The Rifleman
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Fan Fiction

  A Father's Fear
Written by Deanne Bertram

In this story I’ve borrowed a few guest characters from The Rifleman’s five year television run.

In (season three) we met North Fork’s new school teacher, Stevan Griswald. A man with strict expectations of the children under his tutelage. However, he learned a lesson that his eastern style of teaching did not work well with the children of the west. And that some boys will defend their fathers unquestioningly. Mark also learned the unfortunately consequences of playing hooky from school.

In Death Never Rides Alone (season five), we’re introduced to Johnny Drako, a long-time friend of Lucas McCain. Drako was a known gunslinger, who was always within the law when his reputation was forged. Drako was looking for a nice, quiet place to live and figured North Fork would suit him, just fine; specially since his friend called the town home. However, events beyond his control made him see the impact his arrival would have if he stayed and he decided to leave town. The character of Johnny Drako was portrayed by Lee Van Cleef.

In my mind’s eye, I always believed that one day, Drako would return to North Fork, after lying low and letting others gain their reputations; his own would simply fade into history. Thus was the idea for my story The Return of Johnny Drako.

This story takes place after the series ended its television run.

Other characters not recognized from The Rifleman are from my own overactive imagination.


A Father’s Fear

The morning sun had just begun to illuminate the landscape when Lucas McCain yawned and stretched his arms as he walked from the bedroom he shared with his son to the front room of their home. A noise to drew his attention to where he saw his fifteen year old son, Mark, sitting, working on his homework by the light of the lantern at the table.

“Son, I thought you did all your homework Friday night?” Lucas asked as he unsuccessfully tried to stifle another yawn and button his shirt.

“I did Pa, this is just some extra credit work Mr. Griswald offered to us,” Mark replied as he returned his attention to his studies.

“Why didn’t you work on it before now?” Lucas asked, surprised his son had waited until the last moment to finish his assignment.

“I tried, but guess I was trying too hard and couldn’t come up with the right answers. And we’ve been working so hard over the weekend in clearing those trees and pulling the stumps that I kind of forgot about it. When I woke up a little while ago…the answer hit me. Actually, it felt more like the answer woke me up. I wasn’t even thinking about it,” Mark answered as he continued to write. “Oh, coffee’s ready and there’s some oatmeal on the stove, Pa.”

“Okay son, as long as it’s just extra credit work.” Lucas turned and walked into the kitchen to pour a cup of coffee and spoon out a bowl of oatmeal.

Lucas returned to the table and sat across from his son. As he ate, he looked at his boy; remembering how it wasn’t that many years before that Mark was reluctant to do any of his homework. Recalling all the hours he had spent with his boy going over his studies to make sure he’d done them properly and not half-heartedly, if at all, and helping his boy to understand his math problems – Oh, the hours he had spent helping his son. An smiled played across Lucas’ face as he remembered.

Mark looked up and grinned when he saw his Pa divert his eyes.

“Pa? You thinking about Ma?” Mark hesitantly asked.

“Why do you ask?”

“You just had that look in your eyes,” Mark replied.

“Not really thinking of your Ma, but in a way, yeah. I was just remembering all the times I had to convince you to do your homework properly and now you’re at the top of your class.”

“There’s not that many in my class for me to get too swelled of a head at being at the top…” Mark casually replied.

“Still, I know it would please your Ma to see you now. Just to know that one of her dreams for you was coming true.”

Mark put down his pencil and folded his assignment before placing it in the front of his American History book. He stood from the table and walked to put his breakfast dishes in the sink. Mark returned to the table and stood behind his Pa, he leaned over and wrapped his arms around his Pa.

“Pa, don’t sell yourself short. It was one of your dreams too. Thanks for putting up with me all these years.”

“Well, if I could have traded you in for someone who wasn’t as troublesome, I would have,” Lucas said as he gave his boy’s arms a pat.

“Oh Pa, just think of all the ‘fun’ you would have missed out on. All the extra ‘quality’ time we got to spend together,” teased Mark.

“Alright, alright, smarty-pants. Just get to school already.”

“But its not even seven o’clock yet. Just let me get the dishes done and I’ll head out.”

Mark returned to the sink with his Pa’s dishes and washed them and set them out to dry. He dried his hands, walked to the table and picked up his books before he headed out the door to saddle Blue Boy. He climbed into the saddle and walked Blue Boy back to the house and stopped by the porch one last time to say goodbye to his Pa, before riding to school.

“Mark! Don’t forget you’re to meet me at Micah’s after school. Lou and Drako have invited us to supper tonight at the hotel.”

“Oh, I almost forgot about that. Glad I didn’t make plans to go fishing after school,” Mark replied with a sly grin on his face. He looked back over his shoulder to see his Pa pointing his finger and heard him say, “Git!”

“Come on Blue Boy, let’s ride,” Mark called as he stepped into the saddle and rode from the ranch.

Lucas smiled as he watched his teenage son ride away; he felt blessed with the life the two of them had created in the rough New Mexico Territory.

“Yes, Margaret, you’d be really proud of our son,” Lucas spoke in comment to his deceased wife. Unbelieving it had already been eight years since her death and five years that he and his son had chosen to call North Fork their home.

*****

That afternoon, Stevan Griswald walked past Marshal Micah Torrance’s office and bumped into Lucas McCain as he stepped out without looking to see if anyone was passing the office door.

“Afternoon Lucas. How’s Mark doing this afternoon? I hope he’s feeling better?” Stevan asked after realizing who he’d bumped into.

“Feeling better? Did Mark get sick at school today?” a concerned Lucas asked.

“No, he wasn’t at school, Lucas,” Stevan answered as he felt a cold chill develop in the pit of his stomach. He couldn’t believe that Mark would skip school to play hooky. It had been several years since the last time, but on that day Billy Davis had also played hooky. (Events happened in the episode, The Schoolmaster.)

“Stevan, Mark left home this morning as usual. I checked his homework Friday evening and made sure he was prepared for class last night. Not that there’s that much reason for me to check his work any more. This morning he was working on an extra credit assignment…”

Concern crept into Lucas’ voice; it wasn’t like Mark to play hooky from school, not after the consequences of his first attempt years before. “Were any of Mark’s friends not in school, too?”

“Mark was the only one not at school today.” Stevan stated. “Lucas, I’m sorry I didn’t think anything about him not being at school. He’s been such a good student that I just presumed he’d come down ill over the weekend and you’d kept him home; especially since neither of you made it to church yesterday.”

Looking back into the Marshal’s Office, Lucas called out to Marshal Micah Torrance and Deputy Johnny Drako, “Did either of you see Mark today?”

“No Lucas,” was the reply from both. Micah and Johnny stepped from their desks and walked out the front door.

Johnny inquired, “Something wrong?”

“Stevan said that Mark wasn’t at school today,” Lucas replied.

“Not at school? I thought you were to meet him after school to have supper with Lou and me tonight,” Johnny commented.

“I am, we are,” Lucas answered a little insolently. “I don’t understand why he’d play hooky today. He was prepared and looking forward to getting to school when he left the house this morning.”

“They why wasn’t he there?” asked Micah.

“Micah, I’ll head over to the fishing pond and see if he spent the day there.” Lucas’ temper was starting to rise as he thought on this sudden about-face in his son.

After not finding any sign of Mark at the fishing pond, he rode to Billy Davis’ house, then to Bobby Hamilton’s, and then Freddie Toomey’s. All three boys said the exact same thing. They were surprised that Mark wasn’t at school today. Freddie suggested for Lucas to check out their old club house, at the back of the livery. He explained that when they had their club, it was only for boy’s who lived in town, but maybe Mark had snuck in there to hide.

“Only town boys?” Lucas asked.

“Well yeah, Mr. McCain,” the blonde headed, freckled faced teenager responded. “We made that rule a long time ago, when we was little. But we always allowed Mark to come as a guest whenever he had to stay in town because you had to help out the Marshal. Gee, it’s been so long ago that I kind of forgot about the club house.”

After checking the club house and everywhere else that he could think of, Lucas returned to the Marshal’s Office.

Johnny pulled up in front of the Marshal’s Office and dismounted, as the sun dropped further in the western sky.

“Lucas, just came from your place. Thought if Mark had played hooky, he’d of been home by his normal time. Didn’t see any sign of him. I’m sorry,” Micah offered.

“Micah, I just don’t understand. Where can he be?” Lucas asked as he slammed his fist into the door jam looking out into the street of North Fork.

Johnny Drako entered the office and after tossing his hat upon his desk he turned to his friend and explained he had searched the town and questioned anyone he encountered regarding the whereabouts of Mark McCain. “I’m sorry Lucas…”

A father’s fear surrounded Lucas as he watched the citizens of North Fork going about their business as if nothing happened. Women chatted among themselves while the men tipped their hats in passing as they drove their teams or rode their horses along the main street of town. Life continued on for everyone else, but for Lucas time seemed to stop… because his son was missing.

*****

The sun had set and word continued to spread throughout North Fork regarding the disappearance of Mark McCain. Numerous of the men in town stood outside the Marshal’s Office wanting to offer assistance should the marshal decide to form a search party.

“Men, there’s not much we can do in the dark; we’ll head to Lucas’ at first light tomorrow. Return to your homes and get a good night’s sleep. Meet back here before sunrise,” Micah announced. “And remember men, I want everyone to have packed basic medical supplies in their saddlebags before you return in the morning. Better to have and not need…” Micah’s voice quieted at hearing footsteps behind him.

Johnny placed a hand on Lucas’ shoulder and turned him towards the hotel. “Come on Lucas. Let’s get something to eat. I’m sure Lou has a room at the hotel for you tonight.”

The former gunslinger was showing a different side of his personality that many didn’t realize existed; except for his closest friends, as he escorted Lucas McCain across the main thoroughfare of town and into the hotel.

Lou Mallory, owner of the Mallory House Hotel met the two men at the staircase that would lead them to the second floor. The woman looked from Lucas to Johnny, before turning to climb the steps after seeing Johnny Drako motion with his chin to ‘go on’.

*****

Lucas stayed in the room Lou had given to him, but he didn’t sleep...couldn’t sleep. He sat down in the chair by the window and pulled out Mark’s picture from his wallet.

“Mark, where are you boy?” Lucas asked as he rubbed his thumb over the picture.

Regret started to seep into his consciousness because it had been several years since that particular picture had been taken; it had only been a couple of years after they had settled in North Fork. In the ensuing years, Mark had grown up, matured, become a son that a father could be even more proud to have working by his side.

“Mark, you’ve changed so much since this picture was taken.”

*****

While Lucas was upstairs, Johnny Drako and Lou Mallory sat at a table in the kitchen of the hotel.

“Johnny, where could Mark be?” the red-headed woman asked. The depth of her feelings towards the young lad increased the intensity of her Irish brogue.

“I don’t know Lou. From what people around town said, and from what I know about Mark, this is totally out of character for him, with the one exception when Stevan first arrived as the teacher.”

“Lucas just looked so…” Lou’s eyes held the compassion she felt for the man.

“You care about them?” Johnny hesitantly asked.

It hadn’t been too long since he returned to North Fork and decided to make it his home as well as to if see he really liked this strong-willed woman who had struck him senseless. He liked her fiery temperament, but began to doubt himself as she sat across the table from him, he knew that she and Lucas cared for each other, but said only that they were friends. He wondered just how ‘friendly’ the two had become after he had left town.

