The Rifleman
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Character of a Coward, part 3
Chapter 10
Written by Morgan

Mark read the note for the fifth time.

“I warned you all.”

It could only be from DeFord. Since he hadn't been found, everyone assumed he and his men skipped town; but apparently everyone had been wrong.

Mark turned the paper around, only to find a blank page. He crumpled it up and through it in the wastebasket before looking up at his Pa, who still hadn't said anything. There was a long silence as Mark formulated his thoughts; a silence that was surprisingly not broken by Lucas.

"Pa," Mark began. "He's playing a game with us. We can't let him get inside our heads; that's exactly what he wants to do and exactly how he's going to win. After all of the fighting we've done we can't let him win, we've gotta move forward."

"You're right son, we do need to move forward. But for once I'm going to ask you to look back as you do."

Mark gave his father a puzzled look as Lucas took a moment to gather his thoughts again.

"Not in a wishful way. Son, I can't tell you how much I wish none of this would have happened. But it has and there's no changing that. Mark, I don't want you to forget any of this experience. I want you to learn everything you can from it. I want you to look at the choices Osborne made and see that the smallest decision made without integrity leads to a life with the character of a coward. I want you to remember that by sticking to what you knew was right, justice was delivered. Most importantly, I never want you to forget what the Good Lord has brought us through this mess: your Ma and Cassie. Learn from the past, Son, and move forward with those lessons planted deep in your mind." Lucas paused before continuing. "In regards to the threat, I don't want you to live in fear, but don't forget to watch your back - understand?" Lucas locked eyes with his son as Mark quickly nodded his head yes.

There were a few moments of silence between the two before Mark spoke up again.

"Pa, are you alright?"

"No, but I will be."

Mark nodded in reply as they both gave a faint smile. Again, the silence between them was only brief; an urgent knock at the door interrupting it.

Mark opened the door to find Cassie on the other side, holding a piece of paper similar to the
one in the wastebasket.

"Mark..." was all she said, worry and concern in her voice.

Cassie handed Mark the note and he read it. It had the same words as their note, but written in a new handwriting.

"We got one too." Mark paused while he considered what to say next.

"What do you think he's going to do?" Cassie asked, close to tears.

Mark turned his head to ask his Pa something, but Lucas had already been anticipating the question and nodded.

Mark grabbed his rifle and walked out of the room, closing the door behind him.

"Cassie, your uncle is-"

"Please don't call him that. That may be what he is legally, but to me he's no more than a stranger."

"I'm sorry..."

Cassie nodded and took Mark's arm as a means of apologizing for her harshness. The two began to walk down the hall as the conversation continued.

"DeFord is smart. He's not going to try anything, at least now. Everyone is too tense and on guard. And by the time things have calmed down, he'll probably be deep in Mexico, if he knows what's good for him."

"But Mark, what if he does try something? What if something happens to you, or the rest of the family?"

"Cassie, we can't live in fear. With or without DeFord something always goes wrong in our family and we just have to accept it and roll with the punches."

"Is that your way of comforting me?" Cassie asked as a half hearted attempt to lighten the conversation.

"No, but this is: Cassie, whether it's distance or life and death that separates us, we'll always be together, bound by our love. More importantly we can always go on knowing that the Good Lord will turn whatever mess we're in to good. Just like this mess brought Ma and you into my life. We just gotta live by faith, and trust that what happens is allowed by God for a good reason.
You believe that, don't you?"

"I do, sometimes I just forget and need a reminder. I'm thankful He gave me you to remind me."

Mark and Cassie stopped as they smiled at each other.

"Care to go for a walk?" Mark inquired.

"I could use some fresh air. Let me tell my Ma first."

"You know," Mark began as they headed towards the Osborne's hotel room. "I'm really glad Ned showed up and stayed through the trial."

"I am as well. It was such a relief to all of us, especially mother, to be able to deal with everything together."

"Is he planning on staying in California?"

"For the time being, but he promised to visit often."

Upon reaching Cassie's hotel room, Mrs. Osborne was informed of the couple's plans and agreed to meet them for supper in the restaurant later that evening. Mark and Cassie then made their way outside the hotel and soon found an occupied, but not crowded street to walk.

Finally, both of them felt like they could breathe. The pain of the past few months was so very present... yet... So far away. Arm in arm, they put the pain aside for a few minutes.

Cassie was just beginning to understand how the woman on the train was able to say her and her husband were more in love than ever before. She was just beginning to understand... how much her love for Mark would grow.

1MC1


"There you are," Lou stated as she finished pouring Milly a cup of tea.

"Lou, I can't tell you how-"

"No you don't, we're family and that's all there is to it."

"Please hear me out Lou, I need to say this and I need you not to just blow it off..." There was earnestness in Milly's voice as she spoke to her friend, earnestness that caught Lou's attention.

"Alright, I'm listening," Lou replied with a small smile.

"When I first came to North Fork, I found most of my old friends had moved away. I was a stranger to about three quarters of the town, and only an acquaintance with others. Yes, people welcomed me back and gave me friendly smiles..."

"Some more than others," Lou hinted with a grin.

"Especially one tall rancher," Milly agreed. "But you took me in and accepted me as your friend right away. You had no obligation towards me and yet treated me as your closest and dearest friend. You've always been here to support me and I honestly can't say I could've handled Mark's disappearance or this trial without you. Thank you, Lou."

"No, thank you."

"What do you mean?" Milly questioned.

"Yes, I've been in North Fork longer than you, but... I really never had a friend like you. There of course was your husband, Mark, and Micah... but it wasn't the same. I made such a mess of things when I first came to town I think I scared all the women in town away; I'm not exactly the ideal woman... I'm a little, forward, you might say," Lou stated with a chuckle. "You came to town and had such a sweet, open heart. You gave me someone to be a friend to. Legally family or not I will always consider you as a sister."

"Thank you Lou."

There was a quiet pause in the conversation until someone started pounding on the door.

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

Lou opened the door to find Oat Jackford on the other side, hat in hand.

"Oat, what can I do for you?" Lou asked. She took a long look at the man and sensed something was amiss.

"Now Lou, no need to get excited, ya don't need ta worry or nothin', but-"

"What happened?" Lou nervously asked, Milly now by her friend's side.

"There was an accident at the ranch and Johnny-"

"What happened? Is he alright? Where is he?" Lou frantically questioned.

"Now Lou, just simmer down and-"

"Simmer down?! Ye come 'ere and tell me my husband's hurt and 'expect me ta stay calm?"

"Now I didn't say he was hurt..."

"Well isn't he?"

"Lou, calm down, I'm sure Johnny is fine," Milly assured. "Oat, where's Johnny?"

"Down at Doc's, he asked me to get Lou..."

"Milly, would ye-"

"Don't worry about Maddy, I'll take care of her for you. Go with Oat."

"Thank ye!"

Oat and Lou were soon running to the doctor's office. Oat was trying to explain what happened but Lou wasn't hearing any of it; she was simply focused on getting to her husband. Within minutes the two had reached the office and Oat brought Lou to room four.

"Johnny Gibbs, what did ye do ta yerself?!" Lou exclaimed upon seeing the bandages around Johnny's chest. "Doc what happened? Oat did ye let 'em boys try bronc ridin' again? Johnny ye promised ye'd be careful today considerin' the muscle ye pulled!"

Oat and Doc just stared blankly as the rush of words came out of Lou's mouth. And as much as it hurt, Johnny couldn't help but chuckle at his wife.

"Oh what is it?" Lou asked, her hands at her hips. "What 'tis so hilarious?"

"Oh nothing..." Johnny sighed, stilled chuckling.

"Johnny Gibbs..."

"I was just getting to think you'd lost your Irish accent after so long in the west. I see I was wrong."

"I haven't lost me Irish temper either! Now would any of ye gentlemen be kind enough ta tell me what happened?"

"Would you sit down, Lou?" Doc asked.

Reluctantly Lou did as she was asked and waited for an explanation.

"We got a new horse at the ranch," Oat began. "Johnny was working with him and before too long was on top of it. Fairly calm and tame horse, but easily spooked."

"I had hung my gun belt over the fence before I started working with the horse and something must've knocked it down," Johnny stated. "The gun went off, thankfully only hitting a tree. The horse got spooked though, and threw me. I just cracked a few ribs. Be as good as new in a few weeks."

"Doc?" Lou asked with doubt and concern.

"Cracked and bruised, but he's correct. Give it a while and he'll be as right as rain."

"When... and how can I take 'im home?" Lou asked.

"Let me finish bandaging him up, and Oat offered to take him over in the buck board."

"Lou and Johnny, I really am sorry this happened..." Oat began.

"It's all part of the job," Johnny replied with a smile before turning his head towards his wife. "Where's Maddy?"

"Milly is watchin' 'er. Thankfully we were both at the house when Oat came."

Doc finished with Johnny before Lou and Oat got him over to the Gibbs' home. After much protest, Johnny finally gave in to his wife and agreed to rest.

"How is he?" Milly asked as Lou came out of the bedroom.

"Restin', thank goodness. Milly, I don't know how ye do it with them McCain men, always gettin' inta some sort of trouble."

"Believe me, it takes a lot of patience... and faith." A distant, longing look came into Milly's eyes as she spoke.

"Ye miss 'em, don't ye?" It was more a statement than a question.

"More than you know... I can't wait for them to get back. I can't wait to put this whole mess behind us. I wish I could've gone..."

"Ye and I both know ye couldn't have handled it."

"I just wish I could've been there to support Mark and Lucas."

"Milly, as much as ye tried to hide it they knew ye weren't doin' well, they understand. It was better for ye ta stay here and rest a wee bit."

"I just..."

"Milly, ye're an amazing wife and mother and they knew ye were fully behind them. Ye need ta think about yerself every once in a while if ye want ta be considerate of them."

"What do you mean?"

"Do ye really think it would have done Lucas good ta have ye worn down and sickly at the trial?"

"Well no, but..."

"No but's. Ye needed rest, fer them and fer yerself. One more day, and ye'll be back together again."

2MC2

Milly watched the train come to a stop before the crowd of passengers began to step onto the platform. She anxiously scanned the crowd before finally seeing Anna stepping off the train followed the the rest of the family and Micah. Quickly she made her way towards them and soon found herself finally back in her husband's arms.

"How was the ride back?" Milly inquired.

"Uneventful, surprisingly," Mark replied.

"What do you mean?" Lucas asked his son with a confused stare.

"It seems we have trouble on trains more often than not. The grasshopper incident, the counterfeiting operation, you and Ma last spring..."

"I suppose you're right," Lucas chuckled.

Lucas turned to ask his wife something, but changed his mind, deciding to wait until they were in the privacy of their own home.

Micah soon left for the Marshal's office, while the others headed to the Osborne's. It was a quiet walk to the Osborne's home, no one really felt like making much small talk. Upon arriving at the small home, Catherine and Milly prepared coffee while everyone else took a seat around the kitchen table.

"So what happened at the trial?" Milly asked as she put the coffee pot on the stove.

Everyone seemed to be waiting for someone else to answer the question. There was a brief silence before Lucas spoke up.

"It only lasted a few hours. The prosecution had several marshals, including Micah, and then Ara testify before Mark. After the prosecution was done with Mark the defense lawyer cross examined... Trying to make it look like Mark was to blame." The irritation could be heard in Lucas' voice, and Mark decided to speak up so his father wouldn't get too caught up in what had happened.

"But he pretty much talked himself out of an argument-"

"Although Mark was the one who shot his argument down," Cassie added.

"Anyway," Mark continued. "Some arguments erupted in the courtroom and Osborne had finally had enough. He pled guilty and the judge sentenced him to fifteen years."

"Although none of us wanted to see John released," Catherine began, "I don't think it made us feel any better that he was sentenced."

"But I think we're all ready to move on," Anna stated.

"...I'm glad to hear that," Milly replied to her niece.

Lucas couldn't put his finger on it, but there was something bothering his wife. He wished they were home so they could talk about it, but also knew the family needed to be together for a while.

They continued making conversation, discussing the trip and Ned's re-appearance.

After a few hours, the McCains took their leave, although Lucas did have to just about drag Mark out of the house.

"You'll see her again, Son. Let's go!"

Lucas, Milly and Catherine all chuckled at the reluctance in Cassie and Mark's eyes, while Anna simply rolled hers.

The three made their way to the livery to get the buckboard they had kept there before heading to the Gibbs' to retrieve Milly's belongings.

"Oh Lucas, I forgot to mention that Johnny cracked his ribs... Doc says he'll be down for a
couple weeks," Milly informed her husband.

"What'd he do? Try to break a bronc in the middle of winter?" Lucas asked in surprise.

"No, he was working with a fairly new, but tame horse. Somehow Johnny's gun went off, which spooked the horse, who threw Johnny."

"How did Aunt Lou handle the news?" Mark asked.

