The Rifleman
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The Next Step…
Chapter 15 - Mark’s Return
Written by Deanne Bertram

It was Tuesday evening, when Nils came running into the restaurant, calling, “Micah, Lucas, Milly, he’s back. He’s at the livery right now.”

They all stood, with Lucas giving Milly an expression that told her to sit back down. He’d bring Mark to her.

Lucas, Micah, and Nils ran to the livery. As they entered they saw a very tired Mark carrying a saddle to put it on a rack. Lucas reached Mark and grabbed the saddle from him.

“Glad to see you home, son. You want some help?” Lucas asked.

“Pa, I’m sure glad to be home and yeah, I could use your help with the horses,” Mark replied.

All could see and hear the weariness in Mark. Micah told him to sit a spell; that the three of them would finish tending to the horses. Mark walked over to Blue Boy and scratched him above the eye. “Hey there boy, how’s Hope been treating you? Has she given you enough exercise?” Mark let out a yawn and then shivered briefly.

Once the horses were tended to, Lucas walked over and put an arm on his son’s shoulder.

“Come on Mark, Milly’s over at the restaurant. I’ll see that you get a room at the hotel for the night,” Lucas stated as he lead Mark out of the livery.

“Pa, I’ll be okay. I can make it home.” Mark looked up at his Pa, and said, “Honest Pa.”

“We’ll see,” Lucas answered as they walked.

They entered the hotel and Mark saw the concerned expression on his Ma’s face. He walked to her and gave her a huge hug.

“I’m sorry Ma. I didn’t mean to worry you. It’s just that…”

“Mark, you can tell us all about it tomorrow, right now, you’re going to eat.”

They exchanged a few moments of understanding, without saying a word, when Mark finally agreed and sat down. Alice brought out a huge steak and fried potatoes for Mark.

“Mark, would you like some dessert when you’re done?” Alice asked.

“No Ma’am, I think once I’m done with supper, I want to head home and sleep in my own bed.”

Mark was halfway through his meal when Hope entered the restaurant, the look of worry on her face disappeared when she saw Mark. She smiled as she walked to the table where Micah and the McCain’s sat. Mark stood to pull out a chair and invited her to sit. No one really talked, they knew how tired Mark had to be, but they were thankful to just be near him.

Mark had finished eating, when Lucas stepped out. When he returned he led his family to the buckboard, Blue Boy tied to the back and Mark’s saddle in the back of the buckboard.

“Hope, I’ll be back in town tomorrow. Can I see you tomorrow afternoon?” Mark asked. She nodded.

“Pa, let me walk…” Mark started to say.

“No boy,” Micah interrupted. “You head on home with your folks, I’ll see to it that Hope gets back to Miss Hattie’s.”

Mark smiled as they turned to walk away.

“Okay, son, up in back. I’ll take it slow and easy, just in case you fall asleep back there,” Lucas stated. Mark hopped up in back as Lucas lifted Milly to her seat. The headed for home.

Once home and after tending to the horses, Mark didn’t remember returning to the house, walking to his bedroom, or falling down in his bed.

*****

Lucas returned to the house for lunch. As he entered from the back, he stopped at the stove, put his arms around Milly, patted her stomach, and asked, “So how’s the little bun doing today?”

“Much better with the medicine Doc gave me. Now, let go of me or I’ll burn your lunch.”

Lucas turned and walked to the table, noticed the door to Mark’s bedroom was still closed.

“How’s our bull doing?” Lucas asked, pointing to Mark’s door.

“He’s more like a calf, sleeping. I checked on him about an hour ago. I don’t think he’s moved since he fell asleep last night.” Then with concern in her voice, “Lucas I want Doc Burrage to look at him. He looked so pale and exhausted last night. I’m worried.”

Lucas pulled Milly into his lap as he sat down at the table.

“Milly, I know. I am too. But we don’t know what happened out there. If he wants to tell us, we’ll be here to listen. Once he’s awake, we’ll see how he’s doing and if we feel he needs Doc Burrage… Right now, let him sleep.”

Lucas was giving Milly a playful kiss when they heard, “Don’t let me interrupt, but whatever you’re cooking smells good.”

“Afternoon son,” Lucas stated as Milly stood up and returned to the stove.

