The Rifleman
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Fan Fiction

The Margaret Years
 
Chapter 28 - The Mosquito’s Ugly Return
Written by Michelle Palmer
 
Margaret wiped her brow as she turned back to the wash tub and scrubbed on Lucas’ pants. She couldn’t help but shake her head at the dirt that had built up on them. Just that morning, she had watched in horror when Lucas attempted to slide his long leg into the pants leg. “Lucas McCain!” Her voice practically screeched as she straightened from making the bed. “Don’t you DARE put those filthy pants on!”
 
Lucas had paused and lifted his eyebrows as he looked up at his beautiful, young wife. Even with a challenge in her eyes and her lips pressed together in disapproval, he couldn’t resist pulling her to him and giving her a kiss. “I’m just gonna get dirty, my Love,” Lucas declared after pulling his lips from hers.
 
“Not in those pants, you’re not! I’m doing laundry!” Margaret had declared.
 
Lucas had proceeded to put clean pants on before going to fill her wash tubs with water. Margaret argued that she could take care of the chore, but Lucas didn’t like her carrying the heavy buckets all the way from the creek. She worked at boiling water over the hot coals in the yard while he continued his chore. While pouring the last of the water into the tub, he declared to Margaret that he was waiting no longer to build a well. “Today’s the day. Next week, April will be here and I’ll have to start the planting. Until then, we’re working on your well.”
 
It was as she scrubbed those filthy pants of her husband’s that she looked up to see Lucas riding quickly into the yard. Her heart sank in disappointment when behind him rode Lucas’ friend from the war, Reef Jackson. So, that’s who the ‘we’ was, Margaret thought to herself.
 
Margaret wiped her hands on her apron and stepped forward. Reef stepped off his horse and smiled at Margaret. “Reef, you remember my wife.”
 
Reef smiled a crooked smile as he stood beside Lucas. His hat slowly came from his head and his big, wide eyes looked her up and down. Margaret was wearing a blue skirt with a coffee-colored blouse.  The sleeves were rolled up half way in order to keep them from getting soaked in the wash water. Her hair had been pulled back in a bun, but whisps had already escaped and hung beautifully around her face. Her cheeks were flushed from the task of scrubbing the dirt from the clothes. Her lips pressed together in a thin line, the corners slightly turned up. But Reef knew what the look said. She wasn’t too pleased to see him.
 
“Yes. I’ve seen her in town a few times,” Reef answered as he gave her a slight nod. “Ma’am.”
 
“Mr. Jackson,” Margaret greeted him cooly as she gave him a slight nod. She turned to focus on her husband. “I…take it he’s going to help you with the well?”
 
“That’s right,” Lucas answered with a smile. He saw the look of apprehension on Margaret’s face, but chose to ignore it for the time being. He chalked it up to her being tired from laundry. He turned back to Reef. “Well, I’ll show you where I wanted to build the well.”
 
Margaret watched them walk to the side of the house as they discussed their plans in low voices. They stood side by side, Lucas’ arms waving back and forth as he explained his plans. As she watched them talk, Margaret noticed that from behind the two men looked very much alike. They were the same height, their broad shoulders stood about the same length wide, even their hair was about the same color, though Reef wore his longer and more liberally than Lucas.
 
Margaret wiped an arm across her forehead then returned back to her washing.
 
Later, Margaret saw the men digging as she dumped the water from the wash tubs. After replacing them on the shelf at the side of the house, she went inside to fix lunch. As she tended to her chore, she thought back to her first meeting with Reef Jackson. He made her uneasy. For some reason, she felt he was undressing her with his eyes, and that was enough to make her shudder. Upon mentioning her thoughts to her husband, he had brushed it off and assured her that everything was fine. Reef was a good friend.
 
Margaret put the food on the table then went out to tell them lunch was ready.
 
***
 
For the next several days, the sun shone on the McCain Ranch, giving Reef and Lucas plenty of opportunity to work on digging the well. Once they got a deeper hole dug, they would send a candle down to check for poisonous gases that could harbor below the surface each morning. Then after the candle showed all was well, one man would be lowered into the hole while the other stood top-side and emptied the buckets of dirt into the waiting wagon.
 
Progress was made on the well, and Margaret smiled, knowing soon she would have running water. At lunch one day, Lucas and Reef had discussed the plans of running a pump into the house and another one behind the barn for washing.
 
Except that first day, Reef hadn’t really given Margaret any of his eerie looks. Margaret was quite happy for this and decided that he had come to the realization that she and Lucas were very much in love. Reef worked with Lucas diligently. They laughed and joked together as they worked.   On the fifth day, Margaret heard shouting and looked out her window to see Lucas and Reef having a fist fight. Margaret had no sooner stepped out of the house when it stopped. Both men breathed heavily as they continued to glare at each other.
 
“What’s this all about?” Margaret asked as she bent down to look at the welts on Lucas’ face.
 
“Never mind, Margaret,” Lucas answered as he patted her arm in reassurance. “Just never mind.”
 
Margaret heeded the warning in his voice, and watched in amazement as the two men stood up, dusted themselves off, and went back to work as if nothing had happened. “Men,” Margaret muttered to herself as she returned to her butter mold.
 
She had intended to get to the truth of the fight that night, but Lucas was so exhausted. He almost fell asleep in his plate and muttered that he was turning in.
 
The next day, Lucas looked even more exhausted. His breathing was labored, his eyes were glassy, and he could barely listen to what Margaret was saying.  That’s when it hit her: he wasn’t tired, he was sick!
 
At supper that evening, Margaret studied him as he sat at the table and mumbled out the blessing. Concerned, Margaret lifted a hand to his brow, but Lucas waved it away stating he was fine. As she watched him throughout supper, however, she could tell that he was indeed NOT fine. If anything, he was getting worse. Lucas tried to assure her that he was just tired, but again Margaret shook her head. It was more than that and she knew it. She’d seen him tired, and she’d seen him sick. He was definitely sick.
 
