The Rifleman
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Fan Fiction

The Next Step…
Chapter 85 - The Princess
Written by Deanne Bertram

Hope’s monthly check-up in July found Mark arriving late at the clinic, “Sorry I’m late. Is the baby’s okay?” Mark asked as he entered the room and saw Hope stepping from behind the partition, fastening the belt of her dress a little looser.

“Yes, the baby is fine, as is Hope,” Thadd answered.

“Doc? There is only one baby, this time? Isn’t there?” Mark asked.

“So far as I can tell. Well, if you two will excuse me, these rooms are for people who are in real need of a doctor.” As he watched Mark pull Hope into his arms, he added, ”This ain’t no hotel. It’s located down the street.”

“You’re just jealous,” Mark jested as he kissed his wife.

“No, I’m not. We’re only a couple of months behind the two of you.”

“Abigail’s pregnant?” Hope asked.

Doc beamed a smile.

*****

Hope was excitedly looking forward to getting to know her, soon to be, mother and helping her with the arrangements for the upcoming wedding. Seth and Lilah had set a date at the end of August for their wedding. As the days passed, Mark grew concerned about Hope driving the team to and from town each day, especially in her condition.

“Seth, I have a favor to ask you,” Mark stated as he looked over at Seth leafing through a stack of wanted posters.

“What kind of a favor?”

“Well, Hope’s been traveling from our home to yours to spend time with Lilah, getting to know her better and helping with the wedding arrangements. I don’t know that I like her spending so much time on the road, now I don’t mind the reason. It’s just that… I was wondering, if until your wedding, what if I moved my family into your house. I mean you have plenty of room for us and the children. And it would only be for six weeks.”

“Have you talked this over with Hope? I mean, who’s going to take care of your place?”

“I’ll still do that and Jake still works with Pa when I’m required to be in town. But I’d really prefer if Hope weren’t driving the team so much. I just worry about her…”

“Mark, no need to justify your reasons. If Hope is agreeable to moving in until the wedding, then I think it’s a great idea. Lilah was just commenting the other day, about how much time they lose in getting to know each other by Hope having to travel so much.”

*****

Lucas and Milly stood on their porch waving goodbye as Mark left to move Hope and the children to town. They understood Mark’s reasons, but still… It was difficult watching them drive away.

“They’ll be back home in six weeks,” Lucas stated. “Besides, we’ll still see them when we go to town and Mark will be here for a little while each day after we’re finished working the range.”

“What about Gwen?” Milly asked.

“Mark said that she’s offered to help Hattie at the day care. North Fork’s a growing town…”

*****

Mark noticed how much Hope did enjoy living in town, the ease of shopping and visiting with friends. Something to do all the time when he was standing his watch over North Fork.

“Are you regretting living out on the ranch?” Mark asked one night as they prepared for bed.

“What?” Hope answered as she stood from the dressing table, after brushing her hair.

“You seem so much more happier, staying here in town. I was just…” Mark couldn’t help the hurt tone in his voice.

Hope slipped into bed and curled up close to Mark, “No. I don’t regret living on the ranch. I’m happy now, but this is something so… new. I don’t know that I could really stand living in town every day. The hustle and the bustle… I like our home and it’s quiet…”

“Mama!” they heard Eli yell.

“You were saying something about quiet?” Mark asked as Hope slipped from the bed.

*****

As the weeks passed, when not taking care of the children, Hope and Lilah spent time shopping and making arrangements for the upcoming wedding. She and Lilah had just finished enjoying lunch at the hotel restaurant and were about to leave when a group of people made their way from the train station into the hotel. An elegantly dressed young woman stood to the side, removing her long gloves, as an older, austere woman rang the bell on the desk.

“May I help ye?” Lou asked as she walked behind the counter.

“I am Governess Madilyn Watson, I believe you should have received a wire requesting reservations for Princess Sophia Truddeau de LaRue,” the woman stated.

“Yes, I did. Three rooms at the front of the hotel,” Lou answered.

Lilah and Hope, as well as others in the restaurant, stared as the young woman of royalty arrived in North Fork. Hope noticed that she was extremely attractive, with her blonde hair curled and cascading down her face, to her shoulders. Color was applied to her cheeks, eyes, and lips to accentuate her features. She stood to the side of the group, well aware of how she looked and how the others, especially men, reacted to her. One of the porters carrying her luggage tripped as he saw her look at him. Her clothing was quite exquisite, leaving most of the citizens in North Fork to talk about the low neckline. She affected the air of a young woman who knew what she wanted and got it, one way, or another.

“Maddie, ask about the safe. I’ll not dare leave my jewels… for any commoner to snatch,” demanded the princess.

Madilyn nodded as she accepted instructions from the princess.

“I have a safe here in the lobby, but if ye would feel more comfortable, I’m sure that John Hamilton over at the bank would be happy to talk with ye,” Lou stated.

“Maddie, make it so. Oh I am so tired. We have been forever on that ghastly train.”

“Right this way, I’ll show ye to yer rooms,” Lou stated as she pulled three keys and led the group upstairs.

Hope reflected on the clothing the woman who declared herself the governess wore. Even in the heat of the day, she wore long sleeves and kept the gloves over her hands. The neckline of her dress was quite the contrast to the princess’. The dress buttoned all the way to just under the woman’s chin. Her hairstyle was not at all as attractive as the others in the party, maybe that was because she stood so much taller than the others or she was so much older.

*****

Later in the afternoon, Lou escorted the princess and her governess to the bank and introduced them to John Hamilton.

“And this is our town marshal, Johnny Drako,” Lou informed the group.

The governess discussed the need for the princess to be provided security while staying in town.

“Ma’am, our town isn’t like the big cities back east. We’re a small community and we know practically everyone,” Johnny offered.

“Marshal, I have a letter here from your State Department authorizing you to provide security for her highness.” The governess’ posture and tone of voice left no doubt that she expected the orders to be followed.

“Well, as the Marshal of this town, I’ll provide the security,” Johnny offered.

The look the princess gave to Johnny left no doubt she was not thrilled with the idea. “Oh, I don’t mean to be rude, but while I’m in your fair, …burgh, I feel I should have someone closer to my age for my security protection. It just wouldn’t appear proper to have someone my father’s age protecting me. I mean, I’m young and …”

“We do have another marshal in town, he’ll be back on duty this evening. His name is Mark McCain,” John offered.

“This other marshal, when can we expect to meet him?” asked the Governess.

“Who cares, as long as he is young, he will be the one responsible for seeing that my jewels are safely deposited in your bank of an evening and retrieving them of a morning. Until then, I’ll keep my jewels with me. Marshal Drako, Mister Hamilton. ”

“It is not just your jewels, your highness. They can be replaced, however you cannot,” the governess replied as if she were scolding a child. “I expect one of you to go get him and bring him to our hotel room.”

“Ma’am he’s working on his family’s ranch today. He’ll be back in town tonight.”

“I don’t care what he’s doing. He has an obligation to my ward and I will not see that she is put at any risk! Good day.”

The princess and her governess left the bank.

“From someone of her station, her manners leave a lot to be desired,” Lou commented.

“Well, now if that don’t beat all,” Drako answered.

“Guess I’ll need to take it up with the Town Council that you’re a little too old to adequately watch over our fair, …burgh,” John Hamilton laughed.

“I wonder how well Mark’s going to take the fact that you volunteered him for this assignment?” Johnny asked.

“Guess it would be more appropriate to ask how Hope’s going to take this news,” Lou announced.

“Well, I do feel sorry for Mark,” Drako stated. “I’m relieved I won’t have to deal with the princess.”

