The Rifleman
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Fan Fiction

The Next Step…
Chapter 87 - Kidnapped
Written by Deanne Bertram

Mark and Peter rode into the yard of the McCain Ranch unprepared for the explosion of three boys rushing from the house to welcome their new friend.

“You came back!” “You’re here!” “Yippeee!” the boys yelled back and forth.

“Peter, hand me your reins and you can go play with the others. I’ll take care of your pony,” Mark stated above the ruckus.

“Thank you, sir,” Peter answered as he jumped down and joined in the melee’ of boys running around and tackling one another.

Mark stepped from Rainmaker and led the two horses to his father’s barn, where he greeted Lucas as he stepped out the big door.

“Morning, Pa.”

“For a moment I thought we were being raided by banshees,” Lucas commented.

“Do you ever miss the peace and quiet of just the two of us?” Mark asked.

“I wouldn’t exchange all the peace and quiet in the world, for the love this family shares. And I don’t think you would either.”

“No sir. Let me get this pony unsaddled and turned loose with the others and I’ll be ready to head out with you.”

*****

Lucas and Mark returned to a much quieter ranch than the one they left earlier that morning. Stepping into the main house, Mark asked, “Is everything okay?”

“After a day of playing like they did, the five of them crashed a couple of hours ago. They’re all taking naps.”

“They let Levi play with them?” Lucas asked.

“It was their request too. I didn’t have to bribe them with licking the cake batter from the bowl, either,” Milly answered. “Can you stay for supper, Mark?”

“I promised Hope, Emmy, and Gabby I’d take the ladies of my family out for supper tonight,” Mark answered.

“What about Eli?” Lucas asked.

“Oh, Great-grandparents Micah and Hattie invited him to supper and to spend the night. He was feeling sort of like Gabby was, only his was ‘girl problems’.”

“Too many in the house?” Milly asked.

“And no brothers to play with. But once Micah asked him over and said something about fishing tomorrow morning, he perked right up. You should have heard his comment that he was looking forward to his brother being born.”

“He thinks this baby is going to be a boy?”

“Yep, and so does Hope. She says this pregnancy feels more like when she was pregnant with Eli than with Emmy. What time would you like the rest of us to show up for supper tomorrow, Ma?”

“You can come anytime you want, but I hope you’ll bring them out early tomorrow afternoon. I’ve missed everyone. Just so you know, I plan to have supper on the table around five o’clock,” Milly answered.

Mark kissed his Ma on the check and bid goodbye to his parents.

*****

“Were you able to get any work done today with the boys running about?” Lucas asked as he followed Milly into the kitchen.

“Enough that I’ll have a proper supper on the table for you, once you’ve bathed,” Milly good-naturedly teased.

“Can’t I have a welcome home kiss first?” Lucas asked as he stood behind Milly and wrapped his arms around her shoulders, resting his chin on top of her head.

“Lucas McCain, you go clean up, otherwise with the mood I sense you’re in, I’ll end up burning your supper. Besides, we have a full house tonight.”

“Can’t I have one small kiss first? Myra’s not here to complain about mushy stuff,” Lucas whispered in her ear.

Turning around in Lucas’ arms, Milly wrapped her arms around his neck and stood on her tiptoes, and shared a loving kiss with her husband. She enjoyed the good-natured teasing that was such a part of their marriage. Hearing little feet hit the floor and voices behind the closed door, they parted with Milly again telling Lucas, “Now, go wash up or there’ll be no supper for you.”

After retrieving clean clothes and a washcloth and towel, Lucas left the house.

A few minutes later, the bedroom door opened and Milly heard, “Ma’am?”

“Yes Peter,” Milly answered.

“Is it all right for us to come out?”

“Are all of you awake?” Milly asked.

“All but Levi, he’s still asleep,” a giggling Little Ted answered.

“Me awake,” she heard Levi call out. “Is Papa home?”

Pushing the door all the way open Milly stated, “Yes, he’s out washing up. You know, as hard as the five of you played today, maybe you should join Lucas over at Mark’s and use the shower out back.”

Milly helped the boys choose clean clothes to wear and handed each a dry towel before shooing them out of the house.

*****

Lucas finished rinsing the soap from his face and hair, and gave his head a quick shake before he peered over the shower door to see five boys standing in line.

“Well, what do we have here?” Lucas asked.

“Mama said we needed to shower before supper,” Little Ted answered.

After taking a towel to himself, Lucas reached over the wall to pull in his clean clothes. Having dressed, but with his shirt un-buttoned, Lucas stepped from the shower allowing Little Ted and Levi to enter. Lucas stood outside and collected the boys’ dirty clothes. Next, he operated the pull chain that released the water, both boys laughed and splashed at each other as they washed themselves. Once Lucas was sure his sons were clean enough, he handed them towels to dry off before handing their clothes over the wall.

Milly stepped from the house carrying an empty laundry basket. “Well?” she asked.

“Three down, three to go,” Lucas answered with a grin. “Leave that here, I’ll bring it back when we’re done. You best get back and make sure you don’t burn my supper,” Lucas teased as he stole a quick kiss before Milly could turn.

Opening the door, Lucas called, “Next,” as his sons stepped out, fully dressed.

“Shouldn’t guests be first?” Josh asked.

“You’re just trying to get out of bathing,” Zach retorted.

“Am not!”

“Are too!”

“I think there’s plenty enough room inside for all three of you to shower up!” Lucas sternly stated.

Once all three boys were inside, they stripped and tossed their clothing over the wall. As he had with his sons, Lucas operated the chain, releasing the water from the cistern above. Lucas couldn’t help laughing at the antics of the three boys.

“Josh, you have to lather the washrag with the soap,” Lucas commented. “And don’t forget behind your ears and the back of your neck. And Zach…”

“How…” Zach asked

“You forgetting I raised your pa?” Lucas asked with a gleam in his eyes.

“You sure weren’t a boy,” Zach replied.

“For your information, I was your age once,” Lucas laughed.

“When?” Josh couldn’t stop himself from asking.

“When I was your age.” Lucas had to smile, as he thought how much the twins really were like their Pa. “Now, mind what I say. Use water and soap to wash.”

“Yes, Grandpa,” Josh and Zach mumbled.

“Okay, final rinse coming up,” Lucas stated when he was satisfied with their efforts in cleaning themselves. Lucas reached up and fully released the water on the boys.

“Grandpa!” the twins called and Peter yelled, “Hey!”

Lucas handed three towels over the wall and once the boys were dried, he handed their clothes to them.

After inspecting each boy Lucas stated, “Okay, back to the house, supper should be ready.” Before following, he buttoned his own shirt and picked up the basket containing their dirty laundry, while watching the five run to the house.

*****

The sight that greeted Mark as he entered Seth’s home put a large smile across his face.

“Now I really feel like a saddle tramp. Does this dirty ol’ cowpoke have time to clean up proper?”

“You better, Mark. We three are respectable ladies,” Hope smiled mischievously and gave Mark a welcome back kiss.

Twenty minutes later, a more presentable Mark walked down the steps. Upon reaching the bottom of the staircase, he spread out his arms and asked, “Well, how do I look?”

“Quite dashing,” Hope answered as she stood from a chair.

“A prince,” Mykaela answered as she ran and held out her arms, wanting her Papa to pick her up.

“Almost as handsome as Papa,” Myra stated.

*****

Carrying Mykaela on his hip, Mark holding hands with Myra and Hope holding her other hand, the group walked from Seth’s home to the hotel restaurant. For the night, Mark left his rifle at Seth’s.

“My, my, ‘tis a sight. Do ye have reservations?” Lou asked as the foursome entered the restaurant.

“Yes, Ma’am,” Myra stated. “The name’s McCain.”

*****

If Lucas had thought putting a young Mark to bed was difficult, he wasn’t ready for trying to put five boys to bed at the same time. Not one was ready to fall asleep and each kept asking Lucas questions. After answering as many questions as he could, Lucas finally put his foot down, “It’s nine, thirty and way past your bedtimes. No more questions; or I won’t take you with me when I go to check on the weanling herd tomorrow.”

“What about me?” Levi asked.

“He said no more questions,” Josh complained.

“Now you done it,” Little Ted snickered.

“Now we don’t get to go,” Zach moaned.

“What about you, Levi?” Lucas asked.

“I don’t have a pony to ride.”

“You can ride with me,” Peter offered.

“Peter I appreciate your offer but I had something better in mind for Levi.” Turning to his youngest, “You’ll ride with me, like Mark used to, when he was little,” Lucas said with a smile as he remembered back.

“You mean it? I can go with you?” Levi’s eyes danced with excitement as he asked.