"She was just a little concerned," Milly replied sarcastically. "Her Irish accent came out like I've never heard it before."

The three only visited with the Gibbs for a few minutes before heading home. It was a fairly quiet ride to the ranch, each of them lost in their own thoughts. Once they got back to the ranch, Mark offered to put the horses away, knowing his parents needed some privacy to talk.

Lucas and Milly made their way inside with the luggage and began unpacking.

"Milly, how have you been feeling?" Lucas asked with concern.

"Better then when you left, I'm not as tired all the time and my headaches haven't been as bad. I just wish I could've been there."

"Milly, we all knew it was best for you to stay home. No one blames you for staying home and no one should. What did Doc have to say?"

"I haven't talked to him."

Lucas turned around to face his wife and Milly could tell he wasn't thrilled with her.

"Why not?"

"It's not that big of a deal, probably just..."

"Milly, it could be serious. That's why I asked you to see Doc. You've been dealing with a lot more than fatigue and headaches. Why didn't you see him when I asked you to?" Lucas asked, very irritated.

"I suppose I am just hoping it will go away..." Milly replied as she turned to continue unpacking.

She soon felt Lucas place his hands on her shoulders as he began to softly reply.

"If your symptoms aren't gone in the next few days, will you promise me you'll go visit Doc?"

Milly turned around and looked into her husband's tender, concerned eyes.

"I promise," She answered with a slight smile, one that soon disappeared.

"What is it?"

"Did they ever find DeFord?"

Lucas simply sighed as he shook his head no.

"Did he send anymore threats against Mark?"

"...No... he... threatened all of us," Lucas hesitantly responded.

Lucas could see the concern in his wife's eyes.

"Lucas, what are you going to do?"

"Just go on with life and keep an eye out. We can't let him control us."

Milly nodded as she wrapped her arms around her husband.

"Lucas, do you think this madness will ever truly end?"

"I don't know Milly... I wish I could tell you yes, but I don't know..."

3MC3

When Lucas woke the next morning, the time piece read four-thirteen. He had hoped he would finally be able to get a good night's rest, but he had woken often throughout the night. Lucas turned to his other side and tried falling asleep again, but then he heard the front door open and close.

Curious and slightly alarmed, Lucas got out of bed and headed to his son's bedroom. Upon opening the door, he saw that Mark was gone, but found comfort in the fact that the bed was made, meaning Mark had left willingly. He put the thought of DeFord out of his mind and dressed before making his way to the barn. He didn't see his son, but soon saw the hay falling from the loft.

"A little early, isn't it?" Lucas called.

"I decided to get an early start on the day," Mark replied before tossing down more hay and then
making his way down the ladder.

Lucas walked towards his son and met him at the bottom of the ladder.

"You're not having trouble with the dreams again, are you?"

Mark looked straight into his Pa's eyes with that boyish grin he would always carry.

"Naw," Mark began. "Just the limitations of time."

Confused, Lucas stared after Mark as his son began forking hay into the horses' stalls.

"...Care to explain?"

"Well, before the trial everything was too much of a mess, at this point I think we all need a little more time to cope, but I leave for training at the end of the month, meaning I now have to wait until that's over."

"Mark," Lucas waited for his son to turn around before he continued, "You aren't making any sense. What are you talking about?"

"What do you mean? I-" Mark stopped and contemplated the conversation. "I guess I'm not... sorry. I'm just getting impatient about proposing to Cassie."

Lucas laughed at his son's quandary.

"This isn't funny, Pa."

"Sorry," Lucas chuckled. "Son, you've waited this long to do things right, don't mess it up by rushing things now. Remember that even as sensitive as you are to other people, women tend to take longer to get over things. Like you said, everyone needs time to cope. Give it time."

"Pa, this whole thing with the Pinkertons... do you think it's the right thing for me?"

"I'm not sure, Mark. You're the only one who can know for sure. Give it a shot, and see what happens. It may or may not be what you're supposed to pursue after you finish training, but you won't know unless you give it a try." Lucas picked up a shovel and started helping his son with the chores. "So... besides the limitations of time, what drove you to leave the house so early?"

"Sorry if I woke you up. I wanted to head to town and order some things from the general store so it would get here before I leave for Chicago."

"Do you mind me asking what they are?"

"Lanterns."

"Lanterns? We have plenty..."

"I need about twenty five."

"Son, what on earth are you-" Lucas stopped short as he realized the answer to his question was quite obvious. "Where are you going to propose?"

"The same place I asked her if I could court her. She loves it up there."

"Are you doing it before you leave, then?"

"No, but I want to make sure everything is in place as much as it can be so I can ask her when I get back. We're wiring the order, so it shouldn't be too long before it gets here."

"Well if you need anything, be sure to let me know. Are you still planning on building up the hill?"

"If you're still alright with it."

"I don't see a problem. I'm sure you're not going to miss that grave marker."

"I don't know... like you said, the Good Lord brings good out of our messes. It kinda reminds me of all the growth I had during that mess, and everything we've made it through since." Mark paused and thought some more. "It also reminds me that forgiveness, trust, and love are never feelings, but choices. Choices you have to make in order to live forward."

Lucas nodded in agreement. He often found himself in amazement of his son's insight, and this was one of those times.

After the two finished the chores, Mark headed to town promising to be back by noon to help ride the fence line.

It felt good to be home again, doing the ranch chores again, even to have the cold winter wind stinging his face as he rode Blue Boy. Mark had missed his quiet hometown while he was away and was glad to finally be settling back in.

Mark only spent a few minutes in the store before heading to Micah's office. As Mark walked in, he found the old marshal asleep in the chair, feet up on the desk.

Mark smiled as he remembered back to the good times he and his Pa had enjoyed with Micah. All the times Micah had been there for them and all the lessons he had helped teach both father
and son.

Mark decided to let the marshal sleep; they would be back in town the next day anyway.

As Mark rode home, he came up to the road leading off to the Donalds' home. Realizing that it had been some time since he had paid a visit, Mark decided to swing by and check in on the lonely family.

Not much had changed since they had first moved into town. The family kept to themselves for the most part, had their fair share of financial worries, and each winter posed a threat to Mrs. Donalds' health. The more Mark thought on it, the more he realized how blessed he was that he and his Pa were in such a good position. Most families out west didn't have it so good, and even though each year things were tight in between cattle sales, they were blessed to be as financially secure as they were.

As Mark rode into the yard he caught a glimpse of Emma walking into the barn. He tied Blue Boy's reigns to a tree and followed the lonely young woman.

"Howdy, Emma," Mark greeted as he entered the barn.

Emma jumped and turned around, but didn't relax once she recognized her friend.

"Hello, Mark. What brings you out here?"

"Figured l would stop by on my way back from town and see if you needed anything."

"No, we're fine, thank you," Emma quickly replied as she latched the milking cow's stall and proceeded out the door.

Mark was confused by her coldness and continued to follow her.

"Are you sure?" Mark insisted as he caught up to her.

She just nodded and continued to walk.

"Emma..."

Emma turned around and looked Mark in her eyes. He saw fear, he saw hurt, he saw anger... and for the first time noticed a bruise on her cheek bone.

"What happened?"

"Incident with the cow."

"Well is there-"

"Mark, I know you're just trying to help. You've always helped us and Ma and I appreciate it. But right now, if you really want to help, you can go home. I'm sorry, but I can't explain."

Emma quickly turned and ran inside, ignoring Mark's calls.

Mark stood in the yard, staring at the house for a long moment. Something was seriously wrong, but he couldn't put his finger on it. Finally Mark headed towards Blue Boy, but as he was just getting ready to mount up, he heard a scream from the inside of the home.

Mark ran to the porch and banged on the door, but nobody answered. Finally, Mark had waited long enough and walked inside. He didn't see anyone in the front room, but the door to the second bedroom was open. Mark headed that direction and froze in the doorway.

A large man had his arm wrapped around Emma's waist, restraining her, while his other hand cupped her mouth. Mrs. Donalds lied motionless on the floor, but breathing.

"Now Emma, what'd I tell you about havin' folk around here?!" The man demanded angrily as he clenched Emma even tighter.

"Let her go," Mark calmly ordered.

"Look at that, the man with the rifle thinks he's calling the shots. Emma, that never ends well, does it?" Emma didn't respond, she just stood there frozen. "Does it?!" The man yelled.

Emma quickly shook her head no while her eyes pleaded for help.

"I'm giving you one more warning," Mark stated.

"What are you going to do? Shoot towards the girl?"

Mark let off a shot, just barley grazing the man's ear. The man let go of Emma's mouth and cupped his ear, but still held her captive in the other arm.

"You missed," The man grunted.

"I hit exactly what I aim for. And I'd let the lady go if you don't want me to aim somewhere fatal."

Begrudgingly, the man loosened his grip on Emma, allowing her to run to the other side of the room with Mark.

"Move," Mark ordered the man as he motioned with his gun.

The three headed to the front room where Mark had Emma open the cellar door and ordered the man to climb down the ladder. Emma then removed the ladder and Mark latched the door shut.

Mark put his rifle down on the table before the two made their way back to the bedroom. Emma seemed to be in a bit of shock and Mark helped her sit on the bed before tending to Mrs. Donalds.

"Emma, can you tell me what happened?" Mark gently asked as he tried to assess Mrs. Donalds' injuries.

"...He came..." She barely whispered. "Just one day... he showed up, more drunk than I've seen anybody before. He took over and he beat her. Beat me. Ordered us around like we were slaves..." There was a long silence before she continued. "...I came in the house after talking to you and started straightening the mess he made last night. Then I heard something fall in here... I opened the door and that's when I saw him standing over her... I screamed... And then he had me and then you were in here and..." The tears were falling down her face and Mark knew her breathing was becoming irregular.

Mark made his was towards her knelt next to the bed.

"Emma, just breathe. It's over and you won't have to deal with anything anymore. Now, I'm going to get the buckboard ready and take your Ma into town. Where are the younger kids?"

"Over here," Lilly called from the doorway where she stood with her brothers. The small child inched her way towards Mark. "Is he gone?"

"He's gone," Mark assured. "Why don't you three help me with the horses?"

The foursome made there way outside and began preparing the buckboard and horses.

"Do you all know who the man was?"

"No... he just showed up one day." Tim, the second oldest of the four Donalds children, replied.

Mark nodded and the four continued to work in silence. Soon, Mark had Mrs. Donalds and Emma at Doc's, the three others under his Aunt Lou's care, Nils on his way to inform Lucas why Mark wouldn't be back by noon, and Micah saddling up.

Mark brought Micah to the Donalds' where he arrested Anthony Birch. Finally, after checking in on Emma and Mrs. Donalds, Mark was giving his statement to Micah in the office.

"...Then we headed to town, and you know the rest," Mark concluded.

Micah jotted down a few more words before sighing and tossing the notepad onto the desk.

"Lucky thing you decided to stop by," Micah said.

"You know Micah, the longer I live, the less I believe in “luck”. Too many things had to have fallen in place this morning for it to be “luck”."

"I guess you're right..." Micah agreed. "How's Emma and her Ma doing?"

"Mrs. Donalds is awake. She has a few bruises, but she'll be fine. Emma is shook up, but Cassie is over there with her right now."

"I don't understand how I could've missed the signs. They haven't been in church, they haven't come to town, they-"

"Micah, don't blame yourself, you've been a little busy with Osborne."

"I know, but just because a marshal is busy doesn't mean he can neglect his responsibilities."

"You didn't neglect anything. The rest of us in the community have responsibilities too, and should've checked up on them, but Anthony Birch is the one to blame, no one else. I hate to think what the full extent of what he did was, Emma was keeping something back, and I don't blame her."

"Well at least their nightmare is over."

"Thank God for that."

4MC4

It took everyone in the community a while to settle down after what had happened, and no one was sure they would quite get over it. One thing was for certain, people would be doing a lot more checking up on each other from that point on.

The end of February came too soon for Cassie. She was excited for Mark, but didn't want him to leave. It was only for a few weeks, but at the same time, she felt like it was going to be an eternity.

The last Sunday before Mark was to leave, the Osbornes, McCains and Micah made there way to the Gibbs' for Sunday dinner after church.

During the meal, Mark tried to steer the conversation away from his leaving, knowing it was difficult for Cassie... and himself. Eventually Johnny and Lucas got the hint and moved on to other topics.

"So Lucas," Johnny began. "How does it feel to be wearin' the badge again?"

"About the same as it did before. Although Micah was right when he said North Fork is getting too big for one person to handle. I didn't realize how long it took just to make the rounds."

"You know Lucas, I was thinking about retirement the other day..." Micah teased.

"Oh no you don't," Lucas emphatically replied. "This thing is just temporary, remember?"

"Sure, sure..." Micah chuckled. "Miss Anna, how is school coming along?"

"Slowly, I wish May would hurry up and get here."

