The Rifleman
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Fan Fiction

The Next Step…
Chapter 61 – Shock
Written by Deanne Bertram

The night before they headed out to North Fork, Tom and Grid were standing in front of the Sheriff’s office. The town was quiet, with most folks having already turned in for the night. Tom was leaning forward, his hands on the hitching rail, looking out onto the deserted street of Lordsburg. Grid was leaning back against the hitching rail, his back to the street. Grid asked, “You don’t like being my being here, do you?” as he flicked away the match he used to light his cigarette.

“Can’t exactly figure you out. Your superiors talk highly of you, but I get the feeling you could go either way. You don’t like my questioning your actions… Yet, you follow my orders even though I can tell you don’t care for some of them. I get the feeling if you had a good enough reason, you’d turn outlaw,” Tom replied.

“Ain’t that what you want when you send someone in to infiltrate a gang?” he took another drag on his cigarette and slowly exhaled into the night-time sky. “You’d rather McCain was here beside you?” Grid asked.

“Lucas and I go way back. I’ve known him since the war. He was a good Lieutenant.”

“Men change,” Grid stated.

“Yes, some do. Some for the better, others not,” Tom stood straight and looked at Grid.

“I figure you and Mace Aubrey can handle getting them two to North Fork,” Grid said, knowing Tom was looking at him, but he continued to look back to the Sheriff’s Office.

“And you’re planning to just leave?” Tom asked.

“No, I’m gonna track the others,” Grid replied and then inhaled deeply and exhaled the smoke from his cigarette.

“The others?”

“Yeah, as many as I can. They may not be wanted for attempted murder on Mark McCain, but, as the Sheriff said, you don’t stay for your health at Skull.”

“You figure to set out alone?”

“Sure, when I catch up with them I’ll play along to figure out what they’re up to.”

“And when they ask you how you got away?”

“I’ll tell them the truth. You found out I was at Skull, you made me lead you to the ranch, but when you got there, no one was there, so you had no reason to keep me in jail once I was sobered up, and set me free. First off, I’ll make sure you make it to North Fork. I’ll keep an eye on you from the distance. Scout around and make sure they ain’t following you.”

“And if they are?”

“Then I’m just on your trail, trying to keep an eye on where you’re going so I can maybe free Dahl and Rigby so they don’t make it to North Fork,” Grid stated as he dropped his cigarette and ground it out with his boot heel. “I’ll head out early in the morning. Be seeing ya, Marshal.”

*****

Grid headed out of Lordsburg before daybreak. He rode towards the hills where he could stand and watch for a good long time as Tom and Mace rode with their prisoners to face justice. Once he reached a favorable location, he hooked his leg over the saddle horn and pulled out and lit a cigarette and proceeded to smoke.

In time he spotted four riders, one in front, two side by side, and one behind. Grid ground his cigarette out on his saddle horn before he dropped the butt to the ground. He signaled his horse to move out.

The surrounding landscape was quiet and no trace of any others following could be seen. The solitude of the land suited Grid just fine. Being around too many people at one time unnerved him. It was easier to read a person one on one than in a large group, people tended to change, not really be themselves, when they weren’t alone. Grid watched as Benton and Aubrey made camp for the night. After the sun set, Grid set up his own cold camp, pulling his bedroll down from his horse and lying it out on the ground. He wrapped his saddle blanket around his shoulders as he leaned back against the tree to catch some sleep.

*****

It was the evening before their arrival in North Fork. Grid had reached the next hill he planned to use as a vantage point. He stepped from his horse after he spotted evidence that three riders had recently waited, in the same location. There were cigar and cigarette butts lying on the ground and signs of men pacing back and forth, within the stand of trees and bushes.

‘So, there is someone else watching,’ Grid smiled to himself. As he stood to return to his horse, from behind, he heard the unmistakable sound of a gun being cocked. Slowly Grid raised his arms.

“Be real careful and ya won’t get plugged,” the voice called with a slight Mexican accent.

“Chavez?” Grid asked.

“Who you?”

“Grid Maule.”

“Grid, you got out of jail?” The one called Angel Chavez came around and looked Grid in the face. He turned and yelled, “Hey, Ralph, Brice, its Grid. He got free!”

Chavez was still holding his gun on Grid. Before Chavez could turn back from yelling to the others, Grid had grabbed Chavez’ gun and then slugged him across the jaw, knocking him to the ground.

“You should know better than holding your gun on me, Chavez,” Grid spoke as he stood over Chavez.

Grid looked up, and from the corner of his eye, he saw the others walking from their hiding places, he tossed Chavez he gun. Slowly Chavez got to his feet, rubbing his jaw, before the others returned their guns to their holsters.

“Why’d ya go an’ do that?” Chavez asked.

“I already told you.”

“What you doing here?” Brice Stringfellow asked.

“Following Dahl and Rigby. Trying to figure out how to get them away from the law. Here tell they’re headed to North Fork to stand trial,” Grid answered.

“Yeah, so we heard. We thought maybe you turned them in. Heard you got thrown in jail,” Ralph Claysin said.

“Yeah, the one day of the year I always get drunk and it had to be in Lordsburg,” Grid coolly stated.

“You always get drunk?” Chavez asked.

“Yeah, it’s personal”.

“Personal ain’t good enough!” Stringfellow demanded.

“It’s the anniversary that my Pa was killed. Gunned down, murdered, by some mangy sodbuster,” Grid replied. “They brought my Pa’s body home and I was left to bury him, by myself. I was just a kid. My whole life, I’ve wanted nothing more than to see that murderer dead. Taught myself how to use a six-shooter, you want proof on how good I am?”

“How’d you get free?” Chavez asked.

“Some U.S. Marshal showed up, they heard tell Skull Ranch was back in operation. The Sheriff told ‘em he heard I’d spent some time out at Skull. They made me lead the way out there. What happened to you guys? The place was empty.”

“I saw the posse heading our way and rode back to tell everyone,” Claysin replied.

“Still didn’t answer our question, how’d you get out?” Chavez asked again.

“What charges could they hold me on?” The tone of his voice affecting his displeasure at answering to the three. “Staying at Skull? Nothing against the law for that. I was sobered and didn’t cause no damage in town. They had no choice but to let me go.”

“So how did Rigby and Dahl get captured?” Brice asked.

“I heard tell some Marshal showed up late that night and caught them drunk in the saloon. Happened while we were out chasing your ghosts. Rigby’s wrist is busted and I heard the doc say he‘ll never be able to shoot with that hand again.”

“So, you have any idea on getting Rigby and Dahl away from the law?” Claysin asked.

“Yeah, one. Heard tell they tried to kill a lawman in North Fork,” Grid answered.

“Yeah, thought they were killing Drako and his deputy. Only they got a U.S. Marshal and a deputy instead,” Chavez replied.

