The Rifleman – The Next Generation Pt 19 (by BluewindFarm)

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

Category:  The Rifleman
Genre:  Western
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  29,960


 

The Next Generation… Chapter 90 – A Little Faith

The scorching sun continued its hold on the territory as October neared an end. The McCains only had one remaining watering hole for their livestock as they continued to work the ranch from sun up to sun down. Out on the range they struggled to bury the cattle that hadn’t survived or tended to calves that had been abandoned by their mothers. Alongside Lucas, Mark worked to harvest the last of their shriveled crops as well as harvest the hay to see their livestock through the winter. The drought also necessitated the continuance of hauling barrels of water from what remained of the small river that ran across their land to help take the burden off the dwindling supply in their water well.

“Hope, I want you taking it easy while I’m in town,” Mark stated, trying to keep the tiredness from his voice, as he finished pinning his badge to his shirt and turned to reach for his rifle from over the mantle of the fireplace.

“But there’s just so much to do. The calves in the barn need looking after and you’re harvesting….”

“They can all wait until I get home tomorrow,” Mark begged.

“Mark, you’re working from the moment you get up until well past nightfall trying to take care of this place, plus you have your job in town. You’re out there helping Jake build his home… You can’t do it all!”

“Hope, I’ll do what needs to be done to provide for our family and take care of our home, and if that means I lose out on sleep, then so be it,” Mark stated as he stood in front of Hope and pulled her as close to him as he could, with her very pregnant belly. “Pa and I’ve weathered droughts before and we’ll weather this one. Besides, you’re too close to your due date to do much more than just taking care of the boys and Emmy. I’m thankful that Gwen and Jake aren’t planning to get married until Thanksgiving; so she can be here to help you until this little one decides to make an appearance.”

“She shouldn’t have postponed her wedding because of me!” Hope declared with more temper than she meant.

“She didn’t. They wanted Thanksgiving to be even more meaningful. That’s why they planned their wedding for the weekend after. Besides, this drought has been hard on all the ranchers and town’s people alike. Jake’s having to work harder helping Pa and me to keep our cattle alive and the fences mended, they’re desperate for water and busting through the fences and it’s not just our herds. And you know very well that when Jake’s not here, he’s also working at Dave Merrar’s place, trying to build up a nest egg and he’s almost through building a home for after they get married.”

Mark finished packing a box of cartridges into his saddlebag as he prepared to leave for his shift at the Marshal’s Office.

“I’m asking you, stay inside and take it easy. Please? I’ll be back tomorrow afternoon and I’ll see that things that need done, are done. The cattle in the corral have plenty enough hay and water and Pa will see to the horses tonight and in the morning, everything else will keep until I return.”

Hope could see the tiredness in Mark’s eyes and she didn’t let on that at night, she wasn’t asleep when he’d come to bed. As he’d climb into bed, she heard him groan too frequently from being exhausted.

*****

The heat of the day drove Milly and her children inside. Jake had gladly accepted the day off and chose to take Gwen to town, to meet with his father regarding their upcoming wedding. Shortly after they left, Lucas was called away by Sam Montgomery, having found more fence lines down between their ranges. With her own children down for their nap, Hope slipped out of the house and looked out over their land. As she wrapped her arm around one of the posts on the porch, her attention was drawn to the barn as she smelled a faint trace of smoke in the air and saw wisps coming from the straw pile. Hope walked closer, only to see flames erupt. She ran and climbed up onto the back of the wagon and dunked two of the buckets into the barrels. She managed to get herself down from the wagon, and labored to carry the buckets, one at a time, in an attempt to put out the flames. After the third trip to and from the wagon, and Hope was sure the fire was extinguished, she set the buckets to the back of the wagon and rubbed at the small of her back. With the back of her hand, she wiped the sweat from her face when the first excruciating pain struck, causing her to double over as she grabbed to her stomach.

“Hope!” Gwen yelled as she and Jake drove into the yard. Gwen jumped from the buggy before Jake had the horse stopped. “Hope, what happened?! What’s wrong?!”

“It’s the baby!”

Jake was at Hope’s side, leading her back to the buggy, “I’ll get you to Doc’s,” he stated as he practically carried her. “Gwen, go tell Milly.”

Jake didn’t wait, once Hope was in the seat, he climbed over her legs, grabbed the reins, and urged his horse back to North Fork.

“What were you doing outside?” Jake asked.

“The straw pile… it caught fire,” Hope answered and screamed as another pain struck.

*****

Jake yelled for Doc Burrage as he pulled the horse to a halt in front of the clinic. Between the two of them, they carried Hope into the clinic.

“What happened?” Thadd asked over Hope crying in pain.

“Gwen and I arrived back at the ranch and found her doubling over in pain. She’d said there was a fire in the straw pile and I presume she put it out by herself.”

“She wouldn’t… Jake, go get Abigail, she’s…”

“What about Mark?”

“He can wait. Right now, I need my nurse. She’s over at the General Store. Get her!”

“Yes sir!” Jake replied as he ran from the clinic. As he passed the Marshal’s, he looked inside and was thankful that no one was there. Jake ran into the General Store, practically knocking Abigail down. Catching his balance and reaching to steady Abigail, an out of breath Jake called, “Miss Abigail, Doc needs you real bad at the clinic.”.

“What’s wrong?” a surprised Abigail asked.

“It’s Hope and the baby,” Jake stated as he took the packages from Abigail and the two of them hurried back to the clinic, as fast as her pregnancy would allow.

Colleen Gibbs bumped into Mrs. Donner, who was standing just inside the doorway, as she entered the General Store. After offering an apology Colleen asked, “Was that Jake and Abigail leaving in such a hurry?”

“Oh, Colleen, something’s wrong with Hope and the baby, Jake just ran in here and got Abigail!” Mrs. Donner replied as she reached out to place a hand to Colleen’s forearm.

Colleen excused herself as she turned from the store and ran back home, “Johnny!” she yelled when she saw him sitting on the porch, watching after their twin sons while Lillian was at a friend’s.

“Colleen?” Johnny answered as he looked up.

“It’s Hope, something’s wrong!”

Each picked up one of the twins and headed to the clinic. As they passed in front of the hotel, they encountered Johnny Drako stepping from the lobby.

“Johnny, where’s Mark?” Johnny Gibbs asked.

“He and Seth headed out to the Profit’s place, Obediah reported this morning he found a few head missing and another butchered. What’s wrong?” he asked, seeing their worried expressions.

“Hope’s at the clinic,” Colleen replied, but they didn’t wait any longer.

“Johnny,” Lou called as she came from the lobby, “What was that about Hope?”

“I don’t know, but I best ride out to get Mark, and Seth.”

Johnny Drako ran and jumped on his horse, urging his mount to a gallop.

*****

Thadd started to examine Hope, “Hope, tell me what you’re feeling.”

“It hurts!” she declared over her tears and screamed as the pain of another a contraction struck.

“What were you thinking? You’re too close to your due date to be carrying water buckets!” Realizing Hope’s pain was all that mattered to her, “Hope, I need you to try to calm yourself and follow my instructions, I’m gonna allow you to take a small dose of laudanum to ease the pain,” Following a cursory examination Thadd stated, “The baby is coming. There’s nothing I can to do stop it now.”

From behind, Thadd heard the door to the room open.

“Abigail, get scrubbed with the alcohol, the baby is coming.”

“Are you going to have to perform a cesarean section?” concerned as she heard the tone in her husband’s voice.

“I can’t, her water just broke, and the baby is practically here.”

*****

Within the hour Johnny returned to North Fork with Mark and Seth, and saw Lucas and Milly arrive with Gwen and their families. Without saying anything, Hope’s family headed into the clinic, as Jake stepped outside, leaving him, Drako, and Gwen to take care of the youngest McCain children.

“I guess we should take them to the daycare?” Gwen asked.

“That would probably be best,” Jake answered. “Marshal, should I go get Myra and the boys from their friends’ homes?”

“No, it’s best that they stay there and don’t know what happening, until we know more.”

*****

The McCains and Seth entered the clinic to find Johnny and Colleen Gibbs already inside.

“Uncle Johnny?” Mark asked, his eyes begging.

“We don’t know much, other than the baby is coming.”

“It’s too soon; she’s still a month away. She was fine this morning before I came to town,” Mark pleaded.

“Jake was in here before you arrived, he and Gwen returned to your home to find her over by the wagon with the barrels, said that the straw pile had caught fire and it appeared she carried buckets of water to put out the flames,” Colleen stated.

“She what?!” Mark exclaimed. “What was she thinking?! What was she thinking?!” Mark’s outburst was heard throughout the clinic.

“Mark, quiet down,” Milly tried to hush him.

“Calm yourself, Mark,” Lucas stated as he put a hand to Mark’s shoulder.

From behind the door, they heard Hope scream as another contraction hit. Everyone took seats in the chairs in the waiting area, except for Mark, he paced.

Lilah entered the clinic, the expression she wore on her face conveyed her concern for Hope, but also asked if she had the right to be there. Though she was Seth’s wife, she still wasn’t sure she belonged with the family at this time. Seth greeted her, pulled her into a hug, and escorted her to sit next to him.

Every now and then Mark would stop at the window, look outside, slam the side of his fist against the window frame, and proceed to pacing again. Once when he stopped he proclaimed, “Some trick!” and slammed his fist against the wall, again.

“Son?” Lucas asked.

“Trick or treat. Today’s Halloween.”

*****

The events in the examination room had been quiet for some time, when the door to the room finally opened, and a weary Abigail stepped into the waiting area. Hope’s family stood, anxious to hear the news.

“Mark, Thadd asked that you come inside,” Abigail quietly spoke.

Mark entered the room and the cleanliness belied the events that had transpired. He wanted to wrap Hope in his arms, but even in her sleep, he saw the anguish on her face.

“Thadd?” Mark asked.

“Mark, she’s going to sleep for a while. She gave birth to a daughter,” Thadd answered.

“A daughter?”

“Yes, it was tough going, though I’m not sure she’s quite out of danger yet.”

“Danger? Hope’s…”

“No, Mark, the baby. It was a difficult birth, the worst Hope has ever experienced… The baby’s umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck. Once she was delivered, we had to work hard to resuscitate her, to get her breathing.”

“Is she alive?”

“Yes, but you have to understand, she still could die.”

“Does Hope know?” Mark didn’t bother to hide the pain in his voice.

“She was in so much pain that I used laudanum to ease her suffering, and gave her a full dose once the baby was born. I’m sure she didn’t understand most of what Abigail and I were saying throughout her delivery.”

“If she had that much laudanum… How could you give her so much? She can’t…” Mark couldn’t say what he wanted to ask, his emotions were getting the better of him.

“Mark, I had no choice. Now, we’ve already bottle fed your daughter and once Hope wakes, which should be sometime later tonight, we’ll see that your daughter nurses properly.”

Thadd escorted Mark to the crib. As he peered inside, he saw the rosy face of his tiny daughter wrapped in a baby blanket, her lips moving as she slept.

“Will she be okay?” Mark asked.

“Only time will tell. She’s already stopped breathing a couple of times, but she’s been stable for the past half hour. We’ll have to keep a close eye on her throughout the next day or so.”

“What was Hope thinking?” Mark again asked of no one as he looked over to his sleeping wife.

“Mark, honestly, it was a good thing that Hope did what she did. Yes, it forced her into a premature and extremely difficult labor, but had the baby not been born today… There’s the very real chance her umbilical cord could have strangled her and she would have died in the womb. She wouldn’t of had a chance to live, like she does now.

“How much of a chance?” Mark asked.

“I don’t know, but she’s alive and she’s fighting. I’ve heard time and time again how you McCains are hardy stock. She’s proving it. If we can get her through twenty four hours without her breathing stopping, I think she’ll be out of danger, but until then…”

Mark watched as Abigail sat down in the chair next to the crib, to keep an eye on the baby.

*****

Thadd stepped from the room and closed the door behind him. Various members of Mark’s family stood when they heard the door open.

“How is Hope?” Seth asked.

“Sleeping.”

“And the baby?” Milly asked.

“There were complications. But you’ve another granddaughter.”

“When can we see Hope and the baby?” Seth asked.

“It’ll be later tonight before Hope wakes. And for now, I don’t want to expose the baby to any unnecessary risks, she’s had a rocky start. Abigail is keeping an eye on her.”

“We better get going,” Johnny stated as he wrapped an arm around Colleen’s shoulders. “If there’s anything you or Mark need, just let us know.” They picked up their sleeping twins and headed for home.

Milly nodded and asked, “Thadd, what complications?”

Thadd proceed to inform Lucas, Milly, Seth, and Lilah the details of their newest granddaughter’s birth.

“And?” Lilah asked. “Doc, there’s more you’re not telling us.”

“You’re right Lilah, your granddaughter is going to have to fight to survive. From what we’ve learned, the lungs are the last organ in the body to fully develop while in the womb. If she can’t continue to breathe on her own or we don’t catch it in time that she has stopped breathing, she can still die.”

Lucas wrapped his arms around Milly as Seth wrapped his arms around Lilah.

“If you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to my patients.”

*****

A half hour later, Thadd led Mark from the room where Hope was sleeping. “Come on, son,” Lucas stated as he met them coming out the door. “You look like you could use a meal. You’ll need your strength for when Hope wakes. And I know you’ve not eaten since you arrived back in town, so don’t tell me you’re not hungry.”

Lou and Johnny were waiting for them in the restaurant. After hearing a little of the news from Mark’s aunt and uncle, Lou had managed to shoo away all her other patrons by closing early for the evening.

“I’ll bring ye some strong coffee,” she stated after seeing them to a table.

When Lou returned with the coffee and cups, she filled Mark’s cup last. “Johnny and Colleen stopped by and told us of the baby and said there were complications. Is the baby doing okay, Mark?” she asked.

“For now, Thadd states it’s still touch and go…” Mark’s voice quieted.

“And Hope is going to be okay?” Lou asked.

“She’ll be okay, she’s sleeping right now,” a worried Milly answered as Lou sat down next to her.

*****

Micah entered the restaurant, and was immediately taken back by the strained looks on the faces of his friends. Lucas stood and walked to his friend to inform him of the news.

“Micah, I need to ask if you and Hattie would mind watching the children, for a while longer.” Lucas asked.

“No need to ask. You just focus on Hope and Mark, and I’ll do my best to make sure they’re all taken care of properly, this time.”

“Thanks, Micah. We’ll stop by to collect the children before we head home,” Lucas stated.

“Ye’ll do no such thing. I’ve empty rooms upstairs that just now became occupied. Ye’ll be staying here at the hotel tonight,” Lou declared.

Not having the emotional strength to object, Lucas replied, “Guess we’ll be staying in town.”

*****

Family and friends had just finished eating when Abigail entered the restaurant. Though Mark had only picked at the food on his plate, he was the first to see her and stood up so quickly that his chair clattered to the floor behind him.

“Abigail?” Mark queried.

“Thadd thinks she’s starting to wake.”

Mark didn’t even take time to excuse himself or wait for Abigail as he ran to the clinic. Stepping to the street, Mark failed to notice the ominous clouds in the already darkened night sky.

*****

Promptly upon entering the room, Mark climbed into the bed, slipped in behind Hope, and wrapped his arms around her. He brushed her hair from her face. He quietly whispered he loved her as he heard her whimpering in her sleep. He turned to look at Thadd, his eye’s begging to do something to ease her pain.

“I can’t. I want your daughter to nurse as soon as Hope wakes. At this time, it’s more important that your daughter receives her immunities through Hope’s breast milk.”

Hope continued to whimper and subconsciously moan as she started to fight through the darkness, yet, the pain she felt made her withdraw, back into the safety the darkness offered.

*****

Abigail was ready to leave the clinic to go home to their children. “Abigail?” Thadd asked. “How are you? Are you okay?” He came up behind his wife and wrapped his arms around her, and rested his hands on her pregnant belly.

“I will be; it’s just… I’m just feeling a little queasy… Thadd, this scared me.” Abigail stepped away and finished putting her shawl around her shoulders.

“Hush now.” Thadd took his wife by the shoulders and turned her to face him. “I know it did. The McCains mean a lot to both of us, and the thought of losing any patient before they’ve even taken their first breath of life… If you want, I can come home and be with you, tonight?”

“No, you’ll need to be here when Hope wakes. And that baby still needs you. I’ll be alright, but believe me, when you do return home; I’m not going to want to be out of your arms for a while.”

“I understand.” Thadd leaned forward and gave his wife a passionate kiss. “I love you. Now, go home and try to get some sleep.”

*****

It was shortly before midnight when Hope finally opened her eyes. The room was bathed in a faint glow from a lantern on the side table, she started to call for Mark when a bolt of lightning illuminated the sky outside, followed by a loud clap of thunder that startled Hope into a scream while it rolled across the land.

“Shhhh,” Mark whispered as he jolted awake. “It’s just the storm finally arriving, you’re okay.”

“Mark, the baby?” Hope managed to ask over the sounds of the rain hitting the window.

“You gave birth to a daughter,” Mark quietly answered.

“A daughter? Can I see her?” Hope asked groggily.

Mark looked up as he heard a knock on the door and Thadd pushed the door open to step into the room.

Hope attempted to sit up and grabbed at her middle as she felt the pain.

“Easy there Hope, don’t try sitting up on your own. There were complications. You’re going to be sore for a few more days.” Turning to Mark, “Help sit her up so she can nurse your daughter.” Thadd stated as he carried the crying baby, startled awake by the storm.

Hope unbuttoned the nightgown she had been changed into earlier in the evening and allowed Thadd to place their daughter in her arms and she eagerly positioned the baby to her breast. “You said, complications?” Hope asked.

“It’s not uncommon for what happened. I just need to keep an eye on her through the night. I pray she survives until morning…”

“Survives?!” Mark and Thadd heard the alarm in Hope’s voice.

“Because of her delivery, she’s had difficulties in breathing. She’s stopped breathing several times already. It’s good to see that she nursing, but that doesn’t mean she’s out of danger, yet.”

Tears fell down Hope’s face upon hearing the news.

“I’ll leave you be. I’ll try to be quiet when I check on the baby. I’ll be back in the morning to examine you, Hope.”

After the door closed, Hope asked, “Mark, how? Just last week, Doc said the baby had a strong heartbeat.”

“Her birth cord was wrapped around her neck,” Mark answered. “Thadd states the longer she goes between the episodes of her stopping breathing, the better the chance she has for living.”

Looking to the baby she held in her arms, Hope experienced a strange feeling, she no longer wanted to have the child at her breast.

“She’s a fighter,” Mark stated as he caressed the back of their daughter’s head.

“But…”

“God’s blessed us with her birth,” Mark stated.

