The Rifleman
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Fan Fiction

The Telegram
Chapter3
Written by Morgan

Mark impatiently paced back and forth across the front room. He had half a mind to just wake his Pa up, but he knew Lucas needed the rest, so he continued pacing. Mark couldn't believe he had forgotten the telegram, he must've just been so overwhelmed with relief when his Pa woke up that he didn't realize that Lucas could still be in danger. Then a thought struck Mark.

'He's always going to be in danger.'

The thought didn't come as big of a surprise as Mark thought it should've, but then again, he realized that he'd always known it. With his Pa's reputation, there'd always be somebody after Lucas. However, Mark knew that as frightening as the thought may be, he couldn't let fear run his life. He had to embrace and redirect that fear, he had to use the love that he felt for his Pa to go on and not drown in an ocean of worry.

But there was still room for concern and precautions, which was exactly what he needed to talk to his Pa about. Why couldn't he wake up?

Mark put an arm against the wall and rested his head against it, in an effort to calm himself down. Mark realized what was upsetting him the most wasn't the fact that his Pa was still sleeping, or even the telegram. It was the fact that he had forgotten about a message so threatening. That he could be the reason something went wrong. It would be his fault for not warning his Pa if somebody tried to harm Lucas, and Mark couldn't live with that guilt, especially if somebody succeeded.

Finally, Mark could hear his Pa stirring in the other room, trying to get ready for the day while using the crutches. Mark hurried into the bedroom and found his Pa getting a shirt from the dresser.

"Pa, I don't know how on earth I forgot about this, and I'm sorry I did, but you need to read this telegram," Mark said in a rush as he handed his Pa a slip of paper.

"When did you get this?" Lucas inquired.

"It came in minutes before you woke up last week, I guess that's how I forgot about it," Mark hurriedly explained.

Lucas shifted his gaze away from his son and slowly opened the piece of paper and read the telegram... twice.

“LUCAS McCAIN
NORTH FORK, NEW MEXICO

Watch your back.”

"No information about the sender?" Lucas asked as he looked up at Mark.

"None at all. Pa I'm sorry, I have no idea how I managed-"

"Mark, it's alright." Lucas smiled at his son. "Don't worry about it, it's probably someone's idea of a practical joke."

"It never is..." Mark mumbled.

"Well then it's a good thing I've got you as a partner to... “watch my back”."

"Well are we going to tell Micah at least?" Mark inquired. How could his Pa be so relaxed?

Lucas put a hand on Mark's shoulder and looked at him with a gentle smile and loving eyes.

"Mark, I don't want you to worry about this. Having a reputation comes with a territory. You know I don't want the reputation, but it's something we both have to live with. We can't let fear run our lives."

"I know, but at least-" Mark started.

"If we find anything else suspicious I will talk to Micah, but there's no need for him, or us, to be worried about a silly little joke," Lucas stated as he crumpled the telegram.

"Alright, Pa." Mark was still concerned, but he couldn't argue with Lucas.

"Now why don't you go ahead and start breakfast while I get dressed?"

"Sure, Pa," Mark replied before going back into the front room.

'Well, at least now he knows...' Mark thought. It didn't put Mark at ease, but there wasn't anything he could do that would.

Lucas came out of the bedroom as Mark was pouring him a cup of coffee.

"Where's your cup?" Lucas teased as he smiled at Mark.

"On the table, filled with milk." Mark smiled back at his Pa, then finished scrambling the eggs before putting them on the table and sitting down.

"So what are your plans for today?" Lucas asked as they ate breakfast.

"I need to check the fence in the south pasture and make sure it made it through the last few storms fine, then I'll head to town to pick up some supplies we need."

"I need you to deposit that money we talked about in the bank if you don't mind. Oh, and would you take that bowl back to Lou? I forgot we had it."

"Yep," Mark replied. "And don't be getting any ideas about working in the barn, I already finished everything that needs to get done, and I don't need to come home to find you outside catching a cold or something. One trip to Doc's this month was enough for me."

"You're as bad as Lou," Lucas commented.

"No one could be that overprotective." Mark could actually think of one other person that had once been more overprotective than Lou, but didn't bring her up... Milly was gone.

1MC1

As Mark urged Blue Boy farther down the road, he tipped his hat at the few people he passed. About a quarter of the way into town, Mark saw Micah riding towards him and stopped to talk to him for a minute.

"Hi Micah, what brings you out this way?"

"Just checking the outlining ranches. There's a few folks we haven't seen in town for a while and I just want to make sure they didn't come down with anything. Headed into town?"

"There's a few supplies we're needin' and I need to place an order so we have plenty of wood to fix the fences come spring. I have a feeling some of the fencing isn't going to last us another year."

"I'm assuming your Pa is at the house then?"

"That's where he's supposed to be anyway. Would you mind stopping in and makin' sure he's not trying to do anything he shouldn't?"

"I was already planning on it. How are things holding up?" Micah inquired.

"Pretty good. there's a lot more to do when only one of us is working, but it's not as bad as it would be if it was summer. Right now the most difficult thing is chopping all the wood by myself."

"Well, if you need anything, don't be afraid to holler."