“What I heard about this lawman, his father-in-law was the deputy, and the lawman has a wife and a number of brats. If we kill him, leave his wife a widow, do you think daddy’s gonna wanna testify? Will ‘daddy’ want his precious daughter to lose her ‘daddy’ as well as her husband?” Grid thinned his lips and smiled.

“You’re crazy!” Brice replied.

“Yeah, but you got any better idea?” Grid asked.

“How is killing the U.S. Marshal gonna get Rigby and Dahl set free?” Claysin asked.

“You think that little town of North Fork is gonna hold the trial, knowing how easy it was for me to kill their star witness? They’ll set them free, easy,” Grid replied.

“Why don’t we just ride down and get Rigby and Dahl, now. They’s asleep. Be easy as shootin’ tin cans off a log,” Claysin boasted.

“Because I want the reputation of killing The Lawman,” Grid replied.

“So what, ya kill a lawman. We’ve all done it,” Chavez replied.

“No, not A lawman. THE Lawman. He’s famous in these parts, some newspaper editor even wrote about him a few years back. I want the Lawman, because if I get the Lawman, then I get the Rifleman,” a wicked grin came across Grid’s face. “And the Rifleman was the man who murdered my father.”

“The Rifleman?! He’s trouble,” Claysin mumbled.

“Yeah, I’ll finally get my revenge. Could it be any better?”

“You’re fixing to stir up a hornets nest,” Brice called.

“You want out, ride. I been putting this together for a few days. Don’t really need your help,” Grid replied.

*****

The trip returning the prisoners to North Fork was uneventful. Rigby and Dahl were both grumbling as they were safely locked behind bars in the North Fork jail.

That night, Mark arrived to stand watch in North Fork. Later than expected, he rode into town and halted Copper in front of the livery. He stepped down and led his horse inside.

“I can get even with one McCain just as good as another,” a voice coolly called from the shadows as Mark entered and stopped in his tracks. “See your Pa finally let you learn how to use a rifle. Heard you might be pretty good with it, too. Still, you probably ain’t as good as your old man.”

“Don’t expect so,” Mark replied as he raised his hands. “I’ll let you know, you gun me down, there’ll be a whole town after you and you’ll be brought up on Federal charges for killing a U.S. Marshal.” Mark wrinkled his nose as he smell the smoke from a cigarette waft his way.

“That right?” the voice replied. “What if I give you a chance to go for your rifle?”

“I won’t,” Mark answered.

“Thought so. Just like your old man, a coward.”

“My Pa ain’t no coward.” Mark replied back, just as coolly as the man had spoken. He turned to see a man grinding out a cigarette in the dirt and then walk from the shadows, guns still in his gun belt. The man was dressed in black and walked slowly and deliberately. From his body posture Mark felt the man was still trying to size him up.

“I wouldn’t of recognized you ‘cept Benton told me about the horse you ride and then there’s that rifle in your scabbard. Plus you not wearing a gun belt,” the man stated.

“Benton? Tom Benton?” Mark asked as he started to lower his hands.

“Now Mark, you work for any other Benton?” Mark noticed the change of tone in the man’s voice. “See you grown up some. Sure don’t believe it, the boy of Lucas McCain being a U.S. Marshal and married at that. First time we met you was… fourteen and never used a gun.” Grid continued to walk towards Mark and held out his hand. His body posture changing to one of ease. “No, Lucas McCain ain’t no coward and neither’s his boy.”

“Do I know you?” Mark asked as he tried to get a good look at the man walking towards him.

“How many thirteen year olds you know, got away with slapping your Pa, calling him out to a gun fight, and then got away with calling him a coward?”

It took a moment before the name came to Mark, “Grid? Grid Maule?”

“Good to see you too, Mark.”

“I don’t understand. What are you doing in North Fork?”

“My job,” Grid said as he opened his jacket and showed the Deputy U.S. Marshal badge pinned to the inside of his black jacket.

“You? You became a lawman?” Mark asked, quite surprise, as he led Copper into his stall and started to unsaddle him.

“No more surprising than you,” Grid affected an air of indifference. “A store owner, back home, made a bargain with me. He gave me a place to eat and sleep and in exchange I’d help him out at his store. He said he’d pay for me to go to college, if I wanted to go. Told me one condition was that I put away my guns, until I was 18. If I wanted to pick them back up, I had to go into law enforcement.”

“Wow!” Mark replied. “It’s just… I mean…”

“I was a kid back then. I may not like the hand that life dealt me, but once I make a deal, I keep it. I don’t go back on my word. No one ever accused Grid Maule, Jr. of reneging on a deal.”

“I didn’t say anything like that,” Mark stated as he closed the door to the stall. He heard the change of tone in Grid’s voice and realized that he probably still had to watch his words around Grid.

“You do know that I’m gonna have ta kill you?” Grid asked.

A shocked Mark replied, “Say that again?”

“Listen, I was there in Lordsburg when you single handedly brought in Dahl and Rigby. When the marshals got to Skull, no one was there.”

“I heard,” Mark replied.

“Any way, I figured the others made tracks and I decided I’d trail out after them, but first, I told Benton I wanted to make sure he and Aubrey made it here with the prisoners. I rode separate from them. Last night I encountered Angel Chavez, Ralph Claysin, and Brice Stringfellow. They was making their way to North Fork, they heard about the trial already. Anyway, they’re wanting to bust their friends out of jail. I figured if we killed the number one witness against them, the marshal might just let them go.”

“If you kill… There were two of us they tried to kill,” Mark answered. “You kill me, Seth will still be there to testify.”

“Probably, but do you really think your father-in-law will testify? I mean, his daughter just became a widow and his grandsons have no father. Do you think he also wants his daughter to lose her father, too?”

“You are just joking about killing me? Right?” Mark asked.

“No. But don’t worry. It won’t hurt a bit. Of course, everyone in town will have to believe it, I need a way to get back in the good graces of the others, need to find out if they were planning anything while they were staying at Skull. Benton might have been right. They might have been leery talking with me around. So, if I kill you, then they’ll have to believe I’m an outlaw. Listen, I need to do this tomorrow and fast. No one can know about this or both our lives are in jeopardy.”

“Do you think that our marshal is just going to up and let two men accused of attempted murder go free? And I don’t get it, I can understand your story to the other three, but why is it so important for Dahl and Rigby to be set free?”

“I figured they might know more of what the Ketchum Gang is planning. If I can get Rigby and Dahl free and then prove my loyalty, they might just let me in on what’s being planned. Then we can stop ‘em.”

“Drako ain’t gonna just let them out,” Mark replied.

“I figured he’d be riding with the posse, chasing after me, and leave someone else in charge. Once the posse is gone, then you can let who ever that person is, in on our plan and they can let Rigby and Dahl go. Mark, no one else in North Fork can know you’re alive until AFTER we re-capture those two and get the other three in custody.”

“Grid, just how do you plan on killing me? I mean…”

“Mark, I carry blanks. They sure come in handy. I’ll plan to shoot you in the chest.”