“God blessed us? He let me conceive a child and now that she’s here, he’s going to let her die,” Hope quietly stated, trying to hide the hurt in her voice.

“We have to have faith, Hope.” Mark realized their daughter had stopped nursing and he took her from Hope’s arms, allowing Hope to button her nightgown. As he wrapped their baby in her blanket, Mark realized she had stopped breathing again. “DOC!!” Mark yelled and ran to the hallway, where Thadd met him and took the baby.

“Inside, I’ll show you what to do.” Doc carried the baby back into the room and placed her on the changing table. Mark watched as he gently pressed down on the baby’s stomach and with his face close to the baby’s, he blew air across her face, while he let up the pressure he had applied with his hand. “Mark, keep this up until she starts breathing on her own.”

It didn’t take but a few compressions before their daughter started breathing again. Thadd pulled his stethoscope from around his neck and listened to her heartbeat. “Her heart is still beating strong, it’s just that her lungs aren’t strong enough to continue breathing on their own.”

Thadd took the baby with him as he left the room. Turning to Hope, Mark saw the look of devastation on her face and stated, “You can’t blame God. We’ve learned that lesson over and over,” as he crawled back into bed and pulled Hope into his arms. “Hope, please as with everything else that has happened in the past, we have to have faith… faith that she’ll survive. But if she doesn’t, she’ll be in heaven with my Ma and yours.”

Hope closed her tear-filled eyes, and pulled away from Mark as she reached for the covers and wrapped them around herself.

Outside, a heavy rain continued to fall; soaking the land that had been dry for so long.

*****

The pain Hope experienced was from more than just the memory of the contractions. In the distance she heard Mark yell, “She what?! What was she thinking?!” Over and over again, Hope’s mind heard, “What was she thinking?!” “What was she thinking?!”

“No!” Hope screamed as she woke from her dream to the sound of thunder filling the room. She found herself breathing hard, and alone. She looked to the empty crib as lightning and thunder continued to fill the air, again she screamed, “NO!” The door opened quickly as Abigail stepped into the room.

“Hope? Are you okay?” Abigail asked.

“I killed her! Mark thinks I killed her!” she cried.

“No. Hope, no he doesn’t. How could you think such a thing?” Abigail stated as she wrapped her arms around Hope’s shoulders.

“He has too! I heard him yell. He told me to take it easy and I just had to put the fire out. The horses and the calves were in the barn. I killed our daughter just to save… animals!”

“Hope, you’re daughter isn’t dead… She is alive.”

“She’s going to die, she can’t breathe!”

“She’s had difficulties in breathing, but we’re keeping an eye on her and…”

“But if I hadn’t…”

“If you hadn’t put out the fire, then you would have lost your animals and the stress of losing the barn and animals could have still forced you into an early labor, later in the day. Worse, had you not gone into labor, she would have died before you could have given birth to her.” Abigail’s voice sounded harsh, she wanted to snap Hope out of her guilt. “Thadd is with her right now. She had another episode, her breathing stopped a little while ago.”

“Where’s Mark?”

“He left earlier, said he was going to go see your other children. I’ll be back in a few minutes, and if Thadd says okay, I’ll bring you your daughter, I’m sure you want to nurse her,” Abigail stated.

“I can’t. You can bottle feed her,” Hope replied as she lay back down and pulled the covers over her shoulder.

Abigail worried as she pulled the door closed, this wasn’t the Hope that she knew. In the hallway, she turned and saw Thadd carrying the baby.

“Is she awake? I bet she’s anxious to nurse her daughter?” Thadd stated with a small, tired smile.

“No…, she’s not.” Abigail’s voice held concern as she looked from the closed door to her husband.

“She’s not?”

“Hope said I should bottle feed her, she didn’t feel up to nursing her.”

Thadd handed the baby to Abigail who left to take the baby to feed her a bottle. Thadd opened the door to Hope’s room and saw her sleeping. He closed the door as another bolt of lightning and clap of thunder sounded over North Fork.

*****

Hattie and Micah continued to watch Hope and Mark’s other children while Mark stood his shift at the Marshal’s Office or stayed with his wife at the clinic. Each time Mark entered Hope’s room with their daughter, he found his wife sleeping. He relished sitting in the overstuffed chair to bottle feed their daughter, but he didn’t understand what was wrong with Hope.

*****

“Thadd, what’s wrong with Hope?” Mark demanded on the third evening after their daughter’s birth.

Putting down the book he had been reading, Thadd stated, “I think she’s rejecting the baby.”

“Rejecting?!”

“You’ve grown up on a ranch. You’ve seen a cow reject a calf…”

“We’re not talking cows and calves. We’re talking of my wife and daughter!” Mark argued, impatience and worry, wearing on him.

“Mark, with the complications from the birth and your daughter’s fight to breathe, I think Hope is avoiding becoming too attached, just in case the baby doesn’t survive.”

“But it’s been over twelve hours since her last episode?”

“And each hour that goes by is in her favor. If she can get to twenty-four hours between episodes, then I can comfortably say she’s out of danger. Mark, I’m not sure that Hope’s asleep when we go into the room. She’s avoiding becoming attached because she feels her daughter is going to die. I’m sure, like all women, Hope’s looked forward to giving birth and dreamed of watching the child grow up and now, she’s been told the possibility the child might die…”

“But you just said each hour is in the baby’s favor.”

“I did. Your daughter is getting stronger each hour. But, if Hope won’t come out of this… depression, I think I need to consider putting her on the medication like I did after the twins were born.”

“But she won’t be able to nurse the baby!” Mark exclaimed.

“I know, but what’s the difference? She won’t nurse her now.”

“I’ll see about that!” an angry Mark stated and stood to leave the office.

“Mark!” Lucas entered Thadd’s office to hear the last of the exchange. “Outside, now!”

Mark looked to his Pa.

“Now, son.” His voice took on a softer tone.

Mark followed his Pa outside, across the street and sat down on the steps beside the hotel.

“I think you should be more understanding,” Lucas offered.

“Why? Pa, Hope’s my wife, the mother of my children… How can she refuse to accept our daughter?”

“Mark like before, there’s stuff that a woman goes through that can change their feelings. She went through something similar when the twins were born.”

“This is different.” Mark felt bitterness. “That time I hadn’t told her I had been shot.”

“That was only part of it. Even if you had told her about being wounded, she would have still gone through that depression. Be patient with her, continue doing what you’re doing, and give her time to accept that her daughter is going to be a healthy, happy baby.”

Lucas looked to his son.

“Mark, I’ve not experienced anything like this, but I do know that time can heal her hurt.”

“It just doesn’t make sense,” Mark replied. “Our daughter lives and she won’t nurse her, won’t even hold her.”

“You’re not a woman. Mark I’m serious… Give her time and love. Keep doing what you’re doing when you’re in the room with her.”

Mark nodded.

“Come on, why don’t I bottle feed my granddaughter, while you go sit with Hope.

*****

As the days passed, Mark grew more concerned as Hope still didn’t show any interest in their newborn daughter; she kept stating she just didn’t feel well enough to care for her.

“Doc? I don’t know what to do?” Mark stated as he sat down in Thadd’s office.

“Mark, even though it goes against my better judgment, I’m going to send Hope and the baby home tomorrow. It’s been two days since she’s had an episode. Maybe getting your wife home will be the tonic she needs. She’ll have to do for her family instead of everyone else helping. But Mark, if she’s not back to her normal self by the end of the week, I want her back in here and we will put her on the medication, but I pray that sending her home will do the trick.”

“Thanks, Thadd. I appreciate your understanding,” Mark answered as he left the office to tell Hope the news; they were going home.

*****

Their baby was a little over a week old when Mark returned to town with their buckboard. Mark stopped by the parsonage to speak with Gwen, before heading to Hattie and Micah’s and finally the clinic.

“But you can’t, I mean I can’t. Hope needs all the help she can get with the children!” Gwen answered.

“Gwen, your wedding is just a few weeks away; you need to focus on you and your life with Jake. Let me help Hope. Hope and I have enjoyed having you helping out, but this is something Hope needs to do. With you there, I feel it will give her the excuse to continue to ignore our baby.”

Maggie McCafferty spoke up, “She’s ignoring the baby?”

“Yes, because of the complications. Doc thinks by letting Hope come home, it will force her to accept our daughter, but it won’t work with Gwen at the house.”

“But the other children?!” Gwen pleaded.

“No, Gwen. As of now, you’re a friend of the family, as you always have been, but you must start living your own life. You can visit once you return from your honeymoon, but until then, you concentrate on getting everything ready for your wedding. I’ll make arrangements to pack up your belongings and bring them to Hattie and Micah’s.”

Gwen nodded.

“I’m sure one day you’ll make a wonderful mother,” Mark stated as he kissed her on the cheek. “And, I’m still looking forward to giving the bride away.”

*****

Lucas was there to help Mark load his family into the buckboard.

“Mark, I don’t feel like sitting up in the front seat, can’t I just lie down in back?” Hope asked.

Mark agreed. He watched as Hope curled up on her side. Mark placed their daughter next to Hope and slipped the blankets over the two of them.

Lucas could read the expression on Mark’s face as he looked at his wife, ‘How much longer was this going to go on?’

Lucas rode beside the buckboard and watched as the twins sat in the front seat next to their pa, with Eli and Mykaela wrapped in blankets and sitting in back. It was a quiet trip home.

*****

They had been home for almost a week and each day the routine was the same. Mark would wake, get dressed, and leave the bedroom. He’d head to his sons’ room and wake them, instructing them to dress before he’d go to Mykaela’s room to wake her and help her get dressed. He filled the baby’s bottle and set it on the table, before returning to their bedroom to get their baby. On school days, he’d feed his children before seeing his eldest sons off with his Pa. Johnny had given him time off to deal with his family, allowing him to choose when he could return to stand watch in town.

Hearing the baby crying from their room, Mark finally had enough. He returned to his bedroom and was curt with Hope, “Damn it, Hope! I know you’re not sleeping. I’m taking the other children to Ma and Pa’s for the morning. Then, I’m going to the barn to do my Saturday chores. When I return, I expect our daughter to be fed and breakfast on the table, for me!”

Shoving his hat on his head, Mark gathered his children and took them to his parents’ home, apologizing when he asked if they would mind feeding them breakfast. Milly and Lucas felt for their eldest, when he shook his head in answer to Milly’s question if there was any change in Hope.

Mark walked to the barn, looking to the horizon and observing how nature had returned to normal. The heat and drought that had plagued the territory was over, after the rains had finally returned. Mark briefly shivered at the coolness of the morning. He turned the team loose in the corral and proceeded to clean their stalls. Once Two-Bits and Rainmaker were finished with their grain, he turned them loose in their separate corrals. Mark smiled as he watched the horses prance around, before stopping by the railing facing the house. The horses snorted and pawed. With his head held high, Rainmaker flehmened his upper lip, shook his head and neck, and flehmened again. Mark laughed at the antics of the stallion, thinking it a little late in the year for Two-Bits to be in season. Inhaling deeply of the crisp morning air, Mark realized there was something in the air that Rainmaker smelled. Mark looked around and inhaled again, an uneasiness gripped him as he looked to the horizon, he didn’t see any smoke on the land. Still, the smell persisted.

Walking back through the barn and out the front, Mark’s heart dropped when he realized there was smoke and where it was coming from. “Hope!” Mark screamed, ran across the yard and to his home.

Lucas stepped to the porch as he heard Mark, one look and he too was running towards Mark’s home.

Mark bolted through the front door, the crook of his elbow over his nose, calling for Hope. Through the smoke, Mark heard Hope coughing and calling for him. “Mark! The Baby!”

Mark followed Hope’s voice and found her in their bedroom. In her arms, she held a bundle. Mark rushed them to the front door and out into the yard; to the waiting arms of Milly.

Lucas and Mark returned to the house, grabbing towels in an effort to put out the fire in the kitchen. First, Mark grabbed a bag of flour from the cabinet and tore it open, dumping its contents onto the fames rising from the frying pan on the stove. Lucas primed the pump at the sink and soaked the towels. They slapped at the flames dancing across the wall, rising teasingly close to the ceiling, but they couldn’t prevent it from catching fire. The fumes and thick smoke caused both men to cough as they struggled to breathe during their efforts to fight the fire. Involuntary tears streamed down their faces as the soot burned at their eyes. Working together, the last of the flames were extinguished. Wrapping a towel around his hands, a coughing Mark grabbed the pan from the stove, carried it outside, and dropped it in the dirt. Mark bent double, hands on his knees, coughing.

Mark turned when he heard coughing and boot steps behind him. He felt a hand on his shoulder and a gentle squeeze.

“We’ll assess the damage once the smoke’s had a chance to clear out,” Lucas stated while he too continued to cough. “Let’s go check to see how Hope…”

Mark didn’t give his Pa a chance to finish his statement before he was running. “Hope?” he called as he entered his parents’ home.

“She’ll be fine,” Milly stated as she approached Mark.

“Where’s the baby?” Mark asked as he tried to push past Milly.

“No Mark, wait a minute,” Milly stated as she grabbed his arm, preventing him from entering any farther into her home.

“I don’t understand,” a confused and soot covered Mark stated. “Are they okay?” Mark asked as he again coughed.

“They are. They’re both okay. Hope’s in our bedroom nursing her daughter.”

“Nursing… Hope’s nursing the baby?”

Milly nodded. “Give them some time to let them bond. I think you could stand to take a bath.” Lucas entered his home and witnessed the conversation. Milly continued, “You both are quite the sight.” Looking apologetically to her son, “Go get cleaned up and afterwards you can see your wife and your daughter.”

****

A freshly bathed Mark returned to have his children circle him, asking what happened.

“There was a small fire in the kitchen. Your grandpa and I put it out.”

Milly asked, “How badly is your home damaged?”

“Haven’t had a chance to really look at it yet. We were going to wait for the smoke to clear out before we assessed the damage,” Mark answered.

“Can we go home?” Zach asked.

“Well, I think I’m gonna ask your other grandparents if they’d mind watching you until we can fix the damage to the house,” Mark answered.

“Mark, they can stay here,” Lucas stated.

“I’ll have the boys stay with Seth and Lilah, but if you wouldn’t mind taking care of Emmy.”

“What about you and Hope?” Milly asked.

“We can stay in the house. Just need to share your kitchen, if you don’t mind.”

“Mind? I’d prefer you and Hope, and the baby stay here,” Milly answered.

“Thanks Ma, but you’d have too full of a house. Can I see them now?” Mark asked.

Milly nodded and led the way to the bedroom and knocked on the door.

“Hope, are you up to a visitor?” Milly called.

“Ma?” was heard from the other side of the door.

“Mark, I’ll go see how much damage was done to the kitchen. When you’re ready, we’ll pack for the boys and hitch your team,” Lucas stated and left the house.

*****

Mark entered his parents’ bedroom to see Hope cradling their daughter in her arms as she looked up at him, “How are you? Are you okay?” asked Mark.

“Mark…” Hope tried to answer, but she started to cry instead.

“Hey, hey…” Mark climbed upon the bed and wrapped his arms around his wife. “Neither of you took any harm? Did you?”

Hope shook her head.

“How are you feeling?”

“Ashamed. Mark, how could I have…” Hope buried her face in Mark’s shoulder.

Pushing Hope back from him and raising her chin with his hand, “Doc tried to explain it to me. I’m just glad you decided to come back to us.”

Mark pulled Hope and their daughter into his arms, tears of happiness falling down his face. He could tell that he had his wife back.

“Hope, what happened? How did the fire start?”

“I was mad at you for talking to me in such a manner, but…”

“But what?”

“I started to fix breakfast and put the lard on the stove so I could fry some sausage. I heard the baby crying and went back to the bedroom. Mark I couldn’t bring myself to pick her up, I just stood there and watched her. I tried to make myself love her. I couldn’t… I don’t know how long I stood there thinking, for eight months I carried her and dreamed of holding her in my arms… And for Doc to say she might not live…”

“But he also said she had a good chance of living with each additional hour that went by between episodes,” Mark stated hesitantly.

“I know, but I just couldn’t bring myself to let her into my heart, fearing the hurt if she died.”

“And today?” Mark asked.

“Mark, I smelled the smoke and opened the bedroom door; it poured into the bedroom. I closed the door and grabbed the baby and I tried to make it to the front door, but it hurt to breathe,” Hope cried.

“You’re okay? You can breathe okay?”

Hope nodded.

“And the baby?” Mark asked.

“I never want to let her go. She’s so beautiful.”

“Just like her Mama,” Mark smiled.

“Mark, I never asked if you named her.”

“I was hoping we could name her Margaret Faith, but if you don’t like it…”

“No. It’s a beautiful name. Which name is she going to go by?”

“I hadn’t thought on that. I’ve kinda just been calling her the baby. Which would you like to call her?”

“I think Faith.”

Curiously, Mark asked “Why?”

“Because all we need is a little Faith. And she’s perfect.”

*****

Mark told Hope that he needed to leave for a little while, “I’ll be back soon. Pa’s over at the house checking on the damage and later we’re taking the boys to town. I hope Seth and Lilah don’t mind watching them until I can rebuild the kitchen. Ma and Pa are going to keep Emmy for us.”

“What about us… and Faith?”

“We’ll stay at home of a night, but during the day and when I’m in town, you two will stay here, with Ma.”

Mark placed a kiss to his wife’s cheek as he sat next to her.

“Do you think Doc Burrage should take a look at Faith, to make sure she’s all right?” Hope asked.

“How’s she doing now?”

Hope opened the blanket and together they watched as Faith scrunched her face and moved her lips and fingers during her sleep.

“She looks to be okay. But I’ll ask Doc Burrage to come out and check the two of you over after I drop the boys off, just to be on the safe side.”

Mark stood from the bed and walked to the door.

“Mark, I love you,” Hope quietly called.

“I know you do.”

*****

Lucas and Mark stepped down from the buckboard in front of Seth’s home and told the boys to wait for them.

“Mark!” Seth greeted as he stepped to the porch. Seeing the boys he asked, “Is everything okay with Hope?”

“Yes, everything is okay, now. We had a little accident at the house this morning and I was hoping…” Mark hesitated when he saw Lilah step from the house.

“Get those boys inside and out of the chill. Come on boys!” Lilah called out and watched as all three jumped from the back of the buckboard.

“You said an accident?” Seth inquired.

“Yes, a grease fire. It’ll take time for me to fix the kitchen and I was wondering if you’d mind watching the boys, until…”

“They’re more than welcome to stay here. You know that. But Hope and the baby…” Seth asked with concern.

“Seth, Hope and Faith were falling asleep, together, when I left the ranch.” The smile on Mark’s face told Seth that all was truly right. “I’ll tell you more in detail later, but I need to get to the hardware store and place an order. We’ll have you and Lilah out for supper when the kitchen is repaired.”