“Honestly, I don’t envy him the duty of providing security for the likes of her,” John answered. “Are you going to ride out and tell him?”

“We’ll provide security for her, but I have no idea where on the McCain ranch to even begin to look for Mark. She’ll just have to wait until he comes to town.”

*****

Two hours later, Johnny had a very unpleasant visitor in the Marshal’s office.

“And just where is this marshal who is supposed to be providing security for her highness. I told you to ride out to get him!” the governess argued.

“Ma’am, if you’ll let us explain. In addition to being a U.S. Marshal, Mark McCain also has responsibilities of working a cattle ranch with his father.”

“You’re saying that this marshal thinks cattle are more important than a princess?!”

Taking a deep breath to keep calm, Johnny answered, “No, that’s not what I’m saying. Cattle ranches in this part of the country are wide and expansive. I could search for hours trying to find him in order to bring him to town and still not find him. It’s best to wait until he returns to town. He’ll be here before sundown. And until then, the princess will have to accept that either myself or my deputy will provide her protection.”

“The princess is not flattered with you or your deputy providing protection!”

“I don’t care if she is flattered or not. This is the way it is going to be until I say otherwise! Now, should I escort you back to the…”

“You, you must be the marshal! You shall come with me at once!” the governess declared as Mark entered the office.

“Excuse me?” Mark answered, taken back at the abrupt nature in which the woman addressed him.

“You will come with me. You are under orders to provide security for her Royal Highness, Princess Sophia Truddeau de LaRue.”

“Ma’am, I don’t know what you’re talking about, but if you’ll give me a few minutes to check in with the marshal.”

“Well, of all the impertinent!” the governess declared.

“Mark,” Johnny introduced, “this is Governess Madilyn Watson. We’re under orders from the State Department to provide security to her and her ward. Neither Seth nor I passed muster. And John Hamilton let slip that you were a marshal…”

“This is taking too long. The princess has been without protection for too long.” The governess let it be known she wasn’t pleased with the delay.

“Ma’am, my deputy is at the hotel.” The look Johnny gave Mark indicated he would greatly appreciate anything Mark could do to get the woman out of his office.

Mark returned with the governess to the hotel, “This way!” she stated as she started up the stairs.

“Seth, I guess I have it from here,” Mark stated as he entered the lobby.

“Good luck. You’re going to need it,” Seth whispered.

“Are you coming?”

“I’m right behind you,” Mark replied.

The governess barely knocked on the door before she opened it and entered the room. Mark followed, remembering to remove his hat.

“Your Highness, this is Marshal Mark McCain,” the governess introduced.

Mark saw a blonde haired woman sitting at the settee, brushing her hair and without even looking up she stated, “Well, it’s about time!”

“I’m sorry Ma’am, but had I known of your arrival…,” Mark explained.

The young woman turned on the bench and extended her arm, her hand hanging from her wrist, palm down.

“Well, greet her, or are you that uncivilized?” the governess demanded.

Mark closed the distance between the princess and himself, bent forward, took her hand in his and politely kissed the backside of her hand.

“Well, there just might be some redeeming qualities about you, yet,” stated the princess.

“Pleased to meet you ma’am. How long will you be staying in our town?” Mark asked.

“Ma’am? Maddie can be addressed as Ma’am. You may address me as Sophia.” She stood and wrapped her arm around Mark’s arm. “Now, let us sit and talk about your responsibilities while I’m in your… town.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“I shall have you drawn and quartered if you continue to use such an ‘old’ expression when addressing me.” She batted her eyelids as she escorted Mark to sit down on the couch in the room. “Now, I shall require security protection anytime I leave this hotel, I expect you to join me for my meals in the restaurant and you shall take my jewels to and from the bank, as required.”

“Yes, your Highness,” Mark replied.

And so the next half hour went with the princess and her governess explaining to Mark their expectations of him.

“Now, I’m quite tired from the train ride and having to wait for you. Maddie, please give my jewel case to Mark so he may take them to the bank. I’ll expect you to return with my jewels no later than seven o’clock tomorrow morning.”

“The bank doesn’t open until nine,” Mark tried to explain.

“Then you will make arrangements with the financier to open early for you each morning,” the governess replied.

“I’ll see what I can do.”

Stepping to the hallway, Mark heard the door close behind him. He placed his hat back on his head and let out a low whistle.

*****

Mark headed to his father-in-law’s home to eat supper with his family before he returned to the Marshal’s Office for the night.

“Well?” Seth teased as Mark walked in.

“Well what?” Mark answered.

“Did you pass muster?”

“Pass muster?” Hope asked as she brought supper to the dining room to serve her family.

“Guess I did,” Mark replied.

“Did what?” Hope asked again.

“There’s a European princess in town and we’re obligated to provide security for her and her jewels for the duration of her stay,” Seth answered.

“And what does passing muster have to do with that?”

“Well, seems neither Johnny nor I were worthy enough for ‘her highness’ and Mark was nominated for the job,” Seth laughed.

“I saw them when Lilah and I finished eating lunch at the restaurant. She’s quite beautiful,” Hope stated.

“If you go for that kind of woman,” Seth replied.

“Father, the children,” Hope exclaimed as she saw the twins curiosity was peaked and they were about to start asking questions.

“Oh, come on now. She’s not that bad. They’re just not used to our way of doing things. Though I will admit, the governess wasn’t very pleasant to deal with. I’d prefer if we could forget about them for the duration of supper,” Mark stated.

“You mean there’s a real live princess in North Fork?” an excited Zach asked.

“Yes, but for now, eat your supper,” Mark stated as he pointed his fork towards his middle son.

“Yes sir,” Zach stated.

*****

After spending the better part of five days on the outside watching Mark spending most all his time with the princess, Johnny and Seth were talking about her and her assistants.

“Well, I guess it’s not too bad for Mark, escorting the princess everywhere. She is mighty pleasing to the eyes,” Johnny jested.

“Just don’t let Lou hear you talking that way,” Seth teased.

“It really wouldn’t be that bad of an assignment if it weren’t for that governess.” A shiver ran down Johnny’s back. “Not so sure about her. I mean, for someone who appears as prudish as she is, to have a ward as vibrant as the princess,” Johnny teased.

“Never seen a woman quite like her,” Seth stated.

“Yeah. Lucky we don’t have to deal with her day in and day out like Mark.”

“I’ve seen some prudish women in my time. But she beats all. You’d think she’d have more attractive clothing to wear. Guess that’s the way spinsters dress in Europe and why she’s a governess,” Johnny stated.

“Has Mark stated the reason why they’re here in North Fork?” Seth asked.

“Well, with all the time Mark is having to spend with her. You’d think she was looking for a husband.” Seeing the expression on Seth’s face, “Come on now man, you know Mark is in love with his wife. Besides, you saw the orders from the State Department, there’s not much we can do except accommodate the princess and her party until they leave town.”

“Still, wish the State Department had sent one of their own to keep an eye on her and her jewelry. Hope’s got enough on her hands without having to deal with Mark’s parading around town with that woman on his arm.”

*****

The boys and Mykaela were sitting at the table and Hope was fixing breakfast for her children when she was asked an unexpected question by Zach.

“Mama, when Papa marries the princess will we be princes?”

“When Papa what?” Hope asked in alarm.

“When Papa marries…” Zach started to restate.

“Where did you come up with an idea like that?”

“Tommy said his Papa said that the way Papa was acting with the princess, said they were getting married,” Zach answered.

*****

Later that morning, Hope was nervously waiting to meet Mark for lunch at the hotel restaurant. The question her son asked earlier in the morning was still weighing on her mind, when she couldn’t help but overhear the two women in front of her talking. Though she didn’t immediately recognize them, from their accents she knew they were with the princess.

