The Rifleman
Welcome to The Writer's Corner
Fan Fiction

Change of Season
Written by Morgan

Lucas laid Lydia back down in the cradle and smiled as his daughter drifted back to sleep. As Lucas walked back to bed, he glanced out the window to see his son walking the property. He grabbed his rifle and quietly slipped out of his home.

“Little late for a walk, isn't it?”

Mark shrugged in response to Lucas as they kept walking into the night.

“Something the matter, Son?”

“...No, not really.”

“Then why are you walking around at two in the morning?”

“There's just been a lot on my mind as of late.”

“Care to talk about it?”

Mark sighed as he took a seat on a hillside, followed by Lucas.

“You know that feeling of responsibility we talked about after I got married?”

Lucas nodded and waited for his son to go on.

“You said it would only grow when I had children. And boy, have I felt it grow. Pa, there are some days that I doubt I have what it takes to be a father. I honestly don't know how I'm making it as a husband. I don't know how to take care of a child. How am I supposed to protect something so small, so innocent?”

“Keep in mind what you told me, Son. We're tools and have to trust the Good Lord's to take care of the rest.”

“I know, but part of me wonders if there are things I'm supposed to be doing that I'm not. Precautions I'm supposed to be taking.”

“...Like what?”

Mark waited a brief moment before replying.

“...I got a letter from Reaper this week. All he said was that he looked forward to meeting again. I'd be lying if I didn't say it bothered me a little. Then I also got a letter from the Pinkertons this week and they're looking for an office manager in New Jersey. I… I sometimes wonder if I'm being selfish by settling my family here. Maybe they'd be safer out east, away from the reputation I have, away from the history I have here. Maybe… maybe I did miss my calling.”

Lucas took a moment to take in what his Son was saying before he replied.

“Mark, do you feel it was selfish of me to move us out here?”

“No… it was just the two of us. If Ma was alive, it would have been different. We wouldn't have had need to move.”

“So you think I should've moved when I married Milly?”

“Well, no, but… it's different.”

“No, Mark, it isn't. I think you're tired, I think you're still rattled by this spring, and I think you're getting the first-time father jitters.”

“Pa, this spring is only part of it. Look at the last eleven years, it's one constant pattern… and I'm tired of it.”

“Look at all the good that came from it though, Mark.”

“I know, Pa. I know everything has its purpose, and I appreciate the purpose that has come from it all. But everything has a season, too, and maybe… maybe it's time for a change of season.”

“Son, you hate the lifestyle out east. I know you, and I know you would go crazy sitting in an office all day. That's not the life for you. You'd be sacrificing what you love.”

“Family is worth the sacrifice.”

“...You’d really take your family away?” Lucas hesitantly asked, realizing Mark might actually be serious about this.

“... I'm thinking about it, Pa.”

“Mark, this isn't you talking. You love ranching, you love life out west, you love being around the rest of your family. Granted, I don't want you and Cassie to leave, but think about Catherine, too.”

“I know, Pa. I've been thinking a lot about this. But she has Ned and Anna… they're both going to be married in no time and settling down here.”

“And what about things here at the ranch?”

“Tom will be here for at least another year, and if the cattle sell well, you should be able to hire on another hand or two. In all reality you could use our house as a bunkhouse.”

“It wouldn't be the same, Mark.”

“Pa, you always said you would support me in whatever I decided to do with my life.”

“If it was what you wanted to do. I think deep down you know you don't want to do this.”

“I just don't know, Pa. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. But you and I both know we can't always make decisions based on what we want. Sometimes we have to make decisions based on what our families need.”

Lucas sat there for a long moment, struggling. He didn't want to see Mark go, he didn't know if he could watch his son move away. ...But he also knew he couldn't make Mark stay.

“...Son, I'm asking you not to leave. You're what makes this ranch home.”

“I'm still thinking, Pa.”

“Mark-”

“Pa, I don't want to leave you and Ma. I love you. But… I just can't turn my back on this without thinking about it. With the baby coming… it just has changed everything.”

“Mark, I understand the nerves that come with a newborn. I think you need to let things settle down with the baby before you make any real decisions.”

“Like I said, Pa, I'm just thinking.”

“Use your head, Son. Life can get difficult, but morning is always coming. You just have to out wait the darkness.”

“...And what's to say morning isn't in New Jersey?”

Lucas sighed as he ran his fingers through his hair.

“...Just don't be rash, Mark. Be patient, and the path you're supposed to take will become clear.”

Mark looked at his Pa, feeling somewhat guilty for saying so much, so suddenly. He knew Lucas wasn't happy that he was considering the position, but then again, he wasn't too happy about it himself. Yet something was gnawing at him… Mark didn't know if that something was from both the letters, or just one, or something completely different.

“...Thanks for listening.”

“Two in the morning counts as anytime, Son.”

“Pa, would you be mad if I left?”

“I wouldn't be happy about it, but I wouldn't be mad. I always envisioned my grandchildren growing up here. But I love you Son, and we'll always be here if you decide to come back.”

“Thanks for understanding, Pa.”

“Now why don't you head back home? Maybe getting some sleep will knock some sense back into you.”

“Are you sending me to bed?” Mark asked with a chuckle.

“It's well past your bedtime, Son.” Lucas teased.

“Yours too, Grandpa.”


1MC1


Mark watched as his sister hesitantly reached out to touch Cassie's stomach again. Lydia started to pull her hand back, but Milly kept it there.

“It's a baby, Lydia.” Milly explained to her confused daughter.

Mark couldn't help but chuckle as Lydia pulled her hand back to touch her own stomach, then put her hand back on Cassie's. Lydia looked back up at Milly and laughed.

When everyone heard the buckboard enter the yard, they stood and walked outside to meet Lucas, Rachael, and Ara DeFord.

As quickly as she could, Cassie hurried to the wagon and met Ara with a long embrace. Soon, Ara was holding Cassie at arm's length, looking over her daughter.

“I couldn't believe it when I got your letter, I'm so happy for you, Cassie! My baby girl, having a child of her own.”

“That's the goal, anyway.” Cassie chuckled. “Eight weeks seems like an eternity away.”

“Enjoy every moment of it while you can.” Ara replied. “Now where's that husband of yours?”

“Right behind you, Ms. DeFord.”

Ara turned towards Mark and gave him a hug.

“That's Ara to you, young man.”

“Yes ma'am.” Mark replied with a chuckle.

“I don't think we met,” Milly began. “I'm Lucas’s wife, Milly.”

“A pleasure. Cassie has told me so much about you in her letters.”

“I'm sure you two have plenty to catch up on, why don't we head inside? Supper should be done soon.”

As Lucas and Mark took care of the team, everyone else went inside.

“Thanks for picking her up, Pa.”

“I was glad to do it, gave me a chance to get to know her a little bit. I had to pick up those axes anyway.”

Mark let out a sigh as he threw the harness on the hook.

“I'm sorry, Pa. I don't know what has been going on.”

“You're wife's expecting, you're a little preoccupied.”

“That's no excuse to forget something like that.”

Lucas walked over to his son and put a hand on his shoulder.

“No, Son. For once you do have a legitimate excuse. Use it while you can.” Lucas teased.

“So, the new schoolhouse survive its first week?”

“It was still standing when I picked Rachael up.” Lucas chuckled.

“How many students would you say were there?”

“Oh, probably fifteen or so. With so many families having moved, it really reduced the number of students enrolled.”

“It was sad to see Jake's family have to move with everyone else.”

“Well at least you two had a little bit of time to catch up before he went back to Texas. He's coming for a visit sometime soon, isn't he?”

“Yes, but he'll probably be spending more time at the Donalds’ than here.”

“Really?” Lucas laughed.

“He and Emma were made for each other.”

