The Rifleman
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Fan Fiction

Family
Chapter 7
Written by Morgan

Much to everyone's surprise, Lucas and Milly decided to wait on tying the knot until the beginning of July. Milly told Lucas she didn't mind waiting until he was less busy with the cattle and all the summer ranch work, but Lucas insisted he didn't want to wait any longer than they had to.

Lucas, Mark, and Milly stayed plenty busy between planning the wedding and adding on to the ranch house. Lucas decided it was time to turn the cabin into a proper home, since it wasn't just going to be a couple of bachelors living there anymore.

The front room would be turned into a proper sitting room; and a kitchen and dining room, as well as an extra bedroom, would be added on to the back of house.

By late May, Lucas and Mark were finally down to the second bedroom and spent whatever spare time they could working on it.

One evening after supper, the two were working side by side with the little light they had left from the sun.

"Pa, can I ask you a question?" Mark Inquired, looking towards Lucas.

"Well you just did..." Lucas teased.

"Pa, I know it's still a ways off, especially with the fact that Cassie's going to school and all this fall. But I wanted to know, if you'd be alright with me building a house on the ranch, for Cassie and I… eventually."

"Of course you can. I've told you many times before; this ranch is as much yours as it is mine. I'd love to see you settle your family here, when the time does come for you to get married."

"Pa, did you ever officially court Ma?"

"Well yes, but things were different back then."

"Well how long was it between the time you met her to the time you asked her to marry you?"

"A few months, why do you ask?"

"I still want to court Cassie and everythin', the right way, but I was just curious. June used to not seem so far away, but the closer it gets, the farther away it seems."

Lucas looked at his son and let out a chuckle.

"...Guess it doesn't make that much sense," Mark admitted.

"Oh, I think I understand. Don't worry; it'll get here soon enough. Are you thinking of building close to this house, or on a different section of the property?"

"Well I want to be close to you and Miss Milly, so somewhere around here. I was thinking the hill up behind the house would be a good spot... Cassie loves the view from up there. Do you see any reason why we couldn't, Pa?"

"Not that I can think of," Lucas replied as he hammered one last nail into place. "Alright, let's see if these walls will stay up, you want to get that brace?" Lucas asked as he gestured across the room.

"Sure thing."

Mark and Lucas both breathed a slight sigh of relief as they knocked the supports out of place and everything stayed up, the way it should.

"Why don't we call it a night? We can finish with the roof after you get back from the Osborne's tomorrow."

"Pa, aren't you forgetting something?"

"Not that I can think of, we didn't have any plans tomorrow night, did we?"

"The graduation ceremony?" Mark asked in disbelief.

"Oh I thought you didn't want to go," Lucas replied with a smile.

Mark realized his Pa had been teasing him the whole time.

"Very funny."

"We'll finish Saturday, and hopefully have time to start moving furniture around before we turn in."

Lucas and Mark started putting their tools away before heading to the bedroom to prepare for bed.

"Pa," Mark began as he and Lucas lay down in their bunks. "After you and Miss Milly get married, do you think she'd be alright with... would you be alright with... I mean, do you think I'd be dis-honoring Ma's memory by calling Miss Milly... well, Ma?"

"Mark, that's completely your choice. I know Milly and I wouldn't mind it at all, and I don't think your mother would, either. By no means would you be dis-honoring her memory. It takes a special woman to fill the role of mother and your Ma did that, and even though Milly and I aren't married yet, I've always felt that Milly filled that role for you when she lived here before."

"Thanks Pa."
*****

Several hours later, Mark bolted upright in his bed, trying to catch his breath. He looked across the room and breathed a sigh of relief when he saw his Pa there, peacefully asleep.

Mark took a minute to relax as he reminded himself of where he was and that this was reality.

Mark got out of bed and quietly made his bunk before slipping into the front room. He lit a lantern before making his way outside to the porch where he stood, looking up to the sky. The moon was still fairly high and Mark knew it would be a long time before the sun would begin to peek over the hills, which meant he would have quite a lot of “thinking time” on his hands.

The nightmares caused by the incident almost two years ago had never completely gone away, and after Lucas and Milly went missing, they only had begun to plague Mark all the more often. This week had been no exception.

Sometimes Mark's dreams would take him back to the one that started it all, the dream where his Pa had died instead of his Ma. Other times, like that night, Mark's nightmares left him in North Fork, just without his Pa. In some cases Mark was twelve again, sometimes he was still eighteen. Sometimes sickness was the cause of death, or other times various outlaws from the McCain's past were the reason Mark was left alone. But the end result of his nightmares was always the same, no Pa.

Mark could never manage to fall back asleep after such a disturbing dream, and often spent long nights sitting out on the porch, assuring himself that what his imagination had come up with wasn't real.

The fear he felt in his dreams were not imagination, however, and Mark knew that fear was what caused the nightmares. Mark often felt ashamed for having such “childish dreams” as he though of them, which was part of the reason he never told Lucas about them. Mark couldn't understand why he couldn't just let go; he understood there was nothing he could do to protect his Pa. Yet every time another dream came, he felt like he was reliving the week he had grieved Lucas's death.

As much as Mark hated the nightmares and wished they would go away, he knew that they definitely helped him cherish the time he had with his Pa even more - because they reminded
him of how little time he could have left.

*****

For the third time that week, Lucas found Mark's bunk made and his son gone from the bedroom when he woke up. Over the past few months, Lucas and Mark had both typically gotten up around the same time and started on the morning chores together, but every so often Mark managed to wake before Lucas and got a jump start on everything. Lucas didn't understand how his son could drag himself out of bed so early, and knew his son needed more sleep than he often let himself have, but Mark insisted he couldn't help it.

Lucas got dressed, and upon seeing his son had already started the coffee on the stove in the front room, made his way outside to the barn.

"Couldn't sleep again?" Lucas inquired as he grabbed a shovel to muck the stalls while Mark milked the cow.

"Yeah," Mark replied as he tried to stifle a yawn. "I already mucked the stalls."

"I see. What've you already done? Or is it better to ask what is there left to do?"

"Nothing really," Mark replied with a shrug.

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

"You know, this is a partnership. Are you trying to get rid of me?" Lucas teased.

"Nope, just making up for all the slacking off I did when I was younger," Mark replied as he picked up the pail and turned towards his Pa.

Lucas's slight chuckle suddenly stopped as he got a good look at Mark.

"Son, are you feeling alright?" Lucas asked as he put a hand to Mark's forehead, which, to his surprise, felt normal.

"Just tired, why do you ask?" Mark replied as the two began walking towards the house.

"You look awful."

"Well thanks," Mark sarcastically replied.

"Mark, seriously, maybe you should stay home today."

"I can't, there's too much to be done at the Osborne's before we take those horses to market and 'sides that, there's plenty that needs to get done around here, too."

"Mark, you've got to understand that sometimes your health comes before work," Lucas told his son as they entered the house.

"Like the summer we had to put all the cattle down?"

"You know very well I had to push it in order for us to survive, this is different. One day of rest isn't going to ruin either of the ranches."

"I'm fine, I don't need-"

"Mark, look in that mirror," Lucas ordered as he pointed to the mirror behind Mark.

Mark obeyed and was a little surprised. His eyes were bloodshot and there were dark circles underneath his eyes. His face was pale and he supposed he could now understand why his Pa was a bit worried.

"I'll take it easy-"

"Good."

"Sunday," Mark finished.

Lucas rolled his eyes as he shook his head.

"What on earth am I going to do with you?"

Mark spent the rest of the morning explaining to his Pa that he felt fine and didn't need to rest. Lucas was worried that Mark was over doing it, and was still trying to convince Mark to stay home that day as Mark mounted Blue Boy.

"I'll see you tonight, Pa."

Lucas sighed as he realized he wasn't getting anywhere.

"Have a good day," Lucas replied with a smile as he stepped back from Blue Boy.

When Mark got into town, his first stop was the general store.

"No, it's not in yet," Mrs. Maguire called from the back room as Mark entered the store.

"How'd you know it was me?" Mark inquired as Mrs. Maguire came out of the back.

"For two weeks now you've come in every Monday through Saturday at the same time, asking the same thing," the woman replied with a smile. "Don't worry about it; you've still got a month for it to get here."

"I know, I'd just feel a whole lot better if I had it. ...You haven't told anyone, right?"

"Of course not, but I don't know why you're being so secretive about it. The whole town practically has you two engaged."

"Oh I know, but she doesn't know I've even talked to her Pa about courtship and I want this to be a surprise."

"Well it's a sweet gesture, I'm sure she is going to love it, although I'm sure not near as much as she loves you."

Mark's face got a little red from embarrassment as he shifted uncomfortably.

"Oh, Mark..." the woman laughed.

"Thank you; have a good day, Mrs. Maguire."

Mark left the general store and crossed the street before entering the Marshal's office.

"John? Micah?" Mark called when he saw no one in the front office.

"Be out in a minute, Mark," came the reply from the cell area of the office.

The door was closed, but through the barred window in the door, Mark could see John talking to a prisoner.

"Who's that?" Mark inquired as John came out to the front office.

"Just a suspect Micah picked up as he was checking some of the outlining ranches. Did you need something?"

"Suspect? What do you think he did?"

"Nothing at this point Mark. I've questioned him and will probably let him go; Micah just thought he matched the description on a wanted poster."

"Well then shouldn't you-"

"Are you a Marshal?"

The way John asked the question confused Mark. He felt like John was trying to make it sound like he was teasing when he was serious. It seemed as though the marshal felt threatened.

"Sorry. I'm heading out to your place now, anything I need to know?"

"As far as I know, everything's as it should be."

"Alright, see you tonight then."

"Tonight?" John inquired in confusion.

"The graduation...?"

"Oh yes, of course. See you then."

Mark watched as the marshal turned to go through a stack of papers. Mark felt as though something was out of place, that something just wasn't normal. Mark shook his head in confusion as he left the office. Maybe there was just something going on John couldn't tell Mark because it was classified or something. Whatever it was, Mark put it aside and hurried to the Osborne's.

1MC1

Mark hadn't had a chance to see Cassie before the graduation ceremony, but as soon as he walked in the schoolhouse doors, she was the only thing he could pay any attention to. Never in his life had he seen her so dressed up, and he had to admit she was absolutely stunning. Beyond the fact that she looked beautiful in the dress she wore, Mark couldn't keep his eyes off the beautiful, graceful smile on her face.

Mark sat next to his Pa, who of course was next to Milly, throughout the ceremony. Since there were two others graduating besides Cassie, the ceremony took longer than it had the previous year.

When the crowd was dismissed to the reception, Cassie made her way towards the McCain's and her family. She hugged her mother and father, and the others could tell she almost went to embrace Mark, but knew it wasn't proper.

"Congratulations, Cassie. We're all very proud of you," Milly stated as she hugged her niece.

