The Rifleman – The Next Generation Pt 4 (by BluewindFarm)

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

Category:  The Rifleman
Genre:  Western
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  42,810


 

The Next Generation – Chapter 34 – Never Too Old

Micah and Hattie’s wedding was planned for the first weekend in September. Lucas was to walk the bride down the aisle and give her away. Johnny and Mark stood up with Micah, while Milly and Lou stood up with Hattie.

As Reverend McCafferty asked, “Who gives this bride away?” Lucas answered, “I do, on behalf of the town council of North Fork.” He gave Hattie a kiss on the cheek and quietly said, “I love you Ma.”

Tears were in everyone’s eyes when the reverend pronounced them husband and wife. Micah quickly kissed Hattie.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I now introduce to you Mr. and Mrs. Micah Torrance.”

*****

After their wedding reception, Micah walked Hattie back to her home, before he left however, he reminded everyone that he owned a scatter gun and had no reservations against using it on anyone who thought about a shivaree. And those who were fortunate enough to avoid his scatter gun, he’d see to it that they spend at least a week in jail.

The McCain’s and the Drako’s watched as the new Mr. and Mrs. Torrance walked arm in arm down the street.

*****

Mark was sitting in the Marshal’s Office and Johnny was out to doing his morning rounds of North Fork, when Micah arrived.

“Excuse me,” Mark stated. “But just what are you doing here?”

“Mark, I’m the Marshal of this town and if I want to…”

“Micah, you’re not the Marshal for at least the next few weeks. You just got married!”

“This town is my responsibility.”

“Isn’t that why you have Johnny and me? To help out when you need some time off? Now go back to Miss Hattie or else I’ll go get her and the two of us will parade you through the streets.”

Micah looked around the office.

“Micah, you best get, because if Johnny or my Pa finds you here instead of with Miss Hattie…”

“Okay, Okay, I’m going.”

“Enjoy yourself Micah and tell Mrs. Torrance I said hello.”

*****

Mark got up and walked out to the front of the office and leaned against the hitching rail when a rider approached and dismounted in front of him.

“Drew, Drew Anders?”

“Howdy Mark. How ya been?” Drew stated as he turned and shook Mark’s hand.

“Been fine. What brings you to North Fork?”

“Just traveling through. Supposed to head down to El Paso in a week or so, to help out. But before then, got some time, so I thought I’d stop by and visit with ya.”

Mark invited Drew in and offered him a cup of coffee.

“You never got to liking this stuff did ya, Mark?” Drew asked.

“Nope, tastes like tree bark in water,” Mark stated as he grimaced with his face.

“Hey Mark, that little gal you were so sweet about, the last time I was here. Whatever happened to her?”

“I married her,” Mark stated, then smiled as she entered the office. “Morning Hope. Do you remember Drew Anders? Drew, my wife Hope.”

“Marshal Anders, if I remember correctly,” Hope stated as she greeted Drew.

“Yes ma’am. So you got this fella lassoed and hog tied? Boy Mark, you look as smitten with her today as you did, what two years ago?” Drew asked.

“Mark, I’m sorry to interrupt, but did I see Micah in town?”

“Yes, I chased him back home. Told him he if he didn’t head back home to Miss Hattie, I’d go get her and parade him through town. You know they say ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’, well, he’s just going to have to get used to being a married man and realizing he has two capable deputies,” Mark stated as he pulled Hope into his arms and gave her a kiss. “And all the benefits you can enjoy as a married man.”

“Mark!” Hope blushed as she tried to push away from Mark. Then turning to Drew, “If you’re staying in town for a while, maybe you could join Mark and me for supper at the hotel tonight?”

“What? No home cooking for a long, lost friend?” Drew faked a pained look on his face.

“Well, we would invite you home, but with Micah having just gotten married, Johnny and Mark are responsible for the town. And with Johnny’s little boy having the sniffles, I’m sure he’d want to spend supper with Lou at home, instead of being held hostage to the office,” Hope answered. “So that means Mark really needs to stay close to the office.”

“I understand Miss Hope, I’d be pleased to join you and Mark at the hotel, say six o’clock?” They agreed.

Mark and Hope enjoyed sharing a wonderful supper and conversation at the hotel. Mark walked Hope to a room at the hotel and kissed her goodnight. He bid Drew goodnight as he walked down the hallway to return to the marshal’s office.

*****

That night, Micah was embarrassed about the whole situation. Micah kept saying, “I don’t know why I let me talk myself into marrying. I’m too old for this. Marriage is for young people.”

“Now Micah, I thought you loved Hattie?” Lucas asked.

“I do, but marriage? Everyone looking at us and smiling? Should have just stayed a bachelor and enjoyed her company and her cooking,” Micah said grumpily.

“Micah, there’s more to marriage than company and cooking. There are many other pleasures,” Lucas stated as he tried to hide a grin from his face.

“Now don’t you go starting in on me too.” Micah threatened Lucas by pointing a finger at him.

Lucas spent time convincing Micah that, maybe, they should travel for their honeymoon. The following morning the McCain’s and the Drako’s saw Micah and Hattie off at the train station.

The Next Generation – Chapter 35 – Fort Sam Houston

As Mark and Hope were walking past the general store, Mrs. Donner announced that there was a letter addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Mark McCain, posted from San Antonio, Texas. Hope accepted the letter and opened it.

Dear Sis and Mark,

I pray that this letter finds both of you happy. I have good news, I am to be married. Antoinette has accepted my marriage proposal. We’re to be married October 19th, hoping that you can travel to Fort Sam for our ceremony. Please wire, father and I will make all the arrangements for your stay.

Love,

Ethan Lane

PS: Father sends his love.

“Mark, Ethan sent wonderful news. He and Antoinette are to be married next month. He’s asked if we could come.”

“You’d really like to go wouldn’t you?” Mark asked as he pulled her into an embrace.

“Yes Mark, it’s been over a year since I’ve seen father and Ethan and I’ve never met my future sister-in-law. Ethan just writes of her in his letters. Mark, please, may we go?”

“Hope, you don’t have to ask. We’ll talk with Pa and Ma tonight when they come back to town for supper, and then I’ll make arrangements once Micah returns. You’ll need to find someone else to help out at the day care center while we’re gone. If your father agrees, we can arrive a few days early and then plan to stay a few extra days afterwards so we can visit.”

“Oh, Mark. Do you know how much I really love you?”

“Well you could prove it to me tonight,” Mark quietly whispered in her ear.

“Mark! That will have to wait until Micah returns, and I can get you home.”

*****

It was a week before Ethan’s scheduled wedding when Mark and Hope boarded the train bound for San Antonio, Texas. This was the first time that Hope had been on a train and she marveled as the scenery passed by, outside their window. As passengers would come and go, they’d strike up conversations with their seat mates.

*****

As they left the train in San Antonio, Mark and Hope were amazed at the sight that greeted them. The hustle and bustle of the big city and all the soldiers coming and going. Soon, they heard their names being called and turned around to see Major Seth Lane striding towards them.

“Father!” Hope called and ran to hug her father.

As Mark approached, Seth held out his hand to greet is son-in-law. “Mark, we’re pleased that you and Hope could join us.”

“It’s our pleasure sir. Seeing as how many times you and Ethan have made the trip to North Fork.”

“Come on then, let’s get your bags and get the two of you settled in at the hotel. I’ve a room already reserved that I think will be just fine.”

The Major motioned for a private to collect Mark and Hope’s luggage. The Major showed them to a coach for the trip to the hotel.

“Father, how far is it to the hotel?” Hope asked.

“It’s a few blocks away. Why?”

“Well, we’ve been sitting on the train for almost three days and I thought, maybe we could walk?”

Seth turned to the private and instructed him to drive the coach to the hotel and see that their bags were placed in their room. As Seth escorted them along the street to the hotel, he pointed out buildings of interest and told some of the history behind the buildings. As a number of people they encountered stopped and greeted Seth, he introduced his daughter and son-in-law to them. A number of the women were wives of officers.

*****

Once they arrived in their room, Mark and Hope declared the room was too grand for them. To them, it appeared to be a presidential suite.

“Non-sense. You’ll stay here and I won’t take no for an answer. This isn’t the best room in the hotel, but I think you’re both entitled to stay in luxury, besides, I’m the one who’s paying the bill. Subject closed.

“Now, I’m sure that both of you will want to freshen up, before dinner. There’s an attendant down the hall who can draw your baths. Ethan, Antoinette and I will meet you in the hotel lobby at five, thirty, okay?” Seth started to leave, but stopped and hugged his daughter one more time. “Hope, I’m happy that you came.”

*****

As they unpacked their bags Mark notice a slight trace of worry in Hope’s face. “Hope, what’s the matter?” he asked.

“It’s just that all the women we met have such elegant dresses. Even my best seems, a little plain.”

“Hope, if you like, we can go shopping tomorrow. Buy you something to make you feel like the belle of the ball,” Mark stated as he pulled her into an embrace.

There was a knock at the door. Mark opened the door to see a two women standing in the hallway.

“Mr. McCain?”

“Yes…”

“We met briefly on the street, I’m Mrs. Abernathy and this is Mrs. Rosemont, may we come in?”

Mark opened the door to allow the women inside.

“Mrs. McCain…”

“Please,” Hope answered. “My name is Hope.”

“Thank you Hope,” Mrs. Abernathy stated. “My name is Gloria and this is Elinor. Please don’t think us rude, but San Antonio is a little bit larger town that you’re used to, so we thought we’d help you out.”

“Help me out?” Hope inquired.

“Child, we know you’re wearing traveling clothes and we want you to feel more comfortable when you meet some of the other wives of the officers, so if you’d allow us, a few of us have some dresses that might fit you that we’d be pleased to let you borrow for your stay.”

Elinor then continued, “We’ve a room down the hallway, where some of the wives have donated some dresses, hoping you might find some you’d like.”

“Mark?” Hope said as she turned to her husband.

“Go ahead. I’ll see you when you’re done.”

*****

Gloria and Elinor escorted Hope to the room, where as they entered, Hope saw more dresses in different colors and fabrics than she could imagine. The women assisted Hope in trying on a number of the dresses. Many, Hope felt were way too fancy or too expensive for her, but a few, Elinor and Gloria convinced Hope to go ahead and borrow.

“Goria, Elinor, I don’t know how to thank you. This is so much more than I ever imagined,” Hope stated as they carried the dresses back to their room.

“Child, we’d do this for any new wife coming to the post. Most new officers and their wives aren’t quite as young as you appear, but we know how tight money can be when you’re first starting out.”

*****

For this evening’s dinner, Hope chose a lovely green dress that she felt matched her eyes and contrasted wonderfully with her red hair, it had finally grown long enough that it reached past her shoulders.

Once she was finished with her bath and had changed into the dress, she returned to her room to see Elinor standing in front of the door, getting ready to knock.

“Elinor?” Hope called.

“Child, oh my, that dress is exquisite on you. Now, if you’ll let me do up your hair, you’ll be the most beautiful woman present tonight at dinner.”

Once Elinor was done, Hope looked in the mirror and couldn’t believe the transformation. Mark came in a few minutes later and Hope turned around. Mark stumbled out an apology for entering the wrong room, but then looked at the number on the door.

“Mark?” Hope asked.

“You… Are you really my wife?”

Elinor excused herself.

“Do you really like?”

“Hope, you’re more beautiful than I ever envisioned.”

“You’ll wear your badge on your jacket tonight?”

“I don’t know. I’m not a deputy for San Antonio.”

“But you are a deputy. I think you should.”

“For you my love, I’ll wear it.”

Mark pinned his badge on and Hope re-tied his tie. “Can’t have you looking sloppy tonight,” Hope stated.

“I don’t think anyone will notice me tonight, not with you by my side,” Mark replied.

*****

It was a few minutes before five, thirty when Mark escorted Hope down the grand staircase of the hotel. At the bottom of the landing, Mark saw Seth Lane standing, and knew he was mirroring the same expression Mark had worn a few minutes earlier.

With her husband on one arm and her father on the other, Hope was escorted into the dining room. The sight that greeted them, when the door opened, was more than either had planned on. It wasn’t the simple family dinner, but a full military dinner. All the officers and their wives were present. Mark briefly tugged at his collar, hoping to loosen it.

Seth guided them to chairs, across from Ethan and Antoinette, they presumed. Ethan whispered across the table, “Mark is she really Hope?” and got a swift kick in the shin from his fiancée.

Soon the room was called to order and everyone quieted.

“For those of you who don’t know me, I am Colonel Jacob Albright, I’m the commanding officer of this post. Tonight is a special occasion. Not only is this the monthly dinner my wife and I host for our officers and their wives, but we have guests tonight. The daughter and son-in-law of Major Seth Lane. Ladies and gentlemen, Deputy Mark McCain and his wife, Hope, from North Fork in the New Mexico Territory, join us.”

As those present offered their welcomes, Mark was sure he heard a few of the people sitting to their backs commenting about him being a deputy and how young he looked.

The Colonel ordered the room to quiet. “Mark, Hope, welcome, we hope you enjoy your stay.” The Colonel sat down and the servers started carrying in plates of food and set them in front of everyone. Later, they came around and offered wine to everyone. Hope and Mark both declined, stating that water would do for them.

During dinner, Ethan did introduce Antoinette to Hope and Mark, but they weren’t able to carry on too much of a conversation for the officers around them had questions for Mark and the wives had questions for Hope.

After dessert was served, the Colonel stood and called the room to attention.

“I have one more announcement that needs to be made this evening before the evening concludes. There is a standing promotion that has not yet been posted. I thought it might be a good idea to make that promotion this evening, seeing as how his family is present. Lieutenant Ethan Lane, front and center.”

Ethan quickly swallowed a gulp of water to help force his bite of pie go down, he hadn’t been paying attention and then to hear his name called out. A Corporal waited behind Ethan and pulled out his chair as he stood. Ethan approached the Colonel and stopped.

“Lieutenant Lane, I don’t think these bars suit you anymore. From this moment forward, you are to be recognized and addressed as Captain Ethan Lane.” The Colonel removed the lieutenant bars from Ethan’s shoulders and replaced them with captain’s bars. “Congratulations son! Now, go back to your fiancée.”

As Ethan walked back to his seat, the other officers in attendance stood and clapped. When the Colonel finally regained order to the room, “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your attendance and company. Good night.” Colonel Albright extended his arm to his wife and they left the room.

*****

As they left the hotel, Seth led the way to his quarters where the family could talk and catch up.

Antoinette embraced her future sister-in-law as each tried to welcome the other into the family, talking at the same time. The whole group laughed.

“Antoinette, it is a pleasure to finally meet you. Ethan has written so much about you in his letters, I feel I already know you.”

“Well, first off, since we’re going to be family, I insist that you call me Annie.”

For the next few hours they talked of the upcoming wedding and the fact that Ethan and Annie would be heading East for their honeymoon before Ethan was to take his new post, outside of Washington, D.C.

“Mark, I remember the first time we met and I thought that maybe Washington would be your calling. Never imagined I’d be posted there, but it will only be for two years, then two years posted at West Point, before I’m transferred back West.”

Seth inquired how Hope was enjoying her stay so far.

Hope turned and addressed her father. “Father, the women of the post, they’ve all been so kind and gracious. It’s more than I imagined.”

“Hope,” Annie stated. “I’m happy Gloria or Elinor didn’t upset you. It can be difficult for a young woman, especially attending one of the Colonel’s dinners. Besides, I don’t think there was an officer present who’s not getting an earful right now from their wife or their intended, because of the stares they gave you as you entered. You are quite beautiful.”

*****

The day after their wedding, Ethan and Annie left on the afternoon train. Seth was busy with duties and told Mark and Hope, he would see them for supper that evening.

*****

While walking the town, Hope overheard a few young children talking and realized they were Kiowa. As she started to walk over to them, she asked, “Please Mark, they are Kiowa. It’s been so long, please…?”

Mark escorted Hope to the children, where she knelt down and started a conversation. At first the children were reluctant to speak, but soon, they started talking and laughing with Hope. As she got up to leave, she handed each one of the children a piece of candy and watched as they scampered away. Mark helped her to her feet and smiled, as he asked, “Are you happy?”

“Yes Mark, I am. I miss Iron Heart’s family, but I wouldn’t trade the family I have now for anything.” Hope looked into Mark’s eyes and then gave him a quick kiss. Arm in arm they returned to the hotel and supper with the Major.

*****

That night, the quiet of their room was shattered in the dead of night by a rock thrown through the window and the sound of a horse running away, hard and fast.

“Hope stay on the other side!” Mark called as he reached for his rifle and carefully made his way past the glass shards on the floor and over to the broken window. Shortly, pounding could be heard on the door to their room. Mark made his way over to and opened the door. Light from the hallway shone in. In the middle of the room, along with the shattered glass, a rock laid with a note tied to it. Mark picked up the rock, pulled out the note and read:

Take your squaw and leave.
This is your only warning!

He clenched his hand into a fist, wadding up the note inside. Turning to the hotel owner, “Get your sheriff and Major Lane.”

Seeing the anger in Mark’s face and hearing it in his voice; was something Hope had never known. Even back when he rescued her from McCormick, she’d never witnessed this kind of rage.

“Everyone get out of here! NOW!” Mark ordered as he pushed the other guests from their room. He lit the lantern on the dresser on the far side of the room. “Hope, get dressed. We’re not staying here. You’re moving to the fort, tonight!”

“Mark?! You’re scaring me. What’s wrong?” Hope asked, her voice full of fear.

Both were dressed and bags packed and on the bed when a knock was heard at the door and two voices identifying themselves as Sheriff Madison and Major Lane. Mark opened the door, rifle in hand.

“Mark, Hope,” Seth stated as they entered, saw Mark’s rifle in hand, and saw the glass on the floor. “What happened?”

“This is what happened!” Anger could still be heard in Mark’s voice as he handed the rock to the sheriff and the note to Major Lane.

“Major, we need to get Hope to the fort tonight. I’ll not risk her life!”

“My life? Mark, please, talk to me!” Hope pleaded.

“Hope, you were right when you asked your father whether the people of this town would accept you as his daughter or as Kiowa. Someone here is directing their hate towards you. Hope, I’ll not turn tail and run, but I won’t risk your life. You’re going to the fort where your father and the soldiers can help protect you.”

“Hope, Mark is right,” Seth stated. “Until we find out whoever it was who wrote this note, you’re not safe here. Please, I’ll see to it that the commander’s guest quarters are made available for you and Mark until you’re scheduled to return home.”

*****

Colonel Albright ordered soldiers to be stationed outside as Mrs. Albright lit the lanterns and escorted Hope and Mark to the guest quarters. Mrs. Albright pulled the door closed behind her as she left them in their room, Mark holding Hope as she was crying.

*****

“Colonel,” Seth stated. “I’m sorry to wake you and your wife so early in the morning.”

“No need for apology Major,” Colonel Albright replied, as Mrs. Albright returned to their living room.

“Major, what on earth happened to frighten your daughter and her husband so much?” Coralee asked.

“Colonel, you and your wife have only been posted here about a year, there’s a long story.”

“Seth, I think right now you need a friend more than a commanding officer. Tell us what happened.” Jacob Albright replied.

Seth sat down and told the Albrights of his family’s past and his finding Hope alive and living among the Kiowa. Told of how Stedman had used her as a pawn to try to start an Indian war and how Mark had rescued her, twice. Told of how Hope had asked whether the people of the town would accept her as his daughter or Kiowa. “Sir, that’s why I left my daughter in North Fork. They accepted her right off. I know Mark McCain had a lot to do with that, just because he cared so much about her. Evidently, Hope was right. Someone here found out and sees her as Kiowa, and not my daughter.”

*****

For the next two days, wherever Hope and Mark left the post, two soldiers weren’t far behind. On the afternoon of the third day, Mrs. Albright invited Hope to join her for lunch in town, while the men rode to look over some of the new horses that had arrived. Mark was hesitant to leave, but Colonel Albright assured him Hope would not be at risk.

*****

The men were just returning to the fort when one of the soldiers came running up.

“Sirs, I’m sorry, but…” trying to catch his breath. “It was Nicholson. He’s the one!”

“Nicholson?” the Colonel asked. “What do you mean?”

“He knocked me out, when I came too, and went to find your wife and Hope.” Then turning to the Major, “Mrs. Albright told me Nicholson came and told your daughter her husband had been thrown from a horse and hurt. Sir, he took your daughter! I’m sorry. I…”

“Where’d he take her?” Mark demanded.

“They said he took a horse and headed east.”

Mark spun his horse around and raced on while the others organized a proper search party. Mark arrived at a fork in the road and examined the tracks; only one set represented a galloping horse. He marked the trail and took the right fork.

Mark finally caught up with Nicholson and Hope after the horse they were riding broke down. He jumped from his horse, rifle at the ready. Nicholson held Hope in front of him, his arm around her throat and a gun in his other hand. Hope was struggling to pull his arm from around her throat.

“You keep back! I warned you to get your squaw out of town. No, you had to stay! To make matters worse, the Colonel made me protect her. Well, I’m going to get rid of this squaw!” Nicholson yelled.

“She’s not a squaw! He’s my wife!” Mark yelled.

“You married a squaw, you’re just as guilty as them stinkin’ injuns!”

Mark watched as Nicholson kept backing away, squeezing his arm around Hope’s throat, tighter. He watched as Hope struggled and fought against Nicholson.

“Nicholson, she’s the Major’s daughter! Iron Heart saved her life when she was eleven and raised her. That doesn’t make her an Indian!”

“She lived with them. That makes her injun. Injuns killed my brother. I joined the army to kill injuns!”

“Let my wife GO!” Mark yelled, tears were forming in his eyes as he realized Hope was losing the ability to struggle. He saw her lips turning blue and her skin turning ash colored. He watched as she mouthed I love you, before her eyes closed and she sagged in Nicholson’s arm.

“NICHOLSON!” Mark screamed.

Nicholson felt Hope’s weight in his arm. In one movement he pushed her to the ground and raised his gun to aim at Mark. He pulled the trigger just as the bullet from Mark’s rifle struck him in the chest. Nicholson’s bullet struck a tree next to Mark.

Mark dropped his rifle and ran to his wife. Tears streamed down his face as he knelt next to her and pulled her into his embrace.

“Hope, please… don’t leave me! God please?!” he cried as he pulled her head to his chest.

Mark turned his head as he felt a hand on his shoulder, he hadn’t heard the others arrive.

“Major, he strangled…”

“Mark, do you know the Silvester Method? Lay her flat, on her back, place her arms above her head, then lift her neck and breathe into her mouth. Then pull her arms down and press them to her chest. Mark, do it!”

Mark allowed the Major to pull his wife from his arms. He felt a slap across his face, “Mark, breathe into her!”

Mark obeyed, crying and praying to God to bring Hope back to him. It was his seventh breath when Mark felt Hope’s body stiffen and she began to cough and gulp in air. Mark pulled Hope into his arms and thanked God. Through tear-filled eyes he looked at his wife as she lay in his arms, shaking, eyes closed, but alive.

“Mark, you did it boy! You brought her back! Let’s get both of you in the saddle and get her back to the fort so Doc can look her over.” Turning to the men who accompanied him, “Gardner, Holmes, bury the body.”

Mark allowed the Major to help Hope get into the saddle in front of him. He felt her lapse into unconsciousness as she rested her head against his shoulder. The Major grabbed the reins and led them back to the fort.

By the time they had returned to the fort and had Hope in the infirmary, the bruise on the side of her temple was beginning to show.

After a thorough examination, the doctor recommended she stay under observation for the night. He told two orderlies to bring a gurney and to return Hope to the Colonel’s guest quarters. Mark refused, said he’d carry his wife. Doc Pullman told one of his nurses that she would be accompanying them, to keep an eye on Hope.

“Mark, she’s got a mild concussion. She’s going to need to stay in bed for a few days, until her body can adjust from the shock. Then I want her to take it easy once you get her back home. Seth told me you live on a ranch; I don’t want her working hard until your doctor says she’s okay. That should probably be another week after you get her home.”

“Thank you sir.”

Mrs. Albright led them into the guest quarters and helped settle Hope in the bed and pulled the covers up over her. After Mrs. Albright left, Mark crawled on top of the covers and laid on his side, next to his wife, his arm draped over her ribs, tears falling across his face.

*****

Mrs. Albright let Seth into the guest quarters the following morning. He entered to find his daughter and son-in-law still sleeping and the nurse sitting in a chair, reading a book.

“How are they?” he asked.

“She’s sleeping quietly, but he’s been having some bad dreams. Sir, if you don’t mind my asking, just how young are they?”

“They’ll be twenty in a few months.”

“Sir, if I may, I’m going to report in to the doctor and I’m sure he’ll be over afterwards to check on your daughter. It was my pleasure to watch over them last night.”

“Thank you nurse.”

*****

Seth settled into the chair and watched Hope and Mark sleep. He heard Mark become restless, saw him bolt upright, eyes wide awake. Seth walked over to the side of the bed.

“Easy there Mark, you’re safe. You’re both safe,” He said as he laid a hand on Mark’s arm. “Breathe easy son, take deep breaths.”

“I’m sorry sir, I just…” Mark couldn’t continue. He looked at his wife and brushed a strand of hair from Hope’s face as she continued to sleep. Pained at seeing the bruise at her temple.

“It’s okay Mark, I understand. The nurse said Doc Pullman would be here soon. He’ll let you know how she’s doing.”

