The Rifleman
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Fan Fiction

Timing.....
Written by Deanne Bertram

Doc Burrage had allowed Mark to finally return home about five days ago. He’d kept Mark in town for a week after suffering injuries when he was kidnapped, while helping the posse track the outlaws who had robbed the stage.

As much as Mark’s Pa told him to take it easy, it wasn’t easy to just sit around the ranch house or work on lessons for school. Time seemed to drag by so slowly and Mark felt guilty, especially since a lot of the time he found himself falling asleep. He knew how much harder his Pa was working to make up for there only being one of them able to work the ranch.

He rose early Friday morning because he couldn’t sleep; he’d heard his Pa calling out for him while he slept. Mark knew his Pa was probably reliving his meeting up with Dobbs and Grayson and then the horror of the aftermath. During his week-long stay while recovering at the hotel in North Fork, Mark had talked a lot to his Pa about what had happened while he was riding with the posse and then they discussed why he chose to act as he did in an effort to try to save his Pa’s life. This morning, Mark realized the talks never turned to how Lucas felt. ‘Seeing as how troubled Pa is in his sleep, maybe I should ask him about it.’ Mark thought to himself.

As Mark sat up in his bed in the darkened room, he looked towards his Pa and heard that he was soundly a sleep. Mark got dressed, then using the crutches he got up and left the bedroom, quietly closing the door behind him, and hobbled to the table in the front room. He struck a match to light the lamp and pulled out his school books to work on some of the assignments Mr. Griswald had brought by the evening before.

Mark realized he had lost track of time when the sun started to shine through the windows. Mark was surprised his Pa didn’t hear him exit their bedroom earlier. Knowing his Pa should be waking soon, Mark headed out to the barn to collect the eggs and milk the cow before breakfast.

‘Let Pa scold me afterwards, but I just have to do something.’ Mark thought to himself as he left the house.

Lucas woke and saw that Mark’s was bed empty. Entering the front room, he saw Mark’s school books open and a tablet of paper and his pencil on the table, but Mark wasn’t in the house.

As Lucas started to button his shirt, he heard a noise out on the porch and opened the door to see Mark trying to carry a basket of eggs and open front door, while trying to balance himself with the crutches.

“Mark, what are you doing? Let me help you,” Lucas said as he reached for the basket of eggs.

“Pa, I couldn’t manage to carry the basket of eggs and the milk pail. It’s still out in the barn.”

After placing the basket of eggs on the kitchen counter, Lucas headed to the barn to bring back the milk pail. Noticing the horses had already been turned out in the paddock and some of Mark’s regular chores had been started, but not completed, Lucas shook his head.

Lucas returned to the house, carrying the milk pail. As he entered the house, he saw Mark trying to get the skillet out from the cabinet. “Mark, I’ll ask again, what are you doing? You know you’re supposed to still be taking it easy.”

Lucas sat the milk pail on the counter, took the skillet from Mark’s hand, and motioned for him to sit at the table.

“Pa, I’m tired of just sitting around the ranch, doing nothing. My injuries won’t allow me to ride Blue Boy. And you won’t let me drive the team. Mr. Griswald brings my lessons out to the ranch. All I do is school work and sleep. I want to help, to feel needed.” Mark saw the expression on his Pa’s face and said, “Guess I’m just feeling useless, is all.

“Pa, you’re so tired from doing all the chores; you didn’t even hear me get up earlier. Since I returned home, it already feels longer than when I was on punishment for six weeks and here, I’m only on my second week of “restricted” activities,” Mark complained.

“When did I ever punish you for six weeks?”

“Well, there was the four weeks from when I was working for Nils and I disobeyed him when he told me to not take the Boarder Pass out to Mr. Merar’s place and I went ahead and did anyway. And then the two extra weeks that were added on because I ‘forgot’ to study for my history exam until the morning of the test and I flunked it. You told me once, you didn’t mind my mistakes as long as I remembered my lessons learned from them. Guess I remembered better than you did Pa.”

“Oh, I kind of forgot about that,” Lucas said as he grinned to himself. “But Mark, you need time to heal. There will be plenty of work for you to do once Doc Burrage says you’re ready to start helping me out again.

“But Pa, that’s probably another month away. I can’t just sit here and let you do everything. There’s so much that needs to be done, bringing in the crops and getting the cattle ready for branding and so much more to get done to prepare the ranch for the coming winter. And…”

“Mark,” Lucas interrupted. “I understand how you feel and yes, you can ‘just sit there’. As your father, to me, it’s more important that my son gets healthy so he can help me later. Why don’t you focus on your studies and I’ll fix breakfast. Maybe in another week, Doc Burrage will say its okay for you to drive the team and you can return to school, then.”

“But Pa…” Mark started.

“Mark, please. Let’s not argue about this. We’ll get through this, just like we have everything else,” Lucas replied.

Though he didn’t want to give in, Mark returned to his studies.

*****

After they had eaten breakfast, Lucas carried the dishes to the sink. “If you really want to help out, why don’t you do the dishes? I think you can handle standing in front of the sink to do the washing and the drying. I’ll head out to the barn to finish the chores you started.”

Lucas grabbed his hat and rifle and headed out to the barn.

Mark was just finishing the dishes when he heard the sounds of riders arriving. He made his way to the door and opened it, to see a number of his friends stepping down from their horses, removing their hats, and a few were walking towards his Pa, as he exited the barn.

“Boys?” Lucas called as he watched all the activity in the yard.

“Mr. McCain, we’re all here to help you today. We don’t have school and most of us finished our chores at home, so we asked our parents if we could come and help you and Mark out for the day and this weekend,” Billy Davis stated.

“Boys, I appreciate the offer, but that’s not necessary. Mark and I’ll be just fine. Why don’t you head back to your homes.” As Lucas finished talking he saw Micah Torrance and Johnny Drako ride up.

“But Mr. McCain, you always tell Mark about the value of his gettin’ a good education. You don’t want to see any of us flunk at school? Do ya?” Billy asked.

“Flunk? What does riding out here, offering to work have to do with your school studies?” Lucas asked.

The boys started shuffling their feet and playing with their hats.

“Well, Mr. Griswald gave us a lecture based on the Civic Responsibilities of a Community. Said it weren’t enough that we lived in a community, but that we had a responsibility to help the community, when there was a need. Said we had to come up with an assignment that showed we understood our responsibilities. We figured you might help us all get a passing grade by allowing us to help out and work for you?” Percy Bullock pleaded their case.

“Micah, Johnny, did either of you have anything to do with this mob?” Lucas called over.

“Not us LucasBoy. Johnny and I thought we’d come out here to see how you and Mark were getting along and if you needed any help. By the looks of this ‘mob’, I can see we wasted our time coming out here.”

Lucas looked over and saw Mark, leaning back against the door frame, holding at the side of his chest, trying to stop from laughing. “Well Pa, you can’t stand there and be the one responsible for them getting a failing grade now, can you?”

“Okay, okay! Just for the weekend!”

Lucas assigned a few boys various chores around the barn, designated a number to start bringing in the crops, and took a few with him as he needed to start rounding up the cattle in preparation for branding.

*****

Mark followed Kevin Connor into the barn. He’d hoped that Kevin would be more understanding and let him help out. That wasn’t to be the case. Kevin told Mark, in no uncertain terms, that if he wanted to stay in the barn, he was to sit down on the hay bales and not lift one finger! “You can keep me company and tell me if I’m tending to your chores correctly,” Kevin stated.

During the afternoon, they talked about school work and how things were going in North Fork.

*****

It was late afternoon when the boys had finished their assigned chores for the day and had returned to the ranch house to wait for those who went out with Lucas.

*****

Drako returned to the McCain Ranch later in the afternoon, with Lou sitting next to him on the seat of the buckboard. Freddie Toomey and Kevin walked out onto the porch to greet them.

“Deputy Drako, Miss Mallory, Sshhh. Mark’s inside, he fell asleep in his Pa’s chair,” Freddie stated.

Drako lifted Lou down from the buckboard and then asked the boys if they minded helping to carry in some of the food they brought along.

“We know how hard everyone probably worked today, so we thought we’d feed you tonight,” Lou stated as she and Johnny walked to the back of the wagon.

Lucas, Bobby Hamilton, Percy, and Billy returned to the house. They tied their horses to the railing of the corral. There were so many horses in the yard that there wasn’t any more room at the hitching rails. As they walked to the house, they saw the others sitting on the porch with plates of food on their laps, happily eating and quietly talking.

Lucas entered the house, only to be “Sshh’d” by Lou, as she pointed over to Lucas’ chair, he turned and saw Mark asleep. She whispered for the late arrivals to go out back and wash up. Their supper was ready to be served.

Percy, Billy and Bobby filled their plates and as they were walking out the front door, Billy noticed the deputy badge sitting on the mantle of the fireplace. He proceeded outside to eat with the others.

*****

Lucas walked over to Mark and gently shook his shoulder and called him awake. Mark woke with a start.

“Mark, Lou has supper ready, if you’re hungry?” Lucas stated.

“Lou? Hungry? Pa? What time is it?” Mark asked, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

“Supper time,” Drako answered with a laugh, while sitting at the table. Then put another bite of beef stew in his mouth.

Lou brought Mark a plate of stew and biscuits and a glass of milk.

“Lou, Johnny, I sure do appreciate your helping to feed this crew of mine. They all worked hard today.” Then looking to Mark he said, “But I sure do miss having my number one hand out next to me,” Lucas stated.

*****

After tidying up and everyone had left, Lucas and Mark were sitting on the porch, watching the sun set.

“Mark, how about tomorrow I drive you out to the branding site. I’ve been thinking about what you said earlier. There’s no reason why you can’t come out and help keep tally of the herd. And it would get you out of the house for a while.”

“I’d really like that Pa. As much as I love being home, just knowing that I’m stuck here…”

“I understand son.”

Lucas pulled out a cigar, lit it, slowly inhaled and even more slowly exhaled.

“Pa? Can we talk?”

“You know we can.”

“But… you haven’t.”

“I haven’t what?” Lucas asked. There was a curious tone in his voice.

“Talked. You haven’t talked about what happened to me. I know you’ve probably talked a little with Micah and Johnny, but I think that… well… maybe… I’m grown enough to try to understand your side of what I put you through.”

“Mark, I…”

“Pa, I heard you calling out my name last night while you were sleeping. It’s one of the reasons I was up so early. I figured you were probably dreaming of what happened. You’ve always been there to help me understand my feelings. Pa, I just thought that, maybe...” Mark stopped talking; he didn’t know what else to say.

“You’re right son. I’ve been telling Micah and Johnny how much I’m realizing you are growing up and here you’ve gone and done it again. You have a right to know how I felt and know this Mark, I don’t blame you one second for what happened,” Lucas stated as he took another smoke from his cigar before he put it out.

“As a father, your father, all I can do is hope and pray that I’m raising you right; so that you can make the right decisions in your life. And as John Hamilton stated, after all the years of you watching me fill in for Micah and help him out, it was only natural that you’d offer to help out the posse when there were so few people in town. And all the times I spent teaching you to track... No, Mark, you were right to offer your skills to help Micah. It took a few moments to get past my fears, but I was real proud that you had stepped up.”

Lucas was quiet as he thought how best to proceed. There was just a mixture of pride and pain in his heart. He contemplated how to proceed to tell his child, his child who was becoming a man, how he felt.

“Johnny and I didn’t know you’d gone missing, when we headed out after we received Micah’s wire. After meeting up with Micah and the others, and finding you were missing… All sorts of thoughts went through my head. But first and foremost, I prayed to God to keep you safe.

“We tracked the outlaws and eventually realized their trail was leading back to North Fork and I didn’t understand why. None of us could. I was concerned for your safety and confused why they were heading back home. Down deep, I knew they weren’t concerned citizens bringing a boy home to his father.

“But then that man, called himself a Sheriff,” Lucas’ voice was bitter with disdain. “He was waiting for me, here, once I got home. Said he’d written instructions for me to follow the next morning. With what he told me, I was furious when I figured out Ralph Hayden had hired someone to try to kill me again. Once I arrived at the box canyon, I remembered Grayson from when I was up in Santa Fe, at the Cattlemen’s Association Meeting. I got more confused. I realized I had to clear my head if I were to get the two of us out of the situation, alive. As I began to think, I saw they had positioned themselves as dictated by the tactics of dealing with a single foe. They had split themselves apart, Dobbs with you and Grayson a distance off. Both within range of my rifle, but too far apart for me to quickly have a chance at both of them.”

Lucas stopped and took several deep breaths, tried to not let his emotions get the best of him.

“Mark, I’m sorry, but for a moment, I had to put you out of my mind as I tried to figure out a counter tactic. I was so focused on Grayson, when I heard the first gunshot, I just reacted, my rifle was on my thigh, and I tipped it forward and shot from the hip. I watched as Grayson fell from his horse. Then I remembered the shot, I guess maybe I hoped someone else had taken a shot at Dobbs. That maybe Johnny or Micah had gone against my wishes and followed me there. I looked over, towards where you were, and saw you on the ground and Dobbs was getting up. Then, there was another shot and Dobbs fell across you.

“I jumped from Razor and ran to you. I threw Dobbs off. I saw the blood on your shirt and… I tried to convince myself that it was Dobbs’ blood. I had removed the bag from your head, when I realized the blood on your shirt was yours. Mark…, everything stopped… I didn’t hear the rider ride up. I didn’t hear him shoot Dobbs dead, behind me... Mark, you’re my whole world… And right then… I felt my whole world stop. I felt my life slipping away from me as I saw the bloodstain on your shirt spread.”

Mark waited for Lucas to continue, he didn’t want to interrupt, he saw tears falling from his Pa’s face.

“I knew how much you had to be hurting, but as I held you in my arms and looked into your face, I saw relief in your eyes before you passed out. At that moment, I thought I saw my little boy thankful to be in his Pa’s arms. There was no blame or question in your eyes that I hadn’t been there to protect you.

“Shortly, thereafter, I realized the rider behind me was Johnny. Mark, I was scared. What if Doc Burrage wasn’t in town? I got on Razor and with Johnny’s help, got you up in the saddle, in front of me. He led us all the way as we raced you back to town. The whole way there, I kept praying for God to let you live and asking for you to forgive me for not getting to you in time.”

Lucas faltered again. He wiped away the tears falling down his face. He still didn’t have the heart to look at his son while he spoke.

“And I… I remembered all the times when you were real little, when I let you ride in front of me in the saddle, remembered happier times from when we lived back in Enid. As my thoughts returned to the present, it hurt to carry you as I did, because I… Mark, I never dreamed that I would ever be in that kind of a situation with you.