*****

Hope woke from her nap and carried Faith into the front room; she saw the box on the front table and looked questioningly at Milly.

“I didn’t think that you would mind if I retrieved it from your home,” Milly stated.

“I’d like to wait until Mark returns,” Hope answered as she lovingly looked at her daughter, sleeping in her arms.

“I think Mark would approve,” Milly answered.

*****

After placing the order for the material they needed to rebuild the kitchen, Lucas and Mark returned to the team and buckboard.

“Pa, I promised Hope I’d stop by Thadd’s and ask him to come out and check on her and Faith,” Mark stated as Lucas reached for the reins.

“Faith?”

“Our daughter. Her full name is Margaret Faith McCain. I hope you don’t mind us giving her Ma’s first name. And Hope decided she should go by Faith, because all we need is a little faith.”

“I think your Ma would be honored. I’ll wait for you over at the Johnny’s, uh, the Marshal’s Office,” Lucas answered. He stopped the buckboard in front of the jail, handed the reins to Mark, and jumped down.

Mark drove the team to the clinic; after tying the horses to the hitching rail, he entered and saw Abigail. “How’s Hope this morning?” she asked.

“Everything is great!” Mark replied as he placed a kiss to Abigail’s cheek. “But we had a small accident at the house this morning and I wanted to talk to Thadd about her and the baby.”

“What kind of an accident?” Abigail asked.

“A grease fire with Hope and the baby in the house. They both seem to be okay, but I’m sure they both inhaled some of the smoke, so I didn’t want to bring both of them out into the chill. Thought maybe Thadd come to the house and check them out, considering Faith’s…”

“Did she have another episode?” Thadd asked, only having heard the end of the conversation.

“No, nothing like that. We had a grease fire in the kitchen. Hope nursed our daughter before I brought the boys to Seth’s. I just thought, for good measure…”

“That is good news. Abigail, we don’t have any patients in the clinic today, how would you like to go out with me to visit Milly and Hope?”

Abigail’s eyes shined, “Let me tell Hattie where we’re going, just in case Savannah or Steven need us.”

*****

After examining both Hope and Faith, Thadd declared them healthy, but recommended for Hope to take it easy for the rest of the day. Thadd stepped from the bedroom and left Hope and Abigail to talk.

“You’ve a beautiful daughter, Hope,” Abigail stated as she handed the baby back to Hope.

“I know I do, now. Abigail, I’m sorry for the way I behaved, back at the clinic.”

“Please don’t feel you have to apologize. As long as the two of you are okay, that’s all that matters,” Abigail answered.

“I guess you must have been scared, too. With what happened to Faith and me?” Hope inquired.

“It unnerved me, more than I realized, but once your daughter was out of danger and Thadd came home, I felt better when he took me in his arms.”

*****

Later that evening, Lucas and Milly stood behind Mark and Hope as they recorded the birth of their second daughter in their family bible.

Margaret Faith McCain, born October 31, 1896.

After placing their family bible back in its box, Mark set it on the shelf next to Lucas and Milly’s family bible.

“Come on Mark, we have some chores that need to be done before we can call it a night,” Lucas stated.

Hope watched her husband walk out the front door with his father before she walked over and picked up Faith from her crib. Placing her daughter to her shoulder, she started to walk to Milly and Lucas’ bedroom.

“Myra, it’s time for you to go to bed,” Milly stated.

“But…”

“No, your brothers and Mykaela are already asleep.”

“Hope, why are you taking Faith in there? Are you going to sleep in Mama and Papa’s bedroom?” Myra asked.

“No, it’s time for Faith to be fed,” Hope answered.

“But the kitchen is over there,” Myra pointed.

“She needs to be nursed,” Hope replied.

“Like Sarah’s a nurse?” a confused Myra asked.

Hope looked to Milly, her eyes asked how to answer. Milly walked to her daughter and asked her to sit down with her at the table for a few minutes.

“Myra, Sarah is a nurse, an assistant to a doctor. When Mykaela was a baby, you’ve seen Hope take her into the bedroom before.”

“Yeah, but I didn’t think she was feeding her in there. We have to sit at the table to eat. How come they don’t?” Myra asked.

“Myra, when you were a little baby your Mama fed you the same way I feed Faith, the way we’ve fed all our children for almost the first year of your lives,” Hope explained.

“How?”

“We’ve breast fed you,” Hope answered.

“Breast fed?”

“It’s the way God created a woman so she could sustain her child after the baby is born, until the baby is old enough to eat solid foods,” Milly stated. “Maybe you’re too young to understand.”

“But Mark fed her with a bottle,” Myra commented. “Why don’t you feed her with the bottle?”

“Ma, I don’t mind, if it’s okay with you,” Hope started to offer with a little bit of embarrassment. “Myra could watch as I let Faith nurse. It’s a part of life.”

Milly stood from the table and walked to the front window and pulled the curtains closed. Hope carried Faith over to Milly’s chair and sat down. After setting Faith to her lap, Hope unbuttoned her blouse and pulled it open before she untied her camisole. She lifted Faith from her lap as she revealed her left breast and positioned her daughter to suckle.

“She drinking! What’s she drinking?” Myra curiously asked.

“It’s milk,” Hope answered.

“Like the cows?”

“Similar to milk we get from the cows,” Hope answered.

“She sure is noisy. She slurps just like the calves do. And just as messy,” Myra stated as she watched some excess milk dribble down the baby’s chin.

Shaking her head, Myra asked, “Why do girls have them and boys don’t?”

“Myra, what we’ve shown you between Hope and Faith is a special bond between a mother and her baby,” Milly stated. “Just like it’s a woman who God chose to give birth to babies. This is something special that God blessed woman to be able to do.”

“Was I this special when I was a baby?”

“Yes, you and I had this same special bond. But this is between us women, we don’t talk about it in front of the men or the boys.”

“Is this a secret?”

“No, not a secret, but something to only be shared between the three of us,” Milly insisted. “It’s a bond to be shared between a mother and her child.”

Hope sensed that Faith was fussy because she was still hungry. She exposed her other breast and repositioned her daughter to her right breast, as she pulled her camisole over to cover her left breast.

In the wonderment of a child, Myra watched. In time, Faith stopped nursing and Hope set her back to her lap and accepted the damp rag that Milly handed her to wipe the residue from both her breasts.

“Hope, can I touch it?” Myra inquisitively asked.

Looking to Milly first, Hope nodded. Gently, Myra placed the tips of her fingers to Hope’s breast and ran her fingers over it; curiously exploring. Myra removed her hand from Hope’s breast and ran it across the front of her shirt. Hope tied her camisole and buttoned her blouse before placing Faith to her shoulder to burp her.

“Will I grow breasts once I’m ready to be married?”

After giving a sharp intake of breath, Milly giggled, “You’ll probably start to grow breasts when you’re closer to becoming a teenager.”

“Will mine be like yours or really big like Becky Whitcomb?”

Hope giggled, “Only God can answer that.”

“I think I’d rather have small breasts, don’t get in the way that much. I’ve seen Becky try to ride a horse and they sure do bounce a lot.”

Hope and Milly tried their best to contain their laughter.

“Mama, is that why boys like girls, because we grow breasts?”

“That’s part of it,” Milly whispered. “And more than you need to know at your age.”

“Well, Isaiah is sure going to be surprised that I’m going to grow breasts someday.”

“Myra, that is something that you will not discuss with anyone other than myself or Hope,” Milly ordered.

*****

The following day, the entire McCain family bundled up and traveled to church. Hope lovingly carried their daughter and showed her to their family and friends. Towards the end of the services, Reverend Mark McCafferty made several announcements.

“Friends, as we all are aware Thanksgiving is approaching and we will hold special services Thursday evening. Also, on the following Saturday, this church will join in holy matrimony Jacob McCafferty and Gwenivere Shawnesee and all are invited to the ceremony, beginning at six, thirty that evening.

“Also, today, I have the pleasure of christening a baby. Usually I prefer to wait until the baby is six months old, but after talking with the parents, I believe it is only fitting that this child is welcomed into the House of God, today.

“Mark and Hope McCain, please come to the altar,” he called.

As Hope and Mark stood next to each other, Reverend McCafferty asked, “Have you chosen God-parents for this child?”

“Yes,” Mark answered. “Jacob McCafferty and Gwenivere Shawnesee, soon to be McCafferty.”

Both were surprised to hear their names announced as God-parents to the newest McCain child. Jake and Gwen, hand in hand, walked to stand one on either side of Mark and Hope.

“It is a blessing to be chosen as God-parents for a child. It will be your responsibility to see that this child is raised in the teachings of Jesus Christ should her parents no longer be able.”

Gwen and Jake nodded their understanding.

“Hope and Mark, a man and a woman conceive and bring forth a child into the world. Though this child’s first week of life was difficult, you believe that it is because of your faith in God that she survived.”

Both nodded.

“It is my understanding that you wish to raise this child in the belief of Jesus Christ?”

“Yes, we do,” Mark answered as he placed his arm around his wife, while she held their child.

Taking the baby from Hope, Reverend Mark asked, “What name have you given this child?”

Hope answered, “Margaret Faith McCain.”

“It is with great pleasure that I welcome thee, Margaret Faith McCain, into the House of God in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” Reverend Mark sprinkled a few droplets of holy water onto her head. “May God watch over and bless you and your entire family.”

“I ask that those present offer their blessings to Mark and Hope as they welcome the newest member of their family and raise her in the eyes of God. And, should something unfortunate happen, I know this community will assist the God-parents as they assume the responsibility for the child.”

They returned to their seats, with Lucas and Milly welcoming them with hugs.

“Reverend,” Oat Jackford called out before Reverend Mark could conclude services.

“Yes, Oat,” the reverend replied.

“I understand there was an accident out at the younger McCain’s home and I hear tell that their supplies are due in on the train tomorrow. I want every available man to meet me at the train station no later than nine o’clock tomorrow morning so we can get things loaded and help Mark rebuild the damage done to his home.”

Shouts of ‘Count me in’ or ‘I’ll be there’ came from the congregation as men volunteered to help.

*****

As parents of a newly Christened child, Mark and Hope stood next to Reverend and Mrs. McCafferty. As Oat approached the receiving line Mark spoke, “Oat how? Honestly…”

“Mark, your family has plenty of friends in this here town. Word gets around. The temperatures are dropping and your home needs repaired, fast. So, accept the help of your friends.”

“I’d be please to accept your help. Thank you.” Mark offered his hand.

“And Miss Hope,” Oat continued. “Don’t worry about feeding the crew. I’ll bring supplies from my ranch and my cook.”

*****

Once the supplies were unloaded at the McCain Ranch, it only took a couple of days for those present to tear down and rebuild the damaged kitchen.

After the others had finally left, “Well, most everything seems to look as good as new son,” Lucas stated as he finished putting the last of his tools in the box.

“I know, just wish the stove hadn’t gotten so charred,” Mark answered as he wiped sawdust from the surface.

“Milly was talking with Lilah about that. She has a special concoction she uses to clean, maybe before they come for supper, she can make a batch.”

The Next Generation… Chapter 91 – The Aunt

It had only been a few days since Oat and the other volunteers had finished helping the McCains to rebuild the section of Mark and Hope’s home damaged by the fire. The night before, Mark and Hope smiled as they watched over their sons saying their nightly prayers, after having spent most of the previous two weeks with their other grandparents. It was still dark when Mark woke early Sunday morning and gently slipped from bed.

Upon entering the front room, he walked to the kitchen and lit the lantern hanging on the wall. He primed the pump to the sink and set out to try to clean more of the charring from the stove. Quietly he worked until he heard from behind, “I’m so sorry.”

Turning from his task, he looked to Hope, standing at the corner of the sink counter, her face apologetic.

“It was an accident,” Mark offered.

“But…”

“No buts. I look at it as a blessing. It brought you out of your depression.” Mark rinsed the rag and draped it over the pump before walking to Hope. Standing in front of her, he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close. “Pa was telling me that Ma was talking with Lilah and she has some concoction that might help clean the stove.”

“I can ask her when we go to church. May I invite them for supper tonight?”

“You can invite them to supper any time. Moreover, I think today would be grand. Why don’t you invite them to come back to the ranch after services.”

*****

The families exited the church when Hope invited her father and step-mother to come to the ranch for supper and if there was any way she could create her concoction.

“Hope, it’s already concocted. After talking with Milly earlier in the week, I knew you’d be coming to ask.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t come sooner to…” Hope started.

“Listen here, there’s no need to apologize. You needed to get acquainted with your daughter and get things fixed up so you could get your sons back home. Speaking of our grandsons, I had hoped you might invite us out for supper today. It’s been too quiet at our house the past few of days. And, I already baked a couple of apple pies in anticipation of your invitation.”

Hope smiled. Feeling a tug on her skirt, Hope looked down.

“Mama?” Josh asked. “If Grandma and Grandpa are coming home, can we ride with them?”

“Josh, their buggy isn’t big enough to carry both of them and the three of you boys,” Mark answered as all three of his sons looked to be asking the same question.

Looking to his grandpa, Zach asked, “You didn’t tell ‘em?”

“It just never came up in conversation,” Seth answered. “Mark, what the twins are trying to say is, I traded the buggy in on a really nice surrey. Figured, being a grandparent, it would come in handy when the family needed transporting.”

“Then can we? Please Papa,” Josh asked again.

“I guess the rest of the family has conspired against us,” Mark laughed as he shook his head.

“Does that mean we can’t,” Zach stated in disappointment, after seeing Mark shake his head.

“No that’s not what I meant. If your grandparents say it’s okay.”

“Yippee!” was exclaimed by all three boys when they saw their Grandpa Seth nod.

*****

Hope and Lilah stood and watched while Mark and Seth used the concoction to scrub clean the charring from the stove. As the late November sun streamed through the window, Hope saw the shine return to the stove’s surface.

“How did you come up with this…?” Hope asked.

“It comes from years of living at forts and dealing with non-com’s not paying attention–allowing food to boil over the pots and pans, onto the stoves. A couple of the other women and I came up with this. You know, now that I think about it, your mother helped with the concoction.”

“She did?” Hope asked.

“It took several different attempts to get it right, but ol’ Corporal Whiskers, I mean…” Lilah stopped when she realized her blunder.

“I haven’t heard that name since I left Fort Griffin,” Seth stated as he stood back to admire their handy work. “His real name was Corporal Wisklerson, but everyone called him Whiskers.”

“He rather enjoyed his knick name,” Lilah fondly remembered.

“Did he have a long beard and mustache?” Josh asked as he came into the kitchen to get a glass of water.

“Not a one,” Seth laughed.

“Then why the nickname?” Zach asked.

“It was a lot easier to say Whiskers than Wisklerson,” Seth answered as Lilah handed a glass of water to their grandson.

After watching their grandsons return to the front room, Lilah continued. “Oh how he hated dealing with non-com’s assigned KP duty,” Lilah smiled as she remembered. “Seth, were you there, when he threatened every man assigned to him with the firing squad?”

“I remember it was shortly after that when the women started to come up with the concoction. I also remember how every private watched their step so as not to be assigned to KP duty for any infraction,” Seth laughed at the memory.

“Mark, I have a favor to ask you,” Hope said as she took the dirty rags from her father and husband.

“Am I going to like it?” Mark teased.

“I think you will. Why don’t you invite Ma and Pa, and your siblings over to join us? We can have a small family get together before Thanksgiving. I mean, just us.”

“Too late,” Mark replied. “I already asked them over when you were talking with Lilah after services. They’ll be over in about a half hour. Ma was going to bake some bread and a new potato recipe she read about in a magazine that Lou was showing her. I think its call Agritin potatoes.”

“It’s augrautin potatoes.” Lilah laughed as she continued, “Men and their bachelor cooking.”

“That’s why we married, if only to save ourselves from our own cooking,” Seth teased back.

“Hey, I think Pa and I did quite well for ourselves,” Mark replied and let out an ‘oof’ as Hope lovingly jabbed him in the ribs with her elbow.

*****

There was barely a pause between the knock on the door and Lucas opening it to allow Milly and their family to enter Mark’s home. The boys immediately started rough housing and without any words of warning, headed straight for the boys’ bedroom. Myra carried a basket with a towel draped over it as she followed her Ma. “Where would you like for me to place this?” Milly asked as she carried the dish of augratin potatoes into the kitchen.

“Is it a dish served hot or cold?” Hope asked.

“Hot,” Lucas answered as he picked Faith up from her bassinet and lovingly held her. “How’s my newest granddaughter?”

“Guess we should get out of the kitchen,” Seth mentioned after Lilah started pushing him and Mark out of the way.

“Oh, Hope! Lilah’s concoction worked?” Milly asked upon seeing the cleaned stove.

“Yes. You can barely tell the damage done by the fire,” Hope stated as she opened to door to the oven, and stood back for Milly to slip the dish inside.

“Miss Lilah, Mama and I baked some rolls,” Myra stated and placed the basket on the counter.

Lifting the towel and inhaling deeply, Lilah answered, “They smell heavenly.”

While the women set to work preparing supper, the men set to work rearranging the furniture in the front room in order to allow them to set up a table and chairs for the children.

“So tell us Mark,” Lucas stated. “Now that Gwen won’t be living here as a nanny for your children, what are you going to do with her sitting room and bedroom.”

“You know Lucas, the rate that your son and my daughter are going, they’ll probably need it for future children,” Seth jokingly answered.

“Father!” Hope exclaimed from the kitchen.

*****

The day after Thanksgiving Zach asked, “Papa, can we help you?” as Lucas and Mark entered the room that had been Gwen’s and prepared to move the furniture that remained to her soon to be new home.

“Not today boys,” Mark answered. “Grandpa Lucas and I have a lot of work that we need to get done.”

Once everything was tied down to Mark’s buckboard, Mark helped Lucas hitch up his team and buckboard before the two of them headed to Micah and Hattie’s to get the rest of Gwen’s belongings.

“How can a woman gather so much stuff?” Mark asked.

“Did you really just ask that question?” Lucas teased as they finished placing the heavy trunk in the back of the buckboard. “Don’t you remember the effort to get Hope settled in after the two of you were married?”

“Point taken, Pa.”

Gwen rode with Mark as they made their way to the home Jake had built. Jake was waiting on the porch when they arrived; he stepped to the buckboard and helped Gwen down from the front seat. As they entered the front room, Gwen noticed a chair with a note stating “Keep Out!” placed in front of a closed door.

“Jake, what’s this all about?” Gwen asked.

“Gwen, if Jake doesn’t want you to see what’s behind that door, allow him his surprise for after you’re married,” Lucas whispered into Gwen’s ear.