The next morning was Wednesday, April 3. Margaret studied Lucas as he came in from doing his morning chores. She saw his flushed cheeks and dropped the spoon as she hurried across the room. Grabbing his arm, she could already feel the heat radiating from his body. Then when she put a hand to his cheek, she shuddered. “Luke, you’re burning up with fever!”
 
“I’m fine,” Lucas stated weakly as he went to the kitchen to wash his face in the cool water Margaret had fetched from the creek.
 
“No, Luke. You are NOT fine!” Margaret grabbed his arm. “I want you in that bed NOW!”
 
“Reef will be here soon,” Lucas mumbled. “He and Hal are helping me on the well again today.” Lucas gasped as he splashed more water on his face. “Then I’ve got to…to…get some more seed in the…”
 
“Not today, Luke!” Margaret insisted. “You must go to bed! I’m sending for the doctor!”
 
Lucas swallowed and took in a few gasps of air. “Margaret, I’m fine!” Lucas shook his head. “I need to get the well done so we can finish the planting. I…” Lucas groaned suddenly and grabbed onto the side of the counter. “I don’t have time to…to…” Suddenly, he fell to his knees. Hands flew to his face as he lifted his head. “It feels like…”
 
“LUCAS!” Margaret’s mind went back to a year ago when she had worried about her fiancé and came looking for him. She had found him collapsed in this very spot. “LUCAS! This cannot happen again!!!” Margaret bent down next to her husband. “Please, God…I almost lost him…Not again!” She tried to lift him to his feet, but he was too big, and he was barely conscience.
 
Margaret cried as she hurried to the front door. Lifting her skirt, she hurried across the street. Hal was just coming from the barn. When he heard Margaret crying his name, he dropped the pail of milk and ran to her. Margaret pointed toward her house, hardly being able to get the words out. “It’s happening again! Oh God, it’s happening again!” Tears welled up in her eyes and spilled down her cheeks. Hal hurried to the McCain ranch with Margaret on his heels.
 
Ann, upon hearing the commotion, hurried after the two. Entering the house, Hal saw Lucas struggling to get up. “Margaret, help me get him in the bed,” Hal ordered as he grabbed Lucas by the arm. Margaret took one side of Lucas and Hal the other. Hal was able to lift him so they weren’t dragging him. He helped Margaret strip him, then they pulled a sheet over him. Ann brought a pail of water and rags into the bedroom. Margaret immediately began washing his face as tears streamed down her face.
 
“Oh please, not again,” Margaret cried as tears poured down her cheeks. “I almost lost him last time…not again!”
 
Hal motioned for Ann to follow him from the bedroom. “I’m going for Dr. Livingston,” Hal told her softly. “His fever has to be at least 104.”
 
“Hal, what do you think it is?” Ann questioned.
 
“I think it’s back,” Hal answered simply, locking his eyes with Ann. “I think the damn thing has reared its ugly head back into our lives!” Husband and wife shared a brief look of grief before Hal hurried out the door.
 
***
 
Jason chuckled as his son cooed up at him. Emily laughed as she wrapped her arms around her husband’s neck from behind him. “He looks just like you, Dr. Livingston.”
 
“Oh, but he has that McCain look,” Jason mumbled. Emily didn’t like the tone in his voice.
 
“And just what look would that be?” Emily straightened and put a hand on her side. Her eyes narrowed and flashed a warning.
 
Jason chuckled as he reached up and traced the large scar that ran down her cheek.  Ever since she had gotten that scar, Jason had always paid special endearment to it, letting her know he loved her all the more for wearing it proudly. “THAT look, Beautiful,” he answered as he smiled into her stubborn face.
 
A knock interrupted their talk. Jason stood abruptly at hearing the frantic knock and handed Baby Matthew back to his mother. Hal stood before him trying to catch his breath. “Doc, there’s trouble…BAD trouble!”
 
“What’s wrong?” Jason asked as he took Hal’s arm and led him inside. “Is it Ann?”
 
“No…” Hal took more deep, gulping breaths.
 
“Luke?” Emily asked as she hugged her baby to her breast and stepped forward. Instant worry on her face.
 
“Doc…last year Luke had Malaria.” Jason nodded. “Can it come back?”
 
Jason’s shoulders slumped as he rubbed a hand along his jaw. Immediately, he turned and reached for his bag. “It can come back again and again and again, unfortunately. Nobody understands why…”
 
“Jason!” Emily hurried forward. Her eyes filled with tears. “Are you saying…”
 
Jason paused and put a hand on Emily’s arm. “I’m not saying anything yet, honey. We don’t know he has malaria.”
 
“But…”
 
“I want you to stay here and take care of the baby, Beautiful,” Jason said softly as he looked into her eyes, trying to calm her. “I’ll send word on his condition.”
 
“I’m Luke’s sister and your nurse! If he’s sick, I want to be there!” Emily argued.
 
Jason’s eyes slowly moved to their almost four month old son in her arms. “You’re also my son’s mother. You’re staying here.” Jason gave her a quick kiss then hurried out the door.
 
Emily clung to her baby as tears streamed down her face. “Oh please God…Please…Keep my brother safe!”
 
As Jason hurried toward the livery to saddle his horse, he ordered Hal to ride out and tell the Gibbs and McCain families what was going on.
 
***
 
Gunfire sounded all around him.  Lucas ran as fast as he could, weaving in and out of bullets as the whizzed past his head. He was sweating, even though it was freezing cold. A cold rain fell from the sky. Then his eyes focused on the young man. They stood, staring at each other. “I’m going to die,” Lucas said. He watched the rifle point toward him. His eyes grew wide as he watched the young man’s finger slowly pull on the trigger. “NOOOOOO!” Lucas shouted.
 
