The Rifleman
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Fan Fiction

The Next Step…
Chapter 64 – Don’t Drink the Water
Written by Deanne Bertram

The storm that Lucas previously thought was making the cattle nervous hit the ranch and North Fork two days later. For most of the afternoon, it rained so hard that Mark and Hope could barely see the outline of his parents’ home, just across the yard. Mark kept the fireplace stoked throughout the day and tried to keep the boys occupied, to keep them from underfoot. Mark could tell they were getting bored with being stuck inside, when they had enough of coloring and playing with their toys.

While Hope and Gwen worked at preparing supper, he called his children to him, “I remember there was a night, similar to today, when a certain young man decided to make his arrival into this world,” Mark stated as he picked Eli up and sat him on his lap.

“Who?” Zach asked.

“Your little brother, Elijah Paul. Your Grandpa and Grandma had gone to town for supplies and while they were gone, the storm came. They were forced to spend the night in town. It was early evening when I was finishing tending to the animals in the barn and your Mama was standing on the porch calling me for supper. You announced right in the middle of a thunderbolt that you were ready to meet us. It was storming so bad that night, I couldn’t go for the doctor. And with your grandparents having the buckboard, I couldn’t take your Mama to town. The following morning, you,” Mark said as he looked to Eli, “You were born. You were smiling just as bright as the sun coming up over the hills outside.”

“You weren’t able to ride for Doc Burrage to birth the baby?” Gwen asked.

“No, he wasn’t. You don’t know how scared I was. But, Doc Burrage will tell you himself that Mark has a knack for knowing how to handle medical situations,” Hope replied.

“I couldn’t leave Hope or the children alone. She wasn’t scared nearly as much as I was,” Mark answered. “But there was one time, back years ago, when I helped a stranger give birth to her child, after her husband had been injured. She had a number of daughters and was able to walk me through everything I needed to do to help her.”

“Oh my,” Gwen stated.

“Then when Abigail Burrage gave birth to Savannah, I was there, but only as moral support for Thadd. He was doing all the doctoring, that time.”

Soon, supper was on the table and Mark said grace for their food and blessings.

*****

Following the subsidence of the storm, the next morning Lucas and Mark woke early as they planned to check the herds. Dawn hadn’t yet arrived when activity started in both homes. After a quick breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, they saddled up. Milly and Hope made sandwiches for them to take along, knowing they wouldn’t return until closer to suppertime, if they were lucky.

While they were out, they found a number of cattle who had managed to get bogged down and stuck after they had lain down in the mud and mire around the waterholes. After they had those cattle up and on their feet, they headed to the next range where more of their cattle tended to gather. As they were crossing the small river that cut across their ranch, they saw signs of a flash flood that had struck the night before.

“Pa, why don’t you go ahead to the other range, I’ll follow the river for a while to make sure none of our cattle got caught up in it. I’ll see you back at the ranch,” Mark stated.

Lucas turned Blade and headed cross country, while Mark signaled Copper into a lope and followed the river.

*****

Lucas returned to the ranch, tying Blade to the hitching rail in front of his home. He walked inside to see both his and Mark’s families sitting down for supper.

“Mark not make it back yet?” Lucas asked.

“No,” Hope answered. “We weren’t expecting either of you back until around this time. Is anything wrong?”

Lucas saw the concern in Hope’s eyes when he answered. “Not that I know of. We split up earlier this afternoon at the river, after seeing signs of a flash flood last night. I went to finish checking on the other herds while he followed the river, just to check if any of our cattle got caught up in it.”

Gwen tried to assure Hope, “I’m sure he’s okay, Hope.”

*****

Supper and the dishes were long finished with still no sign of Mark’s return. Lucas and Milly helped Hope get her children and Gwen back to their home.

“Hope, if he’s not back by first light, I’ll head out and look for him,” Lucas stated as they stood at the door to leave.

Once they were back in their own home and after putting their own children to bed, Milly asked, “Lucas can’t you head out and look for him now? I mean, there’s a full moon out tonight and with all the rain, Copper’s hoof prints would be easy to follow…”

“Milly, I’m just as concerned about his not returning as you and Hope are. Give him tonight and…” Lucas stopped speaking as he saw movement outside their front window; a lone figure walking and leading a lame horse. Lucas quickly had the door open and ran outside.

“Mark?!” Lucas yelled.

“It’s me. Sorry I’m so late,” a weary Mark answered.

They both heard Hope yell Mark’s name and saw her quickly run to him.

“Hey there. I need to tend to Copper,” Mark stated as Hope hugged him.

With one arm around Hope’s waist, slowly, Mark led Copper into the barn and his stall. Once inside, Hope hurriedly walked over and lit the lantern. Lucas offered to help untack the horse.

“Thanks Pa, I’d really appreciate it.”

As Mark reached to remove the bridle, Lucas saw the tattered remains of the sleeve of Mark’s jacket and the rips in the cast.

“Mark, what happened?” Lucas asked, slightly alarmed, as he pulled the saddle off.

“Trouble. I encountered a wolf,” Mark replied.

“A WOLF!” Hope exclaimed.

“I’m okay. Thankfully when it went for me, it got my arm with the cast. It was a lone wolf. Two of our yearling calves got swept away in the flood last night. I found their carcasses and pulled them from the riverbank. As I was unroping the last one, I heard the wolf’s snarl and tried to get to Copper, that’s when the wolf attacked me.”

“How’d you get away?” Lucas asked.

“I don’t think he was anticipating biting into something as hard as the cast. After he ripped my sleeve, I was able to back up a little bit, he lunged at me and I hit him upside the head with the cast. That disoriented him for a few moments, enough for me to grab my rifle.”

“I’m thankful you’re safe. Was it the wolf that caused Copper to go lame?” Hope asked.

“No. After my heartbeat returned to normal, I realized just how late it was getting and I was trying to get back by supper time. I felt him pull the shoe and I guess he stepped on a stone before I could get him stopped. I trotted him for a little bit and then he went lame on me. I’ve been walking him for the past four hours, taking it slow. I didn’t dare go any faster with him. I couldn’t feel any heat or swelling, so, I’m hoping it’s only a stone bruise. I’m sorry I worried you.”

