The Rifleman
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Chapter 4
Written by Morgan

Lucas looked across the bedroom to find Mark's bed empty. At first he didn't find this particularly strange... until he looked at the timepiece, which read four-thirteen. Mark was an early riser, but he usually didn't get up this early. Lucas started to try to go back to sleep for a little while longer, but something was tugging at him, telling him to go find Mark. Lucas pulled himself out of bed and dressed before making his way into the front room. Mark wasn't there, but a lantern had been lit and the fire had been stoked. Lucas started a pot of coffee and then headed to the barn to see if Mark was there, working on his chores. The chores were done, but Mark wasn't there and BlueBoy was absent from his stall. Confused, Lucas stepped outside of the barn.

Where would Mark be this hour in the morning? Lucas began to look across the land surrounding the house, and as he looked up a hill, caught sight of his son next to BlueBoy at the “grave”.

At first, Lucas was a little confused, but soon it all made sense. Lucas headed up the hill and put a hand on Mark's shoulder as he came up behind his son.

Mark acknowledged his Pa's presence with a slight nod, but neither one said anything. They both simply stood there, thinking, remembering, and taking in the moment.

After quite some time, Mark turned around and looked at his Pa.

"Forward?" Mark asked. For once in his life he felt a peace about his Ma's death on June third. There was no empty hole in his heart, his Ma had filled it enough to last a lifetime when she was alive.

"No looking back," Lucas replied.

Both silently told Margaret they loved her before heading back down the hill. It was a day that surprisingly brought both of the McCain's hope of the future, but still gave them wonderful memories of the past.

"You know Pa," Mark began as they walked in the house. "Uncle Johnny might be needing a little family today."

"We'll stop in town for supper. Just keep in mind that he might be needing some distance, too. Everyone deals with these things differently, he was really close to your Ma. I don't know if we would help or cause damage."

"I know," Mark replied. "Thanks for joining me this morning."

"What happened to our spot in the woods?" Lucas asked curiously as he started breakfast.

"I don't know. The grave just seemed more fitting."

"I think I like it better."

"Why?" Mark inquired. He liked their spot in the woods much better than the grave sight.

"It's a much shorter walk," Lucas said with a smile. "How do flapjacks and bacon sound?"

"Great! ...As long as you're not making them.," Mark teased.

"At least I don't put pepper in mine," Lucas shot back.

"I did that once! What was I, five?"

"I don't know, but you're never going to live it down."

1MC1

Lucas and Mark had spent that morning riding the fence line before eating lunch and heading back towards the house. As they approached the house, Lucas slowed Razor and eventually stopped.

"Pa?" Mark asked as he circled back around and directed BlueBoy towards Razor.

"Mark, I know we've moved on about your Ma, but there was something more bothering you this morning, wasn't there?" Lucas inquired.

"...Yeah..." Mark slowly replied.

"Well?"

"Honestly, this morning was hard. Surprisingly it didn't have to do with Ma."

"What did it have to do with then?"

"...I think I almost let myself get angry again. It wasn't just anger though, it was a mixture of fear, love, concern... Pa, a year ago today you died."

Lucas waited for his son to continue; he wasn't sure how to respond.

"Pa, this morning brought back all those memories from last year. It was hard... the grief, pain, loss... loneliness. It brought worries and concerns of what might happen in the future, I was
starting to get really... “lost” I guess in fear."

"Mark-" Lucas started.

"But then I realized, it's in the past. Pa, I can't deny that it still hurts a little, but the point is that you are here, and we're together. I wish I could tell you it doesn't bother me at all, that you “dying” has no effect on me anymore, but I can't. Pa, I know this is just going to take time to heal, but I want you to know I don't blame you. I know you had a responsibility to people to catch those criminals."

"Mark, I had a responsibility to you first."

"And you fulfilled that responsibility, it just took you a while."

Lucas waited a moment before replying. He still felt guilty, but Mark was so forgiving and understanding it made what he felt bearable.

"I love you son," Lucas said as he patted Mark's shoulder.

"I'll see you in town for supper then?" Mark asked as they continued towards the house.

"Meet me at the hotel as soon as you finish at the Osborne's."

"Alright Pa, see ya later." Mark kicked BlueBoy's flanks and headed off towards the Osborne's.

2MC2

"It's about time you showed up!" Cassie hollered from one of the stalls as Mark entered the barn.

"Two O'clock, on the dot," Mark replied as he checked his pocket watch.

"It feels a lot later than that," Cassie commented.

"Rough day?" Mark asked as he walked up to Cassie.

"Just a little. The fencing on the south side of the corral got practically destroyed in last night's storm, a tree fell on top of it. Anna forgot to leave the barn door open that leads to the corral, so the horses couldn't head into the barn for shelter when it started raining. Five of the foals are missing and I've been trying to get the rest of them in the barn until we get that fence fixed. They were all pretty skittish."

"And the straw?" Mark asked as he gestured to Cassie's hair which had straw tangled in it.

"Don't ask. This is the last of the foals that stayed in the corral, we better go find the others."

"It's taken you this long to get three foals in the barn?" Mark asked teasingly.

"Lightning and Thunder were out there too, which makes five, but besides that there were... complications," Cassie defended.

"Do I want to know?"

"Just mount up," Cassie said as she headed to the other barn to get Storm out of his stall.

Mark and Cassie spent a good amount of the afternoon getting the foals back to the barn. The last foal was being quite stubborn. Mark was starting to get a little annoyed with the horse, but watching Cassie's frustration made it all worth it.

After clearing the tree that had fallen on the corral fence, Mark started repairing the fence as Cassie worked on rubbing down the leg of a foal that was injured. Mark suddenly heard Cassie yell from the barn and hurried in to see what was wrong.

"Cassie-" Mark stopped and took in the scene before him before letting out a laugh.

Cassie's dress was covered with water and the paste she had made to rub on the leg.

"Mark, this isn't funny," Cassie stated as she started to stand.

"Watch where you-" Mark started as Cassie stepped in a pile of muck. "Step." Mark couldn't help it and let out another bout of laughter.

"You try. I'm gonna go change!" Cassie declared as she stormed out of the barn.

Mark started by shoveling the muck into the wheelbarrow and then began tending to the horse's leg. After a while, Mark heard someone ride up outside.

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

"Afternoon Marshal," Mark replied. "Were you standing shift overnight?"

"Mark I need to ask you something, and I need you to give me an honest answer."

"...Sure," Mark answered, realizing that something was wrong. Really wrong.

"Do you think you can handle things around here for a week, by yourself?"

"Well, yeah, why? What's wrong?" Mark inquired, becoming concerned.

"Mark, if you can't, I don't mind hiring someone else to help you out, I just need to know."

"No, it wouldn't be a problem. What's wrong?" The look on the Marshal's face was the same one Mark saw on his Pa's face when something was seriously wrong.

"I just received word that my wife's father was seriously injured in a house fire... and her mother was killed. We need to leave on the morning train, they're not sure if he's going to make it..." the Marshal slowly replied.

"I'm sorry... of course I can handle things around here."

"We'll try to not be gone too long, but..."

"Don't worry about it. Take all the time you need... believe me, I understand."

"Thank you Mark. ...I need to go inform the family."

"If you'd like, I can finish up as soon as I can so I can get out of here and give you all some space, or stick around and finish for the day, whatever you want."

"I appreciate it Mark, but things just can't stop around here. You can go ahead and finish up for the day."

"Yes sir.”

Marshal Osborne began to head out of the barn.

"Marshal Osborne," Mark started. "I'm sorry for your loss."

"Thanks Mark."

Mark finished with the foal before getting back to work on the fence. It wasn't too long after Marshal Osborne had gone into his house that Mark heard a door slam and looked up to see Cassie running from the house and go into the barn. He hadn't ever lost a grandparent he was close to, but if it was anything like losing a parent, he knew the pain Cassie felt.

The afternoon drug on as Mark continued to work. His heart felt heavy for the Osborne's and he wished there was some way he could help. When it was time for Mark to leave, he checked the
horses for a final time in the barns, and as Mark was headed outside, he realized that Cassie hadn't ever come out of the barn. Mark looked around curiously, wondering where she could be, then saw the ladder to the hayloft.

Cassie had watched Mark work around the barn, and waited as he made his way up the ladder.

"Hi," Mark simply stated as he reached the top.

"...Hi..." Cassie replied. "...My grandparents..." Cassie began, trying to keep a dignified composure.

"I understand, your Pa told me. Cassie, I'm sorry."

Cassie just nodded; why couldn't he leave her alone?

"...How are you holding up? You've been up here for a while."

"Fine, I just like coming up here when I have nothing else to do," Cassie said, trying to convince herself she was fine more than Mark.

"I know it's hard. And I'm not gonna say I know how ya feel, 'cause every person and situation is different. Cassie, I do understand the pain though. The grief. The loss. When my Pa-"

"But at least you got your Pa back... my grandmother isn't coming back, and the same thing might happen to my grandfather!" Cassie snapped.

"I did, but I didn't get my Ma back."

"Oh..." Cassie stated. She had completely forgotten about her question of whether Mrs. McCain had left or died. Well, now she had her answer. Mark must've thought she was so insensitive. "Mark, I'm sorry..."

"I understand. When you're trying to process the loss of someone you love, you don't think anyone could understand your pain, and to a point, you do have different feelings than the people around you. But it's all grief, and it all is horrible. Some people think it gets easier, that once you've lost someone, the next person isn't as bad. But they're wrong. I'd say it gets even worse."

"Well thanks, that's awful reassuring."

"I'm trying to say, that it doesn't, but you do learn to handle it better. Yeah sure, I got my Pa back, but I went through the whole grieving process again. And it was actually worse than when
my Ma died. But I knew that I couldn't run away, even though I wanted to. At the same time, I couldn't just put up a tough front for people. You have to let yourself feel, let yourself cry, and be open about what you're experiencing. It's the only way to heal properly."

"What do you mean, “heal properly”?" Cassie inquired.

"After my Ma died, my Pa packed up all our belongings and we left our home, everything I had ever known. Only being six, there were some things I didn't understand, but one thing I did understand after a few days was that my Ma was gone... forever. Even at that age, I soon realized my Pa was hurting, a lot. After he thought I fell asleep was when he'd let himself cry. I tried to be strong for him, I never brought it up, kept quiet, didn't show him the tears. I kept it all inside, and ignored it instead of addressing the pain. Then we settled in North Fork. By this point, Pa had healed, and I thought I had too... until I started forgetting memories with my Ma, which honestly scared me. It took a while, and I was able to find some of them, but with the memories came that long buried pain, and I had to deal with it again. It took a long time, but with my Pa's help I became at peace with my Ma's death. Then my Pa “died”. It hurt so much more, I was almost ready to give up, I had no way to go on. I didn't even have Micah to talk to."

"Well how did you survive?"

"The first step was crying."

"You?" Cassie asked, a bit shocked. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't-"

"It's fine. Yes, I cried, all the time. I had to embrace the grief, and not bury it like with my Ma. The second thing was talking about it with your Pa. I honestly don't know what I would've done without him there, helping me. There's no shame in talking about it, no shame in crying. It shows that you care, that you love. Emotions are part of being human. Don't shove them away."

Cassie stared at Mark for a long moment. He understood... he cared. He knew she was hurting and was trying to help.

"She's gone..." Cassie cried as she rested her head against the wall.

Mark hesitantly reached to put a hand on Cassie's shoulder. He wished he could give her more comfort than that, but it was all he could offer.

There was now a heavy flow of tears streaming down Cassie's face, but both Mark and Cassie knew it was a good thing that they were there.

"She was like my best friend. Always there for me, always willing to stop whatever she was doing to talk to me. All she ever did was love and give... and I can't believe she's gone." Cassie continued to cry as she leaned on Mark's shoulder. "I want her here, Mark... so badly. Moving
was so hard on all of us. We talked about all the visits we were going to have to make. When we left last summer, I had no idea... it would be the last time I saw her. ...I'm never going to see her again!" Cassie sobbed as Mark silently sat there, supporting her.

He knew now that he had her crying, all he could do was listen. Nothing he could say would help her, or relieve the pain, but he could give her someone to talk to, and that's exactly what he did. Cassie tried to put into words the grief and sadness she felt, the loneliness that she felt... the fears that had come because she realized now how easy it was to lose someone she cared about.

*****

After Cassie had finished pouring out her feelings to Mark, they sat in the hay loft, simply staring out the open barn door.

"I better get back inside. Ma is probably worried... I left kinda... abruptly," Cassie said as she sat up and wiped her cheeks.

"Alright," Mark quietly replied. He wished he could take her pain away, but it was something she was going to have to feel for herself.

Mark escorted Cassie to the porch, and she started to go inside before stopping herself.

"Mark?" Cassie called.

"Yes?" Mark replied as he turned back around.

"Thank you."

3MC3

When Lucas came into town that evening, he wasn't really sure what to expect. He didn't know how much Johnny had changed over the last few years, and didn't know whether to expect to find Johnny drunk or completely fine.

As Lucas passed the saloon, he hoped the fact that he didn't see Johnny there was a good sign. Margaret and Johnny had been so close, it was something Lucas had seen even before he had married Margaret. Making his way into the hotel, Lucas looked around for Lou and caught sight of her taking orders in the restaurant.

"Howdy Lucas, what brings you to town?" Johnny inquired as he came up to Lucas.

"Mark and I were going to see if you wanted to have supper with us tonight," Lucas replied after turning around. "Johnny, I didn't know if family would help or cause damage today, but whatever your answer is, it's fine."