"Are ye looking forward ta leavin' fer school in the fall?" Lou asked.

"Yes and no. It's what I want to do... I'm just going to miss everyone around here. I honestly wasn't too excited about moving when we did, but I've come to love the friends and family we have here."

"We'll all miss having you around as well, but you will come home eventually. It's all part of growing up," Mrs. Osborne stated.

As the afternoon drew to a close, things were becoming more difficult for everyone. They knew it was good for Mark to look into this opportunity, but everyone was still on edge from the trial.

Lucas knew Mark was needing a few minutes alone with Cassie before they left and asked his son to get the horses ready.

"Sure thing, Pa," Mark replied before looking to Cassie.

He didn't need to say anything, she just nodded and followed him out the door. There was a long silence between the two, neither one sure of what to say. Finally, Cassie spoke up.

"Mark, do you really think this whole private investigator thing is for you?"

"I'm honestly not sure Cassie, that's why I'm going. Are you not alright with it?" Mark asked as he started to hitch the horses to the buck board.

"Well, first of all, it's not for me to tell you what to do. Like I've said before, I want you to go, and to figure things out for yourself."

"But I value your opinion, and I want to know what it is."

"Putting my emotions aside, the only concern I have is if it would pull you away from North Fork often. Not just for my sake, though I miss you when you're gone, but for others' as well. With your Pa temporarily deputy marshal he's going to need more help at the ranch, your Ma is still adjusting to the idea of you being a full grown man and-"

"What do you mean?" Mark asked, surprised.

"Well think about it," Cassie stated as the two stepped closer together. "She left when you were twelve, still a young boy just coming out of childhood. She came back and you were eighteen... a very mature eighteen."

"I never thought about it like that..."

"But like you've said before, you won't know until you try. So my opinion is that you should try... just keep everything in perspective."

"...And not putting your emotions aside?"

Cassie turned away from Mark, unprepared for the question or the rush of emotions that hit her. She didn't want to be a hindrance to him, and yet...

"Cassie," Mark interrupted her thoughts. "Talk to me."

Cassie felt Mark turn her around before lifting her chin up so she would look at him.

"I'm scared..." Cassie admitted with the tears streaming down her face. "Mark, I've seen you close to death too many times and if something happened..." Cassie couldn't say anymore, but let herself fall into Mark's arms.

"A lot of things could happen, Cass, to either one of us. A lot of “ifs” are possible. I guess that's why we just gotta live by faith, moment by moment, moving on from the past and looking to the future."

*****

Lucas pulled back the shade to see Mark and Cassie in their embrace. A concerned smile crossed his face as he watched the young couple fight through their worries.

"Lucas McCain, stop spying on them," Milly light-heartedly chided.

"They're not married yet."

"Not to pry," Catherine began. "But what is going on inside that head of his? It seems like he asked for permission ages ago."

"He knew he needed to wait until after the trial, and I think part of him wanted to propose before he left again, but he decided it was best until he was home for good so they could focus during their engagement," Lucas explained.

"He's going to be a good husband for her," Catherine stated as she joined Lucas by the window.

"He bet'r be, or there will be quite a few folks he will have ta answer to," Lou chimed in as she glanced out the window as well.

*****

Cassie looked up to see several eyes staring out the window.

"I think we have company," she whispered.

Mark pulled away and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear.

"One of these days we'll have to make it back to your old house so we can get some privacy."

5MC5

The next morning, Lucas, Milly, and Cassie saw Mark off at the train station. It was a bit difficult for all of them, but they at least felt like this was a step to moving forward with life after the trial.

Mark leaned back in his seat, hoping to get some sleep. He hadn't slept well the night before, anticipating his trip and knowing how much Cassie was struggling, and hoped he would be rested enough by the time he got to Chicago. He was even looking forward to the layover that night, even though it was the town he and Ned almost got killed in a few years before.

Thankfully, Mark didn't spend the night in a jail cell this time and reached Chicago the next day without any problems. After sending a telegram to Cassie and his parents, Mark found his way to the Pinkerton office and was soon in a room surrounded by fifty men. Almost all of them had to be at least five years older than he was, and even with Mark's height and build, the age difference was obvious.

It was made clear when the first instructor spoke that this training wasn't a joke, and those who weren't prepared for an intense couple of weeks should leave before they got started. Not surprisingly, everyone stayed where they were and things continued on. The first two days would be spent in the office, completing mental assessment and logic tests. Anyone with a score lower than 90 on any exam would be sent home. They didn't waste any time and started right away, only allowing for a short break for dinner before resuming the tests.

Mark was mentally exhausted by the end of the night and couldn't imagine doing the same thing all day the next day; but before he knew it, he was. He felt relieved when he handed in his last exam.

The men anxiously waited for the results to be posted while they ate their supper. When they finally were, Mark made his way towards the back of the room with everyone else.

Mark was towards the back of the line and became more and more discouraged the more men he saw walking away in disappointment. Finally, he could see the roster and made his way down to the M's.

Surprised to see his name on the list, Mark had to read it a few times just to be certain.

Those who didn't make it were sent home. The others were sent on a four mile march to the training grounds on the outskirts of the city.

Mark had known the Pinkertons were asked to help create militias for defense of states and territories, but he didn't realize how much the training would be like true military training. Nevertheless, Mark put his full effort into everything he did. From washing the dishes to working in small groups to deal with staged scenarios, those who watched him saw hard work, determination, and integrity.

On the weekends, everyone could do as they pleased. Mark used the time on Saturdays to wire home and get supplies from town. He attended one of the local churches on Sunday and was back to training on Monday.

One Saturday afternoon, Mark was playing cards with some of the men he had been in training with. No one had seemed to take much interest in him and Mark tended to keep to himself. But as the afternoon drew on and more men left, Mark found himself alone with Mitchell, one of the trainees, about thirty.

"McCain, you don't like talking much, do you?"

"I don't see the point in wasting my breath on useless information, but you get me talking about the right thing and I can talk up a storm."

There was a few moments of quiet before the man spoke up again.

"A lot of us have been talking, but no one can quite seem to put a age to ya..."

"...Does it really matter?"

"Well, no, but you do look rather young."

"Well you all could've just asked. I'm nineteen."

Mark couldn't help but smirk at the man's face.

"But... it's not plausible... you've been at the top of the list in most everything 'cept marksmanship."

Mark just shrugged and laid down his winning hand.

Mitchell threw down his cards and shook his head.

"I don't understand it. No one has that much luck."

"Not luck my friend, strategy. Wanna try again?"

"Naw. I'm just lucky you don't play more than a few dollars at a time or I'd be broke. How'd you get so good at cards anyway?"

"You spend enough time with outlaws you kinda have to get good at it."

The man gave Mark a long, confused stare.

"Come on, I'll buy you some coffee and explain."

"So you don't drink either, do you?"

"Not a chance."

Mark spent the rest of the afternoon and evening telling of his eventful upbringing. He left out quite a bit, but he was pretty sure Mitchell was starting to piece some things together.

"Where'd you say you were from?" Mitchell inquired.

"I didn't," Mark replied.

"Do you mind me knowing?"

"I guess not," Mark sighed. "North Fork, New Mexico."

"North Fork... McCain..." The man's jaw just about dropped to the floor. "That means your Pa's the rifleman... and he's still alive... and you're... The Rifle Kid?"

Mark laughed at the horrid nickname.

"I didn't realize that was still a thing. But yeah... I guess so. Just do me a favor and don't spread it around."

"...Sure..." Mitchell replied, still in amazement that this nineteen year old kid had hidden who he was from everyone else... and that everyone else had missed it.

6MC6

“CASSIE OSBORNE
NORTH FORK, NEW MEXICO

One week left
See you in ten days

McCAIN, MARK
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS”

Cassie left the telegraph office with a wishful smile on her face. She was more than ready for Mark to be home, and couldn't wait for his return.

Cassie headed for the hotel to pick up Madelyn. Since her mother had been hired at the bank, Cassie didn't need to hold down a job at the dress shop, but found herself hopelessly bored. Cassie was about ready to go back to work when Lou asked her to watch Madelyn during the day so she could do more at the hotel.

Cassie had gladly accepted and enjoyed nannying the baby during the day.

"Morning, Miss Lou," Cassie greeted as she entered the establishment.

"Child, when are ye ever goin' ta quit callin' me “miss”?"

"When she can call ya “aunt”," Micah quipped as he came from the restaurant.

Micah and Lou chuckled as Cassie's cheeks turned a darker shade of red.

"What are ye blushin' for? There's no need ta be embarrassed by love," Lou said.

"When you're married..." Cassie quietly stated, still a bit embarrassed.

"Any news from Mark?" Micah inquired, trying to change the subject for Cassie's sake.

"I just got a telegram. He should be home in ten days," Cassie replied, a sparkle in her eye.

"It'll be good to have him home," Micah replied.

"Micah, what was that other marshal doing in town yesterday?" Lou inquired, piquing Cassie's interest.

"That was Marshal Anker. He's had a few run ins with Mark and was hoping to see him on his way through New Mexico. I explained where he was and Anker said he'd catch him some other time." Micah chuckled and the two women gave him a confused look.

"What?" Cassie asked.

"Oh, just that Marshal Anker was disappointed Mark was training with the Pinkertons."

"Why?" Lou questioned.

"Because Anker wants him to become a Deputy U.S. Marshal."

"Well Mark seems to be quite the popular person," Lou began. "The Pinkertons want him, the U.S. Marshals want him, Cassie wants-"

"What time do you want Maddy back to feed her?" Cassie interrupted.

"Normal time should be fine," Lou replied with a laugh as she handed her daughter to Cassie.

"Have a good day," Cassie called as she quickly left the hotel.

"That girl..." Lou mused.

"She better get used to teasing if she's planning on marrying into the McCain family," Micah said with a smile.

"How are things at the office, Micah?" Lou asked.

"Better now that Lucas is helping out. Although it seems like the more help I get the more things
I have to deal with. Maybe I could talk Mark into helping out."

"I wouldn't count on it. He's gettin' ready ta start a family, he's still workin' the ranch, the Pinkertons are going to have him opening an office in town-"

"That's if he decides to go through with it."

"You don't think he will?" Lou inquired.

"I don't know. When he first got the offer, he seemed ecstatic. But I think something changed during the trial... I'm not sure what, but something inside of him changed."

There was a few moments of silence before Lou replied.

"... I suppose ye're right, he did seem a bit different. I figure he'll make the right decision though."

"After all the trouble his Pa put into raisin' the boy, he better," Micah half jokingly, half seriously stated. "Speaking of raising children, how are you and Johnny doing?"

"We were both so nervous of doing something wrong, but she's still alive, so we must be doing something right. I never really liked the idea of having children, but when I found out I was pregnant, everything seemed to change and a mother was all I wanted to be."

"Well you're making a fine mother. I see you've moved on from your scare with Johnny last month?"

"What do you mean?" Lou asked in confusion.

"Well you've just about lost your accent again..." Micah teased.

"Oh, ye!"

7MC7

Graduation night came and Mark, along with nine others, graduated the program.

Yet Mark didn't feel glad or even relief that the training was over. Instead, he felt torn and like he was battling himself.

After the ceremony ended, Mark wandered outside the main building and looked up into the sky. He ignored the commotion from inside the building and let himself take in the stillness of the night. He looked up into the stars and found himself amazed at the simplistic beauty of them.
One star in particular caught his eye. It wasn't the biggest, nor the brightest; for that matter it was the dimmest star he could see. It seemed to be slightly set apart from the others, and unimportant compared to the larger planets, yet Mark knew it was up there for a reason, one he probably would never understand.

Mark suddenly was able to relate that star to his own life.

His entire life he had looked to be a part of something that made an impact, to be a part of something big... but just maybe he was created to be set apart. Maybe he was created to fill a void no one else could, and maybe that meant filling a seemingly insignificant role. He didn't have to run with the biggest or the best- he just needed to do what he was born to do; and somehow, Mark knew right now that wasn’t working for the Pinkertons. He never liked the city life... shining bright around others. He preferred to stay at home, covered in dust and being chided for tracking mud in.

Even though the Pinkertons offered him an office in North Fork, things wouldn't be the same. He'd have to do quite a bit of traveling, do a lot of reporting back in Chicago, and do a lot of meddling in other people's business. Mark would still be glad to help anyone if they asked him and would gladly stand up for what was right in any situation, but for some reason, Mark knew taking this offer would change him- and he wanted to stay who he was.

"There you are, Mark!" Mitchell called as he walked towards Mark. "I've been looking everywhere for ya!"

"Needed some fresh air. What's up?"

"The rest of us are heading to town, you gonna join us or what?"

"I'll pass on this one," Mark politely responded.

"Come on, we'll all grab a girl and hit the city!"

"No thanks, I've got one waiting for me at home," Mark smiled.

