The Rifleman – The Next Generation Pt 22 (by BluewindFarm)

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

Category:  The Rifleman
Genre:  Western
Rating:  PG
Word Count: 18,350


 

The Next Generation… Chapter 100 – A Little Distraction

Mark took pleasure in tucking his sons into bed after he arrived home.

“Papa just got back… Can’t we stay up a little later?” Zach pleaded.

“You have school tomorrow,” Hope answered, feeling her son’s disappointment.

As he tucked Josh in, Mark asked, “Just what’s got you into the giggles tonight?”

“Nothing,” Josh replied.

“Nothing, then I think the tickle monster needs to give you a reason for giggling.”

Mark laughed as he tickled his eldest.

“No, Papa, No!” Josh laughed and tried pushing his Papa’s hands away.

“Then are you going to tell me what was so funny?”

“Papa? You know how much fun we have, riding our ponies?” Josh asked.

“Yes.”

“And Mama enjoys riding her horse?”

“Yes, I know she does.”

“Did you know that Rainmaker likes riding Two-Bits too?”

“What?!” gulped Mark.

“He broke through the corral fence yesterday morning. Uncle Lariat and me heard the noise, and it was so funny watching Rainmaker trying to ride Mama’s horse.”

From under his covers, Zach stated, “I don’t think Two-Bits liked it, he kept biting her on the neck, and she kept trying to kick him.”

Mark shook his head as he tried to decide if it was okay to let his boys believe his horse was trying to ride their Mama’s horse or if he should to explain, it was springtime and his stallion was trying to breed. He’d have a talk with Lariat the next time he saw him…

*****

Mark finally crawled into bed and kissed Hope goodnight, but even with Hope so close and sound asleep, sleep wouldn’t come. He lay awake in his bed on his back, resting his head on head on his arm, remembering how close he had come to Enid, again; curiously wondering about his family still living there… The clock displayed well after midnight the last time he looked at it before he fell asleep.

*****

Lariat’s reply, “Well, if you’d returned when you said, it wouldn’t a happened.”

“Come on Lariat, you know how trains can get delayed…”

“You’re right. Sorry. I should have been more careful and put the ponies in the corral between them two.”

“Well, I do remember thinking on what their offspring would look like. Guess we’ll just have to wait and see if she’s pregnant,” commented Mark.

“Who’s pregnant?” asked Hope as she joined them outside the General Store.

“Your mare, Ma’am,” replied Lariat, tipping his hat. “I wasn’t exactly thinking the other day and Rainmaker broke through the fence and… It is spring.”

*****

The second day back from Cambridge, Mark stood his shift in town and that night, he threw Trumble into jail while Seth helped his wife pick up her packages before he helped her to the clinic.

“Trumble, there’s no call for you to treat your wife as you did. You’re going to spend a few days in jail until you’re good and sober. If she doesn’t press charges against you… So help me, I wish I could do it for her.”

“They’re mine! You got no cause to put me in here!”

“They might be your family, but you don’t deserve them!”

“Who says? I raise them as I was raised. They want to live under my roof and eat my food; they got to work for it! They’ll do as I say.”

“And you’ll do as I say!” a frustrated and angered Mark yelled as he slammed the door shut and turned the key.

*****

Seth returned to the office after seeing Mrs. Trumble home from the clinic, upon entering he heard Mark ask, “How is she?

“Just shaken up and bruised.”

“Let me out of here!” Trumble yelled as he grabbed hold of the bars to the door and tried to shake it.

“Not until you cool off and sober up,” replied Mark.

“How long do you think you can keep him in there?” asked Seth.

“Not as long as I’d like to. I’d really like to see this family get some help, but with Trumble’s drinking and treating them like he does…”

“Mark, there’s not whole a lot we can do…”

“I know. Just ain’t right,” Mark stated as he leaned back in his chair, upset he couldn’t do anything more than what he was.

*****

May fifth dawned bright as Mark helped Hope wake their children for the morning.

“Rise and shine, sleepy heads,” Hoped called as she opened the curtains to the window in the boys’ room.

“Ah, Ma, its too early,” one of the twins called.

“Yes, it is early, but two of you still have to go to school today. Friday is your last day and then you can sleep in as late as you want to Saturday.”

“But we help Papa on Saturday, we can’t sleep in…” Eli called from under the covers.

“Well, if you three don’t get up, then someone is just going to miss his birthday,” Hope teased as she ruffled the hair of her youngest son.

“Mama, is today really my birthday?” asked Eli.

“Yes. My little man is turning four today. Now you two, get out from those beds before I send your Papa in to pull you from under those covers.”

“Yes Mama,” the boys called as they slipped from their beds.

*****

“I’ll be back as soon as I can,” stated Mark as he climbed up into the saddle.

“Mama? Are you going to make a chocolate cake today?” asked Zach.

“It’s your brother’s birthday, so it’s whatever kind of cake Eli would like. Now, behave yourself for the final few days of school.”

“We will Mama,” the twins called as Mark turned to ride with his sons and his siblings to school

*****

Throughout the evening, a concerned Hope kept drawing Mark into the conversations or bring it to his attention that Eli was going to open his presents or the candles needed lit on the cake.

Mark bid their guests, Micah and Hattie, Johnny and Colleen, Seth and Lilah goodbye, before he held the door open for Lucas and his family to leave. Once the door was closed, Mark turned to see Hope exiting the boys’ bedroom. Mark started to help clean up the house before turning in for the night.

“Did something happen in town today?” Hope asked. “You seemed distracted tonight.”

“I’m sorry, just a little pre-occupied,” answered Mark, he shrugged his shoulders when Hope gave him a questioning look.

“Care to talk about it?”

“Just the three of us still dealing with Trumble…” replied Mark.

*****

Lucas and Milly planned a quiet celebration for Mark and Hope’s eighth wedding anniversary, by preparing a surprise family supper.

“SURPRISE!” the children called as Mark and Hope entered the home to gather their children.

“What’s this all about?” asked Hope.

“A little matter of your wedding anniversary. Don’t’ tell me you forgot?” asked Milly in reply.

“No, just didn’t expect to see our children so cleaned up and it’s not a Sunday,” replied a smiling Hope.

“This wasn’t necessary,” commented Mark when he heard the explanation. Upon seeing his children so clean and dressed up Mark stated, “These can’t be my children.”

Throughout supper, Mark allowed the children to do most of the talking. However, when one would ask him a question, he gave brief answers that led to more questions being asked. In the past, he would have answered with more detail or his answer would have been in the form of a lesson, so much like how Lucas had answered his questions while growing up… But again, Mark’s thoughts weren’t at home with this part of his family.

*****

Their children we tucked into their beds and asleep. It surprised Hope when Mark didn’t reply to her asking if he was coming to bed.

“Mark, is there something wrong? You’ve been pensive ever since you returned from Cambridge.”

“Huh? No, nothing’s wrong.”

“It’s just that during supper, I kind of expected you to answer the children’s questions differently, to say something more, but you looked to be somewhere else. And tonight’s not the first time, there was the weekend after you came home, and at Eli’s birthday party.”

“Hope, I’m just having trouble dealing with Trumble… The way he treats his family,” Mark answered without much thought.

“I know, Ma has told me some of the tales Robbie has told her. He seems to thrive in having someone he can talk to. And little Eloise, she seems to enjoy Pa paying attention to her when he comes home for lunch. But Mark, trouble in town has never…”

“Hope, please…” stated a tired Mark.

“Okay, happy anniversary,” offered Hope before she kissed her husband goodnight and turned for their bedroom. It didn’t take much for her to realize there was more to Mark’s story than what he was telling her. She was willing to wait for him to figure out what was really bothering him

*****

Two days later, at Oat’s wedding, everyone had a brief laugh when Reverend McCaffery asked, “Do you Mary Walters, take Otis Alma Jackford to be your lawfully wedded husband…” Those present cut their laughter short when Oat glared their way. During the ceremony, Mark looked on while young Corbin quietly stood and watched as his Ma married Oat. Without realizing it, Mark started wondering what it would have been like, had his Pa found someone to re-marry, before…before they left Enid. He relived some of his memories from the four long years of traveling from one place to the next before it was decided North Fork would become their home. Home, just the two of them. Pot-luck stews, smoked hams, flapjacks, sandwiches, sometimes just beans and cornmeal bread, and the rare occasional steak in town… His thoughts drifted to how lucky Corbin was to have two parents at such a young age.

As the wedding reception wound down, Mark sat off to the side, again his thoughts having taken him back;

“You have to stop crying, Mark.”

“But I want Ma. Why can’t she come with us?” a young Mark asked as tears streaked his face.

“She can’t. She’s in heaven,” a younger Lucas replied as he carried the last of their belongings to the wagon.

“Then I want to be in heaven with her.”

The younger Lucas dropped the box of clothes upon hearing his six-year old son. Kneeling down, “Mark, you have to stop this. God called your Ma home. It’s just the two of us. We have to move on. We can’t look back, it can’t be undone.”

After picking up and placing the box of clothes in the back of the wagon and tying the tarp down, Lucas lifted his young son to the seat on the wagon before he set his rifle on against the seat, climbed up the wagon wheel, sat down, picked up the reins, and slapped the horses to move.

He didn’t look at those on the street watching as they left Enid. He looked straight forward…

“Turn around Mark,” Lucas stated as he spied his young son looking past the back of the wagon as they left the outskirts of Enid.

Slowly Mark turned around and sat facing forward on the bench seat, looking at his hands folded in his lap, his tears falling on his hands, he didn’t bother wiping them from his face.

“Why do we have to leave?” asked the young Mark.

“There’s nothing left for us.”

“But…”

“Mark, do as I say. Why don’t you pull out your reader and work on your studies.”

“But Ma always helps…”

“You’ll have to study on your own. I’ll help you of an evening, after we’ve stopped, but you need to understand, your Ma isn’t with us anymore.”

“I don’t …”

“Mark, I’ve tried to explain it to you the best I can. There’s nothing that can change the past, you have to stop living in the past. Now, dry your tears and start with your reader.”

*****

After several days of traveling, father and son were stopped for the night. Lucas was doing his best to cook their supper over the open campfire.

“Pa, can I put my reader away?” a young Mark asked.

“Have you finished your chapter?”

“My brains is full up and can’t remember anymore that I read,” answered Mark.

“You can put your reader away. See if you can find some more firewood to keep the fire going through the night.”

Mark returned to their camp carrying an armful of small branches to find his Pa wiping off his face with the heel of his right hand.

“Pa? You crying?” asked Mark.

“The wind changed and blew some smoke in my eyes. I’ll be fine,” answered Lucas. “Set those there and pick up your plate.”

After supper, Mark washed their dishes in the small brook before crawling into his bedroll for the night. Lucas sat listening to his son crying himself to sleep. Slowly he stood, walked over to the buckboard and pulled out a book from his satchel. Lowering himself to rest against the fallen tree, Lucas tried to read from the Holy Bible by the light of their campfire. In time, he realized Mark had stopped crying.

