The Rifleman
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The Next Step...
Chapter 122 - A Brave Man Chooses to Act
Written by Deanne Bertram

Upon their return home, Mark and Lucas enjoyed spending time with their families; settling life into a routine, but neither man sat around and waited the arrival of spring; they began preparations for the work they needed to complete in order to keep their ranch running.

*****

It was well after dark when Mark returned home from standing his shift in town. He pulled out his pocket watch and from light of the full moon read its face, ‘ten o’clock’. He entered the barn and found a lit lantern hanging from one of the support posts. Looking around Mark couldn’t understand why Hope or the boys would have left the lantern burning.

Leading Rainmaker into his stall, Mark looked towards Two-Bits’ stall when he heard the mare grunt; he flipped the reins over his horse’s head, and walked out of the stall, over to the mare’s stall; peering over the half-wall he found his wife sitting on the ground, leaning back against the wall below him, cradling her mare’s head.

“Hope?” Mark asked, opened the stall door, and entered.

“She’s been in labor for a while.”

Mark pulled Hope away from her mare as the horse started struggling, nipping at her flanks before laying out flat again. The mare grunted and struck out with her legs as the contractions continued rippling across her pregnant belly.

“Mark?” Hope called out, as her husband carefully walked near the wall, to the back end of the horse.

“She’s struggling too much. If she needs help, I can help her,” Mark answered.

As he positioned himself in order to help, yet out of striking distance, Mark saw two black hooves protruding. After the mare gave another hard push, Mark saw the foal’s nose and knees emerge. After another push, the foal’s front legs, head, and neck were visible. Mark witnessed another contraction ripple across the mare, but didn’t see the mare push. He grabbed the foal’s front hooves and as the next contraction hit, he pulled. In time, he had pulled the foal out past its shoulders. The contractions seemed to subside for a few minutes, but soon, one more heavy contraction caused Two-Bits to loudly grunt and push, the foal slipped the rest of the way out, rupturing the amniotic sack. Mark ripped the silky membrane away from the foal’s nose as it started moving its head and took its first breath of life.

“Is it a filly or a colt?” Hope inquisitively asked.

“Haven’t looked yet, but it’s beautifully marked. Come on back in.”

Mark took his wife’s hand and helped her sit down in the corner before he sat down next to her. With his arms wrapped around his wife, he watched the miracle of life unfold as a half hour later Two-Bits stood and began nuzzling the baby, licking it clean. Within another half hour, the foal was on his feet, nursing.

“I think we should leave them alone,” Mark stated, helping his wife to her feet. Latching the door behind them, Mark stopped when he heard Rainmaker snorting.

“Oh, sorry big guy. Hope, go on to the house, I’ll be in as soon as I get him unsaddled” Mark walked to his stallion’s stall, entered, and unsaddled his horse. “So, what do you think about your son?”

Rainmaker nuzzled Mark, looking for sugar cubes.

Before leaving the barn for the night, Mark gave all the horses a helping of hay, and blew out the lantern.

*****

Mark and Hope enjoyed the quiet dawn at their home; until after breakfast, when Hope announced her mare had given birth. All three boys and their oldest sister ran from the house wanting to see the new baby.

“Mark!” Hope exclaimed. “Get them back here!”

Mark turned and gave his wife a look, implying that returning their children to the house would be an impossible feat. “Well, at least you didn’t say anything before they ate their breakfast.”

Mark jogged across the yard, calling for the children to wait. Before he opened the barn door, he talked to them, “Now children, you don’t want to scare the foal, do you?”

Mark’s children looked to each other and shook their heads.

“So we’ll walk in slowly and be real quiet, right?”

Mark couldn’t help but smile when he saw them nod their heads. Mark waited as Hope walked across the yard, carrying Faith in her arms.

As the children climbed upon the bales of hay stacked in front of the stall, they looked over the half-wall; wide-eye in amazement.

“Is it a boy or a girl?” Mykaela asked.

“A colt,” answered Mark.

“Mark?!” Lucas called as he entered the barn. “Is everything alright?”

“Sure Pa, they just found out that Two-Bits had her foal last night.”

Lucas walked over and stood next to Hope, placing a hand on her shoulder.

“Wow,” Lucas stated, pushing his hat back on his head. “…quite a stunning foal.”

“Colt, Grandpa, he’s a colt!” Eli exclaimed.

“Does he have a name?” Josh asked.

Hope looked to Mark and shrugged her shoulders, “I really hadn’t thought on a name.”

“You could call him Dasher,” Josh suggested.

Zach shoved his shoulder into his brother’s shoulder, declaring, “He ain’t a reindeer!” Only to be pushed back by Josh.

Mark reprimanded his eldest sons, before saying, “Your Ma will name him.”

“Okay,” the twins guiltily replied.

The black and white colt squealed and ran around Two-Bits who stood in the middle of the stall, contentedly munching on hay.

*****

Later that morning, with Lucas driving his family in their buckboard, and Mark and his family following, the McCain families made their way into town for their usual Saturday shopping.

“Hello Micah!” Lucas greeted as the stopped the buckboard in front of the jail, after seeing Micah step to the hitching rail as they approached.

“Morning Lucas, Milly, kids. Lucas you’ll want to stop by and see Amos, he stopped by earlier and said he had a telegraph for you.”

“Thanks Micah,” stated Lucas.

Milly asked, “You and Hattie are still coming out for supper tonight, aren’t you?”

“And miss your famous chicken and dumplings? We’ll be out around four.”

“See you later.”

Lucas signaled the team to walk on; Micah waved a greeting to Hope, Mark, and their children as they drove by. The smile on Micah’s face indicated how much he relished hearing the children calling him Papaw Micah.

*****

Lucas loaded the last of their purchases in the back of the buckboard as Little Ted, holding Levi’s hand, came running along the boardwalk.

“Pa!” Little Ted called. “Mr. Amos asked us to take you this letter.”

Lucas took the note that Levi handed him.

“Thanks boys.”

Milly walked out from the General Store and stopped next to Lucas, “Who’s it from?”

“It’s from Franklin Galveston, they’re calling an urgent meeting of all the Cattlemen Associations,” answered Lucas.

“When?” asked Milly.

“Next weekend, I’d need to leave on Wednesday; Franklin wants me there to meet with him on Friday.”

“Where is the meeting?”

“Santa Fe.”

*****

Lucas had left the day prior, when Mark detoured from his normal evening walk through the town after hearing the train’s whistle echo across the land. Stepping to the platform, he greeted those exiting from the passenger cars, and gave answers to their questions. Almost ready to resume his walk of North Fork, a tall man walking the ramp into the livestock car drew Mark’s attention. Mark prepared to call out, but refrained as the man stepped back out, leading a striking paint horse, and opened his duster to show a holster and handgun hanging from his right hip.