“Luke, help me…” The voice sounded in slow motion. The bloodied hand stretched out toward Lucas. His eyes pleaded for him to do something. Everything moved in slow motion. “Help…me…Luke…” Lucas turned from the man who was trying to kill him and stretched his arms out. He started running…his feet moving ever so slowly as he shouted. “NOOOOOOOO!”
 
The bloodied face…He could recognize him now. It was Andy Gibbs, and he was begging Lucas not to let him die. Still in slow motion, Lucas reached out to grab Andy, but his hands went right through him and he fell face down on the ground. “You killed me, Luke! How could you?” Lucas heard the voice. He lifted his head and saw Andy’s still body laying dead on the ground. From behind him, the haunting voice came again. It hadn’t been Andy’s voice he had heard, but he recognized that face.
 
Lucas buried his face in the ground. The pouring rain didn’t seem to help the heat that radiated from his body.
 
***
 
Lucas was mumbling something Margaret couldn’t understand. “I’m right here, Honey. You’re going to be okay.”

“I didn’t mean to shoot him…I didn’t mean to shoot him…” Lucas’ words mumbled as he tossed his head back and forth on the bed. Margaret turned and looked at Ann. Her moist eyes told her friend how frightened she was for Lucas.
 
A knock sounded on the door. Ann quickly left to see who it was while Margaret continued speaking to Lucas softly and wiping his head. “It’s okay…It’s okay…” She closed her eyes and prayed, begging God not to make Lucas go through the ague again. She had watched the torture the disease had sent through his body a year ago, and couldn’t stand the thought of his going through that again.
 
Ann walked back into the room. “It was Mr. Jackson. I sent him over to my house for more water.”
 
“Can he possibly get malaria again?” Margaret’s voice shook with emotion. “If it’s back…I don’t know if…” Margaret shook her head and began weeping.
 
She was still listening to Lucas’ delirium when Jason showed up. He hurried into the bedroom and gently took Margaret’s shoulder. “He’s sick with fever, Jason.” Margaret wept. Her eyes were already red from crying. “He can’t go through this again.”
 
“Ann…” Jason nodded toward the bedroom door. Ann hurried forward and put an arm around Margaret’s shoulders, leading her from the room.
 
“Come on, Honey. Let Jason work.” Ann spoke softly to her best friend as if she were speaking to a child who didn’t want to leave her mother. “Let’s make some tea.”
 
Lucas’ moans and cries of delium could be heard from the kitchen. Margaret’s hands shook as she filled with the tea kettle with water and put it on the stove. Ann led her to the table and ordered her to sit, but Margaret shook her head. She couldn’t sit. Reef Jackson returned with the water and sat it down on the table. He dug his hands in his pockets and looked toward the bedroom. “What is it.”
 
“Some sort of ague,” Ann answered simply.
 
“It’s malaria!” Margaret declared with a cry.
 
“We don’t know that, Margaret!” Ann argued. “We don’t!”
 
“Oh, but it is! I KNOW it is!” Margaret cried bitterly as she turned and buried her face in Ann’s shoulder. Ann wrapped her arms around her friend as she continued to cry.
 
“Where’s your faith, Margaret?” Ann suddenly grabbed Margaret’s face in her hands and stared into her eyes. “Where’s your faith?”
 
The minutes seemed to crawl by. Reef couldn’t stand hearing Lucas’ cries any longer and mumbled he would go work on the well. More minutes passed by. Ann forced Margaret to drink some tea while they waited.
 
The front door opened. Margaret looked up to see Abe and Peter standing in the doorway. She jumped up and ran into Abe’s outstretched arms. His strong arms wrapped around her as she buried her face in his chest and wept. “He can’t do this again…” She continued crying over and over. “He just can’t…”
 
“Shh…” Abe rubbed her back as she continued to cry. “There there, Margaret. Do we know for sure it’s malaria?”
 
“I’m afraid it is,” Jason answered as he stood in the doorway to the bedroom. He wiped his hands on a towel. Abe didn’t miss his jaw working.  “It’s back.”
 
***
More family soon arrived. Margaret felt she was going through slow motions as she sat by her husband’s side as he slept. Jason came in once in a while to check on them and would squeeze her shoulder as she looked up into his face with question in her eyes. “He’s holding his own,” Jason would reply. But that’s all he could tell her. The truth was, nobody knew what the outcome would be.
 
At one point in the late afternoon, Jason insisted that she needed to lay down and get some rest. Margaret shook her head and asked, “Why, Jason? Why has it come back after all this time?”
 
“It never really left, Margaret.” Margaret turned and looked at him. “He’s had some small episodes this past year. A few cases of ague, but they were so light he didn’t bother you with them. Luke knew there was a possibility it could flare up again.”
 
Tears squeezed from Margaret’s closed eyes as she allowed his words to soak in. “He never told me. He never…never said a word.”
 
“He didn’t want to worry you, honey.”
 
“How long, Jason?” Margaret turned and looked at him. “How long will he have to fight this? How long does this…disease…have to live inside him?”
 
Jason looked toward the bed as Lucas stirred. He reached out a hand and touched his cool face. “I don’t know, honey. I’ve heard cases of folks fighting the disease for years. I just…I don’t know.” Jason knew Lucas’ chills were about to start. He didn’t want Margaret there at the moment. She was exhausted and hungry. She needed rest and food. He called out to Margaret’s mother who quickly appeared in the doorway. “You should make her get some food and rest,” Jason said as he started rolling his sleeves up. “And bring me some more blankets.”
 
“Why? Are the chills starting?” Margaret’s eyes opened wide. “Jason, please…”
 
Jennifer put two strong hands on her daughter’s shoulder. “Let’s go.”
 
