The Rifleman
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Fan Fiction

The Next Step…
Chapter 60 - On the Trail
Written by Deanne Bertram

Lucas had been standing on the front porch to his home, enjoying a cup of coffee and watching as the sun set and painted the evening sky. He spotted a rider coming towards their home. Lucas stepped down from the porch as he greeted Tom Benton, as he pulled his horse to a stop.

“Tom! What brings you back to North Fork?” Lucas asked.

“I need to talk with you. old friend,” Tom stated as he stepped down from his horse.

“I don’t think I like the sound of that.”

Milly stepped from the house and greeted Tom and asked him if he’d like a cup of coffee.

“As long as you were the one who brewed it. Uh, Lucas, Milly, can we go inside? We need to talk.”

The three entered the front room.

“Myra, I think its time for bed,” Milly stated as she walked to the table and helped Myra gather her schoolwork and then saw her to her bedroom.

“Okay, ‘old friend’, just what’s up?” Lucas asked as he poured a cup of coffee and handed it to Tom.

“I’ve got a problem.”

“That’s obvious,” Lucas replied without meaning any sarcasm.

“Lucas, I received word of some outlaws trying to start up Skull Ranch again.”

“That is a problem. But why tell me? You’ve got deputy marshals all over the territory,” Lucas replied.

“I know, but…” Tom hesitated when Milly came back to the front room.

“Go on Tom. I don’t keep secrets from my wife.”

“This may be one time you might want to,” Tom answered, then carefully blew over the top of the coffee cup before taking a sip.

“Just spit it out.”

“Lucas, I’ve credible evidence that Artie Rigby and Toby Dahl are there. I don’t think I can ask Mark…”

“No you can’t. You do have a problem. But why not ask your other deputies?”

“Because I don’t want word getting back to Mark.”

“Why don’t you want Mark to know about these outlaws? Isn’t it his job?” Milly asked, confused.

“Milly,” Lucas started. “These two were the ones who almost killed Mark.”

Milly pulled her hand to cover her mouth. Lucas could see the tears starting to form in her eyes as she understood the implications.

“Sorry old pal, but I never rescinded the oath we swore you to when you took over for Mark. You understand why I can’t send Mark out after them. If I have to Lucas, I’ll order you to accompany me.”

“Some pal you are,” Lucas replied, torn one way, knowing he didn’t want to make Mark relive his memories. Mark had finally gotten on with his life. Torn another way, for the lie he and his family was going to have to tell his son.

“Lucas, as far as I know, no one saw me get off the train in North Fork. I stayed in the livestock car with my horse. The conductor opened the door and I was on my way here. I can start ahead of you and make my way to Lordsburg. I can wait for you in Separ.”

It was decided that upon Tom’s arrival in Separ he would send a wire requesting Lucas McCain’s urgent presence in Santa Fe on Cattlemen’s Association business.

*****

While Lucas was gone, Mark took over the duties of escorting Myra to and from school. Mark would normally ride with her to school, but Lucas would come of an afternoon and see her home. With Lucas being gone and Mark having to stay certain nights at the Marshal’s office, it was decided that Myra would spend those nights with Colleen and Johnny and then return to school the next morning. When Mark was done with his shift, Mark would meet his sister at the school, or if he wasn’t there shortly after the dismissal, Mr. Griswald would see her to the daycare. Then Mark would ride home with her. This day, Mark was delayed in heading home by taking a report from one of his deputies. It was late enough that Mark decided to take Myra to the hotel for supper before heading home.

“So, are ye going to get to go trick or treating tomorrow night?” Lou asked.

“I don’t think so. Pa’s away on business and I been helping Ma and Hope with the boys and Mykaela.”

“Tis a shame. But regardless, ye are one beautiful angel! I’m sure your Ma and Hope appreciate every thing ye do for them.” Lou smiled and left to tend to other patrons.

*****

Mark and Myra bid Lou goodnight and started for home. The temperature had dropped while they were in the restaurant so Mark gave Myra his jacket and made sure she was wrapped in it as well as he could. As they rode homeward, the sky darkened and the wind blew in a fury. Mark grabbed Blue Boy’s rein and kicked the horses into a faster pace. They were more than half way home when the thunderstorm struck. Mark knew of a large cave where they and their horses could take refuge and wait out the storm.

As they approached the cave, a lightning bolt illuminated the landscape and Mark saw a figure crouched about fifty yards from the opening of the cave. Over the noise of the rain and thunder, Mark yelled, “Gabby, take Blue Boy and get in that cave. I’ll be there in a minute!”

Mark watched as his sister rode into the cave and then disappeared. Mark stepped down from his horse a short distance away from the crouching figure.

“I’m not here to hurt you!” he yelled. “Come on! Let’s get you inside the cave and out of this rain!”

As the next bolt of lightning flashed, Mark saw the gleam of a knife blade. He kept his distance, “I only want to help you. I’m a U.S. Marshal!” He pulled his badge from his shirt and held it out to the person.

Mark saw the knife placed on the ground and he tentatively stepped closer. He held out his hand to help the person up. In the next flash of lightning, Mark realized the reason the person hadn’t moved, their foot was caught in a bear trap. Mark dropped to his knees and attempted to pry open the blades of the trap. He said a quick prayer, thankful that it wasn’t a jagged trap, but still, the force of the blades snapping closed could very well break the ankle of a person. Finally he was able to free the person. Not hesitating, he picked the person up, threw them over his shoulder, and carried them into the cave. He set the person down against the wall and ran back out into the storm for Copper.

Mark had discovered the cave years previously and had stocked it with dry wood for just such an occasion. He’d remembered once, a long time ago, of being caught out in a storm and not being able to find any dry wood to start a fire once he was safely inside the cave. He started a small fire and made sure Myra and the stranger would be warm enough. Next he stripped the horses of their gear. He returned to the fire carrying the water canteens and offered one to their ‘guest’.

“I’m sorry I don’t have any fixings for coffee, but at least the water will quench your thirst.”

The hand that Mark saw reach for the canteen was petite and delicate looking, but he could also see the dirt and scratches upon it.

“My name’s Mark McCain and this is my sister Myra. I’d like to take a look at your ankle, check to see if it’s broken?”

Mark waited to see how the ‘girl’ would react.

“It’s okay. My brother’s a Marshal. He also knows how to help doctor people,” Myra spoke.

“My name is Gwenivere Shawnesee,” the girl spoke in a soft voice, a voice that also held tears.

“Pleased to meet you Gwenivere,” Mark replied as the girl moved her leg for Mark to look at it.

Even without removing her short boot, Mark could tell the ankle was broken. He went to his log pile and found a few pieces that he felt would do as splints. He pulled his bandanna from his back pocket and removed his belt to use to secure the splints once they were around Gwenivere’s ankle.

“It can’t be helped, but this is going to hurt. I need to set your leg before I can splint it.”

Mark watched as the girl nodded and closed her eyes. He saw her ball her fists. Mark acted quickly to set the ankle. The girl couldn’t hold her scream from the pain, nor the tears falling down her cheeks. Myra knelt beside the girl, trying to comfort her.

Once the ankle was set and splinted, Mark said, “Sorry, it’s rather crude, but once the storm subsides, I’ll get you to our home and then head back to North Fork and get our doctor.”

