The Rifleman
Welcome to The Writer's Corner
Fan Fiction

Character of a Coward, part 2
Chapter 9
Written by Morgan

"I want him, Robert. Why can't you just give the man a chance?"

"Because the “man” is still a boy! You know the nickname people gave him? The Rifle Kid. If that doesn't say something to you, I don't know what will."

"It's a play on words, simply because of who his old man is. And if he's really “still a boy,” then how'd he capture the Ketchum brothers and the Hawz gang? You may not believe in his reputation yet, but you've read the reports. He captured the Ketchums single handedly, with an unconscious woman and four year old girl to deal with."

"Pure luck, if you remember. He wasn't trying to apprehend them," Robert reminded his brother.

"Fine, if you want to call that one pure luck, go ahead. It still took courage. And what about the Hawz gang? He infiltrated their gang, stopped an assassination, and rescued two people Hawz had taken prisoner. He even refused the reward money; something father was always looking for. You think just a boy could do that? He may be young, but he's not a boy."

"William, you're jumping into this too quickly, we hardly know anything about the kid anyway. Why are you so interested in hiring him? Why not send someone we know and trust?"

"Because there isn't any one I trust to send down there. Besides, he knows the territory and has connections with the Marshal's Service down there. He's an upstanding citizen with values the same as father."

"And how do you know this?" Robert inquired.

"I did some research. After all, I am a detective. I'm not jumping into this as blindly as you think," Will said as he dropped a small stack of papers on his brother's desk.

"What's this?"

"I got ahold of some of the papers he wrote while he was in high school. Even you would be impressed, especially with the last two."

"What are those two about?"

"The first one is a five page report on the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. The second one was the last paper he wrote before graduating."

"...Well what's it about?"

"He entitled it, “The Free Man's Creed.” He lives what we strive to get our employees to simply understand. The fact that everything is privilege in life. That it's a privilege to have rights, own a gun, to defend yourself and others. That it's a privilege to own your own land, work it, and reap the reward. That it's a privilege to have law and order, and that it's the individual's duty to support and protect those privileges. I truly believe he's the man we want representing the Pinkertons in the New Mexico territory."

Robert stared at his brother for a long moment before taking the stack and reading the two papers William had spoken of. After he was done reading, Robert sat there thinking for several minutes. His brother was right, he was impressed. The writer expressed his ideals with great passion and conviction; persuading the reader to come to agree with his position, if he didn't already.

"How old was he when he wrote these?"

"Seventeen, I believe."

"...Alright William, here's the deal. You talk to him and see if he's even interested in working for us. If he says that he is, then we let him join up for training in March."

"And if you like him?"

"That's a big “if”," Robert retorted.

"I know."

"...Then we'll let him continue the training until he fails, quits… or completes it. But I'm just telling you, he's not getting any favors because you've taken a liking to him."

"You're not going to regret this, Robert."

"I hope for your sake, I don't."

The two brothers stared at each other coldly for a moment before breaking into laughter.

"Come on," Robert said as he slapped his brother's shoulder. "Let's get out of the office for a while. I'm buying lunch."

1MC1

"Milly, are you coming?" Lucas called as he entered his home.

"Sorry Lucas," Milly began as she stepped out of the bedroom, placing her bonnet on her head.
"I couldn't find my hat."

Lucas offered his wife his arm and walked her to the buck board before helping her up inside of it. Lucas climbed in beside his wife and urged the team forward.

"What about Mark?" Milly inquired.

"Right behind you," Mark called from Blue Boy as he came out from behind the barn.

Saturdays had once been the day Lucas and Mark came to town to pick up supplies for the ranch, but since Mark had been working for the Osbornes for so long, he usually just picked things up as they were needed. The same thing had tended to happen with things getting a little crazy over the summer months he wasn't working for them, but as things settled down, Wednesday had been chosen as the day the whole McCain family would make a trip into town to run errands. With everything that happened in November and December, very few regular trips had been made into town, and this was the first “normal” thing that had seemed to happen since Mark returned home.

Mark would stop at the livery to drop off and pick up blades as well as horseshoes, and then make his way to the telegraph office while Lucas would drop Milly off at the general store, and then head to the hardware store himself.

Typically, Mark would drop by Ned's office to say hello, but when he tried the door, he found it locked. The shades were drawn as well, indicating Ned had stepped out, as he sometimes did to run errands. It was unusual, however, for him not to leave a sign in the window stating his intended time of return.

Shrugging it off, Mark remounted Blue Boy and returned to Main Street where he found Lucas exiting the bank.

"There weren't any telegrams, but you did get a letter from Miss Hattie, and you and Ma got a letter from a..."

Mark looked at the letter again before handing both letters to Lucas. "Josiah Scott. A relative of Ma's?"

"Her father," Lucas replied.

"Oh." Mark paused before continuing. "Pa, do you mind if I-"

"Ride to the Osborne's before supper?"

"How'd you know?"

"You had that look in your eye," Lucas answered his son with a grin.

"What look?"

"The one you get anytime you think about her."

"I don't get a look."

Lucas shook his head as he chuckled.

"Go ahead, just make sure you're back in time. Your aunt won't be too happy if you're late."

"I will. See ya later Pa."

Lucas watched as Mark turned Blue Boy around and headed for the Osborne's. His son might have been a full grown man, but Lucas couldn't help but see a ten year old boy on top of the horse.

Lucas crossed the street and entered the Marshal's Office to find Micah asleep in his chair, boots on the desk.

Osborne was resting on his bunk in the cell part of the jail, but Lucas wasn't confident he was asleep and shut the door leading to that area.

Lucas shook his friend awake before walking to the pot bellied stove.

"Sleeping on the job, you're going to get yourself in trouble," Lucas teased as he helped himself to a cup of coffee.

"I wasn't sleeping, just resting my eyes."

"Micah, I could hear you snoring half way down the street," Lucas laughed as he poured Micah a cup as well.

"I didn't realize what arresting John meant."

"Taking care of the town wearing on you?" Lucas asked with concern as he sat across from his friend.

"Oh, just about as much as it ever did. I'm just thankful things haven't been crazy at Sweeney's the last couple days."

"Have you asked for a replacement deputy yet?"

"No... I don't think this town is quite ready for another stranger to come in and take authority. We all put our trust in the wrong place, and that almost cost all of us... Mark. This town loves your son, Lucas. Always has, always will. I don't think it's going to be easy to get everyone to place their trust in someone again."

"So what are you going to do? You can't take care of North Fork by yourself, she's too big."

"I'll have to deputize someone from around town. Only problem is, most people already are working for somebody or don't have a blessed clue about the law, and not too many of the farmers or ranchers outside of North Fork do, either."

"Well it'd have to be somebody who knows how to handle a gun and ride with a posse good, too. Someone like Jake Davidson knows the law well, but if it ever came down to him tracking criminals... things wouldn't end too well."

"I'd need someone who's had experience with the Marshal's Service, too. Someone who can jump right in... Say someone who's been on an assignment or two before. Someone who has watched the office for me a time or two..." Micah stated as he sipped his coffee, eyeing Lucas.

"What?" Lucas asked in confusion.

"Oh, nothing," Micah said innocently.

Suddenly, Lucas realized what his friend was hinting at.

"No thank you, Micah," Lucas said with a chuckle. "It's been a long time since I've worn the badge, and I think I'd like it to keep it that way."

"Did I say anything about you picking it up again?"

"You might as well have."

"Just think about it, Lucas-boy."

"Alright," Lucas said before pausing and pretending to think. "There, and the answer is still no."

"You could use the extra money to just get you through the winter. Things will settle down by spring and maybe we can try for another deputy from Denver by then."

"Micah, I appreciate the offer, but I can't. I have Milly to think about."

"Alright..." Micah sighed. "But if you change your mind, let me know."

"So when is John being transferred to Gantry?"

"There should be a deputy here in about two weeks to take him up there."

"Are you coming to the trial?"

"Yes, I'm testifying to backup Mark's testimony. Oh, and don't let me leave without a packet of original reports that the prosecution wants."

"I thought John was pleading guilty?"

"That's what I thought, until he refused to sign a confession. He contacted his lawyer and refused to say or do anything 'till the man got here. He convinced John to plead innocent and now the trial is going to be even longer than I originally thought. Didn't Mark tell you?"

"Mark has... been preoccupied."

"Even more so than normal?"

"Wouldn't you be if you had just kissed, and I mean really kissed, your girl for the first time?"

"Ahh," Micah replied with a laugh.

"The life they bring into each other's eyes is amazing, it's wonderful watching their relationship develop. I never thought parenting would bring joys like this."

"Just a few more years and hopefully you'll get to enjoy grand parenting."

"I hear that's the best part. You can spoil 'em all you want and send them home to their parents."

"Mark will be real pleased, I'm sure."

"Like you won't be spoiling his children rotten, too."

"True..." Micah replied with a smile.

2MC2

"Afternoon, Mark," Cassie greeted with a smile as she opened the door. "You want to come in?"

"Thanks. How are you?" Mark inquired as he stepped inside and Cassie closed the door behind him.

"Hanging in there. It's been a rough few days, but... we're getting through it. What brings you by?"

"We were in town and I came by to say hello. I haven't seen you since-"

"Sunday," Anna interrupted with laugh. "Three whole days, I don't know how you two stand it!"

Cassie looked at her sister, annoyed, but it wasn't too long before all three of them were laughing.

"When I was in town, I didn't see Ned in his office or a sign saying when he'd be back," Mark said, changing the subject. "Do you know where he would've gone off to?"

A serious look came over both Anna and Cassie's faces.

"...Ned didn't tell you?" Cassie hesitantly asked.

"Tell me what?"

"He left town..." Anna quietly stated.

"What? Why?"

"We tried to convince him otherwise, but he didn't think he'd be accepted in town as a lawyer after what came out about Pa. He packed up and went farther west, to California," Cassie explained.

"He just left you all?"

"Ma understood and gave him her blessing, he didn't want to face anyone in town though or try to explain himself a hundred times," Cassie answered.

"What is your Ma planning to do, after the trial?"

"Mr. Hamilton offered to have the bank buy the house and property, it's not like we ever needed
this much land in the first place," Anna said.

"She's not planning on moving you all, is she?" Mark asked with a hint of worry.

"Just into town. I'm going to get a job at the dressmaker's and help Ma out until she can find a job of her own," Cassie replied.

"What about school, Cassie?" Anna asked. "When did you decide this?"

"After Ned said he was leaving. I learned a lot last semester, and teaching was a great dream to pursue, but I think that's all it's ever going to be, a dream."

"Did you talk to Ma?" Anna asked, a bit alarmed.

"She didn't want me to feel like I had to stay, she told me to go back. But I can make my own decisions and this is what I need to do."

"...I guess you wouldn't have been teaching too long, if at all after graduation anyway," Anna stated with a sly smile.

"What do you mean?" Cassie asked.

"I mean with you and Mark getting married and all..."

"Anna!"

Mark and Anna were both chuckling at Cassie's blushing.

"Come on Cass, you know she's right," Mark laughed.

Refusing to give in, Cassie changed the subject.

"When are you leaving for the trial? We aren't leaving until February third."

"I have to be there a few days early, so I'm leaving the first," Mark replied. "Do you know when you're moving into town? I can talk to Pa and see if we can't help you."

"In about two weeks, which doesn't really give us much time to pack the house up," Anna replied.

"But we'd appreciate the help when the day comes, if it's not too much trouble," Mrs. Osborne said, coming from the kitchen.

"It wouldn't be a problem," Mark assured her. "What are going to do with the horses?"

"I don't really ride anymore and with Anna leaving for school this fall, she decided it wouldn't hurt to sell her horse. We'll keep Storm and the team at the livery and see if anyone would be interested in buying Lightning and Thunder," Mrs. Osborne said.

"Anna, I'm guessing Doc got you into a nursing school then?" Mark asked.

"Yes, he did. He's even letting me do a little at the office until I leave. Just scheduling appointments and helping him with paperwork, but I enjoy it. He promised me a job if I wanted it, over summer breaks and after I graduate."

"Will you take his offer?" Mark inquired.

"I hope to. I love North Fork."

Mark spent the next few hours at the Osborne's conversing with the women. He enjoyed any time he was able to spend with Cassie and enjoyed watching her laugh or even smile.

"Mark, would you like to stay for supper?" Catherine invited.

"Thank you ma'am, but I'm supposed to have supper in town with my family. I should probably get going so I'm not late."

"Well thank you for stopping by, you're welcome any time."

"Thank you."

Cassie walked Mark out and to the barn where he had left Blue Boy.

"Cassie, are you really doing alright with everything? Especially since you decided to not go back to school?"

"Some things are more important than a dream. Ma... Anna... you. It is hard though... knowing that I caused all these problems. If... I hadn't been born..."