“I guess I can see it.”

Lucas and Mark finished in the barn before joining everyone else inside. As they sat around the dinner table that evening, Ara enjoyed getting re-acquainted with the family. It of course wasn't long before she was asking questions about the baby.

“...Are you hoping for a boy, or girl?”

Mark and Cassie looked at each other before Cassie began to reply.

“...For the longest time I wanted a baby girl, but once I found out I was pregnant… I'm just happy to be having a baby. We've talked of both boy and girl names.”

“Anything in particular you like?”

“Good luck with that.” Rachael chuckled. “They're refusing to tell anyone the names they're considering.”

“We want it to be a surprise.” Cassie explained.

“I understand.” Ara responded with a smile. “Choosing a name for your child is something special.”

“So how'd you did you decide on Cassie's name?” Mark inquired, surprising Cassie a bit.

“You named me?” Cassie asked. “I thought… well…”

“I did think I had lost you, but if I had a girl, John knew I wanted Cassie. I had a dear friend named Cassandra, everyone called her Cassie for short. I wanted to name my daughter after someone with such grace and beauty.”

“Uncle Lucas, how did you decide on Mark's name?” Cassie inquired.

“Margaret had that picked out long before I met her. I knew better than to dispute it.” Lucas chuckled.

Later that evening, Cassie and Mark took Ara up the hill to settle in for the night. Mark went to bed shortly after, giving Cassie and Ara some much-needed time alone.

“...Cassie, I know we weren't able to talk much after the trial, but thank you for keeping up through your letters; I sincerely appreciated each one.”

“I was happy to know you wanted to keep in contact… I wasn't sure what to expect.”

“I assume you have some questions.”

Cassie nodded, but Ara could see the hesitancy in her eyes.

“Don't be afraid, you have a right to get some answers. What your father put you through… no person should have to go through that.”

“You had absolutely no idea my father was married?”

“Not in the least. I wasn't living the best life, I was a poor saloon girl who was happy to throw herself at anyone… until John came around. He was different, and I didn't find myself flirting with other men so easily. We got married and I got pregnant with you… and I think you know the rest.”

“... I'd like to hear it, from you.”

Ara sighed as she thought back, all those years ago.

“He wasn't around a lot. I thought he was a salesman and didn't think anything of it when he was gone for weeks… months at a time. Once I told him I was pregnant though… something changed. He got anxious, kept acting extremely strange. Once I started showing I took leave from the saloon. I kept telling John I didn't want to go back after I had you; I wanted to stay home. He just kept saying it wouldn't work, and I couldn't understand why. I went into labor prematurely. It was a long, hard birth. I could hardly keep my eyes open after you were born. The next morning, they told me you had died. I don't know how they sustained you, but thank God you made it through. Shortly after that, Alex, my brother, told me John had been arrested and sent to prison. So I went back to the only thing I knew - working in a saloon. I spent ten years working in various saloons before I didn't have what it takes anymore. I drifted, but got my life together enough to get a job working at a hotel. I tried sending your father letters in prison, but of course, they always returned because he wasn't in prison. Finally one day, I saw his picture in the newspaper and almost had a heart attack. I did some digging and finally found out where he was stationed. It wasn't long before I was here, giving him a piece of my mind. Not long after that I was confronting my brother, when I discovered you had survived. Cassie… I wanted more than anything to come here and see you, but I was afraid that by coming I would disrupt your life. I didn't want to put you through discovering the details of what had happened. I doubted you would want anything to do with me.”

“...But you were wrong.”

“I know that, now.” Ara replied with a smile. “So what happened to you, all those years I was gone?”

“A lot.” Cassie chuckled. “John filled a lot of different marshalling positions and so we either moved around with him, stayed with my grandparents, or stayed with my Aunt Molly. John finally decided to settle in North Fork after a short term assignment here. He was already good friends of the McCain’s, and they were the first people to meet us when we arrived. Mark and I became good friends between the time our families spent together and the time he spent working at our ranch. We began officially courting on my eighteenth birthday… when I found out I was adopted… or so Ma and I thought. We worked through that whole thing and life was good… until Mark disappeared. When your brother had him at that cabin, no one had absolutely any idea where he was. When he made his way back here and we found out the truth about everything… I was devastated. I honestly thought Mark might not speak to me again…”

“But we know that wasn't the case.”

“Not in the least. He was going to propose to me that spring. That's what he was planning on doing when DeFord had him shot and they took me. You've heard what happened then. Shortly after that whole ordeal, Mark proposed and we were married that August.”

“You wrote me about what happened, but you never mentioned what happened to John.”

“He's still out there… somewhere.” Cassie shook her head as she went on. “It drives me absolutely insane… knowing he's free as a bird… that one day he could show up and turn my life completely upside down again.”

“How does Mark handle it?”

Cassie gently smiled before replying.

“Mark's the best husband anyone could ask for. Mark's always there to show me support, he always has a level head on his shoulders. Just like me, I know he still has nightmares about what happened, but he tries his best not to show the concern I know he holds inside of him. I know he's worried, and every once in a while we'll discuss our concerns, but he's always good about balancing precaution and living a normal life.”

“I certainly am happy for you, Cassie. Even in the short time we've been together I see the way he treats you. I see the love and respect he has for you; that you have for each other. You don't ever want to let that go.”

“I don't know how on earth I got so lucky.”

“I do have one question about Lucas and Milly.”

“What about them?”

“You call them uncle and aunt. What led to that?”

“Mark's mother died when Mark was six. He and Lucas moved to North Fork when Mark was ten. Milly is my Ma’s sister and ended up marrying Uncle Lucas three or four years ago.”

“Well that's simple enough.” Ara chuckled.


2MC2


“What does your Pa think about it?” Johnny asked as he and Mark entered the Marshal's office.

“He's not for it. He asked me to stay.”

“Mark, you've gotten threats before and they haven't rattled you. Reaper didn't even exactly threaten you. What's going on?”

“Uncle Johnny, you're a father, you have a past, you know what it's like. I don't want to risk losing Cassie again, I don't want to risk losing another child.”

“...And?”

“And something inside is telling me to be extra careful right now. Like something is going to happen, but I don't know what.”

“Mark, the same thing happened to me when Lou was getting close to having Madelyn. Give it two more months, I'm sure everything will be fine.”

“Uncle Johnny, what was my Ma like, growing up?”

“Your Ma?” Johnny asked, surprised by the change of subject.

Mark nodded and waited for his Uncle to respond.

“...Gentle, Mark. You could ask anyone and that's the word they would use to describe your mother. She had a gentle spirit about her all the time… except once.” Johnny chuckled.

“What happened?”

“I was playing with some friends when I was about ten years old. Every town has its cranky old man, and Mr. Wheaton was ours. We got it in our heads to go sneak into his barn and do some jumpin’ off the hayloft. The thing was that Margaret decided to bring him some fresh bread that day and heard us in the barn.” Johnny chuckled as he went on. “I can remember the look on her face when she walked into that barn… boy-howdy, we knew we were in trouble!”

“What'd she do?”

“She yelled at all of us to get down from there. No one had heard her speak that way before, and we were too scared to do anything but obey. I thought she was going to box our ears by the lecture she gave us. When she was all said and done she made us all clean out his barn while she went inside and visited with him. We never went back there again.”

“What happened to your Ma?”

“She died a long time ago. She might've made it, had my father stopped spending money on beer and started spending it on the doctor. But he refused and she wouldn't press the issue.”

“I know you weren't too happy when Grandpa showed up a while back.”

“The gall of that man still amazes me.”

“We all need a second chance, Uncle Johnny.”

“He's had his fill of second chances from me. I'm through with the man.”

“I'm sorry.”

“Me too, Mark.” Johnny sighed. “How are things with Ara going?”

