The Rifleman
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The Next Step…
Chapter 7 - Cougar
Written by Deanne Bertram

Lucas arrived home to see a darkened house. Concerned that Mark should have been back, long before now. As he pointed Razor in the direction of the south meadow, he spied Blue Boy coming around the side of the barn, limping. Lucas jumped down, witnessed the broken rein, saw Mark’s rifle still in the scabbard, and saw the blood on the horse’s haunches from claw marks.

Fear gripped Lucas, he needed to find Mark, but first he knew he needed to get Blue Boy inside. Quickly he tended to Blue Boy, then rode out to the South Meadow, snow was falling, again. He arrived to find two of their calves dead and mutilated. Lucas found faint traces of Blue Boy’s hoof prints in the snow. He followed them as they headed to the pond. Lucas arrived to see the top of the pond was iced over. On the far side, close to an outcropping of rocks, Lucas could see where the ice had been broken through, he raced Razor around. He saw Blue Boy’s prints leading away, he saw where, it could only have been Mark, had drug himself out of the pond and then boot prints running. Lucas saw the paw prints in the snow. Cougar and not just one. It appeared the older cat had two younger ones with it. The snow started falling harder, Lucas yelled Mark’s name, looking around frantically, trying to find his son. He read the cat prints following Mark. Lucas remembered Mark’s last encounter with a cougar. Lucas almost let fear freeze him in place, but hearing the scream of a cougar, brought him to action. Grabbing Razor’s reins, he followed the trail

He tracked around a large boulder, shouldered his rifle, and fired at the cat crouching, eyeing his son and then he fired at the two the younger ones as they ran away. Lucas ran to Mark’s prone body, lying under a tree. Under all the mud, he saw the deep gashes on his son’s back from the claws as they ripped through his jacket. As he turned Mark over, he saw how blue his lips were. Realized his clothes were practically frozen to his son’s body.

Lucas called to Mark, slapping at his face to get some response. He yelled loudly, praying he could wake his son.

“Pa, c-cat, l-look out f-for c-cat.” Mark cried as he started to come too, teeth chattering, his body shaking.

“Mark, don’t worry about the cats. Son, can you walk? Mark we have to get you to Doc’s.”

Lucas helped Mark to his feet, but ended up more carrying him.

“Mark, I need your help to get you in the saddle. Please Mark, try.” Lucas helped Mark get his foot in the stirrup, he felt his boy trying as he reached for the saddle horn.

Using the last of his strength and a lot of help from his Pa, Mark got in the saddle, soon Lucas was sitting behind him. In the fading light, Lucas raced Razor to town. As they rode, he felt his son’s body shaking.

“Hold on son, just hold on.” Lucas prayed.

“P-pa, I’m s-soo c-cold,” Mark whispered.

Micah, Johnny and Lou were just leaving the hotel restaurant when Lucas arrived in front of Doc’s. Johnny and Micah were immediately there and grabbed Mark and carried him inside. Lou ran to Doc Burrage’s home, knowing he wasn’t at the office.

As they laid him on the examination table, what little consciousness Mark had, faded to black. While Micah stoked the pot belly stove, Johnny searched the cabinets and pulled out blankets. Lucas removed the frozen clothing from his unconscious son.

Young Doctor Burrage entered the office to a scene of organized chaos. “What happened here?”

“Doctor, Mark got knocked from his horse by a cougar. He fell into the pond. I don’t know how long ago, but he’s blue. He’s got some pretty deep gashes across his back from the cougar’s claws.”

“Turn him over Mr. McCain, let me see. Marshal there’s plenty of wood out back to stoke that fire, get it blazing.”

As Thaddeus Burrage worked diligently in cleaning the wounds to Mark’s back, the door opened and Milly and Hope entered, the saw the wounds Mark had suffered.

“Lucas, my God, Lucas!” She ran to him and hid her face in his chest as she cried.

Micah stood and walked to Hope, he tried to pull her into his arms, but she ran from the office.

“Lucas,” Milly cried. “Oh Lucas, why?”

“People please, if you want to help this boy, just leave me to do my job. Marshal, get them out of here!”