Holding his rifle with his arms crossed, Mark waited for the man’s approach.

“Well I’ll be!” The man called as he stepped closer to Mark, but soon apologized, “I’m sorry. I mistook you for someone else.”

“That’s all right; I think we’re even on that score,” answered Mark. With the lanterns illuminating the platform, he couldn’t help but noticed the man’s weathered features, his short-cropped hair tinged with grey at the temples, and his blue eyes. “Do you have business in North Fork?”

“Yes, I’m here to survey and map out the land about five miles south of town,” the man stated and started to walk away.

“Survey?” asked Mark as he tried to match the man stride for stride.

“The Army contracted with my employers,” the man stated as he led his horse down the ramp to the street.

“Can I inquire why the Army has commissioned a survey?”

“I’m not privy to that information, just paid to do a job. Well, I can see the hotel from here, guess this is where we part company, Marshal.”

“The name’s McCain, Mark McCain.”

“McCord, Jason McCord.”

The man tipped his hat, turned, and led his horse to and tied him to the hitching rail. McCord pulled his bedroll and saddlebag from the horse and stepped to the porch of the hotel; he looked up and down the street before entering the lobby.

Mark finished his walk of North Fork, satisfied that all was as it should be. He was about to re-enter the Marshal’s Office when he saw Jason McCord walking from the livery to the hotel. Mark waited until the man disappeared inside and shook his head, wondering if he should wire Seth Lane to inquire if he knew why the Army commissioned a survey.

“Well, Mark? Everything quiet?” Johnny Drako asked.

“Sure, just the way we like it,” replied Mark. As Johnny prepared to leave the office Mark said, “See you in the morning.”

*****

Johnny Drako called “Mark!” as he entered the Marshal’s Office for the morning.

“Coffee’s ready,” Mark replied as he looked up from reading a report from one of his deputies.

“I could of sworn I just saw Lucas walking into the livery… I thought he was in Santa Fe,” Johnny removed his hat, setting it on his desk, before he poured himself a cup of coffee.

“He is. That was Jason McCord you saw.”

“Jason Mc…”

“McCord. He’s a surveyor. He’s doing a survey about five miles south of town.”

“McCord…” Johnny mumbled, holding his cup of coffee, as he looked out the window and watched the man ride out of town.

“Do you know him Johnny?” Mark asked.

“No, I don’t know him. But I sure do know of him.”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed, indicating he didn’t like the fact the man was in his town.

Mark stood from his desk and walked to stand next to Johnny, “Is that good or bad?”

“Bad… I’m afraid it means trouble.”

“He didn’t appear to be a trouble maker when I met him last night.”

“He doesn’t make the trouble but trouble always seems to follow him.”

“Are you calling him a Jonas? Johnny, I didn’t think you believed in that sort of stuff.”

“He’s not a Jonas, but… You don’t know who he is, do you?”

Shaking his head in reply, Mark stated, “Other than his name and occupation, no. Why don’t you tell me.”

Johnny walked to the front of his desk, sat on the edge, and folded his arms.

“You ever heard of Bitter Creek?” Johnny asked.

“Can’t say that I have…” answered Mark, having walked to the pot-bellied stove, he heaped plenty of sugar into the coffee he’d poured for himself.

“It happened before Little Big Horn…”

Mark listened as Johnny continued to tell of the lone survivor, court-martialed and drummed out of the army.

“It’s been a long time…” Johnny quieted.

“Johnny, it was a long time ago. A man pays his dues to society or the army and they’re allowed to live their life.”

“A lot of family members don’t see it that way. They feel he should have been executed by a firing squad. They believe his cowardice led to the deaths of their loved ones.”

“Cowardice? Johnny, you can’t seriously…”

“It’s in the record books…He’s a coward! Anyway, I don’t like the fact that he’s here.”

“You want me to keep an eye on him?”

“You probably should,” replied Johnny. “I don’t think I could stomach being any closer to him than I am.”

“Johnny…, did you lose a family member because of him?” Mark hesitantly asked.

“No, but I knew good men who served under him…” Standing to walk back to the window, Johnny continued to look out over the street as he spoke. “Mark, just keep his distance from this office.”

“What about the hotel?”

“He’s a guest at the hotel… If Lou wants him gone, that’s her decision.”

“Are you going to tell her?”

Johnny looked to Mark, “No, I’ll keep my distance from there as well.”

*****

It was the fourth day since Jason McCord arrived in North Fork that Mark rode with him to the land five miles south of town to assist him with the survey. Jason was happy to have someone to help and for the chance to just talk about anything, without being pre-judged for his past.

“If we can beat that rain front, we should be able to finish this project today,” Jason stated as he looked towards the ominous clouds lining the horizon. “I appreciate all your help.”

“I don’t understand why they sent you alone. Last time any surveyors came through here, there were three of them.”

“Last time?” Jason asked as he returned to his calculations.

“Don’t worry; it was a long time ago, before the train came to town.” Mark stated, shoving his hat firmer onto his head as the wind picked up.

Jason bent over the small table, hurriedly jotting down numbers and adding to the rough drawing of the landscape, while at the same time, trying to prevent the sheets of paper from being blown away by the wind.

“Jason, I think you best pack it up, you’re not gonna be able to finish before the weather arrives, least not today,” Mark stated as he turned his back to the increasing wind.

The two had just finish packing their gear into the back of the buckboard when they both reacted to the sounds of gunfire, as a bullet struck the canteen hanging from the front seat, and other bullets whistled past them. Both dove for cover behind the buckboard, regretting they hadn’t thought to hitch the team or keep Mark’s horse nearby; all three horses stood hobbled in the grass clearing, in the direction the gunfire originated. Not knowing their assailants, they tried to choose their targets as they returned fire.

“We’re sitting ducks out here,” Jason commented as he reloaded his pistol.

“Are you striking anything with that?” Mark asked as he ducked, having fired all the bullets in his rifle. “I think they’re too far out of range for you, why don’t you save your ammunition, if they come closer.”

“Be careful what you wish,” Jason declared.

As they continued to defend their position, the wind drove the rain over them. Between the heavy downpour and the wind blowing, neither heard the riders approaching to their backs, until they were only a few yards away.

Jason looked up as he turned to re-load to see a rider bearing down on them. Jason ran towards the horse and grabbed the reins, and pulled the man from the saddle. The man struggled against Jason, both men twisting and turning, throwing and avoiding punches. During the fight, Jason was unaware of this handgun having slipped from his holster to the ground.

The wind drove the rain harder, turning the dirt to mud; it was an effort for Jason and his assailant to keep to their feet as they fought.

Mark looked up to see a second rider approach and fired his rifle, striking the horse as it reared when the rider abruptly hauled him to a halt. Mark ran towards the rider who jumped away from his horse as it collapsed to the ground. The man landed on his feet and charged Mark, driving him backwards into the mud.

