The Rifleman
Welcome to The Writer's Corner
Fan Fiction

Aunt Camilla
Chapter 5
Written by Morgan

Lucas rode up to the house and sighed as he looked at the pile of neatly stacked wood next to the barn. Even though he was planning the lecture he was going to give Mark when he got inside, Lucas couldn't help but smile with pride at the hard working, stubborn man that was his son.

As he tied Razor's reigns to the porch post, Lucas softly chuckled as he remembered Mark as a small child. His son had always needed something to keep him busy or he'd find something to do himself, which typically had ended in a big mess. Now Mark was definitely neater, but he still couldn't sit around doing nothing for very long. Lucas honestly couldn't fathom how he had kept Mark in the house for two weeks.

As Lucas stepped inside the house, he saw Mark sitting at the table with a chess board in front of him.

"Hi Pa," Mark greeted without looking up from the table.

Lucas looked at his son with confusion for a moment before making his way towards the table.

"Mark, what are you doing?" Lucas asked with a slight chuckle.

"Playing chess," Mark replied as he continued to intensely stare at the board.

"By yourself?"

Mark simply nodded before check mating himself.

"When did you start?"

"I'm not sure, I think that was my third game," Mark answered as he pushed the board aside.

"How do you sit through three games of chess by yourself?"

"I've read through all our books, cleaned the house... I don't know how many times, organized the last three years worth of cattle receipts and driven myself insane with just about every song I know on the guitar."

"Not to mention chopping enough wood to last us three weeks," Lucas added with a hint of disapproval in his voice.

"I'm bored," Mark defended as he shrugged. "Doc sent me home over two weeks ago and neither one of you will let me ride or do any real work."

"I'd say chopping wood is enough real work. That's probably one of the last things you should be doing, Mark I don't need to remind you-"

"Pa, I know, my head injury was serious. I know I'm lucky it wasn't fatal, but it has been almost three weeks since the initial injury, and even Doc says everything seems to be doing fine."

"He also said not to do anything that could rattle your brain."

"I know, but..." Mark's statement began to trail off as he looked into his Pa's eyes. He knew Lucas was trying so hard not to be over protective, and at the same time make sure Mark didn't overdo it. "Don't worry, I've been pacing myself and making sure it's not doing any damage. If it makes you feel better though, I'll stay away from the chopping block until Doc gives me a clean bill of health."

"Thank you," Lucas simply told Mark as he walked towards the stove. "What sounds good for..." Lucas stopped short as he saw the pot on the stove. "I told you I didn't mind making supper."

Mark stood and walked towards Lucas as he shrugged.

"Pa, we've gotta figure something out. I'm bored out of my mind."

Lucas leaned against the counter as he crossed his arms.

"Tell you what, I've got work to do on the fence line tomorrow. I'll let you drive the buck board, but that's it, understand?"

"Pa, I'm not going to hurt anything by nailing a few boards together, why don't you let me-"

"Or you could stick around the house again all day..." Lucas threatened. He really missed having Mark working side by side with him, but he wasn't going to let his son overdo himself.

"Alright. Boy, I can't wait for Friday."

"Doc Burrage could still say you need more rest."

"He could also say I can finally do stuff."

"Well come on, why don't we go do the evening chores while we wait for supper to finish?"

*****

Later that evening, Mark was washing the dishes while Lucas was out on the porch.

It had almost been three weeks since Mark had talked to Cassie, and he felt like he was going to explode. Mark had thought that after admitting how he felt, things would get easier, but he found it only got harder. The longer he was stuck at home, the more he wished he could be with her. In all of his time alone, however, Mark had been able to do a lot of thinking. Mark felt like he had everything figured out... he just didn't know how to go about explaining it all to his Pa.

Mark sighed as he dried the last dish. He supposed his greatest apprehension was that he didn't know how his Pa would react. There had been a lot of change the last year, Mark had done a lot of growing up and he didn't know if his Pa could handle another big step like this. At the same time though, Mark didn't think he could wait for his Pa to be ready.

Lucas watched as Mark stepped out of the house and leaned against the porch post. Mark let out a long sigh as he shoved his hands into his pockets and looked out across the land. Lucas knew his son was contemplating something, he looked into his son's eyes and saw almost a longing there. A longing for what, Lucas wasn't sure.

"Pa, can I talk to you?" Mark hesitantly asked as he shifted his gaze towards Lucas.

"Of course Mark," Lucas replied with a hint of confusion. "You know you can talk to me any time."

"Well about three weeks ago..." Mark paused, he needed to start from the beginning. The only problem was, he wasn't sure where the beginning was. Everything had just kinda happened slowly, subtlety. "Well I guess it started with..."

Lucas and Mark looked up as they heard someone approaching. They saw Johnny and Lou riding up in a buggy and waved as the couple drove up to the house.

"Well look who finally decided to pay us a visit," Lucas teased as Johnny helped Lou down from the buggy.

"Sorry we haven't been by sooner, we've been a little busy," Johnny replied as he shook Lucas's hand. "How are you doing Mark? Haven't heard anything since I visited you at Doc's."

"Doing great. The only thing is convincing Pa and Doc of that," Mark answered as he gave a smile.

"I'm sure ye've been a model patient for yer father, Mark," Lou commented.

"Oh you know Mark, there's not a stubborn streak in him. I haven't had to get on him about overdoing it at all," Lucas replied sarcastically. "Why don't you two come on in?"

The foursome made their way into the house and Mark put on the coffee before joining the other
three at the table.

"When's the big day?" Mark asked as he looked between Lou and Johnny.

"We're planning on November first," Johnny answered.

"But I'm trying to convince yer uncle that I don't need that long to plan everything," Lou added.

"You spent two months planning Mark's graduation ceremony and reception for Stephan, I'm surprised you're only taking three months to plan the wedding," Johnny playfully retorted as he put his arm around Lou. "Speaking of the wedding, I wanted to ask you both to stand up with me when the day finally gets here. You're both responsible for me turning my life around and I want both of you up there with me."

"We'd be honored," Lucas replied as Mark nodded.

"Are ye both coming to town for the summer social Saturday?" Lou inquired.

"You bet!" Mark exclaimed.

"As long as Doc says everything is fine," Lucas reminded.

"It's the last social before school starts and everything gets really busy, we'll be there," Mark assured.

"Which one of them is more stubborn?" Lou asked her fiancé. "I've known them for almost four years and can't quite figure that out."

"Your guess is as good as mine," Johnny replied with a shrug.

Lucas and Mark simply looked at each other and laughed. They couldn't have answered the question themselves.

1MC1

The next morning when Lucas woke up he saw Mark sitting on the edge of his bunk, with his head resting against the heel of his hand.

"Mark, is everything alright?" Lucas asked with concern as he sat up.

"...I don't know, my head hurts."

"How bad?" Lucas asked as he crossed the room and sat next to his son.

"I... don't mean to complain or anything, it's probably just from chopping wood yesterday, but honestly it's pretty bad."

"Maybe you should stick around the house and rest another day."

"... I don't think that's such a bad idea."

Mark's reply made Lucas much more concerned than he had been before. Lucas knew that if Mark was willing to stay in the house another day, he must've been feeling pretty miserable. Lucas wondered if he should suggest going to see Doc Burrage, but decided to wait and see how Mark was doing later.

"I'll do the chores before I leave, why don't you get back to sleep?" Lucas suggested as he stood up.

"...Are you sure Pa?"

"Son, go to bed," Lucas ordered with a smile as he patted Mark's shoulder. "I'll be back around noon to check up on you."

Mark felt like arguing and telling his Pa he didn't need to stop working just to check up on him, but at the same time, Mark actually thought it might not be such a bad thing. His head seemed to be getting worse by the minute and the idea of having his Pa check in on him was actually a somewhat comforting thought. Something felt wrong.

"Thanks Pa."

Mark got back underneath the covers as Lucas started dressing. The fact that Mark was giving practically no resistance worried Lucas, this wasn't like his son at all. At the same time though, he knew he had to take it as it was and enjoy not having to make Mark stay in the house.

Lucas made some oatmeal for breakfast and kept a bowl out for Mark before grabbing his rifle and hat and heading outside to do the chores, then leaving to ride the fence line. As he worked that morning, the rancher thought a lot about his son. The good and bad times they had endured, the obstacles they had overcome together, how fast his little boy had turned into a man.

Mark and Stephan Griswold had both told Lucas what had happened in Chicago, and Lucas couldn't have been any prouder to see his son firm and unwavering in what he believed. So much had changed over the years; so much more was undoubtedly going to change in the future. Lucas wondered where Mark was going to be in three, four years. Would he be married? Would he be working off the ranch? On the ranch? Would Mark hold to the same ideals and morals? Lucas certainly hoped so. He had done his best to raise Mark right and to lay a solid foundation for his son, but Lucas really didn't know if he had done it right. It appeared so, and Lucas prayed that it was that way.

For a moment, Lucas wondered if Mark would have turned out any differently if he had grown up with a mother, Margaret or... even Milly. She had held a special place in their hearts and still did. Lucas still loved Milly in the same way he had the day she left North Fork. Lucas wondered why he didn't go after her, why he let her leave... but then again, he knew nothing would have worked out between them in a relationship with Milly still having burdens she needed to deal with. Lucas couldn't help but wish, however, that things would have ended differently than they did.

Around noon, Lucas headed back up to the house. He pulled the team up in front of their home and jumped down from the buckboard, rifle in hand.

Surprised and concerned to find that Mark still wasn't up and hadn't touched his breakfast, Lucas made his way to the bedroom.

"Mark!" Lucas exclaimed as he rushed towards his son who was lying on the floor, shaking uncontrollably. "Mark!" Lucas called again as he reached his boy and knelt next to him.

Mark gave no indication that he was aware of Lucas's presence, and the best Lucas could guess was that Mark was in shock of some kind. Lucas called Mark's name over and over as he shook his son, praying he would get through to Mark.

After an agonizing few minutes and no response from Mark, Lucas finally lifted his son off the floor and ran him to the buck board. This was a much more difficult feat than it used to be, Mark had grown quite a bit the past year, defying everyone's expectation of him taking after his Ma's stature. Mark still looked thinner, but made up for it height.

After getting Mark situated in the back of the buckboard, Lucas raced the team into town, praying that everything would be fine the whole way there.

"Doc!" Lucas called as he barged into the office.

"Lucas, what happened?" The doctor inquired as he opened the door to the back room, motioning for Lucas to put Mark on the bed.

"I don't know, I think he's in shock. He was complaining of a headache this morning and went back to sleep before I left to ride the fence line. When I came back, he was lying on the bedroom floor, shaking. He stopped about half way into town, but hasn't woken up!"

Doc Burrage set to examining Mark and within two minutes stepped back from his patient and let out a long sigh.

"Lucas you didn't try to “wake him up”, did you?"

"...I thought he was in shock, he was, wasn't he?" Lucas asked, afraid he had done something to hurt Mark.

"Not shock, though sometimes it can look the same. Lucas, have you heard of a seizure before?"

The rancher shook his head no as confusion spread across his face.

"It's not something that most people have heard of, even though we've known about them for a while. They're fairly rare."

"What is it?"

"To put it very simply, it's when the brain suddenly has extremely increased activity. It's not something we understand a whole lot, but they're constantly learning more. From what we do know, it can be caused by something genetically or by trauma to the head, like Mark's injury a few weeks back."

"Is Mark going to be alright?"

"Lucas, I wish I could tell you. He should be fine, but there are cases where the patient has had physical injury as a consequence of the seizure. We'll have to wait until he wakes up." The doctor paused slightly before continuing, "Luke, I need to warn you that this could very well just be a one time thing, or it could be a recurring incident. He could react like he did today, or simply just look like he's staring off in the distance, but not aware of things going on around him. If it does happen again, the important thing is to stay calm, don't try to control him, and wait for it to stop. I'm surprised he was seizing that long, normally they only last a few minutes. The longer the seizure, the more damage that can be done."

"What kind of damage?" Lucas asked with concern.

"Temporary paralysis and brain damage would be the greatest concern. Again, I won't know if he's affected or not until he wakes up."

