The Rifleman
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A Meek and Thankful Heart
A Thanksgiving Story
Written by Zanza

Luke wrote a last entry in his ledger and regarded the figures with satisfaction. “Well, son, it looks like we have a lot to be thankful for this year.”

Mark came over to look at the book. “Pa, is that right? A clear profit of five hundred dollars?”

“That’s right.” The big man smiled. “We can finally afford a new saddle and bridle for Blue Boy.”

“I’d like that.” The boy hesitated. “There’s something else I’d like even more.”

“What’s that?”

“Well, you know Mr Bullock invited us to have Thanksgiving with him and Percy.”

Luke looked narrowly at his son. “We always have Thanksgiving here at our own home.”

“Pa, just because we’ve always done something a certain way doesn’t mean it always has to be that way!” Mark tried to keep the annoyance out of his voice. “It’s their first Thanksgiving in North Fork. Heck, it’s their first Thanksgiving in the United States! Don’t you think they should have some friends to share it with?”

“Yes, I do, and it’s a fine idea to want to visit them but we’re going to have our Thanksgiving dinner here.”

“Oh, Pa…” Mark fumed and his father tapped his hat.

“We have more important things to think about than Thanksgiving. It’s still two weeks away but that fence by the road needs to be mended now. Get the buckboard.”

Mark was still sulking as he drove to the fence. Luke was silent as well, unwilling to try talking when the boy was in a bad mood. The silence between them continued as they unloaded the wire and started stringing it.
They were almost finished when a big dog, black and shaggy, hurtled down the road and plowed into Luke. He went down and Mark ran for the rifle, trying to get a clear shot. The dog ran off as abruptly as it had appeared, yelping in pain as the shot Mark took at it went home.

The boy tossed the rifle in the buckboard and knelt next to his father. “Pa, are you all right?”

“No.” Luke’s voice was unsteady and his face was white. His arm was torn, and mixed with the blood was white foam. “That dog had rabies.”

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Doc Burrage finished tying the bandage on Luke’s arm. “How does that feel?”

“Better.” The big man took a deep breath. “What happens now?”

The doctor understood. “I’m going to wire a friend of mine in Denver. He runs an asylum.”

“What’s an asylum?” asked Mark.

“It’s a kind of hospital,” Burrage answered. “They have...facilities...for...errr…” He faltered, then went on more strongly. “They’ll be able to take care of your father and make him comfortable until the end.”

The boy’s eyes filled with tears. “Doc, when I got bit by that pony with anthrax, you had a serum that cured me! And I read that Louis Pasture found a cure for rabies too!”

“There is a cure, Mark,” said the doctor sadly, “but I don’t have it. If this happened back East, New York or Philadelphia…”

“Then I’ll take Pa back East!”

“We’d never get there in time, son.” Luke’s voice was very quiet. “Doc, can you send that telegram now? And ask Micah to come over here.”

“I’ll do that, Lucas.” Burrage hurried from the room.

Left alone, Mark and Luke stared at each other, their faces mirroring each other’s despair. Neither wanted to be the first to speak, but Luke steeled himself. He still had a duty to this boy whom he loved more than anything in the world and when he spoke, he sounded confident and reassuring. “Son, I need you to go home and get some things. I want to show you how to do the books. It’s not hard, but if you need help, you can go to John Hamilton. Get the ledger and the deed to the ranch, and my traveling gear. The stage leaves the day after tomorrow and I need to be on it.”

“Anything else?” Mark asked bleakly.

“Your mother’s picture.” Luke swallowed hard. “I’ll have the doctor send it back to you.”

“The doctor won’t have to send it. I’m going with you.”

“No, you’re not!” For the first time since the tragedy struck, Luke sounded like himself. “You’re staying here and getting on with your life.”

Mark said stubbornly, “If you don’t let me travel with you, I’ll ride Blue Boy behind the stage all the way to Denver. I mean it, Pa. What if it was me that got bit? Would you put me on the stage and let me go all alone?”
“That’s different, son.”

“No, it’s not!” The boy’s jaw tightened. “I’m going to be on my own now, so I guess that makes me a man. And you always taught me that a man has to make his own decisions. Well, I’m making this decision. One way or the other, I’m going with you.”

Luke was torn. He had never been so afraid in his life. It wasn’t the thought of death that terrified him but the way he was going to die. He had seen enough rabies to know what was in store for him. He didn’t want to face it alone, and he desperately wanted the little time he had left with Mark. He put out his arms and pulled his boy close and they held onto each other as if their love was a wall against what was coming.

Luke finally sat back and said very seriously, “Mark, you can come with me if you promise me something.”

The boy looked wary. “What is it?”

“Promise me that you’ll go home when it...when it starts. I don’t want you to see me like that.”

“But Pa…”

“Please, son. I’ve never asked you for anything. I’m asking for this. I want you to remember me the way I am now, not…” Luke’s voice broke.

“All right, Pa,” said the boy quickly. “I promise.”