*****

The train ride home for Mark was agonizingly slow. He continued to worry about Hope, whenever she’d lie asleep in his arms. When she was awake, he tried his best to pretend everything was as it should be. He slept little ever since Nicholson had tried to kill his wife, his dreams kept haunting him.

As the train made its last stop before North Fork, Mark left Hope sleeping in their seat. He stepped to the telegraph office and sent a wire;

Doc Thaddeus Burrage
North Fork, New Mexico Territory

Thadd, please meet six o’clock train tonight /stop/
Will explain, once we arrive /stop/

Mark McCain

*****

Mark continued to let Hope sleep as the train pulled ever closer to North Fork. When he finally woke her, Doc Burrage was kneeling in front of her.

“Good Evening Hope, how are you feeling?” he asked.

“I… Mark, what?”

“Hope, I want Thadd to check you over before we get off the train. We’ve time.”

After a quick once over, and after hearing what had happened Thadd stated, “Mark I think she’s okay, but I’d rather you both stay in town tonight and let me check her again first thing in the morning, before you head home.”

Mark escorted Hope from the train, while a porter gathered their bags and followed them to the hotel. They had just stepped into the lobby when he heard a buckboard approaching, Mark looked over his shoulder to see his Pa and Ma arrive. Lou was at the front desk and immediately had a key to a room and was leading them upstairs. After seeing that Hope was resting comfortably, Mark returned downstairs. He saw the pained look in his parents’ eyes as Doc Burrage left them standing in the lobby.

“We ran into some trouble after the wedding,” Mark stated as they walked into the restaurant. “There was a soldier there who found out Hope had lived as a Kiowa. He blamed her for his brother’s death. He almost killed her…” Mark couldn’t continue. He folded his arms on the table, laid his head down on them and cried. In time his crying stopped, only for Lucas to realize Mark’s body had given into exhaustion and he had fallen asleep, knowing he was home and others were there to protect him.

Johnny came into the restaurant; he had heard what happened and came to check in on Mark and Hope. He helped Lucas carry Mark upstairs. They placed him on the bed, next to Hope. Milly blew out the lantern and pulled the door closed behind them, as they left.

*****

The following morning, Mark woke unsure of his surroundings at first, then realized someone was knocking on the door. He climbed from the bed and opened the door.

“Thadd, what time is it?” Mark asked.

“It’s almost lunch time. I tried to stop by earlier, but your folks suggested that you needed the sleep more than Hope needed checked up on. Why don’t you wake her and let me see how she’s doing.”

After he finished examining Hope, he said, “Well, I like what I’m seeing. You can head back to the ranch today, but Hope, I want you to take it easy for another week. Any sign of the slightest of headache, I want you back in bed and for me to be sent for. Promise?”

“I promise, Doc,” Hope replied.

“Good, then I’ll see you next Friday for one final check up. Mark, you’ll see to it that she follows my instructions.”

“Yes sir and thank you.”

They walked downstairs to find Lucas, Milly, and Myra in the restaurant. After lunch, Mark stopped in at Micah’s to let him know he’d report for duty on Monday. Then group returned to the ranch. On Saturday, Lucas and Mark worked the ranch, while Milly and Hope tended to the house and Myra.

During the next week, Mark talked some of what had happened, but Lucas realized he was holding something back, he’d not told the whole story. Lucas decided to be patient and wait for Mark to tell him, in his own time.

*****

Friday afternoon, the McCain’s returned to North Fork. Lucas and Milly waited in the restaurant, while Mark and Hope went to Doc Burrage’s. As they waited, Johnny and Micah joined them.

“LucasBoy, you need to talk to Mark.” Micah stated.

“About what?” Lucas asked.

“Luke, he’s different since he came back. When other people are around, he seems okay, but when he doesn’t think anyone’s watching, he’s different. Something happened that he’s not accepted yet.” Johnny said.

“Johnny, how would you feel if someone tried to kill Lou in front of your eyes?” Milly asked.

“Milly, that’s not the problem. He’ll talk about that soldier trying to kill Hope and he’s come to terms with that and knowing she’s going to be okay. There’s something else and I don’t know how to get him to talk, but he needs to get whatever it is out. Lucas, talk with him. Get him to talk about whatever it is he’s hiding.”

Johnny and Micah left before Mark and Hope returned. As they sat down at the table with their parents, Mark took Myra from Milly. He started talking and cooing to his sister. “Yes Gabby, that’s Ma and Pa., and who’s this? Who’s sitting next to us?” Mark asked as he pointed to Hope.

“Ope” Myra stated.

“Well, one of these days you’re going to learn how to pronounce your H’s.” Mark stated with a small grin.

“I think it’s cute,” Hope answered as she took Myra from Mark, as Myra was reaching for her. Then turning to Lucas and Milly, “Doc says I’m fine. I can go about my regular responsibilities, just that if I do get the headaches or any nausea, he’s to be sent for, right away.”

Turning to Myra, “So, little sister, are you ready to go home? I’m sure we have chores that need to get done.”

It had been a tiring week, but the family joyfully returned to the McCain ranch.

*****

The following morning, Milly woke to the sounds of wood chopping. She sensed Lucas was still in bed and as she looked out the window, she realized dawn had barely broke. Milly shook Lucas awake.

“Lucas, I think you need to talk to Mark. Now!”

“What?” Lucas replied still asleep.

“Lucas, he’s outside chopping wood and it’s barely daylight. Johnny and Micah were right… Something’s bothering him. Go talk to him Lucas.”

They stepped from their bedroom to see Hope sitting in Mark’s chair, knees drawn to her chest, head down crying. She looked up at hearing her name.

“Pa, please. I don’t know how to help him. He won’t talk to me about it,” Hope pleaded.

Lucas walked out the door and called to Mark. Mark didn’t hesitate in his swing. Lucas could see the anger in Mark’s body, just from how hard he brought the ax down on the piece of wood.

“Mark, we need to talk,” Lucas stated.

“Let me finish with the firewood,” Mark answered.

“No Mark, now. We’re going to talk now.” Hearing the tone in Lucas’ voice, Mark looked up from picking up a piece of wood. He saw the expression on his Pa’s face. He wasn’t ready, he’d hoped to get some of his frustration out by chopping wood, but it wasn’t working. Mark wasn’t ready to talk to anyone. He ran to the barn, hopped on Blue Boy, bareback, and rode away.

Lucas took his time following, he knew exactly where Mark was heading.

*****

“Ma,” Hope pleaded. “Ever since our return, he cries out so at night. I remember the look in his eyes, showing how much he loved me and how pained he was that, that man held me. He won’t talk to me about this and I hurt for him.”

“Hope, let Lucas try. Johnny and Micah told us yesterday, when you were at Doc’s, that they felt Mark was hiding something. Something he wasn’t ready to face. You don’t know what it is either?”

“No, and it’s tearing Mark up at night.”

Milly pulled Hope into her arms, trying to comfort her.

*****

Lucas slowly rode Razor to the pond. He saw Mark standing in front of the two crosses, hat in hand. He watched as Mark fell to his knees and pounded his fist on the ground. Lucas dismounted and walked to his son.

“Mark, talk with me. Tell me what’s wrong,” Lucas pleaded.

“I can’t Pa…, I… can’t,” Mark said through his sobs.

Lucas raised Mark’s head and forced him to sit up and look at him. “Mark, I’m your father. Whatever it is that’s tearing you up inside, tell me about it. I’ll do my best to get you through this.”

“Pa…” Mark stopped, closed his eyes, and shook his head. “When I thought he had killed Hope. I… I…” Mark’s voice was barely a whisper when he admitted to his Pa, “I killed Nicholson.”

Everything now made sense to Lucas. His heart broke for what he knew his son was feeling, thankfully, he knew exactly how to help Mark. He had Mark walk him through every detail of what had happened that day, stopping Mark occasionally and drawing out more detail. At the end, Lucas stated “Mark, you had to know that this day would come, once you put on the deputy badge, guess I should have known it too and been prepared to talk with you before this.”

“But I wasn’t out there as a deputy, I was there as Hope’s husband!”

“Mark, just because you were defending your wife, doesn’t mean that you weren’t acting in the best interests of the law. There have been plenty of times, when I was forced to take a life and yet I wasn’t legally deputized. As long as you were defending yourself or another, it was within the law. I know it hurts, and you’ve seen me after I’ve been forced to take a life. I know it’s not easy. But from what you said, it was either your life or his.”

“I could have pulled my shot! I didn’t have to kill him!” Mark cried.

“Mark, I don’t believe he would have pulled his shot in order not to kill you. There were times, in the past, when I had the time to plan on how to pull a shot so that I didn’t take a life, but more times than not, I never got that time and neither will you. It’s reaction. It’s kill or be killed. Mark, each time it happens, it won’t get any easier. But you can’t keep this inside. Don’t hide it. Each time, you have to talk. I’ve had Micah to talk to afterwards, and yes, it does grieve me at being forced to take a life, but that’s just it. Each time, I was forced into the situation, just as you were. Mark, if you hadn’t acted as you had — neither you nor Hope might be alive right now.

“Mark, I know God understands what happened and he forgives you. You just have to learn to forgive yourself.”

“Pa, how can I?” Mark quietly asked.

“Talk to God as you just talked with me. When you’re ready, your family will be waiting for you at home.” With that, Lucas stood and walked to Razor. After getting in the saddle, Lucas called, “Mark, remember, we love you.” Then, he rode for home.

Upon arrival, Lucas took time to tell Milly and Hope what Mark had told him. They both were just as pained at hearing Mark’s experience.

Mark did return to the house, but not until later that morning. Lucas was walking to the house for lunch when he saw Mark approach, he stopped and watched, pleased with what he saw in his son. The burden had been lifted from his shoulders.

*****

Late that afternoon, Milly had Myra dressed, and Lucas was just finishing putting on his tie. They were almost ready to head into town for dinner as a family. Hope exited from her bedroom and told them to go ahead and have a good time. While Mark was finishing with his bath, she told them, she wanted some time alone, with Mark.

As they drove the buckboard to town, Lucas questioned Milly about what was going on. “Why did you have me bring the cradle and why the overnight bags?”

“Lucas, you helped heal Mark’s mind this morning. I think Hope wants to heal his heart. Besides, sounds like a good excuse for us to say at the hotel tonight,” Milly stated as she pulled Myra closer to her and gave a coy smile to Lucas.

*****

Lucas and Milly arrived at the hotel and were joined for dinner by Johnny and Lou and Micah and Hattie. After dinner, Micah asked if they had found out what was eating at Mark. Lucas explained to the group the secret that Mark had been hiding. The group was quiet afterwards, each understanding. Soon, it was time for everyone to retire for the night.

*****

Milly laid the sleeping Myra down in her cradle for the night and turned around to see Lucas already lying on the bed, under the covers.

“Well, Mr. McCain,” Milly playfully called.

“Yes, Mrs. McCain?”

“So are you just going to sleep the night away?”

“Maybe later. Right now, I thought I might be a husband to my wife. And this was the room where we spent our first night as husband and wife.”

Milly slipped out of her dress and under the covers. After almost three years, she still marveled at the strength of her husband and yet, how gentle and loving he could be. They responded to each other’s needs, as husband and wife. In time, they were asleep in each other’s arms.

*****

That night, after Hope had finished dishes, she and Mark retired to their bedroom. Hope stood in front of Mark as he sat on the side of the bed. She reached forward and unbuttoned his shirt, pulled it off him, and caressed his shoulders and chest as she straddled his lap.

“Hope, please, you need…”

“I need you, Mark. Doc Burrage stated I was fine and could return to all my regular responsibilities. And one of those is being your wife, in mind, spirit, and body…” she reached her hands to Mark’s head and pulled him into a kiss.

Mark couldn’t stop himself, he needed Hope, and he pulled her close to him. Carefully he unbuttoned the back of her dress, and gently pulled it from her body. As they stood, he let it fall to the floor, as he finished undressing himself. He pulled her to him as he lay down, backwards to the bed. Both gave into their desires as husband and wife. Mark totally lost himself, his worries, his fears, everything was gone; the only thing that mattered was the love they shared that moment. Neither knew how much time had elapsed before they laid down next to each other and fell asleep.

*****

The sun was starting to enter their room when they woke the next morning. They laid in each other’s arms, caressing each other.

“Hope, I’m so sorry,” Mark said as he brushed back a lock of her hair and revealed the fading bruise at her temple.

“Mark, the bruise will heal.”

“That’s not it. I’m sorry I wasn’t there to protect you and then afterwards, I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you everything. I was ashamed at taking the life of another human being. But Pa and I had a long talk. Thank you for sending him out after me yesterday. I don’t know what I did to deserve a wife such as you.” Mark stated as he kissed her again.

Still seeing the desire in the other’s eyes, they made love again that morning.

Eventually they rose, and realizing the time, knew they wouldn’t make it to church. Mark went out and saddled Blue Boy and Two-Bits while Hope fixed a picnic lunch for them. They left a note for Lucas and Milly before they headed out for their ride. Enjoying the last warm day, for the beginning of November, as they rode. Mark halted his horse and stepped down, then assisted Hope from her horse. He tied both horses to a tree, loosened their cinches, and then helped Hope set out their lunch. After eating, Mark pulled out a bible from his saddle bag, sat down against the tree, as Hope sat down in front of him and then leaned back into Mark. They spent time reading to each other from the bible. When they felt they had honored Sunday, Mark set the bible down and then wrapped his arms around his wife and thanked God, for his blessings.

The Next Generation… Chapter 36 – The Gifts

Christmas was fast approaching, only a few days away. Hope announced to Milly that she needed to go into town to pick up Mark’s Christmas present. She saddled Two-Bits and headed to town.

She stopped in front of Doc Burrage’s and entered.

“Doc, I’m not sure, but I thought enough time had passed from… but the headaches are sort of coming back and I wake up and feel nauseated. Could the concussion I suffered still be affecting me?

“Hope, up on the table and let me look,” Thaddeus stated. After examining Hope he told her, “Hope, I don’t think that it’s the concussion. That was six, almost seven weeks ago and you’ve not experienced any problems since you came home. Describe the headaches.”

“Well, they’re not quite headaches, but I get real light headed and feel like I’m going to faint. There are times when I get light headed and my vision fades and if I close my eyes for a while, then when I opened my eyes, I can see again and I’ve got my balance back,” Hope informed Doc.

“And the nausea, is it only in the morning and does it lessen after you eat something?” Doc asked.

Hope nodded.

“Hope, after you returned from Texas and I gave you a clean bill of health, that was what, six, seven weeks ago?”

“Yes.”

“I presume that afterwards you and Mark, um, uh, you’ve been intimate with each other?”

Hope nodded.

Doc Burrage asked a few more questions before stating, “Hope, what you have is extremely common for women in your condition.”

“My condition?” Hope asked.

“Hope, in my professional opinion, I say that you and Mark are expecting your first child.”

“I’m with child?”

“Yes, and I’d like to be the first to offer my Congratulations!”

*****

Johnny Drako returned to the Marshal’s office, after having lunch with Lou. As he entered, he told Mark he’d seen Two-Bits tied in front of Doc’s.

Mark ran from the office over to Doc’s. As he entered, he saw Hope coming from behind the room partition, his face showed the concern he felt.

“Doc? Hope?”

“Mark, I’ll let you and Hope be alone for a few minutes.” Doc walked out the door and waited.

“Hope, what’s…” Mark started to ask.

“Mark, Doc says I’ll be fine.”

“But why are you here, what happened? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong. I’m perfectly healthy. I thought the headaches and all from the concussion were coming back. But…”

“Hope, please?”

Hope took Mark’s hand and held it in place over her belly, and said, “I’ve wonderful news, I’m carrying a new life inside me. God’s given us a child.”

Mark looked at his and Hope’s hands and then into her eyes. “A child? I’m going to be a father?”

Hope smiled and nodded. Mark pulled her into an embrace and smothered her in kisses before he let her go.

“Oh, how do we tell Ma and Pa?” Mark asked.

“Well, seeing as how Christmas is only a few days away, I thought maybe, it would be a wonderful Christmas present for them. Doc said he wouldn’t tell anyone. As for your parents, I mean, let them celebrate their wedding anniversary before we tell them they’re going to be grandparents.”

“Hope, I want you to take it easy riding back to the ranch or should I asked Johnny for some time off so I can get you home?”

“Mark, I was pregnant when I rode in here, I think I can manage to ride home. But I promise, I will take it easy,” Hope stated as she smiled and ran her hand over her belly. “Besides, if you asked Johnny for time to get me home, you’d end up telling him why and I want this to be our secret, at least until after we tell Ma and Pa. Then, I’ll send a wire to my father and one to Ethan and Annie.”

Mark help Hope get in the saddle, “You promise you’ll take it slow and easy?”

“I promise, love.”

*****

Thaddeus Burrage looked up from his desk as he was greeted by his uncle’s arrival.

Thaddeus stated, “Uncle, I think we will need to make a house call to the McCain Ranch Christmas afternoon. Once Lucas hears of his gifts, I think he’s going to need a good tonic.”

Thaddeus then told his uncle of the news.

*****

Mark returned to the Marshal’s office where Johnny inquired about Hope.

“She’ll be fine, said Doc wanted to make sure she had no lasting effects from what happened…” Mark quieted and prayed he could finally tell a lie without everyone knowing he wasn’t telling the truth.

“Makes sense, with winter weather due anytime and we know there’ve been times where you and your Pa, and other ranchers around here, were snowbound for quite a while. Glad to hear everything is okay.”

Mark finished his duty that night and returned home, Christmas Eve morning. He arrived at the ranch to find Hope cooking breakfast as his parents weren’t yet up. He stopped behind her and wrapped his arms around her belly.

“Hope, this miracle of life; promise me you’ll take it easy until the baby is born,” he quietly whispered into her ear.

“Mark, I promise,” she stated as she turned around and wrapped her arms around his neck and lovingly kissed him. Their moment was broken when they heard a bedroom door open and Lucas laughingly call, “Don’t burn my breakfast!” They parted and smiled, each knowing the secret they were keeping.

“I’ll head out and tend to the horses, be back shortly,” Mark called as he walked to the back door from the kitchen.

*****

When Mark returned to the house, Milly had Myra up and in the front room. Mark bent down and scooped up his sister as she was running towards him as he closed the door. She laughed as she squealed in happiness.

“How’s my Gabby this morning?” he asked.

“Me fine. ‘elp you wif ‘orses?” she asked as she pulled his hat off his head and placed it on hers.

“No, the horses are taken care of for the morning,” Mark answered as he pulled his hat off his sister and walked over to place it on the hat rack.

“Me ‘elp Ope?”

“No, but you can help me pull out the chairs so I can set the table for breakfast,” Mark answered as he placed Myra down and led her to the table and helped her pull out the chairs. Then, she held onto his hand and she toddled along in her walk to the cabinet where Mark pulled out the dishes.

“’Elp, me ‘Elp.” Myra squealed.

“Gabby, one of these days you need to learn your H’s. The word is HHHelp, hhhhelp.”

“H-h-help. Me H-h-help!”

“Gabby, you did it. You said help! Now, can you say Hope?” Mark asked as he picked his sister up and carried her as he set the plates and silverware around the table.

“Ope. H-h-hope.” Myra called, then leaning backwards, holding her arms out as Hope approached from the kitchen, carrying breakfast.

Lucas smiled as he watched the interaction of his children as he finished tending to the fire. Milly smiled as she finished pouring coffee and milk for their breakfast.

*****

Milly announced that she and Hope needed to head to town to finish purchasing things they needed for their Christmas dinner. Lucas hitched up the team for them.

Lucas returned to the house to find Mark sitting at the table working on something, with Myra sitting on his knee. After looking over Mark’s should, he questioned him, when he saw a drawing for a floor plan.

“Pa, Hope and I can’t live here forever. As much as you and Ma would love for us to, you’re going to need a room for Myra soon. A child shouldn’t sleep in their parent’s bedroom until they’re married. I mean, it was different when I was growing up, it was just the two of us and…”

“Mark, I understand and you’re right, about a child needing their own room. But I don’t want you and Hope to feel you have to leave this house. We can always build on again.”

“I know, but someday, we’re going to want to have children of our own and it just makes sense for us to have our own home, but I want it to be close by.” Mark stopped talking and picked up a clean sheet of paper, he sketched their current homestead and buildings, then indicated the rise, he drew where he thought their home should be. “Pa, you told me once of your dream when we left Enid. You wanted a home that would be just like what we had, so that when you sat on the front porch and looked out over the horizon it was just the same. Well, I’ve had a dream and so far, everything in my dream has come true. You married Ma, I’ve a wife I love, and I pray that one of these days, God is going to bless us with children,” Mark smiled as he knew that God had already granted his prayer.

“I hope so, son.”

“And I want you to be a part of our children’s lives, you and Ma, both. Pa, there were parts of my life that I wish hadn’t happened, now I know I can’t change the past, but…” a tear escaped the corner of Mark’s eye. “I love the life I have now and to reflect back and see how our family has grown.”

Lucas placed a hand on his son’s shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze of understanding.

*****

Mark cooked dinner for his parents in celebration of their third wedding anniversary. The five sat around the table, Lucas laughing as Myra wasn’t wanting Milly to help her eat, she wanted Mark’s help. Squealing with laughter at her brother.

Mark was helping her with her food, yet allowing her to feed herself. Much to his surprise, she threw a spoon full of mashed potatoes at him. “Gabby!” Mark yelled and everyone broke out in laughter.

After dishes we done, Mark walked into his parents room and pulled Myra’s cradle out and placed it in his and Hope’s room.

“Mark?” Lucas questioned.

“Let Hope and I take care of Gabby tonight. It’s your wedding anniversary!”

*****

Christmas Day dawned with a light covering of snow on the ground outside. After tending to the barn chores, Lucas and Mark returned to join their family for breakfast. Afterwards, the family sat around the front room, enjoying the warmth of the fireplace and listened as Lucas read the story of Jesus’ birth from the Bible, the Books of Matthew and Luke. Later, with Myra sitting in his lap and playing with the doll Hope and Mark had given her as a present, Mark started quietly singing “What Child is This?” in his light tenor voice,

What child is this, who, laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the king,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste to bring Him laud,
The babe, the son of Mary!

At the start of the second verse, Hope joined Mark, singing in a sweet alto voice.

Why lies He in such mean estate
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear; for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce him through,
The cross he borne for me, for you;
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The babe, the son of Mary!

So bring Him incense, gold, and myrrh;
Come, peasant, king, to own Him.
The King of kings salvation brings;
Let loving hearts enthrone Him.
Raise, raise the song on high,
The virgin sings her lullaby;
Joy, joy, for Christ is born,
The babe, the son of Mary

Lucas and Milly were quite surprised at their harmony. Both had known that Mark could sing, but had never heard Hope sing.

“That was beautiful. Hope, I’ve never heard you sing before,” Milly stated.

“I remember singing that song from long ago, when my mother was alive.” Hope was quiet for a few moments before continuing, “Ma, Mark and I do have one more gift for you and Pa, unfortunately, you’re going to have to wait a while before you can actually hold our gift,” Hope stated.

“Hope, the gifts you and Mark have given us are more than enough. You didn’t have to order anything more,” Milly stated.

“We didn’t exactly order it,” Hope replied.

“Well, we did pray for this, so I guess you could say we did place an order, but you’re going to have to share your present once it arrives,” Mark answered.

“Mark, Hope?” Lucas stated with a questioning look on his face.

“Pa, Ma, God has granted Mark and I with a child. Our gift to you is that you’re going to be grandparents. The baby should be due the latter part of July.” Hope quietly told Lucas and Milly. Milly, a little taken back, started laughing.

“Milly?” Lucas asked, surprised at his wife’s reaction.

“Well, I… uh… Oh, Lucas, you’re going to be a grandfather,” she stated as she covered her mouth with her hand, trying to stop laughing.

“What’s so funny about that? It also means you’re going to be a grandmother.” Lucas replied a little perturbed.

“Lucas,” Milly started laughing harder. “I know this means I’m going to be a grandmother, but Lucas…” She seriously tried to stop laughing as she stood and walked to Lucas and sat down in his lap. She placed one arm around Lucas’ shoulders, then picked up his hand and placed it over her belly, “Oh my, Lucas, I found out three days ago, I’m pregnant. I didn’t tell you because I wanted it to be your Christmas present.”

“You’re pregnant?” Lucas asked as he sat back in his chair.

Mark looked to Milly and said, “You’re pregnant!”

Milly nodded. “Seems I’m due the latter part of July as well… Lucas?”

As a smile of disbelief spread across Lucas’ face, a knock was heard at the door. Mark opened it to find Jay, Thaddeus, and Abigail Burrage outside.

“We’re here to make a house call. Has Lucas received news of both his gifts?” Jay asked as they held out a bottle of brandy.

“Perfect timing. Please come on in, I think we all could use a spot. Especially Pa. I’m not quite sure how he’s taking the news that he’s going to be a grandfather and Milly just told him about him becoming a father again,” Mark said as he took their coats.

The Next Generation… Chapter 37 – Anticipation

It was a couple days before New Year’s Day when Lucas rode to town and stopped by Sweeney’s, after hearing Micah was there. He was trying to recover from his unexpected Christmas presents and trying to set his sights on celebrating his daughter’s upcoming second birthday. Everything had seemed unreal to Lucas, ever since Christmas.

“So LucasBoy, how are you feeling?” Micah asked.

“Lost,” Lucas answered after he ordered a beer.