"Thanks Lucas, I appreciate it. Since Lou rejected my invitation for a picnic supper, I suppose I could join you two," Johnny said as Lou walked by.

"I have a business ta run!" Lou called over her left shoulder.

Lucas and Johnny began making their way into the restaurant as Johnny asked where Mark was.

"He should be here soon, was working at the Osborne's today," Suddenly, Lucas realized what his brother-in-law had said earlier. "Johnny, did you really ask Lou to supper?" Lucas inquired as he gave Johnny a questioning look.

"Sure did," Johnny said with a smile. "That woman is something else."

"You're not seriously thinking about anything long term... are you?"

"Is there a problem?" Johnny asked.

"No..."

"Good, because I wanted to ask you if you knew of anyone I should get permission from before I propose."

"Propose? You?" Lucas asked, a little stunned.

"You heard me."

"...Well to answer your question, no, there's not anyone. You're really serious about settling down?" Lucas asked.

"Sure am. Already in the process of buying a house."

"Well Johnny, you're full of surprises. I hope she says..." Lucas stopped as he sighed and closed his eyes.

"What is it?"

"Mark."

"I know. Just do me a favor and don't let him find out, I want to be the one to tell him, or I'll never hear the end of it."

"I think it's too late. He practically had you two married the first day you showed up."

Lucas and Johnny went ahead and ordered their meals, Lucas figured John must've kept Mark late for some reason. As Lucas and Johnny talked, Johnny explained how he and Lou had gotten so close.

"You nervous about proposing?" Lucas asked.

"Weren't you?" Johnny asked.

"Yes, but you're lucky. You don't have to worry about getting on her brother's good side."

"What can I say? You were coming in to take my sister away, I wasn't gonna make it easy for ya."

"You gave me such a hard time, did you really think I wasn't right for her?"

"Naw, I knew right away you two were made for each other. I'm glad you didn't give up."

The two finished supper and soon Johnny said he had to go take care of some business.

"I'm sorry Mark didn't show up, I don't know what could've kept him. It was his idea to come into town tonight," Lucas stated.

"It's alright, it was good catching up with you Lucas. I'll see you later," Johnny said as he got up from the table.

Lucas watched his brother-in-law wait for Lou to finish with a customer before Johnny bade her goodbye, paid his bill, and left the restaurant. Lucas softly chuckled to himself. Never in a hundred years would he have envisioned Lou or Johnny getting married.

Lucas paid for his meal and went to wait for Mark in the lobby. It wasn't like Mark to do something like this, and was upset his son had been so inconsiderate as to not even send word he was going to be late. Lucas couldn't think of anything that should've kept Mark, at least not this late. Mark should've left the Osborne's almost two hours ago, and it was only a five minute ride to town.

Finally, Lucas watched his son walk into the hotel and remove his hat.

"Your uncle already had to leave," Lucas said as Mark approached him.

"You didn't wait for me, did you?" Mark inquired, hoping they hadn't.

"No."

"I'm sorry, I lost track of time."

"Working?" Lucas asked curiously.

"Well no, you see..."

"Mark, it's not like you to stand people up like that. You should've at least left a message with Lou before heading off to do whatever you did. You should know better than this."

"Yes Pa, I know that's-"

"Mark, I really don't want to hear any excuses. Let's head home."

Mark knew his Pa was jumping to conclusions and not really being fair, but decided to explain later. His Pa didn't really seem in the mood to discuss anything.

Once home, Mark got something to eat and then did his evening chores out in the barn. It hurt a little that his Pa hadn't let him explain, but Mark knew he jumped to conclusions quite often himself. As Mark worked in the barn, he was fighting letting himself get angry with his Pa. He hated seeing that disappointed look in his Pa's eyes, but there's nothing he really would have done differently had the situation occurred again.

Lucas was sitting inside, making sure all the books were balanced when Mark came in. Mark went to the table and stood there for a moment, waiting for his Pa to look up.

"Pa, can I talk to you for a minute?" Mark asked once he had his Pa's attention.

"Mark, you know you can talk to me any time. What is it?" Lucas asked as he gestured to a chair.

Mark took a seat and took a few more moments to finish thinking through what he was going to say before he started to reply.

"Pa, the Osborne's found out today that Mrs. Osborne's parents were in a house fire."

"Are they all right?" Lucas asked with concern.

"Her father was seriously injured and they don't know if he's going to make it. Her mother died. The Osborne's are leaving on the morning train to try to get there as soon as possible."

"How are the Osborne's doing?"

"As good as can be expected. Cassie took it really hard. She was up in the hay loft for hours while I was working. I joined her after I was done working, I guess to try to offer her comfort. I'm glad I did though... she really needed to talk to someone despite trying to put up a wall at first. I sat with her as she cried for almost two hours. I didn't really say much after I got her to open up. She really just needed somebody to cry on and I was able to be that someone."

"Well I'm glad you were able to help-" Suddenly, Lucas realized what Mark was indirectly, respectfully telling him. He had been wrong. "That's why you didn't show up in town or leave a message, wasn't it?"

Mark simply nodded as he shifted his weight uncomfortably. He tried to read his Pa's face, but found it difficult to figure it out.

"Mark, I'm sorry, I should've let you explain while we were in town. I shouldn't have jumped to conclusions. When you said you hadn't been working, I figured you went off fishing or something."

"...Do you really think I would've done something like that?" Mark carefully asked.

"No, but it was the only thing I could think of. I'm sorry Mark."

"I understand, Pa," Mark replied. "So, Marshal Osborne needs me to take care of things at his place while he's gone, that's not a problem, is it?"

"Not at all. And if things get to be too much over there, let me know."

"I will Pa."

4MC4

The next morning, Mark was at the Osborne's early to help however he could. He did the normal barn chores that Cassie and Anna typically did so the family could finish getting ready to go. As Mark and Marshal Osborne loaded the buck board they didn't really do a lot of talking until John suddenly spoke up.

"Mark, Cassie told us what you did for her yesterday. Her mother and I talked about last night, and want to thank you for taking the time to talk to Cassie like you did. I honestly don't know if we would've gotten her to open up if you hadn't talked with her first. Thank you."

"It wasn't a problem, I understood just needing someone to listen... like when you first came to town, and helped me. I'm glad I was able to be there for her."

"We're also grateful for you taking everything on around here. And just so we're clear, I will be paying you for your extra time."

"It's not necessary. I'd like to help out, as a friend."

"Then I'll be paying you, as a friend."

Mark rode in the back of the buck board with Cassie and Anna to the train station. Once they arrived, Mark helped the girls down, then helped John and Micah, who had been waiting for them, load the bags on the train. After they had finished and Mark made his way to the buck board, Cassie came up to him.

"Thanks again for being there yesterday. Mark, you're a real friend... I don't have many of those."

"You're welcome Cassie. I hope your trip goes well," Mark replied.

The conductor called for everyone to board the train and Cassie joined her family.

"I sure hope the house is at least standing when we get back!" Cassie called from one of the windows.

"Well you won't be there to catch the kitchen on fire again, so I don't think there's anything to worry about!" Mark replied as the train began to move.

"How do you know about that?!" Cassie exclaimed.

Mark just smiled, shrugged, and waved goodbye as Cassie looked to her family for an explanation. They all just gave her the same response as Mark.

After the train was out of sight, Mark headed back to the Osborne's and started working on his normal responsibilities. Mark was working with one of the foals in the corral when he saw his uncle ride up.

"Hey uncle Johnny," Mark greeted as his uncle made his way to the corral. "If you're looking for Marshal Osborne, he left on this morning's train."

"Looking for you, actually," Johnny replied. "Micah said this is where you would be when I mentioned needing to talk to you."

Surprised, Mark walked over to the edge of the corral with the foal.

"What'd you need to talk to me about?" Mark inquired.

"Seems I need help with something, probably in the next two or three weeks. Could ya give me a hand?"

"Well probably, what is it?"

"I'm still waitin' for a few things to fall into place, but I'm going to need your help fixin' up the house I'm gonna buy."

"You're settling down for good?" Mark asked hopefully.

"Sure am."

"Just wait 'till Pa finds out. Even after what you said a while back 'bout having a place to call home, he didn't think you'd actually settle."

"He already knows. In fact, he knows something you don't," Johnny said with a smile.

"What is it?" Mark said as he gave his uncle a confused look.

"You'll find out soon enough."

"You talking about you proposing to Lou?" Mark inquired.

The look on Johnny's face answered Mark's question.

"I've known for weeks."

"But how could you have possibly known?" Johnny asked.

"I have my ways..." Mark snickered.

At first, Johnny gave Mark a disapproving frown, but eventually joined his nephew's laughter.

"Took ya long enough. When are you going to ask Lou the question?" Mark inquired.

"I'm thinking it'll be the end of July."

"I'm glad you're stayin' Uncle Johnny, it's been great having you around."

"You just keep quiet about this, ya hear?" Johnny said.

"I've kept quiet this long, I don't think seven more weeks is going to be a problem," Mark replied.

"Yeah, real quiet. And one more thing, I can do without your sarcastic comments and teasing."

"Who, me?" Mark asked innocently.

"See ya later, Mark," Johnny said as he smiled and playfully slapped Mark's arm before mounting up.

Mark soon finished at the Osborne's and was on his way home. His thoughts drifted to the Osborne's and hoped they were all doing alright, he was most concerned about Cassie. When the train had pulled out, she seemed to be doing okay, but in the buck board Mark could tell she was battling the tears.

Once he arrived at the ranch, Mark headed to the south pasture to check on the cattle. Everything seemed fine, except Mark couldn't find one of the calves. He looked in the bushes, checked for a break in the fence, even found its mother, but the calf itself was nowhere to be seen. Mark wondered if it had gotten sick or something and his Pa had brought it up to the barn, but when Mark put BlueBoy away later, he saw it wasn't there.

By the time Mark was finishing with his chores, Lucas rode into the yard.

"Hi Pa," Mark greeted as Lucas walked into the barn with Razor. "How did fixing that fence go?"

"I should've taken you up on your offer to help me after you got back. It was a mess."

"Do you still need any help?" Mark offered.

"No, I got it done, it was just a lot more difficult than I expected."

"Pa, did you do something with one of the calves?" Mark inquired

"What do you mean, “do something”?" Lucas asked.

"Move it or something. One of the calves was missing when I checked the cattle this afternoon."

"No, I didn't. Sure you didn't just mis-count?" Lucas questioned.

"I counted three times, and checked all over for it."

"We'll keep an eye out for it then. Probably just made its way to a different pasture."

"I hope that's all it is." Mark stated.

5MC5

"Mornin' Nils." Mark called as he entered the livery Thursday.

"Hello, Mark! Good to see ya. You haven't been around for so long, I thought I was going to have to find someone else to play checkers with."

"Sorry, been a bit busy."

"What brings you here today?"

"Pa asked me to drop some saw blades off on the way to the Osborne's. Do you think you could get to them today?" Mark asked as he put the blades on a nearby table.

"Sure, not a problem. I'll have them ready for you this afternoon."

"Thanks," Mark replied.

"You up for a quick game when you pick them up?" Nils inquired.

"Sounds good," Mark agreed. "I better get going, see you this afternoon."

"So long."

Mark was almost to the edge of town when he heard someone call his name. He turned around in the saddle to see Mr. Griswold approaching him. Mark dismounted and waited for his former teacher to catch up with him.

"Morning Mr. Griswold."

"Good morning, Mark. A pleasure to see you. What brings you this far into town?"

"Headed to the Osborne's. Had to cut through town and make a stop at the livery."

"Well I'm glad I caught you, saved me a trip out to your ranch. Do you have a minute?"

"Sure, what is it?" Mark inquired.

"I received a reply from the Chicago Medical College, one of the schools I wrote, stating they wanted to give you a full scholarship for their medical program. I know you said you didn't really think you were interested in going to school, but you have the opportunity. Mark, I encourage you to take it, it's the chance of a lifetime."

Mark was surprised to say the least, he wasn't exactly sure how to respond.

"...I don't know. Mr. Griswold, I really appreciate you writing the schools, but I just don't know if it's what I'm supposed to do."

"Promise me you'll think about it, I'd hate to see you give up such an opportunity without exploring your options more."

"I will," Mark assured.

"Mark, at the end of July I'm taking a trip to Chicago to visit some friends. I would like you to think about coming with me so I could show you the school and introduce you to some of the instructors who will still be there. You'd only have to stay a few days before you headed back to North Fork, but I really encourage you to just visit, at least."

"I'll think about it and give you an answer soon," Mark replied.

"Thank you. I best be on my way and let you go, just keep your mind open Mark. You have such potential."

"Thank you Mr. Griswold," Mark said before mounting up and taking off.

As Mark rode, he thought about what Stephan had said. It was a great opportunity, but was it one he was supposed to take? Could he even bring himself to take it if it was?

As Mark worked that morning, he continued to contemplate his offer. It was much more difficult to try to make a decision than he thought it would be. He knew he didn't really want to leave North Fork... at all. But finally decided, that at least for Mr. Griswold's sake, he'd talk to his Pa about visiting the college.

Each day Mark missed having the Osborne's around more and more. Everything seemed so quiet and empty around the place without them, and today was no exception. Mark had gotten kinda used to working side by side with Cassie, and missed her company, as well as the banter between the two them.