“I’ve always felt that my duty, as your father, was to protect your life. But as we talked last week, I realized that look in your eyes wasn’t relief that you were in my arms, but relief that I was alive to hold you in my arms. I know that you felt it was your duty, as my son, to protect my life because you knew what was planned. And I know, as you get older, that feeling will only intensify. Guess that’s why we make such a great team. We look out for each other.”

Lucas continued as his eyes finally looked to his son, “Mark, I won’t lie to you and say that at times I don’t feel guilty for not being in town when Micah needed someone to help track those outlaws and it fell upon you to help. I won’t say that I don’t feel guilty in not getting to you sooner and preventing Dobbs from shooting you. But knowing you acted out of love to try to save both our lives that eases my burden, some.”

“Pa, it means a lot that you talked to me. But, if…, like you told me, I have nothing to feel guilty about, because of what happened, then you shouldn’t feel guilty either. We both did the only thing we could have done. We both lived.”

*****

The following morning most of the boys returned, a few didn’t because they had to tend to their own chores at home. When they arrived, they saw Mark standing on the front porch leaning into his crutches. Oat Jackford and Dave Merar were sitting on their horses, talking to Lucas about how to proceed with the branding. This was the first year that all the cattlemen agreed that each herd needed to be branded.

Lucas called over to the boys and asked if they wouldn’t mind hitching up the team to the wagon and if they also would saddle Razor for him.

The group headed out to the branding site at seven o’clock. Lucas tied Razor to the back and then drove the buckboard, with Mark sitting right night to him. Lucas gave a glance over to his son and saw a huge grin on Mark’s face, watched as he took in a deep breath, enjoying the morning air.

*****

The boys were responsible for driving the cows and calves towards the branding area and preventing them from running back to the herd. The boys learned it was easier said then done. Lucas and Oat would head and heel the cows and Dave fired the McCain brand – 2Mc – and branded the cattle. After the first few cows, the area really began to stink with the smell of burnt hides. The calves could be heard bawling excessively.

By mid afternoon, all the McCain cattle were branded. Lucas and the boys herded the cattle back to the pastures. Mark had kept tally of all the cattle and their calves. He was pleased with how their herd had grown steadily; ever since the last hoof and mouth epidemic that had struck North Fork.

Oat and Dave waved goodbye as they headed back to their own ranches. Lucas tied Razor to the back of the buckboard. The boys from school returned to the ranch house with Lucas and Mark. As they were heading home, Lucas looked at Mark.

“Here, I’m plumb tired,” Lucas said as he handed the reins to Mark. Lucas leaned back, pulled his hat over his eyes, relaxing, but ever alert and ready to take over should something cause the horses to bolt.

*****

Before washing up for supper, the boys helped Lucas finish the barn chores. Lucas pulled out some smoked ham to fry up and the boys chipped in and peeled some potatoes and sliced them up to be fried.

The whole group sat out on the porch eating dinner and talking. The boys were excitedly, retelling their adventures in herding the cattle to be branded. Most of the boys lived in town and didn’t do a lot of ranch work. Finally, Lucas stated that it was time for everyone to get home and told them he would give a favorable report to Mr. Griswald, so there was no need for them to return on Sunday.

“The Good Lord made Sunday for a day of rest,” Lucas declared. Before each boy left, they placed their dirty dishes in the sink and said goodbye.

*****

Using the crutches Mark hobbled into the kitchen to start washing the dishes. Lucas came up beside him and motioned for Mark to start drying. As he started to take over the washing, he said, “I think I’ll ask Doc Burrage, after church tomorrow, if I can bring you in on Monday and have him take a look at your side there. If he says okay, then I’ll allow you to drive the team back and forth to school. You handled them pretty well today. Mark, I just want to make sure your side is healed, before I turn you loose again. But, riding Blue Boy is out of the question until your ankle is healed.”

“I understand and I guess I can wait until Monday,” Mark stated as he handed a plate back to his Pa and told him, “You missed a spot.” Together they laughed.

*****

Sleep came quickly to Mark that night. It was the first time in two weeks that he hadn’t fallen asleep during the afternoon. Mark promptly fell into a deep dream and it intrigued him. It was of an adult Mark. He was married to a woman he truly loved and had several children of his own. Grandpa Lucas enjoyed spending time with Mark and his family. Their homestead was just over the rise from Lucas’. Mark’s wife understood the bond that Lucas and Mark had shared and she wanted that bond to be passed down to their children, Lucas’ grandchildren.

Mark’s dream had him sitting on the front porch one night, talking with his Pa. He glanced into his old home and saw a woman standing at the sink, humming, as she washed dishes. She looked so familiar to Mark, but from the back, he couldn’t figure out who she was.

“Mark, I hope you’re as happy in your marriage as your Ma and I are. Being married again, it’s brought a whole new, different kind of happiness to my life.”

“If you and Ma are an example of what real happiness is Pa, I’d say yes, I am very happy. And having my own children…, holding that tiny baby in my arms for the first time, watching as they grow up and take their first steps, and before you know it, they’re starting school.”

Mark’s eyes softened as he remembered. Lucas looked at his son and then started remembering his own memories.

“Mark, to me, you grew up too fast. Seems we just settled in North Fork and now, you’ve got a family of your own.”

“You’ll always be part of my family, Pa. Even though I’m grown, I still need your advice. But you know? You were right.” Mark stated.

“Right, son?” Lucas replied.

“Yeah, that I’d understand everything better when I was grown and had children of my own.” Looking out over the horizon, Mark continued, “But how I must have tried you as I was growing up. The trouble I got into. I only hope, and pray, that my boys aren’t nearly as much trouble as I was for you.”

“Only time will tell, son. Only time will tell.

The sun was beginning to set as Mark’s oldest son came running up, hardly stopping before he threw his arms around Grandpa Lucas and gave him a hug. “Hi Gran’pa, I got an impor’ant message for Pa!” he declared.

Then looking to his Pa, a little out of breath he said, “Pa, Ma said you get home an’ do your chores, else you be sleepin’ in the barn ‘cause it’s gonna be late. Said she didn’t care if you were a Deputy or not, you have resb… respens… you got chores to do Pa. When we get home, can I help?”

“Sure, son. Come on, let’s go home.”

Mark stood up, gave his Pa a quick kiss on the cheek, walked inside, kissed his Ma and said goodnight, returned to the porch, then took his son’s hand in his and swung him up to ride on his back as he walked home.

Mark continued to sleep with a smile of contentment on his face. Yes, he was his father’s son. He realized his Pa was treating him as a man, the man his Pa had worked so hard to see that he grew up to become.

*****

Sunday morning dawned bright at the McCain ranch. As Mark woke, he still had that feeling of contentment that he had felt in his dream. He leaned over to grab his crutches and let out a laugh.

“What’s so funny so early on a Sunday, Mark?” Lucas asked as he sat up in bed.

“I had a dream last night. I dreamed I was married and had children, and we were talking that I finally understood all the times you told me I’d understand when I was older and had children of my own,” Mark laughed again as he answered.

“Well, come on ‘Pa’, let’s get up and dressed, and eat so we can get to church today,” Lucas said as he smiled over at Mark.

“Okay, ‘Grandpa’. Oh, and you should know, in my dream, you were remarried and I had a new Ma… I just couldn’t see who she was.” A little bit of disappointment could be heard in Mark’s voice.

“Oh really!” was all Lucas could say.

*****

Lucas hitched up the team and allowed Mark to drive them to church services. Everyone at church was happy to see the McCain’s in town again. After services, many people stopped and talked with both Lucas and Mark. Lucas did get the chance to speak with Doc Burrage, who indicated he had rounds to make in the morning but that he’d be back mid- afternoon and asked Lucas to bring Mark by around 3:30.

As they walked over to have lunch, they met Stevan Griswald, who joined them as they made their way to the Mallory House Hotel restaurant.

“I understand that some of my students used their Civic Responsibilities assignment to help you and Mark out?” Stevan asked.

“They sure did. Each one of them pulled their weight after explaining why they were there. Stevan, I do appreciate what you were trying to do, but it wasn’t necessary. Mark and I could have managed.”

“I know Lucas, but with all that you and Mark have done for this town without accepting anything in return, well, it was fun getting one up on you. We knew you couldn’t object when it came to the boys’ education.”

“And just who are the ‘we’ you’re talking about?” Lucas asked as he stopped, pushed his hat back on his head, raised his eyebrows, and crossed his arms.

Mark stopped next to his Pa and stared at Mr. Griswald.

“Oh, did I say we? Sorry Lucas, I’m the only guilty culprit.”

They proceeded into the restaurant and had lunch together.

*****

Monday morning, Lucas worked on bringing in more of their corn crop. He hadn’t realized how much work the boys had gotten done on Friday, but with there being so many of them present to help, it really didn’t surprise him. Before lunch time, Lucas decided to take Mark into town. Maybe he could sit in on the afternoon session at school, before going to Doc’s.

As Mark pulled the buckboard to a stop in front of the school, the students were just getting released for lunch. The boys ran over to help Mark get down and then made sure he made it safely to the bench by the tree. He waved to his Pa as Lucas drove the team towards Micah’s.

“Hey guys, I really appreciate everyone coming and helping out at the ranch this weekend,” Mark said.

Once Mark was seated, the boys were eager to re-tell their stories of working at the McCain Ranch and how much fun it was. But fun to help, they couldn’t imagine doing it all the time. They told Mark that Mr. Griswald said that they all received a good grade for the Civic Responsibilities lesson.

After everyone was done eating, Billy spoke up. “Mark, Friday, when we was at your place, I saw a deputy badge sitting on the mantle of your fireplace. Marshal Torrance, he didn’t un-deputize your Pa after killing those outlaws? Is your Pa still in some kind of trouble because of that?”

“Billy, now of course the Marshal un-deputized Mr. McCain. You didn’t see him wearing the badge while heading to town, now did ya?” Jeff asked.

“Yeah, why would he still need Mr. McCain’s help when he’s got Deputy Drako to help out?” Bobby asked.

Mark was ready to let the boys talk about the badge among themselves and hoped that the subject would be dropped.

“But if Micah, released him from his oath, what’s the badge still doing out at Mark’s?” Billy asked.

From behind them, a voice answered. “Boys, that badge belongs to Mark.”

They all turned around and looked up to see Deputy Drako sitting on his horse. “Mark’s?” they all pretty much asked in unison and then stared at Mark.

“Boys, don’t ask him too many questions about the badge. He still has a lot to learn about the responsibilities of wearing it, but he knows when he’s allowed to wear it and for what reasons. Right now, he’s Mark McCain, student and rancher. If you push him too much to talk bout it, the Marshal and I might just have to put you in jail.”

“Jail?” Billy’s voice broke as it went up an octave. “For what?”

“I can come up with a good reason, if I need to.”

Then looking to Mark, “I was getting ready to head out to your place when I saw your Pa pull up in front of the office, he told me he left you here. Thought I’d bring you a book for reading. It might help you understand more of the responsibilities that go along with the badge Micah gave you.”

Johnny smiled as handed the book down to Mark and then he kneed his horse to walk on as he bid goodbye to the boys.

*****

Mr. Griswald called lunch break over and all the students returned to take their seats. Mark enjoyed being able to attend school, at least for the afternoon. He paid close attention to the lesson on American Government that the older students were starting to learn about. Towards the end of the day, Mr. Griswald gave the students time to read more of their lessons on their own. Before Mark realized, Mr. Griswald was dismissing the class for the day.

After everyone else had left, Mr. Griswald came up to Mark and spoke. “Mark, it’s a pleasure seeing you back in class today. When do you think you’ll be able to return full time?”

“I have an appointment with Doc Burrage at three, thirty today. I’m hoping he’ll say that my side is healed enough that I can come back to school beginning tomorrow. Pa’s been letting me drive the team since Saturday afternoon, but not without him by my side, at least until Doc says different. By the way, thank you for getting the guys out to the ranch and helping out. I really appreciate it.”

“You’re welcome Mark. I could tell when we talked earlier last week how troubled you were because you weren’t able to help your father. Anyway, it served two purposes.”

“Mark?” Lucas called from the back of the room.

“Be right there Pa,” Mark called. “Mr. Griswald, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Mark hobbled to his Pa and Lucas helped him down the steps of the school house.

*****

Mark was all smiles as he left Doc Burrage’s.

“Good, maybe only three more weeks before Doc says I can walk without crutches!” Mark called to Micah and Johnny, who were waiting outside of Doc’s.

“Maybe three, Mark. But you still have to take it easy. Otherwise it will be at least four more weeks,” Lucas stated as he shook his head.

“Yes sir.” Mark answered, but he still was happy. He could return to school full time and start helping out around the ranch more than he had recently.

*****

It felt good to Mark to be back helping his Pa. He enjoyed driving the team, while his Pa worked to stack the hay bales in back. When they returned to the barn one evening, Freddie and Kevin were there, waiting.

“Boys, what’s this all about?” Lucas asked.

“Well, Mark said you’d be bringing in the hay today and well, it just seemed to us that our Civic Responsibilities shouldn’t be a one-time offering. Besides, Mark’s been helping us at school by working us on some of our American Government lessons over lunch time, so it’s not like we’re doing this for nothing, Mr. McCain,” Kevin replied.

“I guess with three of us unloading and stacking, the job would go a might bit faster. Come on,” Lucas answered as he stepped down from the wagon and shook his head.

Lucas helped Mark unhitch the team and led and tied them to the railing inside the coral. Mark unharnessed them and Lucas led them to turn them loose. As best he could manage, Mark made several trips and carried the harnesses and hung them up inside the barn and proceeded to wipe down the leather. Once done, Mark hobbled to the house to start fixing supper.

Mark had just finished setting the table and was ready to take supper up when Lucas, Kevin, and Freddie walked in.

“Get yourselves washed up out back. Supper’s ready,” Mark called.

*****

The next three weeks seemed to fly by for Mark. He was kept pretty busy between going to school and helping out around the ranch. Of an evening, once his homework was done, he read from the book that Johnny gave him.

*****

It was finally the day that Mark had been waiting for. It had been a long, tiring five weeks since the incident. Still, Mark wondered, would Doc Burrage finally say his ankle was healed enough to get rid of the crutches?

Lucas let Mark drive them to North Fork and stopped the team in front of Doc’s. Mark hopped down and grabbed his crutches out from under the seat. Lucas grabbed his rifle, as well as Mark’s boot, and followed Mark inside. Lucas sat down in the chair next to Doc’s desk as Mark hopped up on the examination table.

Doc Burrage slowly unwrapped Mark’s ankle and finally removed the splints. He looked over the ankle, manipulating the foot up and down and from side to side. As he continued to move the foot, he paid close attention to any reaction of pain from Mark. He felt the site of the break, trying to determine if the bone had truly healed. Next, he started to palpate Mark’s calf. He knew after five weeks of non-use, the muscle would have softened up some.

