The Rifleman – The Next Generation Pt 14 (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 that began in my story, Timing.

Category:  The Rifleman
Genre:  Western
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  45,294


 

The Next Generation… Chapter 70 – The Shoot Out

Mark continued to recover and with the exercises his Pa paced him through, he slowly relearned how to use his body again. He was pleased as he recovered enough dexterity that he finally could feed himself, without dropping any food or spilling from the glass, and no longer had to rely on his family to feed him. Mark was especially pleased when Doc Burrage suggested that he should start using a wheelchair to get around the house and join the family at the table to eat.

Another exercise Thadd suggested Mark should practice had every intent of seeing him returning to his duties as a marshal. Lucas brought a box of cartridges on the table and Mark was to individually pick up each bullet and the load it into his rifle. Then he was to eject the cartridges, pick them up and put them back in the box, practicing the exercise with both hands.

Finally, the day came when Thadd arrived and stated Mark’s muscle tone and control over his legs was improving to the point where he felt Mark should start practicing walking, a little. Thadd brought a set of crutches with him.

Lucas pushed the wheelchair out to the barn where he felt it would be easier for Mark to use the crutches in relearning to walk. All of Mark’s sons and his oldest brother were sitting on the hay bales, quietly watching as Lucas and Thadd steadied Mark, the first time he stood from the chair.

“How’s it feel, son?” Lucas asked.

“Funny, sort of like that time down at Mission Springs,” Mark answered.

Seth handed one crutch and then the other to Mark. He leaned heavily into them as Lucas and Thadd stopped supporting him.

“Only a few steps Mark. Only a few,” Thadd asked.

With Thadd in front of him, and Lucas and Seth on either side, Mark moved the crutches and then moved one leg and then the other. The boys started clapping and cheering.

“Again, Mark,” Thadd encouraged. “Again.”

Mark was breathing hard, but he had managed to take ten steps before Thadd called an end to the day’s session.

“Papa, you did it!” Zach called.

Mark smiled as he looked to his sons.

“Thanks, I’ve got a good cheering gallery, so I can’t let you boys down.”

Thadd rolled the wheelchair up behind Mark, as Lucas and Seth assisted him to sit down.

“Well?” Seth asked.

“I sure don’t remember learning how to walk being so exhausting, the last time,” Mark answered.

“Mark, from what my uncle told me, the last time was more a matter of faith. This time, it was a matter of healing your brain and retraining your body to do it again,” Thadd replied.

*****

Hope entered the barn to hear Mark ask, “Where’s Copper?”

Mark turned when he heard Hope’s sharp intake of breath. He looked from each person, his eyes asking ‘what?’

“Mark, the night Harry…” Hope started to answer.

“Hope, let me,” Lucas interrupted.

“No…” Hope stated as she walked to where Mark sat in the wheelchair and knelt by his side. “Mark, when Harry Chase came and took Ma, I knew I had to get to town to warn Pa. Copper was there, already saddled… Harry had brought him and Blue Boy back to the ranch… Ma was taken on Blue Boy. I didn’t realize how difficult Copper was to ride. You made it seem so easy, he…” Hope stopped talking as her emotions choked her.

“Hope, tell me what happened,” Mark stated as he put his hand to her chin and lifted her face to look at him.

“When we arrived in town, I barely had any control over him and with the storm… well, there was so much mud that he slipped and threw me when I tried to stop him.”

“He threw you, did he hurt you?”

“Not really, just bruised, but that’s long healed. Mark when he slipped, I found out later he broke a leg. I’m so sorry. Nils put him out of his pain. Please forgive me…” tears fell down Hope’s face.

“There’s nothing to forgive. I know you had to get to town, to warn Pa. I’m just sorry I wasn’t here.”

“Mark,” Seth spoke. “When Doc says you’re well enough, Ethan’s found some horses and he thinks a couple of them might make a good horse for you.”

“Thanks, Seth. You found a great mount in Blade. I’ll trust your judgment, when it comes time.”

“Well, seeing as how I’m not really needed around here anymore, I think I’ll bid you good day,” Thadd offered. “Mark, you’ll know when it’s too much, but you should be out here practicing, it’ll help rebuild your stamina.”

*****

A week later, Hope woke before the sun rose to find that Mark was no longer in bed with her, she reached for her robe from the end of the bed and pulled it on. From under the door she noticed a lantern lit in the front room. Quietly Hope opened the door to see Mark sitting at the front table, crutches leaning up against the table, his elbows on the table, hands folded, forehead resting against his hands. Hope saw a sheet of paper, a pen, and the ink well. Hope approached the table and looked at the letter he had written.

“Resignation?”

Mark raised his head as she pulled the chair out to sit down next to him. She saw that he’d also been crying.

“I’ve been thinking about it.”

“Why?” Hope asked.

“Look at what its cost this family,” Mark quietly answered.

Hope remembered back to the summer, after the twins had been born, “Mark, remember Ezekiel?”

“Who?”

“You read his journals?” Hope paused giving Mark time to remember. She knew how her husband was feeling, she too still felt the guilt of her own actions. As Milly had been there for her, Hope knew she had to be here for Mark.

“I can’t very well run away when I have to rely on these crutches,” Mark answered.

“I’m not talking about you running away. I’m talking about what you learned in reading his journals. You realized where you belonged in your life. You chose to come back home and you chose to become a deputy U.S. Marshal.

“Hope, I wish I could just be a rancher, like my Pa. It’s what I wanted as a child. I wish I wasn’t a lawman.” Hope heard the despair in his voice.

“You can’t really feel that way. Mark, if you weren’t a lawman, we may never have met!” Hope boldly stated.

“I was a rancher that day,” Mark stated as he tried to plead his case.

“But had you not been deputized as a member of Micah’s posse, had you not been injured… That day, that time, you may not have been out on the ranch to rescue me.”

“Are you telling me it was my destiny? To be there that day, because I was a lawman?” Mark asked.

“No, not because you ARE a lawman, but because you are Mark McCain, who just happens to be a lawman. But if events hadn’t happened as they had, the posse, your injury, your recovery… Would you have been out by the bluffs that day to rescue me?”

“Would you still love me if I weren’t a lawman?” Mark asked.

“I love Mark McCain, period. I don’t love you because you are a lawman or a rancher. Mark, you already know who you are. ”

“How did I manage to fall in love with such a wise woman?” Mark asked as he tried to convey to Hope that he was feeling better.

“It’s because you have compassion and have an inner strength that I needed those first few weeks, and that’s why I fell in love with you.” Hope smiled.

“Strength… I still feel so weak,” Mark replied.

“Mark, you’re not weak. You’re still recovering. You have an inner strength that has brought you through so much and will see you through…” Hope quieted and averted her eyes from Mark.

Hearing Hope stop speaking mid-thought, Mark looked to her, “Hope?”

“Mark, there’s something that we haven’t told you that happened, while you were in the coma.”

Mark reached out his hand and placed it on Hope’s folded hands, on top of the table.

“You speak of being weak, you were the one who was fighting to live. I’m the one who was weak,” Hope quietly spoke.

“I don’t understand.”

Mark saw the tears falling down her cheeks, he reached his hand and lifted Hope’s chin. “Tell me.”

The compassion in Mark’s voice broke Hope, she turned her head away and said, “I lost my faith, in you.”

Mark waited for Hope to continue, with his hand still on her chin, he turned her face towards his.

“The longer you remained in the coma, Thadd stated the less likely it might be that you would recover. I couldn’t see myself living life without you.” Hope closed her eyes as she spoke the last words, “I tried to kill myself.”

At first, Mark couldn’t believe the words he had heard. “Hope, you wouldn’t…”

“I’m sorry. I…”

Mark struggled to stand to pull Hope close to him, “I’m the one who should apologize. I put you through all of this, because I’m a lawman.”

Hope helped Mark walk to his overstuffed chair and helped him sit down.

As Mark pulled her to his lap, she spoke, “No, not because you are a lawman. Oliver Willdrow was someone from your father’s past, long before you were even born, and Harry Chase, well, he knew you, as well as Lucas and Milly. Those events happened, and not because you are a lawman. Mark, please, it’s not your fault. I was wrong, I didn’t remember what Ma said.”

“Hope, you tried to take your own life, because…”

“And that’s the guilt I bear, alone. Mark you were coming out of your coma when I was trying to kill myself.”

“How?” Mark asked, still hurting to understand.

“At first, I stopped eating, I was too worried to eat. Then that morning, I couldn’t see your chest rising and falling any more. I saddled Two-Bits to go to the pond. I took a knife.” Hope unbuttoned the cuff of her blouse and pulled back the sleeve to show the faint scar across her wrist.

“But, if you tried…”

“I was too weak to do it. Pa and Marshal Buckhart found me, after I had passed out.” The next words came out in a rush, “Mark, I know I shouldn’t have, but I remembered my best friend when I lived with the Kiowa’s. She so loved her husband and when he died… I remembered the other women talking of others who had killed themselves because they couldn’t live without their husband.. Mark, I love you, but I lost my faith, I gave up.”

“How could you bear this alone and not tell me?” Mark cried.

“I didn’t bear it alone, Ma knows. She wanted to understand how I could have even tried. She didn’t ask so she could judge me, she wanted to help me. She told me to wait until you were stronger before we told you. Now that you’re getting better, it’s time you know the truth and why.”

Mark pulled Hope to lean back against him, he cried as she cried. By the time they had finished crying their tears, Mark had made his decision.

*****

The middle of September saw Mark’s recovery almost complete. He still used the crutches, not that he really needed them, but he couldn’t bring himself to set them aside. Thadd Burrage was discussing Mark’s recovery with Johnny Drako and Seth Lane, there was only one thing left to determine, was he still as good with the rifle? Was his hand and eye coordination as good as it had been?

Johnny asked Thadd, “Just how are you planning to test his abilities?”

“A rifle match,” Thadd answered.

“A rifle match, between Lucas and Mark?” Seth asked.

“If you two would like to show up and just make it a good old fashion shooting match. This way it wouldn’t put that much pressure on Mark. I’ve always wondered who was better, between the two,” Thadd stated as he rubbed at his chin. “Hey, is Coltrane Walker still around? I think a shooting match would be just what the doctor ordered.”

*****

Saturday dawned with an air of excitement for the citizens of North Fork. Word of the impending shooting match had made its way around town. The shooting just wouldn’t just pit the McCains against each other, Seth and Johnny had already planned to shoot as had Coltrane Walker. Johnny Gibbs along with his wife, daughter, and sons, were already heading to the McCain ranch.

Before the marshals left town, the morning train arrived and they headed over to greet the train. There was only one passenger who stepped from the train that morning, “Tom?” Coltrane called.

“Didn’t expect the three of you to meet me this morning,” Tom replied as he saw the three walking towards him.

“Well, we really were on our way to the McCain Ranch,” Coltrane informed Tom.

“How’s Mark doing?”

“Well, we’re gonna find out today. Doc’s concocted a shooting match to test his hand and eye coordination. Based on what happens today, it’ll be up to Mark to give up on the crutches,” Drako answered.

*****

Lucas was walking from the barn when he looked up to see Johnny and Colleen Gibbs halting their team in from of his home.

“Morning Johnny, Colleen!” Lucas called. As he stepped to the buckboard he asked, “And how are you this morning Lillian?”

“Okay, Uncle Lucas,” Lillian answered as she allowed Lucas to lift her down from the buckboard.

“So, what brings the Gibbs family out here today?”

“Just thought we’d be the first to arrive, and warn you,” Johnny spoke as he tried to keep a smile from his face.

“Warn us?! What’s wrong?” Lucas demanded as he grabbed his rifle firmer.

“A good old fashion shooting match!” Johnny laughed.

“A shooting match? What are you talking about?” Lucas asked.

“Well, Doc’s wanting to test Mark’s hand and eye coordination. He said it was the final step to verify that Mark is fully recovered. Lucas, we know he’s not given the crutches up yet and Doc said something about this proving to Mark that he’s back to normal.”

“Not quite, he still has to wear glasses,” Lucas answered.

“Yeah, but you told me it was only when he was needing to read the newspaper or write a letter. Lucas, the boy is healed, help us prove it to him.”

“How many people are coming?”

“Probably the whole town,” Johnny laughed.

“The whole… And just how are we supposed to feed the whole town without any notice?” Lucas asked.

“Oh, Lucas, I brought a picnic basket and so are all the families,” Colleen answered.

“Lucas, this is going to be fun. I always wondered who was better,” Johnny asked.

“Better?”

“Who’s the better shot, you or Mark? Don’t tell me you never were curious.”

“It never mattered. Neither of us have anything to prove.”

“No, but it sure would be fun to find out.”

“Johnny, Colleen, Good Morning!” Milly called from the porch. “Lucas?”

Lucas looked down the road towards the direction Milly was pointing. He stepped to the porch and informed Milly of the day’s impromptu event.

“But I’ve chores, and…” Milly turn and rushed back into their home, flustered.

“Well, brother, guess you can help Colleen get your twins and Lillian inside, then you can get everyone parked and set up at shooter’s patch. I’m gonna go break the news to Hope.”

*****

“They what?” Hope asked.

“Doc’s scheduled a shooting match today, here. Our friends are already starting to arrive.”

“Who all’s coming?” Mark asked.

“Per your Uncle Johnny, the whole town.”

“I’ve chores to do and, and Mark has…”

“I know, seems everyone but the McCain families knew about this.”

Lucas returned to his home to help Milly get their children ready for the day, while Mark assisted Hope.

“Mark? Can’t you put the crutches up? You don’t really need them,” said Hope.

“If we’re going to be walking out to where Pa taught me to shoot, it’s pretty uneven ground,” replied Mark.

*****

Both McCain families and their friends made their way out to where Lucas and Mark called ‘shooter’s patch’, followed by everyone who came.

Doc and Micah were in charge of confirming hits or misses as the matches progressed. Everyone from town who owned a handgun or a rifle was eager to participate. Cheers went up from those present as each participant made it to the next round or offers of ‘better luck next time’ as a participant failed to make the cut.

It was well after noon and the only participants still remaining in the contest were Tom Benton, Johnny Drako, Lucas McCain, and Mark McCain. Doc announced, “All six shots must be inside center circle or you are eliminated!”

A few shouts of surprise went up when the targets were placed an extra 25 feet away.

Tom Benton was called as the first shooter of the next round. Six bullets were to fired at the target. “Four bullets center, one bullet on the line, and one bullet in the first ring,” Micah called out. “Sorry, Tom, you just got knocked out of the fun,” Micah shouted out for all to hear.

“Well, I’ve had fun. Can’t remember when the last time I participated in a shooting match!” Tom shouted back.

Johnny Drako was the second shooter called to the line. Micah called the shots, “Five center, one close to the line of the first ring, but definitely inside center. Johnny you’re still in the competition.”

Johnny let out a heavy sigh of relief.

Thadd called Lucas to the line.

Lucas took his stance, drew a deep breath, then slowly let it out as he fired his six shots. Everyone waited for Doc and Micah to review the target. “All six shots, center!” Thadd announced. A cheer went up from the crowd.

“Mark, you’re next son,” Lucas called as he walked to where Mark stood.

Throughout the competition, whether he realized it or not, Mark walked without the aid of the crutches. He approached the line and waited for Micah and Thadd to set the target and return to behind the line.

Like his Pa before him, Mark inhaled deeply, and slowly let out his breath as he fired his six shots. Looking from the target to those waiting for the results, Micah called all six shots center.

The next round, Tom Benton declared would be six shots closest to the center of the target.

“Johnny Drako, front and center,” Tom announced.

Johnny’s six shots placed four in the center circle and two in the first ring.

“Well Johnny, you gave it a good shot!” Micah hollered, “But two of your shots missed the center circle.”

“You sure about that?” Johnny hollered back. “Thadd’s eyes are younger than yours, maybe…”

“Sorry, Johnny! There’s no maybe about it,” Thadd called back.

“Oh, well, knowing that I was outshot by the McCain’s is of some comfort,” Johnny bemoaned. “Okay Lucas, see how good you do!”

Lucas took his position and when signaled, he fired.

“Six shots, dead center!” Micah called.

Lucas walked back to Mark, “Your turn.”

“Pa?”

“Yes?”

“If I outshoot you…”

“Then I say I was beat by the best, today and today only,” Lucas grinned and slapped a hand to Mark’s shoulder. “Good luck, son.”

When Micah and Thadd finished examining the target they hollered, “Six shots, dead center.” Then they compared the two targets. After conferring they announced, “All six shots are so close to center on each target, that we can’t declare a winner,” Thadd called.

“Yet!” Micah stated.

“Well?” Johnny asked.

“Moving target, one can, six shots,” Benton declared. “Simultaneously! Anyone have two empty cans of peaches that we can use?”

Several townspeople offered up empty cans of peaches.

Thadd and Micah each tossed a can up into the air and after the last shot was fired and both cans had hit the ground, Joshua and Zachariah ran out to fetch the cans and brought them back to Thadd and Micah. After looking the cans over, Thadd announced, “Lucas’ can has five shots.”

“What about Mark’s can?” Johnny Drako yelled as others also started inquiring about Mark’s can.

“Six,” Micah announced.

Cheers went up from everyone present.

“So Mark,” Lucas stated. “Seems you were the best today.”

“Honestly?”

“Yes, honestly. It wouldn’t do either of us any good for me to have pulled any of my shots. Now are you ready to admit that you are fully recovered?”

“Fully recovered?” Mark’s expression on his face indicated he didn’t understand the intent of question.

“This was Doc’s way to test your hand and eye coordination. Once we got out here, you never used your crutches and didn’t have to wear your glasses to shoot. Mark, this was Doc’s way to try to prove to you that you’re fully healed.” Seeing Mark’s expression change, Lucas quickly offered, “Son, I didn’t know about this until your Uncle Johnny arrived today.”

“This was all about me?”

“No,” Thadd stated as he came up behind Lucas and Mark. “At first, all I wanted to do was to figure out a way to test your eye and hand coordination. I knew it had to involve shooting, and ever since I got to really know you and your Pa, I always wondered who was the better shot between the two of you. And then I invited Johnny, Seth, and Coltrane. Next thing I knew, word was around the whole town. Mark we didn’t do this to deceive you and believe me, no one pulled any shots. Everyone here had a good time and I’d say some people won some money and a few people lost some money. Mark, it’s up to you, when you decide to give up the crutches and return to your job, I just wanted to prove to you that you’re ready for it.”

“I wasn’t thinking about the crutches…”

“I know son. I’m glad our friends brought us this little… diversion today,” Lucas stated as he placed an arm around Mark’s shoulder. “Well, let’s hear it for the best shot, today!” Lucas called loud enough for everyone to hear.

Another round of cheers went up from the crowd.

*****

The following day was Sunday and that morning, Lucas hitched both teams. He drove his team to the front of his home and helped Milly load their family into the back. Next, he drove Mark’s team to the front of Mark’s home and helped Mark and Hope load their family into the back of their buckboard.

“You’re not using your crutches today?” Lucas asked.

“No. I found out yesterday that I didn’t really need them anymore.”

Lucas only gave Mark a steadying hand as he climbed into the front seat.

“You up to church this morning?” Lucas asked.

“It’s a little too late to be asking me that now,” Mark laughed at his answer.

Mark reached for the reins when Hope slapped his hands away.

“Not yet,” Hope admonished her husband. “Let me do this.”

Mark leaned back in the seat, crossed his arms, and smiled.

*****

After church services were concluded, everyone stopped and took time to tell Mark how happy they were to see him back at church and how much fun everyone had the day before. A few asked when he planned to return to being a Marshal.

Freddie and Carolina Toomey stopped next to the McCain families to proudly show off their newest son, who had been born the previous month, William Gates Toomey.

“Sorry I missed the shooting match out at your place yesterday. Young Will was colicky yesterday. Did you ever imagine that this is what fatherhood would be like, Mark?” Freddie asked.

“No, not with all the trouble I got into. I’m starting to worry, the boys are getting to that age…”

“Yes, they are, and you have two to deal with as four year olds,” Lucas stated as he watched Milly hand the baby back to Carolina.

*****

Hope let Mark drive the team into town to join their friends and family for lunch at the hotel restaurant.

“So, how do you feel?” Hope asked.

“After yesterday, I’m ready to go back to work. Talking to everyone and remembering who they are and knowing they really were happy to see me back in town and genuinely want me to be their Marshal.” Mark stopped talking as he heard Hope laugh. “What’s so funny?”

“I just remember not too long ago you were wanting to just be a rancher. Was it yesterday that made you finally decide?”

“No, I decided to stay a marshal some time back. Seems a gorgeous red-head spoke words of wisdom to me,” Mark smiled.

Hope laughed, “Well, you better remember Johnny is the town Marshal, you’re a U.S. Marshal.”

“Actually, Johnny better remember all the times he teased me about the Josh and Zach and such, I’m just happy to have my memory back and I soooo look forward to coming back to town.”

“Which Johnny are you talking about?” Hope asked.

“Both!” Mark laughed.

“You just behave yourself, today! I’ll not have you creating a scene our first day back in town.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Mark stated as he leaned over and gave Hope a kiss on her cheek.

*****

Before they leaving town to return to the McCain ranch that afternoon, Tom Benton asked Mark if they could talk in private.

“Sure Tom.” Mark and Tom walked to the porch of the hotel. “What do you want talk about?”

“Your returning to duty. I can really use Coltrane elsewhere.”

“How about Monday?” Mark asked.

“So soon?” Tom inquired.

“I’d say it’s about time. I realized yesterday that I was using the crutches as an excuse. I don’t know how long it’s been since I really needed them.”

“Don’t fret. I’m just glad you’re back. So, tell me Mark, do you believe your Pa that he didn’t pull any of his shots?”

“There’s only been one time where Pa ever pulled a shot in a shooting contest.”

“He admitted to you that he lost on purpose?”

“He never admitted it, he just said he wasn’t good enough that day. We had just arrived in North Fork, I was ten. I realized many years later that the only reason Pa had deliberately lost was because someone had threatened my life. I don’t know that he would admit it, even today, if you were to ask him. Tom, you know damn well that… Well, it was just the two of us and I was the only link he still had to my Ma.”

“I understand Mark,” Tom answered. “Did it surprise you that you won yesterday?”

“Yeah, but that was yesterday. The outcome could be totally different, the next time we try a shooting match.”

“I’ll see you at the Marshal’s Office tomorrow afternoon?”

“How about one o’clock?”

They said goodbye as they shook hands.

*****

After supper, while Hope was washing the dishes, Mark and the boys enjoyed rough-housing on the floor of the front room. Mark pretending he was the ‘tickle monster’ and the boys were trying to avoid being captured and tickled. The oldest of their three sons got smart and realized while Mark was after one of the three, the other two could sneak up on their father and try tickling him instead. Laughter abounded in their home that evening. Hope turned from putting away the last of the dishes and called for the boys to get ready for bed.

“Ah, Ma!” they all complained.

“Don’t ‘Ah, Ma’ me! It’s well past your bedtime as it is.”

“Okay, boys, best we listen to your Ma,” Mark stated as he got to his feet. “It’s bedtime.”

“Yes, sir,” they said as each one got to their feet and headed to their bedroom.

That evening Mark carried the crutches from the front room and placed them in a corner of the barn and fed their horses for the night. Mark paused at the empty stall that used to be Copper’s, he slapped the stall door, turned and left the barn. After returning to the house, he helped Hope put the boys to bed and then watched as Hope picked their daughter up from the crib and tucked her into her bed.

*****

“I’m concerned about Gwen,” Hope commented as she sat in front of her dresser, combing her hair.

“Why are you concerned?”

“Well, the end of next month she’ll have been with us for a year. Do you think she’s happy? I mean, she seems to enjoy living here and helping Ma and me, but today, she just seemed so reserved when she told me that she had asked Hattie if she could spend the night in town with them?”

“She’s happy, believe me. I saw the way Jake kept averting his eyes when he thought someone was watching him watch Gwen. And it doesn’t surprise me that she told you she was going to spend the night in town. I asked Gwen if she didn’t mind staying in town tonight.”

“And just why would you do that?” Hope asked as she looked at Mark’s reflection in the mirror.

“Because I have other plans for us. Why do you think I had the boys playing so hard after supper tonight. I wanted to make sure they would fall asleep and stay asleep.”

Mark turned the lantern down low, then walked up behind Hope and placed his hands on her shoulders and started rubbing them. “It’s been a long time since I proved to my wife just how much I love her.”

Hope turned on the stool, “You don’t have to prove anything to me, I know you love me.” She stood.

Hope reached forward and started to unbutton Mark’s shirt when he stepped closer to her and put his hands round her waist.

“I remember our wedding night together. The anxiety I felt as we stood in our room. I felt like a child at Christmas, and you were an exquisitely wrapped present. I remember how shivered as I felt the softness of your bare skin for the first time.”

Hope reached up and slipped Mark’s shirt from his shoulders.

“I have that same feeling tonight,” Mark said before he leaned his head forward and passionately kissed Hope and pulled her to him. As Hope responded, he gently started unbuttoning the buttons down the front of her dress, guiding her to their bed.

Slowly, Mark slipped Hope’s dress off her shoulders and let it fall to the floor. As Mark slipped from his pants, Hope untied the top of her camisole and the pulled it up and over her head, next she removed her slip. She pressed her body against Mark and he gently lowered the two of them to their bed. Mark felt alive as he made love to his wife that night. In so many ways, it was as special as it had been on their wedding night.

*****

Mark woke early the following morning, with Hope’s head lying on his shoulder. He pulled the cover up over her shoulders after slipping from their bed without waking Hope. Mark dressed and then stretched his arms wide as he stepped to the front room. A feeling that everything was right in the world was all around Mark. He pulled his rifle from over the mantle and carried it and his cleaning supplies to the front porch. He spent the next half hour, disassembling and cleaning it, before putting it back together.

“Mark?” Hope called as she finished tying her robe and stepped from their bedroom. Seeing the front door open, Hope stepped to the porch.

“I told Tom I would return to work today,” Mark said as he heard his wife walk up behind him.

“I kind of figured that out when the two of you went to talk on the hotel porch yesterday. Is that the reason for last night?”

“No,” Mark said as he set his rifle down, stood and walked to behind Hope. He wrapped his arms around her and nuzzled at her neck. “Last night was me feeling… alive.”

Hope turned around in Mark’s arms and wrapped her arms around his neck.

“Since you’re feeling so alive again, why don’t you get Mykaela up and change her? Then you can get the boys up and ready.”

“Do I have too?” Mark teasingly asked.

“If you want breakfast between doing your chores and heading to town. If you want, you can ride Two-Bits…”

“She’s your mare.”

“But for right now, you can ride her. Until you find a horse of your liking.”

“Have I told you how much I love you?”

“No,” Hope teased as they kissed and then returned to their home.

The Next Generation… Chapter 71 – Young Love

Mark woke his children for the morning and helped them get dressed and brought them into the front room. After seeing that they were going to behave for Gwen to watch over, he stepped from his home and walked to the barn. Across the yard he watched as Lucas and Myra walked from their home and into their barn. Mark threw out hay for the team and Two-Bits and turned them loose into the corral and walked over to the his Pa’s barn.

