Welcome to The Writer's Corner
Written by Morgan
Mark walked Cassie to her door, wishing he didn't have to say
goodbye. He looked into his fiancé’s eyes and slowly tucked a
strand of hair behind her ear. Slowly, Cassie and Mark leaned
forward until they found themselves in one final kiss goodnight.
"...See you Sunday?" Cassie whispered with a faint smile.
"If you don't see me before then."
Mark's hand slid down Cassie's arm and found her hand before
giving it a gentle squeeze.
"Goodnight, Mark." Cassie planted a kiss on Mark's cheek before
ever so slowly walking inside.
Mark stood in front of the house for a few more moments before
finally forcing himself off the porch and toward his uncle and
After arriving, Mark quietly bedded the team down and put the
gear away before saddling BlueBoy for the ride home. Mark was
just getting ready to mount up when he heard a voice behind him.
"Not so fast, young man," Johnny called.
"Ye can't just borrow the buggy for somethin’ like that and then
leave town without telling us how it ended," Lou chimed in.
"She said yes," Mark simply replied as that boyish grin crossed
"Well it's about time!" Johnny laughed as he gave his nephew a
good slap on the back.
"Why don't you step in for a while and tell us about it?" Lou
invited. "I think there's some apple pie left."
"Well I won't refuse that!"
Mark walked with his aunt and uncle to the house and spent a
short while recounting the afternoon and evening. To Mark's
surprise, Johnny restrained himself and only let a few teasing
words escape his lips.
"Did you two talk about when you're going to get hitched?"
Johnny later inquired.
"All we established was that we didn't want a long engagement…
besides the fact that we're both eager to get married, she wants
Anna to be there when we do tie the knot."
"Well if you need any help with the reception, ye can sure count
on me," Lou offered.
"Thanks Aunt Lou, we appreciate it."
"I'm sure you're eager to get on home, so we'll see you Sunday,"
Johnny said before the three headed towards the door.
"Well thanks for letting me use the buggy."
"Anytime," Johnny answered as Mark began to gather Blue Boy's
Lou and Johnny watched as Mark led Blue Boy to the road and
slowly began walking down it.
"Ya know the horse is there for you to ride, right?" Johnny
Mark simply shrugged in response. He didn't really mind walking
through town… it gave him more time to think before arriving
Mark walked back towards the center town, ignoring his
surroundings. He had one thing on his mind... one person, and
nothing else really mattered to him at the moment.
However, Mark's thoughts were again interrupted as he walked
past the marshal's office and Micah called out to him.
"Well, I'm assuming by the look on your face that she said yes."
Mark walked towards Micah and looped the reigns around the
hitching post before following Micah inside.
"Three years ago I didn't understand how Alice could be so head
over heels over David. I thought any romantic relationship of
any kind was disgusting," Mark laughed as he took a seat across
"Now…" Mark chuckled. "I feel like the happiest man alive."
"And you should," Micah replied with a laugh. "I'm glad for ya,
Mark. You and Cassie were made for each other." There was a
slight pause before Micah continued. "Mark, how are you and
Cassie doing with what happened?"
Mark let out a long sigh and thought for several moments before
"It's been a long and hard month. We both have our own demons to
fight and I'll be honest, things have become strained at times,
but nothing we can't work through. We just keep reminding each
other that it's not either one of our faults, that we're both
alive, and that we just gotta move forward. It's not easy… but
life rarely is."
"...I'm sorry I ever put out that request for a deputy. Osborne
would've never stayed if I hadn't."
"Don't blame yourself, Micah. I'm glad you did. If you hadn't,
Cassie wouldn't be here, Osborne would still be helping those
crooks out, and the truth about Cassie's birth may have never
come out. Things happen for a reason, and had you not put out
that request, I wouldn't have ever met Cassie."
"Well tell your folks I said hello, will ya?"
"You're kicking me out already?"
"I'm an old man, I need my sleep!" Micah joked. "I'm sure your
Ma and Pa want to hear the news, I'll let you get going. I'll
see you tomorrow."
"Now what makes you think I'll be in town tomorrow?"
"Mark, you just got engaged. I'll see you tomorrow."
Mark left the office, mounted Blue Boy and headed for home.
It wasn't often that he was riding out this late by himself, and
the peacefulness of the countryside was welcome. He could hear
the wild animals running through the woods; the creek trickling
somewhere close by. Mark looked up to see a sky full of stars
and took in their magnificence. Yet again, he found himself
drawn to one of the smaller, dimmer planets. Again, he was
reminded that he didn't need to be apart of something big, or
make a show of things; but he simply needed to live the life he
had been created to live.
Mark smiled knowing that life was with Cassie, and he couldn't
wait for the day he could say, "I do." He couldn't wait to live
in his own house with his wife. He couldn't wait to pick a child
up from their cradle and rock them back to sleep.
While considering his future, Mark hoped he would live up to the
example Lucas had given him. He hoped he could be just as good a
father and husband as his Pa was. Lucas had never been easy on
Mark, but still, he'd always been gentle and patient. Sometimes
Mark wondered how
Lucas had made it through his childhood… he hadn't always been
the easiest child to raise and Mark could think of quite a few
times he probably should've gotten a good whippin'. He
remembered several times he would've rather gotten a trip to the
woodshed instead of hearing the disappointment in his father's
voice or seeing it in his eyes… but then again, Mark was pretty
sure that was the point.
Lucas had raised Mark to put people and relationships first in
life. Lucas didn't want Mark to simply do right because it
brought about physical pain if he didn't, Lucas wanted his son
to do right because Mark wanted to do right. Lucas wanted Mark
to put other people first because his son wanted to put their
needs before his own. And Mark appreciated all the lessons his
Pa had taught him throughout the years. It was never simply
things Lucas had told Mark or shown Mark, though. A lot of it
was things that Mark had experienced with Lucas, things he felt
from his Pa. It was a bond that would never die, and Mark hoped
he'd be able to carry on with his own children.
As Mark came over the hill and the homestead came into view,
nine years of memories came to mind. Happy times, sad times,
days filled with laughter and nights full of tears… but they had
made it through it all, and now Cassie would be a permanent part
of what made the McCain ranch… home.
Mark rode down to the barn and began to unsaddle BlueBoy for one
last time that day. Mark hadn't realized just how deep in
thought he had been until he turned around and realized his
parents were standing right behind him.
"We were starting to get worried," Milly said as she sat on a
hay bale. "What kept you so late?"
"Aunt Lou and Uncle Johnny wanted to talk for a while, and then
Micah caught me on the way out of town," Mark replied as Lucas
began helping him with the horse.
"Well?" Lucas asked.
"Well what?" Mark innocently replied.
"How did it go?"
"It was fine… up until the point I asked the question..." Mark
hesitantly stated as he shifted his gaze to the barn floor.
Confused and concerned, Milly stood and stepped towards Mark,
placing a hand on his shoulder.
"...And after you asked?" Milly quietly inquired.
Mark looked back up at his parents and couldn't take the
disbelief on their faces. His frown slowly turned to a smile
before he began laughing.
"It was great after that!" Mark replied, still laughing.
"Mark Warren!" Milly exclaimed as she gave him a good swat on
the back side. "You had me worried sick something happened
between the two of you!"
"Sorry, Ma, I couldn't resist…"
Milly looked at Lucas for help, but he was also chuckling. Milly
rolled her eyes at the two men before giving her son a hug.
"I'm so glad that after everything you two have been through,
you've been able to stick it through with each other."
"We owe you and Pa both a big thank you for helping us get
through it… we couldn't have done it alone."
"We love you both so much," Lucas said as he put his arm around
his son. "We're proud of everything you two have accomplished
"...So, when do you think we can get started on the cabin?" Mark
"You can put in the order for the supplies when you go into town
tomorrow," Lucas answered.
"Who said anything about going into town tomorrow?"
"You're going to, aren't you?" Milly asked.
"Well yeah, but how-"
"You had that look in your eye," Lucas stated.
"You keep saying that. What look?"
Lucas and Milly just laughed, ignoring their son's confused
"Mr. Barkley?" Ned called as he entered the rather large home.
"In here, Ned," a voice replied from a side room. "And how many
times do I have to tell you? My name's Jarrod."
"No need to apologize," the man replied with a soft smile.
"You've worked with me long enough, you know there's no room,
time, or need for formalities."
Ned nodded in response before the man went on.
"Now, how are things going with the Jensen case?"
"I think we finally have a break," Ned answered as he handed
Jarrod a stack of papers.
The man began going through them and let out a long whistle.
"You think?" He asked in astonishment. "How'd you get your hands
"Well I had all weekend, so I figured I'd put it to good use."
"Mrs. Jensen will be elated to hear the news." Jarrod suddenly
quieted before thinking for a moment. "You're sure you didn't
come across this… too easily?"
"... I was careful, but couldn't shake the feeling that
something wasn't right. I know we need this to win the case, so
I brought it back with me. I just hope it wasn't a trap. When
dealing with the Carters…"
"...You can't ever be too careful. Well, I guess we'll just have
to see. Thank you, regardless."
"What do we have next?"
"Dinner with the family," a voice behind them answered.
The two men turned around to see Jarrod's mother entering the
"You two have been working too much these past couple weeks, and
everyone else is here tonight. We so rarely get everyone
together, and Ned, it would be a joy to have you join us, you're
practically like one of the family."
"Thank you, Mrs. Barkley, but I couldn't-"
"No arguments, I'll see you two at the dinner table shortly."
With that, the elderly woman turned and left the room.
"Are we going to make our escape?" Ned inquired jokingly.
"Ned, there's one very important lesson I've taken away from all
my years of being a lawyer."
"...And that is?"
"Never, under any circumstances, argue with the mother," Jarrod
laughed as they began to walk out of the room. "Come on, we
could both use a good meal. Our cook is a wonder in the kitchen.
I just hope Audra didn't find her way in there."
"You better be careful, mother might hear you," Jarrod's niece,
Ashley, stated as she came skipping down the steps.
"Well how's my favorite niece today?" Jarrod inquired as he put
an arm around the girl.
"You only say that because I'm your only niece."
"That still doesn't change the fact that you're my favorite."
"I wish somebody would have a girl, there are just too many boys
in this family."
Ned and Jarrod looked at each other before chuckling.
"I'm sure you do a wonderful job of keeping them in line
though," Ned told the girl.
Ashley dramatically rolled her eyes and put her hands to her
hips before replying, "You wouldn't believe what a pain those
brothers and cousins of mine are. Just the other day they almost
caught the barn on fire."
"Caught the barn on fire?" Jarrod inquired with curiosity.
"Almost," Ashley emphatically replied. "Fortunately for all of
us, Grandmother came out just in time to put an end to their
foolish, disastrous play."
"You've definitely inherited your mother's dramatic flare,
haven't you?" Jarrod asked with a chuckle as they entered the
"And what's wrong with a little flare?" Audra inquired.
"Nothing… nothing at all," Jarrod replied with a charismatic
"You better be careful," a man who Ned assumed to be Audra's
husband warned. "She's in one of those moods."
"Oh, and what is that suppose to imply?" Audra laughingly
"Why don't we eat before another civil war breaks out?" Nick,
the second oldest of the Barkley siblings, inquired.
"Nick, that's certainly not like you," Heath, the third Barkley
son commented. "You're usually the one instigating the
arguments. Shannon, what have you done to my brother? A few
years into marriage and I hardly recognize the man!"
Shannon turned her head towards Nick, who nodded with a smile.
"He still has his moments, but he's been taking life a bit more
seriously since I told him that he's going to be a father."
Over the next several minutes, congratulations and several
teasing words bounced around the room. The excited conversation
continued into the meal, but after things slightly calmed down,
Heath spoke up.
"Well, we were going to wait until Sunday, but since this seems
like the night to announce things, Carol and I are expecting
"Both of you?" Nick quipped, resulting in a round of laughter.
Again, it took a while for things to settle, but eventually they
did and Ned found himself answering a lot of questions about
life in North Fork. The Barkleys were already aware of the
situation with his father, and didn't bring that up at all.
"You have a younger sister, don't you?" Audra inquired.
"Two, actually. Anna is sixteen and will be off to nursing
school in the fall. Cassie will be nineteen in a few months, and
if a friend of mine will ever get up the nerve to propose, they
should be married in the next little while."
"Well that's very exciting."
"What about you?" Shannon asked. "Any special young ladies
waiting back home?"
"I don't really see myself settling down right now. Maybe one
day, in the future, but I'm content
to be single right now."
"Careful," Jarrod warned. "You never want to say that in front
of these women."
"Why not?" Ned asked.
"Because they have a way of meddling and matchmaking," Nick
answered for his brother.
"That's not true!" Shannon and Audra exclaimed.
Heath and Carol just smiled at each other… knowing it was very
After the evening meal, everyone made their way to the sitting
room and enjoyed the rest of the evening. However, Jarrod
noticed that Ned slipped out of the room, and after quite some
time had passed, left to find him. Jarrod first checked around
the house, then made his way outside. After checking several
spots, he finally found Ned in the barn.
"Too stuffy in the house for you?" Jarrod asked.
Ned shook his head no as he continued petting one of the horses.
"Ned, I know something's getting to you. Anytime most of us are
together, your whole demeanor changes. Something you need to
"Sorry, I don't intend to be rude. I just… I see your family and
I wish that could be mine. No struggles. No secrets. No
problems. I give my condolences for your father and don't mean
to decrease what he meant to you all, but even in his absence
your family appears… whole. Unbroken, if you understand my
"Your choice of words could not have been better. You used the
word, "appears". Our family had quite a rough time a while back.
Our family isn't as perfect as you would think. You feel that
because of what your father did, it makes your family broken. I
would figure that as the oldest, you feel obliged to make things
whole again. But I'll let you in on a secret: there's nothing
for you to fix."
"There's plenty for me to fix… you don't understand."
"I understand a lot more than you would think."
Ned waited for Jarrod to continue, but he didn't.
"Are you going to present your defense?" Ned asked.
"If the prosecution will listen."
"...The floor is yours."
"Ned, Heath is only my half brother. Several years ago he showed
up out of nowhere, claiming to be my father's illegitimate son.
None of us ever had any idea that my father had an extramarital
affair, and weren't prepared for something like this… and it was
hard. We all adjusted in our own ways… and even though it took
some doing, Heath eventually had a place here, and no one could
replace him. But that didn't change the fact that what my father
did left hurt inside all of us. I'm the oldest and for the
longest time I felt it was my job to make everyone feel like it
never happened; that the hurt wasn't there. I wanted things to
keep moving like it never happened… but the truth is that I
couldn't, because my father did make a very big mistake. We each
had to find it within ourselves to forgive him in our own
timing. For me… it took quite a while. The one person I had
looked up to in life betrayed our family's trust. My trust. And
that wasn't particularly easy to get over. But Ned, I found that
when I embraced what happened instead of trying to run away from
it… and then when I stopped trying to “fix” everything and
realized that there were actually some wonderful results of what
happened... I no longer looked to everyone else's “perfect”
lives. Instead, I enjoyed the life I had with four exceptional
siblings and a wonderful mother."
"Anytime. After all, I don't need you distracted with other
problems when we're in court Friday."
"You want me there?"
"What kind of lawyer do you think I am? I need an extra set of
eyes and ears. I might also need you to do some of the talking."
"Are you sure?"
"You're working with me for the experience, aren't you?"
"But something this big?"
"Don't argue yourself out of a job, Ned."
The two men chuckled as they made their way out of the barn.
"I have one question, if you don't mind answering it," Ned
"Earlier you said you had four siblings. I've only met Audra,
Nick, and Heath. Who's the fourth?"
A very distant look came over Jarrod's eyes as a frown crept
onto his face.
"It's alright…" Jarrod sighed before continuing. "It's been a
long time since anyone's talked about him..."
Lucas lied awake in his bed, smiling to himself as he heard the
front door open and shut for the third time that morning. After
living with Mark for nineteen years, he knew his son's morning
routine like the back of his hand. The first time the door
opened, Mark had left the house and started on his chores; which
apparently included chopping wood that morning. He would muck
the stalls, milk the cow, feed the animals and collect the eggs.
The second time, Mark was coming back in to begin making and
eating breakfast before washing the dishes he used. Finally,
Mark was ready to go and left the house to mount BlueBoy and
ride for town. Then, Lucas counted to about ten and heard his
son come back in to get whatever he forgot… most likely the
floor plans for the cabin.
Lucas wasn't upset; Mark was typically mindful of the other
people in the house and was as quiet as a mouse, unless he had
to chop wood. Even then, Lucas knew his son would move the
chopping block a ways from the house in order to avoid waking
those inside. But this morning he knew his son was a little
preoccupied and not thinking clearly.
Lucas remembered back to the days and weeks following his
engagement to Margaret, and his young love had him as careless
as Mark could become at times.
Lucas couldn't be happier for his son and soon-to-be
daughter-in-law. Although Cassie seemed to have quieted quite a
bit after being abducted by her father and uncle, she still had
a care-free, adventurous side to her that complimented Mark's
easy going, cautious personality quite well.
Lucas soon dressed and wrote his wife a note, explaining he was
going on a walk and would be back for breakfast. After getting
his hat and rifle, Lucas headed out the back door and for the
Eventually, Lucas found himself at that spot in the woods he and
his son had so often retreated to in previous years.
