The Rifleman – The Next Generation Pt 10 (by BluewindFarm)

Synopsis:  An AU look at the lives of the McCains and their friends after the end of the series’ five-year run.  A continuing saga of an idea begun in my story, Timing.

Category:  The Rifleman
Genre:  Western
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  33,225


 

The Next Generation… Chapter 55 – McCain, U.S. Marshal

Long before the sun rose Saturday morning, Mark was awake, lying in bed, next to Hope. As he watched his wife peacefully sleeping, he was thinking back on the events of the three previous weeks.

He thought back on his arrival in Denver and having supper the first night with Tom Benton and Cole Barker. After inquiring about how both of Mark’s families were, his father’s and his own, both men commented of how pleased they were with the job he had been doing and impressed with his reports.

“You know Mark,” Cole started. “You continue to rank the highest in all the testing we send out to our field deputies. I’m quite impressed with your dedication to continuing to study the materials we send out. Some of the older deputies and marshals just don’t put the time or the effort into what we’re asking of them.”

Tom interrupted, “They think the only answer they need to know involves a gun. That’s why Cole and I are so insistent on training our new deputies properly from the beginning. You’ve been our best candidate. Though we both were a little leery of starting you so young, but you’ve proven yourself to us, time and time again.”

Mark remembered back, not knowing exactly how to respond.

“Mark, we’re not looking to embarrass you, but maybe your abilities have a lot to do with your father.”

“My Pa?” Mark asked of Tom.

“Mark, I knew the kind of man your father was when he was a lieutenant under my command back in the War. I remember that he had dreams of having a family one day, maybe settling down. But he knew it would take a special woman to tame him. I remember visiting him shortly after they found out Margaret was pregnant. He told me that he hoped, if he had a son, that you would never have to use a gun, as he had.”

“I know. Before Pa ever bought me my first rifle, he told me why he waited so long. It still hurts me that I ruined that dream of his,” Mark stated as he accepted the cup of coffee from the waitress.

“Mark, you didn’t ruin his dream. You redirected it. You’ve learned to rein in the McCain temper and direct it so that you don’t rely on the gun. You rely on your brains first and as a last resort, the gun. Your testing proves that. And your father did raise you, Mark.”

Mark remembered when he went to bed that night, how strange it really felt to be talking to Tom and Cole as equals. He felt there was something else that neither of them was telling him. Little did he know…

*****

Mark heard the boys starting to wake and quietly slipped out of the bed. Hope didn’t stir. He left the bedroom and pulled the door closed behind him. He opened the door to his sons’ bedroom and saw the twins sitting up.

“Good morning boys,” he called. Not wanting them to wake Hope, he placed his index finger to his lips, indicating the boys should be quiet.

“Papa,” they quietly called.

Mark walked to the crib where Eli was still sleeping. “I can’t get over how big all three of you got while I was gone,” Mark commented.

“We did as Mama and Ganpa said,” Zach told Mark.

“I’m glad you did. Come on, let’s go into the front room and we can start fixing breakfast and surprise your Ma.”

“Supize Ma? Josh asked.

“Yes, but we have to be quiet.”

Mark decided to make scrambled eggs, bacon, and toast for breakfast for his family. As he was setting the table, Hope came from their bedroom.

“Morning sleepy head,” Mark declared as he looked up.

“How long have you and the boys been up?”

“Long enough for breakfast to be ready in a little while.” Mark stopped speaking as they heard Eli starting to cry.

“Guess Eli will get his breakfast before me. I’ll be back in a few minutes,” Hope stated as she headed to the boys’ bedroom. Ten minutes later she came out carrying Eli.

*****

After Mark finished getting dressed for the day, he entered the front room while pinning his badge on his shirt.

“Mark, that’s not your deputy badge?” Hope queried as she finished with the morning dishes.

“No, it’s a U.S. Marshal’s badge.”

“A Marshal’s badge? I don’t understand?”

Mark walked over and stood behind Hope and wrapped his arms around her. “Hope, while I was up in Denver, Tom Benton told us they needed to assign an official U.S. Marshal to New Mexico, the more talk there is of Statehood, Tom felt there needed to be an official law presence, not just town marshals and sheriffs or even a deputy U.S. Marshal. He and Cole Barker felt Washington would take our talk of statehood more seriously if we had a U.S. Marshal permanently assigned.”

“And he chose you for the job?”

“No, not really. He gathered in all the deputies and it was put to a vote. He let his deputies decide who would represent the U.S. Marshal Service in this Territory.”

“It wasn’t a training class you attended?”

“Oh it was, but the morning of the first class he announced to the group the real reason we were there and that all of us were candidates for the job and then they set out to training us. After two weeks, he put the job to a vote.”

“And you were elected?”

“By my peers. Afterwards, Tom told me they had wanted to assign the job to me outright, but didn’t want to create any hard feelings among the deputies, so he left it up to us to decide who would take the job.”

“Mark, why didn’t you say anything when you arrived back in town?”

“Because I met Ethan and Annie on the train. To me, it was more important to celebrate your family being reunited. I mean that’s the real meaning behind Thanksgiving — family. I didn’t want the day to be about me. Besides, I still have to tell Johnny that he’s no longer my first boss. I actually out rank him. I report directly to Tom and secondarily to Johnny. And since this town now has an official U.S. Marshal presence, any of the laws broken could have stronger consequences. It also means that I might have to do more traveling, depending on the circumstances.”

“You couldn’t say no to that part of the job?”

“I couldn’t. But Tom knows I have a young family. The good news is that he will be hiring more people to be my deputies and they’ll be stationed around the territory. I’m hoping they’ll be able to do most of the traveling to transport or apprehend outlaws, but I have to do my share, when it’s necessary, it’s part of the job.”

“I understand. Have you told Pa?”

“Not yet, I wanted to tell Johnny first. Will you be okay with the boys today? I know I just got back, but…”

“You need to talk with Johnny and Father,” Hope replied. “And today is your normal day to stand watch. We’ll be fine.”

“I’ll see you at church services tomorrow.” Mark kissed Hope before he left their bedroom. He grabbed his coat before heading out to do his chores.

*****

As Mark was leading Copper out the barn door, he met up with Lucas.

“Hi Pa. I’ve already tended to the stock this morning. I need to head into town and stand my watch. Johnny asked if I could come in earlier than usual today. Guess he wants me to make up for being gone so long.”

“Is everything alright?”

“I think so Pa. I’ll see you tomorrow at church.” Mark mounted Copper and headed to town.

Lucas turned and saw Hope and all three boys exiting their home, heading towards his home.

“GanPa” “GanPa’ the twins called as they ran across the yard.

Lucas bent down and picked both boys up in his arms and then followed Hope into his home.

“Morning Hope,” Milly called from the kitchen.

“Morning!” Hope replied.

“Hope, will you help me with my studies?” Myra asked, sitting at the table.

“Working on school work on a Saturday?” Hope asked and then turned to Lucas. “Are you sure Myra is really your daughter? I mean, she didn’t accidentally get switched with another baby at the clinic, did she? With what I’ve been learning about Mark when he was younger, your two children couldn’t be any more different.”

“I’m glad of that. I don’t know that I could handle raising another Mark,” Lucas answered in jest.

“Well, maybe it could just be a boy versus a girl. Guess you’ll find out when Little Ted gets ready to start school,” Hope answered.

“Changing the subject, is everything okay with Mark? I know we didn’t get to do a lot of talking Thursday evening or yesterday, but he seemed a little pre-occupied this morning.” Lucas stated.

“He’s okay Pa. He just… He has to tell Johnny that he’s no longer his deputy, first.”

Milly interrupted, “What do you mean, no longer Johnny’s deputy?”

“He told me this morning that when he was up in Denver, Tom called in his deputies and they were there to decide on a territorial marshal, they put it to a vote and Mark was elected to be the Territorial U.S. Marshal of New Mexico. He reports directly to Tom Benton and secondarily to Johnny.”

“And he’s kept this secret from his father?” Milly asked.

“He said wanted to talk with Johnny first.”

*****

“Well, can’t say that I didn’t know this day was coming. You’re just too good of a lawman to keep you tied down to this little town,” Johnny stated after hearing the news.

“Johnny, I didn’t ask for the job,” Mark pleaded. “Tom had all the deputies that they felt were qualified for the job up in Denver. They other deputies elected me to the position. Besides, I’ll still be able to stand my watch over North Fork.”

“Have you told Hope?” Seth asked.

“I did this morning. She noticed the new badge right away.”

“Was she upset you didn’t say anything before this morning?” Johnny asked.

“I think she was a little, but once I told her why I hadn’t said anything, she understood,” Mark replied.

“What of Lucas? What does your father say about this?” Seth asked.

“I haven’t talked with him yet,” Mark stated as he played with his hat in his hand. “I felt I owed it to Johnny to let him know first. That and I kind of don’t know how, exactly, to bring the subject up with Pa. Before I met up with Ethan and Annie on the train, I got to remembering all the times Pa and I had talked about my wanting a rifle. Even while I was up in Denver, I got to thinking of Pa and when he finally explained why he waited so long to buy me a rifle.”

“Mark, you’re a grown man. Your Pa raised you to live your life, he gave you the guidance, but ultimately, it’s your decision,” Johnny stated.

“I know, but… I remembered the first time you came to town. You tried to get a point across to me and told me to pick up your gun, after you placed on the table. I did and then I set it right back down. You told me that I’d done the right thing. And you hoped that I wouldn’t end up marrying a gun. Then, not a month later, Pa and I had the same conversation.” Mark laughed as he remembered the fight with Freddie, after he had blurted to all the guys that Mark didn’t know how to fire a rifle, and he remembered back to his first stay in a jail cell. “I just know how much he wanted to keep me from having to depend on the rifle as a way of life, then I become Micah’s deputy, then your deputy and a deputy U.S. Marshal, and now I’m a full-fledged U.S. Marshal.”

“Mark,” Seth stated. “I’ve not known your father as long as Johnny has, but I’m sure your father will understand. You have respect for the rifle and you only use it as a means of last resort. I’m sure that your father will be proud of this honor you’ve received. But I do understand what you mean. I had dreams that Ethan would become something other than a cavalry officer, but once I knew that was his intention and there was nothing I could do to prevent it, I supported him with all my heart — because he was my son. I’m sure your Pa will be the same way. You’re his son.”

“Thanks Seth, Johnny. Actually, that’s what Tom and Cole said to me,” Mark stated as he finally put his hat on the peg on the wall. “Okay Johnny, get out of here before Lou comes over and threatens to skin us alive for keeping you too long.”

*****

After Mark stood his shift, he joined his family for church. Before they headed home, he informed them he needed to run one errand and he’d meet them back at the ranch. Upon arriving home, he lead Copper into the barn and saw his Pa saddling Razor.

“Taking the old man out?” Mark asked.

“Just going to check the fences in the yearling herd and thought to take him out,” Lucas replied.

“Can I join you?” Mark asked.

“You don’t need to ask permission to come with me. But something must be up if you want to ride out with me before seeing your wife.”

“Well, I do have something I need to talk with you about.”

“About what happened up in Denver?” Mark nodded. “Hope told us a little. Come on, mount up. There’s more than what ever happened up in Denver that’s on your mind.”

As they rode, Mark told Lucas of all that happened in Denver. He also told him how he thought that his was dishonoring one of Lucas’ dreams, “Pa, its being weighing on my mind for a while, but I didn’t know exactly what it was until after Tom pinned this badge to my shirt. I feel that I’ve let you down with the fact that I have made the rifle so much a part of my life.”

“Hold it right there. You didn’t let me down, nor did you let yourself down. Mark, I didn’t want you to be reckless with a gun or feel you could use it when ever. You’ve accepted the responsibilities that come along with your rifle, but you’ve never abused the privilege. Mark, I’ve never been more proud of your accomplishments. You’ve made a name and a home for yourself here. The McCain name is a name we can both be proud of. While I do wish that it weren’t necessary that guns needed to be carried all the time, you’ve carried yours with honor. You’ve proven to me that I did raise you right. Marshal Mark McCain, has a nice sound to it.”

The Next Generation… Chapter 56 – December

Arrangements had been made with Lou for the McCain’s and the Lane’s to celebrate the three upcoming birthdays, Hope’s, Mark’s, and Seth Edward’s, over supper.

Since Mark and Hope had requested the night to be more about Seth Edward and family, than themselves, the men were teasing Ethan that he’d need to hire out a porter to carry all the gifts for his son, home.

“Oh, I thought that’s what families were for?” Ethan replied with good natured banter.

*****

The McCain’s laughed as they told of the first birthday party for Little Ted, Josh, and Zach.

“Ma baked several different cakes. One for the boys and two others for the rest of the guests,” Hope stated.

“Yes, you should have seen how the three of them demolished their cake with their hands,” Milly replied.

“It wasn’t so funny when it came time to bathe them,” Mark stated as he looked to his nephew and saw the icing all over his face.

*****

As the evening wound down, Lucas and Seth sat to the side, they quietly talked of their pasts, as single fathers, both trying to raise a son. Both men smiled, knowing how much fuller their lives had become over the past few years. Wondering what life had in store for them, next…

Lucas saw Mark excuse himself from the group and headed out to the front of the hotel.

“I’ll be right back Seth.”

“That’s okay Lucas, I think I should rejoin the group anyway. See you in a few minutes.”

Lucas walked out the hotel doors and saw Mark sitting in a chair out front. Mark quickly wiped his hand below his eyes, as Lucas sat down in the chair next to him, and turned his jacket collar up to the cool temperatures.

“Something in your eye?” Lucas asked.

“Memories.”

“I understand. Seth and I were just talking of how we were both single fathers trying to raise a son and now look at our families.”

“It’s just that I saw everyone in the room and for a moment, it was overpowering. For a moment, I almost felt like there wasn’t enough air in the room for everyone.”

“Take your time coming back in.”

“I’ll be back inside in a moment. I want to thank God, one more time, for the blessings I have.”

Lucas knew how Mark felt, he felt the same way. He returned to the gathering inside.

*****

Lucas and Milly celebrated their sixth wedding anniversary that Christmas eve. It was a wonderful evening with the two families sharing supper and then afterwards, Mark and Hope singing Christmas songs, with Lucas and Milly occasionally joining in.

They watched as their young children struggled to keep their eyes awake, hoping to; just maybe, catch Santa Claus coming down the chimney.

“Papa,” Myra said. “If there’s fire in the fireplace, how does Santa get down the chimney?”

Milly raised her hand to her mouth to hide her laughter, as she looked to Lucas.

“Well…” Lucas started to say.

“Come on Pa, I want to know too. I’m sure my boys will be asking that question in a few years and I want to be able to tell them.”

Lucas gave Mark one of ‘those’ looks.

“Well, nobody really knows how he does it. You see, somehow, Santa knows when children are awake and not sleeping, so he doesn’t come until all the children are asleep,” Lucas answered.

“But you’re not a child, Papa. Don’t you get to see him come?”

“No, because I need to get my sleep so that I can get up early in the morning and tend to my chores, before I get to spend time with my family.”

Milly, Mark, and Hope tried to hide their laughter as Lucas answered Myra’s question.

“Mark, did you ever try to stay up late to see Santa?” Myra asked as he walked over and crawled up into Mark’s lap.

“I did once, but… I fell asleep in Pa’s chair in the front room. I woke the next morning, still in the chair, with Ma cooking breakfast. And there weren’t any presents under the tree. Pa told me because I had tried to catch Santa arriving, that Santa hadn’t left me any gifts in the house.”

“Were you upset?”

“I was Gabby. But then Pa said it was my own fault. After breakfast, we went to the barn to do the chores and you know what?” Mark asked as he hugged his sister.

“What?” Myra asked with excitement.

“Santa left my present in the barn.”

“He did?!” What did he leave you?” Myra asked.

“A pony of my own.”

“Blue Boy?”

“No, I didn’t get Blue Boy until a number of years later. So you see, it won’t do you any good trying to stay up late and spy on Santa’s arrival.”

*****

As it was past time for the boys to be in bed, Lucas carried Josh, while Mark carried Zach, and Hope carried Eli, back to their home and placed them in their beds.

“I still can’t get over seeing you full grown and this room full of children,” Lucas stated as he looked to Mark.

“Seems the number of children in your own home is getting ready to expand, Pa,” Mark replied.

All three quietly laughed as they said goodnight.

*****

The day after Christmas, Lucas and Mark headed out to check on their cattle.

“Feels like a storm front is getting set to move in,” Lucas stated as he mounted Blade.

“I know. The air feels cold, like a snow front’s coming,” Mark replied as he petted Blue Boy, who had hung his head over the corral. “Not today old man, you’re Gabby’s horse now.” With that, Mark mounted Copper.

“Well, come on. Let’s get the cattle checked. The sooner we check them out, the sooner we can get back to our families and get warm.”

*****

That night, the temperature dropped sharply after the sun set. Mark and Hope heard the wind howling outside and went to make sure the pot bellied stove in the boys’ room was well stoked. They pulled the covers up and over and tucked their sons, tight into their beds and then headed back to their bedroom. Mark stoked the pot bellied stove in their bedroom, before returning to bed.

“While we’re waiting for the fire to take hold, we can always warm ourselves up otherwise…” Mark stated.

Hope looked at the boyish expression he held on his face and willingly gave herself to Mark that night.

*****

New Year’s Day dawned bright and cold. Mark headed out to tend to morning chores in the barn. Later he carried some firewood from the shed back into his home. Hope was humming a song while cooking breakfast for her family. And the boys were quietly playing with their toys, in front of the fire.

Later that afternoon, they headed over to Lucas and Milly’s to celebrate Myra’s fifth birthday.

*****

As they entered the home, Myra was there to greet them, “Ma said I’m not to ask if you brought me a present.”

“Didn’t you get enough presents at Christmas?” Mark asked as he bent down to pick his sister up.

“Those were Christmas presents.”

“What other kind of presents are there?”

Myra cupped her hand and placed it to Mark’s ear as she whispered, “Birthday presents.”

“Oh, is today your birthday?”

“You know it is!”

“Then you probably should ask Hope, I think she has something for you.”

“I can’t do that,”

“Why?” Mark asked.

“Ma told me I couldn’t ask.”

“Well then, we don’t want you getting into trouble on your birthday, do we?” Mark asked.

“No!” Myra squealed.

“No what, young lady?” Milly asked.

“I didn’t ask, honest. I told Mark I couldn’t ask,” Myra stated.

Milly knew that Lucas’ two older children were more alike in their ability to get into mischief, than they realized. “Myra, let Mark get out of his coat and why don’t you put it and Hope’s coat on your bed,” Milly stated as she turned to take Eli from Hope, so she could get out of her coat.

Lucas helped the twins get out of their coats.

The family had a wonderful time together while they celebrated Myra’s birthday. Later that afternoon, while Mark and Lucas were out tending to the stock and Milly and Hope prepared supper, they spent a lot of time talking about the anticipated birth of Milly’s baby the end of March.

After supper was eaten and the dishes done, the presents were brought out for Myra. Lucas and Milly had bought her several new dresses to wear to school and another for church. Hope had purchased Myra a new coat to wear. Mark’s present was last.

“Well Mark?” Myra asked.

“What Gabby?” Mark replied.

“Didn’t you get a present for me?” Myra pouted a little.

“Oh, you didn’t find my box?”

“Then you did get me a present?”

“I did. Why don’t you go into Little Ted’s bedroom and get your box,” Mark replied.

Myra ran to the room and saw the box setting in the middle of the bed. She pulled it down and carried it into the front room.

“What’s inside?” Myra asked.

“Now you’re just going to have to open the box and see for yourself.”

Myra neatly pulled the colored paper from the box. She pulled off the lid and squealed, “MY OWN COWGIRL HAT! Oh Mark, it’s perfect!”

Myra pulled the hat from the box and put it on her head. “Well, maybe not perfect. Guess I got to do some growing,” Myra stated as she pulled the hat from her head.

“We can fix that,” Hope stated as she asked for the hat.

After inserting some paper in the headband, they placed the hat back on Myra’s head and it was a perfect fit.

