The Rifleman – The Next Generation Pt 9 (by BluewindFarm)

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

Category:  The Rifleman
Genre:  Western
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  19,900


The Next Generation… Chapter 52 – The Truth

Summer was in full swing and the temperatures were hotter than normal for the beginning of August. Mark returned home from standing his shift as a deputy to find Myra sitting on the front porch, chin on her hands and her elbows on her knees.

“Hi there Gabby!” Mark called as he stepped down from Copper.

Myra looked up but didn’t answer.

“Oh, no welcome home for your big brother? What’s the matter?” Mark asked as he removed his hat, wiped his brow, and sat down on the porch next to his sister.

“You and Papa and Hope get to have all the fun.”

“Fun?”

“Yes, fun!” Myra stated as she pouted harder.

“What kind of fun do we get to have that you don’t?”

“You get to ride horses. Why can’t I have a horse of my own?”

“Well… First off, you’ve not been taught how to ride,” Mark answered.

“Then teach me! Papa and Mama said you were a student teacher and if I asked you, you might help me learn.”

“Were they talking about riding or about your studies?” Mark asked as he smiled at his sister’s problem.

“But it’s just not fair!” Myra stated as she raised her head from her hands and stomped a foot.

“Gabby, let me talk with Ma and Pa, and if they say it’s okay, I’ll start teaching you how to ride.”

“On Copper?”

“No, on Blue Boy.”

“Will you promise?”

“Only if Ma and Pa say it’s okay. But you have to keep up with the studies that Ma and Hope have given you and you have to continue to be a good girl.”

“Oh please…”

“If Ma and Pa say yes, and if you promise to be good, then I’ll promise to teach you to ride.”

Myra jumped to her feet and wrapped her arms around Mark’s neck. “I promise I’ll do whatever you say. I’ll be a good girl. Can we ask them now?”

“No, right now, I want to see Hope and your nephews. I’ll come over after supper tonight,” Mark answered.

*****

Later that night, after Hope had put the boys to bed for the night, Mark returned to his parents’ home. He knocked before entering.

“We’ve been expecting you Mark,” Lucas stated as he looked up from reading his bible.

“Oh?”

“Yes, seems your sister says you have something very important to ask us, but she won’t tell us what.”

Mark saw Myra peeking out the door from her bedroom. He motioned with his index finger for her to come to him.

“So Gabby, I hear that you already told Pa?”

“No, I didn’t tell them that you were going to ask permission to…” Myra smacked her hand over her mouth and with the expression on her face Mark couldn’t help laughing, as he picked her up.

“And just what trouble are you two getting into?” Milly asked as she came into the room from making sure Little Ted was asleep in bed.

“It’s not trouble, but I told Gabby that we had to ask your permission and there were a few other things she had to agree to,” Mark answered as he handed Myra to his Ma.

“Young lady, it is well past your bedtime,” Milly stated as she started to carry Myra to bed.

“But I just got to know the answer. Please?” Myra pleaded.

Milly looked at Lucas and then to Mark.

“Gabby wants to learn how to ride a horse. I told her you both had to say yes,” Mark stated as he looked to both his parents.

“And I have to continue with my studies from Ma and Hope and I have to continue to be good. Oh, please? I just have to learn. Can Mark teach me? Please?”

Lucas stood and walked to where Milly stood, holding their daughter. “Well, seems you two already have everything worked out.”

“But not if you say no,” Myra stated as her voice quieted when she said the word no.

“Okay, but you know that if you don’t keep up with your studies or you misbehave?” Lucas asked.

“That means yes?” Myra squealed.

“Yes, it means yes. But for now, it’s time for good little girls to go to bed,” Lucas stated as he kissed his daughter goodnight.

“Thank you, Papa. Thank you Mama.”

Milly carried Myra back to her bedroom and watched over as she said her nightly prayers.

“Mark?” Lucas said as he walked to his eldest.

“I know Pa, but when I came home from town this afternoon… you should have seen her. If Hope and I ever have a daughter, I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to say no. Besides Pa, you were riding me in front of you in your saddle when I was younger than Gabby is.”

“Who are you going to teach her on?” Lucas asked.

“At first I’ll take to riding Blue Boy again and riding her in front of me and let her hold the reins. In time, I’ll let her ride Blue Boy on her own, but I’ll be walking next to her and have a lead line on him. Pa, you know there’s no other horse that either of us would trust to carry her.”

“How are you going to do this with Milly around?”

“I’m not. Remember that old round up corral that we built for branding?” Lucas nodded. “I thought Gabby and I could ride out there. I trust you can keep Ma pre-occupied so she doesn’t worry?”

“Mark you should know by now, parents worry all the time.”

“You’re right. I’ll see you in the morning. Good night Pa.”

Mark left the house and returned to his own home.

*****

Mark had Myra sit on a stack of hay bales while he pulled Blue Boy in from the paddock.

Lucas stood to the side and said, “Myra, your Ma and I have agreed to let Mark teach you how to ride. I’m proud that Mark is giving Blue Boy to you, to be your horse. But, I want you to understand the responsibilities that come along with this privilege.”

“You know Gabby, there’s a lot more work to owning a horse than just getting to ride him,” Mark stated.

“Or her,” Myra replied.

“Yes, or her. You’ve got to make sure they are well groomed and their hooves are picked out. There’s also making sure they get proper feed and plenty of water. Why don’t you come on over here and I’ll show you how to brush Blue Boy.”

Myra walked up and stood next to Mark. He showed her how to brush her horse and then pulled out a wooden crate for her to stand on so she could brush higher on him. Next, Mark showed his sister how to pick a horse’s hooves.

“But it will be a while before you can do this on your own. And you will not be riding on your own, until you can saddle Blue Boy by yourself. If you want to ride, one of us have to be with you at all times.”

Mark looked at Myra to make sure she was paying attention and understood what he was saying.

Mark was riding Blue Boy and Myra sat in the saddle in front of Mark. As they rode out, Myra stated, “I got a question.”

“You have a question?”

“I been wanting to ask for a long, long time. Why do you call me Gabby?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Because everyone else calls me Myra, ‘cept you.”

“Your middle name is Gabriela, and when you were a lot younger, and before you knew how to talk, you would always try to talk when I’d hold you. You just moved your mouth, but nothing would come out. It just looked like you were trying to talk to me all the time and people who talk all the time are called gabby. So, it just kind of stuck. You made me feel special; to have a little sister and that you’d try your hardest to talk to me. Giving you a nickname made me feel closer to you. Do you want me to call you Myra?”

“Not really, just…”

“Just, what?”

“I don’t have a nickname for you.”

“That’s okay, only really special people get nicknames,” Mark replied.

“Did you wish you had a little sister when you were younger?”

“At times. But, it was just Pa and me. What I wanted more was a Ma,” Mark grew quiet.

“I’m sorry I made you sad.”

“Gabby, you didn’t make me sad. It was the memory. But I’m glad that Pa married Miss Milly and she became my Ma. And I’m really happy to have you as a sister.”

“And Little Ted?”

“And I’m happy to have Little Ted as a brother.”

They rode the rest of the way in silence, until they reached the branding corral.

“Mark, do you miss your Ma?” Myra asked

“I do. But I know that she’s watching over me and you.”

“Me?”

“Yes, you,” Mark stated has he halted Blue Boy and dismounted. He left Myra sitting in the saddle as he placed one hand on the saddle horn and the other on the cantle of the saddle. Mark took a deep breath as he looked up to Myra, “I know my Ma is up in heaven and since you mean so much to me and to Pa, you mean a lot to her too.”

Mark pulled the lead line from his saddle bag and clipped it to the halter Blue Boy wore under his bridle.

“Okay, Gabby. You ready to learn how to ride?” Myra nodded. “You did real good with the reins to get us here, but there’s a lot more to riding. It can be scary sitting up there all by yourself. What if I just walk you around and you get used to being up there by yourself? If you get scared, you can grab the saddle horn and hold on.”

“Mark, were you scared when you first learn to ride?” Myra asked as Mark started to walk Blue Boy around the corral.

“I was. Before, I always rode in front of Pa. But it was scary the first time I was in the saddle without Pa. Just like you are now.”

After an hour of working with Myra to gain her confidence, Mark removed the lead line and put it back in his saddle bag. Then he swung up in the saddle behind his sister and they headed for home.

Over the course of the next two weeks, Mark was pleased to see that his sister kept up with her studies and continued to mind her Ma and Pa. He was also pleased to see how well she took to riding Blue Boy. Mark was exiting the barn and was surprised to see a buggy carrying Micah and Hattie pulling up in front of the barn.

“Afternoon, Micah, Hattie. What brings you out this way?” Mark asked.

“Now do we need an excuse to come for a visit?” Micah asked.

“You know you don’t. Pa’s already up at the house.” Mark helped Hattie step down from the buggy. As they stepped around the back of the buggy, Mark noticed the box in the back, with his name on the shipping label.

“It came in?” Mark asked.

“Something came in boy. Mrs. Donner asked if we’d mind bringing it out for you. Just what did you order?” Micah asked.

“It’s a new saddle for Blue Boy.”

“That box looks a might bit small for a new saddle for you,” Hattie mentioned as she watch Mark pick the box up.

“Oh, it’s not for me. It’s for Gabby. She’s learning how to ride and I thought it might be better if she rode in a saddle with a smaller seat and shorter stirrups. I thought about giving her my old saddle, but this would be more special. Something of her very own, since she’s sort of getting a hand me down horse.”

Mark carried the box into the barn and then returned to the buggy.

“Mark McCain, you’re going to spoil that sister of yours,” Micah stated with a laugh.

“Hey, if I can’t spoil my sister, who is there to spoil?”

“Your own sons!” Hattie answered.

“That’s what you and Micah are for,” Mark said as he escorted Hattie and Micah to his parents’ home.

*****

The following morning, after helping her ma with dishes and working on her studies, Myra ran to the barn. She’d seen Mark walking to the barn earlier.

“Mark, I’m ready!” Myra called as she entered the barn.

Mark saw the look of disappointment on her face as she saw him saddling Copper.

“I thought I had a riding lesson today. You have to go to work?” Myra asked.

“Nope.”

“You riding out to help Papa?”

“Nope.”

“You and Hope going riding, then?”

“Nope.”

“You going out alone?”

“Nope. You know Gabby, you sure aren’t very observant.”

“Ob-zer-bant?”

“Ob-ser-vant. It means to use your eyes and see.”

“I can see,” Myra stated as she put both her hands on her hips. Mark couldn’t help but laugh, she looked so much like her Ma, in miniature when she did that.

“Then you didn’t see that Blue Boy is already for you.”

“He is?!”

“Today you get to ride him by yourself. I’ll be right beside you, riding Copper.”

“Then I have to ride him bareback?”

“No. You know, maybe instead of a riding lesson today, I should take you in to see Doc Burrage. Just let him check out your eyesight.”

“Mark! Blue Boy’s got a saddle on, but it’s…”

“It’s just your size, Gabby,” Mark laughed at his sister.

Myra walked to stand next to Blue Boy and asked, “But how do I get all the way up there?”

“I’ll show you as soon as I get Copper’s bridle on.”

Mark walked over to where Blue Boy stood. He pulled out a wooden box and placed it on the ground next to Gabby’s horse. Then, he motioned for Myra to step up on the box, then to take hold of the grab straps he had added to the saddle.

“Now you’re going to have to eat all your vegetables and grow some muscles, but just take hold of these and jump and pull yourself up, until your foot reaches the stirrup. Then swing your leg over.”

“Is this how you did it when you were little?”

“Yep. For a long time.”

Mark made sure the stirrups were the proper length for Gabby, before he hooked the lead rope to Blue Boy’s halter, then walked over and grabbed Copper’s reins, he led both horses from the barn. Milly, Lucas, and Hope stood on the porch, Lucas with his arm around his wife’s shoulders, and pulled her close.