“First school day of the semester?” Mark asked as he entered.

“Oh, Mark, Papa said he’d ride me to school today. Can you come too?” Myra asked.

“Fraid not this morning, Gabby. I have some chores to do here before I head into town to return to my duties as a marshal,” Mark replied. “But, if you’re a good girl at school this morning, I’ll stop by and take you to lunch.”

“I’d like that Mark,” Myra answered.

“So today’s your first day back too?” Lucas asked.

“Don’t you figure it’s about time I got back to work? Guess you’re feeling the same way about Razor?” Mark asked, seeing his Pa had saddled up his old horse. Mark petted the old boy as Lucas finished bridling Blue Boy for Myra.

“He enjoys getting out and being ridden every now and then. Taking Myra to school is a lot easier on him compared to working the ranch. He seems to enjoy getting off the property.”

“I think it’s more that he likes being out with Blue Boy,” Mark commented. “I remember when I’d ride to school and Razor would be left here how he got so upset that he couldn’t go, too.”

Lucas smiled, remembering back to those days.

Mark followed Lucas and Myra as his Pa led Razor and Blue Boy out of the barn. Mark hefted Myra up into the saddle and handed her the reins. He waved as they rode to take Myra to school. Once they were over the rise, Mark returned to his barn and started to clean stalls.

Upon returning to his home, he found Gwen getting his sons seated at the table, while Hope was carrying the food from the kitchen.

Mark noticed the boys were quieter than usual and he finally asked, “Why the long faces?”

“You leaving us,” Josh sorrowfully spoke up.

“But only to do my job. I’ll be back home tomorrow evening, just like I used to be.”

“You not here to pway with us,” Eli whimpered as he played with his spoon.

“No, but Gwen and your Mama, and Grandma Milly and Grandpa Lucas will be here with you. Just like before,” Mark answered.

“Not the same. You play with us. They too busy,” Zach stated.

“Boys, I have a job in town that I need to get back to doing.” Trying to find a way to make his boys smile, Mark stated, “If you’ll be good and mind your Mama and Gwen while I’m gone, then Sunday, after services, I’ll take you fishing.”

Mark looked to Hope after hearing her exclaim, “Oh, Mykaela!” Mark saw that his daughter had slammed her tiny fists into the bowl of oatmeal Hope was feeding her from and it flew back on Hope, Mykaela, the table, and the floor.

“Here, Hope, let me take Emmy.” Mark tried to keep a straight face as he saw the oatmeal on Hope’s face as well as his daughter’s. Emmy squealed with laughter as Mark sat her on his lap. “Now young lady, why did you go and do something like that?”

“Popy,” Mark heard and asked, “What did you say?”

“Popy” Mykaela squealed as she reached her oatmeal covered hands to Mark’s face and smeared the oatmeal over him, before Gwen could return to the table with a wash cloth.

“Hope, I think our daughter just spoke her first word,” Mark claimed.

“Well, since she’s happily calling for you, you can wash her up and change her clothes,” Hope stated as she stood and tried to wipe the oatmeal off her own dress.

Mark couldn’t help but laugh at the scene, which just set their three sons to laughing. As flustered as Hope felt, everyone’s laughter was infectious and soon she, and Gwen, were laughing along with the rest.

*****

It was late morning when Mark set out for North Fork, it felt strange to him to be riding Two-Bits, again. He’d not ridden her since he chased after Grid Maule the previous summer. And it had been a long time before that. Mark remembered back to the day he had presented her to Hope as a Christmas present. Mark mused to himself as he thought back to the look on Hope’s face that morning, when she saw the red bow tied on the saddle horn and realized the mare was for her.

*****

Mark arrived in town and halted in front of the livery after he heard Micah calling to him.

“Mark! Glad to see you back in the saddle!” Micah hollered. “Nils has a couple of horses he was telling me about, thought you might want to take a look.”

Mark dismounted from the saddle and led Two-Bits into the livery. Nils was just closing the door to one of the stalls and eagerly welcomed Mark back to town. He showed Mark both the horses and watched as Mark inspected each one. He ran his hands over their backs and down their legs, feeling for any bumps or hot spots. Mark led one of horses into the corral on the back side of the livery. He watched carefully as it moved about, walking, trotting, and doing a little bit of a lope. After a few minutes, Mark caught the horse, led it back to its stall and brought the other horse out and watched as it pranced around the corral. It didn’t take long for Mark to catch the horse and lead him back to his stall.

“Well?” Nils asked, followed by Micah asking, “What do you think of them boy?”

“Nils, they’re great looking animals, but…”

“But?” Nils asked, nervous that Mark might have seen something that he had missed before he bought the horses.

“They both have strong backs and sound legs, and good bone structure. And both look to have pretty smooth trots and lopes for riding long times in the saddle. I just… there’s just no…, draw. I mean, when I first met Blue Boy, there was something special that I just knew he was meant to be mine. Then when I went to Oats and saw Copper, there was just something about him that drew me to him. Don’t get me wrong Nils, both these horses are worth whatever you paid for them, but I don’t feel a connection. I mean, even when I purchased Two-Bits for Hope, I knew she was the right mare for Hope.”

“Aw, you sentimental fool,” Nils jested. “I understand Mark. In fact, Oat was in here earlier today and when he saw these two, he offered me top dollar. I told him I had another buyer possibly lined up for them. He acted all upset that I wouldn’t sell them to him, until he knew I was holding them for you.”

Micah commented, “He can sure act all mean and gruff around everyone else, but when it comes to Mark McCain, Oat’s an old softy.”

“No more than you old man!” Oat gruffed as he walked into the livery. “You’re more of a softy towards the boy than anyone else, ‘cept maybe his Pa.”

Oat stepped next to Mark and placed a hand to his shoulder, “Well son, what do you say? Are you buying either one of these flea bitten old nags?”

“Flea bitten old nags?! While I have you…” Nils tried to spit out.

“Nils, he’s teasing you. You just fell for one of the oldest horse trading tricks in the book,” Mark laughed out loud as Oat slapped him on the back.

“Now, Mark, don’t give away all my bargaining chips. So?”

“No sir. They’re both fine animals, but I don’t think either one are for me.”

“Sorry to hear that boy, but you do know that once I take both these horses off Nils’ hands, I’ll just have to brag around town how I outsmarted you and got the better deal from Nils.”

“No one would believe that in a minute,” Micah boasted. “People around here know Mark to be a fine judge of horse and no one would believe that…”

Mark turned to Micah and said, “Grandpa, he’s teasing you, too.”

“Well! My day just got made!” Oat exclaimed. “Boy you best get going. Hear tell today’s your first day back on the job and we don’t want you to be late.”

“I’m here early enough,” Mark answered. “I promised Gabby that if she was good at her first day back to school that I’d treat her to lunch today, before I reported for duty.”

“Good, good. You tell your family when you see them that Oat Jackford said ‘hi’.”

“Sure Mr. Jackford. I’ll tell them.

“You ever going to feel comfortable in calling me Oat instead of Mr. Jackford?”

“Maybe someday, but then…, we don’t way to spread the news about just how much of a ‘softy’ you are about me, do we?”

“No we don’t, no we don’t. Now get on out of here so I can discuss these two beasts with Nils.”

Before leaving Mark stated, “Thanks, Nils. You’re a good friend.”

With Micah walking by his side, Mark led Two-Bits back outside.

“So, were you telling Nils the truth?” Micah asked.

“What do you mean?” Mark started to ask and then realized what he meant. “Yes sir. I don’t know. Blue Boy was my horse growing up and now he’s Gabby’s. Copper was my first horse as an adult and he was a mighty fine horse…”

“Nils was right, you are a sentimental fool. Mark, a horse is a tool. I know it probably pained you to hear that Nils had to end his suffering… that night. But you need a horse of your own. Not that Hope does much riding, with taking care of your four children, but still, you bought Two-Bits to be her horse.”

“I know I did. And I guess you’re right. It’s just knowing that… I bought Copper as a horse for me, and never gave thought that there would be a day where she’d need to ride my horse on her own and he’d way too much for her to handle.”

Micah realized Mark had finally spoken the truth about why he was hesitant to buy another horse. “Mark, any other time, I think Hope could have handled riding Copper. But that night, the storm was fierce and Hope was distraught over someone having taken your Ma… Don’t doubt your abilities in choosing a horse for yourself.” Seeing that his words weren’t having the desired effect, “Maybe you are right, you’ll know the right horse when it presents itself. Tell Gabby I said howdy.” As Micah walked off, he hollered, “Glad to have you wearing the badge again boy!”

Mark arrived at the schoolhouse just as Percy was dismissing the students for lunch, he stopped next to where Blue Boy was tied and pulled a couple of sugar cubes from his shirt pocket.

“Been a long time since the two of us stood here, ol’ boy,” Mark stated as he slipped the sugar cubes to his former horse and scratched him over the eye. Blue Boy butted his head into Mark, looking for more treats. “Not now, fella.”

Mark watched as Myra came bounding down the steps of the school house, calling, “Mark! You came!”

“Sure did. I couldn’t disappoint my favorite sister. Now, could I?” Mark stated as Myra jumped up into his arms.

“I’m your only sister!”

“That doesn’t mean you can’t still be my favorite.” As Percy walked to where they stood, Mark asked, “Percy, has she behaved today?”

“Well…” Percy drew out.

“Mr. Bullock, that’s not funny. Mark said he’d take me to lunch if I was a good girl today. I promise, I been good!” Myra pleaded.

“Well Mark,” Percy stated as he continued to hem and haw. “I wouldn’t say that she’s necessarily been a good girl today… She’s been quite exceptional. Myra, go enjoy lunch with your brother, but do not be one minute late in your return.”

“I won’t Mr. Bullock, I promise!” Then turning her head to Mark, Myra asked, “So where are we going for lunch?”

“I thought the hotel,” Mark replied as he saw Johnny Drako coming into the school yard.

Mark smiled as he watched Connor run from the group of boys and jump into his father’s arms.

“You want to see the other twins?” Myra asked as she pulled Mark’s face back around to look at her.

Johnny Drako, carrying Connor, walked over to Mark, “Heading to the hotel restaurant?” Johnny asked.

“I promised my sister if she was good, I’d take her to lunch before I came to the office,” Mark replied.

“I heard Tom Benton say you ‘d be back today,” Johnny stated.

“I’m ready to stand my shifts again, Johnny. Sorry, it’s been so long.”

“No need to apologize. I’m glad to have you back.”

“Marshal Drako?” Myra asked. “Can we see the babies?”

“Well…” Johnny started to answer.

“We’ll be real quiet and not wake them, if they’re sleeping.”

“I was going to say that Lou probably has both of them in the kitchen with her. Come on.”

As they walked into the kitchen Mark asked, “How did Connor and Danielle take to the newest members of the family?”

“About as surprised as I was to find out there was two of them, but both are pleased that they’re not outnumbered,” Johnny laughed as he led Mark and Myra over to the bassinets.

“Yeah,” Myra commented. “We got more boys at the ranch than girls. It just don’t seem fair!”

“Doesn’t seem fair,” Mark correct.

“See, even Mark agrees with me!” Myra exclaimed.

Mark and Johnny laughed over Myra not realizing Mark was correcting her grammar.

Lou stopped what she was doing when she heard the exchange and took Myra from Mark’s arms. While Lou was busily talking with Myra, Mark turned to Johnny and stated, “You do know what they say about payback?”

“Boy, if I’d of only known. You do know that this is all your fault,” Johnny stated, with a dead serious tone to his voice.

“My fault?! And just how is your wife’s pregnancy and having twins, all my fault?”

“Well, maybe not all your fault. But… If you and Grid hadn’t concocted your ‘death’ and then your miraculous resurrection, I wouldn’t of had to…”

“Now what you do in the privacy of your own bedroom is your business,” Mark teased back. “But between you and Uncle Johnny, I’m going to have sooo much fun.”

“Mind your elders, boy!” Johnny said as he eyes turned steely.

“So you can dish it out, but you can’t take it?” Mark jested.

“Guess, I deserve everything you give me.” Johnny smiled as he knew he deserved everything Mark had to give him in return. Johnny knew that Mark was so much like his father and that he knew the difference between Johnny being truly serious and jesting, and Johnny was at ease in teasing with Mark.

“I’ll take it easy on you, old man,” Mark declared as Myra came back to stand next to him, before they returned to the dining room for their meal.

Over lunch, Mark inquired of Connor how he liked his first day of school. Both Connor and Myra took turns telling of their morning.

*****

Once they were finished eating lunch and Mark had paid their tab, he and Johnny returned Myra and Connor to the school.

“You mind your manners still. I’m in town and I’ll be at the schoolhouse quicker than a rattlesnake can strike if I hear of you misbehaving,” Mark stated as he knelt in front of his sister and pointed his finger at her.

“I’ll be good. I don’t want to get into any more trouble. I remember it’s too much trouble getting out of trouble. I learned my lesson, it’s best to not get into trouble in the first place.”

Mark laughed and smiled at his sister.

They waited for Connor and Myra to disappear into the school before they turned to walk to the Marshal’s Office, Mark leading Two-Bits.

As Mark neared the parsonage, Jake McCafferty called to Mark. He waited while Jake ran over to him.

“Mark, I was wanting to ask you…”

“Yes, Jake.”

“Mark, I’ll see you at the office,” Johnny stated as he continued walking.

Mark nodded.

“Would you and Miss Hope and your children come over to my parents for dinner Saturday evening? Mother was so pleased to see you and the family in town yesterday and she’s been missing having your young ones and Gwen in the house.”

“I don’t see why not. So Gwen is invited?” Mark curiously asked.

“Didn’t I say her name, too?” Jake blushed and fidgeted with his hat he held in his hands.

“No” Mark replied.

“Oh, well, uh, yes, Gwen’s invited too. Can I tell my mother that you accepted her invitation?”

“Sure Jake. What time should we plan to arrive?”

“T-time?” Jake stammered.

“Yes, when would you like for us to arrive?” Mark asked.

“Oh, Saturday.”

“You already said that,” Mark quipped.

“Um, about four o’clock?”

“We’ll be there. Thank your parents for the invitation,” Mark stated as he watched Jake turn and trip over his feet. Mark laughed and shook his head as he proceeded on to the Marshal’s Office.

Johnny Drako and Tom Benton were sitting in the chairs on the boardwalk when Mark walked up and tied Two-Bits to the hitching rail.

“So what was that all about?” Johnny asked. “Watching him walk away from you I’d swear he’d been nipping at the sacramental wine in the church.”

“Not exactly sure,” Mark answered. “Only thing I know is that my family and Gwen are invited to dinner Saturday.”

“Dinner?” Tom asked. “Kinda sounds formal.”

*****

Jake ran to the church and slowed to a walk before he entered. He removed his hat as he saw his father standing behind the pulpit. Quietly he waited until his father noticed him.

“Jake, didn’t see you come in. Come on in, son. It’s been a long time since you’ve visited me while I worked on my sermon.”

The Reverend stepped from the pulpit and motioned his son to sit with him in the front pew.

“Father, when did you know?” Jake asked.

“Know? Not sure I understand,” Reverend Mark McCafferty replied.

“Know about Mother. That she was the girl for you?”

“Don’t rightly know. Your mother and I had been friends growing up and one day, I told your mother that I knew my calling, that I was going to be a servant of God. That I saw myself taking the Lord’s words to the people.”

Reverend Mark paused as he looked at his son, watching him.

“Your mother smiled when I told her. She asked me if I was going to minister to the people by myself, and before I knew it, I told her that I had hoped she would be by my side.” The Reverend smiled and laughed as he remembered that day. “Your mother didn’t seem surprised at all. I told her that I knew we were friends, but as with my calling from God, I knew that one day, we’d get married and I hoped she would consent.”

“You hadn’t talked about it before?” Jake asked.

“No, but I guess that we both knew that we would marry each other. It just felt right. That night, I spoke with your Grandpa Horatio and told him my feelings towards his daughter. I asked him if, once I was graduated from seminary school, if I could have his daughter’s hand in marriage.”

“I take it he said yes?”

“No, not right at first. We spent the next two hours talking about my dreams and plans. He came to realize that I was serious, about my commitment to God and his daughter. He stated I had to promise to graduate and then he would bless our wish to be married.”

“How old were you when you asked Grandpa?”

“I was nineteen. I went to school for two years and then a year later, your Grandpa Horatio married us.” Reverend McCafferty looked at his son. “Why do you ask?”

“Father, you know that I’ve been calling on Gwen, over at Mark and Miss Hope’s home?”

“Sure, you’ve even taken her to a few dances.”

“Father, when she was staying here, in town, she was so close. But ever since she returned to the McCain ranch…”

“Son, you get to see her every day you go out there to work with Lucas and Mark.”

“I know, but I miss her something terribly each day after I have to say goodbye. Father, I talked with Mother if I could ask Mark and his family over for dinner Saturday night. I told Mark, Mother missed the children. I want to…” Jake fidgeted with his hat.

“Go on…”

“Father, if Mark consents, and if Gwen says yes… Would you marry us?”

“Can’t say that this is a surprise,” Reverend Mark smiled and placed a hand on his son’s shoulder. “Do you know that Gwen feels the same way about you, that you do about her? Have you spoken with her about her feelings?”

“Father, I… She looks at me the same way Mother looks at you…”

“Didn’t think my son would notice something like that. All right. If Mark and Gwen both say yes to your proposal, I would be honored to officiate your wedding.”

Jake sat there next to his father, in a way, he didn’t know what to do next. He knew this was the most important day of his life, to date, he was excited yet, he feared Saturday’s arrival.

“What if they say, no?” Jake whispered.

“If that were the case, I don’t think Mark would have given you permission to call on Gwen. And I don’t think she would have accompanied you to those dances…”

“Are you sure, Father?”

“I have it on good authority,” Reverend Mark replied as he pointed his index finger skyward.

“You won’t say anything to Mark? If you see him between now and then, will you? I want to do this proper.”

“I won’t say a word other than to say how much we look forward to their visit. Would you like some time to be alone?”

“I don’t know. I thought this would be easy. It’s so… complicated.”

“Anything involving women, generally is, son. You’ll get used to it.”

“Use to it?” Jake gulped.

“You’ll survive son, you’ll survive.”

Reverend Mark stood from the pew, placed his hands behind his back and walked to the church office.

Eventually, Jake left the church to head home. He hesitated on the steps and looked towards the Marshal’s Office and then to the sky, “Please God, let my Father be right.”

*****

Hattie arrived at the hotel shortly before three o’clock. She walked to the kitchen and knocked before entering. Inside, she saw Johnny pleading with Lou.

“You can leave them for a few minutes, just long enough to go meet our son as he gets out of his first day of school and to walk him home.”

“But they’re too young to be left alone.”

“Lou,” Hattie placed a hand on Lou’s shoulder and helped guide her to the door. “That’s why I’m here. Now, go with your husband and meet your son. Danielle and I’ll look after your twins. Now go!”

Johnny placed his arm around Lou’s waist and led her through the restaurant and lobby, and to the school house. Every few steps, Lou would look over her shoulder, back towards the hotel.

“They’ll be fine. Hattie’s looked after our other two children.”

“I know, it’s just…”

“Mrs. Drako, you have two other children who still need you as their mother,” Johnny stated as he escorted his wife along the boardwalk. “Now, won’t you put a smile on your face as we go to greet your eldest son as he gets out of his first day of school?” Johnny begged of his wife.

The smile Johnny requested appeared on Lou’s face and it genuinely spoke of the love she held for her family.

*****

That evening, Maggie McCafferty knocked on the door to her son’s bedroom. “Well?” she asked as she entered.

“They’re coming,” Jake replied. “Mother, I need to find a betrothal ring for Gwen, but if I go to town, everyone will know my intentions.”

“Jake, I have your Grandmother Cleo’s betrothal ring,” Maggie answered as she pulled a small box from the pocket of her dress. “I’m sure your she would love for you to present it to your future bride.”

“Grandmother didn’t… She didn’t get buried with it?”

“No, she was buried with her wedding ring, but this betrothal ring, it belonged to your Grandfather Horatio’s grandmother, sort of a tradition, to be passed down. Once Gwen says yes, you can buy a ring of her own ring and present it to her on your wedding day.”

“Mother, did you ever doubt that Father was the one for you?”

“No, I knew from early on that we were meant to be together.”

Once his Mother left his room, Jake prepared for bed. As he stretched out, he looked through the window to the stars, wondering, what would it be like to have a wife and create a family. If his love for Gwen was anything like the love his parents shared, he knew he was doing right.

*****

Mark returned home later than usual Tuesday evening. Hope and Gwen already had the children to bed and Gwen had retired to her own room.

Hope met Mark at the door as he stepped to the porch. “Long shift?” she asked as she held the door open for him.

“Yeah,” Mark said as he placed his rifle over the mantle. “Lots of reports to read and briefings to catch up on.” He plopped heavily in his chair as he set his hat and a packet of papers down on the lamp stand.

“I’ve supper still warm on the stove?” Hope stated, unsure if Mark had eaten before coming home.

“Please. I was too tired to stay in town to eat anything before coming home.”

Hope filled a bowl with stew and brought it to the table. She watched as Mark wearily stood and took the few steps to the table. She allowed him to eat in silence. After Mark ate, he returned to his chair and pulled out the packet and started leafing through the papers. Hope finished washing, drying, and putting away the last of the dishes, turned and saw Mark sound asleep in his chair. She walked to the lantern and blew out the flame. Next, from the chest along the back wall of their front room, she pulled a blanket and lovingly cover Mark with it.

*****

Mark was still asleep when his sons rowdily entered the front room the following morning, calling, “Papa! Papa!” when they saw him in his chair.

Hope quickly ran from their bedroom in an attempt to quiet their sons, but it was too late. They were already climbing onto Mark’s lap as Mark struggled awake for the morning. The door from Gwen’s sitting room opened quickly as she too hurried into the front room to see what had caused the boys’ excitement.

Good naturedly, Mark greeted his rowdy sons. Gwen returned to her room to dress for the day. Hope walked to her sons and shooed them to their bedroom to get dressed as well. She turned around to find Mark behind her and pulling her into a hug.

“Did they behave themselves while I was gone?” Mark whispered into her ear.

“Yes, especially once you promised to take them fishing this weekend.”

“By the way, thank you for letting me sleep last night.”

“You looked so…”

“Exhausted?”

“Angelic.”

Both walked to their bedroom to get dressed for the day and to get Mykaela up and dressed as well.

As the McCain family chatted over breakfast, Mark announced they had been invited to the parsonage for dinner Saturday night. “Per Jake, seems Maggie misses the children. And Gwen, you’re invited too.”

*****

Mark saddled Two-Bits and waited for his Pa to exit his barn since the two of them had planned to spend the day riding the range, checking the cattle and fence lines.

“You think you can handle Blade today?” Mark asked as he saw his Pa’s horse acting up.

“Why?”

“Well, you’ve ridden Razor for the past few days. Just thought I’d check…,” Mark stated teasingly.

“I’ll check you. Come on, we have work to do,” Lucas stated, laughing at his son, as they signaled their horses into a lope.

*****

Jake McCafferty woke and felt panicked, three and a half more days. How agonizingly slow the days went. Even though he had spent time helping his mother clean their home and helped his father at the church, time crept by.

After breakfast, he saddled his horse and headed to the McCain Ranch. He headed out to their western pasture where he had planned to meet Lucas and Mark. Throughout the day, Jake worked just as hard as he always had. Lucas finally called it quits from moving cattle and mending a few sections of fence and invited Jake back to the ranch to clean up a bit before he headed home.

“Thank you, Lucas, but, I think it’s best I head home from here,” Jake commented and then the three said their goodbyes.

As he watched Jake ride away, Lucas stated, “First time I’ve known him to pass up the chance to stop by the ranch to say hello to Gwen after working with us all day.”

“That is strange,” Mark agreed.

*****

Gwen was standing on the front porch when Lucas and Mark rode into the yard. Both could see the look of disappointment on her face. She quickly turned and walked into the house. Hope saw the tears starting down Gwen’s face as she rushed into her bedroom. Before leaving the stove, Hope set the frying pan to the side, not wanting to burn their supper.

Lightly she knocked on the door, “Gwen, may I come in?” When she heard no response other than crying, Hope opened the door and entered. “Would you like to talk?”

“It’s been three days and he’s not stopped by or anything.”

“I take it you’re talking about Jake?,” Hope asked, feeling sorry for Gwen. “Did something happen Sunday, when you went for the walk after lunch?”

“Hope, he…”

Hope sat on the edge of the bed and wrapped her arms around Gwen. “Tell me what happened.”

Gwen sat back as she told Hope of the events, “We went for a walk, like usual, he held my hand the whole time and he was smiling, while we were talking. It was starting to get hot, so when we came to the bench beside the livery, Jake suggested we sit down and rest for a while.”

“And?”

“He was such a gentleman and showed me to the bench, then, after he sat down, he placed his arm around my shoulder. At first I tensed, but then, the warmth of his arm around me felt so comforting. He talked, like he always does, he tells me of what he’s been doing out on the range and everything he does for Mark and his Pa. Sunday, he started talking about… building a homestead of his own some day. The wind blew my hair into my face and he swept it back behind my ear. Oh, Hope, he…”

“Did he kiss you?” Hope inquired as she lifted Gwen’s chin so she could look her in the eyes.

The expression on Gwen’s face turned to one of panic while she nodded.

“Did you kiss him back?”

Gwen’s voice held alarm when she answered, “Please don’t think badly of me, but I did.” Then her voice softened as she remember, “He wrapped his arms around me and… I wrapped my arms around him. It was nothing like I ever imagined. I know I shouldn’t have, but…, why does something that feels so right, how can it be so wrong?” Gwen cried as she threw her head into her hands. “He must think me a floozy. That I’m one of those ‘loose’ women they write of in dime-store novels.”

“Gwen, I don’t think Jake would think anything of the sort. You know, I went through something similar with Mark.

“You did?” Gwen asked as she tried to dry her tears.

“I did. Gwen I know I’m not your mother, but… In a way we’re a lot alike, neither of us having a mother to help raise us. I mean, I did have an adopted mother, for the years I was living with and being raised by the Kiowa. But being raised… It was different than being raised among the whites.”

Gwen nodded, “I know a little bit of your past, from what Miss Milly and Mr. Lucas said, when…”

“I had been forcibly taken from my adoptive family by some very bad men. As they were forcing me to ride with them, we happened across McCain land one day, out by the bluffs. Mark rescued me. Then, the men found me again and took me. And again, Mark rescued me and in the process, I was reunited with my father and brother. They had found out I hadn’t been killed when Aunt Susan and her family were. Anyway, we all knew that I would never really be accepted at the fort where they lived and worked, because of being raised the way I was. So, it was agreed that I would live here, with Miss Milly. This was right after she had returned to North Fork and before she married Mark’s father.”

“They didn’t mind that you had been raised… as an Indian?”

