The Rifleman
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The Next Step...
Chapter 111 - Only the Good Die Young
Written by Deanne Bertram

The second day in his search for Seth Lane and his prisoner, Mark came upon a small ranch house and stopped in the squalid front yard.

“Anyone home?!” he called.

The door opened only enough to allow the barrel of a rifle to poke out.

“I’m a law man, I’m not here to hurt anyone,” called Mark.

The door opened farther, allowing an old man, hunched over as he was, to step to the porch.

“You a law man?” the old man asked, tilting he left ear towards Mark in an effort to hear better.

Looking at the little old man, in his tattered overalls and threadbare shirt, Mark felt sympathy for the man. “Yes, I am. I’m the territorial U.S. Marshal, from over in North Fork. I’m looking for our town’s deputy, thought he might have stopped by here or you may have seen him?”

“Ain’t no body but you come by here in a month of Sundays,” sounded a teasing, younger voice from within the house. A young man stepped from the house, holding two handguns on Mark. “Why don’t you step down from your horse, nice and easy like.”

“Mister, I’m not here to cause any trouble for you,” stated Mark.

“No, but it seems you rode into it,” the young man taunted.

The young man stepped over a broken plank as he avoided the middle step. He walked across the dirt to stand in front of Mark. He put one of his guns into his holster belt before he pushed Mark’s hat off his head.

“Pa, guess today is my lucky day…”

“Morgan, what are you talking about?” the old man asked as he slightly tripped over the broken plank his son had stepped across.

“Can’t you see it? Look at him Pa,” said Morgan.

Still keeping his rifle handy, the old man stepped close to Mark. “Why there is some resemblance.”

“Resemblance, why if I didn’t know any better, we could almost be twins. Same height, same hair color, same color eyes, same build. How old are you?”

“Listen, I don’t know what you’re getting at… I’m a U.S. Marshal.”

“I’m getting at you being my ticket out of here and across the border,” Morgan answered as he circled around Mark and brought the butt of his handgun down upon the back of Mark’s head.

“Morgan, why’d you do that?”

“Pa, listen, I need to get away from here. I’ve had a lawman on my trail for the past three weeks, he’s my ticket to slipping away,” Morgan stated as he pointed to Mark lying unconscious on the ground.

“He’s the one who’s been after ya?”

“Naw, never laid eyes on this one before, but man… he’s the golden egg.”

After removing Mark’s badge and pinning it to his own shirt, he grabbed Mark’s arms and drug him across the yard and into the barn, dropping him to the ground so he could grab a length of rope hanging on the wall. Before returning to Mark, he opened the double doors to a hidden cellar. Morgan positioned Mark in front of the hole and gave him a shove into the darkened cellar.

“Pa, get that lantern over here!” ordered Morgan.

The old man picked up the lantern, pulled a match from his pocket and struck it on the barn wall to light the lantern. Slowly he followed his son down into the cellar.

“You keep him here,” ordered Morgan as he bound Mark’s hands and feet.

“What am I supposed to do with him? I can’t keep him here forever, people will start asking questions.”

Morgan angrily retorted, “Look old man, no one ever comes out here. Just keep him here, make him help you, but keep your rifle on him. Don’t let him get away.”

“Morgan, we can’t do this. It ain’t right…”

“Right? Pa, I’m the only kin you got. ‘Sides, you’re as guilty as I am, you took all the money I ever gave you.”

“But I never knew you stole it…”

“You never asked.” Straightening up, Morgan towered over his father. “Don’t you let him get away! You hear me?!”

Morgan climbed up the ladder and ran back to the house, after grabbing a few items he returned to the front yard and stuffed them in the saddlebag hanging behind the saddle on Rainmaker.

Once in the saddle, Morgan turned Rainmaker to face the barn, he pointed as he warned, “Pa, you let him get free and I’m as good as dead. You hear me?! With me dead, who’ll watch out for ya? You’ll be left here all alone.”

With a heavy heart, the old man watched his son ride away.

*****

The old man sat in the rocking chair on the dilapidated porch with his rifle across his knees. Slowly rocking back and forth, marking time as the sun sank behind the hills, the old man worried about the words his son had threatened and about the man lying bound in the cellar under the barn.