“I might have you lock Pa up if he doesn’t take it easier,” Mark answered with a grin. "When does Marshal Osborne get back?"

"Wednesday of next week. I'm regretting letting him take that long with his family, I was getting used to having someone else around to help. I forgot how much running around there is when only one person is doing the runin'."

"Well have fun!" Mark joked.

"Behave yourself!" Micah said as he urged his horse forward and waved goodbye.

The first stop Mark made was at the hotel. It didn't seem too busy at the moment, so Mark figured it would be a good time to talk with Lou, who he found at the front desk.

"Howdy, Lou," Mark greeted as he removed his hat.

"Good ta see ye, Mark! What brings ye ta town today?"

"Oh just some errands. I brought back that bowl you brought the stew in. Thanks, we really appreciated it and it was really good," Mark said as he handed her the bowl.

"Well now, no complaints about my cookin' today? Are ye sick or something?" Lou asked with a smile.

"Cassie warned me before she left to keep you on my “good side”. She doesn't want her secret spilled."

"Is she still frettin' about that? Oh, that girl!" Lou laughed. "Tell yer father I said I better see you two at the restaurant for Christmas dinner with Micah and I Sunday after the service."

"I will. Speaking of Christmas, can I have that package you were holding for me? I don't have to worry about Pa finding it up in the hayloft anymore."

"Here ye are," Lou said after retrieving a package from underneath the desk and giving it to Mark. "I'm sure Lucas will love it." There was a slight pause in the conversation before Lou spoke up again, "...So, Beth seems like a nice girl..."

"I best get goin'. See you Sunday, Lou," Mark said before whirling around and heading out of the hotel.

Mark headed down the street and checked to see if they had any mail, and was surprised that they actually did have a letter. Mail was usually a rarity and they had received several letters the last time he checked, so he wasn't expecting anything for a while.

Mark stopped at the general store next and picked up the supplies he had come to town for, then headed off for the bank.

As Mark walked inside the door, he accidentally bumped into a woman coming out.

"My apologies ma'am, are you alright?" Mark asked as he reached to steady her.

"It was my fault, wasn't watching where I was going." The woman smiled at Mark and then was on her way.

Mr. Hamilton and a teller who was helping a customer were the only two working, so Mark made his way to talk to the banker.

"Hello, Mark," John greeted.

"Afternoon, Mr. Hamilton. Pa had some money he wanted deposited in the bank while I was in town."

"Step over to one of the windows and I'll help you," the cheerful banker offered.

After Mark finished his business at the bank he said goodbye to Mr. Hamilton and headed outside to mount BlueBoy and head home. It was a cold, long ride and Mark was glad when he caught sight of the homestead.

Mark hurried to un-saddle and put BlueBoy in his stall before climbing up to the hayloft and hiding the package. He tossed some hay down for the horses, then grabbed the saddle bags with the hand that didn't carry his rifle and went inside.

Mark found Lucas asleep in his chair and was glad to know his Pa hadn't been up and around doing things for at least a little while. After putting the supplies away, Mark started dinner as quietly as he could, and after the stew was on to simmer, he set the table. There wasn't much to do after that, so Mark grabbed one of the books Mr. Griswold had given him to borrow over the break from school and sat down to read.

It was almost an hour later when Lucas woke up and saw Mark sitting across from him, absorbed in a book.

"Mark, how long have you been home?" Lucas inquired as he stretched his arms.

Mark thought about what he had completed and looked down to see how far he was into the book.

"I don't know, an hour and a half maybe?"

"You should've woken me up."

"You needed it, you're not doing as good as you're letting on."

"Mark, for the last time, I'm-"

"You can say it as many times as you want, but you aren't fine, I see it. Besides, with your broken leg there's nothing you could've done anyway."

Lucas sighed, Mark was right about both things.

"How long until supper's ready?" Lucas asked, noticing the table first, then the pot on the stove.

"Shouldn't be too long, I'll check it." Mark stood and gave his Pa a letter before walking to the stove. "We got another letter, no return address."

Mark heard his Pa opening the letter, and after a minute looked over to see a look on Lucas's face that Mark couldn't quite identify.

"Pa, is something wrong?" Mark asked, but received no reply. "Pa?" Mark called a little louder.

"Sorry, what?"

"What's wrong?" Mark asked.

"...Nothing..." Lucas said as he stared out the window.

"Pa, what is it?"

"I said nothing," Lucas answered sternly.

"Pa, I can tell something's wrong, what-"

"Nothing's wrong Mark!" Lucas told his son, much harsher than he meant to.

Mark turned back to the stew and stirred it even though it didn't need stirring.
His Pa was keeping something from him and that was evident, but Mark decided that if his Pa thought this was something he didn't need to know, he'd trust his Pa's discernment.

Mark set the stew on the table and he and Lucas sat down for supper. After the prayer there was an awkward silence at first, but then Mark spoke up.

"Lou told me to tell you she better see us at her restaurant for Christmas dinner, Sunday after the service with her and Micah."

"Well, that was nice of her to invite us."

"I don't think it was an invitation, I think it was a summons." Mark slightly smiled along with Lucas, but they both knew they were empty smiles.

