The Rifleman
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Fan Fiction

School Days
Written by Morgan

As the holidays passed, so did the cold weather. North Fork enjoyed an early spring, making it easier for those on the outlining ranches to attend town meetings more often. The first few town meetings of the season had gone fairly smooth, but of course, there was always one issue or another...

“Absolutely not!” A member of the large crowd declared.

“You have any better suggestions?” Micah asked.

“What about Mr. Bullock?” Someone else suggested.

“I don't have the stamina to keep that many children in line all day. I'm not as young as I used to be.” Bullock replied.

“There's got to be someone else.” Greg Hutchinson stated.

“Who?” Stephan Griswold asked. “I know having a married woman teach is… progressive…”

“More like absurd¹.” The butcher remarked.

Stephan ignored the comment as he went on.

“But it's either that or close down the school for the rest of the year. I'm sorry, but I don't have any other choice but to leave.”

“Stephan can't help it that his mother fell ill.” Micah added. “Cassie has had some formal training, and she doesn't have any children to raise as of yet. It's only for two months.”

“Lucas, what are your thoughts?” Sweeney asked.

“Even as chairman of the town council, I don't feel I should have a say in this. She's my daughter-in-law.”

“At least give us your opinion.” Nils said.

“I think if Stephan thinks it's a good idea, we should go through with it. He values good education and wouldn't suggest anything that would be bad for our community. Cassie works wonderfully with children, and would be able to give them a great end to the school year.”

“Does anyone else have anything they want to say on the matter?” Micah asked.

“I say, if a woman is teaching, my son won't be attending.” Drake Shoemaker replied.

“Drake, as long as school is in session, your boy is required to go by the town charter.” Ned reminded.

“Let's just put this to a vote and get this meeting over with.” John Hamilton stated.

“We don't even know if Cassie would be willing to fill the position.” Doc reminded. “Speaking of which…” Burrage scanned the crowd, but didn't see the younger McCain couple. “Lucas, where are Mark and Cassie?”

“They couldn't make it tonight, something came up. We'll take the vote, and if the majority votes in favor, I'll talk to them when we get home. Anything else we need to address before voting?”

There was a long silence before Lucas took the vote; a good majority of the crowd voting in favor of Cassie stepping in during Stephan's absence.

“Alright, we'll see what Mark and Cassie have to say then. Anything else, or can we all go home?”

Milly cleared her throat to get her husband's attention.

“...Oh, yes. Don't forget about the potluck Sunday afternoon. Alright, if that's all-”

“One more thing…”

------

Mark and Cassie sat on their front porch and watched the rest of the family drive across the bridge.

Mark turned to his wife and took her hand.

“Are you ready?”

Cassie nodded with a faint smile and followed her husband into their home. While she grabbed the bouquet of flowers, Mark grabbed a handkerchief from their bedroom. When Mark came back out, Cassie took his hand and the handkerchief he offered, but put it on the table.

“Not today, Mark. No tears today. Today we celebrate… our baby has been in the arms of Jesus for a year. And how wonderful that year must have been.”

Mark leaned forward and gave his wife a long kiss before they both walked out the back door. As they walked arm in arm across the land, they reflected on the last year, and how so much had changed since that fateful day. Although the ordeal threatened to tear their marriage apart, it brought them closer together in the end. It had made them stronger individually, and as husband and wife. It showed them how much they had taken something as wonderful as life for granted.

When they arrived at the cross, Cassie put the flowers in front of it. She put her hand on the cross and smiled, knowing one day, she'd get to meet her baby.

Mark knelt down beside his wife and put an arm around her.

“Happy first birthday,” Mark told his child. “We love you.”

Mark and Cassie spent several hours at the cross. Thinking, remembering. Finally they started the walk back home, the sun having been gone for a long time.

“Mark, do you think it was a boy, or a girl?” Cassie asked.

Mark thought for a long moment before replying.

“Girl.”

“If it was a girl, what would you have wanted to call her?”

“...I don't know, Cass. I haven't thought about it. Have you?”

“Some, but since we didn't know the gender of the baby… I didn't spend too long considering it.”

“Jessie is used for both boys and girls…”

“Mark, I am not giving my baby the same name as an outlaw.”

Cassie looked at her husband and and saw a teasing smile cross his face. She took his hand and continued walking, listening as the nocturnal creatures began to make themselves known.

“How's Tom adjusting to ranch work?”

“It's different from anything he's ever done, but he seems to be getting the hang of it. I have to admit, he's a hard working man.”

“How long do you think he'll be working here before he can start his own ranch?”

“At least a year or two. He's starting from practically nothing.”

“It's too bad we couldn't add on to the barn or something, so he doesn't have to stay in town.”

“Maybe next year, but you know I don't trust him all the way yet.”

“I know what he did before, but are you sure you're not being hard on him because of what my father did?”

“I probably am, but when it comes to you, I don't care. I'd rather be overprotective than watch something happen to you, or anyone else in the family.”

“... I understand.”

“Have you heard from Ara lately?”

“She's hoping to come for a visit in September.”

“I'm glad to hear it. Have you told your Ma?”

“Not yet… every time I mention her, my mother changes the subject. I try explaining to her that having Ara in my life doesn't change her relationship with me, but I think she's afraid I'll change my viewpoint.”

“Just keep trying, I think she'll come around. And once your Ma meets Ara, I don't think she'll feel as intimidated. Ara understands that Catherine has been your mother for your whole life.”

“I hope so.”

Mark and Cassie returned to their home and sat out on the front porch, enjoying the spring evening. The crickets chirping, the frogs croaking, the creek babbling nearby. It was a welcome scene, accompanied by a full moon and sky full of stars.

A long while later, Cassie and Mark saw the family return from the town meeting. They walked down the hill to greet everyone and ask how the evening went.

“It was a town meeting.” Lucas chuckled in reply. “It went fairly smooth. Sorry we're so late. “One more thing” turned into about five.”

“That never happens.” Mark sarcastically replied. “Anything we need to know about?”

“Yes, but why don't we go inside and talk about it?” Lucas suggested.

“I'll get the leftover pie out.” Milly said before taking Lydia inside, followed by Rachael and Cassie.”

Mark helped Lucas put the team away before joining the rest of the family in the kitchen.

“So what all happened?” Cassie asked.

“Well there was the typical announcements. Potluck Sunday, stop leaving peanut shells all over the boardwalk, and then Doc announced that he's bringing on a young doctor at the clinic so he can retire soon. There was some bad news, though. Stephan's mother has taken seriously ill and he has to leave town for a while.”

“Do they know what happened?” Cassie worriedly asked.

“Not as of yet, but Stephan's family said he needed to come right away.”

“What about the school?” Mark asked.

“That was another thing we discussed. We voted on it, and want to ask Cassie to help out until the end of the school year.”

“Even though I'm married?” Cassie asked, quite surprised.

“We understand if you don't want to take the position, but under the circumstances, you were the only option.”

Cassie looked to Mark; he could see the excitement in her eyes.

“Give us a couple days to think it over,” Mark began, “But I don't see any problems with it right now. When does Stephan leave?”

“Monday morning.”

“We'll have a definite answer by Friday.”

“Uncle Lucas, you forgot to bring up building a new school house.” Rachel reminded.

“I didn't forget.” Lucas chuckled. “We have another town meeting in May, it can wait until then. Too much is going on right now to rebuild.”

“Too much?” Cassie asked.

“The mill might be closing down.” Lucas replied with a heavy sigh.

“What are all those people going to do?”

“They'll probably have to move away, start somewhere else. It'll be sad to see if she does close down.”

“North Fork was growing so much…” Milly commented.

“There's still a little hope. They're trying to get a major contract in Vendix. If they can get it, they'll be able to hang on a while longer.”

“I certainly hope that's the case.” Cassie replied.

The family spent a little longer talking before Cassie and Mark said goodnight, and made their way up the hill. As they were getting ready for bed, Cassie couldn't help but ask Mark what his thoughts were on her filling in for Stephan.

“...Cassie, I'm glad they asked you. I know you've always wanted to teach and I'm all for you taking them up on the offer.”

Cassie could still hear a little hesitancy in her husband's voice.

“But…?”

“But I don't want you taking on too much. You know how a lot of stress affects you. I'm alright with it as long as you promise to let me know if it gets to be too much on you.”

“Thank you, Mark.” Cassie said as she wrapped her arms around her husband.

“Don't thank me, you're the one who's going to be putting all the work in.”


1MC1

The first day that Cassie was supposed to teach at the North Fork school came. As the students tricked into the school yard she pleasantly greeted them and the few parents that had dropped their children off.

When eight O’clock came, Cassie went back into the school house. The scene that awaited her brought a chuckle as she remembered back to her own school days. Girls talking, boys running around, someone realizing they had lost their lunch… some things never changed.

As Cassie walked to the front of the classroom she tried calling for attention several times. While most of the girls heeded her, most of the boys seemed to not care.

Cassie looked around the room for the yard stick, and found it the corner. She picked it up and took it to her desk before firmly smacking it against the wood. The sound echoed through the room, catching every students’ attention.

“Thank you.” Cassie began. “Please take your seats.”

Everyone did as told before Cassie went on.

“As you are all aware, Mr. Griswold has left town for the time being. Until he returns, I am your teacher, and expect to be treated as such. You will not only respect me, but you will also respect your classmates. I want to make it clear that I will not tolerate any fighting or arguing of any kind. I also will not tolerate any fooling around during class. Am I clear?”

A unified, “Yes, Mrs. McCain,” could be heard.

