The Rifleman
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The Next Step… Chapter 74
Denver Bound/Homeward Bound
Written by Deanne Bertram

Mark had checked with the fort’s quartermaster about borrowing a saddle and a spare horse for his trip. The following morning, Mark led his new horse and a packhorse over to where Hope and Seth waited next to the buckboard. Ethan stood a short distance away, he understood how difficult this was going to be for his sister. Hope admired the taller of the two horses Mark was leading as he approached them. Whereas Two-Bits was more black than white, Mark’s new horse was the opposite, a very striking black and white, paint, with a lot more white.

“When I get home, I’ll make sure you know how to handle this big fella,” Mark commented when he saw Hope looking the horse over. “Even though he’s bigger, he’s a lot more gentler than Copper was.”

“Does he have a name?” Hope asked as she tried to divert her tears.

“Rainmaker. I’ll tell you the story when I get home. I’ll wire you as soon as we reach Denver. I know it won’t do any good to tell you not to worry.” Mark turned to Seth and extended his hand, “Take care of her. You don’t know how much I wish I could travel home with you.”

“I do, Mark,” Seth replied.

Mark looked to his wife as she closed her eyes to prevent herself from crying. Mark stepped to Hope, pulled her into his arms and gave her a kiss that said, ‘I love you’. Mark helped Hope up to the seat of the buckboard, while Seth climbed into the back. Ethan climbed up to the front seat to drive his sister and father to the train station. It would be a short trip to the train station for them, and ultimately… home.

Mark mounted Rainmaker and trotted to town, stopping in front of the Sheriff’s Office. The Sheriff was tying Birch’s horse to the hitching rail as Mark stepped from his horse.

“My prisoner ready?” Mark asked.

“Yeah, but I didn’t think he was under arrest,” Roehl replied.

“Might as well be, while he’s in my custody. Get him out here so we can get going.”

Birch stepped from the jail and placed his hat to his head, “So Marshal, you ready to enjoy my company?”

“Get in the saddle,” Mark replied as he put his foot back in the stirrup and mounted his horse.

“Sheriff, it’s been a pleasure staying with you. I’ll tell all my friends how polite you were and how comfortable the bunk in your cell was.”

“Move out, Birch,” Mark stated as he signaled his horse to turn around and pulled the pack horse behind him.

*****

The train was an hour out of Stanton and the car they were riding in was a much fancier passenger car than the train they had taken for their outbound trip. Seth tried to keep Hope’s thoughts elsewhere, but soon realized it wasn’t any use. Her heart was with Mark. He finally settled back and pulled his hat over his eyes. The rhythmic motion of the train lulled Seth to sleep in a short time. While her father dozed in the seat beside her, Hope worriedly looked out the window, wondering what the country was like that Mark was traveling through. Was this Birch worth the risk Mark was taking to get him to Denver?

In time, Hope stood up and walked to the back of the car and asked for a glass of water. As she waited for the barman to pour her drink, she looked through the glass window in the doors beside her, to the car behind them. Hope saw an older woman sitting next to the aisle, who looked quite upset. Hope witnessed the antics of some of the cowboys sitting around her and presumed they were the ones who were upsetting her. Before the conductor opened the door to go to the next car, she asked him to bring the woman to their car.

“Are you traveling alone?” Hope inquired as the woman breathed a sigh of relief as the conductor closed the door behind her.

“Yes, I am. Those men… Shouldn’t even be considered men. The conductor suggested I come up here.” She pulled the bonnet from her head to reveal her auburn colored hair, streaked with grey.

“If you’d like, you can join my father and me,” Hope offered. “My name is Hope McCain.”

“If you’re sure your father wouldn’t mind? I think I’d enjoy some pleasant company. My name is Lilah Stovers.”

Hope led Lilah to the bench seats she shared with her father. Hope tapped Seth on the shoulder to wake him. At feeling the tap, Seth pushed up his hat from covering his eyes and stood at seeing an amply shaped woman with is daughter, belatedly he remembered to remove his hat.

“Father, I’ve invited…”

Delilah?”

“Do I know you?” the woman replied.

“Delilah… Delilah Stovers?” Seth asked as he snapped his figures at remembering her name.