*****

Morning had dawned, but as Mark rolled over to lie on his side, he struggled to see in his darkened surroundings. He smelled the earth laden with dank moisture stinging bitterly at his nostrils. Before yelling out, he listened as he thought he heard the sounds of creaking boards above him and felt something tiny pelting his face and clothes.

Turning over to sit up, Mark looked on as a bright opening appeared above him, causing him to shut his eyes and turn his head away. He heard someone slowly stepping down the ladder, while he cautiously opened his eyes to a squint and allowed them to adjust to the brightness. Only seeing a silhouette, he knew his visitor was the old man, from…

“How long have I been down here?” asked Mark.

“Since yesterday,” the old man answered.

“Why?”

“He’s… he’s my boy. He’s all the family I got. I couldn’t have you taking him away from me. Good or bad, he’s my son.” The old man’s voice was laden with regret.

“Mister, I don’t know who he is or who you are, I’m out here looking for my father-in-law,” answered Mark.

“Yesterday you said you’s looking for a deputy.”

“I am, my father-in-law is a deputy. Mister…” Mark paused hoping the old man would tell him his name.

“Birch Leydon’s the name.”

“Mr. Leydon, keeping me here ain’t going to do anybody any good.”

Though he couldn’t see the man’s face, he could see him cock his head to the side.

“You called me mister, don’t remember anybody calling me mister before.”

“Mr. Leydon, please… Put down your rifle, untie me, and let me go,” stated Mark.

“I can’t, not yet. Not ‘til I know you can’t follow by boy.”

“Whether I leave today or tomorrow, I don’t have to track him; all I have to do is wire the Marshal’s Service in Denver and they’ll put a poster out on your son, if there’s not one out already.”

“Then you’re gonna have to stay here until you forget,” Leydon stated.

“Forget? How am I supposed to forget you’re keeping me a prisoner?”

“You will, in time, you’ll see. Now, you lie down on your stomach and I’ll untie your hands, then you can untie your feet. Don’t try nothing.”

Mark watched as the man brought his rifle to bear on him.

*****

The old man told Mark to sit still while climbed the ladder; he yelled down for Mark to come up. Stepping from the hole, Mark rubbed at his wrists and walked in the direction the man told him. Humidity hung in the air and what the day before had been dry dirt was now mud and puddles of water. Wiping his feet on the dilapidated porch, Mark entered the home. He ate what little porridge the man spooned into a bowl and handed him.

“You seem able enough to do some wood chopping, I ain’t got the strength to do it no more,” Leydon stated.

“Morgan couldn’t do it for you?” queried Mark.

“He don’t live here that much. Outside,” the old man stated as he pointed his rifle towards Mark.

Mark walked outside, picked up the ax, and ran his thumb over the dull edge. “I’ll sharpen the blade if you’ll show me your grinding wheel.”

“Ain’t got one of those fancy things, but I got a sharpening stone.”

Once Mark had a sharp enough edge to the ax, he walked to the woodpile and started splitting logs. After about twenty minutes, Mark set the ax down, removed his hat, and wiped his shirtsleeve across his brow. Mark looked up as the cry of a hawk pierced the silence around him. Having worked up a sweat, Mark removed his shirt and hung it over the splintered porch railing before he returned to his chore. Leydon watched as Mark diligently worked at splitting the wood and stacking it proper.

“Come inside and we can have a late lunch, all I got to offer is sandwiches.”

Mark followed Leydon inside and took a seat at the backside of the table, where the old man pointed.

“I noticed you had some lumber board in the barn, if you have nails and a hammer, I can fix that front porch step for you,” offered Mark as he pushed his empty plate to the center of the table, having finished eating.

“That step’s been needing fixing for a mighty long time,” mused the man. “Why are you being so helpful?”

“Listen, I know you are afraid for your son, and he’s the only reason you’re keeping me here. But I can also tell, you need help around here. It’s a shame your own son wouldn’t help you out.”

“You got family?” the man dared ask.

“Yes, I’ve a family,” Mark answered truthfully.

“You got a… Pa?”

“Yes.”

“Do you help him?” Leydon asked.

“We work our ranch together.”

“I guess you think I could have raised Morgan better than I done.” Leydon’s attitude and demeanor changed. “Maybe I spoiled him in his growing up. That I didn’t raise him right.”

“It’s not for me to pass judgment on how Morgan was raised. Even the best efforts can produce a sour apple.”