“Surprisingly well. Her and Cassie have stayed up late every night talking.”

“Well, they have twenty-one years to catch up on. Catherine doing alright?”

“It was a little strained at first, but I think they've worked through it. She's actually at the ranch with everyone else right now.”

“That's encouraging to hear, I know Cassie said she was nervous about them clashing.”

“Thankfully there haven't been any problems yet.”

“How long is Ara staying?”

“I think she'll be here for another two weeks. She wanted to originally be here when the baby arrived, but it didn't work out.”

“Well, I guess if you do move to New Jersey, you'll at least be somewhat close to her.”

“...You never answered my question.”

“Look, Mark, it's your life. You've got to decide when to make changes.”

“I can tell you have an opinion.”

“Mark, I missed too much of your childhood because I made stupid choices. Now, I don't think moving to New Jersey is equal to breaking the law, but there are still consequences you have to consider. You'll miss watching your sister grow up, you'll miss time with Maddy and Madison… and I want them to grow up with you around. Then one day there will be your own nieces and nephews, and as an uncle I can tell you that it's something you don't want to miss. On the other hand, I can understand wanting to protect your family, and if you feel you have to move to New Jersey to do that, then that's your decision.”

“You're not being much help.”

“I know.” Johnny replied with a smile. “Mark, this is a decision you have to make on your own. I can tell you right now that you're not going to get much support from people around here if you decide to move, but that's to be expected. Just don't let one thing scare you into making a decision you'll regret for the rest of your life.”

“I won't.”

“When does your Pa leave for that business trip?”

“Saturday, I think.”

“Is he taking the train or riding to Santa Fe?”

“Last I heard he was riding, but Ma's trying to get him to change his mind. She keeps reminding him he's not exactly twenty years old anymore.”

“I'm sure that went over like a pile of bricks.” Johnny chuckled. “So what else do you have going today?”

“I'm headed to the Henderson's to give then a hand with their sow, and then I'm helping Pete finish his barn.”

“I thought he finished that ages ago?”

“Caleb Baker was helping him, but he moved with the rest of 'em.”

“You've been here longer than I have, how long do you think until those houses are bought again?”

“... I don't know. I would hope soon, but until that mill went up you know how small North Fork was. Growing, but small. With Vendix having so many more employment options right now… I don't think we'll be having another population explosion any time soon.”

“Have you heard anything about when Ned and Helen's wedding is supposed to be?”

“No, but Cassie and I hardly see him. Why don't you just ask him when he's here?”

“Because he never is.” Johnny laughed. “He's still standing his shifts, but I just see him in passing. He's always off doing something with Helen it seems like.”

“Sounds like someone else a few years ago…”

“You weren't that bad. You and Cassie didn't really see much of each other the summer you got engaged.”

“I wasn't talking about me, Uncle Johnny. How long did it take us to see you after you got engaged?”

“When you live over an hour away from town, it's different.”

“Sure…” Mark teased.

“Boy, you better be careful.”

“You gonna lock me up?”

“Worse. I'll send my wife after you.”

3MC3

Mark entered his parents’ home and followed the voices to the kitchen. As he walked through the door he saw a wave of relief come over his wife. Mark started to ask her about it, but her eyes asked him not to.

“...And that's why they do it.” Ara concluded.

“I'm telling you, Cassie, it'll end in no good.” Catherine informed her daughter. “Don't you agree, Milly?”

“I think there's call for it in the later years.”

“In the later years…” Ara mused.

“Call for what?” Mark inquired.

The three older women all turned to Mark and chuckled, shaking their heads.

“...Alright then…” Mark replied in confusion. “What's for supper?”

“Oh, some chicken fried steak.” Milly replied.

“Right along with rolls, corn, and beans.” Ara added.

Cassie couldn't help but chuckle at the face Mark made due to the last item on the menu.

“You don't care for beans, Mark?” Ara inquired.

“...Not particularly.”

“He hates them.” Milly laughed.

“You must've not eaten enough of them growing up.” Catherine said.

“Oh, I did. That was the problem; I had too many growing up.”

“You complaining about my cooking again?” Lucas jested as he entered the kitchen.

“Well, now that everyone's here I think we can head to the dining room. ...We may be able to fit better in there.” Milly said.

Conversation varied around the dinner table; however, Mark noticed that Cassie remained unusually reserved.

“Mark,” Ara began, “Catherine said you were offered a job out on the east coast?”

“...Some acquaintances of mine are looking for an office manager.”

“What did you tell them?”

“I haven't decided yet. There's a lot to think about.”

“If you did move, Cassie, you would love the shops there. And there's so much to get involved in. Women's clubs, churches on practically every corner, hospitals to volunteer at…”

“She'd be too busy raising a family.” Catherine said.

“There's no reason they couldn't hire a nursery maid.”

“And have someone else raise their child? My daughter would never.”

“My daughter is also entitled to some time to relax every now and again. There's nothing unethical about a nursery maid.”

“They haven't even decided if they're moving yet.” Milly stated.

“They haven't said they aren't, either.” Ara replied.

“Well until further notice,” Catherine began, “This is their home.”

“Pa, I ran into Ray Battles in town today.” Mark said as he tried to change the subject.

“Really? What was he up to?”

“Picking up more feed for his livestock. He said to tell you hello, and that he hopes to see you soon. He also wanted to talk about trading out some livestock at the end of the month.”

“I'll have to ride out there and talk to him after I get back.” Hoping the ladies had gotten the hint, Lucas changed the subject again. “Catherine, I hear you're going to be able to quit your job soon?”

“Ned and Helen want me to move in with them after they get married, and I have enough money to make it if I'm not paying rent.”

“It must be wonderful having so much family around.” Ara commented.

“After what our family has been through, it's something we don't take for granted.” Milly stated, eyeing her son. “We all love having each other close.”

“Alex was the only family I ever had, and you know what he turned out to be.” Ara replied. “I've always wanted to have family close.”

“Yes, we do know how he turned out.” Catherine replied in a rather condescending tone.

“You can't blame me for what he did, I had no idea what was going on!”

“I didn't say you were to blame.”

“Mark, maybe it would be good for you to get away for awhile. Get some new exposure. There's so much of the world to see.” Ara encouraged.

“I think Cassie and Mark have both seen quite enough of it.” Catherine replied.

“A vacation is one thing,” Milly began, “But to move-”

“Is completely our decision.” Mark suddenly said as he stood. “Thank you ladies for supper, but I think my wife and I are going to go home for the evening.”

Mark pulled Cassie's chair out for her and started for the door.

“Mark-”

“Goodnight, Ma.”

As Mark and Cassie walked out the back door, Cassie let out a sigh of relief.

“Thank you, Mark. I don't know how much more of that I could have handled.”

“Has it been like that all day?”

“Worse.” Cassie replied as she shook her head. “But it wasn't just about us moving. They argued the best way to birth a baby, what position to lie in, what to have nearby. Walk, don't walk, eat extra food, don't eat a lot, eat normal. Use a doctor, use a midwife, use family… I heard a different opinion on each subject at least three times. And that was just the birth. Then there was everything I was supposed to be doing before the pregnancy, and then after. How I should raise the child, on and on and on…”

“Even Ma?” Mark asked, a bit surprised.

“She wasn't as bad, but yes.”

“What were they discussing when I came in?”

“What the best kind of milk for your baby is. Mark, I love them all dearly, but you would think this wasn't my baby they were talking about. It was exhausting hearing them go round and round. I almost went home a couple times.”

“Why didn't you?”

“... I don't know. I didn't want to offend any of them.”

“Cassie, the last thing we need is stress affecting you and the baby. If a situation happens like that again, don't be afraid to speak up or leave. This is our baby, not theirs. This is our life.”