“Oh Mark, thank you. I love my hat. And Hope, I love my jacket and I love the dresses that Mama and Papa got me.”

Soon it was time for Mark and his family to return to their home.

The Next Generation… Chapter 57 – A Debt Paid Forward

As President of North Fork’s Cattlemen’s Association, Lucas had gone to Santa Fe to attend a meeting of New Mexico’s Cattlemen’s Associations. Mark was in town, standing his watch and wasn’t due back from town until mid-afternoon. Since neither Lucas nor Mark were there to hitch up the team, Milly and Hope, and their children stayed at home and read from the bible. It was a nice enough day, for the beginning of March, that Hope decided to saddle up Two-Bits and Blue Boy that afternoon to take Myra for a ride, since all four boys were down for a nap. As Hope led both horses from the barn, Milly walked out from the house towards them and stopped near the wood pile. She turned around to wave to Hope and Myra as they started to head out, wishing them to “Have a good ride.”

Hope jumped down from Two-Bits after hearing Milly scream and before she could run to where Milly sat grabbing at her ankle, she heard the sound and yelled, “Ma, crawl away from there.” Hope grabbed her rifle from its scabbard, shouldered it and fired. She ran to where the snake lay dead, picked it up and threw it away. Next, she ran to Milly, setting her rifle down as she dropped to her knees and pulled Milly’s leg from her grasp.

Hope pulled her belt from her waist and used it as a tourniquet. Next she ran to where Myra waited on Blue Boy, in tears. Hope asked Myra “Do you think you can find your way to town and get Mark? Do you remember how to get to school and then to the Marshal’s?”

“Yes,” Myra said hesitantly.

“Then go!” Hope yelled as she turned Blue Boy around and slapped him on the rump.

Hope ran to the house and grabbed a knife from the kitchen drawer, she returned to Milly. “Lie still Ma, just lie still. Try to breathe deeply and slowly. This is going to hurt, but I need to cut your leg and get the poison out.”

*****

Mark was just over the hill when he saw his sister running Blue Boy hard, he got Copper turned around, not knowing if Myra could stop Blue Boy before she reached him. He already had Copper in a lope when Blue Boy ran past them. Mark kicked Copper to catch up and match Blue Boy’s stride. Mark reached for the reins, “Gabby, what do you mean running Blue Boy like this?” he asked as he halted the horses, then he saw the expression on Myra’s face.

“It’s Mama! Hope sent me to get you from town!”

Mark kept a hand on Blue Boy’s rein as they turned and rode back to the ranch. As they approached the barn, Hope yelled for Mark to hitch the team. “We have to get Ma to town. She was bitten by a rattlesnake. I placed a tourniquet on, but I don’t know if I got all the poison out.” She ran to grab Myra from the saddle and took the horses inside the barn to strip their gear as Mark ran to get the team hitched. Next, Hope ran to get the boys and placed them in the back of the buckboard as Mark helped his Ma get in the back and to lie down. “Myra, up in the front seat with Mark!” Hope yelled as she climbed in back to cradle Milly’s head.

Mark raced the team to town, hauling them to a hard stop in front of the clinic. By the time they arrived at town, Milly had lost consciousness. Mark carried Milly into the one of the examination rooms, yelling for Doc Burrage.

“Mark what’s wrong?” Thadd asked as he entered the room.

“It’s Ma, she was bit by a rattler. Hope placed the tourniquet and cut the site open, but…”

Thadd didn’t say anything; he just pushed Mark out of the way as he went to examine Milly’s leg. Then, he pulled out his stethoscope and listened to Milly’s heart and lungs, and then positioned the stethoscope over Milly’s abdomen, shaking his head as he listened. Abigail came into the room a few minutes later.

“Thadd?”

“Get the ether, we’re going to have to take the baby?”

“Take the baby?” Mark asked, startled.

“Mark, I don’t have time, just get out of here if you want there to be any chance for Milly or the baby to live.”

Mark backed out of the room until he backed into the wall on the other side of the hallway. He started shaking, he slid down the wall, his knees having buckled. Abigail closed the door behind her. Hope was just entering the clinic when Mark started crying. She knelt next to him and wrapped him in her arms and cried with him. Through his tears he managed to ask, “Where are the children?”

“I’ve got them over at the day care with Hattie and Micah,” Hope answered. “Please Mark, let’s go to Thadd’s office and wait.” She helped Mark get to his feet and holding on to each other they walked to Thadd’s office, down the hall.

Lou and Johnny were the first people to arrive at the clinic, followed closely by Seth.

“Mark, what happened?” Seth asked.

“I got home and Hope said Ma was snake bit.”

“What did Doc say?” Lou asked.

“He said they were going to take the baby and for me to get out, if there was to be any chance for Ma or the baby to live.”

Hope hugged Mark tighter as he buried his head into her shoulder and cried.

*****

The room where they waited was quiet except for the ticking of the clock sitting on the desk, marking time as the afternoon drug on and turned to evening. The sun had painted the sky crimson and orange when Doc Burrage entered his office. He saw Mark, sitting on the couch, head bent down, bible in his hand. Hope was curled up on the couch with her head on Mark’s thigh. Thadd walked over and knelt next to Mark, placing a hand on Mark’s knee and quietly saying, “Mark.”

Mark opened his eyes, and jumped with a start, causing Hope to quickly sit up. “Doc?” they both spoke in unison.

“I think both Milly and the baby are out of danger, for the time being. I’m sorry for yelling at you earlier Mark. I just didn’t have time to talk.”

“You said for the time being,” Mark commented.

“For now. Hope, you did a great job with the tourniquet and getting a lot of the venom out of her leg, but still, some got into Milly blood stream. It started to put stress on the baby and in order to save the baby’s life; I had to cut him from Milly’s womb. I had to perform a cesarean section.”

“But you said that Ma was out of danger, I thought they only did that kind of surgery once the mother was…” Mark cried.

“Mark, that used to be the case. You know that Abigail and I were out of town for two months over Thanksgiving and Christmas?”

Mark nodded.

“We were in Boston, at a physician’s conference. They taught us how to perform this procedure so that it could be used to save the life of both the mother and the child. Mark, if we hadn’t attended that conference, we would have lost both your Ma and your brother.”

“Can I see Ma?” Mark asked.

“Not tonight. I’m keeping Milly unconscious until we know more about her leg and give her time to recover from the surgery.”

“Her leg?” Hope asked.

“Hope, with snake bites, there always is a chance for complications. I’m pretty sure that we were able to extract most all the venom, but there’s always a chance that some remained in the flesh. If that’s the case, we have to make sure gangrene doesn’t set it. If it does, there’s the possibility, remote as it is, there’s the possibility that we’d have to amputate her leg.”

“Amputate?” Hope asked.

Mark replied, “In order to save Ma’s life, if her leg did become gangrened, they’d have to surgically remove her lower leg.”

Hope turned her head and buried it in Mark’s shoulder as she started to cry, again.

“I’ll do my best to see that it doesn’t happen, but you have to know the risks and why the next 36 to 48 hours are so crucial to Milly’s recovery — from the snake bite and the cesarean section. I have Milly on medication to hopefully prevent any infection or gangrene from setting in.”

“What about my brother? If Ma’s not able to nurse him?” Mark asked with alarm in his voice.

“Mark, Mrs. Warders had her baby yesterday and I was all set to release her this afternoon when you came in. She agreed to nurse your brother in the first few critical hours.” Then turning to Hope, Thadd asked, “However, the baby is pre-mature. Your own children have only been a little pre-mature. This one is almost three weeks pre-mature and there are risks associated with that and the fact that he wasn’t delivered naturally. Hope, I presume you are still nursing Eli?”

“Not really, we just started weaning him last week. He only nurses at night.”

“Well, since Mrs. Warders already has six other children at home, I don’t think it’s fair to ask her to take on your brother until your Ma gets better. Hope, if you don’t mind, I’d like to examine you. I’d really prefer for you to continue to nurse the baby.”

“Can we see my brother?” Mark asked.

“Sure, I don’t think Mrs. Warders would mind.”

Thadd led Hope and Mark to Mrs. Warders’ room. He knocked on the door, “Mrs. Warders, it’s me, Doc Burrage. If you don’t mind, I have Mark and Hope McCain with me and they’d like to meet their baby brother,” and waited for a reply.

“Come on in,” they heard from the other side of the door.

Mark and Hope entered the room and saw Abigail handing a baby to an ample-sized woman sitting up on the bed, and she pulled open her blouse and positioned the baby to nurse.

“I’m sorry,” Mark stated as he turned his head.

“Come now deputy, don’t tell me you’s not ‘round when yer misses was allowing yer babies to suckle?”

“Yes Ma’am, I was. But Hope’s my wife and you’re not,” Mark replied, still not looking at Mrs. Warders.

“It’s the most natural thing in the world, for a baby to suckle from a woman’s breast.”

“Yes Ma’am, but Mr. Warders…”

“Oh, now, don’t worry ‘bout what that husband o’ mine be thinkin’. We’ve many visitors at the house when I was suckling a baby from my breast.” Then realizing how embarrassed Mark had really become, “But then, maybe you is right. Here Miss Hope, why don’t you take yer little brother and let me get decent so yer man don’t faint on us.”

Hope took the baby and cradled him in her arms. Mark stood next to Hope and looked at his brother. “Can’t tell who this one looks like, Ma or Pa,” Mark stated.

“Mrs. Warders,” Thadd spoke. “You husband is over at the hotel, if you don’t mind waiting a few more minutes before being released, I want to make sure Hope is able to take over nursing the baby before you go.”

“Go right ahead, I’ll just enjoy my rest.”

*****

With the baby crying in her arms, Hope and Mark followed Thadd to another examination room. “Mark,” Thadd stated. “I’m sorry about Mrs. Warders embarrassing you like that, but that’s the way she is. Now Hope, if you don’t mind, I take it that your breasts are tender to the touch, as Eli’s not been nursing except at night?”

“Yes.”

“That only normal for when a mother starts to wean their baby, your body will still produce milk and it will take time for it to realize that’s no longer necessary. But, your body is going to have to continue to produce milk until Milly’s ready to take over. Let’s me examine you and we’ll see if the boy will nurse from you.”

Mark held his baby brother as Hope unbuttoned her shirt. Once she untied her camisole, Mark handed the baby to her and watched. All three heard the baby’s crying stop as he happily began slurping. As he palpated Hope’s breast, Thadd was pleased to see the excess milk surrounding the baby’s mouth, indicating that Hope was producing enough milk to sustain the baby. Hope looked up into Mark’s eyes and gave him a nervous smile.

“That’s a good sign Hope. I know how at about this time, a woman wants to be done with nursing…”

“But I’ll do it as long as the baby needs me to.”

“I think you should still be able to nurse Eli of an evening, but you might want to go ahead and switch him to a bottle completely, if this gets too tiring on you, that way Mark can tend to Eli at night.”

“Whatever you suggest, Doc,” Mark stated.

“Well, I’ll leave you three be for now. I want to get back to Milly,” Thadd stated and then left.

“You look as embarrassed as I felt in Mrs. Warders’ room,” Mark commented.

“Mark, this is so awkward.”

“How so?” Mark asked.

“I only nursed the twins for a little over a week before Thadd put me on medication that prevented me from nursing them, so I didn’t really go through this discomfort I’ve been experiencing while weaning Eli. And then, having both you and Thadd watch as the baby nursed from me. I mean, when Thadd examines me, it’s just me and my doctor. And then when you and I are together as I nurse Eli… It just felt awkward to have you watch as Thadd examined me. And then, this is your brother I’m nursing,” Hope stated as she repositioned the baby to nurse from her other breast. “I don’t know, maybe I should be more like Mrs. Warders.”

“No, this is something special between us, sharing this time.”

Mark pressed a kiss to Hope’s head as he sat down next to her and wrapped an arm around her shoulder. In time the baby fell asleep.

“Will you be okay for awhile? I want to make arrangements for us at the hotel and see if Hattie and Micah would mind letting the children spend the night with them.”

“Go on Mark. You do what you need to.”

*****

Mark slowly made his way towards the day care, but seeing the lanterns extinguished, he headed towards Hattie and Micah’s residence. Wearily he knocked on the door and a few moments later, Micah answered.

“Come in boy. How’s Milly?”

“Alive. Doc’s keeping a close eye on her.”

“And the baby?”

“I’ve another brother.”

“Congratulations,” Micah said in a solemn tone. “I take it you’d like for the children to spend the night here?”

“If you don’t mind? Hope is nursing the baby and Doc wants to keep an eye on him too, since he was born so pre-mature. We’re going to be staying at the hotel. Though, I probably should take Eli back with me.”

“You do what needs to be done and leave the other children to Hattie and me. They’re in good hands.”

“I know they are, and thanks, Micah.”

Hattie carried Eli into the parlor and handed him to Mark. “We’re praying for Milly.”

“Thanks Hattie.”

*****

Next, Mark made his way to the hotel. He entered to find Johnny and Lou, Johnny and Colleen, and Seth waiting in the lobby.

“We saw ye heading to Micah’s earlier. Is Milly all right?” Lou asked.

“For now. Doc’s keeping an eye on her. And we’re praying there won’t be any complications,” Mark answered

“Mark, we be praying as well,” Lou stated.

“What of the baby?” Colleen asked.

“You’ve another nephew.”

“And what of nursing the baby? Surely Milly can’t…” Lou asked.

“Thadd had Mrs. Warders nurse him at first. But for now and until Ma gets well enough, Hope will be nursing him.”

“Is there anything we can do for you Mark?” Johnny Drako asked.

“We need a room and two cribs, until… Oh my, I need to send a wire to Santa Fe. I’ve got to let Pa know,” Mark stated as he whirled about and started to leave.

“Easy there Mark,” he heard from his uncle and felt a hand on his arm. “We already tried to send a wire to Lucas, he had checked out of the hotel. He’s already on his way home. I presume he’ll arrive on the morning train.”

“Mark, I’ll make a room ready for ye. Go get yer wife and come back, you’ll be in room fifteen. It’s at the back of the hotel and will be the most quiet for ye and quicker to get up and down from the kitchen.”

“I take it that someone took care of the team?”

Seth nodded, “They’re at the livery, Nils took care of them a few hours ago.”

“Thank you everyone,” Mark said as he left the hotel.

Wearily Mark returned to the clinic, carrying Eli. He walked to the room where his Ma lay, knocked on the door to let Thadd know he was there.

“How is she?”

“She’s holding her own Mark. She’s a McCain. By marriage, but none the less she’s a McCain. I take it you’ve made arrangements at the hotel?”

Mark nodded.

“Good. Take your son and go get your wife and your brother and get some sleep. You look worse than your Ma does. Make sure you keep your baby brother bundled up well. You’ll need to make sure he keeps warm enough.”

Mark and Hope returned to the hotel with the babies in their arms. Lou showed them to room fifteen as Johnny carried a bassinet up. Both Johnny and Lou bid Mark and Hope goodnight.

After placing Eli in his crib and Mark’s brother down to sleep in the bassinet and then placing warmed bricks rapped in towels around his body, they both stripped, Mark to his long johns and Hope put on a nightgown that Lou had loaned her. Both collapsed on the bed in each others’ arms and quickly were asleep.

During the night, whenever Hope would wake to allow the baby to nurse, Mark was right there beside her, tending to Eli.

*****

The whistle from the train arriving woke Mark the following morning, “PA!” he declared as he jumped from the bed. Hope woke to realize it was later than either of had meant to sleep in. As Mark hurriedly pulled on his pants, they heard a knock at the door.

“Mark, Hope, tis me and Colleen, and we have the baby and Eli,” came Lou’s voice from the other side.

Mark quickly opened the door as he pulled his shirt on.

“Lou, what?”

“We knew the two of ye had to be totally exhausted after yesterday, so we took the liberty of taking care of the boys this morning, though I do feel that this little one would appreciate Hope more than the little bit he drank from the bottle downstairs,” Lou stated.

“And your Uncle Johnny has gone to the station to meet your father,” Colleen stated.

Hope took the baby from Lou and proceeded to sit down in the chair and positioned the baby to nurse. Colleen carried Eli and she proceeded to change Eli’s diaper. Mark quickly buttoned his shirt, tucked it in his pants, pulled on his boots, kissed Hope and told her he’d return soon.

Mark ran down the stairs and out the door of the hotel to see his Pa and Johnny running into the clinic. As Mark entered the clinic, he saw Thadd showing his Pa into the room where Milly rested. He paused outside the door and waited with his uncle.

“Mark, this is a time for you and your father. We’re all praying for Milly,” Johnny stated, he placed his hand to Mark’s shoulder, gave it a squeeze, before he left.

*****

“Doc?” Lucas asked desperately.

“Lucas, she’s held her own overnight.”

“What of the baby? Doc, what of the baby?” seeing that his wife was no longer pregnant.

“He lives. I had to take the baby in order to save its live. Hope did a good job in placing the tourniquet and trying to get the poison out, but enough of the venom was in Milly’s system that the baby was at risk.”

“What about Milly?”

“I’m keeping her unconscious. The pain she would feel from the surgery is the worst the first twenty-four to thirty-six hours post-operation. The incision is looking healthy this morning. Her leg looks good, no sign of gangrene. I plan to wake her up later tonight or maybe tomorrow morning.”

Lucas bent over and kissed his wife and swept her bangs from her face.

“Lucas, there’s one more thing you should know. I didn’t tell Mark last night because he and Hope had enough on their minds…”

“What?” Lucas asked as he turned to look at Thadd.

“You should know that Milly won’t be able to have any more children.”

“I don’t understand,” Lucas stated. “She’s healthy, not like Margaret.”

“Lucas, the cesarean section that I performed to save your son’s life… How do I say this? Even though the incision will heal, the surgical sight will never be as strong as it was prior to the operation. Any future pregnancy would put Milly’s and a baby’s life at risk, the further the pregnancy progressed. A woman’s body can only handle one cesarean section and a natural delivery is out of the question for any future pregnancies. As physicians, we’re trained to save lives and to do this, I had to operate so as to prevent any future risk to Milly’s life. Standard procedure, as outlined by the American Medical Association, dictates that I had to remove her womb. You will still be able to be intimate with her, but she’ll never be able to conceive a child again. I’m sorry Lucas.”

*****

As he stood outside the door, Mark heard Thadd’s words to his Pa.

****

“Doc, where is the baby?” Lucas asked as he tried to accept the news that Thadd had given him.

“Right now he’s at the hotel with your daughter-in-law, Hope’s nursing him,” Thadd stated.

Lucas bent over Milly one more time and placed a kiss to her lips, “Milly, please know I love you. I’ll be here when you wake.”

Thadd led Lucas from the room. Mark was waiting, tears streaming down his face.

“You heard?” Thadd asked.

Mark couldn’t speak, he just nodded.

“Mark, take your father to meet his son. It won’t be until later tonight that I’ll allow Milly to wake, if not tomorrow.”

*****

As they walked to the hotel, Mark thought of what to say to his Pa. He couldn’t get Thadd’s words out of his head, how his Ma’s life would have been at risk if she were to ever have another child – ‘She’ll never be able to conceive another child again.’ He worried about how he would have felt, had it been Hope.

“Pa, Ma will get better and she’s given you three children,” Mark stated as they stood outside the door to the hotel room, where Hope and his brother were waiting. “I’m…”

“Mark, I don’t care about that part, I only care that she recovers. I’d love her regardless, even if she’d never been able to give me a child. How is Hope handling the fact that she’s nursing your brother?”

“We talked last night and she feels strange…” He knocked and waited for Hope to answer.

“Come in,” came Hope’s voice from the other side of the door.

Mark opened the door to see Colleen placing Eli back in his cradle and Hope starting to get up from the chair. Lucas motioned for Hope to remain sitting. As they entered, Colleen offered her sympathies and left the room.

“Pa?” Hope stated. “I’m so sorry. I should have been quicker to get to Ma. I shouldn’t have gone to take Myra for a ride. If I hadn’t, she wouldn’t…”

“Hope,” Lucas stated. “Don’t. It happened. Thadd said she was holding her own. He also told me you were taking care of our son.”