“Dear Lord, help me. I’ve not done this before. How do I raise a child on my own?” Lucas asked as he closed his bible, hoping God would answer.

*****

The fourth day found them traveling again, “Pa, aren’t we going to town?” Mark asked as Lucas turned the wagon away from the sign pointing the way to Drummond.

“Not today son,” answered Lucas.

“Where are we going?”

Lucas heard the disappointment in his son’s voice.

“To find a fine piece of land we can call home. Mark, are you itching?”

“No, Pa. Just scratching.”

“Let me see!” a fearful Lucas demanded after seeing his son scratching his shoulder.

“It’s just that bug bite from the other day,” whispered Mark.

After seeing for himself, a relieved Lucas picked the reins back up and urged the team to move on.

The days blurred together as the young Mark grieved for his Ma and tried his best not to upset his Pa. To him, it didn’t seem like they were going anywhere in particular, just always on the move.

*****

“Mark?” Hope asked for a third time before she got his attention.

“I’m sorry,” answered Mark. “What were you saying?”

“Oat and Mary are ready to leave, are you coming?”

“Sure, I’ll be right there.”

Friends of the happy couple lined both sides of the walk and threw rice at them as they ran to their carriage to begin their new lives together. Oat taking the young Corbin from Johnny Drako and setting his new step-son between him and his wife.

The Next Generation… Chapter 101 – The Divide

“NOW!” demanded Mark later that night after they returned home from Oat and Mary Jackford’s wedding. “Your mother told you to get ready for bed!”

The children sat frozen from Mark’s tone of voice. Josh was the first one to move, “Papa?”

“Don’t make me put you to bed.” The sternness of Mark’s voice held more warning. “Get moving, now!”

Hope motioned for the children to get to their feet and into their bedrooms. After putting the children to bed, Hope returned to the front room to find Mark no longer inside. Wrapping her shawl around her shoulders, she stepped to the porch and asked Mark, “Won’t you tell me what’s troubling you? And don’t tell me it’s about Trumble. This isn’t like you, you’ve never raised your voice to the children in such a manner.”

“Nothing’s wrong! They just need to do what you say, when you say it, not when they feel like it. We’re their parents, we decide what they should do and when they should do it,” Mark snapped. Hearing Hope’s footfall retreat into their home, Mark shook his head, picked up a pebble, and skipped it across the dirt. In time, Mark stood, blew out the lantern next to the door, and proceeded inside.

Upon entering their bedroom, Mark saw Hope was already in bed, the lantern on her side was extinguished, yet the lantern on his side illuminated Hope’s outline, covers over her shoulder, her back to his side of the bed. Mark stripped to his underthings before blowing out the lantern and lying down on the bed, his back to Hope.

Again, Mark felt that unfamiliar longing pull at him as it had for… more than the past several weeks. He wondered, ‘Why were his dreams forcing him to a restless sleep? What was pulling so much at him?’ Mark startled awake to a quiet room. Not hearing what wakened him, he reflected on what little of his dream he remembered, a woman’s voice faintly say, I’ll be here for you, Mark. When you need me, I’ll be here. I’ll always be here…remember the marigolds.’ Hearing the way the woman said ‘here’ Mark realized what he needed to do…and why.

*****

Mark was already out of bed when Hope woke for the morning. Pulling on her robe, she stepped to the front room and chose not to acknowledge her husband as he sat at his desk. She headed for her children’s bedrooms.

“I need to leave for a while,” said Mark upon hearing Hope walk behind him.

“Leave?” Hope asked. “Where? Why?! Mark, I’m here… Won’t you talk to me? Tell me what it is that’s bothering you. For weeks now, I’ve let you be, praying that you’d finally talk to me. Every now and then you act like the Mark I married, but for most of the time, I’ve been walking around here on eggshells, trying to keep from upsetting you; even the children have sensed your mood. And last night… Mark, that was totally uncalled for!”

With his head in his hands, Mark answers, “I know… It’s just that… The twins will six years old in less than a month and a half.”

“What does their birthday have to do with why you’ve been so moody and now why you’re leaving?” Hope asked as she pulled a chair from the table to sit down next to Mark as she pleaded, “Mark, please talk with me.”

“I was six when my Ma died. Hope, I didn’t realize it until this morning that it’s been twenty years since Pa and I left Enid. Twenty years since I’ve honored her memory.”

“Mark, we honor her memory every June third and we honored her memory by naming our youngest daughter Margaret,” Hope stated, not knowing what else to say.

“Pa took me from town a few days after she was buried. About last night… at Oat’s wedding, I started remembering back… Pa kept telling me I had to do this, I had to do that. I did what Pa told me to do because I was the child and children obey their parents. I know I had no right to yell at them like that.”

“Is that really why?” asked Hope and waited for Mark’s reply. “Mark, talk to me. Has your mood really been about…”

“No…” Mark finally figured out now was the time to talk, the truth. He knew it had nothing to do with Trumble’s treatment of his family or Oat and Mary’s wedding. It was all about him… “I never really got the chance to say a proper goodbye to Ma. I didn’t want to accept she was dead… or why I couldn’t go to heaven to be with her. I didn’t understand why we had to travel for so long… I guess trailing after Pa earlier this year and finding him in Oklahoma started me thinking on it. Then, when Jake, Gwen, and I were coming back from Cambridge and the train had difficulties, and we had that layover in Oklahoma City; we spent the day in town. We were only ninety miles away from my Ma’s grave. I guess I’m feeling guilty for being so close and not doing anything about it and it started unlocking all these memories I had buried a long time ago. I didn’t understand why I was feeling the way I was until this morning, I woke to hearing my Ma’s words, that she’ll always be here for me. But, the way she said here, I knew she was leading me to understand what was bothering me. She’s back in Enid. Hope, please. Twice this year I’ve been in Oklahoma and never gone to visit her grave. This is something I have to do. I have to return to Enid, so I can say a proper goodbye. I’ll be back and I promise, and when I return… I’ll be the husband you married.”

“Then to Enid we will go as a family.”

“I can’t…”

“No, you can’t, but we will. Mark, since your Ma is in Enid, then her grandchildren should be introduced to her in Enid.”

“I’m sorry for the way I’ve been acting. It wasn’t fair to you or the children,” Mark answered as he leaned over to hug his wife.

“I knew eventually you’d figure out your troubles. When will we leave?”

“I don’t want to arrive in Enid right before the anniversary… I’d like to get reacquainted with some of my family beforehand…” Mark answered. “Pa has three brothers and two sisters, then Ma and Johnny have another brother and sister. And then there’s all their families…”

“When you go into town, check the train schedule, and purchase tickets for our family.”

Mark let out a deep, relaxing breath, before he startled, “How do I tell Pa?” he asked.

“You tell him what you told me this morning. I’m sure he’ll understand,” Hope answered as she embraced Mark.

“I don’t deserve a wife as understanding as you… I’ve been a heel,” Mark stated.

“Yes, you have. But, if it weren’t for your being married to me, you’d still be here sulking and acting like a heel. Now, get up and act like a husband and a father, go wake your children for the morning, otherwise, I’ll put you to ‘women’s work’ around the house.”

*****

Monday late afternoon, Lucas and Mark rode home from tending their herds; Lucas halted Blade and finally said, “Okay, out with it. You’ve been different for weeks and I thought it was because of having to take care of the ranch, while I was laid up, on top of your job, but that was February and the beginning of March. Things seemed to get a little better before you left with Jake and Gwen, but since your return… Mark, you have to get out whatever it is that’s eating you. I was hoping you’d open up to me, just the two of us, man to man.”

They continued to sit in silence for a few minutes before Mark spoke.

“Pa, Hope and I will be leaving in a few days. We’re returning to Enid.”

“You’re what?!” Lucas stated with more emotion than he meant, but he had not been prepared for Mark’s response.

“We’re going to Enid.”

“I heard you. Why?” Lucas asked.

“Pa, it’s something I have to do. The anniversary of Ma’s death is…”

“I know when it is.” The tone of Lucas’ voice didn’t hide his hurt. “What about your children?”

“They’re going too. I’ve already purchased the tickets.”

“Why? There’s nothing but hurt back there! When we first arrived here, we agreed there’s no looking back. How can you drag your family away from their home?!”

Mark’s own voice betrayed his anger at his Pa’s words. “I’m not dragging my family! Pa, I need to go and Hope wants to go… Pa!” Mark called out as he watched Lucas kick Blade into a gallop.

*****

Wednesday afternoon, Lucas McCain hung up the harnesses he had removed from the team before turning the horses loose in the corral. His walk across the yard seemed longer than usual; he slowed his stride as he looked to the home of his eldest son, sitting lonely and dark. Lucas shook his head and stepped to the front porch of his own home.

Turning to gaze out over his land, his memories returning to the night he and Mark sat on the porch, the night Mark finally came to understand why North Fork and this ranch were their home. His words came back to him, “Our land is just as it was in Enid. The only thing missing is the cross marking your mother’s final resting place.”

He jabbed the heel of his left hand against the post, not understanding why Mark felt the need to travel to Enid… to find his mother’s grave. Lucas remembered the words he spoke to Mark when they first arrived and looked over the land that would eventually become their home, “There’s no looking back, son,” those words were spoken with a promise of a better future. He remembered repeating those words a few days ago; only those words held a bitter hurt.

Lucas had given up trying to understand his eldest son and allowed the awkward silence that had brewed between the two of them to fester. They talked in order to get the work on the ranch done, but after completing their work… Neither knew how to express their feelings in a way that wouldn’t hurt the other, anymore than they already had.

Hearing his daughter call “Papa,” Lucas turned and entered his home. He saw Myra and Little Ted sitting at the table, writing tablets in front of them, and Levi lying on the floor playing with his blocks, spelling out small words.

“What are you two up to?” Lucas asked, thankful for the distraction.

“Mama said we could write letters to Mark and Hope while they were gone,” Myra answered.

“They just left. They won’t be gone more than a week to ten days,” Lucas stated, looking to Milly.

“Yes, but they’re gonna miss us,” Little Ted stated. “They won’t know that we missed them unless we write and tell them.”

Again, he thought to himself about the rift that had so quickly grown between him and Mark. Mark had his own family, his own life; he was no longer his little boy. He was a grown man. For so many years, it had been just the two of them, Lucas grew upset when he realized he could no longer really use that excuse. He and Milly had been married for longer than he’d been married to Margaret. Lucas had a wife and three younger children and there were seventeen difficult years between Mark and Myra. Mark had lived through events that Lucas prayed none of his other three children would ever experience. Even though he knew that Mark and Milly cared for each other as mother and son, ‘Maybe, deep down, he’s regretting my remarrying,’ Lucas thought. ‘Or maybe he feels I’ve pushed him out and that’s why he’s taking his family to Enid.’