“Johnny, Lucas and I are just friends, and only friends. That cowboy was my first true friend when I came here. While some of the town felt ready to string me up…”

“String you up?” Johnny asked as his right eyebrow rose.

“I knew the railroad was coming through North Fork, and I made many a shrewd business deals before they found out and the Jackman’s kidnapped me.” (Refers to events that happened in the season five episode entitled Lou Mallory.)

“And…” Johnny encouraged, his curiosity piqued.

“Johnny, a good friend is all Lucas McCain will ever be to me. Ye on the other hand…” Lou stated and blushed. “And as a good friend, yes, I’m care about him… That boy means so much to him.”

“They both mean a lot to this town,” Drako offered. “When I was asking about town today, there was genuine concern and worry in the people.” After he took a final sip of coffee in the cup he held in his hands, “Well, I best get to bed if we plan to meet up at Lucas’ first thing in the morning.”

“I’ll be praying for ye, all,” Lou quietly spoke. Not a God-fearing woman who would quote scriptures; she would more likely quote her long deceased father, but deep in her heart she sensed prayers would be needed.

Picking up his hat from the table, Johnny Drako left the kitchen via the back door and headed to the room he kept at the local boarding house.

*****

It was a large turnout that greeted Lucas as he walked from the hotel the following morning. They mounted and rode out of North Fork as the sun was just starting to rise, painting the horizon with rich colors that did nothing to brighten the mood of one worried father. The posse took the long way to Lucas’, not wanting to disturb any trail Mark might have left by taking the direct route. Once at Lucas’, they spread out, breaking into smaller groups and heading down different trails and cross-country as they began their return trip to North Fork; each looking for any sign that Mark might have encountered trouble as he rode to school. Unfortunately, the road back to North Fork was well traveled and Mark had been missing for twenty-four hours.

The men continued to search behind every boulder, up every hill, behind every tree, and down every ravine. Caves and crevices were searched in hopes the boy would be found. No longer were they convinced Mark would be found somewhere along the road; they expanded the areas they searched, venturing farther and farther from North Fork. Voices echoed across the land as the searchers yelled Mark’s name, quieting to listen for a response, before calling the boy’s name again.

The sun was already starting on its downward path when one group of searchers decided to back track as a vague memory pulled at one of the riders. After stepping from his horse, the man pulled his rifle from its scabbard and fired three shots into the air, signaling he’d found something. Lucas and Micah, as well as other searchers, rode hard towards the man as he stood there, books in hand waiting to return them to Lucas.

Fearing Mark might have been thrown from his horse, Lucas demanded the searchers spread out to examine the ravine and follow it both directions.

Placing a hand to his friend, Micah spoke in the voice of reason, “Lucas, if Mark had been thrown, where’s BlueBoy? You know that horse wouldn’t leave Mark, and if he did, the horse would have returned home.”

Reasonable thinking was difficult for Lucas, his only thought was of his son.

“Where is he, Micah?” Lucas’ voice pleaded.

“Unfortunately, with all of us clamoring to answer those rifle shots, we’ve disturbed the tracks in this area.”

“But we know Mark was here, right?” asked one of the searchers.

“Do we?” Johnny Drako quietly asked himself. Years of living life witnessing the cruelties of man, the deputy sensed that Mark McCain wasn’t missing on his own accord. Johnny knew that Lucas’ reputation could have a bearing in the fact the man’s son was missing. How many people out there could be out for revenge for Lucas having killed a member of their family?

*****

The sun had set as the stage arrived in town, much later than usual. In the rough territories, stage schedules were known to be a rough ‘guestimate’ of the time it would take to travel between one town and another. Weather and road conditions as well as outlaws could affect any stage run. Once the final passengers stepped down, collected their luggage, and proceeded to the Mallory House Hotel, Ralph and Sam pulled the stage around to the back side of the one medical clinic in North Fork.

Sam handed Ralph his shotgun as he stepped down from the stage. He walked to Doc’s back door and knocked. A few moments later, Doc opened the door and gave a questioning look at the shotgun rider standing before him.

“You got a sick passenger?” Doc Burrage asked.

“Doc, we found a body, about six miles out of town on the road from Mescalero,” Sam stated as he turned back to the stage, trying to keep anyone else from witnessing the tears falling down his face.

Ralph breeched Sam’s shotgun before he set it on the seat and stepped down from atop the stage. Both men walked to the back of the stage and unstrung the leather covering of the stage boot. They pulled out a body securely wrapped in a blanket and carried it into the doctor’s office and placed it on the examination table. Both men turned to leave.

“Six miles outside of town you say?” Doc absently asked. “Sam, do you knows who it is?”

Sam was so choked up his voice was barely audible when he said, “Mark McCain.”

“Excuse me?!” Doc Burrage replied in disbelief.

“See for yourself,” Ralph quietly answered as they continue to leave the clinic.

After leaving the clinic, Sam retrieved the mailbag from the boot and dropped the pouch off at the general store while Ralph drove the stage to the livery. Neither man felt like making the rest of their run that night as they unhitched the four horse team and turned them loose in the corral in back of the livery.

“Guess we can head out early in the morning before the next stage arrives to take them folks to their destination,” Sam stated as they wiped down the leather harnesses.

“You want to sleep in the livery or in the stage?” Ralph asked as he climbed to the top of the stage and pulled their bedrolls from under the seat they rode upon.

*****

Dumbfounded, Doc looked at the blanket-wrapped body lying on the examination table. He stepped to the window after hearing horses outside and saw the somber group of searchers return to North Fork. He watched Johnny and Lucas separate from the group and head for the hotel; and Micah returned to the Marshal’s Office. Doc left his office and followed Micah.

“Doc, we didn’t have any luck finding any sign of Mark other than his schoolbooks.” Micah stated as he poured himself a cup of coffee after seeing Doc entering. He set the pot back on the pot-bellied stove that stood in his office. “Don’t understand where that boy could be. Just not like Mark to run off like this.”

“Micah, you don’t have to worry about looking for Mark any more,” Doc replied. “Now, before you say anything…” Doc raised his hands in an effort to stop Micah from saying anything, “Sam and Ralph brought a body in to my office just a little while ago. They said… They said it was Mark.”

The only sound in the office was the tin coffee cup hitting the floor and the coffee splashing out of the cup.

Still not in full control of his faculties, Micah stammered, “M… Mark? He’s…”

“I’d like you to be there when I unwrap the body and… and help me make a positive identification.”

Micah struggled to believe what Doc had said; his mind went blank.

“Micah, I… I can’t tell Lucas, until… unless I’m sure.”

“And you want me there?” Micah asked, still trying to comprehend it all.

“I need you there. I don’t think I can do it alone,” the doctor sorrowfully admitted.

*****

Micah stood on the opposite side of the table as Doc began to untie the ropes that securely held the blanket around the body. The blanket was removed to reveal the boy’s head, neck, and arms; both men gasped at the bruises that were evident on practically every inch of the boy’s exposed skin. His clothes were dirty and torn; and underneath all the dirt, they saw Mark McCain lying on the examination table in front of them.

Doc unfastened what few buttons remained on the boy’s shirt, revealing more dirt and bruises of varying colors across the teenager’s chest and abdomen. Even knowing it was futile; he pulled out his stethoscope and placed it to the boy’s chest, just in case, by some miracle the boy could still be alive and in a coma instead of dead. He pulled the ends of the stethoscope from his ears and shook his head as he hung the instrument around his neck. He didn’t wipe away the tears that unashamedly fell down his face.

“I hate this part of my job,” Doc Burrage mumbled. “Children ain’t got no right to die before their parents. Especially this child…”

“He didn’t die,” Micah’s voice reflected his anger. “Not looking like that.” He absently pointed to the various bruises. “Someone did this to him! Someone beat this boy to death.:

“I’ll need to perform an autopsy to confirm that.”

“An autopsy?” Micah asked, unbelieving. “This boy was murdered!”

“Micah, if he was beat to death, there will be trauma inside the body to reflect that as the cause. It is possible that he died of natural causes…”

“It’s the beating and being left out there that caused his death!” argued Micah. “There’s no way that boy died of natural causes!”

Taking a calmer tone, Doc Burrage replied, “Micah, just because a child was beaten, doesn’t mean the beating caused the death. As a lawman I’m sure you’ve seen children beaten by their parents…”

“You’re not considering that Lucas did this?!” and astounded Micah demanded.

“No, I’m not. I’m just stating that some parents and legal guardians do beat their children and the children don’t die from the beatings. I have to see what damage was done, on the inside, to know for certain if the beating caused the death, or contributed to it somehow. Or if Mark died from natural causes…”

“Ain’t nothing natural about a boy, on the cusp of becoming a young man, dying; alone! Looking like that!” again Micah pointed at Mark.

“We need to inform Lucas,” Doc offered. “You coming?”

Micah nodded and struggled to pull himself together as tears continued falling down his face. Both men regained their composure as they slowly walked to the hotel to inform Lucas.

Lou Mallory stood behind the counter in the lobby when Micah asked what room Lucas was in.

“Johnny went up with him to room ten,” Lou replied. “Micah? Doc?”

“Not now, Lou,” Micah answer.

*****

They entered room ten, closed the door behind them, and told Lucas the news. There was no other way to ease the news, than to come right out and tell Lucas. In blind disbelief, Lucas pushed the men aside, threw the door open, and ran down the steps, jumping two at a time. Running through the lobby and across the street, Lucas had one goal, to prove the men wrong. As he ran to Doc’s; Johnny, Micah, and Doc followed at varying distances behind him.

Lucas threw open the door to Doc’s office and saw the lifeless body on the examination table. The proud father took maybe three steps inside before sheer, utter hopelessness gripped his being and he collapsed to his knees, pounding the floor with his left fist, yelling “Mark?!” as tears fell.

Doc ordered Micah and Johnny to get Lucas to Sweeney’s bar and “Get him drunk!”

Micah and Johnny half carried, half led Lucas to the saloon; the whole way Lucas kept crying, “Why?”

*****

Those inside the saloon as Lucas, Micah, and Johnny arrived quickly left as they overheard what had happened. The patrons started to spread the word around North Fork of the tragedy and that Micah and Johnny had Lucas at Sweeney’s. The town’s banker, John Hamilton, and livery owner, Nils Swenson, immediately headed for the saloon after they heard the news. As they entered, they witnessed that no one but the two lawman, the barman, and the grieved father were inside, and none had a dry eye.

*****

After hearing the news, Stevan Griswald ran to Doc’s office; he had to see for himself. He knocked on the door and Doc opened it. Doc stepped back to allow Stevan inside, then Doc closed the door.

Tears started falling down Stevan’s face as he slowly walked to the body. He pushed a lock of hair from Mark’s forehead and then placed his hand on Mark’s shoulder and gave it a pat.

“Mark, I am so sorry. You were my most promising student. How I’ve enjoyed watching you grow up these past years.”

Stevan turned and left Doc’s, he gave a brief nod in thanks for allowing him a few moments in private. The school teacher walked home and sat down in a chair within the front room of his home. Hugging his arms across his chest, he cried until he thought he couldn’t cry any more. But then, more tears fell as he thought to himself, ‘If this is how I feel, I can’t imagine how Lucas is feeling right now.’