“You’re all going with me,” Lucas answered. “But only if you get to sleep by the time I count, one… two…”

Lucas grinned at the flurry of activity as the boys pulled their blankets over their heads and pretended to snore. A feeling of contentment consumed Lucas as he bent over to blow out the lantern. Closing the bedroom door behind him as he stepped into the front room, Lucas continued to shake his head. Turning around, he almost knocked Milly over.

“Are you sure you can handle all five boys tomorrow?” Milly teasingly asked.

“Well, you handled all five today, so I think I can too. And since Jake is supposed to be here...”

“Then, I guess you’ll need to get your sleep.” Milly wrapped her arm around Lucas’ waist as they walked to their bedroom.

As they climbed into bed, Lucas asked, “So, who do you think is going to be the first to call out they need a glass of water?”

“Hopefully none of them,” Milly replied as she snuggled into Lucas’ arms.

*****

“Good morning, Lucas!” Jake greeted as Lucas stepped from the porch. “Is today the day we check on the weanlings?”

“Yes, but we’re going to have some new hands that need to be broke in,” Lucas answered.

“Oh, I heard about all the hands you hired on. You need any help getting their mounts ready?” Jake asked as he saw the others step from the house to the porch.

“Will you help us, Mr. Jake?” Peter asked.

“Shore ‘nuff. Come on!” Jake stepped down from his horse and tied him to the hitching rail before proceeding to the barn to help get all the horses ready.

“Lucas, don’t forget Mark and the others are coming this afternoon,” Milly called as she brought a couple of saddlebags out to the barn.

“I won’t. What’s this?” Lucas asked as he took the bags from Milly.

“I thought you’d like to have your lunch out on the range.”

“Only thing missing is the chuck wagon,” Little Ted called out as he climbed up to the saddle, Cappy was the first horse saddled.

Within a half hour, six horses and seven riders were traveling across McCain land, the boys singing cowboy songs as they rode.

Upon reaching the valley where the weanling herd lived, Peter let out an exclamation, “Wow! Are they all yours Mr. McCain?”

“They’re all McCain beef,” Lucas answered with pride.

“How many are there?” Peter asked.

“Let’s count them,” Josh called out and got ready to race Chip towards the herd.

“Easy there, cowboy. You want to start a stampede?” Jake called out as he took hold of Chip’s bridle.

“Guess I wasn’t thinking like a cowboy,” Josh answered.

“We can quietly ride to the hill over there and you boys can count them. Jake and I’ll check on their water supply and be back shortly.”

“You leaving us alone?” Zach asked.

“No, I’ll be able to see you. The water hole is just the other side of the hill. But you four are to stay on the hill. You hear me?” Lucas pointed at each one.

“Yes sir,” they responded.

*****

Two men stood hidden in a grove of trees on the far side of the valley and watched the activity of the two men and five young boys.

“Well?” asked the smaller, pockmark-faced man with several days growth of beard on his face.

“I don’t know. The old man said he’d be the oldest boy and dark haired. From this distance, I can’t tell. I know two of them look alike and one’s too young, but the other two. Either one could be the boy,” answered the larger man, with a full mustache, as he scratched at the several days growth of beard on his face.

“Let me see,” the other man demanded as he reached for the binoculars. “Them’s two are twins. And you’re right ‘bout the other two. Hard to tell. When do we take ‘em.”

“Monday.”

“Why Monday?”

“Heard tell the marshal in town is the Pa to them look-alikes and he was taking the rest of his family back home today. Don’t want no marshal that close. And tomorrow’s Sunday… There’s Sunday services and afterwards the parents‘ll probably keep an eye on the whole brood… That leaves Monday.”

“Monday…” the smaller man repeated as he handed back the binoculars and the two scrambled back to their horses.

*****

Upon their return to the house, the boys ran inside to tell Milly all about their adventure, leaving Lucas and Jake to take care of the horses.

“How are your wedding plans coming along?” Lucas asked as they unsaddled the animals.

“Gwen says everything is coming along just the way she wants it.”

“Bet you’re anxious for Thanksgiving to get here.”

“No sir, not yet, I mean I’m looking forward to taking Gwen as my wife, but there’s just so much that needs to get done…”

“Jake, if you’re feeling overwhelmed between working for us and Dave Merar and building your homestead, why don’t you take some time off and do for you. Mark and I can handle the ranch.”

“Are you sure? I mean, I really would like to finish getting the roof on the house and barn before the rains come back.”

“The rate this summer is going you’ll have plenty of time, but I understand your need,” Lucas answered.

As Lucas and Jake stepped from the barn, they watched as Mark assisted Myra down from the back of the buckboard.

“Papa!” Myra called out as she ran and jumped in his arms. “Did you miss me?”

“Sure did. The house hasn’t been the same since you left.”

“Gandpa!” Mykaela called as she toddled over to Lucas.

Picking his granddaughter up in his other arm, “Now, the two sweetest girls in the world, and I have them all to me. Jake, I meant what I said. You have stuff you need to do, you do it and don’t worry about coming back here until you feel better about getting your own work done.”

“Thank you, Lucas. Mark! Hope! Goodbye!” Jake called as he swung up into the saddle of his horse.

“Jake, Gwen told me she was invited to your parents for supper tonight, so you best hurry home and get cleaned up.”

Kicking his horse into a lope, Jake waved his hat over his head and headed down the road.

Carrying the girls back to the buckboard, Lucas watched as Mark carefully helped his pregnant wife down.

“Pa, how are you?” Hope asked as she lifted up to her tiptoes to give Lucas a kiss on the cheek.

“Better now that the whole family is here.”

“What about me?” Eli sorrowfully called from the back of the buckboard.

“Now, what about you?” Mark called as he turned to allow Eli to climb onto his back. “You know that ladies are always first.”

“Yippee!” Eli squealed and held on to Mark’s collar for the ride into the house.

Milly smiled as the rest of the family walked inside.

“We’re here,” Mark called as he entered.

Milly took time to hug Mykaela and Eli before welcoming her daughter home.

“Ma, what can I help you do?” Hope asked as she stepped into the kitchen. Seeing Milly’s expression out of the corner of her eye, Hope turned and stated, ”I’m not that far along in my pregnancy that I can’t help.” Raising both eyebrows, she put her hands on her hips.

Smiling, Milly walked into the kitchen and hugged Hope before pointing out the need for making rolls for supper.

*****

The sun was setting as Mark stated they really needed to get back to town, but once he saw Hope’s look of discomfort, “Well, maybe we could spend the night at home. I do miss sleeping in my own bed. But I’m sure Seth is going to worry when we don’t get back.”

“Mark, I told Father that we were going to spend the night at home. I miss sleeping in my own bed too. I’ve missed the quietness of the ranch. I hope you don’t mind?”

The apologetic look on Hope’s face expressed her feelings as Mark pulled her into his arms.

“We’re spending the night at home?” Eli asked. “But my bed’s in Little Ted’s room.”

“Yes,” Mark answered. “I think Levi would let you share his bed.”

“And I can play with the boys tomorrow?” Eli excitedly asked.

“Tomorrow is Sunday and this family will go to church,” Hope replied and couldn’t help the giggle as she saw the look of disappointment on Eli’s face. “We’ll be home, for good, Saturday afternoon, and you can play with the boys all you want.”

“Okay,” Eli stated as he went to hug his parents goodbye.

*****

Monday morning, leading Blade from the barn, Lucas greeted Billy as he rode up to the McCain Ranch, “Don’t tell me more fencing is down.”

“Sorry Lucas. This drought is driving them through the fences. Sam went back to the ranch to get the buckboard and wire.”

“Papa, can we come with you?” Little Ted asked.

“Not today boys. We’re going to be working with barbed wire and I don’t want to take a chance on any of you getting hurt.”

“We understand, Grandpa,” Zach answered.

“We can help?” Josh sort of asked. “We can do chores in the barn while you’re gone.”

“Okay, but no heavy lifting. Just clean the stalls and corrals, you know where to dump the manure.”

Lucas watched as the boys ran into the barn. Before riding out with Billy, Lucas informed Milly the boys would be ‘working’ in the barn during the morning.

*****

The two men watched as five little boys ran into the barn and Lucas and Billy rode from the ranch house.

“Now?”

“In a few minutes. Give them riders time to get out of sight to make sure they didn’t forget anything they have to come back for.”

“That woman sure is purdy,” the smaller man said.

“We’re not here for no woman. Get your mind to the job we’re getting paid for.”

“Gandy, we can have just a little fun with her.”

“Santos, we’re here for the boy and the boy only.”

Twenty minutes had passed before the two crept along the backside of the McCain barn and quietly entered. The boys were actively working on chores in the barn and didn’t hear the men enter.

“Hi there boys,” Gandy called out. “We’s hoping to offer our horses some water.”

“The well’s out front,” Josh answered.

“My, you two twins?” Santos asked.

“Sure are,” Zach answered in boast.

“And you two, you brothers?” Santos asked pointing to Peter and Little Ted.