Mark stood and walked to get a few more pieces of wood to place on the fire. He’d seen the girl starting to shiver and knew that Myra probably was cold, too. Mark stood watch with his rifle in his folded arms at the entrance to the cave; wanting to make sure they didn’t have any unexpected visitors – man or beast. He listened to Myra telling Gwenivere of their life at the ranch and of going to school. He’d look back inside every now and then and smiled at how strong his sister was behaving. It had been a little while since he had heard anything from either of the girls when he looked back and saw both girls, curled up asleep. Mark sat down and sent up a quiet prayer hoping that in some way it could offer some comfort to his family, knowing they must be worried about Myra and him.

As time passed and the storm continued to rage on, Mark remembered back to the last time he’d been caught out in such a fierce storm. He had been just shy of fifteen when he tried to rescue a young girl and the two of them had been swept away in a flash flood. Mark couldn’t stop the shivers caused by the memories of the outlaws who had found them and then forced Mark to take up a hand gun, playing a practical joke on him. Telling him, he was now one of them. The only things that got him through those dark days were taking care of Sarah McCafferty and praying the two of them would, somehow, be reunited with their families. Now here he was again, caught out in a storm, but this time, he had his sister in addition to a stranger to try to keep safe.

While Mark, Myra and Gwenivere waited out the storm in the cave, Lucas and Tom were entering into a storm themselves.

*****

Night had fallen as Tom and Lucas arrived in Lordsburg and headed straight for the Sheriff’s. They observed that most of the businesses were dark. The only one besides the hotel that showed any activity was the saloon. They halted their horses and tied them to the hitching rail in front of the Sheriff’s Office and entered to find the Sheriff sitting at his desk reading over some wanted posters.

He looked up, “Good eve…” he hesitated. “McCain?” he asked as he struggled with the recognition. “Lucas McCain! Good to see you!” The Sheriff stood from his desk, walked around and extended his hand.

“Good to see you again Sheriff Mercer. I’d like to introduce a friend of mine, U.S. Marshal Tom Benton.”

After introductions were made and pleasantries exchanged, they got down to business. Tom explained that the U.S. Marshals had received word that Skull Ranch was being re-established.

“I know, I have one of them locked up in my cell. Funny though, he don’t act like any of the others I’ve had to deal with.”

“How so?” Tom asked.

“The others, they’re boisterous, loud, and obnoxious. This one, he stands proud, a loner, but quiet… Got me on edge, like he’s planning something. I don’t like it.”

“Why’d you arrest him?” Lucas asked.

“That’s just it. Strangest thing, he was disturbing the peace and falling down drunk, passed out in the middle of main street. Other than sliding food into him, I ain’t been back there since I put him there last night. Didn’t want to get caught in a trap.”

“Do you know who he is?” Tom asked.

“Naw. Ain’t seen no poster on him, but you don’t stay at the Skull Ranch for your health. You know that better than anyone Mr. McCain.”

Tom looked to his friend, “Lucas? Care to explain?”

“Tom, don’t look at me that way. Mark and I had come out this way hunting, think he was thirteen, maybe fourteen. Anyway, I’d left Mark at camp, working on his studies while I went out and scouted around. When I arrived back at camp, Mark wasn’t there. I got worried. I searched around but lost track of him in the high rocks. I rode out looking for a ranch, for any one to help me find Mark... Before I knew it, I had a number of guns pointed at me and was being ‘escorted’ to the main house. That’s when I met Holt Coyle. I begged for them to send someone out to help me find Mark. He was just a boy… I didn’t know it at the time, but he had sent men out to look for Mark. And they found him. Anyway, Coyle had heard about me and my rifle, planned for me to be the ‘executioner’ when he headed to town to get some of his men out of jail. Threatened they’d kill me and the boy, if I didn’t do exactly as they said.”

The sheriff continued the story, “My man, Applegate, had gone to Las Cruces to see if he could get any men we could deputize to help out. He returned to town with a half drowned boy, telling a wild tale about him and his Pa being held captive at Skull Ranch. I couldn’t believe it when Mr. McCain took on the whole bunch he rode in with him after he saw that his boy was safe. Never seen nothing like it before and nothing since.” Mercer shook his head. “So you two, just the two of you are here to clean out Skull Ranch again?”

“Depends on who all’s there,” Tom answered. “We’re looking for two men, Artie Rigby and Toby Dahl.”

“I seem to have heard those names. What are they wanted for?”

“Attempted murder of a U.S. Marshal,” Tom replied. “Well, would you like for me to interrogate your prisoner? He might have vital information we could use.”

“Be my guest.”

Mercer opened the door and let Tom and Lucas into the cell area of his jail. They approached the cell and saw a man lying on his side, with his back to the door.

“Wake up!” the sheriff hollered. “You have visitors.”

The man slowly began moving, stretching his arms. They heard him yawn before he rolled over and sat up. The man scratched the back of his head and stretched his arms again and then raised his head and bent it from side to side. Lucas jumped at the cell, “It can’t be!”

The man opened his eyes and looked at his visitors, “Mr. McCain? Marshal Benton?”

“I can’t believe you turned outlaw! Grid Maule, how?” Lucas asked, surprise in his voice. “I thought you had changed. I thought you were going to make a respectable life for yourself.”

“Mr. McCain, if you’d let me explain…”

“You two know each other?” Tom asked, looking to Grid.

“It was Mr. McCain who I wanted to kill when I was fourteen. I even tried to force his son into a gun fight, believe me when I say it was with unloaded guns. He and the Marshal were all ready to send me back East to a school for troubled youths.”

“Guess we should have at that!” Lucas stated in disgust.

“No, you did right Mr. McCain. Actually, it was your boy who did right.” Grid stood up and walked to the bars. “Mr. McCain, you remember your boy talking to me?” Lucas nodded. “He got me to seeing how I was wrong. He got me to seeing how it very well could have been the other way around. That he could have been the one gunning for me. After I rode from town, I got to thinking, and… I know my choices were my own, but I realized, one day, I’d have to answer for them, right, wrong, or indifferent, I’d have to answer for what I did. And it wasn’t to you, the marshal, or a judge and jury. But to God, I’d have to answer to God. It meant a lot to me that your boy told me, a stranger who had threatened his life as well as your life, that he was sorry my Pa was dead. That’s why I went back to your home that night. I needed you to know that… it mattered.”

Lucas took a step back, he finally began listening not just to what Grid was saying, but how he said it.

“I returned to Oklahoma Territory and started to finish my schooling. There was a store owner in my home town that had lost his son to sickness. He found me one night, trying to study on my own in the livery. We got to talking. He offered me a place to live in exchange that I would help him out in the store, after my studies were done. He knew how good I was with my guns and told me that there were conditions to his offer. I had to agree to put away my guns, until I turned eighteen. And then, he said he’d pay for me to attend college, but if I wanted to take up my guns again, I had to go into law enforcement. I had to stand up for what’s right.”

“But you’re in jail!” Lucas said.

“Lucas,” Tom spoke. “Easy.”

“You know this man?” Lucas asked, turning to Tom.

“Yeah, he’s my credible witness.”

