie tying his horse out front and walk inside Micah’s office. “Maybe so…” I mauled on this silently. Finally, I wiped my chin and turned back around. “Uh…you ready for supper?”

Lou nodded. “Go on into the kitchen. I’ll be there in a minute.”

“The desk will be fine, Lou.” I went behind and grabbed her elbow. “Come on. Let’s go eat.”

Lou had already placed food on the table for our own meal. I sat my bag on the floor just inside the kitchen and made my way to the table. As I sat down, I heard Lou cry, “My pie!”

I jumped up at her panicked voice. “What’s wrong now?”

“It’s gone!” she cried. “I put it here to cool and it’s gone!” She turned and put her hands on her hips. She narrowed her eyes. “Who would do such a low-down thing as to take my apple pie?”

I turned from her and covered my mouth with my hand. I had to remember the promised I’d made to Pa and Lou months earlier about putting a leash on my tongue. I so wanted to tell her they wouldn’t go too far with it or…they’d be sorry they took it once they tasted it…but I didn’t. I knew the situation was serious. Someone uninvited had come into Lou’s kitchen and stolen something that belonged to her.

We sat down and ate as Lou sulked about her stolen pie. I was frankly more concerned about the ten dollars. “Uh…Lou, have there been any strangers here?”

Lou looked up at me. “Mark, this is a hotel!”

“Yeah, I know…I know…But I mean, any stranger strangers…”

“No stranger than most,” Lou retorted.

“Oh.” I was a bit worried about the missing ten dollars, but I must admit I was glad I wouldn’t be forced to eat the apple pie. “Are there any chores you want me to do tonight, Lou?”

“Yes.” Lou took my dishes to the sink. “Would you go feed the horses in the stable behind the hotel? The stable boy quit two days ago. I’ve not had a chance to-“

“Well…you shouldn’t have to, Miss Lou!” I declared. “Why don’t you hire someone to do that!”

Lou smiled. “Well…because I knew you would be here to help me out this week. Why hire somebody when I have a good, strong boy here?”

“Right.” I nodded and went out to the stable. I saw a man out there scratching his head. “Can I help you, sir?” I asked.

“Well…” the man turned and looked at me. He was grayed and looked like he was confused. “I left my horse here this morning while I was in town. Miss Lou told me I could and I paid her for the oats, but he’s gone.” He pointed to an empty stall. “He was right here when I left.” He shook his head. “Oh, that ol’ horse has been with me for a right fine number of years an’ now he’s gone.”

I walked over to the stall. I bent down and looked in the grass. I saw a boot print. There was an ‘M’ in the middle of the print. I scratched my head as I investigated further. Suddenly, I saw it. There were several peanut shells laid in the hay. I picked them up and studied them. “You say you left the horse here?” The man nodded. I bent down and studied the boot print. It was pointed toward the back of the stall. “And what time was that?”

“Oh…” the old man thought on it. “I’d say about 11:30.”

“I see.” I stood up and walked over to him. “Listen, can you keep this quiet? We don’t want to worry anyone. I’ll go tell the deputy.”

“Oh…sure, sure!” the old man answered. He followed me to the door. “I’ll be in the hotel.” I nodded and watched him leave, then I made my way to the Marshal’s office.

When I got there, I found him in the back cell sleeping. “Deputy Pratt?” I called. He mumbled but didn’t stir. “Deputy Pratt!” He breathed out a big breath. It reeked of alcohol. “Drunk,” I mumbled. I shook my head as I picked up the bottle laying beside him. “Unbelievable! Highly recommended my…” I threw the bottle against the wall. It crashed into a million pieces, but the deputy didn’t stir. I guess we won’t be relying on him much!

I made my way down the street toward the saloon. Looking inside, I saw a group of strangers sitting at the bar. My heart raced as I pushed against the swinging doors. As I entered the saloon, I lifted my head high. Those who knew me turned and stared as I walked inside and worked straight to the bar. “Mr. Sweeny?” He turned and looked at me. His face held surprise because he knew the saloon was strictly off limits. “I…” I paused and looked around as men stared at me. They turned away when they realized they were staring. “I need to speak with you…in private.”

Mr. Sweeny wasn’t sure what to think. He came around the bar and grabbed my arm. “Certainly, Mark.” He led me to the back of the saloon. “Was the deputy in here earlier?” I asked in a low voice.

“No…I haven’t seen him since Micah left, Mark.” Sweeny looked around. “Mark, if your father catches you…”

“He won’t.” I sighed. “Sweeny, is there anything missing?”

“Well…” Sweeny nodded. “As a matter of fact, I was about to go talk to the deputy. I have a whole crate of whisky missing.”

“Since when?” I suddenly asked.

“Since about oh…three o’clock. I went back to get another crate and realized I was one short.”

“I see.” I sighed. “Well, don’t bother the deputy. He’s out cold – drunk.” Without another word, I turned and went out of the saloon. I allowed the doors to swing wide as I made my exit.

I looked on the street. It was settling down as darkness began slowly creeping over North Fork. I took one more sweep of the streets then made my way back into the hotel. “Get the horses fed?” Lou asked.

I turned and looked at her. “What horses?”

Lou put her hands on her hips. “The horses I sent ye out to feed, young man!” she declared impatiently in her Irish brogue.

“Oh…those horses. I’ll go do it right now.”

“What do you mean…” She turned and stared at me. “Ye telling me you been lolly gagging around out there this whole time?”

“Yeah.” I tapped my hand on the desk. “Something like that.”

As I turned to walk out again, Lou said, “Your bags in room 12, Mark.”

“Thanks, Lou.”

When I got back from the stable, I saw Lou sweeping the lobby. “I’ll see you in the morning, Miss Lou.” She had bent down on the floor to look at something. “What’s wrong, Lou?”

“I…found a peanut shell on the floor.” She picked it up to look at it.

My eyes widened. I hurried over to her. “Can I see?” I looked at it. “Anyone around here eat peanuts, Lou?”

“Well…I know they have them at the general store. I…I don’t think anyone eats them out of habit.” Lou lifted her head and stared at me. “Why?”

“Oh…” I shrugged. “Nothing.” I turned from her and put the shell in my pocket. “Night, Lou.”

***

I forced my eyes to open as the scream sounded again. The sun was coming up outside the hotel window. “It’s gone!” I heard a woman scream again.

I jumped up and pulled on my pants. As I buttoned my shirt, I opened the door. “Somebody help! It’s gone!”

I hurried up to her. “What’s gone?” I asked as Lou ran up to her.

“My broach.” She squeezed a hand against her chest. “I left it on the bureau last night and now it’s gone!”

I hurried into her room and looked all around the bureau, hoping I would find it, but there was no sign of it. “It’s gone,” I stated as I looked at Lou. I suddenly saw it. A peanut shell was laying on the floor just outside the door. I bent and picked it up.

“Another peanut shell!” Lou grabbed it from me. “Mark…” She saw it in my eyes. “What’s going on?”