“I couldn’t believe it when I saw it,” the first woman said.

“Saw what?” the other asked.

“Him, making such a fool of himself over her.”

“Who?”

“That young marshal.”

“What did he do?”

“What did he do?! The marshal kissed the princess and the way she pressed herself against him. He sure didn’t try to stop her.”

“Well, he is really handsome. And you do know whatever the princess wants, the princess gets. I hope her father approves of this one.”

*****

Lou returned to the lobby, having seated the two women at a table. The two women smiled while they watched through the window, as Hope ran down the boardwalk, ignoring Lou as she called after her. Hope momentarily paused as she looked into the Marshal’s Office, before continuing on her way. She entered her father’s home and didn’t acknowledge him or Lilah as she made her way up the stairs, crying.

“I thought she was having lunch with Mark at the hotel,” Seth stated.

“Not with tears like those. I’ll be right back,” Lilah answered.

*****

“Marshal,” Princess Sophia coyly called as she entered the Marshal’s Office. “You must do something about those, those….I don’t know what you call them, but all they do is stare at me,” wrapping her arm around Mark’s arm.

“Ma’am, if you’ll excuse me.”

“Now Marshal, that ain’t no way to treat someone of royal blood,” Princess Sophia pouted. “Especially when I enjoy your company so much.”

“Please, Princess de LaRue,” Mark tried to remove his arm from the princess’ grip.

“Now how many times do I have to tell you to call me Sophie? All my close friends do,” she spoke as she continued to affect an air of coyness and moved herself closer to Mark.

“Please, I have a job to do,” Mark said as he tried to explain.

“Then do it. I demand you arrest those men for being so vulgar towards me.”

“Maybe you should think about dressing a little more appropriately!” Mark commented.

“Appropriately? You mean dowdy, like a beggar’s wife?” A shiver ran through the princess’ body as she pressed herself against Mark.

“Look, the way you dress might be all right in Europe or even back East, but out here… Women wear clothing that is a little more practical and a lot less revealing,” Mark stated with a little bit of embarrassment as he finally was able to extricate himself from her grasp and walked to the rack where his rifle sat.

“Oh, so you have noticed.” She leaned forward across the desk so that when Mark turned around he couldn’t’ help but see. “I was about to think that you didn’t like beautiful woman.”

“Princess, I’ve told you before, I have a beautiful wife and I’m happily married.”

Ignoring Mark’s statement the princess continued, “Tell you what. Since you seem to know what a woman should wear, why don’t you accompany me shopping this afternoon. You can help me pick out ‘practical’ attire. But first I insist, we have lunch together.”

“Lunch! Oh, please ma’am, why don’t you return to the hotel,” Mark realized he was late. “I’ll have Mrs. Donner come to your room. I’m late in meeting my wife for lunch.”

“Wife! Pish, posh. You’re supposed to protect me,” Princess Sophia whined as she pressed herself against Mark and attempted to kiss him.

“Then get to your hotel room and stay there,” Mark tersely replied.

*****

Lilah carefully walked down the steps, pausing at not seeing Seth in the parlor, she continued on to the kitchen.

“Well, have the two of you finished your girl chatting?” Seth asked.

“Seth, something’s going on between Mark and… You work with him. Has he talked with you at all?” Lilah answered.

“Talked with me? About what?”

“Seth your daughter is upstairs crying because Zach asked her this morning if they would be princes when their father married the princess and Hope overheard two women at the restaurant talking about Mark kissing that princess.”

“Mark and the princess? He’s just doing his job. Mark’s in love with his wife!”

“Well, right now your daughter doesn’t feel that way. After she overheard two women talking of seeing Mark kissing the princess, she ran from the hotel and stopped in front of the Marshal’s Office and saw her husband too close to her. The way Mark and the princess had a hold of each other… Your daughter is mortified.”

“I can’t believe he would…” Seth stated.

Lilah’s look expressed her anger.

Seth decided to confront Mark, before talking with his daughter. Running down the boardwalk, he paused to look through the window into the Marshal’s Office and watched as Princess Sophia left the office sashaying through the door.

“Deputy,” she called as she winked to Seth.

Mark turned around, “Didn’t expect to see you here today,” he stated after seeing Seth’s reflection in the mirror.

“That’s quite evident.”

“Have you seen Hope? I lost track of time and was supposed to meet her at the restaurant…”

Mark didn’t get chance to finish his sentence before Seth threw a right cross to Mark’s cheek, forcing Mark backwards against the wall.

With an accusing tone Seth demanded, “Next time, finish wiping the other woman’s lipstick from your cheek!”

“Oh, that,” Mark stated, rubbing his cheek.

“Oh, that!” Seth mocked. “You asked me a few days ago if I thought everything was okay with Hope. And I was chalking her change in temperament up to her being pregnant and nervous about Lilah becoming her new mother. And all the time, you’ve been…”

“Been what?” Mark demanded.

“Carrying on with another woman, that European princess? My daughter’s not good enough for you anymore?! She’s pregnant with your child and you bring her to town only to flaunt in her face that you’re… you’re… with that woman!”

“I’m not ‘with’ that woman. I’m doing my job. I’m not doing anything except trying to avoid her,” Mark stated as he approached Seth, trying to explain.

“Trying to avoid your wife?!” Seth swung at Mark one more time, landing the punch on his jaw. Not wanting to talk anymore and having already made up his mind, Seth stormed from the Marshal’s Office. Slamming the door behind him.

“Seth!” he heard Johnny yell from behind. Seth shook his right hand and immediately regretted it. He purposely strode down the boardwalk, ignoring Johnny’s calling after him.

*****

Drako entered the jail to find Mark getting to his feet, rubbing at his jaw, dabbing at the blood trickling from the corner of his mouth.

“What the hell is going on between you and Seth?” Drako asked as he came up beside Mark.

“I’m not sure. Johnny, if I have to deal with that ‘princess’ any more…” Mark’s distaste for the woman was evident in his voice.

“You mean Sophie?” Johnny spoke her name coyly and laughed.

Mark rolled his eyes. “Can you watch the office? I need to get to Seth’s. I’m not sure exactly what just happened, but I have to try to straighten out the trouble I think I’m in with Hope.”

“You’re having wife problems?”

“Something like that.”

“Go on Mark. Just make sure your wife knows she’s the queen of your heart,” Johnny laughed as he closed the door behind him.

*****

Mark removed his hat as he stood on the porch to his father-in-law’s home. He knocked and waited. Lilah came to the door, “I’m sorry, but you’re not welcome in the house today.”

“Lilah, please. It’s not what it appears…”

“Not what it appears? Seth found you with another woman’s lipstick on your cheek and the way you parade her around town on your arms. You should be ashamed of yourself.”

“I’ve nothing to be ashamed for. I’ve done nothing wrong!” Mark pleaded.

“Then why is your wife upstairs crying her eyes out? It’s not healthy for the baby, for the mother to be this upset.”

“Please Lilah, let me in. I know I can straighten all this out, if you’ll just let me in.”

“Not tonight. You can stay at the Marshal’s Office and if Hope is up to seeing you tomorrow, maybe then. But I wouldn’t count on it!” Lilah closed the door.

*****

Lucas and Milly, and their children, arrived in town late Friday afternoon for supper with Mark and his family.

Milly took Mark’s face in her hands so she could get a good look at the bruising.

“Another rough night at Sweeney’s? I thought everything was settled with Leon training the hands…” Lucas commented.

“That’s going as planned. This was compliments of Seth,” Mark

“Seth?” Lucas and Milly ask together.

