The Rifleman
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Fan Fiction

Leaving Childhood Behind
Written by Deanne Bertram

In this story I’ve borrowed a few guest characters from The Rifleman’s five year television run.
 
In The Schoolmaster (season three) we met North Fork’s new school teacher, Stevan Griswald. A man with strict expectations of the children under his tutelage. However, he learned a lesson that his eastern style of teaching did not work well with the children of the west. He also learned that some boys will defend their fathers unquestioningly. Mark also learned an unfortunate lesson regarding the consequences of playing hooky from school.
 
In Death Trap (season three) we were introduced to Doctor Simon Battle and his sixteen year old daughter, Vicki. Simon was a former gunslinger who went up against Lucas McCain ten years prior and was severely wounded. As his wife nursed him back to health, she in turn took sick. Before she died, she made Simon promise he would do something good with his life, there had to be more doctors to save the sick. We never knew why Simon ended up facing Lucas in their first meeting.
 
Traveling through North Fork and stopping for the night, Simon Battle is the only doctor in town (Doc Burrage was out of town) to perform surgery to save the life of a man Lucas McCain found gravely injured as he and his son were traveling into town. The former foes stood together to defend the town against the outlaws who were after the wounded man. At the end, father and daughter leave town to start his practice in the Gilla Mountain area. (Bits n Pieces: Phillip Carey portrayed Simon Battle. Phillip Carey went on to portray Captain Parmalee in Laredo and Asa Buchanan in One Life to Life – just to name a few roles.)
 
In Death Never Rides Alone (season five), we’re introduced to Johnny Drako, a long-time friend of Lucas McCain. Drako was a known gunslinger, who was always within the law when his reputation was forged. Drako was looking for a nice, quiet place to live and figured North Fork would suit him, just fine; specially since his friend called the town home. However, events beyond his control made him see the impact his arrival would have if he stayed and he decided to leave town.
 
In my mind’s eye, I always believed that one day, Drako would return to North Fork, after lying low and letting others gain their reputations; his own would simply fade into history. Thus was the idea for my story The Return of Johnny Drako. (Bits n Pieces: Lee Van Cleef portrayed Johnny Drako)
 
All other characters not recognized from The Rifleman and the storyline are from my own over active imagination.
 
This story takes place after the series ended its television run and continues the idea begun in my story A New Day, where Mark’s studies and grades improved so much that he is now a student teacher helping Stevan Griswald with some of the younger children in North Fork. This story also follows through with an idea started in The Return of Johnny Drako.


Leaving Childhood Behind
 
The two students sat side by side at the shared desk with the older student helping the younger student with his spelling lesson. The young boy dutifully copied the letters from the large black board mounted on the wall, at the front of the one room school, to the smaller slate on the desktop where he sat. As the young child worked, the older boy smiled at the child’s enthusiasm to learn, cringing occasionally as the chalk would shriek on the slate.
 
“Mark,” school teacher Stevan Griswald called while sitting behind his desk at the front of the schoolroom, “I think you and Tommy have done enough today. Why don’t you see to it that he gets home, okay?”
 
“Sure Mr. Griswald,” Mark replied. “Tommy, you did real well today. With me working with you, your grades will really improve in no time.”
 
Mr. Griswald shuffled the papers he had been grading as he watched sixteen year old Mark loop Tommy’s books together. Stepping from his desk, he followed to two boys outside, and watched as Mark hooked their books over the saddle horn before he stepped into the stirrup and mounted Blue Boy. With his right hand holding the saddlehorn, Mark reached down and extended his left arm to eight year old Tommy, who used both hands to grab hold of Mark’s hands in order for the older boy to swing him up to the back of the saddle. Tommy grabbed Mark’s jacket with his hands to hold on as they rode away from school at a slow trot.
 
Stevan shook his head and smiled to himself when the boys rode off, waving and laughing. The school teacher was pleased with the way Mark McCain helped the younger boy with his lessons. Patient and caring were the two words he would use to describe Mark; a far cry from the young boy who clashed against him in his first few weeks as North Fork’s teacher.
 
*****
 
Mark slowed BlueBoy to a walk as they came to the pond where Tommy enjoyed watching the duck’s floating on the surface. He delighted in the youth’s wonder at life in their small town.
 
“Mark, you think my folks will be proud of the book learnin’ I been doing this week?” Tommy asked.
 
“Sure, I don’t see why not. My Pa was always pleased when I did well in school. It was a dream he and my Ma shared for me to have a good education.”
 
“I can’t wait to go back tomorrow,” Tommy happily stated.
 
“Only one more day of school this week,” Mark replied and gave a slight sigh, which caused Tommy to giggle.
 
“I thought you liked school,” commented Tommy.
 
“Oh, I do, but I also enjoy helping Pa out around the ranch. I can’t wait until I can graduate and be a full-time rancher like my Pa.”
 
“You wouldn’t be helpin’ me no more?” Tommy asked, his lower lip quivering.
 
“I’ll make it a point to come help you, Tommy. But maybe you won’t need me anymore. The way you understand your lessons, you might just be able to teach me a thing or two,” teased Mark, hoping to bring a smile back to the boy’s face.
 
****
 
They continued to talk and laugh as they rode. Upon their arrival at the Mason homestead, Mark startled when he heard a woman screaming. Knowing that Tommy’s Ma was pregnant, he sent Tommy into the barn to start his chores.
 
After making sure the boy was on his way to the barn, Mark ran towards the house as he heard the woman scream again. Mark called out for Mr. Mason and received no response. Entering the home, he followed the moans and walked towards what he presumed would be the bedroom door calling, “Mrs. Mason? It’s me, Mark McCain.”
 
He pushed open the bedroom door to see Mrs. Mason curled up on the bed, pain and sweat anguished across her face.
 
“Mark, it’s too early. Clegg went for the Doc. ARGHH!” she screamed again, grabbing her belly as another contraction wracked her body. “Please Mark, get Doc Burrage!” she pleaded, panting out of breath.
 
Mark ran from the house to the barn calling for Tommy.
 
“Tommy, you stay out here. I got to go for the Doc. Don’t go in your house, okay?”
 
“Yes Mark,” Tommy replied as he ran back into the shadows of the barn.
 
*****
 
Mark raced Blue Boy back to North Fork. Without waiting for his horse to stop, he jumped from the saddle in front of Doc Burrage’s office and ran inside, yelling, “Doc!” He came to an abrupt halt as Doc pulled a blanket over Clegg Mason’s body lying on the examination table.
 
“Doc?” Mark asked trying to comprehend the scene in front of him.
 
“Mark, what are you doing here?” Doc asked hastily as he turned to face the young man and turned him in an effort to move him outside to the boardwalk.
 
“Doc, its Mrs. Mason, she’s in labor at their place,” Mark said as he kept looking over his shoulder at the white sheet covering the body.
 
“Mark?” rancher Oat Jackford came to stand beside Mark, “I know you’re growing up, but let’s get you out of here. Not sure you need to be seeing this, especially since your Pa’s not here.”
 
Oat wrapped an arm around Marks’ shoulder and led him from the doctor’s office.
 
“Now what’s this you were saying about Mrs. Mason in labor?” Oat asked.
 
“I took Tommy home from school today. She’s in their bedroom screaming. She said it was too early and that Mr. Mason came to town to get Doc. I… I… left Tommy there… in the barn.”
 
Carrying his black medical bag, Doc Burrage stepped out of his office as Deputy Johnny Drako approached the group. After Mark again explained everything that he knew, he turned and asked, “Johnny, can you get word to Pa. Mrs. Mason is in labor and I need to keep Tommy company… until the baby arrives.”
 
“No problem Mark. I’ll get word to your Pa,” Johnny stated and watched as Mark mounted his horse and rode away next to Doc Burrage’s buggy.
 
“Drako,” Oat called. “It might be a long night. I found Clegg Mason out on the road to town. Evidently his horse broke a leg and threw him. I put the horse down a ways off the road. Clegg’s in the doc’s office, dead.”
 
Drako looked at the burly rancher standing next to him. In all his gruffness and self-bravado, those who really knew the rancher knew he held a soft spot in his heart for Mark McCain; Jackford would fight any man, tooth and nail, in denial. Oat bid Drako goodbye and left to follow after Mark and the Doc. He planned to take young Tommy home with him after the baby was born. Mrs. Mason would have enough on her hands and mind, what with a new baby and learning her husband was dead.
 
*****
 
“Mark, you and Tommy stay out in the barn. We’ll come get you when everything’s said and done,” Doc stated as he rushed into the house upon hearing Mrs. Mason scream.  
 
*****
 
Upon entering the bedroom, Doc calmly greeted Mrs. Mason and set his black bag down on the bed and rolled up his sleeves.  After helping position Mrs. Mason so he could begin his exam, Doc felt his stomach muscles tightening; knowing the baby was coming too early and unfortunately, his examination revealed the baby was in a full-breach position. The physician dreaded what the next few hours would bring. As the painful contractions continued to wrack the woman’s body, he tried everything he could to maneuver the baby into a proper position to ease the delivery.  Giving a sigh of relief, the physician briefly relaxed as he turned the fetus. But, as the labor continued without any results and the woman being in labor for a long time, Doc knew he was fighting a losing battle when his patient began hemorrhaging, badly.
 
Grabbing towels from the table next to the bed, the doctor attempted to stem the flow of blood as he decided to turn his attentions to saving the life of the baby, upon realizing that Mrs. Mason’s life could not be saved from the massive amount of blood lost.
 
Cutting open the woman’s abdomen, the doctor worked his way through the layers of fat that accompany any pregnancy, and finally worked his way to the membrane of the womb. Once the baby was revealed, Doc struggled to pull the baby backwards from the birth canal. Holding the baby in his hands, he shook his head upon seeing the umbilical cord wrapped tightly around the child’s neck. The child was blue as he untangled the cord. Holding the infant upside down by its ankles, the physician placed several smacks to it bottom in an effort to encourage it to take its first breath of life. Placing the infant upon the dead woman, he set down his stethoscope having listening for a heartbeat and not hearing one; he returned the instrument to his medical bag. Despondent, try as he did, he couldn’t save either one of his patients. Slowly he pulled a blanket over Mrs. Mason’s body and the body of her stillborn infant.
 
Doc stepped from the bedroom to the sink in the kitchen to wash the blood off of his hands and arms.
 
“Oat, where are the boys?” Doc inquired as he heard the rancher stand from sitting at the table in the main room of the home.
 
“I saw them both in the barn earlier, been checking on them every now and then. Doc, I didn’t hear a baby cry,” Oat said.
 
“I lost them both. The baby was coming breach and suffocated. Mrs. Mason’s labor tore her up too much, she lost too much blood,” Doc replied, shaking his head.
 
“What can I do to help?” Oat asked.
 
“Walk with me to tell the boys. We need to find somewhere for Tommy to stay until we can locate relatives to take him in or make arrangements at an orphanage.”
 
“I’d planned to take him home with me tonight, considering what had happened earlier,” Oat said as they walked to the barn.
 
Neither Oat nor Doc realized how late in the evening it was until they left the house and saw it was dark outside. As they entered the barn, neither boy was in sight. Oat climbed up the ladder to the hay loft and quietly called down, “Doc, they’re both up here.”
 
Doc followed the burly rancher up the ladder.
 
Tommy was curled up in a pile of hay, leaning against Mark, with Mark’s arms wrapped around him, both boys were sound asleep.
 
Oat walked over and knelt down next to Mark, placed a firm hand on his shoulder, and gently shook him. Mark woke with a startled look on his face, before he remembered where he was and what was happening.
 
“Mrs. Mason and the baby?” Mark quietly asked.
 
Oat looked back over his shoulder towards Doc Burrage.
 
“I’m sorry Mark,” Doc said. “We lost both Tommy’s ma and the baby. It was just too soon.”
 
“That means he’s an orphan now?” Mark inquired.
 
Neither man had a voice to answer Mark’s question; they just nodded their heads.
 
“Oat has offered Tommy a place to stay until we can locate family to take him in,” Doc stated as he stood behind the rancher.
 
“No!” Mark said with a little more emotion than he meant too. “I’ll take him home with me. Pa and I can take care of Tommy until then.”  Seeing the expression that floated across the rancher’s face Mark said, “I’m sorry… I didn’t mean to offend you… It’s just that… Tommy doesn’t know you, Mr. Jackford.”
 
“I understand Mark. No offense taken.”
 
Doc Burrage knelt down next to the boys and placed a hand on Tommy’s shoulder, he gently shook the boy awake. Compassionately as he could, Doc informed Tommy that both of his parents had died. Tommy reached around and clung to Mark’s neck, crying hard with loud sobs punctuating the night. Mark continued to sit with his arms wrapped around Tommy, patting his back, trying to offer comfort.
 
After witnessing the young boy’s reacted, Oat knew that Mark was right. He also realized that he had no idea on how to take care of a child. Cattle was one thing, children were totally foreign to the rancher.
 
*****
 
A worried Lucas McCain rode into town and stopped his horse at the Marshal’s Office.
 
“Micah, have you seen Mark since school let out today?” Lucas asked as he entered the office and spotted the marshal sitting behind the desk in his office.
 
“LucasBoy, I’ve only been back in town for about a half hour. Mark’s missing?” Micah asked.
 
“I don’t know for sure, just… he hadn’t returned home from school and it’s dark out,” Lucas answered as any concerned parent would.
 
“Maybe Johnny saw him today. He’s over at the hotel with Lou eating dinner,” Micah offered as he picked up his hat and walked to the door with his bummed arm hanging at his right side. “He told me he’s had his hands full today, what with that latest group of trail drovers arriving. We’ve got four in the cells for disrupting the peace; waiting for their ramrod or trail boss to come get them.”
 
*****
 
They stepped from Micah’s and walked across the main street of North Fork and into the hotel restaurant. As they entered, Johnny Drako took one look at Lucas, slapped his forehead, stood up, and apologetically called over, “Lucas, I’m so sorry, I totally forgot to get word to you about Mark.”
 
“He’s okay?” Lucas hurriedly asked.
 
“He was tutoring Tommy Mason, oh God. Lucas, Oat Jackford brought Clegg Mason to town earlier today. They found him out on the road…been thrown from his horse. Must have struck his head and the blow killed him.”
 
Panic gripped Lucas at Drako’s coarse explanation; he feared Mark had been thrown, he felt his knees begin to collapse.
 
“Johnny!” an alarmed Lou squealed and clutched her hand over her heart.
 
“The boy’s okay, Lucas. I meant to say Clegg Mason was thrown and killed by a blow to the head. I’m sorry Lucas, it’s been one of those days,” an exasperated Drako spoke.
 
“What does this have to do with Mark?” Lucas demanded a little impatiently while at the same time trying to settle his rapidly beating heart.
 