“Okay, Mr. McCain.”

Lucas, Mark, and Jake worked the rest of the afternoon bringing Gwen’s belongings into the home. Those items that would eventually be placed into the bedroom were set to the side and out of the way.

“Would you like to see your home?” Jake asked.

“You know I would,” Gwen answered.

Jake pointed out the obvious; the front room and the kitchen. He opened the cabinets and closets displaying his craftsmanship in the woodwork. He delighted in showing Gwen several side rooms.

“What is this room for?” Gwen asked.

“Well, until we’re blessed with children, I thought one could be set up for a sewing room, when you need to spread out to work on projects. I mean, needlepoint or knitting, you can do in the front room, but I know how women need space when it comes to sewing.”

“And the room with the keep out note?”

“You’ll see that room after you become my wife,” Jake answered as he wrapped his arms around Gwen’s waist.

“What about your belongings Jake?” Mark asked.

“Father and I will move them over later this evening and tomorrow morning,” Jake answered.

*****

Regardless of happenings in North Fork, the McCains still had a working ranch to run. Lucas and Mark rose well before the sun in order to get a jump on the day, checking their cattle and the fences surrounding those ranges.

It was mid-afternoon before they returned home, and headed to their respective barns. Both were surprised that their sons had worked on cleaning the horse stalls while they were out.

*****

Mark had just closed the door to Rainmaker’s stall when Hope entered the barn, “Boys you had better get inside right now and get washed!”

“But Mama, we’re helping Papa!” Josh answered.

“He needs to get washed up too.”

“Why do we need to wash?” Zach asked.

“Because I don’t think Gwen would appreciate the lot of you showing up for her wedding, looking and smelling like you do.”

Hope smiled as she watched her sons look at each other, dirt on their faces, hands, and clothes with a good measure of straw thrown in their hair.

“Now, come on. Your Papa can finish up out here while you three bathe. Besides, I already have your bath water heated and if you don’t hurry inside, you’ll just have to take a cold bath.”

“A bath?” Josh complained.

“I’d listen to your Mama, if I were you,” Mark sternly stated and watched his two oldest turn to run to the house.

“You come too?” Eli asked, pausing only long enough to hear his Papa’s answer.

“I’ll be inside after I finish out here. I don’t want to get your Mama mad at me, either,” answered Mark.

*****

As he entered their home, Mark saw his eldest sons toweling themselves dry while Hope helped their youngest son wash his hair. He smiled as Eli protested when Hope dumped a pail of water over his head to rinse him off. Mark listened while his sons complained about having to bathe in a tub in the middle of the kitchen.

“Why can’t we have a tub room like Grandpa Seth?” Zach asked.

“And have the three of you constantly overflowing the bath tub?” Mark asked.

“Ah, Pa, it was an accident. We were just trying to surprise you and Mama,” Josh answered.

“Yeah, Grandpa only gets married once,” Eli quipped as Hope poured more water over his head.

After Eli was finished with his bath and Hope had him dried off, Mark shooed all three into their bedroom to get dressed.

“I laid out your clothes on your beds,” Hope called as she removed some of the old water and poured it down the sink before adding more hot water to the tub for Mark’s bath.

“I think I’ll brave the shower stall outside,” Mark commented as he collected a towel and washcloth.

“You most certainly will not! Do you want to catch your death from pneumonia?” Hope asked. “If it’s good enough for your sons, it’s good enough for you.” She pointed to the tub.

“But… Yes my love,” Mark commented as he prepared to strip.

“You know, Zach does have a good idea,” Hope commented as she prepared to scrub Mark’s back.

“What, a tub room?”

“Sure, why not. We can convert the room Gwen used into a tub area and run a drain outside like we do for the sink,” Hope answered.

“And what if we have more children like your father commented the other day.”

“We can always build up. Besides, I saw a picture for a tub in one of the catalogs at the hardware store. It looked like it had claw feet for a pedestal. I mean, if people in town can install tubs for bathing in their homes, why can’t we?”

“I’ll need to give it some thought. Are my clothes laid out on my bed too?” Mark asked as he stood and took the towel from his wife and wrapped it around his middle.

“Yes,” Hope answered and pushed Mark towards their bedroom.

While her husband and sons finished dressing, Hope used the bucket to dip the used bathwater from the tub and poured it down the kitchen sink.

“Here, let me finish with that” Mark stated as he came from the bedroom. “I think the girls are waking from their naps and will want their mama to help them get dressed.” Mark took the bucket and finished the task.

*****

The setting sun painted vivid colors in the evening sky as Hope and Milly stood in the office of the church, admiring Gwen as she looked at herself in the full-length mirror.

“I can’t believe today is really here,” Gwen quietly stated. “I wish my Ma and Pa could be here.”

“I’m sure they’re up in heaven, smiling,” Milly offered as Hope positioned Gwen’s bridal veil.

“I never imagined after Pa died that I’d find such a home as wonderful as all of you have been. Especially you and Mark, Hope. I mean to take me in and make me feel such a part of your family…”

“I’ve enjoyed all your help with the children. And I’ve come to think of you as a little sister,” Hope offered.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t at the house the last two weeks,” Gwen offered.

“No, Mark was right in sending you to live with Micah and Hattie. You have your own life to prepare to live, as Jake’s wife.”

“I know we talked, but I’m so nervous about tonight. I thought it would get easier the closer today came,” Gwen nervously stated, wringing her hands in front of her.

Milly walked up behind Gwen, put her hands on Gwen’s shoulders, and looked over her shoulder to the mirror, “If you’re still this nervous tonight, talk with Jake. This is something new to both of you. But know this; what happens tonight, it is something wonderful.”

*****

Lucas, Mark, and Drako stood in the Marshal’s Office watching Reverend McCafferty attempt to tie his son’s tie.

“Does this remind you of anyone?” Johnny asked.

“Yeah, I can’t believe how long ago it was,” Lucas answered. “I’m still not ready to see my son walk the bride down the aisle.”

“At least I’m not walking my own daughter down the aisle,” Mark replied. “I’m definitely not ready for that.”

“Give it time, boy,” Johnny replied with a smile.

“Lucas, maybe you can help us.” Reverend McCafferty called out. “I’m all thumbs today and I just can’t get it straight.”

Lucas stepped in front of Jake, trying to keep the grin off his face as he looked at the extremely crooked tie. It didn’t take too much time before Lucas had a proper string tie knotted.

“Thank you, Lucas,” Jake stated.

“Come on, before your bride fears you changed your mind,” Johnny teasingly called to the group as he walked to the door.

*****

Reverend McCafferty smiled when he finally introduced Mr. and Mrs. Jacob McCafferty to their family and friends who witnessed their wedding in the North Fork church. As the congregation stood to congratulate the newly married couple, the front doors of the church banged against the walls as they were forcefully thrown open. People turned and saw a woman wearing an elegant coat with a fox fur collar and a wide brimmed hat purposefully walk through the opened doors, followed immediately by two men in dark suits. No one missed the bulge their guns caused under their jackets. The woman boldly declared, “I’ll see this marriage annulled. It is not a legitimate marriage! No true daughter of Ireland would consider marrying in such a… a…”

Lou quickly stood to her feet, declaring, “I AM an Irishwoman, born and raised, and I’ll have ye know I was married in this church, in the eyes of God! How dare ye!”

“I’ll dare all I want, I’ll not have my niece marrying…”

“Yer niece?!” Lou’s Irish temper flared so rapidly, that not even Johnny Drako could calm her down as he placed a hand to her arm, trying to pull her away from making more of a scene.

“Yes, my niece.”

“Ye show up today, of all days and try to ruin the lasses wedding! Git out of here!” Lou ordered, pointing the way back to the doors.

“I will not! Do you know with whom you’re talking? My name is Mrs. Mary Catherine Glendening. Be thankful I’m a woman of standing.”

“Ye might be standing now, but if ye don’t leave, you’ll be flat on your…” Johnny interrupted Lou’s sentence when he roughly pulled her aside and yelled, “Lou!”

Micah was closest to the new arrivals and tried to intervene, “If Gwen is your niece, do you really wish to spoil her day?”

“I’ll not have her ruin her life marrying below her station!” Mrs. Glendening declared. “She can do better than marry someone not from society.”

“Maybe you better talk with our marshal,” Micah offered as he tried to escort the woman from the church.

Pulling her arm from Micah’s grasp, “I do not care what some small, hayseed, hick town marshal has to say. I hired men from the Pinkerton National Detective Agency and I’m sure these men have more authority than your marshal.” The woman’s voice dripped with disdain for those in North Fork.

“Ma’am,” Mark stated as he reached for the woman’s arm. “If you’ll come with me?”

“Unhand me!” the woman raised her parasol towards Mark.

“Ma’am either lower your umbrella or you’ll face federal charges for assaulting a U.S. Marshal. Now please, you’ve made enough of a scene. I’ll ask one more time, will you come with me?” Mark made sure she realized that his request gave her no other option but to comply.

“If you are the law, where’s your badge?” she demanded.

“I walked the bride down the aisle to her groom, I didn’t think it would be required,” Mark answered as he turned to lead the woman from the church.

Before allowing Mark to lead her away she declared, “Detectives Morely and Garrison, get the girl! Put her into protective custody! She must be protected from these…” Mrs. Glendening’s voice broke into a high pitch squeal as Mark pulled her to accompany him.

Gwen stood in front of her friends and those she considered family, tears falling down her face, appalled at the events transpiring on her wedding day.

“Stop it!” Gwen screamed before she raised her wedding dress so the hem was not touching the ground and ran from the church, avoiding the two detectives who tried to stop her. Seth and Johnny moved into position to prevent the men from following Gwen out the side door of the church.

“Jake, go! Follow your wife!” Drako yelled. “We’ll get things settled here.”

*****

It had been a long time since Johnny Drako had used such a cold, calculated look on another human being. “Men, I’d refrain from moving your hands anywhere near your weapons.” Johnny opened his jacket to show the men his marshal’s badge, as well as his own gun.

*****

“Now how can there be more than one Ace of Spades in the deck?” the gambler demanded as he threw his cards face up on the table in the saloon, stood to his feet, and pulled his gun. Sam Montgomery jumped up and pushed the stranger just as his finger pulled the trigger. Sweeney heard the sound of glass from his front window breaking and turned, watching as a figure in white on the boardwalk fell. Jake was almost to his bride when he reached out for her arm and watched in horror as she crumpled to the ground. Those inside the saloon heard Jake scream “NO!”

*****

“What now?” Mark asked in hearing the gunshot from the middle of town.

“You will remove your hand from me!” Mrs. Glendening declared in warning.

“Only if you agree to come quietly. Now!” Mark replied, his tone of voice indicated he did not care for the woman’s attitude.

Mark walked beside the woman as they headed to the Marshal’s Office, while Johnny and Seth held the two detectives outside the church. Those in attendance stood murmuring in confusion, trying to understand what had happened.

As Mark and Mrs. Glendening rounded the corner, Sweeney ran into Mark. After catching his balance, Sweeney asked, “Mark, is Doc still at the church?”

“Yes…”

“We need him. One of those gamblers pulled a gun and fired at one of the others,” Sweeney tried to explain.

“Who’d he hit?” Mark asked.

“He missed his intended target… It went through the front window…”

Mark immediately understood what Sweeney was not saying, “Gwen… Get Doc!” Mark forgot all about the woman and ran to the saloon. Upon arriving, he saw the devastated look Jake wore on his face as he cradled Gwen’s head in his arms. “Jake, don’t just sit there!” Mark demanded as he knelt down next to Gwen.

“Mark, she can’t die,” Jake pleaded as tears fell down his face.

“Then help me get her over to the clinic!” Mark ordered as he picked Gwen up in his arms and carried her across and down the street. “Jake, open the door.”

Mark placed Gwen on one of the examination tables and pressed his hand to her side, “Jake, in the cabinet there, get me some towels,” Mark ordered.

In his trance-like state, Jake did as Mark told him. Mark took the towels and pressed them against Gwen’s side.

“Jake, light the lantern on the desk and get any other lanterns you can find around the clinic in here.”

“Where is your doctor?” Mrs. Glendening demanded as she entered the room, staring at Mark’s blood soaked hands and clothing.

“Get out of here, you’ve done enough harm!” Mark scornfully answered.

“How dare you! She’s…”

“Get out of my clinic!” Thadd demanded as he entered the room followed by Abigail.

Upon feeling a hand take hold of her arm, she yelled, “She’s my niece!” as she was pulled from the room.

“Mark, how bad?” Thadd asked as he started to prepare for surgery.

“She’s lost a lot of blood already,” Mark answered. “Hit below her ribs.”

The room became quiet except for the sounds of Abigail and Thadd preparing for surgery and Gwen’s moaning. Jake had lit all the lanterns he found before he was pushed from the room by Abigail.

“Abigail,” Thadd said. “When you’re ready, go ahead and administer the ether.”

Hearing the door open, Thadd looked and saw Mark starting to leave and stated, “Mark, I want you to stay in here.”

“But…”

“I’m probably going to need to perform a blood transfusion. Go ahead and wash up, then have a seat on the table. Oh, and remove your jacket and roll up your sleeve.”

“I can help,” Sarah stated as she entered the examination room and walked to the cabinet where the equipment for blood transfusions was stored.

“Sarah, Gwen’s your family now. You should be out in the waiting area with the rest of your family,” Abigail stated.

“But I’m a nurse. I can help,” Sarah pleaded.

“Not this time,” Thadd answered as he finished washing his hands.

After administering the ether, Abigail regretted the damage done to Gwen’s wedding dress as she removed it. Thadd draped a sheet over her body, leaving only the site of bullet wound exposed.

“Mark, help me get the table over beside Gwen so I can start the blood transfusion,” Abigail stated after Thadd began the surgery.

*****

Abigail clipped the tube that carried the blood between Mark’s arm to Gwen’s. She placed a cotton wad over the needle before she removed it from the crook of Mark’s elbow and bent his arm up.

“Just lie still for a few moments,” Abigail instructed, turned, and worked to remove the tubing from Gwen’s arm.

*****

“That’s all I can do…” Thadd stated as he placed the needle and thread aside. “What the?!” he exclaimed and looked in the direction of the thud to see Mark lying on the floor. Thadd knelt next to Mark and waited for him to regain consciousness as he held the smelling salts under Mark’s nose.

“What happened?” Mark asked groggily, shaking his head.

“You didn’t do as instructed. Guess we took a little more blood from you than we should have. It will take your body a little while to adjust. Come on, let’s get you into one of the other rooms. You’ll feel better after a good night’s sleep.”

Once to his feet Mark stated, “No, I have to deal with that Mrs. Glendening.”

“She can wait until morning or Johnny can deal with her. I want you in bed.” Thadd supported Mark to the door and called to Lucas, who was waiting with the McCafferty family. “Lucas, get Mark into room five and into bed.”

“Doc?” asked an alarmed Lucas as he saw his pale and unsteady son.

“He’ll be okay. We administered a blood transfusion and Mark’s having a little trouble adjusting to the loss of blood. I think we took a little too much. He should be fine in the morning.”

“I said I’m alright. I need to deal with Mrs. Glendening,” Mark again stated.

“No, you’re not alright son. You can barely walk. Johnny and Seth have her and the two detectives under house arrest. You can deal with her in the morning. Right now, you will follow doctor’s order and go to bed.”

Lucas accepted Mark’s jacket from Abigail as Mark leaned heavily against Lucas. Together they walked to room five.

Thadd turned to the McCafferty family.

“How is she?” Reverend Mark asked.

“She’s holding her own. I’ll need to keep an eye on her through the night.”

Sarah asked as she watched Lucas help Mark, “Will Mark be okay?”

“Sure, he just needs to sleep off the effects of having too much blood taken.” Turning to Jake, Thadd stated, “I want you to go home with your parents.”

“Tonight was supposed to be our wedding night,” Jake whispered.

“Jake, if there is any change, I’ll send word. But I think you need to sleep, you’re probably suffering from shock.”

“Can’t I stay here? Please?” Jake begged.

“Room six,” Thadd answered.

Thadd watched as Reverend Mark and his wife Maggie escorted their son down the hallway.

“Thadd, what if we give him something to help him sleep?” Abigail asked as she returned from the surgical room, carrying Gwen’s wedding dress.

“Just what the doctor was going to order.” Upon seeing what his wife held in her arms, “She was a beautiful bride tonight. It’s such a shame…”

“I can’t believe that woman would do this to a member of her family, if she really is…” Sarah stated as her eyes followed her parents and brother down the hallway.

“Sarah, if she is Gwen’s aunt she’ll…” Abigail started to say.

Not allowing his wife to complete her train of thought, “Abigail, after you give Jake the sedative, why don’t you go on home and get some sleep. I don’t need you going into premature labor.”

The emotions from assisting during surgery started to wane and Abigail admitted to her husband that she was indeed feeling tired.

“Just let me get the children…” Abigail started to say.

“It’s a little late. I’m sure Micah and Hattie already have them to bed. Now, off to bed yourself.”

Thadd kissed his wife and escorted her to the front door.

“Thadd, I’ll see her home,” Lucas offered as he returned to the waiting area.

“Thanks, Lucas. I’d appreciate it.”

*****

“What are you planning to do with Gwen’s wedding dress?” Lucas asked as they walked along the boardwalk once he realized what Abigail was carrying.

“I was wondering, if Lilah… Do you think she’d be able to salvage the dress?”

“Milly said she helped Gwen sew it. If anyone could, I’m sure Lilah can.”

“What about Mark’s jacket? It looked to be stained with…”

“The family is going to stay at the hotel tonight; I’ll ask Lou if she has any suggestions to get the blood out,” Lucas answered as he held the jacket his son had worn earlier in the evening.

Upon reaching the Burrage’s home, Lucas made sure Abigail was safely inside and waited until he heard the door lock behind her.

*****

Johnny entered the kitchen of the hotel to gather Lou before heading home.

“I want them out of my hotel!” Lou demanded with her Irish temper still flaring.

“And just where would they go this late of an evening?”

“To jail!”

“And what would I charge them with?”

“Attempted Murder!” Lou spat out.

“Murder? Lou listen here!’

“I want them gone! They hurt a very dear friend of mine.”

“I have the gamblers in jail.”

“Then let her join ‘em!” Lou argued back.

“Be reasonable…”

“REASONABLE! Ye expect me to be a proper host… to them? Them who’s…”

Lou’s eyes flashed anger as Johnny placed his hand over her mouth. “If you’ll let me explain, they are under house arrest and will not get any preferential treatment from you. Seth is upstairs making sure they stay in their rooms; until Mark or I decide what to do with them.”