Mark explained the past few days, how he’d been providing security for the princess and how she kept forcing herself upon him.

“Pa, she’s not at all like Jennifer,” Mark stated. “I mean, Jennifer was proper. This princess… She doesn’t even seem to understand that I’m married.”

“Have you talked with Hope,” Milly asked.

“Until this afternoon I thought she understood I was doing my job,” Mark answered. “Even Johnny and Seth had been teasing me as of yesterday… But today…”

“Lucas, I’ll take the children over to Hattie and Micah’s. You and Mark need to talk,” Milly stated as she kissed Lucas goodbye.

*****

Sitting down at his desk Mark continued, “Pa, the last time Hope got this riled at me, I knew I did wrong by keeping secrets from her after the twins were born. This time, honest, it’s all been above board.” Lucas heard the exasperation in Mark’s voice. “Princess Sophia came in here today and I’ll admit I had lost track of time before she arrived, but Pa, I’m fed up with her. She’s so, presumptuous and the way she dresses and plays up to it,” Mark shivered. “And then pretends to be all coy about it.”

“Mark, you have to remember she was raised in a different country with different customs, where men and women act differently towards each other.”

“Pa, her dresses are so low cut and she deliberately leans forward…”

“I can see…” a smile crept to Lucas’ face.

“No you can’t! That’s the problem. With everyone else, she acts as I think royalty should act, but towards me, it’s like she has to flaunt herself at me. This afternoon she sashays in here, all coy, asks me to take her shopping and to lunch… I barely get her out of the office so I can go meet Hope at the restaurant and this,” pointing to his face, “is what I receive from Seth.”

“Maybe you should give both of them a little time to cool down,” Lucas stated.

Mark and Lucas continued to talk until Mark announced, “Pa, I don’t know what to do. I’m sorry I ruined your evening.”

“You didn’t ruin it. Maybe once they sleep on it and think on what happened, they’ll come around. I hope things are easier for you tomorrow.”

“Thanks, Pa. It’s time for my rounds. Goodnight.”

*****

That evening, the princess and her governess were in their room. “Oh Maddie, I’m bored. I just want to have fun…”

“You’re not having fun with the Marshal?” Maddie asked.

“Him? He’s such a bore. He’s so proper and so… married… Any other man alive would jump at a body like mine.” Sophia’s eyes gleamed as a child dreaming of mischief, while she stood in front of the full-length mirror and ran her hands over her well endowed breasts, pausing before continuing down to her flat stomach, turning sideways to see the reflection of her profile . “How much longer do we have to stay in this dreary town?”

“Not too much longer,” the governess answered as she finished unbuttoning the back of her charge’s dress and helped her step from the gown. She picked the dress from off the floor and hung the beautifully embroidered gown over the dressing partition standing in the corner of the room. Maddie returned to Princess Sophia and untied her corset.

“Oh, my… To finally breathe,” Sophia stated as she inhaled deeply and stretched her arms up, exhaling slowly.

Maddie stepped in front of the Princess as she lowered her arms, resting her hands on Maddie’s shoulders.

“One more day and we’ll be able to leave this town, my poppet,” Maddie answered, leaned forward and kissed Sophia on her forehead. Maddie’s hands wrapped around Sophia’s waist, taking hold of the corset, and pulled it over her head. Sophia tilted her head and rose to her tiptoes so that when Maddie looked down to her, their lips would touch. Sophia attempted to turn her governess’ playful kiss into a passionate kiss as she wrapped her arms around Maddie’s neck before lowering her hands, bringing them to the front to unbutton Maddie’s dress, pleading, “Please Maddie, it’s been too long… Make love to me tonight,” as she continued her attempt to unbutton the dress.

“What would the others think?” Maddie asked in a hushed tone and pushed Sophia away to arms length. Maddie walked the princess to the bed and pushed her gently to sit down. Maddie watched as the princess sat on the bed and began teasingly rolling down her stockings, first unclasping them from her garter. Slipping the first one from her foot, holding it and letting it unroll before dropping it to the floor. She repeated the exercise with the second stocking. As one schooled in the art of pleasing men, the princess slowly slipped her camisole up over her head, she closed her eyes as she lowered her arms, allowing the camisole to float from her hands. Next, Sophia slowly leaned forward to slip her petticoat from her hips, past her knees, lifting one foot and then the other to the bed; allowing the undergarment to lie on the floor. Maddie couldn’t stop smiling while watching Sophia lay back on the bed, as she teasingly posed her body before she reached for the sheet at her feet and pulled it up to cover herself.

“Who cares what they think,” Sophia answered, giggling as she watched Maddie finish unbuttoning her dress and walk to the dressing table. “If Mark McCain only knew what he was missing.”

Maddie reached up and removed a few hairpins before removing the grey-haired wig, revealing a head of rich, black hair, and set the wig down beside the washbasin. Having made sure the pitcher was full of water; Maddie leaned forward and enjoyed the water’s cooling effects on one’s scalp. Maddie reached for the washrag and soap, lathering the rag before washing and finally rinsing off the make-up.

In a lower-pitched voice Maddie stated, “I’ll be relieved to get out of this dress, once and for all.” Maddie slipped from the dress and turned around as the dress fell to the floor, “Well my love?” he asked as he walked to Sophia’s bed.

“Oh, I think I’ll enjoy you so much more than I ever would Mark McCain,” she replied with a devilish gleam in her eyes.

“I better never find him in my bed.”

“Your bed?”

“Okay, in bed with my wife,” Maddie laughed. “Is that better?”

“If they only knew, Madigan, if they only knew,” Sophia answered as she lifted the sheet allowing Madigan to slip under the covers; her lust consumed her.

*****

Once their desires had been satisfied, Sophia rolled over in the bed, allowing the sheet to drape across her. Lying on her side, “You said one more day? When does the bank transfer arrive?”

“Saturday afternoon,” Maddie answered while Sophia toyed with the hair on his chest.

“Mark’s not said anything to me about its arrival or that he wouldn’t be available to provide security for me while they transfer the money.”

“I wouldn’t expect him to, not until right before it arrives. But tomorrow, the plan is that after the bank is closed, you’ll receive a wire from an uncle in San Francisco informing you of your father’s death. We’ll get the banker to open the safe so we can get your jewels.”

“And the money,” Sophia giggled as she thought on their plan.

*****

Hope was preparing breakfast for her family Saturday morning when Lilah knocked on the kitchen door, “May I come in?”

Hope nodded.

“How are you feeling this morning?”

“It still hurts. Lilah, I don’t know what to do,” Hope quietly cried.

“If you love him…”

“Oh I do!”

“Then fight for him!”

“I can’t. I mean, I thought long and hard about this last night… If he’s no longer happy in this marriage then I won’t stop him. I love him so much that I want him to be happy. And if she makes him happy…, I’ll just have to accept that. No matter how much it hurts.” She wiped away the tears falling down her face.

*****

Mark woke from the bunk in one of the cells upon hearing the door to the office rattle.

“Oh, the king has been kicked out of his castle?” Johnny teased.

“That’s not funny,” Mark replied sourly.

“You didn’t get stuff resolved last night?” Johnny asked.

“No, they wouldn’t even let me explain. Johnny, I didn’t do anything wrong!”

“Don’t suppose that Seth will be standing his shift today?” Johnny asked.

“I wouldn’t count on it. I’ll stay the night so you can spend time with Lou and your family. Seeing as I’m not allowed to see mine.”

“Mark, what happened?” Johnny asked.

