The Rifleman
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Fan Fiction

The Next Step…
Chapter 47 - Taken
Written by Deanne Bertram

The spring time chores of planting and cleaning up after the winter at the McCain Ranch went so much quicker than ever before, especially since Johnny Gibbs was there to help out. Milly and Hope broke ground for more garden space and set it aside for Colleen and Johnny to plant vegetables for their family. The last of the calves and pigs had been born and the cattle herd moved to the western pasture for grazing on the lush spring grasses.

*****

That May, Mark and Hope celebrated their third wedding anniversary with family and friends. Lucas and Milly had organized a large hog roast for the event. After the festivities were over and the last of their friends had headed home, Mark was standing on the front porch to their home, leaning against one of the posts as he watched the sun set over the horizon. Hope came up behind him and wrapped an arm around his waist.

“The boys asleep?” Mark asked.

“Finally, they had such a great time crawling around outside today and playing. Thank you for helping to bathe them tonight. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them quite so dirty.”

“It probably won’t be too much longer before they’ll be walking around. They seem to be more active at this age than Gabby was. Just hope they don’t cause as much trouble as she did, once she started walking.” Mark’s voice quieted as he remembered the day she had crawl into the corral and after he had pushed her out, the cow charged him from behind, throwing him head first into the fence post and knocking him out.

“Something else is on your mind. What?” Hope asked.

“Just trying to figure out how to tell you I’ll be away from here for a week or so. Johnny told me tonight that we need to transport the prisoner we have in the jail to Lordsburg. Seems Corky Cochran has a wanted poster out of Phoenix for bank robbery. Johnny would do it only…”

“I know, Lou’s too close to her time. When will you leave?” Hope asked.

“As soon as we receive word on who’s to meet me in Lordsburg. I wish I didn’t have to go, but…”

“But the sooner you leave, the sooner you can come home to us,” Hope stated as she pulled her arm from Mark’s waist. “Don’t stay out here too much longer. You’ve an early start to tomorrow. You’re supposed to help Pa get that bull from the northern pasture before heading into town to stand your watch.”

*****

As Hope stated, morning did come early, earlier than either expected. The boys woke before their usual time and created such a ruckus. Mark helped Hope get them changed, dressed and fed for the morning, before heading to the barn to tend to his chores.

Lucas entered the barn as the horses were finishing their morning grain. He turned the team, Razor, and Two-Bits out, and then started to saddle Blade, while Mark saddled Blue Boy.

*****

As they rode for the northern pasture, Mark stated, “Pa, I know you’ll be leaving this weekend to deliver the bull over to Separ. Last night, Johnny told me we have to deliver a prisoner to Lordsburg, unfortunately, I’ll probably be leaving tomorrow morning.”

“Guess it wouldn’t seem appropriate if I were to ask if you want me to ride out with you,” Lucas stated.

“Pa, I appreciate what you’re saying, but this way, I’ll already have delivered my prisoner to Lordsburg and I’ll practically be in Separ, when you get there. We could ride home together. I just wish I could postpone delivery of the prisoner so we both wouldn’t be gone at the same time.”

*****

Mark had delivered his prisoner and met up with Lucas in Separ. They rode towards home, together, stopping in Las Cruces for the night. After eating supper at a café, they headed to the hotel, totally surprised to find Micah anxiously waiting for them.

“Micah, what are you doing in Las Cruces?” Lucas asked.

“Lucas, Mark… I need you to come with me to the Sheriff’s Office,” Micah stated as he turned and walked out of the hotel, Lucas and Mark were on his heels.

They entered the Sheriff’s Office and were told to take a seat.

“Micah, what’s this all about?” Mark asked.

“I needed someone to help me keep you two, sane.”

“Sane?” Lucas and Mark asked, simultaneously.

“Men, I’m Sheriff Damon Mortensen. All the towns near these parts have recently been alerted to a band of outlaws roaming this territory. And we’ve been trying to get word out to all the ranchers. Unfortunately… If we thought they’d venture so far North, we’d of sent word. Your Marshal came here to wait for you and he told us the news. We couldn’t believe they hit North Fork. These outlaws are slave traders.”

“Sheriff, slave traders were abolished years ago,” Mark stated.

“Son, we’re not talking about negro’s. These men are stealing women and transporting them to Mexico and selling them as slaves.”

“Micah,” Lucas demanded. “Answer us!”

“Lucas, Milly, Hope, Tessa, and Mabra, they’re all missing,” Micah stated.

“What about the children?” Mark demanded as both jumped to their feet.

“Hattie and I arrived for supper three days ago, and found Percy injured and the children inside, crying, but safe. We got everyone into town. Percy’s going to be laid up for a while with a fractured skull. Various women in town are helping Colleen to watch after Myra and Little Ted, while Hattie is helping Thadd and Abigail look after the twins.”

Knowing their children were safe, they started to leave the Sheriff's Office.

“Lucas, Mark, Johnny’s leading a posse and they’re in El Paso. The army is preventing them from crossing into Mexico.”

Lucas and Mark headed for the hotel to gather their gear and then headed for the livery.

As they were saddling their horses, Micah said. “LucasBoy, they also took the horses, the team, Percy’s horse, Razor, and Two-Bits. Johnny wired me here this afternoon that he located Razor in El Paso, but no sign of Hope’s mare or the others.”

Before leaving, Mark scribbled out a note and handed it to Micah. “Micah, send a wire to Seth Lane at Fort Sam, and then to Ethan and Annie Lane, at West Point. When Ethan or Seth arrives, see that they get this note.”

*****

Ethan / Seth,

If I don’t return with Hope, I want Ethan and Annie to raise our sons. I know that they’ll be loved and provided for, as if they were your own.

Please raise them right.

Mark

*****

“I’m going with you,” Micah stated.

“No my friend, you are going back to North Fork and take care of our town,” Lucas stated, trying to keep his voice calm. “I’m sorry Micah, but you’re needed more in North Fork than trailing after these outlaws.”

Within fifteen minutes of receiving the news, Lucas and Mark were running their horses to El Paso.

*****

Lucas and Mark arrived in El Paso the next evening, their horses, exhausted. An army detail was still preventing the posse from North Fork from entering Mexico. While waiting, the men had overheard some of the soldiers talking about how the outlaws were operating out of the land south of Chihuahua, Mexico.

Before disobeying the army, Lucas told his brother-in-law to head back to North Fork.

“Lucas, you can’t be serious!” Johnny exclaimed.

“I am. Johnny, if I don’t come back with Milly, I want you and Colleen to raise Myra and Little Ted. You’re the only other family they have.”

“Well, what of Joshua and Zach?” Johnny asked.

Mark replied, “I asked Micah to send word to Hope’s family. If we don’t come back, I want Ethan and Annie to raise them.” Then turning to Johnny Drako, “Johnny, you need to return to North Fork, too. As well as everyone else. Pa and I can’t ask that anyone accompany us.”

“Look here Mark!” Drako declared.

“I know what you’re going to say, and no, I’m not your deputy. At least not anymore,” Mark declared as he pulled the badge off his shirt. “We’re going against the army’s orders and I…, we can’t ask any of you to risk your lives. Besides Johnny, you need to get home in time for when Lou gives birth to your second child. She’d never forgive you or us, if you weren’t there. North Fork still needs her Marshal.”

“Mark, Lucas, you don’t have to ask any of us for help. We’re going with you!” Nils stated.

“No!” Lucas demanded. “Just take our horses with you and get back to your homes.”

“Take your horses?” Frank Toomey asked.

