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The Next Step…
Chapter 84 - The Spark
Written by Deanne Bertram

Tension in the town of North Fork was starting to elevate. The ranch owners, their hands, and the farmers worried about the ever-increasing dry spell and it didn’t take much to spark fights over at Sweeney’s. Saturday night, Mark and Seth had their hands full breaking up the latest in a long line of fights.

Sweeney called out, “Mark, you okay?”

“Yeah, just think I’m gonna have one heck of a shiner in the morning.” He winced as he touched his cheekbone.


After closing the cell door on the latest brawlers, Seth returned to the office area and sat down at the desk opposite Mark.

“Yep, Hope should love to see that shiner. Which one got in the lucky punch?” Seth teasingly asked.

“Can’t remember. It’s never been that bad over at Sweeney’s,” Mark complained.

“With this drought, the hands are working harder to keep the herds alive. All it takes is one small spark and the whole place will go up in flames. Speaking of tempers, what happened Sunday with Jack Bolton and Leon Cooperton?” Seth asked.

“Not much, especially when Bolton realized how his son had exaggerated or failed to mention Isaiah’s size. Here tell Bobby might finally be able to sit down today after the trip to the woodshed. You seemed to slip out of church pretty quick last Sunday. Care to tell me why?” Mark asked.

“No. It’s none of your business,” Seth replied defensively.

“You take Lilah out for a buggy ride?”


“I’m just curious. I mean Pa was told by Isaiah that he was going to marry Myra, after they completed their education…”

“He what? How did your father take that statement?” Seth laughed.

“About as well as when I told him I wanted to buy a piece of land so I could build a home for Sally. I think it surprised him, but Sunday evening all Ma and Pa wanted to do was to talk of my infatuation over Sally.”

“Well, if you’ll remember your embarrassment, then leave me to mine,” Seth stated.

“Is there something for you to be embarrassed about? You do… You took her out!”

“And what if I did?”

“Nothing, nothing,” Mark cajoled

“And keep it that way,” Seth stated.


Sunday morning, Mark opened the jail cell doors and allowed those inside to leave. “Boys, I’ll expect you back here no later than Friday afternoon with your fines -- ten dollars each.”

Without much grumbling, the cowboys collected their hats and guns and left the jail.

“Oh, and don’t forget you also owe Nils for keeping your horses overnight!” Mark called out.


Dave Merar stopped at the Marshal’s Office after church, “Mark, I hate to do this to Sweeney, but I’m restricting my hands to the ranch.”

“You think that’s a wise thing to do?” Seth asked.

“I can’t keep dealing with busted up hired hands and Sweeney deserves better than having his place used as a weekly powder keg.”

“Dave,” Mark stated. “I understand your reasoning, but restricting them to the ranch can only make things worse. They have to be allowed to blow off steam somehow, hopefully without trying to kill each other.”

“Mark, you come up with an idea and I’m all for it. I lost four hours of work by three of my hands this morning because they were in your jail.”

“It’s Sunday!” Seth declared.

“I know it is, but with this drought, I need every hand working every day keeping an eye on my cattle and fixing the fence lines them thirsty cows bust through.”

“Dave, I’ve an idea. Give me a few days to work out the details. But I assure you that my idea will be just the ticket.”

Dave shook hands with Seth and Mark before leaving the jail.

“And just what are you thinking?”

“Leon, the Lion.”

“What?” Seth asked.

“Not what, who. I’ll be back.” Mark left the jail, placing his hat on his head, rifle in hand, practically knocking over Micah as he entered the office.

“What was that all about?” Micah asked.

“Beats me, something about him having an idea.”

Micah turned and watched as Mark jogged down the street.


“Afternoon Marshal,” Mrs. Cooperton called.

“Mrs. Cooperton. Won’t you please call me Mark?” Mark replied.

Laughingly she answered, “Only if you’ll stop calling me Mrs. Cooperton. My name is Ethyl. What can I do for you?”

“Ma’am, I’m sorry to intrude on your Sunday, but… is your husband home?”

“He’s over in the barn.”


Mark strode to the barn and called, “Mr. Cooperton?”

“Just a moment.”

Shortly Mr. Cooperton appeared up in the hayloft.

