The Rifleman
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Fan Fiction

The Desert Trail
Written by Deanne Bertram

In this story, I’ve borrowed several guest characters from various episodes during The Rifleman’s five year run.

From “A Case of Identity” (season two) we met Dollar Ten, an orphaned boy who Lucas boasted worked harder than any ten men to pay his way as he lived on his own in North Fork. Many people within North Fork had offered to take the boy in, but he was set on making his own way in life and worked hard to get everything he had.

In the same episode, we also met Aaron Wingate, a grieved widower and father who continued to search for his son, ten years after a riverboat accident claimed the life of his wife, and more probably his own then toddler son, but the father refused to believe the child was dead due to the lack of a body. Aaron Wingate had hired numerous detectives over the years to find his son, and this current set of ‘detectives’ were set to find him a son, anyone’s son, to get their hands on the reward Wingate offered. Unfortunately, they settled on Mark McCain.

In “Death Never Rides Alone” (season five), we were introduced to Johnny Drako, a long-time friend of Lucas McCain. 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; especially 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.

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 or oblivion. Thus was the idea for my story The Return of Johnny Drako.

This story is set several years after the final season.

The Desert Trail

Marshal Micah Torrance pushed the door closed and several citizens scampered away from just outside the doorway to the Marshal’s Office, hoping that those inside hadn’t thought them to be eavesdropping on the conversation. It was unusual for Lucas McCain to ride into town so late in the day, especially on a Thursday; so they were curious as to why.

“Now LucasBoy,” Micah was trying patiently to explain as Deputy Johnny Drako poured a cup of coffee for the tall rancher. “Johnny and I have to take these two prisoners down to Eddy, New Mexico. They’re wanted by the U.S. Army for desertion and gun running to the Comanche’s up north. Wire from Fort Bliss says they have a detachment that’s already in route to Eddy and said they’d inform them to wait for us.”

The tall rancher rested his hip on the corner of the marshal’s desk as he took the offered cup of coffee and listened to his friend explain. With a hint of exasperation in his voice he answered, “Micah, Mark and I have work to do out at the ranch, we’ve cattle that need branding and…”

“Lucas, if it weren’t important, I wouldn’t ask,” interrupted Micah. “I know how busy you and Mark have been of late and we know how much more work you have to do... But it’s going to take both Johnny and I to get Cole Wilder and Zeb Denton down to Eddy,” pleaded the marshal.

“Micah, the work at the ranch won’t get done on its own…” Lucas answered.

“Lucas, we know that,” Johnny answered. “But if there were anyone else we could ask… we’d ask them. Mark sounded so excited when he came in to town today to pick up the mail and was telling us all about what the two of you were planning to do.”

“We almost hated to send word with him asking you to come to town,” Micah inserted.

“But it didn’t stop you,” Lucas voiced sarcastically.

“Neither of us expected Wilder and Denton to show up in our little town,” Micah stated.

“And neither of us expected the Army to be so anxious to get them back into their custody,” stated Johnny Drako.

“Then let the Army come here and get them,” Lucas retorted.

“We already tried that avenue, but the Army wants us to meet them half way,” Johnny answered.

“How long do you figure to be gone?” Lucas asked, quietly knowing, but dreading the answer as he rested his hand holding the cup of coffee on his knee.

“Two weeks tops,” Johnny Drako replied, keeping the grin off his face. He knew that Lucas would ultimately agree to watch the town in their absence, but would pretend to put up a fight to voice his displeasure at being taken away from his work.

“Two weeks!” Lucas exclaimed, unable to hide his temper. He quickly pushed his hand forward to prevent any more of his coffee from spilling over the edge of the cup and onto his pants. Using his other hand, he tried to prevent as the spilled coffee from soaking into the material.

“Hopefully it won’t be more than ten days, but still, we’re not sure exactly when the Army will arrive compared to when we can arrive; we might have to wait a day or so once we get there. We just don’t know,” Micah stated.

“Isn’t there any law in Eddy that can watch over them until the Army arrives so you don’t have to wait?” Lucas queried. “Why does it take both of you?”

“Lucas, it’s our responsibility because we captured them in our town,” Johnny answered.

Micah offered his own explanation, “Because Denton and Wilder have friends… Would you honestly want only one of us to go up against the likes of men who would sell rifles to Comanches?”

“No, but I don’t know why I have to be the one to stand in your absences,” Lucas challenged.

Johnny Drako was sitting on the opposite side of the room and added, “Lucas, you know we’ve got a few big herds heading through here on their way to Texas. There’s no one else Micah trusts to handle the drovers if they get out of line. ‘Sides, if the drovers thought this town had no law…”

“Alright, alright,” Lucas held up his non-coffee cup bearing hand to indicate he was giving up the argument, “I’ll do it, but when you get back, both of you owe it to me to help get us caught up at the ranch.” Lucas stated as he pointed his index finger towards Micah and then Johnny in mock anger. “When do you plan on leaving?” he asked, resigning himself to the fact that he did have an obligation to the town.

Before Johnny Drako returned to North Fork, Lucas had always been there to back up Micah when he faced a situation that was more than what one man should face alone or one man with a bummed arm should face alone. He also had acted as a deputy when the lawman was required to be away from town. Yet, in the ensuing time since Johnny Drako’s return, Lucas McCain had secretly enjoyed leaving those responsibilities to someone else.

As Lucas’ son, Mark, matured, the father relished the added time he spent with his son working and expanding their ranch, building it together. Watching as his son changed from a small, skinny kid into a young man; at sixteen, still far too skinny for Lucas’ likes, but with all the work they did together, he knew underneath the skin his son was developing muscles that would serve him well as he continued to grow.

Lucas mused to the day before, remembering how they worked together, shirtless, under the hot sun. For a moment the father almost didn’t recognize his son as he walked away from the wagon, carrying the split rail logs, muscles rippling across his back as he set several of them onto the ground; a small indication of just who this young man would ultimately become – a young man comfortable with hard work and bearing the responsibilities as easily as he carried the logs.

Trying to bring their friend’s attention back to the situation at hand, Micah called Lucas’ name for a third time. Blinking his eyes, Lucas gave a brief apology.

“LucasBoy, we’re planning to head out first thing in the morning. I can deputize you now, so you can go home and pack, get Mark, if you want, and return to town tomorrow morning. Johnny’s already talked to Lou and reserved a room for you at the hotel.”

“You knew I’d agree? Thanks Micah,” Lucas responded with a slight sarcastic tone to his voice.

“You always do Lucas,” Johnny whispered.

Before leaving the office, Lucas heard the taunts of the two outlaws locked in the jail demanding their supper.

“Glad it’s going to be you escorting them and not me,” Lucas stated as he walked past his friend Johnny Drako. For a moment, Lucas looked at the deputy and saw a hint of the man’s former life shining through his steel cold eyes; and then the look was gone.

After being sworn in, Lucas left the office, climbed in the saddle and headed home.

*****

Lucas rode home to let Mark know of the change of plans for the next two weeks and to pack his bag. Mark was just coming out of the barn when Lucas arrived. He took Razor from his Pa to unsaddle and groom him for the night. Gratefully, Lucas handed the reins to his son and followed him into the barn.

Hesitantly, as his son led the gelding into its stall, Lucas stated, “Mark, I know we had plans outlining all work we needed to get done… but Micah and Johnny have to transport two prisoners to Eddy and they need me to watch over North Fork while they’re gone. Micah’s already deputized me. I’m sorry that’s going to leave us a little shorthanded around here for a while.”

Lucas watched his son groom Razor, paying attention to brush out the wet spots caused by the saddle and pad.

“Us shorthanded?” Mark asked with a laugh. “I understand Pa. It’ll be nice to see you wearing the badge again, even if only for a little while. You want me to come into town each night?”

“Well, as your father, I’d like it, but I know how much you look forward to staying here by yourself, since you’re growing up. Maybe you could come to town, every couple of nights… just to please your ‘old man’,” Lucas laughed at calling himself old.

“Sure. How about starting Saturday night, that way I can get a lot of work done tomorrow and Saturday before meeting you for supper at Lou’s and then we can go to church together on Sunday? After services, I can head back to the ranch,” Mark stated but it was also voiced somewhat as a question, not sure if his father would agree.

“Okay, but I don’t want you to feel you have to or to even try to get everything done without me. And if you have any problems here, I want you in town and looking for me.”

“Yes Pa,” Mark answered, he remembered the many years that his father insisted he stay close to him, making sure they were together in town each night, never letting the boy spend the night at their homestead alone. Mark understood his father’s unvoiced fear; he was the last tie to his father’s greatest love, Margaret, Mark’s mother, dead for the past ten years.

“We’ll also need to see about getting you a hair cut while you’re in town. It’s getting to be pretty long, there boy.” Lucas grinned, they’d been working so hard around the ranch that he’d not noticed just how long his son’s hair was growing.

“Pa, I like it a little long and so does…” Mark stopped; he was maturing and he knew some of the girls from school talked about his hair and how they liked it when he wore it longer than most of the other boys his age wore their hair. But he didn’t think his father would understand.

Lucas gave Mark a slap at this back side, just for the fun of it as they exited the barn and walked across the yard to the house.

*****

Friday morning, Micah and Johnny with the two outlaws in custody left North Fork setting out for Eddy, New Mexico.

Upon his arrival in town, Lucas walked along the boardwalk, checking in with all the shopkeepers and town folks; many were surprised since it had been a while since Lucas had taken on the role of acting Marshal. But none the less, they were all pleased to see him wearing the badge, all understood the troubles some cattle drives caused when the drovers came into the towns they passed and with Lucas’ reputation with his rifle... No one else could keep their town as safe.

Lucas really appreciated Johnny Drako’s return and taking on the duty of a regular deputy, but still, it did feel good to wear the badge. Lucas kept a wary eye as he passed by Sweeney’s saloon, especially now that he knew there was soon to be any number of drovers making their way into town. He knew this was only the beginning for most of the herds as they made their way across New Mexico to San Antonio, Texas before heading up the Chisholm Trail.

Having surveyed the town and returned to the Marshal’s Office and jail, Lucas settled back to hopefully enjoy a quiet day before turning in for the night.

*****

On Saturday, the stage from Santa Fe arrived as close to being on schedule as it could. Only one passenger -- a tall, slender, young man, with sandy, blonde hair, stepped from the stage. As he exited the stage, he dusted himself off and casually looked around while a smile played at his face. He turned and accepted his bags down from the shotgun rider and offered his thanks. Knowing he had time to satisfy his curiosity, the young man turned and removed his hat as he entered the Mallory House Hotel.

In her brightest Irish brogue, hotel owner Lou Mallory greeted the young man stepping into the lobby, “Good Afternoon. Care for a room for the night?”

“At least one night, maybe more, if that’s alright?” he replied.

“Sure, just sign in. Are ye visiting someone or are ye here on business?” Lou asked, not sure of the age of the young man standing in front of her; she knew many people appeared younger than their actual age. She gave him a long look as he signed his name in the register.

Oliver D.T. Wingate, St. Louis, Missouri

“Just visiting, hoping a friend and his Pa still live in North Fork,” Oliver answered.

“Ye’ve come a fair distance on the hope that your friend and his Pa still live here? Well, if ye tell me their names, I know most everyone here in North Fork, Mr. Wingate.”

“Please, call me Oliver. If you don’t mind, I’d like to get settled in my room and maybe we can talk later; if that’s okay?”

Handing the young man the room key, Lou stated, “Sure, I understand ye must be tired. Room twelve is upstairs and to the right. When ye’re ready, I’ll either be here at the front desk or in the restaurant.”

Oliver took his bags upstairs to his assigned room. After setting his bags on the end of the bed, he turned to the pitcher and basin sitting on a stand in front of the mirror and began to wash off the dirt that had settled on his skin during his ride in the stage for the past three days and laid down upon the bed for a brief rest.

*****

Walking across the main street of town and greeting his son as the young man stepped from the livery, Lucas called, “Did you get BlueBoy settled for the night?”

“Yes sir, Nils had his stall all ready. Razor sure looked happy to see him,” answered Mark as he thought back to the loud nicker his father’s horse gave to his own as he led him inside and placed him in the next stall.

Mark was thankful for the brief moment of distraction as he knew what was coming next from his father and Lucas didn’t disappoint. “You couldn’t get to town any sooner? I told you Thursday night you needed to get your hair cut.”

“Pa, things take longer to get done, seeing as it’s only me working.” A smile played at Mark’s lips as he emphasized the word ‘working’.

“Well, guess we’ll have to wait until the next time you come to town to get that mop of yours cut. Is everything okay? Did you have any trouble?” Lucas worriedly asked fearing a problem had actually delayed his son.

Appreciating his father’s concern, Mark answered, “Just a couple of stubborn, mule-headed cows that don’t have the common sense…” Lucas heard the bitterness in his son’s tone of voice, “Found two cows bogged down and to make matters worse, once I got both of them out, one went right back and got herself bogged down again.”

Trying hard to hide the smile that threatened to play across his face, Lucas asked, “Did you get her out?”

Mark nodded, “And chased both of them every step back to the herd.” With a hint of embarrassment, Mark added, “Once home, I had to take time to clean myself up and my saddle before coming to town.”

“Your saddle?”

“Yeah, old bossie didn’t appreciate the slap I gave her on the rump after I removed my lasso and she back kicked and shoved me into the bog.” Mark gingerly rubbed his back side.

Lucas failed miserably in his effort to hide his laugh. In hopes of pacifying his son’s bruised posterior he said, “Come on, let’s get to Lou’s for supper.” He rested his hand upon his son’s shoulder as they walked across the street. As they stepped to the boardwalk, Lucas lowered his hand and shifted his rifle between his hands.

*****

Oliver returned downstairs and entered the restaurant, giving a cursory glance to the few people sitting in the room.

“Mr. McCain? Mark?” Oliver quietly called out after seeing Lucas and a young man sitting at a table, placing their order with Lou.

