The Rifleman
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Fan Fiction

Character of a Coward, part 1
Chapter 8
Written by Morgan


"Well I won't ask how you've been, I can see that," Johnny mussed as his nephew rode up to the house on Blue Boy. "What trouble did ya get yourself into this time? That's a nasty looking shiner you've got there."

"I wasn't using my head and squatted down behind a cow to make sure her calf was feeding proper. She apparently likes her personal space and decided to tell me so by kicking me."

"Are you having trouble on the ranch?" Johnny asked as he took Blue Boy's reigns from Mark and tied them to the porch railing.

"Not really too much," Mark began as he dismounted. "But our herd sure has grown. It's a lot to keep track of."

"Do you need any help?"

"Naw, Pa will be back from his honeymoon in two days and I can manage until then. Thanks though."

Johnny looked at Mark seriously for a moment before continuing.

"How are you doing with everything else? I doubt that watching them leave was easy for you."

"The first few days were really hard, and I'm still worried about them... quite a bit actually. It helps that they've been sending telegrams though. Pa and I talked about it before he left and he understood that due to certain situations that have come up before; we needed a way to know that it really was one of us sending a telegram. So we actually ended up working out a few key phrases and different things, and that's put me at ease a little. I'm just going to feel a whole lot better when they're back."

"Well like you said, two more days and they will be. Let's get inside and see what Lou's got cooking for supper."

"Sounds great," Mark replied before he and Johnny went inside.

"Good evening, Aunt Lou," Mark greeted as he entered the kitchen while Johnny went to the bedroom to change.

Lou turned from the stove to greet Mark, but her smile quickly disappeared when she saw Mark's face.

"Mark, what on earth happened?" Lou asked with concern as she walked towards Mark and
took a closer look at his black eye.

"Just a little accident at the ranch, it's nothing."

"Nothing? I'd say a swollen black eye is a little more than nothing, are ye alright?"

"I'm fine, it happened this morning and it doesn't hurt a bit."

"What am I going to do with you? It seems ye can't be left alone for more than a few hours at a time without getting into some sort of trouble!" Lou rolled her eyes as she returned to the stove.

"Can I help with anything?"

"Would ye mind setting the table for me? The plates and glasses are in the first cabinet on the left, and the silverware is in that second drawer," Lou stated, gesturing.

"No problem." Mark set to his task. "How are you feeling, with the pregnancy and all?"

"A lot better than I was last month, the morning sickness is gone and I have a lot more energy."

"I'm glad, I knew you weren't doing very well, especially towards the middle of June."

"Well that's all in the past, and I'm thankful for that. Are ye enjoying some peace and quiet at the ranch?"

"It's almost too quiet. I'd prefer to have some conversation out there; I think I've almost lost my mind."

"Well it's a good thing we invited ye for supper then, isn't it?"

"Yes it is, and thank you for having me."

"Oh posh, Mark, you're welcome around here anytime and ye certainly don't have to ever wait for an invitation."

Mark finished setting the table as Lou finished frying the potatoes. Johnny came into the kitchen as Lou was setting supper on the table and the three sat down to eat.

"Mark, how is Cassie and her family doing?" Lou inquired.

"I haven't seen her since the wedding; things have just been too crazy around the ranch to take some time off. This was the first time this week I haven't come home from working on the range
and crashing within an hour."

"Mark, are you sure-" Johnny started.

"Two more days is all it is Uncle Johnny, and besides, you have a job to do, yourself. I'm sure everyone is super busy over at Mr. Jackford's."

The three finished supper before Mark and Johnny washed the dishes after insisting that Lou relax in the sitting room. The dishes didn't take that long and soon the three were in the sitting room talking about various subjects. When eight-thirty rolled around, Mark figured he best leave so his aunt and uncle could get to bed.

"We'll see you later Mark, ride careful." Lou stated as she and Johnny watched Mark mounting up.

"I will. Have a goodnight!" Mark replied before turning Blue Boy around and heading back towards the center of town.

Mark first stopped at the livery and picked up the ax blade he had left for Nils earlier that evening. Mark started to head back to the ranch, but upon seeing the light of the lanterns in the marshal's office, decided to stop by for a minute.

As Mark reached for the door handle, someone on the other side opened the door and walked through the entry, almost knocking Mark over. The man almost didn't seem to even realize Mark was there and just kept walking down the boardwalk. Mark stared after the man for a moment, but then he suddenly recognized him and quickly entered the office.

Marshal Osborne was on duty, which surprised Mark since Micah usually worked Monday evenings.

"Evening Mark, is there something I can help you with?" John inquired as he motioned to a seat.

"The man that was just in here... wasn't he one of the men you helped arrest in Silas? I thought you said they were all part of this counterfeiting scheme and-"

"The charges were dropped against them," John simply stated.

"Why?"

"There wasn't enough proof to convict them."

"But I thought..."

"Unfortunately I'm a marshal, not a lawyer. The prosecutor said there wasn't enough evidence, and he gets to make the call."

Mark could hear a very slight hint of irritation in the Marshal's voice, irritation that wasn't directed towards the prosecutor; but directed towards him. Mark couldn't understand why John would be aggravated by him and wanted to change the subject, but his curiosity was still demanding answers.

"Well then what was he doing here?"

"Letting me know he was in town, and didn't want to cause any trouble, that's all. Now, why were you headed in here in the first place? Kinda late for you to be in town, isn't it?"

"I had supper at my aunt and uncle's, and saw the light in here as I was leaving the livery. I thought Micah was working tonight and was going to play him a game of checkers."

"I traded nights with him so I could help Ned with something later this week."

"...Well I best be going, like you said, it is kinda late. See you later, Marshal Osborne."

"Goodnight Mark."

As Mark left the office and mounted Blue Boy, he thought through the exchange in the office. Something was wrong, something Mark couldn't quite put his finger on. The marshal had acted skittish and nervous... he couldn't stop moving his hands and his eyes were constantly scanning behind Mark. He had been short, and to an extent, almost rude with the tone of his answers... something Mark had almost gotten used to as of late. Something else was bothering Mark also. For the first time in a long time, he had addressed John as Marshal Osborne. Mark didn't feel a connection anymore with the middle-aged marshal. On the contrary, Mark was beginning to feel intimidated and threatened by John whenever he started asking questions.

'Maybe I'm just too nosy...' Mark told himself as he rode towards the ranch. '...Or maybe there's a bigger picture here...'

1MC1

Lucas looked out the window as Milly lay against his shoulder, sound asleep. The past week had been a wonderful experience for the both of them, but they were both ready to return to North Fork... they were ready to have the whole family together.

Lucas knew his son was very capable of taking care of the ranch by himself, but he also knew Mark may not be allowing himself enough down time... something that happened quite often whether Lucas was home or not. Lucas worried about his son often... Mark rarely knew when it
was time to take a break and let his body rest up. Lou had once posed the question of which of the two McCain men was more stubborn. At the time, neither Lucas nor Mark were sure of the answer. Now, Lucas knew his son was the winner. It wasn't a bad type of stubbornness however; it was a good kind of stubborn determination that drove Mark. Almost too much sometimes, but Lucas found there was little he could do. Lucas was proud of Mark though. Proud of Mark's work ethic, his character, his integrity. Most of all, proud of his compassion for people.

As the train came over a hill, North Fork came into sight and Lucas gently roused Milly.

"We'll be in North Fork in a few minutes," he told her as she woke.

"When did I fall asleep?" Milly inquired.

"About an hour ago," Lucas replied as he smiled at Milly's confusion.

"I'm sorry, you should've woken me."

"Milly, you were exhausted, it's alright. Frankly I'm surprised you didn't fall asleep sooner."

"Do you think Mark was able to handle everything alright while we were gone?"

"I'm sure he did, he's had to handle things without me before."

"Maybe we should've asked Micah to check in on him..."

"Milly," Lucas chuckled. "You sound like I did two years ago. It's hard to come to terms with, but Mark's a full grown man, not a twelve year old boy anymore. Besides, we're going to be home in an hour; there's not exactly much we can do about it now."

"I suppose you're right, it's just... difficult not to worry."

"I understand," Lucas replied as he stood to get the bags from the overhead compartment.

The conductor came through the car, announcing North Fork as the next stop. Before too long the train was rolling into the station and Lucas and Milly looked out the window to see who was on the platform. They caught sight of Mark, who had his back to the train, talking to Micah.

Husband and wife soon followed the other passengers off the train and made their way towards Mark and Micah, who were both scanning the crowd.

When Mark turned in the direction of Lucas and Milly, Lucas saw his son's black eye first. Surprised and a concerned, Lucas slightly quickened his pace.

"What did he get himself into this time?" Lucas mumbled.

"What did you say?" Milly asked, trying to talk over the noise.

"Look at Mark," Lucas stated, gesturing.

Milly gasped as she saw Mark; just as Mark caught sight of his parents.

"Welcome back," Mark greeted as he reached Lucas and Milly, and took one of the bags from Lucas.

"Mark, what did you do?" Milly asked as she took his face in her hands and looked at his eye a little better.

"I got a little too close to a cow. It's fine."

"The youngest one?" Lucas asked.

"Yep. I forgot how particular and protective first time mother cows can be. I don't think I'll have a hard time remembering that for a while."

"Well did you have Doc look at it?" Milly asked, still concerned.

"It's a black eye, not a broken arm," Mark replied with a slight chuckle.

"I still think-"

"He's fine Milly. He's survived this long without Doc; I don't think he needs to see him now," Lucas gently told her. "Why don't we head home? We can say hi to Micah tomorrow, he's going to be busy with new comers for a while."

The three made their way back to the buckboard and Blue Boy, who Mark had brought along for the ride back.

Lucas drove the buck board as Mark rode beside them back to the ranch.

"So besides the black eye, how did things go while we were gone?" Lucas inquired.

"Fine, but I think that fence between our property and Mr. Jackford's needs to be fixed before this next winter. After two years it's kinda getting weak," Mark replied. "Oh, and I found some loco weed starting to grow out in the north pasture, I think I got all of it but we need to keep an eye out for it. How was your trip?"

"We didn't have any trouble and everything went smoothly. Oh, and I never got to ask you... did you have anything to do with the shivaree?" Lucas queried as he looked between Mark and the road.

Milly gave a quiet laugh as she remembered Lucas's reaction to the whooping and hollering on their wedding night. Thankfully he decided to go along with it and listened to their singing until everyone was gone.

"I was in town, like you said to be. I didn't feel like getting skinned alive," Mark replied laughingly.

"I didn't ask if you were there..." Lucas stated.

"All I had to do with it was telling Uncle Johnny that he better do it pretty soon after you got home or you wouldn't be too happy. And that was after he was already planning one. He was going to wait until midnight."

"I'm sure we're all glad he didn't," Milly laughed.

As soon as they arrived home, Mark took care of the horses while Lucas took the bags and walked Milly to the porch.

"What is it?" Milly asked as Lucas stopped and put the luggage down.

"Well this is our first home together," Lucas replied with a smile.

"Oh Lucas, you're not-" Milly stopped talking and started laughing as Lucas literally swept her off her feet and walked into the house.

Lucas put his beautiful wife down and stared into her eyes.

"Welcome home, Mrs. McCain," Lucas said before wrapping his arms around her waist and passionately kissing his wife.

2MC2

After Milly insisted on doing the supper dishes, Lucas and Mark went outside to complete the evening chores.

Lucas enjoyed being home once again, he had missed everything about it; especially working with Mark.

"Son, are you really alright? I didn't want to worry Milly, but that eye really doesn't look very good."

"Yeah, it's just going to be tender for a few days."

There was a brief lull in the conversation before Lucas decided to ask a difficult question.

"...Did you have any seizures while I was gone?"

When Lucas didn't hear a response, he turned to look at Mark who had stopped halfway up the ladder to the hayloft.

"When did it happen?"

"...Saturday night," Mark replied as he continued up the ladder.

"Did you talk to Doc?" Lucas asked as he watched Mark walk around the hayloft.

"Nope," Mark replied firmly as he used the pitch fork to throw some hay down to the stalls below.

Lucas sighed and shifted his weight as he crossed his arms. He was at a loss for what to do; he could see that Mark was upset by the episode, and didn't want Mark to close off about it. On the other hand, Lucas needed to find out what exactly happened. By this time, Mark had walked out of Lucas's line of vision, so Lucas decided to make his way up to the loft himself.

As he reached the top of the ladder, Lucas saw his son bracing himself against the barn wall; a look of frustration on his face.

"You know what I want to say..." Lucas stated.

"Why don't you say it then?" Mark asked without looking at his Pa.

"Because it's not what you want... or need to hear right now, is it?"

Mark looked up at Lucas, slightly surprised at what he had just said.

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

"It's hard, isn't it?" Lucas asked, but stated at the same time.

"More than you know. Saturday night I woke up on the barn floor. I didn't know how long I had been there, and had I been out of it much longer, a fire might have started because I had
something on the stove in the house."

Lucas gestured for his son to sit, and after Mark did so, Lucas sat down as well.

"Mark, you're a very strong willed, determined person. You're independent and like to do things for yourself. You hate having people fuss over you, and it's hard for you to ask for or even admit that you need help. When you have a seizure, it reminds you that sometimes you do need help, that you do have weak spots, and it scares you to think that you might lose your independence."

"Pa, I'm not scared, it's just frustrating and... and embarrassing. What kind of man randomly faints?"