“No,” Peter answered.

“Where’s the other boy? There’s five of you come in here,” Gandy stated as he looked around.

“He went back to the house,” Little Ted answered as he got a funny feeling that he didn’t like these men.

Levi stuck his head over the floor of the loft and quickly ducked back as he watched the men draw their guns.

“Now, which one of you two is Peter?” Gandy asked.

Neither answered.

“I’ll ask you again,” Gandy stated as he walked over and stood over the two boys. “Santos, the look-alikes!”

Santos ran and tackled Josh and Zach to keep them from leaving the barn; carrying both the boys, he returned to stand next to Gandy.

“What we do now?” Santos asked, struggling to hold both the twins as they squirmed in his arms.

“We take ‘em both. Tie up those two brats.”

With Josh and Zach bound and gagged and placed into the storage locker, Santos and Gandy gagged Little Ted and Peter and bound their hands. Slung over their shoulders, the two men carried the boys out the back of the barn and to their waiting horses.

In the dark of the locker, Josh and Zach struggled at their restraints. In time, Levi gathered enough courage to climb down, carefully he looked out the open barn door before running to the house.

“Mama! Mama!” Levi called as he ran.

“What’s wrong? Are the boys not letting you help?” Milly asked as she stepped to the porch.

“Mama, they took Little Ted and Peter!”

“What? Who took your brother and Peter?” Milly asked.

“Men.”

“Where are Josh and Zach?” Milly asked in alarm.

“I don’t know,” Levi cried as he followed Milly back to the barn.

Milly entered the barn calling each of the boys’ names, “Little Ted! Josh! Zach! Peter!” Hearing noise emanating from the storage locker, Milly ran and opened the top to see Josh and Zach squirming. Milly fumbled with removing the gags in her grandsons’ mouths, eventually she was able to untie the knots.

“Grandma, they wanted Peter. We didn’t tell them. They took him and Little Ted,” the twins cried as Milly worked to untie the knots binding their hands and feet.

Fear gripped Milly; someone had taken her son and the prince. Tears fell down her face as she realized she had no way of knowing where Lucas was and that she couldn’t leave the children to ride to town to get Mark, even if she could saddle Two-Bits. Struggling to calm herself, Milly helped the twins climb out of the storage locker and told all three boys to get to the house. As they ran, Milly prayed that Lucas would come home soon.

*****

An hour had passed when Milly heard the sound of a rider. Coldness spread in the pit of her stomach as she reach for the rifle that Lucas had purchased after she and Hope had been kidnapped. She heard Lucas’ voice in her mind, “Milly, there will be many times that you’ll be home alone. If only for show… I don’t expect you to use it, but maybe by your holding it, it will dissuade someone from trying anything.” Milly stepped to the porch, rifle in her trembling hands.

“Johnny!” Milly quietly screamed as she recognized her brother-in-law stopping in front of the barn.

“Milly? My God, you’re ash white. What’s wrong?” Johnny called as he stepped from his horse and ran to Milly.

“Someone took Little Ted and Peter. They tied up the twins.”

“Where’s Lucas? Did he go after them?” Johnny asked.

“He left with Billy Lehigh to mend the fence somewhere on the range, he doesn’t know!” Milly cried.

“You get back in the house and lock the doors. I’ll ride back to town and get Mark.”

*****

“He’s my nephew!” Charles yelled and slammed his fist on top of the desk.

“I know he is! And, they have my little brother! I can’t risk you riding with us!” Mark declared.

“You can’t stop me!”

“I can too. Charles, you have to stay here and protect Amelia. They could be after all of you. You’re no longer in your home country. Don’t make me put you in jail,” Mark warned as he pulled a box of cartridges from the desk drawer.

“Mark, please?” Charles begged.

“Charles, you’re a foreign dignitary. If anything happened to you, I’d be shanghaied and strung up from the yardarm. It’s bad enough they have Peter. Let me do my job. Your job is to keep out of danger and protect Amelia. Also, if we’re not back in three days, someone needs to wire Jennifer.”

“Three days?” Johnny Drako asked.

“Johnny, based on the wire Benton sent, someone has planned this kidnapping for some time. Three days will hopefully give us time to find the boys and get back to town,” Mark answered. “I pray this won’t become an international incident.”

*****

Lucas was just riding onto the road to his home when he heard two riders coming from behind him, riding hard. Turning, Lucas recognized the riders and realized they weren’t slowing down. “Mark!” he urged Blade to keep pace with the others.

“Pa, someone took Little Ted and Peter!” Mark called and kept riding.

*****

Milly opened the door when she saw the three riders enter the yard.

“Lucas!” Milly cried as she ran to her husband and threw her arms around his neck. “Men came and they took Little Ted and Peter!”

Holding his wife tight while she cried in his arms, Lucas looked to Milly and asked, “Are you okay? Did they hurt you?”

Milly shook her head.

“What happened?” Lucas asked as he looked to Mark.

“Lucas, I showed up here earlier, Jake needed a tool that I knew you had,” Johnny answered. “When I arrived, Milly came to the porch, carrying a rifle, and looking like death. She told me what she just told you and that you were out on the range. I rode back to town to get Mark.”

“Ma,” Mark spoke after stepping from his horse. He put a comforting hand to Milly’s shoulder. “Seth’s coming with the buckboard, he’ll take you and the boys back to town.”

“No!” Milly cried. “They have my boy!”

Lucas pried Milly’s arms from him and said, “Milly, when Seth gets here, you will take the boys and go to town. I don’t want you here alone.” Turning to his brother-in-law, “Johnny will you stay here?”

“Then I’ll stay here too!” Milly cried in answer.

“No, he’ll go back to town with you.”

“Now Luke, I can help,” Johnny argued.

“Johnny, we don’t know how many or who or why,” Lucas replied.

“All the more reason you need me to ride with you,” Johnny again protested.

“Pa, I need to talk to the twins to find out what happened and if they can give us a description. I’d feel a lot better if there were three of us when we ride out.”

Mark took ten minutes to ask the boys questions and listen to their story, and tried to keep them calm so he could understand what they were saying. Once he had all the information he felt his sons could give him, Mark stated, “Ma, Seth should be here in ten, fifteen minutes tops. Are you okay to stay alone with the boys until Seth gets here?”

Milly nodded and handed a saddlebag filled with provisions to Mark.

“Lock the door behind me,” Mark ordered.

Lucas saw Mark running from the house, “Over here, we’ve found their tracks!”

“Hold up, Pa!” Mark yelled.

“What for? They’re getting away!” Lucas called back.

“We need to do this legal. I already deputized Johnny back in town. Raise your right hand. Do you swear to uphold the letter of the law?”

Mark knew the hatred his Pa was feeling, he saw the tension in Lucas’ jaw, “Pa, either we do this by the law, or you stay here. There’ll be no shooting unless we have no choice. Pa, I know what you went through with me growing up. He’s my little brother, but I have to do this by the law. Do you swear to uphold the letter of the law?” Mark urged.

Raising his right hand, “I promise to uphold the letter of the law. But if they harm one hair!” Lucas growled as he pointed his left index finger at Mark.

“They’ll be dealt with!” Mark stated as he and Johnny followed Lucas after the kidnappers.

*****

The trail took the family members further than they expected, to just outside of Weed, New Mexico. The rays from the morning sun were reaching over the hills when the three crawled to the edge of the canyon wall and lay on their stomachs as they peered over. Gandy and Santos were sitting around a campfire with others milling about. The camp was laid out with a corral for the remuda at the far end, in the middle was what appeared to be a main building, possibly used long ago as an office. The group also saw three large U.S. Army tents and a small storage shack. Halted throughout the camp were three covered wagons, also bearing the insignia of U.S. Army.

“Guess you’re glad Mark wanted me to come along?” Johnny asked trying to lighten the tension.

“Not now, Johnny,” Lucas stated as he drew back from the edge.

“Pretty farfetched to believe any of them are Regulation Army,” Mark answered as he followed his father.

“No, none of those men are Army. They’ve probably taken those wagons and tents during raids on Army patrols.”

“I hope none of them involved a patrol Ethan was leading,” Mark commented and closed his eyes as he said a small prayer.

“How many men do you think are down there?” Johnny asked.

“I saw at least five,” Mark commented.

“There’s at least two dozen horses in that remuda,” Lucas replied.

“But that doesn’t mean there’s a man for every horse,” Mark stated. “Pa do you think this is an abandoned relay station?”

“No, only one way in and out. I’m sure if we search deeper we’d find it’s probably an abandoned mining camp.”

“That means there could be caves for more men to hide in?” Johnny asked.

“Just like those tents down there,” Lucas replied.

“Pa, you and Johnny keep an eye out from up here. I’m going to get Rainmaker and make my way into camp.”

“What for?” Johnny asked.