“He ain’t no sour apple!” Leydon showed Mark a hint of his true feelings… “He just got pride, he wanted better than I could give.”

“Pride? Pride isnt’ wanting better; pride is what you have in working the land and being rewarded with the fruits of your labor, harvesting a crop or seeing your livestock multiply. Pride is what you accomplish. Pride is having a son who helps or someone who cares…”

“I care! All my life I cared!”

“But he doesn’t. He’s in it for him…not you. You’re just someone he can use, all in the name of family.”

“You don’t know my boy!”

“No, I don’t. But I’ve known plenty of men like him. He could have made something out of this place with a little bit of effort, but he found the easy way out… He’s using you.”

“You stop right there! You’re done here,” the old man said as he reached for his rifle. “Get back to that cellar.”

Mark saw the regret in the old man’s eyes as he realized what could have been, but his own pride was getting in the way of seeing Mark’s reason. Mark stood up and did as the old man told him. He knew he had struck a nerve, hopefully in time he’d be able to get Birch Leydon to see reason and set him free.

*****

Each day during his captivity, Mark carefully worded his conversations with the old man while he worked to fix up the place. On the morning of the sixth day of his captivity, Mark was surprised when the old man opened the door to the cellar, but did not have his rifle with him.

“You can come on up here,” Leydon weakly called. “That lawman’s gone.”

Mark followed Leydon, concerned when he saw the old man appeared to be in some kind of physical pain.

“Mr. Leydon, are you alright?” asked Mark.

“Mr. Leydon? You ain’t never called me that before. Son, I wish I done better by you. Your Ma, she tried to live, she didn’t want to leave us,” Leydon sank down to the porch. “Now it seems like I’m gonna leave ya too.”

“Sir, if you’ll point me in the direction, I’ll go fetch a doctor for you,” offered Mark.

“No, I got no time for no doctor. I’m glad you came home, son. I’m glad you saw fit to stay with me for a while, this old place ain’t looked so good since your Ma died.”

“Please sir, let me help you inside and out of the sun.”

“Sir,” the old man p’shawed Mark. “I raised ya good. I raised ya with manners. Didn’t I?”

Leydon looked into the concerned eyes of Mark McCain as he tried to help the old man to his feet, where upon his eyes filled with regret.

“No, I didn’t raise ya, did I?”

“You raised me right,” answered Mark. “Pa.”

“I almost think you mean that. The way you said Pa, it sounded with love…”

“That’s the only was Pa should be spoken, with love.”

“No, you ain’t my boy.” Leydon patted Mark’s arm. “He don’t love no one but himself. I know’d the truth. You look so much like him, I wish you had been my… son.”

Leydon sighed as he slipped from Mark’s helping hands. Mark knelt down and cradled the old man’s head and shoulders in his lap.

“Your Pa, he raised you right,” Leydon whispered. “Go home to him… tell him, I’m sorry…”

Mark placed his hand over the old man’s face and closed his eyes, and lowered him all the way to the ground. He stood and walked into the house and pulled a blanket from the bunk, and used it to wrap around Leydon’s body.

After retrieving a shovel from the barn, Mark walked to an old Oak tree and began digging a grave. The sun was setting when Mark finished inscribing the man’s name and date of death on a piece of board he had discarded after repairing the front porch.

Pulling his hat from his head Mark offered a quiet prayer over the man’s grave.

“Lord, forgive him for what he did to me, because I already have. Welcome him into your Heavenly Kingdom and see that his eternity is peaceful. He deserves that much.”

Returning the shovel to the barn, Mark looked at the old draft horse standing in the stall, “Well, I guess it’s up to you to get me home.” He put some hay into the horse’s stall and returned to the house for the night. Before falling asleep, Mark wrote a note, in case Morgan Leydon ever returned.

Morgan Leydon

You father passed on and is buried under the old oak tree. His passing was peaceful.

A warning for you, you had better pray I never find you.


Marshal Mark McCain

Before the sun rose, Mark had a rope tied to the halter of the old horse, and using a boulder outside, climbed up on the horse’s back and pointed him towards North Fork.

