Written by Linda Ellen
(I do not own the rights to The Rifleman or any of its characters. No infringement is intended and I will receive no monetary gain from this story.)
May 1888 – The McCain Ranch, near North Fork, New Mexico.
Lucas McCain wandered out onto the front porch of his cabin, the stillness of the warm spring night drawing him like a trusted friend.
The tall muscular rancher leaned against a post, content and relaxed, as wisps of smoke from his cheroot floated past his head and slowly dissipated in the soft evening breeze.
He stared out at his surroundings, which were just visible in the moonlight. For some reason, that triggered scenes in his memory of standing watch during the War, which led to a conversation he’d had earlier that day...
“Mr. McCain, were you really a Lieutenant durin’ the War?” little Tommy Matthews asked him as he waited for Miss Hattie to fill his order at the mercantile. Lucas glanced down and into the wide green eyes of the child gazing up at him and smiled, reaching out to ruffle the boy’s wavy red hair.
“I sure was, Tommy,” Lucas answered. “Nineteenth Indiana Volunteer Infantry,” he added, though he was sure the little boy wouldn’t have a clue what that meant. With his considerable height, vivid blue eyes and blond, neatly combed hair, Lucas McCain presented a commanding figure. Every young boy in town was in complete awe of him – and Tommy was no exception. Hero worship was plain in the boy’s eyes.
“My Pa says you’ve got a reputation from Oklahoma to New Mexico ‘cause of how good you are with that Winchester,” another young boy, David Williams, chimed in as he overheard the conversation.
“How fast are ya?” Tommy asked shyly, only having seen the man known as “The Rifleman” shoot and wound one man before his mother dragged him out of harm’s way. But he had seen the big man cock the rifle with the odd round trigger by spinning it a full 360 degrees around the fingers of one hand, and sometimes by swinging it out and back. The boy was sure there was no other man in the territory faster with a rifle. The fact that Tommy’s mother was a widow and the boy was growing up without a man in the house only added to his hero worship of his friend Mark’s father.
Several other boys had gathered and heard Tommy’s question, as had Mark, Lucas’ son, having stepped into the mercantile just then.
“My Pa’s been in lots ‘a shootin’ contests. A man with a stop watch told him one time that he fired off his first round in three-tenths of a second - and he never misses,” the boy bragged, sidling up to his father and flashing him a proud smile.
Lucas now smiled as he remembered the scene, his heart warmed by the memory of his son’s pride in his skills.
Taking a deep breath and releasing it with a relaxed sigh made him cognizant of the scent of new grass, freshly sawn wood, and the familiar aroma of livestock drifting over from the half dozen head of cattle he purchased the day before. The lingering scent of bacon drifting out the open door of his home also registered; the last remaining evidence of supper after the dishes were washed and put away in the curtained sideboard.
Turning in place and resting his broad back against the post, he gazed into the shadowed interior of his cabin, illuminated only by a low-turned lamp on the dining table. Why am I not sleepy tonight? I should be...worked hard all day, he mused, his mind still very much awake. In truth, he was lonely, but he refused to allow that fact to register. Times like this used to be his favorite...the end of a busy day...a few minutes of quiet companionship...and loving...
Instead, he focused his thoughts on the house that had stood on his property when he first purchased the ranch...and how he felt when Oat Jackford’s men burned it to the ground.
His eyes glinting in the moonlight, Lucas remembered the fight he’d had with the man over his right to live on his own land – land that Jackford had wanted for himself...
“You’d better kill me right now, Jackford!” he yelled in the man’s face during their confrontation. “I'll be waitin' out in the brush every time you step out the door! I'll kill your stock and I'll burn your barn! I'm gonna pay you back Mr. Jackford! Now what's it gonna be?" Lucas snarled at the man as he shoved a finger into his face. In reality, he wouldn’t have carried out those threats, but saying them at the time made him feel better about his loss.
Surprisingly, Jackford backed down, perhaps out of grudging respect for the determined newcomer.
"Alright, we'll build you a new house," Jackford groused. "You've got yourself a ranch, mister.”
The cabin Oat Jackford’s men built to replace the one they burned down was homey, comfortable, and just right - not too big and not too small. It was perfect for their needs, and so reminiscent of the home he and his son had left only months before in Oklahoma territory.
