The Rifleman
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Fan Fiction

One Came from Denver
Written by Deanne Bertram

This story borrows several characters from various episodes during The Rifleman’s five year run.

In One Went to Denver, we’re introduced to Tom Birch only find out that Lucas McCain is a long time, good friend, but we also find out that Birch is an outlaw. Birch planned to use his friendship with Lucas as a cover, in order to rob the North Fork bank. (Bits n Pieces: Actor Richard Anderson portrayed Tom Birch. Richard Anderson went on to portray Oscar Goldman in the Six Million Dollar Man Series.)

In Meeting at Midnight, we’re introduced to Tom Benton, who was Lucas’ captain during the war. Tom Benton is currently a U.S. Deputy Marshal and working undercover to reclaim stolen money. (Bits n Pieces: Actor Claude Akins portrayed Tom Benton.)

All other characters, other than those recognized as original Rifleman cast members, are from my overly active imagination. This story would take place between seasons four and five.


One Came From Denver

It was a late August afternoon when Lucas and Mark McCain, Oat Jackford, and a few other ranchers, returned to North Fork from Las Cruces after selling a combined herd of beef cattle to the army. Everyone was in a good mood during the trip home, even though they were all tired from countless hours in the saddle, sleeping on the hard ground, and losing out on sleep when required to ride night watch. Even old Oat couldn’t help the smile on his face as he watched the McCains ride side by side. Oat remembered back to the first time he’d met Lucas McCain, considered him a trespasser after he had purchased the Dunlop Ranch. Lucas had stood up to Oat and bested a number of his top hands, in addition to the rancher in order to claim the ranch as his own. It had taken a while, but eventually Oat came to consider Lucas a good friend, wasn’t too easy for anyone to break through the exterior gruffness that was Oat Jackford.

Over the years, Oat had come to admire Lucas, not so much for his prowess with the rifle or even as a fellow cattle rancher, but for his dedication to his son. Oat had a belief of what was right and wrong according to ‘his world.’ Lucas’ belief was firmly established in the bible and he raised his son that way. Oat approved of the young man Mark McCain was becoming.

The small group had been gone for about two weeks and everyone was eager to get back home, to wash the trail dirt off their hides and more importantly to sleep in their own beds. No more bedrolls, no more sleeping in the saddle. And they were even looking forward to eating home cooked meals.

*****

“So you can’t wait to get home, young man?” Oat called out after hearing Mark’s comment about looking forward to really getting out of the saddle. “Thought you wanted to be a cattle rancher? Why on some of the biggest Texas cattle drives you’d be gone for months at a time. Drovers would follow the Chisholm Trail, they’d head out from San Antonio, Texas and push all the way up to Kansas City, Kansas. Lucas you’re letting this boy get too soft.”

“Sure, I want to be a cattle rancher,” Mark tried to explain. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t look forward to sleeping in my own bed, does it?”

Everyone enjoyed a good laugh at Mark’s comment, and he was laughing along with them. At fourteen, Mark knew he wasn’t full grown, but the men with his Pa gave him the respect as if he was. He’d held up his fair share of the required work, all without any complaint and Lucas was proud of his son.

*****

After saying goodbye to the others on the outskirts of town, Oat, Lucas, and Mark continued to ride into North Fork. Oat stopped his horse in front of the Sweeney’s, the only saloon in town, and invited the McCains to join him.

“Not this time Oat,” Lucas answered.

Giving a jovial smile, Oat turned his horse to the hitching rail and waved goodbye as Lucas and Mark rode on to the North Fork bank.

*****

“Pa, why not let me make the mortgage payment this time and deposit our share from the herd? I know how anxious you are to get to Micah’s and catch up on what’s been happening while we were gone,” Mark offered.

“Okay son. After you pay on the mortgage, just ask John Hamilton to deposit the rest of the money into our savings account,” Lucas spoke as he handed the envelope to Mark. He stretched tall in the saddle, hearing and feeling the bones of his spine pop, before he proceeded to ride Razor to the marshal’s office. Mark dismounted Blue Boy and stepped to the boardwalk, and watched his father slowly dismount from Razor and walk just as slowly into the Marshal’s Office. Mark wrapped the reins around the rail and walked into the bank.

Upon entering the bank, Mark was slightly overwhelmed with how busy it was, especially after several weeks with only a few other people as company, so he just stepped to the side to wait his turn. As he waited, he recognized Jacob Preston standing off to the side, waiting for his own father to finish a transaction with the teller.

“Hey Mark, welcome back! How was the cattle drive?” Jacob called over as he walked towards his friend, extremely eager to hear all about the trip.

Since he and his parents had arrived in North Fork, Jacob had come to admire Mark and lived to hear Mark’s stories about living on a working ranch. Jacob had grown up in St. Louis and had never been exposed to the kind of country surrounding North Fork. He’d only read and daydreamed about the west through Dime Store Novels. The Prestons had moved to North Fork for his mother’s health.

Jacob so much wished that he could be a part of the adventures that Mark had experienced, to truly be a part of the wild west. He hoped that with his friendship with Mark, his own parents would agree to let him take up horseback riding and become a real cowboy.

“Long and dusty!” Mark said as he realized and tried to brush off some of the trail dirt from his shirt and pants. Mark slightly begrudged his friend’s chipper voice, because he felt tired and dirty, and dirt had made its way into places where dirt had no business. “But we received more than a fair price for our cattle.”

“Wow. I wish Ma and Pa would let me have some fun like your Pa does.”

“Like his Pa does what?” asked Jacob’s father as he approached the boys.

Mr. Preston was a stout man, and the mustache he wore made his face more animated as it moved while the man talked.

“Just wishing I could learn to become a real cowboy like Mark. His Pa lets him ride horses and work the cattle. He gets to have all the fun.”

“Jacob, you know how your Ma feels about you taking such risks.”

“But they’re not risks, they’re fun,” pleaded Jacob.

“Mark, just how much fun did you have on the cattle drive?” Mr. Preston asked with an inquisitive expression on his face. He’d seen Mark trying to brush off his clothing.

“Well it was fun being out with my Pa and the others, but sitting in the saddle all day long, getting covered dirt while riding drag, riding night watch, and then sleeping on the hard ground…” Mark started rubbing his backside a little bit.

Mr. Preston laughed, “Well, one boy’s daydream is another boy’s hard work. Mark, where’s your Pa, I don’t see him.”

“He’s waiting for me at the Marshal’s Office. He said I could deposit our earnings from the cattle.”

“Well, I better let you step up to the counter. I shouldn’t keep you from the mighty important business you have.” Mr. Preston motioned for Mark to step to the counter as the Prestons waited against the back wall for him.

As Mark finished his transactions and turned to walk back to the Prestons, he didn’t notice the three men entering the bank, drawing their guns as they pulled bandanas up over their faces.

Mark flinched when he heard a voice gruffly call out, “Don’t move! Move, ye’re dead!”

One outlaw held his gun on the bank customers and started pulling down the window shades, another pointed his guns at the tellers, the third slipped his handgun into his holster as he came around the counter and started pulling money from the teller drawers and putting the money into his saddlebag. He turned his attention to the safe, “Now ain’t that hospitable, leaving the safe open for us…”

“Now folks, don’t do anything stupid, and you’ll all make it out of here alive,” barked the robber who’d drawn the blinds.

One of the bandits nervously kept moving both his guns around, pointing at various customers. He stopped as his eyes came to rest on Matthew Preston. He put one of his guns back in his holster before he reached for Jacob, grabbing him by the arm and pulling him to his side.

“PA!” squealed Jacob as he reacted to the pressure on his arm and the force of being pulled.

Mr. Preston tried to prevent the robber from harming his son, only to take the butt of a pistol to his head. With his hand going to his head, Jacob’s father fell to his knees. Mark started to walk backwards but came against the counter, staring in disbelief at what was happening.

The robber who had taken the money from the drawers and safe threw the saddlebag to his partner closest to the door. Then, as he ran around the counter, he grabbed hold of Mark’s arm, motioning for him to start moving towards the door.

The robbers ran from the bank, motioning for the boys to get on two of the horses tied in front of the bank. Guns were still pointed to the open bank door and anyone who happened to be near the bank entrance.

As a patron started to go for his gun, the last robber to leave the bank shot at him, missing by barely an inch. The outlaw yelled, “Stay away or the boys are as good as dead!” as he ran and jumped in the saddle. The group recklessly rode out of town like the devil himself was after them.

Lucas and Micah were talking over coffee when they heard gun fire from outside. Both ran from Micah’s office, Lucas stopping by Razor to pull his rifle from the scabbard before proceeding in the direction of the commotion.

Town’s folks were coming out of the bank yelling, “The bank’s been robbed!”

Micah and Lucas arrived in front of the bank to see the riders racing from town. Lucas stopped in the middle of the street, raised his rifle, took aim and prepared to fire. Just as he pulled the trigger the town’s banker, John Hamilton, pushed the rifle barrel up into the air.

“John, what are you doing? Those men just robbed your bank!” declared Lucas, upset at his shot being spoiled.

“Lucas, I couldn’t take the chance you’d hit Jacob or Mark.” Lucas heard the fear in John’s voice. Lucas looked from the direction the riders took and back to John still not comprehending the implication of the banker’s words.

“Hit Jacob or Mark?” Lucas turned around to see that Mark wasn’t one of the people who had exited the bank. Nor was Blue Boy still tied in front of the bank. Reality started to sink in as he understood what John had said, as he watched the outlaws, and his son, ride away.

“Lucas, they took Mark and Matthew Preston’s boy, Jacob,” John Hamilton said.

Lucas looked towards the bank and saw Matthew Preston exiting the bank, blood trickling down the side of his face; a look of rage in his eyes.

Micah yelled out for anyone interested in joining a posse to meet him in front of his office in fifteen minutes; everyone present offered their assistance. As the prescribed time neared, a group of people stood in front of the Marshal’s Office.

