The Rifleman
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The Next Step...
Chapter 35 - Fort Sam Houston
Written by Deanne Bertram

As Mark and Hope were walking past the general store, Mrs. Donner announced that there was a letter addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Mark McCain, posted from San Antonio, Texas. Hope accepted the letter and opened it.

Dear Sis and Mark,

I pray that this letter finds both of you happy. I have good news, I am to be married. Antoinette has accepted my marriage proposal. We’re to be married October 19th, hoping that you can travel to Fort Sam for our ceremony. Please wire, father and I will make all the arrangements for your stay.

Love,
Ethan Lane

PS: Father sends his love.

“Mark, Ethan sent wonderful news. He and Antoinette are to be married next month. He’s asked if we could come.”

“You’d really like to go wouldn’t you?” Mark asked as he pulled her into an embrace.

“Yes Mark, it’s been over a year since I’ve seen father and Ethan and I’ve never met my future sister-in-law. Ethan just writes of her in his letters. Mark, please, may we go?”

“Hope, you don’t have to ask. We’ll talk with Pa and Ma tonight when they come back to town for supper, and then I’ll make arrangement once Micah returns. You’ll need to find someone else to help out at the day care center while we’re gone. If your father agrees, we can arrive a few days early and then plan to stay a few extra days afterwards so we can visit.”

“Oh, Mark. Do you know how much I really love you?”

“Well you could prove it to me tonight,” Mark quietly whispered in her ear.

“Mark! That will have to wait until Micah returns and I can get you home.”

*****

It was a week before Ethan’s scheduled wedding when Mark and Hope boarded the train bound for San Antonio, Texas. This was the first time that Hope had been on a train and she marveled as the scenery passed by, outside their window. As passengers would come and go, they’d strike up conversations with their seat mates.

*****

As they left the train in San Antonio, Mark and Hope were amazed at the sight that greeted them. The hustle and bustle of the big city and all the soldiers coming and going. Soon, they heard their names being called and turned around to see Major Seth Lane striding towards them.

“Father!” Hope called and ran to hug her father.

As Mark approached, Seth held out his hand to greet is son-in-law. “Mark, we’re pleased that you and Hope could join us.”

“It’s our pleasure sir. Seeing as how many times you and Ethan have made the trip to North Fork.”

“Come on then, let’s get your bags and get the two of you settled in at the hotel. I’ve a room already reserved that I think will be just fine.”

The Major motioned for a private to collect Mark and Hope’s luggage. The Major showed them to a coach for the trip to the hotel.

“Father, how far is it to the hotel?” Hope asked.

“Its a few blocks away. Why?”

“Well, we’ve been sitting on the train for almost three days and I thought, maybe we could walk?”

Seth turned to the private and instructed him to drive the coach to the hotel and see that their bags were placed in their room. As Seth escorted them along the street to the hotel, he pointed out buildings of interest and told some of the history behind the buildings. As a number of people they encountered stopped and greeted Seth, he introduced his daughter and son-in-law to them. A number of the women were wives of officers.

*****

Once they arrived in their room, Mark and Hope declared the room was too grand for them. To them, it appeared to be a presidential suite.

“Non-sense. You’ll stay here and I won’t take no for an answer. This isn’t the best room in the hotel, but I think you’re both entitled to stay in luxury, besides, I’m the one who’s paying the bill. Subject closed.

“Now, I’m sure that both of you will want to freshen up, before dinner. There’s an attendant down the hall who can draw your baths. Ethan, Antoinette and I will meet you in the hotel lobby at five, thirty, okay?” Seth started to leave, but stopped and hugged his daughter one more time. “Hope, I’m happy that you came.”

*****

As they unpacked their bags Mark notice a slight trace of worry in Hope’s face. “Hope, what’s the matter?” he asked.

“It’s just that all the women we met have such elegant dresses. Even my best seems, a little plain.”

“Hope, if you like, we can go shopping tomorrow. Buy you something to make you feel like the belle of the ball,” Mark stated as he pulled her into an embrace.

There was a knock at the door. Mark opened the door to see a two women standing in the hallway.

“Mr. McCain?”

“Yes”

“We met briefly on the street, I’m Mrs. Abernathy and this is Mrs. Rosemont, may we come in?”

Mark opened the door to allow the women inside.

“Mrs. McCain…”

“Please,” Hope answered. “My name is Hope.”