“Lost, well, let me tell you where you are, you’re in North Fork, New Mexico Territory, at Sweeney’s Saloon,” Micah stated has he slapped Lucas on the back and laughed.

Seeing his friend not respond to him, Micah continued, “Guess I can kind of understand how you’re feeling. A son who’s turned twenty and daughter getting ready to turn two in a couple of days, then finding out you’re going to be a father again AND a grandfather at the same time. Proud to know you still have it boy!” A grinning, Micah added, “So you thinking the two McCain women conspired against you?”

“Micah, you’re not helping matters.”

“Nope, but I’m having fun. LucasBoy, you should be happy about the upcoming births,” Micah stated as he took a drink from his beer mug.

“I am happy, it’s just that I know Mark and Hope are going to want to start building a home of their own, for their family.”

“Oh, I see. Separation anxiety.” There was a twinkle of understanding in Micah’s eye. “Lucas you knew this day would come. I mean, you couldn’t expect Mark to live under your roof for his entire life.” There was sympathy in Micah’s voice, he realized now was not the time to tease his best friend.

“Lucas, you’ve experienced something I’ll never get to. You and Margaret created a life and you’ve guided him through his growing up years and he’s become a well respected member of this community. Lucas, you raised the boy right. You had to know that someday, he’d leave the nest, they all do eventually.”

“I know, just doesn’t seem possible that he’s old enough.”

“Drown your sorrows, LucasBoy. Many a man never gets to experience what you have. Many long to have a good woman waiting for them. A son they can be proud of AND a son who’s just as proud of their father. If they do choose to build their own home, I’m sure it will be close by. Can’t see Mark having it any other way. Go home to your family and count your blessings. I think you’ll live.”

*****

Lucas’ mood seemed to improve as they celebrated Myra’s birthday. Her laughter was more infectious than Mark’s had been at that age, at least from what Lucas remembered. The family enjoyed watching Myra grab her piece of cake in her hands and squeeze it as she brought it to her mouth.

*****

Later that night, after Milly had bathed Myra and put her to bed, Milly came to sit next to Lucas.

“Well, Lucas, I must say, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen that look on your face,” Milly stated as Mark and Hope looked up from their books. “I’m more used to seeing that on Mark’s face when he would sit around and daydream.” Milly reached over and put a hand on Lucas’ arm, slightly startling him. “Lucas?”

“I’m sorry Milly, you were saying?”

“I guess you were lost in your memories.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry,” Lucas stated as he looked to the window. Everyone else thought Lucas was looking outside, but he was really looking at Mark’s reflection. Remembering back, twenty years worth of memories.

*****

Milly and Hope excused themselves for the night and went to their bedrooms. Mark set his book down and came to sit next to his Pa. “Pa, you care to talk?”

“Just remembering Mark.”

“Back home to Enid?”

“No son, remembering our home. I can’t believe it’s been ten years that we’ve settled in North Fork. I still want to see you as that small boy, throwing your hat up in the air and yelling when we decided North Fork would be our home. It just doesn’t seem possible that you’re… grown.”

“Pa, I guess this is another one of those times when you’ll tell me I’ll understand when I’m older?” Mark asked, curious.

“Mark, I meant it when I said I didn’t want you and Hope to move out. Even though this family is set to really expand, we can build on to the house. I guess what I’m trying to say is… I’ve gotten used to you and Hope here and this house would seem rather empty without the two of you.”

“I think I understand. We’ll talk about this some other time, when you’re not so melancholy. Goodnight Pa.”

*****

Spring was arriving and in between shifts in town as a deputy and still helping out at the school, Mark spent a lot of time working the ranch. Even though it had been a mild winter, the fence posts that in previous years had been sound, needed replaced. The cattle decided this year would be a bumper year for calves. Lucas and Mark had to locate cows from their birthing locations and move them back to the main herd on a daily basis. The hog even gave birth to her largest litter to date.

Between the livestock and planting, teaching, and working as a deputy, Mark barely had time to think on a home for him and Hope.

*****

One night, mid-May, after Mark and Hope retired to their bed, he marveled at the new life growing within his wife. He placed his hand on her side and quickly pulled it back when he felt the baby kick. “Seems our son is quite active tonight, my love.”

“And why couldn’t this child be a daughter?” Hope queried.

“As active has he is, the baby could only be a boy.”

“Well, your son has been active all day. I just wish he’d settle down some before he’s born, I want to be able to sleep the night through, some day.”

“Hope, he’s a McCain, and if he’s anything like I was…” Mark quieted as he placed his hand back to Hope’s growing belly and then leaned over and whispered, “Son, your Ma would like to get some sleep tonight. Tell you what, why don’t you settle down for the night. Hope, would you like for me to ask Doc Burrage for something to help you sleep?” he whispered.

“I don’t think I should,” Hope rolled over to her side, with her back to Mark. Mark took the time to rub her back, focusing a lot on the small of her back. As he rubbed his hands across her back, Hope sighed in appreciation. He continued to work Hope’s back, even after he realized she had fallen asleep.

Mark was concerned, this child, his child, appeared it was going to be a large baby. Mark worried whether Hope would be able to carry their son to term. The strain this baby was already putting on Hope’s body was more than what Milly was experiencing. To begin with, Hope was smaller than Milly; was that why the morning sickness she experienced lasted so much longer? Even though she tried to take it easy, Hope tired so much easier than Milly. Mark worried; maybe Hope was too young to be pregnant. He hid his thoughts from Hope during the day, but at night, he couldn’t hide his worries from himself.

Mark was thankful when Miss Hattie offered to take over watching the children at the day care, a few weeks before. As Hope progressed in her pregnancy, Mark had grown more concerned about her traveling to and from town, even traveling with Milly, Mark worried. Besides, Hattie was enjoying all her new grandchildren and Micah was spending more and more afternoons at the day care. Mark knew it wouldn’t be too much longer before Micah retired, he’d overheard Micah and Johnny talking a week before. This gave him and Hattie something to do, to still feel needed.

*****

School was fast approaching summer break. One night, after Milly and Lucas retired to bed, Milly discussed with Lucas, that once this school year was over, the town council should really think about hiring another teacher. With two children, plus a grandchild, Milly didn’t think that she could continue to devote full time as a teacher. She’d hoped that she could continue as a tutor, if there were a need.

Lucas was pleased his wife came to the conclusion on her own. A he laid beside her, he rubbed his hand over her very pregnant belly. “Two more months to go my love, unless this one decides to be like Myra and make an early appearance,” Lucas stated.

“So, are you happy?” Milly asked.

“Why wouldn’t I be? I’ve you and soon, you’re going to give birth to another child.”

“Lucas, have you talked with Mark lately?” Milly asked as she turned on her side to look at Lucas.

“We talk each day. Why do you ask?” Lucas asked, concerned.

“Lucas, this is his first child. I can see worry in his face when he thinks no one is watching — when he’s walking from the barn to the house or out chopping wood. I know Hope is having difficulty with her pregnancy, but as someone who’s also expecting a child, maybe you should talk with Mark. He’s probably not said anything because he doesn’t want to worry you.”

“Are you concerned about Hope too?”

“I am Lucas. That’s why I asked Hattie if she wouldn’t mind taking over watching the children at the day care. Trying to make things easier for Hope. I guess that’s also the reason why I’ve decided to give up teaching full time.”

“When is Hope’s next appointment with Doc Burrage?” Lucas asked.

“We both have an appointment on Thursday.” Milly replied.

“Tell you what, why don’t Mark and I go with you.”

“I’d like that Lucas.”

Soon they were asleep.

*****

Lucas, Mark, and Hope waited in the front of Doc Burrage’s office, while Milly was in a back room. Doc pronounced Milly quite healthy and everything was progressing nicely.

“So, before I let you go, do you have any questions for me?” Thadd asked.

“Not about me Doc, but Hope…” Milly started. “Doc, she’s having a real tough time of it this past month. She tires so easily and the baby seems to be taking so much out of her… I mean I had difficulty with Myra, but it passed by the beginning of my fifth month, we’re both seven months into our pregnancies and she’s still having difficulties.”

“Okay, I thought it would have passed by now too. Let me check her out, next. When you’re ready, head on out front and send Hope back here.”

*****

As Hope’s exam started, Doc asked her how she was doing. When she answered fine, Doc stated, “You and I both know you’re lying. Hope, I’m your doctor. I can see it in your face. Truthfully now.” He smiled as he patted her arm and removed his stethoscope from around his neck.

“Doc, I’m just so tired. I don’t get much sleep from the baby being so active. Each night Mark rubs my back to help me feel better, but it doesn’t last. When I get up in the morning, I still feel sick to my stomach.”

Doc placed his hand on Hope’s belly when he saw her flinch, he felt just how active the baby was, but then concern grew on his face.

“Hope, just lie down. I want to listen for the baby’s heartbeat.”

“Doc?” Hope asked, scared.

“It’s okay Hope. Just lie back.” Doc supported Hope as she laid down, Abigail came into the room at that time.

After listening for several minutes and repositioning his stethoscope several times, he ‘Hmmm’d” to himself.

“Doc?”

“Hope I think I just found out why you’re so tired and still experiencing morning sickness symptoms.”

“Abigail, would you bring Mark back here?”

“Should I bring Lucas and Milly, too?”

“Yes, go ahead and bring them all.”

Doc helped Hope sit up on the examination table.

“Doc? What’s wrong with our baby?”

“Hope, nothing’s wrong.”

Shortly Abigail returned with Mark, Lucas, and Milly. Mark walked to Hope’s side and picked up her hand and kissed it.

“Doc? Are Hope and the baby okay?” Mark asked, not taking his eyes off Hope.

“Hope’s doing fine, but I’ve news about the baby.”

“He’s going to be okay, isn’t he?” Panic could be heard in Mark’s voice. Lucas and Milly held tight to each other.

“The baby is quite active, but… Mark I think you should sit down. Please sit down next to Hope.”

Once Mark was seated and had an arm around his wife, Doc looked over his shoulder to Milly and Lucas, smiled and gave a slight laugh.

“Mark, Hope told me about the difficulties she’s still experiencing. Now, it’s not too common with young, first time mothers for their symptoms to last longer than normal, but… Well, I listened hard to the baby’s heartbeat. I found something more than I expected.” Placing a hand on Mark’s shoulder, “There was more than one baby’s heartbeat that I heard.”

“I don’t understand, Doc.”

“Mark, I’m pretty sure Hope is carrying twins.”

“Twins?”

“It would explain all her symptoms, two babies are developing and pulling their nourishment from Hope. I think if Hope starts eating a little bit larger meals and then more frequently throughout the day, that will stop the queasiness, but she’s still going to need to take it easy. Carrying two for someone of her size, we just need to be careful.” Then turning to Hope, “Hope, you only have two more months to go, so from here on, I want to see you every week. Then during your last month, I’ll want you to stay here in town. Medical literature indicates that twins generally arrive a little premature, so if they do come early, you’ll be close by and I can get to you quickly.”

Doc turned back to look at Mark, who was still gaping his mouth open and stating “twins”.

Lucas and Milly stood to the side, grinning and trying to keep from laughing as they watched the expression on Mark’s face.

“Twins,” Mark stated as Lucas place a hand under Mark’s arm to get him to his feet.

“Come on boy. Let’s get lunch at the hotel before we all head on home,” Lucas stated as they left Doc’s office.

*****

Abigail looked to her husband, “So just when do we make our next house call to the McCain Ranch? Do you think Mark will need something a little stronger than brandy we offered to Lucas?”

Doc pulled his wife into an embrace, “I wasn’t sure who was going to take it harder, Lucas or Mark. Mrs. Burrage, maybe we should think about starting our own family.”

“Well, Mr. Burrage, I have some news for you. I think we already have.”

Thadd looked to Abigail in askance. “Yes, I think I’m pregnant,” she stated as she gave her husband a kiss.

*****

The McCain’s enjoyed a very slow evening at the Summer Social. Father and son were happy to just sit down next to their wives and enjoy the food, the conversation with various citizens of the town, and just enjoy the evening. Mark knew that soon it would be time for Hope to start living in town, until their babies were born. Hattie had offered them Hope’s old room.

The McCain’s and the Drako’s watched as Myra was dancing with young Connor. More often than not, Connor ended up on his fanny, still unsure of his legs. Though he would clap and smile at those around him watching.

Before the social officially came to an end, the McCain family headed for home.

The Next Generation… Chapter 38 – Father and Son, Side by Side

Two days later, Mark arrived in town, right after the North Fork bank was robbed and the outlaws were racing through town. Mark reached back for his rifle as he continued to hear multiple shots and watched as Micah fell to the ground and Johnny struggled to keep on his feet. As the outlaws raced towards him, Mark fired and saw one rider slump forward in the saddle, several more of his bullets missed their intended target. As the gang rode past him, Mark recognized two of the riders. In the chaos of the outlaws racing past, Mark was forced to lower his rifle in order to pick up his reins to get his horse under control. Realizing the outlaws were out of range, Mark jumped down from Blue Boy and ran to Micah and Johnny, yelling “Someone get Doc Burrage!”

Quickly at Mark’s side was John Hamilton, blood streaming down his sleeve, “Mark, what can I do to help?”

Mark pulled the bandana from his back pocket and handed it to John, “Here, wad this up and keep pressure on Micah’s side. The pressure will help stop the flow of blood.”

Mark saw someone else arrive and apply pressure to the bullet wound to Micah’s leg as he turned his attention to Johnny, catching him just as he fell to the ground. Mark ripped the sleeve off his own shirt, wadded it up and applied it to the wound in Johnny’s side and then applying pressure with his bare hand to the wound in Johnny’s shoulder. Again he yelled, “SOMEONE GET DOC BURRAGE!”

Micah started giving orders, yelling for them to let him up so he could follow the outlaws. “Micah, you stay put until Doc gets here. You’re in no condition to ride,” Mark yelled over to him.

From behind him Mark heard material ripping, he saw a torn skirt hem drop down and a woman’s hands wrapping a makeshift bandage around the wound to Johnny’s head. Mark looked up and saw Abigail Burrage, “Mark you’re doing a good job. Nils was going after Thadd and then for Uncle Jay. We’re going to need them both.”

“Some of you men, get over here,” Mark yelled. “Let’s get Micah and Johnny to Doc’s!” Mark saw Oat Jackford approaching and then heard Lou wailing as she came running down the street. “Oat, get Lou, keep her back!. Take her back to the hotel!” Mark ordered. Then hollered for someone to go get Hattie and take her to the hotel as well.

They carried the men into Doc’s, and set them on the examination tables. “Once they’re down, make sure you keep pressure applied to their wounds,” Mark called.

Abigail proceeded to pull the laudanum from the cabinet and started dosing both men, in anticipation of her husband’s and uncle’s arrival. Once dosed, she pulled out the ether. Shortly, Thadd Burrage entered the office, “Abigail, who’s worse?”

“Thadd, I’m not sure, both took multiple bullets. Nils was going after Uncle Jay to help us.”

“Doc,” Mark called over. “Micah took a bullet close to the gut and then another in the leg. Johnny’s shot in the side, below the ribs, and another in the shoulder. Took a graze to his temple as well.”

Thadd started examining Micah as Jay Burrage entered and headed for Johnny. Mark pushed everyone else out of the clinic so the two doctors could work, before he turned and looked at John Hamilton. Mark walked to the cabinet and pulled out some bandages.
“John, have a seat in the chair, I can at least wrap your arm until they’re done and can tend to you.”

Before leaving the doctor’s office, Mark washed all the blood off his hands, arms, and face. He stepped out and headed for the telegraph office. Before he got there, Nils stopped a horse in front of him and announced he was going for Lucas.

“Thanks Nils.”

Mark entered the telegraph office, “Amos, send a wire alerting all the nearby towns our bank was robbed. Tell them it was Creed Domingo’s gang.”

As Mark exited the office, many of the town’s people were waiting for him.

“Folks, I’m looking for deputies to ride in a posse after Creed Domingo’s gang. Think good and hard men. I don’t know how long we’ll be gone, no one will be thought of any less if you can’t ride. So those with family, I’ll understand. Any available man, meet me in front of the Marshal’s office in fifteen minutes. Then we ride.”

As Mark walked towards the Marshal’s office, he heard Sweeney state, “Mark, that’s not time enough for Nils to get your Pa.”

“I can’t wait for him. Each minute I’ve been here, they’ve gotten that much farther away. Sweeney, when they arrive, tell them I’ll mark my trail, they can catch up with us.”

*****

As Mark returned to the Marshal’s office, he saw a stranger, standing next to the hitching rail.

“Seems your town’s had a little excitement,” the stranger stated.

“It’s not excitement if you call our Marshal and Deputy being shot trying to protect our town after our bank was robbed,” Mark stated as he brushed past the man and entered the office.

The man followed Mark inside and watched as Mark placed his rifle on the desk. Watched as Mark pulled a few deputy badges from the desk drawer. He watched as Mark pulled a box of bullets from another drawer.

“Deputy, seems we’ve met before,” the stranger stated.

“Mister, I’ve no time for idle chit chat. I’ve a posse to form and head out after those outlaws. So if you’ll excuse me.” Mark picked up his rifle and tried to push his way past the man, but the man stopped him by grabbing him by the arm.

“Boy,” he said, as he pulled his jacket open, showing a U.S. Marshal star pinned to his vest. “That’s it, you’re that boy!”

“Sir, I’m not a boy,” Mark said getting a little annoyed with the man, even though he was a Marshal. “I’m a duly authorized deputy of this town. Now if you’ll let go of my arm.” Mark said, not pulling his arm from the man’s grasp, but staring the man in the eyes.

“Deputy I meant no disrespect, it’s just that, you were a boy the first time we met, only we didn’t really meet,” the man said as he released his hold on Mark’s arm.

“Marshal, as I said, I don’t have time…”

“Your name’s Mark McCain, if I remember correctly. I’m U.S. Marshal James Carson. We never really got a chance to be introduced when you delivered a prisoner up to Clovis a few years back.”

Mark remembered back and relaxed his stance.

“Son, you need help?” Carson asked.

“I’ll take any help I can get, sir. I’m sorry for my attitude, it’s just that each minute I delay heading out, those outlaws are getting away.”

“Did anyone recognize the outlaws?” Carson asked.

“Creed Domingo and his bunch,” Mark replied.

“You sure?”

“I saw him with my own eyes.”

Mark exited the office and realized someone had tied Blue Boy to the hitching rail. Mark put his rifle in the scabbard, put the box of shells in his saddle bag, grabbed it down, and headed for the General Store, where Mrs. Donner filled them with jerky, canned goods, and such. Mark stopped and picked up an extra canteen and made sure both were filled full. Before he left, Mrs. Donner insisted he change into a new shirt.

As he returned to the Marshal’s office, he saw Percy Bullock and Billy Davis standing by their horses. He knew most all the other men who had stood in front of the telegraph office when he made his plea, had families and this was Creed Domingo’s gang they were going to trail.

“Percy, Billy, thank you, but you’re both not cut out for this. I appreciate your willingness to help out, but just head on back home. Please…” Mark told them.

*****

Carson and Mark mounted up and headed out of North Fork, to the northeast. As they rode, Carson asked, “Why wouldn’t you let those two join us?”

“Because Billy’s a farmer. He doesn’t know anything about riding a posse and Percy, he’s a scholar. He’s home on summer break from college back east. They’re both good friends and I couldn’t live with myself if anything happened to either one of them. I’d rather it be just us, than have to worry about them, too.”

Each time they came to a fork in the road, Mark stepped down and examined the trail, then made sure he marked it. When they came to a creek, Mark and Carson split up, each searching to see which way the outlaws went, when one found the trail, they were to fire their gun twice and wait for the other. When the other got to where they originally entered the stream, they were to mark the direction they went. Mark had gotten a half mile upstream when he heard the signal. He turned Blue Boy around and back tracked.

When Mark caught up, Carson asked, “So who are you marking the trail for? No one’s going to follow us.”

“There’ll be one. And each time we stop, he’s catching up with us.”

“One. One man!” Carson stated.

“One more man is better than the two of us alone,” Mark replied

“Considering the others of your town, just who do you think is going to be stupid enough to trail after us?”

“He’s not stupid. He’ll come, he’s my Pa.”

“Your father!” Carson stopped and looked at Mark; shook his head and proceeded in silence.

They rode until Mark couldn’t track any further because night had fallen. Mark tended to the horses while Carson made a small campfire. Mark tossed a can of beans and a can opener to Carson. He laid out his bedroll before eating from the provisions he’d packed.

“Mark, I’m sorry for my reaction earlier. I just now got to remembering what Tom Benton told me after I took your prisoner on to Amarillo. As we talked, I repeated what your prisoner and that family said. Tom said he wasn’t surprised. He told me about you being a hostage of Tom Birch and how you ‘stole’ back the money. He told me about being your father’s commanding officer during the War. Said he expected nothing less from the son of the Rifleman. I forgot who your father was and his reputation. I’d be honored to meet him.”

*****

It was close to midnight when Carson was startled awake by the sound of a rifle being cocked, close by. He looked around and didn’t see Mark in his bedroll. Then, he heard a voice, not so close, call, “Mark?”

Carson stood and looked around and saw Mark walk back into camp, rifle at the ready, and then watched as two riders enter the light of their small fire.

“Good to see you Pa, Nils.” Then turning to Carson, “Sir, I’d like to introduce you to Lucas McCain and Nils Swenson. This is Marshal James Carson. Coffee should still be warm if you want some,” Mark said as he uncocked his rifle, set it next to his bedroll, and took the reins to Razor and Nils horses, waiting only long enough for them to pull their rifles before he led them to where the other horses were tied.

As Mark returned to the camp he asked, “Pa, did you come through town? Any word on Micah or Johnny?”

“They’ll both pull through, though they are both going to be laid up for probably a month. Oat Jackford and a few of his hands are watching over the town until you return.”

“How about Miss Hattie and Lou?” Mark felt guilty he hadn’t stopped by before he left, but he knew he couldn’t face them until after he caught those responsible.

“Worried, as is your Ma and Hope.”

Mark didn’t reply, he just stared into the fire, then said, “We best get to sleep. We need to be ready to ride at sun up.” Mark laid down and pulled the blanket over his shoulder.

*****

The Domingo Gang had stopped for the night. Celebrating the success of their robbery — a number of them were drinking and were stumbling around the fire.

“What of Emilio?” Domingo asked as he stood next to a small group of his men.

“He’s celebrating with everyone else. He’s so drunk he didn’t feel a thing when I pulled that bullet out,” replied one of the men.

One man sat a distance from the rest, cleaning his hand gun, looking back, the way they came.

Domingo walked to him and asked, “Why you not celebrating?”

“What’s there to celebrate? He wasn’t there.”

“Who wasn’t there?”

“A ‘friend’. A ‘friend’ that I owe for getting shot in the back. Two months I laid in that prison hospital. For almost seven years, I’ve done nothing but thought about those two months of pain and suffering all because a ‘friend’ wouldn’t help me when I needed help. He turned on me, so I turned the tables on him. And for that, I got shot in the back. Six and a half years in prison. But no longer. I broke out and I’m free. I’m free to payback my ‘friend’.”

“So some sodbuster…” Domingo stated.

“He ain’t no sodbuster!”

“Touchy, touchy. So just who is this man and what did you expect?”

“I expected him to be in town. I expected to have him in my gun sights and I expected to pull the trigger. I expected to see that tall man fall. The taller they are, the harder they fall. The high and mighty Lucas McCain, the Rifleman, my ‘friend’,” the man said as he rolled the cylinder of his gun along his sleeve. “I’ll have my revenge, I’ll see him fall. As I live and breathe, I swear Lucas McCain will die.”

After putting his gun back in his holster, the man said, “Maybe it was for the best he wasn’t in town. I’ll get him on my terms. I know he’s going to come after us, seeing as how we shot up his town, his Marshal, and his deputy. Yes, Lucas McCain will fall on MY terms.”

*****

The day after Lucas and Mark left North Fork, Oat Jackford and a few of his men arrived at the McCain Ranch.

“Milly, Hope, we’re moving both of you to Hattie’s until your men folk return. Sam and Alvin will stay here and take care of the place. I won’t take no for an answer, so you just go inside, pack some of your belongings and we’ll take the three of you to town.”

*****

Mark woke before dawn and stirred the fire and placed the coffee pot on. He rolled his bedroll and saddled the horses before returning to camp.

Lucas was next to wake. He knelt next to his son, by the fire, and took the cup of coffee Mark offered and started to speak.

“Pa, before you say anything, let me talk. I couldn’t come home. I couldn’t face Hope. If I had, I wouldn’t have been able to leave. I know I have responsibilities to Hope, but I also have responsibilities to North Fork. Pa, I had Johnny’s blood on my hands and arms. I still have it on my pants. I know you might find it hard to understand, but…”

“Mark, I think I understand, but there’s something more bothering you. Care to tell me about it?” Lucas asked.

“Pa, it’s not just Creed Domingo’s gang were after. I swear I saw Russell Gannaway riding with them. I know it’s been almost seven years, but Pa…”

“You said Russell Gannaway?” Carson asked as he came up behind them. “How do you know Gannaway?”

Lucas explained their past history, but he turned and told Mark, “You have to be wrong son. He’s in prison, he received a twenty year sentence for his part in the robbery and the attempted murder charges on Micah and me.”