“I am,” the woman stated, still in askance.

“I was a captain at Fort Griffin, Seth Lane, my wife was Emma.”

As the faded memory slipped into the woman’s mind, she smiled in recognition, “Captain? Oh my, it has been a long time.. ”

“Is your husband with you?” Seth asked as he looked around.

“No, Martin passed away four years ago. Pneumonia.”

“I’m sorry. Please, won’t you join us?” Seth asked as he gestured for her to have a seat.

“Thank you, Captain.”

“Please, call me Seth.”

As Lilah took her seat, a surprised looked crossed her face, she excitedly asked, “You’re her father?! You found her?! She’s alive?! Your little girl survived?! Oh, my…” Lilah pulled her hands to her mouth in an effort to cover her embarrassment. “Guess she would be if you’re traveling with her. I’m so sorry, that was rather rude of me.”

“It’s not rude of you, Mrs. Stover,” Hope answered. “I take it you know my father?”

“Hope, Delilah married Sergeant George Stovers the year after we were posted at the fort. Sergeant Stovers was the quartermaster at Fort Griffin.”

“Please, call me Lilah. I was also a mid-wife at the fort,” Lilah went on to say, “I was there the day your mother gave birth to you.”

“You knew my mother?”

“Not extremely well, the difference between enlisted and officers. We’d chit chat, but I did know her well enough to know she was a wonderful woman and that she loved her family. I remember the day you were born.”

“Please tell me?” Hope begged.

Lilah looked to Seth before she continued. “Well, your mother had been so worried about your father being out on patrol... He’d been gone about six days and your ma…, well… she was trying to do too much, trying to keep herself occupied so she wouldn’t worry. She was so busy, she didn’t realize she was in labor. I happened past her quarters and heard her scream out when her ‘labor’ really started. I found her on the kitchen floor, I ran out and sent one of the soldiers to fetch the doc. The soldier came back to say the doctor had been called away and no one knew when he’d return. Your mother fretted the whole time about you coming early and your father not being there. It weren’t but a few hours later, I was the one who helped bring you into the world.”

Hope looked to her father as she listened to the story.

“Did your mother ever tell you how you got your name?” Lilah asked.

“No, least if she did, I was too young to remember,” Hope answered.

“You were sleeping later than night, when I asked your mother if she had decided on a name for you and she said had only picked out a boy’s name.”

“She thought I was going to be a boy?”

“Sure did. She told me the whole time she was pregnant, she felt just like she did when she was carrying Ethan.” Turning to Seth, “Speaking of Ethan, where is he?”

“Lilah, we left him and his family back at Fort Stanton, he’s a Major in the cavalry,” Seth answered.

“Like father, like son. I bet he looks just like you.”

“In a way,” Hope answered and smiled.

“Now, back to your name. Your mother was so surprised to hear you were a girl because when she was… I think she was about five months pregnant, a gypsy caravan came through the fort and the fortune teller told your mother she was going to have a baby boy.”

“So if she was expecting a boy and only had boy’s names picked out…”

“You weren’t but a few hours old, your Ma was still extremely worried about your father being out on patrol. The whole time your father was gone, the other wives kept telling her she just had to have faith that the Good Lord would see her husband back to her. We were talking and she said, ‘I just have to hope that God’s grace will bring him home.’ That’s when she gave you your name – Hope Grace Lane.”

“I forgot I had a middle name.”

“But you introduced yourself as Hope McCain?” Lilah asked.

“I did. I’m married,” she held out her left hand to show her cherished wedding band on her ring finger.

“And he’s not traveling with you?”

“No, he’s a U.S. Marshal. We were visiting with Ethan and his family, celebrating their wedding anniversary when… he was called away on business,” Hope answered in a reserved tone.

“Seth, tell me,” Lilah stated. “How long have you two been reunited? I mean, how did it happen? I know how devastated you were when you received word that your sister and her family had been murdered and then, all those years, thinking Hope had perished as well. You do know, the dances at Fort Griffin were never the same after you requested reassignment to ‘that’ post in San Antonio. But to be reunited with your daughter, after all these years?!”