“I…think I best go see about the deputy. Excuse me.” I hurried down the stairs and out the door. When I got across the street, I saw Deputy Pratt sitting at the desk with a cup of coffee. He was holding his head. I grabbed a chair and thumped it hard on the floor in front of the desk.

“Ohhhh….Must you make so much noise?” Deputy Pratt groaned as he grabbed his head.

I straddled the chair and glared hard at him. I knew Pa had always talked to me about respecting those in authority and those older than me, but right now I didn’t feel he deserved any respect. “What happened to you last night?”

“What?” he groaned.

“I believe my Pa and Micah hired you to keep the peace – not to get so drunk you can’t be waken when a crime is committed!” My voice sounded angry, but I tried to keep it low.

“What are you talking about, boy?” Deputy Pratt asked.

I leaned forward and glared at him. “I’m talking about you, DEPUTY Pratt.” I shook my head. “Where did you get the whisky?”

“None of your business, BOY!” He leaned forward on his desk. His face was mere inches from mine. “I thought your father taught you better than that.”

We stared at each other for a while longer. Then I sighed and sat back in my chair, defeated. I drummed my fingers on the desk and sighed. “Alright. I’m sorry I spoke to you that way. Listen, the truth is…we have a thief around here. I would call him a petty thief, but I’m afraid he’s done something that some would deem him guilty enough to hang.”

Deputy Pratt cocked his head to one side. “What?”

“He stole a horse from the stable behind the hotel.”

“Oh?” Deputy Pratt looked down at the desk. “What else?”

“Ten dollars from Lou Mallory and a broach from a hotel room he entered while a woman was sleeping.

And…” I looked away. “An apple pie from the hotel kitchen.”

“A…pie?” Deputy Pratt questioned.

I nodded. “A pie.”

Deputy Pratt put a hand to his chin and leaned back in his chair. He looked at me for a moment then stood up. Looking out the window onto the street, he kept his arms folded as he asked. “And uh…how do you know it’s the same person?”

“I know.”

He turned and glared at me. “How…” he walked over and leaned down in front of me. “…do you know?”

“I know. It’s too much of a coincidence.” I didn’t tell him about the peanut shells. Pa told me never to withhold evidence. But he also taught me to trust my instincts. Right now my instincts were telling me not to tell him about the peanut shells. “What are you going to do about it?”

“Nothing.”

“What?” I jumped out of my chair and stood face-to-face with him. “What do you mean ‘nothing?’”

“I should have been told when they happened so I could investigate the crime scene.”

“You should have been…” I stopped. “When the ten dollars was stolen, you were gone – nowhere to be found. When the horse was stolen, you were so drunk I couldn’t wake you. The broach was discovered missing this morning. I’m here reporting it!” He glared at me. “Now…I’ll ask you again. WHAT are you going to do about it?”

Deputy Marshal walked over to the door. He glared at me as he opened it. Then he pointed outside. “Get out.” I walked toward him and stared at him. “Get out!” he demanded. I slowly walked out the door. The door slammed hard. I turned and stared at the closed door and shook my head.

“Mark! Mark!” I hurried across the street to the hotel. “Go eat your breakfast. Schools in an hour and I need you to feed the animals in the stable before you go. Hurry. You shouldn’t be late.”

“Miss Lou…” She turned. “There’s too much going on. I don’t think I should…” I stopped as she crossed her arms and slowly walked up to me. “Ah…Yes ma’am.”

As I walked into the school yard later, I heard a bunch of kids whispering. I walked over to see what was going on. “Mark, did you hear what happened?”

“What?” I asked.

“The school was broken into last night!” Freddie declared. “And then when my Pa rode into the livery this morning, there was a horse missing! Nils is very upset!”

“What did they take from the school?” I asked.

“Nothing that we know of. But they destroyed the benches and stuff! Mr. Griswald is in there talking to the deputy right now!”

I hurried inside. The deputy stood up and turned around. “What do you want now, McCain?”

I stopped. “I just heard and wanted to see for my…” I allowed the words to die. Everything was a mess. Everything was completely destroyed! “Oh my word…” I declared as I walked around the desks. “Who would do such a thing?” My eyes scanned the room. I saw them – what I had been looking for. They must have been in here for quite awhile because the peanut shells were everywhere.

Officer Pratt folded his arms. “This boy has been quite the detective. He’s been doing a bit of detective work himself.” He looked me up and down. “Now don’t tell me this is related to the other crimes, Mark.”

“Yes sir they are.” I gave him a nod. I looked around the room. “They sure are!”

“Oh, come now, Mr. McCain…horse thieving and pie stealing…is a lot different than outright vandalism!”

“It would appear that way,” I declared as I look around the room. I turned and walked out. I started walking around the yard looking for footprints. In the back I found footprints. I bent down and saw the ‘M’ in the middle of the print. I shook my head.

I found another footprint and another. I began following them. Every now and then I saw a peanut shell beside them. Boy, with all the peanuts that were missing, the General Store should be getting…

That’s it! They would surely know who had bought the peanuts at the General Store! “Class, please come over here!” Mr. Griswald called. I walked up to the steps where Mr. Griswald stood. As we waited for the other kids to get here, I heard a crunching sound. I turned to see a kid who’d just been in school a few days. I gasped at what I saw – he was eating a peanut! I watched as he took one out of his pocket, cracked it open, then ate it.

“Due to the vandalism that occurred here last night, classes are canceled for the rest of the week.” The children cheered. Mr. Griswald held up his hand. “I expect you to do your work at home! I’ll expect it all completed on Monday morning. Class dismissed.”

I turned and watched as most of the kids ran off. Andy…the new kid…just stood there. He smiled at me as he took another peanut from his pocket, opened it up, and ate it. I studied him. He had on old clothes and smelled like he hadn’t bathed in quite awhile. There was something about him that wasn’t quite right. I nodded as he turned and walked out of the schoolyard.

I knew I had to get over to the general store and get the information I needed, but right now helping here was more important. I walked back into the school. I was surprised to find Deputy Pratt gone. When I asked Mr. Griswald about it, he shook his head. “Said there’s nothing he can do. He left no clues.”

“Oh?” I shook my head. I picked up a couple peanut shells from the ground. “He left these behind.”

“Peanut shells?” Mr. Griswald shook his head. Suddenly, recognition shone on his face. “Mark, Andy was…”

I nodded. “Yes. He was.” I looked around. “Well…what’s first?”

“Well…we’re going to have to start somewhere.” I couldn’t believe I was the only kid out of all of them to stay. I worked all day. It was five o’clock before we got things clean enough. Nils announced the lock on the door would keep it tight.

I took Nils by the arm and pulled him to the side. “We have a problem.”

“Oh?” Nils asked as he continued working on the lock.

“That deputy is a no good, low down…” I allowed my thought to die. “Look Nils, we need a man with a gun to help me. I know the kid who’s behind this, but I don’t think he’s the main one. I think there’s a man or…something. I can’t do this alone.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Well…whoever is behind these crimes – he left some big clues behind – his footprint and peanut shells.”

“Why don’t you tell the deputy?”