“No, they accepted me as Hope Lane and the fact that Mark cared for me, even though no one knew what the future would hold, they respected me as a person. It was… I think the following April, after Mark had returned from a training class up in Denver. We went for a ride. We stopped to water the horses and the horse I had been riding decided instead of drinking from the creek, he’d push me into the water. Mark just stood there laughing at me and I got so riled at him… Well, when he finally offered me his hand to help me up, I pulled him in, right beside me.”

“You didn’t?!” Gwen was astounded that Hope would do something like that.

“I did. When we finally stopped laughing so hard, Mark helped me to my feet and we walked to the bank and sat down. It was a beautiful day, and as we sat so close beside each other, Mark leaned over and kissed me.”

“On the lips?” Gwen bashfully asked.

“Yes, at first it was gentle, like a butterflies wings, but then, something inside me, I had a desire to kiss him back. I don’t know how long we kissed, but we were both plenty embarrassed when our lips parted.”

“Embarrassed is an understatement.”

“I remember Mark lying back on the bank and pulling me to lie down next to him. We fell asleep in each other’s arms.”

“Did anyone see you?”

“I don’t know. But the following week, I felt like you do now. I felt that I had done something wrong and Mark was avoiding me. I told Miss Hattie what had happen and she told me, give him time. He has to understand his feelings too.”

“But…”

“Gwen, a lady you will always be and a gentleman Jake will always be. Let him sort out his feelings. He’ll come around in a few days. Besides, he was the one who Mark said invited the family and you to dinner Saturday night.”

*****

Thursday and Friday nights, Mark stood his shift in town. Johnny and Mark were sitting in front of the Marshal’s Office when Lucas arrived in town Saturday morning, with the buckboard. Mark stood up to greet him as he pulled the team to a halt.

“Quiet morning!” Lucas called as the leaned forward.

“It was, until a noisy rig just pulled up,” Johnny teased. “Morning Lucas, how ya been?”

“Just fine,” Lucas answered Johnny. “Son, you ready to head to the general store, Milly and Hope saddled me with a rather large order today.”

“Sure Pa. See you and the family at church tomorrow?” Mark asked of Johnny.

“As always. Lucas, don’t wear my deputy out with too much work this afternoon!”

“I won’t Johnny, but I don’t know about once we get home. The wives sure have a list for us.”

Once their supplies were loaded in the back, Mark headed to the livery to get Two-Bits and his gear. For the return trip home, Mark tied Two-Bits to the back of the buckboard and placed the saddle in the back.

“Any luck on find a horse for yourself?” Lucas asked as Mark climbed up to sit next to his Pa.

“Nils has some mighty fine stock coming through, but none of them seem to be the one. I know I need to find a horse of my own, even though Hope doesn’t mind my riding her mare. I don’t know how to explain what I felt when I first met Blue Boy and then with Copper. There was something that drew me to both of them.”

“You’ll know when you find the right one.”

As they rode home, Mark told of their invitation to the parsonage for supper that evening.

“Is Gwen invited? Lucas asked.

“Gwen?” Mark asked. “Sure, Jake said she was.”

“Not sure what’s up between those two, the other day, Jake passing up the opportunity to stop and say hello and Gwen’s just not seemed herself for the past week.”

“I know, Hope talked with her the other day, but won’t tell me what’s up.”

“Son, sometimes what’s discussed between women is best left, between women,” Lucas smiled and shook his head.

*****

While Hope and Gwen finished dressing for their evening with the McCaffertys, Mark instructed his three sons on how he expected them to behave. He pointed to each one of them, giving them a warning look.

Maggie and Mark McCafferty warmly welcomed them to their home and showed everyone to the front parlor where the topics of conversations ranged from Sarah at school, to how quiet the house was since the McCain children returned home. Shortly, Maggie announced that dinner would be ready in ten minutes.

Jake asked Mark if they could talk, Mark nodded and followed Jake to the front porch of his home, “Mark, I know it’s not been that long since Gwen arrived in North Fork. Nor has it been that long ago since I asked permission to come calling on her at your home.”

“I know. But what’s happened between the two of you? The past week, you’ve been working hard, yet you don’t stop by the main house. And Gwen’s been, I don’t know… And then tonight, you’ve barely looked at each other.”

“That’s just it Mark, last Sunday after church, when we went for a walk after lunch? I…” Jake nervously pulled at his collar, “I have a confession to make.”

“Don’t you think your father is better suited to hear your confession?”

“Well… Gwen’s father isn’t alive and since… since you granted me permission to call on her… Mark, you’re about the closest male relation she has…”

“I hadn’t thought on it that way,” Mark replied. “So what happened last Sunday that has both of you avoiding each other?”

“I kissed her Mark. I don’t know why, only that I was drawn to do it. She’s so sweet, I swear I heard angels singing. Her lips were like honey and…” Jake halted as he started to get embarrassed.

“Oh, that kinds of explains a lot. Jake, I did something similar with Hope, down by Miller’s Creek and we were a lot younger than you are.”

“I need to ask you a question, I want to marry her, to ask her to be my wife. Would you give us your blessing?”

Mark was truly surprised with all that Jake had just said, he hadn’t stuttered or stammered through his words. He was even more surprise that the question was being asked of him.

“Marry her?”

“Mark, I really love Gwen and I think she feels the same way about me. Now she is eighteen and of proper age… And I’m older than you were, when you married Hope.”

“Jake, I’m not doubting that you love her or that you both are old enough. I just never thought I’d be asked that question, least not yet. I’d be honored to give you permission to ask Gwen for her hand in marriage. Is that why we’re here tonight?”

“Yes sir, I wanted your permission to ask her, and if you said yes, then I was going to ask her over dessert tonight.”

“Well, let’s get you inside and supper eaten so you can ask your question,” Mark smiled as they walked back into the parlor. Hope gave Mark an inquiring look as he picked Mykaela up to carry her into the dining room.

“Everything will be fine, after dessert,” Mark whispered under the guise of giving Hope a kiss on the cheek.

*****

Reverend Mark blessed the food and then served the food as plates were handed around the table. Once dinner was finished, the ladies cleared the dishes from the table and Hope and Gwen helped Maggie carry in plates with dessert. Mark kept looking to Jake. Finally, once his mother brought in coffee to serve her husband and Mark, Jake cleared his throat and stood.

“Earlier this week, I asked my father a very important question and he helped me see things a lot clearer than I had for a few days. Earlier this evening I asked Mark a question, as well. It’s strange how life happens. I mean, when we first arrived in North Fork, Mark and his father helped rescue my family. If it weren’t for Mark, I know I wouldn’t be alive today. And then because of Mark, I… I met Gwen. I stand here and ask each one of you to be a witness to the last question I… I have to ask.”

Jake walked over to where Gwen sat and dropped to his knees, looked Gwen in the eye, and said, “Gwen, I know we’ve not known each other that long, but the question I have to ask is for you. I know I love you and I hope you feel the same way?”

If possible, the room grew even quieter, “I asked Mark’s permission if I could ask for your hand in marriage and he said yes. So I want to ask you, would you show me how much you love me, by agreeing to be my wife?”

Jake, and everyone in the room, looked to Gwen and waited, slowly Gwen had placed her hand over her mouth and started nodding her head. From his shirt pocket, Jake pulled the ring that had once belonged to his great, great-grandmother and placed it on the ring finger of Gwen’s left hand. He reached forward and kissed his intended as those around clapped and offered their congratulations.

Maggie stood from her chair and placed it next to Gwen and motioned for Jake to have a seat. She saw the tears in Gwen’s eyes and offered her a clean napkin to wipe her eyes. Mark noticed the relieved look in Jake’s face when he realized that Gwen had said yes. Hope saw the relieved look in Gwen’s face as she realized why Jake had been ‘avoiding’ her.

Finally, the evening came to a close, Mark carried the sleeping Eli while Hope carried Mykaela to the buckboard. The twins walked to and climbed in the back of the buckboard on their own. After helping Hope to the seat, they waited for Jake to finish saying goodnight to Gwen.

*****

Once home, Mark helped Hope put their children to bed. As she entered their bedroom, she asked,
“Did you know he was going to propose?”

“No, I didn’t. Hope, why don’t you go talk to her, I think she might need, a big sister.”

“Mark, how is it that you understand women so well?”

“Well, when you tell me what it is I understand about women, maybe I’ll understand better,” Mark stated as he kissed his wife goodnight.

*****

Hope stood in front of the door to Gwen’s room and heard her humming on the other side. She quietly knocked and called, “Gwen, may I come in?”

The door opened for Hope to see Gwen standing on the other side, her eyes sparkling and a beautiful smile on her face.

“Please Hope, come in,” Gwen said as she took Hope by the hand and led her into her sitting room. “You were right. You were so right. He wasn’t avoiding me. He proposed. Jake asked me to marry him. I can’t believe I said yes, but Hope, I do love him. Is this how you felt, after Mark proposed to you?”

Hope smiled as she remembered back to those days.

“I imagine so. I still feel the same way; every time Mark looks at me or that I look at him,” Hope answered.

“Doesn’t it just feel like your insides want to burst right out?”

“Yes, and it only gets better.”

“Did you know that he was going to ask me? Oh, that doesn’t matter, what does matter is that you were right. He just needed some time. Hope, can you believe?” Gwen felt as if she was floating on air as she talked.

“Gwen, I don’t mean to bring your feet back down to the ground, but between now and when you and Jake get married…”

Gwen’s expression changed as her emotions crashed, “Oh, Hope! I can’t marry Jake!”

“What do you mean, you can’t marry Jake?” Hope asked.

“I have to be here, your children!”

“Gwen, no. You are going to marry Jake and you will create a life and your own family together. I’ve appreciated the time that you’ve been a nanny to our children, but neither Mark nor I will let you give up on you own life. We’ll do fine and you can come and visit any time you wish.”

“But you were saying something about between now and when we’re to get married?” Gwen nervously asked.

“Gwen, it’s been a number of years since your mother was here to guide you, same as with me, before I married Mark. I just wanted to say, if you want to talk, I’d like to be here, sorta of like a big sister to you. And I’m sure Ma would take you under her wings, as another daughter.”

“I don’t understand?” Gwen asked, confused.

“Marriage is… well… it’s not just what you see publicly between Mark and me or Lucas and Milly or any other married couple. There’s more, it happens in the privacy of a man and a woman’s marriage bed. I know you still have to set a date, but the closer your wedding day arrives, you’ll start to get nervous, you’ll question yourself, you may even get scared about…”

“Our wedding night? I hadn’t thought about that.” Gwen grew quiet and reserved.

“That’s why I wanted to talk tonight. Milly and I talked before I married Mark, but still… I was raised differently, living among the Kiowa, and you’ve been on your own for some time. Oh, Gwen, a woman’s wedding night is something special. I don’t know exactly how to explain it to you, but that night you’ll have experiences you never imagined.”

“Were you scared?”

“In a way, yes.”

“How so?”

“It was the first time I was ever intimate with someone. As Mark and I stood in… our bedroom… I felt so vulnerable, yet, I felt the love he had for me. But more importantly, I knew that was where I belonged. Most women never talk of… their experiences, in their marriage bed. It’s just something that women keep private, they’re raised that it’s something to be kept between her and her husband. Once you’re married and the first time you make love, it is beautiful. And if Jake is the man I believe he is, he’ll be just as loving and understanding as Mark was and still is. When you join Jake in your marriage bed, as you make love for the first time… I remember Milly told me it was the greatest gift a woman could her husband. But what she didn’t tell me, was… it was the greatest gift a man could give his wife. And I hope that God’ blesses you by allowing you to bring a new life into the world.”

“Is it…” Gwen started to ask and her embarrassment showed in her face, “pleasurable?”

“Gwen, as you and Jake… become one, there will be a strong desire… You’ll desire to experience more.” Seeing Gwen blush even more, Hope stated, “Oh, it is pleasurable. “

“Hope, I know I love Jake,” Gwen stated, thinking on what Hope had said.

“And that’s all that really matters. But if you need to talk, Milly and I are here for you.”

The two women hugged.

“Thank you,” Gwen said as she stood and hugged herself, then held her hand in front of her and admired the ring upon her hand.

*****

Before Hope climbed into her own bed that night, she stopped by the cradle to check on their daughter. She smiled as Mykaela blissfully slept. Once in bed, Hope felt Mark wrap his arms around her and pull her close, he whispered in her ear, “I honestly thought we’d have a few more years before we had to go through a night like tonight.”

“Aren’t you happy for Gwen?”

“Of course I’m happy for Gwen, and Jake, too. I was talking about us and Emmy. Just surprised me that Jake would ask me for permission. I mean before it was just to call on Gwen, and I accepted that because she lives here, but now…” Mark replied as he cuddled with his wife, running his hand up and down her arm. “Do they remind you of anyone?”

“Us,” Hope whispered as she rolled over in bed, snuggled closer, and kissed her husband.

The Next Generation… Chapter 72 – An Adventure

Mark had just stepped back into his home from morning chores, as he opened the door, the smell of pancakes and maple syrup wafted through the air. Mark walked to the stove and wrapped his arms around Hope, “Good morning,” his whispered in her ear.

Smiling, Hope returned the greeting.

“So, should I get the boys up?” he asked.

“I think they’re already awake, they won’t let Gwen in their room,” Hope commented.

Mark release his hands from Hope’s waist and walked over to the closed bedroom door, turned the knob, pushed on the door, only to find it wouldn’t open. When it wouldn’t open, Mark knocked.

“Boys?!”

“Yes Papa?” came from the other side of the door.

“Why won’t this door open?”

“We’re getting ready,” came a second voice.

“Ready for what?” Mark shoved a little harder on the door and it budged.

“Papa, No!”

“Open this door, now!”

From the other side Mark heard something being pushed out of the way. Mark waited for the door to open.

“What are you hiding?” Mark asked as Hope came to stand behind him.

“Nothing,” Eli said.

“Nothing? Then why was the door blocked?” Hope asked.

“We wanted to surprise you,” Josh spoke as he stepped into view.

Hope raised her hand to her mouth and Mark raised his eyebrows. Both looked as all three of their sons were dressed in their Sunday clothes, including string ties, only they weren’t exactly tied correctly.

“We wanted to show you we could be good and get ready without any help. Papa, we really want to go fishing this afternoon, you promised,” Zach pleaded.

“I did at that. But why block the door?” Mark asked again as he knelt down and started to properly tied each one’s tie.

“We didn’t want Gwen to come in and spoil our surprise,” Josh answered.

‘Well, your Mama and I are quite pleased you boys took the initiative to get dressed so early,” Mark answered trying to keep a serious face.

“We did what?” Eli asked.

“You got ready on your own, without your Mama and I having to ask you. I’m really proud.”

*****

As the families gathered in front of the church, before services, Josh and Zach started talking with Little Ted about their plans to go fishing after church.

“Can I come too?” Little Ted asked.

“You ask Papa?” Eli answered and then quickly ran to Hope, when she called for the boys.

Eli and the twins stopped short when they realized their parents were talking to a stranger, “Boys,” Mark called, “I’d like for you to meet Mr. and Mrs. Cooperton, and their son seven year old son, Isaiah.”

All three boys stated, “Pleased to meet you.”

“Go on inside with your Mama, I’ll be in shortly,” Mark told his sons.

“Yes sir,” each one said as they followed Hope inside.

“Such young gentlemen,” Mrs. Cooperton commented.

“We try to raise them properly,” Mark said as he smiled.

“Are the oldest in school yet?” Mrs. Cooperton asked.

“Next year, they’re only four.” A longing tugged at Mark’s heart, yes, his boys were only four, yet, it seemed like it wasn’t that long ago they were born.

As the last of the parishioners entered the church, Mark closed the door behind him before he took his seat with his family.

Mark noticed the different arrangement of the seats and the pulpit, as he heard Reverend McCafferty request all the children to come to the front of the church. The Reverend announced that the sermon for the day was about life’s blessings.

“Life’s blessings. That’s what each and every one of you are,” Reverend McCafferty stated as he pointed to each and every child sitting around him.

“Uh Uh, Ma says I’m a hellion,” little Charlie Walker could be heard to say. His comment drew a laugh from the adults, and an embarrassed “Charlie!” from his mother.

“Well, sometimes, that too,” Reverend McCafferty commented as he tried not to laugh.

By the end of the sermon, the love that so many of those present shared with those sitting around the Reverend was evident. Smiles in realizing their blessings and pride abounded in the church.

Reverend McCafferty ended his sermon by starting to sing and one by one, the children joined in,

Jesus loves me! This I know,
For the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to Him belong;
They are weak, but He is strong.

Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me!
The Bible tells me so.

Jesus loves me! This I know,
As He loved so long ago,
Taking children on His knee,
Saying, “Let them come to Me.”

Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me!
The Bible tells me so.

Jesus loves me when I’m good,
When I do the things I should,
Jesus loves me when I’m bad,
Though it makes Him very sad.

Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me!
The Bible tells me so.

The group continued to sing as they walked out the front door of the church.

Lucas, Mark, and Milly started to head to the restaurant when Mark stopped as he felt Josh tug on his pant leg.

“Yes, Josh?”

“Can’t we go home. Mama fixed a picnic basket,” Josh pleaded.

“Please, we been real good Papa,” Zach pleaded.

“What’s this about a picnic basket?” Lucas asked as he looked to his oldest grandson.

Josh looked to his feet.

“Papa, Mark said he’d take them fishing after church today. Can I go too? Please, Mark?” Little Ted asked.

“That’s up to Pa,” Mark answered. “Pa, earlier this week, when I returned to duty, the boys were having difficulties, so I told them if they behaved for Hope and Gwen this week, I’d take them fishing after church today.”

“You know what, fishing sounds mighty good to me. That is, as long as the women folk don’t mind?” Lucas asked as he looked to Milly.

Lucas felt a tug on his hand, “Yes, Myra?”

“Can I go fishing or am I women folk?” Myra asked, bringing laughter from everyone present.

“Which would you like to be?” Lucas asked.

“Well, I know Ma’s trying to raise me to be a lady, but with so many boys around…”

“You want to go fishing Gabby?” Mark asked.

“Yes,” Myra giggled.

Milly nodded, “Let’s get everyone home and changed so they can go fishing.”

*****

Milly holding Levi, Hope holding Mykaela, and Gwen stood on the porch and waved to the others as they headed to the fishing pond.

“Okay, now that we have the afternoon to ourselves, what shall we do?” Milly asked as they entered into Milly’s home.

“We can talk?” Gwen asked.

“Sure we can, anytime.” After seeing the expression on Gwen’s face, “Or is there something particular you’d like to discuss.” Milly set Levi to the crib as Hope placed Mykaela in the crib.

“Oh, Miss Milly, I’ve been bursting at the seams all morning long! I wanted to tell everyone, but it didn’t seem proper at church, least not yet.”

“Tell everyone what? Oh my!” Milly exclaimed as Gwen held up her left hand.

“When did this happen?”

“Last night,” Hope answered. “We were the excuse for Jake inviting Gwen over for dinner last night.

“Have the two of you set a date, yet?” Milly asked.

“We’ve barely had a moment to talk about it,” Gwen stated.

“Okay, then tell me all the details,”

Milly poured lemonade for the three as they settled back to listen to Gwen. Both Milly and Hope, allowed their memories to take them back to when their respective husbands had proposed. They remember how they felt as they listened. Even though Hope was present during the proposal, she enjoyed listening to Gwen tell of the night before.

*****

Once the boys and Myra were settled down with their fishing poles, Lucas and Mark grabbed and baited their own poles.

Myra was the first to feel a fish tug on her line.

“Papa, lookie, I got one!” she squealed.

“Gently, real gentle, stand up and bring your pole this way,” Lucas stated.

After a few minutes, Lucas removed a nice sized crappie from Myra’s pole. Shortly all four boys were calling they too had something on their lines.

By the end of the second hour Mark declared, “Seems we’re going to have a nice fish supper tonight.”

*****

Mark and Lucas loaded the boys and Myra into the back of the buckboard and Lucas drove the team back to the homestead.

“Papa?”

“Yes, Zach?” Mark asked as he turned around in the front seat of the buckboard.

“When did you learn how to ride a horse?”

“I don’t rightly remember. I do remember your Grandpa riding me in front of him in the saddle when I was little,” Mark answered.

“You were about the age the twins and Little Ted are when you got your first pony,” Lucas answered.

“Could you teach us how to ride?” Josh asked.

“Could ya?” Little Ted asked.

“You can teach them on Blue Boy, like you taught me,” Myra offered.

“I think I smell a conspiracy,” Mark laughed as he looked to his Pa. “When we get home, I’ll talk with your Mama, and as for you little brother, that’s up to our parents to say yes.”

All three boys looked to each other and smiled.

*****

After the children had finally been put to bed for the night; both households had trouble, as all the children we still too keyed from their adventure, Mark and Hope returned to his parent’s home.

“So, when are you going to find time between working the ranch and standing your shift in town to teach three boys how to ride?” Lucas asked.

“Do what?” Milly asked.

“Did you say Mark was going to teach the boys how to ride? They’re too young!” Hope exclaimed.

“Hope, they’re older than I was when I was riding in the saddle in front of Pa,” Mark stated. “And Ma, Gabby was four when I taught her how to ride.”

“But,” Hope tried to protest. “Just who are they going to learn on?”

“Gabby offered Blue Boy, but he’s starting to get up there in years, I was thinking Two-Bits.”

“Mark, I don’t like the idea of you taking all three up to the round up pen…” Milly protested.

“I won’t, with three of them, I thought about teaching them in the corral. Besides, teaching them here, Hope and you can be here to help out.”

“So, where do we find saddles small enough for them and then large ponies?” Lucas asked.

“You remember Mr. Cooperton?”

“We met the family at church today?” Lucas asked.

“He’s a saddle maker. I had already talked with him earlier in the week about commissioning him to make saddles for the twins. I realized today was coming. I can talk to him about a saddle for Little Ted and talk with Nils about large ponies.”

“Think we might need to build on to the barn again,” Lucas said with pride as he knew his second son was growing up.

*****

The following weekend, Lucas and Mark rode into town with two tasks to complete, first talk to Leon Cooperton about three saddles for three young boys and then to Nils to talk about three large ponies.

The Next Generation… Chapter 73 – Fort Stanton

The beginning of October saw Mark talking with Johnny about taking some time off, “Johnny, I know I’ve not been back on duty for that long, but later this month, Ethan and Annie celebrate their anniversary and I thought I’d surprise Hope with a trip out of town to visit them. And I guess that once Seth finds out about it, he probably would want to join us.”

“Mark, you don’t have to plead your case to me. You’re entitled to time. Besides, you report to Denver, not me. But with both of you being gone…”

“I could ask Pa, if he’d agree to be your acting deputy or I could ask Uncle Johnny.”

“No!” Johnny answered quickly. “Your Pa would be preferable. The last time I left your Uncle in charge, I seem to remember him letting two of my prisoners go,” Johnny teased.

“You can’t hold that against him, he was only doing what I asked,” Mark pleaded.

“I know boy. Ask your Pa and if he says no, and if Micah were to say no, then I’ll consider your uncle.”

“Thanks, Johnny. I’ll ask Pa this weekend. Need to get all the details straightened out with Ethan first.”

*****

Lucas and Mark left their homes early Saturday morning to check their herds before heading into town with their families to do their weekly shopping. As they sat on their horses, overlooking one of their herds, Mark stated, “Pa, I have a favor to ask.”

“What is it, Mark?” Lucas asked as he removed his hat and wiped his brow with the back side of his sleeve.

“I was wanting to surprise Hope with a trip up to Fort Stanton in a couple of weeks…”

“Ethan and Annie’s anniversary?”

“Yes sir, only if I take Hope, I know that Seth will want to come too…”

“And that leaves Johnny shorthanded while the two of you are gone.”

“Yes sir, I don’t think we’ll be gone more than ten days. And I know that Johnny would appreciate you being an acting deputy more than Uncle Johnny. You’ve got the experience and have stepped in plenty of times before.”

“You know I’ll have to ask your ma, seeing as how I don’t think you’ll be taking your children with you?”

“I hadn’t planned on it. I mean it’s been a long time since Hope and I had time to ourselves,” Mark stated matter-of-factly.

“That is the problem in being married, with children. I seem to remember this town sending Milly and me on a belated honeymoon, sure Mark. As long as your Ma is okay with taking care of all the children.”

“Gwen will still be here to help out, so it won’t just be you and Ma taking, oh, just Ma taking care of them.”

“Come on… Let’s check the rest of our cattle and get back home.”

*****

Several nights later, the McCain families were joined by Seth Lane for supper. Most of the conversation around the table was directed by the children. The adults didn’t mind, they’d have their time to talk later in the evening.

After supper, Milly, Hope, and Gwen cleared the table and did the dishes while Lucas and Mark, with Seth helping, put the children to bed for the night. After returning to the front porch of Lucas and Milly’s home, the men sat down, just as Milly brought out the pot of coffee and Hope handed cups to them. Gwen started to say goodnight, when Mark asked her to stay.

“But this is your family time,” Gwen answered.

“Gwen, you are part of this family and I have something I would like to discuss tonight and it will affect you,” Mark replied as he motioned for her to sit in the chair on the porch. Hope sat down on the porch next to Mark, leaning back into him, while Milly sat in the chair next to Lucas. Seth sat on the porch and leaned again the porch post opposite from Mark.

Once everyone was settled, Mark stated, “I’ve an announcement that I’d like to make. Now, I’ve already spoken with Johnny and Pa, and I’ve already wired Ethan…”

“Just what are you up to Mark?” Hope asked.

“Well, Ethan and Annie’s anniversary is in a few weeks and I thought it would be nice for us to travel to Fort Stanton to help them celebrate their anniversary. Pa’s agreed to step in as an acting deputy, since I’m sure that Seth would like to join us.”

“Can we really do this?” Hope excitedly asked.

“Mark, are you sure Johnny is okay with this?” Seth asked.

“I spoke with him a few days ago and he said as long as Pa could help cover for us… But, it would also mean leaving our children here, with Ma and Gwen taking care of them.” Mark looked tentatively to Milly.

“Mark, you and Hope deserve some time away. And I think it’s wonderful for you to go visit her brother and Annie,” Milly answered.

“Gwen, would you be okay being here with the children, without Hope or me being around?” Mark asked.

“Sure, I mean… Your parents are so close if anything were to happen or I needed help,” Gwen answered.

“Oh, I can’t wait to wire Annie to let her know…”

“There’s one condition,” Mark interrupted.

“What’s that?” Hope asked.

“Ethan wants our arrival to be a surprise for Annie,” Mark answered.

*****

The morning of their departure woke distressingly enough. Mykaela was crying and could not be quieted, no matter how much Hope rocked her. The boys wouldn’t budge from their room.

“Boys, in here, now!” Mark demanded in a tone he rarely, ever used.

Slowly, one by one they came from their bedroom into the front room.

“Now, we talked about this last night and you promised you would behave. Your Ma and I, and your Grandpa Seth are going to visit your Uncle Ethan and Aunt Annie, we’ll be back before you know it.”

“Why can’t we go, too?” Josh asked.

“Because they live on a army post,” Mark replied.

“But they have children too, don’t they?” Zach asked.

“They do.”

“Why can’t we go?” Eli asked.