Afterwards, Doc placed Mark’s leg back down on the examination table and stepped back and started to rub his chin.

“Well?” Mark asked.

“Gently, hop down and let’s see you walk on it,” Doc stated.

Mark slowly lowered himself from the table and stood on both feet. He shifted his weight back and forth, before finally taking a tentative step with his right leg. Lucas stood at the ready, he remembered back to when Mark had been paralyzed, lest he loose his balance. Mark took a few more steps, with each step the smile on his face grew wider. Mark turned around and walked back to the examination table.

“Well?” Mark asked again.

“Any discomfort? Any pain?” Doc asked.

“No sir, just feels funny. Kinda like I’ve got ants walking all over it and it just feels -- different,” Mark replied.

“Oh, that’s to be expected. The bone is healed, just that after five weeks of not using your leg, the muscle has softened up some and with you just now using the muscles, your blood is flowing through your leg a little more than before. Just…” Doc stopped talking.

“Just what?” Lucas asked, concern in his voice.

“Now Lucas, nothing to be concerned about. Its just that, well, Mark can give up using the crutches, but I’d like for him to use a cane,”

“A cane?” Mark asked, a little louder than he meant to.

“Just for a few more weeks. To help your balance. I’ll give you some exercises to help strengthen the muscles in your leg, just don’t overdo it.”

“What about riding?” Mark inquired; eager to get back in the saddle.

“Don’t see why not, just don’t go jumping down. Step down nice and gentle like, at least until you’re more comfortable in walking around. Your Pa can probably rig up something to attach to your saddle, similar to the scabbard for your rifle, to carry your cane. And I mean use the cane to walk, don’t be too proud,” Doc said as he pointed a finger towards Mark.

As Doc stepped to a back room, Lucas handed Mark a sock and his boot. Doc returned with a couple of canes and handed them one at a time for Mark to test to see which one would be the correct length. Once they decided on which cane, Doc watched Mark walk around his office for a few minutes.

“You’ll use it until I saw otherwise, Mark? Promise?” Doc asked.

“Yes sir. I promise.”

“Doc,” Lucas stated. “Do you have any plans for dinner this evening?”

“Why no Lucas, I don’t.”

“Well you do now, why don’t you join Mark and me at the restaurant for dinner. My treat.”

“That’s the best way to eat dinner.”

As they walked to the hotel, Mark felt more self conscious about using the cane than he had using the crutches, but he made a promise and he understood the reason for the cane. By the time they arrived at the hotel, Mark was thankful for the cane.

*****

The next morning found Lucas saddling Blue Boy for Mark to ride to school. He also had Razor saddled. As Mark entered the barn, he stopped and had a questioning look on his face.

“Mark, just today. It’s your first day back in the saddle. I promise after we get our chores done tomorrow, you can spend the rest of the day out riding on your own, without me as your shadow. Just give me today. Okay?”

“Sure Pa. I know I’ll always be your little boy, just as you’ll always be my Pa. Well, come on,” Mark said as he got in the saddle. “Or else you can tell Mr. Griswald you’re the reason why I’m late for school today.”

Mark laughed as his Pa got in the saddle. They rode side by side. Mark couldn’t help the grin on his face. It felt good to be back in the saddle. But he knew he needed to take it easy, if he overdid it while riding, he would pay the price of sore muscles, not to mention sore seat bones, for the next week or so. He was happy to just walk and trot Blue Boy to school. It was also easier to talk with his Pa during their trip, when they were taking it slow. He could wait until he was fully released to really start riding. Right now, it felt good to be in the saddle and he planned on taking it slow and easy.

*****

Two weeks later, and finally, Mark had been given a complete, clean bill of health, by Doc Burrage. Mark had also realized his Pa hadn’t had the bad dream in a while. Maybe things were finally returning to normal at the McCain ranch. Mark had returned to working side by side with his Pa on the ranch and taking back all the responsibilities of working his own chores.

*****

He rose early Saturday, as he planned to check the fence line out on the southeast edge of the ranch. But before he left, he couldn’t find his rifle. It wasn’t in the stand, beside his Pa’s. Until today, Mark hadn’t really looked for it. He hadn’t been in a position to need it until now.

“Pa,” Mark called as Lucas came in from the barn. “I just realized, my rifle is missing. It’s been so long, guess I must have left it back a Micah’s.” Mark said as he scratched at his head before putting his hat back on, then he saw his Pa was carrying a box.

“It’s not missing Mark. I talked it over with Angus and I hope you don’t mind. I’ve been waiting for this morning to come for quite a few weeks. You’ve done some growing up and I felt it was time to trade in your .22.” Lucas handed the box to Mark and watched as he opened it.

Mark’s eyes grew wide as he realized it was a rifle, like his Pa’s, except it didn’t have a modified lever.

“Pa…” Mark said as tear welled in his eyes. He pulled the rifle from the box and looked it over.

“Angus adjusted the stock so it would be the same as the one you borrowed from Micah when you rode with the posse. It should fit you well. I tried the action and was pleased. And it sights in perfectly.”

Lucas walked to the dresser in their bedroom and pulled out a box of shells. Returning to the front room, he handed them to Mark. “It’s a big step up, but I think you’re ready.”

Mark held the rifle in one hand and gave his Pa a big hug. “Thank you, Pa.”

*****

As Mark rode the fence line, he came to the bluffs that separated the McCain Ranch from Oat Jackford’s ranch. He shuddered; like he did every time he passed the bluffs, as he remembered back to that day when he encountered the wolf and how he had tripped and fallen down the bluff. Micah and Mr. Jackford had been in the right place at the right time to find him and save his life. He remembered that it had been the first time since just after their arrival in North Fork that his Pa had let him spend the night alone at the ranch. He remembered the accident and how guilty he had felt afterwards for failing The Test, not realizing while he was unconscious that Micah had had words with his Pa, and his Pa was taking the blame for failing The Test, too. ‘Yeah, seems Pa and I are more alike than either of us want to realize at times,’ Mark thought to himself and smiled.

Mark’s attention was brought back to the present when he heard voices yelling. He looked up and saw riders chasing after a lone figure, running on foot. He watched as the figure fell to the ground and the riders pulled up their horses and jumped down. Mark saw one of the riders pull out a bull whip and let it sail towards the figure lying on the ground. The person screamed as the whip lashed into their back. The other man had a knife in his hand as he ran to the figure; he grabbed the long braid of hair falling down the person’s back and cut it off, not too far from their scalp. Mark pulled out his rifle and kicked Blue Boy into a gallop. As he approached the riders, he fired one shot as a warning. As he arrived, he pulled Blue Boy to a halt and his rifle aimed at the man with the whip.

“Misters, this is McCain property and we don’t allow trespassing. I’d be obliged if you’d get on your horses and leave.”

“Boy, there’s only one of you and two of us,” one of the men snarled back.

“I know. And just which one of the two of you wants to take the first bullet? As I said, get in your saddles and leave this ranch! Don’t let me find you here again!”

One of the men grabbed for the figure on the ground and the person recoiled away.

“I said leave!” Mark demanded.

“It’s our property,” the other said.

“You have no right to own another human being. Based on the way you were treating him, I’d say count your blessings I’m letting you leave with your lives. Get mounted!”

Mark watched as the man with the whip coiled it and took a step towards Mark. Using only the weight of his seat, Mark backed Blue Boy a step. The man with the knife placed it in the sheath and called to his partner, “McCormick, get in the saddle.”Mark kept his rifle shouldered as he watched the men ride away. He didn’t lower it until they were well out of sight. Mark placed his rifle in his scabbard and then stepped down from Blue Boy and looked at the person, still on the ground. He knelt down and extended a hand, “Don’t be afraid, I’m here to help.”

‘My God, it’s a girl, maybe my age,’ Mark thought to himself.

The girl tried to crawl backwards from Mark.

“Please, I’m not going to hurt you.” Mark said, but didn’t approach.

The girl stopped and pushed back what was left of her hair from her face. Under the dirt, Mark saw the bruises on her face, saw the blood trickling from the corner of her mouth, saw the rope burns on her wrists. He saw how worn the soles of her moccasins were, and the rifts in the sleeves of her top. He stood and pulled down his canteen, knelt and offered it to the girl.

She took a hesitant move towards Mark. He placed the canteen on the ground and stepped back.

“Its water, help yourself,” Mark said as he sat down and crossed his legs.

He watched as she crawled to the canteen, picked it up, twisted the cap and began to drink. All the while, she kept a wary eye towards Mark.

He pulled his bandanna from his back pocket and held it out to the girl. He didn’t react as she moved closer and snatched the bandanna from him and then scurried backwards from his reach.

Mark watched as she poured a little water into the bandanna, then replaced the cap on the canteen and set it down. She wiped her face and then dabbed at the corner of her mouth. He then noticed her clothing was made from animal skins. ‘Could she be an Indian?’ he thought.

Mark moved to get up and watched the girl’s reaction, there was still fear in her eyes, but she didn’t back away. Mark picked up the canteen and asked her to turn around and let him tend to her back, as he made a motion indicating for her to turn around, he held his hand out for the bandanna. She looked from Mark to his horse; eyes focused on the rifle, and then back to Mark. She held out the bandanna to Mark and as he took it, she turned around, but kept her head turned to keep an eye on Mark.

Mark poured water into the bandanna and slowly pulled open the back side of her shirt from where the rawhide whip had cut through the cloth and then tended to her back. Mark noticed how white her skin was underneath as he dabbed at the blood seeping from the whip mark.

“You probably don’t understand a word I’m saying, but, maybe you’ll understand from my tone of voice and my actions, that I don’t mean you any harm.”

As she looked over her shoulder, she saw the smile on Mark’s face, but flinched as he touched at a deeper laceration from the whip.

“I’m sorry, but it needs to be cleaned,” Mark said in reaction to her flinch.

He continued to smile at her, hoping she’d come to trust him more. He wanted to get her back to his home and tell his Pa what had happened. All the time, Mark still kept a wary eye and his ears open in case those two men returned.

Once Mark felt he’d tended to her back as best he could, he stood and returned his canteen to his saddle. He untied his jacket from behind his saddle and held it out to her. Cautiously, she took the jacket and put it on.

Mark stepped into the stirrup and mounted Blue Boy. He then removed his foot from the stirrup and extended his arm down for the girl. She looked around and then grabbed Mark’s arm, placed a foot in the stirrup, and swung up to sit behind Mark. She placed her arms around Mark’s waist and held on. Mark signaled Blue Boy to pick up a lope and they headed for home.

*****

Mark arrived in front of the barn as the sun was setting, to see his Pa leading Razor out.

“Mark where have you been? You should have been home hours ago. I was…,” Lucas called out, deep concern was in his voice.

“Pa, I’m sorry. I couldn’t help being late,” Mark interrupted. “I was out near the bluffs and saw two men trespassing and well, they were chasing a girl. She tripped and they started to whip her. One of the men cut off her braid.”

Lucas finally saw that there was someone else sitting behind Mark as he turned Blue Boy sideways for his Pa to see.

“Mark… I’m sorry, I was just getting worried when you weren’t back when you said you’d be.”

“I know Pa.”

Lucas dropped Razor’s reins and walked over to Mark. Mark felt the girl behind him tense.

“Pa, please, it took me a long time to gain her trust, she’s scared.”

Lucas stopped and took a step backwards, Mark felt the girl relax her hold.

“Should we keep her here tonight or should I take her on in to see Doc Burrage. I’m concerned about the laceration on her back.”

“Mark, we’ll keep her here tonight. Doc Burrage won’t be back until late tomorrow afternoon.”

Lucas picked up Razor’s reins and watched as Mark stepped down from Blue Boy and then assisted the girl to get down. As he looked at her, he saw the fear in her eyes as she returned his stare, yet, he marveled at how his son had managed to gain her trust, as they walked into the house.

Then leading both horses, Lucas returned to the barn and unsaddled them.

*****

As he entered the house, he placed his and Mark’s rifles in their stands, by the door. He saw Mark and the girl standing at the sink, Mark was working the pump as the girl held her head under the water and rubbed her hair, her face and finally her arms. Through her torn shirt, Lucas saw the lash mark the whip had left. He walked into the bed room, pulled out a medicine box, and returned to the front room. He set the medicine box on the table and went to sit in his chair.

Mark helped wrap a towel around the girl’s hair and then escorted her to a chair at the table and motioned for her to sit down. He opened the medicine box and pulled out a tub of salve and applied it to her back to help prevent infection and aid in the healing of the laceration. As he worked on the girl’s back he talked to his Pa and told of what happened.

As he continue his conversation he stated, “Pa, I had just been remembering back and was thinking about how Micah and Mr. Jackford had been in the right place at the right time, when I encountered that wolf on the bluffs. And here I was in the right place and right time to save her. Pa, I’m sorry for bringing this trouble home, but I couldn’t just let it happen. Not on McCain property! Guess we’ll need to let Micah know to keep an eye out for those men.”

“Mark, I’ll do that tomorrow when we take her to town. For now, I don’t want you leaving the house or barn without me. When you go to the barn, keep your rifle with you. Who knows who those men are and whether they’re still out there trying to get her back.” Lucas stood. “I’m going to get a cot from the barn. She can sleep in the front room tonight. Why don’t you get her one of your shirts to wear instead of that ripped shirt she’s wearing?”

“Yes Pa.”

The girl started to rub her hair with the towel, as Mark returned to the front room with his shirt in hand he heard, “Mark” and saw the girl was pointing towards him. As Lucas entered the house, carrying the cot, she said, “Pa?” as she pointed to Lucas.

Mark smiled and said, “Yes, my name is Mark. And,” pointing to Lucas, “He’s my Pa.”

The girl stood from the chair, placed the towel on the table, and walked to Lucas’ desk. She picked up a picture and said, “Your Ma” and then pointed to Mark.

“Yes, that’s my Ma, but she died a long time ago,” there was sorrow in Mark’s voice as the girl handed the picture to Mark and he set it down on the desk.

“Do you remember your name?” He pointed to himself when he said, “My name is Mark”. Then he pointed to the girl and said “Your name?”

The girl looked at Mark and then looked at the floor. Mark could tell she was trying to remember. Lucas watched the exchange as set up the cot.

The girl pointed to herself and said, “Dawn Fire, but before, H-hope,” she eventually said. “My n-name was Hope.”

“You remember speaking English, our language?” Mark asked.

“From long time ago. Iron Heart, he talk some and white medicine man, he talk with me.”

“Iron Heart?” Mark inquired.

“He took me as family,” Hope replied.