As Jason McCord fought with his assailant, another assailant sighted down the barrel of his rifle; aiming at the center of his back. As Mark’s opponent slipped in the mud and fell to the ground, Mark saw Jason’s imminent danger; he lowered his shoulder, and ran into McCord, pushing him out of the direct line of fire. In doing so, Mark cried out as the bullet intended for Jason McCord struck him in the right shoulder, flipping and dropping him to the muddy ground.

Jason regained his balance, turned and saw Mark, blood seeping through his shirt as he lay on his back in the mud. Jason charged the man, who struggled with a jammed rifle. Before the assailant turned and ran, the man threw his weapon towards Jason, who batted it aside.

Jason’s long legs allowed him to catch up to the runner in short order; grabbing the man by the collar of his shirt, Jason pulled him backwards. Turning the man so they faced each other, Jason grabbed the front of the man’s shirt and threw a punch, striking him across the cheek, causing the man’s head to snap sideways. As the man went limp in his hand, Jason dropped him as he looked in the direction to see more of their assailants running in their direction. He turned and ran back to where Mark, shakily, was getting to his feet.

“Can you run?” Jason asked as a bullet ricocheted nearby; he reached for his weapon to find his holster empty.

With his left hand pressing into his shoulder, Mark nodded. Jason pushed him forward, before he stopped and picked up a weapon from the ground, and followed Mark. Through the continued rain, the two mud-coated men ran into the woods that lined the valley, only stopping when a winded Mark couldn’t continue.

“How bad’s… your shoulder?” an out of breath Jason asked, as he hid behind a tree, looking back the way they had come.

Leaning back against a tree, bent forward, with his hands on his knees, a winded Mark answered, “Bad… I don’t think… it went clean… through” Turning his head sideways to look at McCord, Mark asked, “Do you… have any… bullets… for that?”

After hearing Mark’s question, Jason took a moment to look at the gun in his hand, and realized the truth, “Damn.” The gun he held in his hand used a different caliber bullet than those in his gun belt.

“How many… are there?” Mark asked.

“Besides the three… we fought… don’t know,” answered Jason.

“Can you see ‘em?” Mark asked, worried about their assailants approach.

“No, but I can hear them. I don’t think they’ve come too far into the woods.”

“This rain won’t stop them… ” it was easier for Mark to talk as he recovered his breath.

“Let’s get you deeper into these woods, maybe find a dry spot, and take a look at your shoulder.”

*****

“Hey Reese!” Amos hollered as he stepped from the telegraph office, waving a piece of paper in the air.

“Howdy Amos, what’s up?” Reese Randall asked, turning his horse around to wait for the telegrapher.

“You seen Johnny?”

“He’s having lunch with Lou. Can I give him a message?”

“Sure, this is for both of you. It’s from Hallelujah Dohrn.”

Reese took the sheet of paper and read:

North Fork,

Gunrunners in your area /stop/
Bad ammo and faulty guns /stop/
U.S. Army patrol coming /stop/

Deputy U.S. Marshal Hallelujah Dohrn

*****

Having sufficiently recovered their breaths, Mark and Jason continue deeper into the woods, hoping to find a location they could hide from their assailants and the storm.

Jason helped push Mark up the steep hill that rose in front of them; the slippery footing made their ascent difficult. Both prayed there would be sufficient cover at the top.

*****

Having found refuge under a deep overhang of rock, both men rested back against the walls of the cave.

“So, are any of these ‘friends’ of yours,” Jason asked.

“Mine? I thought… they might have… been yours,” replied Mark.

“Guess you wouldn’t know why they’re after us?” Jason asked.

Mark shook his head and tried to keep his groan inwards.

“Let me see your shoulder,” Jason stated as he crawled over to Mark and unbuttoned his shirt. “You’re right, it didn’t go through.”

Pulling his bandanna from around his neck, Jason pushed it deep into the bullet hole, as he kept his fears to himself; concern for his companion from the bullet wound, his loss of blood, and the possibility of an infection.

*****

Reese entered the lobby of the hotel, causing several female guests to gasp and cling to each other in fear at seeing a black man walking casually among them, as he continued into the restaurant.

“Johnny, we got trouble,” Reese quietly stated, pulling out a chair and handing Johnny the wire.

“When it rains it pours,” Johnny commented as he folded the sheet of paper and set it to the table.

“Johnny, what’s wrong?” Lou asked.

“Nothing…” Johnny answered.

“Don’t nothing, me. I’ve been married to ye for too long to know that look in yer eyes.”

“Lou… We’ve been notified about a gun running operation.”

“And that causes it to pour?” Lou asked.

“Now, Miss Lou. It’s just that one of your guests…”

“Reese!” Johnny declared.

“One of my guests, what?” Lou wanted to know. “If it affects my hotel, I have a right to know.”

“One of your guests has a past history…” Reese answered.

“Well, don’t we all?” Lou emphatically stated.

“From what I’ve heard, trouble seems to follow the man and Johnny’s been having Mark keep an eye on him,” Reese replied, not going into any further detail.

“Is he involved with these gunrunners?” Lou inquired.

Johnny shook his head.

“Then why…” Lou barely voiced her question, when she answered, “It’s the man who looks like Lucas… That’s who. Johnny, what did he do?” Without giving Johnny a chance to speak, Lou continued, “Shame on ye for making Mark keep an eye on an outlaw who looks like his father. Why are ye avoiding him?”

“He’s not an outlaw…” Reese answered.

“Then what is he if ye’re having Mark keep an eye on him and ye’re avoiding him?” Lou’s fiery Irish eyes bore into Johnny when he didn’t answer.

Johnny curtly answered, “A man who dredges up memories of friends, long dead; a man whose very name causes men to lose track of their sanity and allows hatred to get the better of them!”

Johnny stood from the table, grabbed his hat, and angrily placed it on his head as he stormed out, into the lobby.

*****

“Where’s Mark?” Johnny asked as Reese followed him into the Marshal’s Office.

“He left earlier this morning, rode out with McCord, as he has for the past three days.”

“Damn it, we need him here.” A frustrated Johnny threw his hat on to his desk, “You had no right to tell Lou about McCord.”

Reese let Johnny’s words go, he knew the marshal’s emotions were tainted by the fact that Jason McCord was in town, only to be compounded by the news contained in the wire.

“Johnny, we don’t even know who or where these gunrunners are. You need to forget about McCord, he’s not done anything wrong. And there was no call getting riled at your wife like you did.”

“I know, it’s just… Ever since McCord arrived here, I’ve been waiting for something to happen… I hope and pray that Mark can keep the man out of my way and he’d be gone. And now… He’s still here and there’s more trouble coming.”