“Yes son? May I help you?” Lucas answered looking up to the stranger approaching their table.

“Guess you don’t recognize me. I wouldn’t have recognized Mark if it weren’t for you sitting there Mr. McCain.”

“Lucas,” Lou interrupted. “He’s a guest at the hotel and signed in as Oliver D.T. Wingate, come all the way from St. Louis.”

“Oliver Wingate?” Lucas stated as he tried to place the name.

“Well you wouldn’t remember me as Oliver Wingate. Most folks around North Fork would remember me better by Dollar Ten.”

“Dollar Ten?!” Mark exclaimed as the look of surprise etched his face.

“Oliver, you sure have grown up some. Didn’t recognize you,” Lucas added.

“No, don’t expect you should have. It’s been better than five years since I left North Fork.”

“Please have a seat and share supper with us. Lou take the boy’s… Oliver’s order.” Turning back to Oliver, “What brings you back to North Fork?”

“I asked Pa if I could for a visit.”

“Your Pa?” interrupted Mark.

“Yeah, can you believe it?” Oliver stated as a smile beamed across his face. “I told Pa, I especially wanted to thank you for everything you did for me, Mr. McCain. If it hadn’t been for you, I wouldn’t of ended up with the life I did.”

Watching the young man who sat at the table, Lucas stated, “I’m not sure exactly what I did.”

“Mr. Wingate, the man who was looking for his son?” Oliver waited until Lucas nodded in remembrance, “When Mr. Wingate returned to St. Louis with me, he opened his home just as if I’d always lived there, at first it was just nice to have someone else there, but in time… Well, the nickname Dollar Ten didn’t seem to fit me any more, so I started going by my given name… Oliver. Then one day he asked me if he could adopt me. Said he wanted the sign on his shop to mean something… to be real. He wanted to leave the business to his son when the Good Lord called him home.”

“Called him home? He’s not dead is he?” interrupted Mark. He remembered when Mr. Wingate had threatened his Pa that he would prove Mark was his son, in a court of law. He didn’t believe Lucas when he’d shown him their family bible indicating Mark’s birth.

Mark remembered Lucas declaring, “That’s a bible!”

“No, as I said, I asked him permission to come visit. But he was thinking about some time in the future. We’re happy to have each other as family and it’s all because of the two of you.”

Conversation continued into the night as the three caught up on years of memories.

“Say, Oliver, why don’t you come back to the ranch with me tomorrow? Pa has to stay in town as acting Marshal while Micah and Johnny are taking outlaws to Eddy.” Mark asked, “Pa, would it be okay? That way it wouldn’t be only me at the ranch.”

“Okay, if Oliver wishes to help you out,” Lucas answered as he looked over to Oliver.

“Sure Mr. McCain. It would be fun,” answered Oliver.

Lucas shook his head as he remembered the good-natured, industrious youth that he once knew as Dollar Ten.

*****

Before they could say goodnight and head upstairs to their hotel rooms, Lucas heard a fight brewing at Sweeney’s. He ordered both young men upstairs as he grabbed his rifle and ran over to the saloon.

There were a number of drunken drovers, spilling out into the street, fighting among themselves. Lucas fired one shot from his rifle into the air to get everyone’s attention. The fighting stopped and the drovers turned their attention from their opponents and stared at Lucas. Some were on the ground where they had been fighting, others were standing, arms still cocked ready to strike. Lucas motioned for those who were doing the fighting to head for the jail. He planned to let them sober up before returning to their herds. Lucas told those who were only watching to return to their herds and have their trail bosses come in and get their drovers in the morning.

*****

As Lucas was breaking up the fight, four strangers watched from just inside the saloon. They’d been in town for two days. Watching and listening to the comings and goings of the people of North Fork.

*****

After locking up the Marshal’s Office for the night, Lucas returned to the hotel room.

Mark was already in one of the beds, but not asleep. As he propped himself up on his elbow, Mark asked, “Pa?”

“Everything’s fine. Just some drunken trail hands; sent those sober enough back to their herds. Expect I’ll have a few angry trail bosses to deal with in the morning.”

“Why do they do it?”

“Fight?” Lucas asked.

“That, but why do they get so drunk?” Mark asked without being able to stifle a yawn.

“I don’t know why exactly, but herding cattle on trail drives is long, tiring work and I guess getting drunk and getting into fights alleviates the boredom.”

“Just wish they wouldn’t do it… here…” Mark mumbled as sleep closed his eyes and he lowered himself back to lie down on the bed.

*****

Lucas and Mark woke in the morning and met Oliver for breakfast. As they prepared to head to church, Lucas noticed two men riding into town and stop at the Marshal’s.

“Boys you go on to church, I’ll join you as soon as possible.”

*****

Lucas stepped into the Marshal’s Office. He pulled out the gun belts of those he had behind bars as he spoke to the bosses, “You should be lucky that your men didn’t create any more havoc than they did last night. Fortunately… all they did was beat up on each other out in the street. They didn’t do any damage to the saloon. I suggest you move your herds out of here as soon as possible. Can’t say I’ll be as charitable if they stay here and get into another fight.”

“Thank you Marshal,” both trail bosses offered as they watched their men come out of the cells. All were shaking their heads, heads held down, hung over, but sober enough to realize what they had done. Soon they were all on their way out of town.

Lucas headed for the church and arrived in time to sit in on the last half of services.

*****

As they were leaving the church, Mark spoke. “Pa, I think Oliver and I’ll head on back to the ranch.”

“Okay boys, I’ll see you later. Mind me, if anything happens, I want you back here.”

Mark and Oliver headed over to the livery to get BlueBoy and borrow a horse for Oliver.

Lucas was leaning against the hitching rail as Mark and Oliver rode by. “See ya later Pa!” Mark hollered and waved as they rode off.

Lucas waved as the two rode by.

*****

After talking non-stop, Mark and Oliver arrived at the ranch house and took the horses into the barn. They tended to the horses and worked on a few chores in the barn before heading to the house. Mark carried Oliver’s bags and took them to the bedroom and set the bag down next to his Pa’s bunk.

“Seeing as how Pa has to stay in town to be marshal, guess he won’t mind you sleeping in his bunk while you’re here. Be a lot more comfortable than one of the army cots.”

“Thanks Mark. So what else do we need to do today?”

“Got plenty of wood chopping to do and the chicken coop need cleaned out; that is… if you’re game? Lastly, I need to check the pig pen to make sure our sow hasn’t busted any boards.”

“Clean out the chicken coop and work on a pig pen?” inquired Oliver.

“Sure… Guess that’s not what you thought a working ranch was all about,” stated Mark.

“I thought we’d be out on the range checking the cattle and riding fences,” Oliver humbly answered.

“Oh, we do that too, it’s just that there are other chores that need to be done.”

“Okay, it’s been a while since I’ve swung an ax…”

“I’ll chop, you stack. How’s that?”

“Deal!”

Mark and Oliver worked on their chores and talked the whole afternoon. Before they realized, it was time for supper. They each carried an armload of wood into the house, placing some next to the fireplace and the rest in the woodbox next to the stove. Mark set about and fixed a beef stew for their supper.

“Not a bad cook, for a guy” teased Oliver.

“Not bad? Why I have you know…”

“Mark, you forget, it’s just Pa and me too. We make due probably about as good as you and your Pa. Though next time, go a little lighter on the pepper.”

“Pepper? I forgot the pepper,” Mark moaned.

Oliver couldn’t stop the giggle that welled from within, “My problem’s the exact opposite, I usually end up… putting too much pepper in.”

Mark howled with laughter when Oliver started fanning his mouth in memory of some of his ‘more memorable’ stews.

After supper, both boys sat by the fireplace and talked of what needed to be done on the ranch the following few days, before they decided to turn in for the night. Just as they were ready to enter the bedroom, Mark heard the sounds of riders approaching. Curious, Mark and Oliver stepped out on the porch to see two riders pulling up beside the barn.

“Evening boys, we’ve been on the road for some time. Wondering if you’d allow us to water our horses?” one of the men asked.

“Sure, help yourselves,” Mark replied.

“Little late for riding, isn’t it?” asked Oliver.

One of the two men answered, “Yeah, I guess, but we’ve been on the road for some time. Can you tell us if there’s a town close by? What I wouldn’t give to sleep in a nice…”

Before Mark could answer, he heard the chair behind him scrape against the porch and turned to see two men approaching with ropes in their hands.

“Run Oliver!” Mark yelled as he tried to push his friend into motion and jumped off the porch. “OLIVER! RUN!!”

Oliver was slow to realize what was happening. Before he knew it, one of the approaching men had taken the butt of his pistol to the back of his head and he collapsed where he had stood.

Mark ran. The two who had rode in and stopped in front of the house, kicked their horses into motion and were close on his heels. Mark felt the force as he was struck from behind as the rider urged his horse to run him down. Mark went sprawling on the ground and scrambled to get to his feet, ignoring the dirt pebbles imbedded in the heels of his hands. As he looked back, he saw Oliver lying unmoving on the end of porch. One man was standing over him, the second running in Mark’s direction. Mark ran again. Before he could get to the bridge behind the house, one of the riders was right behind him, grabbing for his arm. Mark felt himself being pulled from the ground. As fear threatened to freeze him, Mark fisted his hand and swung, striking the man in the nose, causing the man to drop Mark to the ground. Before he could get to his feet this time, the other rider had his gun drawn and pointed straight at Mark. Mark waited in a crouched position, his shoulders and chest heaving as he tried to catch his breath from the events of the past few minutes.

“Stop whatever it is you’re thinking, boy. You can’t outrun a bullet.”

Mark heard the coldness in the man’s voice, but was sure if he could see the man’s face, his eyes would have been wanting Mark to try it.

The rider motioned for Mark to get to his feet and then pointed his gun back to the house. Mark walked with his hands held up. He watched as the rider who had knocked Oliver unconscious went into the house and picked up Mark’s hat, came out and placed it in the dirt, right in front of the porch steps and placed a stone on top of it.

Another rider had gone to the barn and saddled BlueBoy and led him out. Again, the one rider motioned with his gun for Mark to get in the saddle.

“Boy, hands behind your back,” the one holding BlueBoy’s reins told Mark as the man pulled out a length of rope and tied Mark’s hands behind his back.

“What about my friend?” Mark plaintively asked.

“It’s not him we’re interested in,” one of the men replied. “We’ve no use for him…”

“Use? What do you mean?” asked Mark. “Why are you taking me?”

“Shut your yap!” another man ordered as he mounted and jerked his horse around.

After all the riders were mounted; five left the McCain Ranch and headed south.

*****

The moon had risen well overhead by the time Oliver regained consciousness and struggled to his feet.

“Mark?” Oliver called out, as he winced upon feeling the back of his head with his hand. As he pulled his hand away he saw blood on the tips of his fingers. “Mark!” he hollered once again.

With uneven steps Oliver staggered to the barn. Fighting against his blurred vision and the queasy feeling in his middle, he saddled and bridled the horse he’d ridden earlier. Pulling himself into the saddle, Oliver held his breath and fought against the darkness that threatened to take over. Taking a deep breath, he signaled the horse and was heading back to North Fork, more so that the horse knew its way home to the livery stable. Oliver held tight to the saddle horn to keep from falling from the saddle; his head bobbing and throbbing in rhythm to the horse’s footfall.

The horse Oliver rode stopped in front of the livery; and due to what little strength he had leaving him and the pain from the back of his head, Oliver slid from the saddle. Lucas had finished his nightly rounds and was preparing to return to the Marshal’s Office when he came around the corner of the livery and saw a single horse standing in front of the door; curious why Nils would have left a horse out, he approached the horse carefully.

After walking around the horse’s haunches, Lucas saw the crumpled form of a person lying on the ground. “Oliver!” Lucas yelled as he knelt and turned him over; cradling his head, he felt the blood on the back of Oliver’s head, that was now on his hand.

A sleepy Nils Swenson, the owner, came out of the livery after hearing Lucas yell his name.

“Lucas? What’s going on?” Nils asked as he knelt next to Lucas. “Who is he?”

“Nils, help me get Oliver over to Doc Burrage’s office.”

Without words, Nils’ expression asked why Lucas couldn’t carry the boy by himself.

“Nils, we need to keep him level. If he’s got a concussion from the blow to the back of his head, I…”

“Don’t need to say anything more Lucas.” Nils remembered times when he’d helped tend to a concussed person and the nausea that ensued when they weren’t kept flat.

Lucas carrying the boy’s shoulders and Nils carrying Oliver’s leg headed to Doc’s. As they approached, Lucas started yelling for the Doc to open the door. Lucas gave a deep sigh when he realized Doc was there and opening the door when they arrived. They carried Oliver to the examination table and carefully laid him down.

“What happened?” Doc asked.

“Don’t exactly know. Found him unconscious in front of the livery. He’s bleeding from the back of his head,” Lucas answered.

Without asking any further questions, Doc began examining Oliver; Nils called out as Lucas left the small clinic and headed to the livery and ultimately, home. Fear consumed his thoughts as his concerns focused solely on Mark. ‘What had happened?’

*****

Lucas arrived home and yelled Mark’s name only to receive no answer. He jumped down from Razor in front of the house to see Mark’s hat with a rock holding it down, a sign that someone wanted to make sure the hat was seen. Lucas picked up the hat and ran into the home, again calling Mark’s name…again, no answer. He tossed Mark’s hat on the table as he looked around. As he turned to leave, he noticed Mark’s .22 rifle was still in its stand beside the door.

Lucas checked the barn and realized that BlueBoy was also missing. Infuriated at a lack of answers, Lucas returned to town.

*****

Lucas stormed into Doc’s office to find him finishing putting away his instruments. Oliver was no longer on the examination table.

“Doc, Oliver… where is he?” Lucas fearfully demanded as he asked himself, ‘Was the boy hurt worse than I thought?’