“Blade and Blue Boy are spent. And I won’t ask Razor to make this trip. We’ll get new mounts here.”

*****

Lucas and Mark purchased four horses and loaded their saddlebags with ammunition. They loaded a pack of supplies on one of the other horses they bought. At midnight, with their friends as lookouts, they headed into Mexico.

As they rode, both struggled to keep their emotions under control and their brains logically thinking. Knowing full well, if they ran their horses into the ground, they’d be left on foot and no closer to getting their loved ones back.

*****

Steadily they rode, in silence, neither trusting their voices to say anything. When the faint rays of the morning sun started painting the sky, they kicked their mounts to a faster pace. Their goal, Chihuahua, Mexico.

*****

Night had fallen again as they continued to push themselves and their mounts. Lucas finally called a halt for the night.

“Mark, neither of us is going to be any use tomorrow unless we sleep tonight.”

By the light of the full moon, Lucas could see the objection in Mark’s eyes.

“Mark we need to rest and eat, as do the horses. I’ll take care of the horses while you get a camp fire going,” Lucas stated as he stepped from his horse. “Once you get the fire going, get fixing us something to eat.”

Once through taking care of the horses, Lucas walked to the fire and took a can of beans from Mark. They ate in silence and soon both were in a restless asleep.

*****

Lucas woke to the sound of Mark throwing a saddle on one of the horses. “Mark?” he called.

“I want to be ready to ride at first light, Pa. Coffee’s already hot.”

Lucas rose and walked over to saddle the horse that hadn’t been ridden or carried a pack, and then helped Mark put the pack back on the other horse. Together they returned to the fire and had a breakfast of beans and coffee. Mark poured a cup of coffee and handed it to his father. Lucas raised an eyebrow when he saw Mark pour a second cup and take a sip from it. Mark cringed his face at the taste.

“If you don’t care for it son, why drink it?” Lucas asked, trying to lighten the mood.

“I need something to keep me awake,” Mark answered.

“How much sleep did you get last night?”

“About as much as you,” Mark replied as he finished drinking his cup. He offered his Pa a second cup and then poured a second cup for himself.

As the morning sun rose, the camp fire was extinguished and both were in the saddle, still riding south.

*****

The morning sun was rising when they heard the men’s voices outside the wagon. They were grumbling about not making as good a time as they had hoped. The flap of the wagon was thrown open and one of the men ordered the four women to exit the wagon and fix breakfast for them.

It was nine o’clock when the wagon headed out with their captives inside. They planned to make Saucillo, Mexico by nightfall. One man drove the wagon, another man sat beside him with shotgun in hand, and two other men rode along side. Making sure none of the women tried to escape.

*****

As the last rays of the sun faded from the sky, the wagon and riders reached Saucillo. They pulled up at the outskirts of the town. The two riders rode on to the cantina. A short while later, a number of men returned to the camp with the riders.

The women were ordered out of the wagon and to stand side-by-side, next to the wagon. The new arrivals were fairly well-dressed and appeared to be quite wealthy. One man started to run his hand through one woman’s red hair; she turned and slapped his face. Demanding, “You will not touch me!”

One of the outlaws immediately pulled her from the group and dragged her to the back of the wagon and threw her to the ground, then drew his gun and pointed it at her.

“Go ahead!” she screamed. “I’d rather be dead than be held against my will and sold like cattle!”

The outlaw holstered his gun, pulled out a bandanna and gagged the woman. He also bound her wrists and tied her to one of the wagon wheels. As he stood to go back to the bartering, the woman kicked out, striking the man in the leg, causing him to trip. The outlaw slowly go to his feet, anger flashed across his face.

“Hey Ramone! You can’t handle one little gringo woman!”

“This one’s a hell cat. I’m holding her especially for Señor Castoria. He’ll take the fire out of her!”

As the outlaw returned to the group, only one of the men was interested in paying the price the outlaws were asking. The man tried to barter for the two golden-haired girls and was told, they weren’t for sale – at this time. They possibly had a buyer down in Cuidad Camargo.

“I’ll make it worth your time, I’ll pay you half again what you ask.”

The outlaw rubbed his chin and looked at his partner.

“Your offer is most… gracious, only I would not dare double cross my client. I value my life. However, if our client does not consider them worthy of the price he paid, then we’ll return and maybe barter for them.”

“And what of the ‘hell cat’? I’ll take her off your hands too! She seems too much trouble for you.”

“No!” Ramone yelled. “She needs to be taught a lesson! She will have a new master, Señor Castoria. He will teach her how a ‘woman’ should behave around men.”

The Caballero handed over a bag of coins and then reached for the dark haired woman. Leaving the two young, girls crying out, “Milly!”

“Come woman,” the Caballero demanded as he grabbed Milly by the arm and pulled her along behind him. He pushed her into his carriage and told his coachman to drive on. As Milly started to protest, the Caballero demanded, “Silence woman or I’ll see you gagged as well!”

*****

Tessa and Mabra clung to each other and followed the orders of the outlaws and climbed back into the wagon. One of the outlaws cut Hope’s bindings from the wagon wheel while two of them tried to pick her up. Hope fought back, she clawed one of the outlaws across the face and for that, the man struck her across the face, driving her to the ground. Two of the outlaws picked Hope up and threw her into the back of the wagon.

*****

“Hope, why do you aggravate them so? Why do you fight them?” Tessa asked as she removed the gag from Hope.

“I refuse to meekly let them sell me. They sold Milly like she was an animal. I’ll make them regret taking us. How can you ‘not’ fight them?”

*****

The wagon arrived outside of Cuidad Camargo. They rode up behind the barn. One of the riders rode to the house, stepped from his horse, and knocked on the door.

An elderly, Mexican man answered the door, “Yes. May I help you?”

“I’m here to see Señor Castillo-Sanchez. He is expecting me,” the outlaw said.

The man-servant showed the outlaw in.

“Ah, Mr. Ramone, do you have my merchandise?” Castillo-Sanchez asked.

“Yes sir, as we promised you in the wire we sent from Chihuahua, we have two young, golden-haired, gringo’s for your pleasure. My associates are behind your barn.”

The two men walked from the house to behind the barn.

Castillo-Sanchez walked around both Tessa and Mabra, eyeing them. “Mr. Ramone, you have an excellent selection. How much for both?” He twirled a lock of Mabra’s blonde hair in his finger. Tessa pulled Mabra to her other side, away from the man.

“You’ll not touch my sister!” Tessa dared the man.

“You wish to buy both?” One of the other men asked.

“Yes, I see they are related, best way to keep one servant obedient is to have another member of their family. Yes, both of these will do. How much?” he asked quite eager.

Castillo-Sanchez turned his back to the women, put his hand to Ramone’s shoulder and led him back to his hacienda. After paying the agreed upon price, Castillo-Sanchez sent his man-servant to collect his purchases.

*****

That night, Tessa and Mabra were led from their room to the dining room and were told to be seated. Tessa thought back on the words Hope said, about not being quietly sold. Make the men regret taking them. As Señor Castillo-Sanchez entered the dining room he quietly walked behind the sisters, before he could react, Tessa had a knife at his throat, demanding, “You will release my sister and me! We will not stay here. You will not have us as slaves or anything else. We demand to go home!”

Castillo-Sanchez raised his hands and addressed Tessa, “Señorita, I assure you that I have no other thoughts than returning you to your home. Behind you stands Father Miguel, he runs a sort of an ‘underground railroad’. Similar to one that was operated in your America during your civil war. We know banditos go to America and steal women from their families and bring them to Mexico to sell as slaves or worse… You and your sister should be thankful that I heard about you from associates of mine up in Chihuahua. It took some doing, but they were able to convince Ramone and the others to bring you to me.”