*****

Those with Lucas at Sweeney’s were hoping to help the man drown his pain, but they were all equally hoping to dull their own. Each knowing the price they would pay in the morning from a hangover, but not caring at the present. They quietly sat and kept vigil over Lucas. No one spoke. Each reflected back on the inquisitive, trusting boy who was growing into such a fine young man; a young man with such a promising future.

‘Who had Mark trusted this time?’ each one asked themselves.

When Lucas would lament on his failure as a father, Micah was the only one to find a voice to tell the distraught father there was never a better father than Lucas McCain; there was no other man who could have been a better father to Mark.

“A better father?! A better father wouldn’t be sitting here… mourning the death of his son. His body…” Lucas broke down, folding his arms on the table and lowering his head to rest on his forearms.

As Lucas continued to sit in a stupor of shock and grief, Micah sat and pondered over his cup of coffee, wondering about the man-hunt that would ensue when they hunted for the person responsible for the death of Mark McCain. He wished he could drown his sorrows as the others were, but he had to keep a clear mind and when he couldn’t take any more…

The lawman felt the need to do something. He couldn’t bring himself to just sit around and watch his friend suffer in front of him. He wanted to, no… He had to find out why this happened and who did it?

*****

Driven by his lawman’s instincts, Micah left Sweeney’s and located the stage beside the livery; and that Ralph and Sam were sitting on bales of hay in front of the livery doors. One was absently whittling a piece of wood while the other was flipping his knife, end over end to the ground, picking it up and flipping it again.

“Sam, Ralph, need to talk with you,” Micah stated as he approached. “Doc told me you found Mark’s body outside of town. I wanted to thank you on behalf of Lucas for bringing the boy home.”

Neither man said anything; their only response was a shrug of their shoulders.

“I need to ask if you can you take me there?” Micah asked. Both men looked at the marshal in surprised shock. “I need to see where this happened. Maybe there might be a clue...” Micah couldn’t continue.

“Sure Micah,” Ralph said as he got up off the hay bale.

Sam and Ralph pulled two of the stage horses from their stalls, bridled them and hopped on them bareback, and rode with Micah out of town; they took it slow in the dark, even with a full moon shining across the landscape. Ralph and Sam dreaded returning to the location where they had found Mark. But they understood why Micah needed to see where it had happened. Both men pulled their horses to a stop about a hundred yards from the watering hole.

*****

Many of the town’s people ended up at the church, asking God to accept Mark’s soul into the Kingdom of Heaven and to grant Lucas the strength to live, without his boy. They prayed to Our Heavenly Father to ease Lucas’ suffering and pain. Others asked for God to let them bear some of the burden instead of Lucas. People also gathered in small groups outside the church, some were at the hotel restaurant, but all were talking. Remembering… Remembering Mark. Sharing stories of Mark. Crying for the loss of Mark. Asking how Lucas would survive without Mark?

*****

Doc pulled himself together; he locked the door to his clinic before he started to prepare the body for the autopsy. He eased the remains of the tattered shirt that Mark wore from underneath the body. Even though the boy could no longer feel any pain, Doc treated Mark’s body reverently. He’d known Mark to be a slight boy all his life, but was amazed he was even thinner than he remembered; wondering how Lucas could not see his son wasting away in front of his eyes regardless of the growing muscles. Had Lucas been working the boy so hard, he hadn’t recognized he needed to feed the boy more?

The physician shook his head as the removal of each article of clothing reveal more injuries Mark suffered prior to his death. He pulled off Mark’s boots and socks and set them aside. Next he unfastened the boy’s pants and pulled them off. Doc Burrage pulled a white sheet over the naked body upon hearing a slight knock at the back door to his clinic.

Slightly opening the door, he wasn’t surprised to see Grady, the town’s undertaker standing in the light cast from inside.

“May I come in? I came to help prepare Mark for burial,” Grady stated.

Doc motioned him in before he closed the door behind the stately clothed in black gentlemen, wearing a long waste coat.

“I can’t release the body for burial, just yet.”

“Must you perform an autopsy on one so young?”

“I need to determine if this was murder,” Doc Burrage answered.

“How could the death of Mark McCain being anything but murder…”

The undertaker stopped talking as Doc returned to the body and removed the sheet.

“Does Lucas know the boy was beaten so…” the man gulped.

“Lucas saw the body, but I don’t know how much sank in. Grady, would you stay? I need a witness to what I’m about to do… Someone to corroborate my findings.”

The undertaker nodded.

*****

After completing a thorough external examination, the evidence pointed that the boy had died from a viscous blow to the head. Through his tears Doc wondered, ‘Who could have been this cruel to a fifteen-year old boy and why?’ As he collected warm water, soap, and several rags, the doctor’s mind drifted, ‘Could it have been someone from Lucas’ past seeking revenge?’

As the doctor and undertaker continued bathing the naked body, Doc finally looked past his grief and his doctor’s instincts came to a stark realization, that not only was the body severely bruised, but there were other injuries and some of these injuries were old, not just twenty-four hours olds, but weeks and maybe months old. Doc re-examined the body with this realization in mind. This boy had been whipped, numerous times across his back. A few of the marks were fresh, but many were in various stages of healing or healed and left scars. This boy had suffered broken bones and injuries that Mark never did. And the broken bones would not have been easy to be hid, they would have had to be set.

“Are you seeing what I’m seeing,” Grady finally asked as the evidence presented itself without commentary.

With the body clean, Doc looked at the boy’s right arm, and he smiled at what he didn’t find… The arm didn’t have the birthmark. Doc opened the boy’s eyelids and discovered this boy had blue eyes and Mark’s eyes were brown.

Doc said aloud, “”Grady, this boy looks so much like Mark they could practically be twins.”

“Doc?” inquired the undertaker with a grieving smile upon his face.

“This boy… This boy ain’t Mark McCain.”

“And you’re sure?”

“By all that is holy! Grady, our prayers have been answered!” Doc declared.

“If this boy isn’t Mark, then who is he?” Grady asked, knowing he still had an obligation to bury the body.

“Lucas…” breathed Doc Burrage. “Good Lord, I’ve got to tell Lucas?”

The undertaker watched as Doc unlocked the front door and ran down the boardwalk to saloon. Pulling out his tape measure, the undertaker measured the body and jotted down the information in his notepad in order to make sure the size of coffin that would be required. Once done, he closed the clinic front door and pulled the sheet over the body before he left via the back door.

*****

Doc stopped at the double, swinging doors into Sweeney’s hoping to see Micah and motion him to come to the door. But all he saw was Drako, Nils, and John Hamilton; they were all sitting around a table with Lucas’ head down on it. The sheer number of beer mugs on the table gave a good indication as to just how drunk his friends were getting Lucas and themselves.

Lucas slurred his words as he sat up and spoke, “I was s-s-supposed to be there to protect him. He was s-s-supposed to grow up, get m-m-married, have a f-f-family of his own. I promised Margaret. Oh God, I p-promised Margaret… Why God? Why my boy? A parent never should outlive their child. What d-d-did I do wrong?” and fell forward again to rest his arms and head on the table.

Johnny saw the doctor standing at the doors and motioned for Doc to enter. “C-come on in Doc, join us-s-s,” Johnny hollered as he too was slurring his words. Doc walked to Lucas and placed a hand on his shoulder and forced the grieved father to sit up.

Doc witnessed Lucas’ devastation first hand; the look on Lucas’ face was of a man destroyed. The rancher’s eyes glazed over and unfocused, his inability to sit up straight and steady gave a good indication he was drunk. Tears streamed down Lucas’ cheeks before dripping to his shirt or the table top, as Lucas’s upper body swayed in his chair.

With his face being forced to look at the doctor, for a brief moment, Lucas’ eyes focused on Doc and he asked, “Doc, tell me… h-how did my boy die?” before the moment of clarity passed.

“He didn’t. Lucas, that boy, he’s not Mark.” Doc looked around the table to see if his words registered on his friends; Drako, Nils, and John were almost as drunk as Lucas.

“Doc, don’t lie to me. Just tell me how.” Lucas’ friends had gotten him so drunk he couldn’t comprehend what Doc was telling him.

Without any choice, Doc back handed Lucas across the face, bringing a hint of fire to the father’s eyes. Ignoring Sweeney shocked yell, “DOC! Leave the man alone! His son is dead Pete’s Sake!” Doc stared into Lucas’ eyes, grabbing the tall rancher by the front of his shirt, he shook him and spoke with determination, “Lucas, listen to me. I don’t know who that boy is in my clinic…” Doc’s arm pointed towards his clinic, “but I do know he’s not Mark!”

Doc turned to Sweeney and yelled, “Sweeney get me some coffee over here! We need to sober them up!”

An angered Sweeney brought the coffee pot and cups over to the table. “Doc, why put Lucas through sobering him up? Let him forget his pain tonight and sleep it off. Morning will be here soon enough. Let him grieve.”

“Sweeney, we need to sober them up, all of them. Mark’s still missing. Don’t you understand what I’m trying to say? That boy in my office… That boy isn’t Mark!”

Lucas looked up, his head swaying, “Not Mark?”

“Yes, Lucas.” Seeing the confusion in the father’s face, Doc clarified, “That boy is not Mark.”

*****

Micah lit the lantern he’d brought with him before he looked around after they arrived at the scene. He asked Ralph and Sam to tell him exactly what had happened, how they found Mark’s body and where it was lying. Ralph stated they had stopped because one of the passengers had started to feel faint due to the heat and dust. Figured to let all of them out, stretch their legs and get a breath of fresh air.

“There’s a small pool of water and shade over there,” Ralph pointed to where he had sat for a spell before he looked over to see a body lying under the brush.

Sam continued with how he had turned the body over and seen it was Mark McCain. They made all the passengers get back in the stage and pulled a blanket from the boot and wrapped the body. They carried it and put the body in the boot for the trip to North Fork.

“And you found the body here, at the base of this rock outcropping, under these bushes?”

“Yeah, Micah, you can still see the imprint in the dirt of where we found the body,” Ralph stated.

Micah looked up and began to formulate… something. He just didn’t know what, yet.

“I just don’t get it boys. Mescalero is the opposite side of North Fork from Lucas’ place. What would Mark be doing way out here if he was heading to school? We found his books north of town, just doesn’t make any sense to find his body out here… this far west,” Micah stated, not really talking to anyone.

Micah walked the area, looking for signs, any sign that would give him a clue as to what happened. Micah walked a short ways from the road to the small spring. He stopped and picked up a hat lying in some cat tails. ‘Mark’s hat,’ Micah thought to himself as he saw the hole in the crown. He ran his hand over the hat wishing it would offer him some clue as to why this had happened.

Micah turned the hat over and looked inside. Written inside the crown was the name Tim and in the band, Micah saw a scrap of paper. He pulled the piece of paper and saw hand writing; he opened the note and read.

‘My name is Tim. They’re maykin’ us to werk in the mine. Pleeze, help us.’

On the back side of the note was a drawing.

Ralph saw Micah returning to the horses, carrying a hat and a piece of paper, “Micah, what’s up?”

“Sam, Ralph, let’s get back to town, now!” and extinguished his lantern before mounting his horse.

