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Productions owns the characters and the premise behind The
~ ~ ~
High in the mountains, lightning cracked near a massive tree on
the bank of the swollen Canadian river*. The tired old oak
quivered. Its roots were being swiftly undermined by the watery
turbulence. Heavy rains in the mountains were draining down into
the valleys and turning even small creeks into torrents. For
nearly a hundred years the oak had grown there, watching the
small mountain stream dig its way deeper into the earth,
widening with each passing year. The water, which had nourished
its roots, was now its enemy. When it finally fell, able to
stand no more, its thirty feet would be carried swiftly
downstream, no doubt wreaking havoc on those below. But a tree
has no choice.
~ ~ ~
It was going to be another hot, muggy day. The recent heavy
rains had ceased and the normally dry country surrounding North
Fork, NM was almost steaming. Lucas McCain mopped his brow with
an already damp handkerchief and eased the harness on the near
‘Mark!’ he called impatiently.
Ten-year-old Mark McCain closed the door behind him and ran to
climb into the buckboard. ‘Sorry, Pa – I was busy gettin’
slicked up. I don’t get to meet a new cousin every day. What’s
her name again?’
‘Gwen. She’s your mother’s youngest sister’s child.’
‘How many sisters did Ma have, anyway? The only one I know is
‘There were just two – Susan - Madge’s mother – and Mary**,
Gwen’s mother. She also had a brother, Johnny. I imagine you’ll
meet him some day. Last I heard, he wasn’t married.’
Mark looked dejected. ‘Gee whiz, why couldn’t I have had some
‘I thought you were looking forward to meeting her.’
‘I-I am, but…’
‘You figure you’d have more fun with a boy your own age then, is
‘Well, Mary wrote a while back about what a tomboy Gwen is – a
lot like Madge. She’s a good rider, her mother says. You’ll have
a lot of fun, I’m sure. Give it a chance.’
‘I’ll try, Pa.’
*The location of North Fork NM is estimated to be near the
**Another sister for Margaret McCain has been created against
Lucas cast a quick glance at the sky. ‘We got a bit of a late
start, son – read me the letter again – when is the stage due?’
Mark took the letter from his father and cleared his throat.
I hope this letter finds you and Mark well. I imagine he is
growing like a weed. Thank you again for having Gwen visit for a
few days. She misses her dad and I think being with you even for
a short time will lift her spirits. My heart is too heavy to say
more, but I think she will benefit from this visit in more ways
‘Where’s her dad, Pa?’ asked Mark.
‘He was killed in an accident about a year ago. Mary never told
me exactly what happened. Just wrote and ask if it would be all
right for Gwen to visit. I wrote back right away.’
Mark continued reading.
‘Look for her on the noon stage June 10. Be sure to pick her up
in the buckboard.’
‘Pa, I’m confused. Why bring the buckboard if she’s such a good
‘Well, I’m a little confused myself, Mark – that letter’s vague,
all right. Let’s just wait until we’ve met your cousin, maybe
things’ll clear up. Meanwhile, we’d better get a move on or
we’ll be late!’
Lucas flapped the reins. The horses broke into a gallop.
~ ~ ~
North Fork was bustling as it usually was on a Saturday. Lucas
pulled up the team in front of the Marshall’s office, tied them
to the hitching post and went in to talk to his old friend Micah
Torrance while Mark waited in the buckboard.
In only a few minutes, the stagecoach rumbled in, kicking up
dust. They had made it in time. Mark jumped down and entered the
Marshall’s office to tell his father. Micah joined them on the
From the interior of the stage, a man and a woman alighted; then
a young man and another, older one. The two drivers climbed to
the roof of the stage and began unroping and lifting down
baggage. The last item was not a bag. The men set it on the
boardwalk not far from where Lucas and Mark were standing. Mark
had never seen such a contraption before. It was a wooden chair
with a high, caned back and three wheels attached – two large
ones on each side and a smaller one in back. Lucas and Mark
looked at it curiously.
