The Rifleman
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Fan Fiction

The Next Step…
Chapter 65 - The Stranger
Written by Deanne Bertram

The son stood over the grave marked Madilyn Willdrow. There weren’t too many people who attended her funeral on that hot day at the end of May; just the town’s doctor, the preacher and his wife, a few women from the church, the sheriff, the grave diggers, and her son. As the son turned away from the grave, the sheriff spoke, “Oliver, we’re sorry you didn’t make it back in time to say your goodbyes proper. Your Ma, she really tried to hang on until you could get home.”

“Don’t matter anymore. She can finally be at peace,” Oliver replied.

“Oliver, if you’d like,” the preacher’s wife spoke. “I can help you go through your Ma’s belongings and what you don’t want…”

“Thank you Mrs. Armsted, but I can to do it by myself.”

*****

The walk from the cemetery to the house, that had once been his home, took longer than he remembered it normally took. Memories from his childhood ran through his head as he walked with his hands shoved in the pockets of his jacket, not looking at the others on the streets. He stepped upon onto the porch and stopped in front of the door. Slowly, he turned the knob to open the door, hoping other memories wouldn’t hit him like a flood. The house was like it had been, the last time he’d been home. Nothing had been moved. He walked over and pushed the rocking chair in the corner, remembering all the times when he was younger when his Ma had rocked him to try to quiet his tears. The questions he always asked, “What was Pa like? Why did Pa leave us? All the other boys at school had fathers, why not me?”

The rhythmic creaking of the rocking chair brought his mother’s words to mind, “Your father is a good man. He had other responsibilities that prevented him from staying with us. I couldn’t ask him to stop being who he was, just for us. There are others out there who needed him more.”

“But he don’t write or send money to help out?” young Oliver asked.

“I don’t expect him to. Oliver, your father is a kind, gentle man, but there are those out there, who if they knew you were his son, would possibly hurt you, just to get to him. This has to be our secret. Lucas McCain would be so proud of you.”

“Proud? The man has a son he never cared about. Never asked about,” the adult Oliver spoke bitterly aloud.

His thoughts returned to his childhood, the taunting the other children had done because he had no father. As he grew older, he became sullen and spiteful, mad at the other boys for having fathers. ‘One day, one day… I’ll find out why he abandoned us!’ Oliver remembered saying as a young man.

*****

Oliver was seventeen years old when he left home. He remembered the morning not quite ten years before, telling his Ma he was going to find Lucas McCain, his father.

“You can’t!” she cried. Her voice held a hint of fear that Oliver didn’t understand.

“Why not? He’s my father. I have a right to know who he is! I have a right to know why he abandoned us!” the younger Oliver replied.

“Oliver, I promised him. You were never supposed to know who your father was,” his Ma pleaded. “Your life would be in danger if others found out you were his son. Please, just forget you’re his son. You’re all I have left!”

“Then why? Why all these years have you told me who he was?”

“Because I had hoped you would grow up to be just like him, if you knew what kind of a man he was. Kind and compassionate,” his Ma stated as she averted her eyes.

“Kind and compassionate? I am who I am because he abandoned us. He left you to fend for us on your own. I watched you toil from sun up to sun down trying to provide. You’re old before your time. You were beautiful when you were younger. Why didn’t you ever remarry? You could have married someone else before I was old enough to know better.”

“Oliver, you don’t understand!” she pleaded.

“Then explain it to me. How can you love a man who doesn’t love you enough to care about the son he seeded inside you?”

“What are you saying?” his mother asked.

“I’ve heard the people talking. I’ve heard what the women in town say about you, you and your bastard child. Tell me Mother, am I a bastard? Were you a whore working in some saloon?!”

To this day, Oliver still felt the sting from the slap across his face.

*****

Oliver walked to the bedroom that had been his Ma’s. With barely a touch, the door opened. After her body had been taken, someone had tidied up the room. The bed was made and the pillows placed prettily at the headboard. The sun shone through the window onto the bed. At the foot of the bed was a chest his Ma never let him look inside. She said those were ‘her memories’ and she wanted to keep them that way. Oliver pulled the chest away from the foot of the bed and raised the lid as he sat down on the floor.

First to be pulled out was his Ma’s favorite springtime hat, with its yellowed lace. Next were her ‘go to church’ gloves. From under the quilt, he remembered his Ma having sewed, he pulled out a bible. Oliver didn’t remember this bible; it wasn’t worn as the bible he remembered his Ma carrying to and from church or reading from of an evening. He opened the cover and saw listed on the first page the bible belonged to Madilyn Carson. He ran his finger down the page and read each event listed and stopped as he read, Horace Willdrow and Madilyn Carson, married and the date.

‘Almost two years before I was born?’ Oliver thought to himself.

The next entry listed was Oliver Lionel Willdrow, born, and the date. The following entry, just thirty days later noted, Horace Willdrow, deceased. ‘Who was this Horace Willdrow?’ Oliver asked himself, he didn’t understand.

He looked back into the chest and saw other books. He pulled one out and opened it to find it was a journal, evidently one of several journals his mother had kept. He lifted out each journal and briefly scanned through the pages, until he found the journal that corresponded to the year of her wedding to Horace Willdrow. Oliver read of their courtship and then their engagement. His mother wrote of her feelings towards Horace, though he was a number of years older than her, she fell in love with him. She told of church socials and picnics and of spending time together. Oliver then found the entry for the day she had married Horace. She wrote of how nervous she had felt as she stood in front of their family and friends and listened as the preacher finally pronounced them husband and wife.

She wrote of the shivaree that followed that evening. They both knew it would come, so they had talked of their future while they waited. She wrote of it being close to midnight before their friends arrived for the fun.

At first, all the entries conveyed the love his mother felt for the man she married. He sat for hours reading of his Ma’s inner thoughts. But during the second year of her marriage, the tone of her writings changed, she became worried. She wrote that, as their crops failed that year due to a drought, Horace had become obsessed with their failure. How he started to avoid going to church, yelling, “How can you go to church and ‘praise be’ to a God who lets our crops fail?” But he still tries to provide for us.

One entry drew Oliver’s attention, How do I tell my husband the news? I can only dream that, maybe, maybe the life that I am carrying inside me will bring him from his dark despair. Oh, how I pray my news will return Horace to being the happy man I married.

The next entry was written and Oliver saw tear stains on the page, I told Horace we had been blessed with a miracle from God and that I was carrying his child. I love him so dearly, but he’s not the man I wed. I never thought the man I married and loved could be so heartless and cruel. He called me a ‘whore’ and said I was good for nothing but sucking the life out of him. God, please send someone to help me, I can’t live like this any more!”

After that, her writings took on a scared tone, writing how Horace had taken to drinking and staying out late at the saloon. She wrote of what little money they had, he spent on whiskey. He had become even more bitter towards her.

The following entries Oliver read of the battle going on within his Ma. Her love for the life that she carried within her and the fear for the man who shared her bed. Through her belief in God, leaving him was not an option.

Finally he came to the entry for the day he was born. Horace was nowhere to be heard or seen when the first contractions hit. Thankfully, a friend from church stopped by and went for the doctor. For a day and a half, I struggled in labor to bring this new life into the world. Oliver Lionel Willdrow, my son. My friend Maria was at my side the whole time, after she brought the doctor. The pain of labor was nothing like I expected, but even though it’s only been a few hours since my son came into this world, the memory of the pain is fading. My husband doesn’t even know of Oliver’s birth. Dear God, why can’t you erase the pain Horace is feeling and allow my husband to be the man he was when I married him?

The entry for the next day read, Horace finally came home. He left as soon as he heard Oliver crying.

The following entries noted a mother’s love for her baby, the feelings as she placed her son to her breast and gave him sustenance. She described the feelings and the yearnings deep within her. She wrote of her curiosity, Is this just me or do all new mothers experience the same rapture? I don’t want to remove him from my breast.

Though it embarrassed Oliver to read such personal thoughts from his mother, he couldn’t put the journals down.

This new life relies on me for everything, so innocent is my son. How can Horace be so uncompassionate?

Then Oliver came to the entry, thirty days after his birth. Horace beat me today. I didn’t have supper on the table when he came home. I had spent the day enjoying my son and lost track of the time. I tried to take Oliver and run away, but he chased me down. Oliver was lying on the ground, wrapped in his blanket as I tried to protect him, while Horace beat me. Then a stranger rode up. He pulled Horace off me. I cowered and crawled away carrying my son, praying to God that he took no hurt. I looked to the two men and watched as Horace drew his pistol and started to aim it at the stranger. The stranger was fast, he didn’t even shoulder his rifle before he fired it at Horace. I watched as life left my husband’s eyes. But he had stopped being my husband a long, long time ago.

The stranger ran to Horace and placed his ear to his chest. Then I saw the man slam his fist to the ground and cry out ‘I didn’t mean to kill him!’ and then hung his head, as if in shame.

The man stood and walked to me. He helped me to my feet and then to the house and saw me to my bedroom. He told me to lie down with my child. He said that he was going to take care of the body and ride to town to request the doctor come to our home. Then he closed the door.