Mark did the dishes after supper then headed outside to do the evening chores. Mark's heart ached as he thought about earlier that evening. Why hadn't he just kept quiet? Why did he push his Pa? He should've seen that his Pa was in no mood to be questioned. Mark wished he could take back the questions, then his Pa wouldn't have gotten upset with him... the worst feeling in the world for Mark was when he knew that Lucas was upset with him, it made everything so different.

Mark hesitated before going back into the house. He didn't want to face the awkward silence again, but he didn't want to bring the conversation up with his Pa either. Before stepping into the house, Mark decided to go straight to bed, and that's just what he did. Neither Mark or Lucas said goodnight to the other and Mark soon lay awake in his bunk while Lucas sat in the front room in his chair. Mark felt so torn inside... he didn't want things like this, but how could he fix it?

Mark heard the door open and close behind him, but pretended to be asleep. He heard Lucas slowly let out a deep breath before sitting on the edge of Mark's bunk.

"I know you're awake, Mark," Lucas stated. Mark opened his eyes but just stared at the wall while Lucas looked at the wall opposite of Mark. "Son, I shouldn't have raised my... I shouldn't have yelled at you, Mark. I wish I could take it back, but we both know that's impossible. I am sorry, Mark. I hope you'll forgive me, I could see the hurt in your face all night and it killed me knowing I caused it." Lucas paused a moment before continuing. "The letter caught me off guard, I wasn't expecting it and all I could think about was... well, I want you to read it first."

Mark turned around and looked at his Pa who held out the letter in his hand. Before taking it, Mark spoke up.

"I love you Pa, I think forgiveness is pretty much a given in our partnership." Mark then took the letter and read it.

'McCain, I'm coming,' was all the letter said. Mark now understood his Pa's concern.

"It's pretty much the same as the one the Garners sent. That's what had you so worried, wasn't
it?" Mark asked.

"They're long gone, but the memories of what they did aren't," Lucas said as he nodded. "Mark, I was concerned about your safety, and worried about how you would handle it. You were pretty scared the first time we got a note like this, I didn't want to see you worrying about me. I let my fear take over, just like I've been telling you not to, and then I let my emotions get carried away and I yelled at you."

"I understand Pa. I should've accepted the first answer you gave me," Mark replied.

"See, that's what makes our relationship so special though. We're partners and don't keep these kinds of things from each other, I should've told you what was really going on so you didn't need to doubt my first answer."

"So, are we going to talk to Micah tomorrow?" Mark asked.

"If it will make you feel better, I promise we will."

"Thanks, Pa."

"I love you, Mark, goodnight," Lucas said before getting his crutches together. He leaned forward to give Mark a kiss on the head like he did when Mark was younger, but that was just it, Mark wasn't “younger” anymore. Lucas stopped himself and was about to get up when he felt a hand on his shoulder and soon found himself in an embrace with Mark.

"I love you too, Pa."

2MC2

The next day, Mark and Lucas drove into town to tell Micah about the telegram and letter. Micah was alarmed, but stayed calm for Mark's sake. Micah could tell Mark was very worried about Lucas, and could see that Lucas was concerned for Mark's safety. It was more than once that someone had tried to use Mark to get to Lucas.

"I'll keep my eyes open Lucas-boy, make sure to tell me if anything else happens. Like you said, it's probably someone's idea of a practical joke," Micah assured.

"I hope so," Lucas commented. "Will you join us for lunch at the hotel?"

"Sounds good to me, I don't think I can stand any more of my own cooking."

The three headed towards the hotel and removed their hats as they entered. They had some casual conversation with Lou before ordering their meal, then Lucas and Micah began talking
about the latest train robberies, prison escapes, and statehood.

Mark found the conversation interesting but didn't have anything to contribute to it, so he sat quietly listening.

Mark was enjoying the last bite of his chicken fried steak when a man ran into the hotel and headed towards the table they were seated at.

"Marshal, there's a fight that broke out over at Sweeney's, you better come quick," the man stated.

Micah stood up and started heading out of the hotel with Mark following closely behind.

"Mark, stay here," Lucas stated.

Mark did as he was told and watched Micah through the window. Micah made his way into the saloon and out of Mark's sight. It wasn't long before Mark heard a gunshot, and at first he was worried somebody had shot someone else... but then he realized that Micah had probably just fired to get everyone's attention. Soon Micah came out of the saloon, walking three men towards the jail. Before long Micah came back to rejoin Lucas and Mark.

"Well what happened?" Mark asked as he sat down.

"Just a couple of hands blowin' off some steam. I'll let 'em out in the morning," Micah answered.

"Who fired the shot?" Mark inquired.

"Don't worry, it was me," Micah replied. "I think the only thing really damaged was a few people's pride."
*****

After finishing at the hotel, Mark and Lucas went to see Doc Burrage, who was pleased with how well Lucas' leg was healing.

"I'd say about two and a half more months before it's fully healed, but you can start slowly putting a little pressure on it mid to end of January... if you don't do anything to it now. Keep off it Lucas, let Mark handle things, or it will be a LONG time before you can walk without it bothering you," the doctor instructed.