“Lucas, we moved him to the back room, into a bed. He took a nasty blow to the head and will probably be asleep for the rest of the night. I say he’s pretty soundly concussed. Who is he?”

“His name’s Oliver Wingate, but you’d know him as Dollar Ten,” answered Lucas.

“I thought he looked vaguely familiar, but…”

“He arrived on the Saturday stage and was spending time at the ranch with Mark…”

“What about Mark?” Doc carefully inquired, trying to gauge the friend standing before him.

“He wasn’t at the ranch when I got there. Neither was BlueBoy,” Lucas replied as he fought to maintain control of his emotions.

“Maybe he tried coming to town to get help for Oliver…”

“If so, why isn’t he here?” Lucas answered gruffly.

“Sorry, Lucas, guess I wasn’t thinking.”

Lucas and Doc turned when they heard the outer door thrown open and Lou came into the office.

“Lucas, I just had a rock thrown through the hotel door with a note,” Lou yelled as she entered. She untied the note from around the rock and handed it to Lucas.

“Deputy,

We have your boy!

Release Wilder and Denton before Army arrives in Eddy, otherwise boy is DEAD!”

“Lou, send a wire for Micah and Johnny to Eddy. Tell them what happened and I’m on my way,” as he handed the note back to Lou and ran out of Doc’s.

“But how?” Lou asked, but Lucas was already gone.

Lucas raced out of town after Micah and Johnny; they had a two and a half day head start.

*****

The riders raced south; walking long enough to rest their horses before they were running them again. They ate jerky while in the saddle, choosing to ignore offering anything to Mark. It was well after midnight when they stopped for the night. They pulled Mark from the saddle and pushed him to the ground. One of the riders untied Mark’s hands and tossed him a canteen and a few pieces of jerky. Once he had eaten and drank, they allowed him a few moments of privacy behind a tree before they tied his hands again. And to make sure he didn’t get away while they slept, one of the riders tied a rope around his torso and before tying it around a tree, as snug as he could make it, causing Mark to wince when he tried to deeply inhale.

“What do you want with me?” Mark yelled as the men settled around their campfire.

No one replied, except to laugh.

The men slept until sun up and were back in the saddle again.

As the group continued southward, they crossed the Rio Penasco River and rode on. When they crossed the North Seven River the next day; Mark was still in tow, they never said a word to answer his questions.

Mark was thankful he was such a natural rider, but even so, riding with his hands tied behind him, he felt the growing discomfort in his shoulders and neck, and the tightening of his stomach muscles as they worked harder to help keep his balance.

As they continued to ride south, one of the riders decided to blindfold Mark before they changed direction, they headed west towards Whites City. They rode past Whites City and headed into the Chihuahua Desert. As night fell again, one of the men roughly pulled Mark from his saddle and shoved him to the ground. The group only offered Mark a little food and water when they stopped for the night, between receiving little nourishment, constantly being tied up and blindfolded, the heat of the day, and the continued discomfort in his body, Mark’s remaining strength was quickly dwindling.

The small group made final camp in one of the canyons and prepared to wait.

When morning dawned, Mark didn’t hear sound of anyone preparing the horses for traveling.

“Aren’t we traveling today?” Mark asked trying to figure out what was happening.

“No, we wait here, rest the horses for the day,” one of the men stated as he stood and gloated over Mark.

*****

Lucas rode hard. He pushed Razor to the point of collapse before stopping. Each day was the same, pushing his horse and only slowing up when forced to, barely taking time to eat, but stopping each time he encountered water. Images of his son plagued his thoughts, whether he was sleeping or awake, in his mind he kept seeing his son begging for him to come rescue him. Fear for Mark welled deep inside as his hatred grew towards the men who took his boy.

Lucas caught up with Micah and Johnny as they camped a couple hours easy riding out of the town of Eddy. Both lawmen were on alert when they heard the sound of a rapidly approaching rider. Micah stood to the side of the fire while Johnny stepped outside the light from the campfire.

“LucasBoy, what brings you here?” Micah asked as he watched Lucas rein in Razor, hard, “You’re supposed to be back in North Fork, that’s why I deputized you!”

Ignoring Micah, Lucas jumped from Razor and ran to one of the prisoners, grabbed him by the shirt, and hauled him to his feet. “Tell me where they took my boy!” Lucas yelled as he backhanded the prisoner. “TELL ME WHERE THEY TOOK MY BOY!”

Before Lucas could backhand the prisoner again, Johnny was beside Lucas, trying to restrain him from doing something he would regret later. In pulling Lucas from their prisoner, Johnny pushed Wilder to the ground.

“Lucas, what do you mean, where they took your boy?! What happened to Mark?!” Johnny yelled in an effort to pulled Lucas’ attention away from the prisoners.

“They took Mark Sunday night. Left a note that Wilder and Denton were to be released before the Army got to Eddy otherwise they’d kill Mark.” Lucas yelled his answer, but his eyes were on fire as he stared at the prisoners.

Wilder gave a laugh, “So my boys got some brains and a way to get us out of the stockade. Well Marshal, you gonna let us go?” He laughed harder as he watched rage boil over in Lucas as Johnny further struggled to restrain him.

“Lucas, get a hold of yourself! You’re wearing a badge and have been legally deputized. Get yourself under control! We’ll get Mark back!” Micah yelled.

Sensing the hatred leave his friend’s body, Johnny released Lucas, but kept close enough, just in case he needed to stop him. They discussed among themselves holding off entering Eddy; Lucas and Johnny discussed how they could use Wilder and Denton to get Mark back.

“And just how do the two of you plan to do this? And what about me?” Micah demanded to know.

“It’ll be up to you to placate the Army,” Johnny stated. “You ride into Eddy and inform them we encountered trouble out here.”

*****

That night, while they were waiting, one of the riders removed the blindfold and the ropes on Mark’s wrists and from around his ankles. They allowed him a few moments of privacy behind a rock before shoving him back to camp and handing him a plate full of beans and biscuits. As he was eating, Mark overheard the outlaws talking; he finally heard the reason they had taken him, they were using him as ransom in exchange for the prisoners Micah and Johnny were taking to Eddy. The words Mark heard next shocked him, “Once Wilder and Denton get here, we kill the boy and head out.”

“Don’t see why we have to tag him along,” one of the others bemoaned.

“Just in case we have to prove to the law we got him.”

The outlaws continued to talk among themselves, ignoring their prisoner. Mark’s mind was racing, ‘I have to get away. But how? And where can I go?’ He didn’t even know where they were. But he knew he had to get away!

Mark set his plate down and quietly stood to his feet, his eyes intently focused on the men, subconsciously begging them to not see him as he slowly walked backwards from the camp, he reached the far fringe of light cast by the campfire when he heard one of the riders yell, “He’s getting away!”

Mark turned and ran, not know and not caring where; he just ran. He heard gunfire behind him. He heard a bullet strike a rock as he ran past and then he felt a bullet strike his arm. Mark struggled to keep on his feet as he ran in the dark over the unfamiliar terrain; he knew his life would be over if he lost his footing and fell.

*****

The riders in camp fired blindly into the night as they saw Mark run away, one of them eventually yelled, “Save it! No sense wastin’ bullets. He don’t know where he is, let him run. Save us the trouble of killin’ him later. End result’s the same.”

*****

Lucas and Johnny watched Micah leave their camp and ride towards Eddy, while they waited with the prisoners.

“So deputies, when you going to turn us loose?” Denton yelled.

“Shut up!” Johnny replied. He turned to Lucas and quietly spoke, “So how do we do this? How do we turn them loose and track them without them knowing?”

“I don’t know. I just know that if we don’t turn them loose, they’ll kill Mark.” Lucas slammed his left fist into his right hand. “I love the strength that boy gives me, but why… why does he have to be my weakness too?” Lucas asked of no one since he didn’t expect an answer.

“Lucas, if it weren’t Mark, it would have been someone else. Now, I’m not saying that gives them the right to take Mark, but we’d be here one way or another,” Johnny said. “Regardless whose son they took, you’d be here.”

'But Mark would be safe, if it were someone else’s son…’ Lucas thought to himself.

“Well deputies, you gonna let us go? Times a wasting, don’t know how long my boys are gonna keep your brat alive before they decide they kill him,” Wilder took pleasure in taunting Lucas. “Besides they might just decide to drop him in one of those caves out in the Chihuahuan desert. Wha ’cha gonna do tall man? Come on sodbuster… Tic toc.”

Without any warning, Lucas was in front of Wilder and hauling him to his feet. “You listen to me. Harm one hair on that boy and I’ll track you down and the Army won’t need to worry about you ever again.” Lucas paused. The words he spoke next sounded as if they contained poison. “We let you go. Your men let Mark go. You send him to Whites City. If he’s not there in twelve hours…believe me…you don’t want to know what happens in thirteen hours.” Pure fire emanated from Lucas’ eyes and voice as he and Johnny removed the handcuffs from the two prisoners.

“Now don’t you try followin’ us,” Denton taunted.

“My men are probably watchin’ along the trail. If you follow us, that boy of yours will be dead before you get within a mile of him,” Wilder declared. “You can head to Whites City after midnight. Any sooner than that, and well…”

Lucas stewed and paced until midnight. It took every fiber of his being to not trail after the prisoners the moment they were out of sight. As soon as Johnny’s pocket watch indicated it was after midnight, they were ready to head out for Whites City. Before they could leave, Micah, Captain Blaisdal, and a troupe of soldiers from Fort Bliss arrived.

The Captain was furious enough once Micah had informed him what had occurred. He was livid when he arrived to find that the outlaws had already been turned loose.

“Mr. McCain, I thank you to not interfere with the Army again. I’ll handle recapturing the prisoners you so kindly turned loose.”

“Captain Blaisdal, I don’t appreciate your attitude. They have my boy and threatened to kill him. First we make sure my boy is safe! I can track them. They won’t be out of custody for long,” Lucas retorted.

“They’ve been out of custody for too long as it is. Interfere again and I’ll place you in shackles to stand trial for accessory after the fact; aiding and abetting. Don’t doubt me, I’ll do it!”

The two men stood no more than three feet apart, each trying to get the other to back down. If the situation weren’t so dire, Johnny would have laughed at seeing the man who barely came to Lucas’ shoulders try to stare the tall rancher down. Shortly Micah broke up the face-off.

“Lucas, this isn’t helping Mark. Let’s get to Whites City and find Mark. The longer you two stand here like two bulls staring each other down, the further they’re getting away. Let’s mount up and ride.”

The group headed out. The Captain, Micah, Johnny and Lucas rode at the front with the rest of the patrol following.

The column arrived in Whites City before the sun rose. They immediately headed for the Sheriff’s Office; those from North Fork hoping and praying that Mark would be waiting inside or at least the Sheriff would inform them Mark had arrived and was safely in the hotel. The Sheriff opened the door to his office, surprised in seeing the mixed group that stood in front of him.

The lawman who crossed the threshold to the boardwalk was fast approaching the day when he’d step down, but he was still keenly aware of the requirements of his job and could adequately fulfill his duties. Yet, he was thankful his son was willing to follow in his footsteps, literally and figuratively. The young deputy looked like a younger version of his father who stood in front of him.

“Lawmen and the cavalry, what do I owe this unexpected arrival?” the lawman asked, his curiosity piqued as he crossed his arms.

Behind him, the son hooked his thumbs through the beltloops of his pants and leaned against the doorframe.

Lucas inquired if anyone had seen a sixteen-year-old boy enter town. Possibly, could be at the doctor’s office or maybe at the hotel. It devastated Lucas to hear no strangers, especially a boy, had been seen in town.

“But then, I’ve not made my rounds this morning. Hal, you heard anything?” answered the Sheriff.

“No sir, I’ve not heard of any youngsters coming to town,” Hal answered his father.

“Who is this boy you’re looking for? What’s he wanted for?” asked the Sheriff.

“He’s my son!” growled Lucas. “Wilder and Denton’s gang kidnapped him Sunday night and threatened to kill him if they weren’t turned loose.”

“You didn’t turn them gunrunners loose did you?!” demanded the younger lawman.

“To save the life of a boy? You bet we did!” declared Johnny.

“Of all the…” spoke the older lawman.

“My sentiments exactly,” stated Captain Blaisdall.

“Maybe someone else in town has seen the boy. You don’t mind us looking and asking around ourselves?” Micah asked.

“You call yourselves lawmen and you let scum like Denton and Wilder go?! Damn it!” the older lawman declared. “Captain, let me get a posse together and we’ll go with you to recapture ‘em.” The words the lawman spoke didn’t hide the man’s disgust.

“And just what would you do if it were you son?!” demanded Lucas. “A sixteen year old boy who’d been kidnapped and threatened!”

Micah, Johnny, and Lucas split up and began walking the town, inquiring of anyone they passed if they had seen a young man, a stranger to the area. With regret, the men returned to the Sheriff’s Office, disheartened their search proved fruitless.

“Johnny, you get provisions and take care of the horses while Lucas and I speak with the sheriff and the captain,” Micah stated as he stepped back to the boardwalk. He’d seen the soldiers taking care of their mounts and stocking provisions.

Upon entering the office, they joined in to review a large map of the area on the wall. The Captain was arguing with the sheriff, declaring the outlaws were probably heading for Nickel Creek, Texas for supplies before heading on to Mexico. The sheriff and his deputy had other ideas on where the outlaws were probably heading.

“You’d risk losing their trail on the off-hand chance that they are heading to Nickel Creek versus following the trail and knowing where they’re going?” Lucas argued with the Captain, totally ignoring the lawman standing the other side of the desk. “We heard Wilder mention the Chihuahua Desert, that’s where we head. We back track to out of town to where we made camp and follow their trail to the desert.”

“Mr. McCain, I’m in charge of this Army detail. They will follow my orders and my orders are to recapture those outlaws. Either you obey me or you leave this unit. I’ll not have you question my decisions.”