"How long will that be?"

"I'm not sure. Shouldn't be more than an hour though. If he wakes up let me know, I'm going to get back to the paperwork on my desk."

"Thanks Doc."

Lucas walked the doctor to the door and both men were surprised to find Cassie sitting in the front office.

Lucas followed Doc into the front room and closed the door behind him as Cassie stood up.

"Is everything alright? I was running an errand for Ma when I saw you come into town," Cassie told Lucas as she took a few steps towards the men.

Doc Burrage looked to Lucas for permission to explain, and the father quickly nodded.

"Cassie do you know what a seizure is?"

"My cousin had several when she was little... did Mark have one?" Cassie asked, concern written all over her face.

"Yes, he did," the doctor gravely told her.

"Is he going to be fine?"

Lucas could see Cassie's growing concern, he hoped he could calm her some, but was having a hard time calming himself.

"We're waiting for him to wake up, Doc thinks so though. Cassie, is your Pa standing shift at the Marshal's office?" Lucas inquired.

"Until this evening," Cassie replied with a nod.

"Why don't you go ahead and finish your errand for your mother; we'll let your Pa know if there's any change."

Cassie nodded and headed towards the door. As she stepped outside the office, she turned around.

"Mr. McCain, I'll be praying for Mark."

Lucas looked into the girl's eyes and saw something more than concern, but he wasn't quite sure what that something was.

"Thank you Cassie," Lucas replied with a smile before she left.

A little over an hour later, Doc was in the back room talking to Lucas when he saw movement out of the corner of his eye.

"Lucas, I think he's coming to," the doctor commented as he watched Mark begin to stir.

When Mark opened his eyes, he saw Doc Burrage and his Pa leaning over him. He could see the concern in both their faces.

"What happened?" Mark asked.

"I think you've set a record," Doc Burrage joked. "How many times have you been in my office the last six months?"

"I don't want to know," Mark replied with a long sigh. "What'd I do to end up here?"

"Repercussions from your injury a few weeks ago. You had an epileptic seizure, I'm sure you've read about them," Doc Burrage answered.

"A little, I sat in on a lecture about them in Chicago and that's where I learned the most about them. Is that what happened?"

"Yes. How do you feel now?"

"Tired, my head hurts a little bit, but it's really nothing compared to this morning. I can't exactly move my right arm."

Mark had stated it in such a relaxed manner that Lucas and Doc almost didn't catch what Mark had said.

"What!?" Lucas exclaimed as he realized what Mark had told them.

Doc Burrage rolled Mark's sleeve up and started pinching it.

"You can't feel anything?" The doctor inquired, watching for some sort of reaction.

"Not in the slightest," Mark simply replied.

Lucas almost couldn't believe how composed Mark was.

"Doc?" Lucas asked.

"I hope it's temporary, it should be, however there is always the slight chance it's not," Burrage
replied.

"A very, very small chance." Mark added, trying to keep his Pa calm. Over the years, Mark had learned to simply except the hand he was dealt in life and have the best attitude he could about it. There was no point in working himself or his Pa up about it, there was no point in ever getting angry about it either. "Doc, Pa told me I had to ask you about the social Saturday. I can go, right?"

"Mark, you just woke up from a seizure and you're thinking about the summer social?" Lucas asked in disbelief.

"I don't see why he can't go Lucas, even after this morning. Mark you just take it easy, stay out of the competitions and keep away from the shooting contest. But there is one condition. If I hear that you've been chopping wood again, riding, or shooting your rifle, so help me I'll see to it that you miss the next three socials," the doctor warned.

"How long will it be until I can ride again or get back to work?" Mark asked.

"We'll have to see how this next week goes. I'm going to keep you overnight just in case something happens, but if everything is fine, your Pa can take you home tomorrow morning," the doctor told Mark before making his way to the door. "Any other questions?"

"No, but thanks Doc," Mark replied as Lucas shook his head.

"I'll be back in to check on you in a while," Doc stated before leaving the room.

"How was riding the fence line this morning?" Mark asked his Pa.

"Mark, are you alright? Doc and I would both understand if you were a bit shook up by what happened. Just like anything else, there's no shame in talking about it."

"I know," Mark started. "It's a little unnerving, especially that I can't control my arm, but getting worked up about it isn't going to do any good, for either of us. The worst thing that could happen to me in life has happened."

"You mean almost dying?"

"Of course not," Mark replied.

Lucas looked at his son curiously, unsure of what Mark meant.

"Losing you. Since then I've really learned that I could care less what happens to me, as long as those I care about are safe. I'll go on with or without the use of my arm, but without people I love
and care about? That's a completely different story."

"Your maturity amazes me sometimes," Lucas commented.

There was a brief lull in the conversation until Mark spoke up.

"Pa... this may not be the best time to talk about this, but I've been putting it off for almost three months."

"What is it?"

Mark was ready, more than ready to finally tell his Pa. He just wanted to get it over with. Everything came out in one big rush.

"A year ago Marshal Osborne's family moved to North Fork. You and I both have enjoyed getting to know them and becoming friends with the family. I really enjoyed creating a friendship with Anna and Cassie, as well as Ned now, too. The longer time went on though, I realized something else was happening. When my mind wandered, it didn't think about going fishing or trying to figure out how the book I was reading was going to end. It wandered to something... someone very special. As time went by, somehow, some way that we can't explain, Cassie and I created something more than a friendship. We both feel that we've connected and created a bond that runs deeper than simply friends. We can't really pinpoint when it exactly happened, and at least for me I feel like it was just a slowly increasing care for her. Pa, I want to do this the proper way. I know we're young, I wouldn't ask her to marry me or anything until you and her parents both think we're ready, but Pa I want your permission to ask Marshal Osborne if I can court Cassie."

Lucas was taken aback by Mark's statement. It wasn't what he had been expecting Mark to say... at all. Lucas slowly thought through the past year and how he had watched the two interact. Lucas thought about the look in Cassie's eyes before she left the office. Now it made sense, that was the “something” he couldn't figure out.

"Is this like Sally?" Lucas asked. Partially just to tease Mark, but also to truly see what his son's answer would be.

"...Sally? Oh, Miss Milly's niece. That... that was absolutely nothing compared to this, that was just a silly little crush."

"You were planning to build a house."

"What I thought I felt for Sally doesn't even compare to what I know I feel for Cassie. Pa, I've been thinking about this for almost three months, Cassie and I talked about it to each other three weeks ago, and Pa, I just can't explain it. When I'm with her... when I'm just thinking about Cassie, I feel alive inside. Part of why I didn't decide to go to college was because it didn't drive me. Pa, Cassie drives me. Motivates me. I feel complete when we're together. Pa... I think I love her."

"Honestly, I am a bit surprised. Mark, I think you two make a great team, but I don't want to see you make any mistakes, either. I don't care if you ask Marshal and Mrs. Osborne beforehand, but I would like to ask you to wait to ask Cassie about courtship until you're both eighteen."

"Ten months?"

"I know it seems like an eternity, but if you really do love her, your love will last the test of time. I don't want to see either of you get hurt and I want you two to take it slowly, not just jump in and end up drowning. At least for my sake, will you wait?"

"...Sure Pa."

It wasn't the answer Mark had been hoping for, but he did know they were both young and that his Pa was probably right in telling him to wait. Ten months just seemed like a very long time.

"Mark, I know it's hard to wait, but your relationship will be better for it. Once you're both eighteen, I give you my full blessing."

"Thanks Pa." Mark smiled. It was going to be a long ten months, but she was worth it.

Now Mark's only problem was asking Marshal Osborne for permission... and that was even more intimidating than talking to his Pa.

2MC2

"Cassie, I thought you went home hours ago," Lucas commented as he walked into the hotel and removed his hat.

"I finished running the errand for Ma and came back here to wait to see you or Doc heading to the Marshal's. Miss Lou needed help with wedding preparations anyway. Has Mark woken up yet?"

"This afternoon. He seems to be doing pretty good, in fact I'm here to get us all supper." Lucas paused slightly before proceeding, "...He has, however, lost control of his arm."

Worry spread across Cassie's face once again.

"Is it permanent?" She asked.

"Doc doesn't think so, but there is a very slight chance it could be."

"How is Mark taking it?"

"Extremely well, which surprises me. Cassie, have you seen Lou?"

"Right behind ye cowboy," Lou stated. "I'll fix somethin' up for the three of ye and bring it over."

"Thank you Lou, I appreciate it."

"If that son of yers keeps this up, we might just have to add on to the office and build him a room," Lou jested.

"I hope this is the last time in a long time that he's there, but the town council is talking about adding on to the office. North Fork is really growing," Lucas replied. "I best get back over there."

"Alright, tell Mark I said to get better quick. I'll send yer supper over as soon as it's done." Lou stated before heading off towards the kitchen.

Lucas started to make his way to the door, but stopped himself and turned around.

"...Cassie, do you want to visit Mark?" Lucas offered.

Lucas smiled as excitement began to shine in the girl's eyes.

"Could I?" Cassie asked.

"I'm sure he'd enjoy the company."

"Thank you, Mr. McCain."

"No problem," Lucas replied as he held the door for Cassie.

Cassie and Lucas made their way down the street. When they entered the office, Doc wasn't in the front room, but they soon heard him from the other side of the door.

"Mark McCain, if you get out of this bed one more time, so help me...!" The doctor exclaimed.

Cassie accidentally let a quiet laugh escape her mouth, but quickly held her hand up to try to muffle the chuckle.

"There's no doubt he's my son..." Lucas sighed as he held the door to the back room open for Cassie.

Mark looked up as the door to the room opened and didn't expect who he saw walk through it.

"Cassie, what are you doing here?" Mark asked, pleasantly surprised.

"I saw your Pa bring you into town this afternoon, and was waiting to hear how you were doing. Your Pa said you could use some company."

"Maybe you can talk some sense into him, I certainly can't," the doctor mused as he shook his head and left the room.

"Mark, I'm surprised that Doc hasn't given up on you," Lucas joked as he offered Cassie a seat.

Cassie sat down as confusion starting creeping into her face.

"What do you mean, Mr. McCain?"

"I'm a little... stubborn when I'm told to take it easy," Mark answered with a mischievous smile.

"More like you refuse to listen to Doc and me," Lucas commented.

"He's just as bad as I am," Mark told Cassie with raised eyebrows.

As the evening pressed on, Lucas watched the interaction between Cassie and his son quite closely. He was starting to realize just how oblivious he had been to the obvious connection the two had. The longer he observed them, the more he realized Mark was right... they did have a bond, a deep, very special bond. One that showed a lot more than it used to. Lucas had wondered a time or two if Mark had become interested in Cassie, but now after Mark had told Lucas exactly how interested he was, it was much easier to see the connection between them.

Eventually Cassie said that she needed to get back home and get chores done.

"Do you want me to escort you home?" Mark asked without thinking.

"Mark, you're lying in the doctor's office for heaven's sake!" Cassie laughed.

"...So?" Mark teased.

"I'll take her to the Marshal's office, Mark. You listen to Doc and stay put," Lucas ordered.

"Alright..." Mark replied.

"I hope you get better soon Mark, things have been boring at the ranch without you," Cassie stated.

"You're telling me, I've resorted to playing chess with myself at home."

"Really?" Cassie chuckled.

"See if you can't convince Doc to let me go for a ride this week and we can go up to-"

"Mark, I said get BETTER not ignore what Doc says. If you over do it and I have to go any longer than necessary with Anna as a stable hand, so help me I'll-"

"Alright, but I sure hope you haven't destroyed the work I've done with those foals..." Mark teased.

"Just as much as you set Lightning and Thunder back earlier this summer," Cassie shot back.

"Have a goodnight, Cassie." Mark laughed.

"You too."

3MC3

"You're sure you are feeling up to this?" Lucas asked Mark as they walked out of the house together.

Mark stopped walking once he reached the bottom of the porch steps and turned to Lucas.

"Pa, what's wrong?" Mark asked in a serious tone.

"What do you mean?"