"Don't worry, I'll make sure he doesn't do anything," Mark stated as he smiled at his Pa. "Anything."

Lucas and Mark headed home, and as Mark coaxed the team along, he asked his Pa if he could head over to the Donalds that afternoon.

"It's been a while since I've been over there and I'm sure Mrs. Donalds is needing the help."

"Sure, I don't see a problem. Did you uh... clear that problem up with Emma?"

"It wasn't really a “problem,” but Cassie told her I wasn't interested in her and things seemed fine after that. And before you ask, I am sure I don't like her, or anyone else for that matter. Did you know you've got Lou trying to play match maker now?"

"Maybe it's not such a bad idea," Lucas laughed.

"Pa, what is it with this girl thing? I have a hard enough time trying to understand Lou, I don't need to add another woman to try and figure out."

"Give up now, you'll never figure her, or any other female out for that matter."

Once they arrived home, Mark put the team away and then saddled BlueBoy for his ride to the Donalds. He stepped inside to see if his Pa needed anything before he left, and was soon on his way.

It was a nice day for December, the sun was peeking out from behind the clouds and the wind had died down some since the day before.

Once Mark arrived, he tied BlueBoy to the porch and knocked on the door.

"Afternoon, Mark," Mrs. Donalds greeted. "What can I do for you?"

"I had a free afternoon so I decided to see if you could use any help."

"You're so thoughtful, Mark. I can't tell you how much it means to have you stop by like you do."

"What can I start with?"

"Go ahead and put your horse in the barn, then if you don't mind, the door to the outhouse isn't latching properly and neither Emma or I can figure it out."

"Sure thing," Mark replied.

After taking BlueBoy to the barn Mark grabbed a few tools and headed for the outhouse.

It was a simple fix and it didn't take Mark too long to repair the door. On his way back to the barn, Mark noticed the back of the hen house had a hole in it, so he fixed that as well. Mark checked the normal things like doors and windows before setting to work on chopping the wood.
Even though it was cold out, Mark was soon warm enough to take his jacket off, but a few minutes later, he felt something cold hitting his back.

Mark whirled around to see Lilly giggling and holding a second snowball in her hand.

"You better run!" Mark told her as he began to form snowballs of his own. Mark got close enough so he could playfully toss one at her back without missing, and Lilly squealed as the cold from the snow penetrated her coat.

"Are we done?" Mark playfully asked.

"Hmm... nope!" Lilly exclaimed as she hit Mark with another snowball.

Mark chased Lilly around the yard and enjoyed hearing the little girl laugh, until he slipped on a patch of ice and fell.

"Mark, are you alright?" Lilly asked as she came racing over.

"Yeah, just slipped," Mark said as he got up.

Mark winced as he put pressure on his left foot, but didn't pay any attention to the discomfort in his ankle after that.

"I guess it's time I get back to work. Why don't you head inside and warm up a little?"

"Alright," Lilly said as she skipped away.

Mark finished cutting the wood, but noticed his ankle was still giving him trouble. As Mark walked back to the house, he tried to conceal his limp as much as possible.

"Anything else?" Mark asked Mrs. Donalds after making his way to the kitchen.

"I think that should be fine Mark. Thank you so much for your help, I don't know how to repay you."

"Don't worry about it, I would've spent the afternoon sitting at home if I hadn't come out here, so thanks for giving me something to do. See you all in church tomorrow," Mark said as he waved at the family who was milling about the kitchen.

"Goodbye, Mark," Emma and Mrs. Donalds called.

When Mark got BlueBoy out of the barn, he went to mount up on the left side, like normal, but he regretted it as soon as he put all his weight on his foot and a sharp pain went through his ankle. Mark finished mounting, but made a mental note to mount from the other side next time.

When Mark entered his home, he found Lucas asleep once again. He smiled thinking about how his Pa constantly told him that he was “just fine” and, “didn't need all this rest.” Then, Mark saw the letter in his hand, the one they had received the day before. Maybe his Pa really was more concerned than he let on, maybe he was actually taking the notes into consideration. Mark certainly hoped so.

Mark soon had supper ready and woke his Pa. After eating and doing his evening chores, Mark went to bed early so he could wake up before Lucas and get his gift from the barn. Christmas was Mark's second favorite holiday, and it would be even better since they were going to have dinner with Lou and Micah.

As Mark lied in bed, he could feel throbbing pain in his ankle, but told himself that it really wasn't that bad. Mark ignored it and eventually drifted off to a peaceful sleep.

3MC3

When Mark woke the next morning, he was glad to find Lucas still sleeping. He quietly dressed before making his bed and heading to the front room where he put on his hat and coat, grabbed his rifle, and headed out the door.

Mark had only taken a few steps from the porch when he noticed the barn door was ajar. He knew he had latched it the night before, they couldn't risk a wild animal getting in there and attacking the animals in the barn. Mark tightened his grip on the rifle and cautiously approached the door. He silently crept into the barn and saw a man working with what Mark assumed to be the man's horse, in one of the stalls.

"Hands up and stay right where you are," Mark calmly ordered. The man compiled and raised his hands. "Now turn around, slowly."

When the man turned around, Mark could hardly believe who stood in front of him.