Cassie went to sit down at the desk as she went on.

“Let's begin with your readers. I-” Cassie stopped short and quickly stood, having felt something on her chair. She looked down to see a frog, but it was surprisingly asleep.

The students who were responsible for the frog were quickly sinking in their chairs… they hadn't ever seen Cassie as strict as she had been a few moments ago.

Cassie picked up the frog and turned around to face the students.

“Who, may I ask, is responsible for this?”

There was a long, awkward silence as the students sat uncomfortably in their chairs.

“I asked a simple question, and want a simple answer.”

Slowly, Charles, Mike, and Richard raised their hands. Cassie could see how nervous they were.

“Boys, you were able to do something I never was very good at. Catching a frog asleep isn't easy.”

A few of the boys let out a laugh as Cassie took the now very awake frog to the window and let it go.

“School doesn't have to be mundane and boring, but I'd prefer if we kept the animals outside.”

“Yes ma'am.” The boys replied.

“Charles, why don't you start reading top of page fifty-nine?”

The rest of the morning went without incident, and Cassie called for lunch a little after noon. Shortly after the students began piling out of the school house, Cassie looked up to see Mark walking through the doors.

“How's North Fork's newest teacher?” Mark asked as he approached the desk.

“Just fine, thank you.” Cassie made sure the last of the students were out of the school house before kissing Mark. “But you really don't need to check up on me.”

“I'm your husband, it's my job.” Mark replied with a smile. “They minding you alright?”

“Of course. We just had to lay a few ground rules.”

“Oh?”

Cassie recounted that morning to her husband and couldn't help but chuckle.

“I think they were surprised at how hard I hit the desk. Then when I turned around with the frog… the boys looked so scared.”

“I would be, too.” Mark laughed.

“Now thanks for the visit, but don't you have cattle to brand?”

“I suppose. I'm dropping off saw blades with Nils, would you mind bringing them home?”

“Of course not.”

“I love you, see you later.”

“Love you too.”


2MC2

As the weeks passed, Cassie settled into her role as teacher in North Fork. Most of those who had been opposed to the idea originally began to see how well Cassie did with the students. Some of the parents even saw their children who had once despised school begin to not mind it… as much.

One afternoon after school had let out for the day, Cassie had ridden to the Marshal's office. She dismounted and walked inside to find her brother at his desk.

“I was hoping you would be working.”

Ned stood to give his sister a hug before offering her a seat.

“To what do I owe this pleasure?”

“Well, it may turn out to be not much of a pleasure.”

“...Something wrong?”

“Peter Shoemaker and Matt Hutchinson haven't been to school more than three times since I've started there. I've tried talking to their parents, but they don't seem too interested in making them go. I understand that my being a married woman makes this situation… unique, but…”

“The town hired you as a teacher, and the boys are required to be at school. There's no “but’s” about it.”

“What can I do? They won't listen to me.”

“Why don't we take a ride out there together?”

“I don't mean to dump this on you, but it may be best if you talk to their fathers without me there.”

“... I'll try, Cassie.”

“How's your paperwork coming?” Cassie asked with a slight smirk.

“I'm actually keeping it under control… for now.” Ned laughed, knowing it wouldn't be too long before he was buried in paperwork again. “Everything else going alright at the school?”

“The students have been surprisingly well behaved.”

“No more incidents since the frog?”

“Oh there's been a few, but they've kept the animals all outside. I reprimand them, but to a certain extent, boys will be boys.”

Cassie and Ned talked a while longer before they said goodbye, and Cassie left the office. Ned left a note for Johnny before riding to the Hutchinson's.

Greg Hutchinson saw Ned riding up and walked over to greet the man.

“Well, what can I do for you, Marshal?”

“Send your boy to school.” Ned bluntly stated as he dismounted.

“Look, she may be your sister, but-”

“Greg, you know what the town charter says. It doesn't say anything about a married woman not being allowed to teach. It does, however, say your boy has to attend school when it's in session.”

“What's she going to teach him that'll be useful, anyhow?”

“Greg, you know those three R’s are important.”

“He knows enough.”

“Maybe, but you could be limiting your son. Who knows? He could have the potential to be a brilliant engineer, or doctor, or-”

“Working in a mill or factory will do him just fine. It was good enough for me.”

“Greg, I've known a lot of people like you. And all too often, they're too prideful to let their family try something new or different. They don't want change, because they don't want anyone looking down on them for what they did. You're a hard working, determined man, Greg. That's something that can't be taught in a classroom, and something you have to teach your family. No one ever has cause to look down on a hard working man. Because they try, and they give their best. Don't you want your son to be able to give his best? Don't you want him to be able to bring his education into a job and help him succeed? I've had friends live the same life you do, and they tell me over and over how much easier it was to get promotions and better jobs because of the education they received. Give Matt that opportunity. Let him learn what he can so he can use his full potential. Education opens whole new doors. Ones that maybe you weren't able to go through, but ones you can help your son walk through.”

There was a long silence before Greg spoke up.

“... He'll be in school Monday.”

Ned shook the man's hand and said goodbye before making his way to the Shoemaker’s. When Drake opened the door, he wasn't too happy to see Ned.

“Can I talk to you for a minute, Mr. Shoemaker?”

“Long as it's not about school.”

“Your son is required to go.”

“It doesn't matter anymore.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean the mill is going down. Our family will be out of town in two weeks, so there's no point in sending him to school when he can be helping me around here.”

“Drake, every little bit-”

“We'll put him in a school when we get to the next town. Just leave us be.”

Drake began to close the door, but Ned caught it.

“I'll help you out when I can, but Greg really should be in school-”

“You're wasting your breath, Marshal. Let us pack up and get out of this town without any extra trouble.”

Ned knew there wasn't much he could do since the family was leaving town. He let out a long sigh before continuing.

“At least let me see if there's anything he can work on while you're looking for a new place to call home. It'll take you a while to settle down.”

“Fine, but no promises. The boy's got responsibilities to take care of.”

“So does every other boy in school. But I think he'll enjoy a book I have in mind.”

“What makes you say that?”

“It belonged to someone who hated school as much as you seem to. Fortunately, someone gave them this to make learning a bit more enjoyable.”

“How’d you get your hands on it?”

“You can ask my Ma, I absolutely despised school.”


3MC3


“Doc, you expecting family?” Johnny asked as he made his way across the platform at the train station.

“No, our new doctor arrives today.”

“I forgot about that. How'd you manage to get him out here so quickly?”

“It's been almost a year in coming. I had to wait for him to finish filling a temporary position at a hospital in Boston. I didn't feel the need to notify everyone until I knew for sure he could come.”

“How long until you step down?”

“Oh it'll be a while yet. This is my town after all, I'm not ready to just leave it in someone else's hands.” The doctor chuckled.

The train finally pulled into the station, surprisingly only two minutes late. Johnny went to greet passengers as Burrage looked for the new doctor.

Eventually, a black haired, younger man stepped off the train and began to look around.

“Jason, it's good to see you again!” Doc said as he walked up to the man.

“You too, Doc.” The man replied as he shook the other doctor’s hand. “How long has it been?”

“Five or six years, I'd say. I see you've done a lot of growing up since then.”

“Just a little.” The man laughed. “How have you been?”

“As good as I can be. It's sad when you have to admit that you're getting old.”

“You’re not old, Doc. Just well experienced.”

“Come on,” Doc replied with a chuckle. “Let's get you over to the hotel, then I'll take you to see the clinic.”

As the two doctors left the station, Johnny was still in the process of greeting the newcomers. He had just finished giving directions to a businessman when he saw an all too familiar face stepping off the train.

Johnny and the man stared at each other for an agonizingly long moment. Johnny couldn't take it anymore and turned to leave.

“Johnny!” The man called out as he hurried towards the man… the best he could. “Johnny, please.”

“You have no right to be here. Get back on that train and go home.”

The man reached out to put a hand on Johnny's shoulder, but the deputy stepped away.

“I won't tell you again.”

The man's eyes filled with sadness as he looked at the bitterness on the man's face.

“Let me explain-”

“There's nothing to explain.”

Johnny walked away and left the old man standing on the platform.

At a loss for what to do, the man picked up his bag again and made his way to the hotel.

The clerk at the desk greeted him and asked if he would like a room.

“Yes, please. I don't know how long I'll be staying though.”

“That's alright, after paying for tonight you can just pay each morning. There will be a clerk here to help you.”

“Is that Ms. Mallory still around?”

“Yes, but it's Mrs. Gibbs now. She-”

“What?” The man suddenly asked.

“Lou married our deputy, Johnny Gibbs.”

“I'm sorry to have trouble you ma'am, I think I best find lodging elsewhere.”

“But we have plenty of rooms…”

“It's complicated. Is there anywhere else I could stay in town?”

The woman directed the man to the boarding house where he got settled before renting a horse from the livery.

The man took a slow, relaxed ride out of town. He wasn't in a hurry to get where he was going, and his health wouldn't allow him to do any fast riding anyway.

Several miles out of town the man came to a ranch. Although he was almost sure he was in the right place, a lot had changed. The house was definitely bigger, and another home sat on top of a hill behind the first house.

Three women were working on laundry outside the home, the oldest woman had a baby in a sling on her back.

“Can I help you?” Milly asked.

“I'm looking for Lucas or Mark McCain?”

“They're working on the range, won't be back for a few hours.” Milly replied. “But you're welcome to give your horse a rest and wait for them.”

“Is where they're working easy to find? I've come a long ways and would like to see them.”