Mark swung up into the saddle, and brother and sister rode away from the homestead at a walk. Mark saw the huge smile on his sister’s face and knew he’d worn one just like it, the first time he rode side by side with his Pa.

*****

When Mark next arrived in town to stand his shift, Amos came into the Marshal’s office with a wire.

Deputy Mark McCain
North Fork, New Mexico Territory

Ordered to take into custody Merrick Hadley /stop/
Wanted for attempted murder /stop/
Last seen in town of Merrill /stop/
Wanted poster in Monday’s packet /stop/
Return to North Fork with prisoner then wire /stop/
Directions forthcoming after capture /stop/

Good Luck, Tom Benton

Mark pulled the packet from Johnny’s desk and leafed through it until he came to Merrick Hadley’s wanted poster. He folded the copy and took it out to place in his saddle bag. Next he headed to the Johnny and Lou’s home, to let Johnny know he had to head out.

“Not sure how long I’ll be gone. But once I find Hadley, I’m to return him here and wait for further instructions,” Mark stated.

“No problem Mark. I’ll get Seth to stand your watch tonight. We’ll see you when you get back.”

*****

Myra was looking out the window, waiting for Mark to return so they could continue her riding lessons. Each day she waited and in time, returned to her studies. Milly understood her daughter and shortened the time she expected her daughter to tend to her studies.

“Did you remember to groom Blue Boy this morning?” Milly asked.

“Yes Mama. Papa was there and said I did a real good job of it.”

Milly looked to Lucas, who nodded.

“Myra,” Milly called. “If Mark does come home today, you will give him a few minutes with his family before you run out the door.”

“I am his family!” Myra replied.

“You know what your Ma means young lady,” Lucas stated as he closed his finance book.

“Yes Papa. I’m sorry Mama.”

Myra turned to look back out the window and waited. In time, she saw Mark ride to the yard, “He’s home. Mark is home. Papa, he just fell off Copper.”

Lucas quickly stood and ran out the door. Milly and Myra followed him to the porch. “No! Milly, keep back,” Lucas called, he’d seen the sweat beads on Mark’s face and that his shirt was soaked with sweat.

Mark moaned, “Pa, my prisoner was sick and he died. I couldn’t make it to…” Mark passed out in his father’s arms.

“Milly, get Hope and the boys out of their house and in to ours. NOW!”

“Lucas?”

“Milly, just do it!”

Lucas looked up to see Hope starting from their home. Milly ran and pulled Hope back into her home and helped her gather up clothing and such, and to do as Lucas asked.

Once he saw their wives standing on the porch, Lucas carried Mark into his home, and placed him on his bed. He was stripping Mark’s shirt off when he saw the first signs of the rash. Lucas stepped back, “Oh God, No!”

Lucas sat down heavily in a chair, he couldn’t regain his composure. His mind returned to sixteen years previous. The sadness, the loneliness, the heartache, the pain, those were the only things Lucas could think of. He had no idea how much time had passed, when he heard footsteps entering the home.

“I said stay out!” Lucas called, without turning around.

“Lucas, it’s me, Thadd.”

Lucas slowly turned around, his face showed the fear he felt.

“Lucas, Hope rode into town and said Mark was sick.”

“Small pox,” Lucas stated.

“Why would you say small pox?”

“Doc, I was removing his shirt, he’s got the start of the rash and the fever. He said his prisoner was sick and died.”

“It could be the measles,” Thadd replied.

“He’s had the measles and he’s had chicken pox. Doc, I lost Mark’s mother to small pox, when he was six. I remember…”

“Lucas, so many diseases all start out looking the same. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

Doc tended to Mark. From the kitchen, he brought in the pitcher and basin, filled with water. With Lucas’ help, he finished removing Mark’s clothing. He started bathing Mark with cool water hoping to bring the fever down. Later that evening, Thadd answered the door to find Hope standing on the porch.

“Doc?”

“I’m sorry Hope, I can’t allow you inside, but you can do something for me.” Thadd walked to the desk in the front room, and wrote a note. “Please take this to Abigail. Wait for Abigail to give you the medicine before you come back home.”

*****

It was the fifth night that Lucas sat on the edge of the bed next to his fevered son, listening to him pleading, “Hope, I need hope. Please, hope.”

Lucas replied, “Mark, we’re praying that you get better. We haven’t given up hope that you can pull through this. Please Mark, you have to keep fighting. Don’t give up hope in yourself. Please Mark, you have to get better.”

*****

Mark’s fever had finally broken the day before, but he had yet to open his eyes.

“Lucas,” Doc Burrage stated. “The fever took a lot out of his body. Just keep trying to get fluids into him. That’s the only thing that’s going to help him right now. We need to replenish what the fever burned out of him.”

“Doc, he lost so much weight. He’s nothing but skin and bones.”

“He was always slight of build and this was to be expected, especially as long as the fever lasted and as high as it got, before it broke,” Doc said as he placed a hand on Lucas’ shoulder and ran his other hand through his gray hair.

*****

Mark heard the voices as if they were talking from a distance. He heard water dripping and felt a cool, damp cloth being placed to his forehead. He felt a cloth removed from his chest and replaced a few moments later. He struggled to open his eyes, but they wouldn’t. He quietly called out, barely above a whisper, “Pa?” as he started moving his head.

“Mark, welcome back son,” Lucas stated.

“Pa, what happened?” he asked with his voice fading.

“You’ve been pretty sick son. You ran a high fever for almost a week.”

“Why can’t I open my eyes?” Mark asked in a whisper.

There was another voice, “Lucas soak the rag in water, then wring it out over his eyes and then gently wipe it across them. It’s okay if the water gets in his eyes. It will help moisten his eyelids so he can open them. The fever dried his eyelids out. Once you moisten them, use your thumb and index finger to help Mark open his eyelids.”

In a few moments, Mark was able to open his eyes; it took a few moments longer for his eyes to focus on his surroundings. The room was dimly illuminated by a lamp turned down low on the table next to his bed.

“Where are Hope and the boys? Are they okay?” Mark asked.

Lucas and Doc Burrage looked at each other, “Hope and the boys?” Lucas asked as he rinsed the cloth in the bowl of water and placed it back over Mark’s forehead.

Mark tried to speak but his throat was too dry.

“Lucas, hold his head up and help give him a drink of water.”

Lucas did as told. After the third swallow, Mark started coughing and Lucas pulled the glass away from Mark and laid his head back down on the pillow.

“Easy there son, take small sips.”

“Pa, where are Hope and the boys?” Mark asked again.

“Mark, who are you asking about?” Lucas asked.

“My wife and sons,” Mark whispered.

“Wife and sons?! Mark, you’re sixteen, you’re not married. Son, you must have been dreaming while you were sick.”

“Dreaming?” Mark turned his head and saw Doc Jay Burrage standing behind his Pa.

“I think so son,” Lucas answered.

“Lucas?” called Lou from outside the bedroom. “Am I hearing Mark? Would ye like me to bring him in some broth?”

“Please Lou. He’s practically wasted away,” Lucas replied.

“Yes, Lou. Bring in some warm broth and let him drink his fill.”

Lou carried a small bowl into the room and handed it to Lucas, who again raised Mark’s head from the pillow and held the bowl to his lips for him to drink. When the bowl was empty, Lucas laid Mark’s head back to the pillow.

“Lou, how are Connor and Danielle?”

“Connor and Danielle? Who are ye asking about?” Lou replied asked as she looked from Mark to Lucas.

“Your children,” Mark whispered.

“Mark, ye know I’m not married and I don’t have any children.”

“But you and Johnny got married. Pa, what, what about Gabby and Little Ted?”

“Mark, I’m not sure who you’re asking about…”

“Pa, you and Milly got married and Gabby’s my sister and Little Ted’s my brother! Pa, I don’t understand,” Mark cried, clearly getting agitated.

“Doc?” Lucas asked.

“Lucas, you probably were correct earlier, Mark was dreaming while he was ill. The delirium of the fever has caused his mind to think his dream was real.”

“But it was real!” Mark cried. He started calling for Hope.

“Mark, shhh. Mark, please… You had a dream. You’re just sixteen years old.”

Mark looked to his Pa and asked, “It can’t be… It was all just a dream? My sons, Hope? They’re not real?”

Lucas shook his head, no.

“Milly didn’t come back and I don’t have a sister or a brother?”

“No, Mark. I wish I could say otherwise.” Lucas removed the cloth from Mark’s forehead and set it back into the bowl.

“It can’t be…” Mark quieted, closed his eyes and allowed his head to turn to look away from everyone and he started to cry.

“Mark, i’ tis a mighty fine thing to dream of a family for yer future,” Lou stated. “And if Johnny were to ask for my hand in marriage, I’d be right honored to have ye and yer father stand up as my family.”

“Lou,” Doc Burrage stated. “Let’s leave Mark and Lucas alone for a little while. We know his fever’s broke, but I want to speak with you about what his dietary needs are going to be for the next few weeks to get his strength back.”

*****

Lucas placed his hand to Mark’s shoulder, “I’m sorry Mark. I know sometimes dreams can seem so real at times. But you’ve been extremely sick for six days. I’m just thankful Doc Burrage got you through this.”

“But Pa, Doc retired and his nephew, Thaddeus, he’s been our doctor for five years, he’s married to Abigail and they have a daughter Savannah. And Uncle Johnny and Aunt Colleen, they live in North Fork and have a daughter, Lillian. Pa, I can’t have dreamed it all.”

“Mark, the world you created in your dream sounds mighty wonderful, but it was all just a dream. It’s just the two of us.”

“No, I want my life back! I want my life…”

Mark wouldn’t look at his Pa any more. He turned his head and looked away and continued to cry. Lucas stood and walked to the front room, leaving the bedroom door behind him open.

“Doc, I’m concerned. He said you retired and your nephew Thaddeus was now our doctor and was married to an Abigail… Could the fever have made him that delirious?”

“Lucas, it might be the fever causing his subconscious to create a life he needed to get through his illness. But creating a new family, something more than just the two of you, there has to be a mighty powerful longing buried deep in his mind.”

After a few moments of awkward quiet, Doc continued, “Lucas, my youngest nephew is studying to become a doctor and he’s been courting a young woman named Abigail. But how would Mark know that? Well, that’s neither here nor there, I probably talked about them and Mark’s mind must have drawn them into his dream. Regardless Lucas, we need to get his strength back. I’ve talked with Lou and for the next few days, I want him to drink a lot of beef or chicken stock broth, as much as he can tolerate. His body won’t be ready for anything more than that for probably three or four days. His system won’t be able to handle anything solid until then. As for getting him out of bed… We’ll just have to see how he reacts.”

“There’s something else, isn’t there Doc?” Lucas asked.

“Lucas, I’m concerned about his mental state. If his dreams are that real to him and now he’s fighting that they’re not real, it could really hamper his recovery. He could start mourning their loss, just as if they had been real and died. He could get really depressed. We just need to get his strength back and get him back into his old routine. The sooner he gets back to his old routine, the quicker he’ll forget about this dreamed up family.”

“I’ll see that he eats properly and gets his strength back,” Lou stated.

*****

A week had passed since Mark’s fever had broken and Lucas insisted on getting him up and out of bed.

“Mark, I understand you feel you’ve lost something special to you, but it was just a dream. You need to get back to your life. Come on, let’s get you up, dressed, and I’ll help you to the front porch for the afternoon. Okay?”

“But Pa, they were so real. It hurts that they’re not here.” Mark answered, feeling a deep loss.

“Son, Doc Burrage stated that you could feel that way. The mind can be a funny place. It can create an imaginary world to protect you or to offer you comfort. Why your mind created those dreams, I don’t know, but this is our real life Mark. You have to return to your real life.”

“I thought that was my real life,” Mark said as his Pa helped him finish getting dressed and then helped him walk to the chair on the front porch. For which Mark found out he had very little strength to walk on his own.

*****

That afternoon, Stevan Griswald came by.