“Okay, so how long did I sleep this time?” Mark asked as he stretched his arms.

“Have a seat. You returned to North Fork last night. So you only slept the night and this morning.” Lucas stated and then took a sip of coffee from the cup Milly handed him. “Mark, we won’t pry, but if you need to talk, you know that both your Ma and I are here.”

“Pa, I’d like to talk, but first, I’m rather hungry,” Mark stated.

Milly set a plate in front of Mark first and then served Lucas.

“Mark, while you’re eating there’s something we need to discuss,” Lucas stated. Mark looked up from eating, his eyes inquiring. “Hear me out. Mark, before you left, you told Micah to tell us something that wouldn’t worry us while you were gone.”

“Yes sir.”

“Well, first off, the number one rule we always lived by has been broken, quite a lot, lately and I aim to see that it gets re-affirmed. We don’t keep secrets from each other.” Lucas looked directly at Milly and then to Mark.

“So, next time you leave town on business, you will tell us, yourself. Don’t leave it to Micah.”

“Yes, sir.” Mark stated as he took another bite of food.

“Also, Milly and I have already come to an understanding about you finding her week, before last and not telling me. That will not happen again,” Lucas sternly stated. “If it does, both of you will have your back-sides tanned. I’m the head of this house and it’s my responsibility to provide for and protect. You’ll see to it that I’m told of everything?”

“Yes, sir.” Mark answered, feeling like a child getting his hand slapped for sneaking a cookie.

“Finally, everything is forgiven. As I once told you, Mark, there’s no looking back, we’ve come too far.”

“I understand Pa.” Mark said as he looked at his Pa and gave a weak smile.

“Lucas, I think you’re being too serious for all this. Just tell him,” Milly laughed.

“Well son, while you were away, we found out some news,” Lucas said.

“So Ma is pregnant?” Mark asked as a smile crept across his face and his eyes brightened. “I’m going to have a baby brother or sister? When?”

“Mark, I don’t know what I’m going to do with you. You’re too smart for your own good sometimes,” Milly claimed as she smiled. “If we’re right, the baby will be born sometime in January.”

“How does that make you feel Mark?” Lucas asked. It had been just the two of them for so long. Now there was Milly and soon, a new baby due.

Mark stood and walked behind Milly, he bent over and gave her a hug around the shoulders, then said, “Pa, I don’t regret the life we lived, just you and me. But this is special. Having a Ma and next year I’ll have a brother or a sister, it feels warm. It feels right. Its home.”

A tear was streaming down Milly’s cheek as Mark gave her another hug and she patted his arm.

*****

Lucas followed Mark as he walked to the barn to saddle Blue Boy. Every now and then, Mark would sneak a peek towards his Pa. He smiled as he saw his Pa smiling. Everything was as it should be.

“I’ll be back for supper tonight. Oh, and tell Ma, I’m planning to bring Hope. See you Pa!” Mark called as he rode to North Fork. He needed to make his report to Micah and had promised to see Hope.

Mark arrived at the Marshal’s and found Micah sitting behind his desk.

“Afternoon Micah,” he stated as he entered.

“Hi Mark. How’re you doing?”

“Better, got to sleep in my own bed and ate some of Ma’s cooking. The only way I could be any better would be to have Hope in my arms.” Mark grinned at his own comment. “Micah, when I stopped off an evening, I worked on writing out a report. Thought I could save you some time.” He handed an envelope to Micah.

Mark sat down in the chair as Micah started to read.

“Boy are you sure you want to include how old you are in this report?” Micah asked.

“Micah, it’s about time everyone knew anyway. More people are bound to find out, what with Drew here, and Marshal Carson and Sheriff Mitchell. Besides, Pa informed me this morning how much secrets can hurt.”

“Okay, it’s your report.”

Micah had just finished reading Mark’s report when Drew hobbled into the office on crutches.

“Hi ya Mark. So tell me about your adventure. Marshall here didn’t tell me a whole lot.” Drew stated as he leaned his crutches against the wall.

