The Rifleman
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The Next Step…
Chapter 42 – Mending Fences
Written by Deanne Bertram

Milly stepped from the porch and saw a lone rider and horse standing on the rise, she called back into the house, “Lucas.”

Lucas came to stand behind Milly and placed his hands on her shoulders as she pointed to the rise. They watched as the rider stood in silhouette against the early evening sky. Lucas called back into the house just as the rider turned his horse to leave.

Hope came from the house, wiping her hands to her apron. She looked in the direction that Lucas pointed and saw the figure riding away.

“Mark?” she quietly said and ran forward and saw the rider pull up his horse, stand up in the saddle, turn around, and look back. She stopped running on the far side of the barn and watched as the rider stepped down from his horse.

Lucas came up behind her and whispered in her ear, “Go to him Hope. I think he came back for you.” He gave her a slight push forward. Milly walked to stand next to Lucas and he put his arm around her shoulder, as she placed one arm around his waist and the other, she placed her hand to his chest. They quietly thanked God for bringing their family back home. Milly looked up to Lucas, both had tears in their eyes, both knowing the first step had been made, but it would take a while for all the hurts to mend. They watched the reunion unfold in front of them.

*****

Hope ran to where the rider stood, she slowed to a walk about twenty feet away, then stopped about ten feet away. She looked at the face of the man in front of her; looked beyond the beard and the mustache. From beneath the shadow the brim of the hat cast over his face, she tried to see his eyes. As she stared, the rider walked forward, removed his hat, lowered his head, and quietly whispered, “I’m sorry.”

The voice sounded sweet to her ears. As the rider stopped in front of her, she lifted her hand and ran it over the beard growing on his face, “Mark?”

He nodded and pulled her into an embrace, tears falling down his face. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you. Can you ever forgive me for running away?”

Hope clung to Mark, tears falling down her own cheeks. “Mark, I’m sorry for the way I acted. I should have known you didn’t tell me so I wouldn’t worry.” She pushed herself slightly away from Mark, so she could look into his eyes. “At the time, I didn’t understand why I was acting the way I was towards you. I was even so mean to my father, and to your parents. Mark, you may not grant it, but I ask your forgiveness.”

Mark placed his hand to her chin and lifted her face as he bent forward to kiss her. He then held her tighter in his arms, “Hope, I can forgive you, but my transgression was worse than yours. I promise I’ll work hard to restore your trust in me.”

Mark bent down and picked Hope up in his arms and carried her back to where Lucas and Milly stood, waiting. As he walked, Hope wrapped her arms around his neck and rested her head on his shoulder and sighed, knowing this is where she belonged, in her husband’s arms.

He set Hope to her feet as he stood in front of his Pa. “I guess you’re pretty disappointed in me?” Mark said as he hung his head.

“Mark, I won’t stand here and judge you. If you remember, I ran away once before. I’m glad you’re home.”

Mark and Lucas watched as their wives returned to the house. Lucas followed as Mark led Blue Boy to the barn. Watched as Mark unsaddled him, then turned him loose in the paddock with Razor and Two-Bits. Mark smiled as he watched the two buddies get reacquainted and Two-Bits trying to get between the boys. They snorted and stomped their hooves and ran around for a few minutes, before settling down.

Resting his arms over the top rail of the corral Mark said, “Pa, I’m sorry I ran. I know I should have stayed and talked… Everything was just so overwhelming. Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not so sure I understand myself. But, for so long it was just the two of us. I love Milly, but that day, I really needed someone, something… and I saw your expression and Ma’s, when Gabby was crying and I felt…” Mark hesitated, unsure, as he looked down to the ground.

“Felt what Mark?” Lucas asked as he placed a hand on Mark’s shoulder.

“I felt like an outsider looking in. Like I didn’t belong here anymore. Pretty stupid, huh?”

“No Mark, not stupid. Just a man, with new responsibilities of a family and new demands from your job, lack of sleep, and not understanding what was happening with your wife. Confused, yes, but not stupid. I guess you had a lot of time to think while you were gone,” Lucas stated.

“At first, I didn’t think, I just rode. Then when I came to the lake, I took in God’s beauty. Decided that was going to be my home. I couldn’t hurt you or Hope anymore.” Mark turned and looked at his Pa. “I went exploring one day and came upon a shack and found a skeleton inside. There was a journal on the table; I guess the man wrote it. Pa, it was as if he wrote his entire journal just for me. When I read his last entry, that’s what got me to act. That’s when I knew I had to try to come home. For better or worse, I had to see if I could.”