“Child,” Father Miguel called from the archway. “Señor Castillo-Sanchez told me about the wagon load of women being transported from America. I’ve friends who have done our best to get all the women, safe, and prepare them to get back to their homes.”

“How can I trust you?” Tessa asked, almost in tears.

“Because Milly McCain told me about Percy. So I promise you, that we’ll try our best to get you home to marry your intended.”

“But Milly was sold outside of Saucillo,” Mabra declared.

“Aye. The Caballero who purchased her is my brother,” Castillo-Sanchez said. “He took her to the monastery and has her in hiding.”

Father Miguel said, “We wait for the right time, then, we travel to Saucillo. You and your sister are the final two we had to rescue.”

“But we’re not, they still have Hope!” Mabra told them.

“There’s another?” the two men looked at each other.

*****

Mark and Lucas rode into Chihuahua and headed for the cantina. They ordered dinner and coffee and sat in the corner, quietly keeping to themselves, but listening to anything and everything that was said. In time they heard talk of gringo women and Saucillo. Later that night, they climbed into the hayloft of the livery, rolled out their bedrolls, and slept, rifles at their hands.

In the morning, few people of Chihuahua saw the two strangers riding south to Saucillo.

*****

Two days later, they arrived in Saucillo. They decided to split up, walk the town and listen. Lucas told Mark to meet him at the cantina by sunset.

Both walked in different directions, both walking as if they had no cares in the world. Underneath they were still seething, angered at the men who took their wives and the others. Lucas took his time strolling through the general store, picking up supplies for their trip. After taking their supplies and putting them in the pack, he headed to the town square. Sitting down under a shade tree, pulling his hat down over his eyes, rifle in his lap, Lucas waited and listened.

Lucas finally heard talk of gringo women. He listened intently. The town was becoming more active as the heat of the day passed. Lucas followed two men that he had heard talking of women. As he walked he heard a horse being ridden, hard. He looked up to see Mark racing his horse out of town. Not wanting to lose track of the men, Lucas quietly prayed for God to watch over Mark.

*****

Lucas followed the men around a corner. He stopped and watched as they entered a building. Quietly he ran to the door as it closed. Slowly he opened the door and entered.

He walked among the crates stacked inside. He peaked around one, only to find a rifle pointed at him. Another man came from behind and took his rifle. Together the two men motioned for Lucas to walk in front of them.

Lucas found himself surrounded by a number of men, each one arguing and yelling. Finally he heard one yell in English, “You get out of Mexico! We don’t want your kind here! You only empower the outlaws to continue their raids, stealing women from their babies!”

One of the men stepped forward and threw a punch at Lucas, striking him in the stomach, driving him backwards. The others pushed him forward again. Again the man struck Lucas.

“I’m not looking to buy a wife! I don’t want any trouble!” Lucas tried to say as he struggled to catch his breath. “They took my wife! I’m only looking to find my wife, my daughter-in-law, and others who were taken from my home!”

From the shadows, a voice was heard, “Manuel, release him!” As the woman pushed her way into the crowd, she stood in front of Lucas as said, “It is you. It has been a long time, but your voice, you are Señor McCain. Manuel, he is the savior of San Lucas. He is the one who killed Miguel, Lazaro, Angelo, and Ramos.” Then turning to Lucas she said, “Señor McCain, it is I, Maria.”

“This is Señor McCain? McCain?” One man name Roberto asked, “You look for your wife?”

“Yes, my son and I were out of town and got word that our wives were taken. We trailed the men to Chihuahua and finally to here,” Lucas stated as he was allowed to stand tall.

“Tell us of your wife?” Roberto asked.

Lucas described Milly to the man.

“We were able to pay for one woman who is as you describe. What your wife called?” Manuel asked.

“Her name is Milly.”

Most of the men left, leaving Lucas alone with Maria and Roberto.

“Maria, it has been a long time. But I don’t understand. These men bought my wife? How can you stand there and allow these men…”

“Señor McCain, the words Manuel spoke were true, these men are purchasing the women. We hear of a wagon coming and we make arrangements to purchase the women. This is our way to rescue them. None of the captives risk being injured by gunfire, as they would if we took them by force.” Turning to the man, Maria spoke, “Roberto, give him his rifle back and let’s take him to his wife.”

As they walked to the monastery, Maria said, “Roberto tried to purchase three others, but they would not sell them. Two were quite young, both were golden-haired.”

“That would be Tessa and Mabra, they are sisters and were visiting my home. My daughter-in-law, she’d be about the same height as Tessa, but has red hair, her name’s Hope.”

“Señor McCain, there was a red-haired woman,” Roberto announced. “I tried playing the part of a Caballero looking for women and she slapped me. The banditos drug her from the others. I tried to purchase her, but they said they had plans for her. To teach her a lesson, they planned to sell her to a Señor Castoria.”

They entered the monastery and were met by a number of padres.

“Padres, please, this one is the husband of the dark haired woman Roberto brought to you. Please, let us take him to the basement?” Maria asked.

*****

“Maria,” Padre Ortez whispered. “We have word from Father Miguel. They have the two young girls. The ones with golden hair. Should they bring the girls here?”

Lucas overheard the conversation and said, “No. If they are safe, keep them that way. Keep them hidden. We’ll go to them.”

Padre Ortez led the way down the long corridor. He pulled a tapestry back from the wall that hid a doorway. He lit the torch and pulled it from the holder, then proceeded down into the basement.

“Señora McCain, it is I, Padre Ortez. Do not be scared. I bring friends.”

Lucas stopped and watched as Padre Ortez pulled aside a blanket and led them into a dimly lit room. As Lucas looked through the doorway he saw Milly stand from the cot she had been lying on. Her clothes were dirty and Lucas could tell she had been crying, but she looked so beautiful to him.

“Milly!” Lucas cried as he ran to his wife.

“Lucas? Oh Lucas!” Milly cried as she allowed herself to be enveloped in his strong arms.

“Milly, thank God you’re alright. I’m here. Hush your tears.”

“Oh Lucas, Roberto told me what he tried to do as he was bringing me here. He couldn’t rescue Hope or Tessa and Mabra. Oh, Lucas!” she continued to cry.

*****

The outlaws traveled on to La Boquilla del Conchos, to the home of Señor Castoria.

“Is this all you have?” Castoria demanded as he walked around Hope, admiring the fire showing in her eyes.

“She is a feisty one. You say you want them feisty, full of fire. The others would not please you. They were meek. We had other buyers who paid good money. Señor Castoria, you would do well to temper this one with the whip. She’s a hellion!” the outlaw Hernandez stated. “That’s why she’s gagged and her hands are bound.”

“Where is Ramone? I thought he was to be here.”

“Oh, he will. In Saucillo, he heard of men following us. He wanted to take care of anyone who followed.”

Castoria stood beside Hope and ran his fingers down the side of her face and for that, she kicked him in the shin. He grabbed her throat and lifted her to where she was barely standing on her toes, as she grabbed his arm with her bound hands.

“Hell Cat! That is what I will call you.”

He set her back to her feet, then turned her around and removed the gag, his hand still around her throat.

“I wouldn’t do that, her tongue is quick!” Hernandez declared.

“My name is Hope!” she yelled.