“Look Nils…last night, I went to talk to him and found him out cold. He was drunk. Today, he refuses to help. He’s behind this, Nils. I don’t know how or even why, but he’s involved.”

“But your father…” Nils started.

“Nils, my father’s great…but he’s human. He’s been wrong before.”

“Mark!” Nils stared at me in horror.

“Nils, it’s been years since we lived back in Enid, and he was still just a teenager back then. Look…we cannot trust this deputy.” I sighed. “It’s up to you. Pa and Micah will be back Friday. This is only Tuesday. We HAVE to do something!”

“Look, Mark, I’m no gun hand. You know that…I think it’s best we hold out until your Pa or Micah get’s back!” Nils insisted. “I’ve lost a horse and want those responsible to be punished too, but I don’t see what we can do about it.”

“But Nils, we can’t just sit and wait! We MUST act!” I declared.

“I said we’ll have to, Mark. For better or worse, Micah left this…Pratt…in charge.” I watched as Nils turned and walked out.

“I’m sorry, Nils,” I mumbled as I scooted my hat further back on my head. “I just can’t do that. It’s not in me to sit and wait while somebody takes over our town!”

I hurried over to the General Store. Myrtle greeted me, but lost her smile when she saw the look on my own face. “I need to know if anyone’s been buying peanuts.”

“I’ll say!” Myrtle declared as she put a hand on her hip. “Man’s been buying them left and right…says a friend of his has a habit of eating them all the time.”

“Who is it?” I asked.

“Oh…Pratt…” Myrtle put a finger to her chin and thought.

“Charlie Pratt?”

“No…No…His name’s Steven…Steven Pratt.”

“Steven Pratt?” So…the plot thickens! “Do you know what he looks like?” I asked then.

Myrtle started to speak. Then she turned and lifted her eyebrows at me. “Why?” she asked suspiciously.

“It’s very important, Myrtle.”

“Well…Let’s see.” Myrtle put a finger to her chin and thought as she walked back behind the counter. “The man’s about six foot two…has black hair with a short beard…he’s balding at the top, but it’s a really handsome looking bald…ya know? He’s always wearing a red checkered shirt with a…a belt that has an M initial on the buckle and…”

My head shot up. “M? You said an M initial?”

Myrtle straightened up. “Yes.”

“When does he usually come in here?” I asked.

“Well…he was here yesterday. He picked up some peanuts and cornmeal. I reckon he won’t be back in here for several days.”

I hurried out of the store. I got out just in time to see Deputy Pratt ride out of town. I wished I had my horse saddled so I could follow him. I’m sure he could lead me to a clue as to who this Steven was and…

“Mark!” Lou hurried down the boardwalk. “Mark McCain!” She pointed toward the hotel. “You march down there and eat your supper, young man! You were supposed to be there an hour ago!”

“Supper?” I suddenly looked up at the sky. “Oh Miss Lou, I’m sorry! It’s nearly seven and I haven’t even been to the ranch yet!” I hurried toward the stable behind the hotel.

“Just where do ye think you are going, young man?” Lou questioned in a deep accent.

“I have to feed the animals and gather the eggs, Miss Lou! I didn’t do it last night…oh, but Pa’s gonna skin me alive!” Lou followed me all the way to the stable as I grabbed my saddle.

“You can’t ride out there this time of night, Mark!” Lou worried. “It’ll be dark soon.”

I paused in fastening the cinch and turned back to her. “Look Lou, I know you worry. I have responsibilities out there.” I took my hat off and wiped my brow as my stomach growled. I studied the worry deep on Lou’s face.

“You haven’t eaten since breakfast, Mark. And I don’t like the idea of you riding that road after dark.” She folded her arms. “Especially with all the trouble we’ve had.”

I nodded. “I know. And I don’t like leaving you here alone like this either, only…the animals must be fed. I plum forgot to feed them this morning with all the trouble we’ve had. I’ve been dealing with trouble all day and…” I couldn’t believe the things I was saying. Was I really still a 14 year old kid? I suddenly sounded so grown up. “The school got vandalized last night.” Lou nodded. “I was there dealing with it all day. I helped Mr. Griswald set things right there again. Tomorrow, we’ll have to work on repairing the benches and stuff. I’ve been trying to figure out who is doing this and sort of have an idea.”

Lou suddenly reached out and put a hand on my cheek. “Mark…your father would be so proud of you right now. You aren’t a boy. You’re a man.” She smiled. “Only…I want you to leave the trouble to the deputy. That’s what he’s here for.”

I looked away from her and sighed. The burden on me felt so heavy at this moment. I knew I had responsibilities at the ranch, but I also had responsibilities here in town. “He’s part of the problem, Lou.”

“What are ye saying, Mark?” Lou suddenly asked in surprised as she took her hand off my cheek.

“I’m saying that…” I shook my head. “I don’t know…I just…” I sighed. “I don’t want to leave you here alone but…”

“I’ll be okay, Mark. We’ve had a few more robberies…” I shot my head up. “Oh, nothing too big – mostly petty. I really don’t understand what’s going on.” Lou looked down the street. “Okay, it’s getting late. I want you to eat before you go.” Lou put an arm around my shoulder and led me out of the stable. “After you eat, I think it’s best you go back to the ranch and tend the chores.”

We walked into the kitchen. As I sat down eating, I noticed Lou chewing on her bottom lip. “What is it, Lou?”

“Mark…the main reason you’re here is because I was so worried about you staying at the ranch alone…with all that’s been going on. Your father has a keen respect for me and he asked you to stay here for me…and because he worried about leaving me in town alone with so many of the men gone.” I nodded. “But…I worry about you traveling that road at night. You have your rifle now and I think it’s best if you…” Lou sighed and closed her eyes. “…stay at the ranch tonight. After you finish your chores in the morning, come in for breakfast.”

I smiled as I laid my hand on top of hers. “I know that was hard for you to do. And I love you for it, Lou.” I finished up my stew and stood up from the table. “But I worry about leaving you here alone. I don’t like the idea of…”

“Stop it, Mark. I know how to take care of myself!”

“You thinking to use a frying pan upside someone’s head?” I asked, jokingly.

“Mark McCain, I’ll have you know…” Lou walked over to the closet and took out a shotgun. She held it up for me to look at.

My eyes grew big. I slowly took a step toward her. “Does Pa know?”

“Mm hm!” She nodded. “”

My mouth popped open. “Could you actually shoot a man?”

Lou chuckled. “Mark, I killed a man to protect Micah AND you father, just a couple week ago!”

“You…You did?”

“Your father didn’t tell you?” I shook my head. “Those men who were after your grandfather…I shot one of them. So I think I know how to take care of myself. I’ll be fine. I’ll keep it with me after I retire.”

I nodded and started for the door. I stopped and turned back to her. I folded my arms and cocked my head to one side. My eyes narrowed as I looked hard at her. “You didn’t answer my question. Does…my father know you have that?”

Lou smiled. “No. And I don’t think he would approve.”

I smiled. “I think you’re right…But I think you’re right in having it. You keep it close to you until I get back in the morning, ya hear?”