His attention returned to the present when he heard Milly stating, “Lucas, I know this was Mark’s decision to return to Enid and I’ve kept my peace since you told me what Mark wanted to do. But, he’s going to experience a whole range of emotions once he visits her grave. He’s not been there since he was six. How can you let him face those emotions without you?”

“Milly, please, not in front of the children,” Lucas stated.

Milly told Myra, Little Ted, and Levi to go outside and play, “I want to talk to your father.” After the children were outside, Milly shut the door.

“Lucas, I know Mark is a grown man, but… he’s bound to need you…his father!”

Of all people, Lucas had hoped Milly would understand him. Her tone of voice showed she couldn’t believe that Lucas hadn’t given Mark his blessings to return, he only said, ‘If you feel this is something you have to do. Then do it.’

It pained Milly to stand by and watch as the rift grew between the two men who meant the world to her. It upset her that Lucas hadn’t insisted in going with his son, granted he didn’t have much advance warning of their departure. Milly had hoped Lucas would change his mind and make the trip as well. Now that they were on the train and traveling, she decided to give Lucas a firm piece of her mind.

“Milly, it’s as you said, he’s a grown man. This is a trip he wanted to make with his family,” Lucas answered, not really wanting to discuss the matter any further.

“You are his family! Lucas, don’t you think that by his telling you that maybe… Just maybe he didn’t know how to ask you to go with him!” Milly was truly upset with Lucas and her voice held exasperation, she continued, “Lucas, you told Mark when you first arrived in North Fork, ‘there’s no looking back’. And how many times has that phrase been repeated in this family?”

“Then why’s he going? Why’s he taking his family away from us?” Lucas countered.

“Well, sometimes you have to look back! I learned that the hard way. I tried running away from the fact that my brother died in the war. But I finally realized I couldn’t. It took Harry Chase to make me realize… I finally returned home to face the truth.” Softening her tone of voice, Milly continued, “Lucas, Mark’s not just your son; he’s Margaret’s son too!”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Lucas responded, upset at what Milly was insinuating.

“Because everyone has always said how much like Margaret he is… Are you jealous that he’s going to go back to Enid and because of that, that maybe you’re afraid he’ll no longer be your son? That he’ll find out more about his mother and want to stay there? Oh, Lucas! This all started when Mark found you in Burns Flatt. And it’s only gotten worse since Mark returned from Cambridge. Hope told me how withdrawn Mark has become; not paying attention to the family, not talking, or taking interest. You saw it at Eli’s birthday, as well as their anniversary. He snapped at her and the children after Oat’s wedding… The following morning, Mark informed Hope that he was going to Enid. Think on this, his sons will soon be six years old and he was six when Margaret died. Lucas, Hope told me of Mark’s dream when he finally put it all together, all the long buried memories…”

“It’s not healthy living in the past!” Lucas tried to argue.

“Lucas I’m not arguing with you. I’m just trying to make you see Mark’s side and I’m trying to understand you. Do you even realize how much you hurt him by not giving him your blessing?”

“I took them to the train station…” Lucas replied in exasperation.

Milly’s voice took on a more loving tone, “Lucas, I’ve enjoyed being a mother to Mark for the past nine years, and I know he loves me as if I were, but it’s been almost twenty years since Margaret died. Myra’s older than Mark was when he lost his mother; and the twins and Little Ted will soon be that age. Lucas, he’s looking back because right now it’s the only thing he can do. Traveling through Oklahoma, he’s reliving his memories that he buried so long ago. He’s hurting!”

“Milly…” Lucas wanted to explain but the words failed him. The years of heartache, pain, and loneliness, returned to him when Mark had told him what he planned to do. The day Lucas married Milly; he had put that part of his life away… only reflecting on parts of his past when it would help others understand the present.

“If his returning to Enid to say a final goodbye to his mother can help him rebury these memories, then why shouldn’t he go? Why couldn’t you give him your blessings?” Milly quietly asked. Milly walked over and put her arms around her husband’s waist and looked up to his face, “If you’re thinking I’d be upset by your wanting to go with Mark to visit Margaret’s grave, then you don’t know me very well. Lucas, I’ve always accepted that Margaret would be a part of this marriage. And, I really think you need to be there for Mark… your son.”

“And just how do…”

Milly pulled her arms from Lucas and replied, her voice held urgency, as her body language changed again to display her exasperation. She pointed her finger to the door, “Lucas just go to town and purchase those train tickets!”

“Tickets?” Lucas asked, unsure that he had heard Milly correctly.

“Yes tickets, for the family. It’s about time the North Fork McCain family met the Enid McCain families! And not just through letters. If you’re not out of here in two minutes, so help me Lucas…!”

“I’m going, I’m going!” Lucas hurried from the house.

During Lucas’ ride to town, he was still just as confused on why Mark felt the need to make this trip. He could accept Milly being upset with him for not understanding his son, but still, her insisting that he had to follow Mark… Lucas agreed only because he knew in order to bring peace back to the family, he had to do something he was so against.

*****

Before stopping at the train station, Lucas thought to stop by Micah’s. He’d always been able to offer Lucas a different perspective when he and Mark had difficulties. Lucas stopped Blade in front of Micah’s and remembered some of the discussions they’d held in the past. He thought to himself, would Micah really be the one to help him understand his son… this time? Instead, he rode on and decided to stop at Doc Burrage’s to talk, thinking that with Thadd’s and Mark’s ages being closer, maybe he could help. After removing his hat and apologizing for intruding on their early evening, Lucas followed Thadd into the parlor and commented on the uneasy silence that had divided father and son.

“Lucas, I’m not a trained psychologist, but with what I know about the two of you, since your return from Oklahoma, I wouldn’t doubt that Mark’s been subconsciously reliving Margaret’s death and the events that happened afterwards.’

“Events that happened afterward? We buried her and we left,” Lucas replied.

“Yes, but I’m sure neither of you forgot about Margaret.”

“No we didn’t. The first six months were extremely difficult for Mark,” replied Lucas.

“And how did he react? How did he get over Margaret?”

“He kept grieving and I told him we had to go on living. It’s what his Ma would have wanted.”

“Did you allow him to talk about his feelings? Did you allow him to express his grief?” Seeing the change in Lucas’ expression due to his questions, Thadd paused to give Lucas time to reflect. “Lucas, we all know that this part of your life is private, between you and Mark and I’m not saying what you did was right or wrong, but you both suffered through your grief.” Handing Lucas a cup of coffee, Thadd continued. “You dealt with it the best way you knew how. Your memories aren’t forgotten, they’re buried somewhere in your hearts. You dealt with your grief by moving from one town to another in an attempt to find a home where you could raise Mark. But he was a child… Did you take the time to explain to him why you left? Sometimes, a parent can ask a child to grow up too quickly when it comes to dealing with death.” Thadd paused to take a sip from his own cup of coffee. “We expect the child to go on living, but we forget the child doesn’t understand death the same way as adults do. And it’s not because the adult is callus, it’s because as the child continues to grieve, their grief reminds the parent of his or her own loss. So a parent pushes the child to ‘get over it’ faster than what the child is truly capable of doing.”

“But it’s not healthy living in the past. It would only bring him more heartache,” a confused Lucas replied. “We had to move so we could go on living.”

“Lucas, you were the one who made the decision to leave Enid, it was your right as a parent. But… maybe his memories are surfacing and he’s grieving all over again. I’m sure in a way, as the child Mark, he might have resented that fact that you took him from the only home he knew… and he had to go with you because he was the son, and he ‘went on living’ because you were his father and you told him what he had to do.”

“And now…” asked Lucas.

“You remember my uncle and me saying that the mind is a funny thing…” Thadd paused until Lucas nodded. “Memories can be suppressed, almost like amnesia, and it can take something insignificant, like just being in Oklahoma to unlock his memories. The past few weeks, he’s probably fought against his memories resurfacing; maybe he didn’t even realize what he was fighting against and in the process, took it out on the family. I’ve noticed how quiet he’s been since his return, both times. That and how he’s reacted when he’s had to deal with Trumble. Now, he’s trying to accept what he’s feeling and trying to make amends… Maybe he feels he needs to return to say goodbye so that he can live his life forward.”

“That’s what Milly tried to tell me,” Lucas stated.

“I know the two of you pretty well and I consider your families good friends. Besides, it’s easy to understand two plus two equals four when you’re on the outside looking in.”

*****

The moon was out when Lucas began the ride home from town with five train tickets in his pocket. He looked to the heavens and saw one star shining bright, more so than any others in the evening sky. “I guess that’s you, Margaret, telling me I’ve been a heel.” Lucas smiled as he thought about all his, and Margaret’s, family members… But deep down, he felt the pain of her loss trying to work its way back into his heart.

The Next Generation… Chapter 102 – The Oklahoma Story, Part I

Lucas, Milly, and their children arrived at the train station two mornings later, surprised to see who else was standing on the platform.

“Here to see us off, brother?” Lucas asked as he saw Johnny and Colleen Gibbs and their three children.

“No, our bags are on the cart over there.”

“Bags?”

“Lucas, we heard Mark left Wednesday to take his family back to Enid. Kind of figured if he could return, then I could too. Also did some figuring that your wife might convince you to travel back there,” replied Johnny.

“Actually, Harvey told us yesterday that you had purchased tickets for the rest of your family to Oklahoma,” Colleen replied.

“You’re right about Milly. She put up a fairly good argument the afternoon Mark left,” Lucas stated pulling Milly closer to his side, letting her know he appreciated their argument and their making up afterwards.

“Do you think Enid’s going to be ready for the McCain-Gibbs families’ reunion?” Johnny asked.

“I don’t think Enid will be ready for the population explosion that’s about to happen,” Lucas commented.

“Luckily, it’s only temporary,” Colleen laughed, as she understood the underlying meaning of her husband’s question.

*****

The hotel owner returned to the front desk after a friend helped him carry a heavy crate from the train station into the kitchen and unpack the shipment. As the friend waved goodbye, the clerk hollered for him.

“Yes, Lucius?” the man replied.

“If we’d a known you’s having kin folk coming in on the morning train, we coulda gotten the big room ready for them. You know we don’t give it out for just anybody and it’s been a while since anybody used the room,” Lucius answered while the man removed his hat as he stepped to the front desk.

“What do you mean, kin folk coming?”

“The morning train arrived, late as usual.” Seeing the impatience on the man’s face, “A family named McCain signed the register book, not more’n a half hour ago. The man saw his wife and young’ens upstairs, came back down, and he asked about the livery. Saw him ride, kind of casual like, headed out of town.”

The man looked at the last entry written in the register, Mr. & Mrs. McCain, North Fork, New Mexico.

“Who are they?” Owen, the hotel owner called out as the man turned and purposefully strode from the hotel.

*****

“Mac?!” the man yelled as he entered the livery.

“O’er here. Be wi’ ya inna moment,” was spoken with a thick Scottish accent. A bald-headed, burly man wearing a leather apron came from behind a wagon, “What kin I do fer ya, Abe?”

“Lucius stated a man came in here, got a horse, and rode out.”

