The Rifleman – The Next Generation Pt 2 (by BluewindFarm)

Synopsis:  An AU story of the lives of the McCains and friend after the series ended its five-year run.  A continuation of an idea began in my story, Timing.

Category:  The Rifleman
Genre:  Western
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  19,620


The Next Generation… Chapter 11 – Learning the Letter of the Law

Doctor Burrage had declared Mark healed enough that he was able to return to all his chores at the ranch and to return to his duties as a deputy in North Fork. Micah and Johnny agreed that, in the beginning, they would only ask Mark to stay in town two nights a week. Mark chose Tuesdays and Saturdays.

*****

Mark had made a run to the store to pick up supplies when Amos brought over a letter. Mark looked at the postmark, Denver, Colorado. He opened the letter and read it.

Deputy Mark McCain
North Fork, New Mexico Territory

Dear Mark,

I’ve read the report from Marshal Torrance that your town doctor has declared you fit for active duty. The offer is still open. I look forward to your attending our training class beginning February 1st. Wire if you are able.

Respectfully,

Tom Benton
U.S. Marshal

Mark returned home to find his Ma in the kitchen. After inquiring about his Pa, he was informed he was out on the range. He’d be home in time for supper. Mark placed the letter against the lamp on the table.

The discussion over supper was Mark attending the training.

“But Pa,” Mark stated. “If I am going to continue to be a deputy, and maybe someday, even a marshal, I feel it’s like doctoring. Get the most education you can so that you can make the right decision, when the time comes.”

“So just when did my son get so smart?” Lucas asked with a grin on his face.

“Well that happened back before Thanksgiving, when Mr. Griswald gave me that piece of paper.”

*****

It was a tearful farewell when Mark had to say goodbye to his family. Milly and Lucas gave him some privacy to say goodbye to Hope.

“I know it will seem like forever, but I’ll be back in just over two months. Miss Hattie is a good woman, just like a Grandma. I’m sure Ma and Pa would enjoy you staying at the ranch every now and then while I’m gone. You can stay in my room.”

The train whistled and the conductor called “All Aboard!”

Mark quickly kissed Hope, grabbed his bags and his rifle, and climbed aboard. He waved as the train pulled from the station and he could no longer see his family. He settled into his seat on the train.

*****

Three days later, Mark arrived in Denver and marveled at the size of the town. He was standing on the platform when he heard his name called.

Marshal Benton greeted him and took his bags.

“Mark, I’ve a room already set up for you at the hotel, you don’t need to worry about any expenses, the U.S. government is picking up all the expenses for this training session. All you have to do is think, listen, and learn.” Benton handed Mark’s bags to the coach driver and opened the door for Mark to enter. “Mark, I also think it best that no one know your real age. You’re a lot younger than any of the others, if they ask, you can tell them you’re twenty, but you just look young for your age. There’s one other deputy, Drew Anders anywhere close to your age, and he’s twenty-three.”

“What about my name? Would anyone here know my Pa and his reputation with his rifle?”

“I’m sure some will. But don’t let any of the others push you to prove you’re anywhere near as good with that rifle as your Pa. That’s not what you’re here for.

*****

For two months, Mark listened, studied, and learned. In the beginning a few questioned Mark on how young he looked, but by the end of the first week, he was one of the ‘gang’. Most had heard of the Rifleman and no one challenged Mark to prove anything. They figured if he were the Rifleman’s son, then he had to be just as good with the rifle.

Over dinner each night, there were discussions, back and forth, regarding the topic of the day and how each would have handled the situation. They discussed strategy and theorem. After dinner, cards were usually brought out or the checker boards

Of an evening, once he was back in his hotel room, Mark would sit in the big overstuffed chair and look out the window. Wishing the city lights weren’t so bright and that he could see the stars. Wondering if Hope was looking at the stars he always looked at when he was home.

The final week of training, Marshal Benton announced that there would be a shooting contest. It wasn’t just about abilities with the rifle or hand gun, but abilities to address a situation with split second decision, shoot or hold fire.

By the end of the third round, Mark and Drew Anders were tied for the lead. Benton called for a sudden death shoot off. This time, accuracy and efficiency matter most. Benton placed the bulls-eye targets 25 paces away. Both deputies were requested to fire five shots, as quickly as possible.

By flip of the coin, Drew went first. Three dead center. One on the line. One just inside the second ring out.

Mark walked to the line. He inhaled slowly and waited for the signal. Five shots. Four inside, dead center and one just on the line, but still center.

All the other deputies slapped Mark on the back, each stating, in their own way, “You sure are as good as your Pa’s reputation. Guess North Fork will be mighty tame with you around.”

*****

Marshal Benton saw Mark back to the train depot. “Well Mark, you’re every bit as good as a student and your rifle as I hoped Micah’s secret deputy would be. I’m proud to call you a brother of the law.”

“Marshal Benton, thanks. I know a lot of people might think I’m too young for this responsibility…”

“Non-sense boy, best to bring you up knowing what’s right now, than trying to teach some of the older deputies and marshals. Some just get too set in their ways. You tell your Pa I said, ‘well done’.”

 

The Next Generation… Chapter 12 – The Homecoming

 

Mark returned to North Fork and enjoyed supper at Lou’s with his Pa, his Ma, and Hope. They talked of how well Hope was progressing at school and quick to understand her lessons. Mark’s eyes sparkled as they talked about Hope. Then Mark told of some of the highlights of his stay in Denver, finishing with, “But boy, how I’m glad to be home. I can’t wait to see the stars tonight from the front porch.”

While waiting on dessert, Lucas asked, “So Deputy McCain, what’s the first order of business tomorrow?”

“Pa, I’ve already talked with Micah and he’s giving me a few days to adjust to being back home, so I thought after I got my chores done, that Hope and I could spend tomorrow afternoon riding.”

*****

Mark’s return was followed by the first warm spring day of the season. Mark and Hope spent the afternoon out riding the range. Along their way, they stopped to water their horses at a creek. While Hope was standing next to Mark, her horse turned its head and neck around to bite at its flank and when bringing its head back around to the front, the horse pushed her into the creek. Mark tried not to, but he couldn’t help himself as he started laughing at her. Hope turned over to sit up in the middle of the creek, her eyes flashed indignation. Mark offered her a hand to get up, instead, she pulled him in to the creek and he landed on his face beside her. Both started laughing and slashing water at each other.

When they finally stopped laughing, they helped each other up and walked to sit on the bank. Mark smiled as he stared at Hope, marveling at how long her hair had grown since that first day they had met. He pushed a strand of hair from her face. She was sitting so close.., Mark felt a warmth deep inside, he put his arm around her shoulder and pulled her closer to him, her face was so close. He gently placed his hand on her chin and pulled her face towards his, he started to give her a playful kiss. At first, Mark sensed that Hope was tense, but soon, the desire was within her as well and she responded. His playful kiss turned passionate.

As they broke apart from their kiss, both felt a little embarrassed at the strength of their feelings. Mark lay backwards on the ground, his arms wrapped around Hope, pulling her to lie down next to him. He heard her sigh as she snuggled her head into his shoulder. Quietly, they listened to the sounds of the water gurgling along its course, the breeze blowing through new leaves on the trees, and the birds chirping above them. Both were soon lulled to sleep.

*****

That evening, Mark was sitting out on the front porch, looking out as the last rays as the sun faded from the sky. Remembering his afternoon.

“Mark, you look a thousand miles away. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you daydream like that.” Lucas said as he sat down and leaned back against a post.

“Pa, I…” Mark stopped and thought to himself, ‘How do I talk about this with my Pa?’ He looked through the open door to see his Ma finishing with the dishes.

“Does this have anything to do with this afternoon?” Lucas asked, thankful that his cigar could hide his grin.

“This afternoon?” Mark asked, thankful the sun had set and his Pa couldn’t see his expression. But sure his Pa heard it in his voice.

“Mark, I was riding back from town when I spotted two horses over by Miller’s Creek. I recognized Blue Boy and grew concerned. I saw you and Hope sleeping next to each other on the bank of the creek. You looked…”

“Just how did we look?” Mark asked quietly.

“Maybe you should tell me,” Lucas answered and waited.

“Pa, each time I drop Hope off at Miss Hattie’s I miss her terribly. Those two months I spent up in Denver, when I was alone in my room, it hurt just thinking about her. What was she doing? Did she miss me? Pa, when we were riding today, I saw a vision of my life and Hope was there.”

Mark stopped talking as he watched a shooting star streak across the sky. “I missed seeing the stars up in the sky while I was in Denver. I missed you and Ma, but more so, I missed Hope.

“Pa, we stopped to water the horses and Hope’s horse pushed her into the creek and I tried to give her a hand to help her get to her feet and she pulled me into the water next to her. When we finally stopped laughing, we walked to the bank and sat down next to each other. Pa, she…”

Lucas waited.

“Pa, I kissed her and not on the cheek. Gently at first, but then something inside me… I pulled her closer and… Pa, I’ve never felt that way before. I just wanted her, the kiss became something more… It’s hard to describe… I know Hope felt the same way. We were there, in each other’s arms and nothing else existed, nothing else mattered. We parted and I looked into her eyes and… It hurt, here.” Mark pointed to his heart. “I didn’t want to let the moment to end. I just laid back and pulled her close to me and held her in my arms. I don’t know how long we laid there before we fell asleep.”

Lucas smiled as he asked, “Does this mean we need to have another Father/Son talk?”

“Is this what love feels like?” Mark asked as he looked to his Pa.

“It can, in the best of times.”

“Pa, I know we’re only seventeen, but… How do I go about getting permission from Hope’s family?”

“Permission?” Milly asked as she walked to the porch to sit down next to her husband.

“I want to court Hope. I want everyone to know. Someday, I want to make her my wife.”

“Mark as you said, you’re both seventeen.”

“I know Pa, but asking permission to court doesn’t mean I’m going to ask Hope to marry me next month, like someone did,” Mark grinned and ducked as Milly threw a towel towards her son.

“Mark McCain, I have every mind of bending you over my knee and tanning those britches of yours!” Milly declared.

“Ma’am, that would be assaulting a law officer and I could put you in jail for that,” Mark rebuked.

“I’m your mother and I have the right!”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Mark stated as he looked to his Pa for help.

“Don’t look at me deputy, I’m just an ordinary citizen, trying to live the good life and protect what’s mine.”

“Oh, Pa, but I’m your son?”

“Yeah, but she can lock me out of the bedroom.”

Together the three laughed.

That night, after Lucas and Milly had retired; Mark pulled out a tablet of paper and wrote a letter. The following day he posted it to the mail.

*****

One night, Hattie noticed how quiet Hope had become recently.

“Child you seem rather quiet of late. Is there anything wrong?”

“Miss Hattie?” Hope asked as she slipped into bed.

“Yes Hope.”

“Can we talk?” Tears were welling in her eyes.

“Oh Hope, yes. What’s wrong?”

“Miss Hattie, I think I did something wrong.”

“Wrong? Child, what gave you that idea?”

“Mark’s been avoiding me for the past week. I…”

“Hope, its springtime, there’s lots of work to be done on all the ranches. Plus Mark’s been working for Micah,” Hattie stated.

“Miss Hattie, he could come see me before he works for Micah or even after, but he doesn’t.”

“Why do you think you did something wrong?”

“After Mark returned, we went riding.”

“Nothing wrong with that child.”

“I know, but while we were watering the horses, mine pushed me into the creek and, well, Mark laughed at me. I got so mad that when he offered to help me up, I pulled him into the creek as well. We laughed about it, but… afterwards, we were sitting on the bank… he kissed me. Oh, Miss Hattie it felt so wonderful and I enjoyed it and I kissed him back. We laid back in each other’s arms and fell asleep. Now, I see him riding past the school or through town and he doesn’t stop. Oh Miss Hattie, was I so wrong to enjoy the kiss?”

“Oh child.” Miss Hattie pulled Hope into her arms. “I’m sure Mark’s just as confused about what happened as you are. Give him time to sort through his feelings and I’m sure he’ll be back by your side.”