Lou nodded. I turned and hurried out of the hotel. I hurried home. My stomach was full, but I was so tired. As I rode into the ranch, I was happy to see nothing seemed disturbed. I bedded down Blue boy and fed the animals. I gathered the eggs and took them inside the house with me. Then I stopped. Slowly, I turned and noticed that something was a bit odd about Pa’s desk. Ma’s picture was laying face down. I slowly walked over and saw papers scattered on the floor. That’s when I realized someone had been here.

It was dark by this time and the lantern I had just lit was the only light on the ranch. I went to the door and grabbed my rifle. After loading it, I slowly made my way into the bedroom. I gasped at the sight that met my eyes. Cocking my rifle, I said, “Alright…Get up nice and slow!”

The figure on the bed slowly sat up and turned toward me. Eerie shadows were cast as beams of light from the lantern in the other room shone. I gasped as the figure stood up and turned around. My rifle stayed trained on him and my eyes narrowed. “Andy!”

Andy lowered his head. I looked at the peanut shells that laced the bedroom floor. Andy’s feet were bare and he looked very tired. “What are you doing in my house?” He said nothing. “I asked you a question!”

“I…I was told to stay here.” Andy swallowed. “My…my cousin – Steven – he’s my…my…my guardian and…” his voice died.

“What about Charlie?” I asked then. “Who’s Charlie to you?”

Andy lowered his head. “I was told not to tell, Mark. I could…” he swallowed. “I could get into a lot of trouble if he finds out.”

“Who’s Charlie?” I asked again – this time in a more forced voice.

“Steven’s brother…”

“And you and your cousin’s have been doing all the stealing in town?”

“No…not exactly.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked. “Either you have or you haven’t.”

“Well…” Andy dug his hands deep in his pockets of his dirty pants. “The truth is…” Andy swallowed. “Steven is the bad one. He’s doing most of it, but he makes me come with him.”

“What about Charlie?” I asked then.

“Mark…I-“ Suddenly, Andy dropped to the floor. I laid down my rifle and kneeled down beside him. “Andy? Andy?” He slowly opened his eyes and looked up at me. “Andy, what’s wrong with you?”

“Hungry…” Andy swallowed. “Steven only gives me peanuts and I’m…”

I helped him to his feet. “You come right in here and sit down at the table.” I turned the lantern up and started lighting the others. “Is Steven and Charlie coming back here?”

Andy shook his head as I grabbed a skillet. “They told me to take one of the horses and ride into town in the morning.”

I busied myself with frying eggs. I went outside and got some bacon from the cooler. Soon, I was sitting at the table watching Andy gulp down the food and milk. “Feeling better?”

Andy nodded. “Thanks, Mark.”

“Andy…” I folded my arms on the table as I looked at him. “Why doesn’t Steven feed you?”

“He…he doesn’t like me. He…said I’m a nuisance.”

“Oh…” I raised my eyebrows at him. “Why did he bother bringing you with him?” I asked.

“Well…” Andy sighed. “We were already here when my Pa died a few weeks back. Charlie came out here when he heard.” Andy bit his lip. “Steven said I can’t tell Charlie the truth – about his not feeding me.”

“How old are you, Andy?” I asked.

“I’m 12. I enrolled myself in school. Steven don’t much care what I do except…he don’t give me money to eat. I took the pie at the hotel…and…and I was sneaking food off of plates in the hotel…I’m sorry. I was just so…so hungry.”

“I see.” My heart ached for this boy. “Is Charlie mean to you too?”

Andy shook his head. “Charlie don’t know everything. He knows Steven is stealing and such. He…he got awful mad when he found out. I heard him and Steven arguing about it the other night. Charlie’s protecting him.”

“Andy…” I paused and waited for him to look up at me. “What is Charlie planning on doing in the morning?”

Andy closed his eyes and looked away. “I want to help you. You have to tell me.”

“We…We are going to…to meet at the hotel.”

“The hotel? Why?” My heart suddenly started racing.

“There’s a man that came into North Fork today. Charlie over…overheard that he put a thousand dollars in Miss Mallory’s safe.” He gasped as he looked up at me. “Oh, she…she didn’t want to do it at first – said the bank would be safer, only the man didn’t want the hassel of using the bank so she…she agreed to do it.”

“Are Charlie and Steven gonna go rob Miss Mallory?” I asked then. I tried to keep the fear from my voice, but I couldn’t do it. Andy said nothing. “Andy, are they going to go rob the hotel?”

Andy nodded. “I’m supposed to wait outside with the horses. Charlie’s gonna make sure nobody bothers Steven while he goes inside.”

“What time?” I asked. “What time is this going to happen?”

“Six-thrity. They want to do it before it gets too busy. Steven…he’s got a gun and…” Andy stopped.

“No…” I shook my head. I couldn’t believe this was happening. “No…”

“Charlie’s good, Mark. It’s just that Steven’s his brother – he’s making Charlie…”

“Oh Andy, don’t kid yourself!” I stood up and grabbed the rifle shells from the mantle and stuffed them in my pocket. “He’s a grown man. He can make his own decisions.”

“But Steven said-“ Andy started.

“Listen, Andy…I have a trunk in the bedroom there with some old clothes of mine. I want you to use the shower bath out back in the morning then put some clean clothes on. Then I want you to stay here!”

Andy jumped up. “I…I can’t!” Andy declared.

“I’m going to talk to your cousins. There won’t be any trouble. Like you said…Charlie’s a nice guy, right?”

Andy nodded.

“Promise you’ll stay here until I come back for you?”

Andy nodded again. I smiled. “Alright.”

I walked outside and toward the barn. I looked down at my rifle knowing Pa would not approve of my taking on this task on my own. But he wanted me to protect Lou. He should have known I’d take my job seriously. Lou was like a mother to me and I had to help her. I saddled Blue Boy and apologized he wouldn’t be able to rest.

I’ll only use my rifle if I HAD to. I prayed I could keep it in my rifle boot the whole time, but I also knew I couldn’t walk into the situation blind and helpless – that would be suicide.

When I got into town, it was close to midnight. I slowly made my way to the jail and found Charlie sleeping on a cot inside a cell. The moon shone in the window, and I sent up a prayer to God for the heavenly light he gave me to do what I had to do. Silently, I tip toed into the cell and slid the gun from the holster. He stirred, but didn’t wake up. I bit my lip as I walked backwards. After setting the gun down on the desk in the front room, I grabbed the keys from the nail and quietly tip toed back into the jail. I closed the door and locked it. It was during this movement that Charlie woke up. “What?”

He jumped from his cot as I stared at him. “You little brat!” he yelled. “You let me out…” He went for his gun, but realized he no longer had it. “You think your pretty smart, don’t ya?”

“Listen…” I said as I glared at him. I pointed outside. “There’s a little boy at my ranch who thinks you walk on water! He needs you. Do you know what that lousy brother of yours has been doing to him?” Charlie glared at me. “He’s starving him…giving him only peanuts to eat. Steven is making Andy go with him to these robberies. Is that the kind of life you want this boy to have?”