*****

Johnny and Reese finished placing several boxes of shells for their guns and rifles in their saddlebags.

“Micah, you keep an eye on my town, and when Mark returns, tell him to forget about McCord for the time being. Dohrn will probably wire once they have more news.”

“And how do I get any news to you?” Micah called out as Johnny and Reese grabbed their rain slickers and left the office.

*****

Night had fallen under the blanket of storm clouds when the rain finally stopped and Johnny and Reese removed their slickers to discuss making camp for the night.

“Seems someone else beat us to camp,” Johnny stated, as both saw a campfire in the distance.

“If it’s the gunrunners…” Reese asked,

“We’ll quietly take them by surprise,” Johnny answered as he checked his handgun and returned it to his holster.

“Do you think we’d be that lucky? Find them our first night out?” inquired Reese.

“Not the way my luck is going…” answered Johnny.

*****

Johnny and Reese slowly approached the camp and were surprised to find a cavalry outfit settling down for the night.

“Hello in the camp!” Johnny called.

“Enter slow and with your hands up,” a voice called out.

As they entered the light of the campfire, they watched as several soldiers with weapons drawn surrounded them.

“I’m Marshal Johnny…”

“Drako, from North Fork. Men holster your weapons and at ease. Good to see you Johnny,” called the soldier, the insignia on his collar indicated the rank of a Lt. Colonel, walking from the far side of the fire.

“Ethan?!” Johnny called out.

“Step down and have a cup of coffee,” Ethan invited. “You too deputy...”

“The name’s Reese Randall,” Reese answered as a private took his and Johnny’s horses.

“The name’s Ethan Lane and I hope you’re doing as good a job as Father did,” Ethan stated as he shook hands with the deputy.

“He’ll more than do. Least I don’t have to worry about the army recalling him,” Johnny answered.

“Then you’d be Mark’s brother-in-law?” Reese asked.

Ethan nodded before he asked, “What brings you two out this way?”

“Received a wire from the Marshal Service about gunrunners, bad ammo and weapons,” Johnny replied. “Said they were known to be headed our way from Lordsburg.”

“It’s bad, too,” commented Ethan.

“How so?” asked Reese.

The three settled around the fire as Ethan told his story, “We’ve heard rumblings of gunrunners peddling bad ammunition and weapons that won’t work.”

“Who are they selling them too?” Johnny asked.

“Settlers. That’s not the worst part, they’re telling the settlers the Indians in the area are up in arms and planning to bolt from the reservation. Father and I fear they’re setting up for a war.”

“I thought the Indians were…”

“It’s not the Indians; they’re not causing any trouble. The gunrunners are setting the settlers up, we fear they’re trying to drive the settlers out, and the Indians will be blamed.”

Reese commented after he gave out a long whistle, “Blame the Indians and they’ll be shipped off to reservations…”

“Florida, to your point,” Ethan answered.

“If they’re operating out of Lordsburg, why are you out here?” Johnny asked.

“Your information is somewhat dated… They’re somewhere south of North Fork,” Ethan answered. “We have it from reliable sources, there’s a location somewhere around five miles or so south of your town.”

“That’s where Mark…” Reese started to say.

“If they’re that close, why didn’t you wire?” Johnny ignored Reese’s statement.

“We only found out this morning, when we captured one of them, he’s on his way back to the fort. And we’ve not been near any town with a telegraph.”

*****

McCord cursed their situation, clothes soaked with rain and mud and the temperature falling as night settled around them; he looked towards Mark and watched him shiver.

“Forget what you’re thinking,” Jason stated as watched Mark open his eyes and sit up.

“What am I thinking?” Mark asked.

“You’re trying to figure out a way to get me out of here…” replied Jason. “We’re in this together.”

“But you’re not wounded; you could sneak out of here tonight, under the cover of darkness and get to the horses, return to North Fork, and get help.”

“They probably already have our horses rounded up with theirs, and I’m supposed to just walk into their camp…”

“Makes better sense for you to try,” replied Mark.

“No, I can sit over there and keep an eye on them, if they start up the hill, then we’ll try to figure out a way for both of us to get out of here. Right now, at least we’re not getting soaked. They probably won’t try anything more until morning.”

*****

The light of dawn shown into Mark’s face; waking him for the day. Looking around, he startled in not seeing Jason McCord in the cave with him. Mark groaned as he tried to sit up straighter. He closed his eyes against his discomfort as he heard Johnny’s words repeated in his head, “He’s a coward.”

Mark opened his eyes in hearing rocks falling, fearing their assailants were starting an avalanche; he relaxed when he recognized McCord.

“What are you doing?” Mark asked.

“Trying to figure a way to get us out of here, and set a little trap for them…”

Mark realized that Jason had been busy during the night in piling up rocks and small boulders along the ledge.

“If they try to climb up here, we’ll shower this down on them,” Jason finished speaking. “How’s your shoulder?”

“Still bleeding,” answered Mark.

Jason crawled over and looked at the wound, “At least it doesn’t look infected, guess the continued blood flow is keeping anything out.”

*****

As morning dawned across the valley, lawmen and soldiers were already in the saddle, heading east. By mid-afternoon, the patrol rode towards a lone rider sitting on his halted horse, waiting for them.

“Scottson, what did you find?” Ethan asked his scout, as he reined his horse in and motioned for the detail to halt.

“About two miles ahead, found evidence of a fight and I followed the tracks until I found the gunrunners’ camp. Looks like they got somebody holed up, I don’t know who or how much longer they can last. Looks like whoever it is didn’t have a chance to hitch up their team to the buckboard, stuff was loaded, but their horses were still hobbled. There was also a dead horse near the buckboard.”

“Surveying stuff?” Johnny asked.

“I didn’t get a chance to really look at the stuff, but there was something that looked like it could have been one of them tripod things.”

Ethan ordered the army scout to lead on as the patrol fell in behind him.

*****

Johnny and Scottson returned to where Reese, Ethan, and patrol waited. “Through them trees, they’ve got them holed up, midway up the hill. Whoever it is at least has some cover. It’s not a real cave, but it’s affording them good protection from below and above.

“How do you want to proceed?” Ethan asked.

“If it’s who I think it is, I’d rather let them have him,” Drako replied.

“You know who they have?” Ethan asked.

“A surveyor who’s been in town for a while,” Drako answered.

As Ethan turned to pass orders along to his men, Reese retorted, “You’re sworn to protect…”

“Don’t tell me my job. I’m only here to stop those gunrunners.”

“And if Mark…” Reese asked.

“He would have stayed in town this morning…” Drako replied. “Remember, I told Micah to have Mark forget about McCord for the time being.”

*****

Johnny and Ethan oversaw the implementation of their plan of attack and everyone set out to ensure they took as many men alive, if possible. Leaving several men behind to keep their horses, the patrol headed out on foot, through the woods in order to spring their own ambush.