“Nothing,” Mark started to say, but his emotions wouldn’t let it stay bottled up inside. “She came in here yesterday trying to get me to arrest some of the working hands in town. I tried to explain how inappropriate her dress was and… she kept trying to press herself up against me. Johnny, she kissed me. I didn’t get all the lipstick off my face before Seth comes in here. He looked as if he was already out for blood before he even entered the door. Then he starts declaring that I’ve been carrying on with the princess. Lilah wouldn’t even let me in the house yesterday so I could explain. Johnny, I miss them.”

Johnny heard the hurt in Mark’s voice.

*****

Mark met his parents and sibling for breakfast before they did their weekly shopping and returned home.

“Mark,” Milly spoke. “Would you like for me to see if they’ll listen to me?”

“No, Ma. I appreciate it, but this is something I’ll need to work out with them. Thanks for letting me talk with Pa last night.”

“I could see that you needed it. No need to thank me.”

After saying goodbye to his Pa’s family, Mark returned to the bank to remove the princess’ jewels before walking to the hotel. As he passed the Marshal’s Office, Johnny reminded him, “We’ve the stage coming through here at six o’clock tonight. You’ll need to delay your supper with the princess.”

“Johnny, can’t you have supper with her tonight? I’d really like the chance to try to mend things with Hope.”

“Mark, I have an idea of what you’re going through, but if you try pushing it, you might push Hope further away.”

“And you don’t think my having supper with the princess will push Hope further away?”

Agreeing, “If the princess says it’s okay, I’ll provide security during supper tonight.”

*****

As the arrival time for the stage neared, Mark tried to excuse himself from the princess. “Please, I have an obligation to this town and I’ll need to ask that you stay in your room until I return.”

Wrapping her arms around his waist, she asked, “How long will you be gone?”

“No more than an hour,” Mark replied, forcefully removing her arms from around him.

*****

The special stage run arrived in North Fork. Johnny and Mark met the stage, guns and rifle at the ready, keeping a wary eye on everyone walking near them.

John Hamilton opened the bank, allowing the driver and shotgun rider to off load the bags containing the money and carry them into the bank and set them in the safe. After the last bag was safety in the vault, he let out a deep breath as he shut the door, turned the handle, and spun the dial.

“Now, that that’s done, I feel a whole lot better. Caleb, Sam, when are you scheduled to head out tomorrow?”

“We’re not. We leave tonight. The bank is sending another stage and set of drivers to finish the trip,” Caleb answered.

“Why wasn’t I informed?” John asked.

“They didn’t want too many people knowing their plans. We only found out about it just before we left.” Sam went on to add, “I was looking forward to taking this load clean through and seeing my sister in Abilene, Texas. Guess it’ll have to wait for a future trip.”

Sam and Caleb waved goodbye to North Fork as Johnny headed for home while Mark waited for John to finish locking the bank.

*****

Hope was walking from the boarding house to her new home. She did not intend to return to what had been her home; she couldn’t face walking into the home that had once been so filled with love… Spending the afternoon with Lilah had helped to take her mind off her troubles. Hope decided to go to the daycare and collect her children. Walking along the boardwalk, Hope returned the greetings from the people of North Fork that she passed. As she turned the corner, she encountered the princess, without Mark present.

“Well, now. If it isn’t the little misses,” Princess Sophia stated with rudeness in her voice.

“If you’ll excuse me,” Hope stated as she tried to pass by.

“Not very hospitable. And I thought all Americans were polite.” The princess blocked Hope’s path.

“I have nothing to say to you,” Hope declared as she again tried to walk by.

“Nothing to say to me? A woman who won't even fight for her man. I can’t believe he ever saw anything in you to want to marry you. He’s so vibrant and alive.” The princess stretched her arms tall before wrapping them around herself. “I plan to give him so much more than you ever could. He deserves so much better than the likes of you and those…”

The princess didn’t get a chance to finish. Before she knew it, she was on her backside with her crinolines and petticoats a showing; her hand to her cheek.

“It’s because I love him! If you ever truly loved someone, you’d understand. You’d give up the world to see that they were happy!” Hope declared as she stood over the princess, glaring down at her.

Flustered and stammering, unable to say what she wanted to say, the princess sat there and watched as Hope turned and walked away.

Once Hope was out of sight from the princess, she couldn’t stop the tears from falling as she started to run, as best she could, to her father’s home.

*****

Mark returned to the hotel and the princess’ room. Upon seeing the bruise forming on the princess’ left cheek he demanded, “What happened? I told you not to leave your room!”

“I was assaulted!” the princess declared.

“Who assaulted you?”

“I don’t know. I just wanted to see what took you away from me and… Oh Mark, it hurts so much.” Sophia wrapped her arms around Mark’s neck and rested her head on his shoulder.

“I’ll take you to see Doc Burrage,” Mark stated.

In a panic, Sophia proclaimed, “No! I can’t go out. That person might still be out there.”

“Okay, then I’ll go get Doc Burrage and have him come here to take a look at you. Where’s your governess?”

“I don’t know, she said she had an errand to run. She wasn’t here or in the other rooms when I returned.”

“Stay here. I’ll be back when I can.”

A few minutes later, Mark returned to the princess’ room with Thadd. After examining the bruise and determining that it was only a bruise, Thadd bathed it with witch-hazel. Before leaving, based on how upset the princess was acting, Thadd decided to give her a sedative.

“Take two of these pills and drink a full glass of water,” Thadd instructed and watched as she did as told.

Within fifteen minutes Thadd and Mark saw the princess’ eyes begin to droop and soon she was asleep.

“Mark, those should keep her asleep through the night.”

“Thanks, Thadd. Least I can catch up with Johnny before doing my rounds tonight.”

Both men left the room, Mark locking the door behind him.

“By the way, how did Seth break his hand?” Thadd asked.

“Break his hand?” Mark replied.

“He came to the clinic late last night and his right hand was busted. I asked, but he wouldn’t tell me, except in the line of duty.”

“Don’t know,” Mark answered.

“If I didn’t know any better, I’d say his right fist collided with your left cheek. Do you want me to take a look at it?”

“It won’t be necessary. Good night,” Mark replied.

*****

Mark stepped to the darkened street of North Fork, looking up and down, before turning his attention to the laughter coming from Sweeney’s.

Talking to himself, Mark stated, ‘No one should mind if I do my rounds earlier than usual.”

With his rifle in hand, Mark started his nightly rounds of North Fork.

*****

Johnny returned to the Marshal’s Office Sunday morning to find a note slipped under the door.

Johnny,

After having plenty of time to think over the last two nights, I decided to leave town in order to follow my true heart. Will send word of a forwarding address where you can have Robert Garrison send the divorce papers.

Please tell my father that I couldn’t stand the witch’s brew any longer.

Mark McCain

Johnny ran to the livery, saddled his horse, and raced to Lucas’.

After reading the note for the second time, Lucas stated, “He’s in trouble.”

“Damn right he is! He abandoned his obligations to this town AND his pregnant wife! And he leaves town for some floozy of a princess?”

“No, he didn’t leave town, least not of his own accord. Johnny, since when has Mark ever called me father? Also, you remember Lariat Jones, my old card-playing buddy? He was here… when I was paralyzed.”

“Yeah, I remember him. But what’s he have to do with Mark leaving town with this princess?”

“Lariat and I always had a warning phrase to indicate when one of us was in trouble. Mark used our code phrase in…”

“Witch’s brew?” Johnny asked.

“Yeah, witch’s brew. He wasn’t referring to Hope.”

Johnny waited for Lucas to saddle Blade. Milly stood on the porch, praying for God to watch over their family, as Lucas and Johnny rode for town.