“So, some how we need to make it look like the bullet struck me.” Mark thought for a moment. “I can use one of those rubber balloons Gabby got, maybe… If we slaughter a chicken, I could drain the blood into the balloon and keep it in my hand. Then when I hear your shot, I can fall down and then grab at my chest and squirt the blood out before anyone on the street gets to me.”

“Sounds like a plan. We’ll have to do it early in the morning. You make rounds?”

“Yeah, I start around eight o’clock and usually return to the office by nine,” Mark replied.

“Good, then nine o’clock.”

“Grid, I can’t ask my wife or my parents to go through something like this, again. Even if it is to catch outlaws. They went through hell this summer, when I…” Mark couldn’t say it. He’d put that part of his life away.

“If you have to tell them, do so. Ride out in the middle of the night when the whole town would be asleep, but no one else. Can you sneak out of the Marshal’s Office?”

“Damn it, Grid! Do you know how much trouble we’re going to be in with Benton over this?”

“Only if we fail, Mark. Only if we fail. And even then, it won’t matter. If we do fail, we’re gonna be dead.”

“Okay, where do I meet up with you once they’re out of jail?”

After Grid and Mark finalized their plan, they went their separate ways.

*****

Mark fretted over what he and Grid were about to put North Fork through. ‘Guess it won’t be any worse that killing Micah, Pa, and Johnny to get Stedman,’ Mark thought to himself.

He waited until close to two in the morning before he decided to sneak from town and head home. Carefully, he entered his home and his bedroom. He lit the lantern on the table next to their bed and sat down on the edge, scaring Hope awake. As Mark reached his hand to cover her mouth to keep her from screaming, he saw the fear in her eyes before he quietly stated, “Hope, it’s me, Mark.”

Once Hope’s eyes focused, she realized who was in their bedroom with her, she relaxed, but her face held concern, “Mark, what are you doing here? What time is it?”

“I need to talk to you, and my parents,” Mark replied.

“Couldn’t it wait until daylight?”

“No, it can’t. Get your robe on and please come with me.”

Together they walked to his parents’ home and entered. Hope lit the lamp on the front room table while Mark knocked on the bedroom door.

Startled from their sleep, Lucas jumped from bed and managed to pull on his pants before he threw the door open. It took a moment before he realized who was standing in his front room.

“Mark, do you realize the time?!” Lucas demanded, then he saw Hope placing the glass chimney back on the lantern.

“I do, but I don’t have a lot of time. Please just listen. Grid’s going to kill me in the morning,” Mark answered, not giving anyone time to sit down in the front room before he told them. Not realizing how what he said sounded.

“What?!” they all three exclaimed.

“Pa, it’s like when we were trying to get Stedman, when Hope first came into our lives. It’s part of Grid’s plan to capture some of the others who were at Skull. I had to let you know before someone comes and gets you later this morning. I couldn’t put you through that again, but you’ll have to put on the best performance of your lives – believing I’m really dead.”

“Who else knows? Does Tom?” Hope asked.

“No, we don’t have time and everyone else’s reactions have to be genuine. Please, I can’t spend much more time here before there’s a chance I might be missed in town.” Then turning to Milly, “Ma do you have one of those balloons that Gabby’s been playing with? I hate to do this, but I thought to slaughter a chicken and drain the blood to use to fake my being killed. You can always fry the chicken up for supper…”

Quickly, the four set out to do what needed to be done. Mark was back in the saddle on Copper when Lucas stopped him, “Mark, when you trail after them, you can’t use Copper and you can’t put Blue Boy through that kind of a chase, how are you going to…”

“He can use Two-Bits,” Hope stated. “Pa, we’ll both ride into town together, you on Blade and me on Two-Bits. Then when you ride from town to ‘hunt’ Grid down, you can take her and then wait for Mark.”

“Son, what time is this supposed to go down?” Lucas asked.

“Nine o’clock.”

Mark bent down and kissed Hope and whispered into her ear, “Remember, I love you,” and was on his way back to town.

*****

“McCAIN!!” echoed through the streets of North Fork. “I can get even with one McCain, just as good as another!”

Slowly Mark turned, but before he could bring his rifle up, the figure dressed in black had one of his guns drawn, he crouched down, and fired at Mark. For a brief second, Mark clutched to his chest, before he fell in a heap in the middle of the street, his rifle falling at his feet. Drako and Seth watched in horror as Mark was gunned down. Benton watched it happen as he stepped from the hotel. Grid holstered his gun, jumped on his horse and whirled him around and blazed a trail as he rode from town, hearing Tom Benton yelling, “GRID, YOU’LL HANG!!”

Drako and Seth ran to where Mark's body lay in the street. In shock that this had happened and seeing the blood stain over his heart, they quickly picked him up and delivered him to Doc's. They didn’t wait. They rushed out to join the posse.

As Benton formed the posse, he declared that “Anyone who shoots Grid Maule will face charges of murder themselves. I want Grid Maule to be brought to justice, to stand trial, and to HANG!” The posse trailed after him.

*****

Someone had run to Doc’s home to get him. In time, Doc entered the room and closed the door behind him. As he saw the blood stain on Mark’s shirt, over his heart, he quietly stated, “Damn it, Mark.”

Doc fell backwards against the door and a gasp escaped his lips as he saw Mark's body sit up. "Sorry Doc, but it had to be this way," Mark said. "I'll need you to keep up my charade."

"Mark, how can you do this to Hope?!" Doc asked, appalled that Mark would put his family through something like this.

Mark stood and unbuttoned his shirt and took it off. He walked to the sink and primed the pump to rinse the ‘blood’ from his shirt.

"I couldn't. Only she, my parents, and now you, know the truth. Grid's trying to catch more of the outlaws who were staying at Skull and find out what they’re up to. I rode home during the night and let them know what Grid and I were planning. I didn't have time to let anyone else know. I'm presuming Drako and Seth went with Tom on the posse?"

"I saw them ride out of here not five minutes ago."

"Who'd Drako leave in charge?"

"I heard your uncle, Johnny Gibbs."

"Go get him, please?" Mark asked.

Before Thadd could leave, they heard someone walk to the door and the door knob rattle.

“Mark hurry!” Thadd quietly called.

Mark finished putting his shirt on and jumped back up on the examination table as Thadd placed a sheet over him.

*****

Dreading what he was about to have to do, Johnny Gibbs walked into the clinic. Johnny had been at the Hardware store when he heard the gun shot. He ran to the boardwalk and saw Mark crumple in the street. Time stopped and before he realized, Nils was racing from town. It hadn’t been that long ago that he’d had to race in the middle of the night to inform Lucas that Mark had been seriously hurt. In a sense, he was relieved he wouldn’t be the one telling Lucas, this time… Johnny stopped and looked to Abigail, who sat in a chair in the waiting area, tears falling down her face. “Room 10, Johnny,” was all she could manage to say.