*****

The congregation’s mournful singing greeted the rider as he entered the town just after sunset, aback an old draft horse. Halting the horse, Mark removed his hat and bowed his head in respect to the recently departed as he listened.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

T'was Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
The hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
'Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promised good to me.
His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

When we've been here ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We've no less days to sing God's praise
Than when we've first begun.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

Slipping down from the horse, Mark replaced his hat and led the horse down the main street and into the livery, where he gave the animal a small amount of grain, plenty of hay, and fresh water. Upon exiting the livery, he looked up and down the street, surprised that no music came from Sweeney’s saloon.

Shaking his head, Mark walked to the Marshal’s Office and upon entering, he lit a lantern and sat down behind one of the desks. From a drawer, he pulled out a sheet of paper and pen, and began to write his report.

*****

“As the son of Mark McCain, you reflect poorly of who your father was,” Sam Buckhart stated as he held Zach by the arm and led him from the town hall.

“I don’t care!” Zach replied as he fought against the marshal.

Sam stopped and sternly spoke, “You should. Your father was a good friend of mine. I care about his family and I know he raised you to be better than you are behaving.”

“So what! He ain’t here no more!” Zach lashed out and with his fist balled, struck out at Sam. “He ain’t here!” Zach kicked at Sam, striking him in the shinbone.

Sam shook Zach, “Why do you behave such? You have upset your mother, why do you not behave and be good?”

The defiance in Zach’s eyes indicated he wasn’t going to talk anymore.

“Come, if you are not going to be good, then you will be put where you belong.”

Having not relinquished his grip on Zach’s arm, Sam continued to lead a struggling Zach to the Marshal’s Office.

*****

As Mark continued to write out his report, he didn’t hear the door open, only the sound of the gun being cocked and a steely voice stating, “You are sitting where you do not belong.”

“What?” Mark asked as he looked up from his writing and pushed his hat back on his head to see Sam Buckhart holding a gun on him with one hand and with his other, trying to hide Zach behind him.

“Mark?!” gasped Buckhart as he loosened the grip on his gun and Zach, his mouth gaping open.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost, Sam,” stated Mark, he hollered out his son’s name as he watched the boy pull free of Sam and run from the office.

“Tell me you are not a ghost; are you really alive?”

“Yes, I’m alive. What are you doing here? Why was Zach with you? Did something happen to Hope?”

Mark saw a man jog past the office window before stopping in the doorway, he noticed the man was wearing a deputy’s badge.

“It can’t be,” declared the deputy as he too stared at Mark.

“Would someone please tell me what’s going on?” asked Mark. Shaking his head, “If you two are going to just stand there… Look, I’ve finished my report; I really need to go find my son.”

“Hold on there,” Sam stated, walking to stand next to Mark, as he stood from his desk.

“What was that for?” demanded Mark grabbing his arm after Sam pinched him.

“You really are live. Your family will not be very pleased with you,” Sam replied seriously.

“Sam, quit talking non-sense. As I said, I need to go find Zach.”

“Is he who I think he is?” McKay asked.

“I’m Mark McCain. I’m the…”

“The U.S. Marshal for the territory,” McKay finished. “Only we just had a memorial service for you over at the church.” He turned at the waist and pointed over his shoulder.

“A memorial service? Would someone care to explain how I came to be dead?” asked Mark as he crossed his arms.

“You are not dead!” Sam declared, matter-of-factly.

“I know I’m not dead, but somehow I must be if you…” Confused with what he’d heard, but worried about his son, Mark continued, “I’d like to stay and listen to someone explain this, but I need to find Zach.” He tried to push his way past Sam and the other deputy.

“McKay, will you take Mark to the town hall? I will find his son.”

“Why do I need taking to the town hall?” asked Mark.

“It is where your family mourns your death,” answered Sam.

Mark was torn between finding his son and proving to his family that he lived.

“Oh, by the way, my name’s Johnny McKay, from Laramie. Let’s get you to the rest of your family.”

“Please to meet you, I think,” replied Mark.

“I’m happy to meet you, for real,” McKay replied.

*****

Mark entered the town hall and was surprised by the startled looks his friends gave him. The crowd parted as they walked to where the McCain family gathered.

From behind, Mark heard someone say, “See I told you it was a ruse!” Mark looked over his shoulder to see who had spoken and when turned around, Johnny Drako and Tom Benton stood before him. One time before Mark had seen the expression Tom wore on his face, but this time, Johnny Drako also wore the same look.