“Do you really think so?”

“Honey, there’s no way that boy wouldn’t come back to you. You know, he’s never told me how the two of you met. But that first day I came back to North Fork, he told me he wanted me to love you for who you are, not your past. I’ve come to love you like a granddaughter, just as I love him like a grandson. Give him time.” Hattie pulled the covers up, over Hope, turned and blew out the lantern, and started to leave the room.

“Miss Hattie, Mark told me once that you were the best Grandma, I agree,” Hope stated as she curled up and went to sleep.

Hattie left the room and closed the door, a smile on her face.

*****

Three days later, Mark returned to town for his duty at the Marshal’s office. As he arrived, Miss Hattie met him at the door.

“Mark, a moment please?”

“Miss Hattie, for you, anytime.” Mark opened the door and allowed Miss Hattie to enter before him.

“Mark, I know you’re a good boy and you wouldn’t deliberately hurt anyone.”

“Miss Hattie, what are you talking about?” Mark inquired.

“Mark, I’m talking about Hope. She thinks she’s done something wrong and you’re avoiding her. I told her non-sense, you were just real busy with it being springtime at the ranch and working as a deputy. But she said, even when you were in town, you didn’t stop before or afterwards to say hello…

“Mark, she told me what happened out at Miller’s Creek.”

“Miss Hattie,” Mark started. “I can’t see her just yet. I… I have to wait. I know I shouldn’t have kissed her like that, but Miss Hattie, I love her and I don’t want to disrespect her. I need to wait until I hear back from her father. Miss Hattie, I asked for his blessing to court her.”

“Mark McCain, you’re seventeen!”

“I know, but I also know that someday, I want to make Hope my wife and I want to do it proper. You know that you always told Pa to make sure I grew up to be a gentleman.”

“Mark…”

Giving Hattie a kiss on the cheek, Mark asked, “Miss Hattie, please keep it a secret. Please?”

Hattie nodded.

*****

It was the morning after another quiet evening in North Fork.

“Johnny, you think your reputation as a gun fighter keeps the outlaws away?”

“Some. But I’m sure not always. Someday, my reputation won’t matter anymore and I hope that the three of us can keep North Fork the quiet town I love living in.”

As Mark walked to the livery to get Blue Boy and head for home, Amos came running up to him.

“Mark…, Mark, I got a wire for you.”

Mark opened the envelope that Amos handed to him.

Mark McCain
North Fork, New Mexico Territory

YES /stop/
God Bless You /stop/

Seth & Ethan Lane
Fort Sam Houston, Texas

Mark read the note again and ran to the schoolhouse. He arrived just as Mr. Griswald closed the doors. He opened the doors and entered.

“Deputy McCain, is something wrong?”

“No sir! I just need to see Hope for a minute. Please?” Mark asked, out of breath.

“Miss Lane, please see to Deputy McCain.”

Hope stood and walked to the back of the schoolroom. Mark closed the doors behind them. He placed his hand at the small of Hope’s back and escorted her to sit down on the bench out front.

“Hope? Miss Hattie came to see me yesterday. I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings. I never meant to. It’s just that I care so much about you and I wanted to make sure I did everything proper.”

“Proper?”

“Hope, I sent a letter to your father and I had to wait until I heard back. I got a wire from him this morning.” Mark pulled out the wire and showed it to Hope.

“I don’t understand.”

“Hope, it’s not just that I care for you, but I truly know that I love you. I asked your father if he would give me permission to court you.”

“Court me?” Hope asked.

“Hope, courting you means to let everyone know that we love each other. And I think you feel the same way and maybe, maybe when were older, Hope… for some time I’ve had a dream at night and in my dream, you’re my wife. Hope, I want that dream to come true.”

Hope squealed as she wrapped her arms around Mark’s neck.

Just then, Mr. Griswald opened the door, “Deputy McCain, if my student may return to her seat?”

“Yes Mr. Griswald. Just a moment.” Then turning to Hope. “Hope, I want to make this official. This Friday, you’ll come to the ranch for supper, and we’ll let the whole world know, well, at least North Fork.”

Hope nodded.

Mark helped Hope to her feet and watched as she walked up the steps of the school. She stopped at the door and looked back, she smiled.

*****

As requested by Mark, Milly brought Hope to the ranch when she returned from school Friday night. They arrived to find Mark was just taking supper up from the stove, and surprisingly, it smelled good. Lucas returned from working out on the ranch, just after Hope and Milly. All three stood still, a little unprepared for the sight that greeted them.

The table was already set, and a candle stood in the middle.

“Pa, if you’ll wash up, supper’s ready.” Mark stated as he set the last of the serving dishes on the table.

Throughout supper, neither Milly nor Lucas could get over this latest domesticity of Mark. They also wondered about the look in his and Hope’s eyes. Hope and Mark offered to do dishes while Milly started to work on her embroidery and Lucas read aloud from the bible. Mark walked Hope to the front room, stood behind her, and put his arms around her waist.

“Pa? Ma?” Mark asked. “I guess you’re wondering tonight.”

Both nodded.

“Well, I just wanted to make tonight special. Almost two weeks ago, I wrote Hope’s family a letter and a couple of days ago, I got a reply.”

“A letter Mark?” Milly asked.

“You both know how I feel about Hope and I asked her family if I could have permission to court her. They said yes. I wanted you two to be the first to know that I really do intend, someday, to make Hope my wife. I want to yell to the whole world, how I feel about Hope. More important, Pa, you raised me to be a gentleman and I wanted to make sure I did this right. So with your blessings, I’d like to make it official.”

It was a family, group hug as Milly and Lucas pulled Mark and Hope into their embrace.

Afterwards, Mark drove Hope back to North Fork and to Miss Hattie’s. She yelled, “Land’s sake,” as Hope told her the news. She pulled both into a hug.

“Now Mark, you get on back home. There are proprieties that must be observed and its well past the time for Hope to be in bed.” Hattie escorted Hope inside and shut the door.

*****

Mark returned home to find his Ma already retired for the night. Lucas sat on the porch, finishing his cigar. He watched as Mark exited the barn from tending to Blue Boy. He patted the porch next to where he sat, indicating he wanted Mark to sit a spell.

“Mark, I’m happy for you and Hope and I knew this day would eventually come. But Mark, you’re only seventeen. How can you be so sure it is Hope you wish to spend the rest of your life with?”

“Pa, I told you about a dream I had last year. Well, I realized that Milly was my Ma, in that dream and now you two are married. The more time I spend with Hope, the more I realize that she’s the woman I marry. Pa, I feel complete when I’m with Hope. Especially, when I think back to the day after my return from Denver, Pa my feelings, I know they’re not wrong.”

“Mark, promise me that you’ll wait until you are at least eighteen before you get married,” Lucas asked, yet he laughed.

“Pa? What’s so funny?”

“Mark, remember the first time that you and Hope said goodbye to Seth and Ethan, after Micah and I had been ‘resurrected’?”

Mark nodded.

“Well, that day, Micah told me to ‘Mark his words, that one or both of us would be married within a year’. Well, I’ve already fulfilled Micah’s prophecy; let’s not give him the satisfaction of knowing he was right about both of us. Okay?”

“Sure Pa. By the way, Pa?” Mark asked, unsure of what he was about to say. “Don’t you think it’s a little past your bedtime?” He quickly rose and ran into the house, before Lucas could react.

 

The Next Generation… Chapter 13 – Summertime

 

As the hectic times of Spring gave way to the quieter times of Summer, Mark’s time spent at the Marshal’s Office increased. Since the beginning of June, he was spending three days and four nights each week relieving Micah or Johnny. But for the next month, it would only be Micah and Mark.

North Fork was eagerly planning the summer social to be held on the solstice. The people of the town had decorated the main street of North Fork. Oat Jackford and Dave Merar, each, had slaughtered a cow and had it over the pits. Lucas had donated a hog. A band came all the way from Santa Fe.

But, prior to the festivities being started, the town gathered at the church. They all celebrated the wedding of Johnny Drako and Lou Mallory.

Lucas and Milly were sitting out one of the more livelier tunes the band was playing when Micah joined them for a spell.

“Well LucasBoy, two down, one more to go.” He smiled as he poked at Lucas. “It’s only a matter of time before that boy of yours walks down the aisle too.”

Milly was quick to reply. “Now Marshal, just why are you so eager to see my son get married. Seems I just held him in my arms, for the first time as a mother, and now you’re trying to take my baby away from me?” Her voice gave a hint of laughter.

“Micah, it won’t happen within your timeframe. Mark has promised that he will wait until he’s at least eighteen before they get married?” Lucas replied as he pulled Milly closer to him.

*****

Before anyone realized, Johnny and Lou had quietly left town. He planned to introduce his new bride to his sister’s family over in Lubbock, Texas, before heading out on their honeymoon.

*****

The celebration had ended when two riders entered town, a deputy and his prisoner. They stopped in front of the Marshal’s Office. The marshal had his rifle trained on the other, told him to ‘get down’.

“Now Marshal, it would be a lot easier for me to help you if you just unchain me?” the man snickered.

“I said get down.”

The man jumped from his horse and before the marshal could react, he was pulled from his horse. Mark was just coming around the corner from his nightly walk of the town. In no time, he had his rifle at the man’s throat, and cocked the lever. The man released the deputy and pushed his arms further in front of him, giving up. Mark motioned the prisoner into the jail cell and locked the door. He then returned to help the Deputy outside.

“Drew, Drew Anders?” Mark asked as he saw the deputy struggling to walk. “Come on Drew, just lean on me and I’ll get you to Doctor Burrage’s.”

“Thanks Mark.”

Mark left Drew at the Doctor’s office while he ran to the Doctor’s home to get him. They returned to the office. Mark listened to Drew’s story as Thaddeus examined his leg.

“Yeah, busted it yesterday. Tried splinting it myself, but, I guess I should have paid more attention to some of the doctoring they told us about up in Denver.”

“Deputy, I need to get you so you’re not feeling any pain. You have your choice of Laudanum or whiskey, which do you want?” Thaddeus Burrage asked.

“Mark,” Drew stated. “Which would you take?”

“Deputy, with Mark’s age, he doesn’t get the choice. Sides his Pa would skin me alive if I gave him any whiskey.”

“Age? He’s man enough to have whiskey if he wants. He’s a deputy for pity sake.”

“Deputy or not, I need to set this leg. Mark, why don’t you go to Sweeney’s and get me a bottle.”

Mark left and did as he was told. He returned promptly and stayed while Drew got drunk. Mark laughed as time went by. Doctor Burrage stated it would probably be a week before he’d allow Drew to ride.

Slurring his words, “But I gotta prisoner to deliver.”

“Drew, I’ll take care of getting your prisoner to Amarillo. While I’m gone, you can stay in my room, out at the ranch, with my folks.”

Still slurring his words, “Ya still live at home with yur Ma and Pa? Mark, cum-on, yur a depity, ya gotta get a life! Wha’d ya think you are, a teenager still?”

“Drew, actually, I am. I’m only seventeen.”

“Yeah and I’m old man winter. Hey Mark, you gotta try some, I feel good. I don’t feel anything.” Drew was drunk.

Doctor Burrage said it was time. He instructed Mark to keep Drew down, but first told him to get the piece of wood from the medicine cabinet and put it in Drew’s mouth, and told Drew to bite down on it, hard.

Mark pressed Drew’s shoulders to the table as his leg was set. Drew screamed loud enough to wake the dead, before he passed out.

“Thanks Mark. I think I can handle everything from here. I’ll see to it that he sleeps off the whiskey here.”

“Goodnight Doc,” Mark stated as he walked to the door.

“Mark, you realize that’s the time you‘ve called me Doc since I arrived.”

“I’m sorry sir. It just slipped out.”

Thaddeus had finished wrapping the splint when he came to stand next to Mark.

“Mark, I don’t regret that it slipped out. Besides, Doctor seems a little too stuffy. I wish we could be better friends, in fact, I’d really appreciate it if you would just call me Thadd.”

“Okay Thadd, I’ll see you and Drew in the morning.”