Once in a while the two would find themselves out there, but it
was a seldom occasion. So much had changed the last year… it was
good change, but there were times Lucas missed certain
things. He wouldn't trade their life with Milly for anything,
but he missed being able to surprise Mark with a spur of the
moment hunting trip or stay in town. He missed laying in his
bunk, looking across the room at Mark while his boy peacefully
slept. He even missed waking Mark from bad dreams.
But now, Mark was getting married… something Lucas wasn't sure
he would ever be ready for. His son would become the head of his
own household, have a wife to support, and one day, children to
raise. Lucas was glad Mark was staying on the ranch… he wasn't
sure he could take Mark moving away. There was such a strong
love that connected him to his son… such a wonderful bond they
had shared since the day Mark was born. Something Lucas hadn't
felt with anyone else before… something Lucas never wanted to
But Lucas knew his son wasn't a child anymore, and that the
change was good, and he knew change wouldn't break their bond.
However, he still occasionally felt a growing pain or two, and
sometimes he and Mark both needed to reinforce the father-son
aspect in their relationship rather than the "partner" dimension
...Which got an idea started in the rancher's head.
Lucas walked back to the house and found Milly just finishing up
"Morning," Lucas greeted as he planted a kiss on his wife's
"Morning," Milly groggily replied. "What had you up and around
so early this morning?"
"Mark woke me up as he was getting ready this morning and I
decided to go for a walk."
"I just needed some fresh air."
Lucas sat down with his wife before saying grace and eating
"You and Mark working on the range today?"
"That's the plan. I have to run an errand this morning, but Mark
probably won't be back until after noon."
"We were just in town Wednesday. What'd you forget?" Milly asked
with a teasing smile.
"For your information, I have to ride out to Merar's place to
take care of some business. And who was it that had to ride into
town last Thursday morning because she forgot to purchase
sugar?" Lucas shot back.
Milly chuckled with her husband as she stirred her oatmeal some
"Are you two coming back to the house for lunch, or do I need to
pack you something?"
"We have a lot to do. With the trial and Cassie's disappearance,
we didn't have a lot of time to prepare for all the new calves.
As much as I'd like to come back and have lunch with my
wonderful wife, we probably won't be back until after dark even
if we eat on the range."
"I'll pack you a good sized lunch."
"Do you have much to do today?"
"Oh, I'll definitely keep myself busy. The floors need scrubbed
again, I'm trying to finish another quilt for Meredith, the
laundry needs done, I'm hoping to get some baking done, as
"It's a good thing Mark chopped wood this morning."
"He did?" Milly asked in surprise.
Lucas looked curiously at his wife.
"It's been a few days since we've chopped any. Why do you find
"I…" Milly paused and shook her head. "I guess it has been a
Lucas took the few last bites of his breakfast before washing
his dishes at the sink.
"Would you have time this weekend to fix that hole in my shirt?"
"Of course. Which one?"
"The white one."
Lucas turned around to see Milly smirking, shaking her head.
"Lucas, you have about five white shirts."
"The good one."
"How did you manage to get a hole in your Sunday shirt?"
Lucas didn't need to say anymore; Milly wasn't sure she wanted
to hear what trouble the two of them had gotten into.
Lucas kissed his wife goodbye and headed to Tom Merar's ranch.
One of the hands saw him riding up and greeted him before
informing Lucas that Tom was out in the west pasture. Lucas
thanked the man before riding off again.
"Well, what can I do for you, stranger?" Merar teasingly asked
as Lucas dismounted.
Lucas shook the man's hand as the two men laughed.
"Good to see ya, Tom. Sorry it's been so long."
"I understand… you've had your hands full. The Osborne girl
"As well as can be expected. Mark's been helping her though, and
the rest of us have been helping the both of them."
"I'm assuming that this put a delay on Mark's plans to propose?"
"That's actually what he was trying to do when he got shot. But
it still hasn't slowed them down."
"He proposed last night, and you should've seen him when he came
home… daydreaming like he was ten years old again!"
"I don't think Mark'll ever lose his ability to daydream. Enjoy
it while ya can Lucas, they grown up too fast."
"You're telling me. How are your kids?"
"We got a letter from Beth the other day, she and her husband
are doing fine, settling into the city well. Nate and Sarah came
over for dinner last night with the grandchildren, and I'm happy
to announce that they're expecting number six."
"Congratulations! How does it feel?"
"Makes me feel old," Merar laughed. "Now as much as I enjoy
catching up with you Lucas, I'm sure you didn't ride all the way
out here just to talk."
"Unfortunately, no. A few years back you sold your cattle early
in the season to an army division; they pay you well?"
"It wasn't great, but I got my money's worth. You have to go to
probably four or five different camps to get rid of all your
cattle, and about twenty forms to sign at each, but what can you
expect? It's the government. You thinking about it?"
"With Mark getting married, I don't want our whole summer eaten
up with ranch work… and I'd like to do something special before
we get in over our heads with all the wedding stuff and building
their house. Do you have a way to contact them?"
"Well, I can give you the telegraph address for the main office,
and they can get you in touch with different units. It's a lot
of leg work, which is why I don't typically do it, but for one
summer it's not too bad."
Merar reached into his saddle bag a retrieved a pencil and paper
before scribbling some words down.
"There you go," he said as he handed it to Lucas.
"I need a break, you wanna go to the house for some coffee?"
"Sounds good to me."
The two men rode back to the ranch house where they discussed
just about anything and everything. After a while, Lucas said he
needed to get back to the ranch and get some work done.
"Well you're welcome here anytime. Don't make yourself such a
stranger," Merar said as he shook Lucas's hand.
"I'll talk to Milly and see if we can't have you two over
sometime soon," Lucas replied before mounting up. "Oh, and if
you see Mark for any reason… today never happened."
Merar nodded in understanding before Lucas rode away.
After finally getting back to the ranch, Lucas started on
pushing the cattle together so he and Mark could start branding…
whenever his son did decide to show up. Lucas looked at his
pocket watch and saw that it was almost one thirty. He smiled
and shook his head.
A few minutes later, Mark rode up and jumped off BlueBoy.
"Sorry I'm late. Things took longer in town than I thought they
"That's alright," Lucas replied as he handed his son the
branding iron. "Long line at the hardware store?" He teased.
"It went out the door and half way down the street!" Mark
"How was your time with Cassie?"
"Good," Mark replied with a smile as he looked the direction of
Realizing he had lost his son, Lucas didn't pursue any more
conversation as they worked.
Branding the cattle wasn't an easy job, but it was necessary.
Mark would get the branding iron ready as Lucas tied down one of
calves, then his son would press the hot iron onto the cow's
flesh before Lucas released the calf. They repeated the process
all afternoon, wanting to get through it as fast as possible.
"All right Mark, ready for the next one," Lucas called without
looking at his son.
When he didn't hear a response, he looked over at Mark, who was
lost in thought. At first, Lucas started to laugh, but then he
realized Mark was leaning closer and closer to the fire.
"Mark!" Lucas yelled as he grabbed his son's collar and pulled
Startled, Mark dropped the iron and came back to the present.
Now, Lucas let himself laugh.
"What were you thinking about?"
"Marrying Cassie, I guess…"
"If you don't pay attention, you're going to get yourself killed
before you can even get married!" Lucas chuckled some more.
"I've got your back, partner," Lucas said as he put a hand on
The two men worked the rest of the afternoon and into the
evening. They started back to the house with only a little light
left in the sky. By the time they reached the hill above their
home, it was completely dark… and both knew something was amiss.
None of the lanterns had been lit inside the house.
"Pa, they should have been lit almost two hours ago."
"I know, Son." Lucas thought for a moment. "Your Ma was
finishing a quilt for Meredith, she probably took it into town.
Why don't you put the horses away? I'll start supper."
It was an order, loud and clear. Lucas knew Mark knew that he
wanted Mark in the barn in case something was wrong, and was
grateful his son didn't argue.
Lucas grabbed his rifle and started into the house. Lucas lit
the lantern in the front room and let out a sigh of relief as he
saw his wife in his chair, asleep.
Lucas went back outside just as Mark came running out of the
"Pa, all the horses are in the barn!" Mark yelled, worry in his
Lucas put his finger to his lips.
"I know, your Ma fell asleep in the front room. When you come
in, use the back door."
Mark nodded as he relaxed.
"What sounds good for supper?" Lucas asked.
"How about, pancakes with extra pepper?"
Mark laughed at the face his father made at the mere mention of
"How about ham and potatoes?" Mark suggested.
"As long as I'm cooking."
Lucas went around back and entered the house through the kitchen
door. As he thought about it, Lucas realized it had been quite
some time since he had made dinner. Milly either insisted on
cooking or they went to the hotel; which he didn't mind one bit.
However, he found himself enjoying preparing the meal,
especially once Mark came back in and started helping. It
brought back good memories.
"Should I wake Ma?" Mark asked as Lucas set dinner on the table.
Lucas contemplated the question for several moments before
"...No, if she's this tired, we should let her sleep."
Mark nodded in understanding before they sat down to eat. After
dinner, they worked on the dishes together… and Lucas couldn't
help but notice Milly's bowl from breakfast, still half full.
"Pa?" Mark's voice finally cut through Lucas's thoughts.
"Hmm?" Lucas asked, looking towards his son.
"Is everything alright?"
Lucas started to brush it off with a simple nod, but stopped
"...I just hope your Ma hasn't come down with anything. She
hardly touched her breakfast, and from the looks of things… I
don't think she got anything done she wanted to today."
"Do you think the infection might have come back?"
"I hope not."
Mark simply nodded in response and went back to work.
Mark went to bed after the evening chores were done, exhausted
from the long day's work.
As Lucas walked back to the house, he caught sight of the
chopping block and ax. Lucas suddenly remembered the
conversation with his wife that morning and realized why she was
so surprised that Mark had chopped wood. Milly wasn't a light
sleeper, but she wasn't a heavy one, either. She shouldn't have
slept through Mark chopping the wood that morning, and it
concerned Lucas that she had.
Lucas entered the house from the front door this time, and
gently shook his wife awake.
"Lucas?" Milly asked in confusion as she looked around. "What
time is it?"
"Milly, is everything alright?"
Milly looked at the time piece on the mantle and couldn't
believe the time.
"I'm sorry Lucas, I'll get something fixed for your dinner,
and-" Milly started to stand up, but Lucas gently pushed her
back down into the chair.
"Don't worry, Mark and I got something. Are you hungry?"
Milly shook her head as she tried to comprehend how she could've
slept so long.
"Milly, how long have you been in here?"
"I don't know Lucas… I just felt so tired this afternoon, I was
just going to rest for a few minutes, and then…" Milly's
sentence died, but before Lucas could say something, she started
talking again. "You and Mark must be exhausted. I'm sorry you
had to come home to-"
"Milly," Lucas firmly said as he tried to stop his wife from
getting up again. "Mark and I lived on our own for twelve years,
we can manage supper for one night. I'm worried about you. How
long have you not been feeling well?"
"... I noticed I was a little extra tired last night, but I
attributed it to being worried when Mark didn't come home at the
"Just last night?"
"I suppose I've felt a little extra groggy the last few days…"
"Are you just tired, or is there more?"
"I don't know Lucas…" Milly looked into her husband's concerned
eyes. "...at this point, I can't think clearly enough to know
how I feel."
"Well let's get you off to bed, and we'll see how you feel in
As Lucas began helping his wife out of the chair, he knew part
of her wanted to insist she could get to bed herself… but
something stopped her from refusing his help.
As Lucas and Milly got ready for bed that night, Lucas kept
looking at his wife in concern. Besides the previous month,
Lucas didn't think he'd ever seen Milly sick. She was always
strong, healthy, and independent. Yet as she curled up in bed
with him, Lucas could tell something was terribly wrong.
Doc Burrage sat in his office across from Mrs. Wilson, who was
nervously playing with her
"Faith, I have some good news, and I have some bad news."
"... What's the bad news?"
"I have a feeling you won't be entering your award-winning
chocolate cake in the baking contest come November."
"That's where the good news comes in, my dear. You'll either be
very pregnant, or have a newborn on your hands!"
"You mean I'm- I'm pregnant?"
The doctor nodded with glee as a smile spread across Mrs.
"Oh thank you, Doc! I can't wait to tell Jeff, I will stop over
during his lunch break, and tell him the news!"
"See Anna at the desk and tell her I said to give you some pills
for the morning sickness. She'll direct you on how to take them
Doc Burrage took his patient to the door before starting to
clean the examination room. He had to send so many people out of
that office with discouraging news… it was nice to have moments
like he had with Mrs. Wilson.
The doctor smiled as he heard Faith excitedly telling Anna the
Before long, Anna had sent another patient in to see the doctor.
It was turning out to be the pretty typical day. A house wife
not feeling well, a ranch hand's smashed finger, stitches for
the child that fell out of the tree, a McCain walking into his
"Well Lucas, you're a little late."
"Late?" Lucas inquired.
"I think it's been over a month since one of you have been in my
office. Is it you, or Mark?" Doc asked teasingly, but when he
saw the look on Lucas's face, he realized this was a serious
"Nothing exactly “happened,” but I think she's coming down with
something… or her infection came back. Mark and I returned from
working yesterday and I found her asleep in the front room. I'm
not exactly sure what time she fell asleep… but she must've been
out six or seven hours. She slept through Mark's wood chopping
yesterday morning, and when I woke her up to get her into bed
last night… she just didn't look well."
"Well then why are you here, and not her?" The doctor inquired.
"She woke this morning insisting she was fine. I will admit that
she looks better than she did yesterday, but I'm worried about
"Well if she says she's fine, there's nothing we can really do.
Yesterday may have just been a fluke; there are hundreds of
things that could make one so exhausted."
"But to sleep that long? In a chair? After a good night's rest?"
"Luke, I hate saying these words as much as you hate to hear
them, but we just have to wait and see. If she gets worse, bring
her in. Until then, I can't fix something that's not broken."
Lucas sighed as he gave in to what the doctor was telling him.
"Thanks Doc, see you Sunday."
Burrage followed Lucas out and found no patients waiting for
him. He looked to Anna, who was working at a quite clean desk.
"You didn't get through all that paperwork, did you?" Burrage
asked in disbelief.
"Once I got the hang of it, it wasn't too difficult to complete;
I have had all morning."
"Well I say this calls for lunch at the hotel."
"Thanks Doc, but you don't need to-"
"I only get to have you around for a few more months. Let me
spoil you while I can."
Anna smiled up at the man who was like a grandfather to her.
The old man escorted Anna to the hotel where they ordered their
lunch and got to talking.
Burrage enjoyed having Anna around, the girl had such a
brilliant mind and compassionate heart. He did everything he
could to prepare her for nursing school, and was surprised at
just how quickly she caught on to things. Yet today, he knew he
needed to step out of a professional roll and into another.
"Anna, how have you been doing?"
"Fine, why do you ask?" Anna replied in confusion.
"I know you try to stay strong for your mother and sister, but
you're hurting too; I can see it."
Anna was a bit shocked by the doctor's statement… she didn't
think anyone had even considered that she might be… struggling.
"... I feel awful saying it… I didn't go through anything that
Cassie did, yet…"
"You hurt, and you carry a burden."
"Your sister went through something horrible. But she wasn't the
only one that was hurt over these last few months. Your father
didn't only betray her trust; he betrayed the town's, he
betrayed yours. Going beyond that, you almost lost your sister.
You've told me how close the two of you are, and worrying about
losing someone that close to you can almost destroy a person."
"Doc… Cassie and Mark could've died..." Anna said as a tear slid
down her face. "I don't know what I would've done if they had.
But even now that they're back, I feel so… alone. Cassie and
Mark have each other. Ma has Aunt Milly. Ned even has his lawyer
friend in California. And I have… no one."
"What am I? Chopped liver?"
Anna looked into the doctor's eyes and found a tenderness there.
"I didn't think you'd want to be bothered with something so…"
"Anna, I'm a doctor. It's my job to help people, and that
doesn't just mean physically. You're like
a granddaughter to me and I hate watching you hurt. It's going
to take time for you to heal, but know you're not alone. Your
uncle and I had a conversation a while back; he was awfully
concerned about you. They all are. But no one knows how to get
through to you…"
"I guess it is kinda my own fault. Ever since Mark got hurt last
winter by the wolves, I've found it easier to block people out
instead of letting them see what's going on inside. I don't want
to burden anyone."
"Anna, you are the most thoughtful, caring person I know. You
would never be a burden on anyone, especially your own family.
They love you to pieces… but they were afraid of pushing you too
much. I think it's due time you opened up to them."
"But Doc… what if they…" Anna almost couldn't say it out loud.
"What if they don't understand?"
"Anna, I can't imagine them not understanding. But even if they
don't fully understand, that won't override their love for you.
Like you said, every one of them has had someone. They all
needed someone because they were experiencing the same things
you are. Let them know how you feel, and trust their love for
"Doc, what am I going to do when I'm at school?"
"No, I mean without you. You've pulled me out of some pretty
dark valleys this last year."
"You're strong, Anna. You'll do just fine, I'm sure of it."
"Thanks for everything, Doc."
"You just get yourself through nursing school so we can split
the house calls, got it?"
After an enjoyable lunch, Doc gave Anna the rest of the
afternoon off. He walked her home before returning to the
As he sat down at his desk, the doctor's mind began to wander to
a place he tried so hard to avoid. Yet today, there was no
Burrage unlocked a drawer in his desk and pulled out a picture.