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Mark pulled up his horse, slid to the ground, and walked slowly into the house. He went to the desk for the ledger and the deed, then into the bedroom for Luke’s razor and some clean clothes. He came back out into the main room and took his mother’s picture down from the wall, then opened the cupboard where his father kept their family Bible. There was another picture there, of Luke and Margaret on their wedding day. Mark set the two pictures side by side. His mother looked the same in both, young and pretty and very happy. She was sitting in a chair in the picture with Luke, a bunch of flowers on her lap and his hand on her shoulder. His father...Mark studied Luke’s face. It was younger, without the lines that years of hard work and worry had etched on his skin. He wasn’t smiling, but there was something about the way he stood next to his wife, looking down at her instead of at the camera...the boy smiled a little, remembering the first time his father had shown him the picture. “Your mother was so exasperated. She wanted me to look at the camera, but I just couldn’t take my eyes off her. Did you ever see anyone so pretty? Finally the man just took the picture and your mother said it was the best wedding picture she ever saw.”

The boy touched his father’s face, then turned to the picture of Margaret alone, standing in a softly patterned dress with a book in her hands. “I wish I could remember you better, Ma. Mostly it’s just little things, like the way Pa would pick us both up to hug us when he came home at the end of the day, or how your hair fell down on me when I sat on your lap. It smelled like lavender. Pa never has anything that smells like lavender in the house, but the first time I smelled it in the general store I remembered your hair. It was like the wing of an angel.” Mark’s throat was tight. “I guess that’s what you are now, waiting for Pa and me. I’m gonna be a while yet but you’ll be seeing him real soon. I miss you so much, but Pa always took real good care of me. He raised me just the way you wanted him to. I’ll do my best so…so you’ll both be proud of me when I do get there.” The tears could no longer be held back and Mark laid his head on the table, sobbing bitterly.

It was a long time before the storm of grief passed, but when he finally lifted his head he felt easier. He packed Luke’s things lovingly in the saddlebag and went out the door, then turned aside to look at the sign on the side of the house.

This house rebuilt by Lucas McCain and his son Mark, August 1881, may God bless our home.

Mark took out his handkerchief and rubbed the sign clean of dust. He looked around at the land he had worked with his father, thinking of all they had done together through the years, all the hardships and triumphs they had shared, and even in his sorrow he was strengthened as he rode back to North Fork.

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Micah came into Doc Burrage’s back bedroom with a smile on his face, but Luke could see the anguish in his eyes. “Thanks for coming.”

The marshal pulled up a chair. “You don’t look so bad.”

“Except for this I feel fine.” Luke rubbed his injured arm. “So far, anyway. Doc told you?”

The false smile dropped from the marshal’s face and suddenly he looked like a very old man. “Yes, Lucas boy, he told me. I want you to know you don’t have to worry about Mark. I’ll take care of him.”

The big man looked relieved. “You’re a good friend, Micah. One of the best I’ve ever had. I’m depending on you to...well, just help him through this. We all owe God a death but I thought I’d have more time. And Mark...it’s going to be hard for him to accept this.”

“Not just him,” said the marshal softly.

“I know.” Luke was sitting on the bed and now he got up and took a turn about the room, stopping at the window to stare out at the street. “Maybe you can help each other.”

“Maybe we can.” Micah joined Luke at the window. “Are you sure? You couldn’t be mistaken about the dog?”

“I’m sure,” said Luke grimly. “It was foaming at the mouth and it attacked me for no reason. Can you think of anything that could be other than rabies?”

“I suppose not.” Micah sighed. “I’d better get back to the office. I need to get everything in order for the interim marshal.” He nodded at the look on his friend’s face. “That’s right, Lucas boy. I’m going with you and Mark to Denver.”

“Now wait a minute, Micah…”

“I already sent a telegram to the territorial governor,” said the marshal placidly. “I’ll deputize Nils, and when my replacement gets here he’ll stay until I get back. You don’t really want the boy to be alone on the trip home, do you?”

Luke’s eyes stung. “No.”

“Then it’s settled. We’ll go to Denver together. Might even have time to take in some of the sights before…” Micah cleared his throat noisily. “Before I bring Mark home. All right, Lucas boy?”

The big man managed a smile. “Thanks, Micah.”

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It was getting late in the day when Mark rode back into North Fork and saw Micah in front of his office, beckoning to him. The boy was anxious to get back to his father but he went over to the marshal and tied up his horse. “I’m kinda in a hurry, Micah.”

“I know.” Micah said softly, “Doc Burrage told me.”

Mark’s face crumpled but he stood up as straight and tall as he could. “I’m taking Pa to a hospital in Denver.”

The marshal nodded. “I made arrangements to go too so we could all be together as long as possible.” Micah swiped at his eyes. “Mark, are you sure about that dog? Lucas said he was positive it had rabies but couldn’t he have been wrong?”

“If you saw it you wouldn’t even ask.” The boy’s eyes ranged the street. “It was crazy out of its mind…” His jaw dropped. “Micah, look!”

