The Rifleman – The Next Generation Pt 15 (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 story of an idea began in my story, Timing.

Category:  The Rifleman
Genre:  Western
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  20,975


 

The Next Generation… Chapter 77 – A Mother’s Fear

Lucas woke during the night to find Milly no longer in bed with him. He reached over and pulled the alarm clock from the night stand and saw it was just after mid-night. After waiting several minutes, without Milly’s return, Lucas stood from bed and pulled on his pants before leaving their bedroom. He entered the front room to see Milly standing at the doorways to their children’s rooms.

“Milly?” Lucas called out.

Milly turned in surprise in hearing her name called.

“What are you doing?” Lucas asked as he yawned.

“Nothing… I thought I heard one of the children call out,” Milly replied.

“Come back to bed. It will be dawn soon enough and today, Myra returns to school.”

“I know,” Milly stated as she walked across the floor and into their room.

Lucas pulled the covers over the two of them and soon was blissfully sleeping. However, Milly’s mind wouldn’t let her sleep. She heard the ticking from the clock on the other side of the bed. She heard Lucas start to gently snore and she heard every noise, as the wind blew past their home.

*****

Hope closed the doors to her sons’ bedroom and said goodnight to Gwen. She carried Mykaela into her bedroom and placed her in her crib. Before retiring to her own bed, she added a few logs to the pot-bellied stove in the room. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she looked over to where Mark would sleep, had he not been in town at the Marshal’s Office. As she settled into the bed, Hope pulled the covers tighter around her; even though the room was warm, a chill ran through her body.

As the wind wound its way around the house, Hope couldn’t sleep. Weary in body she was, but her mind was active, listening…

Hope startled awake, trying to remember what had woken her. Climbing from her bed, she walked over and peeked in on Mykaela who was angelically sleeping. Pulling on her robe, she walked from her bedroom to the boys’ room, and stood beside each bed, sighing as she gazed upon the sleeping faces of her sons.

*****

Milly woke and quickly stood from bed realizing Lucas had already left their room to start his morning chores before the alarm rang. Milly was properly dressed for the day when she started cooking breakfast for her family.

Breakfast was nearly ready to be set on the table when Lucas entered the house.

“Papa?” Little Ted called.

“Yes,” Lucas answered as he set the firewood in his arms to the bin next to the fireplace.

“When do I start school?”

“Not until next year,” Milly answered quickly.

“ I don’t think I like going all day long and not be able to play.”

“Well, we might just have to see about your Mama starting to give you lessons here at home,” Lucas answered as he stripped his jacket off and hugged his middle son. Before proceeding into the kitchen, Lucas kissed Myra on the cheek and asked, “Are you ready to go back to school today?”

“No, Mama said I couldn’t go back today,” Myra answered with a pout. “Papa, I miss going to school, please… I want to go back to school.”

“Milly?” Lucas asked as he tussled Levi’s hair and walked to the kitchen. “I think it’s time for Myra to return to school. We discussed this last night.”

“I know, but I’m sure Myra is still not over the events…” Milly replied as she busied herself taking food from the stove.

“I’m sure her returning to school will help. Milly she’s fine… She wants to go back to school. And she will return to school, this morning.” The tone in Lucas’ voice indicated there was no room for any further discussion.

“Thank you, Papa!” Myra called as she jumped down from her chair at the table.

“Just where do you think you’re going?” Milly demanded.

“To school, I gotta get dressed.”

“You will eat your breakfast first and not until then, can you get dressed for school.”

“Papa?” Myra turned and asked.

“You have plenty of time to get ready for school after eating breakfast. I’ll need at least that much time to saddle Blade and BlueBoy.”

“No!” Milly exclaimed before she could stop herself. “We’ll take her in the buckboard. I’ve a few things to pick up from town today.”

*****

Lucas halted the team in front of the school house and without waiting for Lucas’ assistance, Milly climbed from her seat and called her running daughter back to the buckboard.

“But Ma, I gotta get inside,” Myra complained.

“You will come here so I can make sure you are presentable. Besides, we want to speak with Mr. Bullock before class starts.”

Lucas watched while Milly fussed over Myra as he waited at the back of the buckboard, after he had tied BlueBoy to the hitching rail.

“Can I now go in?” an impatient Myra asked.

Milly nodded and clutched her shawl tighter around her shoulders.

Percy Bullock stepped from the schoolhouse and walked to the back of the buckboard after greeting Myra and welcoming her back to school.

“Good morning, Milly, Lucas. I had hoped that Myra would return to school this morning. I’ll be sure to keep an eye on her throughout the day and if I feel she’s having any difficulties, I’ll send word to Mark at the Marshal’s Office.”

“You’ll send word to me!” Milly announced.

“Milly,” Lucas stated. “Mark can handle any situation and bring Myra home, if necessary.” Lucas wrapped his arm around Milly’s shoulder and sensed a tenseness in her body.

“Alright,” Milly stated. “Thank you, Percy.”

Lucas applied pressure to Milly’s shoulder to get her to return to the buckboard.

“Now, where to do you need to go first?” Lucas asked.

“First?” Milly asked, not really hearing.

“You stated before breakfast that you needed to pick up a few things in town…”

“Oh, well… I forgot, Mark picked them up Saturday when you were visiting Doc Burrage.”

Lucas lifted Milly up to the seat of the buckboard, climbed on board, and turned the team for home.

“Papa, can we go see Mark at the jail?” Little Ted asked.

“Why?” Lucas asked.

“I got a question for him.”

“And you don’t think I can answer your question?”

“No sir,” Little Ted replied in a serious tone.

“Oh,” Lucas replied, piqued, as he raised an eyebrow.

“You not your son,” Little Ted stated matter-of-factly.

Lucas burst out laughing in seeing Little Ted’s expression. When he looked to Milly, she was looking over her shoulder, back towards the school.

“Okay, for a few minutes, but once we’re home, you’re Mama will start working with you on your alphabet and numbers.”

“Oh, I thought you forgot about that.” Lucas heard the disappointment in his son’s voice.

*****

Once Lucas made sure no one was in the cells, he escorted Little Ted inside.

“Hey there little brother!” Mark declared as he realized they had visitors.

“Pa, I need to talk to Mark,” Little Ted stated. “Brother to brother… Alone…”

Lucas stepped outside, but watched through the window. He covered his mouth when he saw Little Ted hang his head and Mark pointed him back outside.

*****

Hope woke late for the morning to see Lucas and Milly, and the rest of their family, pulling away from the house.

“Gwen, I’m sorry I overslept,” Hope called as she tied her robe around her waist.

“No bother, the boys are sleeping in too. I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but… you look like you didn’t sleep too well last night.”

“That’s the way I feel. Just too much going through my mind and I slept in fits.”

“If you’d like, why don’t you go back to bed and sleep a little more. I can get the boys dressed and fed…”

“No, I’m up and awake… maybe when we put them down for a nap… no, we were going to scrub the floors today. I’ll just make an early evening of it, after Mark returns.”

Hope busied herself waking and dressing her sons while Gwen fix breakfast for everyone.

Once breakfast was eaten, Gwen took the breakfast dishes from the table to the sink, while Hope wiped the table down.

“When does Mikky get to eat flapjacks,” Josh asked. “Oatmeal all the time gets boring.”

“Who?” Hope asked in surprise.

“Mikky, oh… Mykaela.”

“When did you start calling your sister Mikky?” Gwen asked.

“Well, Papa has a nickname for his sister and I thought I could give her a nickname different than what Papa calls her…” Josh cast his eyes downward. “I’m sorry.”

“No, sweetheart, I think it’s sweet,” Hope answered.

“Do we have to come up with our own nickname, too?” Zach asked.

“Yeah, Stinky,” Eli answered.

“Elijah!” Gwen called.

“He’s right,” Hope started to answer.

“Then me call her Stinky?” Eli eagerly asked.

Hope curtly answered, “NO! I was agreeing that she needs changed again. The three of you can call her Mikky… or Mykaela and nothing else!”

*****

That afternoon, Mark rode Rainmaker home alongside Jake in the buggy with Myra sitting in the seat beside him, while Mark led BlueBoy.

Milly saw the small procession coming down the road and was immediately on the porch, running to meet them as they pulled into the yard.

“Is Myra okay?” Milly called.

Lucas ran from the barn in hearing Milly’s tone of voice in her question.

“I’m fine Mama,” Myra called as she jumped down from the buggy. “BlueBoy pulled a shoe at the turnoff, so Jake offered to let me drive the horse and buggy. Thank you, Jake. I had fun!”

Gwen stepped from Mark and Hope’s home with her shawl wrapped tightly around her shoulders and an overnight bag in her hand. Jake ran to assist Gwen across the yard and up into the buggy.

“Thank you, Mark,” Jake stated as the turned the horse and buggy back towards town.

“Have a good evening! Hattie and Micah will have your room waiting for you,” Mark called as he waved goodbye to the two.

Lucas walked over to BlueBoy and had him pick up his hoof.

“He didn’t rip up too much of the hoof wall. I thought the shoe sounded funny as we started from school, but Gabby told me what happened this morning and I didn’t want to worry Ma, by not getting Gabby home on time.

I appreciate your consideration. Milly’s been… on edge today.”

“Well, it is the first time Gabby’s been out of her sight since… You know.”

“I know.” Lucas replied as he allowed BlueBoy to put his hoof down.

“I’ll take him back to town tomorrow and have Nils put new shoes on him,” Mark offered.

“How’m I getting to school tomorrow?” Myra asked as she tried to stop Milly from fussing over her.

“You can ride Two-Bits tomorrow, I’ll ask Hope,” Mark replied.

“Oh, can I really?” Myra asked excitedly.

“Only if Hope agrees.

****

After supper, Mark enjoyed spending time with his family. Playing with the boys on the floor. Hope sat with their daughter in her lap, reading from her bible. In time, Hope stood and took Mykaela to their bedroom and put her to bed. When their sons started yawning, Mark suggested it was time for bed. Hope and Mark watched over their sons as they said their nightly prayers. After tucking each one into bed and kissing them goodnight, Mark heard, “Stinky a good name.”

“No, we’ve already discussed that,” Hope replied as she blew out the lantern and Mark pulled the door closed behind them.

“What was that about?”

They walked across the front room to their own bedroom, with Hope explaining how the boys decided they needed a nickname for their sister, “The same way you have a nickname for Myra. Only Eli wanted to call her stinky. I told him, NO.”

“Oh. So what nickname have they given to Emmy?”

“Josh called her Mikky,” Hope stated as she pulled her nightgown over her head.

After placing more wood into the pot-bellied stove, Mark blew out the lantern and climbed into bed. He snuggled against his wife and was soon asleep.

*****

“Myra!” Milly screamed, sitting bolt upright in bed.

“Milly,” Lucas called as he reached for his wife.

Milly was out of bed and across the floor before Lucas could stop her. She opened the door and called back to Lucas, “The children!”

After pulling on his pants, Lucas was soon behind Milly and checking on their children. Milly opened the door to Myra’s room and saw her daughter curled up asleep, an arm wrapped around one of her dolls. Lucas tried to prevent Milly from opening the door to their sons’ bedroom, “Milly?”

“Something’s not right,” Milly pleaded and opened the door. The moon bathed a gentle glow across their two sons while they slept, snuggled deep in their beds.

“Milly, they’re fine. Please come to bed,” Lucas placed his hands to Milly’s shoulders. “You’re trembling…”

“It’s nothing. It’s just chilly in here,” Milly replied as Lucas pushed her back to their bedroom.

“No, that’s not it. Last night and now tonight? Talk to me, Milly,” Lucas stated as he pushed her to sit on their bed.

“Don’t tell me you never woke in the middle of the night to check on Mark?!”

“I can’t. I’d be lying if I did. But Milly, you’re not just checking on them. You woke screaming Myra’s name.”

“I did not scream.”

“Okay, called out… loudly,” Lucas corrected himself.

“A mother has a right to be concerned about her children,” Milly declared, trying hard not to give into her tears.

“Yes, I agree, but this isn’t being concerned. This is why you wanted to keep Myra home from school yesterday?”

Milly turned from Lucas.

“I won’t tell you that we don’t keep secrets, because what you’re going through it’s not, it’s not a secret.” Pulling Milly into his arms, Lucas gently stated, ”You’re scared.”

“Don’t I have a right to be scared?! Armed men broke into this house, brought you home–shot, threatened our children! Lucas, they could have killed anyone or all of us…”

“Yes, but they didn’t…”

“Lucas, I keep seeing them waving their guns, you coming home shot…” Milly buried her head into Lucas’ shoulder as he enveloped her in his arms.

“They’re gone Milly. They’re gone. Dead and buried.”

“But not in my dreams… not in my dreams.” Milly cried as the tears finally fell down her face.