Mark walked Cassie to the house and made sure she got settled in bed before he went back down the hill to work on the barn chores. It wasn't long before Lucas joined him.

“You spoke pretty sharply to your mother, Son.”

“I know, I'll apologise to her tomorrow.”

“It's not like you to be that short with anyone.”

“I would've stayed and talked it all out if it hadn't been for Cassie. When I walked into the house today I could tell something stressful was going on. At dinner I didn't want to add to the debate, but no one was taking the hints, either. Cassie needed to go home, I wasn't going to make her sit through that.”

“... I can understand.”

“Rachael take Catherine home? I didn't see the buggy outside.”

“Yes, she did. Mark, if Ara needs to stay with us…”

“We'll work it through, Pa. She's welcome at the house, I have a feeling it's just becoming more difficult for Catherine and Ara to… “share” Cassie the closer Ara gets to her.”

“I can put my trip off if I need to.”

“It's alright, Pa, I can manage things here.”

Mark and Lucas finished up in the barn before Mark started heading back home, but Milly caught up with him part way up the hill.

“Mark, can I talk to you for a minute?”

“Of course. Ara up the hill already?”

Milly nodded in response before saying what was on her mind.

“Mark, I'm sorry for adding to tonight. I love the two of you so much, I just want what's best for you. I didn't mean to hurt either one of you. Mark, I lost you once… for six long years. I don't want to lose you again.”

Mark took his mother's hand and gave her a kiss on the cheek.

“You won't lose me, Ma. No matter what. And in those six years, we didn't really lose each other… we just… got misplaced a little.” Mark said with his boyish grin. “...Ma, I'm sorry for snapping at you.”

“I probably deserved it.”

“No, you didn't. You deserve respect, no matter how different our opinions may be.”

Milly reached up and kissed her son on the cheek.

“I love you, Mark.”

“I love you too. Goodnight, Ma.”


4MC4


Two men sat on their horses, watching Lucas ride out for his trip.

“Now?” The slightly older, and shorter of the two asked.

“Give it some time, wait for Mark to leave.”

“I thought that was who you wanted?”

“He nearly killed me once, I won't give him an opportunity again. No, this time he'll come crawling to me on my hands and knees.”

“Why'd you decide to wait so long to try this again?”

“I didn't like the first plan in the first place, I wanted time to come up with something different, and make sure they were completely off guard.”

The men watched as Mark mounted BlueBoy and rode for the range.

“Except there's still four of them in there.”

“What's the difference? We've got the gun.”

“I suppose, but-” The man stopped short as he saw two of the women come out of the house and hook the team up to the buckboard. “What now?”

“What now?” The man laughed. “This is even better. The younger brat won't be any trouble, and what's a pregnant woman going to do about anything?”

“Just you remember, no harm will be done to that, “pregnant woman”.”

“I remember our agreement.”

“Now?” The man asked again.

“Give it time, be patient. Let's make sure no one forgot anything.”

“...Knowing this family, someone probably did.”

Sure enough, five minutes later, Mark rode back into the yard and went inside the house. He came back out with his lunch, mounted up again, and took off.

“Now?”

“Naw, let's just call it off.”

“You can't be serious!”

“Of course I'm not. This is two years in coming, let's go.”

The two men carefully rode down the hill, still checking over their shoulder every so often. One went around the back of the house while one walked up on the porch. The one on the porch waited a few moments before chuckling to himself and knocking on the door.

“Can I-”

“Good to see you again, Cassie.”

She tried to scream, but nothing would come out. Her entire body shook as the man in front of her revealed a gun and began forcing his way inside.

Cassie turned as she heard Rachael scream from the kitchen. Cassie couldn't stop the tears as she saw the man who was pushing Rachael into the front room.

Rachael was struggling hard against the man, but he had an all too firm grip on her arms.

“What do you want me to do with this one?”

“Tie her up in one of the closets, and don't forget the gag.”

The man began pulling Rachael towards one of the bedrooms as she screamed Cassie's name, bringing her back to the present.

Cassie suddenly lunged towards the man that held Rachael, but the other man caught Cassie's arm and pulled her back. Cassie kept struggling against him until the man cocked his gun.

“Calm down, now. We won't hurt her.”

The other man came out just a few minutes later, more rope in hand.

“We better tie her up too, she still has a lot of spunk in her.” The man with the gun said.

“Now wait a minute…”

“We won't hurt her none, just tie her up or neither one of us will get what want.”

Cassie struggled against both the men as the tied her hands behind her back. They dragged her into the kitchen as taller man started talking.

“Gather what supplies you can, I'll place the note.”

He forced Cassie into a chair and started putting a piece of paper down on the table when Cassie ran for the door. The man easily caught her and pinned her up against the wall.

“You listen here, you-” He stopped short as his eyes fell on Cassie's locket. “Oh, this'll be good.”

Cassie continued to struggle as the man unclasped her locket. Once he got it in his pocket, he pinned her to the wall again.

“Look, I'd rather just kill you, but he won't hear of it.” The man said, gesturing to his partner. “But I will kill your friend in that back room, so I suggest you behave for a little while.”

Cassie stood there, seething in anger.

“You sure do have quite the fire inside of you.”

“Just you wait until Mark-”

“Comes chasing after me? That's the whole point, my dear.”

“I hate you. I hate both of you!”

“Now you're just plain hurting our feelings.”

“You can't win this. Neither one of you can!”

“We'll take our chances.”


5MC5


“... I understand, Milly, and I'm sorry for what happened the other night. I would love to have Mark and Cassie out east closer to me, but like you said, Catherine, this is their home.”

“There's plenty of homes for sale here.” Catherine suggested. “You could always move to North Fork.”

“Thanks,” Ara chuckled, “But I've made a life out east, and it's where I'm supposed to be for the time being. Maybe one day.”

“There was one other thing…” Milly began. “Mark mentioned this morning to me that our “helpful advice” for the baby isn't being so helpful. They appreciate the concern we all have for Cassie and the baby, but he asked that we be careful about debating around Cassie. He said it's stressing her out a lot and she feels torn between the three of us. We all may have our differences, but we do have our love for Cassie and Mark in common. I think we can manage to put our differences aside for a little while.”

“Agreed.” Ara said as Catherine nodded.

“Catherine, would you like to join us out at the ranch for lunch?” Milly invited.

“Thank you, but I have to get some things done around the house. Give Cassie my love, though.”

“I'll be sure to.”

Ara and Milly left Catherine's before running a few errands in town and then starting back to the ranch.

“Do you mind me asking where you grew up?” Milly asked as the team continued down the dirt road.

“Here in New Mexico. My father was a dirt farmer, but he and my mother both died of the yellow fever. Some neighbors took us in, but it wasn't much of a good environment. Alex and I both left early, kept in contact, he looked after me in a way.” Ara paused before going on. “Did you grow up in North Fork?”

“No, my family started in the midwest. My sisters and I moved around, I lived in Santa Fe for a while before I moved to North Fork to run the general store. After a while I realized I needed to deal with some things with my family… my brother had died in the war and I guess I had run away in a sense.”

“So how did you end up back here?”

“I came to visit Catherine and her family. It didn't take much to convince me to stay, and it wasn't long before Lucas and I were married. We had been so close before.”

“Had Cassie not mentioned it, I would've never guessed Mark wasn't your son.”

“Oh, but he is. Not biologically, of course, but deep down there has always been something that ties me to him. I don't feel as though he is any less my child than Lydia is. Mark's always held the same position… even before Lucas and I were married. And as you know, in this family, it's not all about blood relations, it's about bonds that last longer than a lifetime.”

The women continued talking until they pulled up to the house.

“Do you want help putting the team away?” Ara inquired.

“Mark said he would need it later and to leave them, thank you though.”