“Mark, as husbands and fathers, we all get overwhelmed at times. I want you to promise me that regardless of how you think I feel, you’ll talk with me. Even though it took a dead man to walk you through your troubles, I’m glad you’re home. Come on, let’s get inside, need to get you reacquainted with the rest of your family.”

*****

As Mark entered the house with his Pa, he saw Myra sitting in his chair, playing with the doll she had received at Christmas. “Hi Gabby,” he said as he knelt in front of her.

“Who you?” she asked.

“Mark, your brother,” Mark replied.

"No, can’t be. Mark don't have whiskers,” she answered as she returned to playing with her doll.

Mark looked around, but didn’t see Hope. Milly, seeing Mark’s expression, nodded with her head towards the bedroom.

As he stood, he patted Myra on the head and then walked to the door. Took a deep breath and then gently knocked on the door. From the other side he heard Hope reply, “Come in.”

Mark carefully opened the door and saw Hope leaning across the bed, both babies in front of her. Walking over and sitting on the edge, Mark commented, “They sure have grown.” Then looking to Hope he started to talk, but she placed the tips of her fingers to his lips, “Pick your sons up and hold them.”

As he picked up Joshua and then Zachariah, his heart melted again. He’d lost so much time being away from them. Hope sat for a while and watched as her husband smiled as he held his children. Hope decided to leave them be for a while; as she left the room, she heard Mark say, “Never again. We’re McCain’s. We’re family.” She stood at the doorway and watched as Mark lay down with his sons at his side and was soon asleep.

*****

She turned from closing the door to see Lucas standing behind Milly, with his hands on her shoulders. The expressions on both their faces were inquiring and concerned.

“We’re going to be okay. I know it will take time, but we’re family. He’s so tired, he fell asleep with the boys right now.” Hope looked back over her shoulder, allowing a smile to grace her face as she remembered what was behind the closed door.

*****

After dinner, Mark and Hope sat on the porch and seriously talked. Mark explained how as a young boy growing up, every time his father faced an outlaw, Mark had wanted to be there, by his side. He told Hope of the one time when Lucas was to face four outlaws alone, when Micah and the rest of the town was at a barn raising and there were only a few men left in town. Yet, none of the others would stand up with his Pa. He knew it was a death sentence for his Pa and Mark explained how he’d rather die, fighting next to his Pa, than live without him. “Pa told me about my growing up time and that someday, when I was grown, he looked forward to me standing there, by his side. But then wasn’t the time. When that day finally came, it wasn’t at all what I imagined. For the second time in my life, I took the life of another man. I mean, both Pa and I fired, and both our bullets struck Gannaway.

“I know I probably should have stayed in Romero for a while to recover, but I felt I had to get home to you. Then the babies came and there was just never a good time to tell you I had been shot. Giving birth to Joshua and Zachariah took so much out of you, I didn’t want you to exhaust yourself in worrying about me. You had enough to deal with; I didn’t want to add to your burden.

“Then the pressure of guarding North Fork by myself while Micah and Johnny were laid up. I know I’ve done it before when they’ve been out of town. But this time it just felt… different. I guess it’s because I knew they both were recovering from multiple gunshots. And maybe I got scared in thinking that it could have been me, had I been on duty that morning.

“Then Sam arrived and presented me with the U.S. Marshal badge, I felt I wasn’t ready for it. Ever since I arrived in North Fork, I wanted to grow up to be a man, but this time, I felt I was being pushed to something I wasn’t ready for. In my talks with Tom Benton, he said my decision could wait until I turned twenty-one. Then Sam mentioned that I had been shot. I saw the look in your face and then when we were at Doc’s and then back at Hattie’s, I heard the hurt and anger in your voice. It stuck me like a knife. I knew I had been wrong.

“I guess the final straw was when I made Gabby cry. The day I ran. At first I was looking at our wedding picture, but it hurt too much. Then I picked up my Ma’s picture and was trying to understand all my feelings. Gabby came into our room and she asked me about my Ma’s picture. Try to explain to a child, not quite three, I didn’t know how to explain ‘my’ Ma to her, she started crying. Yelling that I didn’t love Ma. Hope, I saw the looks in Ma’s and Pa’s faces as I tried to explain what had happened... I thought I had lost you and the boys. And I saw Pa, sitting there… I saw his new life. I felt as if I didn’t belong here any more.”

