The Rifleman
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The Next Step...
Chapter 92 - The Wanted Poster
Written by Deanne Bertram

Lucas and Milly relaxed in each other’s arms the following morning, listening as the rooster crowed, greeting the rising sun.

“Guess we should get up and get to chores,” Lucas reluctantly stated, but not moving a muscle to slip from under the covers.

“Can’t they wait? God made Sunday as a day for rest…” Milly answered.

“And what do we tell the children when they want breakfast?”

“Let them sleep in as long as possible,” Milly mumbled as she snuggled closer to Lucas.

“And church?”

“We can read from the bible after breakfast.”

“So what you’re saying is, you don’t want to get out of bed either,” Lucas whispered into Milly’s ear.

“I’m enjoying snuggling with my husband.”

Lucas moved his lips to Milly’s, where they shared a passionate kiss.

Both were awakened from having fallen back asleep when they heard Myra knocking on their door, “Mama? Papa?”

“We’ll be right out Myra,” Lucas replied, smiling as he watched Milly slip from their bed and into her nightgown, and tie her robe closed with a sash.

*****

Later that afternoon, Hattie and Micah arrived at the McCain Ranch.

“Missed you at church today, LucasBoy,” Micah called as Lucas stepped to the porch, raising his arm and resting it against one of the posts.

“Milly decided that today was a day of rest and that we would read from the bible,” Lucas answered. “So, what brings the two of you way out here?”

“Lucas, invite them in,” Milly called from inside their home.

Taking Micah’s and Hattie’s coats once inside, Lucas asked, “Is everything in town okay?”

“Sure, the town is fine. Hattie just wanted to talk with Milly and Hope to reschedule and plan the wedding reception for Jake and Gwen.”

“Then today’s not going to be a day of rest,” Lucas teased.

“And just what is that supposed to mean, Mr. McCain?” Milly asked, raising her eyebrows.

“I just know that when the three of you ladies get to planning, us men folk had best make ourselves scarce.”

“Come on LucasBoy, you can show me that project of yours in the barn,” Micah stated with a wink.

“Project? Oh, yeah.”

The men pulled on their coats and were just opening the door to find Mark and Hope about to knock.

“Hope, come on in. Mark, you’re coming with us,” Lucas stated.

“I am?” asked a surprised Mark.

Lucas closed the door behind Hope and the children, and headed to the barn.

*****

“Well, it’s such a shame that they had to postpone their reception,” Hattie stated. “But now that I’ve heard Doc has declared Gwen recovered,” Hattie paused when she heard Milly giggle. “What’s so funny?”

“Nothing, just remembering a conversation from yesterday,” a blushing Milly replied.

“The trouble is, the date,” Hattie continued.

“Well, I don’t think we can properly reschedule to hold it between now and when Seth and Lilah leave for Fort Stanton,” Hope commented.

“Then there’s Christmas, it’s only eleven days away,” Milly added.

“Don’t forget yours and Lucas’ wedding anniversary the night before,” Hattie commented, causing Milly to blush even more, remembering their evening and morning together.

“And New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day,” Milly added to the calendar of conflicting dates.

“And my birthday!” came from Myra’s bedroom.

“Myra, if you’re room is cleaned, you may come out and help us,” Milly called.

“So it sounds like December is out of the question,” a dejected Hattie spoke.

“What about after the New Year and my birthday? Connor’s birthday isn’t until the 10th,” Myra stated, pointing to the calendar,

Milly continued, “Why can’t we hold their reception after church? Once Lilah and Seth return?”

“But we were planning to celebrate Christmas once they returned,” Hope replied. “I guess we could invite them over Saturday, the second and celebrate our Christmas then…”

“Myra?!” Milly exclaimed in surprise.

“Yes, Mama?”

“Just what did you do? And why?” Milly asked.

Hope and Hattie both turned to look at Myra, trying hard to keep grins off their faces as they saw what had alarmed Milly.

“I just borrowed some socks. I got curious. I’m mean, after our talk with Hope. I wanted to know what I would look like all grown up.”

“Well, you can just pull those socks out of your shirt. You’re too young,” Milly stated trying to keep a straight face as she pointed Myra back to her bedroom.

“I think Faith needs to be fed, she’s getting fussy,” Hope stated as she picked Faith up from the bassinet beside her chair. She stood to go to one of the bedrooms.

“You won’t embarrass me, if you nurse her out here,” Hattie stated.

Milly picked up a towel from the kitchen and handed it to Hope as she sat back down. After placing her daughter to her breast, Hope draped the towel over her shoulder and her daughter’s head.

Upon Myra’s return to the front room, she walked to Hattie and quietly asked, “Miss Hattie, did you know that under the towel, Faith is drinking milk from Hope’s breasts?”

“Myra!” Milly scolded.

“Ain’t Miss Hattie family? You said we only talk about it in front of the girls of the family,” Myra defended herself.