Charlie closed his eyes and leaned his head against the bars. “I can’t believe my brother would do that to the boy…”

“Oh, he’s done much worse than that!” I declared.

“He’s doing the best he can!” Charlie argued.

“Wow…” I leaned against the wall and folded my arms as I stared hard at the deputy. “You really believe your brother walks on water, don’t you? I saw bruises and welts on that boy tonight. I didn’t say anything because I think he was ashamed, but I saw them all the same. How did they get there?”

“Not that it’s any of your business,” Charlie started. “But he’s falls down a lot. Steven said Andy tries to run away and such, but he never hits him!”

“How did he get you so brainwashed?” I dug my hands in my back pockets. “There’s a boy who needs love…devotion…to be brought up the proper way.” I shook my head. “With his cousins in jail, he’s gonna be separated from you – maybe put in a home for boys. How much good is that going to do him?” I folded my arms as I pushed myself off the wall. “Do you know that Andy fainted at my feet tonight because he was starving? That’s what your brother did.” I picked up a whisky bottle that was laying in the hall way. “And this…” I threw it against the wall – it shattered. “…This is how you try to help them?”

Charlie’s eyes suddenly filled with tears. “I can’t turn my back on them! I was trying to protect them…I was…” Charlie slid down to the floor as he sobbed. “I don’t know what to do.”

“Drinking won’t help.”

Charlie buried his head in his hands. I turned to walk out. “How do I get your brother?” I asked. “How do I get him before he robs a good friend of mine at gunpoint.”

Charlie suddenly jumped up. “He’s not going to use a gun! He told me…”

“That’s not what he told Andy. Andy said he had a gun. What do you think he was going to do?” I folded my arms as I walked back toward him. “And I’m telling you right now that if he does succeed, a good friend of mine will die. She won’t give up without a fight and THAT you can take to the bank!”

“No…no…he wouldn’t…” Charlie mumbled.

“Oh, and something else…He’ll have to kill me too, because I will die for her if I have to. She’s a good friend of mine.”

“But your only 15 years old!” Charlie exclaimed.

“Yeah. You really want your brother to hang for gunning a woman and a kid? Is THAT how you were planning on helping him?” I shook my head. “You’re pathetic!” Then I turned and walked out.

***

To say I was nervous would be putting it mildly. It was two o’clock in the morning when I quietly made my way inside the hotel with my rifle. I hated having this with me and prayed God would send someone to help me. I turned and looked down the street. “I’m no gun hand,” I heard Nils say yesterday. “I’m no gun hand…” I couldn’t rely on him. I couldn’t put his life in that kind of jeopardy.

I paced the floor in the dimly-lit lobby. The silence was a silence I hadn’t heard in the hotel before. Everyone was asleep. The street was silent. I closed my eyes as I thought…How was I going to stop Steven Pratt from robbing Miss Mallory? How was I going to get him to the jail?

I wondered if I should go find some help, but I only had three hours. No one was in town so I knew that seeking help at this late hour was impossible. I wished I could rely on Charlie, but I knew he could never turn against his brother.

Three o’clock…It was three o’clock and I was no closer to an answer now then I was three hours ago. I knew Lou had a shotgun in her room, but again…I couldn’t put Lou’s life in that sort of danger…Oh, what was I going to do?

I sat down on the couch in the lobby and put my head in my hands. I began rocking back and forth as I thought on what to do. I thought and thought, but no answer came to me. The hour went by quickly…too quickly…

I looked up at the clock. The time was now four o’clock. I only had 2 ½ hours to come up with a solution. How could I keep this man from robbing the hotel and possibly killing Miss Mallory?

I looked down at my rifle. My heart raced as I looked at the clock – five o’clock…I closed my eyes. 1 ½ hours. That’s how long I had – and I was no closer to a solution then I was three hours ago…

I slowly walked outside. I could see the first rays of sun peaking from behind the mountain. It wouldn’t be long before darkness uncovered my hiding. I walked back across the street to the jail. I laid my rifle on the desk and sat down in Micah’s chair, praying just sitting in this chair would give me insight…wisdom from all the times Micah gained wisdom from here. I glanced down and saw a drawer open a bit. I slowly opened it and found a Bible. I took it out and opened it. A piece of paper stuck out. I picked it up and read the scripture on it. It was written in desperate handwriting. Tears had made the ink run on the paper, but I could still read the words. I knew these words were written during a time that was very frightening for Micah.

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.

I read these words over and over. I clasped my hands together and got on my knees. I lifted my closed eyes up toward the ceiling and cried out to God as I put on the armor Micah had put on so many times before. “Boy, ya out there?” Charlie suddenly yelled. “I can tell you what to do!”

I slowly stood to my shaky feet and wiped my eyes. I walked back to the jail. “What?”

“I don’t want my brother to die.” Charlie sighed. “He’s always been bad and when he was a kid I could keep him from going too bad…but he relied on me too much. Now he resents me for all I tried to do. If you let me out of here…”

I shook my head. “I can’t trust you to do the right thing.”

Charlie nodded. He banged a fist against the wall of his cell. “I know.” He sighed. “That boy is my weakness.” He ran a hand through his hair. “He’ll ride in by the church. That was the plan. He’ll be here at 6:30 sharp. My brother has one weakness that I know of. If you play on that one weakness, you’ll be able to take him easy.”

I lifted my head and stared right into Charlie’s eyes. “What?” I asked.

Charlie closed his eyes and leaned his head against the bars. “Will your promise me you won’t kill him?”

“I can’t promise anything…I don’t hanker to use my rife. I’m only 14.”

“I know…” Charlie sighed. “Your father will kill me when he finds the situation I forced you into.” I nodded. I knew he was in a lot of trouble. “I just…I don’t want my brother to die.”

“He’s a man now, Charlie. He makes his own choices. He’s no longer your responsibility.” I walked up to the cell and put my hands on the bars. “What do I have to do?”

“He won’t hesitate to kill me if…if he finds out I told you.”

I was growing desperate. “Look, it’s 6:00! Tell me!” Charlie looked at me. “Tell me!” I begged. “Mister, I don’t’ want to kill him. I don’t want him to kill my friend. She’s sort of my charge until Pa get’s back, so in the name of Heaven, tell me!”

“Alright.” He sighed. “He never loved anything in his life except for…for one thing.” Charlie leaned in toward me as if saying it out loud would kill him. In a soft whisper, he said, “His horse.”

“His horse?”

“It’s a beautiful coffee-colored horse. He’s down at the livery getting shoed. I was supposed to bring it to him in the morning when we made our getaway. If you have it and he can’t get to it, he won’t shoot. He’d die for that horse.”

The concept couldn’t settle on me. How could a man love his horse and not his brother? How could a man…Charlie spoke again. “If he’s a little lame, Steven won’t do anything…he sits with the horse until it’s completely better. It killed him to leave him at the livery. He can’t hardly stand being away from the horse. You threaten the horse…he won’t do anything.

