The Rifleman
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Forgive the musical ramblings during the beginning of this story. I could not satisfy my writing muse until I wrote as directed, I kept seeing the expansive scenery from Quigley Down Under as I was writing. The timeframe for this story would be between seasons four and five.


Leagues from Home

Three riders doggedly pushed the cattle; two continually riding their mounts from the one side of the small herd to the back, before returning to the side where they started. Intently watching the lead cows and the trailing cattle, taking their cue from the moving animals to know where they were needed. The riders moved the small herd of thirty white-faced Hereford cattle; pushing them towards the lush grasslands closer to their destination. The third rider tagged along as a make-shift drag rider with the two packhorses laden with supplies.

Like a conductor in front of an orchestra; the two outriders had an innate ability to know what needed done and when, all without discussion. Each silently instructed their horse by pressing their legs against its flanks, urging the horse on or allowing them to slow up, turning the horse with a flick of the reins or shifting their weight in the saddle.

The quiet a cappella bellows floated somewhat out of rhythm and in contrast to the tempo of the shuffling hooves and swatting tails. The unique melody was a harbinger of an unrehearsed symphony, as though every section -- strings, woodwinds, brass, or percussion -- muddled their way through their first read without any attention to how their part affected the piece as a whole. Occasionally, the cacophony of the herd was overpowered by the tympani of hoof beats as one rider raced after a errant cow attempting to make an escape, the cymbal crash came as the rider hollered, “YEEAW!” and used the end of their lariat to quirt the cow in an effort to turn them back to the herd.

Nature decided to add her own overture of which the riders didn’t appreciate the direction her tune was flowing. The rain started as if brushes flickering across the head of the cymbal, but soon changed to a soft roll across a snare drum. The bellows of the cattle continued, but the dusty shuffling changed to sucking and plopping sounds as the rain fell; changing the dry, hard ground into a sticky, muddy mess before they entered the valley.

The only blessing the riders acknowledged was the cattle bunching tighter together allowing the riders to slightly relax in the saddle. Relaxing somewhat, each rider sat as best they could to encourage the rain to run from the brim of their hat onto their rain poncho--if they held their head just right. If not, the rain ran down their neck and under their collar. From their knees down, their pants were soaked through, as were their gloves and boots.

Having talked with fellow rancher Oat Jackford, Lucas McCain knew that within the hour he, his fourteen year old son, Mark, and the drifter, Aaron Provo, he’d hired to handle the packhorses, should come to the opening of a canyon where they could settle the herd for the night. A bonus to this location was a cave large enough for the horses and riders to bed down and get out of the weather. Looking to his son on the far right-hand side of the herd, Lucas acknowledge his son’s glance, held up his left index finger, indicating one, followed by a circle, indicating an hour. The youth’s discouragement showed when he hunched his shoulders and lowered his head; quickly he sat straight in the saddle as the rain poured down his neck, causing him to shiver. Forcing a smile to his face, Mark McCain nodded to his father.

Looking further back, Lucas noticed the uncomfortable way Aaron sat in the saddle. Riding back, Lucas moved his horse beside the man.

“Aaron, we should be at the location where we plan to bed the cattle down for the night, hopefully within an hour.”

“If you say so,” the man’s teeth chattered as he spoke.

“You’re doing a good job with the pack horses -- and Mark and I appreciate your coming with us.”

“I need the money Mr. McCain.”

*****

Two hours later the rain had surged as if a roll on a bass drum, as thunder rumbled across the land painting a dull picture of grey. Thankful the shower was not intense with lightning bolts and crashing thunder, the riders settled the cattle just beyond the canyon opening. The cattle busied themselves by enjoying the lush grass, uncaring of the changing weather.

The tall rancher followed his slender son, and the drifter, as they led the horses into the confines of the cave. Each tended to their mount and the packhorses, stripping their gear and rubbing them down, before they addressed their own needs. The horses were hobbled before the riders walked over to the fire pit used by previous tenants, Lucas set out to start their own fire, Mark set out fixings for coffee and supper, while Aaron set out their bedrolls.

The rain continued and night fell, casting a somber mood over the landscape and the riders.

*****

Relaxing back in his bedroll with a full stomach, Lucas opened his eyes upon hearing, “I’ll flip you for early nighthawk, Pa,” stated Mark. Lucas watched his son warm himself over the flames dancing from the crackling wood.

“I don’t think we need to worry about riding nighthawk in the canyon tonight son. That’s why Oat suggested we bed down here,” answered Lucas as he sat up and poured a cup of coffee and handed it to his son. “It’s got plenty of sugar,” he stated upon seeing his son’s grimacing face. “You need to warm up on the inside as well as the outside.”

Taking a sip of what he generally considered a bitter brew Mark welcomed the warmth that spread through him. “Thanks, Pa.”

Lucas nodded; noticing that beyond his son, Aaron was already asleep in his bedroll.

*****

Lucas woke and estimated it was approaching midnight to find his son’s bedroll empty. “Mark?” he called, sitting up, looking around.

“Over here, Pa,” Mark called from the opening of the cave.

Lucas climbed from his bedroll, picked up his rifle and walked over to his son. “Something up with the herd?”

“Na, just couldn’t sleep. I know you said we didn’t need a nighthawk because the cattle are in the canyon, just didn’t seem natural to not keep an eye on them.”

“I understand. How about I take the next watch?”

“Sure Pa. You’ll wake me later? I don’t mind taking the next watch. Doesn’t seem fair to ask Aaron since you said it wasn’t necessary.”

“Okay, you go get some sleep.”

“Night, Pa.”

Lucas watched as Mark set his rifle down before he added more wood to the fire. The glow of the fire flickered over Mark as he settled down in his bedroll, turned on his side, and pulled the cover over his shoulders.

“Would you believe this Margaret?” Lucas asked as he looked out the cave opening and closed his eyes. “He’s growing up to be a young man we can both be proud of. I so wish you were here to see him, to help me raise him.”

*****

The weary riders had been pushing cattle on the trail for six days when Cloudcroft came into view; each one thinking of what they would do once the cattle were delivered to the buyer, fervently praying they wouldn’t have to push the herd on to the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation.

“Do you think the Indian Agent will have his own drovers to push the cattle Mr. McCain?” Aaron Provo asked as Lucas McCain settled his horse Razor at the back of the herd for a few minutes.

Lucas looked over at the haggard young man; he estimated the man’s age at twenty-eight. Aaron stood just a little over six feet, two inches tall; dark curly hair that fell to his collar, with a brooding expression reflected in his dark eyes. Lucas appreciated the way the man handled the two pack horses while under saddle, but on the ground the man nervously moved around them. The man’s limp was more pronounced around the horses than when he was walking away from them.

“That’s what was written in the contract. We’re only responsible for getting the cattle to the stockyard in Cloudcroft,” answered Lucas. “But things can always change. It’s been over three weeks since we received confirmation of the contract and we’ve been out of touch while on the trail.”

“I just want a nice hot bath, a good meal, and to sleep in a soft bed, as soon as possible,” Aaron replied.

“You’re not the only one!” Mark called as he turned his horse BlueBoy to return to the right flank of the herd.

*****

From vague outlines on the horizon, the town of Cloudcroft took shape. However, the riders didn’t have time to think about it as all their attention focused on the cattle that had turned skittish.

“They sense some things up!” Lucas hollered as a cow attempted to escape the left.

“I’ll get this one!” Mark called after a cow running off to the right.

By the time father and son returned with their quarries, another cow here or there attempted to make good their escape. After so much time on the trail, Razor and BlueBoy knew what was required and reacted almost before their riders could ask.

In time, the cattle seem to consign themselves to their fate, or they were just too tired to be contrary. With a vigilant eye, the McCains watched their herd for any sign of trouble.

A moving blob appeared in the distance and as they neared Cloudcroft they distinguished the figures of five riders on horseback racing on an intercept course.

“Keep them steady Mark!” hollered Lucas above the increased bellows of the cattle. “Tighten up on the lead cow!”

Lucas watched as Mark mirrored his movements, hoping to prevent a stampede.

The riders from Cloudcroft slowed up and eventually stopped, waiting for the drovers to push the cattle to them.

“Keep them moving!” called the sharply dressed man to the four riders with him who started to move out to encircle the herd.

“PA?!” called Mark, hesitating to reach for the rifle in his scabbard.

“It’s okay boy! I’m Nathan Ironwood. I’m the buyer you’re here to meet.”

“Mr. Ironwood,” Lucas stated as he halted Razor and extended his hand towards the man.

“Mr. McCain, you made great time.” Turning his attention away, Ironwood called, “Pate, get after that one!” Watching the young Apache race after and return the cow to the herd, Ironwood addressed Lucas, “Sorry about that. I know they’re not mine until I pay you for them, but thought you could use a hand getting them into the stockyard.”

“I really appreciate it. My boy and I could use a little time to relax in the saddle,” Lucas stated as he pulled his hat from his head, pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket, and wiped his brow.

“Quantra, get that one!” Ironwood shouted before speaking to Lucas again. “If they’ve been this contrary the whole trip, I can understand.”

“Haven’t caused us too much trouble until about a mile or so back,” commented Lucas, returning his hat to his head.

“Well, let’s let the boy’s keep after the cattle while you and I settle in to ride drag,” Ironwood suggested.

Lucas nodded his head in agreement.

*****

Standing in his stirrups, Ironwood called out to the Apache Indian standing on the gate as it swung closed behind the last cow in the pen, “How many?” The man flashed both hands three times indicating thirty. “Mr. McCain, seems you’ve held up your end of the contract.” Distracted the Indian agent called out, “Mondola, let the riders out one at a time, the McCain boy first!”

Lucas watched as Mark and BlueBoy slowly made their way through the milling cattle to the gate; he breathed a sigh of relief as they exited the pen.

“We did it, Pa!” exclaimed Mark as he sidled up next to Lucas.

“We sure did, son,” Lucas answered.

“Yes, you did. Now, I must state that I’ve been somewhat lax in my own duties,” Ironwood stated. “I still need to finish the bill of sale and secure the bank draft for payment. I’m sorry, but it will require that you spend the night at the hotel in town. The bank is already closed for the day.”

“That might be a hardship,” Lucas answered, keeping the smile off his face as he watched his son’s face brighten at the mention of the hotel. “That means my boy, here, will have to get a bath.”

“Ah, Pa! It’s not like I’m a little kid anymore. I’m really looking forward to a bath, scrubbing this trail dirt off and lying in a nice, soft bed,” Mark answered good-naturedly.

“And the hotel restaurant has a very good cook,” Ironwood answered.

Turning his attention back to the Indian agent Lucas asked, “What time and where should we meet you in the morning?”

“Say nine, thirty, at the bank? We can sign the contract there and I can hand over the draft at the same time.”

“We’ll see you there.” Lucas reached out to shake the man’s hand, and waited afterwards as the man reached out to shake Mark’s hand, before they left the stockyard.

Riding to where Aaron Provo waited, Lucas asked him, “Well, what are your plans now?”

“Well, I was supposed to meet my brother here…” Turning in the saddle to look around, he sat back and faced Lucas, “But he doesn’t appear to be here, yet.”

“Well, I can go ahead and pay you the ten dollars I promised you for helping with the packhorses,” Lucas stated as he reached for his saddlebag and pulled out his wallet.

“You don’t have to wait until the morning?” Aaron surprisingly asked.

“No, I’ve the cash to pay you.” Lucas pulled the money from his wallet and handed the cash to Aaron. “And here’s a little extra for your supper tonight.”

“Thank you Mr. McCain, I really appreciate it!” Aaron answered as he handed the packhorses’ lead ropes to Lucas.

“By Aaron,” Mark stated as the man rode away.

“Ready for that hot bath and supper, Mark?”

Smiling, Mark replied, “Sure am.”

*****

Having signed his name in the hotel register, Lucas accepted the key to the room from the desk clerk. As they walked up the staircase to the second floor, Lucas stated, “You get your clothes out of your saddlebags while I arrange for your bath.”

“Pa, I think I’m old enough to arrange my own bath,” Mark embarrassedly answered.

“You have enough money to tip the concierge?”

“Tip the what?”

“The attendant, the man who’s going to fill the tub with hot water and provide the towels…” Lucas answered, raising both eyebrows.

“Guess I’ll let you arrange my bath,” Mark answered, shaking his head as he entered the hotel room in front of his father.

*****

“Aaron!” yelled a cowboy over the crowd of noisy patrons in the Golden Spur saloon. “Over here, Aaron!”

Aaron looked around the room until he found the man belonging to the voice; standing beside a table in the back corner of the room, motioning with his arm and hand over his head for Aaron to make his way to him.

Taking evasive action to move around the rowdy crowd watching an intense poker game, Aaron made his way towards the corner table.

“Trey, when’d you get here?” Aaron asked.

“Brother, we’ve been here since early this afternoon!” the man boasted.

Anyone watching would have guessed a family relationship between the two men; Trey had the same brooding eyes as his younger brother. It didn’t matter that the man stood slightly taller and his build a little heavier, what drew the people’s attention was the way in which he carried himself… some would say arrogant, others would infer his intentions were cold and calculated.

“Join the gang, Aaron,” Trey encouraged as he ordered one of the men around the table to get his brother a chair. After introducing his brother to his friends, he yelled to the barkeep to bring another round to the table.

The Golden Spur saloon barkeep was a portly man of middle-aged years, hair fringed around his balding head. The stained apron he wore was a testament to the long hours spent serving the multitude of cowboys and the likes who entered the establishment. Bearing a tray with six mugs of beer, the man held it high above the crowd while he made his way to the table. After setting the mugs on the table, the man picked up the coins proffered and slipped them into his pocket before returning to the bar.

Looking around the room, Aaron asked, “You fellas pissed off them saloon gals already?” saddened that none of the skimpily dressed women came with their drinks.

“Ain’t none you’d be interested in, too much paint trying to hide their ages,” the man earlier introduced as Deuce Hollendar stated as he took a heavy draught and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

If possible, Deuce Hollendar was even of slighter build than Aaron Provo, however, he didn’t have the height. Sandy blonde-haired, with a bristled mustached sitting below his sharp nose and cheeks; his ruddy complexion spoke of years spent outside in harsher environment. The cut of his clothes and demeanor indicate he might have once served in the army.

“You want women, you go to Miss Matilda’s,” teased Abe Moffett. Standing somewhere in height between Aaron and Trey, Abe weighed almost half again as much Aaron, his arms muscles bulging under the sleeves of his shirt. The man’s hair was dark and he wore a mustache, with a full beard that hung just below his Adam’s apple. Moffett’s clothes indicated he too had spent years outside of any city or town. Any casual observer might have thought him to be a mountain main.

“Miss Matilda’s?” queried Aaron as he sat back and enjoyed his beer.

“Miss Ma-til-da’s,” answered Zeke Hanson; all of twenty years old and full of his own good looks. Strawberry blonde hair, baby smooth cheeks, and a well-muscled chest that was just as smooth was visible through the opened top three buttons of his shirt. As the youth spoke, his hands outlined Miss Matilda’s voluptuous body. “And she’s got girls, all shapes and all colors. Take yer pick.”

Hearing a throated growl, Aaron noticed the final man in the group, Silas Waiscott; a former slave, with the darkest color skin that Aaron had ever seen. The man’s hair was shaved close to his skull and he wore the faded remains of a blue-coat uniform, pants and jacket. While watching the quiet man, Aaron decided he never wanted to be alone or on the wrong side of the man whose eyes appeared to pierce right through Zeke. Aaron involuntarily shivered.

Having satisfied more of his thirst, Trey asked, “What kept ya? I thought you’d a been here before now.”

“Made some money on my way over from North Fork,” Aaron answered as he drank and other long pull of beer.

“That some cattle baron we seen ya ride in with?” Zeke asked, letting out a belch without offering an apology.

“Na, just some sodbuster got a contract with an Indian agent to provide cattle for that Indian reservation.”

“Can’t see you as no drover, especially for a sodbuster,” Trey glared. “You can do better than that.”

“I know I can brother, but money is money, and I needed money to get here,” Aaron answered. “Sides, all I did was haul along the pack horses. Got paid ten dollars for less than a week’s worth a work, and he gave me two dollars more for supper tonight. Made better wages than most ranch hands and didn’t have to really do anything but ride along. And he paid for the provisions, so it didn’t cost me one plug nickel to get here.”

“Ya hungry boy?” Trey asked.

“I got two bucks for a steak supper, you bet I’m hungry,” Aaron answered.

Curtly shifting his head toward the double-winged doors, Trey stood from the table and led the group out of the Golden Spur saloon.

*****

Knocking on the door to the room housing the bathtub, Lucas called, “Mark, you done in there?” Not receiving a response, Lucas knocked louder and called his son’s name again, only to have the door opened by the attendant.

“I’m sorry Mr. McCain, I was adding water to the lad’s tub, he was quite…” looking sheepishly embarrassed, the man stated, “he was in dire need of a bath. The physician here in town…”

Interrupting, Lucas pushed the door open, “What happened to my son?” demanded Lucas.

“PA!” exclaimed Mark, pushing the washcloth into the water in order to cover himself.

“Mark, are you okay?” Lucas asked as he stepped around the partition.

“Pa, please…” begged Mark.

“The attendant stated the doctor,” explained Lucas.

“Mr. McCain, I’m sorry if my word indicated something that wasn’t… what I was trying to say was, our physician is dedicated to seeing people, especially children, bathe more than just on Saturday nights.”

With an indignant tone, Lucas replied, “We do bathe on more than just Saturdays.” Seeing the man’s eyebrows arch in disbelief, Lucas explained, “Sir, we’ve been on the trail, pushing a herd of cattle for six days; so please forgive our lack of cleanliness…”

Wanting to help defend his Pa, Mark stated, “Yeah, we bathe on more than just Saturdays, because today is Friday.”

Refraining from grinning, Lucas turned to his son, “Mark when you’re through with your Friday bath, get on back to our room.”

“Yes, Pa,” answered Mark, his visible cheeks tinged red.

“After I’ve had my bath, we’ll go to eat supper in the restaurant downstairs.”

Being reminded of how hungry he was, Mark vigorously began scrubbing himself clean and washing his hair. Ten minutes later, the boy returned to their hotel room, plopped himself down on the bed while watching his pa grab his toiletry kit from his saddlebag.

“You stay in this room until I return,” Lucas admonished.

*****

Entering the restaurant with his hand on his son’s shoulder and his Winchester in the other, Lucas followed the waiter to their table.

“Pa, ain’t that Aaron over there? Can I go say hi?” Mark asked as he pointed to another table on the opposite side of the room.

“Mark, he’s with his friends. I’m thankful that he was able to help us, but we don’t really know him.”

“Sorry, Pa,” Mark answered dejectedly.

*****

At the table on the opposite side of the room, Trey Provo looked up at the tall man walking across the floor with a young boy beside him.

“Hey Aaron, ain’t that your sodbuster?” Trey asked.

All eyes at the table turned to watch the father and son take their seats.

“Yeah, that’s Lucas McCain and his son Mark,” answered Aaron.

Deuce Hollendar gagged on his drink upon hearing the names, “McCain? You rode here with Lucas McCain?”

“Yeah, so what?” Aaron inquired.

“Did you see his rifle?” asked Zeke Hanson. “That’s it, ain’t it? He always got it with him.”

“Brother, you didn’t say you rode with Lucas McCain,” spat Trey.

“What’s it to ya? He’s just a sodbuster with cattle,” Aaron replied.

All merriment went out of Abe Moffett’s voice when he answered, “Lucas McCain ain’t just a sodbuster with cattle. You really don’t know who he is?”

“No. I told ya, he needed help getting cattle here and was willing to pay for my time,” Aaron answered, his face searching the others for understanding.

“Brother, Lucas McCain is The Rifleman… That there rifle? He’s faster with it than most men are with a six shooter.”

“Not me,” came the bass voice of Silas Waiscott whose eyes narrowed while watching Lucas McCain leaned his rifle against the table, between his son and himself, before setting his hat on the far side of the table. “Ain’t no body faster than me.”

Aaron listened as his brother’s friends began to tell the tales they had heard of Lucas McCain, The Rifleman, and his rifle. In rapt attention, Aaron couldn’t believe he’d ridden all that time with the man and had not known who his employer was. As time passed, something began to niggle in his mind as the tone of the conversation changed. Not really knowing the others, but hearing his brother laugh, Aaron relaxed back to finish enjoying his supper and chalked his feeling up to the men’s warped sense of humor.

*****

The restaurant unnaturally quieted as Lucas McCain stood, collected his hat, his rifle, and his son. Heads titled forward to keep voices from spreading beyond the tables in which they were whispered.

“Let’s go son,” Lucas stated as he placed his hand to Mark’s back to encourage him to walk on.

“Pa? Those people… Why’d they get quiet all of a sudden?” inquired Mark.

“People talk son. Sometimes loud, sometimes quiet.”

“Mr. McCain!” called the waiter to get Lucas’ attention.

Lucas stopped and turned towards the hurried man who approached.

“I’m sorry to bother you, but the cook did want me to convey his appreciation… It means a lot to Horace to have a man, such as yourself, eat his cuisine,” blabbered the man.

The shake of Lucas McCain’s head was barely perceptible, but Mark saw it and he realized now why the people had quieted. In a way, he felt proud that these people knew his pa, but as he looked around the room, he felt disquieted as the people continued to stare and proceeded to whisper with their hands trying to block their mouths from being seen. A brief shiver fluttered through Mark’s spine when his eyes settled on Aaron Provo and his new friends.

“Tell your cook, it was a good meal. Thank you,” Lucas stated as he again placed his hand to Mark’s back and motioned his son to continue.

*****

Lucas and Mark McCain had long settled into their beds in the hotel when six men approached Miss Matilda’s. The imposing structure seemed out of place in Cloudcroft, Silas Waiscott shuddered, took a deep breath and hesitated.

“C-Come on S-Silas,” a slightly inebriated Zeke called while walking a twisting line to the establishment. “Ya ain’t gonna let a little plantation stop ya from having,” belch “fun tonight.”

Understanding the man’s reluctance to move forward, Deuce Hollender stepped to his side, “Silas, your master…”

“I ain’t got no master,” the man stated through gritted teeth.

“Your former master is long dead. Don’t let this building get to you. You’re not in the south, you’re in New Mexico Territory. The war is long over… You’re a free man.”

“I’m a free man,” Silas’ deep bass voice repeated. Those four words encouraged the man to stand taller and step forward.

“You might be a free man,” Abe Moffett began to tease, “But it’s gonna cost ya tonight to be with one of these beauties.”

*****

Upon entering the parlor, Aaron was awe struck, as Zeke had proclaimed earlier, there were girls there of almost every shape and every color. Aaron blushed at the girls who looked as if they were just out of school and blushed even deeper at the women who could show the greenest of men what it meant to be with a woman. The curves that shown above the neckline of the dresses and pushed out at their bodices left little to the imagination, but his eyes drew to one with demure bearing.

“Don’t let her looks fool ya,” purred a voice coming up behind Aaron. “She knows exactly how to please a man and take pleasure in it. I don’t hire no children; every one of my gals is a woman.”

Addressing all the men, “I’m Miss Matilda, and welcome to my humble establishment.” Calling and motioning over to the demure, “This is Leila.” And she paired her off with Aaron.

Deuce’s eyes fell to a well-endowed, raven-haired woman who Miss Matilda called, “Angeline.”

Abe Moffett eyed on a well-rounded woman, with sandy colored hair; he felt his blood quicken as the woman approached after Miss Matilda called, “Agnes.”

Miss Matilda called, “Veronica.” The blonde woman’s hips sashayed, left and right, as she approached Zeke Hansen. Standing in front of Zeke, she pulled his hat from atop his head and ran her long fingers through his hair; all the while pressing herself against him.

Silas Waiscott focused on the tall, light-coppery-skinned beauty who entered the parlor. Though she wasn't as 'endowed' as the others, her beauty countered any assets she lacked. Years back, Silas remembered another beauty such as the one who stood before him. He remembered their wedding night and how it was that months later, she became 'well-endowed' as the life of their child grew within her womb. He knew that just because a woman wasn't shapely didn't mean she didn't know how to please a man.

Silas also remembered the night the Overseer came, telling him the Master had sold his pregnant wife. Her cries echoed in his head as he watched her being dragged from their quarters, begging and pleading. The bite of the whip across his back was nothing compared to the wrenching of his heart.

“Dominique, I believe this gentleman would like to meet your acquaintance," Miss Matilda stated, and smiled.

After watching the five others head up the grand staircase, Trey turned around as the voice behind him purred, “And that leaves you, sir -- a bit if a mystery in your pleasures.” She trailed the palm of her left hand along Trey’s broad back, walked around the man, then trailed the tips of her fingers across his strong chest.

Taking the woman’s hand in his, Trey lifted the woman’s hand to his mouth and placed a light kiss upon the open palm, “Matilda, ain’t no other woman can satisfy me like you can.”

“Don’t let Ted hear you saying that,” Matilda answered, turning on her heels and leaving Trey standing alone. “He’s up here.”

*****

At the top of the grand staircase, Matilda lead the way down a hallway, the opposite direction all the others had taken. She stopped outside a closed door and knocked, waiting for an invitation to enter.

Trey followed Matilda through the doorway, revealing an opulent office. A heavy mahogany desk stood in front of a wide window, bookcases lined two of the four walls, in the midst of one of the bookcases, stood a door marked, Private. Trey’s eyes continued to take in the room, surprised at the rich carpet spread across the floor, softening the sounds of the boots walking across, he had previously noticed as they entered the well-stocked bar off to his left.

Having spoken to the man sitting behind the desk, Matilda returned to the bar, passing Trey she mouthed, “Later.”

“Trey Provo, long time no see,” spoke the man as he stood from behind the desk, walked around it, and approached, hand held out.

“Cassidy,” Trey replied taking the man’s hand and shaking it as politely as he could possibly get away with.

With an acceptable smile, Trey took a seat in front of the desk, while Ted sat opposite him, and Matilda sat behind her desk.

Ted Cassidy. To Trey Provo, the man was an enigma, yet a man whose style of dress shouted that he commanded respect. As for respect, Trey’s respect was an act. He despised the man who wouldn’t do his own dirty work, a man who acted more respectable than he had a right to. Trey had seen this type of man before, and eventually, those men crumbled into the loathsome living they had tried to escape.

Paying less than full attention as the man babbled on, Trey allowed his mind to wonder to ‘later’ behind that Private door. Cassidy drew his attention to present when the subject matter piqued his curiosity. The reason he and his gang were in Cloudcroft.

“Matilda says that you and your boys are perfect for the job,” Cassidy stated after setting his glass of brandy down on the front of the desk.

“Depends on the job, and our percentage of the cut, and the risk,” Trey answered.

“Fifty thousand dollars, split seventy-five, twenty-five.”

Cassidy sat back in his chair and watched as Trey calculated the figures.

“I suppose me and my boys won’t be getting the seventy-five?” Trey hinted, raising his eyebrows.

“And why would you expect to receive that much? I think I’m being plenty generous as it is,” Cassidy breathed.

“And if The Rifleman was thrown into the fray? How much more would you be willing to pay to get him out of the way?”

“The rifleman? Why would Lucas McCain, a sodbuster interest me?” asked Cassidy with an air of indifference.

“The fact that you know about a ‘sodbuster’, by name, just gave you away. He’s here you know,” Trey sat back, pleasantly pleased with himself.

Cassidy looked to Matilda for confirmation.

“Ted, my girls have told me that some of ‘our guests’ are talking about him being here, but he’s not been within these walls.”

“He’s always butting in where he doesn’t have any business… How long’s he here for?” inquired Cassidy.

“I know for a fact he’s meeting that Indian agent at the bank, at nine-thirty tomorrow morning.”

“This does change things,” Cassidy answered, a sly grin made its way to his face.

*****

Being the last to leave the parlor, Silas followed Dominique up the stairs and down the hallway, past the closed doors and hushed conversations. The sounds of boots dropping to the floor and the creak of bedsprings gave hint to what the others were doing. But within the room that was Dominique’s, events progressed very differently.

Entering the room, Silas casually walked over to sit on the bed as Dominique pointed. The room dimmed to a point that the flame of the lantern was barely visible, as if being seen by someone a far distance away, trying to get home.

Climbing upon the bed and sitting on her knees behind her customer, Dominique waited while he unbuttoned his jacket and shirt. She pulled the garments from his shoulders and inhaled sharply upon seeing the scars borne on his back. Gently her fingertips traced one of the deeper lines. Silas tensed and sat straighter.

“I’s a sorry… It bena long time…” Dominique offered as mixture of an explanation or a question.

“It was a long time ago… Another life…” Silas answered, the remorse sounded hauntingly in his deep bass voice.

“Don’ mean no disrespec’… Jus’ tha’ ya remin’ me so much a me own past,” Dominique replied. “I cared fo’ ma husban’ times when da Overseer say da Masta wanna pleased wi’ ‘is work.”

Dominique moved closer to the man and began to massage his shoulders and back, to relax him before…

Dominique’s hands took Silas’ memories back to happier times, times when he took his wife to their bed, times when he actually enjoyed the pleasures of being with a woman. “Many times I received the lash for the same reasons... Enola was a good woman… tended to me.”

“Enola?” Dominique asked “She yer mammy?”

“No, my wife.” Silas’ eyes closed.

Climbing from the bed, Dominique hurried to the lantern on the dresser, turning the wick bright.

“Your name!” she sharply demanded.

“It doesn’t matter.”

“If your name is Silas, it matters,” Dominique stated, falling on her knees in front of the man who sat upon her bed. With her hands on his knees she looked up at his face. “I beg you, please… tell me your name.”

Silas looked into the face of the woman, saw the longing in her eyes and heard the change in her speech.

“For the love of God… Has twenty years changed us so much that neither of us recognize the other?!” Dominique demanded to know. “Silas, please… has your heart hardened so much that you don’t…”

“Matilda said your name was Dominique,” replied Silas.

“But before… Before I was sold and taken from my husband, my name was Enola.”

“It can’t be…” Silas stated in disbelief. “How? Why?” Silas threw her hands away as he stood from the bed.

With tears in her eyes Dominique answered, “My new master… He was proud to own me... Silas, he said I was exquisite and had to have an exquisite name…”

“But..our child?”

“Our child… a daughter,” quieted Dominique.

“What of her?”

“My new Master… Hester was torn from my arms when she was six months old, as I was torn from yours. I don’t’ know where she is or if she’s even alive.”

“How did you end up… here?” Silas demanded to understand.

“After the war… A black woman, alone… In the south?” she didn’t know how to express twenty years of heartache and hurt, and doing what it took to survive. She also didn’t know how to tell her husband the full truth of what happened during the ensuing years.

“You could have gone north,” Silas angrily retorted.

“You could have gone north!” Dominique countered back. “I do what I have to do to live!”

“In a brothel?! Men pay for your favors!”

“You’re here! You paid for my favors! How dare you judge me?!”

“But when I first came in here, you talked… as…”

“Yes, I talked as an ignorant former slave…” interrupted Dominique as she stood and threw her arms wide in exasperation before letting them fall to her sides. “Men don’t want intelligent conversation from a whore, I give them what they expect!”

“I didn’t expect to find my wife! Have you stooped so low… to denigrate yourself? When we were together, you never…”

“As you so eloquently stated, that was a lifetime ago. Yes, I can speak and act as an educated woman! My next master’s wife insisted that we learn proper grammar and courtesy and such; she felt it was her duty to care for us. She treated us with respect as did her husband! They provided for their workers. Never was a whip taken to the men, never was a child separated from its mother’s breast! There are good people out there and Matilda is one of them! Matilda appreciates an educated woman working for her; we’re not simpletons. All of us can handle ourselves better than the whores over at the Golden Spur. She saved my life!”

“At what cost?!” demanded Silas. His anger etched his face and made concrete his body.

Not knowing what else to say, Silas walked back to the bed and picked up his shirt and jacket, slowly dressing.

“You’re leaving?” inquired Dominique. “I’m not good enough for you now?”

“I won’t make love to my wife in a brothel.” Silas turned and faced Dominique, “Enola is welcome to come with me, I want to take her away from here. Tomorrow… Enola, I’ll take you away from here…”

“Tomorrow? Why not now?” Enola asked.

“I have a job in the morning. My friends and I have a job to do… Please… I’ll come back for you, just tell me that Enola will wait for me and no one else.”

“You had best leave,” Enola stated as she opened the door to the hallway.

Silas quietly left the room and Miss Matilda’s; he didn’t hear Enola whisper behind her closed door, “I’ll wait for you.”

*****

The Friday night stage from Ruidoso, New Mexico arrived in Cloudcroft early Saturday morning, as the sun was enticing the sky from black to a rosy blue. Stepping from the stage, a dapper-dressed man turned to address the driver and the shotgun.

“My bags, good man. Be care…ful!” he proclaimed as the bags were dropped to the hard-packed ground.

“Mister, if it weren’t for you, we’d be on schedule. Ain’t got no time for ‘policities’,” the driver answered.

“Come along Giles,” the dapper man stated, casting his eyes upwards to the second man to exit the stage.

“Yes, sir. Presently,” Giles answered.

*****

Aaron Provo exited Miss Matilda’s and watched the spectacle across the street. The dapperly dressed man adjusted his bowler hat, before tugging down his suite jacket, again, he walked away leaving ‘Giles’ to gather the luggage. Giles, dressed similarly, but not as smartly as his employer, picked up the luggage and followed.

*****

Employer and employee sat in the hotel restaurant, the employer impatiently waiting for their waiter to come take their order for breakfast. The sight of a tall man and the youth at his side and the fuss the waiter and hotel manager were making of the pair angered the dapper man.

“Mr. Pettigrew,” Giles spoke. “They seem to be someone of importance. Who do you think they are?”

“You don’t know?” sounded a voice from the table next to them.

“WE have only just arrived in this ‘town’, and have not been properly introduced to your citizenry,” Mr. Pettigrew distastefully declared.

“That there’s The Rifleman. Can you believe it? Him and his rifle are here… In Cloudcroft,” said the simply dressed man, indicating he was quite possibly a farmer.

“The Rifleman?” asked Pettigrew.

“I’ve heard of him, Mr. Pettigrew. He has a reputation as a gunman.”

“A gunman? Using a rifle?” Pettigrew queried in disbelief, his eyes drawn to the rifle placed upon the tabletop where Lucas and Mark sat down.

“I’ve heard it said he’s faster with that rifle than any man with a six-shooter,” answered the farmer. “Been in many a gun fights. Been wounded in a few, but most o’ the time, whoever stands agin him gets planted… six feet under if you get me drift.”

“And the boy?” asked Giles.

“Heard tell that’s his son.”

“It’s of no consequence to me,” Pettigrew answered, impatient with the man’s eagerness to tell all he knew. But inside, Pettigrew’s mind was working, a gunman, traveling the countryside, his son in tow… it wasn’t right. The dapper man envisioned the horrors to befall the youth as his father carelessly dragged him from one gun battle to the next… All for what…A reputation? Money?

****

Pettigrew watched as Lucas McCain and his son left the restaurant at nine-fifteen.

At nine, twenty-five father and son stood outside the entrance to the bank, greeting the Indian agent.

“Perfect timing, Lucas, Mark. I hope the beds at the hotel were satisfactory,” the man inquired.

“They were more than satisfactory,” replied Lucas.

“Well, I believe we have all the necessary paperwork inside in order to complete our transaction,” Ironwood stated, opening the door, allowing the McCains to enter in front of him.

Leading the way across the bank floor, Ironwood opened a door to an office, inside he said, “Lucas, I’d like to introduce you to Hank Williams, our bank manager. Hank, this is Lucas McCain and his son, Mark.”

The bank in Cloudcroft was a little more lavish than their bank in North Fork. The man stepping from behind the oak desk greeted Lucas with a smile, “Mr. McCain, a pleasure to meet you. When you return home, would you give my regards to John Hamilton?”

“You know Mr. Hamilton?” Mark eagerly asked.

“I do. He and I are old acquaintances, and neither of us will say exactly… how old,” Mr. Williams stated, a gleam in his eyes.

“I thought it was only women who never revealed their age,” Mark innocently replied.

“Mark,” chastised Lucas.

“That’s okay, Lucas. You don’t mind that I call you Lucas?” Seeing Lucas shake his head no, he continued, “I kind of asked for that. Please, won’t you both have a seat?” Williams motioned to the two chairs sitting in front of his desk. “One moment, Mark, I’ll get a chair for you.”

“That’s not necessary,” Mark attempted to say as the bank manager brought over a chair from against the wall.

With everyone properly seated, Ironwood stated, “Lucas as we agreed in our wires, here is the contract for thirty head of prime Hereford cattle that you were to deliver to Cloudcroft. Your delivery has held up your end of the contract and all that now remains is for you to sign this bill of sale, and…” Ironwood reached for the piece of paper on top of the desk, “I’ll authorize Hank here to issue this bank draft.”

Lucas dipped the pen into the inkwell before he signed his name to the bill of sale and handed it to the bank manager. Nodding his head, Williams handed over the bank draft to Lucas McCain. Mark leaned sideways in his chair to look at the draft.

“That’s a lot of money, Pa,” commented Mark.

“Yes, yes it is,” replied Lucas. Turning to address the two men in the office, Lucas stated, “I’m thankful we could conduct this contract with a bank draft instead of cash. But… Would you be able to wire the money to our account in North Fork?”

“I don’t see why not,” answered Williams. “Lucas, go ahead and sign the back of the draft, I’ll make out a deposit slip with instructions to wire it to North Fork. I won’t be able to confirm the transaction until Monday; I don’t believe that John keeps Saturday hours.”

“No, sir,” answered Mark.

“Regardless, I’ll go ahead and have a receipt created on your behalf.”

Williams took the draft and the deposit slip, and walked out of his office. Through the open door, Lucas heard Williams instruct the teller exactly what he expected. A few minutes later, Williams returned to his desk and handed Lucas the receipt.

“Now is there anything else I can assist you gentlemen with?” Williams asked of Lucas and the Indian agent.

“Not that I can think of… You Lucas?” Ironwood answered.

“No, I think this…” Lucas broke off his statement upon hearing a commotion in the teller area of the bank.

“Excuse me, it appears my next deposit has arrived early. We weren’t expecting delivery until noon today. Gentlemen, I must insist that you leave. I don’t mean to be impolite; it’s just that this delivery is… Lucas, a pleasure to meet you… and your son. Nathan, I’ll see you tomorrow at church.”

With the finality of his words, Lucas, Mark, and Ironwood left the office and the bank.

“Pa?” Mark asked as the stepped to the boardwalk on the far side of the main street. “The Sheriff and his deputy…”

“What about them?” Lucas distractedly responded.

“Those are money bags they’re carrying into the bank… And it’s just the two of them.”

“Yes… It is…” Lucas gripped his rifle even tighter as his eyes scanned the street. It worried him that a delivery of such a vast sum of money would happen in broad daylight, in the middle of town, without additional men to act as guards.

*****

Eyes scanning the boardwalk on either side of the main street, Lucas’ brain began to process the facts; bank transfer of a large amount of money, the only lawmen were handling the transfer, where were the additional men? Lucas hoped to see rifles jutting out windows in some of the second story buildings as he looked up, but the windows were closed. It appeared the only other person interested in what was happening was the driver of the wagon being unloaded, however, his gun was still holstered and his rifle rested against the bench seat, while he casually rolled a cigarette.

Without concrete proof that a bank robbery was imminent, Lucas’ second sense continued warned him something was not right.

Several shots were fired down the street; the shots too far away from the bank for Lucas to determine if this was part of the robbery, but still…

Having double clutched his rifle, Lucas watched as the lawmen stepped from behind the wagon and approached him; the bank manager, shortly behind.

“What’s the meaning of this?!” demanded Sheriff Wade Pattison while drawing his gun and approaching Lucas.

“The shots came from down the street,” answered Lucas, his eyes never resting on the approaching men.

Even with the brief look Lucas had cast over the lawman, he knew they were a force to be reckoned with. The Sheriff was an imposing figure; not as tall as Lucas, but carrying enough weight to make any normal ruffian or drunk think twice about challenging him. Green eyes contrasted vividly with the man’s shocking red hair and mustache. The deputy, compact in stature, appeared to be a scrapper, a man who knew how to take advantage of any man out who would underestimate him based on his size. He also wore his gun belt slung a little lower down his left hip, but not quite as low as a gun fighter. Together the two lawmen made an imposing picture of security for the town.

“Wade, this is Lucas McCain. He’s here from North Fork…”

“He was in the bank…” interrupted Pattison.

“He was transacting…”

Their attention was still drawn to the direction from which the sound of the shots originated when more shots were fired behind them.

“Mark, get to the hotel!” Lucas ordered his son as they took cover around the corner of the general store. “Now!”

Sensing Mark obeyed his order, Lucas readied his rifle as he slipped behind several barrels of apples in front of the general store. The majority of the citizens of Cloudcroft appeared to abandon their routines as they ran for cover within the structures along the street. The Sheriff and his deputy returned across the street to the bank, to take cover behind the wagon.

The volley of shots continued, knocking the driver from the seat when he failed to realize a robbery was in motion. The deputy went down in the street with a shot to the left side of his lower back; the man continued to crawl to reach under the wagon as hoof beats thundered near.

The Sheriff and Lucas fired towards the outlaws, covering them in a cross fire; and while they had the outlaws in a cross fire, the three outlaws in the street had them penned down as well. Many well aimed shots from both sides missed their marks as the skittish horses fought against their riders. Lucas ducked as a bullet struck the barrel he hid behind. Sighting his rifle over top of the barrels, Lucas fired and watched as an outlaw grabbed his shoulder. Two men carrying sacks stamped with the bank’s name ran out the doorway, jumped on two of the riderless horses, and began shouting “RIDE!”

More shots were fired as the outlaws raced from town; Lucas stepped from behind the barrels and into the street, firing at the retreating figures. Another outlaw ran to the middle of the street, vaulted into the saddle of the remaining riderless horse; the gang continued firing wildly in an effort to make good their escape.

*****

From the front balcony of Miss Matilda’s, Enola screamed, “SILAS! GOD NO!” as the riders raced from town.

*****

Lucas felt fire sear the right side of his chest and heard a grunt to his left, looking he watched as the Sheriff crumpled to the ground, red spreading down the side of the man’s neck. Lucas’ focused all his effort on breathing in and out as his own blood began to spread across the front of his shirt. One foot in front of the other, Lucas staggered as he made his way to the wagon before he finally collapsed.

When the sounds of gunfire ceased and the dust began to settle, Cloudcroft became curious; her citizens warily stepped from the various establishments to survey the damage inflicted.

Bank manager, Hank Williams, was first to yell, “Get the doctor!” as several men ran first to the lawman before checking on the others who they would ultimately call fallen heroes.

*****

Having left the town courthouse, Horatio Pettigrew was drawn to the commotion in the center of town. Running down the boardwalk he was shoved aside as others ran past him, their own curiosity overshadowed their own common sense.

Walking through an alleyway, Pettigrew proclaimed, “I knew it! I knew it!” as he encountered the still body lying just off the boardwalk. Turning the youth over, he gasped at the thick blood running across the boy’s temple, “Gunshot,” he mumbled.

“We need a doctor!” yelled Giles. “Someone help!!”

People continued to rush past the opening of the alley to get the heart of the action, while Horatio Pettigrew ordered Giles to pick up the youth, “We’ll see that he gets to the doctor. Come, Giles.” The man’s voice was clipped in a staccato rhythm.

Having spent years dealing with difficult teenagers, Giles easily lifted the slim form of the fourteen year old boy into his arms and followed behind his employer as they made their way to the clinic.

*****

Lying the youth on one of the examination tables, Giles went to locate anything he could use to stop the flow of blood from the ugly head wound.

“Sir, go see if you can find a nurse,” stated Giles, at this time not caring about the improprieties of him giving an order to his employer.

“I’m surprised the doctor didn’t come out upon our entering,” mused Pettigrew.

“Sir, he’s probably with the others – tending to whatever happened.”

“A physician does not leave his hospital ward unattended. You of all people should know that. A physician needs to be where others expect him to be!” declared Pettigrew.

“Sir, forgive me for being so blunt, but this is not the Pettigrew Home for Wayward Boys. This is a town and the doctor has a right to practice as he sees fit. Besides, whatever happened could have seriously injured someone; the voices sounded panicked.”

Giles returned his attention to the youth lying unconscious on the examination table; the boy’s face was almost as white as the towel with which Giles used to clean away the congealing blood.

*****

Outside the closed doorway to the clinic, someone shouted, “Get the door!” The hurried boot steps that sounded on the wooden planks paused as the door opened with such force Horatio Pettigrew jumped when it hit the wall.

