The Rifleman
Welcome to The Writer's Corner
Fan Fiction

A Town Divided
Written by Morgan
 

The night was young, and music and laughter could be heard coming from the saloon in Copper Creek, Arizona. The pianist's fingers gracefully danced on the keys as a saloon girl laughed at the joke she had heard a hundred times that week. Another barmaid brought a ranch hand a mug of beer while he considered calling his opponent's bluff. Outside the saloon, a couple of men were going at it, trying to defend what little of their honor was left.

The scene that could be observed in any saloon across the territory continued uninterrupted for hours. The bartender watched as men got too drunk, lost too much money, and fought too long; but they'd recover enough by next weekend to do it all over again.

“Three more beers, Charles.” A saloon girl said as she came up to the bartender.

“You're doing pretty well tonight, sweetheart. Mind letting the other girls in on your secret?”

“They can't help it if they don't “got it”.”

The bartender shook his head as he filled the glasses and handed them over to the woman.

“I'd watch it, that head of yours is getting a little big.”

“And I'd watch it if you want me to come into work tomorrow.”

The woman turned away in a huff, leaving Charles to chuckle at the saloon girl.

“Whiskey.” A man said as he put his glass on the counter.

“Don't you think you've had enough?” The bartender asked.

“Since when do you refuse business?”

Charles shrugged in response and filled the glass once again. As he placed it on the counter, he saw yet another man walk through the swinging doors. But this man stopped in the entrance, taking in the scene before him… hand on his holster.

Slowly, heads began to turn as they felt the atmosphere in the saloon begin to change. They all curiously stared at the well dressed man as the pianist brought his playing to a stop.

“What's he back for?” Somebody whispered to the man next to him.

“Quiet.”

“Everyone except Packer, out.” The man calmly ordered.

Without hesitation, the large crowd made their way to the doors, remembering the chaos this man caused the last time he was in town.

The man made his way to the bar, where the bartender was beginning to clean up.

“That means you, too.”

“I won't cause you any trouble, Raymond. Let me clean this mess up.”

“I said out.”

The bartender shook his head and begrudgingly headed for the door leading to the back room.

“You know, Raymond,” the Bartender said as he turned around. “One of these days someone's going to stand up to you, and you'll get what you deserve.”

“Probably. Unfortunately for you, today's not that day, is it?”

The bartender shook his head in disgust and walked out the door, Raymond's eyes following him.

“Where do you think you're going?” Raymond asked as he turned around, stopping a man dead in his tracks.

“P-please, Raymond… I… I'll get you the money, j… just-”

“Sit down, Neff. You and I have some talking to do.”

Neff Packer¹ hesitantly sat down at one of the many round tables and uneasily waited as Raymond made his way to the bar and helped himself to a bottle of whiskey.

“You want something to drink?” Raymond offered.

“N-no, thanks.”

“You're a hard man to track down, Packer. I've been looking all over for you. I'd almost say you're hiding from me.” Raymond paused as he walked towards Neff and took a seat across from him. “Now why would a person like you be hiding from somebody like me? We're good friends, aren't we?”

Neff nervously swallowed, eyeing the handgun Raymond now held in his hands.

“Such good friends, I didn't have to worry about you paying me back. Because you promised to pay me back three times as much… five years ago.”

Neff still remained silent, wondering what it felt like to be shot.

“Where’s my money, Neff?” Raymond demanded.

“We… well you see, it wasn't my fault. Some things went wrong and I couldn't keep the ranch and-”

“Yes, I heard about your little brush with the law.” Raymond sighed as he pointed his gun at the ceiling and pulled the hammer back. “I always knew you were a fool, Packer. I just didn't expect you to go and do something as stupid as kidnap the Rifleman’s boy.”

“But if it had worked out, I would've had the land I needed to really make some money, and then-”

“But it didn't work out, Neff. And now your time is up.”

“Just give me some more time, Raymond. I promise, you'll get your money.”

“Like you promised to have it five years ago? I don't think so.”

Raymond slowly pointed the gun at Packer, who closed his eyes as Raymond pulled the trigger.

...But all that was heard was a click.

“Would you look at that.” Raymond stated in a evil tone. “Seems I'm out of bullets.”

“...What do you want?”

“If I killed you, I still wouldn't have my money back. But at least some of my other… clients… would take me a bit more seriously. However, I'm a reasonable man. I'm willing to let you make this up to me, Packer.”

“...How?”

“I need a little help. I have some… business… to settle in North Fork.”

“N-no, I can't!” Neff exclaimed. “They'd skin me alive if I showed my face there!”

“You served your time, didn't you?”

“Well… yes, but Lucas Mc-”

“Lucas McCain won't have a chance to get his hands on you, I promise.”

“But-”

“Neff, I lied. I'm not out of bullets. There's one in here… somewhere.” Raymond said as he again pulled back the hammer. “We can find that bullet, or you come to North Fork with me.”

“...McCain won't know I'm there?”

“By the time he does, it'll be too late. I've never broken a promise, Packer. Which is more than I can say for you.”

“What exactly are we doing? Why does it have to be North Fork?”

“We just have to make some withdrawals from their bank.”

“Raymond, I can't go back to jail, please-”

“I thought I made myself clear. Shall I try pulling the trigger again?”

“...Wh-when do we leave?”

“That's the spirit.”


1MC1

Lucas looked up from fixing the corral post to see his son and daughter-in-law riding double on Blue Boy, both soaking wet.

“What happened to you two?” Lucas laughed.

“Cassie thought it'd be… romantic, if we went for a swim.” Mark briefly paused before going on. “Pa, shouldn't you be inside? Doc sent you home no less than-”

“I'm fine.” Lucas insisted. “Romantic, Cassie?”

“That's not exactly how I remember it.” Cassie replied with raised eyebrows. “Your son pulled me into the lake.”

“Well if you're going to tell him that part,” Mark began, “Why don't you explain how I got into the lake in the first place?”

“It's not my fault you tripped over the branch.”

“It's just your fault I lost my balance.” Mark said as he dismounted and began helping his wife down. “She shoved me in!”

“Like your Pa would believe that. A lady like myself, pushing someone.”

“Lady?” Mark teased.

“Mark McCain!”

A smile played on Lucas's lips as he watched Cassie chase Mark up to their home, where the two of them disappeared inside. He shook his head and chuckled as he turned back to the corral post.

“Was that Mark and Cassie?” Milly asked as she came out to the corral.

“Yes ma'am.”

Lucas stood and gave his wife a playful kiss.

“I thought he was taking her to town this afternoon.”

“He is, but I guess their picnic didn't exactly go as planned. They came home soaking wet.”

Milly chuckled as she put her hands to her hips and looked up the hill towards the younger McCain’s home.

“I hope they were laughing about it.”

“Oh, they were.” Lucas paused before going on.

“...Lucas, what are you doing out here? I left you on the porch no more than fifteen minutes ago.”

“Milly, I'm fine.”

“Lucas, you were shot! You're going to make things worse.”

“Doing a little hammering isn't going to kill me.”

Milly let out a long sigh before giving in and changing the subject.

“...It's good to see them laughing again. Even after they resolved their disagreement this spring, they still seemed… almost afraid to laugh. Did you ever find out what happened?”

“Mark just says they had some communication issues to work through. Whatever it was, I'm glad they're past it.” Lucas went back to his task as he continued. “Where's Lydia?”

“Rachael is putting her to sleep. I'm rather surprised at how well she handles children. She's worked wonders with Lydia, Madison, and Michael.”

“How's her attitude about school starting next week?”

“She hasn't talked about it. I think she's trying to forget about it for as long as she can.”

“Remind me when we go into town Wednesday to pick up supplies for her.”

“...Lucas, have you thought about how long you're going to keep her in school?”

“Until she finishes.” Lucas said in confusion. “Why do you ask?”

“I appreciate a good education as much as you do, I was a teacher. Sometimes I wonder if she could learn better at the ranch, if I provided her lessons. She has amazing potential, I'm just afraid that if she's not engaged in her school work, it'll be a waste to send her to school.”

“When Rachael suggested that last year, I was tempted to go along with it. But we're here to help mold her as a person, and help her develop character. Part of having character is putting effort into things you may not particularly like. Since she's sixteen, Rachael's not required to go to school by the town charter, but I think in the long run, it will be best for her.” Lucas paused before going on. “I appreciate your willingness, Milly, but your hands are going to be full with Lydia anyway.”

“If you think it's best, then I have no qualms.” Milly gave her husband a kiss on the cheek before heading towards the house. “I'm going to start supper, it'll be ready in about two and a half hours.”

“What are you making?”

“You'll see.” Milly said with a teasing smile.

“...Maybe I'll join Mark and Cassie in town…”

“Lucas McCain, you'll do no such thing!”

Lucas smiled back at his wife before she turned and walked towards the house. He finished up the corral and put his tools away before hooking up the team to the buck board for Mark. Just as he was finishing, Mark and Cassie entered the barn.

“Thanks, Pa… but you-”

“It wasn't a problem. You two have an enjoyable evening.”

“Thank you, Uncle Lucas.” Cassie replied.

Mark helped his wife up into the buckboard before he went around to the other side.

“Cassie, if he mistreats you in anyway, let me know.” Lucas said with a smile.

“I don't think I'll have to worry about that, tonight, anyway.” Cassie replied with a smile.

“See you later, Pa.” Mark urged the team forward as the couple waved back to Lucas.

As they turned onto the main road, Mark stretched his legs out a little farther.

“I think he's up to something.”

“Why do you think your Pa’s up to something?” Cassie asked in confusion.

“I don't know, just something about him. He's been acting funny all day.”

“I don't think he has been.”

“You haven't lived with him for two decades.”

“I also don't have an overactive imagination.” Cassie readjusted in her seat as she changed the subject. “When are you starting on the barn?”

“I'm not, at least I'm not this year.”

“Why not?”

“There's not enough in the budget. We didn't get a good enough price for the cattle, and after everything that's happened the last couple months… things are going to be a little tight.”

“Then why are you taking me out? Mark, I-”

“Cassie, our first wedding anniversary only happens once. We'll make it through the winter fine, we just can't take on any big projects for the time being.”

“I'd be just as happy having dinner at home-”

“I know, and that's part of why I love you so much. But this is a special night, and I want us to do something special for it.”

Mark drove the team the rest of the way into town, where Mark and Cassie enjoyed supper at the hotel. Afterwards, the couple took a long walk around town, listening as the town settled down for the night and the wildlife made itself more well-known. As they were rounding a corner, Mark accidentally bumped into someone.

“Sorry, I-” Mark stopped as he recognized his former classmate. “Billy, how are you? Seems I never see you anymore!”

Billy nervously shifted his weight as he avoided looking directly either one of them.

“Fine, sorry to rush, but I have some… some important business I gotta take care of, and I'm going to be late.”

“No problem, stop by the ranch sometime.”

“Right.”

Cassie and Mark stared after the man in confusion as he briskly walked past the couple.

“What was that all about?” Cassie asked in confusion.

“Who knows.” Mark shrugged with a laugh. “Knowing Billy, he’s probably late for meeting with a special lady friend.”

“By his nervousness, I'd say you're probably right.”

A long while later, Cassie and Mark settled into their hotel room for the evening. Mark had just turned down the lamp when he and Cassie heard noise coming from the street below… a lot of noise. Mark hurried to the window and pulled back the blind just enough so he could see.

“I told you he was up to something.” Mark said as he motioned for Cassie to join him.

Cassie looked out the window to see a large group of their family and friends below, now beginning the chorus of “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.”

