The Rifleman
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Fan Fiction

The Next Step
Chapter 75 - Resentment
Written by Deanne Bertram

It was just after suppertime as Seth and Lucas entered the telegraph office only to have Amos hand a wire to Lucas.

“It just came across. Lucas, it’s from Mark,” Amos stated with a smile on his face, knowing the good news the wire contained.

After looking over Lucas’ arm to read the wire, Seth stated, “Go on Lucas, let your family know he arrived safe and will be home soon. I think I can handle the town alone, for a couple of days.”

“You sure?” Lucas asked, eager to head home.

“Go on.”

*****

Lucas was in such a good mood and eager to relay the news to his family that he didn’t exactly pay attention to his surroundings; he heard the gunshot and felt the bullet strike the back of his right shoulder, knocking him from his horse. Lucas struggled to his feet and tried to run for the large mound of boulders, but before he made it halfway there, he found himself confronted by a single rider with his weapon drawn.

“Look who I got here. The one and only… Rifleman. I wouldn’t try anything Mr. McCain, I already have a number of my men watching your family. Just pray that your oldest, The Lawman, can read and follow directions.”

“What do you want?” Lucas tersely replied.

“As I said, your son to read and follow the directions one of my boys should have already wired him in Denver.”

“Why? What’s my son done to you.”

“Personally? Nothing. But he’s transporting someone we want.”

“Birch!” Lucas spat out in disgust.

“You’ve heard of him? Then you’ll know why we want him.”

“You can have him for all I care! He’s been nothing but a thorn to me and my son for far too long.”

“Then just pray that your son does as I wired.”

Another rider rode into the clearing with Blade in tow, “Mr. McCain, if you please. Get on your horse and let’s get you home,” the leader stated as he motioned with his gun for Lucas to walk towards his horse.

*****

Later, while Mark was waiting to check into the hotel, the telegrapher ran in and handed him a wire.

“McCain,

Return Birch to North Fork or your family will pay dearly /stop”

Mark ran from the hotel, back to the U.S. Marshal’s Office. Birch was sitting in a chair, in front of the desk talking with Tom Benton when Mark burst through the door, the secretary trying to prevent him from entering, “What the hell are you up to?!” Mark yelled as he pulled Birch to his feet, swung him around, and forcefully slammed him into the wall, telegram in one hand, rifle in the other. “ANSWER ME!! What did you bargain for this time? WHY MY FAMILY?!”

Benton tried pulling Mark from Birch, but Mark turned on him, “No more deals! Not this time! Not while I’m alive!” Turning back to Birch, “What game are you up to?!”

“Game, I’m not playing any game…” Birch answered, the fear he felt was evident in his eyes. He’d seen anger in Lucas McCain’s eyes once before, but the look in the eyes of the Rifleman’s son was far worse.

Benton managed to grab Mark’s rifle and was trying to grab Mark’s arm when he saw Mark start to throw a punch his way. Luckily, he was able to duck at about the time Cole Barker and two other deputies arrived and ran to restrain Mark.

“You agreed to forgive his kidnapping me and shooting my Pa! But now… someone has my family and they’re threatening to kill them unless he’s taken back to North Fork!”

“Mark, what are you talking about?” Cole demanded.

“This!” Mark held the telegraph up. “Your telegrapher brought it to me a few minutes ago. It weren’t an hour ago I sent word to my family that I had arrived here and planned to head home tomorrow. Tell me, does my family have to ‘pay dearly’ while he gets away…, scot-free again?!”

Neither Barker nor Benton had ever heard or seen this side of Mark McCain as he continued to struggle against the two deputies restraining him. A dark side that indicated he’d do anything to save the lives of his family.

“McCAIN!” Benton ordered. “You will restrain yourself.”

Mark feigned relaxing and when the deputies relaxed their grip on him, he pulled away, lunged for Benton and pulled his rifle from Tom’s grip and pointed it towards the others, “Here’s my badge, my family is more important than him. I don’t care what happens, I’m taking him back to North Fork to save my family!.” Mark grabbed for Birch and pulled him along. Mark pushed Birch out of the office and along the main street, towards the livery. Those who had been in the office slowly followed Mark out the front door.

“Let him go, boys. We’ll get Birch back,” Benton ordered.

“You there, stop McCain!” Barker countered the order.

