The Rifleman
Welcome to The Writer's Corner
Fan Fiction

Cattle and Children
Chapter 17
Written by Morgan

Ned stepped out of the stage coach and looked around, taking in his surroundings. Compared to Denver, the town was quite small, but it was busy. People were coming and going, children ran up and down the streets, wagons with large loads passed him as they continued down the road.

“Your carpet bag, sir.” The stagecoach driver offered.

“Thank you.” Ned said as he accepted his bag. “Do you happen to know where the hotel is?”

“Two streets over, can't miss it.” They man said as he gestured in the general direction.
Ned thanked the man and headed the direction the driver had indicated. There were two people ahead of him, and Ned waited in line to speak with the desk clerk.

“Can I help you?” The woman asked.

“I need a room, just one night, if you can accommodate.”

“Certainly can. Is a room closer to the street alright?”

“Not a problem.”

“I'll give you room three.” The woman stated before asking him to sign the register.

Ned couldn't help but slightly grin at his signature.

Ned Osborne - Deputy U.S. Marshal

The woman turned the register back around and handed him the key to his room.
“If you need anything during your stay, don't hesitate to ask, Deputy.”

“Thank you.”

Ned picked up his bag and went up the stairs to find his room. After settling, he sat beside the window and watched the coming and goings of the town.

Just as Ned was turning from the window, something caught his eye. He looked back out the window again and made eye contact with a young woman across the street.

It took a moment, but they finally recognized each other. The young woman waved and smiled before indicating she would meet him in the hotel lobby.

Ned quickly made his way downstairs and waited a moment before he saw Helen Scottlock and an older gentleman enter the building.

“Ned, how wonderful to see you!” The woman exclaimed. “Father, this is Ned Osborne. He's the one who solved the Strouse/Barkley disappearance.”

“How could I forget? Good to finally meet you!” The man declared as he shook Ned’s hand. “I'm Ron Scottlock.”

“A pleasure, professor.” Ned replied. “What brings the two of you out here?”

“Father is teaching a seminar here this week, and invited me to go with him. I've been enjoying the sights.”

“Does it feel good to get out of California?”

“Most definitely!” Helen answered. “And what brings you here?”

“I just finished training with the U.S. Marshals, and am headed home. I'm going to be based out of North Fork, for the time being.”

“That's wonderful.” Helen replied. “I don't suppose you will be around here long?”

“Just overnight, I get on the first train tomorrow morning.”

“You must have supper with father and me, so we can catch up.”

“I wouldn't want to imp-”

“No imposition.” The professor replied. “I'd enjoy your company. You disappeared so quickly after the bodies were found… no one got a chance to speak with you. I wish I would've been able to, we are all beyond grateful.”

“With Sackett still on the loose, I figured I had better track him down as soon as I could.”

“Did you?” Helen asked.

“With help, yes.”

“How'd you manage?”

“Perhaps you could tell us over dinner?” The professor suggested.

The three made their way to a nearby restaurant where Helen excitedly asked Ned for details of what had occurred after he left the college.

“I am certainly glad your Uncle was there.” Catching her statement, Helen continued. “I don't mean to be rude, I am sorry about your Aunt, but-”

“I understand.” Ned replied with a smile. “Had she not needed to go to the hospital in Vendix, I probably would be dead. My Aunt recovered well, and I received word several weeks ago that she is expecting.”

“That's wonderful news!” Helen replied.

The three continued discussion throughout the meal. After quite some time, the professor excused himself and said he had to prepare for his session the following morning.

“Helen, make sure you return to the hotel before dark.”

“Of course.” Helen replied.

“I'll see to it.” Need offered.

“Thank you. Have a good evening.” The professor said as he left.

“Are you still running the front desk at the college?” Ned inquired.

“Unfortunately, yes.” Helen replied with a soft chuckle. “I didn't even get out of the area last summer. Right now it seems like I'm stuck there for this summer, as well.”

“You don't have any friends you could visit?”

“Well, I have a feeling my father is trying to set me up with one of his friend’s sons. He has all these plans for his friend's family and us over the break.”

“...How do you feel about it?”

“...I'm honestly not thrilled about the idea, but I trust my father's judgement.”

“Well, if you ever get a chance, you're welcome in North Fork. It's not exciting, but the people are something else.”

“From what you told me last time, I'm sure I'd love your family and friends. It's just a matter of me getting out of my father's sight.”

“Well, if it makes him feel any better, you can tell him we have two deputies, a marshal, and a Deputy U.S. Marshal.”

Helen let out a laugh before replying.

“I don't think he'd be so keen on letting me visit a small town in need of four lawmen.”

Ned joined her laughter before explaining.

“She really only needs two, and that's only because of how far out some of the ranches are. My Uncle only helps out on occasion as a deputy when the other two need a break, and I'm just based out of North Fork, or will be, once I get back home.”

“Well, maybe there's hope after all.”

The two continued talking before Ned escorted Helen back to the hotel lobby, where they talked until early in the morning. Around one-thirty, Helen realized the time.

“Oh Ned, I didn't mean to keep you up. You're going to be exhausted for your trip tomorrow… well, today.”

“Oh, I'll be able to sleep on the train. But I better let you get on to bed.” Ned said as he stood and began walking Helen to her room.

“It really was a pleasure to talk with you again; I wish you didn't have to leave so soon.”

“Me too, it was good to catch up with you… I can't believe it's been a year.”

“Time does fly. Hopefully if we run into each other again, we'll have a little more time to catch up.” Helen said as they reached her room.

“...I'm taking the early train, so I guess this is goodbye again.”

“If you're ever back by the college, feel free to stop in.”

“I will. Have a goodnight, Helen.”

“You too… “Deputy Osborne”.” Helen chuckled.

Ned smiled back before Helen turned and closed the door behind her.

1MC1

“Have you had any seizures since the injury?” Doc asked.

“One.” Mark replied.

“Two.” Cassie reminded. “On the range with your Pa, and then yesterday morning.”

“I don't remember.” Mark shrugged.

“... Alright, Mark,” Doc sighed. “There's not much I can do. If the headaches persist, I can give you some medicine. But if the brain damage is to be healed, your body is going to have to heal itself. You need to let your family and friends know what's going on so if your memory blanks again, they know how to help you.”

“Thanks, Doc. We appreciate your time.” Mark offered.

“It's a pleasure.” The doctor paused before going on. “...How are you two doing with the miscarriage?”

“It hurts, but we've... come to terms.” Cassie slowly answered.

“If you need anything, I'm here.”

“Thanks, Doc.” Mark replied as he picked up his old .22. “We better be going, we're supposed to meet Ned’s train soon.”

“Well you certainly won't want to miss that! Have a good day.”

As husband and wife left the office, Cassie turned to Mark in concern.

“Mark, what are we going to do?”

“About what?”

“Your memory!”

“Doc even said there's nothing we can do. We'll have to take it as it comes, but I'm not worried about it. At least when I have issues, the memories lock back into place. I remember once when Pa had temporary amnesia, it took him a while to remember everything¹.”

“How are we going to tell everyone?”

“We can sit down with Ma and Pa when we get back to the ranch. I'll let Uncle Johnny know sometime this week and he can tell Lou. I'll also say someone to Micah and Ned, if you want to tell your Ma.”

“Rachael?”

“I'll ask Ma to tell her.”

“And what about the rest of the town?”

“Cassie, please, I don't want to make a big deal about this. I don't think anyone else really needs to know.”

“Mark, I'd just feel better if-”

“Cassie, don't worry. If we need to tell more people, we will. But until then, I'd like to keep this private.”

“Alright… just please, be careful.”

“When am I not careful?” Mark asked with a grin.

“Do you really want me to answer that?”

Mark and Cassie continued to the train station where they met the rest of the family.

“There you two are,” Lucas began. “We were beginning to think you got lost.”

“Had to take a quick detour.” Mark replied as the train appeared in the distance. “Perfect timing, anyhow.”

The family waited for the train to settle. Only a few passengers got off, Ned being the last of them. He quickly headed for the large group awaiting him and was greeted by hugs and handshakes. When he got to Lou and Johnny, he was a bit taken aback.

“How come no one told me??” Ned asked with an excited smile, noticing Lou's pregnancy. “Congratulations, you two!”

“Well seein’ as how ye like ta surprise us, we figured it would be appropriate ta surprise you for a change. Ye ought to be grateful we sent word of Milly’s pregnancy!” Lou exclaimed as she gave Ned a hug.

The crowd made their way to the hotel for lunch and enjoyed hearing all about Ned’s time in Denver. Cassie continuously teased her brother over the title, “deputy”, and enjoyed having him home again.

It wasn't long before the McCains had to take their leave and get back to the ranch. Upon their arrival, Cassie and Milly started on house work as Lucas and Mark left for the range.

It was turning out to be one of the hottest days of the season, and by mid afternoon both Lucas and Mark found themselves unbuttoning their shirts. Lucas was rolling up his sleeves when Mark suddenly stopped and stared at him.

“Pa, what happened to your arm?” He asked in alarm.

Lucas looked down at the bandage in confusion before realizing Mark hadn't come home until several days after the incident.

“Remember how we said the bank was robbed?” Mark nodded and waited for Lucas to go on. “One of the crooks got a lucky shot off at me. Nothing serious, just a scratch.”

Mark suddenly began laughing as he listened to Lucas's explanation.

“Well it's not serious, but I didn't expect you to laugh about it.” Lucas told his son.

“Sorry,” Mark said as he suppressed his laugh. “Like father, like son I guess.”

Mark took his shirt off and threw it over BlueBoy to reveal a bandage in the same spot as Lucas’s.

“Why didn't you tell us??” Lucas asked, the concern Mark had held now filling him.

“Just a scratch.” Mark replied, using the same tone Lucas had.

“Anything else I should know?”

“Probably, but we can talk about that later.”

Lucas gave Mark a confused look as his son turned back to work.

“Come on, we're wasting daylight!”

Lucas decided to let it go and went back to work. The two returned to the homestead and cleaned up before enjoying dinner with the family.

Rachael could talk of nothing besides how excited she was for the end of the school year. Mark found it difficult to suppress his chuckle, knowing what Rachael was feeling.
After supper, Mark and Lucas worked on the chores while the women cleaned the kitchen. Afterwards they all sat out on the front porch, enjoying the spring evening. Shortly after Rachael was sent to bed, Mark stood and said he and Cassie had better head up the hill for the evening, but Cassie cleared her throat as she gave him one of “those” looks.

“Aren't you forgetting something?” Cassie asked with raised eyebrows.

“Not really, I was just hoping you wouldn't remember.” Mark said as he sat down, leaving Lucas and Milly in confusion.

“Mark…” Cassie began.

“...Alright.” Mark sighed.

Mark looked between his parents, who held worry on their faces.

“The reason we were late for meeting Ned’s train was because we had to stop in at Doc's.” Mark began to explain.