Hope listened as her father told of how he and Ethan had heard tales from traders of a young, white girl with red hair living among the Kiowa. As quietly as they could, they sent inquiries, trying to find more information, before they asked for leaves of absence in an attempt to try to find the girl. Hope listened to the details as Seth retold the story.

Seth told of locating Iron Heart’s camp and realizing there was a very good chance the girl was Hope, only she had be kidnapped two days before their arrival. He told of their arrival in North Fork, trailing after those who had taken the girl, and then traveling with the town’s Marshal and Deputy out to the McCain Ranch. Seth described his first encounter with Lucas and Mark McCain and the pursuit that followed as the now six of them, traveled after those who had taken Hope.

“McCain, that’s your last name,” Lilah interrupted.

“Yes, Mark rescued me, twice,” Hope answered.

After Seth told of their return to North Fork and how they had captured Stedman, Delilah asked, “So if this Mark lives in New Mexico and you were stationed at…”

“They renamed the fort a few years back, its known as Fort Sam Houston. But to your point, I realized I couldn’t put Hope through bringing her back to the fort. I had hoped that she could return to Iron Heart and still be one of their family, then I found out how much of an insult it would have been to them if I tried to send her back. But with her being raised by the Kiowa, you know how some of the soldiers would have treated her.” Seth paused as he remembered the initial remorse of knowing his daughter was alive, but yet she couldn’t return with him. He cringed as he remembered her first visit to Fort Sam. “It was Mark, who suggested that she could stay in North Fork and live.”

“And… this Mark… he rescued you and then married you? It didn’t bother him that you…” Lilah commented and then changed the subject as she saw a worried look overcome Hope. “I’m sorry, I’m just a nosy-body. As long as you and your husband are happy. I think the whole story is very romantic. They could write one of those dime-store novels about your relationship.”

“Oh, no!” Hope declared, truly startled by the idea.

Changing the subject, Lilah asked, “Seth, tell me. How is it that you’re no longer wearing a uniform?”

Seth proceeded to tell Lilah how he had come to the realization that he didn’t want to miss as much of his grandchildren’s growing up years, as he had his own children’s. How each time he came to visit Mark and Hope, it got harder and harder to leave. “So, I decided upon my return to Fort Sam, I was going to resign my commission as a major. Packed up all my belongings and moved to North Fork to be near my grandchildren.”

“Grandchildren? How many do you have?” Lilah inquired.

“At that time, there were just the twins,” Hope answered.

“Now, Ethan and Annie have a boy and a girl,” Seth answered.

“So you have four grandchildren,” Lilah stated.

“No, I’ve a few more than four,” Seth replied.

“In addition to the twins, Mark and I have another son and a daughter,” Hope replied, then averted her eyes when she saw and heard Lilah gasp.

“Child, did you say you have four, but you can’t be but…, be old enough…” Lilah’s face flushed as she realized just how inconsiderate she was being. “I have no business to question you and your family. The best measure of a man and woman’s love for each other is the number of children they have. Lord knows I loved George, but we were never blessed with children.”

An uneasy quiet surfaced among the three, finally, Lilah broke the silence, “Just doesn’t seem possible. I keep wanting to see you as that little girl bounding across the parade grounds, chasing butterflies. Guess I don’t want to admit that I’m getting old, and that children are old enough to have children.”

“It’s difficult at times, even for the parents to see their children growing up, Lilah,” Seth commented. “I hadn’t really counted them out, I’m just happy to have my family, but now that I sit here and think about it, six grandchildren. Emma would be quite happy to have this brood.”

Hope laughed as a thought came into her head, “At least you’re not raising children the same age as your grandchildren.”

An inquiring look came over Lilah’s face as she tried to imagine that.

“My husband’s mother died when he was a young boy. His father remarried about a year and a half before Mark and I married. My sister-in-law was born about five months before Mark and I wed and then, my oldest brother-in-law was born the night before I gave birth to our twins. My youngest brother-in-law was born the year in between my giving birth to our youngest son and our daughter.”

“We’d be pleased to introduce you to the family, if you have time when the train stops in North Fork. We should be there later tonight, if not first thing tomorrow morning.” Seth offered.

