The Rifleman
Welcome to The Writer's Corner
Fan Fiction

The Next Step…
Chapter 76 - The Aftermath
Written by Deanne Bertram 

That evening, at the hotel, Mark wasn’t having any luck as he tried to quiet his crying sons, while Hope held their daughter. He finally decided to tell them he had a new horse, Rainmaker.
“What kind of horse is he,” Josh asked.
“He used to be a mustang.”
“What color is he?” Eli asked.
“He’s black and white.”
“Like Mama’s horse?” Eli asked as he looked to Hope.
“Yes, sort of like Two-Bits,” Hope answered. “Only he has a lot more white on him.”
Mark was pleased to see he sons’ eyes brighten as he proceeded to tell the story.
“How’d he get his name,” Zach asked.
“Quetano told me…”
“Who’s Katano?” Eli asked.
“He’s the Indian wrangler I bought Rainmaker from.”
“A real live Injun?” Josh asked.
“Yes, a real live Indian,” Mark answered in correction.
“He didn’t try to scalp ya?” Josh asked.
“Where’d you hear something like that?” Mark asked as he sternly looked at his eldest son.
“Marty was telling stories about his great-grandpa Hannabury.”
“You can just forget those stories.”
“What about Rainmaker?” Eli asked.
“Well, there had been a real bad drought that year. There hadn’t been enough rain and the crops were dying and they didn’t know if they would have enough to keep their herds alive. Anyway, Quetano arrived out on the range to find his best broodmare was down and trying to give birth. While he waited, the wind blew these real dark clouds over the sky. Quetano was happy to find out that his best mare gave birth to a colt. It wasn’t but a few minutes later than he was up on his feet, looking for his Ma, but first. I was told he looked to the sky and gave a shrill whinny as if to dare the rain to fall. After he had nursed from his mother, he trotted around and continued to whinny until the sky opened up and the rain started pouring. He kept looking to the sky, showing that he wasn’t scared.”
“I like Rainmaker,” Eli answered.
“Can we ride him?” Josh asked.
“Yeah, can we?” Zach chimed in.
“Not yet. You need to do some more growing up. Are you boys ready to go to sleep?” Mark asked.
“Ah Pa, do we have… Yes, sir.”
Their three sons jumped down from the bed, ran across the room and jumped into the second bed in the room; giggling as they climbed under the covers.
After making sure that the children had fallen asleep, Hope curled up and snuggled in bed with Mark.
“Oh Mark, the cruelest part was when Grindstaff told Ma, you weren’t her son. I saw how much those words hurt her, just as much as seeing Pa shot.” Hope cried in Mark’s arms.
Sunday morning, Mark rose early and headed to the clinic to check on his father. Very few people were up and about that early in the morning as Mark crossed the street.
Thadd was stepping from the room where Tom Birch was recovering when he saw Mark enter. “Your prisoner is going to survive, Mark.”
In seeing the expression on Mark’s face, Thadd called out, “Mark?”
“Thadd, you should of let him die. He’s no good to anyone. No one would have blamed you,” Mark replied.
“I would! I took an oath to do no harm and that includes helping someone whether they’re a law abiding citizen or not.”
“You don’t know what he’s done…”
“No, I don’t, but I do know from Tom Benton that he saved your life yesterday…”
Mark tensed in hearing those words. In all the worry and trouble, that fact hadn’t struck home, yet. Anger seethed in Mark. He couldn’t believe he was now in such a position, beholden to a man he hated so much. Mark took a deep breath and tried to relax before he entered the room where his father slept, or so he thought.
Lucas had heard the exchange in the hallway and saw the resentment in his son’s eyes.
“It’s a bitter pill to swallow, isn’t it?” Lucas asked.
“I’d prefer not to talk about it,” Mark answered.
“I won’t let you not talk about it. Mark don’t let this eat at you.”
“Pa, because of him, the lives of our families were put at risk. Because of him, my children were exposed to things I hoped they’d never have to see. Outlaws, in our home, threatening their lives! Because of Birch, I had three son’s crying in my arms last night. He’s a menace to society and we’d be better off with him dead!”
“Mark, this isn’t you talking.”
