The Writer's Corner
The Next Step…
Chapter 81 - Vengeance Returns
Written by Deanne Bertram
Spring returned to North Fork and a band of riders stood beside
their horses overlooking the valley, watching as the dust cloud
slowly made its way towards them. The leader removed a
cylindrical object from his saddlebag and stretched it out to
its full length before placing the spyglass to his eye.
Observing the moving the dust cloud traveling across the land,
the leader saw a two-horse team pulling a prison wagon. Two
guards sat erect on the front seat, one driving the team, the
other -- rifle in hand.
Each man in the group went about his business around the camp
while they waited. Waited for the time when their leader
signaled they would break the prisoner out of the wagon.
“Black Jack, how much longer we gonna wait?” the curly blonde
haired man asked as he stood behind him and watched.
“When the time’s right,” was the response he received.
“That’s what you been saying for five days. How much longer?”
“You don’t have much patience do you, Curry?”
“Not when it comes to getting my cousin out of prison. Why? Why
are we waiting? We can take them easily.”
“Yes, but I need time for my plan to come to fruition?” Black
“You want your cousin out of jail and I don’t want the law after
us any time soon. I’ve got a plan to keep the law and any bounty
hunters busy while we get away. I want my plan to succeed.”
“Then why didn’t you say that in the first place?” Curry asked.
Before the sun gave any hint of rising, the men were on their
horses and quietly making their way to the prison wagon. Kidd
Curry slowly made his way to the nearest guard, leaning back
against a tree, sleeping. Curry pulled the rifle from his lap.
The man startled awake, realizing his lapse could very well have
just cost him his life.
Black Jack Ketchum held his rifle pointed at the second guard,
who groggily woke before bolting upright in his bedroll.
“Get the ropes!” Ketchum ordered.
“We ain’t gonna kill ‘em?” Curry asked as he pulled his revolver
from his holster.
“No, we tie them up and let them figure out how to get loose and
to the nearest town. I don’t need no lawman man on my trail, for
“Like you ain’t already a murderer,” another voice called out.
“No, but none of thems were lawmen. You get a different breed of
man on your trail when you murder a lawman. Now, do as I say!”
Taking the keys from the guard in the bedroll, Curry walked to
the back of the wagon, “Heyes, rise and shine old buddy!
You’re…” Curry’s voice changed to one of surprise when he
realized the prisoner inside wasn’t whom he expected. “You’re
not Heyes! Who are you? Where’s Heyes?”
‘No, I’m not Heyes. They changed him to a different prison wagon
on its way to Cheyenne, Wyoming,” the prisoner spoke.
“So…? Who are you?” Black Jack asked as he held his gun on the
man stepping from the wagon.
“Someone who expected for the rest of his life to lie in the bed
Both noticed his easygoing way of talking and the dignified air
his posture affected.
“Say what?” Curry asked.
“It means that he’s accepted his lot in life, he made his bed
and it’s the one he’s expecting to spend the rest of his life
sleeping in. I take it you were on your way to swing?”
“Not quite. My sentence was commuted to life in prison, because
of a charitable act towards a child years ago.”
“Then who are you?”
“The name’s Renolds, Harlan Renolds,” he held his hand out to
thank his benefactors.
Regardless of the fact he wasn’t the man they intended to break
out of prison, he was invited to mount the spare horse they had
“Gentlemen, thank you for your hospitality!” he called towards
the guards as the gang rode away.
That night, Renolds spoke to the men as they settled down for
the night, “Gentlemen, not that I don’t appreciate your valiant
rescue of me, but I feel that my luck is best served if we split
up. You’re heading in a direction that’s bound to bring me a
little too close for comfort to someone who’d… let’s say… would
rather see my neck strung up, than living the rest of my natural
days in prison.”
“How do we know that you won’t head straight for the marshals?”
one of the gang asked.
“Because like you, I value my freedom. If you’ll remember, YOU
broke ME out of jail, to which I will forever be eternally
grateful. And because of that, I’ll not say a word. Besides, you
were the ones who left the prison guards alive.”
The sun rose to see Harlan Renolds ride the opposite direction
than the Ketchum Gang.
As the sun rose higher above the hills, those in camp listened
as Kidd Curry voiced his displeasure in the turn of events,
“Your plan was supposed to get Heyes out of prison!”
“It would have, had he been in the prison wagon. How was I
supposed to know that they changed destinations?”
“I thought you had a contact at the prison?” Curry demanded.
“I do! He must have done something that caused them to become
suspicious of him and they changed their plans.”
“Great! Just Great!” Curry stated sarcastically and threw up his
hands. Before continuing, Curry pointed his index finger into
Black Jack’s chest, “I ain’t leaving my cousin to rot in no
“Renolds said Heyes was being transported to Cheyenne, and I’m
not hankering to travel that far,” Black Jack stated.
“And what about your plan? Your plan that was supposed to…”
“It’s still in motion,” Black Jack answered.
“Still in motion, Hannibal’s probably no longer in New Mexico by
now! How can your plan still be in motion?”
“I’ve pretty much ensured that most all the marshals and bounty
hunters in this and any surrounding territories are
“Care to tell me about it?”
“What’s the one way to keep the law and any bounty hunters away
from us?” Black Jack answered with a question.
After thinking for a few moments, “Create a diversion. Send them
on a wild goose chase.”
“And how do you do that?” Curry asked.
“By offering the bounty hunters a reward they can’t pass up and
make the law focus on saving one of their own, both at the same
time and after the same quarry.”
Curry raised his eyebrows.
Ketchum gave a brief description of his plan, “I had wanted
posters printed offering a reward and the picture I used was of
the marshal for the territory. Word should have gotten to the
marshals by now and I’m sure they’re scampering about in an
effort to save his life. At the same time, what bounty hunter
would care to pass up the chance at three thousand dollars?”
“Can you imagine the face on the bounty hunter when he brings in
the wrong man and won’t get paid? Especially tragic when he
learns the man was a marshal.” Curry laughed at the simplicity
and sheer genius of the plan. “But how does that help us get
Heyes out of prison?”
“Doesn’t help us, but it does offer us some time to breathe and
not worry about the law being after us. Kidd, this is where we
part company. I’m heading back to Texas until things cool down.
Wish things had gone better for ya! If you get your cousin out,
we’ll meet you in Channing, Texas.”
“Yeah, thanks!” Curry stated as he slapped his hat to his thigh.
The riders went about breaking their camp, with Curry heading
north and the Ketchum Gang heading east.
The lone rider arrived in North Fork and slowly trotted his
horse down the main street, turning his head from side to side,
observing the town and its people. He stopped his horse in front
of the Marshal’s Office and carefully stepped down, still
surveying those coming and going along the boardwalks, as well
as those riding horses or driving wagons through town. He
stepped to the boardwalk, tipping his hat as two women walked
by. He turned the doorknob and pushed the door open to find an
old friend sitting behind the desk and wearing a badge.
“Been a long time there, Johnny,” he stated as he removed his
hat and stretched out his hand.
It took the man behind the badge a few moments to remember the
face and the voice, “Montana? Montana Wainright! Man, it’s been
years!” Johnny called as he stepped around the desk and shook
the man’s hand.
“Heard you took to wearing a badge. Also heard a rumor that you
got married and sprouted a few young ’ens?”
“You’re keeping up with current happenings pretty well. Montana,
I’d like to introduce you to the only man I trust more than you,
Lucas McCain, and his daughter, Myra.”