Using hand signals, Ethan motioned his men into action upon hearing the gunfight begin. As they reach the edge of the woods, he realized the gunrunners were providing covering fire as several other carried small boxes marked dynamite up the hill.

The soldiers carefully selected their targets and as Ethan signaled, they begin their assault. Ethan gave the signal the moment he saw an avalanche of rocks start down the hill. The gunrunners on the hill dropped their crates and ran to get out of the way. The rock fall collected the crates and men, and at the base of the hill, one of the crates exploded. The gunrunners who were out in the open attempted to put up a fight, but upon realizing a troop of soldiers were in the line of trees, slowly threw down their weapons, and raised their hands above their heads.

“HOLD YOUR FIRE MEN!” Ethan ordered and watched as the men of his patrol took the outlaws into custody and verified others were killed in the explosion caused by the rockfall.

*****

Ethan, Reese, and Johnny looked up when they heard from above, “I’ve a wounded man up here!”

“Go on,” Ethan stated. “We’ll take care of these outlaws.”

Johnny and Reese carefully made their way up the hillside.

“How can we help?” Reese asked, being the first one to the ledge.

“Your marshal’s been shot.”

“What the hell?!” Drako declared, after reaching the ledge and seeing Mark lying again the wall; Johnny’s steely eyes narrowed. “What the hell did you do?!” Johnny grabbed Jason by the front of the shirt, shoving him backwards.

“DRAKO!” Reese yelled, grabbing Johnny’s arms, trying to pull him away. “Forget him, Mark needs our help.”

In disgust, Drako turned from his adversary and focused his attention on Mark, who lay unconscious a few yards away.

“Reese, go back to…” Johnny started to say.

“If my buckboard is still in the clearing, I’ve rope in the back…” Jason answered.

Reese quickly made his way down the hillside, “Colonel!” he yelled, “Where’s your scout?!”

“Scottson?!” Ethan yelled.

As the scout ran towards them, Reese yelled, “Where’s their buckboard? We’re gonna need it!”

Reese followed the scout through the woods, and as they entered the clearing, they found the soldiers who were left behind had already found the team and buckboard, and hitched them, in addition to finding Rainmaker.

Grabbing the rope and a blanket, Reese turned and ran back through the woods, out of breath, he reached the base of the hill and started his climb.

“It’s soaking wet,” Johnny declared in taking the blanket Reese handed him. “How’s this supposed to keep him warm?”

“It’s not, I thought we could lay him on it, tie the rope around his torso and it, and we could grab hold the ends to carry him down.”

“Good thinking man,” Jason answered, as the three prepared to get Mark down the hillside.

With Jason holding the blanket at Mark’s head, Johnny and Reese grabbed hold of the blanket on either side of Mark’s feet. After slipping and sliding and gathering their footing, they arrived at the base of the hill, Scottson met them and grabbed hold of the fourth corner of the blanket, next to Jason.

*****

Mark moaned as they placed him in the back of the buckboard, Johnny climbed to the seat, grabbed the reins and slapped the horses on their haunches, yelling, “YA!”, urging the horses to race to North Fork. Jason McCord grabbed hold of Rainmaker’s reins, swung up in the saddle and followed.

*****

After carrying Mark McCain into the clinic, Jason McCord followed Johnny Drako back to the office, where the marshal slammed the door shut after him.

“Marshal…” Jason started to say.

“Don’t marshal me! Get out of my town!”

“I thought you’d want answers to what happened out there... but since you don’t, I’ll be heading to the hotel. I don’t mean to be causing you any more trouble,” McCord answered.

“Too late for that; you best hope Mark McCain can answer all my questions after Doc’s removed that bullet.” The tone of Johnny’s voice and his posture held accusations.

“You think I had something to do with his being shot?” Jason strode to stand in front of Johnny, “He was shot, taking a bullet that was meant for me.”

“Should have let you…”

“And you… a lawman,” Jason stated in disgust. “You saw what we were up against! Besides, I thought a man was presumed innocent until proven guilty.”

“You were proven guilty. You stood trial and were convicted; you were drummed out of the army…”

“I’m not talking Bitter Creek. I’m talking what happened yesterday… and this morning.”

“You best pray that boy recovers,” Johnny started to speak. “You’ll stand trial for his murder, as an accessory, if he dies.”

“When Mark McCain recovers, he’ll answer all your questions, to your satisfaction,” Jason stated, turned, and left the office.

*****

Milly, and Hope, exited the daycare when she called out, “LUCAS!” and ran along the boardwalk towards the Marshal’s Office.

“Ma’am?” greeted a mud-caked Jason McCord, removing his hat as Milly stopped in front of him.

“I’m sorry,” Milly stated, pulling the tips of her fingers to her mouth. “I thought you were someone else.”

“Seems to be a lot of that going around,” Jason answered.

“I’m sorry for bothering you…” Milly answered.

“It was no bother ma’am, it was my pleasure Miss…?”

“Mrs. McCain, Milly McCain…”

“Are you related to the Marshal?” Jason asked.

“I’m his mother,” answered Milly. “And this is Hope, she’s Mark’s wife.”

“And neither of you know?”

“Know what?” Hope cried as she covered her mouth with her hand, feeling her felt her stomach drop.

“We brought him in a little while ago, he’s at the…” Jason pointed to the clinic as he spoke, “clinic.”

Hope turned, picked up the skirt of her dress, and ran across the street to the clinic.

“Ma’am,” Jason immediately took hold of Milly’s upper arm, looked both ways and waited as a freight wagon passed, before he saw her across the street; he opened the door and showed her inside. Hope was pleading with Sarah McCafferty.

“Hope, please, he’ll be okay. Aaron and Thadd are operating on him as we speak.”

“How bad?” asked a crying Hope.

“Ma’am, if I may?” Jason inquired of Sarah, “Do you have somewhere a little more private?”

Sarah nodded and showed them to Thadd’s office.

“Ma’am, your husband took a bullet to the shoulder, saving my life. For which I am most grateful. However, he lost a fair amount of blood.”

Hope took a moment to look at the stranger who stood before her, “You’re the surveyor?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Mark told me about you, but he didn’t say anything about you looking…”

Milly still couldn’t believe the similarity between the man who stood before her, and Lucas, as she looked up from comforting Hope to say, “You said, Mark saved your life?”

“Yes ma’am, we were ambushed yesterday late-morning. We were able to find a spot where we could hold off our attackers… If your marshal and the army detail hadn’t shown up with they did…”

From the other side of the door Milly and Hope heard a male voice call out, “Where’s Mark?!”

“Ethan?” Hope curiously asked, looking from Jason to Milly to the door. Breaking Milly’s embrace, Hope stood to her feet and ran to the doorway, “Ethan!”