In an effort to change the subject to avoid embarrassing Hope or Milly any further, Hattie asked, “What if we made Gwen and Jake’s reception a box social, too?”

“What would we be raising money for?” Milly asked.

“North Fork’s Rainy Day Fund!” Hattie declared. “Who knows, but the way the town is growing…”

“I love the idea,” Hope answered.

“Can I make a picnic box too?” Myra asked.

“Are you wanting any particular boy to bid on your picnic box?” Hattie asked.

“Well, since it is just family present…” Myra spoke while looking to Milly. “Mama, would it be wrong of me to want Isaiah to bid on my box?”

“Just don’t tell him or anyone else, sweetie,” Milly answered.

*****

“So did you ladies decide on a date for Jake and Gwen’s reception?” Lucas asked as they cuddled in bed that night.

“I think we’re going to plan it for January third, after church. I just need to make sure that the date works for the entire McCafferty family,” Milly answered.

“So would you like to explain what else happened this afternoon?” Lucas asked, trying to keep the grin from his face.

“Happened? We just talked,” stated a perplexed Milly.

“I’m talking about Myra,” Lucas said with his eyebrows raised.

“Myra?”

“I presume she had a reason to stuff her shirt? What was that all about? Isn’t she a little too young…”

“Oh, Lucas how…”

“I was returning for my rifle, I peeked in the window to make sure it was safe for me to come back inside…”

“Lucas… After…” Milly didn’t know exactly how to explain, so she just blurted it out. “Last month, we explained to Myra about Hope breastfeeding Faith. She asked a few questions and seemed to be okay with what we said.”

“And?” Lucas asked.

“At one point she asked if her breasts would be like ours or more like Becky Whitcomb’s when she grew up.”

Milly paused when she heard Lucas try to refrain from laughing.

“Hope answered only God knew. Anyway, today, when she came out of her room… there she was. I asked why, she said she wanted to know what she would look like when she grew up.”

Lucas leaned forward and pressed a kiss to the top of Milly’s head, still trying to stifle a laugh.

“I’m so thankful that Mark was a boy. I don’t know how I would have handled the situation had I a daughter to raise instead of a son.”

“Just wait Lucas, I’m sure it’s only going to get more… interesting,” Milly sighed as she snuggled against Lucas.

*****

It was the Saturday before Christmas as Seth and Lilah stood on the train station platform to say goodbye as they readied to leave to visit Ethan and Annie at Fort Stanton.

“We’ll be home by the 30th,” Seth stated as he handed his newest granddaughter back to Hope.

“But you’ll miss Christmas,” Josh plaintively stated.

“I know, but don’t you think your Uncle Ethan and Aunt Annie would like to share their Christmas with us?”

“I guess so,” a dejected Zach replied.

“Does that mean Santa won’t bring us any presents from you?” Eli asked.

“No, I’m sure Santa will make arrangements for us to delay our Christmas until we return,” Lilah answered as she handed Mykaela back to Mark.

“Do you really think so?” Eli asked.

“I’m sure he will,” Mark answered as he placed Mykaela to his hip and ruffled Eli’s hair.

“Ahh, Papa. Why’d you have to muss up my hair?” Eli asked while swatting at Mark’s hand.

“You’ll wire when you arrive?” asked Hope.

“As soon as we get off the train. You take care of our grandchildren, we’ll be back in no time,” Seth said as he heard the conductor call, “ALL ABOARD!”

Over the roar of the exhaust, they all tried to say goodbye.

*****

Two days before Christmas, a rain soaked Mark returned home to find his brothers and sister sitting around the table with his own children, and Hope setting plates with their lunch on the table.

“Pretty wicked storm out there,” Mark called from the porch as he hung his rain poncho on the pegs outside the front door, before entering. “And just what do I owe the pleasure of you three being here?” he asked, walking up behind Myra.

“Mama was wanting to clean the house real good before Papa got back,” Little Ted answered.

“That’s what she said, but Papa’s used to how the house looks, I’m sure Mama was wanting to make sure the house is presentable for when Santa Claus comes tomorrow night,” Myra answered.

“And have you been good this year? I mean, I hear that children who aren’t good end up getting lumps of coal in their stockings,” Mark teased.

“We been good,” Josh piped up, causing Mark to raise his eyebrows.

“Well, for the most part. Papa, I been real good since then and try real hard not to get into any more trouble,” Josh pleaded.

Mark walked around the table to where his eldest sat and tussled his hair. “I know you do. But Santa Claus might just remember the trouble you caused back in October when you ran away.”

“Would he remember what we did too?” Zach asked.

“He’s got a list and he checks it at least twice,” Hope replied, she couldn’t keep the smile from her face.

“Let’s hope someone else has been in more trouble than we were,” Little Ted offered before he took a bite from his sandwich.

Looking to Hope, Mark asked, “So, where’s Pa?”

“Ma said he left early, before daybreak, to go check on the weanling herd.”