“I’ll try to explain later, Sam said you’re holding my memorial service and I’d really like to stop it,” was the only explanation Mark gave.

As Tom and Johnny stepped aside, Mark looked to his family and saw a tearful Milly wearing a black dress as she sat next to where Lucas stood; her hands covering her mouth. Lucas wore his Sunday best and stood with his fists clinched, and his face pale. Hope also was dressed in a simple, black dress and the first thought Mark had was how she did look pretty wearing it. Mark thought to himself how she looked tired and so much older.

As the room quieted further, Hope looked up from tending to Faith; and the look on her face was one of shock and disbelief, which slowly turned to a look Mark couldn’t recognize, before she slumped over. Mark was quickly to her side, picked her up in his arms, and carried her out the door and down the boardwalk to the clinic.

With his wife still in his arms and hearing his Pa call out his name, Mark open the door and made his way to the nearest room where he laid his wife on a bed, walked to fill a pitcher with water, grabbed a rag and sat down on the edge of the bed. He tended to his wife, while ignoring the voices outside.

“Mark?” Lucas asked from the doorway.

“It’s me, yes I’m alive, only I didn’t know I was supposed to be dead. Would you please get Doc Burrage?”

“I’m here Mark,” stated Thadd as he made his way into the room, removed his pocket watch from his vest pocket, flipped it open, while with his other hand he reached for Hope’s wrist.

Abigail entered the room and handed Thadd his stethoscope.

After listening to her heart Thadd stated, “She’ll be okay, I imagine she just fainted, the shock from seeing you resurrected.”

“Resurrected, would someone please tell me what happened?” asked Mark only he didn’t wait for an answer as Hope started to rouse.

Tears fell from her closed eyes as she moved her head from side to side, with her hands covering her face she called out, “Oh Pa, I thought I saw him. He was standing right in front of us.”

“Hey sleepyhead, wake up,” Mark lovingly called to his wife as he reached to remove her hands from her face.

Hope batted her eyes and worked to focus her vision, she pushed herself deeper into the bed, not trusting what she saw.

“It’s me,” Mark stated as he smiled.

Mark was not prepared for Hope’s reaction; she slapped him resoundingly across the face.

“What’s that for?” a surprised Mark asked, rubbing his face.

“For getting yourself killed!” declared Hope, the fire in her eyes flashed as bright as Lou’s ever had.

“Getting myself killed?” Looking to the others who stood in the room he asked, “I’d really like to know why everyone thinks I’m dead.”

Hope answered, “At least the last time you ‘killed yourself’ you had the common decency to let us know in advance!”

“But I didn’t get myself killed.”

“We can see that now, son. But last week, I identified your body,” Lucas commented as he walked to stand beside his son and placed a hand upon his shoulder.

“You identified MY body? Where? How?” an incredulous Mark asked.

“It was after the storm. Deputy McKay brought Rainmaker to town with a story that he found your body under a tree. Evidently a tree had fallen during the night and killed you,” Drako answered.

“I wish everyone would stop talking as if I was killed. Wait a minute, Rainmaker is here?”

“Yes, I brought him and your gear to North Fork. I was trailing an outlaw when I came upon your… a camp. I looked through the saddlebag and found your identification. From what I remember the other man looked like, well, the two of you could practically be twins,” offered Johnny McKay.

“Twins… then you’ll be happy to know it was Morgan Leydon who was killed, AND NOT ME!” Mark stated the last, sternly.

“Morgan Leydon, never heard of him,” Drako answered.

“I have,” McKay stated. “I had a hunch I might have been trailing him.”

“And you didn’t recognize him when you found him?!” Drako demanded.

“Hey! I only know him by name, I’ve never seen him or his picture, nobody has.”

“I don’t care!” interrupted Hope. “I want to know how you came to still be alive and for a week no word!”

Hope sat back against the headboard of the bed and crossed her arms, still upset at the turn of events.

“Aren’t you happy to have me home?” Mark asked innocently.

“Happy to have you home? For a week, I’ve been living as a widow! My oldest son felt he was the man of the house and it was up to him to take care of me! My middle son has acted out in such a manner that…that… I’ll have you know, I’ve cried myself to sleep every night because I mourned your death! I… I…”

“I get the picture.”