“NO! I’ll take responsibility,” Benton yelled. “Stay clear of them!”

The group watched as Mark and Birch rode their horses towards the train station. Benton pulled his horse from the hitching rail and rode after them. Benton caught up with them and followed as Mark lead his horse into the rail car.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Mark demanded as he turned his rifle on Benton.

“He’s still in the custody of the U.S. Marshal Service. And I refuse to accept your resignation. Mark, I’m your friend, as well as your boss. And I count your family as friends, I can’t let you return to North Fork like this.”

“I can’t return without him,” Mark starkly answered.

“I didn’t say that. I mean, I can’t let you return home, alone. We’ve two days by train and we’ll be in North Fork by night. You know what? I have the authority to make this train cancel all stops and run straight through. We’ll get you back to North Fork by Friday late morning.”

“Tom…” Mark yelled as Tom left the livestock car and climbed along the walls to make it to the passenger cars and ran through them, to the front engine.

*****

Lucas’ shoulder burned as they rode to the ranch. He couldn’t’ believe how he had let his guard down, especially after the story Hope recounted. The two rode into the yard and stopped their horses in front of the porch.

“Step down Mr. McCain and don’t try anything, Hernando there, is a crack shot, that’s why we call him Crackers. Remember, with you dead we still have your wife, daughter-in-law, as well as your children and grandchildren…”

Lucas looked as he heard Milly yell his name, and saw one of the outlaws physically restraining her, “Leave my wife be!” Lucas yelled.

“Then you’ll do exactly as I say.”

“Crackers,” the leader yelled. “Get out here and take care of the horses!”

A small man ran from the house and grabbed the reins of the horses and lead them to the barn.

Upon entering his home, Lucas looked around. He saw fear in Gwen’s eyes as she sat on the hearth of the fireplace, worry in Milly’s eyes as a man kept her on the other side of the table from him, and hatred in Hope’s as another man kept a gun pointed on her in the kitchen.

“Who are you?” Lucas demanded.

“Me, I’m the pro-tem leader of these men and I aim to see that our boss is released. But if you want to know my name, it’s Morgan Grindstaff and my men… well.. we’re members of Grisolm’s Gang.”

“Why my family?” Lucas asked.

“Because your son, The Lawman, interfered before we had the chance to put our plan into motion. What damn luck to have a U.S. Marshal visiting family in Stanton. We went Sunday afternoon to bust Birch out of jail and found he was already gone.” Grindstaff walked around the table and stopped close to Milly. “We stayed around and done some inquiring, found out who the marshal was. Heard there was a second Marshal too. Figured they’d be ready for us to try something on the trail. No one would figure we’d come here. My plan is perfect.” He walked into the kitchen. The man standing behind Hope moved as he approached.

“You’ve quite a lovely family here, I hope you don’t do anything to jeopardize any one of them,” Grindstaff remarked.

“Leave them be. Your quarrel’s with Birch, not my family.”

Lucas turned to watch as the man walked to the stove and removed the top from the pot. Milly gasped and tried to get to Lucas when she saw the bloodstain on the back of his shirt. The man beside Milly roughly grabber her arm and pulled her back with a hard yank, causing her to cry out.

Lucas lunged towards the man restraining Milly, but before he crossed half-way to the table, the man who had been next to Hope, raised his gun and pistol whipped Lucas on the back side of his head, knocking him unconscious. Lucas fell with a thud to the floor.

“Mama?” they all heard from Myra’s bedroom.

“Please, not in front of our children.” Milly begged and tried to pull her arm from the man holding her.

“Majors, let her be!” Grindstaff demanded.

“Grinder?” Majors replied.

“We have two days until the Lawman gets here with Birch, if he takes the train out tomorrow morning. I’ll not have you treating our hosts in such a manner. Let her tend to her husband and let them tend to the children. Get out and help Crackers with the horses.”

“Mrs. McCain, I’m truly sorry for the way he treated you,” Grindstaff spoke as he stepped over the unconscious Lucas.

“No worse than you. I’m a married woman and you bring my husband home, injured, and the way you and all your men look at us…” Milly dared reply.

“You are quite right. I will behave myself in the presence of you, your daughter-in-law, and your ward. But mark my word, one step out of line and I will forget that the three of you are ladies. Behave as such and you will be treated as befitting. Now, why don’t you tend to your husband’s wound.”