"You've been on edge ever since I got back from Chicago. You haven't calmed down since you came running into Doc's a month ago. I know you're concerned about me, but this whole month has been different than anything we've ever gone through. For once I'm actually being completely open about everything going on, I haven't hidden anything from you, yet I feel like we're more strained than ever. Something is eating at you, but I can't figure out what."

Lucas sighed as he put his hands on his hips. Mark was right... something has been eating at him, something he'd been avoiding coming to terms with for four weeks.

"You know... you're right, Mark."

Lucas started as he sat down on the porch and motioned for Mark to join him. "I'm scared."

Mark looked at his Pa in confusion and surprise, but didn't say anything.

"When Micah rode out here to get me and told me that you were lying in Doc's office, fear gripped me and hasn't let go since. I've come to terms with the fact that I can't possibly protect you from everything, whether you're here or hundreds of miles away. But that was just it. Riding into town I felt completely and utterly helpless, knowing there was absolutely nothing I could have done or ever will be able to do to protect you. I was, and still am terrified of losing you, or even watching you suffer in the smallest ways. That's why I'm always getting on you about over doing it. Mark, I know you could care less about things that happen to you, but as a father it puts me in agony to see you hurt. You were right when you said something's been eating at me, fear has been eating at me. I love you son."

"I know you do, Pa. It's evident in everything you do. I love you too and that's why I have the same worries and fears about you. But a wise man once told me that the fear I feel for those I love shouldn't control me, but that I should use the love I feel for them to redirect that fear into something good."

"Sounds like a very wise man," Lucas teased.

"Pa, our relationship is going to be destroyed if we run wild with fear. We can't control what happens, we can only accept what happens. Pa, we've gotta live in the moments we have, not the ones that might happen." Mark paused and looked into Lucas' eyes. "No matter what happens, we'll always have each other, like we still have Ma. I hope I outlive you, no parent should have to bury their child. But if something does ever happen, promise me you'll live “forward”. We've come too far together for one of us to slip backwards alone."

"Forward," Lucas simply stated as he embraced his son.

"Now can we get going or is there another thing you have in mind to stall with?" Mark quipped.

"Let's go," Lucas replied as the two walked towards the buck board.

"You know," Mark started as he sat down in the buck board and put his rifle down. "I can't wait 'til my arm gets back to normal. It's strange doing everything with my left hand."

"I'm sure you're dying to do the dishes, too," Lucas joked.

"Oh, real eager."

As soon as Lucas and Mark arrived in town, Mark made his way straight to the food table, giving Lucas a good laugh. The evening was already well under way with several games and competitions in progress. Lucas caught sight of Micah and made his way towards his friend.

"How are you, Micah?" Lucas asked as he stood next to the Marshal.

"As good as can be expected. How are things at the ranch?"

"Busy with Mark down, but I'm managing."

"And how are things going with Mark?"

"A lot better now than they were a few hours ago."

"Was Mark having trouble coming to terms with everything?"

"No, he's fine. I was the one with problems."

"Anything you need to talk about?" Micah asked with concern.

"No, Mark actually made everything pretty clear for me. Sometimes Micah, I can't believe that he's my son. He's got the maturity and wisdom of someone three times his age and the humility of a child."

"You did a fine job raising him Lucas, he's become quite the man. Won't be long until he's getting married and starting a family."

"And that may be sooner than I expected," Lucas sighed.

"What do you mean?"

"Mark asked me for permission to court Cassie."

"Well it took him long enough," Micah jested.

"What do you mean, it took him long enough?" Lucas inquired with confusion.

Micah looked at his friend in slight amazement.

"You really didn't see this coming, did you?"

"No... did you?"

"Did I? Lucas-boy, where have you been the last nine months, under a rock? The whole town has seen this coming!" Micah laughed.

"How could they?"

"Lucas, they may tease each other relentlessly, but Mark and Cassie work good together, they balance each other, they complete each other. Half the people in this town believe they were made for each other."

"How did I miss it then?" Lucas inquired.

"The same way you missed Lou and Johnny," Micah stated as he motioned to the couple dancing together. "What'd you tell Mark when he asked you if he could court her?"

"I asked him to wait until they were both eighteen. Cassie will be done with school by then and it will give me a chance to pay attention to how they interact."

"... And also give you a chance to get used to the idea of Mark eventually getting married?"

"Yes..." Lucas began. "So much has changed over the last year, everything is moving so fast. It's like I blinked and suddenly I had a man for a son."

"They do grow up fast," Micah commented before changing the subject. "Doc is going out of town for a week at the beginning of October, what do you think about renovating his office while he's gone? I've talked to quite a few towns folk and it seems to be a good week for it."

"I'll be here, you can count on my help."

"How's Mark's arm doing?"

"The same. He's staying positive though, he's gotta be the most optimistic person I know."

"Has cabin fever set in yet?"

"He's had it for weeks... I think I might just have you lock him up if he doesn't take it easier."

Micah let out a bout of laughter and Lucas looked at his friend curiously.

"What is it?" Lucas asked.

"Oh nothing, Mark just told me the same thing back in December when you broke your leg. You two are so stubborn."

Later that evening, Lucas saw Mark talking with Cassie, the two sitting with their backs to Lucas. He started to walk up behind them, but stopped as he began to hear their conversation.

"Mark, I'm sure your Pa doesn't blame you," Lucas heard Cassie tell Mark.

"Of course he doesn't, he never does. But do you realize how much I..." Mark's voice slowly trailed off, giving Cassie an opportunity to interject.

"Mark, he doesn't blame you because you don't need to feel guilty."

Lucas slowly walked away, wanting to talk to Mark, but knowing he wasn't supposed to have heard that conversation and also knowing that it would be better to talk to Mark in private later.

Cassie continued, wanting to help Mark, somehow.

"Mark you can't control what they did, and it's definitely not your fault-"

"But I blindly walked into that situation like a fool..." Mark started, gesturing behind him.

Cassie's eyes widened and pure shock was written all over her face.

"What is it?" Mark asked with concern.

"Mark, your arm..."

"What about it?" Mark asked as he looked at it, then it suddenly hit him. "It's about time." Mark laughed as he stretched his right arm out.

"Should we have Doc look at it?"

"Come on Cassie, it's fine. Actually, it's great."

"Now you can't use it as an excuse," Cassie commented with a smile.

"An excuse for what?"

"You said the only reason I ate more pie than use was because it was “hard” eating pie with your left hand holding the fork."

"I won't need an excuse, cause I'm going to out eat you," Mark said as he stood.

"You can try," Cassie replied with a smile as she made her way towards the pies with Mark.

4MC4

That night, Lucas and Mark both lied awake in their bunks, sleep unwilling to take them. Mark
heard his Pa get up and go into the front room, and after a few minutes followed.

Mark found Lucas sitting in his chair, deep in thought. Mark sat down across from him without saying anything.

"Couldn't sleep?" Lucas asked as he looked at Mark.

"No..." Mark slowly replied. "Pa..."

"What is it?"

Mark sighed before sitting up a little more and looking straight at Lucas.

"Pa, I know you heard part of my conversation with Cassie, I'm sure you're wondering what it's all about."

"How did you know?"

"I saw your reflection in the window."

"Mark, I am wondering what it was all about, but if you're not ready..."

"I need to be," Mark started. "When I got home from Chicago, I told you everything. I didn't want secrecy, I didn't want tension. I was completely honest, and I told you that it would take me a while to get over everything. We've talked everything through plenty of times, and I am slowly getting over almost being killed. I can't get over one thing though."

"What is that?"

"How stupid I was."

Lucas looked at Mark with confusion.

"What are you talking about?"

"I walked into that Sheriff's office blindly, off guard, almost got myself and Ned killed, and then put you through all the repercussions of that incident. All the worry, fear, and concern you've gone through because I made a stupid mistake. Pa I'm sorry."

"Mark, Cassie was right when she said you shouldn't feel guilty, and that I don't blame you."

"Pa-"

"Mark, you were standing up for what you believed. You thought someone was doing something wrong and tried to stop them. Granted, next time you'll know to get a little back up, but Mark, I'm proud of you for wanting to find the truth and that you didn't walk away even though you knew there could be danger. And as for putting me through worry, Mark, you can't stop being who you are to spare my feelings. You and I both want to see justice done and do what we can to see it happen. As for Ned, he got himself into that situation for the same reasons as you. You weren't the one who pulled him into that mess, he dived in long before you did."

"But Pa..."

"But what?" Lucas asked, knowing his son didn't have anything to say.

"...But nothing, I guess."

"Just learn from this and move on Mark, don't give yourself a burden that doesn't need to be carried."

"...Thanks Pa." Mark smiled as he stood up. "I'm going to try to get some sleep."

"I'll be in after a while. Goodnight Mark."

Lucas watched Mark walk into the bedroom and close the door. A few moments later, Lucas quickly stood up and walked into the room himself.

"Mark, when did you get control of your arm?" Lucas asked in surprise.

"Shortly after you walked away from my conversation with Cassie. I forgot to tell you?"

"That or you remembered that Doc wanted to see you if anything changed."

"He did?" Mark asked innocently.

"Get some sleep," Lucas chuckled before returning to the front room.

5MC5


Summer tuned into fall and school was well under way. Mark found it very strange not being in school every day, but stayed plenty busy between the two ranches.

Every morning Lucas and Mark worked on the morning chores together before Mark left for the Osborne's. If he timed it right, Mark could stop by the school and talk with Cassie for a few minutes before school started for the day. One morning, Mark had arrived at the school house before Cassie and was waiting by the hitching post for her when Mr. Griswold emerged from the
building.

"Good morning, Mark," the school teacher greeted as he made his way over to Mark.

"Morning Mr. Griswold," Mark pleasantly replied.

After Stephan had returned from his trip, Mark had not spoken with his former teacher about what had happened in Chicago. He knew Stephan had spoken to his Pa about it, but had no idea what he had told him.

"Mark, I never got the opportunity to thank you."

"Thank me for what?" Mark asked, a little confused.

"When we went to Chicago, I had allowed myself to become closed minded and arrogant as I had been once before. I did not realize how bad it had become until your... well delivered speech. You opened my eyes again, and the eyes of many in that room for the first time. It takes a brave man to take a stand in such company, and I thank you for doing so."

Mark didn't know exactly how to respond, the last thing he was expected was for Stephan to thank him for lecturing a bunch of highly esteemed adults.

Stephan could see the surprise on Mark's face and changed the subject.

"We've had some very favorable weather lately, haven't we?"

"...Yes sir. Pa and I were talking this morning, I hope a long fall doesn't mean an even longer winter."

"We'll have to see," Stephan stated. "I believe you're going to be busy until school begins, I need to get back to grading papers. I will see you this afternoon Mark."

"Busy until..." Mark started, but then he saw Cassie riding up. "See you later, Mr. Griswold."

When Cassie rode up to the hitching post, Mark took Storm's reigns and tied them around the post before helping Cassie down from her horse. Three months prior, Cassie would have never let someone help her down from her horse, and she still didn't. Unless that someone was Mark.

"You seem excited this morning," Mark commented as he patted Storm's neck. "What's the occasion?"

"You remember me telling you about my Aunt Camilla, don't you?" Cassie asked as they sat down by a tree.

"The one you stayed with this summer?" Mark inquired.

"Yes, and we just received word that she can come for Christmas," Cassie replied with delight.

"That's great, but what about your grandfather?"

"See, originally we invited both of them for Thanksgiving, but my aunt is helping my grandpa move in with my Uncle Samuel and Aunt Molly around that time. So we invited her for Christmas and she accepted. I'm really excited, I've missed her a lot. I can't wait for you to meet her, I think you'll really like her."

"From what you've told me, I'm sure I will. You said a while back that she used to live here?"

"That's what she told me this summer, but she said it was a long time ago."

"Probably before we moved here then, I don't remember anybody by the name of Camilla."

Cassie and Mark turned around when they heard the school bell ringing and began walking towards the doors of the school.

"I'll see you at lunch then?" Cassie hopefully inquired.

"I'll be here," Mark replied as Cassie walked inside the building.

Cassie found her mind wandering during school. She was beginning to find it boring and dull, and all she could really think about was the upcoming lunch hour.

