The Rifleman
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Fan Fiction

The Margaret Years...

Chapter 27 - The Sound of Children
Written by Michelle Palmer
 
Six months earlier
 
Jebb Simpson paced the floor in his cabin as he listened to the cries coming from the bedroom. "Is Mama gonna be okay, Papa?" Seven year old Paul’s eyes were wet with tears as he stared hopefully into his father’s worried eyes.
 
"I’m sure…" Jebb patted his son’s head. "I’m sure she’ll be fine.
 
A blood-curling scream sounded from the bedroom, then it was quiet…so deathly quiet. Jebb hurried to the door of the room and put his hand on the door knob, but then he smiled when he heard the baby cry. "You hear that, son?" Jebb laughed. "Everything's gonna be just fine!"
 
The door opened. Emily Livingston stepped into the room holding a bundle. "It’s a little girl." She walked up to Jebb and forced a smile on her tired face. "Congratulations, Pa."
 
Jebb reached out for the bundle and cuddled her close. "I’m sure May is very happy," he mumbled. He studied his daughter’s face, and looked up when he heard Jason step into the room. Jason stood beside his very pregnant wife. That’s when Jebb noticed that Emily wasn’t simply tired. She was sorrowful. Emily placed a hand to her rounded belly and looked sadly into her husband’s face. Jason held sorrow on his face. "What’s wrong?"
 
"Jebb…" Jason’s Adam’s Apple bobbed up and down. "Maybe we should sit down."
 
Jebb looked back at Emily, then toward his son. He flung the bundle in his arms toward Emily, who was forced to take the new baby. "Jason, stop him!" Emily cried out. But Jebb shoved Jason aside, causing the doctor to fall hard on his backside. Jebb rushed to the closed door and flung it open.
 
The Livingston’s heard the sorrowful moan escape the man’s lips when he saw his wife covered with a sheet.
 
Jason and Emily Livingston stayed for as long as they could, offering comfort. The man didn’t say a word for a long time. When the evening was finally growing late, Jebb came out of the bedroom and went to stare at the flames in the fireplace. Jason stepped up behind the newly widowed father, prepared to give him comfort. When Jebb finally spoke, his voice was shaky and wet with tears. "Her sister…Joe Blevins…lives in Oklahoma City. She’ll raise the girl."
 
"Mr. Simpson!" Emily protested. Jason put a hand on her arm and shook his head.
 
"The boy will stay here with me. He’ll do good on the farm. I ain’t got no use for a girl."
 
Emily’s eyes filled with tears as she looked down at the baby. "GO ON NOW! GET OUT OF HERE!" Jebb screamed these words.
 
"Alright, Jebb. We’ll go." Jason knew the man was hurting. "We’ll keep the baby for a few days…find a wet nurse for her…just in case you change your mind."
 
"I won’t!" Jebb stared into the fire. "I never want to see that girl again, ya hear?"
 
It wasn’t long after the Livingston’s had left with the baby that Jebb picked up his hat and walked out the door, leaving Paul there by himself. Neighbors had come by the next day to find his mother’s still lying in the bed. They took her and buried her. Paul watched from a distance, wondering where his father was. The neighbors were just about to take him home with them when Jebb Simpson came stumbling in. He ordered everyone out of there.
 
The days turned into weeks. Paul cried for the loss of his mother, but Jebb smacked him and told him there’d be no crying. Jebb was usually drunk by nine in the morning and never stopped drinking. He didn’t bother feeding the boy or even paying him any mind, except to order him to bring in more wood for the fire.
 
Three months later, things hadn’t improved. The boy knew his sister was long gone. When his father was passed out, he just went and sat at the grave of his mother and stared at the dirt that covered her grave. The snows and the cold slowly went away, but his mother continued to sleep. Spring slowly made its way onto the prairie.
 
The distant sound of church bells sounded. Jebb slowly stood from the grave one morning in early February. He looked down at his clothes. Only four months ago they had been neatly pressed and washed by his mother’s loving hands. But now they were soiled with whatever food he could find to eat. His clothe reeked from weeks of wearing them. His hair was filthy; hadn’t been washed in weeks. Yet he felt a sudden desire to be near the church.
 
Paul’s feet her bare, but he didn’t mind. He ran the short distance to the church and stood on the edge of the yard watching the families make their way into the church. He remembered going there nearly every Sunday with his Ma. He remembered whispering to the children after church. Something deep inside him longed for that again, yet he couldn’t…he was so scared and confused.
 
"Paul?" A lady stepped up to him. He remembered her. He often saw her walking with a tall man who carried a strange-looking rifle. "Would you like to come inside?"
 
Paul cowered away and shook his head. He was terrified and didn’t want anybody to bother him. "Paul…it’s okay. I’m sorry about your Mother. How’s your Pa?" Paul continued to shake his head, his eyes wide with fear.
 
"Margart?" The big man with the rifle walked up beside her, except he wasn’t carrying his rifle now. "Oh, hello Paul! Would you like to come inside?" Paul walked backwards and pressed himself up against a tree. The big man scared him now. "It’s okay. The preacher’s so loud…you can hear him all the way out here, I’m sure." The big man took the woman’s arm and walked her inside.
 
The next Sunday, Charlie McCain walked up to Paul. "Haven’t seen ya in school. Ya been ditchin’?" Charlie asked. He sniffed the air. "What’s that smell? Ya smell that?" Paul stared at Charlie. "What’s wrong with you, Simpson? Cat got your tongue?" Charlie gave Paul a confused look. A tall man with a thick beard called to him. Charlie walked backwards, looking Paul up and down. Then he turned and hurried up to the man who had called him.
 
The next two Sundays, different people tried to get him inside, but he wouldn’t budge. He was scared. 
 