As two o’clock approached, Mark saw his Ma hurrying across the yard, he stood from his chair and walked over to open the door.

“How’s the house cleaning coming along?” Mark asked, closing the door behind Milly.

“Mark, I…”

“What’s the matter?”

“It’s your father; he said he was just going to check the weanling herd. He said he wasn’t going to be that long; he’d be back by lunch… I gave him extra time, because of the weather, but…”

“You’re worried,” said Mark.

Milly nodded.

“Ma, Blade is sure footed…’

“He rode Razor… You know how he likes to still ride Razor, even as old as he’s getting, he still likes to take him out on the range.”

“Pa’s just probably holed up somewhere, waiting for the worst of the storm to pass.”

“I know, it’s just…”

“I’ll ride out to see if I can catch up with him.”

*****

Mark arrived at the meadow where their weanling heard was wintered. The rain made it difficult to see any distance, so Mark kneed Rainmaker to walk on. Mark reached the far side of the meadow to find Razor lying on the ground. Stepping from his horse, Mark closed his eyes in an attempt to stem the flow of tears, mentally acknowledging the stillness, as Razor lay dead. Kneeling next to his father’s old horse, he rubbed the grayed muzzle as images of a younger Mark riding Blue Boy beside his Pa riding Razor flooded his memories.

“PA!” Mark yelled as he stood and looked around. “PA!”

Mark intently listened as the rain pelted his hat and poncho for a reply that never came.

*****

Night had fallen by the time Mark returned home, his effort to sneak into his barn was in vain; both Hope and Milly were waiting for his return. Mark had finished tying the shovel to the back of his saddle when the barn door opened.

“Mark?” Milly called out as she saw his silhouette cast by the lantern turned low.

“Ma, go back to the house. You shouldn’t be out in this weather.”

“Where’s your father? Where’s Lucas?”

“I don’t know. Please, just go back inside…” Mark pleaded, unable to keep the quiver from his voice.

“Mark, please I hear it in your voice. Don’t hide the truth from Ma,” Hope spoke as she walked across the barn floor.

“Pa’s missing… I found Razor… I need to get back to bury him before the wolves…” Mark stopped as he heard both women gasp. “There were tracks, but I just don’t know… I’ll be back when I can.”

Hope stated, “I’ll go pack some provisions.”

After Hope had left the barn, Milly stated, “Mark, you find your father,” unable to stop the tears falling down her face.

*****

Before he started to dig the hole, Mark pulled Razor’s saddle and bridle, placing them in the back of the cave on the east side of the meadow. Returning to Rainmaker, Mark attached his Pa’s rifle and scabbard to the left side of his own saddle. The sun was just starting to crest the hills when Mark pushed the last bit of dirt over the grave where he buried Razor. Mark drove the shovel into the ground, and with sore muscles, he tightened the cinch to Rainmakers girth and climbed in the saddle.

Looking to the horizon, back towards their homestead, the rain continued to soak everything around.

Mark’s attention returned to his need to find his Pa. Soon, all the lessons Lucas taught him through the years about tracking kicked into gear, Mark looked at the tracks in the mud… A short distance from where he had found Razor, Mark found what appeared to be the remnants of blood mixed in with the mud on the ground and the impression of where a tall man had lain. Mark started to back track. Mentally measuring the length of Razor’s stride, he realized Lucas had been running his old horse for all he was worth. Mark found where a second set of tracks had paralleled and crossed Razor’s…

Finding the right tracks leading away from the meadow, Mark pulled his hat further down in an effort to keep the rain from running down his neck before he kicked Rainmaker into a trot, heading east.

The sun had set when the rain finally stopped. Mark arrived in Roswell late in the evening. Walking along the main street, he heard Christmas carols coming from the saloon, the voices drunkenly off-key. Mark halted his horse in front of the livery and led him inside.

“Mighty late for a young man like you to be out on Christmas Eve,” came from the shadows as an old man stepped from a side room.

“Any others come through this afternoon? One might be busted up, got thrown from his horse, maybe?” Mark asked.

“On Christmas Eve? Most travelers are at their destination. The names Nichols,” he held out his hand to Mark.

“McCain. How much do I owe you to put up my horse for the night?” Mark asked, pulling his poncho over his head and opening his jacket to pull out his wallet.

“You a marshal?” Nichols asked pointing to Mark’s badge. “You hunting an outlaw?”

“Yeah, I’m the U.S. Marshal for the territory. The men I’m hunting, one would be quite tall, sandy colored hair…”

“Naw, nobody fitting that description come through here.”

“How much for putting up my horse?” Mark asked again.

“On the house. I heard tell about you. My pleasure to put your horse up. If you think one of them that you’s after might been injured, there’s a doctor at the end of the boardwalk. The hotel’s in the middle of town.”

“Thanks, Nichols.”

Mark tied his poncho to his saddle and pulled his and his Pa’s rifle from his saddle before he left the livery.