Lucas laid out a pillow and blankets on the cot, and turned to the girl and said, “For you to sleep.”

She walked to Lucas’ chair and picked up Lucas’ bible from the side table. Lucas started to take a step forward, but stopped when Mark said, “Pa, wait.”

The girl ran her hand over the cover of the bible and she opened the bible and ran her hand over the pages. As she closed her eyes she said, “I remember… A long time ago… ‘Our Father who art in Heaven…” The girl closed the bible and set it gently back on the table. She hung her head and she dropped her hands to her side.

Mark walked to her and placed a hand on her shoulder, “Its okay,” he stated as he gently turned her around. He saw tears falling down her cheeks. He led her over to the cot and gently pushed her to sit and finally to lie down. He pulled the covers over her as she curled up on her side, tears still falling.

Lucas blew out the lanterns in the front room as he and Mark retired to their bed room. As they dressed for bed, Mark started talking again.

“Pa, years ago, when that book salesman came to town, afterwards, you told me of how he stole something from women that should only be shared with their husband…”

“Go on.”

“Do you think those men could have tried stealing that same thing from her. As much as she’s been beaten, could those men have…?”

Lucas heard in Mark’s voice that this was a concern that was weighing heavily on his mind. “I don’t know son. I pray not. But, if those men thought she was an Indian, they probably would have tried. That will be up to Doc Burrage to determine.”

“Pa, I don’t think she’s an Indian. From the way she dressed, one would think so, but when I was tending her back out on the bluffs, her skin is so white underneath her shirt and her hair. Pa, who’s ever heard of an Indian with red hair? Pa, could she have been captive by some tribe?”

“It’s possible. She remembers some English, we’ll just have to give her time to trust us and to talk with us. Goodnight son.”

“Goodnight Pa.”

*****

Lucas and Mark entered the front room in the morning to find the girl still curled up and asleep. They quietly picked up their rifles, left the house, and headed to the barn to do their chores.

As Mark was feeding the chickens, he saw the girl exit the house and that she had put on the shirt he’d given her the night before. She hadn’t tucked the shirttail in, but rather, wore the shirt tail on the outside of her britches. Lucas was carrying a basket of eggs and the milk pail when he saw her and noticed the absence of fear in her eyes.

The three returned to the house. The girl sat down on the hearth of the fireplace. Mark sat down in his chair next to where she sat. They quietly talked as Lucas fixed breakfast.

As they were finishing eating breakfast, a rider could be heard approaching the house. Hope stood quickly, knocking her chair over. Lucas saw panic and fear in her eyes. Mark got up and walked to the open front door, “Pa, its Micah.”

Mark turned from the door, walked to the girl, and said, “Hope, you’re okay. He’s a friend. It’s not those men.”

Lucas stood and walked to the door to meet Micah on the porch.

“Good Morning Micah. What brings you out this way so early this morning?”

“There might be trouble heading your way LucasBoy. Sweeney had a couple of men in the bar last night. They got talking drunk about getting even with ‘that’ boy because of him interfering with their property. Sweeney kept an ear on what they were saying all night and couldn’t figure out who they were talking about. He came to me first thing this morning, so Drako and I are warning all the ranchers keep an eye out for strangers. Not sure what this is all about, but better to be safely forewarned. Boy that coffee does smell good, mind if I help myself?”

“Micah, just a minute. Those men, they were talking about Mark. He had a run in with two strangers out near the bluffs yesterday. They were chasing a girl and done a pretty good job of beating her. Took a whip to her back and cut off her braid before Mark could stop them. He chased them off and brought the girl here. Mark said, they claimed the girl to be their property.”

“How could they claim a girl as property?” Micah asked.

“Probably because they thought she was an Indian. It’s doubtful that she is. Mark and I think that she might have been a captive of a tribe and either those men traded or stole her away, not realizing she’s white.”

“Oh, Lucas, I’m not looking forward to having this kind of trouble in North Fork this morning.”

“Well, if you hadn’t ridden out Micah, you wouldn’t have heard about it until this afternoon.” Lucas grinned at his play on words to Micah, “Mark and I planned to bring her to town to have Doc Burrage take a look at her.”

“Well, at least I can stop riding across the country side, sounding an alarm. I’ll head back to town and let Johnny know what’s up. What time do you plan to arrive at Doc’s?”

“I was thinking about four o’clock and afterwards we could head to the General Store with Lou, after it’s closed for the day and not have any more prying eyes than necessary.”

“Okay, LucasBoy, I’ll see you later.”

*****

Micah returned to his office to find Billy Lehigh having a serious discussion with Johnny Drako.

“But I tell you, I saw them. There were three of them, couldn’t miss the ponies they were riding. I know Indians when I see ‘em,” Billy was stating as he was leaned over the desk pointing a finger at Drako.

“Billy, just settle down,” Johnny stated, then seeing Micah arrive. “Micah, Billy says he saw three Indians out near the bluffs that separate Oat’s place from Lucas’.”

Micah entered the office and closed the door behind him.

“Bill, just when did you see them?”

“Why this morning, I saw them and immediately headed here! I don’t think they saw me. Aren’t they supposed to be on a reservation way up North? What are they doing this close to North Fork?”

“Settle down. I think I know why, but I don’t have all the facts, yet,” Micah stated. “Billy, have a seat.”

Micah proceeded to tell Johnny and Billy the story that Lucas told him earlier.

“I’m thinking those two drunks as Sweeney’s last night, stole the girl from the tribe, and now they’re looking to get her back. Johnny, I want you to head out to Lucas’ place. He and Mark were going to bring the girl to town later today, but if those Indians were already at the bluffs… Billy, you get back and warn Oat.”

*****

Before Johnny or Billy could leave the office, there was a rap on the door just before it opened to have two Cavalry soldiers enter.

Micah was the first to address them, “Good Day officers. What can I do for you?”

“Marshal, my name is Major Seth Lane and this is Lieutenant Ethan Lane. We need your assistance.”

“How can a town marshal help the army?” Drako asked.

“This isn’t exactly helping the Army. We’re both on personal leave of absence. Several months ago, we heard word that one of the Indian tribes in this territory had a young woman with them, a white woman with red hair. We had hoped to meet up with this tribe and see this young woman.”

“What for?” Billy asked.

Micah shot him a warning look.

“That’s a valid question. A little more than six years ago, I lost my wife to fever. I was already committed to the army and I didn’t know anything about raising a daughter. I took my boy, Ethan, with me to the fort because he was old enough, but I sent my daughter to live with my sister and her family. Thought with cousins, she’d have a happier life growing up than living on an Army post. About four months later, I received word there had been an Indian attack and my sister and her family had been killed. At that time, I just presumed my daughter had been killed as well.”

As the major stopped talking, the lieutenant continued.

“It almost destroyed my father. But as he said, several months ago we heard about a red-haired Indian girl. We eventually found the tribe and talked with the elders, but were too late. Five days previous, several trappers had come to their hunting camp away from the reservation. The men stayed with the tribe overnight and the next day, they and the girl were gone. It’s been almost a week that we’ve been trailing them.

“Dawn Fire was the name the tribe gave the girl. Said because they found her at sunrise and the sun light made her red hair seem on fire… They told us the story of how they had found her wandering out in the desert. They followed her tracks backwards and found what remained of the family’s homestead. There was no town within several days ride, so they decided to take the girl and provide for her. My father and I are convinced that this girl is my sister, Hope. She’d be sixteen years old now.”

“Gentlemen, I think all our troubles can be answered out at the McCain Ranch.”

But before Micah could continue, Sweeney came running in. “Micah, those two strangers, they came back and had friends, tried to buy whiskey from me. I refused to sell them any. They argued for a little bit, but then they left. Micah, they were already drunk and as they were leaving Toomey heard one of them talk about getting that boy.”

“Oh, my. Can this day get any better?” Micah stated with a heavy sigh as he lifted his eyes up and looked towards the heavens. “Men, we need to ride, now!” Micah pushed his way past the soldiers, with Johnny and Billy close on his heels. The Lane’s had no choice but to follow, hoping someone would provide an answer as to what was happening. Sweeney stood in the Marshal’s office alone.

*****

They rode five strong for the McCain ranch. As they arrived, they saw Lucas stepping down from Razor, in front of the barn.

“Lucas,” Micah called. “I’d like you to meet Major Seth Lane and his son, Lieutenant Ethan Lane. Where are Mark and the girl?”

“In the house, I presume, probably getting a late lunch ready. Why?”

“That trouble I was talking about earlier, its worse than we thought. Billy here told us he saw three Indians out near the bluffs where you said Mark found the girl. These soldiers here might just be the girl’s real family. And before we left to come out here, Sweeney told us those strangers were back, with friends, and they commented about ‘getting that boy’ before they left.”

“Mark!” Lucas yelled as he ran for the house.

He entered their home to find Mark struggling to stand up, holding his hand to the back of his head.

“Take it easy Mark. Sit down slowly,” Lucas cautioned, as he put his arms around Mark’s waist to help steady him. “Micah, get in here!”

Those from town and the soldiers entered the house and stared at the scene in front of them. Johnny and Billy exited the house and started looking around.

“I’m okay Pa, where’s Hope?” Mark asked as he tried to pull himself out of his Pa’s grasp. He shook his head and took one step before stumbling sideways, off balance.

“Whoa, there boy. You’re not okay,” Lucas stated as he grabbed hold of Mark again.

“Pa, I’m alright. My vision just kind of started fading away and I got real light headed. I’m sorry,” Mark replied.

“Nothing to be sorry for. Come on, let’s get you sitting down,” Lucas said as he led Mark to sit in his chair.

As Lucas finished helping Mark sit down, he asked Mark to tell them what happened.

“I don’t rightly know. Hope and I were getting ready to set the table for lunch and next thing I know, I’m getting up off the floor and you’re standing next to me. Pa, where’s Hope?”

“Mark, were they Indians or white men?” Micah asked.

Mark just shook his head, whether answer no or shaking the cobwebs, he didn’t know.

“Lucas,” Johnny stated as he and Billy returned to the house. “Seems someone wearing boots entered from the bedroom window. Same boot prints then are dragging someone out the back door.”

“Guess that answers your question Micah,” Lucas stated.

“Those men, it had to be. They came back and took Hope!” Mark exclaimed as he winced from the sound of how loud his own voice was. “Pa, we have to go after them.”

Mark, against his father’s wishes, stood up and took a tentative step towards the door. Realizing his no longer felt dizzy, he continued. He picked up the deputy badge from the mantle, pinned it on, and then walked to the door and reached for his rifle.

“Mark!” Lucas demanded.

“Pa, I’m going to bring Hope back. Either you and the others can come with me or you can stay here.”

“Lucas,” Micah said. “We best go get his horse saddled. Johnny, Billy, get some food from the smoke house and the cabinets, we ride as soon as Blue Boy is ready.”

Seth and Ethan Lane stood and watched the events unfold in front of them.

“Mark, you stay right here and sit down until we’re ready to head out,” Lucas stated as he pointed a finger to his son and watched as Mark sat down at a chair from the table.

As Lucas and Micah left the house to get the horses ready, Lt. Lane spoke, “Boy, you called the girl Hope, does she have red hair and a small crescent shaped scar, kind of lying on its back, on her right cheek, half way between her cheek bone and her jaw bone?”

“Yes sir she does. But who are you and how’d you know?” Mark asked.

The Lieutenant introduced himself and his father to Mark and then told him there was the possibility that the girl, Hope, was his sister. The scar was from a dog bite when she wasn’t yet five.

Soon enough, they were ready to leave. Micah told Billy Lehigh to head on back home, to his wife and sons.

*****

The riders stopped at an old, abandoned stage relay station, just outside of Alamogordo, for the night. After typing up the girl and shoving her in a closet, they pulled out bedrolls and rolled them out. “Keene,” McCormick yelled. “Why’d you stop me from killing that boy back there? You should have let me kill him!”

“Yeah, and just how far do you think we’d of gotten if his Pa heard that shot?”

“Wouldn’t have mattered, I’ve of killed him too,” McCormick growled.

“McCormick, we ain’t being paid to kill anyone and I don’t think we’d get any extra for the killings. All we’re being paid to do is to bring this injun to Stedman and meet him here in Alamogordo.”

“But I owe that kid.”

“McCormick, drop it. Just do as we’re being paid to do and that’s all!” Keene stated. “Now, get some sleep. Stedman should be here in the morning.”

*****

The moon had risen when the posse finally stopped for the night. After they had eaten a supper of beans and bread, Mark set out his bedroll next to his Pa’s and lay down.

“Mark, I’m proud of how you’re handling yourself today. I’m proud to watch you read their trail and understand it as well as I do.”

“Yes, sir,” Mark replied.

Lucas could hear tension in Mark’s voice.

“So tell me, what’s wrong. You sound tense,” Lucas stated.

“Pa, I don’t know what it is. I’ve only known Hope for just over a day and I feel… I don’t know what it is I feel, but it’s strong. Am I ashamed? Angry? Hurt? I don’t know,” Mark stated as he sat up and crossed his legs.

“Do you know why you have these feelings?” Lucas asked.

“I’m ashamed and angry for how those men treated Hope. Just because they think she’s an Indian. I hurt for what she’s gone through at the hands of those men. So many people think its okay to treat an Indian, just because of the color of their skin, as if they’re nothing more than, well…, dirt. It says in the bible that God created man in His image. It’s just not right for them to be treated any less than us!”

“Boy, there’s people out there who disagree with your philosophy. They don’t believe the red man to be a man, that he’s more animal than man,” Major Lane said.

“But they’re just contradicting themselves. They call him a red man, that itself says he’s a man. He can feel and talk. I’ve seen the red man cry tears. I’ve never seen a dog or a horse or a cow cry tears. We may not understand the language he speaks, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a man. Not everyone understands the Spanish or French languages, but that doesn’t mean those people aren’t ‘men’,” Mark’s voice showed the passion he felt about the subject.

“Mark, you’d be rightly welcomed in Washington, D.C. for your viewpoints. The politicians only hear from those who say the red man is nothing. For me, it’s refreshing to hear someone so young speak with such depth and compassion and understanding,” Ethan Lane stated.

“Mark, my son’s right. And for a long time, I was one of those who felt there was nothing ‘good’ about the Indian. But in time, I’ve come to believe as you do. It took me a long time to change my way of thinking. And now, that there’s a possibility that a tribe saved the life of my daughter, I’m glad my mind set changed before I came here,” Seth Lane stated as he took a drink from his cup of coffee.

“Well, I don’t know about Washington, D.C., it’s too far way for me to even think about. Right now I just want to get Hope back. And if she is your daughter, get the three of you reunited.”