During his times at the edge of the churchyard, he noticed a red-headed lady who reminded him a lot of his mother. She even wore her shirts out of her skirts like his Ma did when she had that baby inside her. She even put a hand on her belly. Sunday after Sunday he watched this lady until one Sunday she didn’t show up. He saw the man with the beard – Charlie’s father – run up to the church and soon leave with the nice lady and the man with the rifle. The next Sunday, They were back, but not the lady with the red hair.
 
Then one Sunday, Charlie got close to him again. Paul spoke rather quietly. "That woman with the red hair…you ken to her?"
 
"Aunt Em?"
 
"Don’t reckon I heard her name."
 
"She was s’posed ta have a baby."
 
"S’posed to?" Paul questioned.
 
"Papa sayed he died."
 
"Died? How come?"
 
"Happened a’for he was borned. Can’t know why." Charlie looked Paul up and down. "I heard your Mama died too." Paul’s eyes filled with tears. "Ya missin’ her?"
 
"I reckon," Paul said quietly.
 
"I reckon I’d miss my Mama a powerful lot if she died. " Charlie drew in the dirt with his shoe. "I wuz listenin’ at the wood pile when Papa and Mama wuz talkin’. Papa sayed yer Papa sent a baby away."
 
Paul turned from Charlie then. He didn’t want his peer to see him cry. "Mama had a sister…then she died." Paul ran away to cry. He didn’t want to talk about it anymore. It hurt to think about it.
 
But the very next Sunday, he was back. He heard the commotion coming from inside the church. He watched the families as they stomped away angry. He saw his friend Charlie lined up with the other children being yelled at by the man with the beard. He saw the man with the rifle laugh before he left. Then he watched as all five children were whipped by the man with the beard and sent to marching home as they bawled.
 
That last Sunday, the wife of the man with the rifle came up to Paul and once again invited him to come in. Paul put a hand to his mouth and shook his head before he turned and ran away.
 
But he already knew he’d be back the next Sunday.
 
***
Present day
 
Em McCain didn’t mean to allow the heavy sigh to escape her throat, but it did. Jeremiah paused in tasting his coffee and looked up at her as she quickly wiped out the pan she had just emptied. Without saying a word, Jeremiah sat down his cup and walked up behind her. He wrapped his arms around her from behind and kissed the top of her head. "You’re thinking about it again."
 
Em felt ashamed. She knew she needed to shake herself from dwelling on the past. She gave a slight nod as she leaned back against her husband and put her hands on his arms folded around her. "Please don’t be upset with me, Jeremiah. I’m trying."
 
Jeremiah put his hands on her shoulders and turned her to face him. "I’m not upset with you. I’m worried." He searched her eyes and saw the sadness there. "I see you smile, but not as often…or sincere…as you did before. I watch you watching the other children. You put on a good front, but I’m not fooled. Neither is anybody else."
 
Em forced her eyes off of her husband’s and went to wash Abby’s face. "I can’t explain it, Honey. I’m just so…"
 
"Lonely?" Jeremiah finished for her. He bent down beside her and smiled at their daughter. "And you feel guilty because you have me and Abby, and that should be enough?" Em nodded again. "But it’s not enough. Perhaps…" Jeremiah stopped.
 
Em’s mind flashed back to the day before at the Gibbs Ranch. She had listened to all Margaret had to say about starting a Sunday School. Later, Margaret had approached her and asked her if she could help with the children. "I notice how down you are. You’re so lonely, and I can’t imagine how it must feel. But honey…if you just take you mind off the baby and…"
 
"You think my being around children Sunday after Sunday would help?" Em had felt the hot tears fill her eyes. She had been angry that Margaret would even suggest such a thing. Why, she hadn’t even returned to church yet! "I can’t…I just can’t!"
 
"At least pray about this," Margaret had suggested then as Em quickly walked away from her. "Maybe God’s bringing you to this moment."
 
Em looked up into her husband’s eyes now. She knew without asking that he was thinking on that conversation from yesterday. Sunday night as they lay in bed, Jeremiah had even questioned her. "Have you prayed about Margaret’s suggestion?"
 
Em had lay staring at the wall in the darkness. Her answer was barely heard by Jeremiah, who had sighed and pulled her into a tight embrace. "She needs your support, Em. You know that."
 
Em looked up into her husband’s eyes again. Abby, realizing her parents weren’t giving her attention ran off to play with her dolls. Jeremiah’s words just now had echoed those in the darkness the night before. She knew their marriage was suffering. She knew she needed to find some way to move on. Most days, she could smile a few times throughout the day, but she still wasn’t well. She still remembered how blue and cold their son had looked as Jeremiah screamed at her that their son was dead.
 
Em pressed a hand to her forehead as if to push down the memories of that dreadful day. "I know." Em bit her lip as it started to shake. Jeremiah put a hand on her shoulder. "I miss you, Em." It was a mere whisper spoken. Em nodded her head, knowing Jeremiah longed for the intimacy that hadn’t come since their son had been born. Though the days of love-making were still physically impossible, she knew Jeremiah missed her hugs, kisses, and just being held. She longed for those things herself, but she couldn’t do it…not now. But she also realized that she needed to try and do something to heal her heart.
 
She wondered if she’d ever want to make love to her husband again. That thought scared her, but the thought of risking putting herself through that sort of pain ever again made her almost want to flee far away.
 
"I’ll go to the grave…and pray." Em stood and hurried from the house. Jeremiah knew that was her place when she was feeling lonely. She was able to cry and talk to God. When she returned, she would often feel more at peace.
 
Em hurried to the grave and cried out to God. Thirty minutes later, she stood and wiped her eyes. Then she turned and looked at Jeremiah who was looking very concerned as he held Abby tight in his arms.
 