In the photograph a man stood, presumably next to his wife and
infant daughter. Burrage wished the two women were still in his
life, but there was nothing he could do to change that.
Lou dropped the coffee off at table nine, took the order at
table six, cleared the dishes from table seven, and promised to
bring more butter out for table thirteen before rushing back to
The restaurant had been a mad house all day, and Lou couldn't
fathom why everyone suddenly decided to have supper out that
night. She appreciated good business and loyal customers… but
this was a bit too much.
"Lou, I'm sorry to bother you, but Maddy needs fed again,"
Cassie said with the child in one arm and stirring a pot of soup
with her free hand.
Lou sighed as she took the child from Cassie.
"Thanks so much fer helpin' out Cassie; I don't know what'd I do
"Don't mention it Ms. Lou. I could tell you were under a lot of
"And just how would ye know that?" Lou teased, knowing she'd
been flustered all day.
"Your accent is stronger than normal."
Lou looked at the girl for a moment, a little astonished.
"Well, I reckon it is," Lou laughed. "And fer heaven's sake
child, when are ye ever going to quit callin' me “Miss”?"
"I suppose when I'm a “Missus”." Cassie replied with a smile.
"Well ye can drop the “Miss” now, makes me feel old. Lou, Aunt
Lou, I don't care, just not “Miss”."
"Yes, Mrs. Gibbs." Cassie couldn't help herself.
Lou gave the girl a playful slap before taking her daughter
Not in a million years had she imagined herself married and
having a child, but she wouldn't trade her life for anything. It
wasn't worry free, especially when Johnny and Lucas got
together. She couldn't help but laugh as she thought back to the
previous Sunday. ...But it was a good life, surrounded by people
she loved, and that loved her back. Never in her childhood did
she ever expect to find a family she could feel safe and secure
in. She had just about convinced herself that relationships
weren't worth anything when she came to North Fork. But Lucas
helped her see differently… and Johnny helped her see really
As Lou looked down at her child, she looked forward to the days
that would come. Sending her off to school, teaching her to
cook, sew, run a house and business, watching Johnny walk her
down the aisle. They were all things she looked forward to… but
she was content, right where she was at.
After Maddy was done, Lou brought her back downstairs and went
back to work, daughter still in tow. When Johnny got to the
hotel, he took Maddy off his wife's hands so she could focus.
Finally around eight o'clock things died down enough so the
Gibbs and Cassie could go home. The Gibbs walked Cassie home
before walking on to their own residence, where they could
finally sit and relax.
Lou sat in bed next to her husband, braiding her hair.
"Thanks for helping out."
"Well I'd be a pretty poor father if I didn't spend some time
with my daughter."
"You do more than that though, and I appreciate it. You could've
told me to give up the hotel when got married and-"
"But you enjoy it, and I enjoy running it with you."
"I just wish you didn't have to do that and work for Oat."
"I enjoy being a ranch hand. I don't mind it. What's important
to me is that you're happy."
"Well I'd say you've accomplished that."
"Everyone coming over tomorrow?"
"Yes. Catherine is bringing dessert, the Grafts are bringing a
side and salad, Milly is bringing rolls and her famous honey
butter and-" Lou suddenly gasped.
"What?" Johnny asked in concern.
"I never brought butter back out to the elderly couple…"
"Tall man, short lady wearing perfume you could smell a mile
Lou slowly nodded.
"Someone must have gotten it, I saw it there when I brought
"Oh thank goodness."
"You better be careful, Lou. You keep this up, you're going to
start losing customers," Johnny teased.
"Oh, hush," Lou said with a smile.
Johnny turned down the lamp, and the two quickly fell asleep.
They hadn't been asleep for long, however, when they were woken
by gunshots a few streets over. They both jumped out of bed and
ran downstairs. Johnny was pulling a shirt on as he ran, trying
not to drop his gun belt. Lou started to follow her husband out
of the house, but he stopped her.
"Lou, I want you to go back inside with Maddy and lock the door
behind me. Don't let anyone inside."
"Lou, I don't have time to argue."
Lou did as her husband told her and watched out the window as
her husband walked out of her sight.
The gunshots persisted, and Johnny followed them. To his
surprise, it only sounded like one gun was going off. Johnny
couldn't understand why Micah wasn't shooting back.
Finally, he arrived at main street and saw a lone drunk shooting
up into the sky.
"Show me the way to go home…" the man sang, slurring his words;
firing at the end of a phrase. "I'm tired and I want to go to
"Drop that gun, mister!" Johnny yelled as he pointed his
revolver towards the man.
Yet the man didn't listen; instead, he got mad.
"You think you're going to tell me what to do!?" The man said as
he staggered towards Johnny,
waiving the gun around. "Well do ya?"
"Well let's calm down… we can handle this peacefully."
"Peacefully?" The man sneered. "You think there's peace in this
world?" The man continued to slur his words.
"I sure do, but I can tell you that you won't ever find it if
you keep looking for it in a bottle."
"Well let me just tell you…" then the man started singing again.
"My Bonnie lies over the ocean… my Bonnie lies…"
Johnny rolled his eyes, more out of embarrassment than anything
else. He didn't want to know what a fool he had made of himself
getting drunk so much in his early years.
Slowly, Johnny made his way over to the man who was stumbling
around in circles. Without much effort, he secured the gun from
the man and started walking him to the jail. Johnny still
couldn't figure out why Micah wasn't out there yet.
When Johnny got inside the jail, he found the marshal asleep in
his chair. Confused and a bit worried, Johnny locked the singing
drunk up before shaking Micah awake. It took a while, but he
"Micah, you feeling alright?"
"Yeah, why wouldn't I be?"
"You just slept through a drunk shooting up a storm not fifty
feet from your door!"
Micah looked at Johnny in disbelief, then… shame.
"Johnny, I'm sorry… I don't know how it happened, but it won't
Johnny sat across from Micah.
"You love this town just as much… probably more than I do. You
want to protect it. Micah, I'm not saying you're incapable of
doing your job, but that you're getting…"
"Are you saying I'm getting too old to be marshaling!?" Micah
"No, I'm just suggesting that maybe you swear in a deputy to
work the nights Lucas can't and-"
"Johnny Gibbs, it's been a long month for all of us, and just
because I sleep through one
incident doesn't mean I can't perform my duties anymore!
Besides, do you realize how thick these walls are??"
Johnny was taken aback by Micah's reaction, and simply kept his
mouth shut. This was obviously a touchy subject that he
should've passed off to Lucas.
Johnny stood and walked to the door.
"See you in church tomorrow. The man's sleeping it off in your
Johnny took a slow walk back home. He wasn't sure he'd ever seen
Micah so… riled.
Lou came running out the door and wrapped her arms around
"What happened? Are ye alright?"
"Oh, just a drunk. I took care of it."
"What about Micah?"
Johnny hesitated… unsure of how to present the situation.
Johnny started walking back inside with his wife and as they
headed back to bed, he told her what had happened.
"And Micah snapped at you over that?"
"He didn't seem himself… I don't know what the issue was."
"Maybe he's just been a bit under the weather…?"
"I certainly hope that's it… I think I could smell alcohol on
Micah unlocked the cell door and opened it up to let the man
"Alright, get going," Micah ordered.
"What about my gun?" The man asked as they walked towards the
"You can have it back when you're ready to leave town."
"You can't do that Marshal, it's my gun!"
"And until I'm dead, this is my town. I'm not going to let you
shoot it up; you can have it back when you're ready to leave.
And if I were you, I'd avoid the saloon all together."
"I'll be back this afternoon," the man grunted as he put his hat
on and left the office.
Micah sighed as the door closed behind him. He hadn't felt this
low in years.
'I sure did a fine job of protecting my town last night…'
As Micah plopped down onto his chair, he looked out the window
to see Johnny with one arm around his wife and the other holding
He cringed as he thought about the exchange of words between
himself and Johnny the night before. Micah wasn't angry one bit
with what Johnny had said; his words held truth. He had been
thinking about getting an extra hand to help out… he certainly
wasn't getting any younger. Johnny just happened to be the first
person Micah had interacted with since he got the news… and
Johnny became Micah's verbal punching bag.
Micah heard the church bells ringing and forced himself out of
the office. He started down the boardwalk like he did every
Sunday morning and checked the locks at the bank, with the clerk
at the hotel, and a few of the businesses on main street before
making his way to the church. He was the last one to step inside
the building before Reverend Graft began the service.
As Micah looked out at the crowd, he not only saw people he was
sworn to protect, but friends… and family. North Fork gave him a
chance after no one else would. Mark and Lucas not only turned
his life as a marshal around, but gave him meaning and purpose.
He didn't know what he would do without those two. Milly was
like a daughter to him… and that included her always worrying
over him just like Lou had for the past several years. Johnny
had become an unlikely friend who could give him enough dirt on
Lucas so he could tease the man relentlessly. Despite his rough
start in life, Johnny had turned out to be quite the man; always
willing to lend a hand, and always looking out for others.
Micah knew he had trustworthy friends, and kicked himself for
turning to the bottle before turning to them. But Micah promised
himself it wouldn't happen again.
After the service let out, Micah caught Johnny outside the
"Johnny, can I talk to ya for a minute in my office?" Micah
"... I would Micah, but with everyone coming over, Lou needs-"
"Oh posh!" Lou declared as she gave her husband a gentle shove.
"I can manage just fine. You two need to talk."
With that, Lou walked away and left the two men in an awkward
They began walking towards the office, neither one saying
anything until they got inside.
"Well?" Johnny asked.
"Well, Johnny, I owe you an apology," Micah admitted. "What
happened last night was completely out of line on my part, and
I'm sorry you had to fulfill my duties for me. North Fork is my
responsibility, not yours."
"You don't have t-"
"... Well then I accept your apology. But Micah, I'm more
concerned about you. What happened last night?"
Micah paced for a moment before sitting on the edge of the desk.
"I got a letter yesterday from head quarters with a wanted
poster. There was a man wanted for the murder of an entire
family. He shot the mother first, then the father. Next was the
ten year old son…" Micah stopped for a moment, not sure he could
trust his voice. "...Then the six year old daughter. The
neighbor girl was over and saw what happened… somehow the
monsters found it in what was left of their hearts to let her
live. He did it all out of pure spite for the father's half
Johnny was careful as he spoke his next words, not wanting to
"It's a cruel, unjust world we live in, Micah. It is horrible
what happened. I don't mean to sound inhumane or apathetic… but
as a marshal you've seen this half a dozen times. What makes
this so different?"
"...I was fresh out of basic and a little cocky. A few men and I
were selected to transport a few prisoners across Missouri. I
remember Dan Sackett like it was yesterday. He cooperated and
did everything we told him. When it was my watch for the night,
he got the jump on me and took off. They never caught him again.
And two months ago he killed a family of four, leaving the
neighbor girl to tell about it. That's what makes this one
"Micah, you can't blame yourself for the family's death. Sackett
pulled the trigger."
"But he wouldn't have been alive to if I had done my job right."
"You can't change what's happened, you can only use what you
know from the past to redirect the future."
"I've heard enough stories to know that you never let anyone
else use the word, “if.” Don't be a hypocrite, Micah. One day,
Dan Sackett will be brought to justice. Until then, you have to
focus on the responsibilities you've been given here… protecting
"... Thanks Johnny. You were right though, last night. I do need
some help. And I think you're the one to give it to me. I've
been thinking on this for a while, and I want to make you my
deputy, Johnny. And not just a couple nights a week, but
"With my past? Is that even legal?"
"I wouldn't offer it if it wasn't. You care about this town and
have a level head on your shoulders… there wouldn't be a better
person for the job."
"What about Mark?"
"The boy lives an hour from town, is getting ready to get
married, and Lucas would skin me alive!"
"Do you want it or not? I don't offer this position lightly."
Micah watched as Johnny thought about the offer.
"I do. Just let me finish through the cattle drive at Jackford's
this summer. He needs the help, and I don't like the idea of
just up and quitting. Besides…"
"Gives you time to prepare Lou?"
"You got it."
"Well let's get over to your place, I'm starving!"
The two men walked to the Gibbs' home and joined their family
and friends. The thing Micah enjoyed most about Sunday
afternoons were the values represented within the group that
gathered. Johnny, Mark, and Lucas showed that family stuck
together, even if someone goes a bit astray for a while. The
Osborne women represented the fact that circumstances don't
define who you are; how you handled those circumstances does.
Himself and Milly… reminded him that family isn't just blood;
it's what you make it. Lou was the one that reminded everyone
that first impressions aren't everything. There's a story behind
everyone… and true friends digs deeper, as Lucas had. The other
guests that joined them varied from week to week, but stood as a
representation of the bond that North Fork had within its
citizens. And unbeknownst to everyone in town, it was a bond
that started when a rancher and his son came to start a cattle
Micah's thoughts were interrupted as he picked up on Lucas and
"...Promise, I'm fine," Milly finished, tension in her voice.
"Lucas, I need fresh air, that's all."
Micah watched as Milly used the table to push herself up, but as
she took a step forward, she reached for the table again to
regain her balance.
"Milly?" Lucas asked in concern.
Milly simply tried to keep going, but before anyone could react,
Micah and Lucas watched Milly collapse on to the floor.
"Milly!?" Micah and Lucas both called as they went to her.
Micah could see the worry on Lucas's face as he tried to wake
his wife up.
"Milly?" Lucas said again.
At that moment, Micah heard the kitchen door open and close.
"Ma!" Mark yelled as he rushed towards her. "Pa, what
Lucas didn't have answers for his son; he could barely process
what was going on.
"Lucas, take her upstairs. Mark, run for Doc," Micah ordered.
"Doc's at the Miller's for the afternoon," Anna informed.
"You'll have to ride for him. Aunt Lou, smelling salts?"
"I don't have any…"
Anna ran from the house, undoubtedly to get salts from the
office. Mark was already halfway out the back door to get
BlueBoy from the barn.
While Anna was gone, Micah helped situate Milly in the bedroom
When Anna finally got back they tried the salts, but it proved
futile. She did what she could to try to help, but Anna had no
idea what was wrong with her aunt.
Micah watched Anna leave the room to get some things from the
kitchen. He looked back and forth between the Lucas and Milly,
worry etched on his friend's face.
"She'll be alright," Micah offered as he put a hand on Lucas's
Lucas looked his friend in the eye. Micah could see the pain and
fear racing through the rancher.
"I can't lose her, Micah."
"Look, Ned, I know you're trying to help, but you're just going
to waste time," Jarrod told Ned for the sixth time. "We've all
looked for him, we've hired private investigators to look for
him, and the fact is… he's gone. He doesn't want to be found."
"You sound like you've given up," Ned replied as he continued to
saddle his horse.
"I would never give up, he's my brother. I still hope that one
day Eugene will return home… but I have to come to terms with
the very likely possibility that he won't. This isn't your
"I stayed for the trial, like you asked. I need to do this."
"...Jarrod, as the oldest you've had to… in a way, become numb
to the situation so you could stay strong for your family. The
rest of your family, especially Audra, is still hurting."
"You talked to Audra about this?" Jarrod asked with a hint of
"No, she talked to me. You don't need me at the office right
now, and I want to do this for your family. But I wouldn't be
completely honest if I didn't recognize that I have to do this
"How do you mean?"
"I have to prove to myself that I can go beyond what my father
did. That I can live a life to help people without the shame of
my father tugging at me. He's always been there, hovering over
my shoulder. I have to do this to prove I can be my own man.
That I can define myself. And part of that definition is helping
those I care about; like you and your family." Ned finished just
as he began to mount.
Jarrod let out a long sigh before patting the horse and looking
up towards Ned.
"Best of luck."
"I'll see you later."
Ned rode away from the Barkley's with a thousand thoughts
pulling at him.
He had talked a lot more confident than he felt, and wondered if
he really should be doing this.
...But it was too late now, and all he could do was focus on the
task ahead of him.
It took a few days to ride to the college Eugene had attended
and a few more to get anywhere with the staff. Once again, Ned
found himself asking for files on Eugene Barkley.
"I told you before, Mr. Osborne," a very stern secretary began.
"The Barkleys have followed every lead they could find. It's all
a dead end, but if you insist on wasting your time…" she walked
across the room and searched a few filing cabinets before
offering Ned a stack of papers. "You can start with these."
"Thank you, Ms. Scottlock," Ned said as he started walking out
of the office.
"I hope you do find him. He was such a nice young man."
Ned stopped in his tracks and turned around.
"You remember him then?" Ned asked in surprise; the woman seemed
to be close to his own age.
"My father is a professor here. I grew up running around the
school. I obviously don't remember everyone, but Eugene was a
kind young man who even took time for little girls. And when
someone like that just disappears… you remember."
"He just up and left one day?"
"I assume so. From what I heard, he didn't show for any classes,
his friends couldn't find him anywhere on campus, and obviously
when asked, the family said he wasn't in Stockton."
"...How long do you keep record of your visitor logs?"
"We keep all of them… but we have dozens of people come through
every day; you won't be able to gather anything from those."
"I'd like to see them, just the same."
"All right, follow me."
The woman led Ned down a long corridor and into a large storage
room. It took a while, but she finally pulled a box off the
shelf and handed it to him.
"January through March, the year he disappeared."
"Thank you for your time."
"I get paid for the time just the same, I might as well use it
to do something useful." With that, the woman left Ned alone in
the room and returned to her desk.