“Lucas, if Mark thought he saw Russell Gannaway, then I’m sure he did. Gannaway escaped from prison three months ago. We’ve U.S. Marshals searching the territory for him. Once he’s caught, if he’s caught alive, he’ll end up swinging. He killed two jailers in his break out.”

*****

Camp was broke and they were in their saddles just as the sun crested the hills. Lucas and Mark both watching the tracks, following the signs.

*****

They were four days out from North Fork, when they realized the tracks they were following were leading into a canyon.

“I don’t like it,” Lucas stated as he looked ahead.

“Luke, what’s wrong? Why not follow the tracks?” Nils asked.

Mark replied, “Nils, it could be a trap and a deadly one at that.” Mark rode a short distance ahead, turning Blue Boy around as he was examining the ground, still in the saddle. When he returned to the group, “Pa, some of the horses are lighter than before. They’ve taken all the horses and are hoping to lure us into the canyon and ambush us.”

“So, Mark, how do you think we should proceed?” Carson asked.

Looking their situation over and then trying to formulate a plan, “Well, unfortunately I think we should split up. Back track and then each group set out to ride opposite sides of the canyon. I’m sure those on foot, climbed up the canyon walls and are on foot up top, looking for a good location for an ambush. Hoping we’d follow their horse tracks.”

As they back tracked to find a location to ride to the top of the canyon, they were ambushed. But from the location and the number of rifle shots heard, this wasn’t the full gang. One or maybe, two members shooting, not a full scale assault. Unfortunately, they were enough to cause problems for the group from North Fork. Marshal Carson took a bullet to the shoulder and Nils took one to the thigh.

As Mark tended to the injured, Lucas declared that they needed to get them to the nearest town, Tucumcari. “We’ll get you medical attention and then we’ll proceed on after them.”

“You’ll do no such thing. This is a U.S. Marshal matter, Domingo and Gannaway, they’re not your concern,” Carson stated.

“NOT MY CONCERN?!” Mark demanded. “You forget, they robbed MY town! They shot three people in MY town! Those outlaws ARE my concern!”

“Mark, they’re wanted by the U.S. Marshal Service. No disrespect meant, but you’re just a town deputy. Our jurisdiction takes precedence over your town’s concerns. If they keep heading northeast, they’ll be out of New Mexico in a day or two. You’ll have no jurisdiction,” Carson stated and winced when Lucas helped him get his arm in the sling.

“Carson, I might be a deputy of North Fork, but I also am a U.S. Marshal. At least I will be one officially when I turn twenty-one. If you doubt me, wire Tom Benton when we get you to Tucumcari. He’ll tell you it’s the truth. With all the studying and tests I’ve taken from the Service, there’s only a few active Marshal’s who are ranked higher than I am.”

“Mark?” Lucas asked as he pulled at Mark’s arm and turned him around to face him. “What are you talking about?”

“Pa, I know I should have said something, but I wasn’t sure that I was going to take that step, I didn’t have to decide until I turn twenty-one. Marshal Benton stated they needed new, younger blood in the Marshal Service. He called us ‘the new breed.’ Those who would think in order to outsmart the outlaws. Those who understood the meaning of the law. Not just chase criminals and lock them up, but understand the letter of the law. Micah once told us a little bit about it, but from what I’ve been studying the past three years, there so much more to it.”

*****

They arrived in Tucumcari and dropped Carson and Nils off at the doctor’s office. Mark headed to the telegraph office to send his first wire to Denver. His second wire was sent to North Fork, telling Hope and Milly that they were safe, but still trailing those who shot Micah and Johnny.

As they waited in the doctor’s office, the telegraph operator came back in and handed a wire to Mark.

Deputy Mark McCain
c/o Tucumcari, New Mexico Territory

Situation understood /stop/
Mark McCain is hereby granted full authority as U.S. Marshal /stop/
Congratulations and God speed /stop/

Cole Barker
U.S. Marshal
Denver, Colorado

Mark handed the wire to his Pa, who after reading, then handed the wire to Marshal Carson. “Well I’ll be. Mark I’m sorry, I didn’t realize. You know, you are one amazing man. Lucas, you raised yourself one very exceptional son. I’m proud to call him a brother of the law.” Then turning to Mark, “Guess you’ll be heading on without us. I’ll see to it that Nils gets back to North Fork, when the doc says we can travel. God speed, Mark.”

Lucas and Mark mounted their horses and headed out of town, taking back up the trail of the outlaws.

*****

Two days later they crossed into Texas, just outside of Romero. They stood on the rise above what once was a small, sleepy town. Lucas and Mark watched and realized the Domingo gang had treed the town. They stepped down from their mounts to discuss their plan.

It was approaching midnight and they were ready to put their plan into action, when they heard a solitary rider approaching. They both ran, Lucas to hide behind a tree, while Mark ran to crouch behind a boulder, both with rifles at the ready. They watched as the silhouette passed between them. They stepped from their cover, both cocking their rifles. The rider stopped his horse and raised both hands.

Through the darkness they heard, “I take it I have Lucas and Mark McCain at my back, otherwise, I’d be dead by now.”

“Tom?” Lucas called.

The rider turned his horse around.

“Marshal Benton, what are you doing here?” Mark asked.

“I was waiting in Amarillo when I received a wire from Cole Barker telling me what happened. Thought you could use some help. By the way, I understand congratulations are in order, Marshal McCain.”

“It’s only temporary. I haven’t decided to make it official. I just needed the authority to continue following the Domingo gang.”

“So, what’s your plan?” Benton asked.

“Figured to enter the town and see how many we can take out quietly. Figured we can take out some of the lesser elements. They’ve had some pretty good parties when they’ve stopped a few times. Figure they’ll want to continue their celebration. Those that are drunk or passed out should be easy,” Lucas stated.

“Okay, let’s go.”

*****

The three quietly rode their horses into Romero and tied their mounts behind the livery. Before daylight, they had taken four outlaws out of the picture. They were tied up and hidden back on the ridge, by the time the sun started casting long shadows over the town.

“So, do we keep taking them out one by one?” Mark asked, looking to his Pa and then to Benton.

“It’s worked so far, Mark. Only now that the sun is up, it’s going to be harder. Maybe we should catch some sleep,” Tom stated after seeing Mark trying to stifle a yawn. “Two of us can catch some sleep while the third keeps an eye on them. Then when the sun goes down tonight, we can start it all over again.”

*****

By the end of the second night, they had nine members of the Domingo gang in custody. After interrogating one of the outlaws, they found out there were only four more, plus Gannaway. It was decided that they would enter the town that afternoon, but before that, Benton would take the first watch over their prisoners, allowing Mark and Lucas a few hours sleep. Lucas heard Mark sleeping when he got up and walked to Tom.

“Lucas?”

“Tom. You realize he has a wife at home who is expecting to give birth within the month?”

“And your wife is at home expecting your third child too,” Benton stated as he took a drink of coffee. Not looking at Lucas, he said, “Lucas, he’s a man. It’s his decision if he puts that badge on permanently. Whether he does or doesn’t, he’s got a keen mind for understanding the law and North Fork will be happy to have him as their town marshal one of these days. Just don’t be surprised when we call on him every now and then for help.”

*****

Since Russell Gannaway wasn’t one of the outlaws they had in custody, it was decided that Lucas would ride solo and sneak into Romero and scout around. Mark and Tom would ride in together.

Lucas tied Razor behind the livery stable. As he was climbing through the corral, a young boy spied him. Lucas raised his hand to his face and motioned for the boy to be quiet. The boy looked all around him and then nodded his head. Lucas ran to the doorway.

“Boy, are any of the outlaws in the livery?” Lucas asked.

“N-no sir. They’re all in the saloon. Some of them gone missing.”

“Boy, run on home and tell your family to stay inside.”

“Y-Yes, yes sir.”

Lucas watched as the boy dropped his pitch fork and ran away. He made his way to the front of the livery and looked out across the street. The saloon was on the other side of the street and towards the other end of town, the direction where Mark and Tom planned to ride in from. With rifle in hand, he made his way from building to building, motioning for the few people he encountered to take cover.

Lucas saw Tom and Mark enter into town. Both had the butts of their rifles standing on their thighs. They dismounted their horses two doors down from the saloon and then took position in the middle of the street. They heard the sound of men arguing coming from the saloon. They waited.

Soon a man staggered from the saloon, he looked straight at the marshals and ran back inside yelling, “It’s the law! They’re out front!”

Mark and Tom ran for cover as they heard the sounds of glass breaking and men cussing. A gun fight ensued. Neither Mark nor Tom fired hap-hazardly, as those in the saloon were. They aimed their shots for accuracy. Striking their intended targets, when they presented themselves.

Lucas saw a man running from the back of the saloon. He held his shot as he realized it was the saloon keeper.

Finally, they heard a voice inside the saloon plead, “Don’t shoot, we give up!” They watched as a gun was tossed out the broken window. “We give up!”

“Toss any other guns out the window, then come out with your hands up!” Tom yelled. They watched as several more guns were tossed from the window. Three men walked out the doors of the saloon and into the street, all three bearing evidence of having been wounded. Lucas made his way along the front of the saloon, rifle at the ready. As he approached the doors, he saw the barrel of a gun sticking out the broken window, having a perfect bead on Tom. Lucas dove through the doors and fired, hitting the man he aimed for.

“Men, I’d hold it right there and don’t move one muscle, if I were you,” Lucas heard Tom yell as he got to his feet. He picked his hat up and walked back out front. Watching as Tom came out from behind a wagon, rifle on their prisoners.

“Tom,” Lucas called. “Where’s Mark?”

“He was right behind the water trough!”

Both men stood and stared at each other, then looked up and down the street. Panic gripped Lucas when both of them heard the single gunshot. He ran in the direction from where the shot came. He was just outside the general mercantile when he saw Gannaway run out the front door. “RUSSELL!” Lucas yelled.

Gannaway turned and called out, “So you did come after all. Lucas, I knew you couldn’t resist being so respectable. You got principles, ideals.”

“Russell, drop your gun. You got nowhere to run,” Lucas called.

“I’ll see you dead before I drop my gun,” as he raised his gun and pointed it towards Lucas. Lucas yelled “RUSSELL!” and pulled his rifle to his hip and fired, as he heard the sound of a second rifle being discharged to his right, he also heard Russell fire his gun – the bullet struck Lucas, hitting him in the thigh.

*****

From Mark’s vantage point, he saw Russell Gannaway climb out an upper floor window and run across the roof of the building connected to the saloon. ‘Coward,’ Mark thought to himself. Mark followed on a parallel course along the ground, stopping behind cover and looking to see where Gannaway headed to next.

He ran across the street as he saw Gannaway drop to the ground and enter the back door of the General Mercantile. Mark stopped at the doorway and peeked in. He saw Gannaway, stopped and looking out the front door, looking up and down the street. Mark quietly entered, rifle at the ready. He’d made it about five feet inside, when he heard the gunshot and felt the fire at his side. He saw Gannaway turn towards him.

“Gannaway, you’re under arrest. Drop your gun and give up!” Mark yelled, pulling his rifle to the ready.

“You ain’t taking me!” he yelled, turned, and ran out the door.

Mark staggered, trying to keep to his feet and ignore the pain, Slowly, he made his way to the front door. Bracing against the doorway, he heard a voice yell, “Russell!” Saw Gannaway raise his gun. Through the pain in his side, he pulled his rifle to his shoulder and fired. As he fired, he heard two other shots. Mark couldn’t keep his rifle up, the pain he felt was intense, he could no longer stand. As he sank to his knees, Mark looked down at his side and tried to stop the flow of blood with his hand.

He heard a voice calling his name, but couldn’t bring himself to look up.

*****

Seeing Gannaway unmoving on the ground, Lucas turned and looked in the direction the other shot had come. In the doorway he saw Mark leaning against the frame, sinking to his knees, trying to use his rife as support, hand at his side. Lucas ran and knelt next to Mark, the store owner stepped out holding a hand gun, shaking, pleading, “I, I didn’t see the badge. I thought he was one of the outlaws when he ran in here. I, I had to protect what was mine.”

“Mark,” Lucas called. Fear gripped him as he saw the deep red of blood seeping through Mark’s fingers, holding his side. Turning to the store keeper, “Man, does this town have a doctor? Your doctor, where is he?” Lucas demanded as he stood up and grabbed the man by the front of his shirt and shook him. “Your doctor?”

“Th-this way.” The man dropped his gun and started to run down the street. Lucas lifted Mark to his feet and half carried him behind the running man.

As they passed in front of the Sheriff’s office, Tom Benton came out, after putting the three survivors in the jail cell, then lifted Mark’s other arm across the back of his shoulders and helped Lucas walk/carry him to the doctor’s.

*****

Lucas waited for news of his son. Tom Benton examined a closet in the Sheriff’s office and pulled out some bandages to tend to Lucas’ leg, until the doctor could remove the bullet. Lucas watched as the shadows grew longer down the street. The store owner quietly knocked on the door before opening it, “I thought you’d want the deputy’s rifle,” he said as he laid it on the desk before he quickly left the office.

As time passed, more and more of the town’s people had come to stand in the street, in front of the sheriff’s office. They asked the store owner who the men were. “I don’t know, I’m too afraid to ask. But they’re wearing badges.” They continued to whisper among themselves of the strangers who showed up to save their town.

The sun was setting when the doctor entered the Sheriff’s Office.

“Marshal, deputy,” he said as he stood in front of them. “I got the bullet out, it weren’t deep. If you want, you can stop by and sit with him. He won’t know you’re there, but it might make you feel better.”

He turned to leave but was stopped by Tom Benton, “Doc, you’ve got another patient. My friend here took a bullet to the leg.”

They followed the doctor back to his office. Lucas sat down in a chair in the room where Mark lay. He insisted that the doctor work there to remove the bullet from his leg.

The doctor introduced himself as Morgan Samuelson. As he worked, he told Lucas and Tom the story of Romero.

“Almost three months ago a group of strangers came to this town. The next day, our sheriff and his deputy were dead. Over the following days, anyone who stood up to them or didn’t immediately turn away or jump to do their bidding quickly enough was killed. This town learned to cower in their presence.”

“What about you doc? Can’t see you just sitting around, watching as they murdered your town,” Benton stated.

“Oh, I stood up to them, each and every time I had to deal with their anger or drunken fun. They couldn’t kill me. I was too valuable to them. Being a doctor. But I’m old. If I may, just who are you and how’d you know we needed help?” the doctor asked.

“I’m U.S. Marshal Tom Benton, your first patient is U.S. Marshal Mark McCain…”

The doctor interrupted Tom, “I heard talk about a man named McCain, they call him the Rifleman. But that feller looks too young to be the man I’ve heard of,” Dr. Samuelson said.

“You just removed a bullet from the leg of the Rifleman, Lucas McCain, Mark’s father,” Tom finished saying as he pointed to Lucas. “We didn’t know your town was in trouble. The Domingo Gang robbed the bank in North Fork, New Mexico. Shot up their marshal and deputy. They followed their trail all the way here. I met up with them day before yesterday.”

The doctor excused himself and left Lucas and Tom alone. “Lucas, I’ll see if I can get any of the men in town to go with me to get the others we left up on the rise. I’ll be back when I can.”

*****

The doctor came back in later to check on his patients. As he noticed the calendar on the wall, he started tearing the pages off. As Lucas looked up to him, he said, “I left the pages up so I’d know the last day this town knew any freedom.” He pulled off the sheets until he got to today, July 4th. “Happy Fourth of July Romero, you got your independence back.”

He proceeded to try to look at Lucas’ leg.

“My leg’s fine, Doc. You just focus on my boy,” Lucas stated as he pushed the doctor’s hands away from his leg.

*****

When Tom Benton returned to the doctor’s office, he informed Lucas he’d sent a wire to Denver letting them know that Romero would need help and that they had eleven members of the Creed Domingo gang in custody.

“Lucas, I also sent a wire to North Fork. Sent it to your wife, told her you were both safe.”

*****

Both men were awake the following morning, still in the room in the doctor’s office in Romero, when there was a knock on the door and they heard a voice on the other side announce, “I’ve got some food for you, if’n you’re hungry.”

Tom got up and opened the door and allowed the saloon keeper in. He’d brought three plates with eggs and steaks, over.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know.” When he saw Mark lying on the bed, unconscious, bandage wrapped around his middle.

“Just set it on the table and leave,” Lucas stated.

*****

Lucas was picking at his food when Tom got after him.

“Lucas you need to eat and stop toying with your food. You boy’s going to need you strong to get him home and you’ll only get your strength if you eat.”

“Tom, I don’t need a mother hen,” Lucas replied.

“If he’s not going to eat it, I will,” came a quiet voice from the bed.

Lucas looked over to see Mark’s eyes open and the slightest trace of a smile on his lips.

“How long have I been out?” Mark asked.

As Lucas walked over to Mark he answered, “A little over twelve hours. How do you feel?”

“It hurts,” Mark stated as he ran his hand to his side. “What about Gannaway and the others?”

Benton answered, “Gannaway’s dead and we have eleven of Domingo’s gang in custody. Domingo’s dead too.”

“Pa, do you think I can have something to eat. I’m kind of hungry?” With Lucas’ assistance, Mark sat up on the bed, exhaled deeply before he stood to walk to the table.

As they finished their breakfast, Doc Samuelson entered the room, surprised and pleased to see his youngest patient awake and up.

“Doc, you wrap me up good tomorrow morning. My pa and I head for home.”

“Mark you’ll stay here until the doc gives you permission to get home.”

“No sir. I have to get home to my responsibilities. He can give you more bandages for the trip, but we’re leaving in the morning,” Mark declared as he stood and walked to lie back down in the bed.

The Next Generation… Chapter 39 – A Time to Cherish

Before heading for home, Lucas sent a wire to Milly announcing they were heading home. Lucas helped push Mark into the saddle as he mounted Blue Boy, then Lucas mounted Razor. They waved to Tom Benton as they headed for home. During their travel, Lucas kept a keen eye on Mark.

“Pa, I’ll let you know when it gets to be too much. But I have to get home, I shouldn’t have left Hope.”

“Mark as you said before, you had a responsibility to North Fork as well as to your family. Your responsibility to North Fork is completed, so now, we’ll see about our responsibilities to our wives. We’ll ride as long as I feel you’re not putting yourself in jeopardy, but each time I call for a stop, you will let me check your side.”

“Yes sir,” Mark answered, knowing it was a small price to pay to get home.

*****

It was the evening of July tenth when Lucas and Mark McCain rode up to Hattie’s. Lucas helped Mark down from Blue Boy and the two walked the path to the porch. Before Lucas could knock, the door was opened by Hope. She threw her arms around Mark, who tried to keep his groan inwards as her pregnant belly hit his wound. Hope felt him tense, let go and took a step back, “Mark?”

“I’m alright, now that I’m home. How are you… and the babies?” Mark asked as he pushed Hope back inside.

Milly was soon there, hugging and kissing Lucas.

Hattie arrived and pushed Hope and Mark, upstairs, towards a room and Milly and Lucas to another.

*****

As Milly sat down on the bed, Lucas asked how she and their baby were doing as he placed his hand to her stomach.

“I’m fine and so is our baby. Now, what about Mark? I know something happened when Tom Benton sent the wire and not you. What happened?”

Lucas didn’t get the chance to answer as they both heard the scream from Hope. They rushed from their room, crossed the hall, and opened the door. Both Mark and Hope were on the floor; Mark had his arms around Hope, who had her arms around her belly. Another scream left her lips. Hattie arrived quickly.

“Pa, get Doc Burrage,” Mark called.

Within fifteen minutes, Thadd and Abigail Burrage were in Hope’s room. While Thadd was doing an initial examination, Abigail placed extra towels across the bed. Thadd helped Mark lift Hope from the floor and onto the bed. As he lay Hope down, Mark grimaced, pulled his hand to his side and allowed Abigail to lead him from the room.

Lucas came to the hallway from returning Milly to their room, he saw Mark, hand against his side, pain in his face.

“Pa, I need old Doc Burrage. I pulled something.” Mark pulled his hand away from his side and Lucas saw the blood stain. Before Lucas led Mark downstairs, he asked Hattie to stay with Milly. Lucas was setting Mark down on the couch when Micah came in. Lucas turned to see his old friend standing there, with the aid of a cane.

Micah saw the pain on Mark’s face, then the blood. “LucasBoy, what happened?”

“Not now Micah. Stay with Mark while I go get Doc Jay.”

*****

Jay Burrage arrived, he paused in the parlor upon seeing Mark and hearing Hope scream. He quickly set to work unbandaging Mark. “Mark, this is a gunshot and recent. Lucas, how could you let him ride like this?”

“Doc, I insisted, besides, I didn’t start bleeding until after I helped Thadd get Hope back to bed.”

Jay was upset with both McCain men. After examining the wound, he told both that it was a minor pull. He rebandaged the wound tighter, then stood up, proclaiming, “I want him in bed, now.”

“I’ll just wait here on the couch Doc, the bed’s being used right now.”

Shortly, Hattie came downstairs, “Oh Jay. Thank goodness you’re here. Milly needs you. I think she’s going into labor.”

Mark, Lucas, and Micah looked at each other, realizing tonight was going to be a long night.

*****

Word spread that both Doc Burrage’s were called to the home of Micah and Hattie.

Johnny insisted in making his way over. “Woman, either you let me out of this home or so help me. My arm’s in a sling, not my leg. Now, get Connor and let me escort you over there, I’m sure you want to be there for Milly or Hope.”

Together, they quickly walked. Upon entering, Micah told Lou what room Milly was in and that Hattie was with Hope. Lou handed the sleeping Connor to Johnny. Johnny walked into the parlor, surprised to see that Lucas and Mark McCain had returned. Then he noticed the fresh blood on Lucas’ pant leg.

“Something happen while you were gone Luke?” Johnny asked, pointing to the pant leg.

Micah followed the direction of Johnny’s point. Johnny laid Connor down in a crib that was placed in the front room for Myra. Then he pushed Lucas to sit down, while Micah went to get some bandages.

“And here I am talking about retiring and those that are set to take my place don’t take care of themselves,” Micah grumbled as he wrapped another bandage around Lucas’ leg.

*****

Before they continued their talk, Lou came downstairs carrying a sleeping Myra and handed her to Lucas. “Cowboy, take care of your daughter. She doesn’t need to be upstairs in the room with Milly.” Lou turned and ran back upstairs.

*****

Jay came down, handed Johnny some pills and told him to make sure Mark took them both. “Just do it Johnny, I don’t have time to explain. But if you want an explanation, ask Lucas how his boy got shot.” Then turning to Lucas, “It’s going to be a while, why don’t you try to get some sleep, like your daughter, there.”

Johnny held a glass with his arm that was in the sling and then, using his good arms, pumped the handle to get the water to fill the glass. He carried it back to the parlor and handed it and the pills to Mark. “Doc said to take both of these. And don’t pretend to swallow and then spit them out later. I’m watching you.”

Mark obediently swallowed the pills then opened his mouth to show Johnny he wasn’t hiding them. Within a half hour, even through hearing Hope’s and Milly’s cries from labor, Mark couldn’t keep his eyes open.

After Mark was sound asleep on the couch, Johnny turned to Lucas and asked, “Okay, so Doc says the boy was gunshot. I see you’ve a gunshot wound to the leg. You mind telling us what the hell happened? I can just imagine the report we’re going to have to write.”

“Don’t worry Johnny, Tom Benton’s going to have to write the bulk of it, seeing as how he was the senior most U.S. Marshal present when we took the Domingo Gang into custody.” Then staring over to Micah and then to Johnny, “Okay, so when were the two of you planning to tell me that once my son turned twenty-one he was going to be an official U.S. Marshal?”

Both men looked to each other, not knowing what Lucas was talking about. “Honest Lucas, we’ve not heard a word about this,” Micah stated as he took a seat in a side chair.

“Johnny, you mean Mark’s not talked with you either. You’re the one always bringing him books.”

“Lucas, this is the first I’ve heard of this.”

All three men looked towards the stairs as the cries of pain continued upstairs.

“Lucas, tell us what happened. Take your mind off the women for a while. Actually, wish Doc Jay would give all of us what he gave Mark,” Micah stated.

*****

It was shortly before midnight when Jay came down to inform Lucas he had another son. “Give us a few more minutes and you can go see Milly.” Looking to see Mark still sleeping he said, “Then, I’m going to see if I can help Thadd with Hope.”

*****

Lucas placed Myra in the crib, next to Connor and then went upstairs, walked into Milly’s room and saw joy in her eyes, but concern on her face.

Lou left the room as Lucas laid down on the bed. Seeing the question in her eyes, he placed the tips of his fingers to her lips, “Milly, no questions, just lie there. I’ll tell you everything in the morning. Doc says we have another son.”

Milly pulled the blanket away and showed Lucas their son, happily nursing from her breast.

*****

The sun was soon to rise when Hope gave birth to their first child. As she rested back against Hattie, Doc told Lou, “Unbutton her nightshirt, let’s get him nursing.”

“Doc, shouldn’t you clean the babe first?” Lou asked.

As he wrapped the infant in a towel he said, “Lou, I’m not sure how much time we have before the next baby demands to make an appearance, just help me get this one nursing.”

“Next one?” Lou asked, but did as she was told. She helped the exhausted Hope hold her son while he nursed.

In a tired voice Hope stated, “We’re having twins,” as she leaned heavily back against Hattie.

Ten minutes later the next wave of contractions started. Lou pulled the baby from Hope and handed him to Abigail, who had a bath of warm water ready to clean the infant and then wrapped him in a blanket.