*****

Micah returned to town and headed straight for Doc’s house. He pounded on the door until light from a lantern shown in the front room window. A sleepy Doc answered the door.

“Micah, what are you doing here so early?”

“Doc, I need you to examine that boy again and tell me that he really is Mark. I don’t think he is.”

“Micah we know he’s not Mark,” Doc answered.

“You know? How?”

“Micah, come on inside,” Doc said as he stepped back from his door to allow Micah to enter his home and then closed the door behind him. “Micah, I was bathing the boy to prepare him for the autopsy. He had suffered too many injuries that Mark didn’t. Too many wounds that were more than twenty-four hours old. I examined him more closely and his eyes were the wrong color and he didn’t have Mark’s birthmark.”

“Where’s Lucas? Does he know? How’s he taking this?” Micah urgently felt the need to know.

“It’s going to take a while to get everyone sobered up, Drako, Nils, and John sure did a number on Lucas and themselves. When I left Lucas at the hotel he understood what I was saying, but couldn’t walk a straight line. I put him to bed myself at his room at the hotel. So how… how did you find out the boy wasn’t Mark?”

“Doc, I had Sam and Ralph take me to where they found the body. Found a hat that had the name Tim marked in side. This note was in the headband.” Micah handed the note to Doc.

“Working them in mines? Where?” Doc asked as he returned the note to Micah.

“Don’t rightly know. I thought it was more important to confirm that the boy wasn’t really Mark and make sure Lucas knew. Once I get back to my office, I plan to check the map and see if I can figure out this drawing, I’m sure it’s some kind of map.” Micah turned to leave Doc’s.

“Micah, it’s going to be a while before Lucas and the rest are ready to head out on any kind of a search party for Mark, mid-morning tomorrow at the earliest. Why don’t you try to get some sleep, while you’re able? Think we’re all going to need our wits about us to figure out what really happened to Mark.”

*****

Mark’s wrists and ankles bore chains as he was shoved to the floor in the shack.

“You’ll be sorry you ran away boy. Just wait until Garrett decides what he wants to do with you!” the man growled.

“I didn’t run away! You kidnapped me! What do you want with me?!” Mark screamed after the man as he locked the door, turned, and walked away from the shack, playing with the whip in his hands.

Mark pounded the locked door with the side of fisted hand, yelling, “Let me out of here!” Each time his hand pounded on the door the chain swung and the shackles bit into Mark’s wrists. Realizing the man wasn’t going to return, Mark shuffled to the wall and slid down to sit. For a few moments he tried pulling at the length of chain that ran between the shackles around his ankles.

“God, please let Pa find me,” Mark said as he wrapped his arms around his legs and lowered his head to his knees. The heavy chain that connected the shackles around his wrists, pulled at his lower arms.

From the back of the room Mark heard a voice call, “Tim, that you?”

“I’m not Tim, my name’s Mark.”

“Tim quit joshing me. Did you get word to anyone? Did ya find anyone? Are they gonna come for us?”

“But I’m not Tim! My name’s Mark, Mark McCain,” he pleaded. “I live in North Fork.”

A small boy came from the shadows to stand in front of Mark. He knelt down next to Mark and looked at him. “Gee, you sure do look like Tim,” the boy said. “But you don’t have all the bruises Tim had. Look at your hands, they’re clean, too.”

“What… what’s your name?” Mark asked.

“They call me Dodger,” the boy answered.

“Dodger?”

“Yeah, because I can dodge around the rocks and get to the silver quicker than anyone. That and me being so small and all…”

“How old are you?”

“I don’t really remember. They don’t celebrate birthdays around here. All we do is work down in the mine.”

“Mine?” Mark gulped.

“Yeah, the silver mine; Garrett, Brophy, and Mays, they keep us down in the mine pulling out silver for them. They have us set the dynamite, they blast it, and then we lug out the fill and any silver.”

“How long you been here?”

“Not as long as some of the others, but longer than most.”

“How many others are here?”

“In this shack, there’s six of us, including you,” Dodger answered. “Don’t know about the other shacks.”

“Other shacks?”

“You’ll see tomorrow when they take us to the mine,” Dodger stated.

“Where are the others from this shack?” Mark asked.

“Eating. I’m on food rations because Mays thought I helped Tim get away.”

Mark felt even more dejected as the young boy sat down next to him. He reckoned the boy couldn’t be more than thirteen years old, curly blonde, but dirty hair and pale skin. His hands bore scratches under all the dirt. His dirty clothes hung off his frame, clothes that were too large to start.

*****

Mays returned to the shack that evening, he unlocked the door and motioned for Mark and Dodger to get up.

“Boys, on your feet. You get the fun of working tonight down in the pit,” Mays played with the whip in his hand. “You best bring us a good haul tonight or you’ll suffer some lashings.”

He pulled Mark’s hat off and threw it to the floor; then he led the boys to the pit, pushed them into the tunnel, and chained and padlocked the door to the tunnel behind them.

“See you in the morning,” Mays laughed as he walked away.

*****

“Brophy, you keep Tim under chain all the time. Whether he’s in the mines or the shack, I want him chained! I can’t have him running away again. If he’d gotten to that… that town, North Fork, and told anyone what’s happening out here, we’d be behind bars. You keep him chained!”

“Garrett, I don’t think that boy is Tim,” Brophy stated.

“What?! I tell you, he’s just playing you for the fool you are. Believe me, he’s Tim. All he did was wash up, steal some clothes and that horse.” Garrett said with disgust in his voice. “Just what are you doing?”

“I’m taking him his supper. He must be hungry,” Brophy’s voice quieted to a whisper when he saw the fury in Garrett’s posture.

“No. He doesn’t get fed until I say he does; just punishment for running away. And don’t let me catch you sneaking him any food later!”

“Garrett, I tell you, that’s not Tim.”

“Okay, how come you’re so convinced?” Garrett asked, disgusted at the man standing in front of him. He viewed Brophy as a weakling, but someone who had a way with him when it came to children, as if he was still one himself.

“Garrett, how many times you beat that boy, or Mays whipped that boy? When was the last time you saw anything but fear in Tim’s eyes? That boy is too defiant to be Tim. Maybe he is this Mark McCain… like he claims to be.”

“Tim wasn’t too scared to run away now, was he?” Garrett slammed the door behind him as he left the office, indicating the subject was closed.

*****

Garret was a hefty-set man in his forties, who stood just over six feet in height, with a narrow nose and narrower eyes that gave him a pinched face expression. He enjoyed throwing his weight around while intimidating any who opposed him. He was a user, a user of people. He used people to get whatever he wanted and threw them away without a second thought when they were too tired to continue, there were always others to be used.

Brophy stood at maybe five feet, nine inches tall, with sandy colored hair that hung over what his mother called his cherubic face. Though he was in his mid- to late twenties, he could easily have passed for an older teenager.

Mays’ height and age was somewhere between his two cohorts. He had wavy black hair and his build gave the appearance he’d done heavy lifting work throughout his life. If his muscles and callused hands didn’t intimidate someone, the way his dark eyes bore into the person he looked at would make the strongest of men think about cowering.

*****

As Mays walked away, Dodger picked up a pick ax and handed it to Mark. He picked up the shovel and lantern, and headed deeper into the tunnel.

“Come on Mark. Mays doesn’t give idle threats. He’ll use that whip and smile when he does.”

Wearing the chains around his ankles, Mark was forced to walk in short, unnatural steps, and careful not to trip over the cart rails on the ground. They reached the end of the tunnel and started digging. They dug for hours, pulling some silver out, but more dirt fill than anything, and put it into the mine carts a bucket at a time. Sweat poured down both boys the longer they worked; their muscles ached and their breathing became labored.

The boys were stopped for a breather when they saw a light from a lantern coming towards them and they heard a voice calling, “Tim, Dodger, times up. Push that cart out with you.”

The boys put their tools in the cart and started to push it along the tracks. Mark groaned with the effort, his muscles ached and he felt so tired. Worse was the sweat stinging his skin where the shackles had rubbed his wrists raw.

“I’d like to see a grown man push this all by himself,” Mark mumbled under his breath, his eyes held daggers for the man with the lantern and the whip.

As the two neared the opening, the more they were forced to squint their eyes as the morning sun shone into the opening of the tunnel.

*****

Brophy held a rifle on the boys and pushed them towards their shack as Mays walked away. He unlocked the door and pushed Mark and Dodger inside, and locked the door behind them.

Mark walked to the bed that Dodger said was to be his. As he sat down, he started rubbing his wrists; the shackles from the chain were rubbing his wrists raw. The other boys in the shack circled around the bed.

“Tim, please tell us you got word to someone,” one of the older boys pleaded.

“Gordon, he ain’t Tim. His name is Mark McCain,” Dodger stated. “Leave him be. Mays had us down in the pit all night.”

Andy asked, “You mean you got a last name? None of us have last names. No body wanted us.”

Dodger climbed into the bunk above Mark. As much as Mark wanted to sleep, his eyes scanned the room and his roommates. The boys were anywhere from eight to fourteen years old, and as varied in appearances as boys could be. Each boy looked at Mark while standing scattered around the bunk, waiting… for what Mark didn’t know.

Mark surmised Gordon wasn’t that much younger than he was, with curly red hair and a dirty freckled face, arms, hands, and clothing. He looked at all the boys who were with him and realized how dirty they all appeared.

Mark felt he had just fallen asleep when the door banged open and a deep male voice yelled, “Get up you worthless brat!”

Mark opened his eyes to see Mays standing in front of him, reaching for the chain between his ankles. Before Mark could react, Mays had pulled him from the bunk and he fell in a heap on the floor. “Be thankful Garret’s letting you eat before you go back into the pit.”

The man threw a plate with what appeared to be an unappetizing mixture of food on the bed.

“Back?” breathed Mark.

“You’ve ten minutes to eat, if you ain’t finished, ain’t no skin off my nose,” Mays stated as he left the shack.

“Mark, just eat. It may not look good, but food is food,” Gordon stated.

“Yeah,” the boy named Andy stated. “If ya don’t eat it, they may not give ya any supper tonight.”

*****

By the time the boys returned to the shack that evening, Mark was in an exhausted sleep before his body settled on what passed as a mattress on his bunk.

*****
Doc Burrage was waiting in the restaurant as Lucas came down from his room later in the morning. Lucas held his hand up to Lou as she gaily greeted him, she was happy to have heard the news that the dead boy was not Mark.

“Lou, please, just quiet, my head feels swollen ten times over,” Luca stated as an apology.

As he entered the restaurant, he saw Doc and asked, “Got anything for this headache?”

“Only after you tell me how you feel,” Doc replied.

“My head hurts is how I feel!” Lucas answered tartly.

“Lucas, you know what I mean. Are you in control of your faculties enough to help Micah look for Mark?” Doc stated as he walked to the side table and picked up a cup and the coffee pot, pouring a cup for Lucas.

“I don’t know how I feel, Doc. I feel as if I’ve been the though the valley of hell in seeing my boy lie bruised and dead in your office. Then you tell me that that boy wasn’t Mark. For a fleeting moment I felt relief, but then I realized that my boy is still missing. How am I supposed to feel? Is that what you wanted to hear?” the rancher asked as he slowly slipped his tall frame into a chair around the table, hoping to move gently enough so as to not make his headache any worse.