“Doc’s?” Milly asked in concern as Lucas put a comforting hand on hers. “Cassie, are you feeling ill again?”

“Cassie wasn't the patient…” Mark started. “I was.”

“Son, what's going on?” Lucas asked, trying to keep himself calm.

“You both know I've had several injuries to my head, but when Hazlitt attacked me, it did a lot more damage than I realized.”

“Mark??” Milly asked.

“Will you just tell them, Mark?” Cassie pleaded. “Stalling isn't going to help anything.”

Mark let out a long sigh.

“It's really not that big of a deal, but I've been having trouble with my memory.”

“What do you mean, “trouble”?” Lucas asked.

“I've been having trouble remembering simple things like where I've put something or what Cassie said she was making for breakfast.” Mark could tell what his Pa was thinking and turned to him as he continued. “I know I've always been a little absent minded, but I had to ask Cassie what day it was three times yesterday. Then there are some bigger issues…”

“Like what?” Milly asked.

“There are times my mind completely blanks and I can't remember anything, at all. Who I am, where I am, or what I'm doing. Usually it's only a minute or two.”

“Usually?” Lucas pressed.

“...When I was helping the Pinkertons, it happened for an hour. Then, two days.”

“Two days?!” Lucas exclaimed.

“I don't want you to worry. Doc says there's nothing we can do except wait for it to heal itself.”

“He said we needed to let family know, in case something happened again.” Cassie added. “We hope it doesn't, but… we want you to be prepared.”

“Why didn't you tell us sooner?” Lucas asked.

“It started out with the small things,” Mark began. “I didn't think much of it because… well… I always forget what I do with the saddlebags. But Cassie started noticing things as well, and by the time it got bad, I was on my way to Tenton.”

“...Well I'm glad you told us.” Lucas said, starting to recover. “Who else are you telling?”

“Just family for now.” Mark replied. “I don't want to make a big deal over it.”

“It's a bigger deal than you realize, Mark.” Lucas stated.

“Pa, I almost became a doctor. I know how serious it is. I'd just like to keep it quiet, please?”

“Alright…”

“If you two need anything, let us know.” Milly said.

“Thanks, Ma.” Mark paused before turning to Cassie. “Now do I have permission to leave?”

“I suppose…” Cassie teased.

“Don't worry about the barn chores tomorrow morning,” Lucas began. “Rachael and I-”

“Pa, I've done them everyday for as long as I can remember. I did them this morning, I can do them tomorrow.”

“But-”

“Partners in the full sense, Pa?”

Lucas sighed as he rolled his eyes.

“Alright. Just let us know if anything else happens.”

“We will.”

Mark offered Cassie his arm and Lucas and Milly watched as the two disappeared behind the house.

“That boy…” Lucas mused.

“Is certainly your son.” Milly chuckled. “Although not much of a boy anymore.”

“You’re right about that…” Lucas replied. “Where did the time go?”

2MC2

Weeks passed and school finally let out for the year. Anna returned home, and May turned to June; the first two days passing all too quickly.
The morning of June third, Lucas woke as the sun began to barely peek over the hills. Knowing that sleep was going to be impossible, Lucas dressed and took a long walk, finally finding himself in the middle of the woods, alone with his thoughts.

He thought about Margaret, and talked to her, but more than anything Lucas was remembering back to the years following her death. Every parent made mistakes in trying to raise their child, and Lucas knew he was no exception. He thought on the countless times he had failed. The times when his mistakes hurt his son. But there was one mistake he was never going to live down.

~

“If you trusted me, you would've talked to me. I could've played along just fine, knowing you were alive, I could've helped you! But instead you stood by and put me through the worst week of my life! Pa, I died last Saturday! Pa, what happened to no secrets between us? What did I do to make you think I could handle your death?"

The memories of that night almost four years ago refused to leave Lucas alone and still haunted him.

"Don't you know by now? Pa, you're my life! For this past week, I've had no Pa. For this past week, I've only survived. I came home to an empty house everyday, and every night I cried myself to sleep in an empty bedroom! I was alone, yes, I was scared. I had to take over a ranch and run it while still trying to grieve. You're my Pa, what do you think it would have done to me?!"

Lucas could still hear the anger, the hurt in his boy's voice. The pain and grief could be heard as clearly as the day Mark had said those words.

"You know what was the worst part was? Do you realize what day you killed yourself off?!"

“I lost my Pa on the tenth year anniversary of my Ma's death. Do you realize how much harder that made everything?!"

His son's words had hit him harder than anything he had ever heard in his life. Lucas felt so much remorse for his decision of not telling Mark he was alive. Tears streamed down Lucas's face as he replayed the night over and over in his mind. All of Mark’s life, Lucas had strove to protect Mark. Then he went and hurt his son more than any criminal ever could.

“I don't want you to be sorry!” Mark had yelled.

But he was. He had been sorry from the moment he had seen his son's grief stricken face. If only-

~

“...Pa?”

Lucas didn't acknowledge his son; he couldn't. The guilt he felt was too much.

Mark slowly made his way towards Lucas and took a seat beside his Pa.

“...It's been quite a while since we've been out here.”

Mark reached out and put a hand on Lucas's shoulder. They both desperately needed the contact, and he knew it.

June third was still a struggle for both of them. Not because of Margaret… they had accepted her death and learned to celebrate the time they did have her. But June third reminded both of them just how delicate and fragile both life and family were. Life could end in an instant; family destroyed in the wink of an eye.

Mark put his hands on Lucas's, pulling his father's hands away from his face. Mark could now see the steady stream of tears he had sensed were there.

“Pa, it's alright.” Mark said. “I know you're here.”

“Mark, if I could go back-”

“We can't. What's done is done. Pa, this happened four years ago, you can't keep beating yourself up over it.”

“And you can't pretend it doesn't still hurt.”

Mark hesitated in answering... he wasn't sure how to respond.

“Pa… I lost you. For me, today is a reminder… maybe even healthy reminder, that I don't have you forever. All those emotions from that week come back and I'm reminded more than ever that I love you, and am lucky to have someone to call Pa. I'm going to tell you the same thing I do every time this comes up. You had a job to do, and you got it done. We agree there was a lack of better judgement, but it made me a stronger person. Please, Pa, we need to move forward.”

“Son, you mean the world to me. I'm sorry-”

“Don't make me go lecturing you again.” Mark interrupted with raised eyebrows.

“What do you mean?”

“...You remember when those three robbed the bank, and held me hostage²?”

Lucas remembered back. Mark had fallen and had seriously hurt himself while he was held hostage. The criminals took off, and Lucas wasn't far behind them. Everything Lucas had done was within his lawful rights, but his vengeful actions caused an unnecessary death.

“...You told me to take some of my own advice and stop grieving over my mistake.” Lucas finally answered.

“Stop grievin’, Pa. I think I did enough of that for the both of us.” Mark noticed his latter statement wasn't helping matters and had made Lucas feel worse. “Pa, I'm sorry. It's over, and I don't want you to keep feeling guilty over it. I told you I forgave you.”

Lucas put an arm around his son, still struggling with the ordeal.

“Son, I made a mistake that hurt you in a way I can't even imagine. And I have to live with that. I know you forgive me, but I can't forgive myself.”

Mark realized this was one of those things he would just have to let his father deal with on his own. He let out a sigh before turning towards Lucas.

“... I brought the poles along, do you want to go fishing?”

“We should get to the chores-”

“I already took care of them. The cattle will be fine for a few hours, and Ma and Cassie know what day it is. They told me we weren't allowed back home until this evening… said we needed some alone time.”

“...They were right.”

Father and son headed for the lake. Although their intent was to fish, they both knew they needed to talk whether it scared the fish away or not.

It had been a difficult year, starting with Milly’s illness and leading up to Lucas leaving home, and Mark having to trail after him. So much had changed, so much had been thought through. Even though Mark recognized his Pa was making great strides, he knew it hadn't been easy for Lucas to let go of Mark, and he still hadn't completely… but Mark wondered if a parent ever could let go of their child. He hadn't even held his, and would never be able to let go of them.

They did a lot of remembering back that day. Good times, and hard times.
Mark and Lucas talked through a lot, re-establishing the idea of being partners… as well as father and son. It was a delicate balance, one they were ever learning to keep.

As conversation finally quieted, Lucas found himself staring at his son's reflection on the water. Buried deep within a man, his little boy still sat beside him, daydreaming as he stared off into space.

...Or so he thought. Mark wasn't daydreaming, but thinking back to the times he had lied awake on his bed as a young boy, watching the rise and fall of Lucas's chest as his Pa slept. Mark had found such comfort in such a small moment growing up. Watching that frame go up and down had brought him the security he needed.
Mark then found his thoughts wandering to the countless things his father had done to protect him over the years. The times Lucas had risked his life for his son's. The times Mark had almost seen his father killed.

Lucas looked over to see a tear falling down Mark's cheek.

“Mark…?”

Mark looked over to Lucas and peered past Lucas's eyes… into Lucas’s heart.

“You mean the world to me, Pa. You really do.”

3MC3

“But it's Tuesday,” Rachael began. “Why are we going to town on a Tuesday?”

“You didn't think we'd forget your birthday, did you?” Lucas asked.

Rachael stared back at Lucas and Milly in astonishment.

“But how-”

“If you'd rather we stick around here…” Lucas teased.

“No, sir!” Rachael laughed.

The three left the house to find Mark and Cassie waiting for them at the buckboard. Mark had Liberty and BlueBoy saddled and he rode beside Rachael as the other three rode in the buckboard.

“Well, Rachael, how does it feel?” Mark inquired.

“How does what feel?”

“How does it feel being sixteen?”

“Like being fifteen.” Rachel laughed. “I thought it would be different.”

“So did everyone else.” Lucas called from the buck board.

“...So what exactly are we doing?” Rachael asked.

“Well first we thought we'd have lunch at Lou's,” Lucas began. “Then I thought you might enjoy an afternoon of fishing by Miller's pond.”

Milly caught a glimpse of Mark’s face and couldn't stifle her laugh fast enough. After all these years, his face was still turning red.
“Oh, by the way,” Lucas began with a wide grin. “Cassie, your cousin and her new husband are coming for a visit this fall.”

“... Who's side of the family?” Mark hesitantly asked.

“Mine.” Milly replied as her smile got bigger.

“Why didn't you tell me sooner?” Mark asked.

“The opportunity never arose.” Lucas shrugged.

“Pa, why don't we take the cattle farther South this year? Spend a week or two on the border?”

“You wouldn't dare!” Cassie declared.

“Oh boy…” Mark sighed.

“What's wrong?” Rachael asked in confusion.

“My cousin Sally was Mark’s first… love interest³…” Cassie laughed.

“Except she's several years older than me and was very interested in someone else at the time. I made a big fool of myself…” Mark said as he cringed.

“I will say you saved her from a lot of trouble down the road, Mark.” Milly noted.