I rushed out of the office and ran down the street as fast as I could. I held my rifle firmly in my hand as I banged on the door to the livery. Nils finally opened it. He was only half dressed and was rubbing the sleep from his face. “Nils, we have trouble coming at 6:30!” I announced as I pushed past him and looked in the stalls. “Here…” I threw him my rifle. “I’ve got to get this horse saddled!”

“What’s going on, Mark?”

“The thief, Nils…he’s coming at 6:30 to rob Lou at gunpoint. He…Oh, I don’t have time to tell you right now! We only have 15 minutes! I’m going to be sitting on this horse when he rides in. I’ll be out of sight. You tell him if he wants to see his horse alive again, he’s to walk over to the jail. You can take him, Nils! You can do this!”

“Mark, I told you that-“

“No, Nils! You did great as deputy! Your heart’s in the right place.” I grabbed Nils roughly by the shirt. “You have no choice! Lou’s life depends on this!” I turned from him. “So does mine. Because if he tries to rob Lou, I’ll kill him to protect her.” I turned and looked him right in the eye. “And I’m no gun hand!”

I could see how pained Nils was as he said, “What do I have to do?”

“Just keep my rifle trained on him, Nils. If he moves, shoot him. He won’t do anything if I have his horse hostage. He loves his horse more than anything in this world. I’ll ride out to prove I have it, but if he starts to shoot me, you’ll have to shoot him first – even if it’s in the back.” Nils opened his mouth to argue. “Nils, I won’t leave alive if he hurts Lou. I promise you that!”

Nils looked down at the rifle in his hand. He nodded. “Alright. I’ll do it.”

“Good.” I mounted the coffee horse. “Alright, I’m going to be behind the church. You know what he looks like?” Nils nodded. I pulled the horse up beside him, bent over, and slapped him on the shoulder. “You can do this, Nils. I have faith in you.”

Nils nodded. “Thanks.”

***

Sweat was pouring down my face as the time approached. I heard Nils ordering everyone off the streets. Lou wouldn’t worry since she thought I was still at the ranch. Nils stood in front of the church with the rifle behind his back. I heard a horse approaching and closed my eyes.

“Pratt!” Nils yelled. “We got your horse.”

“My horse?” a voice growled. “Where?”

“He’s safe…for now. We know you plan to rob the hotel. Now…you just get down from that horse.”

Pratt laughed eerily. “You’re bluffing me!”

I slowly rode out from the side of the church. “No…we’re not!”

Nils pointed the gun at the horse. “I’ll shoot him. I won’t hesitate to do it.”

I watched the man’s mouth cringe. His hands turned whiter as he squeezed the reins. I watched as he moved one hand toward his six shooter. Nils cocked my rifle as he kept it trained on the horse. I jumped down and moved away.

Suddenly, we heard a horse gallop from behind us. “Steven! Steven! No!”

“Andy! Get back!” I screamed. But Andy charged his horse toward Steven. “Get back!”

“Steven! Do-“ Suddenly, a shot rang out in the air. Andy fell from the horse. Everything was deathly quiet. Andy didn’t move. Nobody moved…

I closed my eyes in horror and regret. I should have never trusted Andy to stay home by himself! “Alright, get off that horse!” Nils ordered. “Get off!”

Steven shook his head. “I just killed a kid.” He shrugged. “No reason to stop now.” I watched as he aimed his gun at me. Suddenly, a shot rang out from behind us. The coffee-colored horse fell to the ground. “Coffee!” Steven let his gun drop to the ground. He ran to the horse. “Coffee!”

I whirled around to see where the shot had come from. I stared in surprise. Charlie stood down the road with a rifle in his hand. I watched him lower it and slowly walk up the street. I turned back to look at Steven. “Coffee…Coffee…No…” he wept over his horse. Never had I seen anything like this! He could kill his own 12 year old cousin without a tear, yet his horse made him weep.

Charlie came to stand beside me. He saw the questions on my face as I looked at him, then looked back down at Steven. “I never understood how a man could love an animal, yet hate his own flesh and blood.” Charlie cried. He shook his head sadly. “I couldn’t kill him…no matter what…I couldn’t…kill my brother.”

“This boy’s alive!” we heard from behind us. We turned and ran to where Doctor Burrage was kneeling. “Get him to my office!” I watched as Charlie lifted his cousin up in his arms and hurried to the office.
Nils grabbed Steven by the arm. He handed me the rifle. “He’s your prisoner, Mark.” He slapped me on the back. “ You do the honors.” Nils held Steven’s six-shooter on him as we led Steven down the street. Steven continued to weep over his horse.

It was no trouble getting him into the jail. He sat down on the cot and buried his face in his hands. “Please…make sure he gets a proper burial. I don’t want..want the vultures…”

“You’d let your own cousin rot!” I sneered. “Why should we-“

“Mark.” Nils put a hand on my shoulder and shook my head. I locked the cell and put the keys on the wall. Nils sat down to guard the prisoner as I walked toward Doc’s office.

Lou ran out of the hotel. “Mark! Mark!” She held her skirt up as she ran toward me. I turned and opened my arms as she ran into them. I hugged her tight as she cried. “Oh, I was so scared for you!” She pushed herself out of my embraced and laid her hands on my cheeks. “You shouldn’t have done it, Mark! Why did you?”

I turned and looked up the street where the horse still lay. I sighed. “I did it for you, Lou. Pa put me in charge of caring for you before he left. Even if he hadn’t, I would have never…” I looked at my rifle then back up at Lou as we smiled at each other. “I’m a responsible citizen of North Fork, Lou. I was just doing my job.”

“You could have been killed.”

“You would have been killed. He was planning on robbing you this morning. I knew you would have never let him rob you without a fight. After all…” I smiled at her. “You’re Pa’s red-headed wolverine!”

Lou laughed as she hugged me. “How about some breakfast?”

“No…I need to go check on my charge at Doc Burrage’s office.” I turned to walk away. “After all…North Fork is currently without a deputy.”

“Mark?” I turned back to look at Lou. “Your father…would be so proud if he could see you now.”

I suddenly put a hand to my back side. “I’m afraid when he gets back, my back side will be smarting though!” I lifted my rifle. “I’ve broken so many rules…I don’t know where to even start!” I turned and started down the street. Without turning, I said, “I’ll be back directly for that breakfast, Lou. I’ve worked myself up quite an appetite!”

I didn’t hear her say anything…but then maybe she couldn’t..I suspected I had finally managed to leave her speechless.

***

“Charlie, how is he?”

Charlie lifted his head from his hands as he sat in the waiting room waiting for Doc Burrage to come out. “I don’t know.”

I nodded and poked my head inside. Andy was sitting up. Doc Burrage was bandaging his head. “How is he, Doc?” I asked.

“He’s fine, Mark. Andy here has a pretty hard head.” He paused and looked up at me. “Just like some other boy I know.” He shook his head. “Your father’s going to take you to the woodshed over this, you know.”

“I know.” I nodded. “If ever he wanted to whip me, I suspect it’ll be when he gets back tomorrow.”