Milly walked to where they kept the box of bandages and pulled it from the cupboard. By the time she knelt next to Lucas, he had started to regain consciousness. With his wife’s assistance, Lucas sat up and leaned against the hutch.

“Lucas, I need to see your back. Just sit here.”

“Mama,” Myra called again.

“Hope, would you please see what Myra needs?” Milly asked and then looked to Grindstaff, who nodded.

Hope walked to the bedroom door and opened it, she bent forward to keep Myra from looking into the front room. She started to push the door closed when she felt the door push back against her hand.

“I’m sorry, but while you’re in the room, this door must remain open,” Grindstaff informed her.

Milly carefully unbuttoned Lucas’ shirt and helped him sit forward so she could pull it from his shoulder and look at the bullet wound.

“He needs a doctor!” Milly declared.

“I’m afraid that will have to wait until after your son returns.”

“This can’t wait! What if it becomes infected?”

“The bullet was sterilized as it left the barrel,” Grindstaff replied as he pulled his gun from his holster.

Those in the house looked to the kitchen door as Crackers and Majors returned from the barn.

“Stay out on the porch and keep an eye out for anybody coming down the road,” Grindstaff ordered his men.

“Yeah, boss,” they replied.

“The bullet might have been sterilized as it left the barrel, but it pushed material from his shirt into the wound…” Milly pleaded.

“If you’d like, I can attempt to remove the bullet?” he offered.

“I’d rather deal with the infection,” Lucas grumbled.

“Lucas, if he can remove it…” Milly pleaded.

“It’s his call,” Grindstaff replied.

“I won’t give him the satisfaction of inflicting more pain on me,” Lucas replied.

“Either now or by your doc, it’ll hurt just the same,” Grindstaff commented and flipped his hands up in the air.

“Lucas, please…?” Milly begged. “Let him remove the bullet. You can get drunk enough to not feel the pain…”

“And while I’m drunk, then what. Who’s to protect you?”

“Grindstaff’s promised that as long as we behave, we’ll be safe.” Milly lowered her voice to a whisper, “At least until Mark gets back with his prisoner.”

“We’ll Mr. McCain?”

“There a bottle of brandy in the top shelf of the cupboard to the right of the sink.

Grindstaff found the bottle and carried it to Lucas.

“I’ll give you one hour to drink what you need to. And I promise, I’ll only inflict what needs to be done to get the bullet out.”

“Just keep your men on short leashes!’

“You have my word.”

By the end of the hour, Milly helped Lucas to his feet and supported him as he staggered to their bedroom.

“Mrs. McCain, if you have a supply of towels, place them under his shoulder. No sense ruining your bed by spilling his blood.”

Lucas gripped the headboard of his bed while Gridnstaff probed into his shoulder. Gritting with determination to stay conscious. Within ten minutes, Grindstaff had removed the bullet as well as a piece of fabric from Lucas’ shoulder.

“Mrs. McCain, I think there’s some brandy left in the bottle… If you’ll bring it to me…”

“You’re going to drink?”

“No ma’am. I’m going to pour some into the wound to help clean it. He can stay in here until he’s sober enough.”

“And then what?” Milly asked.

“I’m sorry things won’t be as easy for him as they are for you and your children. I’m going to have to insist that he be tied up until the Marshal returns.”

“Tied up!” Mille exclaimed.

“Mrs. McCain. I won’t budge on this point. Your husband has a reputation.”

“And so does our son!”

“Ma’am, if my memory serves me, he’s not YOUR son.” Grindstaff turned and left the room. “Like I said, one step out of line and I’ll quickly forget that you are ladies.”

A shiver ran down Milly’s back as he turned and left the room.

“Milly, you have to get help…” Lucas whispered.

“How, there’s four of them and they keep their eyes on us all the time. There’s no way we can get away.”

“I’m sorry.”

“There’s nothing for you to apologize for. Just rest and get your strength back.” Milly placed a gentle kiss to the side of Lucas head before she left him to tend to her children.

*****

With the ease of a perpetual liar, Birch stated, “You know Mark, your Pa and I got into a lot of trying situations back before he met your Ma. Why I remember him telling me once about how he almost got lynched for cattle rustling. A couple of friends had convinced him to help drive a herd of cattle that they said they bought.”

“I know all about Don la Gar and Colonel Black,” Mark spat.