"That's not the case, Mark. A seizure is not just fainting; you know it's much more serious than that. Be honest with yourself, you're scared that you're going to need help. You're worried about one day having to provide for a family. You're afraid of becoming a burden to people."

"Pa, you don't know what you're talking about," Mark bluntly stated as he stood and turned away from his father.

Lucas could see the struggle, the fear in Mark's eyes. He had to help his son comes to terms with the situation, to get Mark to let a little bit of his pride go.

"I don't?" Lucas asked.

"You've always been independent, strong. You've never needed anybody to do anything for you. How would you understand feeling helpless and weak?"

"Try being blind for a few weeks. That'll really put things in perspective for you," Lucas simply stated.

Lucas knew his statement had caught Mark off guard, and that's what he had been hoping it would do.

"How old were you when that happened?"

"Twelve or thirteen," Mark replied as he turned around to face Lucas again.

"Imagine going that long, having to rely on your thirteen year old son to do everything for you, including running the ranch, while worrying about an outlaw running around threatening you and your son. I'd say a person would feel fairly weak and helpless right about then. How about the winter I broke my leg?"

"...I guess you would know a thing or two about it then," Mark hesitantly admitted. "And I suppose you're right... I am scared. Pa, if this keeps getting worse like it is, how am I gonna-"

"By living in the moment and having faith. Mark, you can't just give up because the obstacle in front of you looks a little bigger than you would like. You can accept the help from people around you to move it, or you can give up and walk away. But like you've said before; we've gone too far forward together for one of us to slip backwards alone."

"Pa... will you... help me keep moving forward?"

"I'll always be here to help you son, you don't have to ask."

3MC3

The remainder of July and majority of August flew by for everyone in North Fork. Much to Cassie and Mark's displeasure, things often were too busy around the McCain ranch for the two to go on any rides or outings. Nevertheless, Mark made every effort he could to spend time with Cassie before she left for school. The night before Cassie was to leave North Fork, the McCain's invited the Osborne's for supper, and they gladly accepted.

The only problem now was getting Cassie out of the house and into the buck board, which was the problem Marshal Osborne was trying to solve as he knocked on his daughter's bedroom door.

"Cassie, the night's going to be gone before you get out here!" John called through the door.

"Be out in a minute Pa!"

"That's what you said five minutes ago..." John mussed.

"Give her a break," Mrs. Osborne stated as she came down the hall. "You remember what it was like when you came calling for me. Every hair has to be in place."

"But Mark's not calling for her and her hair is going to be messed up by the wind on the way over there."

"She's not going to see him for four months, take it easy on her," Catherine said with a smile.

When Cassie came out of the bedroom, finally ready to leave, she left the house with her parents and got in the back of the buckboard with Anna.

"Cassie Osborne, I think you just set a family record," Anna commented as the team started forward.

"What do you mean?" Cassie inquired.

"I think that's the longest any of us have ever taken to get ready to go. Even Aunt Milly didn't take that long on her wedding day!"

"Oh hush," Cassie firmly ordered before her straight face broke and she started laughing with Anna.

"It's just a good thing Ned is meeting us there. You wouldn't hear the end of this."

When the Osborne's buck board drove into the McCain's yard, Mark exited the house and went to help Cassie and Anna out of the back while John helped Catherine down.

"Evening Cassie, Anna. How are you?" Mark asked.

"Fine thank you," Anna replied before picking up a basket from inside the buckboard and carrying it inside the house.

"Wonderful," Cassie replied.

Mark took the second basket for Cassie before offering her his right arm.

John and Catherine watched the two enter the home arm in arm.

"He's such a gentleman," Catherine commented as she took her husband's arm and headed towards the house.

"He is. They're almost perfect for each other," John replied.

"Almost?" Catherine asked in surprise.

"I can't go too easy on him," John replied with a smile.

As the evening drew on, no one could argue that Mark and Cassie had eyes for each other; it was much too obvious. Shortly before the Osborne's were to leave, Mark took Cassie back to the kitchen to talk to her privately for a minute.

"Cassie, I want you to know I'm so proud of you and what you're doing. I'm glad you have this opportunity, and want you to take it. Just remember that I love you... and I'll be waiting for you when you get back."

Cassie didn't say anything; she only simply nodded and avoided looking Mark in the eyes.

At first Mark wondered if something was wrong, but then Cassie leaned forward and gave Mark a quick kiss on the cheek.

"I love you too."

Cassie turned around and went back into the sitting room, leaving Mark in a daze for a few seconds before a smile swept across his face and he followed after her.

4MC4

A few evenings later, Milly and Lucas sat together in the front room reading. Mark had retired for the night long ago, but the light from the lantern could still be seen underneath his door.

"I'm going to get to bed; Mark and I have a long day tomorrow," Lucas suddenly stated as he closed his book and put it on the mantle.

"I'll join you in just a few more minutes." Milly said.

"Alright." Lucas replied before kissing his wife and leaving the room.

Milly put her own book away and walked to Mark's door before knocking on it.

"Come in," Mark replied from the other side.

Milly walked into the room and shut the door behind her. Mark was sitting behind his desk, but didn't look to see who was there.

"Awful late to be writing letters, isn't it?" Milly inquired as she stood next to Mark.

"Late? It's only..." Mark looked at the time piece before continuing. "I suppose it is a little late. I didn't realize how much time had passed."

Milly smiled gently as she looked at Mark, who was obviously thinking about the future recipient of the letter.

"You love her very much, don't you?"

"Ma, how am I going to survive these next few months? Christmas seems like an eternity away."

"You'll find a way, and you'll be seeing her again before you know it."

"...Ma, what if she meets someone else while she's away? What if she comes back and... she
feels different?"

"Mark, you're going to have to trust Cassie. You've got to have faith in her like she's having in you."

"What do you mean?"

"You don't think she's had the same thoughts? There's plenty of girls in North Fork she knows would be happy to be in her shoes, some of whom she believes you would find more attractive than herself."

"That's not true, and I love Cassie; no one else. I've told her that many times."

"This is why she's keeping faith in you, Mark. Trusting you to stay true to your promises. You've got to trust her, trust is essential in any relationship."

"She means the world to me; I'd give up my life for her. I just don't want to lose her. "

"You won't, Mark."

"Ma... how did you know for sure Pa was the right one?"

"Are you having doubts?"

"Yes and no, it just seems so unreal sometimes. It almost feels too right for everything to be... well, right. She completes me, I love her, and I want her to be my wife. More than anything I want her to be happy."

"I think you know that she's the right one for you, Mark. And you also know it can be very hard to explain how exactly you know that. It's more than a feeling that everything is right."

"I know what you mean."

"You and your Pa have an early morning tomorrow, why don't you hit the sack?"

"Goodnight Ma," Mark replied before giving Milly a kiss on the cheek and walking her to the door.

Milly made her way to her own bedroom before changing into her nightgown and crawling into bed next to her husband.

"He's ready," Milly quietly stated.

"Who, for what?" Lucas inquired.

"Mark's ready to marry Cassie."

"He's wanted to for almost two years, what's your point?"

"I'm not saying Mark is just thinking he's ready. I'm saying I know he's ready to start and provide for a family, ready to commit his life to another person."

"...I know. I just don't know if I'm quite ready to completely let him go yet."

"He'll be nineteen in a few months; he can't live with us forever."

"You know, we could suggest that they move in after they marry, at least for a few years..." Lucas stated.

"Oh Lucas, you wouldn't!" Milly exclaimed as she turned around to face Lucas, and the smile spreading across his face.

"I'm only joking. Yes, I agree that he's ready. I think they're both ready."

"I love you Lucas." Milly said before kissing her husband and rolling back on her side.

Lucas draped his arm around her and soon both of them were sound asleep.

5MC5

"Mark still not up?" Lucas asked as he entered the kitchen.

"I thought he was in the barn working on chores," Milly replied as she stirred the oatmeal again.

"That's what I thought, but I just finished them."

"He's probably just tired; he was up as late as we were."

"Tired or not, we're both up; I'll go rouse him. It's not like him to oversleep."

Lucas left the kitchen and knocked on Mark's door before entering his son's room. He found Mark standing in front of the open dresser, still dressed in his night clothes with jeans and a shirt in hand.

"Well are you going to stand there all day, or get going? We've gotta be at Oat's in three hours."

Lucas waited for a reply, but none came. Mark didn't even move... he hadn't moved at all since Lucas entered the room. Lucas shut the door behind him and hurried towards Mark. Looking at Mark, Lucas saw that his son was having a seizure. He was unresponsive and his eyes weren't focused on anything in particular, just glossed over and staring.

Lucas wanted to take Mark's shoulders and try to shake his son awake, but he knew he had to do what he did every time this happened: wait.

Lucas walked over to the desk and braced himself against it as he kicked it and looked down to the ground. His mind was racing, his heart was pounding. Lucas knew the longer Mark stayed like this, the worse things could become; and yet there was nothing he could do to help his son. As a father, it tore Lucas apart when this happened, he knew he couldn't control it, and it scared him. Lucas loved Mark in such a way that almost sometimes he couldn't understand it. He almost couldn't bear watching Mark struggle with the problems the seizures caused... physically and emotionally.

Suddenly Lucas heard the dresser drawer slam shut and he turned around to see Mark starting to take his night shirt off.

"Mark, are you alright?" Lucas asked, startling his son.

Mark turned around to see his Pa leaning against the desk, obviously trying to relax as he breathed a sigh of relief.

"Yeah..." Mark sighed.

"Are you sure you want to go through with the cattle drive?"

"Life can't stop. Like you said yourself; I've gotta keep moving forward even with an obstacle in the way."

Lucas didn't respond for a moment. He knew that Mark did indeed need to keep moving forward in life, but he also knew there was a time when he needed to make Mark slow down a little bit. However; Lucas decided that now was not that time.

"Go ahead and finished getting dressed. Breakfast will be ready by the time you get in there."

Lucas walked towards his son and patted him on the shoulder before heading towards the door.

"Thanks Pa."

Lucas turned around with confusion on his face.

"For what?"

"Letting it go."

Lucas nodded before leaving the bedroom and making his way back to kitchen. As he entered, Milly was setting bowls of oatmeal on the table.

"Did you get him up?" Milly asked.

"He was already awake."

"Then what was he doing?"

Lucas took his wife's hand and directed her to sit down on a chair before he did the same.

"He's fine, but-"

"He had another one, didn't he?" Milly urgently asked with worry and concern.

"Yes he did."

"Well shouldn't we take him to Doc's and-"

"Milly, there's nothing Doc can do. For right now, everything appears to be fine and we just have to accept that."

"Well you're not letting him go on the cattle drive still, are you?"

"Milly, he's eighteen, not a toddler. Believe me, I'm going to keep a very close eye on him, but we can't keep him from doing things. Life has to move on."

"But if you're going across open land there might not be a doctor nearby if he needs one and-"

"One of Oat's hands could break something and there not be a doctor nearby. Milly, life is full of risks. Mark's a rancher and we can't bring his life to a halt. If he feels like the risk is too great, he's a grown man and can make that decision for himself."

"Lucas, promise me you'll both be careful..."

"We will," Lucas replied as he kissed her forehead.

After breakfast, Lucas and Mark rode Milly to Johnny and Lou's, where she would be staying the
next few days. Lucas didn't like the idea of Milly staying at the ranch by herself, and since Johnny was going on the cattle drive as well, Lou was grateful for the company of her friend.

Johnny, Lucas, and Mark said their goodbyes to Lou and Milly before heading to Oat's. This was the second year that Oat and the McCain's had decided to drive their cattle together, it made for a much simpler trip for both of them.

The men rode until the sun finished setting and set up camp for the night.

After everyone had unsaddled their horses and laid out their bed rolls, Lucas took Mark aside.

"What is it Pa?"

"Mark, I'm not going to ride you this whole trip, but I want to make it clear that if you get any more headaches or any other indication of having an episode; you let me know right away. Understand?"

"Yes sir. Did you tell Ma about this morning?"

"Yes son, I did. Why do you ask?"

"I was just wondering. She seemed extra protective and worried."

"She loves you Mark. Even though she didn't raise you, she feels-"

"Pa, she's my Ma and I'm her son; family is what you make it."

Lucas and Mark both looked towards the fire when they heard Johnny hollering over to them.

"You two going to eat?!"

"Coming!" Lucas replied.

"As long as you didn't fix it!" Mark quipped at Johnny.

"You better be careful son, you've still got five days on the trail with him."

"I think deep down he enjoys it."

6MC6

The cattle drive went smoothly without any major difficulties and soon everyone was headed
back to North Fork. Neither Milly nor Lou would let the men into either one of their homes until the trail dust had been cleaned off of them, so as soon as the McCain's arrived home, Milly set to making a big supper as Mark and Lucas showered behind the house.

From then on, things were much slower around the McCain's as the winter months quickly approached. In early November, Mark and Lucas helped Oat repair the fence dividing their properties. As they were working on it one day, Lucas sent Mark into town to pick up some more supplies from the general store.

As Mark rode past the train station, he suddenly stopped Blue Boy when he thought he saw Cassie on the platform.

"Cassie?" Mark called as he stopped his horse and dismounted.

The blonde haired woman turned around and though Mark admitted the woman looked a lot like her; it wasn't Cassie. She was much older than Cassie and a few facial features differed.

"Can I help you?" The woman asked with a smile.

"No, I'm sorry. I thought you were a friend of mine."