The stagecoach driver called, ‘McCain?’
‘I’m McCain,’ Lucas affirmed.
‘I’m carrying your niece. Help me with the door.’
Mystified, Lucas held the door open while the driver entered the
stage. He emerged with a young girl about Mark’s age in his arms
and descended carefully to the ground. He carried the girl to
the wheelchair and lowered her gently into it. She arranged her
long skirts and tucked them down beside her.
Tipping his hat to Lucas, the coachman boarded the stage and
took his team to the livery be fed and watered.
Mark hung back, watching his father tentatively approach the
girl, who seemed not at all happy to have arrived.
‘Gwen? Hello. I’m your Uncle Lucas McCain. This is Mark, your
cousin,’ he said gently, gesturing back toward Mark.
‘Hello,’ said the girl with a small smile.
Mark said nothing. He tried not to stare, instead exchanging
glances with Micah, who merely smiled gruffly and returned to
Lucas was swift to cover the awkward situation. ‘I imagine
you’re hungry after your trip. How about lunch at the Madera
House? Today’s a special treat.’
The girl only nodded.
‘Mark, put her things in the buckboard then come join us.’
Mark silently obeyed.
~ ~ ~
Dinner was a silent, strained affair with Lucas making all the
effort at small talk. Inwardly he was seething. His
sister-in-law had placed him in a difficult position and had
sent not one word about the girl’s condition - although that
cryptic letter certainly made more sense now. Mary apparently
figured that a change of scenery – and perhaps a father’s
influence – would have a beneficial effect on the melancholy
girl; perhaps she was afraid Lucas would turn her down if she
had written the truth. While he didn’t blame her, he knew that a
poor attitudes toward reality could scar the girl for life.
Didn’t her mother realize that? And Mark – Lucas studied his
son. The boy had pushed more food around his plate than he had
eaten. This was a blow to him, too, and being as young as he
was, he didn’t know how to handle it. In his mind, Lucas
imagined taking Gwen to the ranch and placing her chair on the
porch; all she could do was watch them at their daily chores. He
might admonish Mark to try to entertain their guest, but Mark
would protest, saying, ‘But Pa, she can’t do anything!’ Lucas
sighed to himself. He didn’t look forward to the next few days,
but they were going to have to make the best of it.
It was time to go home. Gwen, in her chair, had been lifted to
the buckboard and the chair secured. Mark sat beside his father
on the seat as Lucas took the reins. Lucas nudged him and cast
his eyes back at Gwen, indicating that Mark should sit in the
back and talk to her. It would take them at least an hour to get
home. Mark sighed - and obediently complied. Micah emerged from
his office and waved farewell as the buckboard rattled out of
~ ~ ~
Gwen said nothing until they were well out of town, then she
spoke quietly. ‘Thank you, Uncle Lucas.’
‘We’re glad you came, Gwen,’ replied Lucas, warmly.
‘I won’t be here long. I guess Mama thought it might be good for
‘Figured as much,’ said Lucas.
‘I’ll try not to be any trouble. I can sew and mend things.’
‘That’ll be fine.’
Mark spoke up. ‘Is that all you can do?’
‘Mark!’ Lucas spoke harshly. ‘Apologize, son. That remark wasn’t
‘I-I’m sorry. But Pa said you used to ride horses and all. What
happened? Why are you in that chair?’
‘It’s all right, Uncle Lucas. I’ll tell him.’ Gwen looked out
across the meadow, remembering the day that changed her life
forever. She sighed. ‘You see, Mark, my father was breaking a
stallion in the corral one day. The horse was too much for him;
everybody tried to tell him so but he wouldn’t listen. The horse
threw Papa and stomped him to death. I- I was sitting on the top
rail, watching, and before I could move he lunged at me. I fell
backward and my feet got caught in the rails. I was trying to
get free but the horse reared and kept coming at me before the
ranch hands could do anything. My legs were crushed by his
hooves. Now I have no legs.’