“And got myself into quite a bit as well.” Mark shook his head as he tried to erase the memories. “Let's just get into town!”

The family enjoyed a well prepared meal at the hotel before continuing on to Miller’s Pond. There was plenty of welcome banter and laughter that filled the air, giving the family a well enjoyed afternoon.
No one caught anything worth keeping, but they made plenty of memories that would last a lifetime… including Milly pushing her son into the pond.

“Why’d you have to push me all the way in?” Mark complained on the ride home. “A little splash would've been just fine.”

“You deserved it.” Cassie replied with a smile.

“I'd hate to see what would happen if I really misbehaved…” Mark mused. “All I said was-”

“Son, you should know better than to tease a woman about her age.” Lucas laughed.

“Especially a woman like Aunt Milly.” Rachael chimed in.

“Now what exactly is that supposed to mean?” Milly asked with raised eyebrows.

Rachael let out a short laugh before she and Mark both kicked their horses’ flanks and raced the rest of the distance home.

Upon arriving back at the homestead, the family set to their usual Tuesday tasks before supper that evening.

After Cassie and Mark left for the evening, Milly, Lucas, and Rachael headed for bed. While braiding her hair, Milly noticed Lucas reading a letter.

“I don't remember you getting a letter in town…?” Milly asked curiously.

“I didn't…” Lucas sighed, eyes still looking down.

“Lucas?” Milly asked in concern as she sat down beside her husband. His eyes were sad and distant…

“This is a letter I got from Klarissa when Rachael turned four. Krissy was so happy… so proud of her daughter.” A faint smile appeared on Lucas's face before he went on. “I wish she could see her now.”

“I'm sure she's smiling down, right along with Margaret.”

Lucas bent over and gave his wife a kiss before standing and leaving the room, stating he'd be back shortly.

Lucas slowly crossed the front room and hesitantly knocked on his niece's door.

“...Uncle Lucas?” Rachael asked, noticing his expression. “Is everything alright…?”

“Rachael, I want you to read this.” Lucas said as he handed his niece the letter. “Your mother mailed this to me the day you turned four. She loved you so much, Rachael…”

“... I know she did.” Rachael paused briefly before going on. “...I think she often let my father do so much beating up on her so he wouldn't go after me.”

Rachael turned and went to sit on the bed, Lucas taking a seat across from her.

“... I often wonder if she would've been able to get away if I hadn't-”

“Don't go there, Rachael. Your mother cherished you and was ever so grateful that you were in her life. She often wrote of how she didn't understand why God would bless her with such a child after what she did. Her only regret was not being able to give you security.”

“... I miss her a lot. I suppose that's how I was so easily taken with Tom. I almost felt like he was filling a void that had been left when she died. ...But he didn't fit right.”

“No person will ever be able to fill the void like your mother did. But remember that you're apart of her, and she'll always be with you in heart.”

“...Did you ever get over losing your mother?”

“... I don't know if I “got over" it, but I accepted it, eventually. I knew she was in a better place, and one day, we’ll see them again.”

“Uncle Lucas, I can't thank you enough for everything you've done for me.”

“Rachael, I told you before, and I'll tell you again. You're family, and I love you.”

“You didn't have to do any of it though.”

“No, I didn't. I wanted to. We wanted to. And if I hear one more thank you…” Lucas teasingly warned as he headed for the door.

“Goodnight, Uncle Lucas.”

“Goodnight, Rachael.”

“I love you.”

4MC4

“What do you mean, you're not entering the shooting contest?” Rachael asked Lucas in bewilderment. “It's the highlight of any summer social!”

“My contest days are long gone. I'm happy where I'm at. Give all you young folk a chance to show off.” Lucas replied as he urged the team down the road.

“Mark, you're entering, aren't you?” Rachael asked.

“I don't like to compete.”

“What is wrong with this family?” Rachael mused as she shook her head.

“Are you going to enter, Rachael?” Cassie asked.

“My gun's not allowed off the property.”

“Oh, I decided to make an exception.” Lucas said with a smile. “Check your saddle bag when we get into town.”

A wide grin crossed Rachael's face as she thanked her uncle.

Festivities were well underway when the family arrived in town. Lucas and Mark helped their wives down from the buckboard before joining the crowd of people. Rachael had already disappeared to find her friends and enter the shooting contest. While the two McCain couples were talking to friends, Angus, the gunsmith, came over.

“Mark, I'm still having a bit of trouble with your rifle order, but the other order is ready if you want to look it over.”

Mark excused himself and followed Angus to the shop. The gunsmith got behind the counter and pulled out a box before handing it to Mark. As he examined the revolver, Mark spoke up.

“I really appreciate you putting the time in with that other order. I didn't realize how difficult it would be to have it delivered.” Mark stated.

“Something happened on the manufacturer's end, they had to recall the rifles. It will be a while yet before they're out again.”

“I guess my .22 will have to do until then.” Mark shrugged before going on. “The handgun ready to be taken home?”

“It sure is. I will say, I never thought I'd see the day when a McCain carried a handgun.”

“Neither did I.” Lucas said in confusion from the doorway. “Mark, why purchase a handgun?”

Mark looked between the two confused faces and couldn't help but laugh. He supposed he'd have the same look if his Pa got a handgun all of a sudden.

“I'm not planning on carrying it, but I figured I better have it, just in case.”

“In case of…?” Angus asked, just as lost as Lucas.

“When I was helping the Pinkertons, the fact that I was carrying a rifle sort of gave me away. That's the second time someone's recognized me by my rifle. I plan on carrying a rifle until the day I die, but if there's ever a situation where I need to conceal my identity, I thought it might be practical to have a handgun around so my rifle doesn't give me away.”

“Well I certainly hope you're not in a situation like that again.” Lucas commented, the father in him coming out.

“Me too, but I want to be prepared. Best case scenario, it'll sit in my closet and rust.”

Down the street, someone could be heard calling everyone's attention to the shooting contest.

“We better go watch your cousin.” Lucas suggested.

“Thanks, Angus.”

“Anytime, Mark.”

As Angus locked up, Lucas and Mark made their way to where the shooting contest was being held, and took their places beside their wives. A few mumbles over a girl being allowed to enter were heard, but Micah silenced all complaints when he asked if they were afraid of Rachael showing them up.

The contest began and several were quickly eliminated. But as the competition drew on, it became obvious to several men that they should have persisted in their complaints. Rachael was on target every time and wasn't phased by any of her competitors. It finally came down to the final three; Rachael went first and hit all three bullets dead center. The next competitor hit two inside the center, one just outside. The last man hit all three dead center, as well.

Micah announced that the winner would be determined by who had the least distance between two bullets in the next round.

This time the man went first, one inch difference. Rachael shot, hardly leaving any room between the two bullet holes.

“I think we have a pretty clear winner!” Micah declared.

The McCains left Rachael to relish in her victory as friends and competitors offered her congratulations. As the night drew on the band began playing slower songs, and Lou and Milly were finally able to convince their husbands to dance with them. Johnny and Lucas both reminded them to be careful in their conditions. As the couples got up to dance, Cassie turned to Mark.

“Aren't you going to ask me to dance with you?”

“No.” Mark replied with a teasing grin.

Cassie gave Mark a good slap on the arm before he stood and slightly bowed.

“May I have this dance?”

“No.” Cassie smiled back as she took his hand.

The two joined the other couples and gently swayed back and forth to the music.

Cassie and Mark held quiet conversation as they danced, almost numb to the rest of the world.

...But as Cassie chuckled at a comment Mark had made, he watched her eyes look past him and fall on something behind him.

Mark watched in confusion as Cassie's face lost all color, and suddenly caught his wife as she fell limp.

Hearing their son desperately call Cassie's name, Lucas and Milly turned in Mark's direction and saw a small crowd forming as the music stopped. They made their way to the center of the crowd as Doc Burrage ordered Mark to carry his wife to the clinic.

Not even noticing the fairly large crowd that followed him, Mark quickly carried his wife to the office and laid a still unconscious Cassie on the examination table in the back room.

“Lucas, get everyone except family out of the waiting room.” Doc ordered. “Everyone except Mark, out.”

The doctor even eyed Mark, silently asking him if he'd be able to control himself. Mark nodded in reply before starting to move Cassie's hair out of her face.

As the door closed, Doc asked Mark what happened.

“I don't know,” Mark began to reply. “We were dancing and her face turned white before she passed out.”

“Has she been feeling alright?” Doc asked as he reached for the smelling salts.

“She’s been fine. She looked past me and I guess she saw something, but I don't know what. Before I could look she had gone limp.”

Doc didn't ask any more questions as they saw Cassie beginning to rouse. Mark intently watched his wife, waiting for affirmation that she would be alright.

Cassie suddenly bolted upright as she screamed Mark’s name.

“Cass, it's alright…” Mark said as he gently tried to help Cassie lie back down.

“No, Mark, it's not!” Cassie cried. “He's here! He's going to kill you!”

“Cassie, no one's going to kill me.” Mark tried to assure as he looked to Doc for help.

“Mark, he had a gun and was going to shoot you!” Cassie cried, gasping for breath.

Mark could see his wife's body shaking, he tried calming her down as Doc crossed the room for something.

“Cassie, no one here is going to shoot me. This town is full of friends and family-”

“Mark, please!” Cassie's eyes suddenly shifted to the door and she began yelling at an unseen foe. “You can't, please! Stop!”

“Cassie!” Mark called as he tried to stop Cassie from getting up, but now she didn't even see Mark in the room with her. “Doc, do something!”

“You can't!” Cassie yelled as she fought against Mark.

“Hold her still.” Burrage calmly ordered.

It broke Mark’s heart to restrain his wife as he was. She was crying out in fear, and all he could do was pin her down on the bed. Half of what Cassie was saying didn't even make sense anymore, and Mark was at a complete loss. He was so intent on watching his wife, Mark didn't even notice Doc injecting Cassie with something. As the agonizing minutes passed by, Cassie began to calm and drift to sleep. When she fell limp again, Mark looked at Doc in concern.

“Don't worry, Mark.” Burrage assured. “I gave her a light sedative that won't last long.”

“Doc, what happened? Why did she start fighting me?”

“I'm not sure, Mark. Something must have triggered a traumatic memory that sent her into a state of shock.”

“But what-” Mark stopped short as he remembered having to hold Cassie down the night after they rescued her from DeFord. “Do you know what could have triggered a memory from last year, with DeFord and Osborne?”

“You would be a better judge of that than I; however, most of it must have been made up by her brain, because there's nothing outside she has seen a hundred times before.”

“There’s no telling what the shadows could have made her think she saw, as well…”

Doc could tell there was some more and took a step closer.

“What is it, Mark?”

“... It's just that I know she's told me before that she sees the two of them everywhere she goes. But she's never reacted like this.”

