The Rifleman
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Fan Fiction

The Next Step…
Chapter 51 – Requiem for Spring
Written by Deanne Bertram

Mark and Hope spent their Friday evening sitting on the porch of Lucas and Milly’s talking with his parents about how enjoyable the weather was, for the beginning of May. They talked of preparing to plant the garden and moving the cattle herd during the following week to one of the other ranges. The anticipation of Hope giving birth within the next few weeks. Watching as the boys played together and Myra sat on the step, playing with a doll. That night, Mark enjoyed snuggling with his wife, placing his had over her growing belly, and feeling the baby move around and kicking.

“So do you think there’s a chance that this baby’s going to be a girl?” Mark asked.

“You keep asking about a chance, don’t you know?” Hope replied. “You were pretty sure the boys were going to be boys.”

Mark snuggled tighter to Hope, laughed and said, “No, I only said our child was going to be A boy.”

“I don’t know Mark. This time is so different from my first pregnancy. I mean, I am only carrying one child this time and I’m not as sick as I was with the boys. Guess it will have to be God’s surprise for us when the baby is born.”

*****

It was a beautiful May Saturday that dawned. After finishing his early morning chores, Mark handed their shopping list to Lucas and asked if he and Milly didn’t mind heading into town for supplies without them.

“Hope didn’t get much sleep last night. The baby kept kicking her and that kept both of us awake. I’ll tend to the rest of the chores while you’re gone and we can watch Gabby and Little Ted for you,” Mark stated.

*****

That afternoon, a fierce spring storm struck, forcing Lucas and Milly to delay their return to the ranch. They left their purchases at the General Store, then Lucas drove the buckboard to the livery and with help from Nils, got the team unhitched. Lucas and Milly then ran to the hotel, where they were greeted by Lou, carrying Danielle in her arms.

“Well, Danielle. Would ye look at what the weather chased in,” Lou declared. “Should I prepare a room for ye?”

Lucas replied. “Hopefully it won’t be that long before the storm breaks. We’ll wait it out in the restaurant.”

The afternoon progressed to evening. Lucas and Milly had supper with Lou and Johnny and their two children. Lucas recounted the story from when he and Mark had been kept in town because of a storm like the one they were experiencing.

“It was before any of you had come to town and the town had voted to send me to represent North Fork to the rail road company. Anyway, a lawyer came to town stating he had the last will and testament from Wade Joyner and he had left me his inheritance, five hundred dollars. Well hearing that I was somehow connected to an outlaw who robbed trains…” Lucas mused as he remembered back. “Anyway, I couldn’t remember that I had met the outlaw. It was on a night, similar to this that Mark and I were here in the hotel. During that storm, I remembered back to the first time Mark had taken a cold after Margaret had died, and a stranger seeking shelter from a storm just like this, stopped by where we were living. Through that night, I told the stranger of my dreams for the boy and my own desires to find a place where we could call home. The man just sat there and listened the whole night. The following morning, he was gone. Well, when the inheritance finally arrived, it had a note. Wade Joyner had been that stranger. He wrote of how he didn’t have dreams of his own, but enjoyed listening to mine. Gave us money to see that our dreams would come true.”

*****

The storm gave no indication of giving up, as they headed to their hotel room for the night. Milly shivered as they entered.

“Cold?” Lucas asked.

“No, just have a feeling that something’s not right at home.”

“Milly, Mark and Hope can handle our two and theirs. It’s just been a while since you’ve spent a night away from your children. Come on, let’s not let this room go to waste.”

“Lucas McCain!” Milly declared.

“Well, you are my wife and we don’t have to worry about little ones knocking on the door or calling out that they want a glass of water.”

Lucas pulled Milly close to him as he sat back on the bed. Lucas enjoyed teasing Milly, seeing the sparkle in her eyes and knowing she would give into him. But as much as he enjoyed teasing Milly, she just as much enjoyed pretending coyness. Both knew the love they shared was strong and marveled at how complete their lives were.

As the thunder and lightning continued that evening, Lucas and Milly enjoyed each other as husband and wife.

*****

That evening, Mark and Hope were at the ranch with the four younger children. Hope stepped to the porch and yelled for Mark to come in from the barn for supper. As Mark ran through the downpour and stepped to the porch, Hope doubled over, she grabbed at her belly, as her water broke and she cried out, “The baby!” Mark picked Hope up and carried her to their bedroom.

After settling Hope in their bed, Mark said, “Just you try to relax. I’ll be back as soon as I tend to the children and put them to bed for the night.”

Mark returned to the kitchen and pulled the stew from the stove and fed the children. As he was leading them to the bedroom to put them to bed for the night, he looked to his bedroom as he heard Hope’s muffled scream, over the sounds of the storm.

“Mark, is Hope scared of the storm?” Myra asked.

“What, Gabby?”

“If Hope’s scared of the storm, she can hold my hand. I’m not scared of the storm.”

“Gabby, can you be a really big girl? I’m going to put the four of you to bed, but I need to you make sure that none of the boys leave the bedroom. Can you do that for me?”

“Will Hope be okay when the storm is over?”

“Sure she will. Come on, let’s get you to bed.”

Once the children were asleep for the night, Mark returned to his bedroom. Worry etched his face, he wanted the doctor for Hope, but he couldn’t leave her to go get him. Quietly cursing the storm for stranding his parents, so he couldn’t use the buckboard to get his wife to town or have his Pa ride in for the doctor. Early in the night, Mark pulled out his guitar and strummed a few songs to try to keep Hope’s mind off her discomfort. But as the night progressed and the contractions became stronger and closer, Mark set aside his guitar. As each contraction wracked Hope’s body, Mark was there, next to her in bed. Trying to comfort his wife and wiping the sweat from her face; allowing her to squeeze his hand as she fought against each contraction.

The storm subsided as the morning sun chased it from the sky. As the rays of sun streamed into their bedroom, Mark remembered back five years ago, when he helped a stranger give birth, and then just about a year and a half back when he was present as Abigail gave birth to hers and Thadd’s daughter. Mark tried hard to remember what he needed to do once the baby arrived.

The stronger the contractions became, Hope kept the washcloth in her mouth to bite down on against the pain. She wanted to keep the children from hearing her screams.

As her labor progressed, Mark moved to assist Hope in delivering their child, he saw their baby’s head start to crown, “Hope, just a few more pushes.”

In a few minutes Mark held their infant son in his hands. He picked up the pieces of string he had boiled in water earlier in the night and tied the umbilical cord. He poured alcohol over his pocket knife, before he used it to cut the cord.

As Hope collapsed back she asked, “Mark, is our baby a girl?”

“No Hope, we’ve a son.”

Mark, held the baby upside-down and slapped him on the bottom, causing him to take his first breath of life and cry. Mark called, again, “We’ve another son!”

He wiped the baby down as best he could, wrapped it in a towel, and then lifted the baby to Hope and watched as she unbuttoned the front of her blouse and pulled down her camisole to expose her breast and then she positioned their son to nurse.

Before Mark could crawl into bed next to Hope, he heard a knocking on their bedroom door and then a small voice call, “Mark?”

Mark and Hope looked at each other and smiled. Mark stood to go take care of their other sons, his sister and brother. He looked back at his wife and new son, one more time before opening the door.

“Morning Gabby,” Mark called as he entered the front room. “Are the boys still asleep?” he asked, not seeing them moving about in the front room or the bedroom.

“They not awake yet. Mark, is Hope not scared with the storm gone?”

“Gabby, Hope wasn’t scared.” Mark knelt down to Myra and asked, “You want to know a secret, something that Ma and Pa don’t even know?”

“Uh huh,” Myra said as she nodded her head.

“Gabby, Hope wasn’t exactly scared of the storm last night. You know she was pregnant, she was going to have another baby?”

“Yes,” Myra giggled.

“She was giving birth to you newest nephew last night,” Mark stated as he stood and picked Myra up and carried her into their bedroom.

Mark held Myra on his lap as he sat down on the edge of the bed.

“He so tiny,” Myra stated.

“You weren’t quite that small when you were born,” Mark stated. “I didn’t get to meet you until you were almost four days old, but you weren’t that much bigger than him.”

“What’s his name?” Myra asked.

Mark and Hope looked at each other. “Well, Myra,” Hope stated. “We kind of had hoped we might have a baby girl.”

“For me to play with?”

“Yes, for you to play with,” Mark stated as he pulled Myra closer to him and tickled her. “We didn’t exactly think much about names for a boy,” Mark stated. “We could always call him Chance?” as he looked to Hope.

“Not on your life Mark McCain! We did talk once, early on, about a boy’s name, Elijah Paul. Myra, what do you think about that as a name for your nephew?” Hope said.

“Me like!” Myra stated as she nodded.

Mark heard the boys call from the other bedroom.

“Gabby, why don’t you help me fix breakfast and let Hope and Elijah sleep.”

“Okay.”

*****

Seth joined Milly and Lucas for breakfast. As they were finishing, Lucas noticed that Milly shivered again.

“I’m sorry Lucas, I just have this… feeling. I know something’s not right.”

“Okay, let me go get the team hitched up. I know its Sunday and had thought that maybe we could stay for services, but if it will make you feel any better, we’ll head home.”

“I’d really appreciate that, Lucas.”

They said goodbye to Seth and headed home.

*****

They were only a few miles from town when they heard the gun shot and Lucas collapsed sideways against Milly, dropping the reins. Milly grabbed the reins and pulled the team to a stop. She looked over at Lucas, heard him moan, then she saw the blood spreading down his shirt from his back.

Milly allowed Lucas to crumple to the floor of the buckboard before she raced the team back to town. She saw Johnny Drako and Seth Lane exiting the Marshal’s Office and she yelled for them.

“Johnny! Seth! Lucas has been shot!”

She pulled the team to a halt in front of the clinic. Both men ran to the buckboard and carried Lucas into the clinic.

*****

Mark walked into their room, “Hope, will you be okay if I ride into town and get Doc Burrage? Ma and Pa probably stayed for church services. I’d feel a whole lot better if he were here to check you and Elijah over.”

“Go, we’ll be fine.”

Mark ran to the barn and saddled Copper then headed cross country to town. As he raced into town, he didn’t notice the stares of the people out and about. He stepped down from Copper, dropped the reins and entered the clinic.

*****

Johnny and Colleen took the McCain’s buckboard and drove it out to the ranch to bring Mark, Hope, and the children to town. Upon arrival, Johnny helped Colleen down from the front seat and somberly escorted her to the porch of Mark’s home. They knocked on the door and were quite surprised then the door opened a little bit and Myra looked out.

“Uncle Johnny! Aunt Colleen!” Myra called as she opened the door to let them in.

“Myra, where’s Mark and Hope?” Johnny asked.

“Shhh, Hope’s sleeping and Mark went to town to get the doctor.”

“What’s wrong?” Colleen asked.

“She had the baby this morning? He’s so tiny,” Myra stated with a giggle.

Colleen made her way to the bedroom door and gently knocked before entering. She opened the door and saw Hope asleep, holding a small, wrapped bundle in her arms. She pulled the door closed and returned to the front room.

“Johnny, Myra’s right. Hope had the baby and they’re sleeping. We can’t move her into town. I’ll stay here with the children, why don’t you head on back to town. I’m sure Mark’s going to need you.”

“Colleen, I can’t leave all of you out here. Besides, if Mark did head to town to get Thadd, since we didn’t encounter him on the road, he went cross country. He’ll need the buckboard to get everyone back to town when he returns with Doc. I only hope someone in town stops Mark before he runs into the clinic, to let him know what happened. I can’t imagine what he’s going to go through seeing Lucas as he was.”

*****

“Doc! Thadd, I need you at the ranch, Hope had…” Mark’s words died as he looked through the door Thadd was coming out of and saw his father lying on his stomach, a large bandage around his middle, and Milly sitting next to him crying, before Thadd could shut the door.

“Doc! What?!” Mark asked, unbelieving his eyes.

“Mark, come over here.” Thadd grabbed Mark’s arm and led him to another room.

“My Pa? What happened? Is he going to be okay?”

“Mark, your parents were heading home, when someone ambushed them. I’ve stopped the bleeding for now, but…”

“But what?!”

“Mark, the bullet is too close to your father’s spine. I’m afraid to operate on him. If I make one wrong move, I could paralyze him for life.”

“Paralyze?”

“Mark, I’ve put him in a drug induced sleep right now and am hoping it will keep the swelling to a minimum. I’m going to wire a friend of mine who’s a more experienced surgeon. He’s in Phoenix, Arizona. I pray he’ll agree to travel and operate on your father. Mark… Mark! You need to be strong for Milly. Mark, did you hear me? You need to be strong for your Ma. But you also need to understand the risks.”

“Risks?”

“Mark, even if my friend agrees to operate, there’s still a chance your father could be paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of his life. What I need to do is make sure that I keep him as immobile as possible. Any further movement could move the bullet and lodge it that much closer to his spine.”

“Can I go see him?”

“Sure Mark, sure.”

Thadd led the way and opened the door for Mark. Milly didn’t even look up from laying her head on the bed, next to Lucas. Mark could hear her crying.

“Ma?” Mark quietly called.

Milly sat up and turned when she heard him call. “Oh Mark!”

Mark knelt down next to her and they wrapped their arms around each other and cried.

After a few minutes, Milly looked up and asked, “Where’s Hope? Johnny and Colleen went to the ranch to bring all of you to town.”

“Oh my God!” Mark exclaimed. “Thadd!” he jumped up as he called and ran from the room.

Thadd came from another room, into the hallway.

“Thadd, Hope had the baby this morning. I came into town to get you to come back to the ranch to check on her and the baby.”

“Mark, you stay here with Milly. First, let me wire my friend regarding your father, then I’ll take your horse and ride to the ranch.”

*****

Mark saw Thadd ride from town. He started to return to the room with Lucas, when Johnny Drako and Seth Lane entered the clinic.

“Mark, we’re sorry, we didn’t see you ride into town. We didn’t expect you to come by yourself. Where are Hope and the children?” Seth asked.

“Hope had the baby this morning, I came to town…” Mark’s voice died as he heard the door behind him open and Milly stepped out.

“Hope had the baby?” Milly asked.

“Ma, she did. But you need to be back inside with Pa. Thadd’s on his way to the ranch right now to check on both of them.” Mark pushed Milly back into the room with his father.

“Mark,” Drako stated. “We need to talk, privately.”

Mark hesitated, torn between his responsibility to his father and his duty to the town, Johnny grabbed hold of Mark’s arm and the three walked over to the Marshal’s Office. Drako closed the door behind them and motioned for Mark to take a seat.

“Johnny, do you know who did this?!” Mark demanded, refusing to sit down.

“Not really, but... We received a wire this afternoon from the Sheriff in Altoona. Seems his deputy was talking in the saloon with a man claiming the Rifleman was killed.”

“Who is he?!” Mark yelled.

“They don’t know. The Sheriff sent a wire asking if it were true and when he and the deputy went back, the man was gone.”

Mark turned to the office door, slamming the side of his fist against the wall. “Thadd has my horse. No matter, I’ll get ready and once he’s back, I’ll ride.” Mark walked to the rifle rack and pulled down a rifle and grabbed a couple of boxes of shells. Mark left the office and stopped by the General Store. There he purchased supplies, a saddle bag, and canteens.

“Mark,” Seth stated as Mark returned to the Marshal’s Office to wait. “I’ll ride with you.”