“Oh, I’d love to meet your family, however, I’m heading to El Paso, my sister lives there and my niece is set to get married next weekend. I’m already late and I really shouldn’t delay my trip.”

“I understand,” Seth stated as he tried to keep the disappointment off his face. “Where do you call home?”

“Oh, George was transferred to Fort Laramie, up in Wyoming, luckily he didn’t live to see her closed down and sold at auction. It was a sad day for every soldier and their families to see such a proud institution treated like that. I still have a small home in the town.”

The porter stopped to announce that dinner would be served shortly in the dining car, if they’d care to make their way to the next car in front.

*****

Their train arrived in North Fork late that evening, Seth and Hope said goodbye to Lilah. After collecting their luggage, Seth rented a buggy and saw Hope home. The three boys ran from their grandparent’s home when they realized their Ma and Grandpa had arrived. Gwen carried Mykaela out and handed her to Hope, after Seth had helped his daughter down from the buggy.

With her daughter in her arms, she turned and asked her sons if they had behaved and if they had missed her.

“Oh Mama, we missed you and we be good,” Eli answered.

“Yeah, else we wouldn’t get to lick the batter bowl,” Zach stated.

“Where’s Papa?” Josh asked.

“Where is Mark? Did he stay in town?” Milly asked as she hugged Hope.

“No, he got pulled into business while in Stanton,” Hope stated. The look on her face asked Milly, to please, not ask any more, yet.

“But why are you up so late? Shouldn’t you be in bed?” Hope asked of her sons.

“I’ve been trying to get them down for an hour. They must have sensed you were coming home, they just wouldn’t go to bed. The rest of the time, they were angels.

“So my children behaved themselves.” Hope looked to Milly, who nodded. “I’m so proud of all of you.”

Seth carried Hope’s and Mark’s bags to their home and saw Hope and the children inside.

“Hope, I need to get back to town. I’m sure Lucas will appreciate being relieved of his responsibilities,” Seth stated as he kissed Hope on the cheek.

“Well, I wouldn’t count on Lucas being relieved of being a deputy, just yet,” Milly stated as she tried to hide a small laugh.

“Why?” Hope asked as she set Mykaela to the floor and knelt down to hug each one of her sons.

“Well, Johnny kind of, well, there were two competing cattle drives at Sweeney’s and a pretty wild fight, anyway, Johnny got knocked down and a drover fell on him and broke Johnny’s leg. So, from what Lucas has said when he’s been able to visit, I’m sure Micah will be the one relieved of being an acting deputy once you get to town.”

“I didn’t even stop by the Marshal’s Office, I just wanted to get Hope home. Now I best get back. Milly I’ll send Lucas home for the night and then I’ll officially relieve Micah in the morning, when Lucas returns.”

“Father, when you see Pa, don’t say anything to him about Mark. I think it’s best, coming from me,” Hope stated.

Hope saw the questioning look in her father’s face and replied, “If what Mark said is true, Milly and I need time to devise a way to keep him here and... keep him from doing anything he’d regret.”

*****

Milly and Gwen helped Hope put her children to bed, and Milly was thankful they were all finally agreeable to going to bed. By the time Hope had pulled the covers over their shoulders and kissed them goodnight, they were asleep.

As Milly and Hope returned to the front room, Milly stated, “Okay, so tell me what really happened to Mark?”

Hope repeated the story that Mark had told her about Tom Birch. Milly was mortified to think what Lucas might do, when he to found out.

“Ma, I can’t keep this from him. He has a right to know…”

“I know he does, it’s just that…”

“Preventing him from doing something he’d live to regret.”

“Tell you what,” Milly suggested. “Why don’t you and Gwen blow out all the lanterns and get to bed. Lucas won’t disturb you tonight. You can inform him in the morning.”

“I like that idea,” Hope replied.

*****

The following morning, Hope watched as Lucas headed to the barn.

“Morning Hope, welcome back!” Lucas called as he saw her enter the barn, while he was saddling Blade. “You letting Mark sleep in this morning?”

“No sir,” Hope replied.

Hearing the tone of Hope’s voice, Lucas looked up from gathering the cinch, “It’s been a long time since you’ve called me sir.”