"Thank you. I can't tell you what it means-" Cassie stopped as she felt someone tap on her shoulder.

When Cassie turned around, everyone let out a chuckle at the shock written all over her face.

"Ned! What- when...? How...? I thought you weren't coming home until Monday?!"

"I couldn't miss my little sister's graduation, now could I?" Ned replied as he embraced his sister.

"How long have you been in town?" Cassie asked, still pleasantly surprised.

"I got in last night."

"It was a wonderful surprise; it's so good to see you!"

"You almost found out a couple times. Thankfully you've been a bit distracted the last few weeks," Anna interjected with a sheepish grin.

"How long have you all been planning this?" Cassie questioned.

"Two months," Milly answered.

"It was very thoughtful of you all, thank you."

"Why don't we get outside before all the food's gone?" Ned suggested.

"Ah, now the truth comes out. You just came for the food," Cassie teased.

The group made their way outside and slowly dispersed as they were pulled away by respective friends and neighbors. To no one's surprise, Milly spent the evening arm in arm with Lucas; and Mark stood with Cassie as she made polite conversation with those offering her congratulations on her accomplishment.

Mark was getting some punch for himself and Cassie when Ned came up next to him.

"What'd you do with my little sister, McCain? I leave her with you for a few months and all of a sudden she's mature," Ned said, half teasingly, half seriously.

"I didn't do anything to her, teaching did. But she has become a beautiful woman, that's for sure."

"And you can't get your eyes off her."

"Nope," Mark readily admitted with a grin.

"Mark, this may seem a bit strange, but I am her big brother and I am going to look out for her.
Are you serious about this whole thing or are you just playing around with her? Because like I said, if you hurt her..."

"Ned, your sister is a beautiful woman on the outside, but her beauty of character is what I love about her the most. She definitely has a lot more spunk and determination than most women, but I like that about her. I don't know how I got lucky enough to have her take interest in me, but we both do love each other and I'd do anything to protect her, physically and emotionally."

"So what are you waiting for?"

"End of June," Mark replied with a sigh.

"June?"

"She turns eighteen on June twenty-fourth."

"I'm her brother, I know... Oh. My parents ask you to wait?"

"Until she was done with school, but my Pa told me to wait until she turned eighteen. Thirty-one more days."

"Well I'm glad you're respecting his wishes then, but if you don't hurry up she might just go crazy, according to her letters," Ned laughed.

"Oh believe me, I'm not waiting a second more than I have to. It has been a long year. Good for the both of us, but long."

"I know she's waiting for you, so I'll let you get back over there. Good talking to you, Mark."

"You too," Mark replied before heading back towards Cassie, but as he passed the school house, he heard stressed voices and stopped for a moment.

"John, why'd you let him go? He matched the description perfectly!" Mark heard Micah exclaim from the other side of the door.

"I questioned him and didn't have probable cause to keep him locked up. A lot of people in the world match that description Micah, and his story checked out."

"Who confirmed it?"

"I did some checking myself; I don't know why you're so bent on him being the man we're looking for."

"Because there is at least cause for you to check with the office in Denver. I don't know why you can't see that!"

"Micah, as ranking officer I'm ordering you to drop it."

"Osborne, you may have just let a murderer go free. I hope your conscious can live with that." Micah stormed out of the school house as Mark started walking again.

"Mark, is something wrong?" Cassie asked as she took the glass Mark was offering her.

"No, it's fine. Are you tired? We can sit down for a while if you want," Mark suggested.

"No, I'm fine, but-"

Cassie was interrupted as a couple suddenly came up to give their congratulations. She couldn't tell if Mark was fine or not, but put it aside for a moment to respond to the couple.

Mark was just as confused as Cassie. John and Micah always agreed... well, almost always. Except when... well, the more Mark thought about it, the more he realized that they were disagreeing more and more as time went on. Or maybe they'd always disagreed, but the opportunity to disagree on a subject hadn't been there.

When Micah left that building, he had looked MAD. And if Micah was right about the prisoner, Mark could understand why he would be. But at the same time, Mark knew Marshal Osborne wouldn't let someone go if he thought that person were a threat to society.

Again, Mark tried to blow the situation off as none of his business, but this time it wouldn't blow off the way he wanted it to.

*****

Later that evening, Mark waved goodbye as the Osborne's left in their buckboard. Mark stood, staring after them... after Cassie, for a long time.

"You're gonna get yourself run over standing in the street like that, kid!"

"Uhuh," Mark replied to his uncle's call.

Johnny rolled his eyes as he made his way towards Mark.

"She's a beautiful young woman, isn't she?" Johnny inquired.

"Yep."

"Bet you can't wait to marry her."

"Mhmm."

"Your pant leg is on fire."

"Nice try. I'm listening to ya," Mark replied with a smile as he looked at his uncle.

"Mark, where's your Pa?"

"Talking to Miss Milly over there," Mark replied as he gestured to the couple.

"Didn't the Osborne's just leave though?"

"Pa's going to see her home."

"Should've guessed it. Well, she and Lou are close enough anyhow; I don't see why she can't come too. Grab your Pa and Milly and come over to the hotel, will ya?"

"Sure, but what for?"

"I'll see you over there," was all Johnny said before walking away.

Confused, Mark walked over to where his Pa and Milly stood.

"Pa, Uncle Johnny wants us all at the hotel."

"Why? Is something wrong?" Lucas inquired.

"I don't think so. He just said to come over."

"Alright," Lucas shrugged as the three started making their way to the hotel.

They found Lou and Johnny sitting in the restaurant, the rest of the hotel seemed to be deserted.

"Lou, is something wrong?" Milly asked as she sat down next to her friend.

"Lucas, Mark, please sit," Lou invited.

Lucas and Mark sat, but worry was written all over their faces as they did.

"Lou?" Milly asked again.

"Johnny, why don't ye tell them? I don't think I can..."

Johnny sighed heavily as he looked lovingly at his wife.

"Lou went to Doc's the other day; she hasn't been feeling too well as of late. He found out what the problem was... he told us that in three or four weeks... that... well..." Johnny paused and swallowed before continuing. "…She won't have to deal with the sickness anymore."

Mark and Lucas looked at Lou and Johnny in worry and disbelief, and were shocked to hear Milly let out a laugh.

"You two are horrible!" Milly exclaimed. "Had I not had my suspicions, I'd probably look like Lucas and Mark do now!"

Johnny and Lou joined Milly's laughter, and shortly Lucas was laughing as well. Mark, however, was completely lost.

"Why are you all laughing?" Mark finally asked.

"Remember what I said about the likelihood of someone inventing a machine to wash dishes?" Lucas asked.

"Yeah, what's that got to do with anything?"

Milly, Lou, Lucas, and Johnny all began laughing even harder.

"Will someone please tell me what's going on?" Mark begged, still very concerned for his aunt.

"Mark, for someone as intelligent as you, I'm surprised you haven't figured it out yet," Johnny mused.

"Mark, I'm expecting," Lou told him.

"Expecting... you mean like actually expecting? Like you're having a baby?"

Lou nodded her head as everyone chuckled at Mark's astonishment.

"Congratulations!" Mark exclaimed with a smile on his face.

"Thank ye."

"I'm so happy for the both of you, you'll make wonderful parents," Milly told Johnny and Lou.

"When are you due?" Lucas inquired.

"Doc and I believe at the beginning of December," Lou answered.

The small group continued chatting for a short while before Lucas, Milly, and Mark left so Lou and Johnny could get home.

"Mark, go ahead and head home, I'm going to take Milly to the Osborne's then stop by Micah's before I come home," Lucas told his son.

"Alright. Goodnight, Miss Milly."

"Goodnight Mark," Milly replied as Mark started heading towards Blue Boy.

"And Mark?" Lucas called.

"Yeah Pa?"

"Go to bed when you get home, understand?"

"Yes sir."

"I already did the evening chores, so no excuses."

"Yes sir," Mark replied as he mounted and rode off.

Milly let out a chuckle that caused Lucas to look towards her.

"What is it?"

"Just a bit strange, you telling your eighteen year old to go to bed. He looked like he was being chided for sneaking a cookie."

"I'm afraid our problems are a bit bigger than that," Lucas sighed.

"Problems?" Milly inquired.

"That boy just doesn't seem to know when he needs to stop. He's working constantly, and for some reason he's been having trouble sleeping this week. I just about made him stay home from the Osborne's today, but he insisted there was too much to be done."

"He's a McCain alright," Milly stated.

"Two months and you will be one, too. Milly I love you so much."

"Lucas, I love you too. I can't wait until we're married. But Lucas...?"

"What is it?"

"Mark has always held a special place in my heart. You know that. In some ways, when I lived here before I felt like a mother to him... and I do now. But does Mark feel at all as though I'm... trying to replace Margaret?" Milly apprehensively inquired.

"Oh Milly, of course not," Lucas replied as he faced Milly and wrapped his arms around her waist. "I don't want you to ever feel like you have to try to be her either. Mark and I both love you as you are; we want you, because of who you are."

"But Mark..."

"Milly, do you know what Mark asked me the other night?"

Milly shook her head no as she stared into Lucas's eyes.

"He asked if he could call you Ma after we got married. Milly, you're like a mother to him, and in two short months you officially will be. He loves you Milly. I love you."

Lucas drew Milly closer and put his lips on hers. As Milly kissed him back, her arms wrapped around Lucas, never wanting to let go.

2MC2

"Last one, Pa!" Mark hollered from the roof as he hammered the last nail in place.

"It's about time!" Lucas teased.

"Well if you would've been up here instead of wasting time down there, we would've been done a long time ago," Mark quipped as he started to collect the tools and make his way down the ladder.

Lucas and Mark stepped back to admire their handy work.

"Why don't we take a break before we start moving furniture around? I'm famished!" Lucas declared as he put his arm around Mark and the two walked inside the house.

"How long do you think until we'll start seeing calves around? Getting kinda late, isn't it?" Mark asked as he and Lucas ate lunch.

"Yes, a bit, but I don't think it'll be too much longer. Keep in mind we didn’t let the bull out until later than usual. I am worried about that younger cow though, she's a bit young to be mating but I can't really do anything about it now. Just keep a close eye on her when you check the cattle."

"Sure thing."

"When are you leaving with John to get those horses up to market?"

"The tenth of June. He said he wants to get there early to kinda get the feel of things. I honestly don't understand why he feels the need to show up almost a week early, but to each their own I suppose."

"Are you still thinking about buying a few breeding horses, yourself?"

"If you're still alright with it."

"It's your money, your business, but I think it's good for you to try to branch out some."

"Pa, even though Marshal Osborne is a U.S. Marshal and all, he still came out here to technically be Micah's deputy... can Marshal Osborne still pull rank?"

"Yes, but I can't imagine why he would ever have to, why do you ask?"

"Because he did yesterday."

"What do you mean?" Lucas asked confusion crossed his face.