“Sure he did. Very nice looking man. Real polite. Real quiet.”

“What did he look like? Did he have sandy colored hair and taller than me?”

“Naw, he had dark hair and maybe was five foot eight, five foot ten at the most–maybe mid 20’s. He asked about directions to the McCain Ranch.”

“He said ranch and not farms?” Abe impatiently asked.

“Sure did, I ask ‘im about tha’, too. I hope ya don’t mine me atellin’ ‘im. I think he’s a relation of yors; said ‘is name was Mark McCain.”

“Mark…” Abe mulled the name over, turned, and ran from the livery, heading to the General Store. “Peter!” he yelled once inside.

“Geesh, what trouble did you and Owen get into unpacking that crate. You look…” Peter called back.

“Forget how I look, we got to get to Matthew and Laura’s!”

“To Laura’s, what for? She and Matthew don’t need us…”

“Peter, Mark’s in town. He asked Mac for directions and rode out to Laura’s,” Abe hurriedly called out trying to get his brother to move.

“Mark? Mark who?”

“Lucas’ boy. Lucius stated he and his family arrived on the morning train, and are staying at the hotel.”

“That was Mark?” Peter’s wife, Tiffany, asked.

“You saw them?” asked Abe.

“Just in passing, I was walking in front of the hotel and they were the only family I saw entering, they stopped to let me pass.”

Abe’s wife, Julie, came from behind a row of shelving in hearing the discussion.

“Why would Mark come back here?” Peter asked. “You don’t think something happened to Lucas, do you?”

“My God, Abe! You and Peter best get to Laura’s!” Julie exclaimed.

“That’s what I’m trying to get across to Peter,” Abe shot back.

Peter’s expression displayed he didn’t understand the implications of what Abe and Julie were trying to convey.

“Peter, it’s almost June third!” Julie’s voice tried to express the need for Abe and Peter to get to Laura’s.

“So?” Peter replied.

“Peter! Honestly! Mark’s back here because it’s been twenty years since Margaret passed away! Get out there, you can’t let him visit his Ma’s grave alone! And do you trust your youngest sister to not take a pot shot at him for trespassing, if she sees him.”

Abe and Peter ran from the General Store, jumped in their saddles, and headed to their sister’s home.

*****

A blonde-haired woman trotted her horse along the ridge of the hill. In one side of her saddlebags, she carried work gloves and several small hand tools; in the other side, she carried two small potted marigold plants. As she crested the rise, she saw a lone man standing inside the fence, in front of the tombstone, hat in hand, head bowed. She became incensed at the trespasser and urged her horse on to a fast lope. From under her leg, she pulled her rifle from the scabbard and as she halted her horse, she pointed her rifle and demanded to know what right the man had to trespass?

“This is private property. Strangers usually ask permission to cross our land,” the woman bluntly stated.

“I’m sorry, ma’am. I didn’t mean to trespass. It’s just been a long time since…” the man stopped talking as his emotions choked off his voice as his gaze returned to the headstone.

The woman called out, after seeing the change in the man’s demeanor… “My God! You’re Mark?! Lucas’ boy?” and proceeded to put away her rifle when he nodded. She tried to stammer out an apology. After ground tying her horse, she walked to where Mark stood, “I forgot how beautiful your Ma was. I can see her in your eyes.”

“You knew my mother?” he asked.

“Mark, I’m your Aunt Laura,” she replied.

“My Aunt?”

“I’m your father’s baby sister. You’ve a whole family to get reacquainted with. It’s been…”

“Almost twenty years…”

*****

While Julie headed to the hotel, Tiffany headed to the barbershop to inform Scott Gibbs.

“Scott!” Tiffany called out upon entering the barbershop.

“You trying to get my throat slashed?” Scott called back as he grabbed hold of the barber’s hand.

“I’m sorry, I…” Tiffany stammered.

“What’s so important that you bolted in here?” Stuart asked as he pointed the razor blade in his hand towards her.

“It’s Mark!”

“Mark who?” Scott asked.

“Mark McCain!”

“Mark Mc…” Scott didn’t finish the name. “Did something happen to Lucas?”

“We don’t know. We just found out he and his family were in town. He’s on his way out to Laura’s, and Abe and Peter are on their way out there to catch up with him. Julie’s trying to notify everyone to come to the hotel.”

“I pray Laura doesn’t pull her rifle first and ask questions later,” spoke Scott. “Stuart, hurry up and finish shaving me.”

*****

“Owen?” Julie called as she entered the lobby.

“Turning out to be quite an exciting day. I take it, they are kinfolk?”

“Yes, it’s been twenty years…” Julie answered excitedly and looked up as she heard child-like footsteps hurrying down the stairs and a woman calling, “Slow down, else you’ll trip and fall.”

Julie smiled as she saw four young children stop at the foot of the staircase, while the woman behind them carefully walked down the steps, carrying a young child on her hip.

“That’s them, Julie,” Lucius stated, as he pointed to them.

The woman stopped when she realized the comment was made regarding her and her children.

“I can’t believe you’re really here,” said Julie as she walked towards the family.

“Excuse me?” asked the woman.

“Forgive me. Where are my manners? My name is Julie McCain and I believe we’re family. I’m married to Abraham McCain. And Abraham is the oldest of the four McCain brothers, with Lucas being the youngest. I presume you’re Mark’s wife?”

“I am. My name is…”

“Hope McCain,” Julie finished. “I can’t believe it. It’s been so long. I mean Lucas sends a letter at the holidays, but… Mark’s really back.” Julie spoke with excitement as she looked over her great-nieces and great-nephews. “These are the twins?”

“Yes, Joshua Lucas and Zachariah James. And this one is Elijah Paul,” Hope answered pointing out each one of her sons.

“And just who is this precious young lady?” Julie asked as she looked to Mark’s oldest daughter.

“I’m Mykaela,” she boldly stated.

“Mykaela?” Julie asked, inquiring if she understood the three year old correctly.

“Yes, her name is Mykaela Elyse. And this one is Margaret Faith.”

“You named her after Mark’s mother?”

“The Margaret part of her name, yes.”

“My, it just doesn’t seem possible,” stated Julie, clasping her hands in front of her chest. “I mean, it’s been so long that we all kind of still remember Mark being that six year old boy, so lost in grief. And here he is a father. As I said, Lucas briefly writes at the holidays and tells of the family, but to see you here and to know you’re really real… Oh, my manners, I’m forgetting them again. Please, let’s go to the restaurant so you may sit down. You must have had a very tiring journey, and with five children no less.”

As Julie helped the last of the McCain children to their seats, Tiffany and Scott arrived.

“Hope, these are more members of the McCain/Gibbs family, Tiffany is married to Peter, who’s the third McCain brother and Scott… Scott is Margaret’s older brother. I’ll warn you, once more members of the families hear about Mark being back home, the families will be coming out of the woodworks.”

Once again, introductions of the children were made.

“I insist that you not stay here,” Tiffany insisted. “We’ve room at the family farm, plenty of room for you and your children.”

“I don’t know, we’re already registered and Mark didn’t want to impose…”

“Impose?! Land sakes, child,” Julie interrupted. “You’re family!”

“Tiffany, it’s not just the McCain families who will want to see Mark and meet his family, it’s the Gibbs families too,” Scott spoke.

“Owen!” Julie hollered as she stood from her chair and walked to the door from the restaurant.

“Yes, Julie?”

“You best get to setting more tables, seems you’re gonna have a full restaurant tonight!”

“Please, we don’t want to be any trouble!” Hope pleaded.

Julie gave a flourish with her hands to indicate this was routine, “Trouble, you just sit there and relax, once Abe and Peter rescue your husband…”

“RESCUE?!” Hope reacted in alarm and tried to stand.

“Easy there. Only from a certain family member,” Scott stated with a laugh.

Julie proceeded in giving orders to Tiffany and Scott, telling them to get word around to all the members of the McCain and Gibbs families that everyone was expected at the hotel restaurant for supper, and for everyone to bring a covered dish.

Before Hope could insist that there really wasn’t a need for all the fuss, two more women entered the restaurant, with each one asking, “Is it true?”

“Yes, Mark’s come home,” Julie happily answered, returning to the table where Hope sat, “Now we don’t expect you to keep each and every one of our names straight, but the one on the left is Emily, she’s Lucas’ oldest sister, but still younger than Lucas. She’s married to Jason and he’s our town doctor, you’ll meet him later. And on the right is Emily, we call her Em, and she’s married to Jeremiah, Lucas’ second oldest brother.”

As time passed, Hope couldn’t believe all the people arriving at the restaurant, family members and their spouses, and their children and their spouses, and their children. She marveled at the way the woman named Julie organized everything and kept making introductions. Hope smiled in thinking how she would have made an excellent drill sergeant at one of the forts when her father had been stationed in the army.

Hope tried to keep names and faces straight as she was introduced to Mark’s oldest cousin Charlie, however, she couldn’t keep straight the names of the triplets, let alone who was married to whom. But with so many other cousins and people arriving and moving about the room and holding side conversations, it was a near impossible feat. So many of the women came up to Hope and started their conversations with how they were related to Mark; and commented how good it was for him to return home. The men kept asking about Lucas and Mark, ‘had they both come home?’

“Mama?” Josh asked as he tugged at her skirt. “Are they really our family?”

“From what they say, yes.”

“Mama? They say Papa returned home, are we gonna live here? What about Grandpa Lucas and Grandma Milly?” Zach asked.

“And Grandpa Seth? I wanna go home!” Eli cried as he clung to his mother’s leg.

“I wan’ Gandma Lilah,” Mykaela stated as she hid behind Hope’s skirt.

Seeing that her children didn’t fully understand what was happening, Hope truly wished she could just turn around and take the children back upstairs as more and more members of the McCain and Gibbs families arrived at the restaurant. Hope started to worry when Mark had still not returned. And she worried, from whom did Lucas’ brothers needed to rescue Mark? Hope asked to excuse herself as the children started to become more upset.

“Please, if I may?” Hope asked of the woman named Julie, “I think Faith needs to be changed and the children are.., please…”

“Hope, you can leave the others down here, they’ll be in good hands,” Julie replied.

“I don’t mean to be rude, but that’s just it, there are too many people here and the children are being overwhelmed. They don’t understand everything that’s being said, I mean in the way it’s being said. Please, just let me get them back to the room upstairs,” pleaded Hope.

“Everyone, make room for Hope and her children to get through. Jeremiah, you run interference, don’t let anyone stop her,” Julie hollered above the multiple conversations being held in the restaurant and lobby.

Once Hope and the children were back in their hotel room, she shut the door and set Faith on the bed, Hope sat down and pulled the others into her arms as they continued to cry that they wanted to go back home, to their grandparents. She felt so overwhelmed and wished Mark was there to help her as she tried to explain what the others had meant when they said Mark was home.

*****

Mark watched as his Aunt Laura returned to her horse and pulled the saddlebags down.