“I know, I have some news involving Mark and I’m not exactly sure how you’re going to take it.”

Lucas had tightened the cinch well enough that if Blade shook his body, the saddle wouldn’t slip. “What news?” he asked as he turned around to see Hope staring at the ground. “Is he okay?”

“He was when Father and I left him in Stanton. While we were there, a detail brought in a man who had be in Drew Anders’ custody. He was transporting the man to Denver to testify.”

“Why did a detail bring the man in?”

“They’d encountered outlaws chasing Drew and the man. Drew was killed protecting his witness, but before he died, he was able to inform the Lieutenant of what happened. Mark’s taking the man the rest of the way to Denver.”

“That’s his job,” Lucas replied, sensing the whole story had not been told, Lucas asked, “What else?”

Hope had walked over and sat down on a bale of hay. “The man he’s transporting is from your past. Mark said you’d promised to ‘kill’ the man if he ever interfered with your family, again.”

“I threatened to kill…” Shock crossed Lucas’ face as he realized there was only one man alive who Lucas swore the law would never get the chance to see that he came to justice, if he ever interfered with his family. “He’s transporting Tom Birch? Why Mark? Didn’t Benton remember what happened the last time Birch…” Hope could see the hatred welling in Lucas as his face turned red and his voice became menacing.

“Pa, Benton doesn’t know that we were in Stanton and that Mark is finishing the job. Father offered, but as Mark said and as you just said, it’s his job. Mark knows the man and what he’s capable of. He remembered and told us.”

Lucas stormed to the wall and pulled Blade’s bridle down.

“Pa!” Hope exclaimed as she ran to Lucas and grabbed at his arm. “Please! If you go after them… Please think of Milly and your children!”

“I AM!” Lucas shouted.

“LUCAS!” Milly yelled from the doorway.

Never having heard that tone of voice from his wife, Lucas halted in his tracks.

“Lucas, please.” Milly paused as she walked further into the barn and stood in front of her husband. “Mark is doing his job. Let him. If he needs help, let him ask. He knew what he was getting into when he agreed to take Birch to Denver.”

Still sensing her husband was seething, “Lucas, what happened the last time you interfered with your son and his responsibilities as a Marshal? It drove a wedge between the two of you. Because he felt you didn’t trust him.”

“I trust my son! It’s Birch I don’t trust!” Lucas exclaimed.

“Then give Mark time to get him to Denver. Hope said neither she nor Seth even know how Mark was planning to get Birch to Denver. How are you going to track him. I know you’re good, but no one is that good,” Milly declared.

“Pa, you can’t ride off like a mad-man. Please, give Mark time and if in three days, we don’t have word, then we can wire Benton. Mark said he’d have Birch in Denver no later than Wednesday.”

“Wednesday?”

“He said at the latest. Today’s only Monday, please Pa?!” Hope begged.

Both women saw the change in Lucas’ posture as he gave into their pleading. “But if we’ve not heard from him by noon on Wednesday, I’m heading into town!”

Milly and Hope nodded.

*****

After meeting up with Sheriff Roehl, Walker wasn’t pleased to find out who the witness was. He was mad that Benton had withheld that piece of information from him. Good riddance was his first thought, if it were indeed an outlaw who had him. But, he was a marshal and he had his orders, find the witness and see him safely to Denver. Expecting their witness was in the hands of those he was set to testify against, Coltrane trailed out after Birch and whoever had him. Walker rode hard and fast. It was extremely late when he finally decided to stop for the night. In the distance, on Walker’s first night out from Stanton, he saw a campfire off in the distance. He decided to see who might be in the camp. As he neared the camp, he saw two men fighting. The bigger of the two threw a viscous right hook, catching his opponent on the cheek, driving him backwards to the ground. Coltrane watched as the man still standing bent down, picked up a rifle, and brought it to bear on his opponent lying motionless on the ground, Coltrane recognized the standing man. He had his handgun drawn as he entered the camp,

“Hold it right there Birch!” Walker demanded as he cocked his gun.

Birch took his eyes off the man he was fighting and looked to the newcomer.