“Your witness?” Lucas asked, confused.

“Mr. McCain, I’m a Deputy U.S. Marshal. Marshal Benton sent me in from Oklahoma to help him on this case. He needed someone who wasn’t known in these parts.”

“Deputy Marshal?” Lucas asked again.

“Yes. Sheriff, if you don’t mind. Would you let my deputy out of your jail?”

As Sheriff Mercer opened the door to the cell, Grid spoke, “Getting thrown in jail was the only way I knew that I could speak with whoever the Marshal Service sent and those at Skull not get spooked.”

The group walked to the front of the sheriff’s office and Grid took his guns from the sheriff.

“Mr. McCain, how is Mark? I mean…” Grid asked.

“I know what you mean Grid. He’s a grown man, like you are,” Lucas replied.

“Hope he followed your boot prints and went into ranching,” Grid spoke as he strapped his guns to his legs.

“Grid, you’re more alike than you know. The two men you wired me about? They’re wanted for attempted murder on Mark’s life,” Tom replied.

Grid was shocked at the news.

“I thought you said they were wanted for attempted murder on a U.S. Marshal,” Sheriff Mercer stated.

“They are. Mark McCain’s the U.S. Marshal assigned to this territory,” Tom answered.

*****

The storm had broken long before the sun rose over the hills. Mark stood and stretched, tried to massage at his aching back. He walked to where Myra and Gwenivere slept. He gently shook Myra’s shoulder to wake her.

“Come on sleepy head, time I got you home. Ma must be having a fit worrying about you,” Mark stated as Myra sat up and wiped the sleep from her eyes.

Next he walked to where Gwenivere slept, carefully he put a hand to her shoulder, she bolted wide awake.

“It’s okay. It’s just morning time. Time to get you home and then fetch the doc for you. Sorry, I only have a little jerky in my saddle bags, but it’ll have to do you and Gabby until I can get you home and fix some real food.”

Mark walked to his saddle bags and pulled out the jerky, picked up the canteens and took them back to the girls. He kicked dirt to extinguish the fire and then stomped it out. He returned and begun saddling the horses.

Myra walked over and tugged on Marks pant leg, “Mark?”

“Yes, Gabby,” Mark replied as he worked to tighten the cinch on Blue Boy’s saddle.

“Is Mama going to be mad at me?”

“No, but she’ll probably be riled at me for getting you into this mess.”

Mark and Myra led the horses out the opening of the cave. Mark helped Myra up into the saddle and handed Copper’s reins to her, “Here, you hold on to Copper until I get Gwenivere in the saddle.”

Mark walked inside and returned carrying the girl in his arms. He lifted the girl up into his saddle, then swung up behind her.

*****

Milly was on the front porch shaking out the rug when she saw the riders coming into the yard. She ran out as she recognized them and saw the sad state of their clothing, “Myra! Mark! What happened?”

“Mama, we got caught in the storm last night and Mark led us to a cave and he found Gwenivere and he fixed her leg and…” Myra stated, her words rushing out and she jumped down from Blue Boy and ran to hug her Ma.

“Hold on there one minute young lady!” Milly stated.

“Ma, I’m real sorry. I got delayed in town and figured it was late enough that I needed to feed Gabby so we stopped by the restaurant and had supper, then when we were heading home, the storm let loose on us and I didn’t want to risk coming the rest of the way home last night. I’m sorry Ma. I really didn’t mean to worry you,” Mark said as he climbed down from Copper.

Once both his feet were on the ground he heard Hope calling his name. He turned to see her running across the yard towards him; he pulled her into his embrace.

“Hope, would you mind. Myra and I found Gwenivere out in the storm last night. She’d stepped in a bear trap.”

“Mark, get her down from Copper and bring her into the house right now!” Hope ordered.

Mark reached up and carried Gwenivere into their home and followed Hope into their bedroom.

“Go on now, go fetch Doc Burrage,” Hope told him. “Let me tend to her. Git!”

Mark returned to the horses. He led Blue Boy into the barn, unsaddled him, and then turned him loose in the corral. Mark exited the barn and then swung up into the saddle, seeing his Ma walk from her home towards him, he called, “I’ll be back, Ma, and we can talk, after I get Doc Burrage.”

He kicked Copper into a lope and rode for town. Upon his arrival he was informed that Doc Burrage was due back anytime from Oat Jackford’s place. Seems Oat wasn’t paying that good of attention to where he was walking and took a hard fall.

Mark waited outside the clinic until he saw a friend of his Pa’s walking by, “Mr. Galveston?” he called.

The man stopped and turned, “Yes? May I help you… Marshal?”

“Mr. Galveston, I’m Mark McCain, Lucas McCain is my father,” Mark answered hoping the man would recognize him.

“Oh, my, it’s been quite a while since we’ve seen each other. You sure have grown up. How may I help you?”

“I thought Pa was with you up in Santa Fe.”

“No, I haven’t been in Santa Fe for…for almost a year.”

“Ma said that Pa received a wire, saying there was urgent Cattlemen Association business and he had to leave to head to Santa Fe.”

“Nothing that I’m aware of. In fact, we’re going to have great news at the next Association Meeting after the first of the year.”

“Well, maybe I misunderstood Ma. It was a pleasure seeing you again sir. I hope you enjoy your stay in North Fork.”

Mr. Galveston tipped his hat and continued on to the hotel. Mark headed for the telegraph office.

“Amos,” he called as he entered. “Oh, excuse me, Mrs. Marris.”

“No need Marshal. I’m done with my business,” she replied as she turned and walked out the door. “Tell you mother and your wife that I hope to see them Sunday at the social.”

“Yes Ma’am.”

“Well now, Mark,” Amos stated. “How can I help you? Personal or official business?”

“You tell me Amos. The wire Pa received calling him to Santa Fe, where’d it come from?”

“Well, I thought it was funny that the wire called him to Santa Fe when it originated in Separ. I mean, if someone’s planning to meet him in Santa Fe, I expect they’d be in Santa Fe, considering Separ is a might bit closer to North Fork.”

“Separ… Who was it from?”

“I don’t rightly remember,” Amos answered as he went about trying to straighten the papers on his desk.

“Amos, you remember more details than anybody about anything. Come on, there’s a chance that Pa’s been lured into a trap. I have to know!”

“Mark, you know that anything I get off the telegraph is confidential between the sending party and the receiving party. I just can’t,” Amos declared.

“I can arrest you for withholding information…” Mark threatened.

“Well, two nights before the wire arrived, I saw Tom Benton lead his horse off the train and then ride out of town. I thought it was funny that he’d head out the direction towards your ranch when you was at the Marshal’s Office that night. Then the wire came, two mornings later, and was initialed T.B.”

“Tom Benton, here?” Mark ran from the telegraph office and back to the clinic. Thadd was just arriving as Mark grabbed for Copper’s reins.

“Thadd, we have a slight emergency out at the ranch.”

“One of the children?” Thadd asked.

“No, I found a stranger out on the road last night during the storm and she’d stepped in a bear trap. Her ankle is broken.”

“Okay, give me a few minutes to get my things together and I’ll ride back with you.”