“Sis,” Ethan called as he entered the office. “How’s Mark? Johnny and someone else rode ahead with him. I’m sorry I couldn’t get here any sooner.”

“He’s in surgery,” Hope answered as she accepted her brother’s embrace.

“Lucas…?” Ethan asked and shook his head questioningly, after he saw the other man in the office.

*****

Johnny Drako entered the clinic where Sarah informed him that Mark was still in surgery and that Hope and Milly were in Thadd’s office. Johnny stopped outside the door and listened when he heard Jason McCord say, “Pleased to meet you. Thanks for arriving when you did. I don’t know how much longer the Marshal, or I, would have lasted has you not come when you did.”

“How did you and Mark happen to be out there?” Ethan asked.

Johnny continued to stew as he listen as Jason McCord told the story of his job surveying the land, their ambush, and his trying to save their lives.

*****

Johnny and Micah were sitting in the room when Mark woke later that evening.

“Good to see you awake, boy,” Micah stated, breathing a sigh of relief.

“Where?” Mark barely voiced out.

“You’re in North Fork, at the clinic.”

“Hope…” Mark tried to speak.

“She knows, she and Milly were in town when we brought you in,” Johnny answered. “They’re at the hotel. Micah, why don’t you go get his family, I’m sure they’re eager to see him awake.”

Micah left the room and Johnny shut the door behind him.

“How could you try to take on that gang by yourself?!” demanded Johnny. “I told you to stay in town.”

“Johnny, could I have… some water.”

Johnny handed a glass of water to Mark and waited while he drank.

“I don’t know why you’re so upset, we were the ones who were ambushed… Wait a minute, when did you tell me to stay in town?”

“Yesterday, I left word with Micah.”

“If it’s all the same to you, I didn’t come back to town; we were ambushed and spent the night out there. And for your information, we didn’t ‘take on that gang’ by ourselves.”

“I’m sorry, Mark…” Johnny admitted. “Just… we received word from Hallelujah that a gang of gunrunners was in the area…”

“Guess they were the ones that we were after earlier…” Mark took another drink of water.

Hope and Milly knocked and opened the clinic room door and entered. Hope ran to embrace her husband; grateful tears that her husband was alive fell down her face.

*****

The following morning, Johnny again was in Mark’s room at the clinic. He informed Mark, in more detail, who their attackers were. When the subject of their conversation turned to Jason McCord, Johnny demanded, “I want him gone!”

“Johnny, Jason’s done nothing wrong.”

“If he weren’t here, you wouldn’t have been out there!” argued Johnny.

“If anyone’s is to blame, it’s you!”

“What?!” exclaimed Johnny.

“I’ll admit I was curious why the army commissioned a survey, but you were the one who wanted me to keep an eye on him, to keep him away from you.”

“Now wait one minute!” argued Johnny.

“No Johnny, I won’t. Your impression of Jason is wrong. I’ve spent enough time over the past few days with him to know him. I’ll tell you one thing, he’s not a coward!”

“Then how do you explain that?” Johnny asked pointing to Mark’s arm.

“Damn it Johnny! I got shot doing my job, protecting a man. One of your gunrunners was going to shoot him in the back.” Mark’s aggravation was evident in his voice and by the redness of his face.

“You should have let him!” retorted Johnny.

“If that’s how you feel, maybe you better quit being a marshal,” Mark answered. “Johnny when you first arrived, you had a reputation, and if it weren’t for Pa, Lou probably would have had Micah run you out of town.”

“What does my past have to…”

“Johnny, you of all people know reputations grow with each retelling… Along the way, the story gets retold and distorted into something that no longer resembles the truth.”

“You’re sticking up for him?!”

“I’m sticking up for the truth.”

“The truth is, a lot of good men died that day! The Army found him guilty!”

“And Jason won’t dispute those points, either. Johnny…”

“Grow up McCain! You’re just being naďve …,” argued Johnny.

“Johnny, you have no right!” yelled Mark.

“What’s going on here?!” demanded Aaron Jamison. “I said you could see my patient, not get in an argument with him.”

“We’re not arguing,” responded Mark.

“Not arguing? I could hear the two of you out on the street,” an upset Aaron stated as he began to examine his patient.

“The boy said we weren’t arguing,” Johnny stated as he left the room, brushing past Hope.

“Boy…?! What’s going on?” asked a confused Hope as she entered her husband’s room, having heard Johnny’s comment.

“Just a difference of opinion…” Mark replied.

“Mark, I told you, you need to be quiet, and take it easy,” chastised Aaron. “You’ve opened your wound.”

“Ouch!” Mark exclaimed as Aaron prodded his wound. “I can’t help it if he’s pig...”

“Mark!” Hope declared.

‘headed,” finished Mark.

Hope watched as Aaron redressed Mark’s shoulder, binding it tighter than he had previously.

“Hope, try to keep your husband quiet,” Aaron stated as he left the room and closed the door behind him.

“What was your argument about?” inquired Hope.

“A difference of opinion.”

“Regarding Jason McCord?”” asked Hope.

“How?”

“Ma and I met him on the street, you were already in surgery.”

“McCord was the lone survivor of an Indian attack at Bitter Creek…”

“And Johnny?”

“He lost some good friends that day…” Mark answered, shaking his head.

“So how does that…”

“Hope, Johnny can’t let go of the past, what he thinks he knows about Jason’s past…”

“What he ‘thinks’ he knows? Mark what happened?” asked Hope as she sat down on the edge of the bed.

“Hope, if you’d of seen him out there… Jason saved my life and what he did isn’t the act of someone who’s a coward.”

“A coward? Johnny thinks he’s a coward?”

“I’ll explain later, once things have settled down.”

“I’m just glad all of them met up and were able to find you,” stated Hope.

“All?” Mark asked.

“Johnny and Jason brought you home. Reese, Ethan and his patrol followed later with the gunrunners in custody.”

“Ethan?” asked Mark.

“Yes, he told Ma and me yesterday that he was on assignment looking for the gunrunners. He happened upon Johnny and Reese, who had been notified by Agent Dohrn the gunrunners were in the area.” Hope stopped speaking when she heard Mark groan a little. “Are you okay?”

“Just a headache, too much to think about.”

“I can get Doc?”

Mark nodded.

Thadd returned to the room with Hope and after he examined Mark he said, “Between what Aaron told me happened earlier, plus the amount of blood you lost and the effects of the ether, you’re going to experience headaches for a few more days. That’s why you need to keep quiet.”

“I didn’t start the argument,” Mark answered.

Thadd removed two pills from a bottle, handed them and a glass of water to Mark, “Drink up and swallow these. I recommend that you sleep for a few more hours. You’ll feel better.”