“No, I ride alone. I need you to watch out after Hope and the boys.” Then turning to Drako, “Johnny, wire Denver, tell them what happened. If they’re against me trailing those responsible, then tell them I resign.”

*****

Thadd arrived at Mark’s to have Johnny Gibbs open the door. Before entering the bedroom Thadd asked, “Have you told her?”

“Thadd, she’s been asleep since we arrived,” Johnny replied.

“What about the children, do they know?”

“No, I…”

*****

Hope woke to Thadd gently placing his hand on her shoulder and calling her name.

“Doc?” Hope asked as she wiped sleep from her eyes.

“Good Afternoon. I see that you feel you no longer require my assistance to deliver your child?” Thadd asked, jokingly.

“Doc, the storm had more to do with our not getting you…”

“I know Hope, I know. Now, Mark didn’t even tell me if you had a son or a daughter.”

“Thadd, I’d like you to meet Elijah Paul McCain.” Hope handed their son to Thadd.

Doc listened to his heart and lungs and checked over what was left of the umbilical cord.

“Any difficulties with him nursing? No. Okay. Now young lady, let me examine you. If I may?”

Thadd laid Elijah down on the bed and examined Hope.

“Well, seems your husband might just be giving me a run for my job. Hope, everything looks good. No tears or bleeding to be concerned about.”

But Hope saw a different expression on Thadd’s face than his voice indicated.

“Thadd, there’s something wrong. Something you’re not telling me. Is Mark okay? Did something happen to Mark riding into town?”

“Hope, just a moment.” Thadd walked to the door and called for Colleen and Johnny.

“Colleen and Johnny? Thadd?!” Hope exclaimed.

Colleen and Johnny entered the room. Colleen walked over and sat down on the bed, beside Hope. Johnny leaned up against the wall.

“Hope, believe me when I tell you that Mark was fine when I left North Fork. He sent me here on Copper, he’s waiting in town. It’s Lucas that I’m worried about.”

“What about Pa? What happened?” Hope asked.

“Lucas and Milly were returning to the ranch this morning when someone ambushed them. Lucas was shot in the back.”

“Is he okay?”

“Hope, he’s alive right now. I sent a wire to a friend of mine, asking if he would come here to operate. Hope, the bullet is too close to his spine. I don’t know enough about this type of operation and I’m afraid that I might paralyze him, if I make the wrong move.”

“Milly? How’s Ma?”

“Distraught,” Colleen stated.

“Hope,” Johnny stated. “Milly sent us here to bring the whole family back to town.”

“No.” Hope answered.

“No?” Colleen asked. “Hope, please come to town with us so we can look after you and the children.”

“No. Milly needs to stay in town to look after Lucas. I’ll stay here and take care of the children.”

“Hope,” Thadd interrupted. “You just had a baby. Come to town and…”

“Thadd, this is a working ranch. I’ll not be taken away from my home and be treated like a China doll. I’m not a child. Things need to get done around here. I won’t be taken away from my responsibilities. I can manage.”

“And just how do you propose to do this by yourself?” Colleen asked.

“Colleen, I spent six years living with the Kiowa. I know about fortitude and that’s what I need right now.” Then looking to Thadd, “And I know if I get feeling like I did after the twins were born, I’ll be right in to see you. Now, get back to town and tend to Mark’s parents.”

Johnny saw Thadd out the front door.

Colleen fixed lunch for everyone. Johnny assisted Hope in getting up and walking to the table. After lunch was finished, Hope insisted in helping Colleen do the dishes and then put the children down for their afternoon naps. For the next hour, Colleen and Johnny tried persuade Hope to see reason. Finally, they asked Hope to at least let them take Myra and Little Ted to town.

“I appreciate what you’re trying to do, really. But Ma has other things to worry about than tending to Myra and Little Ted. I’ll manage. Honest. Now why don’t the two of you head back to town so that Mark can bring the buckboard back here, in case we need it.”


*****

For Mark, it was the longest wait of his life. Once Thadd got back and told Mark that Hope and Elijah were both in good health, Mark set out, looking for the man who tried to kill his father.

*****

Colleen and Johnny, finally gave up trying to convince Hope to come to town. Before leaving, Colleen started a simple stew on the stove that would be ready in time for Hope and the children’s supper.
When they arrived back in town, they headed to the clinic. Amos was just handing a wire to Thadd.

“Good news, Jamison will be here in three days. I just need to keep Lucas quiet and still for the next three days.” He went into the room to let Milly know.

*****

The following morning, Hope was up and about. She’d wrapped a sling over her shoulder and was carrying Elijah around. She had breakfast ready as she entered the children’s bedroom to wake them for the morning.

As she left the house to head to the barn, she saw a team and buckboard being driving down the road towards the house. As they came closer, Hope saw Jacob McCafferty was driving the team.

“Jake, what are you doing here and with the team?”

“Mrs. McCain, I came when my parents told me what happened and was asked to let you know that Mark headed out after the man who tried to...” Jake stopped. He wasn’t sure exactly how Hope would take the news.

“I kind of figure that might have happened when he didn’t come home last night.”

“I want to help out. Mr. Griswald stated I was well enough in my studies that he said I could be released from school a few days early than the rest for summer break, as long as it was to help you.”

“Jake, I thank you but…”

“Please Mrs. McCain, I owe it to Mark. He saved my life eight years ago, when my family first arrived. Please?”

“Okay, you can help. Would you mind getting the team unhitched and turn them and the others loose in the paddocks? Mind you that Blade’s a stallion and he doesn’t get turned loose with Two-Bits. He goes in the paddock on the back of the barn. Would you mind throwing out hay for them and cleaning the stalls?”

“No ma’am, anything you want, just let me know.”

Jake McCafferty spent the morning working on chores as Hope had asked. Hope spent the morning milking the cow, collecting the eggs, then feeding the chickens and the hogs, all the while, keeping an eye on the young children. She scooted all the children to the house, when se needed to let Elijah nurse and then change him.

*****

It was lunch time when Jake finished his chores. Myra was standing behind Hope when she invited him up to the house. Little Ted, Josh, and Zach tagged along behind Jake as they made their way to the house.

As they entered the house, Jake noticed the woodbin was low. “Mrs. McCain…”

Hope interrupted him. “Please Jake, call me Hope.”

“I can’t, it’s not proper, you being a married woman and all. But could I call you Miss Hope, if that would make you feel better?”

“Miss Hope will be fine.”

“Then, Miss Hope, after lunch, I’ll do some wood chopping and fill the woodbin in the house.”

As they sat for lunch, Hope asked Jake to tell her about Mark saving his life.

“It was eight years ago, when my family first came to North Fork. We didn’t know it, but we were crossing McCain land at the time. Pa was trying to get us to town when a storm hit. Pa was trying to drive the mule team across a creek when a flash flood swept down from the hills and hit the wagon throwing me and Sarah into the waters. Mark rode Blue Boy in and picked me up and put me in the saddle, then he dove in after Sarah. I watched as the waters pulled him away. Blue Boy took me to the riverbank. The next day, Pa and Mr. McCain set out to track after them and, I know they were only looking to find their bodies and bring them home so they could bury them. I heard some of the men folk talking that there was no way they could have survived. It was two weeks later when the four of them returned.”

“I never knew this.”

“Oh, you know he don’t like to dwell or brag on things. He’s like his Pa. He does what needs to be done and doesn’t go for the glory of what he did. Anyway, once we got settled to school, it was different than back home, in Cincinnati. We didn’t make friends that easy and Mark kind of took us under his wings and helped us out, over lunch, with some of our studies. It was shortly afterwards that Mr. Griswald asked Mark to be his student teacher.”

“Would you like some more stew?” Hope asked.

“No ma’am. I’m pretty full. If I didn’t say it earlier, I really appreciate you letting me help out and be able to pay Mark back. I know when I was younger, I was too little to do things, but I never forget a debt.”

“I know he’ll appreciate your help. As long as you don’t get in trouble with your parents about being here.”

“No ma’am. When I told them what I wanted to do, they were in agreement. If you don’t mind, I think I’ll head out and chop some wood.”

“Thank you Jake. I’m going to put the children down for their nap.”

Jake returned to the house, carrying in wood, and quietly filled the wood box, seeing Hope asleep in the chair in the front room. He returned to the barn and got everything ready, water buckets filled, hay in the mangers and grain too, so that Hope would only have to bring the horses in. Once he was sure he had done everything he could for the day, he returned to the house. Hope was still asleep, so he wrote her a note.

Miss Hope,

I’m leaving the team and buckboard here. If you don’t mind, I’m going to use Blue Boy to get back and forth to town.

I’ll see you tomorrow.

Jake

*****

The children were playing in front of the house, while Hope was carrying Elijah in the sling as she and Jake were working in the garden, planting the vegetables for the year, when Hope stood and saw a stranger riding down the lane.

“Jake, take the boys and go inside. Myra, inside! Now!” Hope called.

Hope followed behind them, once inside the house, Hope set Elijah in his cradle and grabbed her rifle from over the fireplace, for a moment she regretted Mark not being home, seeing his rifle still in its rack.

Hope turned and told the children, “Stay quiet and stay inside.” Hope pulled the door closed behind her as she exited her home.

“Good day, Ma’am!” the rider called as he stopped his horse at their front door.

“Morning.” Hope replied. “Something I can do for you?”

“Well, I let the wind and my horse chose where to go and here I am,” the man spoke with an easy smile on his face. “This is still the McCain Ranch, is it not? I don’t seem to recall a second house on the property.”

“It is.”

“Then you are…” the stranger asked.

“Mrs. McCain,” a voice behind Hope stated. She turned to see Jake had come from the house and stood behind her with Mark’s rifle in his hands.

“Jacob inside! Now!” Hope demanded.

“Can’t be. Luke wouldn’t marry someone who appears half his age! That just ain’t like the Lucas McCain I know.”

“No Miss Hope,” Jake replied to Hope.

“Hope McCain. I like the sound of that name. So you are Mrs. McCain, then where’s that husband of yours? It’s been a long time and I can’t wait to see him.”

“You can head on into North Fork and when my husband gets home, I’ll see that he rides into town and looks for you,” Hope stated.

“Well now Miss, I don’t mean to alarm you but…” the stranger started.

“Mister, I’d ride on out of here if’n I were you,” Jake stated. “She knows how to use a rifle. She was taught by the best.”

“Okay, I’ll head on into town, but you tell your husband that an old friend of his stopped by, only there isn’t any witch’s brew this time.”

With that, the rider tipped his hat and turned his horse and rode towards North Fork.

*****

“Jake, I told you to stay inside. Why…”

“Because I couldn’t let you stand out there alone. He needed to know there was a man around the house who wasn’t afraid to carry a rifle.”

“Oh Jake, I understand. Just you put that rifle back where it belongs. I’ll start on lunch, while you keep an eye out that he is gone.”

*****

The following morning, Jake returned to the McCain Ranch. As he entered the barn, he realized there was a new horse inside. From behind he heard, “Just relax there Jake. I’m a friend.”

Jake slowly turned around to see the stranger from the day before standing in front of him.

“What do you want?” Jake asked.

“Just a few simple answers. I didn’t mean to scare Luke’s wife yesterday, but I saw he didn’t come home last night.”

“Miss Hope isn’t married to Lucas McCain, she’s Mark’s wife,” Jacob stated.

“Mark? He can’t be old enough…”

“He’s four years older than I am. He and Miss Hope have been married for four years later this month.”

“And all those children, they belong to Mark and his wife?” the stranger asked as he pushed his at back on his head and let out a whistle.

“No sir, the older girl and one of the three boys, they belong to Lucas and his wife Miss Milly. The twins and the new baby, they belong to Mark and Miss Hope.”

“Well… Lucas did remarry. So where is Lucas?”

“That’s none of your business, mister,” Hope stated as she held the rifle against her shoulder, pointing it at the stranger. “Jake, get his guns and tie him up. Then hitch up the team, we’re taking him into town to see the Marshal.”

“Well, I sure do look forward to seeing Micah again. But this isn’t necessary,” the stranger declared.

“I think it is. You’re trespassing on private property. I told you yesterday to leave. Now I find you spent the night in our barn and you’re asking questions that you have no business knowing the answers to.”

“Miss Hope,” the stranger started as he pulled his guns from his holster, gentle like. Hope cocked her rifle. “I’ll willingly hand over my guns and I’ll even help Jake hitch the team. I won’t cause no trouble. But something’s wrong here. As I said, I know Lucas McCain and he wouldn’t leave his son’s wife out here all alone with five children, and neither would Mark. But I sure can’t believe he’s old enough to be married, let alone have three children.”

“Just get to helping and remember, I know how to use this rifle,” Hope replied as she motioned for the stranger to put his guns on the hay bale.

*****

Once Hope had grabbed an overnight bag from the house and all the children were loaded into the buckboard, Hope told Jake to tie the stranger’s wrists.

“Now mount up,” Hope said.

Obediently the stranger complied. Hope tied his horse’s reins to the back of the buckboard.

“Jake you drive the team, I’ll keep an eye and my rifle on this man.”

*****

Jake pulled the team to a halt in front of the Marshal’s Office.

“Hope, what’s wrong,” Johnny Drako asked as he promptly came from the office.

“This stranger showed up at the ranch yesterday afternoon, asking questions. I told him to head on into town. I thought he left. This morning, I found out he spent the night in the barn and this morning he was asking Jake more questions.”

Drako motioned for the stranger to get down from his horse and escorted him into the office.

With his writs still bound, the stranger removed his hat.

“Things sure have changed a lot, since last time I was here. Is Micah Torrance still alive? He can vouch for me since it appears that something’s not right at the McCain Ranch,” the stranger stated as he proceeded into the cell.

“Hope!” Johnny Gibbs called as he entered the office. “Is everything alright?”

“They are now Uncle Johnny,” Hope stated as she finally lowered her rifle. “How are Pa and Ma?”

“The surgeon should be here on the afternoon train. We’re praying Doc’s kept Lucas still enough that the bullet hasn’t moved.”

“Luke’s been shot?!” the startled stranger asked as he grabbed the cell bars with his bound hands.

“Maybe you did the shooting and now you’re here to look at your handy work. To find out if your bullet killed a decent man?” Drako stated.

“No! Marshal, believe me. Luke and I go back years, why I knew Luke and Margaret when Mark was a baby. Please, if Marshal Torrance is still here, he’ll tell you who I am.”

“And just who are you?” Drako asked.

Before he could answer the question, Johnny Gibbs declared, “Lariat Jones,” as he approached the cell and took a closer look at the prisoner. “Well I be. Lariat Jones. Just what wind blew you into North Fork.”

“Uncle Johnny, you know this man?” Hope asked.

“Sure do, only not as well as Lucas. They were best of friends and… Well, I don’t know that Lucas would appreciate me telling you some of their tales without him here to defend himself.”

“Hope!” Seth Lane called as he entered the office.

“What happened?” Micah asked as he rushed into the office behind Seth. “Jake McCafferty just came over and told me a stranger was at the ranch and you brought him to town.”

“Hello Marshal Torrance,” Lariat called.

“Lariat Jones!” Micah declared as he walked to the cell area.

“So Marshal, does that absolve me from any crimes worth keeping me behind these bars?” Lariat asked.

“Well, there is the little matter of trespassing last night.” Drako stated, then looked to Hope.