Mark returned to the office. First, he tended to the horses Drew and his prisoner arrived on. It wasn’t going to be quite the quiet night he had expected. The prisoner had fallen asleep by the time Mark returned. He pulled out a blanket, wrapped it over his shoulders and tried to fall asleep on the chaise. He couldn’t sleep; the prisoner snored louder than his Pa did.

The Next Generation… Chapter 14 – The Delivery

 

Mark met Amos at the telegraph office, first thing in the morning.

“Amos, I need to send a wire to the U.S. Marshal’s Office in Denver.”

“Sure Mark, just write it out.”

U.S. Marshal’s Office
Denver, Colorado

Sirs,

Deputy Anders injured /stop/
Unable to transport prisoner to Amarillo /stop/
Please advise /stop/

Mark McCain, Deputy
North Fork, New Mexico Territory

“Amos, I’ll be at the jail when you get a reply.”

*****

Mark arrived back at the jail in time see Micah opening the door.

“Micah!” Mark hollered.

“Morning Mark, you been out on rounds already this morning? Sure is a glorious day.” Then seeing the tired look in Mark’s eyes, he smiled as he asked, “You and Hope spend some time together afterwards, last night?”

“No sir, we had a little bit of trouble late last night. Didn’t get much sleep.”

“Trouble? Why didn’t you come wake me?”

“Micah, it wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle. A friend I met, when I was up in Denver, he broke his leg while transporting a prisoner. I got the prisoner in jail and Drew’s over at Doc’s. They’re supposed to be heading to Amarillo. I just had Amos send a wire up to Denver letting them know what happened and asking they advise us how to proceed.”

“Hey, lawboy!” the prisoner yelled. “Get me my food! You can’t starve me like this! I got my rights!”

“Who’s the prisoner Mark?” Micah asked as they entered the office.

“Drew said his name was Henry Barlow, said he was a horse thief and he was to be transported to Amarillo, Texas. I sat up with Drew while he got drunk enough for Thadd to set his leg. Surprised you didn’t hear him yell.”

Mark sat down on the chaise and was soon asleep. Micah laid a blanket over the sleeping Mark, then went to order breakfast for the prisoner.

*****

About an hour later, Amos entered the office.

“Micah, I got a reply to Mark’s wire to the Marshals up in Denver.”

Mark started to rouse. Micah read the wire.

Deputy Mark McCain
North Fork, New Mexico Territory

Unable to send deputy to North Fork /stop/
Require you transport deputy to Clovis, New Mexico /stop/
Meet with Marshal James Carson /stop/

Respectfully
Cole Barker, U.S. Marshal
Denver, Colorado

“What’s wrong Micah?” Mark asked as he looked at Micah.

“Mark, seems we need to get Barlow to Clovis. I’ll go get your Pa, see if he can help.”

“No Micah, I’m your deputy. If you don’t trust me to deliver a horse thief up to Clovis, then take back the badge.” Mark stood in front of Micah, defiance in his eyes and voice. “Besides, I can’t ask Pa to leave Ma right now.”

“Mark… Listen to me.” Micah pleaded.

“Micah, you trust me to watch the town, but you won’t trust me to deliver a horse thief?”

“You’re right, it’s just that…”

“I know, it’s hard to let go.”

Micah headed to the General Store for provisions for the trip. Mark headed to Nil’s to borrow a packhorse and get the other two horses ready. He was going to use Drew’s horse instead of Blue Boy for this trip. He led three horses to the Marshal’s.

“You’re not taking Blue Boy?”

“No sir, thought I’d leave him for Hope to ride.”

“Well it shouldn’t take you no more than three days to get to Clovis and then three days back. You wire when you get there?”

“Sure Micah, now let’s get my prisoner in the saddle. Will you let Ma and Pa know, and Hope?”

“You ain’t going to tell them yourself? They should be here in about an hour for church.”

“No Micah, if I wait to tell Pa, he’ll insist on riding. I know he’s my Pa, but right now, it’s more important that he stay home, close to Ma.”

“Mark, that’s twice now that you’ve said your Pa needs to stay close to your Ma. Just what’s wrong with Milly?” Micah asked, concern in his voice.

“Micah, it’s nothing that time won’t resolve.”

“Boy you’re talking to an old man.” Micah chided Mark.

“Micah, last week I arrived home to find Ma passed out on the floor. I tended to her and she finally came around. I wanted to go get Pa, but she said no. Said she didn’t want no fussing. I think she’s pregnant.”

“Pregnant?” Micah repeated. “You know, she did seem to have a special glow about her last night at the dance. Does your Pa know?”

“I don’t think so. If he did, he wouldn’t have been dancing with her like he was last night.” Mark pleaded again. “Micah, just wait until after church services to let them know you sent me out of town. You don’t have to tell them I’m escorting a prisoner. Please.”

“Mark, you know I can’t lie to your Pa, he’s my best friend.”

“Micah, please. You don’t have to tell him the whole truth, just enough to satisfy him so he won’t worry.”

“And if something happens?”

“Then Pa can tan both our hides when I get back home.”

Mark and Micah saw the prisoner to his horse. Mark mounted and, leading the packhorse, left North Fork.

*****

Lucas and Milly arrived in North Fork, shortly before church services were to start. They met Hope and Hattie out front. Lucas scanned those walking down the road for sign of his son.

“Lucas, we really need to go inside. I’m sure Mark will be along soon enough. He probably slept in a little after helping to keep an eye on the festivities last night, and then walking the town afterwards. I’m sure he and Micah are catching up.”

Reverend McCafferty’s sermon was wonderful, but he kept is shorter than usual. The day was already hot and all the windows and doors were left open to help keep the parishioners cooler. Service ended and the town’s folks left the church, stopping to make small talk with the Reverend and his wife as they left.

Lucas and Milly stood to leave, but Lucas sensed something amiss. He looked at Milly as he felt her grab tighter to his arm before he felt her release her grip. He caught Milly in his arms as she fainted, gently lowering her to the ground. Lucas yelled for Doctor Burrage. Hope started fanning Milly’s face. Hattie ordered everyone out of the church.

Worry grew in Lucas’ heart, what was wrong with Milly?

Young Doc Burrage made his way into the church.

“Lucas, what happened?”

“She fainted Doc. We stood to leave, she grabbed my arm and then, she fainted. Doc, what’s wrong with her?”

“Lucas, I’ve not had chance to examine her. Do you mind carrying her to my office? It’s a more fitting place than here.”

*****

Micah insisted that Lucas accompany him to his office, leaving Hope with Milly.

“Give Doc time and the room to examine her LucasBoy. He can’t rightly do a good job with you asking questions every thirty seconds and standing at his elbow.”

Doc Burrage arrived at Micah’s.

“Doc, how is she? Is she going to be alright?” Lucas pleaded. “Please Doc, tell me what’s wrong with my wife?”

“Lucas, I’ve been asked to not say anything to you. Milly wants to tell you herself.” Thaddeus did his best to keep a stoic look on his face. “She’s getting dressed and wants to see you. You can take her home, but I order her to take it easy for the next few months. As this progresses…”

Lucas didn’t hear anything after Thaddeus said Milly wanted to see him, as he ran to be with his wife.

“So Doc, Mark was right?” Micah asked.

“Mark, right?” Thadd looked at Micah, perplexed.

“Mark told me this morning that last week he found Milly passed out at the ranch. She didn’t want Mark to tell Lucas. He told me he thought she might be pregnant.”

“You know Marshal, from what Uncle Jay has told me, the intuition and knack for knowing what to do when someone get’s injured, I sure don’t know why Mark didn’t plan to become a doctor?”

“Too many years of watching his Pa help me.” Micah answered with a laugh. “Tell Lucas and Milly congratulations from me, when you get back to your office.”

*****

Lucas arrived at Doc’s and quietly called to Milly as he entered.

“Lucas I’ll be right there,” Milly replied.

He waited for her to step from behind the partition. Hope came first, holding Milly’s hand.

“Hope, I’m fine. Please.” Milly stated.

“Milly?” Relief flooded Lucas to see his wife standing in front of him, but deep worry wrinkled his brow.

“Lucas, please. I’m fine.”

“Milly, please tell me what’s wrong. I promised to love you in sickness and in health. If something’s wrong, please, don’t try to protect me from hurt. I hurt more not knowing.” Lucas walked to his wife and wrapped his arms around her.

Milly felt Lucas tremble. She pushed herself slightly away so she could look him in the eye.

“Lucas, honestly, I’m going to be fine. Just that…”

“Milly, what?” Lucas pleaded.

“Well, there’s going to be an addition to the family, we’re going to have a baby.” Milly smiled as she told Lucas their news.

Lucas stepped back and looked his wife in the eye. He stumbled backwards until he sat on Doc’s desk.

“A baby?…” Lucas shook his head.

“Lucas?”

“A baby! You’re pregnant?” Lucas asked as a broad smile appeared on his face. He scooped Milly up in his arms and swung her around.

“Lucas!” Milly squealed.

Lucas quickly set Milly down. Hope stood to the side laughing.

“So who’s going to tell Mark he’s going to be a big brother?” Hope asked.

“I guess we all ca…” Lucas started.

“Lucas, what’s wrong?”

“Milly, I just realized, Mark wasn’t at Micah’s when I was over there. I was so concerned for you, that I didn’t realize it until just now.”

The three walked over to Micah’s.

“Well, if it isn’t the expecting parents!” Micah exclaimed with a huge smile on his face.

“Micah, I asked Doctor Burrage to not tell anyone.” Milly stated.

“He didn’t, Mark told me.”

“Mark?”

“Yep, he told me before he…”

“Before he what, Micah?” Lucas demanded. “He wasn’t at church and he wasn’t here earlier. Where is my boy?”

“Now Lucas, he’s running an errand for me. I had some business that needed to be delivered in person and Mark offered to do the delivering. Youth. I wasn’t looking forward to being in the saddle that long, anyhow. Should be back by week’s end.” Micah answered as he poured himself another cup of coffee. “He asked me to let both of you and Hope know.”

“Why couldn’t he wait and tell us himself?” Milly asked.

“Well, he wanted to get gone, so he could get back that much sooner.”

Neither Lucas or Milly believed Micah, but they let it be.

“Come on Hope, let’s go have lunch at the hotel.” Milly stated as she took Hope’s arm.

They entered the hotel to find a very concerned Hattie sitting at a table with John Hamilton.

“Milly! Are you okay? Can I get you anything?”

“Hattie, I’m fine. Just need to take it easy from here on out, at least for a while.”

“It wasn’t just the heat inside the church was it?” Hattie asked. “No, it wasn’t. You know, you have a certain glow about you. Milly, you’re expecting?” Milly nodded. “Congratulations!” The two women hugged.

John Hamilton stood and gave Milly a hug and offered a handshake to Lucas.

Hattie left the restaurant and proceeded to tell everyone she met the news! A steady stream of town’s people paraded through the restaurant in order to congratulate the happy couple.

*****

Lucas told Milly to wait in the restaurant as he walked Hope to Miss Hattie’s. He returned with the buckboard and escorted Milly and gently lifted her up to her seat. He only allowed the horses to walk for the trip home. As they arrived, he lifted her down and carried her inside.

“Lucas McCain, I’m pregnant, not an egg. You don’t have to treat me so fragile! I won’t break. Besides, I don’t know if I can survive another seven months of you treating me like this.”

“Milly, please, please sit down. Let me have my say.”

Milly pouted her lips, but did as Lucas requested as he knelt down in front of her. He took both of her hands in his.

“Milly, I don’t want you pushing yourself. I… This baby…” Tears were falling down Lucas’ face.

“Lucas, talk to me.” Milly asked.

“Milly, Mark was three years old when I found out Margaret and I were expecting a second child. I was thrilled with the idea of Mark having a younger brother or sister. Thrilled to hold a second baby in my arms and introduce that child to the world. Yet, I worried. I almost lost Margaret when Mark was born. She was so weak and sick, that for the first month of Mark’s life, she couldn’t take care of him.”

Lucas paused as his memories took him back in time.