“Folks, please!” Lucas tried yelling above all the voices. Micah fired his shotgun to get everyone’s attention.

“Men I need to properly deputize each and every one of you before we head out. We’re doing this by the law!” Micah hollered.

“Micah, we can’t all go!” Lucas said with a fire in his voice.

There was uproar from the crowd, every man wanted to help retrieve the money and rescue the hostages.

“Men listen! They have my son and Matthew’s. If we go out after them as a mob they might just kill the boys. Right now we have to be smart. Ride smart. Think smart. And ride fast. A few riders can make better progress than a large group,” Lucas called to those who surrounded him and the marshal. “I appreciate that everyone wants to help, but we don’t know who these men are and for our boys’ sake…” Lucas faltered.

He’d helped Micah so many times in the past to trail after outlaws, but this time, it was personal; his son was in danger. He wanted to be out there trailing his boy right now, but he needed to make sure his friends didn’t put either boy in any more danger than absolutely necessary.

Micah hollered for Eddie, the telegraph operator, as he saw the man step from his small office. “Eddie, send a wire to all the surrounding towns. Let them know our bank was robbed and the culprits have two boys as hostages. Include that we don’t know the identity of the robbers.”

“Sure Micah,” as Eddie ran back inside the telegraph office.

“Now, we’re going to need to pack up supplies so we can track after these men,” Micah said, he was preparing to deputize Lucas, Oat Jackford, Matthew Preston, and Frank Toomey.

As they were walking to Micah’s office Matthew informed them, “Micah, I’m no good in the saddle. I’d only hold you up. Please choose someone else. I’m best here looking after my wife. I can’t leave her, with Jacob ...”

“Okay, Matthew. Who else can I deputize?” Micah asked Lucas.

Before he could answer, Lucas saw a face from the past step off a horse in front of the livery. “One moment Micah, I’ll be right back.”

Lucas ran to the man standing in front of the livery, he was watching all the commotion as people were packing horses.

“Tom, Tom Benton?!” Lucas called.

“Lucas, good to see you!” The man returned an expressive greeting to Lucas as he turned around to shake Lucas’ hand, his smile disappeared from his face as he saw the worried look on the face of his friend. “Hey Lucas, what’s wrong?” Benton asked.

“I need to ask you to come over to marshal’s, we’re putting a posse together. Outlaws hit the bank a little while ago; they took Mark and another boy.”

”You’re Mark?” Benton asked.

Lucas nodded.

“I’m with you, Lucas.”

Tom Benton fell in step beside Lucas.

*****

As Lucas entered Micah’s, with Tom right behind him, they walked in to hear Matthew Preston informing Micah he thought one of the robbers was Collie McBride. “I thought I recognized it might be him as they entered, before he covered his face.”

“Just how do you know Collie McBride? He’s a mean one. Heard tell he once rode for the Clanton Gang years ago.” Micah asked.

Matthew told his story, “It was back before Meredith and I were married, Collie had tried for Meredith’s attention, but she saw the mean streak in him and refused his advances. He’d killed a man who stopped and talked with her one day. He had quite a jealous temper back then. He stood trial. I was on the jury. Afterwards, I kind of was smitten myself with Meredith. A year later, we were married… Didn’t realize he’d be out of prison. Guess once Meredith and I were married, I put it all out of my memory, until today.” Shaking his head, Matthew stated, “Shocked to see him here in New Mexico Territory. ”

“Why would they take two fourteen year old boys after robbing the bank?” Jackford asked.

“Collie must of seen me, thought it a way he could get even with me. Jacob was standing next to me. I don’t know why they took Mark.” Concern hung in Matthew’s voice.

Micah went on to talk, “Men, for right now, let’s play this quietly. We’re not one hundred percent certain that Collie McBride was involved, so until we know for sure, this is just between us. If word gets out that we know who we’re tracking, it might put the boys in more danger.”

Everyone was in agreement.

Nils Swenson and Bill Sweeney led the two pack horses to the front of the marshal’s office and waited. The small posse saddled up to set out in search of Mark and Jacob, and the outlaws. Frank Toomey took the lead to one packhorse while Oat Jackford reached for the other.

They were already in the saddles, when the banker reached for Razor’s rein, “Lucas, I don’t really care about the money, it’s just paper. Bring those two boys home safe.”

With a nod, Lucas turned, and followed as the posse rode out of North Fork.

*****

Trailing the outlaws across the well-traveled road was slow going. If it weren’t for the fact that Mark was riding Blue Boy, Lucas wasn’t entirely sure he would be able to follow. The last time Nils set Blue Boy’s shoes, he used bar shoes on the back hooves.

‘At least Mark is smart enough to ride off the road every now and then to leave tracks,’ Lucas thought to himself.

It was well after dark when they stopped for camp. Lucas was lost in his own thoughts; wanting to keep after the men, but realizing it was fool hardy to continue on at night without any moon to light their way.

Lucas tried to keep his mind from wandering, worrying, he turned to Tom and asked, “Tom, what brought you back through North Fork?”

“Just passing through on business,” Benton said, gazing into the fire over his cup of coffee. “As a special marshal, I go where I’m needed. No place to really call home. Couldn’t pass up seeing you again especially after I realized how close to North Fork I was going to be.

“Hey, your marshal didn’t give you any grief about helping me escape with that prisoner after I left town, did he?” Benton teased.

Lucas remembered back to the last time U.S. Marshal Tom Benton was in town; tracking down stolen money. He’d pretended to be a drunk to get thrown in jail for disorderly conduct, trying to meet up with the outlaw Micah already had in jail. Lucas, feeling sorry for his former Captain convinced Micah to let him out and Lucas would be personally responsible. Lucas had planned to ‘sober’ up his former captain when Tom told him the truth, and Tom ended up in a fist fight with Lucas, and Micah threw him back in jail with Lucas’ blessing. Later Lucas had helped Tom ‘escape’, only he’d not had a chance to tell Micah the truth, before both of them were locked in the cell, and Tom threw Lucas the keys to the cell as he ran away.

“Oh, he gave me grief,” Lucas was glad for the distraction in talking about their last meeting in North Fork. “Every time I entered his office for the next few weeks he drew his shot gun on me, professing to not have anyone in jail for me to bust out.” Lucas smiled as he remembered those days. “So this assignment doesn’t require you to be ‘drunk’?”

“Na, no real assignment this time. I’m meeting up with another marshal; just waiting on word from him. I’m glad for a little down time. So, here I am. I’m here for as long as I can Lucas.”

“Thanks, Tom.”

The men turned in for the night; however, sleep did not come easily for Lucas.

*****

Lucas was up before the first light of sun teased the sky the following morning, had coffee made and waiting as the others roused from their bedrolls. His friends noted the strain of his face and the slight slump of his shoulders. Nothing was said as camp was quickly broke and they rode, following the trail towards the hills.

*****

The bank robbers rode for the hills southwest of North Fork, hoping to lose the posse trailing after them once they reached the hard pan and ultimately through the canyons. They continued to ride, stopping only long enough to rest the horses and grab some cold grub, until sun down the next day.

When they reached the mountains, they were looking for a certain landscape formation that marked the entrance to a canyon, one that would take them to meet up with the others.

*****

As the three robbers finally arrived at the camp, they pulled their hostages from the horses. Motioned them to a tree, tied their hands behind their backs, and pushed them down to the ground. Mark noticed that there were only two other men present as the robbers walked towards the camp fire.

Mark looked from Jacob when he heard a man’s voice yelling, “What the hell?! Why did you bring them here?!”

Mark recognized the voice. He knew it from a few years back. He watched the man walk over to the others, cringed when he saw the fire illuminate the man’s face, confirming Mark’s fear.

Mark’s mind raced, ‘He’s supposed to be in prison!’

Mark lowered his head, hoping the man would ignore them and thus, not be recognized.

“Collie, what do you mean bringing them to camp? What are we supposed to do with them?” the man angrily shouted.

“I got a score to get even with his Pa.” Collie pointed to Jacob. “Been a long time…”

“A Score?! You bring them here because of a score?!”

“His old man sent me to prison, heard later he’d married my girl,” Collie countered.

“Because you got sent to prison and couldn’t keep a gal you bring a kid here? What about the other one?”

“I don’t know, Rowdie grabbed him.”

Rowdie quipped, “He grabbed a kid, seemed like a good ideer at the time, so I grabbed the other. Kept the posse off our tail so’s we could get away.”

“Posse! Get away! What did you do?!” the man demanded even angrier.

“We robbed a bank, got close to three thousand dollars,” Rowdie proudly boasted.

“Three thousand dollars when we’re waiting for close to one hundred thousand? How stupid! I’ve planned this since I got out of prison and now you jeopardize everything by robbing some small town bank and kidnapping a couple of kids?” Turning from the men in front of him, the man started to walk away, but hesitated. “Which town?”

“What does it matter, they can’t trail us through that hard pan,” Collie replied.

The man turned his attention to the third rider, “Well half-breed, maybe you’ll tell me, who’s idea it was to rob a bank and which town.” He stared into the dark, cold eyes of Coltrane Walker, part Indian, part white man.

“Collie wanted some spending cash. The closest town was North Fork,” he said without emotion.

“NORTH FORK!” The man whipped his head around and looked at the two boys.

Mark had tried to make himself as small as possible and was startled to be hauled to his feet, his hat ripped off his head, and found himself looking straight into the eyes of Tom Birch.

Upon recognition, Birch pushed Mark backwards in his anger. With his hands tied behind his back, Mark couldn’t catch his balance and fell hard to the ground. He tried his best to keep the pain he felt from his wrist to himself as he landed against the downed tree he had previously been resting against.

Turning back to the men, “You idiots! Do you know who’s kid he is?” Not waiting for anyone to answer, “They call his Pa the Rifleman. You damn idiots!” Birch walked back to the fire and punched Collie in the face with a resounding right hook.

“What’s the big deal?” Collie yelled, rubbing his jaw as he lay sprawled on the ground.