*****

Johnny had just closed the door to the Marshal’s Office when they turned at hearing, “Drako!” John Hamilton threw open the door, clutching a rag to the back of his head. “The bank was robbed last night.”

“What happened?”

“Princess Sophia received a wire that her father passed away suddenly. She said she needed her jewels. When I opened my personal safe at the bank, an outlaw barged in. He placed a gun to the princess’ head and demanded I open the large safe,” John answered.

“Where we put the fifty thousand dollar transfer?” Johnny asked.

John nodded.

“Lucas, you best go get Seth and tell him,” Johnny stated.

“Tell him what?”

“Just that the bank was robbed.”

*****

“Damn it, Seth! You’re a deputy for this town. The bank was robbed and Johnny needs you. I don’t know exactly what happened, but Mark is missing and I’m sure they have him.”

“Let him run away with that hussy!” Hope declared from the top of staircase, only having heard the last part of the conversation.

Turning to address Hope, “And what if they kill him? What are you going to tell my grandchildren about their father?!” Lucas demanded angrily, striding purposefully to the base of the staircase.

“Kill him?” Seth asked. “What are you talking about?”

“Johnny arrived at the jail this morning. Mark wasn’t there. Now just listen to me. He left a note and I believe he was coerced into writing it. Johnny rode to my house this morning to show it to me. Mark used a warning phrase that Lariat Jones and I always used. After we were back in town, John Hamilton came in declaring someone robbed the bank last night. Seth, I’m asking for you to put aside whatever it is you’re feeling to help me save the life of your grandchildren’s father. Can you really just stand there and not believe the two events aren’t related?”

“Related?”

“Seth, think man! If this Sophia were a real princess, would she really behave as she has, even after Mark has told her time and time again that he’s married and in love with his wife. This princess and her entourage played their game to perfection. It’s the oldest trick in the book, divide and concur, and they sure did. If this princess was here to rob the bank, I’m sure they have Mark as a hostage.”

“Father?” Hope started to realize how irrational she had been; not giving Mark the chance to explain. Allowing herself to be duped by… that… “If I was wrong. They used me against Mark… If they kill him, he’ll die thinking I no longer love him.”

Lilah entered Seth’s home, having heard everything while she stood in the doorway, “Child, we were all wrong. Seth, go with Lucas. Bring your daughter’s husband back and this time, if he wants to talk, we’ll listen.”

“Let’s go talk to John, then I’ll decide,” Seth answered as he reached for his hat and gun belt, still not trusting what he was being told.

*****

“It makes perfect sense,” Drako commented.

“How so?” Seth asked.

“If the Princess was used against her will to rob the bank, why hasn’t she been here to report the robbery? I’m sure the outlaw has also taken her jewels,” Drako answered. “Right John?”

John Hamilton nodded.

“She could be tied up in her hotel room,” Seth tried to give a reason.

“I just heard the news about the bank,” Nils stated as he entered the Marshal’s Office a few minutes earlier. “Last night, the governess came to the livery, stated they needed to rent a team and buckboard. They received word the princess’ father had died. The next train wouldn’t be here for three days, so they wanted to get on the road as soon as possible,” Nils commented.

“All of them and their luggage in one buckboard?” Lucas asked.

“No, just the princess and her governess. The others were to catch up on the train.”

“Well then, where’s Mark?” Seth asked.

“Mark?” Nils asked.

“Yeah, he was supposed to be here this morning and wasn’t,” Johnny answered.

“If he’s missing, they probably caught him doing his rounds and he’s probably tied up somewhere in town. I didn’t see him in their room, and they didn’t take anything with them but their trunk. I helped them carry it down the stairs and load it in the buckboard out back,” Nils answered. “Tell you what, I’ll get some of the men together, and we’ll search the town.”

“Could they have him in one of the other room?” Drako asked. “One of her servants’ rooms?”

*****

Lucas led the way to the hotel, demanding Lou give them the keys to the rooms of the princess and her entourage. Having taken the steps two at a time, Lucas entered the room Lou indicated the princess had used.

Lucas walked to the chair and saw the pieces of cut rope and Mark’s badge lying on the floor.

“They had him here,” Lucas stated as he picked up the badge.

Lucas and Seth turned around, hearing the commotion in the hallway as Johnny pushed the others into the room.

“Mark wasn’t in their rooms,” Drako stated.

“Where’d they take my son?” Lucas demanded as he towered over the staff.

“Your son? We don’t know. We were just hired to play our parts. They paid us twenty-five dollars apiece to act as if we were their servants for a week,” the first man stated.

“Actors?” Seth asked.

“That’s right,” one young woman answered.

“You are all under arrest. I don’t have time to get you to the jail. But believe me, if you’re not here when I return, I’ll have wanted posters out on you so quick, you won’t be able to hide,” Drako stated as he turned to leave.

Lucas pushed his way out the room, ran down the stairs, and to the back of the hotel. Re-entering the hotel, he ran through the lobby, across the street, and jumped in the saddle. The others weren’t too far behind Lucas as he raced from town.

*****

Maddie helped Sophia to the seat of the buckboard, having rested the horses, and laughing at how well their plan had worked; the only hitch being the marshal making his evening rounds earlier than usual.

“What do we do with him?” Sophia asked as she looked over her shoulder to her steamer trunk.

“I’ll take care of him later tonight,” Maddie answered. They were just about to get back on the trail when they saw a cloud of dust approaching them fast. Maddie didn’t spare the horses as he whipped their haunches, urging them faster.

“Here, take the reins.” They could make out the riders racing after them. Still dressed as the governess, Maddie shoved the reins to Sophia before climbing over the seat. At first he used the trunk as cover while he fired his gun at their pursuers. But in time, he realized they needed to lighten the load. As they rounded a bend, he shoved the trunk off the back of buckboard and laughed as it rolled down the hill, heading for the river.

Lucas, Seth, and Johnny continued to trail after the buckboard. From the back of the buckboard, Maddie repeatedly fired towards their pursuers.

The small posse from North Fork watched as one of Johnny’s bullets found its target, striking the governess in the shoulder, knocking her off the buckboard. The princess strained to pull the team to a halt, jumped down, and ran back to Maddie.

“Where’s my son?!” Lucas demanded as they halted their horses, surrounding the duo.

“You had best answer him,” Drako added.

“Probably drowned,” the Princess laughed haughtily. “Steamers don’t float and by now, it’s at the bottom of the river.”

“The trunk!” Seth hollered.

“Johnny, can you…?” Lucas asked.

“Get! If I can’t handle two women and deliver them back to town. You go find Mark!”

*****

Seth and Lucas returned to find the steamer trunk sitting in about six inches of water at the river’s edge.

“Thank God there’s something good that’s come from this damn drought,” Seth stated as the two made their way down the hill.

Together they worked to pull the trunk from the shallow water.

“It’s locked,” Lucas stated, pulling at the lock.

“Stand back.”

Seth pulled his handgun and aimed it at the lock so the bullet wouldn’t penetrate the trunk. The lock shattered on the second shot fired. Together Lucas and Seth pulled open the trunk to find Mark crumpled and unconscious.

“What’s that smell?” Lucas asked as he knelt to pull Mark from the steamer, becoming lightheaded for a moment. Shaking his head brought his senses back.

“Chloroform. That’s how they kept him quiet. They knocked him out with it. Lucas pull him out, it can’t be good for him breathing that stuff.”

Lucas drug Mark away from the trunk, while Seth closed it. Pulling his bandana from his back pocket, Seth wet it in the river and carried it to Lucas.

“Here, see if this will bring him around,” Seth stated.

“Seth, he’s barely breathing,” Lucas commented as he wiped the wet rag over his son’s face.