Nodding to himself in satisfaction, he lifted the cheroot to his lips and took another draw, tilting his head back and allowing smoke rings to emerge from his mouth as he enjoyed the night sounds and the quiet of his home.
Yeah, I'd say we've done pretty good so far, making this place into a home, me and Mark...he mused.
Mark... Lucas smiled gently, his chiseled features softening a bit as he thought again of his precious son.
I couldn’t be more proud of the boy, despite the fact that he doesn’t resemble me at all, or wrestle with my quick temper, thankfully, he mused wryly. No, as everyone who knew her was swift to point out; Mark resembled his mother in physical appearance and gentle, sensitive disposition.
But Mark inherited several of my inner strengths, Lucas reminded himself. Even at the young age of ten, the boy already displayed wisdom beyond his years at times, and an understanding of human sensibilities. He made friends easily, and smiled often, a smile that was so reminiscent of his beautiful mother.
Idly wondering what he had done to deserve such a blessing, Lucas silently vowed once again to do everything within his power to raise and care for the precious gift he'd been given.
The big man shut his eyes, allowing his mind to wander back into territory he seldom visited. It hurt too much to do so. Yes, he was "The Rifleman" and he knew everyone saw him as rock solid, stoic, serious, and fearless. He wanted it that way. It was safer in many ways. His reputation kept trouble at bay...most of the time.
But he was an extremely private man. He certainly did not want anyone to know that inside he was tender...and after all these years, so very much in love. He still wore the gold wedding band she had lovingly placed on his finger...
Indulging for a moment, he pictured once again the first time he saw his beautiful Margaret...
Stepping onto the porch of the mercantile in Enid, Oklahoma and heading inside, he turned his head to call a greeting to a friend passing by on a horse, and literally bumped into someone exiting the establishment.
Reaching out hastily to grab her arms, he barely prevented the petite, mahogany-haired young woman from being knocked to the dusty plank floor. She uttered a startled squeak and raised her head, breathtaking liquid brown eyes wide with surprise, and stopped still as she gazed up into his face. He felt tiny sparks tingling from the contact of his hands on her arms as he noticed her lovely peaches and cream skin, and long, full eyelashes...
After several moments, Lucas regained his poise, managing to clear his throat and utter a quiet, "Pardon me, ma'am," as he quickly tipped his hat to the startled young woman.
“That’s quite alright,” she returned, flashing him a dazzling white smile as she reached up to check that the comb holding back one side of her hair hadn’t jarred loose.
Instantly and totally smitten, he watched as she continued on her way.
Lucas gave a soft chuckle and gently shook his head as he remembered how, over the course of the next several months, he had competed with more than one interested suitor - including Reef Jackson, Tom Burch, and even his best friend Lariat Jones – to spend every possible moment in the presence of the beautiful Margaret Gibbs.
A memory long forgotten surfaced – that of his friend teasing him unmercifully.
“What’s this, Luke? What’s come over you? How come all of a sudden you ain’t interested in a shot of whiskey or a good fight? You didn’t wanna come out with us on that shivaree the other night, and ya turned down the chance ta make a little extra money playin’ bounty hunter with me...” Lariat probed as Lucas squirmed under his scrutiny.
Just then, a wagon came down the street and passed the two men. Lucas was instantly unable to take his eyes from the female passenger, his friend’s presence totally forgotten.
Lariat chuckled and nodded.
“Ahh...so that’s it. The mighty Lucas McCain’s got hisself wrapped around the finger of some pretty little filly...”
Then before Lucas could register his actions, Lariat chuckled again and trotted across the street, gallantly introducing himself to Margaret – and falling under her spell as well. Though part of her charm for him, if he would have admitted it, was the fact that his best friend was so smitten with her. Nevertheless, Lariat set out to try and win her hand himself.
Lucas’ mind drifted to the day several weeks later when he challenged his friend to a shooting contest (in lieu of hand to hand combat), his speed and accuracy with his rifle beating the other man’s considerable speed with a handgun. The prize for the bet was that the loser would allow the winner to suffer no challenge in his pursuit of the lovely young woman.
For the most part, Lariat kept to the bargain, Lucas admitted to himself, a rye smile gracing his face as he remembered observing the longingly regretful expression on his friend’s face many times after that.
