The Rifleman
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Fan Fiction

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 Jack answered.

“Fru what?”

“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 murder.”

“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 he made.”

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 brought along.

“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 Wyoming prison.”

“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 pre-occupied.”

“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.”

“Exactly!”

“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 offered.

“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 man.

“Myra!” Lucas scolded.

“That’s all right Mr. McCain. As I said, easier to go by Montana.”

“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 get this?”

“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 Mexico!”

“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 Office.

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 of Myra.

“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 need.”

*****

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 about this?”

“Don’t know,” Johnny answered. “All I care about is getting to Red Wing and preventing somebody from cashing in on that reward poster.”

“This outlaw that your Marshal is supposed to be tracking…” Montana asked.

“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 again?”

“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 his brow.

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 Marshal?”

“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 town.”

“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 was armed.

“I don’t know what wanted poster you’re talking about,” the man replied.

“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 declared.

“I need to get to the nearest town and wire for help from North Fork.”

“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 feet.

“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.”

“Why?”

“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 going.”

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.”

“Fire?”

“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 interior.

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 out.

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 restrain him.

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 and Micah?”

“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 Sam Buckhart…”

“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,” Lucas answered.

“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 coffee cup.

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 asked insistently.

“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 asked.

“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?”

“I can.”

“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 overcame him.

*****

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 him.”

“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 lean-to.”

Cautiously, Lucas walked to the shack and opened the door. The inside was almost as they had left it so long ago, but this time...

“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 Mark’s leg.

“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 canteen.”

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 higher.

“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 son’s forehead.

“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,” Wilkins answered.

“But why? Pa, Wilkins told me of a wanted poster with my picture… Who?...”

“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. “I…”

“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 bunk.

“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 leg!”

“I know son. I know,” Lucas replied as he saw the fear in his son’s eyes.

“Pa, this is the shack where Bantry tried to…”

Lucas nodded.

“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. You’re safe.”

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.”

“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. Inside.”

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’s reach.

Mark fell back to the bed, cringing as he banged his leg on the bunk frame.

“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 stated.

“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 asked.

“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 with him.

“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,” Wilkins stated.

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 Morgan inside.”

“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 inside.

“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 desk.

“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 reward.”

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 stammered out.

“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 today.”

“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 out.

“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 pretty ugly.”

“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 already.”

“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 no time.

*****

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 incoming gunshots.

“Come on, boy. We’re gonna get you out of here,” Renolds informed Mark.

“How?”

“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 floor.

*****

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. “Mark!”

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 earlier.”

“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.”

“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 grass.

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!

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