“It was summertime and I had been working hard on the farm back in Enid. I was running late in getting home one night. When I finally got home, the doctor was already there. Margaret had lost the baby. She miscarried. I knew how much that baby meant to her. In the years after Mark was born, seeing other women having baby after baby. Margaret had desperately yearned for a second child. This time, the doctor told me that if Margaret were ever to get pregnant again, it could…. She just wasn’t strong enough to carry another child to term and the strain the baby would put on her body… The doctor said it would kill her.”

Lucas’ eyes returned to look into Milly’s, they pleaded for her to understand another part of his hurt.

“Lucas, I didn’t know. If I had known, I would have told you when I first suspected. I didn’t mean to worry you like this. Lucas, please forgive me?” she asked.

“Milly, there’s nothing to forgive, as long as you promise to take it easy. I can’t lose you or this baby,” he stated has he rubbed his hand over her stomach. A smile finally appeared on his face.

“So, are you going to let me fix supper tonight for my husband?” Milly asked.

“Only after you take a nap!” Lucas helped her to their bed, saw her lie down. He left the house and started to tend to the stock.

*****

It had been four days since Mark left North Fork and Micah grew worried. He should have received word by now that Mark had arrived in Clovis. He watched out the window as Lucas rode up to Doc’s.

*****

“Doc?” Lucas called as he entered. “Sorry, I didn’t realize you were busy.”

“That’s okay Lucas, I’m almost done. What brings you to town?”

“Doc, I was wondering if you have something for Milly, to help with her morning sickness?”

“Sure Lucas, let me write it down and Mrs. Donner can get it for you over at the general store. By the way, Lucas McCain I’d like you to meet Drew Anders, he’s been a resident of mine for the past four days.”

“Lucas McCain? You’re Mark’s father?” Lucas nodded. “I’m pleased to meet you sir. You must be mighty proud of him.” Drew extended his hand.

“I am. If I can ask, you’re not from around here, so how is it you know my boy?”

“Oh, I’m sorry sir, I met him up in Denver. I’m a deputy U.S. Marshal, don’t have my badge on seeing as how I can’t get around on my own, yet. I sure am glad Mark could deliver my prisoner while I’m laid up,” Drew stated.

“He’s what?” Lucas asked, surprise in his voice.

“Since Doc here won’t let me ride and I had a prisoner that needed to get to Amarillo, Mark took him.”

“Mark is delivering a prisoner, by himself? To Amarillo?!”

Lucas left Doc’s and headed for the Marshal’s, Micah saw the storm clouds brewing. He stepped to the pot belly stove and poured a second cup of coffee, this one for Lucas.

“Morning LucasBoy,” Micah cheerfully said.

“Don’t Morning LucasBoy, me, Micah. Just when were you going to tell me my boy was delivering a prisoner to Amarillo? Why didn’t you tell me? I could have accompanied him. How could you let a seventeen year old boy, deliver a prisoner?”

“Now Lucas, if you’ll let me answer your question, before you ask the next… First off, he’s not going to Amarillo. Marshal’s Office is sending a marshal to meet up with him in Clovis. Second, I didn’t tell you because Mark asked me not to, he knew you’d want to go along and he didn’t want you away from Milly right now. Third, as he pointed out, he’s my deputy and if I couldn’t trust him to do what’s required of the job, then I should just take the badge back and let him go back to being Mark McCain, the child.” Micah’s voice held firm. “Now anymore questions? Here, drink some coffee, I’m not holding two cups for my own health.”

Lucas took the cup from Micah and sat back on the edge of his desk, trying to digest all that Micah had said.

“You said Mark didn’t want me away from Milly. Did he say why?” Lucas asked.

“He suspected she might be pregnant. Said he found her passed out one day last week when he returned home. Said she begged him not to tell you, yet.”

“He knew, before he left?” Lucas shook his head. “Okay, now that I’m simmered down, when is Mark supposed to get to Clovis?”

“That’s just it Lucas, I thought I should have heard from him last night or this morning at the latest. I was gonna wait until you left town to send a wire and inquire. So what brought you to town today?”

“Milly’s morning sickness… Oh, boy. Micah you send that wire, I’m going back to Doc’s to get her prescription and then fill it over at the general store. I’ll be right back.”

The waiting game began. By early afternoon, Amos came into Micah’s.

“Micah, I’m sorry. We just can’t get wires through to Clovis, the closest we can get is to Portales. Telegrapher says a wicked storm hit outside of Clovis last night and probably took the lines down.”

“Well Lucas, you just get on back home to Milly, I’m sure she’ll appreciate that medicine. I’ll get word to you as soon as we hear something.”

Lucas left Micah’s and as he mounted Razor, he looked to the heavens and closed his eyes. Then he rode.

*****

U.S. Marshal James Carson, rode to the edge of town, scanned the horizon for signs of the deputy from North Fork and his prisoner. Seeing nothing he returned to the Sheriff Cameron Mitchell’s office.

“That deputy should have been here by now,” Carson stated.

“Marshal, the lines are down between here and Portales and that storm that came through here, last night. You just don’t know if’n they were caught up in it.”

As they continued their discussion, a boy from the livery came running in.

“Sheriff, ya gotta come quick!”

“What’s up Jimmie?”

“Strangers and they look bad off.”

Mitchell and Carson ran behind the boy. They reached the edge of town and through the last rays of the setting sun, they saw a bedraggled sight. Two men wearily walking, leading three horses. Two children riding one horse, a woman carrying a bundle on the other, and the packhorse was pulling a travois.

“Jimmie, go get the Doc. Tell him he’s got patients coming.”

Carson and Mitchell ran out to the group. The men barely acknowledged their presence; they just continued to walk, as if in a trance. They led them to their town doctor’s office. As one man pulled the children down from their horse, Mitchell noticed the handcuff on one wrist. He tapped Carson and pointed. They watched as the other man took the bundle from the woman and helped her down from her horse. Carson and Mitchell unhooked the travois and carried it and the man lying on it into the doctor’s office.

The doctor was busily checking his patients. Carson and Mitchell stood and watched as one of the two strangers slid down the wall to sit and his head fell forward. The other held out his hands.

“Guess you should know that I’m the prisoner he was supposed to deliver to you” Barlow stated.

“He trusted you enough to remove your handcuffs?” Mitchell asked.

“It weren’t a matter of him trusting me, at first. He didn’t have a choice. That storm hit us and as we was looking for shelter, we came across those people. They were bad off. Woman in the wagon giving birth, a tree came down on their horses and the man at the side of their camp. But he needed help, he unlocked the one and I helped him get the man out from under the tree. The man was wearing a gun, I grabbed it and held it on the boy. I started to run away. He yelled after me, saying ‘good riddance’. Said that I’d have to be the one to explain when I met my maker. But then, I saw a boy trying his damned’est to help strangers. I couldn’t just leave him. I tended to the man while he helped the woman deliver her baby. I’m ready to head to your jail.”

“You keep saying boy,” Carson stated.

“Yeah, that deputy can’t be more than eighteen,” Barlow replied. “I’m ashamed how I treated him out on the trail, beforehand. I know he didn’t get much sleep before we met up with those people, but even less afterwards.” He proceeded in front of Sheriff Mitchell to head to the jail.

*****

The doctor had finished tending to his other patients when he turned his attention to the deputy sitting asleep against the wall.

“Well Doc?” Carson asked.

“I’d say from what I overheard the prisoner saying and what the woman told me, he’s probably suffering from sheer exhaustion. Come on, grab an arm, let’s carry the boy to the hotel.”

Between the two of them, they carried the sleeping Mark to the hotel.

“Mrs. Bowers, you got a room for an exhausted deputy,” they inquired as they entered.

The hotel owner’s wife led them to a room and lit the lantern as they laid the deputy on the bed. She pushed the men out of the room, then returned to the deputy. She looked down his sleeping face, ‘A child” she said to herself as she got into her grandmotherly mode and pulled his boots off. Next she removed his dirty shirt and pants, thinking to herself, ‘let him be embarrassed in the morning, but these need cleaning.’ She pulled the covers over him. She blew out the lantern and left, closing the door behind her.

*****

Carson returned to the Sheriff’s Office.

“Carson, telegraph wire’s been restored. We got a message from Portales, the marshal in North Fork is worried sick about his deputy.”

“Funny how no one seem to mention how young this deputy is. Well, I’m sure he has family that must be scared to death, I’ll send a wire back,” Carson stated as he headed to the telegraph office.

*****

Amos ran into Micah’s yelling, “Micah he’s safe!” as he handed the wire over.

Marshal Micah Torrance
North Fork, New Mexico Territory

Deputy safe /stop/
Suffering exhaustion /stop/
Will keep in Clovis until recovered /stop/

Marshal James Carson
U.S. Marshal Service

“I better ride to Lucas’. I’m sure he’ll want to know, regardless how late.”

*****

Micah arrive at the McCain Ranch, he saw a lantern turned down low, sitting on the table. He quietly knocked. The door opened and Lucas stepped out.

“Micah, any word?” Micah saw the worry in Lucas’ face.

“Got it right here. No detail, but he’s safe. Say he’s suffering from exhaustion. Marshal Carson is going to keep him in Clovis until he’s recovered.”

“Thank God,” Lucas exclaimed as he leaned back against the side of his home.

The door opened again, this time, Milly was there.

“Micah? What are you doing here so late?” Milly asked.

“Milly, get back to bed, you need your rest,” Lucas stated as he tried to maneuver Milly inside.

“Husband, I know you too well. You’re trying to hide something from me. Oh, No. Mark! Something’s happened to Mark? Lucas?” Milly pleaded.

“Milly, yes the news is about Mark, but he’s safe. Micah and I got worried because he was overdue to wire back. Now please, I don’t want you worrying yourself.”

“Worrying myself! Lucas McCain! I’m your wife and Mark’s mother. You had no right to keep this news from me. How am I going to trust you in the future, when you say everything is alright, when I know in the past you’ve kept things from me?”

Milly turned and walked to their bedroom. She slammed the door behind her.

“LucasBoy, you better do some sweet talking to her. Guess I was wrong in keeping from you the fact that Mark was delivering a prisoner and you were wrong for not telling Milly that Mark was overdue. Go to her Lucas. I’ll let you know when I hear anymore.”

Micah watched as Lucas entered his home, then he mounted his horse and headed back to town.

*****

Lucas walked to their bedroom door and gently knocked, “Milly, please. May I come in?”

“Go away Lucas!”

Lucas opened the door and saw his wife lying on their bed, crying. He walked over and climbed into bed, lifted Milly up and pulled her into his arms. He felt the tenseness in her body.

“Milly, I was wrong to keep this from you. Please trust me in the future, I won’t keep secrets. I’m sorry I hurt you.”

He gently kissed the top of her head. Lovingly, he ran his finger tips down her arm and then placed his hand over her stomach, giving it a gentle pat.

“It’s been so long since I was married… I forgot that it also meant sharing everything – our love, our bed, our hopes, our hurts, and our fears. Please forgive me Milly?”

Milly nodded and turned around to face Lucas. She saw the truth in his eyes. She leaned forward and they passionately kissed. They fell asleep in each others’ arms.

*****

Morning arrived in Clovis and Mrs. Bowers entered the sleeping deputy’s room. Saw that he had rolled over onto his stomach and kicked the covers off. She stopped to pull the covers back up over the boy. She stared at the scars on his back. She laid the covers over the boy and left the room.

*****

Night was falling in Clovis when Sheriff Mitchell entered the hotel and waited at the bottom of the staircase as Mrs. Bowers came down.

“He’s still asleep Sheriff. I set his clean clothes on the chair by the window.” Then she asked, “What happened to him?”

Sheriff Mitchell answered, “Two days and nights of delivering a prisoner with little sleep and then dealing with helping a family caught out in a storm and delivering a baby. Then another two days of responsibilities of the prisoner and a family. That boy’s had quite the adventure. Should I send the doc over to check on him?”

“Why don’t we just let him sleep himself out. If he needs the doctor once he’s awake, I’ll let you know.”