Mark put his hands on Cassie's shoulders as he interrupted her.

"Hey now, none of this is your fault. Your Pa caused all of it, and you, Cassie, are the one blessing that came out of it all."

"...Or the one accident."

"You really think our meeting was an accident? That you and I weren't supposed to be?"

"Well no, but-"

"Cassie, it's not an accident. I'd say it's a miracle. Cassie, you're my miracle. We may have teased each other relentlessly... and sometimes still do, but you captured my heart, and I don't want it back," Mark softly stated as he tapped on Cassie's locket.

Cassie looked up at Mark and smiled.

"See you Sunday?"

"If not before then," Mark replied before turning towards Blue Boy and mounting up.

"Goodbye, Mark."

"See you later, Cassie."

Mark rode back towards town with a big grin on his face. Those who passed him on the road didn't wonder why, they could guess where he had come from.

The grin was still on his face as he knocked on the Gibbs’ door before entering the house.

"You keep smiling like that, your face will stay that way," Johnny warned as he and Lucas looked up from their chess game.

"I don't care," Mark replied as he sat down across the room.

"Lucas," Johnny started. "You've got to do something about your son, I think he's lost his mind."

"Worse than that, he's followed in our footsteps and fallen in love."

"Pa, Mrs. Osborne, Anna, and Cassie are moving to a smaller house in town in a couple weeks. Do you think we could give them a hand with moving stuff?"

"Oh I'm sure we could squeeze it in somewhere," Lucas replied sarcastically. "Just have Catherine tell us when and we'll be there."

"Let me know too, I might be able to lend a hand for a bit," Johnny stated.

"Sure thing, Uncle Johnny."

Lucas and Johnny returned to their chess game and Mark watched as the tables slowly turned
in his uncle's favor.

"Supper is on the table," Lou called from the kitchen door.

"Checkmate. We're coming Lou," Johnny replied as the three men began to stand.

Little to everyone's surprise, Milly held Maddy for the majority of the evening. Conversation varied from ranch work to raising children, which was much to Mark's embarrassment when Lucas and Milly couldn't help but share stories from Mark's younger days.

Of course, things led to the re-telling of Mark's crush on Sally Walker and Johnny finally had something he could tease Mark relentlessly with. Because unlike his current relationship with Cassie, Mark was completely embarrassed by the ordeal with Sally.

After an enjoyable evening, the McCain's said goodbye to the Gibbs.

"We'll see you Sunday," Lucas said as he started out the door.

"Oh, Milly, did ye want me to bring anything for supper?" Lou asked.

"If it wouldn't be too much trouble, could you bring a dessert?"

"I'd be happy to. Ye have a goodnight!"

Lucas helped Milly into the buck board before climbing up inside, while Mark untied and mounted Blue Boy.

The snowy ground, as usual, made for a longer trip than during fairer weather, but before long Milly was headed inside while Lucas and Mark took care of the horses and evening chores.

"Pa, you've been thinking about buying new horses to pull the buck board, right?"

"When the right ones come along, yes. Why?"

"Because the Osborne's are selling Lightning and Thunder, and they're well trained, strong horses. Just about the right age to start pulling about springtime too."

"And you're thinking that they're going to need the money, too."

"Well, yeah. But we do need new horses."

"I'll talk to Catherine on Sunday. How did they all seem to be handling everything?"

"It's hard, especially on Cassie. She feels that if she hadn't been born nothing would've come out. I told her otherwise and I think I got through to her, but they're all still hurting. I think Ned is too, but having a hard time coping in North Fork. He left for California this week."

"California?" Lucas asked in surprise. "That's a little drastic, isn't it?"

"To each their own, I suppose," Mark shrugged. "I just wish he hadn't left so abruptly. These next few weeks leading up to the trial are going to be hard for all of them, and I know Cassie always had a special relationship with her brother."

"Well hopefully the few people in town that blame Mrs. Osborne and her children for what John did will wise up sooner rather than later and help them out. We can only try to be here for them, but they'll have to deal with it in their own time."

Lucas turned back to finish bedding down Razor.

"...Pa?"

"Yes Mark?"

"...Never mind."

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah."

Mark and Lucas finished the chores in the barn, blew out the lanterns, and secured the barn door before heading to the house.

Lucas and Milly said goodnight to their son and everyone went to bed for the evening, but it was a long time before any of them fell asleep.

Lucas couldn't get Micah's offer out of his head. Winter was always a harder time of year to get by, and his friend really did need the help...

Milly was thinking about how wonderful it had been to hold a small baby in her arms. Though she felt she was every bit Mark's mother, there was a deep longing inside of her to carry and birth a baby; to be able to hold that child in her arms and watch her baby grow up... Things she hadn't enjoyed with Mark.

Mark... he was thinking about the woman whom completed him, the woman he wanted to be his
wife.

3MC3

At breakfast the next morning, Milly noticed that both her husband and son seemed to be preoccupied. She wasn't even sure they knew what they were eating, but simply chuckled and left them to their thoughts.

Milly packed both of them a lunch to eat, even though she tried insisting that it was too cold for them to stay out that long.

"We live on a working ranch, Milly," her husband replied. "Work can't stop because it's a little cold."

"I'll see you both for supper," Milly said before planting a kiss on both of their cheeks.

Lucas and Mark had already saddled their horses when they did the chores that morning, so they simply mounted up and took off for the west pasture.

They worked silently side by side; counting the cattle, straightening fence posts, forcing the occasional cow back towards the herd when it strayed too far.

Both men were deep in thought, but close to noon Mark realized they had worked the whole morning without saying a word... something that was quite unusual for his Pa. Typically Lucas said what was on his mind or got Mark to talk about whatever had kept him quiet, but neither had occurred that morning. As he looked over at his Pa, Mark wondered if something was wrong due to the expression on Lucas's face. His Pa seemed to be struggling with something, and Mark wondered what it could be.

When they stopped to eat, Mark finally decided to ask his Pa about it.

"Pa, what's wrong?"

"Hmm?" Lucas asked as he moved his attention to his son.

"What's the matter?"

"Nothing, why do you ask?"

"Come on, Pa. I've lived with you for eighteen years-"

"Nineteen."

"Nineteen? What are you-" It suddenly hit Mark. "I guess I did have my birthday. Alright, so I've lived with you for nineteen years. I know when something's wrong. What's eating at you?"

Lucas let out a long sigh as he looked out on his and his son's land.

"You've been able to read me like a book since you were thirteen or fourteen. I have to say, that's not entirely fair."

"Fair? You've read me like a book for nineteen years. I never could lie to you. When I was younger I saw it as a curse, but now I'm glad I couldn't. I would've done some pretty crazy things had I been able to."

"Would've?" Lucas asked with raised eyebrows.

"...More crazy things than I did," Mark replied with a chuckle. "Seriously though, is everything alright?"

"Nothing's wrong, I'm just contemplating something Micah suggested."

"...Can I ask what it was?"

"Later. I need to talk to your Ma first."

"Alright," Mark understood, but sometimes it was a little hard to wait for answers.

"What about you? You've been awfully quiet today," Lucas commented.

"...Later," Mark replied with a mischievous grin.

Lucas patted Mark on the shoulder and the rest of the afternoon was filled with light hearted conversation and banter. As crazy as things had gotten over the last few months, the one thing that stayed the same was the bond the McCain men shared. A bond that ran deeper with each day. Other than the day Mark had returned home, little had been said about the month Mark was missing... little needed to be said. Mark had recognized the grief in his Pa's eyes, and subtly assured him all was going to be fine. Lucas had seen the hurt in Mark's eyes, but never defeat; and reminded his son often to keep walking forward.

After finishing riding the range for the day, Mark and Lucas returned to the homestead and completed the evening chores before entering the house through the kitchen door.

"Supper will be ready in about half an hour," Milly announced as she closed the oven door.

"How was your day?" Lucas asked as he wrapped his arms around Milly and kissed her cheek.

"Good. I finished that quilt, added some chinking in Mark's room and-"

"Ma, I could've done that, you should've left it for me," Mark stated.

"Oh I had spare time on my hands, it was nothing. Besides, I don't think you would've gotten around to it any time soon."

"What's for supper?" Lucas inquired.

"Lamb stew," Milly laughed when she saw the sudden change in the men's expressions. "Not the last recipe we tried. Believe me, that recipe deserves to be burned and its ashes buried. Lou gave me this one."

Much to everyone's delight, the stew turned out nothing like the previous one. After the meal, Mark volunteered to clean the kitchen, so Lucas and Milly made their way to the front room and sat down together on the sofa.

"It's so good to have everything back to normal," Milly said as she rested her head on Lucas's shoulder.

"I don't think there ever really has been a normal around here..." Lucas commented with a slight grin.

"No, I suppose you're right. I'm glad the family's complete again."

"Me too." Lucas hesitated slightly before continuing. "...Milly, you know how things are tight around here over the winter and that-"

"Micah is needing help in town?" Milly finished for Lucas.

"How did you know?"

"I knew you had stopped in and talked to Micah yesterday and you just weren't the same afterwards. You've been thinking all last night and today, I could see it. Micah offering you a job made the most sense to me."

"It would only be temporary, but how do you feel about it?"

"I don't like to see either of you in danger, period. But Micah's a marshal and that's his choice. If you pick up the badge again, that's your choice and part of who you're deciding to be. You're a good man, Lucas McCain, who cares about people and wants to see justice done. I'll love you and be proud of you no matter what you decide. I'm sure Mark will, too, but talk to him about it
first, Lucas. I don't know much about what happened during my five year absence, but I do know what Mark felt every time you picked up that badge and you had him stay with me. He loves you Lucas, in a way I'll never understand, but he does."

"I know, and I'll talk to him. Are you sure you're alright with it though?"

"Yes... it'll be good to see you wearing the badge again. Like you said, it'd only be temporary." Milly snuggled closer to her husband as he put an arm around her. "Lucas, something has been on Mark's mind, too. Do you know what it is?"

"No, I tried talking to him this morning, but he simply told me “later”."

"What do you think is wrong?"

"Nothing, this time. I can't put my finger on it, but I think whatever it is, is something good."

Milly let out a slight chuckle.

"What is it?" Lucas inquired.

"Oh I was just remembering all the times Mark came to the store after school, buying candies to stuff in his mouth."

"He's always had a sweet tooth."

"Oh it seems like yesterday he was just twelve years old, gawking at a lady wearing jeans..." Milly let out another laugh. "And you, Mr. McCain, weren't too happy with a certain store keeper who came to town."

"I don't know what you're talking about..." Lucas teased.

"Oh I'm glad you talked some sense into me. I was half crazy demanding accounts settled when I took over the store. I'm glad you didn't ever give up on me, Lucas."

"I'm glad you didn't give up on me after I died."

Mark walked into the front room to find his parents kissing and awkwardly walked to his bedroom. He'd waited this long, he supposed a few more hours wouldn't hurt.

Mark sat down at his desk and looked at the picture of Margaret. It felt a little strange, having two people to call Ma, but he knew it was a blessing. Mark had a special connection with his mother that would be there forever; but he knew he was forgetting. Simple things, like the way her touch felt or the sound of her singing around the house. Simple things, that were very
precious to Mark. Even though Mark knew he couldn't get them back, he knew the memory of his Ma as the loving person she was, would be there forever. And the Ma he had now, didn't replace her, but gave him new memories he could one day tell his children of.

Mark blew his lantern out earlier than usual and crawled into bed... he soon wished that he hadn't, for Mark's dreams brought him another nightmare.

*****

Mark recognizes a familiar scene; a six year old boy sitting in his home, looking up as a tall man comes out of the bedroom. Neither the little boy or the man see a dark shadow leave the bedroom the man had come out of.

Next, Mark watches as the boy and man stand next to a grave.

"Pa, I don't want to leave!" The boy cries as he tries to pull away from his father.

"Son, there's nothing keeping us here."

The man picks up his resistant son and walks away from the grave. Mark sees something lurking in the shadows, following behind the man and boy.

Suddenly, Mark sees that same man lying in a doctor's office. The boy who had been by the graveside with the man is now a few years older, and dropping into the room from a window. He lies down next to the man, trying to not give up hope. Unbeknownst to the boy, something else climbs through the window. A dark shadow, a figure. The one that had been following them for five years.

The shadow circles the bed and creeps up to the man. The figure reaches out, but stops inches away from touching the man.

Again and again, memories play through Mark's mind. but in each part of his dream, Mark sees another aspect he never saw during the actual events. That something, or someone, stalking the boy, Mark, and whoever he comes into contact with.

Then his dreams bring him something other than a deranged memory. Mark sees himself and his Pa standing beside two recently dug graves. He looks at the crosses, but can't believe his eyes.

"No..." Mark hears himself whisper.

"They're gone, Mark. Your Ma and Cassie are gone."

They turn and walk away, the figure still following them.