“I guess we'll have to wait and see.” Doc paused before going on. “I'll see if I can't get some of the people cleared out of the waiting room and get to the papers on my desk. If she wakes, try to keep her calm and get me.”

Mark nodded in response and watched the doctor leave the room. His mind was brought back to those long months just over a year ago.

He remembered being held against his will by DeFord for nearly four weeks. DeFord had taunted Mark with his family, and with Cassie. Although DeFord had kept Mark well fed, Mark still shuttered as he remembered being tied up for so long. Alone, with hardly any light during the day and no light at night. He had wondered if he would ever see his parents again; if he would ever be able to see Cassie again. It had worn on his mind, and Mark would be lying if he didn't admit that he still had the occasional nightmare.

Moving forward several months, Mark remembered the day he had intended on proposing to Cassie. They were riding along when Mark suddenly heard a gunshot and then felt searing pain in his head. Mark tumbled from his horse, hardly hearing Cassie scream his name. Cassie ran to Mark and knelt beside him as she tried to turn him over. Mark remembered Cassie suddenly tightening her grip on him as she began to scream. Mark’s vision was blurred, but he could see Cassie being drug away from him, crying for help. DeFord was already in the process of yelling at one of his men for taking a headshot while Mark tried to drag himself towards Cassie. Suddenly, Mark felt a hard blow on the back of his head before he passed out.

A week later, Mark was desperately yelling for Cassie as he ran into the cabin. He remembered her eyes when he finally got a good look at her. They were tired, scared… full of grief.

He remembered how happy he was to be getting both of them away from that cabin. He remembered the conversations they had in the days and weeks to come. They had both been left wondering if DeFord had killed the other, they had both been alone to deal with their fears and grief. Neither Mark or Cassie were the same after that, and cherished each other more than ever.

Mark knew what fears his wife had gone through then; when their love was a fraction of what it was now. Mark couldn't imagine what Cassie had thought through if her mind told her DeFord or Osborne were in town.

There was a slight knock on the door before Mark looked up to see his Pa enter the room.

Lucas took a seat beside his son, putting a comforting hand on Mark’s shoulder.

“All Doc would say was that he had to give her a sedative and that he wasn't positive what was going on. He said to ask you for the details…?”

“...We were dancing and she looked behind me. All of a sudden her face turned white and she went limp. When we woke her up…”

“We heard. She's not running a fever, is she?”

“No, it was almost like shock. Before Doc put her back to sleep, she wasn't even recognizing me.” Mark slightly paused before going on. “Something must've happened to trigger her memory from last spring. It's the only other time I've seen her so… terrified.”

“...Doc is kicking us out of the office, seeing as how it will be a short while before she wakes. If you need anything, let us know.”

Lucas began to stand, but Mark's words stopped him.

“...Pa, I-” Mark wasn't sure if he could go on.

Lucas looked into his son's eyes and realized that Mark’s typical confidence wasn't there. His son was scared.

“...Would you mind staying a while?”

“Of course. I'm going to let your Ma know, then I'll be right back.”

When Lucas returned, father and son only had a brief conversation. As hard as it was, Lucas left Mark to his thoughts for the most part. He realized that Mark just needed him there, silently.

About forty-five minutes later, Mark and Lucas saw Cassie beginning to move her head back and forth. While Lucas went to get Doc, Mark took his wife's hand and stared whispering encouraging words.

Cassie’s eyes fluttered open, fear still there.
“Cassie?” Mark asked. “Are you alright?”

“Did… did they arrest him?”

“Arrest who?”

“DeFord.” Cassie replied as she tried sitting up, but Mark encouraged her to stay down.

“Cassie, DeFord's dead.”

“But Mark,I saw him. I know I did!”

“Sweetheart, the sun was setting, shadows falling, people moving around… it wasn't him. DeFord died over a year ago.”

“But I-”

“Cassie,” Lucas began as he and Doc entered the room. “My bullet killed the man. I watched him die.”

Cassie look hopelessly between the three men.

“Oh Mark, I'm going crazy!” Cassie cried as she curled up on the bed.

Mark sat on the bed beside his wife and lovingly ran his hand up and down her arm.

“It's alright, Cassie. It's been a long, hot week. The lighting could've made you think you saw anything.”

Doc motioned for Lucas to follow him back out to the hallway.

“I think I'm going to have Cassie stay the night here. She's probably dehydrated and needs some rest, and I'm sure she'd like to be kept from the prying eyes outside. Do you want to let the rest of the family know… she just needs some rest?”

“Sure Doc, thanks.”

Doc Burrage gave it a few minutes before re-entering the room. He repeated the same thing he had told Lucas, and explained where Lucas had gone.

Mark thanked the doctor and helped his wife to a different room that Doc said they were welcome to stay in for the night.

As they lied there, Cassie expressed just how embarrassed she was by the whole ordeal.

“Cassie, don't be embarrassed. We went through a lot last year, and some of that will stay with us forever. We just gotta live forward, like we always talk about. We can't let things like this pull us down. I love you, and I can't tell you how grateful I am to have you with me. DeFord's gone, he won't touch you again.” Mark kissed the top of his wife's head as he wrapped his arms around her. “Don't let him play with your mind. He's gone.”

5MC5

At first, Mark noticed his wife was quite jumpy, but as time passed, Cassie's nervousness dissipated and she was soon back to her old self.

Although things were getting busier and busier with the cattle and building on to his parents’ house, Mark made sure his parents had an enjoyable second wedding anniversary. He wanted to make it extra special since they hadn't been able to celebrate their first. Mark, Cassie, and Rachael prepared a special dinner and dessert for just the two of them. After cleaning up, the three made their way up the hill for the evening to give them a night alone.


Mark and Lucas enjoyed working the cattle together that summer; perhaps more than they ever had before. They felt that they had finally arrived at a good balance between partners and father and son that made their bond all the more sweeter. However, as July came to a close, Mark realized there was a problem.

“What do you mean we aren't both going on the cattle drive?” Lucas asked, more than a little confused. “Mark, your uncle isn't going to be there because of Lou being due any day now. I need you to go.”

“I know Pa. I'm not the one who needs to stay home. You are.”

“Me?”

“Pa, Ma's only a few weeks behind Aunt Lou. You need to stay home for the same reasons as Uncle Johnny!”

“Mark, your uncle doesn't own a ranch. I do. I have to go.”

“Pa, me and the hired hands handled it fine last year. You can't miss the birth of your second child, Ma would never forgive you!”

“Mark, she understands.”

“Pa, you can't deny that you want to be here.”

“Of course I want to be here. But part of life is accepting responsibility.”

“Pa, please stay. Like I said, we handled it fine last year, we can do it again. I don't want you to miss this.”

Lucas saw earnestness, but also stubborn determination in his son's eyes.

“...Are you sure?”

“Positive.”

“Mark, I really appreciate your willingness to do this.”

“Pa, don't think a thing about it. Just make sure that sibling of mine gets here safely.”

As the week pressed on, Lucas helped Mark ready for the cattle drive while Rachael and Cassie helped Milly prepare for the baby.

Mark had one errand he wanted to personally run in town before he left, but before he realized it, he was spending time with Cassie the night before the drive. He didn't want to cut their time short, but he also knew he needed to run to town before he left. As tired as Mark knew he was going to be that night, Mark got up two hours early the morning of the cattle drive and rode to town using the shortcut.

He knocked on Doc Burrage’s door and waited for the man to open up.

“Mark, what can I do for you?” The doctor cheerfully inquired.

“Sorry to bother you so early, but could I have a minute?”

“Of course, come on in. I've been up for a while, anyway.”

Mark entered the doctor's home and took a seat at the table.

“Aren't you leaving for a cattle drive today?”

“Yes sir, but I had a request to make of you, first.”

“If I can do it, I will. What do you need?”

“It's Cassie. We've started moving on from the miscarriage, but it still isn't easy. I know it's been difficult for her to watch Ma, Aunt Lou, and Laura progress in their pregnancies… especially with Laura being right about where Cassie would be. I'm worried about Cassie becoming depressed when Ma and Aunt Lou have their babies. I know you have a hundred other things to do, but would you keep an eye out for me? I'd ask Uncle Johnny, but he's stressed enough.”

“I understand, Mark. I'm happy to help in any way I can.”

“I really appreciate it.” Mark paused before going on. “I don't think Cassie's told Anna anything, so could you not-”

“You don't need to say another word, I understand.”

“Doc, you don't know how much this means to me.”

“I understand.”

Mark looked into the doctor's eyes and realized that Burrage wasn't just saying it. He really did understand.

“... I'll see you in a few weeks.” Mark said as he started out the door.

“So long, Mark.”

When Mark arrived back at the ranch, Lucas was just coming out of his home.

“Where did you go?”

“Had to run an errand in town. Didn't have time before this morning.”

“You could've had one of us run it for you, you're going to be exhausted by tonight.”

“It's alright, I needed the ride.”

“So what ever happened to building that barn?”

“I guess we just got so busy with everything else, I forgot about it. Maybe this fall, before the cold weather hits.”

“Just let me know when you want us to start on it.”

“We better get started on the morning chores, I gotta get out of here soon.”

An hour later, Mark was kissing his wife goodbye. It got more difficult every time he had to say goodbye, and today was no exception.

“Be careful, I need you back in one piece.” Cassie said as Mark mounted up.

“Don't worry, Mrs. McCain,” Thomas, one of the hands, began. “I'll make sure he doesn't get himself into any trouble.”

“I'm holding you to that.” Cassie replied with a smile. “Have a good time.”

6MC6

Over a week had passed since Mark had left on the cattle drive, and the McCains headed into town for their weekly supply pick up.

“Lou, I'm surprised to see you.” Lucas commented as they entered the general store.

“Doc said taking a walk might help get things going. This baby is just as stubborn as Maddy was.”

“Are you managing alright?” Milly asked.

“There's not much to manage. My staff won't let me near the hotel, and Laura has been helping around the house; though she needs to take it easier than she is. This is my second pregnancy, this is her first.”

“Could you use any help?” Rachael volunteered. “If Aunt Milly and Uncle Lucas were alright with it, I wouldn't mind helping you out with Maddy until the baby's born.”

“I'm sure Milly can use you at the ranch.”

“I can help Aunt Milly.” Cassie assured.

“Lucas, I think we best get to Doc’s…” Milly suddenly said as she grabbed his arm.

“Milly?” Lucas asked with concern.

Milly let out a loud gasp as she clutched her stomach.

“Don't just stand there, Cowboy!” Lou exclaimed. “Get yer wife to Doc’s!”

Lucas immediately began helping Milly to the clinic; Lou, Rachael, and Cassie quickly following.

Doc and Lucas got Milly settled in one of the rooms while Anna started boiling water and collecting blankets.

Lou, Rachael, and Cassie sat in the waiting room as the minutes ticked by. Not long had passed before Lucas came out from the back room.

“Is something wrong?” Cassie asked with concern.

“Doc kicked me out.”