Slowly Johnny arrived in front of the door and placed his hand to the doorknob. The door opened before he could turn the knob.

“Johnny, I… uh… I thought you might have gone to get Lucas,” Thadd shakily spoke.

“No, I saw Nils ride out. Doc? Is he…?”

“I think you need to come in.”

Johnny stepped inside and saw his nephew lying on the examination table, a sheet pulled up to his chin.

“At least he can be with Margaret now,” Johnny stated as Doc shut the door behind them. “I don’t know how Lucas is going to take this… it’s too soon since…”

Johnny jumped back and grabbed at his chest when he saw Mark’s head turn towards him as he sat up and then heard him say, “I think he’s gonna take it better than you, Uncle Johnny.” Mark’s face held an apologetic grin. “I’m sorry Uncle Johnny, but it had to be this way.”

“Nephew, you’re bound to give a man a heart attack! I surely don’t want to be in your shoes when your wife and your father find out you’re alive,” Johnny stated as he pushed his hat back from his forehead. “They might just decide to kill you themselves for putting them through this. Boy, how could you?”

“They already know. After what they went through over the summer, I could… I couldn’t do this without letting them know in advance. You’re in on the secret, now. No one else can know.”

“Your Aunt Colleen’s going to skin me alive if I don’t tell her. She’s already getting moody with her pregnancy.”

“Aunt Colleen’s pregnant?” Mark asked.

“Oh, that was our secret. We were going to tell the whole family at Thanksgiving.”

“I’ll trade you secret for secret?” Mark asked.

They heard Hattie’s and Micah’s and Lou’s voices out in the hallway.

“I think I better get out there. Mark, lie down boy,” Thadd stated as he turned to leave the room. Once Mark was lying back down and Johnny placed the sheet back over Mark and had affected a posture of grief, Thadd opened the door. They all heard Lou scream, “NO!” before the door closed.

“Boy, I don’t know how you’re going to apologize to everyone,” Johnny quietly whispered.

“We did it once before when we ‘killed’ Micah, Pa, and Drako. I hope everybody will be as understanding when I’m resurrected,” Mark replied.

They heard Thadd calling for Abigail to prepare a sedative to give to Lou.

“I have to see for myself. I can’t believe the boy’s dead, he can’t be! They say Grid Maule did this! It’s just a bad dream, right Doc?” Micah pleaded. Both could hear the heartache and grief in his voice.

“Please, I can’t let you inside until after Hope, Lucas, and Milly get here. As much as you all mean to… meant to Mark, you’re not blood relations. I’m sorry. Please, go to the hotel and wait. I’m sure the McCain family will need all your help after they arrive in town and see for themselves,” Thadd requested.

“Mark, this better be worth it, is all I can say,” Johnny stated after hearing Thadd’s words.

“Me to. If we don’t get the outlaws, then Grid and I both might end up in pine boxes, for real.”

Soon, they both heard the commotion out in front of the clinic and Mark knew he needed to ‘play dead’ again. Johnny pulled the sheet up over Mark as he laid back down. Mark tried hard to make his face as expressionless as possible and relax, but hearing Hope outside, even though he knew she was pretending, was hard. He could only imagine what she had gone through that night back in June.

*****

Those elsewhere in the clinic heard Lucas yell out, “NO!!” He opened the door with such force that it slammed against the wall and then closed on its own as Lucas ran from the room, yelling, “I’LL KILL HIM!”. He jumped on his own horse, grabbed Two-Bits reins, and rode from town.

With Hope wailing in the background, Johnny agreed keep quiet that Mark was alive. After Grid’s plan was explained, he agreed to set Rigby and Dahl free.

Johnny escorted Hope from the clinic. The crowd in front of the clinic parted to let them pass. The people were in shock that his had happened for a second time in their town. As the town’s people started to disburse from in front of the clinic and the Marshal’s Office, no one saw the figure leave the back of the clinic. Mark quietly slipped out of town and met up with Lucas. It took Mark a few minutes to adjust the stirrup length on the saddle, but soon, together, they trailed after Grid, side-by-side.

“Side-by-side, Pa. I remember long time ago you told me of my growing up years and said some day, we’d stand side-by-side,” Mark spoke as they rode.

“I pray this one will end better than the last time,” Lucas replied.

“Amen to that.”

Within the hour, they arrived where Mark had arranged to meet up with Grid, however, Grid was nowhere to be seen.

“Well?” Lucas asked.

“I don’t know. He said he’d be here. He should have been here by now. You don’t suppose?” Mark asked.

They turned as they heard a rider approaching.

“Grid, where’ve you been?” Mark demanded as he reined Two-Bits around to face Grid.

“Taking a pot shot at your Marshal’s Office. Figured it might encourage who ever your Marshal left in charge to set the prisoners free.”

“You took a shot at MY UNCLE?!” Mark demanded.

“No, just the sign. Weren’t too long before Dahl and Rigby rode out of there.” Grid halted his horse next to Lucas and apologized for the trouble his plan was causing North Fork.

“Well, North Fork has survived Micah’s, Johnny’s, and my untimely deaths, I’m sure the town will survive Mark’s.” Lucas asked, “So why are you with us and not with them?”

“I just wanted to make sure everything was going as planned. So, who all knows the truth?” Grid asked of Mark.

“Just Doc and my Uncle, besides Hope and my parents,” Mark replied.

“So, Grid, what next?” Lucas asked.

“You two keep to the shadows. I’m gonna ride ahead and try to catch up with Rigby and Dahl and let them know where the others are waiting.” Grid turned his horse to ride, “Oh, and if you do see the posse, try to keep them from killing me!”

*****

Mark and Lucas watched as Grid rode away from them.

“I sure hope you two can pull this off, Mark,” Lucas commented.

“You mean the three of us. Don’t you, Pa?”

“Three?” Lucas asked as he realized the mess he had allowed Mark to pull him into. “Yeah, but if anything goes wrong, you’re the one who will explain it all to Tom. As the Marshal of this territory.”

“Yeah, I know. Come on, let’s trail after Grid.”

Lucas and Mark split up to make it less obvious to anyone that Grid was being trailed and to keep the posse from seeing any dust to lead them in their direction.

*****

Grid found it easy to pick up and follow the trail that Rigby and Dahl were leaving. From the length of the horses’ strides he knew how hard they were pushing the animals in their get-away. Grid kept his horse to a steady pace, knowing in time, the others would have to rest their horses, giving Grid time to catch up.

Coming around a rock outcropping, Grid found his quarry standing in front of him. Dahl holding a rifle on him.

“So just what the hell do you think you’re doing… Marshal?” Dahl demanded.

“Following you! If you’re that scared of me, why haven’t you pulled the trigger?”

“Tell me why I shouldn’t?”

“Because I know where Chavez, Claysin, and Stringfellow are waiting for you,” Grid affected a disinterested attitude. “You could just go ahead an’ shoot me and take my weapons. But then, there’s a chance the posse would hear the shot and come looking to investigate. You that interested in getting thrown back in jail and standing trial?” Grid asked.