“Well someone needs to question you! You’re not thinking as an outlaw! You’re thinking everything is so cut and dry, we’ll I’m not taking that chance with my boy’s life!” Turning to look at Micah, Lucas stated, “We’re leaving. We’re following the trail.”

“Mr. McCain, you might as well get it through your head that your son is dead. They probably killed him once Wilder and Denton met up with their men, if they didn’t kill him earlier. If he could have escaped out here, there’s nothing but desert, canyons, arroyos, and mountains. Either way, you could look for a month and never find sign of your boy. I have my orders and they don’t include searching for any hostages.”

As he pulled on his leather gloves, the captain left the Sheriff’s Office and ordered his detail to mount up.

“Fool,” commented the deputy who stood behind the group from North Fork.

“At least we agree on that,” Lucas answered.

Lucas wanted to deal with the Captain’s arrogant attitude, but he knew that the time it would take to feel vindicated would only delay him from searching for his son. With Micah and Johnny flanking him, Lucas watched as the soldiers left town and headed southeast.

“You still thinking you can trail them outlaws?” the older lawman asked upon stepping from his office.

“I can and I will,” Lucas stated.

Johnny Drako tied the horses to the hitching rail and stepped to the boardwalk, curious to what their plans were when he heard Lucas state, “Micah, I want you to stay here in Whites City and wait for us. Just in case they did let Mark go and he somehow gets here before we find him. If we’re not back here in four days, return to North Fork.”

“You want me to stay here?!” demanded Micah.

Johnny knew immediately what Lucas was trying to do and answered before Lucas could, “Lucas needs someone to stay here, just in case they did let Mark go. And it makes better sense for you to remain than me…”

“Just because you think I’m too old to do my job!”

“No, Micah,” Lucas answered. “Because you can be more help to Mark than Johnny can. And he’ll go back to North Fork with you. To Mark, you’re family. He’ll do as you say, where as Mark would want to join Johnny in searching for us… because we’re family.”

“LucasBoy, what are you saying?” asked Micah.

“I’m saying, I’ll search to hell and back to find my son, but… I don’t want him waiting around here for me. I want him safe… I want him home… Once before I asked you to raise him right and if it has to be… It’ll be easier on him to be home, should we not return.”

He knew what he was asking of Micah. It had more to do with keeping Micah out of the desert than it did asking him to wait for Mark. Lucas remembered the brutality of the desert as twice previously he had suffered and almost died while out in the desert. The first time he was with Mark getting salt for their winter meat and the second time, assisting Micah in transporting a prisoner. He remembered how much the desert took out of Micah on that trip particular trip and he didn’t want to see his friend suffer and possibly die during the search for Mark.

“Micah, please… Give him four days… If he’s doesn’t get here, then you need to return to North Fork… and your duty to the town. I won’t budge on this Micah,” Lucas stated.

When the lawman finally agreed, Lucas and Johnny returned to where they split from Wilder and Denton’s trail. They followed the trail around Whites City and out into the desert. Further into the canyons and desert… further into desolation.

Before the sunset, they found the spot where the prisoners had camped. Lucas and Johnny quietly examined the scene finding only the boot prints of the prisoners, no one else. Lucas and Johnny rested their horses for two hours before continuing.

****

Mark ran blindly in the night, ignoring the fact he has no pursuers. He stumbled over the uneven ground in the darkness. At times, he overran his balance as his feet sank into the soft sand and he’d fall. He continued out into the desert. He could feel the blood oozing down his left arm. Mark finally allowed himself to acknowledge no one was coming after him and that he had to stop; he needed to regain his breath and stop the bleeding from his arm. As he collapsed to the ground, he removed his shirt and tore the sleeves from it in order to form a bandage to tie around his arm. Taking one end of the rag in his mouth and the other in his hand, he cringed as he tightened the bandage. Even though his breath had returned to normal, Mark held his breath as he listened for any sign of pursuit.

Once Mark felt he had sufficiently recovered from his escape, he walked on. He wanted to continue to put as much distance between himself and those men. He knew it was best to walk during the cool of the night, than walk during the heat of the day, he remembered his Pa telling him long ago when they were stuck out in the desert. Hoping at some point he’d find a cave to crawl into for sleep. Praying he’d encounter a water hole, somewhere.

Mark finally did come across an outcropping of rocks that overhung a low lying area. Mark crawled into the cubby-hole and fell asleep as the sun rose.

Mark woke during the middle of the afternoon. The sun had found its way to the other side of the outcropping and was invading his hiding place; the heat inside had become unbearable. Mark resigned himself to continue to walk as the sun beat down on him. As he walked, in the distance he saw heat vapors rising from the ground causing the landscape to distort.

After walking another hour, Mark stopped to rest. He remembered what his Pa had told him so long ago, ‘In the end, you’ll get further by resting those 5 – 10 minutes than if you’d walked the entire time.’ Having rested, he continued on.

At the thought of the loneliness of his predicament, Mark didn’t allow himself to cry. He knew he needed to conserve every ounce of fluid in his body and crying, though it would have felt good; he couldn’t afford to shed one tear.

Mark continued to walk, off and on, for several days and nights. As the nights turned to day, Mark looked for shade to lie under, until the sun woke him again and he dreaded having to get to his feet and walk again.

As the desert took a toll on his body, he began stumbling and falling. Mark found himself flat on his face without any idea what happened. He looked at his forearms and realized his right arm had suffered a nasty gash, as had his right thigh. Removing his sleeveless shirt, Mark tore what remained into strips to tie around his arm and his thigh.

As time passed, Mark was unaware of the sunburn on his upper torso; it was impossible for him to distinguish between it and the unrelenting heat of the desert. As the days turned to night, he walked shorter and shorter distances and rested for longer periods of time. Though he tried to force himself to continue to walk, he couldn’t keep steady on his feet, he would stagger and fall to his knees, and each time it was harder to get back up. Mark’s strength finally gave out and he succumbed to the elements and exhaustion.

*****

Daylight woke Mark and he couldn’t sit up. He rolled over and shook his head; rubbing his eyes when he saw a hallucination of children playing in a watering hole. Mark struggled to his feet and walked. His brain couldn’t process it was a waste of energy; the draw of water was strong and his body just reacted. He staggered to keep to his feet, walking as if beyond drunk, but his legs totally gave out and he fell. As he hit the ground, it gave way. He screamed, but didn’t hear himself, all he heard was the rush of his heart pounding in his chest as he fell into the opening of a cavern, tumbling down the embankment with jagged rocks occasionally protruding. Mark lost consciousness as his body came to an abrupt stop at the bottom, his head hitting the ground hard. Dirt, sand, and pebbles continued to rain down and ultimately settling.

*****

Lucas and Johnny continued to ride, continued to follow what they hoped was the right trail. Heading west at times, heading south at other times. They came to another spot where they determined their former prisoners had stopped. This time there were other footprints. They searched for smaller footprints to give them hope that Mark might still be alive.

Johnny found the signs they were looking for. Off to the side of the camp; a far enough distance from the fire pit that it was no benefit as the desert temperatures dropped for the night.

“Lucas, over here!” Johnny called.

Running over to where Johnny Drako knelt, Lucas looked over his shoulder and saw the signs where his son had sat. The marks on the ground indicated how uncomfortable his son had been. And then, he read the signs of his boy getting to his feet and slowly walking, backwards, toe first and then the heel print, away from the camp. At some point, his son turned around and began running.

They led their horses as they followed Mark’s tracks and realized that the others had first started to follow, but no farther than the edge of camp…no one had followed him out into the desert. Soon, they found faint traces of blood mixed in with the sand. Lucas stopped and sharply inhaled as he realized what the blood meant – his son had been shot.

“Lucas, it’s just faint traces. Be strong, man.” Johnny put a hand out towards his friend. “There’s no sign that he’s fallen, so it can’t be a serious wound.”

“Just because he’s not fallen yet, doesn’t mean it’s not a serious wound!” growled Lucas.

“Lucas, look at the signs, the blood is faint. We’ve been following the trail for several yards and it’s not gotten any heavier. Lucas, he’ll be okay,” Johnny encouraged.

*****

Several young children entered the camp of their elders and hurriedly told of their find. A number of braves from the tribe followed the children, and came to where other children knelt on their hands and knees, looking down into a hole in the ground. The braves peered over the edge and saw the sun shining into the opening, down into the cavern. In the circle of light, they saw the body of a boy lying at the bottom of the steep incline, some thirty feet down. One young brave entered the hole, while the others held the rope tied to his waist. When the brave reached the bottom, he noticed the boy was dirt-caked, sunburned, and bleeding from lacerations and scrapes down his legs and arms, and across his back. He turned the boy over and found a dark bruise along the boy’s left temple and more lacerations across the boy’s chest.

Yelling to those above, the young brave ordered them to prepare to pull the unconscious youth and himself up to the surface.

The braves dutifully pulled the boy and young brave from the cavern and returned to their tribe. They carried the boy to the teepee of their Medicine Man, Shonae. They placed him on a pallet of furs inside and left, all but the young brave who had entered the hole. The medicine man entered his teepee and looked at the boy, aware that the boy’s chest barely rose and fell.

A look of sorrow and fear clouded Shonae’s face. In the language of the Apache, Shonae spoke, “He is barely alive.”

“But he is alive,” said the old woman, who had entered behind him. The look upon her face was one of acceptance, from having lived a life where one did and one had to.

“He could die.”

“He will die, if we do nothing.”

“Will his people understand we tried, and his death was not our fault?”

“You have not tried. He has not died. There is no fault, unless you do nothing.”

“But the blue coats?” the medicine man tried to ask.

“We will tell them the truth, even if he dies. Will you tend him?”

The man nodded and stepped to where the boy lay. He elevated one leg and pulled a boot before setting the leg down and repeating the movement with the other.

The old woman gently removed and discarded the remnants of the boy’s tattered and filthy clothing. The skin of the boy’s upper body stood in stark contrast to his lower body, as she prepared to bath his entire body. Once the boy was cleaned, the Medicine Man sutured the deeper lacerations on the boy’s leg and the back of his shoulder. Shonae created an herbal poultice and rubbed it along the various scrapes and abrasions. The old woman bandaged the deeper laceration on the boy’s leg and had wanted to wrap a bandage around the boy’s chest to protect the laceration on his back, but knowing she still needed to treat his sunburned body she refrained from wrapping his torso. Blessedly, the boy remained unconscious throughout the entire ministrations.

The young brave in the teepee sat and watched the old woman tend to the boy. He watched as she placed a damp cloth over the boy’s back to pull the heat of the sunburn. Before she left the teepee, the old woman covered the lower half of the boy’s naked body with furs.

During the night, the boy became fevered, and the young brave went to return the old woman to the teepee. Upon viewing the situation, she placed her hand to the boy’s forehead, and acknowledged the fever, she knew it didn’t bode well for someone who was already dehydrated and weakened from blood loss. Throughout the night, the boy turned and thrashed restlessly. The old woman continued to refresh the wet cloths over his body. As the boy fought the darkness, he’d moan from pain and call out. As his exhaustion pulled him, he would lie quiet. The old woman tried to force him to drink fluids, knowing he was close to consciousness when he would moan and cry out. She knew how imperative it was to get fluids in the boy’s body.

He moaned as she placed the gourd containing the water to his blistered lips, gently forcing his mouth open in order to trickle the water inside. As much as she tried, with the boy’s dried and cracked lips, his lips barely parted enough to allow the precious liquid in, most of the fluid slipped from the corners of his mouth, his swollen tongue wouldn’t allow it to his throat. When she tried to force his lips wider, the lips cracked more and bled. Not wanting to cause any more pain to the youth, she decided to try something else.

*****

Lucas and Johnny bemoaned the fact they had lost Mark’s tracks and were now just blindly hunting for Mark, like the proverbial needle in a haystack. They halted their horses and finally admitted they had no idea where to go.

“Lucas, we’re two days from El Paso, why not head there. Replenish our supplies and send a wire back to Micah.”

Johnny’s steely eyes hid his emotions, well; they hid the pain he felt for the man he considered his friend. Johnny could count on one hand the number of men he’d call “friend” in his lifetime.

“Maybe your son made it back to Whites City and is on his way home with Micah.”

“His trail never turned around. He’s never headed in that direction,” Lucas admitted in defeat.

After six days of searching, Johnny was trying to convince Lucas that they couldn’t continue on as they had. He hated to say it, but he knew each hour that passed, the chances of find the boy, alive, grew worse.

“Lucas, I hate to say it, but we have no idea which direction Mark took. And so much time has passed… I know how much that boy means to you, but...”

Besides Micah, there was only one other person who Lucas would allow to talk to him in that manner about Mark, but still, the words grated on him.

With a cold voice Lucas spoke, “If you’re saying Mark’s not alive, then I have nothing to live for nor any reason to return to North Fork.” Lucas twisted in the saddle and looked at Johnny and saw no expression in Johnny’s eyes. “Don’t you get it man?! It’s because of Mark that I look forward to waking every day. I had to force myself to be strong after Margaret died… because of him. I climbed out of my despair… because of him. I chose to live my life looking forward… because of him. Without Mark…, why should I live anymore?

“Each night for the past week, I’ve closed my eyes and watched my boy grow up all over again. Each night I… I’ve looked backwards. I need to look forward! I want to look forward. Johnny, there’s something deep inside me that tells my boy is still alive! I have to be strong for him, now. I don’t know how to explain it, but I know he’s alive, I feel it!” Lucas was silent for a while as they continued to rest the horses. “Johnny, I’ll understand if you want to go back to North Fork. You have a life to live and woman who cares for you. I can’t and won’t ask you to stay out here.”

“Lucas, as long as you believe, I’ll be by your side,” Johnny stated as he placed a hand to his friend’s shoulder.

“I’m not admitting defeat, but maybe you were right. Before we lost their tracks, they were heading towards El Paso. Maybe we should head to El Paso or Fort Bliss. Stock up on more supplies and check in with the Army. Maybe they have word. Maybe you’re right and Mark did make it to Whites City and he and Micah are already back home.”