*****

Mark noticed the sign outside the picket fence, “Hennekin Clinic”. The name sounded vaguely familiar to Mark, but he didn’t take time to figure out why. He closed the door to the clinic behind him and proceeded to look around.

“Can I help you?” a female voice sounded from behind him.

Mark turned in the direction of the voice, “I’m looking for two men, thought one might be injured and in need of a doctor. Is the doctor here?”

“It’s Christmas Eve…”

“I know Ma’am.” Mark opened his jacket to show his badge. “It’s important. May I speak with your doctor?”

“I’m the doctor. My name is Doctor Rosalie Hennekin. How may I help you?”

Removing his hat, Mark continued, “Have you seen any patients today? I’m looking for one who might be busted up from being thrown from a horse. He’s about six foot, five, sandy blonde hair, about two hundred fifteen pounds.”

“I’m sorry, I’ve not seen any patients today other than children eating too much Christmas candy. Is the man you’re looking for an outlaw?”

“No, not this one. But I’m not sure about the man he may be traveling with,” a disappointed Mark answered. “It’s been quite a few years since I was here, could you direct me to your telegraph office.”

“Yes, it’s down the boardwalk, three doors this side of the hotel.”

“Thank you, doctor.”

Mark placed his hat back on his head and stepped to the street, wondering…

*****

Entering the telegraph office, Mark apologized for his stopping by at such a late hour.

“Just write out your message and I’ll send it.”

Milly and Hope McCain
North Fork, New Mexico

In Roswell /stop/
Will continue /stop/

Mark McCain

Mark handed the first wire to the telegrapher before he started to write out a second wire.

Tom Benton, U.S. Marshal
Denver, Colorado

Lucas McCain missing /stop/
Trailing /stop/

Mark McCain
U.S. Marshal

“Do you have a spare note pad?”

The telegrapher nodded.

“How much for it and the wires?” Mark asked.

“Fifty-five cents.”

Mark counted out the money, picked up the note pad, and heard the man wishing him a Merry Christmas as he left.

*****

Stretched out on the bed in his hotel room, Mark’s mind raced from one scenario to another on who had his Pa, and why. Mark jotted down notes and thoughts in the notepad. It had been a long time since Mark had kept a journal… ever since he’d married, he hadn’t felt a need to keep a journal, but this time… Mark wanted to make sure he could recall all that happened while he was tracking down his Pa, especially if it came to his needing to testify against whoever had taken Lucas. Sore muscles and lack of sleep, from the night before, forced Mark’s mind to quiet as sleep won out. The lamp glowed in the room as Mark fell asleep with the notepad on his chest and the pencil still in his hand.

*****

The following morning, as Mark came downstairs, the clerk greeted him by handing him a wire. Mark hooked both rifles over his arm as he took the wire.

Mark McCain, U.S. Marshal
Roswell, NM

Understood /stop/
God Speed /stop/

Tom Benton, U.S. Marshal
Denver, CO

Using only one hand, Mark refolded the wire and placed it in his shirt pocket.

“Merry Christmas,” the clerk called as Mark left the lobby.

*****

While rattling the door to the sheriff’s office, a man passing by informed Mark that the sheriff was eating breakfast at the small café a few doors down. There were only two people in the café when he entered.

“I’m looking for the Sheriff.”

“You found him. Sheriff Corbitt’s the name. How can I help you?” the Sheriff asked as he pulled the napkin from his open shirt collar and wiped his mouth.

“I’m looking for one man; he may be traveling with at least one other. The man I’m looking for is six foot, five, sandy blonde hair with a little graying, possibly injured.”

“If he’s injured, you should see our doctor,” the café cook stated upon hearing Mark’s comments.

“I did, she hasn’t seen anyone,” Mark replied.

“And just who might you be?” Sheriff Corbitt asked before he curiously commented, “Not unusual to see someone wearing a double holster, but I don’t recall ever seeing anyone carrying double rifles.”

“I’m U.S. Marshal Mark McCain,” Mark replied, opening his jacket to show his badge. He chose to ignore the comment regarding the rifles.

“This man you’re after, he an outlaw? Do you have a wanted poster on him?”

“Not the one I’m after.”

“And the other he may be with?”

“Don’t know,” Mark replied.

“Boy, you sure don’t have a lot of information to go on,” Corbitt replied.

“I can give you as good a description on the one, as I can. He disappeared from his family’s ranch over in North Fork. From the tracks, someone looked to be chasing him. I’ve followed the trail this far. Now, I’ll ask again, have you seen a man who fits the description?”

“Aren’t too many men that tall… Six foot, five, sandy colored hair, you say… Hmmmm. Did he have a lump on the forehead, above his right eye?” Corbitt asked.

“Then you have seen him?” asked an excited Mark as his hopes raised.