“I need to find out where the boys are. Once I find them, I’ll get them out….”

“Mark, no!” Lucas adamantly stated.

“Pa, it’s the only way.”

“Mark…”

“Pa, let me do my job. You and Johnny are here to back me up. If the three of us go in there together, we’re bound to tip our hand before we even find out where the boys are. This way, I pray they won’t be alarmed by one lone rider. Pa, as a U.S. Marshal, I’m ordering you and Johnny to stay here and key an eye on things. I’ll try to get word to you, somehow.”

Lucas realized his son had developed a strong, stubborn streak from years of being a marshal.

“Here, you keep my badge until I get back.” Mark unpinned the marshal badge from his shirt and handed it to his Pa.

“Mark…”

“Pa, if need be, I’m counting on you and Uncle Johnny… and your rifles.” Mark scrambled back to where they had left the horses and rode away.

“Lucas, just how are we supposed to rescue him?” Johnny asked.

“Pray that he doesn’t need rescuing,” Lucas answered as they made their way back to the edge.

*****

An hour had passed before they heard the sound of a rider casually approaching the camp. Peering over the edge, both breathed a sigh of relief to see Mark riding in. “You, hold it right there!” they faintly heard from below.

Lucas and Johnny scoured the surrounding canyon walls in search of the man whose voice they heard. Johnny was the first to see the glint of sun off metal. “Lucas there.” Johnny pointed down below them. Lucas held tight to his rifle as his eyes followed to where Johnny pointed. Together they watched as Mark held his hands away from his body.

Lucas’ curiosity was piqued when he saw the disheveled appearance of his son. His previously clean shirt was soiled, as were the pants he wore. This was the first time that Lucas also noticed that Mark wasn’t riding in his usual black saddle. His mind had totally been focused on the fact that his son had been taken that he hadn’t observed the little things.

“Easy there mister. I’m just looking for a place to set out a stake. Didn’t know this canyon was already spoken for,” Mark answered.

He nudged his horse forward as another man walked up the trail and asked for his weapons.

“All I got here is this old rifle,” Mark answered.

Lucas realized the rifle Mark handed the man wasn’t his own rifle.

“Where’s his rifle?” Lucas asked, turning to face his brother-in-law.

“It’s in my scabbard. Didn’t you wonder why I kept mine at the ready?” Johnny answered.

“You’ve not ridden on too many posse’s… What else do you know that you’ve not told me?” Lucas demanded as he moved to reposition himself so he could keep Mark in sight.

Following his brother-in-law, Johnny answered, “Mark figured that whoever took the boys, was there for Peter, not Little Ted. His own rifle, as well as your rifle, are too well know in the territory. He borrowed an old carbine from Angus before we left town, just in case.”

“And his saddle?” Lucas asked.

“His saddle… I didn’t notice,” Johnny replied.

“Anything else you’d like to tell me. Or better yet, is there anything else that you’re not supposed to tell me?” Lucas asked as he sank lower to keep from being seen.

“Honest, Luke. If there is more, Mark didn’t tell me.” Seeing that Lucas didn’t believe him, “Lucas, all I know is that they received a wire from Tom Benton, just before I arrived. Then I came in and announced Peter and Little Ted were taken, Mark started doing stuff without explaining.”

*****

With two men holding guns on him, Mark reached the main building, only to watch as one man stepped out to the veranda.

“Get down from your horse,” the man ordered.

Mark casually did as instructed. He observed the posture and body language of the man standing in front of him. With what few words the man had spoken Mark noticed the man’s accent and wished he had an idea from where the man came.

Another man came up behind him and placed the barrel of a weapon to the back of Mark’s head as the other man ordered, “Check him for any hidden weapons.”

Mark forced himself to relax as he felt the man’s hands work their way up and down his pant legs before feeling around his waist and under his arms.

“He’s as clean as a baby’s bottom,” the man stated as he removed the gun from Mark’s head. “Except for a pocket knife.”

“What about his saddle bags?” the man with an accent spoke.

“Just a few pans and utensils for cooking and shaving stuff,” a man answered.

“The flat pan also gets used for panning streams,” Mark stated.

“Panning streams?” the accented man asked.

“You know, looking for ingots of gold, silver, anything I can trade for supplies or lead me to the mother lode,” Mark stated.

“You don’t look like no prospector,” Mark heard off to his side.

“Just trying to survive. Happen along some wagon trains and they don’t take to saddlebums wanting to tag along, so I keep myself clean shaved. ‘Sides, once I had a beard and mustache and got mistook for some bandit. Didn’t care for the three days I spent in jail until they got the matter straightened out.”

Gandy walked over to the man with an accent and whispered in his ear. Shortly, the outlaws allowed Mark open access to their camp, since he didn’t have any weapons they considered a threat. Acting nonchalantly, Mark walked the camp, in his mind he measured the distances between buildings and calculating how long it would take him to run from one to the next, if he had to make a quick get-away. Making sure no one was watching, Mark snuck a peek into the small shack behind the main building. Pleased with what he found inside, Mark shut the door, hung his thumbs through his belt loops and continued walking to the remuda to check on his horse.

Hearing a triangle bell ringing, Mark followed the others as they came from the tents. Upon entering the main building for lunch, Mark looked through an open doorway as a man exited a side room. He prayed no one noticed his change in demeanor when he saw two small sleeping figures in the bed on the far side of the room, before the door closed.

“What you looking at?” Santos asked.

“Nothing, just remember sharing a bed with my own brother when I was younger. Pa kept us on the move, so we’d catch sleep whenever we could,” Mark replied.

“What brings you to our little haven?” a voice asked from behind Mark.

“Just traveling. Ain’t got no place to call home, ‘cept my saddle and the stars.”

“You always travel around without any handgun?” Gandy asked while walking to a desk where he picked up Mark’s rifle, and looked it over. He ran his hands over the worn wood of the stock.

“Had to sell them a few months back, traded them for that old carbine and some cash for grub.”

“This thing’s seen some better days,” Gandy replied as he handed it back to Mark.

“Well, when it’s a matter of eating or starving… Figure someday I’ll luck out an happen on an old abandoned mine, maybe strike it rich and get one of them fancy rifles and handguns I heard tell about.”

*****

Biding his time, Mark hoped his Pa and uncle would keep an eye on his comings and goings within the camp, as he realized with all the men in camp, he wouldn’t be able to get a message to them about his plans. He only wished he had a better plan in mind. Taking a seat on the porch of the main building, he pulled out a knife, reached for a fair-sized piece of wood from the ground and started whittling. The afternoon progressed and finally he heard the voices of young boys from inside, asking when they were going home. He cringed at the gruff tone the man called Gandy used in answering the boys. Mark prayed he wouldn’t be called into the building while the boys were awake, lest they give him away upon seeing him.

Strolling over to the remuda, Mark pulled out a few sugar cubes and offered them to Rainmaker.

The man with the accent came up behind Mark, “Supper should be ready soon.”

“Thanks, but I’ll pass,” Mark replied.

“Oh? You sell your handguns for grub and here we offer you free food and you ain’t hungry?”

“It’s not that I’m not hungry, just when you been without like I’ve been, sometimes eating too well is just as bad.”

“Have it your way. We’ll be pulling out in the morning, so you’re welcome to stay here or tag along.”

“If I tag along, just what will be expected of me, riding with your gang?” Mark asked.

“No gang, just men I’ve hired to see a job done.”

“You hired? You’re the boss then? I mean, you got money and you’re living here with your boys?”

“Boys?”

“Sure, I saw one of the men coming from a side room in the building and saw two young ‘ens sharing a bed. Figured they had to be yours, if you’re running this outfit.”

“No, those boys aren’t mine. They’re a means to an end. They are the key to the rightful heirs being restored to the throne.”

“You trying to get America back to a colony of England?” Mark asked.

“No, but my home country has a line of usurpers on the throne. One of those two boys is our ticket.”

“One of? Why do you have two of them if only one is your ticket?” Mark asked.

“We ain’t been able to figure out which boy is the one we wanted. Doesn’t matter, tomorrow we’ll know.”

“When you figure it out, what about the other?”

“Don’t you worry about the other. We just need to keep both of them safe until we find out which is which.”

“You need help watching over them?” Mark offered.

“You offering?”

“Well, if I’m gonna ride with ya, maybe I should pull my weight,” Mark suggested.

“Not that you have much weight to pull,” the man laughed. “But I’m sure that Santos will be happy not to have to stand the mid-night shift. If you’re still not up to eating, you best get a few hours shut eye. By the way, what’s your name?”

“Brody,” Mark answered.

“That your first name or last name?”

“Last. Ain’t used my first name in years. But if it matters to you, its Cyrus. And yours?”

“Henry Dochlichter.”

“Pleased to meet your acquaintance… boss,” Mark answered as he turned and headed to retrieve his bedroll from his saddle.