*****

She ran as fast as her feet would allow her to go, chasing… Trying to catch up… Through the oppressive darkness she ran, until her fears couldn’t be denied. Someone had taken her children! She woke to find herself in her own bed, breathing hard, sweating… She looked to her husband, sleeping next to her. Quietly she climbed from her bed and walked to the crib and peered inside to see her daughter sleeping. Her heart took her to the room where her sons slept, peacefully. “All three of them,” she exhaled and closed her eyes as she pulled the door shut. She walked to the kitchen sink and primed the pump. Splashing cold water on her face didn’t allay what she felt. Quietly she climbed back in bed. Her husband rolled over and, in his sleep, draped an arm over her.

Hope placed the crook of her elbow over her eyes as she realized, another night without sleep, another night of worry that someone was going to take her children. Remembering the story Johnny Gibbs read from the Times Gazette, on Halloween night, Hope’s mind heard a twisted voice repeating:

An’ little Orphant Annie says, when the blaze is blue,
An’ the lamp-wick sputters, an’ the wind goes woo-oo!
An’ you hear the crickets quit, an’ the moon is gray,
An’ the lightnin’-bugs in dew is all squenched away,–
You better mind yer parunts, an’ yer teachurs fond an’ dear,
An’ churish them ‘at loves you, an’ dry the orphant’s tear,
An’ he’p the pore an’ needy ones ‘at clusters all about,
Er the Gobble-uns ‘ll git you
Ef you – Don’t – Watch – Out!*

Er the Gobble-uns ‘ll git you
Ef you – Don’t – Watch – Out!

Watch – Out!

Watch – Out!
(* is the final verse to James Whitcomb Riley’s Little Orphant Annie)

*****

Lucas kept Milly wrapped in his arms as they lay back in bed. He thought back, how many times had he woke during the night to make sure Mark was still asleep and safe in his bed. As Milly’s breathing slowed, Lucas wondered, ‘Why?’ Why wasn’t he as upset as Milly had been. Why did those outlaws threatening his family not continue to worry him? Why was he not up during the nights, checking on his children?

*****

Mark woke to find Hope already out of their bed for the morning. After dressing, he quietly walked up behind her as she set the frying pan to the stove and wrapped his arms around her.

*****

Mark opened his eyes to see his Pa kneeling over him, hand placed to the side of Mark’s head, holding a wet rag.

“Welcome back,” Lucas stated with a dry sense of humor.

“Back? What happened?” Mark asked.

“Easy, let’s get you sitting up slowly.” Lucas helped Mark sit up.

“Ow.” Mark felt the lump up on the side of his head. Slowly moving his head and neck, Mark asked again, “What happened?”

“You surprised Hope.” Lucas stated as he helped Mark to his feet. “You okay to stand?”

“Think so. I surprised Hope? All I did was wrap my arms around her, like I normally do. She did this with the frying pan?” Mark asked as he saw Lucas pick up the pan from the floor.

“Mark, we need to talk. I believe our wives are having trouble coping with what happened with those outlaws,” Lucas stated as he walked Mark to the table and pulled out a chair for Mark to sit down.

“Hope and I’ve talked about her killing Grindstaff. I thought she was doing okay?” Mark replied as he replaced the cool, damp rag to his head.

“It’s not that. Those men were in our homes. I feel stupid when I didn’t realize what was happening the other morning.”

“You mean, Ma not wanting Gabby to go to school?”

“Yeah. That was only a part of it. I don’t think either of them are sleeping well. Milly’s woke the past two nights and had to check on the children. Early, this morning she was in a panic. I finally got her to talk…”

“But they’ve…” Mark started to say, but stopped as he winced when he removed the rag from his head.

“Mark, I don’t think either one of them realized the other was going through the same fears. During the day they have the children and work around the homes to keep them busy. Milly told me she knew those men couldn’t hurt us or the children any more, but in her dreams… When do you do the most worrying?” Lucas asked.

“At night, before I fall asleep,” Mark replied.

“And if the worrying is powerful enough?”

“I don’t sleep or I sleep in fits. Where is Hope now?” Mark asked feeling guilty.

“Over with Milly. She’s pretty upset.”

Mark attempted to stand.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Lucas asked as he prepared to steady Mark on his feet, if need be.

“To get my wife,” Mark replied.

“Let them talk. I think they both need this time together.”

Mark looked over his shoulder as their bedroom door opened.

“Hey Mark, why were ya sleeping on the floor?” Myra asked as she came into the front room and continued through the kitchen. “Mykaela’s diaper is changed.” She dropped the dirty diaper in the pail on the back porch.

“I think I tripped and whacked my head.”

“You still going to let me ride Two-Bits today?”

“I’m sorry Gabby, I forgot to ask Hope. How about you riding in front of me on Rainmaker. We can still lead BlueBoy to town.”

“I guess so…” Myra stated dejectedly. “You sure you can’t ask her now?” Seeing the look on her Pa’s face, “That means, no.”

Lucas nodded.

“Myra, why don’t you go home, get your schoolbooks and meet me at the barn. I’ll take you to school,” Lucas stated.

“I can do it,” Mark replied.

“No, I think you need to stay here and talk with Hope, after she’s through talking with Milly. Milly and I had a heart to heart talk last night, but I know that it will take more than one talk to see us through this.”

Mark nodded.

“Mark, be understanding. I remember many a nights waking up and checking on you…” Lucas stated with sympathy as he left Mark’s home and headed to the barn.

*****

Mark had just hung the rag over the pump and when he heard footsteps on the porch. He turned to see his Ma and Hope entering the front door.

“The frying pan, huh?,” Mark stated with a grin as he walked to the door, where the two of them had stopped.

“Mark, I’m so sorry, I…”

“Hey, there’s nothing to apologize for. I should have realized you weren’t sleeping well during the nights. Funny, takes my Pa to tell me what’s going on in my own bed…”

“Lucas said you had a lump upside your head?” Milly asked as she put her hand to the left side of Mark’s head.

“Ow!” Mark replied and pulled away.

“Hope has enough children to take care of without you turning into a big baby,” Milly replied with a smile.

“I guess I deserved that. Ma, thanks for bringing Hope home.”

After watching Milly leave, Hope asked, “Where are the children?”

“I heard the boys playing in their room and Emmy’s in our bedroom.”

Both turned as they heard the door to their sons’ room open and watched as Zach peeked out.

“Grandpa told us to stay in our room. Can we come out? We’re hungry.”

“Sure,” Mark stated. “Why don’t you have a seat at the table and I’ll help your Mama fix breakfast.”

“Mark…”

“Let me help.”

Side by side, Mark and Hope worked to cook breakfast for their family, and after breakfast was ate, Mark helped Hope clear the table and wash the dishes.

“Papa’s doing girl’s work,” Josh snickered.

“What did you just say?” Mark asked.

“I said you doing girl’s work,” Josh replied.

“Then I think you can come over here and help dry the dishes and your Mama can put them away.”

When Josh didn’t get up from the table, Mark cleared his throat to get his son’s attention and motioned with his index finger, indicating he wanted his son to come stand next to him.

Mark watched as Hope handed the dish towel to Josh as well as each dish.

“Now, there will be no more comments girls work versus boys work. This family works, together. Why don’t you three go to your bedrooms and play for a while.”

The door to the boys’ bedroom closed and Hope turned to Mark, “Are you upset with me?”

“No. Now that I know something is bothering you, I can wait until you’re ready.”

“If this family works together, you up to helping me do laundry?”

“Tell you what, I’ll even wash the diapers in the pail,” Mark started to wrap his arms around Hope, but stopped.

“What?” Hope inquired.

“Just making sure the frying pan is out of reach.” Mark laughed, but saw that Hope wasn’t. “Hope, forget about what happened with the frying pan, I just want to help you through your fears that those men could harm our children. I’m sorry I didn’t realize you hadn’t put the ordeal out of your mind. Maybe I should feel guilty that wasn’t checking on the children, too.”

“Mark, you have the ranch, and your job, Johnny still has his leg in the cast, and…”

“And, I have a wife who needs some comforting…” Mark raised his eyebrows.

“I feel so embarrassed…”

“Don’t, we’ll get through this. Pa told me Ma was going through the same fears.”

“Only she didn’t wallop Pa upside the head with a frying pan. Does it still hurt?” Hope asked.

“Only when I laugh. Only when I laugh.” Mark put his hand to the small of Hope’s back and laughed as they walked outside to prepared to do the laundry together.

*****

That night, Lucas sat up in bed and waited for Milly to come to bed. He lifted the covers to allow his wife to slip in under them, before he snuggled down next to her.

“I’m here for you, tonight. We’ll get through this one night at a time,” Lucas stated before he pressed a kiss to Milly’s lips.

Both enjoyed sensing the other so near, the other’s calm breathing lulled both of them to sleep. It was after two o’clock when Milly startled awake, but didn’t bolt upright or scream. Lucas felt the jolt from Milly and woke.

“Are you okay? Do you want to go check on them?”

“The windows are locked and the front door is too.” Milly took a deep breath, “I’ve got to get over this.”

“I’ll check on them, if you want me too,” Lucas offered.

“No, just hold me until I can fall back to sleep.”

It was about an hour later before Lucas realized that Milly had indeed fallen asleep.

It only took two more nights before Milly and Lucas were sleeping through the nights.

*****

The nightmares still plagued Hope. Mark was soon to return to town and made an announcement, “How would everyone like to have an in-town holiday? You’re all coming with me and I’ll have Lou put you up at the hotel.”

“Mark, I can do this,” Hope replied.

“No, we will do this. I’ll ask Lou to put us up at the head of the stairs, in front. Pa always brought me to town when he was acting deputy, so I don’t see why I can’t bring you too.”

*****

The first night in town was no easier for Hope or Mark, but this time, all of their children shared their room with them. The second night of Mark’s standing shift, he woke as the sun started streaming through the window. He propped himself up on his elbow and looked to his wife and smiled at the serene look on her face. Quietly, he slipped from bed and dressed. Before leaving the room, Mark placed a kiss to Hope’s lips, causing her to rouse.

“Good morning, Love,” Mark stated.

“Morning?” Hope asked and yawned. “I slept through?”

“Seems that way. You ready to try sleeping at home again?”

Hope nodded.

“I get off at four this afternoon. We’ll have supper at the hotel before we return home. So, if you have any shopping to do, you best to it this morning.”

*****

Once at home, after putting their sons to sleep in their bedroom, Mark invited his wife back under the covers. He said a silent prayer that Hope would be able to sleep through the night.

*****

Mark stretched his arms out as he woke for the morning. Pleased that they had managed two quiet nights in a row.

“So?” Mark asked as Hope snuggled closer to him.

“Can’t we sleep in…”

“What about the children?” Mark asked.

“They can sleep in too.”

Mark pressed a kiss to the top of Hope’s head as he pulled the covers over the two of them.

*****

Finally, they realized they needed to rise for the day. As they dressed Mark asked, “Are you going to be okay?”

“Yes, I dreamed last night. And it explained a lot of what my fear really was.”

“Oh?”

“Mark, it wasn’t just that those men could have harmed our children or someone else could take them. I guess what was really bothering me is that… one day, they won’t need me anymore. I was blurring reality with my dreams.”

“They’ll always need you. Maybe not the same way as they do now, but that’s what being a parent is all about. All the years of Pa telling me I’d understand better when I was older. A parent brings a child into the world and raises them the best way we can, according to God’s word and that they get a proper education. Teach them right from wrong, the rest, they have to decide… I’m sure you’re not the first mother to have these fears.”

“Are you sure you’re not a psychologist?”

“No thank you. It’s trouble enough trying to figure out what my wife’s thinking…”

Hope reared back, picked up the pillow, and let it fly towards Mark.

Laughing as he ducked, Mark called, “Least it’s not the frying pan!”

The Next Generation… Chapter 78 – Quarantine

The temperature during the middle of November turned colder; much quicker than recent winters. With the arrival of the cold temperatures, sickness started to creep into North Fork. At first it was just sniffles and coughs, but it eventually turned into worse, with fevers and chest congestion. Doc Thadd declared the illness not to be the ‘run of the mill’ cold, but a strain of influenza. As more and more citizens took ill, North Fork became a ghost town and Thadd enlisted the help of Johnny, Mark, and Seth to take medication from town to the outlying ranches, checking in on those who didn’t get to town much and if someone were sick to get word back to the clinic. Doc Burrage made the recommendation to the town council to close the schools. Stevan Griswald and Percy Bullock were against it at first, noting the children needed a proper education. But once it was explained to them how contagious the illness was, the teachers agreed. During the meeting Reverend McCafferty asked if it might also be prudent to cancel church services.

“Reverend, it wouldn’t be a bad idea. Actually, I was going to ask if we could use the church as a second clinic, for those not so serious cases, but bad enough that I want the person in town. I’m full up at the clinic and I want to get the sick people way from those who are still healthy.”

While the town council worked to convert the church into a second clinic, Mark made the rounds after it was decided he would inform all the families that school and church services were canceled until further notice.

Mark bundled his collar against the cold wind that blew as he rode from home to home and ranch to ranch. As he left each home he wrote in his notepad the names of those who had come down ill, to make a report to Doc.

*****

That night, an exhausted Mark returned to his home to take care of the animals in his barn. As he stepped to the porch he saw Hope walk across the front room and open the door.