"That's quite alright," She replied. "Do you live around here?"

"Yes ma'am, a little ways out of town."

"Is there a John Osborne who lives around here?"

"Yes ma'am, he's our marshal. He also happens to be on duty today. If you'd like to see him, I'd be happy to take you over to the marshal's office; I don't know why he wasn't here to meet the train."

"I wouldn't want to trouble you; if you just give me directions I'm sure I can find it."

"Oh it's no trouble at all. In fact I have to head over that way to pick up some supplies from the store."

"Well I'd be very much obliged. Thank you."

Mark grabbed Blue Boy's reigns and led the horse along the side of the road as he walked with the woman to the office.

"How long have you known John?" The woman inquired.

Mark thought a moment before replying.

"... I believe it will be two and a half years this December."

"He hasn't been here long then? Or have you moved here recently?"

"I've lived here for eight years; the marshal came to town originally on assignment, then stayed and moved his family here."

After hearing Mark's response, the woman abruptly stopped walking and looked at Mark strangely.

"His family?" The woman queried with a hint of shock in her voice.

"Yes ma'am. He has a wife and three children."

"I suppose a lot does change over eighteen years..." the lady mumbled as she continued walking.

Mark could tell that the stranger was by no means happy to hear that John had a family; only Mark didn't understand why that was the case. As much as she tried to hide it, Mark could tell the woman was very upset and almost boiling on the inside.

The rest of the short walk was silent, Mark not wanting to upset the woman anymore.

When Mark and the woman entered the marshal's office, Mark was surprised by the argument that erupted.

"John," the woman simply stated as she stood in front of the desk.

John stood as shock began to shadow his face. Soon, however, the shock was replaced by a look of anger.

"Ara, what are you doing here?! How did you find me?!"

"Well that's certainly not anyway to greet your-"

"No way to greet my sister?" John finished for her.

The woman gave John a confused and hurt look that Mark didn't see. John simply slightly gestured to Mark.

"I see how it is. I'm sure you haven't told your WIFE or anyone else about me. I spent years
looking for you, but gave up hope when all my leads came to a dead end. Then I find a picture of you, “Marshal John Osborne,” in an old newspaper?! I want some answers!"

"Answers to what?!"

"How about why you left me when I needed you most?! You left me to grieve and sort out the mess you left me with by myself! Do you have any idea what I gave up so-"

"Now isn't the time Ara; or the place."

"You've been running from this for eighteen years! You're going to stop running and explain a thing or two to me!"

Mark started to quietly take his leave and left the office with a million questions swirling around his head.

"Quite an interesting family reunion..." Mark mumbled to himself as he headed to the general store.

Mark picked up the supplies before heading back out to the range to meet his Pa and Oat. The three worked on the fence for a while longer before calling it quits for the day, agreeing to meet the next afternoon to finish the fence.

Mark and Lucas made it home shortly before dark and bedded the horses down for the night before cleaning up and making their way to see what was cooking for supper.

"Smells good," Lucas said as he kissed Milly.

"It's a good thing you two got home when you did, I'm just about hungry enough to eat the whole casserole myself," Milly replied with a smile as she set supper on the kitchen table.

The three sat down to eat, and after Lucas said grace, he began filling the plates. As the evening meal progressed, Lucas and Milly both noticed that Mark seemed extra reserved that night for some reason and didn't seem to be engaged in any of the conversation. For the time being they decided to let it go. Lucas guessed that Mark was thinking about Cassie, while Milly figured he was probably exhausted from working all day.

Neither was the case, however. Mark was still trying to figure out what on earth John and the woman's argument had been over. They had both seemed to be rather cryptic; John more so than the lady. Mark thought about the woman. She didn't look much like John, but the woman was his sister and did look an awful lot like Cassie. Maybe Cassie took more after her aunt then her parents. Mark had often wondered where her blonde hair came from; Cassie being the only non-brunette in the family of five.

...Only then, it struck Mark; Cassie was adopted.

7MC7

Having startled awake from another nightmare; Mark was finishing up the chores in the barn early the next morning. The sun had yet to peek over the hillside, but a very dark purple hue could be seen in the horizon.

Knowing it would still be a few hours before his parents woke and not wanting to accidentally wake them while milling around the house, Mark saddled Blue Boy and headed for the range. After checking the cattle they hadn't sold, Mark rode the fence line, straightened what he could, and took note of what would need to be fixed later.

The weather had definitely taken a turn for the worse, and the wind stung Mark's face as he rode. As Mark was straightening another fence post he began to notice white flurries beginning to fall from the sky. Mark didn't think much of it at first; but the snow kept falling heavier and faster and after a while, Mark realized he needed to head home while he could still figure out what direction he was going.

*****

At the house, Milly woke up with a chill crawling up her spine. She paid no mind since the bedroom was so cold, but an uneasy feeling settled inside of her as she continued to lie awake in bed.

Soon, she felt Lucas wrapping his arms around her and kissing the back of her neck.

"Good morning," Lucas whispered.

Milly simply lied still and didn't respond. Her uneasy feeling beginning to turn into worry.

"What is it?" Lucas inquired.

"Something's not right."

"What do you mean?"

"Lucas, I can't explain it. Something is just wrong."

Lucas turned on his back and thought for a moment before taking a look out the window.

"Well I don't know what it would be, but it looks like Mark and I aren't meeting Oat this afternoon."

"Why not?"

"Look out the window."

Milly turned and saw that there was a full blown blizzard outside.

"I'm going to start breakfast," Milly stated as she started to get out of bed.

"We could sleep in a little."

"You need it, go ahead. I've slept in long enough; I'm need to work on that quilt."

Lucas turned back on his side and went back to sleep as Milly changed and left the room.

Upon entering the front room, Milly noticed that Mark's hat, coat, and rifle were gone. Milly supposed that he was working on the chores and made a pot of oatmeal before working on a quilt as she sat in the front room. Milly kept anticipating to see Mark walk through the door at any given moment, and kept anxiously looking out the window, hoping to see Mark coming out of the barn. As Milly looked out the window for the umpteenth time, she could make out a horse come slowly walking into the yard. His rider was partially slumped over and Milly watched in horror as her son fell out of the saddle.

"LUCAS!" Milly screamed as she got out of her chair and ran outside.

Being woken by his wife's frantic scream, Lucas quickly jumped out of bed and entered the front room to find the front door wide open. Peering out the doorway, Lucas saw Milly hovering over who could only be Mark.

Lucas ran to his wife and son's side as he took in the situation.

"Milly, what happened?" Lucas asked urgently as he looked over his son.

"Blue Boy came into the yard and Mark fell off him. Lucas, his lips are blue!"

"Get the fire in the front room roaring!" Lucas ordered as he picked Mark up and followed Milly inside.

Mark could feel his body being lifted and realized that someone had found him. He wasn't sure who, but he didn't have the strength to try to figure it out. Mark felt a rush of warm air surrounding him before he was placed on something soft. Mark wanted to go to sleep, to let himself fall into unconsciousness; but someone shook him.

"Stay awake, Mark!" A deep voice ordered him. A voice he recognized, he thought for sure it
was his Pa.

"Just let me sleep..." Mark barely mumbled.

"No Mark, stay awake!" Lucas ordered again. "Milly, get some coffee going."

"Lucas, we're out. We were going to pick some up tomorrow morning when we went to town."

"There's brandy in the cabinet. Get that."

"Brandy? Lucas?"

"Just get it Milly. It's either that or possibly losing him!"

Milly got the brandy and a cup and held Mark's head up as Lucas tried to force the liquid into Mark. Most of it spilled and Mark tried to spit out what little entered his mouth, but Lucas kept forcing it until Mark accepted it.

Milly and Lucas kept working, trying to warm Mark's body until the color began to slowly return to his lips and face. They struggled to keep their son from drifting to sleep, and eventually felt it was safe to let him rest.

"You can sleep now, Mark. Get some sleep," Milly lovingly whispered before Mark gave up trying to stay awake. "Oh Lucas!" Milly cried as she rested in her husband's strong arms. "He was so close to-"

"He's doing better now. He's turned for the better and we can pray he'll stay that way."

As the day passed, both Lucas and Milly intently watched their son, whose breathing was rather ragged and course. Mark stirred quite a bit and mumbled often is his sleep, neither of his parents able to decipher what he was saying.

Around five, Milly realized neither her nor Lucas had eaten anything so far that day and went into the kitchen to reheat the oatmeal and start a pot of broth for when Mark woke.

The meal was eaten in silence in the front room and as evening turned to night the snow finally stopped falling.

"Maybe I should ride for Doc..." Lucas suggested.

"Lucas it'd be suicide. You can't go out there, the snow's too deep. I want Doc here as bad as you, but it's just not safe."

Lucas tried to persuade Milly to go to the bedroom to get some sleep, but she insisted that the front room would be fine. They both took turns watching Mark so the other could rest, but they both got very little sleep. Mark's breathing was still ragged and shallow; he had horrible coughing fits in his sleep and was running a dangerously high fever.

As soon as the sun was up the next morning, Lucas set out on Razor to bring Doc out to the ranch. On the ride back, Lucas explained exactly everything that had happened and Doc gave Mark an antibiotic as soon as he arrived at the McCain home.

Doc Burrage told Lucas and Milly to keep doing what they were and to get him if Mark woke or anything changed. He wished there was more he could do and that he could stay at the ranch, but had several house calls to make. After giving Lucas a list of places he would be that afternoon, Doc left the house.

Later that afternoon, Milly had left to put a pot of stew on for supper. Lucas was in his chair, blankly staring at the wall across from him.

"Pa?" Mark quietly called in a raspy voice.

Lucas walked over to his son's side and squatted next to the couch which Mark lay on.

"Well it's about time," Lucas said with the slightest smile, one which still held concern. "How do you feel?"

"My head feels like a pile of bricks landed on it," Mark replied as he tried to sit up, but Lucas gently pushed him back down.

"Take it easy, it's going to be a while before you get your strength back."

"What happened?"

"Don't you remember?"

"It's all a blur. I remember being carried into the house. Someone... I think it was you, tried to get me to drink something that tasted- that's what the headache is from, isn't it?"

"I'm sorry, but we had to."

"I'm just happy to be alive."

"What were you doing out on Blue Boy?"

"Riding the fence line and checking on the cattle."

"Why were you up that early?"

"Couldn't sleep."

"Mark, is there something we need to talk about? You seem to not be able to sleep a lot."

"No, there's not." In all honesty, Mark really didn't think there was. The dreams were simply a part of his life that he couldn't get rid of.

"...Next time leave a note or something. Your Ma thought you were doing chores in the barn until Blue Boy came into the yard."

Mark nodded and Lucas could tell Mark was still exhausted and trying hard to stay awake. Lucas left for a moment to get Milly. When she came into the front room, she asked Mark question after question and made sure he drank a cup of broth before drifting back off to sleep.

As Lucas was getting ready to ride for Doc, Burrage rode up to the house. He explained that he had decided to stop by on his way back to town.

They woke Mark again, and after an examination Doc left instructions for Mark to get plenty of rest and gave Milly medication to give Mark over the next few days.

"Mark, you've contracted pneumonia and it's going to be a long recovery. Please listen to me for once when I say to take it easy. You're in no shape to be doing anything, so you stay in bed, understand?"

Mark nodded in response, knowing that Doc was right. He had no strength to do anything anyway.

After Doc left, Mark went back to sleep and Milly set to straightening the front room, Lucas soon helping her.

Lucas and Milly were sitting in Lucas's chair, keeping a watchful eye on Mark a few hours later.

"How long do you think we'll be able to keep him down?" Milly whispered as she eyed Mark.

"Doc said he shouldn't do anything for about a month... I'd say we have two and half weeks, three if we're lucky."

"Why does he have to be so stubborn? Can't he ever take it easy?"

"I know how you feel. At the same time though, I doubt either of us would be here if he wasn't so
strong willed. It was his stubbornness that saved our skin last spring."

"Thank you," Mark called from the couch.

"You're supposed to be asleep," Lucas told his son, trying to hide his smile.

"It's not my fault if your taking wakes me up," Mark quipped.

"Well then we'll just have to take our talking elsewhere, won't we?" Lucas asked Milly.

Neither Lucas nor Milly necessarily wanted to leave Mark alone; but they figured it was probably for the best.

"Goodnight, Mark," Milly said. "If you need anything, call out. I better not find you off this sofa."

"Yes ma'am..." Mark replied.

"Goodnight son," Lucas said as he and Milly walked to their bedroom.

Lucas and Milly both changed for bed, but neither one got under the covers. Instead they sat on the bed, talking about the last forty-eight hours.

*****

The next day, after much argument from his son, Lucas carried Mark into his bedroom so he could be more comfortable. It was a very long next few days for everyone, Mark's coughing kept him awake and he had very little energy. Mark's deep cough continued to worry Lucas and Milly; and his struggle to breathe was frightening. Milly almost couldn't take it and Lucas fought hard to stay strong for all of them.

Eventually Mark did start taking a turn for the better and Lucas and Milly could see the life returning to their son's eyes. The stronger Mark got, however, the harder it was to make him rest. Mark was disappointed when Doc said he wasn't well enough to go to the Cattlemen's convention with Lucas and practically all the other ranchers around North Fork, but he understood and knew that someone had to keep up on chores around the ranch anyway, though Lucas told Mark to still take it easy on the work around the ranch.