Hope stood outside the stall and asked, “Mark, I think we have some bitter salt at the house, would soaking his hoof help?”

“It’s worth a shot. Would you mind preparing it?”

“I’ll go heat the water and be back in a few minutes,” Hope stated as she turned and left the barn.

“Son, is that all that happened out there today? You’re not hiding anything from Hope?” Lucas asked once he knew Hope couldn’t hear.

“I’m not hiding anything from either of you. Thankfully,” Mark replied as he continued to clean out Copper’s hoof and then pulled the hoof tester to try to find out where the stone bruise was. The bruising was on the inside flat of his hoof.

A few minutes later, Hope returned carrying a bucket with the heated water and bitter salt. She handed it Lucas, who carried it into the stall. They watched as Mark asked Copper to pick up his leg and lower his hoof down in the bucket.

“Pa, Hope, why don’t you head on to bed, I’m gonna be here for a while. No need for all of us to lose sleep tonight.”

Lucas exited the stall and placed an arm around Hope’s shoulders, moving her to the door of the barn. For half an hour Mark sat in Copper’s stall while soaking the hoof, cursing himself for being so stupid in trying to get home quicker.

“Sorry fella,” Mark stated to Copper. “If I’d of taken it at a nice trot, we’ve of been home hours ago and you wouldn’t be lame.”

He pulled the bucket and dumped the water outside. Next he returned to the stall and picked it out. Mark gave all the horses a late night feeding of hay, before he blew out the lantern and returned to his home.

*****

Thanksgiving morning dawn bright over the land. Hope quietly got out of bed and picked Mykaela up from her bassinet, closing their bedroom door as she carried their daughter to the front room. Hope sat in her chair and allowed Mykaela to nurse. Once she was done, Hope then changed her diaper and set her in the crib in the front room. Next, Hope went to feed the horses in their barn. As she fed them, she noticed Copper was still favoring his front foreleg.

Returning to the house, she saw Gwen come from her room. After telling Gwen she had decided to let Mark sleep as long as he needed, she asked Gwen to wake the boys and see that they quietly got dressed, while she cooked breakfast of oatmeal for them. Once it was ready, Gwen had them sitting at the table. After they were fed, Gwen led them to their grandparents’ home.

She knocked on the door before entering, “Mr. and Mrs. McCain, Hope asks if you would watch the boys until we’re ready to head to town? She said, Mark’s still asleep.”

“Sure. How are my Lilliputians this morning?” Lucas asked.

“We small,” Eli answered.

“Yes, compared to me, you are very small.”

*****

Gwen returned to the house and started to help Hope gather everything they would need to take with them to town for their Thanksgiving meal. Hope had just finished packing the last item, when she heard the bedroom door open.

“What time is it?” Mark asked as he scratched at his head.

“A little after nine,” Hope replied.

“Nine?! Oh, why didn’t you wake me sooner. There’s so much to do…”

“You needed your sleep. The boys are over at Ma and Pa’s and I already fed the horses. Copper’s still favoring the leg.”

“I should have said good morning, first. Thanks for letting me sleep,” Mark stated as he gave Hope a good morning kiss. Then, turning to Gwen, “Good morning. I hope you are going to enjoy yourself today. It’s a rather large get gathering at the Mallory House. The whole McCain-Torrance-Drako-Gibbs-Lane families are in attendance. Hope, do you know if Ethan and Annie are going to be able to come this year?”

“They should have arrived yesterday,” Hope answered. “If you want, I’ve got the water heating to soak Copper’s hoof again this morning.”

“I do. Thanks,” Mark stated as he went to pour the bitter salt into the hot water. He carried the bucket to the barn.

A few minutes later, Mark heard the front door of the barn open, “Thought you might like something to eat before you clean stalls,” Hope said as she handed Mark a bowl of oatmeal and a spoon.

“Always looking out for me, aren’t you?”

“Well, someone has too,” Hope replied.

*****

A half hour later, Mark returned to his home to shave, wash up, and get dressed for their day in town.

“What would you like for me to start carrying out? The team’s already hitched.”

“The two boxes on the front table need to go with us. You do have extra blankets in the back for the boys and Gwen?”

“Yes, I already have the straw down in the buckboard for them, too.”

By ten o’clock, both McCain families were loaded in their buckboards for the trip to North Fork.

*****

Lou already had the turkeys in the oven when they arrived. Family and friends helped them unload and get everyone and everything inside.

*****

Once their families were inside, Mark and Lucas drove their teams to the livery. After returning to the hotel, Mark told everyone he would be back in a little while. Lucas, Seth, and Drako watched as he jogged down the street.

“Where’s he off too?” Seth asked.

“We were checking the herds yesterday, making sure they were okay after the storm. He didn’t get home until late last night, when he told us he’d encountered a wolf. It ripped up the sleeve to his work jacket and tattered his cast too. So he’s probably going to Doc’s.”

“How’s he taking his suspension?” Johnny asked as they walked inside.

“Pretty good. Everything considered.” Lucas stated to laugh, “Though, he got an eye opener the other day when he was left in charge of all seven of the children.”

*****

Mark knocked on the front door to Doc Burrage’s home. Abigail opened the door, “Happy Thanksgiving, Mark. Would you care to come in?”

“Thank you,” Mark said as he stepped inside and removed his hat.

“Is Thadd…”

“Mark, Happy Thanksgiving! What brings you to this end of town? I always thought your family celebrated at the hotel?”

“We are. I had a little trouble yesterday.” Mark removed his coat and showed Thadd what remained of his cast.

“Oh,” Thadd stated. “Abigail, I won’t be very long. I’m going to take Mark to the clinic and see about removing his cast. I’ll be back soon.”

Once at the clinic, Mark hopped up on the examination table. Thadd pulled out a small saw blade and began cutting what remained of the cast off. Once he pried it from Mark’s arm, he set to examine Mark’s wrist.

“How’s it feel?”

“A lot better than what it did right after I slugged Rigby,” Mark replied.