"Whatever you say. See you in the morning!"

"Goodnight!" Mark waved as the man walked off.

"...And boy do I miss her..."

*****

"Lucas, are you coming in soon?" Milly asked as she stepped out on to the porch.

"I'll be in after a while," Lucas replied as he continued staring into the vast prairie.

"It's a beautiful night," Milly commented as she leaned against the porch railing alongside her husband.

Lucas didn't respond and Milly looked up into her husband's eyes. A look Milly hadn't seen before was spread across Lucas's face.

"Lucas, is everything alright?"

Her husband still didn't respond.

"Lucas?" Milly called as she touched his arm.

"Hmm?" Lucas asked as he looked towards her.

"You looked as if you were a thousand miles away. What is the matter?"

"I suppose I am."

"Thinking about Mark?"

Lucas sighed as he nodded.

"Still worried something is going to happen?"

"No, not necessarily. I suppose I'm more nervous about his decision with the Pinkertons. I gave him my full blessing and I'm not taking it back, I suppose... I'm just seeing life a bit differently after the trial and after what happened to the Donalds. I don't want to lose him to the business of city life."

"Well he'd still live here."

"I know, but the city has a way of... changing people. Mark's confident in who he is, I just don't want him to feel pressured into making any rash decisions. I know he's grown up, but there's a lot of the world he hasn't seen and as a father I want to protect him from that... I honestly don't want him caught up in criminal cases with wicked men who do things like Birch did. He doesn't need to be carrying things like that into marriage either."

"I share and understand your concerns... but he is grown, and I'm confident he has the discretion to make the right choices."

Lucas looked at his wife again and smiled.

"Come for a walk with me."

Lucas took his wife's hand and the two walked into the night. Neither said much but enjoyed listening to the wind, the creek, and the animals scattered across their land.

Milly couldn't imagine life without Mark or Lucas. There had been a part of her heart missing the six years she was gone that came back as soon as she saw the two men again. In the midst of all the threats and uncertainty, for once in her life she felt safe and secure.

8MC8

"Mark, I really wish you would reconsider," William Pinkerton sighed. "Robert even warmed up to you, and that's saying a lot."

"I know, and I'm sorry things turned out they way they did, but this was a trial on both our ends and it's not something I can commit my life to right now."

"... I understand. Thank you for coming out here... And for proving my brother wrong," Will jested.

"Any time. I owe you for putting so much faith in me-"

"No you don't, you made yourself worth the risk."

"Regardless, if you ever need a hand in my neck of the woods, I'd be happy to lend one."

"I'll keep that in mind. There is something I've been meaning to ask you though..."

"What's that?"

"I know you're a man of integrity and character, and great humility. But why did you pull your shots all week?"

"Sir?"

"Training is over, no need to “sir” me." Mark nodded before Will continued. "I looked at your shooting scores for the week. You scored worse than half the graduates. You couldn't have accidentally missed those targets."

"No... but I have always promised myself I wouldn't test myself against other people. It either gets a person puffed up with pride or in a situation where they could wind up shot. I've had too
many people try to scare me into a gunfight. I know that if I start comparing myself to others I won't stop until I find someone who beats me, which probably wouldn't take too long. I don't need to know I'm better than the next guy because there will always be someone better. All I need to know is that I can use the gun for what it was intended for... the same way I've gotta use my life for what it's intended for."

"Unfortunately for us, that's not stuck behind a desk running a detective office. I understand."

"Thank you again for the opportunity."

"It was an honor to have you. If you're ever up this way again, feel free to stop by the office."

"I doubt I'll be up here again, but I will if I am. You are always welcome at the ranch as well."

"Goodbye, Mark."

Mark shook William's hand and left the office, confident that he had made the right decision.

Mark made his way to town borrowing one of the horses they had been given access to all week. He dropped it off at the livery where someone from the agency would pick it up later. He headed to the train station and waited for about forty five minutes before he could board the train. He sat down across from an elderly couple and it wasn't belong before they were conversing.

"Where are you from, Mark?" The man asked.

"New Mexico territory," he replied.

"What brings you all the way up here then?"

"I had some business with the Pinkertons, and I'm headed home now."

"I'm sure you're looking forward to getting home and seeing the family again?" The woman asked.

"Yes ma'am, I am."

"How many siblings do you have?" The woman inquired.

"It's just me and my parents, just my Pa and I before that."

"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have assumed."

"I understand," Mark cheerfully replied. "It's a bit unusual for out west. Where are you folks headed, if you don't mind me asking?"

"Wyoming, to visit our daughter and son-in-law," the man replied. "She's expecting our first grandchild."

"Congratulations," Mark offered as he thought about making his parents grandparents one day.

"Any special lady waiting for you at home?" The woman inquired.

"Yes ma'am," Mark replied with a grin. "Her name is Cassie Osborne and she-" Mark stopped short as he saw a strange look cross the couple's faces.

"As in John Osborne's daughter?" The lady asked. "The ex-marshal who escaped from prison?"

"Yes, the-" Mark finally registered what the woman had said. "...Did you just say he escaped?"

"It's been all over the papers," her husband responded.

"Do you know how long ago this was?"

"Just a few days ago," the woman paused before continuing. "Then you must be Mark McCain... I'm sorry to have-"

"No need to apologize, I'm glad I didn't return home without knowing..."

Mark tried to continue conversation with the couple after changing the subject. His mind was a mess, going a million different directions. Why would he escape when he was ready to be done with everything? Had Mark fallen for his fake apologies again? Was he headed back to North Fork? Was he intending on interfering with Mark's family?

It wasn't too much longer before the conversation between Mark and the couple had died down. Mark excused himself and made his way to the back of the train.

Mark spent the rest of the train ride watching the land go by and sorting through his thoughts.

Finally, the train stopped for the night and Mark checked into a hotel. But as he was signing the register, he noticed a familiar name a few lines above his.

"Which room is Marshal Anker in?" Mark asked the clerk.

"I'm sorry, I can't disclose that information," she replied.

"If you see him, will you tell him Mark McCain wants to talk to him?"

"I can talk to you now if you'd like."

Mark turned around to see the Marshal walking down the stairs.

The two men silently made their way up to Mark's room. After entering, Mark put his luggage down and turned to look at the Marshal.

"So when were you all planning on informing me?"

"We didn't want to distract you from your training. That's why I came here to meet you."

"My family is a little more important than that."

"I'm sorry Mark."

"...So what happened?"

"Osborne was cooperating nicely. Then one day, he just vanished."

"What do you mean, “he just vanished?” No one just disappears."

"Mark, I don't have answers. But we think DeFord broke him out."

Mark's body tensed at the mere mention of the man's name.

"What makes you think that?"

"A note was left in the cell with the words, “he was warned”."

"Do you think DeFord is going to kill him?"

"I don't know, I wish I did. I'm sorry this is happening."

"That's the way things seem to go in life. Thanks for filling me in."

Marshal Anker could her the coldness in the man's voice. He could see the anger in Mark's eyes.

"McCain, are you going to be alright if you ever come face to face with him?"

"Honestly, Marshal, I don't know. I surely hope so, but if he messes with my family or the ones I
care about-"

"That's not you talking, Mark. That's hate. The Mark I know can control and redirect hate, fear, and anger. Don't let DeFord win by letting him control you."

Mark nodded and slightly relaxed, but this news was going to take a while to adjust to.

"How did things go with the Pinkertons?"

"I decided to not go with agency... I just realized it wasn't what I was supposed to do. There's something else intended for me."

"Do you know what it is?"

"Not yet... but whatever it is, it's in North Fork."

"Ever considered marshaling?"

"Thanks, but I'll leave that one to Micah and my Pa."

9MC9

"Cassie...?" Emma said in surprise as she saw her friend walk through the barn door. "...What are you doing here?"

"We haven't really talked much since what happened... you disappear after church and are always in a rush when you're in town."

"...Wouldn't you be?"

Cassie saw the pain and hurt in her friend's eyes. She was bearing such a burden and Cassie wished she could carry it for her.

"I suppose I would..." Cassie paused before continuing. "I'm sorry Emma... I'm sorry everything happened and I..."

"That's just what everyone is. Sorry. But that doesn't change anything."

There was a deep look of longing in Emma's eyes as she spoke.

Cassie walked closer to her and reached out to touch her arm. Emma shrunk back as her whole body tensed.

"Emma, please talk to me. I don't want to see you keep it all inside. That's what I used to do... it feels like the easiest option. But in the long run it only makes things hurt worse... it tears you down and takes over... and I don't want whatever happened to destroy you."

"Cassie..." She barely whispered as the tears began to roll down her face. "I'm scared..."

Cassie didn't know what to say... she couldn't say anything.

As her own tears began to fall, Cassie reached forward and hugged her friend. The two young women just stood there hugging and crying... it was the first time since the initial incident that Emma had let herself cry... and it felt good.

After a few long minutes the two drew back from each other and relaxed.

"Emma, if there's anything I can ever do-"

"You already did, thank you."

"What do you mean?" Cassie inquired.

"You gave me a shoulder to cry on. You didn't ask questions. Most of all, you're here. You and Mark are the only ones, besides Mr. McCain and Marshal Torrance, that come around here. It means so much to know that someone out there cares."

"I'm sorry I don't come around more often..."

"I don't necessarily come knocking on your front door either, but... I will be."

The girls smiled at each other before Emma invited Cassie in for tea. The two spent several hours talking; a little bit about what had happened, but mostly about life in general and the comings and goings of North Fork.

It was difficult for Cassie to move on from the subject of what had happened. She wanted to help her friend and could tell Emma was hiding something. Yet Cassie knew not to push, just to simply be there. If the time came that Emma needed to disclose something, she would know Cassie would be there to listen.

"I better be going," Cassie finally said as she rose from her seat. "Mark's train is due in a little while."

"Thanks for stopping by, tell Mark I said hello."

"I will."

The two said goodbye and Cassie made her way to town, eager to see Mark. Not long after arriving at the train station she found Lucas and Milly waiting on the platform.

"Hello Aunt Milly, Uncle Lucas," Cassie pleasantly greeted, a sparkle in her eye.

Milly hugged her niece as she said hello.

"Good to see you Cassie. What brings you out here?" Lucas teased.

"Oh nothing that exciting," Cassie replied with a smile. "Do you know if the train is on schedule?"

"Isn't it always?" Lucas sarcastically asked. "I'm not exactly su-"

Lucas's statement was interrupted by the train's whistle.

"Wonder of wonders..." Milly laughed.

The three waited impatiently for the train to settle and the passengers to start pouring on to the platform. They all became a little worried when the crowd started to thin out and they still didn't see Mark.

"You don't think something happened, do you?" Cassie worriedly asked.

"I'm sure everything's fine," Lucas assured her.

"There he is!" Milly exclaimed as she gestured to the last car where Mark was stepping off the train.

As they made their way towards Mark, he finally saw them and walked their direction.

"Get lost?" Lucas quipped.

"Howdy, Pa," Mark replied before embracing his parents.

Mark and Cassie started making their way towards each other, but remembered they were in public and simply greeted each other instead. Lucas tried to hide his chuckles.

"I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm starving!" Mark stated, trying to divert his Pa's attention.

"How about dinner at the restaurant?" Milly suggested.

"Sounds good to me," Lucas replied.

The four made their way to the buckboard and drove the short distance to the hotel. Lucas watched as Mark and Cassie silently interacted. Neither one had to speak a word; their eyes said it all.

Lucas and Milly began asking questions about Mark's trip and Mark began to answer.

After settling in and ordering at the hotel, however, things turned to much more serious subject matter.

"I'm assuming you all heard about John?" Mark asked as he looked between the three of them.

Surprisingly, Cassie was the one to speak up.

"Yes... and even though it's difficult, we've all agreed not to let it pull us down or bring us back to where we were during the trial..."

Mark put his hand on hers and smiled.

"I'm glad. I agree it's not time to look back, we just gotta move forward."

"Speaking of which," Lucas began. "When are you starting with the Pinkertons?"

"I'm not," Mark simply answered.

"...Why not?" Milly asked.

"To be quite honest, I'm not exactly sure. But what I am sure of is that being a detective isn't for me... and besides that, I would've had to spend a lot more time in an office than I thought originally."

"And we all know what happens when Mark gets cooped up..." Cassie joked.

"He'd be out of a job in a week," Milly laughed.

"You two don't know the half of it," Lucas stated as he looked at his son, who was wearing a mischievous grin.

After finishing supper, the McCains returned Cassie home before heading to the ranch. Milly went inside while Mark and Lucas took care of the horses.

"Pa, how's Ma doing?"

"Much better, I'm happy to say. She finally went to Doc and he said it was some sort of infection. He gave her some medicine and it's been helping."

"Good... I was really getting concerned about her."

"Mark, are you really alright with Osborne and everything?"