“Marshal, how can I help you?”

“Mr. Cooperton, I know you asked my Pa to keep a secret for you, but he did tell me… only because I’m a marshal and he felt I needed to know to be able to squelch any trouble that might come your way.”

“I understand. So is trouble coming my way?” Leon asked as he stepped from the ladder.

“No sir, but I was hoping you could help diffuse trouble that is brewing in town.”

“I’m just a leather worker, how can I help you?” Leon asked.

“Leon, with the drought… tempers are short in town. Johnny, Seth, and I… seems like we can’t get through the weekend without breaking up fights over at Sweeney’s. The ranchers are ready to refuse their hands permission to come to town and I know that will only breed more discontent and tempers will rise even more.”

“So, what can I do?”

“Start a fight club.”

“A what?”

“Leon, if they want to fight, I’d prefer it be organized. Teach them the rules and give them structure…”

“Mark, I…”

“Leon, I know your fear… But this isn’t for money… and for most of the cowboys; it will be just to blow off steam. I’d rather it be organized than an all out brawl where someone can seriously be injured. Besides, if this works the way I think it can, it can become something to claim pride for the winner’s ranch. Sort of like rodeos.”

“I’m not sure my wife would approve,” Leon answered, looking for any way to refuse.

“Your wife feels it’s about time you stepped back into the ring,” Ethyl called from the doorway.

“Ethyl, I can’t.”

“Yes, you can. It’s about time we stopped running and letting others fight our fights.” Walking to her husband, “Leon, I want to stay here. I love the people, and if we can do something to help… You have to.”

Turning to Mark, “So, are you and the other marshals going to be out there helping me?” Leon asked.

“No, but I know someone who has plenty of time on his hands. I’m sure he’d be more than happy to help you.”

“Who else besides you would have the influence to help keep the ranch hands in place?”

“How about a former marshal, Micah Torrance.”

Leon and Mark shook hands.


Friday evening, Seth nervously walked to the boarding house, bouquet of flowers in his hand. He entered the parlor to be greeted by Jonas Tolliver.

“Evening Deputy,” Jonas called.

“Evening Jonas, is Delilah ready?”

“Have a seat, the way those two have been talking upstairs, I’d say it’s going to be a while before you go anywhere. Care for a drink?”

“Brandy,” Seth answered.

About twenty minutes later, the men heard footsteps coming down the stairs. Quickly they stood as the ladies approached.

“Deputy you’re here already,” Mrs. Tolliver stated in a greeting.

“Yes Ma’am, I told Lilah, Mrs. Stovers I’d be here at seven o’clock.” He held out the bouquet of flowers.

From behind Jonas Tolliver cleared his throat and Seth turned to see him thumb to the clock on the mantle. Both women looked to see the clock displaying seven, fifteen.

Taking the flowers, Lilah stated, “I’m sorry for being late. These flowers are beautiful. Thank you.” She inhaled deeply of their fragrance.

Mrs. Tolliver offered to get a vase of water. Lilah took a few minutes to arrange the bouquet before setting it in the middle of the table.

“Well, if I may?” Seth raised his arm, inviting Lilah to take it.

As they walked down the path from the house, they heard Jonas teasingly call out, “Make sure you get her back here at a reasonable hour.”


Arm in arm they strolled down the street to the restaurant. Once inside, Lou showed them to a table. Oblivious to others coming and going, Seth and Lilah only had eyes for each other as they ate their supper and talked of old times and of Seth’s family. The two had finished dessert when they were interrupted.

“I received a complaint on you a little while ago,” Mark stated, trying to keep his voice serious.

“Mark, we’ve been sitting here, minding our own business,” Seth answered.

“Yep, but from what I hear, you were also told to have this young woman back to her home at a reasonable hour.”

“Reasonable, we’ve only been…”

“Only been gone long enough for me to do my rounds and to get stopped as I started to head back to the jail. Seth, it’s almost ten.”

“Aye, ten o’clock,” was repeated in an Irish brogue as Lou walked up to join the small group.

“It can’t be, can it?” Lilah asked with embarrassment.

“Deputy, please see the young lady home, after you pay your tab,” Mark teased as he turned and walked away.