"Uncle Johnny!? What are you doing here?" Mark asked as he quickly lowered the rifle.

"Visiting my favorite nephew, is there something wrong with that?" Johnny asked with a smile as he went up to Mark and gave him a slap on the back.

"No, it's good to see you. Why didn't you come into the house? You know you just 'bout got yourself shot?"

"Well you weren't up and around yet, so I figured I could just wait until you got up." Johnny paused for a minute and Mark could tell there something else on his mind.

"Is something the matter?" Mark inquired.

"Mark, have you gotten a few threats against your Pa?"

"Well yeah... but how did you know-"

"Because I sent them as a “practical joke.” Mark, I promise I had no idea what had happened, I'm sorry I sent them."

"Well I'm glad it was you and not somebody else. ...How did you find out what happened? It was only a few weeks ago."

"I saw when I was coming down the hill," Johnny replied.

Mark looked at his uncle, confused.

"What are you talking about exactly?" Mark asked.

"Your Pa's death..." Johnny replied, just as confused as Mark.

"Oh, no. Pa's fine, well, alive at least. He's got a broken leg but that's about it."

"Then what's with the grave up on the hill?"

"Sorry to make you think he died, we just never took the grave marker out. It's a long story, and Pa could probably tell you more than I can, but pretty much he had to fake his death to help catch a few criminals."

"Well, I'm glad to hear that, now I don't feel so bad about my “joke”."

"Well Pa will be relieved when he finds out you were the one behind the notes. Let me get the chores done and I'll join you inside."

"I don't mind giving ya a hand," Johnny offered.

The two worked on the chores and talked as they worked. Johnny wished he hadn't missed out on things like seeing Mark growing up because he had gotten on the wrong side of the law, but now was a time to move forward, not look back.

"So how'd your Pa break his leg?" Johnny inquired.

"Pa got stuck out in a snowstorm and Razor threw him. He landed just right and broke his leg. Doc said he could start using it a little by the end of January," Mark explained.

"So you've been doing everything by yourself?"

"Yeah, but it hasn't been too bad. If it were summer, I'd be in over my head."

"What happened to your leg? I noticed you've been limping."

"I'm not sure, slipped on some ice yesterday and must've pulled it or something."

"Looks like I showed up just in time to lend a hand."

"Pa and I wouldn't hear of it. You're a guest and you ARE staying for a while... right?" Mark hopefully asked.

"Well, we'll have to see about that."

Mark and Johnny finished the chores and headed towards the house. Johnny waited in the front room while Mark went inside and woke his Pa.

"Pa?" Mark called as he shook Lucas gently. "Pa?"

Lucas slowly opened his eyes and looked at Mark.

"What is it Mark?" Lucas asked through a yawn.

"I figured out who's been sending the threats."

"And who's that?" Lucas asked, thinking Mark had some wild explanation to give.

"Some ex-convict."

"Well which one?" Lucas asked, trying to stay awake.

"The one out in the front room," Mark stated plainly.

"The one- the what?" Lucas asked.

Lucas didn't wait for a reply and started to throw a shirt on, grab his crutches, his rifle and opened the door.

"What's the meaning - Johnny? Johnny, how are you doing?!"

The two men shook hands and slapped each other on the back.

"Just visiting my brother-in-law and nephew. Glad to see you alive, I 'bout had a heart attack on the hill up there."

"We really need to take that thing out," Lucas said as he laughed.

"I don't know Pa," Mark began. "It's starting to grow on me."

Breakfast was soon on the table and the three were eating flapjacks, eggs, and sausage.

"So, how long you planning on staying?" Lucas asked.

"Not sure," Johnny replied. "If you have a boarding house around here, I might just decide to stay put for a few months."

"You're welcome to stay with us, but Mrs. Adams rents out a few rooms in town, then there's the hotel if you're looking for something a bit fancier. You looking for a job then?"

"I suppose I oughta get one, not really sure who'd hire me though."

"Well Mr. Jackford is looking for a few new hands, you could talk with him. He owns a ranch next to ours," Mark suggested.

"I might just look into that," Johnny replied.

"Will you be joining us for church?" Lucas asked.

"I suppose I could, seeing as how it's Christmas. Speaking of which, Mark I brought ya something." Johnny pulled a pocket knife from his pocket and held it out to Mark.

Mark looked to his Pa who nodded before accepting the gift.

"Thanks Uncle Johnny, I was looking at getting a new one."

"You're welcome Mark," Johnny said as he smiled. "You've grown quite a bit since I saw you last. What was that Lucas? Five, six years ago?"

"Somewhere around there. We better get going if we want to make it in time for church."

4MC4

"Lou, I'd like you to meet my brother in law, Johnny Gibbs," Lucas introduced as he, Mark, and Johnny entered the hotel after church.

"Pleasure ta meet ye," Lou stated as she extended her arm.

"Pleasure's mine." Johnny said as he shook her hand.

"Will ye be staying ta eat with us?" Lou invited.

"I wouldn't want to impose, seein' as how I just dropped in on these two," Johnny said gesturing to Lucas and Mark.

"Tis wouldn't be an imposition, please stay. I need a break from Cowboy over here anyway," Lou quipped.