“No! I can’t leave him!” Margaret’s cry was weak and her hands shook from lack of food.
 
“You will leave,” Jason ordered gruffly as he went to the closet where he saw another blanket. “Making yourself sick won’t help him any, Margaret. Go on, now.”
 
Margaret still hesitated. “Margaret Ann Gibbs McCain, I am your mother and you will obey me!” Margaret hadn’t heard her mother speak so gruffly to her in years. But she saw the sternness in her mother’s eyes and nodded.
 
Margaret was led out. Her mother sat beside her encouraging her to eat. As soon as she finished, Jennifer led her into the second bedroom where a cot was sat up. She pushed Margaret down and sat beside her, talking softly like she used to when Margaret was a little girl. Margaret fought the sleep. She tried to stay awake, but soon her eyes closed in slumber.
 
More family arrived later that night. Children were put to be on pallets on the floor and told to go to sleep while adults laid there heads wherever they could find room. A prayer vigal was held. There was always somebody praying for Lucas who was once again fighting for his life.
 
***
The hot desert sun burned her feet as she ran. She saw him up ahead. He was just standing there, not moving. Margaret quickly realized that no matter how fast she ran, he remained the same distance away from her. She had to get to him! She had to save him! His blue eyes pleaded with her to help him, but no matter how fast she ran, she couldn’t get there.
 
Suddenly, a black panther came to stand in front of him. The panther lifted his head. A smile crossed his face and a look of victory shone in his eyes. Margaret froze in her steps and straightened her body. “NO!” she tried to scream, but nothing came out. She fell to her knees and reached out her hands to the panther. “You can’t have him!” she cried then. Her words were quiet as the panther began easing his way toward her husband.
 
Margaret’s eyes grew wide as she realized to her horror that the panther was there right beside her husband. He was going in for the kill.
 
“NO!” Margaret sat up on the cot. Darkness was in the room. On this night, not even the moon shone. Margaret jumped to her feet and raced for the door. “You can’t have him,” she cried as she flung the door open and ran into the main room. A pair of legs tripped her and she felt herself falling. Just when she was about to meet the floor, hands reached out and steadied her. Margaret lifted her face to look into her brother’s rather solumn one.
 
“Luke?” Margaret whispered.
 
“He’s real bad, Margaret.” Scott’s voice was quiet as he spoke. Margaret searched his face in the darkness but couldn’t see well enough to make out his exact expression. Was there hope in his eyes? Had he given up on Luke? Well, it’s just as well I can’t see the answer, Margaret thougt. I probably wouldn’t like what I saw.
 
Margaret didn’t hesitate to make her way to the bedroom. She opened the door and hurried inside. Lucas was mumbling something about that he’d killed a man and asked God to forgive him. At the sound of someone entering, Jason lifted his head from the bed where he had leaned over to sleep. The lantern was low, casting eerie shadows on the room. Margaret froze as Jason’s doubtful eyes turned and looked at her. She couldn’t move. Her feet felt as if they were nailed to the floor and her mouth opened. “No…” The word was a mere whisper.
 
Jason slowly stood and walked over to Margaret. “I’m afraid he’s worse this time, Margaret,” Jason spoke. “I’ve been giving him quinine, but it doesn’t seem to be helping.”
 
Jason’s words echoed through her head. She looked down at her husband as he tossed his head back and forth. “No…No…” Lucas cried out then. “Don’t make me kill you! Please run or something. I don’t…I don’t want to kill you.”
 
Margaret’s eyes turned to Jason in question. “He’s remembering some of his darkest moments, Honey. It’s a sign of…” Jason’s voice drifted off.
 
“A sign of what?” Margaret questioned, suddenly angry. She turned and looked at her brother and others standing in the doorway. “You’ve all given up on him? Just like that? He’s not dead…He’s very much alive!” Margaret raced to the bedside and laid her hands on her husband’s sweating cheeks. “I’m here, my Love. I won’t leave you.”
 
Somewhere in the dark recesses of his mind, Lucas heard her voice. “Margaret…why are you here? No…You can’t be here.” Lucas lifted a weak hand and tried to push her away. “It’s dangerous here. You can’t be here. You could get…killed…”
 
“Oh Luke…” Margaret’s eyes filled with tears. “Luke…” She laid her head on his chest and cried. “I’m not going anywhere, Luke. I’m staying here. I promised until death do us part, and that’s what I meant!”
 
Julie stood behind Abe as they looked into the bedroom. Abe looked into her eyes. Both sets of eyes filled with tears. They knew Lucas was more dead than alive at this point. Losing him would be very hard on Margaret.
 
***
The bright sun teased the occupants of the McCain Ranch house that morning. Just past six, the sun slowly began it’s climb into the sky. Women sadly and tiredly began preparing breakfast, knowing word would spread quickly on Lucas McCain’s position, and they would probably see many stop by to visit the family.
 
Margaret stayed faithful to her husband throughout the night. As the sun began shining in the window, Margaret lifted a wet cloth to her head, still burning with fever. She kept his tongue moist with drops of water. At this point, he was quiet and still…deathly still. The demons still plagued him, she could tell that from his face. She spoke softly to him, telling him about their wedding and wonderful, intimate moments they had shared. She told him of their hopes and dreams and reminded him of all the reasons he couldn’t die.
 
Nobody bothered her, knowing this was something Margaret had to do. She wouldn’t leave his side until it was over. “We cannot give up hope,” Julie had finally said sometime in the night. Everyone had nodded in agreement, and spent the remainder of the night on their knees in prayer restoring the faith they needed to have in Lucas.
 