A few days after Lucas left, Mark drove himself and Milly into town for their weekly supply pick up in town. Mark dropped Milly off at the dress shop before heading to the telegraph office.

"Morning, Amos," Mark greeted as he walked inside.

"Mark, it's good to see you in town. I take it you're doing better?"

"Feeling back to normal finally. Did Pa wire anything?"

"Last night," Amos replied as he held a telegram out to Mark.

“MILLY AND MARK McCAIN
NORTH FORK, NEW MEXICO

Arrived

McCAIN, LUCAS
SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO”

"Thanks," Mark stated as he put the paper in his pocket.

"Would you mind running these posters over to the marshal's office? They came in with the mail on the stage. You also got a letter from Cassie."

"Sure, no problem. Thank you." Mark took the package of posters, put his letter inside his coat, and left the building.

Mark had talked to Marshal Osborne a few times since his sister had arrived in town, but neither of them brought that day up. She had stayed a day or two before leaving, keeping to herself and never meeting Mrs. Osborne, Ned, or Anna.

"Marshal Osborne?" Mark called as he entered the office.

John came out of the back room with a stack of papers in his hands.

"Good to see you Mark, can I help you with anything?"

"Amos just asked me to drop these off," Mark stated as he handed John the package.

"Thank you, Mark," John replied as he sat down and began opening the parcel.

Mark started to leave, but he stopped in front of the door, unsure of what to do.

"Is there something else?"

Mark slowly walked back over to the desk.

"... I know it's not really my business, but your sister is Cassie's mother, isn't she?"

"My what?"

"Your sister, Ara. Why hide that you're Cassie's uncle?"

"You're right; it's not your business."

"...I'll stay out of it; but you should tell Cassie."

"Mark, some things in life are too complicated to get into. Some things are better left unspoken. If I hear that you so much as hint-"

At that moment, one of the shopkeepers came barging through the door.

"Marshal, the bank was just robbed!"

Mark watched John's reaction and was surprised that Osborne wasn't fazed in the least. He acted like it was no big deal as he slowly strapped his gun belt on and headed to the bank. Mark followed closely behind, somewhat shocked by the marshal's demeanor.

"John, what happened?" Osborne asked the banker as he entered the building.

"I was the only one working and some men came in while I was helping a customer. Before I realized what was happening, they had closed the blinds, locked the door, and had a gun on Mrs. Gilders. I put the money in their bag like they told me to and they were gone within three minutes."

"Are you and Mrs. Gilders alright?" John asked.

"Yes, she went home to lie down."

"What did they look like?"

"Two of them were about the same height and build. About six feet tall, medium build. One had brown hair and the other a blond I think."

"And the third man?"

"Shorter, five, five maybe? Red hair and heavy set."

"Anything else?"

"I didn't really take the time to think about it."

"That's alright," John assured. "I'll get supplies together and go after them. If you think of anything else, I'll be at the office for a few minutes."

"Aren't you going to get a posse together?"

"Who?" Osborne inquired. "Most of the men who can ride are gone, you have your bank to run, and I have to leave Nils in charge of the office."

"I can leave the bank to my staff," John assured.

"You're too personally involved in this, Sorry John," the marshal stated before leaving the building.

John Hamilton and Mark stood staring at each other for a moment, both wondering if Osborne had lost his mind. Mark soon turned and followed the marshal back to his office.

"I'm going with you," Mark firmly told Osborne.

John laughed as he loaded a second gun.

"No, you're not."

"You can't go out there alone. It's three of them and one of you! Like you said, most everyone else who can ride, and for that matter, handle a gun, is gone. I can ride, shoot, and track. Micah's not due back for another two weeks!"

"Mark, your Pa would skin me alive if I let you go, especially in your condition."

"My condition..." Mark mused. "I've been fine for a week. I've taken it easy like everyone told me to and I'm fine. You, on the other hand, could very easily end up dead if you go off by yourself!"

John sighed heavily as he clenched his fists and set his jaw.

"Mark, I'm not going to argue with you about this."

"I'm coming with you, with or without your approval."

"Mark, if you love my daughter, you will stay out of this!"

"What does Cassie have to do with anything?" Mark asked in surprise.

"I can't explain now. Go home McCain, and stick your nose in your own business."

Mark watched Osborne storm out of the office, mount up, and ride out. Mark stood alone in the office for a while, unsure of what to do. Finally he headed back to the dress shop where he found Milly paying for her items.

"Mark, I'm almost done," Milly stated as he walked towards her.

"Ma, I have to go."

"Just a minute."

"No, leave town."

Milly gave Mark a strange look.

"What on earth do you mean?"

"The bank was robbed fifteen minutes ago and there's no one to help Marshal Osborne."

"Mark you can't, you're not well enough!"

"Ma, he could die without backup. Admit it; I've been fine all week. I've been taking it easy like you asked, but now I have no choice but to go."

"Mark, if your Pa was here-"

"He'd be doing the exact same thing I am. Marshal Osborne needs help, and I'm the only one who can give it to him."

"Mark..."

"Ma, please don't make this harder than it is. You're not going to be able to talk me out of it."

Milly wrapped her arms around Mark and gave him a long hug.

"You be careful."

"I will. I'll take you home so you can get some things and stay with Aunt Lou; I don't want you out at the ranch alone."

"Now you're sounding like your father. I can manage perfectly fine-"

"Ma, please."
Milly could hear the concern in her son’s voice.

"...Alright."

Milly finished buying the fabric and Mark hurried the team home. Milly reluctantly helped Mark
get a few supplies together and packed a bag for herself. Mark tied Blue Boy to the back of the buck board and drove Milly to town before taking off after John. It would take some time to catch up with Osborne, but Mark knew he could.

Milly and Lou watched as Mark rode off, alone.

"What are they thinking?" Milly cried.

Lou took Milly inside and tried to calm her friend, but instead found herself becoming more and more worried.

8MC8

Mark had caught up with John, but kept a good distance away on purpose so Osborne wouldn't know Mark was following him.

Mark didn't understand why John had brought Cassie up; maybe he did simply to get Mark to stay home. But then again, why would he be so adamant about going off alone? Something was wrong, something had been wrong for a long time. Mark wasn't sure if John had changed, or simply begun to show Mark his true colors, but Mark knew there were things that John was hiding, things that maybe weren't his business; but they were someone's.

Two nights on the trail was beginning to take a toll on Mark, and a cough had started once again, which made Mark have to stay even farther behind Osborne. The third afternoon, Mark watched John ride down a hill and head towards a decently sized cabin. Mark was fairly sure that was where the outlaw's trail led to, and found a good vantage point. From there, Mark could see inside the building through the windows and watched John go inside. The man Osborne talked to didn't match the description of any of the robbers; and soon he left the house and mounted up. Much to Mark's confusion, however, John was heading back towards North Fork.

"Where is he going?" Mark asked himself aloud.

"I don't know," a voice declared behind him.

Mark turned around to see all three of the outlaws holding a gun on him.

"Too bad you're not going to find out," the red haired man stated. "Throw your rifle over there."

9MC9

Lou entered the kitchen to find Milly sitting at the table, blankly staring down at her coffee cup.

It had been a rough few days, especially for Milly, and Lou knew her friend was getting very little sleep.

"Milly, why don't ye come to the hotel with me today? You should get out of the house, talk to some folk. It'll help get yer mind off of things."

"Five days, Lou, and no word."

"Maybe they haven't come across a town with a telegraph office yet."

"After five days? I doubt it. Lou, why didn't I stop him? Why did I let him leave? If something happens-"

"You didn't let Mark do anything. He was leaving with or without your consent and all you did was give him a mother's love. He'll be back before we know it. Come on; let's head over to the hotel."

Milly offered to help Lou in the kitchen over the lunch hour and afterwards the two were sitting in the empty restaurant, sipping tea. Lou had tried to cheer Milly up, but knew she was failing miserably; so the two just sat in silence, both worried about Mark and John.

Suddenly, Lou looked up to see John walking into the restaurant.

"Afternoon, Lou. Anything you can fix me up to eat while I work on some paperwork?"

Milly immediately stood and walked towards the marshal.

"Where's Mark?" She asked desperately. "Please tell me he's alright."

"What are you talking about? How would I know?"

"Mark followed after you when you left to find the outlaws."

"He what?!" John exploded.

"He never caught up with you?" Lou, who now stood next to Milly, inquired.

"I never knew he went out there! That boy is going to-" John stopped mid-sentence as he watched Milly collapse onto the floor.

The marshal quickly picked Milly up and carefully ran down the street to Doc's, Lou close behind.

"What happened?" Doc inquired as he led the two into the examination room.

"She just fainted," John explained.

"She fainted when she found out Mark's been on the trail of outlaws for five days, by himself!" Lou corrected.

"Lou, smelling salts are in the third drawer to your left. Get them please," Doc calmly stated.

"You're blaming me?" John asked Lou as she handed the salts to the doctor.

"For not letting Mark go with you in the first place? Yes. Yes I am! If you hadn't been so bigoted and accepted his help, he wouldn't have needed to go trailing after you! He went out there to give you some back up when you wouldn't take it! Did you even find them?"

"Will you two please take this argument into another room? Milly doesn't need to hear this when she wakes up," Doc said as he gestured to the door.

Lou and Marshal Osborne left the examination room and entered the waiting room.

"Well?" Lou demanded.

"Well what?"

"Did you catch them?"

"No, I lost their trail two days ago."

"Then why isn't Mark back? He should've been able to catch up with ye just fine."

"I don't know, Lou. I never saw him! Why'd anyone let him leave anyway?!"

"Because we happen to care about our marshals and Mark rose to stand for what's right!"

John turned and started to leave the office.

"Where are you going?!" Lou demanded.

"To find Mark!"

The office door slammed shut and Lou was alone in the waiting room for a minute. She had tried to stay strong, but it was all getting to be too much. Lou let a few tears fall from her eyes as she sat down in one of the chairs.

Mark had always held such a special place in her heart. He had always been a helpful, polite young man that brought a smile to her face. The fact that by marriage she was considered his aunt, made their relationship all the more special and Lou loved him, as well as the other McCain's, very much.

The door to the examination room swung open suddenly and Lou saw Milly storming out of it, followed by Doc.

"Milly, you need to rest," Doc stated.

"I'll rest later, my son is in danger!"

"Milly, what are you going to do?" Lou asked.

"I'm going to go home and check for Mark there. Then if he's not at the ranch, I'm going to do what I should've done five days ago; wire Lucas and Micah!" Milly stormed out of the office, leaving Doc and Lou a bit shocked.

"...She's never been so..." Lou started, unsure of the word she was looking for.

"It may just be by marriage, but one thing's for sure; she's a McCain."

10MC10

John rode hard and fast. Without stopping it would at least take a day and a half to get back to the cabin; where John was sure he'd find Mark. In his mind, John was thinking of a million different lectures to give Mark, imagining the conversation they'd have about listening to a U.S. Marshal. But deep down, underneath the anger, John was lecturing himself. Why did he ever let this get so out of hand? Why did he let himself get into this mess? How could he face anyone in town if they found out the truth? And what if Mark died? How could he face Cassie again, knowing all of it - the robbery, not making sure Mark stayed in town, and possibly Mark getting killed; was his fault?

John carried so much regret, he wished he could do it all over again; but that wasn't an option. Now he had to tell lie after lie to cover his tracks, now he could get into trouble with the law and lose what he had tried so hard to protect: his family. They were the reason he had gone through with any of it, to protect them from knowing; to protect them from being hurt. To protect them... from hating him.

11MC11

Mark couldn't take it anymore; the slaps and punches were too much and another one might send him unconscious.

"I'll ask you one time," the tall, brown haired man said again. "Who are you?"

"...Mark McCain, DeFord." Mark replied.

As soon as Mark saw the man for the first time, he had recognized his face but couldn't put a name to it. After days of being forced to look at it though, Mark realized he had been the man who talked to Marshal Osborne that summer while John and Mark were headed up to Silas to sell the horses. The man who had demanded the money and talked about some lady named... suddenly, Mark realized that John's sister must've been the one DeFord said was still grieving. They were hiding something from her, and that's why she came to town, looking for answers.

"Well now that wasn't so hard, was it? Let's see. McCain. Ahh, you're the one those stories going around are about."

"That would be my father."

"No, no, they're about you. Some folk even got a nickname for ya; call you The Rifle Kid, in memory of your daddy."

"Well they're exaggerated, I'm sure."

"Why don't we see?"

"Like you'd give me a gun," Mark retorted.

"You're right, if you's as good as they so you are, ya might just put a bullet through me. Tally and Hall wouldn't be too happy 'bout that, and then they'd have to put a bullet through you. It's too bad, I really need a good gunman to be a part of our outfit; I'm mediocre, but nothing like you. Say, I hear you captured the Ketchum brothers, is that true?"

Mark didn't reply, he just coldly stared back at DeFord.

"They're in prison, but they put quite a price on your head. Maybe that's what we oughta do with you."

DeFord, Mark, and Tally turned towards the door as Hall came inside.

"DeFord, we've got a problem."

"What is it?"

"Your sister is riding up."

"What's she doing here?!" DeFord exclaimed.

"I don't know," Hall replied with a shrug.

"Take him into the back room. Ara's gonna ask questions if she sees him tied up."

As Tally and Hall picked up the chair Mark was tied to and put it in the back room, Mark's mind went racing. Why would John say she was his sister if she wasn't? DeFord and Osborne definitely weren't brothers; so what was the connection?