A new scene plays in Mark's mind, only this time he's not watching; he's experiencing. He looks down and finds his arms and legs tied securely to a chair. Standing next to Mark, the shadow waits, ready to give relief to the next victim of man's cruelty. To bring them what he is: Death.

Mark watches in horror as Lucas dismounts to fix a fence on their property. He doesn't see the numerous outlaws surrounding him.

The Hawz gang, a deranged confederate soldier, seven men filing out of a prison wagon, Bantry, an old widow, an angry judge, and so many more. All taking aim.

"PA!" Mark screams as he struggles against his restraints, but the ropes only tighten. "PA!" Mark desperately cries, but his Pa can't hear him.

Death leaves Mark's side and slowly inches closer to Lucas.

"STOP!" Mark screams. "PA!"

Mark hears the shots and watches his father fall to the ground, Death taking Lucas by the hand.

"PAAA!" Mark sobs.

Mark feels his body being pushed towards his deceased father, his restraints now gone. Mark resists, but the force is too strong. He collapses next to his Pa and looks up at Death.

"Please!" Mark begs. "Take me, too!"

Death only laughs and runs away, leaving Mark kneeling over Lucas's dead body. Mark looks into Lucas's open eyes and sees that disappointed look Mark had tried so hard to avoid all his life.

"Pa, no, please! Please, Pa! PA!"

*****

Mark threw his covers off and dressed; frustrated and angry.

Mark went to the front room and got his hat, coat, and rifle.

Why? Why did the nightmares have to come? Why did he constantly have to relive the worst moments of his life? Why must his mind come up with the only thing that could top those “worst moments”?

*****

Though Milly still lay sound asleep, Lucas startled awake and quietly left the room. He opened
his son's bedroom door and was alarmed to find Mark gone and his bed unmade. Lucas put on his boots and coat, grabbed his rifle and quickly made his way outside. Light could be seen coming from a lantern in the barn, and Lucas crossed the yard before cautiously opening the barn door and peering inside.

Lucas was relieved to find his son inside and alone, but became concerned as he saw what his son was doing.

Lucas watched curiously as Mark kicked a pail out of his way as he paced back and forth across the barn. Mark eventually turned and braced himself against the wall opposite of Lucas.

"WHY?!" Mark screamed as he slammed his fist against the barn wall.

Mark closed his eyes as he turned around and slid down the wall, tears escaping his eyelids as he pressed the heel of his hand against his forehead.

Lucas's heart ached for his son, he didn't know if... actually, he knew for sure that he'd never seen Mark in so much turmoil.

Lucas slowly walked into the barn and knelt down next to his son.

"Mark..." Lucas barely whispered.

Mark slowly looked up to see that the last person he wanted to talk to was next to him. He couldn't explain everything to his Pa and watch that disappointed look creep into Lucas's eye. How could he tell his father that he was afraid of a childish dream? After all Lucas did to raise him, how could Mark tell Lucas he didn't know how to get over a silly nightmare?

"Mark..." Lucas uttered again. "What on earth... is wrong?"

Mark didn't answer, he didn't even look at his Pa, which concerned Lucas even more.

"Mark?"

Silence again.

Lucas got up and Mark thought he was going to leave, but his Pa only shut and latched the barn door. Lucas grabbed the milking stool and set it down in front of his son before sitting on it.

"Son, for nineteen years I've watched you grow up. I taught you the easy and hard lessons of life, I've watched you cope with situations someone my age shouldn't have to deal with. I've watched you laugh and cry, and I know when you've hit rock bottom. I know you son, and whatever this weight is you're carrying, you're trying to bear it alone. For whatever the reasons may be, you don't want my help. But son, I love you and as your father it is sometimes my job to give you things you don't want, even if it is help. I've failed miserably and missed something that's pulling you down Mark, something that's destroying you. Whatever it is, neither of us are moving until you tell me what's going on."

Lucas watched his son's eyes and saw the determination there, telling Lucas it was going to be one long night.

So they both sat there. Mark shifting uncomfortably underneath his father's gaze as he tried to avoid eye contact. Mark was surprised that his Pa didn't say anything else, but patiently waited. Mark wanted to crack and tell Lucas all the fears and pressures he felt, but he didn't want to unload on his Pa either. He didn't want to cause pain for his Pa.

An agonizing hour passed.

"Mark, look at me."

Mark didn't move.

"That's an order, Son."

Begrudgingly, Mark looked into Lucas's eyes. They weren't harsh and angry though. They were filled with love and worry.

"Son, whatever happened; I love you."

Lucas was expecting to go back to the waiting game, but he saw a change in son's eyes.

"Pa..." Mark whispered as a tear streamed down his face. "At least once a week... for over two and a half years... I've watched you die."

"...How...?"

"You've been curious about why I get up early so often and start on the chores. I say that I can't get back to sleep... and that's the truth. My mind doesn't want to face the nightmares again. My body won't let itself fall asleep again. Sometimes it gets so bad that I don't even want to sleep... so I just don't until I can't stop myself."

"...What exactly happens in these nightmares?"

"They usually start out the same, with Ma's death when I was six. Sometimes I'll dream about the times I've come close to losing you, in the real world, and sometimes it will skip to the part where you die. The cause of death varies... but the ending is always the same. They keep getting worse and when I dream like I did tonight... Pa... I'm sorry but I've tried so hard to get over these dreams! I can't! They're childish, they're stupid, and I'm sorry!"

"Why are you sorry, Mark?"

"Because I can't man up enough like you taught me to handle it!"

Mark started to get up but Lucas quickly got off the stool and took his son's arm. Lucas gently, yet firmly set Mark back down and sat next to his son.

"Do you think that I'm not a man because I still have nightmares about the war?"

"Of course not! That's war and that's different!"

"Yes it is, Son. It's different because I lost a lot of good friends in that war, but I didn't lose my father. I didn't lose anyone that I had such a bond with as I do with you, Mark. It's different because I have old war buddies I can talk to about it, but you've kept this buried inside of you for two and a half years... It's different because there were people who instantly recognized the hurt in me and walked me through it, but I failed to see you crying out for help. Son, I'M the one who's sorry."

Mark stared into his father's eyes and found the compassion and love he needed. Tears flooded Mark's face as his Pa pulled him into an embrace.

"I can't do this alone," Mark admitted as he sobbed.

Lucas tightened his grip around his son as he breathed a sigh of relief, knowing he had gotten through to his son.

"What happened tonight?" Lucas asked as he let Mark go.

"...It started like normal, Ma's death. Then my brain trudged up every memory I have of almost losing you and I watched as death literally circled around you. Then Ma... Milly, had died. That wasn't unusual, Ma had died before in the dreams. But Cassie had died too; that was a first. Then I stood helplessly and watched every outlaw I've seen you face shoot you. Death had taken you, but refused to take me as well. I looked into your face and all I saw was... disappointment. It didn't kill me, but in the dream I wish it had."

"Mark, we've talked about this. I couldn't be more proud of the man you grew up to be. I'm not disappointed in you, and especially not because you have to try to cope with losing me two and a half years ago. We said it would take a long time to get over, that we just needed to keep moving forward... I guess I moved a little too quickly, and I'm sorry. Mark I should've seen that you were struggling, and I'm sorry I wasn't there for you."

"It's not your fault... I kinda broke our “no secrets” rule." Mark paused before continuing. "Pa... I need you. More than I ever realized as a child. I know I'm a full grown man, but I still need you in my life. I think that's part of what I wasn't wanting to admit, but at the same time wanting to never forget because I know how short our time together could be. Pa, I'm scared of losing the ones I love the most, but I don't want to be. I don't think I ever healed from grieving your death... but I want to."

Lucas pulled his son back into an embrace as he let his own tears fall.

"I'm here for you son. I'm alive and I'm here for you."

The rest of the night was spent working through every aspect of every detail of Mark's worst nightmares. It was a long, hard night for father and son; but together they got through it. By the time they opened the barn doors, the sun was coming up. Mark turned to apologize to Lucas for keeping him up all night, but Lucas simply shook his head.

"ANY time Mark, you can talk to me."

They completed the morning chores before returning to the house to catch a few hours of sleep before getting up again.

When Lucas entered the bedroom, Milly was just waking up.

"Lucas, you look exhausted, is everything alright?"

"Now it is. Mark and I... need a few extra hours of sleep this morning."

"But..." Milly stopped when she saw the plaintive look Lucas was giving her, asking her to let it go. "Alright, goodnight."

Lucas kissed his wife before crawling back underneath the covers as Milly left the room.

4MC4

When Mark woke it was well past noon. Although it had taken him quite a long time to fall asleep, he had enjoyed the most restful sleep he had experienced in a long time. After Mark made his bed a put his boots back on, he entered the front room to find his Ma sitting on the front room floor, cutting out fabric.

"Starting another quilt?" Mark inquired as he carefully stepped around the fabric and joined Milly on the floor.

"Just a baby blanket for Maddy," Milly replied with a smile.

"Is Pa up yet?"

"No, he's still asleep."

Milly noticed a slightly discouraged look cross Mark's face, but soon it was replaced by that boyish grin Mark would always carry with him.

"I'm going to check the cattle. If Pa gets up and starts to head out, would you tell him that I'll handle it for the afternoon?"

"Sure, just make sure..." Milly stopped herself from finishing, silently reminding herself that Mark wasn't a little boy anymore.

"I'll be back before dark, I promise," Mark kissed his Ma before getting his coat off the hook and putting it on.

"Thank you, Mark."

"I love you Ma, see you later."

Milly watched Mark put his hat on his head, grab his rifle, and walk out the door.

As Mark checked the cattle that afternoon, he was able to do a lot of thinking. He was glad and thankful his Pa hadn't given up on him and made him talk through everything. There were still fears to overcome, but Mark felt more free than he had ever before.

The time he had alone also gave him opportunity to contemplate the conversation he needed to have with his Ma and Pa. He was actually glad he hadn't talked to them the night before, because he realized that he needed to deal with his issues before pledging to take on someone else's. Now he found himself more than ready to make Cassie his wife, but nervously wondered how he would go about asking for his parent's blessing.

Mark's train of thought was broken when he heard a cow frantically mooing. Mark followed the noise until he saw his least favorite cow of the herd, Trouble, trying to pull her head out from a fence.

Mark wasn't particularly in the habit of naming the cows anymore, as he did when he was younger, but this cow had earned its name. The cow always got into or caused some sort of trouble. It seemed that every time he got close to her he walked away in pain; and he cringed at the prospect of having to draw near to her yet again.

"Alright, nice and easy, this won't hurt," Mark said as he approached the fence and cow.

At first, Trouble resisted Mark's assistance, but soon let him control her and Mark easily pulled the cow's head out. Mark squatted down to examine the cow's neck... which was a mistake.

"There, that wasn't so-"

Too late, Mark realized Trouble had plans of her own and the cow practically plowed Mark down before walking away and towards the herd. Mark laid on the ground for a few moments, rubbing the shoulder the cow had stepped on, the shoulder he had injured a month previous.

“Why do I even bother?”

Eventually, Mark got up and remounted Blue Boy. He finished counting the cattle and finding all in order, returned home.

Unsaddling Blue Boy was a painful feat, but Mark paid it no mind and soon was walking into the kitchen.

"Mark, would you mind setting the table? Supper will be ready in a few minutes," Lucas said from the stove as he helped his wife prepare the evening meal.

"Sure."

Mark set to his task; but avoided using his right arm for much, and instead deferred to his non-dominant hand.

As the three were getting ready to sit down for supper, they heard a knock on the front door.

"I wonder who that could be?" Milly commented.

Lucas left the kitchen and made his way to the front room to answer the door.

When he opened it, he found a well dressed man, with a mustache and neatly combed hair in front of him. The man seemed to be in his mid forties, and held a professional, yet relaxed air about him.

"Lucas McCain, I presume?"

"...That depends on who's asking," Lucas hesitantly replied.

"Forgive me. William Pinkerton, Pinkerton Detective Agency," the man responded as he shook Lucas's hand.

"Mr. Pinkerton, your reputation precedes you. May I ask what your interest in me is?"

"Your son is the reason I'm here, actually."

"Would you like to step inside?"

"Much obliged, thank you."

The man stepped inside the McCain home as Lucas shut the door behind him.

"Why would a detective be interested in my son?" Lucas inquired with increasing alarm.

"Mr. McCain, I'd like to offer your son a job... potentially."

Lucas relaxed and replied.

"Well how did-"

"Lucas, who's here?" Milly asked as she entered the front room.

"...A man who needs to speak with Mark. Mr. Pinkerton-"

"Will, please."

"Alright. Will, this is my wife, Milly McCain."

"A pleasure to meet you ma'am," Will stated as he took Milly's hand.

"Likewise, I'm sure. Would you join us for supper? We were just sitting down to eat."