“Well, since it was only a sprain, I think I’ll leave the cast off for now. But if it gets to paining you, I want you back in here and I’ll cast it again.”

“Thanks Doc. Oh by the way, I see congratulations are in order,” Mark stated as he walked out the front door with Thadd.

“Congratulations?” Thadd queried.

“Then Abigail’s not expecting? She just kind of had that look about her and I thought...”

“Oh, Mark. Why is it the doctor is the last one to realize when his own wife is pregnant?” Thadd started laughing. “I think that’s the surprise she’s going to tell me about this afternoon. Thanks Mark. You know, I still don’t understand why you didn’t go into medicine. You’ve a knack for this. You’re more observant than I am.”

“I’ve been through it a few more times than you have. Tell Abigail I said congratulations!”

*****

Squeals of laughter could be heard from the women as Hope got reacquainted with her sister-in-law, Annie, who was just beginning to show she was with child.

“I’m only three months along, sorry we didn’t wire, but we wanted to surprise everyone,” Annie stated as she was hugged by Hope and Seth.

The men were having a good time teasing Ethan about the future little Lane, to which Ethan announced, “I understand we’re not the only ones expecting. Lucas, I hear tell you’re set to be an uncle again.”

“What?! Johnny Gibbs! What secret are you hiding?” Lucas hollered across the room.

“He’s not hiding it any more. There’s no way, not with me showing like I am,” Colleen stated as she opened her shawl. “We’re a little over two months along.”

There was quite the merriment in the hotel dining room after the announcements. A little while later, Colleen and Milly came from the kitchen and Milly motioned for Lucas and Johnny to step aside.

“Lucas, please? Tone it town a little bit. I know you men mean well and good and are just having fun, but you’re really embarrassing Annie. She’s not used to this type of fooling around,”

“Yes she is or else she wouldn’t have gotten pregnant,” Johnny Gibbs announced with a loud laugh.

“Johnny!” Colleen chided her husband.

“Colleen, we’re just being men!” Johnny declared.

“You’re being insufferable. Besides, Annie’s not the only one who’s embarrassed by all this Tom foolery, Gwen’s in the kitchen with cheeks redder than yours, when you dropped the safe on my father’s foot and broke it.”

“Aw, now… Why’d you have to go and bring that up?” Johnny complained.

“To make you understand,” Colleen replied.

“Okay, we promise to be good little boys and mind our manners,” Johnny pleaded and then shooed the women back into the kitchen.

*****

Mark entered the hotel dining room, still experimenting with flexing his wrist around. Seeing most of the dining room already organized, he headed to the kitchen where he sidled up next to Hope. He feigned sneaking a finger of filling from one of the pies, as he gently placed a kiss to Hope’s cheek.

“That’s the Mark I fondly remember,” Hattie called. “Remember our first Thanksgiving after I returned?” The women got to laughing and giggling.

Seeing that Annie and Gwen were not following along, Hope stated, “It was my first Thanksgiving in North Fork, as well. And Mark kept sneaking in, sampling all the food and sneaking a kiss from me.”

“Yes, and we kept chasing him from the kitchen,” Lou added gaily. “Threatening to beat him within an inch of his life with a spatula.” Lou pointed the spatula in her hand towards Mark.

"Okay, I get the hint. I'm out of here," Mark replied as he held up his arms and left the kitchen.

“They were so much in love back then,” Hattie commented.

“And they’re not now?” Annie asked.

“It was a different kind of love back then, sweet and innocent,” Milly replied. “Mark’s first… no second crush. His first crush was on my niece, when he was thirteen. She returned to North Fork, last year during Thanksgiving. Mark wasn’t home when she arrive.”

“No, he wasn’t and what you put him through when he did return. Oh, my, I don’t know that he’s ever been so embarrassed,” Lou stated.

“Well there was the time when, well, that’s neither here nor there,” Hope stated, not wanting to remind anyone of the circumstances surrounding Levi’s premature birth and the events that happened shortly thereafter.

Lou continued the story, “Milly wasn’t returned to town yet, when Mark and Hope first met. Though I wasn’t in town when Milly’s niece was here, but I do know it was more than a crush Mark had on Hope when she first arrived in North Fork. Mark was carrying so much on his shoulders, trying to save her life, bring an assassin to justice, and pretending his father had be killed… If a person knew Mark well enough, they knew that Mark loved her from the first time he saw her.”

Hope blushed at hearing Lou talk of Mark in such a fashion, but deep down, she knew the words were true.

Hope excused herself from the kitchen to go nurse Mykaela. Mark saw his wife carry their daughter up the stairs, he followed.

He closed the door behind them. Hope handed Mykaela to Mark, climbed up into the bed and positioned herself and unbuttoned her blouse. Mark handed their daughter back to Hope and climbed in beside her after she untied her camisole and placed Mykaela at her breast. Hope told him of the expected babies.

“I knew about Johnny and Colleen…” After seeing Hope’s expression, “When I was pretending to have been killed by Grid, Uncle Johnny kind of let the cat out of the bag and I promised to keep quiet until today. But, you can add one more to the list of expectant parents,” Mark whispered in her ear.

“Who?”

“When Thadd finished removing my cast, I congratulated Thadd. He asked for what. I told him that Abigail had that ‘glow’ about her. He acknowledged that Abigail had a surprise for him this afternoon.”

“Mark, you didn’t ruin her surprise did you?”

“How was I supposed to know, Doc didn’t know? Thadd stated he felt like a fool -- the doctor being the last one realizing his own wife was pregnant.” Mark quietly laughed.

Mark enjoyed these precious times with his wife. He was bound and determined to make sure the bond between the members of his family was just as strong, if not stronger, than the bond he shared with his own father.

*****

As they were returning down the stairs, they heard the squeals of laughter and the sounds of little feet running. Mark and Hope had to watch their step as they entered the dining room with all the young children running around and having fun. Their respective fathers, actually, all the men present were laughing at their antics.

*****

The meal the women prepared for this Thanksgiving feast was as delicious as ever. Milly, Lou, and Hattie returned from the kitchen carrying desserts, while Hope brought the coffee pot.