A small wagon was driving up the street, a young man at the reins with his wife next to him. Two children were in the back among a number of boxes and bundles, playing with a big shaggy black dog.
“What is it, Mark?” Micah was puzzled.

“That’s the dog that bit Pa!” Mark ran out into the street and grabbed the reins of the near horse. “Shoot it, Micah!”

The driver raised a whip and the marshal drew his gun. “I wouldn’t do that.”

“What kind of a town is this?” The man dropped the whip. “First somebody shoots our dog, now we can’t even drive down the street.” His wife was hushing the frightened children in the back while the dog watched with interest as the scene unfolded.

“That dog has rabies!” shouted Mark. “My pa is dying because that dog bit him!”

“Rabies?” The young mother scrambled down and faced the furious boy. “Please let me explain. You see…”

Five minutes later Mark burst into Doc Burrage’s back bedroom. Luke was laying on the bed staring at the ceiling and he didn’t have time to react before his son was on him, grabbing his hands and pulling him up to a sitting position. “Easy, son!” The big man winced and held his injured arm. “What is it?”

“Pa, you’re not gonna die!” Mark was almost dancing with excitement. “I just saw that dog in the street and it doesn’t have rabies!” His father just looked at him. “It’s so, Pa.”

“Mark, slow down,” said Luke, rubbing his forehead. “We both saw that dog. There was foam all over its mouth.”

The boy nodded. “The people stopped at a little crik so the woman could wash their clothes. She said their dog is always eating things and it grabbed the bar of lye soap she was using and chewed it up before she could stop it. That’s why it went after you. The soap burned its mouth and it was just hurting a lot when it went running down the road. She said usually it’s very gentle but it must have been feeling awful mean just then.”

Luke’s voice shook. “Mark, are you sure? Really sure?’

“Well, of course, Pa! I told you I hit it, didn’t I? The family was close enough that they heard the shot. It’s not really hurt, just a graze down the side…” The boy threw his arms around his father, holding him tightly. “You’re all right, Pa!” His voice broke and he whispered, “You’re all right.” And they wept.

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Percy Bullock Sr poured a cup of punch and handed it to Luke. “I say, I’m awfully glad you decided to have Thanksgiving with us after all. What made you change your mind?”

Luke sipped the punch and thought about his answer. Neither he nor Mark had wanted to talk about his ordeal, but it had been the uppermost thought in both their minds for the past two weeks. It had taken a few days for them to get back to their normal routine but something had changed between them forever. They were no longer just father and son, or even partners in the ranch. In some indefinable way Mark had grown up during that dark day. Luke felt the loss of the boy, but he was overwhelmed by pride in the young man he had raised. They were friends in a way they had never been before and it was a comfort to the big man to know that his son was more than capable of carrying on once he was gone.

Bullock raised his eyebrows and Luke smiled. “I had a long day thinking about all I had to be thankful for and how differently I would do things if I had the chance. And one of the things I wished I could do was start celebrating Thanksgiving with friends, instead of by myself with Mark.”

“And now here you are!” Bullock smiled back. “What did Izaak Walton say? God has two dwellings: one in heaven…” He paused expectantly.

Luke finished, “...and the other in a meek and thankful heart.”

Bullock was delighted. “You never cease to amaze me.”

Micah came in just in time to catch the end of the conversation. “That’s my line.”

“Marshal! So good of you to come!” Bullock hurried with a cup of punch.

“Thank you.” Micah took a swallow. “Say, that’s pretty good.”

“I’m glad you approve.” Bullock bowed his head. “Old family recipe, you know. The trick is to burn the sugar just right. You see, you soak the sugar loaf in rum first…”

The explanation was interrupted by Percy coming in from the kitchen. “Father, the turkey is almost ready to carve.”

“Very well.” Bullock beamed at his guests. “Shall we adjourn to the dining room?”

“Before we eat, Percy and me got a surprise.” Mark went out to the porch and came back with his guitar. “Ready, Percy?”

The English boy held up a small silvery instrument. “Righto!”

“What is that?” asked Luke curiously.

“It’s a Clarke tin whistle,” said Percy. “They’re all the rage in London.” He blew a few notes, then sat next to Mark and began to play. The men listened, entranced, as the liquid notes of the flute and the soft strumming of the guitar laid down a gentle background to Mark’s voice.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved.
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believed.

They played on together for a few more notes, then stopped. Bullock clapped enthusiastically. “Boys, that was wonderful! I can’t think of a more perfect way to start our Thanksgiving.”

He went into the kitchen with his son and started bringing out food. Micah followed them, asking if there was anything he could do, leaving Mark and Luke alone.

Father and son gazed at each other for a long moment, then Luke said huskily, “I didn’t think I would see this Thanksgiving and now there’s so much to be thankful for I don’t know where to start.”

“Neither do I.” Mark’s voice was very low. “I feel like I can’t even find the words.”

Luke took his son’s hand. “When you can’t find the words, that’s a good time to be silent.” Mark smiled that smile his father loved to see and their hands tightened on each other, the warm clasp conveying everything that needed to be said.

 

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

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