The women chuckled as Lucas dropped into a chair. Lou's chuckle was cut short as she suddenly felt pain shooting through her back.

“Aunt Lou?” Cassie asked as she noticed Lou holding her hand to her back.

“It's nothing, I'm fine.” Lou smiled.

Small conversation continued, the women trying to keep Lucas’s mind off of Milly, but it was difficult with her cries becoming louder and more intense.

As time passed, Cassie and Rachael noticed Lou becoming more and more uncomfortable until she finally let out a loud groan.

“Lou?” Lucas asked with concern.

“I think it’s time…” Lou replied before letting out a loud cry.

Lucas helped Lou to a room while he hollered for Doc.

“What is it?” Burrage asked as he met them in the hallway.

“Lou's-” Lucas’s statement was cut off by another cry from Lou, then Milly.

“Put her in room three, I'll send Anna in. Cassie, could you help? And Rachael, run for Johnny.”

Rachael was already halfway out the door as Doc gave the instructions. She ran down to the Marshal's office, but only saw Micah. She started to turn, but his voice stopped her.

“Where's the fire?” Micah teased.

“Aunt Lou's gone into labor, I need Uncle Johnny.”

“He’s over at the livery. Lucas know? I'm sure Johnny will need a little support.”

“Well yes, but Uncle Lucas might be needing some, too.”

“How do you mean?”

“Aunt Milly went into labor almost an hour ago.”

“Why didn't anyone tell me?” Micah asked as he stood and started following Rachael out of the office.

Micah and Rachael entered the livery to see Nils talking with Johnny. Rachael didn't hesitate in announcing the news.

“Uncle Johnny, Lou's gone into labor, down at Doc's!”

“She what??” Johnny asked as his eyes grew wide.

He didn't wait for a response and ran to the doctor's office, Micah and Rachael close behind. When they entered, Lucas had to try to keep Johnny from going back to Lou's room.

“But-” Johnny began to protest.

“I know it's hard. Let Doc take care of her. We'd just be in the way.”

Rachael went back to help in whatever way she could. She did a lot of running back and forth between Lou and Milly’s rooms, the water pump, and the waiting room.

Lucas and Johnny both sat helplessly in the waiting room, wishing it would all end. They knew what awaited them was wonderful, but it didn't diminish the pain of hearing their wives’ screams.

Two hours later, Anna came out to the waiting room.

“Uncle Johnny, you have another daughter.” She happily announced. “You can come back now.”

Johnny didn't hesitate in going through the door. Anna saw the concerned look on Lucas's face and took a few steps closer.

“This is Aunt Milly’s first pregnancy, it's normal for things to take a bit longer. Don't worry, she's doing great.”

Lucas heard another cry through the walls, not exactly reassuring him.

“Come on, Lucas-boy,” Micah began. “I'll get you some coffee.”

The two men walked out of the office and down the street to the hotel. Micah ordered them two coffees and studied his friend for a moment before speaking up.

“Lucas-boy, you know as well as I do that these things just take time. Don't worry about Milly, she and the baby will be fine.”

“Mark's birth was so much quicker than this…”

“Every child is different. Apparently this baby has a bit of that McCain stubbornness in them.”

“Let's hope that phase passes quickly.”

“Have you heard from Mark?”

“No, it'll be a while yet until he gets to market.”

“Well at least he'll have a bit of good news waiting for him when he gets there. Oh, and I know you were planning on taking a shift, but seeing as how you're going to have another child on your hands, don't worry about deputing. I'll get Nils and Ned to help out.”

“Are you sure?”

“Lucas-boy, focus on your family. North fork will take care of itself.”

-----

A man sat alone in the hotel's restaurant, quietly sipping his coffee. He watched the comings and goings of the town, and was surprised just how long he had gone without seeing a lawman. He supposed it would make his job easier, not having lawmen crawling all over the place, but he needed to find his target first. So he continued sitting and watching.

The waitress was refilling his coffee for the third time when he saw two men enter the room. One was tall and carried a rifle, the other was short and had a star pinned to his vest.

The man listened to their conversation, only picking up bits and pieces. Eventually, he left money on the table for the coffee and slowly started walking towards the hotel lobby, trying to hear the men's conversation better as he passed.

“...Oh, and I know you were planning on taking a shift, but seeing as how you're going to have another child on your hands, don't worry about deputing. I'll get Nils and Ned to help out.”

The man cracked a smile and quickened his pace as he headed for his room. Upon entering the room, the man started loosening his gunbelt as a contented smile crossed his face.

“You're mine, Gibbs.”

-----

Several hours later, Lucas found himself pacing in the waiting room again. Finally, Milly’s cries had stopped and a smile spread across Lucas's face as the sound of a baby crying rang through the office.

Minutes later, Doc came out and invited Lucas to go see his wife.

Lucas didn't hesitate and headed straight for Milly’s room. He softly knocked on the door before opening it and walking inside to see his wife holding a small bundle in her arms.

“Come meet your daughter, Lucas.” Milly said with a tired smile.

Lucas took a seat next to the bed and waited for Milly to finish nursing before taking his child in his arms. He looked down into the small face and smiled at his daughter.

Milly watched Lucas interact with their daughter. She could see the tenderness and love pouring out of her husband.


Some time later, there was another knock at the door before Rachael stuck her head inside.

“Can I meet my cousin?”

“Come on in, Rachael.” Milly invited.

After Rachael took a seat, Lucas handed his daughter to her.

“She looks a lot like you, Aunt Milly. Except for the hair.”

“She's lucky her hair color is the only thing she gets from me.” Lucas chuckled.

“Have you decided on a name?”

“Lydia Grace.” Milly replied.

There was another knock on the door before Johnny came in with a baby in his arms.

“My wife wanted you to meet the newest member of the Gibbs family.” Johnny said as he handed Milly the infant.

“I'm guessing she's not letting you back in her room without our newest addition, either?” Lucas asked.

“You know her well.”

“Well, what's her name?” Milly asked as she looked from the baby to Johnny.

“Madison Rose Gibbs.”

“Are you crazy?” Rachael asked laughingly. “Do you know how hard it is going to be to keep the two of your daughters straight?”

“Blame their mother, she insisted.” Johnny joked.

“That's not how I remember the conversation happening.” Lou said as she and Cassie entered the room.

“Lou, what on earth are you doing? Get back to your room!” Johnny exclaimed.

“I'm fine. You were taking too long, I want to meet my niece!”

7MC7

They had made camp for the night, and all was quiet as Mark rode through the herd, softly singing to the cattle.

Mark enjoyed this life. Keeping the cattle satisfied through the winter, coming upon new calves in the spring, working the cattle through the hot summer, and finally reaping the reward shortly before fall hit. He especially enjoyed the several weeks out on the trail. It gave him time to take a step back and appreciate the life he had, and to get his fill of trail riding for the year. And though he was still enjoying it this year, he had to admit he was a bit more eager to get home with a wife waiting for him. He also hoped he had a cousin and sibling waiting for him when he got there.

Mark was getting ready to turn BlueBoy around and head back towards the center of camp when he heard the unmistakable sound of shots being fired fairly close by. His attempts to keep the cattle calm were futile, and soon all the hands were up and chasing after the cattle. Mark was yelling orders as they tried to surround the herd and bring them to a stop, but it didn't really do much. Mark didn't even want to think about all the ground they were losing as he again pushed his heels into BlueBoy’s flanks and urged the horse faster.

The cattle ran hard and fast, blinded by fear. It was some time before the cattle finally came to a stop, and even longer for everyone to get reorganized. Stampedes were to be expected, but they definitely were not very welcome. Mark sighed as he sat against a tree and tossed the canteen aside.

“How much ground you figure we lost?” Pete asked as he took a seat beside Mark.

“Three, four miles. Not as bad as it could've been, but it definitely doesn't help matters.”

“You think the cattle will be able to hold out until we find another water hole?”

“I certainly hope so. I'm sending someone to scout first thing tomorrow morning.”

“I can do it.” Pete volunteered.

“You sure?”

“I know I'm new at this whole cattle thing, but I certainly know what I'm doing when it comes to looking for water. This land was where I grew up, I have a pretty good idea of where a hole is 'round here.”

“Well if you're offering, I'll take you up on it.”

“I'll take off right afore dawn.”

Pete did just that, but he came up with bad news. The water hole he had in mind was dried up and he went back out in search for a second. It was a long, hot day and the cattle were becoming more and more restless. Mark knew that if the cattle went much longer without water, they would have another stampede on their hands.

The hours drug on, the afternoon sun beating down on the cattle and men. Finally, Pete came riding back up with news of a water hole a mile on. The men drove the cattle towards it, but they didn't have to do much pushing. The cattle could smell the awaiting water and hurried towards their destination.

Both the men and cattle got their fill of water and before too long were on their way again. However, they hadn't been back on the trail long before a couple of the hands noticed something.

“Thomas, why's Mark drifting towards the back?” Pete asked the much older hand.

“He don't look too good.” James commented.

“...I’m sure he's just taking a break. Pete, why don't you take lead for a while?”

“But-”

“Go on, you need the experience. I'll talk to Mark for a while.”

Thomas sent his horse into a lope and casually made his way towards Mark. They rode side by side for a while before Thomas finally decided to say something.

“Mark, are you alright?”

Mark slightly jumped, having been lost in his own thoughts.

“... What'd you say?”

“You alright?”

“...Yes, course I am.”

“You sure?”

“Why wouldn't I be?” Mark nervously replied.

“Just wondering, you looked like you might fall asleep in the saddle. We wouldn't want the boss to catch you doing that, now would we?”

“...Of course we wouldn't.”

“... Right.” Thomas rode beside Mark the rest of the day and called for camp around sun set.

Shortly before supper, he grabbed Mark and quietly slipped from camp.

“You have no idea what's going on, do you?” Thomas asked after they had walked a ways.

“Who are you? Where am I? Who am I?””

“My name's Thomas Parker, I'm your head hand. You're on your way to sell your family’s cattle for the year. You had a head injury a few months back that makes your memory sort of come and go.”

“You called me Mark earlier?”

“Mark McCain. Don't worry, your memory will return shortly, I'm sure.”

“Do the other men know?”

“I'm the only one you told, so no, they don't.”

Mark stood there awkwardly for a few moments, unsure of what to do. The older hand put a hand on Mark's shoulder as he gestured for them to sit.

“Look, I know this can't be easy,” Thomas began. “But it'll return shortly, and I'll cover for you until it does.”

“You said this was my family's cattle? I have a family?”

“Your Pa and you started a cattle ranch ten years ago in North Fork, New Mexico. Your father remarried a few years ago, and you have a lovely wife of almost a year.”

“And why isn't my father here?”

“Your Ma is pregnant with your sibling, due any time now.”

“...Well, thank you, Thomas. I appreciate-”

“Don't mention it. Every year you and your Pa give me a job, no questions asked, busted hand and all. The least I can do is fill you in when your mind decides to take a vacation.”