*****

While the others ate, Mark returned to the small storage shed and removed what he needed to aid in their escape, if necessary, and placed it in a position where he hoped his Pa could strike it.

*****

Johnny and Lucas intently watched the outlaws make their way to the main building as the triangle bell rang for a second time that day. At a distance, they watched as Mark entered the shack and stepped out carrying a small barrel and he placed it at the base of a boulder before assumed the posture of a man holding a rifle, pointed at the barrel. They continued to watch Mark as he returned to his bedroll and laid out under a tree.

“What’s he doing?” Johnny asked.

“Not sure, but I guess he wants us to shoot the barrel. We just have to trust him and be ready to act whenever he gives the signal.”

“You two, don’t move. Push your rifles to the side and crawl back here,” they heard called from behind them. “Slowly! Don’t give me a reason to shoot you. I’ve a regiment not a quarter mile from here,” the man whispered.

Lucas and Johnny did as instructed.

“Now slowly, you tall man, turn over and sit up. Keep your hands where I can see them.”

Lucas watched as a Sergeant stepped forward and collected his rifle.

“You, shorty, you’re next. Slowly.”

“Sergeant, I don’t know who you figure we are, but were not outlaws,” Lucas stated as he reached to show his badge.

“Don’t matter to me. I’m under orders to bring anyone I find outside that canyon back to the major,” the sergeant stated. “Get to your feet and let’s get to your horses.”

With his gun still trained on Lucas and Johnny, the three crested a small hill to see a regiment of U.S. Cavalry soldiers waiting.

“Sergeant, report,” a soldier with lieutenant’s bars on his collar ordered.

“Lucas! Johnny!” they heard as a soldier with Major’s clusters on his lapel rode up. “What are you doing out here?”

“Trying to rescue my son and a friend,” Lucas answered. “I only pray nothing’s happened while we were brought back here, Ethan.”

“Sergeant, give them back their weapons,” Ethan ordered.

“But sir, they were watching over the canyon where those outlaws are hiding.”

“Yes we were, but they’ve Lucas’ son and another boy,” Johnny answered. “We trailed them this far.”

“Mark’s in trouble?” Ethan asked.

“He wasn’t when we last saw him.” Lucas answered.

Johnny stated, “They took Little Ted and a friend who was staying at the McCain ranch.”

“Little Ted… Lucas, I’m sorry. What can we do to help?”

“You can let us get back to the canyon. Mark’s concocted a plan and I can only hope we’re not too late.”

Ethan and the Lieutenant rode back to the canyon and joined Lucas and Johnny as they crawled to lookout over the outlaws’ camp.

“Ethan, that person sleeping under the tree over there?” Lucas pointed. “That’s Mark.”

“Where’s Little Ted and the other boy?” Ethan asked.

“We don’t know,” Johnny replied. “But before your sergeant got the drop on us, Mark planted a keg over by that boulder.” Ethan’s gaze followed the line where Johnny pointed. “He made a gesture like he wanted someone to shoot it.”

“When?” the lieutenant asked.

“We’ll have to wait for his signal,” Lucas answered.

*****

In an effort to pass the time, Lucas asked, “I take it you’re here because of those tents and wagons?”

“Yeah, we had a patrol from Nogales, Arizona get hit. A number of the soldiers survived and were able to make their way to Fort Stanton.”

Lucas and Johnny listened as Ethan recounted the story the soldiers had told.

*****

Mark felt a sharp jab in his ribs followed by, “The Count said you’re to stand watch over them brats.”

Gathering his bedroll, Mark tied it to the back of his saddle before heading to the main building. Upon entering, Mark heard the ruckus of snoring and was thankful he had decided to catch some shuteye outside. After glancing around to make sure all the men were asleep, Mark entered the room where the boys slept. Quietly, he made his way to his brother and placed his hand over his mouth, praying Little Ted wouldn’t struggle too much to sound an alarm. He felt Little Ted struggle as he abruptly woke.

“Little Ted, stop struggling. It’s me, Mark.”

Little Ted stopped struggling as his eyes focused in the dark and confirmed the truth.

“Get your boots on, I’m getting the two of you out of here.”

Mark quietly moved to the other end of the bunk where Peter slept and repeated what he had told his brother.

*****

In the dark of the night, Mark led the boys to where he had Rainmaker stabled. After saddling his horse and retrieving the discarded burlap bags, he cut squares and long strips to tie around Rainmakers hooves in an effort to quiet the possible sound of metal shoes striking a rock.

“Mark, hurry! What if they wake up?”

“Little Ted, I’m working as fast as I can.”

When his task was finished, first up, Mark lifted Peter and placed him in the saddle.

“What about you Mark?” Little Ted asked.

“I’m going to lead you out of here, but if they hear us, you two are going to ride and ride hard. Ted, Pa and Uncle Johnny are up on the ridge. Follow this canyon and when it opens, turn left. You can’t miss the trail, follow it until you come to a watering hole. I’m sure Pa will be there shortly, if he doesn’t catch up with you before then.”

“But sir? If we take your horse, how will you get away?” Peter asked.

“Don’t worry about me. I’ve got a plan that I hope we don’t have to use. Anyway, you two are more important. Ted, this is the way I want it. It’s the way it has to be. If necessary, can you be brave enough and see that Peter makes it out of here?”

“Mark, I can’t…” Little Ted cried.

“Yes, you can. You’re a McCain, just like me.”

Next, Mark lifted Little Ted, “Peter, scoot to the back of the saddle,” and put his brother in front of the prince. “Peter hold on tight around Little Ted’s waist.” Mark hand the reins to his brother.

As Mark led his horse and passengers from the corral, several of the remuda horses started whinnying.

“Mark?!” Little Ted called. Mark heard the fear in his brother’s voice.

From somewhere behind them, Mark heard, “Who’s out there?” yelled.

“Ted, Peter, hold tight, YAH!” Mark yelled and slapped his horse on the haunches. Rainmaker didn’t hesitate as he bolted forward, barely giving Mark time to grab the rifle from his scabbard.

Mark ran as fast as he could to where he hoped he could get into position. As he rounded a boulder, he lost his footing and slid to a stop. Scrambling to position himself to take the shot, Mark realized his folly, he wasn’t close to the trajectory required to get a clear shot at the barrel. Voices of men shouting and sounds of men and horses running filled the air as the outlaws bore down on him.

“PA! NOW!” Mark screamed as he stood to fire at the approaching outlaws. He heard the first shot ricochet, but the second shot struck pay dirt.

From where he stood, the night sky lit up in a brilliant explosion. Mark hadn’t realized how close he was to the barrel as the blast threw him backwards. As he lost consciousness, he heard horses and men screaming as the darkness of the night reclaimed the canyon. The last sound Mark thought he heard was the call of a bugler.

*****

The sun had set and those high on the canyon had trouble making out what was happening in the camp. After midnight, they saw a lone figure step to the front of the main building and vaguely made out the door opening and closing. Five minutes later they watched as the door opened and closed again. The lantern hanging next to the door outlined one man followed by two smaller figures.

“He’s got them, Lucas,” Johnny whispered while he grabbed for Lucas’ arm.

A gentle breeze pushed the clouds as they slipped past the night moon, allowing the moon to bathe the canyon in a soft glow.

“Lucas, you remember where the barrel is?” Ethan asked.

“I can barely make it out,” Lucas replied.

From the canyon floor below, the men faintly heard, “Who’s out there?” They looked to where they last knew Mark and the boys were. Clearly audible from the camp, Lucas heard a horse running away followed a few moments later by Mark yelling, “PA! NOW!”

Lucas didn’t hesitate; he sighted in his rifle and fired. The unmistakable sound of a ricochet reached them as Lucas fired his second shot. Lucas turned his head and shielded his eyes with the crook of his elbow as the explosion lit the night.

With Johnny and the others close to his heels, Lucas ran to Blade as he heard the bugler sounding charge in the distance. By the time they reached the opening of the canyon, Lucas reined Blade in hard at the sight of Mark’s horse racing towards them. Lucas turned his mount, urging his horse to match the horse stride for stride as Lucas reached for the reins, bringing the two horses slowly to a stop.

“Papa!” Little Ted called as he finally opened his eyes. Still in the saddle, Lucas wrapped his arms around the two crying boys.

Johnny and Ethan were quickly to Lucas’s side as he tried to push the two boys back to take a good look at them.

“Are you two okay?” Lucas asked.

“Papa, Mark’s back there!” Little Ted cried.

“Johnny, can you keep an eye on these two? I’m going back for Mark,” Without waiting for an answer, Lucas reined his horse around and raced him into the canyon with Ethan a short distance behind.

*****

Slowing his horse as he approached the camp, Lucas witnessed those nearest the blast were either dead or in custody of the soldiers. Without time to think, the sergeant came running to report, “We got more holed up in the main building!”