“Because Grandpa Lucas and Grandma Milly would miss you,” Hope stated as she continued to rock Mykaela.

“But won’t you miss us?” Zach asked as he tried to hold back his tears.

“Oh Zach,” Mark stated as he knelt down in front of his middle son, “Your Mama and I will miss you, very much. But we can’t take you on this trip. You’ll understand when you’re older.”

“How old?” Josh asked as he wrapped his arms around Mark.

Mark was never more happy to hear his Pa enter their home, “How are my grandsons this morning?” Lucas cheerfully asked, sensing the mood of the room and trying to lighten it. “Grandma Milly has pancakes on the stove and is just waiting for her grandchildren to come over. And I hear tell, she and Gwen are planning to bake cookies this afternoon and are going to need plenty of help licking the batter bowls clean.”

“Can we help?” Eli asked as he sniffed away his tears.

“Sure, come on,” Lucas stated as he corralled the three boys and Gwen took Mykaela from Hope.

Knowing that Hope was almost as despondent over leaving her children as the children had been, Mark joked, “Grandpa comes over and offers them pancakes and cookies and they forget all about us.” Still trying to cheer up his wife, “Come on, let’s get our bags to the buckboard so Pa can take us to town. I promise, they’ll be fine. It’s not like we’ve not let others watch them before.”

“I know, but before, we’ve always been close by, either here or in town. Mark, it’ll take us almost a day to get home if something were to happen.”

”Don’t you trust Ma to take good care of her grandchildren?” Mark teasingly asked.

“Mark?!,” Hope stated as she swatted towards Mark.

“I understand, I’m gonna miss them too.”

*****

Upon their arrival in town, they stopped at Seth’s home and collected him and his bag. Lucas drove the buckboard to the train station to drop off their luggage, before the group headed over to the Marshal’s office. Lucas’ face held surprise when the foursome entered the office and Micah and Hattie were standing inside.

“I have to make sure he does this all proper. It’s been a while since Johnny’s deputized anyone,” Micah teased.

Johnny picked the badge up from off his desk and administered the oath to Lucas and pinned the badge to Lucas’s shirt.

“What’s so funny Mark?” Lucas asked as Mark laughed when Johnny stepped back.

“Just remembering all the times when I was younger and Micah would swear you in to help out. It always made me proud to see you wear the badge.”

“Well, just as a reminder, this is only temporary. And I mean, temporary!”

Lucas, Hattie, and Micah followed Mark, Hope, and Seth to the train depot and said goodbye. It was difficult for Lucas to watch them board the train, especially his son. Lucas knew that Mark was grown and had a life of his own to live, yet still…

*****

The first night Lucas stayed in town, he had hoped things would be quiet. He was sorely disappointed. Several cattle drives arrived in the area and when the drovers arrived in town, they headed straight for Sweeney’s. Things got rowdy, so much so that Sweeney came running to the Marshal’s, begging for help.

“There are two competing cattle drives and there’s bad blood a boiling, even their ramrods are having trouble keeping ‘em in line. Most all our folks scattered quickly once those crews arrived, but them drovers!” Sweeney shouted as he entered.

Johnny and Lucas ran back to Sweeney’s, they heard the fracas well before they reached the doors to the saloon. Even with two different ramrods and the marshals trying to bring the melee’ to order, a number of the drovers didn’t want to break off their fight. One rather large, drunken drover threw a punch, landing squarely on the jaw of another, driving him backwards, into an unsuspecting Johnny Drako. Both men landed hard on the floor, with the drover landing on top of Johnny’s leg. Finally, Lucas had enough, he raised his rifle and fired three, rapid shots into the ceiling, regretting the holes that Sweeney was going to have to patch. Quickly the fight subsided except for two men, their ramrods struggled to pull the men apart.

“Now, every drover in this saloon is under arrest. Ramrods, I expect you to pull the guns from your men and place them on the bar. Then one by one you’ll exit this establishment, and ramrods you’ll give me your full cooperation, and head them over to the jail. It’s going to be mighty crowded, but you men asked for it,” Lucas demanded.

As each man left the saloon, Lucas looked them over to make sure they had be disarmed.

Before Lucas could leave, he turned, still hearing someone cursing. Sweeney hollered, “Lucas, Johnny’s down, I think he busted his leg.”

“Why don’t you go and get Doc, I need to get these men into the jail.”

Lucas put six drovers in one cell and five drovers in the other, ignoring their complaints about the tight quarters. Lucas turned to the ramrods and stated, “You can get your drovers in the morning, and tell your trail bosses I expect them to be here in the morning and ready to make restitution for all the damages done.”

“Deputy, you’re rifle? You’re the Rifleman?,” the first ramrod asked.

“I’ve been called that,” Lucas stated.

“You could have taken anyone of them down,” the ramrod stated.

“Not over a bar fight, but had any one of them drawn…”

“We’re sorry for the trouble our men caused,” the first ramrod apologized.

“I’m not. But them drovers will be the sorry ones,” the second ramrod spoke. “It’ll be a long time before they get to head to any town we pass near.”

*****

Lucas returned to Sweeney’s to find Doc splinting Johnny’s busted leg. “How is he doc?”

“He’ll live, but he’s going to be on crutches for at least five to six weeks. I’ve set the leg and splint it here, Sweeney went to get Lou. Would you help me get Johnny over to the clinic. I’ll be able to put a cast on his leg over there.”

“Sure Doc,” Lucas stated as he helped haul Johnny to his feet.

Johnny muttered, “Of all the damn luck! I can’t believe this! If I find out which one…”

“Take it easy there Johnny,” Lucas suggested. “You were complaining about wanting some down time earlier this evening.”

“Yeah, but not this way,” Johnny grumbled.

With his left arm over Lucas’ shoulder and the right arm over Doc’s, Johnny hung his broken left leg as he ‘swung’ between the two.

*****

Lucas met a frantic Lou as she entered the clinic, “Now Lou, he’s gonna be okay. Doc said he just has a broken leg. He’s putting a cast on it as we speak.”

“All Sweeney said was that Johnny was hurt. What happened…? You don’t know how it worried me…”

“I do know. Just take a deep breath and I’ll take you back to the room and Johnny can tell you all about it.”

After showing Lou to the room where Doc was tending to Johnny, Lucas returned to the Marshal’s Office.

It didn’t surprise Lucas one bit when he entered and saw Micah waiting there to greet him, “Looks like you got more than a full house, LucasBoy.”

“Sure do. Never had this many at one time. Guess with everything else expanding, we kind of forgot about expanding the jail,” Lucas replied as he removed his hat and set it and his rifle down on the desk.

“Never had half this many inside at any one time. How’s Johnny doing, Sweeney said he busted his leg?”

“Yeah, one of the drovers fell on him and broke it. Doc said probably five to six weeks until he’s off the crutches.”

“You be needing any help around here?” Micah asked. As long has he had been retired, every now and then he still missed wearing the badge.

“You volunteering to help out?”

“You know I am,” Micah replied.

“What does Hattie say?”

“I’m the boss in my home,” Micah gruffly answered, but then added, “She pushed me out the door. Said something about me being underfoot a little too much lately.”

“You can come on back to the clinic and Johnny can swear you in, all legal like,” Lucas grinned.

*****

Dawn came to North Fork and many of her long time residents smiled as they passed by the Marshal’s office, seeing Lucas and Micah sitting out front, both with badges pinned to their shirts. Many commented on how good it was, felt like old times returning.

“You gonna feed them breakfast this morning?” Micah asked.

“Naw, let them deal with it when their tail bosses arrive and in fact, I think our first one is about here.”

The first ramrods, from the night before, and his boss halted their horses in front of the Marshal’s Office. As they stepped down, the trail boss stated, “I’m with the Arizona Bar Cross crew and I understand you have six of my drovers locked up.”

“I do,” Lucas stated as he stood.

“How much do I owe to bail them out and pay for damages?”

“Well, Sweeney stated there was about a hundred and fifty dollars worth of damage to his saloon, then there’s bail for drunk and disorderly at twenty-five dollars a head. That comes to two hundred and twenty-five dollars.”

“Damn, Pecos. You let them know, this is coming out of their wages. Every last penny,” the trail boss stated as he pulled out a roll of money and counted out what was owed.

“And they will also owe for their horses being put up at the livery overnight. That’s two dollars a head.” The ramrod kept quiet as the trail boss looked back to him.

Micah unlocked the cell and one by one the six drovers quietly walked out the door and headed to the livery. Within fifteen minutes, the eight riders were on their way out of town.

“Well, that’s half of them LucasBoy, that’s half,” Micah laughed.

It wasn’t that long before the second trail boss and his ramrod arrived in town.

“What the damages?” the man gruffly asked, offering no pleasantries. Lucas and Micah could tell this man didn’t put up with this type of shenanigans and the men would be dealt with, upon their return to camp.

“There’s half the damages from the saloon, then twenty-five dollars a head for each man to bail them out, then there’s the doctor’s fees. One of your men slugged another and causing him to fall on our Marshal, breaking his leg,” Lucas stated as he scratched under his nose.

“What’s the total, man. I ain’t got all day.”

“Two hundred and twenty five dollars, plus two dollars a head, per horse for the livery,” Micah answered.

“Cooley, pay the Marshal,” he coldly stated as he walked into the office.

The trail boss pulled himself up tall and stared his men down as Micah let the drovers out. Not one man looked at their boss as they walked past him, heads down, fumbling with their hat. Not one man offered any kind of an excuse or apology for their actions.

Once the second bunch was on their way out of town, Lucas and Micah sat back and laughed. It had been a while since the two of them had had so much fun together. Micah counted out the money for Sweeney and handed Lucas the rest.

“Best put that in the bank LucasBoy,” Micah laughed and shook his head.

“Once I pay doc, then I’ll head to the bank.”

*****

Ethan was there to greet his family as the train pulled into the station in the bustling town of Stanton.

“Father, Hope!” Ethan called over the sound of the train letting off steam. “Mark! Great to see you!” Ethan stated as he held out his hand in greeting.

Ethan enthusiastically greeted his sister by swooping her up in a hug and swinging her around, before setting her to her feet.

“Father, welcome to Stanton,” Ethan stated as he shook his father’s hand. “I’ve a buggy here to take us back to Fort Stanton.” Ethan took Hope’s bag, with Seth and Mark carrying their own, and led the way. Once the luggage was secured in the back and everyone settled, Ethan urged the team to head on to the fort.

“Who’s your commanding officer?” Seth asked as they approached the fort.

“Colonel Henry Paul. He’s been here for about five years. You’ll be staying in the guest quarters assigned to him. Father, he’s looking forward to meeting you.”

“Oh and Sis, please don’t be upset that I’m keeping this a surprise from Annie. She’ll find out you’re here tonight at dinner. Tonight’s Colonel Paul’s dinner with his staff and all three of you are invited.” Then quietly Ethan asked, “Did you happen to bring that green dress you wore the last time?”

“No, but I have a different one that Mark surely loves,” Hope answered.

“Well, he better love you. If you get as fancied up as you did the last time, every man on this post will be begging for a dance before the evening’s over.”

“A dance?” Hope asked surprised.

“Sure, just a fiddle, juice harp, and an accordion. It’s all good fun. We’re not quite as formal as Fort Sam.”

*****

As Ethan was showing his family into their quarters, they heard a knock on the opened door.

“Well, Captain. I see your family arrived safely. Major Lane, I’m pleased to meet you,” Colonel Paul stated, holding out his hand to shake hands with Seth.

“It’s been a few years since anyone’s addressed me as Major. I resigned my commission a number of years ago.”

“Pu-shah! Once a military man, always a military man. I may not salute you, but you earned the rank and you should wear it proudly.”

“Thank you, Colonel.”

“Sir,” Ethan stated. “This is my sister, Hope and her husband, Mark McCain.”

“Please to meet you Ma’am.” The colonel offered to Hope. “So, you’re the young U.S. Marshal that I been hearing so much about. Your brother-in-law doesn’t do a lot of bragging about you, but I hear through the grapevine. Welcome, welcome all. Now, the dinner my wife and I host will be in the officer’s mess hall at six o’clock sharp tonight. I’ll have one of the corporal’s come for you at about quarter till. Until then, just rest and enjoy yourselves. If you wish to freshen up, there’s a private bath through that door there. Oh, and through that door is one bedroom and through the door over there is a second bedroom.” Colonel Paul started to leave, but stopped next to Mark, “My wife would tan my britches if she found out I didn’t say anything… keep your wife close, we’ve a few recruits who are rough around the edges. Such a beautiful lady doesn’t need to be exposed to such men, but the rough ones have their places and are necessary in the army.”

“Thank you sir. I appreciate the advice,” Mark answered.

“Major, Marshal, as you both represent the law, you’re both welcome to continue to wear your badges and your guns when out and about the post. I’ll see you at dinner,” the colonel stated as he made his leave.

*****

It was nearing time for one of the corporals to arrive to escort them to the officer’s mess hall, Seth and Mark waited while Hope finished dressing for the evening. When the door from their sleeping quarters opened, Mark let out a whistle when his eyes fell upon his wife.

“My oh my,” Seth offered. “You’re as stunning as you were for the dinner at Fort Sam.”

“I’m still waiting for my wife to come out of the room,” Mark stated as he blushed.

“Mark McCain!” Hope declared.

Mark walked over to Hope and presented his arm as they heard a knock at the door, “Actually, there has only been one other time when you outshone how you look tonight,” Mark whispered. “May I have the honor?”

Hope nodded and smiled as she set her hand to his arm. Seth opened the door, “I’m Corporal Lance McGreggins, oh my…” and let out a cat whistle as he saw Hope.

“Soldier, you’re looking at my daughter, who happens to be a married woman with her hand on her husband’s arm,” Seth announced.

“What?! Yes, sir. Yes, sir. Sir! I’m sorry! I… I didn’t mean any disrespect, honest. Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat, we don’t get that many women visitors as beautiful as she is. I mean some of the officer’s wives are very pretty and a few are beautiful, but we see them all the time…” The soldier kept digging himself further into his embarrassment. The soldier took a deep breath and gulped it down and after affecting an extremely serious tone, he continued, “Ma’am, please accept my apologies! If you’d allow me, I’ll show you and your party to the officer’s mess hall”

“Corporal, lead on,” Mark stated as he tried not to laugh.

The corporal showed them to a side door, “I was instructed to see that you waited here. I’ll open the door from the other side to let you in.”

From the other side of the door, they could hear the Colonel welcoming the officers and their wives.

“This evening, we have guests visiting. I have invited them to join us for dinner.” The colonel nodded to the corporal to show their guests in, “I present, Deputy Marshal Seth Lane, U.S. Marshal Mark McCain and his wife, Hope, all from North Fork.”

From those present, a feminine voice squealed in surprise. A few decidedly male whistles emanated from some of those present in the room.

“As you can probably surmise, the Deputy is Captain Ethan Lane’s father and Hope McCain is the captain’s sister. So those of you who are single, mind your manners, they represent the law and I have given them full authority to wear the badges and carry their firearms. Captain, if you’d show your family to their seats.”

Annie stood with her hands to her mouth and once Hope was standing beside her the two of them hugged, “Hope, what are you doing here? I mean?”

“Mrs. Lane, I’m pleased we could surprise you for your anniversary, but this is MY dinner party.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, Colonel,” Annie answered and insisted that Hope sit beside her.

“Henry, let them be,” the colonel’s wife chastised, but the colonel didn’t mind, he was enjoying watching the reunion.

Throughout the evening, pleasant conversations were held throughout the room.

Annie quietly asked Hope, “Why didn’t you wire? I mean the colonel knew you were coming?”

“Annie, Mark said Ethan wanted to surprise you. He and Mark talked about our coming here to celebrate your anniversary. I hope you’re not too upset…”

“Never, I’m tickled that you’d come all this way for us.”

“It’s not nearly as far as you’ve traveled, when you’ve visited us in North Fork.”

*****

After the tables were cleared of empty dishes, the colonel stood and tapped his spoon against his glass of water to obtain the attention of those present. “Attention, I do have one piece of business to be announced this evening.”

Once all the conversations quieted, the colonel proceeded. “Earlier this month, I failed to post one promotion that was due a member of my staff. It was deliberate on my part, not that I didn’t feel this officer was deserving of the designation, but my wife found out that he had family coming for a visit. Captain Lane, front and center please?”

Ethan excused himself from those around him and walked to where the colonel waited for him.

“It takes courage and dedication to make a commitment to being an army officer. With the transfer of Major Kingston back to Washington, I found myself without a Major at this fort. Ethan, I don’t think those captain’s bars suit you anymore. As approved by Washington, you are hereby afforded the rank of Major in the United Stated Army.”

The colonel waited for Ethan to remove his captain’s bars before he placed the maple leaf pin on the placards on Ethan’s shoulders. “Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, Major Ethan Lane.”

After a hearty round of clapping the colonel motioned for the room to quiet.

“Since, this now concludes this evening’s business, I think after clearing the floor of tables and chairs, a dance is in order.”

As was customary, the Colonel led his wife to the floor first and danced to a slow song. Halfway through, the Colonel maneuvered to where those from North Fork watched. The Colonel asked for the courtesy to dance with Hope, while the Colonel’s wife first asked of Mark, but he deferred to Seth.

“As her father, he should have the first dance,” Mark commented and stepped back.

At the end of the first dance, the Colonel escorted Hope back to Mark, “It is a pleasure to have such a lovely dance partner. Marshal, I return her to your arms, hopefully no worse for wear.”

The second song was an upbeat tune to which the Colonel reached for his wife’s hand; they danced around the floor and invited all the couples to join them as they passed by.

The rest of the evening Mark tried to keep Hope to himself, but a number of the officers were single and presented themselves and requested the honor of dancing with Mrs. McCain. When the first officer tried to request a second dance with Hope, Mark stated, “Sorry, but she is MY wife and I think she deserves to catch her breath.”

Mark and Seth tried to hide their grins as the officers who had hoped for a second dance, returned to the other side of the hall. When the first strains of a slow song played next, Mark asked for the pleasure of the dance from his wife. Mark smiled, enjoying holding Hope in his arms and dancing around the room. Mark felt a tap on his shoulder and was about to curtly decline when he realized it was Seth who stood behind him.

Soon, it was Ethan asking to change partners as he danced with his sister and his wife danced with his father. Soon, Seth lead Annie and handed her over to Mark. By the end of the song, husbands and wives were with the respective partners.

All too soon, the evening came to a end. “Major Lane,” Colonel Paul called. “Tomorrow you are excused from duties to tend to your family. However, I do expect you to return to full duty, day after tomorrow.”

“Yes, sir,” Ethan answered.

Ethan and Annie walked with their family back to the guest quarters, “We’ll see you at nine tomorrow morning?” Annie asked. “Seth Edward and Marissa will love seeing you.”

The group bid goodnight.

*****

As Mark and Hope readied themselves for bed, Hope dared asked, “Do you consider me…, dowdy?”

“And just where would you have gotten that idea?”

“Earlier, the way all three of you reacted and you said there was only one other time when I look more beautiful than I did today,” Hope stated, nervous for what Mark’s remark would be.

Mark walked up to Hope and drew her into his arms, “You are my wife, the mother of my children, and you help me run a working ranch. Dowdy? Never.”

“But…” Hope tried to state.

“I remember when we went to Fort Sam and the wives let you borrow dresses for the dinner, you were dressing to impress the officers and their wives, same as tonight. The day I’m thinking about was the day when you dressed only for me…”

Hope started to blush as Mark pulled her closer and teasingly kissed her. “Do you remember the day?” he asked.

“I think I do,” Hope answered.

“There’s no thinking about it,” Mark quietly replied as he lifted Hope in his arms and carried her to the bed.

“I do remember,” Hope replied as she pulled Mark to her. Without having to worry about their children calling for them, they made love to each other that night.

*****

The following morning, Ethan arrived at the guest quarters and knocked.

“Now this, is the sister I remember!” Ethan declared as Hope answered the door.

“And just what’s wrong with the way I look?” Hope teasingly asked.

“Nothing, just last night, same as back at Fort Sam, I couldn’t believe you were my sister.” Turning to Mark, “She does clean up pretty.”

“Every now and then,” Mark answered.

“Oh, you! Men!” Hope affected an air of being upset, but she couldn’t be, not after the night before.

“Hope, you know I love you, regardless of how you look or what you wear,” Mark answered wrapping an arm around her shoulder. “Are you ready to go see the rest of our family?”

“I have to warn you, when we told Seth Edward that I would be returning with his grandfather, it was all I could do to keep him in our quarters. I felt like I should have hog-tied him or something. He’s so excited.”

“Well,” Seth replied. “Shouldn’t keep my grandson waiting.”

The family spent the morning getting reacquainted with Ethan and Annie and their children and just catching up on life. As lunch time neared, Annie and Hope headed to the kitchen to fix a quick bite to eat for everyone. After lunch, Ethan asked, “So Mark, I don’t mean to pry, but have you found yourself a horse?”

“No, not yet. Hope’s been letting me ride Two-Bits. Nils has had some great horses come through, but none of them seem to be the right fit.”

“If you’re interested, the colonel is scheduled to ride out Saturday afternoon to look at some horses. We have a few Indian horse wranglers and from what I’ve heard, they’re supposed to be bringing in some quality stock. They always do.”

“Do you think the colonel would allow us to ride with you?” Seth asked.

“I think he’d enjoy having you ride with us Father. When he realized I was your son, he said it was such a shame your resigned to become a deputy. He followed your career. I honestly think, if you had stayed in a little longer, you would have found yourself stationed here, instead of me.”

*****

When Saturday afternoon arrived, Colonel Paul and Ethan escorted Seth and Mark to the fort livery and told them to choose a horse for the day. After looking over a number of horses that were stabled inside, Colonel Paul started laughing when Mark indicated the horse he chose.

“Did I choose wrong?” Mark asked.

“For anyone else, yes. That’s the colonel’s horse,” Ethan answered.

“I’m sorry sir, I’ll choose another horse,” Mark quickly replied and pointed out his second choice.

“Good to know you have an eye for horses. Ethan tells me you are in the market for a horse for yourself.”

“Yes sir,” Mark answered.

“Well, get the beast you’ve chosen saddled and we’ll meet you on the parade grounds.”

Mark and Seth waved to Hope and Annie as they rode out with Ethan, Colonel Paul, and a small detail.

*****

The group arrived at the holding station. Colonel Paul introduced the head wrangler, Quetano, to Mark and Seth.

“If you’re looking for good stock, there’s none finer anywhere around,” Quetano stated.

“They look mighty fine,” Mark answered as he climbed on the corral railing.

“Mark? Mark McCain?”

Mark looked around to see who had called him. He finally saw a rider heading his way, “Mark good to see you.”

“Sam! What are you doing here?”

“I think, same as you,” Sam Buckhart replied. “Deputy Lane, good to see you too.”

“Same here, Sam.”

“So Mark, have you set your eye on any one in particular?” Sam asked.

“There’s two that caught my eye right away.”

“Doesn’t surprise me. Tell Quetano which ones and he’ll pull them out.”

Mark pointed to a black horse with four tall socks and black and white paint horse.

Quetano had his men bring the two prospective horses out of the main corral and put them in a smaller holding pen.

Quetano entered the pen, walking next to Mark. “You know Marshal Buckhart?”

“Yes, sir. I met him about fourteen years ago,” Mark replied as he closely examined both horses. “I consider him a good friend, as does my father.”

“If I may, you are the son of the Rifleman?”

“Yes, my Pa’s known as the Rifleman,” Mark answered.

“Then you are the one known at The Lawman?”

Mark nodded, “But please, call me Mark.”

“It honors me that you consider looking at the horses I bring. Both are gentle broke,” Quetano informed Mark.

“Both are good of bone and appear to have strong backs. May I ride each?”

“Osef, bring a saddle!” Quetano yelled to one of the others.

“I don’t need a saddle.” Mark answered as he grabbed a handful of mane from the black horse and swung himself up to its back. He took the lead line Quetano handed to him and proceeded to put the horse through its paces. After a few minutes, Mark returned the horse to the fence and slid down and handed the line to Osef. Before leaving the horse, he petted it on the shoulder.

Mark walked to the paint and grabbed mane, to swing himself up. The moment Mark’s seat settled on the horse’s back, Mark felt the electricity. There was no tension, the horse was tentative and waiting for the slightest signal to move out, but didn’t flinch until Mark signaled. After five minutes Mark had made his final decision.

Quetano watched as Mark put both horses through their paces, musing to himself, ‘He rides as good as any brave.’

“Quetano, this is the one.” Mark slid from the paint’s back and slapped him affectionately on the shoulder as he handed the lead line back to the one called Osef. The horse lipped to Mark’s pockets, searching for a sugar cube.

From outside the holding pen Mark heard Seth laughing, “What?!” Mark called.

“Well, from what Sam just told me, he already had his eye on that one.”

“Sam, if this is the one you want…” Mark tried to back away.

“No, I only had my eye on him. I had not told Quetano I was interested in him. Besides, I too had my eye on that black horse.”

The colonel allowed Mark and Sam to finish their transactions with Quetano before he started negotiating various horses of the herd for the soldiers at the fort. After two hours of trying horses and finalizing their transactions, everyone was satisfied with the various deals that had been made.

Before the horse wranglers left, Quetano asked for a moment of Mark’s time. When Mark returned to the group, Seth asked, “What was that about?”

“I bought his prized horse. He wanted to tell me how much it honored him that I had chosen him. He was pleased that The Lawman has favored him by purchasing the best horse they had brought with them. He told me his name’s Rainmaker.”

“Rainmaker?”

“Yep, Quetano also told me of how he was named.”

*****

Mark, Seth, and Ethan returned to the fort that afternoon. Ethan told Mark he could put the horse in one of the round pens. Once the gate was shut, they climbed upon the fence to admire the horse one more time.

“Pretty spirited,” Ethan stated as they watched the horse prance around.

“Yes, but he’s gentle. Totally different than Copper. I mean, even though he is a stallion, I felt a gentleness in him. If it came to it, I don’t think Hope would have any trouble with him.”

“Mark…”

“It’s okay. Seth. I should have realized long before, that a day might come where Hope would have needed to ride him in an emergency. It just never occurred to me. I’ll see to it that she gets to know this one better. Besides, what I wouldn’t give to see his offspring.”

“You thinking Two-Bits?” Ethan asked.

“Yes. Their conformations and temperaments, should be a remarkable foal.”

“Well, that’s next spring, right now, I’m hungry, and I’m sure Annie and Hope have supper waiting for us,” Ethan stated.

*****

The threesome had just stepped to the porch after enjoying a steak and potatoes supper when Mark saw a private running in their direction and heard him request Ethan’s presence in the colonel’s office.

*****

The colonel told the lieutenant standing in front of his desk to proceed with his report as Ethan entered. A short time later, an upset Ethan requested one of the privates standing outside the door to go get Mark and return with him to the colonel’s office.

“Sir, you knew my brother-in-law is the territorial Marshal, he should have been sent for when I was. He should have been informed first!”

“Major, I understand what you are saying, but Lieutenant Gardner had a report to give to me. And as the commander of this fort, I will decide who is told what and when. Am I clear?”