“Here, let me help you,” Mark insisted.

“Just carry it over to her grave and set it down beside the headstone.”

As both entered through the gate, Mark commented, “I don’t remember the fence being around her grave.”

“It wasn’t, I had Scott help me build it the year after you left.”

“Scott, he’s my Ma’s older brother?” Mark inquired, hoping he remembered the family relationships.

“Yes, he is. Anyway, after the fence went up, I’d come out here and pull the weeds and a few days before the… Well, I’d come out here and plant marigolds. She always loved them.”

“That’s what Pa told me. When we settled in North Fork, after we rebuilt the house, the first thing Pa did was to plant marigolds around the porch.”

Mark removed his jacket and draped it over the white picket fence, he got down on his hands and knees to help Laura pull the weeds from around the grave and plant the marigolds. Mark walked to Laura’s horse and pulled down the canteen to water the flowers.

“If you came out here alone, how did you find Margaret’s grave?” Laura asked.

“Pa told me once, that our home in North Fork was so much like our home back here. The same hills and valleys, the only thing Pa said was missing, was the cross that marked Ma’s grave.”

“Not too many people outside of the family could give you directions to your mother’s grave.”

“He described it in such detail one night when we were talking that once I arrived, I just knew the way,” replied Mark. “It’s just as I imagined, the trees, the little stream… even the boulders over there. I’ve a pond back home and it looks so much like here…”

“Your home must be beautiful. Can I ask if you came alone or did you bring your family? I hope you brought your family. It’s been kind of…, not exactly difficult…, but knowing members of the family aren’t present…”

“I brought my wife and our children. I told Pa, I needed to do this and…”

“Mark, you don’t need to explain, we’re just happy you came ho… back. I take it that Abraham and Peter didn’t see you when you were in town? They’re usually in town Friday mornings and afternoons, running errands; Saturdays are pretty much impossible to do errands anymore, what with so many people in town.”

“I wasn’t looking for family. I saw that Hope and our children were settled in the hotel and went to the livery, rented a horse, and asked which way to the McCain Ranch.”

“Well, if I know our family, and I do, we had best get you back to Enid. Your wife is probably being overwhelmed with McCain and Gibbs family members.”

*****

Abe and Peter raced their horses across the land towards Laura’s. Matthew was just stepping down from his horse, in front of the barn, when they arrived.

“Matthew, where’s Laura?” Peter yelled pulling his horse to a halt.

“I think she was going to Margaret’s grave this afternoon. You know how she always tends to it. Why?”

“We’ll tell you on the way. Get back on your horse.”

Matthew did as told and rode with the two McCain brothers.

The three crested the hill and saw Laura and a stranger getting to their feet, wiping dirt from their hands. The men urged their horses forward.

“Well, true McCains and Piedmonts, you show up once the work is done!” Laura laughingly called to her bothers and husband as they halted just outside the fence.

“Laura!” Abe’s voice held a tone of warning.

“I’m not an eight year old girl anymore, so don’t use that tone with me, big brother!” Laura quipped. Turning to Mark, “Mark, the brash one there is your Uncle Abraham, and next to him is your Uncle Peter, and the handsome man, is my husband, your Uncle Matthew.” The three stepped down from their horses and shook hands with Mark.

“It’s been a long time,” Abe ventured to say, looking Mark over to make sure he really was standing in front of him. Unbelieving it could possibly have been so long.

“Too long. I’m sorry I didn’t come back sooner,” Mark answered.

“No, Mark. Don’t let him make you feel guilty. You and Lucas have your own lives. It took time, but, we finally accepted it… And Abe, stop looking him over like that! Yes, I drew my rifle on him, never seen anyone else out here except family members. But once I saw him up close, I knew right away who he was.”

“How is your Pa?” Peter asked.

“Healthy, he said to send his regards,” Mark answered, regretting it wasn’t the truth. “Aunt Laura told me I’ve plenty of family to meet.”

“You sure do at that. If you’re through here, we’ll escort you back to town,” Peter stated.

“I don’t mean to be a bother to anyone…” again Mark’s voice faltered.

Laura looped her hand onto Mark’s arm and walked him back to the horse he rode. “You’re no bother, you’re family.

As Mark mounted his rented horse, he looked to these members of his family, “I was wondering…”

“Go on Mark,” Abraham encouraged.

“Our old home… Does it still stand? Does anyone live there?”

“It’s where Matthew and I live. Though, we have made some changes to it. It has indoor plumbing.”

“Laura!” Matthew chastised his wife.

Mark didn’t know exactly how to ask what he wanted to ask.

“Mark, if you’d like, we can stop by and let you look, before we head to town,” Laura offered.

*****

The others had stepped from their horses and tied them to the hitching rails in front. Mark took in the sight of all the marigolds planted around the front porch.

“Mark?” Peter asked as he turned to see Mark still in the saddle.

“Just trying to remember. That tree over there…” pointed Mark.

“That’s the one you fell out of and broke your arm. I think you were, maybe, five,” Abraham stated.

Mark slowly stepped from his horse and started to follow the others inside. He stopped at the door, taking a deep breath before entering.

The first thing Mark noticed and remembered was the fireplace. His memories took him back to the cold winters where his parents would sit with him in front of the fire after playing outside in the snow. Mark walked to the mantle and ran his fingers across the worn wood. He remembered seeing his Pa coming inside and placing his rifle over the mantle. Mark smiled as he realized the pegs were still there.

Abraham, Peter, Laura, and Matthew watched while Mark re-explored the home where he had once lived, so long ago.

‘This house, it’s just like the one back in Enid,’ Mark heard his Pa’s voice say. With one exception Mark remembered, this one had two doors, side by side. One door to the bedroom his parents had shared and the other, his. Mark turned the knob to the room that had been his; he kept his hand on the knob, and slowly pushed it open. His mind replayed scenes from his youth, him sitting on the floor playing with his blocks. Another scene of him being afraid to go to bed one night because of a scary story his cousin Charlie had told him about monsters under the bed.

Mark turned and looked back to the front room. He remembered sitting at a table in the room, while his Ma struggled with his refusal to memorize his alphabet, and how to spell his first year words. His arguing he should be out on the range with his Pa.

Mark looked to the second bedroom door; he couldn’t bring himself to turn the knob. The last time he was in the room… tears fell down Mark’s face as he tried to remember… Mark felt a supporting, gentle hand on his arm.

“It’s okay Mark. It took a long time before I could bring myself to enter the room, but Matthew told me, by entering, I could celebrate Margaret’s life. We could bring life back to a home that had been so filled with love. This home needed to hear laughter within the walls.”

Laura opened the door to show Mark the room, the large four-poster feather bed. Sunbeams streamed through the window and shone brightly on the colorful quilt that adorned the bed. In the corners sat two large, overstuffed chairs. By the wall, next to the door, was a small dresser and mirror, with a small bench in front of it. At the foot of the bed was an oak wood chest. A large dresser stood against the far wall.

“It’s so different from what I remember,” Mark commented.

“It should be Mark. It’s our home,” Matthew stated as he came to stand behind his wife, placing his hands on her shoulders. “Mark, I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for your father, those first few weeks after your ma died.”

“How so?” Mark asked, not really thinking. His memories were still trying to envision his mother.

“A husband in grief, knowing…” Matthew started to speak.

Laura continued, “Knowing he still had a son to raise; seeing you each and every day, and how much you look like your mother… your eyes, your smile.” Laura’s eyes warned her husband that he almost divulged the secret.

“It’s hard for me to remember her. I know her face, but I can’t remember her arms around me anymore. I can’t remember her voice singing as she worked around our home.”

“Mark, it’s not because she’s no longer here. It’s because you’re an adult and a father. Those memories stay with you for as long as you need them, to help comfort you, but once you become an adult and a parent, it’s your turn to pass those same kinds of memories on to your children,” Abraham stated.

As Mark’s eyes looked around the front room, he saw pictures on the far wall. Mark walked to the wall and looked closely at them. He ran his hand along the bottom of the frames and realized they all had to be recent family pictures, save one, Lucas, Margaret, and a very young Mark. Tears formed in Mark’s eyes as he saw the life the others had lived, husbands, wives, and their children, now grown… with children of their own.

“Mark, let’s get you back to your wife,” Laura stated, as she realized where Mark’s mind might be taking him.

*****

While they rode back to town, the others allowed Mark his silence and time to regain his composure. As the group stepped into the hotel lobby, Mark was surprised; he couldn’t believe all the people inside.

“Abraham,” a woman called, as she approached Mark, he saw the broad smile on her face. “Is this Mark? Can’t be anyone else, now can it. Tell you what, I think we’ve scared your children some, your wife is upstairs in your room with them.”

Mark allowed the woman to push him to the staircase where he took the steps two at a time and knocked on the door. From the other side he heard, “Who is it?”

“Hope, it’s me, Mark.”

He heard hurried footsteps and the door being unlocked and quickly opened. Mark barely closed the door behind him before his four oldest children had their arms wrapped around him, trembling and crying they wanted to go home.

“Hey, now, what’s this all about? Why are you crying?” Mark asked with an upbeat tone, trying to lighten the mood of the room.

Josh was the first to speak through his tears, “They said you came home. We don’t want to live here!”

Eli cried, “I don’t wanna live here.”

Zach replied, “We want to live with our Grandma’s and our Grandpa’s!”

Mykaela stood to Mark’s side, tears falling from her face, and said, “Not home!”

“Mark, the children kept hearing everyone say how good it was to finally have you home and the children aren’t old enough to understand what they meant. I tried to explain that we were only here for a visit, like you told them on the train, and that this isn’t our home,” Hope stated.

Mark looked to Hope and said, “I’m sorry I left you and the children alone. I wasn’t thinking.”

Mark felt for his family. He hadn’t counted on how meeting the other members of his family would affect his children; he also hadn’t counted on them being found out so quickly. Mark got on his knees and wrapped his arms around his sons and daughter while Hope held Faith.

“Hey there, listen to me… Your Grandpa Lucas and I lived here when I was the same age the twins are. All those people downstairs, they’re my family, our family. I’m sorry. I’m sure they didn’t mean to make you cry. North Fork is our home and we will go home.”

“When?” Josh asked through his sniffles.

“How about next week? We talked about this on the train, this as an adventure, you’re meeting members of your family — cousins and aunts and uncles.”

“We go home?” Mykaela sniffled.

“For you and your brothers and your sister, yes, I promise.” Mark hugged his children closer.

Mark looked to Hope, “I didn’t think they’d find out so quickly that we were here. Are they all McCains?”

“No, there’s a good representation of the Gibbs side of the family downstairs, too,” Hope stated as she started laughing, hoping it would make their children feel more relaxed.

“Tell you what, why don’t you let your Mama help pretty up your faces…” Mark spoke to his children.

“Our faces don’t need prettied up!” boasted Zach.

“Okay, let your Mama pretty up your sisters’ faces and for the young men in this room, she’ll help clean away your tear stains. Okay?”