“Big deal?!” Birch took a deep breath and continued. “Only that his Pa is better with his modified rifle than ANY man is with a six-gun. I know that boy’s Pa. I spent three years in prison because of his Pa! He’ll search to Hell and back to find that boy!”

Birch stormed out of camp, angered that his plan was at risk by kidnapping Lucas McCain’s son. He yelled to the fifth man, “Porter, keep an eye on things here. I’m going for a walk.”

The men ignored the boys and settled down around the fire.

Collie slowly looked around before he spoke, “Don’t see what the big deal is, we got the cash and we got away. Ain’t no posse on our trail.”

“Stow it, Collie,” Porter stated.

“Porter, all we do is wait and wait,” Rowdie answered in disgust. “All he is, is talk. He keeps talkin’ about that money but we don’t do nuthin’. We got three thousand dollars.”

“And three thousand dollars split five ways is?” Porter asked.

Walker watched as Rowdie thought on the question.

“You know I ain’t got no learning. It don’t matter. What matters is we got money now,” Rowdie finally stated.

“Yeah, you got the money now, but what about them two boys? What about their family, if not the posse?” Porter asked.

“I told ya, there ain’t no posse. With them two,” Collie stated as he nodded his head in the direction of Mark and Jacob, “ain’t no way no posse is going to come after us.”

“You so sure?” Walker finally spoke.

“Sure as the sun’s gonna set tonight,” Collie answered.

*****

While Jacob tried to find a comfortable way to sit, Mark kept trying his bindings, seeing if he could get himself untied, ignoring the ache in his left wrist from being pushed down.

“How’re you doing Jacob?” Mark asked, seeing the distress his friend was experiencing.

“I’m okay, just, that…. I… I hurt, Mark. Never been in a saddle, let alone for two whole days. Every muscle in my body aches. And… it hurts to sit.”

“Sorry, but it won’t get any better for a while, as long as they keep pushing the horses,” Mark replied.

“Who are they? That mean one recognized you and… he knows your Pa?”

“His name’s Tom Birch. Him and my Pa were best friends when they were younger. Three years ago, Birch came to North Fork, tried to be all polite to my Pa, but he was really planning to rob the bank. Pa went to town to try and stop him. The rest of his gang was killed, but Pa couldn’t bring himself to shoot Birch, he ended up going to prison.”

Both boys were quiet for a spell.

“Mark, do you think they’ll find us? I mean, your pa?”

“My pa? Your pa will be part of the posse, too,” Mark answered.

“No, not my pa; not unless they’ll let him come with them in a buggy.” Jacob answered quietly, “Pa can’t ride either.”

“Jacob, it doesn’t matter, your ma needs someone there to help her until we get home. And… Birch was right, my Pa won’t rest until he’s found me, and that means finding you too. Jacob, let’s just try to go to sleep. That’s the best thing we can do for right now.”

The sun had barely set when Jacob was first to fall asleep, under sheer exhaustion. Sleep wouldn’t come to Mark, thinking of his Pa out there tracking him, worrying… Eventually, Mark gave into the fatigue and stopped struggling against his restraints and fell asleep.

*****

The small posse from North Fork rode on even as the tracks were getting harder to follow as they encountered the hard pan. Lucas was ever so diligent in looking for any sign that Mark might have left.

They finally made camp for a second night. Toomey set out to picket the horses with the help from Oat Jackford. Lucas, Micah, and Tom talked while setting up the campfire.

“Micah, what I don’t understand is why do they still have the boys? Why haven’t they turned them loose? If it were a matter of just taking hostages to get clear of town, they should have let the boys go first night.”

Lucas was growing frustrated, having to go so slow to make sure they kept on the trail and didn’t miss any signs. He was also growing despondent with worry; worry can wear down a body already depleted by physical exertion and lack of sleep. Both marshals knew the signs and watched their friend’s internal battle; what he wanted to do versus what his body needed.

“LucasBoy, why don’t you lie down and get some sleep. You’re worn out and won’t be any good to Mark when we catch up with those thieves if you don’t sleep.” Micah hadn’t answered Lucas’ questions, because for now, there were no answers.

“Lucas,” Benton spoke. “Micah’s right. You get some sleep and we’ll all be ready to ride in the morning, at first light. No one slept well last night with you pacing about. Either you lie down and rest or I’ll tie you down.”

Soon, Toomey announced that coffee, beans and biscuits were ready for eating.

*****

The next morning both boys awakened and saw that the outlaws were already up for the morning. Porter and Walker were sitting by the fire drinking their coffee and eating their breakfast. Collie and Rowdie were tending to the horses.

Birch walked over to the boys. “Good morning boys. How’d you sleep last night?”

Neither boy answered.

“Now Mark, that’s not very polite. Seeing as how your Pa and I are such good friends,” Tom Birch stated.

“I don’t think my Pa would consider you a friend anymore,” Mark tartly replied.

“You know,” Birch stated as he leaned down and sat back on his heels. “Collie just might have stumbled into a better plan for us by bringing you two boys here. We can use you against the law of any town we plan to rob. Two innocent boys held hostage by the Birch Gang. What lawman would risk injuring you? I’m sure by now that word’s gone out to all the nearby towns to be on the lookout for you. Yes sir, you’ll fit perfectly into my plan.”

“You better just let us go, Birch. You know my Pa, he won’t rest until you’re dead if you harm either of us.”

“Either of you? You think Lucas McCain would consider him special enough to risk going up against me?” Birch asked, nodding his head towards Jacob.

“Doesn’t matter, me or Jacob, my Pa will hunt you down. He’ll put you back in prison where you belong!”

“Belong? Why Mark, they let me out of prison. Said I’d served my time, got time off for good behavior. I was a model prisoner.” Birch’s voice teased with laughter.

Birch stood up, quite tired of dealing with the impertinent Mark. “Walker, get these boys some food so we can break camp. We’re heading out in thirty minutes; can’t take a chance that McCain won’t be able to track us through that hard pan.”

“I said there ain’t no posse,” Collie called out as he threw the remnants of his coffee to the ground.

“Posse or McCain alone, I want us moving in thirty minutes!”

Walker brought two plates bearing food over to the boys and untied their hands. As Mark rubbed at his raw wrists, Walker quietly spoke, “Don’t push him boy. Don’t know what he’s got in for your Pa, but if you know what’s good for you.” After looking over his shoulder and seeing the look Collie gave him, he stood up and walked away.

*****

The Birch gang broke camp and rode. The first town they came to was Hazelton. They stopped in a thicket of trees next to a creek a mile or so from town.

Birch started giving orders, “Porter, you and Walker stay here with the kids. Collie, Rowdie and I will ride into town. We’ll be back by nightfall.”

As the three left for town, the other two men motioned for Jacob and Mark to step down from their horses and unsaddle them. “Get them picketed!” Porter yelled. “Then take care of our horses.”

Mark went about unsaddling Blue Boy, ignoring his own wrist after noticing the trouble Jacob was having in trying to unsaddle the horse. He called over, “Lift the stirrup up and hook it over the saddle horn. Unwrap the leather on the cinch, then pull the saddle off. Be careful, it’s heavy.”

Mark could see that Jacob was having difficulties in just walking as they carried their gear to a nearby fallen tree. Jacob’s legs felt like they were on fire and his seat bones were rubbed raw.

“Jacob, just keep walking around. I know it hurts, but keep moving, that will help loosen your muscles. I’ll take care of the other two horses, just stay off to the side while I tie up Blue Boy and that roan.”

“Mark,” Jacob quietly talked. “I’m scared. What do you think they’ll do with us?”

“I don’t know. Just don’t think about it and do as they say.” Mark replied as he worked on taking care of the horses.

Jacob continued to step around; hoping that Mark would be right and the pain would go away. ‘How mean and cruel to put someone who’s never ridden before, in the saddle for this length of time.’

Porter yelled over, “Go get some firewood. We’re going to spend the night here. Don’t try nothing boys, I wouldn’t think twice about pluggin’ ya.”

Mark and Jacob did as they were told and soon they had a small fire blazing. Porter and Walker sat next to the fire, Mark and Jacob over by the saddles. Night had settled by the time Birch and the others returned.

Collie hollered for the boys to take care of the horses. After several hours of sitting, Mark could see that Jacob was having even more difficulties than before.

“Jacob, just hold the horses, I’ll take care of unsaddling them. Just try to keep stepping in place.” There was genuine concern in Mark’s voice for his friend.

“Boys, this is going to be our lucky day. The news is all over the place about those kids,” Mark heard Birch saying.

“What do you mean?” Porter barked back.

“No one knows who took ‘em. Well, why not send the law on a wild goose chase. Distract them from our real goal. We’ve got a few more days before our big payday. Collie, Rowdie and I will take one of the boys into town with us while we rob the bank. There’s so much talk in town, that just seeing the boy will prevent the law from coming after us.”

“So, which one do you take?” Walker asked.

“Keep the McCain kid here, I have other plans for him,” Birch declared.

As with the previous nights, Mark’s and Jacob’s hands were tied behind their backs before the men returned to the camp fire to sleep. The boys did their best to find a comfortable position to sleep, huddled next to each other hoping to keep warm during the cool desert night.

*****

Morning dawned; Mark woke first to see Walker kneeling over Jacob. As he looked again, he saw that Walker was untying the ropes that bound Jacob. Jacob slowly sat up, rubbing his wrists. Walker then turned to Mark, “Well Mark, maybe you was wrong about your Pa. Surprised he hasn’t caught up with us. Maybe he ain’t the great tracker I heard he was,” and then he untied Mark.

“He’s out there, just you wait and see.” Mark tried to sound mean and slightly yelped when Walker pulled the rope away.

Pulling Mark’s arm forward, Walker looked the boy in the eye. “You best take it easy in trying to get out of those ropes,” Walker stated. “Don’t need the skin around your wrists to become infected.”

After the boys ate, Walker hauled Jacob and Mark to their feet as Birch called over, “Saddle them horses and be quick about it”. Walker shoved the boys forward and watched them walk away, one limping painfully.