"If you insist."

"You better leave while you can Johnny, her cooking might kill you," Lucas teased

"Oh, Lucas," Lou said as she rolled her eyes.

"If her cooking is half as good as her looks I'd say we're in pretty good shape," Johnny replied.

"Thank ye."

"Don't listen to a word they tell you, Lou's the best cook for miles around," Micah, who had entered the hotel a few moments before, stated.

"Well Micah, ye must be hungry if ye're defending my cooking," Lou said as she started to lead the group into the restaurant which she had closed for a few hours.

"Micah, I think you'll remember my brother-in-law, Johnny Gibbs?" Lucas asked.

"Sure do," Micah said as he shook Johnny's hand.

"Seems the “threats” were a practical joke this time," Lucas stated.

"Threats? What threats?" Lou asked in concern as everyone began to sit.

"Oh, Johnny here decided to play a joke and sent us some anonymous notes before he showed up. We thought someone was gunning for me," Lucas explained.

"And ye didn't tell me?!" Lou asked, obviously upset.

"We didn't need to worry you," Micah injected.

"Worry me..." Lou mumbled as she went to the kitchen to bring out the meal.

Mark stood to help her, trying to keep himself from laughing out loud.

"Sorry, Lucas, didn't mean to get your woman upset with ya."

"Well Lou will simmer down, she just has a quick Irish temper. But I assure you, she's not “my woman”." Lucas laughed.

"I just assumed by the way..." Johnny started.

"Just good friends, I assure you. We figured out a long time ago that nothing different would ever work between us, we're both too stubborn and quick tempered," Lucas said, still laughing at the thought of him and Lou together.

Throughout the meal, conversation floated between several different topics. Johnny shared a little of where he'd gone after being released from prison, Micah talked about a new program the U.S. Marshals service was implementing for younger men, Lou and Johnny found themselves sharing a lot about their younger years, floating and wandering.

"You know Mark, one time your Pa and I were in Colorado together shortly after your Pa and Ma got married and-" Johnny stopped after hearing Lucas clear his throat. "What?"

"How about you tell a different story," Lucas said, already embarrassed from just thinking about it.

"Remind me to tell you about that sometime Mark," Johnny said.

"Or not," Lucas stated firmly.

Lou and Micah were smirking, they could only imagine the trouble Lucas had gotten into. He had told them of how reckless he was before Mark was born, they wondered what had him so embarrassed.

"So, Johnny, are ye staying with these two reprobates, or will ye be finding lodging elsewhere?" Lou inquired.

"I'll give Lucas and Mark their space, I'd like to get a room for at least one night, though if ya have monthly rates I might stay here for a while."

"I'm sure we can work something out," Lou stated, and if Mark was right, he could tell Lou was pleased with his uncle's answer.

5MC5

That evening at the ranch, Lucas and Mark exchanged gifts after reading through the Christmas story. Mark had received several new books he was wanting, and Lucas couldn't believe Mark had bought him a new scabbard with his initials on it. Lucas liked the gift, but the thought Mark had put into it meant much more to him.

After Mark had finished the evening chores, he came inside to to see his Pa staring out the window, deep in thought, a letter in his hand. Mark thought he could see a tear in his Pa's eye.

"Pa, is something wrong?" Mark asked.

Lucas looked at Mark and smiled before replying.

"No, nothing's wrong. I'm just remembering."

"Remembering what?" Mark inquired.

"Lots of things. My first Christmas with your Ma, your first Christmas, your first birthday, first day of school. All the trouble you used to give me with your school work. I remember the first time you rode a horse by yourself, and the first time we rode onto this land. Lots of things that have led up to now." Lucas paused before continuing. "...Mr. Griswold handed me a letter after church today, and it surprised me. I don't know if I was ready for this, but I guess I kinda have to be."

"Well what did it say?" Mark asked. He tried to think of what he could have done wrong last semester to warrant a letter from Mr. Griswold, but he couldn't think of anything.

Lucas handed Mark the letter, and Mark slowly opened it.

“Dear Lucas,
As you are aware, Mark is one of the few students in our school that continued into high school level curriculum after the eighth grade. It has been my pleasure to watch your son learn over the past several years as I have been instructing him.

I do not know whether to be saddened or encouraged by having the need of notifying you that Mark, as of the end of this school year, will have completed all the high school level, and even some college level curriculum that I can give him.

Mark will be the first student to graduate from the North Fork school at the high school level. Graduation ceremonies aren't very common, even in schools out east, but I feel as a way of honoring his accomplishments the school of North Fork should, and therefore will be holding a
small graduation ceremony and reception afterwards in honor of his achievements.

I know you are very proud of Mark, as am I, and would like you to tell Mark the news in whatever way you wish, please simply inform me after you have done so.

Sincerely,

Stephen Griswold”

"Graduating? I thought I had at least another year to go..."

"Are you disappointed?" Lucas asked in confusion.

"Well of course not, I just... hadn't thought about not going to school anymore. So... I'm actually graduating?" Mark asked with a little more enthusiasm as it began to sink in.

"Yes, and like I told you before, Mark, you can go off to college somewhere, stay here, or do something completely different, as long as it's what you want to do."