“When they shoved the trunk off the buckboard, with it tumbling, the bottle probably broke when he landed on it. Look, his shoulder is bleeding.”

Lucas ripped Mark’s sleeve and saw a few shards of glass protruding from his son’s shoulder. Seth pulled what glass he could from Mark’s arm. A sore was already evident where the liquid had penetrated the skin.

“You said, chloroform. I remember from back in the war, they said too much exposure could kill a person,” a fearful Lucas said.

Moments later, Lucas looked up to see Johnny driving the buckboard, with the governess and the princess sitting in the back with their hands tied to the side railing, his horse tied to the back.

“Johnny, get on your horse and ride ahead. Tell Doc we’re bringing Mark in and he’s been over exposed to chloroform.”

“Chloroform, that’s…

“Get going Johnny!” Seth ordered.

Father and father-in-law carried the unconscious Mark to the buckboard and carefully placed him in back. Seth returned to his horse, “Lucas, I’ll ride ahead and let Hope know you’re bringing him in. Hopefully he’ll be awake when you arrive.” He rode as fast as he could.

“You ladies had best pray that my son recovers. I don’t make idle threats,” Lucas informed the women as he rein slapped the team and drove them back to North Fork.

*****

Thadd showed Lucas the way to a back room, with a window opened to the late afternoon breeze.

“What’s the prognosis?” Lucas asked.

“I don’t know. Chloroform can be quite…”

“…deadly,” Lucas finished.

“Yes, in large enough quantities, it can be deadly. It suppresses the nervous system and forces the body’s vital organs to shut down. The best thing for Mark right now is fresh air and plenty of it.” After listening to Mark’s heart and lungs and treating Mark’s shoulder, Thadd stated, “Lucas, right now there’s nothing more I can do for him. I’m sorry. Thought it does look like I have at least one patient in Drako’s custody that needs a bullet removed. I’ll be back when I can, but until then, you can best help your son by stripping him. They still reek of chloroform, they’ll need to be burned.”

*****

Abigail prepared the surgical room for the governess. Drako kept his gun trained on her as Abigail administered the ether.

“Drako, she’s unconscious. You can leave the room so I can undress her.”

“I’ll be right outside the door, if you need anything.”

Thadd was about to step into the surgical room when he and Johnny heard Abigail scream, “DRAKO!”

Both men burst through the door, Johnny with his gun drawn.

“What’s wrong?” Thadd asked.

“Her, I mean, him. She’s not a she,” Abigail called out, clearly agitated.

“Slow down and breathe deeply. What are you trying to say?” Thadd asked as he put his hands to his wife’s shoulders.

Having taken several deep breaths to get her over her initial shock, “I was removing her dress to expose the bullet wound. She… They’re fake!” Abigail held up the padded corset. “She’s a man! Under her clothes and the makeup and the wig, she’s a man!”

“Abigail, you get out of here!” Drako ordered as he pushed Abigail out the door.

*****

Lucas sat on the edge of the bed, wringing out the rag before placing it back to Mark’s forehead. He turned at hearing the door behind him open.

“Mr. McCain?” Hope stated as she stopped in the doorway with her father right behind her.

“Since when am I Mr. McCain to you?”

“I’ll understand if you don’t want me, us, here,” Hope answered.

“You’re his wife and the mother of my grandchildren. Right now, you belong here.”

Seth assisted his daughter to a chair in the room, before taking a seat for himself.

The three heard the commotion in the hallway. They looked one to another, before returning their attention to Mark.

*****

Thadd waited for Madigan to regain consciousness after the successful surgery. Once word had spread through town, Lou went through their luggage left in the hotel room and took appropriate clothing for the prisoner to the clinic. After watching his prisoner get dressed, Drako ordered him to his feet and paraded him across the street and into the jail.

*****

After securing both his prisoners, Drako searched through the carpetbags under the seat of the buckboard, locating all the stolen money, and promptly returned it to the bank.

*****

Thadd returned to Mark’s room where Lucas, Seth, and Hope sat in chairs around the room, suffering through an uneasy silence.

“How is he? Any change?” Thadd asked as he walked over to the bed, removed his stethoscope, and placed it to Mark’s chest.

“Thadd, he looks as if he’s barely breathing,” Lucas answered.

“It’s to be expected, just keep the window open, and pray the breeze continues through the night. Fresh air is the best medicine right now.”

“How are the two of you doing?” Thadd asked, looking to Seth and Hope.

“Us?” Seth asked.

“Yes, you. Or have you just sat in here wallowing in your own remorse.”

“He wouldn’t be here if I had trusted him,” Hope answered as she cried. “How he must hate me.”

“Do you really think he hates you?” Lucas asked.

“Oh, he must. And you must too. I didn’t even give him the chance to explain. I just accepted what I overheard those two women say and when I saw him in the marshal’s office with her… Father, I was willing to let him go to make him happy. If I had just taken a moment to listen to him, I would have known the truth.”

Seth offered up, “He tried to explain to me about the lipstick on his check, but I wouldn’t let him get a word in. I trusted my daughter’s hurt and what my eyes saw. I just slugged him. It’s not easy for a man to watch his daughter be devastated…”

“Both of you beating yourselves up like this isn’t necessary,” Lucas stated.

“I believed the words of strangers over letting my husband explain… If I had just talked with him, he wouldn’t have been there. He wouldn’t be here right now, half dead,” Hope cried.

“Hope, working yourself up like this isn’t good for the baby,” Thadd stated.

Hope couldn’t stand just sitting around or suffering through her guilt anymore, she ran from the room. Seth started to follow, “Let me, Seth,” Lucas offered. He followed Hope out of the clinic and caught up with her on the boardwalk, “Hope, wait a minute. Talk to me.” Lucas reached for and took hold of her arm.

“I can’t. I can’t.” She cried and tried to beat her fists against Lucas’ chest. “You have to hate me!”

“Shhh. I could never hate you,” Lucas answered and wrapped his arms protectively around his daughter-in-law, pulling her close. Quietly Lucas led Hope to the hotel, thankful the lobby and restaurant were empty. Lucas led Hope inside and helped her to a chair. From the pots on the pot-bellied stove, Lucas poured himself a cup of coffee and prepared a cup of hot tea for Hope.

“Here, drink this,” Lucas told Hope as he set the two cups on the table and took a seat next to her. “I know the past few days have been difficult for you.”

“How can you sit there and act as if I’ve not hurt your son? Or refuse to accept the truth that I’m the one responsible for him lying there, half dead?” Hope asked as she stared at the cup of tea cupped in her hands.

“You’re not the one responsible for him being at the clinic. But I have an idea what you’re going through. I remember what happened when Margaret was pregnant with Mark. Margaret knew in her heart that she was the only woman I loved, but her mind saw stuff that wasn’t real. I even came home one day to find all my clothes tossed out on the front porch, she said I could find myself someone else to do my laundry since I seemed taken by the women in town. Some were her best friends, others were strangers. All I did was say hello and tip my hat as we’d pass on the street. Margaret was about six months along and she doubted herself, just as you did and still are. You became jealous of another woman, because Mark was required to spend so much time with her. You probably even thought she was more attractive than you are. Margaret thought the same way.”

“She is prettier than me,” Hope quietly answered, still without looking to Lucas.

“Just as those women weren’t prettier than Margaret, that woman isn’t anywhere near as pretty as you are. Not where it matters. She has to use makeup to let her beauty shine. Hope, you have a natural beauty about you that that woman could only dream of having.“

“She’s so much more…” Hope didn’t know how to express what she wanted to say.