“No?! You didn’t see the hatred in your wife’s eyes after she pulled the trigger and killed Grindstaff. I did. I saw Hope’s eyes. Pa, I held her in my arms last night, after she fell asleep; the whole night, she trembled. I couldn’t comfort her. Pa, my wife was forced to kill a man because of Birch! How can I not hate him?!”
“You don’t think I understand how you feel? Mark, all the times you were present…”
“I was ten years old the first time I saw you kill a man. My son’s are only four!”
“They didn’t see it happen. They were in the bedrooms with the doors closed. They’re young enough that they’ll forget, as long as you can forgive.”
“Forgive?! You expect me to forget everything that happened because of that man?! You swore the law wouldn’t get to see justice served if he interfered with our family again. And… And… Here you are defending him?!”
Mark stormed from his father’s room. Anger and confusion whirled in Mark’s mind. He bumped into Johnny Drako causing him to lose his balance and almost falling to the ground, if Seth weren’t there next to him.
“Mark?” Seth called out.
Without any indication he heard, Mark ran for the livery.
Seth and Johnny entered Lucas’ room, “What’s got into Mark?” Johnny asked.
Lucas answered in one word, “Birch.”
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Benton asked as he entered the room.
“Getting dressed to go after my son.”
“Lucas, you’re in no condition to go anywhere except to bed. And that’s an order!” Benton stated.
Mark angrily kicked Rainmaker into a lope, he didn’t know where he was going, he just knew he had to leave town. As he rode through the town, he felt something pull at him. Unsure and confused, he stopped his horse and looked around… His eyes stopped looking, Mark climbed from the saddle and walked up the steps of the building in front of him. He opened the door and removed his hat as he stepped inside. He walked down the aisle and fell to his knees, crying.
“Why God?” Mark asked as he bowed his head. “How can I forgive?”
Reverend McCafferty entered and realized someone else was in the church. He heard the sobs and saw the figure on his knees in front of the alter, head down. He heard the man ask, “How can I forgive?”
Slowly, the reverend walked across the front of the room and placed a hand to Mark’s shoulder as he knelt down beside him.
“It’s never easy. But it is the Christian thing to do. Mark, listen to your heart. You already know what to do, otherwise you wouldn’t be here.”
“Reverend, could you?”
“I have, after those outlaws had taken you and my Sarah.” Reverend stood to his feet, “Mark, church services start in a little over two hours. Take your time.”
Mark stood, “I don’t need any more time. You’re right. It was my conflict. My heart knew I needed to forgive Birch, but my mind didn’t want to.”
“God is good at showing people the way to the truth, and helps them see through what their minds tend to cloud over. Your family will be remembered in the congregation’s prayers today. Why don’t you go back to the clinic and let God finish healing you.”
Mark stepped from the church and took Rainmaker’s reins in his hands, he walked back to the clinic. Inside he heard the arguments coming from his father’s room. He decided to let them be, he’d face them once he had done what he needed to.
Without knocking, Mark entered the room where Tom Birch was recovering. Tom Birch looked at him, surprised to see him without a rifle in hand. “So, you’re gonna wait until I’m recovered and then you’ll serve YOUR justice?”
“My justice? Justice is the same for everyone, law abiding citizen or you.”
“I don’t understand. I heard you in the hallway earlier with the doctor. Couldn’t help but hear you and Luke…”
“Then you’ll know what my Pa told me I needed to do.”
“Forgive me? How can you stand there and say that you forgive me? I mean, with everything that I’ve done…”
“Because I’ve got one thing you’ll never have.”
Birch thought for a moment before he replied, “A family…”
“That’s part of it, but I’ve let God in my heart. I’ll let God pass judgment on you, he’ll see that justice is served. For now, I’ll abide by man’s law. Once you’re healthy enough to return to Denver, you’ll testify against Grisolm.” Mark started to leave the room, “Oh, and Birch. If I were you, I’d steer clear of North Fork in the future. Outlaws aren’t welcomed around here.”
“Mark, I do envy you… the life you and your Pa have. From what I saw as you brought me to town last night, you’ve both got wonderful families. I’d really like to say I am sorry…”
“Maybe you are. But God knows for sure.”
Mark stopped in front of the door to his father’s room and took a deep breath. Before he could place his hand on the doorknob, the door opened for him to see his father standing in front of him.
“Hello, Pa,” Mark stated. “I’m sorry for how I acted earlier and for what I said.”