“And when will Mark or ye decide?” Lou asked after she pulled Johnny’s hand from her mouth.

“In the morning, once we’ve had the chance to see how Gwen is recovering. I want them to stew and think on what trouble they caused this town.”

“I’ve seen the likes of that woman. She’ll never admit that she done wrong or caused any trouble.”

“Maybe not, but once Mark writes his report and files it with Tom Benton up in Denver, I’m sure the Pinkerton Agency will have a few choice words to say to their detectives.”

“Choice words, I’ll…”

“Not tonight. This town needs to simmer down, and that includes you. Clear heads will prevail in the morning.”

*****

Lucas returned to the hotel where Milly and Hope sat at one of the tables, ignoring the drinks they held cupped in their hands while they waited.

“How is she?” Hope asked as Lucas entered the restaurant. She couldn’t help the involuntary gasp when she saw Mark’s blood soaked jacket. “Is that…?

“Mark’s fine. When I left the clinic, Doc said Gwen was holding her own,” Lucas replied as he placed his arm round Milly’s shoulders after she came to stand next to him.

“What is Mark going to do with that woman?” Milly asked. “I saw Johnny and Seth take her and those two detectives upstairs. Seth’s still upstairs.”

“Tonight Mark is sleeping…”

“Sleeping?” Hope queried.

“He donated blood to save Gwen’s life and Doc wanted him to spend the night at the clinic until his body could adjust to so much being taken.”

“How is Jake?” Milly asked.

“I saw his parents walking him to the room, next to where Mark is staying. I can’t imagine what he’s going through. I mean, I’ve been through some pretty rough experiences, but nothing like what he’s going through, watching as his wife was shot in front of him…” Changing the subject, “Enough of that, let’s get you two upstairs and to bed. We’re all going to need a good night’s sleep in order to deal with everything, tomorrow.”

*****

From the end of the hallway, Seth nodded as Lucas and Milly entered their room and Hope entered the room where her children slept. Hope heard a quiet knock on her door followed by, “Hope it’s me.”

Opening the door, Hope answered, “Father” as she started to cry.

Seth wrapped his arms around his daughter and patted her on the back.

“How could such a wonder ceremony become such a horrid evening?” Hope asked.

“I don’t know. We’ll interview Mrs. Glendening and those detectives in the morning. Where’s Mark?”

“Pa said Doc was keeping him at the clinic tonight, they took too much of his blood during the transfusion and his body needed more time to adjust.”

Putting his hand to his daughter’s chin and lifting her face to look at him, “Well, you get into bed and I’ll keep an eye on your room from the end of the hallway.”

“Goodnight Father.”

*****

Upon hearing Lucas close the door behind them, Milly asked, “Is that Mark’s jacket?”

“I was going to ask Lou if she had anything to get the blood out…”

“I can get a bucket from the kitchen and fill it with water to soak…” Taking the jacket from Lucas, Milly said, “Lucas, there’s so much blood on this…”

Lucas nodded.

*****

Throughout the night, Thadd kept an eye on his patients. Gwen was holding her own, though still unconscious from the ether. Mark was peacefully sleeping, his skin color returning to normal and not so stressed. Jake, even though sedated, struggled with his torments. Thadd imagined he was reliving the events from the night.

*****

When Mark woke, it took him a few moments to gain his bearings, where he was and why. Sitting up too quickly, Mark grabbed the side of the bed until the room stopped spinning. He was cautiously pulling on his boots when he heard the doorknob turning. Mark quickly pulled his pant legs down over his boots, stretched out his arms and took a deep breath.

“How are you feeling Mark?” Abigail asked as she entered the room.

“Better, thanks for letting me sleep here last night. I best be getting over to the jail.”

“Mark, wait until Thadd has a chance to check you over, please. He’s with Gwen right now.”

Mark stood and walked to Abigail, “I’ll be okay. I’m fine. Tell Thadd I’ll be back after I deal with Mrs. Glendening. I’ll want to hear what he has to say as far as his prognosis for Gwen’s recovery.”

Mark kissed Abigail on the cheek, turned to reach for his shirt to finish dressing. Once out of Abigail’s sight, Mark reached his hand for the wall and leaned heavily against it for a few moments, before continuing out the front door.

*****

“They did not consummate their marriage; therefore, it must be annulled!”

Trying desperately to keep his temper, Mark replied, “Mrs. Glendening, whether their marriage was consummated or not, that is irrelevant. Jake and Gwen are legally married and they love each other.”

“Love? She’s not old enough to know what love is! She’s barely of consenting age.”

“She’s twenty years old. Old enough to consent to marry someone she loves, and loves her equally in return,” Mark stated.

“She will return to Cambridge, Massachusetts with me.”

“Why? Why now?” Johnny Drako asked.

“I am the last of her family. Being raised as I’m sure she was, she needs a proper education and training. I’m sure she’s had no refinement.”

“She’s made a good life for herself,” Johnny replied.

“Good life? This land is uncivilized, only fit for the likes of…

“Ma’am, there are plenty of people in this town who take offense in what you are implying. Especially me,” Mark stated.

“You’re nothing but lawless…”

“We have laws that we uphold!” Mark answered, letting his control slip.

“Civilized people don’t go around wearing guns on their persons… Gwenivere will travel with me and I’ll see that she is trained as one befitting her station.”

“Animals are trained!” Johnny retorted.

“Gwen has been raised just fine and if she chooses to stay here, I’ll see that she lives the life she wants,” Mark replied, attempting to regain his control.

“So you had desires on her yourself,” Mrs. Glendening stated with disgust. “Heathens!”

Trying even harder to control his temper, Mark took a deep breath before he spoke.

“My wife and I have had the pleasure of allowing Gwen to live in our home. She’s been a wonderful nanny to our children.”

“You made her your indentured servant?! How dare you! I’ll see you brought up on charges…”

“Mrs. Glendening!” Mark demanded as he slammed his fist on the top of his desk and he stood to his feet. He leaned forward to steady himself.

“Mark?” Johnny stated as Mark faltered.

“I’ll be alright. Mrs. Glendening, you are speaking on subjects you know nothing about. My sister and I happened upon Gwen a little over two years ago and it was her choice to stay here and help us. In addition, she earned a good salary for everything she did. There was nothing indentured about her staying with us. She could come and go as she pleased or leave at any time to make a life for herself somewhere else. With our blessings.”

“Mrs. Glendening, in the beginning Mark allowed Gwen to live with them while her broken leg healed. He also built onto his home, affording Gwen a place to call her home,” Johnny added.

Mark continued, “I watched a young woman, who was scared from the prospect of what had almost happened to her when she joined a wagon train to travel west, change into a confident young woman. She is a young woman who laughs and enjoys life. I watched as her relationship with Jake unfolded. I was the one who gave Jake permission to call on Gwen. When Jake realized he loved her, he asked my permission to court her. He eventually asked me if I would grant him permission to ask Gwen to marry him. My wife and I were there that night when Jake asked Gwen in front of his parents, the Reverend and Mrs. McCafferty, to become his wife.”

“It doesn’t matter,” an infuriated Mrs. Glendening demanded. “None of this and none of you matter!”

“I think it does. I’m not sure why all of a sudden you are so anxious to have control of your niece,” Johnny inserted.

“Control? The poor child…”

“We know about the letter you wrote, essentially telling Gwen’s father you wanted nothing to do with them; that your sister was dead to you the day she married,” Mark answered.

Mark and Johnny watched as some of the fire left her eyes.

“So tell me, why now? Why after all these years and why last night did you have to return?” Mark asked.

“I’m her family! That’s all you need to know.”

“Not according to Gwen. You disinherited her from your family a long time ago. She’s of age to choose for herself,” Mark stated.

“Mrs. Glendening, I can hold you accountable for the events that transpired last night. Though you didn’t exactly pull the trigger, you ultimately are the one responsible for Gwen running from the church and being in the position to be shot,” Johnny threatened.

Getting nowhere, Mark stated, “Johnny return her to her room at the hotel. And until Gwen recovers, Mrs. Glendening you are not to leave this town, NOR are you to try to see her.”

“You… You can’t keep me!” a flustered Mrs. Glendening sputtered.

“I can keep you all I want, as a material suspect. And, I honestly don’t think Doc will allow you in his clinic either. So you best mind our laws while you’re in MY town,” said Mark with a calculating coldness in his voice. “Johnny, get her out of my sight and tell Lou I’m sorry for inconveniencing her.”

“She understands,” Johnny stated as he walked to stand next to Mrs. Glendening.

“I can return to the hotel on my own!” Mrs. Glendening stood from the chair and purposefully strode from the office, avoiding Johnny’s hand has he reached to take her arm.

Johnny watched as she walked across the dirt main street of town and into the hotel. Upon hearing a noise behind him, Johnny quickly walked to Mark, having collapsed back in his chair and exhaled sharply.

“That woman is taxing on a healthy person, let alone someone who gave too much blood last night,” Johnny stated as he walked to the potbellied stove and poured Mark a cup of coffee, adding plenty of sugar. “Here drink this before you pass out. I take it Doc didn’t release you?”

“Not quite. He was with Gwen. I’ll be okay, just that woman!”

“That woman is right!” Lou declared as she entered the Marshal’s Office.

“Lou, not now,” Johnny stated and saw that Lou realized now was not the time.

“Would ye like for me to go get the Doc?” Lou’s voice held concern for Mark.

“I think I’d like a big breakfast with my family. Are they at the hotel or at Seth’s?” asked Mark.

“They’re all at the hotel. Seth spent the night standing watch over those two Pinkerton detectives and that woman. I saw Lilah heading for the hotel as I came in here.”

“Do you think you can walk?” Johnny asked.

“Give me a few moments,” Mark stated. “Besides, Seth’s coming across the street.” Mark pointed his finger towards the door while raising the coffee cup to his lips.

All waited for Seth to enter the office.

“So? What did you find out last night?” Mark asked.

“How’d you know?” asked an incredulous Seth.

“I hoped those Pinkerton’s would be rethinking their involvement with everything that happened last night. Depending on how much they value their continued employment, I figured they might spill the beans, so to speak.”

“Yeah, they sure did. By the way, Mark, I saw Hope before she went to bed, she’s mighty worried about you…”

“I know she must be, but I have a job to do,” Mark replied.

“Tell us what ye found out last night,” an anxious Lou asked.

Mark nodded when Seth looked to him, his eyes asking if it was okay to have Lou hear what he had to report.

“We’ve known that Gwen said her aunt had disinherited her own sister.” The others nodded. “However, what the Pinkerton’s said is, their father never did. Howard Trevor St. Paul’s will specifically lists Gwen’s mother as the primary and sole beneficiary. If Emily Marie St. Paul-Shawnesee or her heirs do not present themselves within one year of Mr. St. Paul’s death, all the money and proceeds from the sale of his estate will be donated to charity. The Pinkerton’s also stated there was no provision made for Mrs. Mary Catherine Glendening in the will, except to say that she was to be provided for by her family.”

“He expected Gwen’s mother to provide for her?” Lou asked.

“No, I think with her being a ‘woman of standing’ he meant for the family she married into, to provide for her,” Seth stated.

“How long ago did Gwen’s grandfather pass away?” Mark asked.

“Nine months ago,” Seth answered.

“She wouldn’t,” Lou declared.

“Now Lou, what are you thinking?” Johnny asked.

“She disinherits her own sister and niece years ago. Her own father doesn’t include her in his will, but make allowances for a granddaughter he’s never met… She’s here to get her hands on the money by using Gwen and Lord only knows what will become of Gwen once that… that…”

“Lou!” Johnny warned strongly.

“First we need to make sure that Gwen recovers,” Mark declared. “And this town will do its damnedest to protect her. However, if she chooses to travel to Cambridge, there is nothing we can do.”

“Ye, can’t be serious. That ‘woman’ has to be kept away from her,” Lou declared.

“She’s already been warned,” Johnny answered. “Now, I think Mark will better recover from the events from last night if we get him to the restaurant and you cook him and his family a fine breakfast.”

“Seth, Lou said Lilah headed to the hotel, why don’t you head on back. I’ll be there shortly to relieve you,” Mark stated as he stood to his feet, Johnny close by.

“I’ll wait to return with you,” Seth answered.

The foursome walked across the street and into the hotel lobby. Mark watched his family coming down the stairs, thankful, his father was in front and in a position to stop his grandsons from running to their father. Lucas had seen Johnny shaking his head when the boys started calling for their Papa.

“Boys, I need to talk with your Papa, alone, why don’t you go on into the restaurant and pick out a table for all of us.”

“Yes, Grandpa,” the three called as they ran ahead. “Come on Little Ted,” Josh called.

“I come too,” Levi called out as Little Ted took his hand and pulled him along.

Hope handed Faith to Milly and was soon at Mark’s side with her arm around his waist, “Here, let me help you,” she smiled.

“Thanks,” Mark answered as he tipped his head forward and gave her a quick kiss.

*****

Mark did his best to steer any conversation away from the topic of Mrs. Glendening through breakfast. He had just put his napkin on top of his empty plate when Thadd came into the restaurant.

“Okay, Marshal, doctor’s orders, back to the clinic.”

“Doc, I’m fine, I’m feeling a lot better since Lou cooked such a fine breakfast for the family,” Mark answered.

“Allow me to pronounce you capable of returning to your duties. I’m the doctor, you’re the Marshal.”

“How is Jake this morning?” Hope asked.

“Traumatized. I allowed him into Gwen’s room after I finished examining both of them for the morning.”

“And Gwen? Will she recover?” Milly asked.

“I expect her to wake up before lunch time. She accepted Mark’s blood last night without any complications.”

“Accepted blood?” Mrs. Glendening asked from the entrance to the restaurant. “You risked my niece’s life with such a barbaric practice?!”

“Before I chased you from my clinic, I’m sure you saw the volume of blood on the Marshal’s jacket and hands? Gwen McCafferty lost a lot of blood last night. It was a risk I have taken in the past with much success. Had Mark not agreed to a blood transfusion, Gwen would have died.”

“All the more reason for me to take her to Cambridge. I’ll have the finest, educated doctors that money can buy tend to her, not some witchdoctor.”

“Witchdoctor!” Hope declared. “Doctor Burrage is an excellent physician.”

Thadd answered Mrs. Glendening, choosing to ignore her insult. “She’s not in any condition to travel and won’t be for some time. If any other doctors are to treat her, that decision will be up to her husband.” Thadd’s tone indicated a finality that he no longer wished the woman in his presence. Turning to Mark, “You have five minutes to return to the clinic so I may examine you for the morning.”

Lou stepped to the table and addressed Mrs. Glendening, “This restaurant refuses to serve you. T’is a café down the street.”

*****

Mark had finished re-buttoning his shirt when he asked, “Well?”

“Just take it easy today? Try to keep your temper in check…”

“My temper? You should have told that to Lou…” Mark teased.

“Mark, before I entered the restaurant, Johnny told me what happened in the office. It’ll still take a while before your body can replace all the blood we took. I’m surprised you didn’t pass out this morning when you got into the argument with that woman.”

“Pass out?”

“Mark, I was desperate to save Gwen’s life and we probably shouldn’t have taken as much as we did. Just promise me you’ll take it easy.”

“Okay Thadd, I’ll do as you ask. Can I see them?” Mark asked.

“Sure, come on. Room nine, across from my office.”

The room Mark entered was semi-darkened due to the shades being drawn and the lantern on the table turned low. Jake sat on a chair next to the bed, holding Gwen’s hand. He didn’t look up as Mark walked to stand next to him.

“When will she wake?” Jake barely whispered.

“Doc hopes before lunchtime,” Mark replied.

“Will she be okay? I mean, Doc’s not told me a whole lot, but will she be able to be my wife?”

“In time. Once she’s fully healed,” Thadd answered from the doorway, knowing the meaning behind Jake’s question, “The bullet did some damage, but nothing that would prevent her from bearing your children.”

“Can that woman do as she said? Can she have our marriage… annulled?” Jake asked. His eyes expressed his fear for the answer to his questions.

“Not as long as I have a say,” Mark answered. “Jake, there’s more going on that I can’t tell you about right now, but rest assured, you and Gwen are married in the eyes of this town and in the eyes of God. From now, until death do you part.”

“It almost happened last night,” Jake plaintively spoke as tears welled in his eyes.

“You have that little faith in my surgical abilities?” Thadd asked.

“No, no. You saved her life…” Jake gulped.

“Just remember that and keep positive thoughts Jake. I’ll send your parents in here once they arrive.”

“Doc? Thank you,” Jake stated as he looked away from Gwen for the first time and looked straight into Doc’s eyes.

“You’re welcome.”

*****

Mark returned to the hotel later in the morning, he stopped by the room to check in on their children and Hope before proceeding to the room Detectives Morely and Garrison were sharing.

“Both of you are ordered to leave North Fork and return to your St. Louis office,” Mark stated and continued, “There’s a stage that will take you to Roswell this afternoon where you can catch the train.”

“You have no authority!” Morely shot back.

“I have all the authority I need,” Mark replied.

“We are employed by the Pinkerton National Detective Agency,” Garrison stated as he stood from the chair where he had been reading a paper.

“And I’m employed by the U.S. Marshal Service. My employer trumps yours. Either you leave ‘voluntarily’ or you’ll force me to wire your superiors and I’m sure the Marshal’s Office in Denver would love to hear about your incompetence.”

“Incompetence?! We were under orders!” Morely argued. “We were doing our job!”

“Your job almost cost a young woman her life last night. Either you get on the stage this afternoon or I’ll charge you as an accessory to attempted murder.”

“Attempted murder?!” an angered Morely replied.

“I can word the warrant any way I please.” Pausing to let his words sink in, Mark continued, “So which way will it be?”

Garrison started to say, “But the train will be here tomorrow. We already had return passage booked.”

“You’re not welcome in this town. I’m sworn to uphold the law and protect the innocent, but neither of you men are innocent in my book. I’m sure you realize that Mrs. Glendening must have ulterior motives to her planning get her hands on her niece. The quicker you leave, the safer you’ll be. So I strongly suggest you both get on the stage out of here… Today.”

“Marshal, you can’t blame us! We didn’t know about the wedding until we arrived. All we did was locate the long lost niece of our client. What happens after the two are reunited is none of our business,” Morely spoke. “What we told the deputy last night…, Mrs. Glendening, she don’t know that we know about the Will. We weren’t supposed to know, but there’s a secretary at the office who’s sweet on Garrison and she told us. Our orders were to do as Mrs. Glendening bid… Locate the niece and see that they both made it on the train back to Cambridge.”

“What unfortunate accident was to befall Gwen after she arrived in Cambridge, once she received her inheritance? Did your superiors plan to blackmail more money from Mrs. Garrison once her niece had her inheritance and Gwen was out of the picture?” Watching the two detectives, Mark continued, “You greedy bastards!”