“You get the picture! Of all the inconsiderate…” Hope exclaimed.

“I didn’t plan for this to happen,” Mark replied.

“And you couldn’t wire?!” Hope angrily asked.

“No I couldn’t. I encountered Birch and Morgan Leydon the morning after I left North Fork. Morgan and I looked so alike that we could have been twins. He knocked me out and tied me up, and he took Rainmaker and all my gear. I woke up the next morning in a cellar in their barn, tied hand and foot. His father kept me captive…”

“And you couldn’t convince an old man to let you go?” retorted Hope.

“I tried, but he was a proud man… who loved his son, for good or bad; but in the end, I think he realized and regretted the truth.”

“And he let you go?” Lucas asked.

Mark replied with remorse in his voice, “In a way… Pa, he was an old man. I think his heart gave out on him. I spent that afternoon burying him and by the time I was done, it was too late to start home so I waited until morning.”

“And you couldn’t wire?” asked Hope.

“There aren’t anywhere between where I was and here that has a telegraph office, besides, I didn’t know you thought I dead.”

“Well Lucas,” Drako stated, smiling as walked to stand next to his friend and clapped his hand onto Lucas’ shoulder, “Guess we get to go out and change that grave marker.”

“Why don’t you go and disburse the crowd that’s outside,” stated Lucas as he nodded his head towards those outside the room.

As the others left the clinic, Milly was finally able to join her family in the examination room.

“How could you?!” Milly didn’t give Mark time to answer before she continued, “The last time you were man enough to let us know in advance. And when you killed your father, well, we weren’t married yet. But to put Hope through such torment, and your father! Did you even think how this would affect your children?!”

“Ma, please,” Mark forcefully stated. “I didn’t do anything except get myself taken as a prisoner and let the man steal all my gear. Believe me, if I had known that this town thought me dead, I would have somehow tried to return home faster.”

Seeing the truth in Mark’s eyes, Milly stated, “Mark if you ever pull such a stunt again…” she walked over to him, pointing, yet, when she stood next to him, Milly pulled Mark into an embrace. “I’m glad you’re alive.”

With an unbelieving expression on his face Mark answered, “I didn’t pull any stunt. Honest. What do I have to do to convince all of you?” Not letting anyone answer, Mark asked, “What of Seth, was there any word on your father?” Mark asked as he sat back down on the bed next to Hope.

“Father returned home the other day, with a broken leg,” Hope answered.

“A broken leg? How’d he do that?” asked Mark.

“I stepped into a gopher hole as I got down from my horse that first night. Took me a while to convince Goldsmith that I could ride, but by the time we made it to Separ and their doctor set my leg, well, I was out for another day. I wired when I could,” answered Seth as he made his way into the clinic room. “But by then, you had already left to go looking for me.”

The expression on his face softened when Mark asked, “Why did Sam have Zach?"

“Sam was trying to help us help Zach, he’s been acting out so…” Hope stated, upset again. “Pa’s tried to talk to him, but it didn’t do any good. And tonight… Mark, he’s never behaved in such a manner. Sam offered to see if he could talk to him.”

Looking to his wife, Mark stated, “I don’t know why I’m asking, but, am I forgiven?”

“Don’t you ever!’ warned Hope as she pulled her husband into her arms and passionately kissed him.

“Folks,” Thadd spoke up after clearing his throat, “I’ve said it before, this is a hospital, not a hotel…it’s across the street.”

“Why don’t you go back with Ma and Pa to the town hall, I’m sure I’ll have some explaining to do. But first, I think I need to help Sam with Zach. I’ll be there as soon as I can.” Mark smiled as he reached for Hope’s hand and he led her from the clinic.

*****

After watching the rest of his family enter the town hall, Mark looked up and down the street trying to figure out where his son might have run.

“Mark, this way,” he heard Sam call.

“Sam?”

“He is over at the church. He would not talk to me. He has struggled this week with the news of your death.”

“I’m sure they all have Sam. Hope told me he’s been acting out.”

“Yes, I have seen with my own eyes. Never would I have believed a son of Mark McCain could behave in such a manner.”

“Sam, I’m sorry, and, thank you.”

Mark entered the church and heard the sniffles of his son before he saw him. Mark walked up the aisle, looking to each pew on his left and right, but not finding his son in any of them.