“Your name is Hell Cat. You would do well in refraining from ever striking at me again. You are my property and I will do anything I choose to do with you.” Then turning to Hernandez, “Take your money and leave me. I want to be alone with my property.” With that, Castoria threw a money pouch to Hernandez and shooed him out of the room.

Castoria pulled Hope close to him, he stood behind her, not relinquishing his hand from around her neck.

“So Hell Cat, what will you do to please me?”

“Nothing! I’ll do nothing to please you!” Hope said in defiance of the man.

“Ramone knows I am fond of women. Many women seek my bed and my pleasure. For Ramone to bring me one as exquisite as you.” He breathed in deeply of Hope’s hair. “You will do well to please me. I can make your life as regal as a queen or I can make your life such that you’ll pray to your God that I take your life.”

“I’ll do nothing to please you. You call yourself a man, you’re a monster!”

Castoria held Hope tighter, “So Hell Cat, I like your fire. I had no idea gringo women could be as spirited as you. I shall enjoy breaking you.” He held Hope tight with his right hand around her neck, her back pressed against his chest. He ran his left hand down her breast, back and forth across her stomach, to her hip, and down to her inner thigh. He felt Hope cringe against him, as he sighed in appreciation of what he felt.

“Hell Cat, yes, I shall enjoy you.” Castoria pushed Hope away and yelled for someone. Hope watched as a hunched over, old woman entered the room.

“Old woman, this is Hell Cat. You will teach her manners befitting someone of her station, manners in how she should treat someone of my status. You have until tomorrow night.” Then turning to Hope, “Oh and if you think about running, I will kill one servant for every hour you are gone. I can buy servants on a whim, but I don’t think a gringo would want innocent blood on her hands.” Then turning to the old woman, “Teach her well, old woman.”

Castoria left the room.

*****

The old woman led hope to a room, richly decorated.

“This is your room. This is where you will live, unless Señor Castoria requests your presence. Child, do not anger him. He has killed others, others he has purchased for his whims. He has needlessly killed servants to prove his point.”

“I will not please that man!” Hope vehemently stated as the old woman removed the ropes from her wrists.

“Then do it for those of us who continue to live here after he kills you,” the old woman said as she left the room. Hope heard a key lock the door. She ran to the windows and pulled open the curtains to find bars on both windows.

She walked to the bed and crawled on top of the covers, crying to herself, “Oh Mark, please find me.” In time she fell asleep.

*****

Morning came and Hope heard the door being unlocked. The old woman entered her room and motioned for Hope to follow her. She led Hope to another room, “Undress and bathe. Señor Castoria prefers his women to be clean, fresh, and properly dressed. Those rags you wear will not do. When you are bathed, you will put on these. I will be back later to take you for breakfast.” Hope watched as the woman left the bathing chamber, again, Hope heard the door being locked.

She looked at the small windows, high on the walls. She could not reach them, and if she could have, it wouldn’t have done her any good. Through the thin curtains, she saw they too had bars across them.

Hope walked to the bath and stuck her hand into the water. The idea of a long, hot bath sounded good; even if she couldn’t stand the man whose idea it was that she be clean. She stripped her clothes and stepped into the hot water. She lathered the wash cloth and scrubbed herself, reviling at the memory of that man groping her.

*****

The old woman led Hope to the dining room, where Señor Castoria already was waiting. He motioned for her to sit. He kept up idle talk of his family, his hacienda, and his land. When he was through eating he told the old woman to return Hope to her room.

While the old woman was with Hope, she kept pleading for Hope to not anger their master.

“He’s not my master. He’ll never be my master!”

*****

Mark returned to the livery and saddled his horse, then trailed after the man he had heard about. From the description of the horse, he knew it was Two-Bits. Mark followed the outlaw’s trail and encountered him on the bank of the Conchos River two days later. Mark held his rifle on the man. The man sat in front of the fire, with his back to Mark.

“Raise your hands and stand up slowly.” Mark demanded, “Where is the red-head woman you took?”

“So it is the husband who’s been trailing me,” Ramone stated as he quickly turned and threw the coffee pot at Mark. Mark barely had time to react, to step away from the hot coffee being thrown at him. Ramone tackled Mark, causing him to lose his grip on his rifle. Ramone’s momentum sent them rolling. Ramone threw a left hook to Mark’s head, striking hard, and then rolled away. Mark shook off the pain of the punch. They got to their feet and circled each other, waiting for the other to make a move. The man charged Mark again, wrapping his arms around Mark and squeezing. Mark ‘boxed’ Ramone’s ears, causing him to relinquish his bear grip. As he fell to the ground, Mark tripped over roots protruding from the ground. As he got to his feet, Mark prayed that he enough strength to defeat the man. The outlaw let out a viscous kick, knocking Mark, backwards, to the ground. On his knees, Ramone straddled over Mark, his hands around Mark’s throat, tightening his grip. Mark continued to struggle and throw punches to the man’s midsection. Ramone snarled, “The red-headed hellion? She’s dead. I took the pleasure in killing her myself. She squealed like a pig as I beat the life from her.”

In hearing his wife was dead, Mark tried to scream “NO!” and fought harder.

“Oh yes, I enjoyed hearing her squeal, begging for me to stop, I relished watching the life slip from her eyes.”

Ramone squeezed his hands around Mark’s throat tighter. Mark’s vision hazed over and his lungs burned for air. As unconsciousness over took Mark, his fighting efforts stopped. Ramone gave a vile smile as he strangled the life out of Mark. Thinking his opponent was dead, Ramone stood up. He drug and dumped Mark’s body over the embankment and watched it roll down to the river’s edge, landing on his back. He laughed as he watched the water tugging at his opponent’s body and eventually pulled the body in and carried it downriver.

“Wait ‘till I tell little hellion how easily you died,” Ramone stated as he brushed his hands together.

He walked over and picked up Mark’s rifle. Looking over the lever mechanism and testing it by firing it into a nearby tree. He smiled as he rested it over his shoulder. Next, he picked up the reins to the horse Mark rode, put the rifle in the scabbard, and then mounted his own horse.

*****

Brother Lamartine was washing his supper dishes at the bank of the river. From the corner of his eye, he thought he spotted a body tangled in the underbrush. Lamartine waded into the water and confirmed it was the body of a man, floating face up. He ‘crossed’ himself and said a small prayer before pulling the body from the river. He drug the body to the bank and lowered it to the ground. As the body hit the ground, the man let out a cough and moaned. Surprise etched Lamartine’s face as he watched the man’s chest swell with breath. He drug the man back to his camp and placed him under blankets. Lamartine pulled off his robe and wrung the water from the bottom.

The sun set over his small camp as the stranger slept. Brother Lamartine placed more wood on his fire, before lying down and going to sleep himself.

*****

The old woman walked Hope to the dining room for lunch. This time, Castoria was not present. After eating, Hope was returned to her room. In looking out one of the windows, Hope saw the outlaw Ramone leading another horse as he was riding in on… “Two-Bits!” She cringed at how rough he was handling her mare.

That night, Castoria and Ramone were present for dinner. Afterward, he told Ramone to leave them. Castoria commanded that Hell Cat join him out on the terrace. His closeness continued to anger Hope.

“You minded your manners well during dinner tonight. I am quite pleased,” he stood behind Hope and whispered into her ear. Hope wanted to strike out and run, but stood her ground. He placed both hands on her shoulders. “You wear the dress well.” He continued to press his advances against Hope, sliding his hands down her back and wrapping them around her stomach. Holding her strongly he tried to kiss her neck. Hope tensed against Castoria.