"At first I wasn't... but then I had a few hours on the train to think. I don't want to see him or DeFord cause problems for the family. But like I told Cass before I left, what happens, happens. We might as well accept it and move on."

"I'm glad to hear it."

"...Just as long as you're watching my back."

"Always will be, partner."

"Thanks, Pa."

10MC10

"Lucas, what could be taking him so long?" Milly asked as she impatiently looked back towards the house. "We're going to be late for church."

"I'll see what's going on," Lucas replied with a sigh as he handed Milly the horses' reins.

Lucas knocked on his son's bedroom door before entering. He saw Mark in front of a mirror fiddling with his tie.

"Let me help you." Lucas chuckled as he made his way to Mark and began to adjust the tie.

"Thanks... sorry this took so long, I guess I'm just a little nervous."

"Relax, son. She's not going to say no. Besides, you have a sermon and dinner to sit through, you might as well get comfortable."

"Well weren't you nervous?" Mark asked as they headed out of the bedroom and then outside.

"The first time, and then a little when I was going to propose to your Ma on the train, but some outlaws got in the way, so by the-"

"Outlaws?" Milly asked, only hearing the tail end of Lucas' statement.

"On the way back from you sister's."

Milly nodded in reply as Mark got in the back of the buckboard and Lucas urged the team forward.

"Anyway," Lucas continued. "By the time I asked your Ma my nerves were spent."

"You should've taken notes," Milly added, catching on to the conversation's subject. "Seeing as how you watched the whole thing."

"...Well, growing up, you two were always telling me not to interrupt adults, so I was just obeying you."

The three laughed along with each other as the buckboard bounced down the dirt road and Blue Boy followed behind, tied to the back.

The McCains and Micah were the last ones to find their seats before the reverend began his sermon.

Mark tried to focus as much as possible, but his mind only wanted to wander. Usually Mark was in no hurry to leave the church after the service ended, but today he had things to do.

After the service, Mark quickly made his way to the livery and got Storm from his stable. He brought his and Cassie's horses to his aunt and uncle's and picketed them behind the barn, out of sight.

It wasn't long before the rest of the usual Sunday guests at Johnny and Lou's arrived. The women all made their way to the kitchen to help with the finishing touches on the meal while the men set the table.

Soon everyone was seated and the afternoon continued to drag on for Mark. Finally, four o'clock rolled around.

"Cassie," Mark began as he dried the last dish. "Do you want to go for a walk?"

"Where?"

Mark just replied with his boyish grin and Cassie followed him outside.

Mark brought her to the backside of the barn where the horses were waiting.

"I thought you said a walk?"

"We did walk. From the house to the barn."

Cassie rolled her eyes with a smile.

"Now," Mark continued. "Will you go on a ride with me?"

"I'd be delighted."

*****

"There they go..." Johnny chuckled from the window as he watched Cassie and Mark ride off.

"Well, I say it's about time," Anna commented.

"If Mark puts this off any longer I'll put him in jail," Micah stated.

"For what?" Lou asked.

"Obstructing justice."

"They certainly were made for each other," Mrs. Osborne chimed in. "Lucas, I'm sure you're proud of the son you've raised."

"Well I couldn't have done it without Milly, Micah or Lou."

"What about me?! I'm the one who showed your son exactly how he didn't want to turn out," Johnny joked.

"How ye turned out was fine," Lou told her husband. "It was the gettin' there that took a bit of doing."

"Catherine, have you heard anything from Ned?" Lucas inquired.

"A little. One of his old professors needed some help while his mother was ill, so he's been a little busy, traveling back and forth between San Fransisco and... Stockton, where the two offices are."

"I trust he's enjoying it though?"

"Very much. He hadn't dreamed of being a part of such a firm in years, and even if it is just
temporary, he's enjoying being able to help his old professor."

"Well thanks again for the meal, Lou," Micah said as he stood. "I best be going, Mark asked Johnny and me to light some lanterns and we best get that done."

"Ye are welcome any time. Have a goodnight!" Lou replied.

"I best get going as well," Lucas said as he started to get up. "I have the shift at the office tonight and should probably start making the rounds. Milly, are you sure you don’t want to wait for Mark before you drive home?”

“I’ll be fine, Lucas.”

Lucas kissed Milly before the three men left the house.

"Milly, do you know how late Mark was planning on keeping Cassie out tonight?" Catherine inquired.

"He was wanting to propose at dusk, so knowing Mark, he'll probably have her back shortly after dark. I can't imagine them doing much afterwards."

"He didn't seem too nervous to me, considering the boy's about ta propose," Lou commented.

"You should've seen him this morning," Milly laughed. "He was the reason we were almost late for church."

"Now that he's declined the Pinkerton's offer, what are his plans?" Lou asked.

"Working on the ranch for now. The cattle are going to keep him and Lucas plenty busy over the next few months."

Anna listened as the women continued the conversation, but found herself a bit distracted with her own thoughts. As she looked to the other women in the room she saw three people who gave her nothing but love and care. As she thought about Cassie, she thought about the person she would always be able to go to for help. As she considered Ned, Mark, Lucas, Micah, and Johnny, she appreciated the five men who were always there to protect her. She lived in a place of safety and love. She was going to miss that greatly, but knew that after school was over she would always come home. Being a nurse was her calling, and North Fork would always be home.

After months of chaos and calamity, everything was settling down. Lucas was helping out at the Marshal's office, Ned was finding his place in California, Mark and Cassie would finally be tying the knot, and Anna was at more peace with her decision to go to school than she ever had been before.

11MC11

The rain fell and the thunder shook the sky as Catherine walked down the street, thankful to see the light in the marshal's office. She hesitated before turning the knob and opening the door.

Lucas was pouring himself a cup of coffee as she entered the building and he turned around, expecting to see Mark or Micah.

"Catherine?" Lucas asked with confusion. "What brings you over here so late?”

"Did Mark stop by?"

"No, net yet."

"Then you haven't seen him or Cassie?"

"Mark hasn't brought her home yet?"

Catherine shook her head, worry etched on her face.

"The spot he was taking her was closer to the ranch; maybe he took Cassie to the house because of the storm."

"Maybe... but Lucas, I have a feeling something happened."

"Mother's intuition?"

"Call it what you will, but it's not a joke."

"Believe me, I know, I'll ride to the ranch. I can walk you home or-"

At that moment, the door swung open again. The three adults stood there, staring at each other in defeat for a long moment. No one said anything for a long time; their faces said it all.

"What are we going to do?" Milly asked helplessly.

"I'll get Micah, Johnny, and Nils. You two can wait here and-"

"Lucas, I can't just sit here and do nothing!" Milly said as she stepped closer to her husband.

"Milly, I'm not letting you go out in that storm, it's too dangerous. You shouldn't have ridden to town."

"But Lucas, what if-"

"Mark is smart and knows how to find shelter, I'm sure they're both fine. Mark has made it through worse storms than this and Cassie isn't unaccustomed to the country. But I do need to be able to know that both of you are in town and safe so I can focus on finding Cassie and Mark."

Milly and Catherine both nodded in understanding before Lucas got his things together and left them in the office. It wasn't long before he had the three other men together at the livery.

"We'll head up to where Mark proposed and go from there. Their tracks are probably washed out, but there's not too much distance between there and the ranch." Lucas sounded a lot more confident than he felt.

The four made their way to the spot, but as they approached, the men got an uneasy feeling. Lucas looked to Micah who had a concerned look on his face.

"Lucas, everything is exactly the way we left it..." Micah paused and handed Lucas his reigns after dismounting.

He made his way to one of the rocks and picked up a now soaked gift box.

"Lucas, they never made it here."

"Alright, so we look closer to town," Nils commented, not sure why Micah looked so grave.

"They should've made it here long before it started raining. Something besides the weather kept them from getting here."

Lucas let out a long sigh as he tried to figure out what to do as the dozens of possibilities invaded his mind.

Seeing his friend's dilemma, Micah took charge.

"Alright, Johnny and Nils, spread out and search towards town. Lucas and I will make our way towards the ranch in case their plans changed for some reason. We'll meet back up at the office in a few hours."

Johnny and Nils took off, but Lucas just sat for a moment.

"Lucas-boy..." Micah began.

"I can't do this again, Micah. I can't lose him again. Mark alone is hard enough... but Cassie too? She's like the daughter I never had and if-"

"Lucas, you know our rule about “ifs”. Let's just find them."

The two spread out to search and met at the ranch within an hour. Neither had found anything and both were becoming increasingly worried.

On the way back to town, they took a different route than Nils and Johnny would have. Micah searched to the left of the road while Lucas looked to the right.

Lucas was so caught up in his worries that he couldn't hear Micah calling to him. The sound of Micah shooting his shotgun into the sky, however, did get his attention and Lucas made his way towards the sound.

"Micah?" Lucas called.

"Over here, Lucas!"

Lucas finally caught sight of his friend and saw him kneeling over something... someone.

As Lucas got closer, he realized that someone was his son.

"Mark!" Lucas yelled as he knelt down next to Micah.

Mark lay on the ground, unconscious, but alive.

"Where's Cassie?" Lucas asked with concern as he looked around.

"I tried calling for her, but no reply... maybe she went for help."

"I'll ride to town and get a buckboard, see if you can't find her around here."

Lucas was soon racing towards town, praying both Cassie and Mark would be fine.

Catherine saw Lucas ride down the street from the office window. Milly, Johnny, Nils and herself were soon running after Lucas.

Lucas didn't have time to sort through their questions.

"We found Mark, but not Cassie. He's unconscious. Johnny and Nils, come back with me. Catherine and Milly, get Doc," Lucas ordered as he hitched the horses.

Lucas had no sooner arrived in town than he had left. Milly and Catherine ran to Doc's and then helped him prepare the examination room.

When they finally heard horses outside, the three ran to the street.

"Where's Lucas and Micah?" Catherine asked as the men carried Mark inside.

"Looking for Cassie," someone replied.

As they brought Mark inside, the light began to illuminate the dried blood on Mark's head.

Upon the doctor's request, Catherine kept Milly in the waiting room and tried to comfort her sister as she fought her own tears. Eventually, both women were crying for fear of what might happen to both Cassie and Mark.

"Doc, what happened?" Nils asked as the doctor continued to clean the wound.

"... I don't know."

"Doc, doesn't that look like a-" Johnny began before Doc interrupted.

"Yes, but right now it's all a mess, so we can't jump to any conclusions."

About half an hour later, Catherine and Milly looked up as the door opened and the three men entered the waiting room.

"...Doc?" Milly whispered.

Doc Burrage took a seat beside the women as Nils sat across from them and Johnny paced the floor.

"Milly, I'm sorry but I don't know what's going to happen. Mark was shot in the head. The bullet didn't enter completely, but grazed him enough to leave a very deep wound. Thankfully it had already stopped bleeding but I'm sure there is some damage and we will have to fight infection."

Milly nodded as the words sunk in. They were difficult to take in... but at least they knew what had happened to Mark... Cassie was still missing.

12MC12

Just as the sun was coming up, Lucas and Micah walked into the doctor's office. Milly and Catherine were asleep in their chairs, as were Lou and Johnny on the opposite side of the room. They had seen Nils at the livery and Doc was sitting down at his desk.

The two quietly made their way to the doctor, who motioned for them to follow him into the hall.

"How is he?" Lucas asked.

"Lucas, he was shot in the head. Just a graze, but the wound is deep. We will have to wait for him to wake up before we know anything else."

Lucas nodded as he accepted the news.

"No sign of the girl?" Doc asked.

Lucas and Micah looked to each other, unsure of what to say.

"What is it?"

"We found this near where we found Mark," Micah said as he handed Doc a paper. "We couldn't find a trace."

Doc opened the folded note and read it aloud.

"I warned him too." Doc looked at the note, puzzled. "What does it mean?"

"...It means one of the criminals involved with Osborne's case kidnapped Cassie and tried to kill Mark," Lucas painfully answered.

"But what does he mean, “too”? And when was Mark warned, of what? What's going on?"

"Doc," Micah began. "DeFord, the man responsible for Mark's disappearance a few months ago, told the McCains and Osbornes that they would regret it if Mark or John testified. He threatened again after the trial, but everyone didn't think he'd actually go through with anything. Then John was broke out of prison... those same words left behind," Micah said, gesturing to the note.

"So, the man tried to kill my son and has at least kidnapped Cassie. ...We hope that's all," Lucas concluded, anger in his voice.

"Do you want to see him?" Burrage asked.

"Yes, please," Lucas replied.

Doc took Micah and Lucas farther down the hall to the room Mark was in.

As Lucas walked inside, he silently thanked God that his son was alive.

Lucas slowly made his way towards the bed, Doc and Micah leaving to give the father some
privacy.