‘The Rifleman’ had never been ashamed to admit that from their first brief meeting, the sweet tempered Margaret Gibbs had wrapped all six feet six of Lucas McCain completely around her finger – without one ounce of effort on her part. Lucas fell for her so quickly and deeply - all he wanted from that first moment was to be near her...to bask in her presence...to breathe in the subtle hint of her perfume...to gaze into her eyes.
He’d known plenty of lady friends before her, being a man with the kind of rugged good looks that attracted female attention. He had thought himself in love several times, and felt the fires of passion – but no woman ever truly captured his heart...until Margaret. It delighted him when she’d admitted similar feelings...
A few weeks after they began to keep company, he persuaded her to go out with him on a picnic. Midday found the two sitting together on a blanket at the base of a scrub bush at the edge of town, staring out at the prairie and enjoying a picnic lunch of fried chicken, apple pie, and lemonade.
“I saw a play once, in a grand theater in Chicago,” Margaret murmured, glancing at her rugged companion.
“Yeah?” Lucas answered, thinking how everything about this woman held such fascination for him.
“Mmm hmm. It was marvelous.”
“Have you ever been to Chicago?” she queried, one eyebrow raised fetchingly.
“Once, durin’ the War, I spent a furlough there,” he managed.
She nodded, reaching to take a drink of her lemonade as she studied her companion surreptitiously from beneath the cover of her lashes.
“In the play, I remember a man telling the woman he loved that he believed them to be soul mates, destined to meet from even before their births...”
Hoping she was hinting at her own feelings, he offered, “An old Cherokee once told me an Indian legend about that...he said they believe the Great Spirit created man and woman together in one body, but they are split apart before they are sent to earth. It’s up to the two of them to find their other half...”
Suddenly serious, she turned to fully face him; their eyes meeting and holding in a look at could have set the prairie on fire.
“Luke...” she whispered, prompting from him the reaction she hoped for.
“I think I have...” he murmured as she nodded with a whispered, “Me, too...”
He leaned toward her then, unable to stop himself from initiating their first kiss...and what a kiss it was...
Several weeks later when they announced their engagement, it was of no surprise to anyone who knew them that these two would be united in the bonds of matrimony.
Lucas sighed sadly as he remembered their wedding in the small country church, and how they were soon living blissfully together in the small ranch house on Lucas' land. Land he spent every cent of his savings to purchase because Margaret had fallen in love with the particular acreage and thought it would be a lovely spot for a home.
His thoughts drifted through those blissful times and he now smiled as he remembered how thrilled he was when Margaret came home from seeing the doctor and informed him they were going to have a baby, and the joy when she gave birth to their first child, a boy they named Mark. They talked often, cuddled in their bed together, how each wanted a house full of joyful, happy children, lasting proof of their never-ending love.
The six wonderful years that followed seemed now to have passed in the blink of an eye, spent loving each other and raising their little boy, while trying quite valiantly for another child.
Only one dark cloud marred their joy - Margaret never again became pregnant. And with each year that passed, their precious son - the harvest of their love - became more and more treasured and adored.
Then, all too soon, their blissful life came screeching to an unexpected halt.
Though he knew he should stop his thoughts from going there, Lucas’ mind's eye traveled through the mist of time back to the worst day of his life...
"Maggie, honey...hang on. You gotta fight," Lucas whispered encouragingly as he embraced his desperately ill wife.
She had been sick for days, and he and Doc Jones did everything in their power to make her well...but nothing helped. The doc told him about a new experimental medicine that might pull her through. As a last ditch effort, and against his better judgment, Lucas entrusted the couple's entire savings to her alcoholic father, sending him to Oklahoma City to bring back the medicine.
"Luke..." his wife whispered, trying in vain to moisten dry lips with an equally dry tongue. Her fever was so high, every swallow of water Lucas managed to help her take almost immediately dried up within her tortured system.
"I'm here. I'm right here, sweetheart," he murmured, leaning back and smoothing her dark hair from her brow, reaching for the glass of water next to the bed with his free hand and bringing it to her lips for what must have been the hundredth time.
"Mark..." she began, pausing as he gently interrupted, "He's fine. He's in his room. Don't worry. Just rest, honey..." Lucas softly admonished, trying desperately to not let her see the depth of his fear.
"Lucas," Margaret breathed, needing to tell him...to make him listen. "If Papa doesn't get back..."