“They didn't!” Cassie exclaimed as she walked away from the window. “Mark, you better believe I'm going to have words with your father…”

“Come on, Cass. They respected our ages when we got married. Let them have their fun.”

Cassie glared at her husband for a few seconds before finally giving in.

“Let me put something decent on before you open the window. This whole tradition is ridiculous.”

Mark threw a shirt on as Cassie put her day dress over her nightgown. The couple opened the window and listened as the crowd below serenaded them.

After the third or fourth song, Mark decided it had go on long enough.

“...Thank you all for your… “concern”...”

“Another!” Someone from the crowd shouted.

“If you'll excuse us,” Mark continued. “We'd like to celebrate our wedding anniversary.” Cassie gave Mark an embarrassed stare as the crowd began chuckling. “...You all may want to avoid my wife for a few weeks…”

The crowd laughed and began to make their leave as Cassie gave Mark a discrete pinch on the arm.

Mark shut the window before turning to his wife.

“What was that for?”

“You know very well what that was for, Mark Warren.”

“Everyone knows, there's no-”

Cassie walked passed her husband and got under the covers.

“Cassie, don't be mad.” Mark pleaded as he sat on the bed. “It's a shivaree, everyone-”

Cassie turned over and couldn't help but let her laugh break through her angry face.
Cassie wrapped her arms around her husband's neck and gave him a long kiss.

“I still am going to have words with your father.”

“We both will… but that can wait until tomorrow.” Mark gave his wife another kiss. “Happy anniversary, Cassie.”


2MC2

Lucas got quite an earful from his wife, daughter-in-law, and son; but in the end, they all couldn't help but chuckle a little.

August turned to September, Anna left for nursing school, and Rachael began her second semester with Mr. Griswold. As Mark and Lucas worked the cattle, Cassie and Milly prepared their gardens for next spring, hoping they would have a little better outcome than the previous year.

Late one afternoon, Lucas and Mark were working in the barn when Rachael arrived home from school, waving a letter in her hand.

“Uncle Lucas, it came! He replied!”

“Slow down, Rachael.” Lucas said as he took Liberty's reigns. “What came?”

“Uncle Dan, he wrote you back!”

Rachael jumped down from her horse as she handed Lucas the letter.

“Uncle who?” Mark asked as he walked towards the two.

“Your Uncle Dan, one of my brothers.” Lucas replied as he looked over the return address, then put the letter in his pocket.

“You mean you aren't going to read it?” Rachael asked in confusion.

“Later. Right now, well all have work to get to.”

“But-”

“I'll let you know what he had to say.”

Rachael knew she was being told to get to her chores, and nodded as she took Liberty's reigns.

As Rachael unsaddled her horse, Mark and Lucas mounted up to head back out to the range one last time that day.

“What made you decide to write one of your brothers?” Mark asked, a little shocked.

“Rachael, actually. It has been too long since any of us has reached out to each other. I'm hoping we can leave the past in the past.”

“... I'm guessing Uncle Dan wasn't too happy about what Aunt Krissy did?”

“None of us were, but the other three in the family decided to disown her.”

“...Did you tell him about Rachael?”

“I did.”

“What do you think his response will be?”

“...I don't know, Mark. It's been over ten years since I've spoken with him. Hopefully, he's changed.”

Mark could tell his Pa didn't want to talk about it anymore and dropped the subject. After checking the cattle, they returned home just in time for supper.

After the evening chores were completed, Rachael worked on her homework while the couples sat out on the porch. Cassie and Mark eventually made their way up the hill, leaving Milly and Lucas alone.

“...Rachael said you got a letter from your brother today?”

“...Yes, I did.”

“She was quite disappointed that you didn't read it right away.”

“...Yes, she was.”

Milly waited a moment before hesitantly going on.

“Lucas, waiting to read it isn't going to solve anything. Worst case, he feels the way he did before.”

Lucas sighed as he pulled the letter out and looked it over.

“I guess you're right.”

Lucas began to open the letter and read it aloud.

“Dear Lucas,

To be honest, I was shocked to get your letter. After what happened, I never really expected us to talk again… let alone hear you try to initiate our reunion. Yet I found myself reading your letter, and am taken aback by how much I've missed. It hardly seems possible for Mark to be grown and married… I guess that shows just how old I'm getting. Rebecca just turned twenty-one, and Lee's nineteenth birthday is just around the corner in mid August. Then there's the rest of my children you and your wife will have to meet. Hannah and I would love to accept your invitation for Thanksgiving, and plan to arrive two days prior.

You may find this difficult to believe, but I am deeply grieved to hear of the news of Klarissa. Regardless of her choices, she was our sister… and I should have treated her has such. I am glad to hear that you've opened your home to Rachael, and that she is adjusting to life well. We are all looking forward to meeting her, and properly welcoming her into the McCain family.

We'll have plenty of time to talk through our differences when we arrive in New Mexico, but I do want to make it clear that I am sorry for how I behaved myself during and after Klarissa's ordeal, and hope you and Rachael both can find it in your heart to forgive me.

We are looking forward to our visit, and I am looking forward to putting the past behind us.

-Dan”

Milly watched as her husband looked off into the distance, a frown on his face.

“...Lucas, isn't this good?”

Milly waited several moments for a reply, but her husband hadn't heard her.

“Lucas?”

Lucas shook his head and turned towards his wife.

“Sorry, Milly. What'd you say?”

“What's wrong with you? This is good news.”

“I… I know. It just brings back a lot of bad memories.”

“I know things can be difficult at times, but you can't wallow in the past. What's done is done.”

“I know.” Lucas let out a long sigh as he stood. “I'm going on a walk for a while.”

“Do you want some company?”

“...Not this time, Milly.”

“Alright.”

Milly watched Lucas walk out onto their land before she went inside their home to check on Rachael.

“How is your homework coming?”

“All I have left is this writing assignment, but I can't make heads or tails of it. How am I supposed to know whether to use “I” or “me?” It's not like anyone pays attention to it when they're talking anyway.”

“Out here, people don't. But if you ever went out East, you'd see that people take their speech very seriously. Let me take a look.”

Rachael handed her book to Milly and she looked it over for several moments.

“Oh, this is quite easy.”

“Easy for you to say. You were a teacher.”

“Simply take out the other person's name and see if the sentence makes sense.”

Milly chuckled as Rachael gave her a confused stare.

“Take the first problem.” Milly began.

1. Mother made an apple pie for Alberta and __.

“We could say Alberta and I, but if we removed Alberta from the sentence it wouldn't make sense. It would read, “Mother made an apple pie for I.” But if we said, “me,” it would make sense both ways. “Mother made an apple pie for me,” or “Mother made an apple pie for Alberta and me.” Does that make sense?”

“...Yes… it actually does.” Rachael said with a smile. “Thanks, Aunt Milly.”

“You're welcome. Don't stay up too late, you have a long day tomorrow.”

“Yes ma'am.”

Milly kissed the top of Rachael's head before making her way to her bedroom. She checked on a sleeping Lydia before changing into her nightgown and braiding her hair. Finally, she settled into bed reading a book, waiting for Lucas to return.

Several hours had passed and Milly woke up when the door to her bedroom closed.

“What time is it?” Milly asked her husband with a yawn.

“A little after midnight.”

“Midnight? Lucas, are you alright? “

“I am now.”

“What's going on?”

Lucas sighed before he began changing for bed, trying to find the simplest way to explain this.

“...I had an old matter to settle with myself. I always felt as though Dan, Joseph, and my father blamed me for what happened to Klarissa. Until Dan’s letter, I didn't realize how much I blamed myself. I always wondered if there was more I could've done… but I didn't recognize that I thought it was my fault.”

“But Dan didn't say anything about it being your fault, and it most certainly isn't.”

“I know that, now. But even though Dan didn't say anything, I could still hear the arguments and accusations that happened the weeks and months following Klarissa's leaving.” Lucas slightly paused before going on. “But like you said earlier, we can't wallow in the past… what's done is done. I'm looking forward to Dan’s visit. It'll give us some much-needed time to catch up.”

“Have you heard anything from Joseph?”

“No… I was honestly lucky to get a response from Dan. I'll keep trying, but I don't know if Joseph will ever come around.”

“This family isn't unaccustomed to seeing miracles take place; it could happen.”

“Let's get things squared away with Dan, then we'll see about Joseph.”

“I know your relationships have been difficult, Lucas. But don't ever undervalue the meaning of a brother. They're… not there forever.”

Lucas kissed his wife's forehead before they turned down the lamps and crawled into bed.

“Unfortunately,” Lucas began, “No one ever is.”


3MC3

A pretty young woman stepped off the train and looked around the platform. Seeing that she seemed a bit lost, Micah made his way towards her.

“Welcome to North Fork, miss. Can I help you with anything?”

“Thank you. I'm looking for a Mr. John Hamilton?”

“He should be over at the bank. I can take you that way if you'd like.”

“I'd be much obliged. Thank you, Marshal.”

Micah took the woman's carpet bag and offered his arm.

“Are you a friend of John’s?”

“He’s really a friend of my brother’s, but when it was mentioned that I would be staying in North Fork for a short while, Mr. Hamilton insisted he take care of all my arrangements.”

“John's never been anything short of a gentleman.”

When the two arrived at the bank, John quickly greeted them and invited them back to the office.

“I hope your trip went well, Jana.” John stated as he offered her a chair.

“Quite well, thank you. Though I will say it was quite a long trip. Nevertheless, I'm glad to be making it on train rather than in a covered wagon.”

“It amazes me how they continue making such progress on the trains. I hear they're designing one to reach a speed of ninety miles an hour.”

“I'll believe that when I see it.” Jana pleasantly laughed.

“Well I best leave you two to catch up.” Micah began. “It was a pleasure to meet you, miss.”

“The pleasure was mine. Thank you for escorting me here.”

“My pleasure.” Micah tipped his hat at the lady before heading towards the door. “See you later, John.”

“Why don't I take you over to the boarding house to get settled, and then we can go to the hotel for an early dinner?”

“Sounds wonderful.”

John escorted the woman out of the office, and before long they were sitting down in the hotel restaurant. They were there only a few moments before Lou came up to the table.

“Well, John,” Lou began, “Aren't ye going to introduce me to your friend?”

“Of course. Jana, this is Lou Mallory, she owns this fine establishment. Lou, this is Jana Hendrickson, a friend of mine.”

“It's a pleasure to meet you, I hope you enjoy your time here in North Fork.”

“I already am.” The woman replied with a smile. “The people here are so friendly and welcoming.”

“Lou, what are you doing back here?” John asked. “Shouldn't you-”

“I'm quite alright, thank you. I gave birth, I wasn't shot.”

“Congratulations!” Jana offered. “A boy, or girl?”

“A baby girl, Madison Rose.”

“A beautiful name.”

“Thank ye. Now what can I get the two of you?”

John and Jana gave Lou their orders, and she hurried off to the kitchen.

“She seems like a pleasant woman.” Jana commented. “Although you said she owned the hotel, but she just gave birth… is she… well, I don't mean to be a gossip…”

“It's quite alright. She has run this hotel for probably five or six years. She was married about three years ago, and her husband is the deputy.”

“Quite a catch, seeing as how most men would make her stay home.” Catching herself, Jana went on. “I'm sorry, I don't mean to-”

“No apologies needed. Although North Fork is no large town, it is something unique. Her people are open minded and typically will accept new ideas. Some things take adjusting to, but eventually they tend to leave their traditions behind.”

“Interesting, to say the least.”

“Now what brings you here? Your brother wasn’t very specific in his last letter.”

“I asked him to not spread rumors until the engagement took place. My fiancé used to live here and is going to meet me here, then I'll travel back East with him to spend some time with his family.”