When no one could eat another bite and conversation started to wane, Mark let out a groan.

“What’s wrong?” Hope asked.

“Doc removed my cast, now I don’t have an excuse to get out of helping clean up after all this,” Mark complained, as he swept his arm across the way.

Those closest to him broke out with laughter, and as his comment was passed around the table, others joined in.

As the men started to clean up the dining room and head to the kitchen to wash the dishes, Thadd, Abigail, Savannah, and old Doc Burrage came to the dining room.

Abigail came up to Mark and asked, “Just how did you know?”

“You sort of have the same glow about you that Ma and Hope have, when they’ve been expecting, especially right after they’ve found out. I’m sorry if I ruined your surprise. Who would have thought your own husband, and a doctor at that, didn’t know you were expecting.”

“You didn’t ruin my surprise. It was still wonderful news to give him. He was excited, just like a little boy at Christmas time.”

“Hey, what are you two whispering about over there?” Micah hollered from across the room.

“We were just talking about Thadd and Abigail’s news,” Mark replied.

“And what news is that?” Gibbs asked.

“You can’t tell?” Thadd asked.

“Well, you didn’t know until I congratulated you earlier,” Mark teased.

“That’s not fair, Mark,” Hope replied.

“The news is that I’m also expecting, in addition to Colleen,” Abigail announced to everyone present. More squeals of delight went up among the women.

Drako replied, “Well, Colleen’s not the only one expecting, Annie announced earlier that she and Ethan are expecting their second child.

“Doc, sounds like we’ve got an epidemic started,” Micah laughed.

“Yeah, maybe I should post a sign, Don’t Drink the Water.” Then let out a groan.

“What’s wrong,” Lucas asked.

“I just realized, I’m going to be very busy come May,” Thadd answered.

“Okay, you men,” Hattie started. “You’ve had your fun for the day, now you get to work on the dishes, so we women folk can rest and relax for a while. Certain women don’t need to be on their feet any more than they have been.”

Like good little soldiers, they all minded what Hattie told them to do.

While in the kitchen, Drako stated, “So Mark, seems to me you’re missing out on the expected fun.”

“If you’ll remember, our expected fun came two months ago,” Mark laughed back at him. “You know Johnny, I’m not the only one present who missed out on making an announcement today.”

“That’s not funny!” Drako retorted.

No one could stop the laughter after seeing Drako’s expression.

*****

The following morning, Mark woke early to tend to the horses and hoping that Copper would be better. He arrived in the barn to find his horse nickering and at least standing on all four legs, but still favoring the one front hoof. Mark again, soaked the horse’s hoof, and then bent to his task of feeding the horses and cleaning the stalls.

Once done in their barn, he headed to the chicken coop and retrieved some eggs for his family’s breakfast. Returning quietly to his home, he found no one had yet stirred for the day. Mark was quietly fixing breakfast when he heard Hope get up. He smiled to himself as he thought on his wife nursing their daughter.

Next to rouse was Gwen, “Morning!” Mark called as she came to the front room.

“Good morning! Can I help you with anything?”

“No, I’ve already set the table and breakfast will be done soon. Why don’t you have a seat.”

“I can wake the boys,” Gwen commented.

“No I think they’re waking on their own,” Mark stated as they both heard little feet hit the floor and scurry about.

The door soon opened and three sleepy-eyed boys came into the front room.

Breakfast was eaten while the adults listened to the boys recount the fun they had the day before with their friends.

“What are the plans for the day?” Gwen asked.

“Usually, the day after Thanksgiving is spent in quiet reflection and just being with family,” Hope answered. “Gwen, the offer Mark made the other night… We’d be happy to consider you an extended member of our family. The final decision is yours.”

“I always wondered what it would be like to be part of such a large family,” Gwen replied. “I had so much fun yesterday, though at times, I was quite embarrassed with how much everyone teased… I mean, you’re all so comfortable around each other.”

“It takes time to get used to Uncle Johnny. And when you add Pa into the mix, they can get out of hand,” Mark stated. “I remember the day after Hope and I were married and then there were a few other occasions where he really likes to tease people. It’s all in good fun.”

“I understand, once I got used to him and everyone else, it was like they all treated me as if I were part of the family.” Gwen looked to the boys before continuing, “I would like to stay on, to accept your offer, once my cast is removed. I’ve really enjoyed myself this past month.”

“Good, then until the first of the year, you’ll still be a guest in this home. Between now and the New Year, we’ll come to agree on what your responsibilities around here will be as well as your salary. We don’t expect you to work seven days a week, twenty four hours a day. You’ll have time to come and go as you please and join the family on outings to town. Or to go exploring the ranch.”

“I’d like that,” Gwen stated.

“And maybe, young Jake McCafferty might stop by and do some sparking,” Mark quietly commented.

“Mark!” Hope exclaimed as she saw Gwen blush.

“Yes, Ma’am,” he sheepishly answered.

*****

Ethan and Annie Lane had made arrangements to stay through the month of December, staying at Seth’s home. The families celebrated Seth Edward’s second birthday, two days before they celebrated Mark and Hope’s twenty-fourth birthday.

While they were in town for the celebration, Freddie Toomey rushed to tell Mark the good news, he found out that Carolina was expecting again.

“You just had Freddie Junior the beginning of August!” Mark exclaimed.

“Can I help it that I love my wife? Besides, you and I are the same age and you’ve a few more children than I have,” Freddie replied.

“I know, I know. I’m happy for you Freddie. Have you told your parents yet? How’s your Pa taking being a grandfather?”

“A little better than your Pa, but then my Pa didn’t find out he was going to be a father and a grandfather on the same day,” Freddie laughed.

“You’ll tell Carolina I said congratulations!” Mark answered as Freddie ran to head home.

*****

Mark was laughing as he entered the Mallory House dining room.

“What’s so funny Mark?” Hope asked.

“I just found out that next summer is going to be really busy for Thadd.”

“How so?” Milly asked.

“Freddie and Carolina are expecting another child,” Mark replied.