Saturday afternoon, Mark waited for his Pa to arrive in town to make their weekly purchases; he couldn’t wait to get home to tell Hope what was happening.


“He what?” Hope laughed.

“You heard me. Jonas stopped me on my rounds, asked if I would mind checking to make sure Lilah was okay.”

“You think father would have said something to me,” Hope stated.

“Well, I guess it could sort of be like Pa and me, a father doesn’t exactly know how to talk of such things to their child. Usually the courting happens before there’s a child involved,” Mark laughed. “Besides I’ve sorta been teasing him about it.”

“Teasing… Mark McCain!”

“I’m only looking out for your best interest.”

“My best interest?!” Hope asked.

“Yes,” Mark stated as he came up behind Hope and wrapped his arms around her pregnant belly. “She just may become your new mother.”

“My new mother… I hadn’t thought of that.”


It was the last Saturday in June when Amos stopped Seth while he was walking the town, “Seth!”

“Everything okay Amos?” Seth turned and asked as Amos jogged up to him.

“Sure, got this letter for you. It’s from Ethan.”

“Thanks Amos.” Seth took the letter and returned to the Marshal’s Office. Once inside, he sat at the desk and opened the envelope. Nervously he unfolded the letter and read.

Dear Father,

Annie and I hope this letter finds you well. We received Mark and Hope’s letter earlier this month and are happy to hear that they are expecting again. Please tell them congratulations from us.

As for the other news contained in your letter, we are happy for you. I wish we could be there in person to give our blessings, but I’m scheduled to leave on a two-week patrol soon. I’ll probably already be out when you receive this letter.

Please send a wire when you receive your answer.

We send our love, always,

Ethan and Annie Lane

PS: Seth Edward and Marissa send their love, too.

‘One down, one to go,’ Seth whispered.


Johnny and Seth stepped from the jail and saw the long line of ranch owners followed by their hired hands riding into town.

“What’s this all about?” Johnny asked, of no one in particular. “Oat!”

“Hey Johnny, Seth,” Oat answered back as he reined his horse to a stop.

“What’s this all about? Never seen so many of your hands coming into town.”

“Especially on a Sunday morning,” Seth added.

“Got word from Mark that we needed to be here for services and an announcement.”

“Announcement?” Turning to Seth, “You know what he’s planning.”

“Not exactly. Just that Dave Merar was wanting to forbid his hands from coming to town, after their involvement in that brawl at Sweeney’s last weekend.”


Reverend McCafferty chose the topic of his sermon carefully, tolerance. He knew the ranch hands were hard pressed in their duties to keep their boss’ cattle safe and the fences in place. The heat made for long, tiring hours in the saddle, and they needed a night in the town to refresh themselves.

Before closing services for the day, he informed the congregation that Mark McCain had an announcement to make. Oat Jackford, Dave Merar, and the other ranch owners gave a few of their hands a hard glare after hearing them groan.

“Reverend, thank you. I know everyone is anxious to get of here, so I’ll keep this brief. I’ve talked with Leon Cooperton regarding the brawls that have been happening all too frequently over at Sweeney’s and we’ve decided if you’re all so set on beating each other up, you’re going to learn the proper way of fighting, meaning no cheap shots. Leon will be teaching the art of boxing and right now, everyone who we’ve had locked up in the jail is a student. We’ll divide the classes based on the size of the fighters and you’ll all help build a boxing arena. And just to make sure the rules are followed, Micah Torrance will also be present during each training session. Once Leon says you’re ready, we’ll have ourselves a boxing exhibition. And the fines that have been paid as a result of the fights over at Sweeney’s will be put up as purse. Any other hand who wishes to participate, you’ll talk directly to Leon. Oh, everyone will pay five dollars, on top of what you’ve already paid in fines, this will be split between Leon and Micah for their time. Reverend I know we’ve been taught to turn the other cheek…”

“Mark, nothing wrong with a good old fashion boxing exhibition. Beats a barroom brawl any day. Sounds like a perfect timing for a church social, too.”

As the congregation left the church, the comments Mark overheard we just what he had hoped, the hands were interested.

“Seth, you and Lilah are still planning to come out for supper tonight, aren’t you?” Mark asked.

“Sure, about four?”

“We’ll see you then.”