“Mark took Tommy back to his home after school, next thing I know; Mark’s at Doc’s stating Mrs. Mason was having the baby. Doc and Oat rode out with Mark.  I was supposed to get word to you that he’d be home when he could. Lucas, I’m sorry. Shortly after they left town, those drovers started creating all sorts of commotion and once I got them taken care of, I totally forgot about Mark until you walked through the door.”
 
“Johnny Drako, how dare ye scare Lucas like this!” hotel proprietor Lou Mallory exclaimed. Everyone in the restaurant could hear the fire in her Irish brogue, indicating she was quite upset with Johnny; the green of her eyes flashed in contrast to her red hair. “How could ye not take the time to get word to Lucas?! Here he’s been near scared to death that something had happened to Mark!”
 
Lou stood up, threw her napkin to the tabletop, and stormed away from the table without looking back to her dinner companion.
 
“Lucas I really am sorry,” Drako stated. The look on his face fully expressed his remorse and guilt.
 
“Johnny, don’t fret about it. I’ll head on over to the Mason’s and see what I can do to help out. I think you need to do some ‘sweet talking’ to Lou to get her to simmer down.”
 
Lucas thanked Micah for sharing his concern for Mark as they crossed the street and stepped to the boardwalk by the hitching rail.
 
“Lucas, no need to thank me. You and that boy are family. Just let me know tomorrow if they need any help over at the Mason’s place. I’ll get a few men and some of the town ladies to help out as needed.”
 
“See you tomorrow Micah,” Lucas stated as he was about to put his foot in the stirrup. He hesitated when he saw Doc Burrage stop his buggy in front of his office. Both Micah and Lucas walked over.
 
Lawman and rancher were about to inquire about Mrs. Mason and the baby when they saw the dejected look on Doc’s face.
 
Doc stepped down and turned from the buggy before he realized Lucas and Micah were there.
 
“Doc?” they asked simultaneously.
 
“Lucas, Micah, sorry, didn’t realize either of you were there.”
 
“We heard the news about Clegg, what about his wife and the baby?” Micah asked.
 
“I lost practically the whole family today. The baby was too soon and breach. Guess Clegg was on his way into town to get me when he got thrown.” Doc answered, just shaking his head.
 
“Oh…Lucas, Mark was planning to take Tommy to your place for the night. Oat Jackford was going to see they got there safely before he headed back to his ranch.” Turning to Micah he continued, “We’ll need to find out if that boy had any other family that would be willing to take him in. But right now, I want to go to bed and sleep. I don’t like losing three patients in one day!”
 
Doc walked away from Lucas and Micah without saying goodnight. They watched, his posture was of a man defeated.
 
Micah stated, “Lucas you go home and take care of both those boys, I’m sure Tommy will need some fatherly attention tonight. I’ll see that Doc gets over this. Goodnight LucasBoy.”
 
Lucas returned to Razor, mounted and headed home. Lucas wanted to get home fast, but at night he knew it was stupid to push Razor to anything more than a trot. One person getting thrown from a horse with a broken leg in one day was more than enough.
 
*****
 
The tall rancher arrived home and stepped inside; he saw both boys sleeping in his chair in front of the window. Tommy was curled up in Mark’s lap; Mark had his arms around Tommy, bible in his hands. He could tell that both boys had been crying from the tear stains down their cheeks.
 
Lucas stepped to the boys, gently took the bible from Mark’s hands and placed it on the table. Mark started to rouse.
 
“It’s okay son, let me put Tommy to bed.”
 
Lucas picked up Tommy and carried him to the bedroom he and his son shared. He gently removed Tommy’s boots and belt before pulling the covers up over the boy. When Lucas turned to go back to Mark, he saw his son standing in the door way.
 
“Mark, do you want to go to sleep or do you want to talk?” Lucas asked. He saw the look in his boy’s eyes and wanted to help him. How much like his mother the boy is, Lucas thought to himself. Even though he didn’t really know the parents, the boy felt the sorrow in their deaths.
 
“Pa, can we talk?” Mark asked.
 
“Sure.” Lucas walked to the doorway and pulled the bedroom door closed. He followed Mark across the front room and out onto the front porch and watched as Mark leaned back against one of the posts before sliding down the post to sit down.
 
“Son, take your time.” Lucas said as he sat down next to Mark.
 
“Pa, I hope you don’t mind that I brought Tommy here.” Mark looked to his Pa, looking to see that he had done the right thing.
 
“Mark, in your heart you know you did the right thing and I’m proud that you did it. Tommy’s going to need someone around who kind of knows what he’s going through. I don’t mind that you brought him home.”  Lucas continued to look at Mark. “Do you need to talk about… how you feel?”
 
“Pa, I…” Mark hesitated. “I don’t know how to explain how I feel… only that I sort of feel numb. Like this is all a bad dream and I want to wake up from it… but can’t.”
 
Lucas saw tears start to form in Mark’s eyes. “Mark, I guess the best way for me to help you understand what you’re feeling is for you to tell me what happened. I only know bits and pieces from Johnny and Doc.”
 
“Guess to start, Mr. Griswald had asked that I give Tommy some special attention, seeing as how his folks… Well, I told you Monday about why I was staying after school…”
 
“I remember. And I’m proud of your helping your teacher with some of the younger students.”
 
Mark took a deep breath and let it out slowly, giving him time to reorganize his thoughts and to help keep his emotions reined in. “I’ve been tutoring him this week after school and then taking him home each day. Today… we arrived at the house and we heard Mrs. Mason screaming. I put Tommy in the barn and told him to stay there until I came for him. I ran to the house, looking for Mr. Mason to ask if he wanted me to go for Doc. He wasn’t there.”
 
Mark paused again.
 
“Pa, she screamed again and I went to their bedroom. She was in such agony… she yelled that it was too soon and for me to get Doc. I raced BlueBoy back to town and ran into Doc’s office.”
 
Mark stopped, this time he couldn’t hold back the tears in his eyes. He pulled his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around his legs and dropped his head. Lucas slid closer to Mark and wrapped an arm around Mark’s shoulders.
 
“Take your time Mark,” Lucas quietly spoke.
 
In time, Mark could continue. “Pa, I didn’t even knock on Doc Burrage’s door before I entered… I just… ran in as… as he was pulling a sheet over Mr. Mason’s body. The side of his head was all bloody.”
 
Sobs wracked Mark’s body again the vivid image re-appeared in his memory. He sat there shaking his head from side to side.
 
Lucas held Mark even tighter, wishing there was something more he could do to ease his boy’s emotions. To take away the scene he was remembering.
 
“I hate for you to feel this pain, son, but it is part of your growing up. We’ve talked in the past about life, how there will be happy days and sad days. Same as there will be good people and bad people,” Lucas told his boy. “Life and death is all part of living.”
 
“I know… Mr. Jackford followed us, Doc and me, back to the Mason’s farm. Tommy came from the barn when he heard us. They went into the house and I guess Doc ran into the bedroom. Mr. Jackford had told me to take Tommy back to the barn because we didn’t need to be in the house. I took Tommy up into the hayloft and we worked on some of his lessons and I guess we fell asleep. Next thing, Mr. Jackford was waking me up and Doc Burrage told me that both Mrs. Mason and the baby had died.”
 
Mark turned and wrapped his arms around his Pa’s neck and cried.
 
“Oh, Pa! Why does it hurt so much? They weren’t family.”
 
“Mark, you are so much like your mother. You care so much about others. I know I’m blessed to have such a caring son.” Lucas leaned over and placed a kiss on top of Mark’s head as he continued to hold his son. “And it’s because you care so much that it hurts. That’s why I’ve always told you that when you feel the need, you should cry.”
 
In time, Mark released his grip from his Pa and sat back. “Guess that I should go and get one of the cots from the barn and set it up in the front room for sleeping.” Mark got up to start to walk to the barn.
 
“Mark, I’ll get it. It’s late enough.  You go on in and get ready for bed. Besides, I need to bed down Razor.”
 
When Lucas returned to the house, he was carrying the cot, but he set it up in the bedroom; there was room for the three of them.
 
“Pa?” Mark stated.
 
“Mark, if he wakes during the night, he’s going to need you more than me. He knows you. But I want to be here for you.”
 
“Thanks Pa. I’ll sleep on the cot since I was the one who brought him home,” Mark stated.
 
Soon, both were asleep. Lucas woke early in the morning and looked to Mark’s bunk, he was startled when he realized Tommy wasn’t under the covers. Lucas quickly stood to his feet and looked to the cot where Mark was sleeping and saw Tommy curled up, with Mark’s arm around him.
 
Lucas relaxed and smiled at the sight; he was beginning to realize just how grown up Mark was becoming. He quietly dressed and left the bedroom. Lucas walked out of the house and to the barn; where he fed the horses before he collected the eggs and milked the cow. With those few chores completed, he finally returning to the house. As quietly as possible Lucas started to make breakfast and set the table.
 
Breakfast was almost ready when Lucas looked up upon hearing the bedroom door open. He watched as two sleepy-headed boys entered the front room.
 
“Pa, look what followed me home. Can I keep this puppy?” Mark asked with a gleam in his eyes.
 
Tommy replied, “I’m not a puppy, I’m a rancher!”
 
“Boys, why don’t both of you step outside and wash up for the morning,” Lucas suggested.
 
“Yeah, I’ll even make sure this puppy washes behind his ears.” Mark picked Tommy up, half slinging the boy over his shoulder and carried him out the back door. Tommy was laughing for Mark to put him down.
 
They returned to the front room and sat down at the table. Tommy asked if he could say grace. Lucas nodded.
 
After breakfast was eaten and the dishes washed and put away, Mark realized the time. “Pa, we’re late for school!”
 
“Boys, I think I’m going to keep both of you here, at least until after the funerals.”
 
Tommy lowered his eyes and started crying as he remembered why he was with the McCains. Mark knelt down beside Tommy and gave him a hug, trying to ‘shhhh’ him and let him know everything would be okay.
 
When the boy had quieted, Lucas stated, “Mark, why don’t you have Tommy help you with your chores out in the barn this morning.”  The tall rancher maneuvered Tommy out the door then quietly he told Mark, “I’m going over to Tommy’s place and pick up some of his things. I’ll head into town to see if Micah’s had any luck in finding out if Mr. or Mrs. Mason had any relatives that we can contact.”
 
“Sure, Pa,” answered Mark.
 
*****
 
Lucas rode to the Mason’s farm and without knocking entered the home. He slowly walked to the closed doors and chose one, hoping it would have been the child’s bedroom. Breathing a sigh of relief, Lucas entered and picked up some of Tommy’s clothing, his school books, and some of his toys and placed them in the carry sacks he had brought along. As he stepped back to the main room, he refrained from opening the other bedroom door.
 
As he exited the house, he saw Oat Jackford and one of his hands, Billy Lehigh, arrive.
 
“Lucas, how’re the boys doing?” Oat called over.
 
“They’re both doing okay. Tommy has his ups and downs. Glad Mark brought him home last night,” Lucas replied.
 
“Guess Mark really is growing up. His tone surprised me when he told us that he was going to take Tommy to your place. I almost argued with your boy, but after remembering the two of them sleeping up in the hayloft, I knew it was the right thing.”
 
“Oat, thanks for seeing them safely home last night, I appreciate it,” Lucas offered.
 
Billy tried to hide his laughter by changing it into a cough and covering his mouth with his hand as Oat, in all his gruffness, looked at his employee.
 
“Now don’t you go saying a word to anybody that I’m going soft about that boy,” Oat glared at Billy.
 
“Which one? Mark or Tommy?” Billy asked and let loose a laugh.
 
Oat only glared harder at Billy.
 
“You?  Soft? I won’t tell! I value my job!” Billy exclaimed, but still couldn’t keep the smirk from his face.
 
“Lucas, Billy and I had planned to take the cattle. I’ll open an account at the bank in the boy’s name and have John Hamilton put the money in there for him.”
 
“Thanks Oat. I was just picking up some of his belongings. Not sure how long it’s going to take until any of his relatives can be found. I’m heading on into North Fork, I’ll let Micah know things are taken care of out here.”
 
“You might want to let Nils Swenson know about the horses, and that he doesn’t need to come out here,” Oat stated. “I’ll have Billy or Sam collect them later.”
 
Lucas knew the owner of the livery would probably want to come out to see that the Mason’s horses were properly tended to anyway.
 
“I will,” Lucas stated as he tied the carry sacks to his saddlehorn.
 
Waving goodbye, Lucas headed to North Fork.
 
*****
 
By the time Lucas arrived in town, school was on lunch break. Lucas stopped by to talk with Stevan Griswald. Thankfully, he didn’t have to explain why Mark or Tommy weren’t in school; Micah had informed the teacher earlier in the morning what had happened.
 
“Lucas, don’t worry about Mark’s studies, he’s so far ahead of everyone else, that it won’t matter if he misses a few days. If Tommy’s up to it; just have Mark continue working with him like he has this past week.”
 
“I’ll do Stevan. I picked up the rest of his school books from their place this morning.”
 
“Lucas, Micah did say that they were going to plan on funeral services for the family tomorrow. I’ll see you then.”
 
“That’s one of the things I was going to check in with Micah about. Thanks, Stevan.”
 
Mr. Griswald turned to reprimand a few of the boys who were aggravating several of the girls out in the school yard.
 
Leading Razor, Lucas left the school and walked over to Micah’s. As he entered, Johnny pulled a second chair over and set it in front of Micah’s desk for Lucas.
 
“Lucas, have a seat and talk,” Drako said as he sat back down.
 
“So, Johnny, just how much sweet talking did you have to do to get back in Lou’s good graces?” Lucas asked as he poured himself a cup of coffee and walked to sit down.
 
“You know she still holds a special place in her heart for you and Mark. One little slip up on my part... She was still brewing about it this morning. It might take longer if you don’t step in and talk to her on my behalf Lucas,” suggested the deputy.
 
“I’ll stop by the hotel later and put in a good word for you.” Lucas grinned as he remembered a few times when he had managed to rile Lou. Not that there was ever anything serious between the two, they just ended up being good friends.
 
“How’re the boys doing, LucasBoy?” Micah asked as he stood up to close the door to the office. Knowing Lucas would want to talk and Micah didn’t want anyone just happening by to hear their conversation.
 
“As well as can be expected, I guess. It’s bringing back too many memories right now. On my way home last night, I remembered all that I went through with Mark after Margaret died. It was hard for the longest time. I wasn’t looking forward to reliving that experience with Tommy. But Mark…” Lucas stopped and took a drink of coffee.
 
“I take it Mark’s stepped up and is trying to protect you from reliving your own memories in having to deal with Tommy,” Micah stated.
 