"Micah didn't think he should have released a prisoner they had in custody, but John did and told Micah to drop the case. Micah was pretty mad."

"And how do you happen to know all this?"

"Right place at the right time."

"Or the right place at the wrong time. You shouldn't interfere; it's none of your business."

"But Pa, when I went into the office that morning to talk to John, he-"

"Did talking to him make it your business?"

“I guess not...”

"Since when do you call Marshal Osborne by his first name?"

"Believe me, I wouldn't be, but he told me to... back in Lordsburg."

"Alright, as long as he told you to."

"What's the plan with the furniture?"

"Well since we decided that you're staying in the room we're in now, and we built the kitchen around the stove and pump, we just need to move the table and chairs, then rearrange the furniture in the sitting room so we can fit the couch in there."

"Ready then?"

"It's not going to move itself, let's go!"

Lucas and Mark were done moving furniture by mid-afternoon, and were glad everything was finally complete after months of labor.

Lucas had refused to let Milly see the house until everything was finished, so the next day Mark and Lucas had Milly and the Osborne's over for Sunday dinner. Much to Mark's disappointment, Cassie wasn't even in church that day because she was home sick, but had insisted the rest of her family go on to the McCain's after the service.

After lunch, Mark and Ned mounted up so Mark could show Ned the ranch. They had stopped at the ridge overlooking Box Canyon when Ned broke the silence.

"So this is the canyon Cassie is always going on about. She loved it when you took her out here."

"Really? That was... almost two years ago; it was the first time I showed her and Anna around the ranch."

"Well don't ever mention it to her, or she won't stop talking about it."

"...Ned, the first time we met, the weekend you saved my life... why'd you do it?"

"Do what?"

"Save me instead of run for your life? You didn't even know my name at that point."

"Because it was the right thing to do. Other than that I don't really have an answer. You were innocent, he was trying to kill you, and I had opportunity to help."

"I'm still indebted to you."

"Mark, I told you-"

"If you ever need anything, let me know."

"Alright..." Ned sighed. "Same goes for you though. Mark, you're like the brother I never had and I appreciate your friendship. If you ever get yourself in a scrape, you can count on me."

3MC3

June soon arrived and the cattle were keeping the McCain's plenty busy. Ned had found an office space to rent in town and was officially opening his firm the first of September, but stayed plenty busy getting the office ready.

One day as Ned was returning home from town, he was surprised to see Anna go racing past him on her horse. He called out to her, but she either didn't hear him or simply was ignoring him.

After putting his own horse in its stall, Ned made his way to the house, and saw Cassie standing on the porch.

"I wouldn't go in there if I were you," Cassie warned as Ned reached for the door handle.

Ned didn't have to ask why when he heard yelling from inside.

"It's gotten worse, hasn't it?"

Cassie simply nodded as she sat down on the porch steps with her brother.

"Anna taking it hard?" Ned inquired.

"Usually she can manage it fine, but today was just too much for her. I wanted to go after her but... I couldn't exactly get away at the moment."

"What happened that made today so much worse?"

"Pa yelled at both of us, louder than I've heard him yell before. It just about killed Anna."

"That would explain the tears. What started it?"

"Ned, I don't even know, really. Anna and I were a few minutes late coming home from town because Doc Burrage stopped Anna to talk to her for a minute. The second we rode into the yard, Pa ordered us inside and started yelling. Ma heard the commotion and tried to help, but now... well it's that," Cassie explained as she gestured inside. "Ned, something has happened over the last few months. I can't explain it. You saw how much things had changed when you came home for Christmas, and they only have gotten worse. It's more than the arguments our parents have, Pa hardly ever lets Anna, Ma, or I out of his sight. It was like pulling teeth to try to get him to let Anna and I ride to town today. Thankfully Aunt Milly is at the McCain's, and Mark was running an errand for Pa, so they haven't had to listen to all this."

"Aunt who?"

"Aunt Camilla. Everyone around here calls her Milly, like cousin Sally and her family sometimes does. I guess it's sorta rubbed off on me." Cassie paused before continuing. "Ned, I'm worried. What if Ma and Pa decide to separate... or even... di-"

"Cassie Osborne, how could you suggest that they would divorce? Things might be rough right now, but Ma and Pa love each other."

"Ned, how would you know? You're always gone. ...I understand, you have your own life, but I'm not so sure they do anymore. The few times you've been home for supper you've seen how it goes. Aunt Milly is the only one who can get a peaceful conversation to happen. You're moving out this month, Aunt Milly is moving next month, and I'm leaving at the end of August. Ned, I'm worried about Anna, I don't know if she's going to be alright."

"Do you know where she would've ridden off to?"

"...I have a few ideas."

"Let's go."

Ned and Cassie saddled their horses and the two left to find their younger sister. After checking a few places, Cassie could only think of one other place Anna would have ridden to, and hoped her sister was there.

"That's her horse alright," Ned commented as they rode up to an abandoned mine shaft.

Brother and sister dismounted and entered the shaft calling for their sister, but didn't hear a reply.

"Anna!" Ned called again.

"Shh!" Cassie ordered. "Listen..."

Ever so faintly, they heard what sounded like someone crying. Following the noise, Cassie and Ned ventured deeper into the shaft.

"Anna..." Cassie gently said as she and Ned knelt next to their sister, who was sitting with her arms wrapped around her legs.

"He hates me..." Anna whispered as she put her head down.

Cassie put a comforting hand on Anna's shoulder as Ned did the same.

"Anna, Pa doesn't hate you," Ned began. "He loves you so much-"

"Then why'd he say he shouldn't bother caring about me? He doesn't care, he doesn't love me, he hates me. I don't know why everyone else doesn't feel the same way. All I do is cause problems!"

"Anna, you don't cause any problems, you practically live to resolve them. All you ever want to do is try to help people, make their lives easier, and you do," Cassie replied.

"Anna, Pa's just on edge, money is tight but once the horses sell, things should get better, things should be less stressful," Ned added.

"They would probably be a lot less stressful if I wasn't here. Maybe I should just make things better for everyone and-"

"Anna don't you say it!" Cassie exclaimed as tears began rolling down her cheeks.

"Anna, look at me," Ned ordered.

Anna didn't move, so Ned ever so gently made his sister look at him.

"You are a wonderful, mature young woman. Beautiful inside and out. This world needs an Anna Osborne, and it'd be purely selfish of you to take yourself out of it."

"Anna, our whole family loves you, this whole town loves you," Cassie told her sister.

"No they don't, I'm no use to anyone."

"Anna, the few short weeks I've been in North Fork, I can't tell you how much I've heard people mention how you've helped people around here. But they don't love that you're helping, Anna,
they love your character, your heart," Ned stated.

"Anna, when Ms. Lou's friend came to town last spring, who offered to watch her little ones so she could help Lou? Who helped Doc save Mark's life this winter? Who's kept me going these last few months? You have, Anna. Don't do something foolish; don't throw your life away."

"Ned... Cassie..." Anna started, but tears just streamed down her face.

Cassie and Ned simply turned to embrace their sister as she cried.

"We'll get through this, it'll be alright," Cassie assured Anna.

"We're here for you, Anna, you don't have to do this alone," Ned added.

It was a long time before Anna had spent her tears, but finally she began to stand as she spoke.

"Thank you both for coming out here... I suppose we she get back home before..." Anna stopped and a concentrated look came over her face.

"What is it?" Ned asked.

"Do you hear that?" Anna asked.

The rumbling grew louder and Cassie and Ned could now hear it. Suddenly, Ned realized what was happening, but it was too late as everything started crashing around them.

The three started towards the exit of the shaft, but beams fell in their way. They turned around to go the other way, but Ned saw another beam falling towards them.

"Move!" Ned yelled as he shoved his sisters out of the way.

Ned pulled out a bandana as his sisters grabbed their handkerchiefs and put them over their noses. Ned ordered his sisters to crouch down and cover their heads as he tried to use his body to shield them.

4MC4

"Evening, Mrs. Osborne. Has your husband left for town yet?" Mark inquired as he dismounted.

"I'm afraid he has Mark, anything I can help you with?"

"I just have a quote from Mr. Langley for him; I'll stop by the office on my way home."

"Thank you, Mark."

Mark continued to finish his normal jobs around the Osborne's before getting ready to bed down the horses for the night. After doing that, he went back to Blue Boy and found Mrs. Osborne still on the porch. Mark could tell that something was troubling her, but he couldn't figure out what.

"Mrs. Osborne, is something the matter?" Mark inquired.

"You didn't happen to see my children on the way over here, did you?"

"No, are they overdue?"

"The three of them apparently went for a ride this afternoon, and haven't returned. It's probably nothing, they're probably in town."

"I can look for them when I go in. It wouldn't be any trouble."

"Thank you, I'd appreciate it."

Catherine watched Mark mount up and ride off. She was trying to convince herself that everything was fine, but something within in her told her otherwise.

Sometime later, Catherine looked up after hearing approaching horses, hoping it was her children, but found Lucas and Milly riding up to the house.

"Evening, Lucas, Milly," Catherine greeted as she stepped off her porch. "I trust you two had a wonderful afternoon."

"It was splendid," Milly replied.

"Catherine, Is Mark still around here? I was surprised when we didn't see him on the road," Lucas commented.

"He went to town to talk to John, and offered to look for Ned, Cassie, and Anna while he was there."

"Why would he be looking for them?" Milly inquired, becoming slightly alarmed.

"They've just all been gone the whole afternoon, on a ride. I don't really think it's anything... but mother's intuition tells me otherwise."

"It's almost dark and Ned would've-" Milly began.

"I know, that's why Mark offered to check town for them."

Suddenly the three turned around at the sound of a horse rapidly approaching.

"Pa, thank goodness you're here!" Mark exclaimed as he rode up to them.

"Mark what's wrong?" Lucas asked as he grabbed Blue Boy's halter and tried to help Mark steady the horse.

"I was going into town and saw Anna's horse off by itself. Obviously I could tell something wasn't right so I found its tracks and followed them back to an old mine shaft. Ned and Cassie's horses are picketed nearby and it looks like there was a cave in."

"Oh, no!" Milly and Catherine gasped.

"Mark, head to town and get some help," Lucas began. "I'll stay here and help Milly and Catherine load a buck board with supplies."

"Alright, Pa," Mark replied as he started to leave, but Lucas tightened his grip on the halter.

Mark met his father's eyes and waited for Lucas to say something.

"Son, be careful, I'm worried too, but it's dark and that road has numerous pot holes. Don't just ride fast, ride smart."

"Yes sir."

Mark took off on Blue Boy and the three remaining at the Osborne's began gathering blankets and first aid supplies.

Lucas watched as Milly tried to reassure her sister that everything would be alright, but they were all wondering if it actually would be.

5MC5

The final blast had sent Ned flying backwards and his sisters in different directions. After everything had settled, an uneasy quietness fell over the small area that remained unburied.