“I don’t trust you!” Rigby spat.

“No more than I trust you, I’m sure.” Motioning his horse past the two, Grid stated, “Well, come on. We’ve a ways to go to meet up with the others.”

“No!” Dahl spat out. “Not until you tell us what happened!”

“What happened? I gunned down the Marshal and they let you go, what else do you want to know?” Grid asked as he turned his horse.

“Why? You’re a deputy, why kill the Marshal?” Rigby asked.

“It’s a matter of keeping your friends close and your enemies closer? Do you know how many outlaws I’ve been able to help back home because of this badge? I came out west because I heard tell of where a murderer was living.”

“Still don’t answer my question.”

“Look, turns out the U.S. Marshal I gunned down this morning -- he’s the brat kid of the man who murdered my Pa when I was eight years old. So what if my getting you two set free also let’s me get justice for my Pa.”

“I heard tell of the Marshal. They call his Pa…” Dahl stated.

“Yeah, they call him the Rifleman. He’s nothing but a mangy sodbuster who has a trick rifle. Still, ain’t gonna be anything but dead when I get through with him. You think he’ll be that careful coming after me? He won’t be thinking straight and I can lay a trap and kill him easy. He won’t know what hit him.”

“You shoot him down cold, without him knowing who done it?” Dahl asked.

“Dead’s dead,” Grid replied. “Now, you coming with me or do I head out on my own?”

“We’ll go with you for now, but I’m still keeping an eye on you,” Rigby replied.

“Just don’t get in my way. Until I see the Rifleman dead at my feet, anyone who gets in my way is just as fair game.”

*****

The outlaws insisted Grid ride first into the camp, where Chavez, Claysin, and Stringfellow waited, “If anyone’s gonna get shot, it best be you,” Rigby stated.

“Shot? Your own companions would shoot you? Maybe I should have rode out on my own,” Maule stated.

Dahl and Rigby were heartily greeted by the others.

“See, I told ya,” Chavez said. “He got them out.”

“So he did,” Claysin replied.

Stringfellow walked over to Dahl, “Good to see you again big brother.”

“Same here. Any trouble?” Dahl asked.

“Na. Everything’s just as Grid said it would be. He promised when he returned he’d have you out. Did he really kill the marshal?” Stringfellow replied.

“I couldn’t believe it when I heard from the one they left in charge, but when we rode from that mangy town, you could see it in the eyes of everyone. The town was scared.”

“So what do we do now?” Stringfellow wanted to know. “We go back and tree the town?”

“No!” Rigby answered. “I want to get as far away as possible. Too close to a hangman’s noose for my liking.”

“But they let you go!” Claysin stated. “Let’s go back!”

“The only reason we got let go was some simpleton was left in charge. All the other Deputies and Marshals are out chasing us. We head for Mexico!” Rigby boldly stated.

“I ain’t leaving until I kill me the Rifleman!” Grid coldly informed the others.

“Grid, you got The Lawman, why push it?” Stringfellow asked.

“Because he’s got to pay for killing my old man. He may not have been much, but he was all I had. I killed his son and now I’m gonna kill him.” Grid opened the cylinder of one of his guns and looked down the barrel, then snapped it closed.

“It’s a stupid risk!” Chavez quietly stated.

“Then you leave. Run like little old women,” Grid replied.

*****

That night, they found Grid camped with the outlaws. Mark and Lucas unsaddled their horses and waited out the night, hoping for Grid to make a report to them.

Lucas was standing watch when someone attempted to quietly enter their camp.

“Hold it right there,” Lucas called as he came up from behind.

“Morning Lucas,” Grid replied.

“Well?” Mark asked.

“The groups truly split up. Seems Ketchum and company didn’t really approve of Rigby and Dahl or their companions. Stringfellow said something about Ketchum and his friends heading to Northern New Mexico.”

“So the three others, they just want to get those two out of jail?” Lucas asked.

“Yeah. Found out the reason though. Stringfellow is Dahl’s younger, half-brother. Same father, different ma’s, his folks never married so he went by his ma’s last name.”

“So as far as you can find out, they’re not planning anything?” Mark asked.

“Na. To me, they don’t seem the kind who’s that creative. They’re opportunists. They let someone else be the brains and they’re the ones who pull the jobs.”

“So, how do we take them?” Lucas asked.

“First, I get to murder the Rifleman,” Grid stated just as calculatingly as he had when he told Mark he was going to kill him.

“Excuse me?” Lucas stated.

"That was my reaction the other night," Mark commented.

“Lucas, its part of the cover story I gave to the outlaws. I gunned down Mark because I found out he was your son and you were the man who murdered my Pa. It’s gonna mean that the two of you need to split up.”

“How so?” Mark asked.

“Mark, you’re supposed to be dead. Lucas is trailing after me, separate from the posse, which I’m thankful to say, I’ve not seen any trace of.” Then turning back to Lucas, “The only snag is that my bullet will travel faster than it’s sound. I’ll plan it so I’ll be high on the hills and I’ll let the sun glint off my rifle.”

“Your rifle?! When did you start carrying a rifle?” Mark asked incredulously.

“About the time I returned to North Fork and realized how good the two of you were. By the way, you can return it to your gunsmith when we get back to town,” Grid replied.

“You stole the rifle?” Lucas asked.

“McCain, once you see the flash, remove your hat and wipe your brow. That way I’ll know you saw my signal. Once you put your hat back on your head, count to five and then you can fall from your horse. That should be perfect timing for me to fire a blank round and fake killing you. I’ll tell the others I’ll meet up with them, I just have to make sure you’re good and dead.”

“And if they come down to check on me?”

“Then Mark will be there to back me up,” Grid stated.

“Grid, why do you have to make everything so damn complicated?” Mark asked.

“Because that’s what I’m good at,” Grid replied.

“So what happens next?” Lucas asked.

“Once you’re dead, we’re planning on riding towards White City tomorrow,” Grid replied. “They’re wanting to head to Mexico until things cools off.”

“Pa, you remember?” Mark turned and look to Lucas. “There’s that old hangman’s tree, they call it…” Mark thought for a moment.

“Gallows Crossing,” Lucas answered.

“Yeah, from here, they’d have to ride by there. We can set a trap. It’s a canyon that narrows out as they ride through. We can set a trap on the far side and they’d never see it coming.”

“I think I know what you’re planning.” Turning to Grid, “Grid, you’re gonna have to ride near the back of the pack as they ride through there. We’ll take out the front half of the riders as they exit with a rope across the opening. The canyon’s about a mile in length, so maybe three quarters of the way through, you can think you hear someone coming from behind and then push them faster.”

“I like your thinking Lucas. Okay, but I got to be getting back. I’m on guard.”