“That and since he lost one of his parents, maybe he feels that Tommy might relate to him better,” Johnny offered.
 
“It’s just that my boy’s growing up in so many ways.” Lucas shook his head. “Ran into Oat out at the Mason’s this morning; he told me the tone of voice Mark used when he said that Tommy would be his responsibility. It surprised Oat.”
 
“How’s Mark handling it all?” Micah asked. “Have you had a chance to talk?”
 
“We were up pretty late last night talking. He told me everything that happened and what he had witnessed. I think he’s doing okay. I’ll just have to take it day by day. But between the two of them, I think they’ll pull through fine.” Then Lucas changed the subject, “So any luck in finding if either of the Mason’s had relatives who might take in the boy?”
 
“I spoke with Doc this morning. He had in his files that if anything happened to either Mr. or Mrs. Mason and Tommy needed looking after; we were to contact an Uncle on Clegg’s side. He lives over in San Carlos, Arizona. I sent a wire this morning; haven’t heard anything back, yet.”
 
“I stopped by the school and Stevan told me services would probably be tomorrow. Have you scheduled a time?” Lucas asked.
 
Micah replied, “Probably around one o’clock. Give Toomey enough time to finish building the coffins and for Cornelius and Gantry to dig the graves.”
 
Johnny added, “Doc thought it best to bury the infant with the mother, so there’ll only be two graves.”
 
“Well, I’ve been gone long enough. Probably should be getting back home,” Lucas said as he stood to leave. “Let me know when you hear back from the boy’s uncle.”
 
“Will do, Lucas. Just remember, Johnny and I are both here if you need to talk,” Micah offered.
 
“Thanks,” Lucas answered, smiling to let them know how much he appreciated their friendships.
 
Before Lucas could leave, Johnny reminded him, “Don’t forget to put in a good word for me with Lou.” Actually, it was more of a plea for help.
 
*****
 
Lucas left the Marshal’s Office and walked across the street to the hotel and spoke with Lou where he pleaded Johnny’s case.
 
“Oh, Cowboy… Don’t ye know me well enough by now? He’ll be back in my good graces by tonight.” But then Lou’s Irish flared up, pointing her index finger and shaking it towards Lucas, “But mark by word. If anything had happened to Mark because Johnny forgot to get word to ye….”
 
“Thanks Lou,” Lucas turned and left to head home.
 
*****
 
The funerals were held as scheduled. Lucas and Mark rode into town, with Tommy sitting in the saddle, riding behind Mark. Afterwards, they stayed in town for a few hours to eat supper prepared by some of the women folk from the church. Lucas and the two boys returned to the ranch; again with Tommy sitting behind Mark, holding on to his jacket.
 
That evening, Lucas and Mark watched as Tommy said his evening prayer.
 
“Dear God, I know I’m just a little boy, but I know that my mommy and my daddy and the baby came to live with you. Please let them know that I miss them. I wanted to thank you for letting me live with them for as long as you did. And thank you for letting Mark and Mr. McCain look after me. Amen.”
 
Tommy hopped into the bunk as Mark pulled the covers up over him. “Get to sleep now,” Mark said as he followed his Pa back to the front room.
 
“Mark, how are you holding up?” Lucas asked as he sat down in his chair and motioned for Mark to come sit beside him.
 
Mark pulled a chair from the table and sat down opposite his Pa.
 
“I think I’m doing better than I expected. But I’m concerned about Tommy. When we’re doing the chores, I try to get him to talk about how he feels, but he just keeps talking about what’s happening here on the ranch.”
 
“Mark, I know what I’m about to ask might hurt you, but have you told him about losing your Ma?”
 
Mark shook his head, “I didn’t want it to be about me Pa. I want to be there for Tommy.”
 
“Tell you what. Tomorrow, the three of us will ride out to repair that section fence…”
 
“But tomorrow’s Sunday. What about church?” queried Mark.
 
“I think the Lord will understand our absence. How about letting him ride Blue Boy and you drive the wagon. Maybe that will let him feel a little more grown up. Then while we’re working, maybe you could tell him a little bit about your Ma, and just see where that leads.”
 
“I’ll try Pa,” Mark said. “Think its time I turn in too. We’ve a hard day ahead of us. Good night.”
 
“Good night son,” Lucas spoke as he watched Mark walk to the bedroom.
 
*****
 
They had stopped working in order to eat lunch; Lucas sat a small distance from the two boys, knowing that Tommy might be more comfortable in just talking to someone closer to his own age. Yet, Lucas wanted to be close enough to be there for his son.
 
It was hard on Mark to talk to Tommy about losing his Ma when he did, but it worked. Tommy opened up and told Mark how he felt and his feelings. Said he didn’t’ talk sooner because he wanted to prove he was grown up and grown men don’t cry. Lucas watched as he saw Mark growing up all over again. Oh, the conversations he’d had with Mark and now, Mark was on the other end.
 
By the time they finished their lunch, Tommy walked over to Lucas. “Mr. McCain?”
 
“Yes Tommy,” Lucas replied as the boy knelt down next to him.
 
“Thank you.” The boy wrapped his arms around Lucas neck and gave him a hug. Lucas replied by patting the boy on his back.
 
*****
 
Three days later, Micah received a wire and rode to the McCain Ranch. Lucas was greasing one of the wheels on the buckboard when Micah arrived.
 
“Lucas, received a response. Samuel Mason said he would be happy to take in his nephew, but unfortunately, he can’t make the entire trip to North Fork. He asked if it would be possible for someone to bring the boy to Silver City, New Mexico and he’d meet them there.”
 
“Give me a couple of days to arrange for someone to look after the ranch. Mark and I’ll see that Tommy gets to Silver City.”
 
“I’ll wire Mr. Mason and let him know when you plan to leave North Fork.”
 
“Thanks Micah.”
 
Lucas threw the rag he had used to wipe his hands onto the hub of the wheel before he turned to walk into the barn to inform the boys.
 
*****
 
It was a bitter sweet trip to Silver City. Samuel Mason and his family met the McCains and welcomed Tommy into their family. Lucas and Mark were thrilled Tommy was going to have plenty of cousins to grow up with.
 
*****
 
After spending a couple of nights in Silver City to ensure Tommy would be all right, they returned home to North Fork, sharing the stage with Army Lieutenant Parker Jamison. The blonde-haired lieutenant was in his early thirties and spent as much time answering Mark’s questions as he did asking his own.
 
When the conversation finally turned to Lucas’ rifle; Lucas realized that this was probably one of the first times that Mark hadn’t bragged about his Pa’s ability with the rifle. All he said was that his father had designed the modification himself and how the modification allowed him to fire the rifle quickly. Lucas thought to himself that this was another indication of just how much his ‘little boy’ was growing up.
 
*****
 
The sun was at noon high and conversations quieted as the heat of the afternoon started to take its toll on those inside. The coach began to travel through a pass interspersed with narrow high rising walls and wide openings. Halfway through, the stage encountered a tree blocking the roadway in one of the openings. The driver, Chuck, pulled the team hard to the right, to void running them into the downed tree. As the stagecoach left the roadway, the right side wheels sank into a trench causing the coach to flip on its side. As it hit the ground, the twist and abrupt halt broke the singletree, causing the team to bolt away.
 
Chuck was thrown from his seat atop of the coach. He landed on the ground, and felt the snap in his arm as he put it down to help break his fall. Even with the pain emanating from his arm, he was able to roll over and get to his feet; looking back to survey the scene of the crash.
 
Inside the coach, the Lieutenant, Lucas, and Mark were thrown around. As they come to a rest, Mark ended up lying on top of his father; the Lieutenant was still opposite them. Mark climbed off his Pa as they all checked to make sure each one is no worse for wear. They suffered a few bumps and bruises, but everything was minor. Each gave thanks for not having suffered any broken bones.
 
*****
 
Lucas, being the tallest, was able to jump up, grab hold of the windowframe, and pull himself out. Next, he asked Lieutenant Jamison to help lift Mark up to him. Lucas pulled his son out of the opening and helped him sit on the side of the coach before the boy jumped to the ground. Lucas returned to the opening, reached in, grabbed hold of the Lieutenant’s arms and helped to pull him out.
 
As Lucas jumped down from the overturned stage, he saw Mark walking next to Chuck as he returned to the stage.
 
“Pa, Mr. Shepard’s arm is broken,” Mark yelled.
 
Lucas watched as Chuck sat down on the ground, with Mark holding the man’s arm. From their overnight bags, Lucas pulled out one of Mark’s shirts and before he could start to rip it, he heard a loud roar from Chuck. Mark set the driver’s broken arm, with Chuck complaining, “Next time, give a body notice that you’re going to yank their arm into place.” Lucas smiled as he proceeded to rip the shirt into strips to tie around the splints for Chuck’s arm. He used one of his shirts to fashion a sling for Chuck’s arm.
 
As he approached, he heard Mark state, “I’m sorry Mr. Shepard, but if you’d of know when I was going to do it, you could have resisted and pulled me off my feet. This is how Doc Burrage says he does it.”
 
Lucas could only snicker to himself as he saw the innocent expression on Mark’s face. While Lucas finished tending to the driver, Lieutenant Jamison discovered the down tree and the trench were purposely done to flip the stagecoach. Before he could tell Lucas, it wasn’t an accident; they turned when they heard riders coming and saw four men leading the horses from the stage. Lucas ordered Mark to hide behind the stage as he realized the riders approaching already had their guns drawn.
 
Anger grew inside Lucas when he realized he had not thought to locate his rifle before climbing from the wrecked stage.
 
As the group of riders stopped in front of them, Chuck stated, “This stage ain’t carrying any money in the strongbox this trip. It’s plumb empty.”
 
“We are well aware of that fact. We want the mail pouches you carry,” the leader stated as he pointed his gun at the Chuck. “By the way, where’s the third passenger? We know there were three who left from Silver City yesterday morning. Boy, come out from wherever you’re hiding or we’ll shoot your Pa.”
 
Mark stepped out and went to stand beside his Pa. Lucas put out a protective arm in an effort to shield his boy behind him.
 
“Uh, uh, uh!” the leader stated as he wagged his gun towards Mark. “Step out so I can see you. Don’t need you pulling any hidden weapon from behind your Pa.”
 
Mark took three steps to the side and stopped.
 
While a couple of the other riders stripped the harnesses off the team, one rider dismounted and searched the driver’s seat area, took the mailbags, and Chuck’s rifle. He walked to the Lieutenant and took his sidearm from his holster.
 
The three riders mounted their horses, each grabbing for the stage horses. As the riders turned to leave, the lieutenant yelled, “You can’t leave us here!”
 
The leader pointed his gun and pulled the trigger.
 
Lucas, realizing what was about to happen, pushed Mark out of the way. A cry of pain escaped Lucas’ lips as he fell to the ground trying to protect Mark with his body as more shots sounded. The lieutenant and driver ran for cover towards the back of the overturned stage.
 
The outlaws rode away, laughing while the wind blew the cloud of dust from their departure over those from the stage.
 
Mark waited for his Pa to tell him everything was okay and he could get up. He heard a groan as his Pa moved to get off of him. Mark sat up and saw blood on his Pa’s shirt sleeve.
 
“Pa! You’ve been shot!” Mark exclaimed.
 
Parker came out from behind the stage and saw the blood on Lucas’ leg that Mark had yet to see. He dropped to his knees next to Lucas and applied pressure to the inside of his thigh to stop the bleeding. Chuck ran and pulled another shirt from one of the bags to use as a bandage and Mark pulled off his belt to use for pressure.
 
The lieutenant used his pocketknife to cut Lucas’ pant leg on either side of the bullet hole so he could bandage it in an effort to stop the bleeding. After examining the injury, he told Mark there is good news.
 
“You call my Pa getting shot good news?” Mark demanded having seen his Pa had been hit numerous times.
 
As Parker applied the makeshift bandage and Mark’s belt, he whispered, “Mark, the bullet didn’t strike the major artery in his leg. Had it, your Pa would bleed out before we could get him to help.”
 
“You’ve had medical training then? Can you get the bullet out?” Mark pleaded.
 
“Mark, my father was a surgeon and I can tell you, I wouldn’t even try to pull the bullet out, especially not out here. I wouldn’t want to risk accidentally nicking the artery. For now, the bullet has to remain in his leg.”
 
Lucas tried to keep his pain to himself, in order to not scare Mark any more than he already was. In addition to the leg, one bullet had deeply grazed his side and another had barely grazed his arm.
 
“Pa, just lie still,” Mark implored of his Pa.
 
“The bullet to your side Mr. McCain struck you at an angle so it went all the way through. In through the front, probably got deflected by a rib and came out your side. Once we have you wrapped up, we’ll see about getting out of here.”
 
After tending to Lucas’ wounds the lieutenant turned to Mark McCain.
 
“Mark, we need to construct a litter to carry your Pa. We need to keep his leg as still as possible to prevent the bullet from moving. He’ll be okay, for now. Can you help me construct a litter to carry your Pa?”
 
“You mean a travois, right?” Mark inquired.
 
“Sorry, but a travois would be too uncomfortable to you Pa, what with it being drug along the ground. No, a litter is his best chance; the three of us can help carry it.”
 
Mark nodded.
 
Between the three of them, they lifted Lucas, carried him, and sat him down in the shade from the roof of the overturned stage. Chuck brought a canteen and offered water to Lucas and the others before they began their work.
 
Chuck returned to the driver’s seat, opened it up, and pulled out an ax and a hatchet. He handed them to the lieutenant.
 
As they walked to a stand of trees, the lieutenant told Mark he should just call him Parker.
 
“But sir, I couldn’t do that. It’s not right to address someone who…” Mark started to reply.
 
“Mark, right now I won’t stand on formalities. Just think of me as an older brother. Okay?”
 
“I guess.”
 
“Good, now, I’ll chop down a couple of these small sturdy trees to use as poles and then you use the hatchet to strip the branches off.”
 
Parker had finished chopping down the second tree when he turned around and saw Mark struggling to keep the tears from streaming down his face.
 
“Mark, would you like to talk?” Parker asked.
 
“No sir.”
 
“Boy, I know if your Pa were here in front of you instead of me, he wouldn’t accept that answer.”
 
Mark looked up at the lieutenant, recognized the tone he had used was the same his father would have used.  “Son, I see a lot of my own father in your father, so I can assume that your Pa would want you to talk this through.”
 
So, Mark gave in to the lieutenant’s request as he sat down on the ground next to Mark.
 
“It’s just the two of us… has been for a long time.” Mark paused and the lieutenant waited for Mark to continue speaking again. “I just got to thinking of here we are, out in the middle of nowhere and no doctor around. I’m just scared for my Pa.”
 