“Not in person, but I do seem to remember… Hank, thanks for breakfast.” The sheriff stood and motioned for Mark to follow him. Upon entering the jail, the sheriff took his seat behind his desk and started leafing through the stack of wanted posters. After a few minutes, he looked up to Mark.

“I could of sworn that description was on a wanted poster, but it ain’t in my stack.” Turning to a young boy sweeping one of the cells, “Hey, Mikey, you been looking through these posters?”

“Me, sir?” Mikey asked.

“Yes you… I recalled the description of a man this here U.S. Marshal gave me and it sounded familiar, thought I’d find the wanted poster in my stack. Did you take any poster from this stack?”

“No sir, you tanned my britches good enough the last time. I ain’t touched ‘em.”

“Dang it all. I could have sworn…”

“Pa?” Mikey asked as he placed the broom against the bars and walked to the sheriff’s desk.

“What?”

“A few weeks ago, that bounty hunter who come through here. Remember, he had a wanted poster, you couldn’t find one to match it in your stack…”

The sheriff scratched at his head, trying to remember. “Now that you mention it. Yeah, I do remember. An older fella come through here. Had a wanted poster, said he’d been tracking him for some time after he found the poster in La Mesa.”

“Arizona Territory?” Mark asked.

“Nah, I think he said…” the sheriff stumbled on remembering where.

“Pa, weren’t it Wyoming?” Mikey asked.

“Wyoming…” a perplexed Mark mumbled.

“Pa, I know you didn’t take much stock in it cause it didn’t have no reward money listed, but I remember the poster said the man was called “The Rifleman,” Mikey went on to say.

Mark knelt down in front of the boy, “What else do you remember?”

“The man in the picture didn’t look that mean. I mean he had a real friendly face,” Mikey replied.

“What about the bounty hunter,” Mark insisted.

“That’s enough,” Sheriff Corbitt ordered as he pulled Mark to his feet. “Mikey, you go on home and tell your Ma I’ll be home shortly and we’ll open those presents Santa Claus left.”

“All right, Pa!” Mikey exclaimed as he ran from the office.

Waiting for the boy to leave, the Sheriff closed the door to his office.

“Why wouldn’t you let the boy answer my question?” Mark asked.

“Because that bounty hunter caused nothing but trouble while he was here. Mikey and his friends started to idolize his glib attitude. I remember the man. Mikey was right, I didn’t take much stock in the wanted poster because it didn’t say what he was wanted for nor did it list the amount of the reward. I figured it was just a missing person.”

“So missing or not, you chose to forget about it?”

“It wasn’t that I forgot about it, it just didn’t seem important. Turpin, that was the bounty hunter’s name, said a wanted poster was a wanted poster and he aimed to see the man returned to the Oklahoma Territory for whatever the reason.”

“Oklahoma?” Mark shook his head as he realized just how far his travels might ultimately take him. “Sheriff, I don’t mean to keep you any longer from your family.”

“Hey, you said your name was Mark McCain?” Corbitt asked.

“That’s right,” answered Mark.

“I remember the name on that wanted poster; it said the man’s name was Lucas McCain…”

“Yeah, he’s my Pa,” Mark said as he turned to leave the office. “Only he ain’t no outlaw.”

“Hey, if you see my wife while you’re here in town, I’d appreciate it if you’d not say anything about finding me at the café.” Placing his hands to either side of his stomach, the sheriff shook it, “My wife wants me on a diet.”

“I wouldn’t know your wife if I saw her. Sides, I’m heading out as soon as I get my horse.”

The Sheriff followed Mark out the door and locked it behind him.

“I hope you find your Pa. And Merry Christmas!”

Turning up his collar to the cold breeze, Mark headed to the livery.

*****

“But its Christmas!” Eli proclaimed as he tried to coax his brothers from their beds.

“Yeah, but Papa ain’t here,” Josh stated as he pulled the cover back over his shoulder.

Sitting up on his bed, Zach stated, “I heard Mama crying last night. And Grandma Milly, she didn’t look too happy yesterday with Grandpa Lucas not here.”

“Grandpa Seth and Grandma Lilah aren’t here either,” Eli pouted.

“We’re gonna have Christmas with them when they return,” Zach answered.

“But Santa came. I looked out the door. There’s presents under the tree,” Eli declared as he shook Josh’s shoulder.

From the front room, they three heard, “Josh, Zach, Eli”.

Together they quietly walked from their bedroom to the front room.

“Yes Mama?” Zach asked.

“I’ve breakfast ready and then we can open your presents,” Hope stated, trying to be cheerful.

“Mama?”

“Yes, Josh.”

Hope’s son stood by the table, sadly looking to the Christmas tree and all the brightly wrapped presents underneath.

“Would Santa be mad if I didn’t open my presents?”

“Why wouldn’t you want to open your presents?” Hope asked.

“Papa’s not here. It just don’t feel like Christmas…”

Hope looked to her other two sons and asked, “Do you want to open your presents?” and saw them shake their heads. “Okay, they can wait. But you’ll sit at the table and eat your breakfast.”