Ned couldn't quite figure the woman out. She seemed like she
wanted to help, but at the same time acted as though Ned should
leave the situation alone.
Ned shrugged it off, and returned to his hotel room where he
would begin pouring over the hundreds of papers.
From what the Barkleys told him, Ned knew college friends
wouldn't be of any help. They all gave the same story; one day
Eugene simply disappeared. He hadn't said anything that would
indicate he was getting ready to leave, and his attitude about
school couldn't have been better.
So, Ned concluded it would be best to move on to strangers. He
didn't know exactly what he was looking for as he scanned
through the visitor register, but something had to be there.
Finally, Ned noticed a regularly recurring entry.
Name: Amy Strouse
Date/time of arrival
Time of departure
He noticed that the last day she visited the college was the day
of Eugene's disappearance. And even more intriguing, there was
no record of her leaving.
Of course, Ned knew there could dozens of rational reasons it
wasn't there, and that there was very small possibility of the
two being connected… but instinct told him that there was a
bigger story behind it.
Finally having something to go on, Ned closed the books for the
night and turned in.
The next morning, Ned went straight to the town hall to look up
the Strouse family. Due to the frequency of Amy's visits, Ned
assumed that she lived in the city. He knew there was a very big
chance the family had moved away, but pressed his luck.
...And was glad he did. There was a family that lived on the
outskirts of town by the name of Strouse, and Ned wasted no time
in locating the residence.
As Ned rode down the street, he soon realized he was dealing
with a family of high standing and class. The homes that
surrounded him were about three times the size of the average
city house, with intricate woodwork and servants milling about
Ned rode up to the address he had been given and knocked on the
large door. He waited only a few moments before a maid answered
"May I help you?"
"My name is Ned Osborne, and would like to speak with Ms. Amy
The woman gave Ned a confused and almost frightened look, but
before Ned could say anything, she hesitantly invited him
"Wait here please," the woman said before half running up the
stairs and down the hall.
As Ned took in his surroundings, he realized he was way out of
place. The suit helped, and if you were a stranger passing by
you wouldn't have thought Ned out of place, but inside that's
how he felt. He had seen quite a bit while in school and at the
Barkley's, but he suddenly felt like a peasant in queen
Victoria's throne room.
"Can I help you?" A woman interrupted Ned's thoughts.
"...Amy Strouse?" Ned hesitantly asked. This woman looked much
older than Ned had imagined; he guessed the woman in front of
him to be in her early sixties.
"That would be my daughter. What business do you have with her,
"My apologies, ma'am. My name's Ned Osborne, and I'm
investigating the disappearance of Ned Barkley. I believe your
daughter may know something about it."
"Know something?" The woman asked, almost laughingly. "She
married the man!"
Mark jumped from BlueBoy and ran up the Miller's porch steps
before pounding on their door.
It seemed to take forever for someone to answer, but finally Mr.
Miller opened up.
"I need Doc! It's Ma!"
Mark quickly followed the man into the dining room, not
bothering to explain any more.
"Doc, we need you in town! Ma collapsed at Aunt Lou's and-"
"I'm coming, start hitching up the buggy," Doc ordered as he
collected his things.
"I'll drive it home, take BlueBoy."
Hearing the increasing urgency in Mark's voice, Doc nodded,
thanked the Miller's for their hospitality, and was soon on his
way into town.
Ray Miller helped Mark hook up the horse and buggy, trying to
get him to calm down.
He was able to get Mark to relax a little, but knew Mark was
still quite nervous as he drove away.
The drive back to town gave Mark a lot of thinking time… too
much thinking time. He didn't think either he or his Pa could
make it through losing another wife and mother. Milly always had
a special place in their life and after she married Lucas, the
bond between the three of them only
Milly had been there for Mark in a way no one else had been in
his life. From the day that Mark had met Milly, he knew she
would always be someone special in his life. He couldn't lose
his mother again. Mark had gone twelve years without being able
to walk into the house and ask his Ma what was for supper.
Without being able to ask his mother where Pa was. Without
giving his mother a goodnight hug. He couldn't lose that again.
When Mark arrived at his Aunt and Uncle's, everyone except his
parents and Doc Burrage was in the sitting room.
"Any news?" Mark asked.
Everyone simply shook their head as Mark made his way to the
stairs. He was halfway up them when he felt a hand on his
Mark turned around to see Cassie there. He took her hand and
continued up the stairs until they were out of everyone else's
sight. Cassie planted a quick kiss on his cheek before the two
entered the room Milly was in.
Lucas was pacing as Doc checked Milly's vital signs.
"Doc?" Mark asked as he closed the door.
The doctor stood up and shoved his hands into his pockets.
"I don't know what to tell you. She's stable, but weak. Her
temperature is high, indicating her body is fighting an
"So, why don't you just give her what you did last time?" Mark
"I can try it, Mark, but I don't know if it will help. It almost
looks like the same thing, except I don't know why she would
collapse like that. I'm afraid that what I gave her last time
simply masked her symptoms somehow, instead of fixing the
problem. If I give it to her again, and all it does is mask
symptoms… she may get worse again."
"Well how do we figure it out?" Lucas asked.
"I'm going to give her a small dose and hope she wakes up. If-"
"Hope!?" Lucas and Mark exploded.
"When she wakes up, I'll be able to assess her symptoms better."
"...And if she doesn't wake up?" Cassie hesitantly asked.
"We'll take her to the new hospital in Vendix. They have testing
equipment that I don't."
"But that's a whole day by train!" Lucas exclaimed.
"And even longer in a wagon," Burrage replied. "I know you're
all worried, and I'm sorry I can't do more, but these are our
options right now."
"Thanks Doc," Mark offered as Burrage began collecting his
"I'll be at the hotel or home if you need anything, and I'll be
back to check in every hour or so."
Mark and Cassie walked the Doctor to the door before informing
the rest of the family what was going on.
Although everyone wanted to stick around, they knew Johnny and
Lou needed their space.
The crowd slowly dispersed, finally leaving Cassie and Mark
alone in the sitting room.
"Mark, what if she… doesn't wake up?"
"We'll take her to the hospital in Vendix."
"...You know what I meant."
"... We'll cross that bridge when we get to it."
Cassie laid her head on Mark's shoulder.
"She was what kept our family from coming apart at Grandma's
funeral. I don't know what…"
"She's a strong woman, she'll pull through," Lou said as she
came through the door. "She is a McCain, after all."
Mark just smiled in response, even though what he was thinking
brought tears to his eyes. His mother hadn't been strong enough.
Tuesday evening, Mark returned to town after finishing work at
the ranch for the day. He tied BlueBoy up in front of the
Marshal's office and went inside to say hi to Micah.
To his surprise, Mark found his Pa talking to Micah inside.
"Pa, what are you doing here?" Mark asked in concern. "Is Ma
"She's the same. I'm glad you're here… we need to talk."
Mark walked to the desk and leaned his rifle against it as Micah
walked to the stove and refilled his coffee mug.
"Mark, I know you care just as much about your mother as I do.
Unfortunately, we don't know how long this will take, and the
fact remains…" Lucas stopped short. He didn't want to ask this
of his son.
"We own a working ranch, and one of us has to be here to work
it," Mark finished for Lucas. "You obviously need to go with Ma,
and that leaves me. ...In all honesty I don't want to stay, but
responsibility is about doing what you need to do; even when
it's not what you want to do."
Lucas nodded, thankful Mark had already been thinking this
"You two just come back this time. Like I said, we own a working
ranch; I don't have time to chase outlaws across the territory!"
Mark teased, trying to lighten the mood.
"Believe me, that won't be happening again," Lucas promised as
he patted Mark's shoulder. "I need to go to the ranch and pack
for your Ma and I. I'll be back before too long."
"Who's with Ma now?"
"Catherine. But you get something to eat before you go up
"I'll make sure he does, Lucas-boy," Micah assured. "I need to
eat something besides my own cooking, anyhow."
"Why would you say a thing like that?" Lucas teased. "Mark, I'll
see you when I get back to town."
"See ya, Lucas-boy," Micah called as Lucas started out the door.
"Bye, Pa." Mark turned to Micah after the door closed. "Ready to
get somethin' to eat?"
"Food can wait, you didn't come in here to talk to your Pa,"
Micah replied. "Take a seat; start talkin'."
Mark let out a long sigh as he took a seat across from Micah.
"You know me well."
"After almost ten years, I better!"
"I did come in to say hi, but I had a second motive as well.
I've been worried about Pa... this hasn't been easy on any of
us. I was going to ask you to talk to him, but I assume by his
calmer demeanor that you two already had a nice, long chat."
"We sure did. I'll admit to you, you're Pa's going through an
extreme emotional low. I know he appreciates what you've been
doing around the ranch and that he hasn't had to ask you to do
anything. He really didn't want to ask you to stay behind,
"I understand. We have no idea what is going to happen in Vendix
or how long they'll be there. Work has got to get done, and it
just would've be right for Pa to stick around or both of us to
Micah watched Mark's gaze shift to the floor and saw the man's
"What is it?"
"Nothing," Mark said, looking back up at Micah.
"Mark, all three of you have told me I'm a part of your family.
It's a great honor for me, but with that comes responsibility.
Responsibility that includes making sure you're alright. Out
with it, boy."
"This... just brings back a lot of memories."
"One in particular is pulling at you."
"... I have a bit of a difficult time remembering back to when
Ma was still alive... except when it comes to the events
surrounding her death. Those seem to be implanted in my mind. I
remember a few days before she was diagnosed I was playing
outside while Pa was running errands in town. I needed something
from inside and ran into the front room to see my mother
collapsed on the floor. When I ran through the kitchen door at
Lou's Sunday, and saw Ma lying
there... I just about died on the inside. I honestly don't know
how Pa does it... how he sits with her all day. If I did, I'd go
crazy with fear. Working the ranch at least keeps my mind
occupied some of the time. I spend enough energy wondering what
things would be like if we lost her... again. Pa was crushed
when she left North Fork, and I was angry with her for quite a
few months. I mean, eventually I realized that she needed to
deal with family things, and it was best... but at the moment I
found it quite difficult not to be mad. She was like my mother
then and is my mother now. I can't lose her."
"You're strong Mark; all three of you are. Pray, and trust the
Good Lord will do what's best. Don't give up faith because
things look dim. Your Pa is refusing to give up, and I know you
can follow in his footsteps... but it's your choice. You can
give up or stand strong."
Mark nodded, knowing Micah was right.
"Hotel, or the cafe?" Micah asked.
"Hey, the farther we get away from Lou's cooking, the better."
"I'm surprised she hasn't tanned your britches yet. You and
Lucas give her so much grief about her cooking. Why? It's some
of the best around."
"It's an inside joke with a long back story, and you give her a
fair share of teasing.”
“Well, the cafe it is. Let's go!"
Mark and Micah walked across town and enjoyed a well prepared
meal for supper. Afterwards, Micah invited Mark to join him for
his rounds around town.
"I knew they were doing construction out here, but I didn't know
they were building so many new houses," Mark commented as they
reached the outskirts of town.
"The railroad has brought a lot of business to town, and with
the business comes a lot of new families."
"It kinda reminds me of-"
Mark stopped short as he and Micah turned around, hearing
shouting behind them.
Two boys were running away from Steve Morris, the butcher. As
the boys tried running past the two men, Mark and Micah caught
hold of the boys' collars.
"What's the hurry?" Micah asked.
"It was an accident!" The younger of the two stated.
"Marshal," Morris started as he caught up to them. "These two
sent a rock flying through my window!"
"Boys?" Micah simply asked.
"We didn't mean to, honest!" The older declared. "We were just
tossing rocks back and forth and it slipped out of Richard's
"Accident or not, I'm down a window!" The angry butcher stated.
"Your front one?"
"Well no, just the small one in the back. But it's a window,
just the same!"
"Well boys, what do you have to say?" Micah asked.
"I'm awfully sorry..." Richard began. "We'll pay ya for it, I
promise! Just don't take us to jail!"
"They don't take kids to jail over broken windows," the older
one stated. "...Do they?"
"I think we'll let it slide, seeing as how it's your first
offense," Micah said. "That is, as long as you pay Mr. Morris
"We will, it just may take a while..." Richard piped up. "Pa
won't be giving Tony and me allowance for a few weeks..."
"Well," Mark started. "It just so happens that I need some help
around the ranch, and I think you two would be perfect for the
job. If you can get your Pa's permission, I can take you out to
my place tomorrow and you can do enough work to pay Mr. Morris
back for the window. What do you boys say?"
"Thank you mister," Tony said.
Mark laughed at the title.
"Mr. Morris, that good with you?" Micah asked.
"As long as I'm getting my money."
"Good. Boys, let's go over and have a chat with your folks,"
Steve went back to his shop as the foursome made their way to
the boys' home.
"So, who are your parents?" Micah inquired.
"It's just Pa and us three boys. Our Pa's Elijah Hampton."
"Isn't he the new foreman over at the mill?" Micah asked.
"Yes sir," Tony replied.
"Where'd you boys move from?" Mark asked.
"Texas," Richard answered as they walked through the Hampton's
yard and towards the barn.
"Well I never- Jacob Hampton!" Mark yelled.
The two men working in the barn turned around to see the four
The obviously younger of the two ran towards Mark and before
Micah could react, the two were wrestling on the ground. Micah
and Mr. Hampton went to break it up, but before they could
interfere, the two young men were helping each other up,
"Care to explain, Son?" Mr. Hampton asked with more than a hint
"Pa, you remember Mark McCain, don't you? Lucas's son?"
Elijah took a step back and thought for a moment.
"Boy-howdy, it's been quite a long time! Mark, you finally
bulked up!" Mr. Hampton exclaimed as he patted Mark's shoulder.
"What are you doing here?"
"I live here. Have for the last nine years!"
"After all that wandering, your Pa finally settled?"
"Yes sir. Even remarried."
"Mark?" Micah interjected. "Care to explain?"
"Oh, sorry Micah. This is Elijah Hampton and his son Jacob. Pa
and I met them when we were
in Texas for a few months. Jacob and I got ourselves into quite
a bit of trouble together."
"Sounds about right," Micah laughed. "Marshal Torrence, pleased
to meet you," Micah said as he shook their hands.
"Mark, what brings you out this way?" Elijah asked.
"Seems Richard and Tony followed in their brother's footsteps,"
Mark replied. "They got into a little trouble this evening."
"Boys?" Mr. Hampton asked with a raised eyebrow and stern town.
"We uh..." Tony started. "Accidentally broke a window..."
"And just how do you figure on paying for it?" The upset father
"Well that's just it," Richard started. "Mark here offered to
let us do some work out on his ranch tomorrow so we could pay
the butcher back for the window."
"I appreciate it Mark," Elijah started. "But that's not your
"No worries," Mark assured. "I need the help and they need the
"I don't want you to feel obliged just because you know-"
"In all honesty, I didn't know they were your boys until we were
headed over here for permission. I think Tony was just a few
months old when we lived in Texas. Like I said, I need some help
"If you're sure, it's fine with me," Elijah replied. "Make sure
ya work them hard."
"I will," Mark laughed. "We'll have to have you all out to the
ranch some time, I'm sure Pa would like to catch up with you."
"Well, we look forward to it. I hate to cut this short, but we
all have an early morning tomorrow."
"Of course," Mark replied. "Jake, it was good seeing you again.
I look forward to catching up with you sometime."
"Me too, just as long as you don't get me into any trouble."
"What do you mean?" Mark innocently asked.
Mark and Micah said their final goodbyes before heading out to
finish their rounds.
After returning to the office, Mark played Micah a game of
checkers before heading to his aunt and uncle's. Mark had a
quick conversation with his uncle before making his way up the
stairs. For a few minutes, Mark felt like he had been able to
relax and not worry, but now reality had sunk back in.
"Evening, Mark," Catherine greeted with a half smile as Mark
entered the room.
Catherine simply shook her head.
"... I can sit with her until Pa gets back. Why don't you take a
break and get something to eat?"
"Are you sure?"
"I'll be fine, you look like you need some rest."
Catherine stood and walked towards Mark before putting a hand on
"I don't know what'd I do without you and your Pa here."
"We're family, Mrs. Osborne. Family looks out for each other."
"And family doesn't call each other by their last names.
Catherine is fine."
"Catherine," She said with finality.
"I suppose I'll see you tomorrow at the train station?"
Mark nodded in response.
"Have a good night, then."
With that, Catherine headed for the bedroom door.
"I don't know what Pa and I would do without you, either," Mark
started. "...You know as well as I do that our relationship has
been… complicated, but even after what happened, all of us made
it through together. Thanks for everything, Catherine."
Mrs. Osborne took a few steps back towards Mark and put a hand
to his cheek.
"You're most welcome. And I can't wait for the day I get to
claim you as my son-in-law, Mark."
"Have a goodnight. Please tell the girls I said hello."
"I will," Catherine said with a smile before leaving the room.
Mark turned around and sat down in the chair next to his
"You know," Mark began. "You and her are a lot alike. Loving,
caring… compassionate. You both possess something I don't
understand. You are able to be there and support people without
ever saying a word. You're able to give strength to people
simply through a smile or a gentle touch. And I miss getting
both of those from you."
Mark stopped and swallowed as a tear rolled down his cheek.