Lucas walked to where Hope was. Hope handed the baby to Lucas, then stood up and stepped aside for him to sit in the chair. Hope then proceeded behind the partition in the corner of the room. A few minutes later, Hope came out from behind, dressed, the nightgown draped over her arm.

“He’s so small. So much smaller than Myra or Little Ted,” Lucas stated as he opened the blanket that wrapped his son and counted his fingers and toes.

“Pa, Doc said he was at least three weeks pre-mature. We have to keep him warm. Doc will probably want to see him this morning.”

“We’ll head back over in a few minutes,” Lucas stated as he re-wrapped his son and then wrapped him in another blanket. “Hope, you’ll never know what this means to me. I’m thankful.”

“Pa, we’re family. I would have, even if Thadd hadn’t asked,” Hope replied as she finished putting her hair into a pony tail.

Mark picked Eli up from his crib and together, the family headed over to the clinic.

*****

Mark left his Pa and wife at the clinic and headed to Nils’, he needed to borrow a horse to head back to the ranch. As he entered, he was somberly greeted by Nils, “Hi Mark.”

“Hi Nils. I need to borrow a horse to get back to the ranch, got chores that need to be done.”

“Don’t worry about your chores Mark. Jake McCafferty left here about two hours ago said he was heading out to your place to take care of things.”

Once he saw the expression on Mark’s face, Nils added, “Mark, you are so much like your father, but I think you’ll understand that your friends want to help you out as best they can. If he’s not back here by one, I’ll ride out personally and make sure he gets back to town.”

“Thanks Nils,” Mark said as he turned to head back to the clinic.

*****

Knowing that he hadn’t eaten, nor had Hope, he thought that neither had his Pa, Mark stopped by the restaurant and ordered breakfast for everyone.

“Mark, ye head on over to the clinic and I’ll bring it to ye and yer family,” Lou stated.

“Thanks Lou. I appreciate it.”

*****

Lucas and Mark were in the room later the next morning, when Milly’s eye finally started to flutter. Lucas sat down on the edge of the bed and waited for Milly to fully wake. He brushed back her bangs and lovingly looked at his wife.

“Lucas?” Milly asked quietly.

“I’m here.”

Mark quietly slipped from the room to go get Doc Burrage.

“Lucas, I hurt,” Milly stated as she raised her hands to grab at the pain she felt in her abdomen. “The baby! Lucas, the baby!”

“Shhh. Hush now. Our son is doing fine. Shhhh. Breathe slowly and try to relax.”

“What happened?!” Milly asked. Fear could be heard in her voice.

“You don’t remember?” Lucas replied.

“Not really, everything is foggy,” Milly spoke and raised her hand to her head.

“That’s to be expected Milly,” Thadd stated as he entered the room. “I had to perform emergency surgery on you, to save your life and the life of your son.”

“My son?” Milly asked, still confused at what was happening.

“Milly, we’ll tell you all the details when you’re stronger. Right now, just know that you’re getting better and your son is growing stronger.”

“Where is he?” asked Milly.

“Right now, he’s with Hope over at the hotel. I felt it was better that he was kept from here, since I do have a few sick people, I didn’t want to risk exposing him unnecessarily. If you’d like, I can send Mark to go get them and bring them to you.”

“My son, please can I see my son?” Milly cried.

“Shhh. Quiet Milly. Mark’s going to get them, they’ll be here in a few minutes.”

*****

Mark made sure his brother was well wrapped as he watched Hope put her jacket on. Mark handed his brother to Hope and then picked up Eli and together, they headed over to the clinic.

Abigail was waiting for them as they arrived, “Here let me take Eli from you. I’ll take care of him until you’re ready to return to the hotel.”

*****

Hope carried the baby into the room. She saw Milly try to sit up and heard as she cried out in pain. Lucas pushed Milly to lie back down.

“Not yet Milly. Let me get some pillows and I’ll help prop you up, but you’re not to sit up on your own for a few more days,” Lucas pleaded.

After Lucas had propped Milly up, Hope handed Milly her son.

“Is he okay?”

“He’ll be fine Milly,” Thadd stated. “We just need to be careful with him in these cooler temperatures outside, since he was pre-mature. Your family just needs to keep him well wrapped when he’s asleep and taking him from one place to another.”

“Did he take to a bottle okay?”

“Ma, I….” Hope started to answer. “Ma, because he’s so tiny, Thadd preferred that he be breast fed. And since I was still, sort of, nursing Eli, he asked if I wouldn’t mind, just until you’re able to.”

Milly looked to Thadd and asked, “When can I?”

“We’ll see how you’re doing by this weekend. Right now there’s still too much of the medications in your body that your son doesn’t need.”

Turning her attention back to Lucas, she asked, “Have you named him?”

“No. I wanted to wait until you woke up. I named Little Ted, I think this time, you should be the one to name our son,” Lucas stated.

“I had been thinking of Levi Matthew, if we had a son,” Milly stated in a quieter voice.

Seeing that Milly was tiring, Lucas held out his hands to hold their son, “Come here Levi Matthew. It’s time for your Ma to take a nap.”

“But I’m not…”

“Yes you are.”

“Milly, I would like to give you some laudanum,” Thadd stated. “Just for the next few days. Since you’re going to be awake for a while, it will help reduce some of the pain that you’re experiencing. We’ll try to get you up from the bed and maybe into a chair come tomorrow evening.”

Thadd handed Milly a glass of water laced with Laudanum. “I promise that until you fall asleep, Lucas will stay in here, with the ba… with Levi.”

*****

Milly got stronger each day and as Thadd stated, they did get her up and out of bed and into a chair by the second day after she woke. Just that little effort exhausted her.

“Milly, I promise, by the weekend, most of your pain will be gone and you’ll be able to get up and walk around on your own. But for now, just have a seat and I’ll have Abigail go get Hope and bring Levi over to you.”

Hope arrived just as Lucas arrived with supper for Milly. Milly had just finished eating, when Levi started to get fussy, “I think he’s getting hungry,” Hope stated as she stood up.

“Hope, why don’t you stay in here to nurse him,” Lucas stated.

“I…” she looked back to Lucas and then to Milly.

“Don’t worry, I’ll take these dishes back to the restaurant and I’ll go visit with Johnny, Mark, and Seth at the Marshal’s.”

Hope looked quite a bit relieved. After Lucas left, Hope sat in the chair, unbuttoned her blouse and then untied her camisole. She lifted the baby to her breast and spoke, “Ma, I know how difficult this must be for you…”

“Hope, remember the fall, after you and Mark were married, the woman who died during child birth and Thadd asked that I nurse the baby?”

“I do now. I had forgotten about that,” Hope replied.

“I’m just thankful that someone was here to help out and I’m even more pleased that it was you.”

*****

Lucas, Mark holding Eli, and Hope holding Levi, waited in Thadd’s office while Thadd examined Milly. It had been six days since Levi had been born. The door opened and Abigail invited the family to come to the examination room.

“Okay, I’m going to allow Milly to go home today, but first I want to make sure that she can nurse Levi a couple different times, before she leaves. So it will probably be this afternoon. She’s not to do any lifting for the next two weeks. If nursing goes well this afternoon, then when she’s home, she’ll sit in a chair and one of you will bring the baby to her. I want to see Milly back here in two weeks, and only in two weeks, I don’t want her traveling until then, and at that time, I might lift the restriction.”

Hope handed Levi to Milly.

“Lucas,” Thadd stated. “Why don’t you and Mark go ahead and get the other children home. Then this afternoon, you can take Milly and Hope home with Levi and Eli. Mark you wouldn’t mind staying at home with the youngsters until Lucas can get the rest of your family home?”

“No, I can get the others settled at home and wait for Pa to bring them home.”

*****

Milly had been home for two days when Lucas pulled out their family bible and carried it to the table and opened it. He helped Milly up from her chair and escorted her to the table, where beneath Theodore Scott McCain’s name, Milly wrote, Levi Matthew McCain, born, and March 2, 1891.

*****

It had been two weeks since Milly and Levi had come home and Hope woke one morning nauseatingly sick. As she struggled with her morning chores, she wondered. Later that day, Lucas hitched the team to the buckboard, they were to take Milly and Levi to town for their check-ups. Since it was Friday, the entire family headed to town and planned to meet Mark for supper, later. Mark had headed into town earlier in the morning. He was to meet with several of his new deputies, before standing his shift.

*****

Upon their arrival, they left the younger children, except Levi, with Hattie and Micah at the day care.

Thadd was pleased to see how well Milly’s incision had healed and the skin around the snake bite had healed, healthy. Next, Thadd examined Levi and proclaimed him quite healthy.

“Milly, there’s some more news that you need to know.”

From the tone of his voice, Milly could tell something was wrong, “Doc, you’re scaring me a little. What other news is there?”

“Milly, in order to save your life and Levi’s, I had to perform a cesarean section and during the cesarean section, I had to remove your uterus. Milly, Levi is the last child you will be able to conceive.” He knew the way that Milly would react, he had seen it several times, back in Boston. “Milly, it was the only way. Its standard procedure as dictated by the American Medical Association. They just recently trained us to use the procedure to save the life of a woman and the baby. Before, it was only a last ditch procedure, to save the life of a baby, done once the woman had passed.”

Through her tears she asked, “Does Lucas know?”

“Yes, he’s known since the morning after Levi was born.”

“He didn’t say anything….” Milly stated as she became more upset.

“I asked him not to. I didn’t feel you would be strong enough to hear the facts until today. I am sorry. But you have three beautiful children and as a woman approaches your age, their ability to conceive diminishes. It could be that Levi would have been the last child you would be able to conceive, even if the surgery hadn’t happened. I’ll give you a few minutes alone, if you’d like?” Thadd asked with compassion in his voice.

*****

As Thadd stepped to go to his office to meet Lucas, Hope was waiting for him in the hallway.

“Doc, do you have a moment?” she asked.

“Sure, is anything wrong?”

“Not wrong, I just think that I’m pregnant again. Mark told me about Milly… And…”

“Come inside, no need to discuss this in the open.”

Doc led Hope to another examination room where they could talk.

As he closed the door, Thadd asked, “Now, how can I help you?”

“Doc, I didn’t plan to become pregnant…” Hope stated.

“Not too many women plan. Most women hope and pray to become pregnant. Hope, it comes from the love you and Mark share when you are intimate with each other. Sometimes it’s the right time and a woman finds out she’s carrying a new life inside her. Other times, a woman can be as intimate with her husband as she wants and for some reason, she never conceives a child.”

“But today… Today was the day you were to tell Ma that she can no longer have any more children and I…” Hope averted her eyes.

“You’re feeling a little ‘guilty’?” Thadd asked.

“I guess you could say that. It’s just that, while this new life grows inside me, every time Ma see’s me, it’s going to remind her of her loss.”

“Hope, it may or it may not. Give her time to adjust. The good news is that she has the new baby and she’s healthy enough to care for Levi. She has given Lucas three beautiful children. I don’t believe she’ll hold it against you that you and Mark are having another child. Besides, your children will be her grandchildren.”

Then turning back to Hope and her pregnancy, “Okay, let me examine you just to confirm you’re pregnant?”

“No, I know the symptoms. Could you write a prescription for me to help ease the morning sickness?” Hope asked.

“I can. But first let me just confirm, besides, I’m the doctor.” After examining Hope and confirming that she was indeed pregnant, he wrote out a prescription and said, “Just remember, to help keep the nausea down, eat smaller frequent meals. When do you think the child was conceived?”

“Right after Christmas,” Hope replied. “It was that really cold night right after Christmas.” Hope blushed.

“Okay, so you’ll be about three months along now. I want to see you in two months. I should be able to tell by then if you’re carrying twins, again.”

“I hope I’m not carrying twins.”

“We’ll find out in about two months. Have you told Mark?

“Not yet, he left home before I woke this morning and was busy at the Marshal’s Office when we arrived.”

“I’d wait to tell him in private. Don’t do it in town. Okay?”

“Thank you.”

“Now, get out of here, I have sick patients who need me.”

*****

The families, McCain, Gibbs, Lane, Torrance, and Drako, had supper together at the restaurant that evening. No one but the McCain’s new about what else happened with Milly and her surgery. After supper, Mark bid goodnight to his family as he and Johnny returned to the Marshal’s Office.

*****

Milly tried to put on a brave face, but that night, Lucas knew his wife is upset and why. They talked after the children were put to bed.

“What kind of a wife can I be if I can no longer conceive your children?” Milly cried while Lucas held her.

“You can be the wife I married. I didn’t ask you to give me children and I would love you all the same, even if you had never given me one child.”

“You don’t understand…”

“Milly, there’s nothing to understand, except that I love you. In sickness and in health, for richer for poorer, in good times or bad. I don’t recall anything saying whether you could or could not give me children.” Lucas looked into Milly’s eye and saw that she was starting to accept the news and that Lucas was being sincere in his accepting of the facts. “Besides, don’t you think four children and three grandchildren are enough?”

“I just wanted to give you more,” Milly answered quietly as she leaned back to Lucas’ bare chest.

“Milly, you have. You gave me three more children.” Lucas took a real deep breath before he spoke next. “Milly, I accepted what Doc did because he did it to save your life. I don’t think I could live without you. Losing Margaret almost destroyed me. After Johnny told me you’d been bitten and that Doc had to perform surgery to take the baby, in those next few moments, I felt all the pain and suffering after I lost Margaret, but I felt it for you. I know that God only has given us now and we don’t know what tomorrow will hold, but if this means I have a better chance of not losing you…”

“Lucas, I understand and I love you.”

Lucas pressed a kiss to Milly’s head and the fell asleep in each other’s arms.

*****

Hope had put all three of her sons to bed and then crawled into her own bed. As she lay there, she ran her hands over her stomach, curious about the life that was growing inside. She remembered all she experienced from her two previous pregnancies, as her sons had grown inside her womb. Hope was excited to tell her husband the news when they arrived home from church on Sunday. She worried about how Milly would take the news.

*****

Excitement woke Hope early Sunday morning, today was the day she would tell Mark they were expecting another child. And after bathing, she cooked breakfast and then went to wake the boys. As they were finishing breakfast, Hope looked up at hearing someone step to the front porch; she saw Lucas’ silhouette, “Come on in Pa.”

“How’s everyone this morning?” Lucas asked as he opened the door and stepped inside.

“Ganpa, Ganpa,” the twins called.

“We’re fine. Give us a while to finish getting ready for church.”

“Hope, Milly’s not feeling up to going church today, so if you don’t mind, we’re planning to read from the Good Book, just come over whenever you and the boys are ready.”

“But Mark…”

“I told him Friday that there was a possibility that we may not be at church this morning. Right now, I’m willing to let Milly sort this out and give her all the time she needs to make the adjustment.”

“Is she doing okay?”

“She is, but I don’t want to push her. I’ve told her that no one outside of this family knows, except Doc, and he has to respect the doctor/patient confidentiality. I think by next week, she’ll be ready to go back to church.”

“We’ll be over in probably an hour then.”

“See you, and you boys don’t give your Ma too much of a fit about your baths or I will dunk you in the horse trough just for good measures.”

“No GanPa, that water cold!” Zach stated.

“Then mind your ma.”

“Yes sir,” Josh said.

*****

Hope carried Eli, while she and the twins walked to Lucas and Milly’s. She told Josh and Zach to have a seat next to Little Ted. Lucas held Levi while Milly got seated in her chair, then he handed their son to her. He had pulled an overstuffed chair from their bedroom for Hope to sit in, on her lap, she held Eli. Lucas sat in his chair and picked up his bible and read.

It was nearing lunch time when Levi started getting fussy and Milly picked him up and headed to the bedroom to allow him to nurse. Hope started fixing lunch with the help of Myra, while Lucas was playing on the floor with his middle son and grandsons. Lunch was almost on the table when they heard a rider approaching. Lucas stood and walked to the door.

“Mark’s home,” he stated as he opened the door.

Mark entered and placed his rifle over the fireplace mantle, and was greeted by his sons, as well as his little brother. He bent down to Little Ted, Josh, and Zach and gave each of them a hug, stating how he had missed them. He stood up to remove his hat and before he knew what was happening, Hope and Myra were calling “Eli!” Mark turned around to see that Eli had pulled himself up to stand and was attempting to walk to him, holding onto a chair. Mark held his arms out and Eli took two steps without assistance. Mark grabbed him before Eli plopped on his fanny.

“Well, seems you can walk, but not yet talk, Eli.” Mark stated with a huge grin on his face. “When did this happen?”

“Just now, that’s the first time I’ve seen him try to walk,” Hope answered.

Myra ran to her parents’ bedroom and knocked before calling, “Mama, Eli took his first steps.”

Shortly Milly came from the bedroom.

“So Mark, I hear that your youngest should be ready to walk down the aisle any time?”

“Ma?!” Hope replied, a little surprised.

“It’s okay Hope. Ma’s just getting even with me for saying the same thing when Gabby took her first steps. If I remember correctly, that was the day you declared it wasn’t ‘our’ bed, since I was off protecting the town and leaving you here to defend yourself.”

“Oh Mark, you remembered that?” Hope asked.

“I remember everything about every day that we’re together.”

The family had a good laugh and everyone prepared to sit down for lunch. Afterwards, Mark and Hope took their family home, with the two of them holding a hand, Eli walked between them.

*****

As Mark prepared for bed that night, Hope sat on the edge of the bed brushing her hair.

“Mark, I’m happy to hear that Ma and Levi are going to be okay,” Hope quietly spoke.

“I was too. I worried how she was going to take the news. Pa and I talked and he said it didn’t matter if Ma couldn’t give him any children, he loved her. But he knew that it would be a difficult pill for her to swallow. I tried to imagine what it would be like if I had been given the same news about you…”

“And?”

“Like Pa, I fell in love with you. Whether you couldn’t have children or whether we have one or three children, I love you.”

Mark crawled into bed and pulled Hope to him, wrapped his arms around her, and kissed the base of her neck, from where she had brushed her hair to the other side.

“What about four children?” Hope asked as she pulled his hands to her stomach.

“Four?”

“Uh huh?”

“Eli’s not quite a year old. Don’t you think we should wait?” Mark answered. “I mean, give Ma time to adjust to learning she can’t have any more children?”

“It’s a little too late for that,” Hope stated as she let go of Mark’s hands and turned around to face him.

The expression on Mark’s faced was asking. Hope answered, before Mark could ask. “I talked with Doc Burrage and he confirmed my pregnancy, after he was through examining Ma and Levi on Friday.”

“Are you sure?”

“Mark, I’ve given birth to three sons. Don’t you think I know what it’s like to be pregnant? Besides you were the one who didn’t want to wait for the pot bellied stove to warm up the room, right after Christmas.”

Mark pulled Hope close to him and laid her down on her back. He lay down next to her and propped himself up with his elbow and then tenderly ran his hand over her belly.

“How could I have missed the fact that you are pregnant?” Mark asked.

“We’ve all had quite a bit on our minds lately. I talked with Doc. I’m worried about how Ma will take the news. What guilt or hurt will I cause her because my pregnancy will remind her, what she can no longer have.”

“Hope, no. Don’t think that way. She and Pa have three beautiful children together and our children will be her grandchildren. So this means you’ve not told Ma?”

Hope shook her head.

“We’ll tell her and Pa in the morning.” Mark laid himself down, but continued to rub his hand over Hope’s belly.

*****

The following morning, Mark and Hope let the boys sleep in. They quietly left the house and walked over to his parents’. Milly was on the porch, giving Lucas a kiss as he got ready to head to the barn.

“Pa, Ma?” Mark called.

“Good Morning!” Milly replied.

Lucas saw Mark’s arm wrapped around Hope and from the expression on their faces and their body postures, he gathered something was amiss. “Something wrong son?” he asked.

Milly’s expression changed in hearing Lucas question.

“Nothing’s wrong but we have some news we need to tell you.” They followed Lucas and Milly into their home.

“Don’t tell us that Tom is transferring you from North Fork?” Lucas asked.