“Thank you Hope,” Mrs. Abernathy stated. “My name is Gloria and this is Elinor. Please don’t think us rude, but San Antonio is a little bit larger town that you’re used to, so we thought we’d help you out.”

“Help me out?” Hope inquired.

“Child, we know you’re wearing traveling clothes and we want you to feel more comfortable when you meet some of the other wives of the officers, so if you’d allow us, a few of us have some dresses that might fit you that we’d be pleased to let you borrow for your stay.”

Elinor then continued, “We’ve a room down the hallway, where some of the wives have donated some dresses, hoping you might find some you’d like.”

“Mark?” Hope said as she turned to her husband.

“Go ahead. I’ll see you when you’re done.”

*****

Gloria and Elinor escorted Hope to the room, where as they entered, Hope saw more dresses in different colors and fabrics than she could imagine. The women assisted Hope in trying on a number of the dresses. Many Hope felt were way too fancy or too expensive for her, but a few, Elinor and Gloria convinced Hope to go ahead and borrow.

“Goria, Elinor, I don’t know how to thank you. This is so much more than I ever imagined,” Hope stated as they carried the dresses back to their room.

“Child, we’d do this for any new wife coming to the post. Most new officers and their wives aren’t quite as young as you appear, but we know how tight money can be when you’re first starting out.”

*****

For this evening’s dinner, Hope chose a lovely green dress that she felt matched her eyes and contrasted wonderfully with her red hair, it had finally grown long enough that it reached past her shoulders.

Once she was finished with her bath and had changed into the dress, she returned to her room to see Elinor standing in front of the door, getting ready to knock.

“Elinor?” Hope called.

“Child, oh my, that dress is exquisite on you. Now, if you’ll let me do up your hair, you’ll be the most beautiful woman present tonight at dinner.”

Once Elinor was done, Hope looked in the mirror and couldn’t believe the transformation. Mark came in a few minutes later and Hope turned around. Mark stumbled out an apology for entering the wrong room, but then looked at the number on the door.

“Mark?” Hope asked.

“You… Are you really my wife?”

Elinor excused herself.

“Do you really like?”

“Hope, you’re more beautiful than I ever envisioned.”

“You’ll wear your badge on your jacket tonight?”

“I don’t know. I’m not a deputy for San Antonio.”

“But you are a deputy. I think you should.”

“For you my love, I’ll wear it.”

Mark pinned his badge on and Hope re-tied his tie. “Can’t have you looking sloppy tonight,” Hope stated.

“I don’t think anyone will notice me tonight, not with you by my side,” Mark replied.

*****

It was a few minutes before five, thirty when Mark escorted Hope down the grand staircase of the hotel. At the bottom of the landing, Mark saw Seth Lane standing, and knew he was mirroring the same expression Mark had worn a few minutes earlier.

With her husband on one arm and her father on the other, Hope was escorted into the dining room. The sight that greeted them, when the door opened, was more than either had planned on. It wasn’t the simple family dinner, but a fully military dinner. All the officers and their wives were present. Mark briefly tugged at his collar, hoping to loosen it.

Seth guided them to chairs, across from Ethan and Antoinette, they presumed. Ethan whispered across the table, “Mark is she really Hope?” and got a swift kick in the shin from his fiance’.

Soon the room was called to order and everyone quieted.

“For those of you who don’t know me, I am Colonel Jacob Albright, I’m the commanding officer of this post. Tonight is a special occasion. Not only is this the monthly dinner my wife and I host for our officers and their wives, but we have guests tonight. The daughter and son-in-law of Major Seth Lane. Ladies and gentlemen, Deputy Mark McCain and his wife, Hope, from North Fork in the New Mexico Territory, join us.”

As those present offered their welcomes, Mark was sure he heard a few of the people sitting to their backs commenting about him being a deputy and how young he looked.

The Colonel ordered the room to quiet. “Mark, Hope, welcome, we hope you enjoy your stay.” The Colonel sat down and the servers started carrying in plates of food and set them in front of everyone. Later, they came around and offered wine to everyone. Hope and Mark both declined, stating that water would do for them.

During dinner, Ethan did introduce Antoinette to Hope and Mark, but they weren’t able to carry on too much of a conversation for the officers around them had questions for Mark and the wives had questions for Hope.

After dessert was served, the Colonel stood and called the room to attention.