“The good news is that we’ve a few years before all these young ones are going to be ready to start the school, so it gives us a while before we have to build on,” Lucas laughed as he remembered back to the days when they built the second school room for North Fork’s growing population of children.

*****

Freddie Toomey wasn’t the only person to stop Mark as the evening progressed, Jake McCafferty asked to speak to Mark in private.

“Mr. McCain?” Jake asked.

“Since when do you call me mister?”

“Since I have something important I need to discuss with you. And you being the nearest thing to her family, Pa said I owe you the respect as if you really were.”

“Oh?” Mark asked, he remembered back to the first time he asked permission to court Hope.

“See, I… Uh…” Jake stuttered as he pulled at his collar.

“Jake, does this involve Gwen?” Mark asked.

“Yes, sir. It does. I’d like your permission to come calling on her. I mean, I’ll be real respectable about her, but I thought that since she gets her cast off this week…”

“And how do you know she gets her cast off?” Mark teased.

“Well, when you were in town the other day, being a marshal, I was at the ranch and we got to talking,” Jake hurriedly spoke.

“So you’ve already been talking with Gwen, behind my back?”

“Yes, sir. No sir, I mean, Miss Hope was there and we didn’t do anything improper. We just talked in the front room. Your sons were there too.”

“Okay, so once Gwen gets her cast off, then what?”

“I’d like permission to call on her. To stop by and read or take her out for a buggy ride or if she knows how to ride a horse… Oh, please Mark… Don’t you know how hard this is for me?”

“I remember very fondly when I asked Hope’s father for permission to court her…” Mark stated as he placed his hand to Jake’s shoulder.

Jake quickly interrupted, “Oh, I ain’t asking for permission to court her, least I didn’t think I was…”

“Jake, you have my blessing to come calling on Gwen. Have you talked with her yet?”

“No sir, I couldn’t. Not until I knew how you would answer. Thanks, Mark!” Jake yelled as he ran to the kitchen where Gwen was helping Lou with the cakes for the celebrations.

Hope looked inquisitively to Mark as he entered the dining room, shaking his head.

Mark laughed, though he knew it would be years before Emmy was old enough to have anyone come calling on her, he wondered how he would feel, as her father. ‘Just better keep the badge shined and my rifle in working order,’ Mark thought to himself.

“What was that all about?” Hope asked.

“Seems young Jake just asked me for permission to come calling on Gwen.”

Lucas and Seth had been taking drinks from their coffee cups when they heard Mark’s comments, both ended up sputtering and laughing.

*****

Before they headed home for the night, Mark took a few minutes to reflect on the past seven years of his life. What a change his life had undergone, but he wouldn’t change most of it for anything. There were a few trials that he wished his family had never had to endure, but he thanked God for the blessings that were his.

*****

Old Man winter had blessed North Fork with a mild winter, so far, as Lucas and Milly prepared to celebrate their seventh wedding anniversary on Christmas Eve. Milly was working to prepare supper, with Hope’s and Gwen’s help, when Lucas came into the kitchen and wrapped his arms around Milly’s waist and nuzzled the base of her neck.

“Lucas McCain, you keep that up and I might just burn your supper,” Milly chastised.

“Can I help it if I love you?” Lucas replied.

“No, but you can…”

“Ma, please, why don’t you let Gwen and me finish this. It’s your anniversary,” Hope pleaded.

“Please, Miss Milly,” Gwen requested.

“See, it’s unanimous,” Lucas stated as he pulled Milly from the kitchen and led her back to the front room of their home.

“Lucas, it’s not right,” Milly responded.

“If the girls want finish this, let them,” Lucas stated as he pulled Milly to his lap as he sat down in his chair.

As they sat together, they watched while Mark played with his sons and brother and sister on the floor in the front room. Lucas smiled and hugged Milly even tighter as he listened to the laughter from their children. Soon, Lucas helped Milly from his lap and was down on the floor with them. Milly, Hope, and Gwen all laughed as the others rough-housed around.

“Okay, you… you… hooligans!” Hope called. “If anyone is interested in eating, I need for certain members of this family to wash up. Supper is ready.”

“Come on, everyone,” Lucas called as he stood to his full height. He assisted Mark in helping the children get cleaned up and seated around the very large table.

Mark offered the blessings on this night.

“Dear Heavenly Father, on this night, the night before one of the Holiest days of the year, we gather before you to give thanks. Not only do we thank you for the food that is placed upon this table to nourish our bodies, but for other blessings you have bestowed upon this family. Seven years ago you granted a wish I had prayed for, for a long time. For my father to find a woman who was his soul mate and seven years ago this day Miss Milly became my new Ma. And through their union, you’ve blessed them…, us, with three more precious lives. So as we prepare to celebrate the birth of your Son, Jesus Christ tomorrow; tonight, we celebrate the marriage of my parents, Lucas and Milly McCain. Please bless this family and their marriage, and all those whose lives we touch. In your name we pray, Amen.”

Throughout the meal, Lucas and Milly would look at each other and smile that smile that said, yes they were blessed. It had been a long time ago when Lucas had resigned himself to a small family, and eventually that his family would be just a father and a son. But seven years ago, his life changed for ever, when he said ‘I do’ and took Milly Scott for his wife.

*****

As they lay down in bed that night, Lucas turned to Milly and asked, “Had I proposed all those years ago, would you have accepted?”

“I don’t know. And that’s only because of the unresolved personal issues I had,” Milly replied as she snuggled into Lucas’ arms. “If you’re starting to become melancholy for something that didn’t happen in the past, stop it. Lucas, we have a wonderful life together. Did you ever think that this is exactly how God planned for everything to happen? And aren’t you the one who’s so fond of saying there’s no looking back?”

“So I’m reminded,” Lucas replied as he kissed Milly. “Thank you for accepting me and my past.”

“Lucas, I didn’t marry your past, even though your past is part of you. It’s the here and now that will become our future. But I guess I should say you’re welcome.”