“Ethan said he’d stop by to see you later,” Hope stated, her eyes shining bright in seeing her husband setting down and knowing her brother was in town.

“Ethan? What’s he doing here? I thought…”

“I just told you, he was leading the detachment that rescued you...,” voiced a concerned Hope.

“I sorry, I was…”

“…sleeping on the job,” Ethan teased, upon entering the room. “Good to see you awake. How’s the shoulder.”

“Doc says it will heal,” replied Mark.

“If you get some sleep,” Thadd stated. “I’m sorry, but I really would prefer if you come back later.”

Before he escorted his sister from the room, Ethan said, “I’ll stop by later. Get some sleep, Mark.”

*****

As they left the clinic, Hope asked, “Ethan, what do you know about Bitter Creek?”

“Bitter Creek? Wow. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard that name,” Ethan exhaled upon pushing his hat back.

“Tell me,” Hope insisted.

“I know the official record, but from what Father says, there’s a lot more to it.”

“What happened?” Hope asked.

“The Army sent a detachment to search for Indians off the reservation. There was a lone survivor…”

Hope commented, “Jason McCord.”

“How’d you…?”

“Ethan, he’s been in North Fork for almost a week. You met him yesterday.”

“I’m sorry Sis… I didn’t put it together. McCord was one of few officers who knew the plan behind the rendezvous… and being the only survivor… the Army charged him with desertion and cowardice. He was drummed out of the Army.”

“But Mark said he doesn’t believe it…”

“There’s scuttlebutt, I heard from Father…a long time ago.” Taking his sister by the upper arm, Ethan stopped, “Why do you want to know?”

“Mark and Johnny got into an argument over Jason McCord.”

“Think I better stick around for a while, at least until the fire dies down,” Ethan commented.

*****

The next day, Ethan and Johnny entered Mark’s room at the clinic.

“What do I owe the pleasure of both of you coming in here?” asked Mark as he pushed himself to sit up in the bed.

“I need to know what happened so I can add it to my report,” Johnny stated.

“You’ve not wanted to listen before,” replied Mark.

“Mark.” Ethan’s voice held an edge of warning.

After listening to Mark recount what he could remember from the time the attack began, until he woke in the clinic, Ethan asked, “Well?”

“His story matches what McCord said happened,” Drako answered; disappointment tinted his voice that he had hoped there would have been some discrepancy.

“What did he say happened when I lost consciousness that night?” asked Mark.

“He said he kept an eye on you and he managed to come and go, gathering rocks and stones for the avalanche,” Johnny answered.

“Johnny, once I was out, he could have easily left me there, to be found by those gun runners,” replied Mark. “I even tried to get him to leave, once night fell… Johnny… His eyes and the tone of his voice held conviction; he was going to stay there and see that both of us got out.”

“You really believe in him?” Johnny asked, trying to understand his friend.

“Johnny, there’s something about him that I can’t really describe; but I know, a coward would have left me. To me, actions speak louder than words. I can’t explain what happened at Bitter Creek, but sometimes people lie for reasons other than protecting themselves.”

“Mark, from what I remember overhearing Father say, he didn’t lie at his court martial, he didn’t offer any material defense,” Ethan stated.

“So, how do I stand as the Marshal of North Fork?” Johnny asked.

“What?” Mark asked, somewhat surprised.

“Well, you told me I should turn in my badge,” Johnny stated, raising an eyebrow.

“If I said that, then it must have been a side effect of the ether. Johnny, you’re good for this town. I don’t want your badge,” replied Mark.

“I’ll admit, I did a little soul searching last night and realized just how much I allowed my hatred to get the better of me. I even told Lou that McCord could make a man question his sanity.”

“I…” Mark didn’t know what to say.

“Can you work with me, knowing how I feel about the man’s past?”

Mark answered Johnny with another question, “Can you work with me, knowing how I feel about the man’s present?”

Ethan smiled as the two lawmen reconciled; he also knew his sister would be extremely happy to hear his report.

*****

Later the following day, Aaron examined Mark’s wound and stated, “If you’ll take it easy…” he raised his eyebrows, “You can return to light duty. But please, listen to your body and if you become fatigued…rest.”

“I’ll do my best,” Mark stated as Aaron retied the sling around his neck. “By the way, you might want to know that Mr. McCord bought a ticket on this afternoon’s train.”

“Does that mean you’re discharging me?” asked Mark.

“For the time being, until you overdo it,” Aaron laughed.

Mark arrived at the station in time to see Jason lead his horse into the livestock car and return to the platform.

“It’s been a pleasure working with you,” stated Mark as he offered his left hand. “Jason, when we first met, you said you mistook me for someone you once knew.”

“I remember.”

“Who was he?” asked Mark.

“He was a lawman, a young deputy, only…” McCord’s eyes softened in his remembering.

“Only?” curiously, Mark asked.

“He was a lot like you; he believed in the people of his town, and the town itself, maybe he was even a little too trusting of those he shouldn’t have... He was still wet behind the ears, more than you, but I’d like to think as he grew in his responsibilities, he’d be just like you are today. Or… Maybe I wish you could be a little more naďve. As young as you are, I guess you’ve seen your fair share of the dark side of man.”

“Yeah, at times, more than my Pa wished,” replied Mark.

“I’ve not met him, but from what I’ve witnessed, he’s a man blessed,” Jason quietly responded.

“If you’d like, he’s stepping off the train. I’d like to introduce the two of you…” Mark pointed to the tall, slender man stepping to the platform, carpetbag in one hand, rifle in the other.

“Mark!” hollered Lucas as he recognized his son; concern etched his face upon seeing his son’s right arm in a sling.

“Welcome home, Pa!” called Mark.

Lucas hesitated in his stride as he looked at the stranger standing next to his son.

“Pa, I’d like you to meet Jason McCord.” Turning to Jason, “Jason, this is my Pa, Lucas McCain.”

“Welcome to North Fork,” greeted Lucas as he placed his carpetbag to the ground and extended his hand.

“Sorry, but it’s goodbye. I need to make my reports and file my survey. You should be proud of the fine son you’ve raised,” greeted Jason as he accepted Lucas’ handshake.

A humbled Lucas replied, “I am.”

“Jason, can I ask question?” asked Mark as the conductor called “All aboard!”

“Sure.”

“You didn’t step aside the other day, and I can’t see you stepping aside back then.”

Pulling his hat forward on his head, McCord looked Mark in the eye and said, “That’s not a question.”

Mark understood McCord’s response, “I didn’t think so. You know, I do have pull with the army.”

“Mark, its old history… long, buried, forgotten,” replied McCord. “It’s best to leave it buried, most people will have forgotten.”

“But you haven’t…”

“Good men died that day…”

“But…” interrupted Mark.

“Son, it’s something I chose to live with.”