“I have one more announcement that needs to be made this evening before the evening concludes. There is a standing promotion that has not yet been posted. I thought it might be a good idea to make that promotion this evening, seeing as how his family is present. Lieutenant Ethan Lane, front and center.”

Ethan quickly swallowed a gulp of water to help force his bite of pie go down, he hadn’t been paying attention and then to hear his name called out. A Corporal waited behind Ethan and pulled out his chair as he stood. Ethan approached the Colonel and stopped.

“Lieutenant Lane, I don’t think these bars suit you any more. From this moment forward, you are to be recognized and addressed as Captain Ethan Lane.” The Colonel removed the lieutenant bars from Ethan’s shoulders and replaced them with captain’s bars. “Congratulations son! Now, go back to your fiancé.”

As Ethan walked back to his seat, the other officers in attendance stood and clapped. When the Colonel finally regained order to the room, “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your attendance and company. Good night.” Colonel Albright extended his arm to his wife and they left the room.

*****

As they left the hotel, Seth led the way to his quarters where the family could talk and catch up.

Antoinette embraced her future sister-in-law as each tried to welcome the other into the family, talking at the same time. The whole group laughed.

“Antoinette, it is a pleasure to finally meet you. Ethan has written so much about you in his letters, I feel I already know you.”

“Well, first off, since we’re going to be family, I insist that you call me Annie.”

For the next few hours they talked of the upcoming wedding and the fact that Ethan and Annie would be heading East for their honeymoon and then Ethan was to take his new post, outside of Washington, D.C.

“Mark, I remember the first time we met and I thought that maybe Washington would be your calling. Never imagined I’d be posted there, but it will only be for two years, then two years posted at West Point, before I’m transferred back West.”

Seth inquired how Hope was enjoying her stay so far.

Hope then turned and addressed her father. “Father, the women of the post, they’ve all been so kind and gracious. It’s more than I imagined.”

“Hope,” Annie stated. “I’m happy Gloria or Elinor didn’t upset you. It can be difficult for a young woman, especially attending one of the Colonel’s dinners. Besides, I don’t think there was an officer present who’s not getting an earful right now from their wife or their intended, because of the stares they gave you as you entered. You are quite beautiful.”

*****

The day after their wedding, Ethan and Annie left on the afternoon train. Seth was busy with duties and told Mark and Hope, he would see them for supper that evening.

*****

While walking the town, Hope overheard a few young children talking and realized they were Kiowa. As she started to walk over to them, she asked, “Please Mark, they are Kiowa. It’s been so long, please…?”

Mark escorted Hope to the children, where she knelt down and started a conversation. At first the children were reluctant to speak, but soon, they started talking and laughing with Hope. As she got up to leave, she handed each one of the children a piece of candy and watched as they scampered away. Mark helped her to her feet and smiled, as he asked, “Are you happy?”

“Yes Mark, I am. I miss Iron Heart’s family, but I wouldn’t trade the family I have now for anything.” Hope looked into Mark’s eyes and then gave him a quick kiss. Arm in arm they returned to the hotel and supper with the Major.

*****

That night, the quiet of their room was shattered in the dead of night by a rock thrown through the window and the sound of a horse running away, hard and fast.

“Hope stay on the other side!” Mark called as he reached for his rifle and carefully made his way past the glass shards on the floor and over to the broken window. Shortly, pounding could be heard on the door to their room. Mark made his way over to and opened the door. Light from the hallway shone in. In the middle of the room, along with the shattered glass, a rock laid with a note tied to it. Mark picked up the rock, pulled out the note and read:

Take your squaw and leave.

This is your only warning!

He clenched his hand into a fist, wadding up the note inside. Turning to the hotel owner, “Get your sheriff and Major Lane.”

Seeing the anger in Mark’s face and hearing it in his voice; was something Hope had never known. Even back when he rescued her from McCormick, she’d never witnessed this kind of rage.

“Everyone get out of here! NOW!” Mark ordered as he pushed the other guests from their room. He lit the lantern on the dresser on the far side of the room. “Hope, get dressed. We’re not staying here. You’re moving to the fort, tonight!”

“Mark?! You’re scaring me. What’s wrong?” Hope asked, fear was in her voice.

Both were dressed and bags packed and on the bed when a knock was heard at the door and two voices identifying themselves as Sheriff Madison and Major Lane. Mark opened the door, rifle in hand.