“Yes, Papa,” Eli answered, with Josh and Zach nodding.

Mark stood to his feet and turned to the door when Hope asked, “Where are you going?”

“Downstairs, I think I need to talk with the family and explain what happened. I’ll be back in a few minutes and this family will make a grand entrance.”

*****

Mark carried Faith down the stairs as Hope held Mykaela’s hand. The boys quietly preceded them down the steps. Stopping on the landing, Mark smiled as he looked upon all the members of his extended family.

Julie and Abraham stepped forward and welcomed Mark and his family to Enid and began the introductions all over again.

As she completed the introductions, she felt a tug on her skirt and Julie looked down, “Yes, Josh?”

“Something smells good. I’m hungry,” Josh replied.

“Joshua!” Hope scolded.

“Well I am.”

With laughter in her voice, Julie answered, “That’s all right Hope. Supper is almost ready. Owen’s just finishing the roast.” Elevating her voice, Julie called for everyone to find a seat. The tables were arranged in a big U shape in the restaurant, with smaller tables for all the younger children in the middle, even more tables were set up in the adjoining lobby of the hotel.

The food bowls were placed on tables lining the outer walls of the restaurant, where the members of the families could fill their plates before taking their seats. Conversations throughout the room varied as members of the families asked questions of North Fork, Lucas and Milly, and anything else they could think of.

The sun had set sometime earlier before the last of the family bid goodbye. Julie, Abraham, and Owen helped Mark and Hope carry their sleeping children up the stairs and to their hotel room.

*****

“Mark, we’ll let you explore the town on your own tomorrow. But if you need any help, just ask anyone to point out a McCain or a Gibbs family member,” Abraham stated.

“Oh and on Sunday, Church services begin at nine o’clock. We’ll meet you in the restaurant for breakfast at seven, thirty,” Julie stated.

“We don’t want to be any trouble…” Mark tried to say.

“You’re no trouble. We’re happy to have you home for a visit,” Abraham replied as they stepped from the room.

*****

It was Sunday, May 30th when Lucas and Johnny stepped from the train with their families in Enid and headed to the hotel to register and drop off their luggage. Owen looked at the names written, Mr. and Mrs. Lucas McCain and Mr. and Mrs. Johnny Gibbs, “My, oh my, I’m thankful I didn’t put away all the tables from the other day. Mr. McCain, your son and his family arrived safely.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” Lucas answered as he looked around. “Are they up in their room?”

“No, sir. I’ll take your bags up to your rooms. Your boy and the rest of your family, and you too, Mr. Gibbs, they’re all over at the church. It’s Sunday,” Owen commented.

“Thank you. I think we’ll head on over to the church,” Lucas stated.

“I’ll see your rifles are placed in your rooms,” Owen offered.

“I’ll take it with me,” Lucas replied as he reclutched his rifle.

“Lucas,” Milly spoke. “We’re going to church. I think you can leave your rifle here.”

“You too Johnny,” Colleen stated. “Hand your gun belt to the porter.”

Reluctantly, both men set their weapons on the luggage and watched as the hotel owner instructed two other young men to move the luggage upstairs.

Together the families walked the few blocks to the church. Lucas with his arm draped over Milly’s shoulder and holding Levi on his opposite hip, watched as Myra held Little Ted’s hand and walked in front of them.

Johnny and Colleen carried Andrew and David on their hips while Lillian walked the other side of Myra.

“Lucas?” Milly asked as she sensed Lucas tense.

“I know what you’re feeling, brother,” Johnny offered and placed a hand to Lucas’ shoulder. He explained to their wives, “The last time either of us were inside this church was for Margaret’s funeral service. We ain’t been back since.”

Lucas nodded and led the families to the doors that he quietly opened. The families slipped into the back pews and took their seats. Both Lucas and Johnny thought they recognized a few of the people who turned around upon their arrival, which started an ever-growing buzz among the parishioners.

Reverend Upshaw realized his sermon was going unheard as more and more people turned their attention from him due to a distraction among his congregation. He paused in the middle of his sermon. Raising his voice, “It seems that we have more visitors this morning, and they’ve created an excitement among those in the back.”

“Dang right, Reverend!” Mose Sanderson hollered, “It can’t be none other than Lucas and Little Johnny, come home!”

With that announcement made, everyone turned around in his or her seats, except Mark, who stood with disbelief, and walked to the back of the church.

“You came,” Mark whispered, he wanted to hug his Pa, but instead offered his hand.

“You should have asked me to come with you,” Lucas answered.

“I wanted to Pa, but after your initial reaction… I knew how you felt. But I had hoped you’d change your mind and offer to come.”

“Took Milly to make me understand that,” Lucas said as he relaxed his grip and pulled Mark into a hug.

Reverend Upshaw spoke from the pulpit, “So, are these newcomers more members of the McCain’s or Gibbs’ families?”

“Both,” Abraham called as he, Jeremiah, and Peter walked down the aisle to greet their youngest brother.

Emily and Laura, and their sisters-in-law had tears in their eyes as they stood with their families, knowing the heartaches that everyone had felt when Lucas and Mark left Enid. Now, joy and excitement filled the church. The family circle was completed as Scott and Beth walked to the back of the church and greeted their little brother, Johnny.

“Well, I think today’s church services should just be a lesson in compassion and realizing it’s never too late to come home,” Reverend Frasier proclaimed.

*****

After church services, Mark nodded as the various family members said they were going to return to the hotel.

“Pa, I’d like to talk…” Mark suggested.

Lucas nodded and motioned for Milly to take the family and go with the others.

*****

“Milly? I’m Abraham, what’s that all about?” he asked, pointing to Lucas and Mark walking away.

“Twenty years of buried memories and heartache. Lucas was against Mark’s coming,” Milly quietly answered.

“Figured it had to be something like that; Lucas never did like to look back. To say the least, I was shocked when Mose said Lucas’ name. I never figured to see him in Enid again.”

“It was a hard sell. I know he’s still hurting, but in an effort to make peace in the family, he agreed it was time for the North Fork McCains to meet the Enid McCains.”

*****

“Pa, I’m sorry I left home on such awkward terms. I just didn’t know exactly how to tell you why I was drawn to make this trip.”

“Milly tried to explain it to me. Thadd said pretty much the same thing.” Lucas stated as he pushed his hat back on his head. “Have you been to her grave?”

“The day we arrived. It’s like you said, the land was the same, just the cross was missing. I met Aunt Laura there. I helped her plant marigolds on Ma’s grave.”

“Surprised she didn’t pull her rifle on you,” Lucas said half-heartedly.

“Actually, she did. Only once she saw me up close, she put it away.”

Lucas and Mark walked to the side of the church and sat down on a bench under a large oak tree. Mark pulled his hat from his head and fiddled around with it in his hands, unable to bring himself to look at his Pa.

“Pa, when we left here, I know you were hurting over Ma’s death. And in time, we buried the hurt deep inside. We had to in order to go on living. But… when I trailed after you to Burns Flatt and later came through Oklahoma City… all the memories from my childhood started haunting me. The hurt and the bitterness I felt, because you had taken me from here. I tried to deal with it on my own and I know in the process that I hurt Hope and the children. And you.”

Lucas removed his hat from his head as he continued to listen to his son.

“I was finally able to understand when Ma came to me in my dream. She told me she would always be here, I realized the only way I could get back to the normal me was to come to say goodbye, here. Not just acknowledging her death from North Fork, it wasn’t enough that we named our youngest daughter in her memory…”

“How do you feel now?” Lucas asked.

“I’m still grieving. The families have planned a memorial on Thursday, at her grave. I won’t ask you to be there, but just the fact that you are here, now. It’s taken a lot of the guilt I’ve felt the past week off my shoulders.”

“I don’t know if I can be there,” Lucas stated as he looked down the road, in the direction of the ranch where he had lived and lost, so long ago.

*****

It had been twenty years since Lucas had been in Enid, and he enjoyed becoming reacquainted with his brothers and their wives, Abraham and Julie, Jeremiah and Emily, Peter and Tiffany, as well as his sisters and their husbands, Emily and Jason, and Laura and Matthew. Then there were Margaret’s other brother and sister, Scott and his wife, Amanda, and Beth and her husband, Orville. He couldn’t believe how much all his nieces and nephews had grown over the years and they had children, but then, look how much Mark had grown during the same time.

All the family members were thrilled to meet the rest of the McCain children, Myra, Theodore, and Levi, as well as the Gibbs’ children, Lillian, David, and Andrew.

Scott laughed out at hearing the tale of the birth of Johnny’s twin sons and that there were three sets of twins were in North Fork. “Hey Lucas, how come you didn’t manage to squeeze out a set of twins yourself?”

Milly inhaled sharply at the question, worried with how Lucas would answer.

Lucas paused before answering; knowing his own hurt from Margaret’s miscarriage and Milly’s, in that she could no longer carry another child. “Now see here Scott… I think I got my fill of having to deal with twins with Mark here. Lord knows he was worth more trouble than any set of twins could ever be,” Lucas jovially replied.

“I don’t know about that, Pa,” replied Mark.

“They’re your sons, I think you’re just getting pay back for all the trouble you got into when you were their… younger,” Lucas replied.

While the men were catching up on life, the women took over the hotel kitchen to prepare a wonderful supper for the families.

*****

Monday morning Scott Gibbs returned to the hotel to meet Lucas, Mark, and Johnny; he asked the women to excuse them, he wanted to talk in private. Owen showed them to his office.

“Thank you for seeing me like this, but I have something I need to know, and felt it best not to bring it up in front of the families.”

“Spit it out brother,” Johnny stated.

“Mark, when Pa died… later… we received word, that you had been there,” Scott stated.

“Yes, sir. I was.” Seeing the uncertainty on his uncle’s face, Mark continued, “He’d come to North Fork a year or so earlier, when the Sherman brothers were after him.”

“We heard about that and when we went to check up on him, we found he‘d left. No one would say where he went. Then one day, we got word that he was back.”

“He came asking Pa for help…” Mark stopped and looked to Lucas, who nodded for him to continue. Taking a deep breath, Mark continued, “That was the day Pa told me what happened the night Ma died.”

“I’m sorry you had to find out,” Scott stated. “I can’t imagine how much you must have hated him at that moment.”

“Looking back, I can’t believe that I could hate someone that much. Anyway, while Micah wanted to talk with Pa, Pa sent me to wait at the buckboard… instead… I sorta snuck over to the hotel, I wanted him gone. I didn’t want my Pa or our friends to get hurt while trying to help him. In the hotel room, he asked for my forgiveness, he tried to explain to me what happened. That everything Pa had told me… was true.”

“Did you… forgive him?” Scott asked.

“Not right then, I couldn’t.” Mark hurriedly continued, trying to make his uncle understand, “Uncle Scott, I’d just found out that my Ma could have lived… had he not been a drunk.”

“Mark, you don’t need to explain to me. But something must have happened, if you were there when he passed.”