“If Micah and Uncle Johnny vouch for who he is, then let him out Johnny,” Hope said, quite relieved.

As Johnny Drako opened the cell door and cut the ropes binding his wrists, Lariat asked, “Now what’s this about Lucas being shot.”

Johnny Drako told the story and how they were waiting for the surgeon to arrive to remove the bullet. How Mark was out tracking those responsible.

“Alone? How can any one of you let Lucas’ boy out to track a potential killer. Luke will be furious when he wakes up,” Lariat said.

“Mr. Jones, I’m quite sorry for how I treated you yesterday and this morning,” Hope said. “But my husband is a deputy for this town as well as a Deputy U.S. Marshal. He’s doing his job, Pa will understand.”

“Little Mark’s grown up to be a marshal? I imagine that went over like a ton of bricks with Luke. I remember how much he always talked about how life would be so much more civilized for Mark and that he’d not have to carry a gun,” Lariat stated as he looked to the floor and shook his head.

“He doesn’t carry a gun, as a traditional deputy would,” Drako spoke. “He chooses to carry a rifle.”

“Just like his Pa. Seems fitting. Speaking of guns, Miss Hope, if you don’t mind, would you mind giving me my hand guns back?”

Hope pulled the guns from under the sling she carried Elijah in.

“You’re carrying my guns in with the baby?!” Lariat asked in a shocked tone.

“They’re unloaded,” Hope said as she pulled the bullets from the pocket of her dress.

“Can see how the impressionable Mark got taken in by your beauty and charm Miss Hope. You sure have some spirit.” Then turning to Micah, “Marshal…”

“I’m not the marshal anymore Lariat, I’m retired,” Micah stated.

“Micah, would it be possible for me to see Lucas. Even if he’s not awake, I’d like to meet the new Mrs. McCain and offer her my sympathies.”

“Come on, I’m sure that even unconscious, Lucas would appreciate knowing you were here.”

*****

As they watched Micah and Lariat leave, Seth stated, “Come on Hope, let’s get the children over to the day care and then you and my new grandson are coming home with me! You have no say in the matter young lady. I want Thadd to look you over and if he says you’re doing okay, then maybe I’ll let you go home, but ONLY after Lucas has his surgery. I wanted to take you over my knee when I heard that you refused to come into town, but then I remembered, you are a grown woman. I’m glad you are here. Milly’s going to need you and I think her new grandson might just be the ticket to take her mind off what’s happening, if only for a little while.”

*****

Milly was keeping her vigil next to Lucas when Micah showed Lariat into the room. Both men removed their hats as Milly turned towards them.

“Milly,” Micah spoke. “I’d like to introduce you to an old friend of Lucas’. This is Lariat Jones.” Then turning to Lariat, “Lariat, this is Milly McCain.”

“Please to meet you Mrs. McCain. I’m sorry it’s under these circumstances.”

“Thank you, Mr. Jones, but please… everyone calls me Milly.”

“Well then Milly, call me Lariat.”

“How did you come to be here in North Fork?” Milly asked. “Had you heard about…”

“Well… It seems I had a slight run in with Mark’s wife, out at your place. We…”

“Hope and the children! Micah?”

“There, there now Milly. Hope and the children are fine. In fact they brought Lariat to town. As we were walking over here, I saw Seth with Hope and he was taking all of them to the day care, if you feel you can leave Lucas alone for a little while, I’m sure Myra and Little Ted would enjoy seeing their Ma.”

“I don’t know,” Milly stated. She was torn between seeing her children and staying with her husband.

“Milly,” Thadd stated as he entered the room. “Go see your children and your newest grandson. Lucas won’t be awake until well after his surgery. I’m glad Hope is finally in town, maybe you can keep her here.”

“What do you mean?” Milly asked.

“Milly, Johnny and Colleen tried to get her to come to town day after the baby was born. She refused. Jake McCafferty has been helping her out at the ranch, doing a lot of the work that Mark would normally do.” Then turning to Doc, “Thadd, I’m sure you’ll want to check in on Hope too. Why don’t you take Milly over to the day care?” Micah offered.

*****

After Milly left the room, Micah spoke, “Lariat, you made good point earlier about Mark. I didn’t want to say anything in front of the women, but I don’t like the idea of Lucas’ son out there, tracking down outlaws by himself. I know he headed out to Altoona, the afternoon it happened.”

“Micah, I’ll hang around here until I know that Lucas is out of danger, then I’ll head on out, after the boy,” Lariat stated.

“Not alone, you won’t,” Johnny Drako said as he entered the room. “I can temporarily deputize you, but you’ll not be tracking after one of my deputies without me.”

“Okay Marshal, we’ll get prepared while Lucas is in surgery and then once the doctor gives us the news, we’ll head out,” Lariat stated.

*****

Thadd escorted Milly to the day care, where upon entering she heard Myra and Little Ted calling for Mama, while Zach and Josh were calling for GanMa. Milly knelt down and hugged each one of the children and lovingly kissed them and told them how much she missed them.

Then Myra asked, “Where’s Papa?”

Fighting back tears, Milly walked Myra to a chair, sat down, then picked Myra up and set her on her lap. “Myra, your father has been hurt. He’s over at the doctor’s.”

“Can I kiss his booboo and make him feel better?” Myra asked.

“I wish it were that simple. Oh, I wish it were that simple,” Milly stated as she looked away, trying to keep from crying.

“Mama?” Myra asked. “You want to know a secret?”

“You have a secret?” Milly asked.

“Yes.” Myra cupped her hands and whispered into her mother’s ear, “Hope had her baby, he’s so tiny.”

“She did? I heard, but I’m so sorry I’ve had to be in town and with Papa.”

“Will you tell him I miss him and I hope he gets better?”

“I will sweetheart, I will,” Milly stated as she let Myra hop down to the floor and watched as she ran to play with her friends.

Hope waited to the side, giving Myra time with her mother. Milly turned to Hope, “Hope, I’m so…”

“No Ma. You’ve nothing to be sorry for. You’re where you’re supposed to be. Would you like to hold your new grandson?”

Milly smiled and nodded as Hope handed her son to Milly.

“Have you named him?” Milly asked.

“Mark and I decided Elijah Paul McCain,” Hope answered as she sat down in the chair next to Milly.

For the next hour the two women talked of anything and everything, just to pass the time and keep their worries buried. However, their worries were brought to the forefront when they heard the train whistle announcing the train’s arrival. They gave each other a knowing look and tried to be brave. Hope took Elijah back from Milly and place him in the sling she wore. Then the two women stoically walked over to the clinic. A few moments after they arrived, Thadd walked in with another young man. They were talking in medical terminology.

Thadd paused and introduced Doctor Jamison Redmond to Milly and Hope.

“Ladies, time for pleasantries can wait. I’d prefer to see my patient and evaluate him. If I feel he’s stable enough, I’ll want to perform the surgery right away. The sooner we remove the bullet, the better in the long run it will be for Mr. McCain. If you’ll excuse me?”

Thadd and Jamison entered the room where Lucas lay unconscious and closed the door behind them.

*****

“Have you kept up the antibiosis serum?” Jamison asked of Thadd as they entered the room to see Abigail tending to Lucas.

“I have. I was concerned for leaving the bullet inside and an infection setting in.” Then speaking to his wife, “Abigail, this is my friend Doctor Jamison Redmond, Jamison, my wife and nurse, Abigail.”

Pleasantries were briefly exchanged.

“Now, just let me…” Jamison quieted as he proceeded to examine Lucas. He first examined the bullet wound, pleased that no infection had set in and only minimal blood seepage. Doctor Redmond pulled out his stethoscope and listened to Lucas’ heart and lungs. Next, he picked up a scalpel and poked Lucas’ leg to see if there was any reaction, if they were already dealing with signs of paralysis. There was little, noticeable reaction to the scalpel poking his leg. A few minutes later he said, “It’s not as good a sign as I had hoped for, but it’s better than what I already feared. Thadd, this surgery is going to be difficult. I’d like you to assist me.”

“Just tell me what to do,” Thadd replied.

“First we’ll need to prepare for post surgery. Do you know if your general store has any Gypsum Plaster mix?”

“I’m not really sure, but I can find out. Why?”

“When properly mixed with water, it can form a hard shell. I want to encase his upper body in it to keep him immobile.”

“But there’s always a risk of post operation infection, if we…” Thadd asked.

“We keep him unconscious for a few more days afterwards to keep an eye on the surgical sight. If everything looks good, then we’ll encase his upper body. This also gives us time to order some in if your store doesn’t carry any in stock.”

“What ever you need, Jamison,” Thadd stated, unsure, but trusting his friend.

Thadd requested Abigail to go to the general store and inquire about the Gypsum Plaster, and if none was in stock, to get some on order.

Upon her returned, she announced there was a good quantity in stock and Mrs. Donner was going to have some of the men bring it over the next day. The three continued to prep the room and Lucas for surgery. Setting out the instruments and gathering plenty of lanterns to illuminate the room in anticipation of the sun setting during the operation.

Milly and Hope, with Elijah still in the sling, sat in the waiting room, reading from the bibles that Reverend McCafferty and his wife Maggie brought over. They stayed for a while talking and praying, before taking their leave.

Throughout the late afternoon and evening, friends of the McCain’s stopped by to keep them company and offer their best wishes that Lucas pull through the surgery.

*****

Hattie and Micah, with the help of Seth got the younger McCain children from the day care to their house, fed, and finally into bed.

*****

Slowly, Jamison made the first incision into Lucas’ back; gently cutting through the skin and through muscle, carefully avoiding blood veins as they showed themselves. Jamison worked carefully, throughout the delicate procedure as the bullet finally came into view. Thadd handed Jamison the extractor and watched as the bullet was removed. The two doctors then worked to sew up the incision that had been made.

Thadd checked Lucas’ pulse and respiration. Both were low, but that was to be expected with the new drugs they had administered at the start of the surgery.

The two doctors and their nurse sighed in relief as they put the last bloodied instrument onto the tray. Thadd picked up a needle and stuck it into Lucas’ leg, praying there would be a reaction.

“Thadd, there’s swelling that’s blocking the transmission of sensation. It’s doubtful there would be a reaction this soon after surgery. A better test of whether we were successful won’t come until tomorrow or the day after.”

“Then there’s nothing more we can do, other than wait?” Thadd asked, washing his hands as Abigail operated the pump to the sink.

“I’m sorry Thadd. We make sure there’s no infection and pray,” Jamison stated as he washed his hands.

Abigail picked up the tray of bloodied instruments and carried it out of the room as Jamison and Thadd went to talk with Milly and Hope.

*****

They arrived in the room and saw the time on the clock, two, thirty in the morning. Milly and Hope had both curled up on cots, that had been brought in by friends, and had fallen asleep. The doctors realized the women needed their sleep, but understood their sleep would be easier if they knew Lucas was had made it through the surgery.

Thadd knelt next to Milly’s cot, gently placed his hand on her shoulder, and just started to call her name when Milly woke with a start.

“Thadd?!” Milly asked. Here eyes conveyed the emotions she was feeling.

“Ma?!” Hope stated as she too woke.

“Milly, Hope, Jamison was able to successfully remove the bullet from Lucas,” Thadd stated.

“Is he okay? Is he not going to be paralyzed?” Milly asked.

“Milly, right now I can’t say. There is swelling from the surgery and until that swelling subsides, we won’t know. Maybe tomorrow evening or the day after, we’ll have a better idea of what our next action will be. Right know, we still need to keep him unconscious to keep him immobile. Once we’re sure that over the next two days that things are looking good, we’ll then wrap his upper body in a cast.”

“A cast?” Hope asked.

“Yes ma’am. It’s a new technique that will help keep his upper body immobile while it heels. Similar to a split, only more secure and less likely to be dislodged, and cause him to harm himself.”

“Can we see him?” Milly asked.

“Milly, he won’t know you’re there. I really like for both of you to head over to the hotel and sleep in a proper bed.”

“No,” Milly stated. “We’ll stay here.”

*****

Thadd spent the night in the room with Lucas, monitoring his vital signs. The following morning, Jamison came in and told Thadd to head on home and get some sleep.

“Did you look in on Milly and Hope?” Thadd asked.

“I did and both were still sleeping.”

*****

As Thadd stepped to the hallway, he heard baby Elijah crying. He stepped to the room to see Milly and Hope both awake and Hope picking her son up. He knocked on the open door to let them know he was there.

“Just wanted to let you know that Lucas’ vital signs are strong this morning. Jamison will be in the room with him until later this morning. I strongly suggest that after Hope nurses Elijah and changes him for the morning, that both of you head to the restaurant and eat a solid breakfast. I’ll make arrangements with Lou for you to spend the next few nights in town.”

“Thadd…” Milly started.

“No, this is not a hotel. You both need to sleep in proper beds and this is no place for an infant. Either you do as I say or I’ll ban you from seeing Lucas later today!” Thadd threatened.

“Do we have any other choice?” Milly asked sorrowfully.

“No. Milly, believe me. Lucas is in the best surgical hands that I know of. Jamison was the head of our class.”

“And you?” Hope asked, before she could stop herself.

“Hope, don’t feel guilty for asking. I was ranked sixth out of the one hundred and eighteen in our class. But Jamison had a special knack for surgery, especially one of this nature,” Thadd answered.

“Can I please see him this morning?” Milly asked.

“Okay, but just for a few minutes. As I told you earlier, we’re keeping him unconscious and he won’t even know that you’re there. Milly and Hope, you both need to tend to your children. I promise, I’ll come get you if there’s any change.”

Hope changed Elijah and then took time to nurse him, while Milly went to see Lucas.

*****

Milly entered the room to see Jamison listening through his stethoscope to Lucas’ chest.

“Milly, he’s stable this morning. His heart sounds strong and his lungs are clear.”

Milly bent over Lucas and kissed him on his cheek before whispering, “Lucas McCain, you have to pull through. You have to get better. You have a new grandson who’s waiting to meet his other grandfather.”

Trying to smile, Milly stood up and left the room.

Hope was still nursing Elijah when Milly returned, “Ma?”

“We just have to pray that he’s going to be alright. He just has too.”

Once Elijah had finished, Hope handed him to Milly and got herself re-dressed. Together they proceeded to the restaurant. As they entered they saw, Lariat Jones, Seth Lane, and Johhny Drako sitting at a table. The three men stood, their eyes asking the questions they couldn’t voice.

“Lucas came through the surgery, but we won’t know if there’s any… permanent damage until tomorrow at the earliest,” Milly answered.

“Milly, Lariat and I are heading out this morning to trail after Mark and whoever was responsible for this. We’ve not received any word from Mark.”

“You think he’s in trouble?” Hope asked as she felt her heart skip a beat.

“Hope,” Drako chose to answer. “Since no one’s heard from him…. We don’t know if he’s run into trouble or if might be taking matters into his own hands.”

“Mark couldn’t. He’s too much a deputy!” Milly declared.

“I know Milly, but we’re talking about someone trying to kill his father. You weren’t here when he I first returned to North Fork,” Drako declared.

“What does your returning to North Fork have to do with Mark trailing after these outlaws?” Hope asked.

