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The Next Step...
Chapter 101 - The Divide
Written by Deanne Bertram

“NOW!” demanded Mark later that night after they returned home from Oat and Mary Jackford’s wedding. “Your mother told you to get ready for bed!”

The children sat frozen from Mark’s tone of voice. Josh was the first one to move, “Papa?”

“Don’t make me put you to bed.” The sternness of Mark’s voice held more warning. “Get moving, now!”

Hope motioned for the children to get to their feet and into their bedrooms. After putting the children to bed, Hope returned to the front room to find Mark no longer inside. Wrapping her shawl around her shoulders, she stepped to the porch and asked Mark, “Won’t you tell me what’s troubling you? And don’t tell me it’s about Trumble. This isn’t like you, you’ve never raised your voice to the children in such a manner.”

“Nothing’s wrong! They just need to do what you say, when you say it, not when they feel like it. We’re their parents, we decide what they should do and when they should do it,” Mark snapped. Hearing Hope’s footfall retreat into their home, Mark shook his head, picked up a pebble, and skipped it across the dirt. In time, Mark stood, blew out the lantern next to the door, and proceeded inside.

Upon entering their bedroom, Mark saw Hope was already in bed, the lantern on her side was extinguished, yet the lantern on his side illuminated Hope’s outline, covers over her shoulder, her back to his side of the bed. Mark stripped to his long johns before blowing out the lantern and lying down on the bed, his back to Hope.

Again, Mark felt that unfamiliar longing pull at him as it had for... He wondered, ‘Why were his dreams forcing him to a restless sleep? What was pulling so much at him?’ Mark startled awake to a quiet room. Not hearing what wakened him, he reflected on what little of his dream he remembered, a woman’s voice faintly saying, I’ll be here for you, Mark. When you need me, I’ll be here. I’ll always be here…remember the marigolds.’ Hearing the way the woman said ‘here’ Mark realized what he needed to do…and why.

*****

Mark was already out of bed when Hope woke for the morning. Pulling on her robe, she stepped to the front room and chose not to acknowledge her husband as he sat at his desk. She headed for her children’s bedrooms.

“I need to leave for a while,” said Mark upon hearing Hope walk behind him.

“Leave?” Hope asked as she turned to face Mark. “Where? Why?! Mark, I’m here… Won’t you talk to me? Tell me what it is that’s bothering you. For weeks now, I’ve let you be, praying that you’d finally talk to me. Every now and then you act like the Mark I married, but for most of the time, I’ve been walking around here on eggshells, trying to keep from upsetting you; even the children have sensed your mood. And last night… Mark, that was totally uncalled for!”

With his head in his hands, Mark answers, “I know… It’s just that… The twins will six years old in less than a month and a half.”

“What does their birthday have to do with why you’ve been so moody and now why you’re leaving?” Hope asked as she pulled a chair from the table to sit down next to Mark as she pleaded, “Mark, please talk with me.”

“I was six when my Ma died. Hope, I didn’t realize it until this morning that it’s been twenty years since Pa and I left Enid. Twenty years since I’ve honored her memory.”

“Mark, we honor her memory every June third and we honored her memory by naming our youngest daughter Margaret,” Hope stated, not knowing what else to say.

“Pa took me from town a few days after she was buried. About last night… at Oat’s wedding, I started remembering back… Pa kept telling me I had to do this, I had to do that. I did what Pa told me to do because I was the child and children obey their parents. I know I had no right to yell at them like that.”

“Is that really why?” asked Hope and waited for Mark’s reply. “Mark, talk to me. Please?”

Mark finally figured out now was the time to talk, the truth. He knew it had nothing to do with Trumble’s treatment of his family or Oat and Mary’s wedding. Was it really about his Ma’s death or was it… Was it all about him… “I never said a proper goodbye to Ma. I didn’t want to accept she was dead… or why I couldn’t go to heaven to be with her. I didn’t understand why we had to travel for so long… I guess trailing after Pa earlier this year and finding him in Oklahoma started me thinking on it. Then, when Jake, Gwen, and I were coming back from Cambridge and the train had difficulties, and we had that layover in Oklahoma City; we spent the day in town. We were only ninety miles away from my Ma’s grave. I guess I’m feeling guilty for being so close and not doing anything about it and it started unlocking all these memories I had buried a long time ago. I didn’t understand why I was feeling the way I was until this morning, I woke to hearing my Ma’s words, that she’ll always be here for me. But, the way she said here, I knew she was leading me to understand what was bothering me. She’s back in Enid. Hope, please. Twice this year I’ve been in Oklahoma and never gone to visit her grave. This is something I have to do. I have to return to Enid, so I can say a proper goodbye. I’ll be back and I promise, and when I return… I’ll be the husband you married.”