"I wouldn't want to impose, just showing up like this."

"It's not an imposition, please join us. I'll set another place," Milly said before leaving.

"Thank you, very much."

"Our pleasure," Lucas stated as he gestured for Will to follow after Milly.

Mark rose to greet their guest as his Pa and another man stepped into the kitchen.

"Will, this is my son Mark. Mark, I'd like you to meet William Pinkerton," Lucas introduced.

"How do you do, sir?" Mark asked as he shook the man's hand.

"Fine, thank you. It's a pleasure to finally meet you," the man replied before the four sat down.

Mark started to ask a question, but Lucas suggested they say grace and begin the meal before they continued conversation. After Lucas was done praying, Mark spoke up again.

"What do you mean by finally meet me?" Mark inquired.

"I won't beat around the bush, I've already inconvenienced you enough. I'm not really sure how to go about explaining this, except to start at the beginning. Quite a few years ago I read a newspaper story about a young man that stopped an assassination attempt on the senator around here... with a slingshot. I was most impressed, but honestly forgot about it until a few years later when a friend at the Marshal's Service office told me about that same young man apprehending the Ketchum brothers."

"That was sort of an accident," Mark admitted.

"Not in my book. You could've let them go or taken the easy way out and not even had been out there helping that woman and her daughter, but you didn't. Again, I was impressed. Then I heard about you infiltrating and apprehending the Hawz gang, and that finalized it for me."

"Finalized what?" Mark inquired.

"The idea that I wanted you working for the Pinkerton Detective Agency."

"Pinkerton... THE Pinkerton Detective Agency?"

The man nodded his head.

"That means you're... William Pinkerton." Mark stated as it sunk in. "I didn't make the connection..."

"We aren't a federal law office, but we swear to uphold the law and assist local law offices in the apprehending of criminals. I see in you great qualities that I wish each of our detectives had, and hopefully one day will have. My brother and I are trying to increase our presence in the United States and surrounding territories. Granted, you are young and my brother is a bit leery of hiring one so young, but I was able to persuade him to agree to inviting you to join one of our training sessions. I will say, only about half the men make it through the first week, and the numbers dwindle from there, but I have confidence in you. If you do make it through all four weeks of training and wish to continue in the agency, we would like to place you here in North Fork or anywhere else in New Mexico as our first operative in the territory."

Mark leaned back in his chair as he let Mr. Pinkerton's words sink in. He eyed his Pa, who ever
so slightly shrugged and gave him a look saying, “It's your choice.”

"I can't give you an answer tonight..."

"Nor would I expect you to, I would honestly be a bit concerned if you gave me an answer right off. I'll be at the hotel until Wednesday, but I'll need an answer before I leave, we only have so many spots for each session."

"Thank you, and I will think about it seriously. I do wonder though why you'd come all the way out here to offer this to me?"

"Because when I see a man starting out in life, right; who strives to see justice done, who understands the meaning of the words, “We the people”, I believe they deserve to be recognized. But I do have a somewhat selfish reason as well. I just wasn't happy with the candidates we were getting to be placed out here. Not only did they not understand the way of life out west, but they were simply prejudice and bigoted. I wanted someone with a level head on their shoulders, who knows how to deal with people and connect with them. After all, you would be representing my brother and I."

"Say I did make it through and decided to stay on. How much flexibility would it give me with ranching?"

"That was the next thing I was going to mention. You would have an office in town, and you'd have paperwork and reports when you're not on a case; but you'd need a regular job to support yourself and any future family you might have. You would have quite a bit of flexibility, and this would almost be a part-time job, with certain weeks being full-time."

The rest of the evening Lucas and Milly sat back as they watched this opportunity for Mark unfold. Both Will and Mark asked the other questions and the parents were proud to see their son being held in such high regard with a stranger.

As the evening grew later, Mr. Pinkerton said he best be leaving.

"Thank you for coming out here," Lucas offered as he shook the man's hand and the McCains walked him to the front door.

"Thank you for letting me invade your evening. And for supper, Mrs. McCain, it was wonderful."

"Thank you."

"Have a goodnight," Mark said as he shook the man's hand.

The McCains watched the man mount up and ride off before Lucas closed the door.

"Well?" Mark asked as they all walked back to the kitchen to clean up.

"Well, what?" Lucas asked.

"Well what do you think?"

"I think it's your decision, Mark."

"Oh come on Pa, you've gotta have an opinion."

Lucas sighed and looked at Milly before looking back at Mark.

Mark wasn't sure if that was bad or good.

"In all honesty, Mark, I'm proud of you. All your life you've stood up for what's right and stuck to your morals, and someone noticed and wants to offer you a job. I honestly think you should at least go for the training, and if you find that kind of work doesn't suit you, you can come home early. It's long enough after the trial, but before calving season begins."

"Ma?"

"I agree with your father. Mark, this is a wonderful opportunity for you, but you shouldn't let that cloud your judgement either. Think about it long and hard, I know you'll make the right decision."

The three finished cleaning the kitchen before Lucas and Mark did the evening chores and returned to the house.

"Lucas, are you ready for bed? It's getting late," Milly commented as she closed her book and put it on the mantle.

"Yes, go ahead, I'll be in shortly."

"Actually..." Mark started, but he didn't continue.

"Yes, Mark?" Milly asked as she looked at her son.

"Can... can I talk to both of you for a minute?"

"Sure, what is it?" Lucas replied.

"Would you mind sitting down?" Mark asked.

Milly and Lucas looked at each other with questioning faces before doing as their son asked and taking a seat on the sofa. Mark started nervously pacing in front of them, concerning Milly; but Lucas suddenly realized what his son was going to say. This was the “later” his son had talked about.

"Well... I know I've only been courting Cassie a little less than seven months, but I've known her for two and a half years and, you see..." Mark slightly paused before continuing. "Well I wouldn't say anything to her until after everything settles down with the trial and all, but, I want to- I mean I was wondering if..." Mark stopped pacing and looked between his parents. "Pa and Ma, I would like your blessing for me to marry Cassie."

Lucas and Milly looked at each other before smiling.

"Well?" Mark nervously asked.

"Of course we give you our blessing, Mark," Lucas said with a chuckle.

Lucas got off the sofa with Milly and they hugged Mark.

As he stepped back, Lucas laughed at Mark's relieved expression.

"A little nervous there, Son?"

"I just didn't know what you would think, us being so young and all."

"Young, yes," Milly replied. "But you are going to make a wonderful couple."

"...Who are you going to ask for her hand?" Lucas inquired.

"Her mother."

Lucas nodded in approval.

"Well, I'm happy for you-"

As Lucas spoke, he firmly patted Mark's shoulder, sending excruciating pain down his arm. Milly and Lucas both saw it in Mark's face.

"What's the matter, Mark?" Milly asked with worry.

"Trouble," Mark replied as he rubbed his shoulder.

"That's obvious, what kind?" Lucas inquired.

"The cow."

"Cow?" Milly asked.

"The cow that doesn't seem to like Mark too much," Lucas answered. "Should we take a look at it?"

"I'll see if it's doing any better tomorrow morning, thanks though."

"...Alright, but if you need anything, let us know," Milly said as she put a hand on Mark's arm.

"I will."

"Unless there's anything else you want to talk about, we better get to bed," Lucas stated.

"Alright, goodnight," Mark replied.

Each went to their respective rooms for the evening before preparing for bed.

"Lucas, that shoulder can't be good."

"I know."

"We're not going to let this one go, are we? When you came down on his shoulder... it looked like he wanted to yell out."

"No, we're not. I didn't want to argue with him about it tonight though. I'll take him to see Doc tomorrow morning."

"Thank you," Milly said as she climbed into bed. "Sometimes I wonder if he thinks he's invincible... like someone else I know..."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Lucas replied as he got into bed with his wife and planted a kiss on her forehead.

5MC5

Mark came out from his bedroom the next morning and started to put his coat and hat on before Milly entered the room from the kitchen.

"How's your shoulder?"

"Fine," Mark said as he looked down, conveniently at the same time he went to pull his boots on.

"Uhuh..." Milly sighed as she walked to where Mark stood. "Mark, a lot has changed over the past few years; but one thing's still the same. You're still the worst liar on earth."

"I can actually lie pretty decently... just not to you or Pa."

"And who else would you be lying to?" Milly asked with disapproval.

"Hawz believed every lie I told him."

"...I suppose that I can live with you lying to an outlaw. Mark, really, how's your shoulder?"

"...Don't worry about it, it'll be fine." Mark picked up his rifle and started out the door.

"That's not an answer!" Milly called, but the door shut behind Mark.

Milly gave a short chuckle followed by a concerned sigh. What was she going to do with him?

*****

"Pa, why are Blue Boy and Razor saddled? I thought we weren't riding the range today...?"

"We're not, but we're making a trip into town."

"On a Saturday?"

"Mhmm," Lucas replied. "And you can head back inside, everything's done out here."

Mark looked around the barn in confusion.

"Why didn't you wait for me? I could- this is about the shoulder, isn't it?"

"Yes it is," Lucas answered as he faced Mark and walked the few feet between them.

"Pa, it's fine. Give it a couple days and-"

"Mark, go pick up that hay bale," Lucas instructed, gesturing.

Mark walked across the barn and bent down to pick the hay bale up. He had only lifted it a few inches from the ground before the weight became too much on his shoulder and he dropped it.

"Fine?" Lucas asked.

"Well Pa-"

"Come on, let's get something to eat and then we'll head out."

Mark knew his Pa wasn't giving him an option. He slowly walked back over towards Lucas and the two returned to the house.

After breakfast, the two McCain men mounted up and rode for town.

As Mark and Lucas walked into Doc Burrage's office, they found Anna seated at the desk.

"How can I help-" Anna stopped when she saw who had entered the room. "Mark... Mr. McCain? Is everything alright?"

"Mark had a little incident and his shoulder is giving him a lot of trouble. We need Doc to look at it."

"Why don't you take a seat and I'll talk to Doc."

Lucas and Mark sat down as Anna left the room for a few moments. Both men stood upon her return, and Anna opened the door to the examination room on her way back to the desk.

"You can go ahead and go in, Doc will be there in a minute."

"Thank you," Lucas replied before he and Mark did as Anna suggested.

"Pa, why make such a big fuss? It's nothing time won't heal," Mark commented after Lucas shut the door.

"Because knowing you, you won't give it the time to heal."

"I'm nineteen; I know how to take care of myself."

"That's not the question. The question is whether you do or not."

The second door to the room opened and Doc Burrage came in.

"Well, who did something this time? Or did both of you?"

"Just one of us," Lucas replied. "Mark re-injured his shoulder and it's giving him a lot more trouble than he'll admit."

"How'd it happen?" The doctor inquired.

Lucas started to reply, but then he realized he didn't even know what had caused the injury exactly.

"...How did it happen, Mark?"

"A cow got her head stuck in the fence, so I was trying to get her out. After I did she plowed me down and stepped on my shoulder."

"How long ago was this?" Doc asked.

"Late yesterday afternoon." Mark answered.

"Alright," Doc began. "Take your shirt off and take a seat in the examination table."

Lucas watched as the elderly Doctor took his time in examining Mark. It was evident anytime Doc touched Mark's shoulder it caused horrible pain, but Mark tried to hide it as much as possible.

After finishing his examination, Doc went to one of the cupboards and retrieved bandages. As he began to wrap Mark's chest and shoulder, he began to explain.

"Mark, you sprained your shoulder, and quite seriously. This is to help support and hold things together a bit better while they're healing. I don't want you putting any pressure on your shoulder. No chopping wood or shooting until I give you the all clear, understand?"

Mark nodded and sighed, not too happy with the Doctor's orders.

"Thank you, Doc," Mark offered as he put his shirt back on and got off the table.

"You're welcome. Anna will help you at the front desk, I've got to get back to that mountain of paperwork on my desk."

"Thanks," Lucas stated as he and Mark headed for the waiting room.

Lucas paid for the visit and Mark and Lucas headed outside.

"Now that wasn't so bad, was it?" Lucas teased.

"...As much as I hate going to the doctor's, thanks for making me go."

"It's all part of my job. You want to head over to Micah's office and say hi for a minute?"

Mark was thinking very carefully about how to respond... but he couldn't figure out how to explain himself.

"You haven't been over there since you gave Micah your account, have you?" Lucas inquired.

"No..."

"Mark, you're going to have to face Osborne at the trial."

"I know... but... I just don't understand how he can sit there and make excuses for himself, much less plead not guilty. I don't want to listen to him try to explain himself to me."

"None of that is Micah's fault."

"...No, it's not," Mark admitted. "I do miss stopping in, I suppose it couldn't hurt."

"Let's go then," Lucas replied with a smile. He knew Mark was trying so hard to fight irrational emotion and anger. Slowly but surely, he knew Mark was winning the battle.