Gwen helped Hope fix a wonderful meal of chicken and dumplings with all the fixings. Mark and Hope’s children were on their best behavior at the table. After supper, Lilah told Hope to have a seat, she and Gwen would take care of the dishes.

“But you’re a guest in our home,” Hope pleaded.

“But I’m not the one who’s pregnant. You need to sit down and relax. Don’t be ashamed to accept help.”

Seth escorted Hope to her chair. Once dishes were done, the boys wanted to show Lilah their ponies.

“Please Papa?” Zach asked.

“It’s up to Miss Lilah,” Mark answered.

“Please Miss Lilah,” Josh pleaded.

“I’d love to see your ponies.”

Mark and Lilah followed the twins as they ran from the house.

“Oh, to be so young again. I feel young just being around them,” Lilah stated with a smile beaming across her face.


When it was just Hope and Seth, he stated, “Hope, I have something I’d like to talk with you about.”

“Is this about you and Lilah?” Hope asked.

“I’ won’t if you’re against it.

‘Father, if marrying Lilah will make you happy. I’m happy for you.”

“But can you accept her as…”

“As my new mother? I can. Father, she’s a wonderful woman and I see the way she looks at you. And the way the children have taken to her, I think she’d make a wonderful grandmother.”

“Thank you. After I lost your mother… and then we found you… It never occurred to me to try to find another woman.”

“Sometimes the best things happen without trying. When are you planning to propose?”

“I’m not sure. I didn’t think that I’d get your approval.”

“I presume you’ve already asked Ethan?”

Yes, he and Annie gave me their blessings.”

“As do I. Father, why didn’t you think I would give you my blessings?”

“I don’t exactly know, just that girls can be particular about a new woman coming into the house.”

“Father, it’s your home. Mark and I have our own home. Besides, with the way that Mark welcomed Miss Milly into his family, could I do anything less?”

Seth hugged his daughter. “You don’t know how much this means to me. I didn’t think I could love another woman after Emma, your Ma.” Changing the subject, “How’s that new grandbaby coming along?”

“Just fine, so far. I have another appointment with Doc Burrage next week. I’ll do my best to keep your secret; just don’t make me keep it that long.”


Seth had asked Johnny for Saturday night off. He had arranged with Lou for a picnic basket supper and with Nils to rent the surrey and a horse. Seth arrived at the boarding house at three o’clock in the afternoon. After informing Jonas and Evelyn Tolliver he would have Lilah home before dark, he escorted her to the surrey and helped her get in.

Trying his best to act as if today was no different than any other day, Seth asked Lilah if she were comfortable, or if the wind was too much.


“And just where do you think you’re going?” Hope asked of Mark.

“Out,” he answered.


“Just out!” Mark sheepishly stated.

“No you don’t. You’re not going anywhere near Miller’s Creek today!”

“Miller’s Creek? Why would I go there?”

“You know very well that father is planning to take Lilah on a picnic supper to Miller’s Creek today.”

“I just want to peak,” Mark pleaded.

“Don’t you remember how nervous you were when you asked me?”

“Yeah, but I asked in front of both our families. I only want to return the favor,” Mark laughed.

“You’re impossible! You’ve teased father enough since Lilah moved to North Fork. Let him have some dignity and privacy.”

“You’re no fun!” Mark teased as he walked up behind Hope and laughed, wrapping his hands over her pregnant belly. “So, do you think they’ll get married before or after their grandchild is born?”

“Oh, you!”

Mark stole a kiss before he reached for his hat and rifle.

“Mark!” Hope exclaimed.

“Tonight was supposed to be your father’s shift in town, so I get to work with Johnny. I promise I won’t go anywhere near Miller’s Creek.”


“Promise,” Mark stated as he raised his hand.


Seth drove the horse and buggy out to Miller’s Creek, he couldn’t bring himself to do much talking he didn’t trust his voice to give away how nervous he felt. He smiled as he looked at Lilah sitting next him. The color of her dress made the color of her eyes appear even deeper.

“Well, here we are,” Seth stated as he pulled the horse to a halt. He relaxed the pressure on the reins as he leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. “What do you think?”

“Seth, it’s beautiful. I can’t get over how spectacular the land is,” Lilah answered.