“Later that night, as Pa and I were leaving town, Pa decided to go back and help Micah. While I sat there, in the buckboard, I got to thinking on all the lessons Pa had tried to teach me about forgiveness. It hurt finding out about… my Ma… but his hurt had to be more, not only did he play a part in losing a daughter, he… he also lost me… Samuel Gibbs came seeking forgiveness and through that, I realized he was the better man… When Pa returned to the buckboard, he told me what happened with him having to rescue Micah and Miss Lou, and that we needed to stay in town for a little while longer… Mr. Gibbs didn’t know anything had happened since he was preparing to do as I asked, to leave town. Anyway, I was feeling guilty and I guess Pa realized it.”

“So you told him you forgave him?”

“Not in so many words, but I think just by the fact that I called out his name… and called him Grandpa.”

“Probably lifted a huge burden off his shoulders…” Scott stated as he looked down.

“Yes sir. Anyway, a year or so later, I wanted to spend some time with him, to get to know him and find out more about my Ma. I thought long and hard before I asked Pa if I had his permission to come to Oklahoma for a visit. I spent about ten days with him before his heart gave out. I’m sorry, I know I should have probably come to Enid and told you, but, I didn’t really remember all of you that well. I had just found Samuel Gibbs, I mean my grandpa and he practically died in my arms, I wanted to get home. I needed my Pa.”

“No Mark, that’s not why I brought the matter up, it’s just that, well… We don’t rightly know why Pa took to drinking. Then the night your Ma died, Pa never recovered from that. He moved away, to Bensonville. We’d write, only all the letters would come back unopened. I tried a couple of times to go see him. He never answered the door when I knocked. I’m just glad to hear that he reached out to someone in the family. And glad he didn’t die… alone,” Scott finally said.

“Uncle Scott, when I was there, with Samuel… I mean Grandpa…” Mark hesitated.

“Go on, Mark,” Lucas encouraged.

“After the services, the town bought me tickets on the stage and the train, so I could return home. Said it was the least they could do for the only grandson of Samuel Gibbs… What they said never really sank in, but… After being here… I’m not his only grandson.”

“Mark, in his eye’s you were. You were taken away from him before you had a chance to form your own opinion. Your Ma, she always wanted to see the good side of Pa. You take after her in that way, you’d sneak out of school on your lunch hour when you’d see him in town… No, my children, and Beth’s, they knew how we felt and they felt the same way and Johnny wasn’t married back then. Maybe we were wrong to turn our backs on him as we did. But we felt he could have stopped drinking if he’d really wanted to, if he really loved us. We did receive a letter once, from a lawyer in Bensonville telling us we had been disinherited. So, in Pa’s eyes, you were his only grandson.”

“I’m sorry, must have been hard on you, getting that letter,” Mark answered and dropped his eyes to the floor.

“No harder than you, finding out what else happened the night Margaret died,” Scott replied. “We all knew that if one good thing could come out of Lucas taking you from here, it was that you’d never have to find out…” Scott stopped talking as the years of guilt welled in him. “Well, we best not stay in here too much longer, else the women will get to wondering what we’re doing.”

Lucas, Mark, Scott, and Johnny returned to the lobby. While they had been in Owen’s office, the women had made plans to show the returning McCains and Gibbs around town and to tour the various homesteads the families worked.

By the time they had visited and toured each homestead, except for one, it was Wednesday evening when Lucas and Milly settled back into the bed in the hotel. The two looked to the other beds in the room and saw their children peacefully sleeping. Milly rested back to Lucas’ bare chest, while he held one hand around her ribs and the other he rubbed up and down her upper arm.

“I don’t know if I can do it Milly,” Lucas whispered as he pressed a kiss to her head.

“Lucas, it won’t just be you and Mark, your whole family will be there to support you,” Milly answered.

“It’s not just visiting Margaret’s grave, it’s also going to Laura and Matthew’s afterwards. I lost the ranch to the bank… I never told anyone, I just left. Doctors were expensive and he demanded payment…”

“You mean Jason?”

“No, there was another doctor in town back then, Jason and Emily had gone back east for additional schooling and to visit his family. Margaret’s health was never as good as it was prior to her getting sick while she was pregnant with Mark. And after she miscarried, her health suffered even more. Jason never really charged me for all his services because we were family. However, this new doctor, his charges were a lot higher, and not just for me, but for everyone. I sold off some of my cattle to help make the mortgage payments on the ranch and to pay for the doctor and the medicines he prescribed. Before the epidemic started… I’d had to kill what remaining cattle I had because of hoof and mouth. No money coming in and I still had a wife and child to feed, a mortgage payment on a ranch that I was so far behind in paying…”

“Now I understand why you were so stubborn when hoof and mouth struck North Fork,” Milly’s voice was sympathetic, yet supporting.

“I worked so hard to build the ranch, our home, and I lost it all, I wasn’t about to lose my home for a second time. Anyway, three days after Margaret’s death, the banker came and told me he had foreclosed on the place… It was no longer mine. That’s why I’m so protective of our home in North Fork, it is so much like what I had with Margaret.”

“And now your sister and her husband call it home,” Milly paused. “Lucas, had I known the full story… I wouldn’t have pushed you to come. I didn’t know, you never told me.”

“I never told anyone.” Lucas lowered his head and Milly felt his tears fall on her cheek.

The Next Generation… Chapter 103 – The Oklahoma Story, Part II

The entire McCain and Gibbs families met at the fork in the road, one path led to Laura and Matthew’s home, the other to Margaret’s burial site. The families somberly proceeded down the path and arrived at the grave. Mark and Hope stepped from their carriage and walked forward with their children, who held small bouquets of marigolds in their hands, and knelt down to place the marigolds on the headstone.

“Papa, is this our other grandma?” Josh asked.

“This is my Ma’s grave. She died when I was your age,”

“Did you cry?” Zach asked.

“Yes, I cried,” answered Mark.

“Does she know about us? Josh asked.

“I’ve told her about all of you,” replied Mark. “And I’m sure she’s been watching you grow up.”

Mark and his young family stepped back to allow the other members of his family to honor the memory of Margaret Gibbs McCain. Everyone but Lucas stepped forward to touch the headstone or place a flower upon it.

Reverend Upshaw had accompanied the families, “Shall we join hands? Dear Heavenly Father, It is a testament to a family as I stand here and look upon those who knew and loved Margaret Gibbs McCain. Though I personally did not know her, I do know the strength of her character; as it is reflected in the faces of each and every person here today. Especially her brothers, her sister, her husband, and her son.

“The body of Margaret may lie in the ground, but her memory lives on in those who loved her and through the love she shared with her husband, Lucas McCain. The truth of their love was proven when they brought a son into the world. And here, their son has brought children of his own into the world and through them, Margaret Gibbs McCain will continue to live and be remembered, until the day we join her.

“Margaret was called home to the Heavenly Kingdom all too soon. Some say the good Lord needed another angel of mercy in Heaven to help others. But her departure left a void in the lives of her family. Though her eternal soul has be reunited with God, we are left here to go on without her and for that reason, I’m sure, God and the angels cry for us, because we are so far from His home.

“I remind thee of I Thessalonians 4:17, ‘Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.’ Amen.”

As family members offered their ‘Amen’ and slowly lifted their heads, sniffles echoed through the group. In smaller family units, they walked past the grave, returned to their carriages or buckboards and followed Matthew and Laura, not to their home, but to town.

*****

Friday afternoon, the fourth of June, Mark told Hope he wanted to go for a ride and would be back.

“You sound as if something’s wrong, can I help?” Hope asked.

“No, I just need to think. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to shut you out…”

“I understand. When you’re ready, I’ll be here.”

Mark left their hotel room and rode. He didn’t know exactly where he was going; he just knew he needed some thinking time. Back home, he would have ridden to the pond, but here… In this town that had been his home so long ago… Mark eventually found himself at his mother’s grave.

*****

Two hours later, Mark turned from sitting on the ground upon hearing a rider approach.

“Hope said you needed to do some thinking. Figured there would be only one place where you would come. Can I help?”

“Not really. Being out here hasn’t made my thinking any clearer. Pa, I don’t know what it is, but… I know I don’t want to hurt you again…”

“I think I know what’s bothering you. You’re seeing the possible family life we could have had, had I not taken you from here. Had I not run way, twenty years ago,” Lucas stated as he sat down.

“I don’t know… Pa?” Mark sort of knew how he was feeling, but didn’t want to get into it with his Pa, not until he could really understand.

“That’s why you don’t want to hurt me, because you know I’m right. You’ve become reacquainted with your cousins, aunts, and uncles, and met the ones that were born after we left. You’re thinking that maybe had I stayed, they could have helped you, and me, get over your Ma’s death.”

“Could they?” Mark asked without thing of the hurt that question would cause.

“Maybe… I was hurting and everything here reminded me of Margaret. If I hadn’t left, I felt I would have curled up and died. Mark, you know I’ve told you how your Ma, she hadn’t been in strong health before the epidemic and doctors were expensive. Then she contracted the disease and… You were the only thing that I had left that made my life worth living. I was afraid of losing you,” Lucas answered as he sat down beside his son.

“Losing me?”

“Mark, the epidemic was still happening. I couldn’t risk you catching it. I couldn’t lose the last part of my wife that was alive for me.”

“But Pa, when we left, we could have spread the disease.”

“Yes, we could have. That’s why for the first two weeks after we left Enid, we didn’t go near any towns. We lived off the provisions I packed in the buckboard. I just prayed we survived the incubation period. But, if you’d of come down ill during those two weeks, I would have brought you back.”

“And what if you’d of gotten sick? I was six! I wouldn’t have known where we were or how to get us home,” Mark exclaimed, allowing his emotions to surface.

Lucas could hear the accusation in his son’s voice as he tried to understand more of his past.

“There would have been time for me to get us back, had I come down sick. But we didn’t get sick.”

“No, you just ran away,” Mark’s voice held a bitter edge. “You took me from the only home and family I knew.”

“Yes, I’ve admitted that in the past and I’ll admit it today. There was nothing left for us here,” Lucas again admitted.

“Look at all the family members we have. How could you say there was nothing left for us?” Mark accused. “You didn’t even touch her headstone yesterday! What could our lives have been, had we stayed?!”

When Hope had informed Lucas that Mark had left to go think, he had dreaded what was bothering his son, yet, he had hoped he was wrong. But in listening to Mark’s tone of voice, Lucas knew he hadn’t been wrong in his thinking. This is what Lucas had really been dreading, when Mark had informed him he was taking his family to Enid.

Lucas was thankful that Mark was talking of what was bothering him, even though it hurt. Lucas took a deep breath and slowly exhaled before he spoke a little curtly, yet he hoped Mark would understand, “I don’t know, but maybe you should think on this… If we hadn’t left Enid and eventually settled in North Fork, there’d be no Milly or Hope in our lives, or any of the blessings they’ve brought us. Mark, I’ve explained as best I can. Maybe I did rob you of a life here in Enid… But I’ll say this once; I was and still am your father. I gave you a life in North Fork; one that before you left to come here, I thought you loved.”