Lucas and Ethan followed the sergeant back to the main camp and took positions behind one of the wagons. A gun battle continued for an agonizing length of time as Lucas worried about Mark.

“We have no idea how well provisioned they are,” Lucas commented.

“They can keep us at bay for as long as they want, considering all the provisions that were in the wagons,” Ethan answered.

“Major, before you arrived, word filtered in from some of the other men, they ain’t unloaded the wagons,” a lieutenant answered.

Ethan’s attention returned to the building, “Lucas, there’s a window near the backside, there on the right, can you make it out?” Ethan asked.

“What do you have in mind?” Lucas asked as he crouched down after having returned fire.

“Slip in there and get them by surprise from inside. I want as many of these men alive, to stand trial,” Ethan vehemently replied. “Men, cover us!”

Running in a crouched position, Ethan and Lucas made their way safely to the side of the building. Taking a moment to catch their breath, Ethan carefully opened the window and the two climbed through the window without being detected by those inside.

As they entered the main room, Ethan ordered those who stood at the windows to drop their weapons. Without warning, one of them turned and fired in their direction. Dropping to his left, Lucas instinctively fired his rifle from his hip. As he looked on, the man fell to the floor, grabbing at his shoulder. Lucas twirl cocked his rifle as he stood to his full height, “Ethan, you okay?” Lucas asked without taking his eyes off the men slowly raising their hands in front of them.

“Just nicked me in the leg,” Ethan answered as he kept his gun pointed at the outlaws, who one by one dropped their weapons.

Lucas walked to the man he shot and grabbed the front of the man’s shirt.

“Why? Why did you take by boy?” Lucas demanded.

The man grabbed Lucas’ wrists in an effort to get away and defiantly stared back at him.

As other soldiers entered the building to take the men into custody, Lucas dropped the man and ran outside and yelled, “Who can tell me what’s going on out here?”

“I can,” came the response from the lieutenant.

“My son? Where is he?” Lucas asked.

“Your son? I thought he was on the horse with the other boy? The one’s riding out of here in the beginning…” the Lieutenant answered.

“My other son, the marshal. Where are the injured?”

“Over there. We got three dead and two unconscious outlaws,” the lieutenant pointed and followed as Lucas ran past a corpsman working on an injured soldier.

Dreading it, Lucas looked at the bodies of the three dead men and felt relief as none of them were Mark. Lucas looked up as another soldier started struggling with one of the men as he regained consciousness. “Mark!” Lucas yelled as he ran over to where Mark was struggling to sit up. “Soldier let go of my son!” Lucas called out.

“Under who’s orders?” the private daringly answered.

“Mine,” Ethan voice from behind Lucas. The soldier stood up straight and saluted his superior officer.

“Mark?” Lucas asked quietly as he set his rifle down and knelt beside his son.

“Pa? Little Ted? Peter?” Mark asked as he looked around. “Did they get out?”

“They’re safe. Rainmaker got them away from here and I left them at the canyon entrance with Johnny. Are you okay? Are you hurt?” Lucas asked.

“I don’t think so,” Mark answered.

“Come on let’s get you to your feet.” Lucas took Mark by the arm and helped him stand.

“Thanks for helping us out Mark,” Ethan stated as Mark looked in his direction.

“Who’s there?” Mark asked.

“It’s me, Ethan.”

“Sorry, I couldn’t see you that well in the dark,” Mark answered.

“The dark? The moon’s out…” Ethan’s voice trailed off. “Sergeant, over here with that torch!”

“Mark,” Lucas stated as he looked at his soot covered son. “Tell me what you see.”

“See? It’s dark…” Mark answered as he held his hand out to brace himself against his Pa.

“Private!” Ethan yelled and pointed at the soldier walking away from them.

“Mark, sit back down,” Lucas ordered as he help Mark sit down on a small boulder. “The explosion. Did you shield you eyes from the explosion?”

“I closed them… guess not fast enough. I should have closed them when I heard the ricochet, but I wanted to make sure none of the outlaws got past me. Pa, are you sure the boys are okay?”

“Yes, sir,” the private answered as he returned to address Ethan.

“Take a couple of soldiers and get our horses in the corral harnessed and hitched to those wagons. One of them will take our injured to North Fork and the others will take the outlaw’s to Fort Stanton.”

“Ethan, what about Dochlichter?” Mark asked. “He was the one who ordered Prince Peter to be kidnapped. They took both boys because they didn’t know which one was Peter, but someone was supposed to arrive in the morning who would point out Peter.”

“Dochlichter? I don’t know the name,” Ethan answered.

Mark proceeded to give a brief description of the man behind the kidnapping.

“He’s inside; took a bullet from your Pa. One of the corpsmen is tending to him by now.”

“Bring him out here. I want to interrogate him,” Mark ordered.

“Mark, let the army deal with this,” Lucas stated. “We need to get you to a doctor.”

“No! He orchestrated the kidnapping of the prince and my little brother! I want to know why!”

“Mark, they also killed soldiers and stole from the Army. Leave this to Ethan,” Lucas again stated.

“NO!” Mark fired back angrily.

Seeing how agitated his brother-in-law was, Ethan ordered two of his soldiers to bring the one called Dochlichter out to them.

“You have no cause to hold me. I’m a civilian!” the man yelled as the was restrained on both sides by the two soldiers.

“Then you’ll answer to me,” Mark stated as he struggled to stand.

“Boyd, what are you talking about?” Dochlichter asked.

“His name is U.S. Marshal Mark McCain,” Lucas stated, pinning Mark’s badge back on his shirt. “And be thankful he’s the one asking questions. You can thank him for your still being able to breathe.”

Lucas turned his attention away from Mark when he heard more horses riding in, turning he saw Johnny Gibbs approaching, leading Rainmaker and the boys back to the outlaws’ camp.

“Papa,” Little Ted called as he climbed down and ran to Lucas, who held his arms wide, allowing his son to jump into his arms. “Mark, are you okay?” Little Ted called out.

“I’ll be fine, little brother,” Mark answered.

“Little brother? This one isn’t the prince?” Dochlichter asked staring at Little Ted.

“No, he’s not. But he acted as a true defender of the realm when he refused to tell you and those men which one of us you were really after,” Peter answered as Johnny helped him down from Rainmaker.

“Dochlichter, why did you kidnap them? Who put you up to this?” Mark asked.

“I claim diplomatic immunity. You can’t charge me or hold me. I don’t have to answer to the laws of this… pathetic country.”

“Until we can prove who you are, you are under my arrest. Ethan, get one of your soldiers to get him out of my sight,” Mark asked as he started to collapse back to the boulder.

“Mark! You hurt?” Little Ted asked.

“Not really. Just got the wind knocked out of me,” Mark answered.

Knowing he needed to help Mark, but not wanting to alarm Little Ted, Lucas stated, “Little Ted, why don’t you and Uncle Johnny take Peter and go into the building over there and see if you two can get some sleep,” Lucas ordered.

“But Pa?” Little Ted objected.

“Son, please. While we take care of these men, I want you safe.” Looking to Johnny, “Get them inside.”

“Okay, Luke.” Johnny placed one hand on Peter’s shoulder and the other hand on Little Ted’s shoulder and led them to the main building. Once inside, he steered them to a side room where he’d seen a bed through the open door they had started to pass. “Don’t try to fight sleep boys. I saw both of you yawning. Into bed. I’ll wake you in the morning.”

“Uncle Johnny,” Little Ted stated.

“Yes.”

“Is Mark going to be okay?”

“Sure with your Pa and the Army looking after him. He’ll be fine by morning.”

“I was scared,” Little Ted admitted after climbing into the bunk.

Kneeling at the side of the bunk, Johnny stated, “I’m sure you were.”

“I prayed Papa and Mark would come get us. I’m glad you’re here too.”

“I’m glad I’m here too. Now, under the sheet, both of you.”

Johnny smiled as he blew out the lantern on the table and closed the door.

*****

“Mark, we need to get you back to Doc Burrage,” Lucas stated.

“Not yet. We stay here until we find out who put Dochlichter up to the kidnapping.”

“We’ll talk about this when we get them back to North Fork. For now, the least you can do is let one of the corpsmen look at you, bandage your eyes. I want you to get some rest, until whoever it is, arrives.”

“I’ll be fine Pa,” Mark answered.

“As your father, I’m ordering you to get some rest,”

“I’m a U.S. Marshal and this is my case…” Mark started to say but was interrupted.

“I’m a Major in the United States Army, I can declare martial law in effect. Now, listen to Lucas. We’ll wake you as soon as anyone arrives. We need time to clean up this mess and make it look as though nothing happened.”

Even as unwilling as he felt, Mark gave in. Lucas assisted Mark to his feet and helped him make his way to the main building. Mark tripped up the steps when Lucas forgot to warn him to step up.