"Anna? Cassie?" Ned called out in the darkness as he began to get up.

"Over here, Ned," Cassie replied as she started to brush herself off. "Are you alright?"

"I'm fine, what about you?"

"Just going to be sore for a few days. Anna, are you alright?" Cassie waited a few moments before calling out again. "Anna?"

"Cassie can you see her?"

"I can't see anything, it's too dark. Anna!" Cassie called again, louder.

"Not too loud Cassie," Ned warned. "You might cave in this area too. Carefully walk around and see if you can't find her," Ned ordered as he did the same.

"Ned, she's over here!" Cassie finally exclaimed as she knelt next to her sister.

"Shh!" Ned demanded as he made his way towards Cassie's voice.

Upon reaching his sisters, Ned first felt for Anna's pulse and breathed a sigh of relief when he found one. Next, Cassie and Ned felt around to make sure Anna wasn't caught underneath anything.

"Ned, what do we do?" Cassie asked worriedly.

"There's nothing we can really do except wait and hope somebody figures out that something is wrong. We can't see anything so we can't dig our way out."

"Ned, it's going to be a long time before we're missed..."

"I know."

"Well then what-"

"Cassie, all we can do is wait and pray."

Ned could hear the fear and alarm in Cassie's voice; he felt it himself. He knew just as well as she did that they could be breathing their last breaths.

What felt like eternity had passed when Cassie was beginning Amazing Grace for the tenth time.

"We really need to talk to reverend Graft about getting new hymn books," Ned commented, interrupting Cassie's singing.

"Why?"

"Because I'm tired of hearing the same six songs over and over."

"You said to stay awake, you got a better idea?" Cassie shot back.

"As a matter of fact, I-"

"Shush!"

"How about-"

"No, I mean listen! Do you hear that?"

"...Hear what? I don't hear anything."

"Ned, I hear shoveling!"

"It's your imagination."

"No, listen!"

Ned gave in and listened more intensely. Cassie was right - something did sound like shoveling.

"Is somebody out there?! Hello?!" Ned yelled.

There was an abrupt stop to the sound and Ned continued.

"Hello?! Anybody?!"

"Ned is that you?" Cassie and Ned heard from the other side of the dirt wall.

"Pa, I'm in here with Cassie and Anna!"

"Is everyone alright?"

"Cassie and I are, but Anna is unconscious."

"You sit still and we'll be in there as soon as we can!"

The shoveling sound continued, faster this time. Cassie and Ned waited until finally a shovel popped through and light from lanterns on the other side flooded the room. As soon as the hole was big enough, a lantern was passed through the opening and Ned and Cassie checked Anna over. It was apparent something had hit her head and cracked it open, but not too much. Thankfully the bleeding appeared to have stopped shortly after the injury, but it had left plenty of
dried blood over Anna's face. Ned checked for broken bones while Cassie checked her head for any other bumps or bruising. Both were oblivious to the fact that someone had made it through the hole.

"We brought the buckboard, we'll need to pass her through the opening if nothing's broken and get her to doc's as soon as possible."

Cassie turned around upon hearing Mark's voice and had Ned not been there, as well as those on the other side of the wall, she would have readily fallen into his arms.

Ned and Mark carried Anna to the opening and passed her through the hole to those waiting on the other side. Cassie went next, followed by Ned, then Mark.

Catherine was helping her husband and Milly situate Anna in the buckboard when Ned and Cassie came out to them.

Catherine and John embraced their children and carefully looked them over before the marshal told them to get in the buckboard and the family drove to Doc's.

Lucas and Mark stayed at the mine the few short minutes it took to clean up and board the entrance to the mine off before heading to town themselves.

As soon as Lucas and Mark entered the doctor's office, Cassie quickly made her way towards Mark, but both of them stopped themselves from making contact, even though both of them wanted to.

"Cassie, are you alright?" Mark asked as he carefully looked her over while Lucas walked over to the marshal and his wife.

"Just a few scratches, Doc said I'll be sore for a few days and that's about it," Cassie replied as Ned made his way over.

"What about you, Ned?" Mark inquired.

"Same."

"How's Anna?"

"She's still unconscious and Doc doesn't really have answers right now," Ned replied.

"I had no idea there was a mine shaft on the property, how'd you guys find it?" Mark asked.

"Anna was actually the one who found it a few months back, she goes there every so often to
think..." Cassie replied.

"What were you all doing in there?"

Cassie and Ned looked at each other for a moment, not really sure how much to say at the moment.

"Cassie and I were out for a ride and found Anna. We went in to talk to her for a while and then it caved in," Ned answered.

"I hope Anna will be alright," Mark stated.

A tear began rolling down Cassie's cheek and Ned hugged his sister, telling her that all would be fine.

Mark wanted to do the same, but due to the other people there, he didn't.

The McCain's, Osborne's, and Milly waited in the waiting room for several hours before Doc came out and announced that Anna was awake. He told everyone that she had a concussion and various abrasions, but it appeared that everything would be fine. The family began taking turns going in to see her and Lucas and Mark bid the family goodnight before heading home.

As Lucas and Mark were getting ready for bed that night, Lucas could tell something was on Mark's mind.

"Something you want to talk about son?"

"Yeah, I guess there is. Pa, what is it with society and all this social acceptability and such?" Mark inquired.

"What do you mean?" Lucas replied.

"I mean I wanted to take Cassie in my arms and tell her everything was going to be alright. I wanted to hold her... I wanted to kiss her. But because of our age and the fact that we're not officially in a courting relationship, it's not “acceptable” for us to do any of that. Why? Pa I love her, I was worried about her, and because all those people were there, I couldn't express that."

"Mark, part of that is simply culture and tradition. Another part of it is putting safeguards in place for people, especially people at your age who are experiencing these feelings for the first time."

"But we love each other just the same whether we're courting or not."

"It's simply a precaution, but don't let yourself see it as an obstacle Mark. Think of it as a way
you can make the times when you do get to “express yourselves” even more special. I do, however, believe you are right to avoid displays of affection at this point, but I understand why you hugged her when she saw you after you woke up from the coma. I didn't interfere because I honestly believe she needed it."

"Pa, Cassie's the only person I've felt this way about before. I just about died when I saw her horse in front of the caved in mine; it was like when I've seen you in danger."

"But she's alright, and hopefully Anna will be too."

"Did you ever have a time where you thought you might not ever see Ma again...? I mean, before she got sick?"

There was a long silence before Lucas answered.

"... It happened a little over twenty years ago, your mother and I had been married about a year and a half and were well established in Enid. The weeks leading up to the event were a bit strange, I'll admit your mother and I were a bit at odds, though neither one of us were sure what it was over. We were still able to kiss goodnight, but during the day, tempers tended to flare. Your Uncle Johnny and I were supposed to leave for a few days on a hunting trip, and the day we were supposed to leave your Ma and I got in a big argument. I left that morning, both of us still boiling, and I didn't bother kissing her goodbye. Mark, that was probably one of my biggest mistakes I made during our married life. When you do get married, don't ever leave while you're angry. Make it a point to kiss before you step foot out of the house. I told her goodbye and left to meet Johnny for a few days of camping and hunting. With all of that time on our hands, Johnny ended up hearing about the arguments and helped me cool down and see that there were some things I just needed to let go. Your uncle gave great advice for never being married. At the end of the trip, Johnny and I both had a few bucks and headed back home. I spent the whole two days it took to ride back home regretting the frankly stupid things I had said to your mother. I was ready to come back home and make up with her; I wanted to apologize to her for being so stubborn and bigoted. I said goodbye to Johnny as he turned down the road that he lived on and continued to the edge of town where we lived. I hung the bucks in the barn and put my horse in his stall before heading to the house. Never in my life had it seemed so quiet and empty inside. I checked everywhere and couldn't find your mother, so I went to town thinking she was running errands. The longer I looked for her however, the more I was becoming worried - worried that she had left. No one had seen her since the day after Johnny and I had left town. I raced home, desperate to see if I could find any indication of where on earth she had gone. At that point I was regretting more than ever leaving while we were both angry. Never in a hundred years did I think that she would leave me."

"Ma left you?" Mark asked in disbelief.

"No, my assumption was wrong. I fretted all night before finding that out though. That was the first time as a grown man I cried myself to sleep. I couldn't imagine living life without her. When I woke up the next morning I found a note on the kitchen table. Someone I didn't remember, but apparently from my past said that if I wanted her back, I would have to go get her. He told me where to meet him and I didn't waste any time before taking off. It was a whole day's ride and all I could do was imagine what this mad man had done with my wife. All I could do was wonder if I would ever see her again, ever apologize, ever get to do what I had taken for granted a few days before - be able to take her in my arms and kiss her. When I arrived at the destination, I quickly realized where I was. It had been one of the first places I had led men into battle only a few short years before. I wasn't the head officer, but was among those in charge. There had been several casualties and I found out that casualties were exactly what the whole situation was about. The man who had taken your mother went on this long rant about how it was my fault his brother had died in that battle; how I should've called for surrender. I tried telling him that it hadn't been my decision, but of course he was too loco to listen. I demanded to see your Ma, but he refused, and I wondered if he was playing games and had already killed her. He told me that we were going to have our own “battle” and the winner got to keep your Ma. He ordered me to ready my rifle, but I refused and tried to talk reason with him. He finally went for his gun and I shot his hand before he cleared the holster. I rushed towards him and grabbed his shirt in a fist as I pulled him up to me, demanding him to tell me what he had done with your Ma. After threatening him in several different ways he finally gave me directions to a cabin in the woods and I took off, desperate to find your Ma alive. It probably only took five minutes to get there, but it was one of the longest rides of my life. As soon as I got close enough to the cabin I jumped off my horse and rushed up the porch steps. I found a lock on the outside of the door and blasted it with my rifle before kicking the door in. Your Ma was sitting huddled in a corner, and I could see the tears begin to stream down her face when I walked through the door. I untied her ropes and took her in my arms... I can't tell you the relief I felt at that moment... It..." Lucas stopped as a tear fell down his cheek.

"Pa, I shouldn't have-"

"No Mark, I'm glad you did. Because there's a part of this story I've been meaning to tell you for a LONG time... I've just never gotten up the nerve to tell you. By the time I had made it back to the original meeting point with your Ma, the man was gone and it was probably a good thing... I don't know what I would have done to him if he had stuck around. He honestly probably wouldn't have had a trial. Your Ma and I spent the whole way home apologizing back and forth and telling the other how much we loved them. The night we got back we talked through all the ridiculous arguments we had created over the past few weeks and were reminded of why we loved each other. As the days passed though, I realized your Ma didn't seem to be doing too well and was getting tired really easily. I thought the crazy man who had taken her had done something, but she insisted he hadn't. One night I came home and she sat me down and told me why she had been so sick, and possibly why she had been so short tempered. She told me I was going to be a father."

Lucas simply waited for Mark to say something. At first Mark wondered why his Pa wasn't continuing, but then he started thinking.