*****

Mark woke to a gentle knocking on the door. He sat up in bed as the door opened. He looked around, confusion on his face.

“Good Afternoon Deputy,” Mrs. Bowers greeted him. “How are you feeling? I bet you’re hungry?”

“Yes Ma’am. Excuse me, but who are you and where am I?”

“Lord have mercy. I’m Mrs. Bowers, my husband and I own the hotel. You made it to Clovis. Don’t worry, the Marshal took your prisoner yesterday afternoon and returned to Amarillo.”

“Yesterday?” Mark asked surprised.

“Child you’ve slept for almost two whole days. You arrived here late Thursday evening and it’s just after lunch on Saturday.”

“Oh no, I’ve got to get word back home!” Mark started to throw the sheets from him when he saw Mrs. Bowers pick up his clothes from the chair.

“No need to fret, the Marshal sent a wire back to Marshal Torrance telling him you were safe. Here, I’ve laundered your clothes.” Seeing Mark’s expression, “Don’t worry yourself, I’ve six grandsons and if you think I haven’t stripped an exhausted boy out of his clothes… If you have a mind to bathe, there’s a bath down the hall, last door on the right. There’s a towel and soap on the stand, with the water pitcher and basin. Oh, and there’s a robe in the closet for you to wear down the hallway. You come on down when you’re ready and I’ll have a meal ready for you. Would you like a breakfast or a dinner?”

“The way I’m feeling right now,” Mark answered as his stomach growled, “Both.”

*****

An attendant drew the hot water for Mark, then left. He slipped into the tub, stretching his body out to its fullest, then set to work scrubbing himself. Afterwards, he dried himself off and put his clean clothes on. Then set to find out where Mrs. Bowers might be.

He arrived at the landing of the staircase to encounter Sheriff Mitchell entering the hotel.

“Good afternoon Deputy!” Mitchell greeted him. “I’m Sheriff Mitchell, glad to see you up and awake. How’re you doing?”

“Much better sir. Sorry to be such trouble.”

“Non-sense. From what Barlow and the Jacobsen family told us, I’m surely surprised you didn’t sleep another day. Care to join me for lunch?”

“Yes sir, Mrs. Bowers was there when I woke and told me to come on down and she’d have something ready. Only, I don’t know where to go?”

“Come on Deputy, I’ll show you to the kitchen.”

Over lunch the Sheriff told Mark of how he’d kept Micah informed, sending wires morning and night. Also told Mark, “There’s a very thankful Jacobsen family that is eager to see you, once you woke. Our doctor thinks the husband is going to recover fully and that baby… Why he’s such a cute bundle.”

“Thank you sir, glad to hear they’re all doing fine.”

“If it weren’t for you Mark, they wouldn’t be. The stories we heard surely did impress Marshal Carson. Says a lot about your character, the way your parents raised you right. ”

Mark didn’t answer, his eyes drifted off to his own memories.

“I bet you’ll be wanting to send your folks a wire. I’ll take you to the telegraph office once you’ve finished eating.”

*****

Mark wrote his wire and handed it to the telegraph operator:

Marshal Micah Torrance
North Fork, New Mexico Territory

Sorry to be sleeping on the job /stop/
Start return trip tomorrow /stop/

Deputy Mark McCain

Then he wrote and handed a second wire to the operator:

Lucas and Milly McCain
Hope Lane
North Fork, New Mexico Territory

All is well /stop/
Sorry to put you through worry /stop/
Start return trip tomorrow, early /stop/

Love, Mark

The night before Mark left Clovis, he stopped and checked in on the Jacobsen family, before he said goodbye.

 

The Next Generation… Chapter 15 – Mark’s Return

 

It was Tuesday evening when Nils came running into the restaurant, calling, “Micah, Lucas, Milly, he’s back. He’s at the livery right now.”

They all stood, with Lucas giving Milly an expression that told her to sit back down. He’d bring Mark to her.

Lucas, Micah, and Nils ran to the livery. As they entered, they saw a very tired Mark carrying a saddle to put it on a rack. Lucas reached Mark and grabbed the saddle from him.

“Glad to see you home, son. You want some help?” Lucas asked.

“Pa, I’m sure glad to be home and yeah, I could use your help with the horses,” Mark replied.

All could see and hear the weariness in Mark. Micah told him to sit a spell; that the three of them would finish tending to the horses. Mark walked over to Blue Boy and scratched him above the eye. “Hey there boy, how’s Hope been treating you? Has she given you enough exercise?” Mark let out a yawn and then shivered briefly.

Once the horses were tended to, Lucas walked over and put an arm on his son’s shoulder.

“Come on Mark, Milly’s over at the restaurant. I’ll see that you get a room at the hotel for the night,” Lucas stated as he lead Mark out of the livery.

“Pa, I’ll be okay. I can make it home.” Mark looked up at his Pa, and said, “Honest Pa.”

“We’ll see,” Lucas answered as they walked.

They entered the hotel and Mark saw the concerned expression on his Ma’s face. He walked to her and gave her a huge hug.

“I’m sorry Ma. I didn’t mean to worry you. It’s just that…”

“Mark, you can tell us all about it tomorrow, right now, you’re going to eat.”

They exchanged a few moments of understanding, without saying a word, when Mark finally agreed and sat down. Alice brought out a huge steak and fried potatoes for Mark.

“Mark, would you like some dessert when you’re done?” Alice asked.

“No Ma’am, I think once I’m done with supper, I want to head home and sleep in my own bed.”

Mark was halfway through his meal when Hope entered the restaurant, the look of worry on her face disappeared when she saw Mark. She smiled as she walked to the table where Micah and the McCain’s sat. Mark stood to pull out a chair and invited her to sit. No one really talked, they knew how tired Mark had to be, but they were thankful to just be near him.

Mark had finished eating, when Lucas stepped out. When he returned he led his family to the buckboard, Blue Boy tied to the back and Mark’s saddle in the back of the buckboard.

“Hope, I’ll be back in town tomorrow. Can I see you tomorrow afternoon?” Mark asked. She nodded.

“Pa, let me walk…” Mark started to say.

“No boy,” Micah interrupted. “You head on home with your folks, I’ll see to it that Hope gets back to Miss Hattie’s.”

Mark smiled as they turned to walk away.

“Okay, son, up in back. I’ll take it slow and easy, just in case you fall asleep back there,” Lucas stated. Mark hopped up in back as Lucas lifted Milly to her seat. They headed for home.

Once home and after tending to the horses, Mark didn’t remember returning to the house, walking to his bedroom, or falling down in his bed.

*****

Lucas returned to the house for lunch. As he entered from the back, he stopped at the stove, put his arms around Milly, patted her stomach, and asked, “So how’s the little bun doing today?”

“Much better with the medicine Doc gave me. Now, let go of me or I’ll burn your lunch.”

Lucas turned and walked to the table, noticed the door to Mark’s bedroom was still closed.

“How’s our bull doing?” Lucas asked, pointing to Mark’s door.

“He’s more like a calf, sleeping. I checked on him about an hour ago. I don’t think he’s moved since he fell asleep last night.” Then with concern in her voice, “Lucas I want Doc Burrage to look at him. He looked so pale and exhausted last night. I’m worried.”

Lucas pulled Milly into his lap as he sat down at the table.

“Milly, I know. I am too. But we don’t know what happened out there. If he wants to tell us, we’ll be here to listen. Once he’s awake, we’ll see how he’s doing and if we feel he needs Doc Burrage… Right now, let him sleep.”

Lucas was giving Milly a playful kiss when they heard, “Don’t let me interrupt, but whatever you’re cooking smells good.”

“Afternoon son,” Lucas stated as Milly stood up and returned to the stove.

“Okay, so how long did I sleep this time?” Mark asked as he stretched his arms.

“Have a seat. You returned to North Fork last night. So you only slept the night and this morning.” Lucas stated and then took a sip of coffee from the cup Milly handed him. “Mark, we won’t pry, but if you need to talk, you know that both your Ma and I are here.”

“Pa, I’d like to talk, but first, I’m rather hungry,” Mark stated.

Milly set a plate in front of Mark first and then served Lucas.

“Mark, while you’re eating there’s something we need to discuss,” Lucas stated. Mark looked up from eating, his eyes inquiring. “Hear me out. Mark, before you left, you told Micah to tell us something that wouldn’t worry us while you were gone.”

“Yes sir.”

“Well, first off, the number one rule we always lived by has been broken, quite a lot, lately and I aim to see that it gets re-affirmed. We don’t keep secrets from each other.” Lucas looked directly at Milly and then to Mark.

“So, next time you leave town on business, you will tell us, yourself. Don’t leave it to Micah.”

“Yes, sir.” Mark stated as he took another bite of food.

“Also, Milly and I have already come to an understanding about you finding her, week before last and not telling me. That will not happen again,” Lucas sternly stated. “If it does, both of you will have your back-sides tanned. I’m the head of this house and it’s my responsibility to provide for and protect. You’ll see to it that I’m told of everything?”

“Yes, sir.” Mark answered, feeling like a child getting his hand slapped for sneaking a cookie.

“Finally, everything is forgiven. As I once told you, Mark, there’s no looking back, we’ve come too far.”

“I understand Pa.” Mark said as he looked at his Pa and gave a weak smile.

“Lucas, I think you’re being too serious for all this. Just tell him,” Milly laughed.

“Well son, while you were away, we found out some news,” Lucas said.

“So Ma is pregnant?” Mark asked as a smile crept across his face and his eyes brightened. “I’m going to have a baby brother or sister? When?”

“Mark, I don’t know what I’m going to do with you. You’re too smart for your own good sometimes,” Milly claimed as she smiled. “If we’re right, the baby will be born sometime in January.”

“How does that make you feel Mark?” Lucas asked. It had been just the two of them for so long. Now there was Milly and soon, a new baby due.

Mark stood and walked behind Milly, he bent over and gave her a hug around the shoulders, then said, “Pa, I don’t regret the life we lived, just you and me. But this is special. Having a Ma and next year I’ll have a brother or a sister, it feels warm. It feels right. It’s home.”

A tear was streaming down Milly’s cheek as Mark gave her another hug and she patted his arm.

*****

Lucas followed Mark as he walked to the barn to saddle Blue Boy. Every now and then, Mark would sneak a peek towards his Pa. He smiled as he saw his Pa smiling. Everything was as it should be.

“I’ll be back for supper tonight. Oh, and tell Ma, I’m planning to bring Hope. See you Pa!” Mark called as he rode to North Fork. He needed to make his report to Micah and had promised to see Hope.

Mark arrived at the Marshal’s and found Micah sitting behind his desk.

“Afternoon Micah,” he stated as he entered.

“Hi Mark. How’re you doing?”

“Better, got to sleep in my own bed and ate some of Ma’s cooking. The only way I could be any better would be to have Hope in my arms.” Mark grinned at his own comment. “Micah, when I stopped of an evening, I worked on writing out a report. Thought I could save you some time.” He handed an envelope to Micah.

Mark sat down in the chair as Micah started to read.

“Boy are you sure you want to include how old you are in this report?” Micah asked.

“Micah, it’s about time everyone knew anyway. More people are bound to find out, what with Drew here, and Marshal Carson and Sheriff Mitchell. Besides, Pa informed me this morning how much secrets can hurt.”

“Okay, it’s your report.”

Micah had just finished reading Mark’s report when Drew hobbled into the office on crutches.

“Hi ya Mark. So tell me about your adventure. Marshall here didn’t tell me a whole lot.” Drew stated as he leaned his crutches against the wall.

“There weren’t a whole lot to tell, until I finished reading this here report.” Micah whistled. “Boy, no wonder Marshal Carson said you were exhausted. Tell you what, Drew’s been helping me out here in the office, while I’m out and about, why don’t you take a few more days off. Help your Pa out at the ranch. Come Friday night you can return to town and take back your responsibilities as my deputy. Doc says it’s going to be a few more weeks before Drew can ride, so until Johnny comes back, I could use both of you.”

“Sure Micah. Well, if that’s all, think I’ll head on over to Miss Hattie’s to see Hope ,” Mark said as he stood to leave. “Drew, thanks for helping out.”