“Oh, do you now? Can’t believe ole Lucas believed them when they said they bought all those Mexican mavericks. If it had been me, I’d of told them to show me the bill of sale before I ever agreed to ride with them. Why those two characters, if it weren’t for them having each other to muddle around…, why, they’d not have lived as long as they did.”

Birch’s smooth talking wasn’t baiting Mark into conversation.

“Lucas ain’t all pure and holy, he’s done things that had him spending more than a few nights in jail. We done our fair share of staying out late and closing saloons. We even busted up and shot up a few in our time. Cowboys calling us out for being soldiers or the barkeeps telling us they wouldn’t serve us no more. We’d have ourselves a few good brawls every now and then, next day, we’d wake up in jail with throbbing heads, hung over. We’d be days out on the trail, from one town to the next, Lucas never feeling comfortable staying in town for more than a couple of days.”

Still trying to get Mark talking, Birch stated, “Did your Pa ever tell you about how I saved his life?”

“He mentioned it, once,” Mark replied as he pulled his hat down over his eyes.

“He hadn’t met or married Margaret… yet. It was probably a hear after Luke had been discharged from the army and was still tired of being told what to do and when to do it. Yes he had been a lieutenant and did a lot of ordering others about too, but… Well, we were riding through this here town back in the Kansas City, Kansas, totally minding our own business. We’d picked up provisions, and before heading on out, we decided to stop at the saloon for a few drinks.”

Birch laughed as he remembered back, “Your Pa, he never let his rifle out of his hand. No, that rifle of his became an extra arm to him. Anyway, a couple of cowhands came in and bumped into Lucas, guess he had still too much of being a soldier in him, he reacted by twirl cocking his rifle on those cowhands, neither of which were too thrilled to be drawn on.”

“Birch get to sleep,” Mark ordered.

“Now, I’s just getting to the part where I saved Ol’ Luke’s life. See, like I was saying, them two cowhands didn’t take politely to Lucas outdrawing them, with a rifle to boot. Don’t think anyone in that saloon had ever seen anyone as fast on the draw with a rifle before. Well, they was long gone by the time we left the saloon, or so we thought. Neither of us got too far to our horses when we heard them yell, ‘Hey, Rifleman!’ and heard the gun shots. Why, Lucas turned on his heels and twirl cocked his rifle and let it do its talking, by killing one of them. Me, I got the other with two shots. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the first shot they fired struck your Pa in the back. He lost a lot of blood before we found the town’s doctor and he pulled the bullet out. Doctor said, ‘Birch, this here man is gonna die if I don’t get some blood into him.’ I told him, for the man who was more a brother to me than my own brother, take what you need. If’n I hadn’t given my blood to your Pa that night, he’d of died. Then he’d of not met your Ma, and you wouldn’t have been born. So you see, it’s not just your Pa who owes me his life, you kinda do… too.”

Mark pulled his hat from his head with one hand and with his other, pointed his rifle towards Birch, “Birch, you cashed in that chip ten years ago when you kept me hostage. I won’t let you use me, EVER again. You can also call my Pa’s debt paid in full. He should have pulled the trigger on you the first time you came to North Fork. He went easy on you and let you get sent to jail. Now, I said get to sleep.”

Birch continued, “Your Pa was still pretty weak. But after he recovered, why the town sheriff came and talked with him. Said he’d never seen anything like it and could use a good man as a deputy. I hung around for a few months, then one day, this here gal and her family came in on the train. She wasn’t a stunning looker, sort of plain, but there was something about her, that drew Lucas to her. The look in her eyes, well… They were in town for a few days before heading on to Enid, Oklahoma territory. The day after that gal and her family left, I’m in the saloon and listening to a few drifters talking of a tall man who took out two cowboys with a rifle. Story was he shot them both after he’d already been hit in the back by one of their bullets. Seems no one knew the man’s name, but everyone called him, The Rifleman. Your Pa came into the saloon that afternoon and you could of heard a pin drop as quiet as the place got; a tall man walking in and carrying a rifle. Well, Ol’ Luke told me he’d turned in his resignation to the sheriff. He felt it was time he returned home, to Enid.”

Without giving any indication, Mark listened intently, he’d never asked nor heard of how his parents had met.