Mark and Lucas walked to the marshal's office and were greeted by Micah as they entered.

"Howdy Lucas, Mark. What brings you to town?"

"Mark had a little trouble with one of the cows yesterday and hurt his shoulder. I dragged him into town so Doc could look at it," Lucas replied.

"What'd Doc have to say?"

"He said it'd be fine in a couple weeks," Mark answered.

"Coffee, Lucas?" Micah asked as he gestured for the two to sit down.

"No, thanks. I had plenty this morning at breakfast. Have-"

Lucas's statement was interrupted by a voice calling from one of the cells.

"Marshal, when are you gonna let me out of here?"

"Trouble at Sweeney's last night?" Lucas asked.

"Yeah I got a couple of 'em locked up, sleeping it off."

"Marshal!" The man called again.

Micah stood and made his way to the doorway dividing the front office and cell area.

"When you've all slept it off. Catch a few more hours of sleep, why don't ya?"

Micah shut the door before returning to the desk.

"I sure wish you'd reconsider..." Micah's statement trailed off as he saw the look Lucas gave him as Lucas almost unnoticeably gestured to Mark. "...reconsider joining me for lunch Thursday."

"Well I'd like to, but Mark and I have to work on the barn. It's needed fixing up for a while now and it can't wait for the warm weather to return."

"Some other time then. Besides the incident with the cow, how have things been around the ranch?"

"Steady. There used to be so much less to do during the winter, but things seem to keep us occupied," Lucas replied.

"Well we also used to have a lot less cattle, too," Mark added. "Micah, how have things been going around here? Are you getting along alright by yourself?"

"I'm hanging on, but I'm hoping to get a deputy soon."

"Well we better get back to the ranch before Milly misses us, see you tomorrow Micah?" Lucas asked as the three men stood and started for the door.

"Hopefully, if I don't have another crowd of drunks to deal with in here. Mark, tell your Ma I said hello."

"I will, bye Micah."

Lucas and Mark walked out of the office and back to their horses. As they started for home, Mark turned towards Lucas to ask a question.

"Pa, what was Micah really wanting you to reconsider?"

Lucas sighed and thought a moment before replying.

"I was planning on talking with you, but the occasion never arose. Micah wants to temporarily deputize me, he doesn't want another stranger coming in and he doesn't have that many
options. Right off I told him no, but then I got to thinking about it, and eventually spoke with your Ma."

"Well how'd Ma react?"

"I don't think she likes the idea, but she doesn't like the idea of Micah being a marshal, either. She's fine with it if I think that's what's best."

"Well do you?"

"Yes, I do."

"Well then why..." Mark realized what his Pa was thinking. "...Growing up, I watched you pick up the badge countless times. I was proud to see you wear it; sometimes out of mere childish foolishness, but as I got older I learned to respect what that badge meant and was proud to see you defending the morals upon which the Marshal's Service was founded. I was proud to see you standing up for what's right. I worried about you, especially that one time you almost had to go up against those four outlaws alone; but I knew why you were doing it and although I prayed with all my heart that you would be fine, if I had the chance I wouldn't have dared gone back and changed it so you weren't the deputy that day. I guess what I'm trying to say is, I love you and worry about you; but that shouldn't be a reason either of us fails to do our duty to protect the laws of the land. I think you'd be the best deputy Micah ever had or will have, and although I appreciate you taking how I would feel into account, it's not my place to stop you from helping Micah or the town out. 'Sides, I can handle a little more ranch work when you're in town and I'm sure a little more money couldn't hurt right about now."

"You're right about that. Mark, I'm glad you feel the way you do, I know things haven't been easy on you growing up and I wasn't sure how me picking up the badge again would affect you."

"Just no more trips across Dead Man's Crossing!"

"Believe me, Micah and I learned our lesson last time."

6MC6

Sunday afternoon saw the Grafts, Gibbs, Osbornes, and Micah at the McCain's for Sunday dinner. It was a little warmer than it had been the past week, and the wind had died down quite a bit, making the ride from town much more bearable. When the Osbornes arrived, Mark took care of their team while Anna and Catherine went inside, but Cassie stayed with Mark and helped lead the two horses into the barn. Mark had wanted to speak with Cassie about Mr. Pinkerton's offer, and began explaining everything as they began brushing down the horses.

"...Providing I make it through the whole training program, I'd be gone about a month."

"Why that's wonderful news, Mark!"

"That I could be gone for a month?"

"Oh you know what I mean!" Cassie replied as she playfully slapped him with a brush.

"...So you'd be alright with it; if that's what I chose to do permanently?"

"...My father was a marshal. You never stop worrying but you get... used to it, I suppose. I wouldn't want to see anything happen to you, but I also think it'd be a mistake if you didn't take up their offer, or at least look into it more. If you want to become a detective, I think it would suit you very well, and I think you should join their agency. Operating for a federal or private office, Mark, I would be so proud to see you wearing a badge, swearing to uphold the law. You're a man of good morals and justice, who wants to help people, and I'd be a fool to want you to turn away from who you are because there's a little danger involved."

"Well that makes my decision a whole lot easier, thank you, Cassie."

"Don't thank me, it's your life."

"But one day it'll be our life."

There was a beautiful silence between the two as they stopped brushing and looked into the other's eyes. Both gently smiling as Cassie's cheeks continued to turn a darker shade of red.

"I hate to interrupt," Johnny called from the barn door, startling both Mark and Cassie. "But your Ma told me to have you bring plenty of firewood when you come in, Mark."

"...Thanks, Uncle Johnny. We'll be inside in a minute," Mark replied as he brushed the horse a few more times before putting him in one of the empty stalls.

"You better be careful, Mark. Sally might get a little hurt if she hears-"

"Oh brother!" Mark exclaimed in embarrassment.

"What do you mean, Mr. Gibbs?" Cassie inquired.

"Nothing. Nothing at all..." Johnny replied as he walked out of the barn.

"Mark?"

"It’s history... he's just trying to get at me for teasing him and Aunt Lou so much. And it's
working..."

Cassie chuckled before Mark put the horse she had been brushing in the stall with the other horse.

On the way back to the house with Cassie, Mark got the firewood and brought it to the kitchen where the women were busy preparing the meal and spoiling Maddy.

It wasn't too long before Mark got himself kicked out of the kitchen for sampling the food.

"Cassie girl, are ye goin' ta sit there and gawk after the boy all day or help me with these green beans?" Lou asked as she snapped the end of another bean.

"Sorry..." Cassie blushed as she started helping Lou.

The other women in the kitchen chuckled at the love-struck young lady in their midst, all remembering back to the days they were courting.

After dinner was eaten in the dining room, everyone made their way back to the front room to converse.

The Osbornes were the last ones to leave that evening and Mark hitched the team up for them before they drove back home.

Some folks in town thought it strange that Mark, or any of the McCains for that matter, would still associate with the Osbornes. On the contrary, both families felt that the continued relationship helped them all deal with everything that had happened and move on in the respects in which they could. There would always be the close minded, callous people in town who would turn their nose up at the Osbornes, simply because of what John had done; but the majority of folks had accepted that John Osborne's wife and children had nothing to do with his actions. Mark was glad, knowing what guilt Cassie struggled with carrying.

Mark walked back inside the house after the Osborne's buck board disappeared out of sight and found his parents relaxing on the couch.

He picked up a book and sat across from them in his chair.

About fifteen minutes had passed when they all heard a horse quickly ride up to the house, soon followed by pounding on the door.

Lucas rose to answer the door as Milly and Mark looked up from their books.

"Micah, what's the matter?" Lucas asked as he opened the door more to let his friend inside.

All the McCains could see the worried look on Micah's face and nervously waited for him to answer as the marshal uncomfortably shifted his weight and sighed.

"Micah?" Mark asked as he walked closer to the marshal.

Micah took a telegram out of his pocket and handed it to Mark, who opened and read it.

Seeing the look that came over their son's face, Lucas and Milly became even more worried.

"Mark, what does it say?" Lucas inquired.

Mark looked at the telegram before reading it aloud.

"MARK McCAIN
NORTH FORK, NEW MEXICO

Forget about testifying at Osborne's trial

Otherwise I'll make sure you stay dead

ALEX DEFORD
GANTRY, NEW MEXICO"

Mark folded the telegram as Lucas and Milly stared at him in shock.

"...Micah," Mark slowly began. "How'd he find out? The story only came out in the local paper a few weeks ago!"

"Osborne was a U.S. Marshal, Mark. Plenty of reporters have a way of getting their hands on information, and a story like this certainly wouldn't be refused by any editor. Gantry isn't too terribly far from here, either," Micah replied.

"Oh, I'm sure he wasn't there when he heard. That's where the trial is being held; he left the name of the town in the telegram on purpose. He wants me to know he's waiting."

"I've already sent the authorities down there a warning and asked them to keep a lookout for DeFord or any of his men. I'm sure we'll find him before the trial starts."

"Well you're not planning on going down there if he isn't caught, are you?" Milly worriedly asked.

"I don't have a choice," Mark replied. "The little physical evidence they have isn't enough to convict him. We need the evidence, my testimony, and Micah's testimony about what happened
the night I got back. It’s the only chance the prosecution has. I hate to say it, but there's no telling what Osborne might do if the court can't find him guilty. I'm not going to let DeFord scare me with what very well could be just an empty threat."

"Mark it could be more than that," Lucas commented.

Mark looked at his Pa for a moment in astonishment.

"You're not asking me to stay, are you? You remember that time you had to testify at a trial because the first witness was shot? You didn't refuse to stand up for what's right then, so please don't ask me to, now."

"...I'm not going to, but son, you have to realize that this could be more than just empty threats."

Mark nodded before turning back towards Micah.

"Thanks for riding all the way back out here," Mark offered.

"Don't thank me. I'm sorry it had to be such bad news that brought me back out. I better be getting back to the jail."

Micah turned and left, leaving the McCain's alone once again in their home. After a few minutes of silence, Lucas and Milly watched Mark walk to his bedroom and shut the door behind him.

"Oh, Lucas!" Milly cried as she collapsed onto the couch.

Lucas sat down next to his wife and gently rubbed his hand across her back.

"It's going to be alright, Milly. We've dealt with threats before, we'll deal with this one."

"But not a threat like this! Lucas, how can you just sit there and let him go through-"

"Milly, he has to do what's right. He couldn't live with himself if he let Osborne go free, and frankly, I'd be disappointed in him if he did. I love him Milly, but I can't ask him nor do I want him to turn his back on justice. While we're in Gantry, believe me, I'll be watching him every second and won't let him out of my sight; I'm worried about him, but this is his choice... and I'm proud of the choice he's making, not that I expected any less from him."

"Lucas, if something happened to either one of you-"

"If is a dangerous word. We've got to live in the present, and take the hand we're dealt in life."

Milly nodded as she tried to stop her flowing tears. After a few minutes she stood and headed
for their bedroom.

"Coming to bed?" She asked.

"I'll be there in a minute."

Milly nodded again and left the room.

Lucas stood and walked to his son's door. He entered without knocking and found his son at the desk.

"Pa?" Mark asked as he turned around and looked up.

Lucas walked to the desk and sat on its edge as he crossed his arms. He studied his son for a moment before replying.

"Are you alright?"

"There's not much point in not being alright, seeing as how I can't change anything."

"But ARE you alright?"

"No."

Lucas waited for his son to collect his thoughts and explain.

"This whole thing was difficult enough to deal with before. I'm still struggling with who John actually turned out to be, what he did to his family and ours. I was going to have a hard enough time facing him during the trial and listening to him try to redeem himself. I'm going through with the trial, regardless of what DeFord or anyone else threats... But having someone threaten my life like that..."

"It's scary?" Lucas finished for Mark.

Mark nodded his head.

"I wish I could take away the threat Mark, but I know I can't. I wish I could tell you there was an easy way to deal with any sort of threat, but we both know there isn't. We've gotta face it and deal with it as situations arise. But I can tell you one thing; you'll always have a partner to watch your back."

"Thanks Pa." Mark let out a slight chuckle.

"What?"

"Oh I just would've loved to see DeFord's face when he found out I was alive."

"Well I'm glad you're laughing about it. We both better be heading to bed, especially if you're still planning on riding into town tomorrow."

"If?" Mark asked.

"Since," Lucas replied with a quiet chuckle. "I hope everything goes smoothly for you."

"If it goes any smoother than it did with you and Ma, I'll be happy."

"Goodnight Mark. See you in the morning."

"Goodnight Pa."

7MC7


The next morning after breakfast, Mark mounted up and headed for town. His first stop was the hotel, and as he entered the establishment he was greeted by Lou.

"Good morning Mark, what brings ye in this morning?"

"Would you happen to know where Mr. Pinkerton is?"

"He came down for breakfast a while ago, I believe he went back up to his room. Why would ye be lookin' for 'im?"