“Honestly Lucas, I’m happy to hear what I just heard. If you had told me you were fine, I would have stopped you from helping Micah.” Doc offered Lucas a cup of coffee as he returned to the table. “Here drink this, I asked Lou to make sure she made it double strong. Help you get a jump on Drako, John, and Nils in getting sober.”

*****

It was lunchtime when Lucas entered Micah’s office. As he entered, he saw Drako lying on the chaise, hat pulled over his face.

“Morning LucasBoy,” Micah quipped. Drako jumped at Micah’s voice.

“Give a man time to sober up Micah,” Drako grumbled, “Before you go greeting someone so cheerfully.”

Micah gave a sheepish grin towards Drako. Thankful he wasn’t suffering through a hangover like the rest, but still worried over the fact that Mark was missing.

“So, where do we start to look for Mark? Doc said you had a lead in finding him,” Lucas stated.

“Lucas, sit down. Johnny, sit up,” Micah ordered. “When the stage came in, they also brought the mail pouch. I didn’t get around to looking at it until this morning. There was a flyer stating that a number of boys have been disappearing from various towns. Most of the boys are orphans or boys that have been in trouble with the law in their home towns. Don’t have parents that care much about them. These boys were supposed to be sent to a work camp, funny thing is, some of them didn’t arrive and others disappeared once they got there. There’s an unaccounted number of boys missing. I’m thinking the boy that Sam and Ralph found might have been one of the missing boys.”

Micah walked to the potbelly stove and picked the coffee pot up to refill his cup, before proceeding.

“I sent a wire to the agent who issued the flyer since he was looking in on these work camps, letting him know about what happened here.”

“Some boys could have just run away, not wanting to work,” Johnny offered as he accepted a cup of coffee from the marshal.

“Too many boys missing for that to be the case,” replied Micah.

“You think whoever has these missing boys, took Mark?” Lucas asked.

“That’s what I’m thinking Lucas. The way I figure it, if that boy ran away from them and they just happened to come across Mark… They probably wouldn’t have taken the time to realize he wasn’t their boy, like…”

Micah refrained from saying what he was about to. No sense dredging up the memory of Lucas on his knees, thinking that Mark lie dead on the examination table at Doc’s.

“So how do we find them?” Drako asked as he poured himself a cup of coffee.

“Received a wire back from the agent, name’s Wiseman, said he’d be here late this afternoon or evening with some news.”

“So I’m just supposed to sit here and wait for some stranger to show up before I can go looking for my boy!” Lucas yelled at Micah. From the corner of his eye he saw Drako cringe. “I’m sorry Johnny. Just makes me furious, knowing my boy’s out there somewhere and there’s not a damn thing I can do to find him. Don’t even know where to begin.”

“Lucas, I went with Sam and Ralph last night to the spot where they found the boy; I looked around and found a hat. I presume it was the boy’s. It had a note in it and a drawing. Just been trying to figure out what the drawing is supposed to be,” Micah stated.

*****

They were still studying the drawing and the map on the wall when Doc came into Micah’s.

“Lucas, I know it might be asking a lot of you right now… But, I thought the rest of us should attend the boy’s burial. Grady finished the coffin and everything is ready at the cemetery.”

“Doc, just give me a moment,” Lucas replied.

“Take your time Lucas. We all understand what you’ve been through and no one expects you to be there.” Doc turned and walked out the door.

“I think I should. There for a few hours… I thought he was my boy.”

Micah, Johnny, and Lucas left the Marshal’s Office and headed to the cemetery, with Lucas walking between the two lawmen.

It was a simple ceremony. Nothing was known about the boy, but many remembered their pain from the night before and felt the boy shouldn’t be buried with no one caring.

*****

They were returning to Micah’s office from having supper at the hotel when a stranger rode into town and stopped in front of them.

“My name’s Joseph Wiseman, I think you were expecting me?” he stated as he stepped down from his horse.

“Come on into my office,” Micah stated has he walked into the office, once inside, introductions were made.

Lucas assessed the stranger who sat on the other side of the office. The man stood tall and lanky, with black hair and brown eyes; the man’s skin appeared bronzed, but not from years of weather. Lucas surmised the man had some Indian blood in his heritage.

*****

The men listened for over half an hour with Wiseman telling them the facts. Too many boys had disappeared over the course of the last year and a half from facilities responsible for taking care of orphan boys or facilities that were supposed to offer structure to troubled boys.

“I took this job earlier this year. I’m responsible for inspecting the living and working conditions of these facilities. Let me tell you, they could sure use some major improvements.” The contempt in the man’s voice was powerful. “Some are worse than slave camps, forcing the boys to work doing jobs in conditions most men wouldn’t tolerate. I’m here to see that there’s change to protect these children.”

“So how did you find out there were missing boys?” Lucas asked.

“Part of what I do is talk to the boys who live there. I’ve come to find out that I can’t always take the words of those who run the camps, like my predecessor did. Some of the children told me of friends who were shipped out as disciplinary problems or boys who… vanished overnight. Others told of men coming and taking some of the boys away. I looked over the records at some of these facilities and things just didn’t add up. I’ve asked the army to come into some of the places and shut them down. The boys that were at some of the worst have been sent to true orphanages, where the people running them will see that they get three square meals a day and are able to continue their education. Other places, that weren’t so bad, have new people overseeing how they function or the people were already trying to enforce a change for the better. Regardless, they know that I’ll be around and I won’t hesitate to close any that I feel are abusive.”

When Wiseman paused, Drako asked, “So you mentioned men coming in and taking some of the boys. You think the boy we buried today might be one of your missing boys.”

“I have a feeling he might be and from what your Marshal said in his wire, I think your missing boy might be with whoever is taking the boys,” Wiseman stated.

“Before we buried the boy today, we were looking at a drawing we thought might have been his. Trying to figure out if it would lead us to my boy, and maybe these others?” Lucas stated.

Micah handed the note containing the drawing to Wiseman. After reviewing the map and turning it around to look at it from various angles, Wiseman stated, “Men I think I have a good idea where the boys might be. I grew up around the Capitan Mountains and this here, looks close enough to one of landmarks that I know I can’t be wrong.”

“I suggest that we prepare everything we’re going to need tonight and then get a good nights sleep and head out in the morning. If that’s alright with you,” Micah offered in an attempt to defer to the man.

“Marshal, seeing as how one of your own is missing, I’ll accept any assistance the law has to offer. I won’t stand in the way of your doing your job. As long as you’ll be there to back me up if necessary,” Wiseman stated.

“Don’t you mean, ‘when’ necessary?” Drako asked.

*****

Lucas, Micah, Drako, and Wiseman, loaded up the supplies they needed on two pack horses and headed North. They traveled a good distance that first day out and made camp next to a brook.

Drako started the conversation once the evening meal was eaten and dishes were cleaned and put away.

“Wiseman, you said you grew up around the Capitan Mountain range?”

“Yeah, lived in a little town we called Capitan. Maybe only twenty-five families lived in the area. I worked along side my Pa until he passed, when I was fifteen. No one else in town had need for another mouth to feed, so I was sent to a place that was supposed to take care of me. Turns out it was nothing more than a work camp. Spent the next three years there, until I turned eighteen, then they threw me out. Told me to go make it on my own. See, that’s why I’m so passionate about protecting the children who get sent to these establishments. Some are really there for the children. But others… I get so mad when I visit some of these places, as I said earlier, some are worse than slave labor. They don’t care if a child gets hurt or killed because they know there’s an ample supply to replace them. That or you have men who come in, offer money for the boys and then take them as cheap laborers. And you pray that it is for cheap labor.”

“What do you mean?” Lucas asked.

“Mr. McCain, there’s a seedier side of man that some of these children get sold into. In the dark corners of some towns, there are men who satisfy their demented needs by using… There’s no other way of saying it, but they use the boys as if they were prostitutes… prostitutes working in some whorehouse. The boys become play toys for the men. I’ve never encountered it, and I pray I never do, but there are other men at the agency who’ve seen it first-hand and told me how disgusting it is.”

“You can’t be serious?” Micah doubted.

“I am serious. If I were you, I’d pray my son was taken by someone looking for cheap labor.”

As the group settled into their bedrolls, Lucas came to loathe the man who rode with them, loathed him for what he implied. He understood the man was out here working for the good of the children involved, but for those missing… Lucas couldn’t help but quake at the thought of his son being forced into such misery. He firmly believed in the bible, yet Lucas couldn’t believe man could be so...sadistic.

*****

It was lunchtime, on Sunday, when Mays and Garrett returned to the shack. The men roughly pulled the sleeping figures of Mark and Dodger from their beds.

Brophy stood at the door, with a rifle in hand, motioning for the rest of the boys to leave the shack.

“Tim, get up now! You still owe us extra time in the pit for having run away and making us trail after you,” Garrett stated.

Mark and Dodger got to their feet and stood in front of the men.

“We worked overnight in the mine that night and the next day,” Dodger dared say before he was backhanded by Garret.

“I told you before, my name’s Mark McCain!” Mark yelled at them.

Garrett turned and thought nothing of backhanding Mark across the jaw hard enough it knocked him to the floor. “Boy you watch how you talk to me! Any more outbursts like that and I’ll make you pull a double shift for a week or better yet, I’ll let Mays take the whip to your backside.”

Mark slowly climbed to his feet, wiped the back of his hand to the corner of his mouth and saw blood on his hand as he pulled it away. He stood defiantly in front of Garrett. “I tell you again, you better let me go. My name’s Mark McCain and there are people out looking for me.”

Garrett back handed Mark again. This time, striking his cheek bone, again knocking him to the floor. He picked Mark up from the floor and pushed him towards the door. Garrett rushed Mark so fast down the steps, he fell to the ground. Mark got to his feet as quickly as possible.

“I don’t care who you’re pretending to be. You work. If you work good today, maybe I’ll let Brophy feed you tonight. Maybe I’ll have you go hungry for a while longer, take some of the starch out of you. Now get moving!” He gave Mark another shove forward. “Better yet, Mays!”

As Mark turned to follow the others he felt the sting of the lash strike his back, dropping him to the ground.

“That’s just a taste of what you’ll get if you don’t change your attitude!” boasted Mays as he coiled the whip.

All six boys were ushered into the pit to start working. Mark and Dodger both felt the pains of hunger while they were working. Eventually Mays returned and pulled the others out, but told Mark and Dodger to keep working.

“Mark, I wouldn’t push them any more. Just do as they say. There’s been boys that have worked here, they pushed Garret and Mays and we never seen them again,” Dodger pleaded.

“Dodger, we need to get out of here. All of us.”

They continued to work until Brophy came and returned them to the shack.

“What about food?” Dodger asked.

“Sorry boys, not tonight,” Brophy replied. Turning to Mark he stated, “Listen, I realize that you’re not Tim, just do as they say. I’m sorry.” He turned and left the shack, locking the door behind him.

Mark followed Dodger to the bunkbed where he sat down.

“That’s good ain’t it?” Dodger asked as he reached for the bowl and towel setting on the bunk.

“What’s good?” Gordon asked.

“Brophy said he knows Mark ain’t Tim, and I’m sure he’s the one who left this bowl of warm water and the towel.”