“I returned to North Fork, six years ago, to visit Lucas and Mark. When I arrived at their ranch, I found them both half dead, beaten within an inch of their lives, and Lucas had been shot in the chest. After getting them to town, I trailed out after the outlaws responsible. A week later, Marshal Buckhart and I encountered Mark. He had death in his eyes. He didn’t even look like the young, impressionable boy I’d met two years previous. He was ready to kill, in cold blood if necessary, because he thought he’d heard Lucas was dead. He’d only heard part of what the Doc said while he was in and out of consciousness. In the end, he couldn’t pull the trigger. I fear that he might be letting vengeance overtake him this time. He’s been forced to kill two men in the past and the idea of killing a man for the first time won’t stop him, like it did back then. He’s not a child any longer.”

“My God, he couldn’t,” Hope cried as she raised her hand to cover her mouth.

“I pray he wouldn’t, but the bond between Mark and Lucas is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. And I don’t know what his mind set has become while he’s been out there alone. I can only pray that the lessons Lucas has taught him as he was growing up will see him through this. I also pray that the lessons Micah and I have taught him were good enough.”

“Johnny,” Milly stated. “Don’t short change the training that you and Micah gave Mark. Between the three of you, and God, I know Mark will do what’s right.”

*****

Long before Mark arrived in Altoona, he removed his badge and pinned it to the inside of his pant leg, he remembered the first time he had hid his badge in his back pocket and how easy it was for the outlaws to find it. Upon his arrival in town, he checked into the hotel, under the name, John Smith. Afterwards, he put Copper up at the livery. As he was tending to his horse, the livery owner came up and started a conversation.

“Mister,” Mark replied. “I keep to my self and expect others to keep out of my business.”

“Just trying to be neighborly, is all,” the man stated.

“I don’t live here, so I don’t need no neighbors.”

The man turned and walked away from Mark, leaving him alone.

Mark grabbed his rifle and bedroll, then returned to his room. He exited the hotel and headed to the saloon. Once inside, he looked around and saw a few men sitting at a table, playing poker, and others were just sitting around drinking. As he started to walk to an empty table, he heard, “Hey stranger, care to sit in on a hand or two. It just ain’t no fun with these two.”

Mark made his way to the table and set his rifle down on the table top as he pulled out a chair and sat down. The men took notice of his rifle, as he next leaned it up against his leg. A saloon girl sidled up next to Mark as asked, “What’ll it be?”

“Water,” Mark replied.

“You old enough to drink, aren’t you?” one of the men asked as he laughed.

“I am, just choose not to. Don’t want to dull my reaction time.”

“Reaction time?” another asked.

“Never know when I might need to use my rifle,” Mark replied.

“You any good with that thing?” the third man at the table asked.

“You aiming to find out?”

“No, no. Just asking.”

“You got a name?” the one who asked about Mark’s ability with the rifle asked.

“Didn’t know it was a requirement to play poker with you,” Mark answered.

After sitting for two hours playing poker and listening to conversations, Mark was up two hundred and seventy-five dollars. “Well gentlemen, it’s been fun. Good evening.”

“Hey you can’t leave until we get a chance to win back our money!” one man declared.

“You should have thought about that before you invited me to your game.” After placing his winnings in his wallet, Mark picked up his rifle, placing the tip of the barrel on the table. “Now are any of you objecting you my leaving?... Didn’t think so. As I said, good night.”

Before heading back to the hotel restaurant, Mark made one trip by the livery, to check on Copper. After eating supper, Mark returned to his room. He noticed that his belongings weren’t exactly as he had left them, earlier. Thankful he had chosen to pin his badge to his pant leg and not leave it in his saddle bags.

“Seems I’ve piqued someone’s curiosity,” Mark said out aloud to himself.

*****

The following morning, Mark was sitting in front of the hotel, rifle in his lap, when one of the men from the night before stopped in front of him.

“You know, there’s only been one other man I knew who constantly carried around a rifle instead of a hand gun,” the stranger stated striking a match to light his cigarette as he leaned back against the post on the veranda. He flicked the match to extinguish it, before tossing it aside, and taking a long drag on the cigarette. “I heard he got himself killed.”

“Hadn’t heard that news,” Mark replied as he continued to look across the street, and not at the stranger speaking to him.

“I’ll ask again, you any good with that rifle?”

“Some.”

“Not very talkative are you?”

“I get my point across,” Mark said as he move his hand to the lever and placed his index finger on the trigger.

“Now don’t go getting antsy. Just heard you’re traveling light and since some of that money you won at the saloon last night was mine...”

“Mister, either you get to the point of what you’re after… Or I’ll get to the point for you,” Mark stated as he swung the barrel of his rifle around and pointed it at the man.

“Seems an associate of mine got… let’s say, indisposed and ain’t available for a job that requires the talent of someone who understands the delicacy required when using a rifle.”

“You’re wanting to hire me for my rifle?” Mark asked.

“If you’re any good with it, Mr. Smith.”

“You care to tell me why you would hire a stranger off the street. Maybe I’m the law,” Mark replied.

“If you were the law, the deputy in town would know. Besides, the sheriff has a wanted posted on someone who looks an awful lot like you do.”

“A wanted poster? I take it you’re not the law else you wouldn’t be standing there wasting my time, you’d have your gun on me and I’d be on my way to your jail, IF I was, who you think I am.”

“Would you consider one thousand dollars a waste of your time?”

Mark grew curious. Why would a stranger offer him one thousand dollars? What was the job?

“It’s a fair sum of money. What would I have to do?” Mark asked.

“Just be at the hotel tonight when my boss arrives. He has all the details.”

“Then I’ll deal directly with your boss, later. He can meet me in my hotel room,” Mark said. He stood and with his hand on the stock/lever area, he swung his rifle up and rested the barrel on his shoulder and walked away.

*****

Knowing strangers were keeping an eye on him, Mark was even more determined to keep away from the Sheriff’s Office. And keeping up his charade, of what, he wasn’t sure. Mark thought to himself, ‘Let them make the moves and the guesses. When it comes time to play the Ace, I’ll hopefully have the upper hand.’ His thoughts turned to his family, as he sent up a quiet prayer that his father would be okay and his wife would understand his need to be gone. He thought back on the birth of his newest son, how he regretted missing these first few days of his life. But Mark knew he had a job to do, and do it he must.

*****

The lamps on the street had been lit for the night when Mark heard a knock at his door.

“Yes?” he called.

“Mr. Smith, I’m here to see you. My associate told you this morning that I may require the services of a man, such as yourself.”

Mark walked to the door and opened it. He was totally unprepared for the person who stood in front of him. Quickly he regained his composure, praying the man didn’t notice.

“You have need for a man with a talent when it comes to shooting a rifle, so I hear. There’s plenty of cavalry officers who could fit your needs,” Mark stated as he turned and walked to the desk in the room, to light the lamp.

“True, but not too many cavalry officers are willing to… work on the… let’s just say I require a man who I can hold to a job. My associate, Mr. Drummond, also informs me there’s a wanted poster out on you.”

“So he says. Only the name on the poster he showed me was Amos Ambrose. My name is John Smith,” Mark stated.

“A name’s a name. It can be changed as easily as one changes horses,” the man stated.

“So, just who are you that you want to hire me and make it worth one thousand dollars to me?” Mark hoped the man wasn’t who he thought he was. It had been almost eleven years since he’d first encountered this man. Even longer, since he had tried to kill Mark’s father and ended up killing his father’s friend, instead.

“Let’s just say for right now, I shall remain nameless. But the job includes making sure, who ever I hire is damn accurate with a rifle.”

“And if I decide to not accept your job offer?” Mark asked.

“Mr. Smith, you forget, there’s the little matter of the wanted poster on you. It would be real easy for me to turn you in and claim the bounty, I’d happily take the thousand dollars you’d bring me and find someone else to serve my purposes. Then I wouldn’t be out any of my own money.”

“So, just how do you know how good I am? And, if I accept your job, what assurances do I have that I’ll get my money and not wind up in jail with you claiming the bounty.”

“It’s all in the details on your wanted poster… Or rather Amos Ambrose’s wanted poster. As for turning you in later? I don’t do business that way. My reputation could be ruined, among my colleagues if I were to do something like that. So, do we have a deal?”

“What do you need me to do?”

“For now, you just need to settle in until everything is in its place. My associate will be in touch.”

*****

Later that night, Mark almost missed hearing the door to his room quietly being opened. He was thankful for all the years of sleeping lightly in the jail. He pretended he was asleep and moved his hand to the trigger of his rifle. He sensed the person reaching for him, when he threw the covers off, rolled over, and pointed his rifle at the man, calling, “Don’t move.” Mark was quite surprised to see light from the street lamp outside his window glint off the badge the man wore. Slowly Mark lowered his rifle as the Sheriff raised his hands.

“A man can get killed sneaking in on a person in the middle of the night,” Mark stated. He set the rifle down on the bed, then walked to the table with the lamp, struck a match and lit the lantern. “You care to explain yourself, Sheriff?” Mark asked.

“I’ve a good friend in the Marshal’s Office up in Denver, name’s Tom Benton?” the Sheriff stated.

“Go on.”

“Well, years ago we were on the trail of an outlaw once and we checked into a town, he used the name Amos Ambrose, said that was the name he used time to time when he was undercover. So, when I got the wanted poster, direct from Denver, with the name Amos Ambrose, I figured I’d take a chance that you might be a lawman and undercover. And the fact that you didn’t pull the trigger…”

“Who else knows of your adventures with this Marshal?” Mark asked.

“No one, and definitely not about his alias. So you are a Marshal?”


“Maybe, maybe not,” Mark spoke still not sure if he could trust the Sheriff. “One of the men I spoke with this afternoon talked of how if I were the law, your deputy would know and have told them?”

“Yeah, I had an inkling that Jonesy wasn’t that trustworthy, but sometimes it’s easier to keep those you don’t quite trust closer to you. If you need my help, just let me know.”

“Sheriff, I appreciate what you’re saying, but I can’t trust anyone right now. Only myself.”

“I understand, young man. Does your being here have anything to do with the wire I sent to the Marshal back in North Fork about the man I my deputy heard bragging about the Rifleman being killed?”

“I’m sorry, I can’t answer your question,” Mark stated. “Now if you don’t mind, if you really want to help me, are you up to playing along that I am who that wanted poster claims me to be and put me in jail. But I warn you, your deputy might turn on you tonight if he finds out I’m in jail and has talked with my potential employer.”

“Well, if it helps bring an outlaw to justice… I heard nothing but good things about the Rifleman. Don’t hold to a family man being shot.”

Mark handed his rifle to the Sheriff and walked out the hotel, down the street, and to the jail, with his arms raised. As the door to the cell closed behind him, he laid down on the bunk, folded his hands behind his head and crossed his ankles and waited. As he waited, he wondered what Tom Benton had in store for him. Mark knew why he used an alias when checking into the hotel, the newspapers stories; but why would Tom have sent a wanted poster out on Mark, without talking with him first?

*****

The morning sun was shining through the window bars when Mark heard keys jingling and voices. He turned his head to see the Sheriff carrying a tray, with the deputy holding a gun on the Sheriff.

“What’s this all about?” Mark asked.

“I’m here to get you out.” Then turning to the Sheriff, “You get inside,” as the door swung open.

Mark stepped out and watched as the deputy pushed the sheriff in and then raised his gun. Mark pushed the deputy’s arm down and demanded, “Are you really that stupid? You fire that gun and the whole town will hear it and come running. Best thing to do to ensure we get away it to tie him up and gag him.” Mark took the deputy’s gun and watched has he bound and gagged the Sheriff. Mark then walked to the sheriff’s desk, opened a bottom drawer and pulled out the key to the rifle rack and took back his rifle.

Quietly they snuck from the sheriff’s office, “I got your horse around back already.”

“Where do I head?”

“I’ll take you to where you need to be. Guess I won’t be having this job no longer,” the deputy pulled off his badge and tossed it back into the office. “Come on, let’s git.”

They rode east from town and came to a small trail, leaving the main road, when Mark asked, “So, where are you leading me and why?”

“We’re almost there, I’ll let Mr. Landau tell you… Oops, I weren’t supposed to tell ya his name.”

“Don’t mean nothing to me anyhow,” Mark replied. Mark remembered the name Landau from one of the U.S. Marshal reports he had read a few weeks back, but he couldn’t remember the details, only that he was someone to we careful around.

Shortly they came to a clearing with a small cabin sitting against trees on the far side. They slowed their horses and Jonesy called out to those inside, “I got him!”

Three men stepped from the cabin and spread out. “Okay, so I know Drummond, and you’re from my hotel room last night, and you must be Mr. Landau. Yeah, Jonesy let your name out a few minutes ago.” Looking from man to man, Mark continued, “So I’m here. Which one of you is going to tell me why?”

The one called Landau spoke to the former deputy, “Why are you here? You were supposed to wait until we came into town later this morning.”

“The Sheriff had him in jail this morning. Had his wanted poster out on the desk when I arrived this morning and a few minutes later the sheriff came in with his breakfast.”

“What did you do with the Sheriff?” the unnamed man demanded.

“I stopped the idiot here from killing him,” Mark stated calmly.

“What?” he asked.

“You want the whole town to know I was being broke out of jail? I suggested it would be better, give us time to get away, if he bound and gagged the Sheriff. He did manage to knock the Sheriff out before I could stop him. Maybe for the better, maybe not,” Mark answered. “So, how much longer am I to stay in the dark about why I your middle man wants to hire me and why I was broke out of jail?”

Landau stated, “Get off your horse and grab your rifle, we’ll tell you once inside.”

*****

The Sheriff regained consciousness and found he was lying on the floor of one of his cells. He struggled to the foot of the bed, hoping to use the top of one of the legs to remove the gag from his mouth. He wasn’t having any luck when he heard two voices calling for him from the front of the office, he started making as much ruckus as he could, hoping who ever would hear and come back to the cells.

The Sheriff was quite relieved when he saw one of the two men wearing a marshal’s badge. The man without a badge went back to the front of the office and picked the keys up from off the desk and tossed them to the Marshal, within moments, the Sheriff was being untied and ungagged.

“Sheriff, you care to tell us how you came to be bound and gagged and locked in your jail?” the Marshal asked.

“Well, I’m not sure exactly what’s going on,” the Sheriff replied.

“Johnny, you better see this,” the other man spoke, picking up a sheet of paper from the desk and carrying it to the cell.

The Marshal looked at the wanted poster.

“Sheriff, when did you get this poster?”

“About two days ago, it came special dispatch via a train and then a rider brought it to me, all the way from Denver. You know the fella in the poster?”

“Yeah, he’s my deputy and a deputy U.S. Marshal. His name’s Mark McCain,” the Marshal answered.

“McCain, the Lawman? I asked him about his Pa and told him it were a shame to hear such a family man being shot. But why didn’t he use his real name? He signed into the hotel using John Smith and then this poster claims his name’s Amos Ambrose.”

“Sheriff, I’m Marshal Johnny Drako from North Fork and this here’s a friend of the McCain’s, Lariat Jones. I think I can understand why Mark signed in under an assumed name. You recognized his name right away and probably so would the outlaw he’s after. But I don’t understand the wanted posted from Denver. So why were you in your own cell?”

“I put him in there last night. He suggested it might be a good idea for me to play along with the wanted poster. We kind of figured my former deputy would pull something and he did. He broke the young fella out a jail this morning when I was bringing him his breakfast.”

“How long ago was that?” Lariat asked.

“It was about six, thirty this morning.” Looking at the clock the three realized it had been over two and a half hours since Mark had been taken.