Milly snuggled more securely against Lucas as her memories took her back to so many years before. She had left, because he had not accepted the truth of her brother’s death and she knew if she were to ever have a chance at happiness, she had to go back home and face the fact that Ted had been killed in the war. Milly remembered the long, lonely stage coach ride and then the even longer train ride back home. In her solitude, she feared she had given up her one chance at true happiness when she left North Fork. And then, what if she hadn’t seen that article in the newspaper regarding the assassination attempt on Senator Borden and that Lucas and Micah had been killed? Though the story was false, it was the kick from behind that she needed to get her to return to North Fork. To face the boy who she had come to care about as if he were her son. To be there for Lucas’ boy. Several times, Lucas had been forced to entrust Mark’s care to Milly or to Micah. ‘Yes, maybe this is how God planned everything,’ Milly said to herself as her body started to respond to her husband’s gentle, caressing touch. Thankful this night they didn’t have to worry about a shivaree, they gave themselves to each other almost as if it were their wedding night all over again.

*****

As in previous years past, the McCains’ shared a simple Christmas day, exchanging small gifts and then spending the day reading from the bible.

The next week flew by as they prepared to celebrate New Year’s Day and Myra’s sixth birthday. Secretly, Milly was pleased her sons’ birthdays were later not so close to the holidays and other celebrations. Throughout the family gathering, Myra was always talking about looking forward to returning to school and to finally being allowed to ride on her own to school, when the weather was nice. She was excited for the new books and hair accessories she received as presents. Lucas marveled at how his two oldest children could be so different, yet, as Milly had told him before, it could just be a matter of a boy versus a girl. Lucas wondered if he should begin to dread Little Ted’s and, eventually, Levi’s, starting school.

*****

As a family, the McCain’s headed into town. Mark had brought work back that the entire McCain clan was invited to celebrate Conner Drako’s fifth birthday. Lou, as usual, had outdone herself in decorating the hotel and restaurant. It had been a fun-filled afternoon with so many children and families present. As the evening came to a close, it was just the McCain’s remaining. Milly, Hope, and Gwen were assisting Lou in the kitchen. Their children were snuggled in some of the empty bedrooms upstairs, having exhausted themselves in playing and celebrating.

In the dining room, Lucas, Johnny, and Mark were talking about their various experiences in being father’s when they were interrupted by Gwen running in, “Mark, go get Doc Burrage!”

“What’s wrong?” Mark asked as he got to his feet.

“It’s Miss Lou. Marshal Drako, Miss Milly said you need to come to the kitchen.”

Mark ran from the hotel to get Doc Burrage, while Johnny and Lucas followed Gwen back to the kitchen.

Johnny found Milly cradling Lou’s head in her lap while Hope was wrapping a towel around Lou’s bleeding hand.

“What happened?” Johnny cried as he knelt down next to his wife. Milly raised Lou up so that Johnny could cradle her head instead.

“I’m not sure, we were just talking and she said she started feeling a little tired. We laughed about how she should be tired after doing all that she had done today. Next thing she’s fainting,” Milly answered.

“Johnny, she was holding a glass in her hand and it broke, cutting her hand. I don’t think it’s too bad,” Hope offered.

A few minutes later, Mark returned with Doc Burrage. Milly and Hope explained to him what had transpired.

“Johnny, if you don’t mind, let’s get her to your bedroom,” Thadd stated.

“Don’t you mean the clinic?” Johnny asked worried.

“No, I think rest will be the best thing for your wife, tonight,” Thadd answered and smiled. “I can tend to her hand, the cut isn’t too deep.”

Johnny quickly looked up when he started hearing Mark laughing.

Lucas started to chastise his son, “Now is not the time...”

“Oh yes it is Pa. Don’t you remember Thanksgiving?”

Everyone looked to Mark in askance as Thadd laughed out loud as he remembered what had happened and he knew the reason she had fainted.

“Oh come on Johnny.” Mark laughingly begged. “You were saying that I was the only one missing out in making the announcements of being in an expanding family way. Doc, please tell Johnny that Lou is going to be fine before he decides to throw me in jail.”

Johnny’s attention was drawn to Lou as she started to moan and move.

“What?” Lou asked as she opened her eyes. “Oh, no,” as she saw everyone around her.

“Lou,” Thadd stated. “I take it you’ve not told your husband you are in a ‘family way’ again?”

It took a few more minutes, enough for Johnny to accept that Lou was okay, before he realized that Mark was jesting him because Lou was pregnant. As he helped Lou sit up, he asked, ‘You’re having a baby?”

In her best Iris brogue Lou replied, “Well not this minute! And yes, WE’RE having another baby. I’m sorry, but I wanted this day to be for Conner. I was planning to tell ye tonight, when we were alone.”

Johnny gently picked his wife up into his arms and as he headed towards their quarters he said, “Thank you for being here tonight and I think you can find your ways out on your own.” His eyes shined as he looked lovingly into Lou’s eyes, while she wrapped her arms around her husband’s neck.

“Mark?” Hope asked.

“I thought I noticed she was pregnant earlier, but I remembered letting the cat out of the bag at Thanksgiving to Thadd, so I kept my mouth shut.”

“How do you do it, Mark?” Thadd asked.

“Practice,” he replied as he pulled Hope into his arms, to which she replied “Mark!”

*****

As the winter progressed on, Mark continued to tease Johnny about the impending addition to his family, knowing that Johnny was a little embarrassed at his age to find out his wife was expecting.

“Oh come on Johnny. You’re not that much different in age than Pa, and Levi’s getting ready to turn one.”

“Yeah, turn one, my latest child hasn’t been born yet,” Johnny lamented.

“Johnny, you’ve a good life and God’s blessing you now, as he couldn’t when you were a gunslinger. You know, I seem to remember many occasions where I was told I had to accept the consequences for my actions…” Mark mischievously called as he ran from the Office as he heard the train arrive.

“The boy’s right,” Seth replied as he couldn’t’ keep the grin from his face.

At first the look on Johnny’s face was cold and calculating, but as he remembered the ‘action’ that brought about this ‘consequence’, he smiled.

“Maybe Doc should have posted a sign to “Don’t drink the water,” Seth laughed as he remembered back to Thanksgiving and the announcements that were made that day and how Johnny and Mark had teased each other.

“Wouldn’t have helped. I have a feeling Lou was already pregnant when the other announcements were made.”