Tally and Hall returned to the front room shortly before Mark heard the front door of the cabin open and close; as well as the conversation that followed.

"Ara, good to see you. What are you doing here?" DeFord pleasantly asked.

"I want some answers. I found out John has a wife and three children, he's a marshal, and hasn't been in prison a day of his life!"

"Tally, Hall, go check the horses," DeFord ordered before they left the room.

"He left me for them, didn't he?! That no good, lying-" Ara began.

"He left them for you!"

"What do you mean?"

"You can't tell him I told you this. He's paying too good to say anything to anyone."

"You're blackmailing him?!"

"He was married and had a son when he met you. As a U.S. Marshal, he did a lot of traveling around and didn't see his family for months at a time. He was undercover when he found you in that dump, and you know what happened. After you got pregnant, I found out about who he really was."

"But he married me! He said he loved me! Why'd you lie to me and tell me he went to prison?! I needed him; I lost my baby, our baby! You know how much it destroyed me, and you let him leave me! Why, Alex?!"

"Because you didn't lose her!"

"Her? What are you talking about?"

"Sure, you were a few weeks premature, but they baby survived. You couldn't take care of her while you were working in that saloon, and he had a wife who could. We told you the baby died and that he was arrested because that was the easiest way to end it all without getting the courts involved. You both would've gotten in serious trouble so I agreed to go along with it. I was trying to protect you, Ara."

"So for eighteen years you've lied to me, kept me from my child, and blackmailed the man I married?"

"Look, Ara, you can have a share of the money, just stay away from them. We've got it good!"

"I don't care about any money; I'm the child's mother! I have a right to know her!"

"Ara, listen, I've been building this up for years, Osborne's in over his head and he knows it. This is why I never told you, I knew you'd complicate everything! Leave things the way they are, don't ruin anything!"

"What's her name?"

"What? Who's name?"

"My baby's name."

"If I tell you, will you let it go? All of it?"

"If you think I'd agree to that, you're more a fool than I thought. But… I'm not going to punish his family, or my child for his mistakes. ...That's what I'd be doing if I told them."

"Cassie Ara. He knew you wanted Cassie. At least he had the decency to respect that and name her after you."

There was a long, awkward silence between the brother and sister as Ara thought.

"Goodbye, Alex."

"Where are you going to go?"

"Out East, to start over. If the opportunity ever arises; have John tell my daughter she has a mother who loves her... more than life itself."

The door opened, and Ara stared at John Osborne for a moment before shaking her head and
walking past him.

"What do you want? I thought we settled everything," DeFord stated as the door closed.

"Why was Ara here?"

"She wanted answers."

"You didn't tell her anything, did you?!"

"She was going to figure it out sooner or later. She promised not to interfere with anything."

"DeFord, if my family finds out-"

"What are you going to do? If you tell the authorities about me, I'll be arrested in no time, just a few short days before you are. I'm sure they'll be glad to hear that you were an accessory to bank robbing, not to mention the counterfeiting."

Knowing DeFord was right, Osborne changed the subject.

"Look, have you seen an eighteen year old kid around here?"

"Got him tied up in the back room, why?"

"Because I'm supposed to be out looking for him, and if I don't find him, there are going to be other people looking for him!"

"He knows too much, we've gotta get rid of him."

"If you lay a hand on him, I'll go to the law myself; I won't have anything to do with murder!"

"You'll have everything to do with anything else. What's the big deal? Just some eighteen year old kid."

"Who a lot of people respect and care about."

"Including you?"

"...Yes."

"Look at that, the crooked marshal has a soft spot."

"DeFord, I'm warning you..."

"Some captains will be in Woodsburrow in a few weeks. I'll sell him to the highest bidder to Shanghai him. Happy?"

"DeFord-"

"You don't really have much of a choice here; at least I'm not killing him."

"Fine, but this is it. I don't pay you anymore, you don't contact me anymore, and we keep the secrets, secrets!"

"...Deal."

12MC12

"Is someone sitting here?"

Lucas looked up to see Micah standing in the isle of the train car.

"Micah, what are you doing here? You're supposed to be-"

"Milly wired me; I will say I'm surprised to see you on this train."

"After I got Milly's telegram, I left the convention and got on the first train I could."

"Why'd Milly wire you?"

"What did my wife say in her wire to you?" Lucas asked.

"Just that the bank had been robbed and that there were complications."

Micah sat down as Lucas handed him a slip of paper.

“LUCAS McCAIN
SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO

Come home immediately
Mark is missing

McCAIN, MILLY
NORTH FORK, NEW MEXICO”

"Lucas-boy, I had no idea."

"You know Micah, this summer Mark and I had a conversation about what it was like to feel helpless. I gave him examples of physical helplessness; because that's what he needed. I can't tell you though, how bad I wanted to remind him of a scenario where he was in danger or missing. How helpless that made me feel. Almost as helpless as I feel now. I know hardly anything. I only know that my wife sent for me to come home because our son is gone. No details, no knowing if anyone's doing anything about it. All I can do is sit on this train and pray it gets me home soon enough. Why didn't I let him come with me? He was doing better, he said he-"

"Felt like he needed the rest. Don't go blaming yourself Lucas; it's not your fault. I'm sure we'll find him."

"Micah, if we don't-"

"You're going to have to be strong for your wife. It's not just you and Mark anymore, you've gotta support her, I'm sure she’s worried as you are."

"I know. And that's another thing. I'm not there to comfort her! Micah she's been alone for who knows how long without-"

"With friends and a town who loves her. Calm down Lucas, relax. There's no point in driving yourself crazy with worry before you find out everything."

Lucas leaned back against his seat and closed his eyes; feeling like a failure as a father and a husband.

Micah helplessly watched his friend battle with his emotions. He was having a hard time not blaming himself because he had taken some vacation time instead of staying home, but he knew that it wasn't anyone's fault Mark was missing, and they would all just have to accept that.

Several hours later; the train pulled into North Fork and Lucas looked out the window to find Milly standing on the platform. He could see the tear stains on his wife's cheeks and dark circles under her eyes, indicating she had gotten very little sleep.

After getting off the train, Lucas stood in front of his wife for a long moment, neither one of them saying anything.

Finally, Lucas took Milly in his arms as she began crying once again.

After a while, Milly, Micah, and Lucas all made their way to the marshal's office to start sorting everything out.

Milly gave the two men a long, tearful explanation of what happened.

"...John left the day I wired you, and we haven't heard anything. Lucas, I'm sorry, I didn't know how to stop Mark from leaving, if I had-"

"Milly, none of this is your fault," Lucas assured his wife as he embraced her again. "We'll find Mark and bring him home."

Within a few short hours, Milly was watching Lucas and Micah ride out of town.

"Be careful," Milly whispered.

13MC13

The next afternoon, Milly's heart dropped as she watched John ride into town alone. Osborne saw her sitting on the Gibbs' front porch with Lou, and made his way over to the home.

"Milly, I'm sorry. I couldn't find a trace of him."

"Don't lose heart, Milly," Lou began. "Lucas won't stop until he finds Mark."

"Lucas?" John inquired.

"Micah and Lucas rode out of town yesterday to look for Mark," Lou replied.

"Didn't you tell them I was already gone?" John asked, somewhat angrily.

"If Cassie or Ned or Anna was missing, wouldn't you do the same?" Lou retorted.

"I wouldn't know. My children listen to what they're told and stay out of things they shouldn't get into!"

Milly silently turned and went inside the house. She kept a strong, solid composure; yet on the inside she was screaming.

"Do ye really think that was necessary?!" Lou demanded.

"It's the truth."

"Something's changed about ye, John Osborne. I don't know what it is but I don't like it. And unless ye have a warrant, I'll have to ask ye to leave this property!" Lou stormed inside the house and slammed the door shut.

Lou found Milly in the sitting room, blankly staring out the window.

"I can't do this..." Milly whispered.

"Milly, it's going to be alright; but ye have to be strong for Lucas and for Mark. Ye can't lose hope, ye have to have faith."

"How much faith is a person-" Milly stopped short as she remembered back six years prior, Mark asking Milly and Micah the same thing. Lucas had been gone most of two months and Mark had lost faith and thought Lucas wasn't coming back. For Mark, for Lucas; Milly decided she would stay strong.

"Thank you Lou. And thank you for letting me stay."

"Oh don't mention it; Milly, ye're family."

"Why don't we go work on the baby's room? We still have a few finishing touches to add, and that baby is going to be here in just a few weeks."

14MC14

Lucas walked out of the umpteenth Marshal's office with Micah. They had left North Fork a week ago; and there wasn't a sign of Mark anywhere.

"Where now?" Lucas asked as he turned towards Micah.

"Home, Lucas-boy."

"Micah, how can I return home without Mark?! I told Milly we'd find him; I can't give up on my son!"

"You're not giving up on him Lucas-boy; you've sent word to practically every town in the territory, searched high and low. It's time to go home and wait for a response; you're only spinning your wheels out here. I'm sure your wife needs you home."

"But Micah!"

"Home, Lucas-boy," Micah said as he put a hand on Lucas' shoulder.

Reluctantly, Lucas mounted Razor and followed Micah towards North Fork.

As Micah sat by the fire that night, he looked over at Lucas who was already in his bedroll, but not asleep. Lucas was looking at the picture he had of Mark in his wallet, praying to God that his
son was safe, begging even more that Mark would be home we Lucas got back into North Fork.

It was a long, dreary, four day ride back to North Fork. Little was said between the two friends; not much needed to be said.

As Lucas entered the hotel lobby, he saw Milly and a very pregnant Lou standing in front of the desk.

No one said anything; the expressions on everyone's faces did the talking. Lucas took Milly's hand and went to the livery to get the buckboard before the McCains went home.

As Lucas and Milly entered the house, they both felt a wave of emotion come over them. Never had the house seemed so empty, so bare. There was no life, and they both felt as if they were admitting defeat.

For quite a while husband and wife simply sat on the couch in silence. Both staring, both regretting, both wishing. Finally, Milly's composure broke and she began sobbing as she lay on Lucas' s lap, her husband gently caressing her back; trying to fight his own tears.

15MC15

Cassie could hardly sit still in her seat; she felt as though this trip was simply taking too long. For four long months she had waited to see Mark again; and today that would finally happen. Cassie didn't understand why she was so nervous; she couldn't wait to see Mark.

An elderly woman sat across from Cassie, and couldn't help but see the sparkle in the young girl's eyes. The young lady also continuously fidgeted with the silver locket that hung around her neck, giving away that she was nervous about something.

"What's the occasion?" The woman inquired.

"Ma'am?" Cassie asked.

"Forgive me for being so nosy; I couldn't help but notice the life and glow in your eyes."

"Oh it's fine," Cassie replied with a smile. "I'm returning home from school today; I haven't seen my family or the young man I'm courting for four months."

"Well it's a very special day for you then."

"Yes ma'am," Cassie answered, unable to wipe the grin from her face.

"I remember those days. Young love... two people so innocent, without a care in the world. My
husband and I have been married for fifty years, and even more in love than the day when we said I do."

"I don't think it would be possible for me to love him anymore than I do."

The woman gave a short chuckle before replying.

"That's what I thought when my husband asked me to marry him. I was sure wrong! If your love was meant to last, it will only grow."

"It was meant to last," Cassie replied as she smiled and again took hold of her locket.

"You said you were returning from school? Some sort of finishing school?"

"No ma'am, I'm studying to be a teacher."

"A teacher; quite a noble calling. I taught school for a few short years; of course, before I married. Things were quite different back then, however. Unbeknownst to the town council, I was only fourteen, but I was all they had available nevertheless."

"Fourteen?" Cassie asked in surprise.

"Like I said, things were quite different back then. But I knew all I needed to know in order to lay a solid foundation for the few children that were even allowed to come to school. I could teach them how to read and to do simple arithmetic before they had to be kept home to work on the farms. Yes, things were VERY different back then."

The woman shared several stories with Cassie from her younger years, telling Cassie some of the struggles she came across as a teacher on the frontier.

Cassie was disappointed when the woman had to get off the train, but the elderly woman gave Cassie her address and told the girl to write.

For two more hours, Cassie sat on the train, staring out the window. When North Fork finally came into view, Cassie sat up a little straighter and a huge smile crossed her face.

As the train pulled into the station, Cassie scanned the platform for Mark, but only found her parents and siblings waiting for her. Cassie was somewhat confused, because Mark had promised to meet the train in his last letter, but she figured there was probably a good explanation.

After exchanging hugs and hello's, Cassie took a step back and looked curiously at her family. She looked from face to face and saw the same melon collie expression.

"What is it?" Cassie asked.

"...Let's go home," Mrs. Osborne stated.

Cassie wanted to demand an answer, but something stopped her. She didn't think demanding answers was going to do anything at the moment, and she wasn't so sure that she really wanted answers anymore.

The ride back home was silent, and as soon as they arrived; Anna and Ned took care of the horses while Mrs. And Marshal Osborne took Cassie inside.

The three sat down at the table and Cassie looked worriedly between her parents.

"Ma?" Catherine couldn't even look at Cassie; a tear was already falling down her cheek. "Pa?"

"Cassie... A month ago the bank was robbed. I went out alone to track the outlaws because a lot of people were gone at the annual Cattlemen's Association meeting. Without me knowing, Mark took off after me to give me back up; but he never caught up with me. We've looked high and low and searched every town within a hundred miles, but no one's seen or heard from Mark since he left town. He's disappeared, without a trace."