“Half-breed?” Birch hollered as he recognized Walker. “So are you friend or foe? You here because of our past or because Garth Grisolm ordered my head? If it’s the latter, you’ll just have to wait until I get finished with this one. Then I’ll give you your due. Grisolm shouldn’t have sent a boy to do a man’s job. This one’s even younger looking than the deputy who had me in custody. Grisolm’s gang must be getting desperate if they’re taking in boys now a days. Good thing the Sheriff back at Stanton was leery of this one too and slipped me a hand gun. So, which are you?”

“Friend,” Coltrane stated as he slipped his hand gun back in his holster and stepped from his horse. “So, who you fighting?” Coltrane asked as he turned his attention to the other man, who had just started coming to.

“Said his name was Mark Lane, claiming he was a U.S. Marshal. Shucks, this is probably his way of initiating himself into Grisolm’s gang. Delivering me to them.”

Coltrane walked over to and looked down as the man sat up, “Mark?!” Coltrane asked in surprise.

“You know him?” Birch asked.”

“Yeah, I know him, alright,” Coltrane answered as he helped Mark get to his feet.

“Walker? What are you doing here?” Mark asked as he shook his head to get his wits about him and rubbed at his cheek.

“Seems Sheriff Roehl was a little leery of the person who showed up to take Birch and Benton sent a wire telling me about Drew and ordering me to Stanton to retrieve his key witness. Roehl told me a Marshal Mark Lane arrived to transport Birch and we don’t have any deputy or marshal named Mark Lane.”

“Then he is part of Grisolm’s gang?” Birch asked.

“Shut up, Birch!” Mark demanded.

Walker replied, “I can guarantee he ain’t one of Grisolm’s bunch, just his name ain’t Lane.”

“Boy, then who are you if you ain’t part of Grisolm’s bunch and your name ain’t Mark Lane?” Birch demanded as he purposely strode forward and grabbed the front of Mark’s shirt, trying to drive him backwards. Having Birch grab him again, set Mark on the defensive and he threw an unexpected punch to Birch’s midsection, driving him backwards instead.

“I’m not a boy!” Mark coldly stated, and before he could stop him, Walker answered, “His name’s Marshal Mark McCain.”

“Mark Mc… McCain? Lucas’ boy?” Birch took time and looked from Mark, to Mark’s rifle he held in his hands, then back to Mark. “I… I… I’m sorry, if I’d of known, I wouldn’t have taken the cheap shot and slugged you. Now your comments before we left Stanton, referring to my time in Denver, makes so much sense…” Birch’s voice took on a softer tone, “You still look like her…, your ma, I mean. I should have seen it I should have seen Margaret...”

Mark picked up his hat from the dirt and forcefully retrieved his rifle from Birch’s hands and scornfully stated, “You only see what you want to see, when it suits your needs.”

Seeing the defiant look in Mark’s eyes, Birch realized he was out of line to bring up the memory of Margaret McCain.

“It’s been a long time. Glad your Pa found you… that night,” Birch gave half a laugh as he tried to apologize. “So, you grew up to be a Marshal? What are you going to do with the two of us?”

“The two of us?” Coltrane asked and then remembered, “Sorry to disappoint you Birch but the question you should be asking is, what are the two of us going to do with you.”

“The two of…” Birch stopped speaking as he saw Coltrane open his jacket and show the Deputy U.S. Marshal badge pinned to his shirt.

Unbelieving, Birch started laughing, “You… A deputy? And back then… you were…, too?” Birch doubled over as he slapped his leg, laughing harder.

Coltrane nodded, “I was sent to infiltrate your gang.”

When Birch finally got his laughing fit under control he said, “Now if that don’t beat all! A half-breed Marshal… And to top it all off, Lucas’ boy grew up to be a Marshal.”

From Mark’s posture, Walker realized that he had taken just about all he could from the outlaw and tried to change the subject. Before Walker could say anything, Birch asked, “So why’d you lie? Why’d you tell the Sheriff and me your last name was Lane?”

“Can’t you figure that one out?” Mark bitterly replied. “I had a job to perform, get you to Denver.”

“Still bitter over that little episode?” Birch asked, as a smirk crossed his face.

“Little episode?!” Mark reacted before he could think.

“Then why not wire your bosses and ask for another deputy to travel with me?” Birch asked.