On more than one occasion that semester, Cassie had looked up to find Mr. Griswold standing over her desk and the entire class staring at her, and today was no exception.

"Miss Osborne," Mr. Griswold sternly called.

Cassie jumped in her seat and looked up.

"I'm sorry Mr. Griswold, I'm having a little trouble focusing today."

"So I've noticed. Pay attention please, or I will ask you to stay after class."

"Yes sir," Cassie replied with embarrassment.

Cassie had less difficulty paying attention the rest of the morning, but was greatly relieved when Mr. Griswold called for lunch. Cassie quickly made her way outside and walked to the tree her
and Mark had lunch at every day, only to find him not there. Very seldom was Mark not there when she got out of school, but Cassie figured Mark must have been delayed at the ranch for some reason. She sat down and waited, but Mark never came. Confused and a little upset, Cassie eventually made her way back into the school house when Mr. Griswold rang the bell again.

All afternoon Cassie wondered what could have kept Mark. She was tempted to get angry at Mark for standing her up, and honestly did a little bit, but quickly reminded herself of the dozens of things that could have kept him occupied at the ranch.

When Stephan finally dismissed his class, Cassie started to make her way to the doors when the teacher called for her. Cassie quickly stopped and turned around.

"Yes, Mr. Griswold?" Cassie politely answered.

"I certainly hope you will take into consideration the example you are setting for the younger students. When they see older students begin to slack off or not pay attention in class, they tend to do the same thing. You've always been a bright, attentive young lady and I do not wish to see that change about you."

"Yes sir," Cassie replied as she inwardly cringed.

"Thank you, I will see you in class tomorrow."

"Have a good day." Cassie politely smiled before turning around and walked out of the building.

As Cassie looked towards where Storm was hitched, she saw Mark standing there, waiting for her. Cassie quickly made her way up to him as she tried to figure out what to say first.

"Cassie, I'm so sorry about lunch, something came up that was out of my control," Mark apologized as he looked into her eyes.

"I suppose I'll forgive you this once," Cassie teased. "It's alright. One of the horses giving you trouble?"

"No, your Pa."

"My Pa?" Cassie asked in surprise.

"Him and Doc Burrage."

"Why was Doc Burrage involved?" Cassie inquired, alarmed. "Mark what happened?"

"It's fine, calm down. I just had a tiny little seizure is all."

"Are you alright? What are you doing here then? Why aren't you-"

"Cassie, it was like three minutes and all I did was stare off into space. I'm fine, Doc Burrage told me I can stay with my regular activities, all he did was keep me in town for a few hours."

"Doc did tell you that you were allowed to leave the office, right?" Cassie asked with worry evident in her voice.

"Yes, I was good and waited until he told me I could go home. I tried telling them I was supposed to meet you, but-"

"Mark, I don't care that you weren't there, I'm just glad you're alright."

"Good," Mark smiled. "Do you want me to escort you and Anna home?"

"You should probably go home, since your Pa probably is starting to get concerned."

"I had been planning on staying late at your place today to finish that section of fence out in the east pasture, so Pa won't expect me home for a while. Your Pa told me to take the rest of the day off so I don't mind taking a few minutes to take you home."

Soon Cassie was waving goodbye to Mark as she stood on the front porch of her home. After he was out of view, she went inside and saw her parents sitting together on the sofa. Anna was nowhere in sight and by the look her parents were giving her, Cassie knew she was in for some sort of talk.

"Take a seat Cassie," Mrs. Osborne offered as she gestured to a chair across from them.

Cassie did as instructed and waited for her parents to say something.

"Cassie," John began. "Your mother and I have always wanted all of you children to have the best education possible. We've tried to provide you the best schooling we could, and have asked all of you to commit to high school level curriculum, which we are very glad to see that you all have chosen to do just that. Cassie, school has never been your favorite thing to do, we know you would much rather be riding Storm than stuck in the classroom, but you've always put all the effort you could into your school work. You've worked so hard and have become a very intelligent young woman. Unfortunately, something has changed this year and your grades are getting worse and Mr. Griswold says you daydream a lot in class. Stephan has offered to spend an hour with you after school for the next few weeks, tutoring you until you get a better grasp of your lessons."

"A whole hour?" Cassie asked in defeat.

"Until you get your grades back up, yes."

"Well why can't Mark help me? He's done it all before and passed all of his classes with an extremely high grade."

"Because Mark is not a teacher," the Marshal simply stated.

"And another thing about Mark," Mrs. Osborne added. "Cassie, your father and I have both seen the friendship between you two blossom, and we don't think it's a bad thing, but we do think that perhaps it's time to cut back how much time you spend together. We believe he's becoming a distraction from your school work, even your responsibilities around here."

"You're saying I can't spend time with him anymore!?" Cassie asked in a much louder tone than she had meant to.

"You will keep your composure, young lady," Marshal Osborne reprimanded.

"Yes sir," Cassie quickly responded.

"We're not saying that you can't spend any time with him, we simply want you to cut back the time you do. Such as your morning chats before school and lunches," the marshal explained.

"But Pa-"

"Cassie, I know this seems hard darling, but your Pa and I think it's what is best for you right now. You need to concentrate on your responsibilities first, then you can focus on your relationship with him."

"That's completely not fair!" Cassie exploded before storming out of the house.

"Cassie Osborne-" Mrs. Osborne started, but the door slammed shut.

Catherine started to go after Cassie, but her husband put a hand on her arm.

"Let her do some thinking, we can sort her attitude out later."

6MC6


Lucas looked up from the board he was sawing to see Mark entering the barn.

"I thought you weren't going to be home until supper," Lucas commented.

"I wasn't, but Marshal Osborne sent me home for the day."

"Did something happen?" Lucas asked curiously.

"Pa, promise me you'll stay calm..."

"What happened?"

"Doc gave everything a thorough check and said everything was fine, he said I can do all my normal stuff."

"Why wouldn't you have been able to do your normal things?" Lucas asked with growing concern.

"...I may have had a small seizure today," Mark apprehensively explained.

Lucas inhaled sharply and let out a long sigh before replying, trying to stay level headed.

"Why didn't someone come get me?"

"It only lasted two or three minutes, and nothing seemed to be wrong afterwards. Doc even said I could go back to the Osborne's for the rest of the afternoon, but Marshal Osborne wouldn't hear of it and sent me home."

"...I'm glad everything is alright," Lucas stated as he reached out and put a hand on Mark's shoulder.

Mark knew exactly what his Pa was doing, but didn't mind it. In fact, he sorta had wanted it. Sometimes there were those moments when they both needed the physical contact between the two of them to keep them in the present instead of a world of “what ifs”. It also reminded them of the bond and love they shared as father and son. No, Mark didn't mind one bit.

"If you want proof that Doc said everything was fine..." Mark started as he held an envelope out for Lucas.

"No, I trust you," Lucas stated as he pushed the envelope down. "You wanna give me a hand with this sawing though?"

"Sure," Mark replied with a smile.

*****

That evening, Mark was doing the chores in the barn while his Pa was doing the dishes inside
the house. Mark heard someone riding up and headed out of the barn, rifle at the ready as always.

Mark relaxed his grip after he saw who it was.

"Evening Marshal Osborne," Mark greeted as the Marshal dismounted.

"Evening, Mark. Cassie isn't here, is she?"

"...No sir, I haven't seen her since I rode her and Anna home."

"Alright..." the marshal sighed.

Mark could see concern on his face.

"Is something wrong?"

"She just went for a ride and has been gone a little longer than usual, she's probably back at the house. I'm glad I'm over here though, I've been meaning to talk to you about something."

"What is it?"

"Mark, Catherine and I have both been watching your friendship with Cassie closely for the last year, and if I'm not mistaken, things have become... a bit more complicated between you two, haven't they?"

"...Yes sir, they have," Mark sheepishly admitted.

"I can't say that it really surprises me, and the Mrs. and I do want you to know, Mark, that we think very highly of you. Catherine and I, by no means, disapprove of the two of you getting to know each other the way you have, I'd say we even slightly encourage it... until that getting to know each other starts affecting areas it shouldn't."

"Sir?"

"Mark, this evening Catherine and I told Cassie that we wanted her to cut back the time she spent with you. This is no reflection on you or either one of your characters, Cassie simply has become distracted from her responsibilities and schoolwork since you two have started spending more time with each other. Mark, I hope you don't think that Catherine and I don't want you to have a relationship with Cassie, we do..."

"But right now a close relationship is doing more harm than good, and Cassie needs to be able to focus on her school work," Mark interjected.

"Yes, exactly. Mark you a very responsible, mature man and my wife and I think the world of
you, but I think you understand how important education is, and how distracting it can be to have someone that close to you when you've never experienced something like that before."

"Yes sir, I do..." Mark faintly smiled as he thought about how often he found himself daydreaming about Cassie.

"Thank you for understanding, Mark."

"Marshal Osborne, since we're on the subject, I do have a question to ask you..." Mark slowly stated as he shifted his weight and shoved his hands in his pockets.

"What is it?"

"Obviously you know how Cassie and I both feel about each other. I will admit that I know it will be hard for me, but if Cassie needs me to spend less time around her, I will. Marshal... when the time comes that she doesn't need that... when she's done with school and we're both eighteen... I mean I know we'll still be young and all, but may I... have your permission to court Cassie?"

John wasn't surprised at all and let out a laugh as he watched Mark nervously stand there.

Mark didn't know whether the laughter was a good thing or a bad thing, but he didn't really care, he just wanted an answer.

The marshal composed himself a bit more and put a hand on Mark's shoulder.

"Sorry, I shouldn't keep you waiting like that, I know how nervous I was when I asked my father-in-law the same thing. Yes, you have my permission and blessing, as long as you do wait until she's done with school."

Mark let out a sigh of relief without realizing it, giving the Marshal another chuckle.

"Thank you, sir," Mark stated as he shook John's hand.

"You're welcome, Mark. I best keep looking for Cassie, it'll be gettin' dark soon."

"If you don't mind me asking, was she upset when she left?"

"Yes, why?"

"I might have an idea of where she is then, it might be easier for me to show you than tell you how to get there."

"Actually, would you do me a favor?"

"Sure, what is it?"

7MC7


Cassie's head shot up before she quickly turned around to see who was walking up behind her. She didn't know who she had been expecting, but the last person she thought she would see was Mark.

"What are you doing here?" Cassie asked in surprise as she wiped a tear from her cheek.

"Your Pa came by the ranch, looking for you. He's concerned about you, Cassie."

"Now he is..." Cassie mumbled.

"That's not what I'm talking about. Yes, he's worried you've been gone so long, but he told you what he did earlier this evening because he was concerned about you getting your priorities mixed up."

"He doesn't understand..."

"He understands a lot more than you think, Cassie. He understands us, our relationship. That's why he suggested we back off for a little while. You need to focus on your studies, not me right now. We both need to evaluate our lives and make sure we're ready to give away so much time and energy to another person."

"I am ready," Cassie firmly assured.

"Me too, but there are other things in life that you have to deal with first. You know how important your education is, and you even admitted to me a few weeks ago that you're worried about passing all of your classes. Emotionally, we're both more than ready. But there are other things we have to set in place first before we can commit. I've become a distraction in your life from things that are important to you and who you are, and I don't want to continue to be a distraction."

"But Mark-"

"Cassie, I still feel the same way about you, but right now we need to honor your parents' request and focus on more than our relationship right now. They only want what's best for the both of us, and wouldn't ask us to spend a little less time together if it wasn't the right thing."

Cassie thought for a long moment before replying.

"They do say that absence makes the heart grow fonder..."

"It's not like one of us is moving away. We'll still see each other at church and thanksgiving, days I'm working late at your place and I'm sure we'll see each other in town."

"You're right... but it's still going to be hard."

"Well then hurry up and get your grades up!" Mark teased.

"If I remember what Mr. Griswold said, you came pretty close to failing a few classes yourself," Cassie shot back.

"In the eighth grade, but I didn't, and graduated top of my class."

"Mark, you were the only one in your class."

"Exactly." Mark smiled as Cassie laughed; he loved watching her smile, she had such a special look in her eye when she did. "Let's get you home, your Ma is probably worried about you."