*****

The former deputy saddled the other horses while the others told Mark their plan. Soon they were riding through canyons and over hills to reach their destination. Landau told Mark where to position himself, stating that the still unnamed man would be staying with him, to make sure he took the shot, while Drummond and Jonesy went with Landau down the hill to wait for the special stage run, carrying new rifles bound for the U.S. Army fort outside of El Paso, Texas.

It wasn’t too long a wait before two outriders and the stage came into view. Mark shouldered his rifle, torn between taking the lives of these two strangers or seeing that the man responsible for shooting his father was brought to justice. Mark sighted down his rifle, asked God to watch over the rider he was about to shoot, and pulled the trigger. Before the first rider could fall from his saddle, Mark had sighted in on the second rider and pulled the trigger. The first rider fell outright from his horse, while the second rider slumped forward. The stage driver urged the team on. Mark watched as the others caught up with the stage and held guns on the driver and shotgun rider.

Mark and his chaperone mounted their horses and rode down to meet the others at the stopped stage. Before they reached the bottom of the hill, Mark watched as men jumped from the stage, firing at those trying to rob the stage. From the corner of his eye, he saw his companion ride away. Mark took chase. They reached flat ground when Mark pulled Copper to a halt, shouldered his rifle, aimed, and squeezed the trigger. A few moments later, he watched the rider fall to the ground, next Mark urge his mount forward. As he pulled his horse to a stop, the rider was getting to his feet and reaching for his gun. Mark leveled his rifle at the man.

“I wouldn’t do that Ryerson. You’ve seen how good I am with a rifle at a distance, I surely can’t miss at this close range,” Mark stated.

“You know me? How do you know me? I don’t know you!” he declared.

“Oh yes you do. You held me hostage on a train eleven years ago. I see prison wasn’t kind to you, but regardless of how you look today, I’d know you anywhere.”

“Who are you?” Ryerson yelled.

“I’m the Lawman.”

“The Lawman?”

Mark saw Ryerson trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together in his mind but not having much luck.

“The only lawman on that train was killed by my brother. You couldn’t have been there.”

“Oh but I was there. I thought you were a smart man. See back then, I was eleven and traveling with my father, who ended up saving your life instead of letting you bleed to death from the bullet wound to your leg.”

Realization hit Ryerson, he went for his gun again, but before he could clear his holster, Mark had fired his rifle and struck Ryerson in the hand.

“I told you I wouldn’t miss at this range. I hit what I aim for. You’re under arrest for the attempted robbery of the stage and after further investigation and interviewing your associates, especially Jonesy and Drummond, I’m sure there will be more charges levied against you.”

“Surprised you didn’t kill me kid. Too chicken to kill the man who finally killed the Rifleman?”

“No, not chicken. Too well trained. Besides, I’m praying that he’ll stand up at the trial as a character witness against you and see that you get locked up for the rest of your natural days. Now, get walking back to the rest.”

As Mark rode, he lifted up his leg, hooked it over the saddle horn, rolled his pant leg up and removed his badge. He had just finished pinning it on his shirt when two riders pulled up in front of him and lowered their guns at seeing his badge.

As he approached, he hollered, “Drew Anders, just what are you doing here?”

“Mark,” Drew called, just as shocked. “Where’s Mikelson?”

“I don’t know anything about a Mikelson. But Drummond stated that one of his associates was indisposed… What’s going on here?”

“Mark, I don’t know what you’re doing here, but Tom sent us out on this assignment. We’ve been planning this operation for weeks and then Tom got the wire from Marshal Drako that you were heading towards Altoona. We received word from Tom saying he had you taken care of so you wouldn’t get caught up in this mess. So what are you doing here?”

“I was trying to track the man responsible for shooting Pa, when these men hired me for a job; I hadn’t a clue why Tom sent out a wanted poster on me with an assumed name. They saw I was good with a rifle, in the description section of the poster. After what you just said, now it makes more sense. But what of the two men I shot?”

“Mark, I think you own Marcus and myself both new shirts,” Drew stated with a grin.

“But I shot you?” Mark asked, knowing he had been true in his aim and neither man was bleeding.

“Mark, when we get back to the stage, we’ll show our armor. Glad you didn’t take a head shot.”

“Drew you know head shots that distance are risky. We’re trained to go for main body mass.”

“Well, you were a little off target,” Drew answered as he fingered at the hole in his shirt.

“Not really. As I told Ryerson, I hit what I aim for. I was only off about an inch,” Mark retorted with a small laugh.

“If you want, we can take these outlaws into town and you can head on back to North Fork,” Drew stated.

“No, this one is my prisoner. If one of you’ll go get his horse, I want to personally see that he gets put behind bars. Then I’ll head home.”

It was mid-afternoon when the assorted group, along with the stage, made their way into Altoona. They stopped in front of the Sheriff’s Office where Mark was surprised to see Johnny Drako and a man he vaguely remembered from his past, getting ready to get in the saddle.

“Hi there Mark, wow, you sure have grown up,” Lariat stated. “Having trouble placing me? Let me help you out. You’re Pa taught you any card tricks lately?”

“Lariat Jones, it’s been a long time! And yes, enough that I won two hundred and seventy-five dollars off some grifters the other night.” Mark stepped down and shook hands with his father’s friend, then spoke to Johnny, “Johnny, Pa, how is he?”

“He had surgery night before last. We waited until we had word the bullet was out and set out yesterday morning to find you. I was worried about you. I remembered the last time you trailed after men who…” Drako stated.

“I know Johnny, that’s the only thing that kept me sane, remembering how I let my grief and need for vengeance take control over me back then.” Mark shoved his prisoner into the Sheriff’s Office and pushed him into a cell by himself. “This one gets held separate from the others. Walt Ryerson, I’ll see that you get charged for the attempted murder of Lucas McCain.”

“He’s the one?” Drako asked.

“Yeah, he as much as admitted it out on the trail,” Mark replied.

“I admitted nothing. You got nothing on me!”

The Sheriff closed the door from the office to the cells and the men’s complaints were drowned out.

Lariat started a conversation, “Mark, I can’t believe this many years have passed. And you’re married. By the way, I met your wife. Quite charming, if I do say so. I know your Ma would be thrilled to know you married such a woman and three sons? Uh, uh, uh. Yes, your Ma would be quite pleased.”

“You didn’t tell Mark how Hope got the drop on you with her rifle, that’s the best part,” Drako stated with a laugh. “Mark, we’ll do the interrogating and I’ll personally sign the warrant for Ryerson’s arrest to see that he’s brought up on charges. Why don’t you and Lariat head on back to North Fork. I’m sure your Ma and Hope would appreciate seeing you. Besides you probably didn’t even get to see your baby boy but for a few hours before you set out. Go on now boy, you’re relieved of your responsibilities here.”

*****

Mark and Lariat talked of what had happened in their lives since the last time Lariat had visited, while they returned to North Fork.

*****

Thadd and Jamison were wrapping Lucas’ torso in the Gypsum plaster as Mark entered his father’s room at the clinic. There were plenty of lanterns illuminating the room, as the sun was setting.

“Mark, once we’re done with this cast, we’ll allow your father to wake up, on his own. This cast is just to keep him immobile to allow his back to heal and to prevent him from injuring himself.”

“Is he paralyzed?” Mark asked, fearing the answer.

“We won’t know for a while. There’s still residual swelling that could be pressing on the nerves,” Jamison answered.

“When I was paralyzed,” Mark started. “Pa and Lou took me to the hot mineral springs down near the border. I think it was called Mission Springs. Would that help Pa?”

“Mark, Lou and Uncle Jay spoke with us about your case yesterday. Your situation was completely different than Lucas’. The warmth from the mineral springs relaxed your muscles, allowing them to expand. The spasms that kept you paralyzed, contracted your muscles, pinching on the nerves, that’s what caused your paralysis. But if you’ll remember, it really wasn’t the mineral springs that healed you. I understand you were angry and had misplaced your faith.”

Mark nodded as he remembered back, “But still…”

“The warmth would only make the situation for your father worse. I’m hoping it’s only his injury and the surgery that’s causing the swelling of the tissue and muscle around the nerves. But it could be that the bullet did the damage and there’s not much more we can do to reverse the paralysis. I’m sorry Mark, but I think you need to know the truth, as cold as it might sound,” Jamison answered.

That night, Milly and Mark were sitting in the room with Lucas, when he started moving his head from side to side. In time, he moaned and raised his hand to his head. Mark stood and walked to his father.

“Pa, just relax. You’re at the clinic. You were shot.” Mark picked up a glass of water and helped his father raise his head to drink.

His eyes still not open, Lucas asked, “Milly?” barely above a whisper.

“Ma’s fine. She drove you back to town and has been here, with you, the whole time.” Mark motioned for Milly to come and sit down on the bed, next to Lucas.

“Oh Lucas, I prayed you’d get better,” Milly said as tears fell down her cheeks.

“Why can’t I move?” Lucas asked as he finally managed to open his eyes and looked at his wife. Milly held Lucas’ hand and raised it to her lips and placed a kiss upon it.

“Pa, Doc put you in a cast. You need to keep still, to allow your back time to heal.”

Mark turned as he heard the door behind him open and watched as Hope enter, carrying Elijah.

“Pa, I’m glad you’re finally awake. There’s someone who wants to meet you,” Mark said.

“I don’t think so, son. Not now…” Lucas whispered.

“Pa,” Hope stated as she came to stand next to Lucas’s bed. “We’d like you to meet your grandson, Elijah Paul McCain. So you see, you just have to get better and do as the doctors’ say.”

Lucas turned his head towards Hope and extended his arm to touch his new grandson. Lucas smiled as he looked upon the sleeping child in Hope’s arms.

*****

Thadd and Jamison entered the room as Lucas’ lowered his arm, closed his eyes and fell back asleep.

“Doc?” Milly asked.

“Milly, it’s to be expected. With the amount of blood he lost and us having kept him under sedation for as long as we did, and the trauma his body experienced, it will be a while before he’s awake for more than a few minutes at a time.”

Jamison walked to the foot of the bed, exposed Lucas’ foot and had taken a needle and poked his big toe. Jamison replaced the sheet after seeing no reaction to the stimulus. He looked up to see Milly, Mark, Hope, and Thadd looking at him.

“We’ll have a better idea in a few more days. I really didn’t expect any visible improvement. But I do need the whole family to understand, that there is the possibility that this paralysis is permanent,” Jamison stated.

Milly and Hope inhaled sharply and tried to not cry. Mark walked to his wife and placed his hands on his wife’s shoulders and gave them a squeeze as he remembered back, back to that one time when he too had been paralyzed.

“Hope,” Mark stated. “Let me take Elijah. I want you to head over to the Hattie and Micah’s, get the boys ready. I’ll meet you there in few minutes to take you to the hotel.”

“But…”

“Hope, I’m back and I want you at the hotel.” Mark took Elijah and then watched as Hope left the room.

“You too Ma.”

“Mark, I can’t leave your father,” Milly declared.

“Yes you can. He knows you’re okay and he’ll sleep. If he wakes during the night and calls for you, one of the doctors or Abigail can come get you. Now, as the man of this family, you’ll do as I say. Now let’s go get Gabby and Little Ted and get this whole family to the hotel. Okay?”

Milly nodded as Mark took her in one arm and as he had Elijah in the other.

*****

That night at the hotel, Mark saw his Ma, sister, and brother to their hotel room. Then he went to his own, he looked forward to just holding Hope in his arms and getting to know his newest son.

Hope had put the twins to sleep and crawled into bed next to Mark, smiling as she watched her husband hold his youngest son.

“You look good with a baby in your arms,” Hope stated.

“Not quite as good as you looked while pregnant with him. I remember, right after you miscarried, Pa was telling me, about my Ma. Told me there was something so nurturing about a pregnant woman.”

Elijah started fussing in Mark’s arms, “Pa also said it was nurturing to watch a baby suckle from his mother’s breast and I think Elijah is letting me know he’s hungry.”

Mark watched as Hope situated herself so that she could allow Elijah to nurse. Mark handed their son over and smiled in amazement at this third life they had brought into the world. He wrapped an arm around Hope’s shoulders and with his other hand, caressed the back of his son’s head as Elijah started to suckle.

“Hope I want to apologize for being gone this past week. Leaving you alone at the ranch and the boys…”

“Mark, don’t apologize. Your father was shot and you had a job to do. You had to bring those responsible to justice.”

“No I didn’t. I could have let your father or Johnny do it. I should have. I was too ‘close’ to the situation.”

“You didn’t kill the man? Did you?” Hope asked.

“I couldn’t kill him this time either.”

“Johnny told Ma and me something about when he first returned to North Fork.”

“That kept playing over in my mind the whole time I was gone. I had just returned from visiting with Samuel Gibbs, my real Ma and Uncle Johnny’s father. While I was out there, he had a heart attack and died. I came back to North Fork without letting anyone know I was coming home early. I arrived at the ranch to be shot off my horse…”

“They shot you?”

“You never wondered about his little scar across my temple?”

“That’s when it happened?”

“Yes. When I got to my feet, I saw Pa fighting one of the outlaws. I fired my .22 at one of them, tagging him in the shoulder. Two of the others grabbed me, and as I struggled, I got free. Then another caught me and started beating me. The last thing I saw before I everything went black, was the outlaw using Pa’s rifle and shooting him in the chest. I guess I was in an out of consciousness and at one point I thought I heard Doc Burrage state my Pa was dead.”

“Mark, Johnny said that he found you while he was tracking the outlaws.”

“They did. I’m thankful it was Marshal Buckhart and not the outlaws. I was so intent on my vengeance and hatred for those men, that I didn’t pay attention to my surroundings. Sam got the drop on me. Anyway, Sam ended up saving my life and killing the leader of the outlaws, because I couldn’t. I didn’t stand thirty feet away from the man. And the only thing I could think of was Pa saying that he never wanted me to know what it was like to take the life of another human being.” Mark paused, he felt a twinge of regret as he said, “Guess that’s one of Pa’s dreams that I ruined.”

“Mark, don’t think that way. You’ve never taken a life, when a life wasn’t at risk to begin with. You’ve never taken a life in cold blood,” Hope replied, trying to comfort her husband. “And this time?”

“I kept my head about me. I remembered, constantly, how I let vengeance get the better of me. This time, I was a man, not a boy. I also knew I wore a badge and that I had to bring who ever it was to justice.”

Mark gave out a small laugh, which caused Hope some concern. Mark realized his mood had completely changed. “Evidently, Tom Benton got worried about me too. He sent out a wanted posted with me being a crack shot with a rifle and wanted for bank robbery. Guess he thought the Sheriff of Altoona, who he knew from a long time ago, would see me and put me in jail. Keep me out of the way of one of their operations. Little did he know that his wanted poster put me right where he didn’t want me. No Hope, I had no intention of killing the man who shot Pa. I wanted to see him stand in court and be tried. Though I was surprised to find out it was Walt Ryerson. Twice now, he’s tried to kill Pa. The first time he shot and killed a friend of Pa’s, he thought he was shooting at Pa.”

Elijah had finished nursing and Hope handed him to Mark.

“Do you mind burping him, while I change for bed?”

“Come here son,” Mark said as he took Elijah from Hope. He placed a towel over his shoulder and started patting his son on the back until he heard a couple of good burps. Mark carried Elijah over to the bassinet, that Lou had loaned them for the night, and placed his son inside. He stepped to the cot where Josh and Zach lay sleeping. He pulled the blanket up over each of them.