“The Pinkerton Agency has a reputation to uphold…” Garrison argued.

“But it’s staffed by men. Greedy, manipulative…”

“You don’t know that was what was planned. We’re just supposed to travel with her here and return with the two of them as far as St. Louis,” Garrison answered. “The rest was to be handled by our superiors.”

“Well, you’ll be returning to St. Louis without your client. If you’re lucky, you might just avoid being tarred and feathered if you make it on the stage.”

*****

Mark turned and left the room and the hotel just before lunch. He returned to the clinic and hoped to see Gwen awake.

“Abigail?” Mark asked as he entered. “Has she woke?”

“I’m not to answer that question unless you’ve ate lunch. And from the growl of your stomach, I’d say that answer is no.” Abigail turned Mark around and pushed him out the door. “You may come back and bring confirmation that you ate.”

*****

Thirty minutes later, Mark with Lucas accompanying him, returned to the clinic.

Lucas saw Abigail walking down the hall and stated, “I understand you wanted someone to verify Mark ate, and I’m here to confirm.”

“Thanks, Lucas” Abigail stated.

“You’re on your own son,” Lucas stated as he turned to leave the clinic. “I’m going to take Milly and the children home this afternoon. Will you be bringing your family home later?”

“Just as soon as I settle with the gambler who fired the shot, see those Pinkerton’s on the stage, and warn Mrs. Glendening one more time about staying away from the clinic.”

Lucas and Mark waved goodbye to each other.

“Thadd went in Gwen’s room a few minutes ago. Jake and his family are already inside. He asked for you to come in once you arrived.”

Mark quietly entered the room. Jake was now sitting on the side of the bed Gwen laid in. His hand still held hers and with his other hand, he brushed the backside of his hand against her cheek, while she softly moaned.

Maggie sat in an overstuffed chair next to the window, while Sarah sat on the arm of the chair. Reverend Mark leaned against the wall, an opened bible pulled to his chest.

Jake showed the first indication of a smile on his face when Gwen’s eyelids started to flutter.

“Come on, I want to see my bride’s beautiful eyes,” Jake quietly spoke.

Gwen’s face turned towards his voice as her eyes opened. Mark grew worried when he noticed her dull eyes. They didn’t sparkle at the sight of Jake and his family sitting with her. As she turned her face away from the McCaffertys and towards the wall; he saw the tears falling from her eyes.

“Gwen?” Jake plaintively called. “I love you.”

Gwen shook her head, but stopped as she heard Mark’s voice.

“You have family here who love you and you’re going to turn your back on them?”

“I don’t know that woman,” Gwen whispered.

“I’m not talking her. I’m talking your husband and your in-laws.”

“She said…” Gwen’s voice choked with tears.

“I’m the marshal of this territory. What I say is law. Those two detectives will be on their way to St. Louis this afternoon; they’ll have some mighty uncomfortable questions to answer once they report in to their superiors. And I don’t want you to worry about that woman. There are plenty of us here to take care of her and see that she no longer creates any troubles for you and your husband.”

While Mark spoke, Jake offered Gwen a glass of water and held her head while she sipped.

Gwen turned her head to face Jake, “Do you still want to be married to me?”

“More than anything,” Jake quickly answered, having set the glass on the side table.

“But our wedding night…,” Gwen pleaded.

“Don’t worry about that.” Smiling, Jake continued, “We’ve our whole lives ahead of us.”

Everyone relaxed a little bit when they saw the faint smile appear on Gwen’s face.

*****

After seeing Gwen, Mark returned to the Marshal’s Office, “So what have you decided to do about those two?” he asked.

“Can’t very well charge either of them with shooting Gwen, that part was an accident. From what Sweeney said, had Sam Montgomery not pushed the one, the bullet wouldn’t have struck Gwen.”

“Okay, but what about them?”

“I’m keeping them in there for good measure, at least until after Mrs. Glendening departs. Anybody asks, they’re serving time for disturbing the peace.”

“Sounds good to me,” Mark commented, as he was ready to see the day over.

“What about you?”

“I’m going to see those Pinkerton detectives on the stage, then I think I’ll finally take my family home. When do you want me to stand my next watch?”

“Tuesday. Mark, I’ll send word if there is any change in Gwen’s condition or if I need you to help out with Mrs. Glendening. I think that the less she sees of you, until we ship her out on the train, the better.”

“Are you going to put her on the train tomorrow?” Mark inquired.

“That part is up to Gwen. I’ll send word one way or the other for when she’ll be on the train.”

“I hope the reverend wasn’t too upset with us not making it to services this morning,” Mark commented as stepped to the door.

“In light of everything, he canceled services but allowed people to come for quiet reflection and prayers. Mark get out of here and get your family home. I’ll see you Tuesday.”

*****

The eastbound train arrived mid-afternoon, three days later to see Mark waiting on the platform with Mrs. Glendening.

“I demand the right to see my niece!” Mrs. Glendening demanded one more time. “You and that Marshal have no right to keep me from her!”

“Be thankful that she agreed to see you Monday, otherwise you would have been on the train instead. Know this, she doesn’t want to see you again.”

“You can’t… I’ll hire lawyers!”

“Just so you understand, I’ve wired the Hawes & Hawes law firm in Cambridge and informed them that when she’s capable, Mr. St. Paul’s granddaughter will be contacting them directly regarding her inheritance.”

“You what?!”

“Mrs. Glendening, be advised that should anything happen to Gwen McCafferty, be it in the next week, month or sometime in the future, I will personally swear out a warrant for your arrest.”

“How dare you!”

With a tone of voice that would have surprised his family, Mark answered, “I’ll dare all I need to. I don’t make idle threats. If Gwen has to travel to Cambridge to collect her inheritance, mind you, she will not be traveling with just her husband. I will be there as well. I can only imagine what you had planned after she received her inheritance and believe me, I had an extremely active imagination as a child. It is best you remember you were the one who disowned your own flesh and blood. You will reap what you sewed and when it comes time for you to stand in front of God, I pray you fear for your eternal soul. If it were up to me I’d see that you spend it in eternal damna…”

The train exhaust roared, drowning out the remainder of Mark’s statement.

***

Upon leaving the livery, Mark drove Seth’s surrey to the clinic. “Well,” he called as he knocked on the clinic room door. “I hear two newlyweds are ready to head home.”

Jake wrapped an additional blanket around Gwen before picking her up in his arms. A small crowd of family and friends braved the blustery conditions as they gathered outside the clinic to see the couple off. Pausing in front of the group, Jake thanked everyone for their prayers.

“Jake, once Gwen is fully healed, we’ll hold your wedding reception. Your gifts are already at your home,” Hattie informed them.

“Who knows, we may even convince Oat to hold A New Year’s barn dance in your honor,” Micah quietly stated.

*****

Mark waited until the McCafferty family was seated, and carefully drove the surrey from town to Jake and Gwen’s home. He laughed when Gwen protested Jake wanting to carry her from the surrey into their home. The Reverend helped his wife down and followed behind.

“Gwen, I wouldn’t fight him on this. It’s part of the tradition of being newlyweds.”

Mark followed them inside where he greeted his wife and Jake’s sister.

The families spent a half hour in the home, making sure both Jake and Gwen were settled and prepared a stew for supper to cook on the stove.

“I’m sure we’d love to stay to watch you open your gifts, but the weather is taking a turn for the worse. Reverend, why don’t you take your family back to town in the surrey,” Mark stated.

“And how are you going to get home?” Maggie asked.

“If you remember, Rainmaker is tied to the back. Hope and I can ride double and get home faster this way,” Mark replied. “We really need to get going,” Mark said as he looked to Hope while she buttoned her winter coat.

The McCaffertys stood on the porch and watched as Mark extended his hand down and pulled Hope up behind him. Carefully, Rainmaker turned around and loped down the road towards home.

“They’re both special friends to have,” Jake stated as he finished waving and turned his wife around and lovingly pushed her back inside their home.

“Son, Mark’s right, we best be heading home too. You don’t need us here on your first night together as husband and wife,” Reverend Mark stated as he helped Maggie into her coat.

“Hope and I have some stew on the stove and bread in the oven,” Sarah stated as her father maneuvered her and her mother out the door.

*****

Once alone, Jake asked Gwen if she wanted to open the gifts they had received on their wedding day.

“I just don’t feel like it. Maybe later,” she replied.

*****

Mark halted Rainmaker at the porch to his parents’ home and assisted Hope in stepping down.

“Once I get Rainmaker settled, I’ll be over to help you with the children,” Mark stated as he kneed his horse towards the barn.

*****

“It’s just the two of us,” Jake said later that evening as he brought two bowls of stew to the table and set one in front of Gwen.

“Just us,” Gwen nervously replied as she took a bite.

After eating, Jake quickly washed, dried, and put away the dishes. Outside the wind howled as it blew around their home. Jake added more wood to the fireplace in the front room.

“Now you stay put, I’ll be right back,” Jake stated before he stood and entered the room behind the door that previously bore a sign ‘Keep Out’. Gwen heard several thuds before Jake reentered the front room. “I added more firewood to the potbellied stove. I guess you’re getting tired and probably want to go to bed?”

“Jake… I…”

Jake placed his index finger over Gwen’s lips, before he lifter her into his arms. “This is my gift to you.” And carried her into their bedroom.

After setting her gently on the mattress of the four-poster bed, Gwen ran her hand over the quilt draped across the foot of the bed. Jake walked to the bedroom door and said, “I’ll let you get changed into your nightgown. I’ll change into my bedclothes in the other room.”

Jake waited what seemed an agonizing amount of time before he knocked on the bedroom door, “Gwen, may I come in?”

From the other side of the door he heard a quiet ‘Yes.’

Jake entered the room to see Gwen already under the covers, which were pulled to her chin. Careful not to jostle his wife, Jake climbed into bed next to her. Reaching out, he turned down the wick of the lamp, so that it cast a gentle glow on their bedroom.

“I love you,” Jake answered as he turned back to Gwen.

“How can you say that? Look at all the heartache I’ve brought to you and your family,” Gwen quietly whispered.

“The only reason my heart aches, is because that woman hurt you. Gwen, you’re my wife, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health… I’ll take care of you and when you’re ready, we can be a real husband and wife.”

“I can’t,” Gwen responded as she turned on her side, her back towards Jake.

“Can’t what?” Jake asked while rubbing his hand up and down her upper arm.

“I don’t know how to be a wife.”

Jake heard the tears in her voice.

“Well, I’m not so sure about how to be a husband, but if we love each other and once you’re healed, we can learn… together.”

Gwen rolled over so she could face her husband in their bed.

“I’ve never been with a man before…”

“I’ve never been with a woman before…”

Gently, Jake placed his hand to Gwen’s chin, leaned forward, and shared a kiss, a gentle kiss that before long turned passionate. Jake wrapped his arms around Gwen and carefully pulled her close to him. He hesitated, wanting to make sure he caused her no further pain. As she leaned into him, a brief shiver of excitement coursed through her body when she felt the beating of his heart. While Jake gently his hands rubbed up and down her back, she felt calmness come over her that this is where she belonged.

*****

After seeing their children to bed, Mark and Hope climbed into their own bed.

“I wonder,” Mark commented.

“Wonder what?” Hope asked.

“Nothing…”

“And that’s right. What happens in their home is their business,” Hope replied.

“Do you think she’ll be as embarrassed as you were, the morning after?” Mark teased.

“Mark Warren McCain!” Hope playfully batted away the arm Mark attempted to wrap around her.

*****

Lucas and Milly planned a quiet family celebration for Mark and Hope’s birthdays, only inviting Seth and Lilah to the ranch.

Discussions revolved around the ranch and the fact that Seth and Lilah were planning to travel to Fort Stanton to spend the holidays with Ethan and his family.

Though the adults understood, the boys didn’t. They were upset that their other grandpa wouldn’t be with them for Christmas.

“We’ll be back after the New Year and I promise, we’ll celebrate our own Christmas,” Seth promised as he hugged his grandchildren goodbye.

*****

Two days later, Jake and Gwen were at the clinic where Doc Burrage declared he was pleased with Gwen’s recovery. After Gwen finished dressing, Thadd allowed Jake into the examination room and stated, “Now get home and enjoy being a husband and wife! I’ll make sure your father understands why you’ll both be missing from services tomorrow.”

“Doc?” Jake queried.

“You know dang well what I mean.”

“Thanks Doc!” Jake called as he reached for Gwen’s hand and together they exited the clinic.

*****

Lucas and Milly were placing packages in the back of their buckboard when Jake and Gwen almost ran into them.

“Where’s the fire?” Lucas asked.

“No fire, Mr. McCain,” Jake replied as he looked at Gwen and smiled.

“Mr. McCain, Doc said my injury was fully healed,” Gwen stated while blushing.

Milly asked, “Would you like to join us for lunch?”

“No ma’am. We’re going to follow doctor’s orders,” Jake answered as they excused themselves and hurried to the livery, where they’d left their buggy.

Mark greeted his parents in front of the General Store as Jake and Gwen drove by, waving goodbye, with Jake hurrying the horse along. “I thought you were going to invite them to join us for lunch?” he asked.

“Doc declared Gwen fully healed and they’re heading home to follow doctor’s orders…” Milly stated with a curious expression on her face.

“Oh,” Mark laughed. “Is that all?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Milly asked.

“Ma, if you have to ask, then you’ve been married to Pa for too long.”

“Married… Mark Warren McCain! I’ll have you know…”

“Milly?” Lucas teased.

“And you’re just going to stand there and let your son talk to me like that?” Milly asked in mock-hurt.

“No, I’m going to push my son over to the clinic to join his wife for their youngest child’s check up, then I’m going to go get our children and grandchildren from the daycare, and then I’m planning to have a hearty lunch at the hotel restaurant. What do you have to say for yourself?” Lucas teased.

“I’ll wait for you at the hotel,” Milly shot back, turned and walked away. A giggle escaped Milly’s lips as she smiled at her attempt to get one up on Lucas. “Don’t be late!” she called over her shoulder.

“Do you think she planned that?” Lucas asked as he realized what had happened.

“Don’t think about it Pa. It’ll give you a headache. We’ll join you after Faith’s checkup.”

*****

Jake stopped the buggy at the porch of their home, “uh, uh, uh” he stated when Gwen started to step down from her side. “You just wait.” Jake stepped down and almost slipped as he rushed around the front of the horse in his hurry to get to Gwen. Taking her hand, Jake lifted her from the buggy and carried her inside. Setting her to her feet in front of the fireplace, Jake stated, “You just wait here, I’ll be right back as soon as I put away the horse.”

*****

Jake returned to the house to find Gwen still standing where he left her. She had removed her coat and started a fire in the fireplace. Jake hung his coat and hat on the coat rack behind the front door and walked to his bride.

“We’re alone,” Jake whispered.

“That we are.”

“And Doc told us to get home and enjoy being a husband and wife.”

“I know.”

Jake carefully took Gwen into his arms and carried her into their bedroom. He noticed a fire had been started in the potbellied stove and the curtains had been pulled closed, darkening the room. The lantern on the table beside their bed was lit, yet turned down low, casting a golden glow around their bedroom.

Setting Gwen to her feet, he stated, “I love you.”

Gwen said nothing in response. She hesitated before she raised her hands and started to unbutton Jake’s shirt. As she reached the last button, Jake pulled his shirttail from his pants, Gwen pushed it off his shoulders allowing it to fall to the floor. She placed her hands lovingly on his chest, and smiled as she felt the muscles ripple under her hands.

Taking her face in his hands, Jake leaned forward and kissed his bride, lowering his hands to her waist, he pulled her close as she in turn wrapped her arms around his neck. Jake walked her to their bed and unbuttoned the back of Gwen’s dress. He shivered as he felt the softness of her back against his hands. Gwen shuffled to slip out of her shoes before he felt her push him away.

“If it’s too soon…” Jake offered.

“No, it’s not too soon. I was just remembering something Hope told me…”

Gwen reached up and slowly pulled her dress from her shoulders, slipping her arms from the sleeves, yet pausing… She remembered their first night in their home, how she realized after their talk that this was indeed where she belonged. She had yearned for the past ten days to fulfill her wedding vows and be a wife to the man who stood in front of her. She finally allowed her dress to fall to the floor, revealing herself to her husband. Jake lifted the covers, allowing Gwen to slip into bed. He scurried around to the other side, where he quickly removed his clothes, and climbed under the covers.

Neither minded the fact that they missed lunch or supper as they enjoyed exploring the pleasures of being married.

*****

After seeing their own children to bed later that night, Lucas and Milly retired to their bedroom.

“Now what do you have to say for yourself, Mrs. McCain? I bet you think you’re feeling pretty smug about relaxing at the restaurant while I retrieved all the children.”

“Oh Lucas, you can’t be upset with me? It’s just the tone you took when you said what you were going to do.”

Lucas wrapped his arms around Milly and pulled her close.

“There’s only one way you can make it up to me,” Lucas teased as he pressed his lips to Milly’s ear.

“You’ve already ate supper!” Milly teased back.

Milly leaned in to Lucas as he started to unbutton the back of her dress.

“You don’t think we’ve been married too long, do you?” Lucas asked.

“What would ‘our’ son know about that?” Milly asked as she proceeded to unbutton Lucas shirt.

Together they slipped into their bed.

“Nothing like newlyweds to remind us of what it means to be a married,” Lucas commented as he caressed his wife and pulled her close. That night, they enjoyed the pleasures of being married. Smug in the fact their children were old enough to sleep through the night.

*****

It was after midnight when Gwen tried to rise from the bed, but found herself restrained by her husband.

“Just where do you think you’re going?” Jake whispered in her ear.

“We’ve not ate since breakfast, and I’m a little hungry.”

“Now that you mention it,” Jake replied. “I’ll put more wood in the potbellied stove. Why don’t you fix us some sandwiches?”

The Next Generation… Chapter 92 – The Wanted Poster

Lucas and Milly relaxed in each other’s arms the following morning, listening as the rooster crowed, greeting the rising sun.

“Guess we should get up and get to chores,” Lucas reluctantly stated, but not moving a muscle to slip from under the covers.

“Can’t they wait? God made Sunday as a day for rest…” Milly answered.

“And what do we tell the children when they want breakfast?”

“Let them sleep in as long as possible,” Milly mumbled as she snuggled closer to Lucas.

“And church?”

“We can read from the bible after breakfast.”

“So what you’re saying is, you don’t want to get out of bed either,” Lucas whispered into Milly’s ear.

“I’m enjoying snuggling with my husband.”

Lucas moved his lips to Milly’s, where they shared a passionate kiss.