As the contractions came and went, the sun rose higher in the morning sky. Lou left the room to check on Connor for the morning. A few moments later, she returned and told Hattie, “The men said they’d fend for themselves for breakfast and not to worry about them. We’re to focus on Hope.”

Jay asked, “What about Mark, was he still sleeping?”

“Yes, though how he can sleep with his wife all night in labor, I’ll give him a piece of my mind when I see him next,” Lou stated.

She wiped the sweat from Hope’s brow and held tight to Hope’s hand as another contraction wracked Hope’s body.

“I can’t do it,” Hope cried.

“Yes you can, just a few more pushes,” Thadd stated.

Another strong contraction hit, causing Hope to scream out with Doc yelling for her to “PUSH. Come on Hope, PUSH!”

As the contractions and pain subsided, Doc told Hope that she had given birth to a second son. Hattie had tears of joy in her eyes as she allowed Hope to lean backwards a little. After Doc wrapped the second baby in a towel, he placed the baby to Hope’s breast and was pleased to hear the baby suckle.

Once the baby stopped nursing, Abigail took the child and started to clean him too. Thadd and Jay went down stairs to tell the expectant father the joyous news. Hattie and Lou helped change Hope into a fresh nightgown and then helped her move to a chair so they could change the bed linens. Soon Hope was back in bed and asleep.

*****

Thadd entered the parlor and found Mark sleeping on the couch. From behind, he heard footsteps.

“Doc?” Lucas asked. “Hope?”

“She’s fine Lucas.”

“And the babies?”

“They’re both healthy, but I think the father should be awake before I tell everyone the rest of the news.” Then seeing the dried blood on Mark’s shirt, “Lucas, what happened?” as he walked over.

“Your uncle rebandaged his wound last night when he arrived. Then gave him some pills to make him sleep. I guess the toll of being shot and the ride home and the worry, Thadd he was exhausted.”

As they stood talking, Mark started to rouse, he bolted wide awake seeing Thadd standing in front of him.

“Doc? Hope?” worry was written all over Mark’s face.

“She’s fine Mark. If you’d like, I can take you upstairs to meet your sons and then maybe later you’d like to meet your little brother.” A smile played across Thadd’s face as he told Mark the news.

Both McCain men started to follow Thadd back upstairs, but first allowed Lou to come down.

*****

Lucas entered Milly’s room and saw her nursing their son. She smiled as he entered and came to lie down in bed next to her. As Lucas watched their child nurse, he told Milly everything that had happened while he was gone. As she listened to the story, tears started falling down her face. She told Lucas how worried she had been when she received Tom’s wire. Lucas then told Milly, they had two grandsons. In time, all three were asleep, their son in Milly’s arms, and Milly in Lucas’ arms.

*****

Mark entered the room, he saw Hope sleeping on the bed, Hattie holding one bundle, and Abigail holding another. He stood in the doorway, mouth a gaping.

“Mark,” Hattie quietly said. “Come on in and meet your first born son.”

Slowly he walked over to Hattie and sat down in a chair. He allowed her to place the bundle in his arms. He opened the blanket and was amazed at the tiny life he held in his arms. As every new father does, he counted the fingers and toes. Hattie took the child back as Abigail stepped to his side and handed him his second born son. Again, Mark opened the blanket and counted the fingers and toes. Mark handed his son back to Abigail, then walked to the bed, pulled off his boots and laid down on top of the covers. He asked for them to bring his sons and lay them down between him and Hope.

Mark continued to look his family over, smiling as tears fell from his eyes.

Hattie left the room as Abigail sat down in the chair and watched as Mark fell asleep with his family.

*****

Shortly before supper, Lucas opened the door to the room where Mark and Hope lay and escorted Milly in. He held Milly tight as they looked at their grandsons for the first time.

Abigail got up and asked if they would like to hold them.

“Not yet, don’t disturb Mark and Hope, let them sleep. We can hold them later.”

Lucas returned Milly to her room, said he would be back with something for her to eat. Lucas entered the kitchen only to be approached by Lou as she started complaining about Doc giving Mark pills to make him sleep all night while his wife was in such pain and discomfort giving birth to his sons.

“Lou, please, settle down. We encountered a whole lot more of the outlaws once we reached where they were hiding out. As we were trying to take the last one into custody, a store owner accidentally shot Mark. By all rights, he should still be in Romero, Texas recovering, but he wanted to get back to his wife. He re-opened his wound when he helped Thadd lift Hope back into bed. Doc Jay knew it was more important for him to sleep than to waste all his energy in worrying. Lord knows I did enough for the both of us last night,” Lucas stated. “Now, why don’t you take your son and your husband home and tend to them. I really appreciate everything you’ve done for my family last night and today, but now it’s time you turn your attention back to those who look to you. Go home and love your family.”

*****

After the Drako’s left, Hattie pushed Lucas to sit down in a chair while she fixed a supper for Lucas and Milly.

“Well LucasBoy, quite a night we had? Don’t you think?” Micah asked as he took a drink from his coffee cup.

“Micah, I’m sorry to have my family disrupt your home in such a way,” Lucas stated.

“Lucas, they’re not just your family, you’re my family too. I was getting bored just sitting around. Doc won’t release me to return to duty yet and Hattie won’t let me help with all those children, so it was kind of fun last night, watching you and waiting. Most fun I’ve had since the summer social.”

“Thanks Micah. Speaking of releasing you, what’s Doc said?”

“Probably another month. You know, I’m not as young as I used to be. I’d already been talking with Johnny about stepping down and just helping out on an ‘as needed’ basis. I wanted to wait until the fall meeting of the town council before I said anything official. This town’s been awful good to me, especially you, and I know I can leave the town in good hands between Johnny and Mark.”

“Micah, I don’t know what to say.”

“Well, tell him he’s talking foolish. Being a Marshal runs in his blood,” Hattie stated as she held a tray of food. “Come on, follow me upstairs and I’ll get you, ya big lug, and Milly fed.”

Lucas opened the door and followed Hattie inside. She placed the tray on the table, next to the bed and then left. Milly handed their son to Lucas as she had just finished nursing him. Lucas climbed up in bed and cuddled with his son. Once both were done eating, there was a knock at the door.

“Lucas, Milly, it’s me Hattie. I have someone who wants to meet her baby brother.” Hattie opened the door and let Myra in. Hattie picked the girl up and set her on the foot of the bed. “I’ll leave you be.” Before leaving, she took the empty tray and dishes.

“Myra,” Milly said. “Crawl on up here and sit between your father and me.”

Myra crawled and sat between them, leaning back into Milly. Lucas lifted the baby and placed him in Myra’s arms, with Milly helping to hold.

“Myra, he’s your brother,” Lucas stated.

“Mark my brother,” Myra stated.

Lucas and Milly laughed. “Sweetie, Mark is your older brother. This is your baby brother,” Milly stated.

“Baby,” Myra stated.

“Lucas, we do need to come up with a name for our son,” Milly said as she looked from her children to her husband.

“I got to thinking while you were sleeping, that maybe, Theodore Scott McCain might be a good name for him.”

“Lucas, you’d name him after my brother?” Milly asked as tears formed in her eyes. Lucas nodded and smiled, but then it slowly faded as he took little Ted back into his arms.

“Lucas, what’s wrong?” Milly asked.

“Nothing, just thinking how perfect this would be if Mark were in here.” Then looking to Milly, “Milly, did I short change him by not asking you to marry me, before? He and Myra get along so well, but there’s just such a difference in their ages, and now little Ted. He could have been a big brother to them while he was still growing up.”

“Lucas, I remember once, Mark telling me that you told him, ‘there’s no looking back’. That goes for us, too. Yes, I can wonder about what it would have been like to be Mark’s mother, when he was growing up, but regardless of when I became his mother, I’m his mother now. And I couldn’t love him anymore.”

“Well, if you don’t love me anymore, I think I’ll take your grandsons back to their mother,” Mark stated as he quietly opened the door and stuck his head in.

“You’ll do no such thing Mark Warren McCain!” Milly called. Milly had grabbed hold of Myra before she had a chance to jump down from the bed and run to Mark. Mark carried two bundles into the room and walked to Milly, where she took each one in turn.

“How’s Hope doing Mark?” Lucas asked.

“She’s still tired Pa. She nursed both of them before I brought them over, but she just looks so tired. Doc Thadd is over with her right now, said he’d come over here when he was done.”

“Have you decided on names?” Milly asked.

“Names? Oh. No, I mean, we’ve both been sleeping and…”

“It’s okay Mark,” Milly stated as she laid her first grandson on her lap and took hold of her second.

Mark walked around the bed and took his baby brother in his arms. “So, have you decided on a name for my brother?”

Lucas stated, “Theodore Scott McCain,” as he picked up his first grandson.

Abigail came into the room and asked, “Okay, who has which baby?”

Mark stated, “I have my brother.” Abigail came and took the infant from Mark, seeing as how Myra wanted some attention.

“Hi there Gabby,” Mark stated has he tried to pick his sister up, but stopped when he felt the pull at his side. “So, what do you think of your baby brother?”

“Can’t pway,” Myra stated as she put her arms around Mark as he sat down on the edge of the bed.

“No, not yet,” Mark replied as he gave her a kiss. There was a knock at the door, when Doc Burrage stuck his head in, “Come in Doc,” Lucas called. “Come on son, I’ll help you get your brood back to Hope.”

Mark took his son from Milly and as he came around the end of the bed, Myra grabbed his other hand, “Mark, what that? More brothers?”

Mark laughed as he thought about how to explain to his sister, that his son’s were her nephews. Looking to Lucas, he received no sympathy. “Pa,” Mark said as they walked across the hall. “You do know this is all your fault.”

*****

They entered the room, with Myra climbing up on the bed and crawling to Hope.

“Hope, I brothers!” Myra squealed.

Hope looked up to Mark, who just lifted his shoulders and laughed.

“Hope you have two beautiful sons,” Lucas said as he leaned over and kissed her on the cheek.

“And Milly had her baby? I thought I heard another baby?”

“You did Hope, Ma gave birth to a boy as well. Pa said his name is Theodore Scott McCain.” As Mark crawled into bed beside Hope, he inadvertently let out a small groan.

“Mark?” Hope asked.

“It’s okay. I’ll be alright.” With his son in one arm, he reached over with the other, put it around Hope’s shoulders and pulled her close to him and placed a kiss on top of her head. “We ran into a little trouble. But I’ll be alright.”

Hope looked to Lucas, “Pa?”

“Hope, he’ll be fine. Being here with you and your children, he’ll definitely be alright,” Lucas said as he smiled at them.

“Hope, we do need to name our son’s, we just can call them first and second born,” Mark stated.

“We had talked of Zachariah James and Joshua Lucas…?” Hope stated as she looked to Lucas, causing a larger smile to cross his face.

Mark gave their sons, their names, “Pa, you have my first born and I think he should be called, Joshua Lucas McCain and this little fellow in my arms, you’ll be called, Zachariah James McCain.

The Next Generation… Chapter 40 – Introductions

Sunday dawned early for the household, as it had ever since the birth of the McCain trio; babies needing to be fed and changed at all hours of the day and night. Today was their first outing. Everyone was dressed in their Sunday best. As they prepared to leave Micah and Hattie’s, Milly carried little Ted, while Lucas carried Myra on his hip. Great-Grandparents Micah and Hattie carried Joshua and Zachariah, as Mark escorted Hope on his arm – he hadn’t wanted Hope to walk to church, he felt she still needed time to recover.

“Mark, I’ll be fine as long as I’m on your arm. Besides, Doc said I do need to get up and about.” She looked into his eyes and Mark knew he couldn’t refuse.

*****

Towards the end of the service, Reverend McCafferty stated that Nils Swenson had returned to town and as Nils stated his ‘piddlin’ injury wouldn’t keep him down’. The Reverend offered thanks to Marshal James Carson, who had returned Nils home.

“Unfortunately, Marshal Carson was recalled to Denver, where he could recover from his own injuries with his family. I pray for his quick recovery.” At Lucas’ request, the Reverend did not mention the fact that he and Mark were also wounded during the capture of the Domingo Gang.

Then Reverend McCafferty asked for the McCain’s to please stand.

“Now as everyone present knows, a blessed event happened four days ago over at Hattie and Micah’s. I spoke with the proud parents earlier this morning and I’d like to introduce to everyone, Theodore Scott McCain, the new son of Milly and Lucas McCain.

“My brother,” Myra said as Lucas lifted her and set her to his hip. Which brought a few laughs from their friends.

“And, yes Myra, he is your baby brother.” Reverend McCafferty answered. “Also, everyone, I’ll like to introduce, Joshua Lucas McCain and Zachariah James McCain, sons of Hope and Mark McCain.”

“My brothers too,” Myra called out, before Lucas could put his hand over her mouth.

That brought a spate of laughter from practically everyone present, as it brought a blush to the McCain’s. It took a few moments for Reverend McCafferty to bring everyone’s laughter under control.

“Now, I’m sure both sets of parents will raise their children, proper, in the eyes of the Lord, and I look forward to performing each baptismal.”

*****

As the McCain family walked down the steps, members of the congregation stopped and offered further congratulations to the proud parents. All the women hugged both Milly and Hope, whereas the men shook hands with Lucas and Mark. Afterwards, the McCain’s, the Torrance’s, and the Drako’s headed to the Mallory House for lunch. As they were sitting back from finishing dessert, they heard the afternoon train arrive in town. Mark stood up and told everyone he would return shortly, “Love, it’s been a tradition for the Marshal or Deputy to meet the train. Right now, I’m the only law officer fit for duty.” He stopped next to Hope and lifted her chin and lightly kissed her. “I’ll be back soon, I promise.”

Those present watched as Mark picked up his rifle and put his hat back on his head as he left the restaurant.

*****

As he approached the train, he caught the packet the conductor had tossed his way, “Thanks Jesse,” he called.

Mark turned as he felt the presence of someone standing behind him.

“I understand many congratulations are in order, Marshal McCain.” The man stated as he held out his hand. “It’s been quite a few years since I’ve been back in this territory. Can’t believe how much North Fork has grown.”

“Marshal Buckhart, what brings you here?” Mark asked, as he shook his hand.

“On assignment, Mark. At least until your Marshal or Deputy can resume their duties. Tom Benton filed his initial report and when Cole Barker told me about the situation, I volunteered to help out,” Sam stated. “Let me get my horse from the livestock car and I’ll join you. By the way, there’s someone else on the train I think you will be pleased to see.” Sam pointed over Mark’s shoulder.

Mark turned around to see a soldier stepping down from the car, his bag in hand.

“Major!” Mark called as he rapidly walked over and welcomed his father-in-law.

“Mark, congratulations! When I got the wire, I just had to come. How are they?” he asked as he released Mark from a hug. “How are you doing?”

“They’re doing fine. Not so sure I am?” Seeing the expression on Seth’s face, “Oh, nothing that getting a little more sleep wouldn’t fix sir.”

As Mark walked with the two men to town, he invited Sam to join them for lunch.

“Mark, you have family to tend to. I’ll take the packet and expect you in the Marshal’s office in two hours. You also have a report to write so we can close the file on the Domingo Gang. I’ll also need to talk with your father, too.”

“Yes sir. I’ll let him know.”

Sam led his horse and tied it up in front of the Marshal’s Office and entered.

*****

Mark escorted Seth to the hotel. As he entered the restaurant, the look on his face asked where his family was. Lucas called over to Mark, “They’re upstairs, room three.” Lucas stood and walked over and welcomed Seth Lane, while Mark ran to be with his family.

He knocked on the door and heard Hope say, “Come in.” Hope was sitting in a rocker, nursing one of the babies while Hattie was changing the other. Mark set his rifle down next to the door and placed his hat on the dresser, then walked and knelt down next to his wife.

“I still can’t believe this life we created,” Mark said as he ran his hand over the back of his son’s head. Hattie came up and handed the other baby to Mark.

“I’ll leave you four be.” And she left.

Mark looked to his son in his arms and then to his wife. Hope pulled Zachariah from her breast when she sensed he stopped nursing. Mark set Joshua in his lap and took Zach, allowing Hope to re-dress herself. Then he handed Joshua to her. After Mark finished changing Zach, Mark announced, “There’s another surprise for you downstairs.”

“Mark, I am tired. I guess the walk to and from church and everything else took more out of me than I realized. Can your surprise wait?” Hope asked, apologetically.

“No, but I can bring your surprise up here.” Mark helped Hope get up from the rocker and into the bed. He placed Joshua and Zachariah on the bed, next to Hope. “I’ll be right back.”

*****

Mark arrived downstairs and walked to stand beside Seth, “Sir, Hope is tired, but I think seeing you will perk her up. Today was her first day up and about, and I guess the walk to church was a little much for her. If you’d come with me, I’ll introduce you to your grandsons.”

Seth followed Mark upstairs to room three. Mark lightly knocked on the door before entering. As he peeked in, he saw Hope caressing one baby and then the other, “Hope, do you care for a visitor? I’ve someone here who really wants to see you, and to meet his grandsons.”

“Meet his… Father!” Hope exclaimed as Mark opened the door wide. He closed the door behind them once they were inside.

“Hope,” Seth stated as he walked to his daughter. “Congratulations! When I received Mark’s wire that the babies had been born, I told Colonel Albright that I was taking time off to spend with my grandsons, and their family. I just can’t believe; twins.”

“Sir, if you’d like, have a seat,” Mark motioned to the rocker. Seth sat down and Mark picked up one of their sons from the bed, quickly peeked at the boy’s wrist. Joshua Lucas, I’d like you to meet your Grandfather Seth. Sir, this is our first born, Joshua Lucas.”

Seth took the baby in his arms, a smile was beaming across his face. “With twins and both being boys, how are you so sure this one is your first born?”

“Joshua has a birthmark on the inside of his left wrist, right now, it’s the only clue I have,” Mark said with a slight laugh.

“And my other grandson?”

Mark took his other son from Hope’s arms, “Zachariah James, I’m pleased to introduce you to your Grandfather Seth. Sir, Zachariah James.”

“Father, please don’t be upset that we didn’t name one after you. But Mark and I talked that, that honor should go to Ethan, when he and Annie have children,” Hope said, hoping her father understood.

“Hope, as long as you and the babies, and Mark, are healthy, you could have named them Ebeneezer and I wouldn’t have minded, well, maybe not that name. Hope, these boys are yours and Mark’s family, I’m just proud to have a small part in your family.”

“Father , it will never be a small part. Even though you live at the fort, the boys will know you as they grow up.”

A short time later, there was a knock at the door, Lucas stuck his head in. “Well I see I’m being challenged already for the title of Best Grandfather,” and laughed. “Mark, just checking to see how you are and to let you know that Milly and I are heading back to Micah and Hattie’s.”

Mark stepped to the hallway to talk with his Pa.

“Thanks Pa, I think I’m going to talk with Lou about us staying here tonight. Today took a lot out of Hope.”

“I understand, but make sure when Hope sees Doc Thadd tomorrow, that you talk to him about this. Remember Mark, Hope is young, and with the difficulties during her pregnancy and then birthing the twins, it’s going to take her a while to regain her strength, But, don’t brush it off.” Giving Mark a squeeze to the shoulder, Lucas bid goodbye.

“Oh Pa. Marshal Buckhart is in town. He volunteered to help out until Doc Burrage releases either Micah or Johnny for duty. He wants to talk with you so he can finish his report. As soon as I see Hope settled, I’m heading to the office.”

“Let Sam know I’ll stop in tomorrow morning.”

*****

Monday morning, Mark and Hope walked to Doc’s, each carrying one of the boys. First Mark checked in at the Marshal’s office. Lucas was just finishing give his account to Sam. As he was getting ready to leave he told Mark, “I’m heading to the ranch to work for a while this morning. I’ll be back this afternoon, your Ma has an appointment with Doc Burrage. Good luck with your appointment this morning.”

Mark said goodbye to his Pa, then turned to Sam, “Sam, I’d like to introduce you to my wife, Hope and our sons, Joshua and Zachariah. Hope this is Marshal Sam Buckhart, he’s here to help out until Doc Burrage allows Johnny or Micah to return to duty.”

“Pleased to meet you Marshal Buckhart, but I think we’ve met before,” Hope stated.

“Ma’am, it’s my pleasure, but I’m not sure we have. It’s been a long time since I was last in North Fork.”

“No, it wasn’t here. I think you visited the reservation. Sir, I…” Hope looked to Mark.

“Sam, for six years, Hope lived with the Kiowa tribe led by Iron Heart. She came to live in North Fork shortly before we turned seventeen.”

Sam looked at Hope and a look of recognition came across his face. “Dawn Fire, if my memory serves me correct.”

“It does,” Hope replied with a smile.

“So, I would be interested in learning how the daughter of Major Lane became the daughter of Iron Heart, and then the wife of Mark McCain. Maybe we could share supper one night.”

“Sam, why not tonight?” Mark asked.

“It would make a great celebration,” Sam stated.

“Celebration? Sam what are you talking about?” Mark asked.

“Mark, when we met at the train yesterday, I told you that many congratulations were due to you. First, I’m a little late in congratulating you on your marriage. Second, for the birth of your sons. Third, you already know, but maybe it hasn’t quite sunk in yet. Cole Barker told me I was to exchange your town deputy badge and give you this one.”

Sam Buckhart held out his hand to Mark and presented him a new badge, stamped U.S. Marshal.

“But, I’ve not made my mind up, Marshal Benton said nothing could happen until I turned twenty-one,” Mark stated.

“Mark, you’ll still be located in North Fork, we won’t ask you to travel about as a lot of us do, but this gives you more authority for when we do need you. Besides, Benton said I wasn’t to take no for an answer and remind you that you’ve already taken a bullet in the line of duty as a U.S. Marshal.”

“Sam, I need to get Hope and the boys over to Doc’s.” And then seeing the expression on Hope’s face. “Give me some time to talk with Hope. I’ll be back later.”

“Ma’am, Mark.”

*****

“Mark McCain, what did he mean that you’ve already taken a bullet?” Hope demanded once they were out of the office.

“Hope, we’ll talk, once we’re done at Doc’s,” Mark said as his eyes pleaded.

*****

After finishing his examination of Hope, Doc Thadd stated, “I’d really prefer if Hope stays in town for another week or so. Nothing’s wrong, I just want to keep an eye on her for a little while longer. Hope, you still are weak, it’s nothing to be overly concerned about, but this way, you won’t try to do too much too soon to help out, as you would if you were out at the ranch. And I know that Hattie will keep an eye on you and the boys too.”

“Doc, we can’t continue to be a burden on Hattie and Micah. I mean, they’re like family… But Hattie has her hands full keeping Micah resting.”

“Mark, if you feel that way, then stay at the hotel. Besides, I think Abigail might appreciate talking with Hope, seeing as how we’re expecting our first child.”

“Thadd, that’s great news!” Mark exclaimed. “When?”

“Around Thanksgiving. Abigail told me shortly after you found out the two of you were expecting twins. We kind of kept it quiet, but she’s really starting to show, so, the whole world can know now.”

“Doc?” Hope asked. “Maybe I might get a straight answer from you. Did you know Mark was shot?”

Thadd looked to Mark and saw him nod his head. “Yes Hope, I did,” Thadd stated as he looked at Hope.

“So everyone was just going to keep this a secret from me?”

“Hope, please, let’s go where we can talk,” Mark replied.

“No! I’m your wife and no one has said anything about this? Who else knew?”

Neither Mark nor Thadd said anything. Abigail entered the room after hearing Hope’s voice.

“If Marshal Buckhart hadn’t said anything, would you have told me?” Mark could hear her anger and worry.

“I…” Mark started.

“No, I don’t want to hear it from you! You wanted to keep this as a secret, so keep it!”

Turning to Abigail, Hope asked, “Abigail, would you help me get MY sons back to Hattie’s?” Abigail looked to Mark and then to her husband, who nodded.

After the women left, Thadd turned to Mark and said, “I’m sorry Mark.”

“It’s not your fault Thadd. With the babies and everything else, the opportunity just never presented itself to tell her, I just didn’t want to worry her. And it’s not bothered me since those first couple of days after Pa and I returned home…”

*****

Milly spent the morning with Lou at the hotel, after lunch, Lucas joined her for the walk to Doc’s, where they received news that she and little Ted could go home.

As they were starting to leave, Doc Burrage spoke, “Lucas, Milly, know how anxious you probably are to head home. But, you might want to stay in town for a while though. I think Mark and Hope could use your help right now.”

Thadd proceeded to tell them what happened earlier, neither had realized that Mark hadn’t said anything to Hope.

The Next Generation… Chapter 41 – Broken Fences

After saying goodbye to Thadd, Mark returned to the Marshal’s Office. After leafing through the wanted posters that arrived, Mark stood and walked to the window; looking down the street towards Hattie’s.

“Everything alright Mark?” Sam asked. “I saw Hope leave the doctor’s office before you did. She looked quite upset.”

“She and the boys will be fine, but I messed up. I hadn’t told her I’d been shot while in Romero…”

“And I let the cat out of the bag, I am sorry Mark. You want some time to be with her?”

“Not now, probably best to let her be for a while. Maybe let Ma talk with her,” Mark stated as he grabbed his rifle and headed out the door. “Looks like trouble’s brewing at Sweeney’s.”

Mark and Sam ran down the street to Sweeney’s. They broke up a couple of trail hands, fighting in the street and once inside, they came up against a rowdy set of trail hands. It took some doing, but they eventually had the drovers in line, except for one.