I cried while the stranger was gone. But it wasn’t for my dead husband. It was because I was relieved the nightmare was over. Should I be condemned for such thoughts?

While the doctor tended to me, the stranger stayed. I could hear him outside chopping wood. I heard his boots walking across the floor and putting the wood in the bin beside the fireplace. In time the doctor left, but the stranger was still here. He told me his name was Lucas McCain and that he had stopped by to request permission to graze a few of his cattle on our land for the night. He apologized for killing my husband. I could see how grieved he was for me, a stranger.

He fixed me a stew for supper and tended to my son and put him in his cradle for the night. I saw a longing in this man’s eyes for something… Maybe something he wished could be for himself. Maybe he wished he too could know the joys of holding his own child in his arms.

The next entry was the following day.

The stranger stayed in the barn last night. I told him there was a cot he could bring into the front room, but he declined. Said it wouldn’t be proper. This morning, Lucas knocked on the bedroom door to let me know breakfast was ready. Over breakfast, I don’t know why, but I told this stranger of who Horace had once been. He was so apologetic that he had killed my husband. Then he told me of his wife back in Enid. That they had only been married a short time. He told of how he was taking some of their cattle to market in hopes of earning enough money to make it through their first winter together. He spoke so lovingly of his wife. I could see that his heart was good because of the compassion he showed to me. God, please forgive me for my thoughts, but how I wish Lucas McCain could be the father of my son.

The following entries wrote of Madilyn wishing her son to know a kind and compassionate man as his father, not the man her husband had become. Oliver continued to read and found a journal entry, dated two weeks later that told of how Madilyn had packed up what few belongings she possessed, and with her son, ventured further west to find a new home where the horrible memories weren’t present and she could raise her child with none the wiser. I leave Horace and all his memories behind. Today, I start a new life with my son. From today forward Lucas McCain will be the father I tell my son about. In between the pages of the journals he would occasionally find yellowed newspaper articles and the stories were about Lucas McCain.

‘My life’s been a lie? Lucas McCain, the man I believed all my life was my father, in truth killed my father?’ Oliver struggled to comprehend.

As he looked further into the other journals his mother had kept, he found more recent newspaper clippings written by a William Walsh about The Rifleman, Lucas McCain and his son, The Lawman. And the town they called home, North Fork, New Mexico. After reading the articles, anger welled deep within Oliver. Anger over the lies his mother had told him his entire life. Anger that his mother had not stood up with her husband when times turned hard. Anger that she was ‘thankful’ her husband was dead. Anger that a stranger had killed his father. He felt hatred that the man who had killed his father had gone on to sire a son and never looked back to the pain he had so callously caused.

“My life could have been so different if it weren’t for you, Rifleman. I’ll make you pay. You’ll pay for ruining my life!”

Oliver crumpled the newspaper articles and left the house. He mounted his horse and rode to the nearest town with a train station. He purchased a one-way ticket for him and his horse to North Fork.

*****

Even as pregnant as she was, Lou had planned a big celebration for her daughter’s third birthday. All their friends were present and having a wonderful time. Throughout the afternoon, Lou just had to cuddle each baby who had been born the previous month.

‘’Just a few more months and ye’ll have another wee babe of your own to hold in your arms,” Johnny stated, trying to mimic Lou’s Irish brogue, as Lou handed baby Steven back to his mother, Abigail.

“Are ye mocking me husband?” Lou demanded.

“Only to see that Irish temper of yours surface, because…”

“No you don’t. I’m pregnant with yer child because of the last time ye got me riled,” Lou quietly retorted.

Johnny leaned to Lou’s ear and whispered, “Admit it. You enjoyed me getting you all riled up the last time.”

As Johnny stood straight, he enjoyed watching the cheeks of his wife’s face turn red as she blushed.

*****

Mark stepped to the porch of the hotel and took a deep breath as he surveyed the main street of town. He leaned against one of the posts and rested his head against it.

“Everything okay, son?” Lucas asked as he came out to stand next to Mark. He saw the expression on Mark’s face as he left the restaurant.

“Yea, just felt like I needed to step out for a breath of fresh air. Speaking of fresh air, I thought you gave those up?” Mark inquired as Lucas pulled out a hidden cigar.

“I did, but Milly understands that ‘occasionally’ I need to enjoy one,” Lucas said as he lit the cigar and placed it to his lips, inhaling deeply. “You know, the more time between, the less I seem to enjoy them.”

*****

Sunday morning dawned with Mark still feeling like he needed some fresh air. Quietly he slipped from bed and dressed. Before leaving their bedroom, a smile came to his face as he looked back at his sleeping wife and his daughter. He closed the door, then went to check on their sons, watching as their chests rose and fell as they peacefully slept. Mark closed the door as he went to start his morning chores.

While working on his chores, something kept tugging at Mark, something important that he shouldn’t have forgotten. He cringed as he remembered losing track of the dates and forgetting his anniversary. Mark set the pitch fork against the stall wall and walked over to the calendar that hung nailed to the wall. He crossed off the previous day and realized it was June third.

Aloud Mark spoke, “That’s why.” Mark cast his eyes down. “I’m sorry Ma. It’s been eighteen years.” He turned and walked to the corral to catch Copper. Mark led his horseback into the barn and saddled him. Without a note to anyone, Mark rode to the pond.

*****

Lucas was enjoying breakfast with his family when they heard a knock on the door.

“Come in,” Lucas called and saw Hope open the door to enter.

“Is Mark over here?” she asked.

“I haven’t seen him today,” Lucas replied.

“His chores are done but…”

“Lucas!” Milly spoke as she put her hand to her mouth.

“Yes?” Lucas asked.

“Lucas, today… Last night, at the hotel, you said that Mark seemed a little reserved.”

“He did for a little while, but he was fine later…”

“Lucas, today is June third.”

The three looked at each other in understanding, then Lucas left the house.

*****

Lucas saddled Blade and rode to the pond, where he was sure he would find Mark.

“Morning Pa,” Mark said without looking over his shoulder.

“Would you prefer to be alone?” Lucas asked as he walked up behind his son.

“No sir.”

“You were thinking about today, last night at the hotel, weren’t you?”

“Guess so. It just struck me that there were too many people around and I needed some air. Then this morning, when I was finishing my chores… It’s been a long time since today has struck me this… hard. It’s been eighteen years…” Tears choked Mark’s voice.

Lucas set down next to his son and watched the trees sway in the morning breeze. “Is there something else bothering you?”

“Guilt,” Mark replied.

“Guilt? Why would you feel guilty?”

“In a way, I guess I was feeling jealous of Gabby. I was six and a half when we lost Ma and Gabby’s now six and a half. Now Pa, I don’t wish anything to happen to Miss Milly, I love her as if she were my Ma. In fact, she’s been my Ma for longer than my real Ma was. I don’t know how to explain what I’m really feeling… It’s just… This is the first time since I graduated from school that I really miss her.”

“I think I understand. I’ll probably understand better when I’ve been married to Milly longer than I was to your Ma. I do know your Ma would be just as proud of you as I am. You’ve grown to become a man that neither of us could have imagined.”

“I’m not looking back, Pa. I just wanted to talk with her, out here. Tell her about her grandsons, her granddaughter, and Hope.”

Lucas waited for his son to continue.

“Pa, thank you.”

“For what?” Lucas asked.

“For being my Pa,” Mark said as he got to his feet. “Probably should head home so our wives don’t worry anymore than necessary.”

“Good idea.”

*****

The following morning, Oliver quietly stepped from the train and retrieved his horse and gear from the stock car and rode into North Fork. He stopped at the saloon. After ordering a beer, he grabbed a couple of chairs in the corner, sat in one and propped his feet upon the other as he drank from the glass. He watched, waited, and listened.

Later that afternoon, Oliver visited the general store and picked up supplies that he needed. While he waited, Mrs. Donner idly talked with Mrs. Porter about how her family was doing. When Mrs. Porter left, Oliver approached the counter and said “Good morning.”

Mrs. Donner, realizing he was new in North Fork started a pleasant conversation with him. She thought nothing of the questions the man asked about the town and its marshals. While she filled his order, she bragged on the three very capable marshals that protected the town. She told of Johnny Drako, the former gunslinger, turned deputy and eventually became North Fork’s marshal. She told of Mark McCain and how he had become a deputy for the town, and then a deputy U.S. Marshal and finally a territorial U.S. Marshal, and then Seth Lane, former Major for the United States Army and now a deputy for North Fork.

“Sounds mighty comforting to know this town has such fine lawmen looking out for her,” Oliver spoke.

“It sure is. We still have outlaws who try to come through and cause trouble. But, our marshals see that justice is served.”

As Oliver paid for his supplies, he commented, “Yep, mighty fine town.”

“We’re a growing community and always eager to welcome people who want to call North Fork home,” Mrs. Donner called as Oliver left the store. He placed his supplies in his saddle bags and returned to the saloon.

*****

Of an evening, Oliver would ride from town and make camp, he’d found an old abandoned shack to stay in, only to return to the saloon of a morning. So was his routine for the next few days, until he heard a voice call out, “Morning Lucas, Mark! How are things at the ranch?”