“Yes sir, I’m sorry sir, it’s just that…”

The private knocked to announce Mark’s arrival. Colonel Paul instructed the lieutenant to recount his story about how they had been out on patrol when they encountered a band of outlaws ambushing two riders.

“Sir, we gave chase and saw one of the riders go down. I ordered most of the detail to continue the chase and kept five of my men with me, to check on the downed rider and see to the other one he was riding with.” The lieutenant looked to his commanding officer, who nodded, then he continued, “I’m sorry to report, we buried a Deputy U.S. Marshal out there. Before he died, he said the other man was in his protective custody, he weren’t under arrest, but it was the deputy’s responsibility to see that the man got to Denver, alive.”

“Do you know who the deputy was?” Mark asked.

“Anders, I believe he said his name was Drew Anders,” the lieutenant replied as Ethan placed a hand to Mark’s shoulder.

Mark grieved at hearing the name, he remembered the friendship they had developed the first time he’d gone to Denver. Mark’s memories turned to the first time Drew arrived in North Fork and Mark ended up taking Drew’s prisoner to Clovis…

“Where is this man?” Mark asked.

“We brought him back with us and since he was a civilian, I left him in town with Sheriff Roehl,” the lieutenant answered. “Marshal, before returning to the post, I wired the Marshal’s Office up in Denver that their deputy had been killed.

Mark closed his eyes, turned and walked away; he left the colonel’s office. He returned to the livery and saddled the horse he had ridden earlier and headed into town, to the jail to check on the man in custody.

“I’m looking for Sheriff Roehl,” Mark stated.

“That’s me,” the Sheriff answered as he turned from placing a rifle in a rack on the wall.

“I’m a U.S. Marshal and I understand a cavalry detail brought in a man one of my deputies was transporting and you have him,” Mark said as he saw the sheriff look at his badge and then to his face. Mark knew the Sheriff was thinking he was too young to be a U.S. Marshal.

“Sure do. Pretty suave customer. Never seen a prisoner the likes of him before,” Sheriff Roehl stated.

“Do you know who the prisoner is?” Mark asked.

“Said his name was Tom Birch,” Roehl stated as he looked to the cell area.

Mark froze in place when he heard the man’s name, but regained his composure quickly and asked, “May I check on the prisoner?”

“This way,” the Sheriff called as he pulled the jail keys from the peg on the wall and walked to the back room.

Mark followed Sheriff Roehl into the cell area. He saw the prisoner lying on the bunk, hands behind his head, legs crossed, hat covering his face.

“Birch, seems you’ll be heading on your way sooner than we thought. This here’s the U.S. Marshal for the territory.”

Slowly Birch pulled his hands from behind his head, removed his hat, uncrossed his legs and sat up on the bunk.

“Well now, that was mighty quick traveling time, Marshal…?”

“Sheriff, thank you. You’ll be compensated for your efforts in keeping him overnight. We’ll be on our way before daybreak.”

After Mark walked out, Birch stated, “Pretty young to be a U.S. Marshal.”

“I was thinking the same thing.”

“Maybe you should wire Denver just to confirm he is who he said he is,” Birch suggested. “Hate for him to be one of the outlaws who you’re trying to protect me from.”

“He never gave his name,” Roehl replied.

“Well, as long as you keep me safe and sound, that’s all you have to do Sheriff,” Birch stated as he laid back down on the bunk, clasped his hands behind his head and crossed his legs. “Yep, you have to keep me safe and sound.”

*****

Things had settled down somewhat in North Fork, except for Lou, she was having a terrible time keeping Johnny off his feet to allow his broken leg heal.

“Johnny Drako, ye’ve two capable deputies minding the office. Doc wants ye off yer feet and off yer feet ye’ll stay,” Lou ordered with both her hands balled into fits and placed on her hips.

“I’ve a job to do,” Johnny replied.

“Not for another four or five weeks. If ye don’t keep off yer leg, it won’t heal properly! Now don’t make me hide the crutches from ye,” Lou pointed her finger at Johnny.

“Woman, I’m not a child!”

“No, but yer acting every bit the part. Please, I’ll have Connor come in from the kitchen and ye can help him do his homework.”

Johnny finally gave in to his wife’s orders. Deep down, it felt good to spend more quality time with his family than just an occasional off day, here and there.

*****

“LucasBoy,” Micah called as he entered the office, “You look like you lost your best friend.”

“Huh? Oh, just got a nagging feeling that something isn’t right,” Lucas responded.

“Out at the house? I saw Jake McCafferty head out that way earlier today and I’m sure if something were wrong, he’d of been back in town, pronto.”

“I know, it’s just something I can’t shake…”

“Tell you what, I think I can handle the town for a few hours. Why don’t you go home and spend some time with your family, Myra should be getting out of school here in a few minutes, they only have a half day today, remember?.”

“You sure Micah?”

“About your daughter getting out of school and about minding the town, too. Go on! Git out of here. I managed this office all by myself many a times.”

Lucas picked up his hat and his rifle from atop the desk and strode from the office.

As he entered the school yard, he watched as Myra ran down the steps of the schoolhouse, “Papa!” she called as she ran and jumped in his arms. “You coming home soon?”

“How about now? Micah said he could watch the town for a while.”

“You ride me home?”

“Now what kind of a question is that?” Lucas asked.

“Are you going to ride home with me?” Myra corrected herself.

“Sure, sweetheart,” Lucas said as he plopped Myra up in the saddle on BlueBoy.

*****

Milly was standing on the porch when Lucas and Myra rode into the yard, “Well, this is a surprise. What brings you back? Are Mark and…”

“No, probably not for another day or two. I just missed seeing you,” Lucas stated as he stepped from the saddle, and wrapped his arms around Milly and gave her a kiss that left no doubt how much he missed her.

“Ah, come on. Nuff of that mushy stuff,” Myra called.

“Young lady,” Milly replied.

“I know, I know. I’m gonna take BlueBoy to the barn and I hope you’re done when I return.”

“Myra Gabriella McCain!” Milly called even more severely.

“You think she missed me?” Lucas asked.

“I know she did, as did Little Ted and Levi,” Milly answered.

“What about you? Didn’t you miss me?” Lucas teased, feigning a hurt look.

“Just a little. Been kind of nice not having to share the bed or fight for the covers.”

“Well then, Mrs. McCain,” Lucas stated as he pushed his hat back on his head.

“Go help your daughter.” Milly insisted, but then asked with her heart, “How long can you stay?”

“Until this evening. I don’t feel right leaving Micah in town alone after dark.”

“I’ll have supper on the table when you get done.”

*****

After tending to all the stock, Lucas entered his home to find all seven McCain children playing on the floor, “Well, what a full house we have?” he called as various of the children called out Papa or Grandpa!

“Where are Gwen and Jake? Micah said he saw Jake head out this way earlier.”

“They went for a buggy ride, and were going to have supper with his parents,” Milly replied.

*****

For Milly, the afternoon turned to evening too quickly. Lucas returned to the barn to saddle Blade before heading to town.

“Lucas, there’s something else… Besides missing us. I can see it in your eyes. What’s wrong?” Milly asked as she entered the barn.

“Everything’s fi…” Lucas started to say, but saw the expression on Milly’s face that said, ‘we don’t keep secrets’. “All morning, I’ve had this feeling that something wasn’t right. Micah saw it in my eye, too. That’s why he sent me here.” Lucas playfully kissed Milly. “But whatever it is, it’s not here.”

“Are you thinking its Mark?”

“I don’t know…”

“You best get back to town.”

“I wish I didn’t have to return,” Lucas whispered as he led Blade from the barn.

“Well, I’ll keep your side of the bed warm, until you can return.”

“Promise?” Lucas asked.

“With our marriage vows,” Milly replied as she stepped to her tip toes to give Lucas a kiss.

*****

Mark returned to the fort and once inside the quarters where they had been staying, he removed his hat and threw it down on the table. He stepped to the window and slammed the side of his fist against the wall and cursed.

Hope entered from the bedroom and witnessed the display by her husband.

“Mark?” Hope carefully asked.

“Hope… I’m the marshal of this territory and supposed to be able to handle my responsibilities…” Mark shook his head, turned and leaned his back against the wall, running a hand through his hair.

“What’s wrong?”

“Why does it seem like every time I turn around God is testing me? Why can’t I just have a quiet trip with my wife to visit with her family?”

Hope could hear the hurt in Mark’s voice, “Tell me what’s wrong, please?”

“I presume Ethan told you about the man the detail brought in?” Hope nodded. “He’s a man from my past. Actually from Pa’s past.” Mark stood from leaning against the wall, walked over and sat down at the table in the middle of the room. He rested his head in his hands.

“Go on,” Hope spoke as she sat in one of the other chairs at the table.

“Hope, Drew’s dead. I didn’t know he was transporting a man in protective custody. Anyway, Drew was transporting Tom Birch. Birch knew my parents from way back…” Mark struggled with his memories as he looked up to Hope. “Back in Oklahoma. They grew up in the same town, and after the War, Pa and him had, well… It was before Pa married my Ma. Anyway, Birch left and went to Denver. I remembered, once, I think I might have been five, overhearing Ma and Pa talk of him one night after he came for a visit. I remember not understanding everything Ma and Pa were saying, but I knew Ma was upset about his visit… He finally went away and Ma was happy. The next time I saw him, we were living in North Fork, I think I was ten. I…”

Mark paused in his story telling as remembered back. He rubbed his hands together in a worrying fashion.

“He used my Pa. The whole time he stayed with us in North Fork, he was planning to have his gang rob the town’s bank.”

“Mark, I’m sorry…”

“That’s not everything,” Mark answered, he raised his head as they heard the door open.

“What’s up with the prisoner, Mark?” Seth asked as he entered.

“Father, he’s from Mark’s past. He was just telling me about it,” Hope answered as she placed a hand on top of Mark’s. Seth sat down in the chair on the opposite side of Mark from his daughter.

“He spent four years in prison for his part in attempting to rob the bank in North Fork. Got out because members of a ladies aid society saying he had redeemed himself, good behavior and all. He turned out to be the leader of another gang and attempted to rob a stage carrying a large money shipment on its way to a bank in California. Only, members of his gang complicated matters before they met up with him for the big job.”

“How so?” Hope asked.

“By kidnapping two boys.”

“Kidnapping for ransom?” Seth asked.

“No. As hostages to make their get away,” Mark answered.

“We’re the boys rescued?” Hope asked.

“Eventually.”

“Mark, there’s more to your memories than what you’re telling us,” Seth commented.

Mark inhaled deeply and slowly let out his breath before he continued. He leaned to the back of his chair and closed his eyes as the memory played in his mind. “Pa and me, and a few other ranchers, had just returned from driving some cattle down to Las Cruces and selling the cattle to the army. When we got back in town, Pa allowed me to deposit our money from the sale in the bank while he went to catch up with Micah. While I was inside, three men robbed the bank and…”

With his elbows on the table, Mark buried his face in his hands. Seth placed a hand to Mark’s shoulder and said, “Go on, son.”

“One of the men reached for a friend of mine, Jacob Preston, and another… grabbed me. I was one of the two boys they took as hostages.”

“Mark, how old were you?” Seth asked.

“A few months shy of fifteen. They kept us for ten days, then things went bad in one of the jobs they tried to pull and I thought Jacob had been killed. He didn’t return with them. A few days later, they took me along on the real job. There was a shoot out and Birch force me to stay with him. Once he realized that he wasn’t going to get the money, he decided he’d head for Mexico. The whole time, using me as his ‘ace in the hole’. For three days we rode. He knew we were being followed, and I prayed Pa was one of those following us.”

Seth and Hope gave Mark the time he needed to tell his story, they could see by the expression on his face and hear it in his voice, the hurt in re-counting the events.

“Pa and the others got real close to us one afternoon, we were trying to make our way up a narrow path along the wall of an arroyo. I watched in horror as Birch started a rock slide down on Pa and the others. He kept pushing me in front of him. Told me if I didn’t do as he said, he’d kill Pa. He was supposed to be a friend of my Pa’s…, and my Ma’s,” Mark’s voice faded to a whisper.

Mark struggled with his memories, reliving how someone who had said, he too had loved Margaret McCain, could do what he did to her son.

“It was night, we were out on the flats of the desert when Birch bound and gagged me. Covered me over with a blanket and told me not to make a sound or move. Said, there were plenty of wild animals around and I didn’t want to attract their attention. He left me. I heard him ride away. I had no idea how close or far away Pa was. I knew he was following after us, but had no idea if he had made it up out of the arroyo. I heard noises as something entered the camp, I tried to make myself as small as possible. Never was I more relieved to see Pa standing over me when the blanket was pulled from my face. Imagine my horror when I saw Coltrane Walker coming into the light of the fire.”

“Walker? But he’s a Deputy Marshal, why would you be scared?” Hope asked.

“Because back then, I didn’t know he was a marshal, he was working undercover, I thought he was one of the outlaws. He was one of the three who robbed the bank and kidnapped me, though all he did was carry the money in the saddlebags.”

“You went and saw Birch at the jail, did he recognize you?” Seth asked, trying to return Mark to the present.

“Didn’t look like he did. Drew was transporting him to Denver as a prime witness to a murder trial according to the lieutenant.”

“If you want…” Seth started to say.

“No, this is my responsibility. But I would like for you to see Hope home safely…”

“No!” Hope demanded.

“Hope, we were only going to spend another day here, there’s no reason for you to…”

“We’ll wait for you here. I won’t return home without you,” Hope pleaded.

“We have four children at home who need their mother,” Mark stood firm. “There’s no discussion. It’ll be easier for me to make this trip to Denver if I know you are safely on your way home.”

“Mark, I’ll see that Hope gets home safely. How are you… Are you going to tell Birch who you are?” Seth asked.

“No, for now, I think I’ll take your last name.”

“What are you going to do next?” Hope asked, understanding that it would be easier on Mark if she was on her way home.

“I need to write a letter to send to Drew’s family in Kansas City. They need to be notified other than a wire. The lieutenant stated he’d wired Denver earlier in the day… If you don’t mind, I’d like some time alone.”

*****

Hope and Seth stood from their chairs and left the room.

As the door closed behind them, Hope stated, “Father, I’ve never seen him like this,” as they sat in the chairs under the veranda of the porch.

“Writing a letter, notifying a family of their loved one’s death, is difficult. I had to do it on many occasions, it doesn’t get any easier. This is the first time Mark’s had to write such a letter. That, and add Birch into the equation. Be understanding and give him the time he needs.”

“I will. And I’ll go inform Annie and Ethan we’ll be returning home, tomorrow. I think Mark would appreciate knowing that I was on my way home, before he has to transport that man.”

*****

Once the door was closed, Mark walked to the bedroom and pulled out a small case from his carpet bag, opened it, and placed his reading glasses upon his face. He returned to the desk in the sitting room and sat down in the chair. From the center desk drawer, he pulled out a sheet of paper. Picking up the pen and dipping it in the inkwell, he proceeded to write:

To the Parents of Deputy Drew Anders
Kansas City, Kansas

I’m not sure exactly how to write this letter. It’s difficult enough to tell someone face to face, but to send a wire and have it delivered… feels cold. I felt you deserve a letter… An explanation…

I know that Tom Benton or Cole Barker would have already wired the notification, and I wish that I could be there to tell you in person. I’m not sure what all they would have included in the wire, but you should know, Drew, was killed in the line of duty. He gave his life protecting a witness. A detail from the U.S. Cavalry stationed out of Fort Stanton encountered outlaws chasing two riders and witnessed as one went down. Part of the detail stayed with Drew and was there when he died and saw that he had a proper burial, as proper as can be out in the desert.

I hope you find some comfort in knowing that this letter is not written by someone who didn’t personally know Drew. I met him, can it really be seven and a half years ago, when I went to Denver for my first training session to become a deputy U.S. Marshal. We struck up a friendship, and occasionally over the years, our jobs would allow our paths to cross. He was present the day I was officially sworn in as the Territorial U.S. Marshal for New Mexico.

Sadly, it has been a while since I’d seen Drew and had a chance to spend time together. I’ll miss hearing his laugh and seeing that crooked smile of his as he would contemplate pulling a practical joke on someone. He loved his job, traveling, helping people… protecting…

I really don’t know how to close this letter, except to say, that… as fine a friend and a lawman as Drew was, I’m sure he was just as equally a fine son and brother.

Sincerely,

Mark McCain
U.S. Marshal

Mark set the pen to the desk after addressing the envelope. He sat in quiet reflection as he remembered the first time he met Drew and their subsequent meeting in North Fork, after Drew broke his leg, necessitating Mark taking the prisoner on to Clovis.

*****

Coltrane Walker was a day’s ride from Stanton when he received a wire from Cole Barker advising him of the situation at Fort Stanton and Drew Anders had been killed. He was ordered to ride for Stanton and transport their witness to Denver. Walker folded the wire and placed it in his pocket, mounted his horse and rode for Stanton. If he rode fast, he could make it to Stanton by noon the next day and take Birch into custody.

*****

Later that night, Mark returned to Stanton and to the Sheriff’s office.

“Sheriff, I’d like for you to see this letter is posted tomorrow. It’s to the family of the deputy who was killed,” Mark stated and gave the man a few coins.

“Sure.”

“Well, marshal, seems were going to be traveling companions for a while,” Birch stated as Mark walked into the cell area after hearing Birch call for him.

“Tom Birch, if I had my way, I wouldn’t be transporting you to Denver, I’d see you back in prison, where you belong. You went to Denver once. You should have stayed there and never left,” Mark tersely answered.

“Before you head out of here, you mind telling me who you are?” Sheriff Roehl asked.

“I told you, I’m the U.S. Marshal for the New Mexico territory,” Mark answered.

“No, your name.”

“Lane, Mark Lane.” The tone of Mark’s voice held the bitterness he felt towards the man standing inside the cell.

Then turning to the Sheriff, “Like I said earlier, you have him ready to travel at dawn. I’ll get a packhorse from the fort and supplies.”

“You’re not taking the train?”

“Don’t know yet. I have to keep him safe and if that means not telling you how I’m getting him there, so be it.”

The Next Generation… Chapter 74 – Denver Bound/Homeward Bound

Mark had checked with the fort’s quartermaster about borrowing a saddle and a spare horse for his trip. The following morning, Mark led his new horse and a packhorse over to where Hope and Seth waited next to the buckboard. Ethan stood a short distance away, he understood how difficult this was going to be for his sister. Hope admired the taller of the two horses Mark was leading as he approached them. Whereas Two-Bits was more black than white, Mark’s new horse was the opposite, a very striking black and white, paint, with a lot more white.

“When I get home, I’ll make sure you know how to handle this big fella,” Mark commented when he saw Hope looking the horse over. “Even though he’s bigger, he’s a lot more gentler than Copper was.”

“Does he have a name?” Hope asked as she tried to divert her tears.

“Rainmaker. I’ll tell you the story when I get home. I’ll wire you as soon as we reach Denver. I know it won’t do any good to tell you not to worry.” Mark turned to Seth and extended his hand, “Take care of her. You don’t know how much I wish I could travel home with you.”

“I do, Mark,” Seth replied.

Mark looked to his wife as she closed her eyes to prevent herself from crying. Mark stepped to Hope, pulled her into his arms and gave her a kiss that said, ‘I love you’. Mark helped Hope up to the seat of the buckboard, while Seth climbed into the back. Ethan climbed up to the front seat to drive his sister and father to the train station. It would be a short trip to the train station for them, and ultimately… home.

Mark mounted Rainmaker and trotted to town, stopping in front of the Sheriff’s Office. The Sheriff was tying Birch’s horse to the hitching rail as Mark stepped from his horse.

“My prisoner ready?” Mark asked.

“Yeah, but I didn’t think he was under arrest,” Roehl replied.

“Might as well be, while he’s in my custody. Get him out here so we can get going.”

Birch stepped from the jail and placed his hat to his head, “So Marshal, you ready to enjoy my company?”

“Get in the saddle,” Mark replied as he put his foot back in the stirrup and mounted his horse.

“Sheriff, it’s been a pleasure staying with you. I’ll tell all my friends how polite you were and how comfortable the bunk in your cell was.”

“Move out, Birch,” Mark stated as he signaled his horse to turn around and pulled the pack horse behind him.

*****

The train was an hour out of Stanton and the car they were riding in was a much fancier passenger car than the train they had taken for their outbound trip. Seth tried to keep Hope’s thoughts elsewhere, but soon realized it wasn’t any use. Her heart was with Mark. He finally settled back and pulled his hat over his eyes. The rhythmic motion of the train lulled Seth to sleep in a short time. While her father dozed in the seat beside her, Hope worriedly looked out the window, wondering what the country was like that Mark was traveling through. Was this Birch worth the risk Mark was taking to get him to Denver?

In time, Hope stood up and walked to the back of the car and asked for a glass of water. As she waited for the barman to pour her drink, she looked through the glass window in the doors beside her, to the car behind them. Hope saw an older woman sitting next to the aisle, who looked quite upset. Hope witnessed the antics of some of the cowboys sitting around her and presumed they were the ones who were upsetting her. Before the conductor opened the door to go to the next car, she asked him to bring the woman to their car.

“Are you traveling alone?” Hope inquired as the woman breathed a sigh of relief as the conductor closed the door behind her.

“Yes, I am. Those men… Shouldn’t even be considered men. The conductor suggested I come up here.” She pulled the bonnet from her head to reveal her auburn colored hair, streaked with grey.

“If you’d like, you can join my father and me,” Hope offered. “My name is Hope McCain.”

“If you’re sure your father wouldn’t mind? I think I’d enjoy some pleasant company. My name is Lilah Stovers.”

Hope led Lilah to the bench seats she shared with her father. Hope tapped Seth on the shoulder to wake him. At feeling the tap, Seth pushed up his hat from covering his eyes and stood at seeing an amply shaped woman with is daughter, belatedly he remembered to remove his hat.

“Father, I’ve invited…”

Delilah?”

“Do I know you?” the woman replied.

“Delilah… Delilah Stovers?” Seth asked as he snapped his figures at remembering her name.

“I am,” the woman stated, still in askance.

“I was a captain at Fort Griffin, Seth Lane, my wife was Emma.”

As the faded memory slipped into the woman’s mind, she smiled in recognition, “Captain? Oh my, it has been a long time.. ”

“Is your husband with you?” Seth asked as he looked around.

“No, Martin passed away four years ago. Pneumonia.”

“I’m sorry. Please, won’t you join us?” Seth asked as he gestured for her to have a seat.

“Thank you, Captain.”

“Please, call me Seth.”

As Lilah took her seat, a surprised looked crossed her face, she excitedly asked, “You’re her father?! You found her?! She’s alive?! Your little girl survived?! Oh, my…” Lilah pulled her hands to her mouth in an effort to cover her embarrassment. “Guess she would be if you’re traveling with her. I’m so sorry, that was rather rude of me.”

“It’s not rude of you, Mrs. Stover,” Hope answered. “I take it you know my father?”

“Hope, Delilah married Sergeant George Stovers the year after we were posted at the fort. Sergeant Stovers was the quartermaster at Fort Griffin.”

“Please, call me Lilah. I was also a mid-wife at the fort,” Lilah went on to say, “I was there the day your mother gave birth to you.”

“You knew my mother?”

“Not extremely well, the difference between enlisted and officers. We’d chit chat, but I did know her well enough to know she was a wonderful woman and that she loved her family. I remember the day you were born.”

“Please tell me?” Hope begged.

Lilah looked to Seth before she continued. “Well, your mother had been so worried about your father being out on patrol… He’d been gone about six days and your ma…, well… she was trying to do too much, trying to keep herself occupied so she wouldn’t worry. She was so busy, she didn’t realize she was in labor. I happened past her quarters and heard her scream out when her ‘labor’ really started. I found her on the kitchen floor, I ran out and sent one of the soldiers to fetch the doc. The soldier came back to say the doctor had been called away and no one knew when he’d return. Your mother fretted the whole time about you coming early and your father not being there. It weren’t but a few hours later, I was the one who helped bring you into the world.”

Hope looked to her father as she listened to the story.

“Did your mother ever tell you how you got your name?” Lilah asked.

“No, least if she did, I was too young to remember,” Hope answered.

“You were sleeping later than night, when I asked your mother if she had decided on a name for you and she said had only picked out a boy’s name.”

“She thought I was going to be a boy?”

“Sure did. She told me the whole time she was pregnant, she felt just like she did when she was carrying Ethan.” Turning to Seth, “Speaking of Ethan, where is he?”

“Lilah, we left him and his family back at Fort Stanton, he’s a Major in the cavalry,” Seth answered.

“Like father, like son. I bet he looks just like you.”

“In a way,” Hope answered and smiled.

“Now, back to your name. Your mother was so surprised to hear you were a girl because when she was… I think she was about five months pregnant, a gypsy caravan came through the fort and the fortune teller told your mother she was going to have a baby boy.”

“So if she was expecting a boy and only had boy’s names picked out…”

“You weren’t but a few hours old, your Ma was still extremely worried about your father being out on patrol. The whole time your father was gone, the other wives kept telling her she just had to have faith that the Good Lord would see her husband back to her. We were talking and she said, ‘I just have to hope that God’s grace will bring him home.’ That’s when she gave you your name – Hope Grace Lane.”

“I forgot I had a middle name.”

“But you introduced yourself as Hope McCain?” Lilah asked.

“I did. I’m married,” she held out her left hand to show her cherished wedding band on her ring finger.

“And he’s not traveling with you?”

“No, he’s a U.S. Marshal. We were visiting with Ethan and his family, celebrating their wedding anniversary when… he was called away on business,” Hope answered in a reserved tone.

“Seth, tell me,” Lilah stated. “How long have you two been reunited? I mean, how did it happen? I know how devastated you were when you received word that your sister and her family had been murdered and then, all those years, thinking Hope had perished as well. You do know, the dances at Fort Griffin were never the same after you requested reassignment to ‘that’ post in San Antonio. But to be reunited with your daughter, after all these years?!”

Hope listened as her father told of how he and Ethan had heard tales from traders of a young, white girl with red hair living among the Kiowa. As quietly as they could, they sent inquiries, trying to find more information, before they asked for leaves of absence in an attempt to try to find the girl. Hope listened to the details as Seth retold the story.

Seth told of locating Iron Heart’s camp and realizing there was a very good chance the girl was Hope, only she had be kidnapped two days before their arrival. He told of their arrival in North Fork, trailing after those who had taken the girl, and then traveling with the town’s Marshal and Deputy out to the McCain Ranch. Seth described his first encounter with Lucas and Mark McCain and the pursuit that followed as the now six of them, traveled after those who had taken Hope.

“McCain, that’s your last name,” Lilah interrupted.

“Yes, Mark rescued me, twice,” Hope answered.