I turned and went back to sit with Charlie. “He’ll be fine.” Charlie closed his eyes in relief. “Talk to me.”

Charlie leaned his head back against the wall. “I didn’t want this to happen. I didn’t mean for it to go this way.” Charlie closed his eyes and sighed. He turned and looked at me. “Your only almost 15, yet you are so wise…so mature…” He turned back to look out in front of him. “Andy showed up at the jail. He found me locked up and let me out. I grabbed a rifle and told him to stay back, but when he realized Steven was in trouble…”

“After all Steven did to him…” I shook my head. I didn’t understand this. I was confused!

“No one will ever understand.” Charlie sighed. “It’s like…Steven and that horse. How could he love a horse, yet hate his own brother? How could he gun a kid without a second thought yet…”

“What will you do now?”

“Do?” Charlie stood up and pulled back the curtain. He smiled at Andy then turned back to me. “Here, take this.” I took the rifle from him. “Arrest me.” Charlie took off the deputy badge and pinned it on me. “You’ve earned it.”

I stared down at my shirt. “I’m too young.”

“Yes.” Charlie nodded. “But you’ll be old enough before you know it.” Charlie turned and walked out of Doc Burrage’s office. “Lock me up, son.”

“I don’t think…” I started.

“You have to. I’ve done so many things wrong, Mark. You have to do this.”

I nodded. We walked down the street side-by-side. Charlie walked into Micah’s office and into a cell right beside his brother. I closed it and locked it. “You won’t be in there long.” I looked down at the keys in my hand. “Andy…he’ll need you when you get out.” I smiled. “I suspect Miss Lou will take good care of him until you can take him. I don’t expect there will be any trouble.”

“I won’t be in here long either!” Steven declared. “And when I get out of here, I’m gonna come after you!” He pointed at me.

“That’s your privilege,” I stated as I turned to leave. “But just remember you’ll be facing the Rifleman…and his son.” I closed the door to the jail and walked up to the desk. Nils stood up and looked at the badge pinned on my shirt.

“It’s honorary,” I explained as I took it off.

Nils shook his head. “I’m glad your father wasn’t here to see that pinned on your shirt! He would have exploded!”

I smiled. “I know.” I tapped my hand on the desk. “I’m going to go eat. Would you like me to find someone to relieve you?”

“No.” Nils smiled at me. “But when you’re done…”

I nodded. “I’ll be back…got some work at the ranch, but I’ll be back.”

I walked across the street to the hotel. I heard Lou yelling from the dining room and hurried inside. She had her hands on her hips and her lips pressed tightly together. “I said I don’t want a bath!” Andy declared.

“And I said I don’t care what you want. You are going to take a bath!” She folded her arms in front of her. “I don’t serve pigs in the dining room!”

“Miss Lou!” I hurried up to her. “Miss Lou, this boy’s been through a lot today and..”

“And he needs a bath, Mark McCain.” She looked me up and down. “As a matter of fact, so do you!”

“I’m taking a shower at the ranch…After breakfast!”

Lou smiled at me as I sat down. Then she turned back and looked at Andy. “I don’t…” he started.

“Andy.” Andy looked at me. “Listen, save yourself a lot of embarrassment and time. Take it from someone who knows – Miss Lou ALWAYS gets her way. If it’s a bath she wants you to have, it’s a bath you’ll get…either the easy way – or the hard way.”

“Mark, what am I going to do now?” Andy suddenly groaned.

“Take a bath.”

“No…I mean…Charlie and Steven are in jail. Who will take care of me?”

“Andy, I know your life has been rough. I also know you were abused by Steven. Miss Lou here will watch out for you until Charlie gets out of jail. Then he’ll take care of you.” I put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “He’s a good man.”

***

Nils came inside the jail the next day and sat down at the desk. “What are you doing?”

“Homework,” I answered.

“Why?”

I closed my book and stretched my feet under the desk. “Well…the way I see it, Pa’s gonna be awful riled when he hears this whopper of a story. So whatever good things I do may let him go easy on me.”

“and you uh…really think that will work?” Nils asked.

“Well…” I laughed. “No. But it makes me feel better!” I laughed. “I repaired the corral, fed all the animals, checked the cattle, and even fixed the hole on the roof. I hope that will help me as well…”

“Mark! Mark!” Freddie hurried into the jail. “Your father’s back.”

I sucked in my breath. “Whoo, boy! Ready or not…”

“You thinking on hiding?” Freddie asked. “I sure would if it were me!”

“No.” I smiled. “I’ve carried myself like a man, so I’ll take it like a man.” I looked at Freddie. “I’m sure there will be some fireworks.”

“I don’t think I’ll stick around for them, Mark. There’s gonna be an awful lot of yelling!” Freddie started out the door.

“Whoa there!” Pa said as Freddie ran into him.

“Oh…I…I…I’m sorry, Mr. McCain. See ya!” Freddie ran off as fast as he could.

“What’s with him?” Pa stopped just inside the door and scooted his hat way back on his head. “Nils? What are you doing here?” Pa looked around. “Where’s Charlie? Why are you here, Mark? Why aren’t you in school?”

Oh boy! Nils stood up and slowly walked up to Pa. “Listen…there’s been a bit of…” Nils started.

“Now Lucas, don’t you be too hard on the boy!” Lou hollered as she hurried in. “He only did what he thought was…”

Pa put his hands on his hips and slowly turned toward me. “What the BLAZES is going on?”

Lou put a hand to her mouth. “I did it again, didn’t I?”

I stood up and shook my head. “You sure did, Miss Lou.” I grabbed Pa’s arm. “Come on over and sit down, here Pa.” Pa sat down at Micah’s desk. “Would you like a cup of coffee? I made it fresh this morning.”

Pa suddenly stood up. He towered over me. “No…I DON’T want to sit down! I want to know what’s going on, and I want to know now!”

“Well…” I put my hands in my back pocket. “Charlie’s in jail.”

I watched as Pa’s face turned to surprise then anger then back to surprise. “WHAT???”

“So is his brother, Steven,” Nils added.

“Oh, well I can believe Steven…but Charlie?”

“There’s more,” Lou announced.

“Much, much more!” I declared.

Pa sighed as he sat down. “Maybe I should sit down for this. And uh…maybe I should have that cup of coffee, son.”

Nils brought in chairs for everyone to sit while Pa laid his rifle on the desk and started sipping his coffee. He had taken a couple sips when he finally said, “Okay, maybe you should start at the beginning. Who put Charlie in jail?”

“Mark did,” Lou declared proudly.

“Mark?” Pa asked in a surprised voice.

“Yep! He also arrested Steven,” Nils declared.

“Mark?” Pa asked again.

“Oh, and he also befriended a 12 year old boy and put him in my care until Charlie is released.”

“Mark?” Pa repeated.

“Yeah. And…” I swallowed. “I had to bring my rifle into town to arrest the criminals.”

“Mark?” Pa suddenly looked at me. He sat straight up in the chair. “Wait a cotton picking minute!” Pa slammed down his coffee cup. “Your rifle is to stay at the ranch at ALL times unless you have my specific permission!”