‘So,’ Oliver thought to himself. ‘That’s him, the man who murdered my father and turned my mother against him. Mr. Rifleman, just wait, you are going to pay dearly for what you’ve done.’

Oliver watched as Mark waved to Lucas and rode on to the Marshal’s Office.

*****

While in North Fork, Oliver would walk the town, talking with various folks, making himself seem real likable. He talked with Johnny Gibbs at the Hardware Store. With Nils at the livery. Even with John Hamilton at the bank about possibly calling North Fork home. He’d join in the laughter as different ranch hands would come into town and spend some of their hard earned money at the saloon. Always listening for when the topic of the conversations would turn to the McCain’s.

As the days passed, he was more obsessed with Mark’s coming and goings from town. His anger to Lucas McCain was firm, but inside him, his mind was seeking a different path for his revenge. He no longer felt that killing Lucas McCain would be adequate for the murder of his father. He wanted to make Lucas McCain suffer, to take something from Lucas, no someone… Finally Oliver knew what he was going to do. He was going to have Lucas McCain watch his son die.

A week after having arrived, Oliver decided to put his thoughts into action, he watched as Mark left the Marshal’s Office and headed to the gunsmith’s shop.

*****

“Hi Angus,” Mark called as he entered.

“Mark, good afternoon. How can I help you today?”

“Was wondering if you could take a look at my rifle. I think the firing pin might be bent. It just doesn’t feel like it normally does.”

“Oh?”

“I was heading over to the Mapleton’s place to check in on them and I saw a couple of rabbits, thought Mrs. Mapleton might appreciate it and fix a rabbit stew for the family…”

“You missed your shot?” Angus asked, surprised.

“You know me better than that. But my rifle felt... sluggish,” Mark replied.

“Okay, Mark. I’ll take a look at it. I can’t do it right this minute, but it’ll be ready for you by supper tonight.”

“I was getting ready to head home,” Mark answered.

“I can loan you a similar rifle… And then you can come get yours the next time you’re in town.”

“Sure, Angus. Thanks.”

Mark left his rifle and took the one Angus offered him. He returned to his horse, standing at the hitching rail in front of the Marshal’s Office. As he mounted, he placed the loaner rifle in his scabbard, then he waved to Johnny and Seth inside and rode out of town.

*****

Mark was halfway home, when he felt a searing pain across his temple. It was only as he fell from Copper that he heard the shot. Mark was unconscious before he hit the ground.

*****

Oliver rode to the scene as Copper ran away. Stepping from his horse, Oliver walked to where Mark lie on the ground, knelt and turned him over. Realizing the bullet only grazed Mark’s temple, Oliver reached down and removed the badge from Mark’s shirt and tossed it aside. Thinking he heard a rider approaching, he drug Mark over to his horse and slung him across the saddle. He grabbed Mark’s hat from the dirt and then climbed back on his horse and rode away.

The sun was starting to set when Oliver dropped Mark from his horse and set up camp. As he drank his coffee, he sat and contemplated how he was going to handle ‘Mark McCain’ when he woke. What would his story be about the wound and where they were? How would he get Mark to where the Rifleman would watch him die?

*****

It was night when Mark woke and tried to pick himself up off the ground. He placed his hand to his head and pulled it away to see blood on his fingers. From behind he heard, “How you feeling?”

Mark looked around and saw a man sitting on his heels next to a fire, drinking from a cup.

“Head hurts. What happened?” Mark asked.

“Don’t you remember?”

Taking a moment to think, Mark replied, “No.” Then Mark asked, “Do I know you?”

Knowing that they didn’t know each other, yet being curious, “You’re joking, right?” Oliver asked.

“Joking? I don’t think so. I…” Mark put his hand to his head again and let out a moan.

“Come on Mark, get some coffee into you. I’m sure you’ll feel better,” Oliver offered.

“My name’s Mark?”

“Quit funnin’. Of course your name’s Mark.”

“I ain’t funnin’. I… I don’t remember…”

“What do you mean, you don’t remember?” Oliver asked, intrigued.

“I just don’t remember. There’s nothing prior to waking up a few minutes ago. You said my name’s Mark?” The expression on Mark’s face indicated the struggle he was experiencing in trying to remember. “Mark what?”

Oliver looked to Mark as another plan fell into place. He thought to himself, ‘He don’t remember who he is, this couldn’t get any better.’ Then aloud he stated, “You don’t remember that my name’s Oliver Willdrow and your name’s Mark… Marcus Cordel. And that we been partners for three years.”

“Partners?” Mark asked.

“You really don’t remember?” Oliver asked.

“No, honest. Marcus Cordel? It doesn’t mean anything to me,” Mark said as he stood and walked over and took a cup of coffee from Oliver.

“What happened to my head?” Mark asked as he pulled his shirt tail and dabbed it at the bullet wound.

“We was riding away from the last hold up in Clay City. One in the posse shot your horse out from under you and another did that.” Oliver stated as he used this hand holding his coffee cup and pointed towards Mark’s head. “You’ve barely been able to stand on your own since yesterday. We’ve been riding double,” Oliver stated as he grinned.

“I’m an outlaw?” Mark asked.

“Yep, there’s a two thousand dollar bounty on both our hides,” Oliver replied. He hid his grin behind his coffee cup.

“Two thousand?” Mark pressed the heel of his hand to his head, wishing the throbbing would cease.

“Well, if you’re up to it, we best ride to the old shack I know about, outside of North Fork.”

“North Fork?” Mark asked.

“Come on. Maybe after another good night’s sleep you’ll get to remembering.”

Still suffering a headache, Mark climbed onto the horse, behind Oliver, to head to their hideout. As they rode, he inquired about the money.

“Figure it’s on its way back to the bank. It was in your saddlebags,” Oliver replied.

“What about my gun?”

“Told you it was a fool thing to rely on a rifle all the time. It was in the scabbard of your saddle when your horse went down.”

Nothing Oliver told him sounded familiar.

*****

As he lay on the bunk at the hideout, the pain from his headache caused Mark to eventually pass out. When he woke in the morning, his memories were still blank, but at least his headache wasn’t as bad.

*****

Hope wasn’t worried when Mark didn’t return home as normal, there had been times when his work had kept him late and he stayed in town and traveled home the following morning. When he didn't arrive by mid-morning, Hope talked with Milly and shared her concerns. When Lucas returned to his home for lunch, he was informed of Hope’s concerns. Knowing how uncharacteristic it was for his son, Lucas told the women he’d head into town. As he led Blade from the barn, he saw a rider coming down the road, leading a second horse.

“Lehigh, what…” Lucas started to ask, but stopped as he realized the second horse was Copper.

“Lucas, guess you confirmed my suspicions. This IS Mark’s horse.”

“It is. Where’d you find him?”

“I was riding into town this afternoon and saw him standing to the side of the road.” Billy spoke as Lucas looked Copper over.

“He doesn’t look lame and Mark’s rifle is still…” Lucas quieted as he saw a blood stain on Copper’s neck.

“I looked around for a little while, but I didn’t see any signs of…” Billy stopped talking as Hope and Milly came from the house.

“Lucas, is it?” Milly asked.

Lucas nodded as he took hold of Copper’s reins and mounted Blade. He rode away with Billy.

*****

Billy Lehigh showed Lucas exactly where he had found Mark’s horse. Lucas tied Copper’s reins to the saddle horn, before he stepped from Blade and began searching the area. Getting back in the saddle, he back tracked the Copper’s hoofprints and found where it appeared a body had laid. Both men stepped from their horses and took a good look around. As Lucas knelt down, he noticed the blood stain in the dirt. He followed what looked like the body being drug and…

“Lucas?” Billy asked. “I got something over here.”

Lucas stood and walked to where Billy was kneeling. “What is it?”

“I think its Mark’s badge,” Billy replied as he picked it up and handed it to Lucas.

Lucas turned it over in his hand and noticed the pin wasn’t bent, indicating it probably wasn’t ripped off Mark’s shirt.

Both stood up and Lucas called Mark’s name, several times. Each time, waiting to hear a response.

“I don’t know. Let’s get to town and see if maybe Mark is there.”

He gathered Blade’s reins and then swung up into the saddle.

*****

Upon their arrival at the Marshal’s Office, Lucas asked if either of them had seen Mark.

“Seen Mark?” Seth asked. “Not since he left for home yesterday.”

“Nothing happen here in town that…” Lucas started to say.

“Lucas, spit it out,” Johnny Drako interrupted.

“He didn’t make it home last night or today,” Lucas answered. “And Billy brought his horse to the ranch after lunch.”

“I was riding into town for a few supplies.” Billy continued, “And when I took Lucas back to where I found Copper, we trailed him and found Mark’s badge lying next to some bushes.”

“You sure there wasn’t any trouble in town that would have kept Mark…” Lucas saw both Johnny and Seth shake their heads. “Then I don’t understand, where could he be and why discard his badge?”

“Lucas, there’s always the chance that he might have had to quickly get rid of his badge. He could have seen someone who had a wanted poster on them,” Johnny stated.