“No Pa, it’s nothing like that,” Mark answered. “It’s just that you should know that you’re going to be grandparents again.”

“You’re pregnant?” Milly asked. “How long have you known?”

“I had an inkling for maybe about two weeks, but Doc confirmed it Friday, when we went to town for you and Levi.”

“Why didn’t you say anything Friday evening or yesterday,” Milly asked.

“Because you just received the news from Thadd. Ma, please we didn’t plan this pregnancy and I feel so…”

“Stop it right there young lady,” Milly declared. “I will not have you feeling guilty about your blessing. Child, God gave me the chance to bless Lucas with three children. Doc did point out that even if he hadn’t been forced to perform the surgery on me, that Levi might have been the last child I could conceive. I’m quite a few years older than you and it’s only natural at some time in my life I would lose the ability to bear any more children.”

Milly hugged Hope tightly, both had tears in their eyes. “Besides, that little blessing you are carrying is my grandchild.”

“Then you’re not upset?” Hope asked.

“No, I’m blessed. Have you told your father?”

“No, I just told Mark last night, I thought maybe we could invite father out for supper this week and we’d inform him then.”

The Next Generation… Chapter 58 – In the Company of Death

Spring had arrived in the New Mexico Territory. Lucas and Mark, with the help of Jacob McCafferty had spent time riding and mending the fence lines and rounding up the cattle herds and moving them to the spring pastures for calving.

One morning, as Mark was preparing to head into town to stand his shift, he asked, “Okay, what’s wrong? I can see it in your eyes that some things not right. Is the baby okay?”

Hope sat in the chair in their bedroom, her pregnancy showing. “Just a feeling. Do you have to go to town today?” Hope asked.

Mark walked over and knelt next to his wife, “You know I do. As much as North Fork has grown, it takes two of us standing watch to make sure everything is as it should be. Now, tell me, why do you look so worried?”

“Mark, last night, I had a vision. The elders came to me,” Hope answered.

“The elders?”

“Yes, the same ones who told me, you would come and take me home.” Hope quieted and looked away from Mark.

“What did they tell you this time?” Mark asked as he placed his hand to Hope’s chin and turned her face towards his.

“They didn’t say anything exactly. It’s just a feeling that I felt, extreme sorrow, as if they were mourning. I just can’t shake it. I just feel that something’s going to happen. I wish you didn’t have to go to town today.”

“Hope, I’ll be fine. North Fork has a good reputation and her people look out for her, but we still have plenty of strangers arriving on the train and then drifters traveling through. I’m standing my watch today with your father, we make a pretty good team, and we look out for each other. And you know every store owner looks out for us as well.”

“I know, it’s just that the vision… there was such urgency about it but… Mark, please promise you’ll be extra careful today?” Hope asked, her eyes pleaded.

“Tell you what, Doc stated Levi was old enough and doing well enough, and I think Ma would probably like to get off the property for a little while. Why don’t you ask Pa to hitch the team and the two of you ride out to the Bullock’s and spend some time with Tessa today. I mean, she might enjoy receiving advice from you and Ma.” Mark stated as he rubbed his hand over Hope’s pregnant belly.

“Advice? Are Percy and Tessa having problems?”

“Sort of, I ran into Percy out on the road yesterday. He told me that they had just found out that Tessa is pregnant with their first child.”

“Tessa is pregnant?” a sparkle came into Hope’s eyes.

“Yes, she’s only a few months behind you. Hope, I’ll be fine and so will your father. Take Ma and Levi, and go visit Tessa, I think you’ll both be happier spending the day away from the Ranch. I’ll ask Hattie if she wouldn’t mind coming out here to keep an eye on the boys and Gabby. I think Micah can handle the two boys that are supposed to be in at the day care today. Please?” Mark asked.

Hope nodded and closed her eyes as Mark gave her a goodbye kiss. Mark helped Hope stand from her chair and he offered his arm to her.

*****

As Mark entered the front room, he was greeted by his rowdy soon to be three year old, twin sons and Eli, who had just celebrated his first birthday the month before.

“Papa, Papa, you play wiff us today?” Josh asked.

“No, not today. I have to go to work. But if all three of you are good boys, then this weekend, I’ll ask your Mama if the four of us can go fishing at the pond after Church.”

“We go fishin’ after Church?” Zach asked.

“Only, if you three behave.” Mark stood and pointed his index finger to all three of his sons, in turn and asked, “So you’ll be good for your Mama?”

The three nodded.

“Okay, I love you and I’ll see you day after tomorrow.”

After kissing each one of his sons, Mark picked up his rifle from over the fireplace, grabbed his hat from the hook on the wall and left the house, pulling the door closed behind him.

*****

Later that morning, after putting the boys down for their morning nap, Hope walked to Milly’s and knocked before entering. Myra was sitting at the table reading, while Lucas held a sleeping Levi, as Milly finished washing dishes.

“Pa, I think Ma and I need to get off the property for a little while and go visit Tessa. Could you hitch the team to the buckboard for us?” Hope asked.

“And what about the children, I need to ride out this afternoon and check on the new stock that came in last week,” Lucas replied.

“Mark’s going to ask Hattie to come out today. Pa, other than church and visiting Doc Burrage, Ma hasn’t gotten off the property much since Levi was born. And besides, Mark informed me this morning that Percy told him yesterday they just found out that Tessa’s expecting.”

“Tessa’s pregnant?” Milly exclaimed.

“Please Pa, I think it would be good for Ma and me.”

“Oh Lucas, it would just be for a few hours,” Milly pleaded.

Before Lucas could answer, there was a knock at their door and before they could answer, Hattie opened the door.

“I was told there was a need of a grandmother out here today.”

“Okay, I know when to do as I’m bid. Morning, Hattie. Let me get the buckboard hitched and you two can head on out.”

“Hattie, if you don’t mind, helping me get the boys from our house to here?”

“Sure Hope, lead on. I’m here until you and Milly get home.”

Once all the McCain children were in one house and the team hitched, Hope drove the team while Milly cradled Levi in her arms.

*****

It was close to supper time when Hope and Milly returned to the ranch, laughing.

“Just a few hours, heh?” Lucas stated. “Sounds as if you ladies had a wonderful day with Tessa.”

“Oh, Lucas it was wonderful. Just us women. Tessa’s feeling so much better about what to expect during her pregnancy and well, oh my, I think we better get inside so that Hattie can head on home,” Milly stated.

“Don’t worry about Hattie, I sent her back to town about an hour and a half ago.”

Milly looked to Hope who had looked to her, both had truly enjoyed their day away. Milly handed Levi to Hope and allowed Lucas to lift her down from the buckboard. Hope handed Levi back to Milly, scooted across the seat and allowed Lucas to lift her down. Lucas headed the team to the barn to unhitch the horses.

Their children greeted them as they entered Lucas and Milly’s home.

*****

The railroad was bringing more and more people west, enroute to Arizona and then on to southern California. A late spring thunderstorm had started falling that night and things had been pretty quiet for Mark and Seth, for the most part, until just after midnight. Mark and Seth followed Sweeney back to the saloon to break up a rowdy fight between two patrons.

“Too many new people in town,” Sweeney stated as he stood outside the saloon, rain poured off the veranda. “And then…”

“Don’t worry Sweeney,” Mark stated as he held his rifle on one of the two fighters. “Just come to the office in the morning if you want to prefer charges or collect for damages. I’m sure they’ll be sobered up by morning.”

“I just don’t understand, these two were already drunk before they ever stepped foot in my saloon. I tried to cut them off, but that made them angry and they started fighting.”

“It’s not your fault Sweeney. Some men just don’t know when to say no or when to take sage advice,” Seth commented.

Mark and Seth motioned for the two men to head across the street. Halfway across the street, they were distracted when they heard horses running and splashing through the mud and puddles standing in the street, coming up behind them. Without warning, the man in front of Seth turned and grabbed for the gun Seth had on him, a struggle ensued and the gun shot could be heard along the street. Seth tried to continue the fight, but the pain was too intense and he fell to his knees before he slumped to the ground.

The man Mark was leading turned and grabbed for his rifle. Mark and the cowboy struggled, but the man had at least one hundred pounds on Mark, and was almost as tall as his Pa. With one hand the cowboy reached up behind his neck and pulled a hidden knife from the back of his shirt collar, he plunged the knife below Mark’s rib cage and wrenched the rifle from Mark’s hands. As Mark grabbed at his wound, the cowboy used the butt of Mark’s rifle to punch Mark across the jaw, knocking him out cold. Mark collapsed, falling face first to the ground. The approaching riders were yelling, as they rode, and firing at the two prone figures lying in the street and anywhere else they felt like.

Sweeney stared in disbelief as the scene unfolded in front of him, he ducked as a shot ricocheted off the post next to him. As the riders ran their horses from town, Sweeney ran into the street, knelt down in the mud and checked for a pulse at Seth’s throat, next he crawled on his knees to Mark, turned him over so he was no longer face down in the mud. He didn’t need to feel for a pulse at Mark’s throat, he heard him moan. Sweeney looked up and saw various windows being illuminated. Sweeney yelled, “Someone get Doc and someone get Drako!”

Nils Swenson and Johnny Gibbs were first to arrive on the scene.

“My God!” Nils declared.

“Johnny, go get Lucas and Hope. They got to know!” Sweeney yelled. “Nils go get Drako!”

John Hamilton and Frank Toomey were running up, as Sweeney hollered, “Frank, go get Doc Burrage, let him know Mark and Seth been shot.”

“Sweeney, what can I do?” John asked.

“It looks like Seth got a chest wound, put pressure on it to help stop the bleeding,” Sweeney replied.

“What about Mark? How bad is he?” John asked.

“He’s shot in the back and the stabbed below the rib cage. He’s bleeding pretty badly. John, I can feel his blood running through my fingers.” Sweeney was doing his best to stay calm and to try to stem the flow of blood.

Nils returned with Johnny Drako, with Sam Barrows close behind.

Nils and Johnny carried Seth over to the clinic while Sweeney and Sam carried Mark. Both were placed on the examination tables in the same room.

“What happened?” Johnny demanded.

“They were taking two drunks to the jail. Then a bunch of riders come racing down the street, the two ‘drunks’ jumped ‘em and then one of the drunks grabbed Seth’s gun and in the struggle it went off. The other drunk pulled out a hidden knife and stabbed Mark and struck him in the face with the rifle butt. As the riders raced by, one of them fired at them both and then another took a pot shot at me and… I didn’t see where else they fired. One of the bullets struck Mark in the back. Johnny Gibbs is on his way out to the McCain Ranch to get Lucas and Hope. Johnny, I thought they were drunks, but when they were fighting, they didn’t seem that drunk to me…”

Thadd and Abigail entered the room, followed shortly by Doc Jay, Toomey stayed in the hallway.

“Doc, I need to get a posse together and go after those men. You be okay?” Johnny asked.

“There’s too many people in here already. Everyone but John and Sweeney get out of here. Where are they shot?”

“Seth took one to his chest and John’s applying pressure to it. Mark took one to the back, just below his shoulder blade,” Sweeney replied. “He’s also been stabbed.”

“Abigail, Uncle Jay, start stripping their shirts and cleaning the areas around their wounds of mud.”

The room was quiet except for the moaning from the wounded men and the ragged gasps coming from Mark he struggled to breath. The only other sound was the noises made as Thadd, Abigail, and Jay prepared for surgery.

“Thadd, if Seth has a chest wound,” Abigail started to ask. “Do you want to operate on him first?”

“No, I think Mark’s more serious, listen to him struggling to breathe. Abigail, once you have them cleaned up, you know enough to use the locater tool to follow the route the bullet took. Uncle Jay, I know your hands aren’t that steady anymore, but you can talk Abigail through what she needs to do. Sweeney, keep the pressure as best you can on Mark’s back and front. I’ll finish setting up for surgery.”

It was close to one o’clock when Thadd started to perform surgery on his friend.

*****

Johnny Gibbs ran to the livery and hurriedly saddled up his horse. He raced his horse from town along the road that would lead him to his brother-in-law’s home. The rain storm intensified as he rode, with lightning flashing rapidly enough to light his way. His horse slid as Johnny pulled the horse to a stop and jumped down from the saddle and ran to the porch.

Pounding on the front door, yelling, “LUCAS! LUCAS! WAKE UP!”

A few moments later, with only his pants pulled on, Lucas opened the door.

“Johnny, what are you doing out…”

“Lucas it’s Mark, he’s been shot and Seth too.”

“Shot?!” Lucas exclaimed.

“Sweeney sent me to get you and Hope.”

“Get to the barn and saddle our horses. We don’t have time to hitch the team. Let me get dressed…”

“Lucas, what?” Milly called, pulling on her robe, as she came from their bedroom.

“Milly, get dressed. Seth and Mark have been shot.”

“Lucas!?” Milly exclaimed in shock as she covered her mouth with her hands. Myra and Little Ted started calling from their bedrooms.

As he finished dressing, Lucas called, “Milly take care of them. I’m going to get Hope and bring the grandchildren over here. Then Hope and I’ll ride to town.”

“Lucas, it’s a thunderstorm out there. You can’t be serious?”

“Milly, it’s her husband and father. It’s Mark…” Lucas’ eyes pleaded.

“Lucas, she’s pregnant!”

*****

Lucas carried the sleeping Josh and returned a few minutes later carrying a sleeping Zach into the house and set them in his bed, allowing Hope time to get dressed. Hope carried Eli and handed him to Milly. Milly saw how distraught Hope was by the fact she couldn’t say anything.

“Go with God’s speed,” Milly stated as they ran from the house.

*****

Lucas, Hope, and Johnny raced their horses to town. Lucas helped Hope get down from her horse and into the clinic. “How are they?” Lucas asked.

“Seth’s out of danger. Abigail and Doc Jay got the bullet out. It struck a rib and veered around his rib cage a little bit,” Sweeney stated. “They’re keeping him sedated until morning.”

“And Mark?” Hope managed to ask, grabbing at her pregnant belly. Sweeney led them back to Doc’s Office, insisting that Hope sit as he pulled out a blanket to wrap around her.

“Thadd’s still operating.” Looking to Lucas, Sweeney continued, “He was stabbed below the rib cage and then shot in the back and… for a few moments he was face down in the puddles out in the street. I got to him as quick as I could. Lucas, I’m still shaking. I guess we all are. We all remember Mark when you two first arrived here. Drako’s getting together a posse. No one’s left town since those outlaws did, Johnny didn’t want to disturb the tracks. Lucas, Johnny, leave Hope with me and head on over to the jail. There’s nothing you can do here, but Drako could use both of you. He said he was going to head out as soon as you got here.”

Lucas and Johnny started to leave, “Lucas there’s something else…”

“What is it Sweeney?” Lucas asked.

“I thought them two were drunks, they sure looked like it and got in a fight when I tried to cut them off and suggest they go sleep it off, but when they were fighting Mark and Seth…”

“Go on, man,” Johnny demanded.

“They didn’t seem that drunk when they were fighting and then running for their horses. Be careful out there. Something just don’t feel right about this at all.”

“Sweeney, I leave my family and Johnny’s in this town’s care while we’re gone.”

“They’ll be looked after. My misses went to get some food prepared for the posse and then she’ll be back here. I’ll look after Hope.”

“Pa, please…” Hope pleaded.

“Be strong Hope. Pray to God on their behalf.”

*****

Lucas and Johnny entered the Marshal’s Office and stood to be sworn in as deputies on the posse. Before they could head out, Micah entered the office.

“Lucas you can’t go,” Micah stated. “What of Milly and Hope and your families?”

“And just why can’t I go?” Lucas asked angrily. “Those men tried to murder my son!”

“LucasBoy, you’re too closely involved. God forbid… Lucas, the last time, when you went after the Starks, you rode with vengeance…”

“Micah,” Drako interrupted. “From what I remember… the last time, Lucas rode alone. This time he’ll be with a posse.”

“Drako, make him stay here. You don’t know…”

“Micah, it was Benjamin Stark who shot Cougar, not me!” Lucas demanded.

“I know, but if you hadn’t run off their horses or gone after them on your own… Then don’t forget Chaqua.” Micah pleaded, “Lucas, when it comes to Mark you’re not yourself.”

“Not myself! I’m a father whose son is fighting for his life at the doctor’s office because two men tried to kill him! What kind of a father would I be if I allowed them to get away?!”

“A father who wants to see justice done and will leave it to those who can think rationally,” Micah answered.

“Rationally?!” Lucas stepped towards Micah, pointing his finger, “Micah, we’ve been good friends for a number of years, you know that no one and I mean, NO ONE harms my son and gets away with it.”

“Then leave it to Drako and the posse. Your wife and Mark’s wife, they’re gonna need you here.”

“No, I can’t let those men get away and you’re wasting precious time. You watch out over my children and Mark’s. I’m riding with the posse,” Lucas stated and stepped out the door to his horse.

“Micah,” Gibbs stated. ‘I know what you’re trying to say, you’re worried and concerned. This is something he needs to do, he’s never been one to sit around and wait. You know that. At least this time, the posse will be with him. I’m sure each and every one of us is glad that there is a posse. I don’t think there’s one man riding who isn’t thinking of what they would do, if they met these men, alone. Micah, we’ll keep him reined in, just don’t forget to pray for us.”

“And Mark,” Micah stated as he watched the posse ride from town, the rain still pouring.

*****

After Lucas left, Abigail came from the operating room, “Hope, would you agree to donate blood for Mark?”

“I don’t understand.”

“Hope, Mark’s lost so much blood, if we don’t perform what we call a transfusion he’s going to die regardless of what Thadd does. I’m sorry to be so blunt, but you have to know the urgency of the situation. Hope, follow me. Sweeney, why don’t you see if there is anyone else who can donate blood.”

Abigail led Hope into the room where Thadd was operating on Mark. She saw her father on another table in the same room. She saw a table set up with a partition on the other side. Hope heard the sounds of Thadd operating and realized that Mark was just on the other side. Abigail helped Hope up on the table and then positioned her and then inserted the needle into her arm. Hope waited as Abigail inserted a needle into Mark’s arm and then connected a small tube attached to a pumping mechanism.

“Will this hurt our baby?” Hope asked.

“We’re only going to take a little blood from you. Because you’re pregnant, your body will be able to replenish your blood supply quickly. Once we get Mark stabilized, we’ll try to find someone else to help donate blood.”

After ten minutes, Abigail pulled the needle from Hope’s arm and placed a piece of cotton over the spot and asked Hope to fold up her arm.

“Hope just lie still for a while, it’ll give your body time to adjust to losing the blood,” Abigail stated.

After a while, Abigail assisted Hope up from the table and led her back to the hallway. Startled by the number of people waiting, Abigail handed Hope over to Sweeney’s wife and recommended she take Hope to Thadd’s office and that she lie down and try to get some sleep. John Hamilton was next to donate.

“Abigail, when you’re through with John, take a glass laced with Laudanum and make Hope drink it. I don’t want her to go into early labor because of this. I want her to sleep for as long as we can keep her, until we know about Mark.”

As Abigail worked with each person to donate blood, Thadd continued to work on Mark. Each person who entered the room heard how dire the situation really was.

Mark had already received blood from Hope, John Hamilton, Reverend McCafferty, and Lou Drako when Abigail brought Micah into the room, but Thadd stopped them, “He can’t…”

“Thadd?” Micah asked.

“He’s already received blood from four other people. It’s too great a risk to give him blood from any more. He’ll have to do the rest of this on his own.” Not looking up as he continued to work, “Micah, I know you’d do anything for Mark, but I can’t risk it. He’s been lucky so far that his body has accepted the blood from the others…”

“I don’t understand,” a confused Micah asked.

“We don’t understand it yet, but sometimes the body will accept blood from some people and then reject it from others. Micah, when a body rejects the blood, the person… they end up dying.”

Abigail led Micah back to the hallway and thanked everyone for coming, but explained to them that they couldn’t risk giving Mark blood from anyone else.