As Mark saddled the horses his thoughts drifted to the half-breed, Walker. One moment he sounded so concerned for their well being and the next, he was just plain mean.

As much as Jacob was hurting from so much time in the saddle, Mark knew that keeping Jacob moving was the key to getting over being sore, but making Jacob also do the physical labor of saddling wouldn’t help, so he told Jacob just to hold the horses. Once the horses were saddled, both boys stood off to the side and waited.

Birch went over to kick Rowdie awake, only to realize that he was too drunk to ride. ‘Must of hid a bottle.’ “Walker, change of plans, you ride!”

Birch motioned for Jacob to mount up, as he, Collie, and Walker climbed into their saddles.

*****

As they entered Hazelton, Birch stopped at an alleyway, “I’ll cover you from here.” Looking Jacob in the eye, “Boy if you so much as sneeze a warning, I’ll plug you out of the saddle. You just sit outside and hold the horses until these two come out of the bank.”

****

Birch stayed on his horse, pulled his handgun from his holster, and waited. Collie, Walker and Jacob rode on to the bank. Collie and Walker stepped down from their horses and tossed their reins to Jacob. Walker hesitated next to Jacob, motioned for the boy to bend down, said something in his ear. Then they casually walked into the bank.

A few minutes later they were running from the bank, jumping on their horses and grabbing the reins from the boy, as they wheeled their horses into a gallop. Gun fire erupted as the townsmen came out from the bank firing their guns at the robbers. As Birch rode out from the alley, his horse collided with the horse Jacob was riding. Jacob’s horse veered to behind Collie’s horse and was struck by a bullet meant for the outlaw’s horse. The horse collapsed with Jacob trying desperately to hold on to the saddle horn. Jacob was slammed into the ground with the horse pinning him down. Without a backward glance, Birch, Collie, and Walker rode on.

The men from Hazelton ran to the fallen rider, lying motionless.

“It’s just a boy!” called one of the men. Several men worked to pull the boy’s leg out from under the dead horse as the sheriff arrived.

Looking the boy over, questioning himself if this was a ‘boy outlaw’ or one of the boys from North Fork.

“Someone go get Doc!” the sheriff ordered.

After the child had been carried to the boardwalk, the sheriff stayed behind to examine the scene. As he walked around the fallen horse, he realized the cinch had been cut. Looking at the evidence the sheriff thought, ‘So regardless, the boy wasn’t going to get away.’

Someone else was yelling, “Hey they’re getting away! Let’s go after them!”

“NO!” the sheriff yelled, daring anyone to challenge him. “If this is one of the boys from North Fork, then the other one is in even greater danger. We’ll wait until the boy wakes up, find out who he is then, AND ONLY THEN will we go after them.”

After the doctor quickly examined the fallen boy, he motioned for one man to gently lift Jacob into his arms and carry him to the doctor’s office.

*****

The three outlaws returned to the riverbank, quite pleased that there was no posse on their trail.

Birch yelled for Mark to grab the horses and take care of them.

“Where’s Jacob?” Mark asked as he realized Jacob was not with the riders.

Rowdie walked over to Birch and asked, “Shouldn’t we saddle up. I’m sure that posse will be after you.”

“You lousy drunk!” Birch voice with disgust. “Do you see any posse after us? No? Why not? Because by now they realize who that boy is. Stupid fools, shot the boy as we were riding out. Do you think they’re going to risk the life of that one by giving chase?”

Fear froze Mark. ‘The men of Hazelton had killed Jacob?! What does that mean for me when Birch takes me along for the next job?’

*****

Doc Hastings stepped into the front of his office after a more thorough examination of Jacob.

“Well Doc?” the sheriff asked.

“The boy’s gotten a broken arm and ankle, probably a concussion. I need to set the breaks, but I thought you might want to see this,” as he handed a folded piece of paper to the sheriff. “Found it in the boy’s shirt pocket. Mighty interesting reading.”

The sheriff opened the piece of paper and read:

T. Benton, U.S. Marshal,

Tom Birch – job – NF boy
Payday is as feared

Walker

‘T. Benton, Tom Birch, Payday, Walker? What the hell’s going on?’ Sheriff Peyton thought as he turned to the doc, “Doc, we keep this note to ourselves. Have no idea what this note’s about, but maybe, if this boy is one of the boys from North Fork, then it might be, the other boy has a silent protector out there.”

The sheriff folded the note and placed it inside his vest pocket. He walked outside and sat down on the bench in front of the doctor’s office, mulling over the events of the day; fretting that he should be out there tracking those outlaws, but not wanting to risk the life of an innocent boy.

*****

Time seemed to stretch forever as the posse from North Fork entered the town of Hazelton well after sundown. As they passed the saloon, they heard the usual shouting and piano music. They saw a few people enter and leave the hotel. The riders stopped in front of the sheriff’s office. Toomey and Jackford stayed with the horses while Micah, Lucas, and Tom entered the office.

Upon entering, they saw a man sitting behind the desk, his head down on his forearms.

“Excuse me, we’re looking for the sheriff,” Micah stated.

The man, startled from his sleep, sat up, wide-eyed awake; on his shirt hung a deputy sheriff badge.

“Yes sir, yes sir. You looking for Sheriff Peyton? I’ll go get him, be back.”

They watched as the young deputy ran from the office. He ran down the street, to the doctor’s office. Soon he was back out on the street, talking to a man, and pointing in the direction of the sheriff’s office. The other man, with a star on his vest, nodded his head and walked up the street.

Returning to his office, the Sheriff stated, “I’m Sheriff Peyton and my deputy says I’ve two marshal’s looking for me?”

“I’m Marshal Micah Torrance, that there’s U.S. Marshal Tom Benton, and this here is Lucas McCain. We’re from North Fork. Been tracking three outlaws who robbed our bank and took two of our children.”

“Well, I think I can tell you that you’re on the right track. Our bank was hit this morning. Two outlaws entered the bank, a third waited in an alley. They did have one boy with them. Unfortunately, one of our town folks shot his horse out from under him as they were riding out of town. Got pretty banged up. We didn’t realize it was a boy until we got to him.”

“One Boy?” Lucas said. ‘Which one? What happened to the second boy?’ fear gripped Lucas’ core. “Where’s the doctor’s office?”

“I’m not taking you anywhere right yet, Mr. McCain. Pretty sure that this boy was one of your boys. But before I take you to see him, maybe one of you can answer this here note. It’s addressed to T. Benton. Care to explain?” He pulled the folded note from his pocket and handed it to Benton.

Tom read the note and his only comment was, “Damn.” Tom handed the note to Micah. Micah read the note and handed it to Lucas.

“Tom? Micah?” Lucas asked, seeing both his friends in deep thought and he himself was trying to understand the cryptic note.

Tom walked over to the door, told Jackford and Toomey to head to the hotel, they were staying put for the night. Then he closed the door and slowly turned to face Lucas, Micah, and the sheriff.

“I don’t rightly know exactly where to begin,” Tom stated.

“At the beginning would be a good point,” Lucas stated, no sense of humor was implied.

“Okay. I wasn’t just passing through North Fork, I am sort of, but… I’m on assignment with Coltrane Walker, he’s the marshal that I’m supposed to meet up with. We heard rumors that there might be an attempt on a special stage run, carrying one hundred thousand dollars, headed to San Diego. Rumors started just a few weeks after Tom Birch got out of prison.”

“Tom Birch out of prison!” Lucas exploded.

“Now hear me out Lucas. Birch was released early, by the prison committee, for good behavior. We assigned Walker to infiltrate Birch’s gang once we heard the rumors. This note being from Coltrane, he at least can help keep an eye on Mark.”

“Like he kept an eye on Jacob?!” Lucas yelled as he slammed his fist into the doorjam to the jail cells. “Tom, how could you have kept this from me?”

“Lucas, I didn’t know the two cases were related until I saw that note. You folks were talking Collie McBride…”

“Collie McBride?” Sheriff Peyton inquired. “That name sounds familiar.” He searched his stack of wanted posters and pulled out one for McBride. “Wanted Dead or Alive, well at least we know who hit our bank and some of banks in the surrounding towns. Tom Birch, what’s he doing teaming up with a low-life like McBride?”

Benton went on to say, “I think it’s the other way around. Birch is famous for big jobs. McBride is pulling small jobs to distract us from their real goal.”

“Real goal?” Lucas asked with his brow raised.

“That large shipment of money is coming through this territory in the next few days. Specifically through Hazelton.” Turning to look his friend in the eye. “We have to play this even smarter than ever before.”

There was turmoil in Lucas’ eyes as he turned to the Sheriff and asked, “Can we go see the boy. If it’s Jacob, we’ll need to send word to his family that he’s safe.”

“And if it’s Mark?” Benton asked.

“It’s not. Trust me… I’m sure Tom has other plans for Mark. If he is after that shipment, he wouldn’t risk Mark on a fool-hardy bank robbery.”

The four somberly walked out the sheriff’s office and over to the doctor’s. They entered the office and Sheriff Peyton led them to a second floor room. As the door was opened, Lucas could see it was dimly illuminated by a lantern on the wall. He walked over to the boy lying in bed; his breath caught when he saw the bruises and scrapes on the child’s face. Saw the casts on his arm and leg. Saw that it was indeed Jacob Preston.

Doc Hastings entered the room behind them. “He’s sleeping peacefully right now. Is he your boy?”

“No, but I know him and his family. When can we send him home?” Lucas asked.

“I could release him tomorrow. However, you need to take it slow getting back. I recommend by buckboard or wagon.”

“We’ll take care of it,” Micah answered.

They left the building and returned to the sheriff’s office. As much as he was relieved that the boy wasn’t Mark, he dreaded the fact that Tom Birch had his son.

Upon their arrival back at the sheriff’s office, the sheriff walked them through exactly what had happened earlier in the day. Including him finding the cinch to the boy’s saddle had been cut, ending with finding the note.