When Ara and Milly entered the house, Milly immediately heard Lydia screaming from the bedroom.

“Cassie? Rachael?” Ara called as Milly went to the bedroom.

Milly picked Lydia up out of the cradle and tried to calm her daughter as she walked back out to the front room.

“They're not in the kitchen.” Ara said as she closed the door. “Do you think they went up the hill?”

“Cassie wouldn't leave Lydia, even for a minute.”

“Where do you think they are then?”

“Maybe they're talking in Rachael's room.”

Ara and Milly made their way to the bedroom, but didn't find anything. Becoming more and more worried, Milly made her way to the other bedroom, calling for her nieces.

“Cassie? Rachael? ...Ara, I-”

Suddenly, Milly heard pounding coming from the other side of the house. She ran back to her own bedroom and called again. She heard the pounding coming from the closet. Milly handed Lydia to Ara, ran to the door, and opened it to find Rachael bound and gagged inside.

“Rachael, what happened?” Milly worriedly asked as she worked to untie the gag.

Rachael tried talking through the gag, but it was useless. Finally, Milly pulled it away.

“Where's Cassie? Is she alright??” Rachael desperately asked.

“We haven't seen her, what happened?”

“Two men forced their way into the house! They tied me up back here, and…” It suddenly hit Rachael. “...They must have taken Cassie! Aunt Milly, they have Cassie!”

“Calm down, it'll be alright.” Milly said as she tried to collect her thoughts. “Ara, can you get me a knife for these ropes? Ara??”

Ara set Lydia down and ran for a knife, shortly returning.

“What did they look like?” Ara inquired as she handed Milly the knife.

“I don't know… it was all so fast. I think they both had dark hair… one was more heavy set. But why would they want Cassie??”

“I don't know, but we'll find out. Rachael, I want you to saddle Liberty and go find Mark. He should be working the West pasture.”

“Aunt Milly-”

“Go, Rachael!”

Milly watched Rachael run from the house into the barn. She then turned towards Ara and saw her sitting, staring. Milly went towards her and wrapped her arms around her.

“It'll be alright, Ara. We'll find out who took her, and why.” Milly turned to pick up Lydia before starting out the bedroom. “... I'll fix you some tea.”

“Tea?! Milly, how can you be so calm?? My daughter, your niece is missing!”

“And becoming hysterical isn't going to help matters. We have to think about this calmly, rationally, and try to figure out who's behind this. We can't let our emotions get the best of us, Ara, or there will be no hope for Cassie.”

Ara nodded and followed Milly to the kitchen. As Milly walked towards the stove, she saw Cassie's locket sitting on the table, weighing down a piece of paper.

Milly's fingers trembled as she picked up the note and read it.

“What does it say, Milly??” Ara begged.

Milly couldn't say anything. She simply handed the note to Ara as she let herself fall into a chair.

“No…” Ara cried. “They can't! Milly, they can't kill her!”


6MC6


“I should've sold you off at the last auction.” Mark mumbled as he rubbed his shoulder.

The cow just looked at him, but Mark could've sworn there was a grin on the cow's face.

“Next summer, I tell ya…”

Mark suddenly heard a horse coming up behind him. He grabbed his rifle and turned around, only to see Rachael riding up.

“Mark!” Rachael yelled as she kicked Liberty once again. “Mark!”

Mark ran to meet his cousin and grabbed hold of the bridle as Rachael pulled on the reigns.

“Rachael, what is it?”

“Two men came to the house, tied me up, and-”

“Tied you up? How'd you-”

“Ma and Ara came home. But Mark, we can't find Cassie! They took Cassie with them!”

Mark ran back to BlueBoy and mounted him before the two raced back to the house, Mark far ahead of Rachael. BlueBoy hadn't even come to a full stop before Mark was running into the house calling for his Ma, who came rushing through the kitchen door. She couldn't say anything; Milly simply handed Mark Cassie's locket and the note she had found on the kitchen table. He silently read the words written on the paper.

“Seems we both need a lesson in keeping people dead. You have twenty-four hours to get here before I kill your wife instead of you. Follow the map on the back and you won't go wrong - notice it doesn't include a stop in North Fork. Make sure it stays that way. And we're not playing games in the river this time.”

“Cassie… she was right…” Mark barely whispered.

“Mark, what are you talking about?” Milly asked, on the verge of tears.

“She wasn't tired… she did see DeFord!”

“Mark, the man's dead!”

“Not according to this note!”

“What are you-”

“I don't have time to explain. Get everyone to town, now. Wire Marshal Anker and tell him what's going on.”

Mark shoved the note and locket in his pocket before starting out the door, but something stopped him. He turned around as what might happen in the next twenty four hours hit him.

Mark took two long strides towards his Ma and gave her a kiss on the cheek.

“I love you.”

Mark ran back out of the house as Rachael came sprinting onto the porch. Mark stopped and put his hands on her shoulders.

“Rachael, be strong, no matter what happens. I need you to help my Ma, make sure she goes straight to town.”

Rachael nodded, hearing the seriousness in her cousin's voice.

“Rachael, I love you.”

“I… I love you too, Mark.”

Mark gave his cousin a hug before mounting up on BlueBoy and riding out.

Rachael started to cry, but forced the tears away. Mark was right, she had to be strong. Rachael went into the house and found Milly and Ara in the kitchen.

“Aunt Milly, we need to go.”

Milly nodded as she stood and went to pack a bag. Rachael ran up the hill to grab Ara's suitcase, and it wasn't long before she was driving the team into town.

“Rachael, drop me off at the telegraph office and then go tell Micah what's happened.” Milly instructed as they entered town.

Rachael did as her aunt said and soon Sam was staring blankly at Milly.

“Did I hear you right?”

“Sam, we don't have time to waste. Send the telegram!”

“Y-yes, of course!”

The man sent it before Milly gave him another telegram to send.

“Milly, I'm so sorry…”

“Thank you, Sam. I'll be over at the Marshal's office or the hotel if you get a response.”

Milly hurried to the Marshal’s office where she found Micah and Ned fastening their gun belts.

“Milly, I'm glad you're here.” Micah said as he came around the desk. “I want you to stay at the hotel, don't leave it for any reason. You, Ara, Rachael, even Lydia. I'm finding Johnny and putting him in charge of North Fork and protecting you while I'm gone.”

Without saying much else, the two lawmen escorted the women to the hotel before finding Johnny and leaving town.

Milly sat holding Lydia in Lou's office, Ara and Rachael both pacing. Suddenly, Catherine came through the door.

Milly meet her sister and hugged her, trying to hold back the tears.

“Is it true?” She simply inquired.

“... I'm afraid so.”

“How, Milly? How?! The man's dead!”

Milly wrapped her arms around her sister as Catherine cried.

“I don't know, Catherine. I don't know.”

While the women embraced, Rachael quietly left the office. She knew Micah's orders… but she couldn't stay inside. The walls were closing in on her.

Rachael wondered the outskirts of town, but it wasn't long before she heard someone calling her name.

“Rachael McCain, you get back to that hotel, ya hear?” Johnny declared as he dismounted and started towards her. “Didn't Micah tell you to stay in the hotel? What are you thinking?? You could've… could have…”

Johnny stopped as he looked into Rachael's eyes. He saw sadness, grief… loss. He wrapped his arms around Rachael as he went on.

“It'll be alright, Rachael. It will.”

Rachael simply shook her head as she tried to stop herself for crying.

“What do you mean, no?”

Rachael looked back up at Johnny, trying to find her voice.

“He was saying goodbye.”

“Who was saying goodbye, Rachael?”

“Mark. Before he left… he told me to be strong. He told me he loved me. And he hugged me tighter than I've ever been hugged before. Uncle Johnny… Mark doesn't plan on coming back.”