“Good afternoon Mark. Good to see you up. I’ve missed having my favorite student at school and the students missed their assistant teacher.”

“At least that hasn’t changed,” Mark answered, sullenly.

“I thought I’d bring some of your studies to you until you get your strength back and can re-join the class.”

“Thank you, sir. I’ll work on them a little later, if you don’t mind, I am feeling tired.”

“That’s okay Mark, you were pretty sick there for a while. Do your studies as you can. I’ll stop by in a few days and if you have any questions, I’ll work with you to help you out.”

*****

Over the next few days, Lucas grew more worried as Mark seemed to be regaining his strength, but he seemed more depressed each day, as Doc Burrage had warned him. One day Lucas entered the house to see Mark asleep in his chair. On the table were Mark’s studies, next to one of the books was a wadded up sheet of paper. Lucas picked up the piece of paper, opened it, and read:

Hope, Joshua, Zachariah, and Elijah
Milly, Gabby, and Little Ted
Hattie
Thadd, Abigail and Savannah
Uncle Johnny and Aunt Colleen and Lillian
Connor and Danielle
Seth, Ethan, Annie, and Seth Edward
Tessa and Mabra
Drew

Why? They can’t all have been a dream.

I want my life back!

Lucas headed into town to talk with Doc. Upon his arrival, he showed the piece of paper to Doc.

“You and I both know Milly and Hattie, and then his Uncle Johnny and Aunt Colleen. But all these others, I don’t know these people. How could he have dreamed all of them?”

“Lucas, I don’t know. I could wire a friend of mine up in Santa Fe, he’s a psychiatrist. Maybe he can help your son come to terms with the fact that the people he’s mourning were just from his dream and try to help him get over this. This is beyond any of my training as a physician.”

“Anything Doc, I just can’t stand to see him like this.”

*****

Two days later, Doctor Horacio del Garcia arrived in North Fork. Doc Burrage had his buggy and horse hitched and drove him to the McCain Ranch. All had agreed that it would be better for Mark to have this discussion at home.

Lucas and Doc Burrage left Doctor del Garcia in the front room with Mark. They waited on the porch. Doctor del Garcia talked with Mark for a good, long while and finally decided it would be best to put Mark under hypnosis. Once he had Mark under, Doctor del Garcia asked for Lucas and Doc Burrage to come back inside.

*****

Lucas struggled to hold Mark down, he was fighting against his Pa and yelling, “No! No! They are real. She’s my wife! Please, she’s not a dream!” Lucas struggled to keep the tears from falling down his face. “Please, noo,” Mark cried. Lucas could hear how raspy Mark’s voice had become, from calling out and from the lack of fluids they had been able to get him to swallow.

“Doc? Can’t you do something? Anything?” Lucas asked.

“Lucas, it’s the fever talking. There’s nothing we can do right yet. We just keep trying to get the medication in his body and try to replenish the fluids he sweats out.”

“Margaret didn’t get this bad until near the end and then she became lucid for a short while. Why is it affecting Mark so differently?”

“Lucas, as of this morning, I can guarantee you that it’s not small pox. His rash is the same as it was the first day. I mean there are more blotches from the rash, but the rash, it’s not bubbled up with pustules. I’m almost thinking this is Typhoid Fever.”

“But he’s had the Fever before,” Lucas answered. “He didn’t have a rash that time.”

“Lucas, certain diseases don’t create a resistance to themselves, once you’ve had them. Typhoid is one of those. And different symptoms can occur from one person to the next. Some symptoms can present themselves each time, but others… That’s why I said we had to wait and see.”

Lucas remembered back, “He was eleven when he contracted Typhoid. It hit him two weeks after he drank tainted water. I vaguely remember him calling out in his sleep, back then. The days just seemed to blend together. I don’t understand, he was fine when he left here eight days ago.”

“Medicine doesn’t hold all the answers Lucas. His calling out is from his dreaming and whatever it is, it has him very agitated. The mind works funny, when people are sick. Sometimes it can offer an escape from a difficult reality or suffering, by making the person think life in the dream is better than it really is. Other times, it can offer a stark contrast and the person struggles to get back to the good life they had. I’d have to say Mark’s dreams have him in a dark place.”

“But why, Thadd?” Lucas asked.

“I don’t know Lucas. But the good news is, Mark’s fighting it, the fever and his dream. He’s a McCain and he’s strong…”

*****

During the night, Mark’s fever broke. The morning sun crept into the room when Mark finally opened his eyes. He turned his head and saw his Pa sleeping in the chair next to his bed. “Pa?” Mark called as he tried to raise his head, but couldn’t.

Lucas startled awake and saw Mark’s eyes open.

“Mark! Welcome back son,” Lucas said as he shifted to the edge of the bed. He pulled the cloth from his son’s forehead, rinsed the cloth, wrung it out and replaced it to Mark’s forehead.

Mark turned his head away from Lucas.

“Mark?” Lucas asked with concern.

Lucas reached for a glass of water with his right hand and raised Mark’s head with left. “Just take nice, small sips son. Not too much at first.”

Lucas laid Mark’s head back to the pillow once he stopped swallowing. He set the glass back to the table. “I’m glad you decided to wake up.” Lucas grew concerned when Mark said nothing and wouldn’t look at him.

“Talk to me son. What’s wrong?”

“It was all just a dream…” Mark stated as his voice faded.

Lucas poured more water into the glass and offered more to Mark.

“Mark you’ve been quite sick for six days. You’ve been calling out in your delirium. For the past two days, you’ve been extremely agitated. Doc’s in the front room sleeping, let me go wake him for the morning and let him know you’re awake.”

“I’m here Lucas,” Doc Burrage stated as he walked up behind Lucas.

Lucas stood from the edge of the bed and stepped back to allow Thadd to look at his son.

“Hi Mark, good to see you finally awake. How do you feel?”

Mark turned his head to the sound of the voice he hadn’t expected, a look of surprise on his face, “Doc?! I…” He started coughing and tried to raise his hand to reach out to Thadd, but it fell to his side.

“Easy there Mark.”

“Doc, should I bring Mark some warm broth, would that help?”

“Yes, Lucas.”

Lucas returned to his son’s side and raised his head, then placed the bowl of broth to his lips for him to drink.

“Thadd, Abigail?” Mark spoke before another coughing fit overtook him.

“Don’t try to talk,” Doc stated and then turned to Lucas. “Lucas, would you bring some more warm broth. The broth will help soothe his throat and start to restore his strength. And to answer your question Mark, Abigail is back in town with Savannah.”

After Mark finished drinking the next bowl of broth, Mark managed to ask, “Hope?”

“Mark, Doc wanted to keep her and the boys away from you until your fever broke,” Lucas answered. “He felt you were too contagious and we couldn’t risk exposing her or the boys. We didn’t know what was wrong with you for several days. They’re over at the house with Milly.”

“Ma?” Mark asked.

“She’s fine, just worried about you?”

Lucas grew concerned when Mark started crying. He sat down on the edge of the bed and brushed Mark’s hair back from his forehead.

“It’s okay Mark. You’re going to be okay, no need to cry.”

“It was just a dream…” Mark’s voice faded as he fell asleep.

“Lucas, let him sleep. Come on, let’s go tell Milly and Hope that his fever broke.”

*****

Lucas and Thadd walked across the yard and entered the house. Lucas was startled to see Hope kneeling over Milly, who was lying on the floor.

“Hope, what happened?” Lucas asked as he rushed to his wife.

“She just passed out Pa. We were talking and she just stopped.”

Thadd pushed Lucas out of the way to start to examine Milly. “It’s not the fever Lucas. She’s not running a fever.”

After a few moments, Milly started to come to. She opened her eyes and saw Lucas bending over her, preparing to lift her from the floor.

“Milly?” Lucas quietly stated.

“What happened?” Milly asked as she reached for Lucas’ arm.

“Ma, we were talking and then you… were on the floor,” Hope answered.

“Oh, no…” Milly replied as she lifted her hand to cover her mouth.

“Milly?” Lucas asked again as he grew more concerned.

Milly started to giggle as Lucas helped her to her feet and he practically carried her to their bedroom and saw her to their bed, followed by Thadd and Hope.

“Lucas,” Milly started as she shook her head, smiling. “It’s been two months since the Summer Social.”

“What does the Summer Social have to do with you passing out on the floor?” Lucas asked.

“Lucas,” Thadd stated as he placed a hand to Lucas’ shoulder. “I don’t think it’s really the Summer Social, but maybe something you two did, two months ago, about the time of the Summer Social?” Thadd started laughing as he realized Lucas was still in the dark. “Lucas, you’ve been through this three times before.”

“Three times be…” Then looking to Milly, “You’re pregnant?”

“I think so. I was going to go visit Thadd, but then Mark came home sick and…” Milly stopped talking as concern grew in her eyes. “Is Mark?”

“Hope, Milly,” Thadd stated. “Mark’s fever broke last night and he woke this morning. Now, I know both you and Hope probably want to go see him, but I’d prefer to give it a little while. He was quite agitated before he woke and right now, he’s sleeping. After he wakes again, I’ll evaluate the situation and if I feel it is safe enough and neither of you will be at risk, I’ll let you come visit him. But for right now, Milly, I want you to stay in bed. Okay?”

Milly nodded.

*****

The day after Mark’s fever broke, he was finally awake long enough to tell his Pa what happened. “I found my prisoner, he was in the Mossville jail. I was returning to North Fork with Hadley when I realized he was getting sicker. Guess he wanted to get out of Mossville real quick and hopefully to a town with a doctor. He didn’t look that bad when I pulled him out of their jail. Anyway, our first night out, he took real sick and after three days of tending to him, he died during the night. I spent the rest of the night burying Hadley and the next day, started feeling stiff and sore muscles. At first, I attributed it to the work to bury Hadley, but by that night, the fever and chills had set in. I knew I needed get back to North Fork, but all my mind could think of…, was home.” Mark was quiet for a few moments. “Pa, I’m sorry I put our family at risk, but I just couldn’t think of how to get to town. I just kept seeing home.”

“Mark, I’m just glad I was here when you arrived,” Lucas stated as finished feeding his son a bowl of oatmeal. When Mark was done eating, Lucas took the dishes out to the kitchen and then returned. “Mark, I know you’re still rather weak, but… Do you remember any of your dreams?”

The look on Mark’s face shook Lucas, but within a few moments, the look was gone.

“Pa, do you remember what I told you, back in November, when we thought Hope had lost the baby? How I worried that one day I was going to wake up and find out I was still sixteen?”

“Yes.”

“My dream was a nightmare. I mean, I love the life we had together, but… Pa, in my dream, I had been sick and woke up to find out I was sixteen again and nothing was as I remembered it. You and Doc Jay kept trying to convince me it was all just a dream. Hope, the boys, Milly coming back, Gabby and Little Ted and everyone else, none of them were real. You even let Doc Jay bring in a psychiatrist to try to get me to forget everyone. I just couldn’t forget them. It hurt so much that they weren’t there and no one else remembered them. You told me I had to forget them and accept that our life together was my real life.”

“Son, I’m sorry that you had to go through your dream by yourself. We heard you yelling and pleading, but we didn’t know what was happening. The good news is, it was all just a dream. We’ll try to get you up and out of bed tomorrow. If you can keep tonight’s supper down. Doc said to try you on a thicker stew tonight. Hopefully, you’ll be feeling even better tomorrow.”

“When can I see Hope and the boys?” Mark asked.

“Thadd stated he’d be by tomorrow morning and he’ll let us know.”

“Can Ma come in today, just for a few minutes? I mean it’s one thing for you to tell me they’re real and my dream wasn’t…”

“Not quite yet, seems I… uh…”

“Lucas, just spit it out,” Milly stated as she stood in the doorway.

“Milly, Thadd said you weren’t to come in her until after he saw Mark tomorrow, especially in your condition.”