The doctor instructed the men to carry the first of the wounded men through a back doorway, to his surgical room.

“Doctor, this boy here needs your attention!” Pettigrew declared, trying to make himself heard over the noise of the men entering the clinic.

“He’ll have to wait. I have other patients in more dire need than he,” the doctor answered as he made his way past the dapper man.

“Mr. Pettigrew, if you would help me,” asked Giles. He’d seen what his employer had not, in his estimation it would be a miracle if the boy’s father survived the night.

“That is the physician’s duty,” Pettigrew retorted.

“But we have a duty to this lad, we need to help him until the doctor…can.”

Resigning himself to action, Pettigrew stepped closer to the table in an effort to also avoid the next throng of men carrying in the deputy and proceeding to the surgical room. From outside, the two men heard someone else yell, “Get the sheriff to the undertaker’s!”

*****

Turning their attention to their charge, Giles and Pettigrew tended to the youth, cleaning the blood from his face before wrapping a bandage around his head.

“You said something sir?” Giles asked as they laid the boy down.

“Yes, I said, I knew it. I just knew it. This boy’s father has such callous disregard for the life God gave to him. A father’s first duty is to protect his child… And what does this man do?!” As Pettigrew droned on and on, his voice rose in anger and pitch, “This man travels from town to town, exposing his son to dangers. For God’s sake Giles, this boy was shot! All because of his father!”

“Sir we don’t know that!” defended Giles. He’d witnessed the many occasions his employer would rant and rave. And he knew what would soon happen.

“Don’t we? That… that farmer at breakfast… he said the man was known as The Rifleman. You don’t get a name like that by staying home and raising your son! We’ve read stories in the Chronicle detailing some of the man’s exploits. Though I never figured I’d ever meet the man.”

“Sir, I need to dispose of these rags, would you keep an eye on the boy?” Giles asked, hoping to dissuade his employer from his current train of thoughts.

Returning to the front room in the clinic Giles watched how his employer had transformed from a strong advocate against any injustice he perceived into a compassionate man, holding the boy’s hand and rubbing his thumb over the top.

*****

Hours had passed and still the door to the surgery remained closed. The sun had traversed from mid-morning to well past noon, before footsteps were heard approaching the clinic. The bell over the doorway jingled as it announced the door opening. Giles looked up at the visitor; the man entering wore a three piece suite with a gold watch chain hanging from a vest button before it disappeared into one of the vest pockets. It did surprise Giles as he observed the mustache and goatee upon a bald-headed man.

“Judge Keller,” Horatio Pettigrew stated upon seeing the man entering.

“Mr. Pettigrew,” Judge Keller acknowledged.

“I’m glad you’re here,” Pettigrew stated as he stood to approach the judge. “I wish to make a petition before your court.”

“Not now, Mr. Pettigrew. I’m here as a member of the town council to see about the injured men.” He cast his eyes over the unconscious boy lying on the examination table in the front room. “Was he also injured during the bank robbery?”

“The bank was robbed? I knew it. This boy’s father is not only a menace to his son, but also to society. Judge, I beg of you… We must do everything in our powers to ensure this innocent child is protected from the unlawful acts of his father.”

“Mr. Pettigrew, I understand your concerns, however…”

“Your Honor, from the amount of time that his boy’s ‘father’ has been in surgery, it is highly doubtful that he will survive the night. I must protest and declare that you convene an emergency session in order address an immediate injunction granting me full custody of this child.”

“Mr. Pettigrew, I will consider such a motion, only if it is properly presented before my court… but not until then.”

“I understand. I’ve already obtained the name of a councilor and was preparing to see him when this… travesty occurred. Until later, Your Honor,” Pettigrew stated as he returned to Giles. “I’m going to see Mr. Caleb O’Donnell to begin our petition.”

“Mr. Pettigrew, I beg of you. Please do not do this,” pleaded Giles.

“WE have no recourse. If we step aside, then we are as guilty as that boy’s father! I will not be part of allowing a child to be condemned to such a life as his father would see him live.”

Closing his eyes, shaking his to the left and right, Giles deeply exhaled and silently prayed as his employer left the clinic.

*****

Horatino Pettigrew had not returned to the clinic before the door to the surgery opened. It was evident just how weary the physician was by his slumped shoulders and shuffling of feet.

“Dr. Webster?” inquired Judge Zeller.

“Judge Zeller, I didn’t know you were here,” answered the physician.

“I’ve been here for about forty-five minutes. I came to see how Deputy Vestor is doing, as well as the other man.”

Walking over to his desk, the physician heavily sat down in his chair and leaned forward, his hand reaching to open a lower desk drawer. Withdrawing a bottle and two glasses, the physician turned and asked, “Care to join me?”

“No Doc, but don’t let that stop you,” replied Judge Zeller. Waiting for the physician to pour the brandy into a glass and drink it’s contents to sooth his nerves, the judge gauged what might have happened behind the closed door.

“Deputy Vestor will be out of commission for a few weeks to come. The bullet tore up the muscles in his back as well as his intestines. Took me a long time to make sure I caught every hole before I sewed him up.” The doctor took another sip from his glass before he sat back in his chair, eyes closed.

“And the stranger?”

“Oh yes… the stranger. If he is who I think he is, his name is Lucas McCain… from North Fork I believe. I overheard bits and pieces of what Hank Williams was saying as he helped carry the man in here. Well as far as Mr. McCain’s condition… It will be a miracle if he survives the night. One bullet to the left cavity of his chest, piercing his lung and causing it to collapse; if the bullet had struck just a half inch more to the right and it wouldn’t have mattered; he’d be dead by now.”

“What about the boy?” the judge inquired.

“The boy? What boy?” Dr. Webster turned to look around his office.

After hours of grueling surgery, this was the first time the doctor realized he had another patient in potentially serious condition. Setting his glass of brandy to his desk, the doctor walked over to where Mark McCain lay on the examination table.

“Is the boy asleep?” asked the physician as he reached for his watch and the boy’s wrist.

“His name is Mark McCain,” answered Giles. “You operated on his father…”

“Oh,” answered the doctor as he looked at the unconscious youth.

“No doctor. I believe his is unconscious, still. He’s been this way since we found him. He has quite a deep laceration across his temple. I cleaned it out as best I could with alcohol. If the boy had only been passed out, I do believe he would have awoke during my ministrations,” answered Giles.

“Hmmmm,” the doctor murmured, returning his watch to his pocket. Setting his hand to the boy’s forehead he paused, “No fever.” Reaching for the lantern on the side table, the doctor held it over Mark’s face and peered into the boy’s eyes as he used his thumb and forefinger to open the eyelids one at a time. “Sluggish at best.” Continuing his examination, he gently maneuvered his hands and stopped when he found a large bump on the back of the boy’s head. “I do believe the boy had suffered a serious concussion; probably a combination of the bullet graze and striking his head when he fell.”

“And your diagnosis for the boy?” Judge Zeller asked.

“For now, sleep is the best thing for him. I’ll keep an eye on him through the night. Should he not wake by the morning, then I’ll grow more concerned.”

“Thank you for the prognoses for the boy and his father; it will have an interesting bearing upon an upcoming court case. Doc, I should warn you that you will probably be called to testify.”

“But I didn’t see the bank hold up!” protested the physician.

“I know that, the court case will be Horatio Pettigrew petitioning for custody of this young man away from his father. At least someone will be looking out for the boy’s best interest at until his father recovers,” commented Judge Zeller. “Or, if the father passes on… the paperwork will already be in place.”

“I wish you would decline the petition,” humbly stated Giles.

“Sir, if you have anything to add concerning this case, you will have time during the hearing; that will be the time to address the court.” Turning to leave the clinic, the judge bid both men, ‘Good day.’

*****

After checking his critical patients one more time, Doc Webster dimmed the lanterns in his surgical suite before he exited the room. Stepping into the front office, he walked over to the young man and placed his hand to his forehead, pleased that fever had not risen.

“Just keep the infection away, I really don’t need three patients in such dire straits,” commented the physician as he returned to his desk.

Increasing the light shining from the lantern on his desk the doctor pulled out his journal from his upper right hand desk drawer and proceeded to write an account of the day’s events and the trials he experienced as he fought so save the lives of the two men.

The clock on the wall struck ten o’clock when the physician sat back, ready to close his journal for the night. Through the slightly opened window he listened to the gentle sounds of the night; crickets chirping and horses slowly plodding along the street as each cowboy left town to return to the ranch upon which they worked. In the far distance Doc discerned the tinny sound of the piano at the Golden Spur saloon and could hear there was still an active crowd within the building.

Standing up, the man stretched his aching back before walking to the front door of his clinic, opening it, and stepping to the boardwalk. His mind drifted to the last fifteen years of his life, and all that he had witnessed… Seeking adventure, he’d headed west after graduating from medical school; his grand ideas of helping to civilize the land by bringing basic medical and surgical talents to a town in need drove his desire to leave New York behind. Maybe he had been fool hardy; in the east physicians could name their prices and be selective in the clientele they serviced, but in the west…it was no better than the so-called surgical hospitals that butchered the lives of young soldiers upon the battlefields as brothers fought brothers and fathers fought sons. Was it worth it… Giving up the prestige associated with his father’s practice, the invitations to social galas, the grand houses and carriages…

He knew it would be difficult to establish his practice, but after fifteen years, he’d hoped it would get easier and he could refine his clinic. But life always had different plans… “No… man has different ideas. Until this land is truly civilized, this is the way it will be.”

Above, the night sky hung darkened without a moon, the faint glittering of stars made their presence known as the occasional cloud covered over and move beyond.

Returning to the clinic, he stopped by the boy’s head when he heard a slight moan and watched as the boy’s right hand twitched. For a moment he smiled, but it quickly left his face as he realized the boy was reaching a crisis of some kind.

*****

Struggling from the depths of his nightmare, Mark fought against the demons who reached for him, who taunted him, who laughed at his pain. He cringed as the pain exploded in bright whiteness in an attempt to drive him back to the darkness, to give up on waking. Thrashing his head from side to side as an escape only worsened the pain and nauseated him.

“No,” moaned Mark.

“Come on boy, you can do it. Listen to my voice. You need to wake up,” encouraged the physician in a soothing tone, hoping to lead the boy to consciousness. “You’re doing good, Mark. Just listen to my voice and follow me. Come on son. You can do it.”

“Pa?” Mark called breathlessly. The pain prevented his return to sleep and the churning in his stomach was incessant.

Barely perceptible, the physician saw the eyelashes flutter as Mark strove to wake.

“That’s it son, come on. Open your eyes,” the doctor repeated.

With eyes opened and out of focus, Mark didn’t see who was next to him, he just knew someone kind was there, “Gonna be sick.” The contractions of his stomach compounded his woes.

Quickly the physician reached for a bowl and picked it up with one hand, while helping the youth turn onto his side so he could retch. Wave after wave struck the boy, emptying his stomach of all its contents and continued until the boy’s reserves were spent. Feeling the boy go limp in his hand, the doctor set aside the bowl and helped the boy lay down.

“Not a pleasant experience; is it,” he toned as he walked over to the stand holding a water pitcher and several glasses. Returning to his patient he lifted the boy’s head and held the glass to his mouth and said, “It’s water, rinse it around in your mouth and then spit it out.”

Several rinsings later, Mark lay back exhausted. “Pa?” he asked as he turned his head toward the sound of someone walking across the room.

“Your Pa’s sleeping son, as you should be,” suggested the physician, pleased his patient had woke, but eager for the boy to sleep so he wouldn’t have to lie when he answered the questions he knew would come.

In a fading voice the doctor heard, “Pa…” as his patient relinquished his grip on consciousness and fell asleep. Before walking to his own room for the night, the doctor pulled a cover over his patient’s shoulders; and briefly watched the slow rhythmic rise and fall of his chest.

*****

Aaron Provo rode to the right of his brother as they raced from Cloudcroft; with the sun to their right, they headed northeast towards the town of Ruidoso. With their mounts tiring, they reined them in from the furious gallop to a slow trot, followed by a meandering walk.

Looking back over his shoulder, Aaron halted his horse when he noticed Abe Moffett struggling to stay upright in the saddle. “What happened?” he asked.

“Just a little fun,” Trey answered as he continued to ride.

“A little fun, that’s what you said last night. How does a little fun turn into Abe getting shot?!”

“You didn’t tell him,” accused Deuce Hollender as he rode past the two.

“Tell me what?!”

“We robbed the bank,” Silas answered as he halted his horse and pushed Abe upright in the saddle.

“Trey. Trey! He’s your friend, you aren’t gonna help him?” Aaron called.

The others in the group turned their horses and faced the three behind them. Trey motioned his horse forward and stopped next to his brother.

“Brother he knew the risks. ‘Sides, look at him… losing all that blood… He ain’t got long to live. We all accepted the risks when we signed on.”

“Risks? You didn’t tell me about no risks! You didn’t tell me you were going to rob the bank!” declared the younger brother. “All you said I needed to do was to fire of some shots as a joke to the sheriff.”

“Don’t talk about me as if I’m not here,” Abe stated, grabbing his shoulder by his armpit and pressing tighter.

The others ignored their friend’s words.

“Yep, the jokes on him, too,” taunted Trey.

“What do you mean?” Aaron asked, feeling his stomach drop.

“I shot him,” Silas answered. Aaron turned upon hearing the deep bass voice say, “He’s probably dead by now.”

“Murder! You killed…”

“Brother…” Trey’s voice was stern. “What do you think we did for a living?” Looking his brother straight in the eye he dared him to argue. “Why do you think I wanted you in Cloudcroft?”

“I thought it was for the fun of it… Miss Matilda and… and… Leila…”

“Matilda’s was just a way for me to meet up with Cassidy and organize how to rob the bank,” Trey said as he sat back in his saddle.

“You’re an… outlaw? I didn’t know…” guilt riddled Aaron’s voice as he thought back to how he had always idolized his older brother.

“Couldn’t be helped -- You needed the operation to save your leg. Had I not robbed my first bank you’d be walking around with a stump.”

Unable to comprehend exactly what his brother was saying, Aaron tried to repeat the words back. The words sounded even colder as he spoke them.

“Pa said it was a loan from the bank. Pa said you got a loan from the bank!” dared his brother to go against their father’s words.

“Yep, only I didn’t have to repay it,” laughed Trey. “And I have you to thank for everything. Had that horse not thrown you and trampled your leg, I would have never have found out how much fun it is robbing a bank. And the bank in Cloudcroft was loaded. Why we can probably retire with what we hauled out of there.”

“What about Cassidy?” Deuce happened to ask.

“What about him?” snapped Trey.

“How’s he gonna get his cut,” asked Silas.

“I want my cut now,” Abe Moffett stated, his eyes briefly pleaded before they rolled back into his head and he collapsed from his horse.

“Guess everyone’s portion just increased,” Trey laughed as he turned to ride away.

“Trey! You can’t be serious? You’re just gonna leave him? You’re gonna take the money…”

“Damn right! I worked hard for this money. I risked everything for this money. Deuce, Silas, Zeke, we all risked EVERYTHING!”

“I don’t want nothin’ of it. What would Pa think? What would mama think?”

“What do you think killed her? She knew…” Trey announced, his cold voice indicated he didn’t care. “If you’re out, you’re out. We part ways, here… brother.”

“Go, Trey, I don’t know you no more.”

“So long brother!” Trey called as he, Deuce, Silas, and Zeke rode away.

*****

Aaron has never known the disappointment that stabbed at his heart. All his life, ever since he was sixteen and that blasted horse had stomped on his leg, his brother was a figure larger than life; stronger than pa. As the clouds and the fading sun painted vivid colors across the western horizon, Aaron thought back and his heart dropped, he begged for night to fall and match the shade he felt.

“What do you think killed her? She knew…” echoed in his head. His brother had effectively killed their mother, ‘what about Pa?’ Aaron wondered as he turned his horse away, taking Abe’s mount with him.

*****

Doctor Webster had already checked his patients for a second time before the hustle and bustle of the town announced a new day had dawned.

Settling himself to drink a cup of coffee, the physician grimaced when he heard the knock on the door and the bell announced the person was entering.

“Doc,” stated Judge Zeller as he entered. “I know it’s rather early, but that Pettigrew fellow is fairly insistent cuss in wanting to see this young man is protected from his father’s actions. Besides petitioning the courts here in Cloudcroft, he’s copied the territorial governor in the case.”

“Just tell me where and when?” sighed the doctor, knowing full well the ‘where’.

“This morning, my chambers at the courthouse, ten o’clock,” replied the judge.

“Just send someone for me if my testimony will really be required, I don’t relish leaving any of my patients unattended.”

*****

At ten o’clock, within the judge’s chambers sat a number of people designated as interested parties, with the most critical of witnesses absent. Judge Zeller looked to the two men sitting side by side across the desk from him. Caleb O’Donnell sat next to Horatio Pettigrew, heads leaned towards each other in quiet discussion. Sitting alone across from the judge was the town’s solicitor, Avery Jenkins appearing anxious to get on with the case.

As the town clock stuck the hour, all heads turned towards the judge.

“Gentlemen, this is a hearing and not a court case, but regardless there are procedures to be followed. My findings will have the same bearings as if this had been a court case. Do you all understand and agree to find my terms binding?”

The three gentlemen agreed.”

“Good. Now… I have received a petition to grant an emergency injunction removing the male minor, Mark McCain, from the custody of his father, Lucas McCain. This petition was filed by Mr. Horatio Pettigrew of the Pettigrew Home for Wayward Boys.”

Having little time to prepare a counter case, and the fact that both the interested parties were unavailable, Avery Jenkins put up a token defense… at least it was a defense in all appearances as far as he was concerned.

“On what grounds is this petition filed?” Jenkins asked.

Caleb O’Donnell had expected this to be the leading question and was prepared to answer, when Pettigrew began to speak, O’Donnell placed a restraining hand on the man’s arm and shook his head, ‘no’.

“Mr. Pettigrew filed the petition in an effort to spare the boy’s life. In his opinion, the father has carelessly placed his son in grievous danger.” He had chosen his words carefully in avoiding the word ‘save’, he knew that only the doctor would save a life, if it could be saved. However, there were multiple layers upon which a boy’s life could be spared, spared a life of being dragged from town to town, spared from seeing his father die, spared from being collateral damage should the father live and this happen all over again.

“What do the parties involved in this matter have to say regarding the reason for the petition?”

Caleb O’Donnell spoke, “As you very well know, both principal parties lie unconscious at the doctor’s clinic, having suffered gunshot wounds.”

“Can Doctor Webster verify this fact?” asked Jenkins.

“He can and has agreed to make himself available, if you insist. However, if he were to appear it would mean leaving all three of his patients unattended for the duration he would be required to give testimony,” answered Judge Zeller.

“I won’t require the doctor’s testimony, I’ve heard enough gossip from the people around town to know what happened during the hold up.” Looking through the sheets of paper in a folder on his lap, Jenkins asked, “Is this the first time the father has been critically injured?”

“No it is not. If the court requires, we can prove through various accounts and from reliable sources that this is not the first time Mr. McCain has been injured while participating in a gun fight,” O’Donnell told the judge.

“Thank you, as we all have probably read various reports over the years, we will not require you to provide documented proof of these fights,” announced Judge Zeller.

“If it pleases the court,” O’Donnell stated. “The only proof that we feel needs to be acknowledged is the fact that both father and son are at the doctor’s, both fighting for their lives. Had Mr. McCain not participated in this gunfight and thus jeopardized the life of his son, this hearing would be a moot point. I request, Your Honor, that you find in favor of my client.”

“I hesitate to rescind a father’s right to raise his son… However, it is apparent that in the immediate future, this father is in no condition to raise his son, should he survive... And the son does need an advocate to ensure that his needs are addressed… Mr. Jenkins, I am sorry but I must find in favor of Mr. Pettigrew. Custody of Mark McCain immediately transfers to Horatio Pettigrew.”

The hearing concluded as Judge Zeller thumped his gavel twice upon the top of his desk.

As the men left his office, Judge Zeller felt humbly satisfied; he had upheld the law and allowed the case to proceed and the facts divulged. The case was swift, but the facts were the facts; anything to prevent the interference of a special judge assigned by the Territorial Governor.

*****

Stopping to rest their mounts, Zeke, Deuce, and Silas waited for Trey to speak, anything for them not to suffer his wrath after the earlier argument he’d had with his brother.

“What?!” Trey demanded when he realized the others were looking at him.

“Just waiting on you, boss,” Zeke answered in his carefree manner.

“Are we going to split up like planned?” Deuce inquired.

“Not yet. Not until we reach Ruidoso,” answered Trey.

“I need my part of the money now,” answered Silas.

“What for?” demanded Trey.

“My wife…”

“Your wife?!” squealed Zeke.

“That gal at Miss Matilda’s… she’s my wife. I want to go back for her…”

“And if you get caught?” Trey asked.

“I won’t.” Silas’ words were a statement of fact.

“How much to you need?” Trey asked as he opened one of the bags containing the money.

“Just what I originally signed on for, only now, its split four ways instead of six… Make it three thousand dollars.”

Taking the money offered, Silas tipped his hat and rode away.
*****

Exiting the judge’s chambers, Pettigrew motioned for Giles to follow him.

“We need to make arrangements, as soon as possible. I want to leave hear with the boy,” announced Pettigrew.

“You were successful?”

“Did you have any doubts? The evidence was plain in front of everyone. The father lies mortally wounded in the clinic. The boy critically wounded… There wasn’t much argument against parental custody being terminated.” Walking at a rapid clip, the dapper man continued. “Now, we need to hire a guide and a wagon to get us back to Ruidoso. We need provisions… I’ll leave the provisions to you.”

“And where will you find a guide?” asked Giles.

“You leave that to me. Be ready within the hour to leave.”

Flabbergasted, Giles watched as his employer walked towards the Golden Spur saloon.

*****

“I must protest,” declared Doctor Webster. “This boy is in no condition to be moved.”

“You, yourself said he had regained consciousness. I don’t see the problem,” announced Pettigrew.

“Yes, he had regained consciousness, once. He hasn’t regained consciousness significant to ascertain if there is any permanent damage to his mental faculties.”

“That is of no concern of yours. From now on, Mark McCain is my legal responsibility and I intend to see that he is as far away from the man who is to blame for this tragedy as soon as possible. Which means, I want him bundled up, and in the back of that wagon,” Pettigrew pointed towards the window, indicating the loaded wagon in front of the clinic, “in the next five minutes.”

*****

The two men sat next to each other on the high bench seat, Giles urged the horses forward with a slap of the reins on their rumps while the unconscious youth lie in the back, made comfortable with a bed of deep straw and covered with blankets. In front of the wagon, rode Jedidiah Jones, a self-proclaimed guide, a man greedy enough to tell anyone what they wanted to hear, as long as the price was right.

*****

Standing on the boardwalk, the doctor and the judge watched the small procession leave their town.

“I wonder why that Giles didn’t speak at the hearing?” casually queried the Judge. “He seemed like he was so against the petition.”

“Cornelius over at the hotel told me he overheard them arguing last night. Guess the man valued his employment more than he valued his honor,” mumbled the doctor as he turned to go inside and tend to his two remaining patients.

“Do you think the boy will be alright?”

“Who knows...” replied the physician. “The fact that he hasn’t fully regain consciousness for any length of time doesn’t really bode well.”

“Has he woke at all?” asked the judge.

“Only long enough to be sick and call for his father.”

“What did you tell him?”

“He fell back asleep. As you saw him…” The physician shrugged his shoulders indicating the patient was no longer his concern. “I only hope they have an excellent doctor at that Pettigrew Home for Wayward Boys.”

As the activity of the town’s resident along the street increased, both men parted to return to their own responsibilities.

*****

“What do you mean, ‘they’re gone’?” demanded Nathan Ironwood. The man stood behind the simple wooden desk in his office, leaning forward, heavily upon the knuckles of his fisted hands; he was frustrated upon hearing the news.

“Just what I said,” answered the young man nervously standing in front of the Indian agent. “I checked their bunkhouse and it’s empty. I checked their barn and their horses are gone.”

“What about the stockyard. It could be they’re working.”

“No they’re not.” The tone of the youth’s voice held a hint of guilt.

Nathan Ironwood watched the man shift his hat in his hands, nervously shift his weight as he stood. ‘Man?’ Nathan thought to himself. ‘He can’t be more than seventeen.’ The dark haired youth with weathered skin was slight compared to the others of the Mescalero tribe, but he was eager to learn the white man’s ways and thus Ironwood had hired him to be his assistant.

“What else?” Nathan asked sensing he had not been told everything.

“Uh… A…About five head of… cattle are… uh… missing from the pens.”

“Missing? How do five head disappear?”

“I… I…”

“Keeno, what?” Nathan asked, but with sincerity. He knew the young Indian in front of him was struggling with whether to tell what he knew. “Son, if your friends are behind the theft of the cattle, your keeping quiet will not help them.”

“They didn’t steal them!” Keeno protested.

“But they did take them.”

Keeno nodded.

“And without permission.”

Keeno again nodded. “But the cattle were for our tribe, weren’t they?”

“Yes, yes the cattle are for the people of your tribe. Do you know what Pate and Quantra planned to do with the cattle?”

Keeno shifted his weight on his feet and continued to stare at the ground upon which he stood.

“Son, you have to tell the truth.”

“They were going to…”

“To what?” Nathan compassionately asked, walking around his desk, stopping in front of the young man, and placing a hand upon his shoulder.

Looking into the face of the man who stood before him, Keeno quietly spoke, “You have to understand, we’ve all grown up hearing stories of the great buffalo hunts. How warriors provided for the tribe…”

Holding his hand up, to indicate Keeno need not explain any futher, Nathan allowed his head to fall back, before he forced it up right on his shoulders, gently shaking it left and right.

“Go get our horses saddled.” As Keeno turned to leave the office, Nathan called him. “You do know where they’re re-enacting this great hunt?”

“Yes sir. Mr. Ironwood… I’m sorry.”

“Why are you sorry?” the Indian agent curiously asked.

“I should have come to tell you last night.”

“We’ll talk about that later.”

“Are you mad at me?” Keeno inquired, his guilt apparent.

“No son, I’m not mad at you, but I am disappointed in the lot of you.”

*****

Mueglion (pronounced Moog-lee-own) sat upon his horse overlooking the four riders stopped in the valley below. He watched as they rested their horses and talked. A few minutes later, he watched as one man stepped from his horse, pulled down his saddlebags, and handed something to the dark skinned man who rode with them. After shaking hands with the other three, the dark skinned man rode back the way he came. As for the other three, Mueglion watched as they dared continue on towards the land his people held sacred. Turning his horse, the Indian brave rode towards where the others waited.

*****

In the language of the Apache he spoke to the others, “One turn back, others continue towards Sacred Land.”

“And if they cross?” asked one of the braves.

“I am tired of the white man taking and taking, thinking they can do as they please!” declared Mueglion.

“No more!” yelled another brave.

“Their blood shall be spilled!” Mueglion announced.

“But on our Sacred Land?” queried another brave, appalled at the idea of white man’s blood upon their land.

“No! We shall not let them set on foot upon our Sacred Land! We ride! Wipe out the ones who have forced our people to suffer. They shall suffer worse than we have suffered!”

As one, the mob of twelve riders turned their mounts and rode towards the three men that were the object of their hatred.

*****

Ironwood and Keeno rode behind the young Mescaleros as they returned to their village. People, young and old, stopped what they were doing to watch as they passed the cooking fires and the frames with hides tanning, as well as the lodges.

The group stopped in front of the lodge at the center of the village with the most activity, as if counsel were shortly to begin. The exterior of the lodge indicated the resident was someone of importance. As the bear skin hanging over the opening moved, an older Indian stepped into the brilliant light of the afternoon sun. The man’s once black hair was streaked with grey as it fell past the shoulder blades on his back. With an ornately adorned blanket wrapped around his shoulders, the chief stopped next to the lance thrust into the ground, with a large war bonnet hanging atop.

Stepping down from their horses, Ironwood was the only one to approach the chief, and greeted him warmly.

“Greeting, Mugua. It pleases me to see you looking so well,” Ironwood announced before giving a gracious bow to the elder.

“Mr. Ironwood, welcome to our village.” Upon seeing the four young men behind the Indian agent fail to respect his presence, he asked, “They have done wrong?”

“I’m afraid they have...”

“Have they harmed another? Will they face white man’s punishment?”

“The only ones they have harmed are your people.” Ironwood proceeded to tell the elder chieftain the mischief the boys had done.

“We are hunters! Those cattle are not the buffalo, but we must eat,” argued Quantra.

“You will eat, but if you are intent in killing the cattle outright…”

Mugua stopped Ironwood, “There is an old Apache proverb, ‘Give a brave a cow and you will feed him for a day. Teach a brave to hunt and you will feed him for a lifetime’.”

“We have the same saying, only it’s about fishing,” Ironwood casually laughed his answered in reply.

The chief did not accept the saying in as good a nature as it was intended. His eyes focused on the young band of Indians, their stand indicated their guilt.

“Mugua, I understand what you’re trying to say, but if you would listen to me. I have no real objections to why the boys did as they did. I understand, I really do. But… if you could see what I’m trying to accomplish for your people. I was going to slaughter several of the cows that were past prime breeding and the others were to be bred. If we allow the strongest of the cattle to breed, your people can raise and expand the herd, and when the herd is large enough then the young braves can ‘hunt them’. As with the buffalo, if the cattle are too few when you hunt, soon there is nothing left to hunt. How do you feed your people then?” pleaded Nathan Ironwood. “These cattle are only the beginning…”

“How do I feed my people now? I cannot control my young braves much longer. Already they hold their own counsel… They are ready to fight… They want to fight…”

“Mugua, these boys are young and impetuous.” Ironwood stated in their defense. “They put up no resistance when I found them. As for their punishment… They shall work with the butcher to finish slaughtering the cattle and make sure each family is provided adequately.”

“It is not these boys I worry, Mr. Ironwood. I fear for the others!” The elder Indian’s voice rose in pitch, only to lower again in shame. “The others who look to my son, Mueglion.”

Ironwood increased his focus upon the older Indian chief, trying to understand what the old man was trying to convey.

“Mr. Ironwood, I am old… I am tired of fighting… But the young braves… They live for the ways of old. I thank you for your understanding towards these young ones, but Mueglion and eleven others left before daybreak… I was told their ponies were painted for battle.”

Alarmed at what the chief said, “Where were they going?!”

“I do not know.” The old man turned away and returned to his lodge.

*****

Thrilled to have gotten away from Cloudcroft with the money from the bank and without signs of pursuit, Trey, Deuce, and Zeke remounted their horses and continued to ride toward Ruidoso.

Allowing Trey to ride in front of them, Deuce and Zeke quietly discussed the past thirty-six hours.

“Doesn’t seem right…” Zeke absently spoke.

“What doesn’t seem right?” Deuce absently asked back; his body swaying in movement with his horse’s gait.

“Ace, Silas… It don’t matter that Trey’s brother up and left us… But Ace dying like that. And Silas…”

“You’ve not known him as long as I have. It don’t surprise me he’d go back for her.”

“It doesn’t?”

“Silas and I got drunk a few years back… I mean we really tied one on. Trey split the four of us up for a few months until things cooled down and Silas and I spent some time together. It would have been their anniversary. I doubt Silas even remembers he told me all about what happened back before the war. You ever see Silas again, you best keep your thoughts to yourself.”

Not wanting to keep quiet, Zeke stated, “I can’t believe they didn’t send a posse after us.”

“Kind of hard to find citizens willing to step up when there’s no law to lead them.”

“What’d ya mean?” Zeke asked.

“Well, the deputy took a bullet in the back from Trey, and I personally shot that SOB of a sheriff.”

“You knew ‘im?”

“Not personal like, but I ran into him.”

“When?”

“After leaving Miss Matilda’s. I was in a good mood too,” Deuce’s voice softened as he remembered Angeline, but hardened when he continued his story. “That SOB tried to run me in, said the town curfew didn’t allow the likes of me on the streets after two in the morning.”

“Oh,” replied Zeke. “Hey… do you hear something?”

“What?” asked Deuce as he turned to look in the same direction the young man looked, while twisted in the saddle. “Hey Trey!”

“Ya what?!” Trey hollered back as the halted his horse.

“The kid here… RIDE!!” Deuce screamed when he too heard the sounds and saw the band of Indians bearing down on them.

All three riders spurred their horses and slapped their flanks with the ends of their reins. The horse Zeke rode surged to the front, its strides longer than the others. Trey’s and Deuce’s horses surged nose to nose as they heeded their riders commands. Lather foamed around the saddle pads, sweat gleamed and fell from their necks, chests, and bellies as the horses exerted themselves to fee the wild marauders that gave chase.

Sensing his horse faltering, Deuce slipped the thong from the hammer of his gun before drawing the weapon from the holster. Turning clockwise in his saddle, he fired and wasted his first few shots; but after that, it didn’t matter as the bullet from a Spencer repeating rifle penetrated deep between his shoulder blades. The horse continued its frantic flight for numerous strides before the dead weight of its rider slipped from the saddle, bouncing and rolling before finally coming to a sprawling halt.

The brave slowed his own horse as the dead man’s horse veered away and slowed. Grabbing for the dragging reins, the horse, flanks heaving, did not resist as it picked up a trot as the brave followed the others.

Lying closer to the neck of his horse, Trey urged on his mount, yelling and cussing in a blind panic.

The Mescelaro braves rode horses born and bred from centuries of living in the desert land, nimble and quick of hoof. The foremost brave enjoying toying with their quarry, and found the next rider easy pickings as he fired his own Spencer rifle at the man and raised the weapon over his head in triumph as the body slammed into the ground. Halting his horse, encouraging it to rear, the man celebrated his actions before taking after the man’s horse to claim it as his own. After retrieving the horse; he stopped and waited.

Several other braves continued after the last remaining rider, several shots struck the rider, but did not knock him from the saddle. The man encouraged his horse to run, either ignoring the pain or his panic made him unaware to the fact he had been struck. Several more bullets stuck Zeke before the fatal bullet struck his head. Slowly he slipped from the saddle, oblivious to the fact his life was now over.

The twelve braves celebrated by yelling and bragging of their victory as they rode for home.

*****

Upon another hill, Silas watched in horror as the band of Indians killed the men he had called friends. Yet, he gave silent thanks that he had chosen to return to Cloudcroft for his wife.

Deciding to wait until nightfall in an effort to avoid the Indians, Silas settled down and hoped that sleep would soon come so he could dream of being in his wife’s arms once more.

*****

Doctor Webster entered the back room of his clinic, his mood brightened upon seeing one set of eyes look to him.

“Well, this is a good day,” commented the doctor.

“Doc?” asked Deputy Dave Vestor in a scratchy sounding voice.

“How do you feel Dave?”

“Back hurts. Pattison?”

“I’m sorry, son. But… the sheriff was killed by those bank robbers. He suffered a bullet to the neck, he bled out before anyone could do anything.”

“He was a good man…” Vestor commented as his thoughts drifted to the man who had helped guide his career in law enforcement. “Who’s he?” Vestor asked of the tall man lying unconscious in the other bed in the room. “Is he one of them?”

“No, he’s someone who came to your aid. The name’s Lucas McCain.”

“How bad?”

“Bullet to the chest. It was easy to extract, but infection set in. He’s not regained consciousness yet.”

“Oh,” Vestor offered. The deputy was quiet for a few minutes before speaking again, “Doc? What’s my prognosis?”

“If you take it easy for a few weeks, you should fully recover. Your injury was a little trickier to treat, but thankfully no infection. If you do as I say, I’ll probably release you to your little wife tomorrow.”

The deputy’s eyes widened.

“She’s with my wife over at the diner getting something to eat. You know, she didn’t need the added complication of you getting shot on top of her pregnancy.”

“She’s okay, isn’t she?”

“Yes, she is. But she too will have to do as I say in order to keep that child of yours from making an early appearance. Daneeta McGovern has already been hired to help take care of you and your misses until that little one gets here.

“Thanks, Doc.”

Doc Webster’s ears heard the slight moan from the other bed in the room. “Well, seems my other patient is deciding to wake up today.”

Stepping to the man’s side, Doc set a gentle hand on the man’s shoulder as an offering of comfort as the man struggled to consciousness. Slowly the man’s eyelashes fluttered as the surface of the eyelids moved indicating the man’s eyes were moving. With a slight shake from left to right, his head changed positions on the pillow.

“Easy Mr. McCain. You’re in my medical clinic. Come on. Open your eyes.”

“Waatter,” moaned Lucas as his mouth obeyed the commands his brain had tried to send out for several hours.

With a cup of water held to his lips and thankful for the hand behind his head, Lucas sipped on the cool water.

“Good man. Had enough?” the doctor asked as he removed the cup from Lucas’ mouth, pleased when he nodded.

“Mark?” Lucas asked. His eyes still not open.

“You need your rest Mr. McCain.

“My boy, Mar…” Lucas slipped into sleep, the laudanum laced water did its work.

*****

The following morning Judge Zeller stepped into the clinic to have his ears assaulted by the angry voice coming from the back room.

“WHERE’S MY SON!” the judge heard as he entered the back room.

“He’s in good hands, Mr. McCain. You need to focus on getting healthy and all this shouting isn’t good for you. Please… drink this water,” insisted the doctor as he reach one hand for the back of Lucas’ head and the other positioned the cup towards Lucas’ lips.

Having none of the doctor’s efforts to change the subject from his son, Lucas batted away the cup containing the water, ultimately soaking into the suit jacket worn by Judge Zeller. Absent-mindedly, the judge brushed away the water drops from his attire.

“WHERE’S MY SON?!” demanded Lucas McCain as his attention now focused on the man having just entered the room.

“Where’s Vestor?” Judge Zeller asked.

“Discharged him earlier this morning,” answered the doctor.

“You’ll answer his question, but NOT MINE?! Tell me where my son is!”

“Mr. McCain, as the doctor stated, your son is in good hands and is being looked after until such time that you can regain custody of the boy.”

Thankful for the distraction the judge offered, without warning, the doctor plunged a needle into Lucas’ arm and empties the entire contents of the syringe.

“HOW DARE YOU?!” Lucas belligerently called out, and a few moments later the sedative took effect and Lucas slipped into the drug-induced sleep.

“He’s going to be quite upset with you when he wakes,” taunted Judge Zeller.

“I know, but at least for a few more hours his body can heal itself,” replied the doctor and he disposed of the syringe in the trashcan by the door. “He’s going to be upset that I sedated him, but based on what I just witnessed…” the doctor looked to the judge a raised both eyebrows.

“What?”

“He going hate what you did. I get the impression he’s more ferocious than a momma bear protecting her cubs…”

“So? I did what was in the best interest for the child. He can always repetition the courts to regain custody.”

“So you say…”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I don’t think the courts will have anything to say… He’ll probably do all his talking with his Winchester. Now, if you’ll excuse me. I’m going to go enjoy a beer at the Golden Spur.” Turning to the judge as he placed his hat upon his head, he asked, “Care to join me?”

“Yeah,” replied the judge.

*****

Night was settling across Cloudcroft when a solitary rider halted his horse in front of the courthouse and looked up to the one window with a lit lantern, indicating the room might be occupied. Looking left and right before dismounting, the rider quietly stepped to the boardwalk and into the courthouse.

*****

The man didn’t wait for an answer to his knock before he opened the door, once inside he removed his hat and his long, black hair fell down his back.

“Who are you?!’ demanded the man sitting behind the huge desk.

“Judge Zeller, I am U.S. Marshal Sam Buckhart.” The marshal opened the front of his jean jacket to reveal the badge pinned to his shirt. “I am here at the request of the territorial governor in the matter of Mark McCain.

“That matter has already been resolved,” replied the judge as his attention returned to the paperwork on his desk.

“Resolved? In what manner? I was led to believe that Lucas was unable to speak in his own defense.”

“His defense was presented by Avery Jenkins, our town solicitor.”

“What of the boy?”

“I don’t see what cause you have to come here and ask about my judicial proceedings. I did what I felt the governor would want… I had the best interests of the boy at heart.”

“Where is Mark McCain?” Buckhart’s tone of voice intensified.

“I approved the petition for emergency termination of parental rights and gave custody to Horatio Pettigrew. He will see that the boy recovers and is properly cared for, not hauled around like excess baggage as his father traipses from one gun battle to the next.”

“The Governor will not be pleased with you,” Marshal Buckhart coldly announced, keeping his own emotions reined in.

“For Pete’s sake, O’Donnell had no business including the territorial governor in our town’s affairs! Besides, I did what was required in order to protect the life of a young boy. His father certainly couldn’t protect him! It was in the boy’s best interest!”

“And who spoke on behalf of Lucas? Who spoke on behalf of Mark? Who spoke their truth?!” Buckhart demanded as he slammed his fist upon the desk that was the only thing keeping him from acting upon his hatred of the man and strangling him.

“Their truth was apparent, both suffering gunshot wounds and fighting for their lives! No one needed to tell us anything!”

*****

Hearing the challenging tones behind the voices on the other side of the door as he walked down the hallway, Lucas burst into the room causing the door to slam into the wall with a resounding crash. The lawman inside the office had begun to turn at the sound of the irregular boot steps striking the wood floor in the outer hallway. The marshal was not the least bit surprised upon recognizing the stubborn determination of the man who staggered through the door.

Looking over his shoulder to the judge, “Once the Governor reads my report, I am sure you will not be pleased with his response,” Sam Buckhart stated, as he moved to keep the tall rancher from falling to the floor.

“WHERE’S MY BOY?! demanded Lucas as he tried to push away from the marshal. Pain from his wound and anger in his heart poured forth as he was prevented from reaching the judge.

Turning to help his friend, Sam Buckhart supported Lucas and left the judge’s chambers.

“Buckhart, where’s my boy?” Lucas begged of his friend.

Lucas’ memories went back to the first time he ever met the man now helping him (Episode: The Indian). He remembered how he tried to convince the Indian who led another Indian whose hand were bound, both riding their horses across the land, that it was up to the white man’s law to punish the other for any wrong doing. Lucas continued to speak in exaggerated English to the Indian, trying to convey he had no right to treat the other Indian in such a manner. Buckhart produced his badge and explained in perfect English that under the powers bestowed upon him by the United States Government, he had the authority to bring the Apache prisoner to stand trial on a charge of murder.

Lucas’ next encounter with Sam Buckhart was after he had entered Sweeney’s saloon in North Fork; with his long hair tucked up under his cowboy hat, wearing the clothes of a white man; he drank with those toasting his success in capturing the no-good savage. While outside the saloon, young Mark McCain innocently divulged the true heritage of Marshal Buckhart; and the town immediately turned against the lawman. In the end, it was found that a white man was behind the murder and Lucas forced the town to recognize and accept the authority of Sam Buckhart as a U.S. Marshal and allow him to arrest those responsible and transport them to see justice. By the time the marshal left North Fork, Lucas had learned of Sam Buckhart’s past, that he had been taken in as a young Apache by a white man who served in the military; and that he was a graduate of Harvard College.

The second time Sam Buckhart arrived in North Fork, Mark McCain had been kidnapped by an Indian chieftain, Chaqua, whose own young son had died several months earlier (Episode: The Raid). Lucas’ thoughts reflected how much the Apache lawman had tried to help him while trying to find his son. Even though Lucas, due to a head injury could barely sit in the saddle, he valiantly trailed after those who knocked him unconscious and took his son. Lucas found the Indian camp, with Marshal Buckhart lying tied up on the ground and his son sitting, looking forlornly, on a fallen log. In the still of the night, as they lie by their campfire, Chaqua and his brother, Artek, heard Lucas’ stealthy approach and sprang into action. Crying out, “You took my boy!, Lucas strangled Chaqua to death after having shot Artek.

Lucas’ reverie returned to the present when Sam assisted him to sit on one of the bench seats in front of the courthouse.

“Lucas, Mark is not here. He was taken,” Buckhart voiced solemnly.

“Taken where? By whom?”

“I do not know all the details; but you need to see the doctor. Your wound is bleeding,” Buckhart announced upon looking at the bandage wrapped around his friend’s chest, and seeing signs of blood seeping through the material.

“I don’t need any doctor,” spat Lucas. “I need to find Mark.”

“I will find him Lucas. You need to heal.”

“I’m fine!”

“Sure you are… Just like last time,” answered Buckhart. He too remembered the pain in Lucas’ eyes upon learning his son had been kidnapped; while at the same time Buckhart was inspired by the man’s determination in finding his son against long odds. Buckhart recalled his own humiliation in being captured by Artek and taunted as a ‘tame’ Apache. He regretted he had not been able to rescue and return the young Mark McCain to his father, but that the father had ended up rescuing both of them, even though nearly out of his mind having suffered a severe concussion from the blow to his head administered by Chaqua.