The tall rancher took a seat in the small chair beside the bed. He didn't say anything for a long time. He simply sat there, remembering the past. He thought about all the times he'd feared for his son's life... all the times the current situation had been reversed.

"Son," Lucas finally said. "You have people who need you here. Don't you dare go anywhere."

A while later, Milly came into the room and sat down on Lucas' lap, his arms wrapping around her.

"Micah's getting a posse together... are you going or staying?"

"We talked about it on the way back. North Fork needs a marshal while he's gone... and we're both afraid of what might happen if I see DeFord anywhere besides behind bars."

Milly nodded in understanding.

They both sat there, watching their son barely breathe for the remainder of the morning. Everything seemed so helpless... they prayed for Cassie and Mark's protection.

Around one, Lou brought in a meal for everyone else at the doctor's office. She had spent a great deal of time trying to re-assure Catherine and Anna, who had been informed of what was going on that morning, that everything would be alright.

No one really ate much, but were appreciative of the food.

By late afternoon, Micah and the posse had left, and Lucas knew he needed to start doing something proactive in finding Cassie.

"Milly, I'm going to contact Marshal Anker and some of the nearby towns."

"Didn't Micah?"

"He was too busy organizing the posse. I'll be back in a little bit."

Milly kissed Lucas before he headed for the door.

"Lucas, what if he wakes up?"

"What do you mean?"

"What if he asks about or for Cassie?"

Lucas contemplated the question for a long time.

"...If he doesn't remember what happened... keep it that way, for now."

"Lucas, secrets don't ever end well around here..."

"Then why'd you ask me what to do? If he finds out, he'll go chasing after them!" Lucas snapped.

"Don't you think I know that?! He's as stubborn as you are!"

"It'll be easier to ask for forgiveness than to tell him the truth right away!"

"...I'm not so sure. Lucas, isn't there another way?"

Lucas sighed and walked back towards his wife.

"I'm sorry, Milly," he apologized as he embraced her. "I don't know what's going to happen. We'll just have to play it by ear. Hopefully he'll be smart enough to stay in town if he finds out."

"If?"

"If."

13MC13

The next morning, Doc saw an improvement in Mark's breathing and pulse, but he still hadn't woke.

"Milly, why don't you get some fresh air? I'll sit with him for a while," Lucas offered as he entered the room.

"Rough night?"

"How'd you know?"

"We could hear the ruckus from Sweeney's all the way down here."

"Just a couple of tired ranch hands, it's all settled. Why don't you go see Catherine? I'm sure she'd appreciate the company."

"I'll be back in a while."

Husband and wife kissed before Milly left the room. Lucas walked to his son's bedside and sighed.

"Mark, you can't do this. You've got too much to live for. Too many people to live for." Lucas turned and walked towards the window. He blankly stared out of it as he sorted through his thoughts. "Son, if you don't pull through..." Lucas couldn't say any more. The tears were streaming down his face.

"If... is..."

Lucas turned around at the sound of his son's voice. Mark's eyes weren't open... but Lucas hoped...

"What did you just say?" Lucas asked as he quickly closed the gap between himself and Mark.

"I said... if... is a dangerous... word." Mark replied with a weak smile as he opened his eyes.

"Mark..."

"Yes, Pa?"

"I love you, son."

*****

After Lucas got Doc, it was a battle to keep Mark awake for the first few minutes, but they thankfully succeeded.

Doc did a quick examination and although Mark was weak, there wouldn't be any long-term physical injuries.

"Mark, can you tell me what happened?" The doctor inquired.

"Well..." Mark began, but then he realized that he didn't really know.

Doc and Lucas saw the confusion in Mark's face.

"What was the last thing you remember?"

"...We were getting ready to leave the house for something... for some reason... Pa, I think you were helping me with my tie."

"That was a few days ago, we were getting ready to leave for church."

"Why did I need help with my tie?"

"You were nervous, remember why?" Lucas replied.

"I think..." Mark thought for a long moment. The two men could see Mark struggling to remember. "Cassie and I... I was going to propose... did I?"

"No, it happened before then."

"Well what happened?" Mark asked.

"Mark, to gauge your recovery, I'm going to need you to remember that on your own. But as you do remember, let someone know right away," Burrage instructed.

"Yes sir..." Mark replied, trying to grasp everything.

"Lucas, will you come outside with me?"

"Mark, I'll be right back," Lucas said as he patted his son's shoulder and followed the doctor outside the room, then down the hall.

"Well?" Lucas asked.

"I think he figures he just had another seizure. Let's keep it that way until he remembers; I really will be able to gauge everything better that way... although he won't buy it when he wises up."

"... I know, but under the circumstances, there's not much else we can do."

Lucas then went to inform Catherine and Milly of the news, as well as what Mark knew. Catherine decided to stay home, unsure of her ability to handle seeing Mark. Milly felt the same way, but knew she needed to see her son or Mark would get suspicious.

Milly and Lucas returned to the doctor's office, and Milly felt so much relief when she saw Mark awake.

Later in the day, Lou and Johnny paid a visit and were relieved to see the mischievous gleam in Mark's eye, yet all their hearts felt heavy, still having heard no news about Cassie.

The next morning, Mark asked to see Cassie.

"She's not available right now," Lucas answered. "I'll get her here as soon as I can."

"Pa, where's Micah?"

"He had to be called away on marshal business, though he hated to leave while you were still unconscious."

Mark kept asking difficult questions, and Lucas was running out of answers that weren't blatant lies.

"Pa-"

"Hold on, I just remembered doc saying something about you needing to take a pill, I'll be right back."

Lucas left the room and returned with a glass of water and pill. Lucas made sure he was the one asking questions until Mark slowly drifted off to sleep.

Doc and Milly both came into the room a few minutes later.

"He's asking too many questions, I think he already suspects that something is wrong," Lucas helplessly stated.

"Do you think we should just tell him?" Milly asked.

"Let's hold off a little longer," Doc replied. "Hopefully by then Micah will have found DeFord and Cassie. I'm afraid of what might happen if he finds out."

"And if he hasn't found her?" Milly inquired.

"We all will have a lot more praying to do..." Burrage replied as he looked at Mark. Yet he didn't see the tall rancher. He saw a ten year old boy, small in size but large in heart.

The three soon made their way out the room, and Mark opened his eyes as the door shut.

He had been having flashbacks of something, but until over hearing the previous conversation, Mark had hoped it was just a dream.

Mark opened his hand and looked at the pill he was supposed to have taken. He passed it from one hand to the other. He wasn't mad, he understood why they did it.

They did it because of what he was about to do.

14MC14

Cassie stopped struggling to get out of her restraints as the door to the room she was in
opened.

The man stepped closer and proceeded to untie the ropes around her wrists and ankles as he had every morning of her captivity.

"If you don't stop trying to get out of those ropes you're going to hurt your wrists. They're already scratched up enough, they could get infected."

"Like you would care," Cassie scoffed as she stood and rubbed her sore wrists.

"I care a lot more than you think."

Cassie clenched her jaw and closed her eyes as she fought her anger. After a moment, Cassie let out a deep breath and simply walked past the man, towards the door.

"Cassie, things can't go on like this."

"Says you, the person who ties me up every night! I think they can," Cassie half laughed, half cried in response.

"That's your own doing, you were the one foolish enough to try to run away," he replied as he gestured to her bruised cheek.

"What do you expect?! You shot him!" Cassie was now sobbing and the man stepped closer to her.

"Cassie, I've told you time and time again, it wasn't me." The man tried to place his hands on her shoulders, but she backed away.

"John Osborne, don't you dare touch me! I don't care who pulled the trigger, you were as much a part of it as the next person!"

"Cassie-"

"Excuse me, I have chores to do."

Cassie stormed into the front room where DeFord and some of his men were sitting. No one was surprised by her abrupt entrance, they had all gotten use to the strong-willed, emotional woman.

Cassie had tried hard to hide her weakness, but she couldn't do it. The pain and stress of it all was too much. She couldn't keep the image of Mark's motionless body out of her head, and just when she had come to terms with what her father had done, and that he was “sorry”, she found
out he helped DeFord plan Mark's murder... she could only pray that they had been unsuccessful.

Cassie had prepared breakfast before most of the men left for town. The others went out to work in the barn, and as she cleared the table, it was just her and DeFord.

He sat leaning back in his chair, newspaper in hand. She stared at him in disgust and anger.

"How could you do this? To your own niece, no less?" Cassie finally asked him.

DeFord laughed, surprising Cassie.

"Please don't call yourself my niece," he replied in a mocking voice. "That may be what you are legally, but to me, you're no more than a stranger."

Cassie looked at him in shock and disbelief.

"You... you were there! At the trial... at the hotel and..."

"Think about it, Cassie, I've always been there."

Cassie tilted her head as she looked at the man in confusion.

"...What do you mean?" Cassie asked.

"The bank teller in Kansas. School teacher in Liberty. Ranch hand in Oklahoma. I've always been there."

Cassie thought about the several different places she had lived throughout her life, and except for one or two towns she couldn't remember well, she now realized DeFord had always been nearby. He may have looked a bit different, but he was always there.

"Why'd you do it all?" Cassie asked.

"Money."

"Not just with my family. How could you just... kill so many people like you have?"

"The same way I could leave McCain to die when Daniels was stupid enough to shoot him in the head."

Cassie just nodded as a tear slid down her cheek and she quickly made her way to the sink.
She began to wash the dishes... unable to wash away her grief.

Cassie felt so sick, she almost couldn't bear it. She felt as though DeFord had torn her heart out of her chest and dashed it into a thousand pieces. She wanted out of that cabin, out of her prison... but even if she ever was set free, the pain of losing Mark would never let her go.

Somehow, Cassie managed through the day. Cleaning, cooking, and whatever else DeFord told her to do mildly helped keep her mind preoccupied.

That night as Cassie lied on her thin mat, hands bound and in complete darkness, she couldn't escape the agonizing thoughts and images her mind brought her.

"Mark..."

15MC15

Doc Burrage looked up from his desk to see Lucas and Milly entering the office.

"Morning Lucas, Milly."

"Did he wake up at all yesterday evening?" Milly asked.

"No. I think besides the pill, he was extremely tired. I haven't checked this morning, you can go in if you'd like."

"I'll be there in a minute," Lucas said as his wife headed for the hall.

Doc waited for the door to close before speaking.

"How is Milly handling it all?"

"Pretty well. We both feel horrible for Catherine... I've been through what she's going through more than enough to know how she feels."

"I pray they find Cassie soon. Has Micah-"

The conversation was interrupted by Milly screaming Lucas's name. Both men ran to Mark's room and found Milly standing next to the empty bed.

"Lucas, he's gone!" Milly cried.

Lucas wrapped his arms around Milly and tried to calm her.

"Why would DeFord..." Milly began.

"It wasn't him, it was Mark," Lucas said as he separated from his wife.

"How do you know?" Doc asked.

Lucas walked to the night stand and picked up an envelope with “Pa & Ma” written on it. He lifted it before replying.

"Besides this, the bed is made, his rifle is gone, and he changed into his day clothes," Lucas explained, gesturing to the spot they had once lied.

"What does the note say?" Milly asked, trying to stop her tears.

Lucas opened the letter and first pulled out the pill he had given Mark the day before, then the note.

"I'm sorry, but I had to know. I'm not coming back without her. I'll be home in a couple days and mindful of injuries. Please keep praying.

Pa; DeFord files, my statement, page two.

Love, Mark."

"What did that last part mean?" Milly inquired.

"He wants me to look at something... I'll be back."

Instead of waiting, Doc and Milly followed Lucas to the marshal's office where he quickly began going through filing cabinets.

"Micah, why don't you keep anything organized?" Lucas mumbled.

Finally, Lucas found the file he was looking for and turned to the second page.

"Well, what is it?" Milly asked.

"Directions to the cabin where DeFord held Mark last winter."

"He doesn't think DeFord would be stupid enough to go back there, would he?" Doc asked.

"No, DeFord would be smart enough. Everyone figured he went south, and the only one who would know to go back there is Mark, who DeFord thought he killed."

"...Or did he?" Milly suggested. "Lucas, DeFord could have shot Mark to make sure he was dead... but he only shot Mark once. Do you think it... could be a trap?"

"I don't know," Lucas answered.

"What are you going to do?" Milly asked.

"Go after Mark, and hopefully find him before DeFord does."

"Lucas, I understand, but what about North Fork?" Doc asked.

"Nils has watched the town before, and I don't know if Johnny can technically be deputized, but he'll help keep the peace."

It wasn't long before Lucas was kissing Milly goodbye and mounting up on his horse.

"Be careful..." Milly told Lucas.

"I will be. Stay close to town."

Lucas waved goodbye as he urged his horse forward. Once out of town, it wasn't difficult for Lucas to find his son's trail. Even though Mark had learned everything he knew about tracking from Lucas, Mark still had his own unique style. Thankfully, Lucas knew his son well.