“There weren’t a whole lot to tell, until I finished reading this here report.” Micah whistled. “Boy, no wonder Marshal Carson said you were exhausted. Tell you what, Drew’s been helping me out here in the office, while I’m out and about, why don’t you take a few more days off. Help your Pa out at the ranch. Come Friday night you can return to town and take back your responsibilities as my deputy. Doc says it’s going to be a few more weeks before he can ride, so until Johnny comes back, I’ll could use both of you.”

“Sure Micah. Well, if that’s all, think I’ll head on over to Miss Hattie’s to see Hope ,” Mark said as he stood to leave. “Drew, thanks for helping out.”

“Hey Mark, it’s good to be able to stay in one place for a while, even if I am wearing this here ball and chain. Mind if I walk out with ya?”

“If you think you can keep up.”

Micah watched as the two stopped at the hitching rail and talked for a few minutes. Then he heard Drew holler, “Get on over and tell your gal I said ‘Hi’.”

*****

Mark rode Blue Boy over to Miss Hattie’s. Before he could knock on the door, it was opened and Hope was there.

“Mark, come on in. Miss Hattie’s looking forward to seeing you.”

Mark removed his hat as he entered the house. He followed Hope into the parlor where Hattie was waiting and pulled him into a big hug.

“My child, you don’t look like you’ve fully recovered from your ordeal. Why aren’t you back in bed, resting?” Hattie asked and she looked Mark over one way and then another.

“Hattie, I needed to get to town and report in to Micah. I should have done that last night. Besides, it gave me a great excuse to come here and see you.” He gave her a small kiss on the cheek.

“Now I know you’re not feeling well. You didn’t come here to see me, least not that’s the only reason.”

“Miss Hattie, I was wanting to invite Hope over for dinner tonight and if okay with you, she could spend the night at the ranch. I’d bring a cot in from the barn and she could sleep in my room. I mean, I’d sleep on the cot in the front room and she could sleep in my room.”

“Mark, I know you’re a gentleman and I knew exactly what you meant. Go on, enjoy yourselves.”

Hope packed an overnight bag and they ran out of the house to Blue Boy. Mark got in the saddle first and then pulled Hope up behind him. They rode to Nils, where they saddled a horse for Hope. As they started to leave, Mark got on Blue Boy and again pulled Hope up behind him, she rested her head against his back. Mark led the horse for Hope as he headed for home. The people of North Fork stopped and smiled as they saw the two of them riding from town.

“Mark, you’ve never asked me to spend the night at the ranch before, why now?”

“Because Drew told me he’d seen Miss Hattie and Micah sitting on the bench outside the hotel one evening. Micah had his arm around her shoulder. Kind of made sense after he insisted in seeing that you got back to Miss Hattie’s last night. This way, if they want to spend some time together, they don’t have to worry about getting Miss Hattie back home to make sure you’re tucked in bed. Besides, it also means I get to spend more time with you.”

Mark kicked Blue Boy up into a lope as he heard Hope laughing behind him.

*****

Lucas was coming from the barn as they arrived.

“Well know, what’s this?”

“Hi Pa, I brought Hope home for the night. We borrowed a horse from Nils so we could go riding and checking the fence line tomorrow.”

“For the night?”

“Sure Pa, Hope can sleep in my room and I’ll sleep in the front room on a cot. Besides, I think Miss Hattie and Micah might appreciate some time alone.”

“Micah and Hattie?”

“That’s what Drew told me today. He saw the two of them together while I was gone. Thought they might appreciate some privacy. That and Micah told me not to report for duty until Friday evening. So Hope and I can work the ranch until then.”

“Okay, just get the horses inside and get cleaned up. Hope, Milly is looking forward to your company.”

“Thank you Mr. McCain.”

Lucas walked to the porch, turned around and watched as the two led their horses to the barn. Their laughter was infectious.

“Lucas, what’s so funny?” Milly asked.

“The kids. You won’t believe what Mark had to say. He said the Drew saw Hattie and Micah together, so Mark invited Hope here to spend the night.” Lucas saw the look on Milly’s face and he put his arms around her. “Don’t worry, Mark’s going to sleep on a cot in the front room while Hope sleeps in his room. Besides, I have a feeling those two really will get married and for a while, they’ll be living here with us. So this’ll give a chance to sorta get used to that idea.” Lucas snuggled into Milly’s neck.