“Then to Enid we will go as a family.”

“I can’t ask…”

“Why can’t you ask us to go with you? Mark, since your Ma is in Enid, then her grandchildren should be introduced to her in Enid.”

“I’m sorry for the way I’ve been acting. It wasn’t fair to you or the children,” Mark answered as he leaned over to hug his wife.

“I knew eventually you’d figure out your troubles. When will we leave?”

“I don’t want to arrive in Enid right before the anniversary… I’d like to get reacquainted with some of my family beforehand…” Mark answered. “Pa has three brothers and two sisters, then Ma and Johnny have another brother and sister. And I’m sure there’s all their families…”

“When you go into town, check the train schedule, and purchase tickets for our family.”

Mark let out a deep, relaxing breath, before he startled, “How do I tell Pa?”

“You tell him what you told me this morning. I’m sure he’ll understand,” Hope answered as she embraced Mark.

“I don’t deserve a wife as understanding as you… I’ve been a heel,” Mark stated.

“Yes, you have. But, if it weren’t for your being married to me, you’d still be here sulking and acting like a heel. Now, get up and act like a husband and a father, go wake your children for the morning, otherwise, I’ll put you to ‘women’s work’ around the house.”

*****

Monday late afternoon, Lucas and Mark rode home from tending their herds; Lucas halted Blade and finally said, “Okay, out with it. You’ve been different for weeks now and I originally thought it was because of having to take care of the ranch, while I was laid up, on top of your job, but that was February and the beginning of March. Things seemed to get a little better before you left with Jake and Gwen, but since your return… Mark, you have to get out whatever it is that’s eating you. I was hoping you’d open up to me, just the two of us, man to man.”

They continued to sit in silence for a few minutes before Mark spoke.

“Pa, Hope and I will be leaving in a few days. We’re returning to Enid.”

“You’re what?!” Lucas stated with more emotion than he meant, but he had not been prepared for Mark’s response.

“We’re going to Enid.”

“I heard you. Why?” Lucas asked.

“Pa, it’s something I have to do. The anniversary of Ma’s death is…”

“I know when it is.” The tone of Lucas’ voice didn’t hide his hurt. “What about your children?”

“They’re going too. I’ve already purchased the tickets.”

“Why? There’s nothing but hurt back there! When we first arrived here, we agreed there’s no looking back. How can you drag your family away from their home?!”

Mark’s own voice betrayed his anger at his Pa’s words. “I’m not dragging my family! Pa, I need to go and Hope wants to go… Pa!” Mark called out as he watched Lucas kick Blade into a gallop.

*****

Wednesday afternoon, Lucas McCain hung up the harnesses he had removed from the team before turning the horses loose in the corral. His walk across the yard seemed longer than usual; he slowed his stride as he looked to the home of his eldest son, sitting lonely and dark. Lucas shook his head and stepped to the front porch of his own home.

Turning to gaze out over his land, his memories returning to the night he and Mark sat on the porch, the night Mark finally came to understand why North Fork and this ranch were their home. His words came back to him, “Our land is just as it was in Enid. The only thing missing is the cross marking your mother’s final resting place.”

He jabbed the heel of his left hand against the post, not understanding why Mark felt the need to travel to Enid… to find his mother’s grave. Lucas remembered the words he spoke to Mark when they first arrived and looked over the land that would eventually become their home, “There’s no looking back, son,” those words were spoken with a promise of a better future. He remembered repeating those words a few days ago; only those words held a bitter hurt.

Lucas had given up trying to understand his eldest son and allowed the awkward silence that had brewed between the two of them to fester. They talked in order to get the work on the ranch done, but after completing their work… Neither knew how to express their feelings in a way that wouldn’t hurt the other, anymore than they already had.

Hearing his daughter call “Papa,” Lucas turned and entered his home. He saw Myra and Little Ted sitting at the table, writing tablets in front of them, and Levi lying on the floor playing with his blocks, spelling out small words.

“What are you two up to?” Lucas asked, thankful for the distraction.

“Mama said we could write letters to Mark and Hope while they were gone,” Myra answered.

“They just left. They won’t be gone more than a week to ten days,” Lucas stated, looking to Milly.

“Yes, but they’re gonna miss us,” Little Ted stated. “They won’t know that we missed them unless we write and tell them.”

