The Rifleman
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The Next Step...
Chapter 108 - Bittersweet
Written by Deanne Bertram

Buffalo Bill Cody had his show, and it was better than he had even hoped, he had been totally unprepared to call a three-way tie. As the crowd left the arena, the newspapermen who had been lucky enough to come, crowded around him and listened as he announced their plans to head back east, and possibly to Europe. Cody was pleased with their reaction, boasting of the stories they planned to write; many commenting how they wanted to tag along, eager to see who would be next. Cody was pleased with the new air of excitement surrounding the show.

*****

Monday afternoon, the McCain’s and Lane’s returned to the Kiowa camp, to say their goodbyes to Iron Heart and the others. Upon arrival, they were surprised at the efficiency of the tribe, actually the whole show; trampled down grass, rings of rocks that had surrounded the locations of the campfires, horses laden down with travois, or loaded wagons with people waiting to strike out greeted them, as far as the eye could see. The horse and cattle herds were already en route to the train.

*****

Hope’s families allowed her to speak privately to Iron Heart and Silver Moon, “I wish to thank you for this past week, for opening my heart to see that you are the same as when I lived with you. To see the people eager to learn…it is wonderful. Iron Heart, you were right, at first, I saw only with my eyes, but now I know different. I have enjoyed myself immensely.”

“It is a wise person who can see with their heart,” Iron Heart replied as he hugged Hope.

“We too have enjoyed your visits, and meeting your family,” said Silver Moon. “You have grown into a beautiful woman.”

*****

Upon joining the rest of Hope’s family, Silver Moon presented a small packet to each of the McCain children. As each child opened their present, they found a differently designed and decorated small reed hoop with what looked like a spider’s web inside.

“They are beautiful,” Hope commented as she looked at each one her children held out.

“What are they Mama?” Josh asked.

“They’re called dream catchers. They only allow good dreams to visit you,” replied Hope as she swept back a lock of her son’s hair from his face. “Every Indian child has one over their bed.”

“Silver Moon, thank you,” stated Milly as she admired those presented to her children. “They are beautiful.”

“Mama?” asked Zach. “Does this mean we’re Indians?”

“No, but it means that they have accepted that you have the heart of an Indian, that you understand their ways, and that they care about you,” Hope answered.

“Dawn Fire, this is for you,” Silver Moon replied as she handed a package to Hope. Upon opening it, Hope realized her present was the dream catcher that had hung above her bed when she lived among the Kiowa.

*****

The men stood to the side allowing the women to talk and the children to play.

Iron Heart motioned to Running Wolf and Iron Talon, who led two horses to Lucas and Mark, “These are for young Levi and Elijah. This is my thank you, I know you would not take any gift for yourselves, but for your children you would dare not offend me.”

“Iron Heart, these gifts are too much,” Lucas tried to explain.

“A gift from the heart is never too much. Silver Moon has longed to know what became of Dawn Fire, after she married. You brought a smile to my wife’s face that I never could. We mourned Dawn Fire’s leaving and know we know she had a life that has been blessed with children...that she is happy.”

“We accept your gifts, however, you must let us make equal thanks, for teaching our children a lesson we never could. To see them playing with the children of your camp, makes me think that they just might be the future where the color of one’s skin doesn’t matter,” answered Lucas, knowing the insult he would give if he tried any more to refuse the gifts. “With the number of young ones in your own camp, I would be pleased to gift you with two fine milk cows and several other strong breeding cows, I noticed the other day you’ve a very good bull out with the cattle.”

“It is agreed, your gifts are accepted,” Iron Heart acknowledged.

*****

Iron Heart took Seth aside to speak, “It is as a father that I speak to you. I know how you must have grieved when you thought your daughter dead. I too grieved, when she was first taken from us, I feared what those men would do; she was to me as a daughter. I am shamed that I have nothing worthy to present to you.”

“You need not give me anything, you already gave me my daughter’s life, and that means more than anything, other than your friendship,” replied Seth.

“I have not ever told Silver Moon, my first thoughts were to leave her where I found her, I don’t know why I didn’t, but I am grateful I did not. Had it not been for your past, she would not have taught me that there are those among the white man who have the courage to learn, that we can all be brothers and sisters. I thank you for allowing her to be part of my family.”

“Sometimes adults can learn our most valuable lessons from our children. Iron Heart, it is I who should be thanking you, for becoming a part of her family, and mine.”

The two fathers grasped the other’s forearm and stood there, each with the understanding of what it meant to have Hope/Dawn Fire as a daughter, thankful that she lived.