Montana turned and extended his hand to Lucas. Lucas noticed his
eyes, steel cold and calculating, as Johnny's had been before he
decided to settle down. “Pleased to meet you. McCain… Seems I
heard that name before.”
“Montana, he’s been known to be called the Rifleman,” Johnny
“Oh, I see.” Turning to Myra, “I’m pleased to make your
acquaintance, Miss Myra.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Myra answered as she curtsied. “But…”
“But?” Montana asked.
“Your name, it’s not a person’s name, it’s the name of a state,”
Myra stated with a perplexed look on her face, causing the three
men in the room to burst out with laughter. “But it is! Mr.
Bullock’s teaching us about The States in school and Montana was
just admitted in… in… 1889.” She folded her arms and pouted
because of the men laughing at her earlier comment.
“I’m sorry, Miss Myra. I shouldn’t have laughed at you. None of
us should. You’re right. Montana is the name of one of the
United States, however,” he leaned real close to Myra and
stated, “It’s a lot easier to say than my real name.”
“Your real name? You an outlaw?” Myra asked loud enough for
everyone to hear.
Smiling, Johnny Drako answered, “No, he’s not an outlaw. Next to
your father, he’s one of very few men that I called a friend,
back before I arrived in North Fork.”
“My real name is Montague Aloysius Jedidiah Wainwright, the
fourth,” Montana stated.
“Whew, that is a mouthful,” Myra declared as she stared at the
“Myra!” Lucas scolded.
“That’s all right Mr. McCain. As I said, easier to go by
“Well,” Johnny said. “What brings you to North Fork?”
Montana reached into his pocket and pulled out a folded sheet of
paper. “Got this here wanted poster and been tracking the
outlaw. The trail led here,” and handed it to Johnny Drako.
“Wanted, Dead or Alive, George Ulysses Morgan, aka “Little Boy”
Morgan. Wanted for murder and bank robbery… Oh MY GOD!”
“What’s wrong?” Lucas asked when he heard Johnny’s exclamation
and saw the shocked look on his friend’s face.
“Lucas…” Johnny handed the paper to Lucas. “Montana, where’d you
“What the… What kind of a joke is this?” Lucas demanded as he
stood to his full height and looked directly at Montana.
“Not sure what you two are getting at, but I got that sheet of
paper from the Sheriff over in Bismuth. Been showing it around
to people and they said it looked a lot like someone who kept
around these parts,” Montana answered.
“Sure the hell does, only he’s not an outlaw. He’s my son! This
picture is my son, Mark. He’s the territorial Marshal for New
“The Marshal…” Montana mused.
“Who the hell would put out a wanted poster with Mark’s
picture?” Lucas demanded.
“Lucas, it says that payment can only be made over in Red Wing,”
Johnny stated after he took the piece of paper back. Both knew
the reward offered, three thousand dollars, would draw every
bounty hunter, real or not, in the territory to Red Wing. It
would also give any outlaw an opportunity to kill Mark and claim
they were only following the reward poster.
“That’s two days ride,” Lucas stated. “I’ll get my…”
“Papa?” Myra called as Lucas started to leave the Marshal’s
Lucas stopped in his tracks as he realized he couldn’t just ride
out of town. He walked back towards the desk and knelt in front
“Myra, I’m going take you to Uncle Johnny and Aunt Colleen’s,
they’ll see that you get home.”
“Papa, is Mark in trouble?” Myra asked.
“I hope not. I pray he’s okay,” Lucas answered as he picked Myra
up from the floor and placed her to his hip. Grabbing his rifle,
Lucas stated, “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“Montana, you up to being deputized?” Johnny asked.
“Sure, but can I ask why?”
“Because Mark headed up towards Red Wing to track an escaped
prisoner who was being transferred from the New Mexico
Territorial Prison over to Yuma. Seems Hannibal Heyes still has
friends who wanted to see him out of prison.”
“Hannibal Heyes, didn’t he ride with Kid Curry?” Montana asked.
“Yeah, I think they were partners. Mark left here about a week
ago. Based on this poster, he’s gonna be in a mess of trouble
and needing all the help he can get,” Johnny declared. “I need
to wire Denver. Don’t know how long this poster’s been
circulating, but if this goes as bad as I fear it could, Mark’s
going to need more than just the three of us. We’re gonna need a
LOT of help to pull these posters and to get to the bottom of
this. I’ll send the wire and stop by Seth’s place. Montana, you
get to the livery and tell Nils to get a packhorse ready and
I’ll meet you at the General Store. If I’m not there, tell Mrs.
Donner I’ll be in shortly to authorize the supplies we’re gonna
Three days before Montana Wainright arrived in North Fork, a
single rider was traveling through an arroyo, following tracks
that were invisible to most men. The rider took time to dismount
from his paint horse, knelt, and touched the ground with his
hand that wasn’t carrying his rifle. He was confused as to why
the rider had separated from those who had broken him out of the
prison wagon. Standing up, he looked at his surroundings,
listening for what had disturbed the natural sounds that should
fill the air. Finally, the rider stood, remounted his horse, and
picked up a slow trot.
The sky looked to hold an ominous warning, as the setting sun
painted a dark violet and blood red mixture across the horizon.
The rider heard a shot and almost immediately felt the searing
pain in his left thigh. Without hesitation, the rider had his
horse in a gallop, as he laid as close to the horse’s neck as he
could, urging his mount to run even faster.
The sky had given up its colors and turned pitch black with a
few white dots twinkling in the heavens, by the time the rider
pulled up his winded horse and listened. Crickets, owls, and
wolves were the only other sounds that he heard over his blowing
horse. No hoof beats indicating he was being followed, or if he
was, he had lost his pursuers in the darkness.
A gentle rain started falling as the rider continued to ride his
horse further away from the location where he had been ambushed.
Finally, he gave into his heavy eyelids and slid from his horse.
Barely able to keep to his feet, he pulled a set of hobbles from
his saddlebag. Once the rider had fallen to the ground, he
hobbled his horse and crawled over to a grouping of large
boulders hoping they would afford him some protection. The rider
couldn’t’ keep his eyes open any longer.
After seeing Myra to his brother-in-law’s home and explaining
what was happening, Lucas met Drako and Montana at the General
Store. After packing provisions on the packhorse and filling
their own saddlebags, the three mounted and rode from town.
When Drako ordered a halt to rest the horses, Montana asked,
“So, how do we know what the Marshal Service is going to do
“Don’t know,” Johnny answered. “All I care about is getting to
Red Wing and preventing somebody from cashing in on that reward
“This outlaw that your Marshal is supposed to be tracking…”
“From what I heard Mark say before he left, Hannibal Heyes and
Kid Curry rode with…” Drako started to say.
“The Ketchum Gang,” Montana answered. “I know that. Do you
really thing they’re gonna hang around here to get captured
“You think the wanted posted with Mark’s picture has anything to
do with Heyes escaping?” Lucas asked.
“I don’t know. Won’t know until Denver finds out where that
posted was printed. All I can say is it has to be a mistake, no
rightful marshal would print a poster with the wrong picture on
it,” Drako said as he replaced his hat to his head after wiping
Montana took a drag from his cigarette and asked, “Any chance
this might be a trap to get either one of you, instead of the
“Why would you ask that?” Johnny queried.
“Well, you both have reputations.”