Both were awakened from having fallen back asleep when they heard Myra knocking on their door, “Mama? Papa?”

“We’ll be right out Myra,” Lucas replied, smiling as he watched Milly slip from their bed and into her nightgown, and tie her robe closed with a sash.

*****

Later that afternoon, Hattie and Micah arrived at the McCain Ranch.

“Missed you at church today, LucasBoy,” Micah called as Lucas stepped to the porch, raising his arm and resting it against one of the posts.

“Milly decided that today was a day of rest and that we would read from the bible,” Lucas answered. “So, what brings the two of you way out here?”

“Lucas, invite them in,” Milly called from inside their home.

Taking Micah’s and Hattie’s coats once inside, Lucas asked, “Is everything in town okay?”

“Sure, the town is fine. Hattie just wanted to talk with Milly and Hope to reschedule and plan the wedding reception for Jake and Gwen.”

“Then today’s not going to be a day of rest,” Lucas teased.

“And just what is that supposed to mean, Mr. McCain?” Milly asked, raising her eyebrows.

“I just know that when the three of you ladies get to planning, us men folk had best make ourselves scarce.”

“Come on LucasBoy, you can show me that project of yours in the barn,” Micah stated with a wink.

“Project? Oh, yeah.”

The men pulled on their coats and were just opening the door to find Mark and Hope about to knock.

“Hope, come on in. Mark, you’re coming with us,” Lucas stated.

“I am?” asked a surprised Mark.

Lucas closed the door behind Hope and the children, and headed to the barn.

*****

“Well, it’s such a shame that they had to postpone their reception,” Hattie stated. “But now that I’ve heard Doc has declared Gwen recovered,” Hattie paused when she heard Milly giggle. “What’s so funny?”

“Nothing, just remembering a conversation from yesterday,” a blushing Milly replied.

“The trouble is, the date,” Hattie continued.

“Well, I don’t think we can properly reschedule to hold it between now and when Seth and Lilah leave for Fort Stanton,” Hope commented.

“Then there’s Christmas, it’s only eleven days away,” Milly added.

“Don’t forget yours and Lucas’ wedding anniversary the night before,” Hattie commented, causing Milly to blush even more, remembering their evening and morning together.

“And New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day,” Milly added to the calendar of conflicting dates.

“And my birthday!” came from Myra’s bedroom.

“Myra, if you’re room is cleaned, you may come out and help us,” Milly called.

“So it sounds like December is out of the question,” a dejected Hattie spoke.

“What about after the New Year and my birthday? Connor’s birthday isn’t until the 10th,” Myra stated, pointing to the calendar,

Milly continued, “Why can’t we hold their reception after church? Once Lilah and Seth return?”

“But we were planning to celebrate Christmas once they returned,” Hope replied. “I guess we could invite them over Saturday, the second and celebrate our Christmas then…”

“Myra?!” Milly exclaimed in surprise.

“Yes, Mama?”

“Just what did you do? And why?” Milly asked.

Hope and Hattie both turned to look at Myra, trying hard to keep grins off their faces as they saw what had alarmed Milly.

“I just borrowed some socks. I got curious. I’m mean, after our talk with Hope. I wanted to know what I would look like all grown up.”

“Well, you can just pull those socks out of your shirt. You’re too young,” Milly stated trying to keep a straight face as she pointed Myra back to her bedroom.

“I think Faith needs to be fed, she’s getting fussy,” Hope stated as she picked Faith up from the bassinet beside her chair. She stood to go to one of the bedrooms.

“You won’t embarrass me, if you nurse her out here,” Hattie stated.

Milly picked up a towel from the kitchen and handed it to Hope as she sat back down. After placing her daughter to her breast, Hope draped the towel over her shoulder and her daughter’s head.

Upon Myra’s return to the front room, she walked to Hattie and quietly asked, “Miss Hattie, did you know that under the towel, Faith is drinking milk from Hope’s breasts?”

“Myra!” Milly scolded.

“Ain’t Miss Hattie family? You said we only talk about it in front of the girls of the family,” Myra defended herself.

In an effort to change the subject to avoid embarrassing Hope or Milly any further, Hattie asked, “What if we made Gwen and Jake’s reception a box social, too?”

“What would we be raising money for?” Milly asked.

“North Fork’s Rainy Day Fund!” Hattie declared. “Who knows, but the way the town is growing…”

“I love the idea,” Hope answered.

“Can I make a picnic box too?” Myra asked.

“Are you wanting any particular boy to bid on your picnic box?” Hattie asked.

“Well, since it is just family present…” Myra spoke while looking to Milly. “Mama, would it be wrong of me to want Isaiah to bid on my box?”

“Just don’t tell him or anyone else, sweetie,” Milly answered.

*****

“So did you ladies decide on a date for Jake and Gwen’s reception?” Lucas asked as they cuddled in bed that night.

“I think we’re going to plan it for January third, after church. I just need to make sure that the date works for the entire McCafferty family,” Milly answered.

“So would you like to explain what else happened this afternoon?” Lucas asked, trying to keep the grin from his face.

“Happened? We just talked,” stated a perplexed Milly.

“I’m talking about Myra,” Lucas said with his eyebrows raised.

“Myra?”

“I presume she had a reason to stuff her shirt? What was that all about? Isn’t she a little too young…”

“Oh, Lucas how…”

“I was returning for my rifle, I peeked in the window to make sure it was safe for me to come back inside…”

“Lucas… After…” Milly didn’t know exactly how to explain, so she just blurted it out. “Last month, we explained to Myra about Hope breastfeeding Faith. She asked a few questions and seemed to be okay with what we said.”

“And?” Lucas asked.

“At one point she asked if her breasts would be like ours or more like Becky Whitcomb’s when she grew up.”

Milly paused when she heard Lucas try to refrain from laughing.

“Hope answered only God knew. Anyway, today, when she came out of her room… there she was. I asked why, she said she wanted to know what she would look like when she grew up.”

Lucas leaned forward and pressed a kiss to the top of Milly’s head, still trying to stifle a laugh.

“I’m so thankful that Mark was a boy. I don’t know how I would have handled the situation had I a daughter to raise instead of a son.”

“Just wait Lucas, I’m sure it’s only going to get more… interesting,” Milly sighed as she snuggled against Lucas.

*****

It was the Saturday before Christmas as Seth and Lilah stood on the train station platform to say goodbye as they readied to leave to visit Ethan and Annie at Fort Stanton.

“We’ll be home by the 30th,” Seth stated as he handed his newest granddaughter back to Hope.

“But you’ll miss Christmas,” Josh plaintively stated.

“I know, but don’t you think your Uncle Ethan and Aunt Annie would like to share their Christmas with us?”

“I guess so,” a dejected Zach replied.

“Does that mean Santa won’t bring us any presents from you?” Eli asked.

“No, I’m sure Santa will make arrangements for us to delay our Christmas until we return,” Lilah answered as she handed Mykaela back to Mark.

“Do you really think so?” Eli asked.

“I’m sure he will,” Mark answered as he placed Mykaela to his hip and ruffled Eli’s hair.

“Ahh, Papa. Why’d you have to muss up my hair?” Eli asked while swatting at Mark’s hand.

“You’ll wire when you arrive?” asked Hope.

“As soon as we get off the train. You take care of our grandchildren, we’ll be back in no time,” Seth said as he heard the conductor call, “ALL ABOARD!”

Over the roar of the exhaust, they all tried to say goodbye.

*****

Two days before Christmas, a rain soaked Mark returned home to find his brothers and sister sitting around the table with his own children, and Hope setting plates with their lunch on the table.

“Pretty wicked storm out there,” Mark called from the porch as he hung his rain poncho on the pegs outside the front door, before entering. “And just what do I owe the pleasure of you three being here?” he asked, walking up behind Myra.

“Mama was wanting to clean the house real good before Papa got back,” Little Ted answered.

“That’s what she said, but Papa’s used to how the house looks, I’m sure Mama was wanting to make sure the house is presentable for when Santa Claus comes tomorrow night,” Myra answered.

“And have you been good this year? I mean, I hear that children who aren’t good end up getting lumps of coal in their stockings,” Mark teased.

“We been good,” Josh piped up, causing Mark to raise his eyebrows.

“Well, for the most part. Papa, I been real good since then and try real hard not to get into any more trouble,” Josh pleaded.

Mark walked around the table to where his eldest sat and tussled his hair. “I know you do. But Santa Claus might just remember the trouble you caused back in October when you ran away.”

“Would he remember what we did too?” Zach asked.

“He’s got a list and he checks it at least twice,” Hope replied, she couldn’t keep the smile from her face.

“Let’s hope someone else has been in more trouble than we were,” Little Ted offered before he took a bite from his sandwich.

Looking to Hope, Mark asked, “So, where’s Pa?”

“Ma said he left early, before daybreak, to go check on the weanling herd.”

As two o’clock approached, Mark saw his Ma hurrying across the yard, he stood from his chair and walked over to open the door.

“How’s the house cleaning coming along?” Mark asked, closing the door behind Milly.

“Mark, I…”

“What’s the matter?”

“It’s your father; he said he was just going to check the weanling herd. He said he wasn’t going to be that long; he’d be back by lunch… I gave him extra time, because of the weather, but…”

“You’re worried,” said Mark.

Milly nodded.

“Ma, Blade is sure footed…’

“He rode Razor… You know how he likes to still ride Razor, even as old as he’s getting, he still likes to take him out on the range.”

“Pa’s just probably holed up somewhere, waiting for the worst of the storm to pass.”

“I know, it’s just…”

“I’ll ride out to see if I can catch up with him.”

*****

Mark arrived at the meadow where their weanling heard was wintered. The rain made it difficult to see any distance, so Mark kneed Rainmaker to walk on. Mark reached the far side of the meadow to find Razor lying on the ground. Stepping from his horse, Mark closed his eyes in an attempt to stem the flow of tears, mentally acknowledging the stillness, as Razor lay dead. Kneeling next to his father’s old horse, he rubbed the grayed muzzle as images of a younger Mark riding Blue Boy beside his Pa riding Razor flooded his memories.

“PA!” Mark yelled as he stood and looked around. “PA!”

Mark intently listened as the rain pelted his hat and poncho for a reply that never came.

*****

Night had fallen by the time Mark returned home, his effort to sneak into his barn was in vain; both Hope and Milly were waiting for his return. Mark had finished tying the shovel to the back of his saddle when the barn door opened.

“Mark?” Milly called out as she saw his silhouette cast by the lantern turned low.

“Ma, go back to the house. You shouldn’t be out in this weather.”

“Where’s your father? Where’s Lucas?”

“I don’t know. Please, just go back inside…” Mark pleaded, unable to keep the quiver from his voice.

“Mark, please I hear it in your voice. Don’t hide the truth from Ma,” Hope spoke as she walked across the barn floor.

“Pa’s missing… I found Razor… I need to get back to bury him before the wolves…” Mark stopped as he heard both women gasp. “There were tracks, but I just don’t know… I’ll be back when I can.”

Hope stated, “I’ll go pack some provisions.”

After Hope had left the barn, Milly stated, “Mark, you find your father,” unable to stop the tears falling down her face.

*****

Before he started to dig the hole, Mark pulled Razor’s saddle and bridle, placing them in the back of the cave on the east side of the meadow. Returning to Rainmaker, Mark attached his Pa’s rifle and scabbard to the left side of his own saddle. The sun was just starting to crest the hills when Mark pushed the last bit of dirt over the grave where he buried Razor. Mark drove the shovel into the ground, and with sore muscles, he tightened the cinch to Rainmakers girth and climbed in the saddle.

Looking to the horizon, back towards their homestead, the rain continued to soak everything around.

Mark’s attention returned to his need to find his Pa. Soon, all the lessons Lucas taught him through the years about tracking kicked into gear, Mark looked at the tracks in the mud… A short distance from where he had found Razor, Mark found what appeared to be the remnants of blood mixed in with the mud on the ground and the impression of where a tall man had lain. Mark started to back track. Mentally measuring the length of Razor’s stride, he realized Lucas had been running his old horse for all he was worth. Mark found where a second set of tracks had paralleled and crossed Razor’s…

Finding the right tracks leading away from the meadow, Mark pulled his hat further down in an effort to keep the rain from running down his neck before he kicked Rainmaker into a trot, heading east.

The sun had set when the rain finally stopped. Mark arrived in Roswell late in the evening. Walking along the main street, he heard Christmas carols coming from the saloon, the voices drunkenly off-key. Mark halted his horse in front of the livery and led him inside.

“Mighty late for a young man like you to be out on Christmas Eve,” came from the shadows as an old man stepped from a side room.

“Any others come through this afternoon? One might be busted up, got thrown from his horse, maybe?” Mark asked.

“On Christmas Eve? Most travelers are at their destination. The names Nichols,” he held out his hand to Mark.

“McCain. How much do I owe you to put up my horse for the night?” Mark asked, pulling his poncho over his head and opening his jacket to pull out his wallet.

“You a marshal?” Nichols asked pointing to Mark’s badge. “You hunting an outlaw?”

“Yeah, I’m the U.S. Marshal for the territory. The men I’m hunting, one would be quite tall, sandy colored hair…”

“Naw, nobody fitting that description come through here.”

“How much for putting up my horse?” Mark asked again.

“On the house. I heard tell about you. My pleasure to put your horse up. If you think one of them that you’s after might been injured, there’s a doctor at the end of the boardwalk. The hotel’s in the middle of town.”

“Thanks, Nichols.”

Mark tied his poncho to his saddle and pulled his and his Pa’s rifle from his saddle before he left the livery.

*****

Mark noticed the sign outside the picket fence, “Hennekin Clinic”. The name sounded vaguely familiar to Mark, but he didn’t take time to figure out why. He closed the door to the clinic behind him and proceeded to look around.

“Can I help you?” a female voice sounded from behind him.

Mark turned in the direction of the voice, “I’m looking for two men, thought one might be injured and in need of a doctor. Is the doctor here?”

“It’s Christmas Eve…”

“I know Ma’am.” Mark opened his jacket to show his badge. “It’s important. May I speak with your doctor?”

“I’m the doctor. My name is Doctor Rosalie Hennekin. How may I help you?”

Removing his hat, Mark continued, “Have you seen any patients today? I’m looking for one who might be busted up from being thrown from a horse. He’s about six foot, five, sandy blonde hair, about two hundred fifteen pounds.”

“I’m sorry, I’ve not seen any patients today other than children eating too much Christmas candy. Is the man you’re looking for an outlaw?”

“No, not this one. But I’m not sure about the man he may be traveling with,” a disappointed Mark answered. “It’s been quite a few years since I was here, could you direct me to your telegraph office.”

“Yes, it’s down the boardwalk, three doors this side of the hotel.”

“Thank you, doctor.”

Mark placed his hat back on his head and stepped to the street, wondering…

*****

Entering the telegraph office, Mark apologized for his stopping by at such a late hour.

“Just write out your message and I’ll send it.”

Milly and Hope McCain
North Fork, New Mexico

In Roswell /stop/
Will continue /stop/

Mark McCain

Mark handed the first wire to the telegrapher before he started to write out a second wire.

Tom Benton, U.S. Marshal
Denver, Colorado

Lucas McCain missing /stop/
Trailing /stop/

Mark McCain
U.S. Marshal

“Do you have a spare note pad?”

The telegrapher nodded.

“How much for it and the wires?” Mark asked.

“Fifty-five cents.”

Mark counted out the money, picked up the note pad, and heard the man wishing him a Merry Christmas as he left.

*****

Stretched out on the bed in his hotel room, Mark’s mind raced from one scenario to another on who had his Pa, and why. Mark jotted down notes and thoughts in the notepad. It had been a long time since Mark had kept a journal… ever since he’d married, he hadn’t felt a need to keep a journal, but this time… Mark wanted to make sure he could recall all that happened while he was tracking down his Pa, especially if it came to his needing to testify against whoever had taken Lucas. Sore muscles and lack of sleep, from the night before, forced Mark’s mind to quiet as sleep won out. The lamp glowed in the room as Mark fell asleep with the notepad on his chest and the pencil still in his hand.

*****

The following morning, as Mark came downstairs, the clerk greeted him by handing him a wire. Mark hooked both rifles over his arm as he took the wire.

Mark McCain, U.S. Marshal
Roswell, NM

Understood /stop/
God Speed /stop/

Tom Benton, U.S. Marshal
Denver, CO

Using only one hand, Mark refolded the wire and placed it in his shirt pocket.

“Merry Christmas,” the clerk called as Mark left the lobby.

*****

While rattling the door to the sheriff’s office, a man passing by informed Mark that the sheriff was eating breakfast at the small café a few doors down. There were only two people in the café when he entered.

“I’m looking for the Sheriff.”

“You found him. Sheriff Corbitt’s the name. How can I help you?” the Sheriff asked as he pulled the napkin from his open shirt collar and wiped his mouth.

“I’m looking for one man; he may be traveling with at least one other. The man I’m looking for is six foot, five, sandy blonde hair with a little graying, possibly injured.”

“If he’s injured, you should see our doctor,” the café cook stated upon hearing Mark’s comments.

“I did, she hasn’t seen anyone,” Mark replied.

“And just who might you be?” Sheriff Corbitt asked before he curiously commented, “Not unusual to see someone wearing a double holster, but I don’t recall ever seeing anyone carrying double rifles.”

“I’m U.S. Marshal Mark McCain,” Mark replied, opening his jacket to show his badge. He chose to ignore the comment regarding the rifles.

“This man you’re after, he an outlaw? Do you have a wanted poster on him?”

“Not the one I’m after.”

“And the other he may be with?”

“Don’t know,” Mark replied.

“Boy, you sure don’t have a lot of information to go on,” Corbitt replied.

“I can give you as good a description on the one, as I can. He disappeared from his family’s ranch over in North Fork. From the tracks, someone looked to be chasing him. I’ve followed the trail this far. Now, I’ll ask again, have you seen a man who fits the description?”

“Aren’t too many men that tall… Six foot, five, sandy colored hair, you say… Hmmmm. Did he have a lump on the forehead, above his right eye?” Corbitt asked.

“Then you have seen him?” asked an excited Mark as his hopes raised.

“Not in person, but I do seem to remember… Hank, thanks for breakfast.” The sheriff stood and motioned for Mark to follow him. Upon entering the jail, the sheriff took his seat behind his desk and started leafing through the stack of wanted posters. After a few minutes, he looked up to Mark.

“I could of sworn that description was on a wanted poster, but it ain’t in my stack.” Turning to a young boy sweeping one of the cells, “Hey, Mikey, you been looking through these posters?”

“Me, sir?” Mikey asked.