Jeremiah’s features relaxed when she gave him a small smile. "If you’ll hitch up the team, I’ll go to Margaret. She said she and Luke would visit Reverend Gathers at noon."
 
***
Margaret toyed with her tea cup as she sat across from Ann at Ann’s dining room table. They had been conversing for the last thirty minutes – mostly small talk. Ann studied her best friend closely, and then sat down her tea cup. "Okay Margaret, out with it."
 
Margaret smiled for a moment before sobering. "I don’t want to hurt you more than you’re already hurting."
 
"Hurt me?"
 
"I’ve a favor to ask you…of course, you’ll have to have Hal’s permission, but…" Margaret paused, allowing the rest of her words to go unspoken.
 
"What’s the favor?"
 
Margaret began speaking, cautiously at first. But as she went further into her story, she became more excited.  Ann listened calmly and without much expression showing on her face. But by the time Margaret was finished, Ann was shaking her head in surprise. "A Sunday School? Oh Margaret, it sounds…wonderful!"
 
"Really?"
 
"Of course!" Ann laughed as she jumped up and hurried from the room. She returned with a letter. "Claire wrote me the other day. Has she written you?"
 
"Not in about a month. I figure she’s been busy."
 
"Well, listen to this…" Ann skimmed through the letter. "Oh, here it is…’The most amazing thing has happened in our small church, Ann. We’ve started a Sunday School. Some of the mothers grew quite tired of their children misbehaving in church and suggested that the children attend their own class where they could learn about Jesus on a more simplistic level. Ann, these children BEG to go to church now! I’m so very excited to see the excitement dance in their eyes as they are dismissed for Sunday School. There are afternoons, believe it or not, after the children are dismissed where they run to their parents and tell them the whole story! It’s truly a blessing.
 
"’Ann, I know the trouble you’ve had. I get a bit lonesome myself, remaining unmarried and all. Teaching Sunday School has helped me so much. I know your love for children and wonder if maybe…perhaps…you should see about starting a Sunday School at the community church there in Enid…’
 
Ann folded the letter and looked up at Margaret. "And now you are telling me about your idea of starting a Sunday School. When I first read this letter, Margaret, I cried. I couldn’t believe our friend would suggest such things when my heart’s aching…when my arms are aching so badly to hold a baby of my own. I wept in Hal’s arms that night. I was angry and told him I felt like I’d just been slapped…to be around children, teaching them about God’s love when my womb stays empty…"
 
Margaret reached out and clasped her friend’s hand. "Oh Ann…I’m so sorry for you. Three miscarriages and now Jason’s saying you shouldn’t…" Margaret shook her head. "I can’t imagine the pain you are feeling." Ann looked up at Margaret. "So did you and Hal decide…"
 
Ann nodded. "We aren’t going to try anymore. Hal told me he’d rather have me happy and moving on then watch me suffer so much. We’ve decided we’ll make every effort to make sure I don’t get pregnant again."
 
"I’m so sorry!" Margaret cried. "I prayed things would change for you."
 
"Well…" Ann stood and went to refill their tea cups. "God has his reasons. Maybe this house will never hear the sound of children. Maybe my heart yearns to teach them about Jesus."
 
"So you’ll go with us then?"
 
Ann nodded. "Hal’s even tried to encourage me to talk with you about it. Oh Margaret, what if I…"
 
Margaret shook her head. "I think it’s just what you and Em need."
 
***
 
"How will they manage that?" Lucas questioned after Margaret announced to him later that morning that Ann and Hal would make every effort to avoid future pregnancies. "I mean…"
 
Margaret chuckled as she watched her husband’s cheeks redden. "I suppose the same way that’s mentioned in the Bible, Luke." She laughed when his face turned into confusion. "Attended church your whole life. It’s in Genesis, and that’s all I’m going to tell you!" She quickly changed the subject before they both found themselves discussing a topic they didn’t wish to delve into. "Anyways, I was hoping to convince Em and Jeremiah to come with us, but I don’t suppose…"
 
A knock sounded on the door. Jeremiah opened it and stepped inside with Em beside him. Em’s face held nervousness and fear, but she was there. Margaret turned and looked up at her husband who only smiled down at her. "Em…" Margaret stepped forward and grasped the grieving mother’s hands. "Are you sure? I didn’t mean to hurt you."
 
Em smiled a nervous smile. "I told Jeremiah…and God…that I would give it a try. Oh Margaret, I love children…grew up in a house full of children, and my heart grieves to hear the sound of children all around me. Maybe…perhaps…it would do my heart good to hear their laughter on Sunday mornings. And I was thinking that it wouldn’t just have to be on Sunday mornings. I’m sure some of them need so much love and…"
 
"Em, I think it’s all wonderful!" Margaret’s heart swelled with pride and excitement. "Reverend Gathers will too. Oh, he’ll have to be!"
 
The three couples went to town in Lucas’ wagon. The women chatted nervously as they rode in the back. Lucas and Hal sat on the seat while Jeremiah sat beside his wife holding her hand. Ann sat on the other side of Em. They held hands and spoke softly together. Margaret watched with a keen sense of respect, knowing the two women had a lot in common.
 
It wasn’t until they were all sitting in the dining room of the local hotel with empty lunch plates in front of them that Margaret dared to breathe a word to the Reverend. She watched as Reverend Gathers dropped his dessert fork on his plate and wiped his mouth. "Well Mrs. McCain," Reverend Gather’s eyes glowed warmly as their corners crinkled in amusement. "What you all have to tell me must be mighty important. You haven’t said a word since we met for lunch.
 
Margaret lifted her eyebrows toward Lucas and smiled when he nodded his head for her to begin. "I’ve not come to tell you something, Reverend. We’ve all come to make a request."
 