“I'd say he's a pretty lucky fellow. What's his name?”

“Peter Gregoire… do you know him?”

“...The name doesn't sound familiar.”

“Well, it has been some fifteen years since he was here. Grew up on a ranch a few miles out of town.”

“I wouldn't know him then.”

Conversation continued before Lou brought their meal out.

“Oh, and both of you are invited to Sunday dinner tomorrow afternoon.”

“Oh, I couldn't impose…” Jana began.

“Posh. You're more than welcome, and it's no imposition.”

“Thank you, Lou. We'll be there.” John paused briefly before going on. “...Milly doesn't happen to be bringing one of her apple pies, does she?”

“She will if Mark has anything to do with it.”

“Do you know how Lucas is doing?”

“Last I heard, he's being quite stubborn and over doing it. I don't envy Milly’s predicament.”

“At least she has Mark to help her out.”

“We're all thankful for that. Well, enjoy your meals.”

As Lou began to walk away, Jana looked to John with another question.

“I don't mean to pry, but what's the situation with…”

“It’s alright, again, don't be afraid to ask questions. It's a little complicated. first, I'll have to explain some family relations. Lou is married to one of our Deputies, Johnny Gibbs. Johnny’s late sister was Lucas's first wife. Lucas remarried after having been a single parent for over a decade. A while ago, someone came looking to kill Johnny Gibbs, but had no idea what he looked like. Since Lucas is also a deputy, the would be killer thought Lucas was Johnny and shot him instead. The McCains have a stubborn streak for not taking it easy when they need to, and that's what Lou and I were referring to.”

“And who's this Mark?”

“Mark is Lucas's son, Milly’s step-son; although they never make the delineation. Milly lived here a long time ago, and even back then she was known for her apple pie, which is Mark's favorite dessert. It's somewhat of a running joke in town.”

“That is a bit complicated.” Jana chuckled. “But what a blessing they enjoy, having so much family nearby.”

“It gets even more complicated when you add Mark’s wife into the mix.”

“How do you mean?”

“... It's probably best you understand before tomorrow afternoon, anyway…”


4MC4

When Mark and Cassie arrived at Lou's the next afternoon, they were immediately introduce to Ms. Hendrickson. Mark noticed that Cassie took an immediate liking to her, and left the women to chat in the kitchen.

Mark joined the men in the front room and followed the conversations that took place. John and Ned were talking business while Lucas and Johnny were talking about cattle.
Eventually Micah walked through the front door and took a seat beside Mark.

“Your Pa been behaving himself?”

“I wish.” Mark sighed as he shook his head. “We can't leave him alone for more than five minutes before he's trying to fix something around the property. I can't wait until he's fully healed and we don't have to watch him like a hawk. He’s already insisted on working the range a couple times.”

“At least he’s up and around.” Micah laughed. “Why don't you pull out your uncle's checkers board while we're waiting for lunch?”

“If you can handle me beating you again.”

“What's one more loss?”

As the afternoon continued, everyone enjoyed themselves, as well as getting to know Jana. Lunch conversations mainly consisted of Jana answering question of her upbringing and why she was in North Fork, how long she would be staying, and so on.

Mark, however, noticed that Rachael remained fairly quiet throughout the course of the afternoon. When the family arrived home that evening, Mark was able to get a few minutes alone with Rachael as they tended to the team.

“Everything alright, Rachael?”

“...Of course. Why do you ask?”

“Because you're too much like me for me to know everything isn't alright. What's wrong?”

“I’m fine.” Rachael insisted as she took a harness off on of the horses and turned away from her cousin.

Mark remained silent the rest of the time they were working together, but he could see the tears welling in Rachael's eyes. After they were done, Mark expected Rachael to go inside the house, but she turned the opposite direction and began running. Concerned, Mark started to go after her, but then he stopped.

Mark turned and went into his Parents’ home, where they were talking to Cassie in the front room.

“We'll be in after a while,” Mark began, “Rachael and I are going for a walk.”

“...Everything alright?” Lucas asked.

“I'm not sure… we'll be back in a while.”

Lucas nodded before Mark left the house and followed after his cousin. It took a while to find her, but eventually Mark found Rachael in a tree up on one of the hills. He climbed it, and sat on a branch the opposite side of the trunk as Rachael.

“Nothing's wrong?” Mark asked.

There was a long period of quiet before Mark finally heard Rachael beginning to answer.

“...It was a year ago today. My Pa had gone out to get drunk again. So, like normal, I left the house after he did.” Again, there was a long silence before Rachael continued. “... I often wonder if he wouldn't have gotten as angry if I hadn't snuck out that night. If I had stayed home like I knew I was supposed to, maybe… maybe he wouldn't have killed her. But I came home and found him yelling at her again. Shaking her. He lifted her off the ground, and-” Rachael’s statement was interrupted by tears that insisted on falling.

Mark waited for Rachael to go on, close to tears himself.

“...She didn't deserve to die. She was a wonderful mother. She was a faithful wife. Everyone in town speculated on what her life was like, but she wouldn’t even confirm her closest friend's suspicions. On several occasions I came downstairs to hear men offering to take her away, but she never once took their offers. I know she shouldn't have made the choices she did when she was young. But she loved me, and gave me as much security and comfort as she could. She tried to raise me right… and I wasn't usually the easiest person to raise. I'm still not. But why did it have to be her? Why couldn't he have killed me, instead? Why, Mark?”

“... I don't know why he had to kill your Ma, Rachael. But I don't think your Ma wants you to feel guilty about it. I think she's looking down from heaven, smiling at the person you're becoming. The life you're making. I think she's proud of how you deal with your pain. But there's nothing that says we can't miss them. There's nothing that says we can't grieve. But your Ma is in a better place, up there with my Ma, and-" Mark stopped himself from mentioning his child. “...And so many other loved ones. I know it hurts, Rachael. And there's a time to let yourself feel. Just don't make yourself go through it alone.” Mark slightly paused before going on. “...Why didn't you say something to us?”

“I... I didn't want to upset your Pa. I know how close he was to my Ma, and I figured that if he didn't have a day to remind him of her… that… well, it would be better.”

“Rachael, we don't want you carrying a burden like this alone. In time, you'll see that having a day to remember your Ma helps bring closure.”

“I think of her enough. Having a day just makes it worse.”

“I know it does, now. But ten years from now, you'll look back and be thankful for a day that you can dedicate to her, and remember her not by how she went, but by who she was as a person.”

“Mark, do you still miss your Ma?”

Mark let out a heavy sigh as he looked up to the sky.

“I do. And for a long time it was hard not to get angry that she was gone. Eventually, I had to trust that God let it happen for a reason. Fourteen years later, I can see why.”

“Why did he take your Ma home?”

“Lots of reasons, but to name just a few, Pa and I wouldn't have ever come to North Fork. Micah would still be a drunk-”

“A drunk??” Rachael asked as she climbed to the other side of the trunk.

“It's a long story, ask Pa about it some time. Anyway, My Ma, Milly, would have married someone who would have made her miserable. Lou… would've either been run out of town or forced into marrying into a rather unpleasant family. You wouldn't have a life here; Laura would be in a horrible situation. Who knows where the Osborne family would be. The list goes on and on… so even though I miss her, I know she's in a better place… and God needed to let her pass away to allow for a better plan.”

“Mark, do you think God has a… “better plan" for my life, too?”

“I know he does, or he wouldn't have let your Ma leave yet. Just remember that she's smiling down at you, wanting you to live a life looking forward. ...But there's always time for remembering back, too.”

“...Thanks Mark.”


5MC5

“Thanks for your help, Ned. Sorry to keep you from your rounds.”

“No problem, Mr. Miller. I have a mountain of paperwork to get back to at the office, so I'll spend as much time on the rounds as I can!”

“Tell your mother we said hello.” Mrs. Miller added.

“Sure thing. If the wheel gives you trouble again, you know where to find me!”

“See you later, Ned.” Mr. Miller replied with a smile.

Ned sent his horse into a lope and headed back towards town. The last place he had to check on was the Donalds’, where he found Lilly playing in the front yard.

“Your Ma around?”

“No, she had to run an errand.”

“How about Emma?”

“She went with her.”

“How about one of your brothers?”

“Tim's around here… somewhere. You might check the barn.”

“...Thanks.” Ned shook his head as he walked towards the barn. “Tim?”

Tim stuck his head out from the hayloft.

“Up here, Deputy. Anything I can help you with?”

Tim suddenly grabbed a rope and swung down from the hayloft into the haystack.

“... I take it everything's going fine out here?”

“Yes sir.”

“No strangers stopping by?”

“No- well, unless you count that lady who's new in town. She stopped by this morning and helped Ma with some stuff. She shore is pretty.”

“And a little older than you, isn't she?”

“...Well Ms. Jenkins is a whole ten years older than her husband. But don't tell nobody I told you, else Ma will tan my hide.”

“That's a completely different situation, and I wouldn't say it's an example you want to follow.”

“You have no fun, do you?”

“Keep yourself out of trouble, and be a help to your Ma.”

“I will. See you later, Deputy Osborne.”

As Ned rode away, he couldn't help but shake his head. He never had understood children... even when he was a child himself.

Ned made his way back to the office where he found Micah sipping his coffee.

“There you are,” Micah began. “I was just about ready to send a search party looking for you. What on earth took so long?”

“The Miller's buckboard lost a wheel on the road and I gave them a hand. I wasn't in any rush to get back, anyway.”

“I know. That mountain of paperwork keeps getting bigger and bigger, and it's not going to just disappear. You can't put it off forever.”

“I know…” Ned sighed as he sat at his desk. “Maybe I oughta get a secretary.”

“Considering the way you keep things “organized”, they'd quit after the first day.”

“You're certainly one to talk.” Ned laughed.

“At least I can find what I need, when I need it.”

“So can I.”

“Oh really? How about telling me where the packet of wanted posters that came in yesterday's mail is at?”

“That's easy, they're-” Ned stopped short as he realized he really didn't have a clue.

Micah chuckled as Ned looked around the desks, in the filing cabinets, and rummaged through all the drawers.

“What'd you do with it?” Ned finally asked.

“I didn't do anything. They fell off your desk and landed in the waste basket.” Micah replied, pointing.

“You got lucky. Give me-”

“Marshal?” A man called as he entered the office. He wore jeans, a plaid shirt, and vest; a bandana was tied around his neck, and a gun belt rested on his hips.

“What can I do for you?” Micah asked.

“I'm afraid there's a bit of a situation down at your doctor's office. The doctor asked me to get you.”

“Situation?” Ned asked.

“I better explain. My name's Greg Tucker, I'm on my way to California and was cutting through some back roads when a heard a gunshot and a woman screaming in the woods. Naturally I followed the noise and found a woman fighting against a man. I was able to knock the man out and tried asking the woman what had happened, but she was too shook up. She just kept going on and on about the man killing her fiancé... I found his body nearby. I loaded it and the unconscious man into the back of my wagon, and drove the lady and man to the doctor's office. The man has yet to regain consciousness… but that lady… she's sure shook up, understandably.”

“Let's get the body to the undertaker's, then we'll check out the situation at the clinic.” Micah suggested.

The three men walked outside and Ned and the man began unloading the body at the undertaker's.
As they laid the body on the table and the undertaker and Micah saw who the dead man was, they were both taken aback.

“Neff Packer!” Micah exclaimed.

“What's he doing here?” The undertaker asked.

“Getting married, I guess…” Micah said as he shook his head. “Lucky for us, Lucas didn't see him before the other man did.”

“What do you mean, Micah?” Ned asked in confusion.