“Who would have cut the cinch?” Micah asked.

“Don’t know, but it was definitely cut, it wasn’t worn out,” Sheriff Peyton answered.

“So what do we do now?” asked Lucas as he sat down on the edge of the desk, trying to comprehend everything that had unfolded in front of him.

“Right now, I say we go to the hotel and get a good night’s sleep. In the morning, we’ll make it look like we’re taking up the trail again. Let them think their plan is working, that we don’t know the real reason they’re here. Let’s get some shut eye,” Benton suggested.

*****

Micah and Lucas walked to the hotel and up to their rooms. Tom stopped first at the telegraph office.

Before entering his own room, Tom knocked on the door to Lucas room and announced, “Lucas, it’s Tom.”

“Come in.”

As Tom entered, he could see the pain in Lucas’ eyes, the heaviness in his body.

“Lucas, I sent a wire, I’m going to re-route that stage and have them send a decoy our way. I can’t risk the stage run coming through here, now that it’s confirmed that Tom Birch is after it.”

Lucas rose to his feet and started pacing again, “And just what happens to Mark when Birch realizes the stage doesn’t have the money. I don’t trust Birch not to hurt Mark, just because he’s my son and he and I were once friends. I’m not going to have you put Mark in any more danger!” Lucas’ voice raised in a display of anger.

“The order has already been given regarding the stage. I’m sorry. Give me tonight to come up with a plan to get Mark back. I promise you Lucas, we’ll get him back.”

A slightly defeated Lucas sat back down in the chair, “I just don’t understand. Why is he keeping Mark? He loved Margaret at one time… How could he do this to her son?”

“Lucas, Mark is as much Margaret’s son as he is yours, and Birch holds you responsible for him going to prison. Him holding Mark is his trump card, his ace in the hole. Listen, I know Walker. He took a huge risk to get that note to me.” Benton continued to plead on behalf of Walker.

“Thanks Tom, you’d better turn in if we’re heading out early tomorrow.”

Lucas continued to sit in the chair and look out the window towards the hills; praying that God and Walker would watch over his boy.

*****

Jacob struggled to open his eyes in the morning; he heard voices encouraging him to wake up. As his eyes came into focus, he saw Lucas McCain sitting next to him on the edge of the bed with Marshal Torrance and another man standing just inside in the doorway.

“Morning Jacob. Don’t need to ask how you’re feeling. You got pretty banged up yesterday. We’re getting ready to head out to look for Mark. Before we do, can you answer a few questions for us?”

Jacob nodded his head and said, “Mr. McCain, I’ll try.” His voice was weary and scratchy.

“Before you begin,” stated Doc Hastings as he entered the room. “Let him drink this.”

The doctor handed a glass of water to Lucas. Lucas took the glass in his left hand, and with his right hand, he raised Jacob’s head from the pillows, holding the glass for the boy to drink.

At this point, Micah took over the conversation, “Do you know who took you?”

“Uh huh, the man who grabbed me in the bank was Collie McBride. The one who grabbed Mark, they called him Rowdie, don’t know if that’s his first or last name.”

“What about the third man from the bank?” Micah queried.

“He’s a half-breed, named Coltrane Walker.” Tears began streaming down Jacob’s face as he continued, “They made us ride all the time, it hurt to be in the saddle so long. Don’t know if I want to be a cowboy anymore.” Pain from his physical injuries were expressed in Jacob’s eyes, it could be heard in his voice as he lowered it to barely a whisper.

Lucas was surprised to hear that Tom Birch wasn’t involved in the hold up in North Fork, he looked at Micah.

“Jacob, did you meet up with anyone else?” Lucas asked.

“Yea, we met up with two other men, one called Porter, and then the boss. Mark said you know him,” Jacob spoke as he looked to Lucas. “Tom Birch… He was mean. That first night when we met up with him, when he realized it was Mark that the men had grabbed, he hauled him to his feet and then threw him to the ground.” Jacob continued quietly, “Because I hurt so much, Mark did most of the work the men told us to do. He looked so tired the last time I saw him.”

Lucas patted Jacob’s shoulder and told him to take it easy; he’d soon be back home with his ma and pa.

Before they could leave the room, Jacob spoke up again, “Mr. McCain?”

“Yes Jacob.”

“The half-breed, the one they called Walker…” Jacob hesitated trying to remember exactly what he wanted to tell them. “When we got to the bank, he apologized to me and then he put something in my pocket. Said it was important…” Jacob reached to his pocket, he hadn’t realized he was no longer wearing his own clothes, but a night shirt, “Guess I must of lost it when I fell.” There was disappointment on Jacob’s face.

“Jacob, the doctor found the note,” Benton told the boy.

“What was he apologizing for?” Jacob asked as he looked to the U.S. Marshal.

“I think it was Walker who cut the cinch on your saddle. He was apologizing in advance for any hurt it might cause you,” Benton answered.

“Why’d he cut the cinch?”

“To get you away from the outlaws and make sure that note got to me. See Walker’s a U.S. Marshal, not an outlaw,” Benton said as he turned to leave the room.

“But what about Mark?” Tears were freely flowing from Jacob’s eyes as he spoke those words. The words hung unanswered in the air as everyone looked towards Lucas before diverting their eyes.

*****

The following morning, the posse from North Fork joined forces with a posse from Hazelton, less two riders. Toomey and Jackford were making arrangements to take Jacob back to North Fork and his family.

*****

Sheriff Peyton had assembled a small group of deputies at the jail in the morning.

“So, how do we proceed? How do we track them?” the sheriff asked, looking to the marshals.

“Right now I’d say they probably headed back to the hills or hiding in the woods, waiting for the right time.” Benton replied. “More importantly, waiting for us to leave town and then for the stage to arrive.”

“We need to head out towards the hills and look for Mark’s horse’s tracks, two normal and two bar shoes in the back. My boy’s horse started a heel crack and our blacksmith set special shoes for him until it grew out.”

The posse headed out. Before noon, they found the spot they were looking for; obvious signs of a recent camp fire and indentation of men sleeping in bedrolls. As they continued to search the area, they found an area of trampled grass where horses had been picketed, including Blue Boy’s hoof prints, and then Lucas saw etched in the dirt nearby -- MMc. “Mark!”

*****

The morning after robbing the Hazelton bank, the outlaws relocated their camp a distance from the outskirts of town, opposite from where they originally were staying. Walker kept his horse near Mark, seeing the boy unsteady and practically asleep in the saddle. Soon he hollered for the others to hold up, “Let’s take a rest, the boy needs it.”

“What’s wrong with him?” Birch yelled as he turned his horse around to see Mark hanging his head, Walker reaching a hand to the boy’s shoulder to keep him in the saddle.

Birch dismounted and ran back to Mark, just as he slipped from the saddle. Neither man could catch the boy before he fell to the ground.

“What happened?” Birch asked as Walker carried Mark over to a small stream and laid him down next to it.

“You been pushing us all hard, he’s just a kid. He ain’t been eating much, just a little bit of jerkey and water. What do you expect?” Walker replied as he led the horses to the stream and dropped the reins, allowing them to drink.

“I told you to feed him,” Birch barked.

“You can lead a horse to water…” Walker retorted.

Walker strode back to where Birch was standing over Mark and knelt down. He saw a change in Birch’s demeanor. Birch was scared, scared for the boy.

Still in the saddle Collie yelled, “Birch, you going soft on us?”

“No!” Birch removed his bandana, dipped it in the water and ran it over Mark’s forehead and face.

Birch returned his attention to Mark as he began moaning and started to open his eyes. At first his eyes were seeing far off in the distance, then Mark’s eyes focused on Birch and were wide with fear. He tried scrambling away from the two men, only to have Birch put a restraining arm on Mark.

“Easy there boy. We’re going to rest here for a spell. Don’t need you falling out of the saddle again,” Walker spoke.

“Mark, when was the last time you ate?” Birch insisted as he offered Mark a canteen of water.

“Ain’t hungry.”

“That’s not what I asked.” Seeing he wasn’t going to get anywhere, Birch insisted, “Then at least you’ll drink,” as he held out a canteen.

Mark pushed the canteen away. But Birch demanded.

Mark took a few sips and pushed the canteen away again. His stomach began flip flopping from lack of food, and nerves. He immediately turned over and started dry heaving. He hadn’t eaten much of anything since that second day, and nothing since Jacob hadn’t come back.

“Birch, this ain’t good.” Mark felt the gentleness in Walker’s hands as he supported the boy. He heard concern in the man’s voice. The outlaw, he cared more than Birch and Birch knew both his parents. Mark’s thoughts were lost as he continued to heave.

“What do you want me to do?” Birch demanded and stormed away.

Collie tried to get Birch back to the job at hand, “We’re supposed to hit that stage tonight. Don’t go soft on us!”

Birch stopped and watched as Walker half-carried Mark to sit down under a shade tree and walked back to his saddle bags, pulling something out, then returning to Mark and telling him, “Eat it.”

Walker returned to the group as they were talking among themselves, planning out what they thought would be a brazen raid.

After eating a little bit of the dried bread sopped in water, Mark knew he needed to get away. But, what would they do to him if he did get away and they caught him? If he didn’t try, how would they use him in their next robbery? His mind drifted from one thought to another, not quite putting coherent thoughts completely together. He just knew he had to escape. Yet, all he could do was curl himself into a fetal position on his side and fall asleep. As he listened to the murmur of the outlaws’ voices, he remembered his Pa saying to him from so long ago, ‘If ever you’re taken from me, just do as they say, wait for me, I’ll be there to rescue you. I promise.’

Holding his throbbing left wrist and wrapping his arms across his middle, Mark quietly cried, “Oh Pa,” as his eyes closed.

*****

It was late in the evening when the men cinched up their horses, one hundred thousand dollars was a lot of money and each one was eager to score that kind of cash.