Mark asked, “Are the children already in bed?”

“Yes, they said they’d try to stay awake for you to kiss them goodnight.”

“I’m going to have to disappoint them. The town council met with Doc Burrage today and was informed just how bad this illness is. School is canceled, as well as church services, until further notice.”

“You look tired,” Hope commented.

“I am, I’ve been riding all over the country side informing everyone, and making notes of who was sick. Hope, I don’t want to expose the children in case I’ve been exposed. And I’d prefer if you were to go to bed, I’ll be sleeping on a cot in the front room until we’re sure that I’ve not been exposed.”

“Mark?!”

“Please, let’s not argue about this?”

Hope nodded and returned to their bedroom.

The following morning, Hope woke to find Mark was already gone.

*****

Several days later, Lucas returned to the McCain Ranch, with Doc Thadd, who after examining Lucas and Milly’s children, confirmed they had contracted a mild case of the illness.

“Myra must have brought the illness home with her from school,” Thadd stated. “Before we closed it. It takes time for the illness to manifest itself and show symptoms.”

What about Mark and Hope’s children?” Milly asked as she stood at the stove, ready to take up supper for the evening.

“I’ll check on them next.”

*****

“Well Hope,” Thadd stated after examining her four children, “your brood only seems to have colds.”

“What about Myra and the boys?” Hope asked.

“I’m quarantining them. They’ve a mild form and it’s in the early stages, still, they can spread the illness. So for the time being, no contact between the children.”

“I understand,” Hope replied.

“I’ll tell Lucas and Milly that their grandchildren will be alright.”

*****

Mark arrived home after dark, to see Doc Burrage stepping into his buggy.

“Doc?!” Mark called.

“It’s alright Mark. I think we’ve caught it in time. Your sister and brothers have a mild case and I’ve given them the medication as well as left instructions. As for your children, I’m sure they just have the everyday run of the mill, cold. However, I do recommend the two families staying apart until the children get healthy.”

“Thanks, Doc!” Lucas called from the porch as he waved goodbye.

“Thanks, Doc,” Mark stated as he wearily sat in the saddle. “I’ll see you early tomorrow.”

“Rest easy, Mark!” Thadd called as he rein slapped the horse and returned to North Fork.

*****

Thadd got little sleep over the following days, as he was called to various homes and ranches to tend to the sick. He pulled a cot into his office to catch a nap whenever he could.

*****

As night fell, Thadd and Abigail were feverishly tending to their patient, they could hear the congestion deep in his lungs as he struggled to breathe. They kept the room exceedingly warm to keep him from getting the chills, from the sweat that poured profusely from his body. After making their patient as comfortable as possible, they stepped from the room,

“Thadd, his fever is so high… Nothing we’re doing seems to matter,” Abigail stated with frustration in her voice.

“We have to keep doing what we’ve been doing. You know that the very young and the very old are most susceptible to the illness becoming so much more severe.”

“But Thadd, how can you be so calm?” Abigail asked, her voice fraught with emotion.

“Because if I don’t stay calm and in control of my emotions, I’m no good as a physician.”

From the other side of the door, they heard the raspy voice call for them.

“Coming Uncle,” Thadd stated as he reaffirmed his resolve and re-entered the room. “Is there anything I can do for you?”

“No. We both know, I’m not long for this world,” Jay Burrage struggled to say.

“Don’t talk that way, Uncle!” Abigail was alarmed.

“Dear Abigail… You and your children have made my final years a blessing… Thank you for sharing…” A coughing fit struck Jay as he tried to speak and to clear his throat.

“Abigail, the laudanum,” Thadd called. “Here Uncle, drink this.” Thadd held a laudanum laced glass of water to his uncle’s mouth and held his head up, so he could drink. The illness had him so weak he could barely hold his head up on his own.

Abigail changed the wet rag over his forehead, as Thadd laid his uncle back down to the pillows.

“Thank you. You’ve made an old man happy. Watching your children grow… I wasn’t looking forward to retiring all those years ago… But knowing Thadd agreed to come and then meeting you…” Jay stated. “I’ll leave the two of you to take care of… My town and my friends…”

The laudanum started to take effect as Jay closed his eyes, blissfully sleeping.

During the night, Oat Jackford came knocking at the door, “Doc, I’m sorry, but one of my ranch hands sounds mighty bad…”

“No need to apologize, I’ve gotten used to late night calls.”

“Thadd?” Abigail called from the top of the stairs.

“I’ll be back, one of Oat’s hands has taken sick.”

“Doc, I hope you don’t mind, but I brought one of my horses for you to ride. It’ll be quicker to get back to the ranch instead of waiting for you to harness and hitch your horse.”

“No, problem. Let’s go.”

*****

Thadd returned home shortly after daybreak. As he closed the front door behind him, he heard Abigail calling his name from the top of the stairs.

“Thadd, it’s Jay!”

Taking two steps at a time, Thadd ran to his Uncle’s bedroom. From the moment he entered the room, he heard his uncle struggling harder to breath. Thadd pulled out his stethoscope and placed it to his uncle’s chest.

“It’s the congestion, it’s even worse than it was last night.” Thadd attempted to wake his uncle to give him medicine in an effort to relieve the congestion, but Jay wouldn’t wake and in a short time, his struggling stopped. A look of peace came over his aged face. Thadd placed his stethoscope to Jay’s chest and closed his eyes as he cried at his uncle’s passing.

Abigail wrapped her arms around her husband and cried, too.

*****

As Mark and Seth delivered medication to those who were sick at the outlying ranches, they also spread the news that Doc Jay Burrage had passed. The following morning, those who were healthy enough, attended his funeral service. Throughout the service, a number of people recounted stories of Jay’s selflessness, when it came to taking care of someone else’s family.

Thadd knew that a number of the people in attendance had gotten up from their sickbeds in an effort to honor the memory of their doctor and friend. They tried to hide their symptoms, stating they were choked up, but a doctor can see through a patient’s lies. Especially when he’d been to most of the homes to tend to the people.

Lucas and Mark attended the funeral, but wouldn’t let anyone else from their family come, as a precaution. No need bringing Myra out into this weather, with her being the sickest.

“It’s gonna feel strange not having Old Doc Burrage around,” Mark stated as they quietly rode for home.

“I know what you mean,” Lucas replied.

“I mean all the times he patched you up and Micah up.” Mark started to feel melancholy as they continued to ride.

“He patched you up a few times. He was a good doctor. He’ll be missed, but it’s not like North Fork doesn’t have a doctor.”

“I know Pa, just that… Even though he retired, he’s still been a friend and a member of the town. I mean he was there to help Ma give birth to Little Ted… and other times he stepped up to help Thadd out.”

“He’ll be missed, son. He’ll be missed.”

They were close to home when Lucas turned his head at hearing Mark coughing.

“You all right?”

“Yeah, just choked up a little from the services and remembering.”

*****

Lucas entered his home to find Gwen in the kitchen setting the mid-day meal on the tray to take to his children.

“Gwen, what are you doing here?” Lucas asked.

“Milly came over shortly after you and Mark left, said she wasn’t feeling well. She’s in bed. Mr. McCain, I think you best go for the doctor.”

Lucas stopped at his bedroom door when he heard his wife coughing on the other side.

“How long has she been coughing like that, she wasn’t last night?”

“Ever since I’ve been over here, it comes and goes in fits.”

Lucas raced Blade back to town, calling for the doc as he entered the clinic.

“Lucas, what’s wrong?” Abigail asked as she came from one of the rooms.

“It’s Milly, she’s taken sick.”

“I’ll let Thadd know. He’ll meet you at the livery, I think Nils has a horse or two saddled and waiting for Thadd.”

“I’ll go get it.”

*****

“Lucas, I want Milly in town. How long as she been sick?” Thadd asked as he placed his instruments back in his bag.

“I thought she was fine last night. I returned from services today and Gwen said she’s been coughing like this all morning.”

“She’s hid her symptoms well. Damn it! Lucas, hitch your team and bed the buckboard deep with straw, I’ll gather as many blankets from the house as I can.”

“Thadd?”

“Lucas I won’t lie, she should have been seen days ago. Abigail and I’ll need to keep a close eye on her to get her through this.”

*****

Mark followed his Pa into the barn. “Pa, I’m sorry, I feel asleep in my chair. What can I do?”

“I have to get Milly to town, Doc says she’s real sick.”

Without any further discussion, father and son worked to harness and hitch the team and make the buckboard as comfortable as possible.

*****

Mark stood on the porch and watched as his parents and Doc Burrage rode away. Before returning to his home, another coughing fit struck Mark.

*****

After seeing Milly comfortably in one of the rooms at the clinic Thad stated, “Lucas, your children need you back at the ranch. It won’t do you any good to stay here. I’ll send word daily, with Mark. Now go home. Your children don’t need both their parents taking sick.”

*****

The train arrived and one woman stepped to the platform. “Ma’am are you sure you’re wanta get off here?” the conductor asked.

“I hope so. I truly hope so.” The woman picked up her bags and walked to the hotel. Passing through the empty streets of North Fork, she started to think that maybe she had been wrong in coming.

Lou greeted the woman as she entered the lobby of the hotel, “Good Day, will ye be needing a room?”

“Yes please. Is it always this quiet around here? I thought by the description, your town would be a little more ‘livelier’,” the woman stated as she signed into the registered.

Lou looked at the book, Delilah Stovers, Laramie, Wyoming. “Well, Miss Stovers, usually there is a lot more hustle and bustle around these here parts, but ye’ve come at a pretty inopportune time. There’s a sickness in this town and the schools and church are closed up and without people coming and going, most businesses are closed too. The only business that’s a bustling is the clinic.”

“Are they shorthanded, I used to be a mid-wife and I can help, if needed.”

“Oh, I’m sure they could use yer help. I’ll see ye to yer room upstairs, give ye a chance to freshen up…Miss Stovers.”

“Please call me Lilah. And if this town needs help with people knowing medical stuff, I can rest later. Just let me put my bags in my room.”

“Alright,” Lou replied as she led Lilah up the stairs. Once Lilah’s bags were in her room, she followed Lou back downstairs and to the clinic.

*****

“Thadd…, Abigail…., Sarah!” Lou called as she entered the clinic.

Sarah came from one of the rooms, “They’re both out of town. I don’t know when they’ll be back.”

“Sarah, I’d like you to meet Lilah, she used to be a mid-wife and says if ye need help, she’d be willing to help out.”

“Oh, Miss Lilah, I could really use your help. There’s just too many here sick and I can’t…”

“Are you a nurse?”

“Yes Ma’am, I graduated this summer, but training doesn’t prepare you for this many sick people.”

“Sarah, why don’t you take me to see a few of your patients.”

“I’ve got to return to the hotel to fix some lunch for those who can eat. I’ll return later.”

Neither Sarah or Lilah heard Lou leave.

“I think I need the most help with this patient, her name is Milly. She took sick three days ago, well, she came in sick three days ago, Doc Burrage thinks she was hiding her illness from her family so she could take care of her children.”

Lilah removed her coat and laid it across the back of the chair in the corner. “She’s so flushed looking.”

“She’s running a high fever and I can’t catch her waking with all the other patients I have and when she wakes, I need to get her to take the medication.”

“I can sit with her and change out the wet cloth on her forehead,” Lilah offered.

“Thank you. You don’t know how much I appreciate your help.”

Lilah filled the water basin with fresh water and set it on the night stand. She pulled the chair close to the bed and proceeded to wipe away the sweat from Milly’s face, neck, and arms.

“Lucas…” Lilah heard her call. “Lucas…”

“Hush now. I’m sure your husband is back home taking care of your children. I’ll be right here with you, until you get better.”

*****

Sunday before Thanksgiving, Hope woke to feeling fevered and sicker than she had the past few days. But as she had throughout the outbreak, Hope pulled herself out of bed to tend to her family. As she entered the front room, Gwen already had breakfast started and the boys were sitting at the table, drawing. The smell of the bacon frying assaulted Hope’s senses, turning her stomach. The smell was more than she could stand, she ran to the sink in an effort to relieve her stomach of its empty contents. The dry heaving wouldn’t stop.

“Hope?!” Gwen turned and tried to help Hope as she fell to the floor, clutching to her midsection, sweat pouring from her body. “Josh, Zach, go get your Papa from the barn!”

*****

“Whoa, there, what are you two doing out here and without your coats?!” An appalled Mark ran to his boys and picked them up.

“Gwen sent us, it’s Mama!” they both called.

Carrying both boys, Mark ran as fast as he could back to his home. As he entered he called, “Gwen what happened?” The effort of running, threw Mark into a ragged, coughing fit.

“She woke, came out here, and tried to throw up in the sink. Nothing came up. She just now stopped the dry heaves.”

“Get her bundled and then keep the boys inside, I’m gonna hitch the team and take her to town,” Mark stated as another coughing fit struck.

“But Mark, you’re sick yourself!” Gwen declared, seeing the beads of perspiration on Mark’s forehead.

“I’m well enough to get her to town.”