*****

“Mr. Jones, how much farther until we stop?” called Horatio Pettigrew as he sat up straighter on the bench seat of the buckboard and arched his back in an attempt to alleviate his discomfort.

“Whenever you’re ready, but me… I’d prefer to wait until we reach the cover of that grouping of boulders there in the distance,” answered Jedidiah Jones as he pointed to the location on the distant horizon.

Jedidiah Jones was a man of middle years and fairly non-descript; a man who most people would never remember if they ever met him. His face and style of clothes were bland in contrast to the appearances of Pettigrew and Giles.

Looking over his shoulder, Pettigrew looked into the canopy covering the wagon, and gazed at the still form lying on the mattress, covered with a light-weight sheet.

“How is he sir?” asked Giles, his eyes focused on the horses pulling their conveyance.

“Still out.”

“Do you really think it was wise of us to take him so soon? I mean the doctor…”

“The doctor…” spat Horatio. “The doctor would have kept that boy there and forced him to suffer as his father perished. It is for the best. Believe me. When he wakes, he will be thankful that we spared him the anguish of watching his father die before his eyes.”

“He might survive?” Giles hesitantly offered, not sure if he should have said his piece.

“Survive? The man was still unconscious, more than twenty-four hours after being shot.”

‘So is the boy,’ Giles answered only in his mind.

*****

The end of the day still offered enough light to allow the men to set up camp for the night. After they had eaten their meal, Giles slipped into the back of the wagon and encouraged the boy to wake as he had done so many times throughout the day. He was thankful the boy’s body recognized the need to swallow as the water from the canteen flowed into his mouth between his parched lips. He waited to see if the boy’s stomach would regurgitate its contents as it had the first few times.

Laying Mark McCain’s head back upon the pillow, Giles exhaled, “Dear Lord, please watch over this young man and his father. I know I should have spoken at the hearing, but I know I can do more good for the boys Mr. Pettigrew brings to his home than I can if I was fired for speaking the truth.”

Pleased the water would not make a return appearance; Giles replaced the cap on the canteen, climbed from the wagon, and walked over to check the horses before slipping into his bedroll.

*****

The fire cackled against the rhythm of the crickets, offset by an occasional owl or wolf calling to a mate.

Unable to sleep, Jedidiah Jones sat up and slipped a flask from his saddle bag lying on the ground next to him.

“Mr. Pettigrew will not tolerate that,” Giles quietly spoke as he rolled over and spotted the man’s actions as their campfire reflected brightly off the silver container at the man’s lips.

“It’s just a small nip to ward off the chill of the night.”

“Alright, but don’t let our employer see you.”

Having taken not his first sip of the night, Jones was in a talkative mood, “You have a last name?”

“Excuse me?” Giles asked, curious why the man wanted to know his surname.

“Well, to everyone else back in Cloudcroft ‘he’ called them Mr. this or Mr. that. Hell, even me he calls Mr. Jones. But you… Are you some kind of indentured servant? Cain’t be kinfolk, least I don’t think you’d be calling your brother Mr. Pettigrew all the time.”

“I have a last name, and as my employer, whether I’m an indentured servant or not, he calls me as he sees proper.”

“Well, I don’t think it right. You got as much right to that man’s respect as the next, including me.” Jedidiah raised his flask in a mock salute before taking another lengthy sip.

“So it would seem…” Remembering back to a different time in his life, Giles mused, “When we were younger, we called each other by our first names, but then… then the realities of our stations in life were pressed upon us. I am the humble employee and Mr. Pettigrew is my employer. I dare not forget my place in life.”

“But you gotta last name, doncha?” Jones pressed on, his inebriated state forcing him to slur his words.

“Malloy, Giles Gerrard Malloy; named in honor of my grandfathers.”

“Pleased to make your acquaintance Mr. Malloy… Pleased to meet your acquaintance,” Jones slurred as the alcohol pulled him to sleep.

*****

Lucas refused to return to the doctor’s clinic, but did agree to check into a room at the Presidential Hotel, a meager building that aspired to be more as the surrounding community grew.

“Lucas, you rest,” Sam Buckhart stated as he helped Lucas to the bed in the room.

“Buckhart, you know what’s going on, tell me… who took Mark and why.”

“I will find out all I can and let you know, but first you must rest. The doctor will be here shortly to check you have not injured yourself further while being so foolish. I will return later.”

*****

Buckhart had felt mad at the judge earlier, but upon his discussions with the town’s doctor and solicitor, Buckhart was now furious.

As he returned to the hotel Buckhart felt an obligation to tell his friend the truth, yet he contemplated not… Was his friend strong enough to hear the truth? ‘I will tell him. How he responds will prove whether he is strong enough to help,’ the lawman thought to himself.

As he entered the hotel, Sam saw the good doctor sitting in the lobby and the man stood upon seeing the marshal enter.

“Marshal Buckhart,” offered the doctor. The guilt he felt was evident in his demeanor.

“How is Lucas?” Buckhart asked, without returning any pleasantries.

“He’ll be fine. He strained a couple of the stitches causing the wound to bleed. The fool man, he could have severely set his recovery back had it not been for you.”

“Lucas McCain is NOT a fool. He is a father who loves and will defend his son. Had it not been for you and your town, Lucas would have taken the time to recover. For what the man did on behalf of your community and this is how you treat him… “

“But we didn’t do anything!”

“As long as you understand that you did nothing. Nothing to stop a man who had no right to interfere in the lives of Lucas and Mark McCain; you allowed him to take the boy away from his father. I do not envy you.”

“Why… why should you envy me?” asked the doctor, worried at the implications behind the words.

“Twice Mark has been kidnapped, and all but one of the men responsible are dead. The other man has only been in jail for a few months serving a ten year sentence. Does that give you a clue to the kind of man Lucas McCain is when it comes to his son?”

“But he’s a gunfighter…”

“NO!” barked Buckhart while he grabbed the front of the physician’s jacket and pulled the man close. Under muted, but angered breath, Buckhart said, “Lucas McCain is first and foremost a loving father, raising his son. Secondly, he is a rancher who will stand up to right, or prevent, a wrong! Think on that!” Buckhart pushed the man back towards the chair he had previously sat in and left the man sprawled in the seat as he headed towards the staircase.

*****

Once Lucas awoke for the afternoon and was able to recognize his friend, he said nothing, but let his demeanor tell his friend he would wait as long as it took for the lawman to divulge all he knew.

“Lucas I would prefer to wait until you are stronger to tell you what I have learned, however…” Buckhart raised his hand to prevent his friend from interrupting him. “However, the boy is your son and you have the right to know what happened.”

“I want the truth, Buckhart. The whole truth,” answered Lucas, his voice warning he would accept nothing less than the truth and would not appreciate a ‘sugar-coated’ version.

“The truth Lucas,” agreed Buckhart as he gave a slight nod of his head as he sat down in the chair in front of the lace covered window. “A busy-body of a man named Horatio Pettigrew from Rio Rancho, New Mexico arrived in Cloudcroft the day before you were shot. After the bank robbery, he found Mark injured...” Buckhart paused, waiting for Lucas’ anger to boil over; he watched the sharp intake of breath and the blood veins pulsating at Lucas’ temple. “From the reports made available to me, a bullet grazed Mark across the temple and struck him unconscious. It appears that earlier, Pettigrew saw you and Mark, and…”

“And what?!” Lucas demanded.

“Your rifle. From what I understand, it appears he only saw and heard what he wanted to. He did not verify any of his assumptions to ascertain whether they were valid facts or rumor. He believed you were a gunfighter, traipsing from town to town, dragging your son along. The man petitioned the courts for an emergency hearing to terminate your custodial rights for your son.”

“He can’t do that!”

“He can and he did. We can be thankful that his attorney thought to try to bolster his own standing in the political community and notified the territorial governor regarding this petition, and that is how I became involved. Had he not…”

“Go on, what happened to Mark?” Lucas demanded; eager to know the truth.

“The town’s solicitor weakly represented your case. I believe the judge was anxious to prevent the governor’s interference so he quickly granted the hearing. No one objected the petition.”

“How could I?!”

“It appears they wanted the hearing over and done with, and just went through the motions so everything would appear above board, so to speak. Judge Zeller signed custody of Mark over to Horatio Pettigrew of the Pettigrew Home for Wayward Boys.”

“He’s not an object! To… to be traded like cattle!”

Buckhart grew pleased in what he saw in the tall rancher, instead of collapsing and growing weak, with each statement, Lucas McCain grew stronger, more determined, the physical damage done by his injury seemed to fade from memory.

“They left that afternoon. They have been gone for two days.”

Knowing he needed to be better rested, Lucas said, “I’ll do as you suggested earlier, I’ll continue to rest tonight. But we leave at first light to find my son! You do know where to locate this Pettigrew Home for Wayward Boys?”

“I do Lucas, and I am sure that is where they are taking your son. We leave in the morning. The doctor will provide bandages and medicine to ensure you stay healthy enough.”

“Alright, first light.”

“I will prepare everything necessary for our trip. Until the morning…” offered Buckhart as he took his leave.

After the marshal left the hotel room, Lucas lay back on the bed and replayed all that he remembered from the morning of the bank robbery, to waking in the doctor’s office, to storming into the judge’s chambers. His memories emboldened him to take out after those who took his son.

*****

A hint of dawn’s arrival painted the eastern horizon a faint pink, when three horses and two riders made their way from Cloudcroft. Prior to leaving, Lucas allowed Doctor Webster one final examination where he placed a heavier gauze pad over the incision site and bound his chest tight enough to prevent further injury.

Before allowing the marshal to mount, Dr. Webster quietly spoke, “Marshal, I know I can’t stop Mr. McCain from riding with you, but you have to understand…” The doctor gulped in recognizing the look the Indian gave him indicating that he needed to speak quickly, “Right now, his need to find his boy is overriding his body’s need to recuperate. It will only last so long… I don’t know how long he’ll be able to ride or how long he’ll be able to keep up… He needs to be in my clinic.”

“If I had my way, he would be… But… I know Lucas. He will push himself past any physical discomfort to find Mark.”

“It’s not just physical discomfort… If you want to prevent him from killing himself, make sure he rests regularly, eats plenty, and drinks too. I also want you to give him this medication when you stop at night. It will help him sleep. Hopefully, it will be enough to offset this fool’s errand…”

“Be thankful I am a lawman… Your words tempt me to strangle the life out of you…” warned Buckhart.

With that, Buckhart mounted his dark bay horse, picked up the lead to the packhorse, nodded to Lucas and rode away. Once outside the boundaries of the town, both horses picked up a ground-covering lope, reacting to the determination of their riders to get to their destination; the packhorse had no choice but to keep pace.

*****

Giles startled awake early the following morning upon hearing, “Pa? Pa, where are you?” and recognizing the anxious tremor in the boy’s voice that came from inside the covered wagon. Quickly rising to his feet, Giles proceeded to enter the wagon and tend to the young man who was their charge.

“It’s okay. You’re safe.”

“Pa?” Mark called again, struggling to open his eyes.

“Here, let me lift your head and you drink what I give you. You’ll feel better afterwards… to have a little something on your stomach,” Giles stated as he held the canteen to the boy’s lips.

“Don’t wanna… get sick,” moaned Mark as he moved his head away.

“You won’t, you kept the water down the past four times I’ve given it to you. Come on now, be a good boy and drink up,” encouraged Giles.

Giles smiled as Mark drank a healthy amount of cool liquid.

“Thanks,” Mark whispered as Giles lowered his head back to the pillow.

“Well, young man. How are you feeling this morning?” Giles happily inquired.

Lifting his hand to his head and rubbing it along the bandage, Mark answered, “Head hurts.” Opening his eyes, Mark glanced at the objects that were inside the covered wagon with him before he returned his attention to the man kneeling beside him. “What happened?”

“What do you remember?” Giles asked. He was an avid reader of psychology literature and it always indicated it was best to determine just how much someone knew before divulging the facts.

“Not much… I remember feeling pain…and then darkness. I think… My head aches, but not just here…” again Mark rubbed his temple.

“Don’t try forcing yourself to remember, just let it come to you. But I can confirm that you were injured. It appears you got caught in the cross-fire and a bullet grazed your temple. I believe you also suffered a concussion because of it. That’s why you have the headache. It will ease once you’ve eaten and start to get up and around.”

Mark looked intently upon the man with him; the boy’s expression indicated he was confused.

“Are there any questions I could answer for you?”

“Are you my Pa?” Mark asked.

“Am I your…”

“GILES!” hollered Horatio Pettigrew from outside the wagon.

“Just lie back and try to sleep some more. I’ll wake you so you can eat breakfast with us.”

“Sir, if you’re not my pa, who are you?”

“I’m someone who cares about what happens you to. Just lie back.”

“Sir…”

“Yes?”

“I don’t know how long I’ve been asleep, but I really need to relieve myself.”

“Oh, dear. I’m sorry, I didn’t even think about that.”

“GILES!” yelled Pettigrew.

Raising his voice, Giles replied, “I’m in the wagon.”

The cover at the back of the wagon fluttered as Horatio Pettigrew peered inside. “Well, good morning,” he called in greeting upon seeing Mark’s eyes open.

“Good morning, sir,” Mark politely answered.

“Giles…”

“Sir, he woke, he’s drank a good amount of water and kept it down; and now… He needs to relieve himself.”

“Then help the boy to his needs and be quick about it. Once he’s back in the wagon, I expect you to start breakfast.”

“Yes, sir, Mr. Pettigrew.”

*****

Having assisted Mark to walk to a stand of trees, Giles knew the young man would appreciate some privacy, so he stepped away, “Just call me when you’re ready to return to the wagon.”

“Mr. Giles,” called Mark.

“Ready so soon?”

“No, but… Is Mr. Pettigrew my pa?”

“No son, neither of us are your father. But, Mr. Pettigrew does have legal guardianship over you. You were placed into our custody by the courts.”

“Then you don’t know anything about my parents?”

Giles knew he needed to ask the question. “Do you remember your name?” There was a long paused before he heard, “No sir. Can you help me back to the wagon?” Mark’s request sounded small and pitiful.

Giles helped Mark walk back to the wagon and gave him a steadying hand as he climbed inside.

Peering into the wagon, Giles chipperly stated, “Don’t fret about it. I’m sure that once your headache fades, your memory will return.”

“If you say so. I think I want to sleep some.” Mark lay down on the mattress and pulled the sheet over his shoulders.

Turning away from the wagon, Giles walked to the campfire where Pettigrew and Jones sat, waiting for him to prepare breakfast. As he walked, he argued with himself, should he or should he not inform his employer about the boy’s amnesia.

“Sir, I’ve some disquieting news regarding our young ward.”

“What about him? He’s alright, isn’t he? He was awake and talking…” Pettigrew inquired.

“Yes sir, physically, other than a headache, he appears to be okay.”

“Then what is it?” Pettigrew asked with a hint of irritation.

“He doesn’t remember his name.”

“What!”

“Earlier he asked if I was his father, and then if you were. When I asked him if he knew his name, he said no.”

Pettigrew inhaled and relaxed, he didn’t think the news could be any better.

“Sir?” Giles asked to get his employer’s attention. He couldn’t read the man’s body language; at least it wasn’t the reaction he expected.

“Giles, think of it man… The boy doesn’t remember his name, doesn’t remember who he is or his past. We don’t have to put up with him fighting us every step of the way over his father.” Pettigrew’s smile increased.

*****

After traveling for several hours, Sam Buckhart called a halt to their trip and stepped from his horse. He surveyed the location and was pleased to see a copse of trees providing adequate shade and a small stream that wound its way across the landscape to allow the horses to quench their thirst.

“I’m fine, Buckhart,” admonished Lucas, still sitting astride his black horse Razor.

“You may be, but I need a break and the horses do too. Do not be so stubborn, McCain. A fifteen minute break is all we need,” answered Sam as he led his horse and the packhorse to the stream, loosened their cinches, and took down his own canteen to satisfy his thirst. The lawman smiled as Lucas realized the wisdom of Sam’s words.

“I know, I know. We’ll get where we’re going quicker by taking care of ourselves and our horses,” Lucas stated as he walked Razor to the stream and mimicked the marshal’s actions.

“Lucas, we will get the boy back. Last night, I wired the territorial governor that I had sent my report. I am sure he will reverse Judge Zeller’s decision and return Mark to your custody. I am also certain that the judge may not be one for much longer…”

“Can the governor rescind Zeller’s appointment?”

“He can, and he has in the past. Your governor has a strong sense of right and wrong, and to hold a hearing without testimony from those most impacted by the decision is tantamount to judicial negligence. And the defense did not even meet the most basic requirements…”

“Do you know if Mark was okay, when they left?”

“From what I understand, Mark had only regained consciousness once before the hearing. The doctor gave him some water which he was unable to keep down. He had not reawakened before he was loaded into the back of the covered wagon. I am sorry, Lucas. But we will find him.”

“He’ll pay…”

“Leave Pettigrew to the governor.”

“Why should I?”

“Because the governor has already ordered an investigation into the Pettigrew Home for Wayward Boys… He has heard rumors. This is not the first time the man has petitioned the courts to gain custody of a child… The governor wants to know that these boys are properly being cared for…”

“And if not?”

“The governor has men in transit to investigate, and if they find the standards lacking, the boys will be transferred to other facilities, but I am sure there will be hearings to confirm whether their parents are suitable to regain custody.”

“Is this home a labor camp for children?”

“That I can not answer. I do not know.”

As promised, only fifteen minutes had passed when they were in the saddle again and traveling.

*****

Long shadows cast from the morning sun darkened sections of Cloudcroft’s main street as Judge Zeller walked along the boardwalk on his way to the hotel restaurant for breakfast. Before entering the establishment, he stopped upon hearing his name called out; he turned to see Nathan Ironwood running towards him, waving his arm and hand in the air to attract the judge’s attention.

“Nathan, what’s got you riled so early this morning?” Judge Zeller inquired as he cross his arms over his chest, waiting for the man to approach.

“We’ve got trouble!” Nathan’s words rushed out, as he tried to catch his breath.

“What kind of trouble?”

“Indian trouble,” whispered Nathan.

“Not here!” hissed Zeller as he grabbed the Indian agent’s arm in an effort to propel the man along the walkway and to his chambers in the courthouse. As the two men hurried along, under his breath the judge mumbled, “If it’s not one thing it’s another… Damn the governor for interfering… Damn O’Donnell for notifying the man… Damn Horatio Pettigrew… Damn that U.S. Marshal…”

“Excuse me?!” squealed Nathan as the judge pushed him into a chair in his chambers.

With a resounding slam, Judge Zeller closed the door to his office and stepped to the sidebar where several decanters containing brandy and whiskey sat. He picked up a large glass tumbler and poured a full glass of whiskey and drank half before he poured another half a glass for Nathan Ironwood. Turning, he walked over to his desk, handed the glass to the Indian agent and sat down on the corner of his desk.

“Now, what’s this all about ‘Indian trouble’?” inquired Judge Zeller.

“I was at Mugua’s camp yesterday. A few of his boys were caught causing trouble…”

“Boys?! Damn it man, you get me all upset over mischief caused by boys?!” The man’s exasperation and frustration was quite plain to see as his face reddened.

“No, that’s just what took me out to the camp… Mugua is having trouble keeping about a dozen of the young warriors in line…”

“A dozen… who? Which ones?”

“His son, Mueglion and his followers… They up and left camp, it was reported their ponies were painted…” worriedly answered Ironwood.

“Damn, damn, damn… It would have to be him…” Taking another long drink of whiskey, Judge Zeller asked, “Do you know what they’re planning?”

“No, only that they left camp the morning after the bank was robbed and haven’t been seen since.”

*****

Several miles away from where those bound for the Pettigrew Home for Wayward Boys camped, Silas Waiscott felt comfortable in starting a small fire to ward off the chill of the early morning and to heat some coffee for his consumption.

Having drank his fill and anxious to return to his wife, Silas quickly doused the flames with the remnants of his coffee and quickly covered it over with dirt to prevent the smoke from alerting the Indians from the day before of his presence.

Saddling his horse, Silas mounted and set out for Cloudcroft; keeping his horse to a slow pace to prevent it from kicking up dust or making noise as one of the metal shoes struck the occasional rock upon the ground, anything to prevent the Indians from knowing about him.

Keeping his eyes alert and actively scanning his surroundings as he rode, Silas was surprised to see smoke from a campfire indicating there were other travelers nearby. The man struggled with whether to alert the travelers to the band of Indians or to continue on his way to return to his wife because in his past he encountered bigotry all because he was a black man, a former slave. How many others had bore their weapons upon him because of the color of his skin? How many times had he been chased away… The decision was taken out of his hands when the first cry of attack sounded.

Dismounting from his horse, Silas crawled to the rise of the hill that separated him from the attack and watched as a dozen Indians rode down on the small camp. He watched as the better dressed of the two eastern tinhorns fell after taking a bullet to the chest. The man Silas presumed to be their guide, quickly turned and ran, drawing his gun and firing wildly. He stumbled and tripped over roots exposed from the ground, only to get up and run again. He fell one last time as a bullet delivered its fatal blow.

The Indians yelled and shouted at their success before turning their attention and their weapons to the last man in the camp.

The third man, Silas saw run towards the covered wagon; he presumed it was to retrieve a weapon of some kind or an attempt by the man to hide from the marauding Indians riding through their camp. Silas was surprised to that ipon reaching the back of the wagon, the man turned and raised his hands in surrender. Silas heard the man calling out, but couldn’t hear the words the man declared.

*****

“Please, we’ve done nothing wrong!” Giles declared having realized that he needed to do everything possible to save the life of the youth who lay in the back of their wagon. If he were to climb in back, the Indians were bound to come after him.

Mueglion approached the wagon, rifle resting on his knee, and said, “Just being here is wrong. This is our land, long before you and your lies drove the buffalo away. No more! This is our land! We take it back!”

The brave fired one shot and smiled as the man crumpled to the ground. Turning to his braves Mueglion yelled, in Apache, “Take horses! We ride!”

When one of the others asked about taking what was inside the wagon, Mueglion stated, “We need nothing of the white man. The buzzards will pick their bones dry. Let their wagon stand as a warning to others who dare cross our land.”

*****

“How much longer?” inquired Lucas as they rested their horses and ate their evening meal.

“We should arrive in Rio Rancho in two days ride, if we keep to this pace and route.”

“Two days too long,” muttered Lucas as he drank from his cup of coffee.

“It could have been otherwise, Lucas,” commented Sam.

“Yes, that judge could have declined to hear the case,” Lucas bitterly replied.

“No, Mark could have been sent there because you had died. Lucas, you are still not fully healed, or even healed enough to be riding with me.”

“I won’t turn back! I’m going!” argued McCain.

“I know you are, but for that reason, I insist you take the medicine prescribed by the doctor.” Sam held another tin cup filled with water mixed with the sleeping powder. “It will help you sleep and while you sleep, your body can heal. I’ve also mixed in an herb used by the Apache to help ward off any infection…”

“And if I don’t drink it?” dared Lucas.

“I will be responsible to haul you back to the doctor in Cloudcroft and delayed in returning your son to you…”

“Some friend you are,” Lucas sarcastically answered.

“I know,” Sam seriously replied. “And it is because I value our friendship that I will insist.” Again, Buckhart held the cup to Lucas, his facial expression indicated he would not take no for an answer.

The sun was setting behind the western hills when Lucas pulled the blanket over his shoulders and closed his eyes; the medication having effectively forced him into a much needed sleep.

*****

Sitting beside their morning campfire, Sam allowed Lucas to wake naturally, knowing the man should not be in the saddle but instead in a bed at the doctor’s clinic. He smiled as the man started to move around under the blanket as the effects of the medication fully wore off.

“Good morning Lucas,” greeted Same.

“Morning. What time is it?” Lucas asked as he tossed off the blanket.

“Dawn broke two hours ago…”

“TWO HOURS!”

“The horses are saddled and waiting, all I need you to do is to eat something and get some coffee into you. And take…”

“No more sleeping powders!”

“No, I was going to suggest taking the herbs. Again, if you succumb to an infection…” Sam grinned behind the coffee cup he held to his lips, he knew how to get his way and still allow Lucas his dignity.

*****

“What is it?” asked Lucas as Sam halted his horse and the pack horse. The lawman looked at the sun high overhead before looking across the landscape.

“Scavengers…”

“What kind?”

“Buzzards, circling.”

“What do you think they’re over?”

“I know what I pray they are not flying over…”

Quietly the two men rode, the birds in the sky increased from mere specs to the large carrions they were.

*****

An hour later, Sam stepped from his horse beside a body on the ground. Using his toe, the lawman nudged the man and received no response.

“He’s one of them, I think,” commented Lucas.

“One of them?”

“The ones who robbed the bank in Cloudcroft. The ones responsible for my being shot, and Mark.”

Having scared several of the buzzards away from the body, Sam realized that they had flown a short distance away and were now on the ground.

“Another body, Lucas,” Sam stated as he jutted his chin forward in Indian fashion to indicate direction.

Leading his mount, Sam walked over to the second body.

“I think that one was Aaron Provo’s brother,” Lucas stated as he walked up behind the lawman.

“Who was Aaron Provo?”

“A man I hired to help Mark and me get thirty head of cattle to Cloudcoft, said he was going to meeting his brother there. Mark and I saw them together later that night we arrived. In fact, that other man was with…” Lucas looked back over his shoulder, towards the other body.

“They were to meet there to rob the bank?”

“I can’t believe it…”

For a moment Lucas doubted his abilities to know right from wrong; he couldn’t believe the man they had hired could be involved in such a scheme.

“He didn’t seem the type… He seemed so…”

“Innocent?” asked Sam.

“I don’t know that I’d use that word to describe him, but he seemed so carefree, happy to be meeting up with his brother. I just can’t believe he’d be involved with anything to do with robbing the bank.”

“Lucas, there is an old saying that I learned at Harvard, ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’. The same goes for man.”

Returning to face the marshal, Lucas saw something lying on the ground a short distance away and walked over to the items, picked up the saddlebags, not bothering with the saddle, and returned to where the marshal stood watching.

“Theirs?” asked Sam.

“Only the saddlebags, I don’t think the contents rightfully belonged to them, there’s a lot of money inside,” answered Lucas as he closed the flap.

“Who do you think killed them?” asked Lucas as he watched Sam carefully survey the scene.

“What do the signs tell you?” replied Buckhart.

Setting the saddlebag next to the dead body, Lucas looked at the tracks and discerned there was still one shod horse being raced across the ground with numerous unshod horses following. Fifteen minutes later they encountered the third body; a man probably not yet out of his teenage years.

“The trail ends here. You think Apaches?” asked Lucas.

“Mescelaro, yes. Their holy land is not far from here. If these men had continued to ride, they would have crossed the boundary within half an hour at a trot. As fast as they were riding, probably fifteen, twenty minutes.”

“So…”

“So?” responded Sam.

“Then this is where we split up…” Lucas stated as he walked away to return to where he had ground tied Razor.

Running to catch up with the rancher, the lawman placed his hand upon Lucas’ shoulder to turn him around.

“We bury the bodies first. Give your horse a break. A longer break now means you can ride longer into the night…”

Sam paused, giving his friend a few moments to contemplate his course of action.

Seeing his friend still struggling, torn with what to do, Buckhart stated, “We’ve no way to transport the bodies back to Cloudcroft… We can’t just leave them lying here…”

“Why not!” demanded Lucas, his frustration boiling near the surface.

“It is not the Christian thing to do Lucas.”

“I know… damn you Buckhart,” Lucas mumbled in acquiesce.

“I understand Lucas. But you have to understand I have a greater obligation to get this money back to where it belongs in Cloudcroft. And you are not well enough to travel on your own.”

“So, do we bury them together?” asked Lucas, daring the lawman to say yes.

“No, we bury them where they fell.”

Several hours later, Lucas barely could stand, let alone attempt to mount his horse. The effort exerted in digging the graves compounded with the pain from his wound stole what little reserves the rancher had that had kept him going this far.

“We rest here for the night. In the morning we’ll take the money back to Cloudcroft,” stated Sam.

“And what of Mark?!” demanded Lucas.

“If they keep to the road they were traveling, he and the others should be safe. They’ll probably arrive in Rio Rancho by midday tomorrow.” Knowing his words were not giving the comfort or solace intended, the marshal stated, “Lucas, Pettigrew went through a lot of trouble to get Mark, I’m sure he’ll see that the boy comes to no harm.”

“And if that home is a work camp for children?” Lucas dared his friend to object.

“Then Mark will work a few days and by the end of the week you and he will be together. That is IF you take care of yourself. You still aren’t well enough to travel.”

“That’s your opinion…”

“If you were not so stubborn… Drink!”

Having slipped more sleeping powders and herbs into Lucas’ water, Sam shook his head. He knew he would have a fight on his hands in the morning; he saw the evidence even if Lucas refused to acknowledge. The man needed a doctor to restitch his wound.

*****

Silas had hid his horse in an abandoned barn on the outskirts of Cloudcroft and waited until evening to make his way to Miss Matilda’s, and to Enola; he couldn’t wait to take her away. The past was the past and he only wanted to see their future, together.

The light in the front room parlor had been extinguished for about thirty minutes when Silas made his way to the side of the building, below the window that was Enola’s room. He climbed the trellis to the roof overhang and waited outside the slightly opened window; he heard voices from inside.

“Now Dominique, you can’t just go off with him,” stated the female voice.

“He’s my husband,” pleaded Dominique.

“It’s been what… twenty years since you’ve seen him. How can you still think that you’re married?” the woman asked.

“Because we vowed until death do we part. I bared my soul to him; he gave me a life to carry… my Hester. Oh Agnes, every time I’m with a man, I’m not really with him…” Dominique paused to remember. “I remember when I was Enola…”

“Enola?”

“That was my name long ago…before all the heartache.”

“Do you really still love him?”

“How can I not? I can please any man who comes to my bed, but in my heart, I’m really trying to remember what it was like when Silas…” Enola cupped her hands and ran them on top of the fabric of the camisole that covered her breasts before wrapping her arms across her stomach. “Back then, women never talked of their marriage bed and… the pleasures. But I long for those days… To have a man make me feel the way that Silas did.”

“What’s wrong?” Agnes asked as she sensed there was something more.

“Agnes, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Men… Practically every man who walks through that front door is only looking for one thing… Very few men who come here are skilled in making love, for most… to them it’s just sex, for their pleasure only… They don’t care that it can be a two way street, that the woman also wants to experience those same pleasures… How many men have you taken to your bed have been as sharing in their love making?”

“Only a few… So why didn’t he take you that night? Why didn’t you go with him?”

“He said he’d come back for me… If Enola would wait for him… alone…”

“So that’s why you ain’t come down? There’s been several men who came calling, asking specifically for you,” Agnes stated.

“That’s why. Agnes, before… Matilda knew I thought him dead. All these years… I thought him dead. But now I know the truth. How can I take another man to my bed? I love my husband.”

Outside the window, Silas was thrilled to hear the conversation and those final words; it took all his control to not break through the slightly opened window and take his wife to bed right then and there. No, he had made up his mind; they would leave Cloudcroft and go somewhere to start a new life together, as a husband and wife that had so long been denied to him.

Silas heard the woman leave and waited until the light from the window two doors down the outside of the building faded before he fully opened the window and climbed in. He froze when he heard the click from the hammer of a pistol being pulled back and locked into position.

“Enola, it’s me, Silas.” He heard the ragged gasp exhaled.

“Why didn’t you come through the front door?” she asked as she lowered the weapon, turned and walked towards her bureau to place the weapon upon it.

“Because I didn’t want anyone to know I was here.”

“Silas… That was you… The other day… You robbed the bank…” sobbed Enola.

“I told you we had a job to do.”

“But you killed the sheriff and wounded three others…”

“Does it matter? I heard what you told that woman… You said you loved me.”

“I do love you… but…”

“Either you love me or you don’t. If you love me, let me take you away from here. Come with me and I’ll erase everything from the past twenty years.”

Silas walked towards and reached for his wife and pulled her close. The closer she came, the more his mind quieted and refused to countermand his body, his body’s desires were in full control. While fingering the soft ringlets of curls that fell around her face, he inhaled the scent of her hair before his lips found their way to hers, quieting any objections she might have had.

The ardent passion of their kiss burned deep as Enola remembered her conversation from just a few minutes before; her body responded. As if newlyweds on their first night, her hands hesitantly sought the fastenings on his shirt and began to unbutton them; having pulled the shirttails from the waist of his pants, she undid the last two buttons before pushing the shirt from her husband’s broad shoulders.

As Silas sensed his wife’s hands push his shirt from his shoulders, he reached for the hem of her camisole and lifted it from her body and over her head. As her arms lowered, Silas placed one hand under her shoulders and the other reached for behind her knees as he picked her up to carry her to the bed, the bed where they would share to reconsummate their marriage. Having laid his wife upon the bed, Silas slipped her pantaloons from her hips and down her legs, his eyes feasting upon the body that he had desired for so long. Slipping his trousers from his hips, down to the floor, Silas climbed into the bed beside his wife.

Pulling is wife upon him; they lay gently caressing each other. Together as one, they re-created their wedding night, forgetting their first embarrassment as both had stood naked in front of the other after their vows had been said. Silas remembered the advised from a married slave who told him, “Your marriage bed is not just about you. Give her pleasure before giving the seed to the life that she will carry for nine months.”

In the bedroom on the second floor of Miss Matilda’s, they rekindled their pleasures to a point where neither could stop the passion that coursed through their souls. For the first time in twenty years, Enola did not have to imagine the feelings she once shared with her husband. Twenty years of longing burned deep and the release caused her pain and pleasure as her husband satisfied both their desires.

The grandfather clock in the parlor struck three o’clock in the morning as husband and wife lay wrapped in each other’s arms. Silas felt at peace for the first time in twenty years upon hearing the soft breathing of his wife in his arms and feeling her flesh upon his. He lifted his head from the pillow and gently kissed the top of her head, the movement and the low, rumbling thunder from outside slightly rousing her.

“Silas?” she sleepily asked.

“We need to leave soon.”

Pushing herself up, she looked into her husband’s face, “Where will we go?”

“Away, maybe south...” Silas stated with indecision.

“But I thought going North…” she stopped when she sensed his body tense. “What is it?” pushing away to rest upon her elbow, placing her other hand over his heart.

“We can’t go North.”

“Why not? I heard Canada…”

“Too much trouble with Indians, I don’t want to risk losing you.” Silas rose up to kiss her upon her lips.

“What Indian trouble? Mugua and his people have been at peace. There’s a treaty…” Enola answered, pulling back from the intended kiss.

“They broke it,” Silas answered.

“Who broke it? How?” Enola asked as tremors of fear took hold of her body.

“Trey and others.”

“Trey? Silas, I don’t understand.” Enola pushed herself to sit up in the bed next to her husband; the sheet falling from her shoulders, exposing her bare upper body to her husband.

“Woman…” Silas taunted, trying to push down the fears from his memories of the attacks as well as the desires of the flesh that aroused in seeing his wife, the contours of her body highlighted by the moon as clouds slipped from in front of it and allowed the moonlight to stream through the open window

“Don’t woman, me,” The fear began to turn to anger. “What happened?”

“I didn’t care to go to Rio Rancho with the others, I wanted… needed you. Later, I heard.. saw a band of Indians attack them. Abe had already died of a wound from the robbery, but Trey, Deuce, Zeke, I watched as those Indians rode down upon them and shot them.”

“How did you get away from them?” fear etched her voice.

“I guess they didn’t see me. There were others, too.” Silas acknowledged as the horror of the two attacks weighed on his conscience and wouldn’t let him keep it a secret any longer.

“Others?” queried Enola.

“The next morning, there was a covered wagon and three men… They had less of a chance than Trey and...”

“Three men? Who?” A memory niggled at the back of Enola’s mind.

“I don’t know… Two looked like tenderfoots, the other… probably was their guide.”

All fear and anger left Enola as she climbed from the bed and began to dress. “What of the boy?!” Enola demanded as a loud crash of thunder reverberated and shook the building.

“Boy?” Silas asked as he sat up and swung his legs off the edge of the bed and watched his wife dress.

Throwing his clothes to him, Enola stated, “The boy! Zeller gave custody of the McCain boy to Pettigrew!” as if that should explain everything. “Dear God in Heaven!” exclaimed Enola as she sat in the chair next to the window and worked to lace up her black ankle boots. Frustrated at anything and everything, Enola slammed closed the window to stop the rain from pouring in, before she returned to the chair to finish fastening her footwear.

“Enola?” asked Silas, standing and pulling up his trousers and fastening them.

“The day you robbed the bank… a young teenage boy was wounded, as well as his father… That tenderfoot…” Exasperated, Enola stood and stated, “We have to inform the deputy!”

“And just how to you propose to do that?!” an alarmed Silas stated, pulling his shirt over his shoulders, leaving it hanging unbuttoned at hearing his wife’s words, he walked towards her.

“He’s just a boy! An innocent child! Pettigrew took that child away from his father, with the courts blessing!”

“What does it matter? We have to leave here, we can go anywhere… The two of us… We can start fresh…” Silas stated as he reached for her upper arm and turned her to face him.

Silas was surprised to see the tears streaming down her face, illuminated with a bolt of lightning, followed by a crash of thunder.

“Silas, they took Hester from me… My own child was ripped from my breast,” Enola cupped both her clothed breasts in her hands for emphasis, “and sold her!” Enola raised her hands to cover her face in shame at the memory. Having somewhat composed herself, she continued, “That boy’s father is out there, wounded, searching for his son, the son that was ripped from his heart and given away, just as if he had been a slave, to be bought and sold as a possession!”

“And just what do you suggest we tell the deputy?” demanded Silas as he finished fastening his shirt and tucking it in his pants.

Returning to stand in front of her husband, Enola wrapped her arms around him and rested her tear streaked face upon his chest. “We don’t have to tell him about your part in the robbery. We don’t have to tell them about Trey and the others, but the men with the boy… We have to tell them about the boy.”

“I don’t know…” Silas answered in a whisper, his arms wrapped around his wife.

“If it were Hester out there… Wouldn’t you want someone to tell you? Silas, I gave birth to a child that I have no idea where she is… If she’s still alive.”

*****

The morning sun was still some time from making its appearance when the rancher and lawman were awakened by thunder rumbling across the land. In the clear night sky, they could see the menacing clouds building into thunderheads, the telltale signs of the rain heading their way. With no shelter available, the two quickly broke camp, pulled on their raingear, and rode through the miserable weather as the showers began to persistently fall.

“It is the right thing to do Lucas,” Buckhart spoke as the horses plodded their way through the sloppy mud that just the day before had been firm ground. “As I said last night, I am sure Pettigrew will ensure Mark’s health until we can get to Rio Rancho.”

“I know, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it,” mumbled Lucas as under his rain poncho he pulled the collar of his jacket closed and gave a shiver. He wished he could have put up a stronger fight against returning to Cloudcroft, but the pain from the wound in his chest, the persistent seeping of blood, and the ravages of the infection that set fever upon him took away his strength to argue. And Mark… what good would he do his son should he set out alone and… Lucas pushed the thoughts from his mind and focused on staying in the saddle.

Seeing the slumped shoulders and waxy complexion of his companion, Sam Buckhart realized they were in trouble, Lucas was coming down with a fever from a possible infection. ‘Damn this weather,’’ the marshal thought to himself.

*****

Later that day, inside the town’s jail, the deputy listened and took notes as the black man recounted the story of coming upon a covered wagon under attack by Indians.

“Why didn’t you come here to report this right away?” Deputy Vestor asked when he heard when the attack happened and that the man had been at Miss Matilda’s all night and through the morning.

“I was coming to Cloudcroft to fetch my wife. We spent the night together, it wasn’t until this morning when I couldn’t get the images out of my mind that I told her what I’m telling you. She told me about who she thought was in that wagon.”

“Who do you believe was in that wagon?” Deputy Vestor inquired.

The deputy ignored the sounds behind him of the door opening and men entering as he waited to hear the woman’s statement, “From how my husband described the men who were killed by the Indians, they could only be Mr. Pettigrew, Mr. Giles, and Jedidiah Jones.”

“There was a dozen Indians; no one could have survived that attack,” Silas stated.

“You lie!” declared Lucas as he raced forward and grabbed hold of the front of the man’s shirt, his fevered state making him all the more irrational.

Anger, fear, hatred; all three expressions played across the worried father’s face. For those who knew Lucas McCain, they recognized the moisture tracking down his face was from tears and not the rain that continued to fall outside.

“I do not lie. I witnessed it.”

“A lying, thieving, murdering bastard can’t speak the truth!” declared Lucas, still not relinquishing his hold on the man as Sam struggled to pull Lucas away.

“Lucas, let go!” ordered Sam, grunting with effort to pull his friend from the man; unbelieving in his battered state that Lucas could be so strong.

“Then get him in jail!” demanded Lucas as he released his grip and pushed the man away.

“Why?” asked Deputy Vestor.

“He was with them!”

“With who?” asked the town’s lawman.

“The ones who robbed the bank, shot you, killed the marshal, shot me, and my boy,” stated Lucas as he listed the man’s transgressions.

Without emotion, the deputy and the marshal pulled their weapons from the holsters at their hips and held them upon the man standing in front of them.

“NO!” screamed Enola as she threw herself at her husband.

Everything had gone as she had hoped, until Lucas McCain and U.S. Marshal Sam Buckhart had entered the office and ruined everything.

“How did you survive the other attack?” inquired Buckhart.

“He wasn’t there!” Enola called out in defense of her husband, she saw their future crumble before her eyes.

“Other attack?” the confused deputy asked, trying to follow the conversation as it changed course as rapidly as floodwaters over boulders.

“We found the others, those who robbed the bank. From all appearances they too had been attacked by a band of Indians. How did you survive the attack? Did you plan it?” asked Buckhart.

“Plan it? ME?! Working with savages to kill my friends?” Silas squawked out in his deep bass voice. “Had I not left them, I’d be dead too!”

“There is no honor among thieves. It would mean more money for you,” Buckhart stated coldly.

“Look, we split up earlier, I only took what I was originally promised, nothing more… Not even after Trey decided to cut that other fellow out -- the one who arranged it all.”

“What man?” demanded Deputy Vestor.

“Don’t know his name, but he spends a fair amount of time at Miss Matilda’s from what I understand,” answered Silas.

“I don’t care about that! What about my son? Take me to my son!” demanded Lucas, a flushed anger surrounded the man and appeared to restore his energy.

“If I take you, you let me go afterwards,” Silas stated, hoping for a way to avoid the hangman’s noose.

“No deal,” Buckhart announced. “You will stand trial…”

“No! If you lead me to my son, I promise, you’ll go free.”

“Lucas, you have no authority!”

“Mark’s not your son! You have no right…”

“Lucas! The two of us can track; we can follow the tracks and find the wagon,” insisted the U.S. Marshal.

“After how many days? Mark could still be alive… He can get us there fast.” Lucas said the words and they sounded just a hollow and just as desperate to him. “I can’t… Buckhart, if there’s the slightest chance that he could be alive… I have to do it. For Margaret… God, I have to give my son every chance to live… I have to find him.”

“Waiscott,” Buckhart spoke to the man moved to the confines of the jail cell. “When we find the boy, I cannot set you free; you will be held accountable for your actions… However, I will speak to the judge on your behalf; tell him how helpful you were to Mr. McCain in the search for his son. Upon our return, we will also investigate the other man for his actions you say were behind the robbery. That is the best that I can offer.”

“Zeller?” asked Enola, fearful that the man would not give her husband a fair trial.

“No, I am sure the territorial governor will send another judge to preside over these events,” answered Sam Buckhart.

“Lucas, I need to get this money back to the bank, and you need to see the doctor.”

“I’m going after my son!” Lucas argued, even has he struggled to maintain his vertical bearing.

“And how do you plan to do that?” answered Buckhart before the deputy could say anything.

“I’ll break him out of jail!” retorted Lucas.

“And what of Mark?” asked Buckhart.

“What about Mark? I’m going to find him!” Lucas snapped.

“You break this lying, thieving, murderous man out of jail; you will be arrested and tried for jail break. How is Mark going to react when he hears you are going to prison for ten years…”

The marshal’s words shocked Lucas into submission; injury, fatigue, and worry were taking a toll on the rancher’s unhealed body as he slumped into the chair in front of the desk.

‘God, let me wake from this nightmare?’ Lucas prayed in his mind, yet he knew this was no dream.

“Buckhart, he knows where Mark is… Please…” begged Lucas.

*****

Lucas sat in the chair, unmindful of Doctor Webster’s ministrations to the wound he had torn open the day before. The physician muttered under his breath the whole time.