*****

As promised, Grid kept to the high ground, when he found the right spot for his ambush, he waited for Lucas to draw nearer. He knew the others were well enough behind him to not notice what he was really doing, but finally, the sun struck his rifle just right. A few moments later, Grid watched as the rider halted his horse, removed hid hat, and wiped his brow. Grid took a moment and fired, quickly counted to five and saw the rider fall from the saddle.

“What’d I tell ya! I got him!” Grid yelled as he ran back to his horse.

“So you did, now let’s get going,” Dahl stated.

“I want to make sure he’s dead.”

“Don’t trust yourself with a rifle?” Claysin asked.

“If it were my six-shooter, I’d never doubt myself. I’ll be right back.”

The outlaws watched as Grid rode his horse recklessly down the embankment. He galloped the horse and was dismounted before his horse was stopped. They watched as he turned the body over and placed his ear to Lucas’ chest. Grid raised his fist in the air and pumped it. He jumped back on his horse and rode to meet back up with the outlaws.

When he arrived, Chavez asked, “Why’d you leave his horse and rifle?”

“Because I want anyone, especially those in the posse, to know I did this. I didn’t do it to rob him, I did it to see him dead,” Grid slapped his reins on his horse’s flank and spurred him forward.

*****

“So, Pa, how does it feel to be dead?” Mark asked.

“No different than the last time, except…”

“You don’t have to worry about being surprised that Miss Milly came back to take care of me,” Mark stated with a grin.

“Yeah, something like that,” Lucas stated, but Mark heard the concern in his voice.

“Like the last time, things will work out for the best Pa.”

“Last time we were only after one outlaw. This time, there are five,” Lucas replied.

“But there are three of us.” After thinking for a moment, “Yeah, I guess there were more than three of us after Stedman.”

They worked hard in preparing to spring their trap, taking a moment to quietly ask God to look out for them. It was a little before noon as Lucas and Mark were just finishing, when they heard the riders coming. Quickly they ran for their horses and pulled their rifles, then took cover behind the boulders next to the rock outcroppings.

The first three outlaws were strung off their horses while the final two pulled their mounts to a halt. Mark and Lucas ran from their hiding places, rifles cocked and ready. At the back, Grid barely had both his guns drawn, when Dahl struck him over the head. Grid was out cold before he hit the ground.

“It’s a trap” Dahl hollered, whirling his horse around with Rigby shortly on his heels.

Mark ran to Two-Bits and gave chase.

Lucas quickly disarmed the three outlaws on the ground and then bound them with rawhide string he’d taken from his own saddlebag. Once Lucas had all three outlaws secured, he walked over to check on Grid.

Carefully Lucas turned Grid over onto his back, only to find the barrel of one of Grid’s guns held to his stomach.

“Easy there Grid,” Lucas called as he stood up and took a step back, his arms away from his sides.

“Maule, what’s going on?” Stringfellow demanded as Grid got to his feet.

“The three of you are heading for prison,” Grid replied.

“Prison?” Chavez asked.

“Then Dahl and Rigby were right? They said you could be the law!” Claysin proclaimed.

“They knew?” Lucas asked as he turned to look to Grid.

“Yeah, they overheard Mercer and Applegate back in Lordsburg, but I told them that I could be an asset because of my badge. Told them, they had no idea how many outlaws I had helped because I wore the badge.”

“You could have told us,” Lucas stated angrily.

“Where’s Mark?” Grid asked.

“He took off after them,” Lucas replied.

“And you didn’t go with him?”

“And just what was I supposed to do? Three outlaws on the ground and ...” Lucas demanded.

“I don’t need your help! I could have handled them.”

Grid picked his hat up from the dirt and slapped it against his leg.

“How? You were out cold for a couple of minutes,” Lucas stated. “Come on, let get these three back to town.”

“I’m trailing after Mark,” Grid informed Lucas as he tried to head towards his horse.

“You’re heading to town with me,” Lucas stated as he grabbed Grid’s arm as he staggered by.

“You can handle getting these three to town. I have to get the two who got away! Let go of arm!” Grid’s voice held a warning.

“Or what? You can’t even walk a straight line. If Doc Burrage says you’re okay, then you can go out after those two.”

“And Mark? He wouldn’t be out there alone it I hadn’t convinced him too…”

“Mark can handle himself,” Lucas forcefully stated. “Right now, I’m worried about you. Look at you, Maule. You can barely stand on your own two feet! I’m worried about him too, but none of this would have happened if Benton and I had given Mark the chance to face with his ghosts in the first place. It’s taken me a long while to realize, but I have to have trust in my son to be the man I raised him to be. Trust that he can be the Marshal that Tom Benton saw in him so long ago. The Rangers have a saying, ‘one riot, one Ranger’.”

“He ain’t a Ranger!” Grid yelled and stumbled, as the headache grew in his head.

“What I’m trying to say is, he captured them once before, he can do it again. I’ve learned my lesson. Now, you need to learn yours, to accept help when you need it. Get in your saddle so I can get his prisoners and the ‘mastermind’ back to town.”

*****

As soon as Mark saw the one called Dahl strike Grid over the head, he reacted. He raced back towards his horse, jumped in the saddle and took chase. The good news was that nether outlaw had hand guns to shoot at Mark. One, however, did have a rifle in the scabbard of his saddle. Though Two-Bits was slowly gaining, Mark’s mind raced on just how he would handle capturing both outlaws. Mark urged the mare on faster, yet knowing each stride took him further from those who could help him. Quickly he looked over his shoulder in hopes of seeing evidence that his father was somewhere behind him, following him, but Mark didn’t see any dust cloud on the horizon. Mark’s attention returned to the two in front of him as he pulled his rifle from his scabbard.

In time, Mark pulled his horse to a stop and raised his rifle. He said a quiet prayer for his aim to be true as he attempted to shoot one of the outlaws from the saddle. The trigger was pulled and Mark heard the sound of his shot echo from the hills and then he watched as the outlaw fell from his horse. Mark returned his rifle to its place and urged his horse on again. The few moments it took Mark to aim and fire, gave Two-Bits the chance to regain a little of her breath. Mark felt the mare come alive underneath him as his wife’s horse’s stride was stronger and faster than he’d ever realized. Soon, Mark was even with Rigby, he leapt from his horse and tackled the rider to the ground.

The two fought and rolled, until Mark had the upper hand, and with one swift punch to the jaw with his left hand, Mark had knocked Rigby unconscious. As he stood, he held his wrist; he couldn’t believe how much it ached. He went and retrieved his hat from the ground, slapped it on his leg to get the dirt off it, and then looked around to see where their horses were. The two had stopped no more than a hundred yards away, both had their heads down and as Mark approached, he could see how lathered they were and both their flanks were heaving from the exertion of the chase. He picked up the reins to Rigby’s horse and then went to gather Two-Bits.

It only took a few more minutes for Rigby to regain consciousness, but by that time, Mark had him restrained. Mark sat in the saddle and had his rifle on trained on Rigby.