"I have some business with him."

"Is everythin' alright? I don't understand what a cattle rancher would need from a detective."

"Everything's fine, he offered me a potential job."

"I'm glad to hear that. He's in room nine."

"Thank you, Aunt Lou."

Mark walked up the stairs and went to knock on the door of Mr. Pinkerton's room, but before he could, the door was opened.

"Come on in," Will invited.

"Thank you."

Mark entered the room and shut the door behind him.

"I'm presuming you're here about my offer," Mr. Pinkerton stated.

"Yes sir, I am. First of all I want to thank you for giving me this opportunity, it's something I don't take for granted. I know I'm young and that can make some people think it puts me at a disadvantage..."

"But it doesn't. I know what you're capable of, and that's why I offered this to you. I'm assuming you've come to a decision?"

"I would very much like to take your offer, Mr. Pinkerton."

"I'm very glad to hear that my trip wasn't wasted. I'll leave a packet of information with you, giving you a bit more details about the training program, where it will be, when you should show up, that sort of thing."

Will proceeded to find his briefcase and rummage through it until he found the packet.

"Thank you," Mark said as he took it.

"No, thank you. You're the type of man I want at the agency, and I'm glad you've accepted the offer. I understand if you get through training and change your mind; that's understandable, but I certainly hope you don't. I'll let you go, I'm sure you have a few more things to do while you're in town. If you have any questions before I leave, I'll be happy to answer them. Otherwise, I'll see you in March."

"Thank you Mr. Pinkerton, have a great day."

Mark shook the man's hand and left the hotel room. Everything started to slowly sink in as he left the hotel.

He had just accepted an offer to attend the Pinkerton Detective Agency's training program, and in a few months, he could be working for them.

Mark was excited to see everything happening. He remembered back to the night he graduated, wondering what the rest of his life would hold... How he would make a difference. This was his way to help people and see justice done... this gave him drive, and this was what he wanted to do.

Mark mounted up on Blue Boy and headed for the Osborne's. His mind was constantly rehearsing what he was going to say to Mrs. Osborne, and he let out an agitated sigh every time his thoughts got jumbled up.

After dismounting and tying Blue Boy to the porch railing, Mark made his way up the steps and knocked on the door.

"Morning Mark, good to see you," Mrs. Osborne pleasantly greeted.

"Good morning, Mrs. Osborne."

"I'm afraid if you're looking for Cassie, she's at the dressmaker's."

"Actually, I'm here to speak with you. May I have a moment of your time?"

"Certainly, please come in."

Mark stepped inside and Mrs. Osborne shut the door behind him.

"Would you like some coffee?"

"No thank you ma'am, I don't drink it."

"Please, take a seat," Mrs. Osborne offered as she sat down herself.

Mark sat across from her and nervously played with his hat.

"What was it you were wanting to speak with me about?"

"...Well, Mrs. Osborne," Mark began as he looked at her in the eye. "I don't know how else to go about this other than to just say it. I love your daughter and she completes me. Mrs. Osborne, may I have Cassie's hand in marriage?"

"Have you spoken with your parents about this?"

"Yes ma'am, they both give their full blessing. I know we're young, but I believe we're both ready for this, and frankly I can't imagine not spending the rest of my life with her."

"Mark... I've said it before, I would be very honored to have you as my son-in-law. Yes, you have my permission and blessing."

"Thank you Mrs. Osborne," Mark stood and offered to shake her hand.

"Oh posh, Mark."

Mrs. Osborne gave Mark a hug which he gladly returned.

"Now when do you figure on asking Cassie?"

"I haven't quite decided... I want to wait for things from the trial to settle down, I'm just not sure if I want to ask her before or after training in March."

"Well whatever you decide, she'll be absolutely thrilled. She loves you, Mark."

"Do you have anything that needs to be done around here before I leave? Firewood or something?"

"Oh no you don't, your Pa mentioned the shoulder and told us you're not supposed to be doing any strenuous work," Catherine said with a smile.

"Alright, but if you do need anything-"

"I'll get Percy or someone else to do it, if I can't. Go ahead and head home, you've done plenty around here anyway."

"When are you moving into town?"

"A week from today."

"Pa and I will be here first thing to help."

"Thank you Mark, have a good day."

Catherine walked Mark to the door and he left after bidding her goodbye.

On his way back through town, Mark decided to stop in to talk with Micah. But when he entered the office, he didn't see the marshal.

"Micah?" Mark called.

"Went to make his rounds," Osborne replied from the cell. "Something wrong?"

"Like you would care."

"Believe it or not Mark, I do. I spent two and a half years serving this town, serving you, and I do care."

"Actions speak louder than words." Mark started to leave, but he turned back around and walked to John's cell. "Why'd you let yourself get into this mess? When you came to town, I held the greatest respect for you. You seemed to be such an upstanding person, I was proud to have you as our marshal. Then you started turning your head, started working with criminals, started not caring about anyone but yourself-"

"I did all of it for my family!"

"No, you did all of it for yourself. The reason you married Ara? That wasn't for your family. The reason you hid the truth about Cassie's birth? That wasn't for your family either, it was to save your honor. The reason you let those criminals out of jail? You couldn't let your pride go. The reason you left me with the outlaws? Because-"

"I couldn't face you again! I admit it. I know what you thought of me before you found out, I'd seen the disappointment in your eyes after what happened to Milly and Lucas, and I couldn't see that again. I was a coward and I know it. I had too much pride, and I know it. I made a mess of things because I didn't own up to anything, and I know it!"

"Then why are you pleading innocent!?"

"Because DeFord said if I don't, and I let him be implicated at all, he'll take it out on my family!"

"How'd he contact you?"

"The lawyer that's been in and out of town the last couple weeks."

"Did you tell Micah?"

"No, and you're not going to either."

"Why not?! Then he could-"

"Because DeFord promised that if I did, I'd never see any of them again! Mark, I'm only telling you this because I want you to understand I want to plead guilty, but I don't have a choice. Promise me you won't say anything to Micah!"

"... I can't. He needs to know, he can't protect them if he doesn't know they need protecting! If you care about them, you should've told Micah about this a long time ago."

"Mark, don't you accuse me of not caring about my family again, or so help me..."

"You'll what? Make me regret it? Kill me? You'll have to wait your turn, DeFord's first in line! I do believe you cared about them at one point, and still do, but you've been blinded and you can't see straight. You have priorities mixed up. You should be the one to step up, but since you won't, I'm telling Micah that DeFord's threatening your family."

"Mark, if something happens to them-"

"You think DeFord will leave them alone even if you somehow are found not guilty and they don't go hunting after him? He's going to be playing a game with you the rest of your life! It's time you end this game of cat and mouse!"

Mark and John heard the door to the office open and saw Micah make his way inside.

"Mark, what are you doing here?" Micah inquired.

"Micah, I need to talk to you..." John stated.

"About what?"

"DeFord," Mark replied.

8MC8

"What are they going to do?" Milly asked after she and Lucas heard Mark's account of what transpired in the jail that afternoon.

"Try to pack up sooner than they already are and move into town. Micah's checking in at their place just about every few hours," Mark answered.

"Lucas," Milly began. "Do you think I could go over tomorrow and give Catherine a hand?"

"After Mark and I check on the cattle, we all can. I'm sure they need all the help they can get. I know it's not easy packing up a house."

"Mark, were you not able to speak with Catherine this morning, due to the news?"

"I spoke with her before I went to the jail."

Lucas and Milly waited for Mark to continue, but he kept silent.

"Well what did she say?" Lucas asked his son.

"She gave us her full blessing and permission," Mark replied with a smile.

"When are you going to pop the question?" Milly inquired.

"I haven't decided yet, I at least want to wait for things with the trial to calm down, so it might be after I go to Chicago for training."

"When a... do you plan on telling your Uncle Johnny?" Lucas asked with a grin.

"Not until after I propose. Thank you both so much for telling him about Sally, it alleviates so much awkwardness," Mark stated sarcastically.

"Does Cassie even know you had a crush on her cousin?" Milly asked.

"No, I figure she'll find out soon enough; especially if Uncle Johnny has anything to say about it."

*****

Over the next several days, the McCains kept busy helping the Osborne's pack up and move. Lucas, Milly, and Catherine were all constantly reminding Mark to take it easy on his shoulder.

Mark new Catherine hadn't told her daughters why she decided to move so quickly, and was glad neither one of them had to carry that burden in their mind. He was, however, concerned about Mrs. Osborne. She was getting worn down and it was obvious that stress was a constant in her life. Mark watched as she cringed every time one of her daughters left to run an errand, even if they weren't alone.

By Saturday afternoon, the Osbornes were settled in their new home, and invited the McCain's and Gibbs', who had lent a hand that day as well, to join them for supper. Mark and Cassie volunteered to do the dishes while Anna worked on her homework and everyone else talked in the living room.

Cassie noticed that Mark wasn't very talkative and seemed to be deep in thought as he rinsed and dried the dishes, staring out the window.

"Mark, is everything alright?" Cassie asked as she looked at him again.

"Yeah, I'm just thinking," Mark replied as he put the dish he had been drying away and began to rinse another.

"About what?"

"The day we met... and then the day you started helping us with the barn," Mark chuckled before continuing. "I remember talking to Pa about it when I got home. I thought it was so strange that you'd want to help us build that barn..."

"In all honesty it wasn't the barn I was so interested in. I found you a bit... strange, as well."

"Good or bad kind of strange?"

"I wasn't really sure. What about you?"

"Good strange," Mark answered with a smile. "How about now? What kind of strange am I?"

"Definitely not a good kind..." Cassie replied with a mischievous grin. "You're a wonderful kind of strange, Mark McCain."

Anna walked in the kitchen just in time to see Cassie planting a kiss on Mark's cheek. She abruptly turned around and went back out.

"I'm going to miss our old place..." Cassie sighed. "For one thing, our barn seemed to be the only place we could have any privacy."

9MC9

The weeks before the trial seemed to drag by, but the night before John Osborne's trial finally arrived. Micah, Lucas, and Mark had arrived in Gantry a few days before the trial was supposed to start, since Micah and Mark were both witnesses. The afternoon before the trial, Cassie, Anna, and Catherine arrived in town and checked into their hotel.

Mark and Lucas had supper with Micah and the Osbornes that evening, and afterwards returned to their room for the night.

After entering their room, Lucas sat down on one of the beds while Mark took the chair next to the window.

The tall rancher watched as his son intensely stared out the window, deep in thought.

"Mark, what's wrong?" Lucas asked.

"DeFord is getting to me, that's all. I sure wish they would've found him by now, especially since Cass and her mother and Anna are here. Pa, if something were to happen to any of them..."

"It wouldn't be your fault Mark. You did right in convincing John to tell Micah, don't doubt yourself."

"I know... I just hate that I can't control what happens. I use to be able to take it fine, but now... I don't know what the deal is."

"You fell in love Mark," Lucas chuckled. "It's different love than you'll ever feel for me, your Ma, or anyone else. Things change when you fall in love and you want to protect her, you don't want to see her hurt."

"But I love you and Ma. I want to protect you both. Yet I have learned to accept what happens within our family. But with Cassie..."

"That's just it Mark, you've learned. You haven't been in a situation like this with Cassie before and you don't know how to handle it because all of it is new for you. The same way you learned to leave things in the hands of God when it comes to your Ma and I, you have to learn to surrender with Cassie."

"Don't take this wrong... but it seems so much harder."

Lucas softly chuckled.

"I understand son. Your relationship with Cassie is completely separate and different from your relationship with me. The same way my relationship with your Ma is different than the one I have with you. It's hard to let go... and it's not wrong to hold concern for her, especially in this situation. You just can't let fear run your life."

Mark sighed before looking at his Pa for the first time.

"But instead, redirect that fear..."

Mark and Lucas both remembered back to the conversation they had several years prior.

"Thanks Pa."

"Why don't we hit the sack, we have a long few days ahead of us."

Mark and Lucas prepared for bed before getting under the covers and blowing out the lantern.

Lucas was asleep within a few minutes, but Mark lay awake for several hours, thinking through the long four weeks of captivity. Finally, Mark couldn't take it anymore and decided to go outside; he felt like the walls of the room were closing in on him. As he walked outside of the establishment, he saw someone leaning on a nearby hitching post.

"Ms. DeFord, I wasn't expecting to see you here," Mark commented as he approached her.

Ara turned around and after a moment, recognized Mark.

"You're the man who helped me find John in North Fork, aren't you?"

"Yes ma'am."

"What are you doing here? I'm simply here because the prosecution dug me up..."

"I'm assuming you filed for divorce, then?"

"...How did you know?"

"You answered to Ms. DeFord and-"

"Not about the divorce. How did you know that I was even married once?"

"...You see ma'am, the day you made your brother explain everything to you, he had me tied up in the back room."