The three boys quietly took their seats at the table and waited for their Mama to sit Mykaela in her chair and put their breakfast on the table.

“When you’re done eating what would you boys like to do today?” Hope asked.

“We can do some of Papa’s chores in the barn. The horses need fed and the stalls need cleaned,” Josh answered.

“Okay, once I’ve finished dishes, I’ll take your sisters over to Grandma Milly’s and we’ll work in the barn, together.”

*****

“I never realized just how much work Mark does in taking care of the horses…” Hope commented as she pushed a wayward strand of hair back underneath her kerchief, having placed the pitchfork and wheelbarrow back in their storage places.

“What about Grandpa Lucas’ barn?” Zach asked.

“Why don’t we go to Grandma Milly’s?” Hope asked.

Somberly the group walked across the yard. Hope turned as the group reached the porch, after hearing a rider coming up the road.

“Hope!” Micah called as he halted his horse at the hitching rail. “We missed you and the family at services last night and this morning. Got a wire for you, I told Amos I’d bring it out to you.”

“Micah, come inside.” Hope maneuvered her children inside the door and held it open for Micah.

Once inside, Micah stated, “Okay, I can tell something isn’t right, care to tell me what’s wrong?”

“Pa’s missing and Mark’s trying to find him,” Hope replied as she took the envelope and walked to Milly.

“Missing, what are you talking about?”

“Two days ago, Lucas didn’t come back from checking the weanling herd. I figured he was just delayed, due to the weather, but Mark went looking for him. He found Razor in the meadow, dead. Mark came back for tools to bury him and we haven’t seen either of them since,” Milly answered as she tried to wipe away the tears falling down her cheeks.

“Why didn’t you send word?” asked a perturbed Micah.

“We didn’t want to ruin anyone else’s Christmas,” Milly replied.

While Milly explained, Hope read the wire. Pulling her hands to her chest, Hope closed her eyes and exhaled deeply.

“Jake will be back tomorrow to help. Mark told him to enjoy the holiday with his family,” Hope commented.

“But you two... and… and the… the children… here all alone?” Micah stuttered.

“Micah, it was our choice,” Milly’s resolve returned.

“Your choice! Just wait until I get back to town and tell…”

“Just who are you going to tell?” Hope asked. “Everyone in town has their own family. We can’t ask them to abandon their responsibilities just because…”

“Because your husbands are missing… Yes you can!”

“Mark’s not missing. He’s in Roswell,” Hope answered. “I’m sorry Milly, it’s a brief wire, he’s not found Lucas yet.” Hope handed the wire to Milly for her to read.

*****

Without any further discussion, Micah mounted his horse and returned to North Fork.

“Drako!” Micah hollered as he threw open the door to the Marshal’s Office.

“You don’t need to yell loud enough to wake the dead, I’m right here,” Johnny offered.

“Lucas is missing and Mark’s gone after him. Milly, Hope, and the children are out at the ranch all alone!” Micah quickly declared.

“Slow down… what about Lucas missing?” Johnny asked.

“I stopped by their ranch today because it ain’t like the family to not come to town for one of the Christmas services at church. Told Amos I’d take the wire that came addressed to Hope out to their place. Milly said Lucas went missing day before yesterday and Mark’s trailing after him. The wire was from Mark, he’s in Roswell with no sign of Lucas.”

Grabbing his hat and coat, Johnny headed for the office door, “I best tell Johnny Gibbs. He’ll need to know.”

*****

As the days passed, various ranchers alternated assigning a few of their hands to help Jake McCafferty look out after the McCain ranch.

“You don’t think I can handle looking out after the McCain ranch?” Jake demanded of Johnny Drako when he stopped by town to pick up some supplies for Gwen.

“Jake, its nothing like that. You’re a newly married man, with a wife and your own place. Lucas or Mark have always been there with you, their place is too much for any one man to handle. Amazes me that the three of you do such a good job at it, being there’s only the three of you.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to come down so…” Jake offered as he took a seat opposite Johnny’s desk.

“Jake, we’re all a little on edge with both Lucas and Mark gone and no real word as to what’s happening. I know both of them appreciate everything you’re doing to look after their place and their families.”

*****

Try as they might, neither, Hattie, Colleen, or Lou had any luck in convincing Milly and Hope to move to town with their children.

*****

Mark didn’t spend much more time in town before he left Roswell. Somberly, he trotted Rainmaker down the middle of the street, trying to block out the sights and sounds of Christmas as the town celebrated the holiday. For several days he traveled, passing through Portales, before stopping and taking a room at the hotel in Clovis.

He was sitting in the far corner of the hotel restaurant lost in his out thoughts, “Welcome back to Clovis, Marshal McCain.”

Mark motioned for the man to have a seat.

“I’m Sheriff Cameron…”

“Mitchell,” Mark finished.