Mark, grabbed his rifle, stood, and left the camp. The others watched him leave. A few moments later, Lucas got up and followed. He approached and saw Mark sitting on a large boulder, “Mark?”

“I’m here Pa. I’m sorry if I spoke out of line back there and was wrong in walking away. I just needed to sort through my feelings. Problem is, I don’t know why I really feel the way I do.”

“You weren’t wrong Mark. You have a viewpoint that will, hopefully, one day lead this territory to Statehood. All men do need to think of themselves as brothers. Maybe the Lieutenant is right and that your calling is in Washington.”

“Never! To be stuck in that CITY and so far away from where my home is? If I’m to do any good, it’s got to be here, where it matters. Not back East where no one here would know what’s happening.”

“Son, take your time to do your thinking, but remember, we’re riding at sun up. We all need our sleep.”

“Yes sir. Pa? …Remember that dream I told out about? The one where I said I finally understood what you had been trying to teach me because I was married and had children?” Mark hesitated, waited to see if his Pa remembered.

Lucas nodded and looked at his son.

“Down deep…, it may sound strange, but… I feel that Hope was a part of that dream. I didn’t want to say anything back at camp, because… it’s scaring me,” Mark replied as he looked back out over the horizon. Trying to understand exactly what it was that was pulling at him.

“You want me to stay?”

“No sir, I think this is one of those times I need to do some thinking on my own.”

“All right son,” Lucas said, as he turned and walked back to camp.

*****

With the McCain’s gone from the camp the Major inquired about them. “Marshal, that boy and his father, they seem quite different than most settlers out here. Ethan and I have a good relationship, but I don’t think that even we have that kind of a bond. And for Mark, I don’t know that I’ve ever heard anyone so young speak with such conviction and belief, especially around their elders,” Seth stated.

Ethan added, “I guess I’m just a tad bit curious as to why he’s wearing a deputy badge and not his father.”

Micah took the time to tell the Lane’s a little of the past history of Lucas and Mark McCain and then more recently how Mark was deputized when it fell to him to assist the posse in tracking down outlaws who robbed the stage. He went on to add, that some day, in the future, he planned to retire, and it just seemed, right, to leave Mark deputized.

“Don’t ask us why, but it does.” Johnny stated as he raised his coffee cup in a small salute. “Guess it does seem strange to have the son and not the father as a deputy, but Lucas is okay with it, surprisingly enough. And Mark is learning his responsibilities and takes seriously what the badge represents.”

Lucas returned to camp and Micah inquired, “How’s Mark?”

“Give him a little time. He’s trying to figure some things out. He’ll be back soon.”

Lucas laid his rifle down next to his bedroll and climbed in. The others turned in as well.

*****

The group was abruptly woken in the morning to hearing Mark yell, “Ow! Dang it!” as he set the coffee pot down and started shaking his hand in the air.

“Mark?”

“Sorry, Pa, just wasn’t paying attention and grabbed the pot wrong. Coffee’s ready and I’ve warmed some biscuits, if anyone wants some. The horses are ready to go, just need to tighten the cinches before we ride.”

“You get your thinking done last night?” Lucas asked as he climbed from his bedroll, walked over and took a cup of coffee from Mark.

“Not really, but it doesn’t scare me as much. I had a long talk with God last night and felt a lot better afterwards,” Mark replied.

*****

Keene and McCormick were up before daybreak, getting things set. The others were outside, waiting. Stedman should arrive at the relay station any time. They pulled the girl from the closet, checked the bindings around her wrists and tightened the gag. They set her in a chair and then ran another rope around her, securely tying her to the chair.

The sun was just peaking over the hills when Stedman arrived. He entered the station and pulled himself up to his full height.

“That her?” he asked, not taking his eyes off the girl.

“That’s her. Mind telling us why?” McCormick asked.

“Guess you got reason to know. I want to start an all out war. I’m gonna force those red bastards to break the treaty. Then the Army will have to come in and deal with them once and for all. Move them down to the swamp lands in Florida. The land the government set aside as their reservation, was my land. Good, prime, cattle raising land. I was all ready to take that land, dirt cheap, and those ‘legislatures’ in Washington don’t know what they done. I ain’t gonna see no filthy redskin squat on it. I want my land back!”

“And just how does this squaw figure in?” Keene asked.

“She’s the daughter of Iron Heart. Through her, I can get him to do anything I please. All I have to do is see to it that she is killed, by a white man. He’ll go on the war path and I’ll get what I want.”

“Hell, if you wanted her dead, we could have done that back before we took her. Why’d we have to go through all this trouble to get her here?” McCormick stated.

Because, Senator Borden is arriving in Alamogordo tomorrow and I need to make sure he is a casualty. Killing two birds with one stone, so to speak.”

Stedman walked over to the girl, as he approached, she started kicking out with her legs, just trying to keep him away.

“Did you have any trouble getting her? You should have been able to get in and get out quickly with her.” Vindictiveness could be heard in Stedman’s voice.

“We did. Just that she got away from us once and some son of a sodbuster saw us chasing her and pulled a rifle on us. Forced our hand to leave her with him.” Keene continued, “But we got her back.”

“Did you leave a witness?” Stedman demanded.

“Yeah, but I wouldn’t call him a witness. He’s probably thankful not to have to deal with her any more, once he realized what she was.” McCormick replied. “’Sides, Keene wouldn’t let me kill the kid.”

“Idiots! There’s a kid out there who can connect you to her and then she shows up dead? How could you be so stupid?” Stedman yelled.

“No one can tie her to you. What’s it matter, she’s just a stinkin’ Injun. Ain’t no white man gonna think twice about finding her dead anyhow. You still get what you want, your war and your land,” Keene stated. “Besides, he was just a kid, a sodbuster.”

The men continued to discuss their plan. How they intended to kill the girl and Senator Borden.

*****

The others stepped down from their horses to stretch their legs as Lucas and Mark examined the tracks.

“Pa, we’re not the only ones tracking them,” Mark quietly said as he studied the trail.

“I know. When Micah came out yesterday, he told me that Billy Lehigh saw three Indians out on the bluffs.” Lucas quickly told Mark the story that Micah had told him.

“Three? But Pa, there’s only two unshod tracks here.”

“I know and these two are ahead of us. So I’m presuming one is behind us.”

“Pa, do you think the others are the Indians who cared for her?”

“I would hope to think they are.”

Lucas and Mark returned to their horses.

“They’re heading for Alamogordo,” Lucas declared.

*****

They entered Alamogordo and rode for the Sheriff’s office; to explain why they were there and to find out if the men they were tracking had been seen. After talking with the Sheriff, they headed for the hotel. They had just finished registering at the hotel, when those from the carriage that had just pulled up in front of the hotel, entered.

Mark stood to the back of the lobby, waiting. Seeing his Pa turn around, Mark turned around and ran into the man entering. Stepping back quickly, he said, “Senator Borden, I’m so sorry. I should have looked before I turned around, I really am sorry.”

The senator’s aid tried pushing Mark aside, until he saw the badge. “I’m sorry deputy. I didn’t see your badge,” he said as he stepped aside.

“Young man, you seem to be one up on me. No one knew that we were coming here.”

“Sir, we didn’t know it either, it’s just that I remember you from four years ago, when you visited North Fork and we had those outlaws dressed as cavalry make an attempt on your life.”

A smile of recognition came across the Senator’s face, “Why if my memory serves me correctly, you’ve traded in your slingshot for something a little more powerful. Young Mr. McCain, am I right? You’ve done some growing up since last I saw you. And a badge at that. I’m right honored to be reacquainted with you.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you sir,” Mark answered, a little more than embarrassed.

Introductions were made for the rest of the group. “Officers,” Senator’s aid stated. “I’d appreciate a word with you for a moment.” The rest of posse from North Fork then excused themselves.

*****

The Lane’s rejoined the group from North Fork for supper. Conversation included the fact that the Senator’s group appreciated there being more soldiers and deputies in town. They had heard rumblings of a serious threat against the Senator. This wasn’t a business trip; the Senator was on his way to visit his sister in Arizona. The Senator was especially pleased to know that those responsible for preventing a previous assassination attempt were in town.

*****

The next day, group from North Fork had finished their breakfast and walked outside. Mark headed for the livery as his Pa, Micah, and Johnny returned to the Sheriff’s office. Without any warning, all hell broke loose as Senator Borden and his entourage were walking from the hotel to the livery. The Senator and his people ran for cover as did the citizens of Alamogordo. The Sheriff and those from North Fork ran out of the office and took cover. They determined the shots were coming from three different directions, before they returned fire.

Though Lucas was occupied with helping to protect the town, he grew concerned when he couldn’t see Mark.

It took time, but eventually the last shot was fired. Slowly Lucas stood up and stepped from behind a water trough. Johnny and Micah stepped out from behind a wagon in front of the general store. The Lane’s stood from behind a carriage in front of the hotel. Everyone still had guns in hand. Lucas continued to look for Mark, but his attention was drawn to one man riding a horse, pushing in front of them, a person on foot, down the middle of the street.

From a side alley, Mark saw the same rider and person. He saw in one hand the rider held a gun and in the other, a rope that was tied around the neck of… “Hope!” Mark yelled as he ran into the street. As he stopped, he shouldered his rifle.

The rider stopped and tugged on the rope. “Stop right there deputy! You?!” he screamed when he recognized Mark. “You’re a deputy? Why you’re nothing more than a brat!”

“I might be a brat, but, McCormick, you’re a dead man unless you drop that rope.” Mark answered, with a dead calm to his voice, loud enough that everyone could hear.

Mark didn’t dare take his eyes off the man to spare a look at Hope, lest McCormick take advantage of his distraction.

“Seems like we have a Mexican standoff here, boy!” McCormick started laughing. “The men sent a boy to do a man’s job. Maybe one of those MEN could get a shot off at me, but right now, my gun is focused on you. You want to be the first to take a bullet?”

Mark answered loud enough that only McCormick and Hope could hear him, he didn’t want his Pa to hear. “Not really, but if it means that you can’t hurt Hope any more, I’ll take a bullet for her.”

Before their eyes, they saw three arrows strike the ground in front of McCormick’s horse, causing it to spook sideways and McCormick struggled to regain control. Mark saw the rope binding Hope was also tied to the saddle horn. He knelt, rested his arm on his knee, took aim and fired, and just as the rope tightened to pull Hope backwards, the bullet struck, severing it. Before Mark could fire a second shot, he saw an arrow strike McCormick in the chest. Mark got to his feet and ran to Hope’s side. He helped her get up off the ground. As he put an arm around her waist to turn her away from the scene, he found three Indians between him and the others.

An older Indian dismounted from his horse, walked to where McCormick lay, turned him over and spit in his face. Then he walked back to Mark and Hope, and pulled a knife from its sheath on his belt. He cut the bindings on her wrists and cut the rope from her neck. After returning his knife to its sheath, he held his hand out, in white man fashion to Mark.

He spoke in broken English, “It was brave what you did, today and before.”

“Before?” Mark asked.

“We follow tracks after men took Dawn Fire. Follow home. Saw them take her from you. Saw you leading law. You stand here, brave against a coward.”

“But I wasn’t alone, my Pa and the others, they stood behind me,” Mark said.

“Alone, you offered to lose life to save one.”

Then turning to Hope, “Dawn Fire, I am pleased that you are safe, but soldiers who ride with this one, are your family. Our hearts sad you no longer live with us. But know, your memory will always shine.” He turned to walk away.

“Sir?” Mark asked. “You are Iron Heart?” He nodded. “Please stay? You can’t just walk away.”

“We leave,” Iron Heart spoke.

Mark looked to Hope and saw the tears falling down her cheeks. He took his hand and wiped away those falling down her right cheek. She turned towards Mark and allowed him to wrap her in his arms as she cried.

“Sir, I understand your heart. Maybe we could meet you and make camp outside of town. You need to talk to Hope, she needs to understand…”

”Maybe, one day, we can live as brothers, if more believed as you.” He walked back to his horse and mounted, then waited.

Mark released Hope, but grabbed her hand and ran to the livery. He bridled Blue Boy, hopped on him bareback, and pulled Hope up behind him. He ran Blue Boy past his Pa and the others. He heard his Pa yell his name as he rode and stopped next to Iron Heart.

Lucas and the others watched as Mark stopped his horse. Lucas wanted to follow, but coming up all around them was the Senator as well as his entourage. And the people of the town were coming out from their hiding places as some watched in awe and others watched in fear, as Mark and the Indians rode down the middle of the street. Everyone crowded around those from North Fork; the were talking and asking questions. The Sheriff and those from North Fork tried their best to answer. Finally, the Sheriff of Alamogordo and his deputy tried to break up the crowd. Told them all to go about their own businesses or to head home. He wanted everyone off the street! Next, they dragged the four bodies off to the undertaker’s.

*****

Micah and Johnny grabbed Lucas’ arms and led him to the hotel.

“Come on Lucas. Let’s get you to the hotel. Mark will be back.”

“I need to go find him.” Lucas asked.

“Lucas, trust Mark now, as you’ve trusted him before. He’ll be back.”

The Lane’s accompanied them to the hotel and waited in the restaurant.

*****

Mark rode with Iron Heart and helped as they made a small camp outside of town. Soon they were sitting around a small fire. Mark was told the other braves were Iron Heart’s sons.

Iron Heart spoke, “You have no fear of us?”

“No sir. I’ve spent time with the Apaches, they found me injured and nursed me back to health. Though, when I was maybe eleven, a different tribe had kidnapped me.” Mark stopped talking as he remembered.

Iron Heart told Mark of finding a child out in the desert and of the tragedy in finding her family massacred. They told of the decision to raise the child as one of their own, regardless that she was white. They couldn’t abandon a child to nature. Iron Heart then told of the soldiers’ arrival at their camp, inquiring of a red-haired, young woman. He described how he felt their hurt and need to find their daughter/sister. When they left, he set out to join his sons in tracking down those who had taken her. Iron Heart took Hope’s chin in his hand as he turned her face to the side and said the soldiers knew of the scar.

“Dawn Fire,” Iron Heart spoke. “I wish you to stay, to be a part of family, but the soldiers are real family. They hurt for their loss. You must go to own kind.”

“Hope, is your name. This one protected you,” Iron Heart said as he pointed to Mark. “It is right that you return with him to family.”

The group stood, with tears in Iron Heart’s eyes, he gave Hope one final hug. He motioned for them to go to Mark’s horse and pointed them to town. Iron Heart’s sons put out the fire and mounted their horses. Iron Heart was soon on the back of his own horse. The three turned in unison and rode away. They never looked back.

*****

Mark stood next to Hope, saw the tears falling. He put his arms around her and pulled her into his embrace, putting one hand on the back of her head, pulling it to his shoulder. He felt her trying to control her crying as she put her arms around him. He waited.