Mark didn’t know if the tears falling from his eyes were from his own illness, but he knew a lot of his tears were from the worrying he was doing over Hope as he hitched the team. Once Hope was bundled up, Mark carried her outside, reprimanding her for her protests.

“No! I’m taking you to town! You need to see Doc Burrage.”

Mark had piled a few bales of hay into the back of the buckboard to act as a wind block to protect Hope from the temperatures and he broke a few open to comfort her from the jostling that would happen as they traveled to town. Mark pulled the collar of his jacket tighter around his neck as he sat in the seat. He reached to pick up the reins, when another coughing fit struck, once his cough subsided, he drove the team as fast as he dared in an effort to get Hope into town. He pulled the team to a halt in front of the clinic, jumped from his seat, and carried his wife into the clinic, coughing as he did so.

“Hope, what are your symptoms?” Thadd asked, but before she could answer, Hope rushed to the sick and again tried to relieve her stomach of its empty contents.

“Doc, she’s not eaten much over the past few days, and Gwen said when she heaves, nothing comes up, and she running a temperature and by the afternoon she gets the shivers” Mark answered as he helped Hope back up on the examination table.

“Okay, Mark outside. Let me examine Hope. If you see Sarah, have her listen to your lungs,” Thadd instructed Mark.

“I’m okay, Doc,” Mark stated, but a coughing fit forced itself upon Mark.

“No, you’re not. I hear the rattle in your lungs from here.”

“It’s just worry.”

“If you wanted to diagnose yourself, you should have become a doctor and not a marshal. Now do as I say. Abigail,” Thadd called as his wife stepped through the doorway, “Have Sarah tend to Mark and then you come back in here and help me with Hope.”

Mark continued to protest as Abigail led him to the hallway, only to see Seth come in.

“Deputy,” Abigail called. “I want you to place this hoodlum under house arrest for harassing my husband and not doing as told.”

“Where should I place him under house arrest?” Seth asked. He was concerned when he saw Mark carrying Hope inside, but then he saw the paleness in Mark’s face and heard him go into a coughing fit…

“In the examination room, two doors down. I’m going to find Sarah and have her tend to him.”

****

“Food poisoning!” Doc declared.

“But no one else is sick like this? How can I be si…”

“Yes?”

“I milked the cow and forgot to put it in the cold box… The next morning, I was really thirsty and I drank some…”

“That can do it, have you eaten anything since then?”

“Not really, I didn’t feel hungry, was feeling nauseated.”

“Food poisoning can do that. I’ll have Abigail fill a prescription to help get you over this.” Looking to Hope, Thadd continued, “You don’t look relieved that I didn’t diagnose influenza.”

“Actually, it’s not that you didn’t diagnose influenza, but I was hoping it was something other than food poisoning.”

Understanding what Hope was thinking was wrong, “Be thankful that you’re not.”

“Why?”

“If you were pregnant you’d be quarantined from your husband.”

“But what about Mark?”

“I presume in delivering the medicines for me, he’s been exposed to the illness and I’ve been too busy to see it and if he’s not been resting enough while trying to help me, and look after this town, in addition to his obligations at home… I’m sorry Hope, I should be been more observant. But I won’t confirm he’s contracted it until I’ve had a chance to talk with Sarah and to examine him for myself. In the mean time,” Thadd turned to his wife, “Abigail, fill a prescription to help Hope through her sickness. You might have a small bit of a cold, too. But it’s not influenza, least not yet. But in your condition, how are the children?”

“They’re getting over their colds and they’ve not been over to Pa’s since you were out.”

“Okay, If Mark is sick with influenza…”

“Then he’ll come home so I can take care of him,” Hope stated, matter-of-factly.

“No! If Mark has influenza, I’ll keep him here in town so I can keep an eye on him. Like mother like son, you McCain’s sure are stubborn, both of them should have been in this clinic long before they were. I’ll quarantine him here, I’ll put him in the same room as Milly. Hope, please, influenza is nothing to take lightly. Sending Mark home would expose you unnecessarily.”

*****

Arguing voices were heard on the other side of the closed door, ‘But my wife!”

“You’re not going anywhere unless Doc says so. You are under ‘clinic arrest’ until I hear otherwise. I’m going to guard the door so don’t think on sneaking out of here.”

Seth left the room, closing the door behind him. As he turned he bumped into a woman carrying a tray. Seth quickly reached to steady the tray so its contents wouldn’t fall to the floor.

“Lilah!” Seth exclaimed. “What, when…”

“Good day to you too, Seth. If you don’t mind, I need to get these to my patient.”

Seth took the tray and followed Lilah into the room and set it down on the table in the room.

“How’s Milly doing?” Seth asked.

“She’s doing better. I’ve been able to get her to take her medication. I’m in here pretty much all day long and can catch her when she starts to wake. Do you have a prisoner in the other room?”

“No, in fact, it’s Milly’s son, my son-in-law who’s in the other room,” Seth answered.

“Your son-in… Then Milly is Milly McCain, Hope’s…”

“Yes, they’re my family.”

“I didn’t know. Sarah said she needed help and that Milly was the worst off, so I just been helping.”

“How long have you been here?”

“About three days now.”

“Why’d you come?” Seth asked.

“Because I saw the look on your face, you appeared to be disappointed when I couldn’t stay to meet your grandchildren.”

“And you came all the way back here…, just to meet my grandchildren?”

“That’s part of the reason. Seth, I need to tend to Milly, I’m really sorry.”

“Can I buy you a cup of coffee later?”

“I’d like that,” Lilah answered as she measured out the medication from the bottle and stirred it into a glass of water.

****

Seth stepped from the room with a smug smile on his face, until he realized the argument that was happening behind the other door. Without knocking, Seth entered.

“Well Doc?” Seth asked.

“He’s not leaving here. He’s not as bad as Milly was, but if left untreated, he will be.”

“I’ve a town and a family…” cough… cough… cough…

“Yes, and if you still want to be a marshal for this town, a husband to your wife, and a father to your children… YOU WILL DO AS I SAY!” Thadd slammed his hands down on the table. “Mark, I’ve lost too many patients because people aren’t taking this illness serious enough. Right now you could go either way, get well or get sicker. Please…”

“Mark, for Hope and your children…” Seth stated. “Do as the doctor orders.”

Mark agreed, but they could see in his eyes that he wasn’t happy about it.

“Mark, I don’t have a lot of room and I think, I’ll put you in the same room as your ma,” Thadd stated. “I’ll put a partition in the room, to give both of you some privacy, but when you’re up to it, I think Milly would enjoy hearing you read from the bible.”

“Yes sir,” Mark stated as he followed Thadd down the hallway. They entered the room where Milly slept. “What about Hope?” he asked as he removed his boots. The exertion sent Mark into another round of coughing.

“She doesn’t have influenza. Just food poisoning.” Looking over his shoulder, Thadd continued, “I’m sure her father won’t mind seeing her back to the ranch.”

“Your Ma’s recovering. There’s a mid-wife who was traveling through town, she offered to help. She’s pretty much not left Milly alone. I’m sure she’ll be back soon. In the meantime, to bed with you!”

*****

Mark had almost fallen asleep when he heard the door open and a brief gasp.

“Hello?” Mark quietly called.

“I didn’t know that they had put another person in here with Milly.”

Mark stood from his bed and came around the partition.

Lilah continued, “I’ll give the doctor a piece of my mind, putting a man in the same room as a married woman who’s sick.”

“Please, wait a minute!” Mark called and doubled over in a coughing fit.

“You get back to bed,” Lilah ordered as she came to make sure her newest patient returned to bed. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to set you to coughing.”

Mark tried hard to control his coughing.

“My name’s Lilah Stovers. And you’d be?” she asked when Mark’s cough subsided.

Mark whispered, “She’s my Ma.”

“Then you’d be Mark! Hope’s husband,” Lilah declared.

Mark nodded.

“Well, I’m pretty sure you need your rest so wait a minute and I’ll get you a dose of medication.”

With as raw as Mark’s throat had become from the bouts of coughing, he was grateful for the water, even if it was laced with medication to make him sleep.

*****

Two days later, Lilah stood from her chair as she heard a knock on the door and walked over and opened it, slightly.

“Yes?”

“I’m Lucas McCain and my wife and son…”

“Please come in,” Lilah offered as she opened the door wide.

Lucas removed his hat as he entered the room. A smile crossed his face when he saw Milly’s eyes open at the sound of his voice. He walked over and sat on the edge of the bed and took his wife’s hand in his.

“Don’t you EVER do that again,” Lucas warned. “Milly, you should have told me the moment you felt you were coming down sick.”

“I’m sorry, I hoped it was just a cold,” Milly whispered and lowered her eyes.

“With three children having influenza and you thought you only had a cold. I want to scold you so bad, but my heart won’t let me. I’m just so thankful that you’re going to be alright. I talked with Thadd and he said in two or three days, he’d let you come home.”

“I can’t wait.”

Hearing ragged coughing coming from the other side of the partition, Milly asked, “Who’s over there?”

Lilah stood next to Lucas and answered, “Someone who’s just as stubborn as you appear to be. I’d say it runs in the family. Give him a couple more days and he’ll be over the worst of the illness and should be on his way home to your grandchildren.”

“Mark?! Mark took sick?”

Lilah nodded.

“Who are you?” Milly asked.

“I’ve been the one sitting up with you while you were going through the worst of this, you and your boy. The name’s Delilah Stovers, but my friends call me Lilah.

“Lilah, I’d like to thank you for watching my family,” Lucas stated as he extended his hand to Lilah.

“Ain’t no need to thank me. Just helping out.”

“Lucas, how are the children?” Milly asked.

“They’re all recovered. They did as the doctor told them.”

Trying to change the subject, Milly turned to Lilah and asked, “Do you have family here?” A brief cough escaped her lips.

“Here now, you stop talking.” Lilah handed Lucas a glass of water to give to Milly. “No family, but a friend.”

The three turned their heads towards the door when they heard someone else knock and the door opened for all to see Seth poke his head inside, “Lilah, are you ready?” Seth asked.

“Just a few minutes. I just want to check on Mark one more time.”

“Go on, Lilah. Enjoy your evening with Seth. I’ll look after my family while you’re out.”

“Mr. McCain…”

“Go!” Lucas ordered with his easy smile.

“Lilah, don’t argue with him,” Seth stated. “He’s got the law on his side.”

“Aren’t you on my side?” Lilah asked.

“Yes, and that’s why I want you to do as he says. Come on!”

Once the door had closed, Lucas looked to Milly and both laughed.

“I can’t believe it. Seth seeing a woman.”

“What’s not to believe. People can fall in love at any age?” Another brief cough forced itself from Milly.

“Would you like some more water?”

“Please.”

After setting the glass to the table, Lucas replied, “What I meant was, I wonder how serious it is?”

“That’s between two consenting adults.

Lucas stepped around the partition and looked down at his son, lying on the cot. He placed his hand to Mark’s forehead and saw his son’s eyes open.

“Good evening, son.”

“Pa, is Ma?”

“She’s fine. And I’ll tell you what I just told her, if you EVER hide an illness from me again.”

“I didn’t hide it Pa, we were just so short-handed with Johnny still not back to duty and then with Doc telling us to keep our families separated… And me riding all over…” cough, cough.

“Here, let me get you some water.”

Lucas returned and handed the medicated glass of water to Mark.

“I won’t scold you while you’re in your sickbed, the next time, tell someone you’re not feeling up to doing so much.”

*****

Seth escorted Lilah to the hotel restaurant. As they walked the boardwalk, they noticed that life was returning to normal along the streets of North Fork as the worst of the influenza outbreak was over. People were walking the town again.

They sat in the restaurant and talked over coffee, “So Milly and Mark were the last of the worst?” Seth asked.

“Yes, most everyone else has already been discharged or will be real soon.”

“Lucas said two or three more days….”

“There’s no one left at the church and I think Doc’s going to release the last other patient tomorrow.”

“How many did he lose?” Seth asked.

“In addition to his uncle, there were two other adults and three children.”

A mournful silence hung between the two, until Lou, with her bright Irish brogue, stopped by the table. “Can I refill yer cups?” she asked.

“Please.”

“I hear Milly and Mark are doing nicely, thanks to your nursing abilities, Lilah,” Lou offered.

“Weren’t really nothing I did, ‘cept being there when they woke so they could get their medication,” Lilah tried to play down any part that she had during the outbreak.

“Still, a friend is what ye’ve become to me. The McCain’s mean a great to this town and ye spared them from suffering any more grief. If ye’d like to have something to eat, just let me know. The meal will be on the house.”

“I couldn’t,” Lilah declared.

“Lou doesn’t take no for an answer, once she’s offered,” Seth said as he smiled at his companion.

*****

Lucas halted the team in front of the clinic. He picked up the two bags and a long coat from behind the seat before, he stepped down and walked into the clinic.

“Mr. McCain, Miss Milly’s waiting for you in room two,” Sarah stated when she saw him enter.