“Mark, Hope,” Seth stated as they entered, saw Mark’s rifle in hand, and saw the glass on the floor. “What happened?”

“This is what happened!” Anger could still be heard in Mark’s voice as he handed the rock to the sheriff and the note to Major Lane.

“Major, we need to get Hope to the fort tonight. I’ll not risk her life!”

“My life? Mark, please, talk to me!” Hope pleaded.

“Hope, you were right when you asked your father whether the people of this town would accept you as his daughter or as a Kiowa. Someone here is directing their hate towards you. Hope, I’ll not turn tail and run, but I won’t risk your life. You’re going to the fort where your father and the soldiers can help protect you.”

“Hope, Mark is right,” Seth stated. “Until we find out whoever it was that wrote this note, you’re not safe here. Please, I’ll see to it that the commander’s guest quarters are made available for you and Mark until you’re scheduled to return home.”

Colonel Albright ordered soldiers to be stationed outside as Mrs. Albright lit the lanterns and escorted Hope and Mark to the guest quarters. Mrs. Albright pulled the door closed behind her as she left them in their room, Mark holding Hope as she was crying.

“Colonel,” Seth stated. “I’m sorry to wake you and your wife so early in the morning.”

“No need for apology Major,” Colonel Albright replied, as Mrs. Albright returned to their living room.

“Major, what on earth happened to frighten your daughter and her husband so much?” Coralee asked.

“Colonel, you and your wife have only been posted here about a year, there’s a long story.”

“Seth, I think right now you need a friend more than a commanding officer. Tell us what happened.” Jacob Albright replied.

Seth sat down and told the Albrights of his family’s past and his finding Hope alive and living among the Kiowa. Told of how Stedman had used her as a pawn to try to start an Indian war and how Mark had rescued her, twice. Told of how Hope had asked whether the people of the town would accept her as his daughter or Kiowa. “Sir, that’s why I left my daughter in North Fork. They accepted her right off. I know Mark McCain had a lot to do with that, just because he cared so much about her. Evidently, Hope was right. Someone here found out and sees her as Kiowa, and not my daughter.”

*****

For the next two days, wherever Hope and Mark left the post, two soldiers weren’t far behind. On the afternoon of the third day, Mrs. Albright invited Hope to join her for lunch in town, while the men rode to look over some of the new horses that had arrived. Mark was hesitant to leave, but Colonel Albright assured him Hope would not be at risk.

*****

The men were just returning to the fort when one of the soldiers came running up.

“Sirs, I’m sorry, but…” trying to catch his breath. “It was Nicholson. He’s the one!”

“Nicholson?” The Colonel asked. “What do you mean?”

“He knocked me out, when I came too, and went to find your wife and Hope. Then turning to the Major, “Mrs. Albright told me Nicholson came and told your daughter her husband had been thrown from a horse and hurt. Sir, he took your daughter! I’m sorry. I…”

“Where’d he take her?” Mark demanded.

“They said he took a horse and headed east.”

Mark spun his horse around and raced on while the others organized a proper search party. Mark arrived at a fork in the road and examined the tracks; only one set represented a galloping horse. He marked the trail and took the right fork.

Mark finally caught up with Nicholson and Hope after the horse they were riding broke down. He jumped from his horse, rifle at the ready. Nicholson held Hope in front of him, his arm around her throat and a gun in his other hand. Hope was struggling to pull his arm from around her throat.

“You keep back! I warned you to get your squaw out of town. No, you had to stay! To make matters worse, the Colonel made me protect her. Well, I’m going to get rid of this squaw!” Nicholson yelled.

“She’s not a squaw! She’s my wife!” Mark yelled.

“You married a squaw, you’re just as guilty as them stinkin’ injuns!”

Mark watched as Nicholson kept backing away, squeezing his arm around Hope’s throat, tighter. He watched as Hope struggled and fought against Nicholson.

“Nicholson, she’s the Major’s daughter! Iron Heart saved her life when she was eleven and raised her. That doesn’t make her an Indian!”

“She lived with them. That makes her injun. Injuns killed my brother. I joined the army to kill injuns!”

“Let my wife GO!” Mark yelled, tears were forming in his eyes as he realized Hope was losing the ability to struggle. He saw her lips turning blue and her skin turning ash colored. He watched as she mouthed I love you, before her eyes closed and she sagged in Nicholson’s arm.

“NICHOLSON!” Mark screamed.