Mark sat down in his chair and let it sink in. After all this time, he was actually going to be done with school; after all these years, he'd step into the world of adulthood. The thought excited Mark, but it also made him a bit nervous. Mark began thinking of the decision he would have to make, whether to stay home or leave North Fork, but soon put it aside and focused on the present.

"Are you sure you're alright, Pa?" Mark knew it was difficult for his Pa to watch Mark growing up and start spreading his wings, it was difficult for Mark too, but he was ready to embrace it. Mark wasn't sure if his Pa was.

"It'll take some getting use to, but we do have five months. I'm proud of you Mark, I only wish your Ma could be here to see you graduate."

"At least we've got Lou, her being “your woman” and all," Mark teased.

"You heard that?"

"Both of us did, Lou had quite a laugh."

"Well I'm glad she was laughing and not upset."

"Did you see the way her eyes lit up when Uncle Johnny said he was staying in town?"

"No, I didn't, because I'm sure it was your imagination."

"Aunt Lou..." Mark stated. "Has a nice ring to it, don't you think?"

"Don't get any ideas, your uncle will be out of town in two months’ time, he can't stay in one place very long."

"We'll see..." Mark said as a sly grin crossed his face.

6MC6

December passed into January and school was soon underway once again. There was a new excitement in the air as the people of North Fork began a new year, and started to plan for the coming spring.

One Friday afternoon at the end of January, Lucas was sitting in his chair reading when he heard Mark entering the yard. Through the window he watched Mark dismount and became concerned when he saw Mark limping heavily as he walked into the barn. Lucas had noticed a slight favoring of Mark's leg before, but when he had asked Mark about it, Mark just said he had done “something” to it. Lucas put on his coat and headed outside to the barn, where he found Mark rubbing his ankle.

"Mark?" Lucas asked as he approached his son.

Mark jumped, not having realized someone else was in the barn. He began putting his sock and boot back on as he answered Lucas.

"You startled me Pa."

"I can see that. What's wrong with your ankle?" Lucas asked as he sat down on the hay bail with Mark.

"Nothing," Mark caught sight of the look his Pa was giving him from the corner of his eye and avoided looking directly at his Pa.

"Mark, I let the last thing slide because it seemed to be doing better, but obviously something is wrong, and we're not leaving this barn until you tell me what it is."

"...Last month I slipped on a patch of ice and did something to my ankle. It was getting better and doing fine, until this morning."

"Well what happened this morning?" Lucas asked.

Mark sighed as he realized he was going to have to tell his Pa sooner or later.

"BlueBoy and I were both in the mood for a run this morning and he hit a patch of ice. He lost his balance and I fell, but my foot got caught in the stirrup. One of these days I've gotta learn how to fall off a horse without catchin' my foot in the stirrup."

"This morning? Did you do anything about it?"

"No, I was going to be late for school if I took the time to-"

"Mark, Mr. Griswold and I would both much rather have you safe than on time for school. Come on."

"Where are we going?"

"To town."

"Why?" Mark asked. He knew the answer, but was trying to stall so he could come up with an excuse to get out of it.

"You know exactly where and you're not getting out of it."

7MC7

Doc Burrage was just as happy with Mark as Lucas was. After they had both given him a stern lecture about taking care of injuries, Doc Burrage wrapped Mark's foot for support and told him to stay off it as much as possible.

Mark didn't ask about how he was supposed to get the chores done if he wasn't supposed to use it very much, he knew he'd do what needed to get done whether he was supposed to or not. Mark did get a pair of crutches, but Burrage said he would only need them for three or four days.

Lucas decided to have dinner at the hotel since it was already getting late and would be even later by the time they got back to the ranch. The restaurant was fairly empty and they sat down at a corner table. Mark sat opposite of his Pa and as they were finishing their meal, he saw his Uncle Johnny emerging from the kitchen. They made eye contact and Mark gave him a questioning look as his uncle put his finger to his lips, nodding his head towards the kitchen.

Johnny made his way around the perimeter of the room and came up to the table Lucas and Mark were at.

"Lucas, Mark, what are you doing here?" Johnny asked as if he had just seen them.

"Mark had to make a trip to Doc's so I decided we would eat in town," Lucas explained

"Is everything alright?" Johnny asked, concerned.

"Just re-injured my ankle, nothing really bad. I think Doc Burrage is just making a big deal about it to get his point across," Mark stated.

"There wouldn't be a point to make if you had told us about your injuries first thing," Lucas chided.

"I'm glad it's nothing extremely serious. How have things been going at the ranch?" Johnny inquired. He had meant to visit more often than he did, but found himself preoccupied with other things.

"Mark's keeping things runnin' smoothly, a couple more weeks and we'll both be working around the ranch again. Although with Mark's hurt ankle, we'll have to see about paying someone to come out and help a little," Lucas stated.

"Pa, it's not that bad. There's hardly anything to do anyway, we don't need to pay anyone for anything," Mark said.

"No, you don't, I'll come out and give ya a hand. I kinda owe ya for the trouble I caused last time I was out here anyway," Johnny volunteered.