“Hope, you’re pregnant, You’re carrying my grandchild. You’re thinking you’re no longer beautiful, well listen to me young lady, pregnancy is when a woman is the most beautiful. I’m sure that when Mark recovers, the two of you will end up laughing about this whole episode. Margaret and I eventually laughed.”

“I’m tired, I’d like to go back to my father’s and lie down,” Hope said.

“No, if you’re going anywhere, you’re going back to the clinic. I know my son and he’ll be extremely worried about you if you’re not there when he wakes.”

“He won’t want to see me when he does wake.”

“If that’s what he chooses, let him tell you that. Right now, you’re coming with me,” Lucas stated as he raised both eyebrows, letting Hope know she had no choice in the matter.

Lucas stood up, helped Hope from her seat, and escorted her back to the clinic.

They entered the room to hear Seth inform them there was no change in Mark’s condition.

“Seth, I need to ride home and let Milly know what’s happening and I think you should go talk with their children and let them know,”

“Know what? That I killed their father?” Hope declared.

“Stop it! You didn’t killer their father. They just need to know that he’s at the clinic and is being treated by the doctor. I’ll be back when I can.” Lucas left the clinic and rode for home.

*****

They left Hope alone in the room with Mark. Regardless of her guilt, she sat on the edge of the bed, took the rag from Mark’s forehead, dipped it in the bowl, and wiped his face. She re-wet the rag before replacing it to his forehead.

“Oh, how you must hate me. You must think I’m the worst wife in the world. I’ll understand if you never want to see me again. I should have known better… Your father was right, I was jealous. Jealous of that hussy… The way she flaunted herself at you… Believing the words those women said… And Zach was repeating what Tommy’s father said… All the time you spent with her. It hurt, but in the end, all I wanted was for you to be happy. If going with her would have made you happy… I promise, give me a chance and I’ll prove how much I love you.”

It had been over an hour when Hope leaned forward and tenderly kissed Mark on the lips. She whispered, “I love you. Please come back to me.”

Hope gasped when she heard the word, can’t. “Mark?” Hope asked, she couldn’t stop the tears because she thought Mark was saying he couldn’t come back to her.

“I can’t write that,” Mark whispered as he tossed his head from side to side.

“Write? Write what?” Hope asked.

“He must be dreaming of them forcing him to write the note,” Seth stated as he re-entered the room. “Lucas told me about it while we were riding after him.”

“Witch’s brew,” Mark mumbled. “Pa will understand.”

“Witch’s brew?” Hope asked. “Isn’t that the warning phrase that Lariat Jones used?”

“Even if he hadn’t used that phrase in the note, Lucas would have known his son was in trouble. You’re not the only one who’s feeling remorse about what happened. We’ll make it right,” Seth stated as he placed a hand on Hope’s shoulder. “We both should have trusted Mark better than what we did.”

“Yes, you should have,” they heard whispered.

“Mark?” Hope asked, praying that she had heard what she heard.

Getting no response, Hope put her hand to Mark’s shoulder and gently shook him, “Mark?”

“I’m here,” he answered. “Can I have some water?”

Seth hurried to pour a glass and handed it to Hope, who held the glass so Mark could drink.

“How do you feel?” Hope asked.

“Stiff and sore. Feels like I got trampled by a stampede. What happened?” Mark asked.

“Don’t you remember?” Hope replied.

Mark’s last waking moments rushed back to his memory, “Yeah, I do. I was walking the town and came across the bank being robbed. The princess… She’s a fake. That hussy robbed the bank!” Mark exclaimed as he tried to sit up and get out of bed, only to be restrained by Seth. “That governess ain’t a governess! Seth, they’re gonna get away. We have to go after them! They knocked John Hamilton out at the bank. And they have the money transfer…”

“Mark, that was last night. It’s Sunday night,” Seth stated.

Mark looked around the room, his eyes stopping on Hope, “You believe me, don’t you?”

“We believe you,” Seth answered. “Sophia and Madigan are over in the jail. We caught up with them and you early this afternoon.”

“Do you forgive me?” Hope asked. “I’ve never felt so… jealous in all my life.”

“Jealous…, of her? Seth you punched me out because Hope was jealous?” a surprised Mark asked.

“Well, my little girl comes home and tells of two women talking about you kissing that princess and I came to talk to you about it and find lipstick on your cheek… What’s a father supposed to do?”

“You could have let me explain that I tried to push her away. That I was trying to avoid, the princess except when absolutely necessary. You’ve been teasing me all week about her, and thankful that you weren’t the one providing security. You know I’ve hated this assignment all week!”

“Yeah, I kind of misinterpreted what you were trying to say. So you have two free punches,” Seth joked.

“I might just take you up on that offer, the night before you and Lilah get married,” Mark jested. “You’re not going to let that broken wrist keep you from making the trip down the aisle are you?”

“No, but I’m hoping I’ll have served my penance between now and then,” Seth answered.

“Where’s Pa? I’m surprised he’s not here,” Mark stated having looked around the room.

“He was earlier. He went home to let Ma know you were found and I think to get you a fresh change of clothes,” Hope answered.


“Well, I think I’ll go let your children know that you’re okay,” Seth answered as he turned to leave the room.

*****

It was late when Lucas returned to town and entered the clinic. He opened the door to the room where he had left Mark. He smiled at the scene that greeted him. He saw his son, with his hand over his sleeping wife’s pregnant belly, Mark sleeping on his side, his head resting on the crook of his arm. Lucas entered the room and placed Mark’s fresh clothing on the table.

Thadd came up behind Lucas, “He came too about a half hour ago. Seth went home to be with their children.”

“Is he okay?” Lucas asked.

“From what I overheard, he will be. I won’t be surprised if there are a few things that are foggy in his memory. It’s a blessing that he survived.”

“It was really that close?”

Nodding, Thadd stated, “Lucas, go back home and tell Milly your eldest will be home, just as soon as his father-in-law gets married.”

*****

Monday afternoon, Johnny read the wire aloud as Mark, Seth, Hope, and Lucas sat in the room at the clinic. “Congratulations on capturing Sophia and Madigan Watson. Wanted in ten different states for bank robbery and making / passing counterfeit money. Pinkerton’s have been on their trail for years.”

“Guess the twins are going to be disappointed they’re not going to be princes,” Seth teased.

“See, you’re not the only ones they duped,” Mark laughed as he pulled Hope closer. “Still, you both should have had a little bit more faith in me.”

Lucas laughed as he saw the guilty expressions on Hope’s and Seth’s faces.”

“Like I said, all’s forgiven. I do have one question… Seth… your wrist, you didn’t break it punching Sophia, did you?”

“No, this was off your hard head,” Seth ruefully answered.

“Then who punched her? She had a pretty wicked bruise Saturday evening,” Mark explained.

“That would be me,” Hope quietly answered.

“You?! Why’d you punch her when you wouldn’t even talk with me?”

“She just got me all flustered and said that you didn’t deserve the likes of me and…”

“And what?” Mark stated, cupping his hand to Hope’s chin.

“I didn’t give her a chance to say the children.”

Mark took Hope’s right hand in his, “Did it hurt?”

“Not nearly as bad as thinking I had lost you.”

“You can’t get rid of me that easily. I’m not so taken in by royalty, there’s only one queen for my heart.”

Lucas had to have a laugh at Mark’s expense, “Son, I do remember two royal visitors you were taken by…”

“Yeah, but Pa, I was a kid back then. Besides, Jennifer was more taken by you, if I remember correctly.”

“Lucas, you said two royal visitors?” Seth stated.

“Don’t worry Seth,” Mark stated. “The other was her much younger brother, Charles.”

The Next Step — A Queen Returns

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

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