Milly turned to Cassie, knowing her niece knew the property better.

“If you ride west until you hit the creek, then turn right and follow it you should be able to hear the cattle after a while. They're branding the last of the calves today.”

“Much obliged, ladies.” The man nodded his head towards the women and followed Cassie's direction.

------

Mark looked up after releasing another calf and saw a rider approaching. He grabbed his rifle before calling to Lucas.

“Pa, we have company.”

Lucas looked up from what he was doing a saw a lone figure riding towards them.

“Who is it, Lucas?” Tom asked as he tried to make out the man.

“It looks like…”

“Grandpa?” Mark called in surprise.

Samuel Gibbs² dismounted and made his way towards Mark.

“Boy, have you changed!” Samuel exclaimed as he shook Mark's hand. “How are you doing?”

“Fine, but what are you doing here?”

“Thought it was about time I paid you two another visit. Lucas, how are you?”

“Doing well, Samuel. How long are you figuring on staying in town?” Lucas asked, a little surprised that he was alright with the man showing up like this.

“Well I was hoping to stay for about a week.”

“Was?” Mark asked in confusion.

“I didn't know Johnny lived here.”

“... I take it you saw each other, then?” Lucas asked.

“He met the train. He wasn't too happy that I was here. Don't exactly blame him, either.”

“I'll talk to Johnny.” Lucas replied. “Mark, why don't you take your grandfather up to the house? I'm sure you two have plenty to talk about.”

“I don't mean to interrupt your work day…”

“Mark was slowing us down, anyway.” Lucas teased. “Tom and I can finish up. Go ahead.”

Mark nodded in reply, knowing his Pa wanted to get this visit done and over with.

Tom and Lucas watched as the two rode off.

“Lucas, isn't he-”

“Yes, Tom.”

“I thought you swore to kill him¹.”

“It's a long story.”

As the two worked, Lucas told Tom about the first time Samuel Gibbs had shown up in North Fork.

After they were done for the day, Lucas told Tom to swing by the house for dinner and asked him to let the family know he wouldn't be home until late.

“...I need to talk to Johnny.”

Lucas knew this could end up being a very long week for everyone, and wasn't looking forward to the conversation he was about to have with his brother-in-law.

Lucas entered the Marshal's office and could still see the anger on Johnny's face.

“Lucas, I'm glad you're here.” Johnny said as he looked up from the desk. “My father-”

“I know, Johnny. He's at the ranch now.”

“You mean you left him out there with-”

“This isn't the first time he's been here.”

“What do you mean?”

Lucas began explaining what had happened several years ago. He could tell the situation didn't make any difference with Johnny, and Lucas understood.

“Johnny, I can't forgive the man either. But he wants a relationship with his grandson, and I'm willing to let Mark make his own decisions. They'll talk, then in a couple days, he'll leave.”

“I don't know how you can stand there and let Margaret's killer build a relationship with her son.”

“He might have prevented her death, but you and I both know we can't say he killed her. I'm not going to try to persuade you one way or another, Johnny. But let him have his time with Mark before you scare him out of town.”

“What's wrong with you, Lucas?”

“I don't know, Johnny.” Lucas sighed. “This will probably be the last time either of us have to deal with him again. Just put up with it for a week, and soon it'll be over.”

“Not soon enough.”


4MC4


Ned crumpled up the telegram and threw it in the wastebasket.

“Trouble?” Sam asked.

“Oliver Lee was being transferred to the territorial prison and escaped.”

“Again?”

“You would think they could've learned by now.” Ned sighed

“What are they going to do?”

“The only thing they can do; organize a manhunt.”

“You have to go?”

“Me and any other volunteers I can get.”

“Who do you think you'll be able to get to go with you? It's calving and planting season.”

“Johnny's been trying to find an excuse to get out of town, I know he'll be happy to go. I might be able to talk Mark into it.”

“What about Lucas?” Sam asked in surprise.

“Like you said, it's calving season. They can't both leave.”

“Then why ask Mark to go? Lucas is a deputy.”

“Exactly, Micah will need help in town.”

“I see your point.”

“I better get a move on. I'll be seeing you, Sam.”

“Bye, Ned.”

Ned walked over to the hotel where he found Johnny in the office with his wife and daughters.

“Johnny, we have a problem.”

“Able get himself drunk again?”

“Our problems are bigger than that. Oliver Lee-”

“Let me guess- he escaped again?”

“How did you know?” Ned replied sarcastically. “You've been looking for an opportunity to get out of town. You mind joining me for the manhunt?”

“When do we leave?”

“First thing tomorrow morning.” Ned could see the worry and concern in Lou's eyes. “Don't worry, Aunt Lou, I'll make sure he stays out of trouble.”

“Like anyone could do that.” Lou replied with a teasing smile. “...Just the two of you?”

“I'm seeing if I can find anyone else willing to help out. Don't worry too much, I doubt he's headed for the area they assigned us.”

“Try to come back in one piece.”

“I'll do my best. I better get going, Johnny, I'll see you tomorrow morning.”

“See you then.”

Ned left the hotel and went to the livery to saddle his horse. He tried several places, but no one seemed to be able to lend a hand. As the sun was setting, Ned found himself in front of the McCain’s home. He had really hoped he wouldn't have to ask Mark, but the circumstances left him little choice. Ned knocked on the door, which was answered by Lucas.

“Evening, Ned. What brings you out here?”

“Mark and Cassie's house was dark, are they down here?”

“We were just starting dessert. You want to join us?”

“I'd be happy to.” Ned replied as Lucas let him inside.

The rest of the family was pleasantly surprised to see Ned, who was quickly introduced to Samuel Gibbs.

As the evening pressed on, Ned couldn't find a good time to bring up Lee. Mark and Lucas, however, could tell something was on his mind and invited him to join them as they worked on the barn chores.

“What's going on?” Lucas asked as they stepped outside.

“Oliver Lee escaped again. They're trying to organize a manhunt and so far I've only got Uncle Johnny to go with me.”

“Ned, I'd be happy to help.” Lucas said, confused as to why Ned seemed so hesitant.

“That's the thing though. As a deputy, Micah needs your help in town.”

“Nils can help him out.”

“He hurt his hand, remember?”

Lucas nodded as he remembered the incident.

“So why are you so hesitant about telling me I have to stand shift?”

“I'm not. Mark, I was wondering if I could ask a favor of you.”

“Of course, Ned. When do we have to leave?”

As his son spoke, Lucas looked hesitantly between Mark and Ned.

“Hold on… Mark, you need to think this through…”

Mark looked at his Pa, a little surprised.

“What do you mean?”

There was a long silence as Lucas did a lot of thinking.

“...Never mind.” Lucas said, shaking his head. “When do you have to go?”

“First thing tomorrow morning. Johnny and I will be by here shortly after sunup.”

“I'll be ready.” Mark replied.

“Thanks, Mark. I better be heading back to town. See you two later.”

Mark and Lucas said goodbye before Mark turned to his Pa.

“Why did you say I needed to think it through?”

“I'm sorry, Mark. I… I never thought about seeing you put on the badge. I guess I kind of hoped you never would have to. Realistically, I should've known it would happen sooner or later. You're not a boy anymore. It's been a long time since you've been one.”

“But?”

“But as your father I reserve the right to tell you to be careful.”

“I understand, Pa.”


5MC5


It was especially difficult for Cassie as she said goodbye to her husband, brother, and uncle the next morning. In light of the circumstances, Samuel Gibbs decided to cut his trip short, hoping to come back sometime soon.

Johnny, Ned, and Mark waved back at their family as they rode away from the homestead, hoping to back home soon.

All three were tired and didn't care for much conversation for the first part of the morning. They simply rode along, someone occasionally humming a tune.

Some time had passed when Mark looked over to see Ned lost deep in thought. This wasn't particularly unusual, but the look in Ned’s eye piqued Mark's curiosity.

“What ya thinking about, Ned?”

“Nothing.” Ned replied as he shook his head.

“I bet it's a girl.” Johnny told Mark.

“Was that Laura I saw you talking with the other day?” Mark teased.

“There's all that time you've been spending out at the Donalds’, too…” Johnny hinted.

Ned sighed as he kicked his horse and increased his pace.

Mark and Johnny felt like having a good laugh though, and quickened their pace as well.

“Let's see, there's Jennifer at the dress shop.” Mark suggested.

“Lou just hired a new waitress, just about your age, Ned.” Johnny quipped.

“If you must know, I was thinking about a friend from California, that's all.” Ned said, a little irritated.

“What's her name?” Johnny insisted.

“Her name is Helen Scottlock, and she's courting a family friend.”

“So you do admire her.” Johnny said with a boyish grin.

“I never said that!”

“You didn't have to.” Mark replied.

As the three continued riding, Johnny kept asking more questions about Ms. Scottlock. Mark couldn't help but laugh at how irritated Ned was getting.

When they reached the first town, the three spread out and searched the town for Lee. Mark made his way to the hotel and began asking the staff and guests questions. No one said they had seen anything suspicious, and they all swore they would've known if they had seen Oliver Lee.

Johnny and Ned hadn't found anything either, and soon the three were back on the trail.

“Ned, when does Anna get back from school?” Mark asked.

“I think it's in the next week or two.”

“Do you know what her plans are?”

“Doc is still offering her a position at the clinic, so I think that's what she will be doing.”

“I'm surprised we haven't heard of any young men trying to obtain her attention.” Johnny commented.

“They've tried, but Anna didn't want to start courting out there.”