“It's a long story, Ned. Some other time.”

The three men left the undertaker's and walked to the clinic, where they found Jana sitting in the waiting room.

“That's her, the one I found.” Tucker said, gesturing to Jana.

“Jana, what happened?” Micah asked as he took a seat beside her.

“He killed him!” Jana cried. “He shot him in cold blood!” She sobbed. “He killed my fiancé!”

“Who, Jana?” Ned asked. “Who did this?”

“Mark McCain!”


6MC6

Ned and Micah stared blankly at the woman in front of them.

“...What did you just say?” Ned asked in bewilderment.

“Your brother-in-law killed Peter!” The woman continued to sob.

“Hold on, Ms. Hendrickson. The man that was in the back of this gentleman's wagon was your fiancé?” Micah asked.

“Of course he was!”

“Miss, I hate to tell you this, but that man's name is not Peter; it's Neff Packer.”

“I don't know what you're talking about, but my Peter is dead because of Mark McCain!” Jana turned to Ned before going on. “Your brother-in-law killed my fiancé!”

Micah and Ned looked at each other in confusion before Micah finally said something.

“Ms. Hendrickson, this has been a long day, why don't-”

“You don't believe me?!”

“... I didn't say that. Why don't you try to calm yourself, and then tell us what happened.”

“Marshal, the woman has obviously gone through a lot,” Tucker began. “Why don't you let her get some rest, and then-”

“No, I want to make this known!” Jana declared. “I want you to know what that sorry excuse for a man did!”

“...Just start at the beginning.” Micah encouraged, trying to wrap his brain around the situation.

“Peter… he surprised me and arrived early. He took me for a walk early this afternoon, and we were having… having a wonderful time…” The tears continued to roll down Jana’s cheeks as she tried to keep herself composed. “Then he showed up.”

“He?” Ned asked.

“Mark McCain.” Jana replied before she swallowed. “He started arguing with Peter, and before I knew it…” Jana's sentence trailed off as she continued to cry.

“It's alright, take your time.” Micah encouraged.

“...He picked up his rifle and… and he shot Peter! Peter clutched at his chest, and before I knew it… he… he was… he was dead. ... I tried running away, but Mark chased after me. He grabbed my arms and I tried fighting him… thank God you were there.” Jana said as she turned to Tucker, before continuing her story. “He stopped Mark and knocked him unconscious. I don't know what I would have done…”

“I'm glad I was there.” The man replied.

“Anything else you want to add?” Micah asked Jana.

“No… I just want to see that criminal pay for what he's done!”

“We're going to hear his side of the story, too.”

“All he'll tell you is lies!” Jana declared.

“You're not going to arrest him?” Tucker asked in bewilderment.

“I don't know what I'm doing.” Micah said. “Let me hear what he has to say, first.”

“Micah, Ned, I'm glad you're here…” Doc said as he came into the room.

“We're aware of the situation.” Micah replied.

“Mark just woke up. I gave him a general examination, and it looks like he'll be fine. I didn't want to ask any questions until you were here.”

Micah nodded as he stood and began to follow the doctor.

“I'm going out where this happened to see what I can find.” Ned announced.

“No, you aren't.” Micah firmly replied. “Whatever we do, we do with someone else involved. You and I are too close to Mark to investigate this on our own. We don't want someone to come back and say we tampered with the evidence. Wait for me, and no one leaves this office until I say so.”

The three nodded before Micah and Doc left the room.

When Micah entered Mark's room, he almost couldn't say anything. He was hoping Mark would have a good explanation for the scratches on his face and neck.

“Micah, what are you doing here?” Mark asked in confusion.

“...Just checking up on you. How do you feel?”

“The back of my head hurts, that's about all.”

“What happened?”

“I don't really know. I was working at the ranch and I blacked out all of a sudden. I must have lost my balance and hit my head or something; it feels like someone dropped a pile of bricks on it.”

“You don't remember anything else?” Micah asked.

“Funny, Micah.” Mark replied, assuming Micah was teasing Mark about his memory.

“Seriously, Mark, you don't know what happened?”

“I'll probably figure it out when Doc let's me get back home. Speaking of which…” Mark let his sentence fade as he saw the look on the men's faces. “What's going on? ...How did I even get here?”

“Mark, I wish you would've had another story…”

“What do you mean, Micah? Is everything alright back home?” Mark waited for an answer, but all he got were two very sad stares. “Micah, what's going on? Micah!”

Micah let out a deep sigh before finally replying.

“Mark, Jana Hendrickson is sitting out there, claiming you killed her fiancé… who turns out to be Neff Packer.”

“Mr. Packer? Micah, I haven't seen that man in over five years!”

“Look, I'm sorry Mark, but there's a man in the waiting room who backs up her story… and the scratches on your face don't help matters, either.”

“What are you talking about?”

Mark got out of the bed and walked to a mirror to see recent scratches on his face.

“Micah, I have no idea how these got here! And how can Jana say I killed her fiancé? I haven't seen her in over a week!”

“According to the two in the waiting room, you saw her early this afternoon.”

“Micah, I've been at the ranch!”

“How do you explain the man out there bringing you to town in the back of his wagon?”

“I don't know, Micah!”

“Mark… you're a grandson to me… but I can't let that interfere with fulfilling my duty as an officer of the law.”

“...What are you trying to say, Micah?”

“Mark…” Micah let out another sigh before going on. “I… I have to arrest you.”

Mark stared blankly at the man in front of him as the words sunk in… but he couldn't accept it. He couldn't have killed anyone… this had to be a joke.

“This isn't funny, Micah. If this is payback for the tea in your coffee pot-”

“This isn't a joke, Mark. This is serious.”

“Micah, I didn't kill anyone!”

“I believe you, Mark. But I… I can't let our friendship…”

Mark walked passed Micah and sat down on the bed as what was happening sunk in.

“...Murder…” Mark whispered.

Finally, Mark looked up at his friend.

“...Do what you have to do, Micah.”

“...I'm going to give it a few hours, until dark. I don't want to send the town into an uproar by parading you to jail. Mark… you know I trust you implicitly, but because of our relationship I… I have to do this the right way. I can't jeopardize-”

“...I understand, Micah.”

Micah reluctantly pulled his handcuffs out of his pocket. He secured one cuff to the bedpost, and the other to Mark's wrist before giving Doc the key.

“He's in your custody, for the time being.”

Micah headed for the door, but stopped at the threshold and turned around.

“Mark, I… I’m sorry.”

“It's alright, Micah.”

Micah nodded and went back to the waiting room.

“Well?” Tucker asked.

“Says he was working this morning and suddenly blacked out.”

“You don't believe him, do you?” Jana demanded.

“Innocent until proven guilty.” Micah replied. “I suggest we all go back to where you say it happened and look at the area.”

“I can't…” Jana said as the tears started again. “I can't go back there!”

Micah sighed before turning to Ned.

“Take her to the hotel and make sure she gets some rest. Neither of you say a word to anyone. We're going to keep this as quiet as possible.”

Micah and Greg Tucker rode out to where Neff Packer had been killed. Micah sighed heavily as the evidence against Mark continued to build. There was blood, signs of a struggle, and Mark's rifle was found, missing a bullet. On the way back into town, Micah came across BlueBoy.



7MC7


When they arrived in town, Micah got an official account of Tucker’s statement.

“Can I go, Marshal?” The man asked after he finished.

“Yes, but stay in town, and don't say anything to anyone.”

“You seem awful protective of this case.”

“Spreading rumors never helped anybody.”

“You believe McCain then?”

“He's innocent until proven guilty.”

“Is that how you feel about all of your guests here at the jail?”

“Good evening, sir.”

As Tucker left the building, Johnny made his way inside.

“Micah, what's going on? I saw Ned escort Jana to a room, and it looked like she was crying. Neither one of them will talk to anyone.”

“Shut the door.”

“Micah-”

“I said shut the door.”

Johnny shut the door and walked to the desk, bracing his arms against it.

“What's going on? I'm your deputy, I have the right to know.”

“Well Johnny, your nephew has been accused of murder.” Micah stated bluntly.

“Murder?”

“Mark says he was working at the ranch this morning and suddenly blacked out. Unfortunately, Jana said she saw him kill Neff Packer. A man said he came across Mark and Jana fighting in the woods. He said he had to knock Mark out, and found Neff’s body close by. Mark himself said the back of his head hurt, and there are scratches on his face. And that's just the beginning! There's blood out in the woods, signs of a struggle, I found Blue Boy and Mark's rifle, which was missing a bullet. On top of that, Neff Packer kidnapped Mark years ago, almost getting Lucas killed in the process! That's means, motive, opportunity, and an eye witness!”

Both men collapsed back into a chair as the reality of what could happen to Mark hit them.

“... Where's Mark?” Johnny finally asked.

“Under house arrest at the clinic. If the whole town saw Mark McCain arrested…”

“You're not going to be able to keep this a secret forever, Micah.”

“I know. I'm just hoping I can keep it a secret until we uncover the truth.”

“...What if that is the truth?”

“Gibbs, this is your nephew we're talking about!”

“...You told me yourself what the evidence was against him.”

“Do you really think Mark could kill someone?”

“...Under most circumstances, I don't. But you did say this man almost got Lucas killed…”

“I don't think Mark has it in him to kill in cold blood. He won't shoot more game than necessary when he goes hunting!”

“I want to believe him Micah, but look at the facts! This is my nephew, I love Mark, but I thought Lucas had raised him better than to kill someone I'm cold blood!”

“We don't know he did!”

“What’s the jury going to think, Micah? Mark could hang if all he has to say for himself is that he blacked out!”

“Don't you think I know this??”

Johnny let out a long sigh as he let the tension in the room dissipate.

“...How long are you keeping him at the clinic?”

“...Not much longer, just until the sun sets.”

Johnny nodded and began to leave the office before Micah stopped him.

“Johnny, you may want to walk the town instead of going back to your wife. I can't have you telling her anything right now.”

“Micah, she's going to skin me alive if I don't tell her!”

“Blame me, I can order you to walk to the town if I need to. But not a word to Lou. I love your wife dearly, but if she knows, half the town will know within thirty minutes.”

“You may need to.”

“Go walk the town, Johnny.”

While Micah waited for night to fall, he got Jana's statement. Although she was a little more composed than before, it was obvious he grief was true. Even when Micah told her “Peter” was just an alias, she didn't seem to care.

As Micah prepared to leave the room, Jana stopped him.

“Marshal, how long until this is done and over with? I'd like to go back home and… and grieve.”

“The circuit judge won't be here for another three weeks, I'm afraid.”

“Marshal, I don't mean to get out of line… but you are awful close with your prisoner. I will have you investigated if I find need.”

Micah nodded before he left the room. As he came down the stairs, Lou caught sight of him and hurried towards him.

“Micah, what on earth is going on? What's happened to Jana, and why is she here instead of the boarding house? And where's my husband?”

“Johnny's making the rounds for me. Lou, I can't say anything right now. Just don't ask questions, and keep to yourself. And definitely don't be spreading rumors!”

“When have I ever done a thing like that?”

Micah left the building without answering Lou's question and walked down to the clinic. He entered and found Doc in his office.

“Anybody see anything?”

“No, Micah. He stayed quiet in the room. I am a little concerned; he fell asleep a couple times.”

“Better for him to sleep than worry, I suppose. Can I have the key?”

Burrage handed Micah the key to the room and the handcuffs.

“You locked him in?” Micah asked in astonishment.

“I was afraid someone would come across him if I was preoccupied.”

Micah nodded as he headed towards the door, but turned around to face the doctor again.

“What do you think, Doc?”

“Guilt and innocence is your field, not mine.”