“We just lettin’ off some steam deputy. This is the last town we’ll come to for a while, so what’s the harm?”

“The harm is, this is a nice, decent town. Keep your guns in your holsters and no more fighting and we’ll let you be. Get too rowdy and you’ll spend time in our jail. Let your ramrod or trail boss come in and get you after two days. See how they like losing time on the trail because of you,” Mark answered.

Mark heard someone enter the doors behind him. “Deputy, my crew giving you any grief?”

“No sir, just making sure they understand the rules. We don’t mind them drinking and enjoying themselves, but this ain’t the bowery.”

“Boys, you better listen to the deputy. I ran up against him a few years back and I learned my lesson, the hard way. Anyone who gets thrown in his jail will collect their wages the next morning and be gone. Understand?”

A voice from the back answered, “But he’s just a kid and the Marshal’s just an Indian.”

“Kid or no kid. Indian or not. They are the law of this town. As I said, I underestimated the deputy a few years back and luckily Gil Favors was a little more tolerant of my situation. I wasn’t forewarned like you are. Enjoy yourselves, but mind your warning.”

The trail boss stepped outside and waited for Mark and Sam to join him. “Glad to see you’re still a deputy, McCain isn’t it?”

“Yes sir, Mark McCain and this is U.S. Marshal Sam Buckhart.”

“The name’s Joe Scarlet. Don’t know that we were properly introduced a few years back. Thanks for being so understanding of me then and my crew today. I’ll see to it that they keep in line, I need every one of them to get this herd joined up with the main drive in Texas.” With that he walked back in to the saloon.

*****

“Mark, go to your wife. I think things are quiet enough now,” Sam stated as he placed a hand on Mark’s shoulder.

Mark walked to Hattie’s, went upstairs and knocked on the door.

“Hope, are you awake? It’s me, Mark. I’d like to come in and talk with you,” Mark stated.

“Go away Mark McCain. Go Away!” he heard from the other side of the door. He tried to turn the knob, only to find the door locked. “Go Away!” Hope cried again.

“Hope, please. I’m your husband, don’t shut me out.”

“You should have thought of that before. Just Go Away!”

As Mark was leaving the house, he ran into Seth, without even acknowledging him. “Mark?” Seth called.

Seth entered the house and proceeded upstairs, knocking on the door. “Mark, I told you to go away! I don’t want to talk to you!” he heard Hope yell.

“Hope, I’m your father. Open this door right now!”

He heard footsteps on the other side of the door and shortly heard a click and the door opened. As he entered the room, he watched as Hope threw herself on the bed and cried.

“Hope, what’s wrong? What happened?” Seth asked as he sat down on the edge of the bed and ran his hand across his daughter’s shoulders.

“He lied to me. The father of my children and he lied to me. Oh Father!” Hope cried harder.

“Hope I’m sure Mark didn’t mean to lie to you. What happened? Please, tell me.”

“Father, take me back with you,” she said as she rolled over and threw her arms around Seth.

Pulling her arms from around his neck, Seth pushed his daughter back. “Now see here young lady. You are a married woman, I don’t know exactly what happened between you and Mark, but when I left you at breakfast this morning, you were the happiest couple in North Fork. Now you want to leave him. I don’t understand.”

“He lied to me. He kept the truth from me. I never want to see him again, as long as I live. You’re my father, take me home with you.”

“No Hope. I won’t. This is something you’ll need to work out with Mark, the two of you, together.”

“Go away! You don’t love me either. Go AWAY!” Hope screamed then turned over and began crying on the bed again.

Seth tried pleading with his daughter, but she wouldn’t answer him. He stood up from the bed and left the room. Pulling the door closed behind him.

As he stepped to the bottom of the stairs, Lucas and Milly were just entering the house.

“Lucas, I don’t know what happened between breakfast and now, but Mark ran out of here a little while ago and Hope’s upstairs crying on her bed. Something about Mark lying to her and telling me that I don’t love her. Do you know what happened?”

“Seth, let Milly go upstairs and talk with Hope. You come with me to the parlor, I’ll tell you everything.” Lucas took Little Ted from Milly before she headed up stairs.

Lucas was just finishing telling Seth of what happened while they were in Romero. “Seth, I’ve not had a chance to talk to Mark since this ‘blew up’ this morning, Doc told us. I was hoping to find Mark here.”

Milly came down, “Lucas, go get Doc Burrage, she can’t even talk with me, she’s crying so hysterically.”

Lucas returned with Doc and went upstairs. Doc immediately pulled a syringe from his bag upon seeing Hope gasping for breath and crying uncontrollably, sobs wracking her body. He grabbed hold of her arm and held tight as Hope tried to pull her arm from his hand.

“Lucas, help me hold her arm still.”

Lucas sat down on the bed and held Hope’s arm, the whole time she was screaming, “NO! GO AWAY! LEAVE ME ALONE!” when she could get a breath in. Milly sat on the bed, holding tight around Hope’s shoulders; trying to quiet her. Doc finally found the vein and administered the sedative. She continued to fight them all, until the medication took effect.

Milly quietly spoke soothing words to Hope and brushed back the hair from Hope’s face with her hand. She laid Hope down on the bed and covered her with the blankets, as sleep overtook her.

As Doc and Lucas stood up from the bed, they turned to see Seth and Micah, in the doorway.

“Come on downstairs. Let’s let her sleep,” Lucas said as he motioned to the others to leave the room.

“Lucas, I’m going to stay up here with Hope,” Milly stated.

“I think that’s a good idea Milly,” Thadd replied. “I’m going to leave a sedative for her, if she wakes and is still agitated, don’t hesitate to give her two pills.” After everyone else had left, Thadd spoke, “Milly, I don’t want her nursing the babies while she’s on this medication. I’ll talk with Hattie about preparing bottles for the boys.”

Hope was still sleeping when Lucas brought Little Ted to the room for Milly to nurse, later that evening. She left the room to go to the room they had been sharing. Hattie had two bottles in her hands as Seth and Lucas sat down in the chairs to feed their grandsons. Once they had finished feeding the bottles and had burped the boys, the grandpa’s tried their hands at changing dirty diapers.

Milly returned and giggled at the sight, “You two, go back downstairs, I think I can manage this.”

*****

The medication Doc Burrage gave Hope made her sleep through the night. In the morning, Milly went to check in on her. She was still crying in bed. Milly tried talking with her, but everything she said, just seemed to upset Hope more. She asked Hope to take the medication that Doc Burrage had left. Milly picked up the twins and left the room.

As she entered the kitchen, she shook her head as she looked towards Lucas. She handed one of the boys to Hattie and the other to Micah, Lucas had Little Ted in his lap and was trying to help Myra with her cereal.

Hattie spoke, “Milly, why don’t you leave her with me for a while. You and Lucas head on home and take care of Myra and Little Ted. When I see Mark, I’ll let him know. I think for right now, it might be best to let me deal with her. I’ll keep you informed in how she’s doing.”

After they were done feeding the babies, Hattie and Milly returned the twins to their cribs in Hope’s room.

As they were preparing to head home, Lucas had hoped he would see Mark in town. Seeing the look on Lucas’ face, Micah said, “Lucas, we’ll take care of Mark when we see him. I know this has to be rough on your whole family, but you’ll get through this. You always do.”

“Thanks Micah,” Lucas said as he rein slapped the horses and headed home.

*****

As Lucas drove the team to the barn, he saw Blue Boy tied to the hitching rail. They entered the house to realize that Mark was in his bedroom, with the door closed. Mark sat at his desk and looked at the picture from his wedding day. He wished he could be in town with Hope, holding her in his arms. But he didn’t know how to heal her hurt. His Pa always said that words spoken in anger were hard to take back once spoken. Hearing his wife yell for him to go away, felt like a knife plunged into his heart. Mark set the picture down when he heard a slight knock at the door, then heard Myra’s voice, “Mark?”

Mark stood, opened the door, and knelt down in front of his sister. “Hi Gabby,” Mark said as he picked her up. Carrying Myra, Mark walked and sat back down at his desk.

“Papa said I could come in. Mark, I missed you. Where Hope?”

“I missed you too, Gabby. She’s still in town.”

“You go get her?”

“Soon, Gabby. Soon.”

She looked at the pictures on Mark’s desk and pointed to one. “Who that?”

“That’s a picture of Hope’s father.”

“Not Papa?”

“No Gabby, not Papa. Hope has different parents than us.”

“Oh! Who that?”

“That’s Hope’s brother Ethan and his wife, Annie.”

“And him?”

“Gabby, that’s my Uncle Johnny. He’s my Ma’s brother,” Mark answered.

“Mama’s brother?”

“No, he’s not Mama’s brother, he…”

Then she pointed to another picture and asked, “Who that?”

Mark picked up the picture and quietly told Myra, “This is a picture of my Ma.”

“No, don’t look like Mama,” Myra replied.

Mark thought about how to reply to his sister. “Gabby, I don’t know how to explain my Ma to you.”

Gabby looked at the picture and then to Mark, “NO! Not Mama! Not Mama.” she jumped down from Mark’s lap and ran to the front room.

*****

“Pa, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset her,” Mark stated as he walked over and placed his hand on Myra’s back and knelt down.

“She not Mama!” Myra cried. “You don’t love Mama!”

Milly came from the bedroom at hearing Myra’s crying.

“Gabby, I do love Ma,” Mark tried to explain. “Gabby, please look at me.” Mark tried to turn her around on Lucas’ lap, only to have her grab tighter to Lucas.

“Mark what happened?” Lucas asked.

“I had her sitting on my lap and she was asking about all the pictures, then she saw Ma’s picture on my desk…” Mark’s voice grew quiet as he looked to Milly. “I’m sorry…” Mark stood, confused and feeling hurt, he left the house.

*****

After handing Myra to Milly, Lucas walked from the house and stood on the porch as Mark swung up in the saddle, tears falling down his face. “Mark? Talk to me son.” he pleaded.

Wiping at his tears with the heel of his hand, “Pa, there’s nothing you can do to help. Seems of late … It doesn’t matter what I do, all my best intentions seem to hurt those I love. This is something I’ll have to work through, if I can.” He turned Blue Boy and rode away, fast.

*****

Lucas walked into the room that Hope and Mark had shared. He looked at the pictures on the desk, and picked up the picture that was lying face down. It was Margaret’s. Milly stood in the doorway, with Myra in her arms. Lucas then noticed the two badges lying on the desk and the folded sheet of paper with “Pa” written on it. He picked it up and read.

Pa,

I can’t be who everybody wants me to be. Please tell Myra, I didn’t mean to make her cry. When you see Hope, tell her I didn’t mean to hurt her.

Mark

As he handed the note to Milly, Lucas noticed the tear stains on it.

*****

Doc Burrage walked to Johnny and Lou’s and knocked on the door. Lou answered, “Lou, if I may, can I talk with you and Johnny?”

As he sat in the parlor of Johnny and Lou’s home, he told them what was happening, “Hope and Mark are having some problems. I’ve read some medical literature and seems there are cases of women who after having given birth go through mood swings and bouts of depression. The changes a woman’s body goes through while carrying a child, just aren’t fully understood. The new mother doesn’t have full control over her emotions. I think that’s what’s troubling Hope; only she can’t help herself. She found out that Mark hadn’t told her of getting shot when he and Lucas were up in Romero. Right now, she’s taking her hurt out on Mark and the rest of the family. Johnny, I know it’s a little early, but I think you, more than Micah, are ready to return to duty. Just promise me you’ll take it easy.”

*****

It had been three days since Mark had left home when Lucas headed into town. As he rode in, he saw Johnny sitting in front of the Marshal’s office.

“Johnny,” he called as he stepped down from Razor. “Mark inside?”

“No Lucas, he’s not been seen in town since Monday,” Johnny stood and walked to Lucas. “Doc told us of the trouble. I take it he’s not been at the ranch either?” Johnny asked. Lucas shook his head.

“Lou’s been with Hope every day. Between her and Hattie, she’s not been left alone. Lucas, Lou tells me that Hope’s withdrawing into herself. She won’t talk when Hattie or Lou are in there. The only one she talks to are the twins,” Johnny informed Lucas.

“I’d thought that Mark would have returned to town and maybe was staying in the jail. Guess I should have realized he wouldn’t, he left these at the house.” Lucas pulled the two badges from his pocket and handed them to Johnny.

“This isn’t good, Lucas.”

“I know.”

*****

Mark didn’t have any plans on where to head when he left home, he just felt it wasn’t his home and he couldn’t stay there anymore. He rode for the mountains to the West. Only stopping to water and graze Blue Boy, then riding until night fell and he made camp.

He’d lost track of how many days he had been in the saddle when he finally came to a lake in the mountains. As he rode around, he found what remained of an old camp site and a dilapidated corral. Mark unsaddled Blue Boy and turned him loose inside, then set about to make repairs. By afternoon, he was pleased with his results and with his sleeve, he wiped the sweat from his brow. Realizing just how hot it was and how inviting the water looked, Mark stripped his clothes and dove into the water. It had been a long time since he’d gone for a swim and just floated on the water. He let his mind go blank as the water lapped at his body.

His reverie was broken, sometime later, by the cry of an eagle soaring across the sky. Mark swam to the shoreline, walked from the lake and picked up his clothes, he decided to rinse them out and lay them on a nearby rock to dry. Feeling more relaxed than he could remember; Mark walked up to the corral, untied his bedroll and laid it out. He laid down and fell asleep.

Mark was woken by Blue Boy snorting close by. It took a few moments for Mark to realize where he was, he stood up, walked over to his clothes and got dressed. He swung up on Blue Boy, bareback and rode him to a meadow he’d ridden through on his way up the mountain. While sitting aback his horse, he dropped his reins and let Blue Boy graze.

This was Mark’s life for the next three days. On his fourth day, he decided to explore his new surroundings more. As he walked past the corral, he pulled his rifle from his saddle. He came to a worn trail and followed it. Eventually it led to a shack, even more dilapidated than the corral, Mark pushed the door open and stepped inside, swatting away the cobwebs.

As he looked around, he turned away as he saw a skeleton lying in the bunk on the far side of the room. When he got his courage up, he walked over to have a closer look. The clothes were faded, but he saw no evidence of foul play, no blood from a gunshot or knife wound. On the stand, next to the bed, he found a book and picked it up. Blowing the dust from it he saw it was a bible. As Mark leafed through the first few pages, he saw a faded name printed on the inside: Ezekiel Desmond.

The sun was setting as Mark continued to look around the shack. He found matches in a cupboard to light a lantern that was sitting on the table. Next to it, he found a journal. As he started to read, the words intrigued him. Night had fallen, when Mark picked up the bible, the journal, and the lantern and made his way back to the corral, and Blue Boy.

*****

Mark woke as the sun crested the surrounding hills. Feeling his stomach grumble, Mark put his hat on his head, picked up his rifle, and set out to hunt something to eat. It wasn’t long before he returned to his camp with two rabbits. By mid-morning, Mark had pulled enough grass to feed Blue Boy and had satisfied his own hunger by cooking and eating one of the rabbits.

Mark pulled out the journal and continued to read. It was evident that Ezekiel was an educated man. First off, he could write, but Mark also realized the sentence structure and punctuation, not your everyday mountain man had written this journal.

During the days, Mark would hunt for food and graze Blue Boy. Of an afternoon, he enjoyed swimming in the cool water of the lake. Of an evening, before the sun would set, he sat and read more of the journal. It took Mark ten days, to finish reading the journal. Some of the entries were faded and difficult to read. As night enveloped the land, Mark would lie back and dream about the trials that Ezekiel had encountered and the life he had lived. When he came to the last entry, the truth was told.

‘To whoever finds me and my words, nothing back home can be worse than the loneliness of living here. Don’t let God’s beauty blind you to what you left behind. The land is beautiful enough to drown your sorrows, but one day, you’ll wake up an old man, not knowing if your loved ones are dead or alive or if they even remember you. Realizing everything you lost… Everything you could have had… Maybe your hurt came over some misunderstanding. Sometimes it’s the simplest words that are the hardest to say. Whatever happened, two heartfelt words can mend many a broken fence… But don’t forget to follow those two words with three more…

Lord, by your good graces, I’m ready for you to call me home.

As Mark read the final entry, he saw the handwriting become more illegible, Ezekiel was struggling to finish, to put his thoughts to paper. The page bore evidence of someone having cried.

Mark read the date at the top of the page before he closed the journal. As Mark thought about how long it had been since he’d left… home. He realized been gone for the better part of three weeks. He also realized the final entry had been made twenty years ago, this day. It was as if Ezekiel knew that Mark would find his writings. Mark got up and put the journal and bible in his saddle bags. He headed back to the shack. Inside, he found a shovel.

The sun was setting as Mark finished tapping the cross into the ground. He stepped back and looked at the scene, a fitting, final resting place for a man that Mark only knew from his writings. A man who had helped Mark see his life clearer than he had in the three previous weeks.

Mark returned to camp, knowing this would be the last night he would stay there. It was time for him to head home.

*****

The following morning Mark saddled Blue Boy and headed down the mountain, towards — home. Unsure what he would find when he returned, but he knew he had to. He didn’t want to repeat the regrets of Ezekiel. Slowly and deliberately he rode; crossing off the days in his mind until he made his way home.

The Next Generation… Chapter 42 – Mending Fences

Milly stepped from the porch and saw a lone rider and horse standing on the rise, she called back into the house, “Lucas.”

Lucas came to stand behind Milly and placed his hands on her shoulders as she pointed to the rise. They watched as the rider stood in silhouette against the early evening sky. Lucas called back into the house just as the rider turned his horse to leave.

Hope came from the house, wiping her hands to her apron. She looked in the direction that Lucas pointed and saw the figure riding away.

“Mark?” she quietly said and ran forward and saw the rider pull up his horse, stand up in the stirrups, turn around, and look back. She stopped running on the far side of the barn and watched as the rider stepped down from his horse.

Lucas came up behind her and whispered in her ear, “Go to him Hope. I think he came back for you.” He gave her a slight push forward. Milly walked to stand next to Lucas and he put his arm around her shoulder, as she placed one arm around his waist and the other, she placed her hand to his chest. They quietly thanked God for bringing their family back home. Milly looked up to Lucas, both had tears in their eyes, both knowing the first step had been made, but it would take a while for all the hurts to mend. They watched the reunion unfold in front of them.

*****

Hope ran to where the rider stood, she slowed to a walk about twenty feet away, then stopped about ten feet away. She looked at the face of the man in front of her; looked beyond the beard and the mustache. From beneath the shadow the brim of the hat cast over his face, she tried to see his eyes. As she stared, the rider walked forward, removed his hat, lowered his head, and quietly whispered, “I’m sorry.”

The voice sounded sweet to her ears. As the rider stopped in front of her, she lifted her hand and ran it over the beard growing on his face, “Mark?”

He nodded and pulled her into an embrace, tears falling down his face. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you. Can you ever forgive me for running away?”

Hope clung to Mark, tears falling down her own cheeks. “Mark, I’m sorry for the way I acted. I should have known you didn’t tell me so I wouldn’t worry.” She pushed herself slightly away from Mark, so she could look into his eyes. “At the time, I didn’t understand why I was acting the way I was towards you. I was even so mean to my father, and to your parents. Mark, you may not grant it, but I ask your forgiveness.”

Mark placed his hand to her chin and lifted her face as he bent forward to kiss her. He held her tighter in his arms, “Hope, I can forgive you, but my transgression was worse than yours. I promise I’ll work hard to restore your trust in me.”

Mark bent down and picked Hope up in his arms and carried her back to where Lucas and Milly stood, waiting. As he walked, Hope wrapped her arms around his neck and rested her head on his shoulder and sighed, knowing this is where she belonged, in her husband’s arms.

He set Hope to her feet as he stood in front of his Pa. “I guess you’re pretty disappointed in me?” Mark said as he hung his head.

“Mark, I won’t stand here and judge you. If you remember, I ran away once before. I’m glad you’re home.”

Mark and Lucas watched as their wives returned to the house. Lucas followed as Mark led Blue Boy to the barn. Watched as Mark unsaddled him, turned him loose in the paddock with Razor and Two-Bits. Mark smiled as he watched the two buddies get reacquainted and Two-Bits trying to get between the boys. They snorted and stomped their hooves and ran around for a few minutes, before settling down.

Resting his arms over the top rail of the corral Mark said, “Pa, I’m sorry I ran. I know I should have stayed and talked… Everything was just so overwhelming. Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not so sure I understand myself. But, for so long it was just the two of us. I love Milly, but that day, I really needed someone, something… and I saw your expression and Ma’s, when Gabby was crying and I felt…” Mark hesitated, unsure, as he looked down to the ground.

“Felt what Mark?” Lucas asked as he placed a hand on Mark’s shoulder.

“I felt like an outsider looking in. Like I didn’t belong here anymore. Pretty stupid, huh?”

“No Mark, not stupid. Just a man, with new responsibilities of a family and new demands from your job, lack of sleep, and not understanding what was happening with your wife. Confused, yes, but not stupid. I guess you had a lot of time to think while you were gone,” Lucas stated.

“At first, I didn’t think, I just rode. Then when I came to the lake, I took in God’s beauty. Decided that was going to be my home. I couldn’t hurt you or Hope anymore.” Mark turned and looked at his Pa. “I went exploring one day and came upon a shack and found a skeleton inside. There was a journal on the table; I guess the man wrote it. Pa, it was as if he wrote his entire journal just for me. When I read his last entry, that’s what got me to act. That’s when I knew I had to try to come home. For better or worse, I had to see if I could.”

“Mark, as husbands and fathers, we all get overwhelmed at times. I want you to promise me that regardless of how you think I feel, you’ll talk with me. Even though it took a dead man to walk you through your troubles, I’m glad you’re home. Come on, let’s get inside, need to get you reacquainted with the rest of your family.”

*****

As Mark entered the house with his Pa, he saw Myra sitting in his chair, playing with the doll she had received at Christmas. “Hi Gabby,” he said as he knelt in front of her.

“Who you?” she asked.

“Mark, your brother,” Mark replied.

“No, can’t be. Mark don’t have whiskers,” she answered as she returned to playing with her doll.

Mark looked around, but didn’t see Hope. Milly, seeing Mark’s expression, nodded with her head towards the bedroom.

As he stood, he patted Myra on the head and then walked to the door. Took a deep breath and gently knocked on the door. From the other side he heard Hope reply, “Come in.”

Mark carefully opened the door and saw Hope leaning across the bed, both babies in front of her. Walking over and sitting on the edge, Mark commented, “They sure have grown.” Then looking to Hope he started to talk, but she placed the tips of her fingers to his lips, “Pick your sons up and hold them.”

As he picked up Joshua and then Zachariah, his heart melted again. He’d lost so much time being away from them. Hope sat for a while and watched as her husband smiled as he held his children. Hope decided to leave them be for a while; as she left the room, she heard Mark say, “Never again. We’re McCain’s. We’re family.” She stood at the doorway and watched as Mark lay down with his sons at his side and was soon asleep.

*****

She turned from closing the door to see Lucas standing behind Milly, with his hands on her shoulders. The expressions on both their faces were inquiring and concerned.

“We’re going to be okay. I know it will take time, but we’re family. He’s so tired, he fell asleep with the boys right now.” Hope looked back over her shoulder, allowing a smile to grace her face as she remembered what was behind the closed door.

*****

After dinner, Mark and Hope sat on the porch and seriously talked. Mark explained how as a young boy growing up, every time his Pa faced an outlaw, Mark had wanted to be there, by his side. He told Hope of the one time when Lucas was to face four outlaws alone, when Micah and the rest of the town was at a barn raising and there were only a few men left in town. Yet, none of the others would stand up with his Pa. He knew it was a death sentence for his Pa and Mark explained how he’d rather die, fighting next to his Pa, than live without him. “Pa told me about my growing up time and that someday, when I was grown, he looked forward to me standing there, by his side. But then wasn’t the time. When that day finally came, it wasn’t at all what I imagined. For the second time in my life, I took the life of another man. I mean, both Pa and I fired, and both our bullets struck Gannaway.

“I know I probably should have stayed in Romero for a while to recover, but I felt I had to get home to you. Then the babies came and there was just never a good time to tell you I had been shot. Giving birth to Joshua and Zachariah took so much out of you, I didn’t want you to exhaust yourself in worrying about me. You had enough to deal with; I didn’t want to add to your burden.

“But the pressure of guarding North Fork by myself while Micah and Johnny were laid up. I know I’ve done it before when they’ve been out of town. But this time it just felt… different. I guess it’s because I knew they both were recovering from multiple gunshots. And maybe I got scared in thinking that it could have been me, had I been on duty that morning.

“Then Sam arrived and presented me with the U.S. Marshal badge, I felt I wasn’t ready for it. Ever since I arrived in North Fork, I wanted to grow up to be a man, but this time, I felt I was being pushed to something I wasn’t ready for. In my talks with Tom Benton, he said my decision could wait until I turned twenty-one. Then Sam mentioned that I had been shot. I saw the look in your face and when we were at Doc’s and back at Hattie’s, I heard the hurt and anger in your voice. It struck me like a knife. I knew I had been wrong.