“What about Mark? …Oh,” Lucas answered when he heard the argument coming from room five. Lucas shook his head as he entered room two to see Milly sitting in the chair by the window, legs drawn up under her robe, reading from the bible. Her long hair cascaded down her shoulders, framing her face perfectly.

“Are you ready to go home to your children, Mrs. McCain?” Lucas asked.

“Yes, I am. But what about my husband?” Milly teased. “Will he be there?”

“I think he’ll be right by your side. Hope packed some clothes for the trip home.”

Milly stood and took the bag from Lucas’ hands and walked behind the partition to dress in ‘real’ clothes for the first time in eight days.

“Who’s arguing down the hallway?” Milly asked as she stepped back from the partition and into Lucas’ arms.

“Our son and his doctor. Sounds like he’s as ready to go home as I am to get you home.”

“Why don’t you go save the town’s doctor from our son,” Milly stated as she pushed Lucas to the door.

“You sit in that chair and don’t move, until I return.”

Lucas walked down the hallway and knocked on the door to room five, “Doc?” he called as he opened the door.

“Just the man I want to see. I’m releasing Mark to your custody today. I really want to keep him here one or two more days, but I can’t stand to listen to a grown man complaining.”

“I’m not complaining, I’m just stating that I have responsibilities…”

“Your release comes with conditions. No work for a week. Jake McCafferty has agreed, to take care of the horses at your place, as he has since you took sick, and as usual, he’ll help your father check on the cattle. Lucas, if he lifts one finger to work around the ranch or tries to ride into town, without your approval, I’ll… I’ll… I’ll send Seth out to arrest him and… and… handcuff him to his chair!”

“Doc, I’m sure that Hope will see that Mark serves out the rest of his ‘sentence’ while recuperating.”

“Pa!”

“None of that or I’ll start treating you like the age you’re behaving…” Lucas raised his eyebrows.

“Yes sir.”

“Here, Hope packed a bag of clothes for you too. When you’re ready, I’ll be waiting for you in Milly’s room.

*****

Lucas helped Milly climb up into the seat of the buckboard and wrapped another blanket around her, “Lucas, this isn’t necessary!”

“Watch it Ma,” Mark called as he climbed into the back of the buckboard, “Else he’ll threaten you with being handcuffed to your chair.”

“You wouldn’t!” Milly declared as she watched Lucas climb into the seat next to her.

“Try me!” Lucas dared as he rein slapped the team to head home.

*****

Their children eagerly greeted them once Lucas carried Milly over the threshold into their home. Milly took all three of her children into her arms and gave them a big hug. Before Lucas could help her off with her coat, Milly had placed her hand to each child’s forehead to make sure there was no fever.

“Doc declared them healthy five days ago,” Gwen stated.

“Our grandchildren?” Milly asked as she looked to Lucas.

“Just wintertime colds. Here let me get you out of that coat.” Once her coat was removed, Lucas encouraged Milly to sit in her chair and placed a blanket over her legs. “You just take it easy. Let me handle everything.”

*****

Hope saw the buckboard come down the road towards their home. She watched as Mark ran across the yard, she heard him slightly coughing as he stepped to the porch.

“Mark McCain, you’re still sick!”

“Doc released me, so I’m well enough,” Mark stated as he hurried inside, letting Hope close the door behind him. He stood in front of the fireplace and took in the warmth.

“To bed with you!” Hope ordered.

“I’ve been in bed long e…” Mark started to say, but after seeing Hope’s expression and both hands planted on her hips, he gave in.

Hope finished placing the covers over Mark, when a stampede entered their bedroom. Three rowdy boys ran inside and jumped up on the bed. Mykaela toddled into the room and reached her arms up, calling, “up, up”.

Hope reached down and picked their daughter up.

“May I please see our daughter?” Mark asked as he reached out his arms.

“Well, it is about time for EVERYONE to take a nap,” Hope answered as she handed their daughter over. “Okay, everyone under the covers, and I’ll wake you once you’ve had a nice nap.”

The boys eagerly climbed under the blankets and giggled as they tried to settle down. But it had been too long since they had seen their Papa and none of them felt like sleeping. After listening to the noises behind the door, Hope finally had enough. She opened the door, placed one hand on her hip, while the other remained on the doorknob, and called each one by name, “Mark Warren McCain, Joshua Lucas McCain, Zachariah James McCain, Elijah Paul McCain!”

“What about Emmy?” Mark asked as he tried to keep a straight face.

Hope entered the room and took their daughter. “You are impossible! Once I put Mykaela in her bed, I better hear silence coming from this room, otherwise…..”

“Mama will make us sit in the corner?” Zach asked.

“She’ll feed us bread and water!” Josh stated.

“Might taste pretty good. Okay!” Mark answered and slid further under the covers and feigned sleeping, when Hope pointed a scolding finger towards him and gave him a mean look, in response.

Hope left the door open to let the ‘boys’ of her family know she was serious. By the time she and put Mykaela to bed and returned to the door, all four were readily asleep.

*****

Milly woke when she rolled over and tried to snuggle against Lucas, only to find he wasn’t in bed. She picked up the clock from the nightstand to see it was just past two in the morning. She stood and pulled on her robe and quietly opened the bedroom door to the front room. The sight that greeted her, tore at her heart. Lucas was on his knees in front of the fireplace, head down, she heard him crying. Milly walked up behind Lucas and knelt beside him and saw him clutching his bible.

“Lucas?” she quietly asked.

“I…” Lucas answered as he looked up to her.

“What’s wrong?” Milly asked as she took his face in her hands and wiped the tears from his eyes.

“I thought I was going to lose you.”

“Lucas, I’m okay. I’m here beside you.”

“Gwen helped me with the children, but I couldn’t believe that this could happen again…”

“Again? …Lucas, please come back to bed.”

Slowly Lucas stood and followed Milly back to their bedroom. He took her in his arms as they laid next to each other.

“Lucas, I guess I didn’t realize how my taking sick would hurt you. I didn’t realize the illness could get so bad, until Mark came home and told us Doc Jay had passed, by then…”

“I just feared I was going to lose you, too. And I’d be left to raise the children on my own.”

“Lucas, I’m so sorry. Please… forgive me.”

Lucas nodded and held Milly tighter, making sure she was truly in his arms.

The Next Generation… Chapter 79 – Mistaken Identity

As the days of December passed, Mark and Hope quietly celebrated their twenty-fifth birthdays with their families at home. Besides Mark’s parents and siblings, Johnny and Colleen Gibbs and their three children were in attendance and Seth Lane brought Lilah for the evening.

Upon arrival, Lilah felt a little self-conscious about being there, but Milly put her at ease, “Lilah, we don’t consider ourselves a regular family. We consider our very good friends to be part of our extended family. Why look at Micah and Hattie, Johnny and Lou… You’ve met them since you arrived in North Fork? You’re more than welcome in this house.”

Hope and Mark had requested that no presents be brought on their behalf; just the company of family was gift enough for them.

After their guests had left and their children sleeping in bed, Mark assisted Hope in cleaning up their home.

“Do you think it’s going to become serious?” Mark asked as he dried a dish.

“What’s going to become serious?”

“Seth and Lilah? Or hadn’t you noticed.”

“Father and Lilah… I never thought about it. I mean, we met her on the train ride back from Fort Stanton. Father wanted to introduce her to his grandchildren, but she was traveling to her niece’s wedding. I just presumed she stopped by on her way back home… And once here, she helped get you and Milly through the influenza.”

“Hope, I’m surprised you and Ma and the rest of the town’s women don’t already have them married.”

“Mark?!”

“Hope, she arrived over three weeks ago…”

“And today was the first time she’s been to visit our…” Hope laughed as she realized the truth in what Mark was saying. “I never thought about it before.”

“Can you be happy for your father?” Mark asked as he wrapped his arms around his wife’s waist.

“I can, if this is what he wants,” Hope answered wrapping her arms around his neck. “It’s been so long ago since my mother died. And for the longest time it was just Father and Ethan.”

“Like Pa and me.”

“I guess so. Lilah didn’t seem to get upset or uncomfortable with all the children asking her questions and she did laugh a lot with them.”

“We all laughed tonight. Come on, it’s getting late. Let’s finish this in the morning. I want to unwrap my present…”

“Your pres… I didn’t get you a present,” Hope stated a little shocked.

“You’re my present,” Mark answered as he led his wife to their bedroom.

*****

Lucas, Milly and their family returned to their home. After watching their children saying their nightly prayers and tucking them into bed, Milly and Lucas entered their own bedroom and got ready for bed.

“So, do you think it’s serious?” Milly asked.

“What’s serious?” Lucas replied.

“Seth and Lilah.”

“How should I know,” Lucas stated as he slipped under the covers.

“I mean, it’s been almost two weeks since Mark and I were discharged from the clinic, and she’s still in North Fork. If she was just passing through…”

“Milly, if it is, it’s their business, not ours.” Lucas tried to end the discussion by lifting up the covers to invite Milly into bed. Milly climbed into bed after blowing out the lantern on the side table.

“It must be difficult for Hope,” Milly stated.

“Why would it be difficult for Hope?”

“For so long she was without a family and a mother,” Milly stated, her tone of voice indicated her dissatisfaction with Lucas’ indifferent attitude. “And now, another woman might step into that role?”

“It wasn’t difficult for Mark…” Lucas stated as he raise an eyebrow.

Milly started to snap, “Lucas Mc…”, but ended up laughing. “Point taken. I’m sorry; I must sound like a nosy, busy body.”

“No, I’d say you sound a lot like the woman I took to be my wife.” Lucas wrapped his arms around Milly, pulled her close, and whispered, “If it is to be, let their relationship develop without any outside interference.”

“Yes, my love.”

“Now, if you want to talk about relationships, I think our relationship needs a little attention and…” Lucas’ words died on his lips as Milly started to kiss and caress him.

*****

Christmas was only a week away when Mark stopped by the leather shop to check on the presents he and his Pa were planning to have Old Saint Nick deliver to his twins, and his oldest brother.

“Hello Mark!” Leon called as Mark entered his leather shop.

“Good afternoon Leon. How’s the family?”

“Doing well. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Ethyl so happy. She appreciates your wife’s and your mother’s friendship.” Leon stood and wiped at the leather tanning liquid from his hands. “Bet you’re here about the presents.”

“Sure am, Christmas is only a week away.”

“No worry Mark, they’re done. I was planning to deliver them out your way tomorrow, when the boys are in school.”

“No need to make a special trip. I have to come back to town with the buckboard on Friday and do some shopping for Hope, I’ll plan to pick the saddles up before I head on home.”

“You want to see them?”

“You mean I’m allowed in Saint Nick’s workshop?”

“The law is always allowed in the workshop. Come on into the back room. All I have to do is work the different patterns onto the saddle horns, that way, each boy will know which saddle is his.”

Upon entering the workshop, Mark paid no mind as Leon pulled a cloth over another saddle he was working on.

Mark let out a whistle as he reviewed the craftsmanship that went into each saddle. As they left the back room, Mark felt like a child again, fearing that Christmas would never arrive.

*****

It took longer to put the boys to bed that Christmas Eve, and since it was his parents’ anniversary, it was extremely late when Mark rode over to Oat Jackford’s to retrieve the presents for his eldest sons and Little Ted.

“Oat, sorry to intrude so late on your Christmas Eve, but Pa and I appreciate you keeping the boys’ presents,” Mark stated as he shook hands.

“What a Christmas present! You finally called me Oat,” he laughed.

“I did? Well, Merry Christmas, and if you tell anyone, I’ll deny it! No one would believe you anyway!” Mark called as he tied the lead ropes and looped them to his saddle horn.

“I remember the first time I met you. Can’t believe you’re so grown up now. Doesn’t seem possible that you’ve four children. Mark, once your boys get good at riding…”

“Yes?” Mark asked, trying to figure out what Oat was trying to say.

The gruffness that most people saw in Oat disappeared as he talked with Mark, “I never found me a woman who could put up with me and seeing your Pa and Milly and their children, and you and your family, well… I’ll admit it. I do have soft spot in my heart for you. There’ve been plenty of times where I wished I’d had a son and that he’d be a lot like you. Your boys are welcome on my property anytime.”

“Oat, thank you. We can keep this just between us, if you like,” Mark stated.

“You might,” Billy Lehigh called as he walked up behind the two. “But I won’t.”

“Billy, your employment can be in jeopardy with talk like that,” Oat gruffly answered.

“Yes sir, just like every other time you’ve shown a soft spot towards Mark. Hi ya, Mark. You finally taking those undersized hay burners home?”

“Don’t let my boys here you talking that way. You don’t know what it’s like to take on the McCain three,” Mark laughed in return.

“It’s been fun having them here. Even if they are on the small size, they’re good looking animals. Can’t wait to see the McCain five come riding into town. You just let me know so I can be in town to see this.”

*****

On Christmas morning, the McCain’s woke to a light dusting of snow on the ground. Before breakfast, Mark headed out to work on his chores. He quickly returned to his home, calling for the boys to get their coats on, “There’s something not right out in the barn!”

“What’s wrong?” Josh asked.