“He’s a Marshal! Even so, if that were the case, then why leave his horse. If for some reason Copper was spooked away, wouldn’t we have found Mark, on foot?” Lucas asked.

Looking at the time, Billy said, “I really am sorry, but I need to get the supplies I was riding into town to get for Julie and then need to get home.”

“Go on, Billy. We’ll let you know what we find out,” Drako stated.

“Lucas, I’m sorry. We’ll say a prayer for you and your family,” Billy stated.

“Billy, thank you,” Lucas said as Billy left the Marshal’s.

*****

The three continued to contemplate what had happened to Mark. Lucas asked of any strangers in town that had kept a particular eye on Mark.

“None that we noticed or any that have made trouble,” Seth replied.

“Lucas, ever since the train came to town, there’s all sorts of strangers coming and going,” Johnny stated. “I wonder?... How far away from the train tracks do you think you found Mark’s horse… Could be that if he did come across an outlaw, he’s having to pretend he ain’t a marshal. Could be he had to leave Copper and then got whoever it was to the train.”

“Why the train? Why not bring whoever it was to town and put him in jail?!” Lucas demanded, getting more frustrated.

“Lucas, Mark’s a grown man and he can take care of himself,” Seth stated.

“I know he is, but there was also dried blood on Copper’s neck and dried blood on the ground where someone’s body laid,” Lucas replied.

“Johnny, you want me to ride out to some of the outlying ranches to see if Mark might be there?” Seth asked.

“If he was afoot or hurt, don’t you think someone would have come to town and got Doc?” Johnny answered. “Or the least anyone would have done was to go and get Lucas.”

“You’re right,” Seth answered.

“Lucas, you head on home and we’ll let you know if we find out anything,” Johnny stated. “He could be on business for the U.S. Marshal Service. That’s the trouble with him having two bosses, we just don’t know.”

“Lucas,” Seth started. “The best thing you can do is to get home and try to ease the fears of your wife and my daughter. We’ll send word if we hear anything.”

Not wanting too, but Lucas ultimately agreed. He could only imagine the worries and fears running through Milly’s and Hope’s minds. Lucas rode for home with Copper in tow.

*****

Under the cover of darkness, Oliver dropped Mark off at the outskirts of North Fork and proceeded to ride into town, stopping a ways from the saloon. Slowly, as he walked along the boardwalk, he surveyed the street and then entered the saloon. Carefully, Mark snuck along the boardwalk, backing into the shadows as he heard voices approaching. Finally he made his way to a group of horses tied to a hitching rail and after quietly looking the animals over, he made his choice. He untied the reins and led the horse away, walking it down the street and tying it next to Oliver’s horse.

Next, Mark ran to the gunsmith’s and snuck around back. He broke the window in the back door, reached his hand inside and unlocked the door. In the dark, Mark struck a match and carefully looked over the selection of handguns and holsters. He was stepping to another display case when the flame nipped at his fingers and he fanned out the match. As he struck a new match, he saw a rifle in a rack on the wall. He pulled the rifle down and butted it to his shoulder, perfect fit. He found the drawer for ammunition and took several boxes for the rifle as well as bullets for Oliver’s .45.

Mark heard the door creep open and turned to find Oliver standing, “Come on, Mark! You’re taking too long.”

Together they ran from the gunsmith’s.

*****

Angus was returning to his shop after having supper at home. He wanted to finish the present for Drako that Lou had commissioned. As he walked down the boardwalk he saw two figures running from the shadows and jumping onto horses and then riding from town, fast. As he watched the riders go by, he said aloud, “Naw, I’m just imagining things. Guess I’m feeling guilty for working on Mark’s rifle instead of working on Lou’s anniversary gift for Johnny.”

When he reached his shop, Angus unlocked the front door and entered. His walked to his work table and lit the lantern. He turned and walked to the cabinet where he had placed the gun that was to be Johnny’s gift. As he opened the cabinet, he spotted the broken glass on the floor and noticed the back door wasn’t securely closed. Angus quickly turned around and looked the room over, he saw the ammunition drawers hanging open. He quickly walked over and realized several boxes of .45 and .44-40 cartridges were missing. Angus looked around and was relieved that none of the handguns were missing from the display cases. He looked to the rifle and shotgun racks on the walls and his eyes came to rest on an open position in one of the rifle racks -- the rack where he had placed Mark’s rifle. He realized it was Mark’s rifle that was missing.

*****

Angus ran from his shop and over to the Marsha’l’s office. Seeing no one inside, he headed to the Mallory House. Inside he found Seth having a late supper with Lou and Johnny.

“Johnny, my shop was broke into while I was home for supper!” Angus stated as he stopped at their table.

“Anything taken?” Johnny asked.

“Yeah, a few boxes of ammunition and Mark’s rifle.”

“Mark’s rifle?” Seth asked.

“He left it yesterday as he was leaving town. The firing pin was bent. I gave him a loaner rifle until I could get his repaired and he could return to town for his.”

“You don’t suppose?” Seth asked.

“Mark came to town and took his rifle?” Johnny asked, not believing. “If so, where’s he been since yesterday?”

“He knows where I live and if he needed it, all he had to do was come and I’d of opened the shop. No need for him to bust out a window and break into my shop,” Angus stated. “But what do you mean, where’s he been since yesterday?”

“He never made it home. Lucas came to town this afternoon with Billy Lehigh. Billy had found Copper out on the road when he was coming to town.” He refrained from mentioning the dried blood, no need to get Lou all riled.

“Mark’s missing?” Lou asked, in typical Lou fashion. “Ye didn’t tell me Mark’s missing!”

“Lou, we don’t know, exactly that he is missing. He just didn’t make it home yesterday or this morning.”

“Same difference. I declare Johnny Drako!”

“Simmer down, Lou. No need to get you or the baby all riled up.”

“Johnny,” Angus stated. “I saw two men running from the shadows and then riding from town. I thought it might have been my guilt for working on Mark’s rifle, instead of… that maybe, I was imagining things.”

“Why would you be guilty for working on Mark’s rifle?” Johnny asked.

“Oh I, well, I… I had other work that I needed to get done. But, him being a Marshal and all… I put the… That’s why I was going back to my shop tonight,” Angus replied, realizing what he almost said.

“So, what were you imagining?” Seth asked.

“I thought, well, one of the two sure looked as if he could have been Mark. I mean, he looked to be of the same size and build of Mark. I’m not saying it was, because I didn’t get a look at his face,” Angus answered, feeling a little guilty for even implying that Mark might have had anything to do with breaking into his shop.

“Come on, Seth. Let’s go check out Angus’ shop. Lou, I’ll be home later,” Johnny stated as he picked his hat up from the table next to them and left the restaurant.

*****

Johnny, Seth, and Angus entered the gun shop. Angus went to light a few more lanterns. Quickly he hid Johnny’s surprise present, hoping Johnny hadn’t seen it sitting in the open cabinet. Seth picked up what remained of the burned matches from the floor.

“This is where you had Mark’s rifle?” Johnny asked.

“Yes, I put it there, the furthest away from the display area. I just don’t get it. Not too many people would break in to steal a rifle, now hand guns are a different story.”

“Could it be kids pranking?” Seth asked.

“Not from the size of those I saw riding away. They weren’t kids. They was full grown men,” Angus replied.

“Doesn’t make any sense to only take the one rifle,” Johnny commented. “Angus, you need help boarding up your back door?”

“Naw, I can do it. Thanks for coming over.”

*****

As they were leaving the gunsmith’s, Seth asked, “Do we tell Lucas?”

“Tell him what, that in addition to his son possibly missing, now his son’s rifle is missing, and that Angus, in the dark, thought he saw someone who was of the same build as Mark riding down the street after his shop was broken into?” Johnny replied. “Seth, I don’t know what’s going on, but if Mark’s on a case for the U.S. Marshal’s office, the worse thing we can do is interfere.”

“But if he is on a case…” Seth stated. “Amos would have received a wire. We can at least find out?”

After talking with Amos, to hear that it had been some time since Mark had received any wires from the U.S. Marshal’s Service, they were even more perplexed.

“Guess it was too much to hope for. Even if he had been on a case, Mark would still have left word with someone. It just ain’t like him to go off without telling anyone,” Seth stated as he hung his thumbs through his belt loops.

“All we can do is wait,” Johnny stated. “I sure don’t feel like going home tonight and facing Lou.”

“If you stayed at the office, you can sure bet she’d track you down,” Seth replied with half a laugh.

“Yeah.” Johnny said good night as he left to head home.

*****

Seth was just about to retire to the chaise in the office when he heard a knocking at the door to the office. He opened it to find one of Dave Merar’s men barely able to stand straight, leaning up against the door frame.

“Deputy, someone stole my horse,” he declared.

“Curry, which horse did you ride into town tonight?” Seth asked. If Curry was really listening to Seth, he would have heard the mocking tone of his voice.

“Old Ornery,” Curry replied.

“Old Ornery. And just why do you call him Old Ornery?” Seth asked as he raised his eyebrows.