“Thadd, something’s come up and I need to get home fast. I can’t wait for you,” Mark replied as he swung up into the saddle and ran Copper from town.

*****

Mark noticed that Myra had been bathed and had changed her clothes as he entered his parents’ home.

“Ma, where’s Pa?” he asked, as he walked to the kitchen.

“You know he’s up in Santa Fe on Cattlemen Association business.”

“That’s quite interesting since Mr. Galveston is here in North Fork and isn’t expecting any meeting until after the first of the year. Said he didn’t know anything about any emergency. I’ll ask you again, where’s Pa?”

“Mark…”

“Ma, what was Tom Benton doing here last week?”

“Tom Benton? Here?” Milly panicked.

Mark walked over and placed a hand on Milly’s shoulder, then placed his other hand beneath her chin and raised it so he could look her in the eyes.

“Ma, what are Tom Benton and Pa up to? Where are they?”

“I can’t Mark. Your father wanted to protect you. He’d die if he knew you found out.” Tears started welling in Milly’s eyes.

“Find out what?” Mark demanded.

“When Tom and Johnny deputized your Pa, back in the summer, Tom never rescinded the oath after you returned to duty. Your father is still considered a Deputy U.S. Marshal,” Milly said as she turned her head and walked away.

“What does this have to do with why Tom returned to North Fork and why Pa isn’t here?”

“Uncle Tom found a skeleton,” Myra called from sitting at the table.

“A skeleton?” Mark repeated.

“Myra!” Milly reprimanded.

“He did!” Myra proclaimed. “I heard him and Papa. I couldn’t sleep and I heard him talking about skulls and such.”

“Skulls… Skulls?… Skull Ranch! Ma, Tom and Pa are headed to Skull Ranch?! Is that what you’re hiding from me?”

“Part,” Milly answered as she sat down in her chair.

“What’s the rest? And don’t tell me you don’t know. I know Pa doesn’t keep anything from you.”

“Tom came here last week needing your father’s help. He had word that the Skull Ranch was being re-organized.”

“Why come to Pa and not to me? I’m the marshal in this territory.”

“Because two men he was looking for were there. He was torn about asking you to go and your father agreed he shouldn’t.” Milly slumped her shoulders and hung her head as she spoke.

“Who were the two men?!” Mark demanded.

“Mark, please? Don’t make me tell you their names,” Milly pleaded.

“Why? Who are they? ”

“They’re the men who tried to kill you, Rigby and Dahl,” Hope spoke from the doorway. “Thadd just arrived and is taking care of Gwenivere. Mark, your father didn’t want you to have to relive those memories.”

“Rigby and Dahl, the one’s who tired to kill me AND YOUR FATHER!” Mark yelled towards Hope. Then turning to Milly, “You both knew?!”

“Mark, you’re alive and living your life. We couldn’t stand to see you pulled down again!” Milly begged.

“So Tom Benton shows up and coerces my father to accompany him? If those two had no qualms about trying to kill a U.S. Marshal and a deputy marshal in North Fork, what makes you think they won’t try it again, in Lordsburg? Huh?! This is my territory! None of you had the right to withhold this information from me! NONE OF YOU!”

Mark stormed from his parents’ home, Hope followed, begging for Mark to understand. He pulled his saddle bags down from Copper and headed to his home.

“Understand, my father is out there trying to do MY JOB because everyone was scared about ME?!” Mark demanded.

“No Mark! Not scared. We were worried, concerned. Mark, you’ve put your life back together, we didn’t …”

“You didn’t think I could handle my job? Then what have I been doing since I was just shy of seventeen? Have I been a joke to all of you? Look at the boy thinking he’s a Marshal?”

“Mark, you’re not thinking rational,” Hope declared.

“No, I’m scared for my father. That he’s going to get killed because no one had faith in me. Seems I’m the only one who cares about him!”

Mark threw several clean shirts and some supplies into his saddle bags. From the locked cabinet he pulled several boxes of cartridges.

“Mark! That’s not fair!” Hope yelled back.

“Fair? Fair?” He returned outside and mounted Copper, “I’ll be home after I find my father! Just pray I’m not too late!”

Mark roughly turned Copper around and rode for Lordsburg.

*****

“So, seeing as how this is your show,” Lucas spoke. “Just how do we proceed from here?”

“I don’t rightly know,” Grid answered.

“How many are there?” Tom asked.

“There were only a dozen, besides me. I was advised to get in, look around, take a count, and get out. Also was told to be on the lookout for those two.”

“Did you spend enough time at the Skull to find out who else is there?” Tom asked.

“Sure, Black Jack Ketchum and his brother, Sam. There was Will Carver and Ben Kilpatrick and Elza Lay. There were three others, but they weren’t any recognizable names.”

“I know Ben Kilpatrick rode with Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch. Didn’t figure he’d team up with another gang,” Tom replied.

“You figure to have Grid get us back inside?” Lucas asked.

“He’d have to come up with one hell of a good reason for being able to escape from my jail,” Sheriff Mercer offered.

“What if we wire for other Deputy U.S. Marshals to meet us here? We can surely take out those at the Skull,” Grid commented.

“May not be that bad of an idea. Lucas, what do you think?” Tom asked.

“If we do this, we have to get them out in the open,” Lucas replied.

Tom and Lucas headed to the telegraph office and sent a wire out for any and all Deputy Marshals to make their way to Lordsburg, by nightfall the next night.

*****

By the following evening, six additional Deputy U.S. Marshals were waiting in the livery. Tom indicated that everyone was to mount up and ride. They rode hard and fast from Lordsburg. In their haste, they missed seeing two men ride into town from an alleyway. The newcomers heard the posse riding hard and fast and held to the shadows.

“Well Dahl, seems we did right in coming to town. Ketchum and the others are gonna get caught tonight.”

Once they were sure the posse was well beyond seeing them, they rode from the shadows and pulled up at the saloon.

“Let’s go have some fun!” Dahl replied.

*****

Nearing midnight, a solitary rider entered town. He stopped his horse in front of the Sheriff’s Office and noticed no one was inside. He pulled his rifle from his scabbard and carefully, proceeded further into town. He stepped down from his horse and looped the reins over the hitching rail in front of the General Store, just across the street from the saloon. He walked across the road and looked over the doors. Above the noise, he heard the laugh and then tried to find the man who went with it. He located the man standing at the far end of the bar. He recognized the man standing beside him as well. Taking a deep breath, he entered the saloon, rifle at the ready.

The noise in the saloon quieted as one by one the patrons realized someone new, of authority, had entered. As he passed each table, he thumbed over his shoulder indicating those people had best get out.

“Hey, what happened to the music?” the shorter man called, slurring his speech.

“I told him to get out.”

“And just who do you think you are breaking up our fun?”

“I’m the one who’s going to see you finally jailed.”

“Jailed,” the taller of the two asked. “Try it. Others have. One got stuck like a pig, the last time.” The man roared out a hollow, drunken laugh.

From the corner of his eye, the rider saw the saloon keeper reach under the bar top. “I wouldn’t if I were you. Unless you want brought up on Federal charges,” said the rider as he kept his rifle trained on the two men at the end of the bar. He saw the saloon keeper jump the bar and head out the front doors.