“Speaking of courting,” Johnny began. “Don't you think it's time you started thinking about getting a wife yourself?”

Mark laughed as Ned kicked his horse into a gallop.

They spent several hours on the trail before reaching the next town and starting another search.

As Mark was walking across the street he heard someone call out to him.

“Mark McCain?”

Mark turned around to see Carey MacDonald³ walking towards him.

“Carey, what are you doing here? It's good to see you!”

“Well I live here now, what are you doing here?”

“Unfortunately looking for Oliver Lee.”

“He escape from jail again?”

“They were transporting him and he escaped. They have a massive manhunt going.”

“I see you've become a deputy, then?”

“I'm just helping my brother-in-law out.

“You did end up marrying the Osborne girl, then?”

“Well yeah, but how did you know that?”

“We read all about the trial in the newspapers. I bet you’re glad to have that whole mess over with.”

“You're right about that.” Mark briefly paused before going on. “I'd love to catch up, but I really have to get going, the others will miss me. But I'll try to swing back by sometime, and you're always welcome at the ranch.”

“Thanks, tell your Pa I said hello. And good luck!”

“Thanks, we'll need it. See you later!”


6MC6


“Morning, Cassie.” Lucas greeted as his daughter-in-law entered the house.

“Good morning. How was your shift last night?”

“Uneventful, thankfully.”

“Any word from Mark?”

“He said they are supposed to meet up with another group tomorrow morning if they don't find anything and go from there.”

“I wish they could find Lee and get this whole thing over with.”

“I'm sure they will.” Milly said as she came through the kitchen door, Lydia in her arms.

“Cassie, do you want to join us for supper in town tonight?” Lucas invited.

“I'd love to. What time?”

“About five. With that in mind, would you mind having Rachael head over to the Gibbs’ instead of coming home after school?”

“Of course.”

Cassie enjoyed breakfast with her aunt and uncle before leaving for the schoolhouse. As was typically the case, Cassie arrived before any of her students. She took the saddle off storm and tied him to the hitching post.

When Cassie walked inside the school, she screamed as someone grabbed her arm, pulled her inside and shut the door.

Cassie struggled against the man who now held a hand over her mouth, but suddenly froze as she heard the hammer of a gun being pulled back. She nervously looked to her left to see the man holding a gun to her temple.

“Easy now, little miss.” The man began. “I don't want to hurt you. I'm going to step away now, and you’re going to behave and not make a sound, understand?”

Cassie quickly nodded before the man removed his hand from her mouth and stepped in front of her.

“I will say, the town of North Fork got themselves a pretty little teacher. Now look, I don't want to cause nobody trouble. I just need a place to stay until nightfall, then I'll be on my way. Of course, that means you'll have to stick around here too, so I suggest you get comfortable.”

“... What about the children?” Cassie worriedly asked.

“Don't worry about them, they won't have a clue I'm here, long as you don't tell them. I'll sit quietly in the closet over there, but remember that I'll have a gun on you, so don't try any heroics. And if I think you're trying to get word to anyone, well…” the man smiled as he looked at his gun. “We'll just see how that turns out for you. Do you understand?”

Cassie nodded before the man went on.

“Good. Now go on to whatever you usually do, we don't want anyone getting suspicious.”

Cassie nervously walked to her desk and began preparing for the day as the man kept an eye out the window. About a half hour had passed before he saw Rachael and Charlotte coming.

“Remember, what I said,” the man began as he slipped into the closet. “No funny business.”

The man closed the door most of the way, but left a large enough gap so he could keep an eye on Cassie.

As Cassie anticipated the students’ arrivals, she contemplated trying to get word out… but she knew she couldn't put the students at risk. As the door opened, she put on the most natural smile she could.

“...Good morning, girls.” Cassie greeted as they entered the school house. “How was your night?”

“Better than our morning.” Charlotte, who was obviously still half asleep, replied.

“Oh?” Cassie asked.

“Charlotte doesn't like being able to see the sunrise.” Rachael explained with a chuckle.

Cassie laughed along with her as the girls found their seats.

“Rachael, I'm supposed to tell you to go to Lou and Johnny’s after school. Lucas and Milly are coming to town for supper.”

“Alright. Any word from the posse?”

“No luck yet, but they're still looking.”

After the rest of the students arrived, Cassie began class for the day. As much as she tried not to, Cassie couldn't help but nervously eye the closet. It was a little after eleven-thirty when Cassie couldn't take it any longer and called for lunch.

While the rest of the students ran outside, Rachael walked up to Cassie.

“Are you feeling alright? You don't look very well.”

“I-” Cassie stopped short as she heard the gun being cocked. “I'll be fine, just need a break for a while.”

“Anything I can get for you?”

“No, thank you though. Why don't you go join the rest of the class?”

“Alright.”

Cassie watched as Rachael and the last of the students left the building.

“Keep it up, you're doing a good job, missy.” The voice came from the closet.

“Would it be safe to assume you're Oliver Lee?” Cassie asked.

“You can assume whatever you like.”

Time seemed to crawl by for the rest of the afternoon. Cassie wanted to dismiss early and get everyone out of there, but she knew that might make matters worse. Finally, Cassie found herself teaching the last class of the day. She was making her closing remarks when an idea struck her.

“Now, don't forget we will have a test on the last three chapters tomorrow. Before we go, how many of you know who Daniel Clark is?”

There was an awkward silence as all the students looked at each other in confusion.

“There will be a question about him on the test tomorrow. Any student who answers the question correctly will receive an extra five points on their test.”

One of the students hesitantly raised their hand.

“Yes, Tony?”

“How are we supposed to get the answer right if we don't know who he is?”

“He was very important in this town’s history, ask around town.”

“Any other questions?”

Violet slowly raised her hand.

“Yes, Violet?”

“Why don't you just tell us who he is?”

“...It's important for people in a community to share stories and pass them down to their children. We'll call this a social studies assignment. Alright, class dismissed.”

As the students began to leave for the day, Cassie called Rachael to the front.

“Could you tell your uncle I can't make it for dinner this evening? I have too many papers to grade before tomorrow.”

“Sure thing. See you later.”

“Bye, Rachael.”

Cassie breathed a sigh of relief when the last student left the school house.

“Good.” The man said as he came out. “Now lock the doors.”

Cassie did as she was told and returned to her desk to grade papers.

“So who was that Daniel Clark fellow?”

Cassie's mind raced as she tried to find a good explanation.

“He… he was an extremely upstanding citizen who helped send a marshal to jail that might have gotten the town into some deep trouble.”

“That's all?” The man scoffed.

“Well... I hear tell he also saved a senator with his slingshot⁴.”

“Come again?”


7MC7


“Milly, are you ready to go?” Lucas called as he entered the house.

“Yes.” She replied as she came from the bedroom with Lydia.

“You're looking beautiful this evening.” Lucas said as he offered her his arm.

“Oh, Lucas, you haven't need to exaggerate.”

“When have you known me to tell a lie?”

“You’ve told your fair share of lies, Mr. McCain.” Milly chuckled.

“Well, I'm telling the truth this time.”

Lucas and Milly headed into town to pick up Rachael from the Gibbs’ before heading to the hotel. As they sat down, Rachael informed her uncle that Cassie wouldn't be joining them for dinner.

“Too many papers to grade?” Lucas questioned. “You didn't seem to have a lot of homework last night.”

“She must have gotten behind from earlier this week. She had to help Emma Donalds with something Tuesday and Wednesday evening, remember?”

“I suppose you're right.” Lucas replied. “Did you see Laura at the Gibbs’?”

“No, Aunt Lou said she was working tonight. I felt kinda bad leaving her with the three little ones.”

“I don't know how that woman does it.” Lucas chuckled. “I remember trying to keep Mark alive by myself, I couldn't imagine having three to keep track of.”

“One learns to manage.” Laura said with a smile as she came up to their table.

“Laura, how are you?” Milly asked.

“Seems we never see you anymore.” Lucas added.

“Between the baby and working I stay pretty busy, but life is good.” Laura replied. “What can I get you folks?”

The McCains ordered their food before Laura went back to the kitchen.

“Uncle Lucas, can I stay in town tonight?” Rachael asked.

“Don't you have a test tomorrow?”

“Yes… but if I don't have to ride to and from the ranch, I'll have extra time to study.”

“And you'll spend all three hours studying?” Lucas chuckled.

“... Probably not.” Rachael admitted.

“Maybe tomorrow night. You need to study for that test.”

“Speaking of which, do either of you know who Daniel Clark is?”

A serious look came over Lucas's face as Rachael asked the question.

“...Why do you ask?” Lucas hesitantly inquired.

“Cassie said there would be a question on him on the history test tomorrow, but we had to ask around town to get information on him. Who is he?”

“Never mind that, you two stay here.”

“Lucas?” Milly asked in concern.

“Don't leave the hotel.”

Lucas grabbed his rifle and left the hotel, heading straight for the school. Once he arrived, Lucas tried the doors, but they were locked.

“Cassie? Cassie, it's Lucas, open up!”

No one answered, but Storm told Lucas that Cassie was still there. He didn't give up and kept pounding on the door until Cassie finally opened it.

“Cassie, is everything alright?”

“Did Rachael not give you my message?” Cassie asked, a pleasant smile on her face.

But Lucas looked past her smile and into her eyes. Cassie was scared.

Lucas sightly nodded before he answered her question.

“No, she didn't. Just thought I'd check on you since Storm was still here.”

“Well thank you, but I have a lot of papers to grade, sorry I couldn't make supper.”