As the others were breaking camp, Walker went to wake Mark; motioned for him to follow. As they went to the horses Walker quietly started speaking, “Mark, I need you to listen good. I’ll protect you as best I can, but….” Then Birch was hollering for them get in the saddle.

*****

The outlaws arrived to find the town quiet, peaceful, asleep; oblivious to what was about to happen.

Birch and Walker took positions in two different alleys that afforded them vantage points over the livery and sheriff’s office. Birch insisted that Mark ride with him by grabbing the reins to BlueBoy’s bridle.

Porter, Rowdie, and Collie headed for the livery, the only place large enough to hide a stage over night. Quietly they opened the doors and crept inside. All had their guns drawn and carried extra saddle bags. Collie picked up an ax that was hanging on the wall, before he climbed aboard the stage. Collie made two swings at the padlock on the strong box, before it broke. Collie opened the lid as Porter and Rowdie climbed up.

“Empty! The box is empty!” Collie yelled.

From out of the darkness a deep voice boomed, “Drop those guns boys, you’re under arrest!”

Gun fire swiftly erupted within the confines of the livery. By the time it was over, two outlaws lay dead on the ground and the third hung dead over the side of the coach, and three law men walked from the shadows, unscathed. The Hazelton lawmen had returned to town under the cover of darkness.

*****

From his hiding spot, Lucas watched six riders venture into town, three separating off, three proceeding on. Two ventured to an alley the opposite side of the street from him. One appeared to be about Mark’s size. ‘Mark!’ Lucas heart leapt.

Lucas quietly crept through the darkness following the single figure that had chosen to walk on the same side of the street, watching as he finally stopped with his rifle at the ready. Lucas waited. He was close enough to smell the sweat and cigar smoke that clung to the man’s clothes as it wafted in the evening air.

“Turn around slowly and drop that rifle!” Lucas demanded as he cocked his rifle, quite audible in the quiet of the night. The figure dropped the rifle, put his hands up, and slowly turned around.

The unmistakable sound of gun fire coming from the livery momentarily distracted Lucas. The man in front of him pushed the barrel of the rifle away as he threw a blow, striking Lucas in the jaw, knocking him backwards. The man knelt and picked up his rifle and ran out into the street.

Startled by the force of the blow, Lucas shook his head and was shortly on the outlaw’s heels; rifle at the ready. From the shadows of the alley on the opposite side of the street, a flash from the muzzle of a gun briefly illuminated the shooter’s location. Lucas felt fire tear along his side as the man in front of him raised his rifle in order to return fire.

“No!” Lucas yelled and pushed the man aside.

“Damn you!” Walker yelled as he fought to regain his balance.

The two men stood facing each other, their eyes daring the other man to move first.

“To hell with you!” Walker called as he turned to run to the alley, followed one step behind by Lucas McCain.

The two men arrived to find the alley vacant. The sounds of horses running faded as the riders raced away and shouts of town folks running into the streets, demanding to know what had happened to disturb their sleep.

Micah, Tom Benton, and Sheriff Peyton ran from the livery towards the direction of two figures standing in front of the alley. Micah and Benton saw the pained look on Lucas’ face as he turned around at their approach, then Micah noticed the blood seeping between Lucas’ fingers as he held his hand to his left side.

“LucasBoy, you’ve been hit!” Micah declared.

“I’m alright Micah, just a scratch.” Pointing his rifle towards the half-breed, Lucas continued, “You’re under arrest for bank robbery, kidnapping and anything else I can get the law to nail to your sorry hide. If Birch harms one hair on my son’s head, I’ll kill you too.”

“Lucas!” Benton exclaimed. “He ain’t an outlaw! He’s a lawman!”

“Birch isn’t getting away from me. This time, I’ll kill him!” Lucas ran to his horse, before he mounted he grabbed a shirt from his saddle bag and stuffed it inside his shirt, hoping it would stop the blood. Blocking out the pain from his side, Lucas climbed into the saddle, turned Razor and raced from Hazelton.

Benton and Walker ran to their horses and followed Lucas out on Birch’s trail. Micah and Sheriff Peyton stayed behind to take care of the three dead outlaws.

*****

Without a word between them, the three rode as fast as they could with only a partial moon out. The sky was just starting to turn pink indicating that the sun would soon crest the horizon when Walker, and the tracks, led them to the stream where the Birch gang had stopped earlier.

The sun lit more of the landscape as it rose; Lucas was the first to find the fresh tracks leading away towards the canyons. “Benton, over here, we’ve got tracks to follow.”

“They could be a diversion,” Walker stated.

“You’d say anything to keep me from going after your boss,” spat Lucas.

Grabbing McCain by the arm, Walker forced him around, “Like Benton said back in town, I ain’t an outlaw. I’m a duly deputized United Stated Marshal. I was undercover!”

“Right, robbing banks is part of your job description, in addition to kidnapping and trying break a child’s neck,” Lucas continued in anger as he jerked his arm from the man’s grasp.

“McCain, I had to act quick to get the boy away from Birch. Had it been your boy, I’d of done the same thing. Listen, either you work with me and we get to your boy quicker or you fight me and we risk letting Birch escape and God knows what he’ll do with your boy. It’s your choice.”

Standing next to the distraught father, Benton stated, “Lucas he’s telling the truth. Walker’s our best chance to getting Birch… and Mark.”

*****

The sun’s position in the sky indicated it was late in the afternoon when they stopped to more closely inspect the tracks they were following. The group heard rocks falling from above when a single rifle shot rang out, ricocheting off a rock near Walker. The men drew their weapons and aimed up the canyon wall.

“Lucas back off! I got your boy up here with me!” Birch yelled down from above. “Any one of your shots could ricochet and strike the boy. Won’t be on my conscious!”

“Birch, you better let him go! You hurt him in any way and I’ll kill you!” Lucas yelled.

“Lucas, for old times, just let me ride out of here. I’ll let Mark go once I know you’re not trailing me. I’ll head to Mexico. You’ll never see me again!”

“Tom, I can’t! You’re wanted by the law!” Lucas yelled in return.

Birch continued to push Mark forward. They were leading their horses through the tricky incline, raining rocks down on their pursuers, who scrambled to get away from the rock fall.

Once they reached the top, Birch motioned for Mark to get back in the saddle, but before he mounted his own horse he sent a cascade of rocks raining down on the small posse.

*****

Lucas and company lost precious time as they waited for the rock fall to stop after seeing Birch and Mark safely reach the top. They followed, carefully picking their way up the incline over precariously perched rocks and weakened footing along the narrow path. Once at the top, they remounted their horses and followed the trail.

The trail they followed led in and out of canyons, each time one canyon broke off into a side canyon they were forced to stop, trying to discern in the hard pan any hoof prints. Several times guessing wrong and finding themselves at a dead end, forced to back track their own trail.

Lucas grew more angered as Birch continued to hold his son hostage.

“I swear I’ll kill him,” Lucas stated as they stopped to give their horses a breather.

“Lucas, you have to stay within the law,” Benton answered. “Don’t go throwing your life away over a low life like Birch.”

“It’s not your son he’s holding hostage!”

“No… no he’s not,” Benton answered at a loss for words.

“For now, we’ll keep to his trail and pray he let’s Mark go before he hits Mexico,” Walker stated. “Once your boy is safe…”

“Safe! He’s had plenty of time to turn Mark loose!”

Both lawmen looked at each other, trying to come up with a way to keep Lucas from killing a man in cold blood.

*****

The sun had finally set when they came out of the last canyon into the flat lands. In the far distance, they spotted what appeared to be a camp fire.

“He couldn’t be that bold,” Walker stated. “He’d have to know we’d see it.”

The three rode towards the fire. They dismounted a good distance from the campsite, creeping quietly, they approached weapons at the ready. The fire was starting to die out, allowing the darkness to envelop the camp when they decided to make their move. In the fading light, they had seen what appeared to be two figures under bedrolls. Walker crawled to the nearest and pulled the blanket away only to find scrub bushes revealed, giving the indication of a body lying underneath the blanket.

Lucas ran to the other bed roll; fear welled in Lucas as he reached the bedroll, ‘Was this a trap? Was this a diversion?’ He pulled the blanket away to see Mark lying there; bound and gagged.

“Benton, in here. I’ve got Mark!” Lucas pulled his son into his arms. Thankful his boy was safe. A startled surprise appeared on Mark’s face as he accepted his Pa’s strong embrace.

Benton was at Lucas’ side, knife out, cutting the ropes that bound Mark’s hands and feet. Lucas was untying the gag that was tied through Mark’s mouth.

After a few minutes of just holding his son, Lucas eased his grip and asked, “Son, are you okay? Did he hurt you?”

“I’m fine Pa. Just tired.” His mind then turned to Jacob. “Pa, Jacob… they said he was killed.” Tears started down Mark’s face when he remembered his dead friend.

Lucas answered that Jacob was going to be alright and was, by now, close to being back in North Fork. Lucas was doing his best to calm his son down.

Mark’s eyes widened in fear when over his father’s shoulder, he saw Coltrane Walker bring in wood to stoke the fire.

“PA! He’s one of the outlaws!” Mark pointed. “He was with the others when they robbed the bank in North Fork… and took Jacob and me!”

A hearty laugh emanated from Tom Benton, “Mark, I’d like you to meet Special U.S. Marshal Coltrane Walker. He was undercover, infiltrating Birch’s gang.”

“He… He’s a marshal?” a perplexed look appeared on Mark’s face as the fire roared back to life. He looked back and forth between the two lawmen, his eyes finally stopping on his Pa’s smiling face, nodding in agreement.

Walker strode over to Mark and extended his hand. “Please to meet you ‘official-like’ Mark. Sorry, I couldn’t tell you sooner.” His voice held regret over his deception to the child. “I did my best to keep you and Jacob safe, when I could.”

After shaking hands, Mark averted his eyes from Walker, and in doing so noticed the blood on his father’s shirt. “PA! You’re bleeding!”

“It’s nothing son, Birch nicked me back in Hazelton.”

