The Rifleman
Welcome to The Writer's Corner
Fan Fiction

Partners
Chapter11
Written by Morgan

Partners


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 aunt's.

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 his face.

"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 reigns.

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 hollered.

Mark simply shrugged in response. He didn't really mind walking through town… it gave him more time to think before arriving home.

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 from Micah.

"And now?"

"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 replying.

"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 together."

"...So, when do you think we can get started on the cabin?" Mark asked.

"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 stare.

1MC1

"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."

"Sorry."

"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 on this?"

"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 room.

"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 dining room.

"And what's wrong with a little flare?" Audra inquired.

"Nothing… nothing at all," Jarrod replied with a charismatic smile.

"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 responded.

"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 again."

"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 true.

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 talk about?"

"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 meaning."

"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."

"Thanks, Jarrod."

"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 stated.

"Ask away."

"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.

"Sorry, I-"

"It's alright…" Jarrod sighed before continuing. "It's been a long time since anyone's talked about him..."

2MC2

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 woods.

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 lose.

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 of it.

...Which got an idea started in the rancher's head.

Lucas walked back to the house and found Milly just finishing up breakfast.

"Morning," Lucas greeted as he planted a kiss on his wife's cheek.

"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."

"Everything alright?"

"I just needed some fresh air."

Lucas sat down with his wife before saying grace and eating breakfast.

"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 more.

"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 well."

"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 that unusual?"

"I…" Milly paused and shook her head. "I guess it has been a while."

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.

"What?"

"Lucas, you have about five white shirts."

"The good one."

"How did you manage to get a hole in your Sunday shirt?"

"My brother-in-law."

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 doing alright?"

"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."

"Oh?"

"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.

"Thanks, Tom."

"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 would."

"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 replied sarcastically.

"How was your time with Cassie?"

"Good," Mark replied with a smile as he looked the direction of town.

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 him backwards.

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.

"Thanks, Pa."

"I've got your back, partner," Lucas said as he put a hand on Mark's shoulder.

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 barn.

"Pa, all the horses are in the barn!" Mark yelled, worry in his voice.

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 that disaster.

"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 replying.

"...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 himself.

"...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 expected time."

"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 the morning."

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.

3MC3

Doc Burrage sat in his office across from Mrs. Wilson, who was nervously playing with her
hands.

"Well, Doc?"

"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."

"Why not?"

"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. Wilson's face.

"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 and when."

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 news.

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 office…

"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
matter.

"It's Milly."

"What happened?"

"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 her."

"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.

"Alright."

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."

Anna nodded.

"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 you."

"Doc, what am I going to do when I'm at school?"

"...Learn?"

"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?"

"Yes sir!"

After an enjoyable lunch, Doc gave Anna the rest of the afternoon off. He walked her home before returning to the clinic.

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 avoiding it.

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.

4MC4

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 kitchen.

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 if'n-"

"Don't mention it Ms. Lou. I could tell you were under a lot of stress."

"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 upstairs.

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 differently.

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 away?"

Lou slowly nodded.

"Someone must have gotten it, I saw it there when I brought their dessert."

"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."

"But Johnny-"

"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 bed!"

"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 finally roused.

"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 again."

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 demanded.

"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 jail cell."

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 Johnny's neck.

"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?"

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 him."

5MC5

Micah unlocked the cell door and opened it up to let the man out.

"Alright, get going," Micah ordered.

"What about my gun?" The man asked as they walked towards the office door

"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 Maddy.

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 church.

"Johnny, can I talk to ya for a minute in my office?" Micah cautiously asked.

"... 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 silence.

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-"

"I do."

"... 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 brother."

Johnny was careful as he spoke his next words, not wanting to rile Micah.

"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 different."

"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."

"But if-"

"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 your town."

"... 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 permanently."

"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!"

"What about-"

"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 ranch.

Micah's thoughts were interrupted as he picked up on Lucas and Milly's conversation.

"...Promise, I'm fine," Milly finished, tension in her voice.

"Milly-"

"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 happened?!"

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 upstairs.

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 shoulder.

Lucas looked his friend in the eye. Micah could see the pain and fear racing through the rancher.

"I can't lose her, Micah."

6MC6

"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 fight, Ned."

"I stayed for the trial, like you asked. I need to do this."

"Why?"

"...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 anger.

"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 for myself."

"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 the yards.

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 his knock.

"May I help you?"

"My name is Ned Osborne, and would like to speak with Ms. Amy Strouse, please."

The woman gave Ned a confused and almost frightened look, but before Ned could say anything, she hesitantly invited him inside.

"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, Mr…?"

"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!"

7MC7

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.

"Mark, what-"

"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."

"Mark…"

"Doc, please!"

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
increased.

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 shoulder.

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 infection."

"So, why don't you just give her what you did last time?" Mark asked.

"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 things.

"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.

8MC8

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 alright?"

"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.

"Vendix?"

"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 through.

"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 there."

"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, but..."

"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 leave."

Micah watched Mark's gaze shift to the floor and saw the man's demeanor change.

"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 hand!"

"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 back."

"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.

"Mark's fine."

"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," Micah said.

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 waking inside.

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, laughing.

"Care to explain, Son?" Mr. Hampton asked with more than a hint of disapproval.

"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 asked.

"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 responsibility."

"No worries," Mark assured. "I need the help and they need the money."

"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 anyway."

"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.

"Any change?"

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 his shoulder.

"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."

"But-"

"Catherine," She said with finality.

"Yes ma'am."

"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 mother's bed.