“So, just you left. How do you expect to see both of us to the jail?”

“I can just as soon plug both of you and drag you to the undertakers. Better yet, I heard a mean sow over by the livery. Maybe I’ll drag your sorry carcasses and feed you to her.”

“Hey Rigby, he thinks he’s gonna get the better of us.”

“Shut up!”

“So, it’s your call,” the rider cocked his rifle. In the silence of the stilled saloon, it was loud.

The shorter of the two men charged the rider. The rider slammed the stock of his rifle across the side of the man’s face and watched him drop to the ground. He spun around and fired one shot as the tall man cleared his holster with his gun. He dropped hold of his gun as the bullet shattered his wrist.

“What the hell?” Rigby called, as he held his broken wrist to his stomach.

The rider kept his rifle trained on Rigby as he stepped over Dahl. Several towns’ people had watched the events unfold through the saloon windows and started back inside. He approached Rigby and stepped behind him. He planted his rifle at the base of Rigby’s spine.

“I can just as quickly pull this trigger as you can flinch. Your call, if you live or die tonight.”

The rider reached up and pulled the hidden knife from the collar of Rigby’s shirt and slid it along the bar top.

“Next time you try to kill a man, make sure he’s good and dead before you ride away.”

With that, the rider swiftly used the butt of his rifle and hit the man up the backside of his head, knocking him out cold. A murmur went through the crowd, they heard the cold tone of the rider’s voice.

He pulled open his jacket and showed those inside his U.S. Marshal’s badge, “I’m ordering you upstanding citizens to drag their carcasses to the jail.”

****

One lone man from Lordsburg remained in the Sheriff’s Office after everyone else had left.

“Those two are from Skull Ranch,” the older man stated.

“Your Sheriff, where is he?” the Marshal asked.

“He and a U.S. Marshal and a bunch of deputies headed out to Skull earlier this evening, I heard.”

“Thank you Mr. Applegate. Head on back to your family,” the Marshal said.

“You know me?” Applegate asked.

“You saved my life once. Just go home.”

“Marshal?”

The marshal motioned him away.

Applegate left the office as the Marshal stood and stared out the window. Applegate tried to remember when he would have saved the life of a U.S. Marshal.

*****

The posse rode from Lordsburg. When they arrived at Skull Ranch, they spread out. Each man kept an eye out for signs of an ambush. They cautiously arrived at the main house to find it dark. After searching the property, they found no one there. The barn was even empty of horses.

“I don’t get it,” Benton stated. “What happened? Where’d everyone go?”

“It’s like they knew we were coming and disappeared,” a deputy stated as he returned to the group.

“There’s even food left on the table,” another reported.

“Grid,” Tom spoke. “Do you think your being thrown in jail could have spooked them? Could they have figure out you’re a lawman?”

“How could it? I didn’t come begging them to let me in.”

“Just how did you get inside?” Lucas asked.

“I was doing what I needed and stopped at the saloon. One of them, I think his name was Angel Chavez, bumped into me and I drew on him. That caused the saloon to quiet down considerably. Later that night, they cornered me on the street, said they didn’t know of too many cowboys who wore double guns slung so low. I told them what I did with my guns was my business and I didn’t appreciate anything they were insinuating.”

“And they invited you to Skull?” Tom asked.

Grid didn’t answer. He slowly kept his eyes on the move, trying to figure out what could have spooked the outlaws to leave in such a hurry.

“If he affected the attitude he had when we first met…” Lucas commented. “It would be easy for anyone to think Grid was on the wrong side of the law.”

Tom asked Grid, “While you were here, was there any time where the entire gang left the property?”

“Naw, no more than three or four were gone at any one time,” Grid answered.

“Don’t make any sense,” Tom stated. “They just up and left.”

“We can be thankful that no one lost their lives or was wounded tonight,” Lucas commented.

“Amen to that,” another voice said.

“Grid, we’ll talk once we get back to the Sheriff’s Office,” Tom said. “I want to know everything that happened once you arrived at Skull.”

Tom turned to the group and told everyone to mount up. As they rode back to Lordsburg, Tom mulled over in his mind how he was going to write up this report. All the manpower he had pulled to Lordsburg to get this gang and not one member could be accounted for.

*****

Those in the posse, not from Lordsburg, stopped at the hotel and took rooms for the night. The Sheriff proceeded on to his office. Wearily he sat on his horse before noticing the lanterns inside were lit. Slowly he stepped down from his horse and entered his office. He saw a man sitting behind his desk, writing.

“Excuse me, but that’s my desk you’re behind,” Sheriff Mercer stated.

“Sorry for the intrusion Sheriff, but I was just writing you a note and getting ready to head to the hotel. Did you have any casualties tonight? I heard you and a group of U.S. Marshals headed out to the Skull Ranch.”

“We did. But when we got to Skull, it was empty. They vanished. Maybe we’ll return tomorrow and try to trail them,” the Sheriff stated as he noticed the badge the man wore. “Sorry you made your trip for nothing and we left before you arrived.”

“I wasn’t invited. Lucas McCain and Tom Benton, you know where they are?”

“Yeah, they’re over at the hotel.”

The Marshal stood from the desk, picked his hat up and placed it on his head, then picked up his rifle.

“I know you from somewhere?” Mercer asked.

“Some when,” he spoke as he walked to the door. “Oh, I have two prisoners in your jail cells. In the morning, tell Marshal Benton they’re a present for him and McCain.”

“Should I tell them who left them these ‘presents’?”

“They’ll know.”

He walked out the door and pulled it closed behind him.

*****

The hotel owner was just stepping from behind the counter when he saw one more Marshal enter, “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought I had rooms for everyone already assigned.”

“No problem, I didn’t come with them.”

“Then you be the one who took out the two in the saloon?”

“I was. Did you say anything to the others?”

“Others? Oh, no, weren’t my business to mess in Marshal business.”

The hotel owner turned the register around so he could look at the name written – Mark McCain, North Fork, NM.

“McCain, you any relation to the other McCain? Guess you have to be, since you’re both from North Fork. I can give you a second key to his room, if you want. Or I can give you your own room?”

“I’ll take my own room.” With that, he took the key and headed to the room third floor, back side.

*****

The following morning, Tom and Lucas headed to the Sheriff’s Office.

“Morning Sheriff,” Lucas called as they entered.

“Morning. I got two presents locked up for you. I’m just about to check in on Doc. He should almost be done looking them over one more time.”

Lucas and Tom looked at each other and then back to Mercer. They watched as he took the keys and walked back into the cell area, they followed.

“Let us out of here!” Rigby demanded. “We’re gonna press charges against that Marshal. He had no right to shoot me!”

“I heard from witnesses that he had every right. Your buddy tried to assault him first and then you tried to draw your handgun,” Mercer replied.

“Sheriff, let me out of here,” Doc said as he stood and stepped to the door. The Sheriff closed and locked the door behind him. “He’ll never hold a gun in that hand again. You know Sheriff, from what I heard tell from those who saw it last night, no one’s ever seen anyone as good with the rifle. Other than that Rifleman who was here a number of years back.”

“The Marshal who left us these presents?” Tom asked. “Who was he? Did he leave his name?”