"... I suppose I'll have some apologizing to do when I get there."

"I wouldn't know, but if you do I'm sure they're ready to forgive you."

"Mark, thank you for coming all the way out here to talk to me."

"Don't mention it. BlueBoy needed the exercise anyway."

"Wait, how did you find me?"

"I showed you around up here, remember?"

"Well yeah, but still..."

"I know it's your favorite spot off the ranches, and you come out here when you want time to think."

"How do you know?"

"I occasionally do the same thing on my way home from work."

"But I never see you."

"That's because I'm usually up there," Mark replied as he pointed to a ledge far above them.
"Sometime I'll show you the view from up there, but we should really get going if we want to be back before dark."

8MC8


"Ya nervous Uncle Johnny?" Mark asked as he walked into the marshal's office.

"Is he nervous? He couldn't tie his own tie!" Lucas laughed as he finished adjusting Johnny's tie.

"If I remember right, you needed a little help yourself on your big day," Johnny shot back.

"They about ready to get started over there, Mark?" Micah asked from behind the desk, coffee in hand as usual.

"Reverend Graft told me to tell Uncle Johnny that he's ready when the bride and groom are, and Mrs. Graft said that Lou is just making a few last minute adjustments," Mark replied.

"Why don't we head over there then," Lucas suggested as he grabbed his rifle.

Mark watched the nervous excitement of his uncle the whole ceremony. When Lou came down the aisle, Mark didn't know if he'd ever seen his uncle so speechless.

As soon as reverend Graft pronounced them man and wife, everyone made their way to the hotel for a beautiful reception. There was a good amount of light hearted banter between Johnny, Lou, Mark, and Micah throughout the course of the evening; Mark primarily instigating it.

Lou and Johnny walked away from Mark and Micah to talk to a few other guests, and Micah let out a soft chuckle.

"What is it Micah?" Mark inquired as he gave him a questioning look.

"You just better be careful boy, I hear some cupids are using you and a certain special someone for target practice."

Mark just gave a chuckle in response, but the smile stayed on his face as he scanned the large crowd of people and saw Cassie talking with a few other young ladies.

"Mark, how many pieces of pie have you had?" Micah asked as Mark took another bite of pie.

"This is number four."

"Don't you get a stomach ache from eating so much?"

"Yep."

"Then why do you?"

"Well right now Cassie has out eaten me twice, and if she out eats me this time, the score will be tied."

"What score?" Micah asked in confusion.

"I don't know exactly when it started, but we always see who eats the most pie. I guess it's kind of silly, but..."

"But what?"

"We both enjoy the competition, I guess. No matter who wins, it always puts a smile on her face... she has a beautiful smile, doesn't she?"

"Guess I've never payed attention to it, but I suppose she does," Micah replied.

Micah laughed as he looked at Mark, who was still gazing across the room at Cassie.

"Your uncle is going to have a field day when he snaps out of his world enough to see you all love struck."

"See, my teasing worked with him because he kept denying that he liked Lou. If he starts teasing me I wouldn't care, I gladly admit I have feelings for Cassie."

"Are you going to ask her to dance?"

"That's the other thing though... right now she needs to focus on her schoolwork and other responsibilities, not me. I have feelings for her, but I know they need to wait to be expressed."

"Well Mark, that's a very mature attitude. Not many people take the initiative to do what the other person in a relationship needs, not necessarily what they want."

"It's been difficult, but I know eventually it will be worth it."

Reverend Graft stood up and announced that the couple would be leaving in a few minutes, and asked everyone to make their way outside.

Everyone whooped and hollered as the couple drove off, happier than ever. The crowd slowly made their way back inside to start cleaning up, and before long the hotel was back in order.
*****

Later that evening, Lucas was reading in the front room when Mark came out of the bedroom, apparently ready to go somewhere.

"Just where do you think you're going?" Lucas asked, knowing the answer.

"The shivaree..."

"Or not," Lucas stated laughingly.

"Oh but Pa, this is Uncle Johnny! We're not gonna get-"

"It's your uncle and you aren't going to be taking any part of any shivaree," Lucas firmly stated.

"Alright..." Mark conceded. "I guess I'll just have to make up for it when we see them off at the train station tomorrow morning."

"You better be careful."

"Uncle Johnny knows I mean well."

"Your uncle may take it fine, just don't rile your new aunt, I'd like to stay on her good side."

9MC9

The following weeks quickly passed, and Mark felt like instead of things slowing down like they normally did during the winter months, things just got busier. After Lou and Johnny got back from their honeymoon, they invited the McCain's, the Graft’s, the Osborne's, and Micah for thanksgiving dinner, all of whom gladly accepted. Cassie beat Mark again in their little “contest” leaving the score four-three, Cassie's favor. Much to Anna's delight, there wasn't a repeat of what had happened in the kitchen the previous year.

The renovation of the clinic turned into a much bigger project than anyone had planned on, but by the end of November everything was finished and Doc was very pleased with how everything had turned out.

Early December, Mark was working at the Osborne's, fixing a fence that had been damaged during the previous night's snow storm.

As Mark heard someone riding up, he stopped hammering and made sure he knew where his rifle was before turning around.

"Cassie what are you doing out here? It's freezing!" Mark exclaimed as he stood up and took the reigns from Cassie.

"Making good on what I said last spring," Cassie replied as she dismounted.

"What are you talking about?" Mark inquired, confusion written all over his face.

"You said you looked forward to seeing “us” fix a fence in freezing cold weather, because you didn't think I could do it. Well, Mark McCain, I'm here to prove you wrong."

"I know you can, I won't hold you to it. You should be inside."

"I told you that “we” would fix a fence in freezing cold weather, and that's what “we” are going to do," Cassie stated with finality.

"Alright..." Mark sighed. "...Your parents are okay with you being out here, right?"

"Yes, I talked to them before I came out. Now, what do you want me to do?"

"Will you hold this board for me?" Mark asked as he gestured to the board lying on the ground.

"It would be my pleasure," Cassie dramatically replied.

Cassie and Mark began talking as they worked. They hadn't completely cut off their interaction over the past few months, but had made sure it stayed fairly limited. Mark enjoyed talking with Cassie, it had been the first time in several months he'd been able to have a private conversation with her. Both of them enjoyed every moment they spent together that afternoon, and both were reminded even more than normal of the feelings they had for the other.

"Cassie, would you get me the second hammer out of my saddle bag?" Mark asked.

"Sure Mark," Cassie answered as she stood and turned around.

Cassie found the hammer without any difficulty, but when she turned around and saw what had been behind her, she froze in place.

Cassie opened her mouth to speak, but at first no words would come out. Cassie kept trying until she found her voice, but all that came out was a whisper.

"M-Mark... M..." Cassie swallowed. "Mark...!" Cassie finally screamed.

Mark heard the urgency... the terror in Cassie's voice and quickly turned around to see two wolves pacing in front of her.

"...Cassie, stay very still," Mark ordered. "Don’t move, understand?"

Cassie slowly nodded as Mark carefully reached for his rifle. Cassie heard the first several shots go off, but one wolf was still alive and charging Mark. Cassie watched as Mark continued to fire at the wolf, until the animal lay lifeless on the ground.

No sooner had Cassie breathed a sigh of relief than she saw a third wolf approaching Mark from behind.

"Mark, behind you!" Cassie screamed as the wolf jumped on Mark, knocking him to the ground.

Cassie helplessly watched as Mark struggled to turn onto his back and try to use his rifle to push the wolf away.

"Cassie, get your Pa!" Mark yelled, snapping Cassie out of her shock.

Cassie did as Mark told her, jumped on BlueBoy, and raced to the house.

Cassie rushed into the house, causing both her parents to stand from their seats as they saw the fear on her face.

"Cassie, what-" Catherine began.

"Pa, Mark is being attacked by a wolf!" Cassie cried.

"He what? Show me where!" The marshal instructed as he ran outside with his daughter.

Both mounted BlueBoy and Cassie quickly directed the horse to the south pasture. As Mark came into sight, Cassie's heart dropped. The wolf stood triumphantly over a motionless Mark.

"No, please..." Cassie whispered as she urged BlueBoy to go faster.

"Cassie, stop the horse!" John ordered.

Marshal Osborne already had his gun trained on the wolf, and after two quick shots, the wolf collapsed on top of Mark.

Cassie and John jumped down from BlueBoy and ran to the body lying on the ground.

"Mark! Mark, please!" Cassie cried as she helped her father roll the wolf off Mark.

Cassie tried to control her tears as she looked at Mark's bloody face and chest; the fact that Mark was ever so slightly breathing brought little comfort.

"Mark!" Cassie cried again.

Marshal Osborne put his hands on his daughter's shoulders and turned her away from Mark.

"Cassie, listen to me," John ordered. "Cassie!"

"Pa what if..."

"We can't focus on that right now. Cassie, ride to the house and load as many blankets as you can in the back of the buck board, then I want you to drive it out here. Do you understand? Cassie?" Marshal Osborne called as he gently yet firmly shook his daughter, who was crying hysterically. "Cassie, we have to get him to town, go get the buck board!"

Cassie nodded and ran back to BlueBoy and mounted him before taking off towards the house.

As Cassie entered the house, she started yelling for her Ma, but then she realized her mother and sister were both standing by the table which was covered with blankets and towels.

"Pa wants us to put blankets down in the buck board and-"

Cassie didn't need to finish, her mother and sister were already grabbing material and running out of the house. Cassie grabbed what was left and followed them.

The three quickly had the team hitched and were headed out to the south pasture.

Anna knew her mother didn't know the property very well and couldn't handle the buck board very well in the snow either, but she also knew Cassie was having a hard time controlling the team in her emotional state.

"Cassie, where are they?" Anna firmly asked.

"...Very edge of the south pasture, we were working on the fence and-" Cassie stopped as she felt the reigns being taken from her hands.

Cassie didn't argue, she couldn't think straight enough to do so.

"Cassie, go help Ma finish making the pallet in the back," Anna ordered.

Cassie didn't even think, she just did.

Anna felt somewhat strange taking charge... being the youngest, she never told anyone what to do, she just did what she was told. But now seemed like a good time to take control for once. Anna didn't know if she'd ever seen her sister so distraught. She could see the pain and fear written all over Cassie's face. Anna was praying hard that Mark would be fine, but she did all she could to emotionally detach from the situation, she knew if she let her emotions go, her parents would have two emotional wrecks and Mark to deal with.

As Anna pulled the team up next to her Pa, she was appalled at Mark's condition and now understood why Cassie was so scared.

All three women jumped out of the buck board and helped Marshal Osborne lift Mark into the back of it. Cassie and her mother sat in the back, tending to Mark, while Anna sat next to her Pa who was now driving the buck board into town.

The time it took to ride into town were absolutely agonizing for the Osborne's. Cassie had never felt so overwhelmed with fear in her life, and despite her efforts to not let herself feel, Anna knew she was extremely afraid for Mark's life. Mark had become like another older brother to her, she couldn't imagine watching him die.

After finally reaching the clinic, the Osborne's carefully carried Mark into the office.

"What happened?" Doc asked as he took Mark's legs from Cassie and Anna and helped the Marshal put Mark in the examination room.

Marshal Osborne waited for his daughter to explain, but when he looked at her face, knew she wasn't going to be able to talk.

"Cassie and Mark were fixing the fence and a few wolves came across them. I think Mark shot two of them before the third one attacked him. Cassie ran and got me, but by the time we got there and I shot the last wolf, Mark was unconscious."

Doc caught a glimpse of Cassie standing in the corner of the room, trying hard to stop her constant flow of tears.

"I need you all to step into the waiting room please," the doctor stated.

Cassie, John, and Catherine started walking towards the door, but Anna stayed put.

"Doc Burrage, I can help."

"Anna-" Mrs. Osborne started, but Doc interrupted her.

"I could use a second pair of hands. Fill that bowl on the counter with some of the alcohol in the
first cupboard."

Anna nodded and set to her task as the rest of her family went into the waiting room. Marshal Osborne realized that he needed to get Lucas into town and soon left the office, leaving Cassie and Catherine to wait for Doc to come out of the examination room.