*****

The two lawmen headed to the bank to return the money and explain all that had transpired. Upon entering the bank, Deputy Vestory introduced U.S. Marshal Buckhart to the bank manager, Hank Williams, and the bank founder, Ted Cassidy. After accepting the saddlebags with the money and listening to a recount of events and watching the lawmen leave, Ted Cassidy angrily returned to his office and slammed the door closed having realized Trey and the others had succeeded in cutting him out of his share, now that it was back where it belonged, the bank’s vault.

*****

Standing outside the bank door, both heard the slammed door and the glass windows shake in their frames. U.S. Marshal Sam Buckhart stopped and asked the deputy, “What do you think of Mr. Cassidy?”

“You too?”

Sam cocked his head at the curious response to his question.

“You think he’s the man Silas said was behind the robbery to begin with. He didn’t seem all that pleased at your returning the money, and he does spend quite a lot of time at Miss Matilda’s…” Deputy Vestor explained.

“That is up to you to prove, while I am gone.”

“Gone? We’ve got to trap him into admitting his part…”

“No, I have done what I needed to, in returning the money. Now I must find the son of a friend and see that they are reunited. When I return, if you have not been successful, I will help you. But for now, my loyalties lie with Lucas McCain.”

*****

Later that night Sam waited in the outer room of the doctor’s clinic.

“He’s got no reserves left,” announced the doctor as he entered the waiting area. “He’s also running a fever from the infection.”

“Doctor, you will do everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, in your powers to save that man’s life. I want him to be standing in front of your clinic, healthy, when I return with his son.”

“You can’t be serious! You heard that outlaw! Why… you’ll probably end up dead yourself. He’s only taking you on a fool’s errand… ”

Fisting his hand, and pointing his index finger to the doctor and jabbing it in the man’s chest, Buckhart spoke in a lowered, graveled voice. “That is twice you have warned me against this as a fool’s errand. Do not make the mistake of saying it a third time. I owe it to that man to return his son to him. I failed once before; I will not fail a second time!”

*****

Morgan Dakkar and Parson Boggs rode their horses in front of Curly Smythe who drove the double team of horses hitched to a wagon laden with lumber supplies as they came upon the small camp and surveyed the carnage before they stepped down to the ground.

Dakkar stood several inches taller than the two men who accompanied him; the tint of his skin, the bone structure of his face, and his accent indicated his was of European heritage. The weathering of his face, especially his eyes, spoke of the hardships he had endured through the years. His once dark hair was frosted with silver, giving him an aristocratic appearance. Even so, he looked perfectly at home in the attire of his adopted homeland – cowboy hat, boots, spurs, side arm, and all.

Curly Smythe lived up to his nickname; the hair atop his head was dark and curly, and he too appeared to be of European ancestry. His age was somewhere in his forties, though to look at him people would swear he was younger, with his fit appearance and his chest muscles that were revealed through the open buttons of his shirt.

Next to the other two men, Parson Boggs looked out of place with his fair skin and light colored hair. His age was somewhere between his two companions. His stature spoke of hard work and good food. He wasn’t overweight, but he carried around a little more than most of the men who lived and worked at the ranch.

The two younger men walked to the bodies to verify they were beyond help. To their employer, Curly called out, “Mr. Dakkar, they’re dead. Do you want us to bury them?”

The man nodded as he picked up the reins to the two saddle horses and tied them to the wagon. Next, he proceeded to unsaddle the horses before turning to the team in order to unhitch them; it would be some time before they continued on to their ranch.

“I’ll see if they have a shovel in their wagon,” Parson called out, seeing Curly retrieve a shovel from their own wagon. It would make quicker work if there were two of them digging together.

Climbing up the front wagon wheel and looking under the front seat, Parson wasn’t disappointed in not finding a shovel. Stepping down he walked around to the back and began to climb through the covering.

“Well, I’ll be…” and Parson let out a low whistle. “Mr. Dakkar! You better come see this!” Parson yelled over his shoulder, stepping down in order to allow his employer access to the back of the wagon.

Approaching the covered wagon, Dakkar asked, “What is it, Parson?”

“You ain’t gonna believe me if I tell ya,” the man answered, shaking and scratching his head in bewilderment. “You just better see for yourself.”

Dakkar took a moment to consider his options, either demand that Parson tell him what was inside or just look for himself. Carefully stepping up, he couldn’t believe it when he found himself looking into the waking eyes of a teenage boy, trying to sit up, and absently rubbing at the bandage surrounding his head.

“Well, hello there,” greeted Morgan Dakkar as he entered the wagon and knelt in front of the boy.

“Hello,” answered the boy, looking around nervously, as if searching for someone else. “Who are you? Where’s Mr. Giles or… or Mr. Pettigrew?”

“I’m afraid that if they are your companions they are dead.”

“Dead?” gulped the boy as fear crept into his eyes. “Did you…”

“No, no… my friends and I did not kill them.” Dakkar offered a gentle laugh and a genuine smile. “We came upon your camp a few minutes ago. Curly and Parson are going to bury them. Is the other man your father?”

“Other man… Oh, he must be their guide.. I… I heard them talking before I fell asleep.”

“My manners are lacking, you must forgive me; wasn’t exactly expecting to find anyone alive. My name is Morgan Dakkar, and my friend standing at the back of the wagon is Parson Boggs and the other scoundrel who just stepped beside him is Curly Smythe. And your name is?”

“I told Mr. Giles… I… I don’t remember my name. He said I might remember… after I slept and my headache went away.” Again the boy rubbed at his temple.

“What happened here?” Dakkar asked as he moved his hand to the bandage.

“He said I was caught in a cross-fire.”

“And if none of the men outside are your family, how did you come to be riding in the back of their wagon? Were you a stowaway?” Dakkar cautiously asked.

“No… I’m not a stowaway, least I don’t think I am. Mr. Giles said something about court custody and Mr. Pettigrew’s home.”

“I see,” mused Dakkar, but not really understanding.

“Sir… Mr. Dakkar, could I please… have some water? I’m kinda thirsty,” stated the boy, his eyes cast downwards.

“Sure, Curly, get a canteen for the boy. Parson, after you and Curly finish burying those men…”

“Yes, Mr. Dakkar?” inquired Parson.

“Afterwards, we’ll see about some lunch and getting the boy settled in the back of our wagon. While you’re busy, I’ll see if there is anything from their supplies that we can use...”

“Yes, Boss,” Parson eagerly answered.

Curly and Parson worked for several hours digging four graves and burying the three bodies. When the last grave remained, Dakkar motioned for the men to leave it until after lunch.

As they ate their lunch, the younger men worried about the teenager who sat with them in camp; he seemed despondent and hardly ate. Several times before they had been in similar situations, finding a lone survivor or two, but the graves the left always indicated there were none. In the past, their employer had withheld help to critically wounded men because of what they were and that they were responsible for the predicament in which they had found or placed themselves. Occasionally, their numbers at the ranch grew by one or two. Both hoped the latter would be the case with this young man, especially since they had never come across anyone as young as the boy appeared to be.

Dakkar had a decision to make, and he needed to carefully weigh the facts as presented to him.

“Do you have any family?” Dakkar asked.

Struggling in his search for something from his past, the boy answered, “I don’t know. I…” he lowered his head and closed his eyelids as pain pressed against the back of his eyes, “It’s sort of out of focus… like a blurry dream, there is a man, and… I can hear a voice yelling pa… He fell… There was a blood stain on the front of his shirt … He was shot… in the chest...”

“So you have no family, no name, no past, and no future.”

The boy’s headache pounded harder as he quickly raised his head at hearing the words.

“Forgive the inadvertent use of the words I spoke, you have no future that you know of… I don’t see how it can be your fault that you’re out here, alone. I’ll offer you sanctuary at my ranchero… But for now, I think we need to clean up this camp and get you in the back of our wagon. It doesn’t look like you’ll be awake for very much longer.”

“I am sort of tired, sir… But first…”

Curly laughed at the boy’s reddened complexion.

“I’ll help ya boy. No need to go getting embarrassed about needing to answer the call of nature.”

As Curly left the campsite with the boy, Dakkar spoke to Parson, “Take the items over there and put them in the grave to make it appear that a body was buried beneath the dirt.”

Parson did as instructed, while Dakkar set about erasing any sign that they had been in the camp, and Curly helped Mark with his personal needs.

“You’ll like living at Orchha. We’ve plenty of horses and cattle, sheep too. We raise most all our own food. We only have to go get supplies a few times a year or when we’re in need of lumber for projects. Mr. Dakkar is specific in not abusing the land from which we live. He won’t overharvest the trees and makes sure for every one we take, we plant a seedling to replace it.”

“I know about cattle,” the boy answered after finishing his personal business.

“Ya do? You remember that?” Curly inquired as he helped the boy walk back to their wagon.

“I thought I did. When you said cattle, it seemed so vivid… up here,” the boy answered as he raised his hand and pointed to his temple.

“Well, that’s a good thing. Just keep that in mind.”

“Yes, sir,” answered the boy as a yawn escaped.

“Yes, Dakkar was right, you won’t be awake for very much longer. I’d wager that wound of yours is recent and you probably suffered a good concussion from it.”

“You a doctor?”

“Naw, but I help Doc Milano when one of us gets hurt.”

“Oh,” answered the boy as Curly hefted him to the back of their wagon.

“I’ve set up a pallet of blankets for you to lie on, just close your eyes and sleep,” Dakkar stated to the boy as he climbed to the seat of the wagon. “I’ll ride with you Curly so one of us can keep an eye on the boy.” To the boy he said, “It’ll be well after dark before we return to the ranch, so don’t worry about anything.”

The sun had reached mid-afternoon before the group left the campsite. All traces of their arrival and departure were deliberately swept clean, except for the four marked graves. The sounds and movements over the smooth desert land along with his injuries lulled the boy to sleep.

“What’s your assessment?” Dakkar asked of Curly.

“I’d say that head wound is recent, probably a heavy concussion too. That’s why he’s so tired all the time. But at least he’s waking on his own… That’s a good sign.”

“Is that your professional opinion?” Dakkar teased.

“Yep, and I’m sure Doc will say the same thing when he sees the boy, too.” Curly nodded and encouraged the horses to a fasted trot.

*****

After his brief discussion with the U.S. Marshal, Deputy Vestor knew that Ted Cassidy, the bank founder, had to be involved in the robbery; however, he had to prove it, and prove it in a way acceptable to a court of law. He knew the man spent an inordinate about of time at Miss Matilda’s, not with her exactly, but with many of the other women who called the place their home. Upon following the madam into her private office, Matilda had agreed to talk and admitted that she was present when Trey had his meeting with Cassidy, in her office the night before the robbery.

“I know I should have come to you right away, but… I guess… I was afraid you’d charge me as an accomplice since I knew about it.”

“Matilda… When Cassidy was with you…”

“I never divulge what happens behind closed doors… And especially not to you,” Matilda’s eyes sparkled as she looked to the young deputy trying his best to assume the role of sheriff.

“I don’t mean like that. I know you’d never… um… take him to… uh…” Dave blushed.

“To bed? Is that the word you’re looking for?” Matilda asked, enjoying watching the young man’s embarrassment.

“Yeah… But…” Seeking to maintain his official bearing as a lawman, the deputy became serious. “Did he threaten you at any time? Did you fear for your life, at any time because of him? It could be helpful, sort of… what they call during trials an… ex.. extend… exting… no that’s not right… It’s some kind of circumstances that doesn’t make you guilty.”

“Davy, he’s a powerful man. Anyone would be crazy to speak against him…”

“That’s what I’m talking about. You couldn’t come to me and tell me. But, I put two and two together and I came to you.”

“He’ll know I talked…” Matilda acknowledged.

“We can talk with Avery Jenkins, he might be able to help…” suggested the deputy.

“You’re such a dear, sweet, innocent, baby brother.” Matilda ran the fingers of her hand through the soft, wavy hair on her younger brother’s head. Dropping her hand, she turned and walked away to the sidebar to pour herself a brandy. “Avery Jenkins is in cahoots with Ted Cassidy. Why do you think he didn’t put up any more of an argument against that Pettigrew fellow in taking that McCain kid? He knew if the father survived he would go after his son instead of the robbers… They already had something planned to get rid of McCain before they ever robbed the bank. It was just their luck that things happened as they did. It was a win / win situation for them, regardless how it happened.”

“Sis… I have to find proof that Cassidy was involved in robbing his own bank and ultimately the murder of Sheriff Pattison. Please?”

“I don’t think my word is the proof you’re looking for. The citizens of this town would never believe me, even though more than half the male population has walked through that front door and gone upstairs with one of the girls.”

“There has to be some way…”

“Can’t that U.S. Marshal help you?”

“Not until he finds McCain’s son… And who know how long that will take,” the deputy stated in defeat.

“Little Brother, I suggest you forget all about finding proof against Ted Cassidy and go back to your wife. She’s gonna need you, the closer she comes to giving birth to your first child.” Becoming scared for her brother, her tone changed to become ever more serious, “Dave, don’t do this… Don’t give him any reason to hurt this family.”

“I’m a lawman… I can’t…”

“Yes you can! Send for the marshals!” urged Matilda as she interrupted her brother. “There’s no shame in asking for help…”

*****

The moon hung high overhead as the small procession made their way into the courtyard in front of the large home that was the center of Ranchero Orchha. Even at that hour, several hands came from the bunkhouse to take the horses. Dakkar ordered one of the men to go wake the doctor and see that he made it to the clinic. Curly slipped into the back of the wagon and lifted the boy from where he slept. He handed the sleeping youth out the back to the waiting arms of Dakkar.

Doctor Milano had not yet retired when the ranch hand entered the main room and told him there was a need for his services.

“Who’s hurt?” Milano inquired.

“Not sure, must be someone they found. I seen Curly, Parson, and Mr. Dakkar, and they looked okay.”

Doctor Milano’s attention returned to the massive front door as Curly entered, holding the door open for Morgan Dakkar carrying the injured boy.

“Your clinic, if you please…” Dakkar spoke.

“No, I think maybe one of the upstairs bedrooms would be better.”

He’s been injured,” stated Curly, surprised the doctor didn’t want his patient in his clinic.

“I can see that. But I think he might be more comfortable in one of the big beds,” answered the doctor.

The group entered one of the smaller bedrooms at the top of the stairs, Curly jogged ahead to light the lanterns and to turn down the bed.

“That will be all Curly,” Dakkar said, dismissing the man.

“Yes, sir. See you in the morning.”

“Well, who is he?” Milano asked of his friend.

“Can’t tell you that, he couldn’t tell us, either. If that’s of any consolation,” answered Dakkar.

The owner of the ranch stood back and watched the physician gently tug the boots from the sleeping boy’s feet, before he started to unbutton his patient’s shirt and remove it.

“I take it that he’s received some kind of head wound, anything else I should know about?” the physician asked as he felt along the boy’s ribs looking for injury.

“The boy said those he was with told him he was caught in a cross-fire. Curly also thinks he might have suffered a concussion.”

“Hmmmm. No sensitivity along the ribs, his arms appear fine. A little too thin, but I don’t think that’s from malnourishment, his bone structure indicates he would be slight of build.” Taking his stethoscope from his black bag and placing one end in his hears and the other on the boy’s chest, he intently listened. “Good, strong heartbeat.” Moving the instrument, “Healthy lungs.” He set the stethoscope aside and said, “Now, what about this head wound.”

Carefully the physician unwound the dressing surround the boy’s head. “Hmmmm… It looks a little too angry for my liking. Morgan, I know Curly is probably standing in the hallway… Would you ask him to go retrieve the jar of healing cream from my clinic? He’ll know which one I need.”

The carpeting on the floor softened Dakkar’s bootsteps so Curly was surprised to find his boss standing in front of him in the hallway. “Doc asked that you retrieve the jar of healing cream from his clinic.”

“Yes sir. Right away sir.”

Dakkar shook his head as he watched his employee jog down the hall and disappear around the corner.

“You know, he really is a good assistant,” Milano stated as Morgan returned to stand next to him and watch as the doctor completed his examination.

“I know… But don’t you let him hear I said so.”

Minutes passed before Curly returned to the bedroom with the requested jar.

“Thank you, Curly.”

“How is he Doc?” the man asked.

“He’ll be fine, there’ll a few more days of him wanting to sleep, but by then the effects of the concussion should disappear. You know, it’s going to be quite interesting having a youngster living with us…” mused the doctor.

The cool cream being applied to the wound caused the boy to wake. Eyes opened wide as he looked about the room and the bed upon which he was laid; the room was ornately decorated with tapestries hanging from the walls and a massive wooden desk, bed, dresser, and book cases were arranged within the room.

Dakkar inquired, “Now that you have had another good sleep, do you remember anything more?”

“No sir,” he answered a few moments later. “Only what the others told me.”

“You have no recollection of your name? Or where you come from?” Milano asked.

The boy carefully shook his head left and right to indicate no.

Dakkar spoke, “The land surrounding Ranchero Orchha is unforgiving and I do not forgive those who unlawfully trespass on my land nor do I forgive those who turn against the hand that has offered them aid.”

“Sir?” worriedly asked the boy.

“Together we will work to unlock the mysteries hidden within in your mind, and maybe figure out who you are. As I said before, you are granted sanctuary here. You shall live and work here, and I and my men shall see that you are instructed and cared for accordingly. I believe you are still of age to attend school, so Reginald Ambrose shall be your instructor. He was a professor at Cambridge before accompanying me here.”

Dakkar motioned for the other gentleman who had followed him into the bedroom, but waited by the desk, to step forward.

“For now, you need to have a name… We shall call you Jules.”

“Jewels,” inquired the boy, his voice quivering.

“Not Jewels, Jules… J-u-l-e-s,” answered Dakkar. “

Jules nodded a greeting as he stared at the man, as tall as Mr. Dakkar, but with straight brown hair. He was sharply dressed in light colored clothes, pressed pants and matching suit coat with a belt around the waist. The item that drew the boy’s curiosity was the monocle the man held in place with only his eyebrow and cheek.

Stepping from the bed, Dakkar motioned to the man who had asked Mark if he remembered his name or where he came from; the man only stood to Dakkar’s shoulders and was similarly dressed as Reginald Ambrose, but where the other men’s heads were full of hair, this man’s hair ran around the sides and back, there was nothing but skin on top of his head.

“This is Doctor Milano, I’ll leave you in his care,” stated Dakkar.

“But what about my family… my Pa?” whispered Mark. “He wasn’t a dream… was he?”

“I’m sorry son, this is now your home,” Dakkar solemnly stated.

With that, Morgan Dakkar left unanswered the perplexed expressions of the others.

*****

“Lucas, you are too weak to continue to look for your son. Your body needs more time to heal,” stated Sam Buckhart as he stood beside the bed where Lucas McCain lay in the doctor’s clinic in Cloudcroft.

“He’s my boy,” Lucas answered. A fevered sweat dotted his face and his chest, but still he tried to rise from the bed.

“I know. I promise you, I will return with your son.”

“I… can’t…” Lucas admitted in defeat, as he fell back to lying on the bed.

“Allow yourself to heal. I’ll wire once I have found him,” Buckhart stated.

The lawman turned to leave the room, stopping before the doorway as the doctor entered.

“Remember my words from last night,” the lawman advised.

Doctor Webster nodded and stepped aside to allow the marshal to exit the room.

*****

Upon entering the jail, Buckhart addressed the deputy, “He will be in my custody. Once we have retrieved Mark McCain, I will return him to your jail to stand trial.”

“I don’t know about this… It doesn’t seem right.”

“Right or wrong, my badge grants me the authority to do this.”

Walking to the cell, the deputy reached for the key ring that hung from a peg on the wall.

Standing in front of the opened door, Buckhart spoke to Silas, “You will take me to where you saw the ambush and you will help me locate Mark McCain.”

“And if I don’t,” dared Silas.

“You will face this town as a thief and a murderer, with no hope for clemency… Help me return my friend’s son to him, and I will speak on your behalf. A long life in prison would be better than a short life ending with a hangman’s noose.”

“As long as that Zeller judge has nothing to do with my trial…” Seeing the marshal’s expression change to curious, Silas continued, “Enola told me about him, and that boy. He didn’t do the right thing, only what he thought the others wanted. He’s not the type of judge I want to stand before.”

*****

Doc Webster’s pocket watch indicated five minutes past nine as he stood in front of the window inside his clinic and watched two riders, one Indian, one black, with a packhorse ride down the main street of town. With the town just coming alive for the day, most people paid no attention to those riding out.

“Fool’s errand. McCain will never see his boy again,” the doctor mumbled and turned away.

*****

“You took time to bury the bodies?” asked Sam as he stepped from his horse in front of the four mounds of freshly turned earth marked with crosses.

“Not me… I didn’t care to hang around long enough to be another victim of those Apaches,” answered Silas as he continued to sit in the saddle and nervously look out across the horizon.

“Four graves, the three you saw shot down…”

“Who’s in the fourth?” asked Silas.

“If I were a betting man, I would say the boy. This is going to kill Lucas,” stated Buckhart as he removed his hat and held it in front of him, head lowered.

“He’s probably dead already; he didn’t look so good when he was trying to kill me…”

Ignoring his prisoner’s words, Sam stated, “We will have to make sure. Lucas will not accept the fact there were four graves, unless I tell him I saw the body.”

“Are you crazy man?! We don’t have time. Those Indians might come back…” Silas’ bass voice filled the surrounding area that had been void of sound.

“Someone had time to bury them. Indians would not bury the bodies of their enemies; they would leave them to rot. If others had time to do this, we have time to do what is needed.” Buckhart was torn between disturbing the graves of the dead versus knowing for certain that Mark McCain lie in one.

Dropping to the ground, Buckhart began to dig with his hands and ordered his prisoner to help in uncovering the bodies.

Twenty minutes later, Silas sat down on the ground, all but spent as the first two graves revealed the bodies of Pettigrew and Giles.

“Keep working,” ordered Buckhart.

Wearily, the man continued to dig down within the third grave, the second grave for him to trespass upon.

“Empty?” declared Buckhart as he opened the blanket in the final grave. “This grave is empty? Just blankets and stuff…”

“Empty?”Silas repeated, attempting to comprehend the word and the meaning, yet thankful he no longer needed to continue digging. “It means that the boy’s alive.”

“He could still be in that grave,” Buckhart answered looking to the partially exposed grave.

“No, I saw all three men go down. Them tenderfoots are there,” pointing to the two unearthed graves, “this has to be the other man.”

Thirty minutes later, all four graves were covered back over.

“Someone was here. Someone deliberately placed four graves here, to mislead us,” Buckhart quietly spoke, trying to fit together the bits and pieces of what he knew.

“Why? Who would do this?” asked Silas. “It doesn’t make sense, to dig four graves and only bury three bodies…”

“Let me scout around to see what I can find…” Buckhart stated, turning to face Silas, “do not try to escape. Remember, I too am an Apache. Tame, my brothers would call me, but still I am Apache.”

The marshal left his prisoner behind as he began to survey the area, looking for any signs to lead him to Mark McCain.

Sweat poured down his face, neck, shoulders, and torso when he returned to where Silas lay sprawled on the ground. Pulling his canteen from the saddle horn, the lawman drank heavily.

“It’s like no one was here, no prints, no trails… Someone deliberately has hidden all signs of their passage.”

“So, what do you do now? You take me back for a hanging?” Silas asked as he continued to stay on the ground, but raised his upper body, twisted and rested back on his elbow.

“Not yet. Whoever dug the graves and buried those men, must have taken the boy. The question is why?”

“Better than leaving the kid out here alone,” commented Silas.

“No, not why take the boy… Why hide all traces of them having been here? The dirt on those graves is fresh… We know when Pettigrew and the others left Cloudcroft… You stated when the attack occurred. Why go to all this trouble?”

“Someone didn’t think anyone would come by this quick to find the boy…”

“If that were true, why cover their trail… The weather would have done that given time.”

“Maybe to hide from the Indians.. if they came back… that there was a survivor.”

“If the Indians knew about him, the boy would be dead. They probably did not even think to look in the wagon.” The evidence made no sense to the marshal, but he still had a promise to fulfill. “Go see if there are any supplies in the wagon we can use.”

After a few minutes of searching, Silas stepped from the wagon. “Whoever dug the graves must have already searched the wagon… There’s nothing inside that would be of use to us.”

“Get mounted.”

“Why?”

“We still have to find the boy,” answered Buckhart.

“How? There’s no tracks.”

“Maybe you were right, someone was afraid of the Indians returning, not that they were worried about the Indians coming for the boy, but maybe worried they would be followed and dealt the same as those three and your friends…”

“Where do we start?”

“We start riding to the nearest town.”

“And if he’s not there?”

“We ride to the next town, and the next, until we find the boy.”

“Lead on, I’m just your prisoner,” Silas answered as he signaled his horse to follow the marshal.

*****

Daring to slip back into Cloudcroft, Aaron Provo tied his horse to one of the hitching rails nearly full of horses in front of the Golden Spur saloon. Inside, patrons and saloon girls were still abuzz with the gossip of the bank robbery. Setting his beer down on the table, Aaron tried to mask his emotions. He had been a part of the robbery, though an unwitting accomplice. All he had done was as his brother had asked, he created the original diversion. He had no knowledge that his brother and friends were intent on the bank. Before they separated, he’d thought that only Abe Moffitt had died as a result. He was shocked to learn of the sheriff’s murder and the others who had been wounded. As the discussions bantered back and forth around him, he learned the fate of the five outlaws – one dead from wounds suffered in the escape, three dead from Indians, and one black man to stand trial.

‘Well, ain’t that why you split? Ma would be rolling in her grave if she knew,” Aaron thought to himself as he took another drink of his beer.

Throughout the afternoon, no one made mention of a sixth outlaw, and he felt better for it. Still, he felt the need to get out of town. Having heard that Lucas McCain and his son had been wounded, Aaron knew there was no way he could accompany them back to North Fork, especially having heard the news that Mark had been placed into the custody of some big shot from up north. Placing his hat upon his head, Aaron left the saloon and walked to the livery stable where he purchased a packhorse; next, he headed to the general store for provisions. With everything his owned securely tied down, he set out for Utah, hoping his friends who had chosen years ago to relocate and settle in a small community about fifty miles south of Salt Lake City would be willing to offer him a job. He knew his destination had previously been a fort, but now… He hoped he could fade into the background and just return to being a cowboy.

He prayed that Silas Waiscott would keep his mouth shut and would never reveal that he had a small part in the robbery.

******

The news was over a week old when it reached North Fork – five outlaws robbed the bank in Cloudcroft, the sheriff killed, the deputy wounded as well as a visitor and his son. A cold feeling settled deep with Marshal Micah Torrance as he read the official report. Though the details were vague, he dreaded the visitor and his son being Lucas and Mark McCain. Two weeks had passed since he had waved goodbye to the pair as they and a drifter left to deliver a small herd of cattle to the Mescelaro Indian Reservation. He knew they were due to return any day now, if they were to return at all.

Folding the report and slipping it into his desk drawer, Micah stood, reached for his hat and his scatter gun and left his office. Turning right, he headed down the boardwalk, not acknowledging any of the greeting that were offered to him.

“Amos,” Micah called out as he entered the empty telegraph office.

“Be right with you, Micah,” the man called from the back room. Parting the curtains, the man stepped out from his living quarters. “How can I help you Micah?”

“Need to send a wire to Cloudcroft, need to inquire on Lucas and Mark,” he answered as he wrote out his wire. Handing the paper to Amos, he said, “You get a response, you bring it to me.”

“Micah, are you serious?” asked the telegrapher having read the missive.

“Dead serious. I’ll be in my office.”

Micah had barely turned to leave when he heard the clicking and tapping, indicating the dots and dashes of Morse code were being sent out across the wire; he prayed he was wrong.

*****

Three hours after sending the telegram, Amos entered the Marshal’s Office, tears streaking his face.

Marshal Micah Torrance
North Fork, New Mexico

Confirming Lucas McCain and son involved /stop
Father seriously ill /stop
Son feared dead /stop

Deputy David Vestor
Cloudcroft, New Mexico

Micah Torrance set out to make arrangements for others to act as temporary marshals during his absence.

“How long will you be gone?” Nils Swenson, the owner of the town’s livery inquired as the marshal handed him one of the badges.

“As long as it takes to find out what happened to Mark, and to bring Lucas home,” answered the lawman as he handed out a second badge, this one to John Hamilton, the town’s banker. “The two of you can take turns minding the office. I’ll wire once I know anything.”

“Micah, could it be that a mistake was made? I mean, how could Mark be dead?” asked the banker in his slightly proper manner of speaking.

“I don’t know, but I aim to find out.”

Micah swung his saddle bags over his shoulder while picking up his scattergun; he left the office, mounted his horse, and rode out of North Fork.

*****

Doctor Milano was pleased to see his patient spend more time awake and that his appetite improved as the days passed. The wound to the boy’s temple continued to fade to a point where he felt the bandage could be permanently removed. After three days of bed rest, the physician agreed the boy could get up and begin exploring his new home.

“Howdy, Jules,” called Curly as he entered the bedroom, carrying a rather large package, and wearing a silly grin on his face. Parson and Reginald followed Curly into the room; they had been informed at breakfast of the possibility that today would be the day the boy would be allowed out of his confinement.

“We all chipped in and got you something,” Parson stated as he leaned up against the tall post at the foot of the bed.

“Chipped in?” inquired the boy.

“Sure, none of us had clothes small enough to be ‘hand-me-downs’, so we all contributed and Mr. Ambrose went shopping for you,” Curly answered and he set the package upon the bed and encourage the boy to open it.

“Geesh, you gotta be a lot of fun at Christmas time,” Parson jested, watching the boy try not to rip the brown paper. “Just tear into it!”

With his present opened, Jules looked happy in seeing the brand new clothes and a hat; as he had wondered what he would wear to go exploring.

“Can I try them on?” Jules asked.

The doctor nodded, but stayed close as the boy climbed from the bed, in case his actions would cause him to pass out.

“What’s so funny?” Jules asked as Parson and Curly chuckled upon seeing him standing.

“You should be glad we got you some clothes if that’s what you’d wear when your clothes need laundered?” teased Curly.

Jules stood in an oversized nightshirt, the hem drug on the floor and the cuffs were thickly rolled up so his forearms were exposed. Not caring that the others were in the room, but still having some modesty, Jules slipped a set of trousers on before he pulled the nightshirt over his head. He quickly decided to wear the tan shirt to go with his new brown pants and dark brown hat.

Turning to his new friends, Jules asked, “Well? How do I look?”

“Like some dandy,” Parson teased.

“A dandy! You… you…”

“Easy there Jules, Parson is only teasing you. There are several sets of clothes for you to wear.” Reginald Ambrose continued, “When you do your chores, you can wear the clothes you were wearing we found you. Lin Tang should have them properly laundered and in the top drawer of the bureau. But today… today is a day for you to learn of your new home and Curly will explain what chores you are expected to complete. Tomorrow you will start school, and any of these clothes would be acceptable.”

“Yes sir, Mr. Ambrose,” answered Jules.

Watching the two grown men and the teenager leave the room, Doc Milano inquired, “How much trouble to you think those two will get into while having that young man live with us?”

“You’d think that boy was there little brother the way they’ve been talking and planning,” replied Reginald Ambrose. “And at their age…”

From the doorway, both men heard, “And I shouldn’t expect any trouble from the two of you on account of the young lad, either… right?”

“Morgan, us cause trouble?” asked Reginald, he couldn’t keep the mock stab of guilt from his words or his face. “You’ve cut me to the quick,” and cupped his hands over his heart.

“Yes, you two. I agree, it will be good to hear the…” Dakkar paused upon hearing the squealing and laughter that floated through the open windows as the threesome ran across the courtyard, “…laughter of youth. It has been far too long.” Dakkar turned away, but his two friends knew the man’s memories were again present and could not be ignored.

“Can you believe them two acting like schoolboys?” Doc Milano inquired.

“Morgan is right, having Jules here will brighten the place up,” answered Reginald.

“Speaking of schoolboys, how will you start his school curriculum tomorrow?” Doc Milano asked.

“I’ve sketch out an informal school review for the rest of this week, to find out where he is in his studies. He talks as if he’s received an education, we’ll just have to see and proceed from there.”

The two men left the room and closed the door behind them.

*****

Mark followed the two men as they made their way down the staircase; he stopped when he saw an oriental man standing in the foyer.

“Jules, this is Lin Tang, he’s our cook, housekeeper, and… oh, what’s that word Mr. Dakkar likes to use?” Curly asked of Parson.

“Majordomo, he makes sure we’re all taken care of. Lin Tang, this is Jules… Uh, I guess Mr. Dakkar only gave you a first name. Lin Tang, this here fella is gonna be living with us.”

“Pleased to meet you,” answered Jules as he gently bowed to the man who stood in front of them..

Lin Tang bowed in return, and gave a warning to the others, “You bring boy back in time for lunch and no get dirty or you clean!”

“Us, come back dirty?” inquired Curly.

“You go exploring, me know what exploring mean. Stay clean!” ordered Lin Tang.

“Yes, sir,” all three replied as the exited the front door.

“Whew, it’s good you’re with us Jules,” claimed Parsons.

“Why?”

“Well, just is… Come on race ya!” called Curly as he started run to the barn.

Jules was quickly after the man, only to break out into a squeal of laughter when Parson came running up behind him, and mock tackled him in an effort to win the race.

Setting Jules back to his feet, Parson stated, “We picked out a horse for you. Hope you like ‘em.”

The two grown men led Jules to a stall and waited for the boy to approach and look over the half door.

“Hey fella,” Jules greeted as he reached up to scratch the horse behind the left ear, “Sorry I don’t have any sugar cubes for you.”

Mark carefully entered the stall and slowly walked around the animal, appraising it with his eyes, and soon was running his hands over the horse, feeling for any hotspots or bumps that shouldn’t be there.

“He knows about horses,” Curly observed as he nodded his head towards the boy.

Parson brought out a saddle and placed it over the half door before pulling down a bridle and a saddle pad. The two men stood back and watched as the boy and the horse interacted while he was saddle the animal.

Picking up the reins to lead the horse from the stall, Jules stated, “He sure is a beauty. What’s his name?”

“He doesn’t have a name, yet. The boys just finished breaking and training him to saddle a few days ago,” Curly answered.

“What about you naming him,” suggested Parson.

“Well…” Jules led the dapple grey horse into the morning sun and looked at him, again. Whispering to the horse, Jules asked, “What do you think about Beauty?”

In an apparent answer, the horse shook his head and neck, his pale mane flopping from side to side.

“Eldorado?”

The horse stood still and raised its head and neck high upon his shoulders.

“I guess he likes Eldorado?”

“Why that name?” Curly asked.

“I don’t know… Maybe because… It just sounds neat,” the young man admitted as he rubbed the soft, velvet nose of the horse.

“Okay, Jules, Eldorado, lets mount up and ride so we’re not late in returning for lunch,” teased Parson as he stepped into the stirrup and pulled himself into the saddle of his own horse.

*****

Jules entered the room in from of Mr. Ambrose, his eyes widened at seeing all the bookcases with books that lined the walls. Slowly he walked to one of the walls and gently ran his hand upon the shelf, his head titled sideways as he read the titles of the books.

He noted the names of the authors as well, many of whom he did not recognize, but some he did.

“Our library contains the works of Washington Irving, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Throeau, John Muir, Frederick Douglass, Charles Darwin, Arthur Conan Doyle, Horace Greely, to name a few…

“All these books…” Jules continued to walk around the room in amazement. “Have you read them all?”

“No, not by far.”

“I can’t read this one,” Jules commented, his expression showed bewilderment.

“I would be surprised if you could, this book is written in Russian. This library contains literary works from all over the world. Many books are first editions, as well as translations into or from other languages. The works that reside within this hall encompass history, social commentary, poetry, philosophy, the sciences, religion, and works of fiction.”

“Why?”

“Why?” Ambrose smiled as he thought on the best way to answer the youth. “Curiosity, boredom, quest for knowledge… Jules, each one of us has brought a unique yet not so unique past with us to Ranchero Orchha. Here, each man… person can come to learn or to escape.”

“Escape? You’re not a prisoner…”

“No, escape in another manner means to lose oneself in the past or the future as written in these books, to leave their current troubles through reading. This is all a little overpowering isn’t it?”

“Yes sir.”

“Well, let’s see how well you do with the quizzes I’ve created to find out just where you are in your studies… Since you don’t remember anything about your past, I guess it wouldn’t make any sense to ask you how old you are… You look younger, but the way you carry yourself and the way you speak, make me think you’re maybe thirteen, maybe fourteen years old.”

Encouraging the young man to follow him to a table in the middle of the room, Ambrose pulled out a chair for Jules to sit. He handed the boy a folder and a pencil. “I’ll be over at the other table, if you have any questions. When you’re through, just bring this to me.”

“Sir, if I can’t remember my past…” Jules paused.

“You want to know how you’ll remember your studies?”

Jules nodded.

“I don’t think you’ll have any problems. Curly and Parson told us last night, after you retired to your room, how much you remembered in examining the horse and properly saddling him without any input. Give it a go,”

“Yes sir,” Jules answered as he opened the file and picked up his pencil.

As the time passed, Reginald Ambrose watched as Jules set himself to his task, jotting down answers and as he read the next question he would either tap the table top with his pencil, or tap it against his head. Sometimes Ambrose saw Jules staring off into space before his eyes widened and he placed pencil to paper and completed the answer.

Two hours had passed, before Ambrose cleared his throat, “I think a break is called for. The water closet is out the door we came through, turn…”

“Water closet?” inquired Jules.

Ambrose did not allow his amusement to show through to the boy who sat in front of him, “Jules some of the men just can get used to an indoor outhouse.”

“An indoor outhouse? I think I can understand why…”

“No need to worry, Mr. Dakkar designed the system we use here. Come on, I’ll show you how everything works… Meaning what you need to do to flush the waste away.”

After explaining how the system worked and where the waste went, Jules was encouraged to give it a try. A smile played across the man’s face when he heard the whoosh of water behind the closed door.

Stepping from the small room, Jules giggled, “I don’t see why the others can’t get used to an indoor… uh… water closet. Sure beats going outside during the middle of the night and during the heat of the day. Is this the only one?”

“No, I’ll be sure to inform the others to let you know where they are as you continue to learn about your new home.”

“Mr. Ambrose?”

“Yes Jules?”

“Do you think… Do you think I’ll ever get my memory back?”

Ambrose felt remorse for the young man standing in front of him, the worry of not knowing, the what ifs, the ‘who am I?’.

“Give it time. Doctor Milano is doing all he can to figure out the best way to help you.”

It tore at the tall man as he looked into the brown eyes and that looked to him in earnest.

“Come on, you’ve some more review work to do before lunch.”

“Yes sir,” answered Jules as he followed his teacher back to the study.

*****

Lin Tang appeared in the doorway, quite upset, “Lunch is served for those at the table on time. I too busy to track down people not courteous to come on their own.” The small Chinese man turned from the entryway and left without further words.

“Guess we should go get lunch,” suggested Ambrose as he straightened up the papers upon his desk.

“I am kind of hungry,” replied Jules as he set his papers back in the folder and closed it.

*****

After lunch, Morgan Dakkar dismissed Jules to spend the afternoon continue learning the lay of the land and beginning his introduction to the work he would be required to help perform.

“Well, Reginald? Where does the boy stand in his studies?”

After pouring a cup of coffee for himself, Reginald leaned back in his chair and took a sip before setting the cup down on the table top.

“He’s quite intelligent; I think he’s farther advanced in his studies than he should be for his age, maybe his previous teacher singled him out for advanced studies.”

“Could be that he’s older than we think he is?” Doc Milano added.

“How old do you think him to be?” asked Dakkar. “I want to know your assessment of him.”

“He looks young, but I figure a strong fourteen, maybe close to fifteen,” Milano answered. “I’ve given him a thorough physical examination, to ensure he is fully recovered from his head injury, as well as to make sure he is in good health. And I’m quite sure he’s no older than that.”

Having allowed the physician to conclude his observations, Ambrose stated, “If his answers are an indication, had he not lost his memory and still been at home, he probably would be receiving his certificate of diploma within another year or so. There are areas within the curriculum that could use improvement, algebra, some sciences, and a few areas of the language arts… But as far as his history, geography, grammar, and basic mathematics and geometry, he’s quite literate.”

“Then he would be a welcome addition to the future of Ranchero Orchha,” Dakkar stated as he lifted a coffee cup to his lips.

“He would, if he doesn’t remember…” Ambrose added. “Morgan, he’s young, he mentioned a father… Surely he deserves the chance to return to wherever it is he calls home.”

Setting his cup firmly to the table top, Dakkar replied, “This is his home. No loving father would take a boy in his condition out into the wilds, transporting him in the back of a wagon.”

“But the boy said the courts placed him with the other men,” justified Doc Milano.

“And why did the courts take him from the custody of his father. No, it is best that Jules forgets about his past…” Ignoring his meal companions’ reaction at his use of words, “He needs to think of his future… here.”

*****

Deputy Dave Vestor looked up from searching through the papers on his desk when he heard the door to his office open. He was a little surprised to see an older lawman standing in the doorway; several days worth of facial hair grew on the man’s face, and his clothes were caked in dust. Even with the handgun hanging from the holster on his hip, he carried a scattergun resting in the crook of his arm.

“Can I help you?” asked the deputy.

“You can tell me where Lucas McCain is,” answered the lawman, not stepping any further into the office.

“You must be Marshal Torrance?” queried Deputy Vestor. “He’s at the clinic… I think… He’s getting better. Doc told me this morning that his fever finally broke last night.”

“Take me to him,” ordered Micah.

“Uh… Don’t you want to freshen up first?”

“What I want is to see Lucas McCain and find out what happened to his son!” demanded Micah.

Leaving his mount in front of the jail and following the younger lawman, Marshal Micah Torrance felt each and every step he took with dread… What would Lucas have to say about what happened to his son? A son the old lawman felt towards as if he were his grandson, had he been lucky enough to have one.

Wearily, Micah stepped into the clinic and waited as an older gentleman, presumably the doctor, spoke with the lawman.

“Uh Doc, this here is Micah Torrance, lawman for North Fork,” Deputy Vestor introduced.

“Pleased to meet you, I’m Doctor Webster.” The man held out his hand in greeting. “Dave here says you’re a friend of Lucas McCain?”

“I am. Where is he?”

“I moved him to the hotel a little while ago, thought he would be more comfortable. He no longer needed my immediate attention since his fever broke and his wound was healing nicely,” replied the physician.

“What about Mark?”

“Mark? Oh, yes, his son… Well, that’s a little more complicated to tell,” answered Doc Webster.

“I have time,” Micah stated as he set his scattergun down in one of the chairs in the front office. “I want to know how it is that the boy is presumed dead, and I want to know now!”

“I’ll leave you two,” Deputy Vestor stated as he excused himself from the room and the conversation.

Time passed slowly as Micah listened while the doctor disclosed each fact, from the boy being wounded, to revocation of custody, to his departure, and word of the reported Apache attack. Had he not been as exhausted as he was, North Fork’s lawman would have willingly reached out to strangle the doctor ‘Fool’s Errand, indeed’, Micah thought when the doctor didn’t keep his personal thoughts to himself about Sam Buckhart's departure to find the missing youth.

“I want to meet this judge as well as the counselors who allowed this travesty of justice to happen, right now, I want you to take me to Lucas,” ordered Micah as he stood to his feet and picked up his scattergun.

“I’ll warn you right now, he’s extremely weak, after all he’s been through,” cautioned Doc Webster.

“I don’t doubt it one bit. You allowed that hypocrite to take away the one thing that means the world to that man; he’d give up his life to see that boy stayed safe. The idea of Lucas McCain a gunfighter… that’s as ludicrous as… as teats on a bull! Hell, it’s just plain preposterous!” declared Micah as he allowed the doctor to lead him to the hotel.

Entering the hotel room, Micah was pleased to see that it was probably one of the better rooms within the establishment. ‘Bet it’s setting someone back a pretty penny, and it better not be Lucas,” mused Micah.

Having stripped his saddle bags from his horse as they walked by; Micah set his gear just inside the doorway to the room.

“Get out,” instructed Micah, not wanting to stay any longer in the presence of one of the men responsible for the situation.

“LucasBoy?” called Micah as he pulled a chair next to the bed, and sat on the front edge of the seat. “Lucas,” the lawman stated as he placed a hand on the man’s shoulder to gently shake him awake.

Eyelashes fluttered and slightly parted before Micah called Lucas’ name again. The tall rancher’s head moved from side to side as he proceeded to wake.

“Micah?” Lucas whispered.

“I’m here Lucas. I’m here.”

Looking around the room, Micah rose and walked to the stand containing a pitcher of water and several glasses, he poured a glass of water and returned to his friend.