“Did I hear right that you're testing the kids on Daniel Clark?”

“Just something for a little extra credit. I hope they find the people that know what he means in this town.”

“I think they'll find the right people. Did Oliver make it to class today, or do I need to have a chat with his parents again?”

“No, he was in class all day. If you're going into town, could you let my father know I will be late coming home this evening?”

“I needed to talk to Micah anyway, I'd be happy to give him your message.”

“Thank you.” Cassie replied with a nod. “Have a goodnight.”

Lucas casually walked away from the school house before running back to town. He entered the Marshal's office, but didn't see Micah there. He ran across the street to see Micah talking to Sweeney at the bar.

“Micah, we've got trouble.” Lucas said as he came up to the men.

“Lou finally have enough of your teasing?” Micah laughed.

“I think Oliver Lee is hold up in the school house, and Cassie's in there with him.”

“Oliver Lee??” Sweeney asked. “I thought they were looking farther north for him?”

“Well apparently they were wrong.”

“What are you going to do?” Sweeney asked.

“We can't risk getting Cassie hurt.” Lucas stated. “We'll have to quietly surround the school and wait for him to make his move.”

“Lucas, this is Lee, he doesn't leave witnesses!” Sweeney exclaimed.

“I know.”

“Sweeney, close the saloon down.” Micah ordered. “I'm getting every able bodied man out there now.”

Sweeney started closing down as Micah made an announcement and Lucas ran back to the hotel to do the same. After hearing what Lucas had said, several men left the restaurant and headed to the Marshal's office to wait for Micah.

Lucas was turning to leave when Rachael and Milly came running up to him.

“Is Cassie in there with him?” Rachael worriedly asked.

Lucas solmely nodded before giving his wife and niece a hug, then kissing Lydia's forehead.

“You two stay here until I come and get you. If anything happens… Rachael, ask Lou for the shotgun.”

“Yes sir.”

“I love you all. I'll be back as soon as I can.”

Lucas joined the rest of the men at the office where he gave a detailed explanation of what was going to take place.

“And don't make a sound.” Micah sternly told them. “Right now, we have the advantage that he doesn't know we're coming. Let's keep it that way so he doesn't decide to use Cassie as a hostage.”

The men quietly and quickly made their way to the school house and surrounded it.

All they could do after that was wait.

The minutes crept by as the sun sunk lower and lower into the mountains, until finally it was gone.

The moon provided little light, and storm clouds covered what light it did give.

Another hour passed as the men waited for something, anything to happen.

Finally, it did.

Without warning a red and orange glow overtook the inside of the schoolhouse. Smoke began escaping the building as the men realized the schoolhouse was on fire.

Forgetting their orders, men began yelling for water and running every which direction as they tried to figure out what to do. The school had a pump, but all the buckets were locked inside the building. Several men ran for buckets and barrels while others filled whole buckboards with buckets of water and driving it to the school.

Windows were being broken open and the door was trying to be broken down in an attempt to put out the fire.

Lucas ran back to town to find burlap sacks and whatever else he could use inside the school house.

Lucas was working inside the building when a beam fell and knocked him over. John Hamilton ran over to help Lucas. As he looked up, John realized the whole ceiling was going to give way.

“Lucas, it's no use, we have to get out of here!”

“Not without-” Lucas couldn't finish as he choked on the overwhelming smoke.

John pulled his friend out of the building just before it began to collapse.

Lucas struggled to run back inside, but John and Micah help him back.

“But Cassie!”

“She must've gotten out, or we would have heard her.”

Lucas kept trying to struggle, but between his smoke filled lungs and blurred vision, he finally gave up.

Everyone breathed a sigh of relief as the storm clouds finally opened up and poured rain over them. It still took some time, but finally the last flame died and a pile of charred lumber was all that was left.

Micah looked back down at Lucas to see that he had passed out. He got a few men to carry Lucas over to Doc's while he went to find Milly and Rachael.

“Micah, what happened? Where's Lucas?” Milly desperately asked. “Someone says there was a fire!”

“There was a fire at the schoolhouse, Lucas was injured and is at Doc's.”

“What about Cassie?” Rachael asked.

“We don't know yet. In the chaos we all forgot about Oliver and Cassie… but we didn't hear any calls for help, so my assumption is that they made it out alive. We'll search the debris tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow!” Milly exclaimed. “Cassie-”

“Milly, there's no light from the moon and with the storm… you can hardly see. I'm sorry.”

Milly nodded as she and Rachael turned to go to the clinic.

“Milly,” Laura called. “Let me take Lydia, you don't need to be worrying about her, too.”

“Thank you, Laura.”

Micah, Milly, and Rachael ran to the doctor's office and impatiently waited for news about Lucas.

Finally, a man they assumed to be a doctor came from the back room.

“I don't think we've met yet,” The doctor began, “I'm Jason Carr, I'm working with Doc Burrage for the time being.”

“Milly McCain. My husband, is he…?”

“Your husband should be fine, Mrs. McCain. He breathed in a lot of smoke and got hit fairly hard by a beam, but I think he'll just be a little sore between that and a few minor burns. I'll give you some salve for the burns to be applied as needed, but they should be healed completely in two weeks or so.”

“Can I see him?”

“He's still unconscious, but it's mostly from heat exhaustion. If you'd still like to sit with him, he's in room three.”

Milly thanked the doctor before leaving the waiting room.

“Doctor Carr-” Micah began, only to be interrupted.

“Please, Jason is fine.”

“Alright, Jason, was anyone else brought in?”

“A few others had minor burns, but Doc Burrage tended to them and sent them home.”

“Anything I can help with?” Micah asked.

“I think we're good for tonight, but thank you.”

“Rachael, why don't I walk you to Lou and Johnny’s?”

Rachael nodded and followed the Marshal out of the office.

“Micah, do you think Cassie is alright?”

“I hope so.”

“Can I help tomorrow morning?”

“Rachael, there's going to be a lot of dangerous material, and-”

“Please, I gotta do something.”

“...You can run tools and help bring the men water, but I want you to be careful. That school house is going to be a death trap.”



The next morning, the McCains were present as the men went through the rubble. Lucas tried helping, but his back wouldn't allow him to do much.

An agonizing three hours later, everyone could confidently say no one had been trapped inside the schoolhouse. Although everyone could now breathe a sigh of relief, it left one question.

Where was Cassie and Oliver Lee?


8MC8


“Marshal Anker, I'm surprised to see you here.” Mark said as he entered the hotel.

“Mark, Ned, Johnny, good to see you.” The Marshal replied. “Mark, I called for the manhunt, I better do my fair share.”

“You have any better luck than us?” Ned asked.

“Unfortunately, no. And it seems I should've just had you stay in North Fork.”

“What do you mean?” Johnny asked.

“They're almost positive Oliver Lee was in North Fork. They're pretty sure he set fire to the school house and-”

“He what?!” Mark demanded.

“Was anyone hurt??” Ned asked.

“Not that I'm aware of.” Anker could tell all three men were extremely distressed by the news, but he couldn't figure out why. It was just a schoolhouse. “Anyway, but they do think he has the school teacher as a hostage.”

Mark's heart stopped when he heard the news. Anything Anker said after that, he didn't hear. Mark suddenly turned and ran out of the hotel. Ned would've been on his heels if his superior officer wasn't standing in front of him.

“Where's he off to?” Anker asked in confusion.

“Sir, Cassie… Cassie has been teaching at the school during our regular teacher's absence.” Ned informed him.

The Marshal immediately understood and sent Johnny and Ned after Mark.

“We'll catch up with you as soon as we get organized. Get on home.”

Ned, Johnny, and Mark rode hard and fast. They didn't bother stopping until the sun was set, leaving them no choice but to wait until the next morning to keep going.

As Johnny stoked the fire, Ned came up to him and sighed heavily.

“You gonna be alright, Ned?” Johnny asked.
“I don't know.” Ned crossed his arms as he looked out on the open prairie. “Lee does leave witnesses…”

“Don't give up hope. The fact that he took her with him instead of killing her then and there says a lot.” Johnny could see the uneasiness in Ned’s eyes… he could tell there was something more. “...What is it, Ned?”

“Cassie was strong. Cassie was a fighter. ...But after she was taken by DeFord and my father… something changed. It was like something broke inside of her. And I'm afraid she'll give up.”

“I know that whole ordeal was something horrible, I'm not denying it. Yes, it hurt her Ned, but I don't think it broke her. She's still strong, deep down she's still a fighter. We just have to pray she still knows that.” Johnny put a hand on Ned’s shoulder. “We'll find her. Why don't you hit the sack? I'm going to go talk to Mark.”

As Ned got into his bed roll, Johnny walked across camp where Mark was sitting on a boulder, looking out on the sky.

“Mark, are you alright?”

“... I... I was supposed to protect her.”

“You were supposed to love her, Mark. And that's all you ever can do. And you do an amazing job of it. We’ll find her, Mark, don't give up. Cassie's going to need you when we find her; be ready to be there for her.”

“Uncle Johnny… do you think we'll find her… alive?”

“In all honesty, I do. Like I told Ned, Lee hasn't killed her yet. I doubt he intends to.” Johnny could see the worry etched on Mark's face. “Let's get to bed, we have a long couple days ahead of us.”

“I'll be there later.”

“Mark-”

“Please, Uncle Johnny. I need some more time.”

“Alright, kid.”