“It all just struck a raw nerve. Guess I let my emotions take control and like a child, I ran.

“I honestly had no idea how many days I rode up into the mountains before I came to the lake. I hadn’t even thought about where I was going, I just ran. I just wanted to be a child again. Playing hooky, no responsibilities, no one looking to Deputy or Marshal McCain. I’d hurt you and Pa, so why not run. I just wanted to be plain ole Mark McCain, who no one would care about.

“When I was riding home, I couldn’t believe I had ridden for six days to reach the mountains.”

Hope quietly sat in Mark’s arms, listening; regretting how much her actions had added to her husband’s hurt. “Mark, I’m glad you decided to come home.”

“I didn’t decide.”

Hope turned in his arms, the question was written on her face.

“I met a man named Ezekiel Desmond. He told me of his life, his struggles… Then he made me see the errors of my actions. Told of how one day, I’d wake up a lonely, old man. I realized that he was right. I didn’t want to grow old and become a bitter old man. I didn’t want my sons to grow up without a father.”

“I’d like to meet him someday and thank him,” Hope stated as she leaned back into Mark’s chest.

“That won’t be possible. I buried him up on the mountain,” Mark replied.

“How did he die?” Hope asked.

“Probably old age. He died twenty years ago, but left a journal. His last entry, it’s like he knew that someday, I’d arrive and read it. It took me ten days to read his whole journal. Maybe if I’d read the last entry first, I would have come home sooner. But, I guess for me to truly understand what was important, I had to read and understand his life. How he’d let something so small become something that prevented him from returning home. How he let God’s beauty up on the mountains become more important than the beauty of what had been his, back home. It’s only beautiful if you can share it with someone you love. I have a beautiful life, but it’s nothing if you’re not by my side. Ezekiel wrote that the first step to mend a broken fence involves just two words, but to make sure I follow up with three more words. -- Hope, I’m sorry and I love you.”

*****

It was late when Hope stood to return to the house, “I need to go feed the boys one last time. You’ll be in soon?”

“I’ll check on the livestock. Hope, thank you for listening,” Mark said before he walked to the barn.

Mark bedded down the animals and gave them a bit of hay before he pulled a cot out from the corner and set it up in the barn. He’d sat down on the cot, removed his boots, and was unbuttoning his shirt when the door opened.

Surprise was written on Hope’s face when she saw what Mark is doing, “Mark?”

"Hope, I can't expect you to take me back to your bed, not after I ran away. I have to earn that right."

"You have that right because you're my husband."

"I sure didn't act that way."

“Mark, I’m as much at fault, I pushed you away.” Hope sat down on the cot, next to Mark. “Husband, where were you shot?”

Mark finished unbuttoning his shirt and pulled it open for her to see the faded scar at his right side, just above his belt. Hope gently ran her fingertips over the injury.

“Hope,” Mark asked. “When did you come home?”

“Four days ago. Marshal Buckhart remembered some herbal remedies a medicine man used to treat a few of the young mother’s in his tribe. It took a while for Sam and Thadd to find the herbs and then work the right combination in order to help me. I was in a pretty dark place and the only light I could see was our sons. After hurting everyone, I ended up shutting everyone out. But once the medicines started working, Hattie and Lou were able to help me. Reverend and Mrs. McCafferty brought us back home. They spent the afternoon with us, especially when Ma told me that you had left North Fork and didn’t know where you were. No one had said anything to me, until then. Mark, you might feel that you have to earn the right to be my husband again, but I have to earn the right to be your wife too.

“Mark, you should also know, because of the medicines, I’m not allowed to nurse the boys. We have to bottle feed them. I guess that’s a small price to pay in order for me to be with the ones who love me.”

“How long will you have to be on the medicines?” Mark asked.

“Doc thought maybe another month and then he’d start reducing the dosage. Maybe, then, I can be taken completely off them.”

*****

Lucas and Milly were woke before sunrise the following morning by crying babies, not just Little Ted, but Joshua and Zachariah as well. Milly picked Little Ted up from his cradle and walked with Lucas to Hope and Mark’s bedroom. When they received no response to the knock, they opened the door. Both saw the bed unslept in. Lucas walked in and picked up both his grandsons, quieting them in the process.

Carrying the babies, Lucas walked from the house to the barn, after he saw the faint glow of a lit lantern, inside. Milly followed. As they entered the barn, they saw Hope and Mark, sleeping on the cot, both on their sides; Hope curled up in front of Mark with his arm draped over her, holding her hand. As quietly as they arrived, they returned to the house.