She raised her skirts a few inches. The footrest of the
wheelchair was empty. She swiftly dropped her skirts before
Mark’s horror-filled eyes. Lucas’s face was set in stone.
Something like this would be a stigma to so young a girl, he
thought. No wonder Mary didn’t want to tell us. ‘I’m sorry about
what happened, Gwen,’ he told the girl, ‘but you’ll be fine.’
Lucas didn’t know if he believed his own words.
‘What happened to the horse?’ asked Mark.
‘Mama ordered him shot,’ said Gwen. ‘She hasn’t been the same
since that day.’ Gwen said no more. The buckboard continued on.
The clip-clop of the horse’s hooves and the rattling of the
wheels were the only sounds breaking the silence.
Lucas reined up at the bridge which spanned the river between
town and the ranch. The horses nickered nervously. The river had
been running fast and high due to the recent rains but it wasn’t
yet up to the trusses. The rush of the water was spooking the
horses. He motioned Mark to the seat to take the reins. After a
long, careful look at the bridge, Lucas decided to walk the team
over it. Talking to them soothingly, Lucas encouraged them
forward. Nearly halfway across, something caught his attention –
out of the corner of his eye he saw a massive tree being carried
by the river. He turned for a better look and at the same time
heard Gwen scream, ‘Uncle Lucas!’
The bridge shuddered under the tremendous impact and began
buckling. Timbers groaned; boards cracked; the horses screamed;
the world turned upside down and the color faded from
Lucas McCain’s last thought was of his son.
The section of the bridge leading to the farm was gone and the
other half lay in the river, ruined and buffeted. The huge oak
tree, still bearing a few leaves along with parts of the bridge,
had been carried on downriver.
~ ~ ~
The rushing water beneath the overturned buckboard was
deafening. Completely disoriented, Mark opened his eyes to
darkness. There was air to breathe but the cold water rushing
over his body chilled him to the bone. He felt around. The
buckboard seat on which he sat just a moment ago now rested on
his stomach. His head was out of the water, toward the rear of
the buckboard, which lay at a slant. The rest of his body was
underwater; one boot was off and he felt debris being swept
against his foot. In a futile effort, he pressed his hands
against the upturned buckboard. He was vaguely worried but
couldn’t follow the thought. Then it struck him what had
happened. Where was Pa? He had a flashback; the sight of his
father’s body sailing through the air, the horses writhing in
their harness, struggling in vain as the bridge was battered
In a panic, Mark struggled, yelling for his father. He heard
splashing sounds close by and labored breathing.
‘Pa?’ he asked hopefully.
‘It’s me, Mark – Gwen.’
‘I don’t know.’
In the darkness, he heard Gwen banging on the overturned
buckboard with her hands.
‘Are you all right?’ asked Mark querulously. The echo of their
voices coupled with the darkness somehow made the situation
worse. He knew what his Pa would want him to do – stay calm and
think things through. It was hard to do, though, as scared as he
was. He took note that Gwen seemed to be pretty calm – for a
girl. She wasn’t screaming or anything.
‘I’m here, Mark. I’m all right. Somehow I ended up under here
with you! When I saw that bridge start to go, I just held my
breath and fell out of my chair. I think it got swept away in
‘Good thing it didn’t take you with it,’ said Mark. ‘Wait,
‘Mark! Gwen!’ A faint, muffled shout could be heard over the
noise of the rushing water.
‘We’re here! We’re ok but we’re under the wagon!’ Mark yelled
back. Pa was safe!
‘I’m coming!’ yelled Lucas. He carefully made his way, clinging
to parts of the bridge, to one of the wagon wheels and forced
himself beneath the cold water. He soon surfaced beneath the
buckboard, feeling around in the inky blackness, making a mental
picture of the situation. He soon found Gwen and helped her onto
a slightly higher, if uncomfortable, perch on a thick branch
that had become lodged in the bed of the buckboard. It was
stable and would hold her for now. She assured him she was all
right. Lucas turned his attention to his son.