As breakfast was sat on the table, people began dropping by. Ann and Hal, who had put some of the McCain family up in their house, came over for breakfast. Reef Jackson again showed up. The Reverend, upon hearing how ill Lucas was, thought it was best he be there just in case his services were needed. He led the family in a prayer, begging God to spare Lucas from an early grave.
 
Breakfast was eaten in silence. Even the children were quiet, knowing Uncle Luke was gravely ill. Their mothers told them to pray for him. Prayer was all they had to hold on to.
 
Jeremiah, having his own dilemma at home, made brief appearances whenever he could, but felt torn between being at home with his family and being with his little brother, who may have only a small time to live. Abe saw the struggled going on inside him and reminded him that Luke would want him to take care of the family. Jeremiah kneeled beside his brother when tears rolling down his cheeks. He did something he’d never done to Luke before. He pressed his lips to his brother’s cheek for a brotherly kiss. “I love you.” Jeremiah wiped the hair from Luke’s sweaty forehead. “Please don’t leave us. You fight, ya hear me? Fight.”
 
After that, Jeremiah wiped the tears from his eyes, stood, and turned around to look up into his older brother’s eyes. Abe opened his arms and welcomed Jeremiah into them. The brothers embraced, and Abe assured Jeremiah he was doing the right thing by going home.  Then Jeremiah quietly slipped out of the house and went home, unsure of rather he’d ever see his brother alive again.
 
Then in the silence, Jason stood up and began pacing. He suddenly hit the wall with his fist and cursed. Emily, who had arrived with some of her family earlier the evening before, stood and went to her husband. “I’m a doctor!” Jason declared in the quiet of the house. “I’ve been trained to heal and I…I can’t!” Everyone saw the agony and guilt on his face. “I can’t do anymore than the rest of you…Just stand here and watch him…him slowly slip away.” Jason clung to Emily then. “Damn it…I feel so…so hopeless.”
 
Reef stood and muttered that he was going to work on the well. Hal mumbled that he would as well. They couldn’t just stand around. Soon, several of the other men stood and said they would go work in the fields. Jason had cried these words in frustration, yet somehow they had brought life back to the family. Somehow they thought that if Lucas’ work got done, he’d be saved.
 
The women took to their husband’s unspoken declaration and all got to work on cleaning the house. The children were sent outside to play and be entertained by Laura. Life suddenly arrived back to the family who had given to grief for a death that had not occurred yet.
 
Inside the bedroom, Margaret continued to speak to her husband. Her mother brought in food, but Margaret shook her head as she continued to talk softly. Silently, she prayed to God, pleading with him to please not take her husband. She wasn’t finished with him yet. There were so many things they still had to do together as a family.
 
Very quickly, Lucas’ fever changed into chills. He started shaking violentely all over. Margaret covered his naked body with all the blankets she could find. Jason came in to assist her with the latest symptom of ague. The chills were so bad and had come so quickly behind the fever that it sent his body into shock. He was shaking so badly that they had to hold him. Margaret never stopped talking to him. Lucas chattered and cried out his grief at Gettysburg.
 
***
They all stood there mourning for the loss of their fallen officers. Lucas stood on one side as the cold rain fell. It was so cold. Lucas shivered and shook, knowing he needed to calm himself so he could bury his fellow officers. But his eyes stared toward the rebels who only stared back. Grief was heavy on their faces.
 
Then his mouth opened in a gasp when he heard her say, “Luke, don’t leave me. Come back to me, Luke.” Then she was there. Her face appeared in the crowd of rebel soldiers. She was crying and held her arms out to him. “Come to me, Luke. You can do it. Come to me.”
 
“I can’t.” Lucas shook his head. “I can’t go over there. That’s the wrong side.” He looked down to see a line drawn in the dirt. Her feet were on the other side of the line. “I can’t cross that line, Margaret. Can’t you understand? You have to come to me.”
 
“Luke, come here!” Margaret’s voice pleaded. “Oh please, Luke. I still need you!”
 
Her face began fading. His eyes filled with tears. “No! Don’t go! Please don’t go!”
 
***
“Don’t leave me, Margaret…” Lucas mumbled through his chilled lips. “Please…don’t…”
 
“I’m here, Luke. I’m here.” Margaret lifted her eyes to Jason. It was getting worse and they both knew it. “Luke, come back to me. Please. Honey, I love you so much. Please don’t leave me.” Her voice pleaded with him.
 
“I can’t…I can’t reach you…” Lucas’ teeth chattered. “I can’t…” Then his body began to still. Slowly, his shaking ceased and he laid back and slept.
 
“Jason…” Margaret lifted her head to look into his eyes. Jason hurried over, sticking the stethoscope in his ears. He listened frantically, then his hands stilled. Slowly he stood and took the stethoscope from his ears as he looked up at her. “Is he…”
 
“He’s asleep. The fever will soon return.” Not a word was spoken as they stared at each other. “I’m sorry, Margaret. I wish there was more I could do. I would give both my arms to bring him back to you.” Margaret nodded and sat down in her chair with a plop. She rubbed her face tiredly and felt the tears begin to fall again. Her shoulders shook with sobs.
 
“Aunt Jennifer,” Jason called over her sobs. Jennifer came in and saw that Margaret needed her. She dropped on her knees in front of her daughter and enveloped her in her arms, allowing Margaret to cry.
 
***
Hal stood and looked down into the well. It had been three days now since Lucas had taken sick. Nobody knew why he was still alive. Margaret had only left his side when forced to, but any other time she was found right there beside Jason fighting whatever was plaguing Luke’s body.
 
Reef climbed from the hole in the well and nodded his head toward Hal. “She’s filling up. I think we’re finished.”
 
Hal looked out toward the fields where the men were planting Lucas’ crops. “Everything will be ready when he gets better.”
 