"A request?" Reverend Gathers leaned back in his chair, obviously intrigued.
 
"Yes sir." Margaret licked her lips and leaned forward in her chair. "You see…I’m sure you’ve noticed the children’s…behavior…recently and…" Her face burned hot when Reverend Gather’s eyes laughed at her. Of course he had noticed it, Margaret McCain! Margaret shook her head and forced her voice to remain even. "What I mean is…" Margaret laughed nervously. "I reckon I am a bit nervous."
 
"Margaret…" Reverend Gathers rested a hand on top of hers and smiled sincerely into her eyes. "Whatever it is, I’ll listen."
 
"Very well." Margaret felt Lucas’ hand slip into the one in her lap. He gave her a squeeze, encouraging her to take her time. "Have you ever heard of…Sunday School?"
 
"Oh." Reverend Gathers lifted the cup to his lips and took a drink. "So that’s what this is about." He didn’t speak again as he took another long drink of coffee. Margaret’s eyes focused on Lucas, but they didn’t reveal anything to her. She looked at Ann and Em, both nervous and wondering what the Reverend’s reaction would be.
 
"Yes sir. You see…I believe that the children should be taught on their own level. They’ll be expected to behave the same way in Sunday School as in church, and we’ll patiently teach them those manners as well. But they need to hear those Bible stories that we grew up learning. I wonder how many of them have ever heard the story of Zacharias in the tree or Baalam, the talking donkey. How many of them can quote the Ten Commandments or understand the Parables Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount. How many children know of God’s miracles when he put the rainbow in the sky for the first time, or when he parted the Red Sea for Moses and his people to pass? Oh, they may know David killed a giant with a sling shot, but do they really understand WHY it’s so important?
 
"Now, I’m not saying, Reverend, that you don’t teach these things in your sermons. You do, and I always get so much from them. But sometimes the true meanings of the Bible stories are buried deep in other things that mean little to the children." Margaret saw a look of impatience suddenly cross his face, so quickly, she clarified. "Your sermons ARE wonderful, but I’m sure you’ve seen the blank looks cross the children’s faces!"
 
Margaret sighed before plunging on. "Reverend, I know that growing up our folks taught us all these stories and made sure we understand all there was to know. But there are so many children who don’t get those teachings from home. Perhaps their folks are too busy. Why, I know four children in church who simply don’t have a father, and their mothers are doing their best just to keep them schooled. And several children who do have fathers don’t understand because their father’s don’t come to church with them. They are lucky that these men allow the wives and children to come!
 
"Then there are the children who come by themselves. They walk all that way and misbehave in church because they don’t know how to properly sit still and listen. They hunger for God’s Word, but they can’t understand the words when you speak to adults. I understand, Reverend, that for many, many years the sermon would be explained in the homes later so the children could understand it. And I know that our family – the Gibbs and McCain’s – still do so. But now days…well, let’s face it…they aren’t being taught the way they used to be."
 
Margaret was exhausted from her rapid speech. She felt every eye on her as she lifted her coffee cup to her lips, her hand shaking, and took a sip. Reverend Gathers leaned back in his chair and scratched his chin as he thought. His eyes narrowed at her as his thinking increased. It seemed hours before the Reverend uttered a word, but it was only moments. Finally, he said, "Mr. McCain…That’s quite a woman you’ve got there."
 
Margaret turned and looked at Lucas who put a protective arm around her shoulders. "I like her, I guess," Lucas said as he smiled into her eyes.
 
"I think she’s wonderful," Ann said; and Em quickly agreed with her.
 
"Hm….How would this…Sunday School work?"
 
Margaret gasped. She threw her hands to her mouth and felt her eyes fill with tears. "However you want it to, Reverend. Anything…Absolutely anything would be better than what we have now!"
 
"Luke…" Reverend Gathers chuckled. "If your wife ever thinks of going into Politics, I’d say she has a pretty good chance of winning."
 
"I won’t allow that," Lucas declared.
 
"Luke!" Margaret rolled her eyes and looked back at the Reverend who chuckled.
 
"The truth is, Margaret, I have heard of Sunday School. I have thought on it, especially lately, and up to this point I’ve told myself it just won’t work. We have so many close-minded people. Even those men who simply ‘allow’ their wives and children to come to church would have a problem with a woman teaching their children religion. That’s why I haven’t broached the subject."
 
"Reverend…" Ann spoke then. She swallowed the tears that threatened to fill her throat. "Sir, as you know, I have miscarried three babies. Each time I lose a baby, it’s harder for my heart to heal. Recently, Dr. Livingston has told me that I should not try for another one. I fought this at first. I want more than anything to be a mother. But Hal and I had a long talk. Recently, we’ve decided that we will abandon the idea of my ever giving birth to a child." Ann wiped a few tears that spilled from her eyes. "But my heart still longs for children. I have this empty space deep in my heart that longs to hear the sound of children. My house is empty, just waiting for children. Hal and I had planned on a big family.
 
"Margaret came to me yesterday telling me about this idea of starting a Sunday School. I was quite surprised, to say the least, because only days before I received a letter from our old school friend…Clare Wheatley, you remember her?" Reverend Gathers nodded. Ann wiped more tears from her face. "Reverend, Clare talked of the same problems happening in her church and said that children now desire to come to church. They want to learn and often go home telling their parents all about what they learned in Sunday School." Ann gave a slight shrug of her shoulder. "I can’t help but to think that God’s telling us something."
 
"Are you saying you want to help Margaret with this Sunday School?"
 
"Yes sir." Ann reached across the table and clasped Margaret’s hand. "I am."
 
Reverend Gathers shifted his eyes from Ann to Em. "And what about you, young lady?"
 