Cassie was normally the one to take care of Thunder and Lightning, but since she was gone Mark took some extra time to work with them. He followed Cassie's routine as closely as he could remember and thought through the times he had watched her work with them. He thought about other times, as well. Thanksgiving, their occasional rides, the graduation reception. Mark faintly smiled as he remembered the snowball fight they had gotten into a few months back. Even though Mark had several friends his age, he had often found it difficult to relate to any of them. They could do normal things like go swimming or fishing together, but he felt out of place
almost when hanging around with them... perhaps because he had grown up so much faster. Mark knew that was the reason why he preferred hanging around the adults, even if he couldn't contribute to their conversation. Cassie was different. He felt like she was the one person his age he could connect with. She'd been the closest friend he'd ever had.

As Mark was getting ready to leave that afternoon, he passed Storm's stall and petted the horse before giving him a sugar cube. Mark could tell he was anxious to be ridden.

"Just a few more days boy," Mark told the horse. "She'll be back."

Mark suddenly realized how glad he was to hear himself say that, and for the first time he wondered... no... he knew, Cassie was becoming much more than just a friend.

6MC6

After beating Nils at checkers and picking up the saw blades, Mark headed home. Once Mark arrived at the ranch, he found his Pa repairing the buck board.

"Something happen?" Mark asked as he dismounted.

"I was heading out to fix a break in the fence when the axle gave way," Lucas replied. "Did Nils get to those saw blades?"

"Yep," Mark answered as he pulled them out of the saddle bag. "I'm glad it broke here instead of way out in the pasture."

"You and me both."

After Mark put the blades away, he started to give his Pa a hand with the buck board. After they had it fixed, they headed out to fix the fence line.

As they worked, Lucas could tell Mark's mind was preoccupied with other things and didn't try to engage in any conversation until Mark finally spoke up.

"I saw Mr. Griswold in town today..." Mark slowly began. Mark realized that this was going to be a very difficult conversation. "...You remember back when he said he was writing some colleges?"

Lucas looked up at his son as he nodded. His mind began to race as he realized where this conversation could be going.

"Well, seems there's a school in Chicago that wants to give me a full scholarship."

"...What did you tell Mr. Griswold?" Lucas asked, trying not to show how torn he was. He was
proud of Mark, he wanted him to prosper. But for his son to go away... that far?

"I told him I'm not sure it's what I'm supposed to do, but that I'd think about it. He's going to Chicago at the end of July and wants me to go see the school for just a few days. I'd come back alone, but he wants to be able to introduce me to some people and show me the school."

"Are you going to go?"

"I... don't really know if I want to, but I feel like I should. That is, if you're alright with it and I can get the time off from Marshal Osborne and if you don't need me around here." Mark was almost hoping his Pa would tell him not to go. He was afraid that he'd get there and realize he was supposed to leave North Fork, leave his home, leave... his Pa.

At the same time, Lucas wanted to tell Mark what he was wanting to hear, but Lucas knew that would simply be selfishness on his part. This was Mark's life, and he couldn't stand in the way.

"Do whatever you want, Mark, I can manage around here for a few days while you're gone. Just don't let Mr. Griswold, or me, influence your decision."

7MC7

Monday morning, Mark stood on the platform of the train station, waiting for the train to come to a stop. As the passengers began to step off the train, Mark began took look for members of the Osborne family. Mrs. Osborne was the first off the train, followed by Anna, then John. Mark headed towards the family, waiting to see Cassie step off the train any second... but never did.

"Where's Cassie?" Mark asked, confusion written all over his face.

"It was decided that she would stay with her aunt to help take care of her grandfather. It looks like he's going to pull through," John answered.

"How long will she be out there?"

"One to two months, it depends on how much help her aunt needs," Marshal Osborne responded.

"Oh," Mark said, showing a bit more disappointment than he had meant to.

Mark helped get the bags and load them on the Osborne's buck board before the four headed back to the Osborne's home.

As Mark worked that morning, he found it hard to concentrate. His mind kept wandering off... he was confused, and perhaps even a bit alarmed by the fact that it kept going back to Cassie.
Mark tried to focus on what he was doing, and even though he got it done, it didn't keep him from daydreaming.

Before leaving for home, Mark talked to Marshal Osborne about the potential trip to Chicago. John congratulated Mark on the scholarship and told him to take off whatever time he needed, just to let him know so he could work out scheduling with Micah.

"Thanks, I'll try to make it as short as possible," Mark said before mounting up.

"Not a problem." John replied.

As Mark rode home, he succeeded in convincing himself that this trip would be good for him. It would help give him get perspective and help him explore his options better. Leaving home was going to be difficult, even for just a few days, but Mark knew it was a good step towards independence and adulthood.

8MC8

"Cassie, are you feeling all right? You've hardly touched your supper," Cassie's aunt asked as she looked at her niece with concern.

"I'm sorry," Cassie replied, sitting up a little straighter. "I guess I'm just distracted."

"Missing your grandmother?"

"I suppose that's it," Cassie stated solemnly.

"Cassie, you're worrying me. I don't think you've held more than two conversations over the past week. That's not like you at all. Darling, I know you and my mother were close, there's no shame in talking about it."

"I know. When we first found out, one of my friends back home helped me see that, and we... well, I guess I talked a lot. I still miss Grandma, but he helped me see that eventually I could come to peace with her death... and I think I have."

"Then what's wrong?"

"I don't know. I'm probably just homesick. I miss the ranch, the horses, working with..." Cassie stopped herself, a bit surprised at what she had almost said. As Cassie thought about the past week, she realized Mark had been at the forefront of her mind almost the whole time. "I miss my friends," Cassie hastily said, talking more to herself than her aunt. ...But the words didn't seem to fit right. "But I'll be fine. Let me help you with the dishes," Cassie stated before standing and starting to clear the table.

Cassie's aunt watched her niece curiously as she also began to clear dishes from the table. Cassie's sudden change in behavior made her wonder what was going through her niece's head.

Cassie dried and put away the dishes as her aunt washed them. She was more than startled by the realization of how often she really did think of Mark, how much she missed him. She had gotten used to seeing him every single day, and was beginning to realize how much she had been enjoying the times they spent together. She started to wonder if there was something more between them than she had admitted. At Mark's graduation, “friends” seemed to describe their relationship fine... but now... maybe it didn't. Cassie was confused... and almost scared by these thoughts, but at the same time... they excited her.

"I think that plate's dry enough," Cassie's aunt stated.

"Hmm?" Cassie asked, slowly returning to the present. "Oh, I suppose it is," Cassie replied before putting it away.

"Why don't you and I make some chocolate pudding for your grandfather, I'm sure he'd enjoy it."

Cassie suddenly let out a bout of laughter as she remembered the last time she had enjoyed some chocolate pudding. It had been Thanksgiving with Mark.

"There's the Cassie I remember," her aunt smiled. "What's so funny?"

"Oh, just a little incident on Thanksgiving. I got into a... I don't know what you would call it. It ended with pudding in my hair and pumpkin pie on someone else's face."

"I'm sure your mother was pleased with you."

"She still doesn't know what happened."

"Oh, Cassie..." her aunt sighed as she laughed along with her niece.

As they worked on the pudding, Cassie continued to think about her and Mark. Was she just making all this up, or did she feel something for him?

"Aunt Camilla, did you ever meet someone... well, a man, who you became friends with... and then wondered if there was... something more between you?"

Cassie could sense her aunt becoming distant. Her eyes had a glossed over look and a faint smile appeared on her face.

"I'm sorry, I shouldn't-" Cassie began.

"No, it's alright. ...A few years ago, there was a man that became a very close friend, and over time our relationship did develop into something more. It wasn't sudden, it wasn't rushed, it just came on slowly, and one day I realized what all he meant to me. I really did love him..."

"What happened?"

"I... wasn't ready. Things happened and we parted ways... then I found out he died about a year ago." There was a pause in the conversation as Cassie's aunt reflected on the man she once loved... and even though he was dead, still did. "Why do you ask?"

"Because I think a friend back home is becoming... or has become, more than a friend. I don't know what to do though... a few weeks back I kinda made it clear we were friends, but I don't know how he feels... and I'm not quite sure how I feel, honestly."

"Cassie, be honest to yourself, no matter what the outcome may be. Do you care for him?"

"A great deal. He's the closest someone has ever been to me. He puts up with my teasing... gives me a great deal of it as well. He's kind... patient... quite a gentleman..."

"I think you know what your heart is telling you."

"Yes... I think I do," Cassie slowly said as a smile crept onto her face. But suddenly it disappeared. "How do I know if he feels the same way? What if he's happy with just being friends and-"

"Cassie, be open with him. If you're good friends, something like this shouldn't end with things awkward between the two of you, even if he doesn't feel the same way."

Cassie thought about what her aunt had said for a long moment.

"Aunt Camilla, may I write a letter?"

"Of course."

Cassie's aunt stood to get the proper stationery. If only she had done the same thing... how different would her life be?

9MC9

Micah was watching Lucas walk back and forth across his office floor as he sipped his coffee. It
was almost amusing watching the strong, tall, seemingly confident rancher fret. If the situation hadn't been so serious for his friend, Micah would've laughed, but he understood some of Lucas's pain... he didn't want to see Mark go either.

"Micah, why does this have to be so hard?" Lucas asked. "I told Mark a long time ago that I supported him in whatever he chose to do, but the closer it gets to him leaving, the harder it gets for me to keep saying that."

"It's not like he's leaving forever, Lucas-boy. He's only going to be gone a week."

"But what if he decides to go to school? Micah, you know I've slowly had to accept that Mark's grown up. I get it. That makes it even harder though. The older he gets, the closer we bond, in ways we couldn't when he was younger. What if Mark decides to move out East when he finishes school?"

"Lucas, you're afraid of losing your boy, your partner, your son. But he won't leave you behind him. Lucas-boy, you're not going to lose him. You two are too close for that. No matter how much distance separates you two, you'll stay connected. Wherever he goes, whatever he does, he will take the love you give him with him. He's got to find his calling, and as you know, you can't interfere with that."

"And when it comes to saying goodbye? Possibly for years?"

"If it ever comes to that, and that's a big, troublesome “if”, you both will know it's the right thing. You're afraid of something else too, though, aren't you?" Micah inquired.

"He's my son, how could I not be?" Lucas asked as he braced himself against the desk, looking Micah in the eyes.

"I understand why you are Lucas. You and Mark have encountered more tragedies than I care to count. But the fact is, Mark is no safer here than he is on the other side of the world. Neither you or I can do anything to protect your son."

"I've got enemies all over the place. At least while he's here I can recognize them and warn him. If he's off at some school..."

"Like Marcello?" Micah asked.

Lucas took in a deep breath as he gave Micah a stern look.

"Micah that was-"

"I know it was a low blow. That's why I said it. You know as well as I do, that not even you can
protect Mark all the time. Wake up Lucas-boy, face the reality you're in, and enjoy the time you have him here. If Mark does decide to leave, you should be able to look back at the last few months you were together as good times, not strained, tension filled ones. Trust your boy, Lucas, he'll make the right decision."

"...Micah, how are you always so... “right” all the time?"

"I've got plenty of years of experience. I gotta go walk the town, see you Sunday," Micah said as he got his shotgun.

"Thanks Micah."

"Not a problem, Lucas-boy," Micah replied as he patted Lucas' shoulder.

10MC10

Lucas kicked Razor to increase his pace when he caught sight of Mark about fifty yards ahead of him on the road. As he came close to his son, he realized that Mark wasn't focused on his surroundings at all.

"Mark, are you alright?" Lucas asked as he looked at his boy in concern. "Mark?" Lucas asked as he put a hand on Mark's shoulder.

Suddenly feeling somebody touching him, Mark just about jumped off BlueBoy. He looked to his left and relaxed when he saw his Pa next to him.

"Didn't hear ya come up behind me, you startled me," Mark said as he engaged himself with the present.

"I know. Is everything all right? You're usually very aware of what's going on around you. I don't need to tell you why it's important." It wasn't like Mark to let somebody that close to him without simply sensing their presence, let alone hearing them.

"Guess I'm just tired."

"What were you thinking about?" Lucas inquired.

"Oh just work and things," He was thinking about work he did with Cassie, but nevertheless, it was work. Mark didn't quite know how to bring Cassie up to his Pa yet. He'd been struggling with it for weeks, and the more he thought about her, the more he missed her, the stronger his feelings for her became.

"How are things going with your uncle's house?"

"Uncle Johnny is quite a slave driver."

"Are you two going to be able to finish before you leave on Friday?" Lucas asked.

"Oh yeah, I forgot about that. We should be, though. Just have a few finishing touches left to tend to tomorrow."

"You forgot about your trip?" Lucas asked as he chuckled at his son.

"Guess I've just been distracted lately."

"Yes, you have been. Is there anything you're needing to talk about? Other than distracted you've seemed... just different lately. What's going on?"

"Pa, honestly I'm not really sure. I think there are just some things I need to sort out in my head before I talk to you about it. Nothing against you, it's just... I don't know if I can even organize my thoughts enough to talk through them."

"I understand, Mark. Since you're leaving in two days, don't you think you should pack when we get home?"

"I guess I oughta." Suddenly, it hit Mark. "Two days? It's that soon?"

"Lose track of the days again?" Lucas asked as he laughed.

"I guess I did. Boy, It's gonna be strange leaving North Fork."

"You have before."

"Well yeah, I guess... it's gonna be strange leaving you in North Fork."

"I know what you mean. It's always been the other way around or we've gone together. It'll be different, that's for sure." Lucas paused before changing the subject. "So, other than the fact that he's a slave driver, how do you like working with your uncle?"

"It depends on the day. There're the days that are interesting, and then the days that are quite dull."

"How do you mean?" Lucas inquired.