After Seth told of their return to North Fork and how they had captured Stedman, Delilah asked, “So if this Mark lives in New Mexico and you were stationed at…”

“They renamed the fort a few years back, its known as Fort Sam Houston. But to your point, I realized I couldn’t put Hope through bringing her back to the fort. I had hoped that she could return to Iron Heart and still be one of their family, then I found out how much of an insult it would have been to them if I tried to send her back. But with her being raised by the Kiowa, you know how some of the soldiers would have treated her.” Seth paused as he remembered the initial remorse of knowing his daughter was alive, but yet she couldn’t return with him. He cringed as he remembered her first visit to Fort Sam. “It was Mark, who suggested that she could stay in North Fork and live.”

“And… this Mark… he rescued you and then married you? It didn’t bother him that you…” Lilah commented and then changed the subject as she saw a worried look overcome Hope. “I’m sorry, I’m just a nosy-body. As long as you and your husband are happy. I think the whole story is very romantic. They could write one of those dime-store novels about your relationship.”

“Oh, no!” Hope declared, truly startled by the idea.

Changing the subject, Lilah asked, “Seth, tell me. How is it that you’re no longer wearing a uniform?”

Seth proceeded to tell Lilah how he had come to the realization that he didn’t want to miss as much of his grandchildren’s growing up years, as he had his own children’s. How each time he came to visit Mark and Hope, it got harder and harder to leave. “So, I decided upon my return to Fort Sam, I was going to resign my commission as a major. Packed up all my belongings and moved to North Fork to be near my grandchildren.”

“Grandchildren? How many do you have?” Lilah inquired.

“At that time, there were just the twins,” Hope answered.

“Now, Ethan and Annie have a boy and a girl,” Seth answered.

“So you have four grandchildren,” Lilah stated.

“No, I’ve a few more than four,” Seth replied.

“In addition to the twins, Mark and I have another son and a daughter,” Hope replied, then averted her eyes when she saw and heard Lilah gasp.

“Child, did you say you have four, but you can’t be but…, be old enough…” Lilah’s face flushed as she realized just how inconsiderate she was being. “I have no business to question you and your family. The best measure of a man and woman’s love for each other is the number of children they have. Lord knows I loved George, but we were never blessed with children.”

An uneasy quiet surfaced among the three, finally, Lilah broke the silence, “Just doesn’t seem possible. I keep wanting to see you as that little girl bounding across the parade grounds, chasing butterflies. Guess I don’t want to admit that I’m getting old, and that children are old enough to have children.”

“It’s difficult at times, even for the parents to see their children growing up, Lilah,” Seth commented. “I hadn’t really counted them out, I’m just happy to have my family, but now that I sit here and think about it, six grandchildren. Emma would be quite happy to have this brood.”

Hope laughed as a thought came into her head, “At least you’re not raising children the same age as your grandchildren.”

An inquiring look came over Lilah’s face as she tried to imagine that.

“My husband’s mother died when he was a young boy. His father remarried about a year and a half before Mark and I married. My sister-in-law was born about five months before Mark and I wed and then, my oldest brother-in-law was born the night before I gave birth to our twins. My youngest brother-in-law was born the year in between my giving birth to our youngest son and our daughter.”

“We’d be pleased to introduce you to the family, if you have time when the train stops in North Fork. We should be there later tonight, if not first thing tomorrow morning.” Seth offered.

“Oh, I’d love to meet your family, however, I’m heading to El Paso, my sister lives there and my niece is set to get married next weekend. I’m already late and I really shouldn’t delay my trip.”

“I understand,” Seth stated as he tried to keep the disappointment off his face. “Where do you call home?”

“Oh, George was transferred to Fort Laramie, up in Wyoming, luckily he didn’t live to see her closed down and sold at auction. It was a sad day for every soldier and their families to see such a proud institution treated like that. I still have a small home in the town.”

The porter stopped to announce that dinner would be served shortly in the dining car, if they’d care to make their way to the next car in front.

*****

Their train arrived in North Fork late that evening, Seth and Hope said goodbye to Lilah. After collecting their luggage, Seth rented a buggy and saw Hope home. The three boys ran from their grandparent’s home when they realized their Ma and Grandpa had arrived. Gwen carried Mykaela out and handed her to Hope, after Seth had helped his daughter down from the buggy.

With her daughter in her arms, she turned and asked her sons if they had behaved and if they had missed her.

“Oh Mama, we missed you and we be good,” Eli answered.

“Yeah, else we wouldn’t get to lick the batter bowl,” Zach stated.

“Where’s Papa?” Josh asked.

“Where is Mark? Did he stay in town?” Milly asked as she hugged Hope.

“No, he got pulled into business while in Stanton,” Hope stated. The look on her face asked Milly, to please, not ask any more, yet.

“But why are you up so late? Shouldn’t you be in bed?” Hope asked of her sons.

“I’ve been trying to get them down for an hour. They must have sensed you were coming home, they just wouldn’t go to bed. The rest of the time, they were angels.

“So my children behaved themselves.” Hope looked to Milly, who nodded. “I’m so proud of all of you.”

Seth carried Hope’s and Mark’s bags to their home and saw Hope and the children inside.

“Hope, I need to get back to town. I’m sure Lucas will appreciate being relieved of his responsibilities,” Seth stated as he kissed Hope on the cheek.

“Well, I wouldn’t count on Lucas being relieved of being a deputy, just yet,” Milly stated as she tried to hide a small laugh.

“Why?” Hope asked as she set Mykaela to the floor and knelt down to hug each one of her sons.

“Well, Johnny kind of, well, there were two competing cattle drives at Sweeney’s and a pretty wild fight, anyway, Johnny got knocked down and a drover fell on him and broke Johnny’s leg. So, from what Lucas has said when he’s been able to visit, I’m sure Micah will be the one relieved of being an acting deputy once you get to town.”

“I didn’t even stop by the Marshal’s Office, I just wanted to get Hope home. Now I best get back. Milly I’ll send Lucas home for the night and then I’ll officially relieve Micah in the morning, when Lucas returns.”

“Father, when you see Pa, don’t say anything to him about Mark. I think it’s best, coming from me,” Hope stated.

Hope saw the questioning look in her father’s face and replied, “If what Mark said is true, Milly and I need time to devise a way to keep him here and… keep him from doing anything he’d regret.”

*****

Milly and Gwen helped Hope put her children to bed, and Milly was thankful they were all finally agreeable to going to bed. By the time Hope had pulled the covers over their shoulders and kissed them goodnight, they were asleep.

As Milly and Hope returned to the front room, Milly stated, “Okay, so tell me what really happened to Mark?”

Hope repeated the story that Mark had told her about Tom Birch. Milly was mortified to think what Lucas might do, when he to found out.

“Ma, I can’t keep this from him. He has a right to know…”

“I know he does, it’s just that…”

“Preventing him from doing something he’d live to regret.”

“Tell you what,” Milly suggested. “Why don’t you and Gwen blow out all the lanterns and get to bed. Lucas won’t disturb you tonight. You can inform him in the morning.”

“I like that idea,” Hope replied.

*****

The following morning, Hope watched as Lucas headed to the barn.

“Morning Hope, welcome back!” Lucas called as he saw her enter the barn, while he was saddling Blade. “You letting Mark sleep in this morning?”

“No sir,” Hope replied.

Hearing the tone of Hope’s voice, Lucas looked up from gathering the cinch, “It’s been a long time since you’ve called me sir.”

“I know, I have some news involving Mark and I’m not exactly sure how you’re going to take it.”

Lucas had tightened the cinch well enough that if Blade shook his body, the saddle wouldn’t slip. “What news?” he asked as he turned around to see Hope staring at the ground. “Is he okay?”

“He was when Father and I left him in Stanton. While we were there, a detail brought in a man who had be in Drew Anders’ custody. He was transporting the man to Denver to testify.”

“Why did a detail bring the man in?”

“They’d encountered outlaws chasing Drew and the man. Drew was killed protecting his witness, but before he died, he was able to inform the Lieutenant of what happened. Mark’s taking the man the rest of the way to Denver.”

“That’s his job,” Lucas replied, sensing the whole story had not been told, Lucas asked, “What else?”

Hope had walked over and sat down on a bale of hay. “The man he’s transporting is from your past. Mark said you’d promised to ‘kill’ the man if he ever interfered with your family, again.”

“I threatened to kill…” Shock crossed Lucas’ face as he realized there was only one man alive who Lucas swore the law would never get the chance to see that he came to justice, if he ever interfered with his family. “He’s transporting Tom Birch? Why Mark? Didn’t Benton remember what happened the last time Birch…” Hope could see the hatred welling in Lucas as his face turned red and his voice became menacing.

“Pa, Benton doesn’t know that we were in Stanton and that Mark is finishing the job. Father offered, but as Mark said and as you just said, it’s his job. Mark knows the man and what he’s capable of. He remembered and told us.”

Lucas stormed to the wall and pulled Blade’s bridle down.

“Pa!” Hope exclaimed as she ran to Lucas and grabbed at his arm. “Please! If you go after them… Please think of Milly and your children!”

“I AM!” Lucas shouted.

“LUCAS!” Milly yelled from the doorway.

Never having heard that tone of voice from his wife, Lucas halted in his tracks.

“Lucas, please.” Milly paused as she walked further into the barn and stood in front of her husband. “Mark is doing his job. Let him. If he needs help, let him ask. He knew what he was getting into when he agreed to take Birch to Denver.”

Still sensing her husband was seething, “Lucas, what happened the last time you interfered with your son and his responsibilities as a Marshal? It drove a wedge between the two of you. Because he felt you didn’t trust him.”

“I trust my son! It’s Birch I don’t trust!” Lucas exclaimed.

“Then give Mark time to get him to Denver. Hope said neither she nor Seth even know how Mark was planning to get Birch to Denver. How are you going to track him. I know you’re good, but no one is that good,” Milly declared.

“Pa, you can’t ride off like a mad-man. Please, give Mark time and if in three days, we don’t have word, then we can wire Benton. Mark said he’d have Birch in Denver no later than Wednesday.”

“Wednesday?”

“He said at the latest. Today’s only Monday, please Pa?!” Hope begged.

Both women saw the change in Lucas’ posture as he gave into their pleading. “But if we’ve not heard from him by noon on Wednesday, I’m heading into town!”

Milly and Hope nodded.

*****

After meeting up with Sheriff Roehl, Walker wasn’t pleased to find out who the witness was. He was mad that Benton had withheld that piece of information from him. Good riddance was his first thought, if it were indeed an outlaw who had him. But, he was a marshal and he had his orders, find the witness and see him safely to Denver. Expecting their witness was in the hands of those he was set to testify against, Coltrane trailed out after Birch and whoever had him. Walker rode hard and fast. It was extremely late when he finally decided to stop for the night. In the distance, on Walker’s first night out from Stanton, he saw a campfire off in the distance. He decided to see who might be in the camp. As he neared the camp, he saw two men fighting. The bigger of the two threw a viscous right hook, catching his opponent on the cheek, driving him backwards to the ground. Coltrane watched as the man still standing bent down, picked up a rifle, and brought it to bear on his opponent lying motionless on the ground, Coltrane recognized the standing man. He had his handgun drawn as he entered the camp,

“Hold it right there Birch!” Walker demanded as he cocked his gun.

Birch took his eyes off the man he was fighting and looked to the newcomer.

“Half-breed?” Birch hollered as he recognized Walker. “So are you friend or foe? You here because of our past or because Garth Grisolm ordered my head? If it’s the latter, you’ll just have to wait until I get finished with this one. Then I’ll give you your due. Grisolm shouldn’t have sent a boy to do a man’s job. This one’s even younger looking than the deputy who had me in custody. Grisolm’s gang must be getting desperate if they’re taking in boys now a days. Good thing the Sheriff back at Stanton was leery of this one too and slipped me a hand gun. So, which are you?”

“Friend,” Coltrane stated as he slipped his hand gun back in his holster and stepped from his horse. “So, who you fighting?” Coltrane asked as he turned his attention to the other man, who had just started coming to.

“Said his name was Mark Lane, claiming he was a U.S. Marshal. Shucks, this is probably his way of initiating himself into Grisolm’s gang. Delivering me to them.”

Coltrane walked over to and looked down as the man sat up, “Mark?!” Coltrane asked in surprise.

“You know him?” Birch asked.”

“Yeah, I know him, alright,” Coltrane answered as he helped Mark get to his feet.

“Walker? What are you doing here?” Mark asked as he shook his head to get his wits about him and rubbed at his cheek.

“Seems Sheriff Roehl was a little leery of the person who showed up to take Birch and Benton sent a wire telling me about Drew and ordering me to Stanton to retrieve his key witness. Roehl told me a Marshal Mark Lane arrived to transport Birch and we don’t have any deputy or marshal named Mark Lane.”

“Then he is part of Grisolm’s gang?” Birch asked.

“Shut up, Birch!” Mark demanded.

Walker replied, “I can guarantee he ain’t one of Grisolm’s bunch, just his name ain’t Lane.”

“Boy, then who are you if you ain’t part of Grisolm’s bunch and your name ain’t Mark Lane?” Birch demanded as he purposely strode forward and grabbed the front of Mark’s shirt, trying to drive him backwards. Having Birch grab him again, set Mark on the defensive and he threw an unexpected punch to Birch’s midsection, driving him backwards instead.

“I’m not a boy!” Mark coldly stated, and before he could stop him, Walker answered, “His name’s Marshal Mark McCain.”

“Mark Mc… McCain? Lucas’ boy?” Birch took time and looked from Mark, to Mark’s rifle he held in his hands, then back to Mark. “I… I… I’m sorry, if I’d of known, I wouldn’t have taken the cheap shot and slugged you. Now your comments before we left Stanton, referring to my time in Denver, makes so much sense…” Birch’s voice took on a softer tone, “You still look like her…, your ma, I mean. I should have seen it I should have seen Margaret…”

Mark picked up his hat from the dirt and forcefully retrieved his rifle from Birch’s hands and scornfully stated, “You only see what you want to see, when it suits your needs.”

Seeing the defiant look in Mark’s eyes, Birch realized he was out of line to bring up the memory of Margaret McCain.

“It’s been a long time. Glad your Pa found you… that night,” Birch gave half a laugh as he tried to apologize. “So, you grew up to be a Marshal? What are you going to do with the two of us?”

“The two of us?” Coltrane asked and then remembered, “Sorry to disappoint you Birch but the question you should be asking is, what are the two of us going to do with you.”

“The two of…” Birch stopped speaking as he saw Coltrane open his jacket and show the Deputy U.S. Marshal badge pinned to his shirt.

Unbelieving, Birch started laughing, “You… A deputy? And back then… you were…, too?” Birch doubled over as he slapped his leg, laughing harder.

Coltrane nodded, “I was sent to infiltrate your gang.”

When Birch finally got his laughing fit under control he said, “Now if that don’t beat all! A half-breed Marshal… And to top it all off, Lucas’ boy grew up to be a Marshal.”

From Mark’s posture, Walker realized that he had taken just about all he could from the outlaw and tried to change the subject. Before Walker could say anything, Birch asked, “So why’d you lie? Why’d you tell the Sheriff and me your last name was Lane?”

“Can’t you figure that one out?” Mark bitterly replied. “I had a job to perform, get you to Denver.”

“Still bitter over that little episode?” Birch asked, as a smirk crossed his face.

“Little episode?!” Mark reacted before he could think.

“Then why not wire your bosses and ask for another deputy to travel with me?” Birch asked.

“Because it’s MY job to do! Be thankful it was me and not my Pa who found you in Stanton!”

“Why, Lucas and me, you know we’re old friends, Mark,” Tom replied with a carefree attitude of someone who had nothing to fear from the Rifleman.

“Birch,” Coltrane replied before Mark could. “You didn’t travel with Mark’s father for three days and nights. The last bullet you fired, struck him across the ribs. For three days he refused to let us know how bad it was. We listened to him swear that he’d kill you, if you harmed one hair on his son’s head. You crossed the line when you kept the boys.”

“Now, you know I had nothing to do with their kidnapping! In fact, you were there when they were taken.”

“But you didn’t set them free, either. The two of us are going to see that you are delivered safe and sound to Denver and after you testify, then you’ll be brought back to North Fork and we’ll file charges against you for your previous crimes.”

“See, therein lies a little hitch in your plan, my friend. My testimony is predicated on the fact that my little… ‘transgression’… will be forgotten, it never happened.”

“NEVER HAPPENED!” Mark demanded. “I was fourteen years old! It happened!”

“The three of us know it happened, but according to the agreement that was made in exchange for my testimony, it never happened. That was the price Cole Barker accepted when I agree to testify against Garth Grisolm. You don’t have to like it, but you do have to accept it. It’s in the past, come on boy, let’s just forget about it.”

“Forget…” Mark sputtered. “Get to sleep,” Mark grumbled as he left camp.

Once Mark was out of hearing range Walker stated, “Birch, I wouldn’t push McCain like you are.”

“McCain… Why, he’s just a boy. You’re treating him like he’s…”

“He’s a man. For the past three years he’s been the U.S. Marshal for this territory and don’t you forget that,” Coltrane spoke as he pushed a finger into Birch’s chest. “You show him the respect he’s due as a man and as a marshal.”

“Yeah, but Lucas…”

“Birch, you don’t get it, do you? Lucas swore then next time he saw you, the law wouldn’t get the chance to see that you never interfered with his family again.”

“Yeah, but that was then, I’m sure he’s probably forgotten it all by now,” Birch tried to laugh it off.

“That was then,” Walker mimicked, “You saw Mark’s reaction towards you. No boy should have to go through the terror you put him through. You caused Mark to do a lot of growing up, faster than he should have been forced to and Lucas will never forget it! If Lucas knew Mark was out here with you, I don’t think anyone could restrain him or blame him for what he would do to you. Just be thankful that Mark is a Marshal and all the years of training he’s gone through, he respects everything his badge stands for. Had I been in his shoes…, I’d have plugged you the first night out of Stanton and thought nothing of it.”

Remorsefully, Birch looked off into the direction Mark had walked, “He still does so look like his Ma. Him and Lucas, is it still just the two of them?” Birch sincerely asked. “I…”

“I won’t give you any information on either of them, other than what I’ve already told you.”

“We used to be friends,” Tom forlornly spoke.

“Friends?” Coltrane asked as he raised an eyebrow.

“Guess that was a long time ago and in a different life time. You know, the first time I saw Lucas and Mark in North Fork, I hadn’t known that Margaret had died…” Tom’s memories died on his lips.

“Get to your bedroll, and don’t make me regret not handcuffing you.”

Walker watched as Birch settled into his bedroll.

Once he was settled down, Birch stated, “You didn’t ask what we was fighting about.”

“Figured you was just being you. Tryin’ to save your own hide.”

“If I’d of known who he was…”

“You’d of still tried something.” Walker knew the real Birch and by the tone of his voice, let Birch know, he wasn’t going to be able to pull anything on him. “Get to sleep, morning will be here early enough.”

Within a half hour, Coltrane heard Birch snoring, yet, Mark had not returned to their camp.

*****

Coltrane woke to someone flipping the coffee pot lid closed.

“Sorry,” Mark spoke as he handed the cup to Coltrane as he walked up behind him. “He been any trouble?”

“Just asking questions,” Coltrane replied.

“I can imagine, trying to figure a way to get out of this.”

“Mark, where’d you go last night?”

“It’s my job to get him to Denver, that doesn’t mean I have to share camp with him. Anyway, I spent the night making sure no one was following us close.”

“How’d you come to be with Birch anyhow?”

“Hope, Seth and I were visiting Ethan and his family at Fort Stanton when a patrol came in with ‘him’. The Lieutenant stated he had already sent a wire to Denver informing them of Drew’s death after he dropped him off with the sheriff.”

“Figured it would take longer for Barker or Benton to find someone and get them there, so I decided to make the trip. Besides, I am the marshal for this territory,” Mark’s voice took on a matter-of-fact tone.

“Now, don’t get an attitude with me. Why didn’t you wire Denver?”

“Because he’s needed alive and I didn’t want anyone else getting the upper hand on me.”

“Mark, I was there and I know your history with Birch and I also know that when your Pa finds out, he’s not going to take kindly. Why don’t you go on back home, I can take Birch from here.”

“Like I said, I’m the marshal for this territory. If you want, you can take the packhorse and create a second trail to throw off anyone else who might be following us.”

“You really think they’re out there?”

“Not close enough for us to know, but if they killed Drew to get ‘him’, they’re out there.” Mark took a sip from the cup of coffee he poured for himself. “Coltrane, thank you.”

“For what?”

“Saving my hide last night. Had you not arrived when you did…”

“Now Mark, you know I wouldn’t have killed you,” Birch called as he knelt down to his knee, the other side of the fire from Mark and Coltrane.

“Not since you found out who I was, but if Walker hadn’t arrived, you’d of pulled the trigger. You’re in this for yourself and no one else,” Mark’s voice carried a bitterness. “I can see it in your eyes, you thought you had a good thing, until they killed Drew. Then you got scared and you were looking for a way out, you still are.”

Mark stood and threw out what remained of his cup of coffee, “We ride in fifteen minutes, break camp.”

As Mark had suggested and Coltrane agreed, Mark and Birch rode out together, while Coltrane took the packhorse, weight down with rocks in the packs and headed out on a parallel course to Denver.

*****

Wednesday morning, Lucas road back to town to stand his shift as deputy, helping Seth. After making morning rounds, Seth and Lucas sat in front of the Marshal’s Office.

“I take it that Hope told you?” Seth asked.

“Yeah, can’t say I’m too pleased about Mark doing this on his own.”

“I know what you mean. I even offered to take Birch instead of Mark. I saw how torn up he was as he told us what happened. It’s still a painful memory for him.”

“I can understand, it was fresh all over again when Hope told me. Like it just happened yesterday. I remember it took a long time for him to even trust going into the bank, even with Micah and me standing watch outside. He had some nightmares after we got home… But in time, they went away. And life returned to normal. I honestly never thought that I’d hear of Tom Birch again.”

“He should be there sometime today. If not by suppertime, I’ll wire,” Seth stated.

“Suppertime, I…”

“Lucas, let the law handle this. If worse comes to worse, we’ll cross that bridge. Until then, you’re my deputy and you’ll do as I say… Agreed?”

“Suppertime! And not one minute later.”

*****

Surprisingly, Mark and Birch arrived two days later in Denver without any incident. They had traveled part way by horse and the rest of the way by train. Mark was relieved when he successfully transferred Birch to the custody of the Tom Benton at U.S. Marshal’s Office. To say that Tom Benton was surprised to see Mark transporting Tom Birch would be an understatement.

“I heard Drew was killed and wired Coltrane after Birch, how?” Benton stated.

“I was in Stanton when the word came in. I left early Sunday morning and met up with Walker that night. He’s acting as decoy and should be here some time tomorrow at the latest. I hope.”

“Any trouble?” Benton asked.

“Other than his mouth, none. And that has me worried for Coltrane. If those outlaws killed Drew to get Birch, I can’t believe they didn’t make an attempt once I started out with him.”

“Well, just be thankful. Anyway, Coltrane knows how to protect himself. Why don’t you head to the hotel and check in. I’ll meet you for supper later this afternoon. We’ll need you to stay in Denver until Barker gets back tonight and you can make your full report to him. You can catch the train home tomorrow.”

Mark couldn’t wait to head to the telegraph office, to wire home that he had safely arrived.

The Next Generation… Chapter 75 – Resentment

It was just after suppertime as Seth and Lucas entered the telegraph office only to have Amos hand a wire to Lucas.

“It just came across. Lucas, it’s from Mark,” Amos stated with a smile on his face, knowing the good news the wire contained.

After looking over Lucas’ arm to read the wire, Seth stated, “Go on Lucas, let your family know he arrived safe and will be home soon. I think I can handle the town alone, for a couple of days.”

“You sure?” Lucas asked, eager to head home.

“Go on.”

*****

Lucas was in such a good mood and eager to relay the news to his family that he didn’t exactly pay attention to his surroundings; he heard the gunshot and felt the bullet strike the back of his right shoulder, knocking him from his horse. Lucas struggled to his feet and tried to run for the large mound of boulders, but before he made it halfway there, he found himself confronted by a single rider with his weapon drawn.

“Look who I got here. The one and only… Rifleman. I wouldn’t try anything Mr. McCain, I already have a number of my men watching your family. Just pray that your oldest, The Lawman, can read and follow directions.”

“What do you want?” Lucas tersely replied.

“As I said, your son to read and follow the directions one of my boys should have already wired him in Denver.”

“Why? What’s my son done to you.”

“Personally? Nothing. But he’s transporting someone we want.”

“Birch!” Lucas spat out in disgust.

“You’ve heard of him? Then you’ll know why we want him.”

“You can have him for all I care! He’s been nothing but a thorn to me and my son for far too long.”

“Then just pray that your son does as I wired.”

Another rider rode into the clearing with Blade in tow, “Mr. McCain, if you please. Get on your horse and let’s get you home,” the leader stated as he motioned with his gun for Lucas to walk towards his horse.

*****

Later, while Mark was waiting to check into the hotel, the telegrapher ran in and handed him a wire.

“McCain,

Return Birch to North Fork or your family will pay dearly /stop”

Mark ran from the hotel, back to the U.S. Marshal’s Office. Birch was sitting in a chair, in front of the desk talking with Tom Benton when Mark burst through the door, the secretary trying to prevent him from entering, “What the hell are you up to?!” Mark yelled as he pulled Birch to his feet, swung him around, and forcefully slammed him into the wall, telegram in one hand, rifle in the other. “ANSWER ME!! What did you bargain for this time? WHY MY FAMILY?!”

Benton tried pulling Mark from Birch, but Mark turned on him, “No more deals! Not this time! Not while I’m alive!” Turning back to Birch, “What game are you up to?!”

“Game, I’m not playing any game…” Birch answered, the fear he felt was evident in his eyes. He’d seen anger in Lucas McCain’s eyes once before, but the look in the eyes of the Rifleman’s son was far worse.

Benton managed to grab Mark’s rifle and was trying to grab Mark’s arm when he saw Mark start to throw a punch his way. Luckily, he was able to duck at about the time Cole Barker and two other deputies arrived and ran to restrain Mark.

“You agreed to forgive his kidnapping me and shooting my Pa! But now… someone has my family and they’re threatening to kill them unless he’s taken back to North Fork!”

“Mark, what are you talking about?” Cole demanded.

“This!” Mark held the telegraph up. “Your telegrapher brought it to me a few minutes ago. It weren’t an hour ago I sent word to my family that I had arrived here and planned to head home tomorrow. Tell me, does my family have to ‘pay dearly’ while he gets away…, scot-free again?!”

Neither Barker nor Benton had ever heard or seen this side of Mark McCain as he continued to struggle against the two deputies restraining him. A dark side that indicated he’d do anything to save the lives of his family.

“McCAIN!” Benton ordered. “You will restrain yourself.”

Mark feigned relaxing and when the deputies relaxed their grip on him, he pulled away, lunged for Benton and pulled his rifle from Tom’s grip and pointed it towards the others, “Here’s my badge, my family is more important than him. I don’t care what happens, I’m taking him back to North Fork to save my family!” Mark grabbed for Birch and pulled him along. Mark pushed Birch out of the office and along the main street, towards the livery. Those who had been in the office slowly followed Mark out the front door.

“Let him go, boys. We’ll get Birch back,” Benton ordered.