Nicholson felt Hope’s weight in his arm. In one movement he pushed her to the ground and raised his gun to aim at Mark. He pulled the trigger just as the bullet from Mark’s rifle struck him in the chest. Nicholson’s bullet struck a tree next to Mark.

Mark dropped his rifle and ran to his wife. Tears streamed down his face as he knelt next to her and pulled her into his embrace.

“Hope, please… don’t leave me! God please?!” he cried as he pulled her head to his chest.

Mark turned his head as he felt a hand on his shoulder, he hadn’t heard the others arrive.

“Major, he strangled…”

“Mark, do you know the Silvester Method? Lay her flat, on her back, place her arms above her head, then lift her neck and breathe into her mouth. Then pull her arms down and press them to her chest. Mark, do it!”

Mark allowed the Major to pull his wife from his arms. He felt a slap across his face, “Mark, breathe into her!”

Mark obeyed, crying and praying to God to bring Hope back to him. It was his seventh breath when Mark felt Hope’s body stiffen and she began to cough and gulp in air. Mark pulled Hope into his arms and thanked God. Through tear-filled eyes he looked at his wife as she lay in his arms, shaking, eyes closed, but alive.

“Mark, you did it boy! You brought her back! Let’s get both of you in the saddle and get her back to the fort so Doc can look her over.” Then turning to the men who accompanied him, “Gardner, Holmes, bury the body.”

Mark allowed the Major to help Hope get into the saddle in front of him. He felt her lapse into unconsciousness as she rested her head against his shoulder. The Major grabbed the reins and led them back to the fort.

By the time they had returned to the fort and had Hope in the infirmary, the bruise on the side of her temple was beginning to show.

After a thorough examination, the doctor recommended she stay under observation for the night. He told two orderlies to bring a gurney and to return Hope to the Colonel’s guest quarters. Mark refused, said he’d carry his wife. Doc Pullman told one of his nurses that she would be accompanying them, to keep an eye on Hope.

“Mark, she’s got a mild concussion. She’s going to need to stay in bed for a few days, until her body can adjust from the shock. Then I want her to take it easy once you get her back home. Seth told me you live on a ranch; I don’t want her working hard until your doctor says she’s okay. That should probably be another week after you get her home.”

“Thank you sir.”

Mrs. Albright let them into the guest quarters and helped settle Hope in the bed and pulled the covers up over her. After Mrs. Albright left, Mark crawled on top of the covers and laid on his side, next to his wife, his arm draped over her ribs, tears falling across his face.

*****

Mrs. Albright let Seth into the guest quarters the following morning. He entered to find his daughter and son-in-law still sleeping and the nurse sitting in a chair, reading a book.

“How are they?” he asked.

“She’s sleeping quietly, but he’s been having some bad dreams. Sir, if you don’t mind my asking, just how young are they?”

“They’ll be twenty in a few months.”

“Sir, if I may, I’m going to report in to the doctor and I’m sure he’ll be over afterwards to check on your daughter. It was my pleasure to watch over them last night.”

“Thank you nurse.”

*****

Seth settled into the chair and watched Hope and Mark sleep. He heard Mark become restless, saw him bolt upright, eyes wide awake. Seth walked over to the side of the bed.

“Easy there Mark, you’re safe. You’re both safe,” He said as he laid a hand on Mark’s arm. “Breathe easy son, take deep breaths.”

“I’m sorry sir, I just…” Mark couldn’t continue. He looked at his wife and brushed a strand of hair from Hope’s face as she continued to sleep. Pained at seeing the bruise at her temple.

“It’s okay Mark, I understand. The nurse said Doc Pullman would be here soon. He’ll let you know how she’s doing.”

*****

The train ride home for Mark was agonizingly slow. He continued to worry about Hope, whenever she’d lie asleep in his arms. When she was awake, he tried his best to pretend everything was as it should be. He slept little ever since Nicholson had tried to kill his wife, his dreams kept haunting him.

As the train made its last stop before North Fork, Mark left Hope sleeping in their seat. He stepped to the telegraph office and sent a wire;

Doc Thaddeus Burrage

North Fork, New Mexico Territory

Thadd, please meet six o’clock train tonight /stop/

Will explain, once we arrive /stop/

Mark McCain

*****

Mark continued to let Hope sleep as the train pulled ever closer to North Fork. When he finally woke her, Doc Burrage was kneeling in front of her.