“Lucas, he’s my son. It should be okay for Mark to at least see me. I couldn’t stay away. And now that I heard what Mark went through with his dreams while he was sick, I insist on him being able to see that I did indeed return to North Fork, that I am your wife, and that we are a family.”

“Okay, he’s seen you. Now will you please go back home?” Lucas pleaded. Milly turned to leave, and said, “We love you Mark. Just focus on getting better.”

Lucas returned to sit down in the chair next to Mark’s bed, when Mark asked, “What did you mean ‘especially in your condition’?”

“Oh, that. It seems, I… uh… You’re going to be a big brother again.”

“Ma’s pregnant?”

Lucas nodded.

“When?”

“I just found out yesterday morning, and if what Milly thinks is true, the baby will probably be born sometime in March. She hasn’t been to see Thadd yet.”

“Because of me?”

“Something like that. Anyway, you need to get your strength back and I want you to sleep for a few hours this afternoon.”

“Pa, how’s Gabby? I mean she has to be real disappointed in not being able to ride,” Mark stated.

“She was at first, when you were gone. We watched the boys a few times while Hope took her out. Seems she didn’t want to ride with me. But when you came home sick, she applied herself to her studies and to helping Milly and Hope with the boys.”

“She’s Ma in miniature, isn’t she,” Mark stated with a laugh.

“Now that you mention it,” Lucas smiled. “Okay, now let’s get you sitting up for a while.”

Lucas helped Mark sit up in his bed. “By the way, Percy brought a new book over for you, once he heard you were getting better.” Lucas reached over and picked up the paper wrapped package and handed it to Mark.

Mark unwrapped the book and was surprised to see the latest novel from Mark Twain, ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthurs Court’.

“Why don’t you go ahead and start reading, I’ll be back inside when it’s time for lunch. And don’t worry if you fall asleep,” Lucas stated as he turned to leave Mark’s home.

Mark was reading through the chapter titles when he came to one that caused him to inhale sharply, The Smallpox Hut. ‘Well, this is just a story,’ Mark thought to himself as he started to read.

Lucas headed out to work on chores around the ranch and returned to his home shortly before lunch to check in on how Milly was doing and if she was taking it easy. He had to smile when he saw Myra blocking the bedroom door and telling him, “Mama’s not to be dis… dist… You can’t go in until Hope puts lunch on the table.”

“Myra!” Milly called from behind the door.

“Oh, I guess you can go in, Papa.”

“Lucas, please, this is not necessary. Between you and Hope and Myra, you’d think that I was the one who had been so sick and not Mark,” Milly complained.

“I can’t wait to see how Myra reacts when Doc says she can go visit Mark,” Lucas stated as he smiled to his wife, trying to change the subject.

“She does idolize him,” Milly stated.

*****

Thadd returned to the McCain ranch to examine Mark once more.

“Well, you are doing quite better. Your temperature still isn’t fully returned to normal, but that’s to be expected. Has your father gotten you out of bed yet?”

“No, though he has made sure that I sit up for as long as I can.”

“Tell you what, this afternoon, I’ll recommend for Lucas to get you up and I think taking a hot bath will help make you feel better.”

“I know it will probably help make me smell better,” Mark said as he let out a little laugh.

“How are you feeling up here?” Thadd asked as he pointed to Mark’s head.

“It still feels a little strange, the dream within a dream. But Ma peeked in last night, so I know that she’s real. When can I see Hope and the boys?”

“Mark, I don’t want anyone else in here with you until your temperature has returned to one hundred percent normal for two days. But I don’t think that should stop you from seeing them. Once Lucas gets you up, he can get you to the front room and they can be outside. For now, that’s the closest I’ll let anyone other than myself or your father get to you.”

The look on Mark’s face showed the pain he felt at being separated from his family.

“Mark, I hope within three or four days tops, Hope will be in your arms.”

“Can I pray that that’s the case?”

“I’d be disappointed in you if you didn’t. Now let me go tell Lucas that I highly recommend a nice hot bath for you.”

*****

Mark worked to keep regaining his strength as August turned to September. He finally convinced Lucas that it would be okay for him and Myra to go on a small ride around the ranch. He promised that they’d do nothing more than walk their horses, Mark was anxious to just get out and about.

Lucas insisted on saddling the horses and Hope insisted in going along.

“I don’t trust either of you to just ‘walk’ your horses. But if I’m with you…”

“Yes Ma,” Mark said as he pulled Hope into a hug.

The Next Generation… Chapter 53 – Myra, The School Girl

It was a family affair as Myra got ready to start her first day of school. Since Mark had to stand his watch as deputy, he offered to let Myra ride in front of him, in the saddle, as they took her to town.

“Why can’t I ride Blue Boy?” Myra asked.

“Because today is your first day and we want to take you to school.” Lucas answered.

“Buy why do I have to ride in front of Mark?”

“Do you want to ride in the seat of the buckboard between your father and me?” Milly asked.

“No,” Myra answered dejectedly. “But I’ve been doing real good in learning how to ride.”

“Yes, Mark has said such. But sweetheart, you only have one very first day of school. This is a big occasion for you and we all want to be there. And it will be some time before you are allowed to ride Blue Boy to school by yourself,” Lucas stated as he watched Milly fussing with Myra’s dress.

“Do you want to upset your brother that you don’t want to ride into town with him?” Milly asked.

“No. I know, I promised to be good. I’m sorry.”

*****

As Lucas pulled the buckboard to a halt in front of the school house, they saw Stevan Griswald and Percy Bullock greeting the children. Today would be an introductory day for the first year students and a day to get the other students thinking about school. There were several other families who had children starting to school for the first time.

After introductions were made, the parents were informed that the first year students would only be required to attend school half days for the first week, but then full time afterwards. Percy stated that the younger children, the first year through sixth year, would accompany him to the other school house, “And parents, you are more than welcome to come and say goodbye to your children there.”

Seth Lane and Johnny Drako stepped from the Marshal’s Office as they saw the parade of families pass by. Seth remembered back to Ethan and Hope’s first days of school, while Johnny wondered about Connor’s first day, next year.

Mark walked Copper and stopped him in front of the Marshal’s Office.

“Big day for the McCain family? Eh Mark?” Johnny asked.

“You’ll find out next year Johnny.”

“I think Myra has an unfair advantage over the other students, seeing as how her Ma used to be a teacher and her brother used to be a student teacher,” Seth offered.

“I’m just happy that she likes studying more than I did. You should see her of an afternoon. Pa seems to be a bit relieved that he doesn’t have to fight her to learn like he did when I was her age.”

“Mark, give her time. She’s a McCain. I’m sure one of these days that stubborn McCain streak is going to show in her too,” Johnny quipped. “Okay, if you two don’t mind, Lou and I, and the children, will return in two week’s time. Take care of my town and try to see that she stays in one piece while we’re gone.”

Seth and Mark said their goodbyes to Johnny and then turned and watched as the parents left the school house, and their children. It was hard to tell who was more upset, some of the parents or the children.

*****

That night, neither Lucas nor Milly were prepared for the explosion that hit their home.

“Argh,” Myra yelled. “Just how hard is it to learn your alphabet?! Even some of the second year students don’t know it! If I know more than them, why do I have to go to school and have Percy tell me what I already learned!”

Lucas tried hard to keep his laughter to himself. He knew it was a serious problem, but not the problem he expected. He remembered how long and hard Margaret had worked to get Mark to learn his alphabet and to spell simple words. How, Mark hated going to school, because he struggled to understand. Now, Lucas had the same problem, but for the opposite reason.

“First off, young lady,” Lucas stated as he pulled a chair out to sit down at the table with Myra. “You will NOT take that tone of voice in this house. Secondly, you will call your teacher by his proper name, Mr. Bullock.”

“But Papa…”

“And Thirdly, you will not interrupt me when I am scolding you. Or would you rather have a seat in the corner?”

“No Papa,” Myra stated as she leaned back in her chair.

“Now, young lady, you will go to school and you will sit there and you will learn what Mr. Bullock has to teach you,” Lucas stated.

“But I already know what he’s teaching!”

“Right now you do, because your Ma has taught you. Not every child is as lucky as you are that their parents are educated. But there will be more for you to learn as you continue going to school.”

“Then let me stay home until Mr. Bullock gets there,” Myra complained.

“Myra,” Milly started. “There are only two teachers at the school and the older students, they sit and listen to your lessons. How do you think they feel? Do you think they come home and yell at their parents about you?”

“But Mama, you were a teacher. Why can’t I stay home and you teach me?”

“Because I’m not a teacher any more. I gave up that job to be a mother.”

“Well Papa was a father to Mark and he still taught him.”

“Myra,” Lucas stated with a stern voice. “I had no other choice with Mark. His growing up years were a lot different than yours are.”

“Because his mama died?” Myra asked quietly.

“That’s part of the reason, but regardless, when we settled in a town, he did go to school.”

“But I…”

“This discussion is over. You will go to school and you will pay attention in class and you will listen to what Mr. Bullock has to teach. Any more argument from you will result in time in the corner,” Lucas stated.

“But Papa, it’s not fair!” Myra pouted.

Lucas pointed to the corner of her bedroom. Myra stood from her chair and walked over and sat down and waited.

*****

Later that night, Lucas and Milly were preparing for bed, when Milly stated, “She does have a point, Lucas.”

“Don’t I know, but don’t you tell her I agree with her. I think back on all the ‘discussions’ Mark and I had about his schooling and here, I’m having a totally different conversation, but about the same subject. My child trying to get out of going to school.”

“Maybe I should talk with Stevan and Percy, to see if there’s any way she can be advanced to more than a first year status. She is really smart…” Milly replied.

“That’s what we get for you starting her so young.”

“Lucas, I just took advantage of her natural curiosity. To her, learning is fun. She wants so much to be a big girl and emulate Hope so much.”

*****

Morning came and both Lucas and Milly were prepared for another battle with Myra.

“Good morning Mama, Papa,” Myra stated as she came from her room and sat at the table for breakfast. “Are you going to take me to school today?”

“Yes,” Lucas stated. “Once you’ve eaten your breakfast, you’ll get your school work and I’ll drive you into town.”

“Can’t I ride Blue Boy to school?”

“Do you think you deserve to ride him?” Milly asked.

“Guess not.”

“Besides, I have to take the buckboard into town to drop off the long saw blades that Mr. Swenson said he’d sharpen for me,” Lucas stated.

After finishing his coffee, Lucas headed out to hitch the team. In time, Myra came out and Lucas lifted her to the front seat and climbed up himself.

As he drove he turned to his daughter and saw she was still pouting, “You still mad at me?” When she didn’t answer he said, “Myra, I’m sorry for how you feel, but things will get better, I promise. Besides, next week, when you start school full day, you’ll have a lunch break and you’ll get to meet new friends and you’ll get to play for a while, after you eat.”

“You really think school will get better, Papa?”

“I know it will, sweetheart.” The continued to talk as Lucas drove them to town. As Lucas halted the team in front of the school house, he said, “When you get done at school today, wait at the school house. Mark will be there to pick you up after he’s finished his time as deputy.”

“Yes, Papa.”

*****

Mark walked Copper over to the school house and watched as the children ran down the steps. Not seeing Myra come out, he tied Copper to the railing and walked inside. He saw Myra sitting at her desk and Percy sitting on the desk in front of her.

“Myra, I know your Ma has worked with you and you are a very smart girl, but you have to give the others time to catch up.”

“Then let me stay home until they learn what I learned.”

Mark cleared his throat causing Percy to look up.

“Myra, you will continue to come to school and if you behave yourself, I’ll give you some work that you don’t know. Now, I need to go keep an eye on the other children and your brother his here to take you home.”

“Gabby?” Mark called from the back of the room.

Myra stayed seated at her desk. “Don’t be upset at her Mark,” Percy stated as he walked past Mark.

“Thanks Percy.”

“You mad at me too?” Myra asked.

“Why would I be mad at you?” Mark asked as he walked up the aisle and sat down on the seat next to his sister.

“Because I don’t want to be here,” Myra pouted.