“You said I had a head injury…?”

“It's a bit complicated, we'll let your memory come back on that one.”

The men shortly returned to camp, Mark never straying too far from the one person who held his secret. When he woke the next morning, he found his memories still absent.

The men rode on, all but Thomas unaware of Mark's condition. It wasn't until two days later they arrived at market. Thomas gave orders to men to get organized while he and Mark quietly slipped away in order to make it to a doctor's. Before they got there, however, a familiar voice called out to Mark. He turned around, suddenly recognizing his lifelong friend.

“Jake, it's good to see you!” Mark exclaimed as he shook hands with the man. “I thought you were in Texas?”

“Passing through on assignment. What brings you out here?”

“Just finishing up a cattle drive. How have the Rangers been treating you?”

“As well as can be expected.” Jacob laughed. “At least I made it through basic in one piece.”

“You really need to visit some time, everyone misses you.”

“Hopefully sometime in the next year I can. How's my Pa?”

“Doing fine. They had to let a lot of men go at the mill, but they kept him.”

“Sorry to hear about the others. Tony and Richard keeping themselves out if trouble?”

“Just as much as you and I ever could.” Mark smirked. “They're staying away from the butcher's though.”

“How's your wife?”

“Doing fine. What about you? Any special young ladies caught your eye?”

“Perhaps.” Jake replied with a slight grin.

“What's that supposed to mean?”

“You'll have to wait and see.” Jacob couldn't help but laugh at Mark's expression. “I'd really like to sit and chat, but I've gotta get a move on. I should be home for Christmas; I'll see you then.”

“Ride safe.”

“I will.”

“See you later!”

Thomas waited for the man to leave before he spoke up.

“We feeling a little better?”

“I’m fine, no need to see a doctor. All that riding during the stampede probably rattled my brain a little too much.”

“Let's get settled into the hotel.”

The men walked that direction and began to register. As the clerk read Mark's name, he recognized it.

“A telegram came in for you, been waiting here quite some time. They sent instructions to save it for you.”

Mark took the telegram and the room key and made his way to his room. He dropped his saddlebags before dropping onto the bed and reading the telegram.

“MARK McCAIN
ORO VALLEY, ARIZONA

Lydia Grace born August fourth
Milly and baby doing well

McCAIN, LUCAS
NORTH FORK, NEW MEXICO”

Mark went down to the telegraph office to send a reply, but he discovered it was closed, due to lines being knocked down. More than ready to sleep in a real bed, Mark returned to the hotel and hit the sack.

When Mark woke the next morning, he had a bad feeling come over him that he couldn't manage to shake. He didn't get these very often, but when he did it usually wasn't good. He tried to put it aside, but memories of what had happened when he had this feeling before wouldn't leave him be.

However, work had to get done. Trying to ignore this unwelcome feeling, Mark tended to the task of selling the cattle. He was disappointed when he discovered that the price of cattle had dropped significantly since he left home, and wouldn't be getting near what he expected. Regardless, Mark paid the hands and tried to get to bed for the night… but sleep wouldn't come. He tossed and turned, his unsettling feeling refusing to leave him. Early the next morning, Mark rose and gathered his few things before getting on the next train that would take him closer to home. It was a long day with several train changes and finally a four hour ride on Blue Boy to North Fork, but eventually he saw his hometown come into view. The streets were quiet as he entered, though plenty of noise could be heard coming from Sweeney's.

Mark left Blue Boy in front of the hotel and stopped in to see if his aunt and uncle were still there. He made his way to Lou's office and knocked on the door, but there was no reply. He began walking away, but suddenly could hear cries coming from the other side of the door. He didn't bother knocking again and let himself into the room. Maddy was asleep on a pallet of blankets beside a cradle with a baby inside. Lou was at her desk, ever so slowly looking up at Mark.

“What's wrong?” Mark asked as he took a few steps closer to his aunt.

As Lou went to wrap her arms around Mark, all Mark could think about was the last time he had found Lou crying in her office.

After a few moments, Mark took a step back from his aunt as he looked deep into her eyes.

“Where's Pa?” Mark asked, dead to the rest of the world.

“Mark, it's not good…”

“...Is he alive?” Mark was fighting the tears that burned in his eyes.

Lou let out a long sigh before replying.

“... He's alive, but it's… Doc's not sure if-”

Mark didn't let his aunt finish. He couldn't. He simply turned around and left the room, walked out of the hotel, and headed straight for Doc Burrage’s. When he arrived, he found Doc in room five, a stethoscope to Lucas's unconscious body.

An unsteady, “What happened?” Was all Mark could ask.

“We don't know who, or why, but Johnny and Micah are out looking for them…”

“What happened to him?” Mark asked again.

Doc briefly paused as he saw the pain in Mark's eyes.

“...Someone shot your Pa in the back three times. It doesn't look good, Mark…”

“Thanks, Doc.”

The doctor looked over the man standing before him. Mark was completely crushed... completely dead. The doctor slowly took his leave, allowing Mark to take a seat beside his Pa.

Without shame, Mark allowed the tears to fall. He couldn't keep it in, he couldn't pretend he didn't feel anything. His father was lying before him… nearly dead.

“Not again,” Mark begged in a whisper. “You can't do this to me again…”

8MC8

“Cassie, Milly, I'm glad you're here.” The Doctor stated as the two women entered the clinic.

“We would've been here sooner, but Lydia was giving me trouble.” Milly explained.

The doctor allowed himself to softly chuckle as he realized he would have yet another stubborn McCain on his hands.

“How's Lucas?” Milly asked.

“No change. However, I should let you know that Mark rode into town last night.”

Both women stared blankly at the doctor.

“Mark's here?” Cassie finally asked. “How did he know to come?”

“I don't know… he was devastated, to say the least…”

“...Aunt Milly, would you mind…?”

“Of course, go talk to your husband. I'll be in shortly.”

Cassie gave her aunt a hug before making her way to Lucas's room. She softly knocked on the door before letting herself inside.

“...Mark?”

Mark looked up as his wife entered the room. He went to embrace her, and held her for a long time.

Though on the outside he looked composed, Cassie knew her husband was hurting on the inside. The way he wrapped his arms around her said it all. Cassie eventually pulled back ever so slightly as she put a hand to his cheek and looked deep into Mark's eyes.

“...Are you alright?”

There was an extremely long pause as Mark tried to reply without letting the tears fall. Finally, he felt stable enough to answer.

“...I knew something was wrong. I could feel it. I just didn't expect to come home and find…” Mark's voice trailed off as he looked at his Pa.

Cassie took Mark's hand and they both sat down next to Lucas's bedside.

“...What happened?” Mark finally asked.

“...Your Pa and I came into town to run errands. He dropped me off at the general store and went to run his own errands. When I was coming out, I looked down the street and I saw a shotgun barrel sticking out of a hotel window. I screamed your Pa’s name, and as he turned around…” Cassie swallowed hard as she relived the moment. “They shot him. Micah and Johnny went chasing after the criminal… still no word, but the lines have been down all over… which is why we couldn't telegraph you.”

“Are you alright, Cassie?”

“...As well as can be expected. It was hard to watch and get over, but there's nothing I could've done. Thankfully I yelled when I did… Doc said he would be dead if they had shot his chest.”

“... I'm glad you were there.”

Husband and wife sat together for a long time. Cassie could hear the grief and worry in Mark's voice, and wanted to find a way to comfort her husband; but he was so distant... so lost, she didn't know how to help him.

A while later, Milly entered the room. Mark gave his Ma a hug before she looked him over with a concerned smile.

“Mark, are you alright?”

“I will be…” Mark briefly paused as he realized what he needed to do. “I need to tend to things out at the ranch.”

“Mark-”

“Ma, I wish I could stay, but you know things have to be taken care of. I'll be back this evening.”

Mark didn't like the idea of leaving his Pa… he wanted to be there when something changed… but it wasn't just the two of them anymore. He had a family to look out for, to provide for.

“Mark, you need some sleep.” Cassie stated with concern.

“I'll catch a few hours at the ranch, maybe when I'm back tonight, I can meet my little sister?”

“Of course, meet us over at Catherine's.” Milly replied with a smile. “...Mark, when you get home… I want you to go to my room and find my jewelry box on the dresser. On the bottom is an envelope with your name in it.”

Mark gave his mother a confused stare before she went on.

“Your father gave it to me years ago when he went chasing after Marcelo. I was supposed to give it to you if you woke up before he got back… but you didn't. I think now would be a good time for you to have it.”

“Thanks, Ma.”

Mark hugged the two women goodbye and headed for the door. He stopped in the doorway and looked back at his Pa.
Milly and Cassie both saw the evident worry in Mark's face; the burden that was weighing heavily on him.

Mark turned and left the office, feeling utterly helpless. When Cassie was missing, he could go find her. When his Ma was sick, they could take her to the hospital. When Cassie got sick that spring, they at least thought they were waiting for the medicine to start helping. Now all he could do was wait and pray that his Pa would wake up.

When Mark arrived at the ranch, he tended to the chores and checked the cattle. He tried to solely think on his task at hand, but memories flooded his mind. All the fear, guilt, and grief came back from the week Lucas had “died.” Mark tried reminding himself that it wasn't real… but to him, it had been.

When Mark returned to the homestead, he followed his mother's instructions and retrieved the note. Mark walked out to the front porch and slid down one of the posts as he looked at the land before him. In his mind’s eye, Mark saw himself and Lucas racing towards the barn. He watched as he stacked wood that his Pa chopped. He could hear his father's voice as they sat talking in the late hours of the night.

Mark let a tear fall down his face as he opened the letter in his hand.

“Mark,

I can't tell you how much I wish I could be there with you now. I love you more than anything else in the world, but I can't let Marcelo do this to someone else. I pray you understand that I want to be there with you, but even though I'm miles away, our bond continues to connect us. Son, I can't truthfully say I know how this will end, but know that whatever happens, I love you, and I am proud of you. You're strong Mark. Others may not see it, you may not see it. But deep inside, when it matters; when it counts, you're strong. Stay strong for me, and mind Milly and Micah. I'll be back as soon as I can. I love you, Son.

-Pa”

“Come back, Pa.” Mark begged. “Please, come back.”

-----

Cassie looked out her mother's window and saw Mark riding up on Blue Boy. She couldn't help but notice the exhaustion and worry written all over her husband's face. Cassie went outside and met Mark on the front porch.

He didn't say anything at first, but simply wrapped his arms around his wife.

“Did you get any rest?” Cassie asked.

“I'll be fine.” Mark replied, trying to put a smile on his face. “I hear I have a baby sister?”

Cassie gave Mark a concerned look, but took his hand and began making her way inside.

“Lydia Grace was born just a few hours after Lou gave birth.”