“Good Evening Hope, how are you feeling?” he asked.

“I… Mark, what?”

“Hope, I want Thadd to check you over before we get off the train. We’ve time.”

After a quick once over, and after hearing what had happened Thadd stated, “Mark I think she’s okay, but I’d rather you both stay in town tonight and let me check her again first thing in the morning, before you head home.”

Mark escorted Hope from the train, while a porter gathered their bags and followed them to the hotel. They had just stepped into the lobby when he heard a buckboard approaching, Mark looked over his shoulder to see his Pa and Ma arrive. Lou was at the front desk and immediately had a key to a room and was leading them upstairs. After seeing that Hope was resting comfortably, Mark returned downstairs. He saw the pained look in his parents’ eyes as Doc Burrage left them standing in the lobby.

“We ran into some trouble after the wedding,” Mark stated as they walked into the restaurant. “There was a soldier there who found out Hope had lived as a Kiowa. He blamed her for his brother’s death. He almost killed her…” Mark couldn’t continue. He folded his arms on the table, then laid his head down on them and cried. In time his crying stopped, only for Lucas to realize Mark’s body had given into exhaustion and he had fallen asleep, knowing he was home and others were there to protect him.

Johnny came into the restaurant; he had heard what happened and came to check in on Mark and Hope. He helped Lucas carry Mark upstairs. They placed him on the bed, next to Hope. Milly blew out the lantern and pulled the door closed behind them, as they left.

*****

The following morning, Mark woke unsure of his surroundings at first, then realized there was a knocking on the door. He climbed from the bed and opened the door.

“Thadd, what time is it?” Mark asked.

“It’s almost lunch time. I tried to stop by earlier, but your folks suggested that you needed the sleep more than Hope needed checked up on. Why don’t you wake her and let me see how she’s doing.”

After he finished examining Hope, he said, “Well, I like what I’m seeing. You can head back to the ranch today, but Hope, I want you to take it easy for another week. Any sign of the slightest of headache, I want you back in bed and for me to be sent for. Promise?”

“I promise, Doc,” Hope replied.

“Good, then I’ll see you next Friday for one final check up. Mark, you’ll see to it that she follows my instructions.”

“Yes sir and thank you.”

They walked downstairs to find Lucas, Milly, and Myra in the restaurant. After lunch, Mark stopped in at Micah’s to let him know he’d report for duty on Monday. Then group returned to the ranch. On Saturday, Lucas and Mark worked the ranch, while Milly and Hope tended to the house and Myra.

During the next week, Mark talked some of what had happened, but Lucas realized he was holding something back, he’d not told the whole story. Lucas decided to be patient and wait for Mark to tell him, in his own time.

*****

Friday afternoon, the McCain’s returned to North Fork. Lucas and Milly waited in the restaurant, while Mark and Hope went to Doc Burrage’s. As they waited, Johnny and Micah joined them.

“LucasBoy, you need to talk to Mark.” Micah stated.

“About what?” Lucas asked.

“Luke, he’s different since he came back. When other people are around, he seems okay, but when he doesn’t think anyone’s watching, he’s different. Something happened that he’s not accepted yet.” Johnny said.

“Johnny, how would you feel if someone tried to kill Lou in front of your eyes?” Milly asked.

“Milly, that’s not the problem. He’ll talk about that soldier trying to kill Hope and he’s come to terms with that and knowing she’s going to be okay. There’s something else and I don’t know how to get him to talk, but he needs to get whatever it is out. Lucas, talk with him. Get him to talk about whatever it is he’s hiding.”

Johnny and Micah left before Mark and Hope returned. As they sat down at the table with their parents, Mark took Myra from Milly. He started talking and cooing to his sister. “Yes Gabby, that’s Ma and Pa., and who’s this? Who’s sitting next to us?” Mark asked as he pointed to Hope.

“Ope” Myra stated.

“Well, one of these days you’re going to learn how to pronounce your H’s.” Mark stated with a small grin.

“I think it’s cute,” Hope answered as she took Myra from Mark, as Myra was reaching for her. Then turning to Lucas and Milly, “Doc says I’m fine. I can go about my regular responsibilities, just that if I do get the headaches or any nausea, he’s to be sent for, right away.”

Turning to Myra, “So, little sister, are you ready to go home? I’m sure we have chores that need to get done.”

It had been a tiring week, but the family joyfully returned to the McCain ranch.