While Milly held Little Ted to nurse from her breast, Lucas had laid Joshua on her lap. He continued to carry Zachariah as he prepared bottles for the boys.

The bottles were just about ready, when the front door opened. Milly looked up and Lucas turned around to see Hope and Mark sneaking in, embarrassed at being caught.

“Should I call for the marshal and report both of you for breaking and entering?” Lucas asked as he laughed. Soon, Milly, Mark, and Hope joined him. It felt good to laugh. Laughter had been missing from the house for too long.

*****

As Milly and Hope were clearing the breakfast dishes from the table, Myra asked, “When Mark come home?”

“Gabby, I’m right here.”

“No, you not Mark.”

Hope walked and sat down in Mark’s lap and wrapped her arms around his neck, “Guess I know my first order of business today, once dishes are done.”

“Oh?” Mark asked.

“Yes, you are going to get a shave and a haircut, this morning,” Hope stated as she pulled at the whiskers.

“I don’t think I’m ready to go into town just yet,” Mark answered as he grabbed Hope’s hand.

“I didn’t say anything about going into town. I think I can shave you just as good as Sam Barrows can. Besides, I’m really looking forward to my husband returning to me.”

“No more than I’m looking forward to returning to my wife.”

Lucas stood behind Milly with his arms around her waist, as she leaned back to his chest.

“I think they’re really going to be okay,” Lucas whispered.

“Yes, as long as we can protect them and give them the time and space they need to heal,” Milly whispered.

*****

Lucas was heading for the barn to start his morning chores when he saw Mark sitting on the bench outside the back door. Hope was placing a towel around his neck and starting to lather up the shaving cream. As Lucas reached the barn door, he turned and watched. Myra was sitting on the ground playing with a doll and watching. Slowly and lovingly Hope started working the straight razor to shave Mark. As the beard and mustache started to disappear, Myra called out, “Mark home! Ma, Mark home!” as she ran into the house. Another laugh escaped Lucas’ lips as he shook his head. He proceeded into the barn to work on his chores.

Milly was getting things organized in the kitchen when she heard Myra squealing that Mark was home. As Myra pulled her to the door, she arrived just in time to see Hope dump the water basin over Mark as he was wiping his face. “Hope!” Mark yelled. “I’m gonna get you! Just you wait!”

Milly laughed as she watched Mark chase after Hope and eventually catch her around the waist. As Mark pulled Hope close, he turned her around, stared into her eyes and kissed her. Hope pressed her body against Mark’s, her whole body saying she loved him.

*****

That evening, after the babies and Myra had been put to bed, Lucas pulled a box from the chest in the front room.

“Mark, Hope, I know it will take time for everything to truly get back to normal, but I believe you are on the right track. But I think with everything that happened; you’ve forgotten something.”

Lucas set the box on the table and removed the lid. Mark picked the bible up out of the box and set it on the table. Milly picked up the pen and inkwell and set them on the table. Mark opened the bible and looked to his wife. Then, underneath his and Hope’s name, noting their marriage, added:

Joshua Lucas McCain, born, and the date

Zachariah James McCain, born, and the date

*****

Saturday morning, Lucas and Milly rode into town to do their weekly shopping at the General Store. As they were loading up their supplies into the back of the buckboard, both Johnny and Micah stopped and they talked, inquiring how things were going at the ranch, how Myra and Little Ted were, and how Hope and the twins were doing.

“Any word from Mark yet?” Micah asked, genuinely concerned.

“He came back three days ago. Now wait Micah, before you say anything. He and Hope still have a lot of healing to do. This has been rough on the whole family and I’ll not have Mark pressured into returning to working as a deputy,” Lucas stated. “I overheard them talking on the porch his first night back, there’s a lot weighing on him. Just give them time to heal. Please, right now, you’re the only ones we’ve told he’s back, you can let Hattie and Lou know, but I’d like to keep it this way, until he’s ready to come to town on his own.”

Both Micah and Johnny understood and accepted what Lucas had said and asked.

*****

As Lucas and Milly started for home, Milly suggested, “Maybe we should just stay in town and give them time to heal.”

“I seem to remember the last time we gave them time to heal, I ended up with a son and two grandsons, about nine months later. We’ll go home, Mrs. McCain.”

The Next Step — Living Life

This is a story based on the TV series The Rifleman
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