“Mark, you have every right to be scared for your Pa. It’s only natural. But don’t keep it inside. If you need to talk, you can talk with me. If you need to cry, I want you to cry. My Pa always made sure I spoke my piece, got me talking about how I was feeling. And if I had to cry, he wanted me to cry. He said it shouldn’t matter who sees you. Crying is healthy.”
 
“That’s the way it is between Pa and me,” Mark answered.
 
“From what I’ve seen, he’s a good man. Just keep remembering, you have Chuck and me to help you out, so you’re not alone.” Parker looked at Mark, his expression asking if Mark understood what he was saying.
 
Mark nodded.
 
“Good, come on and let’s finish getting these two poles stripped,” Park stated as he stood to his feet.
 
*****
 
While Parker and Mark worked on the trees, Chuck took out his knife and cut the leather from the boot of the stage and worked to remove one of the doors from the stage to help solidify the litter. Together, the three worked cutting the team harnesses and finished fashioning the litter to carry Lucas.
 
“I tell you I don’t need to be carried on any litter. I can walk, just fashion me a crutch,” Lucas demanded.
 
“Pa, no!” Mark exclaimed.
 
“Boy, you’ll do as I say,” Lucas replied, ignoring the look on his son’s face.
 
“Please Pa! The lieutenant is worried about where the bullet lodged in your leg. There’s a major artery and if the bullet moves because you’re walking, it could nick the vein and you’d bleed to death. Please Pa!” Mark was almost in tears as he pleaded with his Pa.
 
Lucas recognized the fear in his boy’s eyes and heard it in his voice. He saw the same reflected in the faces of the other two men; he closed his eyes and gave in to being carried. Mark was relieved when his father agreed.
 
Mark remembered their rifles. “Parker, I need your help. Pa’s and my rifles are still in the stage, will you help me get them?”
 
“Sure, let’s get them.”
 
Parker and Mark climbed up onto the stage. Parker lowered Mark through the window. Mark found his rifle and handed it up, then found his Pa’s and handed it up. Parker handed the rifles down to Chuck, then returned to pull Mark out of the window. Before returning to where Lucas lie, Mark found his Pa’s overnight bag and pulled out the bag of extra cartridges his Pa always carried.
 
Once they were ready to set off, Mark and Parker assisted Lucas from the ground and helped him lie down on the litter. Lucas tried to keep his groan inward, but moving him jostled his leg and his side, and he couldn’t help himself.
 
“I’m sorry Pa.”  Mark placed Lucas’ hat on his Pa’s chest as Lucas placed an arm over his eyes to block out the late afternoon sun. He placed their rifles next to his Pa on the litter.
 
Chuck pulled some blankets from the stage boot. He rolled the blankets and put a couple under Lucas’ leg to keep it elevated and placed the others so they would help stabilized the leg while they were carrying him. He returned to the stage and pulled out from underneath the coach seat a satchel that he always carried with him. The satchel contained a small coffee pot, a metal cup, and a large packet of coffee.
 
Chuck offered to carry the canteens, the ax, and hatchet, as he slung the satchel over his shoulder; since he wouldn’t be able to help carry the litter with his broken arm. He also grabbed one of the bags and stuffed it with other shirts, realizing they might need more shirts to stem the flow of blood from Lucas’ leg.
 
Parker led the way with Mark carrying the back end of the litter, realizing the strain that would be placed upon Mark’s hands and arms, they had fashioned a sling to go over Mark’s and Parker’s shoulders to help them carry their burden. The whole time they walked, Mark was looking into the pained face of his father.
 
Parker thought to himself, ‘The boy’s showing some fortitude, but this can’t be easy on him or his Pa.’
 
*****
 
The outlaws had ridden for better than an hour before they stopped to take a drink from their canteens.
 
“So why did we hit the stage if it didn’t have money in the strong box?” Gabriel asked.
 
“Because, these mail pouches contained something more important. I found out there was information concerning the Army’s payroll transport detail coming through here this week.”
 
*****
 
After walking for about an hour, Parker called out, “I think we could use a break.”
 
They gently set the litter down on the ground. Mark knelt down next to Lucas and helped him sit up. He took the canteen offered by Chuck and held it out for his Pa to take and drink. Lucas took a small drink and swished it around in his mouth before swallowing.  He took one more drink before he handed the canteen to his son, who followed suit.
 
“Pa, how are you feeling?” Mark asked, seeing pain in his Pa’s eyes.
 
“I’m okay,” Lucas replied.
 
“Truthfully, Pa. We’ve always been honest with each other.”
 
Lucas raised his eyebrows and gave a small laugh.
 
“What’s so funny Pa?” Mark asked.
 
“Seems to me you’re using my words against me.”
 
“Pa, you taught me well. Now, how do you feel?”
 
“It hurts boy. The leg feels a little numb.”
 
Parker felt Lucas’ lower leg and noticed it felt cool to the touch. He turned his back to Lucas, blocking his view and he pinched Lucas’ calf.
 
Lucas exclaimed, “Ouch!”
 
“That’s good news Lucas. You still have feeling in your leg.” Then addressing Mark, “We need to loosen the pressure bandage and check to see if the wound has stopped bleeding. If it has, then we can lessen the pressure after we change the bandage. Mark, his leg feels cool to the touch and I’d like to get a little better circulation restored.”
 
Mark allowed Parker to tend to his Pa while he sat and watched; the whole time he rubbed his shoulders and massaged his own hands and arms.
 
They rested for an hour, before starting their trek again. They continued to walk for an hour and rest for half an hour, in order to maintain their strength.
 
*****
 
The sun was starting to set on their second night, when they came to an area Parker felt would be a good stopping spot. It had large boulders, trees, and bushes to afford them a little protection from the strong breeze that had started blowing earlier in the afternoon. There was also a stream near by to refill their canteens.
 
Chuck set down the gear that he was carrying. He pulled the ax out and handed it to Parker, who went and used it to chop up some fallen branches to use as firewood. Mark tended to Lucas.
 
As Parker returned with firewood, he over heard Mark talking to his Pa, “Pa we should make it back to Central by tomorrow evening. Just try to get some sleep,” Mark stated as he covered his Pa with one of the blankets.
 
Lucas didn’t answer. Mark saw the pain on his Pa’s face.  “Pa, we’ll be alright.”
 
Soon, Parker had a strong fire growing to ward off the chill of the night. Chuck brewed a small batch of coffee and offered some to everyone. Mark declined, said he couldn’t stand the taste of the stuff and that he’d be okay with just having some water.
 
Before turning in for the night, Parker and Mark checked Lucas’ leg one more time. It was still seeping blood, so they changed the bandage again.
 
*****
 
Lucas woke during the night and knew he was running a fever; too hot. He knew that the air temperature had dropped from when they first stopped.  He pulled off the blanket, but that didn’t seem to help cool him down. He sat up, saw the waning fire and that the others were sound asleep. He unbuttoned his shirt and removed it, and used it to wipe the sweat from his forehead. Wanting to desperately cool himself down; Lucas half-crawled, half-dragged his body towards the sounds of the nearby stream. He cupped his hands and splashed his face with the cool water. A chill ran through Lucas’ body, but it felt good. He lowered his body into the stream, letting the cool waters flow over him.  As he lay there, he curled his arm under his head, on the bank, and fell asleep.
 
*****
 
The sun was just turning the sky a light pink as it rose over the hills. Mark rolled to his side to look over towards his Pa, only he didn’t see him lying where he last saw him. Mark jumped to his feet and yelled, “Pa! Pa!  Where are you?!” He ran to where his Pa had laid the night before and picked up his shirt.
 
Hearing Mark’s frantic calls, Parker and Chuck were on their feet. Parker saw the drag marks in the dirt and followed them with Mark and Chuck close on his heels. They found Lucas lying in the stream. Mark and Parker pulled him from the water. To their horror, his skin was very clammy and cold, his lips were tinged with blue. Parker put his ear to Lucas’ chest.
 
“He’s a live Mark, but we need to warm him up, he’s too cold,” Parker declared.
 
They carried Lucas and placed him on the litter, next to the fire. Mark noticed how his Pa’s skin was wrinkled and the skin under his fingernails was also bluing from being in the cold water for so long. Parker told Mark to strip his Pa the rest of the way, “Get him out of those wet pants. We need to warm his body and the longer he stays in those wet clothes, the more of his body heat they’ll pull out.” Parker and Chuck hunted up some more wood to stoke the fire.
 
Chuck had the fire raging as Mark and Parker placed Lucas under the blankets. They vigorously rubbed his extremities to help enable the circulation of his blood. Parker removed the pressure bandage from Lucas’ leg and noticed how red and inflamed the bullet wound looked from how it appeared the night before.
 
“Mark, I think he’s developing an infection,” Parked stated. “He probably woke during the night; felt fevered and went to the stream to cool himself down.”
 
“But we cleaned the wound yesterday. How can it be infected? We’ve kept it covered all this time.” Mark was very scared now.
 
“Mark, the bullet is still in his leg. When the bullet penetrated his pants, I’m sure the bullet pushed a small piece of the material and any dirt that was on it into his leg. And that foreign material is causing this infection,” Parker explained.
 
They continued to work on Lucas. It seemed like forever to Mark, but soon Lucas started moaning, shifting his head from side to side, but he never opened his eyes. Chuck took the metal cup and poured it full of coffee. He carried the cup and handed the cup to Parker.
 
“Here, force him to drink some of this coffee. It’ll help heat him up from the inside.”
 
Parker forced Lucas to drink two cups before he could no longer get any response from him.
 
Lucas skin finally started to take on a healthier tone as they continued to work on him. But Parker was concerned about how cool he felt and the infection that he feared was developing.
 
Parker walked over to Chuck, “We have a real problem. We need to get him to Central soon. He needs that bullet removed by a surgeon and needs medicine to fight the infection,” Parker explained.
 
“I know that. What are we supposed to do?  We can only travel so fast with the boy carrying him.  I’m no use, even if I were to carry one side of the litter, the boy’s so much shorter than I am, we’d be dumping his Pa.”
 
*****
 
Before they collected their gear, they wrapped Lucas tight within the blankets. Chuck made sure all the canteens were full. Soon they were walking again. Shortly before noon they saw a cloud of dust on the horizon. They watched as it slowly approached them. They waited on the side of the road as an elderly couple stopped their wagon.
 
After explaining what had happened, the couple offered to take the group back to the town of Central.
 
*****
 
Upon their arrival, they were informed by the saloon keeper that there was no doctor in town, but he offered his backroom to the group. “It’s the cleanest place I can offer you.”
 
The saloon keeper took the foot of the litter, relieving Mark of his burden, and helped carry Lucas into the saloon and walked to the back room. They placed the litter on a bed and then the keeper lit the lantern that hung on the wall and turned to stoke the pot belly stove, afterwards, he left. He returned a short time later with a tray full of sandwiches for the group. He told the group about one of the members of the town counsel had just returned from visiting family in Silver City and had told about a doctor who had saved a child who all thought had drowned.
 
“Maybe we could get him to come here?” The saloon keeper offered his son to ride. “It’ll take him a couple of hours to get there and back.”
 
The man turned and left the backroom. Soon they heard the sound of a horse running. The saloon keeper returned with another man, wearing a star. The saloon keeper carried an empty glass and a bottle of whiskey.
 
“Here boy, get this whiskey into your Pa,” the Saloon Keeper said.
 
“But my Pa, he doesn’t drink the hard stuff,” Mark answered.
 
“Boy right now we need to warm him up inside and give him something to lessen the pain he’s feeling. He may not drink it, but right now he needs it.”
 
Mark shook his Pa and slapped his face a couple of times, trying to get him to rouse enough to drink. His skin still felt too cool to Marks’ liking. He helped his Pa sit up and lean against him and was able to get his Pa to drink about half the glass, before he became unresponsive again.
 
*****
 
The sun was setting when they heard a commotion coming from the saloon. They heard a young voice say, “My Pa says they were here, in the backroom.”
 
Mark’s attention was focused solely on his Pa as he heard the footsteps enter the room; he was unprepared for the voice that spoke, “I was told someone had been shot and needed a doctor.”
 
Mark raised his eyes and saw Simon Battle standing just inside the doorway. The man stood almost as tall as Lucas, and had a presence about him that made everyone take notice.
 
“Doc Battle? It… It’s my Pa, he was shot two days ago. The bullet’s still in his leg. He took fever and while we were sleeping last night, he crawled into a stream; we found him earlier this morning. He’s so cold…” Mark couldn’t continue. Tears were streaming down his face.
 
Simon Battle took a step back as he recognized the man the boy was talking about. “Lucas McCain,” he whispered and stared.
 
“Vicki, I need you in here,” Simon called and a young, dark-haired woman entered the room.
 
As she came to stand beside her father, “Yes Daddy,” she said.
 
“Vicki, the boy who came for us said they used to have a doctor, why don’t you see if the boy can take you over to the doctor’s quarters and get set up, you know what to do. Joshua,” Simon called to someone unseen. “Go with Vicki, she can use your help. See if they have any ether. I’ll check Lucas out here before we carry him over.”
 
Simon took off his jacket, removed his string tie, and rolled up his sleeves. He took his stethoscope out from his medical bag and placed the ear pieces in his ears, he pulled the blankets away from Lucas only far enough to insert his hand to place the instrument on the Lucas’ chest. He commented to himself that Lucas did seem too cool. After listening to Lucas’ heart and lungs, Simon asked where he had been shot.
 
After Mark told him the inner left thigh still had the bullet in it and that he’d suffered two bullet grazes, one along his ribs and another across his arm.  Simon pulled the blanket away and unbuckled the belt being used as a pressure bandage, and removed the bloody bandages to examine the wound. He was concerned with how angry the wound appeared and how discolored the blood veins looked around the area, giving indication of possible blood poisoning, and the fact that the trajectory the bullet took might be too close in proximity to the femoral artery and nerve.
 
“Boy, you should be thankful none of you tried to remove the bullet. It’s way too close to the artery.”
 
“That’s what Lieutenant Jamison said,” Mark replied.
 
Turning to the Lieutenant, Simon asked, “You’ve had medical training?”
 
“No sir, just that my father was a doctor. I used to sit up with him and go through his medical journals when I was younger,” Parker answered.
 
*****
 
The saloon keeper showed them the way to the doctor’s office as they carried the litter with Lucas on it down the street.
 
As they entered the doctor’s office, Mark noticed all the lanterns that had been lit and placed around what was to serve as the operating table. He saw water heating on the pot belly stove and all the instruments inside another pan of boiling water on the stove.
 
They transferred Lucas from the litter to the table.
 
As Simon washed his hands, he spoke. “Boy, I know what your Pa means to you, but I don’t want you in here with us. Believe me, I’ll do everything I can to save his life, but you need to let Vicki and me work.”
 