“He might have been scared, Rachael, but Mark doesn't give up.”

“Did you hear what the note head to say?”

“No, but-”

“It was pretty clear. Mark or Cassie. And Mark is going to make sure Cassie comes home.”

Rachael gave in and let the tears fall as Johnny wrapped his arms around her.

“Mark's smart, and Ned and Micah are going after him. He'll come back, Rachael. You just gotta have faith.”

“You know, that's what my Ma used to say, every time my Pa would beat us. Just have faith. Well you can see where it landed her!”

“Rachael McCain, you watch your mouth. It landed her in the best place she could be, and you got a pretty close second livin’ with Lucas and Milly. Humans are humans, and we live in a cursed world where people make choices. Bad ones. But don't you dare go and start blamin’ the Almighty for it!”

“If he's so Almighty, why's he gonna let Mark die!?”

“We don't know that, Rachael. But He's either gonna take Mark home to be with his Ma, and yours, or He's gonna bring Mark back to us.”

“Then where does the faith come in??”

“The faith comes in when you decide to trust the Good Lord's wisdom. As much as we mess this planet up, the Good Lord sure does us a lot of favors, but we're most of the time too busy looking at ourselves to see what he's doing.”

“But this is Mark!”

Johnny sighed as he crossed his arms and thought for a moment.

“Come on back to the office with me.”

“Why?”

“I've gotta story to tell you.”

“I'm not four years old, Uncle Johnny.”

“No, you're seventeen, and it's time you learn to appreciate what's going on around you, whether you like it or not.”

“If you're planning on telling me about Ol’ Scrooge, you can save your breath. I've heard it.”

“First I'm gonna tell you about a man named Job. Then we'll move on to a fella about your age, named Joseph.”¹

“Who?”


7MC7


Ned and Micah dismounted at the McCain Ranch, looking for the tracks Mark had left.

“Micah, if I get my hands on him…”

“Easy, Ned. I won't let you ride if you can't control yourself.”

“I'm not just your deputy, Micah.”

“Anker wouldn't let you ride, either.”

“I'll turn in my badge if I have to.”

“Ned, think sensibly. If you shoot DeFord down in cold blood, you'll be hanging from a noose no more than a month later!”

“It'd be worth it after what he did to Mark and Cassie.”

“Ned!” Micah yelled. “What would Mark and Cassie be saying if they were here to listen to you talk like that?”

“Well they're not here, Micah.”

“You better watch it, you're going to need your wits about you when we catch up to DeFord, and wasting energy getting angry at him is only going to help him. Focus on finding Mark and Cassie, then we'll worry about DeFord.”

Ned only grunted as they continued searching for a trail. Finally, they were able to make one out and began to follow it. They rode in silence for the first while, but Micah could see the wheels turning in Ned’s head. Whatever Ned was thinking about concerned Micah.

“Out with it, son.” Micah finally said.

“Ma should've never given her consent for them to marry. They were too young.”

“You don't believe that.”

“...Well, Mark certain doesn't seem to be doing a good job of protecting her! Maybe he wasn't prepared enough!”

“Don't start blaming him, Ned. It's not his fault. He was doing what any man was doing that hour of the day; working to provide for their family. And this would've happened even if they weren't married.”

“... I know, Micah. I'm sorry. I just…”

“You care about both of them, and don't want to see them hurt. You want to know what could've been done to prevent this. And the only answer to that is if your father wasn't born. But then you and your siblings wouldn't be here. You wouldn't have been able to watch your little sister get married. You wouldn't be engaged. Anna wouldn't be courting. Lucas wouldn't be as outnumbered by females in his house, because Mark would still be living at home, and Milly would've never come back…”

Ned couldn't help chuckle at that comment.

“...Micah, why is it that bad things only happen to good people?”

“That's not true, Ned. Bad things happen to everyone. It's how you react that makes all the difference. It's your reaction that essentially makes you good… or bad.”

“Why'd my father choose the bad?”

“I don't know, Ned. You'll have to ask him about that.”

“...If they ever catch him.”

“Oh they will, Ned. Sooner or later, they will.”

They continued riding until dark and made camp, only eating a little as they sat in front of the fire.

Micah looked over as he heard Ned suddenly chuckle.

“What is it?”

“...I was just thinking back.”

“Mind if I ask what you were thinking back to?”

“...Cassie must've been four or five. We were living in the city and all Cassie wanted was to go live out in the country. Complained that the buildings blocked the “glorious view”.”

“At four?” Micah laughed.

Ned nodded as he went on.

“Well, I guess she was probably five or so. One day we were walking home from school and she pulled me off the road and down the alley. Well, tried to pull. She didn't make much progress, but I could rarely tell that blonde haired little sister of mine no. Finally, she revealed to me that her life goal was to get married to a tall brunette who was a rancher out west, and have a family.”

“Seems she succeeded in that dream.”

“...I just hope she has a chance to finish that dream.”

“She will, Ned.”


8MC8


Mark rode down an old dirt road that had once been busting with life and activity. He looked around at all the abandoned buildings and wondered what their story was.

Once Mark reached the center of the ghost town, he halted BlueBoy and slowly dismounted, carefully taking in all of his surroundings. He pulled his rifle from the scabbard, jumping at the sound of a kitten behind him.

“Oh brother…” Mark sighed.

Mark debated on whether to search the town or wait for DeFord. He didn't have to think about it for long, however. DeFord walked out of the old Sheriff's office, hand over his holstered gun.

“You look just about as happy to see me as your wife did.” DeFord chuckled as he and Mark carefully took a few steps closer to each other.

“Where is she?” Mark asked as he twirled and cocked his rifle.

“Safe and sound, don't you worry.”

“I want to see her.”

“I'm a man of my word, Mark. She's safe.”

“What do you want?”

“I thought my note was pretty clear. I want you.”

“I could gun you down right now without thinking about it.”

“Maybe. But then you'd have to face three of my men, and you couldn't get to all three of them before one of them got to your wife.” A smug smile crossed DeFord's face as his men walked out onto the street and Mark realized he couldn't do anything. “Drop the rifle.”

Not showing anything except anger on his face, Mark tossed his rifle aside.

“Like I said, McCain, I'm a man of my word. And I said that if you testified… that, well… I'd make sure you would stay dead.”

“Get it over with.”

“Let's see… a head shot could be quick and almost painless… but what's the fun in that?”

“You won't get away with this, DeFord.”

“A few shots to the leg would take too long, I don't have all day…”

“It won't be long before you have every lawman in the territory gunning for you.”

“You're very distracting. I'm trying to plan your murder right now, if you don't mind.”

“I kinda do-”

“One to the chest and another to the abdomen sounds about right to me. What are your thoughts, Thornton?”

Suddenly, Mark dived for his rifle… but not fast enough. Mark clutched his chest and stomach as he collapsed onto the ground. Pain shot through his body as another bullet hit his back.

DeFord walked over to a grunting Mark as a satisfied grin crossed his face. He squatted down beside Mark and pushed him onto his back.

“Everybody wants to be a hero. I will give it to you, you're certainly not a coward. I can't stand yellow bellies.”

“How… do you live… with yourself… then?” Mark struggled to ask.

DeFord gave Mark a kick to the ribs before yelling at his men to bring Mark inside.

------

Cassie sat up on the bunk as she heard gunshots outside of the Sheriff's office. Part of her expected to hear rifle shots following… but they never came.

A few minutes later, Cassie screamed as two men drug Mark through the door. They unlocked her cell and threw Mark inside before locking the door again and leaving the room. Cassie turned Mark over, desperately calling her husband's name again and again. She cradled his head in her lap as she tried using her dress to stop the blood spilling out from her husband's body.

“Mark!” Cassie desperately cried again. “Mark, please!”