“IF he gets better,” Reef declared. He looked toward the house. “Doc said this morning he’s barely alive. He may not even last…”
 
“He’ll live!” Hal declared angrily. “Don’t you think different, Jackson!” There was a threat in Hal’s voice. Reef narrowed his eyes toward the rancher and wondered what gave these men all their faith. It had wavered from time to time, but something always seemed to make it come back. “With a little faith, you can move a mountain.” Hal’s words startled Reef, and it was then he realized how transparent he was.
 
Reef had never been a bad person. All his life, he’d tried to do the right thing. He hadn’t been raised in church, but he lived by the same moral standards this family lived by. Yet he felt something deep inside him begin to grow. He wasn’t sure what it was yet, but it scared him. He looked toward the house and wasn’t sure if he wanted his friend to live or not.
 
***
 
Margaret had laid her head down for only a moment, just to close her eyes for a few winks of sleep. But she startled awake when she felt a hand on her hair. Margaret lifted her head to look into her husband’s weak eyes. “My dear, sweet wife…” Lucas mumbled. Beads of sweat were on his face. Margaret let out a cry, believing his chills would come soon. “You never left my side…”
 
Margaret lifted her head even further and studied his eyes. “Luke? Can you see me?”
 
“You’re so tired, Honey. You should sleep.” Lucas’ eyes widened just a bit. His hand was almost too weak to lift from the bed, but he forced his fingers to lift to her face. He brushed the back of them against her soft cheek. “I never meant to go sick on you.”
 
Margaret stood up even further. His eyes were clear. She put a hand to his cheek. It was a bit warm, and there was no sign of the chills that had always come up so quickly behind the fever. “Luke?”
 
“You’re beautiful. Did I ever tell you that? Oh, you’re the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen,” Lucas mumbled as he placed his whole hand against her cheek.
 
Margaret straightened from him and stared down at him. “Luke!” Her voice shouted out in joy. She fell on top of him and hugged him tight. “Oh Luke…Luke…Luke…” She kept crying his name over and over as she covered his sweet face in kisses. Every inch of his face was kissed before she found his lips. He kissed her back weakly. “Luke…Oh Luke…” She mumbled again as she laid her cheek against his.
 
“It’s that all you can say?” Lucas chuckled weakly as she began to cry. “Luke?”
 
“No…” Margaret lifted her face from his and shook her head. She swallowed. “I love you, Lucas McCain. Oh, I love you so much!” She lowered her head to his chest and just laid there. She felt his arms slowly go around her in a weak hug. “Thank you God for giving him back to me!” She cried the words through her tears. Lucas hardly understood what she was saying.
 
The door to the bedroom opened and Jason hurried in, followed by a pack of other family members. “Margaret what…” They stopped, frozen in their tracks when they saw Margaret’s position on top of her husband. His arms laid at his side and he was still…so still…”Oh Dear God in Heaven!” Jason muttered breathlessly.
 
The women threw their hands to the mouths as they listened to Margaret weep. “Oh no…” Other words of grief could be heard as they stood in the room and watched the scene, they believed to be a wife mourning for her deceased husband.
 
Margaret lifted from Lucas, realizing he had fallen asleep. She sat up on the side of the bed and wiped her eyes. Looking up at her family who stood in front of them, she stated, “Mama, he’s alive! He’s going to be okay!”
 
Nobody moved, thinking she was suddenly denying what had happened. Finally, Jason forced his way to the bed and looked down at Lucas. “It’s…” He put a hand to Lucas’ face and felt the coolness. He watched Lucas’ chest slowly move up and down in a relaxed rhythm. “It’s true!” Jason turned and looked at his family. “He lives. His fever broke and there are no chills! He’s going to be okay!”
 
A loud shout of praise engulfed the house. Everyone began crying and hugging. Reverend Gathers lifted his arms toward the heavens. “Praise be to God who’s delivered a miracle on this house today! Praise you God for all your miracles!”
 
A groan sounded from the bed. Margaret turned back to her husband and looked down at him. “Margaret…” Lucas mumbled as he turned on his side with a groan. “Would you keep it down? I’m trying to sleep.” Margaret lifted her head toward Jason who only chuckled. She bent down and kissed Lucas’ cheek as she tucked the covers around him.
 
“Alright everyone, you heard the man,” Margaret declared as she turned toward the group still huddled in the bedroom. “Everyone out so he can get some sleep!”
 
***
 
The mood in the house that morning was much different than what it was the previous one. Though the temperature outside was hovering near fifty degrees that morning in early April, the family kept the doors opened and opened the windows. They were having a party as the man of the hour slept. Margaret, who still hadn’t stopped shedding her tears of joy, practically floated around the kitchen as they put the remainder of food on the table.
 
Reef Jackson, expecting to arrive and hear that the man of the house had passed into the next life, was quite surprised to hear laughter and shouts of joy from the house. He stepped up onto the porch and stood in the doorway. “Did I hear a celebration?”
 
“Yes!” Hal declared as he hurried forward to shake the big man’s hand. “Luke’s going to be okay. A miracle occurred this very morning.”
 
Reef didn’t like the feeling he felt way down deep in his gut. A year ago, he would have never wished death on any human being, no matter how bad he was. But today, he felt he had lost some battle he hadn’t known he was fighting. He forced his face to betray what he was feeling and smiled. “That’s great! And won’t he be surprised to know the well’s all done. I was going to suggest we work on the pump today.”
 
“Do it!” Margaret declared in a voice so loud that everyone stopped talking and turned to look at her. She walked toward Hal and Reef and folded her arms as she lifted her head in a stubborn stance. “My man isn’t lifting a finger until I’VE declared him one hundered precent better and then some!”
 
“What about my declaration?” Jason questioned as he stood up.
 