Mark crawled back into bed after stripping down to his long johns. He snuggled close to Hope and asked, “How are you feeling?”

“Don’t worry Mark, this time, its totally different. I don’t feel anything like I did after the twins were born. I’m relieved that you’re back, though. That was one concern I had after I refused to come to town with Uncle Johnny and Aunt Colleen. What if the depression came back?”

“And just why did you refuse?”

“I’m a member of this family and the ranch is our home. I guess I needed to prove to myself that I could hold up my responsibilities of this marriage and family. Though it did rattle me when I found Lariat Jones had spent the night in our barn, without me realizing it. Guess that’s why I finally decided to pack up and come to town.”

“So do you feel you held up your end of this marriage?” Mark asked as he lovingly kissed at Hope’s neck and held her tight.

“Yes, I feel a little silly that I thought I could do it all by myself. Oh, you should know that Jake McCafferty has been helping out with the chores around the ranch, taking care of the barn and chopping wood for us. He told me of how you saved his and Sarah’s life when they first arrived in town. I’m so proud of you.”

“Hope, I’m worn out from everything that happened this week and I’d really like to just fall asleep with my wife in my arms… No more talking, okay?” Mark was asleep practically as soon as he finished speaking. Hope sighed and snuggled that much closer to Mark.

*****

Throughout the next several days, Lucas would wake for a few minutes at a time. Between his family and friends, someone was always close by.

When not standing watch in town or checking in on his father, Mark headed home and tended to chores. The first time he arrived home, he found Jake McCafferty just riding onto the property with Blue Boy.

“Morning Jake,” Mark said as he stepped down from Copper. “Hope told me what a help you’ve been for her this past week. I’d like to pay you as a working ranch hand.”

“Mark, for the past week, I’ve helped out as sort of repaying a debt I owe you for saving my life.”

“Jake, you don’t need to repay me for that.”

“But I felt I needed to. I mean, it’s in the good book, if someone save’s your life, you’re beholden to them. I’m glad I’ve been able to help out.”

“Tell you what, why don’t we call the debt paid in full. Until Pa gets better, I’m gonna need someone to help out when I can’t get here, especially when I have to stand my watch in town. Would you agree to continue to help out doing what you’ve been doing for say fifty cents a day? And then if we need to move the cattle or check the fences and repair any of them, anything that would require a full day’s work, you’ll get a dollar a day. Does that sound fair?”

“Gee Mark, that’s a lot of money, for just me helping out.”

“Jake, full time ranch hands, working full days earn about a dollar a day. Since most of what you’ll be doing can be done in the morning, its half a day’s wages. But when I need you all day, you’ll get paid a full day’s wages. Deal?”

“Can I ask my parents first, I mean, I don’t want to take…”

“Jake, ask your parents and let me know tomorrow. If they agree, wages start tomorrow. And you can continue to borrow ride Blue Boy, he needs the exercise. Someone needs to keep him fit for when Myra wants to start riding.”

“Yes sir, do you mind if we get started this morning?”

“Sure, come on.”

Throughout the morning, Jake and Mark worked side by side in getting the necessary chores done at the McCain Ranch. Once finished, they rode into town together, with Jake waving goodbye to Mark in front of the parsonage.

*****

Mark returned his family home three days after his father’s surgery. The first night in their home, Hope pulled out their family bible and brought it to the table where Mark was working.

“I think we need to officially record Elijah’s birth, don’t you?” she asked as she set the bible on the table.

Mark scooted his chair back and motioned for Hope to sit down on his lap.

“Yes, Mrs. McCain, I think it’s a very good idea to record Elijah’s birth.”

Hope dipped the pen in the inkwell and wrote:

Elijah Paul McCain, Born and the date

“You still wish he was a girl?” Hope asked.

“No, but we can keep trying until we get a girl,” Mark stated as he pulled Hope’s hair from her neck and kissed her gently.

“Let’s wait a little while before we try again,” Hope asked as she pushed Mark away and stood to go pick up Elijah and allow him to nurse.

Mark picked the bible up and returned it to the shelf, next to his Ma’s picture. He felt a little melancholy, wishing his Ma could see his children.

*****

It had been two weeks since the surgery and the Gypsum cast had finally been removed. Doc Burrage stated that maybe returning Lucas to his home might be better than him staying at the clinic. Surrounding of home and family could possibly make the difference he told the family. Quietly, he knew he was lying. He’d seen changes in Lucas as he spent more time awake, he’d become sullen and distant.

As he prepared to discharge Lucas, he didn’t tell the family what Jamison had told him, before he left to return home, that Lucas’ paralysis was, more than likely, permanent. He prayed his friend was wrong. Jamison didn’t know the faith that the McCain’s held in the Bible. But then, he’d seen Lucas’ faith faltering.

Mark made sure the buckboard was deeply bedded with straw and blankets for his father. Johnny Drako and Johnny Gibbs helped carry Lucas from the clinic and got him into the back of the buckboard. Mark picked up the reins to the team and told the others to head on to the ranch, he’d be there as soon as possible. He wanted to take it slow and not bounce his Pa around in back.

*****

Micah watched as Mark drove the buckboard from town. He remembered back to a previous time when Mark had driven Lucas home. A time when Lucas couldn’t see. Micah remembered those dark days in North Fork and prayed that the storm that would eventually hit the McCain ranch would be kind to his friends; he too had seen the changes in Lucas. And he worried for the families of his friends.

*****

It was another quiet trip; only this time, the situation between Lucas and Mark was reversed. Mark reflected back to when he had been paralyzed. He blamed himself for the accident. His Pa had blamed Blue Boy. Mark thought back on how angry he had been during the trip and how he lashed out at his Pa and at Lou once they arrived at Mission Springs. No one was to blame for the accident. But without realizing it, Mark’s faith was being put to the test. He remembered back, how he had lost his faith. He remembered his Pa telling him that it was really up to him, whether he got better or not. But one day, Lucas said, he would see to it that his son did walk again. Lucas could only do so much, the rest was between Mark and God. After he finally came to understand the truth, that he did blame God for taking his legs from him, and he got up the courage, he asked God for forgiveness. To forgive him for not accepting that things happen for a reason, for better or for worse. God has a plan for everyone. Once they returned home, it took a while for him to forgive himself for losing faith, but his Pa was there to see him through. This time, Mark prayed to God that his Pa was stronger than he had been and, just maybe, Doc was right and after a few days at home, things would get better for his Pa.

*****

Lariat made a trip to the McCain Ranch just to make sure everything was okay. This was the first day after Lucas was allowed to return home that Mark had to be in town. He found Milly and Hope doing laundry out front. Through their chit chat, Lariat tried to bring laughter to both women.

“See, that’s what I was telling Mark, you two need to laugh. You both look so much more beautiful when you laugh. Your eyes sparkle,” Lariat said, causing both Milly and Hope to blush and laugh.

“Go on now Lariat, we’ve work to do. Lucas is inside. I’m sure he’ll be happy to see you.”

As he entered the home, through the open front door, he removed his hat, and called, “Luke, you sure have one fine family. Oh how I envy you. Milly is one fine woman.”

“Get out of here Lariat, you’re not welcome in the house,” Lucas said bitterly.

“Luke what’s wrong? I’m here on a friendly visit.”

“Friendly! You stay away from my wife. Don’t think I didn’t hear about you and Milly while I was still at the clinic.”

“What did you hear? That I took the wife of a very good friend of mine to lunch a few times? That I gave her every courtesy a married woman deserves?”

“That’s just it! She’s married!”

“Luke, you’re not yourself. You’re just feeling down is all. Give yourself time to heal.”

“Get out!” Lucas demanded. “And don’t come back!”

“All right Luke. I’ll be seeing you.”

Lariat turned and left the house, putting his hat back on his head.

“Lariat,” Milly called. “That was a short visit. Won’t you at least stay for lunch after riding all this way?”

“No Miss Milly.” After looking back to the house he continued, “Let’s just say, it’s best if I return to North Fork.”

Lariat grabbed the reins of his horse and swung up, calling “Good day,” as he rode away.

“Ma, what was that all about?” Hope asked as she stopped wringing a diaper out.

“I’m not sure, but Lucas…”

“Ma?”

“Oh Hope, I thought bringing Lucas home would be good for him, but I guess its not. He won’t let Myra or Little Ted into the room with him, and…”

“Ma? Tell me. There’s something more, what’s wrong?”

“He’s just so different towards me. I don’t know what I’ve done or what I need to do to help him. I just can’t get through to him, it’s scaring me.”

Hope hung the diaper on the side of the wash tub and walked to Milly and wrapped her in a hug, allowing Milly to cry in her arms.

*****

Mark returned to the ranch later that afternoon and entered his parent’s home without knocking. He didn’t acknowledge Myra as she turned from practicing her writing at the table to say, “Hi Mark!” He didn’t acknowledge his Ma, who called his name as he entered his parent’s bedroom and closed the door.

“Okay Pa. What’s wrong?” Mark asked in a serious tone.

“What makes you think anything is wrong, other than me stuck here in this bed?”

“For one thing you told Lariat to stay away from here. To stay away from Ma?” Mark asked, raising his eyebrows. “What were you thinking? Milly loves you!”

“Loves me?! Lou and Hattie, told me about Lariat and Milly!”

“What, that a friend of yours was thoughtful enough to want to make sure your wife ate and to give her a few minutes away from worrying about you?! To see that she was properly escorted through the streets of town, to see her safely to the hotel after the sun set?!”

“People of this town know my wife; she doesn’t need to be escorted!”

“Pa, there are strangers coming through this town every day; arriving on the train and drifters riding through town, on their way to who knows. I thought you’d appreciate the fact that someone was there to watch out after Ma. Pa you’re not being rationale. Yes, she’s enjoying Lariat’s company, but it’s because he’s a long-time friend of yours. Most of the time he just sits there and listens to Ma talk about how wonderful a husband you are. How the two of you first met. Pa, you know that Milly loves you!”

“And just how would you know what they talk about?”

“Because Lariat’s told me. He envies the life you have. Pa I know you’re upset because you’re…”

Lucas yelled, “You don’t know what I’m going through, what it’s like to be paralyzed!” Not realizing what he was saying, he was angered at not being able to ‘do’ for his family and letting irrational thoughts over ride his common sense.

“Oh, don’t I?” Mark replied.

Realizing now was the time to make a drastic change in trying to help his father. Mark struggled to keep his emotions under control as he left the room. As he walked across the front room, he said, “Ma, get packed. You, Gabby and Little Ted are going to stay in town. You can stay with Seth, Hattie and Micah, Johnny and Colleen, or at the hotel. I don’t care where, but you’re not staying here any more!”

“Mark!” Milly stated with shock.

“You’ll do as I say. And do it quickly. I’m going to hitch the team. I’m also sending Hope and our boys to town with you, as well.”

*****

Milly and Hope sat on the front seat of the buckboard, Elijah sleeping in the sling draped around Hope’s shoulders, while the other children sat in the back.

“Mark, why can’t we stay here?” Hope asked.

“Because I don’t want you to hear what’s going to happen next. I don’t know if I’m strong enough to do what needs to be done, but I know I can’t do it if you’re here. Please, mind me on this? Stay in town until I come for you? And don’t let Jake come here in the morning either.”

Milly picked up the reins and slapped the team to head out. Mark stood in the yard and watched his family leave. He looked to heaven and asked God to help him. “I don’t know if I can do what’s necessary; please God, not for me, but for Pa?”

Mark returned to his former home and closed the door behind him. He picked up his father’s bible from the table next to his father’s chair. One more time he asked God to forgive him for what he was about to do.

He entered his father’s bedroom and said, “I brought you your bible. Thought it might bring you some comfort.”

“So Milly ran off to town to be with Lariat,” Lucas stated, without taking the bible from Mark.

“No, I sent her and the rest of my family away so they wouldn’t hear.”

“Hear what?” Lucas asked.

“I’m not quite sure, but I know it’s not going to be something that you want your wife or your children to hear.”

Lucas didn’t say anything, but the expression on his face spoke volumes to Mark.

“I didn’t figure that Lucas McCain would quit on God.”

“Quit on God?!”

“Yes. A little while ago you said that I didn’t know how it felt, what you were going through.”

“You don’t!”

“Maybe I don’t know your fear that you think your wife sees something more in another man than she sees in you, but then I trust my wife, as I’m sure deep down you really trust Milly. You’re talking hurt. You’re putting up a wall and scared because you can’t move your legs.”

“What would you know?” Lucas demanded angrily.

“Then maybe you’re not the father who raised me. The father who took me to Mission Springs, in an attempt to calm the spasms in my back so that I could possibly walk again. Maybe the truth is coming out. The proud Lucas McCain can dish it out, but he can’t take it! He can tell others to believe in God, that God has a plan for everyone. That everything happens for a reason. God forbid that Lucas McCain has to depend on others! Or that his friends want to be there to try to pay him back for all the times they’ve had to rely on his help! God forbid that Lucas McCain is nothing more than a mere, human being! God forbid Lucas McCain won’t look to the bible to find the answers to his questions! Or are you too scared?! He can’t be the Rifleman anymore so he’s going to push everyone away who cares about him. Well don’t worry about doing any more pushing, there’s no one left here for you to push around!"

Mark turned and walked from the room, slamming the door behind him. He paused for a moment to wipe away the tears running down his face.

All the while Lucas was yelling for Mark to “Come back here boy! Mark?! Do you hear me?!”

*****

In time, Lucas quieted and Mark spent the night, sitting in his father’s chair, reading from his own bible. Regretting the words he had spoken and the tone he had taken. He leaned his head towards the spine of his closed bible, closed his eyes, and asked God to forgive him, “Please God, it’s not that I’m not honoring my father, I just didn’t know of any other way to get through to him.”

The following morning, after constructing a ramp over the steps out the back door, Mark returned to the house from the barn. In front of him he pushed a wheel chair. He knocked on the door to his father’s bedroom. When he received no response, he opened the door.

There was an eerie silence between them. Never before had the two stood at such odds. Never before had Mark talked to his father the way he had the night before.

“When you feel you’re ready to get out of your bed and be a member of this household, holler for me and I’ll help you.” He pulled the chamber pot from the seat of the wheelchair and put in on the shelf on the bottom of the side table.

Mark turned and walked out the room. He headed to the kitchen, put a pot of coffee on and fixed some breakfast, then took a bowl of oatmeal and cup of coffee into his father. He set the tray on the side table next to the bed, then left the room.

Throughout the day, Mark proceeded to do his normal chores around the barn, every now and then, he’d return to the house and check in on his father. Early evening, Mark saw a change in his father. Lucas finally had picked up his bible and was reading. Mark also saw something that really amazed him, something that his father hadn’t realized; Mark saw a toe on his father’s foot move under the sheet. Mark decided to keep that information to himself. Hoping his father would realize it on his own, but if not, Mark knew he had an ace.

Later that evening, after cleaning the chamber pot and returning it to his father’s bedroom, the silence was still between them. Mark returned to the front room to hear the horses acting agitated, he heard them snorting and squealing. He looked out the front door and saw them nervously milling about the corral.

“I’m gonna go check the horses. Need to bring them into the barn for the night anyhow. I’ll be back in a few minutes,” Mark called.

Mark grabbed his rifle and headed to the barn. The horses were clearly agitated by something. He got Two-Bits in, then Razor, followed by the team, and then Copper. When he returned for Blade, he heard the growls and saw the silhouettes, “Wolves!” Mark looked at his empty hands, regretting he’d set his rifle down inside the barn.