“Because he’s an ornery…”

“Uh huh,” Seth replied. “Go sleep it off over at the livery tonight. I’m sure Dave will send one of the other hands in to town for you tomorrow. You’ll probably find that your horse got tired of waiting, untied himself, and went back to the ranch. It’s not the first time you’ve reported him stolen after you’ve spent the night drinking.”

Seth shook his head as he watched Curry head to the livery. He blew out the lantern and laid down on the chaise.

*****

The following morning, John Hamilton pulled his watch from his pocket and compared its time to the clock on the wall. It was about time to open the bank. As he stood from his desk to walk to the front door, he heard knocks at the back door of the bank. He proceeded to open the back door only to have two masked men force their way inside. They shoved him back towards the safe and ordered him to open it. After he had complied, one of the men struck him over the head with the butt of a rifle, knocking him unconscious. The bandits stuffed the money into their saddle bags and left the bank the same way they had entered. Soon they were racing from town.

*****

Lucas returned to town and was riding by the bank when he saw the bank door open and John Hamilton struggling to walk. He jumped down from Blade and ran to John.

“Easy there, John. What happened?” Lucas asked.

“The bank was robbed. I was just about to open when someone knocked at the back door. There were two of them. They knocked me out after I opened the safe.”

“Come on, let’s get you to Doc’s.”

Lucas assisted John to Doc’s, then headed for the Marshal’s Office.

As he entered, Johnny greeted him, “Lucas, I’m sorry. There’s still no word on Mark.”

“We’ve got bigger problems. I just took John Hamilton over to the clinic. The bank was robbed before he opened this morning.”

Johnny and Seth grabbed their hats and the three of them ran to the clinic. They listened to everything that John had to say about what happened, but one thing struck Johnny and Seth as odd.

“Johnny,” John started. “When the one raised his rifle up to knock me out, I noticed the rapid firing pin, like Lucas’ rifle. Guess someone else figured out how to make it work.”

Seth and Johnny motioned for Lucas to step outside.

“Lucas,” Johnny started.

“So what? I’ve had this long enough and my reputation is out there, about this,” Lucas stated as he held up his rifle. “Bound to happen for someone to try to copy my rifle.”

“That’s not it Lucas,” Seth stated. “Someone broke into Angus’ shop last night. They took ammunition and the only gun missing, was Mark’s.”

“Mark’s? But his was in his scabbard on his saddle,” Lucas replied.

“No, it wasn’t his. I think if you were to ride home and check, you’d see that the rifle is a loaner. Mark left his rifle with Angus before he rode home. Come on let’s go check out the bank,” Johnny said.

They entered to see the safe standing wide open and only a few stray dollar bills remained behind. They headed to the back door and looked at the tracks in the dirt.

“Who ever it was, they waited here for a while,” Johnny stated. “Damn, I wish I knew where Mark was. I need him for the posse, the way he can track.”

“Old friend, you’re forgetting who taught him?” Lucas asked.

“Lucas, I can’t ask you to go,” Johnny stated.

“Why not?” Lucas asked.

“With Mark missing, I just don’t feel right. Besides, I need someone to watch the town while I’m out trailing these outlaws.”

“What about your brother-in-law?” Seth asked looking to Lucas.

“Colleen’s too near her time. I can’t ask Johnny to watch the town. I was thinking of Micah. I think Micah just might enjoy wearing the badge again, even if it is only for a little while.”

“Okay, I’ll do it. Seth you go get some supplies ready. Lucas, you’ll need to get word to your family.”

“I’ll head over to the parsonage and send word with Jake.”

“Good, we’ll meet in front of the jail in fifteen minutes.”

Each left to take care of their assigned task. In fifteen minutes, the small posse was riding from North Fork.

*****
The outlaws had been on the run since they robbed the bank. As they ran their horses, they kept an eye out behind them for any signs of pursuit.

As the sun was setting, they stopped their horses for a long breather.

“I can’t believe we’re not being followed,” Mark stated as he looked back the way they came.

“We are. Even if we can’t see their dust cloud, believe me, we’re being followed.”

“How? If they are, they’re so far behind us, our dust cloud has settled,” Mark stated.

“I heard they have a devil tracker living in North Fork. Rumors have it that he trails his quarry and when he catches up with ‘em, he shoots first and no questions are asked.”

Oliver finally convinced Mark their chances of getting away would be better if they split up.

“When and where should we meet up?” Mark asked as they divvied up the money.

Oliver replied, “In two weeks time, let’s plan on meeting in Albuquerque.”

“Albuquerque?”

“Yeah, it’s a big city, north of here, and we can easily get lost in a crowd for a while. Okay, partner? There’s a livery behind a hotel. I think they call the hotel, The Grande.”

“In two weeks then, partner,” Mark replied as he headed west.

Oliver started to head north, but shortly, he changed his direction. Keeping his distance, he followed Mark, anticipating the gunfight that would ensue when Mark became cornered by the posse.

*****

It had been several hours since the posse had left town when Doc Burrage felt that John Hamilton had recovered and was steady enough on his feet, after being knocked unconscious, that he allowed him to leave the clinic. Before John left, he was given strict orders to go home and rest for the remainder of the day.

John’s walk home led him directly past the Marshal’s Office, where he stopped, surprised and pleased to see who Johnny had left in charge, sitting in front of the office, leaning back in a chair.

“How does it feel to be wearing the badge again, Micah?” Johnny called.

“Like an old friend. How are you feeling?”

“Like a fool. Can’t believe I was so naive as to let them in the back door,” John replied.

“Any idea on who they might be?”

“No. They both wore masks over their faces. Guess there’s no fool like an old fool,” John commented.

“Don’t be too hard on yourself. They’ll get your money back for you,” Micah stated.

“It’s not my money, Micah. It’s the people’s. I just hope the people will understand.”

“John, you’ve lived in this town long enough, the people know you. They’ll know it wasn’t your fault,” Micah stated.

“Thanks, Micah. I’m gonna follow Doc’s orders and head on home.”

Micah watched John walk away. He could tell that John was upset and embarrassed by what had transpired.

*****

Though Micah wished he could have joined in the posse to track down the outlaws, deep down, he was thankful he wasn’t going to have to spend countless, long hours in the saddle. Age and his past had caught up with him over the last few years. Micah was thankful for all the children he helped Hattie look after at the day care and how they helped keep him feeling younger than he really was.

As Micah walked the town that afternoon, many people stopped him, some stated how good it was to see him behind the badge, others inquired about the posse, and a few, asked where Mark was.

“He probably got caught up in something for the U.S. Marshal’s Service and couldn’t let anyone know. Just keep him in your prayers,” Micah would state as he continued on.

*****

The posse stopped to briefly rest their horses when Lucas lost track of the outlaws’ trail. He stepped from Blade and handed the reins to Seth. Carefully he walked around, looking for any tell-tale sign. He found it.

“Over here!” Lucas called. “They split up! One’s heading north, the other is heading west.”

“Who goes which direction?” Seth asked.

“Two of us should go north, there’s a town about a half days ride. It’ll take two of us to check over the town. There’s nothing west of here until tomorrow evening,” Johnny answered.

“I’ll head west,” Lucas stated. “The terrain becomes more hard pan, the further west we go. It’ll be easier for the two of you to follow the one heading north.”

“Doubting my abilities, Lucas?” Johnny asked.

“No, just know my own. If I lose this one, I’ll plan to meet you two in Willow Springs,” Lucas answered after he finished taking a drink from his canteen and screwed the cap back on.

*****

Still with no memory of who he was, Mark traveled on, keeping to the shadows and off well traveled roads and trying to hide his tracks from those chasing after him. Mark found a quiet brook where he could refill his canteen. As he unscrewed the lid, he looked at his reflection in the water. ‘Ain’t bad looking, but why can’t I remember you?’ Mark asked of himself. ‘Marcus Cordel. Who are you and why an outlaw? What happened to put you on the wrong side of the law?’ He lowered his canteen into the brook and watched as his reflection warped. After the canteen was filled, he raised it to his lips and took a long drink. He wiped the excess water from his mouth by using the back of his hand. He refilled the canteen and screwed the cap back on, then returned to his horse and hung the canteen on his saddle horn. Mark continued to ride, keeping to the brook in an effort to hide his trail.

The heat of the day was fully upon him the next time he stopped. Mark stepped from his horse and unbuttoned his shirt. After looking around, he realized he was going to have to leave the brook and head cross country. But first, from his back pocket he pulled a bandanna and soaked it in the water. He then ran the wet bandanna over his face, behind his neck, and across his chest. Kneeling down, he dipped the bandanna into the brook again and then tied it around his neck, letting the water drip to cool his body. Next, he removed his shirt and soaked it in the brook and then put it back on and buttoned it. Finally, he took one last look at his reflection in the water, ‘Well, Marcus Cordel, maybe next time I see you, I’ll remember just who you are.’ With that, he returned to his horse, picked up the reins, and led him on.

*****

Ever since Lucas had split from Johnny and Seth, he followed the tracks. Losing the trail occasionally and then picking it up again as he circled around.