Lucas just pulled Mark into his arms. Those in the room knew this was what the two of them needed.
“When Doc lets me out of here…” Lucas started to say.
“Lucas, I think you’re well enough to go to the hotel and,” Thadd stated from the hallway. “Go tend to your families.”
With his good arm around his son’s shoulder, Lucas and Mark left the clinic and walked to the hotel.
Lucas and Mark entered to lobby to see their wives anxiously coming down the staircase, both paused… before hurrying down the steps and into their husband’s embrace.
The three saw Lucas up to the hotel room where his children were still sleeping. Milly insisted he lie down.
“I’ll be back with breakfast,” Milly stated as she left the room.
“Ma, I’ll come with you,” Mark stated. Mark saw his wife about to say something, “No, I’ll do it. Why don’t you wake our children and we’ll all have breakfast over here.”
Hope nodded.
After placing their order for breakfast with Alice, Mark turned to Milly as they sat at a table and spoke, “Ma, I’m sorry. This shouldn’t have happened.”
“Mark, it’s not your fault,” Milly answered as she tried to put a smile on her face. “With your father’s and your reputations, Hope and I know…”
“But you shouldn’t…”
“Mark, we don’t hold what happened against either you or your father. You are who you are because your father is Lucas McCain and you’re his son, Mark McCain.”
“I’m also your son, too,” Mark stated.
“Grindstaff…” Milly started to speak, but the words the outlaw had spoke hurt her deeply.
“Ma, I don’t care what any outlaw says. If I didn’t feel it in my heart, I wouldn’t call you Ma, you’d be Milly. Please, even when you first arrived in North Fork, I felt there was something special about you. You’re prettier than I remember my Ma being, but you have the same loving heart that I’m sure she had. You both broke through the tough exterior of my Pa and helped him fall in love.”
The McCain family was slightly late in arriving to church that morning. Reverend McCafferty acknowledged their entrance and motioned for them to take their seats.
After services were concluded, Mark and Hope insisted that Gwen stay in town with Hattie and Micah, to give her a chance to possibly forget what happened. Maybe a few days away from the Ranch would help her, plus she could spend some time with Jake. They returned home to find Johnny, Colleen, Lillian, and their twins standing on the porch.
“Colleen cleaned up inside and I boarded up the front window. You shouldn’t have to come home to what was inside,” Johnny stated as he helped steady Lucas down from the buckboard.
“You shouldn’t have,” Milly answered and Johnny helped her down.
“We’re family and that’s what family does,” Johnny laughed. “What’s good with being family if you can’t help each other out?”
“But your children?” Hope asked as Mark helped her down.
“Lillian stayed out here with the twins. They didn’t see what was inside,” Colleen stated.
That night, Hope put their children to bed early.
“Mark, I think you still need to do some talking with Pa,” Hope stated as she kissed her husband goodnight.
“I’ve been married to you long enough to know when something is still troubling you. Go talk to your father. You’ve forgiven Birch, but there’s still something else that you need to resolve, in here.” Hope pointed to his heart.
“But you, I want to be here for you. I know you’re still…” Hope placed her hands to Mark’s lips.
“I’ll be waiting for you, when you’re ready to come to bed.”
Mark took his wife’s hand and walked to their bedroom, together.
“I can talk with my father anytime. Besides, how do you know that what’s bothering me, isn’t what you went through.”
“It was nothing,” Hope tried to explain.
After changing into their bed clothes, Mark climbed into the bed and sat back against the headboard. He wrapped his arms around Hope and sensed she was still upset from the previous days’ events.
“I want you to talk with me,” Mark stated quietly in her ear as she leaned back into his chest.
“I’m fine,” Hope tried to convince Mark.
“No, you’re not. I’ve been married to you long enough to know when something is troubling you and you need to talk.”
“You’re using my words against me!” Hope declared as she tried to sit forward and turn around to look at Mark, but he prevented her from pulling away from him.
“Yep. I figured if they’ll work for you, they’ll work for me. Please Hope, talk to me. As Pa reminded me earlier today, it doesn’t do any good to let this fester. Please?”
“Mark…” Hope leaned back and wrapped her arms around Mark’s arms. “They showed up Wednesday afternoon. The children were down for their nap and I rode into town to bring Myra back home from school. They showed up as we were walking to the house, after taking care of the horses. At first they stated they were just thirsty travelers and inquired if they were close to North Fork. They asked if this was the McCain Ranch. Oh Mark!” Hope cried in his arms.