“I’ve not noticed any strangers, other than you in town or
crossing my land. What about you Johnny? You work and live in
“Only businessmen traveling through, no one I’d consider to be a
bounty hunter. They come, eat supper at the hotel or café, spend
the night, and leave the following morning.”
Montana told briefly of how he ended up in North Fork, “Me, once
I found the poster, I started asking around and the answers led
me to your town, most bounty hunters would start in Red Wing and
work their way out from there. Could be I’m the first bounty
hunter to make it to North Fork.”
“Well, at least Seth knows to be on the lookout for any bounty
hunters who come looking and can try to set the matter
straight,” Johnny answered.
“If they believe him,” Lucas mumbled. “Let’s get a move on.”
The threesome spent several more hours traveling before the sun
finally set and they agreed to make camp for the night. Lucas
removed provisions from the packhorse before walking to the
small campfire Montana had started. The three ate in quiet
before turning in for the night.
‘Old Man’ Wilkins still enjoyed working at the livery, even
though he no longer owned the business; he still felt the need
to be around horses and people. He had finished his work in town
and was slowly riding his old mule home, when fairly close by he
heard a horse snorting. In the afternoon sunlight, he looked
around his surroundings and thought he spied a horse, ground
tied in a thicket of trees, not too far off the road. He
dismounted his mule and cautiously crept towards the horse and
saw a young man attempting to doctor what appeared to be a
bullet wound to his left thigh.
Quietly, ‘Old Man’ Wilkins ran back to where he’d left his mule,
pulled out his shotgun and returned to where the man sat.
“The wanted poster says you’re wanted dead or alive,” he called
out as he stepped into the thicket so the man could see that he
“I don’t know what wanted poster you’re talking about,” the man
“You telling me you ain’t ‘Little Boy’ Morgan?” Wilkins
shouldered the rifle.
“I don’t know anything about any ‘Little Boy’ Morgan. My name’s
Mark McCain and I am a U.S. Marshal.” Mark opened his jacket to
show the badge pinned to his shirt.
“You coulda gotten that offa Marshal, after ya killed him.”
“Mister, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I was ambushed
two days ago,” Mark stated, wincing as he pulled tight the rag
around his leg and attempted to stand.
“Stay right there. This here scattergun is loaded,” Wilkins
“I need to get to the nearest town and wire for help from North
“North Fork…” Wilkins scratched at his beard. “You said your
name was… McCain?”
The young man nodded.
“I met a fella once… He and a Marshal came looking for a young
boy. I helped take them back home to North Fork. You be… You be
Lucas McCain’s boy?”
“That’s right…” Mark fell when he placed weight on his injured
leg as he tried to walk to his horse.
Wilkins lowered his rifle and ran to where Mark struggled to get
up. He cupped a hand under Mark’s arm and helped him to his
“My name’s Wilkins, Robert Wilkins. Here, let me help you.”
Wilkins set his scattergun to the ground in order to help Mark
mount his horse. It took some effort for Mark to get in the
saddle; he deeply exhaled once the pain lessened.
“If you is a Marshal, like you say, then you best not go into
Red Wing. It’s the closest town around here.”
“Like I said, there’s a wanted poster with your picture, dead or
alive, and a bounty of three thousand dollars. Bank robbery and
murder is what it says ya done. Been seeing some pretty unsavory
characters riding into town ever since that poster arrived.”
“No, I mean, you thought I was that wanted poster. Why are you
helping me? I don’t understand.”
“Don’t mind me, but if you is who you is, then we best get you
hid before some real bounty hunter comes looking for ya and
decides dead is better than alive. I know some place where ya
can hide until that leg of yours gets better. Won’t nobody
bother ya where I’m taking ya.”
Mark signaled Rainmaker to follow Wilkins to where he left his
mule. Together, they headed towards the mountains. Even though
the sun was brightly shining, the temperature dropped the higher
they went. Wilkins’ mule was surefooted as they climbed.
Rainmaker struggled occasionally with the footing, but Mark kept
his wits about him and gave his horse his head so he could use
it to balance himself. Mark unbuttoned his jacket in an attempt
to cool himself.
With the last faint traces of sun to light their way, they
finally reached an old dilapidated shack. Wilkins slid down from
his mule and turned to help Mark from his horse; he noticed the
flushed look on his companion and knew the beads of sweat
dotting his face weren’t a good sign.
With Mark’s arm over his shoulder, Old Man Wilkins helped Mark
into the shack and eased him down as he collapsed on the bunk.
Looking around Wilkins said, “I’ll be right back, there’s a
small lean-to where I can put the horses to get them out of the
weather that looks to be rolling in.”
Upon returning to the shack, Wilkins said, “That leg looks like
the bullet is still inside.”
“It is,” Mark answered as he sat up, unbuttoned his jacket, and
tried to pull it off.
“I wouldn’t do that, you’ll catch a chill. Let me get a fire
Wilkins returned from outside with an armload of wood. Pulling a
pouch of cigarette fixings from his jacket, he pulled out a
match, struck it, and watched as the flames took hold of the
wood in the crumbling fireplace. He thought to himself, ‘Well,
at least he’s a little better sheltered here, than down on the
road. No strangers would happen on him up here.’
“I know a little about doctoring, ya want me to see if I can get
that bullet out of your leg?”
“Mister, if you could remove it and stop the fire, I’d be ever
so mighty grateful.”
“It burns like crazy, all up and down my leg. Not just where the
bullet entered,” Mark replied as he used his sleeve to wipe the
sweat from his brow.
“I can do my best, but it’s gonna hurt, I ain’t got no whiskey
with me. Though it seems like someone had a whiskey-binge up
here at some time,” Wilkins commented as he looked around the
Wilkins walked to the fireplace and pulled his knife from its
sheath on his belt. He held it in the flames for a few minutes
before turning back to Mark, “Like I said, this ain’t gonna be
easy or pretty. Got a piece of wood here for you to bite down
on. Scream out, don’t be ashamed.”
Wilkins removed the rag tied around Mark’s leg and opened the
cut pant leg. The sight of the angry flesh around the bullet
wound caused Wilkins to grimace and shake his head. He sat down
on the lower portion of Mark’s leg to hold it still.
“You grab onto the sides of the mattress while I’m cutting.
Don’t be worried about screaming, it’ll Shelp lessen the pain a
little bit. ‘sides, ain’t nobody gonna hear ya way up here.”
With the first incision, Mark gripped what remained of the
mattress he was lying on with both hands, tensed his body,
closed his eyes tightly, and bit down on the piece of wood as
hard as he could. He wasn’t about to give into screaming, until
Wilkins probed deeper into his leg. Mark couldn’t help himself;
the pain demanded that he scream. By the time Mark passed out,
Wilkins thought he could hear Mark’s screams echoing off the
mountainside. With the leg muscles relaxed, in no time, Wilkins
had located the bullet, close to the thighbone, and pulled it
Not seeing any clean rags about the shack, Wilkins pulled the
sleeve from his own shirt and used it as a makeshift bandage to
wrap around Mark’s leg.
That night, an ugly, twisted, tormented face invaded his sleep.
“I’m gonna kill me a sodbuster, heh heh, heh.” The smell of
whiskey wafted through the air as Mark tried to turn his face
away from the foul breath that came from the man’s mouth that
was mere inches from Mark’s face. The man’s smell was enough to
turn anyone’s stomach. “He killed my brothers, now I’m gonna
kill him, heh, heh, heh.” Pulling a whiskey bottle from his
lips, the man looked to Mark and said, “I’m gonna be yor Pa.”