“Because it’s MY job to do! Be thankful it was me and not my Pa who found you in Stanton!”

“Why, Lucas and me, you know we’re old friends, Mark,” Tom replied with a carefree attitude of someone who had nothing to fear from the Rifleman.

“Birch,” Coltrane replied before Mark could. “You didn’t travel with Mark’s father for three days and nights. The last bullet you fired, struck him across the ribs. For three days he refused to let us know how bad it was. We listened to him swear that he’d kill you, if you harmed one hair on his son’s head. You crossed the line when you kept the boys.”

“Now, you know I had nothing to do with their kidnapping! In fact, you were there when they were taken.”

“But you didn’t set them free, either. The two of us are going to see that you are delivered safe and sound to Denver and after you testify, then you’ll be brought back to North Fork and we’ll file charges against you for your previous crimes.”

“See, therein lies a little hitch in your plan, my friend. My testimony is predicated on the fact that my little… ‘transgression’… will be forgotten, it never happened.”

“NEVER HAPPENED!” Mark demanded. “I was fourteen years old! It happened!”

“The three of us know it happened, but according to the agreement that was made in exchange for my testimony, it never happened. That was the price Cole Barker accepted when I agree to testify against Garth Grisolm. You don’t have to like it, but you do have to accept it. It’s in the past, come on boy, let’s just forget about it.”

“Forget…” Mark sputtered. “Get to sleep,” Mark grumbled as he left camp.

Once Mark was out of hearing range Walker stated, “Birch, I wouldn’t push McCain like you are.”

“McCain… Why, he’s just a boy. You’re treating him like he’s…”

“He’s a man. For the past three years he’s been the U.S. Marshal for this territory and don’t you forget that,” Coltrane spoke as he pushed a finger into Birch’s chest. “You show him the respect he’s due as a man and as a marshal.”

“Yeah, but Lucas…”

“Birch, you don’t get it, do you? Lucas swore then next time he saw you, the law wouldn’t get the chance to see that you never interfered with his family again.”

“Yeah, but that was then, I’m sure he’s probably forgotten it all by now,” Birch tried to laugh it off.

“That was then,” Walker mimicked, “You saw Mark’s reaction towards you. No boy should have to go through the terror you put him through. You caused Mark to do a lot of growing up, faster than he should have been forced to and Lucas will never forget it! If Lucas knew Mark was out here with you, I don’t think anyone could restrain him or blame him for what he would do to you. Just be thankful that Mark is a Marshal and all the years of training he’s gone through, he respects everything his badge stands for. Had I been in his shoes…, I’d have plugged you the first night out of Stanton and thought nothing of it.”

Remorsefully, Birch looked off into the direction Mark had walked, “He still does so look like his Ma. Him and Lucas, is it still just the two of them?” Birch sincerely asked. “I…”

“I won’t give you any information on either of them, other than what I’ve already told you.”

“We used to be friends,” Tom forlornly spoke.

“Friends?” Coltrane asked as he raised an eyebrow.

“Guess that was a long time ago and in a different life time. You know, the first time I saw Lucas and Mark in North Fork, I hadn’t known that Margaret had died…” Tom’s memories died on his lips.

“Get to your bedroll, and don’t make me regret not handcuffing you.”

Walker watched as Birch settled into his bedroll.

Once he was settled down, Birch stated, “You didn’t ask what we was fighting about.”

“Figured you was just being you. Tryin’ to save your own hide.”

“If I’d of known who he was…”

“You’d of still tried something.” Walker knew the real Birch and by the tone of his voice, let Birch know, he wasn’t going to be able to pull anything on him. “Get to sleep, morning will be here early enough.”

Within a half hour, Coltrane heard Birch snoring, yet, Mark had not returned to their camp.

*****

Coltrane woke to someone flipping the coffee pot lid closed.

“Sorry,” Mark spoke as he handed the cup to Coltrane as he walked up behind him. “He been any trouble?”

“Just asking questions,” Coltrane replied.

“I can imagine, trying to figure a way to get out of this.”

“Mark, where’d you go last night?”

“It’s my job to get him to Denver, that doesn’t mean I have to share camp with him. Anyway, I spent the night making sure no one was following us close.”