“When I got into town I completely forgot Lou had been pregnant… I didn't even realize I was looking at her newborn in her office. Was it a boy or girl?”

“It was a girl, Madison Rose.”

Mark looked up to see Milly and his mother-in-law coming in from another room, a small bundle in Catherine's arms.

“Mark, this is your little sister.” Catherine happily announced.

Mark took the baby in his arms, a wave of emotions he wasn't expecting hitting him.

Cassie watched as Mark tried to say something, but he couldn't. He finally just smiled down at the child, but unlike the other two women in the room, Cassie could see the hurt in his eyes.

Cassie quickly began a conversation with her mother and Aunt as Mark struggled to keep himself composed. Finally, Lydia began crying, and Milly had to take her into the bedroom to feed her. Mark excused himself to take care of Blue Boy, but Cassie knew he was just using the horse as an excuse. Mark was needing some time alone.

Several hours later, Mark and Cassie left to get a room at the hotel for the night. Mark had stayed quiet the entire evening, and Cassie was worried about him… but she sensed that she needed to let Mark start the conversation. As they got ready for bed that evening, Cassie waiting for Mark to say something. When he finally did, it wasn't what she had expected.

“Cassie, I'm sorry I wasn't here when the babies were born.”

“...Mark, what do you mean? I know you had the cattle to take care of. Why are you apologising to me? It wasn't… it wasn't our child…”

“Exactly…” Mark paused as he sat down in a chair. “Cassie, I was expecting this to be somewhat difficult… but I didn't realize just how… how hard it would be.”

Cassie walked across the room and knelt beside the chair Mark was in, taking his hand.

“Mark, I think about our baby every day. I wish I was still expecting, but that doesn't take away from the fact that I'm happy for your parents. It can be hard, tending to one of the babies and knowing that I won't be tending to my own soon, but I am glad I was here… especially now with your Pa.”

There was a long silence before Mark stood and began making his way to the door.

“Mark, please.”

Mark turned back around and looked into his wife's pleading eyes.

“I made the mistake of shutting you out when I was hurting. Please don't do the same thing I did. Talk to me, Mark… I want to be here for you.”

Mark slowly nodded as he took the few steps to the bed and sat down, Cassie quickly taking a seat beside him.

“When your Ma handed me Lydia… I almost couldn't take it. I've almost been in shock since I got home, but I've also been very… aware, of circumstances. As I looked down at her, the pain of the loss of our child hit me harder than it has in a long time.” Mark paused before going on. “I knew this before… but as I held her… the realization of what I'm going to be responsible for if Pa dies… Cassie, I can't do it. I told Pa the day we got married that I needed him more than ever. The same is still true. I can't lose him, Cassie. I still need him. In the note Ma told me to read… he said I was strong. But I'm not strong, Cassie. I can't keep it all together. I can't do this alone. What am I going to do if he dies? I… I can't lose my Pa…”

“Mark, you are strong. Strong in character, and that's what is important. I couldn't imagine being married to anyone besides you. I need someone who can feel emotions with me, someone who can cry with me, a man who is willing to express his love to me. Your father instilled in you strength of character. That doesn't mean we can't worry, that doesn't mean we can't cry, and that certainly doesn't mean we can't admit we need help. But it does mean that you can't let this make you run away. We don't know what's going to happen to your Pa, but he'll always be with you. Guiding you, directing you; through the strong man he instilled inside of you. There are things in life that are going to hurt. Losing… losing our baby… hurt. The possibility of…” Cassie swallowed as the tears fell down her face. “...Of losing your Pa, hurts. But I know you Mark, and I know you are strong enough to embrace the pain, and live moving forward. I know we can make it farther than we have.”

Mark put his forehead to Cassie's as he used his thumb to wipe away her tears. On the inside, Mark was trying to keep himself from crying.

“I love you, Cassie.” Mark gave his wife a kiss before going on. “I love you, and I don't know what I'd do without you.”

9MC9

Over the next several days, Cassie was glad to see Mark beginning to enjoy becoming acquainted with his little sister. Although Mark and Cassie missed their child terribly, they celebrated the fact that Lydia and Madison had arrived safely into the world.

Yet Cassie still watched helplessly as Mark's burdens weighed heavily on him. He often left the hotel well before the sun was up, and didn't return from the ranch until mid afternoon. He would spend the next few hours sitting beside Lucas while he made sure everyone else rested and got something to eat, before Cassie forced him to eat something himself, then he would help Ned walk the town. Late in the evening he would return to the hotel, exhausted. Cassie worried about Mark… everyone was concerned about Lucas, but Mark was understandably different. It was almost as if the life had been sucked out of Mark, and Cassie didn't know how to help her husband.


One evening, Mark was sitting beside his Pa when Cassie softly knocked on the door and entered the room. She could see the strain in Mark's face; the tiredness was evident in his eyes.

“Mark, let's go back to the hotel.” Cassie gently suggested.

“Not tonight, Cassie.” Mark whispered.

“Please, Mark, you're exhausted. You need to get something to eat and some decent sleep; you're going to wear yourself out!”

“Cassie, I need some time. I'm fine.”

“Mark, you can fool our mothers, but you can't fool me. I see the way you drag yourself in and out of bed each day; I see the way your shoulders slump when you walk and think no one is watching. I hear the tiredness in your voice when we're alone. Sitting up with your Pa all night is only going to make things worse.”

“Cassie, please-”

“I'd… I'd listen to her... Son.”

Mark and Cassie both turned and looked at Lucas, who was barely holding his eyes open. Cassie held a hand to her mouth as tears began to trickle down her face. Mark walked beside Lucas's bed and looked over his Pa.

“...Pa?” Mark finally asked.

“Yes, Son?”

Mark felt like crying, but held his tears back as a hundred burdens lifted from his shoulders. He had so much he wanted to say… but all he could manage was asking a simple question.

“How do you feel?”

“Just a little sore.” Lucas teased as he winced in pain. “Would you mind getting Doc for me?”

Mark stood there, blankly staring at his Pa.

“Mark?” Lucas asked in confusion.

“Sorry… of course.” Mark said as he shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts. “I'll be right back.”

Mark half ran out of the room to get the doctor and the two shortly returned.

“Welcome, back, Luke! Took you long enough!” The doctor exclaimed.

The doctor set to examining Lucas, as Mark and Cassie watched from the corner of the room.

“How do you feel?” Doc inquired.

“Like I got shot in the back a few times.”

“You remember then?”

Lucas nodded in response to the the doctor's question.

“I'm glad to hear it. Seriously though, how do you feel?”

“Sore, tired, and hungry.” Lucas simply answered.

“Cassie, would you mind getting your uncle here something to eat from the hotel? Some broth should do for now.”

“Where's Milly?” Lucas asked before his daughter-in-law could reply.

“She's over at Catherine's.” Mark answered, suddenly realizing he needed to let his mother know his Pa was awake. “I'll get her while Cassie runs to the hotel.”

“Thank you.” Lucas offered.

Husband and wife turned to leave, but Mark hesitated. He looked back at his Pa to say something, but he couldn't.


After seeing his wife to the hotel, Mark ran to Catherine's and found Milly in the sitting room with Lydia.

“Ma, he's awake!”

Without hesitation, Milly started for the front door, but Mark briefly stopped her.

“Where's Catherine and Anna?”

“Finishing supper at the hotel.”

“...Let me take Lydia, you and Pa need time… I'll bring her over later.”

“Are you-”

“Go on, Ma.”

Mark took his sister from his mother and watched as Milly half ran down the street. Part of Mark wanted to follow after her, to be with his Pa; ...but the other part of Mark couldn't face his Pa right now… he couldn't face anyone right now.

Mark closed the door and sat down in a chair, looking down at his sister. The pressures from the last week came out and he watched as his tears landed on Lydia's blanket. Mark was just about to put his head back against the chair when Lydia reached up and put her small hand to her big brother’s cheek. Mark sat there for several moments before he let everything go. The fears, the pressures, the guilt. He didn't hold himself back any longer and let himself feel the emotions that had been plaguing him all week.

As Mark looked down at his little sister, he saw the innocent smile that played on her face.

“Keep it, Lydia.” Mark whispered. “Keep that smile just as long as you can.” Mark waited for several moments before going on. “One day, you'll grow up and see the world for what it is. You'll see the good, along with plenty of bad. I hope you don't have to grow up quite as quickly as I did, because there's plenty of the good to see first. You'll love growing up with your cousins Madison and Madelyn, I can see all the trouble the three of you will get into now. You'll get to grow up with Aunt Lou and Uncle Johnny close by, Cassie, Rachael, Ma… and so many more good people. You've gotta promise me you'll take it easy on Pa, though. I gave him so much trouble, I'm surprised he didn't pull all his hair out. Pa can be a bit rough around the edges… but he cares about people. He loves his family in a way… that I can't explain. But you'll get to grow up experiencing it. Sometimes he seems like he's being a bit harsh, but it's only for your own good. But you gotta know when to put your foot down too, or else he won't take it easy and rest when he oughta. You just gotta remember, that in this family, there's no secrets. Everyone has an open door policy, and if you ever need to talk about something, everyone's ready to listen. But Pa… Pa is different. He has a way of making you understand your thoughts. He'll sit up with you all night if that's what it takes to get you through something. ...What I'm trying ta say, Sis, is that we've got a Pa who loves us… who… will always be there for us. Don't take it for granted. Don't get used to it. Because one day, you could wake up with no one to call Pa. But remember that even if that does happen, our Pa has a special bond with us, that ties us to him no matter how far apart we are. Our Pa is in here.”

Mark gently placed his index finger over his sister's heart as another tear slipped down his cheek.

“Our family is connected here.” Mark said as he tapped over his own heart. “And we can't forget that.”

10MC10

“Johnny, for the last time, it's not your fault. No one's going to blame you.”

Micah and Johnny came up over the rise as North Fork came into view. Johnny looked back at the body laid over the pack horse and sighed.

“I shouldn't have settled down here. I should've kept to myself and-”

“Don't you go giving me that.” Micah scoffed. “You did what you were supposed to do. You belong here, with Lou and the girls. With Lucas and his family. You belong with all of us. Just because something from your past life came up, doesn't mean you have to run from the life you have now.”

“But how do I tell them?”

“When they asked what happened, we tell them the truth. Leland made his choices. He fired the gun. You can't blame yourself for that.”

The two lawmen made their way closer to town. Ned was the first to see them and met them in front of the Marshal's office.

“Is that the one?” Ned asked as he gestured to the body.

Micah nodded before replying.

“We had no choice but to kill him. He went for his gun before we could even identify ourselves.”

“You probably didn't have to.” Ned commented. “I'm sure he was aware that the law would be chasing after him.”

“... How's Lucas?” Johnny hesitantly asked.

“He woke up a few days ago, Doc says he can go home at the end of this week. It'll be a long recovery, but he's made it through the worst of it.”

“Is Mark back home?” Micah inquired.