Through his delirium, Mark called out, “No! You can’t!” At other
times, calling out, “You’re not my Pa!”
Throughout the night, Wilkins watched as Mark struggled with his
unseen foe; raising his arms over his head as if to ward off a
blow and at other times, wrapping his arms around his middle,
grabbing at a pain worse than what he was feeling in his leg.
Wilkins searched what remained of the shack and found two things
he was could use, a battered pot and a bottle. The encrusted pot
contained the remnants of a stew cooked long ago, and the
bottle, Wilkins couldn’t believe his luck, a full bottle of
whiskey rolled under the bunk on the far side of the room… The
old man thought, ‘Well, whoever’s loss is this man’s gain.’
After chipping away the dried-out stew, Wilkins was thankful for
the remaining snow outside as he scooped some into the battered
pot. After searching through Mark’s saddlebags, he found a few
shirts to use as rags. After ripping one shirt, he dipped it in
the melting snow before placing it across Mark’s fevered
forehead. He ripped more of the shirt to re-wrap Mark’s leg,
after he poured the whiskey over the wound.
Morning broke to find Mark coughing. Wilkins remembered back to
his first meeting with Mark McCain and the worry returned that
he was coming down with pneumonia, but Wilkins didn’t hear the
young man rattling as he breathed, ‘must be more of his
remembering’, he thought to himself.
Wilkins used more of the melting snow to fill Mark’s canteen.
When Mark roused enough from his dreams, Wilkins placed the
canteen to his lips, encouraging him to drink. When he’d return
to the darkness, he’d call out “No, you can’t!” or “I have to
get away, I have to save Pa!”
Wilkins had drifted off to sleep only to be woken by Mark
rambling, “shackled like an animal!… Kill him… KILL HIM!… Kill
him the way you should have two years ago! …you didn’t…you
didn’t! You had your chance and you didn’t! YOU let him do this
to me! YOU LET HIM DO THIS TO ME!” Wilkins jumped to his feet
and hurried over to where Mark lie on the bed and tried to
By the time Mark quieted, aloud Wilkins asked, “What did you go
through, back when you’s just a boy?”
It was the second evening after they arrived at the shack before
Mark opened his eyes again. He looked around the darkened room
and saw a shadowy figure crouching in front of the fire.
“Pa?” Mark called out from the bunk.
Mark saw the man rise to his feet; his mind saw a figure much
larger than the man actually was, “I’m not your Pa…” flashed
through Mark’s mind.
“No!” Mark screamed and tried to back away. “Stay away from me!”
Slowly the man approached, words of comfort he spoke, “It’s
gonna be okay. You’re over the worst of your fever. I helped ya.
Look, my shotgun, its set in the corner… That’s it, look around,
whatever happened to ya up here, it’s long gone…”
“You… You’re not… not him…”
“No, I’m not that fella. From what I remember, your Pa and the
marshal brought him back to town slung over the saddle. He’s
been buried… ten years now… Planted a good six feet under.”
Wilkins pulled a canteen from the table and walked towards Mark,
unscrewing the top as he approached. “Here, drink some water;
it’ll clear out what’s got your brain addled. Get some water
into you, will make ya feel better.”
Mark gratefully took the canteen and slowly, at first, he let
the water trickle into his mouth. Never had water tasted so
good, he started gulping the water down… Wilkins was beside him
as a coughing fit took Mark.
“Too much at once is like trying to drink the whole ocean. Can’t
be done. Nice and easy. That’s the best way.”
When Mark finally could speak, he asked, “You said you helped Pa
“Yes siree, they come looking for ya, they did. Said a big man
had taken you. When I saw you for the first time back in Red
Wing, ya didn’t look so good. That man musta been awful mean. I
won’t ask no questions about what happened up here. While you
was fevered, you did a whole lotta remembering. I knew when I
first saw ya, you was bad off, but I had no idear why. If I’d a
put two and two together, I’d a never brought you here. You was
talking about a shackle while you were out. It’s still there on
the floor; looks like someone took target practice at it.”
Mark quickly sucked in his breath as the long, buried memories
raced into his consciousness.
Their first night out of North Fork, Montana was curious how the
gunslinger Johnny Drako came to be a married, having children,
and a marshal.
“Just don’t seem to add up,” Montana stated.
“Montana, you know how life can get, always looking over your
shoulder. A man grows tired of living that life. I heard North
Fork was a quiet town because of Lucas. I was looking to fade
away from living that life. Have people forget about me in time.
During my first visit, trouble followed me and I left.”
“Not for long,” Lucas quipped as raised his coffee cup to his
lips. “It was about two years later you returned, for good.”
“That’s only because you went and got yourself beat up and shot,
and I wanted to see whoever did it brought to justice.”
“Justice? You mean revenge?” Montana asked.
“No, justice. See, I realized while I was trailing the Ortega
gang, that if I really wanted to change my lot in life, I’d have
to change how I went about doing things. I met up with Marshal
“The apache marshal?”
“None other. We trailed the outlaws together, before meeting up
with a cavalry unit. A few of them outlaws didn’t allow
themselves to be brought in alive.”
“So how’d you end up back in North Fork?” Montana asked.
“Turns out Lucas’ son was trailing after them too. He’d been
there and gotten beaten up himself. Only when he came too at the
doctor’s office, he thought Lucas was dead. I had to see my best
friend’s son back home. Once I was there, the marshal realized
how he was in need of a deputy.”
“That’s not the way I remember it,” Lucas teased. “I seem to
remember you being taken by a certain business woman.”
“Yeah, with an Irish temper and…” Johnny cleared his throat. “So
I admired a beautiful woman, nothing wrong with that.”
“…who he married a few years later and now has four children,”
“You’ve got the life Johnny,” Montana stated with envy.
“We still have outlaws come through and create problems…”
“Man, what a life. Wish it were that easy to change. Ah, ain’t
no woman be interested in settling down with me anyhow.”
“It’s getting late, the sun will be up before we know it,” Lucas
stated as he dumped what little remained from his coffee cup.
After a second day of traveling, the small posse from North Fork
sat around the fire, discussing how they would go about looking
for Mark. Lucas and Johnny agreed that Montana could be right,
this could be part of an elaborate trap to get either one of
them, and not just Mark.
“Well, if they know about the Lawman, then they for sure know
about the Rifleman,” Johnny stated as he took a drink from his
Lucas retorted, “Well, if anybody is expecting Lucas McCain to
come to rescue his son, they’d know that Johnny Drako wouldn’t
be too far from my side!”
Both agreed to not use their real names once they arrived in Red
Wing, they were going to pretend to be bounty hunters.
The following morning the three rode into Red Wing, and headed
directly to the Sheriff’s office and inquired if anyone had
claimed the bounty.
“Naw, not yet. Though you ain’t the first ones to come looking,”
the sheriff said.
They spent time at the saloon listening as other bounty hunters
talked and compared notes. Lucas could tell that some were
hoping to throw their fellow hunters off the trail. Montana
returned from the livery, not fairing any better in obtaining
any news on Mark. Though they were disappointed, each agreed
that no news was good news, in this instance.
Once they had eaten supper, the three took rooms in Red Wing’s
hotel. Lucas entered a room, hung his saddlebags over the
wrought iron footboard of the bed and placed his rifle on the
small table, before collapsing in the overstuffed chair in the
corner of the room. As sleep pulled at his tired body, memories
played in his mind, returning to that early spring ten years
prior – the year that Earl Bantry came back into their lives.