Again, he thought to himself about the rift that had so quickly grown between him and Mark. Mark had his own family, his own life; he was no longer his little boy. He was a grown man. For so many years, it had been just the two of them, Lucas grew upset when he realized he could no longer really use that excuse. He and Milly had been married for longer than he’d been married to Margaret. Lucas had a wife and three younger children and there were seventeen difficult years between Mark and Myra. Mark had lived through events that Lucas prayed none of his other three children would ever experience. Even though he knew that Mark and Milly cared for each other as mother and son, ‘Maybe, deep down, he’s regretting my remarrying,’ Lucas thought. ‘Or maybe he feels I’ve pushed him out and that’s why he’s taking his family to Enid.’

His attention returned to the present when he heard Milly stating, "Lucas, I know this was Mark's decision to return to Enid and I’ve kept my peace since you told me what Mark wanted to do. But, he's going to experience a whole range of emotions once he visits her grave. He’s not been there since he was six. How can you let him face those emotions without you?”

“Milly, please, not in front of the children,” Lucas stated.

Milly told Myra, Little Ted, and Levi to go outside and play, “I want to talk to your father.” After the children were outside, Milly shut the door.

“Lucas, I know Mark is a grown man, but... he's bound to need you…his father!"

Of all people, Lucas had hoped Milly would understand him. Her tone of voice showed she couldn’t believe that Lucas hadn’t given Mark his blessings to return, he only said, ‘If you feel this is something you have to do. Then do it.’

It pained Milly to stand by and watch as the rift grew between the two men who meant the world to her. It upset her that Lucas hadn’t insisted in going with his son, granted he didn’t have much advance warning of their departure. Milly had hoped Lucas would change his mind and make the trip as well. Now that Mark and Hope were on the train and traveling, she decided to give Lucas a firm piece of her mind.

“Milly, it’s as you said, he’s a grown man. This is a trip he wanted to make with his family,” Lucas answered, not really wanting to discuss the matter any further.

“You are his family! Lucas, don’t you think that by his telling you that maybe… Just maybe he didn’t know how to ask you to go with him!” Milly was upset with Lucas and her voice expressed her exasperation, she continued, “Lucas, you told Mark when you first arrived in North Fork, ‘there’s no looking back’. And how many times has that phrase been repeated in this family?”

“Then why’s he going? Why’s he taking his family away from us?” Lucas countered.

“Well, sometimes you have to look back! I learned that the hard way. I tried running away from the fact that my brother died in the war. But I finally realized I couldn’t. It took Harry Chase to make me realize… I finally returned home to face the truth.” Softening her tone of voice, Milly continued, “Lucas, Mark’s not just your son; he’s Margaret’s son too!”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Lucas responded, upset at what Milly might be insinuating.

“Because everyone has always said how much like Margaret he is… Are you jealous that he’s going to go back to Enid and because of that, that maybe you’re afraid he’ll no longer be your son? That he’ll find out more about his mother and want to stay there? Oh, Lucas! This all started when Mark found you in Burns Flatt. And it’s only gotten worse since Mark returned from Cambridge. Hope told me how withdrawn Mark has become; not paying attention to the family, not talking, or taking interest. You saw it at Eli’s birthday, as well as their anniversary. He snapped at her and the children after Oat’s wedding… The following morning, Mark informed Hope that he was going to Enid. Think on this, his sons will soon be six years old and he was six when Margaret died. Lucas, Hope told me of Mark’s dream when he finally put it all together, all the long buried memories…”

“It’s not healthy living in the past!” Lucas tried to argue.

“Lucas I’m not arguing with you. I’m just trying to make you see Mark’s side and I’m trying to understand you. Do you even realize how much you hurt him by not giving him your blessing?”

“I took them to the train station…” Lucas replied in exasperation.

Milly’s voice took on a more loving tone, “Lucas, I’ve enjoyed being a mother to Mark for the past nine years, and I know he loves me as if I were, but it’s been almost twenty years since Margaret died. Myra’s older than Mark was when he lost his mother; and the twins and Little Ted will soon be that age. Lucas, he’s looking back because right now it’s the only thing he can do. Traveling through Oklahoma, he’s reliving his memories that he buried so long ago. He’s hurting!”

“Milly…” Lucas wanted to explain but the words failed him. The years of heartache, pain, and loneliness, returned to him when Mark had told him what he planned to do. The day Lucas married Milly; he had put that part of his life away... only reflecting on parts of his past when it would help others understand the present.

“If his returning to Enid to say a final goodbye to his mother can help him rebury these memories, then why shouldn’t he go? Why couldn’t you give him your blessings?” Milly quietly asked. Milly walked over and put her arms around her husband’s waist and looked up to his face, “If you’re thinking I’d be upset by your wanting to go with Mark to visit Margaret’s grave, then you don’t know me very well. Lucas, I’ve always accepted that Margaret would be a part of this marriage. And, I really think you need to be there for Mark… your son.”