Lucas guessed Mark to be about three hours ahead of him, which surprised Lucas, but he was thankful his son wasn't farther away.

*****

Meanwhile, Cassie was unaware of any hope of rescue and was more than ready to try to run again.

She was once again clearing the breakfast dishes as DeFord sat in a chair, boots on the table.

"Where are you going?" DeFord asked as Cassie walked towards the door.

"I have to throw out the old water, there's no drain, remember?"

"Do it from there."

"You want a big puddle of water in front of the door?" Cassie sassed.

"Fine. You just don't do anything stupid. I'd hate to see you in chains."

Cassie continued out the door with the tub of water. As soon as she was a ways out the door, she dropped the tub and ran, faster than she ever had.

DeFord was soon chasing after her, angrily yelling threats. Cassie simply ignored them and kept running.

Unfortunately, Cassie hadn't anticipated any of DeFord's men still being around the property.

"Daniels, don't just sit there!" DeFord yelled. "Run her down!"

Before Cassie knew it, DeFord and Daniels, who was on a horse, were chasing her.

Cassie could hear the horse getting closer and closer until suddenly, the horse was on top of her.

Cassie felt the agonizing pain shoot through her body as the horse first ran into her, and then came down on her back.

Cassie lied on the ground, trying not to pass out.

When DeFord and Daniels began dragging her back to the cabin, she didn't fight, she actually tried to get there as fast as possible.

Upon reaching the cabin the men set her in a chair. While DeFord walked to the other side of the room, debating what to do, Daniels slapped Cassie, sending her onto the floor and into unconsciousness.

Hearing the noise, DeFord turned around.

"What'd you do that for?!" DeFord yelled.

"Seemed like a good idea," he laughed.

"Use the small brain you have! She's a girl, not a two hundred pound male! I wouldn't have had you run her down except for the fact that she was actually getting away!"

"I wasn't the one who let her out of the house, don't blame me."

"One of these days, you're going to go too far!" DeFord yelled as he put a finger in Daniels's face. "Help me get her into the back room."

Cassie didn't wake up until the next morning, and when she did, she found that DeFord wasn't kidding when he threatened to put her in shackles.

Every muscle in her body ached, the rope tied around her wrists chafed them, and the chains around her ankles were much too tight.

The door soon opened, but DeFord, not John, entered the room.

"Where's Osborne?" Cassie inquired.

"Your father is running an errand for me. And when he gets back, not a word about what happened, understand?"

Cassie nodded as DeFord untied the rope and pulled her to her feet. She just stood there, unsure of what DeFord was going to do.

"Well let's go!" DeFord ordered. "I'm a hungry man!"

Cassie walked out of the room as quickly as she could. The iron around her ankles made it difficult and awkward to walk. Usually easy tasks were extremely difficult to accomplish; every little move Cassie made sent pain through her body, and every breath caused a sharp pain in her rib cage.

Cassie didn't want to move- she didn't even want to be alive. But there was no avoiding either one.

16MC16

Mark laid in the grass on the hill above the cabin he had been imprisoned in four months earlier. He had been watching for a few hours, but only saw men he didn't recognize. No sign of DeFord or Cassie.

Mark prayed his assumption had been right and that he wasn't wasting time while DeFord was getting farther away. He also prayed that Cassie was still alive. Knowing DeFord, he wasn't too sure that she was.

Mark heard someone approaching behind him and took cover behind a nearby tree, gun at the ready. He wasn't going to let there be a repeat of the last time he was there.

Relief flooded him as he saw his Pa walk to the spot where he had been lying. Mark relaxed his body and walked towards his Pa.

As Mark approached his father, he was thankful to see relief instead of anger in Lucas' eyes.

They both took a lying position on the hillside, watching the cabin below.

"Any sign of them?" Lucas asked.

"Not yet."

Mark's voice was steady, but Lucas could see the battle going on inside his son in Mark's face.

"We'll find her."

"I don't doubt that... I... I question if I'll bring her home alive or not."

Lucas's heart sunk as Mark spoke the words. He remembered having the same doubts when Mark had been kidnapped in his younger years. Lucas wished he could assure Mark that he would find her alive, but he couldn't. The longer they had gone without word from DeFord, the more he questioned whether Cassie was alive or not.

The two spent the next hour in silence, neither knowing what to say... neither wanting to say anything.

Finally, both their hearts filled with joy as they saw who could only be Cassie and a man exit the building.

Lucas knew it was taking every effort for Mark not to move.

The man took a seat next to the door while Cassie began hanging clothes on the nearby clothesline, her back to the McCain men.

It wasn't long before the man began to wander over towards Cassie and was soon behind her. He grabbed a strand of her hair and began playing with it, as his other hand rested on her shoulder.

Mark couldn't take it and began to move, but Lucas put a restraining hand on Mark's shoulder.

"Easy, Son."

"But Pa!"

"Easy."

Mark settled, but both men continued to cringe at the scene below.

To their relief, DeFord came out and began yelling at the man before sending him to the barn
and Cassie back inside.

"Well son, what's your plan?" Lucas asked.

"Most of them just got back a little while ago from somewhere. I guess we wait until most of them leave again. There has to be about ten other men in the bunkhouse, we can't risk it with all of them here."

Lucas nodded in agreement.

"Pa!" Mark whispered in a raised tone.

"What is it, Mark?"

"Osborne."

Lucas followed Mark's finger to the man who was walking from the barn to the cabin.

"Pa... DeFord didn't kill him. DeFord broke him out of jail! Pa, what kind of man goes through all that apologizing and repenting, and then goes right back to everything he promised to turn from?!"

"A coward, Son. A coward."

17MC17

The next morning, Lucas and Mark watched as the last man they had seen around the property, besides DeFord, left.

The two began making their way down the hill when they saw DeFord leave the cabin. They watched as he walked into the barn and they quickly followed.

Mark and Lucas took positions on the opposite sides of the barn doors. Lucas counted to three before they turned and entered the barn, only they didn't see DeFord. Suddenly a gunshot came from above them and they both took cover behind hay bales.

A gun fight ensued, Mark and Lucas blindly shooting into the hayloft across the barn.

As Mark was re-loading his rifle, Lucas must have hit something, because DeFord's gun dropped to the barn floor.

"Alright DeFord, down the ladder," Lucas ordered.

Soon, DeFord appeared and did as he was told, holding his left hand to his chest.

Lucas quickly made his way to the man as Mark found some rope. They tied him up as Mark demanded to know where Cassie was.

"Wouldn't you like to know," DeFord laughed as blood dropped from his chest.

Mark gathered DeFord's shirt in a fist and pulled him forward.

"DeFord, I swear-"

"Mark!" Lucas firmly said.

Mark looked to his Pa, still holding a tight grip.

"Go look in the house."

Mark slowly let go before grabbing his rifle and running towards the cabin.

As Mark entered, memories of his own captivity flooded his mind, but Mark pushed them aside and focused on finding Cassie.

"Cassie!" Mark yelled.

There was no reply.

"Cassie!" Mark yelled again as he went to the door to the back room and tried to open it, but it was locked. "Cassie, are you in there?!"

Mark tried the door some more, but it wouldn't budge. Mark was just about ready to try to shoot the lock when he heard a small, quiet voice from the other side of the door.

"...Mark?"

"Cassie!" Mark yelled again as his heart began to pound faster.

"Mark!"

"Cassie, do you know where a key is?" Mark desperately asked.

"To the right of the stove in one of the cupboards."

Mark ran to the stove and rummaged through the cupboards before finally finding the key. He
quickly unlocked the door and opened it, finding Cassie immediately to his left.

Cassie fell into Mark's arms, never wanting to be out of them again, but as Mark wrapped his arms around her tighter, she couldn't help but indicate the pain it caused.

"What is it?" Mark asked with worry as he let go.

"Nothing," Cassie replied, still wrapping her own arms around him.

Mark gently put his hands on her shoulders and separated himself from her.

Mark looked at Cassie with worry and pain. Her eyes were bloodshot, there were bruises on both sides of her face, and her skin looked much too pale.

"Cassie?"

"... I don't want to talk about it right now." Cassie looked to Mark with pleading eyes.

"I understand."

Mark turned around as the door to the cabin opened and Lucas stepped into the house.

"DeFord?" Mark asked.

"He's dead," Lucas replied.

Lucas shifted his eyes from Mark to Cassie before walking towards the two.

"Cassie, are you alright?" Lucas tenderly asked.

"...I'll live." Cassie tried to force a smile, but it was a weak one.

Mark and Lucas helped Cassie sit down. Only then did they realize she was shackled.

"Cassie, do you know where the key for the iron is?" Mark asked with concern evident in his voice.

"Should be in DeFord's shirt pocket."

Lucas left and returned with the key. He unlocked the chains and tossed them across the room.

"...Thank you."

"I'm going to see if I can't find a buckboard around here," Lucas said as he got up.

"There's one behind the bunkhouse," Cassie informed him.

Lucas nodded and left the cabin.

Mark stayed next to Cassie as she blankly stared at the wall. Finally, a tear fell, followed by another, then another.

Mark reached out and took Cassie's hand.

"Mark, I thought he had killed you."

"He didn't. I'm alive. You're alive. And we're going to go home, together."

*****

Soon after, Lucas had his and Mark's horses hitched to the buckboard.

Mark sat with Cassie in the back as Lucas drove to the nearest town.

Every bump in the road hurt, but Cassie was thankful to be putting distance between herself and that cabin.

Lucas dropped Mark and Cassie off at the doctor's office before he went to talk to the sheriff.

Mark impatiently waited for the doctor to come out of the examination room, and finally he did.

"Doc?" Mark asked.

"She's been through a lot. Thankfully her worst injury is a few cracked ribs, it could have been worse. I suggest she stays here for a few days to rest and recuperate before you head home. She's beyond exhausted."

"Thank you. Can I see her?"

"For a few minutes, I want her to sleep. You will have to wait for the nurse to finish helping her get cleaned up though."

Mark nodded and was let into the back room a few minutes later.

Cassie smiled as Mark walked through the door.

"Cassie, I'm so sorry all this happened."

"Don't you dare go blaming yourself," Cassie quietly replied. "You got dragged into my family's mess, and that's not your fault."

"But if I had been paying more attention when we were out riding-"

There were tears in Cassie’s eyes as she spoke, "Mark, don't do this to us. It's done and over with, and it's not your fault. You came to rescue me even though you were shot and should've stayed home."

"I was fine."

"Mark, you're a horrible liar," Cassie whispered with a smile, which turned into a gentle laugh.

Mark laughed along with her as the tension of the past few days slowly began to dissipate.

"...Can you tell me how you got hurt?" Mark hesitantly asked.

"... I tired running away the first night we were at the cabin," Cassie said as she gestured to the right side of her cheek. "Then a few days later..." Cassie couldn't go on, a lump formed in her throat and the tears started falling.

"I'm sorry, I shouldn't-"

"No, it's fine. We always said we needed to be honest.” Cassie reached for Mark’s hand and pulled him to sit on the bed beside her. “...And in all honesty, Mark, I thought you were dead. I couldn't go on, I felt so sick and I couldn't stand being there any more. I foolishly tried to run, but one of his men ran me down with his horse and-"

"He what?!" Mark asked with anger.

"Mark, please calm down... I'm fine."

Mark calmed down, but only for Cassie's sake.

"...And then he slapped me. DeFord put me in iron after that and that was it."

"He... or the others didn't do anything else?" Mark hesitantly asked.

"Nothing, I promise."

Mark closed his eyes and let it all sink in, before reopening them. He looked into Cassie's beautiful face and thanked God for letting him see it again.

Mark put his hand over hers and returned the smile she gave him.

"Cassie, I love you."

18MC18

Lucas walked into the doctor's office and found his son sitting in one of the chairs.

"How is she?" Lucas asked as he sat down next to his son.

"She has a few cracked ribs and is completely exhausted... but somehow... she seems to be at peace with everything."

"...What about you?"

"Pa, she could've died. If-" Mark stopped himself before going on. "...If is a dangerous word, I know. I still feel guilty for what happened. At the very least, I wasn't on guard when we went riding because I was too preoccupied."

Lucas thought for a minute before replying. He knew the guilt Mark carried and knew he wasn't going to be able to take that feeling away.

"So how are we, or, just as or even more importantly, you and Cassie going to move on?"

"Well... I... don't know. Pa, how are we supposed to?"

"Son, you just have to be open with each other. Enjoy the times you have from this point forward, remember the good times, but don't be afraid to talk about the past. Although you don't want to stay in the past, don't be afraid to talk about it; one of you might move too quickly for the other. Don't forget that you both have friends and family more than willing to help."

"Thanks, Pa."

Mark and Lucas told the doctor where they would be if he needed anything and headed for the hotel. They checked into their rooms before finding an early supper across the street at the cafe.