As Johnny walked away, Mark became lost in memories of Cassie. He remembered the day they met, the first day they went riding, the day he realized he had fallen in love with the fiery blonde. He remembered asking her to court him, the commitment they both made that day. He remembered on and on and on… the good times, the hard times. Regardless of her bold personality, Mark remember how she would take his arm as he escorted her through large crowds; holding tight, standing close. He remembered the way she looked at him her first morning as Mrs. McCain. ...He remembered the way she looked at him when he had left a week prior. Those deep, loving eyes that voiced what she wouldn't let herself say. He couldn't go on without looking into those eyes again.


9MC9


Cassie had watched her uncle walk away from the school house. She prayed he had understood as she closed the door again.

“Good job. Now lock that door again.” Lee ordered.

Cassie did as she was told before she began to straighten the bookshelf. She couldn't stand just sitting there, waiting for Lee to make a move.

“You read all them books?” Oliver asked as he stared in amazement.

“I've read some of them, but not all.”

“If you wanted to, could you?”

“If I had the time.”

“It has always fascinated me how a bunch of scribbles on a page come to make sense to a body. You teach all them youngins to read them books, too?”

“Of course. One's not a very good teacher if they don't teach their student how to learn for themselves.”

“How do you mean?”

“Being able to read opens whole new doors of opportunity. No teacher would have the time to teach every student every thing there is to know. So the most important thing is to teach them to read, that way they can learn on their own.”

“If I wanted to learn to read-”

“You'd have to find someone willing to teach you.”

“Well we got nothing better to do. Go ahead.”

“Go ahead?” Cassie asked.

“Teach me to read.”

“I have better things to do than to teach a wanted criminal to read. A month from know you'll be swinging from a gallows.”

Lee suddenly back handed Cassie, drawing blood from the corner of her mouth. Cassie held the back of her hand to her mouth as she tried to stop the bleeding and attempted to fight the tears that threatened to fall.

“That's enough from you. I said I wanted to be teached, and you are gonna be the one to teach me. I've got all night, sister, so I suggest you start working fast.”

Cassie slowly nodded before retrieving one of the primers.

“This isn't something you can just learn overnight. It takes a lot of hard work and time.”

“I've got plenty of it.”

“Well I don't. It'll be dark soon, and you'll be on your way before we can make any progress.”

“Well then it looks like you'll just have to come with me then, won't you?”

“If you take me, you'll have more lawmen on your trail within twenty-four hours than you'll care to count!”

“Well, we'll just have to… distract them, won't we?”

“...How?” Cassie hesitantly asked. She didn't like the look Lee got in his eye.

“Never mind that. Now you start teachin', or my trigger finger may get a little ancy.”

Cassie reluctantly began to comply.

It wasn't too long before dark that Lee started spreading paper, coal and whatever else he could find around the school house. She didn't have to ask what he was doing; Cassie understood the man's intent.

As the sun was disappearing behind the hills, Lee found some spare rope and bound Cassie's hands together. He lit a match and soon began the fire, before the two silently slipped out of the school house. Once the men of North Fork realized the school was on fire and began running around, Lee pulled Cassie along as he ran for the woods.


10MC10


Lucas looked out the window of the Marshal's office to see Mark ride up on BlueBoy, followed by Ned and Johnny. Lucas started for the door, and met Mark at the threshold.

Lucas couldn't help but feel guilty and remorse as he stood staring at his son. He should've done more, he should've found a way to-

“Why are you here?” Mark asked, interrupting Lucas's thoughts.

“...Son, I can't tell you how sorry I am. But there was a storm and it washed out their trail.”

“Why did no one start searching the country side?!”

Lucas let out a long sigh as he tried to keep himself composed. He put a hand on Mark's shoulder and brought his son inside.

“We did, Mark. We didn't find a thing, and when we got back to town Marshal Anker had sent word to wait until we can restart this whole manhunt.”

“Which way did they go?”

“No one saw a thing. The schoolhouse went up in flames causing enough of a distraction for Lee to get away.”

Mark simply turned and began to walk out the door.

“Don't, Mark.”

Mark turned around and looked at his Pa curiously.

“Son, you can't go after him angry and alone. You're setting yourself up for disaster. Wait for Anker to get here.”

“Pa, this is my wife. You of all people should understand that I can't wait.”

“I'm going with you then.”

“... Thanks, Pa.”

Lucas and Mark left the office, Ned and Johnny inquiring about their intentions. Mark bluntly stated that they were leaving.

“Mark, I want to get her back just as much as you do, but wait for Anker!” Ned insisted.

“Ned, you're a Marshal, you had better wait for Anker. But I'm not under him and I'm going after my wife.”

Lucas and Mark got a few supplies and left town, asking Johnny to let Milly know what was going on.

Lucas knew there was too much land for the two of them to cover, but he knew he wouldn't be able to talk his son into waiting for Anker and his men. They silently rode, carefully scanning the land around them for any indication of Lee or Cassie.

Lucas carefully watched his son, knowing Mark was in a dark place. He blamed himself, and wondered if Mark didn't blame him, too. Lucas could see the anger and resentment on his son's face; he simply didn't know if it was towards Lee or himself.

The day dragged on, Mark and Lucas only stopping to rest the horses when absolutely necessary. Every cave, every gulley, every abandoned cabin was searched; yet they never came across anything that would confirm they were on the right track.

The sun had been set for about an hour when Lucas tried convincing his son to stop one last time.

“Mark, I know you're worried. I know you want to find her. But if we keep going with this little light, we could easily miss something. We have to stop.”

Mark looked at his Pa for a long time, not wanting to admit that Lucas was right. Finally, Mak nodded and rode until he found a decent area to make camp for the night. Without saying a word, Mark dismounted and unsaddled his horse before making a camp fire.

Lucas watched as his son stoked the fire; he could see the worry wearing on his son’s face. A long time passed before Lucas finally, yet hesitantly, walked to his son and sat down beside him. He spent a long while trying to muster up the strength to say something.

“Mark, I… I'm sorry. You asked me to take care of her, and… and I'm sorry.”

Mark looked at his Pa, sifting through the emotions bottled up inside of him. He couldn't dent that he wanted to blame his Pa, and maybe even had blamed him at the beginning. But he had to face the truth, and live by fact.

“...This would've happened if I had been home. Lee's the one to blame.”

Mark stood and went to get his bedroll out, Lucas soon behind him.

“Son, I know this is hard, but-”

“Pa, you remember when that one man took my mother, right before she lost the baby?”

Lucas nodded, surprised his son would bring up such a sensitive subject.

“Do you remember how you felt the days you spent looking for her?”

Lucas nodded again as the memories flooded his mind.

“Please give me time.”

Mark continued working on his bedroll as Lucas stared curiously at his son for a moments before walking away to give his son space. At first Lucas was a little hurt, but then he realized that his son was distancing himself to protect their relationship. Lucas remembered back and knew how irrational he became when he had been in Mark's position; he knew his son was trying to avoid taking his pain out on Lucas.

Neither father or son slept well that night. On several occasions, Lucas woke to hear Mark screaming Cassie's name as he woke from a disturbing nightmare. At daybreak, Lucas and Mark mounted up again and continued their search for Cassie.

11MC11


Anna looked out the window as the train pulled into North Fork. It felt good to be home, for good.

A gentleman assisted her in retrieving her luggage before she followed the rest of the passengers off the train. Anna quickly scanned the platform for her family, and was a little surprised to only see her mother.
Anna quickly went to greet Catherine who held her daughter extra tight as they embraced.

“Where is everyone?” Anna asked as she stepped back.

“... Let's go home and talk.”

“Ma?” Anna worriedly asked.

“Let's go home.”

Anna quickly gathered her things and followed her mother home. They sat down in the kitchen, Catherine holding Anna’s hands in her own.

“Ma, what's happened?”

“Anna…” Catherine paused as she tried to stop the tears. “Cassie was asked to teach at the school when Stephan had to leave town on a family emergency. One day she was teaching like normal, and next thing I know…” Catherine put her hand to her mouth and shook her head before going on. “Anna, Oliver Lee took your sister hostage.”

Anna stared at her mother for a long moment before she replied.

“But… he doesn't… he doesn't take hostages…”

“We can be thankful he decided to do that instead of… of his usual tactic.”

“Well are they looking for her?”

“Marshals all over the territory are, including Ned and your uncles.”

“What about Mark? How is he handling it?”

“He went after her as soon as he could. They've been gone for four days… no word yet.”

“Ma, will he… will Cassie-”

“I pray she'll be alright. They're doing everything they can.”

As Anna settled in that afternoon, she struggled to accept what her mother had told her, yet… she didn't have a choice. Her sister was missing… again.

Early evening, Anna told Catherine that she needed some fresh air and went for a walk. She wandered the town, every street, every building giving her some memory of her sister.

It was some time later when Anna found herself in front of the doctor's office. Hoping to be able to talk with the doc, Anna went inside… but nothing prepared her for who she saw sitting at the desk.

Anna's jaw dropped as Jason Carr looked up. Shock was written all over both of their faces as they recognized the other person. There were several long, awkward moments before the doctor was finally able to find his voice.

“Anna… what a surprise… it's good to see you again.” The doctor uncomfortably greeted. “...What are you doing here?”

Anna just stared at the man, unable to process the emotions that hit her. Finally, Anna simply turned and ran out of the office.

Jason hurried out the door and followed her down an alley.

“Anna, wait!”

Jason finally caught up to her and got her to stop.

“Please, let me explain…”

“...There's not much to explain.” Anna replied.

“It's not what it looks like-”

“Then why did you run?”