“But you have an opinion.”

“... I don't want to think he did it. I don't think Mark has it in him to kill in cold blood. Even someone like Neff Packer…”

Micah nodded in agreement and left the room. When Micah entered Mark’s room, he found Mark sitting on the edge of the bed, the heel of his palms against his forehead.

“You alright, Mark?” Micah asked as he unlocked the handcuffs.

“...Just trying to figure out if I forgot anything.”

“Any luck?”

Mark shook his head before replying.

“Honest, Micah. Last thing I remember was working at the ranch. I didn't kill anyone.”

“...I know.” Micah sighed before going on. “Let's get you over to the office.”

“Thanks for waiting, Micah.”

“You're welcome, Mark.”

The streets were quiet as Micah walked Mark down to the jail. As they entered the office, Mark turned to Micah.

“How bad is the evidence against me?”

“It… it doesn't look good, Mark.”

“How long do I have?”

“About three weeks.”

Mark turned and walked to the back part of the office where the cells were. He stepped inside one and waited for Micah to close the door. But Micah hesitated.

“It's alright, Micah.” Mark assured. “You're just doing your job.”

Micah eventually nodded as he closed the door and turned the key. He didn't even look up at Mark before walking into the main area of the office.

Mark sat down on the bed and ran his fingers through his hair.

“Ma, I could use a little help right now…”


8MC8

Hearing footsteps on the porch, Cassie ran to the door and swung it open.

“Mark Warren, I-” She stopped short as she recognized her uncle. “Sorry, Uncle Lucas. I was expecting Mark.”

“He still isn't home? It's half past ten!”

Cassie let Lucas inside as she replied.

“He was talking about spending the night on the range sometime this week, but I thought he'd at least tell me which night.”

“Knowing Mark, he probably rode too far out to make it home before nightfall. He probably just decided to make camp for the night.”

“I hope so.”

“Do you need anything?”

“No, thank you though. I'll see you tomorrow morning.”

“Have a goodnight, Cassie.”

Although Cassie wanted her uncle's words to be true, she had a hard time not worrying about Mark. This certainly wasn't like him. Cassie tossed and turned most of the night, unable to sleep for long periods of time. The next morning, she dressed before making her way down the hill to milk the cow. She found Lucas already in the barn, working on what were normally Mark's chores.

“You look like you got about as much sleep as I did.” Cassie commented as she sat on the milking stool.

“... I found it difficult to believe my own explanation.”

“You're going to hurt your back. You shouldn't be out here.”

“I'll be fine. Doc says a little exercise is good.” Lucas saw Cassie shake her head before he continued. “You're welcome to join us for breakfast; no point in you eating alone.”

“Thank you. I’m going to have words with that son of yours when he gets home…”

“That makes two of us.”

Lucas and Cassie finished the morning chores before making their way inside the house. They made their way to the kitchen where Cassie began helping Milly with breakfast. Lucas saw Rachael at the table with her history book open.

“I thought you got all your homework done last night?”

“I did… I just forgot we have a test this morning. It's a bunch of dates, and those are the hardest things to remember!”

“It's easier if you study from the beginning of the week.”

“I know.” Rachael sighed.

The family ate breakfast together before Rachael headed off for school. Milly and Cassie were cleaning up the kitchen when Lucas answered a knock at the front door.

“Micah, come on in.” Lucas greeted as he let Micah inside. “Want some coffee?”

“No, thanks.” Micah sighed as the door closed behind him.

“What brings you out here?”

“I'm kinda surprised no one's been to town.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well Mark's been there all night, I'm surprised no one came looking for him.”

“We figured he spent the night on the range. What was he doing in town?”

“It wasn't his choice, exactly.”

Lucas could sense his friend's nervousness and was becoming concerned.

“Micah, is Mark alright?”

As Lucas spoke, Milly entered the front room, followed by Cassie.

“What about Mark?” Cassie worriedly asked.

“I assure you, Mark's alright… it's just… complicated.”

“Complicated?” Lucas asked. “Micah, you're not making sense.”

“Please, you all may want to sit.”

“Micah!”

“Sit down, Lucas.” Micah firmly stated as he locked eyes with the rancher.

Cassie and Milly took a seat, followed by the men.

“Where's Mark?” Cassie asked the marshal, her eyes begging for an answer.

“Mark… Mark’s in jail.”

Cassie, Milly, and Lucas stared at Micah in shock, not believing what they had just heard.

“That's not funny, Micah.” Lucas stated.

“...No, it's not.” Micah replied. “I'm sorry… but please try to understand, I had to do my job. There was nothing I could do besides arrest him.”

“Arrest him for what?” Lucas asked, still not believing that his son was in jail.

“...Murder.”

“Micah, you better start doing some explaining, and fast.” Lucas demanded.

“A man came into my office, claiming he found Mark and Jana Hendrickson fighting in the woods. He said he had to knock Mark unconscious. Jana kept going on about how Mark killed her fiancé, and the man found the body nearby. There are scratches on Mark's face and neck that are new and are obviously from human nails. I found Mark's rifle and BlueBoy out there… and Mark's rifle was missing a bullet.”

“But what possible motive would he have?!” Lucas asked, not realizing that he was almost yelling.

“The fiancé was Neff Packer, Lucas.”

Milly and Lucas both sat back in shock, unwilling to believe that what Micah was saying had happened.

“Who's Neff Packer?” Cassie asked.

“Cassie,” Micah began, “A long time ago Neff Packer lived outside of North Fork and ran a cattle ranch. He was always trying to get Lucas to sell this place, but he wouldn't. So, Neff hired someone to kidnap Mark and hold him for a five thousand dollar ransom. Neff offered to loan Lucas the money with the ranch as collateral. Lucas was almost killed that day, but thank God he was a better shot than the kidnapper.”

“...And everyone is going to say Mark shot him for revenge… but he couldn't have, Micah! Mark wouldn't kill anybody!”

“I know, Cassie. Unfortunately, all Mark has to say is that he was working and he suddenly blacked out. A jury isn't going to believe him in light of all the other evidence.”

“Jury??” Lucas asked.

“We have no choice, Lucas! Mark's going to have to stand trial like any other person.”

Milly, Lucas, and Cassie sat there, completely devastated.

“... How's Mark?” Cassie finally asked.

“Shocked, to say the least. I really don't know what is going through his head, he wouldn't talk much this morning. I'm sure he could use some visitors.”

Without much discussion, the foursome along with a crying Lydia made the trek into town. Before the buckboard could come to a stop, Cassie jumped down and ran into the office.

Hearing the front door slam, Mark sat up on his bunk. Within a few moments he saw Cassie come through the door leading to the main office. She met him at the door of his cell, where Mark reached out and wrapped his arms around his wife before giving her a kiss.

Mark could see evidence of the tears Cassie had cried on the way into town, and more tears began to well in her eyes.

“I didn't do it, Cassie. I promise you, I didn't.”

“I know, but Mark, the evidence-”

“We'll figure it out, Ned's working on it. Don't worry, Cassie.”

“How can you say that? Mark, they could convict you! You could- you could…” Cassie couldn't bring herself to say it.

“Don't think about that. Right now, we just have to worry about proving that I didn't do it. It can't be that difficult, because I didn't kill anybody.”

“Mark…” Cassie's tears continued to fall as she hung her head.

“It's going to be alright, you'll see.” Mark gently reached out to pick up her chin. “I love you, and I'll be back home in no time.”

Cassie nodded as she tried to wipe her tears away.

Mark pulled his wife close again and gave her another kiss through the bars.

“Are Pa and Ma here?” Cassie nodded. “Can I talk to them?”

“Of course. Are you hungry? I can get something for you…?”

“Sure, just don't say anything to anyone... Micah's trying to keep this quiet.”

Cassie nodded before giving Mark one last kiss and leaving the room. Several moments later, Milly came in followed by Lucas.

“Mark, are you alright?” Milly asked worriedly as she looked her son over. “What happened?”

“I'm fine, Ma. I'm not exactly sure what happened. I was working and I blacked out. It might have been a seizure.”

“Well then why aren't you at Doc's?”

“I spent all yesterday afternoon there. Believe me, I'm fine. Don't worry, we'll have this whole misunderstanding worked out in no time.”

“Mark, this isn't just a misunderstanding!” Milly exclaimed.

“I know, Ma. We'll get to the bottom of this. Ned's looking into this for me.”

“Do you need anything?”

“I'm fine, Cassie's getting me something to eat.”

“Micah didn't get you breakfast?” Milly asked in astonishment.

“He offered, I just wasn't very hungry at the time. Don't go getting mad at Micah, he had to do his job. In no time he'll be unlocking the cell door so I can go home. Don't worry about me.”

“Mark…”

“I promise, Ma. I'll be fine.” Mark briefly paused before going on. “Could you give Pa and me a minute?”

“...Of course.”

Milly turned to leave, but Mark's words briefly stopped her.

“I love you, Ma.”

“I love you too, Mark.”

Lucas closed the door behind his wife before turning back towards Mark. There was a long silence as father and son looked at each other. Suddenly, Mark turned away.

“I'm swinging, Pa.”

“What do you mean?”

“Pa, there's no avoiding this. ...I'm dead.”

“You're not saying you did it?!” Lucas asked in astonishment.

“No, of course not. Pa… the evidence against me is overwhelming. For Pete's sake, look at my face!” Mark exclaimed as he turned around. “I can't explain how the scratches got there. I can't explain why BlueBoy was out there or why my rifle is missing a bullet. And I certainly can't argue that Doc says Tucker drove up with me in the back of the wagon. There's nothing I can do, Pa.”

“I thought you said Ned was looking into it; if he is, there's gotta be something we can do.”

“He is, but he doesn't exactly believe my story. And to be quite honest, I'm starting to doubt myself.”

“Mark!”

“I've never had a death wish on Neff Packer. I haven't thought about the man in years. I never thought I had it in me to kill in cold blood. But who's to say I'm not just forgetting what happened? Pa, they could easily just say my memory is failing again. Pa, I'm looking at a noose!”

Lucas looked into his son's frightened eyes… they reflected his own feelings.

“Mark, I'm going to do everything I can to get you back home. But you can't give up on yourself. I know you son, and I know you wouldn't kill in cold blood.”

“... I know. But I'm scared, Pa. I could be swinging from the end of a rope in three weeks.”

“We'll find the killer, Son.”

“... You can't promise me that. Pa, whatever happens… you can't shut down. They're all going to need you.”

“Mark-”

“Promise me you won't leave Cassie alone. I don't know how she's going to react to all this… but I don't want her left by herself. Have Rachael spend the night up at the house if she needs to, but I don't want Cassie alone.”

“She won't be, Mark. Just don't you dare give up hope.”

“...To be honest Pa, I don't think there's any hope to give up.”


9MC9

Against Micah's orders, it didn't take long for Jana Hendrickson and Greg Tucker to get their stories out. Within two days, the entire town had heard what had happened and picked a side.
Micah watched helplessly as the town divided itself. Jana's feminine emotion swayed a fair number of people in town, and those who agreed with her were almost ready to take the law into their own hands. Some of those who had been in town long enough to know Neff Packer still accused Mark of killing him, but didn't necessarily blame him. The number of people that were left believed Mark, but knew there was no hope of him ever going home.

One afternoon, Cassie was running errands in town. She was behind one of the shelves in the general store when two women entered, unaware of Cassie's presence.

“Never in a hundred years would I have thought I'd see a McCain in jail. The whole situation is rather dreadful.”

“I can't say I pity the man. After all he and his father have spoken about being good citizens and decent folk, he turned out to be nothing more than a hypocrite. I say he deserves whatever the judge gives him.”