“So some of the fight has gone out of you?” he said. Hope chose not to say anything.

Castoria turned her to face him and pulled her close, he felt her litheness against his body. She turned her head away. He pulled her face back towards him and bent his head to kiss her. Hope used the one thing she could; she took a bite out of Castoria’s lip. Enraged, he threw Hope across the room to the floor. She tried to push herself to a sitting position as the man approached and before she could scramble away, he kicked her in the ribs. Castoria stormed from the room, yelling, “Ramone, put her in the pits. We’ll see how feisty she is after a few days there.” As he wiped the blood from his lip.

*****

Ramone half carried, half drug Hope to the cellar. As he threw her inside the small, dank room, he said, “Just so you know. Don’t expect anyone to come rescue you. I took great pleasure in killing your husband. He fought well, but not good enough. I enjoyed strangling the life out of him and tossing his body into the Conchos and watching the waters take him away.”

When Ramone slammed the door closed, Hope fell to the ground and cried, “NO!”

*****

Lamartine woke as the sun rose. He stepped over to check on his new companion, he saw the growing bruise on the man’s cheek and the vibrant bruising to the man’s throat. He stepped back to the campfire and added more wood, then set his coffee pot on. In time, he noticed the man’s eyes opening and watched as he pushed himself into a sitting position as he rubbed at his throat.

Lamartine pulled out a pad of paper and pencil and wrote, ‘I’m Brother Lamartine. You American?’ Then handed the pad to the man.

After reading, he tried to speak, but nothing came out. The man’s throat was so sore from being strangled, it prevented him from speaking. He nodded, instead.

‘You have name?’ was written.

The man took the paper and pencil and wrote out his name, ‘Mark McCain’, and handed it back to Brother Lamartine.

‘You go home to America?’

Mark shook his head.

‘Why?’

Mark took the paper and pencil and wrote, ‘Nothing to live for, wife dead.’

Brother Lamartine shared his morning breakfast with Mark.

*****

Brother Lamartine left Mark by the fire as he continued to check his snares. He returned to camp around lunchtime. After eating, Brother Lamartine wrote, “We go home.”

In silence Mark followed Brother Lamartine back to his small home. He watched as the padre handed out the rabbits to the small children who waited for him.

Brother Lamartine entered his home and motioned for Mark to join him. He set a pot of coffee on the stove. As the sun was setting, a knock was heard at the door. Lamartine invited another padre inside.

“I see you had a successful hunt, Brother Lamartine. You returned home with more than you bargained for?” as he saw Mark sitting in the corner.

Lamartine nodded yes. He handed his pad of paper to the newcomer and waited for him to read.

Turning to Mark, the newcomer stated, “My name is Father Andreius and you are Mark McCain?”

Mark nodded.

“You’re probably wondering about Brother Lamartine?”

Mark shrugged. He really didn’t care about anything, any more.

“Brother Lamartine took a vow of silence over fifteen years ago. Words he once spoke were the truth, but because of those words, an innocent man was killed. He chose to never speak again, rather than cause the death of another. He stays here, watching over this small town.”

Father Andreius returned to the pad and read, where Mark had wrote, wife killed. “So, are you running away from your hurt? You’re hiding here in Mexico instead of living your life back home?”

Mark shook his head. The Father handed the paper and pencil to Mark.

‘Outlaws took mother, wife, and others. Brought to Mexico. Wife, killed, here.’

Tears were welling in Mark’s eyes as he handed the paper to the Father.

“Son, I am so sorry. Mark, you should go home. There are others who will need to be told your wife is dead. You can’t stay here.”

Mark refused to listen; he stood and walked out the door. He stopped at the corral and bent his head to his hands, grieving.

*****

Maria and Roberto pulled a covered wagon to the back of the monastery. Under the cover of darkness, they saw Lucas and Milly climb in back after Lucas tied the three horses he still had, to the back. They set out for Cuidad Camargo.

Two nights later, the arrived at the home of Señor Castillo-Sanchez. His man-servant opened the door and let the visitors inside. He showed them to a smaller dining room, where upon entering, Tessa and Mabra ran to them. Thankful to see the McCain’s and knowing they would soon be heading home.

Roberto greeted his brother, “It has been a long time brother, I thank you for helping to rescue these two. I wish to introduce you to Lucas and Milly McCain.”

“Señor McCain, I am only sorry that we could not rescue the other. We did not know your daughter-in-law was in the outlaw’s wagon until they were well gone.”

“Señor Castillo-Sanchez, I have a favor to ask. I must find my daughter-in-law, as well as my son.”

“Your son?” Roberto asked.

“The little one?” Maria asked.

“Yes, but he’s not so little any more. He arrived with me in Saucillo, but I saw him ride out when I was following Roberto and the others.” Then turning to Castillo-Sanchez, “May I leave my wife and the girl’s with you, until I can come back. I’ll pay you and re-imburse you for your expenses in rescuing the girls, I just want to make sure they are safe, while I search for Hope and Mark.”

“Señor McCain, it would be my honor to offer the protection of my hacienda for as long as it is needed.”

Lucas shared a few private moments with Milly before heading out.

“We ride for La Boquilla del Conchos, that is where Señor Castoria lives,” Roberto announced as he and Lucas rode next to the wagon, while Maria drove the team.

*****

The sun was setting for the second day when they arrived outside of La Boquilla del Conchos. It took a while, but Roberto and Maria quietly obtained directions to Señor Castoria’s home.

*****

The sound of the door being unlocked woke Hope. The old woman was there to lead her from the pits, stating, “I told you. He will kill you if you do not do as he says.”

Hope was led into the main room of the home, where Señor Castoria sat toying with the knife in his hands.

“So, Hell Cat, tell me. Did you enjoy your time in the pits?”

“I shared better company with the rats than with you,” Hope vehemently replied.

Jumping to his feet, he grabbed for Hope, pulled her close and placed the tip of the knife to her jugular vein. “If you so much enjoy their company… No, that is what you wish. Hell Cat you shall learn to appreciate me, a real man. Not that, weak, pathetic boy that Ramone killed.” He pressed the knife so that is drew a trace of blood to her throat.

“My husband is more of a man that you’ll ever be!” Hope yelled.

Castoria walked through the dining room, towards his master bedroom, pulling Hope along, his knife still in his hand.

“We were to eat dinner, but now, I shall teach you to your place. You will share my bed with me I had hoped you would come around on your own, but I now know better...”

Hope struggled harder against Castoria. As they walked past the table, Hope grabbed for the back of one of the tall chairs and kicked towards the man, hard. Castoria lost his grip just enough that Hope broke free. She reached for a plate from the table and threw it towards the man, he deflected the plate and it shattered against the wall.

As the old woman pushed Hope, she fell against the table, Hope saw the serrated knife and she grabbed for it. Castoria heard the old woman yell, “No!”

Hope yelled, “Keep away from me. I know how to use a knife and I will! You’ll be easier to skin than the buffalo!”

“Hell Cat, you think you scare me? You will regret striking me, again.” He steadily walked towards Hope, as she backed away, he kept flashing his knife at her. “You pathetic gringo woman! Gentle I would have been. But now… I shall take my full pleasure out on you.”

The old woman struck Hope’s hand holding the knife, causing it to fall. It was enough of a distraction that Castoria immediately had his arm around Hope. He threw her to the floor and was on top of her. He threw his knife aside and pressed himself to Hope and reached to undo his belt. As he kissed Hope, she tried pushing him off her, as she turned her head away, she saw the knife she had dropped, and reached for it… stretching her arm and fingers as far as she could, to pull it to her hand. She felt her blouse being ripped as she plunged the knife into the side of Castoria’s chest.