“And just how do…”

Milly pulled her arms from Lucas and replied with urgency, as her body language changed again to display her exasperation. She pointed her finger to the door, “Lucas just go to town and purchase those train tickets!”

“Tickets?” Lucas asked, unsure that he had heard Milly correctly.

“Yes tickets, for the family. It’s about time the North Fork McCain family met the Enid McCain families! And not just through letters. If you’re not out of here in two minutes, so help me Lucas…!”

“I’m going, I’m going!” Lucas hurried from the house.

During Lucas’ ride to town, he was still just as confused on why Mark felt the need to make this trip. He could accept Milly being upset with him for not understanding his son, but still, her insisting that he had to follow Mark… Lucas agreed only because he knew in order to bring peace back to the family, he had to do something he was so against.

*****

Before stopping at the train station, Lucas thought to stop by Micah’s. He’d always been able to offer Lucas a different perspective when he and Mark had difficulties. Lucas stopped Blade in front of Micah’s and remembered some of the discussions they’d held in the past. He thought to himself, would Micah really be the one to help him understand his son… this time? Instead, he rode on and decided to stop at Doc Burrage’s to talk, thinking that with Thadd’s and Mark’s ages being closer, maybe he could help. After removing his hat and apologizing for intruding on their early evening, Lucas followed Thadd into the parlor and commented on the uneasy silence that had divided father and son.

“Lucas, I’m not a trained psychologist, but with what I know about the two of you, since your return from Oklahoma, and Mark’s subsequent trip through Oklahoma, I wouldn’t doubt that Mark’s been subconsciously reliving Margaret’s death and the events that happened afterwards.’

“Events that happened afterward? We buried her and we left,” Lucas replied.

“Yes, but I’m sure neither of you forgot about Margaret.”

“No we didn’t. The first six months were extremely difficult for Mark,” replied Lucas.

“And how did he react? How did he get over Margaret?”

“He kept grieving and I told him we had to go on living. It’s what his Ma would have wanted.”

“Did you allow him to talk about his feelings? Did you allow him to express his grief?” Seeing the change in Lucas’ expression due to his questions, Thadd paused to give Lucas time to reflect. “Lucas, we all know that this part of your life is private, between you and Mark and I’m not saying what you did was right or wrong, but you both suffered through your grief.” Handing Lucas a cup of coffee, Thadd continued. “You dealt with it the best way you knew how. Your memories aren’t forgotten, they’re buried somewhere in your hearts. You dealt with your grief by moving from one town to another in an attempt to find a home where you could raise Mark. But he was a child… Did you take the time to explain to him why you left? Sometimes, a parent can ask a child to grow up too quickly when it comes to dealing with death.” Thadd paused to take a sip from his own cup of coffee. “We expect the child to go on living, but we forget the child doesn’t understand death the same way as adults do. And it’s not because the adult is callus, it’s because as the child continues to grieve, their grief reminds the parent of his or her own loss. So a parent pushes the child to ‘get over it’ faster than what the child is truly capable of doing.”

“But it’s not healthy living in the past. It would only bring him more heartache,” a confused Lucas replied. “We had to move so we could go on living.”

“Lucas, you were the one who made the decision to leave Enid, it was your right as a parent. But… maybe his memories are surfacing and he’s grieving all over again. I’m sure in a way, as the child Mark, he might have resented that fact that you took him from the only home he knew… and he had to go with you because he was the son, and he ‘went on living’ because you were his father and you told him what he had to do.”

“And now…” asked Lucas.

“You remember my uncle and me saying that the mind is a funny thing…” Thadd paused until Lucas nodded. “Memories can be suppressed, almost like amnesia, and it can take something insignificant, like just being in Oklahoma to unlock his memories. The past few weeks, he’s probably fought against his memories resurfacing; maybe he didn’t even realize what he was fighting against and in the process, took it out on the family. I’ve noticed how quiet he’s been since his return, both times. That and how he’s reacted when he’s had to deal with Trumble. Now, he’s trying to accept what he’s feeling and trying to make amends… Maybe he feels he needs to return to say goodbye so that he can live his life forward.”

“That’s what Milly tried to tell me,” Lucas stated.

“I know the two of you pretty well and I consider your families good friends. Besides, it’s easy to understand two plus two equals four when you’re on the outside looking in.”

*****

The moon was out when Lucas began the ride home from town with five train tickets in his pocket. He looked to the heavens and saw one star shining bright, more so than any others in the evening sky. “I guess that’s you, Margaret, telling me I’ve been a heel.” Lucas smiled as he thought about all his, and Margaret’s, family members… But deep down, he felt the pain of her loss trying to work its way back into his heart.

The Next Step — The Oklahoma Story - Part 1

This is a story based on the TV series The Rifleman
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