“You there, stop McCain!” Barker countered the order.

“NO! I’ll take responsibility,” Benton yelled. “Stay clear of them!”

The group watched as Mark and Birch rode their horses towards the train station. Benton pulled his horse from the hitching rail and rode after them. Benton caught up with them and followed as Mark led his horse into the rail car.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Mark demanded as he turned his rifle on Benton.

“He’s still in the custody of the U.S. Marshal Service. And I refuse to accept your resignation. Mark, I’m your friend, as well as your boss. And I count your family as friends, I can’t let you return to North Fork like this.”

“I can’t return without him,” Mark starkly answered.

“I didn’t say that. I mean, I can’t let you return home, alone. We’ve two days by train and we’ll be in North Fork by night. You know what? I have the authority to make this train cancel all stops and run straight through. We’ll get you back to North Fork by Friday late morning.”

“Tom…” Mark yelled as Tom left the livestock car and climbed along the walls to make it to the passenger cars and ran through them, to the front engine.

*****

Lucas’ shoulder burned as they rode to the ranch. He couldn’t’ believe how he had let his guard down, especially after the story Hope recounted. The two rode into the yard and stopped their horses in front of the porch.

“Step down Mr. McCain and don’t try anything, Hernando there, is a crack shot, that’s why we call him Crackers. Remember, with you dead we still have your wife, daughter-in-law, as well as your children and grandchildren…”

Lucas looked as he heard Milly yell his name, and saw one of the outlaws physically restraining her, “Leave my wife be!” Lucas yelled.

“Then you’ll do exactly as I say.”

“Crackers,” the leader yelled. “Get out here and take care of the horses!”

A small man ran from the house and grabbed the reins of the horses and lead them to the barn.

Upon entering his home, Lucas looked around. He saw fear in Gwen’s eyes as she sat on the hearth of the fireplace, worry in Milly’s eyes as a man kept her on the other side of the table from him, and hatred in Hope’s as another man kept a gun pointed on her in the kitchen.

“Who are you?” Lucas demanded.

“Me, I’m the pro-tem leader of these men and I aim to see that our boss is released. But if you want to know my name, it’s Morgan Grindstaff and my men… well.. we’re members of Grisolm’s Gang.”

“Why my family?” Lucas asked.

“Because your son, The Lawman, interfered before we had the chance to put our plan into motion. What damn luck to have a U.S. Marshal visiting family in Stanton. We went Sunday afternoon to bust Birch out of jail and found he was already gone.” Grindstaff walked around the table and stopped close to Milly. “We stayed around and done some inquiring, found out who the marshal was. Heard there was a second Marshal too. Figured they’d be ready for us to try something on the trail. No one would figure we’d come here. My plan is perfect.” He walked into the kitchen. The man standing behind Hope moved as he approached.

“You’ve quite a lovely family here, I hope you don’t do anything to jeopardize any one of them,” Grindstaff remarked.

“Leave them be. Your quarrel’s with Birch, not my family.”

Lucas turned to watch as the man walked to the stove and removed the top from the pot. Milly gasped and tried to get to Lucas when she saw the bloodstain on the back of his shirt. The man beside Milly roughly grabber her arm and pulled her back with a hard yank, causing her to cry out.

Lucas lunged towards the man restraining Milly, but before he crossed half-way to the table, the man who had been next to Hope, raised his gun and pistol whipped Lucas on the back side of his head, knocking him unconscious. Lucas fell with a thud to the floor.

“Mama?” they all heard from Myra’s bedroom.

“Please, not in front of our children.” Milly begged and tried to pull her arm from the man holding her.

“Majors, let her be!” Grindstaff demanded.

“Grinder?” Majors replied.

“We have two days until the Lawman gets here with Birch, if he takes the train out tomorrow morning. I’ll not have you treating our hosts in such a manner. Let her tend to her husband and let them tend to the children. Get out and help Crackers with the horses.”

“Mrs. McCain, I’m truly sorry for the way he treated you,” Grindstaff spoke as he stepped over the unconscious Lucas.

“No worse than you. I’m a married woman and you bring my husband home, injured, and the way you and all your men look at us…” Milly dared reply.

“You are quite right. I will behave myself in the presence of you, your daughter-in-law, and your ward. But mark my word, one step out of line and I will forget that the three of you are ladies. Behave as such and you will be treated as befitting. Now, why don’t you tend to your husband’s wound.”

Milly walked to where they kept the box of bandages and pulled it from the cupboard. By the time she knelt next to Lucas, he had started to regain consciousness. With his wife’s assistance, Lucas sat up and leaned against the hutch.

“Lucas, I need to see your back. Just sit here.”

“Mama,” Myra called again.

“Hope, would you please see what Myra needs?” Milly asked and then looked to Grindstaff, who nodded.

Hope walked to the bedroom door and opened it, she bent forward to keep Myra from looking into the front room. She started to push the door closed when she felt the door push back against her hand.

“I’m sorry, but while you’re in the room, this door must remain open,” Grindstaff informed her.

Milly carefully unbuttoned Lucas’ shirt and helped him sit forward so she could pull it from his shoulder and look at the bullet wound.

“He needs a doctor!” Milly declared.

“I’m afraid that will have to wait until after your son returns.”

“This can’t wait! What if it becomes infected?”

“The bullet was sterilized as it left the barrel,” Grindstaff replied as he pulled his gun from his holster.

Those in the house looked to the kitchen door as Crackers and Majors returned from the barn.

“Stay out on the porch and keep an eye out for anybody coming down the road,” Grindstaff ordered his men.

“Yeah, boss,” they replied.

“The bullet might have been sterilized as it left the barrel, but it pushed material from his shirt into the wound…” Milly pleaded.

“If you’d like, I can attempt to remove the bullet?” he offered.

“I’d rather deal with the infection,” Lucas grumbled.

“Lucas, if he can remove it…” Milly pleaded.

“It’s his call,” Grindstaff replied.

“I won’t give him the satisfaction of inflicting more pain on me,” Lucas replied.

“Either now or by your doc, it’ll hurt just the same,” Grindstaff commented and flipped his hands up in the air.

“Lucas, please…?” Milly begged. “Let him remove the bullet. You can get drunk enough to not feel the pain…”

“And while I’m drunk, then what. Who’s to protect you?”

“Grindstaff’s promised that as long as we behave, we’ll be safe.” Milly lowered her voice to a whisper, “At least until Mark gets back with his prisoner.”

“We’ll Mr. McCain?”

“There a bottle of brandy in the top shelf of the cupboard to the right of the sink,” Lucas answered.

Grindstaff found the bottle and carried it to Lucas.

“I’ll give you one hour to drink what you need to. And I promise, I’ll only inflict what needs to be done to get the bullet out.”

“Just keep your men on short leashes!’

“You have my word.”

By the end of the hour, Milly helped Lucas to his feet and supported him as he staggered to their bedroom.

“Mrs. McCain, if you have a supply of towels, place them under his shoulder. No sense ruining your bed by spilling his blood.”

Lucas gripped the headboard of his bed while Gridnstaff probed into his shoulder. Gritting with determination to stay conscious. Within ten minutes, Grindstaff had removed the bullet as well as a piece of fabric from Lucas’ shoulder.

“Mrs. McCain, I think there’s some brandy left in the bottle… If you’ll bring it to me…”

“You’re going to drink?”

“No ma’am. I’m going to pour some into the wound to help clean it. He can stay in here until he’s sober enough.”

“And then what?” Milly asked.

“I’m sorry things won’t be as easy for him as they are for you and your children. I’m going to have to insist that he be tied up until the Marshal returns.”

“Tied up!” Mille exclaimed.

“Mrs. McCain. I won’t budge on this point. Your husband has a reputation.”

“And so does our son!”

“Ma’am, if my memory serves me, he’s not YOUR son.” Grindstaff turned and left the room. “Like I said, one step out of line and I’ll quickly forget that you are ladies.”

A shiver ran down Milly’s back as he turned and left the room.

“Milly, you have to get help…” Lucas whispered.

“How, there’s four of them and they keep their eyes on us all the time. There’s no way we can get away.”

“I’m sorry.”

“There’s nothing for you to apologize for. Just rest and get your strength back.” Milly placed a gentle kiss to the side of Lucas head before she left him to tend to her children.

*****

With the ease of a perpetual liar, Birch stated, “You know Mark, your Pa and I got into a lot of trying situations back before he met your Ma. Why I remember him telling me once about how he almost got lynched for cattle rustling. A couple of friends had convinced him to help drive a herd of cattle that they said they bought.”

“I know all about Don la Gar and Colonel Black,” Mark spat.

“Oh, do you now? Can’t believe ole Lucas believed them when they said they bought all those Mexican mavericks. If it had been me, I’d of told them to show me the bill of sale before I ever agreed to ride with them. Why those two characters, if it weren’t for them having each other to muddle around…, why, they’d not have lived as long as they did.”

Birch’s smooth talking wasn’t baiting Mark into conversation.

“Lucas ain’t all pure and holy, he’s done things that had him spending more than a few nights in jail. We done our fair share of staying out late and closing saloons. We even busted up and shot up a few in our time. Cowboys calling us out for being soldiers or the barkeeps telling us they wouldn’t serve us no more. We’d have ourselves a few good brawls every now and then, next day, we’d wake up in jail with throbbing heads, hung over. We’d be days out on the trail, from one town to the next, Lucas never feeling comfortable staying in town for more than a couple of days.”

Still trying to get Mark talking, Birch stated, “Did your Pa ever tell you about how I saved his life?”

“He mentioned it, once,” Mark replied as he pulled his hat down over his eyes.

“He hadn’t met or married Margaret… yet. It was probably a year after Luke had been discharged from the army and was still tired of being told what to do and when to do it. Yes he had been a lieutenant and did a lot of ordering others about too, but… Well, we were riding through this here town back in the Kansas… Kansas City, Kansas, totally minding our own business. We’d picked up provisions, and before heading on out, we decided to stop at the saloon for a few drinks.”

Birch laughed as he remembered back, “Your Pa, he never let his rifle out of his hand. No, that rifle of his became an extra arm to him. Anyway, a couple of cowhands came in and bumped into Lucas, guess he had still too much of being a soldier in him, he reacted by twirl cocking his rifle on those cowhands, neither of which were too thrilled to be drawn on.”

“Birch get to sleep,” Mark ordered.

“Now, I’s just getting to the part where I saved Ol’ Luke’s life. See, like I was saying, them two cowhands didn’t take politely to Lucas outdrawing them, with a rifle to boot. Don’t think anyone in that saloon had ever seen anyone as fast on the draw with a rifle before. Well, they was long gone by the time we left the saloon, or so we thought. Neither of us got too far to our horses when we heard them yell, ‘Hey, Rifleman!’ and heard the gun shots. Why, Lucas turned on his heels and twirl cocked his rifle and let it do its talking, by killing one of them. Me, I got the other with two shots. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the first shot they fired struck your Pa in the back. He lost a lot of blood before we found the town’s doctor and he pulled the bullet out. Doctor said, ‘Birch, this here man is gonna die if I don’t get some blood into him.’ I told him, for the man who was more a brother to me than my own brother, take what you need. If’n I hadn’t given my blood to your Pa that night, he’d of died. Then he’d of not met your Ma, and you wouldn’t have been born. So you see, it’s not just your Pa who owes me his life, you kinda do… too.”

Mark pulled his hat from his head with one hand and with his other, pointed his rifle towards Birch, “Birch, you cashed in that chip ten years ago when you kept me hostage. I won’t let you use me, EVER again. You can also call my Pa’s debt paid in full. He should have pulled the trigger on you the first time you came to North Fork. He went easy on you and let you get sent to jail. Now, I said get to sleep.”

Birch continued, “Your Pa was still pretty weak. But after he recovered, why the town sheriff came and talked with him. Said he’d never seen anything like it and could use a good man as a deputy. I hung around for a few months, then one day, this here gal and her family came in on the train. She wasn’t a stunning looker, sort of plain, but there was something about her, that drew Lucas to her. The look in her eyes, well… They were in town for a few days before heading on to Enid, Oklahoma territory. The day after that gal and her family left, I’m in the saloon and listening to a few drifters talking of a tall man who took out two cowboys with a rifle. Story was he shot them both after he’d already been hit in the back by one of their bullets. Seems no one knew the man’s name, but everyone called him, The Rifleman. Your Pa came into the saloon that afternoon and you could of heard a pin drop as quiet as the place got; a tall man walking in and carrying a rifle. Well, Ol’ Luke told me he’d turned in his resignation to the sheriff. He felt it was time he returned home, to Enid.”

Without giving any indication, Mark listened intently, he’d never asked nor heard of how his parents had met.

“We arrived back in Enid and don’t you know it, a few days later, I seen ole Luke walking down main street carrying packages for that pretty little gal. No rifle to be seen. I thought to myself, if those people in Enid only knew. You know, in the year we’d been traveling together after the war, I’d never seen Lucas without his rifle in his hand. Even when we were in our bedrolls, I never seen his rifle out of quick reach. That there little gal…”

Birch drew his hat over his eyes and the last Mark heard him saying was, “Weren’t too much longer before I realized that three was a crowd and left. Uh, uh, uh, The Rifleman… Yep, the legend was born that day back in Kansas City.”

The rhythmic rolling of the train put Birch to sleep as the temperature started to rise in the enclosed car. Benton stood from the wall where he’d been listening to Birch’s stories, “He’s right you know. Never in all the years your Pa served under me during the war did anyone call him, The Rifleman.” He offered a bucket of water to the horses, before setting it back down.

“Maybe, but he tells the story like I owe him something. He’s wearing it like a shield, that it should protect him from the wrath my Pa’s going to bring down on him once he finds out.”

“Mark, Birch’s kind will never change. You’ve had a good life and your Pa’s raised you right. But had events not happened as they did, I saw your Pa change from the first time I met him after he enlisted until he was discharged. War changes a man, some for the better, others… Your Pa, he needed that year after the war to ‘let loose’ so to speak. Most men did. Some never got over the shock and trauma of what they experienced during the war.”

“But why do Pa or I have to pay the price every time Birch comes into our lives? And this time, my family is at risk, not just Pa… or me.”

“I can’t say Mark. Only I know you’ll do right by the badge your wearing and the oath you swore to uphold.”

The last rays of the evening sun faded outside the livestock car. Through the night, Mark’s dreams reflected on the words Benton told him, “Birch will never change.”

Friday morning dawn as Mark stood and stretched. It wasn’t too much longer before Birch started recounting more of his year-long travels with Mark’s Pa. After finally having enough, “This is all one big game to you.” Mark called as he got to his feet and walked to stand in front of Birch.

“Game, boy?” Birch asked.

“That’s right, a game! You sell out past friendships to get what you want. You think because you and my Pa used to be friends, that will make amends for everything else you’ve done wrong?! It’ll make right everything you’ve inflicted upon us.”

“No… That’s not the way…”

“Quit the crap! That first time you came to visit us in North Fork… you were planning the whole time to rob the bank. Had I not gotten up early that morning, you’d of succeeded. Maybe that’s why you insisted on keeping me as a hostage. You really hoped that maybe you could get even with my telling Pa that you’d rode to town and not Denver, like you said you were planning to do. Maybe the nightmare of this past week is part of your plan to get even with me and Pa!”

“Mark!” Benton hollered.

“No, don’t Mark, me. For too long he’s played his games and always gotten away. Had some ‘Ace’ up his sleeve. Well… No more. I don’t care what Barker promised him. Birch, one way or another I’ll see that ‘you’ pay for your crimes. And hopefully, you’ll be six feet under.” Mark turned and walked back to where he had been sitting. He slid to sit down, laid his rifle across his lap, and pulled his hat over his eyes.

*****

The train pulled into North Fork late morning Friday. Mark, Benton, and Birch led their horses down the ramp as they exited the stock car. The town was quiet. Maybe it had been a cruel joke someone was playing on him, Mark thought. If someone had his family as hostages, Mark knew the town would be agitated and someone would be waiting for him at the station.

“Maybe the wire was someone’s idea of a joke,” Birch half-heartedly stated.

“Cruel joke, you better pray it is. My Pa once swore you’d never see justice if you interfered with our family again. I’ll make the same oath if any member of my family is harmed!” Mark scornfully stated.

“Any member… There’s more than just you and Lucas?” Birch asked.

“Yeah, there’s more than him and Lucas,” Benton replied. “Both are married to wonderful women and have seven young children between them.”

“Seven? Lucas has other children? And you, too?” Birch asked incredulously.

“Mark my word, Birch, so help me God, you’ll pay!” Mark stated as he swung up into the saddle and prepared to ride for home. “You stay here, I’m gonna play like I was anxious to get home and didn’t receive the wire.”

*****

Mark rode Rainmaker into the yard, praying that the wire had been someone’s idea of a cruel joke, but knowing that Tom Birch was involved… Mark hoped that he could pull off his plan to play innocent, that he’d never received the wire. “Hope, I’m home!” Mark called as he stepped to his front porch… if the wire was for real…

“I’m over here,” Mark heard Hope call from the porch of his parent’s home.

Mark turned around and felt as if he had been punched in the gut, standing behind Hope was a stranger, holding a gun to the side of her head.

“Let my wife go! What do you want?!” Mark yelled.

“I want your prisoner,” the man called back.

“My prisoner, I don’t have any prisoner!” Mark answered.

“I want Birch!” the man yelled. “I wired you to bring Birch to North Fork or else your family would pay dearly!”

“I didn’t get any wire. Besides, Birch is in Denver.”

“Then, you get him here! He either arrives or your family… won’t be your family!”

Through the front window, Mark saw several others in his parent’s home. Anger, hatred, and fear abounded in Mark. Anger that these men had his family. Hatred for Tom Birch for again bringing terror to his life. And fear that these men would harm his family, regardless if Tom Birch arrived or not.

“I’ll have to go back to town and send a wire…” Mark stated.

“You do that. And just remember, no one else better return with you, ‘cept Birch. If we see anybody sneaking around here, we might just have to shoot a member of your family.”

“How do I know that everyone is okay?” Mark asked.

The man pushed Hope forward, but didn’t let go of her, he twisted her arm behind her back causing her to cry out in pain, “Tell ‘em. Tell him how nice we’re being to your family.”

“Mark, we’re okay. But, they shot and beat Pa up…” Hope quickly tried to add.

“Shut up!” the man ordered and twisted her arm harder, causing her to cry out again.

“Why don’t you let the children go, you’ve got my parents and my wife, why do you need the children?” Mark called.

“Because, you’ll be more careful in what you do, knowing your whole family is here,” the man proclaimed.

“It’ll take two more days for him to get here by train!”

“Then you’re wasting time,” the man replied, sending chills up Mark’s spine.

*****

Grindstaff pushed Hope back into the house, “My apologies for treating you as I did.”

Hope turned and slapped him across the face, “I don’t accept your apology!”

“Guess you wouldn’t, but I needed to show more force to your husband to make sure he understands I’m serious.”

“You have his family at gun point. He knows you’re serious,” Hope declared.

“Then you better pray that Birch shows up on Sunday.”

*****

“Well?” Benton asked as Mark strode into the Marshal’s Office. “There’s five that I counted. Hope said everyone except Pa was alright.” Mark walked to the cell and stared coldly at Birch, “Said that they had shot and beat my Pa. You remember my promise. I don’t make idle threats!”

Mark was still staring at Birch when he heard Johnny Drako arrive in his office demanding to know what was going on.

“Ask them. They made the deal. There’s five outlaws who have my family as hostages in exchange for him. Ask Benton how he swapped the lives of my family for the testimony of this outlaw!”

“Mark,” Benton stated. “That’s not fair. We couldn’t have known everything that would have happened. We had a chance to put Garth Grisolm in jail, permanently, based on Birch’s testimony. We had no way of knowing Drew would be killed or that you’d be in Stanton and bring Birch to Denver. The outlaws must have talked with the soldiers at Fort Stanton and found out who took Birch.”

Mark spoke in monotone as he continued to stare at Birch. “Birch was supposed to stay in jail and some ladies aid society got him released years ago. He planned to rob a stage carrying a hundred thousand dollars on a bank run, but before his gang all got together, they robbed the North Fork bank and kidnapped me. He got to spend the next ten years in Mexico and all of a sudden, you feel the need to bring him back to this territory to put Garth Grisolm in jail… In exchange… you forget what he did to me and to my Pa.” Rapidly, Mark turned and directed his anger towards his friends, “This wouldn’t be happening if Justice was properly served!”

“MARK!” Drako yelled. “You know the law and we have to live within the boundaries. There’s been times where we’ve swapped bad to get worse.”

“My families have never been at risk!”

Seth walked over and placed a hand to Mark’s shoulder, “They’re my family too. We’ll get them out.”

Seth pushed Mark from the cell area, out into the office. For the first time, Mark noticed Johnny was leaning on a set of crutches and his leg was wrapped in a cast.

“What did you do? Try to get Lou riled one too many times while I was gone?” Mark jested.

“Naw, your Pa and I tried to break up a barroom brawl and a drover got knocked backwards into me. Got another month on these,” Johnny stated as he help up the crutches.

“Damn it Johnny, I could really use your help out at the ranch,” Mark declared as he looked down and shook his head.

*****

Under cover of night, Mark, Seth, and Benton returned to the McCain ranch. All were thankful that it was a new moon and a layer of heavy clouds covered the sky.

Mark silently ran from the hills behind his parents’ home and crouched below the window of his brothers’ bedroom. Slowly he rose up and peered into the window. He saw the forms of five boys lying in the beds. Ducking fast when he heard footsteps enter the room, he quickly crawled to the far side of the house and held his breath. He saw the window darken as someone blew out the lantern in the boys’ room.

Once more, Mark rose up and looked in the window, above the kitchen sink. He saw his Pa bound and gagged sitting in a chair to the side of the fireplace. Mark saw the darkened red on the backside of his shoulder, evidence of where he had been shot. Mark also saw the dark blotches on his Pa’s face, bruises from a fight. Looking to where his Ma’s chair was placed in the room, he saw Milly sitting with her legs drawn up into the chair, and Gwen was sitting on the floor in front of her. Fear gripped Mark, as he ducked back down, when he didn’t see Hope. He grabbed his rifle even tighter. It was all he could do to not rise up and fire his rifle through the window in hopes of killing those who held his family captive. A few moments later he heard the door open and one of the men called out, “Get inside!” Mark peeked through the window and to his relief, he saw Hope carrying an armload of wood and drop it in the wood box next to the fireplace.

Mark seethed as he saw one of the outlaws being inappropriately too close to his wife. Mark laughed to himself when he saw Hope turn around and harshly slap the man across the face.

“Porter!” Grindstaff yelled as Porter raised his hand to strike Hope in return.

“What?!” the man shot back.

“Get outside and relieve Majors.”

“Why? I been outside all afternoon.”

“Because I said so. I told these good folks that as long as they behaved, you would too. I saw what you were doing. If Birch doesn’t return in time, then you can have your fun, but NOT until then.”

The man turned and walked out the front door, mumbling.

*****

Mark ran back to where the others waited.

“There’s four of them in the house. They’re strategically placed inside the house and one’s on the front porch. Pa’s been roughed up pretty bad, and like Hope said, he’s been shot.”

“How do you want to play this?” Benton asked.

“I hate to make this last any longer for them, but we have to wait until day after tomorrow, to give the appearance that Birch still needs to make it here by train. Let’s get back to town, I want to draw out the ranch, the buildings and landscape so we can plan our strategy for… rescuing my family.”

“No, we can rescue them tomorrow, we don’t have to wait until Sunday.”

“How?” Mark asked.

“They don’t know me, I can say that I received the wire shortly after you left to return home and I decided to bring Birch back here in an effort to rescue your family.”

*****

Before leaving North Fork, Benton gave Birch a small Colt, Open Top Pocket revolver..

“Don’t make me regret giving you this,” Benton stated as Birch put the gun in his jacket pocket.

Tom Birch and Tom Benton rode down the road to the McCain Ranch with Mark.

“Hey Boss!” an outlaw on the porch yelled.

“What do you want, Templeton?”

“Riders coming, three of them,” Templeton replied.

*****

Grindstaff waited for Mark on the porch with Milly in front of him, gun drawn and held to the small of her back.

“What kind of a game are you playing boy! We didn’t expect Birch until tomorrow and I said to come alone!” Grindstaff called out.

“I’m Mark’s boss. He’d already left Denver when the wire was received. I brought Birch here. And he’s in my custody, until I say otherwise.”

“Then I’ll take him from your hands,” Grindstaff called out. “Birch get down from your horse and come inside.”

“What about my family?!” Mark yelled.

“They’ll be left here, once we leave.”

Mark and Benton had taken time to watch the comings and goings of the outlaws, before riding down the path to Mark’s home. They knew there were two men in the house and one man in each barn, leaving Grindstaff in the yard.

*****

As the gunfight started, Milly, Hope and Gwen ran to the rooms their children were in. Milly and Gwen were in the room with the boys, cowering in two of the corners behind the dressers, while Hope hid with Myra and Mykaela under the bed. Hope tried to quiet her daughter’s cries and shield both girls with her body.

*****

Mark fired at his target through the front window. He heard a small caliber gun shot from inside his parents’ home. In time, the last shot was fired. Mark carefully entered the home, rifle at the ready. One outlaw was already dead and the other wasn’t too far behind. Seth had made his way to Mark’s barn and had quietly taken the outlaw prisoner, but not without the outlaw taking a bullet in the arm. Benton had feigned leaving and at the sound of the first shot, he reined his horse to Lucas’ barn. Even though he had given orders “alive, if possible” the outlaw he was exchanging gunfire with wasn’t giving indication that he was willing to be taken alive. Benton had no choice but to take the man’s life. Mark called for Hope, Milly, and Gwen. Relief flooded his body as he heard each one of their voices answer in return that they were okay. Mark turned at hearing boot steps on the porch to see Tom Benton standing in the doorway, gun at the ready. He holstered his gun as he strode over next to Lucas, pulled out his knife and cut the ropes that bound Lucas’ hands. Lucas raised his hands, wincing in doing so, to untie the gag, as Benton cut the ropes around his legs.

As Seth pushed his surviving outlaw out into the yard, he watched as Mark pulled one dead outlaw from his parents home. While Birch drug the other, Mark and Birch dumped the bodies behind the house.

As Mark and Birch came from the back side of the house, he stopped as he heard Birch call out, “Mark, from what you said, we’re still missing one outlaw.”

“He probably turned tail and…” Mark didn’t get the chance to finish his sentence, Birch drew his gun, ran towards Mark and shoved him to the ground, at the same time Mark heard a gunshot. Everything happened so quick as he was flung to the ground. Fear momentarily came over Mark as he realized he was out in the open, without his rifle, and the one missing outlaw was probably the one shooting at him. Mark heard a second gun fire from close by, and as he hit the ground, he rolled to see Birch’s gun pointing to the ground as he grabbed at his middle.