“Not exactly. He looked familiar and when I asked him if I knew him from somewhere, he said some when. Then told me you’d know who he was when you saw the prisoners.”

Lucas’ heart dropped, “He couldn’t have. It couldn’t be.”

“Lucas I’m sure he’s back in North Fork,” Tom replied.

“Can you describe him? Where is he?” Lucas asked.

“Mid-twenties, dark haired. I don’t know exactly. He was a Marshal for sakes,” Mercer replied. “Last I saw him, he was heading to the hotel last night.”

Lucas and Tom turned and ran to the hotel. A different clerk waited behind the counter than from the night before. He started to protest as they turned the register around and looked at the last name entered.

“That’s p-private in-information,” the clerk stammered out.

“What room?” Lucas demanded.

“Room?” the clerk replied.

“Mark McCain, he registered here last night after we did. What room?” Tom demanded.

“He ain’t here no more. He checked out shortly after you headed to the Sheriff’s Office, said I was to give you this if you came back looking.” The clerk bent down and pulled out an envelope from a shelf on the back side of the front counter.

Lucas tore open the envelope and pulled out a badge bearing the stamp of U.S. Marshal.

“Damn!” Tom replied and slammed his fist on the counter top.

“Tom, I have to go after him. But…”

“Lucas, I can get Grid and one of the other deputies to help me get these two back to North Fork.”

“North Fork?!” Lucas inquired. The tone in his voice indicated his displeasure at hearing these two would be brought to his home town.

“Lucas, we took Red Evans to Denver because that’s where he was originally wanted on Federal charges. Rigby and Dahl, their crimes occurred in North Fork. I’ll wire Marshal Barker and start the paperwork to have a Federal Judge be sent down to North Fork to preside over the trial.”

“I don’t want them near my family!” Lucas demanded as he pointed to Tom.

“Lucas, it can’t be helped. Unless their attorney requests a change of venue, their warrants are sworn out of North Fork and that’s where the trial will have to be. I’m sorry Lucas. If it could be any other way… You best track down Mark.”

Lucas stood, mournfully aware of the hurt they had caused his son.

“Lucas, it wasn’t only you. I guess none of us were ready to admit that Mark has grown up and can handle more than we think he can. We were all so worried about him slipping back into his depression. I guess we should have been more concerned about ourselves and given him more credit for his comeback. When you find him, give him back his badge. I won’t accept his resignation.”

Lucas rode for home.

*****

Tom and Grid returned to the Sheriff’s Office after sending the wire to Denver, informing Cole Barker the two responsible for the attempted murder on Mark McCain and Seth Lane were in custody. They wired they would wait in Lordsburg for instructions, before returning the prisoners to North Fork. As they entered, Grid took note of the layout of the Sheriff’s Office, the solid door that lead to the cell area. He noted the Sheriff’s desk just to the side of the closed door. He looked over the placement of the file cabinets and the lone table, next to the window, the farther corner from the jail cell door. They helped themselves to a cup of coffee.

“If you want, I’ve some cream in the cold box in back,” Mercer offered.

“Naw, been drinking it black since I was ten. Besides thinking on revenge, it was the only thing that kept me awake while I was learning how to handle my guns.”

Mercer took a hard look at Grid as he took a seat on the table. Benton took a seat in front of the Sheriff’s desk. Grid proceeded to tell Benton and Mercer what happened, after he arrived at Skull Ranch. He talked quietly, not letting his words reach beyond the room, he talked without emotion. “Like I said, I arrived in Lordsburg, didn’t ask any questions, kept to myself, but they took it upon themselves to think I was an outlaw and invited me to Skull. Once there, they showed me around and told me to make myself at home. I didn’t do anything to make them think I was a lawman. I’ve had to infiltrate gangs before. I know how to do my job.”

“Did you hear them doing any talking?” Mercer asked.

“Sure there was plenty of talking going on. But nothing that would incriminate anyone or stand up in a court of law. Most of it was hearsay,” Grid responded.

“Why would they just up and leave? They had to be planning something?” Mercer stated.

“No one said anything that would make me think they was planning a job, least not while I was around,” Grid spoke.

“Could they have been on to you from the beginning, keep your allies close and your enemies closer?” Benton asked.

“You sent me down here, said I wasn’t known in these parts. You figure it out,” Grid coolly answered. His voice displaying an attitude that he didn’t ‘mess up’ this assignment.

“Did you hear any names while you were there? Names of people who weren’t known outlaws?”

“They did a lot of bragging about what they heard of other outlaws, doing this or doing that. Is there any one name in particular you looking to hear?” Grid was starting to get indifferent to the questioning. Treating him as if they thought he had become a member of the gang.

Before anyone could say anything more, Applegate returned to the Sheriff’s Office and was introduced to the marshals. Grid pulled his foot up onto the table and rested his elbow on his knee, holding his cup of coffee in that hand. Applegate took the chair next to Benton.

“Sheriff, the Marshal that was in here last night, the one who apprehended those two from the saloon?” Applegate asked.

“What about him?” Mercer asked.

“He looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him. He said I saved his life before. I don’t recall saving any U.S. Marshal’s life.”

“Mr. Applegate, he wasn’t a marshal when you saved his life. From what I heard earlier, he was about thirteen years old when you first met him,” Benton stated. “A boy, half-drowned that you brought back when you and the Sheriff were standing against Holt Coyle and his bunch from the Skull Ranch?” As recognition hit Applegate, Benton continued. “He grew up and became the man you saw in here last night.”

“That was the boy?” Applegate let out a whistle and pushed his hat back on his head. “Time sure does fly. Feels it was only a few years back, now it makes me realize it was… what… ten years ago?”

Tom turned the conversation back to Grid’s story, “Were you able to think of any names?”

“If you’re looking to hear McCain, I would have included that in my wire. If I’d heard them mention Lucas or Mark, don’t you think I’d of informed you?”

“What about Johnny Drako?” Tom asked.

“The gunfighter?” Grid asked. He continued when Tom nodded. “Heard ramblings, someone having heard from someone, about him being killed in a street fight somewhere, but nothing concrete. Besides, a dead gunfighter’s the best kind. One less I have to worry about.”

Grid stood and walked to the pot bellied stove and poured himself another cup of coffee.

“Grid, Johnny Drako ain’t no outlaw, never was. Sure he has a reputation as a gunfighter, but every one of his killings was in self defense or in defense of another person. About seven years ago, he saved the lives of Mark and Lucas McCain and tracked down the gang responsible,” Tom answered.

“Someone tried to kill Mark before?”

“Yeah, only that time, he was just badly beaten up from the story that I remember hearing from Drako.” Benton continued to tell the story of Johnny Drako, “Anyway, soon after he returned Mark to North Fork, he decided to settle down and call the town his home. He’d tired to put down roots there once before, but changed his mind. This time, the Town’s Marshal offered him a deputy’s badge and a couple of years ago, he became the Town Marshal. He got married and has a family. Rigby and Dahl, they were trying to kill Drako, but instead they damn near killed Mark and his father-in-law.”

“Mark and his father-in-law? Mark got married?” Unguardedly, Grid beamed a smile and shook his head in disbelief as he remembered the boy standing the other side of the jail bars, his body language that of some one who was scared; yet, his voice indicated the courage he had deep within. Grid mused to himself, wondering just how his life would have turned out, had Mark McCain not been there, that day.