Cassie looked at her parents with confusion. She had to have heard her Pa wrong. Mark couldn't be gone... he couldn't!

"No..." Cassie whispered. "You're wrong!" Cassie yelled as she stood to her feet.

Marshal Osborne grabbed Cassie as she tried to run past him.

"Let me go!" Cassie screamed.

"Cassie, listen to me!" John ordered, but Cassie kept struggling.

Catherine came over to her husband and daughter's side and embraced her daughter.

Cassie collapsed in her Ma's arms, sobbing.

"No... It can't be true!" Cassie cried.

John and Catherine simply held their daughter until she had no tears left to shed.

*****

After supper, which Cassie ate very little of, Cassie went to her bedroom and locked herself inside. Her family took turns knocking on the door, trying to get Cassie to open up, but she didn't
answer them. She wanted to shut the whole world out, she wanted to be alone... no, she wanted to be with Mark. But that wasn't an option.

The next morning, Cassie stood in front of the mirror in her room, staring at her locket. She couldn't bear to take it off; but she couldn't stand looking at it every time she saw her reflection or looked down, it only brought more wonderful, yet extremely painful memories of Mark. Cassie tucked the locket under her dress, out of sight. She left the house and got Storm from his stall and left the yard, headed for the McCain's.

Cassie wasn't sure what she would say to Lucas or Milly, but she felt that she needed to go.

After dismounting, Cassie hesitantly climbed the McCain's porch steps... where she had sat talking to Mark countless times.

Cassie lifted her hand to knock on the door, but she couldn't put her knuckles to the wood.

'Why am I here?' Cassie asked herself. 'He's not here...'

Suddenly, the door opened and Lucas stood on the other side of the threshold.

"Cassie, welcome back," Lucas greeted.

Cassie could tell Mr. McCain was trying really hard to force a smile onto his face. She felt horrible for coming and started to turn to leave, but Lucas put a hand on her shoulder.

Cassie turned back around and stared at Lucas for a long moment. She stared into his eyes and saw worry, grief, fear... compassion; and... love.

"Cassie, don't run. We're here for you."

Cassie looked at Lucas for another long moment before breaking down and sobbing as he gave her a long hug.

"It's alright," Lucas stated, trying to assure himself as much as Cassie.

After a while, Lucas invited Cassie into the kitchen where Milly already had a pot of coffee and pot of tea brewing.

Cassie sat in the McCain's kitchen for a long time as the three talked about Mark and sharing stories. Some made them laugh, some made them cry, and some did both. It was a bittersweet time as the three reminisced about the man that brought smiles to their lives; and although they all held onto the hope that Mark would show up, they all were trying to mentally prepare to never see him again.

Milly had left the kitchen for a moment, leaving a long lull in the conversation.

"Mr. McCain... I- I'm sorry for showing up like this. I wasn't thinking about how it might affect you or aunt Milly, and I-"

"Cassie," Lucas started as he put his big hand on hers. "You don't need to feel sorry for anything. I was actually hoping you would stop by after you got home. You love my son and are having a hard time with this just like Milly and I, and you shouldn't have to deal with it alone. Cassie, you've almost been like a daughter to me. Those long conversations we had last winter as we sat together, waiting for Mark to wake up showed just how much you loved Mark, and what a wonderful woman you've become. You're welcome around here any time, and please, you don't need to call me Mr. McCain."

"But what am I supposed to call you? Your first name simply would be much too disrespectful."

"I don't think so, but if you really don't want to; I am your aunt's husband, which makes me your uncle."

Cassie let out a short chuckle.

"What?" Lucas asked.

"That makes Mark my cousin."

Cassie and Lucas's laughter soon turned to tears as they both silently prayed to God that Mark was alive.

16MC16

Mark was seething on the inside when he heard John leave the cabin. The contempt he felt for the man was indescribable; not only because Osborne might as well had used his own gun to kill Mark, but for all the lies and deceit, for betraying his family, for betraying his town by working with these outlaws.

The next few weeks dragged by, giving Mark plenty of time to think about what he would do if he ever got away... which seemed doubtful.

They kept him securely tied to the chair and locked in the back room except to eat and do his business. There was always at least one person at the cabin, and as much as Mark worked and twisted and turned, he couldn't get out of his restraints. Also, Mark was never untied unless there were two or more people there. The thought of being shanghaied really had Mark worried; he'd heard horror stories about it before. Men forced to work on a ship for years before being
released in China; if they didn't die at sea. Very few made it home and those who were lucky enough to see their family again... just weren't ever the same. The beatings, the yelling, the little food and even less sleep; they took their toll on a man.

One evening DeFord finally left Hall and Tally to watch Mark for the night. While Tally kept a gun on Mark, Hall untied Mark's ropes. They started walking to the front room but, Mark suddenly fell to the ground and began shaking violently.

"What'd you do?!" Tally asked Hall.

"Me? I didn't do nothin'! Looks like he's in shock or something."

They tried slapping Mark across the face, but to no avail.

"Well go get DeFord!"

"And interrupt his drinking? No thank you," Hall stated.

"I'll get him then. Try throwing some water on his face or something."

Mark's plan had worked, and Tally was soon riding out of the yard as Hall grabbed a pail and went to fill it outside. Mark quickly got up and retrieved his rifle which DeFord had kept in very plain sight, just to get at Mark.

Mark positioned himself next to the door so when it opened it would hide him.

Hall walked back into the house, but was not happy to see Mark was gone.

"DeFord is going to kill me!"

"He's not going to have a chance, after I'm through with you," Mark stated as he came out from behind the door. "That is, unless you cooperate. Toss your gun on the table."

Hall did as he was told, not enjoying a rifle being held on him.

"Now you're going to tell me where you all hid that money you stole from the bank."

"We spent it."

"I'm not dumb," Mark retorted as he cocked his rifle, causing Hall to cringe. "I heard you talking and know you're waiting to spend it until you get out of New Mexico since every town around here has the bill numbers. Now I'm going to ask you one last time," Mark said as he tossed his rifle from one hand to the other.

"Where's that money?"

"DeFord had me hide it in the grain barrel in the barn."

Mark locked Hall inside the back room and quickly made his way to the barn. It took a lot of digging because there were three barrels, but Mark eventually found the money.

Mark then searched the stalls for Blue Boy and quickly saddled his horse, knowing Tally and DeFord would be back anytime soon.

Mark rode off into the darkness, headed towards home, soon hearing yelling and shouting behind him. Knowing it would only be Hall, Tally, and DeFord, Mark urged Blue Boy to run faster.

"Come on boy," Mark coaxed the horse. "Just a little faster."

Mark could hear gunshots being fired behind him, and suddenly searing pain shot through his left arm. Mark didn't bother to look at it; he just kept urging Blue Boy forward.

Finally, the shooting and yelling stopped and Mark hoped that meant he had lost the outlaws. He slowly reduced his pace until Blue Boy came to a stop and Mark dismounted by a frozen river. With the little light from the moon, Mark checked his arm. It was just a graze, but it was bleeding pretty badly. Mark ripped part of his shirt and used it to bandage his arm. Mark was afraid of starting a fire, he didn't want to make it easier for DeFord to find him, and Mark knew he couldn't risk falling asleep in the cold weather. Mark mounted Blue Boy again and continued forward, following the river; praying for the strength to make it home.

17MC17

Milly and Lucas were having dinner with Johnny and Lou one evening at the Gibbs'. It had been the first time they had gotten together since Lucas and Micah returned to North Fork, and they all had to admit that as much as they missed and worried for Mark, it was good to get their minds off of things.

"How are you and the baby doing, Lou?" Milly asked during supper.

"Oh the baby is just fine, she's too comfortable I think, doesn't seem to want to leave," Lou replied as she put a hand over her pregnant belly.

"The baby's a she now? I thought you were positive the baby was a boy," Lucas commented.

"I did, but it's been too long. The baby's a girl."

"Stubborn like her Mama," Johnny quipped.

"If she waits much longer, we might have a Christmas baby on our hands," Lucas said.

"... I don't think so..." Lou replied.

"Why not?"

"I think she's decided to make her entrance..." Lou replied as she grimaced and put a hand to her back.

"Lou?" Milly asked with concern.

"Uhh, Lucas would you get Doc? Johnny, would you help me to the bedroom and-" Lou's sentence was interrupted by a loud groan. "Milly would you start some water boiling in my kitchen?"

The three sprang into action and did as Lou asked. By the time Doc got to the Gibbs', Milly had the water started and most everything such as towels and bowls prepared. Johnny was a nervous wreck and Doc had Lucas keep him in the kitchen while Milly helped the doctor.

About one in the morning, Milly came downstairs to get Doc and herself some more coffee.

"Is something wrong?" Johnny asked with concern.

"It's alright, these just take time," Milly assured him.

Milly shortly returned upstairs, Doc still coaching Lou.

Johnny cringed at every scream that rang through the house.

"Lucas, how did you stand sitting through Mark's birth?"

Lucas had already been thinking about that day, and a sad smile crossed his face as he started to reply.

"I didn't really have much of a choice; the doctor was out of town and the town's midwife was making her rounds to outlining ranches. I sent for her, but Mark didn't really seem interested in waiting for her. I helped coach Margaret through every contraction. It's a long and hard wait, but as you'll see; it's worth it."

After several more long, drawn out hours of waiting; Lucas and Johnny heard a baby crying. After a few minutes, Doc entered the kitchen.

"Well Mr. Gibbs, you're a father. Come meet your daughter," Burrage said with a smile.

As Johnny entered the bedroom, Milly came out and put the towels and blankets into a pot of boiling water before cleaning herself up.

Lucas and Milly stayed and helped clean up before saying goodbye to the Gibbs and headed home as the sun was beginning to come up over the hills.

After putting the team away, Lucas went to his bedroom where his wife was already laying down.

"Are you alright, Milly?" Lucas asked as he wrapped his arms around her.

"I will be. Just seeing Lou and Johnny with their child reminded me..."

"I know..." Lucas said as he kissed the top of his wife's head. "I know."

18MC18

After riding all night, Mark couldn't go any farther and let himself fall asleep; he didn't want to risk falling out of the saddle. The sun was cresting the distant hills, warming the cold winter air a bit, making the weather a bit more bearable.

Mark slept for a few hours before waking again and remounting Blue Boy. As he did though, Mark could've sworn he could hear DeFord's voice far in the distance. Looking around and seeing the frozen river, Mark got an idea.

First, Mark picketed Blue Boy about three hundred yards off. Then Mark ever so carefully, with one foot still on solid ground, put weight on the thin ice, trying to break through. He successfully did and found a branch to break up the ice farther across the river. Mark took off his hat and after getting it wet, set it to float upon the now visible water.

Mark had already covered up Blue Boy's tracks on the way back from picketing him, and walked backwards from the bank of the river to make it look like he had tried to cross.

Covering his tracks as he went, Mark climbed a tree about twenty paces from the river.

He didn't have to wait long before DeFord, Tally, and Hall were in his view. DeFord had a bottle and was obviously drunk.

"When I get my hands on that no good kid, I'll teach him a thing or two..." DeFord mused as he rode along. "I should've killed him when we found him! If I ever get my hands on him, I'll make him wish he was never born!"

"I don't think you're going to get that chance," Hall quietly stated.

"What'd you mean? You lose his trail again?!"

"No, his trail ended," Hall said as he pointed to the river. "Looks like he tried to cross and drowned."

"Serves him right..." DeFord grumbled.

"What about the money?" Tally asked. "The kid took all the money!"

"Well I doubt he left it with his horse, wherever it wandered off to. The money's probably at the bottom of river with his frozen body. One thing's for sure though; I ain't risking going down there," Hall replied.

"DeFord, what do we do?" Tally inquired.

"Move on like nothin' happened," DeFord replied with a hiccup. "Let's go."

The three turned their horses around and left.

Mark, however, still wasn't at ease and waited a good hour before climbing down and getting Blue Boy.

Mark retrieved his hat with a tree branch and continued to follow the river; riding towards North Fork.

The thought of being in North Fork soon brought next to no comfort to Mark. The nightmare he had been living the last... however long he had been gone, would still plague him in the days and weeks to come. As much as Mark had begun to hate the man; Mark took no joy in knowing he would have to expose John Osborne. How would this whole ordeal affect his relationship with Cassie? What would happen if she sided with her father? As much as Mark loved Cassie, he despised her Pa. He had betrayed his family, his town, his badge; Osborne had betrayed Mark's trust. The one man who Mark had been able to rely on and had held in such great respect two short years ago when Lucas and Micah “died,” turned out to be nothing but a liar and a coward. He had lived two lives; the one Mark and everyone else in North Fork saw had been a lie.

Mark rode a while longer before building a fire and getting some sleep. He knew it would be a foolish thing to try to sleep at night with the decrease in temperature.

When Mark got up the sun was almost set, and Mark mounted up again. He knew it was dangerous to ride at night, but it was better to ride than sleep.

When the sun began to come up, Mark made camp and shot a rabbit to eat. Since DeFord was planning on selling Mark to one of the captains as a worker, he had forced Mark to eat plenty so he would look strong and healthy, so hunger hadn't been an issue during his captivity; but it certainly was now.

Mark slept a few more hours before mounting up again by late afternoon, knowing he would make it to North Fork that night sometime.