“And why don’t you want to be here?”

“Papa didn’t tell you?”

“He told me his side of the story. That you yelled at him and Ma last night. I thought you were supposed to be a good girl.

“I am a good girl! Can I help it if I know more than the others who are first year? Mark, I know my alphabet, Ma and Hope worked with me over the summer. Even some of the second year students don’t know their alphabet.”

“Oh, that’s a problem. What if I talk with Mr. Bullock?”

“About what?”

“Well, he did mention giving you some advanced work.”

“Ad-vanc-ed?”

“That means work that you’re ready for and the others aren’t. Sort of like me for the last two and a half years I was in school.”

“Mark, can I ask you a question?”

“That’s what learning is all about,” Mar replied.

“You didn’t like school so much and didn’t understand when you were my age and then you liked school and did ad-vanc-ed work when you got older?”

“Yes.”

“Well, I like school work and I think I will like ad-vanc-ed work, does that mean I won’t like school when I get older?”

Mark couldn’t keep his laugh to himself, “Gabby, as long as you enjoy learning and keep learning, that’s all that matters. I wish I had been as eager to learn as you are.”

“Will I get to be as smart as you and Hope?”

“Not right away, but in time, I hope that you get to be even smarter than Hope and me. Don’t let anyone tell you, you can’t learn something because you’re a girl.”

“Mark?”

“Yes.”

“Does my temper tantrum mean I can’t have a riding lesson this afternoon?”

“Do you think you were a good girl and deserve to have a lesson?”

“I guess not. If I say I’m sorry to Mr. Bullock and Mama and Papa, can I have a lesson tomorrow?”

“Come on, let’s get your punishment started.”

The Next Generation… Chapter 54 – A Young Woman’s Fancy

The man was distinguished in his attire as he talked to the young, blonde, pretty woman who sat next to him. “We have been engaged for almost three years, you finally agreed to a spring wedding, why do you doubt yourself?”

“Because I don’t know if I’m ready for marriage!”

“But we have discussed all our plans and dreams. Why do you feel you are not ready?”

“Oh, Ashton, I don’t want to become like your family!” the woman ran from the room crying, leaving her fiancé sitting in the parlor alone.

After reflecting on his fiancée’s comments and knowing his family, Ashton followed her up to her room. He knocked on the door and waited for her to answer.

“Sally, please, may I talk with you?” he asked.

After a few moments he heard the door knob turn and saw the door open.

“I’m sorry about my comment. I know it wasn’t fair to you,” Sally answered as she tried to dry her tears.

“Sally, please come back downstairs, I believe we need to talk.”

Ashton Maguire escorted Sally Walker down the staircase and into the parlor of the boarding house. He saw her seated on the sofa and he sat down next to her.

“Sally, your comment was true. I mean, I am an only child of wealthy parents. All my life I was raised by nannies and butlers. My whole life, while I was growing up, I was told how to behave properly and not allowed to act as other children did. Even as a small child, I was expected to represent my family as fitting someone from society. But Sally, I fell in love with you because you are so different from any of the other women I have known. They are all too proper and stuffy. You have a zest for life and you are so caring. That is what I want our family to be, not my parents’ life. Once we are married, it will be our life. What will it take for you to see that you are ready for marriage and that I am the one you should be marrying?”

“I don’t know. I’ve talked with my mother, but… Oh how I wish I could go visit Aunt Milly. She puts everything into better perspective.”

“Where does she live? Your aunt.”

“In North Fork, New Mexico,” Sally answered.

“New Mexico? But that is uncivilized country!” Ashton declared.

“See, that’s what I mean. You just don’t understand!”

After thinking for a few moments Ashton asked, “Does it really mean that much to you to go visit your aunt?”

“Yes, for some reason, … She’s just who I need to talk to,” Sally stated as she let out a sigh. “See she’s almost been married for six years and from letters Ma wrote me, she has a wonderful husband, and two children.”

“Sally, I refuse to let you travel all the way from Raleigh to New Mexico, alone.”

“Ashton, I just can’t marry you unless I can talk with Aunt Milly,” Sally pleaded.

“Okay, then we will go together. Guess it is time I saw more of this country than the refinement of the eastern cities.”

*****

That evening, at dinner, Ashton informed his parents of his upcoming trip to North Fork, New Mexico.

“That barbaric land?! I will not have a son of mine risk his life in that uncivilized country. St. Louis, Missouri is bad enough, but New Mexico!”

“Father,” Ashton stated. “It is important to Sally, so it is important to me. I will accompany my future wife to visit her relatives. With or without your blessings.”

The rest of the dinner was eaten in silence. When dessert was served, Ashton excused himself. “I must pack if Sally and I are to leave tomorrow. Mother, Father, good night.”

*****

Sally and Ashton, sat in the club car. When other passengers would sit opposite them, they would chat of their travel plans. Of an evening, they went to the sleeping cars, each having sleeping quarters of their own.

Ashton was amazed at the six days it took to travel from Raleigh to Albuquerque, and then changing trains to continue on to North Fork. During their travels he marveled at the country. So much more expansive that he ever imagined.

*****

Before the train pulled into the station, the conductor announced, “North Fork, New Mexico, next stop!”

Ashton assisted Sally in getting her luggage from the overhead rack and then carried them off the train. He called for a porter as they stepped to the platform.

“Sir, if you would be so kind, would you assist us in getting to our accommodations at the local hotel.”

“Yes sir,” the man answered as he put the luggage on his trolley cart and proceeded to the Mallory House.

“Quite quaint,” Ashton stated as they entered. He strode to the desk and waited.

“I’ll be right with ye,” came a voice from the restaurant area. “Good day to ye. Are ye in need of a room?” asked a red-headed woman who walked behind the front desk.

“Actually, miss, we are in need of two rooms. One room is for my fiancée and the other for me.”

“Wonderful. How long will ye be visiting our fair town?”

“It kind of depends on my fiancée, she is here to meet up with family,” Ashton answered.

“I’ve two joining rooms, if that will be okay? By the way, my name is Lou Drako. I’m the owner of the hotel.”

“We are pleased to meet you Miss Drako, my name is Ashton Maguire and my fiancée is Sally Walker.”

“How far have ye traveled?”

“From Raleigh, North Carolina.”

“Well, let me get yer room keys and I’ll show ye to yer rooms.”

Lou showed them upstairs and informed them where the rooms with baths were, so they could freshen up. “We start serving supper in about an hour. If ye’d like, I can let yer family know that ye are here?”

“If you do not mind Miss, we would like some time to rest and relax prior to notifying the family that we have arrived,” Ashton stated.

“All right. Just come on down ta supper when ye’re ready,” Lou stated as she handed the room keys to them.

*****

Ashton escorted Sally down the stairs and into the restaurant. As they entered they saw the hotel owner sitting at a table, with a man wearing a badge and with two young children. Ashton and Sally made their way over.

“My apologies, Madame, I did not realize you were married when we met earlier. I meant no offense in calling you miss,” Ashton apologized.

“Think nothin’ of it. Mr. Ashton Maguire and Miss Sally Walker, my husband and our town Marshal, Johnny Drako, and our children, Connor and Danielle,” Lou introduced.

“Pleasure to meet your acquaintance,” Ashton stated. “I was wondering if you might give us directions to my fiancée’s family’s place of residence.”

“Their name?” Johnny asked.

“Oh,” Sally stated as she placed her finger tips to her mouth. “I don’t remember my aunt’s new last name, but it previously was Scott, Milly Scott.”

“Then ye’d be talkin’ of my best friend, Milly McCain,” Lou answered.

“Could you please give us directions to her new home?” Sally asked.

“Miss, that won’t be necessary. The McCain family will be in town within the hour. They are joining us for supper tonight,” Johnny stated.

“Please, won’t ye have a seat until yer family arrives?” Lou asked.

During their wait, Ashton asked Johnny about the need to wear fire arms all the time. He stated it was quite disturbing to see men wearing guns walking about the street. Johnny explained that it was a way of life in this territory, but hopefully, one day, the citizens could put away their guns and rely on the law to protect them.

“We do a good job protecting the citizens here in town, but those who live out on ranches, like the McCain’s, they need their firearms to defend themselves. We only have myself and two deputies to protect this town and her citizens. Thought right now, my youngest deputy is away on business for the U.S. Marshal Service,” Johnny stated.

Sally talked with Lou about the children, how Connor was soon to be four years old and Danielle was a year and a half old.

“My mother told me that Aunt Milly has two children?”

“Aye, there are Myra and Little Ted.”

“Ted?” Sally asked. “As in Theodore?”

“That’s right. Lucas and Milly named their son after Milly’s late brother, Theodore Scott.”

The atmosphere in the restaurant changed, causing Sally and Ashton to turn and see a very tall man enter. With him were two women and five young children. The taller of the two women had bent over to help one of the children remove their coat.

“Mormons?” Ashton asked.

“No, that is Lucas McCain and his wife Milly, your fiancée’s aunt, and their children and…” but before Johnny could finish his sentence, Milly and Hope had removed their bonnets, to which Sally to squeal, “Aunt Milly!” as she jumped up and ran towards her aunt.

“Sally?! Sally Walker. What are you doing here? Your mother didn’t write that you were coming to visit?”

“Oh Aunt Milly, I just had to come and to talk with you. I’m to be married, but… Oh, my manners,” Sally declared.

As Ashton stepped to the family, Sally introduced Ashton to her aunt, then Milly introduced Lucas and Hope to her niece.

“I remember you,” Sally stated as she politely shook hands with Lucas. “Oh, no. Aunt Milly, he’s Mark’s father. You married Mark’s father! Aunt Milly… But, … Oh, I’m so embarrassed.”

“Sally, let’s just have supper together while we get reacquainted and I’ll tell you everything later,” Milly stated as Lucas help remove her shawl from her shoulders.

“Aunt Milly, you’re pregnant!” Sally declared.

“Hush child,” Milly chided her niece.

Lou got up from her seat and walked over to where the McCain’s waited.

“Milly, seeing as ye have family visiting, I think it best ye have supper with them. We can eat together any time.”

“Thank you Lou,” Milly replied, as Lou showed them to a table in the restaurant.

*****

“Oh Aunt Milly, I’m so sorry for embarrassing you like that. It’s just that…”

“Sally, I hadn’t written your mother to let her know about my pregnancy,” Milly stated as she placed her hands to her stomach.

“Mother stated you had returned to North Fork and she wrote you had married, but I… didn’t think it was to Mark’s father,” Sally stated.

“Darling, why should you be so embarrassed over not knowing your aunt was expecting. And just who is this Mark that you reference?” Ashton asked.

“Mark is my oldest son,” Lucas answered.

“And which of these boys is Mark?”

“Oh, Ashton, Mark’s probably a grown man by now,” Sally stated as her cheeks turned red.

“Ashton, Hope is married to our oldest son, who is the father of the twins and the baby that Hope is holding,” Milly stated. “The other boy, Little Ted, and Myra, belong to Lucas and me.”

“I do not understand your embarrassment, Sally.”

“Well, I came to visit Aunt Milly when I was sixteen. And… Oh my…” Sally stopped as embarrassment took hold.

“Ashton, there was the matter of Mark having his first boyhood crush on a pretty girl. But the girl herself had a crush on an older boy,” Lucas stated.

“Do tell?” Ashton asked, quite intrigued.

“There’s no need to go into details!” Sally stated, quite flushed. “Aunt Milly, please, tell us, when are you expecting to give birth.”

Realizing her niece was trying to save herself any more embarrassment, Milly answered, “If all goes well, and if this child doesn’t come as early as the other two, some time the end of March.”

“Are you hoping for a boy or a girl?”

“As long as the baby is healthy, we don’t care. We already have one of…” Milly stopped, placing her hand to her mouth, realizing her gaffe. “The good Lord has provided us with two boys and a girl, so it really doesn’t matter. Regardless, the child will be loved.”