I held up my hands. “Yes sir, I know but well…” I turned and looked at the others. “Things got a little…sticky…”

“…Nutty’s a better word,” Nils declared. We all laughed, but Pa didn’t.

Lou stood up. “Mark was wonderful, Lucas! He found out someone was going to rob me at gunpoint. He was willing to…” Lou stopped when she saw me shaking my head.

Unfortunately, Pa saw it to. “Willing to what?” Pa asked. We all just looked at each other. “What was Mark willing to do, Lou?”

I put a fist to my mouth. Lou and Nils looked at each other and smiled. We knew Pa would take it hard, but we hadn’t told him the bad part yet and we already saw fireworks exploding!

“Mark, you and I are going to have a serious talk! And at the end there will be some serious punishment!” Pa declared as he stood up.

Suddenly, Lou turned into that red-headed wolverine. She jumped up and stood right in front of Pa. She may be shorter than him, but she SURE stood tall today! “Now Lucas McCain, you see here! You will not punish this boy for dingo his duty and protecting me! After all, you told him he was to watch out for me while you and Micah both were out of town and he was only doing what you told! Now, when Charlie got drunk, Mark was the only one willing to investigate all the robberies that were going on. He was riding out to your ranch to do his chores one evening when a boy was there and told him…”

Lou stopped to catch her breath. “Told him what, Lou?”

“That Steven was planning on robbing me of a thousand dollars at gun point. Well, what was Mark supposed to do? He knew you and Micah were out of town!”

“And he tried to get me to help, but I told him to wait until you got back!” Nils broke in.

“But that would have been too late, Pa!” I added. I swallowed as Pa looked hard at me. “I know Lou…a.-a-and I knew she wouldn’t give the money over without a fight. I couldn’t let her do that even if she did have her shot gun…” I suddenly gasped and threw a hand to my mouth.

“Her WHAT????” Pa yelled as he glared at Lou.

“Oh boy! Now I did it!” I declared.

“Nevermind that now, Pa.” I took a deep breath. “I got my rifle and came back into town. Pa, I was the only one who COULD do anything! Then Charlie told me Steven’s weakness was his horse. I decided to play decoy on the horse in hope he wouldn’t shoot me while Nils used my rifle. But then Andy rode in to stop Steven – even after I ordered him to stay at the ranch. Steven shot Andy and Charlie shot the horse!”

“Wait a minute!” Pa held up a hand. “I thought Charlie was in jail!”

“Oh yeah…he was but not anymore! Anyway, when Steven saw Charlie’s horse shot, he broke down and cried. I was able to take him to the jail with my rifle trained…” I stopped when I saw Nils shake his head. I shot another hand to my mouth.

“YOU??????” Pa turned and stared at Nils. “WHY WAS MY 14 YEAR OLD BOY LEADING A DANGEROUS CRIMINAL TO JAIL????” Pa’s voice boomed so loud it shook the walls.

“I thought he earned the right,” Nils started.

“It’s kinda complicated, Pa…”

“Yeah,” Lou agreed.

“Well, I guess you just had to be here,” I declared.

“Yes!” Pa nodded his head. “I SHOULD have been here!” Pa turned from us and put a hand to his head. Then he turned around and sat back down. “Would you…” Pa sighed. “…run that by me just one more time?”

We all three looked at each other. Pa suddenly straightened up. “You had a shotgun, Lou?” Then he turned to me. “And you played deputy???” He put a hand to his head. “After what I saw the Jackman’s do, I didn’t think anything could top that…but I was wrong!”

“The Jackman’s?” I asked.

“Nevermind, Mark!”

We all sat back down and watched Pa as he silently sipped his coffee. “Well, I thought I was doing the right think in asking Mark to stay in town and watch out for you, Lou. But next time I go out of town, I think Mark will stay at the ranch.” He sipped silently for a few more moments. Then he looked up at me. “So…what happened here while I was gone?”

Just then, Micah walked back in. “Well…I’m surprised to see such a large group to welcome me home.” Micah hung up his gun belt and went to get a cup of coffee. He turned and looked at all of us. “So, did anything exciting happen while I was gone?”

We all groaned. Lou and Nils bolted for the door while Pa sat back in his chair and massage his temples.
Just then, Myrtle hurried in with the mail. She handed it to Micah and left. “Oh, wanted posters.” We watched as Micah opened the package.

My eyes grew big as I picked up the wanted poster. “Hey Pa, this is great news!” I held it up for Pa to read.

“Wanted dead or alive. Steven Pratt for horse stealing, murder, and…armed robbery.” Pa looked up at me. I smiled. “$1,000.00 award.”

“I think Charlie should have the money, Pa. He’ll need it to take care of Andy.” Pa nodded.

“Who’s Andy? Where is Charlie? Why is this good news?”

I grinned. “Well gee, Micah! When I locked Steven Pratt up yesterday, he said he’d kill me when he got out. It looks like he won’t ever get out so now Pa doesn’t have to go gunning for him.”

“Wait a second…did I miss something?” Micah asked. “Since when did Mark become my deputy?”
Pa just groaned.

***

I heard the barn door open as I was finishing up giving Razor a good brushing. Pa came to Razor’s stall, folded his arms, and leaned against it. He raised his eyebrows at me. “I told Miss Lou I was going to be smarting tomorrow. You gonna lick me?”

“No.”

“She talked you out of it, huh?” I asked.

Pa lowered his head and smiled. “You could say that, son. Lou and I had a long talk.”

“So…you yelled at her about the shotgun?”

“YES!” Pa declared. “She’s crazy with a shotgun! I ordered her to give up the notion and turn it into Micah.”

I smiled. “You…ordered her, Pa? Boy, you sure do like to do things the hard way.”

I exited Razor’s stall. Pa put an arm around me as we walked out of the barn. “After talking to Lou, I must admit that I’m mighty proud, son.”

“Well, I’m glad she managed to calm you down. There for a minute, I thought I’d be on restrictions until my grandchildren were married!”

“That thought DID cross my mind.” Pa sat down on the steps of his porch. “Son, I must tell you that I am proud of you, but there was nothing smart about what you did.”

“I wasn’t’ going to stand by and let Lou get killed, Pa. You know that’s exactly what would have happened!”

“I know.” Pa smiled. “Well…you got to get a feeling of what it’s like to be deputy. What do you think of it?”

“You want the truth, Pa?” Pa nodded. I smiled. “Well…to be perfectly honest, it gave me a powerful strong feeling deep inside me. When I had that badge pinned on my shirt, well…it felt great! Only…” I looked up and smiled at Pa. “I reckon I’ll wait a while to take that on. I’ve done enough growing up for a while.”

I stood up. “I’m going to bed now, Pa. I could sleep for a week!”

I made it inside the house. Suddenly, another explosion happened. “What do you mean you had a badge pinned to your shirt?????? Mark, you better start explaining, boy!”

Oh boy!

*A special thanks goes out to Michelle Palmer for her insight on how Mark had seen these episodes.

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