Mark struggled to open his eyes as his wife called out to him, but he didn't have the strength.

“I'm here… Cass…” Mark softly whispered.

“Mark, stay awake, you have to stay awake!”

“I'm… I'm trying…”

“Mark, look at me!” Cassie cried. “Please, Mark, look at me!”

Again, Mark struggled to force his eyes open. His eyelids only sat half open, but it was enough to see his wife's beautiful face.

“...Are you… al...alright?” He struggled to ask.

“Mark, don't-”

“Did he… did he hurt you?”

“No, Mark. He didn't.” Cassie cried.

“The baby?”

Cassie carefully picked up Mark's hand and let him feel her stomach.

“Excited to be hearing his Pa’s voice.”

“So… it's a he again…”

Mark breathed a sigh of relief as his eyelids started falling again.

“Mark, stay awake.” Cassie said as she moved his head from side to side. “Don't fall asleep on me!”

“Cassie… I… I need you to… do something… for me.”

“What, Mark?” Cassie asked as the tears continued to stream down her face.

“When… when you… get home… tell Pa… I love him…”

“Mark, you're going to be fine. You'll get to tell him yourself, and you-”

“Cassie…” Mark weakly said as he tried to open his eyes more. “Tell him for me. Promise… promise me…”

Cassie sobbed as she squeezed Mark's hand and nodded.

“Cassie…”

“Save your strength, Mark.”

“Cassie McCain, I love… I love you.”

“Mark…” Cassie cried.

“Thank you… for making it… this far… with me…”

Cassie watched in agony as Mark slowly closed his eyes.

“Mark?!” Cassie desperately called. “Mark!!”

Cassie sobbed as she called Mark's name over and over again.

“Somebody help!!” Cassie begged as the tears ran down her cheeks. “Please, somebody!!”

The door to the room swung open as John and a few other men came into the room.
Cassie looked up at her father as she choked on her tears.

“You have to do something!” Cassie finally screamed.

John unlocked the door and pulled Mark out of the cell. He felt for a pulse before sighing and turning to the other men.

“Go bury him.”

“No!!” Cassie screamed as she ran towards Mark, but John pulled her back and restrained her as the men drug Mark's body away. “Mark, please! Mark!!”

“Calm down, Cassie!” John ordered as he turned his daughter around. “The baby-”

Cassie slapped her father across the face before he put her back in the cell and locked the door.

As John walked out of the room, Cassie threw herself onto the bunk and wept harder than she ever had in her life.


Several hours later, John entered the room again. Cassie turned so she was staring at the wall opposite of him.

“It wasn't my doing, I'm sorry it had to be this way, Cassie.”

Cassie got up and walked to the bars that kept her from slapping her father again.

“It didn't have to be!” She yelled. “I hate you!”

“This is your grief talking, Cassie.”

“I've hated you since the day Mark got back and had you arrested! You deserved everything they sentenced you with, and more! And I'm not resting until I see you and DeFord both pay for what you've done to my husband!”

“Cassie, I'm your father-”

“You gave up that right a long time ago, John Osborne. And you will NEVER get it back!”

Osborne turned and left Cassie to her grief… knowing what his daughter was saying was true. He walked into the office and sighed as he dropped into a chair.

“Father-daughter bonding time?” DeFord laughed as he poured himself a cup of coffee.

“... I was such a fool to think she'd change her thinking. That she'd want to stay.”

“Yes, Osborne, you were a very big fool.” The man chuckled as he dropped into his chair.

“Then why'd you let me go through with it? You could've killed McCain at the ranch and be done with it.”

“I wanted to see him in agony. I knew your daughter was the only way to get him to his weakest.”

“...And now Cassie has to pay the consequences…” John started shaking his head as everything hit him. “...What have I done?”

“The only thing you could've done, John. It wasn't your fault McCain started sticking his nose into your business.”

“No… I could've stopped this a long time ago. I could've… could've…”

Osborne suddenly looked up, a look in his eye that somewhat frightened DeFord… and rightfully so.


9MC9


Hearing two gunshots, Micah and Ned urged their horses to go faster. They made it to the center of town before they heard one last shot come from the Sheriff's office.

Guns drawn, the two lawmen ran into the office to see DeFord and Osborne both prone on the office floor. As Micah covered him, Ned went to check their pulses.

“They’re both dead.” Ned finally said.

Micah shook his head, disgusted by the two men. Seeing the other door, Micah motioned for Ned to cover him as he went to check the room.

“Cassie!” Micah yelled as he opened the door and began looking for the key to the cell.

Cassie turned around and sat up, but she couldn't say anything.

Ned ran into the room, seeing the blood on his sister's dress first.

“What happened?!” He desperately asked as Micah opened the cell door.

Ned quickly went to his sister and looked her over.

“Where are you hurt? Where's all the blood coming from? Cassie!!”

Cassie slowly looked up at her brother, tears still in her eyes.

“... It's… it's not mine, Ned.” She cried as she fell into her brother's arms.

“Well then who-” Suddenly, Ned realized who was missing. He put his hands on Cassie's shoulders and looked straight into her eyes. “Not Mark… it can't be…”

Cassie simply nodded before Ned wrapped his arms around his sister in an attempt to comfort her.

Micah walked out of the room, unable to stop his tears.

Suddenly, everyone heard horses riding down the street. Ned and Cassie joined Micah in the front office to see three riders dismounting.

“Ned, they… they work for DeFord.”

Micah told Cassie to stay inside and down low as he and Ned went to confront the three.

As they stepped onto the boardwalk, Ned and Micah told the men to freeze.

Thornton was the first to shoot, grazing Micah's arm.

Everyone ducked for cover as they tried to shoot back.

Ned shot Thornton before missing a few shots aimed at one of the other men. He ducked as a bullet went flying through his hat.

Micah saw one of the men running for an alleyway and was able to shoot him. There were a few moments of silence before the last man let off a shot, giving away his hiding spot behind a barrel. Micah and Ned both shot until the man slumped over onto their street.

“You alright, Micah?” Ned asked.

“Just a scratch.”

Cassie came running out of the office and embraced her brother as she let her tears flow.

------

Micah started to suggest they stay in the old hotel for the night, but Cassie refused.

“I'll sleep outside, I don't care. Please, Ned, get me out of here!” Cassie begged her brother.

Ned looked to Micah who nodded. As Ned went to help Cassie find BlueBoy, Micah went back into the Sheriff's office. It didn't take him long before he recognized Mark’s rifle sitting up on a shelf. Tears fell down the old man's face as he brought the rifle down and ran his hand across the barrel.

“Oh, Mark…”


The three were soon riding out of town, away from the miserable scene. When Cassie asked about the men's bodies, Micah said they would send someone back to take care of them.

“...Cassie, do you know where Mark…”

“They buried him somewhere.” Cassie quickly replied, not wanting to think about her husband's body lying in the cold earth somewhere.

It was a long, quiet ride until they stopped for the night. Little was said as they made camp that night and then as they packed up the next morning.

As Micah took care of the horses, Ned took his sister to Doc's immediately following their arrival in town.

Anna screamed when she saw Cassie walk in, blood covering her dress. She ran to her sister as tears ran down her face.

“What happened?” Anna asked, but Cassie didn't reply. “Ned, what happened??”

“It's not her blood, I just want Doc to check her over.”

“Then who's blood is it?” Jason asked as he came running into the room.

Cassie still couldn't answer; the tears just fell down her face.

“It's Mark's…” Ned sorrowfully answered.

“Where is he? He needs to-” Jason stopped short as he recognized the look of grief on his friends’ faces.

“... Mark… didn't make it.” Ned finally said.

Anna fell into a chair as tears streamed down her face. By this time, Doc Burrage had entered the room and could conclude what had happened.