*****

After Anna handed the doctor the bowl, Burrage proceeded to sterilize a few of his instruments and his hands in the liquid before telling Anna to do the same thing.

As Doc removed Mark's badly shredded shirt, Anna got a second bowl of water and a few rags.

"Anna, did Mark have his coat off before or after the attack?"

"I don't know, but I didn't see it anywhere near where he was lying. He had been working, he probably took it off. I don't know how long he was in the snow, but he was shivering the whole way into town. Are you worried about frostbite or hypothermia or pneumonia?"

"At this point, all of them. Would you add some more wood to the fire please?"

As Anna fixed the fire, Doc Burrage started cleaning Mark's wounds. When Anna came back over, Doc Burrage watched from the corner of his eye to see what the girl would do.

"What are doing?" the doctor asked as he continued to work and Anna stuck her hand into Mark's boot. He knew what she should be doing, and figured that she was doing exactly that, but waited for an answer.

"His socks are wet," Anna replied as she started pulling his boots and socks off. "It will make him colder and he'll have poorer circulation if we leave them on, because..." Anna stopped herself and grinned. "You know, you went to medical school."

"Very good observation, Anna. Sometimes when we rush around we miss details such as that. I probably wouldn't have thought about it for another fifteen minutes. Will you boil some water for me?"

"Yes sir," Anna replied.

As Anna and Doc continued to work on Mark, he mumbled and stirred around quite a bit. Anna was surprised at how long it was taking to warm Mark's body up, even after they started soaking his hands and feet in water, but Doc knew full well that it was going to take a lot of doing.

After getting Mark's wounds cleaned and putting in a few stitches, Doc told Anna to get a pot of water started for coffee.

"Coffee?" Anna inquired in surprise. She couldn't think of why the doctor would drink coffee this time of the afternoon.

"Not for me, for him. We need to warm him up from the inside, and I don't think he or Lucas would be very happy if I gave him the alternative."

Anna started to put another pot on to boil.

"If you don't mind me asking, why do they even use brandy?" Anna inquired.

"Honestly it works quicker than other substances, and pioneers have used it for decades. In most cases, I also think the patient is glad for the pain relief the alcohol brings. As of now though, Mark is unconscious and I personally believe the alcohol will do more damage than good."

Anna turned towards the doctor and he could read the question in her face.

"I'm sorry Anna, I don't know if he'll make it. Time will tell, we just have to keep doing everything we can."

After the coffee was done Anna brought it to Doc and held Mark's head up so the doctor could try to force some liquid down Mark's throat. It was slow going, but they made a little progress.

"Doc, do you think this could trigger another one of his seizures?" Anna inquired.

"I'm afraid that could happen, but I hope it doesn't. His body doesn't need that on top of everything else. A seizure is hard enough on the body when it's fully functioning." The doctor paused before changing the subject, "Anna, would you go out that back door and start the pot bellied stove in room two? I want to move Mark in there as soon as it's warm."

Anna nodded and left the room. As she did, her thoughts fell on her sister. Anna wished there was some way to comfort her older sister who was struggling a great deal, but she didn't really have anything to comfort her with. Things looked bad for Mark... this was one situation where Anna wished she didn't know so much about what could go wrong.

10MC10


Lucas stopped and composed himself as he stood in front of the clinic door. He knew he needed stay calm, but that seemed almost impossible.

When Lucas walked through the clinic door followed by Marshal Osborne, he saw a worried Mrs. Osborne and a grief stricken Cassie, tears still occasionally escaping her eyes.

"Any news?" John asked his wife as they embraced.

Catherine simply shook her head no.

Lucas walked over to where Cassie stood, but before he could say anything, Cassie spoke up.

"Mr. McCain... I'm so sorry."

"Sorry for what?" Lucas inquired.

"Mark was attacked because he was protecting me. ...If I hadn't insisted on working on the fence with Mark, then he would've-"

"Been out there by himself and probably still be out there."

"But-"

"Cassie, this is no one's fault, especially not yours. If you hadn't been out there, Mark would have died. Don't blame yourself, you don't need or have cause to carry that guilt."

Cassie nodded as the tears started steadily flowing down her face once again. Lucas understood they were a release, but he could still see the panic and fear that controlled the girl.

The four waited for what seemed an eternity for Doc Burrage to come into the waiting room.

"Lucas I'm glad you're here," the doctor solemnly stated.

"Doc?" Lucas asked, knowing the look on Burrage's face wasn't a good one.

"Mark barely escaped being killed by that wolf... so far."

"What do you mean?" Lucas asked, fearing the answer.

"Lucas... I hate to tell you this... but... Mark may not make it through the night."

Lucas cringed as the words slowly sunk in. Mrs. Osborne gasped as she clung to her husband, and everyone could here Cassie trying to muffle her sobs.

"Anna and I almost have his body temperature back to normal, but what that wolf did to him..." The words simply hung in the air as the doctor shook his head.

The group all turned around as they heard the door leading to the back hallway swing open.

"Doc come quick!" Anna yelled as she turned back around and ran to room two.

Lucas and Doc followed Anna into the room Mark was in to see Mark shaking uncontrollably as he lied unconscious on the bed.

"Anna, go into the examination room and open the first drawer on the left. Grab the bottle next to the laudanum and a syringe," the doctor calmly ordered.

Anna quickly did as she was told and Lucas helplessly watched as Doc tried to take control of Mark's arm. When Anna brought the items to the doctor, he injected Mark's arm with the contents of the bottle. About a minute later, Mark's body began to calm down and soon he was as still as he had been before.

"Anna, why don't you go join your family? I can watch Mark for a while," The doctor suggested before Anna left the room. "Lucas, why don't you take a seat?"

Lucas sat down in a chair next to where his son laid and Doc pulled up a chair across from Lucas.

"The next twenty-four to forty-eight hours are going to be the most critical..." Doc began. "Mark's body was in bad enough shape, I don't know what that seizure did to add to everything."

"Do you have an idea of when he's going to wake up?" Lucas asked, battling his emotions.

"Lucas, I'm sorry to say that I won't have any answers for a while. I don't know when to expect him to wake up, if he will. All we can do now Lucas is... pray. Pray hard Luke, the boy needs it." Doc Burrage stood up and left the helpless father alone in the room with his son.

Lucas let out a long sigh as he watched the slight fall and rise of his son's chest. He couldn't take it anymore and allowed a tear to escape the corner of his eye. His son, his precious, only child was lying there, knocking on death's door.

And there was nothing he could do.

11MC11

A knock on the door woke Lucas the next morning. He stood and opened it to find Johnny and Lou on the other side.

"Come on in," A grief-stricken Lucas welcomed as he stepped back from the door.

"Word's spread about what happened to Mark, we just heard," Johnny explained as he shut the
door behind him.

"How is Mark doing?" Lou inquired as her gaze fell upon the badly battered body on the bed.

"...He made it through the night, we can thank God for that," Lucas answered as he offered Lou a chair.

Johnny and Lou could both see how absolutely exhausted and drained Lucas was, both physically and emotionally.

"Lucas, I know ye'll probably refuse, but if ye do want a room at the hotel, I've got plenty of empty rooms available. Just let me know and I can get one ready for ye."

"Thank you Lou, but I want to be here with Mark."

"Has he woken up?" Johnny asked as he looked at his nephew with concern.

"He's been unconscious since the wolf nearly killed him."

"When will he?" Johnny inquired.

Lou and Johnny both were taken aback by the look that crossed Lucas's face. Lou didn't know if she'd ever seen Lucas so distraught. Johnny had... right after Margaret died.

"...We don't know if he will," Lucas whispered.

Lou and Johnny stepped towards Lucas and the three were soon in a long embrace, all crying.

When Lou and Johnny finally realized they needed to get going, Lucas walked them to the waiting room and was surprised to see Cassie curled up in a chair, asleep. Lucas gave Doc questioning look as he gestured to the girl.

"Been here all night. She refused to go home last night, she said she couldn't leave him," Doc explained.

"She looks so exhausted..." Lou commented.

"She's scared of losing him... we all are," Lucas added.

Johnny and Lou soon left the clinic and went their separate ways as Johnny left for Oat's and Lou headed to the hotel. Like everyone else in North Fork though, their hearts and minds stayed focused on Mark and those in the clinic.

Cassie began to rouse as she heard Lucas and Doc talking. For a moment she was slightly confused, but then remembered where she was... and why she was there.

"...Mark...?" Was all she uttered.

"He made it through the night, but no change I'm afraid," Doc told her.

"Cassie, it's been a long night for all of us, why don't you-" Lucas began, but stopped when Cassie started shaking her head no.

"I won't leave him," Cassie firmly stated.

Lucas looked into Cassie's eyes and saw stubborn determination. Lucas gave a very slight grin as he realized he had seen that same determination in his son many times before, determination he often knew he couldn't compete with. There was more in her eyes though. Fear... grief... love. Love that Cassie held for his son, and his son alone. Love that had connected the two in a wonderful way. Love... that Lucas doubted would ever go away.

"Cassie," Lucas started. "Would you like to see him for a few minutes?"

"Thank you..." Cassie whispered as she stood and nodded her head yes.

Cassie followed Doc and Lucas back to room two. She sat down when Lucas offered her a seat, and was surprised... but grateful when the two men left her alone.

"Mark..." Cassie softly whispered. "Mark please, you've got to wake up. You can't leave... I couldn't bear to lose you..." Cassie tried to wipe the tears falling down her face, but soon realized it was no use. Cassie rested her head on the bed as she began sobbing. Pleading with Mark to stay with her. Begging God to spare his life.

*****

Cassie had no idea how much time had passed when she finally walked back in the waiting room, finding Doc and Lucas still there.

"Thank you, Mr. McCain," Cassie stated with an ever so slight grin.

"You're welcome." Lucas smiled, but the smile disappeared when the expression on Cassie's face turned to shock. "What is it Cassie?"

Cassie simply pointed to the wall behind Lucas, where a tear-off calendar hung. After seeing the date, Lucas understood. He had completely forgotten what day it was, due to the events of the past eighteen hours.

The calendar read December 10th.

It was Mark's eighteenth birthday.

12MC12


A dark haired woman sat staring out the train window as yet another town came into view. The train had passed numerous towns over the past few hours, but this town was different.

"Next stop, North Fork!" The conductor called as he passed through the car.

The woman was surprised by how much the town had grown since she had lived there, but then again, that had been a long time ago.

Memories began flooding her, joyous memories of the man she loved... memories accompanied by pain as she was reminded of his death. She had known these memories would come with this visit to her sister; she hadn't realized, however, how much they would plague her.

Wiping away the tear that had trickled down her face, the woman stood and began collecting her things as the train rolled into the station. She followed the few other passengers off the train and scanned the platform for her relatives; upon seeing them she waved and quickly made her way to them.

"Camilla, it's wonderful to see you!" Mrs. Osborne greeted as she hugged her sister.

"I've missed you all so much, the house didn't seem the same after you all left," the woman replied as she hugged Anna and her brother-in-law.

She went to hug one more person, but they weren't there.

"Where's Cassie?" She asked in surprise.

"She's at the clinic, we'll stop in and see her before the three of you go home," John answered as he took her bag.

"The clinic?" She asked in shock and concern. "What happened? Is Cassie alright?"

"Cassie is fine," Mrs. Osborne assured her sister. "A young man that works for John... and that Cassie is very close to, was attacked by a wolf yesterday and hasn't woken up since. The doctor doesn't know if he's going to live and Cassie is... more than devastated. She refuses to leave the clinic... not that we could really bear to make her leave."

"Oh dear..." the woman commented as she put a hand to her mouth.

"It's been a rough couple days for everyone around town. I'm sure seeing you will cheer Cassie up, why don't we head over?" The marshal suggested.

The three women nodded in agreement and they all headed towards the buck board.

As the four entered the clinic, they found Cassie sitting on the floor in the corner of the room, sobbing uncontrollably and visibly shaking. The three adults rushed towards her as Anna watched close by.

"Cassie, what is it?" Catherine asked with concern as she watched the tears fall down her daughter's cheeks.