“Oh?” Seth stated curiously.

“Well, the more I think about it, ever since shortly after the night that Mark returned from the dead, after the stunt he and Grid pulled, Lou’s had a way about her." Seeing the expression on Seth's face Johnny went on to say, "Well, I had to do something to placate my wife, I got her so riled that night,” Johnny devilishly pleaded.

“Just don’t let Lou hear you say that you only made love to placate her. I’m gonna head on over to the livery and see if Nils has finished shoeing my horse. I’ll be back.”

Johnny hmmm’d to himself as he remembered back to that night. He should have known. Each time he made love to his wife was special, but that night, maybe because he had gotten Lou so riled, both were more amorous than usual.

*****

The ever mild winter gave way to an even milder beginning of March as the Gibbs and McCain families gathered, at the ranch, to celebrate Levi’s first birthday. As a true McCain boy, he squealed with laughter as he squeezed both his hands into the small cake that had been made especially for him.

“Just like his older brothers,” Lucas commented, causing Mark a little bit of embarrassment.

Later that month, they gathered in town to celebrate Lillian’s birthday. Since Colleen was in the last few months of her pregnancy, Milly, Hope, and Gwen did all the fixings so that Colleen wouldn’t exert herself.

Whenever Lucas could, he teased his brother-in-law about the fact that Johnny Gibbs had been tamed and finally gave in to settling down

“Well, at least I was free for a lot longer than you were, brother,” Johnny replied. “Quite a shock when you proposed to my sister. But… Here’s to you, Milly, and your family.”

*****

Mark had requested and received approval to take the first few weeks of April off from his duties as a U.S. Marshal. In between all the springtime work that was needed around the ranch, Mark had promised Gwen they would add on to their home to provide her a bedroom and a sitting room of her own. Mark and Lucas were extremely pleased with all the help Jake McCafferty provided around the ranch as well as helping with the addition to Mark’s home.

“You know, Pa. Seems that for all the effort we’re going through, Jake here sure gets all the reward. Just doesn’t seem fair,” Mark sheepishly stated.

“Well, you’re already married and uh… I…”

“That’s okay Jake. Don’t let Mark get you all flustered.” Lucas continued, “You’re doing practically as much work as we are. You’re pulling your own weight.”

“If he’s pulling his own weight, then have him help me up here on the roof,” Mark laughed as he accidentally hit his thumb.

“That’s what you get son!” Lucas laughed.

*****

By the middle of April the room was finished and all that remained for them to do was to properly furnish the rooms with items to make Gwen feel more at home. Milly and Hope had secretly been sewing curtains for the windows and Hattie had made a quilt for her bed, while some of their other women friends had made doilies for the dresser and tables, or a throw blanket.

As the last of the touches were put to the rooms, Gwen stood and hugged herself, unbelieving that for the few years she had been alone, and now, she could feel such a part of a family like the McCain’s.

“I don’t know what to say,” Gwen humbly stated as she stood in the middle of the room and looked around., tears streaming down her face.

“You don’t have to say anything,” Hope replied. “You deserve this.”

Hope and Milly and Gwen hugged.

“I think we best let the women alone for a while, we need to go bed down the stock, son.”

“Sure Pa.”

*****

The beginning of May saw the McCain’s preparing to celebrate Eli’s second birthday. Since a number of their friends were expecting and couldn’t travel, they decided to have the birthday at Seth’s home in town.

“Been some time since I’ve had this many people in my home at one time,” Seth stated as he brought in more chairs to the front parlor from other rooms in his home.

“Know how you feel,” Lucas answered as he looked to his family.

*****

As the festivities wound down, Mark stepped over to Thadd, “Thadd, I think you might want to get Abigail to the clinic.”

Thadd looked to him in askance.

“Thadd it might be false labor, but I think your wife is in labor. And you call yourself a doctor,” Mark teased as Thadd took a long look at his wife. “If you’d like, go ahead and leave Savannah here, we’ll keep an eye on her.”

“Thanks, Mark.”

Mark held the front door of the house open while Thadd helped Abigail out the door.

Hope came to stand by Mark’s side as he entered the parlor.

“I didn’t get to thank them for Eli’s gift,” Hope stated.

“I don’t think they’ll mind. They have something more important to tend to.”

“Mark?”

“I informed Thadd that I thought Abigail was starting to go into labor. Listen, I can take care of the children, why don’t you go over to the clinic and see if you can help. I know you really would like to be there.”

Hope stood on her tiptoes and gave Mark a quick kiss and went to tell the others what they thought was happening.

Lucas and Milly headed back to the ranch with their family, while Mark put their children to bed at their grandfather’s.

“Seems North Fork’s had a real population explosion this year,” Seth stated as Mark returned to the parlor.

“Yeah, and don’t you let my wife know I said that, for right now, I’m glad it’s not us.”

“Mark?”

“Oh, don’t worry sir. I’ll accept any child that God blesses us with, it’s just that, well… There for a while, I thought Hope and I, as well as my parents, were going to be the ones to force the building another new school here in town.”

“Well, your family as certainly contributed. I’m gonna go ahead and turn in. Johnny needs me at the office early tomorrow morning.”

“Good night, Seth.”

The following morning, Hope entered the kitchen of her father’s home to inform Mark and Seth that Steven Grady Burrage has been born, just a little while ago.

*****

Mark was standing watch, almost two weeks later, when Amos rushed in with a wire.

“It’s from Fort Stanton,” Amos quickly divulged.

Mark opened the wire and read,

May 15th
Seth Lane
Mark and Hope McCain
North Fork, New Mexico

We’ve a daughter – Marissa Ruth Lane /stop
Born late yesterday /stop
Just like a woman making a man wait /stop
Annie is doing fine. /stop
Seth Edward wishes he had a brother /stop
All our love, Ethan

“Well, at least that’s one baby Doc Burrage didn’t have to deliver,” Mark stated as he handed the wire to Seth, who had just entered the Marshal’s Office. “Congratulations, Grandpa!”