"You said this happened over twenty years ago... I'm only eighteen..."

"Your Ma was expecting a baby before you... that she unfortunately lost at about four months."

"...Why keep it a secret?"

"Because it was too painful for me to talk about, partially because I used to blame myself. I felt that the stress of what happened caused her to lose our baby. I thought that if I had been there to stop the whole incident from happening, I could've saved the baby and all the grief your mother and I went through. The miscarriage was what weakened your Ma's body as well... that's why she couldn't fight the smallpox. Another reason I couldn't talk about it, but you deserve to know, he or she would have been your sibling."

"Pa it's not-"

"I know now it wasn't my fault now, but I couldn't come to terms with it for the longest time."

"Thanks for telling me..."

"I hope this helps you understand why I can be so overprotective at times. After losing our first baby... I couldn't bear to lose another child, and then your Ma died. I remember the day she died... she made me promise to take care of you, see to it that you finished your schooling, to be gentle... something I hadn't always been the best at. That day I promised myself I'd be there to protect you in whatever ways I could. I couldn't save my first child or your mother, but I'll do whatever it takes to protect you, Son. I love you Mark."

"I love you too, Pa."

"...We better hit the sack; it's been a long day."

"Goodnight Pa, I love you."

6MC6

Within the next few days, Anna was released from Doc's and appeared to be recuperating well. Things started to get back to normal - that is, as normal as things ever got around North Fork. Cassie was elated when she found out that her guess about Lou being pregnant was right, she had wondered for over a month.

Soon it was time for Mark and John to leave on their trip to northern New Mexico and Lucas, Milly, and the Osborne's stood in the Osborne's yard saying goodbye.

Milly, Catherine, Anna, and Cassie had made a bounty of baked goods for the two to take with them, and Mark wasn't sure they would be able to eat it all.

Lucas watched as Milly lovingly mothered Mark, telling him to be careful, to eat plenty of protein and not to stay in wet clothes. As much as Mark tried to hide it, Lucas knew he was enjoying being mothered by Milly.

When Mark and Cassie said goodbye, there wasn't the typical lively banter between them, rather concern on both their parts. Those trying to make it not obvious they were watching were surprised at how far the two, once seemingly juvenile children, bade farewell as mature adults.

"...Be back soon." Mark assured Cassie as he mounted.

"You better be, no playing with wolves," Cassie seriously stated as she forced a concerned smile on her face.

"I promise, I'll steer clear of them. See you later Cassie."

After Mark and John headed out, Lucas and Milly went to town to do more wedding planning with Lou, and Anna went to her room to lie down. Catherine and Cassie had both sat down in the living room to read a book, but Catherine realized her daughter wasn't reading, just staring at the page.

"Cassie, what's the matter dear?"

"Hmm?" Cassie asked as she slowly looked up at her mother.

"You haven't turned a single page yet, what's wrong?"

"Ma... I don't know. I guess I'm worried about Mark and Pa riding across open country. I'm confused... because I think I'm worried about Mark as much... if not more than Pa. I feel horrible saying it, but I think it's true."

"You've seen Mark hurt in ways you haven't seen your Pa in danger, it's understandable."

"Ma, I love Mark, but it's a completely different love than I've ever felt before. It's just so... I can't explain it..."

"One rarely can," Mrs. Osborne chuckled as she remembered her discovery of true love. "It's a wonderful thing, Cassie; don't let yourself get numb to it."

"Oh I don't think I ever could. Ma, I'm confused though, because I feel like part of me is scared... maybe I'm just afraid this isn't real or going to last, but at the same time... I feel like this love
could never go away. Mark's so gentle... caring... things I've never been much good at, but he's shown me how to be. When he encouraged me to focus on my studies instead of him last fall, I was quite upset with him for a while, but it opened up a whole other world to me, one that now I can venture through with Mark... I hope..."

"What do you mean you hope?"

"It's been a year since we initially talked about how we felt... and he's done nothing. He's talked about things in the future, but he doesn't do anything now. What if... he feels differently now?"

"Cassie, think about your exchange with him not an hour ago. Think about the way he looked at you; think about the way he promised he'd be back soon. Do you really think he feels differently?"

"...No, but then why doesn't he do something?"

"I wish I had an answer for you my dear, but typically men do have a reason for what they do. Give him time, be patient. Waiting this long has helped your relationship so far, hasn't it?"

"...Well yes, it's just that waiting is so hard."

"Believe me, I understand. After your father and I stopped being mortal enemies, it took him forever to ask me to a dance."

"Ma, I wish I knew what he was thinking."

"But then there wouldn't be any mystery to him. It'll all be worth it, just wait."

7MC7

The first two days on the trail went smoothly for Mark and John with nothing irregular occurring. The horses stayed pretty calm and didn't seem phased by their constantly changing surroundings, reassuring John that Mark had done a good job with them.

The second night, Mark was lying awake in his bedroll trying to fall asleep when he heard a rider approaching. He instinctively reached for his rifle, but relaxed when Marshal Osborne greeted the man as if he knew the rider. Mark rolled back over in his bedroll and tried to go to sleep, but couldn't help overhearing the conversation the two men were having.

"You've got the money, Osborne?"

"I told you that I won't have it until the end of this week, I'll get it to you."

"You better, you know the consequences if you don't."

"I'll have it at the end of the week. You never seem to have trouble finding me, so you shouldn't this time."

"I'd be careful if I were you Osborne, you've been stretching the limits the last few times."

"I'm watching myself. Now is there anything else you want? I've gotta get some sleep."

"Just think about what I said last time. They both have a right to know what happened. After eighteen years, I think Ara's still grieving, in her own way."

"It wouldn't do any good for them to find out, and that's why I'm paying you to keep your mouth shut."

"If I wasn't in such a scrape, they'd have found out a long time ago. You better pull through, Osborne."

"I'll see you this weekend, DeFord. And I hope for both our sakes not a moment sooner."

Mark heard the stranger ride away. Mark couldn't just blow this one off and walked over towards Marshal Osborne who sat by the fire.

"Who was that man?" Mark inquired as he sat down.

"You heard that whole exchange?"

"Not on purpose, but yes."

"He's a contact for myself and some other marshals in the area. We pay him for information and for doing a few favors like spreading rumors or keeping quiet."

"...What'd he mean when he said you'd stretched the limits before?"

"There's just some dispute about how much money we agreed on last time, but nothing serious. He puts up a strong front, but deep down he's scared."

"About what?"

"Sorry Mark, but I'm not at liberty to say right now. Now we better both turn in, we still have a few hours to ride tomorrow."

Mark nodded and returned to his bedroll as John did the same. Mark tried to fall asleep, but he
found it difficult to. His mind kept replaying the conversation he had overheard, and something just didn't seem right. To Mark, it had sounded like the marshal was the one who was scared. Mark's curious mind wasn't satisfied with the answers he had received, but deep down he knew he shouldn't interfere with U.S. Marshal business.

It took a long time, but Mark eventually drifted to sleep.

The next morning, Mark was up before John and set to making a light breakfast. As much as he hated the stuff, he went ahead and made John a pot of coffee, knowing how tired they both were.

"How long have you been up?" John asked as he came up behind Mark.

"Not too terribly long. I can't sleep with the sun up. Coffee?"

"Thanks," John answered as Mark poured him a cup.

"What time do you figure we'll be in Silas?"

"Probably around noon, if we don't have any trouble. I will say I'm surprised at how well those young horses are doing, considering they haven't been on the trail before. You've done a right fine job with them."

"Most of what I know is because of Mr. Jackford and an Indian chief Pa and I know. Once you learn to work with them, it's really not that difficult."

"Well you did a better job than I could've ever done. You know, Catherine and I were talking the other day about how we're going to miss having you around the ranch."

"It'll be strange, that's for sure."

"Then again, with Cassie's birthday coming up, we'll probably be seeing you quite a bit still."

"I certainly hope so," Mark replied with a sheepish smile.

After a fast breakfast, Mark and John packed up camp and began the final leg of the trip to Silas.

As soon as they arrived, they rented stalls to keep the horses in for the week and then checked into their rooms at the hotel before meeting in the lobby for lunch.

Afterwards, the two walked the town and found out that a few other horse traders and buyers had come early as well, so they looked over the stock.

As they were doing so, a man came up to John and handed him a piece of paper before walking away. Mark watched curiously as the marshal read it before putting it in his pocket, and giving a heavy sigh.

"Something wrong?" Mark inquired.

"No, it just seems there's some marshal business I have to take care of in a nearby town. You wouldn't mind keeping an eye on things here while I take care of things, would you?"

"Of course not. When do you have to leave?"

"Probably after supper, I shouldn't be gone too long, hopefully I'll be back in two days. Mark, I'm sorry to leave you here like this."

"It's not a problem; it'll give me time to look for some good breeding horses before we have to worry about selling yours."

"Thanks Mark, I appreciate it."

8MC8

As boring as it was, Mark somewhat enjoyed having the next two days to himself, not having to be anywhere or do anything. Needless to say, Mark spent a good amount of time thinking about Cassie and planning for her birthday, and that's exactly what he was doing as he walked into the town's cafe.

"Mark McCain?" A woman called from his left.

"Ms. Adams?" Mark asked in astonishment as he walked to the table where she was seated with a man who held a baby in his arms.

"I thought it was you, Mark!" She replied with a smile.

“It’s good to see you, Ms. Adams.”

"It's not Ms. Adams anymore," the man spoke up with a smile.

"Mark, this is my husband, Nathaniel Whitshire and my daughter, Emily. Nathaniel, this is Mark McCain, he used to attend a school I taught. My, how you've grown Mark! I could hardly recognize you, but the fact that you were carrying a rifle confirmed my suspicions. Like father like son. Speaking of your father, is he here?"

"No ma'am, I'm in town for the horse auction with one of the marshals from North Fork. He had to be pulled away to take care of something for a few days, so I'm here alone."

"Would you like to join us for supper?" Nathaniel invited. "We've just sat down."

"I wouldn't want to impose..." Mark replied.

"Oh Mark, it's not an imposition. I'd love to hear how things are in North Fork," Mrs. Whitshire insisted.

"Well thank you," Mark replied as he took a seat.

"You said one of the marshals from North Fork... did Micah retire?" Mrs. Whitshire inquired.

"No, we just gained a marshal about... two years ago. North Fork really has grown quite a bit since you left."

"I'm sure it has. I trust North Fork's current teacher doesn't have to get after you for firing spit balls anymore?" She teased.

"No ma'am, I learned a long time ago to stop doing that, but I graduated last spring."

"I guess it has been what... almost eight years?"

"Close to it," Mark replied.

"So what have you been doing since you finished school?" Nathaniel inquired.

"My Pa and I own a cattle ranch, so I've been helping him run that, and working for our Marshal Osborne, raising some colts he bought. I almost went to school for medicine, but as much as I enjoy learning and studying, it wasn't right for me."