Cassie tried to calm herself down a little bit, but to no avail.

"Cassie, darling, did he..." John started as he knelt beside his daughter along with his wife and sister-in-law.

"I don't know Pa..." Cassie began. "I was in there with him and..." Cassie's words stopped as she tried to catch her breath between sobs.

"What happened, Cassie?" Marshal Osborne tenderly asked.

"Pa... he stopped breathing!" Cassie sobbed as she collapsed into her Pa's lap.

13MC13


Lucas sat across the room from Cassie as they both intensely watched Mark, only surviving by the constant fall and rise of Mark's chest.

Suddenly, they both realized it had been too long since Mark's chest had inflated. Lucas stood and rushed towards Mark as Cassie did the same.

"Cassie go get Doc!" Lucas ordered.

Cassie quickly left the room, screaming for the doctor who shortly appeared in the doorway.

"Lucas step back," Burrage calmly commanded.

Lucas did as the doctor said, but continued to helplessly watch as the doctor put his ear against, and then began pushing on Mark's chest.

"Come on Mark!" The doctor yelled. "Don't you dare do this, you've held on too long!"

Lucas was silently begging his son the same thing, hoping, praying he wouldn't have to burry Mark.

For what seemed an eternity, Lucas watched as Doc tried to revive Mark. Finally, the doctor stopped and looked up at Lucas.

"He's breathing again," the doctor stated as he let out a long sigh.

Lucas relaxed as the words sunk in. Then he remembered Cassie. Yes, Doc could tell her, but Lucas felt an obligation to Mark to tell her himself.

"Doc, I'm going to go get Cassie."

The doctor nodded as he let himself fall into a chair.

Lucas began to make his way to the waiting room, thanking God his son still lived.

"Cassie, Mark's alright..." Lucas started as he opened the door to the waiting room. He was surprised to see that there were several more people there than he had expected, but soon recognized all but one.

As Mr. and Mrs. Osborne turned around to look at Lucas, Cassie's aunt froze in her spot.

That voice... It was so close to...

No, he was dead.

"...Can I see him?" Cassie whispered as she started to stand up.

After helping Cassie up and turning around, Cassie's aunt's face turned white and she reached for a chair to steady herself. Her mind began racing as she saw who stood in front of her.

The Osborne's could see the shock on Lucas's face as well, but no one said anything until Lucas finally broke the uneasy silence.

"...Milly?" Lucas whispered as he slowly walked to the other side of the room. "Milly, what are you doing here? It's wonderful to see..." Lucas paused as he studied her face. "What's wrong?"

"Lucas..." Milly inaudibly whispered. "Oh Lucas, I thought you were dead!" Milly cried as she fell into his strong arms. How wonderful it felt to be in them again!

The Osborne's quietly made their way out of the room to give the two some privacy. No one knew what was happening, but it was obvious the two needed to be alone.

Milly sobbed as she laid her head against Lucas's chest, and he gently caressed her back.

"Milly, it's alright. Whatever made you think I had died?" Lucas inquired as he put his hands on her shoulders and stared into her beautiful eyes.

Milly took a moment to compose herself before replying. She felt as though a thousand burdens had been lifted from her shoulders.

"Lucas... there were newspaper stories all over the place, saying the Rifleman had died... I was beside myself with grief. I wrote Mark... Mark- Mark is in there?!" Milly exclaimed as it finally hit her.

"I'm afraid so..."

"But Catherine said Doc didn't know if he was going to... Lucas, Mark might...?" Milly couldn't finish the question and Lucas simply nodded. "Oh Lucas, I'm so sorry..." Milly continued to cry.

"We never got a letter from you..." Lucas stated, trying to change the subject.

"I know, it came back as undeliverable. I assumed Mark had moved away from North Fork since you had died, and..."

"You've thought I was dead for over a year. Milly... I'm so sorry."

Lucas and Milly embraced once again, both enjoying being in each other's arms again.

Eventually the two sat down and Lucas began to explain the newspaper stories, constantly apologizing for the grief he had caused her.

"If I would have known where you had gone, I would've written you, but I had no clue where you were, besides helping a sick aunt and dealing with some other things. Milly I knew you had to leave to deal with your brother's death, I knew our relationship wouldn't work with the extra burdens you carried. But Milly, my life hasn't been the same since the day you left... you took a piece of my heart with you... and Milly Scott, I still love you."

Milly and Lucas looked deep into each other's eyes, remembering the last night before Milly left, how much they hated to separate.

"Lucas, I dealt with my baggage... but I still felt empty, because I left my heart here with you and Mark... Lucas, even after I heard you had “died” I still held love for you... Lucas I still do love
you... even more than I did when I left."

Neither one knew what else to say... they just looked into each other's eyes and understood. They slowly moved closer together until they found themselves in a passionate kiss.

As their lips separated, they both smiled, enjoying the love they felt for each other.

"Lucas... I think we need to do some explaining to my family," Milly softly stated.

"I suppose we should. Do you want to wait out here, or would you like to see Mark?"

"If you're alright with it, I would like to see him."

"Of course," Lucas replied as he took her hand and led her to Mark's room.

Milly let out a slight gasp as she saw the man lying on the bed.

"That can't be Mark... he's too..."

"Grown up?" Lucas finished for her.

"How old is he?"

"...Eighteen, today..." Lucas stated, fighting another flood of emotions.

"...Aunt Camilla..." Cassie started, breaking the silence. "How do you know Mr. McCain?"

"Milly, I always thought your first name was Mildred?” Lucas asked.

“That’s what a lot of people thought, and what a lot of people introduced me as. I eventually gave up on trying to explain,” Milly chuckled. "To answer your question, Cassie, about six years ago, I moved to North Fork..."

Milly and Lucas began to explain how they had met, as well as how Milly thought Lucas had died. None of the Osborne's or Doc missed the loving looks exchange between the two, and understood what had been left unspoken.

14MC14

Milly was finally able to convince Lucas and Cassie to get out of the clinic and enjoy supper at the hotel. Milly could see how drained both of them were, and wished there was some way she could offer either of them comfort. Her own heart was pained by seeing Mark in such a state, and feared the worst, as did everyone else.

When the Osborne's, Milly and Lucas entered the hotel they were greeted by Lou.

"Good to see ye all, how is Mark?" Lou inquired.

"Hanging on," Lucas replied, trying to stay positive. "Lou, I'd like you to meet Milly Scott, I think you'll remember me telling you about her."

"It's good to meet ye, I've heard so much about ye," Lou told Milly.

"Good things, I hope," Milly commented.

"This town... especially a certain cowboy adores you," Lou hinted.

"Milly, you remember me telling you about my brother-in-law, Johnny, right?" Lucas asked in order to change the subject.

"Of course," Milly replied.

"He came to town about a year ago and Lou married him a little more than a month ago. They're living here in town."

"Congratulations," Milly told Lou. "I'm sure you two are very happy."

"That we are," Lou replied. "Would ye all like a table for supper? If ye wait much longer there may not be one left."

"Yes, please," John replied before Lou led the group into the restaurant.

Supper was not without interruption; the few townsfolk that had lived in town when Milly had lived there were excited to see her back in town and stopped to say hello. Lucas and Milly were both feeling a plethora of emotions... love, joy, regret for what they hadn't done in the past, hope for what the future may bring.

...But in the back of their minds, as well as everyone else's minds, was Mark. What would the next few days bring?
*****

After supper, the small group went back to the doctor's office, disappointed to hear Mark hadn't gotten any better, but glad he hadn't become worse.

Cassie's parents and Milly were able to convince Cassie to come home for the night, Lucas assuring her that they would send word if anything changed.

As the Osborne's and Milly started to leave the clinic, Lucas made his way back to the room Mark was in.

After stepping outside, Milly asked if John wouldn't mind waiting for just a moment while she went back inside to grab her gloves.

As she entered the office, Milly saw Lucas waiting for her with the gloves.

"Milly, even under these circumstances, I can't tell you what a wonderful time I had with you this evening. I hope to see you a lot these next few weeks."

"You will," Milly replied with a smile as she took the gloves and gave Lucas a kiss on the cheek. "Keep faith Lucas, we're all praying for Mark."

15MC15

The next few days were extremely long and difficult. Having Milly in town gave Lucas great strength, but it didn't help relieve the worry he held for his son. Mark still hadn't woken up, and Doc confirmed that Mark wasn't simply unconscious, but in a coma.

One evening, Lucas was commenting to Doc how thin Mark was getting. Lucas couldn't stand watching his son slowly waste away.

"Lucas, I hate to tell you this, but if he doesn't wake up soon, his body won't have enough sustenance or energy to keep fighting. I just hope he has enough of that McCain stubbornness left in him."

Lucas nodded as he leaned forward in his chair and put his head in his hands.

"I'm sorry, Lucas."

Doc Burrage left the father alone in the room, having little hope left himself.

"Mark..." Lucas whispered. "Son, please come back to me."

The tall rancher cried himself asleep that night, afraid that when he woke, his son... his life, would be gone.

16MC16

Ever so slowly, Mark opened his eyes. Looking around, he gathered that he was in Doc's office, but why...

Suddenly the memories flooded him. The fence, the wolf, Cassie...

"Cassie!" Mark yelled, waking Lucas.

It took Lucas a moment to realize what was going on, but then he realized... Mark was awake!

"Son...?" Lucas called as he reached for Mark.

"Pa, where is Cassie? Is she alright?" Mark demanded as started to get up.

Lucas put his hands on Mark's shoulders and laid his son back down.

"Calm down Mark, Cassie is fine, just worried sick about you."

"Did the wolves hurt her? Did she-"

"Mark, they didn't touch her, I promise," Lucas assured.

Mark took a moment to look at his Pa. His face looked worn and tired, his eyes... were filled with grief, and his cheeks had tear stains.

"Pa... how long was I out?"

Mark could see his Pa struggling, trying to fight the tears that threatened to fall.

"...Ten long days, son. ...Mark, we thought you were going to die..." Lucas's voice shook as he spoke, and finally Mark saw a tear fall, followed by another... then another.

"Pa, I'm sorry this happened..."

"Mark, you listen to me. This was no one's fault. Not yours, not Cassie's, no one's. Do you understand me?" Lucas asked as tears of joy streamed down his face.

"Yes Pa. ...Are you going to be alright?"

"In time," Lucas sighed.

The father took a moment to look into his son's open eyes. How wonderful was it to see them again, to hear Mark's voice.

"Son, I love you," Lucas said as he hugged Mark.

Mark gladly returned the embrace and assured his Pa that he was going to be fine.

After a long moment, Lucas sat on the edge of the bed, still trying to stop the tears of relief that were falling down his face.

"Pa, do you know how Cassie is doing?"

"She was completely distraught when I came into the office the first time. She's only left the clinic a few times, Mark she's been hurting."

"Is she here, now?" Mark hopefully asked.

"Doc has been letting her stay in one of the rooms," Lucas replied as he nodded.

Lucas suddenly saw excitement appear in his son's eyes, and slightly grinned at Mark's next question.

"Can I see her? Please?"

"If Doc says it's alright. Let me go get him," Lucas stated as he stood and started to make his was out of the room.

"Pa?" Mark called.

"Yes Mark?"

"Thank you."

"For what?"

"Being here, staying with me even though I wouldn't wake up. Loving me. I love you, Pa."

"I know you do, Son."

Lucas quickly made his way to the front office where he found Doc Burrage asleep at the desk. Lucas started to gently shake him as the doctor began to rouse.

"Lucas, is something wrong?" Burrage inquired as he stood.

"Doc, he's awake," Lucas happily announced.

"He is?"

Doc didn't wait for an answer and rushed to the room with Lucas right behind him. As the doctor
opened the door, he saw Mark lying there, eyes open.

"Mark McCain... you're a living miracle!" Doc exclaimed as he walked over to his patient.

"I think that McCain stubbornness you're always complaining about finally paid off," Mark jested.

"How do you feel?" Doc questioned.

"Tired and sore."

"Dizzy or nauseous at all?"

"No, but my head hurts."

"Let's try to sit you up, and see how that goes. Lucas why don't you..." the doctor's sentence trailed off as Mark quickly sat himself up and rested against the wall. "Mark I don't know what I'm going to do with you..."