"I…" Em looked to Jeremiah for help. She had seen the emotions Ann’s speech had caused her and wasn’t sure she could get through hers without becoming emotional.
 
"Reverend Gathers, Margaret discussed this issue with the entire Gibbs/McCain family Sunday. The previous Sunday, we were very much against it but we’ve come around to her way of thinking…every one of us. We are willing to give Sunday School a try." Jeremiah squeezed his wife’s hand. "As for Em…Margaret asked Em to help her with Sunday School, and at first Em was angry that she would even mention such a thing. She is still grieving over the loss of our son."
 
Em shot a hand to her mouth and allowed a little sniff to escape. Then she spoke. "Reverend…Jeremiah and I talked yesterday. He asked me to pray about it. He knows how lonely I am…even with my husband and daughter. I love them more than anything, but I too came from a large family and wanted to have several children. That may still happen for me, but until then I too need to hear the sound of children. I finally took my husband’s advice and talked to my Heavenly Father. He gave me a peace…it’s a peace that surpasses all understanding. I know God’s asking me to do this. I want to do this."
 
Em looked at Margaret. "We’ll have to be gentle on my heart…take it slow at first. But I really feel this will help me as I continue to heal."
 
Reverend Gentry nodded. "Very well. I’m willing to give it a try." He looked at the men at the table. "You are willing to stand by your wives through it all? It may be a bit rough. You men okay with that?"
 
Lucas squeezed Margaret’s hand. "I think the women understand. They saw how hard it was to convince us stubborn men they are married to. If at any time it gets ugly, we’ll stop immediately. They all understand that."
 
"And the other women will help as well," Margaret assured the Reverend. "We can do this! Oh, I want to do this so badly!"
 
"Very well." Reverend Gentry said for the second time as he stood to his feet. "I’ll discuss this with my deacons tomorrow. Do you think you could give it a try this coming Sunday?"
 
The women all looked at each other, their mouths open wide. "I…think so…" Margaret’s tone silently questioned the Reverend.
 
Reverend Gathers chuckled. "I have this…desire…to get through one sermon I spend all week preparing for…without being interrupted." Everyone laughed. "I’ll be in touch."
 
***
 
Margaret jumped from the table and hurried to the door, yanking it open and hurrying out onto the porch. After a minute, she slowly walked back inside and closed the door. Lucas lifted an eyebrow at her as he waited for yet another explanation. "I…thought I heard a buggy coming."
 
"Sit down and finish your lunch, Margaret," Lucas suggested gently, but sternly. Margaret took another bite before standing from the chair. Lucas reached out and grabbed her arm. Margaret looked at him and he shifted his eyes toward her seat. "Am I going to have to sit on you to get you to…"
 
"Luke?" Margaret asked hopefully, her heart beating faster. She thought she had heard someone approaching that time, and hoped Luke had to.
 
Lucas wiped his mouth and stood from the table. He went to the window. "It’s the reverend."
 
Margaret hurried to the small kitchen and dipped a bowl of soup. As the door opened, Lucas motioned for him to sit down. Margaret was filling his cup as Reverend thanked Lucas for the offer of lunch. "My wife’s been waiting for you all day, Reverend," Lucas said as he sat down and smiled at Margaret. "I was threatening to sit on her if…"
 
"Luke!" Margaret cut him off and glanced toward the reverend. She cleared her throat and calmly sipped her coffee. But inside, she was anything but calm. She felt she would burst if he didn’t give them the news soon.
 
"I’m glad you’re here, Reverend," Lucas said as he again glanced at Margaret. A playful twinkle was in his eye and a grin played around his lips as he added, "You best share your news. I think Margaret’s about to burst like a bubble."
 
"Luke!" This time, Margaret’s voice held a stronger warning for him to be respectful around the man of God. Lucas chuckled and reached for her hand, but Margaret quickly tucked them in her lap.
 
"Well…" Reverend started as he took a bite. "Margaret, now this is good potato soup!"
 
"My wife can make a different soup every day of the month. Every time I come in for lunch, it seems there’s yet another kind of soup. Why…"
 
"Luke." This time it was the Reverend who held up his hand. "I think she’s been tormented enough."  He sat down his spoon and turned to look at Margaret. "It took some doing, but I convinced the deacons to let us have a trial run. It helped having Abe as a deacon."
 
"So we can do it?" Margaret asked, not realizing her face had turned aglow with excitement and her bright eyes had grown wide as saucers. She leaned forward and stared straight at the reverend, standing half-way out of her chair. Reverend Gathers looked at Lucas who merely cleared his throat. Margaret, suddenly realizing she looked like a child at Christmas, blushed and sat down, folding her hands back into her lap. This time, Lucas did reach under the table and clasp her hands in his. His eyes crinkled as he chuckled. "I mean…Thank you, Reverend. The women and I will do our best to teach the children about the Bible."
 
"Now, keep in mind, Margaret, that this is a trial. I’ll announce it as I make my rounds to all our members this week. Some will fight this. But I’ll do my best."
 
Lucas and Margaret stood as the Reverend started to leave. He shook Lucas’ hand as he thanked Margaret for the delicious potato soup. Then they walked him to the door. Margaret felt her eyes filling with tears, but promised herself that she would not cry in the presence of the Reverend. Lucas opened the door. "Reverend…" The words caught in her throat as the Reverend looked into her eyes. She swallowed and nodded her head. "Thank you. You don’t know what this…" Again, she had to stop speaking. She was overcome with emotion.
 
Lucas rested his hands on her shoulders as at they stood together on the porch and watched the reverend leave. After the buggy was out of sight, Lucas squeezed her shoulder. He heard her sniff. "Come here, Sweetheart." That’s the only invitation she needed. She turned as his arms went around her. She buried her face into his chest and wept tears of joy.
 