They rode in silence.

*****

Unexpectedly, the next day they encountered something that Lucas hadn’t even thought about; BlueBoy, standing in the distance, head down, still saddled, reins trailing on the ground, suffering from the heat and sun. They poured water from their supply into Lucas’ hat and offered to the horse that greedily drank. Once they determined the horse was sufficiently recovered, they were on their way again; Lucas leading his son’s horse. By early evening, they came across more tracks and presumed they had to belong to Wilder, Denton, and the ones who had kidnapped Mark.

The light from the sun was fading when they heard the sound of a horse snorting, Lucas and Johnny ground tied their horses and approached; not knowing if it was another horse left as BlueBoy had been left or if they might be nearing the outlaws’ camp. Lucas and Johnny crouched behind a grouping of boulders and smiled at the sight before them, a darkened campsite with figures lying prone on the ground. From two different directions they stopped and looked for the other to make sure they wouldn’t catch each other in a cross-fire. Lucas with his rifle ready and Johnny with his pistol in hand quietly entered the camp. One of the outlaws started moaning as he turned onto his side in his bedroll. Lucas spotted several canteens strewn on the ground and picked each one up, shaking each and turning it up-side-down to confirm they were empty. He motioned for Johnny to approach the farthest outlaw. When Johnny placed his hand over the man’s mouth, the man didn’t move. Fearing the man dead, he felt the pulse point below the outlaw’s jaw; he nodded to Lucas to indicate the man was still alive.

The outlaw, who has previously stirred, groggily opened in eyes and pleaded, “Water,” in a raspy voice. His eyes were dull as he struggled to get to his hands and knees in order to crawl to the figures in their camp.

“Water,” the man tried to plead louder.

Hearing their companion pleading, the others, all but the one Johnny Drako stood over, started to wake.

“Just freeze right there!” ordered Lucas, his voice filling the silence of the night as he swept around his rifle and brought it to bear on Wilder. “Toss your weapons over here!”

Without any thinking, the outlaws sluggishly did as ordered.

“Water…. Please, just give us water…” Denton begged, as he began crawling on his knees, hands folded as if in prayer towards Lucas.

“Stop it right there, Denton!” Drako ordered as he picked up another handgun and tossed it far enough away so none of the outlaws could easily retrieve the weapon.

Once they had each man bound, hands in front of them, Lucas offered one of their canteens to each outlaw in turn.

After waiting for each man’s thirst to be satiated, Lucas demanded, “Where’s my son?!”

Having sufficiently recovered, the outlaw called Macray recounted how Mark had run off into the desert before they met up with Denton and Wilder; of how they had fired blindly into the night after him. Another man, named Breysdahl, told of how once they met up with Wilder and Denton, they had made tracks for Mexico, only to get lost in the desert and run out of water. Wilder told of how one of the men went mad with thirst and heat, and rode off.

Deciding it would be foolish to travel at night and to give the outlaws time to regain enough of their strength to ride, Johnny and Lucas set about making camp by building a campfire to help them keep an eye on their prisoners. After sharing some of their provisions, Johnny decided to change the bindings around outlaws’ wrists to where their hands were bound behind their backs and took more rope to tie around their ankles.

Later that night, Johnny and Lucas spoke, “Lucas, you know we have to get these prisoners to Fort Bliss. I can try handling all five of them, but even in their weekend condition, it’s going to be tough going… alone.” Johnny watched as Lucas tried to stand tall, knowing he needed to help get these outlaws to Fort Bliss. The situation only meant he was going to be delayed even more in his search for Mark.

Lucas gave in and agreed to help take the prisoners to Fort Bliss with Johnny. He knew that if it took two lawmen to transport Denton and Wilder to Eddy, New Mexico, that sending on man to guard over five outlaws, even in their weakened condition, on their way to Fort Bliss was a death sentence.

In the morning, Lucas tied BlueBoy’s reins to the Razor’s saddle horn as they broke camp and headed out. Johnny took control their packhorse. The five outlaws rode in front with their hands tied to the horns of their saddles.

“Where’re you taking us,” the fifth outlaw who had been the last to wake the night before asked.

“Fort Bliss,” Johnny stated, “We’re only a day out.” He nodded his head indicating the men to move out.

*****

Each time she tried to force water into the boy’s mouth, the corners of his lips would crack and bleed, and she couldn’t get his mouth opened enough to allow the water past the boy’s swollen tongue. The old woman gave up trying to use a cup made from a gourd for the water and finally brought in a skin they used to feed goats’ milk to infants whose mothers could not produce enough milk to sustain their child. Using a dulled knife, she managed to insert the flattened teat of the skin into the boy’s mouth and gently squeezed the bladder portion of the skin, allowing the nipple to fill with water and ultimately into the boy’s mouth. A few moments later, she gave a smile as the boy began suckling, using his tongue to pull the precious liquid further into his mouth and swallowed.

Shonae stood behind the old woman and smiled at her resourcefulness, and after she set aside the water skin, he handed her a small gourd with a concoction made from the aloe-vera plant, instructing the woman to rub it onto the boy’s sun chaffed and blistered lips.

For four days, the boy was in and out of his fever; trying to call out or moan. If he was speaking, his words were too muffled from his swollen tongue and blistered lips, on top of the fact that no one understood his language anyway. For four days the old woman worked to get liquid to the boy’s body. While he remained unconscious, the old woman bathed the sweat from his body and continued to change the damp cloths to pull the heat of the sunburn from his torso and arms. For four days the old woman changed the bandages as the medicine man refreshed the herb poultice placed over the wounds.

*****

On the fifth day, the boy’s fever broke and by evening he gained awareness of others nearby. As he struggled to open and focus his eyes, he moved his head from side to side. He stopped moving his head when he thought he saw someone sitting, cross-legged across from him; he managed a faint smile. The young brave sitting on the floor returned the smile, then rose and walked out under the animal skin serving as a door to the teepee. The boy quickly closed his eyes and turned his head away from the bright light that illuminated the enclosure.

The old woman returned to her patient. She walked and sat down on the ground next to the pallet of furs the boy was lying upon. The young brave followed the woman inside and returned to his spot on the ground and watched. The woman took the water skin she had carried and placed it to the boy’s lips; greedily he reached for the skin to force out more water and tried to gulp down the water, but the old woman pulled the skin from his lips when he started coughing. The boy groaned at the pain he felt while coughing. The old woman motioned for the young brave to come and sit the boy up. Again, the old woman placed the skin to the boy’s lips and offered him a drink. She gently squeezed the water skin as the boy closed his eyes and consciously suckled on the nipple. He was too exhausted to be embarrassed at the method in which he drank.

Just the small act of being sat up and drinking lulled the boy to sleep. Once more the old woman slathered his lips with the concoction to soften them. Stripping the furs away, she massaged another concoction onto the boy’s sunburned torso, arms, neck, and face.

With a nod, she indicated for the young brave to lay her patient back down, where she covered him with the furs.

*****

The next morning, a younger woman entered the teepee. She carried a bowl containing beef broth, more liquid, but more importantly, the broth contained nourishment for the boy. Seeing the boy’s eyes open, the young woman spoke to the young brave, who moved from his sitting position on the ground to sitting behind and propping up the boy.

Setting the bowl on the ground, the young woman lifted her fingers to the boy’s lips, but he turned his head away. The woman used her other hand to stop the boy from moving and turned his head so she could run her finger tips over his lips. She was pleased they were no longer cracked and stiff as they had been previously. The medication the old woman had applied had finally softened the boy’s lips to almost normal.

The woman smiled as she spoon fed the broth to the boy. As he was assisted to sitting up, the furs had slipped down to his lap, revealing a very lean and well-muscled torso, however, the young woman was distressed at the sight of the boy’s protruding ribs.

She mentally thought of what needed to be done in order to help the boy gain back the weight he had lost due to his time in the desert and due to the fever.

The young woman was pleased as the boy willingly opened his mouth and accepted the beef broth. After he finished eating everything in the bowl, she wiped at his chin, he could only bring himself to faintly smile in return as he weakly reached for the empty bowl, indicating he wanted more. The woman smiled in understanding and welcomed his eagerness to eat.

The young brave who continually sat beside the boy obeyed as the young women told him to lay the boy back down. The brave returned to sit on the other side of the teepee as the boy couldn’t prevent his full stomach pulling him to sleep. The young woman pulled the furs up to the boy’s shoulders before she left the teepee to report to the old woman how the boy had eaten.

*****

The boy woke the next day to find the young brave still sitting across the teepee from him. He licked his lips and was surprised how well they had healed, and pleased to feel they no longer hurt. His voice cracked as he tried to call out, “Hello.” He pushed himself to sit up in his bed of furs, relying on his arms to keep him upright and still sitting. He closed his eyes as his vision blurred and felt as if the room was spinning. Someone’s hands were on his shoulders, he felt the gentleness of the hands steady him. As the dizziness subsided, he opened his eyes to find his vision had cleared and saw the young brave in front of him. He offered thanks. Without understanding, the young brave stared at him. The brave picked up the water skin and offered him drink.

As his awareness of his surroundings increased, he became embarrassed at the method in which he was being offered water; he knew there was no way he could ask for a cup from which to drink. As his thirst pulled at him, he gave into his desire and took the water skin in his hands and placed the nipple into his mouth and slowly began squeezing the skin. When he felt he could drink no more, he set the skin aside. In time, he looked at the brave and said, “Thank you.”

An awkward silence ensued as neither understood the other. But Mark didn’t give up; he knew it was imperative for him to communicate somehow with these people if he was to ever return to North Fork and his father.

“My name’s Mark.” Mark pointed towards himself and repeated, “My name’s Mark… Mark.”

The young brave continued to stare at Mark. Then he pointed to himself and said, “Laren.”

The old woman came in with more broth, a handful of small chunks of beef, and bread for Mark to eat. Mark looked at the meat and realized it wasn’t cooked as thoroughly as he would prefer, but the smell enticed him to eat it all. Though it was cooked without any seasoning, the meat practically melted in his mouth.

“Thank you, ma’am,” Mark said. After he had eaten, the old woman took the empty bowl and pushed him to lie back down as she turned to leave.

It was late morning when the flap of the teepee opened and the Medicine Man and the old woman entered. Laren watched as Shonae walked to Mark, motioned him to sit up and he pulled the furs from around Mark. Mark was embarrassed to find out he wasn’t wearing any clothes underneath the furs and there was a woman in the room, regardless that she was an old woman. Pushing aside the boy’s attempts to retrieve the furs, Shonae grabbed the boy’s hands and shook his head no. Finally realizing the boy was no longer resisting him, the medicine man removed each bandage and applied a different herbal ointment to the wounds this time. Shortly, he took Mark’s chin in his hands and looked closely at the fading bruise along Mark’s temple; he slathered the ointment to this wound as well. He smiled as he stood, turned, and walked away.

The young woman from the day before stepped inside the teepee and Mark immediately grabbed for the furs. She spoke in Apache, “Laren, take the boy outside. We need to pack and move on. These are for the boy.”

“Yes, mother,” Laren answered.

He took the buckskin shirt and breeches as his mother turned to leave.

Laren returned to Mark’s side and handed the clothes to him. He was able to get the breeches on by himself, but needed assistance in pulling the shirt over his head and getting his arms into the sleeves. His shoulders were still painfully blistered from the sunburn and one of the deeper lacerations that ran along the back of his left shoulder. Laren helped Mark get to his feet. As they exited the teepee, Mark squinted his eyes at the sun; relying heavily on Laren for support. He looked around and took in all the activity happening in the camp and was surprised at how quickly the teepee he was just in was dismantled. Laren walked Mark over to the camp fire and helped him sit down. An Indian woman provided him a bowl of food.

“Thank you.” Mark said, even though he knew they didn’t understand him.

By the time the sun was at its highest point of the day, the tribe was under way. Laren helped Mark get on a horse before Laren mounted the same horse, sitting in front of Mark. The tribe started to head southwest.

As they rode Mark looked around, watching the women and older children walk alongside the many travois. The younger children were sitting on top of the travois that carried their family’s possessions. Most of braves rode their horses in front of and on the outskirts of the tribe. A few rode behind them, herding the horses, cattle. Within the midst of the procession, were young boys tending after a small herd of goats.

Laren was pleased the boy’s balance was good enough he did not need to hold on around his waist as they traveled. He noted how the boy’s hands lightly rested on his thighs or hung at his side.

When the tribe stopped for the night, they did not unpack their teepees from the travois. They retrieved their cooking utensils and food for supper and set up camp fires. Afterwards, they set out furs to sleep under the stars.

The Medicine Man, Shonae, and the old woman returned to Mark to make sure his wounds hadn’t been aggravated by riding horse back during the day.

“Laren, the boy’s wounds are healing nicely. It pleases me to see you helping him so. Maybe tomorrow you both walk instead of ride your horse for a while. Keep an eye on the boy, if he tires, then ride.” Shonae spoke, in the language of the Apache.

“Yes grandfather.” Laren replied in Apache.

Laren and Mark sat next to each other as they ate their evening meal. After the meal, Mark watched as some of the younger children took to dancing around the fire to the sound of the drums, as others in the tribe took to singing in their language. During the dance, one child ended up getting his feet tangled and fell to the ground. Laren broke out laughing as the child stood up, laughing as well. As others joined in the laughter, so did Mark. Soon the older girls took up the dance. Next, the young braves took up the dance.

Mark was struggling to stay awake. Shonae pointed Mark to the furs that had been set out for him. As he lay down, his thoughts turned to his Pa. ‘How do I get these people to understand I need to get home?’ For the first time since Mark was taken, his thoughts turned to Oliver. ‘How badly had Oliver been hurt? Was Oliver going to be okay?’ Sleep quickly came to Mark.