*****

The longer Mark was gone, the more worried Lucas became. It didn’t matter what Micah or Johnny told him.

“It’s my job as his father to worry,” Lucas said as he placed his cup of coffee down on the table.

It was approaching supper time when he looked out the window and saw a horse with two riders stop at the hitching rail. Lucas was outside in a heart beat.

“Mark?” he said as he stopped and watched Mark help Hope get down. Lucas saw the sorrow in both their eyes.

“Pa, are the Lane’s inside?” Mark asked.

“Yes, they’re in the restaurant.”

“First I want to get her to the town doctor and then I think, WE, need to talk. Can I meet you in our room later? Would you let the Lane’s know?”

“Sure son.” Lucas stepped aside as Mark led Hope a couple doors down to the doctor’s office.

*****

Mark waited on the bench in front of the doctor’s office. Shortly the Lane’s walked up.

“Sirs,” Mark started. “Iron Heart told Hope everything and said she should return to her own kind. I can’t exactly imagine how she feels, but I know she needs time to understand. All I ask is that you try to understand her and not force our ways on her. She’s been raise as a member of Iron Hearts family for six years. I only spent a few weeks with the Lipan tribe of the Apache Nation, and appreciated how they took me in as family and treated my injuries before I was re-united with my Pa. I so wanted to be back with my Pa, but it still hurt leaving behind people who cared for me when they didn’t have to.”

Inside, the doctor administered a salve to the rope marks on Hope’s wrists and to the lash mark on her back. As for the bruising on her face and arms, the doctor handed her a bottle of witch-hazel with directions to rub some on the bruises in the morning and of an evening.

One of the ladies from town stopped by and dropped off a clean shirt and pant/skirt that she thought might fit Hope. She changed into the clothes and exited to meet Mark outside; and much to Mark’s surprise, he let loose a whistle. As both her father and brother looked towards him, his cheeks started turning red, but he couldn’t take his eyes off her.

*****

Mark watched as the Lane’s escorted Hope to the hotel. He entered the Doc’s office and had a brief discussion. Mark returned to the room he shared with his Pa. He sat down on the bed and re-told what he had heard from Iron Heart and how he wanted Hope to return to her family.

“Pa, why do I feel towards Hope like I do? I know I had that dream and I somehow feel she’s connected to it.” Mark hesitated, “Pa, you should know that when I was standing in the street, with my rifle on McCormick, he taunted me. He used my words against me from a few days ago. He said how one of you could surely pull the trigger to shoot him, but that I’d take the first bullet…” He thought hard before continuing, “Pa, I told him I was willing to give up my life to save her. I don’t understand. It’s not that I feel sorry for her… I felt… I… I didn’t hurt any more when she was standing so close to me. Does that make any sense?”

“I think it’s another sign that my boy is growing up.”

“Growing up? I don’t think I’ve ever been so confused. I mean…, I don’t know what I mean. Pa, could you give me some time alone? I thought maybe I’d understand better if we talked, but I don’t even know what to ask.”

“I’ll be downstairs in the restaurant,” Lucas turned and left the room. Before he shut the door, he saw Mark lie down on the bed and curl up on his side.

*****

Mark escorted Hope from her room to the restaurant for a late supper. He walked her to the table where her family was sitting. He saw her to her seat and then turned to leave to go sit with his family at a different table.

“Mark, please stay. Your presence brings comfort to Hope, so you should stay here,” Major Lane stated.

Mark looked over to his father, who nodded. Mark sat down at the table.

Then turning to the girl, Seth Lane began, “Dawn Fire, I think that’s what Iron Heart said they called you. Do you remember me?”

“You sent me away,” Hope answered as she looked at him.

“Hope, Pa really didn’t send you away, but he didn’t know how to take care of a little girl. He felt Aunt Susan and her family would be able to care for you better than we could. Please understand how much it hurt both of us to say goodbye to you, but we thought it would be for the best,” Ethan Lane said. Seeing the hurt in his Pa’s eyes, he thought that maybe the explanation would come better from him.

“If we had known that the Indians would attack and kill Aunt Susan and her family, we never would have left you. We just didn’t know,” Ethan pleaded. “We’re just so thankful those Indians didn’t kill you.”

“Indians didn’t attack! They were white and brown men,” Hope replied, her eyes had taken on a boldness and her voice, a tone of defiance.

“I was playing behind the barn when the riders came. I heard the screams. When it was quiet, I stopped hiding. I saw them. I ran. Iron Heart found me and kept me safe. He followed my trail, to take me back. He saw what had happened. Iron Heart raised me as one of his own. He wanted a daughter!” As she spoke the last words, they heard her voice rise in tone. Her eyes dared the soldiers in front of her to say otherwise.

Major Lane knelt in front of his daughter, “Hope, it’s not that I didn’t want a daughter. I loved you from the first time I held you in my arms as a little baby. I loved watching you grow up, taking your first step and tucking you in bed at night. But, I had just lost your mother and I was a soldier, I didn’t know how to take care of you. You were almost eleven and my sister had a girl, just a little bit older than you, and I thought it would be better for her to raise you. An army post, out in this territory, was no place to raise a young girl.”

The quietness was unnerving.

“Hope, I thank God that you’re alive and want you to know that I do love you and will always love you. You’re a part of me, as is your brother. I pray that someday you’ll be able to understand why I did, what I did. It wasn’t easy. It’s never easy for a father to leave a child. Ever since Ethan and I heard of a red-haired girl living with the Kiowa, we’ve been searching for you.”

“Hope,” Ethan spoke. “Two weeks ago, we found Iron Heart and the tribe. But by the time we arrived, you had been taken by those men. He had sent his sons after you. He listened to us and knew the words we spoke were true. We’ve been trailing you ever since. Believe us, if we didn’t love you, we wouldn’t have come after you. We didn’t ask Iron Heart to return you to us, we just wanted to know that you were alive and okay. He was the one who said it was only right for you to be re-united with us.”

“Hope,” Mark quietly spoke. “Listen to their hearts. Not just their words. I think you’ll understand and know the truth. Look into their eyes and know their hearts.”

The look on Hope’s face softened. “My heart knows your words are true, but I’ve lived as an Indian for the past six years. How will people at the fort look at me? Will they see me as your white daughter or will they see me as an Indian?”

*****

After supper, the others watch Mark escort Hope to sit out on a bench in front of the hotel. Lucas tried to hide the grin on his face as he quickly took a drink of coffee.

“Lucas, I’m not sure what to do,” Seth Lane stated as he and Ethan approach the table with Lucas, Micah, and Johnny.

“What to do?” Lucas asked.

“I’ve seen the look in Hope’s eyes when your boy isn’t around her. It seems she’s getting her strength from him. Everything she’s known for the past six years is gone, yet, with Mark at her side, she seems ready to take on the world.”

“Seth, I’m sure she’s just grateful for Mark saving her life, twice. Give her time. You’re her family, she’ll come around.” Lucas answered.

“Lucas, I’ve also seen the look in your boy’s eyes when he’s with her. One of the reasons that I sent Hope to live with my sister, was I didn’t feel an army post was any place to raise a daughter. I still feel that way, yet… my life is the Army, as is Ethan’s. Hope asked me how those at the fort would see her. If she were to return with us to the post, I’m not sure how she would fit in. She spent six years living with the Kiowa. There are people at the post who would hold it against her and treat her as if she were an Indian. There are those who would never see her as anything else other than an Indian. I want her to have a chance to be happy. I just wonder if her returning to Iron Heart’s tribe would be the best for her.”

“Seth, she can’t go back to them, it would dishonor Iron Heart and his tribe if you were to send her back to them.” Lucas was interrupted by Mark running into the restaurant, holding Hope’s hand in his.

“Pa, Senator Borden is still at risk,” Mark stated as he came to a stop.

“What do you mean?” Borden asked as he walked into the restaurant.

“Senator, Hope told me there was another man, named Stedman. He was the one who arranged for those men to take her and bring her here. They were to see that she was killed, as well as you. He planned to start a war so that Iron Heart would break the treaty and then the army would be forced to send her tribe to Florida. Senator, if I remember correctly, you backed the bill assigning the territory that the Kiowa have as their reservation. Stedman wanted it for his cattle. He’s still out there. Don’t you see? Hope and you are still at risk!”

Timing…The Trap

“So how do we go about bringing the Stedman into the open and arrest him?” Senator Borden asked.

Micah answered, “Right now, it’s the girl’s word against whatever Stedman says. We don’t even know who he is or where he is right now.”

“I have an idea,” Mark offered. “It will require the cooperation of everyone, the Sheriff, the people of this town, the Army, and the newspaper.”

Mark’s plan was to draw Stedman to North Fork. “We can place a story in the newspaper about the attempt on Senator Borden’s life and how he may not survive. The story can say that there were four outlaws involved and all were killed. However, there was one lone survivor, a Kiowa Indian captive. We can go on to say how the Army is transporting the person, through North Fork where they will meet up with a translator who can interrogate the captive.”

“Why North Fork, Mark?” Borden asked.

“Because we know it best.” There was a determination in Mark’s eyes and voice.

The group discussed their plan; they needed to work out every detail before they set it in motion. Micah felt that their story needed to make it seem easy for Stedman to show his hand.

“Maybe the article should state that I was killed as well as my deputy seriously wounded…”

Mark sat down and worked out the story for the newspaper to print. He handed it to Micah and then to the others. All were in agreement.

The following morning the leading story of the Alamogordo Times read:

Attempted Assassination of Senator Borden

Senator Border was critically wounded in an assassination attempt while traveling through Alamogordo. It is doubtful, at this time, that he will survive his wounds. Senator Borden’s aid, Andrew Nelson, was sending word to Washington, D.C. Also, Marshal Micah Torrance and Lucas McCain, both from North Fork, New Mexico, were killed in the gun fight. Deputy Johnny Drako, also of North Fork, was seriously wounded, and is unknown at this time if he will survive. Alamogordo’s Sheriff, Trevor King was wounded during the gun battle and should make a full recovery. Sheriff King expressed regret at the deaths of such fine men, but said that if it weren’t for them, more folks could have been killed. The four outlaws responsible for the brazen attack were killed during the gun fight or died last night from their wounds. However, there was one lone survivor, a Kiowa Indian captive. Two members of the U.S. Cavalry, who were accompanying Senator Borden, and Lucas McCain’s son, will be transporting the deceased back to their home in North Fork for burial. The prisoner will be held in the custody of the U.S. Cavalry pending transport back to their fort for interrogation.

After the newspaper story was printed, it was decided that the Senator would head on to his sister’s in Arizona, as soon as possible.

“Senator, I apologize for any distress our plan is going to cause your sister when the story is printed in her town newspaper. I hope she will be understanding, once she sees you alive and well,” Mark said as the group returned to their rooms for the night.

“Mark, don’t worry about my family. I’d worry more about how your town is going to feel when they read they’ve lost two upstanding citizens. You just see to it that Stedman is brought to justice. When I’m finished visiting my sister, I handle any repercussions after I return from my grave.”

*****

As they prepared to set the next part of their plan in motion, Lucas asked Mark a question.

“Okay Mark, why was it so important that I be killed in the story you wrote for the paper?”

“Pa, with us returning to North Fork, I’m sure Stedman knows of you and your reputation. I just needed to make it easier for him to try something back home. How much easier could it be, the Marshal dead, his deputy wounded and unable to return, the Rifleman dead… I know you want to be by my side through this, but if our plan is to work… If we’re to get the man who started this.... I’m sorry Pa, but you just have to be dead. For a little while.”

“Mark…”

“Pa, you, Micah, and Johnny, none of you can been seen riding with us back to North Fork.”

Lucas, Micah, and Johnny prepared to leave Alamogordo under cover of night. Mark removed his deputy badge and handed it to his Pa.

“Pa, right now, I need to be your son, would you keep this for me?” Lucas took the badge and pulled Mark into his embrace, an embrace he didn’t want to release.

“Mark,” Micah stated. “You really need to keep the badge. Until I can be resurrected from my grave, you’re the only deputy North Fork has.”

After Lucas released Mark, he pinned the badge back on Mark’s shirt.

Major Lane held horse from the livery as Lucas mounted. The final piece of the plan was for Mark to lead Razor back to North Fork and to carry his Pa’s rifle. He wasn’t happy to not be riding Razor, nor having his own rifle, but he knew if Mark returned without either…

“You see to it that my boy…” Lucas couldn’t continue.

“Lucas, I’ll do my best. We’ll see you when this is all over.”

As Mark watched them ride away, his thoughts returned to their plan and in some ways, he felt as if the grief was real.

*****

The next morning, they loaded two coffins, laden with grain sacks, in the back of the wagon. Mark watched as the Lane’s walked to the hotel and came out with Hope. The group left mid morning to return to North Fork.

It was late night, three days later, when the group arrived in North Fork. Most of the town was asleep and Mark noticed the eerily silence that covered the street. Usually, even this late at night, music could be heard coming from Sweeney’s. But as they passed, Mark saw there were no lanterns lit and the doors were closed.

Mark opened the door to Micah’s office and let the Lane’s inside.

“Well,” Ethan stated. “If we’re going to keep Hope in protective custody, I guess that means you’re going to have to spend some time in the cell.”

“Do I have too?” Hope asked.

“At least until we get Stedman,” Mark replied. “I won’t lock the cell.”

“Mark,” the Major said. “I think you should go ahead and put your horses up at the livery and then go get a room at the hotel. Ethan and I will see to it that the coffins carrying your Pa and Micah are delivered to your Doc’s. Remember, you need to keep acting the part of a son in mourning.”

*****

Mark left Micah’s office, grabbed the reins and led Blue Boy and Razor to Nils. He slowly entered the livery and untacked the horses and put them in stalls. He set their saddles and bridles aside. Then he pulled his and his Pa’s rifles from their scabbards. While he thought he was alone, Mark ran his hand over the stock of his Pa’s rifle. Quietly telling himself, ‘Soon you’ll be reunited. We just have to wait for the right time.’

He turned around and jumped when he saw Nils standing in the doorway.

“I’m sorry Mark, I didn’t want to intrude. Eddie told us about the wire he received two days ago. It is true? Is your Pa and Micah… Are they really dead?”

Though he wasn’t sure which felt worse, the pain of being separated from his Pa or having to lie to their friends, all Mark did was nod as he slowly left the livery and proceeded to the hotel.

Word had gotten to Lou of Mark’s return. She met him in the lobby of the hotel, desperately seeking news of Johnny’s condition. Again, the pain of lying pulled at Mark, but he knew, in order for their plan to succeed, it had to be done. He told Lou of the “injuries” Johnny had received and that he had been unconscious when he left, but the doctor didn’t know if that he would make a full recovery. Mark said that he planned to go back and bring Johnny home as soon as they got word.