In time, she lifted from him and thanked him for his support. Lucas stroked her cheeks softly as he nodded his head. "I’ll clean the kitchen when I get back, Luke." Margaret started to step off the porch, but Lucas still had a hold of her hand and tugged on her, pulling her back into his embrace.
 
"Where are you going?"
 
"To tell Ann. Then we must go see Em and give her the good news"
 
Lucas chuckled as he watched her run across the street.
 
***
Em stood and looked out the window. "Margaret…I don’t know if I can. I mean…"
 
Margaret and Ann looked at each other. They understood that Em’s heart was still very tender. Ann stood up and walked up behind her friend. "It’s painful. I cannot imagine what it’s like, Em, carrying a baby for nine months, then giving birth to a baby you’ll never be able to watch grow. I’ve lost three babies earlier on before I could feel them move inside me and…" Ann gently turned Em around "I tell you what…this first Sunday, all three of us will be out there. We’ll all be there to support you and help you. Your own daughter will be there. If you feel uncomfortable with it at any time…you go on inside with your husband."
 
Em looked toward Margaret who gave her a soft smile and nodded. "Alright…Let’s do it!"
 
To say they were busy that week was putting I lightly. The three women drove their husbands crazy with questions. They decided to talk to the children about the Ten Commandments. Each week, they’d take a commandment and explain it to the children. By the end of the ten weeks, they hoped the children could stand in front of church and recite every one of them to the congregation.
 
By Friday, Lucas was just about to run out of the house screaming with his hands over his ears. He prayed nothing would happen to delay the start of Children’s Church. Lucas was just about to slip out to go out to the barn when Margaret stopped him with yet another question. "You suppose Paul Simpson will be there Sunday? Oh Luke…he’s been through so much lately. I would hate to…I mean…with Sunday School being outside weather permitting…You think that maybe, just maybe, we could convince him to join us?" Margaret straightened up from scrubbing the kitchen floor. A look of thought entered her features. "Of course…I’m surprised his father even lets him come. He’s been against God ever since his wife…"
 
"He probably doesn’t even know the boy’s gone, Margaret," Lucas answered as he picked up his rifle. Margaret looked at him puzzled, then recognition entered her features. She knew exactly what he was saying. Everyone knew that Mr. Simpson spent almost every night at the saloon in town, leaving his six year old boy at home alone. Margaret had declared someone ought to do something about it, but everyone kept hoping that Jed Simpson would change.
 
Margaret shook her head, then went onto another tangent, wondering if the lesson they had prepared would be good enough for the first Sunday. They had to teach the children in a way that made them hungry for more.
 
Lucas just smiled and nodded his head, knowing any look of impatience would send her over the edge. He was happy when he was finally able to escape the house.
 
Saturday morning, Jeremiah delivered Em to Margaret. Ann came from across the street, and together the three women worked on the lesson. They were so excited. Em went to lay Abby down for her nap when Lucas came in and grabbed some stuff from the kitchen. "Luke?" Margaret questioned as he kissed her and started out the door.
 
"We’re going fishing," Lucas answered her unasked question. "And we’ll be back with supper."
 
Margaret watched the door close. Then she turned back to Ann. "I’ve a feeling they’re running away from us."
 
Giggling erupted from behind them. Both Ann and Margaret turned to see Em leaning against the closed bedroom door with her arms folded across her chest. "Do you blame them?" Neither woman could answer. They were both overwhelmed by the sound of Em’s laughter.
 
***
The boy sat on the bed, he knees drawn up to his chest as he rocked back and forth. He couldn’t remember what she looked like anymore. He couldn’t remember her smile, and that scared him. He longed to be held, kissed, hugged by his father. He longed to hear his Pa say "I love you." He longed for somebody…anybody…to tell him it would be okay.
 
Unbeknownst to his father, the neighbor lady came by and delivered him left-overs from her evening meal. Sometimes there wasn’t much left, but sometimes there was plenty. On days there were plenty, the boy would hide the food to save for lunch the next day. Other days, he would have to go without.
 
Tonight, the only thing he received was a chicken leg and a few green beans. He ate them as a tear slid down his cheek. On Sundays he didn’t get any food. The neighbor lady and her husband would always go elsewhere for their supper. It was on those days the hunger pains would be the worst.
 
Nothing of his mother was left now. Everything that had belonged to her had been burned soon after her death. He’d screamed, begging his Pa not to do it; but his father had been drunk and merely smacked the boy hard. Then Paul watched the memories burn. Her clothes, pictures, memories, letters…everything that had been hers was either burned or buried.
 
Paul felt tears again fill his eyes as he started rocking back and forth on the bed. Back and forth…back and forth…His body started shaking with sobs as he huddled in the corner of the bed and waited for sleep to come.
 
A little bit of hope filled his heart. Tomorrow was Sunday. Tomorrow he’d go and stand at the edge of the churchyard, watching everyone walk into the church. Maybe that lady would be there…The lady who lost her baby. Ever since Charlie had told Paul about it, he longed to see her. Somehow, she reminded him of his mother. Tears streamed down the boy’s cheeks now. His mother had taught him to pray. While he lowered his head to the bed, Paul’s lips moved in silence. "Our Father who Art in Heaven…"
 
***
 
There it was again!
 
Lucas groaned as he allowed sleep to slowly lift from him. He turned on his side and lifted his arm to put around Margaret, but Margaret wasn’t there. Another clang sounded. "Ohhhhh…" Lucas threw the covers back and stood up from the bed. He didn’t even bother with his pants as he opened the door to their bedroom. The light from the table nearly blinded him as he stepped through the doorway. He saw Margaret bent down, rummaging through the cabinets.
 
"Margaret."
 