Even the realization that this was the room they had stayed in,
after he and Micah had rescued Mark from Bantry, couldn’t
prevent the darkness from taking Lucas’ last waking thoughts.
He didn’t hear the gentle knock at the door, at first. When the
knock became a little more insistent, Lucas roused. He rose to
his feet and walked to the door, asking, “Who’s there?”
“Mr. Gibbs?” came a voice from outside the room.
Slightly opening the door, he peered out and saw an older
gentleman standing in the hallway.
“Mr. Gibbs. I used to run the livery in town.”
“A little late to be calling on a man,” Lucas stated.
Lucas opened the door and invited the man into his room.
“I heerd ya been looking for someone,” the man answered.
Lucas closed the door behind the old man before he handed the
wanted poster to his visitor.
“Have you seen this man?”
“I thought I recognized you when you rode into town. But… you’re
calling yourself Gibbs? Just in case you are who I think ya
really are, I waited until now to come see ya.”
“You came to me with information, have you seen this man?” Lucas
“You.. You’re not a bounty hunter.” Taking on the tone of a
rationale person, “And yes, I have. With you here, my brain can
accept what my heart’s been telling me.”
“You know who this man is?” Lucas insisted.
“Mr. McCain, he’s your son and a U.S. Marshal. You’ve raised a
fine son. Glad I helped ya out so long ago.
“Wilkins?” Lucas stated as he recognized the old man.
“That’s right, Robert Wilkins. But what I don’t get is all these
wanted posters and you calling yourself by another name.”
“We don’t know who put these posters out.”
“And the other two who rode into town with ya?”
“Friends of mine. Can I trust you to keep our secret?” Lucas
“He’s trusted me to keep his, so I thinks you can trust me. Ya
did once before.”
“And I’m beholden to you for helping us out. We’re not sure if
whoever put these posters out is after Mark, or using Mark to
lure me here. That’s why we’re not using our real names.”
“Thought as much. Maybe I should tell you he was ambushed a few
days back. I got the bullet out, but he’s taken a fever. I’m not
sure that I done that great a job a helpin’ him, this time. The
wound just doesn’t look like it wants to heal. The bullet had
been in his leg for two days before I came across him.”
“He was shot? Where’s my son?!” Lucas asked.
“You probably ain’t gonna like my answer.”
“I don’t care, as long as he’s alive. Will you take me to him?”
“Now!” Lucas urgently spoke as he collected his hat and rifle.
“It’s past midnight and there’s no moon out there…”
“Harder for anyone to follow us,” Lucas answered.
“You wake the others you rode in with?”
“He’s not their son. I’ll leave them a note.”
Before leaving the hotel, Lucas scribbled a note and slipped it
under the door of Johnny Drako’s room. He followed Wilkins to
the livery, where he saddled Blade before they left town.
Still running a fever, Mark woke to find himself alone in the
shack. After receiving no response to calling out Wilkin’s name,
Mark finally felt composed enough to look at his injured leg, it
still felt as if his leg was on fire. Steeling himself for the
sight, as he unwrapped the bandage, didn’t prevent the
gag-reflex that hit him once he saw the discoloration in the
flesh of his thigh. Looking around the shack, Mark crawled from
the bunk and drug himself to the table where Wilkins had left
his knife and the bottle of whiskey. Grabbing the items from the
table, he pulled himself across the floor, stopping in front of
the fireplace. He poured a little of the whiskey over the blade
before he placed it in the flames. Listening as the whiskey on
the blade sizzled from the heat. While waiting for the blade to
get hot enough, Mark drank a good swig of the whiskey, cringing
at the bitter taste, before pouring some of the whiskey over the
wound. He clamped his teeth tight to prevent himself from crying
out. He took another longer drink from the bottle. He closed his
eyes and gasped as the whiskey burned at his throat.
Less than half a bottle remained when Mark looked at the knife
and saw the blade glowing white, he pulled it from the flames.
Before the whiskey could convince himself otherwise, Mark
pressed the blade to his leg, gagging at the smell of his
burning flesh. Pain and the foul smell caused tears to stream
down Mark’s face. He gritted his teeth as he pressed harder,
fighting against the pain and the woozy feeling from the
whiskey. Pulling the knife from his leg, he set it on the bricks
of the fireplace. Mark tried to take a deep breath, but it did
no good, the pain finally got the better of him as the darkness
Quietly the two men rode towards the mountains, Blade struggled
with his footing at times, causing Lucas to dismount and lead
his horse along the path as he followed Wilkins on his mule. The
horizon was just starting to show the first, faint signs of
daybreak when they came to the clearing. Lucas inhaled sharply
as he recognized the place.
“I told ya, you wouldn’t like it. Had I been athinking, I
wouldn’t a brought him here, but I decided to trust him and that
he needed protecting, before I remembered what had happened to
“What do you mean, decided to trust him?”
“When I saw him a few days back, I thought he was who the poster
said. I had my shotgun on him. I couldn’t believe my luck, three
thousand dollars was sitting there in front of me. But… When he
spoke, there was something about him that made me believe he
weren’t no outlaw. I tried to convince myself that he coulda
stolen the badge after he killed a marshal, but my heart
wouldn’t believe my head. So I brung him here. He’s been fevered
and his memories of this place are… Well, he’s remembering back
to what that man done to him.” Stepping down from his mule,
“He’s inside the shack. I’ll take your horse and put it in the
Cautiously, Lucas walked to the shack and opened the door. The
inside was almost as they had left it so long ago, but this
“Mark?” Lucas called. Once his eyes adjusted to the darkness
inside the shack, he saw the figure sprawled on the floor in
front of the fireplace. “Mark!” Lucas ran inside and dropped his
rifle next to his son as he lifted him into his arms, trying to
see what injuries his son took. “Mark,” Lucas pleaded.
“What?” Wilkins called as he entered the shack. “What’s he doing
on the floor? He was in the bunk when I left yesterday.”
Wilkins walked over to where Lucas sat with Mark in his arms.
Sunlight started to stream through the doorway, glinting off the
blade of the knife.
“My God!” Wilkins exclaimed as he turned Mark’s leg so he could
see. “I cain’t believe he did it,” Wilkins whispered.
“Did what?” Lucas asked as his eyes followed Wilkins’ hands to
“I feared his leg was getting infected, but I don’t know enough
about this stuff. Back in the war... man if he could sear his
leg like he done.”
Together, the two men carried the unconscious Mark back to the
bunk and pulled the tattered blankets up over him. Lucas pushed
Mark’s bangs from his face and acknowledged his son was still
running a fever. Wilkins put more wood on the fire, fanning it
to take hold quicker.
“Was it a good thing or a bad thing for him to do?” Lucas asked,
looking over his shoulder.
“I don’t know. If his fever gets worse, we’ll know it was bad.
If his temperature returns to normal, then we’ll know it was
good. Guess we won’t be heading down the mountain today, glad I
got some vittles in my bags. I’ll be right back.”
“Damn!” Lucas heard Wilkins call out. He looked up and saw
Wilkins walking backwards, stepping inside the shack, arms
raised. Lucas tensed as he prepared to lunge for his rifle, but
relaxed when he recognized the guns Wilkins faced.