*****

Thadd finished putting the last suture in place and tossed his instrument aside, then walked to a chair and sat down heavily. He didn’t even have the strength to wash the blood from his hands and arms. He removed his face mask as he closed his eyes to pray, he heard a rooster crowing from somewhere outside, indicating the day was dawning.

*****

As the morning sun rose, word of the shooting had already filtered through town and to the outlying ranches. Oat Jackford and several of his hands, as well as Dave Merar and a number of his ranch hands were in the Marshal’s office. Both ranchers were giving orders to station their men around their town and a number of men were assigned to watch over the clinic.

*****

The outlaws rode from town and met up with others in a cave, where they planned to wait out the storm.

“So you’re sure the Marshal’s dead?” one outlaw asked.

“If he ain’t, he will be soon,” the one called Rigby stated with a laugh, as he pulled out his knife and re-enacted the stabbing. “Between me stabbing him and Roysen shooting him, Drako should be dead by morning.” The light from the fire glinted off the steel of the blade of the knife.

“Not so sure of his deputy, but he’s going to be laid up for a while,” the one called Dahl stated.

“What of the third deputy?” another outlaw asked.

“They’s only two on duty at any one time, unless somp’en big is going on,” Dahl answered.

“Good, give them time to form a poorly organized posse and then North Fork is ours,” the first outlaw stated.

“Hey Billie, why you so interested in taking over this little town? Didn’t seem like much of a town, too quiet,” Rigby stated.

“Because it was Drako’s town. He turned against us a number of years back when that town could have been ours, ours for the taking. They only had a crippled old man as a marshal and some sodbuster with a rifle. It could have been ours, if Drako had stood with us that day. I’ve lived for the day we could return. Later I heard he’d turned lawman. I’ve been waiting for the day he’s gone soft for being a lawman. Waiting for the right day to come, after he settled down. He got a red-headed, fiery woman for a wife and heard he got two brats. I’m gonna take his town and I’m gonna take his woman… Ain’t nobody gonna run Billie Graves out of that town again.”

*****

Milly was anxiously paced the floor, praying for someone to come and tell her what was happening. It was just past nine o’clock when a wagon and two riders appeared, coming up the road and stopped in front of the house. Oat Jackford stayed on his horse, weapon in hand. John Hamilton stepped down, his rifle in hand, and Micah Torrance waited on the seat wagon, armed with his scatter gun.

“Milly, get the children and get them in the back of this wagon,” John called as he ran to the house. “We’ve got bedding in the back to cushion the ride back to town. It’s going to be a quick but rough ride. Get what you need. You’re not coming home until Lucas returns.”

As Milly ran back to the house to do as John asked, she saw Sam Montgomery run into the barn and come out with the team and tied them to the back of the wagon, he returned to the barn and came out with Razor and Blue Boy and tied one to his horse and gave the other to Oat.

“John, how’s Mark? Please, tell me, is he alive?” Milly pleaded as she packed for the children.

“He lives,” John stated as he continued to stare out the front door.

“He’s going to be alright? Isn’t he?”

“I don’t know Milly. Thadd had four of us donate blood last night to help keep him alive. It’s not good. Milly, I know you believe in God, all we can do is pray. It’s up to God and Mark.”

Milly carried Levi while John carried Eli; and Myra, Little Ted, Josh and Zach did as they were told and ran to the side of the wagon where Sam helped lift each one into the back.

*****

Later that morning, when Milly arrived in town, the children were taken to Hattie and Micah’s and then Milly was escorted to the clinic. Inside she was led by Abigail to a room, where Lou and Thadd were trying to calm a very distressed Hope.

“Please Hope, you have to calm down. You can’t keep yourself agitated like this, if you do, you’re going to go into labor and there is no way your baby will survive!”

“What about giving her more laudanum?” Lou was asking.

“I can’t, she’s had too much as it is already.”

The whole time, Hope was crying for Mark. Milly hurried to Hope and crawled into the bed next to Hope and wrapped her in her arms, trying to get her to calm down.

“Oh how I wish I had been able to study more on acupuncture?” Thadd stated to no one in particular.

“What?” Lou asked.

“Acupuncture, it’s an ancient oriental technique that can manipulate the body into automatic responses. I heard about it when Abigail and I were in Boston last year.” Thadd explained. “I might have been able to use it to help convince her body to relax so she won’t go into labor.”

“Doc, wait a minute. I’ll be right back.” Lou ran from the room while Doc and Milly continued to console Hope.

“Hope, I’m know this is difficult for you, but you have to calm down, please,” Milly pleaded.

“He has to live,” Hope cried.

Turning to Thadd, Milly pleaded, “Tell me what happened.”

“Milly I checked in on her a little while ago and she was sleeping. Abigail and I went to tend to Seth, next thing, we heard her screaming and found her in Mark’s room. Milly, we have to find some way to calm her down.”

Hope continued to be agitated and crying uncontrollably in Milly’s arms. “The elders tried to warn me. I begged him…,” she called out.

After a few minutes, Lou returned with an older, Chinese gentleman walking behind her.

“Doc, this is Li Zhou. He’s traveling through on his way to San Diego. He knows this acu…”

“Acupuncture,” Li Zhou stated. “Mrs. Drako explained what was happening, if I may, I would be honored to offer my services.”

“Please!” Milly pleaded.

“Roll her to her side and unbutton the back of her dress.”

“Hope please,” Milly called. “Try to take deep breaths, we need to have you lie on your side.”

Milly didn’t fully understand why, but did as requested and helped Hope roll to her side. All three women were in tears. Milly watched as Li Zhou brought out a bundle of long needles from the case he carried. Thadd, Lou, and Milly watched as he inserted the needles along Hope’s spine and down into her pelvis. He talked quietly as he worked, but no one understood what he was saying. Li Zhou slapped his hands together and quickly rubbed them. He then placed his hands to Hope’s shoulders, massaging, he worked his way down her back and then up her neck. He looked to Milly as his fingers then started working around Hope’s temples. As the treatment progressed, Hope started to relax.

Thadd placed his stethoscope to Hope’s chest and listened to her heartbeat, “Her heart rate is just a little below normal, but strong.” Next he moved the stethoscope to her abdomen and listened, “The baby’s heart rate is lessening as well.” He placed his hand to Hope’s abdomen and felt the muscles relaxing.

Li Zhou had worked on Hope for half an hour when he finally stood, inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly, then said, “She is sleeping now. The mother-to-be was very close to going into labor, closer than I’ve ever tried to prevent.”

“You did a remarkable job Mr. Zhou,” Thadd commented. “I’m sorry we were not able to make proper introductions earlier. My name is Thadd Burrage and I’m the town’s physician, this is Milly McCain, the mother-in-law of Hope McCain, the one who you helped.”

“If I may ask, what happened to cause the mother-to-be such distress? I sensed her body is also quite weak in its qi, its life energy.”

“Her husband, my son, as well as her father” Milly started. “Our town’s deputies were almost murdered last night.”

“I also needed to perform a blood transfusion to save her husband’s life last night. She was one of four who donated. I found her in Mark’s room and….”

“Continue,” Li Zhou stated.

“I don’t’ know if I did enough to save his life. I’ve put him on medication to fight infection, but he’s starting to run a temperature. He’s struggling to breathe. His body… I don’t know. Sometimes I feel like we’re still in the dark ages and medicine hasn’t advanced at all.”

Milly was shocked to hear how dire the news of Mark really was.

“May I offer my services to the husband and father-to-be?”

“Can it really help him?” Milly asked.

“It can. Tell me what happened.”

“We only know a little of what happened, that he was stabbed below the ribcage and the knife dissected a portion of his traverse colon and lacerated his liver. He also took a gunshot wound to the back, which caused a partial collapse of his right lung.”

Thadd looked to Milly, “Milly I want you to stay here with Hope and try to keep yourself and her calm.”

“The mother-to-be should be asleep for the next few hours. If necessary, I shall delay my departure so I may continue to be of assistance,” Mr. Zhou stated as he bowed.

“I can’t ask you to do that,” Milly replied.

“It is not asked, if one offers, Mrs. McCain,” Li Zhou replied.

Thadd led the way to the room where Mark lay. Li Zhou pulled out another container with long needles. He pulled the blanket away from Mark and looked at the stitches. For a moment he meditated and then he proceeded to insert the needles into Mark. Quietly talking as he worked.

As Li Zhou worked his needles into Mark, Thadd watched as Mark’s breathing became regular and then listened to his heart beat as it stabilized. He witness as the pain on Mark’s face lessened.

When he was finished, Thadd inquired, “Mr. Zhou, how does this acupuncture work?”

“There are points in the body that story energy, some good and some bad. There are specific points situated on meridians along which one’s qi or life’s energy flows. We are trained to know which point on the body will release the bad energy and allow the toxic build up to be voided from the body. There are other points that will increase the good the body can do.”

“What I have witnessed today is quite amazing, Mr. Zhou,” Thadd stated.

That evening, when Abigail checked in on Mark, she noticed his fever had vanished.

*****

The posse from North Fork followed the trail, between Lucas, Johnny Gibbs, and Johnny Drako, there wasn’t much that escaped the posse. They knew they were following five riders. The morning sun chased what remained of the storm from the sky. The men paused long enough to grab a drink from their canteens and remove their rain ponchos before riding again.

Two hours after sunrise they found the cave where the men had waited, but nothing was there except evidence of a recent campfire.

“Could be they encountered other travelers caught unaware by the storm,” Gibbs stated.

“Or others of their gang,” Toomey replied.

Lucas had stepped from Blade, walked into the cave, and was picking through what remained of the campfire.

“Three were here for a long time. Too many cigarette butts, for this to be casual. There were three waiting for the five,” Lucas stated.

“Why?” someone asked.

“Won’t know until we catch up with them. Eight riding together leaves a larger trail than five,” Drako replied.

*****

Lucas was already back in the saddle and following the trail.

At mid day, Drako called for a halt to rest the horses. Lucas started to protest.

“Lucas, I know how you feel. But when we get back home, Mark’s going to need you there. If you killed your horse and yourself, you won’t be any good to your family.”

“It’s…” Lucas started.

“Lucas, you left your family in the care of North Fork while you help me track these men down, trust me to protect you so you don’t do something foolish out here.”

*****

A day and a half out, the North Fork posse came to the town of Willow Point. Lucas headed straight to the livery. A large man wearing a heavy leather apron greeted him, “Afternoon, can I help you?”

“Looking for eight riders probably came in early this morning,” Lucas replied as he pushed his way past the blacksmith.

“Ain’t had eight visitors all week. Had three come in early this morning. Their horses are loose in the corral.”

Lucas entered the corral and walked to the horses, he examined the prints they were leaving in the mud.

“These are three of them,” Lucas called out, seeing Johnny Drako following him through the livery and out to the corral.

“They stolen?” the blacksmith asked.

“Not that we know of. Where are the riders?” Drako asked.

“At the saloon by now. Just who are you?” the blacksmith asked.

“Marshal Johnny Drako from North Fork.”

“Drako? We heard tell you was killed night before last.”

“Who told you?” Lucas demanded as he pressed close to the blacksmith.

“The men, I overheard them talking as they were stripping their gear from their horses. I asked ‘em how they knew and they said they saw it happen and then they laughed.”

“They were in North Fork. These men are wanted for attempted murder, resisting arrest, assault, and any other charge I can make stick. They tried to kill my deputies.”

“But they kept calling one the Marshal!”

“He is. He’s a U.S. Marshal. You’ve seen them, you lead us over to the saloon and you point them out to us,” Lucas demanded. Giving the blacksmith nowhere to turn except to follow his orders.

The blacksmith led the way to the saloon, with Drako, Gibbs and McCain, close on his heels. The others waited on their mounts, not too far away. As they passed the Sheriff’s Office, the town sheriff came out and called to them, “Gilbert, what’s the meaning?”

“Sheriff, these men are from North Fork…”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear about your Marshal’s death.”

“I’m Marshal Drako and I’m here after the men who tried to kill my deputies.”

“I, I…” the Sheriff stuttered as Johnny Gibbs pushed him out of the way.

Lucas pushed the blacksmith forward.

As they looked through the window of the saloon, the blacksmith pointed out the three men on the far side of the room. Drako told the blacksmith to go back to the livery.

The three from North Fork entered the saloon and cautiously spread out and motioned for the town’s regular patrons to leave. Soon, it was just the bartender, the three outlaws and three from the posse inside.

“What you want?” one of the men sitting at the table asked as he pulled his beer mug from his lips.

“I hear that you men were present at the shooting in North Fork,” Drako stated.

“Yep,” one of the others laughed. “Marshal Drako got himself stuck like a pig.”

“You think it’s funny don’t you?” Drako asked as he pulled out a chair, lifted his foot and set it on the seat. In his hand he already held his handgun. He rested his elbow on his knee as he continued to quietly speak. “See these two friends of mine that came in here with me?”

The third outlaw looked up and slowly looked from Gibbs, past Drako, to McCain, and said, “So?”

“They got something even more funny, they rode into town with Marshal Johnny Drako.” Johnny pulled open his vest to show the Marshal badge pinned to his shirt. One of the men dropped his beer mug as he realized what Drako was saying. “And the man you thought was me, just happens to be family of these two. Now either you tell me who else was with you and where they are, or I’ll personally turn you over to these two and let them do what they want to you.” The three from North Fork brought their guns to bear on the three sitting at the table.

“You, you’s Marshal Drako? But the one, he wore the marshal badge?”

“Tell us who the others were!” Johnny stood up and put the sole of his boot to the edge of the table and thrust it towards the men, spilling what was left of their beers on the man opposite him as he upended the table towards them. The three struggled to get out of their chairs, raised their hands and let their guns be taken, without any resistance.

They were led to the Sheriff’s Office and placed in the cell.

“Now, I’ll ask you one more time, who were the others and where did they go?”

One of the outlaws finally spoke, “We only knew Artie Rigby and Toby Dahl. We didn’t know the other three. But the one Rigby called Billie sure has a grudge against you. Something about you turning on them and running him and the other two out of town.”

“Billie, Billie…” Drako mumbled to himself.

*****

That afternoon, when Hope woke, Li Zhou offered to help her learn to control her fears and whenever she felt the onset of what Li Zhou described as a panic attack, she was to perform the meditation techniques as he instructed her, to control her breathing and create a relaxation in her body.

Thadd informed Hope the only way she could stay near Mark, was to keep herself calm. If she couldn’t do that, then she would not be allowed to be with him.

*****

It was the second evening after the assault. While Abigail was changing the bandages around Seth’s wound, he woke. “Welcome back Seth,” Abigail said as she saw his eyes open and he started looking around.

“Mark?” Seth asked.

“He’s alive.”

“And Hope?” he quietly asked.

“Seeing you awake will improve her spirits. Let me finish bandaging you and I’ll bring her in.”

*****

After spending the evening with her father, once he was asleep, she returned to her husband.

*****

Li Zhou stayed with Hope throughout the next day and oversaw the success. Hope had proven to Doc and to Li Zhou that she could do as they asked and instructed, not just for Mark’s life, but for the life of their unborn child.

Li Zhou bid them farewell as he left to continue his journey.

*****

The sun was shining for the third morning after the attack on Seth and Mark. Three men sat on their horses overlooking North Fork. Billie spoke, “Seems the boys stirred up a hornets’ nest the other night.”

“How do we get the Marshal now?” Red asked.

Billie pulled a knife from its sheath and slashed at Mac, catching him deep enough across the abdomen. Mac grabbed at his side and yelled, “What the hell?!”

“No one will question two cowboys bringing their injured partner to town for a doctor,” Billie stated as he put the knife back in its sheath.

“What do we tell them when the Doc asks what happened?” Red asked.

“We tell them we met up with five riders and one got antsy with his knife and slashed Mac, before we could ride away.”

They rode into town with Mac in the middle, the blood on his shirt was quite evident. They stopped in front of the clinic, with Red and Billie getting down from their horses and then helping the injured Mac down. They helped him walk into the clinic.

Abigail saw them enter and immediately showed them to an examination room.

*****

Thadd had just finished suturing the wound when Billie pulled his gun and grabbed Abigail’s arm.

“What’s the meaning of this?!” Thadd demanded.

“Shut up!” Billie yelled. “Where’s the Marshal?”

Thadd didn’t speak.

“Doctor, I’ll give you more patients than you can handle, starting with this pretty little nurse of yours, unless you tell me where the Marshal is.”

“Room ten, end of the hallway.”

Billie motioned his gun to tell Thadd to lead the way. He pulled Abigail along with them.

*****

While the outlaws were busy in the clinic, Nils had seen them arrive and after only a moment, he recognized all three. He ran towards the train station to send a wire. As he was running, he saw the train pull into North Fork, before the train came to a complete stop, stepping from a passenger car was a man wearing Captain’s bars on his uniform, immediately followed by two men wearing deputy U.S. Marshal Badges. They were heading to the medical clinic, when Nils met them stepping down from the platform.

“It’s Billie Graves, Mac Jones, and Red Evans. They’re in the clinic and I’m sure they’re up to no good.”

“Who are these men?” Ethan asked.

“They tried to tree the town once, long time ago. It was them against Micah and Lucas, but then Johnny Drako threw his hat in and stood with Micah and Lucas. The gunmen rode from town and we never seen them since,” Nils answered as they headed for the clinic.

“Nils,” Ethan hollered as he ran. “Get every man available, I want the clinic surrounded.”

*****

Inside the clinic, Billie pushed Abigail and Thadd into the room, while Mac and Red waited in the hallway. With his gun still drawn he stepped to the red-headed woman sitting, with her back to them, in a chair next to the bed, “Come here Mrs. Drako, you’re soon to be a widow!”

“Mrs. Drako? I’m not… Who are you?” Hope demanded.

“The man who plans to kill Johnny Drako and take what was his,” Billie stated as he pointed his gun towards the figure lying in the bed. As he looked down the barrel, he didn’t see the face he expected. Pointing the gun to Hope’s head, Billie yelled towards Thadd, “I said to take me to the room your Marshal’s in! That ain’t Drako!”

“No, he’s my husband! Marshal McCain!” Hope demanded as she was able to slap the man hard across his face. He pushed Hope away from him, which caused her to land hard on her side, crying out in pain.

“Where’s Drako?” Billie demanded.

From the hallway, Mac and Red started hollering, asking what was going on.

“I want Drako, where is he?!” Billie demanded again, clearly agitated.

“You asked for the Marshal, I brought you to the Marshal,” Thadd stated as he bent down to help Hope. “Just lie still Hope,” he quietly stated.

Mac and Red entered the room, “Billie, what’s up? Just kill Drako and we can take the town,” Mac replied.

“This ain’t Drako. The red head called him McCain,” Billie hollered.

“McCain! Billie, weren’t the sodbuster’s name McCain. Billie, he’s the Rifleman!” Red took a step back towards the hallway.

“Cain’t be. He’s too young,” Billie replied.

“You better get out of town before Marshal Drako returns. Regardless, I wouldn’t want to be you. Mark’s father will hunt you down, you can’t hide anywhere that the Rifleman won’t find you,” Hope coldly declared. “You’ll all be dead for what you’ve done!”

“Easy Hope,” Thadd declared as he squeezed Hope’s arm.

From out in the hallway, Mac called, “Hey Billie, we found another pretty looking gal coming from the doc’s office.”

“Get her in here!” Billie yelled.

Mack pushed Milly into the room.

*****

After getting nowhere further with the three in the Willow Point jail, Lucas, Drako and Gibbs stepped outside to talk with the others in the posse.

“Well?” Toomey asked. “Are they the ones?”

“I think they were the riders Sweeney told me about,” Drako replied.

“And you have no idea who this Billie is?” Johnny asked.

“There’s been plenty of ‘Billie’s’ and who knows if Billie was a brother of someone I was forced to kill.”

“Johnny,” Gibbs stated. “That one said he had a grudge against you because you run them out of town. Think man, where would you have run five men out of town? They tracked you down to North Fork, why?”

“Johnny, it weren’t five, it was three,” Lucas stated as understanding flooded his mind. “Johnny the first time you came to North Fork, Billie Graves, Mac Jones, and…”

“And Red Evans. My God Lucas, they came back after you and me and ended up.. They’re gonna take North Fork!” Drako changed his tone, “Men, we ride for home!”