“Wasn’t so sure you’d remember me,” Mitchell answered as he placed his hat on the unoccupied portion of the table.

“Didn’t remember your name until you started to say it,” Mark answered.

Not wanting Mark to be the only one feeling guilty for not remembering a name, “Well, I didn’t remember your name until Mrs. Bowers read it to me from the register. What brings you back through our town?”

“Trailing after my Pa. I’m pretty sure he was taken against his will from the ranch two days before Christmas,” Mark answered.

“That was a week ago. How are you tracking him?”

“I was in Roswell on the twenty-fifth. Talked with the Sheriff…”

“Corbitt’s a good man. What did he say?”

“A few weeks before, a bounty hunter had come through with a wanted poster. I’ve been criss-crossing the territory stopping in the various towns inquiring about any bounty hunter coming through.”

“Where all ya been?”

“Besides Roswell? … Elkins, Kenna, Elida, Floyd, Portales, slipped over to Muleshoe, Texas, but couldn’t pick up his trail, so I thought I’d come and stop here.”

“Any better description other than a bounty hunter?”

“I’ve been able to obtain that his name is Archie Turpin and he’s in his late fifties…hair more grey than black.”

“You know, we did have a stranger come through here a couple of days ago and stocked up on enough supplies to feed a small army. He was in and out real quick… I tried to make small talk with him and he seemed kind of flighty…”

“Did you see which direction he went when he left town?”

“He headed southwest,” Mitchell answered. “I wish I had better information for you.”

“I do to, but at least you confirmed I’m on the right trail. Just wish I knew where in Oklahoma he was planning to take my Pa,” a dejected Mark spoke.

“Oklahoma? But that’s Northeast from here, the opposite way he went when he left.”

“I’m sure when he stops for supplies, he leaves Pa tied up somewhere on the outskirts of town…”

“That’s a fair piece of traveling to do -- taking a man against his will.”

“I found out from Corbitt, the bounty hunter had an old wanted poster for my Pa,” Mark replied.

“You Pa’s a wanted man?” Mitchell whistled.

“Not really. See, a long time ago, Pa went undercover, up in La Mesa, Wyoming. Micah and the Marshal Service had a wanted poster made up on Pa, to help him with his cover. Said he was wanted in Oklahoma Territory. I guess this Turpin must have found one of them.”

“Oklahoma isn’t as big a territory as Texas, but still… Where do you begin looking?” Mitchell asked.

“Figured to continue making my way Northeast, stopping along the way and asking questions, hoping to catch word that I’m still on the right trail.”

“I don’t envy you. You’re looking for a needle in a haystack.”

“Don’t I know it,” Mark shook his head in regret.

“How long you planning to stay?”

“Just tonight. I’ll head out in the morning. Sheriff, thanks for stopping by, I appreciate it.”

“Weren’t nothing, I wish you luck.”

With that, Sheriff Mitchell retrieved his hat and left the restaurant.

*****

Before retiring to his room at the hotel, Mark walked to the telegraph office and wrote out a brief wire.

Milly and Hope McCain
North Fork, New Mexico

In Clovis /stop/
Crossing into Texas /stop/

Mark

*****

As the train pulled into the North Fork station, Seth and Lilah eagerly looked forward to returning home. Upon stepping to the platform, both were curious that neither Mark nor Hope were there to greet them.

“Seth, Lilah!” Nils called as he climbed the steps.

“Good Afternoon, Nils!” Lilah called.

“Uh… Johnny asked that I keep an eye out for you and get you to the Marshal’s Office. He hoped to be back by now, guess he’s running a little late,” Nils replied.

“Nils, something’s wrong. What?” Seth stated as he motioned for the porter to set their luggage down. “Something happen to Hope or the children?”

“No, they’re fine. Just fine… Please, come with me.” Nils started stepping sideways in an attempt to get Seth and Lilah to follow him.

“Nils?”

“Please, just come with me.”

Nils turned his back and hurriedly led the way to the Marshal’s Office, arriving just as Johnny returned.

“Welcome back!” Johnny called as he stepped down from his horse.

“Drako, tell me what’s wrong.”

“Thanks Nils, I’ll take it from here. Seth, Lilah, inside please?” Johnny asked as he opened the office door, motioning for them to enter.

Johnny waited for Lilah to have a seat and asked if either would like a cup of coffee.

“Drako, just spit it out. What’s wrong?” asked an impatient Seth.

“Lucas and Mark have been gone for over a week now. Story is that Lucas disappeared two days before Christmas and Mark took out after him that night.”

“Missing? How? Why didn’t someone wire me?!”

“Seth, we don’t know the whole story. We didn’t find out about Lucas missing until Christmas afternoon. I went out to the weanling meadow and I couldn’t find much of anything. By then, the calves had pretty much obliterated any sign of a trail. I wanted to wire you but Hope forbade it. Said you deserved to have Christmas with Ethan and his family.

“Damn you, Drako! You should have wired me regardless!”