Castoria sat up and as he did, Hope pulled the knife out. As he looked down to the wound, enraged, he reached his hands out towards Hope’s throat. Hope plunged the knife into his chest again.

Hope watched as his eyes rolled backwards in their sockets. She pushed him away as he fell to the floor, dead. The old woman screamed. Hope didn’t wait, she got to her feet, turned, and ran. As she reached the front court, she saw Ramone riding Two-Bits through the main gate. She turned and ran away. Ramone kicked Hope’s horse and chased after her. As he approached, he reached down and grabbed her arm and tried to pull her into the saddle. With her free hand, she took her fingernails and dug deep across Ramone’s face. He screamed and released his grip on Hope.

She landed on her feet and ran; ignoring the pain from her ribs and her arm. She heard a horse running towards her; she looked over her shoulder only to be too late to react. Ramone ran her down. Hope felt the pain in her leg and everything went black as her head struck the ground.

*****

It was mid-morning when Lucas, Maria, and Roberto arrived to see the rider urging his mount to run down the woman he was chasing. To Lucas’ horror, when the woman turned, he recognized Hope and saw her crumple under the hooves of the horse. He pulled his rifle and fired several shots. In time, the horse slowed and the rider fell to the ground. Lucas jumped from his horse and ran to Hope.

Gently turning her over, he saw the fresh blood in her hair from the cut to her temple. He looked her over, horrified to see her blouse ripped open and her right leg broken.

Lucas felt a hand on his shoulder and heard Maria ask, “Does she live?”

He pulled Hope’s blouse closed before he placed his head to her chest and heard a heartbeat, “Yes, Maria, she lives. Find me something I can use as a splint.” He pulled out his bandanna and tied it around Hope’s head.

“That one is dead.” Roberto said as he pointed towards Ramone.

“Roberto, Maria is getting something to use to splint her leg, will you help me?”

Maria returned, with small planks to use as splints.

Thankful that Hope was unconscious, Lucas set her broken leg. While Maria held the leg, Roberto held the splints, and Lucas tied them securely with rags.

“Let’s get her into the wagon,” Lucas stated.

“No, wait.” Maria ran to the house and returned a short time later with pillows and blankets. “Let me make the back of the wagon more comfortable for the trip.”

As Maria made the wagon ready, an old woman came running from the hacienda wailing, “She killed him! She killed our master!”

“Old woman,” Roberto said. “Leave this place. Take all the others and leave.”

As Lucas lifted Hope and carried her to the wagon, he told Roberto, “That mare the man was riding, it belongs to Hope. Please, get it.”

Maria helped Lucas gently place Hope into the back of the wagon, he climbed in and cradled Hope’s head in his lap. Roberto tied Two-Bits and the other horse to the back of the wagon. He pulled the rifle from the scabbard and set it inside, next to Hope. Lucas looked at the rifle, knowing full well it was his son’s. His heart was torn between seeing that Hope made it to a doctor and fearing why that man had Mark’s rifle. Slowly they made their way back to the town of La Boquilla del Conchos.

Roberto rode ahead to inform the local Federales of the events that transpired and to make sure the doctor would be there to tend to the injured girl.

*****

A doctor finished putting a few stitches to the side of Hope’s head as Lucas waited in the room. He then turned his attention to her leg, approving of how it had been set, but wanting to splint it properly.

“Sir, I’m not sure how much longer the girl will remain unconscious, but I have done everything I medically can. The rest is in your God’s hands. I wish you safe passage and God’s speed home.”

“How much do I owe you?” Lucas asked.

“Nothing, it is unfortunate that those outlaws took her and caused such injuries. You have paid too high a price already, that I cannot charge you for my services. I knew the elder Castoria, he was a good man. But his son. The father knew his son was not ‘right’ in the head, but he died two years ago…”

As the doctor pause, a man introducing himself to be the senior official of the town arrived.

“I have been to Señor Castoria’s home and I have seen for myself what happened. Señor McCain, it is unfortunate what happened to the girl. We allowed our fear’s of Castoria to keep us… Señor, we were cowards. Roberto told me what you witnessed and the old woman’s word told us what the girl did was ‘justifiable’. She, nor you, will be charged with any crime.”

The words the official spoke didn’t ease the anger Lucas was feeling. “I want the others dead. Roberto, you said there were four when they first stopped in Saucillo. I want the other three. So help me God, I’ll see the whole lot pays for taking my family.”

“Señor McCain, your family needs you. Leave the outlaws to us. We will track the animals down and deal with them swiftly,” the official stated.

“Please, Señor McCain,” Maria stated. “It would come better from us, than an American coming to Mexico and seeking vengeance. We no longer meekly submit to banditos and neither will this town, now that you have shown them that one man can make a difference. You showed us the way. You gave us the courage to do as we have done and are doing. You have your family back. Yes, you are hurting, but they are with you.”

“Not all. My son is still out there, somewhere,” Lucas stated as he looked back to the closed door.

“Señor McCain, we will spread the word. We will see that he knows his family is safe,” the Maria stated.

*****

Later that day, a still unconscious Hope was gently loaded into the back of the wagon for the trip to Cuidad Camargo, closer to home. Lucas cradled her head in his lap the entire trip.

*****

The group reached Cuidad Camargo and moved Hope into a room at Señor Castillo-Sanchez hacienda.

Maria and Roberto said their goodbyes. Before they headed back to Saucillo, they stopped by the mission and told Father Miguel of the still missing American. Asking that he spread the word that the McCain family was safe and soon would be on their way home.

*****

It was close to midnight when Lucas and Milly woke, hearing Hope cry out, “No! Mark! Please come back to me! Don’t leave me alone! It can’t be true!”

Milly crawled in the bed and wrapped her arms around Hope, quietly whispering, offering words of comfort. After a few minutes, Lucas saw Hope’s eyes start to flutter open.

“Pa?” they plaintively heard. “Oh Pa, he’s dead. Mark’s dead. Ramone killed him!” Hope cried out and she reached around for Milly.

Lucas and Milly looked to each other, not believing at first, but seeing Hope’s reaction, they knew it must be true. Lucas sat down on the edge of the bed and wrapped his arms around Milly and Hope.

“Hope, what happened?” Lucas asked when he trusted his voice.

Through tears and heavy sobs, Hope told of how Ramone strangled Mark and then threw him into the river.

*****

The following morning, those from North Fork said goodbye to their host and began the long trip home. Señor Castillo-Sanchez made sure even more bedding was placed in the back of the wagon for Hope to lie in and had his kitchen staff provide plenty of food for the trip. As they headed north, Tessa and Mabra took turns between riding the horses and traveling in the back of the wagon with Hope. When the girls were riding, Milly was in back. No one wanted to leave Hope alone.

*****

As they passed through El Paso, Lucas sent a wire ahead. Telling all he was coming home with the women and when to expect them.

*****

The main street of North Fork was quiet when Lucas pulled the wagon to a halt in front of the clinic. Tessa and Mabra jumped from the back of the wagon and were joyfully and tearfully reunited with Percy and Mr. Bullock who ran from the hotel lobby. Milly slowly climbed from the back of the wagon and saw Johnny Drako running from the Marshal’s Office towards them.

Lucas called, “Johnny, could you help me with Hope?”

Carefully, the two men carried Hope into the clinic and gently laid her in a bed. Milly quietly followed.