“Johnny, put your guns away. Wilkins is a friend,” Lucas yelled
out. “Keep an eye out for others. If you followed us, then I’m
sure others will be on our trail too.”
Wilkins returned to the shack carrying his saddlebags and
listened as Johnny explained how he couldn’t sleep and heard
someone walk to the door of his hotel room. He had reached for
his guns, before he saw a note being slipped under the door. “I
read your note and was headed down the hallway when Montana came
out of his room.”
From outside, Montana called, “We got company!”
Wilkins and Johnny ran from the shack. Lucas reached for his
rifle and looked back to Mark one more time, before he ran to
help the others protect his son. The men positioned them
themselves behind any boulder or tree that would afford them
protection. Each aimed and fired at their attackers. Uncaringly,
they heard one of their pursuers yell as the first bullet struck
its intended target, instead of ricocheting.
Memories of gunshots filtered through the darkness; it took time
for Mark to realize what he thought was a memory, was real. He
heard his Pa’s rifle followed by a shotgun blast and at least
one handgun being fired from close by. Other shots he heard
answered, but from farther away.
Mark threw back the blankets covering him and looked around the
room. On the table, he saw his rifle and with every ounce of
tenacity he could muster; Mark got to his feet. Using each piece
of furniture as a crutch, he sorely limped to get his rifle,
fighting against the pain he felt in his leg. Once his rifle was
in his hands, he turned and struggled to the closed door.
Leaning heavily against the wall, Mark opened the door, and
without thinking, he shouldered his rifle and fired. Mark
watched as the man dropped his gun and sank to his knees, before
falling crumpled to the ground.
Hearing a shot behind them, the four men turned, ready to fire
their weapons at their enemy. Relief shone in their postures
when they saw the man fall, they returned their attention to
those down the mountain. Mark slid down the doorway of the
shack, but kept his rifle at hand.
It had been sometime since he had consciously heard a gunshot
when Mark felt a hand on his shoulder and his name being called;
momentarily he tensed. Mark opened his eyes to see his Pa
kneeling in front of him while ‘Old Man’ Wilkins was taking his
rifle from his hands.
“It’s alright Mark. The others, they rode down the mountain a
little while ago,” Lucas stated as he kept a firm hand on his
son’s shoulder, preventing him from getting up. “Wilkins, the
Lucas took the canteen handed to him by Wilkins and held it to
his son’s lips. Mark took hold of the canteen and tipped it
“Easy boy,” Wilkins laughed. “No need to swallow the ocean.”
Mark’s eyes smiled as he remembered the reference and slowed his
drinking. When he had his fill, he let his hands fall from the
canteen as his Pa pulled it away from his mouth.
“How are you feeling?” Lucas asked as he placed his hand to his
“Better,” Mark answered.
“Your fever seems to have broken,” Lucas replied.
Catching movement out of the corner of his eye, Mark turned his
head and saw Johnny Drako and another man wearing a deputy badge
leading several men with their hands tied behind their backs.
“Who are they?” Mark asked.
“Could be bounty hunters,” Lucas stated.
“Or those who were behind the ambush on you… and the poster,”
“But why? Pa, Wilkins told me of a wanted poster with my
“I don’t know son. Before we left North Fork, Johnny wired Tom
Benton and informed him what was happening. We’ve been on the
trail and just arrived last night. Wilkins came to my hotel room
and told me you were in pretty rough shape.”
“Pa, my leg…” Mark tried to say as he reached for his Pa’s arm.
“Mark, we know you seared it, but I don’t know if it was the
right or wrong thing to do. Only Doc Burrage will be able to
tell us for sure.”
Unable to bear any weight on the leg, Lucas half-carried Mark
back to the bunk and helped him lie down.
“Mark, why’d you do it?” Lucas asked as he stepped back from the
“Pa, my leg, it hurt all, up and down. And it didn’t smell too
good, even after Mr. Wilkins got the bullet out. I remembered
reading in one of Doc’s books about cauterizing a wound, to
prevent the spread of infection. Pa, it hurt like nothing I’d
ever felt before, and then burning the knife into it… I was
afraid gangrene was setting in. Pa, I don’t want to lose my
“I know son. I know,” Lucas replied as he saw the fear in his
“Pa, this is the shack where Bantry tried to…”
“Please, get me out of here…”
“We will, soon.”
The group decided to stay up on the mountain one more night
before they saddled their captives’ horses and took them, and
Mark, down the mountain.
As Mark fell asleep Lucas was at his side, “Don’t worry son.
Though he took comfort in his father’s words, his subconscious
returned him to the last time. “Heh, heh, heh!” Mark moaned as
he fought against his dreams. “Heh, heh, heh!”
Lucas helped Mark hobble into Wilkins home, “Where can I put
him? He needs to lie down.”
“There’s a room at the top of the steps, on the right, you can
put him in,” Wilkins answered.
Wilkins entered his kitchen to find a gun trained on him.
“Old man, I ain’t looking for trouble, just needed some
provisions to get where I’m going.”
“You an outlaw?” Wilkins asked.
“Was. Right now, I’m a free man thanks to circumstances beyond
my control. Now, you got any smokes?” as he set the burlap sack
on the counter top.
Wilkins ignored his question, “If’n I was you, I’d just git. The
two I came with, they’s a U.S. Marshal and a deputy.”
“What are they doing here?”
“Looking for you. You’re the escaped prisoner, ain’t you?.”
From outside they heard, “Lucas! It’s gonna be dark soon.”
From above they heard a window open, “I’ll be right down,
Johnny,” before they heard the window close.
A few minutes later boot steps of a man coming down the stairs
sounded down the hallway. “Wilkins, we’ll be back soon. You keep
an eye on Mark?”
The stranger held his gun on the old man, “Sure, he’ll be in
good hands,” Wilkins answered.
From the kitchen window, he watched as three men wearing badges
rode away with their guns and a rifle held on three men with
their hands bound.
“Why do you need to keep an eye on the one upstairs?”
“He got shot about a week back, developed a fever and infection.
He’s doing okay, but not out of the woods. His leg might
possibly need to be amputated because of the infection, they
won’t know for sure until they get him back to North Fork.”
“Yeah, that’s where they call home.”
“The one who left, what’s his name?”
“Lucas McCain, and if you know what’s good for you, I’ll say
again, git while the getting is good. He’s known as the….”
“Rifleman. I know. So who’s upstairs?”
“His son!” Wilkins answered with defiance in his voice.
“That’s his little boy upstairs?”
“Ain’t little, he’s a grown man!”
“That’d be something to see,” he laughed.
“You just stay away from him. He’s had a rough go of it and
don’t need you aggravating the situation.”
“Now, I kind a liked the kid. I saved his life, twice.”
“Yeah, like his father would allow anyone the likes of you near
his boy,” Wilkins voiced his anger. He wanted the man out of his
house and away from his ‘patient’. “Sides, he ain’t no kid, he’s
a U.S. Marshal.”
The man motioned with his gun, indicating Wilkins was to lead
the way upstairs. They observed the opened door to the room as
they reached the top of the stairs. Wilkins didn’t trust the man
behind him at all. He turned and tried to push the man
backwards, down the stairs. The stranger had the advantage in
height and youth. In their struggle, the gun fired, striking the
wall. The sound distracted Wilkins allowing the stranger to gain
the upper hand.
“Now old man, be thankful I’m in a charitable mood today.
Again, he motioned with his gun. They entered the room and saw a
Mark trying to get to his feet and reaching for his rifle.