Dodger dipped the towel into the bowel and squeezed out some of the water before dabbing at the single lash mark on Mark’s back.

“That don’t look as bad as they done to Tim,” Gordon offered upon hearing Mark’s gasp as the water stung as it penetrated the raw skin.

*****

Morning came and Brophy brought a few dried biscuits and jerkey for Mark and Dodger, apologizing that he couldn’t bring more. They quickly ate what was provided as all the boys were led back to the pit at the end of the tunnel.

*****

As they were working to haul fill dirt to the cart, Mark discovered a crevice in the wall; he looked through it and thought he saw faint light off in the far distance. The crevice would be wide enough for the others, but quite a tight fit for Mark. Being the oldest and having spent a number of summers working alongside his Pa on their ranch, even though he was slight of build, he still was developing strong muscles across his back and his chest.

“Guys come here!” Mark called.

When the other five were circle around him, Mark told them of his find.

“We need to get out of here and that crevice is our best chance,” Mark told them.

“But Mark, if they find us trying to escape, they’ll beat us,” Dodger quietly said. “And if we run, you won’t be able to keep up with us, with you having that chain between your ankles.”

“I know,” Mark stated as he looked around. “Gordon, bring me that pick ax. We can try using it to break through the chains on my legs.”

Gordon swung the pick ax at the chain links close to Mark’s ankles. It took a while, but he eventually struck through and broke two of the links, thus allowing Mark to be able to run at full stride.

Dodger asked, “What about the chains on your arms?”

“Can’t take the time now. I just pray that Garrett and Mays don’t come looking for us any time soon,” Mark replied while he stood to his feet.

Mark insisted the other boys head into the crevice first. He felt relief as each boy turned sideways and disappeared through the opening. Mark turned to extinguish the lantern; he threw it against the wall, shattering the glass chimney. Momentarily the room was brightly illuminated as the kerosene dripping down the wall caught fire from the wick. After the flame died, Mark forced his way into the crevice. It was a tight fit for him. He felt the edges of the rocks scrape deep against his back and chest, tearing his shirt, as he forced his way through and Gordon pulled on his arm to help him along. He felt relieved when the crevice opened wider to allow them to walk without their shoulders striking the walls. Under their feet, the ground inclined as they made their way to the opening and hopefully to freedom. At the far end, it took both Dodger and Gordon to help pull Mark through another tight squeeze before the crevice opened up into a cavern. Once in the mammoth opening, Mark quietly called to the others.

“We’re here Mark. What do we do now?” Gordon asked.

“We keep walking and we’ll make our way to that spot of light up ahead.”

“It’s an awful small opening,” Andy pleaded. Being the youngest, he was just too tired to care how he sounded.

“Maybe it’s just a distance away,” Mark stated as he ignored the shackles and chain and lifted the young boy to his hip to carry him.

Andy wrapped his arms around Mark’s neck and nestled his head on Mark’s shoulder.

“Let’s get moving, guys,” Mark stated as he took another step forward.

*****

Brophy returned to the tunnel to get the boys out for the night. As he walked deeper into the tunnel, he realized that he should have heard noise from their pick axes and seen their lantern glow by now. But he thought to himself that it had been sometime since he had refilled the lantern they left with the boys, so he hoped that maybe the lantern had burned out and possibly the boys were taking the chance in getting some much needed sleep. Soon, he came to where the boys had left their shovels and the pick axes. He found the length of chain that had bound Mark’s ankles. As he turned to leave he spied the broken lantern against the wall. He ran back to the building the men were using as their living quarters.

“Garrett, they’re gone! All of them!” Brophy shouted as he entered the shack out of breath.

“What do you mean, gone?!” Mays hollered.

“They’re just… gone. I went to get them out and all I found was the tools. Not a sign of them anywhere.”

Garrett, Mays, and Brophy returned to the tunnel, each one carrying a lantern. As they approached the work sight, they saw the tools on the ground as well as the length of chain. This time with more light, they saw the foot prints and followed them to the crevice.

“Damn!” Garrett exclaimed. “That last dynamite blast must have opened up that crevice. There’s faint daylight at the other end. Get to the horses! We have to get those boys back!”

As the three returned to where their horses were stabled, Garrett yelled to Brophy, “You stay here and watch over the others! Don’t need to lose everyone! Make sure every shack is locked!” With that, Garrett and Mays left the encampment.

*****

The cave and tunnels the boys were in, finally opened up to the outdoors. They walked out and looked around, using their hands to shield their eyes from the light of the sun. After being in the dark for so long, even a sun that was setting for the evening was too bright.

“Mark, where do we go from here?” Andy asked. Being the youngest and smallest of the group, he took Mark’s hand in his and didn’t let go.

“Well, I know when they brought me here, we were traveling North. That means my home’s to the South. While the sun’s setting, we just need to keep it to our right. We’ll stop for the night when we find some shelter.”

They walked several hours even after it was too dark to logically continue, but the boys were driven to get as far away as possible. They found a small stream surrounded by an outcropping of rocks as well as bushes and trees that would afford them a little protection from being seen. The boys ran and laid down at the edge of the stream and drank their fill of water.

Mark, saw his reflection in the water and realized how filthy he was. He submerged his whole head underwater and started rubbing his face and his hair. The cool water stung at his wrists, but the longer they were underwater, the better they started to feel. Since his shirt was already in tatters, he ripped the shirt tail off, dipped it in the water, and used it to clean up the scratches on his chest. Reese came over to Mark and cleaned the scratches on Mark’s back.

Mark walked over, sat down and leaned back again a large tree. Andy and Cooper laid down on either side of Mark, resting their heads on his thighs as they fell asleep. The others lay down in the tall grass and soon, all six boys were asleep.

Mark was awakened by the throbbing in his wrists and his back and chest, and from the hunger in his stomach. He opened his eyes and saw the sun hadn’t risen for the morning. Andy and Cooper were still curled up next to Mark. He crawled over to the stream and took a long drink, hoping it would satisfy his hunger. Mark crawled back to the others and sat down, waiting for them to wake. After waking for the day, the boys continued walking south.

*****

The men from North Fork were at the start of their third day of heading north towards Capitan.

Micah was trying to keep Lucas reined in as they broke camp. “Lucas, let Wiseman lead the way. He knows this territory. Once we have Mark in sight then you can do what you want. I know this is hard on you LucasBoy. It’s just as hard on me… the not knowing.”

“Micah, I just feel that we’re close to Mark. Something about today just feels different,” Lucas stated. “I don’t know how else to explain it.”

Drako answered, “Maybe it’s just you getting your hopes up. Lucas, I know how you feel about the boy, but we still don’t know how this is going to end. I’m praying that things turn out all right.”

“It has to turn out all right,” declared Lucas as he signaled his horse into a lope.

*****

The boys continued their southward trek. They stopped when they came to a wild patch of blackberries; Mark and the others stuffed their faces. It was past noon when Mark called for a rest as they came to a thick stand of trees. They all collapsed, thankful for the brief respite. Mark woke abruptly, unsure what had made him wake. As he looked around, he realized that he and the boys had dozed off. He listened intently in an attempt to identify what had startled him awake. The noise sounded again, it was a horse snorting its nose.

Mark crawled towards the noise, praying that maybe, maybe it was his Pa. Mark quickly backed up when he saw Garrett and Mays sitting on their horses. He turned and crawled back to the others as quietly as possible. Shaking each one awake, making sure his hand was over their mouth to keep them from yelling. He held his index finger over his mouth and motioned for them to follow him as they half-ran, half-crawled their way through the trees.

As bad luck would have it, the trees gave way to a clearing wide with grass. Knowing they had no choice, they started running for the other side and Mark made sure the smallest had just made it to the next tree line praying Garrett and Mays hadn’t heard their made dash through the woods and across the opening. As Mark turned to follow the boys, he saw the mean ride through the tree line and realized the men saw him.

Having raced their horses across the opening, the men grew frustrated when the trees on this side proved denser; forcing Garrett and Mays to jumped from their horses and leave them behind.

The boys ran without thinking where they were going. All they knew was, they needed to get away. The trees gave way and the boys found themselves looking out over an overhang. They looked down to see the river rapids, down the steep fifteen foot embankment.

Mark motioned and pushed the boys to run parallel to the edge. Soon the trees that offered them some shelter stopped. Mark told the younger boys to head back into the woods.

Turning to the oldest boy, Mark stated, “Gordon, I want you to take Andy, Cooper, and Reese back into the woods. Make your way back to Garret’s and Mays’ horses. Ride and head South, you’ll have to come to a road soon and then follow it to whatever town it takes you to. Dodger and I’ll keep drawing the men after us,” Mark spoke as everyone was struggling to catch their breath.

Gordon declared, “I’m the oldest after you, Dodger’s too young to help you!”

“Gordon, as the next oldest, it’s your responsibility to get the younger boys out of here. And besides, Dodger is quicker than you, and probably even me. We can tease the men, let them see one of us and then disappear, only to have them see the other. We’ll do our best to lead them away from you and the boys. Gordon, you have to,” pleaded Mark.

Dodger and Mark watched the four boys return to the woods. They waited until they heard Garrett and Mays break through the tree line and they started running again. Yelling as the carried out their charade, leading the men to believe the other boys were in front of them.

*****

Gordon and the three younger boys made their way back to where the horses were left behind. As they stepped from the woods they saw four men standing by the horses and heard one state, “Micah, we have to be close.”

The boys turned to run back into the woods, but not before Johnny Drako had spotted them. “Lucas, this way.” Johnny dropped the reins and ran into the woods, chasing after the boys. It didn’t take long for Johnny to catch up with and coral them. The boys were exhausted and couldn’t go too far, too fast. He ushered the boys back into the clearing.

Lucas met Johnny as he came from the woods and looked at the four boys standing between them.

“Boys, don’t be scared. We’re here to help you,” Lucas stated as he knelt in front of them.

Andy, Cooper, and Reese tried hiding behind Gordon, all were on the verge of tears.

“Please trust us,” Lucas continued. “This here is Marshal Torrance and behind you is Deputy Drako. This man is Joseph Wiseman. My name is Lucas McCain.”

“You Mark’s Pa?” Andy asked as he peeked around Gordon’s legs.

“Yes, I’m Mark’s Pa. You’ve seen Mark? Where is he?” Lucas begged.

“Mr. McCain,” Gordon stated. “Mark and Dodger were leading Garrett and Mays along the hill above the river so we could get away.”

“Which way son?” Micah asked. All four pointed west.

Lucas and Johnny jumped back on their horses and rode around the trees. They arrived in the opening to see Mark swing the length of chain hanging from his wrists, striking a powerfully built man in the face, knocking him to the ground, unconscious. They saw Mark run and follow another boy along the rise, above the river. They watched as another man, a heavier set man continued to chase after the two.

Lucas yelled for Mark, but realized he probably couldn’t hear him over the rushing water of the river. Johnny and Lucas dismounted their horses. The footing was too treacherous to continue to ride. Lucas had his rifle aimed, but he was forced to pull his rifle up as they watched in horror when the man caught up with Mark and tackled him to the ground and the momentum of his hit took both of them over the lip of the embankment.

Dodger turned at that moment to see his new friend being grappled and taken over the embankment into the river, he screamed, “MARK!”