*****

Mark returned home to the ranch much later than usual, though in this mood, nothing could dampen his spirit as he anticipated the morning. As he unsaddled Copper in the barn, he heard footsteps behind him and turned to see his eldest son running inside.

“Hi Papa! You’re in trouble with Mama!” Josh called.

“Trouble?”

“Sure are.”

“What kind of trouble am I in with Mama?”

“I don’t know, but she’s been crying in her bedroom.”

At that moment they both heard Hope calling, “Joshua Lucas!”

“Uh oh, I think your Mama realizes you’re not where you’re supposed to be,” Mark said with a smile.

“Yes, Papa.”

Mark watched as his eldest ran from the barn. He heard the tone of voice his wife used as she scolded him to get inside. Mark shook his head, wondering just what he had done to get in trouble with Hope. Well, he knew with the present he had hidden in his desk to give to Hope tomorrow would make up for anything that he might have done.

He was standing by the post, just about ready to blow out the lantern when he saw Hope enter the barn.

“I understand I’m in trouble,” Mark commented.

“I hope you have a good explanation for how you could have forgotten?”

“Forgotten?... What did I forget?” Mark asked.

With that question, Hope turned and ran from the barn. Mark blew out the lantern and proceeded to jog to his home. After closing the door behind him, he saw the twins standing and pointing to his bedroom. As he took off his hat and set his rifle in its holder above the mantle. Mark was curious where Gwen was because the door to her sitting room was open and the room was dark. He wondered why she wasn’t in the front room looking after the boys, hoping maybe she could give him an idea for what he had done.

For the time being, Mark put his concerns for Gwen out of his mind as he walked to the door to his bedroom. He turned the doorknob and slowly pushed open the door. Inside he saw Hope lying on their bed, crying. Climbing onto their bed, he placed a hand on Hope’s back and asked,

“Please, tell me what I forgot?”

“Our Anniversary! That’s what!”

“Our Anniversary? But that’s not until tomorrow,” Mark stated, confused.

“Tomorrow?!” Hope declared as she sat up on the bed. “We were wed on May 20th, six years ago.”

“I remember, I was there,” Mark stated as he put his hand to Hope’s cheek to wipe away her tears. He could see the hurt in her eyes. “Hope, I didn’t forget our anniversary… Honest. Tomorrow’s our anniversary. Today’s the nineteenth,” Mark replied.

Looking into Mark’s eyes, Hope saw the love he held for her, “Then… you… lost track of what date today is? Today’s the twentieth.”

“Are you sure?” Mark asked, upset with himself for losing track of the days.

Hope nodded.

“Hope, I’m so sorry. I… I don’t know how or when I lost track of the date.”

Mark stood and walked to his desk. He pulled open the center desk drawer and as he turned around, Hope saw he held a slender, elongated box, wrapped in brightly colored paper.

“I had planned to give this to you on the morning of our anniversary.”

Mark climbed back on the bed and handed the box to his wife.

“I am so sorry. I wanted you to have this,” Mark stated.

Hope unwrapped the present and lifted the lid to the box.

“Oh, Mark, I can’t,” Hope exclaimed. “It’s too expensive. I can’t possibly…”

“You can and you will.”

From the box, Mark pulled a necklace that contained four golden charms. Each charm was engraved with the name of one of their children. “And, I do plan to make sure there are more charms added to this necklace,” Mark stated as he placed the necklace around his wife’s neck and fastened the clasp. He turned Hope to face him as he leaned forward to kiss her.

“Please accept my apologies?”

“Oh Mark. I love you,” Hope cried as she wrapped her arms around Mark’s neck.

“I take it I’m forgiven?” Mark asked

Hope nodded.

“I am hungry. The stew smells good, I hope there’s enough left for me to eat.”

Together they climbed from the bed and opened the door to the front room of their home.

“So, where’s Gwen?”

“I had planned for her and Jake to take the boys out for a ride this evening, so we could enjoy supper alone.”

“Well, we wouldn’t be alone with Emmy still here,” Mark replied as he wrapped his arms around his wife’s waist.

“Mark!” Hope teased. “Any way, I was so upset when you didn’t come home, I told Gwen and Jake just to head on out for a ride and if they wanted, Gwen could spend the night in town at Hattie and Micah’s instead of having to get her back here tonight.”

“Do they seem to remind you of anyone?” Mark asked.

“A little,” Hope answered as she remembered back to when she came to live in North Fork.

“Have the boys already had their supper?”

“Earlier. Would you put them to bed? I’ll get your supper ready for you.”

Mark had all three boys in their nightshirts and ready to say their nightly prayers. Together, Hope and Mark listened, then tucked each one in under the cover, and lovingly wished them sweet dreams.

When they returned to the front room, Mark found a box on the table with his name on the tag.

“And you couldn’t have given this to me this morning to remind me that today was the 20th?” Mark asked as he teased Hope. Mark unwrapped the box to find inside a new scabbard for his rifle, with intricate leather work of the sun rising over a range of hills.

After Mark had finished eating, he heard their daughter start to cry.

“I’ll take care of Emmy while you clean up the dishes.”

It didn’t take long for Hope to wash the dishes and set them out to air dry, when she was done, she headed to their bedroom and from the doorway watched Mark change Mykaela’s diaper.

“So Emmy, you and your mother conspired against me this morning. You couldn’t have given me warning that today was my anniversary?”

Hope listened as Emmy cooed in return.

“Oh, young lady, maybe I should have let your Mama tend to you instead. I think this is one time I wouldn’t have minded doing the dishes.” Mark turned as he heard Hope giggle as she came up behind him.

“Would you like some help?”

“No, this is my penance for losing track.” Mark leaned over and kissed Hope on the cheek.

When he was done, Mark handed Mykaela to Hope and then took the diaper and placed it in the pail on the back porch. When he returned to their bedroom he found Hope already in bed.

Mark changed into his own bedclothes and then climbed into bed, he watched as Hope laid their daughter down in her lap and then started to unbutton her nightgown and placed their daughter to her breast. Mark pulled Hope ever more close to him.

“I might have forgotten today’s date, but I’ll never forget these moments.”

The Next Step — The Stranger

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

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