“Because I… I knew my time at the hospital was over, even if the staff believed me. The people there wouldn't have trusted me. Prescilla has a way of… twisting things and persuading people to believe her. Please, just hear my side out before you make your decision.”

Anna slowly nodded and waited for the doctor to go on.

“...Can we go back inside?”

Anna and the doctor walked back to the clinic and sat in the waiting room.

“I was young, I was inexperienced. I was interning at a hospital when my best friend and his wife showed up. The doctor I was under thought my friend had food poisoning. I pulled him aside and said I thought it was something more serious, but he wouldn't listen. I was only an intern, so there wasn't much I could do. They went back to their hotel, and two days later I watched him die. It broke me. I almost gave up being a doctor then and there. But I decided that I was going to go on, so I could help people like Brian. I was going to make a difference, and I was going to be a good doctor.”

“Then why did you run?”

“I told you, Prescilla-”

“You're a horrible liar.”

The doctor let out a long sigh before replying.

“I… I was afraid to face you. Maybe there was more I could've done. Maybe it was my fault. I had… had come to admire you, Anna. Because no matter how many patients you pulled a sheet over, you didn't let it stop you from caring. From loving. When my friend died… like I said, it broke me. I didn't want to care again because I didn't want to be hurt again. But you kept giving and at first… I was a little jealous. I didn't understand how you could give so much to people who would never be able to give back. Even when I treated you horribly… I could tell you were frustrated, but you still were kind to me. And I respected you for it. But when Prescilla told you her side of what happened, I didn't want to be rejected again. My ego was too big to open myself up to that situation, and so I took an offer at another hospital.”

“But how did you end up here?”

“I did a lot of soul searching after that, and realized that in the end I was angry at God for allowing so many bad things to happen in my life.”

“But?”

“But I realized that just like I couldn't blame someone like you for something that Jesse James did, I can't blame God for that same thing. People make choices in life. A lot of them. They're not all good ones… but the only person you can blame is the one who made the decision and committed the action. And I stopped using my past as an excuse to live the way I did. I was really going to make a difference… I wanted to practice in a place that didn't have fifteen doctors readily available. When a friend of mine mentioned North Fork, I finished my time at the hospital I was at and came here.”

“I would've heard your story out.”

“That's what makes you different. Most people wouldn't have, and I didn't expect you to. I'm sorry I left the way I did.”

“Well know that I believe you, and think you are going to make a difference in a lot of people's lives.”

“...So what brings you here?”

“I live here.” Anna replied with a slight chuckle. “... Doc's still around, isn't he?”

“Of course I am.” Burrgae said as he came through the door. “And don't worry, Anna. I still need plenty of help around here.”

“I noticed…” Anna replied as she eyed the large stack of paperwork on the desk. “Do I want to know what your office looks like?”

“Probably not.”


12MC12


Mark and Lucas stopped for another night and set up camp. It had been a long, hard week, and Lucas could see the exhaustion wearing on his son.

They were settling in for the night when they both heard footsteps and branches breaking. Both men grabbed their rifles and took cover behind some boulders.

“Who's there?” Lucas called out.

“Lucas?” Anker replied as he came into the light. “Stand down men, it's only the McCains.”

“Marshal Anker, what are you doing here?” Mark asked. “I thought you would be looking somewhere else.”

“We thought we were. We crossed over your tracks and saw the two horse trails. With nothing better to go on, we decided to follow it.”

Mark let out a long sigh and went over to the fire as Anker ordered his men to make camp for the night. Anker walked over to Lucas who sat watching his son.

“He doesn't look good, Lucas.”

“What did you expect? An outlaw has his wife.”

“I know…”

“...How much longer are you going to keep looking?”

“Lucas, if it were up to me, we wouldn't stop until we found Cassie.”

“But we both know it's not up to you.”

“...I can't keep pulling man power for much longer. One, maybe two more days… then I'll have to call it off.”

“How does this man keep escaping?? You would think by now the prison authorities would know better…”

“He's an escape artist, Lucas. The man did this for a living at one point and time. No matter how many guards, no matter how many chains… he just vanishes.”

“Well this time he “just vanished" with Mark's wife! You've have to do something!”

“I'm trying, Lucas. If we capture him again-”

“When.”

“...We’re gaurding him with as many men as head quarters will let us and not stopping until he gets to prison.”

“Why don't they just hang him as soon as they arrest him? He's already been sentenced to a gallows.”

“I don't make the laws, Lucas. I only enforce them.”

“At this rate, there's not going to be anyone to enforce them on.”

The next morning, Anker organized everyone into groups of twos and threes before they split up to search. When everyone met up the following afternoon, Anker had to send his men back. He knew Mark was far from pleased, but he also knew that the man understood that there was only so much that could be done.

The four men from North Fork continued on, searching for Cassie. Their heart sunk every night they turned in without so much as a hint as to where Lee had run off to.

One day, the men stopped in a town to pick up more supplies and ask around about Lee. Johnny had stopped by the saloon to ask questions, and was just ready to leave when a saloon girl stopped him.

“The man used a different name, but there was a man who came through here a few days ago fitting your description.”

“Was he alone?”

“...I believe so. He didn't stay long, just bought a couple bottles and left.”

“Do you have any idea where he went??” Johnny desperately asked.

“He walked North out of town, but that's all I can tell you.”

Without saying another word, Johnny ran to find the others and told them what he had heard.

“You're sure it was him?” Need asked.

“Who cares?” Johnny replied. “It's the first lead we've had in a week!”

Before Johnny was done talking, Mark had mounted his horse and headed out of town.

“Let's get a move on.” Lucas ordered. “We have a lot of land to cover!”

The men continued on, thankful to have a small glimpse of hope. As they were riding, however, Lucas dropped back to where Johnny was and quietly began talking.

“...You didn't say anything about the girl seeing Cassie.”

“The saloon girl said that Lee didn't have anyone with him… we can hope he either let her go or left her tied up somewhere.”

“Thanks for not mentioning that around Mark.”

“Lucas, I may be wild, but I'm not crazy. Mark's bad enough as it is.”

“I pray for both their sakes we find them soon.”

“Lucas, if something did happen to Cassie..."

“I don't want to think about it.”


13MC13


Cassie watched as Lee stubbled into camp, half a bottle of whiskey in his hand, several more under his arm. She winced as he tripped over a rock, nearly dropping the open bottle into the fire.

“You're going to get yourself killed.” Cassie told the man as he tried getting up.

“Shutup!”

“You may not care if you get killed, but I need someone to untie me.”

Without warning, Lee threw a now empty bottle of whiskey at the tree Cassie was tied to. The bottle shattered beside her, a few glass shards penetrating her skin.

“I told you to shut that pretty little yap of yours. I won't be so nice about it next time.”

Cassie clenched her jaw as she glared at the man. She knew what he was threatening to do, but Cassie almost didn't care anymore.

“Why don't you just go ahead and kill me? It's what you're going to do in the end anyway. It's all you ever do, manipulate and kill. I don't know how a scumbag like you lives with themselves. Do the faces of those you murder come back and haunt you? Or are you so numb to it you don't even care anymore? Do you even see people anymore, or is it just some sick game to you??”

Lee let out a disgusting laugh as he let himself fall to the ground. Cassie watched the man in confusion as he sat up, still laughing.

“That's all life ever is, woman. It's a game of survival, of learning to live on the top. You go about your life, trying to outlive the next person. People like you go about their business, work hard, try to make something of themselves. But it's not worth anything becomes there's someone else behind you that will always make something more of themselves. Fifty years from now no one will remember either one of us, so there's no point anything.”

“Exactly. No one will remember. So why do what you do?”

The look that came over the man's face concerned Cassie as he stood and stumbled towards her, still slurring his words.

“Because no one remembered what was done to me. But they're going to remember what was done to them.”

“What was done to you?”

The man looked at Cassie in confusion, tilting his head as he stared at her.

“What's it to you?”

“Well it's not very often an outlaw intends to kill me. I would at least like to know why.”

Lee shook his head as he turned and stumbled towards the fire again.

“Was it your parents?”

Lee turned around and looked at Cassie again. For the first time in his life he saw someone who was truly interested… truly concerned.

“...It was my brother.”

“What happened to him?”

“We weren't no more than fifteen and sixteen. It was no secret that we didn't exactly get along, but somehow we still managed to get close… though no one would've known it. One day Kid Curry came to town, before he had his reputation. My brother and I were working out in the fields and decided to take a break. We wandered out to the woods and went down an old mine shaft. We'd been there a hundred times afore, and nothing had happened. That day we found a small opening we'd never seen before and followed it until we found a deposit of gold. Small, but it was gold none the least. We went running back towards town to get some supplies, but he met us on the road with some of his men. He seemed friendly like and asked what the rush was. Drew foolishly told him and the man offered tools to us. He followed us back and after he saw where it was, he killed my brother. I would've got it too, but I was able to escape down another tunnel. I stay hid for a long time before I heard the sherriff coming. Only Curry had told him he was riding along and heard the gunshot and saw me drop a gun over in some bushes. His men backed up the story and they sent me away to an institution after finding me guilty.”

“Didn't they hear you out?”

“No one's ever bothered to hear me out. I was too much of a trouble maker growing up.”

“But you could've turned around and done something profitable with your life. You could've done good!”

“Who was gonna listen to an ex convict? Naw, I didn't have a chance in the world. But I'll tell you one thing, they're going to do a lot of remembering the next fifty years.”

“And when it's all said and done? When you have to account for all those people you killed?”

“My maker will give me what I deserve.”