‘Are you all right, Pa?’
‘Somehow I got thrown clear, son – I’m all right. Didn’t figure
on this to happen! Let’s see about getting you kids out of here.
Put your arms around my neck and I’ll pull you out.’
‘You can’t, Pa - I’m caught.’
Lucas followed his son’s body to where the seat, now inverted,
trapped him. He tried lifting, straining against the buckboard
again and again, but there was nothing to brace against; it was
too much for even his massive strength. Assessing the situation
swiftly, he knew there was only one thing he could do.
‘Mark – Gwen – listen to me. One of the horses made it - I’m
going to catch it and ride it back to town for help. You’ve got
plenty of air and I can be back with some men soon. Can you do
Surprisingly, it was Gwen who spoke for them. ‘Sure we can,
Uncle Lucas. We’ll be fine.’
Lucas reached up in the dark until he found Gwen’s face and
cupped it tenderly. He hugged Mark’s head to his chest. ‘I’ll be
back as soon as I can. Hold on. Hold on.’
Anxious and worried, Lucas knew he had to leave them. He took a
breath and submerged.
One of the horses lay dead against the bank, but the other one
had escaped with only a few cuts from the broken harness or
broken timbers. It would have to run despite its wounds. It
stood in a grove of trees on the town side of the bank,
quivering. Lucas finally emerged, fighting the current. He
caught the horse, grabbed a handful of mane, and vaulted onto
the horse’s back. He wheeled the animal and raced, bareback,
toward North Fork.
~ ~ ~
It was comforting to Mark to have a companion in this
predicament, one who displayed a calm courage that boosted his
own. He was nearly completely submerged, shivering
uncontrollably. Gwen, too, was aching from the cold water, but
kept up a steady stream of conversation to buck him up. The
overturned buckboard kept lurching with the pressure of the
water and the ruined bridge against it. Little by little, Gwen
carefully stretched herself along the submerged branch until her
head was directly above Mark’s. With some alarm, she felt the
water lapping at his ears. Previously, it had only reached his
shoulders. The river was rising – fast. Fighting panic, and
knowing Mark knew what was happening as well as she did, she
kept talking to him.
‘Mark, listen. The water is coming up. If it gets too high
before Uncle Lucas gets back, I’m going to have to help you
‘How-' Mark chattered, ‘how are you going to do that?’
‘I’ve been doing a lot of swimming since my accident. I guess
I’m not supposed to. Mama wants me to stay in the house all day.
But there’s a lake near the house, and I talked our farm hand
into taking me down there just about every day. It’s the only
thing I enjoy. I like to go underwater and see all the things
under the lake – tall grasses and even things like an old coffee
pot and a rusty old gun. Then when Hank carries me back out,
Mama always has a hissy fit and tells him she’s going to fire
him. She tells me I can’t do that any more. She tells me I can’t
do anything any more.’
‘Th-that’s not fair,’ Mark stuttered. ‘Th-there’s lots of things
you could do, if you set your mind to it. My Pa would tell you
He broke off as a surge of water enveloped his head. Gwen lost
no time. She pulled his head up as far as she could out of the
‘Mark, I can’t hold you up like this for long – so this is what
we’re going to do. Mark! Listen! When the water gets too high, I
will go underwater and give you a breath from my mouth. Then
I’ll come up and get more air and bring it down to you again. I
don’t think the river will rise as high as I am until your Pa
gets back. So don’t worry, just relax – let me breathe for you.
You can do that, can’t you?’
Mark, fighting panic, nodded. It was all he could do. He had to
survive – for his Pa. Suddenly, Gwen lost her grip on Mark and
he went under. True to her word, she came after him. He felt her
mouth on his and opened his lips for the life-giving air,
sucking it into his lungs. There wasn’t much, but he knew that
if he didn’t panic, it would be sufficient. He released a few
bubbles and waited. Again, her breath fed his need, and she
surfaced again. Again, he fought the urge to give in to panic.