Lucas and Johnny ran to the edge and slid their way down to the riverbank below. Johnny approached the man, as he lay on his back across a log, evident that his neck had been broken in the fall. Lucas turned around and yelled over and over for Mark. They ran downstream, following the river for about a half mile before they saw Mark struggling to pull himself out of the water.

As they ran forward, they saw him collapse and roll onto his back, the river still tugging at his legs, trying to reclaim him. As he lay on the ground they saw his chest heaving in an effort to catch his breath, exhausted from all his efforts. He didn’t even react as Lucas knelt beside him.

Mark began to struggle as he felt hands grab hold of his biceps, he yelled, “NO!” as he began kicking with his feet.

Lucas held him in his arms, pleased that Mark open his eyes. Unbelieving at first, then recognizing his father’s voice telling him everything was going to be okay. He opened his eyes and allowed himself to be pulled into his father’s chest and listened to the strong beat of his father’s heart. Relief flooded through Mark as he allowed the exhausting darkness pulling at him to finally claim him.

Worried when his son went limp in his arms, Lucas called his sons name.

After pressing his index and middle fingers to the boy’s jugular vein, Johnny said, “He’s alive, probably exhausted, Lucas. His heartbeat is strong.”

Being unconscious gave Mark time enough for his breathing to return to normal; Lucas watched his boy as his eyes started to flutter. Lucas grew appalled at the shackles still around his boy’s boots; and grew livid at how raw his boy’s wrists were because of the shackles and chain he still wore. Assessing the dark bruise across his boy’s cheek bone, the black eye, and abrasions across his shirtless son’s chest, Lucas was thankful the one man was dead and wished the other the same fate.

From above they heard Micah yell down to them. “LucasBoy, how’s Mark?”

As Johnny answered, “He’ll be okay. Find some way for us to get back up top,” he saw a small face peering over the edge.

After a few minutes, a rope was thrown down. Lucas had tied the rope around Mark’s chest as the boy regained full consciousness. Knowing there was no way to keep the rope from the abrasions on his boy’s back and chest, Lucas apologized to Mark.

“I’m sorry son. This is going to hurt some, but once you get up top, Micah will remove the rope.”

Mark nodded and inhaled deeply.

“Micah!’ Lucas yelled. “Haul away!”

Lucas and Johnny watched as Mark was pulled up and over the edge of the embankment. The rope came down again. This time Johnny was pulled up and finally Lucas.

As he reached the top, Lucas saw Mark and five other boys sitting on the ground around each other. Wiseman stood behind the boys, keeping an eye out for anyone approaching.

“Mark, you care to introduce me into your new friends?” Lucas asked as he knelt down next to his son.

He pointed to each one as he introduced Dodger, Gordon, Andy, Cooper and Reese to his Pa and the others.

Lucas reached for Mark’s arms and assessed the damaged, raw wrists. “Micah, you have any way to get these off Mark?”

“I’m afraid we don’t. Unfortunately we’ll have to wait until we get to a town with a blacksmith to get those off him. I’m sorry boy.”

They walked back to the clearing to get the man the boys said was Mays. Micah and Wiseman had encountered the man and after dragging him a short distance, Micah handcuffed him to a tree. The man was just getting to his feet as the group approached. Drako and Torrance had their guns on him.

They forced Mays go down the embankment in order to retrieve Garrett’s body and then watched as they had him bury the body under rocks.

*****

With Mays as their unwilling guide, the group returned to the mine site. Brophy immediately threw down his rifle when he realized there was nothing he could do. He obeyed and unlocked the two other shacks. Each shack had housed six boys. Wiseman was appalled at the conditions as he walked through each shack and the building that served as the dining room and kitchen. Disgusted at the lack of basic necessities, but then these men weren’t supposed to be guardians to any of the boys.

The five boys and Mark all looked exhausted, Micah suggested they return to their sleeping quarters and get some sleep.

Lucas followed Mark and the others as they returned to the shack that had been their ‘home/prison’. He watched as they crawled into their bunks and fell asleep. Lucas stopped by each bunk and pulled the thin cover from the foot of the bunk over its occupant. He stopped where Mark’s slept and sat on the edge. He pushed Mark’s hair from his forehead.

Johnny entered the shack a while later carrying a set of bolt cutters he’d found in a tool shed.

“Lucas, maybe we could use this to get those shackles off Mark,” Johnny offered.

Having unsuccessfully tried to wake Mark, they went ahead and cut the shackles off while he slept. Afterwards, Lucas and Johnny left the shack. They decided to check out the mine where the boys had said they had been forced to work. Before entering, they lit two lanterns and walked in. They came to the end of the tunnel and saw the length of chain that had obviously been on the shackles around Mark’s ankles.

Lucas knelt and picked up the chain. He turned it over and over in his hand. Johnny saw the anger growing in Lucas’ eyes. The former gunslinger, current lawman knew he needed to temper the rage that was growing, before Lucas did something he would live to regret.

“Lucas, it’s done, it’s over with. Your boy is safe,” Johnny said as he took the chain from Lucas and threw it away. “Your boy’s alive and safe. Don’t do anything to jeopardize your future with him.”

Sensing a cooling of the rage within his friend, they left the tunnel and went to check in on the other boys. They’d seen Wiseman and Micah shepherding the boys from the other shacks into the building that served as the dining area.

They walked in, hearing Wiseman telling the boys that their nightmare was over. He was going to make sure they were returned to a life befitting boys their ages. They no longer were going to be forced to work in the mine; however, they would ultimately have to go to school. That statement brought a concerted moan from the group.

“Now boys, we ask that you return to your beds and get a good sleep tonight. The doors on your shacks will remain unlocked. Marshal Torrance and Deputy Drako will see that no one hurts you tonight,” Wiseman spoke.

*****

Lucas returned to the shack where Mark slept. He laid his bedroll out on the floor next to Mark’s bunk. As he lay down, he saw Mark’s hat sticking out from under the bed. He pulled it out and ran his fingers over the whole in the crown. He eventually hung it on a nail protruding from the post of the bunk bed. Though he wanted to stay awake in case any of the boy’s woke during the night, Lucas was soon asleep himself.

He woke in the morning to find Mark awake, sitting cross-legged in the bunk, and rubbing at his wrists.

“Morning son. How’d you sleep last night?” Lucas asked as he rose to sit on the bunk with his son.

“Don’t remember sleeping. Seems like I just laid down and then I was awake. I still feel so tired.” Mark tried stifling a yawn as he said, “Thanks for getting the shackles off.”

Upon hearing his son’s stomach rumbling, Lucas said, “Let’s get you some breakfast, you and the others slept through supper last night.”

“What about them?” Mark asked as he looked around the room.

“I’ll ask Wiseman to come back to be here when the others wake.”

*****

With the remainder of their supplies and with what they found in the ‘kitchen’, they had enough food to make an adequate breakfast for the group.

Micah commented, “Those boys eat as if they hadn’t eaten in a week and they ate pretty good last night.”

“That’s probably a real true statement,” Wiseman answered. “Knowing how easy it is to get boys, those men probably didn’t provide anything really substantial them. Though, I’m sure they ate well.”

When the last of the boys could eat no more, they had Mays and Brophy harness the horses to a wagon and loaded the boys inside. Gordon, being the oldest, next to Mark, smiled when Johnny asked him if he’d ever driven the team, he eagerly climbed up to the seat and reached for the reins. A couple of the other older boys were allowed to ride double on the pack horses. Dodger rode double with Mark on Blue Boy. Mays and Brophy were made to walk behind the wagon, with their hands tied in front of them. To make sure they didn’t get away, Wiseman tied a rope around their waists and then to the back of the wagon and then back to their bound hands.

The ragtag group rode into the town of Capitan. Wiseman was surprised at how the town had grown and appeared to have prospered from when he had last been there. It was a booming town, complete with a sheriff and a doctor.

They left Brophy and Mays with the sheriff, leaving Micah and Wiseman to explain what happened. After leaving the Sheriff’s Office, Lucas and Johnny made sure their first stop was the hotel, where each boy ate their fill of a late lunch. Lucas asked the hotel manager about getting baths for everyone. The man disappeared and shortly, an elderly gentleman who said he was an attendant led them down the hallway and showed them four different rooms. Each room had a partition down the middle and on each side was a large bathing tub. The smaller boys could fit two inside the tubs. The boys took long, hot baths with plenty of soap and water. As Micah, Johnny, Lucas, and Mark sat on the benches out in the hallway, they couldn’t help but smile and laugh at the sounds emanating from behind the doors; all the laughter and the splashing. It was obvious the boys were enjoying themselves.

By the time each boy was done bathing, those from North Fork grinned at the ‘pickled prunes’ standing in front of them and being fussed over by several women from the town. Having heard the new, the town’s people were donating plenty of nice hand-me-down clothes for the boys.

The last to bathe were those from North Fork. Lucas heard a few ouches and moans from the other side of the partition, where Mark was bathing. “You okay Mark?” he asked.

“I’m okay, just didn’t realize how much this soapy water would sting, but the hot water sure feels good to my muscles,” Mark answered as he relaxed back into the tub.

While they were bathing, the attendant tried to air out and clean up their clothes, the best he could.

*****

Leaving Lucas and Mark alone, Micah, Johnny, and Wiseman ushered the boys to the doctor’s office. Each boy was looked over and injuries tended too. Most of the injuries were minor, cuts, bruises, but a few had welt marks on their backs from lashings.

*****

After stepping from the tub and drying himself off, Lucas dressed and walked to the far side of the partition. He leaned against the partition and folded his arms across his chest in seeing his son with his arms hanging over the sides of the tub, his head hung down in sleep. Lucas shook his head as he straightened himself and walked to the edge of the tub, reached down and gently shook his son awake.

“If you stay in there any longer, you’ll be a shriveled prune, son. Come on now, wake up.”

“Pa?” Mark queried as he roused.

“Finish rinsing yourself off and get dressed. The attendant said Johnny bought these for you.”

“Ah Pa, the water feels too good to get out,” moaned Mark as he wiggled in the tub.

“All the more reason for you to finish, get dressed, and then to the doctor’s.”

“Yes, Pa.”

Lucas waited.

“Uh, Pa?”

“Yes Mark.”

“Don’t you think I’m a little too old for you to be standing over me and watching me bathe?” Mark blushed as he asked the question.

Seeing his son’s cheeks flush, Lucas answered, “I’ve seen and bathed that bare butt of yours on many occasions.”

“Yeah, but that was when I was a kid.”

“A kid, eh?”

“Yeah, I’m almost a man.”

“Then as ‘almost a man’, get a move on before I decide to haul you and your bare butt out of that tub,” teased Lucas as he turned to walk out of the bathing room.

*****

Mark and his father patiently waited on the bench in front of the doctor’s office until the last of other boys had been checked out. Mark knew the boys had been in the mine a lot longer than him and had suffered so much more.

*****

Lucas stood next to his son as the doctor applied a salve to Mark’s wrists and wrapped a thin bandage around them. Next, the doctor applied the salve to the scrape marks on Mark’s chest and back.

“Mr. McCain,” beckoned the doctor. “Have you seen this?”

Lucas stepped to behind his son and forced himself to temper his anger upon recognizing the tell-tale sign of a whip lash.