“Shhh. Cry, I’m here, now.”
“Pa came home that night with the leader Grindstaff and he’d been shot. The next day, well… They insisted the children stay in the bedrooms, with the doors closed. Myra was so upset she wasn’t allowed to go to school. During the afternoon, Grindstaff had left the house and one of the others, I don’t remember which one, well… he started being improper towards Ma and me. Pa got mad and tried to break through the ropes that restrained him. When he couldn’t he lunged at the man, who was…”
“It’s okay, take your time,” Mark stated as he felt Hope’s body tense and shiver.
“Mark, he was pressing himself up against me.” Hope cried tears of anguish and relief. “Pa, lunged at the man, they hadn’t tied his legs to the chair. The man beat Pa. I guess Grindstaff heard the noise and ran in and pulled him off, but… Pa had already been hurt. Grindstaff asked what happened and Gwen told him. He ordered the man outside.”
“Talk to me about yesterday…” Mark asked.
Sniffling, Hope asked, “Are you asking in your capacity as a Marshal?”
“No, I’m asking as your husband. Hope, if you hadn’t picked up my rifle…”
“I heard you and someone talking on the porch, I came from the bedroom, and…” Hope closed her eyes as the scene replayed in her memory. “I saw Grindstaff across the yard… Mark he would have killed you in cold blood. But instead, I killed him in cold blood.” Hope cried more tears.
“No, no, you didn’t kill him in cold blood. You killed him to save my life, our lives. If it was cold blooded, you wouldn’t be crying right now. Regretting your actions. Hope the first time I killed a man… It tore me up inside because I thought there had to have been a different way I could have handled the situation.”
“But this wasn’t the first time I…”
“I know, but first time or not, he gave you no alternative. Had you not killed him, he could very well have killed me, and Birch, and then come into the house. You did the only thing you could have done. He gave you no other option. Do you understand?”
Hope nodded.
“Will you forgive yourself?”
“With your help, I will.”
“I’ll be here to help you through this.” Mark pressed his lips to Hope hair and gave her a kiss and hugged her in his arms.
In time, he felt her relaxing and they scooted to lie down in bed. Mark kept an arm wrapped around Hope as they fell to sleep.
Milly wanted to retire to their bedroom, “Lucas, are you coming?”
“In a while. I… need to read.”
Milly nodded and walked into their bedroom, closing the door behind her. A little time had passed when Lucas looked up at hearing a door open. He looked to the children’s doors when he realized it wasn’t Milly coming back into the front room.
“Papa,” Myra quietly called.
Lucas closed his bible and replied, “Aren’t you supposed to be in bed?”
“Yes, but I can’t sleep. Can I come sit in your lap?”
Lucas nodded.
Myra hurried across the room and climbed into her father’s lap and snuggled against his chest.
“Why can’t you sleep?”
“Those men… They hurt you.”
“Yes, they did.”
“And Mama and Hope and Gwen, they were scared?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“Were you scared?”
“I won’t lie. I was very scared.”
“Why?” Myra asked.
“Because I was afraid that they would hurt those I love.”
“Didn’t they know that Mark’s a Marshal?”
Lucas hesitated, how was he to tell his daughter that, Mark being a Marshal was part of what caused the trouble.
Before Lucas could answer, Myra asked, “Why were they so mean?”
“Myra, those men were after a man Mark was protecting.”
“Then Mark shouldn’t have protected him if he was bad,” Myra stated.
“Myra, Mark couldn’t stop protecting the man. Those men were mean, because the man Mark was protecting was to testify against their boss. They wanted their boss out of jail.”
“If Mark had let the man go.. They could have gone and hurt someone else?”
“They could have,” Lucas answered.
“So Mark couldn’t let him go?”
“No, sweetie. Mark couldn’t let the man go.”
“Are you going to be okay?” Myra asked.
“I will, with the way you and your Mama take care of me. I’ll be healed in no time.”
“Will Mama and Hope be okay?”
“Their memories will fade, as will yours. See… I once told your brother there will always be happy times, but with those happy times, come sad times. Thankfully, there we always be more happier times and those happy times will make us forget the sad times.”