"Well, a dull day would be when all he can think about is Lou. He goes on and on and on about her, telling me things I already know. He doesn't seem to remember that I've known her longer
than he has."

"...And an interesting day?"

Mark smirked and shook his head, trying to hold in his laughter.

"Well?" Lucas asked as he looked at Mark curiously.

"That would be like today. When he does some... remembering back to the “good ole days”,"

"Those, “good ole days” he's telling you about were after you were born, right?" Lucas asked, dreading the answer.

"Not a chance," Mark laughed.

"He hasn't told you about Colorado, right?"

"First day I helped him. Is that why you got on me about spookin' cattle a few years back?"

"I “got on” you because it was wrong," Lucas stated firmly. "...And I didn't want you ending up in the trouble your uncle got me into."

"There's no way I would've gone that far," Mark said emphatically. "You'd tan my hide if I went into-"

"You know what, let's change the subject," Lucas declared.

Mark just laughed and soon Lucas joined his son.

"Seriously though, don't ever bring that story up around anybody," Lucas cautioned.

"I won't..." Mark answered as he continued to chuckle.

11MC11

Thursday evening, Lucas joined Mark outside and the two had a little target practice. Lucas was still much quicker than Mark, but his son's accuracy matched his own.

Lucas remembered what Micah had told him the day before and had decided to make the best of what time he did have Mark with him. Lucas knew he could trust his son to make they right
choice.

Mark had noticed his Pa had been become much more relaxed, and was glad. He figured his trip was probably what was causing his Pa stress, but it was something Mark knew he needed to do. It was good to have things less strained at home, and was glad he was leaving with everything as it should be. A little fear still threatened Mark, and he was nervous about what would happen over the next week, but for the moment, Mark was able to put it aside and enjoy the evening with his Pa.

"Are you taking your rifle?" Lucas asked as the two went to look at the targets they had just shot at.

"Yep," Mark confidently stated.

It surprised Lucas that Mark didn't add, “as long as you're alright with it” or “as long as you don't have a problem”, but it didn't necessarily bother him. Mark was getting ready to decide whether to go to college or not, something like this should be a decision that he could make on his own, anyway.

"I don't think Mr. Griswold is going to be happy about it though," Mark added.

"Why do you say that?" Lucas inquired.

"You should've seen his reaction the first time I brought my .22 to school. I'm surprised he didn't talk to you about it. He doesn't really like the idea of people walking around with guns. Of course, when he approached me about it, I ...respectfully... informed him that out here it's kind of a necessity whether we like it or not. He kinda agreed. I'm sure when he sees the gun he's going to say that in “civilized” country, there's no need to carry firearms. But you get “uncivilized” people wherever you go. I don't like the idea of people having to carry guns either, but if I can protect myself and the people around me by carrying my rifle, I will."

"Just stick to what you believe is right, Mark. Don't let other people make you back down. I'm not saying that's what Stephan was trying or will try to do, but you'll meet plenty of people who will."

"I won't."

"...You better turn in, you've got a long day tomorrow."

It wasn't really a suggestion, Mark knew it was an order. He may be seventeen, but when his Pa told him to turn in, Mark knew to head to bed.

12MC12

The next morning, Lucas and Mark headed into town to run a few errands before Mark left. Lucas dropped Mark off to check the mail, then drove the buck board over to the general store so he could start loading supplies.

Mark looked through the few letters they had received. One was for his Pa from Miss Hattie, another for his Pa from somebody Mark didn't know, and the last one... Mark read the name on the envelope again, just to make sure it was for him. Mark couldn't remember the last time he had received a letter. There was no return address, but the writing on the envelope was very neat and clear. Mark wanted to open it right away, but decided to put it in his pocket and go help his Pa.

Mark didn't have to be at the train station until one, so he and Lucas went to the hotel for lunch. As they entered the establishment, they saw Johnny once again talking to Lou at the front desk. They walked up to the two of them and heard Lou giving in to Johnny.

"Alright, I don't know what ye're planning, but fine. If it'll make ye happy, I would be delighted to join ye for lunch on Sunday." Turning to Lucas and Mark, she continued. "Are ye here for lunch?"

"Sure are. You two want to join us?" Lucas asked.

"I already ate and need to get back to Jackford's. Thanks though," Johnny replied.

"Alice is on her honeymoon and the cook came down with somethin', so I'm understaffed, even with Tara's help. The woman shouldn't be in the kitchen though, what with two youngin's to keep track of. Thank ye for the invitation, but I've gotta keep things runnin' around here. Pick a seat and I'll take yer order as soon as ye're ready," Lou said before going to greet a couple that had just walked inside.

"You would ask her when I'm gone, wouldn't you?" Mark asked his uncle.

"You bet I would. Enjoy your trip, Mark," Johnny replied before he turned around to leave.

"What did you mean with your uncle? Ask who, what?" Lucas inquired as they started towards the restaurant.

"He's gonna propose while I'm gone."

"How could you tell?" Lucas curiously asked as they sat down.

"He was nervous and uncomfortable. Uncle Johnny is never like that. He wouldn't look her in the eye, played with his hat, and constantly shifted his weight. After she accepted his invitation, he relaxed a little, but you could still tell he was anxious."

"Hmm," was all Lucas said in reply. Mark had always been very observant when it came to Lucas's behaviors, but Lucas hadn't realized that Mark picked up on other people's mannerisms as well.

After lunch, Lucas and Mark headed over to the train station. Lucas found it amusing when Stephan commented on the gun the way Mark said he would. The conductor called for everyone to board, and not caring who was watching, Mark hugged his Pa.

"I love you," father and son said simultaneously.

"See ya in a week," Mark stated before turning to board the train.

"Have a good time, son."

13MC13

Mark stuck his hand into his pocket and pulled out his letter and train ticket. After showing his ticket to the conductor, Mark put it back, but held onto the letter as he sat down again. He was just about to open it when Mr. Griswold started talking about the college - again. Mark placed the letter inside his hat and listened to his former teacher praise the school's excellent programs. Stephan had talked of nothing else the entire first train ride, and Mark figured he'd talk of nothing else on the second. Mark didn't mind too much though, he found hearing about their different methods and techniques quite interesting.

"Mark, choosing to be a physician would be a perfect career choice for you. You're intelligent and good with people. It wouldn't surprise me a bit if one day you go down in history as a famous doctor."

"...That's if I choose to go to college," Mark tactfully reminded.

"Yes, if..." Stephan slowly replied. "Mark, it would be a great waste for you to not use your mind to its full potential."

"Yes, I know. But it's not a waste as long as I am using it, and I don't necessarily need a degree to do that."

"I hope you make your own decision, and don't let people you're close to make it for you."

Mark knew exactly who Mr. Griswold was referring to, and the comment didn't go over too well with Mark. He was careful not to show his growing annoyance with Mr. Griswold and calmed down a bit before replying.

"Pa and I have talked about it, and he told me to do whatever I thought was right. Mr. Griswold, that may very well be going to school to become a doctor or something, but it also may not be. Honestly, at first I was pretty closed to the idea of going off to college. But now, I see the wonderful opportunity it is for me, and am going to be seriously considering it over the next few days and weeks. I know it's a decision I have to make for myself, which is why I'm not going to let anyone, including my Pa... or you... influence that decision."

"Mark, I simply want what is best for you. I don't mean to influence your decision, I just want you to see your possibilities."

Mark continued the conversation until he could excuse himself without seeming rude. He made his way to the outside of the car where he stood, watching the prairie rush past him. He understood where Stephen was coming from, he just wished Mr. Griswold wouldn't put so much pressure on him to go to school. Mark was already torn between staying or leaving North Fork. Truth be told, Mark was beginning to want to become a doctor. The field of medicine had him quite intrigued, and whatever he did in life, he wanted to help people. What better way to help people than become a doctor? ...But there were opportunities to help people no matter what he did.

Mark ran his fingers through his hair as he let out a long sigh. Mark felt like the biggest problem was that he felt by choosing one or the other, he was choosing between his Pa and Mr. Griswold. They had both put so much effort and time into him, and he was going to have to at least somewhat hurt one of them. Mark could see how hard this was on his Pa. Lucas was starting to do better, but it was still going to be a big adjustment if Mark left. And then there was Mr. Griswold, who had worked so hard at teaching and providing material for Mark. Writing and contacting the colleges, doing whatever he could to advance Mark. How could he just throw away all the work both of them had done over the past few years?

Mark looked up to the sky as he prayed for clear guidance. This was really the first big decision he was going to have to make in his life... what if he chose wrong?

14MC14

"Aleasia, Ben, wonderful to see you!" Mr. Griswold exclaimed as he and Mark stepped out of the train station.

Mark saw a man and woman quickly approaching him and Mr. Griswold. He could tell right away that they were well-off; the lady wore a fancy pink dress with an elaborate bonnet, and the man wore a grey suit with a matching top hat.

"Stephan, It's been too long!" The man replied as he shook Mr. Griswold's hand, then turned to Mark. "You must be Mark McCain, Stephan has written us a lot about you. It's good to finally put a face to the name. I'm Dr. Ben Thomas."

"It's a pleasure to meet you, sir. I've read quite a bit about you," Mark stated as he shook the man's hand.

"This is my lovely wife, Aleasia," the doctor continued.

"A pleasure, ma'am," Mark said as he removed his hat and gently shook her hand. "Thank you both for opening up your home to me for a few days."

"It'll be a pleasure, I hope you enjoy your stay," Mrs. Thomas replied.

"Let's make our way to the carriage, shall we?" Dr. Thomas suggested.

The foursome made their way to a black and red carriage where a driver was loading Mark and Mr. Griswold's luggage.

As the carriage bounced down the road, the doctor turned his attention from his conversation with Stephan to Mark.

"How long have you been interested in the field of medicine, Mark?"

"I've always had great respect for doctors and such, but I suppose it wasn't until last summer when Mr. Griswold gave me some medical journals to read that I really became interested in it."

"I was very pleased with what Stephan said about you, and frankly very impressed by some of your papers. I hope you do decide to enter the world of modern medicine, it would be a great joy to have you in some of my classes."

"So you teach at the school then?" Mark inquired.

"Yes, quite a bit actually. Every once in a while I have to step out of the class to deal with some emergency at the hospital, but thankfully that doesn't happen too often," Ben replied.

"Did you two have a good trip up here?" His wife asked.

"It was indeed a very smooth trip. Although it wasn't the most comfortable train I've ever ridden on... it seemed quite cramped," Stephan answered.

"And how did you find it, Mark?" Aleasia inquired.

"I thought it was fine, the second train was the most impressive train I've seen."

"Oh my, the one you came in on?" She asked. Mark nodded in reply. "That one is years old. If
you find that one impressive, you should see some of the ones that were built this year."

They all made polite conversation as the carriage continued down the road. As the carriage turned a corner into the “higher” end of town, Mark was beginning to feel quite out of place. The homes that lined the streets were incredibly large and the wood work on some of them was extremely intricate. The buggies and carriages that passed them were filled with people who looked like they were headed for a ball, and as Mark continued to observe those around him, he realized that his teacher was right. No one was carrying any form of gun. Mark still knew he was going to keep his rifle close, it had become a part of him that he didn't want to lose, even if he was in the city.

As they rounded one last corner, Mark saw a house painted white like all the others he had seen, but that was the only characteristic it shared with the other houses. It looked to be at least two times the size of most other homes, and had huge pillars supporting a canopy that extended off of the roof. As the carriage came underneath the canopy he couldn't believe this was all even real. Somewhat still in a stunned state, Mark followed Mrs. Thomas out of the carriage. Mark turned around to retrieve his rifle, then grabbed his suitcase from Dr. Thomas.

"I though your name sounded familiar," Ben suddenly stated.

"What do you mean?" Mark inquired as he followed the three adults inside.

"When Stephan first wrote me about you, I thought for sure I had heard your name before, but I couldn't place it. Your rifle helped me finally figure it out. Lucas McCain, The Rifleman was your father, wasn't he?"

"Yes, Lucas McCain is my father, and some people do call him The Rifleman," Mark plainly said.

"He was a very respectable, great man. I'm sure he had instilled in you the great values he held. I enjoyed reading your report on the law."

Mark's face held a confused look on it and the doctor began to explain.

"Your teacher sent me a copy of the report you wrote on the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. It was very well written."

"I'm very aware of that sir, he asked for my consent before he sent them. I am, however, a bit confused about why you keep speaking about my father in the past tense?"

The doctor and his wife both returned Mark's confused stare, neither wanting to speak of such a sensitive subject. There was a short silence before Stephan spoke up.

"I think they're referring to last June, Mark."

"Oh..." Mark said as he shook his head and gave a slight grin. "No, he didn't die, that was a story that reached more people than they had planned on. He and our Marshal back home faked their deaths to catch some criminals. We talked about printing a story to set the record straight, seeing as how so many people heard about it, but it just made more sense to leave everything the way it is with my Pa's reputation. We wrote letters to most people we knew outside of North Fork, but left everything else the way it was."

"I'm glad to hear it, the world needs more people like your father," the doctor stated.

Ben and Aleasia gave their guests a tour of their home, and introduced them to the other guests that were staying with them. When they came to the library, Dr. Thomas told Mark he could have full access to it while he was with them. The final part of the house they showed them was where the bedrooms were located. The couple left Mark and Stephan to settle in their respective rooms and “freshen up” before dinner.

Mark shut the door behind him, and after putting down his suitcase and rifle, let himself fall on the bed. Mark sunk into the mattress and couldn't believe how soft it was... it was even more comfortable than the beds at the hotel, and he had thought nothing could be softer than that. After just lying on the bed, taking everything in for a few moments, Mark changed out of his traveling clothes.