"Sshhh, he will, he'll be here any minute, with the medicine that’ll get you well," Lucas stated with conviction in an effort to reassure her and help her hang on, though inside he knew it was an empty promise. It had already been twelve hours longer than the trip should have taken. Lucas swore silently, berating his choice yet again of not going for the medicine himself, for trusting his no-good father-in-law with this most important of errands - but his beloved wife had begged him not to leave her.
"But Luke," she breathed raggedly, "If...if I..." she hesitated at the look of shear agony on her husband's face.
"Don't say it, don't even think it," Lucas begged, shaking his head against the horrible 'what if'. "You're going to get well," he declared determinedly. If the sickness were a human that was hurting his wife, he would have torn them limb from limb. The frustration of being unable to alleviate any of her suffering was nearly unbearable for the big man.
"You've got to..." he added ever so gently. "I can't even imagine living without you. My life wouldn't be worth a plug nickel," he whispered softly.
"Yes it would, Lucas Avery," she admonished, using both of his given names as she always did when she needed to get through to him that she was serious. "It would...because of our little boy."
"Our little boy needs his mama," Lucas countered, his voice catching as he unconsciously gripped her shoulders, trying to stave off the words he knew were coming.
"Promise me..." she whispered, focusing fever-dimmed eyes on her husband's gaze. "Promise me...that you'll go on. That you'll love him enough...for both of us..."
"Maggie...don't," Lucas breathed, tears pooling in his eyes so that he could hardly see her face through the liquid emotion. This couldn't be happening...he couldn't lose her...
"Promise me..." she insisted, raising her head and shoulders as she strained to make him listen. "Promise you'll raise him gently, pr...properly," she stammered as she fought off a coughing fit.
In their parenting, she was always been the soft one, soothing Mark’s scrapes and tender feelings with a gentle hand, while her husband was the one to enforce discipline when needed. "Please, Lucas..." she whispered raggedly.
Her tortured plea piercing his heart so that he could barely breathe, one tear spilled from each watery blue eye as he managed to give a nod and a whispered, "I promise."
With that, she seemed to relax, leaning back against the pillow and raising one weak hand up to caress the chiseled features of the man she adored. She was satisfied with his declaration, as she knew her husband always kept his promises.
"I love you so much, my darling," she murmured, barely above a whisper. Pausing and taking a breath, she went on haltingly, "And I love our son. Never let... the fact that he looks like me... fool you...inside he's so much... like you - stubbornly determined... fiercely protective... honest...and good. A son to be proud of..." she finished weakly.
It wasn’t that she thought her husband would not care for their son right, or that he loved Mark any less than she. It was more a driving need to make certain the future, of which she was quite sure she would not be a part, would flourish and continue.
“That he is, honey,” her husband agreed softly, as he watched her relax back onto the pillow, the discourse having exhausted her weakened body’s limited supply of strength.
Sniffling and swiping at his cheeks with the back of one hand, Lucas picked up the glass again and encouraged his tired wife to take a few sips of the water.
Leaning forward to press a loving, lingering kiss to her heated forehead, Lucas whispered, "You rest, now, sweetheart. I'm gonna climb the hill behind the house and see if I can spot your Pa coming back." She managed a small nod in reply.
When he returned ten minutes later, his wife opened her eyes and met his gaze, managing to bless him with a tiny smile one last time...before closing her eyes again and silently slipping away from him forever.
Searing grief tore through him as he watched her take her last breath, feeling as if his heart was being ripped from his chest by the claws of a vicious mountain lion.
“NO!! Maggie, don’t leave me!” He cried out in anguish, his tortured plea reverberating against the cabin walls...
"Pa? You alright?" a familiar soft voice asked from the darkness, yanking the big rancher back from the world of painful memories.
The boy had paid a visit to the privy, but having noticed his father not yet in bed in their room, went in search of him. He found his normally ‘in control’ father leaning against a post on the front porch, staring at nothing, with tears trickling down his face.
It had been many years since the boy saw his father cry, but somehow he knew the reason for the tears on this warm spring night.
Lucas drew in a shuddering breath and reached up to swipe at the moisture on his cheeks. Why did I open the dang door to those memories tonight? He groused silently as he glanced down at his son, the precious child given to him by the love of his life. A love so deep and so lasting that no other woman would ever come close to filling her place in his heart and life.
"I...I'm fine, son. Go on back to bed," he added, almost out of habit.
Mark normally would have obeyed instantly, but this time he stood rooted, aching to say something that would assuage his father's sadness. Crossing the distance between them slowly, Mark tilted his head back to look up into his father's face, illuminated by the dim light from the lantern.