Mark urged Blue Boy forward and let the horse run a little. Suddenly though, Mark felt himself and the saddle sliding off Blue Boy.

Mark made sure he fell correctly this time, and for once he didn't get his boot caught in the stirrup.

It was still a hard fall however, and Mark knew he was going to have a nice bruise on his shoulder.

After Blue Boy stopped, Mark checked the cinch and found it to be beyond repair without the proper tools; which meant Mark was in for a long walk.

Putting one foot in front of the other, Mark kept walking. It was a long, cold walk, and Mark's cough from November, and then when he had been following Osborne, had returned.

Mark felt like giving up. He was freezing, he could barely catch his breath, and his arm still hurt horribly from being shot.

But Mark thought about his Pa and Ma. To see them again, he had to keep going. To see Cassie again... whether that would be good or bad... he had to keep walking.

'One foot...' Mark thought. 'In front of the other.'

19MC19

When North Fork finally came into view, Mark breathed a sigh of relief. The burdens he felt were lifted from his shoulders, however, were replaced by another hundred as he realized his first stop was going to have to be the Marshal's office.

As Mark turned onto Main Street, he was a bit surprised to see both marshals walking into the office, especially at such a late hour... it had to at least have been midnight.

Mark tied Blue Boy's reigns to a post and got the bank's money out of the saddle bag before slowly approaching the Marshal's office. As much as Mark hated John and what he had done to him, Mark was almost willing to let it go... he didn't want to have to face the man again. But Mark knew he wasn't the only one involved and that justice needed to be done. Mark opened the office door, entered the building, and let the door close behind him.

Both marshals were sitting at the desk and looked up to see who would enter the office at such an hour.

Surprise was written all over Micah's face, and an unmistakable look of pure horror shadowed John's.

Mark just stood there with a straight face, waiting for someone to say something, trying hard not to snap.

"Mark..." Micah started as he slowly rose from his seat. "Where have you been? Are you alright?" Micah asked as he saw the faded bruises and the bandage made from Mark's shirt around his arm.

"Oh just dandy," Mark replied sarcastically before coughing.

"You're supposed to be-" John began before Mark interrupted him.

"On my way to China?" Mark asked as he dropped the bag of money on the desk and went to get the first aid kit. "I know. Something about being kidnapped and forced to work on a ship for two years just doesn't quite appeal to me," he explained in a raspy voice.

Mark proceeded to clean his wound as the other two men continued to stare at Mark in shock.

"You know it's a funny thing," Mark began. "I could've sworn I heard you talking to DeFord at that old abandoned cabin, Osborne. Of course; I must be wrong because you would never sink so low as to work with criminals. No, you're such an upright law man, with such an honorable moral code that you would arrest someone on the spot if you even thought they might be involved with the Shanghai business, or any criminal activity, for that matter," Mark sarcastically mused. It was taking every bit of effort for Mark to keep his temper at bay.

"What are you talking about?" John innocently asked.

That was it.

"Micah, I want him arrested!" Mark yelled.

"Under what charge?" Micah inquired, extremely confused as to why Mark would want John behind bars.

"Where do I start?!" Mark replied as he slammed the first aid kit's lid shut. "Accessory to kidnapping, armed robbery, and unlawful imprisonment; failure to detain a wanted man- yes, Osborne, I figured out that Hall was the man Micah arrested in May and you let go! And If I'm right-" Mark's statement was interrupted by a fit of coughing. Mark reached for the filing cabinet to steady himself.

"Mark?" Micah asked with concern.

"Micah, he's talking crazy. He's been in the cold too long, we should get Doc."

"I'm fine!" Mark exclaimed. "Like I was saying, if I'm right, Hall, Tally, and DeFord are all escapees from the territorial prison; and it wouldn't surprise me one bit if you had something to do with that! This also makes you an accessory to a counterfeiting operation! And on top of all that, there's this tiny little law about only being married to one woman at a time!"

Mark was seething with anger, Micah was in complete shock, and John just sat there, blankly staring at Mark.

"...John?" Micah asked, unsure of what to do.

"Don't try to hide anything, I know it all and the truth is coming out whether you admit to it or not. Your big secret that DeFord has hung over your head for eighteen years is going to be exposed!" Mark yelled, his voice still rough and course; Micah was sure Mark was going to lose his voice. "You have no place to run and there's no good in trying to hide from this Osborne; unless, of course, you really feel like continuing the rest of your life as what you already are: a coward."

"...John?" Micah asked again, almost not believing that what Mark was saying could be true... almost.

It was over, and Osborne knew it. After nineteen years of secrets and lies, it was all over.

"...Nineteen years ago I was working undercover and met a pretty young lady working at a saloon. Her name was Ara DeFord. I spent a long time in that town and fell in love with her; and after the job was done, I went back and married her under an alias. She didn't know I was married or that I had a son, she believed every word of the back story I gave her. Well she got pregnant, and with me traveling around so much... she thought I was a salesman, and her working at the saloon, I knew something had to change. Her brother found out who I was somehow, and instead of telling Ara and exposing everything; he agreed to keep quiet - for a price. Two hundred dollars every year... that's what it started out as. Ara had the baby, but she was so out of it after birth we got away with telling her the baby had died. I brought Cassie home and told Catherine that I had been put in charge of removing the child from their parent's custody, but persuaded the judge to let us adopt her. We had always talked of adoption. DeFord told Ara I had been arrested and sent to jail, I loved her, but it had to end... I couldn't go on anymore. But then DeFord kept asking for these little “favors” and if I didn't do them, he'd tell everyone everything. It started out simple enough... just had to turn my back here or there. But then he held that on top of everything else over my head, and soon I was arranging their escape from prison, letting them rob the bank, and then they caught Mark. Mark, I really did try to help th-"

"Oh please!" Mark interrupted. "You held a sixty second conversation with the man and were satisfied that I was being shipped off to China!"

"At least I convinced him not to kill you!" John defended.

"And what do you think would've happened to me on a ship? You never expected to have to face me again, and you didn't care!"

Micah and John both knew Mark was having a hard time breathing, and looked like he was close to collapsing.

John, however, didn't seem to care. He just wanted to get his point across.

"I was trying to protect you and my family at the same time! I told you that if you loved my daughter, you would stick to your own business!" John yelled as he walked towards Mark.

"When you dragged Cassie into this, you made it my business! I had half a mind to let you go alone, but you brought your daughter up. She loves you as much as I hate you right now, and I knew that when you took off alone! I did it to protect both of you, and you might as well have stabbed me in the back!"

Osborne and Mark stood inches from each other, staring into the other's cold, angry eyes.

"Why?" Mark demanded. "How? How could you lie to your wife and family?! How could you lie to this town? Have you no respect of the sacrifice true heroes have made defending the values and morals of that badge!? Osborne, you turned your back on everything you've sworn to protect! Everyone you've sworn to protect! You've betrayed this town, you've betrayed me, and you've betrayed your family! Micah, if you're not going to lock him up, you better lock me up before I do something I'll regret!"

"...John, I need your gun belt," Micah finally said.

Osborne handed his gun belt to Micah.

"Mark, I am sorry..." John pathetically stated.

"Sorry..." Mark mumbled with disgust as Micah walked John to a cell and locked him inside.

Micah closed the door leading to the office and let out a long sigh as everything sunk in.

"Are you alright?" Micah asked as he walked to Mark and put a hand on Mark's bad shoulder.

Mark winced in pain but then looked up at Micah with a weak smile.

"I'll live. ...Do I need to write anything out?"

"Nothing that can't wait. Why don't you head to my place for the night?"

"Thanks Micah, but I want to go home, sleep in my own bed, and see my Ma and Pa."

"Your parents!" Micah suddenly exclaimed. "They've been worried sick about you, boy!"

"How long have I been missing?"

"About a month. We've all been worried about you."

"Well thanks. I'm going home, goodnight Micah."

"Mark, you can hardly breathe, you're not-"

"Micah, I've been riding for over two days so I could get home. I'm not stopping now."

Micah looked into Mark's eyes and saw that stubborn determination the McCains possessed.

"Well, I'm riding you home."

"...Thanks Micah. Oh, and that money is what was stolen from the bank," Mark said as he started out the door.

"How'd you manage that?" Micah asked.

"I'll tell you on the way home."

As they left the office, Mark began explaining how he got the money back. They headed to the livery so Mark could borrow a tool to fix his cinch. Nils had always told Mark he could borrow whatever, whenever, and had told him where the extra key was hidden.

After temporarily fixing his cinch, Mark mounted up and the two rode for the McCain ranch. The ride gave Mark time to truly calm down some and put everything behind him... at least for the night.

Mark smiled as his home came into view; it was definitely a sight for sore eyes.

After riding into the yard and waving goodbye to Micah, Mark dismounted and led Blue Boy into the barn. He bedded his horse down for the night and made sure there was plenty of oats and hay in the feeding trough.

Mark left the barn and walked over to the house and up the porch steps. He hesitated before going inside, and turned around to look at the vast prairie surrounding him.

It was good to be home.

20MC20

Lucas and Milly both lied awake in bed, not wanting to move. They both felt numb to the world. Mark's birthday had been a rough day for both of them; and Christmas seemed to be going the same way. Neither of them felt like celebrating, they both just felt like shutting everything and everyone out.

Lucas knew they couldn't go on like this forever, that's why he had invited the Osbornes, Gibbs, and Micah to Christmas dinner; but now he was regretting it. He didn't want to make empty conversation or force a smile on his face for hours on end.

"Milly, it's late. We should get up."

"I'll be out later."

"Milly-"

Milly turned around to face her husband. Her eyes were bloodshot and tears were streaming down her face.

"Lucas, just give me a few minutes, please."

Lucas nodded and kissed his wife's forehead before getting out of bed, changing, and leaving the room.

Lucas first went to the kitchen to start the coffee. The rancher faintly smiled as he remembered Mark's reaction to his first sip of coffee, Mark didn't like it at all.

Lucas then went to the front room to get his hat, coat, and rifle... but stopped after walking through the kitchen door. There, next to his own belongings, Lucas found himself blankly staring at Mark's hat, Mark's coat, and... Mark's rifle. Lucas looked around the room, but didn't see his son. Lucas hesitantly walked to his son's bedroom door and opened it, ever so slowly, as if moving too quickly would change something.

As Lucas peered into the bedroom, tears of joy began to form in his eyes.

Still in a tattered shirt and jeans, Mark lied on his bed, peacefully asleep.

Lucas just stood there, leaning against the door post, watching his son sleep. He didn't know how much time had passed when he heard Milly coming into the room.

"Lucas, just close the door," Milly stated.

"Milly, come here..." Lucas replied as he looked at his wife; tears streaming down his face.

"Lucas, he's not going to be in there. I can't-"

"Milly, he's home."

Almost not believing her husband's words, Milly slowly walked to Lucas's side.

Upon seeing Mark, Milly covered her mouth as she began to sob.

Eventually, Milly began to slowly make her way to the side of Mark's bed. She knelt down next to him and gently reached out and touched his face.

Lucas joined his wife just as Mark was beginning to open his eyes.

"Morning..." Mark greeted in a low, raspy voice.

Neither Lucas nor Milly said anything in response; they simply reached forward to embrace their son.

After a long time, Lucas and Milly let Mark go and leaned back to look at him.

"Are you two alright?" Mark asked.

"Are we alright?" Lucas asked in surprise. "Mark, are-"

"It looks like you haven't slept in days," Mark interrupted before coughing.

"Mark, what happened? Where'd you get all those bruises?" Lucas asked his son.

"And what happened to your arm?" Milly worriedly inquired.

"The bruises are weeks old, the arm... it's just a scratch."

"A scratch from what?" Lucas insisted.

"Pa, can we talk about this later...? I'd like to shower and get something eat and change." Mark also didn't want to think about what had happened at the moment. He just wanted to be enjoy being home, for a little while.

"I'll fix you breakfast," Milly began. "Anything in particular you want?"

"As long as it's not from a can, I don't care," Mark said with a smile.

While Mark cleaned up, Lucas helped Milly make breakfast in the kitchen.

"Lucas, I know he put a smile on for us; but something is wrong with him... besides the injuries and the cough."

"I know," Lucas replied. "I saw it too."

"What do you suppose happened?"

"I haven't the faintest idea, but when he's ready, he'll tell us."

"So you're not going to ask him about any of it then?"

"When I asked about his arm it was obvious he didn't want to talk about it. We need to respect that, but I know he'll open up sooner or later."

"But what if he doesn't?"

"Trust me, he will."

"So just how long were you planning on standing in the doorway before getting me?" Milly asked, somewhat jokingly, but more seriously.

"Sorry Milly; I was somewhat in shock."

"... I probably would've done the same." Milly turned around and embraced her husband. "I love
you Lucas; I'm so glad he's home, safe."

"Me too."

Mark soon walked into the kitchen and began to help set the table. As Mark was reaching for the plates up in a cabinet, Lucas noticed his son wincing in pain.

"Mark?" Lucas asked as he took the stack from his son.

"It's nothing; just a little bruise."

Lucas gave Mark one of his looks saying; “oh, really?”

"...I fell off Blue Boy is all."

"How did that happen?" Milly asked with concern as she set a platter of flapjacks on the table and walked over to her husband and son.

"The cinch broke. Pa, you'd be proud of me though."

"I would?" Lucas asked with confusion.

"I fell without catching my foot in the stirrup for once," Mark said with a smile.