They raced their horses, slowing only long enough to give them a breather. As they rode, several horses faltered. The riders were told to catch up when they could.

*****

Ethan, Nils, Oat, Sweeney and a few others waited in the Marshal’s Office, no one was ready to tip their hand to those in the clinic, yet.

“Ethan, how’d you know to come?” Nils asked.

“Received a wire from your telegrapher saying there was serious trouble here. Deputy Marshals Walter Zanes and Colby Jandl were stopping at the fort when the wire came through. They were on their way to meet up with Mark. The wire said that father and Mark had been wounded. Do you know how my father is?”

“I heard tell he woke last evening and Hope seen him. Hattie said that she heard he was expected to make a full recovery.”

“And Mark?”

“Not as good. Those outlaws… Hope’s spent practically every moment since it happened, at the clinic. I heard tell she almost went into labor and would have surely lost the baby.”

Ethan closed his eyes. Thankful Annie wasn’t present to hear the news. “I need to know everything, tell me, good or bad.”

Between Sweeney and Nils, they told the others of what had happened when Johnny Drako first came to North Fork and wanted to make it home. Then they told of what happened just the other night.

Getting back to how to handle the outlaws in the clinic and not risk the lives of anyone inside, “Okay, so we know the three in there feel they have a score to settle with this town.”

“But their score can’t be with Mark or with Seth. Mark was just a boy when those three were here and Seth, well, you know…” Sweeney stated.

“So they thought the other night, their ‘friends’ were taking Drako and maybe Lucas out. Not knowing they were attacking the wrong marshal. I’m sure by now they realize their mistake. We need to get them out of the clinic and out into the open and not risk putting anyone else in the clinic in danger. Besides my father, Mark, and Hope, there’s probably the Doc. Anyone else?”

Oat Jackford answered, “We brought Milly McCain to town the other morning, and seeing as how it’s her son…”

Nils replied, “Abigail would be inside.”

Ethan shook his head; too many people he cared about were involved. “I can’t make the decisions, I’m too personally involved…”

“Captain, I can,” Colby Jandl stated. “I’ll do what I can to get your family out of there, but there’s always the risk… I can’t control what those outlaws do.”

“I know.”

*****

As the sun started to set, they left the Marshal’s Office and headed for the clinic. They took cover where they could.

“Billie, Mac, Red. You in the clinic. You should know you’re surrounded!” Jandl yelled.

Those closest to the clinic could hear a brief commotion inside, before a glass window at the front was shattered.

“We got hostages and wounded people in here. You stay out or some of these good, upstanding citizens are gonna end up laying down, dead!” Billie yelled back.

“Billie, you can’t get out of there. Turn the hostages loose and we’ll talk about a peaceful surrender!”

“No! You stay back!” Billie yelled.

“So we wait?” Ethan asked.

“For a while. Nils, start spreading the word to all the men, I don’t want any unnecessary risks taken. No one is to shoot unless I give the word. Got it?!” Jandl told him.

“Yeah, yeah,” Nils hurried away to spread the word.

*****

The town of North Fork continued to wait, as the sun sank behind the hills and an eerie darkness settled over the town. Lanterns were lit along the main street.

Lou and a number of the women folk brought food to those standing guard around the clinic. As riders could be heard fast approaching the clinic, the men pushed the women folk into the alcoves of the door ways, the men were bound and determined to protect their town.

After riding into the light from the lamps along the street, Nils recognized Lucas and Drako and Gibbs, and yelled, “Hold your fire, they’re our people!”

“What’s going on?” Drako demanded.

From their hiding places, two deputy U.S. Marshals and Ethan, John Hamilton and Nils stepped out. Ethan was first to speak, “I’m glad you’re back. They’ve taken the clinic and have hostages. We tried to talk them out earlier, but they wouldn’t budge. They have the upper hand with our people inside.”

“Is it Billie Graves, Mac Jones, and Red Evans?” Drako asked.

“How’d you know?” Ethan answered.

“We ran into three of their friends in Willow Point. Once we realized these three were involved, we came home as fast as we could,” Johnny Gibbs answered.

“How’d they get in the clinic?” Drako asked.

“One of them was injured, it weren’t until they were inside that I recognized them and remembered the last time they were here, and I ran for the telegraph office,” Nils stated. “I met Ethan and Deputy Marshals Walter Zanes and Colby Jandl stepping from the train. Amos wired for Ethan.”

“I’m glad you’re all here,” Lucas told them as he held his hand out to Zanes and Jandl.

Ethan then told Lucas that his wife and daughter-in-law were also in the clinic, in addition to Mark, Seth, Thadd, and Abigail.

*****

Drako, Lucas, and Ethan formulated a plan. As the night wore on, one by one, various men around the clinic would pretend to head on home. Once out of sight of the clinic, they would hide and keep their position a secret in an alleyway.

It was almost four o’clock when Lucas, Johnny Gibbs, Johnny Drako, and Ethan, quietly snuck into the clinic. Jandl and Zanes took positions near the front and the rear doors. Lucas was looking out a doorway into the hallway, when a door opened and he saw Abigail come out followed by Red Evans. Lucas quickly ducked back into the room and pushed the door closed. The four heard their footfalls and saw light from a lantern shine in under the door. As the footstep retreated and the light moved away, Lucas opened the door and motioned for Ethan and Gibbs to follow Abigail and the outlaw.

Lucas and Drako headed to the room Abigail just came from. They stood on either side of the doorway and listened. Inside they could hear Jones and Graves arguing.

“I tell ya, I seen them leaving. One by one, the town folks are leaving. There can’t be but a few left out there. They ain’t lawmen, they’re plain folk, they don’t have the stomach to wait us out. Besides, I want out of here. I knew it was a fool idea, just like the last time,” they presumed Mac Jones was doing the talking.

“Just be thankful that Drako and that sodbuster ain’t here. They’re probably still out chasing Rigby and Dahl.”

From down the darkened hallway, Lucas and Drako heard a noise. Shortly, Johnny Gibbs was standing next to them.

“Well?” Drako whispered.

“Abigail and Ethan are getting Seth out of here and over to the hotel. Ethan said he’d have the deputies create a commotion to distract the other two, once Seth and Abigail were safe,” Johnny whispered in return.

Ten agonizing minutes went by before they heard the que, gun shots and yelling emanated from the street. The sound of glass breaking and Graves and Jones yelling ‘fire’ was immediately heard. The three could hear Thadd yelling “Lie down!”

Once Lucas had kicked the door in, Johnny Gibbs and Johnny Drako ran into the darkened room. Billie and Mac turned to the door and fired blindly. Those from North Fork showed no mercy as they returned fire towards the only two standing in the room. As the sounds from the gunfire quieted, the outlaws fell to the floor.

Before he died, Billie looked up and asked, “How?” His eyes closed and his gun fell from his hand.

“Doc?” Drako called in the darkness.

“We’re okay Johnny. Hope and Milly are here, they’re scared but okay. Let me get the other lantern lit.”

As light penetrated the darkness, they could hear voices outside calling to them.

“We’re all okay!” Johnny Gibbs called out.

Once the room was lit enough, Lucas looked around, to the direction he had heard Thadd talking and saw Hope and Milly clinging to each other in the corner, he ran to them and pulled both into his embrace.

“Thank God you two are okay?” Lucas stated, still with fear in his voice.

Neither could speak, but both nodded as they tried to wipe the tears from their eyes.

Johnny Drako went to check on Billie and Mac, and declared both of them dead. He turned and apologized, “I’m sorry I wasn’t in town and because of that, this trash got into the clinic.”

“Marshal, you had no idea what their plan was. None of us did,” Thadd replied as he walked over to the bed where Mark still lay, unconscious.

Lucas helped Milly to her feet and then they both helped Hope to her feet.

“Lucas, get Milly and Hope out of here and into one of the other rooms. I’ll have Johnny help me move Mark over in a minute.” As he turned to Drako, Thadd stated, “I presume you’ll want to get the rubbish out of my clinic?”

“Will do, Doc.”

*****

The sun was just starting to peek over the hills outside of North Fork as Red Evans was escorted into the jail, where he was informed he would be standing trial, facing Federal charges.

Deputies Jandl and Zanes returned from the telegraph office and handed Marshal Drako the wire they had received in response to the wire they had sent earlier.

Deputy U.S. Marshals, Zanes and Jandl
North Fork, New Mexico Territory

You are hereby assigned duty in North Fork /stop/
Until can be relieved by U.S. Marshal McCain. /stop/
Once relieved, transport prisoner to Denver /stop/
Tell Lucas, Milly, and Hope, we’re all praying for Mark /stop/

God Speed,

Tom Benton
U.S. Marshal
Denver, Colorado

*****

After reading the note, Johnny was livid. “I don’t want him here! I want him out of North Fork and on his way to Denver! I don’t want him anywhere near the McCain family!”

“Marshal, we’ll see what we can do to get him out of here. But until we’re informed otherwise, our orders stand.”

Johnny slammed his fist on his desk.

*****

Thadd entered the room where Lucas, Milly and Hope sat at Mark’s beside, he motioned for Lucas to come into the hallway.

“What is it Thadd?” Lucas asked.

“Lucas, I want Hope and Milly out of here for a while. They’re wearing themselves down and it’s not doing either of them any good. Neither of them have spent any time with their children. Hattie brings Levi here every few hours. Please, get them over to Hattie and Micah’s at least for the afternoon. When you get them there, have Hattie slip one of these packets into a glass of water for both of them. I want them to sleep for a while. It’ll do both of them some good.”

“Doc, Milly’s still nursing Levi,” Lucas stated.

“I know, just tell Hattie to do it after Milly nurses him. While you’re gone, I’ll bring a cot into Mark’s room for you.”

Lucas started to say something, “Don’t make me slip one of these into your water…”

Lucas nodded his head in understanding. He returned to the room and spoke to Milly and Hope. Both started to object.

“Milly, Hope, Doc doesn’t know when Mark will wake. You both need to rest for when he does wake. And Hope you need it more because of Mark’s child you’re carrying. Please if not for yourselves, then for Mark and the children.”

Lucas escorted Milly and Hope to the Torrance’s residence. They were greeted by four rowdy boys.

“Easy there!” Lucas declared as the boys ran in from the parlor and grabbed hold of his legs, calling “Papa” or “GanPa”.

“Where’s Myra?” Milly asked.

“Colleen came and got her this morning,” Micah answered as he came from the Parlor. “She overheard us talking the other day and she knows Mark’s hurt bad. She wouldn’t come out of her bedroom with the boys laughing and giggling and all. Colleen stopped in last night to see how the children were doing and they offered to take Myra this morning.”

Hattie came down the stairs carrying Levi and handed him to Milly, “I was just getting ready to bring him over to you.”

“Doc shooed us out of the clinic for a while. Do you mind if I go upstairs to nurse him?” Milly asked.

Hattie answered by shaking her head. Hope had gone into the parlor with the boys and sat down on the couch, Micah followed and sat down in his chair across the room.

Lucas quietly gave Hattie the instructions from Doc Burrage. She nodded in agreement. Afterwards, Lucas walked into the parlor to hear Josh ask, “Where’s Papa? We been good, we fish after church?”

“What?” Hope inquired.

“Papa said we good, we fish after church,” Zach answered, while Eli tried to say “Papa fish.”

Hope couldn’t keep her composure. Tears started falling and she ran from the parlor and up the stairs to the room where she had stayed so many times before. Lucas called to Hattie, “Do it now.”

Hattie left to get a glass of water and added the packet of medication to it and then took it upstairs. She knocked on the door before entering, quietly calling to Hope and trying to soothe her.

“Here Hope, drink this. You’re crying so much you need to replenish yourself.”

Hope took the glass and drank deeply.

“I’m sorry Hattie, I just couldn’t. I didn’t remember the promise Mark made the boys before he left to…” Hope turned over and cried into the pillow.

Hattie sat down on the edge of the bed and rubbed her back. “Come now child, finish drinking this and then why don’t you try to rest. I’m sure you’ve not slept well since this whole thing… Hope you have to have faith. But you also need to take care of yourself and that baby you’re carrying. Please?”

Hope sat up and finished drinking the glass. Once Hope laid back down, Hattie continued to rub her back until the medication had taken effect and Hope was asleep. Quietly she left the room. As she closed the door, Milly was coming from the room across the hallway, carrying Levi.

“Hattie, how is Hope? I heard her run up here,” Milly stated.

“She’s finally sleeping. And I think you should do the same.”

“But I…”

“No ‘but I’, do it. March yourself right back into that bedroom and put Levi in his cradle and you climb into bed. You look a little piqued , why don’t I bring you a glass of water.”

Milly nodded.

*****

While Hattie was upstairs, Lucas sat down on the couch with the twins on either side of him and Eli sitting on his lap.

“GanPa,” Zach said. “Mama sad. We bad?”

“No Zach, you weren’t bad. You’re Mama’s just upset and worried.”

“Papa take us fishin’ after church?” Josh asked.

“I don’t’ think so. Not this Sunday.”

“We be good. Papa said we good, we fish.” Zach stated.

“We be good!” Josh stated.

“Boys, I…” Pulling his grandsons closer Lucas quieted his voice, “Boys, your Papa has been hurt.”

“We kiss booboo.” Zach said.

“Kiss booboo,” Eli mimicked.

“I wish it were that easy. There were some bad men who came to town the other day. They hurt your Papa and your Grandpa Seth. Doc Burrage is trying to make them both better.”

“Papa hurt?” Josh asked.

“And GanPa Seth?” Zach asked.

“I’m sorry boys, but until… Until your Papa is better, you’re going to have to stay here with Micah and Hattie. They’ve been taking good care of you, haven’t they?”

“Yes,” Little Ted answered as he sat on Micah’s lap.

*****

After Milly had drifted off to sleep, Hattie returned downstairs. She entered the parlor to find Thadd talking with Lucas and Micah. Both turned around as she entered.

“I just came to see if you had any success in getting Milly and Hope to sleep.”

“Hope’s been asleep for about 15 minutes and Milly just drifted off a few moments ago,” Hattie replied.

“Good,” Thadd replied. “Hattie, take the boys and put them down for a nap. I need to talk with Lucas, without them here.”

Hattie corralled the boys and told them to quietly go upstairs and she followed them to the bedroom where they’d been staying. She tucked them in under the covers.

*****

“Okay, Doc. Tell me just how bad is Mark?” Lucas asked, bracing for the answer.

“Lucas, I don’t know. He lost so much blood and though I performed four transfusions, he’s still so weak.”

“Four?”

“Lucas, I…” Defeat was sounding in Thadd’s voice. Lucas could see it in his body as he ‘fell’ to sit on the couch. “I just wish there was more I could do.”

“I think maybe you should take some of your own medicine,” Micah stated. “The two of you get back to Mark at the clinic, pull a cot into the room with Mark and let Lucas get some sleep. Thadd, you can sleep in your office. Hattie and I’ll keep an eye on the children as well as Milly and Hope.”

*****

Lucas and Thadd returned to the clinic to find Mark wasn’t alone in his room. Seth and Ethan were sitting with him.

“Abigail told us you had left for a while. Didn’t think you’d want him left alone,” Ethan stated to their unspoken question.

“Okay, so you’ve sat up for a while Deputy, its time you got back to bed yourself.” Thadd paused as Ethan assisted his father from the room. “Lucas, I’ll be back in a few minutes with a cot for you.”

“Thanks Doc.”

*****

Sunday morning dawned and Thadd had insisted the McCain family go to church. “I won’t hear another word from any of you. I need to change his bandages and don’t need any of you around getting in my way.”

*****

During the service, Reverend McCafferty paused, he commented how wonderful it was to see Seth Lane able to attend church services. Then he asked for the congregation to observe a few minutes of silence and offer prayers that Mark McCain recover from his injuries. Through the quiet, sniffles could be heard as people couldn’t hold their tears. Reverend McCafferty was about to lead the congregation in open prayer when the door to the church quickly opened and Abigail came running part way into the chapel, “Lucas, It’s Mark!” she turned and ran back to the clinic without saying anything more.

Lucas immediately stood and ran from the church. Milly hesitated and waited to help escort Hope to the clinic. Johnny Gibbs was right there with them, his arms around Hope’s shoulders, as the rest of the congregation stood and started talking, worried about the change of events that forced Abigail to turn and run away. Colleen, Hattie and Micah took charge of the McCain children and led them from the church and back to the Torrance’s home. Seth and Ethan left the church and headed to the clinic.

“People, please, give the family their privacy. I’m sure this is painful enough for them to face, let’s just take a few more minutes and offer our prayers to help ease their suffering,” Reverend McCafferty called from the pulpit.

*****

As Lucas ran to the clinic, fear gripped him. The last time he had felt this kind of fear was right before he lost Margaret. He entered the clinic, but stopped just outside the door to Mark’s room, as he heard thumping and Thadd yelling, “Mark don’t you dare! Mark, you hear me?! Don’t you dare leave your wife and your sons! You’ve another baby on the way! Mark! Don’t you dare die on them!”

Lucas fell to his knees, he prayed to God, “Please God! Let my son live. He’s got a family. He’s got young one’s that need a father. Please God, I’ll do anything to save my son’s life for his family. Don’t take him from them! If you have to, take me. Please God, don’t make his children grow up without a father!”

Slowly Lucas stood to his feet, he placed his hand on the doorknob and turned it, he pushed the door open. As he entered he heard Thadd say, “That’s it Mark, come on back. There’s people here who love and need you. Dying’s the easy way through this and you are a fighter Mark. I knew you wouldn’t take the easy road. Come on boy, you can do it, just breath.” Lucas heard Thadd start to laugh, “Come one Mark, keep coming back. God, thank you! Thank you Blessed Father! Come on Mark, you can do it!” Thadd called out.

“Doc?” Lucas quietly spoke as he entered and saw Thadd place his stethoscope over Mark’s heart. He continued to laugh and cry at the same time.

Thadd turned around as the rest of the Mark’s family arrived.

“Lucas, I..” Doc stopped to wipe the tears from his face. Thadd turned back to his patient as Mark started coughing. “Abigail, get me a cup of water.” She excused herself through the crowd. Abigail returned the room a few moments later and handed the cup to Thadd.

“That’s it Mark, cough and breathe. I don’t know if you can understand what I’m saying, but take small sips of the water,” Thadd spoke as he lifted Mark’s head and held the cup to Mark’s lips. At first the water dribbled from Mark’s lips, but a moment later his lips parted and he took a few small swallows. “That’s it Mark. Good man, you chose to fight. Your family is here and I sure didn’t want to give them the other news.” Thadd kept the cup to Mark’s lips until he had drank about half the water. As he set the cup on the table, Thadd hung his head and shook it slowly. In time, he raised his head and looked to Mark’s families. He motioned for them to step out into the hallway and led the group to the waiting area.

“Doc?” Lucas asked has he placed his arms around Milly’s and Hope’s shoulders.

“Lucas, let Milly and Hope sit down.” He pulled chairs for them to sit. “I was losing him. He was dying. I sent Abigail to get you, I didn’t’ want him to die without family present.”

Hope gasped at hearing the words, she grabbed to her stomach. “Hope, breathe in deep like Li Zhou instructed. If your husband can come back from the brink of death, you can stop your panic attack,” Thadd stated as he knelt down next to the chair that Hope was sitting in. She swallowed hard and took in several deep breaths and slowly exhaled. “That’s it Hope. Good girl,” Thadd stated as he squeezed her wrist. “Keep breathing deep and slow.”

“As I was saying, he was dying. Lucas I’m sure you heard me yelling at him?”

Lucas nodded.

“I don’t know what changed his mind, but I…” Doc stopped as Abigail came from Mark’s room.

“Lucas, he’s calling for you.”

Lucas hesitated, he wanted to rush to his son, but he knew that it had been a long time since it was just the two of them. He helped Hope up from her chair and extended his hand over to Milly. Together they walked to and entered Mark’s room.