“I think Santa might have forgotten a few of his reindeer!”

Excitedly the boys pulled on their winter coats, boots and hats and gathered around the front door, anxious to go to the barn.

“Mark, their mittens!” Hope called.

“I’ve the wood burning stove going in the barn, they’ll be warm enough. Get Emmy bundled and come on out. I can’t wait to see a reindeer,” Mark smiled and winked at Hope.

*****

“Papa!” Little Ted called to Lucas as he helped is Pa do his morning chores in the barn.

“Yes, Little Ted?”

“Papa, there’s a note and it has my name on it. Can you read it to me?” Little Ted carried the note to his Papa and handed it to him.

Lucas took the envelop and opened the letter,

Dear Theodore Scott McCain,

My stable at the North Pole is full and I find that I need a special boy to watch over one of my favorite animals. Cappy needs someone special to watch over him, make sure he has plenty of water, grain, and hay. As well as someone to clean his stall and groom him regularly. This person will also need to make sure he receives just the right amount of exercise.

I’ve watched you grow up and I feel you are deserving of this honor. And in time, I’m sure you’ll be an expert, riding and training him properly.

Take care of him, and love him.

I’ll be watching you,

Sincerely,

Saint Nicholas

“My, my,” Lucas declared as he folded the letter and placed it back in the envelope. “Santa left you one of his reindeer?” Lucas stood and took Little Ted’s hand and walked over to the stall. He hefted Ted to his hip before he opened the stall door.

“Papa, it’s not a reindeer!” Little Ted stated, with wide open eyes.

“It’s not?” Lucas asked, pretending to be surprised.

“No, it’s a pony. Papa, Santa brought me a pony! My own pony! And his name is Cappy. How did he know I wanted a horse named Cappy? Now I can ride like you and Mark! I can ride with you and work with you. And…”

“Hold on there. First, you have to learn how to ride and I’ll give you the same rules Myra had when Mark gave her BlueBoy. You’re not to ride without me, Mark, or Hope with you. And you can’t ride on your own until you grow big enough to saddle Cappy on your own.”

“Oh.”

Lucas looked as he heard the disappointment in his son’s voice, “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t have a saddle,” Little Ted answered, disappointment in his eyes.

“I think there’s a box over there that has your name on it.”

Lucas helped Little Ted open the box and laughed at how big his son’s eyes became as he saw his very own saddle.

“Oh Papa!” Little Ted declared as he wrapped his arms around his Papa’s neck, while Lucas knelt beside him.

“And he’s mine and I can groom him whenever I want?”

“Yes he is yours, but you have to do your other chores and mind your Ma. Owning a horse is a privilege. You fail to mind your manners and Saint Nick might just come and take him home and find another boy he feels might be more deserving.”

“I promise, I’ll be good.”

“Okay, why don’t you head on back to the house. I’ll be up there shortly,” Lucas stated. From the door, he watched until his son had entered his home.

Once finished doing his chores, Lucas stopped by Razor, his heart held sadness at how gray his old horse’s muzzle had become. He saw tiredness in the eyes, even though Razor nickered to him.

“Hey old man. You want out today?” Lucas looped a lariat around Razor’s neck and slowly led him from the barn. He knew that someday he’d have to face putting his old friend down, thankful today was not that day.

*****

Mark and his family headed to their barn. Once inside, the boys ran to the stall where there were two notes nailed to the doors, bearing their names. Hope pulled the notes from stall.

“What does it say Mama?” Zach asked as Hope opened the envelopes.

“Well, it seems that Saint Nicholas had to find new homes for some of his… reindeer?”

Together the twins drug a hay bale over to the stall, climbed up on it to look into the stall.

“It ain’t a reindeer, it got no horns!” Josh exclaimed.

“Horns?” Mark asked. “Oh you mean antlers, no they sure don’t have antlers.”

“It’s a pony! They’re ponies!” Zach stated.

“I guess they are ponies,” Hope answered as she smiled at her sons. The twins turned around and helped Eli up onto the hay bale so he too could see the ponies.

“What are their names?” Josh asked.

Taking the notes from Hope, so she could hold the squirming Mykaela, “Well, it seems the brown one is called Chip and cream colored one is called Poco.

“Can we pet them?” Zach asked.

“You have to be real careful and not spook them.”

Mark opened the stall door and walked inside holding his sons’ hands. Josh immediately wanted to pet the brown pony, while Zach wanted to go to the light colored pony. Both boys started giggling as each pony nuzzled at their pockets.

“Okay, I think we best get back inside, else Eli and Mykaela won’t get to open their presents,” Hope stated as she started to turn to the barn door.

*****

After breakfast, Mark and Hope set the presents for their two youngest on the floor. Eli rapidly tore away the brightly colored paper and shouted when he realized he had received a toy horse and sticks for a corral as a present.

“Papa, Saint Niklus gave me a pony!” Eli called out. “I call him Thunder!” As he played as if the horse was galloping around the front room.

Mykaela sat on Hope’s lap while Hope helped her pull the brightly colored paper from her present. Their daughter clapped her hands and squealed when she saw a doll for her to play with.

*****

Lucas return to his home as Milly finished setting breakfast to the table. Once the dishes were in the sink, Milly and Lucas returned to the front room and pulled out several brightly colored boxes and set them in front of Myra and Levi.

Myra opened her present to find a tea set, with a teapot, cups and saucers, and small pitcher as a creamer, and a bowl for sugar cubes. She squealed, “Oh, Mama, how does Saint Nicholas know what I wanted?”

Levi opened his present to find a wooden train engine and matching caboose. “Choo choo,” Levi called out as he crawled across the floor pushing his train along imaginary train tracks.

*****

As they walked across the yard to Mark’s parent’s home Hope commented, “I wish Gwen could have been here to see the children receive their presents.”

“So do I, but she’s going to have a life as a member of the McCafferty’s someday. Maggie asked if we minded if she spent Christmas eve and day with them.”

“I’ll miss not having her here to help all the time,” Hope stated.

“The good news is that Gabby is growing up and she can be a help to you. Maybe not cooking and doing the laundry, yet, but she can help keep an eye on the children while you work.”

Lucas boldly wished his son and his family a “Merry Christmas” as they entered his home. He took their coats and placed them in the bedroom. When he returned to the front room, Little Ted and the twins were excited talking about their presents.

“So, the twins liked their presents?”

“Seems as much as Little Ted does.”

*****

Mark and Hope settled their children on the floor, before they too sat down on the floor with Hope leaning back to her husband’s chest, while Milly settle hers and Lucas’ children. Milly finally sat in her chair as Lucas sat in his and pulled out his bible.

Throughout the afternoon, Lucas read from the scriptures the story of Jesus birth. Mark and Hope sang Christmas carols as their children tried to sing along.

The family had finished eating supper and the dishes washed when Lucas brought out a large box with Mark’s name on it.

“Pa?” Mark asked.

“Says it’s from Saint Nick,” Lucas replied.

“Papa, what inside?” Eli asked.

“I’m not sure,” Mark answered.

Hope and Milly stood on either side of Lucas, excitement in their eyes as they watched Mark open his present.

The box was opened and Mark stated, “I surely don’t understand, mine…”

“Yours… The seat on yours is long worn out and besides, the black of this saddle will go so much better with Rainmaker,” Hope stated as she walked towards her husband.

“But?”

“Santa has little helpers all over the world, including North Fork,” Milly answered. “Merry Christmas, Mark.”

The Next Generation… Chapter 80 – Whiteout…

It was late Friday morning and Hope was dealing with the disappointment that Josh and Zach were experiencing as they had expected their father home long before. The twins were constantly underfoot asking when Papa would come home so they could go for a horseback ride. Since it was such a nice February day, Hope relented and took Eli and Mykaela to Milly’s. Once Little Ted found out the others are going for a ride, he too wanted to go. So, Hope saddled all three ponies and Two-Bits and the foursome headed out.

Hope kept a watchful eye on all three boys riding their ponies, giggling to herself as the ponies would pick up a trot and the boys would bounce in their saddles. Once they had enough of bouncing, they would bring the ponies back to a walk. She listened to them talking of the races they would run and who would win, once they learned how to do more than just walk or trot. They talked of riding with their Papa’s and helping to drive their cattle to market when they grew up.

“Mama, would you miss us when we go on a cattle drive with Papa?” Josh asked.

“I sure would. Home would be pretty quiet without you two around.”

“And me?” Little Ted asked.

“Yes, you too.”

“What about Papa?” Zach inquired.

“I guess I’d even miss your Papa’s.”

*****

Hope enjoyed riding Two-Bits and listening to the boys continuing to bantered back and forth. They’d been gone for about two hours when Hope realized the weather was changing. Dark clouds started rolling over the hills and the temperature was dropping. She made sure the boys buttoned their jackets up as they started to head home. The ponies had sensed the change in the weather too and were acting up, causing the boys to get scared. Finally, Hope tied one pony to the next, and she tied the final pony to Two Bits’ saddle. They didn’t make it too far before a heavy, wet snow started falling. Hope knew the boys were trying to be brave and not complain, but she could tell they were cold and wanting to be home.

As the snow fell heavier, the group found shelter in an old, abandoned shack on the north side of McCain property. Hope never remembered seeing the building when she and Mark had been out riding together. Hope noticed an even more dilapidated shed, large enough to shelter the horses, on the backside of the shack. After seeing the boys inside, she stepped outside to search for enough kindling for a fire. Once she had a fire blazing in the fireplace, she led the horses through the deepening snow, into the shed and pulled their saddles. She left the saddles in the shed, and grabbed her rifle and the saddle blankets into the shack, wrapping them around the boys in an effort to help keep them warm.

Hope returned to the door and tried to figure out why the hinges wouldn’t allow the door to close completely. She saw years of built up rust causing part of the hinges to corroded and break off. This prevented the door from fully closing. She tried pushing the door harder, hoping that even if a hinge broke, she could get the door to close. Without any luck, she stood watch, shivering as the wind blew past the door. While the wind howled and Hope prayed the wind was the only thing outside howling. Hope looked to the boys and saw them huddled together around the fading fire.

“Boy’s, I’m going out to find more wood, stay put. You hear me?” Hope asked.

“Yes!” they replied.

Before Hope realized, a white out was upon them, she couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of her. For a few brief moments, she feared getting lost and not being able to find her back way to the children. After taking a few deep breaths, she calmed herself and found her way back to the shack. She knew the small amount of wood she had found for the fire wouldn’t last long. Hope shivered as she returned to the doorway, her jacket and clothing soaked.

Even without seeing the sun, the day progressed into the evening, and Hope did her best to protect the boys from the weather and made sure they stayed close to the fire to keep warm.

“Mama, I’m sorry,” Zach offered as Hope knelt next to them to make sure they were doing okay.

“Why are you sorry?”

“Because we wanted to come out and ride. And now we can’t go home.”

“We’ll get home. We just have to wait until the storm dies down.”

Once she had kissed each boy, Hope returned to the doorway.

*****

The snow had eased considerably, but continued to fall. With her body shaking from being cold, Hope decided to take a chance and look for more firewood; hoping that as she moved around during her search, she would warm up. Stiffly, she bent down to picked up the last of the wood she could carry and still hold her rifle, she saw paw tracks that sent a colder chill down her spine… “wolves”.

“Oh God, please let me keep the boys safe.”

Hurriedly she returned to the shack as darkness surrounded them; ever so vigilant in listening for sounds of the pack. Once inside, she added some of the wood to the fireplace and listened to it sizzle and pop as the moisture inside evaporated.

*****

Mark and Lucas, along with Myra, looked relieved as they crested the hill overlooking their homes.

“I’m happy that snow storm didn’t last too long,” Myra stated. “I want to show Mama my grades.”

“She’s going to be pleased with your progress report,” Lucas replied.

“Pa, something’s not right,” Mark stated, an uneasiness fell over him.

“What?”

“Pa, my house, its dark.”

“Hope probably has your children over at our place. Come on, I’m sure they’re worried about us anyway.”

They arrived home just before suppertime to find a frantic Milly calling from the porch. Milly ushered Myra into the front door before returning to the porch, where she informed Lucas and Mark that Hope and the boys were ‘out there’.

“What do you mean, out there?” Mark asked.

“The twins were so anxious to ride today, it WAS so nice.” Milly answered. “Lucas, Little Ted begged to go with them.”

“How long ago did they leave?” Lucas asked.

“It had to be before noon. I put the others down for a nap after I fed them lunch.”

“Which way did they head out?” Mark asked.

“They went North,” Milly replied.

Lucas and Mark left their homes after packing their saddlebags and tying extra blankets to the back of their bedrolls.

While they searched, Lucas fretted, “I shouldn’t have gone to town. You could have brought Myra home from school.”

“Pa, don’t play the blame game. I should have been home sooner, I was all set to get Gabby and come home when Clay Akers arrived, transporting a prisoner. I took his report and set him up at the hotel for the night.”

“You had a job to do!” Lucas demanded.