“Get in the saddle,” Mark ordered.

As they rode back in the direction they had come from, they encountered Dahl’s horse. Mark grabbed the reins and lead the horse back to where Dahl was sitting, cradling his arm and shoulder.

“Just who the hell do you think you are?” Dahl yelled as Mark motioned him to his feet.

“Mark McCain, U.S. Marshal. I’m the one who’s going to see that justice is served. Now get on your horse.”

“You?!! Maule said he killed you!” Dahl replied.

“He lied,” Mark replied with a laugh.

*****

Lucas and Grid were riding towards the setting sun when they spotted a large dust cloud approaching them. Lucas called for a halt and they readied their weapons. As the group of riders neared, the leader motioned for those behind him to pull up, while Lucas lowered his rifle and Grid returned his gun to his holster.

“Grid Maule! I arrest you for the cold-blooded murder of Mark McCain! I’ll see you hung!” Tom pulled his gun and hollered as he got close enough to see who was in the group. Every man in the posse had their guns pointed straight for Grid, who slowly raised his hands above his head. “Hand over your badge. You’re a disgrace! Lucas, I can’t believe you’re riding right next to him and haven’t taken his guns! He killed Mark!”

Tom became even more infuriated as Lucas and Grid looked to each other. Lucas wanted to laugh, but he could tell that Grid was still smarting that Lucas had dared to talk to him as if he were a child, instead of letting him go after Mark and the outlaws.

“It’s a long story, Tom. But I need to transfer custody of these three outlaws to you so you can get them to jail,” Lucas stated.

“There are four outlaws who’ll be in jail as soon as we get to town.”

“Tom, Grid didn’t kill Mark. They plotted his death to get these three. Right now I have to head back and trail after Mark.”

“Trail after Mark?” Benton asked, still confused.

“Yes, he’s trailing two others who got away.”

“McCain?!” Benton called as Lucas raced away.

As Lucas rode away, Benton moved his horse closer to Grid, gun still on him, and pulled his guns, “I don’t care what Lucas thinks, but I saw you gun down a fine lawman in broad daylight. I’ll see you hang!”

Tom and the posse motioned their prisoners forward.

*****

Lucas returned to Gallows Crossing, where they had set their trap, he found and started following the hoof prints that would lead him to Mark.

It had been over three hours since Lucas had left the posse and started his search for Mark, when he finally saw three riders coming around an outcropping of rocks. When he was close enough to realize it was Mark and the outlaws, he drew his rifle, and surveyed the scene. He saw one outlaw with his hands bound, the other had an arm hanging limply from the shoulder, then he saw Mark, realized something had to be wrong for the way he was holding his rifle. Lucas urged Blade forward.

“See you got your prisoners!” Lucas called as he approached. ‘You need any help?”

Lucas saw the relief in Mark’s eyes as he nodded and returned his rifle to his scabbard. Lucas motioned the two outlaws to continue on as he moved Blade to ride next to Mark.

“Where are Grid and the others?” Mark asked.

“We met up with the posse. Right now, I believe Grid is in Tom’s custody. I don’t think Tom will believe you’re alive until he sees it for himself.”

Lucas laughed as he saw Mark cringe at his comment.

“Something wrong?” Lucas asked.

“Yeah, just wondering how loud he’s going to yell when he realizes what we did.”

Lucas started to speak, but stopped when he heard Mark say, “I know, I know. We made our beds and we’ll have to sleep in them.”

“The way you were holding your rifle when I rode up,” Lucas spoke.

“I think I busted my wrist when I was fighting Rigby,” Mark replied.

“We’ll get Doc Burrage to look at it when we get back to North Fork.”

*****

They were an hour from North Fork when the posse came into view. Lucas and Mark called for their prisoners to keep moving when they saw the posse halt. They rode direct for Tom Benton and Johnny Drako.

“Can you tell your posse to lower their weapons, Tom? I don’t rightly feel like being killed for real,” Mark said as he halted Two-Bits and pushed his hat back on his head and rested his elbow on his saddle horn.

“Mark?!” was mumbled from one rider to the next, through the posse.

Everyone was shocked and pleased to see Mark resurrected from the dead.

“Would someone tell me what’s going on here?” While waiting for a response, Benton looked towards the two men who rode in with Mark and Lucas. When he finally realized that Rigby and Dahl were the riders, he yelled, "What the HELL are they doing out of jail?!"

“You see Tom,” Lucas started as Grid rode up to them.

“No! NO! I don’t want to hear this right now. Damn it McCain and Maule, just… Get these prisoners back to North Fork so they can stand trial!”

With that he turned he horse and rode away, the posse closely following.

Lucas looked to his son and Maule and gave them the look to say, “You’re on your own,” before he set after Tom Benton.

*****

As they returned to North Fork, Johnny Drako was riding at the back of the group, between Mark and Grid, smiling and shaking his head.

“What’s up?” Mark asked.

“I take it Hope knows you’re alive?”

“Yes sir, she and Pa both knew before we attempted to pull this off,” Mark stated as he looked over towards Grid.

“Boy, I sure don’t want to be in your shoes. Either of you.”

“Yeah, he’s not said one word since he found out I was alive. The look he gave me, I’ve never even seen Pa that mad.”

“He’ll probably go easier on you since I was the one who came up with the idea. I can’t wait to hear what he has to say when we get these prisoners back in jail.”

“I think the whole town will be able to hear what he has to say to the two of you,” Drako replied.

“Maybe we could just sneak away, I’m already cringing at what’s going to happen after we get these prisoners in jail,” Mark commented.

“You attempt to sneak away and I’ll arrest both of you. Why do you think I’m riding back here in all this dust with the two of you? It ain’t for my health,” Drako said, but couldn’t keep the smile from his face.

“You think Pa can get him to simmer down some before we reach town?” Mark looked over to Johnny and saw him shaking his head. “Didn’t think so. So much for side-by-side.”

Grid asked about Mark’s comment.

“Guess this will be another one of those ‘growing up times’. Pa’s reminding me that for each action, there is a consequence. And I’m expected accept the consequences like a man AND to remember the lesson learned.”

“I seem to remember a story about a boy who cried wolf,” Johnny commented.

“Meaning?” Grid asked.

“From the Aesop’s Fables, Grid,” Mark replied. “Meaning, the next time I need help, people might not believe me when someone I care about is killed, because twice before they’ve believed when a member of my family was ‘claimed’ to be killed, when they weren’t.”

Quietly they rode on.

*****

Tom and Johnny closed the cell doors and started to return to the office, “Don’t go too hard on them, Tom.”

“Drako, they report to me.”

“Just remember, you’re the one telling Mark all the time about ‘thinking’ of new ideas and ways of being a Marshal, its not just about the gun or gunning the outlaws down. You’ve preached enough to that boy over the years and he’s seen the consequences for people relying on the gun... I’m sure he and Maule had a good reason for handling things the way they did.”