‘Who ever it was who robbed the bank, he’s good at trying to cover his tracks,’ Lucas thought to himself. ‘But not quite good enough.’

Finally, he came to the location where the rider first stopped at the brook. He realized the tracks never left the brook and decided to head upstream, seeing as how that was the general direction the outlaw had been riding. In time, he found a heel print indicating where the rider stepped from his horse and knelt down. Looking around, Lucas followed the boot prints where the rider led his horse away from the water.

*****

It had been almost a day and a half since he had helped rob the bank; he had only eaten jerky and wild berries, but he hadn’t slept since. Ever so vigilant about the posse after him, Mark was constantly on the alert. His headache had returned earlier in the day, but try as he might, it just wouldn’t go away. Mark finally came to a spot he felt was secluded enough. He tied his horse in a thicket of trees and climbed up into a rock outcropping. He laid his rifle across his lap as he sat down. In no time, he gave into the fatigue and was asleep.

Hours later, he woke to the sound of an approaching horse snorting. Grabbing his rifle he looked over the outcropping of rocks where he was hiding. Long shadows played across the landscape. He brought his rifle to bear on a tall man riding alone, reins in one hand, rifle in the other, looking down at the ground, slowly following his tracks.

‘Devil Tracker,’ Mark heard Oliver Willdrow’s words repeated in his mind.

Mark watched as the rider came closer into range. But visions started clouding his eyes. He tried to shake them off. He rubbed at his eyes and shook his head. Carefully he aimed his rifle as he waited for the rider to come closer. With his finger firmly on the trigger, an image of the approaching rider saying to him, ‘I’m proud of you, son’, flashed into his mind, causing him to jerk, just as he pulled the trigger. Mark had fired. He watched the man fall from the saddle. Mark stood and jumped down from the boulder, the sun at his back. He started to run towards the downed rider… fuzzy images flashed in Mark’s head, causing his head to hurt even more. It wasn’t just a downed rider he was running to check on… In his mind, he started to scream… but his thoughts never developed as he felt fire tear into his shoulder. The force of the bullet spun him around and dropped him to the ground.

Facedown on the ground, Mark heard the man running in the hard pan and he felt a hand grab his arm and roughly turn him over. He looked at the rifle pointed to his chest and then up at the man who stood over him. He watched the expression the man bore change from anger to shock, as Mark’s world faded to black.

*****

Lucas heard the rifle shot and felt the bullet tear at his shirt sleeve, without thinking, Lucas reacted, he fell from Blade. As he hit the ground, Lucas made sure to lie still, his rifle in his hand, pretending he had been hit. He heard the sound of a man jumping down and landing on the hardpan. Lucas opened his eyelids enough so they were just slits. Facing the sun, he couldn’t open his eyes any further. He saw the silhouette of the shooter running towards him, rifle still in hand. When he saw the runner’s head tilt downward, Lucas reacted. He rolled over and without hesitation he fired. His first shot was true and the bullet spun the man around and dropped him to the ground.

With his rifle still at the ready, Lucas slowly got to his feet and cautiously walked over to where the man had fallen face down in the dirt. Lucas kicked the rifle away from reach of the man. Anger ran through Lucas’ head, this was one of the outlaws who had robbed the bank and knocked John Hamilton unconscious. This was the outlaw he had been trailing and who had taken a shot at him. Lucas lowered the barrel of his rifle towards the man when he reach down and grabbed the man by the arm and roughly turned him over. Slowly the man’s face came into view and Lucas noticed the eye’s first, he saw they held fear and pain.

The anger Lucas felt turned to shock as he watched the man’s eyes close. Only it wasn’t an outlaw…

“My God, NO!” Lucas yelled as he dropped his rifle.

Lucas momentarily stood over the body, frozen in place, while he realized that the man he had been tracking was his son. Lucas’ mind raced as he tried to comprehend that his son had taken a shot at him, but even more disturbing, Lucas knew he had shot his son. Not able to think, Lucas acted, he ran to his horse, pulled his saddle bag and returned to Mark. He pulled out some rags from the bag. He returned to Mark’s side and ripped open Mark’s shirt to push a rag down into the wound, attempting to stop the flow of blood. He tied the other rags together and tried to make a bandage of them.

The whole time Lucas tended to Mark, he didn’t realize he was pleading as tears streamed down his face. Pleading to God to let his son live, pleading to his son to forgive him. Lucas’ mind whirled as he tried to understand how the events could have unfolded like they had.

“Mark, please forgive me! God, you can’t let him die! Mark, why? Why were you running? Were you on the trail of the outlaws? Why did you shoot at me? God, please, help me?” Lucas rambled over and over again. “Margaret, I didn’t mean to shoot our son.”

Lucas grabbed Mark’s other arm and pulled it across his shoulders as he carried/dragged Mark to where Blade stood. He turned at the sound of a rider approaching. “Please help me. My son…” Lucas pleaded to the rider.

“Don’t think so,” the man said as he pulled his gun on Lucas. “Put him back on the ground.”

“You don’t understand! MY SON’S BEEN SHOT! Please, I have to get him to Willow Springs and to a doctor!”

“No, you’re not going anywhere. You’re going to put your son down and then you’re going to sit over there and watch him bleed to death.”

“Watch him…? Are you mad?! I don’t care what the hell you’re saying,” Lucas demanded, unbelieving what the man was telling him. “I have to get my son to a doctor!”

“Put him down or I’ll kill him right now, then once he’s dead, I’ll have my final revenge on you. So it’s up to you,” the rider called, then Lucas heard the gun being cocked.

Lucas had no choice but to do as told. Carefully he placed Mark on the ground, cradling his son’s head gently, he stood up and turned towards the stranger.

“Who are you? Why are you doing this?!” Lucas demanded, not caring that tears were still falling down his face.

“Payback! All my life I thought the great Rifleman, Lucas McCain was my father!” Oliver stated as he stepped from his horse, gun still on Lucas. “Tell me, how easy was it for you to kill my father?”

“Your father?!” Lucas asked. Confusion was evident on his face. “I don’t even know you, who are you?”

“I was raised Oliver Willdrow, but, my mother told me my father’s name was Lucas McCain. I resented the fact that you left us. Ma always said you had other responsibilities and couldn’t be tied down by a wife or a son. Said it was dangerous for anyone to know that I was your son. She died last month and when I was going through her papers, I found the truth. Oliver Willdrow was my name, but my father’s name was Horace Willdrow. By all accounts a man driven to be a drunk, BUT HE WAS MY FATHER!”

“Horace Willdrow? I don’t know a Horace Willdrow!” Lucas stated.

“You don’t remember the names of those you killed? You KILLED HIM?! My Ma wrote it in her journals. You took my Pa from me and then left Ma and me on our own. You made my Ma so ashamed of my father that she lied to me! She told me stories about you! The great Lucas McCain! You’re nothing but a murderer! You killed my father and then you killed my Ma’s memory of him. So now, I’ll have my revenge. I’ll enjoy watching you suffer. How does it feel to know you killed your son?”

“I don’t understand! I was trailing one of the outlaws who robbed the bank in North Fork. He fired at me, the sun was at his back, I didn’t see he was my son,” Lucas begged. “Why are you doing this?!”

“At first, I wanted revenge on you. I wanted to see you dead. But the more I thought on it, I wanted you to grieve over your dead son. I wanted to kill someone who is as precious to you as my father could have been to me. Only, you never gave me the chance to know my father!” Oliver replied. “But then fate changed and gave me a better idea. How great would it be for Lucas McCain to kill his own son?”

“What did you do to him to make him fire on me?!” Lucas demanded.

“I was all set to kill him as he rode home the other day, but my aim wasn’t true. Funny what a bullet graze across the temple will do? Amnesia. All I had to do was give him bits and pieces of an idea. I created a life for him and he believed me. He was so desperate to figure out who he was, that I was able to convince him he was an outlaw. Go figure, me, Oliver Willdrow got The Lawman to rob a bank and then watched as he attempted to kill his father. And you know what the best part was? I got the father to kill his son.” Oliver started laughing, a morbid laugh. “Guess he ain’t quite as good with a rifle as those newspaper stories wrote about.”

“You can’t sit there and let my son bleed to death!” Lucas yelled.

“Yes, I can. And yes, you will,” Oliver replied. “I can’t wait to read the headlines, The Rifleman kills The Lawman.” Oliver’s laugh was even more morbid than before.

Lucas took a step forward. He had to take a chance. Mark needed a doctor. Oliver fired at Lucas’ feet.

“The next one goes into your son. The Rifleman.” Oliver stated in disgust and spat on the ground. “You’re nothing but a murderer.”

“I’m not a murderer!”

“So what do you call it? All the other men you’ve gunned down?”

“Please, whatever grievance you have against me, it’s between you and me. Not my son. Help me get him to a doctor!”

*****

Seth and Johnny followed the second set of tracks heading north, only to realize a short time later the rider had changed direction and wasn’t taking any precautions in covering his trail. They followed the tracks. After hearing a gunshot and realizing how close it was, they looked at each other as they pulled their horses to a halt. They left their horses behind and crept through the trees and boulders to find out what was happening.