Shaking her head, Myra stated, “I don’t know if I can try to forget.”
Kissing Myra on the head, Lucas stated, “You don’t have to try, it’ll happen.”
“Will you tell Mr. Bullock why I wasn’t at school Thursday and Friday.”
“ I’m sure he already knows, but I think we’re going to keep you home this week. Your Mama and Hope can see you through your studies. I’ll ask Mark to talk with your teacher when he goes to town tomorrow.”
“Why? I missed two days already.”
“Because I want to keep you near to me,” Lucas replied.
“Papa, can I just sit here and think?”
“Sure,” Lucas answered as he wrapped his arms around his daughter.
Lucas prayed that his family could get over this trauma. In time, Myra’s head started bobbing and soon, she was asleep. Lucas felt a gentle hand on his shoulder as he tried to pick Myra up to carry her to bed.
“Let me do it,” Milly offered as she took their daughter in her arms. Lucas followed and watched as Milly put Myra in her bed. Lucas pulled the cover up over her shoulders and placed a kiss to her forehead.
Together they left Myra’s bedroom and headed for their own.
“How much did you hear?” Lucas asked as he laid down in their bed.
“Pretty much all of it. I was going to ask you in the morning if we could keep her home from school.”
“Are you going to be okay?” Lucas asked as he placed an arm over Milly’s shoulder.
“I will be. You just keep yourself close for a few more days.”
A week had passed when Mark rode to town with his father to have Doc Burrage check how the wound to Lucas’ shoulder was healing.
“Haven’t had a chance to really look over your new horse.” Lucas stated as they rode, “Mighty fine looking animal. I see he’s not a gelding.”
“If Doc says you’re healing, if you want to, I’ll let you ride him back to the ranch this afternoon,” Mark replied.
Lucas did receive a clean bill of health and the two swapped horses for the ride back home. As they rode, Mark asked, “Pa, I guess I always thought that…”
“Thought what?”
“Well, that you and ma grew up in the same town…”
“Why do you ask?”
“Nothing. It’s nothing…” Mark replied.
“No, it’s ‘not nothing’ son. Come on, I think I need to sit for a while anyway.” They dismounted their horses a short distance from the road and sat under an old oak tree.
“Pa, when we were on our way back, Birch… Well, he told me how he saved your life and how you met, Ma. Was he telling the truth?”
“I told you he saved my life once.”
“Yeah, but not how. He said the two of you were ambushed in Kansas City and with a bullet in your back, you killed one of the cowboys, while he killed the other.”
“Yes, it happened that way. Go on,” Lucas encouraged.
“He told me that the doctor gave you a blood transfusion using some of Birch’s blood.”
“He did.”
“Is that why you couldn’t shoot him when he tried to rob the bank?”
“A lot of it. We did some pretty reckless stuff that first year after the war. I know had we not stopped in Kansas City…”
“Had you not been offered the job as a deputy and stayed there for a few months… You wouldn’t have met Ma.”
“He told you that?”
“Not exactly. I kind of put two and two together. He said Ma wasn’t all that pretty, but he knew that you were ‘smitten’ with her. Told me of how the day after Ma and her family left Kansas City to travel on to Enid, you turned in your resignation and followed her.”
“I did. You’ve seen your Ma’s pictures, and beauty isn’t always on the outside. Now your Ma wasn’t homely either, she had a plain, simple beauty about her. But most of all, her beauty was shown in her actions. Did he also tell you what else happened that day?”
“He told me that was the day that you truly became known as the Rifleman, because of your having to kill those cowboys.”
“A story that got retold and it grew with each retelling. I didn’t kill both of them.”
“It explains a lot of why you didn’t care for Mr. Claremont. And why you were so reluctant at first to have Mr. Walsh write the articles about us.”
“Yes, guess I never really told you the real reasons I was opposed to newspapermen. They just perpetuated the stories.
“But the fact that those cowboys they called you out by yelling, ‘Hey Rifleman!’.”
“That’s what people remember the most. They don’t remember the fact that later I became their deputy and that I had a name, it was more ‘intriguing’ for them to call me The Rifleman.”
“When you got back home to Enid…”
Lucas’ eyes took to looking far off, remembering, “When I arrived in Enid, Margaret smiled the first time I bumped into her.”