“We arrived back in Enid and don’t you know it, a few days later, I seen ole Luke walking down main street carrying packages for that pretty little gal. No rifle to be seen. I thought to myself, if those people in Enid only knew. You know, in the year we’d been traveling together after the war, I’d never seen Lucas without his rifle in his hand. Even when we were in our bedrolls, I never seen his rifle out of quick reach. That there little gal…”

Birch drew his hat over his eyes and the last Mark heard him saying was, “Weren’t too much longer before I realized that three was a crowd and left. Uh, uh, uh, The Rifleman… Yep, the legend was born that day back in Kansas City.”

The rhythmic rolling of the train put Birch to sleep as the temperature started to rise in the enclosed car. Benton stood from the wall where he’d been listening to Birch’s stories, “He’s right you know. Never in all the years your Pa served under me during the war did anyone call him, The Rifleman.” He offered a bucket of water to the horses, before setting it back down.

“Maybe, but he tells the story like I owe him something. He’s wearing it like a shield, that it should protect him from the wrath my Pa’s going to bring down on him once he finds out.”

“Mark, Birch’s kind will never change. You’ve had a good life and your Pa’s raised you right. But had events not happened as they did, I saw your Pa change from the first time I met him after he enlisted until he was discharged. War changes a man, some for the better, others… Your Pa, he needed that year after the war to ‘let loose’ so to speak. Most men did. Some never got over the shock and trauma of what they experienced during the war.”

“But why do Pa or I have to pay the price every time Birch comes into our lives? And this time, my family is at risk, not just Pa… or me.”

“I can’t say Mark. Only I know you’ll do right by the badge your wearing and the oath you swore to uphold,”

The last rays of the evening sun faded outside the livestock car. Through the night, Mark’s dreams reflected on the words Benton told him, “Birch will never change.”

Friday morning dawn as Mark stood and stretched. It wasn’t too much longer before Birch started recounting more of his year long travels with Mark’s Pa. After finally having enough, "This is all one big game to you." Mark called as he got to his feet and walked to stand in front of Birch.

"Game, boy?" Birch asked.

"That's right, a game! You sell out past friendships to get what you want. You think because you and my Pa used to be friends, that will make amends for everything else you’ve done wrong?! It’ll make right everything you’ve inflicted upon us."

"No... That's not the way..."

"Quit the crap! That first time you came to visit us in North Fork... you were planning the whole time to rob the bank. Had I not gotten up early that morning, you'd of succeeded. Maybe that's why you insisted on keeping me as a hostage. You really hoped that maybe you could get even with my telling Pa that you'd rode to town and not Denver, like you said you were planning to do. Maybe the nightmare of this past week is part of your plan to get even with me and Pa!"

"Mark!" Benton hollered.

"No, don't Mark, me. For too long he's played his games and always gotten away. Had some 'Ace' up his sleeve. Well... No more. I don't care what Barker promised him. Birch, one way or another I'll see that 'you' pay for your crimes. And hopefully, you’ll be six feet under." Mark turned and walked back to where he had been sitting. He slid to sit down, laid his rifle across his lap, and pulled his hat over his eyes.

*****

The train pulled into North Fork late morning Friday. Mark, Benton, and Birch led their horses down the ramp as they exited the stock car. The town was quiet. Maybe it had been a cruel joke someone was playing on him, Mark thought. If someone had his family as hostages, Mark knew the town would be agitated and someone would be waiting for him at the station.

“Maybe the wire was someone’s idea of a joke,” Birch half-heartedly stated.

“Cruel joke, you better pray it is. My Pa once swore you’d never see justice if you interfered with our family again. I’ll make the same oath if any member of my family is harmed!” Mark scornfully stated.

“Any member… There’s more than just you and Lucas?” Birch asked.

“Yeah, there’s more than him and Lucas,” Benton replied. “Both are married to wonderful women and have seven young children between them.”

“Seven? Lucas has other children? And you, too?” Birch asked incredulously.

“Mark my word, Birch, so help me God, you’ll pay!” Mark stated as he swung up into the saddle and prepared to ride for home. “You stay here, I’m gonna play like I was anxious to get home and didn’t receive the wire.”

*****

Mark rode Rainmaker into the yard, praying that the wire had been someone’s idea of a cruel joke, but knowing that Tom Birch was involved... Mark hoped that he could pull off his plan to play innocent, that he’d never received the wire. “Hope, I’m home!” Mark called as he stepped to his front porch… if the wire was for real…

“I’m over here,” Mark heard Hope call from the porch of his parent’s home.