“Easy there, son,” the man called as he pulled the rifle from
Mark fell back to the bed, cringing as he banged his leg on the
“There’ll be three other lawmen back here soon,” Mark spoke
“I know that, son.”
“What do you want?” Mark demanded, but the others heard pain,
not authority, in his voice.
“I heard you was here and came to see you.”
“If you’re here to try to claim the bounty, you’re sadly
mistaken. I’m the territorial marshal.”
“So the old man said. And just look at how well you growed up.”
Not seeing recognition in Mark’s eyes, he continued, “Guess in
your predicament, you wouldn’t be up to joining me for another
trip to Mexico, would you?”
“Another?” Mark asked.
“Sure, but if you’ll remember the last time, we didn’t make it
to Mexico, we kind of got sidetracked. You put kerosene in the
canteens instead of water?” his eyes laughed and he smiled as he
remembered, shaking his head in disbelief, “Can’t believe you
growed up to be a U.S. Marshal.”
“Renolds?” Mark finally recognized him. “But you’re supposed to
be in prison, for life!”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought too. Only I didn’t figure on the
Ketchum Gang busting me out of the prison transfer wagon.”
“You? But Hannibal Heyes was supposed to be in that wagon,” Mark
“Seems the warden was ‘on to’ one of his men. He changed the
transfer orders at the last minute and voila, I’m a free man.”
“Then you’re the one I’ve been after, this whole time?” Mark
“Probably,” Renolds replied.
“And you shot me.” Mark reached down and rubbed his leg.
“Now hold on now, I didn’t do no shooting of nobody. Especially
you! If anyone did any shooting it had to be Kidd Curry. He was
riding with Ketchum and he’s known to be a little too quick to
draw a gun, if you get my meaning.”
“I heerd of him, too,” Wilkins stated. “Also hear tell that he
never killed nobody either. That might be why you got a bullet
in your leg and not your head.”
From downstairs, they heard glass breaking. From outside they
heard, “You in the house! Come out with your hands raised! We
want Little Boy Morgan!”
“Who?” Renolds asked as he dropped to the floor, pulling Wilkins
“Someone put out a wanted poster for ‘Little Boy’ Morgan, only
they used the marshal’s picture. Them out there are probably
those who tried to ambush us up on the mountain. There’s a bunch
who rode away once they realized that they couldn’t get the drop
on us. Marshal, I’m sorry, they must a followed us down,”
Renolds hollered loud enough so those outside could hear, “Don’t
know who you think is in here, but there ain’t no Little Boy
“So you say! We be trailing them since they left that mountain!
We’ve put in a lot of effort into tracking that outlaw and you
ain’t gonna get our reward!”
“How much bounty did that…” Renolds started to ask.
“Three thousand dollars, dead or alive…” Wilkins said as he
looked to where Mark lie to the floor.
Lucas, Johnny, and Montana rode into Red Wing, ever vigilant.
Stopping their horses in front of the Sheriff’s Office, they
signaled their prisoners to get down from their horses and walk
“What’s the meaning of this?!” Sheriff Marle declared as the
three from North Fork pushed the bounty hunters into the office.
“Need you to hold these men until the District U.S. Marshal from
Denver arrives,” Johnny ordered.
“On who’s authority?” Marle asked as he stood from behind his
“Mine!” Johnny pulled his badge from his pocket. “You’ve seen
the wanted posters on ‘Little Boy’ Morgan?”
“Shore, every new person in town lately seems to be after him.”
“You best pull every one of them from circulation. The man
everyone is looking for isn’t an outlaw.”
“And just how do you know? You could be playing your cards to
pull all your fellow bounty hunters off the trail so you get the
Lucas stormed over to the Sheriff, grabbed him by the front of
his shirt and pushed him backwards, “I’m not interested in the
bounty on my son! I’m interested in saving his life! He’s the
territorial U.S. Marshal for New Mexico.”
“Well, how do I know what you’re saying in true?” Marle
“Because I can confirm it,” a new voice from behind Lucas spoke.
“I’m U.S. Marshal Tom Benton.” Tom walked up behind Lucas and
put a hand to his shoulder, “Lucas, let him go.”
Before letting go of the Sheriff, Lucas pushed him to let him
know that he did not appreciate the man.
“Gentlemen, with me are Deputy U.S. Marshals Sam Buckhart and
Gordon Westerfield. Deputy Coltrane Walker should be here later
“Thanks for coming so quickly,” Johnny stated.
“No problem. Have you found him?”
“Yesterday. We left him with a friend on the outskirts of town
while we brought these three in,” Johnny replied.
“Who are they?” Sam asked.
“Bounty hunters. They followed us when we went to find Mark;
figured they had a sure thing in claiming the reward. Tried to
make sure no one else could claim it,” Johnny replied.
“Hey, we ain’t done nothing wrong! We’re entitled to go after
anyone on a wanted poster,” one of the bounty hunters called
“A bounty hunter can claim their reward, but you don’t try
killing others who already have your quarry in custody,” Montana
offered. “You need to verify your facts, like I done. That’s how
I ended up on the right side of that poster.”
“Lucas, if you found him, why is Mark not with you?” Sam asked.
“Someone tried cashing in on the poster about a week ago,” Lucas
stated. “I’d like to get back to him and get him back home. Have
Doc Burrage take a look at his leg, the bullet wound looked
“This town not have a doctor?” Westerfield asked.
“Na, we’re too small to get any doctor who wants to stay,”
Sheriff Marle stated.
“Sheriff, I take it I have your complete cooperation to ensure
the safety of my Marshal?” Tom asked.
“Yea, yea. But…”
“No buts, you keep these three here until I say otherwise.”
“Marshal, seems to me just taking down the posters ain’t gonna
stop everyone. Why not mark them up indicating this ‘Little Boy’
Morgan’s been apprehended,” Montana stated.
“And have one floating around to turn up some day in the future.
Mark’s life would still be at risk,” Lucas declared.
“Marle, I want you to have your telegrapher…” Benton started.
“We ain’t got one of them either,” Marle answered. “There’s one
about ten miles west of here, town called, Lone Meadow.”
“Westerfield, you ride and send word that the posters are void.”
Following orders, Westerfield left the office, mounted his
horse, and rode out of town.
“Sam, you stay here and keep an eye on the town and make sure
that any other bounty hunters know that if Mark McCain is harmed
in any way, they’ll be put on trial,” Benton stated. “Lucas,
Drako, let’s get back to Mark.”
“I’ll come with you,” Marle offered.
“No! This is U.S. Marshal business!” Benton’s tone let those
present know that he meant business. “You’ve helped enough
“How was I supposed to know the picture on poster weren’t for
real?” pleaded as he tried to follow the others out the door.
“I’ll stay here and help the deputy,” Montana stated as he
blocked the sheriff from following.
Lucas breathed a sigh of relief as they rode back to Wilkins and
Mark. The silence surrounding the three was welcomed, however,
not long enough. A single shot came from a stand of trees
further up the trail, striking Benton out of the saddle. Johnny
and Lucas immediately dropped from their horses, ran to where
Tom lay, and drug him off the road.
“More bounty hunters?” Johnny asked.
“If they are, I’ll see that they’re tarred and feathered,”
Benton moaned as he rubbed at his chest.
“How bad are you hit?” Lucas asked.
“Just my breath knocked out of me. My guardian angel must have
been with me today. The bullet stuck my badge.”