Turning to the others, Battle said, “Take the boy out of here so we can work on his Pa. He doesn’t need to see this.”
 
Vicki drained the water from the pot and pulled the instruments from the pan and laid them out on a tray and placed them next to where Lucas lay.
 
*****
 
Lieutenant Jamison and a man with Captain’s marks on his sleeves took Mark by the arms and led him outside. Not knowing the town, they headed back to the saloon with the boy.
 
After they were seated at a table, Captain Joshua McClary and the Lieutenant introduced themselves. Both officers were surprised to find out they were enroute to Fort Davis, Texas. They ordered coffee for themselves and a glass of milk for Mark, but it just sat on the table. As the conversation continued, Captain McClary told the others that Doctor Battle was his father-in-law, and after he had received transfer orders, the man indicated he would be traveling with his daughter and her husband and start a new medical practice.
 
Mark kept looking from the table to the clock, oblivious to the discussions. Each time he looked at the clock it seemed the hands on the face had yet to move.
 
Mark was pulled from his thoughts when he heard the officers talking about the outlaws and why they would have tried robbing a stage that had no money and then taken the mail bags. Captain McClary stated, “There’s an army payroll due through here some time this week. If the mailbags had the dispatch bag that contains information as to the route and timing of the payroll detail, we can have a number of dead soldiers on our hands.”
 
As time drug by, Mark couldn’t keep his eyes open, after the events and exhaustion of the past few days; slowly his head fell to the table and he was asleep.
 
*****
 
Simon watched as Vicki started to administer the ether to Lucas. Even though he was currently unconscious, they couldn’t afford to have him wake up while they were operating on his leg. Simon turned to the closet next to the medicine chest. He opened the door and took out an apron and then a face mask. Once dressed, he returned to the operating table.
 
“Vicki, get an apron and face mask, we can’t risk any more contamination,” Simon told his daughter.
 
While Vicki was behind him, Simon pulled the blankets off Lucas and placed several surgical sheets over his body, in a patch work style. He left open an area so he could have access to the wound in Lucas’ thigh.
 
Vicki returned to the head of the table. She placed the earpieces of her father’s stethoscope in her ears and placed the other end to Lucas’ chest and listened, while she monitored the drip of the ether.  
 
Picking up a gauze pad with the forceps, Simon slipped it in a small bowl containing alcohol and proceeded to swab it around the wound. He dropped the forceps into the bucket at his feet. Next, he picked up a knife and delicately cut away the infected skin from Lucas’ leg and dropped the knife in the bucket. He picked up another set of forceps holding an alcohol swab and ran it over the area he had just pared the infected skin from and dropped the forceps into the bucket. He picked up another knife and made an incision into Lucas’ thigh. He proceeded very slowly, aware how close he was to the artery and the nerve, working his way to the bullet. The bullet had ripped through the muscle as it traveled deep into Lucas’ leg. As the bullet came into sight, Simon splayed open the sides of the incision and inserted another set of forceps and pulled out the bullet. He dropped the bullet into a bowl where it rolled around until it came to a stop in the bottom of the container. The first part of his task accomplished, he asked Vicki to hold a lantern over the wound so he could get a better look inside.
 
He found a piece of Lucas’ pant leg at the bottom of the wound, as well as a smaller fragment from the bullet. He dipped the forceps back into the bowl of alcohol before using them to pull out the foreign material. He dropped the forceps into the bucket on the floor. He took time to irrigate the area with water to flush out any dirt that might have been on the material. Giving thanks the man was unconscious, knowing how much it would be stinging once he switched to irrigating the wound with alcohol, and how his patient would react had he been awake.
 
“Vicki, how’s he doing? How’s his heart beat and respiration?” Simon asked.
 
“Daddy, his heart is beating regularly, but I don’t think it’s as strong as it should be. When I listen to his lungs, I think I hear a wheezing.” Vicki answered.
 
“Okay, I’ll listen once I get done here.”
 
Simon continued to work to repair the damage done to Lucas’ leg. He gently worked the needle and suture thread to sew together the edges of the muscle; working his way to the opening of the incision he had made in the skin. Knowing he had cut away skin and muscle to prevent the spread of the infection, once there was nothing more to be sewn, he tied off the thread and dropped the needle into the bucket.
 
Simon stepped to the medicine cabinet and pulled out some gauze and cotton padding.
 
“Vicki, go ahead and stop the ether. If he starts to wake any time soon, it’ll be okay. Just come over here and hold his leg up a little, while I bandage it.”
 
Simon moved the blood laden surgical sheet from Lucas’ leg and threw it into the fire in the pot-bellied stove. Once he was done applying the bandage, Simon lowered the leg. He then placed another surgical sheet over Lucas’ leg.
 
Next, he turned his attention to the bullet graze along Lucas’ ribs. It was in and out and didn’t appear to require stitches except at the entrance and exit of the wound. Pleased with his work so far, the doctor slavered on an ointment to prevent infection. He placed a gauze pad over the wound and then sat Lucas up so that Vicki could wrap a bandage around his ribs. Finally, he addressed the graze to Lucas’ arm. It was mild enough that Simon only put the ointment on it and decided to leave it unwrapped.
 
He walked to the closet and from the chest at the bottom, pulled several blankets out, and laid them over Lucas.
 
Simon stripped off his blood laden apron and threw it into the pot-belly stove. He then stepped to the sink and had Vicki pour the water from the final pot on the stove over his hands as he washed the blood off of them.
 
Vicki handed her father back his stethoscope and as he listened, she too stripped off the apron she had worn and threw it into the stove. She watched as her father listened to Lucas’ heart and lungs; shaking his head.
 
“Vicki, get me that antibiosis serum from my bag. We’ll administer it to start.”
 
Simon pulled Lucas’ arm out from under the blankets, found a vein and injected the serum. Once done, he threw the syringe into the bucket and the needle into the fire. Simon returned Lucas’ arm to back under the blankets.
 
He stepped out the back door to check for a wood box. He returned inside with an arm load of wood and stoked the stove.
 
“Vicki, we’ve done everything that is medically possible. It’s now between Lucas and God. Let’s go find the boy and let him know.”
 
“Should I stay here to keep an eye on the patient?” Vicki asked.
 
“Might be a good idea for you to stay here.  If he wakes, tell Lucas I’ll be back and talk with him later.”
 
*****
 
Before leaving the doctor’s office, Simon Battle picked up a couple of splints and gauze wrapping to tend to the arm he saw in a sling earlier, and placed them in his doctor’s bag. He blew out most of the lanterns, but left a couple turned down low. He walked to the saloon; the doctor thought about his first and his last encounter with Lucas McCain. Both meetings were a far cry, one from the other.
 
The first meeting, both men stood facing each other and fired their weapons at the same time. Simon had heard of the man who chose to use a Winchester instead of a handgun, but never could he believe the man could be faster on the draw. There was a slight hint of satisfaction in seeing his opponent grab at his side; his bullet had struck the rifleman. Confusion worked its way into his triumph when the pain finally registered that he too had been wounded, severely. But Simon lost more, his wife; not a strong woman to begin with, worked night and day to ensure her husband lived.
 
The second meeting, the rifleman and the gunman turned doctor, had worked side by side to save a man’s life. As the two men worked together, Battle related how it was he became a doctor. As his wife sacrificed her health to see her husband live, there was nothing the husband could do to return the favor, other than become a physician; there were too few in the west. Both men came to a new-found respect for the other as they stood against the small band of outlaws who were after the man who’s life they struggled save.
 
*****
 
It was well after midnight when Battle entered the saloon. The only ones remaining were the saloon keeper, the Lieutenant and the Captain, the coach driver, the sheriff, and Mark. The others were quietly talking as they sat around the table; the boy had his head down on the table. Upon entering, Captain McCrary stood and looked to the doctor.
 
“Simon?” Joshua asked as he looked beyond the doctor, searching for his wife.
 
“Joshua, why don’t you go to the boarding house and get a room for the night. I saw there was a light on in a front room as I walked over here. Vicki is keeping an eye on our patient; I’ll send her to the boarding house once I’ve tended to this man.” Simon Battle’s voice was authoritative and even though he was not a military officer, the Captain followed his instructions and left.
 
Joshua nodded before exiting the saloon and proceeded down the boardwalk, hesitating before crossing the street to go wait with his wife.
 
Simon walked to the table and looked down at the sleeping boy. Turning to the Lieutenant, he said, “My name is Simon Battle. How’s the boy doing?”
 
“Upset…  scared… as anyone would be in his position. By the way, I’m Lieutenant Parker Jamison.”
 
Simon ordered a cup of coffee, strong and black before sitting down in the chair vacated by the captain. “Lieutenant, we were able to extract the bullet as well as a fragment and some foreign debris. I’m concerned about Lucas lying in the stream and the effect it is going to have on his body. His body temperature is still lower than I’d like it to be. I’ve got him well blanketed and the pot-belly stove blazing. I’ve administered some medication to help him fight the infection.”
 
“Will he survive?” asked the lieutenant.
 
“That’s not my call. I’ve patched him up to the best of my abilities. We’ll see how much he wants to fight for that young man sleeping there.”
 
“You know them, sir?” asked Chuck, the stage driver.
 
“Yeah, I know them.”
 
After drinking some of his coffee, Simon turned to Chuck. “Let me see that arm of yours.” Simon untied the sling from around Chuck’s neck and removed the splints from his arm.
 
“Who set your arm?” Simon asked after his initial examination and admired how well the bones matched.
 
“The boy did it… right after the accident,” Chuck answered.
 
“He did a good job. I’ll just reset these splints and get your arm back in that sling.”
 
Parker watched as Simon replaced the splints. “Doc, do you think we should wake Mark and take him to his Pa. I know boys need their sleep, but from what I’ve witnessed between these two, the sooner Mark knows his Pa is going to be okay, the better.”
 
“Mark?  That’s the boy’s name? It’s been a number of years and… I couldn’t remember. I think you’re right. Go ahead and wake the boy. I’ll take him to sit with his Pa. It’ll probably be better for Lucas too, to see his boy when he wakes.”
 
Simon looked on as the lieutenant placed his hand on the sleeping boy’s shoulder, startling him awake.
 
“Easy there, son,” Battle stated, hoping to calm the boy.
 
“My Pa?” Mark quickly asked.
 
Battle stated, “Walk with me, son.”
 
As they walked to the doctor’s office, he told Mark of his Pa’s condition. Mark was overwhelmed with the warmth of the office as they entered. He was taken back in seeing his Pa’s face lying so pale against the dark grey blankets that covered him. Mark walked to Lucas’ side, picked up a towels, and wiped sweat from his Pa’s forehead and silently prayed to God to let his Pa live.
 
*****
 
After exploring a back room, Simon brought two chairs into the office and set them up next to where Lucas lay.
 
“Doc Battle?”  Mark hesitated to ask, “Is… is my Pa going to live?”
 
“I hope so Mark. I truly hope so. Right now it’s between him and God,” Simon answered as he sat down.
 
It had been fourteen years since Lucas and Simon had originally met. During the next ten years, Lucas had believed that he had killed Simon Battle in that gun fight. Now, it had been four years since their last meeting.
 
Simon and Lucas had prevailed against those cowboys in North Fork. He realized afterwards, that both had changed their ways and for good reasons. For the love of a woman; and for the love of the one child each was blessed to have in their lives and to hold on to the memory of their deceased wife.
 
Simon sat in quiet contemplation. In the stillness of the room, with only the sound of Lucas’ breathing, he reflected that for a moment how he had hesitated. Upon seeing that it was Lucas McCain in the back room of the saloon, and it was Lucas McCain who was in need of his services, the physician has almost given in to past anger… almost.  He had almost turned his back and walked away. Quietly he prayed to God and asked for forgiveness.
 
It was going to be a long night for both of them.  Simon stood up every few minutes to check Lucas’ vital signs. One time, Simon smiled and slightly shook his head when he noticed Mark had drifted off to sleep. The boy’s legs were pulled underneath him, his head propped up by his arm with his elbow resting on the arm of the chair.
 
“He’s going to have a kink in his neck when he wakes,” mused the doctor.
 
The sun hadn’t risen when Mark woke with a start; from where he sat, he watched as Doc Battle finished checking his Pa. Simon turned and saw Mark was awake.
 
Before the boy could ask the only question that mattered to him, Battle spoke, “Mark, I’d like to ask your forgiveness.”
 
“For what, sir?”
 
“I hesitated last night. When I first realized it was your father who needed help, I hesitated.”
 
Mark cocked his head and looked at Doc Battle. He slipped his legs out from underneath, sat forward, and waited.
 
“Mark, remember when we first met, four years ago? When Vicki and I were in North Fork?”
 
Mark nodded.
 
“Remember the story Vicki told you about me being in a gun fight and how my wife nursed me back to health at the cost of her own?”
 
“The gunfight… was with my Pa… wasn’t it?” Mark asked.
 
“Yes Mark, it was. You see… back then… I wasn’t exactly an upstanding citizen. I was too quick to use my guns instead of being civilized. I was a bounty hunter, dead or alive… It didn’t matter. I always went for my guns. But your father… He stood against me…”
 
Mark’s eyes widened as the physician continued.
 
“He refused to allow me to take in a man. I went for my gun, your father cocked his rifle. Both weapons fired simultaneously. I found out long time later that I only knicked Lucas, grazed him across his side. He ended up taking in my bounty.”
 
“Pa was a bounty hunter?” Mark asked incredulously.
 
“No, he took the man to Rim Rock to stand justice and it turns out the charges had been dropped years before. Mark… Your father’s bullet struck true; there was no doctor in that town. I rode to get home, to my wife, to Vicki… Bleeding all over God’s green earth. Meredith has been a nurse, and she was the one who removed the bullet. Infection set in and she tended to me night and day for a week until my fever broke, but in the meantime, she wasn’t taking care of herself. Illness struck the town we lived in and she didn’t have the strength to fight any more. She’d given her all to see to my recovery.”
 
“I’m sorry…”
 
“I hated Lucas because I was going to lose my wife… I guess Meredith saw the hatred, and she begged me…” Battle’s eyes momentarily glazed over as he remembered.  “Because of the love of my wife and I made her a promise on her deathbed. She begged that I change my ways, for Vicki’s sake. There were too few doctors out west and because of that…” Taking a deep, cleansing breath, Simon stated, “I changed my ways and became a doctor.” Putting the past behind him, Simon stated the reason why he asked the boy for his forgiveness, “For a brief moment last night, I almost let my past get the better of me. I thought I was over my past, but seeing your father there, fighting for his life, I felt a little of the old me return. I felt the hatred towards your father return, because he was the one who put the bullet in me that caused my wife’s health to deteriorate. But then I saw the look in your eyes and it reminded me of all that I’ve tried to become. The dream my wife wanted. All the good I’ve done. I knew that to get over that final piece of my past, I had to save your father’s life.”
 