“And so do you, running this ranch. Neither of us could have known the snow storm was coming. And I’m sure Hope thought she was doing right by the boys in taking them out for a ride. It was such a beautiful morning and early afternoon. The twins have been so excited since they got their ponies, any nice day they have begged me to let them ride around in the corral.”

Lucas sighed as he realized blaming himself wasn’t going to help their situation. Both signaled their horses to move on.

*****

“It’s no use. We’ll have to stop for the night and start up fresh in the morning,” Lucas stated as he realized they wouldn’t be able to see for much longer.

“Pa, if I remember, there’s an old prospector’s shack not too far from here. I came across it years ago when I was out galloping BlueBoy. Ain’t much, but it’ll offer us some shelter,” Mark stated as the sun finally disappeared from the sky.

Slowly they walked their horses over the deep, slippery snow, across the darkened terrain. Both startled when they heard two rifle shots. After looking to each other, they kicked their horses into a trot and headed in the direction of the shots.

As they crested a hill, “Mark, look! Someone’s inside the shack!” Lucas yelled after seeing a faint glow through a window and smoke rising from the chimney. He kicked his horse into a gallop, closely followed by Mark.

As they arrived, they saw wolves circling in front of the shack and its partially opened door. They heard cries from horses, clearly agitated by the proximity of the pack. They heard two more rifle shots and a yelp as they watched one wolf collapse. Both men pulled their rifles and fired until there wasn’t a single wolf remaining in their sights.

Lowering their rifles, Lucas and Mark dismounted and ran to where the figure leaned against the opening into the shack.

“Hope!” Mark called as he realized it was his wife he caught when she started to fall. Mark felt her body trembling from the cold, he realized how soaked her jacket was from the snow.

“Papa! Papa!” they heard from further within the shack.

Mark turned and looked as Lucas knelt to gather all three little boys in his arms.

“Papa!” “GrandPa!” the three called over and over.

“Let me look at you,” Lucas stated as he held each one at arm’s length. “Are you okay? Are any of you hurt?”

“No, Papa! I’m okay,” Little Ted answered.

“Grandpa, I’m hungry!” Zach said as Lucas looked to him.

“You are? I’ve some biscuits and meat in my saddle bags,” Lucas answered.

“Can I have some too? We’ve not ate since this morning,” Josh stated.

“You boys get back to the fire and keep warm. I’ll get our horses and put them with the others.” Lucas stated as he pushed the boys back towards the fire and stood. Before leaving the shack, he stopped and knelt next to Mark, “How is she?”

“Pa, she’s so cold,” Mark answered. “Her lips are blue.”

“Get her back to the fire. I’ll tend to the horses and we’ll let the boys eat some of the food Milly sent with us. We’ll have to spend the night here and I’ll take the boys back home in the morning. I’ll return with the buckboard for you and Hope.”

When Lucas returned to the shack, he handed a number of blankets to Mark to wrap around Hope. Lucas carried a couple more blankets to the boys, as well as his saddle bags, pulling out food and handing it to the hungry boys. Lucas stepped from the shack and scoured around for more firewood. When he returned the three younger boys were huddled together, sound asleep in front of the fire. Mark sat on the other side of the fireplace, with a bundled Hope in his arms.

Lucas worried for his son and his daughter-in-law, while he stood watch at the front door. Worrying if they had driven off the entire pack or were some still lurking.

*****

It was late morning when Lucas returned with the buckboard bedded deeply with straw and blankets. He helped Mark get his wife into the back and climbed up into the front seat. Lucas raced the team, through the melting snow and mud, back to the ranch. Milly was waiting at the house, as Mark carried Hope to the front porch; Milly opened the door to their home. Within moments, Mark was overcome with the warmth of their bedroom.

“Mark get her in bed and get her stripped,” Milly ordered. “Lucas, Gwen has all the children at our place, the twins were getting upset while waiting for you to return. Why don’t you go home and help Gwen. I’ll be back once I’ve finished helping Mark.”

“Ma?!”” Mark asked.

Milly shut the door as she pushed Lucas out of the room; she returned to help Mark. Milly was shocked with how cold and clammy Hope’s skin was to the touch as she pulled the blankets over Hope.

“Mark, we’ll take care of your children, you strip yourself and climb in the bed with Hope and wrap yourself around her.”

Mark looked to Milly in askance.

“Mark, you’re not thinking… If you want to make sure Hope recovers you better get to thinking like a doctor, as you have in the past. Worrying won’t do either of you any good right now. Strip and use your body heat to help warm her.”

Milly closed the door behind her as she left the room carrying Hope’s still damp clothing.

*****

An hour had passed when Lucas returned to Mark’s home carrying a bottle. He knocked on the bedroom door before proceeding into the room.

“Come in,” Mark called.

“I brought some brandy,” Lucas stated.

“Pa, they gave me brandy… when I went to fetch Doc Burrage, when Ma was giving birth to Gabby.”

“We used it during the War, too.”

Mark sat up and gently shook Hope, she roused, but didn’t wake.

“As long as she’s somewhat conscious, it should be okay to make her drink.”

Mark watched as his Pa poured some of the contents from the bottle into a cup and held it out to Mark. Mark took the cup and placed it to Hope’s lips, he encouraged her to drink. As the brandy trickled over Hope’s tongue, she fought drinking, but with Mark’s loving and encouraging words, she swallowed. Mark handed the empty cup back to Lucas, who filled it half full again and returned the cup to Mark.

Hope had finished drinking when Mark felt her relax back against him.

“She’s not trembling as much,” Mark stated.

“I’ll leave the bottle here on the side table. If she gets to trembling again, give her another half cup full,” Lucas stated. Before leaving he walked to the pot-bellied stove and placed several more pieces of wood inside.

“Milly and I’ll be back later this evening to check on the two of you.”

“Pa… Thank you,” Mark stated as he looked to his Pa.

“It’s what fathers do.” Lucas pulled the door closed behind him as he left their bedroom to return to his own home.

*****

An hour later, Mark woke to feeling Hope trembling beside him. As instructed by his Pa, he reached for the bottle and poured another half cup and encouraged Hope to drink. After setting the cup back to the side table, Mark remembered more from his experience in Marionette, he started rubbing Hope’s hands and arms, trying to stimulate the flow of blood. Rolling his wife to her stomach, he rubbed her back. Next, he uncovered one leg at a time and started rubbing them. Once he was satisfied, that her skin was returning to a healthier color and a more normal temperature, Mark wrapped the covers over her legs. He slipped back under the covers, pulling his wife against him and was pleased with how warm she was beginning to feel. He said a quiet thank you prayer to God.

*****

Night had fallen the next time Lucas and Milly returned to check in on Hope. Mark woke to hearing someone knock on the bedroom door.

“Yes?”

“Mark, it’s me and your father,” Milly answered and entered the room.

“She’s not trembling as much, and she doesn’t feel as cold.” Mark answered after they asked how Hope was doing.

Milly reached under the blankets for Hope’s arm and was pleased with the change in the way Hope’s skin felt.

“She is feeling much warmer. Are you hungry?” Milly asked.

“Yes, Ma’am” Mark stated with a little more enthusiasm than he meant. “Now that you mention it,” Mark stated as they all heard his stomach grumble.

“I brought a stew for you and some broth to continue to warm her up from the inside,” Milly stated.

“Pa, brought…” Mark started to say.

“I know what Lucas brought,” Milly replied and gave a disapproving look to her husband.

Milly stepped from the bedroom and returned a few moments later carrying a tray with supper for Mark. After seeing to it that Mark had eaten, Milly again stepped to the kitchen and returned a few moments later with a bowl of broth for Hope. Mark roused Hope enough for her to drink.

Lucas stepped to the pot-bellied stove and placed a few more pieces of wood inside.

“We’ll let you two be,” Milly stated as she pushed Lucas towards the door.

Milly wrapped her shawl tightly around her shoulders before they left Mark’s home. “I can’t believe you did that!” she stated as Lucas closed the door behind them.

“Milly, it’s a tried and true way for warming someone up… from the inside.”

“But she’s…”

“She’s going to be okay. Though she might be a little out of sorts when she finally wakes, depending on how much Mark’s given her.”

“Lucas McCain, just how much…”

“She drank a full cup and a half earlier, and I told Mark to give her a half-cup each time she started to wake, if she was still trembling. It appears that Mark’s given her at least another cup and a half.”

“LUCAS!” Milly stated. “If she’s not drunk when she wakes… how could you?” Milly scolded.

“Guess we better get some black coffee brewed for later…” Lucas stated with a mischievous smile on his face. He opened the door to their own home and allowed Milly to enter before him.

*****

The moon was shining through the window of bedroom when Hope opened her eyes. She stretched her body and regaled in the warmth of the room and snuggled closer to Mark. Mark wrapped his arm tighter around Hope as he slept.

Hope bolted upright and called, “The Boys!”

Mark startled awake at hearing Hope call out.

“They’re okay. They’re at Ma and Pa’s,” Mark stated as he pulled Hope back to lie down beside him and pulled the covers over her. “We found you Friday night.”

“What is today?” Hope asked.

“It just past mid-night. It’s Sunday morning.”

“Are you sure the boys are alright?” Hope quietly asked.

“According to Ma and Pa, yes. They survived the whiteout better than you did. Do you remember what happened?”

Hope proceeded to tell Mark of their riding out and without warning, the weather turned. Knowing she needed to seek shelter, she ushered the boys and their ponies until they found the abandoned shack.

“I was out hunting more wood to keep the fire going when I encountered wolf tracks.” Hope trembled as she snuggled against Mark.

“Are you cold?” Mark quickly asked.

“No,” Hope hiccupped. “Just the memory.” She raised her hand to her head, “I feel so light-headed.” She hiccupped again.

“Oh,” was all Mark could answer, as he smiled in knowing why. Mark encouraged Hope to continue telling him what had happened, even though her words were a little bit slurred.

“When I returned to the shack, I saw their silhouettes, they were so close. And so many of them…” Hope buried her head into Mark’s chest with him rubbing her back, as she hiccupped again.

“You’re safe and home,” Mark stated and kissed the top of her head. “Are you warm enough?”

Hope nodded as she cuddled closer to Mark while he continued to hold her close, rubbing her back and upper arm.

Quietly Hope asked, “Are you sure the boys really alright?”

“Yes,” Mark whispered in return. “Ma and Pa are keeping the children for the night and Gwen’s helping them.”

As the warmth welled deep inside Hope, she started caressing her hands across her husband’s chest, up his neck and around the back of his head; she pulled his head close to hers and passionately kissed Mark. Their cuddling turned to making love, with more than just their hearts intertwined. Any last trace from Hope’s exposure to the elements faded as both experienced the warmth of their shared desire and passion.

*****

Hope woke later in the morning to feeling quite ill. She moaned as she rolled over in bed.

“Hope, are you okay?” Mark asked as he woke.

“My head hurts and I feel so dizzy,” she answered. “And I really have to relieve myself.”

“Stay in bed and let me get the fire going, I’ll bring a chamber pot and fix you some coffee,” Mark answered.

“Coffee? You know I don’t…”

“You will today and believe me, it tastes better with lots of sugar…” Mark stated as he pulled on his long johns.

From under the covers, Hope watched Mark open the front grate to the pot-bellied stove; she cringed at the sound of metal grating metal. Each thud of wood landing in the bottom of the stove sounded louder than she ever remembered. Mark pulled on his jeans and left the bedroom, closing the door behind him, only to return a few moments later with the chamber pot, before leaving again. After slipping into a nightgown and crawling back into bed, Hope grabbed at her head when she heard the coffee pot and the cooking pan bang as Mark set them to the stove, she pulled the pillow over her head and held it tight, trying to block out the sounds. Realizing it was little use, Hope propped the pillow up and laid her head back down on top of it and pulled the blankets tight around her.

The coffee and oatmeal Mark was fixing were almost ready when Mark turned at hearing a knock on the front door and saw it open to admit Lucas.

“How is Hope this morning?” Lucas asked.

“She’s awake and a little hung over,” Mark sheepishly answered.

“Then I’ll report back to Milly,” Lucas replied.

“How are the boys, and Emmy?” Mark asked before Lucas could leave.

“Asking when they can come back home. We told them this afternoon, if their Mama was up to it.”

“I’ll let you know around lunch time,” Mark answered as he spooned the oatmeal from the pot into a bowl.

*****

Carrying the tray with breakfast, Mark returned to their bedroom to find Hope sitting up in bed with the blankets pulled around her.

“And just WHY am I hung over?” she demanded and cringed at the loudness of her own voice.

Embarrassed, Mark stated, “We kind of got you drunk yesterday afternoon.”

“We! You and who else?!” Hope cringed and hiccupped, pulling her hand to cover her mouth.

“Hope, we needed to warm you up, you were so cold. Pa brought over a bottle of brandy yesterday.”

“And?” Hope spoke quieter.

“And you probably had about three cups worth,” Mark steeled himself for her outburst.

“Three cups?! On an empty stomach?!” she hiccupped. “Oh, my head,” Hope moaned.

“There was only so much that we could do to warm you up from the outside,” Mark stated.