*****

Micah ushered Lucas and Milly to his office. Johnny was inside, holding a crying Lou in his arms. Time stood still as the somber group waited for news.

Finally, Doctor Burrage entered the Marshal’s office.

“Mr. McCain, I’ve done all I can, medically, at this time. Those lacerations were deep and I’m concerned about infection from the pond water and the mud, but more importantly, for however long he was in the water and then wearing those wet clothes out in the cold. His body temperature is so low, there’s a real possibility of pneumonia. I’m sorry to be blunt, but I feel you need to know the truth versus giving you a false hope.”

“Oh, my God, Hope!” Lou cried. “Where is she?”

Johnny, Micah, and Lou left the office to go search for Hope.

“Mr. McCain, I know we’ve not had a chance to really meet each other, but, your boy… He’s the other deputy? I didn’t realize just how young he looks.”

“Doctor, he’s not as old as you think his is. He’ll be…” Lucas faltered.

“Doctor,” Milly continued. “Mark’s birthday is December 10th, he’ll… he’ll turn seventeen,” she struggled to say.

“Well, pray that his youth will help pull him through this. He appears to be strong and healthy, that too is in his favor. Mr. McCain, Miss Scott, I best return to my patient.

“Can I go to him?” Lucas asked.

“Not tonight Mr. McCain. I’ve got him dosed with laudanum. If he pulls through tonight, you can see him in the morning. Goodnight.”

Lucas and Milly walked to her home. Just as they were arriving, Micah arrived with Hope. The three entered Milly’s. Lucas sat down on the couch and wrapped both his arms around Milly and Hope. Tears streamed down all their faces.

“If...” Lucas said.

*****

During the night, Thaddeus Burrage left the office and headed home. He knocked on his Uncle’s bedroom door.

“Uncle Jay?”

Old Doc Burrage opened the door.

“Uncle Jay, I need your help at the clinic. They brought in Mark McCain. He’s been mauled by a cougar and knocked into the water.”

“Let me get changed.”

By the time they returned to the clinic, Mark was struggling, trying to regain consciousness. But soon, he returned to the darkness. After another examination, “Uncle, he’s running fever. He was so cold earlier, but now…”

“Did you suture the claw marks?”

“No sir, I left them open.”

“Good, let’s get him turned over and irrigate those wounds again. This time, we’ll need to scrub them good. This ain’t going to be easy on him. Do you want to risk putting him under the effects of ether?”

“No sir. In his condition, the ether could kill him. Be thankful he’s unconscious.”

Together, they scrubbed at the claw marks along Mark’s back, irrigating and debrieding the wounds. When they were done, they wrapped gauze around his back and chest, then laid him down. The night didn’t get any easier. Mark’s fever increased, the kept him dosed with laudanum to ease his pain.

*****

Milly woke from the couch to find Lucas watching out the window. “Lucas, didn’t you sleep at all last night?” He shook his head. “Lucas, I’ll understand if you wish to call off our wedding.”

“Milly why would you say such a thing?”

“Lucas, if you hadn’t been here proposing, you would have been there with Mark… Oh how you must hate me!” she cried as she ran from the parlor.

He followed her into the kitchen. She stood at the sink, with her back to him. He could hear her crying.

“Milly, I don’t regret being here yesterday. I love you. Even if I was with Mark, this still could have happened. Milly please, look at me?” Lucas pleaded as he placed his hands on her shoulders and turned her towards him.

“Milly, I want you as my wife to love and to… I want you to be a mother to my son. You told me once you dreamed that one day he could be your son.”

“But Lucas… The doctor said if…”

“Milly, Micah once told me that ‘if’ was a troublesome word. No. We’ll get through this. Once Mark is recovered, we’ll get married.” He pulled Milly into his arms, smelled at her hair and then kissed her on top of her head.

“Milly dry those tears. I’m going to go over to Doc’s and check on Mark. I’ll be back soon.”

*****

Micah was standing at the window when he saw Lucas heading to Doc’s. He exited and met Lucas at the door. Lucas knocked and after a few moments, Doc Burrage answered the door.