“You, bumped into Ma?” Mark asked, surprised.
“On purpose too,” Lucas smiled as he remembered that moment. “But then she frowned and hurried away.”
“Why? Did she ever tell you why?”
“She didn’t need to. I saw her look at what was in my hand.”
“Birch said any time he saw you and Ma together, you didn’t have your rifle.”
“I knew my rifle upset your Ma. I left it at home, unless we were going out of town on a buggy ride,” Lucas stated.
“And Birch?”
“He didn’t hang around Enid too much longer.”
“That’s when he went to Denver and…”
“Yes, that’s when his life changed. I wondered many times, had we not gone our separate ways… Would he have become Tom Birch, the bank robber?”
“Had you not gone your separate ways... I wouldn’t be here. Pa, I remember you telling me how there were a number of times, if you hadn’t had your rifle…”
“The more your Ma and I came to know each other; and Margaret came to know the territory, the more she realized why I carried it. She eventually accepted it. From that day on, it was never far from my side.”
“Pa, do you regret it?”
“Never. Because, like I said, if I hadn’t had my rifle, your Ma might not have been alive to bring you into the world and there have been too many times where I needed it to defend those who couldn’t’ defend themselves, including you.”
“I understand. But if you didn’t grow up with Ma… I mean…”
“It seems to me that someone else in this family didn’t grow up with the gal that eventually became his wife…” Lucas raised his eyebrows as he looked to his son.
“Okay, okay,” Mark laughed as he slapped his leg in amusement.
“Mark, the war was over in the Spring of 1865 and I wasn’t fully discharged until June of that year. For the next year or so, I never stopped anywhere for any length of time, never settled down until I returned to Enid the early part of 1867. Your Ma and I married the summer of 1869. Oh, I knew I loved your Ma, but it took time for her to convince me that I could put away all that happened during the war and provide a loving home for her. I remember one June day, I’d come home from working our crops, your mother told me that there was going to be someone else in her life, that she didn’t know if she could love me the same way anymore.”
A shocked Mark stated, “Ma fell in love with someone else…”
“I was shocked, to the point of devastation, until she started laughing. She pushed me into my chair, sat down on my lap… She picked up my hands and placed them over her stomach and said, ‘I’m with child. You’re going to be a father. I don’t think I can love you as just my husband anymore, not when you’re the father of my children.’ Then, December 1870, your Ma gave birth to you. But during the days before your birth, she became sick. Enid had a bitter winter that year and your Ma was suffering from a terrible cold when she gave birth to you. The stress of being in labor for as long as she was, tired and weakened her body and the cold rooted itself deeper. She was bedridden for the first month of your life. Guess that’s why our bond is so much closer than other fathers and sons. For the first month of your life, you had to rely solely on me taking care of you.” Lucas laughed at the memory.
“Pa,” Mark tried to interrupt. “Then Ma miscarried the other baby and was told she shouldn’t have any more children...”
Lucas nodded. “The three of us were happy, together. And your Ma and I shared each other’s dreams. That you’d grow up and have a good education, fall in love, and give us grandchildren. It’s been a good life, Mark. Even with all the heartache.”
“I’d of liked to see you trying to change my diapers for the first time,” Mark laughed.
“I was about as many thumbs as you were when you first tried to change the diapers on your sons. Do you resent my not telling you this before?” Lucas asked.
“No, sir. I don’t resent anything you’ve done to raise me,” Mark answered. “Pa, was Grandpa Gibbs a drunk back then? I never asked.”
“No, not when I first met him or even when I finally asked for your Ma’s hand in marriage. We never knew exactly what happened… Something in Samuel, just snapped and he started hanging out in the saloon, drinking. I tried talking with him, but he said he was fine, he could handle it. ‘A real man can handle a few beers…’ Eventually it turned to the hard liquors…” Lucas paused as he remembered how difficult those first months and finally years had been on his wife. He looked to his son and saw understanding on his face. “ Are you ready to head home?” Lucas asked.
“I’ll race you!” Mark declared as they mounted in their own horses and raced their horses for home.
As they ran into the yard, Rainmaker had a clear lead over Blade, but regardless, father and son were laughing.

The Next Step — A Mother's Fear

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

The Writer's Corner
Table of Contents

Site Map
around The McCain Ranch