"Ma, I need to be able to see that smile and feel that touch
again. I can't lose you. There are so many things we still have
to talk about. So many things I need to tell you. The first
being that I love you, and am so incredibly grateful for you.
You took on the role as my mother not out of obligation, but out
of choice. You chose to chide me for eating gum balls for
breakfast and apple pie for dinner. You chose to take care of me
when Pa went out of town. You chose to hug me and swat my
backside like I was your own son before I was officially yours.
Because official or not, you chose me to be your son. And I
don't care what anyone says, you've been my mother for as long
as I've known you… and if you leave Pa and me…"
Mark couldn't keep talking; his voice was cracking and tears
were streaming down his face. Mark simply took hold of his
mother's limp hand and tried to regain his composure.
Some time later, the tears had dried and his voice had returned.
But Mark didn't keep talking. Instead, he wrote his Ma a letter…
praying that she would wake up and be able to read it.
About an hour had passed when Mark looked up to see his Pa enter
"No change," Mark said as Lucas sat on the edge of the bed.
Lucas nodded and continued staring at his wife for several
minutes. Finally, Lucas broke the silence as he looked to his
"Let's go for a walk."
"It'll be alright."
The men grabbed their hats and rifles before making their way
down the stairs and out of the house. Again, there was quite a
long silence between them before Lucas broke it.
"This is difficult for me. What's happening with Milly brings me
a lot of memories about what happened to Margaret. ...And I want
to coddle you like a six year old again."
Mark didn't say anything; he simply waited for Lucas to go on.
"But the thing is, through it all I haven't had to ask you to do
anything. You've done a great job with keeping up with things at
the ranch. When it came down to who was staying, you understood
the situation and readily took on the responsibility of running
the ranch. You've been keeping up with the entire family, and
making sure everyone gets time with Milly and time to rest.
You've been helping your aunt around the house with all the
extra people coming through, and even taken Maddy of her hands
when need be. All that, and you're trying to cope with what's
happening to your Ma. And as much as I feel the desire to hold
your hand through this like you are six years old again, I know
I don't need to, because I have a nineteen year old son who's
acting well beyond his age. And I wouldn't expect anything less
of him." Lucas paused slightly before continuing. "Mark, I'm
proud of you. I know this isn't easy and that you have your
moments; but I'm proud of the way you've been handling it all.
As your father I want to stand here and give you instructions
for every minor detail out at the ranch while I'm gone. I want
to tell you when you should check in with Micah or Johnny and
that you should be extra careful. But you already know all that.
And I can't tell you what a relief that is to me. What I'm
trying to say is, I appreciate the man you are… and that I can
go through this situation with a grown man by my side. It's just
hard to let go of my…"
"As ridiculous as it seems, yes."
"I understand Pa. You and I have something special, and in a
way, I will always be that. But I can be a grown man at the same
time. And I think you've done a lot more letting go than you
give yourself credit for. Remember when I found Lou's friend out
in the woods and you spent all night looking for me?"
"Yeah, you were worried. But after I got back, things were fine.
If that would've happened a year
prior, you would've not let me ride to town by myself for weeks.
Incident coming home from Chicago? We had things to talk
through, but you didn't constantly hover over me, worried some
outlaw was going to try to kill me. Disappearance last winter?
We talked about it, and for the most part, it was over and done
with. DeFord was still on the loose, yet you didn't order me to
stay on the homestead or with you. I was shot and even though
you were concerned… you realized that you didn't have to be
father and mother to me. You've let me become my own man, and I
appreciate that. You and I are a team. For a long time, that
meant you doing the protecting and providing, and me getting
into trouble. But now it's time for me to take on
responsibility, and for you to be able to ask me to take care of
the ranch for indefinite periods of time. It's time we start
working together to take care of our family, instead of fighting
against each other thinking we're protecting the other by
keeping them from a situation. It's... It's…" Mark wasn't sure
how to express the last of his thoughts.
"It's time we work as partners in the full sense of the word,"
Lucas concluded for his son.
Lucas offered his hand to his son, and in understanding, Mark
shook his Pa's hand.
Mark stood with his arm around Cassie as they watched the train
pull out of the station. They stared after it for a long time,
praying the doctors in Vendix would be able to figure out what
was wrong with Milly.
Eventually realizing that they were the last of the family on
the platform, the two began to head for the center of town. It
wasn't too long, however, before Mark began leading Cassie in a
"Where are we going?" Cassie asked.
"For a walk if you don't mind… I think we need to talk about
Cassie nodded and took hold of Mark's hand, waiting for him to
"...This obviously wasn't how any of us saw the summer going,"
Mark began. "Cassie, I just want you to know that I'm going to
try my hardest to make time for us… but with Pa and Ma gone and
me at the ranch by myself… I don't know how often I'll get into
town. I'm sorry, but-"
"Mark, you don't need to apologize. The ranch is your
livelihood. I expected you to be busy this summer and then with
what happened to Aunt Milly... I know it's just not realistic
for us to be able to spend a lot of time with each other. I'll
try to make it out to the ranch when I can, but I understand
that you have a lot on your plate. And if we need to move the
Mark stopped and turned towards Cassie.
"No, Cass. I don't want to wait any longer than necessary. As
long as Ma and Pa will be able to be there, the wedding date can
stay where it is. And if you and Lou do most of the planning
over the week, you and I can look at everything on Sunday
afternoons. We have just shy of three months, and I'm sure Ma
will be right as rain by then."
"I just don't want you to be overwhelmed, Mark. I know the ranch
by itself can be a lot."
Mark planted a kiss on Cassie's forehead before they started
"Don't worry about me, I'll be able to handle it."
"You asked me to be your wife, I'm pretty sure worrying is in
the job description."
"Worry? Cassie, we can't spend our lives afraid of what might
happen to each other."
"... I know. Perhaps it's not the best word to use." Cassie
paused for a moment. "I'm concerned… but I trust your
"Thank you, Cassie."
Cassie squeezed Mark's hand before wrapping her arm around his
waist. Mark kissed the top of her head as they strolled down the
Eventually they had made their way to Cassie's home, and Mark
said goodbye before getting the buckboard and heading over to
pick up the Hampton boys.
After getting to the ranch, Mark could see that the boys were
well-accustomed to ranch work, and they put in a good day's
work. They had started out with the basic chores before they
loaded up the buck board and the three spent the majority of the
day straightening and fixing the fence line. Mark never heard
one word of complaint from either of the boys and figured their
Pa had given them a long lecture the night before.
Around three, Mark told the boys to load up the buck board and
that they were done for the day.
On the way back into town, Mark could tell the boys were
exhausted. He smiled as he saw Richard falling asleep on Tony.
He remembered doing that plenty of times after a long day's work
when he was their age.
"Your Pa not home yet?" Mark asked as he pulled into the yard.
"Naw, he and Jake don't usually get back until around six," Tony
replied as he elbowed Richard awake.
"Well, thanks for your help today, boys," Mark said as he
flipped each of them a silver dollar. "Don't forget to pay Mr.
Morris back before you start spending it."
"Yes sir," Both boys replied as they jumped down from the buck
"Thanks for offering the work," Tony began. "We were already in
trouble from something that happened a few weeks ago… I don't
know what we would've done."
Mark laughed, remembering getting himself into the same
situations at that age.
"I'm just paying it forward. Tell your Pa and Jake I said
"Bye, Mark," Richard said as Tony waved.
Mark waved goodbye to the boys and headed for the center of
When Mark pulled up in front of the marshal's office he secured
the team and headed inside. To his surprise, Mark saw his uncle
behind the desk with a deputy badge.
"Uncle Johnny, what are you doing here?" Mark asked in
Johnny sighed as he tossed a folder on to the desk and gestured
to a chair for Mark to sit.
"Micah had to leave town."
"I'm sure you've heard of Dan Sackett?"
"Don't tell me Micah-"
"He did. Micah needs to see him put behind bars. We had talked
about Micah deputizing me at the end of the summer, but with
Sackett in the territory, Micah felt like it was his duty to go
after him. He left Nils and me in charge while he was gone."
"But why would Micah feel like he needed to go after Sackett?"
"You see Mark, Micah was on duty when Sackett escaped from the
U.S. Marshal's custody. He blamed himself for some of the
murders Sackett committed and said he needed to personally see
Dan Sackett behind bars."
"...But to just up and leave town? Without saying goodbye?" Mark
asked, disappointment in his voice.
"He had a lead and had to follow it, but he did leave this for
Johnny pulled open a drawer and retrieved an envelope from
"Thanks," Mark said as he took it.
"You alright?" Johnny asked.
"Yeah," Mark replied. "It'll be nice when everyone's finally
home, for good."
"I know what you mean."
"See ya Sunday, Deputy Gibbs," Mark replied with a smirk.
"What's so funny?"
"How's Aunt Lou taking it?"
"... I'll let you know after I tell her."
"Goodnight, Uncle Johnny," Mark laughed.
Mark headed out of the office and drove home. He had so many
questions bouncing around in his head; questions he hoped would
be answered in Micah's letter.
After arriving home and completing his chores, Mark sat out on
the front porch and read Micah's letter with the light from the
I know the timing couldn't be worse for me leaving, and I wish I
could be there to help you through this. But there comes a time
in a man's life when he has to put his past behind him, and
sometimes there's no other way to do it than facing his past.
However, I know that family comes first. You, Lucas and Milly
mean the world to me, and if I didn't think you were man enough
to take on this situation I wouldn't even consider leaving. But
you are man enough, Mark. I know you have the faith and strength
to make it through this trial without your Pa and I right there
with you. Your Pa did everything he could to raise you right,
and you've turned out well beyond what he could have ever hoped
for. We'll have plenty of time to talk when I get back, but as
you go into the next couple weeks I want you to remember one
thing. The Good Lord hand crafted our family, and gave it a bond
that would extend beyond life itself. Don't let that bond become
an obstacle of fear, but let it continue to give you strength as
you pursue life as an adult.
Keep the coffee on for me.
Ned sat across from Mrs. Strouse in the lavish sitting room of
"So you're telling me," Ned began, "That your daughter ran away
with Ned Barkley, and you didn't tell his family?"
"Well how was I supposed to know they didn't have a clue? They
never came asking me questions."
"Do you know where they are?"
"Oh, mercy, no!" The woman laughed. "She had our full blessing
to pursue a relationship with the man. He was, after all, of
equal station. If she felt the need to run away with the man and
only had the decency to leave a one paragraph note behind, she
was going to have to pursue relations with us. It is, after all,
quite the social disgrace… eloping."
"So you haven't heard from her?"
"Not in the least."
"Aren't you just a bit concerned?"
"Mr. Osborne, you come from a different way of life… her running
away said she didn't care one bit about the family. When she ran
away, she knew she was taking herself out of the will. Had she
reached out to us… well, we'll just leave it at that."
Ned was disgusted by this woman's callousness.
"Do you have the note?"
"If we did, I don't know where we would look. It was probably
burned years ago."
"Did your daughter keep a diary of any kind?"
"... I think so. It's probably boxed up with all her other
things. If you want it, you're welcome to it."
"Please. Mr. Barkley's family is quite interested in his
Mrs. Strouse summoned a servant who showed Ned to the basement,
where he went through several boxes of Amy Strouse's belongings.
After getting what he needed, Ned took his leave… more than
happy to get out of Mrs. Strouse's presence. He didn't know how
the woman was still alive; she certainly had no heart.
Ned started pouring through the diary entries as soon as he
returned to the hotel, taking note of anything that had to do
with Eugene. Ned discovered that shortly before disappearing,
Amy had been stalked by a man. The diary entries he found were
This man followed me home from the market today… he had a
strange look to him. Before I went inside the house he
introduced himself as Dan… something. He started paying me
compliments and being quite forward with me. The man is at least
twice my age! I politely declined his advances… but he simply
said that he got what he wanted and that I was going to be his.
I didn't want to worry mother or father, but it has me terribly
" March 15th
I saw him again today, while I was visiting Eugene at the
college. He kept following us around the campus before Eugene
got campus security to make the man leave..."
A bouquet of flowers was delivered to the house today for me. Of
course, I thought it was from Eugene… until I read the card.
'My darling Amy,' it read. 'I fell in love with you the moment I
first saw you. I get what I want, or no one gets you.
I'm scared, I want to go to the police, but I fear for Eugene's
The following pages were all blank, indicating that it was the
last diary entry.
Ned sat back and thought for a moment.
He didn't think Mrs. Strouse was lying about getting a note from
her daughter, saying she had eloped. He did doubt, however, that
the note was from Amy. It just wasn't making sense. Had they
been planning to elope, Amy would have at least brought a few of
her personal belongings. Why leave her diary? Her perfume? The
diamond jewelry that had been among her other belongings?
And as Ned thought about it, why hadn't Jarrod or the other
Barkley's looked into the Strouse's?
Ned looked back through the diary. The earliest Eugene was
mentioned was mid January… maybe he hadn't told the family about
"But that still wouldn't explain…" Ned's thoughts were
interrupted by a knock on the door.
He answered the door and saw the woman from the college standing
there with a folder in her hands.
"Ms. Scottlock?" Ned asked in surprise as he let her inside.
"Eugene's disappearance has always gotten to me, so I started
doing a little research of my own. If something was amiss, the
groundskeepers would be the ones to notice. I looked through the
files and found a list of those employed during the month the he
disappeared. I found someone you may want to talk to."
"Where is he?"
The woman stepped outside the hotel room and motioned to someone
down the hall. An elderly Mexican man shuffled into the hotel
room, looking down at the floor.
"Juan, tell this gentleman what you told me."
"Please, Ms. Scottlock," the man said with a heavy accent. "Man
kill me if he finds out I told anyone."
"No one is going to kill you, I promise," Ned assured. "Do you
know what happened to Eugene Barkely?"
"...Senior Barkley was walking through the gardens late at night
with his lady friend. I was locking up the shed when a man came
from the shadows. They argued, and she screamed, and then quiet.
I tried to hide but the man saw me and demanded what I see. At
the time, I couldn't speak English and tried to explain. Then he
spoke in Spanish so I understand. I said I see nothing, because
it was dark. He said if I tell anyone I had been there, he would
kill. He told me to get out of there. When I went back the next
morning, two shovels were missing from shed."
"What did this man look like?" Ned asked.
"Tall… dark hair… dark eyes. Scar on his neck," the man replied
as he pointed. "I had seen him on the grounds many time."
"Why wait until now?"
"I knew no English… I was scared… who would believe me? And if
the two turned up dead… they blame me and send me to prison!
Please, I can't go to prison!"
"You won't, I promise," Ms. Scottlock assured before turning to
Ned. "If I'm right, I think the man Juan is talking about is an
outlaw by the name of Dan Sackett. I remember seeing him around
the school as a little girl… I of course didn't know who he was
then, but even at the time the man scared me."
"Sackett, of course!" Ned exclaimed as he started getting his
"There's one more thing…" Juan hesitantly stated.
"Yes?" Ned asked.
"The day after the incident, a garden plot had been destroyed… I
think someone was digging."
Ned and Ms. Scottlock stared at each other in horror.
Before long they were explaining things to the police and soon a
unit was digging up a beautiful garden at the college.
As they waited, the two young adults shared more information
with the police sergeant… both surprised at what the other had
And when two bodies were uncovered, their theory was confirmed.
Driven by a jealous rage, Dan Sackett had killed Amy Strouse and
Eugene Barkley in cold blood.
After they were finished with the police, Ned took Ms. Scottlock
to a nearby cafe to get something to eat.
"I'm surprised it's open this late…" Ned commented.
"In a town with a college as big as ours, there's always
students trying to find somewhere quiet to study late at night…
or early in the morning, as the case may be."
"I know you said Eugene's disappearance “got to you”, but what
drove you to look into it? When I got here, you weren't exactly
"Even as a young girl… Eugene meant a lot to me. I missed him.
Part of me just wanted to leave everything be… but something
told me there was something more to his disappearance. To be
honest, I've been working at this for a few years… looking here,
looking there… but always ended up empty handed. But when you
showed up, you went all over the place. I found you in the
strangest places and I remembered that there were other people
who were always in the strangest places… the groundskeepers.
They fit in… were almost invisible. And if anyone would have
seen anything, it was them. I don't know why Juan stuck around
here for years, but I'm glad he did… he was my last hope."
"Well Ms. Scottlock-"
"Please, it's Helen."
"I'm glad you didn't give up, Helen. I don't know if we would've
ever gotten to the bottom of this without you."
"Being a secretary gets a little boring, I needed something to
do. So now that you've solved the mystery, what's next?"
"Tracking down Sackett."
"But the police said-"
"I'm not done with this case until Sackett is brought to
"So you're a private investigator, then?"
"Just a lawyer, trying to help some friends."
"You don't seem to be the kind of man who is “just” anything."
"Maybe a lawyer who's a little bit too curious for his own
"But you got to the bottom of it, and I'm sure the Barkleys will
be grateful to you."
"I'm not the only one, you’re the one who found Juan." Ned
paused before changing the subject. "So, you planning on staying
in this town your entire life?"
"I don't know… Daddy's always been a little protective. I
suppose that's why I'm the only single lady in the entire town.
I'd like to get out of California… one of these days. I just
don't know where I'd go."
"Well if you ever go to New Mexico territory, you oughta stop in
a town called North Fork. My family's there. Ask for the
Osbornes or McCains and tell 'em you're a friend of Ned's."
"If I ever get out of here, I certainly will. So if your
family's in New Mexico, what are you doing here?"