*****

Soaring Hawk led a black mare, with a slip of a star shaped like a new moon, to Myra.

“But I already have a horse,” a confused Myra stated in askance as she looked to Lucas.

Iron Heart had returned to the group and knelt before Myra, “I know you are fond of the horse you ride, but he is coming to a time when he will prefer to be turned out. He has served you well, and deserves the respect of an elder; this young horse, she is well started on the path to being trained, and will serve you for many years to come.”

“Papa?” asked Myra. “Blue Boy…”

“He is getting up there in years, sweetheart. Remember, he was Mark’s horse, long before he was your horse.”

“But what will he think?” tears started to well in Myra’s eyes at the thought of no longer riding Blue Boy.

“I went through the same thing regarding Razor, when Mark gave me Blade, but I knew that it would be the right thing to allow Razor his retirement. And every now and then, I used to ride him to see you to school. And Mark went through the same thing when he bought Copper, but he knew you would do well by Blue Boy. Myra, you know he can’t keep up with the others, even though he tries.”

“I don’t care about that…” Turning to Iron Heart, Myra stated, “Sir… It’s not that I’m not grateful for your offer, but Mark gave me Blue Boy to be my horse.”

“Then it should be up to Mark to say you may or may not take the mare I offer,” Iron Heart understood Myra’s feelings.

“Gabby, I know how much you love Blue Boy, as much as I ever did. He won’t think poorly of you.”

“But he’ll be all alone at the ranch…”

“He’ll have plenty of company.”

“But…”

Mark knelt in front of his sister, “Gabby, a young lady needs a fine young horse to carry her to and from school. Blue Boy has been a good horse to both of us. Pa once explained to me about ‘looking back time’, a time when life slows down, and a person will reflect back on their life. I think the same thing can be true for horses, it’s time for Blue Boy’s looking back years. I asked Iron Heart if he had a horse good enough to give to you. I wanted you to know what it was like to race your horse across the land, like Blue Boy and I raced.”

“Then she’s really from you?”

“I had wanted to purchase you a new horse, but Iron Heart would not allow me to pay for her. He said that since you were my little sister, he would be honored to give you a mare. This mare is the last foal of the mare that Hope rode, when she lived with the Kiowa.”

“Does Hope know?”

“I haven’t told her yet. I didn’t know if you would accept Iron Heart’s offer.”

After thinking for a few moments, Myra stated, “Mr. Iron Heart, I thank you for your gift. I’ll take real good care of her.”

“What are you going to name her?” Iron Heart asked.

“She doesn’t have one?”

Iron Heart shook his head.

“You mean I can name her?”

“Yes, it is proper,” answered Iron Heart.

“Well, she is so black, she almost looks blue… Can I call her BlueGirl?”

“I think that’s a noble name,” replied Iron Heart.

Mark smiled.

*****

It was time for final goodbyes to be said, “My heart will mourn your loss again,” stated Silver Moon. “But my heart is glad to see the fine woman and mother you have become.”

“I’ll miss you too,” Hope answered, wiping the tears from her eyes as they hugged.

Seth shook hands with Iron Heart, again, thankful that the Kiowa Chief had chosen to act with compassion all those years ago.

“Iron Heart, we’ll meet you with the cattle out by the train before you leave,” Lucas stated.

“Until then,” Iron Heart replied as he mounted his horse and signaled for the tribe to move.

Heavy hearts watched them leave, but the hearts were joyous in that they had met and reaffirmed life.

*****

The following morning, Mark returned to stand his watch in North Fork, “So Seth and Johnny are taking today off?”

“Yeah, I guess they figure that North Fork is safe with me watching over her after that shooting demonstration the lot of you put on.”

“Micah, North Fork was safe with you watching over her when you stood alone wearing that badge,” Mark answered as he added several spoons of sugar into his coffee.

Mark barely sat down at his desk with the train whistle sounded, “I forgot the train was due in today. You cover the office?”

“I think I can manage from being bucked off this desk. Get out of here and do your duty,” Micah good-naturedly teased.

Mark tipped his hat as he passed various women on the boardwalk, while making his way to the train depot. He felt relaxed that most of the visitors who had come for Buffalo Bill’s show had left town and most everything was back to normal.

Two men wearing identical black cowboy hats and tan dusters, pulled back allowing easy access to their handguns, caught Mark’s attention as they stepped from the last passenger car. Mark cocked his rifle and readied himself for possible trouble.