“Here, drink this.”

Propping himself up on his elbow, Lucas accepted the glass and slowly satisfied his thirst.

“Thanks,” Lucas offered as he handed the empty glass back to the lawman. “What are you doing here?”

“Where else do you think I’d be after receiving word that you were shot and…” Micah began to speak sarcastically, but stopped speaking, he didn’t know how to say, ‘what happened to Mark.’

“He’s missing Micah. That… judge…”

“I heard,” replied Micah.

“Who?”

“I’ve talked with the doctor, got his take on what happened. I plan to speak with the ‘judge’ and the two lawyers before I file a complaint with the territorial governor charging them with abuse of powers. The gall of those men…”

“Sam’s here… He’s…”

“Doc Webster told me. He and another man set out a few days ago to search for him.”

The two men turned towards the door upon hearing a knock. “Come in,” Micah said.

Cloudcroft’s deputy, Dave Vestor, entered the room, holding a sheet of paper in his hand.

“Got a wire from the marshal, thought you’d want to know…” the man offered as he walked farther into the room and handed the paper to the marshal.

Deputy Vestor
Cloudcroft, New Mexico

Found graves, fourth empty /stop
In Mountain Park. No sign. /stop
Will continue search /stop

Sam Buckhart
U.S. Marshal

“Empty? What’s that supposed to mean?” Micah asked as he looked back to the deputy.

The deputy raised his shoulders indicating he had no idea.

“Silas said he saw a band of Apaches attack and kill the three men who had Mark,” Lucas answered. Pausing a few moments, Lucas tried to put the pieces together, “Someone found the bodies and Mark… They buried the men and left a fourth… grave…”

“But why Mr. McCain? If the Indians didn’t know your son was in the back of that wagon, they wouldn’t have come back for him… It doesn’t make any sense to leave four graves.”

“We could wire back Sam,” suggested Micah.

“I doubt it Marshal Torrance, the wire came in late last night; Ned had a family emergency shortly afterwards, and just brought it to me a few minutes ago. The Marshal probably rode out of Mountain Park this morning. I’m sorry.”

“Damn,” Micah quietly exclaimed. “Lucas, I’m gonna talk with that judge and the others, and when I’m finished, I’ll set things in motion…”

“What do I do, Micah?”

“I suggest you head home Mr. McCain,” spoke the doctor as he entered the room.

“Go home?!” retorted Micah. “The man’s son is missing!”

“I know he is, but… Look… As I see it, even though I know it’s a fool’s errand, the marshal will devote all his resources into finding the boy. If you were to leave to try to follow him, you’ll always be behind the man. You’ll both be searching for a needle in a haystack. You ‘ve no idea what condition the boy was last in, even that slave said he never saw the boy. Go home, and wait.”

“GET OUT!” ordered Micah, slamming the door behind the doctor, muttering, “Of all the nerve…”

“He is right,” commented Lucas as he sat up and swung his legs off the bed. “I could search every town and miss him by a day. But we can send wires. We can send out posters…”

“There’s always the newspaper,” suggested the deputy. He had been appalled at the physician’s apathy, and he truly wanted to offer his help.

“Newspapers…” a slow smile crept over the older lawman’s face. “Good idea. You and Lucas work on that, I’m gonna go meet with Zeller and them others. I’ll be back later.”

*****

Micah was thankful he had left his scattergun in the hotel room where Lucas rested. His meetings with the judge and the two lawyers had provided no additional information, but further drove the lawman to acknowledge their incompetence.

Seeing the lantern lit in the town’s jail and Sheriff Office, Micah stepped into the building.

“Working late aren’t you?” Micah asked of the deputy, his attention again set to the papers on his desk.

“Yeah, trying to figure out a way to find proof of a man’s guilt,” the deputy answered, and with an exasperated sigh, he pushed the papers away from him, several falling off the front side of the desk. “A man’s guilty of being the mastermind behind the robbery that killed our sheriff, wounding me and Mr. McCain, and his son…”

“You’re wounded, too,” Micah asked, curious, his impression of the young lawman improved.

“Got me in the back, under the ribcage.” Absent-mindly, Dave pointed out the location on his back. “Doc said I’ll be fine in a few more weeks, it only bothers me when I do too much bending over or picking up stuff.”

“So, why don’t you tell me your version of events,” Micah stated, resting his hip on the front side of the desk.

“Don’t need to go over the robbery…” Vestor continued when he saw the lawman shake his head no. “And you know what happened regarding the boy…” Micah nodded. “Lucas and the marshal trailed out after the outlaws and found three of them, dead. They’re out in boot hill, in pauper’s graves. Anyway, earlier that morning, Dominique from over at Miss Matilda’s brings her husband over and they told me about an Apache ambush he had witnessed, said that three men were killed. From their descriptions we decided they had to be Horatio Pettigrew, the man who Zeller granted custody of Mark, his aide, Mr. Giles, and a guide they hired. Anyway, while I’m listening to this story, they come in, Mr. McCain hears part of it and explodes. I mean, he storms into the office, grabs the front of Silas’ shirt, slams him against the wall. Calls him a lying, thieving, murderous bastard! Right there!” declared Deputy Vestor as he pointed to the location in the office where everything happened.

“This Silas, Lucas knew him?”

“Yeah, said he was one of those who ran from the bank. Anyway, the man sort of admitted that he had been in on the robbery, but in exchange for going free, he’d lead them back to the ambush.”

“So that explains why Buckhart isn’t here, but how does this all figure into your trying to find proof of a man’s guilt…” Micah stated.

“Well, it was something Silas said, he said that his boss met with a man at Miss Matilda’s to plan the whole thing and that the man spent a lot of time there…”

“And…”

“Well, it didn’t really come to me until Mr. McCain and the marshal brought the money back, and I saw how Ted Cassidy reacted.”

“Who’s he?” Micah asked.

“He’s one of the principle founders who runs the bank…”

“Go on, boy…”

“Well, I know Miss Matilda,” seeing the older lawman’s eyebrows raise, he continued, “It ain’t nothying like that at all! I’m a happily married man; my wife is expecting our first child next month.” Quieting his voice, Vestor continued, “Most people don’t know this, but… Matilda’s my sister.”

“Can she collaborate what this Silas said?”

“Yeah, she can, but her word ain’t gonna be enough to go up against the likes of Cassidy. And… Sis told me I should drop it all because of what he could do to Lana… and the baby. But I can’t! A good friend of mine was killed that day!” Determination set in the deputy’s voice and his posture.

“You want my help, son?”

“Yeah, I want your help… I want to bring this bastard to justice, for Sheriff Pattison.”

*****

Reginald Ambrose set to work to create a curriculum to help Jules in the areas where he needed further instruction, while at the same time making sure his proficiency in the other areas of his education didn’t languish. When it came to the sciences, the boy’s natural curiosity inspired his instructor when it came formulating a lesson plan; it was fun to encourage the inquisitive nature of the boy. When the lesson plans took them out into the field, Ambrose wasn’t too surprised to find he had several other ‘students’ tagging along for the various trips.

When Curly started asking a few basic questions, instead of just observing, Ambrose stood back and watched as Jules took to instructing him, speaking to him in a manner where the man could easily understand and not feel intimidated. Ambrose also understood how the act of passing on knowledge can help instill the lesson; it pleased him to see this side of the boy.

The boy showed a natural leadership and for the life of him, Ambrose couldn’t figure out why the two grown men reacted as they did, he was just a kid…

*****

That night, after most everyone had retired for the night, Ambrose decided to broach the subject with the doctor as they sat in the central room of the house; the wood in the large fireplace crackled as the flames danced.

“You should see him, when it comes to Curly and Parson, it’s like he’s a pied piper,” Ambrose stated after sipping from his coffee cup.

“It’s not just those two,” Dakkar stated as he entered the room. He walked to the credenza along the far wall and opened the lid of a wooden box and pulled out a cigar. “I’ve seen some of the others around the ranch.”

“It could be, because he’s such a novelty,” offered the doctor. “It’s been too long since… He is by far the youngest resident to live here.”

“That’s not it,” Ambrose countered. “It’s not just that he’s a kid… Why you should have seen how patient he was this afternoon when Curly started asking questions, and the boy found different ways of explaining the same thing until Curly understood.”

“It’s the same when he’s out with the cattle; men who’ve spent years in the saddle listen to some of his suggestions and actually implement them,” Dakkar stated as he sat down on the settee, rested back, and crossed his left leg over his right. Pulling the cigar from his lips, he blew a circle of smoke and watched as it wafted into the air.

“As smart as he is, I can’t for the life of me understand what his father might have done to have the courts revoke his custody,” Doctor Milano stated before he lifted a coffee cup to his lips and took a sip.

“Boy a leader,” Lin Tang stated as he entered the room, unafraid to speak his piece in front of his employer. “Boy good, father have to be good, too.”

Thinking back to the first words the boy had to say about why he was with those men, Dakkar sat forward, with his cigar still in his hand, he uncrossed his legs and rested his elbows on his knees.

“When we first found him, he said he thought he remembered his ‘pa’, but saw red spread across the man’s shirt. He’d been shot in the chest.” When neither of his companions spoke, Dakkar continued, “Who knows how old or recent that memory was… Doctor, if we were to pressure the boy into remembering, and he did… only to find out his father had been dead… What would it do to him?”

“My professional opinion would be that it would devastate him… As any news regarding the death of a parent would…” Doc Milano answered.

“Then as I have said before, there will be no further discussion concerning who or what his father was. Ranchero Orchha shall and will become his home.”

Crushing his cigar out in the ashtray on the side table next to the settee, Dakkar stood and bade goodnight to the doctor and the teacher.

“He should know…” Ambrose quietly whispered.

“Don’t let Dakkar hear you speak like that,” warned the doctor. “But I agree, the boy should have the opportunity to know the truth… whatever it is.”

*****

Jules continued to spend his early morning hours doing various chores around the main ranch house, collecting eggs, milking the cows, feeding and watering the animals in the barn. After breakfast, the rest of his mornings were spent with Reginald Ambrose on his studies. The teacher made sure they promptly stopped each day in time for Lin Tang’s lunch, before Jules headed to work with the others out on the ranch.

*****

Curly and Jules rode out from the barn and stopped at the corrals where they changed from sitting in the saddle to sitting on the top rail to watch one of the hands climb upon the back of a rambunctious stallion.

“I remember…” mused Mark as a snippet of a tall man riding a bucking, dun-colored horse flickered into his memory. The image and the thought were lost when everyone started cheering on the cowboy to “RIDE ‘EM!”

*****

In Cloudcroft, days stretched into weeks as word filtered in from U.S. Marshal Sam Buckhart as he traveled to and from various towns in search for Mark McCain.

In the beginning, each lawman was shocked at the events relayed to them, but in time, the wires and newspaper story Lucas sent reached the towns before Sam and Silas arrived. Upon inquiry, the lawman received factual reports indicating the others were taking the news seriously and investigating.

Sam lay down and stretched himself upon one of the two beds in the room he shared with Silas Waiscott.

“How many more towns do we search?” asked Silas. “We searched eight towns already.”

That leaves La Luz and Hill Rolls.”

“And if he’s not there?”

“Then we expand our search,” answered the marshal.

*****

Riding out with Parson one afternoon, Jules was surprised to encounter several riders, he closed his eyes at the shape they and their horses were in. He was even more surprised when Parson drew his gun and ordered them off the ranch.

“Parson, they need help,” Jules declared.

“Not here. They should have been better prepared for their travels.”

“But why run them off. What harm would there be in helping them, giving them some water?”

“If we let them stay… next they’ll take whatever, and soon… the land is ruined.”

“Just by giving them some water and letting them rest up? What you’re doing goes against…”

“Jules, this is Morgan Dakkar’s land!” Jules had never heard the man speak with that serious of a tone of voice. “I work for him. He pays my wages; he gives me a roof over my head. He sees that all his workers have good food… Everything we have here, we’ve worked for. We’ve not asked, we’ve not begged. We were prepared for anything when we came here. If they’re not strong enough to survive, then they should have stayed home.”

“But…”

“There is no discussion on this… This land is hard and unforgiving, but we can’t let others think they can take it from us.”

*****

Micah returned to the hotel room later that night, he’d spent a troubling afternoon trying to ascertain what happened to Mark and why… And to find out who was behind the robbery that set things into motion...

“Damn that nosey-body Pettigrew and those mangy, no good…”

“Easy there Micah,” cautioned Lucas as he rose from a chair to tuck his shirt into his pants. “We’ll get him back.”

“Lucas, it’s more than just Mark missing. I’ve talked with the deputy and a certain business owner,” Micah’s face lightly blushed at his vague description of Miss Matilda. “This all boils down to Ted Cassidy…”

“The bank man?”

“You know him, LucasBoy?”

“No, but I saw his name on the draft authorization, when we were paid for the cattle… What does he have to do with everything?”

Lucas settled back on the bed and listened to the story Micah began to tell, an incredible story, but one that made sense to a man such as Lucas McCain. The pieces of the puzzle fit into a coherent picture, and Lucas realized they just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time; and to compound their grief was the unfortunate luck of Horatio Pettigrew arriving when he did.

“So, what do you and the deputy plan for the three of us to do?”

“What do you mean?” Micah startled at Lucas’ question.

“Micah, I’ve known you for too long to think that you’d walk away and leave that deputy to face this on his own. And I’m here…”

“Are you sure, Lucas?”

“Micah, you remember that time, when Chaqua kidnapped Mark…” (Refers to events in the episode: The Raid)

“I do boy, I do.”

“I had no business out there…searching for them.”

“But you found them… You rescued Mark and Sam…”

“And I killed Chaqua. If I hadn’t been concussed, I would have known better, I could have planned things differently.”

“But you’re not concussed now…”

“No… I’m not, but I still have no business putting Sam’s life at risk again, by my foolishly going after them. He’s risking enough as it is… He doesn’t need to worry about me, too – what with the Mescalero out there causing trouble and killing people. No… the good new is we’re getting responses to the wires and as Sam and Silas arrive in those towns, they’ll find him. They’ll find Mark. I know they will.”

“Lucas, I know your heart is out there… with Mark… But we could sure use your help with Cassidy.”

“I’ll do what I can; maybe I can obtain some kind of vindication for Mark, by helping to bring this Cassidy to justice.”

“I thought you might,” smiled Micah.

*****

Three men sat in the Sheriff’s Office discussing what it would take and how they could gather enough proof to bring Ted Cassidy to trial for organizing the robbery of his own bank that resulted in the murder of Cloudcroft’s own sheriff, as well as injuring others.

The lawmen momentarily sat in nervous contemplation as they struggled to come up with a feasible plan. Lucas McCain’s his frustrations presented themselves with his heavy footfalls as he paced the room, the room quieted for a moment when his mind turned elsewhere.

“I know how to do it,” Lucas said as his strides sounded again, he turned to sit upon the edge of the desk. “It’s been right before us the whole time.”

“What’s been here?” inquired Micah as he looked up to his friend.

“We bring in the governor.”

“How does the governor help us?” asked Dave Vestor as he stopped doodling with the pencil and listened to the two men.

“Dave, say you tried to rob your own bank, how would you feel if the governor sent word he was sending people down to make sure the bank was still solvent? Do you think this is the first he’s tried something like this? Maybe not on this scale, but… I say we take a chance that… maybe… he’s previously been skimming funds from the bank.”

“Lucas?” Micah asked, as Lucas’ words began to reveal what the tall rancher was suggesting.

“Micah, think about it…” Lucas slid from the edge of the desk to the chair set next to Micah, with his hands animatedly pointing out each point, “to be an honest citizen one day and the next brazenly deciding to hire outlaws to rob your business? He’s covering something…”

“Embezzlement!” Deputy Vestor excitedly put forth. “But how do we get the governor involved?”

“Micah only needs to write his report, including everything we know, the holdup, the custodial hearing, Silas Waiscott, everything except our suspicions of Cassidy… We only state that we’re not sure all the funds were recovered… And in an effort to protect the citizens of this town, you’d like a full accounting to validate the solvency of the bank to be conducted by an outside, independent government official.”

“But that will take weeks to orchestrate…” Micah stated, piqued by the prospect but knowing how long it could take to conduct a proper audit.

“The way bureaucracy works, yes, it would take weeks to put it all together… But how would you react, knowing what we’re setting into motion?” Lucas asked.

“I see what you’re getting at Mr. McCain. If Cassidy has been taking money from the bank, he’s bound to grow concerned… But what if he… somehow returns the money?”

“My bet is, that lavish lifestyle he’s been living… He doesn’t have the money.” Micah declared.

“And with no money…”

“We’ve got him,” Deputy Vestor announced as a smile of satisfaction spread across his face.

*****

The following morning, Deputy Vestor sent a wire to the territorial governor informing them to anticipate receipt of a package containing full details of the recent events in Cloudcroft.

At the Golden Spur saloon, Marshal Torrance sat at a table with several sheets of paper spread out in front of him, writing his report and included various substantiations. All the while, knowing the saloon girls were eyeing what he was doing and undoubtedly planning to report their findings to Ted Cassidy. At least that was what they planned would happen.

At the hotel, Lucas McCain worried, sleep had proved to be elusive during the night, yet during the day it pulled at him in an effort to fully recover from his injuries.

*****

Four days later, two men rode into town, pausing outside the Golden Spur, before signaling their horses to continue.

Sitting at the large window in the dining room of the hotel, Lucas McCain noticed the men and sat up straight. He gently kicked the lawman who sat leaned back, lightly dozing on the opposite side of the table, to gain his attention.

Leaving their half-empty glasses of beer on the table, Lucas grabbed his rifle as Micah picked up his scattergun; both men exited the hotel and casually strolled towards the bank. On the opposite side of the street, Deputy Dave Vestor had been drawn from his office upon seeing the two strangers enter his town. With barely perceptible nods or movements of their hands, they agreed that they were all focused on the same men.

Taking his cue, Micah separated from Lucas and quickly made his way to the rear of the bank where he found several crates which had not been moved into the café that shared the alleyway, thus offering him cover should the men come out the back door. Once past the entrance of the bank, Dave Vestor motioned for the people of town to get back as he took position behind a wagon strategically placed in front of the general store. Lucas McCain prevented anyone he saw from proceeding down the boardwalk as he took cover in the alcove entrance to the millinery shop, after he had told the ladies inside to exit out the back and make their way to the hotel for their own safety.

Two men with masks pulled up over the lower portions of their faces exited the bank, saddle bags in one hand and a gun in the other.

“DROP YOUR WEAPONS!” ordered Deputy Vestor as he peered from behind the wagon.

The first outlaw fired his gun in the direction the voice sounded as the second outlaw tried to reach his horse. The outlaw pulled free the knot, and upon sensing the slackened rein, the panicked animal bolted away, causing the other horse to pull against the rein that tied it to the rail, causing the leather to break. The second horse galloped down the street, away from the sounds of gunfire and the smell of gunpowder.

One of the outlaws ran and slid behind the water trough, using it as a shield while the other outlaw ran to take cover behind several crates stacked in front of the town’s hardware store. The reports of gunfire echoed along the main street, causing people to pull back from the windows as sanity overrode their curiosities.

Inside the bank, Hank Williams lay sprawled behind the teller’s counter, moaning as he raised a hand to his head and pulled it away to see what looked like red paint on the tips of his fingers. Rolling over to his stomach, he looked around and saw the fuzzy image of the bank vault standing wide open and in the opening stood Ted Cassidy. The look upon the man’s face surprised the bank manager and the fact he stood there with a rifle in hand, glaring.

Unable to call to his employer, Williams allowed the dark fringes upon the periphery of his vision to take over everything as he fell once again into the dark abyss of unconsciousness.

“Damn stupidity…” muttered Ted Cassidy as he stood in front of the open, empty vault; furious at the second failure in as many attempts to rob his own bank. Clenching the weapon in both hands, the bank founder carefully made his way to the front of the bank. Glancing out the open doorway, he saw the smoke surrounding the back of the wagon in front of the general store to the right of the bank as well as the smoke in the entryway to the millinery shop. In front of him, he saw one of the men he had hire hiding behind the water trough in front of the café firing towards the wagon and smoke indicating someone else, probably the other man he’d hired, firing from behind the crates on the boardwalk in front of the hardware store two doors down.

Stepping to the boardwalk and realizing his movements were undetected, Ted Cassidy positioned himself behind a pillar and raised his rifle, slowly the end of the barrel moved as he sighted down the weapon to find his target.

Hearing the gun battle waged in the street, Micah entered the bank through the back door, stopping long enough to determine if the bank manager was still alive. Thankful there would not be another murder charge added to the list of crimes, Micah crouched and made his way to the lobby area of the bank, looked past the front window in an effort to determine where friend and foe were positioned.

The older lawman’s eyes were drawn to the figure of a man behind the front pillar, the barrel of the rifle sighting in on where Lucas stood, attention diverted in a different direction. Raising his scattergun, Micah pulled the trigger, shattering the glass window at the front of the bank.

The loud sound of gunfire behind him and the glass breaking drew Cassidy’s attention as he turned to face this new threat. Swinging the barrel of his rifle around, he fired…

Fire tore along Micah’s forearm as his finger tightened on the trigger to fire the second barrel of his scatter gun, catching the banker full in the chest; throwing the man backwards into the street.

“We give up!” yelled the outlaw cowering behind the water trough, only his hands and forearms showing after he threw his weapon to the middle of the street.

The sound of a second weapon landing near the first gun brought an eerie quiet to the street.

“Hands up and over your heads!” hollered Deputy Vestor, still using the wagon as cover while waiting to verify the outlaws were no longer armed.

Slowly and warily, the two outlaws revealed themselves, hands held above their heads, no additional weapons visible. Lucas and Micah remained near their respective entry ways covering the young deputy as he strode to the two outlaws and motioned for them to head down the middle of the street to the jail.

*****

Earlier in the evening, many of the leading citizens of Cloudcroft had been talking of a grand wake in memory of the slain bank founder…that is until they learned of the man’s duplicity in the part he’d played in the previous robbery and death of the much-respected Sheriff Wade Pattison.

Mourning did not happen; instead, the citizenry planned a celebration to acknowledge the accomplishment of the young deputy in revealing the true character of a man who held greed above friendship and the success of their town.

Modesty surrounded the young deputy as he tried to object to the plans of the town council, but was brought up short when a ten year old boy entered the jail and yelled to be heard, “DOC NEEDS YA! SAID IT’S TIME!”

Forgoing his guns that sat partially cleaned upon the top of his desk, the deputy grabbed his hat and ran out, offering not apologies or explanation.

*****

Cloudcroft was coming to life when the doctor entered the Sheriff’s Office and watched as one of his earlier patients restlessly slept on a cot set up near the pot bellied stove, he turned to the other occupant upon hearing the man clear his throat.

“It’s a boy,” Doc Webster stated. “Deputy Vestor’s wife gave birth to a boy. I know you probably don’t have anything good to say about the people of Cloudcroft or myself, but I came to make sure Mr. McCain took no additional injury. I can also treat your arm…”

“Lucas is as okay as he can be… considering…” Micah stated. “And my arms just fine. Been a lawman long enough to know how to treat and care for a flesh wound by myself. By the way… how’s the other fella doing, the bank manager?”

“Concussed, but should recover in a few days after the headaches abate.”

“Then, you should return to your people,” Micah’s voice indicated it wasn’t a suggestion, he just no longer wanted anything to do with some of the people in this town, and this man was one of them.

“I understand… Well, if you or your… ‘guests’ need my services, I’ll be back at my clinic.”

Micah watched as the doctor left the office, and he stood to follow him to the boardwalk. Down the street, sounds from the bank indicated workers were already busy putting the business back together. Returning inside, Micah saw Lucas sitting up on the cot.

“Any news?” Lucas asked.

“A boy,” Micah admitted.

Closing his eyes, Lucas said a silent prayer to his long departed wife,”Margaret, please be watching over our boy. God, please let Sam find him.”

Standing up to walk to the pot-bellied stove to pour himself a cup of coffee, Lucas inquired about Micah’s arm.

“Like I told that doctor, I’m fine,” mumbled Micah.

“No… you told him you doctored yourself. Let me see it,” Lucas stated as he placed his cup of coffee on the desk and waited.

“Oh… alright.”

Having waited for the marshal to unwrap the bandage, Lucas admitted, “Guess you do know something about doctoring.”

Micah hmmmf’d.

“Has there been any further word from Sam?”

“Yeah, he sent a wire yesterday, still no sign of Mark.” Quickly Micah added, “But he’s not giving up!”

*****

As the weeks pass and Jules rode with others to attend to the various herds, numerous times he saw people in need heartlessly turned away.

One evening upon his return to the ranch as he was caring for his horse, he remembered the words that Mr. Dakkar has spoken shortly after his arrival at the ranch, “The land surrounding Ranchero Orchha is unforgiving and I do not forgive those who unlawfully trespass on my land nor do I forgive those who turn against the hand that has offered to them aid.” Jules gulped at the now understood, innocent threat conveyed in those words. But still, somehow, he knew he had been raised differently, he had been raised to help those in need.

*****

“The Golden Rule,” Jules whispered as he sat in the study waiting Reginald Ambrose’s arrival the following morning. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you…”

Jules grew angered and could no longer refrain from asking why they turned away strangers instead of offering them the help they so desperately needed. If they were so set against helping others…

“Why did he help me?!” Jules yelled as his frustrations drove him beyond civilities in trying to understand. All his previous questions to his teacher had been rebuffed, but this question was the most ardent and could not been ignored.

Ambrose dreaded this day’s arrival; he’d witnessed Jules’ growing agitation and when the question was asked, he walked to one of the book cases in the study, selected a volume, turned to hand it to Jules, and stated, “Maybe this will help explain a few things.”

“Sir.”

“It’s the best I can do. I really don’t feel comfortable in talking about it. Hopefully you’ll be able to understand what you’ve seen and compare it to what you read.”

“But this is…”

“Sometimes, literature comes from the very nature of life, and sometimes, life mirrors literature,” answered Ambrose. “There will be no lessons today.”

Leaving the study, Jules carried the book to his room and placed it on the nightstand. He changed his clothes and prepared to ride out on his own.

*****

“He what?!” declared Dakkar, slamming his hands upon the tabletop and standing, knocking his chair over backwards, when Lin Tang informed him that Jules had not returned to the ranch house for lunch and was now late for supper.

“Morgan, I’ve seen this brewing in the boy… He’s witnessed the men turning others away. He asked me why we treat others that way when we took him in…”

“He’s my son!” declared Dakkar. “Why wouldn’t I…”

The doctor and the teacher both blanched as they heard the words, they looked to each other before they looked to their friend, his face flushed, his breath ragged.

“He…”

Behind him, Lin Tang righted the chair that Dakkar eventually slumped down, into.

“What did you tell him?” Dakkar asked with a calm, rational voice.

“I couldn’t… It wasn’t for me to tell him.”

“Morgan, the boy isn’t Malakai. He wasn’t raised here; you can’t expect him to understand from the examples we set…”

“No,” admitted Dakkar. “I know he’s not my son, but… Is it wrong to feel the same desires to want to protect him? It was because of strangers crossing my land…” Though Dakkar sat in the same room as the other men, his mind returned to his past, his land on another continent. “They brought disease of the body and mind… They corrupted the land, and my son died. This boy has to understand that this land has to be protected from the dregs of society, the outcast, those who would ruin a lifetime of hard work in order to gain… what? Money? Their greed… What price do we put upon the land?”

There was no further conversation as Lin Tang placed dishes full of food upon the table. The clinking of silverware upon China which echoed within the vast dining area of the ranch house was interrupted by the soft closing of the front door. The three men looked up and waited to see who would cross the entry way.

“Jules,” Dakkar called upon seeing the boy. “Your supper is getting cold.”

“I’m not hungry sir,” Jules answered and began to walk to the staircase.

“Not so fast, young man.” No one missed the sternness in Dakkar’s voice.

“May I be excused to my room?” the boy asked, still not looking at those sitting around the table.

“No, I expect you to come inside and take your seat. Whether you choose to eat is of no consequence to me, but you are expected to join us for meals.”

“I didn’t do anything today to earn the right to sit at your table…” Jules answered, hoping they would just let him go to his room.

“And why do you think you had to work to earn the right to eat,” Dakkar asked as he stood and walked to the end of the table nearest the entry to the dining room.

Taking a deep breath, Jules remembered the mental arguments he’d held with himself while he rode. “I was reminded the other day that is it you who pays the wages, provides the roof over our heads, and sees that we have good food to eat. Are you such a benefactor you would provide for those who don’t do their fare share? What of those whose only dream is something the other side of Ranchero Orchha? You yourself said this land is harsh and unforgiving! But sometimes, a person will sacrifice anything to see their dream! No, you’re not such a benefactor… I didn’t work, so I won’t eat. That’s your Golden Rule, come unprepared or encounter something unforeseen, too bad. As long as ‘you’re’ comfortable in ‘your’ house, who cares about anyone else, let them die someplace else!”

Jules ignored the shouts of his name as he ran up the stairs and slammed closed the door to his bedroom.

*****

That night, with the others having retired to the main room to contemplate their conversations, in the small upstairs bedroom the lantern beside his bed burned bright. Jules sat down to read the book presented to him by his teacher. Curiously, he began to explore how a book could explain some of the things he had witnessed, especially when based on the title of the book it had to do with life under the sea, not life on the land.

*****

Curly and Parson returned from a trip to Bent to pick up supplies that could not be provided upon the vast land of Ranchero Orchha. Lin Tang showed them into the private office of Morgan Dakkar.

“Found something you should know about,” Curly stated, hoping not to sour the already oppressive mood that has settled over the ranch house for the past four days.

“What is it?” Dakkar asked not looking up from his ledger books.

“It’s about the boy…” Parson answered.

“Take him to the doctor if he’s injured himself.”

“It’s not like that, Mr. Dakkar. People are looking for him…” Curly stated as he walked to the front of the desk and slipped a sheet of paper on top of the ledger.

Wanted: Mark McCain
Age: 14
Description: Brown hair, brown eyes, 5 ft 5 inches, slight build
Last Seen: Enroute from Cloudcroft to Rio Ruidoso
Notify: U.S. Marshal c/o Cloudcroft Sheriff Office

“That boy is dead,” Dakkar answered as he wadded up the sheet of paper and threw it away.

“But boss?” Parson had the audacity to ask. “If Jules is this boy…”

“What good would it do to tell him!” Dakkar demanded as he stood to his full height, slammed both fisted hands upon his desk and stared down the two men standing in front of him. “His father is dead. The courts turned him over to someone else… He has a better life staying here!”

“But he ain’t happy,” Curly plaintively answered.

Both the men who took to looking out for Jules and showing him the ranch and wondering at how easy-going and carefree the boy had been, had witnessed the boy’s transformation into a brooding young man. He did his chores and he worked alongside the men when tending to the cattle and the horses, but other than that, he showed no further interest in the ranch or the men. He’d even stopped attending his studies with Reginald Ambrose, choosing instead to sit in his room reading.

“I know…” Dakkar sat back into his seat, shoulders slightly slumped. “If he would only understand.”

“Sir, I hope I’m not speaking out of turn… But… how can he understand why we do the things we do when no one talks to him about it…”

Looking away from the two men, Dakkar’s mind drifted to another such young man, thirty years before…

“He needs to know,” Doctor Herbert Milano stated as he leaned against the doorframe. “If this boy they’re searching for is Jules, doesn’t he have the right to know who he is? I know you’re only trying to protect him from getting hurt upon the confirmation of his family’s death… But isn’t this a slower death. Don’t keep him here until he too…”

“Talk to him,” Reginald Ambrose stated. “You were the one who brought him to this house… You’re the one who set down the law surrounding Ranchero Orchha… It has to be you…”

“Sir, it’s not just this poster, there’s a U.S. Marshal going from town to town, asking questions about the boy too,” Parson stated. “I heard people talking in the…”

“Saloon,” Dakkar completed the sentence.

“Yes, we stopped by the saloon. We only went there to get the brandy you stock.”

“Go on…”

“Seems the boy’s pa ain’t dead, and he’s some kind of a legend with a rifle…” Curly added. “And from what people were saying, that marshal who’s searching, he’s Apache… He ain’t gonna give up until he finds the boy.”

“I’ll talk with him, later… Now leave me alone,” Dakkar stated in dismissal.

*****

U.S. Marshal Sam Buckhart and his ‘prisoner’ Silas Waiscott made camp outside of La Luz to consider their options. A coffee pot sat upon one of the stones that surrounded their small camp fire.

“How much longer?” Silas asked as he sipped from his coffee cup. Gone were the days of riding with handcuffs and a sour disposition. As the days and weeks passed, he realized he had a vested interest in finding the subject of their search. If anything good could come out of the hell he had helped set in motion, he wanted to succeed.

“About the boy? As long as it takes. Before we get to La Luz? We camp tonight and ride in mid-morning tomorrow.”

The deep bass of Silas’ voice reflected his sincerity, “I truly hope we find that young man. My Enola was right… Ain’t right for a parent not to know their child is safe.”

During their time together, Buckhart had seen a subtle change come over the man who was his prisoner. Others had set events into motion that culminated in the robbery and shootout… As a lawman, he knew he had an obligation to see that the man stood trial for his crimes, it didn’t matter that the man had gone through a transformation that literally made him a different man – a man who could become a boon to society.

As day broke over their camp, Buckhart sensed a change in the atmosphere as the land lay quiet; the air which should have contained the normal sounds of morning was vacant. As their journey crossed back into the lands coveted by the Mescalero, he ultimately decided the other man deserved a chance to defend himself, should the need arise and had given him a Colt revolver.

“Lie still, but be alert,” Buckhart whispered loud enough that only Silas could hear him.

“Some one’s out there,” Silas answered.

The anticipated shout came minutes later, forcing both men to spring into action upon hearing it. The lawman pulled up a repeating rifle to defend their small camp while Silas brought out the revolver and began firing. The first two braves to enter the camp quickly collapsed to the ground to not move again.

From behind him, Buckhart sensed someone approaching, he turned but the barrel of the rifle was pushed away as Mueglion charged the lawman and knocked him to the ground. As the two grappled on the ground for the knife the warrior held, Silas continued to fire and reload his weapon. He knew he had struck two more braves down, and wounded one more when his eyes drew to the fight rolling in the direction of the fire. Slipping a cartridge into the last vacant cylinder and slapping it closed, Silas aimed the weapon towards the Indian on top. He never had a chance to pull the trigger before he was slammed backwards to the ground as a bullet found its mark in his shoulder.

Moments later, Sam Buckhart slowly stood to his feet after ushing the dead body of Mueglion to the side. Crimson blood soaked the brave’s shirt and spilled to the ground from the knife wound in the center of his chest.

Exhausted and out of breath from his struggles, Buckhart declared, “A tame Apache… you might call me… but tame Apache… are not victorious over warriors!” Yelling loud enough for the others to hear, Buckhart continued, “I am Apache! I am the law! Too many… of our brothers have died today! Return to your home!”

In the near distance, sounds of horses retreating echoed and faded before Buckhart made his was over to where Silas Waiscott lie. Ripping his sleeve from his shirt, Buckhart pushed the material into the bullet wound forcing the man awake with a roar.

“Can you ride?” Buckhart asked.

“Yeah, I can ride,” Silas answered as he accepted Buckhart’s outstretched hand to help him up. “What about the others?”

“Their companions will be back for their bodies once we’ve gone. We leave them as they lie.”

*****

Morning came to Ranchero Orchha, where the mood within reflected the same dreariness that lay across the land. Having spent a sleepless night, Dakkar found himself standing outside the door to the room where Jules slept. He tapped upon the door and waited for permission to enter. “Come,” he heard from the other side.

“I would like to talk with you,” Dakkar stated as he stepped into the room and closed the door.

“It’s your home,” Jules answered, still lying on the bed, fully dressed, ankles crossed, fingers interlaced and behind his head.

“It could be your home too,” answered Dakkar.

“No, this will never be my home. I might eat, sleep, and work here, but it will never be my home. My home is somewhere… out there.”

Pulling the chair out from the desk, Dakkar set it near the bed and straddled it, his arms resting on the top of the slatted back. “I owe you an explanation…”

“You don’t owe me anything,” Jules answered in a monotone. “You made that plain and clear…”

“You’re wrong, I need for you to understand why we are… as we are. In my past, I had a son, I had property, I had responsibilities… But… there were those who decided that they were entitled to what I had worked hard to create… Not just me, but my father before me, and his before him. I worked so my legacy could be handed down to my son… But they came, and they came… In their greed, they took from the land and I couldn’t stop them. The land darkened and could no longer sustain itself or the people who called it home. But more and more people came, waste and decadence followed, and I lost… After my son’s death, I gave it all up for a fresh start. We came to America…” With a heavy heart Dakkar stated, “In time, it became just as before… what we had left. So we chose to move on and finally settled here. When we first arrived, we had hope for the land and dreams of this being what we had previously lost. We carved out a home on this land and vowed to never to lose her. For all she gives us, we give back, and we’ll defend our right to live here.

“As for why we helped you… It was not of your doing that found you in need of help. As for the some of the others… the others who call this ranch home… some came after we settled… among them you’ll find one common theme… They had no control over why they ended up here, but they chose to stay, to live, to work, to fight, to defend.”

“But I didn’t choose!” Jules voiced his frustrations. He sat up on the bed and swung his legs off the side to face Dakkar. “I know what I told you… when you found me… about…” his voice quieted, “my father. But lately…”

“But lately?” Dakkar’s voice held concern and compassion, when the boy didn’t continue.

“I keep hearing words; they come to me and then go, and come back… I hear them clearest just before I fall asleep and once I wake.”

“What are you hearing?”

“I’m proud of you, son. And… I know you do. I can see his face… And I can see him smiling, with his arm around… my shoulders.”

“You think this man is your father?”

Jules nodded.

“You said you saw him killed…”

“I saw blood, but… Mr. Dakkar… you had a son… I’m someone’s son… I know it. And I know how you treat strangers, who mean you no harm… I know it’s wrong. I can’t help the way I feel.”

Standing from the chair upon which he sat, Dakkar stated, “All I ask is that you think on what I’ve told you.” With that, he placed the chair back to the desk, turned and left the room.

“Why won’t you think on what I’ve told you,” whispered Jules as the pulled his legs back to the top of the bed, turned and laid down, curled up on his side.

*****

As Jules reached the bottom of the staircase, Lin Tang stopped and warned him not to upset Mr. Dakkar..

“Why?” Jules sullenly asked..

“You and Mr. Dakkar go on trip. I pack for you.”

“Pack for me? Where are we going?”

“You go where Mr. Dakkar take you.” Lin Tang hurried up the steps and disappeared in the Jules bedroom.

*****

The two riders rode in silence; Dakkar thinking of their destination and what would happen after their arrival, Jules tried to keep his fear from growing. Could the man mad enough that he was planning to carry through on his threat, ‘nor do I forgive those who turn against the hand that has offered them aid.’ As the afternoon wore on, Dakkar motioned for the young man beside him to stop when he spotted two riders, one evidently in distress, slumped over in the saddle as the other rider led the horse upon which he rode and a pack horse followed them.

As the riders neared, Jules was surprised to see one man was an Indian and he wore a star on his jacket. It surprised him to see the Indian supporting the black man to prevent him from falling. Jules closed his eyes as a twinge of pain stabbed behind his eyes. Moments later, he opened his eyes and watched as Dakkar greeted the two strangers; the pain forced Jules to twist his head to the side and close his eyes again. Wishing the headache to just go away; Jules pulled his canteen from the saddle horn, uncapped it, and drank heavily, before returning it to hang from the saddle.

*****

Sam Buckhart stopped the two horses he led upon seeing two other riders. His attention was drawn to the older rider upon hearing the man call a greeting. The two conversed for a few moments with the marshal telling of the ambush and his need to get his prisoner to Cloudcroft.

“You are U.S. Marshal, Sam Buckhart?” Dakkar asked.

Hesitantly the marshal replied, “I am.”

“We were about ready to stop and make camp for the night, maybe we… can be of some assistance.”

Dakkar had spent a long night remembering the words he had spoken to the young man who he offered sanctuary, hoping he would come to understand their way of life. But the more he thought on the boy’s words, the more he convinced himself that it did not harm the land to off help to those who really needed it -- those who only wanted to reach their dream, but not at the expense of others, or the land.

Helping the marshal lower his prisoner to the ground, Dakkar had forgotten about his companion until Marshal Buckhart stated, “I believe your boy could use a little fatherly compassion, he is looking a little green around the gills.”

“He’s not my son…” Dakkar inhaled deeply and slowly let out his breath before he said his next words, “I believe he may be the boy you seek.”

The words were slow to settle into Buckhart’s mind as his attention was focused on stopping the blood flood that began again as Silas was moved from horse to ground.

“Boy I seek?” queried Buckhart.

“He doesn’t remember who he is, only that he vaguely remembers a man, and that he was told the courts gave him to the men who were killed before we came upon their camp.”

“Mark?” Buckhart hesitantly called out.

It had been many years since the marshal had seen the boy, and the physical changes could not hide what Buckhart remembered, the look in the boy’s eyes and the way he set his mouth when troubled.

Turning from tending to the horses, Jules’ footing stumbled as the pain increased when he heard a name called, he looked up to the marshal and collapsed to the ground as the pain exploded in his temples, driving him unconscious.

Quickly to the boy’s aid, Dakkar and Buckhart carried him closer to where they had planned to prepare a camp fire.

*****

Throughout the night the two men discussed their two patients as they eagerly waited for dawn.

*****

With a second sleepless night observed, Dakkar cornered Sam Buckhart, pulling his revolver from his holster, as they prepared to break camp.

“I have heard of the man by your side these past months. I know he is your prisoner and why. Though he knows he will probably face a hangman’s noose, he still rode by your side.”

“He probably will, but I hope my words at his trial would look in his favor.”

Dakkar’s mind wandered between several lines of thought, “He was… he is as my son was…” Dakkar stated as he looked to the still unconscious form of the boy he knew as Jules.

“Why hide all traces of him out there?”

“To prevent others from coming, from following our trails... We’ve worked hard for what we’ve built and I refuse to see grubstakes torn from the land. I had hoped to convince the boy that the way we lived with the right way. But… he opened my eyes.”

“He has been known to do that,” Buckhart responded.

“We choose to live a peaceful existence here, away from the violence, greed, and gluttony of man. But we will defend and have defended our way of life. Certain people are chosen to stay here, but not everyone. I have much to offer, but I ask a lot in return.”

“And what is it you offer?”

“Hope… Remand Silas Waiscott to my custody. It is a fact that he would either spend his life in jail or hang… Am I right?”

“You are. Why should I let him escape…”

“It is not an escape. To live here is a lifetime commitment, hard work and sweat, but also an offering of pride. Is it not true that when you speak for his defense in how he aided you in the search for the boy… How he fought beside you against those who would kill you for what you are? He saved your life yesterday by killing some of those men. He very well could have allowed that man to kill you.” Conscience underscored the words Morgan Dakkar spoke. “And in returning the man to your legal system, you would be forced to divulge what you know of Ranchero Orchha…”

“I would,” Buckhart replied. “If it came to that…it may not.”

“It would, when they ask you where and how you found the boy. Call me selfish, but I do not wish for outsiders to come and destroy the beauty that is our land. I will still oppose those who would only take and harm, but… through the eyes of a child, this young man… I have come to see the wisdom of helping those who only want what is best when seeking out their dreams. Waiscott will be sentenced to life, here. No one needs to know of us.”

“But people do know.”

“They know only that we live somewhere. We are self-sufficient except for a few trips to various towns for some supplies and lumber. They do not know where we are, they do not know why… Grant me this wish and you may take the boy. But you may never speak of us, this has to be your solemn oath.”

“And Waiscott?”

“Tell the law that he is dead…”

“What of his wife?”

“He has a wife?”

“From what I understand, they were separated during the War Between the States; slaves were sold with no compassion for families. He recently found his wife in Cloudcroft.”

Taking a moment to think, Dakkar answered, “She and she alone can be told of his survival, and if he wishes, she may join us. But here is where they will live, happily, until they die. That I promise you.”

“The boy, no questions asked, no other conditions,” stated Buckhart.

“Only the conditions I have previously stated,” Dakkar held Sam Buckhart’s gun in the palm of his hand as he held the weapon out for the lawman to take.

“I don’t even know where your ranch is, how do I transport her…”

“Tell her within ten days, Reginald Ambrose will ask for her at the hotel in Cloudcroft. If she asks what to tell the others with whom she has friended, she is to only say that she is being taken to where her husband is buried and she will be allowed to stay for the duration of her grief. Ambrose will tell her the full truth, but only after they have left her old life behind.”