Margaret jumped at the sound of his voice and whirled around. "Luke!" She stood looking guilty as Lucas folded his arms and cocked his head to one side. "I’m sorry."
 
"Sorry?" Lucas questioned as his eyebrow popped up.
 
"For waking you. I just couldn’t sleep because…"
 
"…you were too excited," Lucas finished for her. Lucas continued to watch her.
 
"Will you stop looking at me like that?" Margaret turned from his increasingly annoying gaze. "You’re making me nervous."
 
"What are you doing anyway?" Lucas questioned his wife as he walked toward the kitchen. "It must be four o’clock in the morning!"
 
"I’m just looking for that old pan…you know, the one Mama gave me before we moved in here? She put an apple spice cake in it and told me to…"
 
"This one?" Lucas lifted the pan that sat beside her and chuckled. Margaret blushed. Lucas lifted her back to her feet and turned her toward the bedroom. "Come on. You’re going back to bed."
 
"Oh, but I couldn’t sleep!" Margaret argued.
 
"I know." Lucas stopped her and grinned down at her. "Maybe I can find something else to occupy your mind for awhile."
 
***
Church was starting at ten o’clock. It was already nine, and Em was brushing Abby’s hair while Abby cried. Jeremiah stepped into the bedroom and looked down at her. "Honey, we’ve got to go! You aren’t even dressed! You’re hair isn’t done!"
 
Em chewed on her lip as she tied the ribbon in Abby’s hair. "I’ve been thinking…Maybe I should stay home. My head…"
 
"Abby, go on outside and wait for us. Don’t get dirty." Abby looked from her mother to her father. She heard the tension in her Pa’s voice. "Go on now." She obeyed her father.
 
Em didn’t move from her crouched position. Jeremiah crouched down beside her and took the hairbrush from her hands. He gently began brushing her hair. "I know you’re scared, Em. The girls know you are scared. This is a big step for you, but I think it’s time…don’t you think?"
 
Em studied the floor intently as if it held the mysteries to her confused thoughts. She felt Jeremiah’s hand cup her chin and lift it up toward him. "Abby and I love you…very much."
 
Em laid her hand on his hand that rested on her cheek and leaned into it. His eyes showed her just how much he cared for her. "What if I fall apart?"
 
"I’ll be right there to make sure you don’t. I’ll stand outside the church and watch today. I’ll be there." Jeremiah took her hands in his and bowed his head. He prayed to their Heavenly Father to help Em through this experience. Em knew, through listening to the prayer, that her husband wasn’t giving her a choice. When he lifted his head back up to her, he said, "Now…go get dressed and put your hair up. Abby and I will be in the wagon."
 
***
 
Paul Simpson stood on the edge of the church yard. A hand was to his mouth as he watched the children slowly leave the church and walk to the benches at the side of the yard. His soiled shirt and jeans, two sizes too small for him, smelled. His father was usually too busy drinking or beating him to pay much mind to his hygiene. Many Sundays, Paul would be seen lurking on the edge of the church yard, but nobody had been able to get him to come inside yet.
 
As the women stepped out of the church, they saw Paul standing there looking curiously at the children. Em, who had nervously faulted her steps at the bottom, fixed her eyes on Paul. A hand suddenly took a hold of her heart and squeezed. The feeling was so strong, and somehow she felt it was the sad little boy’s doing.
 
Paul’s eyes grew wide. He knew the woman on the bottom step looking at him was the one who had lost her baby. There was something in those eyes that were looking at him…something that made his heart swell inside his chest. Paul couldn’t take his eyes off the woman. The hand at his mouth slowly lowered as she took a step towards him.
 
Em looked at Margaret and Ann who were currently trying to corral the children and get them settled on the bench. Then she slowly walked toward Paul. She ignored the stench that reached her nostrils, and simply wanted to take the little boy in her arms and help him. The little boy’s sad eyes focused on hers. Em stopped in front of him and bent down so she was eye-level with him. She didn’t say a word. There was something about those eyes. Paul studied her intently before cocking his head to one side.
 
For several moments, the little boy and the grieving mother stared at each other. Em tried to find the words to day…We’d love to have you…I’m sorry about your Mother…How’s your father? Can I help you? All these things flashed through her head, but nothing seemed appropriate.  She’d heard that Paul had come every Sunday even after she’d had her baby. She’d heard, also, that nobody had been able to get through to him.
 
It was a great surprise to Em, then, when Paul spoke first. His voice was weak and shaky, but his words were very clear.
 
"Your eyes look sad too."
 
Em stared into the boy’s sad eyes and merely nodded her head. He continued to stare intently at her as she bent down in front of him. It was then that Em saw the redness around the corners of his eyes. Paul looked much older than six, and she saw the healing bruises along his bare arms. "I’m shamed," the boy mumbled then.
 
"Shamed?" Em’s eyes grew intense, filled with question.
 
"Yer shamed a me."
 
"Oh no!" Em’s eyes filled with tears. "I was just thinking…" Emily said quietly. "That had my little boy lived…he may have grown to be handsome like you."
 
"Yer lil’ boy died." Em nodded. "When he was borned?"
 
Em, surprised that this boy was so smart, didn’t hide the surprise in her eyes. She merely nodded as her eyes shone with unshed tears. "Yes," she finally managed to say.
 
"My Mama died."
 
"I know. Six months ago when she gave birth to your sister."
 
Paul nodded. "Pa sent her away. He said I ain’t got no sister."
 
"I’m sorry. That makes you sad."
 
Paul nodded. "Seems unfair…I mean you losing your boy and me my Ma and sister."
 
"It is unfair." Em wanted to burst into tears, but she could tell Paul needed her to be strong right now. "I’m tired of being sad, Paul."
 