*****

The next morning, Mark tried to help with chores, only to be pushed away by the women. Laren came to Mark and took him to sit with the younger braves. As he sat down, he knew that he was the cause of their laughter. He realized they were laughing at him for trying to do ‘woman’s work’. He laughed as he remembered times when he told his Pa that some of his chores were ‘woman’s work’ and not that of a rancher.

For a week the Indian tribe traveled during the day and made camp at night. Mark’s sunburn had turned to a deep tan and he had recovered enough he was presented a horse of his own to ride. During the days, the young braves rode with their shirts off and the first time Mark tried to, he was berated by the old woman. So he continued to ride with the shirt on. Throughout the days, the young braves would test their riding prowess against Mark. He joined in with them, thrilling to feel the movements of the horse he rode. Laren was pleased to see how well his new friend could ride bareback and hold his own against himself and the other young braves. The boy would ride upright as the horses loped along, but when it came time to gallop, the boy leaned forward and lay against his horse, creating an illusion of oneness. As the elders of the tribe watched, they had a hard time distinguishing which of the riders was the stranger among them.

In time, the tribe stopped considering the boy a stranger as they witnessed how well he had assimilated into their lives.

*****

Each night once they stopped, but before settling for sleep, Shonae and the old woman would pull Mark aside and check his wounds. Mark had long given up his embarrassment with the old woman’s presence when Shonae motioned him to remove his breeches to allow him to view the healing gash on his leg.

*****

On one particular evening, one of the young braves came up beside Mark after Shonae had tended to him. In his hand the brave held a strip of rawhide string with a single reddish colored feather hanging from it. The brave held the ‘gift’ to Mark with both hands. Mark didn’t understand the significance at first. Laren took the gift and tied the headband around Mark’s forehead, with the feather hanging down the left side of his head. The braves continued to smile and talk, trying to teach Mark their language. The group of young men smiled as they were continuing to forge a bond of friendship.

As they ate their supper, Mark was overcome with quietness as his memories returned to thoughts of home. The younger braves tried to stir Mark out of his silence and before he knew it, he was laughing with them.

This night, during the evening dance, Laren motioned for Mark to join them. Mark had watched the dance the previous nights and gave it his best attempt. After a few minutes, Mark tripped as he looked back over his shoulder towards Laren. As he landed, he cringed as he felt the impact through his back, but soon he broke out in laughter when the other young braves began laughing.

“Guess I should have danced with the younger children,” Mark said as Laren offered him a hand to get to his feet. The younger children ran to Mark, grabbed his hands, and made the effort of showing him how the dance should be done. Smiles played across the faces of the elders as they watched the children laugh and dance with this stranger among them. They smiled at how the young stranger took to the children with a light heart.

From then on, Mark would join in the dance. Eventually, Mark came to understand the evening dance was a dance for continued peace for their people and a prayer to the spirits of their ancestors. The tribe had taken it as a good sign in finding Mark and restoring his health.

It pleased the elders that Mark showed no fear when he had recovered sufficient to become part of the tribe. Pleased, that he had taken to Laren and the younger braves had accepted him into their ranks. He was eager to learn and to help as he could.

In time, Mark came to understand they were traveling to an Army post. Mark was relieved to know that soon, he would be able to send a wire to his Pa.

As they walked or rode, Laren continued to teach Mark their language; he would point to plants or animals and speak. Mark listened as Laren was teaching him the language of the Apache. Mark would repeat the words Laren spoke, with Laren correcting him on the pronunciation, many times. As Mark would get words correct, he would then repeat the English word. Both boys enjoyed learning and teaching each other.

At times, as boys are apt to do, they strayed too far from the tribe and one of the older braves would come to return them to the group. Both boys returned with embarrassed looks on their faces and the elders would only shake their heads and smile.

Two young maidens were chastised by their mothers as they giggled upon seeing the boys’ return to the main body of the tribe.

*****

The following night, the other young braves pushed Mark and Laren away from their ranks. Confused why, Mark was surprised to find two young maidens approaching, carrying meals to him and Laren. The young women placed the plates of food in front of them and proceeded to sit down next to them.

The first doe-eyed maiden proceeded to cut the chunks of meat into smaller portions and held the pieces, one by one, in front of Laren’s lips. Mark watched his friend eagerly partake the meat into his mouth. The other maiden did likewise for Mark, but as she lifted the first piece to Mark’s lips he tried to reach for it, only to have his hand slapped down. The maiden placed the piece of meat against Mark’s lips. At Laren’s encouragement he accepted the meat being placed into his mouth.

As they continued to be hand fed, Laren smiled at the young woman who would become his wife during the autumnal harvest moon, he smiled even deeper because the other young maiden gazed intently upon his new friend.

Mark blushed when felt his body start to react to the proximity of the maiden sitting next to him; he thought she smelled sweet and clean. And he wondered just exactly what he meant with that thought. He couldn’t stop his eyes being drawn to the mounds her breasts created under the deerskin dress she wore as she leaned closer. Mark felt himself becoming warm when his heart started racing as her roundness caressed his arm while she leaned closer and offered the last morsel of meat. Not wanting to offend his hosts, but not knowing what to do… Mark was relieved when the young women stood and giggled before walking away carrying their empty plates.

Mark inhaled and exhaled just as deeply before feeling a hand push him sideways, Mark looked to his friend and saw him pointing to the young woman on the left, “Tianan,” Laren stated before placing his hand over his heart. Next, Laren pointed to the other young woman and said, “Sycayna” and then pointing to and placing his hand over Mark’s heart.

Mark’s eyes widened as he realized what Laren was implying, he rapidly shook his head from side to side, and gulped out “No!” Lauren nodded and laughed; he motioned his hands in the shape of an hour glass and then wrapped his arms around himself before deeply sighing.

*****

Later that night, Mark roused from sleep when he felt a hand shaking his shoulder. He opened his eyes to find Laren kneeling next to him, motioning for him to follow.

Quietly they slipped from camp, Mark curiously wondered where Laren was leading him, and why.

With the faint light from the moon at the last quarter, Mark spotted two other people a short distance away. And before he knew it, Laren was pulling him faster towards them.

The doe-eyed maiden, Tianan, was quickly in Laren’s arms, Mark turned his head when he saw their passionate kiss and the two walked away to lie down beside a large boulder a short distance away.

Mark startled when he felt hands upon his arm turning him, and with little warning, he felt Sycayna’s hand turn his face to look at her. Embarrassed, Mark took a step backwards as the maiden stepped nearer and looked into his eyes. She placed her hands to his chest, and nodding, hoping the boy in front of her would understand. She inhaled deeply; again Mark’s eyes were drawn to the roundness of her breasts as her chest lifted in breath. Mark’s senses were teased with the sweet aroma that came from the girl in front of him and his body began to react even though he tried to stop it.

Shaking his head, Mark tried to explain, “I can’t... I mean it might be perfectly normal for you, at your age, with one of the other braves… but I can’t. It’s just not right. My… My Pa taught me that…” Mark fumbled for the words, but wondering why he was even trying to explain, she wouldn’t understand. Holding his hands up to gently hold her at bay, Mark tried again, “You’re very… beautiful… but… I can’t.”

Sycayna took Mark’s hand and led him with little resistance to another boulder where she started to sit and pulled him to sit beside her. Once Mark was seated, she rose to her knees and slipped behind Mark and wrapped her arms around his torso.

“Please… no…” Mark squealed, his voice breaking. It had been years since his voice had broke in such a fashion. “It’s not right.”

He heard the pleasurable moans emanating from where Laren and Tianan lie, and couldn’t help but glance over towards them. It pleased him to see the maiden was still fully dressed, even if her arms and legs were fully entwined with Laren’s. The two shifted positions and Mark noticed Laren no longer wore his buckskin shirt, but still wore his breeches.

A distracted Mark stopped resisting the maiden’s attempts to remove his shirt. From behind, she gently laid her hands upon his shoulders and gently began massaging Mark’s shoulders and back. Mark couldn’t help relaxing at her ministrations, and didn’t resist when she manipulated him into lying down on his stomach. Her fingers pressed deeper into the muscles of his back as she worked her way from his neck to his back, and down both arms. Mark found pleasure in her hands upon his skin.

Mark forced himself up to his elbows and looked over his shoulder when he felt her hands upon his buttocks, the same kneading motion being applied as the hands moved to his thighs and calves. As he turned his head to look forward again, he noticed Laren was also lying on his stomach, with Tianan applying a similar massage to him. Mark relaxed and lay down again as Sycayna began humming.

Not realizing he had fallen asleep, Mark woke when Laren nudged his shoulder using his foot, Mark blushed when he realized Sycayna lie next to him, her face nuzzled in the cleft of his shoulder. He felt her breasts lying softly and pressing against his side as she breathed during her sleep. Her left leg lay over his thigh. Again, his body responded to her proximity, but still he fought down his emotions. He remembered the talk his father had given him shortly after he turned sixteen, about the responsibilities of being a gentleman and respecting a woman’s body by not giving into the desires before one was properly married. Regardless whether both parties desired to give into their bodies’ demands Mark knew he was expected to act in a proper manner.

Mark sobered when he remembered his father’s face as he explained the consequences of ruining one’s reputation or worse, an undesired pregnancy. He heard his father’s words, “Mark, you’ve lived on a cattle ranch for six years now and you’ve been present during breeding, I don’t think I need to explain the interactions between a man and a woman; do I?”

Seeing the expression on his son’s face, Lucas continued, “Maybe I was wrong in using cattle as an example; son… See, what happens between a man and a woman on their wedding night is something special, something to be cherished for the remainder of their married lives. If you don’t control your body, it’s more than your reputation at stake. You have to think about the young woman’s reputation, if she were to become pregnant… And how the pregnancy would impact her, as well as you… Do you want to become a father while still a teenager?”

Mark remembered gulping before he answered, “No, sir.”

*****

Mark and Laren, and Tianan and Sycayna, returned to the camp and resumed their places in their individual sleeping furs without anyone the wiser.

Mark lay on his back, his fingers interlaced behind his head and wondered if he would ever really be able to return home; though he knew they were traveling to a fort, it was taking so much time and there was nothing he could do. He worried too; he had seen his reflection in the water… Would he be able to convince the soldiers he was white? As sleep overtook him, Mark whispered, “Sycayna,” his body remembering her soothing hands against his skin and he snuggled deeper into his furs.

*****

It was afternoon when Lucas and Johnny arrived at Fort Bliss with their prisoners, much to the astonishment of Captain Blaisdal. They rode past the captain and delivered their prisoners to the guard house.

Upon leading their horses across the grounds to the trading post, they heard their names being called.

“Mr. McCain, Deputy Drako, I….”

“Not one word Captain,” Lucas vehemently replied.

It took all of Lucas’ resolve not to give into the urge to slug the officer standing in front of him.

“Out of my way!” Lucas growled.

“Mr. McCain…”

When the officer refused to move, Lucas couldn’t stop himself, his emotions had enough of this soldier’s contempt and punched him in the gut. Without looking back he continued to walk away.

Several soldiers ran to the captain’s side in an attempt to assist him, only to be motioned away by the man.

As Johnny and Lucas came to a stop in front of the trading post, they heard, “Mr. McCain! Deputy Drako!” They turned to see the post commandant and two guards walking towards them.

“Gentlemen a moment of your time, please. I’m Colonel Shaneworth.”

“Sir, with all due respect, you have no right to ask for my time and, frankly, I have no time for you,” Lucas declared.

“Mr. McCain, I understand your anger.”

“You understand MY anger?! My son is missing and that… that sorry excuse for an officer…”

“I wanted to tell you I have reprimanded Captain Blaisdal for his actions and relieved him from further duty outside of this post. He gave me a full report upon his return, without the prisoners.”

“Did he tell you about my son?”

“Only as an afterthought… However, I’m appalled that anyone under my command would be so callus. He will be transferred back East as soon as I can arrange for a replacement.”

“Colonel, do what you want, they’re your men. I have a boy out there that I need to find.”

“Mr. McCain, you can’t seriously believe that after all this time you have any hope of finding your son alive?”

Johnny spoke before Lucas could say anything. “Colonel, if Lucas McCain believes his boy is still alive, that’s all the hope we need. Until we find Mark’s body, that boy is still alive. Your men went on a fool’s errand in thinking they could get ahead of the outlaws versus trailing them like we did. If they had stayed with us, they’d of brought the prisoners back to the fort and we’d still be out tracking the boy and not here having this conversation. As Lucas said, we have no time for you.” Johnny knew that Lucas’ temper was reaching the point where he’d not be able to keep himself in check. Johnny knew his own feelings of being close to punching out any soldier who dared stop them.

“Mr. McCain, if you’d allow me, I’d like to send a detachment back out with you.”

“As I said, they’re your men. However, I don’t want or need your help,” Lucas turned and entered the store with Johnny shortly behind him; leaving the colonel to only stare after them.

*****

As they were finishing packing their supplies on the horses, they turned and looked as they heard one of the soldiers in the guard tower yell, “Colonel! It’s Shonae’s tribe! They’re on the horizon!”

The colonel yelled for one of his sergeants. “Sergeant McPherson, take one of the Apache scouts and ride out to welcome Shonae’s tribe. Tell them they may set up camp outside the fort on the north side.”

“Yes sir,” Sergeant McPherson stated as he saluted the colonel.

Lucas and Johnny watched as the sergeant and the scout rode out of the fort. They mounted their horses to ride out, only to find Colonel Shaneworth and the two guards standing in front of them.

“You have no authority over either of us, so I strongly suggest you order your guards out of our way,” Lucas spoke.

“Please… Wait until Shonae’s tribe gets here. They live out in the desert; maybe they’ve seen sign of your son. Maybe they can give you a location to return to, to start your search again,” pleaded the colonel.

As much as it pained Lucas to add yet another delay in searching for Mark, he knew it made sense, so they dismounted and waited.