After a long silence, Mark asked, “Would you have come back, had I not made this trip?”

Lucas stood, but he heard the change in his son’s voice; it didn’t hold the bitterness, but confusion. Confusion for what he had asked his Pa and for forgetting what he had.

“I don’t know.” Lucas paused in his answer, now was the time for truthfulness. “Honestly, no. To me, being here… is looking back.”

“But it’s also looking forward. Pa, look at all our family members, they’re alive. They’re real, not just names or words written on a sheet of paper around the holidays,” Mark pleaded.

“Yes, they are real. I guess they’ve always been more real to me because I was an adult when we left here. Mark, I won’t apologize for doing what I felt I needed to do. And I won’t apologize for yesterday, being here is difficult for me. I hope you can understand and find it in yourself to accept that I did what I had to do, then and now, for both of us.”

Lucas placed his hat upon his head, walked over, and mounted his horse. He waited to see if Mark would join him for the ride back to town, only to be disappointed when Mark didn’t move.

“I’ll see you in town, son.”

Without receiving an answer, Lucas turned his horse and rode back to Enid. Never had Lucas felt so alienated from his son, they had always been partners… But ever since Mark had informed him of his intent to return to Enid, Lucas had felt their relationship crumbling, and after today’s talk, he didn’t believe Mark was going to return to North Fork.

*****

After listening to his Pa leave Mark sat in contemplation. It was a few minutes before Mark spoke, “Ma, I know he’s right. I just hurt him again, like I did before I came down with typhoid. Man, how can life seem so unfair in one moment and the next, you remember how great a life you really have. He must think I hate him.”

“He doesn’t,” Mark heard a woman’s voice from behind.

“Hello?” Mark called as he turned to look for who had spoken to him, confused because his heart thought it was the voice of his Ma.

The woman came closer. “Aunt Laura?” Mark called.

“He’d of been more upset had you kept all that inside. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, just that I saw Lucas heading out this way, and then I realized you were here… Mark, you came back because…”

“I’d been away too long,” Mark replied.

“No, that’s not the real reason. Yes, what you told your father was part of your feelings, but… Your boys are almost six years old, just six months shy of your age when you lost your Ma. You’re trying to come to terms with the fact that they’re going to have something that you didn’t have when you were growing up.”

“Two parents,” Mark sighed.

“And you’re feeling a little jealous?” Laura asked as she sat down next to her nephew.

“I don’t know. I mean when Myra turned six, I felt a little jealous, but I don’t want anything to happen to M… Miss Milly.”

“You can call her Ma. We all understand.”

“Thanks, but, I don’t understand why with my sons ready to turn six… Why do I feel so strongly about coming here and seeing her grave?”

“Mark, you’ve already said it, you needed to say a final goodbye, but your heart hasn’t accepted that yet. You were a child when Lucas took you from here and I remember how you fought him. The tantrums you threw after Margaret’s body was removed from your home, and again at her services. Because you fought against her death, you never really said goodbye to your Ma. Leastwise, not standing in front of her grave. Yes, your parents loved each other, as you love Hope, and I’ve seen the love your father has for Milly. It’s been wonderful seeing you and meeting your family, seeing my youngest brother and Johnny, too, and meeting the other members of the McCain/Gibbs clan, but this isn’t your home. As much as every one of us would love for you to move back here and live, we know, deep down, this is your past, your lives are in New Mexico.”

“Was I wrong to come back?” Mark asked, feeling even more guilt.

“No Mark, visiting family is never wrong. Maybe we should have been the ones to come and visit you in North Fork. You’ve given this family a wonderful present, by coming to visit. But a visit it must be. I’ll continue to care for your mother’s grave, but you have a life to live and it’s not here.”

“It could have been,” answered Mark.

“No, Mark, not after Margaret died. Mark, how much do you know about your Pa’s past?” Laura asked.

“I know there are the years he refuses to talk about during the war, and there were some colorful times afterwards. I think those are the years that Uncle Johnny and others have referred to as his wild years, before he met and married Ma.”

“Yes, your father came home from the war pretty messed up and he and Tom Birch up and took off one day. It was more than a year later, when they both returned to Enid. It was a Saturday and I saw my big brother bump into a pretty gal on the boardwalk. I thought it funny that he didn’t try to avoid bumping into her. I found out later that they had briefly met in Kansas City when the Gibbs family was traveling to Enid from back East. And because of her, he returned home.”

“Tom Birch told me a little about it and Pa told me more,” Mark answered.

“After the war, I think he talked with his brothers, but he never talked with the rest of us about what happened. I got the feeling from your Ma that he did talk with her. She let it slip one day shortly after they were married, it was only after he’d wake from a nightmare that he would open up to her. He never liked looking back, said it wasn’t healthy.”

“But Pa also said not to keep secrets,” Mark quipped.

“Mark, some secrets deserve to be kept, like what your father experienced during the war, and those are best left buried. But after your Ma died, we knew he wanted to run and we hoped he’d find himself again. Julie even tried to convince Lucas to leave you with her and Abraham.”

“Why?” a curious Mark asked.

“Our own Pa died shortly after Lucas went off to war. And after Ma died, Julie and Abe became second parents to me. I guess they were hoping to do the same with you. See Mark, I do understand you, better than most. I was eight when my Ma died. Mark, your Pa was running from his past, just like he did after the war. It wasn’t any surprise to those who really knew Lucas, after watching friends and his wife die during the epidemic… We were worried; we knew having you with him would constantly remind him of his loss. They wanted to protect you.”

“Protect me? From who?”

“Lucas,” Laura whispered.

“Pa?! He’d never hurt me! Why he never even whipped me when I was growing up!” Mark declared.

“No, but in his state of mind… His hurt and fears were so deep, they were afraid his wild side would win out, this time. And if it did, what would happen to you? It was a long, worrying year between Margaret’s death and the first letter your father wrote home.”

“It was a long year for us, too. I never understood why Pa made us leave. It can’t be just because Ma died…”

“Mark I know my brothers and sister would skin me alive for telling you what I’m about to, but they don’t even know this. Do you realize your Pa hasn’t been to the house where Matthew and I live?”

“I guess I hadn’t realized…”

“Mark, we all saw the pain in Lucas’ eyes and agreed not to ask him to return to the ranch, the others agreed because it was where your Ma died. But, Matthew and I are the only ones who know the other reason…that Lucas lost it. The bank informed Lucas of their intentions to foreclose upon the ranch shortly after your Ma took sick. And then Margaret died… Lucas doesn’t know that I know the truth, I found the documentation in the bank’s files when we were purchasing the property.”

“Pa said something about doctor’s being expensive… Couldn’t he have sold some of his cattle? I mean, how could Uncle Jason…”

“No, he’d lost all his cattle as did a number of the other ranchers due to hoof and mouth disease. And Lucas wasn’t talking about Jason. Jason is a wonderful doctor for the town and our family, only he wasn’t here, he and Emily were back east. Your Ma, she…”

“Pa had told me that Ma was sick when she gave birth to me and couldn’t care for me for the first month of my life.”

“And when she miscarried three years later… Her body just wasn’t strong enough handle the stresses or fight off infections like a healthy person. Every winter, Lucas feared and worried over any little cold she took.”

“Then I am to blame for causing Ma to get sick…and…” stated Mark.

“Never, Mark! At first, when Margaret was carrying you, she just suffered from a cold, like the rest of us. But the winter you were born, it was a bitter winter, more so than any other winter we’d seen around these parts. Many people got sick. Some recovered, others didn’t. Jason took wonderful care of Margaret to see that she recovered. Lucas was thankful she lived. And he enjoyed spending that first month of your life with you. Yes, he worried for Margaret, but my brother changed in that first month, his heart was softened even more by the love for his son.”

Images flooded Mark’s memories as he tried to absorb more of his past life.

“Mark, what Lucas doesn’t understand about you, or Margaret, is why. Why sometimes, some people have to look back in order to be able to live forward, like you’re doing. And in that way, you’re so much like your mother. And this is what you needed. But, your father is struggling; he’s only here because Milly insisted that he needed to be here, for you. Yes, he’s enjoyed the reunion, but he’d prefer to be home in North Fork. I’ve seen it in his eyes; Margaret’s memory is still fresh. To him I’m sure it feels like Margaret just died.”

“Maybe I should stay in Enid then, everyone’s always stated how much I reminded them of Ma. Maybe Pa…

“No, that’s not what I’m trying to say. You are Lucas’ son, too. And its best you got your feelings out in the open with your Pa. Look at the life you have now, would you honestly trade what you have, today, for something that might have been?”

“I was just plain stupid in blurting things out like I did. Wish I got some of the McCain smarts like the rest of this family,” Mark commented.

“You have the McCain smarts, otherwise you wouldn’t wear the badge of a U.S. Marshal. Now don’t go getting your knickers in a knot, Hope accidentally let it slip the other day when the two of us were talking. I’ve not said anything to anyone else, though I don’t understand why you’re bent on keeping it a secret. But I guess you think some outlaw might cause trouble for us, because of you.” Getting to her feet, “Mark, while you’ve been here, you’ve just let your heart’s past blind you to what you have. Your heart knows the truth, open your heart again. You’ve said your goodbyes and met the family, now…, now you need to live your life forward. Come on, you best get back to town. We’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Aunt Laura, thank you, for everything,” Mark said after they hugged.

*****

Lucas returned to the hotel, more upset than when he left. Milly begged him to talk with her. “Milly, ever since we arrive, I’m still holding Margaret in my arms while her life slips away.” Lucas held his arms in front of him, his hands curled into tight fights, “I’m still cursing Samuel for not returning… Milly, you are my life! …I can’t stay here any longer. I don’t know how to get through to Mark. He’s living in the past that could have been and forgetting what he has. I’ve lost him…” Lucas slammed his fist to the window frame. “We’re leaving for home. Get the children packed. The train leaves in an hour.”

“You’re not going to wait to say goodbye to him?” Milly asked in surprise.

“If this is the life he wants, no. I can’t stay here for two more days for the next train. I want to take what’s left of my family… home.”

*****

As Mark rode into Enid, he watched the evening train pull away from the station. Mark left the rented horse at the livery and returned to the hotel. As he entered, Owen called him over to the front desk.

“Mark, I have a note for you. Miss Milly left it.”

Mark stepped aside, opened the note, and read:

Mark,

I’ll not say I understand what has come between you and your father, but I know that he does love you – it’s just that his memories and the pain from losing Margaret are stronger.

I’m sorry we didn’t get a chance to say goodbye before we returned home.

If this is the life you want, I’ll accept it. All I wish is for you and Hope to be happy.

Love, Milly

“They left?” Mark looked up and asked.

“Lucas checked his family out about a half hour before the train left.”

 

This story continues in The Rifleman – The Next Generation Pt 23

 

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