Ned began a lengthy explanation of his past, but even after
that, Helen and Ned continued conversation well into the
morning. Finally, Ned reluctantly said he had to go. It was
going take a lot to find Sackett.
"Let me know what happens… I'll be praying for your safety."
"Thanks, Helen. And maybe when this all settles down… maybe we
can get to know each other a little more."
"...I'd like that," Helen said with a smile. "Best of luck."
"Come on, boy." Mark urged his horse. "Just a little bit more."
Mark looked behind him to see the cow struggling to get out of
the mud. Finally, it's front hoof was visible.
Mark jumped off BlueBoy and tied him in place before running to
the other end of the rope and pulling the cow the rest of the
way out. After loosing the cow from the rope and sending it
towards the rest of cattle, Mark let himself plop onto the
"I thought running the ranch three years ago was hard…" Mark
Mark mustered up the strength to get up off the ground and mount
BlueBoy again. As he looked
over the cattle, Mark couldn't believe how much the herd had
grown. Every season the herd got bigger, and every season the
ranch got more difficult to manage; but Mark wasn't going to let
his Pa or Micah down.
Mark started pushing the cattle towards the northern pasture,
and before too long found yet another break in the fence. He
diverted the cattle from the break before dismounting and seeing
what he could do with the tools he had. Mark set to work, and
just as he was finishing up, heard a rider coming up behind him.
A smile swept across Mark's face as he went to meet the rider.
"Aren't you a sight for sore eyes!" Mark said as he took Storm's
reigns and helped Cassie down.
"Rough day?" Cassie asked as they started walking towards
"Rough week… but things are looking up."
"Sorry I haven't been by..."
"Did Doc say you could ride with your ribs?"
"He said I could try a little. Things just have been hectic in
town and I haven't been able to make it out.
"No, except the saloon," Cassie replied with a laugh. "All the
ranch hands coming through have kept Lou busy at the hotel. I've
been helping her out there, or watching Maddy, or both. We
haven't discussed the wedding at all."
"That's alright, there'll be plenty of time."
"Mark…" Cassie began as she looked him over. "You look
exhausted. Are you going to be alright?"
"I hope so. Any word from my Pa?"
"A telegram came in this morning. No change… but at least
they're able to run tests."
"I hope they get the results soon."
"Have you had lunch yet?"
"I-" Mark stopped short and Cassie laughed at the look that came
over his face.
"Lucky for you, I checked for you in the barn," Cassie pulled
Mark's lunch out of her saddle bag and handed it to him.
"What would I do without you?" Mark asked as he pulled her close
and gave Cassie a kiss.
"Starve, probably," Cassie laughed.
"...How did you find me?"
"Tracking BlueBoy isn't that difficult."
"I didn't know you could track…?"
"I'll explain over lunch… as long as you'll sit down and rest
for a few minutes."
"If that's what it takes to have lunch with my fiancé…"
Cassie and Mark sat underneath a tree as they ate their lunch
and Cassie told Mark of how she once lived near an Indian
reservation. Some of the children there befriended herself, Ned,
and Anna, and they often went exploring on trails; the children
loved showing Cassie and her siblings their tricks and tracking
However, Mark noticed that the memories almost saddened Cassie.
"I got really close to one of the Indian girls there… she was
one of the closest friends I've ever had." Cassie swallowed
before continuing, "She was murdered by some crazy, anti-indian
"I'm sorry, Cassie."
"I suppose that's what drove me so far away from people. ...I
didn't want to care that much again so I wouldn't hurt that much
again. But I found that you can't make yourself stop caring. I
could only pretend not to care… until I met you." Cassie
whispered the last few words as she smiled up at Mark.
"I love you, Cassie."
"I love you too."
Mark and Cassie spent a little while longer together before Mark
said he had to get back to work.
Cassie rode with Mark for a while before heading back towards
town. After stopping at home and changing back into a dress,
Cassie went to the hotel to see if Lou needed any more help. To
her surprise, Cassie found the hotel unusually quiet and found
Lou in the office.
"Well, things finally calm down?" Cassie asked.
"Thankfully, for a little while at least. And before I forget…"
Lou reached into a desk drawer and pulled out an envelope for
Cassie. "Your wages for helping me out."
"Oh no, I couldn't-"
"You've done a lot this last week, I'm not going to have you
working for nothing. Use it on your honeymoon, put it towards
something special for your kitchen, I don't care. But I'm paying
you," Lou stated with finality.
Reluctantly, Cassie accepted the envelope.
"If you ever need anything, holler."
"Thank you. Hopefully now with the new help though, I won't have
"...Would now be a good time to discuss the wedding?"
"An excellent time, actually. Where do you want to start?"
The two began discussing wedding plans, unable to stay on one
topic for very long before they were distracted by another. From
dresses, to decorations, to food, to invitations, the women
talked, unaware of the passing time.
"There you are," Johnny said as he entered the office. "I
wondered where you were."
"What are you doing in town? It's only-"
"Quarter after five," Johnny said as he kissed his wife.
"I'm sorry," Cassie said. "I didn't realize how late it was
"No worries, Cassie," Lou assured. "We needed to get a rough
idea of what we were doing, and
this afternoon was fine. Johnny, I'll start supper in the
kitchen if you'll watch Maddy for me."
Johnny picked up his daughter from the crib in the corner of the
After Lou left the room, Cassie turned to Johnny and started to
say something, but hesitated.
"Cassie, if you're marrying into this family, you're going to
have to learn to speak your mind. What is it?"
"I… I know you're busy with your family and Mr. Jackford's and
deputing. But I'm worried about Mark."
"I talked to him Sunday and he seemed to be doing alright… he
getting worried about his parents?"
"Of course he's concerned, but he's handling that part alright.
I think the ranch is getting to be too much for him."
Johnny sighed as he sat on the edge of the desk, trying to
figure out how to explain this to Cassie.
"This is a delicate situation, Cassie. I have half a mind to
talk to Oat about letting me off for a few weeks so I can help
out there. I know my nephew's habits of not taking care of
"But?" Cassie asked in confusion.
"But I think Mark needs to do this by himself. We all agree that
he's become a right fine man, but there's always been someone to
confirm his actions for him... Micah, Lucas, myself… even John.
I'm keeping an eye on Mark, but I'll also be the first to admit
that he's been somewhat coddled and it's time we let him be a
man. He's a hard worker and I know he can handle it. As
concerned as you and I may be, we need to let Mark do a little
“proving” to himself while his Pa is gone." Johnny searched for
more words to say, but none came to him. "...Does that make
"... I think so."
Lucas looked up as the doctor entered the room. He had waited a
very long two weeks for answers, and he was hoping… praying he
would finally get some.
The doctor sat down across from Lucas as he looked the rancher
in the eyes.
"Mr. McCain, there's no easy way to say this." There was a long
pause before the doctor went on. "Your wife is hosting a
parasite which has attacked her brain. She collapsed because…
the parasite is literally sucking the life from her."
Lucas's heart dropped.
He could no longer hear the noise from the other side of the
hospital room door. The ticking clock seemed to have
disappeared. He only heard his six year old's voice asking when
his Ma would be back. He didn't see the doctor in front of him,
but a sign for the Enid cemetery.
The doctor's words snapped Lucas back to the present.
"Are you alright?"
"...What are you going to do?" Lucas slowly asked.
"I'd like to start treatment right away. The statistics are
good, but I must tell you that there have been some very brutal
"What happens if she doesn't get treatment?"
"...She will die."
"How long will treatment take?"
"Four, five weeks… maybe more."
"Do whatever it takes, but doctor… I can't lose my wife."
"We will do everything I can, but I must tell you that the
"I can't lose my wife."
The doctor looked into the man's eyes and saw pain and fear
deeper than he had ever seen in his entire career. He didn't
know what else he could say to this man who was so… lost in
The doctor stood and quietly left the room. Once outside the
door, the doctor crossed the hallway and braced himself against
"Doc Clayton, are you alright?" A nurse asked as she approached
"It never gets easier," the doctor simply replied as he shook
his head. "Nurse, I want you to start treatment for Mrs. McCain
"Yes, Doctor," she replied as she started to walk away.
"See if you can't get her husband out of the room for a while."
The nurse set to her task and was soon preparing to give Milly
She turned to the tall man sitting in the chair as she began to
tie something around Milly's arm.
"Mr. McCain, I'll be in here for a while, why don't you get
something to eat?"
"Thanks..." Lucas replied in a dead tone.
The nurse watched Lucas leave the room, shoulders slumped and
head hung low.
Lucas first forced himself to eat something in the town’s cafe.
The thought of food turned his stomach, but he knew he needed to
keep his strength up. He was going to need to be strong for
Milly when she woke up.
Lucas's second stop was across town at the telegraph office.
Even with Mark's telegram marked for delivery, he knew it would
be hours before his son replied. But Lucas simply waited. He
knew he needed to regain a confident composure before going back
to the hospital… he wasn't sure he could bear to sit and watch
his wife like that; motionless… almost lifeless.
As Lucas looked out the window, his eyes filled with tears; and
though he didn't want the tears, they brought him something
Lucas didn't see the trees across the street; the tears instead
showed him his wife. Smiling, laughing, giving Mark a playful
slap. There was life in her eyes, love and tenderness in her
touch… joy in their life.
And as the tears began to dry and Lucas saw the trees for what
they were; he made the choice that whatever the outcome of the
coming weeks may be… the McCains life wasn't going to be void of
joy again. Even if… even if Milly did die, he wasn't going to
let him and Mark go down the same path they had thirteen years
before. And if Milly came home… he wasn't ever again going to
take her laugh for granted.
"Mr. McCain?" The telegraph operator interrupted Lucas's
thoughts. "Your reply arrived."
Lucas took the telegraph from the man and read it.
VENDIX, NEW MEXICO
I've got the ranch
Take care of Ma
See you both when you get back
NORTH FORK, NEW MEXICO”
"Partners in the full sense of the word…" Lucas reminded
himself. "Mark's got this."
Nevertheless, it was a long couple of weeks. Three weeks into
treatment there had been no change. The doctor tried telling
Lucas the fact that Milly was still alive meant she was still
fighting… but Lucas was having a difficult time finding comfort
in even that.
It wasn't often that Lucas would leave Milly, but every once in
a while the doctors or nurses shooed him out of Milly's room so
he would get some exercise. Lucas would simply walk the town for
an hour or two, maybe send a wire home, and return to the
The town of Vendix wasn't anything fancy, but it was definitely
a large town; which was why it warranted a hospital in the first
place. Main street almost reminded Lucas of North Fork. The
hotel, the general store, the marshal's office, even the saloon
seemed to be in the same approximate locations. But the location
was where the similarity ended. For the longest time, North Fork
had been primarily a ranching and farming town, and plenty of
ranchers and farmers were still there. But with the railroad had
come lots of new businesses and new families, and diversity of
livelihood. As Lucas looked at the buildings of Vendix, he could
see that this had once been a gold mining town; the architecture
reflected that, as well as the general comings and goings of the
town. Instead of seeing ranch hands when he passed the saloon,
Lucas saw business men, very few saloon girls and… someone who
looked an awful lot like Ned.
Lucas took three steps backwards and looked through the window
again to see his nephew playing poker with a group of men well
past Ned's age.
Lucas entered the saloon and walked up to the table Ned was
"Ned, what are you doing here?" Lucas asked in confusion. "I
thought you were in-"
"I'm sorry, do I know you?" Ned asked as he gave Lucas a strange
"Sorry, my name's Clark. Daniel Clark. You must have the wrong
"...My apologies, the hat threw me off. You look very similar to
a relative of mine, but he's farther west. Enjoy your game,
"You're welcome to join us," another man at the table said. "We
have one more seat open."
"No thanks, I'll pass. Have a good evening."
Lucas left the saloon and walked over to the hotel. He was glad
to find no one at the front desk and quickly looked through the
register for Ned Osborne or Daniel Clark. Unfortunately, neither
name was there. Lucas then went to the livery where he did find
Ned's horse. He quickly wrote a note and put it inside the
saddlebag, just barely leaving it sticking out. With nothing
else to do besides wait, Lucas went back to the hospital and
took his place at Milly's bedside. Wishing he had thought to
bring his own Bible, Lucas picked up the Bible on the end table
and began reading through it. Eventually he had become so lost
in thought that Lucas wasn't aware of his surroundings, or the
fact that the nurse had returned.
"So you're a religious man, then?" She asked with a hint of
"I wouldn't call myself religious, but I do believe in a God who
"I don't mean to be rude, but how can you believe that when your
wife is lying there?"
"Because God didn't put her there. Men make bad choices, and sin
and sickness are a result of that. But God doesn't leave us at
that. He gives us a way out of the messes we've created."
"Well he didn't give my husband a way out, that's for sure. He
read his Bible and prayed his whole way through his painful
illness. But in the end, he died."
"It may not be the way you want it, but God gave him a way out
of his misery by letting him die. Yes, it's hard on those who
are left here… but they're not suffering any more."
"Easy for you to say, she's still alive," the nurse replied,
gesturing to Milly.
"For now, yes. But if she does die, she'll be the second wife
"So you've been through this before, and you still believe it?"
"Like I said, she's not suffering anymore. And although my son
and I miss her, we've been able to let go… and enjoy a new life
with Milly. Sometimes you don't understand why… you just have to
trust God's plan."
"Well I wish I had your kind of faith." The nurse slightly
paused before going on. "Anything you need?"
"If the treatment does end up helping… how long do you think
before she wakes up?"
"Could be tomorrow, could be a week from now. At least we can
give her nutrients through the bloodstream. Ten years ago, she
would've died from malnutrition by now."
"...Well thank you."
The nurse left, leaving Lucas alone with his thoughts again. It
was a long couple hours, but Lucas finally fell asleep.
About two the next morning, Lucas heard conversation outside the
"I'm sorry, but you can't go in there."
"I have to talk to him"
"You can come back in the morning, when he's awake."
"No, I can't come back in the morning. Can you just tell him-"
"I'm not going to wake him up!"
Lucas walked through the door as the nurse looked up in shock.
"I'm sorry Mr. McCain, I tried to tell him…"
"It's alright," Lucas assured. "Let's go for a walk, “Daniel
The confused nurse walked away, shaking her head as the men
started in the opposite direction.
"Sorry about this afternoon," Ned began. "I was in a sticky
"Well I figured as much when you used Mark's alias. What trouble
are you in?"
"Well, I'm not in any trouble… yet."
"What are you fixing to get yourself into?"
"An outlaw by the name of Dan Sackett murdered the brother of a
friend of mine."
"Dan Sackett…" Lucas whispered. "Ned, do you have any idea what
you're getting yourself into?"
"Yes, I'm fully aware of what he's capable of. Which is why I'm
looking for him, he needs to be stopped."
"Ned, you should-"
"Leave it to the Marshal's Service? They've been after him for
years. I'm closer than they've been in a long time."
"I beg to differ," a voice said behind them.
The men kept walking as Micah came up on their left.
"Micah, what are you doing here?" Lucas asked in confusion.
"My job, same as Ned."
"...Why are you here?" Ned asked Lucas, realizing his uncle was
a long ways from home. "...and who are you here with?" Ned
questioned with increasing concern.
"No one got a hold of you, did they?" Lucas asked as they turned
"No, they didn't," Ned replied.
"Milly's taken ill. She collapsed at Lou's several weeks ago,
hasn't woken since. It's a parasite."
"I'm sorry Lucas-boy," Micah offered.
"Is she going to be alright?" Ned asked.
"We're hoping. They started treatment a few weeks ago, but no
change yet." Lucas paused before continuing. "Back to you, Ned…"
"I can take care of myself, Uncle." Ned interrupted.
"I know. And I'd offer to give you a hand, but…"
"You need to be here with Aunt Milly, I know," Ned replied.
"Micah, I could use your help though…"
"As much as I hate to admit it, I need your help too. I need
someone to get on the inside."
"I'm one step ahead of you. I've been in contact with Sackett's
men for a while now… one of 'em invited me out to their place
tomorrow night. They need another man for the next job. I'll see
what the layout is like and meet you back here the morning
"Sounds good to me," Micah replied.
"And if you don't show up?" Lucas asked.
"I'll follow you and Sackett's man out there to make sure I know
where you are," Micah began.
"Micah, are you calling in any reinforcements?" Lucas inquired.
"I want to, but I think I've raised too much interest. I'm
afraid even if I send a coded message, Sackett's men might
figure out what we're up to."
"Ned, what's the name of the marshal that found you and Mark
when you got into that mess a few years back?" Lucas asked.
"I'll see what I can do to get back up."
"Mark, what are you doing here?" Cassie asked as she stepped
outside her home.
"You didn't think I'd forget your birthday, did you?" Mark
replied as he handed her a bouquet of roses.
"But the ranch-"
"Will be fine for a couple hours. Grab your bonnet and let's
Mark just gave her a mischievous grin. Cassie gave him a
questioning look at first, but then an excited smile crossed her
face and she disappeared into the house.
The two rode for a good hour before stopping at a lake and
setting out the lunch Mark had brought along.
"You know, this isn't entirely fair," Cassie commented.
"You've done something special for two of the birthdays I've had
since we met… and somehow I haven't managed to do anything for
the three of yours."
"I don't expect anything, Cass."
"I still feel bad."