“Lou, I know I probably should have stayed with Johnny, but I needed to bring Pa home. I wanted to bury him at ho…” Mark let tears fall. He couldn’t tell if they were play acting or real tears.

“No Mark,” Lou answered. “You were right to bring Lucas home. You need to be with fam… friends. I’m sure Johnny will understand.”

Lou put an arm around Mark’s shoulder and walked up the stairs and opened the door to his room.

“Mark, you sleep in as long as you need to in the morning. I won’t let any one disturb you. You take all the time to grieve that you need.”

Lou pulled the door closed. She prayed to God that Johnny was going to be all right. “But dear Lord, how is Mark going to survive without his father?”

*****

The following morning, Mark woke to hearing a woman screaming in the hotel. He bolted from his room, ran down the stairs, to see Eddie, holding Lou in his arms.

“Mark,” Eddie said as he saw Mark approach. “We just got word from Alamogordo that Johnny died.”

Mark helped Eddie carry Lou to her home on the back side of the hotel. He then ran to Doc’s. He had to knock loudly on Doc’s office door before he opened it.

“Doc, we need you at the hotel! Lou fainted!”

Doc grabbed his medical bag and followed Mark to Lou’s. After Eddie told him what happened, Doc administered some smelling salts and recommended Lou stay in bed for the rest of the day. He’d check on her later in the day.

“Mark,” Doc said. “I’d like for you to come with me back to my office.”

As they entered Doc’s, he locked the door behind them.

“Okay, so do you want to tell me why I have to coffins carrying grain sacks in my back room?”

“Oh, you looked?” Mark asked, a little worried.

“Yeah, I looked. Two of my dearest friends are reported dead…” Doc replied.

“Doc, you have to go along with this. No one has been killed, except the outlaws, but we’re trying to draw out the leader who planned the assassination. You can’t let on to anyone that you know Pa, Micah, and Johnny are alive. Please!” There was a pleading in Mark’s voice.

Shortly, there was a knock on the door. Doc gave Mark time to, compose himself in grief, before he answered.

“Just a minute!” Doc called.

As he opened the door, the undertaker was standing out front.

“Doc, just came to see what arrangements will be required.” Then noticing Mark was sitting at Doc’s desk with his head in his hands, “Mark, I just want you to know how sorry I am, the whole town is… I need to ask you, do you wish your Pa to be buried in the ceme…”

“No! I’ll bury him at home. I know the spot, but I could use your help…” Mark answered.

“I’ll be out later today,” then he turned and left.

*****

Mark left Doc’s to head to the Marshal’s office. He entered to find Hope sitting on the bunk eating breakfast, and her father and brother were eating sitting in the chairs, on either side of Micah’s desk.

Before anyone could say anything, members of the town council entered the office.

“Mark,” Frank Toomey stated. “We wanted to stop by and express our condolences. Your father was a fine man. If you need anything, you just let anyone of us know.”

“I appreciate that Mr. Toomey. Thank you.”

John Hamilton addressed the Lane’s, “Officers, I just want to thank you for bringing Mark, Lucas, and Micah back home.”

Seth and Ethan just nodded their heads.

“Sirs, I was wondering, actually we all were wondering. We know Micah deputized Mark sometime back, but we can’t leave protecting this town to him alone.” Then turning to Mark, John Hamilton continued, “Mark, it’s not that we don’t believe in you, but you need time to grieve.”

“Mr. Hamilton, I understand. Before we left Alamogordo, I sent a wire to the U.S. Marshal in Denver. I’m hoping soon, we’ll get word on Micah’s replacement.”

Everyone present saw the sorrow in Mark’s eyes and heard it in his voice.

“People of North Fork,” Seth said. “We won’t leave Mark here alone. He was duly deputized by your previous Marshal and we will respect his wishes. My son and I will stay here, supporting the deputy, until such time as a new marshal arrives.”

There was a murmur of appreciation from all present.

*****

That afternoon, services were held at the North Fork Cemetery for Micah. All the town’s folks and ranchers who had looked to Micah for protection were present.

After services for Micah were over. The undertaker, Frank Toomey, and Mark, left town. Mark drove the buckboard with his Pa’s coffin in the back. Blue Boy and Razor tied behind.

Just before sunset, a large procession arrived at the McCain ranch – a final farewell to a man everyone respected. After the coffin was lowered into the grave, most folks left. A few chose to stay, offering to help. Mark’s eyes were so filled with tears, he pleaded with everyone to just go away. He sat on the ground, crying, and watched as everyone left. After composing himself, he stood up and began shoveling dirt over the coffin.

Before long, he heard his Pa’s voice behind him. “Son, how are you holding up?

“Pa, what are you doing here?!” Mark asked, a little shocked, as he looked around.

“Just came to help. Don’t worry, everyone is heading back to town. Here give me the shovel.”

Mark watched as his Pa finished burying himself. They both sat down under the tree and rested.

“Mighty fine turnout for Micah’s and my funerals,” Lucas stated with a smile on his face.

“Guess we know just how much this town loves the two of you.”

The sun had long set when Johnny and Micah rode up.

“Johnny, you’re really going to have to do some sweet talking to Lou when the three of you get resurrected. She got the wire first thing this morning, announcing your death. She screamed and fainted dead away. I had to go get… Oh, Doc Burrage knows all three of you are really alive. He looked in the coffins and I had to tell him what was happening.”

“Well,” Lucas said. “We know he can keep a secret. Remember when Jim West was through here a few years back?”

Mark turned to his Pa and asked, “So just where are you three camping out? If anything happens in town, I’ll need to send the Major or the Lieutenant out to get you.”

Lucas described their camping location, just north of town. Far enough away that no one should bother them, but close enough, if needed.

*****

Mark returned to his home that night. It felt strange, spending the night there alone. It wasn’t the first time, but the whole ordeal was becoming surreal for Mark.

*****

It had been a week since they had returned to North Fork. Ethan Lane stated, maybe they were wrong, maybe Stedman wasn’t going to take the bait.

“He’s got to. I believe everything Hope said. He’s got to come after her, one way or another, to tie up any loose ends. He can’t risk her telling what she might know to your translator.” Mark continued, “Ethan, I don’t know how much more of this I can stand. I just wish that Stedman would arrive. This lying and…” Mark stopped talking and shook his head.

“You need to talk, I can close the door?” Ethan stated as he walked to the door and closed it.

“Maybe I should,” Mark walked to the cell where Hope was staying and opened it. She followed him to sit down on the chaise, as she and Ethan listened to Mark.

“It’s just the looks that everyone in town is giving me. I know they mean well, it’s just hard watching it day after day. See, back when I was 12, seems so long ago…” Mark let his memory drift back to that day. “Pa was loading some black powder in the wagon to go out and blast a tree stump that we hadn’t been able to pull. Anyway, something happened and the powder keg blew. Pa was blinded by the accident, temporarily. Only at that time, we didn’t know. Guess I’m just too sensitive when it comes to people and their pity. Compassion is one thing, but I don’t want their pity. That’s what I see in everyone’s eyes. I just wish we could get this lie over and done with.

“The only thing that’s making this whole lie bearable is that a good friend of my Pa’s isn’t here. She tried to be my rock during that first day after hearing the news, but between her and Micah, and everyone else in town. I just wanted to run and hide. It felt like a circus, the way they kept looking at me. I guess I just too self-conscious about all this.”

“Mark, maybe you should ride out to your father. Maybe we should cancel this whole trap,” Hope’s eyes pleaded to her brother.

The three talked for a while. Finally, Hope stood to return to her cell. Ethan left to get everyone some supper.

*****

The Seth Lane was walking the streets of North Fork, when the evening train arrived. A dark haired woman exited the train. He watched as she tearfully picked up her luggage and headed to the hotel. Seth approached and offered her a hand.

As she turned at his approach, she stated, “I’m sorry, Major, am I correct?” she asked.

“Yes Ma’am, may I escort you to the hotel?” Seth replied.

“Please.”

Seth saw the woman to the hotel. As they entered, he tipped his hat and left. Lou was standing behind the counter as the woman registered. Lou looked at the name written.

“Milly, Milly Scott? You owned the general store here in town?”

“Yes. But that was a long time ago. Can I ask you, do you know where Mark McCain is? I have to see him.”

Tears were readily falling down Milly’s face.

“Milly, I’m Lou Mallory. I purchased the general store from you. Please come with me, I think Mark will appreciate seeing you. I think anyone who knew his Pa will help brighten his face. He’s just not been himself since Lucas was buried.”

Lou came around the counter and pulled Milly into an embrace, then slipped her arm into Milly’s. She led her over to the Marshal’s office.

“Oh, no, I don’t think I could go in there. There’s too many memories of Lucas inside,” Milly cried.

“Milly, Mark needs you. And I think you need him. Mark’s inside.”

“Inside? I don’t understand.”

“You will.”

Lou opened the door and allowed Milly to enter first. Milly saw an army Lieutenant sitting, eating in front of the desk, he stopped talking as he heard them enter, he stood and stepped aside.

Milly saw Mark sitting in Micah’s chair, eating, and wearing the deputy badge.

“Mark? What are you doing behind Micah’s desk. Where’s the replacement marshal? He’s just a boy! How can you sit here and put a deputy badge on him!” Milly’s voice held anger.

“Milly, there’s a story to tell, but Mark was deputized by Micah some time back and until the new marshal gets here, Mark is our deputy. But don’t worry, the soldier who escorted you to the hotel, and the Lieutenant, are here to help.”

“Milly?” Mark squeaked out, as he finally found his voice. “Miss Milly!” A look of shock was evident on Mark’s face. So much so that he ran from the office, jumped on Blue Boy and rode for home.

Both women stood, dumbfounded in the marshal’s office.

“Milly, give him some time. This is all weighing heavily on him. I’m sure seeing you, brought back memories that he needs time to understand. Come on, let’s get you back to the hotel.”

*****

Seth saw Mark run from the Marshal’s office and ride out of town. He entered the office and asked, “Ethan, what happened? Why did the deputy high tail it out of town?”

“Major Seth Lane, Lt. Ethan Lane, I’d like to introduce to you Miss Milly Scott. From Philadelphia, but formerly from North Fork.”

“Oh!” they both said in unison.

*****

Mark made sure no one was following him before he headed home. As he arrived, he didn’t even bother to tie Blue Boy to the rail; he just dropped his rains and entered their home.

More emotions ran though his head. Dealing with the trap. Not having his Pa close to help him. And now, Milly returned to North Fork… He fell asleep in his Pa’s chair.

*****

The sun hadn’t risen when Mark woke in the morning; he finally found the whole situation amusing. He smiled to himself as he thought of his Pa’s reaction when he found out Milly was back!

He felt guilty as he stepped to the porch and saw Blue Boy standing out front. He gave him a pat on the forehead, gathered the reins, climbed in the saddle and headed back to town.

He arrived just as the first rays of the sun were shining into North Fork. He took Blue Boy to the livery, unsaddled him, put him in a stall, rubbed him down, and gave him plenty of oats and hay. Then he proceeded to the Marshal’s office.

Seth and Ethan were there to meet him as he entered. “Mark? You okay? Miss Mallory introduced us to Miss Scott after you, um, left,” Ethan spoke.

“I’m better now,” Mark replied. “Ethan, Miss Milly is my Pa’s friend that I was talking about.”

“I kind of, sort of, figured that out,” Ethan stated as a smiled played across his face. “So does your Pa know, did you tell him?”

“No! Oh boy! Between Johnny having to sweet talk Lou and now Miss Milly returning to North Fork. Once this is over and done with, I’m going to have the laugh of my life! This is going to be even better than the one time I pushed Pa into the creek. -- Long Story!” Mark added as he saw the inquiring look on the Lane’s faces.

“Were heading over to the hotel to get some breakfast, can we bring something back for you?”

“Sure, flapjacks and maple syrup sound good.”

The Lane’s left Hope and Mark alone in the office.

*****

Sunday morning arrived, to find Lucas, Micah, and Johnny all ready to call off the whole trap. Before they broke camp, they heard a single gunshot. They hurried to saddle the horses and head to where they thought the shot came from.

They arrived to find a man lying on the ground. Johnny stepped down from his horse and turned the man over. There was a single gunshot wound to the chest.

“He’s dead,” he stated as he started going through then man’s pockets, looking for identification.

Micah and Lucas stepped down from their horses. Lucas started looking at the tracks, while Micah walked to stand next to Johnny.

“I know this man!” Micah declared. “He’s Walter Christman.”

“Micah,” Lucas called. “Fresh tracks lead from here and are heading to North Fork.”

“Trouble’s brewing, ten years ago, when I knew Christman, he was a U.S. Marshal, worked in Kansas City.”

“Mark!” Lucas exclaimed.

All three mounted and headed for North Fork.

*****

Mark took off his hat and set in on the desk. He led Hope from her cell to sit on the chaise. “Hope, thanks for listening to me last night. I’m sorry if you think of me as being ‘childish’ for my feelings last night?”

“Mark, we’re both having troubles. You heard me speak and now I hear you.” They continued to talk until they saw a horse and rider stop in front of the office.

Hope smiled as Mark took her hand and returned her to the cell. He pushed the door too. As he turned to walk back to the desk, he saw a man enter.

“Can I help you?” Mark asked.

“Yes, I…” the man had a perplexed look on his face after seeing Mark and the badge. “I was hoping to speak with the soldiers who came to town with an Indian girl, I’m Walter Christman, I’m the new Marshal, …deputy?”

“I know, I’m a little young for the job, but there were extenuating circumstances. I’m really pleased that you’re here.”

“And your name?”

“I’m sorry. My name’s McCain, Mark McCain.”

“Your Pa was the one killed with the Marshal?” Christman asked.

“Yes, sir, we were there.”

“We?”

“I was there when my Pa was killed. The soldiers help return their bodies, me, and the…” Mark hesitated. He remembered what Christman said, ‘Indian girl’. Nothing they had written or wired indicated the Indian was a girl, just an Indian captive.

“You, you’re Stedman!” Mark said without really thinking. Before he could react any further, Stedman had his gun drawn. He turned to face the cell. Hope stood inside, “Mark that’s him. That’s Stedman!”

“You speak English! This is a trap?!” Stedman declared.

As Mark turned to get his rifle, Stedman struck him over the back of the head. Hope screamed as she watched Mark collapse and she pushed the cell door open to run to Mark.