*****

It was over an hour later when the sergeant and the scout returned to the fort with an elder Indian and two young braves riding behind him. From in front of the trading post, Lucas and Johnny watched as the two braves assisted the elder Indian down from his horse. The elder Indian motioned for the two braves to wait as he was escorted into the colonel’s office; the sergeant in front and the scout in the rear. The two young braves waited next to their horses.

As they watched, Johnny spoke, “Lucas, look at the brave on the far side.”

“Far side?” Lucas replied as his attention was drawn to see what Johnny was talking about.

As Lucas looked, the brave walked to other side of his horse and the horse’s neck blocked him from Lucas’ view.

They watched as a few moments later, the scout came out from the colonel’s office and motioned for the two braves to come with him.

“Lucas, I swear, that brave looks like Mark, a lot more tanned than Mark, but at this distance, it...” Johnny hesitated as the brave walked from behind the horse and then walked side by side with the other brave into the Colonel’s office. “Lucas, look at how different his walk is compared to the other. Lucas! He’s wearing boots! Not moccasins! He’s wearing boots!”

“Boots?” Lucas stated, not understanding as he still had not seen the brave Johnny spoke of.

“Lucas, it’s got to be…”

“Mark!” Lucas declared as he finally saw what Johnny saw.

The two men started running as the double doors to the colonel’s office closed. Lucas tried to get past the soldiers posted as guards on either side of the door, but neither man would let him through.

“Sir, the colonel will speak with you after he’s through speaking with Shonae,” one of the guards declared.

“I have to speak to him now, that’s my boy in there!” Lucas yelled.

“Sir, please stand back.” The soldier brought his rifle to bear. “That was Shonae, Medicine Man of the Lipan Apaches, his grandson Laren, and another buck. Not sure what you thought you saw, but you’ll remain outside until the colonel agrees to see you.”

“You can’t keep me from my boy!” Lucas declared.

Lucas fisted his left hand and drew it back before he let fly a left cross, straight to the soldier’s jaw, knocking him to the ground. Lucas barged through the double doors, down the hall, and into the colonel’s office. The other guard was immediately behind Lucas, and when he halted, he held his rifle held against the small of Lucas’ back. Johnny Drako followed and had his gun drawn, cocked, and placed behind the solder’s ear, as he stopped once inside.

There was a look of indignation on the colonel’s face as he yelled, “McCain, what the hell?!” and rose from behind his desk; the officer’s face flushed with indignation.

Lucas didn’t hear the fort commander. All he saw was one brave standing in front of the elder Indian, knife drawn, stance at the ready to protect. The other brave had turned with a wide-eyed stare as he stood not twenty feet in front of Lucas.

Lucas thought to himself, ‘That brave does look too much like Mark, not to be him.’ Unbelieving, yet, praying that he could be Mark; ‘Please God, let it be my boy!’’

“Pa?!” Mark cried as he ran to his father and threw his arms around his Pa’s neck.

Tears streamed down Lucas’ face as he returned his boy’s embrace. No one in the office diverted their eyes from scene in front of them. Lucas just hugged his boy and thanked God he was safe.

The colonel demanded, “Soldiers, shoulder your weapons and get out of here. Clear my office, NOW!”

Johnny replaced his gun in his holster as the soldiers and scout left the colonel’s office.

As Lucas continued to embrace his son, he ran his hands up and down Mark’s back, just to make sure his boy was really in his arms. He felt Mark wince and pushed Mark to an arm’s length away from him.

“Mark, you’re hurt?” There was fear in Lucas’ voice.

Quietly Mark answer, “No Pa, not now. Come back with me to Shonae and Laren’s tribe and we can talk.”

Lucas saw a pleading in Mark’s eyes; pleading to not ask any more questions. As Lucas stepped back, unsure what was wrong; Mark saw Johnny Drako behind his Pa.

“Johnny!” Mark called and gave Johnny almost as big a hug as he had his Pa.

“Good to see you boy!” as Johnny returned the hug.

Laren had sheathed his knife and stepped to the respected position behind Shonae.

“Pa, Johnny, I’d like you to meet Shonae, he’s a Medicine Man, and this is his grandson, Laren.” Then turning to Shonae and Laren, speaking in what Mark hoped would be acceptable Apache, “Shonae, Laren, I wish to introduce my father, Lucas McCain, and friend, Deputy Johnny Drako.”

Shonae and Laren smiled as Mark had spoken the few words in respectable Apache, they extended their hands in white man’s fashion to Lucas and Johnny.

*****

Lucas turned to the colonel, “I think I’ll return your office to you. We’ll take our leave now.” The group left the colonel’s office. Lucas kept an arm around his boy’s shoulders. Johnny ran to get their horses.

Much to Mark’s delight he saw and yelled, “BlueBoy!” as Johnny returned. Mark turned to look up to his father; there was a huge smile on his face. The group, including the scout, walked outside the fort and waited for the rest of Shonae’s tribe to arrive.

*****

Johnny and Lucas took their horses and began to unsaddle and unpack them as Mark sat on a log outside the fort.

As the tribe arrived, the younger children ran and began to sit around Mark, in an effort to keep from getting underfoot. Lucas and Johnny walked over to where Mark sat. As they approached, most of the children scampered away. One small boy, sonbably no more than four years old, stood his ground. He looked straight up at Lucas, head bent backwards as he looked way up, both hands, daringly, on his hips. Lucas knelt down to the boy, only to have the boy turn and run away. Lucas shook his head and gave a chuckle. As he sat down next to his boy, Lucas moved his hand to the headband and feather that Mark was wearing; there was an inquiring expression on Lucas’ face.

“They accepted me into their tribe,” Mark stated. The expression on his face asked, ‘what else could I do?’

They watched as the women set up the teepees and the braves tended to the herds. The smaller children kept their distance from Mark as long as Lucas and Johnny were there.

Lucas took Mark’s chin in his hand, pushed the feather aside and turned his son’s face to see the faded bruise along his son’s temple.

“Mark, please, why won’t you tell me of your injuries? I could feel you wince in the colonel’s office.”

“Not yet, Pa. It’s not time.”

Mark saw the look of hurt in his father’s eyes, but he knew everything would be alright soon.

Once camp was set up. The old woman came for Mark. She motioned for Lucas to follow.

“Pa, this is Laren’s grandmother. I’m sorry, but they’ve never told me her name. Most of the tribe calls her ‘the old woman’. She wants you to come with us… Please Pa, it’s time.”

Mark turned, his face and blushed as they passed Tianan and Sycayna, who spoke in hushed tones as Mark and his father followed the old woman.

Lucas and Mark stopped outside the teepee as the old woman lifted the furs that covered the entry; she motioned them inside, yet did not enter herself. Inside was Shonae. The medicine man motioned for Mark to sit on the furs and asked for him to remove his shirt and breeches. As Mark removed his shirt over his head, Lucas realized just how sunburned his son had been. He saw the remnants of peeled skin from the blisters on his boy’s shoulders and torso. Shonae’s eyes turned to Lucas and he gestured with his hands for Lucas to examine his boy.

Mark felt a hint of embarrassment in sitting unclothed in front of his father, but relaxed has he pulled his wadded up shirt to his lap.

For a moment, Lucas thought he saw sorrow in his boy’s eyes. Shonae reached for Lucas’ arm and motioned for him to come around to Mark’s back. Lucas saw the sutures in his boy’s shoulder as well as down his thigh. Saw the faded scrape marks down Mark’s back, arms, and legs. Saw the scar from the bullet graze to Mark’s left arm. Relief flooded through him as he saw no signs of any other bullet wound, and the fact the wound had been so minor. He gave quiet thanks there was no sign of infection in the wounds and they were all but healed. Lucas looked up as Shonae approached Mark, carrying a small knife. Shonae offered the knife to Lucas and spoke.

“Pa, he’s offering you the knife to take out my stitches.”

“No Mark, he’s the Medicine Man, it’s his right to remove them,” Lucas said as he stood, shook his head, and walked to the other side of the room.

Mark translated his father’s words to Shonae.

Lucas watched with a father’s concern as Mark winced as each suture was removed from his back. As Shonae worked to remove the stitches down Mark’s leg, Mark never took his eyes from his Pa.

“Did it hurt?” Lucas queried after the last stitch was removed.

“Tickled more than anything,” Mark replied as his body involuntarily shivered.

Before Shonae left the teepee he spoke in Apache, “You, father, stay here, talk. Much to discuss.”

As Mark slipped his legs into his breeches and stood up to pull them the rest of the way over his hips and tie them closed, Lucas asked, “Mark, why didn’t you tell me of these earlier?” He pointed to the scars, he wanted to understand.

“Pa, Shonae and his people saved my life. For you to see my injuries without their permission, it would have been an insult to them, especially in front of the colonel. I couldn’t have the colonel or any of those soldiers thinking that the tribe had caused my injuries.” Mark’s voice muffled as he pulled the shirt on over his head. “Pa, I saw the pain in your eyes and….”

“Mark, tell me what happened.”

Mark proceeded to tell his father what happened that first night when Wilder and Denton’s men arrived at the ranch. How he tried to get away and saw Oliver had been knocked unconscious. How they rode him down and ultimately, they rode away and then finally blindfolded him. He had no idea where they were when they stopped each night.

“Pa, I heard those men talking that when they met up with Wilder and Denton, they planned to kill me. Pa, I had to run.” Mark let the tears fall.

Lucas wrapped his arms around his son and waited for Mark to cry himself out.

After a while, Mark continued telling his Pa how he had run, slowing to a walk eventually not knowing how many days he was out there alone, and then falling and the ground giving way as he fell into a cavern.

“The next thing I remember, I woke up in the teepee with Laren sitting across from me. Then the old woman came in and later, Shonae. They tended to my injuries and treated me as if I were one of their own. I’m sorry to cause you all this worry Pa.”

“You’ve nothing to apologize for Mark. I’m just thankful you’re alive.”

Time seemed to stop as Lucas continued to hold Mark.

“You’ve learned a lot while with Shonae and Laren?” Lucas asked when he felt Mark had regained his composure.

“Some of their language and customs.” Mark stopped speaking; he looked down at the ground.

“Son?” Concern showed in Lucas’ face.

“Those outlaws? What of Oliver?” Mark asked.

Lucas allowed his son to pull away from him as he spoke, “Johnny and I trailed the outlaws and they’re now in the stockade, here at the fort. That’s why we’re here; we brought them in this afternoon. As for Oliver, Doc Burrage said he’d be fine in a few days, but that was over two weeks back. Guess by now he should be fully recovered.

“Tomorrow we’ll send a wire to Micah, let him know you’re safe and to let everyone know when to expect us home. Guess things are going to be in disarray for a while once we return. I left without making any arrangements to care for the ranch.”

“With two of US working…” Mark emphasized the work us because he remember before he had been kidnapped how he had teased his father. “It shouldn’t take too long to get things back to normal,” Mark stated.

Neither Lucas nor Mark had realized how much time had passed until Laren entered the teepee and motioned for the McCains to follow him. He led them out to the campfire, to a place next to the elders and motioned for Lucas to sit between Johnny and Shonae. Lucas started to reach for Mark, when the scout stopped him.

“Mr. McCain. He’s part of their tribe. Your seat here is a place of honor. Let him go with the others. You’ll be together again, soon enough.”

Lucas watched as Laren and Mark walked over to where the other young braves were seated. They partook in the supper provided by the tribe that night. The scout sat behind Lucas and Johnny in order to translate their conversations.

As supper was finished, the women of the tribe cleaned up.

Soon the drums were brought out and the elders started singing. As with the nights before, at first the younger children danced around the fire. The scout told the story of the song. It was a prayer for the spirits to watch over the children and guide them to be worthy of their ancestors’ blessings.

Soon the older girls replaced all the younger children. The scout told of how this part of the dance was a prayer for the girls to blossom into womanhood.

After a while, the girls were replaced by the young braves. Lucas and Johnny were surprised to see Mark walking into the circle around the fire with other young braves. Even more astonishing was the look in a young maiden’s face as she stopped in front of Mark and looked into his eyes as she reached for his hands, and he reached for her hands. Lucas saw the effort it took for Mark to swallow before he turned to follow Laren.

As the young maiden walked away, she turned to look towards the fire one last time and Lucas saw the tears streaming down her face.

Lucas’ attention was drawn back to the fire, by the scout, as the young braves danced, the flames flickered in the night, and at times, father and friend had difficulty identifying which of the young men was Mark. The scout stated that this part of the dance was a prayer to guide the young braves to maturity and to understand that all men can be brothers.

“Mr. McCain, I remember from when I was a child with the tribe. The Lipan folklore tells of a white man who will come into their midst at a time when other tribes are fighting for their way of life. The young man would accept their culture and learn. The arrival of this white man signifies that the Lipan tribe will continue to live in peace,” the scout informed them. “I think Shonae and his people believe your son is that man.”

“But he’s just a boy…” Lucas whispered.

The dance continued with the young adults, men and women, replacing the young braves around the circle. The scout told that this was a prayer for the young joined couples to bring children into the world who will respect the old ways and begin the cycle again.

“It’s a story of life,” mused Lucas as he watched his son’s interaction with the tribe. He wondered just how much a part of the tribe his son has already become.

*****

Throughout the evening, Lucas continued to look towards Mark. He hadn’t wanted to be separated from his son, but he understood Mark’s statement from earlier. They were guests of the Lipan tribe and he was going to respect their customs and if that meant he had to be apart from his boy for a while longer, at least Mark was within eyesight. They would soon be together. As he watched Mark laughing and interacting with the young braves, Lucas wondered if his son wanted to stay with the tribe… he seemed so different since the last time he saw his son back in North Fork.

The women came and took the younger children to put to bed for the night. The young couples left the fire and returned to their teepees; leaving only the young braves and the elders. Shonae stood and motioned to Lucas and Johnny and then to Mark, he pointed towards a teepee close by.