Then turning to Ashton, Lucas asked, “So what brings the two of you to North Fork?”

“Sally needed to talk with her aunt prior to our scheduled wedding. She is not quite sure she wants to go through with it. And I refused to allow her to travel this distance alone. Totally improper for a young woman, engaged as she is, to travel on her own with the red savages and highwaymen running loose.”

“Mr. Maguire, they might be savages to you, but they are people. People who love and care for their families and the land!” Hope stated.

“I meant no offense, but they are quite uncivilized and barbaric,” Ashton replied.

“Uncivilized?! Barbaric?!” Hope declared. “If you’ll excuse me, I need some fresh air.” Hope stood from the table and left, taking Elijah with her, as tears were forming in her eyes.

“Did I say something wrong?” Ashton asked.

“Ashton, there are a few things you need to learn about this land and this family, but now is not the time to discuss,” Lucas answered as he watched Milly follow Hope out of the restaurant.

A few minutes later, Milly returned to the restaurant alone, she shook her head as Lucas looked to her.

“Mrs. McCain, I honestly did not mean to upset your daughter-in-law,” Ashton replied as Milly sat back down.

“Please, call me Aunt Milly. Hope’s past is difficult to explain. But, for six years she was raised as a member of a Kiowa tribe.

“She was held as a captive?” Ashton stated.

“No!” Lucas replied, defending Hope. He softened his tone of voice before continuing, “She had been living with her aunt and uncle. Outlaws murdered the family and burned the homestead, and she ran away. Iron Heart and his sons were out hunting when they came upon Hope in the desert. They followed her tracks back to the homestead and saw what happened. Iron Heart was the chief of the tribe and took her in when she was a little over ten years old, he raised her, as his daughter.”

“I am sorry to have upset her. I shall offer my sincerest apologies to the girl. If you will tell me where she is?” Ashton asked.

“Please, let’s leave her be for now,” Milly stated. “She’ll come around by morning.”

Milly returned the subject to Sally’s unexpected arrival.

“Aunt Milly, I just need to talk to you. Mother is so…, she’s not very modern and you are. Could we talk, woman to woman, tomorrow?”

Milly nodded.

Ashton, interrupted and said, “I am sorry that we ruined your family dinner, we shall take our leave and allow the young woman to return and eat with her family. Until tomorrow.”

With that, Ashton and Sally left the restaurant. Milly excused herself and went back to the kitchen to talk with Hope.

*****

“Hope,” Milly stated as she opened the door. “They’ve left the restaurant so that you may re-join us. The young man didn’t mean to offend you. He’s sorry for how he spoke. Hope, you have to understand, he was raised differently. I take it from the way he speaks, he was raise in an Eastern city and hasn’t had much exposure to our culture. Will you please come back to the restaurant and join us?”

“Ma, it’s just not right… He judged them without taking the time to know them? You expect me to just sit there and listen to his… his…”

“No, I didn’t expect you to just sit there, but I didn’t expect you to run off like you did either. Hope you had an opportunity to teach him a little of the Kiowa. Hope, I know this is difficult for you, but more people are coming to North Fork and many of them won’t know any better, just like Ashton. We need to help them understand that not all Indians are the savages written about in dime store novels. Lucas and I have invited Ashton and Sally to the ranch tomorrow and I am sure he will offer his apologies to you. Maybe then you can take some time to explain to him the culture of Iron Heart and his family.”

“I’ll try, Ma.”

“Good, now I’m hungry and I’m sure the others are too.”

Milly and Hope returned to the restaurant and ate supper with the family, before returning to the ranch for the night.

*****

The following morning, Sally and Ashton arrived at the McCain ranch around mid-morning. Upon seeing Hope sweeping the porch of her home, Ashton walked over to offer his apologies.

“Madame, I …” before he could continue, Hope slapped his face, hard.

“I am NOT a madam! How dare you insult me in such a manner!” Hope ran into the house and slammed the door behind her.

Ashton rubbed at his face as he turned to walk back to the buggy and assist Sally in getting down. A look of surprise was on both their faces as Milly came to the porch and inquired if everything was okay.

“I thought so, but the young Mrs. McCain slapped my face when I attempted to offer my apologies for last night and then she yelled that I had insulted her. Aunt Milly, I plead that I said nothing that was meant as an offense,” Ashton stated.

Looking from Ashton to Hope’s home, Milly stated, “Sally, Ashton, please go on in to our home. Myra and Little Ted are in their rooms for the morning, I’ll be right back,” as she excused herself.

*****

Milly knocked on the door to Hope’s home before entering, “Hope?” she called. Josh and Zach came running from their room calling, “GanMa”.

“Good morning, boys. Where’s your Mama?” They pointed to the bedroom.

Milly walked to the open bedroom door and could hear Hope crying. She looked in and saw Hope lying on her bed.

“Hope, please tell me what happened?”

“He insulted me. He’s rude and I will not allow him talk to me in such a manner!”

Milly walked over and sat down on the edge of the bed. She placed a hand to Hope’s shoulder.

“Please Hope, sit up and talk with me. What did he say to insult you?” Milly asked.

As Hope sat up on the bed and wiped the tears from her eyes. She said, “He called me a madam. I am not a woman who takes money from men for the pleasure of her body. I am a respectably, married woman! I love my husband!”

Milly tried to stifle a laugh as she placed her hand to her mouth and said, “Oh Hope, he didn’t insult you. It’s a matter of pronunciation.”

“Pronunciation?! He called me a madam!”

“Hope, I believe he called you Madame.”

“What’s the difference?!” Hope demanded.

“Hope, a madam is a woman who runs a brothel as you so described. Madame is a French word used when addressing a married woman. It is a word of respect. Hope, he didn’t insult you, and I believe he was actually coming to apologize for his words last night.”

“Oh, Ma! He must think me as rude and ignorant,” Hope said as she turned over and cried again.

“Hope please. You’re not rude and you’re not ignorant. It’s just people not understanding the customs or languages of others. Please sit up and dry your tears,” Milly pleaded.

It took a while, but Milly was finally able to get Hope to stop crying and to agree to come to her home to spend the rest of the day with her and Sally.

*****

Milly returned to her home, “Sally, Ashton, I’m so sorry. With Hope’s upbringing there are still, some things she’s not been introduced to. The people of North Fork know of her background and we understand there can be certain, language barriers or times when she doesn’t understand something and we take the time to explain. Even though it’s been five years since she became a resident of North Fork, there are still times… Give her a few minutes to get freshened up and she’ll be over here.”

“Aunt Milly, I guess I too need to understand that the way I act and how I say things can be interpreted wrong. It was wrong of me to say what I did last night without knowing the facts,” Ashton stated.

A few moments later there was a knock at the door. All turned to see Hope, carrying Elijah in his sling around her neck and the twins standing at the door.

“Come in Hope,” Milly stated.

“Mr. Maguire,” Hope started.

“No Miss Hope, please. I was first to offend. I do offer my sincerest apologies. I was just telling Aunt Milly that it was wrong of me to say what I did, without knowing the facts of the Indian culture. I am sure that as with the white man, there are both good and bad. It was wrong for me to say all were savages, uncivilized, and barbaric. I ask you to accept my apology.”

“Only if you’ll accept my apology for slapping you. Ma explained to me that you didn’t insult me, that the word you used was a term of respect.”

“Miss Hope, I say let the past be the past and we start anew. I am pleased to make your acquaintance, and I hope we can be friends. And my friends call me Ashton.”

“I’d like that Ashton. I’d also like to introduce to you, my sons, Joshua and Zachariah, and the newest one is Elijah.”

“All good, strong names. I am sure they take well after their father,” Ashton stated.

“That they do,” Milly interrupted. “Ashton, if you’d like, Lucas just returned to the barn. You might feel more comfortable spending the day with Lucas than sitting in the house listening to the three of us women talking.”

“Sally, I think your Aunt is wise counsel. I will see you later this afternoon. Good day ladies,” Ashton bowed ever so slightly, then turned, placed his hat on his head and headed out the door.

“He is quite proper, Sally,” Milly stated.

“That he is. He wouldn’t even kiss me until after we were engaged,” Sally replied. “Hope, may I hold your youngest?”

Hope removed Elijah from the sling and handed him to Sally.

“Hard to believe that Mark is a father of three such darling boys,” Sally stated.

“Why is that?” Hope asked.

“Oh Hope, it’s quite embarrassing on my part,” Sally replied.

“Not just Sally’s part, but Mark’s as well. I am thankful that he’s up in Denver. I don’t know if he would enjoy our telling Hope what happened the first time you came to North Fork,” Milly added.

“What did happen?”

“Oh Hope, it was all innocent. Mark was thirteen and had just recently become interested in girls, as girls,” Milly answered.

“Yes, I had come to visit Aunt Milly and I had also found out that a boy I had met in Denver was living and working in North Fork. Well, I didn’t realize that Mark had a crush on me, because I had a crush on an older boy, Bruce Henry. I thought I was in love with Bruce because he had been kind to me when he was up in Denver. But it took Mark to show me the other side of Bruce, how if he didn’t get his own way, he could be quite… mean and vindictive.”

Milly continued, “But from Mark’s viewpoint, Sally was kind to him and was so different from the girls he went to school with. She was three years older. Sally, I never told you this, but he had asked Lucas if he could purchase a plot of land to build a home, where he and his wife could live.”

“His wife?!” Hope asked.

“Hope, he had his first crush on a girl and he was so sure that Sally felt the same way about him. He wanted so much to grow up and he thought Sally would be his wife.”

“I knew after he showed me the other side of Bruce that Mark had been sweet on me, but I didn’t know how much,” Sally stated, somewhat shocked.

“Lucas came to talk with me that afternoon and I told him that you and Bruce had gone on a ride and where the two of you were. He took Mark to see for himself that you were only a friend and nothing more. It broke Mark’s heart, a little.”

“Oh Aunt Milly, I didn’t know!”

“You didn’t need to know Sally. It was something that Lucas had to do for Mark.”

“But he was still friend enough to show me the real side of Bruce. He didn’t let me ruin my life by ‘going daffy’ over a boy who wasn’t anywhere as nice as Mark was. Oh, Aunt Milly. I wish I would have known all of this, back then.”

Then Sally turned to Hope, “Oh how I envy you. I presume Mark is just as sweet now, as he was back then.”

“I don’t know about back then,” Hope answered. “But if the man he is today is any indication, I’d say he hasn’t changed that much from when he was younger.”

“Hope, Mark’s always been special to a lot of people in this town. Not just because he lost his mother at such a young age,” Milly stated. “But there was just something about him. So vulnerable, yet determined to grow up and be just like his father. With some of the ordeals that he and Lucas have endured, it’s a testament to him to be the kind and caring husband, father, and son that he is.”

“Hope, Aunt Milly stated that Mark is up in Denver. Is he away on cattle business?” Sally asked.

“No, he’s a deputy marshal for this town, as well as a Deputy U.S. Marshal. He was required to travel to Denver to attend a new training class. I only hope he’ll be home for Thanksgiving.”

“How long has he been gone?”

Hope turned her attention to the twins as they came running into the front room from playing with Little Ted. “Mama,” the boys said in unison.

“Shhh. It’s not polite to talk when someone else is talking,” Hope said as she mildly scolded her sons.

“We sorry.”

“Hope please, they are so precious. Go ahead and tend to them, I think your youngest needs some attention. Where are your diapers?”

“Oh, here, I’ll…” Hope said as she started to get up.

“Please? I think I’d love to change a baby,” Sally stated.

Hope proceeded to let the boys take her to Little Ted’s room, while Milly assisted Sally in changing Elijah.

*****

“Aunt Milly, are you and Uncle Lucas really happy together?” Sally asked.

“We are. Sally, why are you so unsure about being married?”

“I don’t know. I just see how Ashton’s family is. I mean they’re nice people but they’re just so formal, but I love Ashton so much.”