"Pa, what did the sheriff have to say?"

"He's going to need a statement from Cassie, then he'll write a letter to his superiors and put out a warrant for John and the others. As soon as we get to a town with a telegraph office I'm going to wire home and then Marshal Anker."

"Marshal Anker? What does he have to do with anything?"

"I wired him after we found out DeFord was involved in Cassie's disappearance."

"I'm assuming Micah is still out on the trail?"

"I'm not sure, but it wouldn't surprise me. We'll wire around for him."

Mark nodded in reply as he took another bite of his meal.

"Now..." Lucas began.

Mark could tell where the conversation was headed and Lucas watched as Mark ever so slightly cringed.

"Pa, I'm sorry for any worry I caused you and Ma for leaving like I did, but in all honesty, I would do it again in a heartbeat. For Cassie, for you, or for Ma. I couldn't just lie around."

"Son, I understand. As your father, I will always be concerned for your well being. But also as your father, I understand putting everything else aside to rescue the one you love. I'm not going to chide you; you're a grown adult and can make your own decisions. I would've preferred that you would've waited and talked to me, but I honestly would've tried to make you stay home, so I understand why you didn't. But I want you to be honest with me. How is your wound?"

"Other than a migraine, it's fine. It was just a scratch."

"Keep in mind that you've hurt your head several times before."

"I know. I rode easy on the way to the cabin. I wanted to find her so bad, but I knew I needed to be of use when I got there."

"That would explain why you were only a few hours ahead of me."

Mark nodded in response. Lucas looked into his son's face and could tell there was something else... he couldn't quite tell what it was though.

"What is it, son?"

"Pa... thanks for following after me," Mark replied as he locked eyes with Lucas.

"Mark... there's no need to say thanks, I-"

"There is. Thank you for being there, for being someone I can count on. Even though I knew you had plenty of reasons you could've... and maybe even should've stayed in North Fork, I had no doubt that you were just a few hours behind me. We've had our ups and our downs, but through it all, you've been..." Mark searched for the word.

"I'll always be your partner, son. I told you I'd watch your back and I intended to make good on my promise. Any time my son asks for my help, I will be there."

"Thanks Pa." A grin crossed Mark's face before he continued. "Pa?"

"Yes, Mark?"

"How about helping me build a cabin when we get back home?"

"It'd be a pleasure."

Lucas and Mark finished their meal before heading to the doctor's office one last time. Cassie was asleep, so they agreed to head to bed early, both were exhausted. It didn't take long for either of them to drift to sleep, but they were suddenly woken early the next morning by someone urgently knocking on the door. Lucas got up and answered it as Mark lit one of the lanterns.

"Doc?"

Mark quickly threw on his shirt and headed to the doorway.

"It's Cassie, she woke up a short while ago, won't stop crying or shaking and keeps asking for Mark. I need to give her a sedative, but she won't let anyone near her... understandably."

Mark and Lucas quickly grabbed their rifles before following the doctor back to his office.

As they entered Cassie's room, they saw her in the corner, arms wrapped around her legs, head down.

Mark could see her shaking from across the room and her sobs were unmistakable. Mark started towards her, but stopped before turning around and handing Lucas his rifle.

Mark knelt down next to Cassie and put his hands on her shoulders.

"Get away from me! Stop!" Cassie cried as she fought him.

The scene was tearing Mark apart; yet he kept his composure and quietly assured her.

"Cassie, it's Mark," he said as he tried to keep her from moving away.

"Please..." Cassie cried.

"Cassie, please listen to me..." Mark pleaded as he reluctantly held her against the wall. "Cassie..."

"No! You can't-" Cassie stopped as she recognized the soothing voice speaking to her. Cassie lifted her head towards Mark and stared into his eyes.

"Cassie, you're safe."

"Mark..." Cassie whispered as she reached out to touch his face.

Cassie sunk into Mark's lap and started crying again; but it was a controlled cry.

Mark wrapped his arms around her and ran his fingers through her long, blonde hair.

"Mark, don't leave me..." Cassie barely whispered.

"I won't," Mark assured as he tapped her locket. "I promised."

19MC19

The next morning, after Cassie assured everyone she was fine, she gave her statement to the sheriff. It was difficult for her, especially when recounting how she saw Mark get shot, but Mark and Lucas were both there supporting her.

"Thank you Ms. Osborne," the sheriff finally concluded. "I know it's difficult, but unfortunately necessary."

"You don't have to apologize. I understand."

"What about DeFord's men?" Lucas inquired.

"I took a posse down there early this morning and there was no sight of them. They probably figured out what happened and headed for the hills. I should've recognized Osborne when he and a few of the others came to town though. Showed up every few days... I knew I remembered him from somewhere, but couldn't place him... I'm sorry, he looked quite a bit different than his picture in the newspaper a few months back."

"He raised me, and between the beard and weight gain, I was even a little confused. It's not your fault." Cassie assured him.

"When are you folks headed back to North Fork?"

"Day after tomorrow, the doctor wants Cassie to rest another day," Lucas answered.

"Well then I better let you do that young lady," the sheriff told Cassie. "I hope you have a quick recovery."

"Thank you."

Lucas and Mark walked with the sheriff back to his office.

"How are you getting back home?" The man asked as they entered.

"Stage coach and then train, accompanied by myself," a voice answered from the desk.

"...Might I ask who you are?" The sheriff inquired.

"Marshal Anker, U.S. Marshal's Service," Anker replied as he shook the sheriff's hand.

"Sheriff Taylor."

"Sorry for the intrusion, but Mr. McCain's wife wired me from North Fork and told me what had happened. I went to the cabin and found it empty before heading here. Mark, I would've been here sooner, but I was delivering a prisoner."

"I understand. Thanks for coming, but you don't really need to worry about-"

"Not a word from either of you. I'm seeing to it that all three of you get back home safely, orders from headquarters."

"That's-" Lucas began, but Anker interrupted.

"And you are still deputized, which means that you could get into trouble for insubordination."

"Yes sir," Lucas replied.

"Now, I've been riding a long time and could use a good meal. You men mind joining me for lunch?"

The four made their way to the cafe and ordered. Conversation bounced around, but Mark had stayed fairly quiet. Finally, Anker asked a question.

"Mark, how did you know to go to the cabin? That's the last place any of us would have looked."

"DeFord is... was, a creature of habit and too hot headed. He counted on everyone thinking he wouldn't go back there and so he did just that. The other part of it was that DeFord was wanting
me to chase him, so he went somewhere I would know. When I left North Fork it was just a feeling, but now that my memory of that day is clearer, I remember DeFord yelling at whoever shot me for taking such a risky shot. Said he wanted me alive. Then DeFord got to feeling invincible, got too comfortable, and left himself unguarded."

"I'm telling you Mark, you would make a great marshal."

"...Thank you, but right now I need to focus on... some other things."

"There's no law against a marshal being married..." Anker teased.

20MC20

There was quite a bit of crying upon Cassie's return. Half the town seemed to be waiting at the train station and Cassie was a bit embarrassed by all the fuss. Eventually she got settled at home and finally felt like she could start putting everything behind her.

Mark stayed in town for a few days after they got back to North Fork so he could spend more time with Cassie and so they could deal with things together.

It was difficult when Mark finally had to return to the ranch, but they knew it had to happen.

As Mark was unsaddling Blue Boy, his Pa entered the barn.

"Mark, I think this is yours."

Mark took the small gift box from his Pa and put it in his shirt pocket.

"Thanks."

The two continued to unsaddle and brush Blue Boy down.

"Mark, I know you're eager to marry her, but maybe you should just consider waiting a while."

"I did."

"And?"

"If Cassie and I are supposed to spend the rest of our lives together, we've got to start the “together” somewhere. We can't wait for life to be just right or the timing to be perfect. For most people, that's feasible, but that's a just fantasy in our world. We've got to learn to cope and grow and change together. Just like you and me, Pa, Cassie and I have gone too far together for one of us to slip backwards alone. I want to be there to love and support her every second of every
day. And I can't exactly do that if we live a hour from each other."

Lucas thought for a long moment before turning towards his son.

"Well what are you just standing there for? Don't you have some building plans to show me?"

Father and son made their way inside where the whole McCain family began looking over the plans Mark had drawn up.

It was a simple cabin, one that could be added onto in the future if need be. There were two bedrooms and a front room with a kitchen and...

"The house in Oklahoma?" Lucas asked.

"I was thinking of planting Marigolds..."

Milly understood the memento and thought it was sweet of Mark to keep his Ma's memory alive in that way.

"...And petunias."

"Mark, if you feel like-" Milly began, but Mark interjected.

"Ma, you helped build my life just like she did. You gave me life in ways she didn't. I want to as a reminder of how blessed I am to have someone to call “Ma”."

"I love you, Mark."

"I love you too, Ma."

21MC21

A few days later, Cassie opened the door to see Mark on the other side with a bouquet of flowers.

"For you," Mark said with a dramatic bow as he handed them to her.

"You remember that dance?"

"The one where we told Lilly and Sarah we were only friends? Yeah... I remember."

Cassie smiled and smelled the flowers.

"Do you want to come in?"

"Yes, please."

Cassie let Mark inside and put the flowers in water.

"What brings you out this way?"

"Well, I was talking to Doc and he said you still couldn't ride for a while, but you could go on a buggy ride... what do you say?"

"Ma is working and Anna is at school. Let me get my bonnet."

Cassie left the room and returned with her hat. Mark walked Cassie out the door and to his uncle and aunt's buggy before helping her up into the seat.

They talked as they rode, but five minutes outside of town, Mark turned off the main road and directed the horses up the path towards a house.

"What are we doing here?" Cassie asked as she recognized her former home.

"I asked Mr. Hamilton if we could use the barn."

"For what?" Cassie asked in confusion.

Mark didn't reply. He just stepped down and walked around to Cassie's side before assisting her down.

Mark led Cassie to the barn and opened the door. Cassie walked inside, Mark close behind.

Cassie was taken aback by the beautiful display of lanterns and rose petals around the barn. Mark led her to the center of the floor and held her hands.

"Mark, what are you doing?" Cassie asked, on the verge of tears.

"Cassie, last time I tried doing this we got interrupted. You've always joked about how this seems to be the only place we can get some privacy, and I figured you're just about right. Cass, I love you, and I want to spend every day of my life with you. I'm not perfect, I make a lot of mistakes, but I promise to love you and always give you someone you can trust." Mark knelt in front of her. "Cassie, will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?"

Cassie quickly nodded as tears streamed down her face.

"Yes, Mark!" Cassie wrapped her arms around Mark's neck as he embraced her. "Thank you..."

Mark understood what she met and nodded.

"I love you, Cassie."

The two separated and Mark used his thumbs to wipe away her tears.

"So that's why you were so preoccupied when we went riding!" Cassie laughed.

"Speaking of which..." Mark reached behind a hay bale and retrieved a small gift box before handing it to Cassie to open. "I know this isn't very traditional out here, and it's nothing fancy. But until you do become my wife and you have your wedding ring..." Mark waited until Cassie pulled out the simple silver band with a small red ruby on top. "I want this ring to signify the promise I'm making to you that I will never give you a reason to not trust me. Just like the circle is unbroken, I intend to never break that promise."

"Mark... you shouldn't have..."

"I wanted to. We've been through so much the last few months... you've been through even more with finding out about your parents..." Mark took the ring and slipped it onto her finger. "I love you, and want you to know what you mean to me."

Cassie wrapped her arms around Mark's neck.

After a long embrace, Mark took Cassie's hand and led her out of the barn. They walked away from the buildings and began a well enjoyed walk around the property.

As they walked, they recalled different memories they had made on that property. Some saddened them, some made them laugh, but all were filled with love.

They stopped on the edge of the property and sat along the fence they had once worked on together.

Mark felt a bit of concern as he looked into Cassie's face, not sure what she was feeling.

"Cassie, what is it?"

"...I... I can't explain it."

"Did I do something wrong?"

"No, not at all..." A tear slid down her cheek. "Mark, I've been wrestling with myself for so many years. I've been wrestling with the world it seems. I have always been close to my family, and yet I always felt so alone... lost, and afraid. I never knew who I really was, and kept putting on masks as it were. Then I met you... and you weren't satisfied with masks. You dug past my care-free, tomboyish exterior and helped me find myself again. Around you, I could let myself feel because I knew there would be no judgment or expectation; I knew there would be someone waiting to catch me when I fell. I never had that before. I had someone who loved me in a way no one else had before, and I had someone that I loved as I hadn't loved before. And Mark, I can't tell you how much I am already dreading you having to go home tonight. I can't tell you how much I love you. I can't say... thank you enough for caring about me."

Mark tucked a golden strand of hair behind her ear.

"You never need to say it."

Mark drew Cassie close and pressed his lips on hers.

 

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Morgan's Corner

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

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