Mark reached for Blades’ halter and hurriedly led him from his smaller corral, into the main corral, before leading him into the barn. Before Mark could react, Blade reared and struck out, striking Mark in the head. Mark fell to the ground in a crumpled heap. The wolves crept closer to the corral, the first one crawled under the railing, and ran for Blade. The stallion let fly with his back hooves, striking the wolf in the chest as he launch himself towards the horse. The wolf let out a yelp and it fell to the ground. The other wolves grew bolder at the smell of the blood. All the while the stallion was screaming and rearing and kicking.

In the house, Lucas heard the commotion outside and yelled for Mark. The screams of the horse grew louder and he heard the unmistakable sounds of wolves. Panicked, Lucas reached for the wheelchair next to his bed and maneuvered himself into it. He rolled the chair to the front door and opened it. Through the fading sun, he saw the stallion striking and kicking out toward the wolves, before he saw, “Mark!”

Lucas looked around and saw his rifle above the mantle of the fireplace. He rolled the wheelchair over and reached up. Without realizing it, Lucas stood and grabbed his rifle. He collapsed back into the wheelchair and rolled it back out the front door to the porch. Lucas shouldered his rifle and fired at the first wolf he saw. The animal collapsed and didn’t move. Next he fired at the two remaining wolves, striking both, but neither shot being deadly. He watched the wolves back away. Lucas tried to balance the wheelchair to get down the front steps, but he couldn’t do it and fell. Lucas dragged himself across the yard and made his way over to where Mark lay.

Blade was still highly agitated and running around. Lucas knew he needed to get Mark out of the corral before Blade accidentally stepped on him, if he hadn’t already. Lucas got to his son and started to drag him by the collar of his shirt. He got him out of the corral. Lucas knew he had to get Mark to the house to properly tend to him. Without realizing what he was doing, Lucas pulled his legs forward and started crawling, dragging Mark along with him. He was half way to the house, when he collapsed as a rider came into the yard.

“Lucas!” Johnny Gibbs yelled. He jumped down from his horse and ran to the McCain’s. “My god Lucas, what happened?”

“Wolves,” Lucas replied.

From the corner of his eye, Johnny saw the advancing wolves, he pulled his gun from its holster and fired, and striking one of the two remaining wolves who had been circling ever so close and watched as it fell in its tracks. He watched as the other ran away. After returning his gun to its holster, he grabbed Mark and with his arms around his nephew’s chest, he dragged him to the house and laid him down on the floor, in front of the fireplace. Johnny ran outside and stopped in his tracks, Lucas had crawled his way to the porch and was trying to stand, by pulling himself up the post, and using it as a support once he was upright on his knees.

“Lucas, your legs, your using your legs,” Johnny called as he stepped to Lucas and helped him to his feet. Together they walked into the house. Johnny set Lucas down next to Mark, then proceeded to get a bowl of water and some rags and returned to Lucas and Mark.

“Did the wolves get him?” Johnny asked.

“I don’t know. I heard the commotion and… Oh, Johnny how could I have been so faithless. I can’t believe I acted this way towards my family. Mark was right last night. And today…” Lucas shook his head. “My God, if he’s dead I’ll…”

“Lucas, Mark’s alive. He’s breathing.” Johnny held his arm out and placed his hand on Lucas’ shoulder, “I don’t know what happened last night or today, but will you be okay by yourself to take care of Mark. I need to go get Doc Burrage.”

Not seeing any response from Lucas, “Luke!”

“Go!” Lucas demanded.

Johnny ran from the house, jumped on his horse and high tailed it to town. He found Doc Burrage and his family having supper with Milly and Hope and the children at the restaurant. Johnny couldn’t keep his emotions from his face or his voice as he entered, “Doc, we need you out at Lucas’”

Both Milly and Hope turned to face Johnny and asked, “What’s wrong?”

“Doc just get your bag and come with me.”

Milly and Hope both stood, fear on their faces. “You stay in town. I don’t know exactly what happened but neither of you should be at the ranch right now.”

“But you need Doc?!”

“Please, just do as I say,” Johnny turned and left with Thadd right beside him.

Milly and Hope sat back down and fretted.

*****

When Johnny and Thadd arrived at the ranch, Mark was still unconscious. Lucas had his son’s head cradled in his lap. He looked up as he heard the two men step to the porch and walk through the open door.

“Thadd, how could I have been so stupid?” Lucas asked.

“Lucas, I don’t know what happened, but let me tend to Mark. Johnny, I saw the wheelchair out front, help get Lucas back to his bedroom.”

“No!” Lucas demanded. “I pushed away my wife. I’ll not have you push me away from my son.”

Lucas lifted Mark’s head from his lap and Doc watched as Lucas moved his legs, under their own strength and scooted a few feet away.

“Lucas, when did you get the use of your legs back?” Thadd asked.

“What?” Lucas replied.

“Lucas, you just moved your legs on your own. When did this…”

“Doc, I don’t think he realizes it yet. I arrived to see him crawling and dragging Mark. I got Mark in here and when I returned to get Lucas, he was trying to stand. Doc, he’s so concerned for the boy, doesn’t realize what he’s done.”

“Okay Johnny, once we get Mark taken care of, I’ll examine Lucas. Now I see why you didn’t want Milly or Hope here.”

Doc prodded and felt around Mark’s head, after seeing the bruise starting to form at his temple. He examined Mark and saw no other sign of obvious injury. Doc and Thadd were just getting ready to pick Mark up and carry him to a cot that Johnny had brought in, when he started moaning and moving his head from side to side. Slowly his eyes fluttered open and after a few more moments, his eyes came into focus.

“Lie still Mark, can you tell us what happened?” Doc asked.

Raising a hand to his head and closing his eyes, “Wolves. Blade reared as I had hold of his halter, that’s all I remember. How’d I get in here? How’d you get here?” Mark asked as he tried to sit up, only to be pushed back down to the floor.

“Not yet, Mark.” Holding his hand in front of Mark’s face, “Open your eyes. Now, how many fingers am I holding up Mark?”

“Three.”

“And now?”

“Five.”

“Do you have a headache?”

“I hurts, but not on the inside,” Mark stated as he started rubbing at his temple.

“Mark, slowly, real slow, I want to sit you up, keep your eyes open and looking at me. If your vision starts to go black, just tell us to stop. Okay?”

“Okay.”

Thadd motioned for Johnny to help him sit Mark up.

“Are you doing okay Mark?” Johnny asked, once they had him fully upright.

“I think so, Uncle Johnny.” Mark rested his head in his hand for a moment. “What about Pa? We had words last night. I’m surprised he’s not hollering, hearing you two here.”

As Mark finished speaking, he felt a hand on his shoulder, from someone behind him. He turned his head to see his Pa sitting behind him, tears falling down his face.

“Mark, I’m so sorry. You were right. Seems I got a lot of work to do to seek redemption for how I acted.”

“No Pa, it ain’t necessary.”

“I believe it is, so don’t argue with me on this point, son.” Then turning to Thadd, “Well Doc, is he going to be okay?”

“I think so, but I’d prefer he stay awake for a while, at least a few more hours. Mark, if you start feeling tired, all of a sudden, call out. I want your father in the bedroom so I can examine him.” Then turning to Johnny, “Why don’t you help Mark to his feet and get him setting in a chair.”

Johnny helped Mark to his feet and to a chair, Mark stopped mid-stride as he saw Thadd help his Pa to his feet and then, leaning heavily upon Thadd, they walked to the bedroom.

“He’s walking! Uncle Johnny, Pa’s walking!”

“That’s right Mark. I don’t know what happened between the two of you and I don’t think I really want to know. But I guess your Pa, seeing you out there unconscious with Blade running around and those wolves…”

“I saw him moving a toe earlier today, when he went back to reading his bible, but he didn’t realize it,” Mark stated as he sat heavily in the chair, resting his head against the back of the chair. Then Mark ran his hands through his hair.

“You want some coffee, Mark?”

“Sure Uncle Johnny. With lots of sugar.”

“Mark, don’t know how you drink it so sweet.”

“Don’t know how you drink it so… yuck.”

*****

After about fifteen minutes, Thadd came from the bedroom and closed the door behind him.

“Doc?” Johnny asked.

“Johnny, do you mind spending the night here? I can let Colleen know, once I get back to town.”

“Sure, what’s up?”

“Nothing’s wrong, it’s just that I’d prefer to NOT leave these two alone right yet. Mark could still suffer effects of a concussion and if no one else is here, he could easily hurt himself again. And I’ve given Lucas a sedative. He’s pretty upset about everything, but the good news is, he has regained the use of his legs. But he still needs to take it easy and not push himself. I don’t want him out of bed until I return tomorrow afternoon with their wives.”

“No problem in my keeping an eye on the two. Thanks for letting Colleen know. Oh, what are you going to tell Milly and Hope?”

“I’ll tell them they can come home tomorrow afternoon. I won’t tell them exactly what happened, because neither of us knows.”

*****

When Thadd returned to town, Milly and Hope we there, waiting for him in the front room of his home, with Abigail.

“Doc? What happened?” they asked.

“Nothing you need to worry yourselves about. Johnny just over reacted a little. Something about Lucas and Mark having words and, well… They’re both doing okay. I gave Lucas a sedative to help him sleep through the night. I think you both can go home tomorrow afternoon.”

“Afternoon?”

“Yes, Afternoon! Give them time to finish resolving their… uh, differences. Just you two go back to the hotel and sleep. You’ll need your sleep before you pack up them youngsters tomorrow and move them back home.”

*****

It was close to midnight when Mark looked in on his father. He smiled as he saw all the tension gone from his father’s face.

“Go on Mark, why don’t you sit in there with him. I’m sure he’ll appreciate it when he wakes,” Johnny stated as he came up behind Mark.

“I don’t know. I said some pretty mean things to him yesterday.”

“From what Milly told Colleen was happening, I think you did what needed to be done. Your father will understand. What ever was said, Mark, you’re his son. Anything you’ve done or he’s done, can eventually be forgiven. I’m not saying it will be easy, but with everything the two of you have ever been through, you’ve both come through stronger for it. Don’t give up on him now, or yourself.”

Johnny pushed Mark into the room. He walked to the far side of the bed and sat down on the edge and thought to himself, ‘How many times has Pa done this for me?’ as he pushed the hair from his father’s face. Remembering one time when he had to take care of his Pa, after Dan Maury had come to North Fork.

“Pa, I hope you can forgive me for what I said. I only said those things to try to get through to you,” Mark said as a tear fell down his cheek.

“I know you did son,” Lucas said quietly as he opened his eyes and looked to his son.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you Pa.”

“You didn’t. Don’t worry, we’ll get through this. Though this time it’s going to be a lot tougher, I really hurt Milly.”

“She’s your wife. They pledged to love us in sickness and in health, in good times and bad. God just never told us how bad, bad could get. Guess we should have known that as good as our lives have been, the bad could be just as equally low.”

“Seems you really have grown up and become a man, and in the process you learned your lessons well,” Lucas said as a smile crossed his face.

“Some of those lessons learned were easy, others, not so easy. I remember a pretty bad time in my own life a couple of years back. Pa, they love us, for better or for worse…, they love us. You just get back to sleep. I’ll be here in the morning. Tomorrow afternoon, Thadd said he’d bring Milly and Hope, and the children back home.”

Mark stood from the bed and walked over and blew out the lantern. He heard his father sigh and fall asleep.

*****

The following morning, after tracking the one wolf that ran off and finding it dead, Mark and Johnny pulled all the wolf carcasses into a pile, a good distance from the homestead, and set them ablaze.

“Glad that’s over with,” Mark stated as he held a handkerchief to his nose to keep out the stench.

The blaze finally died down and what remained was buried. Mark turned to finish his morning chores in the barn and waved goodbye to his uncle, as he headed back to town and his own family.

*****

Mark was finishing washing the dishes from lunch when they heard the buckboard pull into the front yard.

Mark turned and saw his father attempting to stand, “Not yet. Doc said for you to take it slow. Besides when your children and grandsons see you, I don’t want them knocking you off your feet.”

He walked and opened the door. Thadd was stepping down from his horse and tying him to the hitching rail. Mark stepped and first helped Hope down, followed by his Ma.

“Welcome home,” Mark said as he set each one down.

“Mark, Thadd wouldn’t tell us what happened last night,” Milly pleaded. Mark could see the worry in her face, then the shock when she saw the bruise. “Mark?! What happened?!” she asked as she put her hand to his chin and turned his head so she could get a good look at the colorful bruise.

Hope turned and looked, hearing the alarm in Milly’s voice, “Mark?”

“I’ll tell you both in a little bit. First I want to get the children inside.”

Mark stepped to the back and helped Myra down, then all three boys reached and climbed on Mark.

“Oh, all three of you are ganging up on me. That’s not fair!” Mark declared as he knelt to the ground and the boys climbed off him. All three boys laughed and ran into the house, Milly called after them, to no use.

“Ma, don’t worry. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

Mark wrapped an arm around Hope’s and his Ma’s waists and led them inside, calling over his shoulder, “You coming Doc?”

Milly entered the house to see Lucas sitting in his chair and all three boys had climbed into his lap, calling “Papa or GanPa”. Lucas had his arms around all three. Myra stood by the table, the look on her face was unsure. Mark leaned over and whispered in his Ma’s ear, “Its okay Ma,” as he removed his arms from around his Ma and his wife. Mark knelt next to Myra, “Gabby, what’s wrong?”

“Papa was mad the other day.”

“I know he was, Gabby, but he’s better now. Why don’t you climb up in his lap too?”

Before Mark could say anything more, Lucas was calling, “Come here Myra. I’m really sorry.”

Myra climbed up into her father’s lap and gave him a big hug around the neck and said, “I missed you.”

“I missed you too, sweetie.”

After a few minutes, Mark stood up and walked over to Hope and took his youngest son from his wife.

“Okay, boys, Gabby, would you mind if Elijah got to meet his grandfather? Why don’t you step down and have a seat on the floor.” Mark placed Elijah in Lucas’ arms and watched as a tear started down his cheek. Mark placed a hand on his father’s shoulder. “It’s okay Pa. Everything’s going to be okay.”

From just inside the doorway, Thadd stated, “If you don’t mind, I do have other patients I need to see today. Mark?”

After about five minutes in the bedroom, Mark and Thadd came back to the front room. Thadd saw the looks on Milly’s and Hope’s faces, “I’ll let Mark tell you all about it, but I do have one more patient to examine, Lucas?”

With Mark on one side and Thadd on the other, Lucas slowly got to his feet, and walked under his own strength to the bedroom, with Milly and Hope both standing speechless, hands to their mouths, and crying at what they were witnessing.

About fifteen minutes later, Thadd came from the bedroom, “Ladies, I have other patients who really need my services. If you’ll excuse me?”

Milly and Hope both walked nervously to the bedroom. Lucas was sitting on the side of the bed with Mark standing next to him.

Mark walked to Hope and said, “I think we need to let Pa and Ma have some time alone,” Mark stated as he took Hope’s hand and walked from the room.

*****

Once they were in the front room Hope asked, “Mark, just what did happen after you sent us away?”

“Let’s just say I tried to get Pa to believe in God again.”

“And the bruise was a result of that?”