Silas opened his eyes upon hearing a horse snort its nose. Rising to his elbow, he saw the two men sitting opposite the fire.

“It is good you wake,” Sam Buckhart greeted. He poured a cup of coffee and walked over and handed it to the man.

“Who’re they?” Silas asked as he accepted the cup of coffee.

“The one who still sleeps is the boy we have been searching for…”

“We found him?” Silas asked incredulously.

“No, they found us. Silas, the other man is Morgan Dakkar, and he has a proposition for you. I have agreed to his terms…”

“What kind of a proposition?”

Dakkar stood to his feet and walked to where Silas lay. “Seeing as how you face at best – prison, at worse – a hanging… I’ve offered the marshal a trade, the boy’s life in exchange for yours.”

“I’m not a slave to be bought and sold!” declared Silas who tried to rise to his feet, only to have a cautionary hand placed against his chest by Dakkar.

“No, you’re not a slave. But you could become a member of my ranch and as far as the law would care, you died out here in the desert… During the latest Mescalero attack.”

Silas heard the words and looked to the lawman.

“You have changed while you rode with me. Maybe as you are now, is as you were a long time ago. Dakkar offers you a new chance at life, but there are conditions… his ranch is where you will live and work, until your death.”

“One prison for another?!”

“Not a prison, just that we don’t let outsiders into the heart of Ranchero Orchha. Once you commit yourself to the land, the land is committed to you. All of us who live and work the land will die upon the land and be buried here.”

“But my wife?” Silas asked.

“Within a fortnight, the two of you shall be reunited and the two of you shall live your lives within the boundaries of Ranchero Orchha,” Dakkar stated.

*****

As the two friends sat in the small diner located on the far end of town, Micah Torrance struggled with how to broach the subject of returning home. He knew his words would be difficult for his friend to hear, but there really wasn’t any need for him, or Lucas to stay. Sam Buckhart would continue to look for Mark, and return information sparked by the wires they had sent had dwindled. Having sipped and set his after-breakfast cup of coffee on the table top, Micah took a deep breath and spoke.

“Lucas, we need to return to North Fork, I’ve been gone too long and with Cassidy dead, the deputy can handle the town until they can elect a sheriff.”

“When do you plan to leave?”

“We’ll be leaving tomorrow afternoon, after the town council meets.” Seeing Lucas’s reaction upon hearing ‘we’, Micah continued, “Dave can forward any wires from Sam to us in North Fork. It’s not doing you any good staying here and brooding. Besides, you’ve a ranch to run.”

“I know, it’s just that if I do leave… Without him… I feel I’ll be deserting him, admitting that… he’s never going to come back.”

“Lucas, you’d never in your life ever desert that boy. We’ve done all we possibly can… You need to continue with your life, besides… Margaret would understand.”

“Would she?” Lucas asked. “Mark is my life…”

“And he’ll continue to be, but there’s nothing we can do here and we’ve already talked about how foolish it would be for you to head out after them…”

Without saying another word, the tall rancher and worried father, stood from the table, collected his hat and rifle and left the room without saying another word.

Micah paid their tab and watched his friend walk to the far end of town, before he left the diner to return to the Sheriff’s Office.

*****

Lucas McCain stood outside the small building appreciating its simple appearance except for the elaborate stained –glass window that filled almost one whole side, the east side. Walking around to the front of the building, Lucas removed his hat and stepped inside. Vibrant colors decorated everything inside the building as the morning sun filtered through the window.

Walking down the aisle, Lucas looked to the image before him, Mother Mary holding the infant Jesus in her arms, while Joseph looked on. Above them shone the sun, with winged angels and white clouds filled the blue sky.

Taking a seat in the front row, Lucas looked to the cross upon the alter allowing his tears to fall.

“Margaret, I don’t know how to go on…” Lucas said as he set his hat on the bench beside his thigh and rested his rifle against the same bench. “I lost you so long ago… Now it appears that I’ve lost Mark. Sam Buckhart is a good friend and I know he’ll search until he finds our boy, but… I should be the one out there… looking… I’m his father… How do I go on without the two of you?”

“Ye live to honor their memories…” was quietly voiced from behind.

Lucas turned in his seat to see a man dressed in a long, black flock coat, a black parson’s hat in his hands.

“I’m sorry, the door was open…” Lucas stated, offering an excuse for being in the building on a day that wasn’t a Sunday.

“These doors are always open. God never closes his heart to his children, so… why should we close the doors to his house?” asked the man as he walked to the row where Lucas sat. “No, please dinna get up.” The man sat beside Lucas.

Lucas was quite surprised at the youthfulness of the man, maybe in his mid-twenties. The freckles that adorned his cherubic face didn’t help give the man the look of maturity of so many other preachers.

“My name if Father Shawn Michael O’Patrick, and I have two good ears and strong shoulders, if yer in need of them.”

“Lucas McCain.”

“Aye, I wondered if ye would come to open yer heart and let the Lord heal ye.”

“The only way this heart can be healed is if my boy were to talk through that door,” answered Lucas.

“We don’t know what tomorrow will bring… It may be… By yer earlier words, ye have already thought that yer friend might not find yer son, or the news he returns with may not be as ye hope.”

“How do I go on if he doesn’t come back?” the words conveyed the defeat Lucas was feeling as each day failed to provide good news from Sam; each wire was the same – No Mark.

“Ye’ll grieve, ye’ll cry, but live... live the life they would want ye to live, a life that says you were worthy of their love. Carry their love like a badge of honor; don’t wear it like a shroud. Me only asks that ye keep the faith… Believe in Him.”

“Believe…”

“It may not be today, nor tomorrow, a possibility of only in heaven… But ye have to have faith and live for when yer boy is returned, ye’ll want him to be proud of the life ye lived.”

After sitting for a few minutes after Father O’Patrick left, Lucas felt a lightening in his heart, in his grief. He left the church and returned to the Sheriff’s Office. Upon entering he turned to Micah and said, “We leave tomorrow after the meeting.”

*****

“Enola,” Matilda stated as she closed the door behind herself and the other women as they walked into her private quarters. “Have you given this enough thought?”

“What do I need to think about? He’s my husband…” Enola answered as she took a seat upon the settee placed in front of the window that looked out to the expanse of land, trees, up to the mountains.

“But he’s wanted by the law… Surely you can’t be planning a life with him,” suggested Matilda as she took a seat beside her friend.

“Twenty years ago, I planned my life with him!” retorted the statuesque, light-skinned, Negro woman. “I vowed to spend my life with him…”

“And what if they hang him? For God’s sake, our Sheriff was killed during the robbery…”

“Then I’ll know for sure that he’ll be dead… But Silas couldn’t have fired that bullet!”

“Please… listen to me,” Matilda offered as stood and walked to the hutch in her room and began to pour two cups of coffee and handed one to the woman who sat in her room, so full of hopes and dreams. Matilda had to make sure she saw sense. “From what Deputy Vestor says, they’re all guilty; just for being part of the hold-up.”

“But the Marshal…”

“The Marshal can offer some kind of character reference, how your Silas has helped him while searching for that McCain boy… But that doesn’t guarantee he won’t hang! And if he’s not hung, he’ll be sent to prison – probably for life. Are you prepared to live the rest of your life on the outside of those walls, only getting to see him once a month… And how will you live as man and wife then?”

“How can I live without him… now?”

Matilda had seen such devotion in young women who headed west in search of ideals that just didn’t exist, expecting their prince charming to ride in on a charging stallion to save them. But her friend was a mature woman, who had also seen her fair share of young women come and go…

Without allowing her exasperation to show, her voice instilled the seriousness of her conviction, “Wash your hands of him. You’ve lived a good life here… You’ve been a good friend of mine for the past twelve years… Don’t throw it all away for a man you don’t need,” Matilda stated before she took another sip of her coffee.

“You don’t understand, it’s not that I need him… I… I want him. Once… I lost everything… My husband and my life, Silas and Hester were the only good things in my life.”

“Who’s Hester?”

“My daughter… Our daughter.” Setting her coffee up on the side table, Enola cried into her hands as she covered her face.

“Daughter? I never knew you hand a daughter… You’ve never gotten pregnant in all these years.”

“Eventually, they made it so I’d never have another child…”

“Eventually? I don’t understand…” Matilda asked.

*****

Enola remembered back all those years; the night they came and took her from Silas.

Seven months pregnant, she tried to struggle but the man towered over her and held a firm grip on her wrists, pulling her away from her husband and her life.

“Either you come, or that,” he said pointing her to swollen belly, “will be cut from you and thrown out with the hog slop.”

Behind her she heard the screams of anger and pain as the Overseer’s whip tore the skin of her husband’s back.

Two months later, a mid-wife help Enola deliver her child and her new master let her keep the child for three months. It was three months to the day… Enola was nursing her daughter when the Overseer and the master came… As they entered her living quarters, there was another man with them and he ordered the woman with him to take the baby. Tears fell down Enola’s face as she sat in the chair in her room, blouse hanging open as she reached out, breasts exposed as the woman lifted the child and took it away. The Overseer pointed his whip towards her to indicate she should not move.

The man and the woman left with the baby in their arms, but the Overseer stayed, toying with the whip in his hand. The master eyed his property who sat in such shock that her baby had been taken that she hadn’t bothered to cover herself. Reaching forward the master grabbed her arm and pulled her to her feet, and told the Overseer to wait outside. Later that night, the Overseer walked behind her as she was returned to the slave’s quarters.

A little over two months later Enola woke feeling queasy and the thought of food repulsed her. Once confirmed with child, she was moved to a small cottage, the same cottage where the master had impregnated her, but for now, she felt safe in that the pregnancy would prevent him from coming. As the weeks and months passed, she watched her belly swell and eventually her breasts filled with milk. Eventually, two other women joined her and took up residence in the other bedrooms of the cottage; she cried for the first and cried several months later when the second woman joined her. She cringed each time the man’s boot steps sounded on their porch. All three women were pregnant by their master when the first pains of labor came and the mid-wife was called for Enola. As dawn first hinted at its arrival, the wails of a male baby sounded in Enola’s bedroom.

“What color is its skin?!” demanded the master.

“Light colored, almost as if kissed by a hint of the summer sun,” answered the mid-wife.

“Light enough to fetch a good price?” he asked.

“Let me see,” answered another man who entered the room while the mid-wife was tending to the exhausted mother.

The men were oblivious to the woman’s condition as they focused their attention on her infant. The master lifted the carefully wrapped baby from the table upon which it had been laid and handed it to the other man, who smiled as he pulled the blanket away and examined the infant.

The master smiled in anticipation; it didn’t bother him that this was his son… His true progeny was at the main house, one son soon to graduate from college and claim his rightful place at his side, the other was mid-way through his second year at college. An heir and a spare was what his father always proclaimed as he celebrated his son’s impending marriage. ‘May you get an heir and a spare!’ the master’s father had toasted.

When his wife was pregnant with their first child and refused his advances in their marital bed, he had talked his frustrations with his father and listened when the elder boasted that their slaves would save him the expense of a night at a whorehouse; and nodded his head and smiled. So, the son followed his father’s advice and practice. And as the son became a father, and his own sons became old enough, he passed on the knowledge of the tradition as Masters of the Plantation. He saw no harm in teaching his sons how to relieve their needs without risking a pregnancy with someone of society and the scandal that would bring.

As the years went by and his son’s grew and his wife refused to submit to his desires, he felt no guilt as he continued taking numerous slaves to bed at the small cottage. He knew some of those he bedded ultimately became pregnant; many of these offspring currently worked in his fields or had been sold. A number of those offspring died with the woman in childbirth, and he mourned the loss of property, but he knew that for each successful pregnancy, that was one less slave he had to eventually purchase or one more he could sell. He had known that some of the pregnancies were terminated by the Mammy and the Overseer when it was found that the mother-to-be was barely old enough to conceive, Jacob smiled as he realized his sons were happily following his footsteps.

Several years before, the master had been at a dinner party of a business associate and the man had many light-skinned slaves working for him in the house and he overheard the man bragging on the price he had paid for several of them. It wasn’t just workers in the fields that the plantation owners were demanding to use slaves, but in their homes; and they needed lighter skinned slaves to placate their wives who feared the darker skinned slaves being so close. Even though the practice of slavery was generations old, the women let their opinions be heard and the husbands had to listen.

Once the master found out about the price a light-skinned slave could command, he spent time to find the right female slaves, a slave light enough in skin tone and beauty. He purchased Enola to satisfy his desires and his greed for money. Her beauty drew him to her. On the first night he took her to bed he changed her name, “From now on, you’ll answer to Dominique, a name truly befitting your beauty.” He sighed as he looked upon her naked form, curled into a ball and looking warily at him. He stood from the bed, taking the sheet and his clothes with him as he walked to the other room to dress.

His attention returned to the man at his side when he heard, “Jacob, this child should fetch a good sum. This young boy, once he’s eight or nine years old, could bring several thousands of dollars at auction.”

Jacob smiled at the proclamation; he knew the other two women who resided in the cottage would deliver their children in the next five to six months. He prayed they too would give birth to light colored babies; he never would claim them to be his own – except as property.

Dominique lay exhausted in the bed as the mid-wife sat her up and slipped several pillows behind her back. Having taken the child from the men, the mid-wife placed the infant to her patient’s breast.

“Yes, let him suckle and grow,” stated Jacob smiling as he looked down at his property. “This is the first of many, Dominique. I’ll treat you like royalty, you’ll never work in the fields again, should you continue to produce like this. Don’t disappoint me.” Standing by the bed, he ran his hand down her face and continued down to her breast where her son greedily drank.

Two months later, with while holding her son to her breast, the master returned having been informed that Dominique was ‘recovered’. Upon arrival, he demanded the infant be taken to one of the others for the night and each night he came. Three months after the birth of the male baby, Dominique found herself pregnant again. The subsequent birth of another light skinned son pleased the master, and his expression radiated at the goldmine he owned in the small little cottage. Dominique had become his favorite in that she had produced two sons. The master continued to attend the slave auctions and his eyes widened at the prices the light-skinned slaves brought. Males sold for more because of their strength and also, because the number of women they could cover when they reached age. Whereas once a female slave became pregnant, she was only good for a few more months. But then… The master bid upon one light-skinned female slave and took her to the cottage.

So far, the three women had produced two sons and two daughters, each light skinned. And the other two women were currently pregnant, again. His latest acquisition was still waiting to be confirmed with child. With each light-skinned child produced, the value of the slave increased in the master’s mind. He had walked with other owners; discussing the exchange of slaves as they would their best breeding bull. As he sat in the bed he shared with his wife, only for sleep, he wondered how much each of the women could bring at auction with these new qualifications, he dreamed of selling them as he would his prize broodmare after getting the best out of her. You sell when they get older and you buy younger. The smile on his face increased as he thought on his future.

Within the next year, Dominique prepared to birth a third child to her master. Jacob was happily entertaining a surgeon friend when word arrived of the impending delivery.

“Miles, I’ve written you about my money-making endeavor, you saw some of them this afternoon, come see the latest results of my original acquisition,” the man boasted.

As he had been present for the other births, he also demanded to be present for this latest. The men stood to the side and watched. The master thought of how much money he would be able to make from the multiple light skinned children he had so far sired, as he watched his property being prepared to give birth.

As the hours passed, the physician changed from being a spectator and enjoying the brandy his host offered, to taking charge once he realized there were complications. He sent a young boy back to the main house to fetch his surgeon’s kit.

Having pushed the mid-wife out of the way and examined the distressed woman he placed his left hand upon her belly, his right hand determined the birth was breech. With his stethoscope hanging from his neck, he stood in the middle of the room, Miles asked, “Which do you want me to save?”

“What do you mean, which? I want them both! That baby will fetch me more money than you can imagine and she’s an excellent producer!” Jacob demanded.

Taking a bottle of laudanum from his kit, he explained to the mid-wife what he needed her to do so he could try to save the lives of both mother and child. When he was sure the expectant mother was dull to the pain he was about to inflict, the physician set to work to save the baby and its mother.

Peering over his friend’s shoulder, Jacob watched with horror as a dark skinned child was pulled feet first from her body, “That can’t be!” he screamed.

The physician attended to the umbilical cord before he handed the infant to the mid-wife and prepared to finish his work.

“Make it so she’ll never have another child!” the master furiously demanded.

“Jacob?” inquired the Miles, shocked at his friend’s outburst.

“You know what to do! Sterilize her!”

Turning away from the scene in the bedroom the master demanded the Overseer be brought to the cottage.

“Who has she been with?!” he demanded.

“No one sir, no one but you! They all know this cottage is off limits and to touch one of them would be their death.”

The following morning, Dominique held another son her to breast and was told that she and the infant were to be sold at the next auction. By the end of the second day, she and her child were returned to the lower quarters where the slaves from the fields lived. With the infant lying in a sling hanging from her shoulders, Dominique returned to the fields to harvest the master’s cotton.

*****

“So you have three sons in addition to Hester,” stated Matilda having listened in quiet to the whole sordid affair.

“No, the male infants were never mine. They were never conceived through love. When enough time passed after their births, they were taken from me and given to others to continue nursing and raise until they could be sold. They were taken from me so that the Master could come back. The only child I claim is Hester, she and she alone was conceived in love.”

“But…” Matilda hesitated, with how to proceed; she wanted to know more of her friends past. “Then once you were…”

“Sterile. It’s the term the doctor used one month later when he came to examine me one last time. My master sold me, and that’s when Mister Lucious and Miss Sarah bought me… They were appalled when they heard the auctioneer bragging that I was a good producer and if anyone wanted confirmation, they only had to see the son he’d sold earlier. That happened before they had arrived. The man mentioned nothing of how I had been... Anyway, it didn’t matter to Mister Lucious and Miss Sarah… They were good owners and treated me and all their slaves right… Everything was fine until Mister Lucious passed on and his brother inherited us… and sold us to pay off his debts.”

“And that’s when we met… Lord Dominique… Enola… I don’t even know which name to call you…”

Sipping her cup of coffee she answered, “Enola.”

“How come you agreed to come with me? You know the kind of life I lived and the service my girls provided. After all you went through…”

“When you purchased me… The first thing you did was to give me my freedom and you put it in writing.”

“I did that for every slave I ever bought. I hated the idea of buying a person, but seeing the expression on their faces, yours included, made me realize it was worth the guilt I felt. But that still doesn’t explain… why’d you agree to work here?”

“You asked me to come with you. I guess over the years I felt I’d never see my Silas again and thinking he was probably dead – I saw the anger in his eyes when they took me, I heard him screaming. It didn’t really matter anymore…” Enola’s voice changed from one of sorrow to one of acceptance. “You showed me I could make more money working with you as I am than for you as a housekeeper. We’ve lived a good life; each one of us earned good money here and had a good time with any man who came through that front door and could pay the price.”

“But still… aren’t you curious? Where she is?” Matilda asked. “Where your sons might be?”

“This is the first time I’ve thought about my sons since they were taken from me. But… It hurts to think about Hester, I pray to God that she survived and has lived a good life… That someone like you eventually bought her and set her free. But to find her…” Shaking her head Enola continued, “It would be easier to locate one of the prized horses my master sold that it would be to find a former slave child.”

Matilda sat back, legs folded underneath her elegant robe.

“Matilda, I’m sorry, but… From the moment I recognized him, I knew I could no longer use my body to please other men. For so long I have yearned for the passion my Silas gave me… I want that chance again… with him.”

“You’re sure? Regardless what happens at trial… You’ll give up all this?” Matilda raised her upturned palm and swept it out in front of her, indicating all the belonging in her overly opulent private quarters.

“He came back for me… He could have kept running… He could have refused to go to the deputy to tell them about the boy… There’s good inside him… It was there once…”

“But you made him go to the deputy… It’s only because the marshal and that boy’s father returned that the truth came out…”

“I know… And I wish to God I’d never convinced him to…” Enola’s voice quieted as she regretted her part in the events that were now happening.

The two women forgot about their long-cold cups of coffee as they sat back on the settee, each lost in their own thoughts.

*****

Dawn’s colors streaked the sky as the three men woke and found their fourth companion still sleep or unconscious, they couldn’t tell which.

“We should probably get him back to my home… I have an excellent physician who can attend to him,” offered Morgan Dakkar.

“I cannot let you take the boy,” stated U.S. Marshal Sam Buckhart as he placed several pieces of wood on their campfire.

“You’re welcome to come with us,” Dakkar offered as he set the coffee pot on to heat.

“No, we return to Cloudcroft to reunite the boy with his father.”

“I thought I was to ‘die’ out here in the desert…” stated Silas Waiscott as he tied his bedroll so it could be placed behind his saddle.

“I thought we had a deal!” demanded Dakkar, his right hand moved to his pistol.

Buckhart anticipated the anger and the movement from his words, and had his own gun pulled before Dakkar’s fingers wrapped around the grip of his gun. “Don’t!” There was no anger, hatred, or animosity behind his word, just an order.

“Waiscott is my prisoner and the boy is now in my protective custody, and both are returning with me and the doctor in Cloudcroft will treat them.”

“I won’t go back!” declared Silas, standing and backing away from the marshal.

“You had best rethink your strategy lawman,” taunted Dakkar, a small smirk of a smile crossed his face. “I’m still armed, the boy is unconscious, and Silas is a free man… How are you going to get both of them back to Cloudcroft? My ranch is less than a day’s ride from here; you’re two days from Cloudcroft. I can easily find some of my men, and return…”

While the marshal was distracted by the rancher’s words and as he looked to the unmoving youth lying in his bedroll, Silas launched himself towards the Indian. He heard the grunt expelled as he tackled the man to the ground and with a swift right cross to the jaw, Sam Buckhart lay as unmoving as the youth he was there to find.

“Tie him up, but loosely,” Dakkar ordered.

“Why?” barked Silas.

“Because I’ll not be a part to killing a lawman, he needs to eventually be able to work himself free. Cut the girth to his saddle, it’ll help slow him down too.”

After having bound the lawman and hidden him in the undergrowth, Silas saddled their riding horses and cut the girth to Sam’s saddle. He turned to see his new friend helping the boy rise unsteadily to his feet.

“Are you okay?” Dakkar asked.

“I don’t know…” Jules asked, his eyes opened wide upon seeing the tall dark-skinned man approach.

“Didn’t mean to scare you last night,” Silas offered. “My name is Silas.”

“Scare me?”

“I know how my appearance can surprise folks, and you probably ain’t never seen someone like me before…” offered Silas, his deep bass voice caused the boy to look at him intently.

“I don’t know…”

“The boy suffers from amnesia, doesn’t know who he is. I’d appreciate your help in getting him back home,” Dakkar offered.

“I thought there were two of you…” the boy spoke.

Silas laughed, “You’ve been under the sun too long. There’s only me. Mr. Dakkar, I’d be happy to help you get this young fella home.”

“Oh… My name’s Jules,” the boy offered as he extended his hand in greeting.

Dakkar guided Jules to his horse and helped him mount up. Seeing the boy sway in the saddle he asked, “Are you okay?”

“It must have been a dream… I thought I saw an Indian…”

“You’re probably remembering the ambush from right before we found you,” suggested Dakkar.

“I guess,” Jules mumbled as he rubbed his head.

*****

“I did not steal that badge!” retorted the U.S. Marshal several hours later as he reached for the badge that had been pulled from his jacket and was now in the hands of the bearded sergeant who stood in front of him. Several other soldiers stood near their mounts and watched.

“Can you prove it?” asked the sergeant as he looked the badge over.

“Other than my word, no,” answered Sam Buckhart.

“Then why were you bound hand and foot?” asked the young lieutenant who stood next to the sergeant, the ropes that had bound the U.S. Marshal held in his hands.

“Because my prisoner did not want to return to Cloudcroft,” Sam responded.

“Your prisoner…” scoffed the sergeant.

“My prisoner,” Sam answered dead seriously. “I have no time to argue with you, return my badge to me and I will be on my way. It is imperative that I follow those men who knocked me out and tied me up!”

“Men? You said prisoner,” responded the Lieutenant.

“We met up with two others last night…”

“And this ‘Apache lawman’ camped with the devil,” taunted the sergeant as he called over his shoulder so the other men in his troop could laugh.

“My badge…” insisted Sam as he held out his hand to the sergeant.

“I’m sorry, if you are truly a lawman, but you have to understand how this looks from our perspective,” stated the lieutenant. “We’ve been ordered to this area to quell an Indian uprising and we find you, sort of, trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey and of all things, wearing a lawman’s badge. Once we confirm you are who you are, then I’ll return your badge and allow you to go on your way, but in the mean time…”

“What?!” demanded Sam.

“You’re coming with us until our Captain can verify your story.”

“And just where are you taking me?”

“To Cloudcroft. We split up four days ago and Captain Monterrey should already be there, waiting for this patrol. Mount up.”

“Hey Sarge!” yelled a man wearing private stripes, holding up the cut cinch.

“Tie the saddle on one o’ them pack mules, he can ride bareback. His people do,” replied the sergeant as he spat out a stream of darkened spit from the chaw he held between his teeth and cheek.

“You will regret your actions,” answered Sam as he grabbed a thick handful of mane and swung up to the back of his horse.

*****

The town meeting had successfully chosen Deputy Dave Vestor as the new Sheriff of Cloudcroft. His fellow citizens were shaking his hand and slapping him in a congratulatory fashion on his back.

At the back of the room, Micah tilted his head towards the door and said, “Best we get ready to leave…”

“Sorry, I can’t allow that,” stated the man who entered the room.

Dressed in cavalry blue pants with a yellow stripe up the side of his legs, his blue jacket and its brass buttons, though dusty, spoke of the man’s rank, in addition to the insignia upon his shoulders. The man continued on, removing his hat and gloves while he proceeded to the front of the room.

“My name is Captain Monterrey, and for the time being, this town is under martial law,” announce the Captain in a loud enough voice so that no one would doubt the authority of his words.

“May I ask why?” queried the new Sheriff of Cloudcroft.

“We received word of an Indian uprising. Our primary job is to protect this town and her citizens. Secondarily, we are to force the renegades back to the reservation and the leader is to stand trial in the white man’s court for murder, if the accounts we received are true.”

“Unfortunately they are true. Muegleon, and some of his braves left the reservation some time back and we haven't seen them since.” The words were said as the crowd parted and a man walked towards the front of the room to where the captain stood.
“And you are?” inquired the Captain.

“Nathan Ironwood, Indian Agent. We’ve received reports of several travelers ambushed and murdered.”

“I’ll want a full accounting this afternoon.”

“Yes, sir,” Ironwood humbly replied.

“Captain, my deputy and I need to get back to North Fork,” stated Marshal Micah Torrance as he stood to address the officer.

“I’m sorry, but my orders extend to everyone, Mister...”

“McCain.” Lucas answered as he stood in front of the soldier, his expression daring him to say something.

“I’m sorry for your loss Mr. McCain, I heard your boy was one of Mueglion’s victims.”

“My boy’s not dead!” Lucas retorted, moving closer to the man in an effort to back him down.

“I was not aware there were any survivors, if he’s able, I’d like to interview him to find out what exactly he saw.”

“He’s not here,” answered Micah.

“Oh? I can go to the clinic or the hotel, if those places would be more accommodating for me to meet with the young man.”

“He’s missing,” added Micah.

The captain looked at the lawman and raised one of his eyebrows as if that would help him understand what wasn’t being said.

“All the more reason for the children of this town to be told what martial law entails, I’ll not have any of my men’s lives endangered in an attempt to track down an errant child.”

“My son’s not errant,” Lucas announced. “He’s been kidnapped.”

“I was not aware of the situation… Corporal, take the marshal and Mr. McCain to the hotel, book a suite for us to use as headquarters, and then take their statements. I want a full accounting of every that’s happened since we were ordered here.”

“Yes, sir,” snapped the corporate as he saluted and motioned for Micah and Lucas to follow him.

*****

With his men bivouacked throughout the town, Captain Monterrey sat at the table in the main room of the suite and read through the reports. The glow from the lantern on the table top illuminated only a small area surrounding the table, sounds from the Golden Spur drifted through the open window as the curtains floated in and back on the gentle breeze that blew.

“McCain’s gonna be trouble, if you’ll accept me speaking freely, Captain,” stated the older corporal who sat in one of the wing-backed chairs in the room, leg hanging over the arm of the chair, using a knife to clean the dirt out from underneath his fingernails.

“I know, and from what was originally filed with the territorial governor and this report you took earlier, I can’t say that I blame him. Still, if he or anyone else tries to leave town, my orders stand. They are to be placed under house arrest and if they still resist, they are to be jailed.”

“Captain, how long you been out west?” asked the corporal.

“About three years… why?”

“Then you don’t rightly know about McCain, do ya?”

Setting his pen down, the captain looked to his subordinate. “What’s to know other than he’s a grieved father whose own actions set the groundwork for his heartache.”

“Just make sure when you tell him that,” the soldier pointed his knife to this captain, “make sure he don’t have that rifle with him.”

Still oblivious to what the corporal was trying to say, he stated, “If you have something to say, spit it out.”

“He’s got a reputation around these parts. Heard about him first back in Oklahoma territory, and in Wyoming too. They call him, The Rifleman. Says he’s faster with that rifle then most men are with a revolver.”

“The Rifleman...” mused the Captain. “My orders go for him too.”

*****

Having traveled a full day with the soldiers, Sam Buckhart sat straight upon his horse, the respect for his position as a U.S. Marshal instilled in him the sense to ignore the taunting comments made by the soldiers within the patrol. He had faced this type of bigotry many times in his life and knew that they were just belittling themselves as well as the uniforms they wore.

As camp was made and the marshal tended to his horse, the taunts turned to actions as a horse would startle and swing its haunches towards him, soldiers accidentally bumped into him. He knew the actions were minor but feared the worst was yet to come. Regardless what he did, a soldier bearing a rifle was always present, offering him no privacy to tend to his personal needs.

Settling down to his bedroll, he accepted the plate of beans and bread without any utensils.

“Your people have dog soldiers, you can eat like a dog,” the private laughingly stated, but the laugh did not reach the man’s eyes which were hard and cold.

Taking the bread, Sam scooped the beans and ate using his hands. From the first bit he knew there was more than beans on the plate, he tasted the grit of dirt included, but kept quiet. To bring it to the lieutenant’s attention would bring consequences he was not ready to instigate.

As the soldiers settled down for the night, Sam Buckhart looked up to see the sergeant and another soldier standing in front of him.

“Lieutenant’s orders,” the sergeant stated as he pointed the barrel of his rifle towards Buckhart’s chest.

The soldiers knelt behind him gathered both hands and began to tie them.

“Get them tight and take it around that tree. Don’t need him getting away while we sleep and warning his buddies where we are.”

The course fibers of the rope burned against the skin of his wrists, with an upward tug, Buckhart let out an involuntary groan when the soldier also fell into him, the man’s elbow drove hard to the area of his back below his ribs.

“Sorry,” snickered the soldier. “I lost my balance.”

Throughout the night as various soldiers would get up to tend to their personal business, a number of them went out of their way to walk over and kicked him as they left camp only to repeat the treatment upon their returned.

*****

With sore shoulders and arms the lawman swung onto his saddleless horse all the while struggling to keep the loathe he felt towards these men from showing. From shadowed eyes, he watch as the lieutenant ignored the actions of his men.

*****

As a second night settled across the soldiers’ camp, two lone sentries sat watch on opposites sides of the camp, just far enough away from the fire for it to not affect their night vision.

Hands bound, sitting with his back against one of the trees that surrounded their camp, Sam Buckhart heard the distant whinny of a horse and the nervous shuffling of hooves of the horses in the picket line. Keeping his own counsel, Buckhart said nothing as the two sentries continued to sit and lightly dozed in the dark of the cool evening.

The marshal sat and pushed all thoughts out of his mind, he focused on the sounds of the night and the land, he tried again to sense who it was that was out there – friend or foe. He knew they had chased away those remaining from Mueglion’s group, but still, would any of them still be out there trying to make a name for themselves now that their leader was dead? As far as friends, he doubted that Dakkar or Silas would have returned and he lamented the fact that he believed he had lost Lucas’ boy, again.

Thinking to himself, Buckhart revisited the image of the teenage boy looking at him and the grimace the appeared upon his face. It has been over four years since he had last seen the youth, but the same truth and innocence in the boy’s eyes was present. After the boy had passed out and lay unconscious on his bedroll, his hair, well past the collar of his shirt, fell away from his face… The marshal prayed that he was right, that the boy with Dakkar had been Mark McCain.

With a slow shake of his head he felt the grief of the boy lost to his father, and worse yet, the boy was lost to himself.

With the fire dying and the soldiers in their bedrolls, the sounds of the night came to the forefront of his hearing; closing his eyes, he focused on the sounds.

A whispered voice of, “Do I know you?” alerted Sam to the fact that someone was in front of him. He opened his eyes and startled at the face that was mere inches from his.

“Mark?” Sam whispered in return.

“Is that my real name?”

“It is the name that your father and your mother gave you,’ Sam confidently answered.

“My parents… Are they alive?”

“Your father is.”

“My mother?”

“She died a long time ago, before we met.”

The boy sat back on his heels and watched the face of the lawman who sat cross-legged and bound in front of him.

“Am I Indian?” the boy asked.

“No, you are a white man.” Letting the shock of finding Mark in the camp pass, he grew concerned that the boy’s presence has not been detected by the soldiers. “Mark, what are you doing here? How did you?” Buckhart asked.

“I’d like to know the answer to those questions too,” stated the lieutenant as he stood tall over the two.

For a second time in a short span of time, Buckhart was surprised as finding someone else nearby.

“Sir? I… I…” stuttered the boy.

“Speak up,” stated the Lieutenant as he leaned down and grabbed the boy’s upper arm to force him to stand up. “SENTRIES!” yelled the lieutenant.

With the yell echoing around them, the camp came alive.

“How is it that two sentries are posted and I wake to find this boy in camp, possibly conspiring with this Indian?!”

“No… NO!” yelled the boy, struggling against the restraining hand.

Pinning the boy’s arms down, the officer shook him hard, “Listen to me brat, I don’t care who you are… No one sneaks into this camp. You and your friend are both in my custody and I can’t wait to present both of you to my captain!”

“Let go of the boy!” demanded Sam.

“I’ll see you both pay the penalty for trying to ambush this patrol!” threatened the lieutenant.

“Let go of me!” demanded the youth as he kicked out and connected with the lieutenant’s shin bone.

“Why you!” cursing his captive, the lieutenant backhanded the boy across the face, sending him backwards to the ground.

Struggling against his restraints, Sam saw the boy lie there and look up with a shocked expression on his face, blood from his split lip oozing at the corner of his mouth. He knew that come morning, the skin of the boy’s cheek would bear a bruise.

“That was uncalled for!” yelled the marshal as he tried to lunge forward only to be stopped by the rope that securely bound him to the tree.

“SILENCE!” yelled the lieutenant as he drew his revolver and aimed it at the lawman.

Buckhart relaxed back and lowered his head in submission, but his anger burned deep within.

“I have no problem using this,” the lieutenant brandished his weapon in front of the marshal. He knelt next to the lawman, grabbed him by his hair and forced his face up. “All I have to do is write in my report how we came across two of the renegades and were forced to dispatch them.”

“The boy is white,” retorted Buckhart through clinched teeth.

“Injun lover,” shouted another soldier wearing the stripes of a corporal as he reached down and jerked the boy to his feet. “Nothin’ but a stinkin’ Injun lover is what we got here. I say get rid of ‘em both. Keepin’ ‘em here is only askin’ for them others to attack us!”

Around the camp, the other soldiers stood and watched, some pulling their suspenders over their longjohn tops, others, trying to pull on their shirts.

“How did this intruder enter our camp?” demanded the lieutenant. He pushed Buckhart’s head backwards against the tree before he stood. When no one answered, he continued, “Tie the brat up as well, and gag them both, place them on opposite sides of the camp. NOW!”

*****

“How could you have called in the army by telling them there was an Indian uprising?” demanded Lucas McCain.

The tall rancher, the marshal from North Fork and the Indian agent for the Mescelaro tribe outside of Cloudcroft sat in the agent’s sparsely furnished office. The town’s sheriff stood at the window, peeking out from behind the closed blinds.

“I didn’t!” claimed Nathan Ironwood.

“You didn’t call in the army? Then who did?” queried Deputy Vestor as he turned his attention to the three older men.

“No… no, I did notify the army, but I told them it was only a dozen braves, and about Mueglion. I would never have termed this an uprising. My God, I know the consequences of poorly worded dispatches!” the man’s exasperation that these men would like he could be so insensitive was reflected in the tone of his voice, it also showed in the fact that he stood to his feet, leaned forward over his desk and rested his weight upon the knuckles of his fisted hands.

“We didn’t mean to question your ability to do your job,” offered Micah.

“I know you didn’t… It’s just…” the agent sat heavily back into his chair. “I have a responsibility to the people of this town, but first and foremost, to that tribe and to Mugua especially.”

“How so?” inquired Vestor.

“He’s desperate for peace. He’s seen too many of his people, his family die needlessly.” Leaning back in his chair, the Indian agent’s face took on a serene appearance. “He told me a few years ago about a vision… Two sides of the same coin is how he termed it… Left him feeling cold and hollow.”

“What did he see?” asked Lucas.

“He saw blood across the land with the white man standing triumphantly of the dead bodies of many Indians. But, he also saw a chance for their survival, living at peace and many grandchildren surrounding his lodge. He said in that vision, he called a white man his brother.”

“It takes a wise man to see someone different as their brother,” Micah Torrance mused.

“It is admirable, however, this town could be in serious trouble if those soldiers continue to treat this as an uprising instead of what it really is…” Lucas began.

“And just what is it?” retorted Ironwood. “I know it’s not the whole damn tribe, but on a smaller scale it could well indeed be considered an uprising.”

“Well, maybe in the morning we could talk with the captain, get a better sense of what they plan in response to this situation,” suggested Micah. “If they’re more set on keeping this town safe…by placing it under Martial Law…”

“The number of soldiers I’ve seen doesn’t represent a full troop,” stated the deputy as he rested his hip upon the corner of the agent’s desk and folded his arms across his chest. “There’s probably more soldiers out there.”

“You’re probably right,” agreed Lucas.

“So… what do we do?” inquired Ironwood.

“We do like Micah suggested. We need to get a better understanding of this captain and those under his command,” stated Lucas. “We all need a good night’s sleep; I suggest we meet in the hotel for breakfast around seven, thirty tomorrow.”

The small group bid each other goodnight and went their separate ways, until the morning.

*****

“The boy!” muttered Silas Waiscott as he woke to find the boy missing. A fine sheen of sweat coated his face, neck and torso as he reached for the shirt folded next to his gear, ignoring the obvious discomfort in his shoulder.

“He left sometime during the middle of the night,” answered Morgan Dakkar as he entered the camp.

“And you didn’t stop him?”

“No… I offered him sanctuary and…”

“And what? He’s just a boy!”

“He’s with the soldiers. I followed long enough to know he made it safely to one of their camps.”

“Soldiers? Out here? Why would soldiers be out here?” inquired Silas.

“I imagine they’re after the renegades who killed those men where we originally found the boy.”

“You were the one who buried the others? Put four graves there? …And one was empty.”

“Yes…” surprised the man with him knew this fact.

“You were so close to Cloudcroft… Why not take the boy there after you found him?”

Dakkar turned away from the man and his haunting question. The answer was complicated, an answer of a longed for son…a son lost because of the greed of man. How do you explain to a stranger a lifetime of turmoil and a growing hatred towards outsiders… And yet, he had opened his home to a few people, including the boy and this man... offering them sanctuary.

“You wouldn’t understand… Go now, leave me,” whispered Dakkar as he left the camp.

The man walked to a grouping of boulders on the rise a distance from camp. He climbed them and sat down upon reaching the summit. Below him the land stretched forever… Patches of green grass, and patches browned from the heat of the summer past. Dark shadows floated over the land as the clouds passed high within the sky above. Miles of land in every direction illustrated to him the insignificance of his life; all from the loss of his son. Dreams… Memories… …A life that could have been. What would his life been like had he helped others… The boy’s words had struck a chord within him, a chord he had long ago turned from and chose to ignore. What could it have been had he returned the boy to Cloudcroft, and now he knew… to his father.

Several hours later a weary Morgan Dakkar returned to the camp, to find the saddle horses, the pack horses, and Silas Waiscott still there.

Walking to his horse and picking up the reins he said, “The boy is ultimately my responsibility. From him I learned I was wrong to close my eyes… to blind my eyes to the difficulties of others who aspired to dream… I need to see that he is returned to his father. I have no idea where those soldiers are headed to… For all I know…”

“We’re going after him?” Silas asked, weakly walking over to his own mount.

“Not we… Me.” Turning to the man in beside him, “For all intents and purposes, you have a price on your head. My offer of sanctuary still stands. Once you arrive, Doc Milano will tend to your shoulder and see you healed.”

Before reaching for the packhorse lead, Dakkar described how to get to Ranchero Orchha and handed him a folded sheet of paper. He swung into the saddle and said, “That note will see you safely to my home. And in time… I’ll see that your wife is returned to you.”

*****

The soldiers heard the coyotes yapping in the distance as dawn broke over their camp. The majority set about doing tasks as required, cooking breakfast, shaving, tending to the horses, most all were on edge and wary of their leader and a few others for their treatment of the two civilians, but not one man was courageous enough to speak out against it.

The lieutenant purposely strode across the camp to the youth who had joined them during the night and inconsiderately kicked the boy awake. Groggily he woke; eyes wide and scared.

“So, let’s start again…” the lieutenant said as he knelt and reached around to remove the gag from his prisoner. “Who are you?”

“I… I… don’t know,” the boy mumbled as he moved his mouth and jaw to relieve the tension created by the gag.

“Don’t know… Ain’t that something. You think I’m going to believe that?” spat the officer.

“It’s true… They said I had am… amnesia. The others called me Jules.”

“That wasn’t the name that Indian used last night.”

“He said… my name was Mark.”

“Well, it really doesn’t matter what your name is, we treat traitors the same…”

“Traitor? I’m not…”

The lieutenant stood to his feet, “It won’t do you any good to dispute the facts. You entered our encampment without permission and were found talking with a fellow conspirator.” The man’s anger shifted quickly as he again knelt down, grabbed the front of the boy’s shirt to shake him, and yelled, “Where are the others! Tell me where those other murdering savages are!”

“I… I don’t know…” shuddered the boy as he tried to cower backwards.

“DON’T LIE TO ME! TELL ME WHERE THEY ARE!!” Without warning, the lieutenant backhanded the boy.

On the opposite side of the camp Sam Buckhart watched as the officer manhandled the boy he knew to be Lucas McCain’s son. The way the officer was demanding information clearly indicated the man’s mind had warped. The gag prevented the lawman’s words from being intelligibly heard.

“Lieutenant!,” called an older man who still wore corporal stripes. He’d witnessed the lieutenant’s actions and grew concerned; and finally found within himself the strength to act. With a firmness that belied his rank, he continued, “Maybe we should let the captain handle this, sir.”

“Captain?”

The officer’s eyes focused on the scene before him, a young man cheek already bruising and reddening again, blood trickling from a split lip; the look of fear on his face.

“Captain Monterrey, sir. We’re due to report to him sometime today in Cloudcroft. We have our orders, sir.” Again, the corporal was insistent.

“Break camp!” ordered the lieutenant as he stood and retreated to the campfire.

*****

Having scouted the site earlier abandoned by the soldiers, Morgan Dakkar brooded upon seeing the remnants of cut rope lying on opposite sides of the camp. He worried about the boy being exposed to the prisoners in the custody of the soldiers. He regretted his actions, of only following the boy and not ensuring the boy’s safety. He had originally taken on the responsibility for the boy… His conscience pulled at him to continue to do the right thing; to meet up with the soldiers, take custody of the boy and ensure he was safely returned to his father.

Returning to his horses, he again set out to follow the soldiers and the boy he knew as Jules.

*****

“Captain,” the private stated as he opened the door and entered the room of his commanding officer.

“What is it Private?”

“Sir, there’s a few men wanting to have words with you.”

“Who are they?”

“Uh… Two lawman, that Indian agent, and another dude… I… uh… I think he’s the Rifleman.”

“Oh for Pete’s sake,” the captain declared in exasperation as he slammed down the pen he had been using to write. “Don’t tell me you’ve heard tales about him too.”

“There not tales sir. They’re the truth, I swear,” stated the private. “Take a look at his rifle… You’ll see.”

Taking a moment to straighten the table, the captain stated, “Show them in.”

A few moments later, the private showed four men into the parlor of the suite occupied as headquarters for the army patrol.

“Gentlemen? The private stated you wanted to have words with me?” the captain inquired as he lifted a decanter of brandy and poured a glass for himself and without words offered the same to the others.