“It was only once Pa, to prove a point.”

“Prove a point? In God’s name, what reason does a man have to whip…”

“Because he could,” answered Mark. “He didn’t need a reason, so much as to prove to me, and the others, who was in control. As much as it hurt me, the guys said it was pretty mild compared to what their friend Tim suffered.”

Speaking to Mark the doctor stated, “Here, take this salve with you and each night before bed, I want you to unbandage your wrists and rub this salve on them, as well as the scrape marks on your chest. Your Pa can rub this on your back and then he can lightly bandage your wrists again. You should be all healed within seven to ten days.” He gave Mark a pat on the back of his shoulder.

As they were getting ready to leave the doctor’s office, the doctor spoke, “Mr. McCain, I’ve informed the lawmen who rode with you, as well as Mr. Wiseman that all the boys’ injuries will heal, in time. I plan to work with Mr. Wiseman to see that these boys go to good homes and schools. That they get a second chance at a life all boys should have. This town’s grown and changed in the ten years since Joseph left. And I hope it’s been for the best.”

*****

“Here you go boy,” Micah came in and handed Mark a new shirt he had just purchased at the General Store. “Oh, I see you already have a new shirt.”

“Thanks Micah, Pa said Johnny bought me this one, but I’m sure I can use this one,” answered Mark.

“Come on boy, let’s go home,” stated Lucas.

“How long will it take us to get home?” Mark asked.

“About three days,” Johnny answered.

“There are a lot of people who are going to be happy to see you alive when we get home,” stated Lucas before he bid goodbye to the doctor.

“Pa, what about the guys, I mean…” Mark hesitantly stated.

“We’ll talk later,” Lucas answered.

*****

Mark was sprawled in the bed in the hotel room with his hands behind his head, fingers interlaced, “Pa, about the guys…”

Walking over to sit down on the edge of the bed where his son rested, Lucas began, “Mr. Wiseman was searching for them as part of his assignment to evaluate the facilities where they lived.”

“They weren’t supposed to be with Garret and Mays?”

Lucas shook his head no, “No son, they weren’t. Some of them should have been in orphanages and some should have been in facilities for troubled youths.”

“Where will they go now?”

“Wiseman and the doctor will see that they are adopted or placed in proper facilities to help them.”

“I’m glad, Pa. The guys are a good group, they didn’t deserve what happened to them,” Mark answered, attempting to stifle a yawn.

“None of you did, son. None of you did,” Lucas said as he pulled the blanket over his son’s chest as the boy’s eyes closed.

*****

Having bid a mixed-emotion goodbye to Wiseman and the boys, the group from North Fork was just one day away from returning home as they made camp for the night.

As Mark laid out his bedroll next to his Pa’s he asked, “Pa, back in Capitan, you said people would be mighty glad to see me alive. What did you mean by that?”

Lucas patted the ground next to him and asked for Mark to sit down. Micah and Johnny watched as they drank from their coffee cups, realizing the discussion that was about to happen.

Lucas put his arm around Mark’s shoulders and proceeded to tell him how Sam and Ralph had brought a body into town the day after he had disappeared. How the boy had looked so much like Mark that everyone believed the dead boy was Mark. Lucas was quiet before he told his boy of how devastated he felt when he entered Doc’s office and thought he’d seen Mark lying dead on the table. How do you tell your child you thought he had died and how the boy had died; how his whole world crashed around him in his fear?

“Mark, when I thought it was you lying there, I felt worse than when your Ma died. Guilty because… well, because I hadn’t been there to protect you. It wasn’t until hours later that Doc Burrage discovered the truth and came to tell me.” Lucas didn’t go into the details of how battered and bruised the boy had been.

Mark remembered back to the night when he’d heard the rifle shot, ran to the barn, and thought he’d seen his Pa lying dead on the ground. He remembered the cold knot that grew in the pit of his stomach, how he’d thrown himself to the ground crying, “PA!” over and over. But, just a few short moments later, his Pa had him wrapped in his arms and carried him to the house. It had been Henry Trumble and not his Pa who had lain there dead. Mark thought to himself, that had only been a few moments for him, he couldn’t imagine the hours his Pa had endured, not knowing the truth. (Refers to events in the second season episode, entitled Bloodlines.)

Mark felt his Pa tremble as he sat there quietly. He realized his Pa was reliving the memory of thinking his boy was dead.

“But Pa, it wasn’t me. I’m here. I’m alive,” Mark said quietly as he looked to his Pa.

“I know you are son. It’s a memory that will ease in time. Just having you here beside me will help.” Lucas leaned over and gave his son a kiss on the top of the head and pulled him closer.

“The dead boy had to be Tim,” Mark quietly stated. “When Garrett and Mays took me, they kept calling me Tim. Even when I reached the mines, everyone kept calling me Tim, at first. The boys realized I wasn’t him real quick and Brophy was the only one of the three men that eventually figured it out. Mays and Garrett wouldn’t believe me when I tried to tell them I wasn’t Tim. Garrett gave me this bruise and black-eye when he back handed me after I yelled at him, trying to get him to understand.” Mark grew quiet as he remembered his own memories, causing him to shiver a little.

Micah chimed in. “Mark, you know how much you mean to your Pa. Well the rest of the town kind of feels the same way. When we thought you were dead, it was like a little piece of each one of us died.” Then trying to lighten the mood, Micah continued, “We can laugh about it now, but… I’ve never seen your Pa so drunk before. Drako, Nils, and John Hamilton did a good job in getting him drunk, as well as themselves. You should have seen them with their hangovers the next day.” Micah laughed at the memory.

“Don’t remind me Micah,” Drako said as he shook his head before drinking coffee from his cup.

“Drunk?” Mark asked with wide eyes looking from his Pa to Johnny.

“We were only following Doc Burrage’s orders. He told us to take your Pa to Sweeney’s and get him drunk. Honest!” Drako said as he held up his hand as if he was swearing on the bible.

Mark shook his head as he tried to imagine his Pa staggering through the streets of North Fork, drunk.

Micah stoked the fire one last time before they crawled into their bedrolls for the night. As they pulled their blankets over their shoulders, all but one thought on a father’s worst fear and how they would have handled the situation. Lucas was thankful his worst fear was a nightmare that he gladly woke from, this time.

*****

The sun had just set when the group arrived in North Fork. The stopped at the livery and asked Nils to put their horses up for the night. Before they left, Nils gave Mark a big hug and told him how good it was to have him home. They walked over to the hotel and entered the restaurant. Lou was taking an order when she saw them. She immediately ran over and gave Mark a kiss on his cheek and the biggest hug of his life, practically squeezing the breath out of him.

“Lou, if you don’t let the boy breathe, you’re going to squeeze him to death,” Johnny chastised her.

“Well, I’m just so happy to see him. He gave us all quite a shock. And besides, I missed him,” Lou replied.

“Well what about the rest of us?” Micah chimed in. “We’ve been gone quite a while tracking Mark down and rescuing him.”

“You know what I mean,” Lou replied, letting her Irish come out. “Just the same, I’m glad to see all of ye home, safe and sound.”

Lou showed them to a table and told them their meal was on the house. Before he sat down, Johnny gave Lou a quick kiss on the cheek.

As they were eating, many of the town’s folks peeked in the window or actually entered into the hotel lobby and looked through the archway into the dinning area. Everyone wanted to see for themselves that Mark McCain was, indeed, alive and well.

Before dessert arrived, Stevan Griswald entered the restaurant and joined the group for coffee. As he drank, he couldn’t remove the smile from his face as he watched Mark devour a second piece of apple pie.

*****

The following morning, Lucas woke and looked to the second bed in room only to find it empty. He briefly washed and hurriedly dressed before heading downstairs to the restaurant. Not finding Mark inside, he asked Lou if she’d seen Mark.

“He was here earlier,” Lou commented.

“Did he say where he was going?”

“No, but he looked like he was heading for Micah’s.”

Lucas left the hotel and walked to the Marshal’s Office. Upon entering he asked if either man had seen his son.

Micah shook his head no, while Johnny nodded.

“Would you mind telling me where?”

“Lucas, he was headed towards the cemetery.”

“And you let him?” Lucas demanded.

“I followed and watched for a while, but felt I was intruding. I figured once you woke for the morning you’d be here soon enough.”

Taking a deep breath, Lucas headed to the cemetery. As he arrived he listened as he heard his son speaking.

“Tim, you’d be happy for the guys. We didn’t tell them you had died. I guess it would be better for them to think you had found my Pa and the others, and were at a home as happy as the ones they’re going to get.”

Mark picked at a blade of grass while he sat, leaning against the blank grave marker.

“I’m happy for the guys too, but I’m feeling a little…”

“How are you feeling – guilty, son?” a concerned Lucas asked.

Mark turned has his father’s shadow fell across him.

“I guess a little guilty,” answered Mark.

“Why?”

Mark shrugged his shoulders and said, “Tim didn’t get a happy ever after ending.”

“Maybe not the kind of ever after that seems right, but he’ll be remembered, by you and the others. As long as you remember him for what he did and why he did it. He did have a hand in the happy ever after for the others.”

Considering his father words, Mark said, “They didn’t kill him… you know… Garret and Mays.”

“How do you figure that?”

“Well, not directly. I mean if Garrett and Mays had killed him, they wouldn’t have insisted in taking me and calling me Tim. And I don’t think Brophy was strong enough to kill him.”

“Did you speak with Doc this morning?”

Mark nodded, “He said Tim died from a blow to his head and based on what Doc said Micah told him, he was probably so weak from all the beatings and lack of food, that… he fell and struck his head.”

“I didn’t want you to know,” Lucas stated, he had feared what would happen if his son knew the full truth in the amount of trauma Tim has suffered; Lucas’ gentle son, so much like his mother.

“I kind of guessed it from what the guys said, and I told Doc I had to know. He didn’t want to…”

“But he did.”

“Yes sir. I kinda didn’t give him any option,” Mark answered. “Pa?”

“Yes Mark?”

“Let’s go home. I don’t want to be here anymore.”

Lucas had talked with Doc Burrage after Mark had gone to sleep the night before and Doc had told him about ‘survivor’s guilt’ that was being discussed in the ever growing field of psychiatry. He hoped his son wouldn’t need to see a specialist to get through the next few days or weeks. Ultimately, Lucas knew this wouldn’t be the only conversation with his son in order to help him come to terms with what he had experienced and been told. Regardless, Lucas McCain knew he would be there whenever his son was ready to continue talking, and if his son needed to talk with someone who specialized in helping people to understand their feelings, so be it.

With his arm placed across his son’s back and his hand resting Mark’s shoulder, father and son walked to the livery and prepared to go home. Lucas wondered what would today or even tomorrow bring… Over the past few days, he witnessed fleeting glimpses of additional maturity in his son, yet he also saw a lost innocence in the boy for all that he had suffered and endured.

‘God, just watch over him, that’s all I ask,’ Lucas prayed as he saddle Razor and watched his son saddle BlueBoy.

*****

NOTE: I have taken liberties in the medical community in referring to Survivor’s Guilt, though not officially acknowledged until the 1960’s, I’m sure that some physicians realized their patients were going through something after surviving something horrible where others died. As a side note, the field of psychiatry was recognized in 1808.

This is a story based on the TV series The Rifleman
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