Grid’s attention and his demeanor returned to the present as Agglegate proceeded to tell them how Mark had apprehended Rigby and Dahl.

*****

Mark arrived back home to find Gwenivere and Myra on the front porch of his parents’ home, playing a game of checkers.

“Mark!” Myra called. “Welcome home! Is Papa coming home soon?”

“He’ll be home soon, Gabby. Why don’t you and Gwenivere go inside and play. The temperature is starting to drop and I don’t think Ma would want either of you to take cold.”

He watched as Myra picked up the board game and Gwenivere followed, hobbling along on her crutches. He entered his own home. Hope turned from fixing supper at the stove, worry and concern on her face.

“Mark? Is Pa all right?”

“He’ll be home later.” Mark headed for their bedroom. He placed his hand to the doorknob and stopped turning it when Hope called, “Please Mark? I didn’t mean to hurt you. Neither did Ma or Pa. We only did what we thought was best.”

“Best for who?” Mark answered without turning around.

“We thought it would be best for you,” Hope answered as she wiped her hands on her apron and walked to where Mark stood. “Guess we weren’t ready to let you go.”

“Let me go? Go where?” Mark asked; his back still to his wife.

“To stand on your own. We’re weren’t ready to admit that you didn’t need us anymore.”

Mark turned and faced Hope, “Didn’t need you anymore? You’re my family, I’ll always need you. But I also needed to be able to do what was my job.”

“Was your job? I don’t understand… Mark your badge?!” Hope exclaimed as she realized Mark was no longer wearing his badge.

“I gave it back. I remember telling Micah a long time ago that if he didn’t trust me to perform all the responsibilities of being a deputy, then he should just take my badge back. I was still a teenager back then, so I could understand Micah being a little leery of my taking a prisoner to Clovis. I’m twenty-three years old! I’m not a child! Yet you’ve all been treating me like I would break, ever since I returned to duty.”

“No Mark. Since we almost lost you, Mark,” Lucas called from the open door and stepped into the front room. “I’m sorry son. You were able to get over your fears after you were almost killed, but we didn’t. When Tom came, we still saw you as we remembered; when you were scared to live. We didn’t learn our lesson. Can you forgive us?”

“In time. Right now, if I’m to be a rancher, I have work to do. I need to change.” Mark opened the door and proceeded into their bedroom.

Hope looked to Lucas, her eyes pleading.

“Hope, it’s not your fault. You were only doing what I asked. I should have trusted you to know him better. You’re his wife.”

“But you’re his father. I’ve only known him for seven years, you’ve known him his whole life.”

*****

The sun was setting over the McCain Ranch when Johnny Drako rode into the yard. Lucas stepped from his home and greeted him, “Evening Johnny. What brings you out this way?”

“Evening, Lucas. Got word that you and Mark were back. I have some news that I thought both of you should hear. It’s from Tom Benton. I’d like to tell you and Mark at the same time.”

Johnny stepped down from his horse and tied him in to the hitching rail. Lucas stepped down from the porch and together they walked to Mark’s home. Lucas knocked and the door was answered by Hope.

“Evening Pa, Johnny? What brings you here this late?” Hope asked.

“We need to talk with Mark,” Johnny answered.

“He’s putting the boys to bed. Come in.”

Lucas and Johnny entered the front room, Johnny removed his hat. Gwen stood from where she was sitting and excused herself and went to the bedroom opposite from the boys’. A few moments later, Mark came from the boys’ room.

“Welcome home Mark. Got some news from Tom Benton. Thought we should discuss the arrangements for the prisoners that will be coming to town for the trial,” Johnny stated.

“That’s between you and Marshal Benton,” Mark answered. Seeing the perplexed look on Johnny’s face, Mark continued, “I turned in my badge. I’m just Mark McCain, rancher.”

“I don’t understand?” Drako replied, looking first to Lucas and then to Mark.

“It’s easy to understand. I wasn’t trusted enough to do my job, so I resigned,” Mark replied. The bitterness could still be heard in his voice.

Mark stepped to the fireplace and stirred the logs and placed another long on the fire to increase the warmth in the room.

“Mark, I’m not sure what happened, but regardless, I need every man available in this town to help guard North Fork while the trial is underway.”

“What trial, Johnny?” Hope asked.

“Benton’s bringing the two… He’s transporting Rigby and Dahl and then there are others bringing the three we tracked down in Willow Point, Janes, Roush, and Tell. All five are standing trial here in North Fork on Federal charges for attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder.”

“Don’t think the judge would appreciate one of his witnesses standing guard against the defendants. He might see it as a conflict of interest,” Mark replied.

“Mark, what’s gotten in to you, boy?” Johnny demanded. “I need you, back in town to help.”

“Maybe you should speak to my father, seems he knows better what I can or can’t do? I have to get up early in the morning, so if you’ll excuse me.”

*****

Johnny and Lucas stepped from the house, Johnny asked, “What was that all about?”

“Tom and I overstepped our boundaries. We didn’t tell Mark we were going after the two who tried to kill him and Seth. We were just trying to protect him.”

“Lucas, I don’t care what’s between the two of you, but I damn well need all the deputies, all MY deputies. I don’t care what it takes…” Then pointing his finger towards Lucas, “You get him back to wearing that badge or so help me, I …”

Johnny placed his hat back on his head and got on his horse and returned to North Fork.

*****

“Mark, your actions are totally uncalled for!” Hope declared.

“Hope, it’s my life. I’ll deal with this on my own.”

“On your own? We’re a family. I’m your wife!”

“I know you are. But you should have told me. Tom and Pa, they could have had a little more faith in me. Trusted me to do my job.”

“Johnny just did. He asked you for your help. You know, you’re acting like a… Worse than your three year old sons when they don’t get their way!”

Hope turned and headed towards their bedroom, slamming the door behind her.

*****

Mark stepped to the porch and sat down on the steps. He looked up as he heard an owl fly across the night sky. About fifteen minute later, he heard the door open behind him.

“Hope, please. I… just let it be.”

“I’m sorry, I’m not Hope,” Gwenivere stated as she managed to sit down in one of the chairs.

“How are you getting along with…?” Mark said as he pointed to her leg.

“Okay, Doc says it’ll be another four weeks before the cast comes off.”

“Have you been able to send word to your family that you’re safe?”

“I don’t have any family, least none that’ll have me. I’ve an Aunt somewhere back East, but she never approved of my Ma marrying my Pa and them having me, I’m just trash to her.”

“You’re not trash. Don’t let anyone talk down to you like that. Stand up for yourself,” Mark said.

“Is that what you’re doing?” Gwenivere asked. “I couldn’t help but hear the discussions between you and Hope before you left and just a few minutes ago.”

“Gwenivere, I…”

“Please, my name is a mouthful. People I consider friends, call me Gwen.”

“Gwen, I don’t think it’s any of your concern. You need to focus on taking it easy so your leg can heal. I take it that Hope has made you feel comfortable while you’re staying with us?”

“She’s a lovely woman and your children are beautiful. I’m sure that once you get over this little misunderstanding, the real love will return to your home.”