“I guess the final straw was when I made Gabby cry. The day I ran. At first I was looking at our wedding picture, but it hurt too much. Then I picked up my Ma’s picture and was trying to understand all my feelings. Gabby came into our room and she asked me about my Ma’s picture. Try to explain to a child, not quite three, I didn’t know how to explain ‘my’ Ma to her, she started crying. Yelling that I didn’t love Ma. Hope, I saw the looks in Ma’s and Pa’s faces as I tried to explain what had happened… I thought I had lost you and the boys. And I saw Pa, sitting there… I saw his new life. I felt as if I didn’t belong here anymore.

“It all just struck a raw nerve. Guess I let my emotions take control and like a child, I ran.

“I honestly had no idea how many days I rode up into the mountains before I came to the lake. I hadn’t even thought about where I was going, I just ran. I just wanted to be a child again. Playing hooky, no responsibilities, no one looking to Deputy or Marshal McCain. I’d hurt you and Pa, so why not run. I just wanted to be plain ole Mark McCain, who no one would care about.

“When I was riding home, I couldn’t believe I had ridden for six days to reach the mountains.”

Hope quietly sat in Mark’s arms, listening; regretting how much her actions had added to her husband’s hurt. “Mark, I’m glad you decided to come home.”

“I didn’t decide.”

Hope turned in his arms, the question was written on her face.

“I met a man named Ezekiel Desmond. He told me of his life, his struggles… Then he made me see the errors of my actions. Told of how one day, I’d wake up a lonely, old man. I realized that he was right. I didn’t want to grow old and become a bitter old man. I didn’t want my sons to grow up without a father.”

“I’d like to meet him someday and thank him,” Hope stated as she leaned back into Mark’s chest.

“That won’t be possible. I buried him up on the mountain,” Mark replied.

“How did he die?” Hope asked.

“Probably old age. He died twenty years ago, but left a journal. His last entry, it’s like he knew that someday, I’d arrive and read it. It took me ten days to read his whole journal. Maybe if I’d read the last entry first, I would have come home sooner. But, I guess for me to truly understand what was important, I had to read and understand his life. How he’d let something so small become something that prevented him from returning home. How he let God’s beauty up on the mountains become more important than the beauty of what had been his, back home. It’s only beautiful if you can share it with someone you love. I have a beautiful life, but it’s nothing if you’re not by my side. Ezekiel wrote that the first step to mend a broken fence involves just two words, but to make sure I follow up with three more words. — Hope, I’m sorry and I love you.”

*****

It was late when Hope stood to return to the house, “I need to go feed the boys one last time. You’ll be in soon?”

“I’ll check on the livestock. Hope, thank you for listening,” Mark said before he walked to the barn.

Mark bedded down the animals and gave them a bit of hay before he pulled a cot out from the corner and set it up in the barn. He’d sat down on the cot, removed his boots, and was unbuttoning his shirt when the door opened.

Surprise was written on Hope’s face when she saw what Mark was doing, “Mark?”

“Hope, I can’t expect you to take me back to your bed, not after I ran away. I have to earn that right.”

“You have that right because you’re my husband.”

“I sure didn’t act that way.”

“Mark, I’m as much at fault, I pushed you away.” Hope sat down on the cot, next to Mark. “Husband, where were you shot?”

Mark finished unbuttoning his shirt and pulled it open for her to see the faded scar at his right side, just above his belt. Hope gently ran her fingertips over the injury.

“Hope,” Mark asked. “When did you come home?”

“Four days ago. Marshal Buckhart remembered some herbal remedies a medicine man used to treat a few of the young mother’s in his tribe. It took a while for Sam and Thadd to find the herbs and work the right combination in order to help me. I was in a pretty dark place and the only light I could see was our sons. After hurting everyone, I ended up shutting everyone out. But once the medicines started working, Hattie and Lou were able to help me. Reverend and Mrs. McCafferty brought us back home. They spent the afternoon with us, especially when Ma told me that you had left North Fork and didn’t know where you were. No one had said anything to me, until then. Mark, you might feel that you have to earn the right to be my husband again, but I have to earn the right to be your wife too.

“Mark, you should also know, because of the medicines, I’m not allowed to nurse the boys. We have to bottle feed them. I guess that’s a small price to pay in order for me to be with the ones who love me.”

“How long will you have to be on the medicines?” Mark asked.

“Doc thought maybe another month before he’d consider reducing the dosage. Maybe, then, I can be taken completely off them.”

*****

Lucas and Milly were woke before sunrise the following morning by crying babies, not just Little Ted, but Joshua and Zachariah as well. Milly picked Little Ted up from his cradle and walked with Lucas to Hope and Mark’s bedroom. When they received no response to the knock, they opened the door. Both saw the bed unslept in. Lucas walked in and picked up both his grandsons, quieting them in the process.

Carrying the babies, Lucas walked from the house to the barn, after he saw the faint glow of a lit lantern inside. Milly followed. As they entered the barn, they saw Hope and Mark, sleeping on the cot, both on their sides; Hope curled up in front of Mark with his arm draped over her, holding her hand. As quietly as they arrived, they returned to the house.

While Milly held Little Ted to nurse from her breast, Lucas had laid Joshua on her lap. He continued to carry Zachariah as he prepared bottles for the boys.

The bottles were just about ready, when the front door opened. Milly looked up and Lucas turned around to see Hope and Mark sneaking in, embarrassed at being caught.

“Should I send for the marshal and report both of you for breaking and entering?” Lucas asked as he laughed. Soon, Milly, Mark, and Hope joined him. It felt good to laugh. Laughter had been missing from the house for too long.

*****

As Milly and Hope were clearing the breakfast dishes from the table, Myra asked, “When Mark come home?”

“Gabby, I’m right here.”

“No, you not Mark.”

Hope walked and sat down in Mark’s lap and wrapped her arms around his neck, “Guess I know my first order of business today, once dishes are done.”

“Oh?” Mark asked.

“Yes, you are going to get a shave and a haircut, this morning,” Hope stated as she pulled at the whiskers.

“I don’t think I’m ready to go into town just yet,” Mark answered as he grabbed Hope’s hand.

“I didn’t say anything about going into town. I think I can shave you just as good as Sam Barrows can. Besides, I’m really looking forward to my husband returning to me.”

“No more than I’m looking forward to returning to my wife.”

Lucas stood behind Milly with his arms around her waist, as she leaned back to his chest.

“I think they’re really going to be okay,” Lucas whispered.

“Yes, as long as we can protect them and give them the time and space they need to heal,” Milly whispered.

*****

Lucas was heading for the barn to start his morning chores when he saw Mark sitting on the bench outside the back door. Hope was placing a towel around his neck and starting to lather up the shaving cream. As Lucas reached the barn door, he turned and watched. Myra was sitting on the ground playing with a doll and watching. Slowly and lovingly Hope started working the straight razor to shave Mark. As the beard and mustache started to disappear, Myra called out, “Mark home! Ma, Mark home!” as she ran into the house. Another laugh escaped Lucas’ lips as he shook his head. He proceeded into the barn to work on his chores.

Milly was getting things organized in the kitchen when she heard Myra squealing that Mark was home. As Myra pulled her to the door, she arrived just in time to see Hope dump the water basin over Mark as he was wiping his face. “Hope!” Mark yelled. “I’m gonna get you! Just you wait!”

Milly laughed as she watched Mark chase after Hope and eventually catch her around the waist. As Mark pulled Hope close, he turned her around, stared into her eyes and kissed her. Hope pressed her body against Mark’s, her whole body saying she loved him.

*****

That evening, after the babies and Myra had been put to bed, Lucas pulled a box from the chest in the front room.

“Mark, Hope, I know it will take time for everything to truly get back to normal, and I believe you are on the right track. But I think with everything that happened; you’ve forgotten something.”

Lucas set the box on the table and removed the lid. Mark picked the bible up out of the box and set it on the table. Milly picked up the pen and inkwell and set them on the table. Mark opened the bible and looked to his wife. Then, underneath his and Hope’s name, noting their marriage, added:

Joshua Lucas McCain, born, July 11, 1891
Zachariah James McCain, born, and July 11, 1891

*****

Saturday morning, Lucas and Milly rode into town to do their weekly shopping at the General Store. As they were loading their supplies into the back of the buckboard, both Johnny and Micah stopped and they talked, inquiring how things were going at the ranch, how Myra and Little Ted were, and how Hope and the twins were doing.

“Any word from Mark yet?” Micah asked, genuinely concerned.

“He came back three days ago. Now wait Micah, before you say anything. He and Hope still have a lot of healing to do. This has been rough on the whole family and I’ll not have Mark pressured into returning to working as a deputy,” Lucas stated. “I overheard them talking on the porch his first night back, there’s a lot weighing on him. Just give them time to heal. Please, right now, you’re the only ones we’ve told he’s back, you can let Hattie and Lou know, but I’d like to keep it this way, until he’s ready to come to town on his own.”

Both Micah and Johnny understood and accepted what Lucas had said and asked.

*****

As Lucas and Milly started for home, Milly suggested, “Maybe we should just stay in town and give them time to heal.”

“I seem to remember the last time we gave them time to heal, I ended up with a son and two grandsons, about nine months later. We’ll go home, Mrs. McCain.”

The Next Generation… Chapter 43 – Living Life

Hope woke early Sunday morning and rolled over in bed to greet her husband, but found Mark wasn’t there. Concern grew in her heart, worrying that maybe, after she fell asleep, he’d headed out to the barn to sleep. She knew that Mark was still troubled by his departure. She opened the bedroom door and noticed the lit lantern on the front room table, turned down low, and saw Mark sitting in his chair, one son in his lap, the other, in his arms, with Mark feeding him his bottle. Hope leaned against the doorframe and watched; she listened to the conversation Mark was having…

“Zachariah and Joshua, we’re letting your ma sleep in this morning. I wanted some time alone to talk with both of you, to apologize for not being here. I really am sorry that I ran away. I just let myself get overwhelmed with everything and I forgot Pa’s number one rule, to talk, not to hide anything that’s troubling me. So I’ll make the same deal with both of you, that Pa made with me, I’ll be here to listen anytime you need to talk, you just have to remember that I’m here for you. That’s my job, at least one of them. I promise I’ll try to do as good a job in raising you as your Grandpa Lucas did in raising me. All I ask is that you don’t give me as much trouble as I gave Pa.” Mark smiled as he looked back and forth between his two sons and gave a small laugh. “You know, I seem to remember teasing Pa once about him being glad I wasn’t a twin. I pray you both aren’t my payback.”

Mark set the empty bottle down and lifted Zachariah to his shoulder and began to pat him on the back, until he heard a good burp from his son.

“Now, let’s see if I can get you both changed before your Ma wakes,” Mark stated as he picked Joshua up in his other arm.

“Too late,” Mark heard as he realized Hope was walking towards him. “Here, let me take Joshua and I’ll help you change our sons.”

“I tried to be quiet, I’m sorry if we woke you,” Mark stated as he gave Hope a good morning kiss and followed her back to their bedroom.

“You didn’t wake me. I woke by my internal ‘mother’ clock. Thank you for feeding them this morning.”

*****

Once the boys were changed, Mark left to head out to the barn to tend to chores, just as the first rays of sun started to paint the morning sky.

Mark turned the horses out into the corral and in doing so, noticed a slightly uneven step that Razor took. He walked out to his Pa’s horse and felt down Razor’s legs, picked up his hooves to see if any stone was stuck in the frog of his hoof, and checked to make sure his shoes were on securely.

“Hey there Razor,” Mark stated as he set down the last hoof and petted him on the shoulder. “No heat, no swelling, and no stone, what’s the matter boy?”

“Mark, he’s starting to show a little of his age,” Lucas stated as he stepped through the gate and came to stand beside Mark. “Remember, we’ve owned him since shortly after we arrived in North Fork and back then, he was probably five or six years old. I’ve been talking with Milly about retiring him some day. He’s been a good horse to me.”

“Retiring! But he looked fine the day I came back, he and Blue Boy and Two Bits were prancing around like colts.”

“Well I’m not retiring him right this minute, but I do need to start thinking on it. I need find a young colt I like, then I’ll need to wait for the horse to grow up before I can ride him. I just don’t want to be pushed into making a hasty choice in a horse.

“What about Blue Boy? We got him about the same time as Razor.” Mark replied.

“Blue Boy was just a colt when we got him and he’s not had a full grown man riding him his whole life. Though I don’t know, as much as you tended to race Blue Boy home from school… Mark, we just need to understand they’ve both been good horses and know that one day, they’ll be retired to an easy life.”

“Guess Razor’s coming to his ‘looking back’ years?” Mark stated as he scratched Razor above the eye.

“We all do, son.”

*****

After finishing their chores in the barn, they headed for the house. They entered to see a hearty breakfast being placed on the table. Myra was there, insisting Mark pick her up.

“Sure Gabby. Have you been helping Ma and Hope in the kitchen?”

“Uh huh.”

“That’s a good sis. Here, you sit down right here,” Mark said as he placed Myra in a chair. “Pa and I’ll be right back, we need to clean up a little bit before eating.”

Before they headed to the back door, Mark stole a kiss from Hope as she set the last dish on the table.

*****

As Hope and Milly removed the breakfast dishes from the table to the sink, Lucas sat down in his chair and pick up the bible, to read aloud.

“Mark, where are you heading?” Lucas asked as Mark put on his hat and started for the door.

“Out to hitch the team. It’s Sunday Pa. There’s one member of the McCain family who should really get to church today and was hoping the rest of the family would join him.”

Lucas closed his bible and set it down as he stood, “Are you sure you’re ready to go to town?” Mark nodded. “Then I’ll help you hitch the team.”

*****

As they rode into town, Mark knew that it would be difficult facing his friends, those that as a deputy he had been sworn to protect. Yet he also knew, the longer he put it off, the harder it would be. He thought back to the words Ezekiel had written. Mark knew, if the people of North Fork were truly his friends, they’d understand.

Before service, no one mentioned anything about why he’d left, just that it was good to see him again. Lucas placed a hand to Mark’s shoulder as they entered the church.

During service, the only possible reference being made regarding Mark’s disappearance was when towards the end of services when Reverend McCafferty commented, “It’s good to have our strays returned to the herd.”

“Reverend,” Mark spoke up. “If I may?”

Reverend McCafferty nodded. Mark walked to the front of the church, turned and faced the congregation.

“Most of you know that I’ve been away for a while. I’m not sure exactly what you were told, but I think it only right that you know the truth. The truth that I ran away. Ran away from my family, my obligations, and more importantly from the town I swore to help protect. I’m still coming to terms with my actions and how they not only affected me, but each and every person in this town. I stand in front of everyone to say that I’m sorry I failed you. I ask for your forgiveness, I promise, it won’t happen again.”

Mark walked back to his seat.

Reverend McCafferty allowed the silence to continue for a few moments, hoping that someone would speak up. When no one else did,

“Mark, you didn’t fail us. Nor did you fail yourself. If you had failed, as you think you did, you wouldn’t have come home, nor would you have stood up in front of this congregation. Not one of us present can understand all the pressures that were placed on you. Sometimes, it takes leaving those we care about the most behind, so that we can get closer to God and allow him to heal us. We’re glad you came home. And if you need someone else to talk with, our home is always open.”

Then turning to the rest of the congregation, “Stevan Griswald, I believe you have an announcement to make?”

Stevan stood and spoke, “As many of you are aware, Milly McCain has chosen to step down from her position as a full time teacher in order to devote herself to her family. But, if we need someone to tutor to any of the children, she’s agreed to help us. The town council and I have been reviewing resumes of likely candidates to replace Milly and we believe we have found one.”

The congregation started murmuring.

“Folks, rest assured, our new teacher will be welcomed warmly into North Fork and he won’t misunderstand any of our students, like I did upon my arrival. Folks, Percy Bullock will be the second teacher here in North Fork. Now we’ve corresponded with the university he’s been attending back east, and though he hasn’t completed all the requirements for graduation, he’s only lacking a few courses. The university has agreed that he can complete his studies and fulfill his testing obligations with me proctoring his tests. So I’d like everyone to welcome our newest teacher, Mr. Percy Bullock.”

Hearty congratulations were offered from those present. Shortly, services were complete and the town folks headed their respective ways.

*****

As Mark carried Joshua out, he stopped to congratulate Percy. “Never would have thought you’d come back and make North Fork your home. The way you always talked about Harvard and the big cities back east.”

“Well Father is still quite fond of the town and always writing of how he misses me. When I heard that Miss Milly would be stepping down, I thought it would be the perfect job for me. Besides, you didn’t do too shabby of a job in working as a student teacher. And I thought, if Mark McCain can do that, then I can be a teacher.” Before continuing, he opened the blanket and took a good peek at Mark’s son. “Mark, have you given any thought about returning and helping out at the school?”

“I won’t be returning to the school. That’s one of the things I got to thinking on, once I returned home. Pa and I agreed that I was just trying to do too much. Be everything to everybody. Now with me being a father, I realize that I needed to give something up. I talked with Ma and she spoke with Mr. Griswald when she and Pa were in town yesterday. But if your students ever get too rowdy, I have a sure fire way to bring them back under control.”

“Care to let me in on your secret? I seem to remember all the trouble you used to cause….”

“Yeah, it’s called me being a deputy; well I do need to talk with Micah and Johnny to make sure I still do have that job. Otherwise, I can put them to hard labor out on the ranch with Pa and me.”

“Good luck Mark!” Percy said as he shook Mark’s hand.

*****

As the rest of the McCain family left the church to walk to the hotel for lunch at the restaurant, Mark handed Joshua to Lucas and said, “I’ll be right back.” He called over to Micah and Johnny.

Lucas watched as they talked, then saw Micah motion for Mark to lead the way as they headed to the Marshal’s Office.

“Micah, Johnny,” Mark said as he entered and removed his hat, waiting for them to take a seat.

“Have a seat, Mark,” Johnny said.

“No sir, not yet, at least. Pa always said that when an apology needed to be made, it should be made standing up. Shows respect to the person you’re apologizing too.”

“Apology Mark?” Micah asked.

“Yes sir. To you and Johnny, both. I’m sorry about my actions. You left North Fork as my responsibility and I ended up running away. I know you might not want me back as a deputy, but I did want you to know how sorry I am. You counted on me and…”

“Mark, I would say there’s no need for an apology, but I know that would be disrespectful towards you. But apologies go both ways.” Micah said as he stood to come around to the front of his desk. “Mark, Johnny and I been talking since your Pa said you returned. He didn’t tell us everything, but he did say you had a lot weighing you down. We got to thinking, with everything happening so quickly, no one had the chance to talk with you about your feelings in seeing the two of us shot. Then you headed out after Gannaway and ended up being wounded in the process. Then the night you returned, your boys were born. We should have asked you to step down for a while, too. Give you time to heal and time to deal with and come to terms everything that happened.”

“Micah, I…”

“Mark, you’ve been doing such a great job, that we forgot the fact that you are just coming a full grown man. Your heart’s not hardened to the world like ours are. I spoke with Tom Benton and he’s agreed to not push the issue of you becoming a U.S. Marshal until after you turn twenty-one. More importantly, until after you think you’re ready. Johnny and I, well, we want you to know that your deputy badge will be waiting for you, when you’re ready to become our deputy again.”

“I appreciate that Micah, I really do.”

“We promised your Pa we wouldn’t push you to pick up the badge,” Johnny stated. “You finish healing and thinking, then you come back to town when you’re ready, and not until then.”

“If you don’t mind,” Mark stated. “I think I’d like to wear my badge starting today.”

Micah walked back to the other side of his desk, opened a drawer and pulled out Mark’s badge. Johnny stood, as Micah pinned the badge to Mark’s shirt.

“Looks just as good as ever on you boy,” Johnny stated.

“But, I’ll not have you stand duty for another week. And those are MY orders. You got some talking and understanding to do still. Now, let’s head on over to the restaurant,” Micah said. “Our families are waiting for us.”

As the three entered the restaurant, they saw their families sitting around one very large table. As each member turned and watched Mark enter, walking in between Micah and Johnny, everyone smiled as they saw the badge pinned to his shirt.

Everyone enjoyed a good lunch, good company, and good conversation. Afterwards, as Lucas was helping to load his family in the buckboard, Mark told him he’d be right back. Lucas watched as Mark ran after Hattie and Micah. He knew the conversation Mark was having, thanking them for caring for his family. Hattie gave one of her, “it was nothing” flourishes with her hands and then pulled Mark into a big hug. She pushed him back and then motioned for him to return to his family.

*****

Mark returned to stand his first shift as deputy. As he walked the streets of North Fork, most all the shop keepers came out and welcomed him back. The last stop of his rounds was the train station, he found Percy Bullock anxiously pacing back and forth, waiting.

“Percy, what’s wrong? Never seen you this nervous before.” Mark stated.

“Tessa and Mabra are coming in the train this morning,” Percy stated as he kept looking down the line.

“Tessa and Mabra?” Mark asked.

“Oh, yeah, uh, you see, uh… I, uh”

“Gee Percy, if I didn’t know you better… Why Percy, why didn’t you tell us you been a courting a young gal? But two of them?” Mark asked as he slapped Percy on the back.

“Well, it weren’t exactly courting, but now that they’re moving here, guess we could be courting. I mean, Tessa. Mabra is Tessa’s sister, she’s her legal guardian. So she has to come along.”

“Percy, I think you need to take a deep breath. Which one have you been seeing and which one’s the legal guardian?

“Not making much sense, am I? Anyway, I been seeing Tessa for almost a year, and she’s the legal guardian of her younger sister, Mabra. Their parents were on vacation a few years back, when the clipper ship they were sailing on went down in a storm. The girls were staying with friends at the time. Seeing as I’m going to be the new teacher in North Fork, I wired Tessa and asked if she’d join me. I got a room set up for them at the boarding house already. I just hope they like living here.”

“Percy, just coming this far to see you, must mean she’s something special. I’m sure they’ll enjoy living here.”

“Mark, do you have to head back to the Marshal’s Office right away? Can you stay until they arrive?” Percy asked, quite nervously.

“Sure Percy.”

They only had to wait a few more minutes before the train pulled up to the platform. Percy saw Tessa and Mabra step down from the train, he ran to greet them and get their bags. Mark watched as Percy escorted the sisters to where he stood.

Tessa was a very pretty young lady, with long blonde tresses. Her sister, Mabra, was pretty as well, but her hair wasn’t as blonde as her sisters. Regardless, one could see the family resemblance in their faces.

“Tessa and Mabra, I’d like to introduce you to one of my best friends, Deputy Mark McCain. Mark, this is Tessa O’Brien and her sister, Mabra, of Cambridge, Massachusetts.”

As pleasantries were exchanged, Mark heard a light British accent in both the girls’ voices. Afterwards, he helped Percy carry the girls’ luggage to the boarding house.

“Percy, Ladies, it was a pleasure, but I do need to return to the Marshal’s. I’ll see you around town,” Mark stated as he tipped his hand and left.

*****

Mark was about to enter the Marshal’s Office when Amos called his name. “Mark, I got a letter for you. Post marked from the U.S. Marshal’s Office in Denver.”

Mark accepted the letter and looked into the office, “Micah, I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

“Take your time boy,” Micah replied as he stood and walked to the door. Watching as Mark walked across the street and went into the livery.

Nils wasn’t inside, so Mark climbed up into the hayloft before opening the envelope to read the letter.

“Dear Mark,

I’m glad to hear you returned home. I’m sorry that we put so much pressure on you to accept the badge. It’s just that we need men like you. I know I promised Marshal Torrance, we’d not pressure you into accepting the badge until after you turned twenty-one, but, you should know, you already are a U.S. Marshal. We never rescinded your designation from your trip to Romero. When and where you choose to wear the badge is your decision. We won’t make any official requests of you unless there is no other choice. However, you should look forward to receiving monthly briefings from the main office here in Denver.

I also understand congratulations are in order. Twins! What I wouldn’t have given to seen the look on your Pa’s face. I still can’t get over it, Grandpa Lucas!

God Bless,

Tom Benton
U.S. Marshal”

Mark had just finished re-reading the letter when he heard his Pa’s voice calling from the doorway.

“Up here Pa,” Mark called.

Lucas walked to the ladder and climbed up.

“Micah said you received a letter from Denver. Are you okay?”

“Yeah Pa. I’m fine.”

“Who was it from?”

“Your old friend Tom Benton. Seems I’m still considered a U.S. Marshal. Guess once a marshal, always a marshal.” Mark handed the letter to Lucas.

After finishing reading the letter, Lucas handed it back to Mark. “Do you need to talk?”

“No Pa, honestly, when Amos handed me the letter and said it was from Denver, I got all nervous and scared. But now, after reading the letter, I can accept the fact. I mean, if Marshal Benton or Marshal Barker were to show up tomorrow and need my help, as a U.S. Marshal, I’d gladly do it. It doesn’t scare me anymore.”

Mark folded the letter and put it in his back pocket as he stood and walked to the ladder.

“So what brought you to town?”

“Wanted Nils to sharpen the saw blades. You didn’t bring them to town with you yesterday.”

“Sorry, guess with it being my first day back on the job, I kinda forgot about them.”

“Ya think?”

Mark looked to his Pa, saw the gleam in his eyes and remembered back on some of the times when he was younger and he had forgot to do something his Pa had requested of him.

*****

Mark returned home, the next morning, after finishing his shift in town. After greeting his Ma and his wife, and helping Hope feed the boys their bottles and changing them, he headed out to the range to help his Pa check the cattle. Mark crested the ridge when he saw his Pa arrive at a mud hole and saw a couple of their cows bogged down. He heeled Blue Boy’s flanks and ran him down the rise, pulling up next to Lucas.