“If you two are done catching up on old times, can we focus on
whoever it is who’s trying to prevent us from getting to Mark.”
“Seems like every bounty hunter in the country is here looking
for Mark,” Johnny commented. “And they’re all in cahoots?”
“They can’t all be bounty hunters!” Lucas replied.
“My guess, some are probably outlaws who recognized his picture.
They probably feel perfectly justified in being able to kill a
Marshal and get away with it,” Tom stated.
“Get away with it!!” Lucas declared.
“In their minds only. Like I said, any further injury inflicted
upon Mark will be severely dealt with,” Tom replied.
After surveying their surroundings, “Lucas, you think you can
make it up that ridge?” Johnny asked, pointing off to the right.
“You’d have the best chance of getting the drop on whoever with
your rifle from up there.” Lucas and Tom’s gaze followed to
where Johnny pointed.
With a nod of his head, Lucas prepared to run across the dirt
road. With a quick ‘Go!’ Tom and Johnny fired their guns to
force their adversaries to duck, giving Lucas time to make it to
the ridge. Once across the road, Lucas slid behind a boulder and
looked back to where he had just come from. Carefully, he picked
his way up the ridge, occasionally peering over the edge to
gauge how much further he needed to climb in order to get the
drop on those who had them cornered.
Once in position, Lucas fired his rifle towards one of the men,
deliberately missing the man, “You’re surrounded, give it up!”
he hollered. From a different direction, gunfire vectored in on
Lucas and the others. The gunfight had lasted a little more than
five minutes before Lucas saw two men running to where they
presumedly had their horses hidden, leaving one man lying on the
ground, writhing in pain. Lucas fired at the two, dropping one
to the ground. His companion returned to him and helped him to
his feet. Lucas fired again, but they were out of range. In
frustration he watched as one sorely limped his way to his
horse, before the two rode away.
Johnny and Tom made their way up the road while Lucas kept them
covered. With his boot toe, Tom rolled the man over. “Who are
you?” he demanded.
“Ringo Malone,” Johnny whispered. “I knew him years ago, hires
out to anyone for the right price.” Kneeling over the man Johnny
demanded, “Who hired you?!”
“No one!” the man answered as blood trickled from his mouth.
“No one? You don’t do anything until you’re sure to get paid.
Going after a bounty ain’t your style.” Grabbing the man’s
shirt, “Who hired you!”
The man’s eyes rolled backwards in their sockets as he went limp
in Johnny’s grasp. Setting the man back to the ground, Johnny
placed his ear to the man’s chest, and cursed. Getting to his
feet, Johnny shook his head as Lucas joined them.
“Two others rode off down the road. One’s limping, badly,” Lucas
informed the others.
“Let’s get our horses and follow them,” Tom answered.
The three ran back to their mounts and left a trail of dust in
Those outside worked their way around Wilkins home, taking
potshots through the windows.
“Old man, you got a cellar in this house?” Renolds whispered.
“Shore, got a cold storage cellar.”
“Can you access it from inside the house, and out?”
“Yeah, there’s a trap door under the kitchen table.”
“You get there and stay put.”
“What about you and the Marshal?” Wilkins asked.
“I’m gonna get him out of here.”
“How? You think Mr. McCain’s gonna let you take him?”
“Old man, like I said, I like the boy. Listen, they’re
eventually gonna rush the house, do you want them to get him? Or
would you rather he have a chance at living and getting back to
his Pa? We stay here, he doesn’t stand a chance. There’s nothing
we can do to convince them he ain’t this ‘Little Boy’ Morgan.
He’ll be safer with me than here.”
“Why not wait for his Pa to return?” Wilkins asked.
“Because we don’t know they haven’t barricaded the road to
prevent the others from getting back.”
“You stay in the cellar and I’ll get the Marshal out to the barn
and away from here. When his old man arrives, you tell him, I’m
gonna do my best to get him home.”
Wilkins and Renolds crawled over to where Mark lie, avoiding the
“Come on, boy. We’re gonna get you out of here,” Renolds
“Through the cold cellar and out to the barn.” Renolds grabbed
Mark’s rifle and one of Mark’s arms, while Wilkins grabbed the
other, keeping their heads down while the three slid across the
Night had settled when Lucas, Johnny, and Tom noticed the
growing orange glow on the northern horizon and urged their
mounts faster. Despair sat heavy in their stomachs when they saw
the house fully engulfed in flames.
“NO!!!” Lucas screamed while Johnny and Tom restrained him.
From behind they heard, “He weren’t in there!”
Relieved to hear those words, Lucas stopped struggling and
turned. “Where is he?” he asked as they saw Wilkins walking from
the barn and carrying his scattergun.
“I don’t exactly know. A man was in the house when we arrive
“A man? Who?” Lucas worriedly asked.
“I figured he was the outlaw your boy was tracking, but he
wasn’t who the Marshal thought he was, your boy called him
“Renolds? Harlan Renolds?!” Lucas asked in alarm.
“Your boy didn’t say his first name and the man didn’t introduce
himself,” Wilkins answered.
“If Mark’s not here, where is he?” Johnny asked.
“Renolds took him.”
“Where?” Lucas and Tom asked simultaneously.
“He said he’d do his best to see your boy home. Mr. McCain, he
said he’s saved your boy’s life, twice?” Wilkins spoke.
“Yeah, but that was a long time ago.” Turning to Tom, “You think
he’s here for the reward?”
“No sir,” Wilkins answered quickly. “He didn’t know anything
about the wanted posters. He said he liked your boy.”
Lucas remembered the harsh words he had spoken to his son that
day. His anger eventually turned to fear when he realized the
outlaw had his son as a hostage. After he and Micah had followed
them to that ghost town, he felt relief tempered with regret.
Relief his boy was safe, but regretting how he had lost his
temper. If there had been any time in Mark’s life where he
deserved a trip to the woodshed, that should have been the day.
But with Lucas’ self-inflicted guilt and Micah championing for
him, Lucas settled for a long discussion and an even longer
duration of working on the ranch as his punishment. Lucas knew
Mark was too much like his mother in trusting strangers. He
still feared for his son’s life, he could only pray that Wilkins
was right. He prayed that Renolds would keep Mark from harm and
do his best to see him home.
While Lucas’ thoughts took him back in time, Tom asked Wilkins
if the bounty hunters had set fire to his home.
“Naw, I did.”
“You did?” Johnny asked.
“Needed to make sure those two had time enough to get away. I
waited until I heard them varmints enter my home and I set the
kerosene lanterns ablaze while I hollered out to make them think
I was trying to get ‘Morgan’ into the cellar. Once down there, I
ran out the outside cellar door and to the barn. Ye can’t see
the cellar door for all the bushes around the house. That’s how
Renolds got Mark out.”
“But your home,” Johnny stated.
“It’s just a house.”
“We best get some water on the barn to make sure it doesn’t
catch fire from any of the embers.”
The four set to work pumping water into the trough and filling
the water buckets and splashing water on the barn and anywhere
that the embers started smoldering in the nearby shrubs and
All that remained of Wilkins home was smoldering beams and ash
when Tom stated, “We can spend the night in the barn, and trail
after them first thing in the morning.”
“First thing in the morning,” Lucas repeated.
Next Step — The Debt Repaid
This is a story based on the TV
series The Rifleman
Here are some other great stories. Enjoy!
around The McCain Ranch