He reached out and touched his father's arm, murmuring softly, "I miss her, too, Pa."
Lucas sucked in a breath, striving to dial his emotions back down to normal.
It was always that way whenever she was mentioned. Somehow, Mark seemed to assume the position of the ‘strong one’, while Lucas reverted to the one who needed comforting. It grated on the man, as he consistently strove to be tough and fearless in his son’s eyes. To be his ‘hero’, the one he could safely respect and emulate. Lucas despised showing any kind of weakness in front of the boy.
“I know you do, son. I wish she hadn’t been taken from us,” Lucas whispered, swallowing back the hated tears.
Gazing into his little boy’s liquid brown eyes, achingly identical to his mother’s, Lucas reached out and caressed his son’s hair, his hand slipping to cup the soft cheek. God! He looks so much like Maggie! he mused, his heart aching with a physical pain. He could clearly see the concern on the young features.
“I’m alright, son. You don’t need to be worried about me,” he admonished softly.
“But I do, Pa,” Mark quickly returned, one hand slipping up to cover his father’s much larger one still cupping his face. “I made a promise,” he added softly.
Lucas’ brow furrowed at this and he searched his son’s eyes in silent query.
“The day Ma...died...you went up the hill behind the house. I saw you out the window. I snuck in to where Ma was because I wanted to see her and talk to her...to tell her I loved her and I wanted her to get better...even though you told me to stay away. I knew you were afraid I would get sick too...” he added quickly, swallowing dryly as he thought back to that awful night.
“She called me over to her...and she told me to always be good, and mind what you told me...to be the kind of boy that would make you proud...and to take care of you if you got sad. She made me promise,” he whispered as he stared up into his father’s somewhat shocked eyes.
In the four years since Margaret McCain’s tragic death, the two males she left behind had never really talked about her, as the memory of her passing evoked too much hurt for them both. Each avoided even bringing up her name, for fear of causing the other pain. Now, the son’s confession nearly sent the father over the edge.
The floodgates cracking further despite his efforts to hold them shut, Lucas expelled his breath in reaction, and shuddering with emotion, whispered, “Oh Mark...son...” He reached down and scooped his small son into his embrace, clasping him tightly against his chest. The little boy’s arms immediately wrapped around his father’s neck as each surrendered to the emotion, tears streaming down their faces.
“I love you, Pa,” Mark whispered with a sniffle, his cheek pressed against his father’s.
“I love you, too, son,” Lucas choked, his voice cracking as he gently swayed back and forth with his eyes shut tight.
“And thank you, son...for always keeping your promises,” he added softly, musing that their loving wife and mother had accomplished her desire and was still blessing their lives, even from beyond the grave.
They remained in each other’s embrace for some time. The tears each had held back for four years flowed freely as each one fully grieved the loss they both still keenly felt.
Finally, Lucas turned his son in his arms and carefully carried him inside the cabin, nudging the front door shut with his foot and slowly crossing the main room to the small bedroom they shared.
The father lovingly placed his son onto his small bed, raising the covers and tucking him in as he had done nearly every night of his life. He leaned down and brushed his lips against the boy’s forehead as he whispered, “Good night, son. Get some sleep. Mornin’ comes whether your ready for it or not.”
“All right, Pa,” Mark answered, gazing up at his father’s tall frame, trying to see his Pa’s expression in the dim moonlight filtering in from the window.
Drawing his bottom lip between his teeth for a moment, Mark hesitated, wondering if he should voice a question that burned in his chest. His father recognized the look and prompted softly, “What is it, son?”
“Well...” Mark began, pausing a moment before continuing softly, “Do you...do you think Ma can see us from Heaven? I mean...I wonder if she knows I’m ten now...or if she knows we left Oklahoma and moved here. Or...if she misses us...things like that...” he mused, giving a tiny shrug.
Lucas had, at times, wondered the same things, and now his lips formed a sad smile as he nodded, answering with a whispered, “Oh I think she does, son. I think she does.”
The two met each other’s eyes once more for a few moments, sharing the heartbreak no one else could fully understand, before bidding one another a good night.
Perhaps this was a reason for the extraordinary bond between...
The Rifleman and his son.
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"The Rifleman hits the 'Mark' every week on abc."
A cowgirl's work is never done.