“It pales in comparison to…”

“To what?”

“Lilah, let me help you down,” Seth replied as he stepped from the surrey, walked around the horse, and presented his hand to help Lilah down. Once she was to her feet, he picked up the picnic basket from behind their seat while Lilah reached for the blanket draped over the back of the seat.

The two laid out the blanket and Seth helped Lilah sit down before he sat down beside her. She set out the fried chicken and mashed potatoes after setting out the rolls and butter. Seth pulled two glasses from the basket and filled them with lemonade from the canteen.

“How are you settling in to North Fork?” Seth asked while they were eating.

“Seth, I’ve been here for over six months, I think we’re beyond me settling in to North Fork,” Lilah laughed.

“Oh, yeah, uh. Are you enjoying working in the dress shop?”

“Yes. Mrs. Dahlrimple is a pleasure to work for. At first she watched over all my work, but now, she knows the quality of work I can do. She’s even asking for my input on some of her designs. The dress that Lou wore to the Summer Celebration, I helped design the bodice. She looked so beautiful that night,” Lilah answered.

“She looked pretty, but you, you were beautiful. That blue dress you wore, it was almost as nice as the dress you’re wearing tonight.”

“I didn’t think you really noticed.”

“You forget I was once a Major. I have to pay attention to detail, many a times it was by paying attention to the detail that I got my unit back to the fort in one piece.”

Once they had finished eating and packed everything back in the basket, Seth asked Lilah to walk with him. They stopped to look out over a large tree overhanging the creek. Seth escorted Lilah to a large boulder and sat down.

The sun was just starting to sink below the horizon when Seth reached in his pocket.

“Lilah, are you happy here in North Fork?” Seth asked.

“I am. So much more than I was back in Laramie.”

“You came here from Laramie because I asked you to. If I were to ask you another question, could you see yourself moving out of the boarding house?”

“And just where would I move to?”

Seth opened his hand to show a ring in his palm, “I was hoping into my home, you’re already in my heart.”

“Seth…” Lilah gasped and she clasped both of her hands to her chest.

“I know it’s only been six months, but… I never expected to find another woman who could make me feel the way my Emma did. I mean while I raised Ethan and mourned Hope, it just never appealed to me, to look for another woman. I figured I’d just be a confirmed bachelor or I guess a widower would be more appropriate. I wasn’t looking when you showed up on the train. I forgot what that part of my life felt like. Lilah, I’m asking you to marry me.”

“And if I said yes, what would Ethan and Hope say?”

“They’d say I was extremely lucky. I’ve already talked with them and both have given me their blessings,” Seth answered.

“Hope gave you her blessings?”

“It surprised me too. She said she wants me to be happy and Lilah, having you as my wife would make me very happy.”

“Aren’t we too old?” Lilah asked.

“We’re younger than Micah and Hattie were when they got married. Are you going to give me an answer or are you going to keep asking questions?”

“Are you sure you really want me for a wife? I’m mean, I’m not at all as pretty as I remember Emma being.”

“Lilah, I’ve taken a page from the McCain book of life, I don’t want to look back. I want to look forward, with you by my side.”

“If you’re so sure, then yes. I’ll be your wife,” Lilah finally answered.

“Yes. You said, yes?”

“Yes,” Lilah giddily replied as Seth slipped the ring on her finger.


Lilah rested her head on Seth’s shoulder while he drove the horse and surrey back to the boarding house. Jonas and Evelyn Tolliver and Mark McCain were standing on the porch as they drove up.

“Deputy, do you realize the fright you put in the Tolliver’s. You stated you’d have this young woman home before the sun set. I might just have to throw you in jail to get the point across,” Mark called as Seth escorted Lilah up the walkway.

“You’ll do no such thing!” Lilah declared. “Or else I’ll inform my future daughter-in-law how unfair you are.”

“Future daughter-in-law?” Evelyn asked and then squealed, “He proposed?!”

The two women hugged and cried.

“Mrs. Tolliver, I suggest you get her inside. As I was once informed, there are proprieties to be observed once a woman is engaged.” Mark couldn’t keep the laughter in as he extended his hand to congratulate his father-in-law.

Next Step — The Princess

This is a story based on the TV series The Rifleman
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