As Jason tried to console Anna, Ned and Doc took Cassie into a back room where Doc examined her.

“...Cassie, physically, I think you and the baby should be fine.”

“Thanks, Doc…” She managed to reply.

“Cassie, I'm so sorry for your loss… your husband was an amazing man.”

Cassie nodded as she tried to wipe away her tears.

“...Would you like some time alone?”

Again, Cassie nodded.

Ned helped his sister out of the examination room and into room three before making his way back to the waiting room, finding Anna much more composed.

“... How's Cassie? And the baby?”

“Fine, just needing some rest.” Ned replied.

“...How did it happen?”

“I don't know. She just said it was Mark's blood and that they buried him somewhere. I couldn't make myself ask her any more questions.”

There was a long silence before Micah walked through the door.

“Ned, I'm about to go tell Milly and Rachael.”

Ned nodded and followed the Marshal out the door without saying a word.

------

“Oh, thank heavens you're back!” Lou exclaimed as the two men entered the hotel.

Helen looked up from her books and ran to hug Ned.

“Are you alright?” She asked.

“Fine.” Ned replied as he tried to smile.

“Cassie and Mark over at Catherine's?” Lou inquired.

“Lou, where's Milly and Rachael?” Micah asked.

“Micah, what's going on?”

“Where are they?” Micah insisted.

“Up in their room. But where's Mark and Cassie??”

“What room, Lou?!” Micah nearly yelled.

“...Eight.”

Ned and Micah silently went up the stairs and walked down the hall towards room eight. They knocked on the door before Milly answered it.

“Are you two alright? Where's Mark and Cassie??” She desperately asked as she invited the men in.

“Cassie's fine, but just resting down at Doc's.”

“...And Mark?” Rachael nervously asked.


Lou was down in the lobby and heard Milly's scream echo down the stairs. She ran to her friend's room and saw Micah holding Milly as Ned took Lydia from Rachael's arms. As Rachael tried to steady herself and sit down on the bed, Milly sank to the floor, crying her son's name.


10MC10


Lucas checked into his hotel and was surprised to have a telegram waiting for him. He opened it, and almost couldn't believe what was there.

“LUCAS McCAIN
ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO

DeFord alive
Abducted Cassie

McCAIN, MILLY
NORTH FORK, NEW MEXICO”

Lucas turned right around and ran to the train station. With no train to North Fork scheduled for three days, his only hope was to ride Razor back as fast as he could.

It was an agonizingly slow ride back to North Fork. So many questions ran through Lucas’s mind as Razor galloped across the country side. So many questions he didn't have answers to.

It was almost midnight when Lucas rode into town, but he could see the light on outside of Micah's office and several horses outside. He ran into the building to see Micah talking with Marshal Anker and a few others.

No one knew what to say; they just stared at Lucas.

“Does anyone care to explain to me how DeFord is alive?!” Lucas demanded. “You said you went back and burried him!” He continued to yell as he pointed at Anker.

“Lucas, why don't you sit down…” Anker suggested.

“I'm not going to sit down! I want answers! Why is everyone here instead of out looking for Cassie?!”

“We found Cassie.” Micah assured.

“Is she alright??”

“She's fine.”

“And DeFord?”

“Dead, for real, this time.” Anker replied.

“What do you mean for real? I checked his pulse, he was dead!” Lucas replied.

“Sometimes it's so faint you can't detect it by hand. He was alive… and he was gone when we went back to bury him at the cabin.” Anker explained. “I should've told you, but your family was going through enough at the time…”

“You had no right! You put my family in jeopardy!”

“I can't tell you how sorry I am, Lucas…”

“You just be thankful Cassie's alright. If anything had happened to her…”

“Everyone else clear out.” Johnny suddenly said from the back of the room. “I need to talk to Lucas alone.”

No one questioned the deputy, they knew what he was about to do.

Lucas waited for the door to shut before turning to Johnny.

“What's going on? Cassie is fine, isn't she?”

“Physically.”

“What's that supposed to mean?”

“Lucas, you're going to have to be strong. You can't lose it. Your family needs you.”

“What are you keeping from me, Johnny?!”

“Mark went after Cassie, to bring her home.”

“And?”

“Lucas, Mark went home... to be with his Ma.”

Lucas dropped into a chair as he understood what Johnny was saying.

“Mark…”

“Lucas-”

“Get out of here, Johnny!” Lucas demanded as he stood and pointed to the door.

“Lucas…”

“Out!”

Johnny knew better than to argue with a grieving Lucas. He grabbed his hat and quietly left the building.

Lucas sank to his knees as he slammed his fist on the ground.

“Why, God?!” Lucas yelled. “Weren’t they enough?? Why did you have to take him, too?!”

Tears streamed down the rancher's face as he repeatedly slammed his fist on the ground.

Suddenly, Lucas could hear his son making a request of him. It was as clear as the day Mark had made it.

“If anything happens to me… ever… I know you'll have your time of grief. But promise me you'll live a full life. That you'll be there to help Cass and Ma. That you'll take care of Cassie for me. Promise me that my memory won't carve your life down to nothingness.”

“Oh, Son…” Lucas cried. “Mark, why?!”


11MC11


Lucas softly knocked on the hotel room door.

“...Cassie…?”

A few moments later, he heard the door being unlocked.

Cassie only took a moment to look at Lucas before embracing him.

Cassie finally invited him inside, trying to keep her tears at bay.

“How… how are you holding up?”

Cassie looked at Lucas for a moment longer before replying.

“...About as well as you are.”

“Not too well then…”

“He died trying to save me… how you must hate me!” Cassie suddenly cried.

Lucas wrapped his arms around Cassie as he tried to calm her.

“Shh… of course not, Cassie. Had I been home, I would've been right there next to Mark. Don't blame yourself, Cassie.”

Cassie slowly nodded as the tears continued to fall.

“...Micah said you haven't talked about it, and I understand… but when you're ready…”

“You deserve to know… he was your son…”

“Cassie, if you're not ready…”

“I can do it, Uncle Lucas.”

Cassie sat down on the bed as Lucas brought a chair over and sat across from her.

“... I don't know all the details. I was home with Rachael when DeFord and John came to the ranch. They tied Rachael up in one of the back rooms and took me with them to a ghost town, about a day's ride. They locked me up in the old jail. It wasn't long… maybe a few hours before I heard shooting out in the street. Then…” several more tears fell down Cassie's face as she remembered the sight. “They drug Mark in and threw him into the cell with me. He was barely hanging on… they… they shot him at least twice. He was so weak, Uncle Lucas… he could barely hold his eyes open...”

Cassie was sobbing as she relived the worst minutes of her life.

“Take your time-”

“I couldn't do anything! He sat there in my lap, bleeding to death, and all I could do was watch him die!” Cassie sobbed.

Lucas moved to sit next to Cassie and wrapped his arms around her.

“I'm sorry, Cassie… I shouldn't-”

“Why, Uncle Lucas? None of this was his fault! He didn't ask for any of it! Why did I ever agree to marry him? He would be alive right now if-”

“Stop it right now, Cassie. My son loved you, and my son wanted you. And he was willing to sacrifice himself to give you a life to live! Mark did it because he loved you, and he wouldn't want you sitting here blaming yourself.”

“Love…” Cassie whispered. “He… said he loved you.”

“What?”

“He wanted me to tell you that he loved you. ...He made me promise I'd tell you, right before… before...”

Lucas stared at Cassie as he heard his son's final words to him. Lucas again broke; he couldn't hold back the tears any longer.


¹Biblical characters; Job is mentioned in episode 2 - “Home Ranch”
 

Forever Home

Morgan's Corner

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

The Writer's Corner
Table of Contents

Site Map
around The McCain Ranch