“It seems you can't find a decent man anywhere you go now a days, least not out west. I should have listened to my mother when she told me to stay in Boston.”

“While I don't pity Mark, I do pity his wife. The poor dear has gone through so much. First her father, and now her husband… it's such a shame.”

“Indeed. You would think she'd-” The woman stopped as she saw Cassie come into view.

“You can save your pity for someone who needs it. My husband did not kill Neff Packer, and one day you will both eat your words. Until then, you may want to pay a little better attention to what Reverend Graft has to say about a gossip.” Cassie briskly walked past the women, paid for her items, and walked towards the doors. “Good day, “ladies”.”

With that, Cassie left the women in the store, mouths gaping open.

Anxious to see her husband before Lucas had to leave, Cassie hurried to the jail, ignoring the stares she received from townsfolk on the street.

When Cassie entered the Marshal’s office, she didn't see anyone in the front room, but could hear the conversation in the next one.
“... I'm sorry, Mark.” Ned simply stated. “You wanted my professional opinion, and that's it.”

“I can't plead guilty, I didn't do it!”

“That's not what the facts say. And just so we're clear, you're lucky I'm on duty right now.”

“What's that supposed to mean?”

“I told you years ago that if you ever hurt her, you would answer to me. I can't believe you would do something as selfish as going and killing somebody.”

“Then don't believe it. Ned, you know me, I-”

“I thought I knew my father, too.”

As Ned came from the back room, Cassie glared at her brother.

“How could you?” Cassie asked, on the verge of tears.

“Cassie,” Ned began, taking a step towards his sister. “I wish I could say he was innocent, but-”

“I don't want to hear it.”

“You can't hide from the truth.”

“I'm not! Mark didn't kill him; he couldn't have!”

“Give me just one reason he couldn't have, Cassie. One.”

“My husband isn't a killer.”

“Tell that to the jury.” Ned turned and left the office, leaving his sister in tears.

“Cassie?” Mark called from his cell. “Cassie??”

Slowly, Cassie made her way to her husband's cell. Mark reached through the bars and gently put his hand to her face as he placed his other hand on hers.

“Don't waste anymore tears, Cassie. It'll be alright.”

“Mark… just how do you plan on getting the jury to believe you?” Cassie cried.

“Pa is working on it.”

“Mark, your own family doesn't believe you!”

“Don't get upset with Ned, it's just the lawyer in him coming out.”

“It's not just Ned. Uncle Johnny doesn't believe you, Aunt Lou has her doubts. My own mother doesn't even know what to believe!”

“I don't blame them, Cassie. But as long as you believe me, I don't care about what everyone else thinks.”

“Mark, that sounds well and good, but the trial is less than two weeks away! You have to start thinking practically!”

“Cassie…” Mark let out a long sigh before going on. “Cassie, I love you. I don't know what the next two weeks are going to look like. I… I know it doesn't look good. But no matter what happens, I need… I need you to… to keep moving forward.”

Cassie took a step back as she realized what her husband was saying. Cassie started shaking her head as she covered her mouth with her hand.

“No… no Mark. Don't ask me that.” Tears streamed down Cassie's face as she looked deep into Mark's eyes. “Please, Mark…”

Mark fought harder than he ever had to stay strong. In other situations, he could let his emotions show. But he couldn't in this one. It tore Mark apart to see his wife five feet away from him, crying her heart out, and he couldn't so much as wrap his arms around her.

“Cassie, come here.” Mark pleaded.

But Cassie couldn't. She couldn't let herself fall into Mark's arms. She knew if she did, she would never be able to pull herself out of them.

Suddenly, Cassie turned and ran out of the room, Mark calling after her.

“Cassie! Cassie, come back!”

...But it was no use. Cassie had left the office. Mark let himself collapse on to the bunk. His heart was breaking to see his wife in such pain and misery. He didn't know how much more of this he could take.

“Mark?” Lucas called, interrupting his son's thoughts.

Lucas stopped in front of the cell, and saw a tear fall from the corner of Mark's eye.

“...Mark, what's wrong?”

“You promised you wouldn't leave her alone!” Mark exclaimed as he stood up to face his Pa.

“We were running errands in town. She insisted that-”

“You promised!”

“What happened?”

“She overheard Ned’s conversation with me, that's what! She knows there's absolutely no hope of me getting back to the ranch. She's…” Mark calmed himself down a little before sitting back down on the bunk. “She's hurting, Pa. Because of me.”

“Mark, this isn't your fault.”

“Please Pa, just find her.” Mark's eyes pleaded with his father. “She needs you and Ma.”


10MC10

“You want to say that again?”

Sweeney looked up to see two men standing on opposite sides of a table, seconds away from a brawl.

“Mark McCain is a lowdown, good for nothing, half bit murderer!” the second man exclaimed as he walked around the table, towards the other man.

The first man didn't hesitate in sending a fist flying through the air.

As the fight continued, Sweeney tried stepping in to separate the two, but he simply got pushed away by bystanders who would soon join in the brawl.

Sweeney watched in dismay as the entire saloon deteriorated into utter chaos. Finally, Sweeney had enough and pulled his gun from behind the counter. He shot it up towards the ceiling, getting everyone's attention.

“I've had enough of this. If you're not mature enough to come in here and have a drink without getting in a fist fight with someone, you're not man enough to get a drink. I don't want to hear one more word about Mark McCain in this saloon, or I will close down until the trial.”

“You wouldn't dare.” One of the men laughed.

“Dwayne, I've been running this saloon for over ten years. I can afford to close it down for ten days. Don't tempt me.”

Several men returned to their table and mugs of beer. Others went outside to finish their argument.

Sweeney sighed and left someone in charge while he went to get Johnny. As he entered the office, he heard Johnny's voice in the other room.

“I'm sorry, Mark. But the facts are the facts!”

Sweeney watched a flustered deputy enter the front room.

“Johnny, there's a problem down the street.”

“What's it over?”

“Same thing they've been fighting over for the last week.”

“Let them go at it.”

“Johnny, they're disturbing the peace!”

Johnny sighed before following Sweeney down the street, just outside the saloon.

Johnny gave them another minute or so before breaking it up.

“Higgins, Colt, you're coming with me.”

“We were just settling a disagreement.” Higgins insisted.

“I don't want to know how many brawls you've instigated this week. You're both spending the night in jail.”

“What, so I don't spread the truth about your nephew?” Colt asked.

“So you don't disturb the peace!” Johnny replied.

“You're just worried the whole town will turn against him.”

“If Mark's guilty, he has it coming to him.”

Sweeney stared at Johnny in shock before the deputy took the two to the jail. Sweeney followed him there, and finally got up the nerve to talk to Johnny once he had everyone locked up.

“You don't really believe he did it, did you?”

“Sweeney, what am I supposed to think? All the facts say he did.”

“But Mark-”

“Mark is human, just like the rest of us.”

“Have a little faith in character!”

“I've done that before, Sweeney. And I nearly got myself killed. Yes, Mark's family. But that doesn't change the fact that he's guilty.”

“I thought someone was innocent until proven guilty?”

“I say we have enough proof.”


11MC11

“Rachael, can I see you for a minute, please?” Stephan Griswold asked as the students left the school house for their lunch break.

Rachael nodded and walked to the front of the classroom.

“You seem distracted today… more than normal.”

“I'm trying Mr. Griswold, I really am.”

“I know you are, and I appreciate it. But you seem extra preoccupied today. Is everything alright?”

“... I'm sorry, I just… I'm worried about Mark.”

“Oh…”

“... Honestly, Mr. Griswold, do you think Mark killed that man?”

“No, Rachael, I don't. But I can't come up with another explanation, either.”

“... I accidentally overheard Uncle Lucas talking to Aunt Milly last night. Uncle Lucas said there's no hope.”

“As long as Mark's innocent, there's hope. Somebody just needs to take a look at this case from another angle.”

“What angle?”

“If I knew, I'd be looking at it myself.”

The rest of the school day dragged on for Rachael. She had gotten somewhat used to keeping away from the other students; all they could talk about was “how Mark killed Need Packer.” Charlotte, one of Rachael's friends, was the only one that would talk of something besides Mark. Although she didn't know where she stood on Mark's guilt or innocence, Charlotte intended to stay loyal to her friend.

After school that afternoon, Charlotte and Rachael went for a ride together. Soon, however, Charlotte couldn't help but notice where they were headed.

“You're going to where it happened, aren't you?”

“Somebody had to have missed something.”

“Rachael, everyone's been over this area a hundred times. You're not going to find something.”

“Probably not…” Rachael sighed. Suddenly, an idea struck her. “You know, we've all been trying to find a way to support Mark's story. What if we tried to disprove Jana's?”

“How? Mr. Tucker's testimony backs hers up.”

“They could be working together.”

“You're grasping at straws, Rachael.”

“I know I am. But the trial is just over a week away. We have to come up with something.” Rachael paused before going on. “Charlotte, you don't have a newspaper from last week, do you?”

“Of course I don't. My Pa says they're a waste of money in a small town. Says you learn more by talking to folk than spending good money.”

“Mr. Sneed will have extra editions, I'm sure.”

“What do you need one of those for?”

“It has Jana's story in it.”

“Why don't you just ask her? She's not shy about it.”

Charlotte shrugged as she followed her friend back towards town. The editor gave them an old copy of the newspaper. For the next twenty minutes, Rachael read and re-read the article accusing her cousin of murder.

“Rachael, what on earth are you looking for?” Charlotte finally asked.

“A.... plot hole.”

Charlotte sighed as she looked up at the sun.

“Well I gotta go, my Pa’s going to tan my hide if I don't get my chores done again.”

“See you tomorrow.” Rachael said without looking up.

About five minutes later, it finally registered what Charlotte had said, and Rachael realized she was going to be in trouble too if she didn't get home. Putting the newspaper in her saddlebag, Rachael mounted Liberty and rode home.

When she arrived, Rachael was glad to see that her uncle wasn't home yet and started on her chores.

As it has been the last week and a half, supper was quiet. No one felt like talking, and there really wasn't anything to talk about.

After supper was over and the kitchen was cleaned, Rachael asked for permission to go on a ride.

“Is your homework done?” Lucas asked.

“Yes sir, I finished it at school.”

“Be back before sunset.”

Rachael nodded and ran off to the barn where she saddled Liberty again. Thinking back, Rachael tried to figure out where Mark would have been working the day of the murder.

The first two spots she tried showed no sign of having been touched for at least a month. The third, however, intrigued Rachael.

Although the fence didn't necessarily look like it needed fixing, it certainly hadn't been straightened properly the last time someone had tried to fix it. As she looked at the wire, she realized it hadn't been put up by someone who had worked with wire their entire life. Rachael continued looking around for something... anything else.

Rachael sighed in disappointment as she started to mount Liberty again, but something caught her eye. Stepping back down, Rachael looked several feet away from the fence and saw something reflecting the setting sun's light. Rachael picked the object up and instantly recognized it as Mark's pocket watch.

Rachael quickly mounted Liberty and made her way back to the house, where she told Lucas what she had found.

Lucas appreciated her effort, but knew it wouldn't help.

“Rachael, there are lots of reasons that could explain why the fence was done wrong. Mark could have messed up, a new hand from a neighboring ranch could have done it, or a wild animal could have messed it up since then.”

“But what about Mark's pocket watch?” Rachael insisted. “He never goes anywhere without it. He takes extremely good care of it. Why would he just leave it in the grass?”

“I wish there was a more helpful explanation, but Rachael, in all honesty he probably didn't even realize he had lost it.”