Mark wondered what the next few days would bring... and if would continue to feel as out of place as he had for the past thirty minutes.

15MC15

Over dinner, Mark stayed fairly quiet. He didn't understand who or what most of the conversation was about, and when someone did finally ask Mark a bit about himself, they lost interested as soon as he started talking about the ranch.

The other guests staying at the house varied greatly in age. The youngest was a seven month old baby, and the oldest was Mrs. Thomas's father, who Mark guessed to be in his late sixties.

After dessert, everyone made their way to the parlor where they continued to have, what Mark considered to be, quite empty and dull conversation. A few parlor games were played, but Mark simply watched even though he was invited to join the games several times. Mark did enjoy watching the others play the games though, and found a few of them quite amusing.

The evening slowly passed by, and Mark was waiting for everyone to decide to retire, but with the exception of Mrs. Thomas's father and the couple with the baby, everyone was still in the parlor at a quarter past eleven. Finally, Mark excused himself and went to his room for the night, exhausted from the day. As Mark laid on the bed, he could still hear conversation and laughter
coming from the parlor below him. Life in the city was much different than he had expected, and it wasn't just the fancier houses and food. Although the people looked like they were happy and larger than life, they all almost seemed... fake. Even Mr. Griswold seemed to be slipping back into the person he was when he first arrived in North Fork, and Mark hated to be watching it happen. Mark hoped he would start to get more comfortable with his surroundings, but had a feeling it wasn't going to happen.
*****

The next morning, Mark was surprised when he looked at the timepiece and saw that it was half past seven. He never slept this late and figured everyone was probably up and had already eaten. Mark quickly changed and made his bed before making his way downstairs, only to find no one there. The house was extremely quiet, almost too quiet, and when Mark finally heard a noise in the kitchen, he headed that way to find out what was going on.

"Did everyone leave?" Mark asked the maid as he entered the kitchen.

"Oh heavens no!" She replied with a laugh. "They probably won't be awake for another hour and a half."

"An hour and a half?" Mark asked in surprise.

"It's the way it is on the weekends. Stay up until the early hours of the morning and sleep until most of the morning has wasted away. Doesn't make much sense to me, but it's the way people do it around here. Had I slept that late when I was a youngin', my mother would've just 'bout tanned my hide. If you're hungry, I'm sure the cook could make you something."

"That's alright," Mark assured.

"Well if you need something just ask, I've got to get started on cleaning the parlor." The maid headed out the door.

Mark didn't really know what to do, especially with this much time on his hands. Remembering the library, Mark headed that way to see if there was a book he could find to read. After finding a story printed in a series of magazines, Mark sat down and began to read.

Mark hadn't realized how absorbed he had become in the stories until he suddenly heard someone say something behind him.

"Kidnapped. I enjoyed reading that story as it came out."

Mark jumped and turned around to see who was behind him. He saw Mrs. Thomas's father quietly chuckling behind him.

"I didn't hear you come in," Mark said as he stood up and faced the elderly man.

"I don't blame you, those stories are quite intriguing, aren't they?"

"Yes sir. Do you enjoy reading Mr. Hanes?"

"When you get to my age it's practically all you do, especially when you have a daughter who won't let you go out of her sight. But I've always been an avid reader. Reading expands your mind in so many ways."

"Do you have a favorite book?" Mark inquired.

"Oliver Twist, without a doubt. I read it over and over again while I was in California, looking for gold. It went through the war with me, and I still read it every once in a while."

"You were a gold miner?" Mark asked with interest.

"Sure was. Left the city and headed to California with everyone else in forty-eight."

"Did you have any success?"

"Quite a bit, but I didn't actually ever find more than an ounce or two of gold."

"How do you mean?" Mark asked in confusion.

"Mark, a lot of people think that money is the way to success and happiness. They think that the only people who gained from the gold rush were those who found the “mother-load.” I think those who found the least amount of gold, gained the most. I may not have become rich from my endeavors, but I learned hard work, perseverance, and appreciation for a bed. I learned how to take care of my needs on my own, without using my parents as a crutch, because for the first time in my life I couldn't. Money isn't everything, Mark. As you've probably noticed, those who have an overabundance of things they need on the outside tend to have nothing but emptiness on the inside. So I might not have had the latest fashion or most impressive house for most of my life, but I was able to meet the needs of my family, and had happiness in my life."

"Yes sir, I couldn't agree more."

"What brings you to Chicago any way? You don't exactly seem the city type."

Mark proceeded to explain to Mr. Hanes why he was in Chicago and tell him a bit about his life. When Mrs. Thomas came to inform them that breakfast was being served, they headed to the dining room together and continued their conversation through the meal. Mark was fascinated by the stories Mr. Hanes told him about the war, and asked him several questions about the man's life.

That afternoon, Mark, Dr. Thomas and Mr. Griswold headed to the school. Dr. Thomas explained that a Saturday would be the best day to show Mark around the campus since those on the summer staff most likely wouldn't be there anyway. Mark became fairly familiar with the layout of the buildings and was quite impressed by the dormitories. Dr. Thomas went into explaining the school's programs a little bit, but told Mark he would have plenty of time to learn about that next week, when he would have the opportunity to sit in on some of the classes and lectures they would have for student interns that were having classes over the summer.

The three returned that evening to the Thomas's and Mark found out that they were having a dinner party that night, which meant he was expected to wear something nicer. Mark definitely preferred the gatherings back home, they may not have been as fancy, but at least everyone was real.

When Mark walked into the dining room that evening, he heard Mr. Griswold being asked if he thought the west was a “suitable” place to raise children. He almost couldn't believe Stephan's answer.

"Many families do raise their children out west without any major problems. But there are the simple dangers of living out there. Medical standards aren't very high, and there are the dangers of outlaws and renegades."

"What about the Indians?" The woman with the baby asked.

Mark rolled his eyes and took his seat, then turned to say something to the man next to him.

"They are a problem, Mark was almost killed by some when he was younger."

Mark's head whipped around after hearing Stephan's response.

"I was what?" Mark asked, trying to keep his temper in check.

"Chaqua? Don't you remember?" Stephan inquired.

"I remember being kidnapped by Chaqua, and I also remember that you weren't around when it happened, and-"

"I have been told the story several times," Mr. Griswold “assured.”

"Obviously you heard it wrong. The tribe that took me had no intention of killing me, and if you know that story, you should also remember that another Indian risked his life to get me back, and that that same man saved my life a few years ago." Mark excused himself and abruptly left
the table.

As Mark made his way to his room, he couldn't believe what Mr. Griswold was saying. He had lived with them in North Fork for years, and still considered it unfit for a family and uncivilized. Mark had heard Stephan indirectly call the west “uncivilized” but hadn't realized just how Stephan saw the west, North Fork, how Stephan viewed Mark's life.

16MC16

"Where do ye want ta sit?" Lou asked as Johnny came into the hotel.

"We're not eating at the hotel today," Johnny replied as he offered Lou his hand.

"Where else would we eat? It's too hot for a picnic."

"You'll see," Johnny simply replied as he led her out of the hotel.

"Alright, but I have to be back by-"

"I already took care of it."

"What do ye mean? I have a hotel ta run."

"Your staff gave you the afternoon off."

"Johnny what are ye up to?" Lou asked as she gave him a questioning look.

"Just trust me."

Lou sighed and decided to go along with it. She walked with Johnny around town and noticed he was unusually quiet, which made her suspicious of whatever he had in store. At the edge of town they came to a two story house with a beautiful wrap around porch. They made their way up the porch steps and Johnny held the door open for Lou.

"Isn't this the Smith's home?" Lou asked.

"It was, it's mine now," Johnny replied as he followed her inside.

"You're settling down for good then?" Lou asked as a smile crossed her face.

"I wouldn't dream of doing anything else."

Johnny escorted Lou to the dining room where she found a table set for two with a beautiful lace
table cloth and elegant China dishes.

"Oh Johnny..." Lou said as she put her hand to her mouth.

"Today, I serve you for a change," Johnny replied as he pulled out her chair.

Lou looked around and couldn't believe what Johnny had done with the room. There were beautiful roses scattered around on various pieces of furniture, candles lit the areas where the sunlight didn't quite brighten the room enough, and as she looked up, she realized there was a beautiful chandelier above the table.

Johnny had prepared a wonderful steak dinner for the two of them, and Lou almost couldn't believe Johnny had cooked it.

"Where did ye learn to cook?" Lou asked as she finished her last bite of potatoes.

"When you're off on your own, learning to cook is sort of a necessity."

"Well thank ye, it was delicious. Let me do the dishes," Lou offered as she began to stand.

Johnny quickly stood and made her sit back down.

"I told you, today I'm going to serve you. But there is something you could do for me."

"And what is that?"

"Well this is an awfully big house for just one person..." Johnny started. "Lou, I couldn't imagine living the rest of my life without you by my side. I want to share this house with you for the rest of my days."

Johnny went down on one knee and took Lou's hand in his own.

"Lou Mallory, would you be my wife?"

"Johnny, I would love to become yer wife!"

Lou and Johnny both stood before taking each other in their arms and passionately kissing. As their lips parted, they stared into each other's eyes.

"Johnny Gibbs, I love ye," Lou softly whispered.

17MC17

Sunday dragged by, and Mark spent most of the day reading. He didn't enjoy the company of most of the guests in the house, and Mr. Hanes was in town with his daughter.

Monday, however, as well as the rest of the week flew by. Mark attended classes, listened to lectures, looked through the school's curriculum, met and spoke with several of the teachers, and watched a few experiments performed in the laboratory. Mark was becoming more and more interested in the school, and immensely enjoyed the time he had at the college, even if he dreaded the small amount of time he spent at the house. Mark liked learning and growing while he was there, but there was a part of him that still felt empty, the part of him that was still in North Fork.

The night before Mark was supposed to leave, he sat in the parlor once again, listening to bits and pieces of different conversations. Most of the evening had been filled with talk of politics and problems in society, but now the conversation was turning towards what the government was going to do with the Indians. Mark almost couldn't believe these people's ideals, and had quite a difficult time keeping his mouth shut. Mr. Griswold had given him a lecture about “manners” after he left the table Saturday evening. Even though Mark didn't feel he had done anything wrong, he tried to keep quiet so he wouldn't “embarrass” Stephan. Mark had never found it so difficult in his life to keep quiet.

"Those heathen red men should be locked away, never to be heard from again," one of Mrs. Thomas's friends stated.

Finally, Mark had listened to enough.

"And why should they? Because a few tribes don't understand that we want to live peacefully with them, we should lock them all; men, women and children in cages like animals?"

"It's what they are," she replied after getting over the shock of what Mark had said.

"Oh, so they are animals? Funny thing, I thought I heard you call them red “men” just a minute ago. If you're going to classify them as animals, you might as well classify the rest of us as animals, too. They're as much human as you and I are. They have the same bodies, they have children, they have feelings, they have a different way of life, that's all. And that's just it, too. It may be a “different” way of life, but it still is a way of life. We just don't understand it, and we can't control it, so everyone is afraid of it. I was held captive by Indians for days, you would think I'd be the most afraid, but I'm not, and you know why? Because even though they may have wrongly kidnapped me, I could still see that they were people! People with family and loved ones, people who just want to be left alone. Since then, my Pa and I have met and become friends several Indian families, and they are very kind, respectable people. But you want to tear their families and way of life apart. How would you like it if a bunch of men, that spoke a language you didn't understand, broke in here tonight and took us all off to different places to spend the rest of our lives on a reservation? What if they took you away from everything you ever knew; your parties, your fancy clothes, your elaborate seven course meals, and forced you to live the way they wanted you to, away from the rest of civilization? You would never set foot off that land again, and never see anyone besides those you were blessed enough to be forced to live with again!"

Mark suddenly realized that he had begun speaking quite loudly, and now everyone in the room was watching him. He thought about stopping there, but he continued.

"Mrs. Jones, how would you like it if some man came in here and tore your baby from your arms? Mr. Jones, how would you react if someone took your wife away forever? You would do your best to stop them, even if it meant getting shot in the process because you had no way to protect yourself against a pistol. You all wonder why you hear about the Indians reacting violently, but wouldn't you do the same if you were in their situation? Most of you in here either served or know someone who served in the civil war. And at least half of you lost someone due to that war. Did all those men die in vain? Do we not believe that all men were created equally? How dare we say we respect their sacrifice while we free one race, yet put another in bondage. How dare we, who were equally created with them say that they are unfit to live. How dare we- no, how dare YOU try to deny those men life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. How dare you assume that you can take away what the Creator has given those men as unalienable rights! Answer me this; are they men, or are we animals?"

Mark looked around at every adult in the room. He spent a few seconds looking to every one of them, but none of them would give him eye contact. No one had anything to say in reply to Mark either, so after a few minutes he just shook his head, grabbed his rifle, and headed out of the room. Instead of going to his room, Mark headed outside and made his way to the stables.

As he stepped inside, Mark was flooded with thoughts of home, filled with memories of family and friends, and awakened to the realization of how much he missed them. Mark inhaled deeply, welcoming the smell of hay and animals as he made his way towards one of the horses. Mark had only been away for less than a week, but he felt like it had been an eternity. Mark spent quite some time petting the horse and thinking before he turned around to see Mr. Hanes walking into the barn.

"I wondered where you went off to," the man said as he made his way towards Mark.

"I thought you went to bed," Mark curiously stated.

"I did, but some young man who knew what he was talking about started giving a very loud lecture to some very ignorant adults."