"You enjoy learning?" Mrs. Whitshire asked with a slight chuckle. "When did this happen?"

Mark laughed along with her, but Mr. Whitshire was confused.

"Sorry Nathaniel," she apologized. "Mark used to hate anything having to do with school. His Pa and I worked so hard at getting him to complete his lessons."

"I assume you live here in Silas, then?" Mark inquired.

"Been happily married and settled here for three years," Nathaniel answered. "Bethany is teaching at the Indian reservation nearby, although is breaking for the summer months due to normal school schedule and the fact that she just had Emily."

The remainder of the evening was spent by various questions from both parties being answered. Around seven, Mark bade the couple goodnight and returned to the hotel. As Mark passed the hotel's restaurant, he heard someone mention “Osborne” and went into the restaurant before picking a table to sit down. He knew his curiosity was getting the best of him, but pretended to look over the menu as he listened to their conversation anyway.

"Are you sure he's going to do the job right? What if he goes to his superiors?"

"He won't, we hold all the aces."

"I don't know, him being a marshal and all..."

"Alex talked to him the other night, he won't chicken out."

"I hope you're right."

Mark watched one man get up and leave, and after the second man finally exited the building as well, Mark returned to his hotel room. He was confused, and needless to say his faith in John had begun to waver. Mark reminded himself of what John had said the other night, about not being able to disclose information. He was probably working undercover and if Mark interfered there could be problems, so Mark tried to let it go. However, the entire night the same words constantly ran through his head.

“What if...”

9MC9

Lucas knocked on the door for a third time and Cassie finally opened it, but only enough so she could block Lucas' view inside.

"Afternoon, Mr. McCain," Cassie greeted with a pleasant smile.

"Afternoon Cassie..." Lucas suspiciously replied. "...Is your aunt ready?"

"Should be in just a minute, I'd invite you inside, but we're working on the dress."

"Ahh," Lucas said with a smile. "Well would you please have your aunt come out when she's ready?"

"Yes sir. Would you like anything while you're waiting?"

"No, thank you though."

Cassie closed the door and Lucas only waited a minute or two before Milly stepped out on the porch.

"You look beautiful this afternoon."

"Lucas, your exaggerating is going to get you in trouble one of these days..."

"Did I say beautiful? I meant breathtaking."

Milly gently laughed as Lucas helped her up into the buck board.

"What do we have to do today?" Milly inquired as Lucas urged the team forward.

"All those kitchen supplies you said we needed arrived; I figured you'd want to be there when we put them away in your kitchen, so you know where everything is. Then I thought you'd enjoy a ride around the ranch."

"Sounds like a wonderful idea," Milly replied as she smiled.

It took longer than Lucas had expected for Milly to decide where she wanted everything, and frankly he didn't understand why she felt like every item needed to be moved to three different cabinets, but he didn't mind it in the least.

After everything was finally put in place, Lucas and Milly went to the barn, where Milly found a horse, saddled, with a bow tied around its neck.

"Happy birthday, Milly, from Mark and I," Lucas said as he gave her the reigns.

"Oh Lucas you shouldn't have..."

"I know you can handle the team and buck board fine, but Mark and I thought you'd want something a bit more practical for taking rides."

"...Thank you Lucas, she's beautiful."

"Mark wanted to be here when we gave it to you, but said she was no use to you sitting in the barn."

"How did you know it was my birthday?"

"Well I'm marrying you; I better at least know that."

"Thank you Lucas," Milly stated again as she kissed him on the cheek.

Lucas helped Milly mount up before mounting Razor and the two left the yard, riding side by side. Lucas took Milly around to a few specific spots on the ranch before returning to the hill above the house.

"It's not too terribly high up, but the view is still beautiful from up here," Milly commented.

"It's where Mark wants to build a house for Cassie and him."

"He's already thinking about building a house?"

"Not now of course, but he's just thinking ahead. He seriously wants to marry her."

"Lucas, I can't believe he's old enough to be thinking about marriage already... the years just seem to slip by."

"They certainly do. It seems like yesterday I was holding him in my arms, trying to get him to stop crying."

"Lucas, what's that?" Milly inquired as she gestured to a cross a little ways from them.

"Something that Mark and I need to get rid of."

"But isn't it a grave marker?"

"Yes, it's mine."

"The ordeal two years ago?"

Lucas nodded his head yes as his mind filled with regret once again for the pain he had caused his son.

Milly could see the emotions Lucas was feeling on his face. He had explained to her what had happened in more detail over the past six months and understood some of the remorse he felt.

"Lucas, Mark loves you; he understands why you did what you did. You've both moved on, don't slip back."

Lucas looked at Milly with loving eyes.

"How did I ever get lucky enough to have you back?"

"The same way I got lucky enough to find you again. I love you Lucas."

Lucas and Milly both leaned towards the other person and lovingly kissed before heading back down to the house.

10MC10

As Mark made his way down the hotel stairs, he subconsciously breathed a sigh of relief when he saw Marshal Osborne and two other marshals arresting the men he had heard talking about John the night before.

Mark knew he could trust John and felt a little guilty that he had doubted Osborne's character.

John saw Mark and made his way over to him when the other marshals took their prisoners out of the establishment.

"I just have a little bit of paperwork to do at the sheriff's office and then I'll meet you at the stables. Thanks for looking after things while I was gone."

"It wasn't a problem. I'll see you in a bit."

John left and Mark entered the hotel's restaurant and ordered something for breakfast. After eating, Mark made his way over to the stables where John's horses were being kept. He took some time to groom and feed them, and while he was doing so two other men entered the building and stood by the gate of the stall Mark was working in. They didn't say anything, just watched him. Eventually Mark got tired of it and turned around.

"Anything I could do for you two gentlemen?" Mark inquired.

"We was just curious is all," the shorter of the two men stated.

"Well the horses are going up for auction on Monday if you're interested, or you could talk to-"

"It isn't the horses we're curious about," the second man interrupted.

"What is it then?" Mark asked. He didn't like the feeling he was getting from these two and wanted to end the conversation as soon as possible.

"It's just strange seeing a man out here in the west carrying a rifle instead of a handgun. You don't see that very often," the taller man explained.

"No, I suppose you don't," Mark replied as he grabbed his rifle and walked out of the stall.

"Seems I heard about a kid not more 'an eighteen carrying a rifle, catching a bunch of criminals
down in Lordsburg a few months back. I hear he's pretty good, better than anyone in the town who used a rifle or pistol."

"Yeah, what about him?"

"I reckon that kid would be you."

"Maybe, maybe not. If you'll excuse me..." Mark started to try to walk past the two men, but they stood their ground. Mark backed up, putting more distance between him and the men. "Alright, so what do you want?"

"Just to see how good you really are. I've won just about every shooting contest in Northern New Mexico and from what I've heard; we'd be a good match, you and I, to test our abilities."

"Sorry to disappoint you, but I don't test myself against anybody. I'm satisfied with knowing my limits and I like to keep it that way."

"See here's the thing. Some people are saying that you be even better than me, and I don't really like the sound of that."

Mark saw the men starting to go for their guns. Before either man cleared the holster Mark had his rifle on both of them.

"Carefully drop your guns," Mark ordered.

The two men slightly hesitated but Mark gestured with his rifle and they conceded.

"Now I don't know why you're so set on having a contest with me, but I'd say we just had one and that I won. You're lucky I'm not trigger happy like most other men around these parts."

Mark saw Marshal Osborne enter the stable behind the men and look at him curiously.

"Everything alright, Mark?" John asked.

"Fine. Now you two get out of here before I decide to have the sheriff arrest you."

"Under what charge?" The short man demanded.

"Attempting to insight a gun fight within city limits or attempted murder. Your choice."

"We'll get," the taller man stated. "C'mon Pete, let's go."

"I better not see either of you again," Mark calmly, firmly stated as the men walked past John
and out of the building.

"What was that all about? You alright?" Osborne inquired as he walked towards the guns he saw lying on the ground.

"Just a couple of trouble makers looking to stay on top."

"You said attempted murder, Mark."

"Nothing that would stand up in a court of law. It's their word against mine. They tried drawing on me and I had my rifle on them before they touched their guns, nothing to worry about."

John picked up the guns and handed them to Mark.

"What are you going to do with them?"

"Give them to the sheriff and let him decide whether to give them back to 'em or not. Those two will probably end up with a bullet inside of 'em, one of these days if they don't learn to be more careful."

"They're lucky you stop yourself from pulling the trigger, as quick as you cock and aim that thing," John replied as he gestured to the rifle.

"Self-control's the first thing you've gotta learn when you take the responsibility of carrying a gun, of any size. The next person they try to force into a fight may not have that."

"Some more horse owners just rode into town, you wanna look over their stock?" John suggested.

"Thanks, but I already know what I want."

"They must be pretty good if you don't want to bother looking at anything else," John stated in surprise.

"I'll show you."

Mark proceeded to lead Marshal Osborne out of the building to the stable farthest from the auction arena.

"You realize you're going to have to wait until towards the end of the auction to bid on these, right?"

"I know. If you need to leave Silas before then, I can handle the horses fine by myself."

"No, it's not a problem. I just wasn't sure if you were aware. Are you sure you want to wait until the end? The best horses are usually at the beginning," John told Mark as they entered the stable.

John realized there weren't any horses inside and continued to follow Mark to a corral.

"That's what most people think, because that's usually the case - unless you have Indians selling. Then it's definitely worth the wait. And by then, most of the big spenders are gone so you have a better chance of getting a better deal."

"You're a bright young man," a voice stated behind them.

Mark and John turned around to see a man, obviously Indian walking up next to them.

"I'm Chief Bear Claw. Forgive my intrusion to your conversation, I couldn't help but overhear you talking when you entered the building."

The man spoke in very clear English which surprised Mark a bit, but not that much.

"No intrusion. I'm Mark McCain; it's a pleasure to meet you." Mark shook the man's hand and John introduced himself before Mark continued. "I've been watching your horses for several days, they've all been wonderfully bred and trained, which I'm not really surprised to find."

"I'm guessing this isn't your first time to see an Indian or their horses, then," the chief commented.

"No sir; met plenty of them. Learned quite a bit about the way you train the horses too. It's quite a fascinating technique I've used quite a bit."

"That's good. Are there any horses you would like to ride? That is, if you don't mind doing it without a saddle."

"Are you sure?" Mark asked in amazement.

"If you're looking to buy them, what better way to increase my chances of selling them?"

"Thank you, sir," Mark replied.

"Marshal, how about you?" The chief inquired.

"I'm actually not buying any horses this week, but thank you. There's some business I need to take care of in town that I forgot about this morning, so I have to go. Mark I'll see you at
the hotel for supper?"

"Sure thing," Mark answered before John left.