*****

The following morning, Milly was woken by the sounds of wood chopping. She sensed Lucas was still in bed and as she looked out the window, she realized dawn had barely broke. Milly shook Lucas awake.

“Lucas, I think you need to talk to Mark. Now!”

“What?” Lucas replied still asleep.

“Lucas, he’s outside chopping wood and it’s barely daylight. Johnny and Micah were right… Something’s bothering him. Go talk to him Lucas.”

They stepped from their bedroom to see Hope sitting in Mark’s chair, knees drawn to her chest, head down crying. She looked up at hearing her name.

“Pa, please. I don’t know how to help him. He won’t talk to me about it,” Hope pleaded.

Lucas walked out the door and called to Mark. Mark didn’t hesitate in his swing. Lucas could see the anger in Mark’s body, just from how hard he brought the ax down on the piece of wood.

“Mark, we need to talk,” Lucas stated.

“Let me finish with the firewood,” Mark answered.

“No Mark, now. We’re going to talk now.” Hearing the tone in Lucas’ voice, Mark looked up from picking up a piece of wood. He saw the expression on his father’s face. He wasn’t ready, he’d hoped to get some of his frustration out by chopping wood, but it wasn’t working. Mark wasn’t ready to talk to anyone. He ran to the barn, hopped on Blue Boy, bareback, and rode away.

Lucas took his time following, he knew exactly where Mark was heading.

*****

“Ma,” Hope pleaded. “Ever since our return, he cries out so at night. I remember the look in his eyes, showing how much he loved me and how pained he was that, that man held me. He won’t talk to me about this and I hurt for him.”

“Hope, let Lucas try. Johnny and Micah told us yesterday, when you were at Doc’s, that they felt Mark was hiding something. Something he wasn’t ready to face. You don’t know what it is either?”

“No, and it’s tearing Mark up at night.”

Milly pulled Hope into her arms, trying to comfort her.

*****

Lucas slowly rode Razor to the pond. He saw Mark standing in front of the two crosses, hat in hand. He watched as Mark fell to his knees and pounded his fist on the ground. Lucas dismounted and walked to his son.

“Mark, talk with me. Tell me what’s wrong,” Lucas pleaded.

“I can’t Pa…, I… can’t,” Mark said through his sobs.

Lucas raised Mark’s head and forced him to sit up and look at him. “Mark, I’m your father. Whatever it is that’s tearing you up inside, tell me about it. I’ll do my best to get you through this.”

“Pa…” Mark stopped, closed his eyes, and shook his head. “When I thought he had killed Hope. I… I…” Mark’s voice was barely a whisper when he admitted to his Pa, “I killed Nicholson.”

Everything now made sense to Lucas. His heart broke for what he knew his son was feeling, thankfully, he knew exactly how to help Mark. He had Mark walk him through every detail of what had happened that day, stopping Mark occasionally and drawing out more detail. At the end, Lucas stated “Mark, you had to know that this day would come, once you put on the deputy badge, guess I should have known it too and been prepared to talk with you before this.”

“But I wasn’t out there as a deputy, I was there as Hope’s husband!”

“Mark, just because you were defending your wife, doesn’t mean that you weren’t acting in the best interests of the law. There have been plenty of times, when I was forced to take a life and yet I wasn’t legally deputized. As long as you were defending yourself or another, it was within the law. I know it hurts, and you’ve seen me after I’ve been forced to take a life. I know it’s not easy. But from what you said, it was either your life or his.”

“I could have pulled my shot! I didn’t have to kill him!” Mark cried.

“Mark, I don’t believe he would have pulled his shot in order not to kill you. There were times, in the past, when I had the time to plan on how to pull a shot so that I didn’t take a life, but more times than not, I never got that time and neither will you. It’s reaction. It’s kill or be killed. Mark, each time it happens, it won’t get any easier. But you can’t keep this inside. Don’t hide it. Each time, you have to talk. I’ve had Micah to talk to afterwards, and yes, it does grieve me at being forced to take a life, but that’s just it. Each time, I was forced into the situation, just as you were. Mark, if you hadn’t acted as you had -- neither you nor Hope might be alive right now.

“Mark, I know God understands what happened and he forgives you. You just have to learn to forgive yourself.”

“Pa, how can I?” Mark quietly asked.