“Oh, I assure you, DR. Livingston, that you will declare him fit long before I do!” Margaret answered with a nod of her head. She shoved a finger toward the bedroom door. “But he is NOT doing ANY work until I’m sure he’s better. And that will be quite awhile. So please finish his crops and the pump, and the well, and anything else that needs done this spring. He certainly won’t be doing any planting this season!”
 
Abe and Peter looked at each other with lifted eyebrows. They knew their brother well enough to know Margaret would be causing a war. They both stood and walked over to her. “Now Margaret, see here…” Abe started.
 
Margaret lifted her head up even higher and stuck her chin out as she planted her hands on her hips. She glared up from one brother to the other. “What?” She asked as their startled expressions looked down at her.
 
“Uh…” Peter gulped. “I’ve a feeling, brother, that Margaret McCain will win this war.”
 
“Yeah,” Abe answered with a nod as they sat down. “I’ve a feeling you’re right.”
 
Margaret couldn’t help but smile as she straightened her apron. “So after you finish breakfast, you boys just get to work. I don’t want any excuses for Lucas to fight me on this.” With that, she turned back to the kitchen to help put it back in order.
 
***
 
Margaret looked up from her Bible and smiled as Lucas opened his eyes and looked up at her. The agony and torment that had tortured his body during the last days had disappeared. His face had returned to it’s normal color and his eyes proved to her he was no longer suffering. “Hello,” Margaret whispered as she rested a hand on his cheek and smiled down at him.
 
“Hi,” Lucas smiled up at her. “What happened?”
 
“It came back.”
 
“It?” Lucas lifted an eyebrow.
 
“Malaria. You’ve had ague for the last several days. Luke, It was worse this time then it was last year.”
 
Lucas swallowed as he continued to look up into his wife’s eyes. “I’m sorry. I felt myself getting sick, but I thought…”
 
Margaret’s eyes filled with tears. “Oh Luke…Why didn’t you tell me?” Lucas slowly lifted his head from the pillow and studied her. The room spun, but he closed his eyes to try and focus. When he opened his eyes, they held question. “Jason told me you’ve still been feeling…”
 
The door opened and Jason stepped in. “Well, it seems my patient is recovering nicely.” Jason smiled down at Lucas as he stepped closer to the bed and put a hand on Lucas’ forehead.”
 
“Doc!” Lucas cried out as he swiped Jason’s hand away. “I’m fine.”
 
Jason sat down in the chair and looked from Margaret to Lucas. “Jason…why?” Margaret finally asked the question she’d been wondering since Lucas had fallen ill. “Why did it come back?”
 
“I don’t know, Margaret.” He held up his hand to stop her next question. “And before you ask, no I can’t tell you it’ll never happen again. Swamp fever…Ague…Malaria…Whatever you want to call it has been known to live inside a man for many, many years. Nobody knows what causes it exactly. If we knew, maybe we could prevent it. Many people die from it. Your husband has returned from the grave twice now.”
 
“Returned from the grave?” Lucas questioned as he rubbed his eyes to make the room stop spinning.
 
Jason nodded. “Luke, you were barely alive yesterday. We thought you were…Well, it was bad.”
 
“How many years?” Margaret questioned then. Her voice held tears and fright. She stood from the chair and looked down at Jason. Her fists balled as she was finally able to let out her frustration. “Jason, how many more times must I watch him suffer like this? How many more years will he…”
 
“Margaret!” Lucas warned in a strong, stern voice.
 
“No, Luke! I’m so tired! I almost LOST you, Luke! What about next time? Or the time after next? Can you guarantee me that Lucas will live through those experiences?”
 
Jason sighed as he rubbed his hands together. He closed his eyes. “No Margaret. I can’t.” Jason stood up. “I may be a doctor, but I’m human, and the medical field is still very limited in fighting such diseases. Something…something probably got inside your husband’s body while he was fighting the war. Many men grew sick and died right away, but it lived dormant in your husband’s body for a long time before it became active. Then it became dormant again. I had hoped, Margaret, that Lucas was one of the lucky one’s who had ridded himself of the monster. He’s had a few bouts with it the past year, and somehow they were mild enough that he was able to hide them from you.”
 
Margaret’s head jerked around toward Lucas. Her arms folded and her eyes narrowed, but she stayed silent.
 
“I told him to warn you. I was afraid the ague would come back, but he swore me to secrecy. I had to do as he asked, Margaret. Now…” Jason sighed. “I’m sorry I ever made that promise. I’ll get it from you, and I’ve already gotten it from my wife. I understand your anger, honey, and I promise you that there are scientists working, right now, to find a cause for the disease. They want an answer as much as you do.”
 
Margaret stayed silent, but lifted her head to the ceiling. “Well, I sent Emily home yesterday. I really should get back home myself.” Without another word, Jason left the room, closing the door behind him.
 
Nothing was said for a long time. Lucas worked at propping himself up while Margaret slowly moved her head in position to look at him. She wasn’t sure what she wanted to do…Take him in her arms and cover him in kisses, or beat him over the head for hiding this from her. Instead, she turned on her heels and walked toward the door. She paused with her hand on the door knob and spoke in a very calm, controlled voice. “I’ll…bring you in some soup. You’ll stay in that bed until I say you can get up.”
 
“Margaret…”
 
“I can’t talk to you right now, Luke. I have to think about this…long…and hard.”
 
Lucas watched her walk out the door. He knew he had again messed up royally and would have to do a lot of apologizing and sweet talking to get back into her good graces.
 
***
Jennifer smiled as she came out of the bedroom. “He ate all of his soup and is yelling for something that will fill him up.”
 
Margaret smiled as she washed the pan. “I wish he had told me.”
 
“He was trying to protect you, Margaret. His illness a year ago affected you so badly. He didn’t want to put you through that again.”
 