Mark tried to get out of his father’s embrace, but Lucas would not let him go.

“Pa, you need to get your side looked at.” Hearing the tone in Mark’s voice, Benton walked over and pulled Lucas away from Mark, ripped open Lucas’ shirt and pulled out the shirt he had stuffed inside, to see the real extent of his injury.

“Lucas, you trying to kill yourself? Nick my a…,” biting his tongue in the presence of Lucas’ boy. “This is a might bit more than a nick.” Turning to Walker, “Go get the horses, we’re making camp here for the night.”

Walker turned and left the camp, only to return a short time later with three horses in tow. “Mark, where’s your horse or did Birch take it.”

“BlueBoy’s over in the thicket over there, hobbled. Birch said he knew my Pa would find me, and…”

Benton removed his saddle bag and walked to Lucas. Mark took the bandages and wrappings that Benton offered. He spent the better part of ten minutes cleaning the blood from around the deep crease, positioning the bandage, and then wrapping his Pa’s midsection. All the while, pleading for his Pa to sit still; Lucas complaining all the time that his son’s ministrations weren’t necessary.

“Pa, either you sit still or I’ll have Marshall Benton hog-tie you.”

Lucas finally sat still and let Mark finish. As his boy worked on him, Lucas saw dark circles under his son’s eyes and noticed that Mark seemed even slighter of frame than usual, gauntness outlined his face.

“Thanks Marshal Benton,” Mark spoke as he handed the unused medical supplies back to the marshal.

“Mark! Your wrists!” Lucas exclaimed as he reached for his son’s raised left hand.

“Ow!” Mark yelped as his father took hold of his wrist.

“What happened?” Lucas asked.

Benton and Walker approached the father and son.

“Mark, you did more than rub your wrists raw from the looks of this one,” Walker stated. “Mr. McCain, if I may?”

Still wary of the man because he’d ridden with the outlaws who had kidnapped his son, Lucas only allowed the man to examine Mark’s wrists after Tom Benton insisted.

“Tom, bring me a canteen and I’ll clean out the boy’s wrists, and bring me those bandages the boy didn’t use on Lucas.”

Mark grimaced as the water stung his wrists, not wanting to look at his pa, he kept his eyes focused on Coltrane Walker’s ministrations.

After gently applying wrappings to the boy’s raw wrists, Walker stated, “The good news is your left wrist isn’t broken, hopefully its just sprained. How long’s it been painin’ you? Since you fell off your horse?”

“Fell off his horse?!” an appalled Lucas demanded.

“No sir, that first night at Birch’s camp… when he picked me up and threw me back to the ground,” Mark answered, averting his eyes from the lawmen surrounding him.

“You sit there and rest,” Walker stated as he stood and walked away from the father and son; ignoring Lucas’ muttering of “I’ll kill him.”

*****

For the group, Walker had warmed up some provisions he’d carried in his saddle bags and served Mark a larger portion than he gave the three men. “Boy you eat all that food. You need it.”

“I’m not that hungry Marshal Walker.”

“You may not be that hungry boy, but you need to get your strength back. I worried about you.” Walker sat down Indian-style a few feet away and ate from his own plate. He pointed towards Mark and ordered, “Eat!”

Lucas watched, understanding now, why Mark looked so tire and gaunt. He knew how Mark could be and remembered the times in the past, when Mark was too scared or worried, that he couldn’t bring himself to eat.

Walker saw to it that Mark ate all the food that was given to him.

As the two lawmen checked the horses, Mark and his Pa continued to talk with each other for quite a while.

*****

“Tom, you need to keep a tight rein on McCain. Even though we got his boy back, he’s still looking for blood,” Walker quietly stated.

“I know. I’m hoping in the morning, that he’ll be more inclined to forget about Birch.”

“You really think he will?” Walker asked.

“If he thinks going after Birch could jeopardize his boy’s health he would.”

“And how do we do that? I can’t harm that boy, he’s been through too much as it is.”

“We lie, tell Lucas we need to get his boy back to town and have the doc look at his wrists. Maybe you can hint they’re worse that you thought?” whispered Benton.

*****

After cleaning up from supper, Benton and Walker placed their bedrolls on the other side of the fire. They saw Mark hang his head and heard him say to his Pa, “I’m sorry Pa, for putting you through all this worry.”

“Son, there’s nothing for you to be sorry about. This was Birch’s doing.”

“But you two used to be good friends.”

“Son, listen to me. My friendship with Birch ended when he abused my trust three years ago, when he tried to rob the bank back home. I couldn’t bring myself to shoot him then, but today…”

“But Pa…, he didn’t hurt me…, I’m okay.”

“Mark, he did hurt you, but I thank God he didn’t hurt you worse than he did.” Lucas’ eyes still held the images of ‘what could have happened’.

Benton started talking, “Well Lucas, we’ll get you and Mark back to Hazelton tomorrow and then Walker and I will head out after Birch.”

“What for?” Mark innocently asked.

Walker answered, “Seems he still has some money that doesn’t belong to him.”

“Oh, that.” Mark started chuckling.

“What’s so funny son?” Lucas asked.

Looking to each man who sat around the fire, Mark kept laughing about his secret.

“Only that the outlaws left a kid in charge of the horses all the time and they weren’t paying attention to me, so I kind of ‘stole’ the money back.” Mark reached for his saddle bag that he’d planned to use as a pillow, and dumped the money onto the ground. “There’s another saddle bag on BlueBoy, unless Birch found it.”

Walker and Benton started bellowing in laughter.

“Well I guess there was a thief among thieves... Lucas, I thought you were raising this boy to be a good, upstanding citizen. I’ll have to keep a better eye on you, boy,” Benton tried to say through his laughter.

Ultimately, the conversations started to wane when Mark could no longer keep his eyes open and fell asleep, closely followed by his father.

*****

Mark heard voices talking as sleep lost its hold on him, “If we have to, we’ll tell him about the boy’s wrists…” Benton stated.

Mark looked to his wrists and then to his pa still sleeping in his bedroll. Slowly he stood up and walked to the two lawmen, sitting on their heels next to the fire.

“What about my wrists?” asked Mark.

“Mark, didn’t know you were awake,” Walker answered.

“There’s nothing really wrong with your wrists that time won’t heel, but knowing Lucas as I do, I feel he might still be wanting Birch’s blood. We decided the best way to get Lucas off Birch’s trail would be to tell him your wrists are worse off than they are.”

“But he needs medical attention to his side,” Mark queried.

“If he didn’t go see the doc in Hazelton right after it happened, do you really think he’ll willingly go now?” Walker inquired.

“I guess you’re right.” Absent-mindedly, Mark rubbed the bandages around his wrists. “But I don’t like lying to Pa…”

“You won’t be lying Mark, I’ll do it,” Walker announced.

“Do what?” Lucas asked as he woke.

“Check the boy’s wrists and rewrap them. Couldn’t really tell how badly they might have been injured using the campfire, but once the sun is up, I’ll be able to see if they’re worse than I thought.”

While Benton prepared their morning coffee, Mark sat next to his Pa while Walker unwrapped his wrists. Lucas gasped when he saw the damage inflicted upon his boy, they were a lot worse than he expected.

“How do they feel, son?” Lucas asked.

“They ache. I’m sorry, I should have listened and shouldn’t have tried to get out of the ropes,” Mark stated, his eyes cast down. He inhaled sharply as Walked poured more water over the wounds and rubbed his fingers in an effort to clean any remaining grit out of the damaged skin.

“Mr. McCain, they look worse than I expected, the longer your boy spends out here and away from proper medical care… Infection could set in…” Walker announced.

“Lucas, we need to get your boy back to Hazelton, and then both of you home,” Benton stated as he stood over the three.

“Okay,” Lucas answered.

Benton smugly smiled, he knew his friend so well.

*****

As Walker stepped into the doctor’s office back in Hazelton, he smiled as he heard the verbal battle occurring up stairs. As he took the stairs, he listened as the one they called Micah threatened to hog-tie Lucas to keep him still, lest he break open the stitches the doctor had just finished putting in his side. Walker stopped in the doorway and looked into the room to see Benton leaning against the window sill. Micah was standing at the foot of the bed, pointing a finger at Lucas, and a bright-eye Mark sitting on the edge of the bed his father was lying in, trying hard not to laugh.

As he continued to watch the scene, Walker realized how much their bathing the night before had helped alleviated the weariness they all had felt. He held a laugh inside upon remembering hearing the boy’s moans of pleasure as he stepped into the tub filled with hot water and the splashing that soon sounded as the boy industriously set about bathing himself. Shaking his head, he remembered Lucas asking the boy ‘How much longer?’ and Mark’s reply, ‘Pa, it’s been three whole weeks since I’ve had a bath this good! That shower in Las Cruces didn’t take off half of the dirt I was wearing, and I’ve been gone two more weeks since then.’

‘Kid’s bouncing back better than I thought he would.’ Walker said to himself, and then spoke aloud as he stepped into the room, “Mark, seems your Pa has a real stubborn streak about not wanting to stay put.”

Mark couldn’t hold himself any longer and burst out laughing, falling backwards upon the bed where Lucas laid. His laughter was infectious and soon the room was filled with laughter from everyone, except Lucas who was moaning from the effort of trying to keep from laughing.

*****

Later than night, everyone enjoyed a good meal at the Hazelton restaurant. Mark ate everything that he was given and even the extra helping Walker had given him of mashed potatoes, and two pieces of apple pie. After the waitress had cleared the table of dirty dishes, the group continued to talk over coffee. Lucas noticed that Mark was struggling to keep awake and soon his head was down on the table, resting on his arms. Lucas started to get up in order to take his boy to their hotel room, only to feel a gentle hand placed on his shoulder.

Benton stood by his side, “Lucas, lead the way, I’ll carry the boy.”

As carefully as if Mark were his own, Benton picked Mark up in his arms, one arm under the boy’s shoulders the other under the boy’s knees, allowing the boy’s head to rest on his shoulder, and carried him to the McCain room and placed him in the bed.