“...You have to understand that until the prosecution informed me, I had no idea my brother was a criminal, except the blackmailing incident, which I only found out about that day...”

"I believe you. Anyway, that's why I'm here... testifying against Osborne and ultimately your brother... except he hasn't been arrested yet. I suppose when they catch him we'll have to do this all over again."

"How much do you know?"

"Everything."

"And you know Cassie..."

"Is your daughter. Have you talked to her?"

"No, I arrived on the evening train. Haven't even seen her."

"Are you going to talk to her before the trial?"

"I don't know if I could face her. She has a mother that's been there for her all eighteen years of her life... who am I to come in and stir things up?"

"She loves Mrs. Osborne, yes. But I do know she would like to meet you. She knows you didn't do anything on purpose, she knows you didn't know that her Pa was married. She knows-"

"She knows I'm just a stranger. As much as I love her, as much as she is my daughter... I can't make her love me, I can't make her accept me. I don't want to try to replace Mrs. Osborne... the
woman is as much Cassie's mother as I am... perhaps in some ways, more so. The girl has had to deal with so many repercussions from this whole mess she doesn't need me to show up in her life, too."

"But don't you think it'd be better for you to meet her before the trial instead of during?"

"...Maybe, maybe not. That's for me to decide. If you'll excuse me, I think I'll return to my room. Goodnight."

"Ma'am," Mark lifted his hat as she walked past him and towards the hotel.

Mark leaned against the hitching post, and sighed deeply. He stood there looking up at the sky for quite some time before he heard a voice quietly call his name.

"Mark?"

Mark quickly walked towards Cassie as she came down the boardwalk.

"Cassie, what are you doing out here?"

"I couldn't sleep, I needed some air."

"But to come outside? Alone? At night?"

"You did."

"Cassie, I'm man and I have a rifle. What if some mad man were to attack you?"

"The only mad man out here is you," Cassie light heartedly teased.

"Please, Cassie, you shouldn't go walking off alone. It's dangerous!"

"Mark, what's troubling you?"

"Cassie, I'm just worried about you. Strange city, strange people, and who knows? Someone might have something against your Pa and-"

"Mark, I know about DeFord's threat."

"What?"

"I accidentally overheard when Marshal Torrance told Ma," Cassie answered.

"And you still came outside?!"

"Shh! You want to wake the whole town?" Cassie waited for Mark to relax before continuing. "I also know Ma told you not to say anything... so I'm letting this one slide. Maybe coming out alone wasn't the best idea, but..."

"Maybe?"

"Ok, so it wasn't a smart idea!" Cassie was whispering, but made it obvious she was frustrated. "I needed space, I needed time to think! I'm scared! You think it's easy to just sit around with someone threatening your family? You think it's easy to just sit and wait for this trial to get over with? You think it's easy knowing that this nightmare doesn't end when the judge delivers his verdict? I'm tired of the stares I get from people when they hear my name. I'm tired of hearing women gossip in the dress shop, whispering that I was born out of wedlock - which isn't true! The day you left North Fork, three newspaper reporters arrived in town and wanted to interview my Ma, Anna, and me. They wanted to know every detail of my life and how I feel about my father... and all I want is some space! The entire territory knows what my father did, and nothing is going to change when the judge closes the case. There will still be stares, I'll still hear the whispers, and you can count on there being reporters to deal with! I feel like everything is falling apart and I can't stop it from happening! Mark, everything is out of control and I can't talk to anyone who understands! I tried to be strong for Ma, for Anna. I tried to act oblivious to the things I wasn't supposed to know, I tried to keep quiet about the things I was supposed to understand, because talking about it hurt Ma too much!"

A steady flow of tears were streaming down Cassie's face as she finished.

"Cass, why didn't you talk to me?"

"Because you've already been burdened enough with this situation; you have your own struggles to handle and I don't expect you to take mine on as well! I'm sorry I even came out here tonight!"

Cassie turned to walk away from Mark, but he caught her arm and turned her back towards himself.

"Cassie, look at me," Mark pleaded.

Cassie slowly looked up and stared into Mark's eyes. She found compassion and love... but she wasn't sure if she could let herself take those at the moment.

"Cassie, we both have a lot to deal with. Neither of us should have to deal with this alone... and I've left you to do that. I was too blinded by my own hurt to take the initiative to help you through yours. I'm sorry, Cass. I love you, I want to help you through this... if you'll let me."

"Mark, I... I think you've already started."

"How?" Mark inquired as he wrinkled his brow.

"By letting me yell at you."

"But how-"

"You listened. All anyone else wants to do is ask questions... if that. Mark I'm sorry... I'm just flat out scared of what is going to happen the next few days, and I just feel so lost..." Cassie's voice trailed off as she wrapped her arms around Mark's waist and laid her head on his chest.

Mark rested his head on hers and held Cassie as she finished her tears. He wished that he would've done more listening before things had gotten to this point, but now all he could do was just keep listening, and try to be there for her.

"Mark, I'm sor-"

"No need to apologize. I love you Cassie, and I promise I'll do better about being here for you."

"You've been wonderful, I just haven't been very open..."

"Well I wouldn't-"

"Mark." Cassie looked up into Mark's dark brown eyes. "Let's just call it even, why don't we?"

Mark didn't voice a reply, but Cassie understood his answer when he bent his head down and gave her a kiss.

Neither of them heard the rider turn the street corner and approach them quietly on his horse. The man waited a moment before deciding to interrupt.

"Well I can see she hasn't killed you yet, Mark. He been treating you alright, little sis?"

Mark and Cassie looked up to see Ned dismounting from his horse.

Cassie hurried towards her brother and gave him a long hug.

"Oh I thought you weren't coming! I'm so glad you're here!"

"I shouldn't have just left like I did. I came back to talk with Pa, and to be here for the rest of you. I had no right to up and leave... especially with you all hurting like you were."

"The important thing is you're here," Cassie offered.

"Even if I did interrupt your kiss?"

"Ned!"

Mark and Ned laughed as Cassie's face turned a dark shade of crimson.

"C'mon," Mark began. "Let's get you a room, and then I think it's time we all get to bed."

10MC10

The next morning came all too soon. Lucas had to practically drag Mark out of bed, something he hadn't needed to do for a long time. After they both dressed they headed downstairs and joined Micah in the hotel's cafe for breakfast.

"Have the Osbornes come down yet?" Lucas inquired as he and Mark took their seats.

"No, I stopped by their room on the way down though, they'll be down in a bit."

"I can't wait for this whole thing to be done and over with." Lucas sighed before the waitress came up to their table.

The men ordered their meal and sat back in their chairs waiting... no one really felt like holding a conversation.

Shortly after their meal came, Micah almost choked on his coffee when he saw Ned accompanying his mother and sisters down the stairs.

"What is it Micah?" Lucas asked before looking behind him. "Ned, when did you get here?"

"Rode in last night... I realized there were some things I needed to deal with before I could start over anywhere."

"Well I'm glad you came," Lucas offered.

"I'm surprised Mark didn't say anything..." Ned commented with a mischievous grin.

Only Mark noticed the slight elbow jab Cassie gave her brother.

"Why would Mark have said anything?" Micah inquired.

"...He helped me check in last night."

"I wasn't sure if you wanted me to say something or not," Mark told Ned.

The Osbornes took the table next to the McCain's and Micah. Throughout the next half hour, as everyone conversed, Neither Catherine or Lucas, nor Micah or Anna were aware of the silent exchanges between Cassie, Ned, and Mark. It started with Ned taking the seat closest to Mark, just to tease his little sister. Every once and a while Ned would give the slightest hint to what had happened the previous night, resulting in a kick from Cassie, which both Ned and Mark inwardly chuckled at. Mark knew Ned was teasing them in his own way and that it was all in fun, but Cassie was beyond embarrassed. She finally looked at her brother who sat directly across from her and gave him a pleading look.

He knew she was asking him to stop. He replied to her plea with a smile. A smile Cassie knew meant, “not a chance.”

After breakfast was finally finished, everyone made the dreaded walk to the court house. After they had settled, John's lawyer walked over to Mark and handed him a folded slip of paper, and returned to the front of the room without saying a word. Mark opened the paper and read it.

'Believe me, I want to plead guilty.'

As much as Mark condemned Osborne as a coward in other areas, he didn't blame him as much in this one. He understood that Osborne was at least partially making this decision for his family and not himself.

The trial began and everyone in the room stood as the judge entered. After everyone sat, the judge began the regular formalities of stating the case and introducing both sides before stating the charges... which there were a lot of. Accessory to armed robbery, unlawful imprisonment and counterfeiting; aiding in the escape of convicts from a territorial prison, failing to uphold the laws of the land... the list almost seemed endless.

"Does the defendant plead guilty or not guilty to the charges presented against him?"

"Not guilty, your honor," John's lawyer replied.

Mark watched Osborne cringe at the sound of the words. He wasn't looking forward to the next few days any more than Mark was.

"Alright then. Mr. Landers, your opening statement please."

John's lawyer began a rather pitiful long spiel about how everything John did was undercover work for the U.S. Marshal's service, that hadn't been assigned to him. He had the audacity to
state that those witnessing against Marshal Osborne simply had a grudge against the marshal for their own various reasons. He concluded by saying that all John Osborne did was try to protect and serve those he had sworn to defend.

The prosecution likewise gave their opening statements, promising that they would prove beyond a shadow of a doubt Osborne's guilt.

The prosecution then began making its case. Mr. DeLong, the prosecution attorney, began by presenting files and reports and other solid physical evidence that they had. He called Ara to the stand, and Mark heard the gasps from the residents of North Fork. They knew she had to be Cassie's mother. Cassie started to stand to leave, but Mark put a hand on her arm to stop her.

"Don't jump to conclusions," Mark whispered as Cassie sat back down. "She didn't know how to approach you."

Ms. DeFord gave her testimony and presented a copy of the marriage license, explaining John had used an alias. After Mr. DeLong finished, Mr. Landers cross examined.

"Ms. DeFord, do you have anyone here today that could verify that this man was indeed your husband?"

"Well of course not," Ara answered. "This happened nineteen years ago. The judge who married us is probably dead and the town we married in... why it's a ghost town now."

"Any proof that Cassie Osborne is even your daughter?"

"I told you before, I thought she had died! No I don't have any proof..." Ara's eyes fell upon Cassie and she smiled knowing this young woman was her child... the child she thought she'd never see again. "Besides the fact that she's the spitting image of me."

"That's not evidence, really, now is it?" The defense inquired.

"Do you have any proof that she isn't my daughter?"

"I'm asking the questions Ms. DeFord, and it's not my job to prove that."

"It is if you have the audacity-"

"Ms. DeFord, please control yourself," the judge interrupted. "Any more questions, Mr. Landers?"

"None at this time, your honor."

"You may step down, Ms. DeFord."

Next Mr. DeLong called up several different marshals and lawmen, asking them to share about the dealings they had with Osborne. Mr. Landers couldn't argue any of the counterfeiting points or the evidence presented indicating that John helped DeFord and his men escape, so he didn't bother to cross examine them. It was most interesting however, that when Micah gave his testimony of what occurred the night Mark returned to North Fork, that Landers didn't cross examine then, either. Finally, DeLong called for Mark to come to the witness stand. He walked up to his seat and like every witness before him, was sworn to tell the truth.

"Mr. McCain, you were held prisoner by Alex DeFord, were you not?" Mr. DeLong inquired.

"Yes sir, I was."

"Would you then explain in your own words how you came to be captured and what you learned while you were being held?"

"I was in town running errands and after picking up the mail was asked to drop something off at the marshal's office, so I happily obliged. While talking to Marshal Osborne, someone came running into the office stating the bank had been robbed. I watched as the marshal slowly collected his gear and made his way to the bank; I followed. After getting told what had happened, John Osborne said he was going to head off after the criminals, without any kind of backup. Most men who knew how to ride or shoot were out of town at a convention. The banker volunteered to help but the marshal said he was too closely involved. I volunteered to go, but he told me I wasn't going with him and left the bank. I followed him back to the office and argued with him, knowing he couldn't take on three criminals alone. I already wondered if there was something out of place, but then he said..." Mark stopped and swallowed for a moment and nervously looked around.

Micah and Lucas chuckled at Mark's uncomfortableness, knowing what Osborne had told Mark.

"He said...?" The lawyer asked.