"Me too." Paul reached out and touched a tear on Em’s face. "Supposing if I smile, my Mama would be too upset with me?"
 
"No." Em shook her head. "I’m guessing, Paul, that your Ma would be very happy to see you smile." Em hugged the little boy to her then. After pushing him away, she said, "We’re stating a Sunday School today. It would make me happy if you’d join us."
 
Paul looked toward the children who were beginning to sing a song. His eyes lit up at the prospect of being included. "I don’t look too good. Heard tell, I don’t smell good neither."
 
Em smiled at the boy. Then she stood and reached her hand out toward the little boy. "You suppose we can stick together? I’m kinda scared too."
 
"Ya scared?" Paul was very surprised.
 
"Yes. This is my first time back…too."
 
Paul looked at her hand, than lifted his face to her. His eyes filled with tears, happy that finally somebody understood the pain in his heart. Tears filled his eyes and streamed down his cheeks then.  Em dropped in front of the boy and held him for a long time as he wet her dress with his tears. She cuddled him close, telling him to let the tears go. She spoke to him in a hushed voice, sounding very much like his own mother had when he cried in her arms. In time, he lifted from her and wiped his eyes.
 
Then he gave her a very weak smile. That smile made Em’s heart leap in her chest. She smiled back at the boy, then stood and held out her hand. "Shall we go?"
 
He nodded and put his hand in Em’s.  His heart swelled and came to life – a feeling he hadn’t felt since his Mama had died and changed the course of his life. His Pa had died that day too. But now he was connected to someone who knew just how he felt. Together, they could help each other through the bitter loss they had both experienced. Together, they would be forever bonded.
 
Jeremiah watched the entire exchange from the bottom of the stairs. He looked down at Abby who still stood at his side, holding his father’s hand. "Mama’s smiling, Papa!" Abby observed.
 
"Thank God," Jeremiah declared as he lifted Abby to him and held her tight. "Now, go join your Mama." He sat her down and watched her run to her mother, who picked her up and held her close. Paul didn’t leave Em’s side.
 
Jeremiah turned and slowly made his way up the steps, not minding one bit that tears were streaming down his own face. Peter looked up at him with question as he slid into the seat beside Peter. Jeremiah smiled as he leaned over and whispered, "She’s okay now. She has some good medicine...Paul Simpson."
 
"You mean he went to Sunday School with her?" Peter asked in surprise.
 
"He did more than that," Jeremiah answered. "So much more..."
 
***
That night, Margaret wrote in her journal.
 
I saw an amazing thing today. As we taught the children about the Ten Commandments, I watched their eyes shine with excitement. I listened to their voices sing the songs and recite the Bible Verse we had taught them, and I must say it did my heart proud! Oh, I cannot wait for these children to recite all Ten Commandments to their parents in church!
 
I heard Em laugh several times today. She took Paul Simpson under her wing and gave him the life back. Paul Simpson…I still remember the day I heard the news about his mother’s death.  That very day, Mr. Simpson had sent the baby away. He never wanted to lay eyes on that baby – not ever! Then he turned to the bottle and lost all respect. That poor little boy has been through so much these last six months. Em did more to help him in the short time we had this morning than anybody else has been able to do. There is a bond between them.
 
I must admit I was worried some of the citizens would fight us, but there were only two families who refused to participate. I hope that in time, they will allow their children to come to Sunday school as well. I pray they will come to realize that their children need to hear the stories of God as told on their level.
 
Em and Ann are both naturals with the children! They have a keen bond with the children, and I saw their faces light up when they heard the sound of the children.
 
The children have asked to put on an Easter Program for the parents. I cannot wait for Good Friday to get here so they can surprise their parents with what they know!
 
I will forever treasure this day in my heart.
 
***
Jeremiah blew out the lamp and lay down in bed. Em rolled over and took him in her arms, giving him a long, slow kiss. Jeremiah was very surprised, but gave into her kiss with one of his own as he wrapped his arms around her. "I love you," Em whispered in his ear. Then she laid her head on his chest.
 
This had been the first act of intendancy the couple had experienced since that fateful day they lost Baby McCain. Besides the kisses they had shared the day of her ‘healing,’ her kisses had been brief and stiff. She had hardly touched him since. But tonight…tonight intimacy had returned. Jeremiah ran his hand up and down her side as they stared into each other’s eyes. "Margaret was right."
 
"About what?"
 
"All I needed was to hear the sound of children again. That’s the best healing of all." Em sighed. Tears again filled her eyes and ran down her cheeks. "And Paul...Jeremiah, I can’t describe it, but when I saw him standing there on the edge of the church yard...Something deep inside me propelled me to go to him. I feel we’re connected somehow. I need a little boy to love and he needs..."
 
Jeremiah kissed her again, not wanting to have that conversation tonight. Their kisses deepened and became more passionate. Finally, Em sighed and lay against him as his hands continued to caress her gently. "As soon as we’re able...I want you to make love to me, Jeremiah." Her voice was almost a whisper. Desire was in her voice.
 
"Are you sure?" Jeremiah questioned. "I don’t want to make you uncomfortable."
 
"I’ll be ready when the time comes, My Love." Em reached up and touched his face. She sighed at the sensation his caresses sent through her body. "I’m getting better each day. And now with Paul...Jeremiah, if I can I want to spend time with him...to help him."
 
"I’ll talk to his Pa." Jeremiah kissed her. "And as soon as you’re able, we’ll make love."
 
"Until then...can you hold me tight? I need to sleep in your arms. I need to feel your hands...to kiss you and..." Jeremiah put a finger against her lips and hushed her. As his hands stilled on her back, he silently thanked God for sending them that little boy and the sound of the children.

The Margaret Years ― The Mosquito’s Ugly Return

These stories are based on the TV series The Rifleman
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