“You're disgusting.” Cassie scoffed.

“But you'll remember that about me, won't you?”

“Can't remember if I'm dead.”

Lee went back to his whiskey and drank until he finally passed out.

Cassie looked up at the sky, almost wishing that Lee would get this over with and just kill her. Why did he wait? Why did he taunt her?

Cassie remembered back to when she had been held in that wretched cabin. She had thought Mark was dead, she didn't want to go on, she didn't want to live anymore. But this time was different. Mark was alive, she wanted to go on, she wanted to go back to the life she had.

...But what hope did she have? Mark and the Marshal's Service were looking in the completely wrong direction. The rains had washed out any trial and nothing except wasteland surrounded them. But Cassie knew she couldn't give up. There was more to consider than simply her own life.

Cassie began to twist and turn, trying to give herself just a little more room within the ropes. Finally she could move just enough to grab a larger piece of broken glass. With much effort, Cassie put herself in a position where she could start attempting to cut the rope that bound her to the tree. Cassie knew her chances of escape were slim, but she was going to try. She knew Mark wasn't going to give up on her, and she wasn't about to give up on herself.


14MC14


“Somebody's been here recently.” Lucas announced as he felt the warm firewood from the reminence of a campfire.

“Pa, smaller foot prints!” Mark exclaimed as he got down to look at the sets of foot prints around the camp.

“How small?” Johnny asked.

“Small enough to be Cassie's. They go off that way.” Mark replied, pointing east.

“Looks like someone was drinking.” Ned commented as he came across the shattered bottle by the tree.

“There's another bottle over here.” Lucas replied as he picked it up.

“I think someone was tied up…” Mark said as he went over to where Ned was.

“Well at least it looks like she's still alive.” Johnny stated. “Let's go.”

The four men carefully followed the tracks as the hot sun beat down on them. Finally, in the distance, they saw two figures walking across the dessert.

Ned and Mark both went to kick their horses, but Lucas and Johnny reached over to grab the horses’ halters.

“Easy there, kid.” Johnny said.

“We have to be smart. We don't know what the situation is. Let's quietly go around and get a better look.” Lucas suggested.

Johnny and Ned went around one side of the trail while Lucas and Mark went to the other.

Suddenly, the two figures ran up and behind a hill, disappearing from sight. The foursome followed after them, but when they got over the rise, they couldn't find a thing… not even tracks.

“What do we do now?” Mark asked in frustration.

“Keep going for a while longer. They can't hide forever.” Lucas assured.

But to Mark, that's what it seemed they did. Night had fallen and they still hadn't seen a thing. Lucas called for camp, wondering how much more of this his son could take.

Supper was eaten in silence before Mark suddenly stood and announced that he was going for a walk. Lucas hesitated in going after his son… he knew Mark had asked for space, but his boy was hurting a lot more than he was trying to let on.

“Go on, Lucas.” Johnny said. “He may not want to admit it, but he needs you.”

Lucas got up and followed after Mark, quickly catching up to his son.

“...Pa, how could they just disappear? We were right on their trail! Lee didn't bother covering tracks before!”

“He didn't know we were following him before.”

“How-”

Mark's question was interrupted by a gunshot nearby. Both men clenched their rifles and ran towards the noise. As they came over a rise, they could her a very familiar voice.

“...Do we need to go over this again?” Cassie asked as Lee picked up his hat with bound hands.

“You missed.”

“I hit exactly what I am for. If I wanted to kill you-”

“Cassie!” Mark exclaimed as he and Lucas ran towards the two.

“It's about time you showed up!” Lee yelled. “She's insane!”

Lucas and Mark both looked at Cassie curiously for a moment, but Mark didn't care. He went to kiss his wife as Lucas held his rifle on the outlaw.

“Are you alright?” Mark asked as he looked her over.

“I'm fine, just thankful it was you following us and not someone else.”

“What do you mean?” Lucas asked.

“Well I saw four riders in the distance, but out in the middle of nowhere I knew I couldn't take any chances. When I smelled the smoke from the fire, I got worried that I didn't cover my tracks well enough.”

“You covered the trail?” Lucas asked in surprise.

“Not very well, apparently.”

“... Actually, we lost your trail.” Mark admitted. “But how did you-”

“Why don't we get back to camp and then have Cassie explain?” Lucas suggested.

When they got back to camp, Ned managed to get Cassie far enough from Mark to give his sister a hug. Johnny and Ned both started asking questions as Lucas tied Lee to a tree.

As Cassie began to explain, Mark got his wife something to eat.

“I got to the schoolhouse that morning to prepare for the day and he pulled a gun on me. He said he was just going to hide in the school for the day and then be on his way. But for whatever reason, he decided to take we with him. We walked for days until last night he finally got himself drunk enough to pass out.”

“But you were tied up, weren't you?” Ned asked.

“I managed to get a piece of glass from a broken bottle and cut through the rope, but there was enough left to tie him up. I grabbed his gun and waited for him to wake the next morning before we started walking. When I heard riders coming, I got scared and ran, covering our tracks.”

Mark sat down beside Cassie and put an arm around her as he handed her a plate of food.

“What was with the gunshot?” Lucas asked.

“He didn't think I had it in me to shoot, so I shot his hat off to prove him wrong.”

As Cassie ate, Ned and Johnny explained what had happened on their end.

Knowing Mark needed the most sleep, Lucas told his son to take first watch as the rest of them went to bed, so he could have uninterrupted sleep until morning.

When Johnny relieved Mark, he crawled into the bedroll beside his wife. He kissed the back of her head and draped his arm over her, holding her tight.

“I love you,” Mark tenderly whispered to his wife.

“I'm alright Mark.” Cassie assured her husband. “...And I love you, too.”


15MC15


The next morning everyone else rode in the saddle while Lee was forced to walk in front of everyone. They spent one more night on the trail before arriving in a small town where they wired Marshal Anker and got Lee locked in jail.

Mark worriedly watched his wife, knowing she wasn't doing as well as she let on. After supper that evening, Cassie and Mark settled into their hotel room, giving them a chance to talk privately.

“Cassie, what's going on?”

“I'm fine, Mark, really.”

“You hardly touched your supper.”

Cassie took Mark's hands and sat down on the bed, lovingly looking into his eyes.

“I appreciate your concern, but it's nothing more than that pesky cold I've had since last month. I just need a little rest at home, and I'll be fine.”

Mark leaned forward and gave his wife a kiss on the forehead.

“Mark, was anyone hurt in the fire?”

“Not that I'm aware of.”

“What happened to your Pa’s back?”

“...What do you mean?”

“Anytime he leans forward, or moves just right he grimaces. I've seen him rubbing it, too.”

“...I didn't notice anything wrong.”

“Well like you, he tries to only show it when no one's watching.”

“I'll ask him about it tomorrow.” Mark slightly paused before going on. “...Did he hurt you at all?”

Cassie hesitantly adverted her eyes as Mark squeezed her hand a little tighter.

“Mark, just remember that I'm fine. Please promise me you won’t let him get to you. He'll get what he deserves.”

“What did he do?”

“It wasn't anything horrible. He slapped me once and threw a bottle towards me. It shattered and a few pieces of glass cut me, but that was it, I promise.”

Mark put his forehead against hers and rubbed his thumb across her hand.

“Mark, are you alright?”

“I am now, Cass... I am now.”

------

The next morning, Mark left Cassie in Ned and Johnny's room while he went to find Lucas. He knocked on the door before letting himself inside, only was surprised to see what he found.

Lucas had his shirt off and was rubbing salve on some burns.

“Pa, what happened?” Mark asked as he shut the door and put his rifle down.

“It's nothing Mark, I'm fine.”

Mark took a few steps towards his father and looked at him in concern.

“Pa, that doesn't look like nothing, neither does that big bruise. What happened?”

Lucas sighed as he started putting his shirt back on.

“When the school caught fire, John Hamilton and I tried fighting it from the inside. I got a few burns and a beam fell on me. That's all.”

“That's all?? Pa, you should be back home, why did you-”

Mark stopped short as Lucas put his hands on Mark's shoulders.

“Mark, I've told you before. Anytime my son needs me, I'll be there. You may not have recognized it, but you needed somebody with you.”

“...I know, Pa, and thanks, but-”

“No “but’s”, Mark. I love you and Cassie both, and I wouldn't have been able to live with myself if I stayed at home and did nothing. It's not as bad as it looks.”

“...Pa, thanks for always being there…”

“I love you, Son.” Lucas replied with a smile. “Ready to go home?”

“Just as soon as you get an alright from the town doctor.”

“Mark…”

“I'm not backing down on this one, Pa.”

Lucas looked into Mark's eyes and knew his son wasn't going to give in. He stood as he slapped Mark's shoulder and then started for the door.

“I'll tell you what,” Lucas began. “You get me into the doctor's office, and I'll sit through an examination.”

“Is that a promise?”

Lucas eyed his son curiously as they walked out the door.

“Mark, just how do you figure on getting me into the doctor's office?”

Mark nodded as Ned and Johnny came up behind Lucas and took hold of his biceps.

“Mark McCain!” Lucas yelled.

“Quiet Pa, you'll wake the other guests.”


16MC16


¹ Historically, a female teacher would generally be dismissed if she were to be married or were to engage in “unseemly conduct”. This statement does not reflect on the opinion of the writer, those who run this site, or Four Star Productions.

² Episode 166 - “Old Man Running”

³ Episode 31 - “The Angry Man”

⁴ Episode 149 - “The Assailants”


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