“But Uncle Lucas-”

“Rachael, I know you're trying to help. I appreciate that. But we're going to have to come up with more to convince the jury that Mark is innocent.”

“I know, and I'm going to find it.”

Lucas saw determination in his niece's eyes. He couldn't bring himself to tell her it was no use.

“...Keep trying, Rachael. One day, we'll find the truth.”


12MC12

Micah sighed as he looked at the untouched plate of food still sitting two feet from Mark. There were dark circles under his eyes, and he didn't look good at all.

“Mark, you've got to eat something. You're making yourself sick.”

“What's the point, Micah?”

“The point is, you have a wife and family that care about you, and you're not going to do them any favors by acting the way you are. They're worried enough!”

“I’m not hungry, Micah. I can't help that.”

“Mark…” Micah let his sentence drift into silence as he realized he wasn't going to be able to talk any sense into Mark. He looked into Mark’s shallow eyes and couldn't find any emotion. The man was dead to the world. “You may not be hungry, but you are going to make yourself eat something.”

Mark just sat there, staring at the floor. Micah finally gave up and walked out of the back room and sat at his desk. He wanted to help Mark; to give him hope… but there wasn't any hope to give him.

Suddenly Micah stood and left the office, mounted his horse, and rode out to the McCain ranch.

Upon his arrival, Micah found Milly and Cassie doing laundry outside Milly and Lucas’s home.

“Afternoon, Micah.” Milly greeted. “How are you?”

“As good as can be expected. How are you ladies today?”

“...Alright.” Milly replied.

Micah looked to Cassie, who was lost staring at the open prairie. Her eyes were distant and… shallow.

“Cassie, could I talk to you for a minute?” Micah asked.

When she didn't reply, Milly put a hand on Cassie's and called her niece's name.

“What? Sorry… of course, Micah.”

Cassie walked with Micah over to the corral.

“... How's Mark?” Cassie asked, the worry evident in her voice.

“Not too good, I'm afraid. Cassie, you need to come into town and talk to him. He needs you right now more than ever.”

“I… I… Micah, I can't.”

“Why not?”

Tears began to form in Cassie's eyes as she turned and leaned against the corral fence, staring into the distance.

“... I miss him Micah. Every night I lie awake, wishing Mark was beside me. ...But the truth is…” Cassie began to sob as her heart continued to break. “He’s never stepping foot inside our home again. It's tearing me to pieces, Micah, and I can't go see him. I can't do that to him. I can't let him see me like this!”

“Like what, Cassie? You can't let him see that you love him as much as he loves you? You can't let him see that he means more to you than anything else? You can't let him see that he has a wife that is faithful, true, and will support him through this whole mess? Cassie, he needs to see. Right now, Mark is sitting in his cell, completely dead to the world. He has no life within him, he won't eat anything, he just sits and stares. Cassie, he's alone and hurting, and he needs his wife. Make the most of the time you do have, or you will regret it for the rest of your life! Please, Cassie, talk to your husband.”

Cassie looked at Micah, tears streaming down her face. Slowly, Cassie nodded. Without saying a word, Cassie went into the barn to saddle Storm as Micah went to explain to Milly.

“... I'm glad she's going, Micah.” Milly said. “We've been trying to get her to go, but she's been refusing. Thank you for coming out here.”

“I'm glad she listened. Anything I can do for you and Lucas?”

“No, thank you though. Johnny has been helping out around here.”

“That's… surprising.”

“He may not believe Mark, but I am thankful he offered to help out. Lucas is over doing it as it is.”

“Just as long as it doesn't turn to blows between them.”

“Johnny's sensible, he doesn't talk about it around Lucas.”

“How are you handling everything?”

“...I don't know, Micah. How does one handle accepting that their son is going to die?”

“Have you?” Micah asked in confusion.

“I never will.”

After a few more minutes, Cassie was ready to go. It was a quiet ride into town, and Micah wished he could do something to heal Cassie's aching heart… but that was impossible.

When they arrived at the office, Micah went in the back room ahead of Cassie.

“Mark, you have a visitor.”

“...I don't want to see anyone.” Mark replied, staring at the floor.

“I think you'll want to see this one.” Micah turned the key to open the cell and let Cassie inside. He closed the door and made his way to the front office. “Holler when you're ready, Cassie.”

Mark looked up to see his wife standing there, tears in her eyes. He stood and wrapped his arms around her, never wanting to let go.

Cassie tried stopping her tears, but she couldn't. She cried as Mark held her tight, never wanting to be out of his embrace.

Finally, Mark made himself let go a little so he could look his wife over.

“Are you alright?”

“...Mark, I- I can't lose you!”

Cassie buried her head into Mark's shoulder as she let all her emotions go.

“You won't lose me, Cassie.”

Mark kissed the top of his wife's head and continued to hold her as he fought his own tears.

“Why you, Mark? Why did they have to pick you?”

“I… I don't know, Cass.”

Although Mark's heart broke a little more with each tear that fell down his wife's face, he was thankful to have her in his arms. He took in every moment he could, knowing the time he had left with his wife was limited.

Finally, Cassie had cried all the tears she could. Husband and wife sat on the bunk, Cassie leaning her head on Mark's shoulder. For a long time, all they could do was sit. Eventually, Cassie mustered up the strength to talk.

“...Do you remember when you took me out for my birthday this summer?”

“Of course I do.”

Cassie let a faint smile cross her face.

“I remember you were so tired from working out on the range, I thought you were going to bed after you got home. But then you came out of our room, all dressed up, and you gave me a flower. Then there was another one waiting on the buckboard. And then at our table at the hotel, another on my dessert plate… one on the path we walked. Another in front of our front door… another on our bed. Each one came with a note, and I can't tell you how many times I've pulled those notes out the last two weeks. I can't tell you how much I've missed having you home. I can't tell you how much I love you, Mark.”

“Cassie... I… I meant to ask you, is the kitchen still standing?”

Cassie gave Mark a playful slap on the arm before looking up at him and giving him a long, passionate kiss.

“I haven't burned it down yet.”

“I love you, Cassie.” Mark said before he tapped her locket. “I love you, and I always will. I promise I will always be there… even if it's… solely in heart.”


13MC13

Rachael trudged through the woods, Charlotte trailing behind.

“Rachael, my parents are going to skin me alive. We're supposed to be in bed!”

“They never sent us to bed.”

“No, but that's where we said we were going.”

“And we went there.”

“You wouldn't dare do that to your uncle.”

“I'm going to get into plenty of trouble, but I don't care. The trial is tomorrow.”

“What are you looking for?”

“Anything.”

“Rachael, it happened three weeks ago. You're not going to find anything!”

Ignoring her friend, Rachael continued until she reached where the murder had supposedly taken place. She looked around, praying something would be found.

“A different angle…” Rachael mumbled.

When Charlotte caught up to Rachael, she found her friend climbing a tree, lantern in one hand.

“What are you doing? You're going to fall and break your neck!”

“Mr. Griswold said we needed to look at this from another angle.”

“I don't think he meant to go climb a tree.”

“Well I-” Rachael stopped short as she saw something out of the corner of her eye.

Moving the lantern closer to a branch, Rachael saw where a bullet had hit the tree and then she saw it had ricocheted several times before finally resting in a crack in the tree. It took some doing, but Rachael was finally able to pull it out.

“Charlotte!” Rachael exclaimed as she began making her way back down the tree. “This is a rifle bullet!”

“That doesn't help your cousin.”

“Yes, it does. Mark's rifle was only missing one bullet!”

“That could belong to anyone.”

“Who else would be out here with a rifle?”

“Then all it does is prove that Mark was here.”

“He may have been here, but I don't think it was of his own doing. I think Jana and Mr. Tucker framed Mark.”

“Why would they?”

“I don't know why, but Mark was working out on the range, fixing fences. He said he suddenly blacked out. What if someone came up behind him and knocked him out?”

“Then Mark's tools would have been all over the place.”

“Not unless someone cleaned it up and finished the fence he was working on to make it look like Mark wasn't there. But he was, because his pocket watch was there. If they had to drag Mark somewhere, say Mr. Tucker's wagon, his watch could have easily snagged on something and fallen out.”

“But you still haven't said why. Jana and Mr. Tucker didn't even know each other until three weeks ago.”

“Then why does he have a picture of her in hidden in his wagon?”

“You searched his wagon?! Rachael, what were you thinking!?”

“I didn't search his wagon. I was talking to him the other day and I saw it fall out of a book. He quickly picked it while I pretended not to see it.”

“Rachael, you should tell Marshal Osborne and stay out of it. This kind of thing is dangerous to mess with!”

“I did tell him. He went back and said he didn't find anything; said my mind was playing tricks on me. But then I saw the same picture in his wallet the other day… only again, Ned didn't believe me.”

“Look, Rachael, I'm sorry about your cousin. But a pocket watch, bullet that could belong to anyone, and what you said was a picture of Jana isn't going to change anyone's mind. You can try talking to the marshal tomorrow, but let's get back to my house where we're supposed to be. You can't do anything else tonight.”

After several more minutes of Charlotte trying to convince Rachael to come back to town, Rachael finally gave in.

Charlotte quickly fell asleep, but Rachael lied awake for a long time. She knew Mark didn't have much time left, and wondered if they'd find the truth soon enough.

It was almost five the next morning when Rachael couldn't take it any longer. She left a note for Charlotte, saddled Liberty, and went back to the woods. Something had been nagging at her all night, telling her to go back to the scene of the crime.

Rachael climbed back up the tree she had found the bullet in and tried to figure where the shot had been fired from. This was one time Rachael was glad she had been paying attention during math class.

She climbed back down the tree and circled the area the shot should have been taken. After several minutes of searching, Rachael located the shell casing. ...Yet Rachael knew Charlotte had been right. This wasn't going to change anyone's opinion. Suddenly, a new thought struck Rachael. She walked the short distance to where the body had laid several weeks ago. She spent an hour searching through leaves, grass, rocks, and dirt, but finally, Rachael found a second casing. Only this time, it was from a handgun.


14MC14

“Cassie, can I have a minute with Mark?”

Cassie nodded in response to Lucas's question and gave Mark a kiss through the bars before leaving the room. Lucas shut the door behind her and looked to Mark.

“Son, I'm sorry about what happened last week. I thought there wouldn't be any harm in letting her walk around town, and I-”

“It's alright, Pa. She was bound to find out.” Mark paused briefly before going on. “...Pa, are you going to be alright?”

Lucas let out a long sigh as he grabbed a chair and sat down straddling it.

“No.”

“Pa, I'm sorry.”

“You have nothing to be sorry about, Mark.”

“There had to have been something I could've done. Something I could have changed.”

“Don’t blame yourself, Mark. But there's something else bothering you, Son.”

“I just can't figure why Jana or Tucker would lie. ...Pa, I want an honest answer. Do you really believe me?”

“I do, Mark. Even… even if the jury doesn't.”

“Pa, if they hang me-”

“The trial isn't over, Son.”

“Will you take care of Cassie for me?”

“...You know I will, Mark.”

“...Pa, I have a confession to make.”

“...What is it?”

“You remember a few weeks ago, the day you fell asleep for five or six hours?”

“What about it?”

“I slipped a sedative into your water at breakfast so you'd take it easy.”

Lucas put the chair aside and walked to the cell door where Mark met him.

“Mark McCain…” Lucas began, pointing his finger at his son. “I… I don't know what I'm going to do without you.”

“... You'll find a way, Pa. You always have.”

After a few more minutes, Micah came in to escort Mark to the saloon, where the trial was being held.

Mark held his head high, ignoring the comments from those he passed on the street. After settling on his side of the room, Mark was shocked to see Marshal Anker walking towards him. Mark stood as he greeted the man.