The closer they got, they realized one of the arguing voices was Lucas and the other, they didn’t recognize. From their hiding spot, they surveyed the scene and saw Mark lying unconscious on the ground. They saw the red stain of blood on his shirt. Listening as Lucas pleaded to take Mark to a doctor. Without saying anything, both men knew what to do. They needed to distract the stranger so they could save Lucas and Mark.

Quietly, both moved to where they had a clear shot at the man holding a gun on Lucas and Mark. Both sensed they would have little time to react, each word the man spoke sounded more and more deranged.

“I don’t want him to live! I want you to watch him die and know that you put the bullet in him. You killed your own son!”

Oliver heard the snap of a branch, moved his gun around, and fired in that direction. Lucas took the chance to dive for his rifle, grabbing it, rolling over and getting to his knees and then trying to bring it to bear on Willdrow, but before he could cock his rifle, he heard the shots fired. He saw the surprise and shock on the man’s face and watched as he crumpled to the ground.

“Seth! – Lucas!” Johnny called.

“Johnny – Lucas!” Seth called.

The three men stood in the clearing, for only a moment, to realize the others of their posse were okay.

*****

Drako was kneeling over the body of Oliver Willdrow, confirming to Lucas and Seth that he was indeed dead.

“Lucas, what happened?” Seth asked as he ran over to where Lucas knelt over Mark.

“I heard a shot fired and it ripped through my sleeve and hit off the ground, just past me. I pretended I’d been struck. A few moments later, I saw a man with a rifle jump down from his hiding spot in the rock outcropping over there and I shot back. The sun was behind him and I didn’t see who he was. Seth, I shot my own son! God forgive me!” Lucas stated as he knelt next to Mark and tried to check on the gunshot wound.

Mark started to moan and move his head from side to side.

“Take it easy there, Mark. We’ll get you to a doctor,” Seth stated as he knelt down next to his son-in-law.

As Mark opened his eyes, fear was evident, after his eyes focused on the two men kneeling next to him. He propped himself up and looked around and saw the body of Oliver laying a short distance away.

“Why didn’t you kill me, too?” Mark asked with panic in his voice.

“Kill you?” Seth replied and looked to Lucas.

“It was an accident. I couldn’t see it was you,” Lucas pleaded.

“Accident! You were tracking us ever since we robbed the bank. You killed my partner, but you let me live? Why? I’m worth two thousand dollars, dead or alive! Get it over with! I ain’t going to no prison!” Mark yelled as he started fighting Lucas’ and Seth’s restraining arms.

“Mark what are you talking about?” Johnny asked as he came to stand next to where the others were.

“It must be the amnesia,” Lucas stated. “Willdrow told me he’d shot Mark out of his saddle and when he came too, he didn’t know anything of his past.” Then turning to Mark, “Listen to me son…” Lucas’ voice and face softened.

“I ain’t your son!” Mark yelled as he stood up and tried fighting harder to get away.

“Yes, you are! Your name is Mark McCain, son of Lucas and Margaret McCain. You were born in Enid, Oklahoma and we call North Fork, New Mexico our home. ” Lucas pleaded, trying to get through to his son.

“You’re making it up, hoping to get me to stop fighting so you can get me peaceably back to your town and then to prison! I ain’t going to prison!” Mark tried to fight harder. He swung and punched Seth across the jaw. Lucas grabbed Mark from behind and had him in a bear hug.

“Listen to him, boy!” Drako called, standing in front of Mark.

“I ain’t no boy! I’m a grown… I’m a… aargh” Mark yelled, but then, stopped fighting, tried to put his hand to his head, but went limp in Lucas’ arms.

Gently, Lucas lowered Mark back to the ground. He pulled the bandage from the gunshot wound to Mark’s shoulder, pleased the bleeding had stopped.

“Lucas, what do we do?” Seth asked.

“Wait for him to wake. Hopefully when he wakes, he’ll remember who he is.”

*****

For the half hour that Mark remained unconscious, Lucas sat on the ground, cradling Mark’s head in his lap. Continuing to plead for Mark to be okay. When Mark finally stirred and sat up, Lucas was disappointed to hear his son still had no memory. The four rode to Willow Springs, to get Mark to a doctor and get Oliver Willdrow’s body to an undertaker.

*****

After examining the wound to Mark’s shoulder, the doctor stated he could get the bullet out and told Mark to lie down and he’d get the anesthesia.

“No!” Mark jumped from the table and cringed as he felt the jolt in his shoulder.

Lucas put a restraining arm on Mark, “Mark, let the doctor do what he needs to do to operate and get that bullet out.”

“No, if it comes out, it comes out while I’m awake,” Mark demanded.

The doctor looked to the men standing in his office, “If that’s the way he wants it. I’ll get my instruments and something for him to bite down on. All these years of medicine and now I’m back to operating in the dark ages,” the doctor mumbled as he headed to his cabinet.

The doctor returned to the table and handed Mark a bottle, “Drink up.”

“What’s this?”

“Something to help lessen the pain you’re going to feel when I pull that bullet out.”

Mark took a swig and spat and sputtered, “You trying to kill me instead of getting the bullet out?” he yelled and pushed the bottle back to the doctor.

Lucas, Seth, and Johnny tried their best to hide their laughter. Even without his memories, he still didn’t care for anything alcoholic.

“Son,” Lucas started to say.

“I told you, I ain’t your son!” Mark hollered back.

“Mark, please. Let the doctor administer the drug to make you sleep so he can get the bullet out,” Lucas begged.

“No way!” Mark said as his eye’s glared.

“If you won’t let me anesthetize you and you won’t drink up, then this is going to hurt like hell. I’ll need all of you to help restrain him,” the doctor said as he looked to the others.

Mark placed the piece of wood the doctor had handed him in his mouth and laid down on the table. The three held Mark down while the doctor forced the locator tool into the wound. Mark screamed and bit down hard on the tool, his body tensed the deeper the doctor probed into Mark’s shoulder. Seth and Johnny looked to Lucas and saw the pain he was feeling at his boy’s suffering. Lucas closed his eyes and tried to block out Mark’s screaming as he helped to forcibly hold his son down to the table.

“Hold him down!” the doctor yelled.

Mark continued to struggle and scream from the pain, after a few more moments he passed out.

“It didn’t have to be this hard on him,” the doctor stated as he finally pulled the bullet from Mark’s shoulder. “Why’s he so set against modern medicine?”

“He’s not exactly himself right now doc,” Johnny stated. “See the bullet graze to his temple? … He’s suffering amnesia. He barely trusts what we’re telling him as the truth.”

“He’s your prisoner?” the doctor asked.

“No, he’s my son,” Lucas answered.

The doctor finished patching up the bullet wound and then applied an antibiotic salve to the bullet graze along Mark’s temple.

“Say, this ain’t the first time he’s been wounded, here,” the doctor commented.

“No, the first time was about eight years ago,” Lucas replied.

“Well, that could have something to do with him not remembering.”

*****

Lucas sat next to the bed where Mark lay, waiting for him to regain consciousness and hopefully his memory. It was almost midnight when Mark started moaning and opened his eyes.

“How are you feeling?” Lucas asked.

Mark looked at him, his face blank and asked, “Does it really matter?”

Lucas’ heart sank, he kept praying to God to forgive him for shooting his own son and he had prayed for God to allow Mark’s memories to be restored.

“It does. I’m your father.”

“So you said. When do you plan to take me back to North Fork and your jail?”

“We’ll head to North Fork tomorrow morning, but you’re not going to jail,” Lucas replied.

“Mister, you’re not making any sense. I robbed your bank!”

“Mark, you’re the one not understanding. The way Johnny’s going to write this up is that you were under duress. With the money being recovered, you won’t stand trial.”

*****

The return trip to North Fork was tedious for Mark. His mind ran from the story of his life that Oliver Willdrow had told him to the stories the tall man had been telling him. None of the stories sounded familiar, but he was leaning towards the life with these men. Maybe it was because he didn’t want to go to jail, more than anything. He felt it odd that these lawmen never took the money from his saddle bags. In fact, the money that Oliver had taken had been placed in his saddle bags as well. Confusion addled his brain when they stopped the first night and the taller of the three men told him to go sit on the fallen tree and he’d take care of unsaddling his horse. After eating their supper, Mark realized that they had never hand-cuffed him. Even with one arm in a sling, he couldn’t believe they hadn’t hand-cuffed him to a tree or something…

*****

‘I must be who these men think I am, but why can’t I remember?’ Mark thought to himself as sat up in his bedroll, while the others slept. He got to his feet and walked to the camp fire and poured himself a cup of coffee. He studied the two men sleeping on the far side of the fire. Mark jumped as he felt a hand on his shoulder.

“Guess you must be pretty confused about everything?” Lucas stated as he knelt down next to his son, the guilt in his voice was evident.

“To say the least. You’re making a life for me that sounds real good. So good, it can’t be true,” Mark commented.

“I’m not making it up. We made it, together. And then Hope and Milly came into our lives, and our children.”