“By some miracle he showed up the day after Lucas was shot. I don't know how he's been doing it though. Ranch work, helping me out, taking care of the rest of his family… the man's gotta be exhausted.”

“Ned, would you mind taking care of the body?” Micah asked. “We're going to let the McCains know we caught the shooter.”

“Sure thing. Last I checked, they were all over at the clinic having lunch. Johnny, I think Lou might be over there with them, too.”

“...Thanks.” Johnny replied with a nod.

Micah and Johnny headed towards the clinic, but Johnny stopped just before the door.

“Johnny,” Micah began. “It'll be alright. In all seriousness, knowing Lucas, he'll be glad it was him and not you who got shot.”

Johnny walked inside the office, Micah close behind. Just as they got inside the waiting room, Lou was coming through a door leading to the hallway.

Maddy was the first to see him and yelled, “Papa!” as she ran towards her father.

Johnny scooped her up in his arms and gave her a hug before embracing his wife and greeting his youngest daughter.

“Did you catch him?” Lou asked.

“We had to shoot him, but yes.” Micah answered.

“... I'm so glad you two are alright. When we didn't hear anything…”

“We not only have trouble with Indians cutting down the lines, but gangs have caught onto the idea, as well.” Micah replied. “No one seemed to have an operational telegraph office.”

“Johnny, why don't ye come on home and I'll get you somethin’ ta eat? I'm sure you could both use a decent meal.”

“... I'll be there in a few minutes, Lou. I need to talk to Lucas first.” Johnny replied.

“Do you want to be alone, or would you prefer some back up?” Micah asked.

“...I think I'll be alright. After all, he is my brother-in-law.”

“Johnny?” Lou worriedly asked.

“Don't worry, I'll be over in a few minutes. Rachael and Laura over there?”

“Yes, Rachael has been such a dear helping the both of us out. Laura's going to burst any day.”

“Well, let's hope today isn't that day.”

“Johnny Gibbs!”

“I just meant-”

“I know very well what you meant. Ye may be exhausted, but ye have no idea what it's like ta carry a child, and through this miserable August heat no less!”

“...Sorry.” Johnny sheepishly stated.

Lou gave her husband a playful kiss on the cheek before taking Maddy’s hand and heading for the door.

Johnny watched as his wife, daughters, and friend left the office. He let out a heavy sigh before heading towards the hallway.

A slight smile came across his face as Johnny heard laughter coming from what could only be Lucas's room. He knocked on the door before opening it and sticking his head inside.

“Can I come in?”

“Johnny!” Lucas exclaimed. “Good to see you, brother! Come on in. When did you get into town?”

Johnny came in and stood at the foot of the bed.

“Just a few minutes ago. Sounds like you're doing a lot better.”

“Could you convince the doctor of that for me?” Lucas chuckled.

“Pa, I better get back to the ranch.” Mark stated as he started to leave.

“Mark,” Johnny began. “Could you stay a minute? I have something that needs to be explained… to all of you.”

Everyone could hear the seriousness in Johnny's voice and looked at him in concern.

“It's not Micah, is it?” Milly asked.

“No, he's over at our house.” Johnny briefly paused before going on. “Lucas, we did catch up to the man who shot you. He wasn't really more than a boy; sixteen… maybe seventeen. Unfortunately, he tried to draw on us. We… had no choice but to kill him.”

“... I understand.”

“There's more to it, Lucas.” Johnny sighed deeply before going on. “He thought you were me.”

“What?” Lucas asked in confusion.

“He did a lot of talking while he was dying. He said it was worth it… to see his father avenged. He said he only wished he could've stuck around to see Johnny Gibbs die. When we told him who I was, he was mortified.”

“But what did you do to his father?” Cassie asked.

“It's no secret I wasn't always on the good side of the law. But that doesn't mean I wasn't afraid of working with them, either. One time I got myself in a fine fix with the law. The offered me immunity for details, and I gave in. I'm not sorry about making that choice. I know now that it was what I should've done with or without immunity. But I ratted out Leland's father. Apparently he had a death wish on me, and his son set out to fulfill that without knowing enough. From what he said before he died, I guess he was mostly going off the fact that I was a deputy here, and didn't plan on there being two deputies. Lucas… all of you, I can't say how sorry I am-”

“Stop it right there, Johnny.” Lucas ordered. “This is not your fault, and we aren't going to treat it as such.”

“But Lucas-”

“Johnny, you did the right thing. That's what is important. Leland made his choice, and he shot me. Not you. I'd rather it be me than you, anyway. You're my friend, and considering how I've seen you faint at the sight of blood…” Lucas teased with a gleam in his eye.

“If you want to go there,” Johnny began to warn. “I'll give you plenty of-”

Johnny's statement was interested by a commotion out in the hallway. He opened the door to see Anna and Doc helping Laura into a room; Lou close behind.

“What's going on? Where are the girls?” Johnny asked his wife.

“Rachael's watching them, Laura-”

Laura let out a loud scream, answering Johnny's question.

The McCains and Gibbs waited impatiently for the baby to be born. Lou and Milly finally went back to the Gibbs’ home to tend to their youngest children and relieve Rachael.

Late that evening, Laura gave birth to Michael Thomas. As several of the McCains, Gibbs, and Osbornes crowded around the mother and child, Mark and Cassie stayed towards the back of the room. Finally, Cassie rested her head on Mark's shoulder and began whispering to him.

“Mark… could we please go home?”

Mark nodded and the two slipped out of the office with no one noticing. Although they had been staying at the hotel, Mark knew his wife meant home, and needed home. Like meeting Lydia had been harder on him, Mark knew watching Laura give birth had been harder for Cassie. She would've been due the same time as Laura. It was difficult for both husband and wife to listen to that baby cry, knowing their own home would be void of a child's cry for far too long.

When they arrived home, Mark and Cassie walked out to their child's cross, and sat on a fallen tree nearby.

“I'm happy for Laura.” Cassie stated. “I'm happy for her, and Lou and Johnny, and your parents. But I miss our baby, Mark. Why isn't there a child in our arms, now? Why did God say no, after already saying yes?”

“I wish I knew, Cass. But right now, they're up there with my Ma. And they're laughing, and running, and waiting. Waiting until the day we can meet them, face to face.”

11MC11

Lucas had been home for about ten days. He was still tired and in a lot of pain, but he was thankful to be alive.

After everything began to settle down, Lucas was able to watch his son a little more closely. He noticed that a change had taken place in his son; he sensed that something was different. However, he never got a chance to ask Mark about it. Someone else was always around when Mark wasn't out on the range.

Finally one evening, Unbeknownst to Mark, Lucas arranged for some one on one time with his son. Rachael, Milly, and Lydia joined Cassie up the hill while Lucas waited for Mark to get back home from working the cattle.

Later than he expected, Mark returned home from the range. Lucas looked out the window and saw Mark enter the barn where he worked on chores for a while before coming back to the house.

“I hope you all didn't wait on me to eat.” Mark said as he entered his parents’ home.

“What held you up?”

“I think the cattle have a death wish on me.” Mark laughed. “Cassie in the kitchen?”

“No, everyone else is up the hill for the evening.”

Mark looked at his Pa in confusion, but didn't say anything when he saw the look Lucas held on his face.

“Take a seat, Son.”

Mark sat down across from his Pa, trying to figure out what was going on.

“Mark, I've wanted some time alone with you for a while… it's just never worked out. You're different, Mark. I don't know if that's a good different or bad different… yet, but I've noticed a change in you.”

Mark waited a long time before replying. He had wanted to talk to his Pa, but wasn't sure if he was ready. But Mark supposed it was as good a time as any.

“...You know, Pa, I thought when I finished school or turned eighteen I would be done “growing up.” In the way most people see it, I am done. But in another light… I'm always going to be learning more. Changing.” Mark sighed as he looked to the floor, then back up at Lucas. “Things went great on the cattle drive… at first. Then there was a stampede. Then I couldn't remember who I was for a couple days. Then the price of cattle went down. Finally, I woke up one morning… and I knew something was wrong at home. I can't explain it, but something told me I needed to come back here. I wasn't prepared for what I came back to. Lou was crying in her office like she was the day you and Micah faked your deaths, and all those memories came back. I started to get lost in worry… but I knew I had a family to take care of as well. It was hard, because before I had always been able to be there with you as you recovered. When you've been hurt before, I could stay at Doc's or at least in town all day. But I couldn't. I had to think of the family I had to support. And that changed me, a lot.”

“But?”

Mark looked into his Pa's eyes and wasn't afraid to admit what he was about to say. He felt confident that his Pa would understand.

“I was scared, Pa. I know I was. Not only for your life because of what you mean to me… but I didn't think I would be able to take care of everyone and everything if you died. I didn't know if I was ready to take that responsibility on if I needed to, and it scared me. I can hardly handle the responsibility of being a husband. I couldn't imagine having to take care of Ma, Rachael, and Lydia as well.”

“I know you, Mark, and you're stronger than you think. If it ever came down to it, I know the Good Lord would give you the strength to carry on without me.”

“I know, but… there was more.”

“What do you mean?”

“I asked you to stay, Pa. I insisted that you not go on the cattle drive. I blamed myself for a long time.”

“...But now?”

“I know that the man who pulled the trigger was responsible. I guess I just have done a lot of accepting the last couple weeks. Accepting the responsibility of taking care of our family while you were at Doc’s; accepting that what happened wasn't my fault. ...Accepting that you won't always be here. And that was probably one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. But you're here for now, and I'm thankful for it.”

“Thank you for taking such good care of everything for me, I'm proud of you.”

“All part of my job.”

“...Mark, there is one thing I have to confess to you.”

Mark looked at his father in confusion and a bit of concern.

“I had Angus lie to you. They didn't have to recall all those rifles.” Lucas reached beside his chair and pulled out a box before offering it to his son. “I couldn't let you spend the money on that kind of a gun. With your talent, you needed something better.”

Mark hesitantly took the box and opened it to find a 1886 lever action Winchester rifle inside. On the stock of the rifle, the new McCain brand was engraved.

“Pa…” Mark looked up at Lucas, at a loss for words.

“My old Spencer was just a rifle, and although I wouldn't expect any less of you, I'm glad you saw it as such and willingly gave it up when it came to helping Laura. View this rifle in the same way. It's just a gun. ...But I guess you could say it's also a late eighteenth birthday present.”

“But Pa-”

“Do a little more accepting, Mark.”

Mark took a few more moments to look the rifle over before carefully placing it back in the box.

“You really shouldn't have, you could've used the money for-”

“Mark, I raised you better than that.” Lucas said with a teasing gleam in his eye.

“...Thanks, Pa. Thanks for everything.”

12MC12


¹ Episode 141 - “Outlaw's Shoes”
² Episode 77 - “Trail of Hate”
³Episode 129 - “A Young Man's Fancy”

A Town Divided

Morgan's Corner

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

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