After taking up the chief's offer, Mark spent the afternoon conversing with the elderly man on several different topics. Mark was able to meet some of the other Indians who had been allowed to leave the reservation for the auction and each one was quite surprised to find such wisdom and understanding in one so young.

By the end of the week, Mark had established a good relationship with the Indians and even made a trip up to the reservation the day before the auction would end since the Marshal's horses had sold and he wouldn't be bidding until the next day. Mark enjoyed his time there and knew why. The Indians were real, they didn't try to hide behind masks or put up pretenses in order to appear a certain way for a crowd. They were a truly loving people who cared.

The day finally came when Mark and John left Silas and headed back home. Mark had bought a stallion and two mares, one of which he had bought at the reservation. It was a long ride back home; both Mark and John were absolutely exhausted. Mark fell asleep in the saddle several times, giving John a good laugh.

"Thanks for all your help this past year Mark, I can't tell you how much I've appreciated it," John said as they approached the turn off for him to take home.

"I've enjoyed it, thanks for the job. I'll see you tomorrow," Mark replied.

"Have a goodnight."

John waved as he rode away and Mark headed towards town. Mark couldn't wait to get home and sleep in his own bed, but he wanted to make one last stop before leaving town.

"Evening, Mrs. Maguire," Mark greeted as he put his rifle on the counter.

"Good evening Mark, just get back into town?"

"Yes ma'am, I wanted to see if it came in yet."

"Day before yesterday," She replied before reaching under the counter before handing Mark a small package.

"Thank you for ordering it for me."

"Not a problem. Anything else you need?"

"No ma'am, that'll do it. Have a goodnight."

"Goodnight, Mark."

Mark left the store and mounted up to head home. Mark enjoyed traveling and meeting new people, but there was no place like home and no person like his Pa.

Upon arriving home, Mark put the horses in the barn before climbing the porch steps and entering the house. Mark laughed when he saw his Pa in the front room asleep in his chair, still in his clothes from working on the range. Mark quietly shut the front door and retrieved clean clothes for himself from his room before taking a shower out behind the house. Mark came in through the back kitchen door and started something for supper. It was much too hot for soup, and Mark was too tired to do anything complicated so he just fried up some pork chops. Apparently something had woken Lucas up, because when Mark looked in the doorway, his Pa stood there with a frown on his face, shaking his head.

"What am I going to do with you?" Lucas asked as his frown broke into a smile and he slightly chuckled.

Lucas made his way to Mark and put his arm around his son.

"When did you get home?" Lucas inquired.

"About an hour ago."

"You should've woken me up; sorry you had to come home to no greeting."

"Oh Pa, it's fine. You looked pretty tired anyway. The cattle giving you trouble?"

"No not really, I just forgot how much work it is when you're not here."

"Well ya hungry? Supper's ready."

Over supper, Mark told his Pa about the trip, seeing his old teacher again, and the Indians he had met.

Well after they had finished eating, Mark and Lucas went to the barn to do the evening chores and so Lucas could see the horses Mark had purchased.

"Well son, you definitely know how to pick them. You were right, they certainly are beauties."

"I almost wouldn't have found out about them, but Ms. Adams... I mean, Mrs. Whitshire mentioned it to me."

"Well I'm glad you bought them and were able to meet the Indians up there."

As Mark and Lucas worked on the chores, Lucas knew there was something eating at his son. Mark knew that Lucas could tell something was wrong, but he wasn't sure how to bring it up or even explain it. After they finished the chores, Lucas put his hands on Mark's shoulders and directed him to sit down on a bale of hay like he had so many times when Mark was younger.

"What happened?" Lucas simply asked as he took a seat across from Mark.

"You remember how we've had to deal with men in the past… how they didn't “appreciate” you being considered the fastest gun?"

"Yes, I do."

"And you had no choice but to shoot when they drew?"

Lucas nodded, trying to keep himself from jumping to any conclusions.

"Well there was this man in Silas who had heard about that shooting contest over in Lordsburg. Apparently word's spread about the “kid” with a rifle. He wanted to test himself against me and I said no. He and his partner went for their guns, but I had my rifle on them before they could lay a finger on their weapons. I made them throw their guns to the floor before I told them to get out of there, and I didn't shoot 'em or anything, didn't have cause, need, or want to. But, Pa... a situation like that, well... I think you understand why I say it scared me. I mean, I was able to keep calm and take care of the problem, but I just don't get it. Two perfectly random strangers decide to draw on me because I don't want to try to outshoot 'em. I mean, what if there's a next time? What if I can't... can't keep myself from pulling the trigger? I could've easily killed both of them... I could-"

"But you didn't, Mark, because you've harnessed self-control." Lucas let out a long sigh before continuing. He hadn't ever expected to hear this from his son. "Mark, when the time came, I taught you to use your rifle and to use it right. You practiced and practiced with that thing so if the time ever came when you needed to use it, you could use it with confidence. Neither you nor I ever go looking for trouble, but the problem seems to be that trouble comes looking for us and we eventually do end up with stories being told and exaggerated about us, leading to incidents like this. There's not much you or I can really do about it except be watchful and careful."

Lucas paused again, trying to collect his thoughts and keep his composure. Truth be told, he was downright furious at the men who had tried to draw on Mark, but showing that wouldn't do any good.

"Mark, I'm glad you're alright, and I'm glad you told me what happened. I had hoped you never would have to face a scenario like that, that by the time you were old enough to be carrying that rifle out on your own, people would be civil enough so you wouldn't have to watch your back. But I guess it's the reality we have to live in. You just can't let yourself become paranoid. There are many men that have been driven to insanity just because they constantly thought someone was attempting to kill them. You've got a good, level head on your shoulders, Mark, keep it there."

Mark studied his Pa for a moment, not really sure what to say.

"...Pa, are you alright?"

Lucas stood and put a hand on Mark's shoulder, but didn't say anything. Mark stood and looked Lucas in the eyes.

"Pa?"

"Yes Mark, I'm alright. It's just a little hard to get over the initial shock."

"I understand... I've been on your end of this plenty of times before."

"I love you son, welcome home."

11MC11

"Cassie, you've been staring out that window all day. What are you waiting for?" Anna asked her sister as she entered the front room of their home.

"...Maybe I'm just being silly, but I thought maybe Mark would stop by today... at least for a little bit. Then again, I don't think I've ever told him when my birthday was. Even if he did know I don't know why I'm half expecting him, he just got back from a long trip... I'm sure he's exhausted. I'm being ridiculous."

Anna gave a slight chuckle when Cassie went back to staring out the window. Cassie didn't realize her sister had left the room for a moment before returning with a pair of riding pants until they landed in her lap.

"Let's go."

"Where?" Cassie asked.

"For a ride. You know I'm only gonna have you around for a few more months, we best make the most of it."

"I'm all for going on a ride, but are you sure you want to?" Cassie asked, a bit surprised that Anna would suggest it.

"Hurry up and change, I'll meet you outside."

Cassie did what her sister said and was outside saddling Storm within a few short minutes.

"Where do you want to go?" Cassie inquired as she mounted.

"Just follow me," Anna stated before mounting her own horse and heading out of the barn.

Cassie looked after her sister with confusion before slowly starting to follow her. None of this was really like Anna, but Cassie shrugged it off and decided to go along with it.

After riding for quite some time, Anna stopped her horse and handed Cassie a bandana.

"What's this for?" Cassie asked in confusion.

"I have a surprise for you, but you have to be blindfolded."

"Why?"

"Just do it, please?"

Cassie gave in and tied the bandana around her head as Anna took Storm's reigns.

"Where are we going?" Cassie asked again.

"If I told you it wouldn't really be much of a surprise, now would it?"

"...Guess not."

Anna and Cassie continued to ride for, what seemed to Cassie, an eternity. She couldn't figure out what on earth her sister was up to, but appreciated the thought nevertheless. When the horses stopped, Anna carefully helped Cassie down and led Cassie a little ways before stopping. Cassie waited for Anna to say something, but she never did.

"Well can I take this thing off now?" Cassie asked, but she suddenly felt it being untied for her.

When the bandana dropped, Cassie looked around and was amazed at the view. They were out on a ledge, and Cassie thought she recognized the spot below her.

"Isn't this Mark's spot? How'd you ever figure out how to get up here?" Cassie asked without looking to Anna, who she thought was behind her.

"Well it was my spot, but I figured we could kinda share it."

Cassie turned around in shock and saw Mark standing there, with a big smile on his face.

"Mark?"

"Happy birthday, Cassie," Mark said as he handed her a bouquet of flowers.

"Oh Mark, they're beautiful."

"Not as beautiful as you. Cassie, I have a question to ask you. One I've been waiting ten long months to ask you, and don't think I could stand to wait a minute more. Cassie Osborne, would you do me the honor of allowing me to court you?"

Cassie quickly nodded her head yes before finding her voice.

"Yes, of course!" Cassie exclaimed before giving Mark a hug.
Mark and Cassie took a step back, smiling at each other.

"Sorry it took me so long to get around to asking you, but it's what our parents wanted. I got you something..." Mark started as he handed Cassie a beautifully wrapped package.

"Mark, you shouldn't-"

"I wanted to," Mark stated as he gestured to the box.

Cassie unwrapped the gift and found a small wooden box with her name carved into it. When she opened the box, she almost couldn't believe her eyes.

"Mark..." Cassie gasped.

Mark took the silver plated, heart shaped locket out of the box and helped Cassie put it on.

"This is to remind you of the promise I'm making right now, that no matter how far apart we may be, no matter what happens, I love you Cassie Osborne. You have captured my heart, and I'll gladly let you have it. And I also promise, that when the right time comes and our parents give their blessing, I will ask you to marry me." Mark clasped the necklace and walked around Cassie to face her. "Cassie, you complete me and I love you with all my heart."

Cassie leaned forward and gave Mark a long hug. Mark looked up to see Anna tapping her wrist and motioning to get going. Mark nodded and stepped back a little bit.

"It'll be dark before too long, why don't I take you back home?"

Cassie nodded and Mark took her hand and led her to the horses. Anna rode behind the two of them, smiling at the looks they both exchanged.

Once arriving at the Osborne's, the girls put their horses in the barn and Mark let Blue Boy out in the corral. They walked up to the porch and Mark opened the door for Cassie, who was welcomed home with a loud shout.

"Surprise!"

Cassie looked around the room to see her parents and Ned, Milly and Lucas, the Donald's, Lou and Johnny, and many of her friends standing in her home.

Mrs. Osborne came up to Cassie and gave her daughter a hug.

"Happy birthday, dear."

"Thank you but... I thought..."

"I know what you thought. We thought something a little bigger than supper at the hotel was in order."

Cassie just stood there, still trying to get over her shock.

"Well are you just going to stand there all night or can we get this thing started?" Ned asked. "I'm starving!"

Everyone let out a big laugh and Cassie went to greet her guests. Mark went over to stand by Miss Milly and his Pa, but kept watching Cassie.