“I want to remember, I really do, but prior to my waking up at Willdrow’s camp that night, there’s nothing…, just one big empty black hole…” After taking another drink of his coffee, he said, “You know, the one called Drako doesn’t make that great of coffee. How can you stand to drink this stuff?”

“Well, it’s not his coffee making. You usually heap a lot of sugar into your coffee, regardless of who makes it.”

“Oh.” Mark dumped the coffee from his cup into the embers. “You said I have a wife? Which one, Milly or Hope?”

“Hope’s your wife, you’ve been married for six years,” Lucas answered. “And Seth Lane, the deputy, he’s your father-in-law.”

“Then Milly’s my Ma?”

“Not your real Ma, but your call her Ma. Milly and I’ve only been married for seven years; it’ll be eight, this Christmas Eve. Your real ma, my first wife, died when you were six.”

“How many ma’s have I had?”

Lucas hesitated for a moment, “Just your real Ma and Milly.”

“If I am your son, guess it hurts you to know I don’t remember any of this? Mark asked.

“You are my son and yes, it hurts me to see you hurting and to know... As your father, I’ve always tried to protect you in some manner or another, and in the past it’s caused some hurt between the two of us. But this time, I…” Lucas quieted, he couldn’t bring himself to admit to Mark that he had shot his own son.

“You shouldn’t feel guilty, about this,” Mark stated as he rubbed at his shoulder. “I did rob the bank and one thing I do remember is, I took the first shot at you.”

“I’m surprised you missed, yet I’m thankful you did. It’s not like you to miss that easy of a shot.”

“I don’t know how I missed you. I had a perfect bead on you and then…”

“Then?” Lucas asked.

“I saw a… I guess you could call it a fragment of a memory… you said, ‘I’m proud of you son’. Must have caused me to pull my shot. Funny thing though… I got in a panic when I saw you lying there on the ground. Something pulled me to run to you. But my mind said not to trust you, Willdrow called you a devil tracker and that you’d just as soon kill your quarry instead of taking them in alive”

“It was reflex, my shooting you, a man who had just taken a shot at me, running towards me… gun in hand…”

“I can’t say as I blame you. You sure don’t sound like a lawman,” Mark commented.

“I’m not the lawman in the family, you are.”

“Me, a lawman?”

“Not just a lawman,” Seth stated as he joined in the conversation. “You’re the U.S. Marshal for the territory of New Mexico and there’ve been a few stories written in the newspapers a few years back, about the two of you. Your father, he’s also known as the Rifleman.”

Mark was quiet as he thought on all that he was learning about himself.

“Mark, you need your sleep as much as we do. Why don’t you turn in for the night? We can talk more tomorrow. We should be back in North Fork tomorrow night,” Seth stated.

*****

Lucas, Seth, Johnny, and Mark arrive at the McCain Ranch as night was settling. Hope and Milly ran from the house as they saw them return. Mark stayed in his saddle, looking around, taking in the sight of the two homes, barns, and other buildings, as the others dismounted.

He heard a woman call his name and turned to see his ‘father’ stop her and quietly speak to her and the other woman. Mark watched as the younger woman put her hand to her mouth and then started shaking her head. The other woman stepped to her and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. His ‘father-in-law’ walked to the other side and put his arm around her. Then, his ‘father’ walked back to him.

“Come on son. Maybe meeting your wife and seeing your family will help you remember.” Lucas offered a hand to help Mark get down from the saddle.

Behind him, the Marshal took the horses to the barn.

*****

Mark entered what the others said was his home and saw another young woman surrounded by children. The boys ran to Mark, calling “Papa, we glad you home!” “Papa, pick me up!” “Papa, you hurt?”

It was all a little overwhelming for Mark.

“Mark, the one with the red shirt is Joshua. The one in the blue shirt is Zachariah. And the younger boy is Elijah,” Lucas introduced them.

Mark did his best to act normal in front of them. He bent down and, with uncertainty, hugged each one. Gwen stepped to the group and knelt down and told the boys it was past their bedtime, to hurry up and say their goodnights to their father and then head to their bedroom.

The boys said ‘goodnight’ then turned and ran to their bedroom.

When Joshua got to his door, he called back, “You’ll come watch over us say our prayers?”

Mark creased his brow and nodded.

“Mark,” Lucas stated. “This is Gwen.”

“Gwen? Is she…”

“She’s an extended member of our family. She’s a nanny to your children and sometimes, mine.”

The look on Gwen’s face told she didn’t understand what was happening.

Mark watched as Hope came from a bedroom carrying a child. “Mark, this is your daughter, Mykaela, but you call her Emmy.”

Mark took the child into his good arm and held her. He looked into her face, but felt nothing other than the baby was very adorable as she cooed and spit up bubbles around her mouth. Mark smiled at the tiny hands reaching towards his face.

While Mark held the child, Lucas took Gwen aside and explained what was happening.

*****

Lucas and Milly were hesitant to leave Mark alone, feeling as an outsider to his family, but they knew he had to remember on his own. There’s only so much they could do to try to help.

Gwen stepped from the boys’ room and said, “Good night” before retiring to her own room.

Mark handed the baby back to Hope and watched as she carried the child and placed her in the bassinet in the bedroom. Mark looked around, the fireplace, the chairs, the table, the desk, he saw the pictures and was drawn towards them. The pictures held the truth, this was his family and it started to anger him that he couldn’t remember.

He startled at the gentle hand placed on his shoulder, “I’m sorry to startle you, but the boys are ready for their nightly prayers.”

Mark and Hope entered the bedroom and saw all three boys kneeling on the floor, heads bowed, hands folded.

“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. Angels watch me through the night, And wake me with the morning light. God bless Mama and Papa and Grandma and Grandpa Lucas and Grandpa Seth and Gwen, Amen.”

Mark watched as all three boys then jumped into their beds and Hope went from each bed and tucked them in before placing a kiss to each one’s forehead.

“Papa,” Eli called. “You kiss good night?”

Hope looked to Mark and nodded her support. Mark walked to each child, kissed them on the forehead and quietly wished them pleasant dreams. Before leaving the room, Hope blew out the lantern sitting on the table, next to the door.

“I know how hard this must be for you Mark. If you need to, we can talk…”

“Talk? About what? Ain’t anything before this week that I remember,” Mark answered.

“You could ask me questions about us, about the boys, the ranch…”

“I don’t know that I want to know. Least not yet.”

“You need to know something, the boys are very close to you,” Hope said.

“They’re just babies.”

“The twins will be four next month and Eli turned two last month. They’re not babies anymore,” Hope answered a little upset at her husband.

“I’m sorry. This is all so… Maybe in the morning, we can talk. Right now, I’m really tired and just want to sleep.”

“Okay. In the morning,” Hope stated as she walked to the table and removed the glass chimney from the lantern and blew is out.

“You’re not going to push me to answer any questions?” Mark asked.

“Mark, I have so many questions, but I don’t want to upset you any more than you already are. I can wait, until you’re ready. Come to bed,” Hope turned and headed to the bedroom door.

“Bed?” Mark stopped in the middle of the front room.

“Mark?” Hope asked as she turned around.

“I’ll go sleep in the barn.”

“You’ll do no such thing! You’ll sleep in our bed.”

“I can’t. It wouldn’t be proper.”

“Proper? You and I are married. We’re husband and wife. What’s not proper about us sharing our bed?”

“I don’t remember… us. I don’t remember… me. You’re a beautiful woman, but I can’t … Please…”

Confusion abounded in Mark’s mind. From the pictures he knew what the others had said, were saying, was true, but in his heart…

“Mark, I’m sure all of this is difficult for you and I can’t begin to understand. But know this, I’m your wife and this is our home to share and that includes our bed. I love you.”

Mark stood for a few moments before saying, “I wish I could feel the same way…” he turned and walked out the front door, closing it behind him.

Hope ran to the window and watched as Mark slowly walked, with his head down, towards the barn. She saw him open the door and then the door closed. Hope sank into Mark’s chair, drew her knees to her chest, wrapped her arms around her knees and cried.

*****

In the house next door, Lucas helped Milly put their children to bed. As they returned to their own bed, Milly said, “Please, tell me what happened.”

“Someone seeking revenge against me, and from what I gather, I killed his father a long time ago. Only, I don’t remember the name the man told me.”

Milly could hear the pain in Lucas’ voice as he continued.

“The first night Mark didn’t come home, the man had already shot Mark out of the saddle and when he came too, Mark didn’t remember who he was, nothing. I’m still trying to put all the pieces of this together, but the man somehow convinced Mark they were partners-- outlaws. He was originally plotting to have me watch as he killed Mark, but then…”

“Lucas, don’t. It was wrong of me to ask. We’ll talk about it when it’s not so painful,” Milly stated as she saw the pain in Lucas’ face. She knew there was something more tearing at Lucas and decided to let him tell her, when he could.

Lucas kissed his wife and pulled her close to him. Sleep didn’t come easily for Lucas that night as images from the past few days kept repeating in his mind.. Again, he asked God to forgive him for what he had done and he apologized once more to Margaret.

Next Step — The Outsider

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

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