"I'm sorry, I didn't realize that I was being so loud... I was a little... angry I guess."

"It was a welcome interruption. I don't think I've heard anyone talk like that around here for years. You're very passionate about what you believe, aren't you?"

"Yes sir, a bit stubborn too, I suppose."

"You suppose?" Mr. Hanes asked as he lifted his eyebrows.

"Actually quite stubborn. I get it from my Pa... who probably would be lecturing ME right now if he had heard the way I was talking. I tried to keep quiet, but..."

"Your Pa would probably be proud of you for standing up for what's right. It takes a lot of guts to stand up to a room full of people like that, and it takes a whole lot of knowledge to challenge their thinking, which you did. I heard most of what you said, and Mark, I don't think I could've said it better myself."

"Thank you." Mark really wasn't sure what else to say.

"So have you decided whether or not you're going to school?"

"I doubt that they would want me after that whole episode, a lot of the people in there were teachers on the school board."

"I'm sure they would, not every seventeen year old can challenge the thinking of a fifty year old professor. If they still offered you it, what would you do?"

"Up until tonight I was undecided. I liked the programs at the college, I was very intrigued by the curriculum, and they are one of the best schools out here."

"But?"

"But as much as I enjoyed all that, I still felt like I wasn't “complete” here. I figured it was just because I was missing everyone back home, but after what happened inside, I realized what it really was."

"And what was it?"

"Becoming a doctor may be a wonderful way to help people, but my heart's not in it. My brain connected to the scholastic side of it, but my heart isn't connected to the emotional side of it. It's not my passion, it's not what drives me. What I believe, what I stand for, and the people I care about are the things that drive me. That's why I finally had to speak up tonight, and that's why I'm not going to school. Whatever I do needs to be driven by my passions and my beliefs, not by what I enjoy for a short while. I also think that had I decided to attend the college this fall, the ideals and standards of those I was being instructed by would have ended up driving me insane. As I looked at the adults in that room tonight, I looked into the faces of people I would be studying under, learning from. They may know more about science and medicine than me, and I could undoubtedly learn from them, but they agree with things I am completely against. They're small minded people, who put themselves above those less fortunate than themselves. Those would be the kind of people I would be surrounded by for the majority of the next several years. Fake people who only repeat what they hear instead of formulating their own ideals. I don't want to put myself in that kind of position. No offense, Mr. Hanes, but I couldn't live in the city. I'm a rancher, not a city boy. I need to do more than sit behind a desk all day, and I definitely don't want to support what I found out most of the men in that room stand for."

"I'm glad to hear you say that, I can't tell you how much I was hoping my son-in-law wouldn't convince you to go to college. I see great potential in you, Mark. Potential that can't be unlocked in a classroom."

Mr. Hanes patted Mark on the shoulder and headed out of the stable. Mark was more at peace with himself than he had been for a long time. Mark was satisfied with the decision he had made.

Mark spent a long time in the stable that evening, thinking about how good it was going to be to get home and see everyone. Mark was a little uneasy about the fact that he was almost looking forward to seeing Cassie as much as he was looking forward to seeing his Pa. There hadn't ever been someone he had missed that much before, except his Ma.

When Mark returned to the house that night, he found everyone had already retired for the evening. Mark went to his room and began to pack for his trip home. It was going to be a long two days since he was staying the night in a town before getting on the second train, but Mark figured it would give him time to figure a few more things out before he arrived home.

As Mark started to check his trunk one more time to make sure he had packed everything, he found an envelope with his name on it. Mark opened it as he sat down on the bed and read the note to himself.

‘Mark,

I hope that your trip is going well. I can't tell you how proud I am of everything you've accomplished. As you know, it's been bittersweet for me, watching you grow up, and I know you see that. I want to reassure you that I am fine with whatever you chose to do, I trust you to make the right choices in your life. Whatever ends up happening, Mark, I love you and won't let the distance between us break our bond. Keep true to who you are, not what other people want you to be.

I'm so proud of you, son.

Love, Pa'

Mark let himself fall back on the bed. North Fork, his Pa, ...Cassie, were all right choices.

18MC18

After a very awkward morning and afternoon, Mark was finally on the train headed home. As Chicago disappeared from his sight, Mark felt like a huge burden was lifted from him and that, in a sense, he had been set free. After sitting in the car for a few hours, Mark decided to walk around a bit. He walked to the last car on the train, but as he opened the door he realized it wasn't a normal passenger car. Mark saw two men seated a table with money scattered on top of it. One of the men slightly jumped from his seat while the other remained still.

"My apologies, I didn't realize this was a private car," Mark stated as the startled man stood up.

"Quite alright," the calmer man, with dark hair and a mustache started. "Is there a certain car you're looking for?"

"No sir, just walking around. I'll get out of your way."

"Have a good day," the nervous man replied as he shut the door for Mark.

Mark found the situation quite suspicious, and as he thought about the encounter, he realized what he had seen on the table along with the money - plates. Plates that were used for counterfeiting.

Mark was nervous the rest of the train ride. The calm man didn't seem to care that Mark had walked in on them, but the other one certainly did. Mark wondered if they just thought he hadn't seen anything or if they were waiting to threaten or do something to him until they made it into town. Mark tried to stay level headed, but he feared the worst, especially since he was alone and had no one he knew or trusted around. Mark knew how quickly this whole situation could turn into a huge mess, and hoped that they would get to town, and the law soon.

When the train finally stopped, Mark quickly made his way to the hotel to check in before putting his things in his room and then heading towards the sheriff's office.

"Sheriff, I need to report-" Mark started as he entered the jail, but stopped as he saw just who exactly the sheriff was. The man in front of him, who wore a sheriff's badge, was the same man who Mark had seen on the train, the calmer of the two men.

"I'm glad you came in, please take a seat, young man," The sheriff offered.

"That's alright..." Mark slowly stated. He wasn't sure what to do.

"I'm sure you're probably alarmed by the fact to see that I'm the sheriff in town, but don't worry, I'm not part of a counterfeiting scheme. The Marshal's office asked for some help in a case they're trying to crack, so I went undercover for them. I have the criminals locked up in the back now and the Marshal's office will take over the case once they get here, so there's nothing to worry about," the sheriff explained.

Mark relaxed, he was glad everything was all taken care of and that there wasn't a crooked Sheriff to work around.

"That's good to hear, I just 'bout had a heart attack when I walked in here."

"You traveling alone then?" The Sheriff inquired.

"Yes sir, I went to visit a school in Chicago and am headed back home."

"And where is that?"

"A small town in New Mexico, called North Fork."

"Do you like it there?"

"Yes sir, it's a great place to call home."

"I'm sure you're excited to be getting back then."

"Yes sir, leaving on the first train tomorrow morning."

"Well I hope you enjoy your visit in our town."

"Thank you sir," Mark said as the sheriff walked him to the door.

After Mark left, a man came out of the jail area of the office.

"Why'd you let him leave?" The man asked, obviously irritated.

"He thinks everything is fine, there's no reason to keep him."

"And what if he figures out that everything isn't fine and he becomes a problem?"

"Then we'll deal with him the same way we're dealing with our other problem. Speaking of which, how is he?"

"Still out. I hope you know what you're doing, because I ain't gonna be happy if you mess this
one up."

"It'll all be fine, trust me. The kid is clueless."

"I'm gonna go find out just who he is, be back in a while."

"Stay out of sight, he thinks you're in jail."

19MC19

Mark walked back to the hotel and ordered supper, but the longer he thought about his conversation with the Sheriff, the more uneasy he became. If the Marshal's office was trying to crack the case, how could the Sheriff already have people arrested? Since when did the U.S. Marshals use local law officers in cases that spanned several states? The Sheriff had used the word criminals. There was only one other man in that train car. The more Mark thought, the less he believed the Sheriff's story, and the more anxious he became. After Mark ate, he calmed himself down and headed back to the Sheriff's office, to see if he could either clear or trap the Sheriff.

As Mark walked in the door, he realized he should've wired someone first. The Sheriff stood talking to the man who had been on the train earlier that evening, and before Mark realized it, the three stood with their guns pointed at each other.

"You may be the Rifleman's son and all, but he couldn't even get both of us before one of us shot him, so I suggest you put your gun down," the sheriff calmly stated.

Mark knew he was beat and put the rifle on the Sheriff's desk. He should've known better than to set himself up for a situation like this.

"So you obviously know who I am, what are you planning to do with me?" Mark asked.

"For now you'll enjoy a little jail time. You should like your cellmate, a real pleasant fellow. Only he was like you and just a bit too curious." The sheriff stood and gestured to the door leading to the cell area.

After locking Mark in the cell with an unconscious man, the sheriff and his partner headed to the front office.

"Keep an eye on 'em, I've got a few things to take care of," the sheriff stated.

"What are we going to do with them? We can't keep them in there forever."

"I was really hoping we could avoid cold blooded murder on this job, but those two kinda made it impossible."

20MC20

“LUCAS McCAIN
NORTH FORK, NEW MEXICO

Been delayed two weeks
Will explain later

MARK McCAIN
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS”

Lucas stared curiously at the telegram in his hand. He couldn't think of any reason Mark would have been delayed in Chicago, but decided that like Micah had said, he could trust Mark.

As Lucas passed the train station, he saw John Osborne standing on the platform with his wife and daughter, and headed over to them.

"Evening John, Catherine, Anna. Cassie coming home today?" Lucas inquired.

"Should be here any minute," Mrs. Osborne replied happily.

"Things have been quite different around here with both her and Mark gone," John commented.

"Speaking of-" Lucas started, but the train's whistle overpowered the sound of his voice.

All four watched the train approach the station and finally stop in front of them. After a minute or two, people began to come off the train and the Osborne's anxiously looked around for Cassie.

"There she is!" Anna exclaimed as she pointed three cars down.

The Osborne's got Cassie's attention and she quickly made her way towards her family. After reuniting with her family and greeting Lucas, Cassie looked around the platform, but didn't find who she wanted to.

"Is Mark not here?" Cassie asked Lucas.

"No, he's in Chicago looking at a college, which is why I'm even here. John, I just got a telegram from Mark saying he's been delayed two weeks, which means he won't be able to work for you."

"That's alright, I told him to take as much time as he needed. Did he say why he was delayed?"

"No, just said he'd explain later," Lucas replied as he shrugged. "That boy can be quite confusing."

"Mr. McCain, Mark didn't get my letter then, did he?" Cassie asked.

"No... we didn't get any letter from you at all."

"I sent it almost two months ago, it should be here by now."

"Perhaps it was lost in the mail," Mrs. Osborne suggested.

"You're probably right."

Maybe it was for the better, maybe she shouldn't have even sent it in the first place. Cassie tried seeing the fact that Mark hadn't read her letter as a good thing, but had a difficult time doing so. She had hoped he would've read and had time to think about it before he saw her, but now she was either going to have to keep her emotions to herself or tell him how she felt personally. Cassie couldn't decide which would be harder.

"Well since I won't be in town tomorrow to pick Mark up, I guess I'll see you all Sunday," Lucas stated, interrupting Cassie's thoughts.

"So long, Lucas," Marshal Osborne replied as he shook Lucas's hand.

The three Osborne ladies said goodbye and then made their way to their buck board as Marshal Osborne got Cassie's trunk. Soon Cassie found herself answering her family's various questions about her trip, but in the back of her mind kept thinking about Mark.

What was she going to do when he got home?

21MC21

As the sheriff and his partner walked to the front office, Mark sat on the vacant bunk in the cell.

'Good job, Mark,' he thought to himself.

Mark had no idea how he was going to get himself out of this situation. He was locked in a cell with no access to any weapons, in a strange town with a crooked Sheriff, and no one in North Fork would know something was amiss until tomorrow afternoon.

Mark lied down on the bunk in defeat as he took off his hat and started playing with it.
“This is going to be one long-” Mark stopped short as he saw the letter tucked inside the hat band. He had completely forgotten that he had stuck it there on the train last week. Having nothing else to do, Mark figured now was as good a time as any to read it. He tore open the envelope and opened the letter. A faint smile crossed Mark's face as he looked at the bottom of the letter and saw who it was from. Cassie.

'Dear Mark,

I hope this letter finds you and everyone in North Fork well. Things have seemed to move extremely slow out here, and even though I've only been gone a little over a week, I feel like it's been an eternity. My aunt has been keeping me plenty busy however, and is constantly reminding me that, “Idle hands are the devil's playground.” Between cooking, cleaning, sewing, and taking care of my grandfather (who is recovering well), I hardly have time to miss home, but at the same time, I feel like it's all I do. I miss my family and working with the horses, but there's something else I'm missing too. I didn't realize it until tonight, but if I am going to be honest with myself, I must admit, Mark, that I miss you terribly. I didn't realize until this trip how much you mean to me, how much you are a part of my life. I didn't realize that at some point, somehow, at least... I feel that perhaps we've stepped beyond being friends. I apologize if I am being too forward, but for the past year I've immensely enjoyed our relationship and think it only fair that I be honest with myself as well as you. At your graduation ceremony I don't think I was doing that as I told Sarah and Lilly we were, “just friends.”

Mark, I don't know how to put what I'm feeling into words, and hope that this doesn't destroy the relationship we've built... but I wanted you to know that I don't consider you a friend anymore; I consider you much more than that.

I will be arriving home at the end of July, and hope that shortly after my return I can talk to you. I understand if friends is all you want to be, and I'll respect that if it's what you want. But Mark, I honestly want it to be more... and I think it has become more.