“Hello, son,” Lucas said as he stood beside Mark’s bed. “Welcome back.” Hope sat on the edge of the bed and swept Mark’s bangs from his forehead.

“Pa?” Mark called, his eyes not open.

“I’m here son,” Lucas answered as he reach down and took Mark’s hand in his.

“God said not yet,” Mark whispered.

“Not yet?” Milly asked.

“God said it wasn’t your time,” Mark answered and then exhaled deeply.

Thadd grabbed his stethoscope and listened, relief was on his face. “He’s just sleeping.”

“Lucas what did he mean ‘God said it wasn’t your time’?” Milly asked.

“I told God to take me instead of Mark. I couldn’t see his children being raised fatherless.”

“But yours?!” Hope exclaimed.

“Hope you have to understand, he’s my son. You would have made the same offering, had it been your child.” Then turning to Milly, “Milly I love you deeply and you’re the whole world to me.”

“But only after Mark. I know that Lucas. I’ve known that since the first day I realized that I was falling in love with you.”

“Okay, I know everyone here cares about Mark, but right now, I want everyone to go back to their home or go stay with family.”

“Doc, can I stay?” Hope asked.

“Tell you what, you go have a nap at Hattie and Micah’s and come back after supper and I’ll let you sit with him.”

*****

Members of the congregation waited along the streets of North Fork, hoping the news would be good. One by one, they saw Mark’s families exit the clinic and from their expressions realized that Mark still lived. People hugged each other and gave a quiet ‘thank you’ to God.

*****

As the families entered Hattie and Micah’s, they were greeted by worried looks.

“He’s going to be okay,” Lucas stated. “He’s going to be okay.”

Lucas walked over to his grandsons and said, “You’re Papa’s going to be okay. But he’s real sorry that he can’t take you fishing today.”

The boys remained quiet.

“How would you like it if your grandpa’s took you fishing, and you too Little Ted. How would the four of you like it if we take you fishing?” Lucas asked.

“We not in trouble?” Zach asked.

“No Zach, none of you are in trouble. What do you say to fishing?” Seth asked as he smiled at his grandsons.

“Can we change clothes?” Josh asked, as he pulled at his shirt collar.

“Sure, why don’t you run upstairs and get changed into your play clothes, and…” Lucas couldn’t finish his sentence before all the boys were off and running up the stairs, Zach and Josh stopped and helped Eli climb up the steps.

“Papa?” Myra called.

“Yes sweetie?” Lucas said as he walked over to his daughter.

“Is Mark really going to be okay?”

Lucas knelt down next to her, “Yes, it will take some time before he’ll be up and around like he was before, but he will be okay.” Looking to Milly, Lucas then looked back to his daughter and said, “How would you like to go fishing with the boys and us? Doc said that your Ma and Hope need to rest this afternoon. Would you like to go fishing?”

“Would you put the worms on my hook?” Myra asked.

“I sure will, sweetie,” Lucas stated as he gave Myra a hug and told her to run and get changed.

Before running up the stairs Myra stopped by Milly, “Is it okay Mama?”

Milly nodded.

*****

Two days later, Lucas entered the Marshal’s office to find his old friend, Tom Benton, there.

“Tom?”

“Howdy Lucas. How’s Mark doing?”

“Holding his own. He woke for a few minutes on Sunday, but hasn’t been awake since. What are you doing here?”

“I decided to come down here and relieve Zanes and Jandl so they can take the prisoner up to Denver.” Tom’s voice turned somber, “Lucas, I didn’t think Mark was so bad off, otherwise, I’d have come sooner. Is there anything I can do for you or his family?”

“There’s still two more out there. Artie Rigby and Toby Dahl. They’re the ones responsible for the attack on my son. You can track those two…” Lucas was struggling to keep his temper in check.

“Lucas I know how you feel and I was telling Marshal Drako here, that those two are already wanted by the law up in Colorado. We’re sending their posters around this territory. Red Evans will stand trial on federal charges for attempted murder, kidnapping, and anything else that we can make stick. Lucas, I’d like to stay for a while, to make sure that your boy’s going to be okay.”

“Is that the only reason?” Lucas asked.

“Not really, but it’s the more important of the two. I realize it’s going to take some time before Mark’s probably up and on his feet and can fulfill his obligations as a Marshal, so until then, I’m planning to fill his shoes. No one else wanted to take the assignment. They didn’t think they could measure up to Mark. Down to the last man, they all said the same thing.”

*****

Lucas and Tom entered the clinic and headed to the room where Mark lay. Even with the shades partly drawn, Tom could see how pale Mark was.

“Lucas, I had no idea how bad it really was,” Tom whispered.

“Doc said he gave him blood transfusions from four different people that night. He almost died Sunday, but God sent him back to us.”

Tom walked closer to Mark and saw the vivid bruising on the side of his chin and then saw the larger bruising to his chest, showing through the bandaging.

“My God Lucas! How’s his wife handling this? I mean, I heard they were expecting another child,” Tom stated with grief in his voice.

“I’m doing as well as can be expected,” Hope stated as she entered the room. Tom could see the worry on her face and hear the tiredness in her voice. “Tom, thank you for coming. I’m sure Mark will be happy to hear your voice.”

Mark started moaning and twisting his head from side to side. Lucas stepped to the hallway and called for Doc.

Hope heard Mark quietly asking for water. She reached for the water glass from the table next to the bed and cradled Mark’s head in her hand as she held the glass to his lips. Doc entered the room as Hope set Mark’s head back to the pillow. He pulled his stethoscope from around his neck and proceeded to listen to Mark’s heart and lungs.

“Hope, I know you’ve heard this before, but it is going to take time. He lost so much blood and his body is still so weak, right now the best thing for him is sleep. God will let him wake when he’s ready.”

*****

After sipping about half the glass, Mark returned to the darkness that his world had become. In the darkness he heard the voices of his friends and family talking. He so wanted to talk with them and allay their fears. When they were quiet or he was alone, he dreamed the same dream over and over – remembering his life back in Enid, and then the months and years they traveled around, looking for a place to call home, until the day they arrived in North Fork. He remembered the faces of so many people, some he couldn’t put a name to. He remembered the day he first encountered Hope, the day his life was to change and never be the same.

On occasions, Mark would briefly wake from his dream, thirsty. He knew that Hope, Milly, and his Pa were present, other times, Hattie and Micah were there, as were Aunt Colleen and Uncle Johnny, and other times Seth was present, but couldn’t bring himself to say anything, other than he was thirsty. When he fell back into the darkness the dream would start over again.

In time, the dream turned to Mark sitting at the pond, fishing pole in hand… In the distance Mark heard the voices of his sons calling to him…

“Papa, you promised we go fishin’” “Yeah, pomise.” “Papa, please wake up and make Mama smile again?” He heard the sorrow in their voices and it hurt; because his sons were always laughing.

As the voices started to fade away, Mark fought back, he needed to answer his sons. Mark opened his eyes to a darkened room with a lantern faintly glowing on the table. He looked around to find he was alone in the room. As his eyes looked past the window, he could see the faint traces of, dawn or was it nightfall? He had no idea. Though it hurt to move, Mark forced himself to sit up as he grabbed at the pain below his ribcage. He called to his sons, “Joshua, Zachariah, Elijah, where are you? Sons?”

A few moments later the door to his room opened and he saw Thadd enter, surprise on his face.

“Mark, lie back down,” Thadd ordered.

“I need to see my sons. They were right here. Thadd, where are my boys?”

“Mark, they were here two days ago. Lucas brought them in for a few minutes to see you. They were scared and I talked it over with your father that maybe it would be best for them to come see you.”

“Two days?”

“What day is today?” Mark asked.

“Its Sunday, son,” Lucas answered as he entered the room. A large smile on his face.

“I promised the boys I’d take them fishing after church today.”

“You’re not going anywhere right yet, except to lie down in the bed,” Thadd stated as he held the covers up and insisted that Mark lie back down. With Lucas’ help, Mark laid back down.

“How do you feel?” Thadd asked.

“Sore. I hurt.” Mark answered. “What happened?”

“You don’t remember?” Lucas asked.

Mark hesitated, “I remember Seth and I taking two drunks to the jail and then horses running behind us…” Mark struggled to remember, he raised his hand to his head, “Then there was a gunshot and I fought with one of them… I don’t remember anything else.”

“That’s okay Mark,” Thadd stated. “I’m surprised you remember that much.”

“Is Seth okay?” Mark asked.

“He’s recovering quicker than you, but he wasn’t as bad off as you.”

“Is it morning or evening?” Mark asked.

“It’s Sunday morning. I promised Hope I’d check in on you before breakfast.” Then turning to Doc, “But seeing as he’s finally awake, maybe I should go get Hope and bring her over here. I don’t think she’d forgive me if I kept this news from her.”

Quietly Mark spoke, “I guess she’s been pretty worried about me for the past five days.”

Lucas and Thadd looked to each other, but didn’t say a word. The truth could wait a while longer.

“Lucas, go get Hope and Milly. Let’s hold off bringing the boys over and wait until after church services.”

Lucas ran back to Hattie and Micah’s, he entered the kitchen a little out of breath.

“Lucas?!” Milly asked at the same time Hope asked, “Pa?”

Lucas answered, “Someone at the clinic wants to see the two of you,” as he helped Hope stand from her chair.

Thankfully it was early enough in the morning that not too many people were out and about on the streets of North Fork.

Lucas tapped on the door before opening it, and allowed Hope and Milly to enter in front of him. The room was still dim, from the window shade being drawn, but nothing could stop Hope from seeing Mark’s open eyes as he turned his head towards them.

Hope walked over and sat down on the edge of the bed. She took Mark’s hand in hers and pulled it to her lips and placed a kiss on it.

“I missed you,” Hope stated.

“I know you did. I heard everyone talking,” Mark replied. “Doc said your father was going to be okay?”

“Yes, and so are you.”

Milly stood to the side of the bed and brushed back the bangs from Mark’s forehead. “We’re all glad that you’re going to be okay.”

“Doc, can I stay here with him?” Hope asked.

“Hope, I need to change the bandages and want talk to Mark alone for a little while. Why don’t you go to church and then bring the boys over this afternoon? Okay?”

Hope nodded. Lucas escorted Milly and Hope back to Micah and Hattie’s. In time, the family headed to church.

*****

After his family left, Thadd turned to Mark and said, “I want you to sleep for a little while and then later this morning I’ll change your bandages.”

“Thadd, you told Hope you wanted to talk with me?”

“It can wait. I have a couple other patients that I need to tend to this morning. I’ll be back soon.”

*****

Later that morning, Thadd and Abigail returned to Mark’s room. He turned his head and opened his eyes at the sound of the door opening.

“I hope you slept like I asked,” Thadd stated.

“I did. Guess waking at the sound of the door opening comes from years of sleeping at the jail.”

“Okay, Mark, now Abigail and I are going to help you sit up. I know you did it on your own earlier this morning, but this time, let us do all the work.”

Once Mark was sitting up, Thadd spoke, “Mark, I need to explain to you about your injuries, before you see them…”

“Go on.”

Looking to Abigail and then back to Mark, Thadd proceeded, “Mark you’re going to have a rather large scar here,” Thadd ran his finger below Mark’s rib cage on his left hand side, ”the man pulled a knife and stabbed you. It did considerable damage to your internal organs. I had to make a larger incision in order to repair all the damage.”

“But what about the bandage around my chest?” Mark asked.

“When you were knocked unconscious and down in the mud, one of them shot you in the back, it perforated your lung and caused a partial collapse, but that’s healed nicely. Both of your wounds are healing nicely.”

Mark sat still, trying to understand everything Doc was telling him.

“Mark,” Thadd spoke for the third time before Mark responded.

“I’m sorry,” Mark replied as he rubbed at his chest.

“Nothing to apologize for. During your recovery, we’re going to ask you to take it extremely slow. Normally I wouldn’t tell a person what I’m about to tell you, but someone is bound to let it slip out. Mark… you almost died.”

“Died?”

“I thought I had lost you. You’re going to be sore over your sternum for a while, because I… Well, I beat you over the chest in a desperate act to bring you back. So the bruising you’re going to see is because of me. You should also know, it’s not been five days, it’ll be two weeks day after tomorrow.”

“Two weeks? I almost died?”

“Mark, focus on the fact that you’re alive. I had to tell you because I plan to take the stitches out today. You know enough about medicine to know that a doctor wouldn’t remove stitches in five days and you’re about to see how well your injuries have healed. You would have figured it out on your own, but I thought it best that I tell you, up front.”

“I died?” Mark couldn’t get that statement out of his head.

“Almost Mark. Almost. But you didn’t,” Thadd stated as he proceeded to cut the bandages from around Mark’s chest and lower rib cage. Mark watched as the bruising and the stitches and the scars were revealed.

After taking out the stitches and re-wrapping Mark’s chest and ribs, Thadd spoke, “Now that you know the truth, I hope you’ll accept the restrictions I’m going to place on you.”

Mark nodded, only half hearing what Thadd was saying. His mind kept playing the statement ‘almost died’ over and over in his head.

“Good, now your family is going to be here in a few minutes and I think your sons are going to be just the right therapy to get you in a better mood. Nothing better than to have children laughing to help heal one’s soul.”

*****

As prescribed by Thadd, when Lucas and Milly left the clinic and took the boys and Myra with them, Mark was in a much better mood. He drifted off to sleep quickly. Hope stood and gave him a kiss before she left.

*****

While Seth had been released to limited duty and Mark continued to recover, Marshal Drako swore in a new deputy, Lucas McCain, supported by Tom Benson.

“Never thought I’d see that day that Lucas McCain would permanently wear a badge,” Tom stated as he laughed.

“It’s not permanent. It’s only until Mark is ready to return to work.”

*****

It had been five more days before Mark stayed awake for more than a few hours at a time. Thadd came into his room that morning and stated, “Time for you to get up out of that bed. Your Pa’s going to be here in a few minutes and help you. But first, I want to remove your bandages. They’ve been on long enough and if there’s been no seepage, I think I want to keep them off.”

Thadd assisted Mark in sitting up on the bed and swinging his legs over the side. Next, he proceeded to un-wrap Mark. He was gathering up the last of the bandages to throw away when Lucas arrived. Lucas was stunned at first, seeing the scars on his son, but he recovered his composure quickly, lest he upset Mark.

Between Thadd and Lucas, they helped Mark to his feet and to walk a few steps to an overstuffed chair that had been brought into the room. Lucas picked up the bag he had brought and handed it to Mark.

“Thought you might like to get dressed today. Stopped by your home and picked these up.”

“Thanks Pa. I appreciate everything.”

Once he was dressed, they heard a knocking on the door. Abigail entered and brought in a tray carrying Mark’s breakfast.

“Can’t I have something more than oatmeal. I’m beginning to forget what real food tastes like,” Mark half-heartedly complained.

“Mark, Lou’s going to be quite upset to hear you complaining about her oatmeal. How about some pancakes and maple syrup?”

Abigail set the tray down on Mark’s lap, turned, kissed Thadd goodbye and left the room.

“So Doc,” Lucas stated. “When do you think he can go home?”

“If he does well enough today, I think I’ll let you take him home tomorrow once you’re done standing your shift.”

“Standing your shift? Pa?” Mark asked as he tried to swallow his food quickly.

“It’s only until you’re well enough to return to the job.” Lucas opened his jacket and showed Mark the deputy badge he wore pinned to his shirt. “Tom supported the move.”

*****

That evening, Hope stopped by the clinic for a visit. Mark was too tired from sitting up all day and stated he preferred to just stay in bed. Hope laid down on the bed next to Mark.

“I’m sorry I didn’t take your worry more seriously Hope. I know you tried to warn me before I rode for town that day. This town is such a good town, I kind of forgot all about your vision.”

“I’m glad the elders were wrong,” Hope stated as she lay down next to Mark and snuggled against him and Mark wrapped his arm around her shoulders.

“I dreamed while I was… unconscious.”

“Oh?” Hope queried.

“I kept reliving my life, over and over again.”

“Sounds like it was a good dream,” Hope commented.

“You know, the first time I was shot, while I was recovering I had a dream and pretty much most of the dream has come true,” Mark stated.

“That was the dream of your Pa being re-married and your eldest son running up to you, saying that I had threatened you with sleeping in the barn?”

“Yes. It feels good to hold you in my arms. I’m so sorry for what I put you through.”

Abigail came into the room later that evening and saw the two sleeping in each others’ arms, she decided to let them be.

*****

Hope was awakened during the night when Mark’s sleep turned restless. She ran her hand over his face and down his chest, she felt his perspiration through the night shirt he wore, quietly she whispered to him to rest easy, that she was there. Soon Mark returned to a peaceful sleep and Hope snuggled in closer to him.

*****

The following afternoon, Lucas helped Mark get dressed. Today was the day he was going home, but first, Lucas escorted him to the hotel and into one of the rooms for a bath. Hope had just finished drawing the water and turned as they entered.

“I can bathe myself,” Mark said a little more curtly than he meant as Lucas helped him sit down in a chair next to the tub.

“I’m going to take the rest of the family home. I’ll be back for both of you later,” Lucas stated as he turned to leave.

Once the door was closed Hope looked to Mark, she saw the fear in his eyes.

“Tell me, what has you so scared?”

“I’m not scared Hope. I can bathe myself, I’m not a child needing a mother’s attention.” Mark couldn’t keep the bitterness from his voice.

“Good, because I’m not your mother,” Hope declared a little defiantly. Then taking on a more loving tone, “Mark, you can’t lie to me. I see your fear in your eyes. I think you’re scared for me to see your scars.” Hope walked close and stood in front of Mark, “I remember a wise young man telling me once, that scars were a part of the person he had grown to love. He told me to not be ashamed.”

“But these scars weren’t on me when you fell in love with me,” Mark said as he tried to hold back the bitterness.

She leaned forward, held her hand to Mark’s cheek as she spoke, looking him in the eyes. “And if they had been, I would still have fallen in love with you. Mark I love your heart. I love you, not your body.” Mark quickly looked up, Hope saw the fear leaving his eyes. “Well, that didn’t come out exactly as it should have.” Hope gave a small laugh as a smile came to Mark’s face. “Mark, as long as you’re alive, that’s the Mark I love. We’ve already given our bodies to each other and you can’t take it back.” Hope stood back and showed off her very pregnant belly. “Mark there’s nothing to be ashamed about.”

Hope helped Mark strip and slip into the tub. Lovingly, she bathed him that afternoon. She sat on the edge of the tub and washed his back, and before she could stop him, Mark had reached around and with both arms around her waist, he pulled her into the tub with him, passionately he kissed and caressed his wife. He felt more alive in that moment than he had in a while. In time, Hope pushed herself away from Mark and called him a rascal, as she tried to stand up and ring the bath water from her dress.

“Well, it’s about time I got even with you,” Mark stated with a grin on his face.

“Even? Even for what?”

“Well there was the one occasion when I tried to be a gentleman and help you up from the creek and you pulled me in. And then there was an occasion involving the wash pan out back of the house. Actually, there were two occasions involving the wash pan,” Mark laughed.

“That’s all well and good, however…”

Hope was interrupted by someone knocking at the door. “Are ye two alright in there?” came Lou’s Irish brogue.

“I was until he pulled me into the tub?” Hope called as she splashed water to Mark.

“I’ll have Milly bring ye another dress from your room,” Lou replied.

Hope assisted Mark in getting out of the tub and to the chair to sit down so he could dry himself off. There was a knock at the door, “It’s me Milly. Lou said you needed a dress?” Hope walked to the door and opened it enough to take the dress Milly handed her. Then she grabbed a towel and headed to the other side of the partition to re-dress herself.

By the time Hope came from behind the partition, Mark had himself dressed. She noticed a look on his face that she wasn’t exactly sure how to read.

“Are you okay?” Hope asked.

“Just wanting to get home. I missed sleeping in my own bed,” Mark replied. “I miss my family.”

“Well Doc told Pa and me this morning that you’d do plenty of sleeping, but we were to also see that you get up and sit in your chair for a few hours each day and that you are to get a little more active each day. Maybe come Sunday, you can keep your promise with the boys and take them fishing.”