“Sally, when you’re married, the life you create will be your own, you and Ashton. And, living as husband and wife takes on a whole new meaning,” Milly stated as she pressed her hands to her pregnant belly.

“Oh Aunt Milly. I guess I’m scared about the first time.”

“Every woman is scared before their first time. It’s only natural. That night, you’ll experience a desire and emotions that you’ve never felt before. A loving husband understands this, but they too are experiencing the same type of desires and feelings.”

Hope returned to the front room.

“Sally, it’s hard to explain, but…” Hope said. “The first time, is something wonderful. You’ll come to understand your body in such a way that you never imagined. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, but at the same time, it’s hard to get over the embarrassment of what you think other people think. Especially the first morning as you wake up as a married woman.”

“We can both speak from experience that the first gift we give our husbands, on our wedding night is nothing compared to the second gift we give our husbands, the gift of a child.”

Sally had finished changing Elijah’s diaper, but he was still fussy.

“I think the ‘other’ end needs attention. Here, let me take him, it is past his lunch time,” Hope stated as she picked Elijah up and headed to one of the bedrooms.

*****

“Aunt Milly, why did Hope take the baby to the bedroom? She didn’t even take a bottle,” Sally stated.

“Sally, out here we chose to breast feed our children. There are times when feeding a baby with a bottle is necessary, but this is a gift that God gave to woman. He let man and woman create life, then the woman carries that life, until the baby can survive outside the womb. But then for the next six to nine or even twelve months, a woman’s body sustains that life. It’s a natural fact of life out here. I’m sure you’ve seen women nurse their babies before.”

“I don’t really know. Most of the new mother’s back in Raleigh choose to bottle feed their babies.”

“Then they’re missing out on a blessed time to spend with their child. It’s hard to explain Sally, but what I experienced when Myra and Little Ted were nursing, it made me feel fulfilled as a woman. All three together, the intimacy of marriage, carrying and giving birth to a child, and then having my child nurse from my breasts. Sally, that’s part of what it means to be a married woman and it all starts with the love a man and a woman share and their desire to be together for the rest of their lives.”

“Aunt Milly, I think I understand. Seeing you pregnant and then holding Elijah and everything you said… I’m not so scared about our wedding night, but…”

“Sally, stay through Thanksgiving. I think you’ve spent way too much time away from family. We’ll get you to come around to where you’ll be so very eager to want to marry Ashton.”

Hope returned to the front room and stated she’d be right back, “It’s time for the boys nap…”

“Hope, just put them down for their nap in Little Ted’s room and then you’ll join Sally and me for lunch. It will be a while before Lucas and Ashton return.”

*****

During lunch, the women laughed and talked more of Mark when he was younger. “You know,” Milly stated. “If Mark were here, I’m sure he would be quite embarrassed to find out we’ve been talking about him.”

“I’m sure he would. I’d like to know more about his younger life. There’s just so much that I don’t know about him.”

“Hope, he’s not hiding anything from you. It’s just that for so long it was just Lucas and Mark and even when I was here the first time, they are such caring men folk, but very private. As you know, their bond is so much more than… Well, we can only hope our children have as strong a bond with their fathers as Mark does.”

“Oh they will Ma and they do,” Hope answered.

*****

Ashton stepped from the house and proceeded to walk across the yard, calling, “Good Morning, Lucas”

“Morning Ashton. See you found the ranch.”

“Yes sir, the directions you provided were quite good.”

“So, the women folk are inside talking?” Lucas asked

“Yes sir. Your wife suggested that I might spend the day with you. Something about me not wanting to be around while they are talking,” Ashton stated. “So I took your wife’s counsel and came out here to spend some time with you.”

“Ashton, when you and Sally do get married, you will find out there many occasions when a man should just quietly leave the room. But don’t confuse those times, with when you should stay and listen to what your wife has to say. Don’t ever get those two confused.”

“But how will I know the difference?”

“I’m sorry to say, the only way is to learn by making the mistake. We all have, so take comfort that you’ll never be alone in that respect.” Lucas then changed the subject, “Glad to see you didn’t wear your nice clothes out here. You’ll fit into this country by wearing the clothes you’re wearing. Do you ride?”

“Yes sir,”

“Good, then you can help me. I need to ride out and move some of the yearling calves to the winter pasture. Usually Mark helps me with this, but he’s up in Denver.”

“You spoke of your eldest son last night and something about him and Sally.”

“Come on, first, let’s get your horse unhitched from the buggy and then I’ll help you get Mark’s horse, Copper, saddled and then we can talk while we ride.”

*****

They headed out to move the cattle. Lucas told Ashton of how his, then, thirteen year old son had recently started getting interested in girls as girls.

“It was sweet. Sally had just arrived for a visit and Milly introduced her to Mark. He was so… smitten with her. He was willing to go out of his way to deliver a note to a boy that Sally had known up in Denver. Bruce Henry has spent a summer up in Denver before he came to live and work on his uncle’s ranch. Though it did come as quite a shock when Mark asked me if I would sell him a section of land, so he could build a house for him and his wife.”

“Thirteen and getting married?” Ashton inquired.

“Not really, but it did alarm me that Sally could be leading my son on in such a way. So I headed into town and spoke with Milly. It was then that she told me that Sally and Bruce had gone on a picnic. It was one of the hardest things as a father that I had to do, I took Mark to see for himself. He was quite embarrassed for a while, but then he realized what a mistake Sally was making in thinking that Bruce really cared for her.”

“A mistake?”

“See Bruce Henry could be all nice and respectable, as long as he got what he wanted. But on the other hand, he had a temper. Mark decided to ‘show’ Sally, what he called, the ‘real’ Bruce Henry. Mark got pushed and shoved, and maybe did get his sweet reward by Sally and Milly fussing over him afterwards. A thirteen year old boy being beat up by a boy most would consider a man at seventeen.”

“So your son, knowing that he had embarrassed himself by his actions, chose to help Sally avoid making the same mistake herself. He sounds like quite a remarkable young man. And he’s now married to Hope and with three young sons. I feel Hope is quite lucky.”

“We all feel that way.”

“If I may ask, how does he put up with her temper?”

“Her temper?” Lucas asked, surprised.

“Yes, I tried to apologize this morning upon our arrival and again, I said the wrong thing. This time, before she turned around and went into her home, she slapped me across the face. Oh, it is nothing to be concerned about. Aunt Milly went and spoke with her and then returned to your home and explained the misunderstanding. Guess with my formal upbringing what I say can be interpreted differently.”

“Just what did you say?” his curiosity piqued.

“Well, I called her a Madame and she thought I called her a madam,” Ashton stated as he rubbed at his cheek and Lucas had a good laugh. “Believe me Lucas, we have, how do you say, mended the fences.”

“That’s one way of saying it.”

They started pushing the yearling calves.

“Lucas, can we talk, since you are a married man?”

“What would you like to know?”

“Guess I should get used to speaking as normal people do… It’s just that, well, I know I love Sally and I know she loves me, but my family… You’ve probably figured out that I come from a well-to-do family.”

“Your upbringing is your business.”

“Thank you, but still… My parents…, their marriage was arranged by their families and though they tried to make arrangements for me with daughters of their friends, I just couldn’t. Then I met Sally who is so alive and her zest for life, it’s not all proper or what my parents approve. She laughs so spontaneously and she doesn’t care if she walks barefoot through the grass. I do want to make her my wife, … Sir, I know of the facts of life, but they were told to me by my father. I know he loves my mother, in his own way, but it’s not the kind of marriage I want with Sally. I want her to feel free, to be who she is. Even just watching your family for this short time has made me realize what I truly missed out on as a boy and a young man, growing up.”

“Ashton, it’s not for me to judge your family. But just be true to what you feel and be true to Sally, once you are married. Understand, it’s not you she’s doubting; she’s doubting herself. All women go through this as they get closer to their wedding day. But more importantly, they’re scared.”

“Scared of what?”

“Their wedding night. It’s the first time a woman will be alone with a man, in a bed. Don’t rush her, take your time as you explore each other as husband and wife. I told my son, before he married Hope, to let her give herself to him. They were both, so much younger than I was when I married Mark’s mother. I was concerned, especially when I realized they both truly did love each other, I made Mark promise he would wait to get married until they were at least eighteen. Which they did, but then Mark stated that they would wait until Hope had graduated from school. For the first few years of their marriage, they shared our home with us. Then, the fall after the twins were born, with help from our friends, we built their home. There have been many times that I’ve been thankful that they’ve live so close. You’ve experienced firsthand, why. But back to you and Sally, your first night as husband and wife is something wonderful, but you must be respectful of your wife.”

“I would never be disrespectful of a woman, let alone, the woman who becomes my wife,” Ashton replied.

“Good, but then you should also be prepared for the morning after. It will be the first time for both of you, but a woman will feel her emotions deeper. She’ll be embarrassed from what she thinks others might think of her. Most married women will remember back to the morning after their wedding night and understand. It’s the husbands who need to show even more compassion, the day after.”

“I think I understand. A woman is not raised to seek the pleasure of a man’s company in the bedroom and once they are married, she finds that she enjoys something so taboo to her and…”

“Ashton, as long as you understand and can remember, you and Sally will have a wonderful start to your marriage.”

They finished moving the calves to their winter pasture and headed back to the house.

“By the way, I hope you and Sally are planning to stay for Thanksgiving. You’ll get to meet other married folks, and you’ll get to better understand what marriage can be about.”

“I’d like that Lucas. I really would.”

It was late in the afternoon when Lucas and Ashton returned to the house. Lucas, Milly, and Hope waved goodbye as Sally and Ashton drove away.

*****

Thanksgiving morning dawned to find plenty of activity at the McCain houses. Both Milly and Hope were trying to get their children dressed and items packed that they would need for the day. Lucas returned to his home after tending to the morning chores. He saw that Myra and Little Ted were ready and announced, “I’m going over to see if Hope needs any help with the twins or Eli.”

“Lucas, remind Hope to pack that one baking dish,” Milly said.

“Which one?”

“She’ll know, just tell her.”

Lucas left the house, he knew now was not the time to ask for more specific details.

Upon knocking and entering the house, the twins rushed from their bedroom yelling “GanPa”.

“Pa, would you please see if you can finish getting them dressed. Between them, and Eli, and packing for today…” Hope stated, a little bit flustered.

“No problem, that’s why I came over. By the way, Milly said for you to remember that one baking dish?”

“Oh, I almost forgot.”

In time, Lucas went to hitch the team and with the children bundled up against the cool temperatures, soon the families were on their way to North Fork.

*****

As the women were in the kitchen, Hattie commented, “It just doesn’t seem like Thanksgiving this year.”

“Why would ye say that?” Lou asked.

“Well, Mark’s not here to sneak in and taste of our cooking or steal a kiss from a certain young lady. As he has in the past…” Then looking to Hope, “Oh Hope, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“You didn’t upset me. It’s just been three weeks that he’s been gone and I really wished he would be home for today. This is the first year he’ll not be a part of our Thanksgiving.”

“Hope,” Milly stated as she placed an arm around Hope’s shoulders. “He’ll be thinking of you, I’m sure. He’s missing you as much as you’re missing him.”

“Hope?” Sally asked. “Eli is getting fussy in the bassinet, do you mind if I were to take him upstairs and change him?”

“No, I’d really appreciate it. Guess I’m realizing just how much Mark does around the house. Three boys are quite a handful to take care of on my own. Ma, I’m so thankful that Pa helps out as much as he does.”

Throughout the morning and into the afternoon, the women chatted from one subject to the next. Each one realizing they needed to be careful and not bring up anything that would remind Hope that Mark was not there.

*****

The men took their time organizing the restaurant. Setting the tables and chairs for eating and other tables for the food to be placed upon. Ashton tended to the fire in the fireplace. He enjoyed spending time with this extended family. Though each couple was different, one thing was the same, the love one shared for their spouse. He saw it through their interactions and in their eyes. Even when they were bantering, there was always laughter in the room.