“Zach?” Mark called out. “Zach, it’s me.”

Mark followed the sounds of the sniffles until he found his son sitting behind the pulpit, hands wrapped around his knees as they were drawn to his chest.

“Mind if I have a seat?” asked Mark.

Zach didn’t answer, but Mark went ahead and sat down.

“I’m not exactly sure what to say,” stated Mark as he removed his hat and set it down on the floor. “I heard that you’ve not exactly been good while I was gone.”

“You was dead,” answered Zach.

“Yeah, so they tell me. You want to talk about why you were misbehaving? Why you weren’t being good?”

“No.”

“So you’re not happy to see me?”

Zach didn’t answer.

“Zach, I left here to go find your Grandpa Seth, I came across a couple of men who took me prisoner. It was one of those men who was killed; he was an outlaw.”

“He wasn’t you?” Zach asked as he looked to Mark for the first time. “You’re not a ghost?”

“No, I’m not a ghost. I’m real flesh and blood. You can pinch me if you like,” answered Mark.

“Then, it was a bad man who got killed?”

“Yes,” Mark replied.

“Then you didn’t die?”

“No, I didn’t die, but I almost did when I heard how you’ve been acting out. I’ll ask again, do you want to tell me why?”

Mark patiently waited for his son, allowing him to come to terms and tell him in his own way.

“I heard Uncle Johnny and Marshal Buckhart talking…”

“Were you eavesdropping?” asked Mark.

“No sir, not really, they didn’t know I was crying in the barn when they came in.”

“And you couldn’t let them know you were there?”

“You and Mama always say how we shouldn’t inter… inter…”

“Interrupt?” Mark suggested.

“Yeah, interrupt when adults are talking…”

“Go on.”

“So I waited while they talked, and then they left.”

“What did they say?”

“I didn’t hear a lot of what they said, but they did say that only the good die young. Pa, you’re good and I didn’t want to die young, too.”

“Either,” corrected Mark.

“Either?”

You didn’t want to die young, either.”

“No sir.”

“What am I going to do with you?”

“Pa, if you’re not dead, does that mean the good don’t die young?”

Mark raised both eyebrows in askance.

“Well, if you are good and you’re alive, and that other fella was bad and he’s dead, then I don’t want to misbehave, I want to be good so I can stay alive.”

Mark had to restrain his wanting to laugh at his son’s logic.

“First, I think you need to do some apologizing.”

“It’s going to be a long list…” Zach commented as he scratched at his nose.

“Just how long?”

Shaking his head, Zach answered, “You don’t want to know.”

*****

Mark held Zach’s hand as the two walked back to the Town Hall. The other McCain children reacted pretty much the same way the adults had when Mark stood in front of them and knelt down to welcome them into his embrace. The boys and Myra were confused, while Mykaela ran away, but in a few moments, Mark convinced his daughter to come back. He hugged and kissed each one and apologized for hurting them, even though it wasn’t his fault. Hattie handed Mark his youngest daughter.

By the time each child was comforted, Josh let out an ‘oh!’.

“What’s wrong?” asked Mark. “Do I need to send for Doc Burrage?”

“No sir, it’s just that… with you coming home…”

“Yes?”

The expression on Josh’s face sent the adults present to light-heartedly laughing at his predicament.

“I get to go to school instead of having to help Grandpa all the time out on the ranch. That’s hard work, a lot harder than the work Mr. Bullock gives us.”

Mark looked to his Pa, in askance, only for Lucas to mouth later.

*****

Mark saw his family asleep in the hotel before he left the room and walked down the stairs to be greeted by his Pa, sitting in one of the chairs in the lobby.

“Mark?” Lucas asked as Mark looked to him.

“Honest Pa, there was nothing I could do.”

“I understand. You just need to understand what your family and this whole town went through. Come on, I’ll pour you a cup of coffee.”

Father and son entered the restaurant and chose a table to sit down, with it being so late, they had the whole restaurant to themselves.

“Pa, McKay said you helped identify the body. How could you have not known it wasn’t me?” Mark finally allowed himself to become upset. “You of all people…”

“Mark, the man had your rifle, your saddlebags and saddle, your identification, and Rainmaker…”

Pulling up his sleeve Mark asked, “But my birthmark?”