“How’d you come to be with Birch anyhow?”

“Hope, Seth and I were visiting Ethan and his family at Fort Stanton when a patrol came in with ‘him’. The Lieutenant stated he had already sent a wire to Denver informing them of Drew’s death after he dropped him off with the sheriff.”

“Figured it would take longer for Barker or Benton to find someone and get them there, so I decided to make the trip. Besides, I am the marshal for this territory,” Mark’s voice took on a matter-of-fact tone.

“Now, don’t get an attitude with me. Why didn’t you wire Denver?”

“Because he’s needed alive and I didn’t want anyone else getting the upper hand on me.”

“Mark, I was there and I know your history with Birch and I also know that when your Pa finds out, he’s not going to take kindly. Why don’t you go on back home, I can take Birch from here.”

“Like I said, I’m the marshal for this territory. If you want, you can take the packhorse and create a second trail to throw off anyone else who might be following us.”

“You really think they’re out there?”

“Not close enough for us to know, but if they killed Drew to get ‘him’, they’re out there.” Mark took a sip from the cup of coffee he poured for himself. “Coltrane, thank you.”

“For what?”

“Saving my hide last night. Had you not arrived when you did…”

“Now Mark, you know I wouldn’t have killed you,” Birch called as he knelt down to his knee, the other side of the fire from Mark and Coltrane.

“Not since you found out who I was, but if Walker hadn’t arrived, you’d of pulled the trigger. You’re in this for yourself and no one else,” Mark’s voice carried a bitterness. “I can see it in your eyes, you thought you had a good thing, until they killed Drew. Then you got scared and you were looking for a way out, you still are.”

Mark stood and threw out what remained of his cup of coffee, “We ride in fifteen minutes, break camp.”

As Mark had suggested and Coltrane agreed, Mark and Birch rode out together, while Coltrane took the packhorse, weight down with rocks in the packs and headed out on a parallel course to Denver.

*****

Wednesday morning, Lucas road back to town to stand his shift as deputy, helping Seth. After making morning rounds, Seth and Lucas sat in front of the Marshal’s Office.

“I take it that Hope told you?” Seth asked.

“Yeah, can’t say I’m too pleased about Mark doing this on his own.”

“I know what you mean. I even offered to take Birch instead of Mark. I saw how torn up he was as he told us what happened. It’s still a painful memory for him.”

“I can understand, it was fresh all over again when Hope told me. Like it just happened yesterday. I remember it took a long time for him to even trust going into the bank, even with Micah and me standing watch outside. He had some nightmares after we got home… But in time, they went away. And life returned to normal. I honestly never thought that I’d hear of Tom Birch again.”

“He should be there sometime today. If not by suppertime, I’ll wire,” Seth stated.

“Suppertime, I…”

“Lucas, let the law handle this. If worse comes to worse, we’ll cross that bridge. Until then, you’re my deputy and you’ll do as I say… Agreed?”

“Suppertime! And not one minute later.”

*****

Surprisingly, Mark and Birch arrived two days later in Denver without any incident. They had traveled part way by horse and the rest of the way by train. Mark was relieved when he successfully transferred Birch to the custody of the Tom Benton at U.S. Marshal’s Office. To say that Tom Benton was surprised to see Mark transporting Tom Birch would be an understatement.

“I heard Drew was killed and wired Coltrane after Birch, how?” Benton stated.

“I was in Stanton when the word came in. I left early Sunday morning and met up with Walker that night. He’s acting as decoy and should be here some time tomorrow at the latest. I hope.”

“Any trouble?” Benton asked.

“Other than his mouth, none. And that has me worried for Coltrane. If those outlaws killed Drew to get Birch, I can’t believe they didn’t make an attempt once I started out with him.”

“Well, just be thankful. Anyway, Coltrane knows how to protect himself. Why don’t you head to the hotel and check in. I’ll meet you for supper later this afternoon. We’ll need you to stay in Denver until Barker gets back tonight and you can make your full report to him. You can catch the train home tomorrow.”

Mark couldn’t wait to head to the telegraph office, to wire home that he had safely arrived.

The Next Step — The Resentment

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

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