Their moment was broken when they heard, the metal basin out back hit the ground and then Mark yelling, “Hope, I’m gonna get you! Just you wait!” Both ran to the back door to see the wash basin upturned and on the ground. They saw a soaking wet Mark catch up to Hope and grab her around the waist. She squealed and playfully kicked at him. Lucas saw Mark carry Hope towards the creek.

“Mark, stop right where you are!” Lucas yelled. Mark set Hope back on her feet, but he didn’t let go of her waist. Together they walked, laughing, towards the house.

“Okay, young man, why don’t you go get changed into something dry, while Hope helps Milly get supper finished.”

“Yes Pa.”

*****

While Mark was changing, Milly was teasing Hope. “Hope, why on earth would you do something like that? It wasn’t very ladylike.”

“Well he tried to splash me first, so when he had the towel to his face, I just couldn’t help it. Mrs. McCain, the look on his face, was so funny. It was like the day at Miller’s…”

“I know Hope. Mark told us. If either of our men ask, tell them I firmly reprimanded you. Oh how I would have loved to have seen Mark’s face,” Milly said as they both giggled. Both their faces turned serious when they heard Mark return from his bedroom.

Hope and Mark shared the chore of setting the table, while Lucas helped carry the food from the stove to the table. As a family they sat down. Lucas said grace.

After Hope and Milly had finished the dishes, they returned to the front room.

“Pa, Ma? If you’d like, I could tell all of you what happened while I was gone,” Mark said.

“Mark, that’s up to you. If you’re ready to talk, we’ll listen.”

Mark told of leaving town with Barlow in tow. How uneventful the first two days were as they rode, but how unsettling the nights were. He had Barlow properly handcuffed, but still couldn’t bring himself to fully relax into his sleep. Told of, on the night of his third day, a ferocious storm hit. How it came with very little warning. They raced their horses for the hills. Told how they encountered the Jacobsen family. How he was forced to kill one of the horse team and the other one was already dead from the tree falling. Told of how he found Mr. Jacobsen and worked to rescue him and how Barlow worked to save his life.

Mark was quiet and they waited for him to continue his story, in his own time.

“Mrs. Jacobsen was in their wagon, she was in labor. I helped bring a new life into the world… I’ve never seen anything like it. Holding that newborn in my arms, then having Mrs. Jacobsen tell me what I needed to do. Hearing the baby cry for the first time. Mrs. Jacobsen’s young daughters then wrapped the baby in a blanket. When I heard that baby cry, I realized how quiet everything was outside. The storm had stopped. It was so peaceful, then hearing that baby suckling at her breast.

“For the rest of that night, not only was I responsible for Barlow, but I was responsible for the whole Jacobsen family. I couldn’t bring myself to sleep. Worrying how to get everyone to town. In the morning, Barlow and I made a travois and tied it to the packhorse and got the husband settled. Then we got their two girls up on Barlow’s horse and I was responsible for getting Mrs. Jacobsen up on the horse I was riding. Then we had to lead them to town. We broke camp around eight that morning and didn’t get to Clovis until nine that night.

“After a while, it all started running together. I just focused on placing one foot in front of the other. We stopped and rested every now and then, but… Once we reached Clovis, it all felt like a dream and I was sitting, watching from the outside. I couldn’t focus on anything. Next thing I knew, it was Saturday afternoon.

“I’m really sorry for causing all of you, this worry. It just sounded so simple, escort a prisoner to Clovis and then come home.”

Mark finish telling his story and pulled Hope into his arms. He gave an involuntary shiver, glad that this was in his past.

Hope and Milly retired to their bedrooms, while Lucas and Mark worked to set up a cot in the front room for Mark.

“Son, I’m mighty proud of you. You’ve taken a big step in growing up. It amazes me the compassion and depth of caring that you have inside you. You can hear it in your voice when you talk. I’m sure your Ma, your real Ma, is smiling down on you.”

“Thanks Pa. I know that both of my Ma’s are smiling at me.”

“Goodnight son.” Lucas blew out the lantern.

*****

Mark woke before anyone else. He quickly dressed and headed to the barn to start his morning chores. As he returned to the house, carrying a basket of eggs and a pail of milk, Hope was coming from his bedroom. He smiled as he looked at her. Mesmerized by the beauty he saw. Together they prepared breakfast. When it was ready, Mark knocked on the door to his parent’s room. “Breakfast, if you two sleepyheads are awake.”