“Seth, she’s a grown woman. Johnny did as he should. He respected her wishes,” Lilah stated as she stood and walked to her husband, placing a hand on his arm.

“Still…” Seth inserted.

“Still what? Johnny told us that the trail was obliterated… Even if we had returned earlier, how would you have tracked them?” Lilah wrapped her arms around Seth’s left arm.

“Has any word been heard from Mark?” a calmer Seth asked.

“Christmas Eve Hope received a wire from Mark in Roswell. Not much was included except that he was in Roswell and was continuing. Monday we received a wire he made it to Portales and I presume he arrived in Clovis yesterday.”

Looking to the map on the wall, Seth stated, “So he’s trailing Lucas to the Northeast. Mark doesn’t have any idea who took him or why?”

“Not that he’s included in a wire. He just wires where he is. I presume once he’s found Lucas he’ll let us know, but until then we just wait for a wire to arrive.”

“What about Benton? Have you contacted him? Does Denver know any more?”

“Benton wired us they were aware that Lucas was missing and Mark was on the trail,” Drako stated.

“Guess I should head out to their place,” a dejected Seth stated as he turned to head to the door.

“We’ll head out to their place,” Lilah corrected.

“It’s about time ye returned. Now maybe someone can talk some sense into that daughter of yours. And if we can get Hope to town, then Milly will come too,” Lou declared as she entered the Marshal’s Office.

“Good to see you too, Lou,” Lilah replied in greeting.

“I’m sorry. It’s just that no one has been able to convince either of them to come to town,” Lou pouted.

“Who’s taking care of their animals and the ranch?” Seth asked. “Don’t tell me Milly and Hope are doing it?”

“Jake’s doing his fair share and a number of the ranchers are alternating sending men over to check their herds.”

*****

Seth halted the surrey by the hitching rail and helped Lilah to the ground. Together, they stepped to the porch and waited for an answer to Seth’s knocking on the door.

“Hello?!” Seth called out.

“Father!” Hope exclaimed as she came from the barn.

Lilah inhaled sharply in seeing Hope’s disheveled appearance.

“Hope, what are you doing in the barn? I though Jake was tending to the animals?” Lilah asked.

“The boys and I were just feeding the horses. I’m sorry about how I look, it’s just been so hectic around here…” Hope paused in her explanation after seeing the disapproving look from her father.

“And why haven’t you brought your children to town and stayed at our place?” Seth asked, his tone was more of a reprimand.

Wiping her hands on her apron, Hope answered, “Because it is your home and my home is here! Father, please, it’s bad enough that Mark is gone and Lucas is missing. Please don’t turn into another Lou, Hattie, or Colleen by trying to make us feel guilty.”

Seth noticed his grandsons walking from the barn and standing behind Hope. He almost joked about their not running to greet him, but refrained due to how sad and tired they all looked.

“Would you at least let us take you into town and buy supper for you?” Lilah asked.

“Lilah, I understand what you and Father are trying to do, but it’s not necessary. We’re fine.”

“Fine?” Seth inquired. “Then at least let me help the boys finish in the barn and Lilah will go with you into the house.”

Seth watched while Hope and Lilah entered the house before turning to his grandsons.

“So, what do we need to finish?”

“We just need to put away our tools, everything else is done,” Josh answered.

Feeling a tug on his pant leg, “Grandpa, if you’re home, does that mean Papa and Grandpa Lucas will be home soon?” Eli asked.

“I don’t know. I wish I had a better answer for you,” Seth replied as he picked Eli up and carried him on his hip to the barn.

Looking the barn over, Seth knew Hope and the boys were doing the best they could. He set Eli to his feet before he placed the pitchfork and wheelbarrow back where they belonged. Next, he climbed up the ladder and called down, “Boys you stand back by the door, okay?” He watched as all three did as he asked, before he threw down the first of many hay bales. After stacking them along the wall, Seth motioned for the boys to join him as he closed the barn door and proceeded to the house.

Upon entering, he saw that Milly and her children had joined the others in preparing for supper.

After setting Mykaela in her chair, Seth noticed all the Christmas presents still wrapped sitting in the corner with a blanket draped over them, the three having been already removed from the house.

*****

Seth and Lilah tried one more attempt to convince Hope to come to town before they left for the night. Both knew what the answer would be, but they couldn’t help but try.

“Hope, it can’t be healthy living like this,” Seth stated as he pointed to the corner. “Your Christmas gifts?”

“The boys didn’t want to. Said it didn’t feel like Christmas without Mark here.” Hope broke down when her father pulled her into a hug. “Father… I miss him.”

“Please, come to town. You and Milly shouldn’t be suffering like this on your own,” Seth stated as he attempted to comfort his daughter.

“I can’t. It’s hard enough on the boys as it is… I’ll be all right. Thank you,” Hope stated as she stepped back and dried her tears.

The Next Step — A Belated Celebration

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

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