“Gwen…”

“Please Marshal…”

“If you were listening, you’ll remember hearing, I’m no longer a Marshal.”

“That might be how you feel right now… I’m sure they were only doing what they did, because they love you. Give yourself time to heal.”

“I healed from my injuries and fears back in the summer.”

“You’re feeling hurt, now. It takes time to heal from that, too. My Aunt never got over the hurt she felt my Ma caused her.”

“That’s different,” Mark replied.

“How? Because you feel your family hurt you over their lack of trusting you to do your job? My Aunt hurt me, by not trusting my Ma’s love for my Pa or his love for her. My Aunt hurt a person she never met, me. She never wanted anything to do with me. My Ma died during childbirth when I was eight. Pa wrote to her, to let her know of Ma’s death, and the letter we received back said that to her, Ma died the day she married my Pa and she wanted nothing to do with his child. I’ll be eighteen next year, how would you feel knowing you had family out there who wanted nothing to do with you?” Gwen’s tone of voice changed and disgust could be heard. “And you feel hurt because you have a family who loves you and wanted to do nothing more than protect you.”

Gwen stood up with the aid of her crutches and returned to the house.

*****

Mark thought back on the conversation, ‘Guess I should be thankful that I do have a family who cares…’ He stood, slapped his hat in his leg, and walked to the barn, saddled Copper, and headed to North Fork. He halted his horse in front of the Marshal’s Office, saw that Johnny and Seth were inside. He got down from his horse, tied him to the hitching rail, and then stepped to the boardwalk. Before entering, he took a deep breath and then knocked on the door. There was an eerie quiet among the three as he entered the office.

“Johnny, I owe you an apology. My actions earlier, as my wife pointed out to me, we totally uncalled for. I’m sorry for sulking. You came asking for my help, I’m here, if you’ll still have me.”

“Mark regardless of what happened at your home, Seth and I still need you to help out. Here, put this on.” Johnny tossed a deputy’s badge to Mark.

“When do the first prisoners arrive?” Mark asked.

“Day after tomorrow,” Seth replied. “We received a wire from Marshal Benton that he and two other deputies would be transporting the two he has. They were assigning four deputies to go after the three being held at the New Mexico Territorial Prison.”

“If they’re already in prison, why bring them here?” Mark asked.

“They were charged with conspiracy to commit murder, not the attempted murder charges. Everything will get sorted out once Benton and Cole Barker arrive. Barker’s accompanying Judge Jules Oury down from Denver to preside over the trial.”

“Mark, I understand how difficult this is going to be for you and Seth. But I want to see these men tried fair and convicted in a legal court of law. I know the people of North Fork, but my concern is the outsiders coming in. The trial will start two days after the last prisoners arrive.”

For the next two hours, the three formulated their plan of how to protect North Fork, her citizens, and the prisoners. Before he left the office, Mark shook hands with Johnny and Seth, knowing the easiest part of his apologies were done.

*****

Mark returned to his home. He saw the lamp beside the door was lit. Through the window, he also saw the lamp on the table turned down low. He walked Copper into the barn, unsaddled and unbridled him. Mark gave all the horses a late-night flake of hay. He turned to find Hope standing in the doorway, leaning back against the frame, hands behind her back.

“I hope your ride helped?” Hope asked.

“No, actually…”

“Mark, we can’t go on this way,” Hope interrupted.

“I know. I was about to say that you helped me out by pointing out how childish I was behaving. Worse than the twins, huh?”

Hope nodded.

“Then, when I was sitting out on the porch, Gwen reminded me, I have a family who cares for and loves me. Hope, can you forgive me for behaving so childishly?” Mark asked as he walked towards his wife and pulled her into his arms.

“I’ll forgive you, but, can you understand how your father felt when Tom arrived and was informed he knew where the two men were who tried to kill you?”

Mark escorted Hope to sit down on the stack of hay bales. He sat down behind her and wrapped her in his arms.

“I do. He was being a father. My father. Wanting to protect me. But that’s just it; neither of them gave me the chance to ask for help. Or gave me the chance to say I didn’t think could do it. I had a responsibility to this territory and between the two of them… How do you think the deputies who reported to me reacted when they heard that Tom didn’t trust me to do my job, but instead, asked my father?”

“Mark, Tom does trust you, as does your father. They didn’t want to bring back those memories and make you relive them.”

“And just how am I not going to relive the memories of the attack, since I have to give testimony at the trial? Were they hoping there would be a shootout and the outlaws would be killed? That’s not what my badge was all about. That’s not what all my years of training to be a Marshal was all about. Tom told me a long time ago, he needed new blood, men who think before they act. Those two men need to stand trial…”

“And they will Mark,” Lucas answered from the doorway.

Mark and Hope turned to the direction of Lucas’ voice.

“I’m sorry for eavesdropping, but I got worried when I saw you ride out and I’ve been waiting for you to return. I just wanted to apologize again for my actions.”

“No Pa, it’s not for you to apologize for doing your job, wanting to protect your son,” Mark said. “I should have remembered all our talks, where no matter how old I get, you’ll always be there to do your best to protect me. I was the one who wasn’t living up to my responsibility of being your son.”

Lucas finished walking into the barn and sat down on the hay stack, just opposite from Mark and Hope.

“I see you changed your mind about helping Johnny and Seth?” Lucas asked.

“That’s where I went. We have a plan in place for when the prisoners start arriving. I’m sure the judge will want to change it some, but at least we have a starting point.”

Lucas reached into his shirt pocket; he tossed the object to Mark. “I think you’d look a lot better wearing your own badge. Tom told me he wouldn’t accept your resignation.”

“Is Ma still awake?” Mark asked.

“No, she went to bed shortly after you left.”

“I’ll wait to apologize to her in the morning then,” Mark answered as he rubbed at his U.S. Marshal badge.

“I won’t accept your apology in the morning, Mark,” Milly called as she walked into the barn and sat down next to Lucas, allowing him to wrap his arms around her.

“I’m sorry Ma. I really am. I should have accepted that you were only doing what you thought best, for me.”

“Mark, it’s not for you to apologize, we shouldn’t have kept this from you to begin with. We should have remembered this family doesn’t keep secrets,” Milly answered. “Can you forgive all of us?”

“We’re family, I guess there’s nothing to forgive,” Mark replied. He pulled Hope into a tighter hug.

“So now that we’re one big happy family again,” Lucas stated. “You care to tell us how you managed to capture Rigby and Dahl by yourself?”

“You what?!” both Hope and Milly exclaimed.

For the next half hour, Mark told of what happened in Lordsburg. As his family asked questions, Mark honestly and sincerely answered. The foursome finally stood and walked out of the barn to return to their homes.

“By the way Mark, Milly was telling me a little about Gwenivere earlier this evening. What are your intentions for her?” Lucas asked.

“Intentions?” Mark asked.

“Yeah, this is the second time you’ve brought a young woman in trouble back to this ranch. The first time, you ended up marrying the gal.”

“PA!” Hope exclaimed.

Lucas couldn’t stop the laughter. Even through the dim light of the half moon, he could see Mark’s cheeks turn red.

The Next Step — Shock

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

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