‘This is what I want my marriage to be like,’’ Ashton stated as he folded his arms and looked around the room.

*****

The women started bringing the food into the restaurant, the afternoon train arrived and Johnny Drako excused himself to go meet any visitors. He returned shortly, acting a little odd, as they started to gather in family groups around the tables.

Lucas started, “As is tradition, we always say what each family is thankful for, and for this year, I’m truly thankful for the woman standing beside me. And I’m thankful for the life that the Good Lord’s blessed her to carry.” Lucas placed a hand to Milly’s belly and she tried to push it away while blushing.

“The Gibbs family is next,” Lucas stated.

And so each family said what they were thankful for, until finally it was time for the last of the McCain family. Hope hesitated to stand forward. She was looking to the twins standing beside her and didn’t see the facial expressions on those around her change. She gave out a squeal as two arms wrapped around her waist and a voice said, “I don’t know about you, but, I’m thankful to be home.”

Hope turned around to see Mark standing behind her. Mark had entered the restaurant with his index finger to his lips asking those who saw him to keep quiet that he was home. Hope wrapped her arms tightly around her husband’s neck, the twins were calling, “Papa, Papa”, Mark wrapped his arms tighter around Hope’s waist.

“I missed you,” Mark quietly said as Hope cried in his arms. “Now, now, there’s nothing to cry about.” Mark removed one arm from around Hope, then lifted her chin and wiped a tear from her cheek. He placed a quick kiss to her lips.

Hope unwrapped her arms from around Mark so he could bend down and hug his sons.

“It’s good for a father to be re-united with his son, too.” Mark stated as he hugged his Pa and his ma, knowing he had a secret.

“Mark McCain, you have a secret, I know that look in your eye. You never could lie when you were younger, what makes you think you can lie now?” Milly asked.

“I’m not lying, I just wanted to surprise Hope by coming home early. Little did I know of the other surprise in store for my family? I met up with more family on the train ride home.”

“Family? We’re all here.” Johnny Gibbs stated.

“We are now.” Mark turned and pointed out into the lobby.

“Ethan, Annie!” Hope exclaimed. “Son!” Seth stated as they went to greet their arriving family members.

“You didn’t wire!” Seth stated as he shook hands with his son. Then turned to look at the child sleeping in Annie’s arms.

“Well, seems we have a history of not wiring our arrivals, if you’ll remember father,” Ethan stated. He wrapped his arm around Annie’s shoulders and said, “Father, we’d like you to meet your grandson, Seth Edward.”

Seth took the child from Annie and as a family they went back into the restaurant.

As he re-entered the restaurant, Mark saw Lou wagging a finger at Johnny, he decided to go to Johnny’s defense.

“Lou, its Thanksgiving. Besides, Ethan and I asked him not to say anything right away. We wanted to surprise our families.”

“But Mark. Oh ye.” Lou stated as she scrunched her face. “Don’t ye realize how much yer wife missed ye?”

“I do and I’m sure it was as much as I missed her.”

Lou wagged her finger towards Mark and smiled as they all returned to join the rest of the families.

*****

As Mark sat down at the table, next to Hope, he asked, “The blonde-haired woman, who is she?”

“So you don’t remember the first woman you wanted to ask to be your wife?” Hope asked.

“My wife? Hope, you’re the only one I’ve ever asked to marry me,” Mark pleaded.

“Then I guess that everything Ma said about you and her niece, Sally, is a lie?” Hope couldn’t contain her laughter as she saw the expression on Mark’s face.

“Sally?!” he gasped.

“What’s wrong there Mark? Seen a ghost?” Johnny Gibbs asked. Mark and Sally had been a topic of one of the discussions while the men were preparing the room.

“Not quite,” Mark stated as he reached for a glass of water. “And the man?” he whispered to Hope.

“Don’t worry Mark, his name is Ashton Maguire and they are engaged to be married. Sally wasn’t quite sure she could go through with the wedding, which is planned for spring. She came to talk to Ma.” Hope stated with a smile on her face.

“And you talked about…” Mark gulped again, as his face reddened with his embarrassment.

“Don’t worry about that right now. We’ll have plenty of time to discuss it when I get you home” Hope stated, enjoying every minute of their banter.

*****

Throughout the afternoon, as dishes were passed and the meal was eaten, Ashton and Sally both took in the love that abounded in the room. Once dessert was served, Mark and Hope heard Eli getting fussy. Hope started to excuse herself, “No,” Mark stated, “WE’LL be right back.”

Mark picked Eli up from the bassinet where he had been sleeping and carried him upstairs, as Hope led the way.

“So Ethan, what brings you and Annie back to North Fork? Or did you just decide to come this far for the Holidays?” Seth asked.

“Father, Ethan is being reassigned. His tenure at West Point is finished and we’re now being transferred to Fort Stanton. Only we don’t have to report until after the New Year.”

“That’s only a few days ride by horseback?” Drako stated.

“Or less than one by train,” Ethan replied.

Later, the families cleared the tables and, as usual, then the men did the dishes.

*****

Once dishes were finished and put away, the men folk returned to the restaurant and rejoined their families. Mark stopped by and gave Hope a quick kiss and said, “I’ll be right back.”

Hope smiled as she watched Mark walk over to Sally and Ashton, she looked forward having some fun at Mark’s expense, once they got home.

Mark stepped to the couple, “Excuse me, Sally?”

“Mark, I was wondering if you would remember me?” Sally stated as she stood and gave Mark a polite kiss on the cheek.

“Well, I didn’t really recognize you, until Hope told me your name,” Mark stated a little embarrassed.

“That’s alright Mark, I probably wouldn’t have recognized you either. You sure have grown up since last time we saw each other. By the way, I’d like you to meet my fiancé, Ashton Maguire. Ashton, this is Mark McCain.”

“Oh yes, the young man who fancied you his wife.” Ashton extended his hand to Mark. “Don’t worry. That was a long time ago, I understand.”

“Yes,” Mark replied as he tried to loosen his collar. “You heard?”

“From what I heard, I’m thankful that you were able to show Sally the error of her ways while she was fancying that Bruce Henry.” Then turning to Sally, “That was his name?”

“Oh you!” Sally replied. “Please have a seat for a few minutes Mark. Hope is a lovely woman. I’m glad you found someone.” She stated as they took their seats.

“I am too. Hope said the two of you are to be married in the spring?” Mark inquired.

“Yes, I guess it’s about time I get rid of the moniker of being an old spinster,” Sally said as she smiled and Ashton took her hand in his.

“You an old spinster? I don’t think so Sally,” Mark replied.

“I aim to see that title is never used when discussing Sally,” Ashton answered.

“How long have you two known each other?” Mark asked.

“We met when I was twenty-one and then Ashton proposed almost three years ago,” Sally replied.

“And I’ve been trying to get my fiancée to walk down the aisle ever since,” Ashton replied.

Seeing the expression on Mark’s face, Sally replied, “Mark, I knew that I love Ashton, but I wasn’t so sure about… marrying him. But I knew that if I could only talk with Aunt Milly, that, then, I would know. And being here for this past week and seeing the love that Aunt Milly shares with your father, and then Myra and Little Ted. Oh Mark, you should be so proud of your wife and your sons.”

“I am.” Mark allowed his gaze to drift towards Hope and the rest of his family.

“Mark, your parents stated she was raised, well… Mark,” Ashton stated. “You have quite a wife there. She’s very passionate about her beliefs and has quite the wicked slap.” Ashton rubbed his cheek as he remembered.

“Excuse me?” Mark asked. Unsure Ashton was really talking about Hope.

“Mark, it was a simple misunderstanding between the two of us. Most of it was my fault, for not taking the time to understand the customs and cultures of those living west of the Mississippi, which was brought about by my upbringing. I stuck out like a sore thumb. I spoke out of line when Hope and I first met. I made comments about the Indian, and… they weren’t well received by your wife. The following morning, Sally and I drove to your parents’ home, I started to apologize, called her Madame and she thought I called her a madam. That’s when she slapped me. Believe me Mark, everything’s been put in the past, but I’m sure, one day, it will bring laughter as she retells you what happened.”

Hearing his sons starting to getting fussy Mark stated, “Sally, Ashton, I wish you a wonderful wedding and a marriage as happy as Hope’s and mine. It was a pleasure seeing you again, Sally. And Ashton, it was a pleasure meeting you.” Mark stood and returned to his family.

*****

Soon the evening was over and the families returned to or headed to their homes.

*****

That night, Mark spent a little time playing in the front room with his sons. Hope sat in her chair and held Eli, allowing him a final nursing before putting him to bed for the night.

“I’m not sure who I missed the most,” Mark stated. “The boys or you. It hurt being separated from the four of you. I’m sure happy to be back home.”

“We’re happy to have you home,” Hope answered.

“Okay, I think its way past two little boys’ bedtime,” Mark declared.

“Ah Papa, it still early,” Josh replied.

“Yeah, not bedtime, Papa,” Zach replied.

“Oh yes it is. Come on, let’s get to bed. Your Papa’s spent over two days on a train and I’m tired and I want to go to bed myself.”

After, the boys had been put to bed and Mark and Hope were preparing for bed, Hope couldn’t resist asking, “So you were all set and prepared to marry an ‘older’ woman when you were thirteen?”

“Hope, I… I… Come on now, she was a pretty girl and fresh off the stage from Denver. She was so much prettier than any of the girls around here. She was mature and… and… She was nice to me.”

“So she was pretty and mature and nice… And Mark McCain knew right away he wanted to marry her?”

“Hope this isn’t fair. I mean, I’m not keeping any secrets from you…” Mark pleaded his case.

“And just how do I know that? How do I know that you don’t have some other girl friends just waiting to arrive on the train? How do I know that you weren’t up in Denver proposing to another woman?” Hope asked, enjoying every moment of Mark’s discomfort.

“Well, even if there were one hundred women waiting to get off the train and chase me down, I’d send them all away. Not one of them would be as beautiful as you.”

Both climbed under the covers and snuggled close to each other.

“I bet you say that to all the women.”

“You know,” Mark started. “When I was talking with Sally and Ashton, he told me of how Ma convinced him not to file charges against you.”

“Charges against me? For what? What charges did he want to press against me?” Hope demanded.

“Something about assault and battery. You slapping him in the face for no cause,” Mark stated as he smiled towards Hope as she tried to defend her actions.

“It was all a misunderstanding!”

“So you say,” Mark replied. He was having just as much fun teasing Hope as she had earlier, teasing him.

“Mark, I thought he called me a madam, when he called me Madame. Ma explained to me the differences between the two words. We accepted each other’s apologies and put it all in the past.”

“You know, there might be more charges that could be levied against you. I’ll have to look up the statute of limitations, though.”

“Like what?!” Hope exclaimed.

“Stealing,” Mark replied, allowing a grin to spread across his face.

“Stealing?! Just what is it that I’m supposed to have stolen?” Hope demanded, getting more than a little incensed.

Mark pulled her into his arms and said, “My heart, the first time I saw you. Hope, believe me, Sally was a childish crush by a thirteen year old boy. It pales in comparison to the love that I share with you.” He didn’t let her get another word in as he passionately kissed her. He pulled her body close to him; he felt her heart beating as strongly as his.

*****

The day after Thanksgiving, Sally and Ashton stood on the train platform with Milly and Lucas.

“So Sally, have you come to a decision?” Milly asked.

“I have, oh I have. I knew coming to talk with you would be the right thing, Aunt Milly. I’m eager to get back to Raleigh and finish making plans for our wedding,” Sally stated as she looked into Ashton’s face.

“Lucas,” Ashton stated as he held out his hand to shake Lucas’ hand. “Thank you for everything. I truly enjoyed myself while we were here. The love your family shares…, it’s wonderful. I’ll remember everything you said. I’m looking forward to taking Sally as my wife. Who knows, we may name our first born after you.

“Only if the baby’s a boy!” Sally declared.

 

This story continues in The Rifleman – The Next Generation Pt 10

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