Johnny grinned, thinking on the uproar that was about to happen in the next few minutes. He could still see the anger in Tom’s face. Johnny closed the door from the office to the cell and went to stand between Lucas and Seth, with Johnny Gibbs on the far side of Lucas. He leaned up against the back wall in his own office.

Mark entered the Marshal’s office with a cast on his arm. He pulled off his hat and walked to stand next to Grid. Tom walked across the office and sat down in Johnny’s chair. He placed his elbows on the chair arms and steepled his hands, looking back and forth between Grid and Mark.

To their credit, Mark and Grid stood in front of the marshals’ desk, hats in their hands held behind their backs. They looked straight head, neither daring to look at the other or at their boss.

They heard the crowd outside the office talking as people looked in and realized Mark McCain was alive. From inside the office, the only thing that was heard was the clock ticking and Tom Benton’s breathing.

For five, long minutes, Tom waited before speaking. “Okay, at ease you two. Sit down.”

Mark and Grid had barely sat down when Tom stood up, leaned forward, hands on the desk and yelled, “JUST WHAT THE HELL DO YOU TWO THINK YOU WERE DOING?!”

Mark and Grid jumped at the sound of his voice overpowering the quiet of the office. Everyone present could see the veins popping out on his forehead and his neck. Both swallowed hard.

“Well?!” Benton demanded.

“We brought the prisoners to jail?!” Mark asked and stated.

“I KNOW THEY’RE IN JAIL!” Taking a deep breath, Tom stood upright and walked around from behind the desk, as he approached Grid and Mark, he saw the grins on the faces of the four men at the back side of the office, he grinned, and then affected his demeanor.

“Do you two have any idea how many rules and regulations you broke over the past thirty-six hours?”

They both shook their heads. Tom stopped between them, his hands on the back of the chairs they sat in.

“Too many to count! I can understand Mark McCain as a child coming up with an idea to ‘kill off’ his Pa and two others to get Stedman. But Mark McCain as a U.S. Marshal should have known better! Didn’t you two think about the trauma you’d inflict on Mark’s family?!”

“Yes, sir. I told them in advance,” Mark quietly stated.

“You told…!” Tom turned and looked to Lucas, who closed his eyes and nodded. “You told your family… in advance…”

“Yes sir, but only some of them. Uncle Johnny didn’t know, until…” Mark stopped speaking before he got his uncle into trouble.

“Until…”

Mark swallowed again.

“Until I sat up in the doctor’s office and told him.”

“Was this Before or After he turned MY prisoners loose?”

“Uh…” Mark tried to squawk out.

“Marshal Benton…” Gibbs tried to say.

“I’ll deal with you later,” Benton declared as he looked over his shoulder to those behind him. “Right now I want to know what these two have to say for themselves.”

“We did our job,” Grid sullenly replied.

“We’re sorry,” Mark answered.

“Not as much as you will be when I get through with you. Okay, McCain, you still haven’t answered my question. Do I need to repeat it?”

“No sir. Uncle Johnny knew I was alive before he let the prisoners loose,” Mark humbly stated.

“So, if you were alive AND the man I left in charge as acting deputy knew it… Just why were MY prisoners set free?!”

“Because I asked him to,” Mark answered.

“So, you’re guilty of assisting known outlaws in escaping…”

Everyone could hear Mark gulp.

“Marshal…” Grid tried to interrupt. "It ain't his fault."

“You’ll have your chance to speak in your own defense when I’m through with McCain,” Tom flatly stated.

“I don't need no charity by him taking the blame... Yes sir," Grid said as he saw the expression on Tom's face.

“So you participated in a gun fight in the middle of the street of North Fork, placing any one of her citizens who were present at great risk…” Tom continued to talk directly to Mark.

“No sir, I used blanks…” Grid’s voice faded as Tom slowly turned his head to Grid and raised an eyebrow.

Then, looking back to Mark, “You scared about a dozen years off the lives of everyone present. Set free two men accused of attempting to murder you and your father-in-law…”

“But we got them back! We sorta knew where they were going and Pa and I knew we could track ‘em…” Mark’s voice quieted as he saw the look on Tom’s face.

“You got them back,” Benton sarcastically repeated. “YOU WOULDN’T HAVE NEEDED TO GET THEM BACK IF THEY HAD STAYED PUT, IN JAIL, IN THE FIRST PLACE!”

Tom stood up straight, walked around, and sat down at Johnny Drako’s desk.

“Just what in blazes made you two decide to pull off such a… I’m at a loss of words for what to call what you two did. It goes beyond reason to understand how you came up with this… this…”

Before he could finish saying what his was struggling to say, the crowd outside the door parted to let Milly and Hope through. Tom looked to see Milly opening the door. Mark sneaked a peak to see who was entering.

“Mrs. McCain and Mrs. McCain,” Tom nodded his head. “This is a formal inquest by the U.S. Marshal’s service. You presence is an intrusion,” Tom informed them.

“We just came to see that our husbands took no harm while they were out there doing their jobs!” Milly curtly informed Tom.

“Ladies, as you can see, one of them is perfectly fine. As for the other, the jury is still out!” Tom answered looking directly at Mark.

“Prosecutor, Judge, and Jury! Will you also be the executioner?” Hope asked as she walked to Mark, leaned forward and gave him a brief kiss, before she said, “Welcome back.” Hope turned and left the office, followed shortly by Milly, who paused by the door.

“I expect to see both my husband and my son returned home, shortly!” Milly declared before she left, firmly closing the door behind them.

Mark saw the incredulous look on Benton’s face. Mark slouched in his seat and raised his hand to his mouth to try to hide the brief smirk he let out in hearing the tone of his wife’s voice, as well as the tone of voice from his ma.

“McCain! You will sit straight in that chair!” Benton hollered.

“Yes sir, she has that affect on Pa too.” Mark immediately regretted his comment, when he saw the look on Benton’s face change.

“Okay, now, from the beginning. And don’t leave out a single detail. I don’t care how insignificant you think it is. I want to know EVERYTHING!” Pausing, Tom looked to the others, “You four are dismissed. I’ll expect your full statements tomorrow. Tonight belongs to these two.”

Picking up their hats, and Lucas grabbing his rifle, they left the office. Each one in turn whistled, thankful they weren’t bearing the full wrath of Tom Benton, but regretting that they could no longer watch as Mark and Grid squirmed.

*****

“Come on Lucas, why don’t you get your wife, my daughter, and the children, then come to my home,” Seth stated. “I think you should all plan to spend the night.”

“Thanks, Seth. We’ll be there shortly. I think I saw them leave the office and head in the direction of Johnny and Colleen’s.”

“Come on brother. I’ll help you get your family to Seth’s,” Johnny stated.

Together the three bid good night to Johnny Drako as he headed to his home.

The Nest Step — The Verdicts

This is a story based on the TV series The Rifleman
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