"Well did you ask her?" Lucas inquired after Mark didn't say anything.

"Yep," Mark replied.

"Ask who, what?" Milly asked.

"Mark was going to ask Cassie if he could court her today," Lucas answered.

"Knowing Cassie, I'm sure she said no." Milly teased.

Mark proceeded to tell his Pa and Milly about asking Cassie, keeping his eyes on her the whole
time.

As the evening continued on, Mark spent plenty of time next to Cassie and when it was time for the McCain's to leave, Lucas had to practically drag Mark outside.

"She'll be in church tomorrow, Mark. Let's go home!"

"Goodnight Cassie."

"Goodnight Mark. Thanks for... everything."

Cassie watched as the McCain's rode off into the distance. She eventually went back inside and started helping clean up.

After everyone else had gone to bed, Cassie wanted to talk with her parents about that afternoon and was just about to knock on their door when she heard yelling - again. She started to walk away, but the words her parents were exchanging stopped her.

"Cassie's eighteen; she has a right to know, John!"

"She doesn't need to know anything. What good will it do Catherine?!"

"I don't know if it will do any good, but she deserves to know she has another family out there, somewhere."

"I told you, her mother couldn't take care of her and hasn't bothered contacting us, so we should leave things as they are! She's happy, she has her whole future ahead of her! We don't need to complicate it by telling her you didn't give birth to her, we're her parents and that's what's important!"

"John-" Catherine stopped short when she heard the front door to the house slam shut. "She heard... John, I told you..." Mrs. Osborne didn't finish as John and Catherine both ran out of the bedroom and then outside.

"Cassie, come back!" John ordered as Cassie raced past them on Storm, riding bareback.

"I'll be back later!" Cassie yelled over her shoulder, tears streaming down her face.

"John, aren't you going to go after her?" Catherine asked as she stared helplessly after Cassie.

"No... she said she'll be back, we best let her be for a while."

"But it's dark and-"

"She knows how to ride, she'll be fine."

12MC12

Lucas was reading in the front room when he heard someone ride up to the house before knocking on the door. Lucas stood to answer the door, grabbing his rifle as he did, but put it down when he saw who was on the porch.

"Cassie, what are you doing here? Is everything alright?" Lucas inquired, seeing the tear stains on her face.

"I'm sorry to call at such a late hour Mr. McCain, but could I talk with Mark... and you?"

"Of course, come in and take a seat, I'll get Mark."

Cassie sat down as Lucas went into one of the bedrooms and shook Mark awake.

"What is it Pa?" Mark asked as he sat up a little.

"Mark, Cassie's here and she needs to talk to us. It's obvious she's been crying, but I don't know what's wrong."

Mark quickly threw the covers off before changing back into his jeans and shirt. He and Lucas walked back into the front room and Mark quickly made his way to sit next to Cassie on the couch.

"Cassie, what's wrong?" Mark asked with concern as he looked into her eyes.

"...I went to knock on my parent's door tonight. I wanted to talk to them about this afternoon..." Cassie looked nervously between Lucas and Mark, she didn't know if she could keep herself together.

"Take your time," Lucas said with a comforting smile.

Cassie took a deep breath before continuing.

"Well I heard them arguing and at first I was going to just go to bed. But then I heard what they were arguing about. I... I'm not their child."

Mark and Lucas were surprised, but didn't ask anything. Instead they waited for Cassie to continue.

"Ma wanted to tell me, she was telling Pa I had a right to know. Pa didn't want to; he said it wouldn't do any good. Why would he say that? Why would he deny me the right of knowing who my biological family is... knowing who I really am? Why would they keep it a secret?" A tear fell down Cassie's face, followed by many more as she looked to the ground. "Are they ashamed of whom I really am?"

"Cassie," Lucas began. "You are not who your family is. You are a wonderful, graceful young woman who is strong and independent. That's who you are. But your family is who you make it. For most of your life it's been your parents, Anna, and Ned. Does the fact that you have a different biological “family” change that?"

"No, Mr. McCain, it doesn't... and I understand that. I love all of them and like you said, we've been family. That's the thing though, a family is supposed to trust, and not keep secrets. But for how many ever years they've been my parents, Ma and Pa have been keeping this secret from me. And it hurts because the people I thought I could trust most in this world have been lying to me my whole life!" As hard as she tried, Cassie couldn't stop the tears.

Mark simply put an arm around her and pulled her close, not knowing what to say. He looked to Lucas, his eyes asking him, “what do I do?”

"Cassie," Lucas started again. "No parent is perfect. We all make big mistakes as we try to raise our children. Your parents love you and only want what's best for you. That's what your Pa thought he was giving you when he decided to keep this a secret."

"But Mr. McCain, it's not what was best for me... I've lived a lie my whole life because he didn't tell me."

"I'm not saying whether it was or wasn't. But Cassie, he did it because he loves you wand wanted to protect you. Even if his choice was wrong, you still love him and your Ma, don't you?" Cassie nodded before Lucas continued. "Family forgives, even the difficult things. Holding this against your parents will end up hurting you more than them. Bitterness is a horrid thing. Once you let it plant a seed in you, it takes years and years to uproot it. Don't let it plant a seed Cassie. Forgive and move on."

Cassie slowly nodded her head as everything began to settle inside of her.

"I… I'm sorry for bothering you at such a late hour, I should be going."

"Cassie, you're welcome around here any time," Lucas began. "It's dark and I wouldn't trust myself out on those pothole filled roads. Why don't we set up a cot for you in the second room, then Mark and I can ride you home in time to change before the service tomorrow morning."

"Oh I couldn't impose..."

"It's no imposition. Why don't you and Mark take care of your horse and get the cot while I find some blankets?"

"...Thank you, Mr. McCain."

"My pleasure."

Mark and Cassie left the house and bedded Storm down in the barn before Mark got the cot out of its spot.

"Cassie, are you really alright?" Mark asked as he set the cot down and put his hands on Cassie's face, using his thumbs to wipe away the few remaining tears.

"...I think so; it's just a big shock to get over. …But your Pa was right; family is what I make it. I'd just like to know... at some point, where I come from, who gave birth to me... why they couldn't keep me."

"I'm sure they wan-"

"Please don't say that. Neither one of knows if that's the truth or not..."

"I do know one thing. Two things, actually."

"What's that?"

"Your parents want you, and Cassie, I want you."

13MC13

"Sure you're going to be alright Cassie?" Mark asked as he helped her down from Storm.

"I'll be fine, thank you. Thank you for letting me stay at the ranch last night, Mr. McCain... and for helping me understand everything else, too."

"You're welcome, Cassie," Lucas replied.

Mark and Lucas waited for Cassie to enter her home before they headed to Micah's to wait for the service to start.

When Cassie stepped inside, she found no one awake yet, which didn't really surprise her. It was pretty early for a Sunday in their household. Cassie quietly made her way to her bedroom, but when she opened the door found her mother asleep on her bed.

"Ma..." Cassie whispered as she gently shook her mother. "Ma...?"

Catherine slowly woke up, and upon seeing Cassie, took her daughter in her arms.

"Oh Cassie, I'm sorry you had to find out the way you did. I love you dear, so much than I could ever tell you and-"

"Ma, I love you. You may not have birthed me, but you tended to injuries, braided my hair, scolded me for climbing trees, and calmed my fears. You're just as much my mother as you are Anna or Ned's, and I'd be a fool to think otherwise. I love you, and I'm sorry I took off like I did last night, I needed time to think... and someone to set me straight."

"Mark?" John asked from the doorway.

Cassie turned and walked towards her Pa.

"No, he really did give me the emotional support I needed though. Mr. McCain helped me see things from your perspective. I love you both so much and I want you to know that this is my family, whether through blood or not."

"I'm sorry Cassie..." John slowly stated.

"I love you, Pa," Cassie walked towards the door and embraced her Pa.

14MC14

"Nervous, Pa?" Mark asked as he adjusted his tie.

"Now what would make you think I'd be nervous?" Lucas inquired.

"Oh I don't know. Maybe the fact that you've been trying to tie that tie for ten minutes. Let me help you." Mark turned towards Lucas and fixed his tie for him before letting out a chuckle.

"What?" Lucas asked.

"Oh nothing," Mark said as he smiled at Micah.

"Well it's something," Lucas retorted.

"You want some more coffee?" Mark asked, changing the subject.

"No thanks. Where's your uncle? He was supposed to be here ten minutes ago."

"Probably stirring up mischief somewhere," Micah replied for Mark.

"That's what I'm afraid of..." Lucas sighed.

A few minutes later Johnny entered the office, apparently ready to go.

"Where have you been?" Lucas asked.

"Nowhere," Johnny replied with a shrug.

"Well you had to be some- you know what? I'm just gonna let it go. I don't want to think about the potential trouble you've been causing."

"Who, me?" Johnny innocently asked.

"Let's get going, it's about time," Micah said as he headed out there door, followed by the other three men.

Mark watched his Pa nervously wait for Milly to come down the aisle. When she finally did, a huge smile spread across Lucas's face and all of his nerves seemed to fly away.

It seemed to take forever, but finally reverend Graft turned to the congregation and announced,

"Mr. and Mrs. Lucas McCain!"

Everyone soon headed across the way and piled into the hotel’s beautifully decorated restaurant. The tables and chairs had all been moved to the perimeter of the room, making room for a dance floor. Lou had really outdone herself this time, and Lucas and Milly couldn't thank her enough for the work she'd put into the reception.

Mark finally found Cassie in the crowd of people and worked his way towards her.

"Hello Mark," Cassie greeted with a smile as the band finished playing the current song and moved to the next.

"Cassie, may I have this dance?" Mark asked with a slight bow.

"It'd be my pleasure," Cassie replied as she reached her hand out.

Mark led Cassie to the dance floor and the two began slowly moving to the music along with the other couples dancing.

"You know, I'm really going to miss you when you leave this fall."

"I'm gonna miss you too... I love you, Mark."

"Just remember that no matter how far apart we are..."

"I'll still have your heart," Cassie finished for Mark as she touched the locket that hung around her neck.

Cassie and Mark danced for another minute or two before Ned tapped on Mark's shoulder and Mark handed Cassie off to him.

Mark saw his Pa dancing with Milly and a grin spread across his face. He tapped his Pa's shoulder, who had been oblivious to Mark's presence.

"May I have a dance with the bride?" Mark asked.

"I'll go get us something to drink, Milly," Lucas stated as he moved out of the way.

"Mark, I've talked with your Pa, but never with you," Milly said as she started dancing with Mark. "I love you and your Pa dearly, but I understand that your mother is and always will be a part of you. I hope you don't feel as though I'm trying to replace her."

"She could never be replaced, just like you could never be replaced. There was such a void in our lives after you left North Fork, and since you've come back I've been reminded of a very important thing. Family is what you make it. So welcome to the family, Ma."

 

Character of a Coward, part 1

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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