“Excuse us?” one of the men asked as he unbuttoned and opened his duster to show he wore the badge of a Texas Ranger.

“Yes sir, how can I help you?” replied Mark. After looking from one to the other and not telling the two apart he asked, “Kaleb or Keifer?”

“You have us at a disadvantage, Marshal,” the other stated.

“I guess it has been a long time since the two of you were in North Fork, how is your father, the judge… and Khalyn?”

“Mark… Mark McCain? Well I’ll be… look at you! All grown up! I’m Keifer.” He extended his hand.

“Can’t be Mark, why he weren’t no more than…” Pushing his hat back and scratching his head, “I guess it has been a while.” He extended his hand and said, “I’m Kaleb. How are you Mark?”

“Just fine. Johnny didn’t say anything about you coming for a visit.”

“This isn’t a social call. We’re here to take custody of your two prisoners, Nelson Warrenson and Estaban Rodriguez,” Keifer replied.

“I remember Johnny said they were wanted out of Texas. Come on, I’ll get you where you’re going.”

Walking through town, Kaleb commented, “I can’t believe how much North Fork has grown,” he let out a whistle.

Mark led the brothers to the hotel and called out, “Mrs. Drako, the U.S. Marshal Service requires two rooms…”

Lou stood on a step stool and twisted around, her hair tied up in a kerchief, a dirty apron over her dress, pointing a feather duster towards Mark, “Mark McCain, people came from all around, in and out of my hotel at all hours, just ta see yer gunfight. Tis a fine day when they’re all departed and I finally get a chance ta clean my hotel and the Marshal Service brings me ‘guests’. If they’re here for ye, ye can put them up at the jail where I’m sure they belong.”

“Ouch!” declared Kaleb, hearing Lou’s tirade.

“Maybe we should see about staying with family,” Keifer teased as he too heard Lou.

“Ye do that. This hotel has never been so unkept since I…” Lou stopped speaking mid-sentence after looking at the two men who stood on either side of Mark. Having removed their hats, a riled Lou retorted, “Ye wipe those silly grins off yer faces right now. Mark Warren McCain, just wait until I tell yer wife.” Again, she shook the feather duster at Mark.

“Okay, please… just don’t kill me with your dust,” Mark teased, waving his hand back and forth trying to disburse the dust floating his way.

Lou was helped down from her step stool, and both men hugged her, “Good to see you too, Lou,” both stated as they stepped back.

Keiffer asked, “So, do you think you have a room here at the hotel, or should we see if our Aunt and Uncle can put us up for the night?”

“I’ll have ye know that there is no finer a hotel in all of North Fork, of course ye can stay here. I’ve two rooms that are clean.”

“Guess here would be a sight better than the livery,” teased Kaleb.

“Or the jail,” teased Keifer.

“Oh ye!” declared Lou as she mock, pushed them away.

“Hold it right there fellas!” Johnny Drako called as he entered the lobby, gun drawn.

With Johnny to their backs, Keifer and Kaleb raised their arms, they heard the turn and click of the cylinder from Johnny’s gun.

“Johnny, that isn’t necessary,” Mark stated.

“You of all people, just stand there while these two men accost my wife.”

“I think you’re going to regret those words,” replied Mark. “They aren’t who you think they are.”

“Well then, just who are they?”

“Yer nephews!” Lou declared, her hands balled up and set to her hips. “Johnny Drako, is that any way ta greet yer family?”

Kaleb and Keifer, still with their hands raised, turned around, “Hello Johnny.”

Looking from one to the other, Johnny shook his head while he slipped his gun back into his holster. “You’ll have to forgive me, but from where I stood…”

“That’s okay Johnny, we understand. You know, if she weren’t already taken, I think I’d be vying for her affections myself,” stated Keifer.

“And what would Frances have to say about that?” Kaleb asked.

“I’ll take your horses to the livery so you folks can get reacquainted. Whenever you’re ready to see your prisoners, just come on over,” Mark stated as he headed for the exit.

*****

“Anything exciting happen while you were out and about?” Micah asked as he looked up from reading the newspaper.

“Remember when we had that change of venue trial for Dak Yates?” Mark paused giving Micah time to think.

“That was back when Johnny’s family came to town, the Rangers…”

“Well, they’re back in town. They’re here for our prisoners.”

*****

The heat of the afternoon had driven Mark and Micah outside the jail, where they leaned their chairs back against the wall.

“And what’s this Lou said about a gunfight?” Kaleb asked as he and Keifer stopped at the hitching rail.