“Marshal Anker… what are you doing here?”

“What am I doing here??” The marshal echoed. “You're on trial for murder! Why didn't anyone send word!?”

“We didn't think you'd want to waste your time-”

“Waste my time?” Anker interrupted Mark. “I never waste time.”

“Marshal,” Mark began, “There's nothing I can do. For whatever reason, I've been framed, and there's no getting out of it.”

“I heard the story.”

“Well then-”

Mark's statement was interrupted by the court being called to order. Everyone in the McCain family cringed as the proceedings began. As the prosecution began making its case, Lucas looked over to see Charlotte and her family walking into the saloon… Rachael nowhere in sight. He quietly made his way to Charlotte before whispering a question.

“Where's Rachael?”

“I don't know, she left a note this morning saying she had to take care of something. She probably went back to the woods.”

“The woods?”

“She's been trying to find a way to prove Mark's innocence.”

Lucas sighed as he considered going to find his niece, but he couldn't bring himself to leave the trial. He had to be there for his family… for Mark.

As the trial went on, things looked darker and darker for Mark. Everyone was a bit surprised when the prosecution brought Mark back on the stand.

“Mr. McCain,” The attorney began, “How long had you known the deceded, Neff Packer?”

“I'm not exactly sure, ten years? He owned one of the cattle ranches outside of town. But he had to leave town, and I haven't seen him in years.”

“Until three weeks ago.”

“No sir, I haven't seen the man in years.”

“Ms. Hendrickson and Mr. Tucker have already testified against that.”

“I'm telling you, I haven't seen the man for six or seven years.”

“...Regardless, why did Mr. Packer leave town?”

“He got into trouble with the law and had to spend some time in prison.”

“What was he sent to prison for?”

Mark sighed, knowing where the lawyer was going with this.

“He arranged for my kidnapping.”

“Mr. McCain, have you ever tried to kill anyone?”

“Objection, your honor!” Mark's lawyer declared. “My client's past experiences have nothing to do with the case at hand.”

“Sustained. Mr. Freezen, please redirect your question.”

“Yes, your honor.” The lawyer walked a few paces before going on. “Mr. McCain, what are your feelings about Mr. Packer’s death?”

“I think it's a shame any time anyone has to leave this world before their time. Neff Packer was no exception.”

“Deep down, don't you feel the slightest relief? After all, he did almost get your father killed.”

“No, I don't.”

“Do you-”

The lawyer's statement was interrupted by someone running into the saloon.

“They're trying to rob the bank!” Rachael yelled as she searched the crowd for North Fork's lawmen.

Ned, Micah, Johnny, and Lucas ran out of the saloon as the judge tried to call for order.

While those in the crowd were trying to talk over the next person, Rachael ran up to Mark's lawyer.

By the time she was done talking with him, the judge had finally calmed the room.

“In light of the new events, I'm calling for a half hour recess.”

Mark's lawyer quickly made his way up to the judge.

“Your honor, there's a young woman here with information you need to hear.”

“Bring it up in your defence, Mr. Patterson.”

“Your honor, I think this best be discussed privately.”

The judge stared at the lawyer for a long time before giving in.

“This better be good.”

The judge called for the prosecution and defence to meet in the back room, along with Rachael.

“Young lady, you better have some mighty important information.” The judge stated.

“I can prove that Mark didn't kill Neff Packer.”

“How?” Jana asked, almost laughingly.

“You said Mark killed your fiancé. If Mark fired his rifle, not only would there be the bullet in Mr. Packer, but also a spent shell casing on the ground. And there was a shell casing from a rifle bullet… but it was too far away from where Mr. Packer died, if things happened the way you say they did. There was another shell casing within the proper range of where the body had laid, but it came from a handgun.” Rachael then revealed the two shell casings and handed them to the judge. “So we have two shell casings, and a bullet in Mr. Packer. All we have to do is find the second bullet. And I did, up in a tree. Only it wasn't from a handgun. It belonged to Mark's rifle.”

“You expect us to believe that?” The prosecution lawyer asked. “You could have gotten a bullet from home. Besides, what would a bullet be doing up in a tree?”

“Here's what I say happened. Mark was working the fence line when Mr. Tucker sneaked up on him and hit him across the back of the head, sending Mark unconscious. He finished Mark's job as best he could to make it look like Mark hadn't been there, then dragged Mark back to his wagon and loaded him inside. Somewhere along the line, Mark's pocket watch fell out of his pocket, which is why I found it and the poorly fixed fence the other day. Ms. Hendrickson then lured Mr. Packer into the woods where Mr. Tucker shot him with his own handgun. They let BlueBoy go, and then realizing they needed it to look like Mark killed Packer, they shot his rifle up into the air, landing the bullet in the tree after several ricochets. They dropped the rifle closer to the scene of the crime and went into town.”

“This is ridiculous!” Jana declared.

“Young lady,” the judge began, “Ms. Hendrickson and Mr. Tucker only met three weeks ago. Why would they work together? What motive would they even have?”

“But they did know each other. If you look inside Mr. Tucker's wallet, you'll see a picture of Jana inside. I saw it a week ago in his wagon, but it disappeared when our Marshal went looking for it. A few days later, I saw it in Mr. Tucker's wallet when he was paying for a meal at the hotel. And motive? They wanted to rob the bank, because there's a big gold shipment sitting in there right now that no one's supposed to know about. If the entire town is preoccupied with the murder trial of one of their own, who's to stop their accomplices from robbing the bank? And my guess is they picked Mark because he first of all had a history with Packer, and secondly is very involved with the community. They knew there would be major upsets, and with the town divided like she is, they could get away with no one the wiser.”

“And do you have any proof that they were planning to rob the bank?” Mr. Freezen laughed.

Rachael avoided looking at Mark as she answered the man's question.

“I… I was a little too curious for my own good and went to Mr. Tucker's camp to try to find a bullet so I could compare shell casings. I overheard two men talking and they said everything I just told you about robbing the bank. ...But that's why it took me so long to get back here. They sorta heard me trying to sneak away and tied me up.”

“Rachael Davis!” Mark exclaimed.

“Thankfully they didn't tie a very good knot.”

“Well, judge?” Mr. Patterson asked.

“I suppose there's only one thing left to do.”

“Exhume the body?” Rachael suggested.

“Rachael!” Mark again exclaimed.

“...Nothing quite so extreme.” The judge replied with a chuckle.

-----

“Lucas, what happened?” Milly asked as Lucas rejoined her, Lydia, and Cassie.

“Rachael was right, someone was trying to rob the bank. We tried getting the two crooks to talk, but they seem pretty adamant. What happened while we were gone?”

“Not much,” Cassie answered with a sigh. “The half hour recess has been at least forty-five minutes. First the judge talked to both sides and Rachael in the back room. Then they called the undertaker back there. Then they all walked down to his office with Mr. Tucker. No one has any clue what's going on.”

“Let's hope this is good news.” Lucas sighed.

Fifteen minutes later, everyone except Ms. Hendrickson and Mr. Tucker re-entered the saloon and the court was called back into session.

The crowd waited anxiously for the trial to continue, but what the judge was about to say shocked the town.

“All charges against Mark McCain have been dropped by both Ms. Jana Hendrickson and the U.S. Territory of New Mexico. Mr. McCain, you are acquitted of all charges that were brought against you. Case dismissed.”

No sooner had the gavel hit the table than the room exploded with conversation. A crying Cassie ran to her husband and wrapped her arms around him, soon followed by Milly and Lucas.

“Mark what happened? Why'd they drop the charges?” Lucas asked.

“Rachael could explain it better than I could.”

All eyes shifted to Rachael as she shifted uncomfortably, knowing she might get into serious trouble for putting herself in danger.

“First of all, I just want to say I did save Mark's life…”


15MC15

Late that evening, after everything had finally settled down, the McCains were talking with Micah in his office.

“I still don't get it.” Mark said. “Why was Neff Packer working with them, and why did they kill him?”

“Jana answered that one.” Micah replied. “Greg Tucker is actually Peter Raymond. He was an aspiring criminal in Arizona. Apparently, Packer owed him a lot of money and Raymond tricked Packer into coming out here to “pay his debts.” In reality, Raymond simply knew of Packer's history here and figured he'd spark enough controversy to get the town riled.”

“Why was Jana working with him?”

“No woman’s perfect.” Micah shrugged. “But I guess they were engaged. Whether that took place before or after Jana found out who he was, I don't know.”

“Well I'm certainly glad to have this whole mess behind us.” Mark said. “...They did a pretty good job of framing me.”

Cassie subtly took Mark's hand as she leaned closer to her husband.

“We're all thankful it's over, and that you can finally come home.” Cassie said, a wide smile on her face.

“Not to mention get a shave.” Milly added.

“You don't like it?” Mark asked, pretending to be offended. “It was kinda growing on me.”

“Mark, I'm giving you a shave, first thing tomorrow morning.” Cassie emphatically replied.

“Yes, dear…”

The family's laughter was interrupted by Johnny walking through the door. It was a couple awkward moments before Mark finally said something.

“Uncle Johnny, good to see you. Where's Lou and those cousins of mine?”

“... They're over at the hotel. Mark, could I talk to you for a moment?”

“...Sure thing.”

Mark gave Cassie's hand a squeeze before he kissed her and followed Johnny out the door. They had walked a ways before Johnny finally stopped and rested on one of the hitching posts.

“Mark, I owe you an apology.”

“Uncle Johnny, don't-”

“Hear me out, Mark. I was wrong to jump to a conclusion so quickly. I know your character better at that. I just knew what I had been capable of once, and attributed that to you. I should have trusted you more.”

“Uncle Johnny, if I had been in everyone else's shoes, I probably wouldn't have believed myself. Don't beat yourself up, I understand. But even though you didn't believe me, it didn't stop you from helping my family out, and I appreciate that.”

“Mark, I really am sorry.”

“And I really don't blame you. I'm not going to let anyone sit here and beat themselves up because they believed the “facts” instead of what I had to say. I know it was a weak story, but it was the truth.”

“I know that, now.”

“You want to join us inside?”

“I better get back to my family, thanks though.”

“Give Aunt Lou a kiss for me.”

“No arguments there.”

“Goodnight, Uncle Johnny.”

Mark made his way back to the office where everyone was waiting for him.

“Well?” Lucas finally asked.

“Well what?”

“Is everything alright between you two?” Cassie asked.

“Of course. Now I don't know about the rest of you, but I want to get home.”

“It's getting pretty late,” Micah began, “Why don't you just spend the night here?”

“Very funny, Micah.”

On the way home, Mark rode BlueBoy to the left of the buckboard while Rachael rode Liberty to the right. He participated in the conversation, but he was almost lost in enjoying being able to ride again, being outside again, being… a free man again.

Mark didn't think he'd ever enjoyed taking care of the barn chores as much as he did that night.

The families spent a while in Lucas and Milly’s home, catching up on lost time. Finally, Mark and Cassie made the short trek up the hill to their home. Mark hesitated on the porch, and turned around to look at the land.

“Mark?” Cassie asked, placing a hand on his shoulder.

Mark turned around and took Cassie's hand before they walked into their home. Mark stopped in the front room and bent down to give Cassie a long, passionate kiss.

As they separated, Cassie looked up at her husband; life sparkling in both their eyes.

“Welcome home, Mr. McCain.”


16MC16


¹Episode 123 - “A Friend in Need”

This is a continuing saga on The Rifleman.
To be continued....

To start this saga over again.....
Someone One to Call Pa

 

Morgan's Corner

This is a story based on the TV series The Rifleman
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