-Cassie’

A contented smile now rested on Mark's face, and for a short moment he forgot where he was at and what situation he was in. Mark felt as though he could burst with happiness, knowing Cassie felt the same way he did. If only he could tell her that, if only... he wasn't stuck in a jail cell. Reality hit Mark again, but he still kept a smile on his face; he felt as though he had a brand new drive and passion.

"What are you smiling about?"

Mark looked to the other side of the cell to see his cell mate, who appeared to be nineteen or
twenty, sitting up against the wall.

"Just read a letter is all," Mark replied as he stuck the letter in his hat and sat up.

"From your sweet heart?"

"Well I wouldn't exactly..."

"Your friend who's more than a friend," the man corrected himself.

"How did you know?"

"You learn to read people in my kind of work."

"And what kind of work is that?"

"I'm studying to become a lawyer." The man paused a moment before continuing, "So how'd you figure out the Sheriff was crooked?"

"His story seemed improbable so I came back to talk to him and found him talking to the man he told me he arrested for counterfeiting. The sheriff said you were like me and a “bit too curious.”
How'd you wind up in here... and how'd you know I wasn't just some run of the mill trouble maker?"

"You don't look or act the type, and this Sheriff would let a murderer get away, it wouldn't surprise me if he is one himself. He wouldn't have arrested you for anything. And how'd I get here? Well, I was at college finishing some internships and summer classes. I decided to surprise my family and come home early; I haven't seen them since Christmas. I had a lay over here and accidentally walked into a wrong room in the back of the hotel. I've been here a week. Almost got away last night, but the Sheriff somehow got the jump on me and I guess knocked me out."

"How'd you almost get away?" Mark inquired.

"The sheriff was gone and his partner was back here getting my dishes from supper. When he got distracted I hit him on the back of the head with a bowl and then got his keys. I would've been home free had the Sheriff not entered the front office as I was trying to leave it."

"Have you tried the bars on the windows?"

"If we had a good tool, it'd be pretty easy to cut through them, but nothing around here is sharp enough to cut through them, and they haven't given me any silverware."

Mark looked towards the door leading to the front office before standing and making his way to the window.

"What are doing?" The man asked.

"Just keep an eye out for them," Mark replied as he pulled out his pocket knife.

"That thing sharp enough?"

"It better be."

Mark went to work on the bars and slowly made progress as time drug on. Mark hoped the blade would last long enough to cut through the bars, but it was going to be close. After about two hours, Mark was warned that someone was coming so Mark hopped onto his bunk and hid the knife.

The sheriff entered the cell area followed by his partner; neither of them looked very happy. The sheriff unlocked the cell door and headed straight for Mark.

"You think this is funny don't you?" He asked angrily as he grabbed Mark's shirt in a fist.

Mark stared the sheriff in the eyes and tried not to show the panic racing through him.

"I wouldn't say there's anything funny about criminal activity," Mark told him.

The sheriff threw Mark back against the brick wall, making him hit his head. Intense pain shot through Mark's skull, but he tried not to show it.

"Give me the knife and I'll be lenient. Play more games and... maybe I'll play a few."

"What knife?" Mark asked.

"Don't play dumb, I saw you working on the bars. Show me the knife or your cell mate over here isn't going to live to see tomorrow." The sheriff pointed a gun to the other man's head.

Without hesitation Mark revealed the pocket knife and handed it to the sheriff.

"That's better. If you keep playing games, someone is going to end up dying."

"That somebody might be you," Mark commented.

The man didn't appreciate that remark at all and used the butt of his gun to bash Mark on the
side of the head, causing him to fall to the ground. First, Mark's vision blurred as he watched the two men leave the area, then suddenly - nothing.

22MC22

Mark slowly began regaining consciousness and fought hard to stay awake. As his senses began sharpening, he acknowledged the sharp pain shooting through his head and began to realize how nauseated he felt. As Mark sat up, his ears began to ring and his vision threatened to black out, but he kept himself from passing out. Mark soon realized that he was no longer in the jail, but in the back of what appeared to be a prison wagon.

"You really know how to get on someone's good side, don't you?" The man who had once been Mark's cell mate asked.

"You're telling me," Mark replied as he rubbed his head.

"You alright?"

"I'll live. Where are we?"

"I hate to tell you this, but I think we're on the way to our funerals."

"How long have I been out?"

"Six, seven hours maybe? I couldn't believe how long you were out, he must've hit you good. We left town probably an hour ago and I've heard them talking about getting “rid” of us."

"How many guns do they have?"

"Does it matter? We're pretty much dead," the man said.

"How many?"

"...The sheriff and his partner both have a Colt Peacemaker and they grabbed a rifle from the front office before we left. You're seriously not going to try something, are you?"

"You're not seriously ready to die, are you?" Mark retorted.

"...What'd you have in mind?"

"Nothing yet, give me a minute," Mark said as the wagon came to a stop.

"We're dead," the man stated in defeat.

Mark's mind began racing, trying to create a way out of the situation. He had to admit it looked pretty hopeless, but he wasn't ready to give up.
*****

The door to the wagon was swung open as the sheriff ordered his two prisoners out of the wagon. The moon gave a little light, but storm clouds blocked it partially. Mark looked around for a means of escape, but nothing seemed plausible. The sheriff and his partner were both pointing their guns at them, the sheriff holding Mark's rifle under his left arm.

“Alright you two, move it.”

Mark did as he told and started walking. Mark wondered if these were his last few minutes alive, if he'd ever see his Pa again. How could he have let himself get into this mess?

'Pa...' Mark thought. How he longed to be with his Pa.

After fifteen minutes of walking and listening to approaching thunder, Mark could feel the rain beginning to tap his body. The sheriff finally told them to stop and kneel down.

As Mark tried to keep panic from taking over, he listened to the storm and let himself enjoy it. If he was going to die, he might as well enjoy the last few moments of his life. The thunder, rain, wind, and lightening calmed him as he thought about the only person he knew that could enjoy a storm like this. If he could've seen her before he died... if only he could tell her that he-

Mark heard a gunshot, but it was distant and Mark looked over to see the sheriff's partner clutching his chest. Taking the opportunity, Mark knocked the Peacemaker out of the distracted sheriff's hand and attempted to get his rifle. The sheriff quickly focused on trying to stop Mark and tried throwing a punch to Mark's head, but Mark dodged it. Mark was starting to get the rifle free from the Sheriff but it was suddenly thrown far out of his reach. The sheriff continued to throw punches at Mark, a majority of which Mark couldn't avoid. Mark tried fighting back, but the sheriff was too big and too strong, and soon had Mark on the ground. The sheriff took his hands and squeezed hard around Mark's throat; Mark felt like his neck was going to break. Just as Mark felt like he was going to lose consciousness, he heard a rifle shot and the sheriff slumped over. Mark saw the man he had been imprisoned with holding his rifle as he walked towards Mark.

"I never introduced myself, I'm Ned," he said as he helped Mark up.

"I'm Mark, Mark McCain," Mark replied as he shook Ned's hand. "Thanks for saving my life."

"Don't mention it. Who do you think it was who sent off the first shot?"

"I think we're about to find out," Mark said as he nodded towards a couple riders making their
way towards him. Ned offered Mark his rifle and he gladly accepted it.

"Are you boys alright?" The leader of the group asked as he assessed the two young men in front of him.

"Yes sir," Ned replied.

"I'm Marshal Anker with the U.S. Marshal's Service. To my left is Deputy Beck, and this is Deputy Hall." The marshal said as he gestured to the other man and showed his badge to them. "Why don't we get you two to town, and then you can tell us how you got caught up in this whole mess."

23MC23

As the deputies took care of the bodies of the two deceased men, Marshal Anker sat down with Ned and Mark in the sheriff's office.

"We've been watching these two for months and were just about to arrest them when they took off with you two," The marshal began. "They had a nice set up with counterfeiting money, but a little too sloppy. I still have to send in a report to my superiors, so I'm going to need your names and an account of what happened."

"Ned Osborne."

Mark suddenly looked over to Ned, but before he could say anything, the Marshal spoke up.

"You wouldn't be Marshal John Osborne's son, would you?"

"Yes sir," Ned replied.

"Your father is a great man, son. He wouldn't admit to it, but he's saved my hide countless times over the years. Gotten me into a few scrapes as well..." The marshal chuckled.

"Sounds like Pa alright," Ned stated.

"John Osborne. You were headed to North Fork?" Mark asked.

"Yes, why?"

"I work for your Pa. North Fork is where I've lived for the past seven years," Mark stated as he laughed.

"It's a small world..." Ned mused.

"And what's your name, son?" The marshal asked Mark.

"Sorry, Mark McCain."

The Marshal began to write the two names down, but suddenly stopped.

"McCain? You're the Rifleman's son?"

Mark nodded in reply.

"I read the report about the case he, Marshal Torrance and Marshal Osborne worked on. Quite a bit of fine work. I'd heard about the Rifleman before, but when I read the report and heard what he did during the shoot out in North Fork..." Anker let out a long whistle. "I couldn't believe it."

It took a while to get the marshal back on track, but eventually Mark and Ned gave their accounts of what happened. Anker started to understand the bruises developing on Mark's face and neck as Mark told the Marshal about the fight between himself and the sheriff. After both of them had finished giving their accounts, the marshal suggested they get something to eat over at the hotel.

The sun was just starting to rise and the hotel was almost deserted. After a waitress appeared, the three took their seats and quickly ordered.

"When do you two plan on heading home?" The marshal inquired.

"I was supposed to leave on this morning's train anyway, so about eight-thirty," Mark replied.

"I'll probably try to get on this morning's train too, then," Ned said.

"I'll make sure you get on it," The marshal promised. "Mark, do you want to see the doctor before you leave? Those bruises don't look very good, and it sounds like something was damaged that affected your voice."

"I'll be fine, I think my throat will just be sore for a few days," Mark replied.

"If you change your mind let me know, I'd feel a lot better if you got it checked out before you left."

"It's fine, don't worry about it," Mark assured.

He was half tempted to take up the marshal's offer, he still had a pounding migraine and his
ears were still slightly ringing from being knocked out the previous night, but decided to wait until he got home. Mark didn't want to inconvenience anyone or have anyone worrying about him, and he definitely didn't want to be told he couldn't go home.

24MC24

Mark and Ned were soon on the train, headed for North Fork. Both missed their families and felt like the train just couldn't move fast enough.

"Ned, I want to thank you again for saving my life," Mark said.

"It was nothing."

"But it was, I know it's not easy to use a gun on someone."

"...Yes, it was difficult, but it was necessary. I couldn't just stand there and let him kill you."

"I'm glad you didn't."

"So when we get to North Fork," Ned started, changing the subject. "Would you mind showing me the way to my folk's? All I know is that it's about five minutes from town based on what Cassie wrote me-"

Ned suddenly stopped and gave Mark a strange stare.

"What is it?" Mark asked.

"That letter you had in the jail. I thought the handwriting looked familiar," Ned said as a smile crossed his face. "You're sweet on my sister!"

"...Who wouldn't be?" Mark asked innocently.

"Does she know?"

"Not exactly, so if you could not say anything to her until we talk..."

"I understand. You realize though that if you hurt her, you're going to have to deal with me, right?" Ned half jokingly, half seriously asked.

"If I hurt her, I don't think there will be a piece left of me for you to deal with."

"You know her pretty well then."

"Next stop, North Fork!" The conductor called. "Five minutes to North Fork!"

Ned and Mark began getting their things together along with the rest of the passengers and waited for the train to roll into North Fork.

As the train slowly came to a halt, Mark looked out the window to see if he could find his or Ned's Pa, but only saw Micah waiting to greet the new comers.

"Your Pa must be off duty," Mark started. "Micah, our other marshal, is on the platform."

Mark soon followed the several other passengers off the train. Mark thought about saying hi to Micah, but decided to let him deal with the other passengers and stop at the office later.

"No one here to meet you?" Ned asked as they walked away from the train station.

"Well, I thought my Pa would, but maybe he just forgot."

The two headed over to the livery to borrow two horses for a while. Nils gladly let them choose whatever ones they wanted, but was appalled when he got a good look at Mark.

"What happened?" Nils asked in shock.

"Just got on someone's bad side," Mark simply replied.

"Has a doctor looked at it?"

"I'm going to stop at Doc's after I take Ned home."

"If I find out that you just head straight home, I'll-"

"I promise. As soon as I take Ned home, I will talk to Doc."

Mark and Ned soon were mounted and headed towards the Osborne's. When the two entered the yard, they saw Cassie in the corral working with a foal. The two dismounted and climbed up on the fence, watching Cassie, who was oblivious to their presence.

"You're doing it wrong, little sister!" Ned finally called.

Cassie suddenly dropped the rope and turned around.

"Ned!" Cassie yelled as she ran to her brother and gave him a hug. "I though you had to stay all summer! Why didn't you tell us you were coming?!"

"I wanted to surprise you."

"Who's th-" Cassie started as she turned to see who Ned had brought home with him, but stopped as she recognized him. "Mark, what happened?! Are you alright?!"

"Just got in a little fist fight."

"A little fist fight? It looks like you were run over by a stampede of cows! Ned, what'd he do?"

Mark gave Ned a look asking him not to say anything.

"Just a little fist fight," Ned answered.

"Mark McCain, you listen here..."

"I best be going, I'm sure you two have a lot to catch up on, and I'm sure Ned wants to see the rest of your family."

"Mark..." Cassie said, obviously flustered.

"See you later Cassie, thanks for everything Ned. I'll see you at church tomorrow." Mark jumped down from the fence and headed for the horses. Mark wished he hadn't jumped, it only made his head worse.