Mark turned around and felt as if he had been punched in the gut, standing behind Hope was a stranger, holding a gun to the side of her head.

“Let my wife go! What do you want?!” Mark yelled.

“I want your prisoner,” the man called back.

“My prisoner, I don’t have any prisoner!” Mark answered.

“I want Birch!” the man yelled. “I wired you to bring Birch to North Fork or else your family would pay dearly!”

“I didn’t get any wire. Besides, Birch is in Denver.”

“Then, you get him here! He either arrives or your family… won’t be your family!”

Through the front window, Mark saw several others in his parent’s home. Anger, hatred, and fear abounded in Mark. Anger that these men had his family. Hatred for Tom Birch for again bringing terror to his life. And fear that these men would harm his family, regardless if Tom Birch arrived or not.

“I’ll have to go back to town and send a wire…” Mark stated.

“You do that. And just remember, no one else better return with you, ‘cept Birch. If we see anybody sneaking around here, we might just have to shoot a member of your family.”

“How do I know that everyone is okay?” Mark asked.

The man pushed Hope forward, but didn’t let go of her, he twisted her arm behind her back causing her to cry out in pain, “Tell ‘em. Tell him how nice we’re being to your family.”

“Mark, we’re okay. But, they shot and beat Pa up…” Hope quickly tried to add.

“Shut up!” the man ordered and twisted her arm harder, causing her to cry out again.

“Why don’t you let the children go, you’ve got my parents and my wife, why do you need the children?” Mark called.

“Because, you’ll be more careful in what you do, knowing your whole family is here,” the man proclaimed.

“It’ll take two more days for him to get here by train!”

“Then you’re wasting time,” the man replied, sending chills up Mark’s spine.

*****

Grindstaff pushed Hope back into the house, “My apologies for treating you as I did.”

Hope turned and slapped him across the face, “I don’t accept your apology!”

“Guess you wouldn’t, but I needed to show more force to your husband to make sure he understands I’m serious.”

“You have his family at gun point. He knows you’re serious,” Hope declared.

“Then you better pray that Birch shows up on Sunday.”

*****

“Well?” Benton asked as Mark strode into the Marshal’s Office. “There’s five that I counted. Hope said everyone except Pa was alright.” Mark walked to the cell and stared coldly at Birch, “Said that they had shot and beat my Pa. You remember my promise. I don’t make idle threats!”

Mark was still staring at Birch when he heard Johnny Drako arrive in his office demanding to know what was going on.

“Ask them. They made the deal. There’s five outlaws who have my family as hostages in exchange for him. Ask Benton how he swapped the lives of my family for the testimony of this outlaw!”

“Mark,” Benton stated. “That’s not fair. We couldn’t have known everything that would have happened. We had a chance to put Garth Grisolm in jail, permanently, based on Birch’s testimony. We had no way of knowing Drew would be killed or that you’d be in Stanton and bring Birch to Denver. The outlaws must have talked with the soldiers at Fort Stanton and found out who took Birch.”

Mark spoke in monotone as he continued to stare at Birch. “Birch was supposed to stay in jail and some ladies aid society got him released years ago. He planned to rob a stage carrying a hundred thousand dollars on a bank run, but before his gang all got together, they robbed the North Fork bank and kidnapped me. He got to spend the next ten years in Mexico and all of a sudden, you feel the need to bring him back to this territory to put Garth Grisolm in jail… In exchange… you forget what he did to me and to my Pa.” Rapidly, Mark turned and directed his anger towards his friends, “This wouldn’t be happening if Justice was properly served!”

“MARK!” Drako yelled. “You know the law and we have to live within the boundaries. There’s been times where we’ve swapped bad to get worse.”

“My families have never been at risk!”

Seth walked over and placed a hand to Mark’s shoulder, “They’re my family too. We’ll get them out.”

Seth pushed Mark from the cell area, out into the office. For the first time, Mark noticed Johnny was leaning on a set of crutches and his leg was wrapped in a cast.

“What did you do? Try to get Lou riled one too many times while I was gone?” Mark jested.

“Naw, your Pa and I tried to break up a barroom brawl and a drover got knocked backwards into me. Got another month on these,” Johnny stated as he help up the crutches.