“Talk to God as you just talked with me. When you’re ready, your family will be waiting for you at home.” With that, Lucas stood and walked to Razor. After getting in the saddle, Lucas called, “Mark, remember, we love you.” Then he rode for home.

Upon arrival, Lucas took time to tell Milly and Hope what Mark had told him. They both were just as pained at hearing Mark’s experience.

Mark did return to the house, but not until later that morning. Lucas was walking to the house for lunch when he saw Mark approach, he stopped and watched, pleased with what he saw in his son. The burden had been lifted from his shoulders.

*****

Late that afternoon, Milly had Myra dressed, and Lucas was just finishing putting on his tie. They were almost ready to head into town for dinner as a family. Hope exited from her bedroom and told them to go ahead and have a good time. While Mark was finishing with his bath, she told them, she wanted some time alone, with Mark.

As they drove the buckboard to town, Lucas questioned Milly about what was going on. “Why did you have me bring the cradle and why the overnight bags?”

“Lucas, you helped heal Mark’s mind this morning. I think Hope wants to heal his heart. Besides, sounds like a good excuse for us to say at the hotel tonight,” Milly stated as she pulled Myra closer to her and gave a coy smile to Lucas.

*****

Lucas and Milly arrived at the hotel and were joined for dinner by Johnny and Lou and Micah and Hattie. After dinner, Micah asked if they had found out what was eating at Mark. Lucas explained to the group the secret that Mark had been hiding. The group was quiet afterwards, each understanding. Soon, it was time for everyone to retire for the night.

*****

Milly laid the sleeping Myra down in her cradle for the night and turned around to see Lucas already lying on the bed, under the covers.

“Well, Mr. McCain,” Milly playfully called.

“Yes, Mrs. McCain?”

“So are you just going to sleep the night away?”

“Maybe later. Right now, I thought I might be a husband to my wife. And this was the room where we spent our first night as husband and wife.”

Milly slipped out of her dress and under the covers. After almost three years, she still marveled at the strength of her husband and yet, how gentle and loving he could be. They responded to each other’s needs, as husband and wife. In time, they were asleep in each other’s arms.

*****

That night, after Hope had finished dishes, she and Mark retired to their bedroom. Hope stood in front of Mark as he sat on the side of the bed. She reached forward and unbuttoned his shirt, pulled it off him, and caressed his shoulders and chest as she straddled his lap.

“Hope, please, you need…”

“I need you, Mark. Doc Burrage stated I was fine and could return to all my regular responsibilities. And one of those is being your wife, in mind, spirit, and body…” she reached her hands to Mark’s head and pulled him into a kiss.

Mark couldn’t stop himself, he needed Hope, and he pulled her close to him. Carefully he unbuttoned the back of her dress, and gently pulled it from her body. As they stood, he let it fall to the floor, as he finished undressing himself. He pulled her to him as he lay down, backwards to the bed. Both gave into their desires as husband and wife. Mark totally lost himself, his worries, his fears, everything was gone; the only thing that mattered was the love they shared that moment. Neither knew how much time had elapsed before they laid down next to each other and fell asleep.

*****

The sun was starting to enter their room when they woke the next morning. They laid in each other’s arms, caressing each other.

“Hope, I’m so sorry,” Mark said as he brushed back a lock of her hair and revealed the fading bruise at her temple.

“Mark, the bruise will heal.”

“That’s not it. I’m sorry I wasn’t there to protect you and then afterwards, I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you everything. I was ashamed at taking the life of another human being. But Pa and I had a long talk. Thank you for sending him out after me yesterday. I don’t know what I did to deserve a wife such as you.” Mark stated as he kissed her again.

Still seeing the desire in the other’s eyes, they made love again that morning.

Eventually they rose, and realizing the time, knew they wouldn’t make it to church. Mark went out and saddled Blue Boy and Two-Bits while Hope fixed a picnic lunch for them. They left a note for Lucas and Milly before they headed out for their ride. Enjoying the last warm day, for the beginning of November, as they rode. Mark halted his horse and stepped down, then assisted Hope from her horse. He tied both horses to a tree, loosened their cinches, and then helped Hope set out their lunch. After eating, Mark pulled out a bible from his saddle bag, sat down against the tree, as Hope sat down in front of him and then leaned back into Mark. They spent time reading to each other from the bible. When they felt they had honored Sunday, Mark set the bible down and then wrapped his arms around his wife and thanked God, for his blessings.

The Next Step — The Gifts

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

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