"I can sit up by myself," Mark defended.

Doc and Lucas let out a long sigh as they realized it was going to be hard to make Mark take it easy.

"Are you hungry?" Burrage asked.

"Starving," Mark replied.

"I'll head over to the hotel and see if I can get your aunt to fix you up something light."

Looking at the clock in the room, Mark realized it was only seven past four.

"You don't need to bother her this early, that's if she's even there."

"She had the overnight shift anyway, your uncle stayed up with her and I'm sure they both want to hear that you're awake," Lucas assured Mark.

The doctor started making his way out the door when Lucas called his name.

"Yes, Lucas?" The doctor asked.

"Mark wants to see Cassie, I told him that you had to say it was fine first."

"As long as you promise to take it easy Mark, you can see her. No more sudden movements,"
the doctor ordered before leaving room.

Lucas got up and went down the hall a few doors. He loudly knocked on one of the doors and waited for Cassie to open the door.

"Is it Mark? What happened?" Cassie asked with worry as she opened the door.

"Cassie, he's awake," Lucas told her with a smile.

Cassie didn't waste a moment and ran down the hall to room two. She stopped in the open doorway and saw Mark sitting up, his wonderful eyes wide open.

"Mark!" Cassie cried as she ran to him.

Not remembering what the doctor had said, Mark got out of the bed and went towards Cassie at the same time.

Neither Mark or Cassie cared that Lucas was watching them or what he thought, they gladly embraced each other as Cassie let her tears flow.

After a few moments, Mark put his hands on her shoulders and put a little more distance between them.

"Hey now... why the tears? Cassie, it's gonna be alright," Mark tenderly stated as he used his thumbs to wipe her tears away.

Cassie looked into Mark's eyes, almost wondering if it all was a dream.

"Mark... I thought I was going to lose you! Doc said you had a high chance of dying... he said-"

"But I'm here. It's alright Cassie... I'm fine."

Cassie fell back into Mark's arms and continued to cry.

"I was so scared that I was going to lose you... Mark I... I thought I had lost you!"

"You didn't Cass, I'm still here for you. It may have taken me a bit longer than I wanted it to, but I came back. You haven't lost me, I promise," Mark comforted as he rubbed his hand across her back.

Lucas watched as Mark continued to comfort Cassie and reassure her that everything was alright. Lucas could tell how unstable and weak Mark had become since he stood up, but Mark didn't seem to care. Lucas felt so much joy and relief as he stood there, watching his son. He couldn't explain the weight he had felt was lifted from him when he had seen that Mark had woken up. He couldn't explain how thankful he was that his son was alive.

Lucas watched as Mark tucked Cassie's hair behind her ear and went to whisper something in it. Lucas couldn't hear what his son said, but he saw the words Mark's lips formed. Some of the most powerful words on earth.

"I love you, Cassie."

17MC17

Lucas had just gotten Mark back in bed when Micah walked through the open door.

"Mark, you're going to give me a heart attack one of these days!" Micah exclaimed.

"Good to see you too," Mark jested.

"Good to see ya finally awake, boy. You had this whole town worried sick about you. How do you feel?"

"Pretty good, considering what happened."

"Has Doc talked about how long you're going to be stuck in here?"

"No, but I'm hoping not very long."

"Don't get your hopes up," Doc Burrage started as he entered the room. "You've gone through a lot Mark, and I'm not letting you out of here until I'm absolutely sure we're not going to have any complications. And the easier you take it, the quicker that will be."

"Doc, how long do you think?" Mark asked.

"Three or four days at the least. You need to get your strength back. Your aunt and uncle will be over as soon as Lou finishes fixing you something."

"Has anyone been over to the Osborne's?" Micah inquired.

"No, Mark hasn't been awake for long," Lucas answered.

"I'll head over and tell them the good news. Cassie do you..." Micah stopped asking if Cassie wanted to come along. It was obvious she was where she wanted to be.

Shortly after Micah left, Lou and Johnny entered the clinic, grateful to see Mark fully awake.

"Mark, we're going to have Micah lock ye up to keep ye from gettin' into trouble!" Lou joked. "We missed ye Mark, I'm so glad ye're awake."

"Thanks, it's good to be awake. Did I miss anything while I was out?"

"Not really, except ye did manage to escape that birthday party I told ye last year I was goin' ta plan for ye."

"Well thanks for the thought."

The group made some small talk over the next little while before Lou said she had to get back to the hotel.

"Mark I'm glad you're doing better, we'll get out of your way so you can get some rest," Johnny stated.

"Thanks for stopping by," Mark replied.

Doc walked Lou and Johnny out of the clinic as Lucas gave Mark the bowl of broth Lou had brought.

As Mark ate, he was very conscious of Cassie and his Pa carefully watching him. Finally Mark dropped the spoon back into the bowl and started laughing.

"What is it?" Lucas asked.

"I'm not going to choke on broth. You two are watching me like hawks, is something wrong?" Mark chuckled.

"No, I suppose we're just still worried," Lucas replied.

Mark understood, he'd been on the opposite side of the equation many times before.

Mark smiled and shook his head before finishing the broth and handing the bowl back to Lucas.

"You know, it was strange. I did a lot of dreaming, but sometimes it was almost as if I could hear your voices. Most of the time I couldn't understand what you were saying, other times I could. It was strange though, some of the time I thought I was hearing your voice Pa, or Doc's, or yours, Cassie. But then I must've kept imagining someone else's."

"Why do say that?" Cassie inquired.

"It was strange, I kept hearing Miss Milly's voice. Cassie, she was a close family friend years ago," Mark explained.

Lucas and Cassie looked at each other and grinned slightly.

"Cassie's aunt came for a visit, and was in here a few times, maybe it was her voice," Lucas suggested. "When the Osborne's and her get here, I think you'll want to meet her."

"Now? Like this? Don't you think that's a little..." Mark stopped as he heard the front door to the clinic close and soon the Osborne's were walking into the room. Mark stared in shock at the last person who came through the door.

"Mark?" Milly called.

"...Cassie, I thought your aunt's name was Camilla...?"

"It is. Camilla Rose Scott," Cassie gleefully replied.

"Miss Milly? Pa...? How...?"

"It's wonderful to see you Mark," Milly stated as she went to stand next to the bed with everyone else.

"It's great to see you too, but will someone please explain what's going on? Miss Milly when did you get into town?"

Those crowded around Mark started explaining what was going on, and how Milly ended up in North Fork. Mark was glad Milly was there, she had always been like a mother to him... and still was.

18MC18

The next day brought Ned to North Fork. He was glad to see his family again, but shocked when he heard the news of Mark. Ned visited Mark at the clinic, wishing him a speedy recovery.

Everyone's spirits had lifted, and every day Mark was getting stronger and stronger. The days were very long for those at the clinic though. Someone always had to be with Mark, not for fear of something going wrong, but in order to make sure Mark stayed put. Cassie willingly went home every night, but spent the afternoons visiting with Mark or reading to him. She also did a good amount of chiding when Mark would try to overdo it.

The morning of Christmas Eve, Mark woke up and saw his Pa and Doc talking on the other side
of the room. He couldn't read the expression on Doc's face and wondered if something was wrong.

"Is something the matter?" Mark inquired as he sat up.

"Yes there is Mark," Doc began. "I can't come up with anymore reasons to make you stick around."

"You mean I can go home?" Mark hopefully asked.

"I don't see why not. Get dressed and get going, I don't want to see you back in this room again!"

Before heading home, Lucas and Mark stopped by the Osborne's. Mark told Lucas he needed to talk with John about work, but Lucas knew he was wanting to see Cassie, too.

John told Mark to not bother coming back to work until the second week of the new year, and even though Mark tried to persuade the Marshal he could come back sooner, finally conceded.

"Cassie is out in the barn if you want to talk to her," John offered.

"Thank you Marshal Osborne," Mark replied before stepping out of the house.

Lucas started to follow, but John stopped him.

"Lucas, do you mind if I talk to you for a minute?" John inquired.

"Sure, what is it?"

"I'm assuming Mark told you he wanted to ask me if he could court Cassie?"

"Yes he did. I told him I was fine with it, as long as he waited until they were both eighteen to actually start courting."

"I don't know if he already told you this, but he did ask me a few months back. When he did, I wasn't surprised in the least and gave him mine and Catherine's blessing, as long as he waited until Cassie finished school. When he asked me, Catherine and I had already talked about how wonderfully the two worked together, how they seemed to complete each other. I thought it would be good for them to get to know each other more with a common goal in mind. I didn't realize until these past two weeks just how..." the marshal was at a loss for words.

"In love they already were?" Lucas suggested.

"Exactly. Lucas, as hard as it is for me to say this, I think our children are going to marry... soon. Cassie's grown up so fast and I hate to let her go, but I think she and Mark were meant for each other. Mark has shown me that he is the man I want for my daughter, and believe me, that's quite a feat. I wanted to know if you thought the same thing. I don't want to be encouraging them in a direction you don't approve of."

"John I appreciate it, I probably should've been the one to say something first, but I agree. I was a little surprised when Mark asked me for my blessing, but the more I watched them the more understood. When Cassie saw Mark for the first time after he woke up... I knew they were meant for each other. Like you said, they complete each other. They also drive each other and build each other up. Even being as young as they are, I think they're ready. They truly do love each other. I honestly can say I hope Cassie is the woman who becomes my daughter-in-law."

"And Catherine and I feel the same way about Mark. Lucas, I look forward to seeing what the next several months bring."

"I hope that the next year or two sees our families brought together."

"In more ways than one?" The marshal teased.

Lucas just chuckled in response. But in all seriousness, he did hope Milly would become his wife.

19MC19

"Cassie?" Mark called as he entered the barn.

Cassie's head suddenly peaked over the edge of the hay loft.

"Mark McCain! What are you doing out of the clinic!?"

Mark started to make his way up the ladder as he answered.

"Doc said I could go home. What are you doing up here? You're going to catch a cold out in this weather."

"Just thinking."

"'Bout what?" Mark asked as he sat down next to Cassie.

"Us."

"What about us?"

"How wonderful it is to be together again. While you were sleeping, your body was there... I could talk TO you... but I couldn't talk WITH you. I felt like my whole life had been shattered. But then you woke up and started putting the pieces back together." Cassie turned and looked into Mark's eyes. "Then you whispered those words in my ear... and Mark, I've never felt so complete in my life... I had never felt so much life in me. Mark, I've had the typical girlhood crushes and such before... but you... Mark, I love you."

"Cassie, I'll say it a thousand times and never get tired of saying it, I love you with all my heart. ...I want you to know, I want to live the rest of my life with you."

"Mark I-" Cassie stopped as she saw Ned come into the barn out of the corner of her eye. "I think we have company," she whispered.

"So?"

"So... I still love you," Cassie replied.

"We should probably get down, anyway. Pa will probably want to leave soon."

20MC20

Christmas Day brought the Gibbs, Micah, and McCain's all to the Osborne's for Christmas dinner.

Mark accepted defeat as Cassie out ate him one final time, they both agreed their stomachs couldn't handle many more pie eating contests.

As the day wore on, Mark watched the interaction between his Pa and Ms. Milly. He could see the loving looks exchanged between the two, and he could almost hear the unspoken “I love you's” between them.

Maybe... just maybe it wasn't too late for Milly to be his Ma.

Mark quickly looked to his right as he felt a splash of water on him.

"What was that for?" He asked Cassie.

"You've been drying that plate for two minutes!" Cassie laughed.

"Maybe I like extra dry plates," Mark defended.

"Well Maybe-" Cassie started, but Mark splashed some water back at her.

*****

All the adults looked up as they heard Cassie yell Mark's name from the other side of the kitchen door. Anna let out a long moan as she put her hand to her forehead.

The adults around the table who were at the previous year's thanksgiving supper all exchanged glances before letting out a bout of laughter. Those two would make a great couple one day... if they didn't kill each other in the kitchen first.



Do You Trust Me?

Morgan's Corner

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

The Writer's Corner
Table of Contents

Site Map
around The McCain Ranch