"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 the room.

"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 son.

"Let's go for a walk."

"Ya sure?"

"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…"

"Little boy?"

"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?"

"Yes…?"

"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.

"Partners."

9MC9

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 different direction.

"Where are we going?" Cassie asked.

"For a walk if you don't mind… I think we need to talk about some things."

Cassie nodded and took hold of Mark's hand, waiting for him to go on.

"...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 wedding…"

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 walking again.

"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 judgement."

"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 boardwalk.

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 board.

"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 howdy."

"Bye, Mark," Richard said as Tony waved.

Mark waved goodbye to the boys and headed for the center of town.

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 confusion.

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."

"Why?"

"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 you."

Johnny pulled open a drawer and retrieved an envelope from inside.

"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.

"Night, Mark."

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 setting sun.

“Mark,

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.

-Micah"

10MC10

Ned sat across from Mrs. Strouse in the lavish sitting room of her home.

"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 whereabouts."

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 rather disturbing.

"March 6th

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 worried…"

" 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..."

"March 17th

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.

Yours,

Dan '

I'm scared, I want to go to the police, but I fear for Eugene's life."

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 Amy yet.

"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 things together.

"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 discovered.

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 encouraging me."

"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 justice."

"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 good."

"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."

11MC11

"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 ground.

"I thought running the ranch three years ago was hard…" Mark mused.

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 BlueBoy.

"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.

"Trouble?"

"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 skills.

However, Mark noticed that the memories almost saddened Cassie.

"What's wrong?"

"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 activist."

"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 to."

"...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 getting."

"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 office.

"No problem."

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 himself…"

"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 sense?"

"... I think so."

12MC12

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.

"Mr. McCain?"

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 side effects."

"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 chances-"

"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 grief.

The doctor stood and quietly left the room. Once outside the door, the doctor crossed the hallway and braced himself against the wall.

"Doc Clayton, are you alright?" A nurse asked as she approached him.

"It never gets easier," the doctor simply replied as he shook his head. "Nurse, I want you to start treatment for Mrs. McCain right away."

"Yes, Doctor," she replied as she started to walk away.

"And Nurse?"

"Yes sir?"

"See if you can't get her husband out of the room for a while."

"Yes, Doctor."

The nurse set to her task and was soon preparing to give Milly her medication.

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 wonderful.

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."

"Thank you."

Lucas took the telegraph from the man and read it.

“LUCAS McCAIN
VENDIX, NEW MEXICO

I've got the ranch
Take care of Ma
See you both when you get back

McCAIN, MARK
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 hospital.

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 playing at.

"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 stare.

"Ned-"

"Sorry, my name's Clark. Daniel Clark. You must have the wrong person."

"...My apologies, the hat threw me off. You look very similar to a relative of mine, but he's farther west. Enjoy your game, gentlemen."

"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 callousness.

"I wouldn't call myself religious, but I do believe in a God who loves."

"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 I've lost."

"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 door.

"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 Clark”."

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 situation."

"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 the corner.

"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 after?"

"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.

"Marshal Anker?"

"I'll see what I can do to get back up."

13MC13

"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 go."

"Where?"

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.

"What?"

"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 weeks ago."

"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
about you."

"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 differently?"

"... 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 know?

"...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 growing up."

"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?"

"...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 anymore."

"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 lake.

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?" Cassie teased.

"NO."

14MC14

"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 uneasy.

"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?"

"We'll see."

"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 out.

"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 worried over."

"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 walked away.

"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 town.

"What was all that about?" Lucas asked in confusion.

"I'll explain when we get into town… we probably don't want to delay him."

"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 horse…"

"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 your mind."

"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 ages."

"But you didn't chew Mark out when he went looking for Lucas and Milly."

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 field."

"You wanna go see how he's doing?"

"Why not?"

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 said.

"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 people?"

"... 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 a marshal."

"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 insisted.

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
room.

"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."

15MC15

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 train."

"This summer is going just dandy," Mark mumbled as he walked away.

"Don't let it get you down, Mark. For everything there is a season…"

"...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 ya later."

"Bye, Mark."

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 acting up.

Mark could feel his horse walking uneasily and dismounted to check BlueBoy.

"That would do it..." Mark sighed as he found a crack in BlueBoy's horseshoe.

Mark grabbed the reins and started walking the rest of the way back home.

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 an answer."

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 him.

"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 each family.

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 again.

"I miss you…" Mark eventually whispered to his parents. "I sure wish you two were here to see this."

16MC16

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 final nail.

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?"

"School."

"Why?"

"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 again.

"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 couple branches.

"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."

17MC17

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 brain.

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 hearts.

"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 livelihood was
more flexible.

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 without her.

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 ago."

Mark started to move towards the door, but Lucas restrained him.

"I know you're anxious, but there's something we need to talk about, first."

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 he didn't.

"Pa, please?" Mark simply asked.

Mark needed answers, he needed hope, he needed… something; anything.

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 years ago?"

"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-"

"Four?"

"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 account!"

Mark looked up to see his Ma in the doorway, sitting in the wheelchair.

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 going on.

"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."

"You sure?"

"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.

18MC18

"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 back.

"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 Cassie's wedding!"

"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 himself."

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 events?"

"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.

"Sure thing."

"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 feet…"

"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?"

"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?!"

19MC19

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 kiss.

"Hey, you two have guests waiting!" Ned hollered with a wide grin.

Cassie simply waved him on, unfazed by the interruption.
 

New Beginnings

Morgan's Corner

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

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