Nils arrived and took the horses from the back of the wagon to the livery.

Thaddeus Burrage had followed Percy and his father from the hotel and he quickly entered his clinic. He proceeded to perform a thorough examination of Hope. Lucas and Milly waited in his office.

After looking outside towards the wagon, Johnny asked, “Lucas, where’s Mark?”

Lucas and Milly held tighter to each other and shook their heads, they couldn’t say it.

*****

Several days had passed when Brother Lamartine wrote, ‘Where was home?’

Mark wrote, ‘North Fork, New Mexico.’

‘I take you home, you don’t belong here. You need to grieve, but not here.’

They saddled up two horses, loaded provisions, and rode North.

*****

Father Andreius heard word of the missing American. He returned to Brother Lamartine’s home, to find both men and the horses gone. The children said they had left days ago.

*****

A week after starting North, Brother Lamartine and a defeated Mark rode to the front yard of the McCain Ranch. Mark observed that both houses were dark. No animals were in the corral or the surrounding land. Mark got off his horse and walked into his home. ‘Home. It’s not a home any more. Not without Hope,’ he thought to himself. ‘Pa’s not even home.’ He walked into what was their bedroom, pulled a picture from the dresser, and crawled into bed. He fell asleep while crying and clutching their wedding picture to his chest.

After tending to the horses, Brother Lamartine entered the house. While Mark slept, he tidied up the house, washed the dishes that had remained on the table, food crusted over. After finishing the dishes, he looked around and saw the pictures on the desk. He picked one up, of Mark and presumably his wife, he thought, each holding a young child on their laps. Once things were in order, Brother Lamartine walked to the other home. Again, he began to clean the house. He saw the pictures on the desk. Realizing this was the home of Mark’s parents and the rest of his family.

*****

Mark woke the following morning and packed a few items of clothing in a carpet bag, and entered the front room of his house. Brother Lamartine was sleeping in his bedroll, on the floor, in front of the fireplace. He woke, hearing Mark’s footsteps.

His eye’s asking, “Where are you going?”

Mark whispered, “Away.”

Brother Lamartine stood up and walked to the desk and picked up Mark’s family picture, he held it in front of Mark, and pointed.

“Not without my wife,” Mark struggled to whisper. His throat still ached from being strangled. “Let her brother and his wife raise them.” Though Mark loved his sons dearly, the thought of raising them on his own was something he didn't want to face. He felt nothing any more, except emptiness, as though he were just a shell of a man. He wanted nothing to do with raising his children. There was no life left within him, no life without Hope. He thought to himself, ‘They wouldn’t know any different. Unlike when my ma died; they’re so young, they won’t know the difference.’

Brother Lamartine took out his paper and pencil, “Where will you go?”

Mark shrugged his shoulders. Mark removed a loose brick in the fireplace and pulled out a money pouch. He counted out a number of coins and tried to give them to Brother Lamartine. Hoarsely saying, “For your help and the horse.”

Brother Lamartine shook his head and refused to take the money. He pushed the money pouch back to Mark. Mark put the money pouch in his carpet bag and walked out the front door. Brother Lamartine watched as Mark walked to the barn, saddled and mounted the horse, and rode away to the west. His posture was one of defeat.

*****

Brother Lamartine had eaten a bowl of porridge and was finishing washing dishes when he heard riders approach. He stood and walked to the porch. Two riders were quickly dismounting their horses and coming towards him.

Both men stopped quickly, with the shorter of the two asking, “Who are you?”

Brother Lamartine wrote out his answer, then wrote, “Mark’s family?”

“Yes, I’m Lucas McCain, I’m Mark’s father, he’s alive? Where is he?” he asked as he looked anxiously around. Praying to see Mark’s smiling face.

Johnny tapped on Lucas’ arm to bring his attention back to the note being handed to him. Lucas read the response, “Rode west an hour ago. He grieves for his wife and left his sons.”

“Grieves? Oh my God, Lucas,” Johnny Gibbs stated. “He thinks Hope’s dead. He didn’t get word from Maria.”

Lucas searched the ground and found a set of hoof prints heading west. He mounted Blade and rode out after his son, his brother-in-law at his side.

Together Lucas and Johnny followed Mark’s trail. After a while they realized the trail had changed directions and was leading them to North Fork. Ahead, they saw a solitary horse and rider on the hill overlooking North Fork. Both men kicked their horses to a faster pace. The figure didn’t turn around at their approach.

“Mark!” Lucas called when he was near. “Thank God you’re alive! Mark, we thought you were dead.”

“I might as well be!” Mark barely spoke above a whisper as he continued to stare down at the town.

Seeing Mark’s slumped shoulders, Lucas said, “Son, Hope lives.”

Mark shook his head. As his father stopped beside him, he struggled to hoarsely whisper, “She’ll live on in the boys. Let Ethan and Annie raise them.”

Lucas reached over and placed his hand to Mark’s chin, forcing his son to look at him. Lucas saw the tears falling from Mark’s closed eyes. He also saw the faint remains of a black eye, but more so, he saw the still dark bruising to Mark’s throat. “Mark, whatever you were told, was a lie. We found them all, Tessa, Mabra, Milly, and Hope. They’re all alive. We returned to North Fork three days ago. Doc Burrage has insisted they all stay in town for a while. That’s why we weren’t at the ranch when you got home. One of Dave Merar’s hands was looking in on the ranch for me and said he saw smoke coming from your place, that’s why Johnny and I went to the ranch. We met Brother Lamartine… Mark please, believe what I say.”

Mark opened his eyes, but Lucas still saw the hollowness in them. Mark moved his head to pull his chin from his father’s hand.

“Mark,” Johnny stated. “Believe your father. We wouldn’t lie to you about this. Hope is alive. Don’t leave her grieving thinking you’re dead. Hope told your father, that outlaw, Ramone, strangled you and threw your body into the river. Mark your wife is down there. At Hattie’s, grieving for you. As you sit here grieving for her, she grieves for you.”

Mark looked between his father and his uncle. His mind still trying to comprehend what they were telling him. His thoughts reeled, going against everything he had dwelled on for all those days, after Brother Lamartine found him.

“Son, before we get you to Hope, you need to understand, you’re going to need to be there for her. She took some injuries at the hands of those outlaws and the man they sold her too. Doc Burrage says she’ll recover, but I know she’ll recover quicker, knowing you’re alive.”

Lucas reached for the reins to the horse Mark was riding and kicked Blade to trot on.

“I can ride Pa,” Mark whispered.

*****

John Hamilton was the first to see the three enter North Fork. He ran to Hattie and Micah’s. Yelling as he entered, without even knocking, “Where’s Hope?” Hattie came from the parlor and pointed upstairs.

John ran to the top of the stairs, yelling, “They’re here. Milly! Hope! It’s Lucas, he’s got Mark! Mark’s alive! They’re riding into town.”

Milly quickly stood from the chair, next to the bed Hope was lying in, hurried to the door and opened it.

“Milly,” John said. “I saw them. Lucas and Johnny, they’ve got Mark with them. They’re coming.”

Milly quickly went down the stairs and was at the door when she saw the three of them stop at the hitching rail. As Mark walked closer, she put her hand to her mouth when she saw the bruises. As Mark walked to the doorway, Milly gave him a brief hug and then wrapped her arm through his. “Come Mark, let’s get you and Hope reunited.”

“Hope?” Mark barely asked in a whisper.

“She’s upstairs Mark.” Lucas followed as Milly led Mark upstairs.