The pan dropped in the sink. Suds splashed all over her shirt, but she paid them no mind as she whirled to stare at her mother. “Put me through that?” Margaret pushed some hair out of her face in frustration. “Mother, the shock of him suddenly growing ill like that…not even knowing or understanding what was wrong! That was almost more than I could take! If I had been warned…If I had known he was still suffering…”
 
“He loves you, Margaret,” Jennifer said as she laid a hand on her daughter’s arm. “He loves you so much. He was probably hoping it would never come back like that…that he’d only suffer mildly from it. That…”
 
“Hey, Margaret get in here!” Lucas’ voice sounded angry as he called her from the bedroom.
 
“What now?” Margaret threw down the dish towel and hurried toward the bedroom. She threw open the door. “Lucas McCain, what…” She stopped when she realized he was up on his knees in the bed staring out the window. “Lucas, you get back in that bed immediately!” She demanded in a no-nonsense voice.
 
“I want to know what THOSE men are doing out there!” Lucas demanded as she shoved him back down into bed.
 
“Those ‘men,’ as you call them are your brothers, Luke. I believe it’s called planting.”
 
“I’ll be damned if they…” Lucas started angrily.
 
“I asked them to!” Margaret lifted her head and stuck out her chin. “You will not be doing any seeding this spring, and that’s final!”
 
“Now, you wait just a cotton picking minute!” Lucas shouted. “If there’s work to be done on my ranch, I’ll be the one to do it! I don’t need…”
 
“Well…” Margaret placed a hand on her hip as she flipped his bed covers back. “If you have so much bite that you can yell at me like that, you are well enough to sit in that chair while I change your bed coverings and then you’ll take a bath.”
 
“I’ll WHAT???”
 
“And let me tell you another thing, Lucas McCain…” Margaret wagged her finger at her husband. “This is OUR ranch, and I gave the orders for the well and pump to be finished as well as all the spring chores to be done. I’m also ordering that YOU will NOT be doing any work until I’m SURE you are better!”
 
“Now wait a minute!” Lucas grunted as Margaret dragged him to the chair and shoved him down into it. “I’m the man of the house and I make the rules here!”
 
“Oh HO!” Margaret straightened and glared straight at her husband. Some of the anger left her face and her eyes clouded with hurt and regret. Her voice was quiet when she spoke. “You’ve never said that before.”
 
Hearing the hurt in her voice was enough to take the fight out of Lucas. He sobered and looked down at the floor as if the answer to taking his words back was there. Margaret turned from him and quietly worked on stripping the soiled bed sheets. She straightened with her bundle and started to leave the room, but Lucas caught her arm. Margaret turned and looked at him and that’s when he saw her tears. “Talk?” Margaret nodded as she threw the bundle on the floor and sat down on the edge of the bed. Lucas stood out of his chair a bit and scooted the chair up closer to her. He took her hands in his own and raised his eyebrows with a regretful sigh. “I’m sorry. I had no right to…”
 
“I should have consulted…” Margaret started.
 
“…say what I did. You know I don’t…”
 
“No, Luke…It’s okay…I know your right…”
 
“I love you. I never want to hurt you. I just hate seeing…”
 
“I love you too, Luke.”
 
They smiled as their talking stopped. Margaret reached up and put a hand to his cheek. “Oh Luke…” Her eyes filled with tears. “Luke…I was just so…so afraid!” Margaret put her face in her hands and began weeping.
 
Lucas scooted from the chair and dropped to his knees in front of her. He tenderly wrapped his arms around her and coaxed her head to his shoulder. He felt her shaking against him as he began smoothing her hair. Her tears wet his bare shoulder. “Don’t cry, my sweet,” Lucas whispered softly. “Oh please don’t cry…I’m sorry I hurt you. I’m sorry I said those things…” Lucas felt his own eyes fill with tears as he realized just how deeply his words had hurt her.
 
Margaret couldn’t speak as he whispered soothing words to her and softly brushed her hair with his hand. In time, she was spent and lifted her head from his shoulders. She sniffed and shook her head. “I’m not crying because of what you said, Luke. I’m crying because…because…you almost DIED!”
 
“But I didn’t, and I’m here,” Lucas said softly as he looked into her eyes and continued brushing her hair with his hand. “I made it through.”
 
“I was just so afraid, Luke. I was TERRIFIED! I’ve never been so scared in my life! Even when we got that letter from the army that you had died…this time it was different. I was right here beside you when Jason told me you were close to death. I could see death in your eyes…in your face…”
 
“Don’t, Margaret…” Lucas’ hand paused on her hair. His eyes grew stern as he looked into her eyes. “Don’t.” His eyes softened then. “I’m right here. I’m going to be okay.”
 
Margaret reached out and stroked his stubby cheek with her hand. She smiled softly at him. “And I want to keep you here…very close to me for some time. Jason may give you a clean bill of health, but is there really any reason for you to rush right out and get started again? Can’t I hold you close for awhile, Luke? Please?”
 
The pleading wasn’t only in her shaky voice, but it was in her eyes. Lucas shifted his eyes toward the window where he could hear men planting. He could hear the noise of pipes going into the ground for the pump. Then he heard something else. He heard a faint beating sound. He moved his eyes back to his wife’s face and saw the agony in her features. He realized what the beating was. It was her heart.
 
“Alright.” Right away, Margaret’s features relaxed. A small smile played on her mouth. “But you’ll have to stay mighty close to me. And as soon as I get my strength back, I want to thank you properly for saving my life.” Margaret hugged him as tears of joy ran down her face. “Now…how about that bath you promised me?” Margaret nodded as she straightened from him and wiped her eyes. She stood, gathered up the bundle of laundry, and hurried from the room.
 
The Margaret Years — Home is Where the Love Is

These stories are based on the TV series The Rifleman
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