“Mr. McCain, Shonae wishes you, the deputy, and your boy to sleep in his teepee tonight. Other arrangements have been made to accommodate you,” the scout stated.

As they stood to leave, Shonae spoke, “We thank the tall one for the blessing of his son. The Lipan shall continue to live in peace.” Mark translated what Shonae said to his father.

The McCains and Drako walked to their sleeping quarters for the night.

*****

Johnny Drako hadn’t missed the worried look his friend tried to hide; he’d seen exactly what Lucas has seen earlier in the evening. So it didn’t surprise Johnny when his heard the fur covering the opening of the teepee falling back into place. Johnny looked to see that it was Mark McCain who was missing, he quietly left the teepee.

Johnny saw Mark, Laren, and two young women walked away from the camp, and as deputy worth his salt, he followed the four. Standing in the tree line, Johnny was surprised to see the group meet up with the scout along the edge of the river that ran through the area. From where he stood, he could easily hear the scout translate the words from English to Apache and back.

Smiling, Johnny returned to the teepee to find Lucas awake and worried.

“Where’s Mark?” Lucas asked as he stopped short, upon Johnny’s entrance.

“You’ve nothing to worry about Lucas, Mark will be coming home with you tomorrow,” Johnny answered.

“What are you talking about?” Lucas asked, playing innocent of Johnny’s implication.

“I saw what you saw tonight. I saw your expression. You’re worried how much Mark has been indoctrinated into the tribe, and wonder if he is really still your son.”

Acquiescing the words were true, Lucas sat back down.

“Where is he? Do you think is cares for the girl? Do you think he wants to stay?” Lucas asked.

“They’re with the scout, who’s is translating. I think it was more the young woman was infatuated with Mark, but that’s all.”

“You’re sure… there’s nothing going on between the two of them?” It took all of Lucas’ resolve to ask that question. He wasn’t sure what to expect if his son had feelings for the young woman, and he wondered what had happened between them while traveling.

“After all, he is your son,” Johnny answered.

“And that’s supposed to make me feel better?” Lucas scowled.

“No, I’m just saying, he’s a gentleman… He’s done nothing to be ashamed of. Trust him, Lucas.”

*****

The three from North Fork woke the next morning to find the camp already full of activity. Neither Lucas nor Johnny asked Mark why he’d left the teepee during the night. After breakfast, Lucas allowed Mark to say goodbye to his friends in the tribe.

Lucas was torn, but knew to give his son privacy when the young maiden approached Mark, tears streamed down her face. Taking her chin in his hand, Mark said, “Thank you,” before placing a kiss to her cheek. “I’ll remember you.” Knowing that most of his goodbye was said the night before, Mark turned and walked towards his father.

Johnny waited off to the side with the packhorse while Lucas shook hands and said goodbye to the scout and more importantly, goodbye and thank you to Shonae.

Before they could mount their horses, Colonel Shaneworth intercepted the group to bid them goodbye and to relay some information to them.

“I sent a rider last night to El Paso with instructions to send wires on your behalf to your Marshal in North Fork, as well as the Sheriff in Whites City.” Colonel Shaneworth continued, “Mr. McCain, please don’t judge all soldiers by the actions of Captain Blaisdal. There are good soldiers out here. I hope you accept my apologies.”

“It’s not for you to apologize, Colonel. All that matters right now is I have my boy back and we’re heading home. Good day!” Lucas and company stepped into their saddles, turned their horses, and head home.

*****

As they rode away, the group turned when they heard the pounding of hooves and cries of battle behind them. The band of young braves pulled their horses short of the group, many of the horses rearing, each brave held one hand firmly grasped in the mane of their horse, their other hand fisted and raised above their heads, their arms pumping up and down, the same motion used to signal a successful hunt.

Mark turned BlueBoy towards his friends and raised his fisted hand over his head and then opened his hand to wave before turning his horse to rejoin his father and Deputy Drako.

*****

Lucas, Mark, and Johnny arrived home to North Fork a week after they left Fort Bliss. As they rode into town, they were met by stares from the town’s folks, watching as the sun-tanned Mark rode in, still dressed in the buckskin clothes and his hair longer than it had ever been before. He still wore the rawhide string, but without the feather, to keep his hair out of his face. Lucas realized the people of North Fork must have thought Mark to be an Indian, much as he did when he first saw Mark a week before

They stopped in front of the Marshal’s Office after seeing Micah standing at the hitching rail as they approached. Johnny stepped down from his horse and was almost knocked over as Lou ran from the hotel and greeted him with such an enthusiastic hug.

Then looking to Lucas, “Hey Cowboy, thanks for bringing Johnny home,” she said in her rich Irish brogue.

Micah started laughing as he saw Mark walk around behind Razor to join the group.

“Well I’ll be. Mark? Don’t know what to say. Most children run away from home to join a circus. Looks like you joined a wild west show.” Micah couldn’t keep himself from chuckling.

“Thanks Micah. It’s good to see you too,” Mark replied with a dole sense of humor.

“Micah,” Lucas interrupted. “I want Doc Burrage to look Mark over; he took some injuries while missing. Want to make sure the trip home didn’t aggravate his injuries.”

The humor disappeared from Micah as he understood what Lucas was saying. “I’ll see you two later then.”

Lou, Johnny, and Micah returned to the hotel.

*****

Doc Burrage only stared as Lucas and Mark entered his office. Mark realized if this was the way everyone was going to greet him, it wasn’t going to be his day. After a thorough examination of Mark’s healed wounds, Doc Burrage gave Mark a clean bill of health. He said he’d prefer for Mark would take it easy for another day or two.

“Does that mean I can’t do the dishes?” Lucas smiled at the mischievous gleam in Mark’s eyes as his son inquired.

Lucas shook his head, and ruffled his boy’s long hair. “We’ll talk about that when we get home, boy.”

Mark and Lucas left the doctor’s office and walked to the general store. Their neighbors continued to stare as they walked past. As they entered, Mrs. Donner queried, “Lucas, we had word that Mark was safe. Where is he? What are you doing bringing an Indian boy to town?”

Mark replied, “Why Mrs. Donner, didn’t think I’d been gone that long that you’d forget what I looked like.”

Mrs. Donner walked closer and stared at Mark, unbelieving.

Lucas shook his head as he spoke. “Madelyn, believe me, this is Mark. Need to get him some proper clothing and a hair cut before we head on home.”

Mrs. Donner raised her hands to Mark, took his chin in one hand, with the other, brushed away his hair that had escaped from the string, before she finally accepted it was him. “Oh, Mark, please forgive me. I didn’t mean to be so rude.”

“You weren’t rude, Mrs. Donner. Guess I do look the sight,” Mark replied with a laugh.

“Madelyn, just put these on my account, okay?” Lucas asked as he set the new clothes for his son on the counter.

“Yes, Lucas. I’m happy to see Mark, and you, home. Just get that mane of his trimmed and make him look like our Mark… please?”

After leaving the general store, father and son walked over to Sam’s barber shop. Again receiving stares from their neighbors, “Boy we best get you looking like yourself before these people pop their eyes.”

Mark laughed at his Pa’s comment.

They entered the barbershop and saw that fellow rancher Dave Merrar was in the chair.

“Lucas, welcome home.” Then pausing, “Mark?” he asked while removing the sheet from around his neck, not quite sure that he was really looking at Mark McCain.

“I know, I know. Get all sun-tanned, grow my hair out, and come back wearing buckskins, and people don’t recognize me,” Mark laughed.

As Dave started to leave Sam’s, he stated, “It’s good to have both of you home. Hope you’ll see things have been kept in order.” He paid for services rendered, put his hat on, and walked out.

The rancher was stopped before he got too far along the boardwalk. He tried answering the questions, “Yes, that was Mark McCain with Lucas.” “No, I don’t know what happened to the boy” “No, I don’t know why he’s dressed the way he is.” Finally Dave implored, “People please. They’ve just returned to North Fork and haven’t been home yet. Let them be for a while. I’m sure they’ll tell us if they want us to know.”

Sam stared at Mark as he took a seat in the barber chair and untied the rawhide string, allowing the boy’s hair to fall into his face.

Lucas stated, “Sam, please just get him looking like… Mark.” He couldn’t control the laugh as he watched Sam pull at strands of Mark’s long hair to try to decide where to start.

Before leaving Sam’s, Mark stepped to the back room to change clothes. After half an hour, Lucas and Mark walked out of Sam’s. Their neighbors were still staring, but this time, they saw the Mark McCain they knew.

The McCains headed to Lou’s for an early supper, prior to going home. Lou closed the restaurant while Mark and Lucas were present. Johnny, Micah, and Lou joined them at the table. Johnny had already filled Micah and Lou in on what happened while he and Lucas were trailing the outlaws. They listened while Mark recounted his story of being kidnapped and then being taken in by Shonae’s people.

It was early evening when Mark looked to his Pa and asked if they could go home, he was getting a little tired.

“Sure son.” They bid good night to everyone and rode home.

*****

Since it was just the two of them, Lucas decided now would be a good time to broach the subject of Mark and the young maiden.

“Mark,” Lucas began.

“Yes Pa?” Mark answered.

“Back with the tribe…” Lucas felt even more awkward regarding what he was about to ask his son, more so than he did when he seriously explained the facts of life to his son. “There was a young woman…”

“Sycayna?” Mark answered.

“I never met her… She seemed…”

“Pa, don’t worry. She was a good friend to Laren’s betrothed.”

“Oh,” Lucas replied. “And…” Lucas quietly gulped.

“Though I did feel things…” Mark was thankful it was dark outside and his father couldn’t see the color start to rise in his cheeks. “It was strange… The way my body reacted, when she was close… but… Pa, I… Don’t worry, I remembered your talk.”

Lucas slowly let out the breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding.

*****

Upon cresting the final hill signaling the end to their journey, they were pleased to be so close to home. However, both grew concerned when they saw smoke coming out the chimney and a lantern lit in the front room as well as the lantern beside the front door. As they stopped in front of the barn, the side door opened and Oliver came out, wiping his hands.

Before Lucas could get out a word they heard a commotion and another voice bellowing from the barn.

“Oliver, help get this cow off me!” the panicked voice yelled.

Lucas and Mark followed Oliver into the barn where they saw an older man lying on his backside with milk spilled all over him and the cow moving around in an effort to not step on the man. Oliver was quickly to the cow’s head, pulling it away from the man.

“Aaron… Aaron Wingate?” Lucas asked a little surprised as he knelt down next to the man. “What are you doing here?” He assisted the elder Wingate to his feet.

“Well, Oliver wired me what happened and I didn’t want him traveling all the way home without someone to look after him, especially after taking that blow to the head. By the time I arrived, you hadn’t returned. Oliver and I decided the best way to thank you was for us to take care of your place until you could return.”

“You’ve been taking care of the ranch all the while?” Mark incredulously asked. He remembered the first time Aaron Wingate had been in North Fork and how much he hadn’t liked the man. Yet, his feelings towards the man changed when the man accepted the error of his ways in trying to find ‘his’ son.

“Well, we’ve been tending to the house and barn while some of Dave Merrar’s and Oat Jackford’s men take care of the stock.”

“Aaron, Oliver, I don’t know what to say.” Lucas said as he shook his head in disbelief.

“Well,” Aaron started, “seeing as you two just got home, Oliver and I probably should head into town and stay at the hotel.”

“It’s getting late…” Lucas tried to object.

“No objections, Lucas. You don’t need to be hosting no guests.” Sensing Lucas was about to continue his objections, Aaron held up both hands and continued, “I insist. We’ll see you tomorrow.”

Lucas helped Oliver hitch the livery horse to the buggy they had been using while Mark took care of Razor and BlueBoy for the night.

*****

Later that night, Mark and Lucas were sitting on the porch, looking out towards the horizon. A silver mist enshrouded the hills casting an eerie blanket over the land.

“You look like you’ve something on your mind. Want to talk?” Lucas asked.

“I remember reading some of the descriptions of the battle scenes during the Civil War and how one writer stated the fog gave an added feeling of sorrow, as if the land mourned the soldiers’ deaths.”

Lucas kept quiet as he allowed his son to think through his thoughts.

“The fog out there…” Pointing to a particular location, Mark continued, “That swirling fog over there, it there looks like someone just walked through it.”

“Are you looking for someone?” Lucas patiently asked.

“No, Pa. It just… Being home, it feels different. I’m just trying to make sense of what I’m feeling.”

“What are you feeling?”

“Pa, do you think… I mean… While I was with Laren’s people, they taught me so much of their culture and way of life. I mean as much as they could without either really understanding each other’s language. Their life… It’s so simple… I just got to thinking how unfair it is for the Army to be putting the Indians on reservations. The North and the South fought a bloody battle over a way of life. And now… The Indians are fighting for their way of life. They were here long before the settlers and the government’s taking everything away from them. It just doesn’t seem fair,” Mark stated.

“No, I guess it doesn’t.”

“Pa, do you think they’ll ever be really free again? I mean to live on the land as their ancestors did?”

“I don’t know. The more settlers head west in hopes of a new beginning, the more there will be conflicts between our two people. Laren’s people seem resigned to accept oversight from the army, but there are other tribes that won’t. Unfortunately, we can’t stop the westward expansion.” Lucas put out his cigar then continued, “Mark, it’s been a long day. Come on, why don’t we turn in for the night.”

“I hope Laren and his people will be okay,” Mark answered as he stood to his feet.

“I know son, I do too.”

They walked in to the house. As they entered, Lucas placed a hand on Mark’s shoulder. “Boy, its good to have you back.”

“It’s good to be here, Pa,” Mark replied as he turned to look at his Pa’s face, upon seeing the expression, he longingly added, “It’s good to be home, Pa.”

Their eyes locked on each other as they experienced one of those moments where neither one needed to say anything more, each knew what the other was thinking and feeling.

This is a story based on the TV series The Rifleman
Here are some other great stories. Enjoy!

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