“Hey Mark, it’s good to be able to stay in one place for a while, even if I am wearing this here ball and chain. Mind if I walk out with ya?”

“If you think you can keep up.”

Micah watched as the two stopped at the hitching rail and talked for a few minutes. Then he heard Drew holler, “Get on over and tell your gal I said ‘Hi’.”

*****

Mark rode Blue Boy over to Miss Hattie’s. Before he could knock on the door, it was opened and Hope was there.

“Mark, come on in. Miss Hattie’s looking forward to seeing you.”

Mark removed his hat as he entered the house. He followed Hope into the parlor where Hattie was waiting and pulled him into a big hug.

“My child, you don’t look like you’ve fully recovered from your ordeal. Why aren’t you back in bed, resting?” Hattie asked and she looked Mark over one way and then another.

“Hattie, I needed to get to town and report in to Micah. I should have done that last night. Besides, it gave me a great excuse to come here and see you.” He gave her a small kiss on the cheek.

“Now I know you’re not feeling well. You didn’t come here to see me, least not that’s the only reason.”

“Miss Hattie, I was wanting to invite Hope over for supper tonight and if okay with you, she could spend the night at the ranch. I’d bring a cot in from the barn and she could sleep in my room. I mean, I’d sleep on the cot in the front room and she could sleep in my room.”

“Mark, I know you’re a gentleman and I knew exactly what you meant. Go on, enjoy yourselves.”

Hope packed an overnight bag and they ran out of the house to Blue Boy. Mark got in the saddle first and pulled Hope up behind him. They rode to Nils’, where they saddled a horse for Hope. As they started to leave, Mark got on Blue Boy and again pulled Hope up behind him, she rested her head against his back. Mark led the horse for Hope as they headed for home. The people of North Fork stopped and smiled as they saw the two of them riding from town.

“Mark, you’ve never asked me to spend the night at the ranch before, why now?”

“Because Drew told me he’d seen Miss Hattie and Micah sitting on the bench outside the hotel one evening. Micah had his arm around her shoulder. Kind of made sense after he insisted in seeing that you got back to Miss Hattie’s last night. This way, if they want to spend some time together, they don’t have to worry about getting Miss Hattie back home to make sure you’re tucked in bed. Besides, it also means I get to spend more time with you.”

Mark kicked Blue Boy up into a lope as he heard Hope laughing behind him.

*****

Lucas was coming from the barn as they arrived.

“Well now, what’s this?”

“Hi Pa, I brought Hope home for the night. We borrowed a horse from Nils so we could go riding and checking the fence line tomorrow.”

“For the night?”

“Sure Pa, Hope can sleep in my room and I’ll sleep in the front room on a cot. Besides, I think Miss Hattie and Micah might appreciate some time alone.”

“Micah and Hattie?”

“That’s what Drew told me today. He saw the two of them together while I was gone. Thought they might appreciate some privacy. That and Micah told me not to report for duty until Friday evening. So Hope and I can work the ranch until then.”

“Okay, just get the horses inside and get cleaned up. Hope, Milly is looking forward to your company.”

“Thank you Mr. McCain.”

Lucas walked to the porch, turned around and watched as the two led their horses to the barn. Their laughter was infectious.

“Lucas, what’s so funny?” Milly asked.

“The kids. You won’t believe what Mark had to say. He said the Drew saw Hattie and Micah together, so Mark invited Hope here to spend the night.” Lucas saw the look on Milly’s face and he put his arms around her. “Don’t worry, Mark’s going to sleep on a cot in the front room while Hope sleeps in his room. Besides, I have a feeling those two really will get married and for a while, they’ll be living here with us. So this’ll give a chance to sorta get used to that idea.” Lucas snuggled into Milly’s neck.

Their moment was broken when they heard, the metal basin out back hit the ground followed by Mark yelling, “Hope, I’m gonna get you! Just you wait!” Both ran to the back door to see the wash basin upturned and on the ground. They saw a soaking wet Mark catch up to Hope and grab her around the waist. She squealed and playfully kicked at him. Lucas saw Mark carry Hope towards the creek.

“Mark, stop right where you are!” Lucas yelled. Mark set Hope back on her feet, but he didn’t let go of her waist. Together they walked, laughing, towards the house.

“Okay, young man, why don’t you go get changed into something dry, while Hope helps Milly get supper finished.”

“Yes Pa.”

*****

While Mark was changing, Milly was teasing Hope. “Hope, why on earth would you do something like that? It wasn’t very ladylike.”

“Well he tried to splash me first, so when he had the towel to his face, I just couldn’t help it. Mrs. McCain, the look on his face, was so funny. It was like the day at Miller’s…”

“I know Hope. Mark told us. If either of our men ask, tell them I firmly reprimanded you. Oh how I would have loved to have seen Mark’s face,” Milly said as they both giggled. Both their faces turned serious when they heard Mark return from his bedroom.

Hope and Mark shared the chore of setting the table, while Lucas helped carry the food from the stove to the table. As a family they sat down. Lucas said grace.

After Hope and Milly had finished the dishes, they returned to the front room.

“Pa, Ma? If you’d like, I could tell all of you what happened while I was gone,” Mark said.

“Mark, that’s up to you. If you’re ready to talk, we’ll listen.”

Mark told of leaving town with Barlow in tow. How uneventful the first two days were as they rode, but how unsettling the nights were. He had Barlow properly handcuffed, but still couldn’t bring himself to fully relax into his sleep. Told of, on the night of his third day, a ferocious storm hit. How it came with very little warning. They raced their horses for the hills. Told how they encountered the Jacobsen family. How he was forced to kill one of the horse team and the other one was already dead from the tree falling. Told of how he found Mr. Jacobsen and worked to rescue him and how Barlow worked to save his life.”

Mark was quiet and they waited for him to continue his story, in his own time.

“Mrs. Jacobsen was in their wagon, she was in labor. I helped bring a new life into the world… I’ve never seen anything like it. Holding that newborn in my arms, then having Mrs. Jacobsen tell me what I needed to do. Hearing the baby cry for the first time. Mrs. Jacobsen’s young daughters then wrapped the baby in a blanket. When I heard that baby cry, I realized how quiet everything was outside. The storm had stopped. It was so peaceful, then hearing that baby suckling at her breast.

“For the rest of that night, not only was I responsible for Barlow, but I was responsible for the whole Jacobsen family. I couldn’t bring myself to sleep. Worrying how to get everyone to town. In the morning, Barlow and I made a travois and tied it to the packhorse and got the husband settled. Then we got their two girls up on Barlow’s horse and I was responsible for getting Mrs. Jacobsen up on the horse I was riding. Then we had to lead them to town. We broke camp around eight that morning and didn’t get to Clovis until nine that night.

“After a while, it all started running together. I just focused on placing one foot in front of the other. We stopped and rested every now and then, but… Once we reached Clovis, it all felt like a dream and I was sitting, watching from the outside. I couldn’t focus on anything. Next thing I knew, it was Saturday afternoon.

“I’m really sorry for causing all of you, this worry. It just sounded so simple, escort a prisoner to Clovis and then come home.”

Mark finish telling his story and pulled Hope into his arms. He gave an involuntary shiver, glad that this was in his past.

Hope and Milly retired to their bedrooms, while Lucas and Mark worked to set up a cot in the front room for Mark.

“Son, I’m mighty proud of you. You’ve taken a big step in growing up. It amazes me the compassion and depth of caring that you have inside you. You can hear it in your voice when you talk. I’m sure your Ma, your real Ma, is smiling down on you.”

“Thanks Pa. I know that both of my Ma’s are smiling at me.”

“Goodnight son.” Lucas blew out the lantern.

*****

Mark woke before anyone else. He quickly dressed and headed to the barn to start his morning chores. As he returned to the house, carrying a basket of eggs and a pail of milk, Hope was coming from his bedroom. He smiled as he looked at her. Mesmerized by the beauty he saw. Together they prepared breakfast. When it was ready, Mark knocked on the door to his parents’ room. “Breakfast, if you two sleepyheads are awake.”

“Be right there Mark.” Mark heard Lucas call and then heard laughter behind the door.

Hope was just setting breakfast on the table as Lucas and Milly entered the front room.

As they ate, Mark let his attention drift, Milly brought him back to present when she placed a hand on his arm.

“I’m all right Ma.” He smiled and finished eating breakfast.

While Milly and Hope cleared the table and did the dishes, Mark and Lucas walked to the barn.

“Pa, can we talk for a moment?”

“What’s on your mind?” he asked as they started to saddle their horses.

“Pa, helping that baby come into the world… I mean, I’ve never…” Mark cast his eyes to the ground, shame and embarrassment were evident.

Lucas realized what was concerning his son.

“Mark, God wouldn’t have put you there, if he didn’t feel you couldn’t handle the situation… Witnessing the birth of a child is miraculous. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. That woman needed help and you were the only one who could help her. Just remember, you did what had to be done.”

“I will Pa. Thanks, I just needed to talk — without Hope or Ma present.”

“I understand son. There are things that should be kept between a father and son.”

Hope entered the barn, eager to get started on riding fence.

As they rode away, Lucas hollered, “Enjoy your ride today!”

Most of their ride was uneventful. They did find one break in the fence. A tree limb had partially come down. Mark stepped down from Blue Boy and tied his lasso to an end of the limb. Climbed back in the saddle and maneuvered Blue Boy to pull the limb off the fence. Luckily he had thought about tying the ax on back of his saddle. It was going to take a while for Mark to chop down the limb from the tree and then repair the fence section. He stripped his shirt, hung it over the saddle horn, as the sun was already high in the sky and it was hot out. He worked hard to chop the limb from the tree. Then he pulled wire from his saddle bag and started to work on the repair. Hope picked up the other two strands of broken wire to hold for Mark. He turned around to pick up another end, when Hope saw the scars. It had been a long time since Thanksgiving and she had forgotten about the attack.

Mark put his shirt back on and they continued to ride. Around noon, they stopped for the lunch Milly had packed for them. After eating, Mark leaned back into a tree and Hope sat in front of him and leaned back into him, as he wrapped his arms around her.

“Mark, do they hurt?” Hope asked.

“What?”

“The scars on your back, do they hurt? So much has happened and I forgot about them, until earlier.”

“Not really, sometimes I’ll stretch or move and I feel a tug across my back. They don’t really hurt. In fact, it’s been a long time since I thought about them. The only hurt is remembering how they came to be on my back. Same as yours. Yours doesn’t hurt any more, does it?”

“No Mark. You took the hurt away a long time ago.”

They watched as the clouds drifted by… Hope claiming one cloud looked like a rabbit running. Mark then pointed to another, looking like an elephant.

“An elephant?” Hope asked.

Mark explained it was an animal that lived in India and Africa, continents on the other side of the world, he’d read about them in a book Mr. Griswald had given him. He’d also seen them at a circus once, long ago.

A breeze was blowing across the range, the grass was waving in unison and the leaves on the trees were swaying back and forth. Mark leaned his head forward and nuzzled into Hope’s neck. Gently, pressing a kiss to her skin.

“Hope,” Mark’s voice broke the silence of nature. “I just can’t imagine living my life without you. I just want you to know that I will make you my wife. I promised Pa I’d wait until we were at least eighteen. But I also know, you need to finish your education. And then, together, we’ll make a future life together… Waking up with you at the ranch this morning, it gave me a whole new understanding to the word family.”

“Mark, I want to share your dream and your life.” Hope turned to Mark and looked into his eyes. Mark took her chin in his hand, slowly he leaned forward and they kissed. The same warmth spread though both their bodies as it had that day back at Miller’s Creek. They parted and Mark pulled Hope close. Both sighed.

“Hope, I’m already hurting because I know come tonight, I will have to return you to Miss Hattie’s and I’m missing you already.”

“I’m missing you too. But I think we should return to your home. It’s getting late.