“See you in the morning Lucas.” Tom turned, closed the door, and walked to his own hotel room.

Upon hearing the door close, Lucas sat on the edge of the bed and began to remove his son’s boots, belt, and shirt. “I’m sorry Margaret,” Lucas whispered as he saw his son’s ribs protrude and the boy’s bandaged wrists. He lowered and shook his head in grief.

*****

Lucas, Mark, Micah, Tom Benton and Coltrane Walker sat on their horses in front of the doctor’s office. The doctor wasn’t happy that his older patient was planning to ride home, but with tighter bandaging around Lucas’ middle and a promise of taking it easy, the doctor finally agreed.

“Just keep the boy’s wrists bandaged until you get back home, same for your side. No need to expose yourselves unnecessarily out on the trail,” Doc stated.

“You’re sure he’s going to be okay?” asked Lucas.

“At first sight, I was concerned about his wrists, but the injuries aren’t as serious as I originally thought. Just keep them clean and dry until your own doctor can assure you,” Doc gave one last instruction

“Guess that means I can’t do the dishes while were going home.” Mark’s eyes teased.

The small group turned their horses and rode for home.

*****

It was late three days later when they arrived back in North Fork. Micah called over to John Hamilton as he was stepping out of the hotel. “John, think I have something here that belongs to you.”

John took the saddle bag from Micah and looked inside to see the stolen money returned. Micah followed John to the bank to make sure it was placed safely in the vault.

Tom Benton insisted that both Mark and Lucas spend the night at the hotel. He wanted Doc Burrage to see Lucas first thing in the morning.

“Tom that’s not necessary, I’ll be fine.”

“If not for you, then for your boy,” Walker stated.

“We look out for each other.” Lucas smiled as he looked over to Mark, he was concerned but didn’t feel the doctor in Hazelton would have put his son’s life in jeopardy. “We’ll head on home.”

“Not on my watch! Just march yourselves into the hotel!!” ordered Benton. “I’ll tend to your horses.”

As well as Mark knew to obey that tone of voice when his father used it, Lucas still tried to avoid the order, finally he acquiesced.

*****

Within minutes of entering their hotel room, Lucas and Mark were settling down, when Lucas heard a noise outside in the hallway. He opened the door, rested his hand against the doorframe, only to see Walker sitting in a chair, leaning back against the wall, cigar in hand, rifle in his lap.

“Coltrane, what’s this all about?” Lucas asked as Mark stuck his head under his father’s arm to look out into the hallway.

“Well, I heard you threatened a number of times with being hog tied in order to stay put, and it didn’t seem to work, so’s now, I’m sitting here to make sure you stay put.” He took as long drag on his cigar and blew smoke into the air.

“All right, all right. I know when I’m bettered,” laughed Lucas as Mark stepped back into the room allowing Lucas to close the door.

*****

It was late-morning when Lucas was awakened by a knock on the hotel room door. Looking over to the other bed, he saw his son still asleep. Lucas threw off the covers and walked to the door and opened it to see Doc Burrage standing in the hallway, bag in hand. Coltrane Walker was where he sat the night before. Lucas took a few steps back to allow Doc Burrage to enter, followed closely by Walker and Benton.

As he sat down on the bed, Lucas held his arms out to his sides so Doc could unwrap the bandages. After a few minutes of poking and prodding, causing Lucas to wince, despite his best efforts not to, Doc Burrage replaced the bandage and re-wrapped Lucas’ mid-section.

Bluntly Doc said, “You’ll live.” With a gentler tone he asked, “Lucas, what about Mark? Benton and Walker told me that he didn’t take any harm that they knew about other than his wrists. But Walker also told me the boy didn’t do much eating while Birch had him.”

“I know he’s exhausted. Two weeks on the trail, barely home and then kidnapped and gone for over another week. Coltrane’s been stuffing the boy with food every chance he got since we found him. I made sure I kept an eye on him while riding home and called for a rest if he seemed to be tiring.” Surprised his son was still asleep, he commented, “He slept clean through the night, let me wake him.” Lucas quietly walked over to Mark’s side and gently shook his shoulder, calling for Mark to wake up.

Lucas pulled the blankets from Mark, to see that his son had only stripped his shirt, belt, and boots off before collapsing asleep, face down, in the bed. Lucas still grieved over the prominence of Mark’s ribs and spine showing beneath his son’s skin. ‘He’s lost too much weight. I’ll get him beefed up once we get home,’ Lucas thought to himself.

Mark was reluctant to open his eyes, but finally, with the firm tone of his father’s voice, he knew he had no choice.

“Morning Pa,” Mark answered in a sleepy voice before he yawned.

Feeling the weight shift from the edge of the bed, Mark rolled over to his side, sat up, and swung his legs off the side of the bed; surprised to see more than just his Pa in their hotel room.

While Doc Burrage, poked and prodded Mark, listened to his heart and lungs, Mark asked, “Doc, how’s Pa?”

Doc unwrapped the bandages around Mark’s wrists and closely examined the injuries. “I think your wrists will be fine in a few weeks. Keep them wrapped, but I want you to put this salve on them nightly and re-wrap them. In the mornings, you can wash them, and bandage them again, but don’t use the salve. Just at night.”

“Doc, tell me about Pa?” Mark quietly asked again as Doc finished wrapping his wrists.

“He’ll be okay, Mark. Your Pa just needs to take it easy, as Doc Hastings prescribed. He did a good job stitching him up. I’ll take the stitches out, if he don’t bust ‘em, in a week or so.” Doc said as he continued to look Mark in the eyes. “However, my prescription for you is to eat!” Doc saw the expression on Mark’s face as the boy looked to his Pa. “I’m sure you’ll see that he takes it easy when you get him home, boy. That’s all he needs, besides having you back home.”

“When can I take him home?” Mark asked. Seems the son was taking on the fatherly role.

“Later today. Plenty of people want to see that you’re safe and sound back in North Fork. Now Mark, I’m sure you want to know about Jacob.”

Mark’s eyes lit with anxiety as he waited for Doc Burrage to continue. “He’s got a broken arm and a fractured ankle. They should be healed in another month or so.”

“What about his other injuries?” Mark asked.

“Other injuries?” The question surprised Doc Burrage.

“The, being in the saddle for so long and not knowing how to ride, injuries?” Mark said with a sheepish grin on his face.

“Oh, those, well… I slathered some salve on his ‘pride’ and told his Pa to continue to use it until the ‘injuries’ were healed and use some liniment on the boy’s legs. He’s recovering from those well enough.”

Looking to Lucas, “Pa, do you think I can ride out to visit Jacob and his family this morning? I just want to make sure he’s going to be alright.”

Doc answered before Lucas could reply, “That won’t be necessary Mark, they’re downstairs waiting with Micah. They’ve been waiting since breakfast. You two practically slept the morning away. It’s almost lunch time. This town’s been hustling and bustling while you two lazy bones slept.” Doc gave a gentle laugh as he put his instruments away.

“Lucas, before you and Mark head home, we do need for both of you to stop by Marshal Torrance’s and give us your statements to place in our reports,” Tom Benton requested.

“Okay, we’ll be there this morn… this afternoon.” Lucas said while correcting himself after looking out the window and seeing the sun almost at its zenith.

“Marshal Walker, how do you explain your being an ‘outlaw’ in your report? I mean, robbing a bank and kidnapping…” an inquisitive Mark asked as he stretched his arms out wide and reached for his shirt hanging at the foot of the bed.

“Well, that does take some creative writing on our part. I’ll probably get a good chewing out from my superiors, but in the end, they’ll understand.” Walker replied with a grin on his face. “And seeing how a young ‘thief’ ‘stole’ the money back and it was safely returned to its rightful owners, I think I’ll be just fine.”

“Don’t forget, we prevented them from getting the money transfer that was on the stage coach,” Benton announced.

Mark asked the question no one else had, “What about Birch, you still going out after him?”

Both Marshals looked at each other, and then to Lucas, before Benton replied, “That’ll be up for our superiors in Washington to decide. Right now, we hope he’s headed for the border. Doubt he’ll show his face around this territory any time soon.”

Everyone left the room to allow Lucas and Mark to wash up and get dressed. Lucas was pleased to see how Mark was handling the aftermath of his kidnapping.

*****

Father and son walked down the stairs, across the hotel lobby, and entered the restaurant. Meredith and Matthew Preston rose from their chairs, Matthew and Lucas shook hands; while Mrs. Preston gave Mark a gentle kiss on the cheek. Jacob sat in the wheel chair, with a big smile on his face at seeing Mark.

Mark went to sit next to Jacob. Neither said a word, yet, there was a quiet understanding between the two. They had survived their adventure!

“Mr. McCain, I want to say how sorry I am for the anguish that Collie McBride caused you and Mark,” Mrs. Preston started to say.

“Meredith, you’ve no need to apologize or to accept blame. The real blame lies with Tom Birch and if he ever interferes with my family again, the law won’t have time to see that he comes to justice,” Lucas said with a serious expression on his face. He shot a warning look at Micah, indicating ‘don’t say one word.’

“Lucas, not sure I can repay you for risking so much to save my son’s life. Now don’t interrupt me. On top of it all, I do have a favor to ask of you and Mark.” Matthew continued as he looked at his wife, “Seems that as much as we’ve tried protecting our boy in this new territory, that maybe we were a little too overly protective. Now what I have to ask, has to wait until Jacob’s recovered, but I’d like to ask, if you have the time, would you and Mark be willing to teach Jacob how to ride and become a ‘real’ cowboy?”

“Boy would I?” Mark quipped before anyone else could say a word, as his eyes sparkled in anticipation.

“Mark,” Jacob spoke up. “Just promise me that you’ll take it slow and easy, not sure I can sit through these injuries again.” He shifted a little uncomfortably in the padded chair.

Everyone laughed, including Jacob.

THE END

This is a story based on the TV series The Rifleman
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