“To live with a lie… Above all else, to thine ownself be true…” pleaded Mark, struggling to understand why. “I don’t know why you’d allow men to believe about you like you do.”

“Mark, I hope you live a long life and are never put in a position where you have to make that decision. Only then, would you understand. Goodbye.” McCord tapped the brim of his hat and climbed the steps to the passenger car.

“McCord, it’s not over!” Mark yelled as the train started pulling away. He watched until Jason stepped inside.

Turning to his Pa, Mark smiled, knowing how happy his family would be upon Lucas’ early return.

“We weren’t expecting you for a couple of more days,” stated Mark.

“I can see that. Care to let your old man in on what happened and why your arm is in a sling?”

“Come on, we can talk about it on our way home,” suggested Mark as he started to grab Lucas’ carpetbag.

“I think I can handle it, son. By the way, your friend’s name sounded familiar…”

Father and son walked across the main street.

“At first I thought he was you returning…”

“He did look a little like me…” stated Lucas as he scratched his cheek.

“A little?! Other than his short-cropped hair and a little more gray around his temples, he could be your twin… More so than…” Mark couldn’t bring himself to say the outlaw’s name.

“Still, who was he?” asked Lucas.

“A surveyor for the Army,” Mark stated as they entered the livery stable.

“What were you saying about ‘not being over’?” Lucas asked; nodding in acknowledgment as Nils Swenson approached.

“Welcome home Lucas!” Nils called out, “Mark you want me to get Rainmaker ready?”

Mark nodded. “Pa, have you ever deliberately let a lie get perpetuated? A lie that was so wrong, it ruined your reputation. The mere mention of your name would turn people against you?”

“What are you getting at?” asked Lucas.

“Pa, Jason McCord… he rode at Bitter Creek…”

“That’s where I know the name. And you think…?”

“It’s all a lie.”

“Maybe you’re seeing him as me and can’t get past…” Lucas stated as he started to saddle Blade.

“No,” Mark interrupted. “Not after what we went through… A man doesn’t change that much over time. If he were the coward, they all say he was... Pa, his actions prove different. While I was sleeping, he could have left me out there. Yet, he accepts what others say about him and refuses to defend that he wasn’t a coward… Something else had to happen that day at Bitter Creek, I get the feeling there’s something else that he’s fighting hard to keep hidden… He’s protecting someone...”

“Mark, you have to let it go…if he’s chosen to live the lie for this long in order to protect someone else… Remember, we chose to lie once, to protect others…”

“But Pa, that wasn’t at the cost of our reputations…”

“Son, why don’t you tell me what happened while I was gone.”

As Nils handed Mark Rainmaker’s reins, he began his story.

*****

Mark finished his story as they rode over the rise just beyond their homesteads; Mark asked about the urgent business in Santa Fe.

“Seems the army is requisitioning a substantial amount of beef from this area.”

“Cattle? What for?”

“They wouldn’t say, only stated that we would be expected to round up and deliver our quota by the beginning of September.”

“September? Pa, Jason is a surveyor, and the Army contracted his employers to conduct a survey…”

“And your brain is connecting the two?” inquired Lucas.

“Wouldn’t you?”

“So, why the survey?” asked Lucas.

“That I don’t know…” Mark stated as they stopped in their front yard. “But they have to be connected.”

“How does Hope feel about that?” Lucas asked, pointing to Mark’s sling.

“Well, she and Ma were in town when they brought me back.”

“Are you able to unsaddle your horse or would you like some help?”

“I think Hope is here to help. Goodnight, Pa,” answered Mark as he stepped from his horse in front of Lucas’ barn, and attempted to hug his wife, only to have her evade him, until she was able to take the reins from his hand.

“Welcome home, Pa,” Hope called after hugging her husband.

*****

Mark led his horse into its stall and began to loosen the cinch, only to have Hope lovingly push him aside. He smiled as he watched his wife unsaddle and unbridle his horse. Hearing the high-pitched squeal, Mark walked over to Two-Bits’ stall and fed her and her colt a sugar cube.

“So, have you decided on a name?” Mark asked as he scratched the foal behind the ear.

“We’ll, I was thinking…since Rainmaker is his sire…” Hope answered as she hefted Mark’s saddle to its rack and turned to walk over to where Mark stood, “what do you think of Storm Shadow?”

“Storm Shadow? I like it…” answered Mark as he swept and errant strand of his wife’s hair from her face to behind her ear.

*****

Mark entered his home and greeted his brother-in-law.

“Good to see that’s not slowing you down,” teased Ethan.

“It aches and itches, but that’s about it. So, how much longer do we get to enjoy your company?”

“I’ll need to be returning tomorrow. Father wired that my company returned to Fort Wingate without any incident, with the gun runners under arrest.”

“I’m glad those gunrunners didn’t stay in town any longer than they did,” commented Hope.

“Why does the army have jurisdiction over them? It sounded like a civilian case to me,” stated Mark as he pulled out a chair from the table in their front room and sat down.

“It did, until we found out the reason why they were running guns. It was a deliberate case of trying to reclaim the land.”

“Reclaim the land?” asked Hope as she handed her brother a cup of coffee and sat down at the table next to Mark.

“Thanks, sis. Yes, they were hoping to start an uprising, Indians against settler, with both sides losing.”

“But there aren’t any Indians around here, at least not in any numbers,” Mark commented, trying to figure out why.

“I have news that I’m not privy to divulge, but believe me, it would have been bad for the settlers, and the Indians, with those who survived probably being shipped to the swamps of Florida, had we not apprehended the bunch.”

“Ethan, what can you tell me about Jason McCord?” Mark asked.

“Mark,” Hope interrupted before her brother could answer, “Have you and Johnny resolved your differences?”

“In a way… He won’t admit his feelings regarding Jason are wrong, as far as Bitter Creek is concerned. But at least he doesn’t blame Jason for this,” stated Mark as he raised his slinged-arm.

“Mark, I know you and he struck up a friendship of sorts, but I strongly advise you against asking any more questions.”

“Why? Why should a man have to live his life as a lie? There has to be more to the story… He’s hiding something,” Mark stated as he stood from the table and walked to stand in front of the fireplace to his home, and rested his forearm against the mantle, and stared into the fire.

“It’s what he wants,” Ethan answered.

“What he wants?!” a surprised Mark asked as he turned to face his brother-in-law.

“Mark, Father won’t go into details, but there’s a lot that was never revealed at the trial. As long as people like you, make up their own minds based on the man’s actions… That’s all that matters to him.” Knowing his brother-in law, Ethan continued, “Mark, please… for his sake and for the memory of those who died, let it go. Don’t open up old wounds.”

“There’s no other way?”

Ethan shook his head.

The Next Step — Continued?

This is a story based on the TV series The Rifleman
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