“Yes you… I recalled the description of a man this here U.S. Marshal gave me and it sounded familiar, thought I’d find the wanted poster in my stack. Did you take any poster from this stack?”

“No sir, you tanned my britches good enough the last time. I ain’t touched ‘em.”

“Dang it all. I could have sworn…”

“Pa?” Mikey asked as he placed the broom against the bars and walked to the sheriff’s desk.

“What?”

“A few weeks ago, that bounty hunter who come through here. Remember, he had a wanted poster, you couldn’t find one to match it in your stack…”

The sheriff scratched at his head, trying to remember. “Now that you mention it. Yeah, I do remember. An older fella come through here. Had a wanted poster, said he’d been tracking him for some time after he found the poster in La Mesa.”

“Arizona Territory?” Mark asked.

“Nah, I think he said…” the sheriff stumbled on remembering where.

“Pa, weren’t it Wyoming?” Mikey asked.

“Wyoming…” a perplexed Mark mumbled.

“Pa, I know you didn’t take much stock in it cause it didn’t have no reward money listed, but I remember the poster said the man was called “The Rifleman,” Mikey went on to say.

Mark knelt down in front of the boy, “What else do you remember?”

“The man in the picture didn’t look that mean. I mean he had a real friendly face,” Mikey replied.

“What about the bounty hunter,” Mark insisted.

“That’s enough,” Sheriff Corbitt ordered as he pulled Mark to his feet. “Mikey, you go on home and tell your Ma I’ll be home shortly and we’ll open those presents Santa Claus left.”

“All right, Pa!” Mikey exclaimed as he ran from the office.

Waiting for the boy to leave, the Sheriff closed the door to his office.

“Why wouldn’t you let the boy answer my question?” Mark asked.

“Because that bounty hunter caused nothing but trouble while he was here. Mikey and his friends started to idolize his glib attitude. I remember the man. Mikey was right, I didn’t take much stock in the wanted poster because it didn’t say what he was wanted for nor did it list the amount of the reward. I figured it was just a missing person.”

“So missing or not, you chose to forget about it?”

“It wasn’t that I forgot about it, it just didn’t seem important. Turpin, that was the bounty hunter’s name, said a wanted poster was a wanted poster and he aimed to see the man returned to the Oklahoma Territory for whatever the reason.”

“Oklahoma?” Mark shook his head as he realized just how far his travels might ultimately take him. “Sheriff, I don’t mean to keep you any longer from your family.”

“Hey, you said your name was Mark McCain?” Corbitt asked.

“That’s right,” answered Mark.

“I remember the name on that wanted poster; it said the man’s name was Lucas McCain…”

“Yeah, he’s my Pa,” Mark said as he turned to leave the office. “Only he ain’t no outlaw.”

“Hey, if you see my wife while you’re here in town, I’d appreciate it if you’d not say anything about finding me at the café.” Placing his hands to either side of his stomach, the sheriff shook it, “My wife wants me on a diet.”

“I wouldn’t know your wife if I saw her. Sides, I’m heading out as soon as I get my horse.”

The Sheriff followed Mark out the door and locked it behind him.

“I hope you find your Pa. And Merry Christmas!”

Turning up his collar to the cold breeze, Mark headed to the livery.

*****

“But its Christmas!” Eli proclaimed as he tried to coax his brothers from their beds.

“Yeah, but Papa ain’t here,” Josh stated as he pulled the cover back over his shoulder.

Sitting up on his bed, Zach stated, “I heard Mama crying last night. And Grandma Milly, she didn’t look too happy yesterday with Grandpa Lucas not here.”

“Grandpa Seth and Grandma Lilah aren’t here either,” Eli pouted.

“We’re gonna have Christmas with them when they return,” Zach answered.

“But Santa came. I looked out the door. There’s presents under the tree,” Eli declared as he shook Josh’s shoulder.

From the front room, they three heard, “Josh, Zach, Eli”.

Together they quietly walked from their bedroom to the front room.

“Yes Mama?” Zach asked.

“I’ve breakfast ready and then we can open your presents,” Hope stated, trying to be cheerful.

“Mama?”

“Yes, Josh.”

Hope’s son stood by the table, sadly looking to the Christmas tree and all the brightly wrapped presents underneath.

“Would Santa be mad if I didn’t open my presents?”

“Why wouldn’t you want to open your presents?” Hope asked.

“Papa’s not here. It just don’t feel like Christmas…”

Hope looked to her other two sons and asked, “Do you want to open your presents?” and saw them shake their heads. “Okay, they can wait. But you’ll sit at the table and eat your breakfast.”

The three boys quietly took their seats at the table and waited for their Mama to sit Mykaela in her chair and put their breakfast on the table.

“When you’re done eating what would you boys like to do today?” Hope asked.

“We can do some of Papa’s chores in the barn. The horses need fed and the stalls need cleaned,” Josh answered.

“Okay, once I’ve finished dishes, I’ll take your sisters over to Grandma Milly’s and we’ll work in the barn, together.”

*****

“I never realized just how much work Mark does in taking care of the horses…” Hope commented as she pushed a wayward strand of hair back underneath her kerchief, having placed the pitchfork and wheelbarrow back in their storage places.

“What about Grandpa Lucas’ barn?” Zach asked.

“Why don’t we go to Grandma Milly’s?” Hope asked.

Somberly the group walked across the yard. Hope turned as the group reached the porch, after hearing a rider coming up the road.

“Hope!” Micah called as he halted his horse at the hitching rail. “We missed you and the family at services last night and this morning. Got a wire for you, I told Amos I’d bring it out to you.”

“Micah, come inside.” Hope maneuvered her children inside the door and held it open for Micah.

Once inside, Micah stated, “Okay, I can tell something isn’t right, care to tell me what’s wrong?”

“Pa’s missing and Mark’s trying to find him,” Hope replied as she took the envelope and walked to Milly.

“Missing, what are you talking about?”

“Two days ago, Lucas didn’t come back from checking the weanling herd. I figured he was just delayed, due to the weather, but Mark went looking for him. He found Razor in the meadow, dead. Mark came back for tools to bury him and we haven’t seen either of them since,” Milly answered as she tried to wipe away the tears falling down her cheeks.

“Why didn’t you send word?” asked a perturbed Micah.

“We didn’t want to ruin anyone else’s Christmas,” Milly replied.

While Milly explained, Hope read the wire. Pulling her hands to her chest, Hope closed her eyes and exhaled deeply.

“Jake will be back tomorrow to help. Mark told him to enjoy the holiday with his family,” Hope commented.

“But you two… and… and the… the children… here all alone?” Micah stuttered.

“Micah, it was our choice,” Milly’s resolve returned.

“Your choice! Just wait until I get back to town and tell…”

“Just who are you going to tell?” Hope asked. “Everyone in town has their own family. We can’t ask them to abandon their responsibilities just because…”

“Because your husbands are missing… Yes you can!”

“Mark’s not missing. He’s in Roswell,” Hope answered. “I’m sorry Milly, it’s a brief wire, he’s not found Lucas yet.” Hope handed the wire to Milly for her to read.

*****

Without any further discussion, Micah mounted his horse and returned to North Fork.

“Drako!” Micah hollered as he threw open the door to the Marshal’s Office.

“You don’t need to yell loud enough to wake the dead, I’m right here,” Johnny offered.

“Lucas is missing and Mark’s gone after him. Milly, Hope, and the children are out at the ranch all alone!” Micah quickly declared.

“Slow down… what about Lucas missing?” Johnny asked.

“I stopped by their ranch today because it ain’t like the family to not come to town for one of the Christmas services at church. Told Amos I’d take the wire that came addressed to Hope out to their place. Milly said Lucas went missing day before yesterday and Mark’s trailing after him. The wire was from Mark, he’s in Roswell with no sign of Lucas.”

Grabbing his hat and coat, Johnny headed for the office door, “I best tell Johnny Gibbs. He’ll need to know.”

*****

As the days passed, various ranchers alternated assigning a few of their hands to help Jake McCafferty look out after the McCain ranch.

“You don’t think I can handle looking out after the McCain ranch?” Jake demanded of Johnny Drako when he stopped by town to pick up some supplies for Gwen.

“Jake, its nothing like that. You’re a newly married man, with a wife and your own place. Lucas or Mark have always been there with you, their place is too much for any one man to handle. Amazes me that the three of you do such a good job at it, being there’s only the three of you.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to come down so…” Jake offered as he took a seat opposite Johnny’s desk.

“Jake, we’re all a little on edge with both Lucas and Mark gone and no real word as to what’s happening. I know both of them appreciate everything you’re doing to look after their place and their families.”

*****

Try as they might, neither, Hattie, Colleen, or Lou had any luck in convincing Milly and Hope to move to town with their children.

*****

Mark didn’t spend much more time in town before he left Roswell. Somberly, he trotted Rainmaker down the middle of the street, trying to block out the sights and sounds of Christmas as the town celebrated the holiday. For several days he traveled, passing through Portales, before stopping and taking a room at the hotel in Clovis.

He was sitting in the far corner of the hotel restaurant lost in his out thoughts, “Welcome back to Clovis, Marshal McCain.”

Mark motioned for the man to have a seat.

“I’m Sheriff Cameron…”

“Mitchell,” Mark finished.

“Wasn’t so sure you’d remember me,” Mitchell answered as he placed his hat on the unoccupied portion of the table.

“Didn’t remember your name until you started to say it,” Mark answered.

Not wanting Mark to be the only one feeling guilty for not remembering a name, “Well, I didn’t remember your name until Mrs. Bowers read it to me from the register. What brings you back through our town?”

“Trailing after my Pa. I’m pretty sure he was taken against his will from the ranch two days before Christmas,” Mark answered.

“That was a week ago. How are you tracking him?”

“I was in Roswell on the twenty-fifth. Talked with the Sheriff…”

“Corbitt’s a good man. What did he say?”

“A few weeks before, a bounty hunter had come through with a wanted poster. I’ve been criss-crossing the territory stopping in the various towns inquiring about any bounty hunter coming through.”

“Where all ya been?”

“Besides Roswell? … Elkins, Kenna, Elida, Floyd, Portales, slipped over to Muleshoe, Texas, but couldn’t pick up his trail, so I thought I’d come and stop here.”

“Any better description other than a bounty hunter?”

“I’ve been able to obtain that his name is Archie Turpin and he’s in his late fifties…hair more grey than black.”

“You know, we did have a stranger come through here a couple of days ago and stocked up on enough supplies to feed a small army. He was in and out real quick… I tried to make small talk with him and he seemed kind of flighty…”

“Did you see which direction he went when he left town?”

“He headed southwest,” Mitchell answered. “I wish I had better information for you.”

“I do to, but at least you confirmed I’m on the right trail. Just wish I knew where in Oklahoma he was planning to take my Pa,” a dejected Mark spoke.

“Oklahoma? But that’s Northeast from here, the opposite way he went when he left.”

“I’m sure when he stops for supplies, he leaves Pa tied up somewhere on the outskirts of town…”

“That’s a fair piece of traveling to do — taking a man against his will.”

“I found out from Corbitt, the bounty hunter had an old wanted poster for my Pa,” Mark replied.

“Your Pa’s a wanted man?” Mitchell whistled.

“Not really. See, a long time ago, Pa went undercover, up in La Mesa, Wyoming. Micah and the Marshal Service had a wanted poster made up on Pa, to help him with his cover. Said he was wanted in Oklahoma Territory. I guess this Turpin must have found one of them.”

“Oklahoma isn’t as big a territory as Texas, but still… Where do you begin looking?” Mitchell asked.

“Figured to continue making my way Northeast, stopping along the way and asking questions, hoping to catch word that I’m still on the right trail.”

“I don’t envy you. You’re looking for a needle in a haystack.”

“Don’t I know it,” Mark shook his head in regret.

“How long you planning to stay?”

“Just tonight. I’ll head out in the morning. Sheriff, thanks for stopping by, I appreciate it.”

“Weren’t nothing, I wish you luck.”

With that, Sheriff Mitchell retrieved his hat and left the restaurant.

*****

Before retiring to his room at the hotel, Mark walked to the telegraph office and wrote out a brief wire.

Milly and Hope McCain
North Fork, New Mexico

In Clovis /stop/
Crossing into Texas /stop/

Mark

*****

As the train pulled into the North Fork station, Seth and Lilah eagerly looked forward to returning home. Upon stepping to the platform, both were curious that neither Mark nor Hope were there to greet them.

“Seth, Lilah!” Nils called as he climbed the steps.

“Good Afternoon, Nils!” Lilah called.

“Uh… Johnny asked that I keep an eye out for you and get you to the Marshal’s Office. He hoped to be back by now, guess he’s running a little late,” Nils replied.

“Nils, something’s wrong. What?” Seth stated as he motioned for the porter to set their luggage down. “Something happen to Hope or the children?”

“No, they’re fine. Just fine… Please, come with me.” Nils started stepping sideways in an attempt to get Seth and Lilah to follow him.

“Nils?”

“Please, just come with me.”

Nils turned his back and hurriedly led the way to the Marshal’s Office, arriving just as Johnny returned.

“Welcome back!” Johnny called as he stepped down from his horse.

“Drako, tell me what’s wrong.”

“Thanks Nils, I’ll take it from here. Seth, Lilah, inside please?” Johnny asked as he opened the office door, motioning for them to enter.

Johnny waited for Lilah to have a seat and asked if either would like a cup of coffee.

“Drako, just spit it out. What’s wrong?” asked an impatient Seth.

“Lucas and Mark have been gone for over a week now. Story is that Lucas disappeared two days before Christmas and Mark took out after him that night.”

“Missing? How? Why didn’t someone wire me?!”

“Seth, we don’t know the whole story. We didn’t find out about Lucas missing until Christmas afternoon. I went out to the weanling meadow and I couldn’t find much of anything. By then, the calves had pretty much obliterated any sign of a trail. I wanted to wire you but Hope forbade it. Said you deserved to have Christmas with Ethan and his family.

“Damn you, Drako! You should have wired me regardless!”

“Seth, she’s a grown woman. Johnny did as he should. He respected her wishes,” Lilah stated as she stood and walked to her husband, placing a hand on his arm.

“Still…” Seth inserted.

“Still what? Johnny told us that the trail was obliterated… Even if we had returned earlier, how would you have tracked them?” Lilah wrapped her arms around Seth’s left arm.

“Has any word been heard from Mark?” a calmer Seth asked.

“Christmas Eve Hope received a wire from Mark in Roswell. Not much was included except that he was in Roswell and was continuing. Monday we received a wire he made it to Portales and I presume he arrived in Clovis yesterday.”

Looking to the map on the wall, Seth stated, “So he’s trailing Lucas to the Northeast. Mark doesn’t have any idea who took him or why?”

“Not that he’s included in a wire. He just wires where he is. I presume once he’s found Lucas he’ll let us know, but until then we just wait for a wire to arrive.”

“What about Benton? Have you contacted him? Does Denver know any more?”

“Benton wired us they were aware that Lucas was missing and Mark was on the trail,” Drako stated.

“Guess I should head out to their place,” a dejected Seth stated as he turned to head to the door.

“We’ll head out to their place,” Lilah corrected.

“It’s about time ye returned. Now maybe someone can talk some sense into that daughter of yours. And if we can get Hope to town, then Milly will come too,” Lou declared as she entered the Marshal’s Office.

“Good to see you too, Lou,” Lilah replied in greeting.

“I’m sorry. It’s just that no one has been able to convince either of them to come to town,” Lou pouted.

“Who’s taking care of their animals and the ranch?” Seth asked. “Don’t tell me Milly and Hope are doing it?”

“Jake’s doing his fair share and a number of the ranchers are alternating sending men over to check their herds.”

*****

Seth halted the surrey by the hitching rail and helped Lilah to the ground. Together, they stepped to the porch and waited for an answer to Seth’s knocking on the door.

“Hello?!” Seth called out.

“Father!” Hope exclaimed as she came from the barn.

Lilah inhaled sharply in seeing Hope’s disheveled appearance.

“Hope, what are you doing in the barn? I though Jake was tending to the animals?” Lilah asked.

“The boys and I were just feeding the horses. I’m sorry about how I look, it’s just been so hectic around here…” Hope paused in her explanation after seeing the disapproving look from her father.

“And why haven’t you brought your children to town and stayed at our place?” Seth asked, his tone was more of a reprimand.

Wiping her hands on her apron, Hope answered, “Because it is your home and my home is here! Father, please, it’s bad enough that Mark is gone and Lucas is missing. Please don’t turn into another Lou, Hattie, or Colleen by trying to make us feel guilty.”

Seth noticed his grandsons walking from the barn and standing behind Hope. He almost joked about their not running to greet him, but refrained due to how sad and tired they all looked.

“Would you at least let us take you into town and buy supper for you?” Lilah asked.

“Lilah, I understand what you and Father are trying to do, but it’s not necessary. We’re fine.”

“Fine?” Seth inquired. “Then at least let me help the boys finish in the barn and Lilah will go with you into the house.”

Seth watched while Hope and Lilah entered the house before turning to his grandsons.

“So, what do we need to finish?”

“We just need to put away our tools, everything else is done,” Josh answered.

Feeling a tug on his pant leg, “Grandpa, if you’re home, does that mean Papa and Grandpa Lucas will be home soon?” Eli asked.

“I don’t know. I wish I had a better answer for you,” Seth replied as he picked Eli up and carried him on his hip to the barn.

Looking the barn over, Seth knew Hope and the boys were doing the best they could. He set Eli to his feet before he placed the pitchfork and wheelbarrow back where they belonged. Next, he climbed up the ladder and called down, “Boys you stand back by the door, okay?” He watched as all three did as he asked, before he threw down the first of many hay bales. After stacking them along the wall, Seth motioned for the boys to join him as he closed the barn door and proceeded to the house.

Upon entering, he saw that Milly and her children had joined the others in preparing for supper.

After setting Mykaela in her chair, Seth noticed all the Christmas presents still wrapped sitting in the corner with a blanket draped over them, the three having been already removed from the house.

*****

Seth and Lilah tried one more attempt to convince Hope to come to town before they left for the night. Both knew what the answer would be, but they couldn’t help but try.

“Hope, it can’t be healthy living like this,” Seth stated as he pointed to the corner. “Your Christmas gifts?”

“The boys didn’t want to. Said it didn’t feel like Christmas without Mark here.” Hope broke down when her father pulled her into a hug. “Father… I miss him.”

“Please, come to town. You and Milly shouldn’t be suffering like this on your own,” Seth stated as he attempted to comfort his daughter.

“I can’t. It’s hard enough on the boys as it is… I’ll be all right. Thank you,” Hope stated as she stepped back and dried her tears.

 

This story continues in The Rifleman – The Next Generation Pt 20

 

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