“Be right there Mark.” Mark heard Lucas call and then heard laughter behind the door.

Hope was just setting breakfast on the table as Lucas and Milly entered the front room.

As they ate, Mark let his attention drift, Milly brought him back to present when she placed a hand on his arm.

“I’m all right Ma.” He smiled and finished eating breakfast.

While Milly and Hope cleared the table and did the dishes, Mark and Lucas walked to the barn.

“Pa, can we talk for a moment?”

“What’s on your mind?” he asked as they started to saddle their horses.

“Pa, helping that baby come into the world… I mean, I’ve never…” Mark cast his eyes to the ground, shame and embarrassment were evident.

Lucas realized what was concerning his son.

“Mark, God wouldn’t have put you there, if he didn’t feel you couldn’t handle the situation... Witnessing the birth of a child is miraculous. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. That woman needed help and you were the only one who could help her. Just remember, you did what had to be done.”

“I will Pa. Thanks, I just needed to talk -- without Hope or Ma present.”

“I understand son. There are things that should be kept between a father and son.”

Hope entered the barn, eager to get started on riding fence.

As they rode away, Lucas hollered, “Enjoy your ride today!”

Most of their ride was uneventful. They did find one break in the fence. A tree limb had partially come down. Mark stepped down from Blue Boy and tied his lasso to an end of the limb. Climbed back in the saddle and maneuvered Blue Boy to pull the limb off the fence. Luckily he had thought about tying the ax on back of his saddle. It was going to take a while for Mark to chop down the limb from the tree and then repair the fence section. He stripped his shirt, hung it over the saddle horn, as the sun was already high in the sky and it was hot out. He worked hard to chop the limb from the tree. Then he pulled wire from his saddle bag and started to work on the repair. Hope picked up the other two strands of broken wire and held for Mark. He turned around to pick up another end, when Hope saw the scars. It had been a long time since Thanksgiving and she had forgotten about the attack.

Mark put his shirt back on and they continued to ride. Around noon, they stopped for the lunch Milly had packed for them. After eating, Mark leaned back into a tree and Hope sat in front of him and leaned back into him, as he wrapped his arms around her.

“Mark, do they hurt?” Hope asked.

“What?”

“The scars on your back, do they hurt? So much has happened and I forgot about them, until earlier.”

“Not really, sometimes I’ll stretch or move and I feel a tug across my back. They don’t really hurt. In fact, it’s been a long time since I thought about them. The only hurt is remembering how they came to be on my back. Same as yours. Yours doesn’t hurt any more, does it?”

“No Mark. You took the hurt away a long time ago.”

They watched as the clouds drifted by… Hope claiming one cloud looked like a rabbit running. Mark then pointed to another, looking like an elephant.

“An elephant?” Hope asked.

Mark explained it was an animal that lived in India and Africa, continents on the other side of the world, he’d read about them in a book Mr. Griswald had given him. He’d also seen them at a circus once, long ago.

A breeze was blowing across the range, the grass was waving in unison and the leaves on the trees were swaying back and forth. Mark leaned his head forward and nuzzled into Hope’s neck. Gently, pressing a kiss to her skin.

“Hope,” Mark’s voice broke the silence of nature. “I just can’t imagine living my life without you. I just want you to know that I will make you my wife. I promised Pa I’d wait until we were at least eighteen. But I also know, you need to finish your education. And then, together, we’ll make a future life together... Waking up with you at the ranch this morning, it gave me a whole new understanding to the word family.”

“Mark, I want to share your dream and your life.” Hope turned to Mark and looked into his eyes. Mark took her chin in his hand, slowly he leaned forward and they kissed. The same warmth spread though both their bodies as it had that day back at Miller’s Creek. They parted and Mark pulled Hope close. Both sighed.

“Hope, I’m already hurting because I know come tonight, I will have to return you to Miss Hattie’s and I’m missing you already.”

“I’m missing you too. But I think we should return to your home. It’s getting late.

The Next Step — The Return of Johnny and Lou Drako

This is a story based on the TV series The Rifleman
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