“From the outside… I vaguely remember… we…” Hope’s eyes grew wide. “Mark! You got me drunk and… and… this morning…”

“I’ll admit to getting you a little drunk,” Mark stated as he set the tray with the oatmeal at his wife’s lap. “But as for what happened earlier this morning, that was your doing,” Mark couldn’t stop the laughter as he looked at the expression on his wife’s face.

“Me?”

“Yep. But I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy every minute of it. I’ll have to remember to…”

“Don’t you dare! Mark McCain, how could you?!”

Taking on a somber tone, “Because if we didn’t’ get you warmed up by drinking all that brandy, you could have become sick with pneumonia or even died. A body can’t survive long with a temperature as low as yours was. Remember, I went through something similar when I rode to Marionette to get the doctor… When Ma was giving birth to Gabby. Besides, we are married. And what we do in this bed…” Mark stated with a devilish grin. “Now, eat your breakfast,” he ordered.

“It would serve you right if I got pregnant…” Hope pulled her hand to her mouth as she hiccupped again.

“Would just go to prove how much I love you… Can I put a request in for another set of twins?” Mark laughed as he asked.

“Can you talk a little softer until I feel better,” Hope asked as she put her hand to her head.

“Alright,” Mark whispered. “Pa said the boys were anxious to come back home, I told him I’d be over around lunch to let them know if you were up to it.” Mark handed Hope a cup of hot coffee. “Drink, you’ll feel better.”

“Oh, even with sugar it tastes bitter,” Hope complained and hiccupped again.

After seeing that Hope ate the entire bowl of oatmeal and drank the entire cup of coffee, Mark insisted that Hope slide back down under the covers and sleep the rest of her hangover off. Quietly he placed more wood into the pot-bellied stove in their bedroom.

*****

As promised after lunch, Mark bundled himself up and headed to his parents’, to check on his children.

“Where’s my family?” Mark cheerfully called as he closed the door behind him.

“Papa!” his three sons called.

“Is Mama okay?” Josh asked.

“She’s going to be just fine. How about you boys? Are you up to keeping Little Ted and Levi company this afternoon. Your Mama still needs to sleep.”

“We come home?” Eli asked.

“Maybe after supper,” Mark replied as he finished hugging his sons.

Mark stood to take his daughter from Milly, “And how’s my Emmy?” She clapped her hands and stated “Mama.”

“Not until later,” Mark answered.

“Mama.” Mykaela called.

“She’s sleeping,” Mark stated.

“Mama seeping,”

“Yes, Mama’s sleeping.”

Milly came up behind Mark and took Mykaela into her arms, “As you should be too. It’s time for your naps. All of you!”

“Grandma,” Mark’s boys complained.

Little Ted offered, “Don’t do you no good. She says I have to take a nap too,” as he walked to his bedroom.

Mark walked to the table, where his sister sat. “So Gabby, what are you working on?”

“A com-po-ze-shun,” Myra stated. “I have to write a com… compa…”

“Composition?” Mark asked.

“That’s it, a composition! I have to write a story,” Myra answered.

“On what?” Mark asked.

“On paper! How else?”

“No, silly,” Mark leaned over and tickled his sister, “What’s your story about?”

“My family,” Myra answered.

“That’s a big story.”

“Whew! Don’t I know it,” Myra stated. “Is Hope really going to be okay?”

“Yeah, she will be. She just needs to sleep off, uh, sleep some more today. Tell you what, why don’t you take your homework into your bedroom for a while. I need to talk with Ma and Pa.”

“Okay.’ Myra hopped down from the chair and carried her books, paper, and pencil into her bedroom.

*****

Milly returned to the front room after seeing the younger children to bed for their naps.

“How is she really?”

“Ma, she’ll be fine. She just needs to sleep, she, uh, woke up feeling, well… drunk.”

Lucas let out a short laugh, but quickly changed his expression as he saw the look Milly gave him.

“Lucas McCain, I’ll have you know Hope has probably never had a drink of liquor in her life and you… You made Mark force her to drink enough to get her drunk! There are other ways to warm a person up from the inside. Beef or chick broth… Hot cocoa… Soothing yet warming. Men! You reach for liquor without thinking of the repercussions…” Milly continued to chastise her husband and her son for agreeing with his father.

*****

Tuesday afternoon, Mark had returned to town to stand his shift. Seth was placing more wood in the pot-bellied stove and Johnny was just getting ready to head for home. Mark looked up from reviewing the stack of wanted posters on his desk to see Percy Bullock entering the office.

“Hey Percy! Been a while. How are things at home? How are Tessa, Shawnee, Mabra, and your father?”

“Things seem to be a little more ‘tame’ at my home than at yours,” Percy stated.

A perplexed Mark answered, “I don’t understand.”

“Last Friday, I assigned the students to write a composition over the weekend.”

“I know, Gabby told me it about it Sunday, said it was supposed to be about her family. So what does that have to do with how things are at your place versus mine?” Mark started to take a drink of coffee from the cup that sat on his desk.

“Well, seems I didn’t get my wife drunk over the weekend…”

Mark spit out the coffee and coughed as he had already started to swallow.

“What?!” Mark demanded, eyes wide open, shocked.

“You what?” Johnny asked with a strong laugh and surprise in his eyes.

“Seems Myra wrote about Milly being quite upset when she learned that Lucas had taken you a bottle of brandy and,” Percy paused, “you made Hope drink a whole lot of it and got your wife drunk. So drunk that none of the family could go to church?” Sitting down on the corner of the desk, with eyebrows raised Percy asked, “You care to tell me what happened?”

“You got my daughter drunk?” Seth stated with a disapproving edge to his voice.

Mark leaned back in the chair and ran his hand through his hair, “I told you what happened over the weekend,” Mark complained.

“You told us about how you headed home on Friday, only to find Hope and the boys not home from their ride and the storm stranding them in a shack overnight. You didn’t say anything about getting your wife… drunk,” Johnny continued to laugh.

“You also mentioned having to shoot off a pack of wolves, too,” Seth stated with reproach.

“Throughout the afternoon, she had been in and out of the shack, getting firewood and yes, she did her best to protect the boys from a pack of wolves. When Pa and I got to her, her jacket was soaked clear through from the snow. The only time she was near the fire was to add more wood to it, until we got there. By the time we found them, her body temperature was so low. After we got them home, Pa said they…” Changing his tone of voice, “No one minded when Judge Tanner and his wife forced me to drink brandy when I went to Marionette…” Mark stated indignantly.

“Well, your sister didn’t write an essay about that, but she did about this.” Percy stated as he handed the paper to Mark.

After a few moments of reading, Mark asked, “Who else has seen this?” as he shook his head.

“Just me,” Percy started laughing. “My, oh, my. Mark, I was quite surprised to read this. You’ll have a word with your parents?”

“Guess I need to. This isn’t something that I should keep between Gabby and me.”

“No,” Johnny Drako laughed. “Boy how I’d love to see Lucas’ face when he reads that sheet of paper.”

“Thanks a lot Johnny,” Mark dead panned as he watched Johnny leave the office, laughing.

“Percy, why not talk to Pa when he comes to get Gabby this afternoon?” Mark asked.

“Because she didn’t right about Milly. She wrote about Hope, your wife.”

“See ya later, friend,” Mark stated as Percy left the office.

“So,” Seth stated as he stood in front of Mark’s desk and folded his arms.

“Seth, she’s recovered. No signs of frost bite, no signs of taking a cold.”

“And?”

“She was sobered up Sunday evening. Seth, if it wasn’t so urgent to get her warmed up, I wouldn’t have given her the stuff. I remember how I felt after my trip to Marionette. I kept an eye on her all day until she said she was fine. I’m sorry, what else can I say? I was worried about my wife and…” Mark’s voice had taken a tone that he didn’t appreciate his motives in trying to save his wife’s life being questioned.

“Guess I shouldn’t have come down on you so hard… I probably would have done the same thing, had I been in your shoes. Still, she is my daughter…”

“I’ll forget about it, if you will,” Mark offered.

“I don’t think Johnny will let you forget.”

“Well, if that’s the case, I can always say something to Lou…”

“You wouldn’t?” Seth asked, knowing the trouble that Johnny would get into.

“Hey, she’s always had a soft spot in her heart for me… I can just say that Johnny’s being… well… Guess I should keep my mouth shut.”

“Good idea.”

*****

Mark was watching out the window when he saw his Pa ride into town to get Gabby from school.

“Pa!” Mark hollered and he ran out the door, flapping closed his coat collar. “You have a moment?”

Lucas stopped Blade in front of the Marshal’s Office, “I’m here to see Myra home.”

“I think Percy will keep her for a few minutes.”

Lucas stepped down from the saddle and walked into the office. Gladly, he accepted the hot cup of coffee offered to him by Seth.

“Thanks.” Lucas walked across the office and sat down on the edge of Mark’s desk. “So you were the one who wanted a moment of my time.” He raised an eyebrow as he took a drink from the cup.

“Pa, Percy stopped by this afternoon and showed me the composition Gabby wrote and turned in yesterday.”

“This is the composition about her family?” Lucas asked.

“Yeah. I take it that Ma didn’t read the essay?”

“She hasn’t had to check Myra’s work in some time. She does a lot better in school than you did at her age… I’m sorry Mark, that wasn’t fair. At her age, it was just the two of us and we hadn’t settled…”

“Pa, that’s not the point. It’s just that, well… the subject she chose kind of got me in trouble with the school teacher.”

“Got you in trouble? How?”

“Gabby chose to write of what happened this weekend.”

“A matter of the two of you getting my daughter – drunk!” Seth added as he affected an air of displeasure, yet enjoying the look of discomfort that appeared on Lucas’ face.

“Myra wrote.. But she…”

“Evidently, Ma was scolding both of us loud enough that Gabby heard her, through the bedroom door. Pa, I think you and Ma need to have a talk with her…”

Lucas pushed his hat back on his head. “Oh my, how do I tell Milly?”

“How do you tell Ma? How do I tell Hope? Luckily, Percy was the only one who saw the essay, but Johnny was in here when Percy arrived. You’ll talk with Gabby tonight?”

“We’ll talk with her. Mark, all I can say, you were never this much trouble.”

“Have a good night. I’ll be home tomorrow and I’ll see that Gabby gets home after school.”

*****

“Speaking of wives…” Mark averted his eyes, and faked looking at the wanted posters again, as he spoke to Seth.

“Wives?”

“You and Lilah. It’s been a couple of months since she returned to North Fork and I hear tell you’ve been seen escorting her around town and she’s taking up residence at the boarding house.”

“Mark, we’re just two people who enjoy each other’s company.”

“I seem to remember hearing someone else saying the same thing, before he finally asked Pa for permission to marry Miss Hattie,” Mark snickered.

“Mark, what’s between Lilah and me, if anything, is our business. I don’t see how it’s any of your concern,” Seth stated a little flustered.

“Well, I think it is my concern, since she may become my wife’s mother…”

“OUT!” Seth hollered as Mark ran from the office.

“I got rounds to do. I’ll be back once you’ve had a chance to cool down,” Mark called laughingly.

*****

Watching Mark run from the office, Seth leaned back in his chair and thought how it had been nice having the company of a woman for supper and going to church. He had been surprised when Lilah showed up in the middle of the influenza outbreak. After she stated she had to leave, it didn’t surprise Seth when he asked if there was anything really keeping her in Laramie. What did surprise Seth was her response, “No.” She left shortly after Mark and Hope’s birthday and returned after the New Year.”

*****

Wednesday afternoon, Mark met his sister as she stepped down the steps from the schoolhouse.

“Hi Gabby. You ready to go home?” Mark called.

“Guess so,” she answered.

“You upset with me?” Mark asked.

“I don’t want to talk about it. Just see me home,” Myra stated as she grabbed the saddle straps and pulled herself to the stirrups and got in the saddle.

On the way home, Mark tried to entice his sister into conversation without any luck.

As they rode into the yard, Mark stated, “If you’re going to continue to pout, get inside and start your homework. I’ll take care of the horses.”

As Myra entered her home, Hope was exiting the door, carrying Mykaela, “Good afternoon Myra.”

“I got homework to do.”

“Myra?” Hope called. Without receiving any response, Hope looked to Mark. “What’s wrong with her?”

“You don’t know?… Let me take care of BlueBoy.”

“No son, I’ll take care of him. You talk with Hope,” Lucas stated as he came from the barn and took BlueBoy’s reins.

“Ma didn’t tell…” Mark stopped talking when he saw his Pa try to hide a grin and shake his head.

“Tell me what?” Hope asked.

Milly stepped to the porch and said, “We’ll keep the boys here, until you’re through.”

“What does everyone else know that I don’t?”

“Come on, I have a tale to tell you.”

Lucas was walking across the yard from the barn to his house when he heard Hope yell, “She did what?” Lucas couldn’t keep the smirk from his face as he entered his home. He could only imagine what Mark was having to say to calm his wife.

 

This story continues in The Rifleman – The Next Generation Pt 16

 

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