“Didn’t Johnny tell you about it? Guess not. Oh, you remember Micah Torrance?” Mark allowed the men to exchange handshakes before he continued, “Buffalo Bill Cody brought his show to town, he conspired against us for a shootout.”

“Who went up against Annie Oakley and Frank Butler?” Keifer asked.

“The Four Guns of North Fork,” teased Micah.

“Besides Pa and me? Johnny and my father-in-law.”

“Your father-in-law?” Kaleb choked out.

“Lou did say something about telling on you to your wife, are you really old enough to be married?” Keifer asked.

“He sure is and he has a brood of young ‘ens,” answered Micah.

“Yep,” Mark smiled contentedly as he saw his family riding down the middle of Main Street. “In fact, here they come.”

Mark stood and walked to Two-Bits , he reached up and took Eli as Hope handed him down from sitting in front of her, Mark set him to the ground, “Papaw Micah,” he called and ran to him.

Mark held Two-Bits while Hope stepped down.

“Where are the girls?” asked Mark.

“They wanted to stay with their Grandma, Ma said she didn’t mind. And the boys really wanted to ride.”

“You didn’t let Eli ride his horse?”

“Mark, he’s only received the horse yesterday, you need to work with him at the ranch, just like you did with the twins. They’re not ready to ride off the ranch yet.”

“Hey Mark, care to introduce us?” teased Keifer, raising his eyebrows and resting his forearms against the hitching rail.

“She’s married,” Mark dead-panned.

“Mark!”

“That’s okay ma’am. Keifer was teasing earlier about vying for Lou’s affections.”

“She’s a married woman!” Hope declared.

“Hope, I’d like to introduce you to Kaleb and Keifer Marten, Johnny is their uncle,” Mark stated before any further misconceptions arose. “This is my wife, Hope.”

“Mama, they’re wearing funny badges,” Josh stated as he pointed.

“Josh!” chided Hope.

“So, you’re another set of twins in town,” Kaleb stated.

“Sure are, I’m Josh, and he’s…”

“I’m Zach, hey, you two look alike!”

“My brother and I are identical twins, too.”

“We’re not identical,” Josh stated.

“We would be if you didn’t have that birthmark!” Zach stated and bumped into his brother.

“Boys!” Mark called, his tone of voice indicated they were to mind their manners. “Kaleb, Keifer, the one with Micah is our youngest son, Eli.”

“You’ve got quite a full house,” Keifer stated.

“In more ways than you now, Hope didn’t bring in their daughters to town, they’ve two of them,” Micah stated as Eli jumped from his lap.

Turning serious, “Micah, Kaleb and Keifer are here to see our prisoners. If it’s okay with you, I have a lunch date with my family.”

*****

After lunch, Hope informed Mark they were going to stop by Seth and Lilah’s to spend some time with Ethan and Annie. Mark kissed Hope goodbye and said, “Have fun. I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon.”

“Papa, will you teach me to ride when you come home?” Eli asked.

“Only if you mind your Mama. If she says you’ve been good, I’ll teach you to ride.”

*****

After waving, Mark entered the office to hear Micah ask, “So when do you think you’ll take them off our hands?”

“The eastbound train comes through tomorrow morning,” Keifer answered. “Are you alright with us leaving them here for one more night?”

“No problem,” Micah answered.

*****

The following morning, Mark and Micah stood guard over the prisoners while Kaleb and Keifer said goodbye to Johnny and Lou and their children.

“Are ye sure ye can’t stay any longer? Ye just got here,” Lou stated.

“I’m sure. A quick visit is better than no visit at all,” Keifer offered.

“Tis not the same,” complained Lou. “Ye barely got to meet the children.”

“Why don’t you bring your family to Lubbock, and meet our children. I know Father would be pleased to have you stop and stay for a while,” Kaleb stated.

“Khalyn was upset she couldn’t come with us, but this wasn’t exactly a social trip and with her being so close to her due date, she couldn’t travel this far,” said Keifer.

“Ye didn’t say Khalyn was pregnant,” Lou declared.

“Well, maybe later this fall, when the children are on harvest break; we’ll see about coming for a visit,” Johnny stated. “Tell your father and your sister we said hello.”

The Marten twins took custody of their prisoners and pointed them to board the train.

“Still, tis not fair they couldn’t stay longer…”

“I know Lou, but they were here on business. Come on, ye need to feed yer husband before he as to stand his watch,” Johnny replied with a little Irish brogue to his voice, trying to cheer his wife.

The Next Step — No Choice

This is a story based on the TV series The Rifleman
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