 

The Next Generation… Chapter 16 – The Return of Johnny and Lou Drako

It was a Saturday morning, come the end of July, when Johnny and Lou Drako returned to North Fork after being gone on their honeymoon. Johnny said goodbye to Lou in front of the hotel and walked to the Marshal’s Office; surprised to see someone new sitting behind the desk.

“Well, I leave on my honeymoon and come back to find I’ve been replaced?” Johnny queried with laughter in his voice.

“No sir, Deputy Drako. I’m just helping out. Earning my room and keep while my leg was healing. I’m Drew Anders, Deputy U.S. Marshal. I’m a friend of Mark McCain’s.”

“Well, any friend of Mark… Speaking of Mark, do you know where he or Micah might be?”

Drew pointed towards the cells, behind Johnny. Johnny turned around and laughed.

“Mark, I thought school was out for the summer. Just what are you and Hope doing in the cell?”

“Johnny, welcome home! I’m helping Hope study. When did you and Lou get back?” Mark asked as he stood and walked from the cell to shake Johnny’s hand.

“Just a little while ago, thought I’d come check in to see what’s happened while we were gone,” Johnny answered.

“Well, things were quiet here in town as far as the law goes, but…” Mark laughed as he couldn’t continue. Micah was walking into the office.

“Johnny, good to see you back! How’s married life treating you?” Micah asked.

“It’s better than I ever imagined,” Johnny replied, as a small grin crossed his face.

“Micah, you taking notes or something?” Mark asked.

“Mark, I’ll have you mind your elders! Don’t you have work to do out at the ranch?” Micah asked, trying to change the subject.

“Not yet. Pa’s not expecting me until after one. I told him I was planning to tutor Hope this morning. ”

“Well,” Micah stated, letting a little bit of frustration come through in his voice. “This ain’t no school room. It’s a jail, so why don’t you mosey somewhere else and study, boy!”

“Yes Marshal. Just wait until Hope tells Miss Hattie how you treated us. Sure don’t want to be in your shoes!” Mark hollered as he grabbed Hope’s hand and ran from the office.

“Just what did that mean?” Johnny asked.

Drew answered, “The Marshal’s been seen in the company of a very fine woman and trying to keep it a secret.”

“OUT!” Micah yelled and pointed the way to the door.

*****

Micah walked to pour a cup of coffee. “So you and Lou….”

Drako interrupted, “No, no, no Micah. It’s not me and Lou. You and Miss Hattie? Does Lucas know?”

“Now why would Lucas need to know?” Micah replied.

“I seem to remember Lucas telling me about three men you knew, being in love, and you wanted to know who was going to be first?” With a school boy gleam in his eye, Johnny continued. “So maybe it’s not just the three of us now. So, are you going to make an honest woman out of Hattie?”

“Drako, that’s between me and her!” Micah exclaimed.

“So you are admitting its true?”

“OUT!”

*****

Johnny decided to walk the town before heading to the hotel. Eager to see his wife, but knowing he needed to return to his duties. As he walked, the store owners and residents welcomed him home and wished him well.

“Home” Johnny said to himself as he stepped to the porch of the hotel, turned and looked down the street of North Fork. “Sounds mighty fine, peaceful, and quiet…”

His revere was broken by a squeal that could only have come from his wife. Johnny entered the hotel to see Lou embracing Milly.

“Milly, when?” Lou asked. “Johnny, Milly just told me she and Lucas are expecting!”

“Expecting what?”

“A baby!” Lou said, deadpan, but her Irish brogue could be heard.

Johnny strode to Milly and gave her a hug and offered his congratulations. “So, when does this blessed event happen?” he asked.

“Sometime after the first of the year, in January,” Milly answered; a gleam in her eyes. “Lou, I was over at the general store and heard Mrs. Donner state she had seen Johnny walking the town, so I knew you were back and I just had to tell you the news. I’m on my way over to the dress makers. Seems my clothes won’t be fitting me much longer, I’m already starting to show.”

Johnny saw Lucas pull the buckboard up in front of the hotel, he congratulated Lucas on the news.

“So cowboy, you still got it,” Lou called as she slipped her arm through Milly’s and escorted her out and down to the dressmakers.

“Well, marriage sure hasn’t settled her down,” Lucas stated as he smiled at Johnny.

“I keep trying Lucas, but that Irish will of hers…”

“Well, maybe getting her with child might help lessen her will,” Lucas replied.

“I keep trying Lucas, but it’s only been a month that we’ve been married.” The two laughed and then headed over to Sweeney’s to grab a beer.

 

The Next Generation… Chapter 17 – Preparing for Winter

 

Summer faded to fall and the school year resumed. Lucas didn’t want Milly to strain herself too much in her condition. It was agreed that Milly would teach the younger students in the morning and Mark would work as a deputy in the morning and then continue with the younger student’s studies in the afternoon. During the afternoons, Lucas expected Milly to rest over at the hotel, and once school was out, Mark would drive Milly home. Of evenings when Mark was expected at the Marshal’s, Lucas would ride into town and drive Milly home.

*****

It was time for Lucas and Mark to head out on their annual hunting trip. Not wanting to have Milly at the ranch by herself, Lucas asked Hope if she wouldn’t mind staying the week.

*****

It was the night before they were planning to return home. The hunt had been good and bountiful. As they sat beside the fire, Mark asked, “Bet you’re anxious to get back to Ma?”

“About as anxious as you are to get back to Hope?” Lucas gave a little laugh, then he took a sip of coffee. “Mark, about Hope, are you still serious about wanting to marry her?”

“Yes sir, more than anything. But I know how important it is for her to complete her education. So even though I promised you I’d hold off until we were at least eighteen, I told Hope her education comes first. So the earliest would be next summer. Besides, I have to figure out some way to ask her father. Don’t think writing a letter would be appropriate.”

“No, I don’t think it would.”

 

The Next Generation… Chapter 18 – Thanksgiving, Again

 

Lou had insisted that in Milly’s condition, she should not be cooking for Thanksgiving at the McCain Ranch. Lou stated adamantly that the McCain’s, Hope, Micah, and Hattie, would be expected at the hotel for dinner with her and Johnny.

Milly had insisted on baking her apple pie. Hattie and Hope worked with Lou in the kitchen, while Milly was relegated to either supervising from a chair or upstairs to take a nap.

Mark would frequently come into the kitchen to ask one of the women to come out and check on how the men were organizing the dining room, sampling a finger full of food each time and sneaking a kiss from Hope.

“Mark McCain, you come in here one more time and sneak food,” Lou’s Irish temper was up. She was pointing at him with a wooden spoon, threatening him. “And so help me….”

“Okay Lou, I get the point. But I’m being worked harder than any of the men out front and my frail body can’t help it if everything smells so good.”

“I don’t think food’s all you’re hankering for, young man. You better keep your distance from here on out or I just might take that wooden spoon to your backside. This young lady whose cheeks you so callously peck on is my ward. And I’ll not have you man-handle her in such a manner,” Hattie stated, unable to keep a straight face.

“Miss Hattie, I’ll keep my distance, but you better talk to her about those eyes of hers. She should keep them off of me, as well.” Mark left the room, but not before sneaking another finger full of pumpkin pie filling; and Lou throwing the wooden spoon after him.

The women laughed and shook their heads.

“Hope, that young man sure does care something fiercely for you. You realize how special he is to me?” Hattie asked.

“Yes ma’am. He’s special to me too.” Hope replied.

“Hope, it’s not just Mark who considers you special, we all do. What you’ve gone through prior to coming to live in North Fork and then how well you’ve adjusted to life here. One would never know,” Lou stated.

“Hope, I never knew why it was that you’re living in North Fork. Now child, I understand your father and brother are in the cavalry and living on an army post is nowhere to raise a daughter, but how is it that you were living with Milly? She only showed up a month or so before I did. And that young man was sorely in love with you before I arrived.”

Hope wiped her hands on her apron and walked to sit down on the steps leading from the kitchen.

“Child, I don’t mean to pry. You don’t have to say anything, it was wrong of me to ask.”

“No, Miss Hattie,” Hope started. “I’m just surprised that you’d not heard my story from anyone else.”

Hattie sat down next to Hope on the stairs and placed her arm around Hope’s shoulders.

“I mean, it’s been over a year and no one ever told you?” Hattie shook her head. “Miss Hattie, for six years I lived with the Kiowa. My mother had passed and my father sent me to live with his sister and her family. As you said, raising a daughter at a fort is hard. I had been there for about four months when men attacked and killed everyone. I had been playing by myself and they didn’t know I was there.

“I was found by a Kiowa Indian chief, he backtracked to the burned homestead and found the family dead. He then took me to live as his daughter. For six years, I lived as Kiowa. Then strangers came to our camp. During the night, they stole me away. They were going to kill me to force my Indian father to start a war against the white man. I got away one day, but they caught me again. Then a stranger came to my rescue. He chased the men away. His voice was so kind, his eyes so gentle, his hands so soft as he tended to the lash mark on my back, from those men. He took me to his home. They welcomed me and offered me safety. He and his father, they no longer felt like strangers.

“Those men came again and took me from him. He and his father and the others, they came and rescued me again. As he stood in front of that man, he offered to give his life so that I wouldn’t be harmed anymore. I saw sorrow in his eyes, but it wasn’t sorrow for him to lose his life. It was sorrow for how those men treated me. Behind the sorrow, I heard his voice strong and defiant, he was there to protect me and would do anything to see that those men…”

Hope stopped speaking as she remembered the look on his face. All she could say was, “Mark.”

All three women were quiet, Lou and Milly had known Hope lived as Kiowa, but they didn’t know the whole story. Each one pulled Hope into a precious hug.

“Hope,” Milly said. “When the day comes that Mark does take you as a wife, I will be honored and proud to have you as my daughter. I feel that way now and I know our bond will only grow stronger once that day arrives.”

Hope used her apron to wipe the tears from her face.

“Hope, you don’t have anything to worry about. Now I know why Mark said he wanted me to know you for who you are, not your past. I’ve grown to love you and now that I know, I can’t imagine loving you any more than I already do. And if that young man EVER treats you differently, then you just come to Grandma Hattie and I’ll see he makes a trip to the woodshed. And it won’t be to get no kindling.” Hattie nodded her head as she finished speaking.

*****

Milly excused herself from the group, said she wanted to go lie down for a while. As she entered the lobby, Lucas saw her head to the stairs. He walked over and escorted her to a room Lou had set aside for the day.

As they entered the room, Lucas saw tears streaming down Milly’s face.

“Milly, what’s wrong? Should I get the doctor?”

“No Lucas, I’m alright. Hope just told us her story. Lucas, I declare, Mark has loved her since he first laid eyes on her. Did you know he offered to give his life to save hers?”

“He told me.”

“Lucas, I know Hope is special to Mark, I just didn’t realize the depth or exactly why. He feels towards her as I do towards you.”

“I know. Now, why don’t you lie down and sleep. I’ll come to wake you before we’re ready to sit down to eat.”

Lucas gently kissed Milly on the forehead as he pulled a cover up over her. He turned to walk to the door and heard, “Lucas, I love you.”

Lucas smiled and replied, “I love you too. Now, get some sleep.”

Lucas pulled the door too, behind him.

*****

The feast was everything that Thanksgiving was all about. The women out did themselves with all the trimmings. As they gathered around the table, they reached for the hand of the person standing next to them. Lucas offered grace, thanking God for the bountiful harvest, and the blessings of family and friends. A squeeze of the hand progressed around the circle of family and friends. They sat down and enjoyed.

 

The Next Generation… Chapter 19 – Turning 18

 

Mark had heard nothing from Lou about their upcoming birthdays and he hoped that maybe, just maybe, she had forgotten to mark it on her calendar. He was looking forward to sharing a quiet celebration with just Hope and his parents.

*****

Hope and Hattie met Mark and Micah at the Marshal’s and they shared the walk to the church for services. As they arrived, Lucas was assisting Milly down from the buckboard. Mark and Hope hurried to catch up with his parents as they entered the church. Today’s sermon was of growing up and taking that first step towards being an adult. Mark and Hope both felt the sermon was directed straight towards them. They sat a little straighter and scooted a little bit further apart. Both averted their eyes and tried to hide their smiles.