Both had lariats in hand and set them sailing towards their respective cows. Then tied the lassoes around their saddle horns, both kneed their horses to start putting tension on the ropes to pull the cows out. Once both cows were out of the bog, Mark stepped down and walked to the cow he had roped and removed the lasso, then swatted the cow on the rump to get her moving. Then he walked to the cow his Pa had roped, removed the lasso and swatted that cow on the rump to get her moving as well. Evidently, the swat startled the cow and she threw her haunches right towards Mark, pushing him backwards into the mud bog, landing with the plop, before the cow ran away.

Laughingly, Lucas stated, “Well son, I’m glad it was you and not me.”

“Gee, Pa, you’re all heart,” Mark stated as he pulled himself up and tried to fling the mud off himself. “Well, guess I get to make a trip to the pond to clean me and my clothes up. You tell Ma and Hope, I’ll be home a little later?”

“Sure son, I’ll tell them,” Lucas stated, still laughing as he and Mark headed in different directions.

*****

Mark arrived at the pond and stripped his saddle from Blue Boy. “We’re going to be here for a little while Boy, no sense you keeping the saddle on.” He walked his horse over to the grassy area and hobbled him. Then Mark returned and pulled a rag from his saddle bag, wet it down and then wiped down his saddle; trying to get all the mud off it. Next, he sat down next to the pond, removing his hat and boots. Mark walked out into the pond and when the water was almost to his hips, he dove in, clothes and all. He treaded water for a few moments and saw the mud start to float away from his clothes. He dove under the water, swam a short distance before broke surface. Mark swam towards the shore and when he got close enough he started walking out of the pond.

As he reached the bank, he heard the sounds of a horse approaching. Cautiously, he walked to his saddle and picked up his rifle. Soon, from the trees and bushes, he heard Hope call his name. He put his rifle back in its scabbard and walked over to Two-Bits and helped his wife down from the saddle.

“This is a surprise,” Mark stated as Hope turned to him.

“I thought so. Pa told us what happened and that you’d be here. They said they could watch the boys for a while to give us some time together,” Hope stated.

Mark removed Two-Bits saddle and led the mare out to where he had Blue Boy hobbled and hobbled her too.

As Hope looked at Mark walking back towards her, she still saw the evidence of his mud bath. “Here, change into these and we can clean your clothes and then spend some time together.”

Mark took the clothes Hope handed him and held them up to look at. “And just what is this?”

“Mark, according to Miss Hattie, it’s the latest in swimsuits for men,” Hope stated as she started to undress, showing she was wearing the latest ladies swimsuit.

“I don’t know,” Mark stated. “It looks worse than that jacket Hattie tried to get Pa to buy for me.” Mark shivered and laughed at the memory. “We’re on McCain property, why do I need a swimsuit?”

“Because I bought it for you. Besides, you don’t know who just might happen along. Please Mark, for me?” Hope asked, with a coy look and smile on her face.

Mark carried the swimsuit and headed back into the pond, diving in and swimming. Mark unbuttoned his shirt and threw it back to the bank, next came his pants. Hope gathered his clothing, and watched as Mark pulled on the swimsuit. She walked into the pond and started scrubbing his clothes; until she was satisfied she got as much of the mud out as possible. Then she carried the clothes and hung them on a tree branch, to dry in the sun and breeze.

Hope returned to the pond and enjoyed swimming with and splashing water at her husband. They enjoyed treading water and kissing. They shared a wonderful few hours, without any worries or cares.

After finishing their swim, Hope returned to the shore and retrieved her clothes that she had hung on a tree branch and then headed to behind several large bushes to change. As she walked, she called to Mark that he had a fresh change of clothes in her saddle bag.

As Hope came out from behind the bushes, fully dressed, Mark started to ask, “If you brought me clean clothes, then why… Never mind, I enjoyed our afternoon together. Let me get changed.”

They saddled their horses, “Come on, let’s go home,” Mark stated as he helped Hope get up in the saddle.

“Mark, I know you have a dream of a home for us, but I was wondering…”

“Go on.”

“Mark, your parents so much enjoy having us at the house, I was wondering, should we move the location of where you wanted to build? I share your dream in wanting our own home, but I don’t want to be too far from your parents. Why couldn’t we build our home right next to theirs? I mean there’s plenty of good flat land and it wouldn’t take any extra work to prepare the land so that we could build. Besides, I like the idea of having Ma so close by. Then, they could split our room into two bedrooms, one for Myra and one for Little Ted.”

“Guess I should try to discuss this with Pa again. If we really are going to build our own home, we probably should get it done before Micah retires. I know he’s wanting to step down. He’s leaving more and more of the work to Johnny and me.”

*****

After supper and the children were put to bed that night, Lucas, Milly, Mark and Hope sat out on the porch.

“Pa, Ma, Hope and I would like to talk with both of you about building our own home. Now I know both of you really want us to stay here, but it’s getting a little impractical. Hope and I talked on the way home this afternoon and we’ve agreed that we should change the location of where I originally wanted to build. We’d like to build just over there. Hope’s right. We both want to stay close to here, so you’ll be real close as the boy’s are growing up.” Mark hesitated; he looked back and forth from his Pa to his Ma. “I mean, you both should have your own bedroom and Gabby’s going to be three this winter and… Well, it just makes better sense.”

“You both have put a lot of thought into this?” Lucas asked.

“Yes sir,” Hope replied. “We want to live close, but both our families need their own places as they grow.”

“Hope, you’re not saying you’re expecting again?” Milly asked, quite concerned.

“No Ma, but that doesn’t mean in the future Mark and I won’t have more children and this would also give you and Pa room for more children, if the Good Lord sees fit,” Hope answered.

“Okay, but on one condition Mark, while your home is under construction, you’ll tell Micah and Johnny that you won’t be able to stand any shifts. We’ll do what’s needed here, at the ranch, but I’ll not have you burning both ends of the candle, so to speak.”

*****

When word got around that Mark and Hope were to start construction on a home of their own, many of the town’s folks and ranchers arrived at the lumber yard offering assistance. The women came along to feed and water the workers and tend to any ‘accidents or injuries’. All in all, the whole town was treating the home building just like a good old fashioned barn raising.

With everyone taking turns in helping, it only took three weeks to build their home. The two most difficult parts were building the fireplace and then setting the rafters and roof. The worst injuries were bashed thumbs and bruised egos from dropping lumber on one’s foot or some other part of their body.

Finally the day came when Mark carried Hope over the thresh hold, into their new home.

“Now Mrs. McCain, what do you think of your new home?” Mark asked as he set her down to her feet.

“It’s wonderful, just like Pa and Ma’s, but it’s ours. We just need to furnish it.”

“Well, while you feed the boys, Pa and I can move the cradles, our bed, the dressers, and the chest over here. So we just have to…” Mark said.

“Furnish everything else,” Hope stated as she stood to her tiptoes and kissed Mark.

“I’m sure Mrs. Donner has catalogs that we can order whatever it is you need to finish making this house, our home.”

“Mark, it’s already home. Where ever you and the boys are, is home for me.”

“So, are you two up to some company?” Lucas asked as he and Milly stood in the doorway.

“Only if you don’t expect me to serve you supper tonight. Seems we have a lot to purchase before we can properly ‘host’ any family get together,” Hope replied.

“Well,” Milly stated. “Let me offer you a house warming gift.” Milly handed the simply wrapped gift to Hope. She unwrapped the present to find a needlepoint, Home is Where the Heart Is, picture. Just like the one that hung in their old home. Only this one also had their names embroidered at the bottom.

“Ma, it’s beautiful. It’s perfect!” Hope exclaimed. She handed the picture to Mark and asked that he set it on the mantle to the fireplace.

Later that evening, after the twins were fed, changed, and put to bed, Mark asked, “Well Mrs. McCain, are you ready to go to sleep for the first time in your own home?” Mark bent over and picked Hope up and carried her to their bedroom.

*****

Mark and Hope spent the following afternoon at the general store ordering items to finish furnishing their home. Before they left, they purchased items that were in stock and loaded them in the buckboard for the trip home.

When they arrived home, Hattie and Micah were waiting for them on the front porch of their home. Both smiling as they watched Mark assist Hope down from the buckboard. Lucas and Milly exited their home, carrying Joshua and Zachariah.

“Mark and Hope, we didn’t think you’d mind if we brought over a housewarming gift for you. Your Pa and Ma said we could take it inside.”

Micah opened the door and allowed the McCain’s inside.

“Oh Hattie!” Hope squealed. “They’re beautiful! I love the curtains. Thank you so much!” Hope walked from window to window, admiring the fabric and the detail sewn into each curtain.

*****

Mark was starting his evening rounds when he encountered Percy, Tessa, and Mabra coming out of the Lou’s. Asking how the girls had settled into life in North Fork.

“Deputy, it’s such a quaint town,” Tessa stated. “I could really love living here.”

“Tessa, please, just call me Mark, you too Mabra.” Then talking to Mabra, “How are you enjoying school?”

“I like Mr. Griswald a lot. Just glad that Percy isn’t my teacher,” she answered as she looked over her shoulder. Percy, Tessa, and Mark laughed at her answer.

“I understand. I remember when Ma came to town and I’d heard she’d been a school teacher before.”

“Your Ma came to town?” Mabra asked, not understanding.

“Mabra!” Tessa exclaimed.

“It’s okay Tessa. See, Mabra, I lost my real Ma when I was six. Pa and Miss Milly used to see each other before she left town. Then she came back after, well, that’s a long story. Anyway they’ve been married for almost four years. So yeah, I can understand how you wouldn’t want someone you really knew to be your teacher. By the way, if you don’t have plans this weekend, Pa and Ma asked me to invite you out to the ranch for supper on Saturday.”

“Could we Percy?” Mabra excitedly asked. “Oh, please. I want to see a real working ranch.”

“Mabra, our ranch isn’t that all that exciting, not like Oat Jackford’s or Dave Merar’s, but it is home. Tell you what, you bring a change of clothes out and we’ll take you on a ride and show you some of the ranch. That is if your sister and Percy say it’s alright.”

“Oh, please sis. I’d give anything to go horseback riding. Please?” Mabra pleaded.

“Mark, if you’re sure she’ll be okay and it’s no trouble…” Tessa stated.

‘It’s no trouble. I’ll let Ma and Pa know you’ll all be out. Say around three o’clock? Good.” Mark said goodbye and tipped his hat, as he walked away. ”Oh, Percy, let your father know that he’s invited too.”

*****

Saturday morning, Lucas and Mark, and a few others waited at the train station. Some of the items they had ordered were arriving today. The heaviest was the stove for the kitchen and a wood burning stove for their bedroom.

They had just finished installing both of the stoves, just before their guests arrived Saturday afternoon. Mark suggested his Pa take everyone out for a ride to show them some of the ranch. Mark felt he probably should stay close to home and get some of his chores done. “About time Pa should have a little fun,” Mark commented as he watched Lucas ride out with Tessa on Two-Bits and Mabra on Blue Boy. Percy and his Father had brought their own riding horses.

Mark set to chopping wood, with Myra watching. “So Gabby, how do you enjoy sleeping in your own bedroom?”

“It big,” she answered and Mark laughed.

*****

By the time everyone returned to the house, Milly and Hope announced that supper would be ready after everyone tended to their horses and then got washed up.

Conversations ranged from school, to back east, to out riding for the afternoon, and the babies and Myra. The evening concluded with the McCain’s waving goodbye and then saying goodnight to each other.

*****

Not quite two weeks later, Mark was changing Zachariah when he noticed the first signs of the rash and red blotches over his son’s chest and back. He pulled Joshua from his cradle and checked him over to find he too and a rash on his chest and back.

“Hope, the boys have some kind of a rash, when did this start?” Mark called from the bedroom.

“They were fine earlier,” Hope replied as she stepped to the bedroom and checked over her sons.

“Should we take them to Doc Burrage?” Hope inquired.

“I don’t know.” Mark stated, worried.

There was a quick knock on the door before it opened and they heard Lucas call their names.

“In here Pa,” Mark replied.

“How are the twins?” Lucas asked.

“They both have a rash of some kind,” Hope answered.

“Thought as much. Little Ted and Myra do as well. I was in North Fork earlier today and heard there’s a small epidemic of chicken pox spreading around. I asked Doc about the boys being so young and how we should treat them. He suggested wrapping their hands so they can’t scratch themselves and create any sores. If it starts to turn into blisters, we’re to create an oatmeal paste and rub it over the rash area. The oatmeal will help reduce the itching. Just keep an eye on their temperature or if they get any diarrhea, then we need to get them to town.”

“How did they get it, they’ve not been in town for a few weeks?” Mark asked.

“There’s a new family that moved to North Fork a few weeks back and their children contracted it first, then spread it through the school. Percy said Mabra came down with it the other day, so I presume she was in the contagious and incubation stage when she was here,” Lucas stated.

“Hope, this is a normal childhood illness. Better to get it over with at an earlier age than later.” Lucas said as he saw the concerned look on Hope’s face.

“Pa, I’m sorry, I hadn’t heard anything about it,” Mark stated as he prepared to start wrapping the boys’ hands.

“Mark, it just started and there’s nothing to worry about. It’ll run its course in about a week. You want me to send Milly over?”

“No Pa,” Hope stated. “She’ll have her hands full with Myra and Little Ted.”

*****

Two days later, Hope woke to find Mark out working on chores. She didn’t feel well. She felt hot, nauseated, and she itched.

Mark entered their home carrying an armload of firewood, saw his wife leaning up against the doorframe from their bedroom, and realized immediately that something wasn’t right.

“Hope?” Mark called as he dropped the firewood in the wood bin then rushed to his wife. He collected her up in his arms as she said, “Mark, I don’t feel good.”

“Let’s get you back to bed.” Mark carried Hope back to bed. He could tell she was running a fever by how flushed her face looked and the heat he felt from her body as he carried her back to bed. Mark filled the pitcher with water and poured it into the basin, then wet a cloth and placed it over Hope’s forehead. As he rolled up her sleeves and checked over her arms and then unbuttoned the top of her nightgown, he saw the tale tell signs, Hope had contracted chicken pox.

“No Hope, you can’t scratch. You’ll make it worse,” Mark begged as he tried to keep her from scratching at her arms.

“It itches. I’m so hot.” Hope moaned.

“I know, but you need to keep under the blankets and please, don’t scratch.”

Mark removed the towel from Hope’s forehead and wet it again before replacing it.

“Hope, please just lie still and try to sleep. I’ll go take care of the boys.”

Mark left the bedroom and started to make the bottles for his sons. He heard them crying for the morning and then heard a thud from the bedroom. He ran in to find Hope lying on the floor.

“Hope! Please, you have to stay in bed,” Mark pleaded.

“Mark, the boys, I need to feed the boys,” Hope stated, before she started dry heaving. Mark supported Hope and tried to talk soothing words to her. Hope stopped drying heaving, but started shivering as Mark lifted her back to bed.

“Hope, just stay in bed. I can take care of the boys.” Mark said as he pulled the covers back over Hope. “Just stay put!” he pleaded as replaced the wet towel over Hope’s forehead.

By the time Mark got both bottles ready, both boys were really crying. He knelt at the head of their cradles and attempted to bottle feed both boys at the same time. Wishing he could keep them quiet enough that Hope would sleep. As he looked over to his wife, he noticed her scratching at her arms. Once the boys were finished with their bottles, Mark pulled out the first aid kit and began to wrap Hope’s hands into fists.

Next, Mark started changing the diapers for the boys. Noticing the rashes looked worse, Mark remembered the oatmeal. He was heating up some oatmeal to use to stop the itching when he heard a knock at the door. “Come in!” he called as he carried the pot to the sink and sat it in cold water to cool the oatmeal down before applying it.

“Mark, how are…” Milly started to ask.

“Ma, please! Pa’s got to get Doc Burrage. Hope’s got the chicken pox. She’s running a fever and she’s been dry heaving!”

Hearing the fear in Mark’s voice, Milly ran back to the barn and stopped Lucas just as he was heading out on Razor.

*****

It was several hours before Lucas returned with Doc Burrage. He immediately began examining Hope.

“Mark, Hope’s in a bad way. Chicken pox in adults is harder on the adults than it would be as a child contracting it. Most parents choose to expose their children, to get it over with.” Thadd stated.

“Doc, Hope spent six years with the Kiowa. I know there are a lot of white man diseases that the Indian don’t have any resistance to and it can be deadly to them. I don’t think the Indians would go out of their way to expose a child to a white man’s disease,” Lucas stated from the doorway.

“I forgot that part of Hope’s past. Mark, you did right in wrapping her hands and I see you already started the oatmeal paste. We need to keep her covered. She’s sweating from the fever, but if we don’t keep her blanketed, she could take a chill and that… Just keep her in bed and covered, Mark. We also need to keep her hydrated. Right now, the fever’s dehydrating her. Whenever she wakes; make her drink, plenty of water or even broth would help keep her strength up,” Thadd stated.

“But Doc, she’s already been heaving, what if she can’t keep it down?” worry was evident in Mark’s face and voice.

“Mark, we just have to keep trying. Keep the compress on her forehead; it will help with the headache that she’s probably experiencing too.”

Thadd stepped to examine Joshua and Zachariah. “Mark the boys look to be doing fine. Probably another three or four days and they should be over it. Be thankful they’re so young. It’s easier to keep the really young ones quiet so the disease can run its course.”

As Doc finished speaking, Hope threw back the covers and tried to get out of bed. Mark was able to stop her.

“The boys, I need to take care of my sons,” Hope pleaded.

“Hope, Doc is here, we can take care of them,” Mark stated as he pushed Hope back down in the bed.

“Doc?” Mark pleaded.

Doc came back to Hope and pulled out the thermometer and placed it in her mouth, waited a few minutes. “Too high. Mark, I really don’t want to, but in her condition, we need to keep her quiet and that means laudanum. Each time she wakes, give her one tablespoon full, but only after you make her drink some fluids. Hopefully by giving her the laudanum, she’ll sleep and keep the fluids down.”

Doc Burrage wiped his instruments down with alcohol before placing them back in his bag. “Mark, I’m sorry there’s really nothing more that can be done right now. We just have to let this run its course. If need be, put the oatmeal paste on thicker. But have Milly help you sponge bathe her daily before putting more on. Mark, I will let you know, her rash will probably change over to blisters soon, but if they start oozing puss, have your Pa come get me immediately!”

“Yes sir,” Mark said as he sat down on the edge of the bed.

For the next five days and nights, Mark got little sleep, between caring for his sons and his wife, but more importantly, worrying about Hope. He’d overheard Thadd talking to his parents in the front room. Medical literature indicated that adults could die from complications caused by the chicken pox virus.

Hope couldn’t keep anything down. The laudanum, milk, broth, water, it didn’t matter what they tried. Mark spent day and night tending to his family. He could see the fever wasting his wife away.

*****

Doc Burrage stopped by on the seventh day after the children had contracted the chicken pox. All four children were given a clean bill of health by Thadd. They still needed to be kept quiet, but the worst was over, for them. He checked Hope again, but kept his worries to himself. Right now, Hope’s recovery was between her and God.

“Mark, just keep doing what you’ve been doing. You’re doing everything right. This disease is more difficult on adults. I know I don’t need to suggest that you pray for her. I’m sure you’ve been praying every minute,” Thadd stated.

Mark nodded.

After Thadd left, Milly suggested in moving the twins to their place, in order to take some of the burden off Mark.

“Ma, no. They’re my sons. Others have taken care of my family when I should have been home, I’ll not have others take care of them while I’m here!” Mark demanded.

Lucas and Milly could both hear the worry and exhaustion in his voice. Lucas replied, “No Mark, this time it’s different. You’re wearing yourself out with worry.”

“You don’t think I can take care of my family?!” Mark demanded back, hurt.

“No Mark. No one thinks that, but we do think that you’re neglecting yourself in trying to take care of all three. Mark,” Lucas stated as he put a hand on Mark’s shoulder. “We are family and this is what family does, we help out when needed. You need to sleep and eat properly. Your Ma and I both know you’ve not done much of either since Hope took ill. It’s settled. You WILL eat and sleep and the twins will live with us until Hope’s recovered.

“If she does…” Mark quietly said.

“Mark?!” Milly exclaimed, shocked.

“I heard Doc Burrage talking to you the other day. I know there’s a chance. Pa, I’ve been praying to God to make her better. She just keeps getting worse. Pa, I…” Mark couldn’t continue, he broke down in tears. Through his crying Mark stated, “I can’t imagine life without her.”

For the next three days, Milly fixed meals for Mark and Lucas didn’t leave until he knew Mark had eaten every bite. There wasn’t much either of them could do about Mark not sleeping, but at least they could make sure he wasn’t going to waste away.

When Hope would wake, Mark still continued to try to get her to drink some water or warm broth, mixed with Laudanum. She’d become so weak that he had to help raise her head so she could drink. He set the glass to the side table and prepared to pick up the bucket, as was routine. This time, it was different. Hope laid back and fell asleep. Later that evening, Hope woke again. Mark offered her some broth and she drank a whole glassful. Soon, Hope was asleep again.

The following morning, Milly arrived to help Mark. Mark was so exhausted he didn’t hear Milly’s words at first. “Mark, the blisters, they’re looking different today.”

After Milly said her statement for the third time, Mark looked. They were different, they were drying up. Again, after bathing Hope, they applied the oatmeal paste to the blisters and then dressed Hope in a clean nightgown. As was Milly’s routine, she boiled the old nightgown in a large pot on the stove before taking it for laundering.

When Lucas returned with Mark’s lunch, he found a relieved sight; Mark was sleeping in his chair in the front room, a Bible on his chest. He set the tray on the front room table and stepped to the bedroom door, and he saw Hope’s eyes open and saw her mouth, “Pa?”

Lucas walked into the bedroom, he whispered as he sat on the edge of the bed, “Hope, how are you feeling?”

“Thirsty,” she quietly replied.

“There’s some broth warmed on the stove, would you like some?”

Hope nodded.

Lucas helped his daughter-in-law drink the glass of broth and he laid her head back to the pillow.

“More?” she whispered.

Lucas finished holding a second glass for Hope when Milly entered the house and came to the bedroom. She saw Lucas setting the glass to the side table and saw Hope awake, and able to weakly smile.

“Milly, she’s drank two full glasses of broth. I think I’m going to ride into town and fetch Doc Burrage. Let Mark sleep himself out. We’ll wake him, if he’s not already awake, once Doc’s had a chance to examine Hope.”

“The twins?” Hope hoarsely whispered.

“There fine, no worse for wear. We took them to our place once they were recovered. Mark was wearing himself out taking care of the three of you,” Milly stated quietly.

“Mark?” Hope asked.

“He’s so exhausted; he finally fell asleep in the front room. Hope, he’s not left your side since you took ill.”

Hope closed her eyes and fell asleep. When next she woke, she saw Doc Burrage pulling his stethoscope from her chest.

“Good afternoon Hope,” Doc stated. “I’ve got good news. You’re finally getting over the chicken pox. You’re fever is gone and from what Lucas said, you’ve started keeping some broth down.”

“Could I have some more?” she asked.

Doc smiled and said “Sure.” Then turning to Milly, “Would you get her some broth?” Then back to Hope, “I want you to drink as much broth as you can over the next few days. You’ve been quite ill and it will take a while before you can eat solid foods again. The broth will start to help you get your strength back, but it’s going to take a few weeks before you’ll be able to get out of bed on your own. So while you are recovering, you will let Milly and Lucas tend to the twins and let Mark tend to you. That is if he decides to wake up,” Doc laughed as he placed his instruments back in his bag.

Milly asked Doc, “How are the other children in town doing?”

“The last few are recovering. Though school will still be closed for another week, just to give all the children time to completely recover,” Thadd stated.

*****

Milly had just closed the front door when Mark woke. Startled, he called, “Ma!”

“It’s alright Mark. Doc Burrage just left.”

“Doc Burrage?!” Mark jumped from his chair and started to the bedroom, only to be stopped by Lucas.

“Son, she’s okay. I brought your lunch over, found you sleeping, dead to the world. But Hope was awake and thirsty. I rode for the doctor. He said Hope was over the worst. Now, you go outside and wash up. I want you looking a little better than you currently do when you go in and see Hope. MY orders Mark.”

Mark obeyed his Pa. It also gave him a few moments to thank God for answering his prayers.

*****

Hope did recover and her recovery was helped along by the fact that when they felt she was strong enough, Milly brought the twins over so Hope could feed them their bottles. Then she’d watch them sleep throughout the day, until they woke for their next bottle. Of an evening, Milly and Lucas would take them to their home for the night.

*****

For the past week, Mark had felt comfortable enough to leave Hope to stand his daytime shifts at the Marshal’s Office, knowing Hope was out of danger and everything was going to be all right.

It was the third week since Doc said she was recovering and she hated just lying in bed. She pleaded for Mark to allow her to walk to the porch and sit in the chair and enjoy some fresh air. Mark finally gave into Hope. But he insisted in carrying her to the porch and sitting her in her rocker. Next, he carried one of their sons to Hope, then returned for his cradle and set it on the porch, then put their son in his cradle. Then he repeated it for their other son.

As Mark was chopping some wood, Myra ran over to Hope. He saw Hope pick Myra up and set her on her lap. The look in Hope’s eyes told Mark “NO! I can do this.” Mark smiled as he watched his sister and wife talking. He returned to his chore.

 

This story continues in The Rifleman – The Next Generation Pt 5

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