“Isn’t it a little too early in the morning to be drinking?” Micah inquired.

“Never, not with this uprising.”

“That’s what we wanted to talk to you about,” stated Nathan Ironwood and he toyed with the hat he held in his hands. “You’re calling this an uprising, but it’s only a few bucks… not the whole tribe.”

“Call it what you want, Mr. Ironwood. But the fact is, there are a dozen Indians off the reservation and you have no idea where they are. AND from your own reports, they have murdered a number of citizens.”

“I realize that sir, but it is my greatest hope that your patrols will let those who remain on the reservation in peace. Mugua only wishes peace for his people,” Ironwood insisted.

“I’m not eager to start an Indian war, Mr. Ironwood, however, I cannot allow those who have are part of…” the man struggled to pronounce the Indian’s name.

“Mueglion, sir,” offered Dave Vestor.

“Whatever… I’m not about to allow those murdering bastards to slink back to the reservation with impunity! You damn well know that if we don’t stop them, they’ll continue their raids until a war is started.”

“But sir…”

“I know… I know… Your job is to ensure peace and see that their needs are taken care of. I’m not going to interfere with that, but… you will escort us to their reservation and we will interview Mugua regarding his son and the others. And if any of the others who associate with that murderer…”

“Sir, I agree that those responsible should pay… But if you go in there, full force, you’ll undoubtedly put them on the defense.”

“And what do you suggest?” Captain Monterrey asked as he watched the Indian agent twist his hat.

While waiting for the man to answer, he looked at the two other men who had yet to speak.

“Mr. McCain, you of all people should want to see us ride into that encampment to seek justice for your son.”

“My son doesn’t need justice. He needs to be found, and if you go riding into Mugua’s land without any regard for his control over his tribe, you’ll cause everybody more grief. My suggestion is that you ride in with Ironwood and meet with the chief. After speaking with the man, then you can formulate your plan on how to handle the others once they’re found.”

*****

By the time the sky was giving way to the darkness of night, Captain Monterrey, Nathan Ironwood, and Chief Mugua had agreed that the tribe would be allowed to live in peace, however, those who had left would be prosecuted to the fullest extent the white man’s law would allow.

*****

The soldiers saw Cloudcroft on the horizon as they rode two by two, with the young man in the middle, followed several lengths later by the Indian. Though the corporal has pleaded the case of the lawman, the lieutenant refused to accept reality, so… Sam Buckhart rode with his hands bound behind his back. At least the boy was allowed to ride with his hands tied in front of him. Regardless, both were still gagged to keep them quiet.

On the occasions when Mark turned to look at him, Sam Buckhart saw the fear and worries in the young man’s eyes.

*****

Night surrounded the soldiers as they entered the town and made their way down one of the back streets until they heard “Hold on there!”

“State your business!” demanded the sergeant.

“Lieutenant Drake?!”called the voice as the owner stepped from the shadows of an alleyway.

“Identify yourself!” challenged the lieutenant.

“Private First Class Torrington. Lieutenant, the captain expected your patrol earlier today.”

“We were detained by two renegades. Where are the others bivouacked? I need men for sentry duty, I’m sure we were followed, one of the men thought he saw someone trailing us. We need to be ready for an assault.”

“We’re at the hotel. We can put your prisoners at the jail.”

“Fine. And then I want to see the captain.”

*****

The two prisoners were pulled from the horses and pushed along the alleyway towards the jail. With little regard for compassion, they were pushed into separate cells, without the removal of their restraints.

“Now that I have the full troop at my disposal, let those murdering savage friends of your try to free you.”

With the clinking of the keys locking the jail cell doors, the lieutenant continued, “I have a report to file with my captain. While I’m gone, pray to your heathen gods that your death with be swift.”

As entered into the office of the Sheriff’s Office he said, “No one… and I mean no one goes back there. No one enters this office without my express permission. I want a soldier posted by each outside window to the cells. No telling if those savages will enter into the town under the cover of darkness to slip one of them a weapon to aid in their escape.”

*****

The desk clerk let the way up the main flight of stairs and showed the lieutenant the door to the suite the soldiers had requested as their temporary headquarters.

“That’s all,” Lieutenant Drake stated dismissing the clerk, as he took a moment to straighten his attire and made sure he was presentable. Before knocking upon the door, he placed his hat under his arm, and then waited for an answer to enter.

“Lieutenant Drake reporting, sir,” he announced as he snapped to attention and saluted.

“At ease Lieutenant,” stated Captain Monterrey after returning the salute. “Have a seat… Can I offer you anything to drink?”

“No thank you, sir,” was answered as the lesser officer took a seat across the table from where the captain worked. “We found no sign of the main group of savages sir, but we did find one renegade and a young boy who no doubt has fallen in with them. I presume the boy relays information to them... It was a small miracle that I woke to find him trying to free our prisoner. The two of them could have killed a number of my men, as quiet as they were…”

“Where are your prisoners now?”

“At the jail; separate cells, of course. I’ve men stationed around the building to prevent any of their comrades from getting to them.”

“Do they speak English?”

“Yes, sir. Both speak our language well enough… you’d think they’d spent their lives living among us. Sir, if you’ll give me the opportunity, I’m sure I can obtain from them the location of the other renegades…”

“I’m not sure that would be advisable.”

“Sir! They’re murdering savages…”

“They’re the responsibility of Nathan Ironwood, the Indian agent stationed here for the Mescalero tribe.”

“SIR! WITH ALL DUE RESPECT, HE WAS THE ONE WHO ALLOWED THEM TO ESCAPE IN THE FIRST PLACE!” Lieutenant Drake stood, his words shouted in defiance.

“LIEUTENANT!” commanded Captain Monterrey. Lowering his voice he stated, “You have until tomorrow morning to find the information we need. Dismissed.”

*****

The lantern burned low, casting a soft glow over the desk upon which sat numerous papers bearing careful script outlining the events of the past few weeks. The report consisted of their days in the saddle without so much as seeing hide nor hair of an Indian. Left out of the written word was the intense hatred the lieutenant held for those he chased.

Sitting back from his writings, the lieutenant vividly saw the raids made upon the homestead of his parents, watching as his mother tried to force him to hide in the root cellar. From the darkness he remembered her piercing scream followed by silence. Long after the thunder of hooves quieted, he pushed open the trap door and climbed into the darkening day as the sun set in the west. Walking across the yard where earlier in the day he had played, he stumbled and fell. Regaining his feet, he turned to see what he had tripped over and found his mother, eyes wide open, terror on her face. Looking around he saw the body of his father folded in half, hanging over the top rail of the corral, shot down as he’d tried to climb over it. There were men his family had called friends lying scattered around their homestead, all dead.

As daylight bathed the broken scene, a cavalry patrol came upon the homestead. As the sun approached its midway point across the sky and after eight graves were dug and covered over with a few words of respect spoken, the soldiers left with a future recruit – one six year old Charles Drake.

*****

Pushing the chair backwards from the desk, Lieutenant Drake stood walked into the area of the jail containing the cells and his prisoners.

The keys to the cells jingled in his hand has he stood in front of the doorway.

“You will tell me where you and the Indian were planning to meet the others,” Drako coldly spoke.

On the other side of the bars, the young man pushed himself backwards on the bunk upon which he sat; the stone wall stopped his retreat.

“You think you’re scared now… boy… You don’t know what scared is… Not until you’ve witnessed the death of your parents and friends… I know now, the only reason I was spared that day was so that I could see to the utter destruction of those heathens… You will be the key to my revenge…”

Behind him in the second cell, the bound and gagged Sam Buckhart struggled against his restraints, furious at the words he had heard and doing everything in his power to change the soldier’s attention away from the boy, the boy he prayed and yet knew was Lucas McCain’s son. Buckhart quieted when he saw the soldier turn towards him, he tensed upon seeing the man’s expression – sheer, deep-seeded, hatred.

“Your kind kill and plunder and ride into the land, you think all you do is without impunity?! You kill for no reason other than we were there...”

Turning his back upon Buckhart, Drake inserted one of the keys into the lock and turned it. Standing straight and tall, the soldier opened the door and entered the cell. Upon reaching the young man, he pulled him off the bunk, yet pushed him back down, his knee upon the back in order to prevent his prisoner from getting up. Deftly, he untied the knot keeping the gag in place.

“Stay put until I tell you you can move,” Drake said as he removed his knee from the young man’s back and stepped away.

Feeling the pressure removed from his back, the young man inhaled deeply causing him to cough.

“Now, turn over and sit up,” ordered Drake. “Slowly.”

Once his prisoner was facing him, Drake moved in closer. He didn’t fear the ‘boy’ in front of him as he lifted his left leg and set his foot on the rail of the bunk, and rested his forearm across his knee.

“Now, one more time. You will tell me where you and that heathen planned to meet up with the others who escaped from the reservation.”

“I don’t know…”

Without warning, the soldier raised his hand and backslapped the boy across his face.

“I know you don’t live on the reservation, the army wouldn’t allow any white captives to live there… But you’re in collaborating with them, and what you are planning is a conspiracy against white men. You can be hung for your actions.”

“I’m not conspiring with anybody,” the boy declared.

Again, he was backhanded across his face, the strike split open his lower lip as blood oozed.

Fearfully the young man stated, “You gotta believe me, I don’t know anything. I don’t even know who I am… I just want to go home! I WANNA GO HOME!!”

“We’ll see… Keep it up, and the army will charge you with treason… The sentence for treason is death!.”

Drake picked up the gag and tied it back in place. Purposefully, he strode from the first cell, locking the door behind him. With keys jingling again, Drake opened the second cell; only this occupant he approached warily. A fourteen year old boy was nothing, but a full Apache warrior was no one to trifle with, even if they were bound and gagged.

Drawing his service pistol, Drake stated, “Roll over.”

After U.S. Marshal Sam Buckhart complied, the lieutenant removed his gag, as he had the boy.

“Now, I’ll ask you the same as I asked the boy…”

“I demand to speak to Deputy Vestor.”

Infuriated, Drake back-slapped Buckhart.

“You are in no position to make demands,” Drake seethed. “Tell me where you and the boy were planning to meet up with those heathens.”

Forcefully Buckhart stated, “I am a legally deputized representative of the United States Marshal Service. I demand my rights that you notify my superiors…”

“Give up this pretense,” Drake stated as he balled up his right hand into a fist and punched Buckhart’s left jaw. “There is no way the U.S. Marshal’s would deputize your kind as a lawman.

Fitting his darkening vision and the white spots that pricked his eyes, Buckhart slowly shook his head to ward off the effects of the blow he’d taken.

“That boy is no captive; he’s the son of Lucas McCain. His name is Mark McCain. I was trailing after him to bring him back to Cloudcroft so the courts could reverse their decision on the revocation of custody.”

“Fancy words coming from you,” spat Drake, again he punched the lawman across the jaw.

“I demand that you cease and desist these activities and set me and Mark free, If you value your military career. But I can assure you, once I file my report in Denver, your career will be over.”

Infuriated, Drake shouted, “HOW DARE YOU!”

“I dare because it is the truth,” Buckhart stated, he voice carried a deep undertone.

“Your kind no nothing of truth. You’ve been taught fancy words to trick unsuspecting citizens of this territory, you fool them in order to kill them. But I know the truth! You’re nothing more than a murdering red-skin!”

“The truth will set me free!”

The lieutenant spit in Buckhart’s face, without any compassion, he retrieved the bandana used as a gag and roughly put it back around the lawman to silence his words.

*****

Having not been able to sleep, the worries of everything that had happened in his down Sheriff Vestor left his home, his wife, and new-born child and headed to his office. As he neared, he was surprised to see to soldiers standing on either side of the door. Pausing to open the door, he was informed that he wasn’t allowed entry.

“This is my office, my jail,” Sheriff Vestor announced. “By what right do you keep me out?”

“Martial law,” stated one of the soldiers.

“Martial law. I know your captain stated that earlier, but you can’t keep me from seeing to my duties and responsibilities.”

As he argued, the door opened, “What’s all the arguing about?” Lieutenant Drake asked.

“Your soldier boy, here, was keeping me from entering MY office,” Vestor announced, his stance dared the soldier to deny him to his face.

“Please, come in. Jordansen didn’t know I had finished my interrogations.”

“Interrogations? You found some of Mueglion’s braves?” Vestor asked as he entered his office in front of the lieutenant.

“If you’d call them that. We found one heathen and a boy. But don’t worry, these two will eventually tell us where the others are hiding and what they’re planning.”

As the lawman walked by the closed door that led to the cells, he looked through the barred window and inhaled quickly he saw Sam Buckhart in one of the cells gagged.

“First time seeing an Apache up close?” teased Drake. “Don’t worry, your jail is secure; you and your town are quite safe while they’re in there.”

“You can’t keep him in there,” Vestor tried to explain.

Misconstruing the sheriff’s words, Drake thought, “What do you mean… Wait… This one is that Moogleon. Damn, I knew it. I just knew it. No wonder he put up such a fight…”

Ignoring the sheriff’s protestations, he continued, “Sheriff, I’m sorry, but I’ll have to ask you to leave. But I do thank you for all your assistance. Just think, we got him and didn’t even realize it.”

Pushing the lawman back to the entrance to the street, he instructed his soldiers that no one was to be allowed inside the building.

*****

Sheriff Vestor had no choice but to comply to with the soldier’s brisk dismissal; with the town under Martial Law there was nothing he could do… alone. Pulling out his pocket watch he decided to wait until morning to meet with Marshal Micah Torrance and Lucas McCain. Between the three of them he knew they could come up with a plan.

*****

Many of the citizens in the town of Cloudcroft had yet to start their day, however, as was normal, the soldiers were already up and tending to duties. Several were seated in a small café talking amongst themselves of the events that brought them to what they considered a ‘God forsaken town’. They grumbled that they should be out ‘there’, trailing after those murderous savages instead of in town, trying to pull information out of the prisoners.

“Yeah, I don’t mind what the lieutenant is doing to that ‘injun’ but the kid…” stated one of the soldiers as a gentleman of European heritage, yet totally at ease in wearing the clothing of someone from the southwest, followed the waitress to a nearby table.

“I agree with ya, Munsford. But can you believe it, we actually got that Moogeleon? He deserves everything the LT has to give him,” replied a second soldier. “The LT will get the information on where them others are, he’s been at it all night I heerd. Carlson said he goes back and forth between the two cells, demanding answers and giving them prisoners what for when they won’t tell him. Heerd someone say it’s some kind of mind warfare, gives ‘em some time alone, and goes back later to start it all over again. But ya can be ‘sured he’ll get what he wants, he wants revenge for the murder of his folks all them years ago, so he ain’t gonna give up easy. He’ll get what he wants and be there right next to the captain, leading the charge!”

“He better get what he wants quick, he only had until this morning,” started a third soldier, “Sides, if’n that kid were my kid, there’d be hell to pay for what the lieutenant’s done. I mean that kid cain’t be more’n thirteen, fourteen years old at most. And the way that Moogeleon keeps after Drake to let the boy go… I don’t know. I’m beginning to wonder if maybe he is a lawman like he said he is. He ain’t like no other injun we taken.”

“Braxshere, yo’re full of it. The LT is right, ain’t no way no stinkin’ redskin is gonna be made a lawman. He probably killed the real lawman and stole the badge,” declared the second soldier after he gulped down the coffee in his cup.

At the nearby table, Morgan Dakkar listened intently, not liking what he was hearing.

“Excuse me, miss,” Dakkar stated as the waitress stopped by his side, placing a saucer and cup on the table top, and pouring it full of coffee.

“Do you wish cream with your coffee?” the waitress inquired.

“No, no, black is fine. I wonder, those soldiers over there. They’re not regularly posted here, are they?”

“No sire, like you, they’re strangers to this town. Only they got orders to be here after Mueglion and some of his braves jumped the reservation and word came back that they killed a number of white men. I feel comforted that them soldiers are here. And you should be thankful to be in town instead of out there where you could get your scalp lifted.”

“Does this town have a lawman?”

“Sure do. Sad news is some time back, we lost our sheriff when the bank was robbed. They shot him down in cold blood. Shot our deputy and a few others, too.”

“Did the deputy survive his wounds? Dakkar inquired.

“Enough that we recently elected him our new sheriff; Sheriff Dave Vestor is his name. The good news is that there’s another Marshal in town, he came over from North Fork… You ever hear of that town?”

Dakkar shook his head no in answer to the waitress’ question.

“Well, that don’t mind, lots a people never heard of Cloudcroft. Anyway, one of them others who got wounded was a citizen of North Fork… and the other marshal showed up to help him out. ‘specially after Judge Zeller gave the man’s son away to some peddler. Heard tell, that peddler and a few others were killed by them savages.”

“What of the… boy?”

“Oh, him? Nobody rightly knows,” the waitress replied. “There was a U.S. Marshal who stopped by and I suppose he’s out after the boy. Trying to find him for his pa.”

“Where might I find your sheriff?”

“Why in the jail? Where else… Oh… wait a moment, he does live on the outskirts of town. His wife recently had a baby. Cutest little dickens, that child.”

“Thank you,” Dakkar stated as he took a drink from the coffee cup the waitress had filled.

“Anything else I can do for you?”

“No, thanks. I’m fine.”

After the waitress left, Dakkar turned his attention to the soldier’s table when he heard, “Hey mister, you looking for the sheriff?”

“I am,” Dakkar stated as he twisted in his seat and rested his arm on the back of the chair.

“Well, won’t do you no good to check the jail, we got it confiscated. We got prisoners in there and we don’t cotton to no civilians, civil or lawman, interrupting what we’re doing.”

“Munsford, it ain’t confiscated, it commandeered. We commandeered the jail for our needs.”

“I thought we seized it,” stated the third.

“Actually gentlemen, they all mean the same thing,” Dakkar spoke, slightly shaking his head from side to side.

“What means the same thing?” inquired Munsford.

Closing his eyes to prevent the soldiers from seeing him roll his eyes, Dakkar stated, once his eyes were open, “Confiscate, commandeer, and seize, the words are synonyms.”

“I thought cinnamon was what you sprinkled on donuts.”

“Aw, shut up,” spoke one of the soldiers as Dakkar turned his attention away from the men.

Dakkar sat in the chair, all four legs squarely on the ground; he rested his elbows upon the table top, holding his coffee up in both hands. He listened as the conversation at the soldier’s table had changed from discussing the two prisoners to wanting to return to the fort or better yet, out on patrol to search for those savages and returning the favor, so to speak.

The earlier conversation still haunted Dakkar, he remembered how he’d met the boy he named Jules and what little the boy could remember. He also remembered the words that Sam Buckhart spoke to him during their brief meeting. The man who once called Europe his home, but now considered himself American cowboy worried for the prisoners because it was apparent the military did not believe them when they said who they were. Setting his empty coffee cup to the table, Dakkar pushed his chair back, flipped a few coins from his pocket to the table, and turned to leave. As he passed the soldiers, he stiffened his back at the memory of their words.

*****

“Morning Gus,” Sheriff Vestor called as he entered the lobby to the town’s hotel.

“And good morning to you Sheriff. How’s the missus and that new baby?”

“Fine, both are doing fine. Thanks. Is the Marshal still up in his room?”

“Yes, I believe he is. Neither he nor Mr. McCain have come downstairs for breakfast yet.”

“Thanks.”

After taking the steps to the second floor, Sheriff Vestor walked the hall to the last door on the right and knocked.

“Come on in LucasBoy,” was voiced from the other side.

Opening the door, Vestor stated, “It’s not Lucas, it’s me, the sheriff.”

“Oh, Dave, sorry about that. How can I help you this morning?” Micah Torrance asked as he finished wiping the remnants of shaving cream from his face and neck.

“I think I have a… uh… situation at the jail,” answered Vestor.

“What kind of a situation?”

“Well… It appears that another contingency of soldiers arrived sometime last night… and they brought prisoners.”

“That so… Did you speak with the officer in charge?”

“Well, sort of…”

“What do you mean sort of?” The door opened at the same time two knocks were heard. “Come on in Lucas, Dave was just telling me about more soldiers arriving and their prisoners.”

“More soldiers? How many more?” asked Lucas, worried that the army was overplaying their hand regarding Mueglion’s and his followers disappearance from the reservation, especially if this group of soldiers doubled the number in and around the town.

“No sure how many more, but… I don’t like what I saw last night.”

“Just what did you see?” Lucas countered.

“Well, I couldn’t sleep so… I thought I’d go and do some paperwork. There were two soldiers positioned on either side of the door to my office, and they wouldn’t let me in.” Vestor sounded flustered at the last declaration. “I tried to argue with them… that they had no right to keep me out, when… I think it was a lieutenant who stepped out the door. He told me that the others were under orders to keep civilians out while he was interrogating his prisoners…”

“What prisoners?” Micah asked.

“I didn’t get a good look, I don’t know if the lieutenant even knew that I could see one of them… The door was closed, but I saw through the barred opening... Well… he looked like he’d been beaten … beaten up pretty good…”

“Beaten?” Lucas asked. “Why would the soldiers beat up a prisoner?”

“He was Indian. I… uh…”

“Spit it out,” gruffed Micah.

“I think he was your friend… the marshal.”

Micah and Lucas looked to each other for a few moments before either one spoke.

“Sam? You think the soldiers have Marshal Buckhart as a prisoner? That’s ridiculous? Why would they take Sam as a prisoner?” Lucas queried, his brain fighting against any logic to why the U.S. Marshal would be a prisoner of the U.S. Cavalry.

“Lucas, think about it. Sam in Apache,” Micah answered. “When you first met him… when he first came to North Fork… What was your first impression of him?”

“That was different Micah, he was dressed as a brave… He wasn’t wearing white man’s clothing.”

“Okay… Think on this… You’re a soldier, you’ve been ordered to this territory in search of Indians who have left the reservation and murdered white people. You come across and Indian… would you listen to him if he claimed to be a U.S. Marshal? Or would you only see him as an Indian?”

Sheriff Vestor watched Lucas McCain’s face change from disbelief to that of someone disturbed by an image he’d prefer not to acknowledge.

“So, what do we do? If this is your friend?” the sheriff asked.

“We need to get back inside that jail, that’s for sure,” Micah replied. “Did you see the other prisoner at all?”

“No, it’s on the opposite side of the hallway,” the sheriff regretfully admitted. “I’d of had to get up close to the door to see that cell.”

“Micah, what do you think our chances would be of getting inside the jail and seeing the prisoners?” Lucas asked.

“Little to none. They’re prisoners of the U.S. Cavalry…”

“But the one’s a civilian,” Sheriff Vestor inserted. “Surely they can’t keep civilians like that?”

“That’s the beauty of the army declaring Martial Law; they can keep civilians locked up… Saying it’s for their own good or that they’re ‘person’s of interest’.”

“If it is Sam, and he has been beaten, I want to have Doc Webster check him over. They can’t deny a doctor access to a patient.”

“That’s a good point Lucas,” replied Micah as they finally had a valid reason for someone to see the prisoners.

*****

Stepping out into the early morning sun, Dakkar paused a few moments to allow his eyes to adjust to the increasing light. Since the waitress wasn’t forthcoming with a lot of information on where he could find the sheriff, and with the news imparted by the soldiers, Dakkar decided the next best thing – the saloon. Anyone knows the best place to find information in any town is the saloon, so Dakkar stepped from the boardwalk and crossed the dirt road.

Stepping into the Golden Spur, Dakkar was not surprised to find the establishment empty except for a few people straightening up the tables and chairs, or cleaning the glasses, and sweeping the floor of the mess from the night before.

“It’s kinda early, ain’t it mister,” called the man behind the counter as he pulled another glass from the tub of soapy water placed on the barn.

“I agree, it’s too early for alcohol, but I’m hoping it’s not too early for some information.”

“Depends on what kind of information you’re looking for…” The barman turned his attention to one of the young workers meandering among the tables, “Justin, make sure you sweep good under them tables. I pay ya good money to do a job, and I want it done right.”

“I hear ya,” answered Justin as he began diligently sweeping the floor.

“So what information are you looking for? You want some coffee?”

“Sure, black.” While the barman turned around to fetch a cup and the coffee, Dakkar continued, “I’m looking for the sheriff of your town. I overheard a few soldiers saying they had prisoners in the jail and the sheriff wasn’t allowed inside.”

Once the coffee cup was filled, Dakkar offered his thanks.

“Prisoners? Well I wonder who them soldier boys have? Didn’t hear nothing about no prisoners.”

“I heard them say that one was an Indian and the other a young boy.”

“Maybe one of them loners and his kid. You know… they kick them out of the tribe, ‘specially when the kid’s a halfbreed.”

“I thought you said you didn’t know anything about the prisoners?” queried Dakkar.

“Oh, I don’t, least not this pair. Now the sheriff… I think I saw him heading over to the hotel earlier this morning. Probably discussing the situation with Marshal Torrance, that or learning more about what it is to be a sheriff instead of just a deputy. You know we only elected him sheriff a few days back. Why I remember…”

“Thanks for the information,” Dakkar spoke graciously. “How much do I owe you?”

“Coffee this early in the morning is on the house.”

“Thanks again.”

Dakkar turned from the bar and as he strode across the floor, he saw several soldiers walking along the boardwalk outside the big glass window that proudly bore the name Golden Spur Saloon.

*****

Dakkar was impressed with the lobby of the hotel, clean and spacious. He walked across the floor, stopped at the counter and waited for the clerk to finish seeing a guest into the restaurant that was a part of the establishment.

“Can I help you? Are you looking for a room?” the man asked as he returned to the counter.

The man wasn’t big by any means, except for the toothy smile he wore to greet the potential guest.

“I was informed that this town’s sheriff has stopped by? Maybe to see a Marshal Torrance?” Dakkar stated.

“Oh, yes, indeed he did. He went on up to the Marshal’s room not half an hour ago.”

“What room…”

“I’m sorry sir, that would be most inappropriate for me to give out that information. If you’d like, you may wait in the restaurant and I’ll inform our sheriff that you’re there.”

“It’s really important…”

“Anything to do with the law is important, but sheriff to marshal is more important,” the man spoke in a clipped voice that imparted his growing impatience with someone who was not going to be an overnight guest.

******

Dakkar waited in the restaurant at a table where he could keep watch on guests coming down the staircase from the upper floors. His attention was drawn from the cup of coffee in his hand when three men, two of whom were wearing badges, made their way into the lobby.

“Excuse me, Sheriff,” Dakkar called out, stepping from the restaurant as the men made their way to the middle of the lobby.

“Yes, I’m Sheriff Vestor. How may I help you?”

“Dave, we’ll head on to Doc’s like we talked about,” Micah Torrance stated, knowing Lucas wouldn’t take kindly to any delay.

“Okay, I’ll meet you at Doc’s when I’m through here.”

Dakkar waited until the marshal and the tall man left the building before he began to state his business.

“How can I help you?” Vestor asked.

“I understand you have a couple of prisoners in your jail.”

“Before I’ll answer, just who are you mister?” Vestor inquired.

“Oh, forgive me, my name’s Morgan Dakkar. I’m just traveling through the territory on my way to California.”

“Okay, Mr. Dakkar, as far as the prisoners, unfortunately… they’re not my prisoners. They’re in the custody of the army… who has commandeered my jail.”

“So I’ve heard,” Dakkar refrained from laughing as he remembered the conversation with the soldiers in the café. “Never mind…” he replied in response to the curious expression upon the lawman’s face. “What do you know about the prisoners?”

“Maybe you could tell me who they are to you?”

“If they are who I think they are, they’re in trouble.”

“Trouble, and just how would you define trouble?” Vestor asked, his face beginning to frown.

“I overheard a few soldiers talking amongst themselves this morning, and from what they were saying, it sounds as if one of the prisoners has been… possibly beaten… and I worry for the man.”

The way the man spoke continued to heighten the edge the sheriff felt since he already knew there was trouble brewing in the jail; but what he did not know was how this man fit into the picture.

“Even if he’s an outlaw?” the sheriff asked.

“If he were an outlaw, he’d be in your custody… Not the custody of the military. There’s something about those prisoners. If I may… It is possible that the man is more than what the soldiers think he is… or possibly he’s told them the truth… and they don’t believe him.”

“And just who do you think the prisoner is supposed to be?” Vestor asked as he waited for confirmation.

“I believe he might be a U.S. Marshal that I met earlier this week… And if he is, then the other person the soldiers have is more than likely my ward, Jules.”

“Jules?”

“He’s just a boy, maybe fourteen. He ran away in the middle of the night,” offered Dakkar.

“How did your ward end up running away with a U.S. Marshal?” Vestor continued to ask questions, he wanted as much information as possible before he met with the others.

“That is a long story…one that I don’t feel I have the luxury to tell, at this time. If the other two gentlemen you were with, were on their way to the doctor’s… Maybe we should join them there. If their matter wasn’t as urgent as I feel this situation warrants… I think the doctor should have a look at one of the prisoners…”

“Well, that makes four of us,” Vestor replied. “I briefly saw the man you were speaking of earlier this morning, and just finished talking with those other two men about what to do. If you’ll come with me?”

Vestor took the man’s words to heart, that the man felt he was doing right in reporting his fears; however, the lawman was wary of things not being as they appeared. There was an old saying he remembered Sheriff Pattison used to say, “Keep your friends close, and your enemies even closer.” Regardless, Vestor wanted to keep this man close by until he knew for certain who he was and any ulterior motive that came with him.

*****

Doc Webster was just putting what supplies he felt he might need into his black bag when the Sheriff and a stranger entered his office.

“Be right with you,” Doc stated without looking up.

The expressions on Lucas’ and Micah’s faces spoke their unvoiced question about the stranger.

“This is Morgan Dakkar, and he… said he came across a U.S. Marshal out in the desert earlier this week. He overheard a few of those soldiers talking at the café and was concerned that something was amiss at the jail. He’s got a valid point in having Doc make a call and check out the prisoners.”

“You really think the army would beat up a prisoner?” Doc Webster asked.

“The soldiers are desperate to find Mueglion and the others… They’re off the reservation and we know for a fact they’ve murdered white men…” Sheriff Vestor stated. “I briefly saw one of the prisoners earlier this morning…”

“Well, if that’s the case…” Doc stated as he snapped closed his bag and reached for his hat. “I best be heading over there. Sheriff, you’ll accompany me?”

“We’ll all go,” Lucas announced.

“No… I don’t think that’s for the best,” Doc Webster stated. “They might allow me access to my… uh… patient, if they didn’t feel threatened by the mob of us barging in there.”

“Doc’s right Lucas,” agreed Micah.

“I would suggest you go speak with Judge Zeller… but I’m not sure how helpful he’d be,” acknowledged Sheriff Vestor.

“Why would we want to inform him?!” demanded Lucas.

The animosity Lucas felt towards the judicial figure still raged in his voice and his posture whenever the man’s name was mention. Had it not been for him and the meddlesome actions of one Horatio Pettigrew, he and his son would have long before been back at their ranch. He could only imagine what their crops looked like and hoped that maybe one of his neighbors cared enough to help tend to their herd of cattle and the chickens. In a small way, Lucas was thankful they had brought along the harness team as their packhorses.

“I’m not sure we should, especially since all this started. Before… I respected the man… Guess old habits are hard to break…” Sheriff Vestor stated with a sigh as he opened the door to the clinic to allow the doctor to head over to the jail. “Why don’t you two wait for us here.”

*****

Doc Webster and Sheriff Vestor casually approached the Sheriff’s Office and hoped that they would be allowed access to the jail, or at least the doctor would be allowed access. But as they both feared, the lieutenant was against any aide being given to his prisoners.

“I have the permission of my captain to interrogate these prisoners. I’ll not stand by and see my authority undermined by you sniveling do-gooders!”

“Lieutenant, may I remind you, that any physician can legally declare ANY soldiers, officer or otherwise, removed from duty…” the doctor pulled out the ace he had hoped not to have to use.

“What does that mean?!” Drake contemptibly demanded.

“It means that I can leave here and immediately report your actions to your captain and inform him that in my opinion, having sworn my Hippocratic Oath, that you are unfit to serve in your capacity as an officer and as a soldier. I can also…”

“You wouldn’t dare… You have not authority!”

“I would and I do… I have an honorary commission as a physician for the U.S. Army, when the need arises. Seems good things happen when you have the opportunity to save the life of the only daughter of a commanding general… It was the only reward he could in good conscience offer me…” The doctor paused, daring the solder in front of him to deny his request one more time. “Now, will you allow me to see your prisoners and to treat them as I see fit? Or do I go to the hotel and speak with your captain?”

With a flourished wave of his hand, the lieutenant authorized the private standing by the door to the cells to open it.

*****

Upon gaining access to the cells, the doctor briefly scanned the area and the two forms lying on the bunks in the cells. The smell of stale sweat and blood mingled with the odors from the chamber pots placed in the corner of each cell. The first prisoner in the cell on the left was curled up in the fetal position with the blanket pulled up over his shoulders, his back to the room; his dark hair the only thing showing from under the cover. The second prisoner was lying flat on his back, the blood, bruising, and swelling on his face evident.

“I demand you open this door, NOW!”

*****

While he waited for the soldier to untie the restraints used upon the man, the doctor felt it was a blessing that the prisoner was either dead asleep or unconscious while he performed the examination.

Upon unbuttoning and opening the man’s shirt, more evidence as to the severity of the interrogation was exposed. He found multiple darkening bruises along both sides of the man’s ribs, he gently pressed his fingers into the man’s ribcage only to reveal that several were broken and others possibly fractured. Bathing the blood from the man’s face elicited a response from his patient, the man began to stir, his eyelids fluttered indicating he was regaining consciousness.

“I know you probably want to stay where you are, away from the pain, but I need you to wake up,” Doc spoke as he gently tapped the man’s forehead, the only place where he felt he could without further antagonizing the man. “Come on… wake up… That’s it… Open your eyes.”

A small smile played across the doctor’s face as his patient’s eyes opened, at first the signs were that the man’s vision was unfocused, but a few moments later the doctor recognized the he was trying to focus his attention.

“If you can swallow, I can give you some laudanum to help dull the pain. And then I can strap your ribs. I don’t think any of those cuts on your face are deep enough to require stitches, but maybe I can tape them closed until they heal.”

“Thank you, doctor,” the patient stated as he accepted assistance to sit up.

Once the doctor has fulfilled his duties, he decided now was the time to ask, “Are you U.S. Marshal Sam Buckhart?”

“I am,” Sam answered as he looked to the doctor through swollen eyes, “Where are we?”

“You’re in Cloudcroft?”

“Is Lucas still here,” Sam struggled through equally swollen and split lips to speak.

“Yes, he’s still here.” Doc prepared to ask the question he didn’t want to hear the answer to, subconsciously he knew the truth, “Do you know who the other prisoner is?” Doc Webster asked as he nodded his head towards the other cell.

“I’m positive he’s Mark McCain…” Sam stated with his teeth gritted in pain.

Questioning the wording of the statement, Doc asked, “Positive…?”

“You need… to… examine him… ” pleaded Buckhart as he fought down the pain that threatened to pull him down.

“I will.”

“Tell Lucas… I’m sorry…” Buckhart spoke as he lost the fight against the laudanum and the pull of the darkness.

Careful of the man’s injuries, Doc Webster laid him back on the bunk and stood, looking towards the other cell. Dreading what he would find, and dreading the news he would have to bear to the father.

*****

“Open up,” Doc called out as he stood at the door.

Once the soldier had opened the door and locked it behind him, Doc demanded access to the other prisoner. Hesitantly the soldier complied. He locked the door behind the doctor as he stood in the middle of the cell.

Setting his black bag on the floor, the doctor knelt and placed his hand gently on the boy’s shoulder in order to rouse him awake.

“Mark, I’m Doc Webster. Wake up. I need to examine you.”

The boy moaned and curled tighter into himself.

“Come on son, wake up,” Doc encouraged.

“Go away,” the boy plaintively answered.

“Not until I examine you.”

“No. Can’t tell you what I don’t know.”

“I said examine you, not interrogate you. Son, I’m a doctor. Please… open your eyes and sit up for me.”

Begrudgingly, the boy complied with the doctor’s request. As the doctor watched, he discerned that the boy was doing everything mechanically, a key sign that he’d had very little sleep that would allow his body to refresh itself.

By the time the boy lifted his face to the man in front of him, Doc Webster was mortified, to say the least. The bullet wound he had treated the last time he’d seen the boy was properly healed, with only a faint scar remaining, but now… His face was swollen with a myriad of colors indicating he’d been man-handled.

“Remove your shirt, I want to see your ribs,” Doc Webster stated.

When the boy didn’t respond, the doctor reached forward and began to unbutton the boy’s shirt and remove it. Five minutes later, he was more than pleased to realize that the soldiers had not abused the boy as he had first feared. But the bruises upon the boy’s face were equaled by the bruising on his arms and the raw skin around his wrists indicating he had struggled against his restraints. Upon first sight of Sam Buckhart, the doctor had feared both prisoners had been treated in the same manner, but now he was somewhat relieved to find that was not the case.

“Son, I need you to tell me your name. Can you tell me who you are?”

“Jules, Mr. Dakkar called me Jules. The marshal… he said my name was Mark,” the boy finally responded, he looked up and the doctor saw his glazed over eyes.

“You don’t know your name?”

“The others… they were taking me somewhere…”

“That’s okay son. You just lie down. You’ll feel better later today.”

Before calling to be let out of the cell, Doc Webster pulled a bottle of laudanum from his bag and administered the medication to young man.

“Now, you just lie back down and try to sleep. I’ll be filing a formal complaint with the captain, as well as his commanding officer.” The doctor was appalled at how the two prisoners had been treated, there’s no reason for such brutality.

“Better…” the boy, Jules/Mark, mumbled as he curled up on his side and pulled the blanket over his shoulders.

Standing with his black bag in hand, the doctor called, “Guard, let me out of here!”

Without acknowledging the officer or the other soldiers in the office area, the doctor headed straight out the front door, and made his way back to his clinic. Originally he had dreaded informing Lucas that his son was at the jail, now… he was terrified…

*****

“Well Doc?” Micah asked, rising to his feet as the doctor entered his office. “How are the two prisoners?”

“I think you had best sit back down,” Doc Webster advised as he set his black bag on the top of his desk.

“Doc? Are they going to be okay?” Sheriff Vestor inquired.

“They will… But… I have to get them out of there, or at least the lieutenant away from them. They’re both civilians… One is Marshal Buckhart…” From a slot within his roll-top desk, the doctor pulled out a bottle labeled ‘brandy’. After taking a swift drink, the doctor turned to Lucas as said, “The other prisoner… is your son.”

The other men in the room struggled with their own comprehension of the doctor’s words, but by all appearances, Lucas took great effort to quell his desire to rush the physician and wrap his fingers around the man’s throat. Tension started at Lucas’ temples as his eyes bulged slightly forward, his throat tightened as he swallowed, and his chest compressed as he kept breathing out, his system was too shocked to breathe in.

“LucasBoy?” Micah asked.

Grit and malevolence dripped from Lucas as he spoke, “My… son… My… son.... You… say… Mark… is a… …” Lucas grappled with his emotions, “… prisoner. I’ll kill him, I’ll kill that bastard!”

“Mr. McCain, there’s more…” Doc Webster barely had the nerve to say. “He doesn’t know who he is… He says his name’s Jules.”

Reaching for his rifle, Lucas ignored the pleas from the others as he stormed from the clinic and headed straight to the jail.

*****

Two soldiers sat in front of the jail, their chairs rocked on the back legs as they leaned against the wall. Both men enjoyed their respite in the town and the ‘advantage’ a town could bring, especially when women would walk in front of the jail as they went about their routines.

Hearing, “LUCAS!” yelled from down the street, both soldiers set their chairs to all four legs and hurriedly stood. Both slightly quivered as the angry-looking man approached them; they twisted their rifles within their sweaty hands.

“You can’t go in there,” one soldier stated as all six foot, four inches of Lucas McCain stepped to the boardwalk and towered over the two soldiers.

“Get out of my way,” hissed Lucas.

“You can’t go in there,” the other soldier repeated.

Both soldiers closed ranks hoping to appear a greater threat to prevent this challenger from entering. Rifle clutched tight in his hand, Lucas continued to step towards the door, each stepped measured to ensure the soldiers in front of him knew he meant business; he was prepared to force his way past the soldiers and take any other action to ensure he was reunited with his son.

“I’ll only tell you one more time, Get... out… of… my… way.”

The soldiers knew their rifles were no use in close quarters and after the doctor had left, they received orders to prevent anyone from gaining entry or suffer the lieutenant’s wrath. The three men struggle, two fearful to keep one out and one desperate to gain entry. Lucas gave one more push forward when he heard the door to the Sheriff’s Office open and someone demand, “What’s going…” Without warning, Lucas collapsed to the ground.

“What the Hell’d you do that for?” demanded Morgan Dakkar as he and Micah Torrance knelt next to the fallen rancher.

“This premises has been commandeered by the U.S. Cavalry, he was trying to make an unlawful entrance, resisting the authority vested upon me since this town has been declared under Martial Law,” Lieutenant Drake stated as he slipped his service pistol back into the holster on his belt. “Be thankful I chose not to shoot him for inciting a riot.”

“You’re holding the man’s son as a prisoner! How was he supposed to act?!” retorted Micah as he returned to examine the developing lump on the back of Lucas’ head.

“He can see his son at the trial and at his hanging,” Drake stated as he turned to reenter the jail.

“Trial?! On what charges?! What grounds do you have to hold a fourteen year old boy?!” Micah demanded as his words sought to spurn the soldier.

“Sedition. There’s no minimum age requirement for treason against one’s country. Get him out of here before I decided to arrest him as well.”

With determination, Micah Torrance and Dave Vestor picked Lucas up from the boardwalk, each bearing an arm over his shoulder with the intention of making it back to the clinic. They struggled with their friend’s dead weight sagging between them, the toes of his boots dragging in the dirt.

“Stop here,” Micah heavily breathed as he set the still unconscious Lucas down in a chair in front of the hotel.

“Where’d Doc go?” Dave asked.

“I thought I saw him heading inside as we were going to the jail,” Morgan offered as he pointed to the main entrance to the hotel. “I’ll see if I can find him.”

“Not… necessary,” Lucas mumbled as he regain consciousness. “What happened?”

“The lieutenant took the butt of his service revolver to your head,” answered Micah.

“What’s happening here?” Captain Monterrey asked as he and the doctor stepped to the porch of the hotel.

“I was just telling Lucas here that YOUR lieutenant took his service revolver to the back of Lucas’ head. All the man wanted to do was see his son!”

“The doctor here has given me a cursory report, and I was just going to go investigate…”

“I want… my son… out of there!” Lucas seethed.

“If the facts warrant…” answered the captain.

“There are no facts that warrant a fourteen year old boy to be treated as he has!” Doctor Webster declared.

Pulling himself to his full height, Lucas again demanded of the captain to release his son. “If you value your life and that of the men under your command…”

“I’ll not tolerate any threats, Mr. McCain.”

Looking the officer straight in the eye and using a cold voice said, “I don’t threaten.” With that, Lucas turned from the soldier and retrieved his rifle from Morgan’s hands and left.

“Mr. McCain!” Captain Monterrey called.

Turning towards the Captain, Lucas responded, “Don’t make me wire Governor Edmond Ross or U.S. Marshal Tom Benton. I’m sure both would be very interested in stifling your military career.”

“And why would you do that?”

“Because you have my innocent son forcefully retained and as well as one of Benton’s marshals. I know both men… personally.”

“Let me talk with Drake.”

“Talk…,” gulped Doctor Webster. “You think you’re going to get anywhere by talking with that man? My God! We’ve wasted enough time here… We need to get to the jail and get my two patients out of there so they can be properly treated!”

*****

The arguments and commotion in front of the hotel began to draw a crowd; Judge Zeller redirected his stroll in order to make an appearance. Forcing his way through the throng of people he heard the voices discussing the soldiers and their prisoners.

“That lieutenant has no cause to imprison my son!” demanded Lucas as he continued to stare down the captain.

“Mr. McCain,” Judge Zeller spoke as he stepped to the boardwalk. “The army is here to protect this town; you have no right to interfere.”

“Your son hasn’t been locked in a cell and beaten by that madman,” Lucas retorted.

“You don’t know that! That… Indian could have beaten your son… for all you know.” Judge Zeller’s implication drew a new fury within Lucas.

Lucas would have wrung the man’s neck for the suggestion as well as his bigoted attitude had it not been for Micah’s hand and Doctor Webster’s words.

“That Indian as you so call him was beaten within an inch of his life,” responded Doctor Webster. “And you have the audacity to imply he beat the boy?”

“The soldier’s probably beat him when they saw the condition of the boy,” Zeller weakly argued. The man’s face reddened; his town had been nice and quiet, until the arrival of the McCains.