"Don't. In your defense, we had only known each other for a few
months the first year, and you were out of town. I was
unconscious the second and missing the third."
"I hope you can have an enjoyable birthday this year."
"On the bright side, I've avoided Lou throwing me a party like
she's threatened the last few years."
"And what's so bad about that?"
"I don't know. I hate people making a fuss."
"They'd do it because you mean a lot to them."
"Anyway, seeing as how it's your birthday, I wanted to get away
for a few hours. The last few weeks haven't allowed for too much
free time for either of us. How have things been going with
Anna? You mentioned that she finally started opening up a few
"Really good. I knew she struggled with everything that
happened… I just didn't realize how much. I guess I was too
preoccupied with my own fears to pay enough attention. I really
wish Ned was here… he would've noticed."
"Well I'm glad she's opening up."
"Me too. I know she's told you before, but you are really like a
brother to her… she cares a lot
"And I her. And the rest of your family. But Anna is going to be
one amazing woman. There's someone special in store for her."
"There's something special in store for all of us." Cassie
quieted for a moment before speaking up again. "Mark, do you
ever think about where you'd be if life had turned out
"... I think about how much I would've missed out on… so I guess
I think about it, in a way. There are so many situations I've
been in though, that if just one thing had played out
differently, my life would be completely different. I know that
this life… was hand crafted for me."
"...What situations do you think about?"
"What life would have been like if my first Ma hadn't died. I'd
probably still be in Oklahoma with her and Pa. I miss her and
obviously would never have wished her death… but without it I
wouldn't have you or Ma. There were so many ordeals I went
through when I was younger, if one or two things had changed
either my Pa and I would both be dead… or I'd be dead… or Micah
would've raised me because my Pa was dead."
"What do you mean, “so many”?" Cassie inquired in confusion.
"I guess we've never talked about this, have we?"
"Talked about what?"
"You know my Pa has a reputation with his rifle… and it comes
with a territory. He also had a very long past that involved
having to do a lot of killing in self defense or to deliver
justice… obviously nothing outside of the law. A lot of people
didn't like that about my Pa though and tried to take revenge or
prove that they're better than my Pa. When I was younger, they
would try to use me to get at Pa."
"What do you mean, “use you”?"
"I was kidnapped a couple times… people tried to kill me a
couple times. Anyway, my point was that if things hadn't turned
out the way they had when something like that happened… you and
I wouldn't be sitting here."
"...You still feel guilty about it, don't you?"
"Guilty about what?"
"What happened when you were younger. Getting kidnapped and that
sort of thing."
Mark looked at Cassie with confusion on his face… how did she
"...Yeah, I do. A lot of times I was too curious for my own
good, or I didn't listen to Pa when he gave an order I didn't
agree with. I'd get into trouble and he'd have to risk his neck
to get me out of it."
"But there's another aspect…" Cassie began. "You feel guilty
because you know you're the achilles heel."
"...How'd you know?" Mark asked in bewilderment.
"Because I was my Pa's. ...I mean, all of us kids were, but for
some reason I was the one that got picked on the most. Probably
because I liked wandering off, and like you, was too curious for
my own good. John made a lot of mistakes… and deep down he was a
coward… and I'm not defending him. But while trying to cover up
the bad, he did do a lot of good. And criminals don't like
marshals who mess up their big plans. I will say that I had
something special with my father… I was my “daddy's girl” as the
girls out east would say. Maybe because I was interested in a
lot of the things he was… when I was little I had it in my head
that I was going to be a marshal, just like my Pa. Anyway… when
I cared about him, I saw him almost die for me. So I kinda know
where you're coming from. That's how I could tell you carry
guilt… because I used to."
"You don't any more?"
"Well, I will say it's not that hard to not feel guilty anymore…
I don't really care anymore. Not after what he did to us. But
before, I was able to get over it when I was tempted to feel
guilty because I realized that even though there were maybe one
or two things I could've done to keep us from a couple
incidents, in the end the outlaws would've found a way. God let
it happen the way it did for a reason. And had one or two things
been different… he would've died before DeFord was brought to
justice. Had John not been part of the situation, we probably
would've never found DeFord. And had your ordeals turned out
differently… maybe Micah would've raised you. If one thing in
either one of our lives was different, like you said, we
wouldn't be here. I guess we just gotta have faith that God
knows what he's doing."
"That's for sure." Mark let out a gentle laugh. "I didn't mean
to make your birthday depressing."
"You didn't… it's actually good to talk about it to someone who
understands. Not too many kids got to brag on being kidnapped
"You milked it too?"
"I was the talk of the school yard!" Cassie laughed. "Catching
up on homework was never fun, though."
"Don't I know it!"
Cassie and Mark enjoyed their lunch before taking a leisurely
walk around the lake.
It felt good to get away from everything for at least a little
while… it felt good to be able to talk one on one… it felt good
for them to simply be together.
"I can't wait until we're married and can take walks like this
all the time…" Cassie sighed.
"That makes two of us. And you know, when I get back from the
cattle drive, we'll have to take plenty of rides out on the
property. You know parts of it alright, but I want you to be
comfortable out there. It's a lot of land."
"That's probably a good idea. I don't think I've been more than
fifty acres from the house." Cassie paused and Mark noticed her
demeanor became hesitant.
"What is it?"
"...Growing up I learned a lot of things. I already told you
about tracking… you know I can do a little construction… Ned
used to let me go trapping with him."
"...But I never learned to shoot. Sometime… could you teach me?"
"Of course. Cassie, I don't want you to ever be afraid to ask me
anything. If you want to learn to shoot, I'll happily teach you
to shoot. Even if you didn't want to learn… I was honestly
planning on making you anyway, since you won't be living in town
"Making me?" Cassie asked in a jokingly defiant tone.
"That's not what I meant… I meant I was going to have you learn…
you know what I mean…"
"You really think you could make me do anything?" Cassie
laughed. "I'll have you know-"
But before she could go on, Mark picked her up and started
walking towards the lake.
"Mark McCain, you put me down!"
"What was that you said? I couldn't quite hear you…"
Mark started to put a struggling Cassie down, but she turned at
the wrong moment and set them both off balance, landing them in
The young couple laughed with each other before Mark helped
Cassie out of the water. Cassie wrapped her arms around Mark as
they looked into each other's eyes.
"You would never have to make me do anything. I love you, Mark,
and I trust you."
"We're a team. I want us to make decisions together."
"...Then what do you think about pink curtains for the house?"
"So you're the Daniel Clark I keep hearing so much about…" Dan
Sackett stated with a sly grin… one that made Ned feel quite
"Not all good things, I hope."
"I'm actually having a difficult time finding any information on
you. Which on one hand makes me more suspicious…"
"Every man has his secrets."
"And I have a feeling your name is one of them."
"Maybe, maybe not. But it doesn't really matter, does it?"
"Wyatt told me you need an extra man. I need some extra money to
get out of the rat hole I live in. What'd you say we cut a deal
and both get what we need?"
The man thought for several seconds before replying.
"You're too eager, too young. I don't like it. Wyatt, take him
out back and deal with him. He knows where we're at, and you
know how I hate loose ends."
Ned's whole body tensed as two men came up behind him and
grabbed hold of his biceps.
"Now hold on," Ned began. "Let's talk about this…"
"Take him out, Wyatt. You should know better than to waste my
time on guys like this."
Ned struggled as he was drug outside the building, but his
efforts were useless. One of the men sent a punch to Ned's
abdomen, sending him sprawling to the ground.
Ned heard the gun being cocked and closed his eyes in
anticipation for the bullet. He heard the gun discharge and felt
the bullet graze his head. Ned heard several more shots go off,
but the shooters weren’t close by.
For a few short moments, all was quiet and Ned tried to get up,
but the pain from his wound forced him back to the ground… and
not a moment too soon. Suddenly there was gunfire from all
around and Ned pressed himself as close to the ground as he
could, but it didn't shield him from a bullet ricochet. Ned only
felt pain for a few seconds before his body went limp.
"He's down, Micah!" Lucas hollered as he watched his nephew pass
"I see him!"
"Careful with your shots!" Anker ordered.
The small group of marshals had the building surrounded, but
didn't make much progress on getting the outlaws to give up.
Micah suddenly saw Sackett climbing out of a window and making a
run for it.
"We want him alive!" Anker ordered as Micah and another marshal
chased after him.
Micah knew Sackett could easily out run him, but the other
marshal was much younger and fit than either of the other two
men and soon had overtaken Sackett; tackling him to the ground.
Micah continued to run towards the men, seeing the younger
marshal struggling to get the upper hand on Sackett.
Sackett was on top of the other marshal and just about to send a
blow to the younger man's face when Micah used the butt of his
shotgun to knock the man out cold.
Micah pushed Sackett off the younger marshal and helped him up.
"Didn't they teach you any better at the academy, Adams?"
"Well, they tried, sir." The younger marshal replied.
"Good to see you again, boy! It's been quite some time. Good
thing you all showed up when you did!"
"Yes sir, it was. That McCain fella said he had a bad feeling
about the way things were going and that we should follow after
you. Most of us honestly brushed it off, but Anker said to
listen to him. Good thing he came with us though. He was the
only one who could pick up your trail in such little light."
Hearing no more shooting, the two men figured it was safe to
take Sackett back over to where the other men were. Micah walked
over to Lucas, who was tending to Ned.
"How is he?" Micah asked.
"Out cold, but alive. Two deep scratches, but nothing to be too
"I've tried telling him!" Marshal Anker began. "Over and over, I
tell him to leave the detective work to us, but does he listen?
No. Him and his big lawyer ideas."
"With all due respect, sir…" Micah carefully began. "He did ask
for help… eventually, and without him we wouldn't have Sackett
in custody right now. I had no idea where he was holding up."
"He's too much like his father," Anker grumbled.
Micah and Lucas looked at each other in surprise as the marshal
"I think he's referring to the good side of John…" Micah said.
"Well I would certainly hope so," Lucas replied.
"How do you reckon we should get him into town?"
"Well we could try looking inside for supplies so we could make
a travois. Worse case we could ride to town and get a wagon."
"Or-" Micah began, but his sentence was interrupted by Marshal
Anker dumping a bucket of water on Ned's face.
Ned sputtered and coughed as he regained consciousness and took
in his surroundings.
Micah and Lucas were a bit taken aback by the Marshal's actions,
and stared at each other in shock.
As Ned slowly sat up, putting a hand to his head, Marshal Anker
squatted down to Ned's level.
"Osborne, just what do you think you're doing!?" Anker demanded.
"Good to see you too," Ned replied, followed by a series of
coughs. "You sure know how to wake a person…"
"It's never failed me once," the Marshal replied. "What are you
doing here? And why, may I ask, does it appear you've been
playing detective again?"
"...In my defense, anything I've done has been within my rights
as a lawyer and…" Ned stopped and used an arm to support himself
on the ground.
"We need to get you to a hospital, but when you're cleared by
the doctor, I expect a full explanation!" With that, the Marshal
walked away and began ordering his men to get the criminals into
"What was all that about?" Lucas asked in confusion.
"I'll explain when we get into town… we probably don't want to
"You sure you can ride?" Micah asked.
"...As long as you two ride next to me in case I lose balance,
and..." As much as it bruised Ned's pride to say it, he knew he
was going to need help. "And if someone could help me onto my
"No problem," Lucas replied.
The men all mounted up and headed back towards town; the three
from North Fork in front of the group. Lucas took Ned to the
hospital while the marshals took care of Sackett and his men. It
took a while, but finally the six of them were settled in the
jail for the time being. Afterwards, four of the Marshals went
to the saloon, and Micah was going to as well… until he noticed
Anker walking off by himself.
Micah caught up with Anker and was quiet for a minute… not sure
how to approach the situation.
"You're officially off duty for now," Anker said. "You can speak
"I've known you for a long time… but I don't think I've ever
seen you that hard on a deputy in training, let alone someone
who's not in the service."
"I know. From the time I met Ned and Mark both… they've been
something special to me. They are a rare kind of man for their
"But you didn't chew Mark out when he went looking for Lucas and
Anker sighed before stopping and turning to Micah.
"I should've kept a better eye on Osborne. He was directly under
me and I didn't ever see this coming. I trusted him too much…
and now people like Ned have to pay. I care about that boy and
his family a lot. As Osborne's superior, I failed. He should've
been able to come talk to me when this whole mess started. Now
all three are practically without a father… and I feel
responsible for them in a way. Ned didn't deserve what I gave
him, but I've told him to either be a lawyer or join the
Marshal's Service. He's going to get himself killed trying to do
things alone. He almost did when I found him undercover last
time, and almost was killed tonight."
"Well, at least he's learning. He did ask for help this time.
Where'd you find him undercover last time?"
"About a year ago, in Missouri. That boy has talent… and
although I'm sure he's good in the courtroom… he's better on the
"You wanna go see how he's doing?"
The two marshals made their way to the hospital and found the
doctor just finishing up with Ned when they came in.
"I want you here overnight, but you should be fine tomorrow,"
the doctor concluded. "Have a good evening, gentlemen."
The four watched the doctor leave the room, no one wanting to
break the silence.
"Sorry about the rude awakening..." Anker finally told Ned.
"I probably deserved it. I could've clue you in weeks ago. I'll
give you my statement tomorrow."
"Ned, there's one thing I can't figure out about you…" Anker
"What?" Ned asked.
"You've gone to law school for so long, and studied under your
professor for a while now, in his own firm. Yet, I always find
you out doing the marshal's work or police work, as the case may
be. Why'd you become lawyer?"
"To help people…?"
"And you truly believe that's the best way that you can help
"... I don't know."
"From everything I've seen, you were meant to be on the field,
not behind a desk."
"You know, Ned," Lucas began. "Often times we think we make
decisions on our own, when others are really the driving force
behind our choice."
"I know you're right… being a lawyer was something I was never
too fond of."
"Then why'd you become one?" Micah asked.
"Because it's what my father wanted."
"And what do you want?" Anker inquired.
There was a long pause before Ned replied.
"... I want to go beyond what my father did and show that I'm
not who he was. I want to prove that the Osborne name isn't
something to be ashamed of. Deep down, I've always wanted to be
"You'd make a good one, Ned," Anker replied. "I think you and I
have a lot of talking to do tomorrow, if you're up for it."
"I shouldn't really be spending the night here, I'm fine," Ned
Lucas couldn't help but let out a laugh.
"What?" Ned asked.
"You and Mark are so alike in-"
Lucas's sentence was interrupted by a knock at the door,
followed by a nurse coming into the
"Sorry to interrupt, but I was told Lucas McCain was in here?"
"That's me," Lucas replied in concern as he stood.
"You're needed back in the east wing."
"Is everything alright?" Lucas's heart started pounding as he
started kicking himself for ever leaving Milly. What if-
"Your wife is asking for you."
If the nurse said anything else, Lucas didn't hear it. The
rancher half-ran to his wife's room, blocking out everything
else in the world. Dozens of emotions were threatening to make
themselves evident through tears, but when Lucas walked through
the door and saw a gentle, loving smile cross his wife's face;
he didn't care.
The doctor and nurse quickly took their leave to give the
husband and wife some privacy.
Tears streamed down Lucas's face as he rushed to Milly's side
and gave her a long, passionate kiss.
"...Now, whatever did I do to deserve a thing like that?" Milly
weakly asked as she looked into Lucas's eyes.
"You, are one stubborn woman," Lucas half cried, half laughed as
he put his wife's hand to his cheek.
"What did you expect? I am a McCain, after all."
Mark's last stop in town was the hardware store to finally pick
up the lumber for the house. He found this trip into town
somewhat depressing. He had hoped that after this long his Ma
would be better and their lives would go back to normal. That he
could be picking up the lumber with his Pa and that they would
be starting the house together. But it looked like he was going
to have to start on the house by himself… or maybe not at all...
'Oh great, what now?' Mark asked himself as he looked at the
spot where his lumber was supposed to be. The problem was, it
wasn't there. Mark looked around, but didn't see it anywhere.
Mark headed inside to talk to the store keeper, and obviously
must have had a less than pleasant look on his face.
"Something wrong, Mark?"
"Please tell me you moved my lumber somewhere."
"Sorry, if it's not out back, it must not have come in on the
"This summer is going just dandy," Mark mumbled as he walked
"Don't let it get you down, Mark. For everything there is a
"...And a time to every purpose," Mark finished for him. "Slow
today? There doesn't seem to be that many people out."
"A little slow, not too bad. It'll pick up later this morning."
"Well, I guess I'll be in tomorrow to check for the lumber. See
Mark mounted BlueBoy and headed for home. On the bright side, he
could finish riding the fence line out on the northern pasture
since he wouldn't be working on the house.
Mark was getting worried, though. How was he supposed to get the
house done by himself before the wedding… if there even was
going to be one? They hadn't received word from Lucas in a week
and things just kept looking darker and darker no matter which
direction Mark faced.
Mark continued down the road, wallowing in his thoughts… almost
afraid to think about what tomorrow would bring. Mark had never
really believed in luck before… but he certainly was starting to
think he had dropped a mirror or something recently.
Mark was about five minutes from the house when BlueBoy started
Mark could feel his horse walking uneasily and dismounted to
"That would do it..." Mark sighed as he found a crack in
Mark grabbed the reins and started walking the rest of the way
On days like these, it was hard not to give up. Everything that
could've gone wrong that day had gone wrong that day… and it
didn't look like things-
Mark stopped in his tracks as his home came into view. It looked
like half the town was in his front yard.