“Do you two have to barge in here like a herd of buffalo? The boys just got to sleep,” Johnny chastised.

“Sorry Uncle Johnny,” Mark whispered as he held a hand out in front of him, trying to make sure he didn’t bump into anything.

“Johnny, help me get Mark to the cot over there,” Lucas requested.

“Luke?”

“Just a little trouble in seeing,” Mark answered. “I’ll be okay.”

After seeing Mark lie down on the cot, Lucas left the building with Johnny Gibbs right behind him.

“Trouble in seeing? Mark’s blind?”

“He was too close and didn’t get his eyes closed fast enough when I shot the barrel of blasting powder.”

Johnny heard the guilt in Lucas voice. “You couldn’t have known, Luke. If it wasn’t you shooting that barrel, it could have been me or even Ethan. You only shot when you heard Mark yell. How were you supposed to know he was too close?”

“Don’t you think I know that,” Lucas harshly answered.

“I’m sorry Luke,” his voice held remorse.

“No, I’m the one who should be sorry. I shouldn’t have yelled at you. I just wish I knew that Mark was going to be okay.”

*****

As day broke over the canyon, Lucas walked to where Mark slept and observed that other than the soot on his clothing and skin, there was no indication of the trauma inflicted upon his son. Lucas turned quickly at hearing Little Ted and Peter come from the room where they had slept, “Boys, you need to be a little quieter.”

“I’m awake Pa,” Mark stated as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes before he sat up on the cot.

“Boys,” Johnny called as he sat up. “Let’s get you two washed up for the morning.” He took both by the hand and led them out a back door.

“Any change?” Lucas asked as his attention returned to Mark.

“Change… oh, my vision. Well, it’s not pitch black like it was last night. It feels like I’ve got a desert full of sand in my eyes.”

“Well, try not to rub your eyes. I remember Doc telling me that it could make the situation even worse.”

“I’ll try Pa,” Mark answered.

*****

The soldiers in the camp ate a cold breakfast before they sequestered themselves so that any one riding into the camp wouldn’t see them until it was too late. Not too much time had elapsed when those inside the main building looked out the windows to see a lone rider enter the camp.

“Hello inside!” the man yelled.

Johnny Gibbs pushed the two boys to the back of the room and crouched behind a large desk.

“Pa,” Mark stated as he strained to hear the man. “Pa, get me to the window.”

Knowing it was little use to argue with his son, Lucas took Mark by the arm and led him to the window.

“Uncle Henry?” the man called. “Are you in there?”

“Dochlichter’s first name was Henry,” Mark whispered. “Pa, that man sounds like Edgerton.”

“Edgerton, who’s he?” Lucas asked.

“He’s Jennifer’s chief of security. But he left with Jennifer and Wykestrom to go to San Francisco.”

The man stepped from his horse as the front door opened.

“Where’s Dochlichter?” Edgerton asked.

Mark stepped through the door, following behind Lucas.

“Edgerton, you’re under arrest,” Mark announced.

“What are you talking about, Mark? What’s going on here?” Edgerton asked in surprise, panicking as soldiers came from their hiding places, weapons drawn.

“Your attempt to kidnap Peter failed,” Mark answered.

“Why?!” Prince Peter demanded as he ran towards Edgerton and began kicking at him and beating him with his fists.

Johnny was quick to restrain Peter and pulled him from harm’s way.

“Your uncle is in my custody until we can figure out everything. His associates are already on their way to Fort Stanton for crimes against the U.S. Army. Pa, as my deputy, relieve Edgerton of any weapons. He’ll join his uncle for the trip back to North Fork.” Calling back into the main building, “Ethan, can you accompany us back to North Fork?”

“I better, considering my Father is getting married Friday. Annie was livid when she found I was assigned this patrol.”

“Married? I forgot!” Mark exclaimed.

“If we leave within the hour, we should make it back home by noon on Friday,” Lucas announced. “But first, I want your eyes wrapped, Mark. We’ve been lucky the clouds have covered the sun, but I don’t want to take any more chances with your sight.”

*****

As Mark and the few injured soldiers were assisted into one wagon and Edgerton and Dochlichter into another, Little Ted asked, “Papa, do we have to ride in the wagon? If Mark’s going to ride in the wagon, can’t we ride Rainmaker?”

“You’ll need to ask your brother,” Lucas answered.

“Mark? Hey, did you hurt your eyes?” Little Ted asked as he climbed upon the wagon wheel.

“I just got some dirt in them and the army corpsman thought it best to keep my eyes covered until we can get back home and have Doc Burrage take a look at them. I’ll let you ride Rainmaker, but you’ll keep pace with the wagon and ride beside Pa!” Mark ordered. “No racing!”

“Yippee!” both Peter and Little Ted hollered, grabbed each other’s arms and danced around.

After helping the young boys into the saddle, Lucas turned to Mark and said, “You’re taking this a lot better than I remember myself handling the same situation.”

“Pa, I’m scared to death, but I can’t let them see that,” Mark answered as he reached for his Pa’s arm.

“Guess I did the same thing, too.”

Already in the saddle, Johnny Gibbs stopped next to the wagon, “Lucas, we’re not too far from Weed and if I know anything about parenting, Milly’s not had a moment without worry since Little Ted was taken. Why don’t I ride into Weed and send a wire that we have the boys and they’re safe?”

“I’m glad someone is thinking,” Lucas answered. “Go ahead and meet us back on the trail when you can.”

“Uncle Johnny, don’t say anything about me, please. No need worrying Hope until we know for sure.”

“Okay, if that’s the way you want it.”

“It is,” Mark answered as he settled back into buckboard for the return trip to North Fork.

*****

Camp had been set up for their first night and Lucas had made sure that the boys ate a good meal and that he and Peter were snuggled in bedrolls in the back of the wagon. Lucas slowly made his way to Mark and sat down next to him.

“So, you want to tell me the whole story?” Lucas asked.

“The whole story?” Mark answered.

“Your uncle riding with your rife, you riding in your old saddle… Johnny said you received a wire before leaving town. You knew more than you told either of us.”

“Pa, before they left, Wykestrom told me the real reason they wanted to leave Peter with us. They had heard rumors of a kidnapping attempt and presumed it would be upon Jennifer. They wanted him out of harm’s way. Some of the reports they had heard indicated a distant uncle of hers was trying to reclaim the throne. Guess Dochlichter thought they were the usurpers. I still have to figure out who Dochlichter is and how Edgerton ties into this. I don’t think Jennifer or Wykestrom knew about Edgerton…”

“And the wire you received?” Lucas inquired.

“From Tom?” Mark answered back.

“From Tom.”

“He wired that an agent he had undercover lost track of his quarry, but had managed to confirm the potential kidnapping plot. Benton also had another agent helping the Army track down those responsible for stealing supplies. I know it was a long shot, but I put two and two together.”

“And you couldn’t let the two of us in on your theory?” Lucas’ voice held an edge to it.

“Pa, I didn’t know exactly what I was getting us in to. It’s a parent’s obligation to keep their family safe, and you’re my family,” Mark spoke, trying to ease the air between them. “I took a shot in the dark. I’m just thankful that you and Uncle Johnny played your parts right.”

“Shot in the dark? You’re blind because of me,” Lucas demanded.

“No! If I am blind, it’s because I lost concentration in what I had planned. I don’t hold you responsible and I refuse to let you take any blame upon yourself,” Mark argued back.

“Just when did you get so stubborn?” Lucas asked as his voice took on the tone of a father understanding his child is an adult.

“Guess it’s from watching you all these years.” Mark teasingly stated. “Just be thankful I didn’t say it’s something you’ll understand when you’re older.”

*****

The small caravan of travelers pulled into North Fork shortly after daybreak Friday, having traveled later into the night and starting earlier in the morning. The lead wagon stopped in front of the Marshal’s Office with Johnny Gibbs and the Lieutenant ordering their two prisoners inside.

“What about me? I was shot. I demand to see a doctor!” Dochlichter demanded.

“You’ll get to see a doctor after he tends to the others,” Johnny answered.

“This is deplorable! I protest!” Dochlichter argued.

“Protest all you want,” Johnny pushed the two men inside.

The second wagon proceeded to the clinic. Lucas tied Blade and Rainmaker to the hitching rail outside before helping the wounded soldiers get Mark from the wagon.

“Mr. McCain, let the doc see your son first. We can wait,” one of the injured soldiers stated as the two of them took seats in front of the clinic.

“Thanks,” Lucas answered.

“Pa, what about the boys?” Mark asked.

“Let them sleep,” Lucas answered.

“Lucas, I’ll drive the wagon to Father’s. Based on what Johnny said last night, I believe Miss Milly will be there, anxiously waiting to see for herself.”