“That Indian is a friend. That Indian has risked his life TWICE to find my son. That Indian would never lay a finger upon my son to injure him as you say,” Lucas’ voice graveled. “That Indian has more knowledge and compassion for the white man’s law than you.” Lucas pushed past the judge and ignored the protests and shouts behind him.

*****

Lieutenant Drake closed the door to the Sheriff’s Office behind him and walked directly to the cells. Looking to his right, he saw the unconscious form of the Indian lying on the bed as the images of the attack on his childhood home surfaced, the screams, the smells, the terror... He couldn’t bring himself to open the cell to face down the bearer of all his hatred. To his left, the boy moaned as he moved under the cover.

“Guard, let me in here. Unlock this cell!”
Promptly the private complied; the rattle of the keys conveyed his nervousness as he approached.

“Lieutenant, the doctor…”

“Open the cell!” the lieutenant ordered his voice neared hysterics.

The word sedition echoed in the lieutenant’s mind as he craved to enforce a lesson to others who would support and offer aide to the heathens; no one was above accusation and he would see justice served, regardless of who or age. With the doorway fully opened, the lieutenant took measured steps as he entered and continued to the bunk. Reaching down he threw off the cover and grabbed the boy’s bicep and pulled him to his feet.

Pain penetrated the fogginess of his brain caused from a combination of lack of sleep, the rough treatment from the soldiers, and the laudanum provided by the doctor; but still, he fought to open his eyes.

“The others will see you as an example… They will realize that the best solution to the heathen problem is extermination, and for those who act as accomplices, there shall be no mercy!”

Outside he heard the raised voice of authority ordering his men to stand down, to drop their weapons to the ground, and accept that they were under house arrest. Mutterings and pleadings drifted through the open window as the men argued they were only following orders.

“There are orders to be followed and there are orders where common sense and compassion should make you reconsider and ask up the chain of command! Any soldier of officer material understands this fact!”

“We ain’t officers! We’s just horse soldiers,” another soldier tried to explain.

“Return to where our troop is bivouacked,” ordered the captain who waited to make sure the men followed his instructions.

“LIEUTENANT DRAKE!” Captain Monterrey shouted from the street. “I order you to exit the jail and submit to my authority!”

Pulling his young prisoner from the cell, the lieutenant wrapped his arm around the boy’s throat; military Colt pointed to the boy’s temple and walked across the floor to the door and opened it.

As the sun highlighted the advancing figures as they stepped from the shadows inside the Sheriff’s Office, it took all of Micah’s and Sheriff Vestor’s muscle to keep Lucas from bolting forward. The man’s face reddened while the muscles in his jaw contracted, Lucas drew deep breaths in and loudly exhaled; his tension palpable.

“Lieutenant, let the boy go and drop your weapon!”

“Never! Our orders were to resolve the Indian problem. The only way to solve the problem is to get rid of them and those who sympathize with them. This boy and the other prisoner are guilty of sedition! Had my men and I not stopped them and taken them prisoner, they would have incited an insurgence allowing those heathens out there to gain access to this town and murder innocent white people!”

“Lieutenant, your prisoner is a boy!”

“Age has nothing to do with ability! Fact is, he’s just as guilty as any adult!”

The lieutenant tightened his arm around the boy’s throat as he took a step forward. The boy’s hands tugged at the arm restricting the amount of air he could inhale while his feet kicked and tried to impede the soldier’s progress.

“Stop resisting or I’ll blow your brains out right now!” hissed the lieutenant at the boy’s resistance.

“Mark!” Lucas yelled as he watched his son’s face pale as a blue hue shadowed his tanned skin.

“Lucas, step back. You could send the lieutenant over the edge,” warned Micah.

“Micah, that’s Mark,” pleaded Lucas.

“I know, but if you go off half cocked… Lucas, for Mark’s sake.” Micah prayed his unvoiced words would calm the troubled father.

Drawing deep breaths in an effort to calm himself, Lucas slowly relaxed his taunt muscles and stepped back. Marshal Torrance thanked God for the brief reprieve. But the two of them, as well as the others…including Sheriff Dave Vestor, Judge Holcomb Zeller, Doctor Mitchell Webster, Morgan Dakkar, and the whole town of Cloudcroft listened and watched as the two soldiers battled with words in an effort to either save or destroy the life of one boy.

*****

“Lieutenant… again, I order you to drop your weapon!” Captain Monterrey demanded.

“You’d let this boy go?” the man’s voice pleaded, “I found him in our camp… he was trying to free our prisoner.” The soldier tightened his left arm around the boy’s throat; the boy's hands remained on the solder's forearm trying to pull the arm away so he could breathe. “Captain… they’ll kill everyone! We have to set an example! No white man or woman will be safe until the threat is eliminated!”

“That boy is no threat! Let him go!”

“No Captain. You’re wrong! Just as wrong as they were before! There can be no peace with those heathens… They’ll make you think they’re doing as you want… Then the first chance they get, they’ll kill everyone!”

The town of Cloudcroft would speak in quiet whispers of the events that happened next. Friends, neighbors, and strangers watched as the soldier stiffened his right arm as his thumb moved to pull back the hammer and his fingers tightened around the grip of the weapon. What no one saw was a Winchester rifle being swung up in the man’s left hand, his right hand moving to the forestock and when the weapon was perfectly balanced at the man’s shoulder, the slightest pressure applied to the trigger fired one single bullet.

The impact of the bullet flung its intended target backwards as it struck the man just off center of his forehead, killing the soldier instantly. In the throes of death, the man’s body stiffened and convulsed, throwing his hostage into the doorframe behind them as the spasm in the soldiers hand fired the weapon it held. The forceful impact of the boy’s body striking the wall snapped his head backwards and he crumpled like a rag doll to the boardwalk.

People froze in place as the events seemed to stretch out and no one made a sound until the two bodies came to a deathly rest on the boardwalk. A quiet rustling as people shifted to the side to allow the grieved father through was the only sound heard, until the man stepped to the wooden boardwalk and dropped his rifle. Carefully he picked up the youth and cradled him in his arms, his hand gently moving the boy’s bangs from his face, lovingly caressing the face. The movement of the man’s mouth was the only clue that gave any indication he was speaking, but no one heard his words. The words also failed to reach through to his unconscious son.

“Let me through!” declared Doctor Webster as he made his way through the crowd to the McCains.

*****

Kneeling beside Lucas McCain who cradled his teenage son, Mark, in his arms, the doctor asked, “Did the bullet strike him?” When the father failed to answer, the doctor did his best to examine the boy. The physician was greatly relieved when he found no blood upon the boy’ clothing, indicating the bullet fired by the dead soldier had not struck him. However, he grew concerned about the darkening bruise that was forming along the boy’s temple, down his cheek, and to his jaw bone.

“Marshal,” the doctor called over his shoulder, “Help Lucas get his son to my clinic. Sheriff, Captain, I need to check my other patient inside.” The doctor referred to Sam Buckhart who was still within one of the jail cells.

As the lawmen and soldier stepped to the boardwalk, Morgan Dakkar moved forward with them. He was drawn to the boy he had known for several months as Jules, a boy he had cared for as if he was his own son. Watching how the tall man lovingly picked the boy up in his arms, Dakkar felt his heart constrict… he grieved the loss of his own son so many years before. As Lucas McCain carried his boy away from the scene, Dakkar stepped inside the Sheriff’s Office.

In the background, Judge Zeller was doing his best to disperse the crowd, urging them to return homes or to their businesses. But to the people of Cloudcroft, over the past few months they had heard the stories and rumors surrounding their elected official and how he had callously granted custody of the boy to a stranger; most had grown to despise the man and either subconsciously or deliberately ignored the man’s pleadings.

*****

Doc Webster stepped across the body of the dead lieutenant and proceeded into the jail to tend to his second patient, U.S. Marshal Sam Buckhart. Having grabbed the keys to the cells from the sheriff’s desk, the doctor frustratedly worked through the many keys, angered there was so many on the ring for only two cells. But then… an excess of keys could help delay any jail break. Finally, the key turned in the lock and Webster opened the barred door.

“Marshal?” Doctor Webster asked as he sat on the edge of the bed and tried to rouse his patient.

The patient mumbled but did not wake at the prodding.

“Dave, Captain… If you’d carry this man to my clinic…”

Placing a restraining hand upon the captain, Morgan Dakkar spoke, “Let me. I owe it to him.”

The physician stepped back to allow the two men to pick up the semi-conscious marshal and carry him out the jail, through the office, and down the boardwalk to the clinic.

*****

With his two patients lying within his clinic, the physician knew he had to enter, but the fact of facing Lucas McCain terrified the man. He knew he only had a small part in the proceedings that allowed Judge Zeller to terminate the man’s parental rights and transfer custody of the boy to a complete stranger… Any father would be angry with the participants, but the fact that this boy suffered through an Indian attack. The feared of his death was palpable until news to the contrary surfaced, and now he lay inside because of the doctor’s actions…

“The boy and the marshal need you inside,” the doctor heard spoken to him as he halted on the boardwalk to his clinic. “He’ll be angry and protective… But… he knows his son and his friend require your assistance. Given time… he’ll forgive.”

The doctor looked to his right to see the older marshal, Micah Torrance, approaching him.

“How… How do I go in there?”

“With the courage to know that you can now help right a wrong…” Seeing the doctor still hesitate Micah added. “How can you ‘not’ go in there? If something further happens to that boy and you could have prevented it… will you feel better? You’ve sworn an oath to your profession.”

Doctor Webster inhaled deeply and knew what he had to do.

*****

Morgan Dakkar stood to the inside of the doorway and watched as the doctor walked to his youngest patient; the father sitting on the examination table still held the boy in his arms.

“Allow me to remove his shirt, so I can make sure that he’s suffered no further harm to his torso…”

No one saw him slip out the doorway or if they did, they had more important things upon their mind: Mark McCain and Sam Buckhart.

*****

Morning had turned to afternoon, before Marshal Buckhart was strong enough to fully wake and answer questions that the law and the army had surrounding what had happened out in the desert. As he recounted his tale, he told of finding Mark McCain slipping into the camp after the soldiers had already taken him prisoner. He made no mention of Morgan Dakkar, that was a personal score to settle.

Mid afternoon had settled on the town when Buckhart insisted in rising to his feet, declaring he had to send a wire alerting his superiors that he would be filing a full report by the end of the week. He ignored the pleadings of the doctor that he was not ready to be up an about, yet.

“Your other patient requires more of your attention than I, tend to him and leave me to my job.”

“Your job… Okay, so I called it a fool’s errand… I don’t know how it all really happened out there, but you have to take it easy… now that the boy’s been returned and you’re under my care.”

“I’ll take your advice, however, I have been away from my responsibilities long enough and need to inform them accordingly.”

“Fine,” answered the doctor with a slight roll of his eyes.”

*****

Hugging his left arm to his wrapped ribs, Buckhart stepped from the clinic and bumped into a man passing bu, stepping back to offer an apology, the lawman recognized Dakkar.

“Where’s Silas?” he quietly asked, not wanting to draw the attention of those inside.

“His wound became infected after we left you… I’m sorry for what we did to you… But… I couldn’t have known it would result in his death.”

“And why are you here?” demanded Buckhart as he grabbed hold of the man’s upper arm and pulled him near.

“To tell his wife of his death; he pleaded for her,” Dakkar solemnly answered, casting his eyes downward. “I promised him I’d tell her. I… I buried him in the desert.”

“The truth!” hissed Buckhart.

“As God is my witness, the man you knew as Silas Waiscott is no more.”

Relinquishing his hold upon the man, Buckhart stood back and appraised the man one last time.

“You’d best return home before your presence raises any questions,” stated Buckhart as he turned and left the man standing on the street.

Dakkar slowly let out his breath and watched as the lawman walked away. ‘Yes, the man you knew as Silas Waiscott is no more; that is the truth. He is a new man, he has a new chance at life, to live it with the woman he loves, and I will see that he has the chance.”

*****

Quietly in the darkness of that night, Morgan Dakkar made his way to the plantation-style residence on the far end of town, he asked for Dominique and prepared to pay more than the going amount to spend time with her.

“Best you know, she doesn’t take gentlemen callers anymore,” Agnes stated as she strolled past the debonair man standing in the foyer. While speaking she loosened the sash that kept her dressing gown closed, allowing it fall open to reveal her ample bosom which threatened to spill over the lacy bodice of her silky gown. Enticingly she neared the man, “But honey, I can light your world on fire,” she purred as she ran her hands along the contours of her breasts, and from underneath she hefted them upward causing the flesh to jiggle.

“I was told to call on Dominique and only her. I am sorry. Given the chance, I’m sure you could set my world on fire.” He tipped and removed his hat to wait.

Closing her robe over her assets, Agnes called, “Dominique, this one’s for you, Sugar.”

Morgan Dakkar looked up upon hearing a voice from the top of the stairs to see a very light skinned negro woman, standing statuesquely, wearing clothes that stood in contrast to the dress of the other women in the parlor.

“I’m sorry, but I no longer entertain gentlemen callers,” she stated.

“It is not entertainment that I seek,” Dakkar announced as he walked to the foot of the staircase. “I’ll pay twice your normal charge if you’ll only give me a few minutes of your time.”

“Why?” Dominique queried as she walked down a few steps of the staircase. She evaluated the man and observed he didn’t have the hunger in his eyes of a man who was out to satiate his desires; his posture did not reveal an eager anticipation of the flesh. After years of dealing with every type of man coming through the front door of Miss Matilda’s, she knew all the tell-tale signs of lust a man could exhibit; she twisted her head sideways. The man’s demeanor appeared as if he was ready to transact a simple business proposition. She stopped three quarters of the way down the staircase.

Quietly Dakkar stated, “I have news for your ears only from Silas.”

“Come,” Dominique stated as she turned, retreated back up the staircase, and walked down the hallway to her room.

The other women in the parlor giggled and smiled to each other, they heard the man offer twice the normal rate. Before, each had wondered how long it would be before Dominique would give up the fantasy world she created upon her husband’s return. They all knew the charges he faced would destroy her dream, they waited for her to come back to their lifestyle, and it appeared to the others that this stranger was her ticket back to reality.

Closing the door after the man entered, Dominique spoke, “What news do you have for me?”

“Dominique, I have news of a fresh start…”

“I am not in need of a fresh start.”

“Silas had hoped you would join him at my ranch.”

“He escaped?” she gasped.

“The previous Silas you knew is dead. Upon your safe arrival at my home, the old Silas… the Silas you originally knew will flourish and live out the last of his life in peace.”

“I don’t understand…”

“Enola, if you come with me… Yes, I know who you truly are, underneath all the traipsings of this establishment. My offer means you will be giving up all this,” Dakkar motioned his hands around the room. “As the Silas who sat in this room is dead, so shall Dominique pass. The old Silas and Enola have a chance to live. But… once you accept my offer, there is no turning back, no returning here. For if you return here… and others come, justice shall seek out and ensured his death.”

“How do I know I can trust you?”

“I know of Hester… Accept my hospitality as it is intended…a fresh start.”

Without another word, Enola turned to the closet in her room, pulled out a large bag from the floor and started packing her clothes. Fifteen minutes later she opened the door of her room to see each of the previously opened doors were closed and the sounds emanating from within indicated the occupants were otherwise occupied to pay her no attention. Enola followed the stranger out into the night and away from Cloudcroft.

*****

The doctor returned to his clinic carrying a tray with supper for the father and the marshal. He entered his clinic and set the tray on a table in the boy’s room.

“Any change?” Doctor Webster asked.

“Shouldn’t he be awake by now?” Lucas asked, his eyes pleading for an answer.

“Mr. McCain, I had hoped your son would have regain consciousness by now… But the longer he remains… as he is… the more I fear the blow to his head might have fractured his skull… The good news is, if he has suffered such an injury, it’s not a depressed fracture.”

Micah stood from the chair where he’d spent the afternoon, “What can we do to help him?”

“Pray is all I know to offer you. I’m keeping an eye on his vital statistics, and we’re able to get him to partake some nourishment… We just need to keep him comfortable, quiet, and…”

“And?” Lucas looked to the physician.

“Warm. The blow he suffered could have affected his body, and he does feel cooler than I’d like.”

“Would that indicate internal bleeding?” Micah worriedly asked.

“No, it’s just his body’s way of dealing with the trauma… All the trauma. I have no real idea what his medical condition was prior to the army finding him out there:

“What good’s your medical degree doing my son?!” demanded Lucas.

“Right now, now a whole lot… Mr. McCain, I can’t ask for your forgiveness for my part in Judge Zeller’s decision to rescind your parental rights… All I know was that this boy was injured and I honestly wasn’t sure that you were going to survive your own wounds. Maybe this was God’s way of making me believe more in him than in my own abilities. And if it was, I’m sorry that your boy suffered because of my need to understand that science and religion can be used… together… for the good of mankind.”

“Doc, if you want to keep Mark comfortable, and warm… What would you say to our moving him to the hotel. I can tell you that their beds are a whole lot softer than your clinic, and we can keep the wood burning stove in the hotel room stoked and a lot warmer than we can in here with all your patients coming and going,” suggested Micah.

“I think that’s a good idea, but I’d wait until later… when the street has quieted and we don’t have to worry about getting out of the way of wagons or horses…”

*****

The doctor really didn’t think that the reason the marshal gave was a valid one, but he understood the man’s need to get his friend and his friend’s son away from the prying eyes of people who they didn’t really know.

*****

The streets of Cloudcroft had quieted before Lucas McCain carried his still unconscious son across the street and into the hotel. Micah headed up the stairs in front of Lucas, making sure no one would try to come down as Lucas was heading up.

Micah opened the door to the room and proceeded farther inside in order to light the lantern on the bureau and the one on the night stand. He turned back the covers as Lucas neared.

Upon laying his son on the soft bed, Lucas heard the boy moan and took it as an encouraging sign.

“Do you think he’s coming around, LucasBoy?” Micah asked.

“I don’t know,” Lucas replied as he sat down on the edge of the bed and swept his son’s hair from his face. He mused that they needed to get Mark to the barber, his hair was much too long for the father’s liking. The worried father encouraged his son to wake, but silence was the only answer he received.

The marshal stepped to the doorway and said, “If you need anything, I’m right across the hall.” He stepped into the hallway and closed the door, having not received a response from his friend.

*****

Lucas woke upon hearing a cursory knock on the door, it opened and Doctor Webster entered, followed by Judge Zeller. Lucas reluctantly greeted the doctor, but refused to acknowledge the other man.

“Any change in the boy’s condition?” the doctor asked.

“A little… during the night he began moaning every now and then, only to quiet a few minutes later,” answered Lucas.

“I take it you’ve been talking to him? Hearing your voice might help encourage him to return to consciousness.”

“I’ve been talking to him all night,” Lucas answered.

“Speaking of talking,” Judge Zeller interrupted. “Captain Monterrey and I require your presence at the courthouse.”

“If the captain wants to see me, he can come here,” Lucas coldly answered.

“You have no say in the matter. I can order you to appear and if you don’t…”

“What?!” Lucas despised the man and his insinuation.

“I’ll have you thrown in jail for contempt of court.”

“You wouldn’t dare!” exclaimed Doc Webster. “My God, Holcomb… Haven’t you done enough damage?”

“This man killed an officer of the United Stated Army. He has to answer to a coroner’s inquest. I would be remiss in my duty as a judge if I just let this pass!”

“You’re remiss in your duty as a human being if you keep this up,” argued the doctor.

“I have the United States Army behind me on this… They too want to know what happened and why!”

“Then why don’t you subpoena the whole damn town!” retorted the doctor.

“You’re already on the docket,” Judge Zeller declared. “Mr. McCain, I expect you in my courthouse no later than ten o’clock this morning…” The unspoken implications and the look on the man’s face proved that he would order Lucas McCain in jailed and enjoy doing it.

“I’ll be there,” Lucas spat out. “You make sure you have your facts correct because if I find you twisting the truth, even the most minute detail… I’ll have the governor of the New Mexico Territory as well as the U.S. Marshal’s Service down here so fast, you’ll think the time you were a judge was only dream.”

“Are you threatening me?!”

“No, it’s a promise,” Lucas answered and turned his back towards the man as he focused on his son.

Once the judge had left the room, the doctor apologized, “I’m sorry about Holcomb…”

*****

Sam left the hotel after eating breakfast and having spoken with the desk clerk for directions. He proceeded to Miss Matilda’s where he had every intention of talking with Enola regarding Silas and all that happened, he didn’t expect Morgan Dakkar to tell the whole truth to the woman. Upon his arrival he found that Enola had left sometime during the night. The women stated she had left a note that her husband was dead and she wanted to get away from the memories that were becoming too painful.

To Sam the timing was a little too convenient… He regretted that he’d not followed the man the night before and fumed that he hadn’t obtained more information about where the man’s ranch was located.

As he left the front porch of Miss Matilda’s, any remaining energy he had summoned to help him see this duties through seemed to flee. He felt weary and the fleeting pain became more predominant. As he stumbled, he pulled himself up straighter upon his return to the hotel, he didn’t want it to appear that he was drunk, most people not taking the time to realize all that happened, only that he was an Indian. With great effort he made it up the last of the steps in the staircase, entered his room and collapsed on the bed.

*****

The boy woke the following morning at the hotel, confused. As he pushed aside the covers and slipped his legs over the edge, it surprised him to find he was wore no nightshirt or clothes at all.

Stating, “Come,” upon hearing a gentle tapping on the door, he grabbed the covers back and looked up to see a portly gentleman opening the door, balancing a tray.

“Good to see you awake this morning,” the man greeted. “I hope you’re hungry…”

“I am… Who are you?... Do you know where I am?”

“Me… I own this hotel. As for the rest, answers will come in due time, I’ve been told. You just focus on eating. Can you walk on your own?” the man inquired. “Oh, your clothes are there on the chair on the other side of the bed. They’ve been cleaned and mended.”

“Can I walk on my own?” the question confused the boy even more. He sensed a headache building at his temples.

“The doctor will be here in about a half hour, to look you over. Said you might have a headache and for you to make sure you drank plenty of fluids, so I figured orange juice would be good for you.”

“Thank you, mister.” The boy waited for the man to leave, retrieved the clothes set out for him. As he dressed, he saw the vivid bruises that corresponded with the various aches he felt; his mind drew a blank when he tried to remember what happened. Once dressed in his pants and shirt, he walked over and took a seat at the small table upon which the man had placed the tray of food.

*****

After receiving news that the boy had awakened and was eating, the physician made his way to the hotel. Minutes later while examining the boy, the doctor announced, “The original gunshot wound appears to have healed nicely.”

Doc Webster continued to re-examine the boy, grimacing at the colorful bruising upon his face. After assisting the boy in removing his shirt, the doctor continued to reacted with trepidation as the boy’s arms showed the vivid bruising indicating the severity of his being forcibly held, as well as the rope burns to his wrists. The physician remembered the day before; with the unconscious boy lying on an examination table… The father’s demeanor screamed of rage as he stripped off the tattered and filthy clothing his son had worn, only to have a deep seeded fury take its place as the colorful bruising showed upon his son’s small frame and rope burns to his wrists indicate how much he struggled against his restraints.

The doctor’s attention returned to the present when he heard, “You know about this?” and the boy raised his hand to his temple.

“Sure, it happened here, in Cloudcroft. I was the physician who first treated you.”

“Oh… Do you know who I am?”

“Headache worse?” the doctor asked as he saw the boy wince in pain. It’s not that he ignored the boy’s question he just knew it wasn’t for him to tell the boy the truth.

He nodded. “It just keeps pounding; I thought it would ease up after eating and drinking… But…” the boy groaned as another pain stabbed at his head.

“Here, let me help you to bed, I think that would be best for the day. I’ll also prepare something to help alleviate that headache.”

“Thank you,”

*****

After suffering through a deposition by the judge and being summarily dismissed after signing the official report acknowledging the events that lead up to the death of an Army officer at the hands of a civilian, Lucas left the judge’s chambers to return to the hotel, and his son.

As he walked out the door, he didn’t hear the judge sputtering nor see the man’s face turn red from embarrassment as when the captain entered the chambers and demanded to know why the judge was harassing the man. Every one present had witnessed the events unfold and it was up to the Army to handle any proceedings. Captain Monterrey apologized to Lucas after stating he had already written his official report for filing with his superiors.

“Mr. McCain, the ramifications from what happened yesterday would have been unkind to you, had I not witness my lieutenant’s actions and been prepared to drawn my own pistol. Our orders were to stop a potential Indian uprising, but… there was no reason for your son, nor your friend to be treated as they were. I will see to it that you are recompensed.”

“I don’t want payment, I just want my son to return to being the healthy young man he was before we rode into this God forsaken town.”

Lucas turned his back on the military officer and walked away.

*****

Waking as the bright afternoon sun streamed through the window, the boy sat in the bed and thought on the images he’d dreamed. Images of a man who towered above him, images of him jumping up and hauling himself into the saddle, images of sitting on the porch late at night with the man and his soothing voice, images of the man saying, ‘I’m proud of you son’, images that blurred together before they settled upon a mirror. In the mirror, he was looking at himself and laughing at the man standing behind him, and he called him, “Pa.”

His reverie was broken when the boy heard voices arguing outside the door to his room.

“He has amnesia,” one voice said. “It’s best to proceed slowly.”

“Get out of my way… or so help me!” another, angrier voice replied.

“LucasBoy, listen to the doctor,” another older voice answered.

“You can’t stop me from seeing him!” the second voice commanded.

“Mr. McCain!” declared the first voice.

The boy startled the when he heard a thump against the wall and the door was forcefully opened and there stood the tall man with a rifle in hand.

Without hesitation, the first word the boy spoke was, “PA?!” as an incredulous expression forced tears from his eyes.

“Mark?” Lucas tentatively asked.

“Pa… you’re my pa!” declared Mark. “I remember! I remember…Pa…” tears streamed down Mark’s face as everything he feared gone stood in front of him and returned to his memory.

Lucas momentarily froze, his boy had called him Pa, but the vivid bruises still angered him.

“The bruises will fade, in time. Go to him, Mr. McCain… Go to your son,” encouraged Dr. Webster.

*****

Sam Buckhart and Micah Torrance sat in the hotel room, helping to fill in the blanks of what happened in those first few hours and days after father and son had been wounded. Lucas continued with telling how he and the U.S. Marshal set out, only to return. How Lucas was too sick to carry on. Sam told the story of Silas Waiscott’s return to Cloudcroft, assisting during the search and Indian attack, and his untimely death.

“Least his death will save the town the expense of a trial, and having to take care of him for the rest of his life while in prison…” Micah stated, with some regret.

Mark sat quietly, listening to the adults’ talk of how he was handed over to outsiders, with no compassion for his father’s or his own feelings. He remembered how Horatio Pettigrew told him the courts had given custody of him to someone else, as if he were nothing more than a business deal.

“Mark, where were you?” Lucas finally asked as the three men had no more to tell.

Sam Buckhart had worried about this question. He’d not had a chance to talk with the boy after the physician had completed his examination.

“I’d rather not say…” answered Mark.

“Why not?” a shocked Micah asked.

Torn between the conveyed lie versus protecting those at Ranchero Orchha, Mark answered, “I feel I owe the people who took care of me… They didn’t ask for the trouble I brought to them…”

“What kind of trouble could you have brought to them, boy?” Micah asked. “From what Sam said, they took you…” His curiosity piqued.

“They only want to liave in peace, off the land, and not be bothered by outsiders…” Feeling the answer wasn’t enough to explain, Mark continued, “Even though I didn’t remember who I was or where I was from… I sort of upset the applecart. I didn’t mean to…”

“Guess they weren’t used to having youngsters around, especially one named Mark McCain,” teased Micah.

“He gave me the name Jules… Mr. Dakkar saw to my needs, medical attention, food, chores even seeing that I continued my education… But some things I saw… deep in my heart… I knew weren’t right.”

“Regardless, I’d like to thank him… Do you know where he lives?” Lucas asked.

“No… I was asleep when they took me there…”

“But you were awake when you left, weren’t you?” asked Micah.

“Lucas, Micah, I do not know all they reasons, only that the man was riding with Mark when I encountered them. He only had one request and that was that I not divulge anything of him or his ranch to the outside world.”

“But how do we explain where Mark’s been all these months?” demanded Micah.

“The only explanation that I am prepared to file with my report was that he was found by a wagon train, they came upon the aftermath of the Indian attack and took pity upon the boy. We can talk among ourselves of the truth, but in public, I ask that we respect Mr. Dakkar’s request for privacy.”

With careful consideration, Lucas answered, “Seeing as he did take such good care of my son… I don’t see what it would hurt.” The father smiled as he looked upon his son.

*****

Later that evening, in the hotel restaurant in Cloudcroft, those from North Fork and U.S. Marshal Sam Buckhart sat around the table having shared a good time together over supper. As the waitress cleared the dirty dishes from the table top and offered to get more coffee, Micah Torrance carefully pulled out a rolled sheet of paper, wrapped with a silk ribbon and handed it to Lucas.

“What is this?”

“Just something for your birthday…” Micah stated.

Birthdays, as wells holidays were something that just weren’t overly observed in the McCain household due to the one who was no longer with them. While traveling to find a new place to call home, money for presents and space for toys just wasn’t practical, and the memory that Margaret had so loved the occasions and made each one more special than the last; to celebrate had just been too painful due to their grief. But, they had been settled for enough years and by not celebrating, Lucas came to realize that they did need to celebrate the small and the big occasions, as a way to keep Margaret in their lives. Lucas remembered the year before, when Mark had taken a job with Nils at the livery, all to earn money to purchase him a new saddle as a birthday present; (Refers to events in season four episode: First Wages) ‘Maybe the grief has lessened to a point where we really should start celebrating...’ thought Lucas.

Untying the ribbon, Lucas unrolled the paper and read its content.

“Micah, I thought when Judge Zeller rescinded his findings, the governor’s involvement would no longer be required,” stated Sam as he looked at the document Lucas held.

“I just wanted to make it official, just in case the judge’s paperwork got lost,” answered Micah.

“We don’t need a piece of paper to know we’re father and son,” Mark stated, not sure exactly why the document his father held was so important.

“Mark, it’s true that we don’t need this,” Lucas held out the declaration, “But, it’s good to know we have important people who are willing to put it in writing, to make it official in a legal document.”

The waitress came to refill the coffee cups for the men and set another glass of sarsaparilla tea on the table for Mark.

“Would you like a piece of apple pie?” asked Micah.

“No thank you,” Mark replied.

“You? Turn down a piece of pie?” Lucas’ voice reflected his concern.

“I’m just not in the mood for pie tonight. But thank you for asking.”

Lucas cast a parental eye upon his son. But the document in his hand, it touched Lucas, “Micah, this is the best present you could ever give me.” His eyes brimmed with tears. “And Sam’s present means so much. The time, the effort… I can’t thank you enough for bringing Mark back to me.”

Lucas looked to his son still sitting quietly beside him, “Mark? Are you okay?”

“I guess so,” replied the young man.

“Something the matter?” Micah asked.

“I… I don’t have a present for Pa…” guilt colored his voice.

Placing his cupped hand behind his son’s neck and giving him a gentle squeeze, Lucas said, “Mark, you gave me a very precious gift this morning.”

Mark cocked his head and scrunched his face because he knew he hadn’t given anything to his pa. Micah and Sam withheld their mirth caused by the boy’s actions.

“When I walked into your room, you recognized me and called me Pa. That’s the precious gift you gave me. It means the world to me.”

“That present means much to us, as well,” answered Sam.

“Just seeing the two of you together, and calling each other father and son… Dang if I’m not going to have to see Doc Burrage about my eyes. Don’t know why they’re watering…” Micah stated as he wiped away the tears that threatened to fall.

*****

Alone in their hotel room, Lucas help Mark as he stiffly moved to undress and get ready for bed. With a nightshirt on, Mark sat in the bed and watched as his father covered him with the blanket, his eyes focused on his arms and knowing the bruises that covered his torso.

“Doc Webster said you should take some laudanum before going to sleep…” Lucas stated as he sat down on the edge of the bed and handed a glass of water to his son.

“Will it make the bruises and the memories go away?” Mark asked, unable to look to his father.

“No, unfortunately, nothing will erase the memories, time will heal the bruises, and hopefully, we’ll be able to forget the memories.”

Taking his time to drink, Mark continued to think and finally asked, “Why? Why did he do it?”

“The lieutenant?”

Mark nodded.

“He wasn’t right in his head; the major informed me that when the man was a young boy, his family was killed during an Indian raid… I can’t explain any more than that.”

“Pa… can we go home?”

“I’ll see what the doctor says in the morning… I’m ready to go home too.”

*****

Sam Buckhart stiffly rolled from his bed at the hotel and moaned; the medication the doctor had prescribed for him the night before had worn off and his muscles protested his movement. Knowing he had obligations to fulfill as a U.S. Marshal kept him from returning to the soft bed he’d slept upon.

“Maybe I am becoming too soft,” Sam spoke as he stood to take care of his personal needs. He thought of those who had probably returned to the reservation some days before; those who only made the situation worse by following Mueglion. He couldn’t blame them, not outright, that distinction belonged to Horatio Pettigrew and Judge Holcomb Zeller. If he had anything to say about it, Cloudcroft would soon be in need of a new judge.

As the Apache lawman stepped from the hotel, he wondered on what would have happened to Mark McCain had the attack not occurred… Had he made it all the way to Rio Rancho... What exactly was the home? And as for the Pettigrew Home for Wayward Boys… There would be a new administrator designated to watch over the boys and if it really wasn’t… it would soon truly be an orphanage, with people who cared about the boys who called the place home.

Sam stepped into Nathan Ironwood’s office and closed the door.

“Marshal… How are you this morning?” Nathan asked.

“Better,” Sam answered as he moved to the seat the Indian Agent offered to him.

“I presume you’re here about Mueglion and the others?”

“I am. As you are probably aware, Mueglion is dead.”

“Keeno and Mondola told me. And let me assure you, they and the others who followed Mueglion will be properly disciplined,” Ironwood offered.

“The Army?”

“No. Even though Captain Monterrey stated it would be within his right to transport them to the nearest fort…”

“What’s to become of them?”

“I rode with the captain to Mugua’s camp, and the captain agreed that Mugua would have jurisdiction over those who survived. It appears that before their first raid, a number of the ‘braves’ were appalled by Mueglion and begged off; it was one thing to talk of following the paths of their ancestors, but to actually go through with the brutality... Those who were truly at the heart of the uprising have already paid the ultimate price… But believe me, Mugua will not discipline those who returned lightly; he already told me what he has in store for those who defied him and left. Even though they did not actively participate… they watched and did nothing to stop it.”

“I guess that’s all I need to know.”

“Sam…” Ironwood called as the marshal stood to leave. “They are good people… Mugua wants peace.”

“We all do…”

*****

The morning sun was rising over Cloudcroft as Sheriff Dave Vestor stood outside the door to the hotel room shared by the McCains, a saddlebag in his hands.

“Good Morning, Lucas,” Dave greeted when Lucas answered the door.

“Good Morning, Dave. Come in,” offered Lucas.

“I arrived at the office this morning and found this on my desk… The note said these belonged to Mark…”

Mark was finishing buttoning his shirt when he looked up to see what the sheriff held in his hands.

“Mine?” Mark inquired as he accepted the saddlebags.

“That’s what the note said… I’ll leave you two…” and the sheriff left the room.

From the saddle bags the Sheriff had given to him, Mark pulled out clothes he had worn while at Ranchero Orchha and from the bottom a book. Lucas carefully watched his son, thankful to be reunited, but curious and cautious as he son’s expression changed.

“What’s that Mark?” inquired Lucas.

“Just a book Mr. Ambrose gave me.”

“Mr. Ambrose Gave you?”

“Yes sir, he told me it might help me understand.”

Raising his eyebrows Lucas stepped close to his son. “Understand what?”

“He was my teacher… I argued with him… I think he wanted me to learn… about why they were… the way they were. He felt this was the best way for me to learn about the applecart I upset…” Not knowing how to explain to his father all that he had experienced, he decided to tell a little about what he had read. “It’s the story of a man who turned his back on humanity and chose to live off the sea… actually, under the sea. Pa, do you think someday, man will be able to travel under the waters like Captain Nemo did?”

Taking a good look at his boy, Lucas cocked his head sideways; he knew his son was trying to sidestep an issue he was struggling to comprehend.

“Something else is bothering you, isn’t it, son?”

Mark nodded as he set the book on the bureau next to his saddle bag.

Motioning for his son to follow him and have a seat next to him on the bed, Lucas suggested, “Maybe I can help if you tell me about what you’re thinking.”

“It’s difficult to explain, because of the behaviors of the lieutenant and Mr. Dakkar… Something bad happened to both of them, but… I can understand man turning against his fellow man, when it’s literature…” Mark answered as he ran the tips of his fingers over the faded scar from the bullet that grazed his head. “Back home, you always greeted strangers with an open hand, offered them a meal…”

“But?” Lucas promoted.

“But Mr. Dakkar… He seemed… I don’t know… Pa, he was real, not some character in a novel; and he took care of the people who worked for him, he even took me in…” Lucas allowed his son the time to think about what he needed to express, to work through what must be a jumble of thoughts. “I have to admit that how he and the others lived off the land and tried to take care of it was the right way… to care for the land, I mean... But to shun society… To refuse aid to those in need… But he didn’t refuse all, he helped those who were in trouble, because of others… Not because they were there of their own choice… That’s why he helped me…

“Mr. Dakkar told me that one of the reasons they left Europe was that… years ago his son died in a horrible way… He and the others crossed the Atlantic and settled in the east for a while, only to realize that it was becoming too much like what they had left… and why they had left… The population, crime, illness… that’s why they came out here.

“Pa, if he loved his son… How could he keep me from you? Wouldn’t he know how much you would be hurting? He wanted me to make their ranch, my home.”

“I can’t speak for Mr. Dakkar… what he was thinking... Maybe he saw something of the son he lost in you, and wanted you as his son.”

“Pa! He’s old enough to be my grandfather and then some! How could he think of me as his son?!”

Lucas smiled at his son’s outburst, but kept his amusement to himself. “Mark, if I had lost you, say… when I lost your mother, I guess…as the years passed… if I saw a young man who reminded me of my boy… Maybe my mind would play tricks on me and make me think that it was you. And I might do just about anything to be reunited with you.”

“Would you kidnap a boy? I know he didn’t exactly kidnap me, but still… He kept me from you.”

“Not if I was in my right mind. And who knows what Mr. Dakkar’s mental state really was.”

Mark sat still, hand between his knees, shoulders slumped, head down.

“But he ultimately returned you to me…” Lucas added.

“Sort of…” Looking down to his hands as he began to twist them in his lap, Mark guiltily stated, “Pa… I’m sorry. I wish I could forget all about it like a bad dream…” Mark exhaled a heavy sigh and tried to stop his tears from falling.

“Mark, I wish upon your mother’s grave that neither of us had to experience what happened.”

Mark stood and walked back to the bureau. As he picked up the book to put it into his saddlebag he asked, “We’re going to be okay, aren’t we?”

“We’ll be fine, as long as we have each other,” answered Lucas.

“And Micah,” teased Mark as the first real smile appeared upon his face since that fateful day in Cloudcroft as North Fork’s town marshal knocked and entered their room.

“Ready to go home LucasBoy?” the lawman inquired.

“I think we’re both ready,” answered Lucas as he stood, gathered his saddle bags and walked out the doorway, following after Micah. “Come along, Mark. Let’s go home.”

Taking a moment to look one last time around the room, Mark shook his head in disbelief before following the most important men in his life to where they belonged -- home.

*****

Captain Monterrey greeted Lucas, Micah, and Mark as they stepped from the hotel.

“Gentlemen. Again, I’d like to offer my apologies regarding the lieutenant. I had no idea…” His eyes focused on the bruises upon the young man’s face. “He had no right to treat you as he did…”

“He had no right to treat Marshal Buckhart as he did either!” declared Mark as he took a step forward.

“No, but unfortunately, I trusted his word that his prisoners were… renegades and you a long time captive of the Apache. We needed to know the truth.”

“Marshal Buckhart told the truth!” Mark angrily announced.

“We know that… now.”

“You should have known that then!” argued Mark. “You’re just as bad as the others! Regardless of the reasons… you turned a blind eye!”

Lucas wanted to restrain his son from venting his anger at the soldier, but he had also seen something in his son’s eyes earlier that told him his son was far from healed from his ordeal.

“No… you’re right… I am guilty of turning my back on what was happening in my own command. I know it doesn’t justify the means, but… we were desperate to find Mueglion and his band.”

“And now?” asked Mark.

“We’ll return to our post, with my report indicating that Lieutenant Drake’s actions were detrimental to the U.S. Army and this cavalry unit in particular.” Bowing his head, “There will be no honor associated with the lieutenant’s name. And… your father will not face any charges related to the death of the lieutenant, his actions were justifiable…to save your life. In time… maybe we can give up the hate.”

“And the fear…” acknowledge Mark.

“Fear?” queried Micah.

“It’s the fear of the unknown… fear of change that causes some men to hate and to shut themselves off from the world around them,” answered Mark.

Turning to walk away from the men who stood next to him, Mark knew he was not only talking about the Lieutenant, he was also talking about Morgan Dakkar and the others. Though their hate wasn’t in anger, their fear and hating what man could do to man had brought about their self-centeredness.

As he walked towards the livery, saddlebags over his shoulder, Mark whispered, “Some day… we all have to learn to trust, help, and believe in our fellow man, regardless how far from home we travel.”




*****

Endnote: I mean no copyright infringement in writing this story, especially since no profit is earned. I give credit to Levy-Gardner-Laven Productions, Inc. for the creation of The Rifleman and its publicly recognized characters. The book given to Mark McCain by Reginald Ambrose in this story was Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea by Jules Verne, published in 1870. Writing and sharing this story is just a way for the characters to live on in this little piece of my imagination. The plot and the characters not recognized from “The Rifleman” are from my own over active imagination.

As the story developed, the plotline and characters did stray from my original outline…because I grew too attached to some I had intended to kill off, but I am quite satisfied with how the story turned out. I hope you’ve enjoyed the journey as Lucas and Mark were Leagues from Home.


Characters acknowledged from The Rifleman:
Lucas McCain
Mark McCain
U.S. Marshal Sam Buckhart
Marshal Micah Torrance
Nils Swenson – owned the livery
John Hamilton – North Fork bank manager
Oat Jackford – only referenced - rancher
Doctor Burrage – only referenced


Horatio Pettigrew - home for wayward boys
Nathan Ironwood – Indian Agent
Aaron Provo – trail hand/ drifter
Silas Waiscott - former slave
Ted Cassidy – brains for bank robbery – founder of bank.
Hank Williams – Cloudcroft bank manager
Deputy Dave Vestor (brother of Miss Matilda)
Judge Holcomb Zeller
Doctor Mitchell Webster
Caleb O’Donnell, esquire – lawyer
Avery Jenkins – town solicitor
U.S. Marshal Sam Buckhart
Miss Matilda – Madam (Sister of Deputy Dave Vestor)
Dominique / Enola – Miss Matilda’s / wife of Silas
Agnes – Miss Matilda’s
Leila – Miss Matilda’s
Angeline – Miss Matilda’s
Veronica – Miss Matilda’s
Mugua – Indian Chief
Mueglion – son of chief
Keeno – Ironwood’s young assistant – Mescalero
Pate - Mescalero
Quantra - Mescalero
Mondola – Mescalero
Ranchero Orchha founders left Europe in search of the adventure in the New World. As America became more populated, the cities and towns reminded the men of the bitter lives which forced them to flee across the ocean, so they set out in search of new land, where they could live as they saw fit. Living off the land, but for everything they take, something is given back.
They are distrustful of those who greedily seek their fortune at the expense of others, yet at the same time, champion the underdog.
Morgan Dakkar – Ranchero Orchha
Curly Smythe – hand at Ranchero Orchha
Parson Boggs – hand at Ranchero Orchha
Reginald Ambrose – teacher from Cambridge who lives at Ranchero Orchha
Doctor Herbert Milano – physician at Ranchero Orchha
Lin Tang – housekeeper/cook/major domo at Ranchero Orchha
Lieutenant Charles Drake
Captain Monterrey
Trey Provo – Aaron’s brother - deceased
Deuce Hollender - former military - deceased
Abe Moffett - possible mountain man - deceased
Zeke Hansen - young kid (twentyish) - deceased
Sheriff Wade Pattison - deceased
Jedidiah Jones – guide - deceased
Horatio Pettigrew - home for wayward boys - deceased
Giles (Malloy) – man servant for Horatio Pettigrew - deceased

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

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