Mark tried to catch Birch as he started to fall to the ground, as much as he hated the falling man… All the years of being a Marshal and all his training kicked in. He couldn’t keep Birch in front of him, as a shield, Mark turned his back to the outlaw to protect Birch, expecting to feel a bullet rip into his body at any moment… Mark opened his eyes as he heard a rifle shot, he expected to see his Pa standing in the doorway or at the broken front window with the smoking rifle pointing towards the outlaw who was now to Mark’s back. Mark was astonished to see who held the gun… The hatred in the eyes, the anger. Mark had never seen those looks in the eyes he so loved.

“Hope?” Mark called as he lowered the moaning Birch to the ground.

Mark took his eyes off Hope and turned to look to the outlaw, who laid sprawled on the ground beside the barn. Mark returned his attention to Hope and carefully walked to her. She still had the rifle raised and sighted in.

“Hope, give me the rifle. You can let go of the rifle… Please Hope, give me the rifle,” Mark pleaded, hesitant to take the rifle from her.

“You’ll… not… hurt… my… family!” Hope punctuated each word through her gritted teeth.

“No, he’ll not hurt us, never again,” Mark spoke. “Please… hand me the rifle.”

Hope’s eyes softened as if for the first time seeing Mark. She lowered the rifle and then let it drop to the ground before her knees buckled. Mark caught her and gently lowered her to the ground, holding her head against his chest, trying to quiet her tears.

“Tom? My Pa?” Mark called into his parent’s home.

“The Rifleman’s too tough to be killed by one measly bullet or being used as a punching bag, best we get him to your doctor’s though,” Benton replied.

“Birch is outside, he…” Mark didn’t continue as Benton ran past him.

“He’s still alive!” Benton called as he knelt over the prone figure. “Mark, if Hope’s okay, help me get the team harnessed and the buckboard hitched. Mark!”

“I’ll be okay,” Hope spoke as she dried her tears.

Milly came behind Mark and helped him get Hope to her feet. “Mark go help Tom, we’ll get the children ready to go to town.” Hearing a noise from inside her home, Milly hollered, “Lucas you sit back down in that chair and don’t move until Tom and Mark can help you! That’s my order!” Milly turned her attention back to Hope and helped her to a chair on the porch.

“Ma, keep the children inside, they don’t need to see this.” Hope called, “Mark, bring the buckboard to the front door. I don’t want any of the children to see those bodies.”

“I understand. Are you sure you’re okay?” Mark asked, his eye’s speaking of his love.

“I’ll be okay. Just go help Tom so we can get everyone to town,” Hope answered.

The Next Generation… Chapter 76 – The Aftermath

That evening, at the hotel, Mark wasn’t having any luck as he tried to quiet his crying sons, while Hope held their daughter. He finally decided to tell them he had a new horse, Rainmaker.

“What kind of horse is he,” Josh asked.

“He used to be a mustang.”

“What color is he?” Eli asked.

“He’s black and white.”

“Like Mama’s horse?” Eli asked as he looked to Hope.

“Yes, sort of like Two-Bits,” Hope answered. “Only he has a lot more white on him.”

Mark was pleased to see he sons’ eyes brighten as he proceeded to tell the story.

“How’d he get his name,” Zach asked.

“Quetano told me…”

“Who’s Katano?” Eli asked.

“He’s the Indian wrangler I bought Rainmaker from.”

“A real live Injun?” Josh asked.

“Yes, a real live Indian,” Mark answered in correction.

“He didn’t try to scalp ya?” Josh asked.

“Where’d you hear something like that?” Mark asked as he sternly looked at his eldest son.

“Marty was telling stories about his great-grandpa Hannabury.”

“You can just forget those stories.”

“What about Rainmaker?” Eli asked.

“Well, there had been a real bad drought that year. There hadn’t been enough rain and the crops were dying and they didn’t know if they would have enough to keep their herds alive. Anyway, Quetano arrived out on the range to find his best broodmare was down and trying to give birth. While he waited, the wind blew these real dark clouds over the sky. Quetano was happy to find out that his best mare gave birth to a colt. It wasn’t but a few minutes later than he was up on his feet, looking for his Ma, but first. I was told he looked to the sky and gave a shrill whinny as if to dare the rain to fall. After he had nursed from his mother, he trotted around and continued to whinny until the sky opened up and the rain started pouring. He kept looking to the sky, showing that he wasn’t scared.”

“I like Rainmaker,” Eli answered.

“Can we ride him?” Josh asked.

“Yeah, can we?” Zach chimed in.

“Not yet. You need to do some more growing up. Are you boys ready to go to sleep?” Mark asked.

“Ah Pa, do we have… Yes, sir.”

Their three sons jumped down from the bed, ran across the room and jumped into the second bed in the room; giggling as they climbed under the covers.

After making sure that the children had fallen asleep, Hope curled up and snuggled in bed with Mark.

“Oh Mark, the cruelest part was when Grindstaff told Ma, you weren’t her son. I saw how much those words hurt her, just as much as seeing Pa shot.” Hope cried in Mark’s arms.

*****

Sunday morning, Mark rose early and headed to the clinic to check on his Pa. Very few people were up and about that early in the morning as Mark crossed the street.

Thadd was stepping from the room where Tom Birch was recovering when he saw Mark enter. “Your prisoner is going to survive, Mark.”

In seeing the expression on Mark’s face, Thadd called out, “Mark?”

“Thadd, you should of let him die. He’s no good to anyone. No one would have blamed you,” Mark replied.

“I would! I took an oath to do no harm and that includes helping someone whether they’re a law abiding citizen or not.”

“You don’t know what he’s done…”

“No, I don’t, but I do know from Tom Benton that he saved your life yesterday…”

Mark tensed in hearing those words. In all the worry and trouble, that fact hadn’t struck home, yet. Anger seethed in Mark. He couldn’t believe he was now in such a position, beholden to a man he hated so much. Mark took a deep breath and tried to relax before he entered the room where his Pa slept, or so he thought.

Lucas had heard the exchange in the hallway and saw the resentment in his son’s eyes.

“It’s a bitter pill to swallow, isn’t it?” Lucas asked.

“I’d prefer not to talk about it,” Mark answered.

“I won’t let you not talk about it. Mark don’t let this eat at you.”

“Pa, because of him, the lives of our families were put at risk. Because of him, my children were exposed to things I hoped they’d never have to see. Outlaws, in our home, threatening their lives! Because of Birch, I had three son’s crying in my arms last night. He’s a menace to society and we’d be better off with him dead!”

“Mark, this isn’t you talking.”

“No?! You didn’t see the hatred in your wife’s eyes after she pulled the trigger and killed Grindstaff. I did. I saw Hope’s eyes. Pa, I held her in my arms last night, after she fell asleep; the whole night, she trembled. I couldn’t comfort her. Pa, my wife was forced to kill a man because of Birch! How can I not hate him?!”

“You don’t think I understand how you feel? Mark, all the times you were present…”

“I was ten years old the first time I saw you kill a man. My son’s are only four!”

“They didn’t see it happen. They were in the bedrooms with the doors closed. They’re young enough that they’ll forget, as long as you can forgive.”

“Forgive?! You expect me to forget everything that happened because of that man?! You swore the law wouldn’t get to see justice served if he interfered with our family again. And… And… Here you are defending him?!”

Mark stormed from his Pa’s room. Anger and confusion whirled in Mark’s mind. He bumped into Johnny Drako causing him to lose his balance and almost falling to the ground, if Seth weren’t there next to him.

“Mark?” Seth called out.

Without any indication he heard, Mark ran for the livery.

*****

Seth and Johnny entered Lucas’ room, “What’s got into Mark?” Johnny asked.

Lucas answered in one word, “Birch.”

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Benton asked as he entered the room.

“Getting dressed to go after my son.”

“Lucas, you’re in no condition to go anywhere except to bed. And that’s an order!” Benton stated.

*****

Mark angrily kicked Rainmaker into a lope, he didn’t know where he was going, he just knew he had to leave town. As he rode through the town, he felt something pull at him. Unsure and confused, he stopped his horse and looked around… His eyes stopped looking, Mark climbed from the saddle and walked up the steps of the building in front of him. He opened the door and removed his hat as he stepped inside. He walked down the aisle and fell to his knees, crying.

“Why God?” Mark asked as he bowed his head. “How can I forgive?”

*****

Reverend McCafferty entered and realized someone else was in the church. He heard the sobs and saw the figure on his knees in front of the alter, head down. He heard the man ask, “How can I forgive?”

Slowly, the reverend walked across the front of the room and placed a hand to Mark’s shoulder as he knelt down beside him.

“It’s never easy. But it is the Christian thing to do. Mark, listen to your heart. You already know what to do, otherwise you wouldn’t be here.”

“Reverend, could you?”

“I have, after those outlaws had taken you and my Sarah.” Reverend stood to his feet, “Mark, church services start in a little over two hours. Take your time.”

Mark stood, “I don’t need any more time. You’re right. It was my conflict. My heart knew I needed to forgive Birch, but my mind didn’t want to.”

“God is good at showing people the way to the truth, and helps them see through what their minds tend to cloud over. Your family will be remembered in the congregation’s prayers today. Why don’t you go back to the clinic and let God finish healing you.”

*****

Mark stepped from the church and took Rainmaker’s reins in his hands, he walked back to the clinic. Inside he heard the arguments coming from his Pa’s room. He decided to let them be, he’d face them once he had done what he needed to.

Without knocking, Mark entered the room where Tom Birch was recovering. Tom Birch looked at him, surprised to see him without a rifle in hand. “So, you’re gonna wait until I’m recovered and then you’ll serve YOUR justice?”

“My justice? Justice is the same for everyone, law abiding citizen or you.”

“I don’t understand. I heard you in the hallway earlier with the doctor. Couldn’t help but hear you and Luke…”

“Then you’ll know what my Pa told me I needed to do.”

“Forgive me? How can you stand there and say that you forgive me? I mean, with everything that I’ve done…”

“Because I’ve got one thing you’ll never have.”

Birch thought for a moment before he replied, “A family…”

“That’s part of it, but I’ve let God in my heart. I’ll let God pass judgment on you, he’ll see that justice is served. For now, I’ll abide by man’s law. Once you’re healthy enough to return to Denver, you’ll testify against Grisolm.” Mark started to leave the room, “Oh, and Birch. If I were you, I’d steer clear of North Fork in the future. Outlaws aren’t welcomed around here.”

“Mark, I do envy you… the life you and your Pa have. From what I saw as you brought me to town last night, you’ve both got wonderful families. I’d really like to say I am sorry…”

“Maybe you are. But God knows for sure.”

*****

Mark stopped in front of the door to his Pa’s room and took a deep breath. Before he could place his hand on the doorknob, the door opened for him to see his Pa standing in front of him.

“Hello, Pa,” Mark stated. “I’m sorry for how I acted earlier and for what I said.”

Lucas just pulled Mark into his arms. Those in the room knew this was what the two of them needed.

“When Doc lets me out of here…” Lucas started to say.

“Lucas, I think you’re well enough to go to the hotel and,” Thadd stated from the hallway. “Go tend to your families.”

With his good arm around his son’s shoulder, Lucas and Mark left the clinic and walked to the hotel.

*****

Lucas and Mark entered to lobby to see their wives anxiously coming down the staircase, both paused… before hurrying down the steps and into their husband’s embrace.

The three saw Lucas up to the hotel room where his children were still sleeping. Milly insisted he lie down.

“I’ll be back with breakfast,” Milly stated as she left the room.

“Ma, I’ll come with you,” Mark stated. Mark saw his wife about to say something, “No, I’ll do it. Why don’t you wake our children and we’ll all have breakfast over here.”

Hope nodded.

After placing their order for breakfast with Alice, Mark turned to Milly as they sat at a table and spoke, “Ma, I’m sorry. This shouldn’t have happened.”

“Mark, it’s not your fault,” Milly answered as she tried to put a smile on her face. “With your father’s and your reputations, Hope and I know…”

“But you shouldn’t…”

“Mark, we don’t hold what happened against either you or your father. You are who you are because your father is Lucas McCain and you’re his son, Mark McCain.”

“I’m also your son, too,” Mark stated.

“Grindstaff…” Milly started to speak, but the words the outlaw had spoke hurt her deeply.

“Ma, I don’t care what any outlaw says. If I didn’t feel it in my heart, I wouldn’t call you Ma, you’d be Milly. Please, even when you first arrived in North Fork, I felt there was something special about you. You’re prettier than I remember my Ma being, but you have the same loving heart that I’m sure she had. You both broke through the tough exterior of my Pa and helped him fall in love.”

*****

The McCain family was slightly late in arriving to church that morning. Reverend McCafferty acknowledged their entrance and motioned for them to take their seats.

*****

After services were concluded, Mark and Hope insisted that Gwen stay in town with Hattie and Micah, to give her a chance to possibly forget what happened. Maybe a few days away from the Ranch would help her, plus she could spend some time with Jake. They returned home to find Johnny, Colleen, Lillian, and their twins standing on the porch.

“Colleen cleaned up inside and I boarded up the front window. You shouldn’t have to come home to what was inside,” Johnny stated as he helped steady Lucas down from the buckboard.

“You shouldn’t have,” Milly answered and Johnny helped her down.

“We’re family and that’s what family does,” Johnny laughed. “What’s good with being family if you can’t help each other out?”

“But your children?” Hope asked as Mark helped her down.

“Lillian stayed out here with the twins. They didn’t see what was inside,” Colleen stated.

*****

That night, Hope put their children to bed early.

“Mark, I think you still need to do some talking with Pa,” Hope stated as she kissed her husband goodnight.

“Why?”

“I’ve been married to you long enough to know when something is still troubling you. Go talk to your father. You’ve forgiven Birch, but there’s still something else that you need to resolve, in here.” Hope pointed to his heart.

“But you, I want to be here for you. I know you’re still…” Hope placed her hands to Mark’s lips.

“I’ll be waiting for you, when you’re ready to come to bed.”

Mark took his wife’s hand and walked to their bedroom, together.

“I can talk with my Pa anytime. Besides, how do you know that what’s bothering me, isn’t what you went through.”

“It was nothing,” Hope tried to explain.

After changing into their bed clothes, Mark climbed into the bed and sat back against the headboard. He wrapped his arms around Hope and sensed she was still upset from the previous days’ events.

“I want you to talk with me,” Mark stated quietly in her ear as she leaned back into his chest.

“I’m fine,” Hope tried to convince Mark.

“No, you’re not. I’ve been married to you long enough to know when something is troubling you and you need to talk.”

“You’re using my words against me!” Hope declared as she tried to sit forward and turn around to look at Mark, but he prevented her from pulling away from him.

“Yep. I figured if they’ll work for you, they’ll work for me. Please Hope, talk to me. As Pa reminded me earlier today, it doesn’t do any good to let this fester. Please?”

“Mark…” Hope leaned back and wrapped her arms around Mark’s arms. “They showed up Wednesday afternoon. The children were down for their nap and I rode into town to bring Myra back home from school. They showed up as we were walking to the house, after taking care of the horses. At first they stated they were just thirsty travelers and inquired if they were close to North Fork. They asked if this was the McCain Ranch. Oh Mark!” Hope cried in his arms.

“Shhh. Cry, I’m here, now.”

“Pa came home that night with the leader Grindstaff and he’d been shot. The next day, well… They insisted the children stay in the bedrooms, with the doors closed. Myra was so upset she wasn’t allowed to go to school. During the afternoon, Grindstaff had left the house and one of the others, I don’t remember which one, well… he started being improper towards Ma and me. Pa got mad and tried to break through the ropes that restrained him. When he couldn’t he lunged at the man, who was…”

“It’s okay, take your time,” Mark stated as he felt Hope’s body tense and shiver.

“Mark, he was pressing himself up against me.” Hope cried tears of anguish and relief. “Pa, lunged at the man, they hadn’t tied his legs to the chair. The man beat Pa. I guess Grindstaff heard the noise and ran in and pulled him off, but… Pa had already been hurt. Grindstaff asked what happened and Gwen told him. He ordered the man outside.”

“Talk to me about yesterday…” Mark asked.

Sniffling, Hope asked, “Are you asking in your capacity as a Marshal?”

“No, I’m asking as your husband. Hope, if you hadn’t picked up my rifle…”

“I heard you and someone talking on the porch, I came from the bedroom, and…” Hope closed her eyes as the scene replayed in her memory. “I saw Grindstaff across the yard… Mark he would have killed you in cold blood. But instead, I killed him in cold blood.” Hope cried more tears.

“No, no, you didn’t kill him in cold blood. You killed him to save my life, our lives. If it was cold blooded, you wouldn’t be crying right now. Regretting your actions. Hope the first time I killed a man… It tore me up inside because I thought there had to have been a different way I could have handled the situation.”

“But this wasn’t the first time I…”

“I know, but first time or not, he gave you no alternative. Had you not killed him, he could very well have killed me, and Birch, and then come into the house. You did the only thing you could have done. He gave you no other option. Do you understand?”

Hope nodded.

“Will you forgive yourself?”

“With your help, I will.”

“I’ll be here to help you through this.” Mark pressed his lips to Hope hair and gave her a kiss and hugged her in his arms.

In time, he felt her relaxing and they scooted to lie down in bed. Mark kept an arm wrapped around Hope as they fell to sleep.

*****

Milly wanted to retire to their bedroom, “Lucas, are you coming?”

“In a while. I… need to read.”

Milly nodded and walked into their bedroom, closing the door behind her. A little time had passed when Lucas looked up at hearing a door open. He looked to the children’s doors when he realized it wasn’t Milly coming back into the front room.

“Papa,” Myra quietly called.

Lucas closed his bible and replied, “Aren’t you supposed to be in bed?”

“Yes, but I can’t sleep. Can I come sit in your lap?”

Lucas nodded.

Myra hurried across the room and climbed into her father’s lap and snuggled against his chest.

“Why can’t you sleep?”

“Those men… They hurt you.”

“Yes, they did.”

“And Mama and Hope and Gwen, they were scared?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“Were you scared?”

“I won’t lie. I was very scared.”

“Why?” Myra asked.

“Because I was afraid that they would hurt those I love.”

“Didn’t they know that Mark’s a Marshal?”

Lucas hesitated, how was he to tell his daughter that, Mark being a Marshal was part of what caused the trouble.

Before Lucas could answer, Myra asked, “Why were they so mean?”

“Myra, those men were after a man Mark was protecting.”

“Then Mark shouldn’t have protected him if he was bad,” Myra stated.

“Myra, Mark couldn’t stop protecting the man. Those men were mean, because the man Mark was protecting was to testify against their boss. They wanted their boss out of jail.”

“If Mark had let the man go… They could have gone and hurt someone else?”

“They could have,” Lucas answered.

“So Mark couldn’t let him go?”

“No, sweetie. Mark couldn’t let the man go.”

“Are you going to be okay?” Myra asked.

“I will, with the way you and your Mama take care of me. I’ll be healed in no time.”

“Will Mama and Hope be okay?”

“Their memories will fade, as will yours. See… I once told your brother there will always be happy times, but with those happy times, come sad times. Thankfully, there we always be more happier times and those happy times will make us forget the sad times.”

Shaking her head, Myra stated, “I don’t know if I can try to forget.”

Kissing Myra on the head, Lucas stated, “You don’t have to try, it’ll happen.”

“Will you tell Mr. Bullock why I wasn’t at school Thursday and Friday.”

“I’m sure he already knows, but I think we’re going to keep you home this week. Your Mama and Hope can see you through your studies. I’ll ask Mark to talk with your teacher when he goes to town tomorrow.”

“Why? I missed two days already.”

“Because I want to keep you near to me,” Lucas replied.

“Papa, can I just sit here and think?”

“Sure,” Lucas answered as he wrapped his arms around his daughter.

Lucas prayed that his family could get over this trauma. In time, Myra’s head started bobbing and soon, she was asleep. Lucas felt a gentle hand on his shoulder as he tried to pick Myra up to carry her to bed.

“Let me do it,” Milly offered as she took their daughter in her arms. Lucas followed and watched as Milly put Myra in her bed. Lucas pulled the cover up over her shoulders and placed a kiss to her forehead.

Together they left Myra’s bedroom and headed for their own.

“How much did you hear?” Lucas asked as he laid down in their bed.

“Pretty much all of it. I was going to ask you in the morning if we could keep her home from school.”

“Are you going to be okay?” Lucas asked as he placed an arm over Milly’s shoulder.

“I will be. You just keep yourself close for a few more days.”

*****

A week had passed when Mark rode to town with his Pa to have Doc Burrage check how the wound to Lucas’ shoulder was healing.

“Haven’t had a chance to really look over your new horse.” Lucas stated as they rode, “Mighty fine looking animal. I see he’s not a gelding.”

“If Doc says you’re healing, if you want to, I’ll let you ride him back to the ranch this afternoon,” Mark replied.

****

Lucas did receive a clean bill of health and the two swapped horses for the ride back home. As they rode, Mark asked, “Pa, I guess I always thought that…”

“Thought what?”

“Well, that you and ma grew up in the same town…”

“Why do you ask?”

“Nothing. It’s nothing…” Mark replied.

“No, it’s ‘not nothing’ son. Come on, I think I need to sit for a while anyway.” They dismounted their horses a short distance from the road and sat under an old oak tree.

“Pa, when we were on our way back, Birch… Well, he told me how he saved your life and how you met, Ma. Was he telling the truth?”

“I told you he saved my life once.”

“Yeah, but not how. He said the two of you were ambushed in Kansas City and with a bullet in your back, you killed one of the cowboys, while he killed the other.”

“Yes, it happened that way. Go on,” Lucas encouraged.

“He told me that the doctor gave you a blood transfusion using some of Birch’s blood.”

“He did.”

“Is that why you couldn’t shoot him when he tried to rob the bank?”

“A lot of it. We did some pretty reckless stuff that first year after the war. I know had we not stopped in Kansas City…”

“Had you not been offered the job as a deputy and stayed there for a few months… You wouldn’t have met Ma.”

“He told you that?”

“Not exactly. I kind of put two and two together. He said Ma wasn’t all that pretty, but he knew that you were ‘smitten’ with her. Told me of how the day after Ma and her family left Kansas City to travel on to Enid, you turned in your resignation and followed her.”

“I did. You’ve seen your Ma’s pictures, and beauty isn’t always on the outside. Now your Ma wasn’t homely either, she had a plain, simple beauty about her. But most of all, her beauty was shown in her actions. Did he also tell you what else happened that day?”

“He told me that was the day that you truly became known as the Rifleman, because of your having to kill those cowboys.”

“A story that got retold and it grew with each retelling. I didn’t kill both of them.”

“It explains a lot of why you didn’t care for Mr. Claremont. And why you were so reluctant at first to have Mr. Walsh write the articles about us.”

“Yes, guess I never really told you the real reasons I was opposed to newspapermen. They just perpetuated the stories.

“But the fact that those cowboys they called you out by yelling, ‘Hey Rifleman!’.”

“That’s what people remember the most. They don’t remember the fact that later I became their deputy and that I had a name, it was more ‘intriguing’ for them to call me The Rifleman.”

“When you got back home to Enid…”

Lucas’ eyes took to looking far off, remembering, “When I arrived in Enid, Margaret smiled the first time I bumped into her.”

“You, bumped into Ma?” Mark asked, surprised.

“On purpose too,” Lucas smiled as he remembered that moment. “But then she frowned and hurried away.”

“Why? Did she ever tell you why?”

“She didn’t need to. I saw her look at what was in my hand.”

“Birch said any time he saw you and Ma together, you didn’t have your rifle.”

“I knew my rifle upset your Ma. I left it at home, unless we were going out of town on a buggy ride,” Lucas stated.

“And Birch?”

“He didn’t hang around Enid too much longer.”

“That’s when he went to Denver and…”

“Yes, that’s when his life changed. I wondered many times, had we not gone our separate ways… Would he have become Tom Birch, the bank robber?”

“Had you not gone your separate ways… I wouldn’t be here. Pa, I remember you telling me how there were a number of times, if you hadn’t had your rifle…”

“The more your Ma and I came to know each other; and Margaret came to know the territory, the more she realized why I carried it. She eventually accepted it. From that day on, it was never far from my side.”

“Pa, do you regret it?”

“Never. Because, like I said, if I hadn’t had my rifle, your Ma might not have been alive to bring you into the world and there have been too many times where I needed it to defend those who couldn’t defend themselves, including you.”

“I understand. But if you didn’t grow up with Ma… I mean…”

“It seems to me that someone else in this family didn’t grow up with the gal that eventually became his wife…” Lucas raised his eyebrows as he looked to his son.

“Okay, okay,” Mark laughed as he slapped his leg in amusement.

“Mark, the war was over in the Spring of ‘65 and I wasn’t fully discharged until June of that year. For the next year or so, I never stopped anywhere for any length of time, never settled down until I returned to Enid the early part of ‘67. Your Ma and I married the summer of ‘69. Oh, I knew I loved your Ma, but it took time for her to convince me that I could put away all that happened during the war and provide a loving home for her. I remember one June day, I’d come home from working our crops, your mother told me that there was going to be someone else in her life, that she didn’t know if she could love me the same way anymore.”

A shocked Mark stated, “Ma fell in love with someone else…”

“I was shocked, to the point of devastation, until she started laughing. She pushed me into my chair, sat down on my lap… She picked up my hands and placed them over her stomach and said, ‘I’m with child. You’re going to be a father. I don’t think I can love you as just my husband anymore, not when you’re the father of my children.’ Then, December 1870, your Ma gave birth to you. But during the days before your birth, she became sick. Enid had a bitter winter that year and your Ma was suffering from a terrible cold when she gave birth to you. The stress of being in labor for as long as she was, tired and weakened her body and the cold rooted itself deeper. She was bedridden for the first month of your life. Guess that’s why our bond is so much closer than other fathers and sons. For the first month of your life, you had to rely solely on me taking care of you.” Lucas laughed at the memory.

“Pa,” Mark tried to interrupt. “Then Ma miscarried the other baby and was told she shouldn’t have any more children…”

Lucas nodded. “The three of us were happy, together. And your Ma and I shared each other’s dreams; that you’d grow up and have a good education, fall in love, and give us grandchildren. It’s been a good life, Mark. Even with all the heartache.”

“I’d of liked to see you trying to change my diapers for the first time,” Mark laughed.

“I was about as many thumbs as you were when you first tried to change the diapers on your sons. Do you resent my not telling you this before?” Lucas asked.

“No, sir. I don’t resent anything you’ve done to raise me,” Mark answered. “Pa, was Grandpa Gibbs a drunk back then? I never asked.”

“No, not when I first met him or even when I finally asked for your Ma’s hand in marriage. We never knew exactly what happened… Something in Samuel, just snapped and he started hanging out in the saloon, drinking. I tried talking with him, but he said he was fine, he could handle it. ‘A real man can handle a few beers…’ Eventually it turned to the hard liquors…” Lucas paused as he remembered how difficult those first months and finally years had been on his wife. He looked to his son and saw understanding on his face. “ Are you ready to head home?” Lucas asked.

“I’ll race you!” Mark declared as they mounted in their own horses and raced their horses for home.

As they ran into the yard, Rainmaker had a clear lead over Blade, but regardless, father and son were laughing.

 

This story continues in The Rifleman – The Next Generation pt 15

 

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