“Mark, by the time McKay arrived in North Fork and I was informed, and we traveled to the camp, scavengers had already found the body. From what Johnny and I saw, it wasn’t pretty…”

Lucas paused, allowing Mark to understand what he was implying.

Mark remembered the time, when they had gone for their winter salt; he shivered at the memory of having to travel alone to save Lucas. He remembered when he returned with help, the flock of buzzards surrounding what he originally had feared to be his Pa, but turned out to be the carcass of a wolf.

“Mark, you yourself said you could have passed for twins. Anyway, now you’ll understand why we buried him out there and didn’t bring him back to North Fork.”

“Pa, I’m sorry… If I had known, I would have done more to come back faster. I had to choose my words and actions carefully in dealing with Birch Leydon. After I buried him, his plow horse was old and I could tell he wasn’t used to having someone on his back, but he was the only horse...”

“I’m just thankful you’re home.”

“What was that all about with Josh and getting to go back to school? Don’t tell me you let him quit school.”

“No, he told Hope that he was going to quit school since he was now the man of the house. We kept all of them home and had planned to return them to school when we felt they were ready; Hope and Milly kept them up on their studies.” With a gleam in his eye, Lucas allowed himself to laugh.

“What’s so funny?”

“I did take him out yesterday and put him to work, as a way to try to convince him that he wasn’t really ready to work full time out on the range.”

“You what?”

“All we did was move the yearling herd to another meadow and ride along the fence line. He was practically asleep in the saddle by the time we made it home; reminded me a lot of you, when you were his age.”

“Am I really going to have as much trouble with them as you had with me?” asked Mark as he looked towards the stairs.

“Mark, you weren’t trouble, trying at times, but you are my son and I’m proud of you.”

Seeing something different in his son’s expression, Lucas asked, “Something else happen while you were out there?” asked Lucas.

“I had to remember a lot of the lessons you tried to teach me when I was growing up…especially that even under the best efforts, a rotten apple can still happen. Birch Leydon loved his son, he’d of done almost anything for him…”

“Including keeping you a prisoner?”

“I just wonder… that last morning… for a few minutes he talked to me as if I was his loving son… I felt sorry for him.”

“You played along?” asked Lucas.

“Like we did with Mrs. Havecourt. I didn’t want him to die thinking he was alone in the world, it wasn’t his fault his son turned out as he did.”

“Mark, I think you learned those lessons better than I could ever imagine.”

The two McCain’s finished their coffee in silence, before they returned upstairs to join their families in their hotel rooms.

*****

The following morning all McCain and Gibbs family members were seated in the restaurant for breakfast when Mark realized Robbie and Eloise were sitting between his sister and one of his brothers.

“How are they adjusting?” asked Mark.

“They’re settling in just fine, like part of the family,” Lucas cryptically stated.

“Is there something I should know?” Mark looked to his Pa.

“Now that the prodigal son has returned, I think I’ll make that appointment with Robert Garrison, I was planning to make it before we received news of your ‘untimely’ death.”

“Why do you need a lawyer?” asked Mark.

“Mark,” Milly answered as she walked over to pick Eloise up and returned with her to her seat. “Your father and I have been talking about possibly adopting Robbie and Eloise.”

“For real?” Robbie asked.

“You mean it?” asked Little Ted.

“I’m gonna have a little sister!” exclaimed Myra. “Hurray, another girl in the family!”

“But we boys still outnumber you girls,” Josh boasted.

Congratulations were offered by Johnny and Colleen Gibbs, and the patrons who heard the news. The other patrons in the restaurant stared at the spectacle of the McCain children and smiled.

“McCAIN!’ Oat Jackford yelled as he barged into the lobby of the hotel.

Mark and Lucas looked to each other before they both stood.

“McCAIN!” Jackford yelled again, stepping into the restaurant, chest puffed. “I demand you put a stop to your getting yourself killed!”

Oat stopped a few feet in front of Mark, with his index finger pushing Mark in the chest, repeatedly.

“Oat!” Mary Jackford called from the lobby.

“He’s in here,” called Lucas.

“Mark, I’m happy to see the latest news is true; you’re alive,” declared Mary. “You don’t know how much of a bear my husband has been since he received word of your death.”

“He must be a pussy cat now,” Johnny Gibbs whispered behind his cup of coffee.

The Next Step — The Expansions

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

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