“I really blew that promise, didn’t I?” Mark replied heavily.

“Mark, Pa explained to the boys what happened and that you couldn’t. Father and Pa, they took all four boys and Myra fishing that Sunday. They had a wonderful time and believe it or not, Myra caught the biggest fish.” Hope laughed as she remembered how excited Myra had been when they came back to town and gave the fish to Lou to cook for their supper.

Mark sighed as he sat back.

“I’ll be right back, I need to take this dress to Lou and ask her to hang it out to dry. It probably should be laundered, too. I can’t believe you did that.”

While Hope was gone, Mark’s thoughts turned back to the conversation he’d had with Thadd, ‘almost died…almost died” played over and over. He just couldn’t shake it. His mind flashed back to that day when Charlie and his cousin Fred stopped by. Mark squeezed his eyes closed, trying to force that memory from his mind.

*****

While Mark recuperated at home, he tried to enjoy spending time with his three young sons and his wife. One morning, he set out to help his Pa with the chores in the barn, but found he didn’t have a lot of strength or energy to do as much could have prior to… Lucas chastised him and sent him back to his home. During the afternoons, when all the boys were down for their naps, and Milly and Hope were out doing the necessary laundry, Myra would come over spend time reading to Mark. When she had difficulties with words, Mark helped her sound them out. But as the days passed, Mark didn’t have the energy or the patience.

*****

Mark had been home for a week, when one afternoon, he sat inside his home and watched as his Pa rode back from town, standing what once was Mark’s shift. The sun gleamed off the badge Lucas wore on his shirt. Mark saw his Pa step down from Blade and was eagerly greeted by his family. The laughter and happiness… Something inside Mark kept pulling him down.

*****

That evening, Mark pulled a cot into the front room and Hope asked for an explanation when she saw what he was doing.

“Hope, you’re not sleeping that well of a night and I know you need your sleep to keep you and the baby healthy. I thought that maybe, just until the baby is born, I should sleep out here.”

“I’ll hear no such thing. I’m sleeping fine. Mark, something else is bothering you. Talk to me.”

“Nothing’s bothering me!” Mark snapped back, before he could stop himself. “Hope, I’m sorry. It’s just that…”

“Just what? Talk to me!” Hope called as Mark ran from the house.

Hope tried to run after Mark, but in her condition, the farthest she could get was to Lucas and Milly’s front porch. She knocked on the door and Lucas answered.

“Hope, come in here. What’s wrong?” Lucas asked seeing the tears in her eyes. Milly came from the bedroom.

“It’s Mark. I’ve tried giving him time, and tried to let him know that I’m here for him to talk, but… Pa, something’s not right. When you and Ma are around and even the children he pretends he’s fine, but when it’s just us or he’s alone… He’s scaring me,” Hope said as Milly came and wrapped her arms around Hope.

“Hope, let’s let Lucas talk with Mark. You need to get yourself back to your home. Come on. Do you have the boys to bed yet?”

*****

Milly led Hope back to her home, she saw the cot in the front room.

“He was saying that I wasn’t sleeping well and that the baby and I needed good sleep and he thought that by his sleeping out here… The only reason I’m not sleeping well is that he’s so restless in his sleep. He doesn’t realize that he’s the one thrashing around in the bed, waking me up at night.”

“Hope, you know that Doc told him that he almost died, I’m sure it’s weighing heavily on him,” Milly replied.

“I know that. But he’s living as if he’s still dying. He’s withdrawing into himself more each day. He tries to act as if everything is okay, but I’ve been married to him for five year and he’s not the man I married. Ma, he’s scared, I see it in his eyes. It’s as if he’s afraid to live.”

*****

Lucas grabbed his rifle and headed into the barn and found Mark struggling to get his saddle on Copper.

“Here son, let me help you with that,” Lucas offered as he set his rifle down and took the saddle from Mark.

“I can do it on my own!” Mark snapped.

“Okay, but you should know that Hope’s worried about you, as are your Ma and I.”

“Worried that you’ll have to take care of me as an invalid for the rest of my life?!”

“Mark, this isn’t you talking. Come here. Talk to me about what’s bothering you.”

“Bothering me? Nothing’s bothering me!”

“From the bitterness in your voice, you’re lying to me and yourself.”

Lucas waited for Mark to speak, but after a few minutes, he saw the fear in his son’s eyes. Lucas sat down on a crate by his workbench.

“Mark, you’re scared. You’ve a good reason to be scared, but you’re going to live. You didn’t die. I remember years ago, you were scared and tried to hide it from me. We were in this very barn, if you remember. Son, we’ve come through so much that I can read you like a book. We’ve not forced you to talk about that night. We knew you needed time and through our actions by someone always being close by you, we had hoped you’d heal, but you’re not healing. Physically you are, but not mentally. You need to talk.”

Mark couldn’t speak, his fears had a good hold on him. Lucas stood and approached Mark, he put a hand to Mark’s shoulder.

“Mark, you need to talk. I’m pretty sure in that head of yours, you’re focusing on the fact that you almost died. But you’re forgetting one important thing, you didn’t. To get you over this, you need to say ‘I almost died, but I didn’t. I’m alive.”

Lucas waited.

“I can’t Pa. I can’t. I might not have died that day, but something inside me died. I hate them!” Mark said before he could stop himself.

Lucas saw the emotions boiling over inside his son, “Hate son? Who do you hate?”

“Them!” Mark yelled.

“Tell me who they are? Talk to me.” Lucas begged, trying to keep the situation calm, but knowing at any moment things could explode.

“Someday, someone is going to succeed in killing me… Me, The Lawman! I hate Hope and the boys! It’s easier to hate them, then to have them hate me for leaving them without a husband or a father. They can’t mourn someone they hate. I hate that I… I don’t know how to live without being a Marshal, yet I can live with being a Marshal. I… I can’t bring myself to touch my rifle. I can’t bring myself to pickup my badge. I hate you for taking what was mine. It’s all I was.” The longer Mark yelled, the louder his voice became, the more agitated he became, and the more out of breath he got, “I hate me! How could I have picked up a rifle after what I did to Charlie?! How could I do this to them? How could I even think of bringing a new baby to life… How could I put their lives in jeopardy? The baby will never get to know its father and the boys will…” Mark’s mind raced from one scene to another. Everything he’d kept bottled inside, everything he feared. Everything came out, but nothing made sense.

Mark fell to his hands and knees, gasping for breath, pounding his right arm to the ground. Lucas was immediately there, supporting his son, pleading that he try to slow his breathing by taking slow, deep breaths and exhaling slowly. When Mark referenced Charlie’s death, Lucas’ heart dropped, he remembered all the anguish his son had gone through. He remembered, oh how he remembered.

“Mark, slow your breathing. Come on son, try to relax and take deeper breaths,” Lucas pleaded. “You have to relax so you can breathe.”

*****

After seeing Hope to bed, Milly had walked to the barn to check on Lucas and Mark. She heard everything Mark said. Tears welled in her eyes as she realized the torment he was going through. Milly slipped into the barn and knelt next to Lucas, as Mark collapsed into his arms. She took Mark’s head in her hands and lifted his face to look at her.

“Mark, you’re trying to face this alone. You’re not alone. You have a wife, and your father and me. You have a family! You’re part of a family.” Milly scooted herself so she could cradle Mark’s head close to her breast, she cried for the son she held in her arms. “Please let us help you. It’s okay to be scared, we’re your family and together, we can help you face your fears. Together, we can put your fears away. Shhh, son, easy.” She rocked him back and forth.

“I can’t,” Mark whispered.

“Yes, you can son. Yes you can. You’re strong, we can get through this,” Lucas replied.

“Don’t you understand, all I cause is death, pain, and misery,” Mark cried, through the spasms that still held him.

“No Mark, life is all around you. You have to accept it, you survived. Your family needs you and wants to be here for you.” Lucas continued to speak, “Mark, you’ve given me three beautiful grandsons and another grandchild is on the way. That’s not pain, that’s not misery. It’s the joy of life. You can’t live in the darkness; let the love your family has for you bring you back to the light. Son, let God heal you.”

“It’s all I was,” Mark cried.

“No Mark, That’s not who you are, it’s a part of you, but it’s not you. You’re a son, a husband, a father, a brother, a nephew, and a friend. That’s the real Mark McCain! Son, listen to your heart, hear your heart, let us and God inside you,” Lucas pleaded.

As they held Mark in their arms, his breathing slowed. Lucas and Milly realized exhaustion and emotions had taken their toll, Mark was pulled into darkness. Lucas pulled the sleeping Mark into his arms, allowing Milly to get up. Milly ran to the house and returned to the barn carrying blankets and pillows, knowing that it was Lucas’ intent to spend the night in the barn with his son. To help his son face his demons, the next time he woke.

*****

The dreams came again to Mark that night. It had been a long time since Mark had dreamed of Charlie, but tonight he remembered the struggle with Fred, heard the rifle shot, then saw his pa pick up the boy and say, “This boy’s dead!” His dreams continued, almost seamlessly, to showing him killing the soldier outside of Fort Sam Houston, before it slipped to showing the gunfight with Russell Gannaway. The images changed to a clock showing sometime after midnight, he walked in the rain, he heard the sound of horses running, saw the gleam of the street lamp off the blade of a knife, then the pain. His mind tormented him in screaming out “The Lawman’s Dead! The Lawman’s Dead!”, then his mind twisted Doc Burrage’s words around, showing him laugh as he called out “you almost died”. A voice in his dream called out, “You killed them, and because of you, your family will suffer!” Mark called out in his sleep, “No! Don’t!” His dream started over again, and he thrashed as his body relived the fight with the outlaw. He jerked as he relived the pain of being stabbed. Gasping for air, he woke, screaming, “NO!”

Lucas pulled Mark back to him and held him tight, offering words of comfort. Mark went limp against Lucas as the darkness pulled him back under.

*****

“Hello Mark,” a woman’s voice called from behind him.

“You know me?” Mark asked as he turned around.

The woman veiled in white continued to speak, “I do. I’ve been watching you grow up. You’ve made me proud.”

“Proud? For all the misery I’ve caused?”

“No. What your father told you earlier is the truth,” she said.

“He was living a dream.”

“Mark, what if I showed you your future. Showed you that you have a life to be proud of and a family who truly loves you, regardless of how you feel about yourself.”

“All I’ve done is let them down.”

“You’ve not let anyone down, except yourself. You fought back against death. You know that death never rides alone, pain always accompanies death. You fought and you won, you brought happiness back to your family. Right now they’re concerned about you. Concerned you don’t want to live anymore.”

“I don’t want to hurt them anymore.”

“Mark, through not facing your fears, you’re hurting them, they’re struggling to understand your torments,” the woman said as she circled around Mark. “Tell me what you fear.”

“Nothing!”

“That’s not the answer. You faced death and you won. What do you fear?”

Mark looked to the figure of the woman still circling him.

“Let me show you your future.

Mark had no idea how much time had passed while he watched — he was driving the buckboard with Hope sitting next to him, their children in the back. In the buckboard in front of them, were Lucas and Milly and in the back were Myra, Little Ted, and Levi. The buckboards stopped in front of the school, the children jumped down from the back and raced inside. Mark stepped down from the buckboard and walked to the back, he held his arms out and a small girl stood up and walked to the back.

“Commere Emmy,” Mark said.

“Pa do I have to? Why can’t I stay at home with you and Ma.”

“Because you need an education and Mr. Griswald and Mr. Bullock are the best teachers around. And they’re good friends of ours.”

“I don’t wanna go.” The girl crossed her arms and pouted her lips.

“Emmy, we talked about this last night and every night for the past two weeks. You’ll make friends and you’ll learn, just like your older brothers and your aunt and uncles.”

“I don’t wanna!” The girl declared as she stomped her foot.

“Mykaela Elyse, I’ll not have that kind of disobedience from you,” Mark stated.

“Good, then take me home and set me in the corner!”

Mark tried hard to keep from laughing. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Percy walk down the steps and approach them.

“Let them learn. Papa, you need my help at the ranch!”

“Miss McCain,” Percy stated. “I have looked forward to your arrival in my class room since you were born. Now you’re not wanting to disappoint me by saying you don’t want to come join the class and meet new friends. Besides your best friend Shawnee is already inside at her desk.”

“Shawnee is here? You didn’t tell me Shawnee was coming to school! Papa, I’m sorry.”

“That’s okay Emmy, you have fun today, and your Ma and I’ll see you at lunch time,” Mark said as he helped his youngest child down from the buckboard and watched her run into the school.

“Thanks Percy.”

“Think nothing of it Mark,” Percy answered as he turned and walked to the school.

“I expected this from one of the boys, not my daughter,” Mark stated as he looked to Hope and shook his head.

“Well, at least it goes to prove that she is a McCain. I seem to remember her Pa trying to get out of going to school,” Lucas stated as he walked up behind his son and placed a hand on Mark’s shoulder.

Hope stated. “You can’t believe what we’ve gone through for the last two weeks with her.”

“I think I have a real good idea. Hope, you and Mark aren’t the first and won’t be the last parent to deal with a child who doesn’t want to go to school.

*****

“You have another reason to live, Mark,” the woman stopped in front of Mark. “Did you see how happy your family was? Your children are growing up. Did you see your wife with child again?”

“But it’s not real,” Mark answered.

“How do you know? It can be, if you choose to live. I can show you a different future, one that has your family suffering.”

“Because I was killed,” Mark replied bitterly.

“No, because you gave up. You chose to stop living. My granddaughter died at birth, because her Ma was too grieved over losing you. Hope didn’t care to live anymore. Shortly, she died and left three sons without a mother or a father. Is that the future you want?”

“Hope died?”

“What are you afraid of?” she asked as she started circling around Mark again. “What are you afraid of? Thadd was right. You’re too much a fighter to give up. You’ve McCain and Gibbs blood running through your veins. What are you afraid of?” the woman was insistent in her asking.

“You said your granddaughter.”

“Mark, tell me what you’re afraid of?!” The woman stopped in front of Mark. “WHAT ARE YOU AFRAID OF?!”

“Of death! Of dying alone, for no good reason,” Mark cried as he fell to his knees.

“Mark,” the woman said as she knelt down and put her hand to his cheek. “You didn’t die. You’ll only die alone if you push your family away. Isn’t that what you read in Ezekiel’s journal. As long as you believe in your family, your life will have meaning. As long as you wear the badge, your life will have purpose. Your family, they want to help you, as do I.”

“Why? Why are you here?”

“Because you needed me again.”

“Again?” Mark asked as he looked to the woman.

“I was there when you were eleven and so very ill. You needed me then, as you needed me now. I wish you could stay with me forever, but your family needs you. You have a life to live. You have more grandchildren to give Lucas, and me. You haven’t fulfilled your destiny.”

“My destiny?” Mark queried.

As the woman faded from Mark’s vision, she said, “Remember the marigolds Mark. I’ll always be here, when you really need me.”

Mark struggled to bring the woman back and called out, “Ma?!”

*****

Lucas held his son in his arms throughout the night as he struggled through his dreams. It was approaching dawn when Mark finally laid quietly. The sun was just cresting the hill when Lucas heard Mark call out “Ma?!”

“Shhhh Mark, just sleep. I’m sure she’s watching over you.”

“Remember the marigolds,” Mark whispered.

*****

Lucas looked up as he heard the barn door creak open, he saw Milly and Hope enter. Both wore worried expressions on their faces. They sat down next to Lucas.

“He’s been quiet for the last half hour. I don’t know how to bring him back,” Lucas cried. “I don’t know if he wants to live. As a child… he was so sick with Typhoid… He’d been grieving for his mother, but I didn’t understand. Before you came in, he called for his Ma.”

Hope ran her hand down Mark’s face, praying that he’d come back to be the Mark she married. She picked up his hand and placed it to her belly as their baby began kicking. In a few minutes, Mark’s eyes flutter open.

“Mark?” Lucas spoke.

Mark looked to his father, “Pa?”

“How do you feel son? Please talk to us. We want to help you.”

“You have. You’re here with me. How long…?”

“How long have we been in the barn? Just since last night. You weren’t alone while you were fighting your demons.”

“Death and pain,” Mark replied.

“What?” Milly asked.

“Ma reminded me that Death Never Rides Alone, Pain always follows.”

“Your Ma was here?” Hope asked as she again ran her hand down Mark’s face.

“Uh huh. She brought me back, like she did when I was eleven, Pa.” Mark looked to Lucas.

Mark struggled to get up. “No son, no yet. You can get up when we say so. I won’t let you run away from talking with us.”

Mark lowered his eyes as he began to speak, “I couldn’t get over the fact that I almost died. I felt as if death still had a grip on me and wouldn’t let go. I started hating myself and then I turned my hate towards everyone else. I hated Pa because you took to wearing my badge. I’m sorry that I said I hated you and the boys, Hope. You were right, I was scared. I was scared about dying and it being for nothing.”

“Mark, no one knows what comes tomorrow. But whatever happens, we’ll face it together,” Hope stated.

Quietly he spoke, “I had a dream. Ma showed me that you’re pregnant with a baby girl and we’re going to name her Mykaela Elyse. I called her Emmy.”

“Emmy?

“I guess that’s short for her initials M. E.”

“What was your dream about?”

“I dreamed we were taking her to her first day of school. And she’s really going to be her father’s daughter. We’re going to have a time with her… I guess it’s about time I suffered some of what I put Pa through, all those years ago when I’d try to get out of going to school.”

Hope smiled as she heard life return to Mark’s voice as he spoke about their future daughter.

“Who did she look like?” Hope asked.

“You. One hundred percent you, with her green eyes and red hair and cute freckles on her cheeks. Hope, she had your laugh. Ma showed me all that I have to live for. We’ll have more children. Hope, I want to live. I want to live!” Mark cried as he reached for his wife. “Please help me live!”

The foursome embraced each other and cried.

*****

That afternoon, Seth arrived at the McCain ranch to check in on the members of his family. He first stopped at Lucas and Milly’s home, to ask of Mark.

“Seth, I think you’ll truly be pleased. He hit rock bottom last night and we finally got him to talk this morning. He was so focused on almost dying that it was totally consuming him and pulling him under,” Lucas answered.

“I understand a little bit of how he must have felt. For as long as I was an officer in the army, I’ve never been wounded. It was quite a shock,” Seth replied. “Well, if you don’t mind, I think I’ll head on over and visit them.”

Seth walked across the yard, stepped to the porch and knocked on the front door. From inside he heard, “Come on in.” He opened the door to see his grandsons jumping up and running to greet him, Mark was sitting in his chair with Hope sitting on his lap, with their arms wrapped around each other.

“Good morning boys!”

“GanPa!” they all called.

Seth stood up from hugging his grandsons to see that Hope and Mark were still sitting as they had when he first stepped in.

“If I’m intruding, I’ll…”

“No sir, you’re not intruding. Your daughter and I are just enjoying life,” Mark replied as he pulled Hope closer.

“Oh!” Mark involuntarily called as he pulled his arm from next to Hope’s stomach. “He’s a kicker!”

“I thought this baby was going to be a girl,” Hope said.

“So you think I’m going to finally have a granddaughter?” Seth asked as he stepped further into the home and removed his hat. He pulled out a chair from the table and sat down.

“If Mark’s dream comes true. This baby is going to be a girl and we name her Mykaela Elyse.”

“You what?” Seth choked out.

“Father, what’s the matter?” Hope asked as she looked to him with concern.

“The name for your baby, you said Mykaela Elyse?”

“Yes sir. I had a dream during the night. My real Ma showed me a vision of our future.”

“You’re naming your baby after your mother?”

“My mother? But my mother’s name was Emma.” Hope looked to Mark, confusion on her face.

“Hope, I know you don’t remember a lot of your mother, but her real name was Michaela Alice. I called her Emma for short. Her father really wanted a boy and had his heart set on naming his son Michael. So they added an A to the end of her name to make it more a girl’s name.”

 

This story continues in The Rifleman – The Next Generation Pt 11

 

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