“Sir, you didn’t have to tell me…”
 
“No, I didn’t, but… I felt I owed you an explanation of why I hesitated so you’d understand why I asked for your forgiveness,” Battle explained.
 
“Doctor, I know you’ve done your best to try to save my Pa’s life. If he doesn’t live…” Mark hesitated as he tried to regain his composure and stop the tears that threatened to form in his eyes. “If he doesn’t live, I know it won’t be because you didn’t try. It will be because God wants him… wants him to be with… my Ma.”
 
*****
 
It was just after dawn when Simon administered another dose of the antibiosis serum into Lucas’ arm. As the room brightened, he was pleased to see better color in Lucas’ face and when he felt his chest, it was warmer than it had previously been. He listened to Lucas’ heart and it sounded stronger. His lungs sounded clearer.
 
“I think he’s turned the corner,” Doc Battle commented.
 
“For the good?” Mark hesitantly asked.
 
Battle nodded.
 
*****
 
There was a gentle knock at the door before Vicki entered, followed by Joshua carrying a tray of food for Mark. She stated that they were going to get their own breakfast, and asked her father to join them; leaving Lucas and Mark alone for a while. They wouldn’t be gone long.
 
“And if Pa wakes?” Mark asked.
 
“Tell him the past is the past,” Battle stated as he placed his hat on his head and followed his daughter and son—in-law from the clinic.
 
Mark set the tray down on the desk in the office. He didn’t feel like eating. He sat down in the chair, wishing his Pa would wake. Honestly, he wished he had his Pa’s bible in his hands; he could sure use the comfort the words from The Good Book provided him. He must have drifted off to sleep for a moment, when he thought he dreamed a quiet voice calling for him. Mark looked up and saw his Pa moving his head back and forth and heard him call again. Mark stood from his chair and walked to his Pa. Lucas was moaning and calling for Mark.
 
Mark placed his hand to his Pa’s forehead, telling him he was going to be all right and saying, “I’m here”. Mark watched, and saw his Pa’s eyes flutter and open slightly.
 
“Pa, I’m here. You’re going to be okay,” Mark smiled as his Pa’s eyes opened a little wider. “How do you feel?”
 
For a brief moment, Lucas smiled before his eyes closed again.
 
“Oh, Pa…” Mark quietly cried as he sat back down.
 
Half an hour later, Lucas mumbled again causing Mark to quickly return to his side.
 
“Pa?” Mark tentatively called. “It’s okay Pa,” Mark stated as Lucas’ eyelashes continued to flutter as he fought to return to consciousness.
 
“Come on Pa, you can do it,” urged Mark.
 
“Mark?” Lucas whispered.
 
“It’s me Pa,” Mark happily answered.
 
“What happened?”
 
“You don’t remember?” asked Mark.
 
“It’s fuzzy.”
 
“We were heading home, the stage flipped, outlaws…”
 
“They fired…” Lucas panicked, “Mark, are you okay?”
 
“I’m fine. You were the one who was shot. How do you feel? Mark asked.
 
“Groggy… and hungry,” Lucas whispered.
 
Mark returned to the desk, picked up the tray with food, and brought it to his Pa. He helped sit Lucas up and allowed him into lean into him as he ate. The scrambled eggs and toast were cold, but they tasted good and filled a hole in his stomach. Though Lucas couldn’t eat everything on the tray, none of it went to waste. After Mark laid Lucas back down and tucked the blankets around his Pa, he finished eating what Lucas had not.
 
“Where are we?” inquired Lucas.
 
“Central City,” Mark answered.
 
“I didn’t think they had a doctor,” Lucas stated as he raised his hand to rub his eyes.
 
“Pa, they don’t. The saloon owner’s son rode to Silver City to bring back a doctor.”
 
“How bad?” Lucas asked.
 
“It doesn’t matter. You’re gonna be fine, that’s what you need to focus on. Pa… the doctor who saved your life…” Mark stopped.
 
“What about the doctor?” Lucas asked. When Mark didn’t respond, “Mark, come over here. Now tell me, what about the doctor? Where is he.”
 
Mark didn’t step to his Pa. “He and the others went to get some breakfast. But… before he left, he told me to tell you…”
 
“Go on,” Lucas said as he raised himself to his elbow and saw his boy standing by the desk with his back to him.
 
“He said the past was the past. He told me all about it. At least as much as he felt he needed to tell me,” admitted Mark.
 
“He told you… what?” as confused Lucas asked.
 
“Pa… Simon Battle saved your life. He’s the one who operated on you.” Mark slowly turned to face his Pa. “He told me he hesitated when he saw it was you. He told me what happened between you and him. But… then, he said, he knew the only way to completely let go of his past was to save your life. I don’t understand.”
 
Lucas watched as his teenage son struggled with his emotions. “Mark, come here son.” Lucas waited until Mark was next to him. He reached out and placed a hand on Mark’s shoulder. “When Simon and Vicki left North Fork four years ago, he had forgiven me for shooting him. But sometimes… a man needs to forgive himself for the wrongs he’s done. A man carries the hurt deep and just forgiving the person we feel wronged us, doesn’t always heal the wound.  It’s not easy. You’ve watched as I’ve fought my own demons in the past.”
 
Mark nodded.
 
*****
 
Simon, Vicki, Joshua, and Parker returned to the doctor’s office and they were all pleased to see the sight that greeted them as Lucas turned his head at the sound of the door opening.
 
“Good to see you awake Lucas. How are you feeling this morning?” Simon asked.
 
Lucas looked to his boy before answering, “Better. Thank you.”
 
Simon turned to his daughter and Joshua, “I think we’ll be okay now, why don’t you head back to the boarding house and let me take care of Lucas and his boy for a while.”
 
Vicki and Joshua bid goodbye and left.
 
Turning to Lucas, Simon said, “Let me check your wounds one more time. Mark, why don’t you and the Lieutenant go to the general store and get your father some new clothes, especially if he ever wants to leave this office without being embarrassed,” teased the physician.
 
“I’ll be okay boy. Just run your errand.” Lucas said as he smiled.
 
Lucas tried to swing his legs off the side of the table to sit up only to find Doc Battle pushing him to lie back down. “I don’t want you exerting yourself until AFTER I get through examining you. You were in pretty bad shape when Vicki and I arrived last night. We performed surgery to clean your wound and remove the bullet from your leg.” As he placed the stethoscope to Lucas’ chest, he asked him to breathe in deep. He transferred the stethoscope to the other side of Lucas’ chest and asked him to breathe in deep again. Next, he slightly raised Lucas’ back off the table as he put the stethoscope to his back and repeated.
 
“Your lungs sound much clearer now than they did just a few hours ago. The medication we gave you seems to be doing the trick.”
 
Next, he removed the blanket from Lucas’ leg. He removed the bandage and examined the wound area. Quite pleased with what he saw; he reached down and pinched Lucas’ calf, causing Lucas to call out “Ow!” as he pulled his elbows back in an effort to sit up, .
 
Simon pushed him back down.  “Just making sure Lucas. The bullet route was close to the main artery and the nerve that runs down your leg. I just wanted to make sure neither had been damaged.” As he checked Lucas’ side, Simon continued, “You’ve got quite a young man for a son. He’s grown up a lot since Vicki and I left North Fork.”
 
“Seems he grows up in front of my eyes every day. It won’t be long before he’s not my little boy any more,” Lucas said as he glanced towards the door.
 
“Lucas, as a father, you know they’ll always be our “little” ones. Now, I want you to take it easy and careful. Lucas, you need to understand… if Vicki and I hadn’t arrived when we did and they waited any longer to get you to a doctor to get that bullet out, you could have lost your leg or even your life from the infection and possible blood poisoning from that lead bullet.”
 
“Simon?” Lucas asked with a shocked tone to his voice.
 
“As I said, we got here in time and you’ll make a full recovery...if you do as I say and take it easy.” See Lucas relax, Simon continued, “I witnessed your son last night as we sat watch over you.  Anyway, Mark and I talked last night.”
 
“He told me…”
 
“At times, I saw fear in his eyes; yet, he was ready to understand if God had chosen to call you home. Said he wouldn’t blame me if you died, even after I told him of our past. You should be mighty proud of how he’s handled himself.”
 
“I am proud to have him as my son.”
 
“Lucas, I talked with the Lieutenant. He told me what happened after you had been shot. He couldn’t believe that Mark was only sixteen, said he handles himself as someone who’s much older.”
 
“I’ve always wanted to make sure my boy had his ‘growing up time’, but there have been times when his growing up faster couldn’t be avoided.”
 
Mark returned to the office with new clothes for his Pa. Mark and the others stepped outside to give Lucas some privacy while he dressed.
 
*****
 
As they returned to the office, Parker told Lucas, “We’ve made arrangements for you and Mark at the boarding house. Once we get you over there, the rest of us are requested at the Sheriff’s Office.”
 
Simon and Parker looked to each other and then stepped to either side of Lucas, as he placed his arms around their necks, Parker and Simon created a sling for Lucas to sit in by grabbing hold and crossing each other’s arms.
 
After entering the boarding house, Lucas was seated on the settee in the parlor and Mrs. Cambridge was planning to feed him and Mark a good lunch, she said that she would see to it that Lucas stayed in the parlor after eating and that she’d make sure he stayed off his feet, until such time the doctor felt he could manage getting around with crutches.
 
*****
 
Simon and Parker waited for in the foyer, as Joshua to say goodbye to Vicki, before they headed for the Sheriff’s office.
 
*****
 
The Sheriff and the Captain questioned the Lieutenant about exactly what had happened during the stage hold up. After he repeated everything that had happened; he turned to the Captain and asked, “You said there was an army payroll coming through here. If that dispatch was in the mail pouch, then we’ve already lost almost four days since the hold up to track that gang down and stop them.”
 
They continued to talk about the outlaws and the payroll detail.
 
*****
 
Vicki sat down in the parlor to share lunch with Lucas and Mark. By the time they were finished eating, Lucas was having trouble keeping his eyes open. Mark insisted that his Pa lie down and take a nap, “You need to get your strength back Pa.”
 
Vicki took the dirty dishes and joined Mrs. Cambridge in the kitchen.
 
*****
 
No one noticed Mark as he slipped out of the boarding house and made his way to the Sheriff’s Office. He quietly opened the door and stepped inside. He listened as the men made plans to head out to meet the payroll detail in an attempt to prevent the outlaws from killing the soldiers and getting away with the money.
 
Simon Battle was the first to notice Mark standing in the room when he turned to tell the men he wanted a few minutes with his daughter before they headed out.
 
“Mark, what are you doing here? You should be back at the boarding house with your father,” Simon declared.
 
“He’s sleeping. I want to go with you,” Mark answered.
 
“Boy, you’re too young to go on this posse,” the Sheriff stated.
 
“Either you take me with you or I go alone!” Mark declared. “We McCains fight our own fights. It’s not your Pa those men tried to kill. Please, I have to do this. I need to see… I need to see that those men are brought to justice!”
 
Seeing the determination in the boy’s eyes, Simon stated, “I’ll be responsible for the boy.” Then turning to Mark, “You do as I say, when I say?”
 
“Yes sir.”
 
“I’ll hold you to that.” The firmness of Battle’s words held a hint of warning that he would not be lenient with the boy should he not follow instructions. “First thing you’re going to do is go to the livery and get four horses as well as the sheriff’s horse ready. We’ll meet you out front of the boarding house once we tell Vicki, and your father, where we’re going. Take these canteens and make sure they’re filled. Lieutenant, Captain, get to the General Store and stuff the saddle bags with jerky and other foodstuff that can be eaten quickly.”
 
Again, without hesitation everyone obeyed Doctor Battle’s instructions, including the Sheriff.
 
*****
 
The group returned to the boarding house and stepped into the parlor. Vicki and Mrs. Cambridge were sitting in chairs, reading. Lucas was lying down asleep on the settee.
 
“Daddy?” Vicki stood and asked as she saw the group enter.
 
“Hi honey. How’s Lucas doing?” Simon asked of his daughter as he looked to his patient.
 
“He ate a good lunch and we talked for a while, then he started getting tired. He’s been sleeping for about an hour.” She looked from her father to her husband, “Daddy, what’s going on?”
 
“Vicki, I want you to stay here and keep an eye on Lucas. Continue to give him 10 cc’s of the antibiosis serum in the morning and of an evening. Make sure his wound stays clean and that he doesn’t try to walk on it until we get back. If he gets too contrary, give him a dose of laudanum, it will help reduce any pain, plus make him sleep.”
 
“Back, where are you going?” Vicki inquired, now looking to her husband.
 
“Vicki,” Joshua stated. “The men who shot Mr. McCain, they took the mail pouch from the stage. It’s possible it contained a dispatch from the army outlining the details of a payroll transfer. We have to try to save the soldiers, and the payroll. Your father and Lieutenant Jamison will be with me. As will the Sheriff.”
 
Simon stepped to Vicki, “Vicki, I want you to watch over Lucas. Anything he needs, you do it for him. If he needs anything medically, you know how to treat him.”
 
“When will you be leaving?” Vicki asked as she looked at the men standing in front of her.
 
“Soon, we’re just waiting on a wire back from the Army so we know where we’re needed,” Joshua stated.
 
Lieutenant Jamison entered the boarding house. He had received a wire back from the army confirming their fears. The dispatch had not been received and the detail was already enroute. Provided in the wire was the general route the detail was planning to travel.
 
Upon entering the boarding house Mark called out, “The horses are ready.”
 
“Let’s ride,” Battle ordered.
 
Vicki began to reach for Mark, to offer him comfort as the others turned.
 
“Excuse me, Miss Vicki,” Mark begged as he turned to follow the others.
 
“Mark?”
 
“Tell my Pa, I’m with your father.”
 
“Mark!” Vicki declared.
 
“It’s something I have to do. Tell Pa, I hope he understands… I just couldn’t sit here waiting. I have to do something.”
 
As one, the men turned to leave.
 
*****
 
They left the boarding house and stepped to the street. Mark was first in the saddle waiting for the others to mount their horses. The Sheriff stepped to his horse and mounted. The others adjusted their stirrups before mounting.
 
Unable to contain herself, Vicki ran out the door, placing her hand upon her father’s knee as he sat in the saddle. “Daddy, he can’t! What do I tell Mr. McCain when he wakes?”
 
“Tell him I said, ‘His boy is growing up and this is something Mark has to do.’ I’ll bring his boy back.”
 
The small posse headed out of town, in search of the army payroll. Praying they would be in time.
 
*****
 
They traveled until just before the sunset. Mark took care of setting up the camp for the night and afterwards tended to the horses.
 