He only hoped help would come before the river took both of
them. As it was, his life was in the hands of a little crippled
girl who had been told she could do nothing.
Again, she was there. And again; her hands cradled his head
while she gave him air. The water was still rising. When next
Gwen came up for air, her head hit the buckboard and she had to
turn sideways to breathe. There were only a few inches of air
left to her! Then she heard the muffled shouts of several men.
Uncle Lucas was back! With no way to tell Mark, she continued to
supply him with air.
~ ~ ~
Lucas, his face tight with worry, swiftly directed the men with
axes while Dr. Burrage built a fire and readied blankets, coffee
and brandy. Nels Swenson swung his big axe, chopping a hole
where Lucas indicated in the bottom of the buckboard. Lucas
again lowered himself into the river and came up beside Mark.
Between breaths, Gwen screamed, ‘Get Mark out first! Get him
first! He’s under water!’ By the light through the cracks made
by the axe, he could see Gwen dipping her head beneath the cold
water to give life to his son. He hit against the wood at a
place where they could remove Mark without hitting him.
‘Here! Chop here!’ he yelled.
Presently the light of day broke through and allowed the men to
see how to free Mark. Gwen was tiring; still, she faithfully
kept up her respirations while they worked. Finally Mark was
lifted out, coughing and spluttering. Gwen, exhausted,
gratefully slipped into Lucas’s arms. He raised her up through
the hole and the men grabbed her. Only when she was free did
Lucas climb out himself.
Mark and Gwen were handed man-to-man over the ruined pieces of
bridge to the bank, where they were wrapped in layers of
blankets and placed by the fire. Dr. Burrage worked over them.
Mark was spitting up water and shivering. Gwen was just as cold
and rather winded, but lay quietly, resting.
A rumble in the direction of the river caused all to turn and
look: the buckboard and the remnants of the bridge finally broke
loose and began their turbulent journey downstream. Help had
arrived just in time.
Lucas anxiously knelt by his son. He looked at the doctor.
‘Lucas, this kid of yours would have been a goner had it not
been for this young lady,’ Dr. Burrage stated bluntly. He’s much
too cold, but the fire will fix that shortly. They’ll both be
fine once they get enough air in their lungs and warm up, I
think,’ the doctor assured him. ‘I’ll take them in the buggy
back to my office. I’d like to watch them overnight.’
Lucas’s throat worked. ‘Thanks,’ he said.
‘You need to let me stitch up that gash in your back while I’m
at it,’ admonished the doctor.
Lucas hadn’t even felt it. He nodded.
The doctor handed both children a cup of hot coffee laced with
brandy. They sipped it, each making a face at the taste. Mark
looked at Gwen and weakly smiled at her. He looked up at his
‘Mighty lucky, weren’t we, Pa?’
Lucas held his boy tight. ‘Mighty lucky, son.’
~ ~ ~
Mark and Gwen were in bed by the time Dr. Burrage finished with
Lucas. The doctor would watch them overnight and Lucas could
stay at the hotel until they were strong enough to head home.
Nels, Lucas learned, had assembled all the men in town with
enough lumber to make a temporary bridge further downstream
where the river narrowed.
Lucas came in to bid the children good night. ‘Gwen, how would
you feel about staying longer than just a few days, if your
mother doesn’t mind?’ asked Lucas.
‘I’d like that fine, Uncle Lucas,’ she smiled. ‘Is that ok with
‘Why, sure!’ he said.
‘Besides,’ Lucas continued, ‘we’ll need to get you a new
wheelchair – and me new buckboard. That’s gonna take time,’ he
smiled broadly. ‘You know, you showed a great deal of courage –
not to mention fast thinking – when you saved Mark’s life.
You’re going to do fine - from where I stand, you are a most
capable young lady.’
The girl smiled brightly at her uncle, who embraced her gently.
‘Don’t ever let anybody tell you that all you can do is sew!’
This is a story based on the TV
series The Rifleman
Here are some other great stories. Enjoy!
around The McCain Ranch