"Uhh... That if I... I loved his daughter I'd stay out of it. He mounted up and rode off. I couldn't let him go out alone and followed him not too long afterwards, but kept my distance. I watched him go into a cabin, talk with somebody, then go out and head back towards North Fork. I was going to go down to the cabin myself, but I was then caught by DeFord and his men. They were the ones who robbed the bank. When we got to the cabin, the person Marshal Osborne had spoken with was gone and they tied me up and started asking questions. I wouldn't answer any of them and for days they tried to get it out of me and I eventually told them my name. Shortly after I did, one of the men came inside saying DeFord's sister was riding up. They kept me tied up and locked me in the back room, but I heard every word. Ms. DeFord wanted to know why the man she married was actually a U.S. Marshal and had a family. DeFord explained that John Osborne
married her after Mrs. Osborne, and that John had been paying DeFord to keep quiet about it and the fact that Cassie was alive. As she was leaving, John Osborne came in and told DeFord he was looking for me... DeFord said I knew too much. Osborne convinced DeFord not to kill me and just send me off to Shanghai on one of those work ships. I eventually managed to escape and got the money they had stolen from the bank back. I confronted John with our other marshal present and he eventually admitted to helping DeFord and his men escape, turning his head when they robbed the bank, not arresting one of them who there was a wanted poster on, marrying Ms. DeFord at the same time he was married to Mrs. Osborne, and letting other things go past him, which have already been addressed by the lawmen present."

"Thank you, no more questions at this time, your honor."

"Mr. Landers, would you like to cross examine?"

"Thank you your honor," the lawyer replied as he stood. "Mr. McCain, you said the reason most of the men who would ride in the posse were out of town at a convention. What kind of convention?"

"The annual cattlemen's convention," Mark answered.

"Aren't you a rancher yourself?"

"Yes sir, my father and I own a ranch outside of North Fork."

"Why would you not go then? It being such a big event."

"I was still recovering from pneumonia which I had contracted several weeks prior. I felt it was better to take care of things at the ranch anyway."

"I see. And while you were tracking the outlaws, did your condition worsen?"

"Objection your honor! I don't see how any of this is relevant," Mr. DeLong spoke up.

"Your honor, if you would let me continue, I will explain," Landers insisted.

"Overruled. Answer the question please, Mr. McCain."

"Yes, it did, a little."

"While DeFord was “trying to get answers,” I'm assuming that he physically assaulted you?"

"Yes."

"And while you were locked in the back room, did you ever see the man's face who spoke with DeFord?"

"...No, but I-"

"Did DeFord ever address the man whom he was speaking with by first or last name?"

"No."

"Then how did you know who it was?"

"I recognized Osborne's voice, and by the conversation he had with DeFord about Ms. DeFord, and the fact that he admitted it all to Marshal Torrance and I later." Mark's voice stayed steady and confident as he spoke.

"You were ill, perhaps your mind distorted what you heard?"

Mark had known the whole time what the lawyer had been trying to do.

"Then why would Osborne admit everything to Marshal Torrance? Because it's not just my word against his. It’s evidence, facts, my testimony, Ms. DeFord's testimony and Marshal Torrance's testimony and John knew he couldn't get out of it. Mr. Landers, I was not delusional and had full control of my senses, thank you very much."

"Mr. McCain, you don't like Marshal Osborne very much, do you?"

"This isn't a matter of personal relationships; it's a matter of the law."

"Oh I think it is. You said something earlier that piqued my interest." The man paused and turned to the judge. "I will make this question worthwhile your honor." Landers turned back towards Mark. "Do you have a personal interest and personal affection for Marshal Osborne's daughter?"

"Yes sir, I do."

"Then say, if he were to refuse your request to marry her, you would be very upset. Even to the point where you might try to ruin him... tell a crazy lie, get your town's marshal who is jealous of Osborne's position to go along with you. You were asking for Miss Osborne's hand, that's what you and Osborne were talking about before the banker came rushing in, wasn't it?"

"No, of course not!"

"You wanted to get even with him, so after escaping the outlaws, you came back with this crazy
story about the town's marshal being a criminal himself! Why do you hate a man so?"

"That's not true!" Mark was frustrated with the accusations this man was making.

"But you don't deny hating the man?"

"Your honor, I object! There is absolutely no basis for these questions or ground upon which to make these claims!" Mr. DeLong yelled.

"Sustained. Mr. Landers..." the judge began.

"Excuse me your honor, but I'd like to answer this question," Mark calmly stated.

"Mr. DeLong?" The judge inquired.

DeLong sighed and shrugged his shoulders, waving Mark on.

"Two and a half years ago my father faked his death in order to capture the Mistil gang. That was the undercover assignment Osborne was on. The thing was though, I didn't know a thing about it and thought both my Pa and Marshal Torrance had died. I spent a week grieving before I learned the truth. Marshal Osborne was the one person that supported me and got me through that time in my life and up until a few months ago, I held the greatest respect for him. Yes, I eventually fell in love with his daughter, but never once asked for her hand, only permission to court her and he happily gave his blessing. When I found out who John Osborne really was, it killed me. I didn't want to admit that a man I so respected and trusted, turned out to be nothing more than a coward. But I told the law about what happened, not because I hated him, but because justice needed to be done. He betrayed his family, the town, his badge, and the law. I couldn't let him run free. I knew what this would do to his daughter, I now understood why he told me to stay out of it if I loved her, but I knew I had to stand up for what was right. If you believe that I would up and ruin a man for spite, you're a fool. Why not just run away with his daughter? She's of age! Mr. Landers, you're out of an argument and you know it! My testimony has been backed up and proven, and if we had the time I'd go into more detail about how everything connects, but I wouldn't want to bore you. The point is that Osborne is guilty and you don't know how to win this case, so you're attacking my integrity. If I'm lying, why would I sit here and testify against Osborne, when DeFord threatened to kill me if I did?"

Mark heard a gasp come from the audience and looked to see Cassie covering her mouth, tears starting to trickle down her face.

Cassie looked into Mark's eyes and saw the apology for not telling her.

Mark looked back into her eyes... but wasn't sure what she was saying.

“Isn't it true that some of the money stolen from the bank was reported still missing?” Landers asked. “Maybe you were the one that arranged for the bank to be robbed! You set this whole thing up to destroy a lawman's career! You, who claims to stand up for what's right! Sitting there, lying under oath!”

"Your honor I object!" DeLong yelled again.

The people in the courtroom started loudly murmuring.

"Landers-" the judge began.

"And you would so much as accuse a man... a U.S. MARSHAL of being a coward!" Landers continued.

"You're one to talk!" DeLong yelled at the other attorney.

The commotion in the courtroom was getting out of hand, the two lawyers continued arguing and were soon close to blows, and the judge kept yelling for order. Mark was getting a headache... and he knew it wasn't from the tension. This kind of headache only came before an episode. Mark braced himself and waited for everything to either settle down or him to start seizing.

Suddenly a loud voice overpowered everyone else in the room.

"I PLEAD GUILTY!"

Everyone turned to see John Osborne, who had been silent the entire trial, standing behind the defense desk.

"What did you say?" The judge inquired.

"I plead guilty! Everything they said is true. I'm not going to sit here a watch an upstanding man get accused of being what I am, a coward and a hypocrite! DeFord warned me, threatened me, but too much has already been said about him so it makes no difference!"

There was a long silence before the judge spoke.

"I'm calling for a thirty minute recess. I want to see the prosecution and defense in my chambers!" The judge slammed his gavel and left the room followed by the lawyers, Osborne, and the guard.

Mark saw Cassie hurrying towards the front of the room and made his way towards her. When they met, Mark started to apologize, but Cassie just wrapped her arms around his neck.

"Oh don't do that to me, ever again!" Cassie let Mark go and looked into his eyes.

"Cass... I didn't want to worry you. I'm sorry. Please for-"

"No Mark. Don't say it, you don't need to... I love you."

Mark gave Cassie another quick hug shortly before Lucas approached the two of them.

"Mark, do you need anything?" Lucas inquired.

"We should probably head back to the hotel and grab that new medication Doc said to try."

"Medication?" Cassie asked with concern.

"You stay put and I'll get it," Lucas said in reply to Mark, not hearing Cassie's question.

"But it'll be longer before I can take it. 'Sides, a little walk'll do me some good."

"What medication?" Cassie asked again.

"Alright then," Lucas agreed. "Cassie would you like to join us or stay here?"

"I'd like to be told what is going on. What medication? What's wrong?"

"Doc uses some sedatives when my seizures are really bad, but he learned about this new medicine that is supposed to help prevent a seizure, if you get it in you in time." Mark offered Cassie his arm and they began walking as he continued to explain. "He gave us some to keep with us in case something went wrong and we couldn't get to town or were in a town that might not have it."

"But Uncle Lucas, why... how did you know something was wrong? I'm sorry... I had no idea..." Cassie felt miserable for not realizing Mark wasn't doing well.

"Don't worry about it Cass, I barely catch it sometimes. Pa just knows me and can read my body language like a book."

"Mark, are you doing alright with... well everything that half insane lawyer was accusing you of?" Cassie inquired as she looked to Mark and clung to his arm a little tighter.

"They were only accusations. Anyone who knows me know they aren't true."

Lucas dropped behind Cassie and Mark as they walked down the street and towards the hotel; he couldn’t help but smile, watching them interact.

"How are you doing with... Seeing Ara DeFord for the first time?" Mark asked.

"...Confused. Why did you tell me not to jump to conclusions and stop me from leaving?"

"Well, what was your thought when she went up there?"

"How could she... just completely ignore me? How could she not have the decency to go up and at least say, “I gave birth to you?” I wonder what I did to make her dislike me so..."

"Cassie, I know for a fact she loves you. She may just be a stranger to you, but-"

"Mark, she's my mother! In different ways than Ma, but she still is... and I don't see her as a stranger."

"Well that's good, I think that's what she was partially afraid of. She didn't know how to go about talking to you and didn't want to hurt you by stirring things up."

"Oh... well how do you know that?"

"I talked to her last night before you came out. Like I said, she loves you, and just doesn't want to hurt you. That's why I said not to jump to conclusions."

"... I did a mighty fine job of listening..." Cassie replied.

Mark and Cassie continued to talk as they made their way back to the hotel. After Mark took the medication, Lucas made him sit down for a few minutes before they went back to the courthouse and rejoined everyone else. Soon the bailiff was calling for everyone to rise as the judge entered.

"Please be seated," the judge requested after taking his own seat. "We have had quite a surprising change of events, to say the least. I won't waste any more time. John Osborne, you have pled guilty to the charges against you. I sentence you to serve fifteen years in the New Mexico Territorial Prison which will include heavy labor in order to pay back what you cannot with your own means your fine of two thousand, five hundred dollars. You are stripped of your title as marshal and are not allowed to work for any government agencies or offices henceforth. Case dismissed!" And with that, the judge slammed him gavel and retired to his chamber.

11MC11

There were no burdens lifted when the sentence was delivered or case dismissed, everyone knew that there was no winner in this scenario. They had all lost faith and trust in a man who they all had once loved and respected.

Ara said very few words to Cassie after the trial, simply because she had to catch a stage to head back east... but they both understood they had a bond that had begun when Cassie was conceived and that it wouldn't break. They both promised to write and Cassie and Mark saw her off on the stage.

Ned spoke with his Pa, but only briefly as the rest of the family eventually did. They all still loved him, but oh, how they were disappointed and angry.

Mark felt a strange mixture of despise and forgiveness in his heart. He couldn't understand what was going on inside his head, and eventually found himself standing in front of John's cell.

"Mark, I'm sorry that lawyer drug you through that. He had no right, and believe me I didn't want him on the case, but DeFord insisted... and also threatened Landers. I'm sorry I didn't gather up enough courage to confess everything before I did. I'm sorry I did what I did... I know this is hard for you to believe, but I really mean that. Mark, I have no right, but I'm asking you to forgive me."

Mark's head shot up and he looked straight at Osborne. The first thoughts that ran through his head were how on earth could Osborne have the gall to ask such a thing. But then he started thinking.

"I once asked you to tell me who killed my father," Mark began. "At first you refused, saying I didn't want to waste my life getting revenge; and I agreed. I said I wasn't going to let bitterness start growing inside of me, and I wasn't going to let anyone destroy the foundation my Pa built for me. It's been a long and hard two months. But I suppose if I can forgive the man that killed my Pa it really shouldn't be that hard to forgive you. You made a lot of mistakes that affected a lot of people and almost killed me... but I don't have to live with carrying that guilt; you do. Yes Osborne, I forgive you."

Mark put his hand through the cell bars and shook John's hand the way he had the day they met.

A very large burden was lifted from Mark's shoulders at that moment, one Mark was glad to be rid of.

*****

When Mark returned to his hotel room that evening, he found his Pa staring at the wall, with an intense, concentrated look on his face. Mark was surprised that his Pa didn't even seem to realize Mark had entered the room.

Mark walked over to Lucas and looked at his father in concern for a few moments.

"...Pa, what is it?"

Without saying anything, Lucas handed Mark a slip of paper and watched his son read the words printed on it.

“I warned you all.”
 

Character of a Coward, part 3

Morgan's Corner

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

The Writer's Corner
Table of Contents

Site Map
around The McCain Ranch