Ethan barely had the wagon turned around when he saw several people running along the boardwalk. Pulling the team to a halt, Ethan waited as Milly and Seth ran towards him. Ethan, reached around and gently shook Little Ted awake. Rubbing sleep from his eyes, Little Ted rose to his knees and looked to see where they were.

“You’re home, son,” Ethan stated.

“Little Ted!” Milly called upon seeing her son.

Little Ted climbed over the front seat and jumped down, he ran to his mother and proceeded to let her hug him. His Grandpa was soon hugging him, too.

“Oh Little Ted, I was so worried,” Milly cried. “Thank God you’re safe.”

“Mama, I’m sorry you worried,” Little Ted stated.

*****

In the wagon, Peter stood and climbed into the front seat. “Wonder if my mother knows of our little adventure?”

“Little adventure?” Ethan asked as he raised his eyebrows.

“Guess parents wouldn’t see it that way.”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Is that your father with Little Ted?” Peter asked.

“Yes, he is my father.”

From behind them, they turned at hearing, “Peter!” and saw Charles and Amelia running from the entrance of the hotel.

Peter climbed down from the wagon and ran across the street and jumped into his Uncle’s arms and allowed Amelia to smother him with kisses.

*****

Milly finally set Little Ted to the boardwalk and made sure to check to see that he was uninjured.

“Has Doc Burrage looked you over to make sure you’re okay?” Milly asked.

“I don’t need to see Doc Burrage. He’s looking at Mark and two of the soldiers,” Little Ted answered.

“Mark?” Seth asked. “Did he get shot?”

“No, he got dirt in his eyes,” Little Ted replied.

With Little Ted’s hand in hers, Milly headed towards the clinic. Before she could cross the street, Johnny Gibbs exited the Marshal’s Office.

“Johnny, Little Ted said Mark got dirt in his eyes,” Milly worriedly asked.

“Yeah, you could say that,” Johnny answered.

“What happened?” Milly asked. The expression on her face told Johnny she wouldn’t take anything but the truth.

“He was too close to the explosion,” Johnny quietly answered.

“Is he… blind?” Milly asked.

“I… don’t know. He was having trouble seeing right afterwards.”

“How long ago?” Milly’s voice was barely above a whisper.

“Wednesday late night. His vision didn’t improved on the trip home.”

Placing her hand on Johnny’s forearm, she squeezed it, not trusting her voice any more. Milly quickly took Little Ted’s hand and tried to keep the tears from falling as she hurried to the clinic. She remember the day, a dark day in North Fork when a young Mark had raced an injured Lucas to town. Milly remembered standing next to Mark when old Doc Burrage announced, “You see boy… your Pa is blind.” Again she felt her heart sink… ‘What news would this Doc Burrage deliver?’

******

Seth accompanied Milly and Little Ted until he arrived at the front of the hotel, where he stopped to greet his son.

“Father, it’s good to see you,” Ethan addressed his father.

“Cutting it kind of close aren’t you?” Seth replied.

“Well, we didn’t figure we’d get here until afternoon, but we pushed it to get here in time. Are Annie, Seth Edward, and Marissa already here?”

“They arrived Wednesday saying that you had gone out on patrol. How did you meet up with Lucas and Mark?”

“Our cases kind of intertwined. Enough of that, why don’t you help me get the wagon to the livery and then I’d like to see my family.”

*****

“How’s Mark, really?” Seth asked as they unhitched and unharnessed the horses.

“Praying it’s only a temporary blindness. He was too close to a powder keg when he shouted for Lucas to fire. The force of the explosion knocked him backwards and he couldn’t see afterwards.”

*****

With the shades drawn, Doc carefully unwrapped the bandages around Mark’s head.

“Keep your eyes closed Mark,” Thadd stated. ‘Okay, now I’m going to lay you backwards on the table.”

Pulling a bottle containing a liquid solution from one of the cabinets, Thadd returned to the examination table and squeezed the bottle and watched as the fluid inside squirted out the top.

“Mark, I’m going to open your eyes and try to flush out any of the irritants. While I’m doing this, just try to relax,” Thadd stated.

“Okay, Doc.”

After irrigating both of Mark’s eyes, Thadd handed Mark a towel and told him to blot at the water on his face, before he helped him sit up on the table.

Hearing voices outside in the hallway, “Mark keep your eyes closed, I’ll be right back.” Before stepping from the room, Thadd motioned to Lucas to follow him.

Milly anxiously waited in the hallway and hugged Lucas the moment he stepped from the room and asked, “How’s Mark?”

“That’s why I asked you out here Lucas. I need your help,” Thadd stated.

“Name it.”

“I need to find out if his eyes will react to light. When we return inside, I’m going to light a lantern and keep the wick turned low. I want you to hold it close to Mark, but not too close. I don’t want the lantern close enough for him to feel the heat. I’ll hold a mirror to the side of Mark’s face to reflect the light into his eyes. If his eye’s react, we’ll know his blindness is only temporary. If he shies away from the light given off as I move the mirror, then we’ll know he can see some. And only then will I allow the shades in the room to be raised to allow a little bit of sunlight inside.”

Leaving Little Ted with Abigail, Milly, Lucas, and Thadd returned to the examination room.

“Well, Mark… Go ahead and lower the towel. I’m going to open your eyes and I want you to tell me if you can see.”

Milly held her breath as Lucas lit the lantern and Thadd picked up the mirror. She squealed with joy when Mark turned his head away from the mirrored light and flinched.

“Mark, what did you see?” Thadd asked.

“Whiteness,” Mark answered.

“Well, I didn’t exactly expect you to react so quickly. Okay Lucas you can set the lantern on the desk. Mark, I’m going to raise one of the shades just a little bit and you can slowly open your eyes.”

Thadd opened the shade only a few inches. “So what do you see?”

Mark turned his head in the direction of Thadd’s voice.

“I see that we got you out of bed this morning. Nice pajama top,” Mark laughed as he spoke.

“You can really see?” Lucas asked.

“It’s a little blurry and my eyes feel itchy. But yeah, I can see,” Mark answered. “Wouldn’t want to miss seeing my father-in-law walking down the aisle tonight.”

“Mark, tell me the truth. Can you really see?” Milly asked.

“I can see your bloodshot eyes, Ma,” Mark answered as he turned to face Milly.

“Anyone would know that I’ve been crying with everything that’s happened this week,” Milly stated.

“Let’s put it this way, the red of your eyes doesn’t go that well with the yellow flowers on your dress.”

Mark stepped down from the examination table and walked to Milly and wrapped her in his arms, and he held out his hand to his Pa.

“Doc, you have some real patients outside, a couple of soldiers took bullet wounds the other day,” Mark stated as he led Milly and Lucas from the examination room.

“Mark, I’ve not released you yet,” Thadd called. “I still want to flush your eyes, one more time.”

“I’ll be back after I see my family, Doc.”

With Lucas on one side and Milly on the other, they walked into the waiting room. Mark reached forward and picked up his brother as Little Ted ran towards them.

“Doc got the dirt out of your eyes?”

“Sure did. Guess we kind of look like tramps. What do you say that we return to Grandpa Seth’s and get cleaned up?”

“I think he’d like it if we were prespicable for his wedding,” Little Ted answered.

“Prespicable?” Milly asked.

“Yeah, you know, all cleaned up.”

Lucas laughed, “I think you mean presentable.”

“I guess so,” Little Ted replied.

Together they laughed and the McCain’s continued to walk from the clinic.

*****

While North Fork came to life for the morning, word slowly filtered that the missing were safely home.

*****

Upon entering his father-in-law’s home, Mark set Little Ted to the floor and took the stairs two at a time to get to his wife, as she stopped at the top, her hands to her mouth.

Wrapping his wife in his arms, Mark stated, “We made it back with plenty of time to spare.” Pushing his wife out of the way against the wall, Mark made room for his sons and youngest brother as they bolted from one of the bedrooms.

“You’re home!” “How’d ya get away?!” “Are they dead?” “The kidnappers in jail!” were declared as the boys ran down the stairs to greet Little Ted.

*****

Mark took another moment to kiss his wife, “Did you miss me?”

“You know the answer to that. Your eyes?” Hope asked, a little alarmed in seeing the soot covering his clothes and the redness in his eyes.

“Just a little dirt in them. Doc wanted to flush them out one more time…”

“Then why are you here?” Hope demanded.

“Because I just had to see you, the most beautiful person in the world.”

Hope stated, “Ma, if you don’t mind watching the younger children, I’m going to get your oldest child back to the clinic.” She grabbed Mark’s arm and led him down the stairs.

“Ouch, that hurts,” Mark complained.

“And so it should. I declare, you’re so much worse than your children.”

“Guess I should be thankful you grabbed my arm and not my ear,” Mark teased.

“That, can be arranged,” Hope warned.

The Next Step — The Main Events

This is a story based on the TV series The Rifleman
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