“Simon, you think having the boy along is that good of an idea?” Joshua dared asked. “What about when his father finds out?” Unable to shake the feeling in the pit of his stomach he asked, “What do we tell his father when something happens to the boy and we bring him back dead?”
 
“Joshua, I’ll handle the boy… and Lucas,” Simon answered in a factual voice.
 
After supper, Mark returned to the campfire with his bedroll and his Pa’s rifle in hand. He rolled the bedroll out and laid down on it, the rifle lay beside him. He set his hat off to his side, folded his hands behind his head, and looked up at the stars.
 
Simon walked over and knelt down next to Mark.
 
“I think we need to talk.”
 
“Sir?”
 
“There’s more to you wanting to be here than just seeing that these men are brought to justice. Out with it.” Simon used the same tone of voice that Lucas used when he gave Mark an order that he wanted obeyed.
 
Mark was quiet as he tried to avoid looking at Simon.
 
“Boy, either you talk to me now, or I send you back.”
 
“Doc Battle, I’m not a boy, but I also know I’m not fully grown.”
 
“Go on,”
 
“Those men… it wasn’t my Pa they were trying to shoot. Pa wouldn’t have been injured had he not pushed me out of the way.”
 
“Parker told us what happened before you came to the Sheriff’s, so I had an idea that might be what’s bothering you.” Seeing Mark about to say something, “Let me ask you this. You think your Pa would feel any better if it were you back in town, all shot up?” Simon answered.
 
“No sir,” Mark said as he tried to keep his emotions in check. “But if it were me back in town, he’d be here. Where I am. Doc… I feel…” Mark couldn’t say what he was thinking. He just closed his eyes as he lay on his back.
 
“You feel responsible... It’s understandable. You feel that if you had done something, maybe your Pa wouldn’t have been shot.”
 
“Yeah, if I had done something… ” Mark said in a dejected tone.
 
“B.., Mark, listen to me. I’m sure you’ve seen your Pa shot before.”
 
“Yes sir, I’ve had to tend to him a number of times because someone shot him, but he’s never been shot because of me.”
 
“You think he was shot because of you?”
 
“Yes sir, I do. I should have…”
 
“Did you ask for your Pa to get shot?”
 
“No sir!” declared Mark.
 
“Did you ask for those outlaws to wreck the stage and steal those mail pouches?”
 
“No!” repeated Mark.
 
“This how is your Pa getting shot your fault?”
 
“I… I mean… there’ve been plenty of times, where I’ve been with my Pa and he regretted the fact that I was there. It made his choices harder. He’s always been there to protect me. But he’s always been able to defend those who needed defended. The other day… he was trying to protect me and because of that he got shot. If I hadn’t been there or had been older...”
 
“Mark, when the outlaws arrived, where were your rifles?” Battle asked.
 
Thinking back, Mark answered, “In the stage.”
 
“And just how else was your Pa supposed to defend those who needed defending if he didn’t have his rifle?”
 
“But still…”
 
Simon didn’t let Mark finish his train of thought. “Mark, did you ever think that, maybe, because you were there, that your Pa is still alive? Or if you had been older or hand your rifles in hand, what kept those men from killing all of you?”
 
“No sir, I didn’t think of it that way.”
 
“I could sit here all night and tell you that you don’t have anything to feel guilty about, but… you’ll have to make that decision on your own. All I can do is guide you, same as your father has done all your life. He’s guided you as you’ve grown up, but ultimately, the decision is yours.
 
“But…”
 
“Let me tell you what’s really bothering you… Right now, you’re struggling to prove to yourself that you’re ready to grow up and that you’re not a little boy who will always need protected. I admire and understand that. I let you come along because you need someone other than your father to help you through this. Maybe, if I had someone to help guide me, it’s possible I wouldn’t have become the cold-blooded bastard of a bounty hunter, and my wife would still be alive. I want your word, as a man, that you’ll follow each and every one of my orders, without complaint.”
 
“I promise,” Mark said.
 
Simon stood up to go to his bedroll, “Oh, and keep your Pa’s rifle close. If you brought it, be ready to use it.”
 
“Doc Battle, you’re right… thank you,” Mark answered.
 
“Just don’t make me regret letting you come along. Get some sleep.”
 
Simon walked away and left Mark to his thinking.
 
*****
 
Lucas woke before dinner and inquired of Vicki where Mark was.
 
“Mr. McCain, he’s with my father and the others,” Vicki said, hoping her answer would suffice. She got up from the chair where she had been reading and went to her room where she pulled out a syringe and the vial of medication her father had left. Vicki returned to the parlor and asked Lucas to extend his arm.
 
“Mr. McCain, my father said I was to administer this medicine tonight. It’ll help fight the infection that had started in your leg.”
 
As Vicki administered the medication, Lucas noticed the ring on her left hand and spoke, “I guess belated congratulations are in order Vicki. Seeing how you are old enough and married, I think you can call me Lucas instead of Mr. McCain.”
 
A little embarrassed, Vicki replied, “Thank you for the congratulations, Lucas. Joshua and I have been married for about six months and we’re on our way to Fort Davis, Texas, where he’s to be posted. He’s a captain in the army.”
 
“From the sparkle in your voice, I take it that you really love him,” Lucas stated.
 
“Yes, I do. He’s so kind and caring, but strong,” Vicki blushed and turned her face away.
 
“Every new wife blushes, don’t been ashamed.”
 
Mrs. Cambridge brought in a tray of food for Lucas and Vicki. The three quietly ate their dinner. Afterwards, Mrs. Cambridge brought in a cot, some blankets and an extra pillow for Lucas to use.
 
“Mr. McCain, guess you’ll be spending the night here in the parlor. So… I’ll get your bed set up. I can pull the parlor curtains closed, to give you a little bit of privacy.”
 
“Guess Simon was serious when he said he didn’t want me walking yet. If you’d like, you can set up a cot in here for my boy too. I’m sure he won’t want to be that far away from me.”
 
“Mr. McCain, your boy and Vicki’s husband and father left with the Sheriff and that other army fellow earlier this afternoon,” Mrs. Cambridge stated without realizing the implication.
 
“Mark’s where?! Vicki!” Lucas yelled as he understood what Mrs. Cambridge had just divulged.
 
Vicki came in from the kitchen, dish towel in hand.
 
“Vicki, a little while ago you said Mark was with your father and the others. Just where are they?” Lucas demanded as he sat forward on the settee.
 
“Lucas, I honestly don’t know where they are… but I do know Mark is safe.”
 
“And just how to you know that?!” Lucas demanded to know.
 
“He’s with my father,” Vicki answered hoping Lucas would let the subject drop.
 
“And just where is your father? Where is Simon Battle… And my son?” Lucas leaned forward
 
“I don’t know… But I do know they went to track down the Army payroll detail.”
 
“And why are they tracking down an Army payroll?”
 
“Because there was a letter in the mail pouch the outlaws took,” answered Vicki.
 
“Outlaws? What outlaws?!” Lucas angrily asked.
 
“The outlaws who caused the stage to crash, the outlaws who shot you…” Vicki humbly replied, folding her hands in front of her.
 
“Who the hell took my sixteen year old boy with them?” Lucas demanded as he tried to get up. It took both women to push him back down to the settee.
 
“Lucas, please, you’ll open your wound if you don’t lie back down and be still,” Vicki pleaded.
 
“I don’t care! My boy’s out there trailing after outlaws! Of all the stupid things that your father…” Lucas.
 
“Mr. McCain!” Mrs. Cambridge boldly interrupted. “In your eye’s he’s a boy. But right now… He’s trying to be a man. It’s his time to grow up. I’m sure the girl’s father would not have let your boy go had he felt he couldn’t handle himself.”
 
“He’s… just a boy,” Lucas stated.
 
“Your boy he’ll always be. I do understand your concern as a parent. I thought my two boys were too young to fight back in the war. But the army… they thought otherwise. They both came back to me…there were good men looking out for them…just like there’s good men looking out for your boy. Mr. McCain, today… my oldest is a marshal in Abilene, Texas and the other is a Texas Ranger in Austin.”
 
“It’s just…” Lucas tried to explain.
 
“I know how you feel, Lucas. My husband is with them, too,” Vicki said as she tried to stop the tears from welling in her eyes. She handed Lucas a glass of water, laced with Laudanum.
 
*****
 
It was the afternoon of their third day out when the small posse came upon the canyon the army detail was expected to travel through.
 
“Seems stupid for the army to send a payroll through a canyon, only asking for trouble… If ya ask me,” stated the Sheriff.
 
No one replied.
 
“Mark.” Simon called. “I want you to take your Pa’s rifle and hit the high road. You’ll have a great vantage point over anything that happens down here.”
 
“Sir?”
 
“We’ll give you an hour to make your way up there and along the rim. Find a vantage point that you can look down over both directions. If those outlaws show up, it’ll be up to you and that rifle to keep them penned down until we can get close to them and take them into custody.”
 
“You want me out of danger,” Mark said with a hint of anger in his voice.
 
“Mark, you’ll be out of immediate danger, but there’s always a chance that you could encounter danger just by being here. And yes, like your father, I’ll do anything to keep you from harm, but… We do need someone up on the rim, someone who can provide cover for us, should those outlaws already have their trap set.” Simon gave a firm squeeze with his hand upon Mark’s shoulder.
 
“I gave you my word and I intend to keep it, sir.”
 
“Good man,” Battle stated as he turned his attention to the others and made preparations to continue on.
 
*****
 
Mark turned the horse he was riding and backtracked until he found a location where he could maneuver his horse along the wall to the top of the canyon. Carefully picking his way along the top, he passed the small posse and continued to press ahead. He found a good vantage point and dismounted. He watched towards both ends of the canyon, as far as he could see. The hour was up when the posse finally came into his sight. Mark watched them slowly ride. Each had their rifle at the ready. As they passed Mark’s position, he quietly got up, walked away from the edge, and mounted his horse and rode to find the next vantage point.
 
It was his third stop when he thought he saw the sun reflect off something metal. Mark dropped to his belly and crawled to the edge. Again, he saw the sun reflected. He looked down to the direction the posse would be traveling and realized they hadn’t seen what he had. Mark continued to look around and saw a dust cloud coming from the other direction, ‘The payroll detail,’ Mark said out loud to himself.
 
Mark diligently scanned his eyes back and forth in an attempt to find the reflection; and was finally able to see where two of the outlaws had positioned themselves on the opposite wall of the canyon.  Looking down below, Mark had hoped to find the others on his side of the canyon, but to no avail. Within a few more moments, he spotted two more outlaws were down on the canyon floor, hiding behind boulders on the opposite side. As he watched, he realized they were intent on the payroll and not paying any attention to anyone coming from the opposite direction. Not one of them noticed that the posse was coming up behind them; Mark readied his Pa’s rifle knowing that as soon as he fired the outlaws would know they were not alone.
 
‘Just wait. Don’t give away your position. Breathe in and slowly breathe out. Wait for your target. Don’t force the shot. Wait.’ Mark heard his Pa’s words in his head. He remembered when his Pa was teaching him how to hunt for the first time, using his own rifle. ‘Choose your shot, plan your shot, make each bullet count.’
 
The payroll detail was closer to the outlaws than the posse. Mark watched as the outlaws organized themselves. They too were waiting for the right time.
 
“Lord, please let me do proud by my Pa. Let me be ready to grow up,” Mark whispered as he realized he would have to be the first to act.
 
Mark watched and waited. The outlaws were ready to spring their trap. Mark saw them shoulder their rifles and before they could pull the triggers, Mark fired his first shot at them.
 
The two on the opposite wall dove for cover as splintered rocks rained down on them. The two down below, looked up over their shoulders trying to figure out who had fired the shot early; not realizing they were under siege. After the first shot, Mark kept a slow and steady rhythm of shots; enough to keep the outlaws’ heads down.
 
The posse, hearing the rifle shots, spurred their horses forward. As the arrived, they jumped from their horses, scanned the scene and determined where the shots were coming from and the direction they were being fired.
 
Captain McClary and Lieutenant Jamison made their way along a line of boulders until they were right behind the outlaws. The outlaws were so focused on the shots from above that they were oblivious to anyone else in the canyon.
 
Joshua and Parker stepped from around the boulders, guns drawn, and pointed at the outlaws. The outlaws dropped their guns, realizing they had no recourse.
 
Mark smiled as he watched the surrender down below. He turned his attention back to the two across from him and realized they were on the move. Mark chose his targets again; aiming true in striking just in front of the outlaws, forcing them back to cover.
 
The outlaws realized the futility of trying to get away and dropped their rifles, and stood with their arms raised in defeat.
 
Simon and the Sheriff were making their way up the wall and soon had the final two in custody.
 
*****
 
The payroll detail at first had halted their horses, not sure what was happening, only knowing they heard gunfire, but no bullets were coming their way and then the gun fire stopped. The officer in charge of the detail ordered a charge. “Race those horses through to the end, and don’t stop!” They whipped their horses into a gallop and headed straight towards the outlaws and the posse.
 
As they arrived at the scene, they were quite surprised to find the route was safe and that the cavalry and law were already there. The detail reined in their horses, allowing introductions to be made, and Parker explained what had happened.
 
The soldiers were tying the outlaws to the back of the wagon for the trip back to Central City when Parker realized that one of men was not the fourth outlaw from the hold up.
 
“Where’s the fourth man that was with you when you robbed the stage?” Parker demanded, grabbing the front of one of the men’s shirt.
 
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” the man answered in response.
 
“Mark!” Simon yelled and ran towards the wall. “Mark!”
 
*****
 
After seeing the four outlaws in custody, Mark exhaled the breath he didn’t realize he had been holding, crawled from the edge, and walked back to his horse. He put his Pa’s rifle in the scabbard and mounted the horse when off to his left he heard the unmistakable cocking of a rifle.
 
Mark looked around and saw a man approaching him, rifle pointed right at him; it was the outlaw leader who had shot his Pa. Mark quickly looked around to see how he could get out of this situation.
 
“Well, if it isn’t the boy from the stage,” the outlaw stated as he walked towards Mark. “So… how’s your Pa doing little one?” The outlaw emphasized the word little.
 
Mark didn’t answer. He kept playing thinking, trying his plan out over in his head, wondering could he really do it. Could he really save himself?
 
“Get down from there… little boy,” the outlaw ordered with a laugh. “So the little boy is too scared to move without his Pa pushing him out of the way.” He laughed again and lowered the rifle. From his lips he pulled down the cigarette with his left hand.
 
“I’m not a little boy!” Mark replied. Knowing it was now or never, he leaned backwards in the saddle, kicking his feet from the stirrups, his arm reaching for his Pa’s rifle, his fingers clinched around the stock; he purposely fell from the saddle, hit the ground, and rolled to his stomach. Without conscious thought, he pulled the trigger, striking the outlaw in the arm forcing him to drop the rifle.
 