Lucas's frown soon broke as he smiled along with Mark.

"I still want to look at it later."

Mark nodded and finished setting the table with Lucas before the three sat down.

"Mark, we were planning on having the Gibbs, the Osbornes, and Micah for Christmas dinner, but if you're not feeling up to company, I can ride into town and-"

"It's Christmas?" Mark interrupted Lucas.

"Yes, and you gave us the most wonderful gift," Milly replied.

"What?" Mark asked, confused.

"You, Mark." Lucas answered. "We love you son."

"When I was headed back home... when I wanted to give up; the thought of both of you kept me going. I love you two so much, and I'm so thankful we're a family. And there's no need to cancel
any plans... although I doubt the Osbornes will be coming."

"Why?" Milly inquired.

Mark hesitated for a few seconds before replying.

"...Because John Osborne is in jail."

Both Lucas and Milly stared in astonishment at Mark.

"Why? How long will it take before it all gets cleared up?" Milly asked.

"Depends on what you mean by “cleared up”." Mark replied, looking down at his plate.

"Until whoever made the charges drops them," Milly clarified.

"I don't think that's going to happen," Mark told her.

"Why not?" Lucas questioned. Something was strange; Mark was being very evasive and indirect about his answers.

"Because... because I made the charges," Mark finally answered. "...At least some of them, it's just enough to keep him in jail right now. The U.S. Marshal's Service will end up making all the charges in the end, when he has his trial."

There was a long, awkward silence that seemed to last forever.

"...Mark..." Lucas slowly began. "Why would you charge John with anything? What could you charge him with?"

Mark began a very long, detailed explanation to his parents. He started with Ara, nineteen years previous, and worked his way up to the present.

Lucas and Milly were both beside themselves, and neither of them knew what to say. Mark was trying so hard to keep himself together for his Ma's sake, but it was getting harder by the minute.

Mark suddenly got up and left the house through the kitchen door.

"Mark!" Milly called as she rose to go after him, but Lucas took her hand.

"I'll talk to him."

Lucas got up and followed Mark out of the house. Lucas could see his son running but didn't
hurry after him; he knew exactly where Mark was headed.

21MC21

Lucas walked up behind Mark and put a hand on his son's shoulder as he squatted next to him.

"It's a longer walk, but I like our spot better than the grave marker. I forgot how peaceful it is out here," Lucas commented.

There was a long pause before Lucas continued.

"Mark, something's eating at you, and running isn't going to solve the problem."

"...I never wanted to let myself hate," Mark began without looking up. "But I can't help it! Look at what he did to the town! His family! To Cassie!"

"It's more than that Mark, isn't it?" Lucas asked, seeing the anger in his son's eyes.

"Of course it is! He left me with those criminals for weeks on end! He really didn't care what happened to me. Almost four weeks of imprisonment take their toll on a man; I was close to losing my mind in that cabin! I thought I wouldn't see you, Ma, Aunt Lou, Uncle Johnny, or Cassie ever again! Pa, I despise that man! I could be dead right now!"

Lucas took in a deep breath and slowly let it out as he thought. This wasn't something he was sure he could help Mark with; he was struggling with it himself.

"Mark, you have a choice right now," Lucas stated. "You can let bitterness eat you up on the inside; you can let it destroy everything you've worked so hard to build. You can let Osborne and DeFord take you down with them. Or, you can try to understand how this whole thing has made you a stronger person; how it built you up more. Osborne broke the law, broke the town's trust, his family's trust, your trust. I know that's a wound that is going to take a long time to heal; it possibly never will. Son, things don't have to be like they were before; they can't be like they were. It may take you years to truly forgive John, but don't let him drag you down to his level. Don't run. Don't hide. Face and accept what happened, and then move on. Have the character to rise and do what's right, like you have so far. Don't let his character ware on you; don't take on the character of a coward."

Lucas wasn't sure if he was getting through to Mark or not. There was an extremely long silence between the two of them as Mark continued to look at the ground. Then suddenly, Mark looked up at Lucas, the last of his tears falling from his face.

"Thanks Pa."

Lucas nodded with a smile and Mark started to get up.

"We should probably head back to the house and give Ma a hand if company is coming."

Lucas drew his arm around Mark and slapped his son's shoulder.

"Ow!" Mark exclaimed.

"...Was that your bad shoulder?" Lucas apologetically asked.

Mark nodded.

"Sorry, son."

"It's alright."

"I do want to look at it though, so you can let me look at in now, or in the house with your Ma around."

Mark unbuttoned the first button on his shirt and slid the fabric aside, revealing an ugly green, blue, and black bruise.

Lucas bent down and collected a large amount of snow which he packed together tightly.

"Hold that on it until we get to the house, then we'll get a slab of meat from the cellar."

Mark did as he was instructed without complaint and the two continued walking.

"You never did say what happened to your arm," Lucas said, indicating he was going to get the story from Mark sooner or later.

"It just grazed me and I cleaned the wound up in town last night."

"What grazed you?"

"...A bullet..."

"Oh, is that all?" Lucas teased. He wanted to insist on taking Mark to see Doc, but Lucas knew everything was alright and that this was one of those things, as hard as it was, that he would have to let go.

22MC22

"Mark McCain, ye had me scared to death!" Lou exclaimed as she embraced her nephew shortly after entering the McCain home. "How long have ye been home? Are ye alright? Where on earth have ye been?!"

Mark laughed at the rate of his aunt's speech.

"Mark!" Lou demanded.

"About twelve hours, yes, and tied to a chair."

"Who's been tied to a chair?" Johnny asked as he walked inside from taking care of the horses. His jaw dropped when he saw Mark standing in front of Lou. "Mark, welcome home!" Johnny exclaimed as he gave Mark a man hug, thankfully slapping Mark's good shoulder.

"Thanks. I'm presuming this would be my cousin?" Mark inquired as he looked at the bundle in Lou's arms.

"Born December eighteenth," Lou replied as she handed Mark the baby.

"...Does she have a name?"

"Madelyn Brianna Gibbs. Maddy for short," Lou replied.

Mark looked down into the eyes staring back at him.

"Well hello, Madelyn," Mark said as the baby cooed.

"If you don't want to hold her, I can take her, Mark. But I better go help your Ma in the kitchen."

"Oh no you don't," Milly said as she entered the sitting room. "You gave birth a week ago; you aren't lifting one finger while you're here. Everything is done and there's nothing left for you to do anyway. Dinner will be another hour, so why don't you all take a seat? I'll bring the coffee out."

As Milly returned to the kitchen, everyone else sat around the front room.

"So Mark, besides tied to a chair, where were you all that time?" Johnny asked.

Mark opened his mouth to reply, but he wasn't sure what to say.

"Just getting himself into trouble, like normal," Lucas joked, hoping to get Johnny to drop it for the time being.

Johnny got the hint and changed the subject to cattle ranching. He and Lucas filled Mark in on what they had missed at the association meeting and conversation flowed from there.

A short while later, everyone turned and looked out the window to see Micah riding up.

Lucas rose to open the door and greet his friend.

"Howdy Micah, wasn't expecting to see you here."

"Well you invited me, didn't you?" Micah replied with a smile as he walked inside. "The Osbornes send their regrets; they are unable to make it. Something... came up."

"Mark explained, I'm glad you could make it. Take a seat," Lucas offered.

It was an enjoyable afternoon and evening, but in the back of Mark's mind, he was thinking about Cassie. He wondered how she was doing, what she was feeling. Did she hate him? Still love him? Did she never want to see him again? Did she need him now?

As it got later into the evening, Johnny said he should probably get Lou and the baby home. Mark was in the kitchen helping with clean up, and Micah and Lucas went outside to help hitch up the team.

"So what happened?" Johnny asked after the three stepped outside.

Lucas began explaining as they headed towards the barn.

"...That's all Mark told me," Lucas concluded. "Micah, did he tell you anything else?"

"No. I broke the news to Catherine this morning; she was absolutely mortified that John had put Mark in danger, and I think partially blames herself."

"How could it be her fault?" Lucas asked in surprise.

"It can't be, but she's feeling ashamed of who her husband turned out to be. I don't think it would be a bad idea if Mark went over and talked things through with Mrs. Osborne."

"I was already planning on it," Mark said from the barn doors. "I'll probably ride back into town with Uncle Johnny and Aunt Lou. That is, if you're alright with it, Uncle Johnny. I'd just ride Blue Boy next to the buggy."

"Don't mind it at all."

"Mark, just make sure you're back before too late," Lucas said. "The weather has been nice the
past few days, but you know how quickly it can change. And be careful. I shouldn't be letting you ride in your condition."

"I will," Mark said as he started towards Blue Boy and began saddling his horse.

After getting the buggy and Blue Boy in front of the house, the four men went back inside.

"Ready, Lou?" Johnny asked his wife who was coming out of the kitchen with Milly.

Lou nodded her head yes and handed Maddy to her husband before giving Milly hug.

"Thank ye for having us, but next time you will leave something for me to help with!"

"You're welcome, thank you for coming."

Johnny shook Lucas' hand and the couple headed for the door.

"Ma, I'm going to the Osbornes, I'll be back after a while."

Mark gave Milly a hug and followed his aunt and uncle outside.

"Micah, do you want some more coffee?" Milly asked after the door closed.

"Yes I would, thank you, Milly," Micah replied.

Milly went back into the kitchen and returned with a steaming cup of coffee for both Lucas and Micah before the three sat down again.

"Lucas-boy, how's Mark doing with everything? He snapped in the office last night."

"At you?" Milly asked in astonishment.

"No, at John. I can't really blame him though, after all the boy went through. Four weeks tied up like that would drive any man crazy."

"He's angry, but he's trying not to let anger control him. I think this will take him a long time to get over," Lucas stated.

"It'll take all of us a long time to get over," Micah added.

"Lucas," Milly began. "When you two talked this morning, did you talk to him about Cassie at all?"

"...Not really, why?"

"Because I'm sure he's worried about how all this is going to affect their relationship."

"I suppose you're right... I hope it doesn't affect it in a bad way..."

"They're both smart and rational, I'm sure everything will work out," Micah assured them.

23MC23

Catherine opened the door to her home and was surprised to see Mark standing on the porch.

"...Mark..." There were so many things she wanted to say to the young man, but she didn't know where to start.

She suddenly stepped forward and embraced Mark.

"I'm so sorry you got dragged into this mess! I can't tell you how worried we were all about you, or how sorry I am for what my husband-"

Mark stepped back a little and looked at Catherine.

"Mrs. Osborne, you don't need to apologize for anything, you're not responsible for what your husband did or what happened to me. I'm just sorry I had to be the one to figure it all out... sorry that all that is going to come out is because of me. Sorry that what your family is going through-"

"Mark, John made his decisions and that's what caused this mess. You just stopped the madness before the problem became bigger." Catherine paused before continuing. "Will you come inside?"

"Thank you."

Mark and Mrs. Osborne spent a long time in the living room, talking about everything that happened. There was a slight pause in the conversation before Mark spoke up again.

"...Mrs. Osborne, I want you to know that this has no effect on how I feel about Cassie. I love your daughter and still want to marry her one day."

"I will say she'll be much relieved to hear that; she's been worried sick all day that you wouldn't want to have anything to do with her."

"Mrs. Osborne, do you still give your approval for me to continue to pursue this courtship with Cassie?"

"Mark, you're an exceptional young man, one I would be very honored to have as a son-in-law one day. Yes, I do."

"Thank you. Speaking of Cassie... do you know where she is?"

"She went to town this afternoon to talk to John, she should be back anytime. You're welcome to wait here until..." Catherine stopped talking when she heard a horse riding into the yard. "That would be her; I'll let you go so you can talk to her."

"Thank you, Mrs. Osborne."

Mark stood and left the house before crossing the yard and entering the barn. Cassie was unaware that someone had entered the barn until she heard a voice directly behind her.

"Cassie?"

Cassie turned around and surprise shadowed her face before the tears started falling. Cassie didn't say anything... she was too scared.

Mark must have hated her so much after all her Pa had done to him. She understood why he would, and knew there was little she could do to change that... but she still loved him and was relieved to see him alive. She wanted to hug him and feel his strong arms wrapping around her. She wanted him to whisper “I love you” into her ear. She wanted him to kiss her and promise he would never leave her again.

The first thing Mark noticed was that he didn't see the locket he had given Cassie hanging around her neck. Maybe Mrs. Osborne was wrong, maybe something had changed since Cassie had talked to her Pa. Maybe she didn't love him anymore.

"Mark, we promised to always be honest with each other..." Cassie quietly said.

Mark thought for sure that this was it.

"I know what my Pa did to you... I'm sorry he did... I hate him for what he did. Mark, I almost died when I heard you were missing... and Mark, I still love you. After all that happened I understand if you don't want to see me again or hate me, but-"

Mark suddenly stepped forward and in one smooth motion cupped her face in his hands and placed his lips on hers.

It was a long, passionate kiss as a wave of emotions neither one of them had felt before swept through their being.

As Mark pulled back from Cassie, he looked deep into her eyes; his hands still holding her face as his thumbs wiped away her tears.

"I thought..." Cassie quietly started as she stared back into Mark's eyes, but her voice trailed off.

Mark took his right hand and tucked Cassie's hair behind her ear. He brought his head close to hers and whispered four simple, yet ever so precious words.

"I love you, Cassie."
 

Character of a Coward, part 2

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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