“Damn it Johnny, I could really use your help out at the ranch,” Mark declared as he looked down and shook his head.

*****

Under cover of night, Mark, Seth, and Benton returned to the McCain ranch. All were thankful that it was a new moon and a layer of heavy clouds covered the sky.

Mark silently ran from the hills behind his parents’ home and crouched below the window of his brothers’ bedroom. Slowly he rose up and peered into the window. He saw the forms of five boys lying in the beds. Ducking fast when he heard footsteps enter the room, he quickly crawled to the far side of the house and held his breath. He saw the window darken as someone blew out the lantern in the boys’ room.

Once more, Mark rose up and looked in the window, above the kitchen sink. He saw his father bound and gagged sitting in a chair to the side of the fireplace. Mark saw the darkened red on the backside of his shoulder, evidence of where he had been shot. Mark also saw the dark blotches on his father’s face, bruises from a fight. Looking to where his Ma’s chair was placed in the room, he saw Milly sitting with her legs drawn up into the chair, and Gwen was sitting on the floor in front of her. Fear gripped Mark, as he ducked back down, when he didn’t see Hope. He grabbed his rifle even tighter. It was all he could do to not rise up and fire his rifle through the window in hopes of killing those who held his family captive. A few moments later he heard the door open and one of the men called out, “Get inside!” Mark peeked through the window and to his relief, he saw Hope carrying an armload of wood and drop it in the wood box next to the fireplace.

Mark seethed as he saw one of the outlaws being inappropriately too close to his wife. Mark laughed to himself when he saw Hope turn around and harshly slap the man across the face.

“Porter!” Grindstaff yelled as Porter raised his hand to strike Hope in return.

“What?!” the man shot back.

“Get outside and relieve Majors.”

“Why? I been outside all afternoon.”

“Because I said so. I told these good folks that as long as they behaved, you would too. I saw what you were doing. If Birch doesn’t return in time, then you can have your fun, but NOT until then.”

The man turned and walked out the front door, mumbling.

*****

Mark ran back to where the others waited.

“There’s four of them in the house. They’re strategically placed inside the house and one’s on the front porch. Pa’s been roughed up pretty bad, and like Hope said, he’s been shot.”

“How do you want to play this?” Benton asked.

“I hate to make this last any longer for them, but we have to wait until day after tomorrow, to give the appearance that Birch still needs to make it here by train. Let’s get back to town, I want to draw out the ranch, the buildings and landscape so we can plan our strategy for… rescuing my family.”

“No, we can rescue them tomorrow, we don’t have to wait until Sunday.”

“How?” Mark asked.

“They don’t know me, I can say that I received the wire shortly after you left to return home and I decided to bring Birch back here in an effort to rescue your family.”

*****

Before leaving North Fork, Benton gave Birch a small Colt, Open Top Pocket revolver..

“Don’t make me regret giving you this,” Benton stated as Birch put the gun in his jacket pocket.

Tom Birch and Tom Benton rode down the road to the McCain Ranch with Mark.

“Hey Boss!” an outlaw on the porch yelled.

“What do you want, Templeton?”

“Riders coming, three of them,” Templeton replied.

*****

Grindstaff waited for Mark on the porch with Milly in front of him, gun drawn and held to the small of her back.

“What kind of a game are you playing boy! We didn’t expect Birch until tomorrow and I said to come alone!” Grindstaff called out.

“I’m Mark’s boss. He’d already left Denver when the wire was received. I brought Birch here. And he’s in my custody, until I say otherwise.”

“Then I’ll take him from your hands,” Grindstaff called out. “Birch get down from your horse and come inside.”

“What about my family?!” Mark yelled.

“They’ll be left here, once we leave.”

Mark and Benton had taken time to watch the comings and goings of the outlaws, before riding down the path to Mark’s home. They knew there were two men in the house and one man in each barn, leaving Grindstaff in the yard.

*****

As the gunfight started, Milly, Hope and Gwen ran to the rooms their children were in. Milly and Gwen were in the room with the boys, cowering in two of the corners behind the dressers, while Hope hid with Myra and Mykaela under the bed. Hope tried to quiet her daughter’s cries and shield both girls with her body.