The outlaw started cussing up a storm, unbelieving that a “wet-nosed whelp” pulled off such a feat!
 
Mark slowly rose to his feet, stepped from behind his horse; rifle still pointed at the outlaw. “Slowly pull your handgun from your holster and drop it.”
 
“And if I don’t?”
 
Mark let the rifle speak for him. He cocked the lever and butted it into his shoulder, his eye looking straight down the barrel, finger on the trigger.
 
“Your choice,” Mark coldly voiced, pleased he could suppress the tremble he felt.
 
Mark kept his Pa’s rifle aimed at the leader as the man used his thumb and forefinger to pull the weapon from where it hung against his leg and dropped it to the ground. Keeping his stand, Mark made a motion with the rifle indicating he wanted the man to walk.
Relief flooded through Mark as he watched the man to walk down the path to the bottom of the canyon below to join the others. Eventually, Simon Battle took the leader into custody.
 
Mark heard his name being called from the canyon below, but he couldn’t answer. To Mark, time seemed to stand still as everything around him quieted down, even the wind stopped making a noise as it wound its way across the land.
 
Mark sank to his knees. He looked at his Pa’s rifle in his trembling hands. Remembered all the times his Pa had had to use it to defend his family, his friends, his town, and even strangers. Marveling at the strength it took to use the rifle on another human being; as well as the strength it took know when not to use the weapon. Mark allowed himself to finally understand everything his Pa had tried to teach him. Understanding why his Pa hesitated for so many years before finally agreeing to purchase Mark his own rifle.
 
Yet, Mark was also grieving for the loss of his innocence. He truly knew that he was no longer a boy. Through this experience, he had become a man without his father present to witness. But, had it not been for everything his father had taught him, what kind of a man would he be? He had held a rifle on a man, looked him square in the eye, and pulled the trigger having made the conscious decision not to take a life. He was strong enough to know that, when it come to it, he could pull the trigger. He had faced his own fears. Knowing he would, eventually, become the whole man his father was raising him to be. He also realized there was nothing he could have done that day to protect his father. Had Mark not been present, Doc Battle was right; the outlaws might well have killed everyone on the stage.
 
Mark shamelessly cried.
 
*****
 
Breathing heavily, Simon reached the top of the canyon to see Mark on his knees, rifle in hand, crying. Approaching, he looked the boy over carefully, but didn’t see any sign of injury.
 
“Mark?” Simon said as he walked closer. “Are you okay? Are you injured?”
 
Wiping his eyes with the sleeve of his shirt, Mark answered, “No sir. I’m okay…” With a few moments pause, Mark continued, “You were right Doctor Battle. I needed to prove to myself that I could grow up, but the only way I could do that, was to realize that my Pa was doing what he had to and it wasn’t because I was a little boy. It was because I was his son. Whether I was six, sixteen, or sixty, he would still have pushed me out of the way.”
 
“Mark, it takes a man to realize that. A little boy would still be mad that his Pa pushed him out of the way. If you want, we can wait until you’re up to taking your prisoners back to Central.”
 
“My prisoners?” Mark asked quickly.
 
“Well, you were the one who cornered them.”
 
“But if it hadn’t been for you and the others…”
 
“Mark as far as I’m concerned you did it. But I’ll let you call it a group effort.” A smile graced Doc Battle’s face as he watched the young man in front of him.
 
Mark stood to his feet as Simon said, “Come on, let’s get you back to your Pa. I’m sure by now he’s causing Vicki all sorts of problems.”
 
“I’m sure he is, sir.”
 
*****
 
As the group left the canyon, they came to a hidden cave, where the outlaws’ horses were tethered. The outlaws complied as they were put on their horses, hands tied to the saddle horns.
 
*****
 
The sky had lost most of its color when days later the group neared Central. Word spread throughout the town when riders came in declaring the posse’s return on the horizon.
 
The five outlaws grumbled as the jail cell door was unceremoniously closed behind them and the Sheriff sat down to write out his report.
 
“I want everyone of you to write out what happened today,” the sheriff declared as the group turned to leave.
 
*****
 
Previously, Vicki had given in to Lucas and allowed him to use crutches to get around; and he continued to pace the front porch, the parlor, anywhere he could walk.
 
*****
 
Parker, Joshua, and Simon accompanied Mark back to the boarding house. Lucas was standing on the porch and watched as the group approach the small patch of light illuminated by the lanterns on the porch. Mark walked tall and straight, Simon Battle’s arm around his shoulders. Proudly he carried his Pa’s rifle, yet he felt apprehensive. When he saw his Pa at the far end of the porch, he stop dead in his tracks; the fears he felt before leaving slammed down upon him.
 
Using the crutches, Lucas took a small step forward, towards his son, and spoke one word, “Mark.”
 
Without hesitation, Mark was in a full out run, a smile on his face.  Mark slowed to a walk to climb the porch steps to reach his father. He held the rifle out to return it to its rightful owner.
 
Seeing his pa staring at the right, Mark stated, “Pa? I brought it back to you.”
 
“It’s not the rifle I was worried about. Come here. I’m so glad you’re back!”
 
Lucas didn’t take the rifle; he just pulled his boy into his grasp and wrapped his arms around him. Mark enjoyed the sensation of being enveloped in his Pa’s strong arms on many occasions; this time he relished hearing his Pa’s beating heart.
 
“Guess I’ll never get to old to enjoy this,” Mark said quietly.
 
The rest of the group arrived and stopped a few feet away.
 
Lucas turned towards them, “Simon, thank you for bringing my boy back… safe.”
 
“Lucas, I’m afraid I didn’t bring your boy back to you. He might have left here a boy, but I brought back a young man. He did a lot of growing up out there and the realizations he made could only have been made and understood by a young man.”
 
Vicki came running out the door and jumped into Joshua’s arms almost knocking him off his feet. At hearing Simon Battle’s laugh she said, “Oh Daddy, I’m glad you’re back too.” She blushed as her husband chided her for behaving like a little girl.
 
“Well, I’ll always be my Daddy’s little girl, Joshua,” Vicki replied.
 
Soon Mrs. Cambridge was on the porch, admonishing every one of them for acting like children. They needed to come in out of the chill of the evening, less they all take colds.
 
*****
 
The group sat around the parlor talking of the events that had transpired over the past few days and what would probably happen to the outlaws. Mark let the men do most of the talking, he was happy just to be sitting next to his Pa.
 
Later, Mark woke to find he was alone in the parlor, lying on the settee with a blanket over him. He sat up, pulled the blanket around his shoulders, and stared into the flames in the fireplace.
 
Quietly, off to his side, he heard his name called, “Mark?”
 
“Pa?” Mark answered as he turned in the direction the voice sounded.
 
Lucas stood up with the help of the crutches and hobbled over to the settee, next to his son.
 
“I think we need to talk, son.”
 
“Yes sir, but I’m sorry to use your own words against you Pa, but do you ‘think’ or do you ‘know’?” Mark said with a slight grin on his face.
 
“We need to talk, man to man,” Lucas smiled right back at Mark. Lucas stood a few moments to observe his son’s features as the warm glow from the fire gently bathed his face. Carefully, Lucas lowered himself the sit.
 
“Mark, I want you to know how upset I was to learn that you went with the posse to track down those outlaws.”
 
“I knew you would be, Pa.”
 
“Why’d you do it? Why did you feel you had to go with them?”
 
“”Because I felt I needed to prove myself,” answered Mark.
 
“You don’t have to prove yourself to me.”
 
“It wasn’t you, Pa. It was me… I had to prove myself to me. That I could be the man you’ve tried to raise me to be. Doc Battle talked with me, our first night out. That was when I realized, really realized why.”
 
“After you fell asleep and the others went to their rooms, Simon and I had a long talk… He’s right you know.”
 
“Pa?”
 
“You might have left here a boy, but you did come back a young man. Son, you’ve been a young man for quite a while, but I was too blind to realize just how much of a man you were becoming. See… a father always wants their children to… well… remain children.”
 
“Pa, I know this is part of my growing up time and that you were only protecting me… because I am your son. Regardless of how old I am, that’s your job. I was just scared that I wasn’t going to grow up to be the man you thought I should be, and that’s why you pushed me out of the way.”
 
“Simon told me of your talk after you captured those outlaws, as well as the one your first night out. Mark, I’m sorry I wasn’t there to help you through this,” Lucas acknowledged with sorrow in his voice.
 
“But Pa, you were there! Everything you’ve taught me and everything you instilled in me, it was all there with me. I heard your voice… each and every step… while I was out there. If you hadn’t been with me, I’m not sure I would have done the right kind of growing up out there.”
 
From the hallway they heard Simon Battle say, as he entered the parlor, “Lucas, I told you he did a might bit of growing up. You have every right to be proud of him.”
 
“So he keeps reminding me… all the time,” Lucas replied with a huge smile on his face.
 
*****
 
The next day’s stage saw Captain Joshua McClary and his wife Vicki, and Lieutenant Parker Jamison leave Central City to head on to Fort Davis, Texas. Simon said he wanted Lucas to wait a few more days before traveling and that he would accompany Mark and Lucas back to North Fork, before meeting up with the others in Texas.
 
*****
 
Two former adversaries, and one’s son, ate dinner at the restaurant in town that night. The Sheriff joined them shortly before their waitress brought dessert.
 
“Mark, I received a wire a little while ago,” the Sheriff said as he sat down and accepted a cup of coffee from their waitress. He handed the slip of paper he pulled out of his pocket to Mark.
 
“Well?” Lucas asked as he watched Mark’s eyes scan the wire.
 
“Oh, it reads: Dear Mr. Mark McCain,
 
Your involvement in capturing the outlaws responsible for the attack on our stage, theft of government mail, and the assault on one of our passengers has come to our attention. We have arranged for a special stage run to return you and your father home. We have also wired to the bank in your home town of North Fork, New Mexico a reward made payable to you in the amount of $2,000. Please accept this as a small token of our appreciation for what you have done.
 
Sincerely,
 
Lloyd Tevis
President
Wells, Fargo & Company”
 
Mark whistled as he read the last of the wire. “Pa, a reward? But… I didn’t do it for a reward. I did it because it was something I had to do. You were the passenger who was attacked… I can’t accept the reward…”
 
“Mark,” Lucas replied. “We’ll sort it all out once we get home. I’m sure John Hamilton will know what to do. He’s probably already placed the funds into your account at the bank.”
 
*****
 
Lucas, Mark, and Simon stood outside the stage station doorway as the special stage arrived. As another sign of his maturity, Mark insisted that his father boarded first before handing their rifles to him. Next, he allowed Doc Battle to enter the stage. Mark climbed in and sat down next to his Pa.
 
The three travelers settled back as their journey continued.
 
*****
 
The stage came to a stop in front of the Mallory House Hotel and to the surprise of those inside, a crowd of well-wishers promptly surrounded the vehicle. Seems most everyone in town was there to greet them. After congratulations and welcomes died down, Lucas, Mark and Simon headed to Doc Burrage’s clinic.
 
Doc examined Lucas’ wounds, afterwards complaining, “Don’t see why you stopped in here to bother me. Traveling with your own private doctor,” Doc grumbled with a grin on his face.
 
“Professional courtesy, he is a resident of your town,” Simon stated in response, raising an eyebrow in amusement.
 
As they exited Doc’s, Simon stated, “Well, I’ve got to go, the driver mentioned that he was to take me the rest of the way to Fort Davis, to meet up with Vicki and Joshua. Mark, you take care of your Pa. You hear!”
 
“Yes sir,” Mark replied as they watched Simon return to the stage.
 
As father and son made their way to the hotel restaurant; banker John Hamilton, Marshal Micah Torrance, and Deputy Johnny Drako joined them.
 
“Well young man, just what are you planning to do with your reward money? That’s an awful lot of money, but it’s safe in the bank,” John Hamilton stated.
 
“Mr. Hamilton, I was thinking about that on the way home. Before we left Central, I told Pa that I didn’t think I could accept it. I didn’t do it for the money.”
 
“Mark, it’s your money, free and clear,” John stated. “I’ve wire several inquiries to Wells Fargo.”
 
“Then I could give it away if I wanted?” Mark asked looking to his Pa.
 
“Who would you give it to?” Drako curiously asked.
 
“I was thinking maybe we could send some of the money to Samuel Mason, to help his family take care of Tommy. And…
 
“And?” queried Micah.
 
“Well… North Fork is growing and… maybe we could use some of the money to expand the church and the school?”
 
“Mark, that’s mighty grown up of you. Are you sure you wouldn’t like to keep some of the reward money for yourself?” Micah asked.
 
“The best reward I could ever receive is the love of my Pa and seeing the pride in his eyes because of something I’ve done. That’s all the reward I’ll ever need Micah.”
 
“Mark, if that’s what you want. I’ll make arrangements to wire some of the money to San Carlos for Tommy, you just decide how much and I’ll take care of it,” John said.
 
After hearing Mark recount what had transpired while he was with the posse, Drako stated, “Mark, seems to me you’d make one fine lawman. You kept your wits about you.”
 
“Well, I did do some growing up and I’m not a little boy any more, but I’m not full grown yet. I still have to finish my education. I think I’ll leave the law to you and Micah, for the time being. Right now, my Pa needs me more than you two do. Besides, we’re partners at the ranch.”
 
Lucas smiled as he swallowed his coffee. ‘Could a man’s heart burst from pride? Pride in how much his son was growing up and surpassing a father’s expectation?’
 
*****
 
The following morning, Mark and Lucas returned home. Nils had previously brought their buckboard and team to town, know Lucas wouldn’t be able to ride Razor.
 
*****
 
Once North Fork was out of sight, Mark asked, “Pa, have you forgiven Doc Burrage?”
 
“Forgiven him?”
 
“Yes, sir,” Mark stated as he jingled the reins in his hands. “For taking me along on the posse?”
 
“In a way I have. I’m still upset that you went, but I’m thankful everything turned out as it did.”
 
“Did he tell you why?”
 
“Both of you said you needed to prove yourself.”
 
“That wasn’t all, Pa.” Mark pulled back the reins to stop the team. “He told me…”
 
“What did he tell you?” Lucas inquired.
 
“He said he wished all those years ago he had someone else to help him, and maybe, if there had been someone…”
 
“Help him?”
 
“He said if he had had someone to help guide him, maybe he wouldn’t have become a ‘cold-blooded bastard’ of a bounty hunter. I did want justice, you know.”
 
“I know son.”
 
“Doc Battle made me see things differently. Pa, what do you think happened that turned him into a bounty hunter?”
 
“I don’t know son. I don’t know.”

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

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