Reverend McCafferty concluded his sermon, “Today’s sermon isn’t directed towards any one in particular, except for all those who are about to leave their childhood behind and take another step towards being adults. It’s a long road and though sometimes our children wish to grow up too fast, once that day arrives, we, as parents, ask, where did time go? We remember the first day we held a newborn in our arms and now…

“Now ladies and gentlemen, everyone is graciously invited over to the Mallory House Hotel to celebrate the birthdays of Mark McCain and Hope Lane, as they turn eighteen today.”

A round of applause and happy birthday wishes came from the congregation, as Mark sunk down in the pew and Hope buried her head in his shoulder. Eventually, the other parishioners had left the church and it was only Hope and the McCain’s.

“Come on son,” Lucas stated as he placed a hand under Mark’s arm and lifted him to his feet. “Seems Lou’s been wanting to really celebrate your birthday for a long time and now, she’s got her wish.”

“Pa why can’t it be just family, like it used to be?” Mark asked.

“Mark, our family will never be, like it used to be, but I know how you feel. But you need to understand, that our family, it’s not just the two of us and your Ma, and some day Hope. Our family is this town. Come on, before they burn the hotel down with all your candles.”

Mark offered his arm to Hope as they started to leave the church. They had just arrived at the door when Hope squealed, “Father! Ethan!” and ran towards them. The McCain’s came up behind smiling as they watch the family hug. Mark waited a short distance away and was pulled in the embrace.

“Lucas,” Seth stated as he offered to shake Lucas’ hand. “I’m sorry we didn’t send word again. We received a wire that this was going to be a surprise party. I see congratulations are in order. Mrs. McCain,” as both officers removed their hats.

The McCain’s and the Lane’s walked into the hotel together. Lou and Johnny escorted Mark and Hope to their seats of honor as Micah lit the candles on their cakes.

*****

The celebration wound down and Lou felt satisfaction. She finally was able to hold the birthday party for Mark that she had wanted.

It was just a few friends that remained with the families in the restaurant. Seth and Ethan were stating that they had permission for their visit to last through the New Year, before they had to return. The conversation drifted to what all the letters meant as the town kept them informed of Hope’s progress in school and her life in general in North Fork.

“Lucas, from what we’ve read in the letters I know I placed my daughter in good hands when she stayed in North Fork.”

Milly excused herself, it had been a long afternoon and she felt she wanted to lie down before making the ride home. Hope escorted Milly upstairs.

Mark let his eyes drift up the staircase as he watched Hope help his Ma. Lou came in to say arrangements had been made for the Major and Lieutenant to stay at the hotel as long as they could.

 

The Next Generation… Chapter 20 – Permission

 

It was the day before Christmas when the Lane’s accompanied Mark, as he rode fence. They marveled at the land the McCain’s called home. Told Mark how much it meant to them that Hope had found an extended family in North Fork. As they were stopped to water their horses, Mark took the opportunity.

“Major Lane, I know this might seem mighty sudden and I’ve nothing but respect for Hope, but…” he paused. “Sir, I think you know how I feel towards your daughter and I thank you for yours and Ethan’s blessings when I asked you for permission to court her. But…” Mark stood as tall as he could in front of the Major and looked him in the eye. “Sir, I really do love Hope and I… I know we’re young… Sir, I’d like to ask for your permission to… Sir, I’d like to ask Hope to be my wife, if you’ll allow me.”

“What does your father have to say about this? Have you talked with him?” Seth asked.

“Sir, I’ve talked with my Pa, and I promised him I’d wait until we were at least eighteen, but I also promised Hope that her education would come first. Mr. Griswald has stated that she will graduate this Spring…” Mark’s heart was racing as he waited for an answer.

Ethan interrupted. “Mark, we know Hope feels towards you the same was you do towards her. The way she writes of you in her letters.”

“Mark, if you really do lover her?” Seth stated.

“Yes sir, I really do!”

“You have my permission and our blessings” Seth stated. “Are you going to propose tonight?”

“Oh no sir. Not tonight. Today’s my parents first wedding anniversary, tonight’s about them. I think I’ll ask her New Year’s Eve. This way we’ll have a wonderful way to start the new year.”

The three mounted their horses and continued to ride fence. Hope was helping Milly put the finishing touches on their evening meal when they arrived. Milly asked them to wash up out back.

*****

Mark stood on the porch as the Lane’s rode back to town. Lucas saw the smile on his son’s face as he sat down on the step.

“You’re grinning like a Cheshire cat, son,” Lucas stated as he pulled a cigar from his pocket.

“Yes sir,” Mark answered.

Lucas smiled as he watched his son. “You planning to stand all night out here in the cold?”

“Yes sir,” Mark answered.

“Your boot’s on fire.”

“Yes sir,” Mark answered. Lucas laughed out loud. “My what?” Mark asked, his attention coming back to his Pa.

“Boy where were you? You sure weren’t in our conversation.”

“Sorry Pa. I talked with the Major this afternoon. I asked him for Hope’s hand in marriage. He said yes,” Mark said as he finally sat down next to his Pa.

“You didn’t ask her tonight.”

“Oh, no sir. I was thinking maybe New Year’s Eve. Tonight’s your night, you and Ma.”

“Speaking of your Ma, I think I’ll turn in. Don’t stay out here too long.”

“No sir, I’m coming in.”

The Next Generation… Chapter 21 – Hope’s Second Christmas

 

Mark woke early Christmas morning. He wrote a note before he left the house. He saddled Blue Boy and headed to the road to Oat Jackford’s place. Mark met Sam Montgomery on the road and asked Sam to tell Mr. Jackford he’d be by later to properly thank him as he took the reins to the black and white paint mare that he had hidden out at the Jackford’s ranch. Mark rode for North Fork. He stopped at the livery, where Nils met him. They walked to the back room and pried the lid off a crate. Mark pulled out the saddle, pad, and cinch, and carried them to the mare. He saddled the horse, then pulled a red bow out from his saddle bag and placed it around the saddle horn.

Mark mounted Blue Boy and led the mare to Miss Hattie’s. He walked the path to the door and knocked. Miss Hattie greeted him, wishing him a Merry Christmas, he removed his hat as he entered and waited. Mark watched as Hope came down the steps, he smiled to himself and wished her a Merry Christmas. He held her jacket for her to slip into. They ran down the walk to the horses, Mark yelling “I’ll have her back before sundown!”

As Hope walked around Blue Boy, she saw the new horse and then spied the red bow on the saddle. She squealed and Mark hugged her and said, “Merry Christmas Hope. She’s yours.” Tears were in Hattie’s eyes as she watched from the porch. Before they rode, Mark made sure the stirrups were properly adjusted. They waved as they headed back to the McCain Ranch.

“Mark, does she have a name?” Hope asked.

“They called her Two-Bits,” he answered.

“I love her Mark. Thank you so much.”

The Next Generation… Chapter 22 – New Year’s Eve

 

Mark had asked his parents for permission for Hope to spend New Year’s with them, again, he’d sleep on a cot in the front room. He planned a special supper for her. With Milly so close to her time, Mark and Lucas insisted that she take it easy, while Mark fixed supper, Lucas, Seth, and Ethan tended to the chores around the barn, and Hope and Milly chatted in the front room.

While eating supper, Mark started to daydream, about what it would be like once he and Hope were married. He knew it would take time to build their own home and until they were older, his parents insisted that they live in the home. Mark cleared the table and brought out dessert. He served his Ma first and then his Pa, Seth, and Ethan. Then he brought Hope’s, but on her slice of apple pie was a candle, and around the candle was a ring. Mark knelt as he handed Hope her pie.

“Hope, tonight is the end of this year and tomorrow starts a new year. A new year that I hope will see you as my wife. Hope, in front of our families, I’m asking for your hand in marriage. Will you agree to be my wife?”

Hope looked into Mark’s eyes and then looked into the faces of their family around the table, before her eyes returned to Mark. She nodded and said “Yes.” Mark removed the candle and picked up the ring and placed it on the ring finger of her left hand. He quickly gave her a kiss, then went to get his piece of pie.

*****

Lucas had noticed how uncomfortable Milly had been during supper. And knew why she had kept quiet, she knew tonight was a special night for their son. After he bid goodnight to the Lane’s, he insisted that Milly immediately get to bed and rest. Hope, Mark, and Lucas sat up for a while and read, Lucas from the bible, Hope from her studies, and Mark, another book from Johnny. Later, Lucas watched as Mark stood at the door to his bedroom and kissed Hope goodnight. Mark closed the door and returned to the cot in the front room.

“Mark, I hope you’re ready for the life that awaits you tomorrow.”

“Pa, it’s going to be the start of something wonderful,” Mark answered.

Lucas and Mark walked to the barn to tend to the horses for the final time that night. As they left the house, snow began falling. They were just about finished when Hope came running in, barefoot and without a coat.

“Hope, what are you doing? You’ll catch your death coming out like this,” Mark yelled as he removed his coat and wrapped it around her.

“Mark, it’s your Ma. Mr. McCain, please, it’s the baby,” Hope cried.

The three ran back to the house and heard Milly screaming as they entered. Lucas went to his bedroom. A few minutes later he came out and ordered Mark to go fetch Doc Burrage.

Mark ran to the barn and quickly saddled Blue Boy, he raced into town as the snow fell harder. He jumped off Blue Boy in front of Doc’s, pounding on the door as he yelled for Doc Burrage and received no answer. A neighbor opened their door upon hearing the commotion.

“Mark, Mark McCain, what’s the matter?”

“Do you know where Doc Burrage is?

“I think both were spending the evening out at Judge Tanner’s place over in Marionette.”

“Marionette?”

“Mark, where’s your coat? It’s snowing out here!”

“No time, Ma’s having the baby!” Mark jumped on Blue Boy and headed to Marionette.

*****

The night drew on as Lucas and Hope tended to Milly and her contractions. Lucas became increasingly worried when he realized the time and how long Mark had been gone.

The sun was well up and Milly’s contractions had become closer and closer when Lucas heard the sound of a horse and buggy arriving. He opened the door to see young Doc Burrage climbing from the buggy and walking to the house.

“Lucas, how is she?”

“Doc, it’s too soon. The baby isn’t due for another couple of weeks. She’s been in labor all night.” Lucas showed Thadd to the bedroom, but was stopped from entering as Hope shut the door in front of him. Lucas paced. He prayed at every one of Milly’s screams. He was unaware of how much time elapsed when he heard the sounds of a baby crying. Finally the door opened and Doc stepped out.

“Lucas congratulations, you have a fine, healthy baby. Give us a few minutes to clean up and then you can come in and see Milly and meet your daughter.”

Hope led Lucas into the bedroom, he climbed up on the bed and sat beside Milly and put his arm around her shoulder. He watched as his daughter suckled from her mother’s breast. Lucas kissed Milly on the forehead and said, “I love you Milly.”

“You know, Mark was right, today is the start of something beautiful,” Lucas rested his cheek on Milly’s head.

As Doc was putting his instruments away, he asked Lucas if he could have a word with him in the front room. From the look on his face, Lucas followed him.

“Lucas, Uncle Jay and I were at Judge Tanner’s place over in Marionette last night. Mark arrived, half frozen, we barely understood him, but heard enough to know Milly was giving birth.”

It was then that Lucas noticed Mark’s winter jacket hanging on the back of the chair by the table.

“Doc…”

“Lucas, as I said Uncle Jay was there. Before I left, they were warming hot water to submerge him in a bath. Milly and the baby will be fine, even though she is a couple weeks premature. I’m going to head on back to Marionette and see what help I can be. Lucas, I’m sorry to bear such news to you.”

“Thanks Doc, just take care of my boy.”

Lucas showed Doc to his buggy and then returned to his bedroom. Milly was asleep and Hope was laying their daughter into her cradle.

“Hope…” Lucas stood at the door and motioned for Hope to come to him. He took her to the kitchen and told her the news of Mark. He hugged her and together they cried.

 

Continued in The Rifleman – The Next Generation Pt 3

 

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