*****

Mark fired at his target through the front window. He heard a small caliber gun shot from inside his parents’ home. In time, the last shot was fired. Mark carefully entered the home, rifle at the ready. One outlaw was already dead and the other wasn’t too far behind. Seth had made his way to Mark’s barn and had quietly taken the outlaw prisoner, but not without the outlaw taking a bullet in the arm. Benton had feigned leaving and at the sound of the first shot, he reined his horse to Lucas’ barn. Even though he had given orders “alive, if possible” the outlaw he was exchanging gunfire with wasn’t giving indication that he was willing to be taken alive. Benton had no choice but to take the man’s life. Mark called for Hope, Milly, and Gwen. Relief flooded his body as he heard each one of their voices answer in return that they were okay. Mark turned at hearing boot steps on the porch to see Tom Benton standing in the doorway, gun at the ready. He holstered his gun as he strode over next to Lucas, pulled out his knife and cut the ropes that bound Lucas’ hands. Lucas raised his hands, wincing in doing so, to untie the gag, as Benton cut the ropes around his legs.

As Seth pushed his surviving outlaw out into the yard, he watched as Mark pulled one dead outlaw from his parents home. While Birch drug the other, Mark and Birch dumped the bodies behind the house.

As Mark and Birch came from the back side of the house, he stopped as he heard Birch call out, “Mark, from what you said, we’re still missing one outlaw.”

“He probably turned tail and…” Mark didn’t get the chance to finish his sentence, Birch drew his gun, ran towards Mark and shoved him to the ground, at the same time Mark heard a gunshot. Everything happened so quick as he was flung to the ground. Fear momentarily came over Mark as he realized he was out in the open, without his rifle, and the one missing outlaw was probably the one shooting at him. Mark heard a second gun fire from close by, and as he hit the ground, he rolled to see Birch’s gun pointing to the ground as he grabbed at his middle.

Mark tried to catch Birch as he started to fall to the ground, as much as he hated the falling man… All the years of being a Marshal and all his training kicked in. He couldn’t keep Birch in front of him, as a shield, Mark turned his back to the outlaw to protect Birch, expecting to feel a bullet rip into his body at any moment… Mark opened his eyes as he heard a rifle shot, he expected to see his father standing in the doorway or at the broken front window with the smoking rifle pointing towards the outlaw who was now to Mark’s back. Mark was astonished to see who held the gun… The hatred in the eyes, the anger. Mark had never seen those looks in the eyes he so loved.

“Hope?” Mark called as he lowered the moaning Birch to the ground.

Mark took his eyes off Hope and turned to looked to the outlaw, who laid sprawled on the ground beside the barn. Mark returned his attention to Hope and carefully walked to her. She still had the rifle raised and sighted in.

“Hope, give me the rifle. You can let go of the rifle... Please Hope, give me the rifle,” Mark pleaded, hesitant to take the rifle from her.

“You’ll… not… hurt… my… family!” Hope punctuated each word through her gritted teeth.

“No, he’ll not hurt us, never again,” Mark spoke. “Please… hand me the rifle.”

Hope’s eyes softened as if for the first time seeing Mark. She lowered the rifle and then let it drop to the ground before her knees buckled. Mark caught her and gently lowered her to the ground, holding her head against his chest, trying to quiet her tears.

“Tom? My father?” Mark called into his parent’s home.

“The Rifleman’s too tough to be killed by one measly bullet or being used as a punching bag, best we get him to your doctor’s though,” Benton replied.

“Birch is outside, he…” Mark didn’t continue as Benton ran past him.

“He’s still alive!” Benton called as he knelt over the prone figure. “Mark, if Hope’s okay, help me get the team harnessed and the buckboard hitched. Mark!”

“I’ll be okay,” Hope spoke as she dried her tears.

Milly came behind Mark and helped him get Hope to her feet. “Mark go help Tom, we’ll get the children ready to go to town.” Hearing a noise from inside her home, Milly hollered, “Lucas you sit back down in that chair and don’t move until Tom and Mark can help you! That’s my order!” Milly turned her attention back to Hope and helped her to a chair on the porch.

“Ma, keep the children inside, they don’t need to see this.” Hope called, “Mark, bring the buckboard to the front door. I don’t want any of the children to see those bodies.”

“I understand. Are you sure you’re okay?” Mark asked, his eye’s speaking of his love.

“I’ll be okay. Just go help Tom so we can get everyone to town,” Hope answered.

The Next Step — The Aftermath

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

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