Mark walked up to Johnny and a few of the men with confusion
written all over his face.
"What in the world is going on?" Mark asked.
"Well, it goes like this," Mr. Miller began. "Nine years ago a
cattle rancher and his son moved to a small town named North
Fork. Little did anyone know what a big impact they would have
on her citizens… and future well being. They would never shy
away from helping someone out and always opened their home to
anyone who needed it."
"But shortly before the son was going to get married," Oat
Jackford took over, "Tragedy struck and things didn't turn out
how anyone had planned. So as a thanks to the two that changed
their town, the friends and neighbors of these fine gentlemen
stole their lumber so they could have a part in building the
home of the future Mr. and Mrs. Mark McCain. And none of them
stopped working until it was done. And none of them took no for
Mark just stood there, a bit dumbfounded.
"Well don't just stand there!" Johnny said. "We've been waiting
on you all morning. Let's go!"
Mark and Johnny looked over the plans and divided everyone into
different groups to start on different parts of the house. The
plans weren't too terribly complicated, and they figured with
all the man power they had it would take about three full days.
Everyone worked hard all day, but laughter was definitely not
absent. Banter and jokes hung in the air all day, keeping the
mood light and cheerful.
Mark was surprised to see that even the Hamptons had made it,
and spent a good majority of his time catching up with Jake as
they worked. They had been apart more than ten years, but it
felt like they had never separated. Their friendship was one
that would last a lifetime.
It was about five when Mark called for everyone's attention. The
sawing and hammering came to a stop as everyone looked his way.
"I can't express how thankful I am for each and every one of
you. On behalf of my parents, Cassie, and myself, I would like
to say thank you all for your hard work. The ladies have made a
wonderful supper down the hill and I want you all to enjoy it.
You can stay as long as you like, but no one's coming back up
here for the night."
"We'll be back first thing tomorrow morning, Mark," Oat informed
"Thanks, this means a lot."
The men simply all nodded their heads before making their way
down the hill to join the women and children. Mark bounced
around all evening, being sure to extend a personal thanks to
By eight O'clock, Mark was saying goodbye to the last few people
and then went on to do the evening chores.
As Mark thought over the course of the day, he was overwhelmed
by the support his friends and neighbors were giving him… the
love they were showing to his family by what they were doing.
Mark closed the barn up and walked to the porch where he sat,
looking into the sky.
His thoughts fell again on his parents. He wondered if Milly was
going to make it, if his Pa would be able to if she didn't. Most
of all, Mark sat there wishing his family could be together
"I miss you…" Mark eventually whispered to his parents. "I sure
wish you two were here to see this."
The next two days held long, hard work, but it was all worth it.
"Mark, you want to do the honors?" Johnny asked as he held the
Mark motioned for Cassie to come over to him and she complied.
Mark held the nail in place as they both took hold of the hammer
and drove it into place.
The crowd around the house let out a long cheer as they saw
their three days of work come to a conclusion.
Mark again thanked everyone and helped everyone sort out their
tools before they headed home.
The Osbornes and Gibbs were the last families at the ranch and
were getting ready to leave when Lou invited everyone to the
hotel for some dessert.
"You don't have to ask me twice!" Mark replied as he headed to
the barn to saddle BlueBoy. "I'll meet you all there."
The Gibbs, Catherine and Anna started back, but Cassie stuck
around so she could ride back with Mark.
A little ways outside of town, Cassie looked over to see a grin
spread across Mark's face.
"What is it?" She asked.
"I remember when I was little and would ride in the saddle with
my Pa. He'd put his hat on my head and give me the reigns for a
while… I can't wait until I can do that with our children."
"I've often imagined them running around, barefooted at the
ranch… jumping off the hayloft into the haystack… running around
the school yard…"
"Follow me real quick," Mark said as he turned BlueBoy away from
the center of town.
"Where are we going?"
"I want to show you something."
Cassie followed Mark to the school yard where he dismounted
before helping Cassie down.
Mark led her to a tree and looked up it before turning to Cassie
"Feel like climbing a tree in a dress one last time?"
"Well, it's not very ladylike…"
Mark was a bit shocked at her response… until she continued.
"But it won't be my last time, that's for sure!"
Mark helped Cassie up the tree. They didn't go too far, just a
"You know," Mark began. "We made a lot of good memories here. I
remember when I would come by everyday on your lunch or right
before school. I often wondered if the day would ever come when
we'd get married. Life seems to have gone by so slowly the last
two years… and we've had struggles. But that's just it. We've
had such a wonderful two years together, too; I can't imagine
what the next five… ten… twenty years will be like." Mark took
Cassie's hand before continuing. "Now I don't think we'll be
able to climb up into a tree, but forty years from
now, I want to be able to take your hand… look past the bad…
focus on the good… and be able to say, “we made it.” Because I
know together, we can make it."
A few days later, Mark rode into town to see Cassie running
towards Doc's. He got to the end of the street as quickly as
possible and ran inside to see Cassie and Anna hugging, tears
falling from Anna's eyes.
"What is it?" Mark asked, dozens of scenarios racing through his
Cassie and Anna let go of each other and looked towards Mark.
"Aunt Milly," Cassie began with a smile. "You Pa wired and said
she woke up! The treatment is working… it may be a while until
they're home, but…"
"She's awake?" Mark hopefully asked.
Cassie and Anna nodded with glee, relief flooding all of their
"Did you tell Lou and Johnny yet?" Mark asked Cassie.
"No, I just came from the telegraph office."
"Why don't you tell your Ma and I'll talk to Lou? I'm sure Micah
wants to know, too."
It wasn't long until the three had spread the word to friends
and family in town. Everyone was elated to hear the news and
even though things were difficult, especially for Mark, knowing
Milly was getting better brought some much-needed comfort.
The end of July came, and it was time for Mark to take the
cattle to market. Mark was apprehensive… he had never been on a
cattle drive without his Pa; let alone in charge of one. Yet
Mark kept reminding himself that he was going to handle this
like the man his Pa rightly expected him to be, and that he
wasn't going to let Lucas down.
It was also easier for Mark to leave when Micah got back into
town. Johnny had already left with the Jackford cattle drive,
and Mark was hesitant to leave Nils by himself. But with Micah
in town, Mark knew all would be well.
The long days kept Mark's mind off of things, but at night he
found it difficult to sleep, even though he was exhausted. He
wished he could be back in North Fork with Cassie or in Vendix
with his parents… but the reality was that he had to do this or
they wouldn't have income for the year. Mark loved cattle
ranching, but it was times like these when he wished their
While waiting for sleep to come, Mark found himself doing a lot
of praying. He prayed for a quick recovery for his Ma and
strength for his Pa. As Mark thought about the near future, he
prayed that he would have what it takes to be a good husband to
Cassie and leader of his home.
There had been so many things Mark had wanted to talk through
with his Pa that summer… so many questions he had wanted to ask.
Mark didn't waver in his desire to marry Cassie, but as the time
got closer he began to doubt his ability to fulfill his duties
as a husband… bringing on even more prayer. So many worries
entered Mark's mind over the weeks of the cattle drive, yet he
was reminded to trust God… have faith… and keep living forward.
Finally, all the cattle had been sold so Mark could pay the
hands and head home. Even though Mark had always enjoyed quiet
times when he could work on the chores or ride into town alone;
he had experienced a little too much quiet time over the last
two and a half months. He wasn't looking forward to coming home
to an empty house again and had half a mind to continue on to
Vendix, but Merar had already been generous enough in sparring
Pete to watch over the McCain ranch while Mark was gone. Besides
that, Mark knew Cassie would not be happy if he went to Vendix
After several days of being in the saddle, the silhouette of the
homestead came into view. As much as Mark and BlueBoy were both
familiar with the property, Mark wished there was more moonlight
so he could see better. Nevertheless, Mark was finally in the
barn and unsaddling BlueBoy.
"Need some help?" Mark heard from behind him.
Mark froze in his spot before eventually turning.
"...Pa? What are you doing here? Where's Ma?"
Lucas put a reassuring hand on his son's shoulder… knowing they
both needed it.
"She's in the house; the doctor discharged her about a week
Mark started to move towards the door, but Lucas restrained him.
"I know you're anxious, but there's something we need to talk
Mark looked into Lucas's eyes and tried to find answers there.
The tone and demeanor Lucas had worried Mark. It was the kind he
had when he was trying to not sugar coat things for Mark and lay
them out straight... without losing it emotionally himself.
Lucas gestured to a few hay bales and the two of them sat. Mark
waited for Lucas to collect his thoughts and start talking, but
"Pa, please?" Mark simply asked.
Mark needed answers, he needed hope, he needed… something;
Lucas sighed before starting.
"...Like I said, your Ma was discharged. But there was a lot of
damage done. ...Mark, I had to bring her home in a wheelchair."
"You mean… she can't walk?"
Lucas simply nodded in response.
"Is it permanent?"
"We don't know. Only time will tell, but your Ma is a fighter;
she won't give up hope."
Mark thought for a few moments before replying.
"What about the springs we went to when I was paralyzed a few
"Your nerves were simply pinched, the water helped relax the
muscles and nerves. Her nerves were damaged by the parasite and
no amount of water could help that." Lucas could see the
struggle his son was having and again put a hand on his
shoulder. "Son, I know this is difficult, but she's alive and
not letting this obstacle get her down. The four of us are going
to get through this-"
"Did you forget you're getting married in two weeks, Son?"
"Cassie and I weren't sure with Ma's health-"
"Mark Warren, you're not going to postpone anything on my
Mark looked up to see his Ma in the doorway, sitting in the
Mark didn't hesitate for one moment; he ran to her and gave
Milly a long hug, tears forming in his eyes.
Slowly Mark let go and knelt down beside her, looking into her
loving, tear filled eyes.
"Now why'd you have to start crying?" Milly teased. "You're
going to make me cry!"
"You have no idea how wonderful it is to see your open eyes…
tear filled or not…"
"And these eyes are going to watch you put a ring on Cassie's
finger two weeks from now, you hear me? I don't want to hear any
more of this nonsense about you two postponing your wedding. Too
much of the summer has been flipped upside-down because of me
already; your wedding goes on as planned!"
Mark nodded with a wide grin on his face. He didn't know if he'd
ever enjoyed hearing Milly boss him this much.
Milly reached out and put a hand to her son's face as Lucas
stood on her other side. She looked between the two men before
"You don't know how wonderful it is to have the two of you here
with me. Mark, we missed you so much…"
"I can't tell you how much I missed hearing your voices around
the house…" Mark replied. "The place felt so empty."
"Well why don't we go fill it up?" Lucas suggested. "Mark, push
your Ma inside and I'll finish up in here."
"Yes. You'll see the ramp off the front porch. Just be careful
about the lip." Lucas gave Mark a pat on the back and started
towards the hay loft.
Mark started pushing Milly towards the house and they were soon
in the kitchen. Mark started some tea for his Ma and Milly
watched her son work about the kitchen. Finally, Milly reached
out and caught Mark's arm and made him sit across from her.
"I know this isn't easy… nor what you expected; we tried wiring…
but you were already gone. But your father was right. The four
of us will make it through this. I can't tell you how proud your
Pa and I both are of you. Keep the faith, Mark."
"I will, Ma," Mark replied.
Then, he did something he had waited ten long weeks to do. Mark
gave his mother a gentle kiss on the cheek.
"I can't do this… what if I can't be a wife?" Cassie fretted as
she paced back and forth.
"You'll make a wonderful wife," Milly assured.
"Just remember that Mark's marrying you because he wants to
spend the rest of his life with you, not so you can do things
for him," Catherine told her daughter.
"What if I do something that makes him… not want to spend the
rest of his life with me?"
"Cassie, I hardly think that's physically possible," Emma
Donalds responded. "Mark loves you more than life itself, and
you love him the same way. Just relax, breathe, and in a few
hours this will all be over."
"You better enjoy it while you can," Anna interjected. "You only
have one wedding day."
"I hope it's all over soon… I think I'm going to be sick…"
Cassie replied as she sat down and laid her head on the table.
Catherine walked over to her daughter and began rubbing her
"It's alright, every bride feels that way. I almost didn't make
it down the aisle my wedding day," Catherine chuckled.
"Maybe we're too young… maybe-"
"Cassie," Milly interrupted. "If your Ma and Lucas thought you
were too young, you wouldn't have their blessings and wouldn't
be getting married. You're just nervous and will wake up just
fine tomorrow morning."
There was a knock at the door answered by Emma, and everyone was
shocked to see Ned walk through the door.
"You really have something against wiring, don't you?" Anna
asked as the Osborne and McCain women hugged Ned in turn.
"I thought you went back to California?" Milly asked.
"I did. I finished wrapping things up with my employer… he
understood when I told him of my plans. Besides, I couldn't miss
"Plans?" Cassie inquired.
"We can talk about that later. Right now, you have more
important things to focus on," Ned replied as he handed Cassie a
piece of paper.
Cassie took the note from her brother and everyone watched a
sweet smile cross her face as she read it.
"What is it?" Catherine asked.
"A note from Mark…" Cassie replied as her eyes glazed over.
"He's so thoughtful."
"Thoughtful?" Ned began to tease. "First time I see him in
months and the second sentence out of his mouth is a request to
run an errand. I don't see why he couldn't have delivered it
Cassie gave her brother a playful slap as everyone chuckled.
"...Thanks for coming Ned, it means a lot."
"Like I said, I wouldn't miss it, or sending Anna off to school
for that matter."
The small group continued to make small talk, attempting to keep
Cassie's mind off of her worries.
Meanwhile, at the Marshal's office, Mark was adjusting his tie…
and doing a fairly decent job with it.
"Mark, I'm surprised you can tie that thing!" Micah laughed.
"Then again, you don't seem nervous at all."
"He had plenty of practice on Lucas last July," Johnny teased.
"You're sure one to talk," Micah shot back. "If I remember
right, Lucas had to help you with yours."
"Yeah, but that was my first time going down the aisle."
Mark listened as the two men quipped back and forth, but noticed
his Pa was strangely quiet. It wasn't like him to miss an
opportunity to tease either one of them, and he had hardly said
anything all morning.
Mark continued to look in the window as he fiddled with his tie,
but instead of watching his hands, Mark's gaze fell on his Pa's
reflection. Lucas almost seemed… sad, and it worried Mark.
"Hey, Micah?" Mark began. "Would you mind running over to the
church and asking Reverend Graft for another schedule of
"Lose yours?" Johnny asked.
"I can't keep track of everything," Mark defended. "...Johnny,
would you mind making sure your wife doesn't need any more help?
I kinda forgot to check in before coming here."
"She assured me she was fine when I left."
"Why don't you check again?" Micah more ordered than asked.
"Thanks," Mark replied as he watched the two men leave.
Mark stood there in silence for a few moments, still watching
his Pa. Finally, Mark crossed the room and took a seat beside
Lucas… unsure of what to say. Mark wasn't really sure that there
was much he could say.
Lucas suddenly felt his son's hand on his shoulder, bringing him
back to the present.
"...Your mother would be so proud of you, Son," Lucas finally
said. "I'm so proud of you. Your Ma is so proud of you."
"What's wrong, Pa?"
Lucas let out a long sigh as he looked his son over.
"You're getting married today, Mark. You don't need me anymore,
and I guess I'm having a difficult time coming to terms with
that. Today you're starting a life separate from me. You're
becoming the man of your own house. You're becoming the
supporter of your wife. I don't know why I feel this way,
because this was the goal- to raise you to stand on your on two
"Pa, I may not need you to teach me how to ride or shoot, to
look after me when I'm hurt or anything like that. But I still
need ya. I've never been a husband before. I've never had my own
household before. And I will always, always need a partner to
watch my back. But even more importantly than that, I need a Pa…
to just be my Pa. We've both done a lot of changing the last few
years… but one thing has remained the same; our bond. And it
will be there whether I'm married or not. Our lives have had
several different dynamics to it, and Cassie is a new one, just
like Ma was. The circumstances of our lives are going to change
today, but we'll still be living our lives together, because our
bond ties our lives together. And I still need you… maybe more
than I ever have before."
"Nervous? I feel like my heart is beating so fast it's going to
pop out of my chest! Pa, how did you do this twice?!"
Mark and Cassie stared into each other's eyes… completely
oblivious to whatever the preacher was saying. Somehow, they
managed to repeat their vows without fumbling over their words;
although both could hardly think straight.
When it came time for the rings, several in the audience found
it peculiar that there was a double ring ceremony, but it was a
tradition in the McCain family, and Mark intended to continue
it. He was proud to be married to such a woman, and wasn't
afraid to show it.
Finally, Reverend Graft told Mark to kiss his bride before
announcing, "Mr. and Mrs. Mark McCain!"
A loud cheer rose from the audience as Mark and Cassie hurried
their way back down the aisle. Once out of the church, Mark
pulled Cassie aside and down an alley.
Cassie smiled as she pressed herself against a building, Mark's
hands on either side of her.
"We made it this far, Mrs. McCain."
"I will never get tired of hearing those words…"
Mark pulled Cassie close and gave his wife a long, passionate
"Hey, you two have guests waiting!" Ned hollered with a wide
Cassie simply waved him on, unfazed by the interruption.
This is a story based on the TV
series The Rifleman
Here are some other great stories. Enjoy!
around The McCain Ranch