“Lucas, Micah, come in out of the cold.”

“Doc? How is Mark?” Lucas asked quietly.

“Lucas, Thadd told you last night about his worries… I’m afraid that there is an infection and he’s showing indications that pneumonia might be setting in. We’re treating him with all the medical knowledge we have. I’m just thankful that Thadd is here. His training is so much newer than mine. Late last night, we wired for some new medication to help his body fight. It should be here on the afternoon stage.”

“Can I see him?” Lucas asked, turning his head as he heard the door to the back room open.

“Doctor?“Mr. McCain…”

“Thadd, I’ve told him of the boy’s condition. You need to understand Lucas and Mark McCain, it will do the boy good to hear his Pa’s voice. Let him in.” Doc Burrage told his nephew.

“This way Mr. McCain.”

Lucas entered the room and saw Mark lying under the covers, sweat beading his face. “Doc, if he’s sweating so much, why do you have it so hot in here?”

“Mr. McCain, we’re still trying to warm him from being so cold. The sweat is his body fighting. I pray he’s strong enough to win the battle.”

Lucas spent the morning talking to his son and wiping the sweat from his son’s brow. Mid-day brought Milly to Doc’s, she help Lucas remove the soaked sheets from the bed and put on fresh. Then helped Lucas lie Mark back down.

The new medicine arrived on the stage and was immediately administered by Doctor Burrage. The waiting game continued. Sitting and listening to the quietness of the room, and Mark struggling to breath. At times, Mark moaned and called out about the cat.

The only time he left Mark’s side was to eat, but once he was done, he was back at his boy’s side. Mark was never alone – Milly, Hope, Hattie, Micah, Johnny, or Lou, someone was always by his side when Lucas wasn’t there.

It was morning of the sixth day; Lucas was still at Mark’s bedside, reading his bible, when he heard a quiet voice ask, “Pa?”

“Mark, oh Mark!” Lucas cried.

“Pa? Did she say yes?” Mark whispered.

Lucas cried and laughed as he sat down on the bed next to his son. He wiped sweat from Mark’s forehead.

“Mark, I…” Lucas stopped as he heard the door behind him open.

“Pa, did she say yes?” he asked a little louder and the hoarseness could be heard in his voice.

“Yes, Mark. I said yes,” Milly answered as she entered and walked to Lucas’ side.

“I have a new mother…” Mark’s words faded as he fell to sleep.

*****

It was ten days after the accident that Doctor Burrage allowed Mark to return home.

Milly and Hope were waiting at the McCain ranch, they had cleaned the house and prepared a meal. Earlier, they had giggled, when they changed the bed sheets and brought more pillows for Mark to be propped up with in his bed.

“Miss Milly, when you and Mr. McCain get married, I think you’re going to need a bigger bed.”

“Hope!” Milly answered a little surprised and laughed as she realized her upcoming predicament.

As they were returning to check on the food, they heard the sounds of the team and buckboard approaching and walked out onto the porch. Lucas, appalled seeing neither was wearing a coat, yelled, “Now you two get in the house, I’ll not have three people recovering from pneumonia.” He assisted Mark in getting down from the buckboard and helped him into the house.

“Miss Milly, the food sure smells goods.” Mark declared as he entered.

“Thank you Mark. Are you tired? Do you want to lie down for a while? Supper’s not quite ready yet.” Milly asked.

“I am a little tired,” Mark answered. Hope helped Mark walk to his bedroom and helped him lie down. As she turned to leave, Mark said, “Hope, I’m sorry if I scared and worried you.”

Hope stopped and looked back at Mark. She walked and knelt next to his bed. “Mark I was scared and I was worried, if something happened to you… Would the people of North Fork still want me here? Mark, without you I…”

“Hope, there’s no looking back, from here on, we look forward. Okay?” Mark raised his hand to Hope’s cheek and with his thumb, gently wiped away a tear. With his other hand, he picked up her hand and kissed it, before falling asleep.

The Next Step — Birthdays

This is a story based on the TV series The Rifleman
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