"He has to be the most stubborn person in the world!" Cassie mused.

"I don't know, you're pretty stubborn yourself," Ned jested.

Cassie glared at her brother before cracking a smile and laughing.

"Alright, I'll give him a close second."

25MC25

Mark returned the horse Ned had used to the livery, then rode down the street to the doctor's office. As he walked in, the doctor looked up from his desk to see who had entered the office.

Stunned to say the least, Doc Burrage made his way over to Mark.

"Mark McCain, what trouble did you get yourself into this time?"

"Kinda got mixed up with some outlaws who don't like witnesses."

"You go to look at a college and end up almost getting killed?"

"Pretty much sums it up."

"What am I going to do with you? It seems like almost every six months you or your Pa is in here for something."

"At least you get business," Mark replied.

"Let's get you to the back," Doc said, shaking his head.

The doctor had Mark take off his shirt and started by looking at his neck.

"Did someone try to strangle you?" The doctor asked in disbelief.

"I got in a fist fight with a criminal and by the end he had me on the ground. He would've killed me had Ned not shot him."

"Who's Ned?" The doctor inquired.

"Marshal Osborne's son, but that's a long story."

"By the sound of your voice I can tell whoever tried strangling you damaged your vocal chords," the doctor said as he started touching Mark's neck ever so slightly.

Mark's initial reaction was to stop Doc, but he forced his arm back down as he winced at the pain.

"Tender?" The doctor asked.

"I feel like you're punching me in the throat."

"It'll be sore for a few weeks, that's for sure. You're going to have those shiners for a while, too. I'm going to check and make sure your cheekbone isn't cracked," the doctor stated as he started touching around Mark's eye.

As the doctor finished, saying it appeared to be fine, Mark suddenly inhaled sharply and put his hand to his head.

"What is it?" Doc asked.

"My head's been hurting ever since I hit it on a brick wall."

"How'd that happen?"

"One of the outlaws didn't really like what I had to say to him, and so he threw me back against a wall which I hit my head on. That's when it started. Then I opened my big mouth again and he used the butt of his gun to give me a blow across the head," Mark explained, touching the side he'd been hit on. "When I woke up I was... and still am, in some pretty serious pain. My ears are still ringing."

"Your ears are ringing? Can you hear everything fine?"

"Yeah, I've had no problem with hearing."

"Nausea? Dizziness?"

"All day."

"And how long ago was this?"

"I woke up probably about three or four this morning."

The doctor rolled his eyes and began to examine Mark's head. Mark could tell the doctor didn't like what he was finding, and Mark didn't like the concerned look on the doctor's face.

"Well?" Mark asked as the doctor stepped back.

"Mark McCain, you stay right here and do not move a muscle. I will be back in two minutes," the doctor said before making his way to the door. "If you move while I'm gone, so help me..."

"I promise I'll stay put," Mark assured.

Doc Burrage made his way out of the office and practically ran to the Marshal's office. As he rushed inside, Micah jumped in his seat at the desk.

"Doc, what's wrong?" Micah asked as he stood.

"You need to go get Lucas," Burrage ordered.

"Lucas? Why?"

"He's awake, He's stable, He's most likely going to be fine, but Mark just about got himself killed and fractured his skull."

"He what?! He's not supposed to be back for another-"

"Just go get Lucas! He deserves to know, and if something happens, I need Lucas here to make decisions!"

Micah grabbed his hat and shotgun and high tailed it out of the office.

26MC26

Lucas was in the process of straightening a fence post when he heard someone quickly riding up. He looked up to see Micah coming towards him, the look on his friend's face worried Lucas.

"Micah?" Lucas asked as Micah stopped his horse beside Lucas.

"Lucas, you need to mount up!"

"Why? What's the matter?" Lucas asked as he mounted; he could hear the urgency in his friend's voice.

"I'll explain on the way into town," Micah said, stalling. He wasn't sure how to break the news to Lucas.

The two were soon racing towards town, and Lucas asked Micah what was wrong again.

"Lucas, he's awake and stable, and Doc thinks he's going to be fine, but..."

"Did something happen to Johnny?" Lucas asked with concern.

"Mark was almost killed..." Micah stated.

In shock, Lucas suddenly stopped Razor.

"Mark what?! Mark's in Chicago, Micah! What are you talking about?"

"Lucas, I don't know why he's here and not there, but I do know that Doc says that Mark is in his office with a fractured skull," Micah tried to calmly explain, but his own worry for the boy was too great not to show a little emotion.

Lucas kicked Razor's flanks and raced into town as fast as he could. Once he finally reached the doctor's office, Lucas didn't even bother tying Razor to the hitching post and stormed inside, calling for the doctor.

Hearing the doctor reply from the back room, Lucas rushed into the room where Mark was, followed by Micah.

"Hi Pa," Mark called as if nothing was wrong.

"Hi Pa. Hi Pa!?" Lucas started. "Mark what are you doing here? What happened? What are all those bruises? Did Micah say you were almost killed?" Lucas asked as he made his way towards his son.

"Lucas, calm down," Doc ordered. "The good thing is that he's awake and has been for a long time. I am, however, very concerned about his skull fracture, especially since this is his second one. I don't know how he's awake right now, but he is and that's good, we can monitor him better that way. I must tell you though that with a head injury like this, on top of everything else that happened, there are a LOT of things that could go wrong."

"Pa, don't worry, it'll be fine," Mark said.

"Mark, this isn't like your ankle, there could be serious... even fatal consequences. Just because you're awake doesn't mean you're out of the woods," Burrage told him. For once he just needed Mark to take him seriously.

"...I know," Mark solemnly replied.

This response somewhat shocked the three other men in the room. From the way he responded, it seemed as though Mark was terrified, yet completely calm at the same time.

"Mark, I'm going to keep you here for at least for forty-eight hours, and if there aren't any complications we'll talk about you possibly going home. If you need anything, you ask someone. I don't want to see you out of this bed until I say; you've done way too much today," Doc stated.

Lucas and Micah were both slowly calming down, but Lucas was having a more difficult time.

"Mark, why aren't you in Chicago?" Lucas finally asked.

Mark looked at his Pa in confusion before replying.

"My trip was only a week, I was wondering why you weren't at the train station."

"But you wired me last night saying you had been delayed two weeks," Lucas replied.

"I didn't send you a telegram."

"I had finished a late dinner with your uncle and was getting ready to head out of town when Amos brought it to me."

"What time was that?" Mark asked.

"Eight-thirty I believe, it was right before the evening train came in."

"Pa, I was locked in jail shortly after seven. Even with the delay, there's no way I could've sent that- oh."

"Oh what? And what do you mean you were locked in jail?" Lucas asked with increasing concern.

"That's just it. I got locked up in jail by some criminals. They probably sent it knowing I was expected home this afternoon, and also thinking that I wasn't going to be here."

"Mark, you might want to start from the beginning," Micah suggested.

Mark started with the train ride from Chicago and told all three men what had transpired over the last twenty-four hours. He talked about every detail he could think of, including meeting Ned and not finding out who he was until early that morning. Mark could see the devastation written all over his Pa's face as he told about having almost been killed. Mark wanted to stop, he didn't want to see his Pa like that, but he knew he needed to be open and honest, for both their sakes.

"Once we arrived back in North Fork, I took Ned to the Osborne's before coming over here," Mark concluded.

"Mark, it's a miracle you're alive," the doctor marveled. "Why didn't you see the doctor in Woodpike? Did they not have one?"

"I wanted to get home..." Mark said, anticipating an earful.

"And you knew they'd make you stay there," Doc began. "Mark McCain, sometimes I think you want to kill yourself! What were you thinking?! You know better! You know the risks! And then you ride Ned to the Osborne's? Do you have any idea what that could've done to your head?! If you had-"

" You know, “if” is a troublesome word..." Mark stated.

"Lucas, make sure your stubborn son stays put. I'm going to take a sedative for all the stress he's causing me," the doctor mused as he went to the front office.

"You better be careful, Mark..." Micah teasingly warned. "Glad you're back Mark, things haven't been the same without you. I've gotta get back to the office, I'll check in later."

"Bye, Micah," Mark called as Micah headed out of the room.

There was a silence between Mark and Lucas for a few moments, both trying to read the other person.

"...Mark, are you alright?" Lucas finally asked.

Mark let out a long sigh, knowing his Pa didn't mean physically. It was a minute before Mark started to reply... it was a lot to think through.

"...I will be. I've been in quite a few situations where I wished I was dead, several people have threatened to kill me, you know that once I wanted to kill myself even. But this morning that “sheriff” had a gun pointed at my head. He was going to pull the trigger. I was going to die. Then later when he had me on the ground... his hands were wrapped around my neck. He was squeezing the life from me... everything was getting darker and darker. Again, I was going to die. It's a sobering, scary thought. I didn't really realize how short life was until I almost lost mine. I know it's in the past... but I think it's going to take a while to get over."

Lucas looked into his son's eyes and could see Mark struggling, trying to pull himself out of his fears.

"It will," Lucas began. "But Mark, I'll be here with you to help you get over it."

"Thanks Pa," Mark replied as a faint smile crossed his face. "I found the note you stuck in my trunk," Mark said, changing the subject. "Thanks, it really meant a lot knowing you still support my decision."

"You decided to go to school then?" Lucas asked as his heart sunk a little.

"What are you talking about? How am I supposed to help run OUR ranch from Chicago?"

"You're sure it's what you want?" Lucas asked.

"You're not getting rid of me that easily," Mark quipped.

"I'm glad I've still got a partner to “watch my back”."

"Oh yeah, remember back when you said me getting cousins was as likely as someone inventing a machine to wash dishes?"

"Don't tell me..."

"One of Mrs. Thomas's friends is designing one with her husband. What'd Lou say when uncle Johnny asked her?"

Lucas sighed and rolled his eyes before replying.

"You're gonna have another aunt in a few months."

27MC27

Sunday afternoon, Mark was reading while Lucas was getting some things from the ranch for the two of them. Seeing that Mark seemed to be doing fine, Doc Burrage had stepped out for a while to make his rounds. Mark was enjoying the peace and quiet when suddenly he heard the front door to the office slam shut. The sudden noise made Mark jump a little and sent another wave of sharp pain through his head. Mark heard a knock at the door and expected whoever it was to come in, but they kept knocking... no, pounding, on the door.

"It's open!" Mark called. He couldn't figure out who on earth it was, and was a little shocked to see Cassie storming into the room.

"Hi Cassie, what-"

"Don't “hi Cassie” me, Mark McCain!"

Mark didn't know what on earth he did to get her so riled, but regretted whatever it was. Mark didn't think he'd ever seen Cassie this mad.

"What did I do?" Mark innocently asked.

"I thought I had just missed you in church today, but I heard Ned telling Pa what happened, and I heard Pa say Marshal Torrance said Doc is concerned about your fractured skull. How could you do this?"

"...Do what?" Mark cautiously asked.

"Almost get yourself killed! And then you didn't even have the decency to tell me!"

"I didn't want to worry you, it was in the past, there was no point in you knowing," Mark defended.

"No point in me knowing!? Mark do you realize..." Cassie stopped herself... Mark didn't know. She calmed down a bit before continuing. "Mark when I was at my grandfather's, I did a whole lot of thinking. I realized... well, that I care about you... a lot. I realized-"

"Cassie-"

"Let me finish. I realized that you meant so much more to me than just a friend. I sent you a letter, but your Pa said you never got it. In it I wrote what I found out I felt for you." Cassie paused for a brief moment. "Mark, what I'm trying to say is..." Cassie didn't know how to express herself.

"Cassie, I got the letter," Mark simply stated.

"You did...?"

"Right before I left for Chicago. Because you didn't put a return address I didn't know who it was from and didn't get around to reading it until Friday night when I was locked up in jail."

Cassie had never felt so uncomfortable in her life. He knew how she felt... did he not feel the same way?

"Cassie, as I sat in jail things looked pretty hopeless, but when I read your letter, I felt like the luckiest person alive. I've done a lot of thinking this summer too..." Mark stood up and walked the few feet that separated them. "Cassie, I want us to be more than friends too, and to be truly honest, I think we are. When I stood with a gun pointed to my head, all I could think about was this crazy girl back home who would've enjoyed the thunderstorm we were in as much as I was."

"Mark..." Cassie started, but she couldn't find the words to say.

"Yesterday when I took Ned to your home, I knew what you had written in your letter, I knew you cared. All I wanted to do was protect you from knowing the details of what had happened. I'm sorry, it seemed like the best thing at the time. Cassie, I care about you and after everything you've gone through this summer, I didn't want to add any worry. But Cassie, I agree with what you said in the letter… I don't think we can honestly deny the fact that we've become more than friends."

"Mark if you're serious about this, promise me just one thing."

"Anything."

"We can't have secrets."

"...Cassie, I promise I won't keep anything from you, but I need you to promise me the same thing."

"...Of course, Mark. Friends or… more than friends, we have to be able to trust each other.”

“...So does that mean you're going to tell me the details of how you nearly caught the kitchen-”

“Mark, you're supposed to be resting your voice, remember?”

“My ears are working just fine.”

Cassie gave Mark a playful shove back towards the bed.

“You rest, I need to get back home.”

“See you later, Cassie.”

Mark got back in bed as he watched Cassie walk out of the room. As simple as a promise may have seemed to most people, Mark knew he was making a big commitment when he told Cassie he wouldn't keep anything from her. But deep down, Mark knew they both needed to do so if they were going to pursue any kind of relationship. Deep down, Mark knew making that promise to Cassie was the right choice.


Aunt Camilla

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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