“Not quite. But, I think it was part of God’s plan to make Pa believe again. A pack of wolves came by last night and I got all the horses except Blade inside. While I was trying to get him in, I guess one of the wolves got too close; Blade reared and knocked me out. Next thing I know, I’m in the house with Uncle Johnny and Thadd kneeling over me, and Pa’s sitting up behind me, on the fireplace hearth.”

*****

As the door closed behind Mark and Hope, Lucas looked to Milly, “Milly, I’m so sorry for how I treated you of late. There was no call for me to behave the way I did. I promise I’ll make it up to you. I want you to know that I do love you and that I do trust you. I should have had more faith…”

“More faith?” Milly asked.

“Yes. Faith in my friends, faith in my family, faith in you, and in God. Mark said some pretty harsh words to me night before last. Guess he was giving me back some of my own medicine. Milly, I was so worried about you coming home today and I know it’s going to take a while, but I want you to have faith in me, as your husband. I’ll never do anything to hurt you like that again.”

“Lucas, I can’t say I understand what was going through your mind. I can only imagine how frustrating it must have been for someone like you to just lie there and wonder. I only wish I had known how to get through to you, before things got as bad as they did,” Milly replied.

“No, things had to get that bad, before I could realize everything that I had to lose. And I never want to lose you again.”

“Lucas,” Milly stated. “You didn’t lose me. You can’t get rid of me that easily.” With that, Milly place both her hands to Lucas’ face and gave him a passionate kiss.

In time, their lips parted, “So just what happened to Mark last night. I saw the bruise. I can’t believe you would have struck your own son, even in the middle of a heated argument.”

“I didn’t. A pack of wolves paid the horses a visit last night. Mark got all the horses but Blade inside. I don’t know exactly what happened because I was in bed, feeling sorry for myself when the commotion started outside. All I know is that, I heard Blade screaming and the wolves growling. I got in the wheelchair and rolled myself to the porch. I saw Mark crumpled in the corral and Blade running around. And the wolves where trying to crawl under the fence. I grabbed my rifle and fired at them, then tried to get to Mark. I couldn’t make it down the steps on the front porch and fell out of the wheelchair. I drug myself to Mark and pulled him from the corral and halfway to the house. I really don’t remember much more until I woke around mid-night with Mark sitting on the side of the bed.”

“So have you two talked?”

“Not really,” Lucas replied.

“Then you’ll spend the afternoon…,” Milly quieted as Lucas put his hand to her lips.

“I think he knows that I need to be with you first.”

Milly pulled Lucas’ had from her mouth, “But he’s your son. For the longest time it was always just the two of you. I won’t come…”

“Milly, please right now, I want to make sure my marriage is strong and that you know how much you mean to me. I’ll talk with Mark, when the time is right.”

Lucas pulled Milly to him as he laid back in the bed, “I just want to hold you in my arms, to know that you’re really here.” In time, both were sleeping in each other’s arms.

Mark and Hope took the younger children to their home, after seeing his parents sleeping.

*****

Later that afternoon, Seth and Drako rode to the McCain Ranch. The stayed outside and talked with Mark as he was coming from the barn.

“No, keep the trial in Altoona. I don’t want that man anywhere near my family!” Lucas overheard Mark declaring, as he stepped to the porch.

“Lucas, good to see you up and around. Thadd told us you got the use of your legs back,” Johnny stated.

“Good to be up and around. Now, what’s this about a trial?”

Seth answered, “Mark trailed after the one responsible for shooting you. He found him in Altoona.”

“Son, you found the man?”

“Yes sir.”

“Who was he?”

“I’d rather not say, Pa. I’ll testify against him, that he admitted as much that he shot you. Johnny interrogated his associates and one of them was present when he took the shot at you. It won’t be necessary for you to attend the trial. I’ll not have you travel that far, you’re not healed enough.”

“Then change the venue to here.”

“No! He’s also wanted for armed robbery in Altoona. He’s facing Federal charges. He stays where he is!” Then turning to Johnny, “I’ll head out in the morning, I shouldn’t be gone for more than four days.”

Later that night, Lariat Jones returned to the McCain Ranch.

“So Lucas, you feeling like your old self and up to my company?” Lariat asked as he looked through the open door.

“Come on in Lariat,” Lucas called from his chair. “I want to apologize for how I treated you the other day.”

“Not necessary my friend. I knew you were in a witch’s brew. Just glad your boy got you out of it. I can’t believe Mark’s all grown up and with a family…. Anyway, I’ll be traveling with him to testify at the trial, then I’m heading on out.”

“You’re testifying?” Lucas asked.

“Yep, as a character witness against the accused. Mulligan was a friend of mine too, you know.”

“You mean Walt Ryerson is the one you’re testifying against?”

“Yeah, I thought Mark would have told you.”

“He didn’t.”

“Now Lucas, don’t go getting upset at your son. I’m sure he had good enough reason to keep it from you.”

“Guess you’re right. Even now, I still have trouble thinking of him as a full-grown man and a deputy. I still want to see him as my little boy…. So, once the trial is over, where will the wind and your horse take you?”

“Where ever, you know me, Luke. Can’t stand to be tied down. Though I envy your life here, I just can’t see staying in one place as long as you have. Luke, you take good care of that wife of yours, and the rest of your family. You’ve got something really special here.”

“So I was reminded. You take care of yourself Lariat and don’t let ten years go by before you stop again.”

“Sure Luke. I’ll be seeing you.”

*****

The following morning Lucas walked to the barn to see Mark off.

“Son, I just realized the date on the calendar. I’m sorry I messed up yours and Hope’s anniversary.”

“Pa, you didn’t mess up our anniversary,” Mark said as he tied his bedroll to his saddle.

“If you don’t blame me, I take it you must be blaming Walt Ryerson?”

Mark hesitated in his task, then looked to his Pa. “Lariat told you last night?”

“He did. I know you feel you had good reason not to tell me and I’ve come to learn I need to trust your judgment. I’m not angry at you.” Then placing a hand on Mark’s shoulder, “You know, we still need to talk. I’m still working on redeeming myself with Milly… But the two of us, I…”

“Pa, you don’t. I remember how I felt, when I lost faith.”

“No, I can’t let you, let me off that easy. When you get back, we’ll spend an afternoon together and make sure our relationship is as strong as ever.”

“Okay, Pa. I guess we do need to do some talking. Before I head out, when I stop by town to meet up with Lariat, I’ll ask Jake McCafferty to continue helping out with the barn chores while I’m gone and while you’re still recovering. And if you do anything, other than observe, he’s to report you to Ma, pronto. So you better behave yourself while I’m gone.”

“I will son. You have a safe trip. We’ll see you in four days.”

Mark watched his Pa walk back to the porch to his home, turn and wave, as his Ma came from inside and waved to him as well. He mounted Copper and walked him to his home, where he bent down and kissed Hope goodbye, before heading out to North Fork and then, Altoona.

*****

Lucas and Milly walked into their home. Milly proceeded to the kitchen to finish the dishes and Lucas sat down at the table with Myra.

“Well young lady, what are you doing?”

“Practicing.”

“And what are you practicing?”

“My alfbit.”

“Myra, pronounce it correctly,” Milly called out.

“Mama?”

“I think she wants you to pronounce it as, al-pha-bet,” Lucas said as he smiled at his daughter.

“My al-pha-bet.”

“Can you show me?” Lucas asked.

Myra picked up her pencil and proceeded to write each letter of the alphabet, copying them from a book and pronouncing them as she wrote them.

“Well, you seem to know your alphabet pretty well young lady,” Lucas replied.

“Mama and Hope have been helping me,” Myra stated. “Mama, did I do good?”

“Yes you did, sweetheart,” Milly stated as she wiped her wet hands on the dish towel and walked to the table to look over Myra’s shoulder.

“Papa, are you a teacher, too?” Myra asked.

“In a way, yes. I remember how much of a struggle it was to get your brother Mark to learn his alphabet and learn to read,” Lucas grew quiet as he remembered.

“Did he do good?”

“Not in the beginning. He didn’t like it.”

“Why?” Myra asked.

“I think he wanted to be like me, and spend his days out on the ranch riding a horse. But in time, he learned his alphabet and he learned to read. You know, before you were born, he was a student teacher at school. He helped Mr. Griswald, and your Ma work with some of the other students at school.”

“Before he wore the badge?” Myra asked as her eyes grew big.

“Yes, before he wore the badge and even after he wore the badge,” Milly stated as she sat down in another chair at the table.

“But not any more?” Myra asked.

“No sweetie, he’s pretty much a full-time deputy and rancher,” Lucas stated.

“Would he help me learn, if I asked?”

“I’m sure he would. You’re his little sister,” Milly stated. “I think you’ve done enough studying today. Why don’t you put your books, paper, and pencil away and then you can play for a while.”

Myra set to folding her paper in half and putting in the front of her book. She then carried them to the bookshelf in her bedroom.

“I wish Mark had been as eager to ‘learn’ as Myra is,” Lucas mused.

“Lucas, that’s part of the differences between boys and girls. I can only imagine what Little Ted is going to be like when it comes time for him to start learning. Maybe I should be working with him now.”

“He’s not yet two!” Lucas declared.

“Okay, but the minute he starts giving me fits on learning, I’ll send him straight to you,” Milly said as she stood and walked over to Lucas and sat in his lap. “Are you doing okay?”

“I think I am. Just don’t have a lot of energy yet.”

“Doc said to give it time. To take it slow and easy,” Milly said as she put her arms around Lucas’ neck and held tight to him.

“I’m sure you’ll see to that?”

“Me and others.”

*****

True to his word, Mark returned home during the afternoon, four days later. He proclaimed that Walt Ryerson had been found guilty and would spend the rest of his life in a federal penitentiary.

After morning chores were done the next day, Lucas insisted that he and Mark have time to talk. Mark hitched up the team and buckboard then drove the two of them to the pond. So many conversations had been held at that location. Upon their arrival, together, they unhitched and hobbled the team.

They walked to the tree next to the two crosses and Lucas apologized to Mark and asked for his forgiveness, as they sat down.

“Pa, there’s really nothing to apologize for or need to request my forgiveness. I knew where you were. When, Blue Boy’s cinch broke and I fell, I was angry at the world that his had happened, but more to the point, I was angry at myself for not checking my gear while I was saddling Blue Boy. But you and Lou both saw through me and in time, you both got me to see reason, that I had abandoned God because I thought he had taken my legs from me. I mean, how many times, had you warned me about fixing my equipment or checking it. How many times had I fallen or been thrown and nothing bad had happened.”

Mark looked up to Lucas and saw a faint smile on his face.

“Pa, two years ago, I ran away. I lost faith in myself and I ran. I thought that was the only way I couldn’t hurt anyone, any more. But in time, I came to realize running away wasn’t the answer.”

“But that’s just it Mark,” Lucas stated. “You realized it.”

“Not on my own I didn’t. When I was fourteen, it took you and Lou. And two years ago, it took a dead man. Pa, I’m not perfect, I’m new at this job of being a father and I’m still learning about being your son.”

“Mark, I understand what you’re trying to say, but I think I need to speak my piece. Even when I was blind, I was still able to ‘do’ for you. Even when I had been shot, I was still able to ‘do’ for you. But this time, it wasn’t just you anymore. There was Milly and Myra and Little Ted, and I couldn’t do anything except lie in the bed.” Lucas paused while he tried to get his thoughts together, “While in town, I know that Hattie and Lou were only trying to help and let me know that my family was being looked after, but all I could think of was that I could no longer walk and that Lariat was… That Milly saw something in him that she no longer saw in me. He could walk and protect her and I couldn’t. Why I let my common sense slip away I’ll never know.”

Mark let his father gather his thoughts and waited for Lucas to continue, he could see in his father’s eyes that he had more to say.

“Then you spoke to me that night. It got me mad, I couldn’t believe that you were so disrespectful of me. That night, when I saw you lying in a crumpled heap, I prayed to God to let you be okay. I couldn’t let the final words between us be so… angry. While I was waiting for Johnny to come back with Thadd, I hadn’t even realized that I was using my legs. I just sat there and prayed for another chance to prove to you I was the father who had raised you.”

“I’m sorry my words hurt you Pa, but… I prayed to God to give me the strength to get through to you. I know words spoken in anger can never be taken back and I should have thought of a different way to get through to you,” Mark stated. “I’m sorry I was disrespectful, I know you raised me better than that.

“Mark, I’m proud to say, I raised you right. You said what needed to be said.

*****

Lucas kept his word to Milly. He worked harder to make sure their marriage was stronger than before and he worked hard to get his strength back. Many times he had to be reminded that he was working too hard; Milly had to set him down to make him take it easy. Milly laughed as she watched their daughter help by insisting, “Papa, please read to me.” Or “Papa, can you help me with my studies.”

It had been six weeks since the shooting and one night, as they prepared for bed, Lucas asked Milly, “Don’t you think you’re starting her a little too early on her studies? She’s only four and a half.”

“Lucas, she enjoys it. She sees Hope reading and writing and she wants to be like her big sister. That and she knew you needed to take it easy through your recovery. So she did her part in keeping you from working too hard.”

“So you two were collaborating to keep me tied to the house.” Lucas smiled as he pulled Milly to his bed. “Yesterday, Doc Burrage pronounced me fit and fully recovered. So, tomorrow evening this family is going to the Summer Social and I WILL be dancing with the three most beautiful women of this family and I’ll dance until everyone else is exhausted. However, tonight, its time I fulfill my duty as your husband. Milly I…”

It was much later that night when they finally fell asleep in each other’s arms. Milly smile, knowing she had special plans for the next day; she and Hope had purchased new dresses, especially for the social.

*****

The afternoon of the Summer Social found both the McCain homes full of activity. Lucas and Mark had dressed up in their finest clothes and waited with their own children for their respective wives to finish getting dressed for the occasion.

When Milly came from their bedroom, Lucas was astounded. He strode to stand next to his wife and pulled her into his arms, “Mrs. McCain, I swear you are the most beautiful woman in the world. I don’t know what I did to deserve a wife as wonderful as you.”

“You must have done something right Lucas.”

Their embrace was interrupted by Myra and Little Ted asking to be included in the hug.

*****

Mark was finishing changing Elijah when Hope came from their bedroom. As he was putting the last diaper pin in place, he stuck himself in the thumb as he stopped paying attention to what he was doing and stared at his wife. Quickly he pulled his thumb to his mouth and sucked on it. Once he was satisfied the blood loss was insignificant, Mark finished his task.

“Hope…” Mark struggled through speechlessness. “You’re beautiful. You look more beautiful than our wedding day.”

Hope had purchased a dress similar to the one she had worn at Fort Sam Houston, when they had traveled to attend the wedding of her brother. Hope had curled and fashioned her hair up on her head. Hope walked to Mark and pulled him into an embrace and said, “I bet you say that to all the women.”

“Only one. There’s only one woman I have eyes for.”

With Mark holding the hands of their oldest sons and Hope carrying Elijah, they walked out their home to meet the rest of their family and ride into town.

*****

As they arrived in town, their friends and families gathered around. The town was alive with festivities, music, and laughter. Children were running through the people and having as much fun as the adults.

Throughout the night, Lucas and Mark danced with their wives and with Myra. More time than not, they had to intervene when someone else wished to dance more than one dance with Milly or Hope. The night could not have been more perfect. Lucas truly felt alive and blessed to have a family, such as he did.

The Next Step — The Truth

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

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