John Hamilton ran to the clinic to get Thadd, after he saw the bruises to Mark’s throat.

Mark collapsed into the bed as he wrapped his arms around Hope and they cried together.

*****

Lucas and Milly left Mark and Hope alone and returned downstairs. Johnny Gibbs was still standing there, waiting.

“Johnny, would you ride back to the ranch and, if Brother Lamartine is still there, bring him to town?” Lucas asked.

Johnny nodded and left.

As Milly and Lucas entered the parlor, they were amazed how quickly word had gotten around and were thankful for everyone present.

John Hamilton showed Doc Burrage into Hattie’s and then stepped to the parlor as Thadd proceeded upstairs.

Thadd knocked on the door, before opening it. He hesitated as he saw the still tearful reunion. Mark sat up and turned around. Between the injury to his throat and being choked up from crying he barely croaked out, “Tell me,” as he pointed to Hope.

Thadd walked over to Mark and reached to his throat.

Mark tried to say, “No, my wife?” as he pushed Thadd’s hand away and looked to his wife.

It was then that Hope saw the bruising on Mark’s throat. She pulled open the collar of his shirt more, so she could see.

“Mark?!” Hope cried.

Mark put his fingertips to her lips and shook his head. He then turned and looked at Thadd, his eyes demanding answers.

“Mark, Hope will recover. She sustained a broken right leg and some badly bruised ribs. Her left elbow was strained. She also took a concussion. There’s the laceration that was sutured above her temple. Mark, believe me, I wouldn’t lie to you. In five weeks or so, this will all be just a bad memory.”

Tears continued to fall down Mark’s face as he held Hope’s hand and tried to say, “I’m so sorry, I should have been here.”

“No Mark.” Hope stated as she held her hand to Mark’s face and ran her thumb across his cheek to wipe away his tears. “Husband, I won’t have you stop being who you are, just in case something bad ‘might’ happen.”

“I’m supposed to protect… He said he’d killed you. I was so lost…,” Mark raised his hand to his throat and rubbed it as his voice gave out.

“Please Mark, let Thadd examine your neck?” Hope pleaded as Mark shook his head.

“Mark, now that you both know the other lives, I want to examine you. I don’t really like the looks of the bruising on your throat. I want you to come with me to the clinic.”

Mark shook his head, again.

“Mark, your family and others are downstairs. I think Hope will be safe in this house, for a few minutes, without you.”

“Mark, please. Go with Doc Burrage. Let him examine you, then you can come back to me, and our sons.”

Mark mouthed, ‘where are they?’

“Ethan and Annie are still looking after them, at least until I can get around better on my own and Doc let’s us return home. They bring the boys to me after they’re ready for the morning, and I’ve been reading to them in bed and they stay with me for their naps, but for everything else, they’re with Ethan and Annie.”

Doc Burrage took hold of Mark’s arm and led him from the room.

*****

As Mark entered the clinic, Thadd told him to hop up on the examination table. He first looked at the faded black eye and felt the lower eye socket, shaking his head as he realized it had sustained a fracture.

Next, Thadd pulled out a tongue depressor and asked Mark to open his mouth. Thadd inserted the depressor and looked to the back of Mark’s throat. He could see the dark bruising on the back of Mark’s throat. Next, he palpated up and down Mark’s neck. Noticing Mark wincing each time he pressed inward. Thadd shook his head at the extent of Mark’s injuries.

“Mark, I take it from your injuries that you were in a fight? Now don’t try to talk, just nod or shake your head to answer my questions. Were you in a fight?”

Mark nodded.

“You take any blows to your ribs, again?”

Mark nodded.

“Open your shirt and let me see.” Thadd pressed against Mark’s ribs and was pleased to see no reaction. “Just sore?”

Mark shook his head.

“Anywhere else I should examine?”

Mark shook his head.

“Okay Mark, I don’t know how else to say this, other than to be blunt. With the looks of those bruises around your neck, I say you were strangled.”

Mark nodded.

“Mark it appears that the cartilage that makes up your Larynx, your Adam’s apple,” Thadd pointed to his own Adam’s apple. “It has been fractured as well as a part of your vocal chords has been crushed. Also, the cheek bone, below your right eye has been fractured. I’m sure it will heal nicely. Given time the cartilage might heal itself. But your voice, until your vocal chords have had a chance to mend, I just don’t know. The best way to let them heal is to not use them. And I mean, don’t talk, don’t even whisper. I want to see you in one week to see how everything is mending.”

“But…” Mark tried to say.

“I said NO talking.” Thadd stepped to his desk and pulled out paper and pencil and handed them to Mark. “Come on, I’ll see you back to your family. And I want to make sure they understand the restrictions I’m placing on you. Here's some witch-hazel for your neck. I'll also recommend you gargling with salt water in the morning and evening, then spit it out, don't swallow. I’ll also let Johnny know you won’t be working for a while, between your recovering and taking care of Hope...”

Mark started to write as Thadd looked on. “Doc, Those men… Hope… They didn’t…”

Thadd could see the inner turmoil in Mark as he struggled to write the painful question. Thadd grabbed Mark’s writing hand and stopped him. “Hope told us what happened. Mark, I know this is going to be difficult for you to hear, but maybe its better that we’re talking about it rather than you with your family and having Hope relive it. He’d tried forcing himself on Hope. He did some… groping. Another time, he held her and forced himself against her as he attempted to kiss her. Hope took a bite out of his lip. He threw her across the floor and then kicked her. That’s how her ribs were bruised. Then he had… Ramone, throw her into the cellar. Her other injuries, Mark your father saw them happen. Ramone ran her down with a horse. That’s how her leg was broken and she received the cut to her head. Mark, from what your father saw at the scene and what an old woman told them, the man did try to rape Hope, but she fought back. Mark there’s something else…, I’ll just come right out and say this, you remember how you felt the first time you killed a man?”

Mark nodded, his eyes widen with fear.

“She killed the man. I think she’s blocked that out, she’s not said anything to anyone about it. Your father told us what happened, after he killed Ramone and was tending to Hope. An old woman came running out of the house, screaming that Hope had killed a man. When they were returning to La Boquilla del Conchos, Maria told your father of how she went into the house to get pillows and blankets for the back of the wagon, she saw a man, on the floor, dead with a knife protruding from his chest. Mark, if she is repressing this, I don’t know when, but this memory will resurface and when it does, Hope will need you.” Placing a hand to Mark’s shoulder, he asked, “Do you understand?”

Mark nodded. Thadd gave Mark a few moments to come to terms with what he heard. “Mark she’s a strong woman. Don’t press her to remember, but when she does, be prepared to be supportive.”

“By the way,” Thadd started to change the subject. “Marshal Benton sent Deputy Drew Anders to help Johnny out after he returned to town. Drew’s really enjoying staying at the hotel and eating home cooked food with Johnny and Lou. Actually, everyone’s going to be thrilled to hear that you’re alive. This town has been pretty somber since your family returned and told us that you had been killed. I don’t think Johnny’s even be able to send word to Denver about your death. We were trying to schedule a memorial service for you, but because we cared so much about the rest of your family, we were waiting for the right time. Lou took news of your death almost as hard as your folks.”

Mark wrote out, “Drako baby?”

“A girl, Danielle Rose Drako.” Thadd informed Mark. “She was born June second. Seems this town’s getting run over by baby girls. Maybe you McCain’s should get busy again. You’re the last ones to have boys.”

In hearing Thadd laugh at own his words, Mark couldn’t help the smile that appeared on his face.

The Next Step — Returning Home

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

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