Stedman stopped her by grabbing her arm. She reached for the gun in his other hand, kicking at his knees; she kneed him in the groin. As he bent forward, he let go of Hope and as she ran to hide behind the desk, he fired one shot in her direction, missing. On the ground, Mark started moaning, his hand reaching for the back of his head. Stedman aimed his gun at Mark. Hope screamed his name. Then a single shot came through the glass window, striking Stedman in the back. Hope watched as his grip on the gun loosened, it fell from his hand; he slowly sank to his knees and then fell sideways to the floor.

She scrambled from behind the desk and was cradling Mark’s head in her lap, when Lucas, Johnny, and Micah rushed into the office. Not a moment later, Seth and Ethan followed.

Lucas knelt next to his boy, “Mark?” he cried as he put his hand to Mark’s head, he pulled it away when he felt a warm, moisture touch his hand -- he saw blood on his palm.

“Pa? Stedman? Protect Hope,” Mark said before he returned to the darkness.

Lucas lifted Mark from the floor, Seth and Ethan pushed the town’s folks away from the door to allow Lucas out. He raced Mark to Doc’s, followed by Hope, Micah, and Johnny, and the Lane’s. The Lane’s kept everyone well back from the door to Doc’s.

Doc shaved away some of the hair from the back of Mark’s head. When he was done, Mark had ten stitches. About a half hour later, Mark was starting to rouse.

“Morning Mark,” Doc said as Mark opened his eyes.

“Doc? What happened?” Mark asked groggily, flinching at the sound of his voice.

“Guess I’ll let your Pa tell you.” Doc smiled as he stepped back.

“Pa?” He turned his head as he felt someone sit down next to him. “What are you doing in town?” Mark whispered.

“Stedman showed up,” Lucas replied.

“HOPE!” Mark yelled, tried to sit up, and groaned as the room spun.

“Easy there. She’s fine. Just lie back down,” Lucas said as he pushed Mark to lie down.

A commotion could be heard outside Doc’s. It was evident that Seth and Ethan Lane were having trouble outside.

“Lucas, I think I’m going to need your protection. That’s Lou outside,” Johnny sheepily stated.

Doc hollered, “Before anyone opens that door, let me get my smelling salts!”

Micah opened the door and tapped the Major on the shoulder. He stepped aside. A gasp went up from those gathered outside as they saw Micah, alive and well, walk out the door.

“Folks, we’ll explain everything later, right now, just get back to your businesses or your homes,” he ordered.

Johnny walked out the door behind Micah and stood in front of Lou. Expecting her to faint, he tried to put his arms around her waist. And for that, he received a resounding slap across the face. He rubbed at his smarting cheek and watched as Lou stormed away.

“Johnny, you best to after that woman. I don’t think Lucas is in any position to help you out. This time, you’re on your own,” Micah snickered and shook his head.

He turned to walk back into Doc’s when he felt a hand on his shoulder and heard, “Micah, They said Mark was hurt. Is he going to be okay? Can I see him?”

Micah turned and his eyes widened, as if he saw a ghost. “Oh my! LucasBoy,” Micah called into Doc’s. “Johnny’s not the only one who has some sweet talking to do.”

“Lucas?” Milly asked.

Micah motioned for Milly to step into Doc’s office, he stood close behind. Lucas looked up from tending to Mark to see Milly faint into Micah’s arms.

“Oh, Pa. I forgot to tell you, Milly’s back in town,” Mark said as he put crook of his elbow across his eyes.

“Doc, we need those smelling salts!” Micah called.

As Doc approached, Lucas took Milly from Micah. “Micah, stay here and keep and eye on Mark. I’ll be back when I can,” Luca said, as he carried Milly back to the hotel. As he entered, he heard Lou and Johnny’s discussion. “Lou, you can yell at him later, get me the key to Milly’s room.”

Lou hurriedly grabbed the key, ran up the stairs, and opened the door. Lucas gently placed Milly on the bed as Doc followed. Lou picked up the water pitcher and its basin, and a towel, then placed them on the stand next to the bed. Doc was holding the smelling salts under Milly’s nose and she was starting to move her head from side to side. Lou poured some water into the basin.

Lucas came up behind Lou, took her by the shoulder and walked her back to the door. “You go tend to Johnny. And don’t be too hard on him. We had to do what we did in order to draw a madman out into the open.” Lucas closed the door behind Lou, walked over and sat down on the edge of the bed next to Milly. He picked up the towel and dipped it into the water, wrung it out, then gently placed the towel over Milly’s forehead.

“Lucas, I think I’ll go keep an eye on Mark instead of Micah staying there. That way we have at least one law officer who is capable of doing his job. And I believe that rifle shot I heard before you carried Mark in, means there’s a dead man in Micah’s office that he needs to tend to.”

*****

Milly finally came around. Her eyes fully opened and she looked into the eyes of Lucas McCain. “Oh, Lucas!” she cried as she sat up and threw her arms around his neck.

Lucas let Milly cry in his arms, he was content just to have her back in North Fork.

“Lucas, they said in the newspaper you were dead. I felt as if part of me died when I read it. Oh, Lucas!” Milly cried again.

“Milly, when did you get back?” Lucas asked.

Finally, Milly’s crying eased and she pushed herself back from Lucas and answered, “Last night. How could you do such a thing to Mark? When I could think again, my first thought was to come back to North Fork and be here for Mark. Lucas… I know I’ve been gone for too long and maybe, I don’t belong here anymore, maybe you found someone else, but, I had to come for Mark. But how could you put that boy through such an ordeal.”

“Milly, it was Mark’s idea to kill me off. We had to lure a dangerous man into the open.” The look in Lucas’ eyes was sincere and loving. “You came all this way for Mark?”

She nodded.

“Why?”

“Because when I lived here before, I… I’d dream of what it would be like to have him as my boy. There were so many times, where I felt a motherly bond with him. Not that I ever wanted to replace Margaret in his life, but… Lucas, if I hadn’t run away,…”

“Shhhh” Lucas said as he placed the tips of his fingers over her lips.

“Milly, would you have come back for me. If I asked?”

She nodded and Lucas pulled her into a passionate kiss. More passionate than the one he gave her before he stormed out of the store, before she left town. Milly responded.

Soon a knock was heard at the door and the door knob jiggled.

“Lucas? Milly?” Lou called.

They parted and broke into laughter.

“One moment Lou!” Lucas called as he stood to open the door and Milly blushed.

“Lucas, if Milly is recovered enough, I think maybe you should get back to Doc’s.”

“Mark?!”

“He’s fine, but maybe you should focus your attentions on your son, for a little while,” Lou stated.

“Go on Lucas, Lou can stay with me to make sure I’m not going to faint again,” Milly said as her blush turned deeper.

*****

Doc Burrage released Mark the following morning to return home, with instructions to take it easy.

“I’ll remove those stitches from that hard head of yours in ten days. Do you think you can go that long without needing my services? You know, seems the marshal and I, and the undertaker, have a lifetime of job security with you two around.” Mark and Lucas stared at Doc and laughed when they saw him practically bending, double, laughing.

*****

The following day Seth and Ethan Lane announce that they would soon return to their duties with the Army. The McCain’s, the Lane’s, and Milly, sat at a table in the hotel restaurant. Seth began to talk to his daughter.

“Hope, Ethan and I understand that you can’t return to Iron Heart and his tribe.” There was regret in Seth’s voice, “Hope, my life is the army, as is Ethan’s. We would welcome you into our home anytime, but, you were right, there would be others that would always think of you as an Indian and treat you as one. It wouldn’t be fair to you.”

“Hope, we’re not sending you away, we’re just wanting to give you time to adjust to not living with Iron Heart and his tribe. The more we got to thinking about what you asked, how would the people at the fort treat you, it got us to thinking,” Ethan stated.

Before anyone else could say anything, Mark chimed in, “Sirs, maybe Hope could stay here in North Fork. We could find a home for her and I could work with her on her school work and in no time…”

“Hold on, son,” Lucas spoke. “Just who did you have in mind?”

“Well, I was thinking that maybe Milly could, that is, if she’s going to stay in North Fork. And, well, it wouldn’t be proper for her to live with us. Would it?” Mark asked, sincerely.

“Mark?!” Milly and Lucas cried, in unison.

Turning to her family, Hope said, “I know you love me. What you ask and do is hard. But, if I stay here, will we still be family?”

“Yes, Hope. We’ll always be family.” Seth replied. “Could you be happy living here?”

Hope nodded as she looked to Mark and saw his smile.

“Well, Miss Milly?” Mark asked, he felt scared and nervous and excited as he awaited Milly’s answer.

Milly looked around to those sitting at the table and finally stated, “If only to keep her from your bachelor cooking and sense of housekeeping.”

“Lucas, I…” Milly blushed and the look on her face told asked if they could we talk later?

Lucas nodded and smiled in response. He couldn’t wait to talk with Milly as her eyes settle on his.

*****

The following afternoon, Mark returned to North Fork. He saw Micah sitting in front of his office as he called to him,

“Mark, I thought your Pa was coming in with you this afternoon?”

A smiled played across Mark’s face as he rode up and stopped in front of the Marshal’s office and stepped down from Blue Boy.

“Well, Pa didn’t get in from his talk with Miss Milly until early this morning. I got up, fixed breakfast, did my chores, and he was still sleeping. So I came to town without him.”

“Boy, you’re grinning like a Cheshire cat!” Micah declared.

“Well, Pa must have thought I was sleeping because I saw him have a look in his eye. You should have seen the smile on his face. I hadn’t seen that seen look since before Miss Milly left. Were they really at the restaurant, talking all night?” Curiosity got the better of Mark. He couldn’t resist asking as he tied Blue Boy to the railing.

“Yep. Lou closed the doors at midnight and they were still talking. Johnny said he couldn’t sleep, so he got up and did a round of the town and they were surprised when he found them in the restaurant, said it was 2:00 am. He watched Milly go up the stairs and your Pa, well, he watched your Pa get on Razor and look up to the front room where Milly’s staying at least three times before he headed for home.”

*****

Mark walked to the General Store where Lou was helping Hope choose some new clothes. Lou pulled out several dresses and walked Hope to the dressing room. As Hope removed her shirt, Lou saw the fading lash mark and gasped, “Oh! I’m sorry. I shouldn’t stare.”

She continued to help Hope get dressed, then pulled back the curtains for Mark to see. Mark couldn’t help but laugh. “Lou, please, something a little more ‘normal’ for North Fork, that’s way too big city for her, it’s worse than the jacket Hattie tried to get Pa to buy for me. I looked like a barber shop pole. Please, I think a simple skirt and shirt, as well as some pants. Oh, and boots too, and any um…. Underthings.”

“And just what would you know about ladies’ underthings?” Lou asked a little startled.

“Well, if boys and men have underthings, I surely think that girls and ladies would too,” Mark tried to explain as he really started to blush.

Shortly, Mrs. Mayhern entered the store. She walked over to Hope and introduced herself. She asked Hope to sit on a chair and then proceeded to cut and style her hair.

“Such a shame what Micah told us those men did in cutting off your hair. Well, I’ll get you looking stylish again.”

An hour had passed before Lou and Mrs. Mayhern were satisfied that Hope had everything she needed. As they left the General Store, Mark commented, “Maybe I should have driven the buckboard into town to get all this stuff back to the hotel,” as he and Lou both carried an armload of boxes.

“Mark that’s not funny!” Lou said as she and Hope burst out laughing.

They placed their purchases in Hope’s room and headed for the restaurant. But before they could enter, Lou stopped them and motioned for them to wait behind the curtain. Micah, Seth, and Ethan stood as Lou entered. With a gleam in her eye and a smile on her face, Lou pulled the curtain aside and ushered in Hope and Mark. Seth and Ethan stared at the transformation in Hope. The bruises were practically gone, but there was a shy, confidence in her eyes, that they knew was for Mark McCain.

“Mark, guess you should have dressed yourself up some, before you headed to town,” Lucas said with a laugh as he came up behind them.

Mark escorted Hope to the table where everyone already sat. He pulled back the chair, and motioned for her to sit. He then assisted her in sitting her chair forward. There was a fatherly feeling of pride in seeing his son being such a gentleman.

Drako entered, walked in behind them, and held Lou’s chair in a similar manner. Shortly, Milly joined the group. Mark watched and saw a sparkle in his Pa’s eyes as he held out a chair for Milly. A warmth spread through Mark as he then looked to Milly and saw the same sparkle in her eyes.

During supper, Mr. Griswald entered the hotel. “Well, Miss Scott, have you told the group your news?” he inquired.

“News?” Mark asked.

“Well, not yet.”

“What’s this news?” Lucas stated as he looked over his cup of coffee.

“Well, seeing as how much North Fork has grown and how many children are living in town and the outlying ranches…”

“That’s great Miss Milly!” Mark declared as he jumped up to give her a hug.

“What’s great? I haven’t told you the news,” Milly deplored.

“Well you used to be a school teacher, before you bought the general store, and with what you just said, that means you’re planning to stay and North Fork will have two teachers.”

“And don’t forget one student teacher Mark, that is, when you’re not too busy being a deputy,” Mr. Griswald added.

Once Alice came in with dessert, Mark was all smiles as he ate his apple pie and watched as Hope sampled her’s. In between bites he kept looking back and forth from his Pa, to Milly, to Hope.

*****

The following morning, Seth and Ethan Lane waited in front of their horses as they readied to return to their duties in the Army.

Seth stood in front of his daughter and put both hands on her shoulders. “Hope, if you need anything, we’re only a wire away,” Seth stated. “We know that Mark, Lucas, and Milly, as well the rest of North Fork, will take good care of you.” He gave her a kiss on the forehead and took a step back.

“Thank you father,” Hope said as a tear welled in her eyes. She looked over to see Mark, standing beside her, smiling; he took her hand in his and gave it a gentle squeeze.

Ethan gave Hope a kiss on the cheek, “Sis, it’s just a wire if you need us. I’ll miss you.” He turned and mounted his horse.

*****

Lucas and Micah watched from in front of Micah’s office, as the Lane’s rode from town. They saw Mark place a comforting arm around Hope’s shoulder. Lucas smiled as he saw, the young man who was his son; pull Hope closer to him, he leaned forward, and placed a kiss on top of her head.

*****

“Well LucasBoy?” Micah asked as he leaned his forearms against the hitching rail.

“Well, what?”

“Just wondering, who’s going to be first?”

“First?”

“Yep, I’ve got two deputies that are head over heels in love, with mighty fine ladies, and not to mention my best friend has eyes for a certain, dark haired, beautiful woman who recently returned to town. So, are you or that young man you’ve raised going to tie the knot first?”

“Micah!”

“I’m not joking LucasBoy. Mark my words, within the next year, one or both of you are going to be married.” A large grin spread across Micah’s face as he looked out the corner of his eye and saw the look on Lucas’ face.

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

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