The Rifleman
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The Next Step…
Chapter 90 - A Little Faith
Written by Deanne Bertram

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

“It’s the baby!”

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

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

“What were you doing outside?” Jake asked.

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

*****

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

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

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

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

“What about Mark?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Colleen?” Johnny answered as he looked up.

“It’s Hope, something’s wrong!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

*****

The McCain’s and Seth entered the clinic to find Johnny and Colleen Gibbs already inside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Son?” Lucas asked.

“Trick or treat. Today’s Halloween.”

*****

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

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

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

“Thadd?” Mark asked.

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

“A daughter?”

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

“Danger? Hope’s…”

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

“Is she alive?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Will she be okay?” Mark asked.

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

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

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

“How much of a chance?” Mark asked.

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

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

*****

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

“How is Hope?” Seth asked.

“Sleeping.”

“And the baby?” Milly asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

“Abigail?” Mark queried.

“Thadd thinks she’s starting to wake.”

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

*****

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But...”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

“Hope? Are you okay?” Abigail asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But if I hadn’t…”

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

“Where’s Mark?”

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

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

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

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

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

“She’s not?”

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

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

*****

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

*****

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

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

“Rejecting?!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark looked to his Pa.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucas looked to his son.

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

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

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

Mark nodded.

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

*****

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

“But the other children?!” Gwen pleaded.

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

Gwen nodded.

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nursing… Hope’s nursing the baby?”

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

****

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

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

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

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

“Can we go home?” Zach asked.

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

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

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

“What about you and Hope?” Milly asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

Hope shook her head.

“How are you feeling?”

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

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

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

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

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

“But what?”

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

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

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

“And today?” Mark asked.

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

“You’re okay? You can breathe okay?”

Hope nodded.

“And the baby?” Mark asked.

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

“Just like her Mama,” Mark smiled.

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

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

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

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

“I think Faith.”

Curiously, Mark asked “Why?”

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

*****

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

“What about us… and Faith?”

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

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

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

“How’s she doing now?”

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

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

Mark stood from the bed and walked to the door.

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

“I know you do.”

*****

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

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

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

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

“You said an accident?” Seth inquired.

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

“I think Mark would approve,” Milly answered.

*****

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

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

“Faith?”

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

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

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

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

“What kind of an accident?” Abigail asked.

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

Margaret Faith McCain, born and October 31, 1896.

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

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

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

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

“But…”

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

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

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

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

“She needs to be nursed,” Hope replied.

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

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

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

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

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

“How?”

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

“Breast fed?”

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s milk,” Hope answered.

“Like the cows?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is this a secret?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope giggled, “Only God can answer that.”

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

Hope and Milly tried their best to contain their laughter.

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gwen and Jake nodded their understanding.

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

Both nodded.

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

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

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

Hope answered, “Margaret Faith McCain.”

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Oat,” the reverend replied.

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

The Next Step — The Aunt

This is a story based on the TV series The Rifleman
Here are some other great stories. Enjoy!

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