"I couldn't ask you to-" Lucas began.

"You ain't askin', but you should be. We're family and family helps each other out," Johnny simply stated.

"Just as long as it's clear, you don't owe us anything for what happened last time, that's in the past and doesn't have anything to do with now."

"Thanks Lucas, but I do owe both of you a lot for helping me turn things around."

"Family helps each other out," Mark interjected.

"Well, I need to go pay the bill, be right back," Lucas said as he stood and left the table.

"So how long were you in the kitchen with Lou?" Mark asked once his Pa was out of earshot.

"Who said I was in there with Lou? There's a bunch of people going in and out of there, maybe I just like watching the chaos back there," Johnny coolly stated.

"Please, I saw the way your eyes lit up the first time you saw her. I've been watching the kitchen too, the only people coming out of there is the cook, Alice, and Lou."

"What makes you so sure I'm not interested in the cook or Alice, hmm?" Johnny asked, sure he had his nephew stuck.

"Because Alice isn't your type. Shy, reserved, quiet, and talks of nothing besides her fiancé. And the cook? Really? She's twice your age and married with three children off on their own. That leaves Lou, who is very much your type."

"I'm not interested in her or anyone, I just like the kitchen is all," Johnny firmly stated.

"So how long do you think you're going to stay in North Fork?" Mark asked as his Pa approached the table.

"I've never been one who liked the idea of settling down..." Johnny began to reply.

Lucas gave Mark a teasing, 'I told you so' look before Johnny went on.

"...But there's something about this place that makes me think I just might settle for once, it might be nice having a place to call home."

A sly grin swept across Mark's face as he saw his Pa's face fill with surprise.

"Well, I sure hope you decide to stay Uncle Johnny, maybe one of these days I'll get some cousins," Mark said.

"And maybe one of these days, they'll invent a machine that washes dishes," Lucas said without sincerity. "We better get going, see you later Johnny."

"I'll be at the ranch first thing to lend a hand." Johnny replied.

8MC8

Like he had said, Johnny showed up at the McCain ranch bright and early to help out. After visiting with Mark and Lucas for a few minutes, Johnny headed outside. Mark started to follow, but Lucas spoke up.

"Just where do you think you're going?"

"Somebody's gotta make sure he does everything right. Who knows, he could be feeding the cow pig slop," Mark replied.

"You can keep your uncle company, but you stay sitting down."

"Alright Pa," Mark said as he put his coat on.

Mark started to go out there door when Lucas called for him again.

"Yeah Pa?"

"Aren't you forgetting something?" Lucas asked as he sighed.

Mark grabbed the crutches and went out to the barn. Once he got there, he sat on the stool and began milking the cow.

"Aren't you supposed to be taking it easy?" Johnny asked.

"Pa told me to sit while I was out here, so I am. Milking a cow isn't going to hurt my ankle. It's really not that bad."

"Obviously it is if your doctor and Pa are both worried about it."

"Doctors are supposed to take precautions and Pa... he's always hovering over me. Granted, he's loosened up a little bit the past year, but he still worries. Some things I understand, but in cases like this, especially when he's worse off than I am, I don't understand why he... “mothers” me I guess. Never thought about it like that."

"Mark, you didn't know your Pa before you were born."

"Really?" Mark asked sarcastically.

"That's not what I meant. You've heard stories, sure, but before you were born, even after he married my sister, he was pretty wild and crazy. Didn't have a care in the world. Then you came along. He was at such a loss for how to take care of something so small and tiny, he took every precaution possible, but still let your mother do the calming and coaxing. She was always the one to comfort fears and tend to scrapes. Then she died and Lucas changed even more. Mark, he “mothers” you because for almost eleven years he's had to be Pa and Ma to you. Give him some slack, he's trying to fill a role that really can't be filled by a man, and still give you space, understand?"

"I guess," Mark replied. He'd never thought about his Pa having to try to fill both positions at once, and it changed his perspective.

"And about your ankle. When I showed up Christmas, I thought your Pa knew. Why didn't you say something? And don't just say “it wasn't that bad”."

Mark looked at his uncle for a moment, wondering if he'd be able to get out of explaining.

"Mark," Johnny said as he walked over to the cow.

"Because of this," Mark said, gesturing around the barn. "If you wouldn't have been around, Pa would have still insisted on me taking it easy, so he would've tried doing more than he could handle. I twisted my ankle is all."

"Twice," Johnny reminded.

"But Pa broke his leg and was out cold for a few days. I don't want to know what things would be like around here, both of us trying to keep the other inside."

"But I was and still am around, and you've got friends in town. Mark, there's nothing wrong with asking for help, especially when you need it. I think besides that, your Pa would be much more at ease if you told him when things happened."

"I usually do, it's just-" Mark started.

"Boy, you may have your Ma's looks but you definitely got your Pa's stubbornness!" Johnny exclaimed. "Promise me you'll speak up, at least to me when you're needin' help. We're family and I can't help ya out if I don't know something's wrong."

"Alright," Mark agreed. As much as he tried to hide it, having his uncle around was a big relief for him. "Speaking of family helping each other out, you need any help with Lou?"

"No, I don't. Oh, and I really appreciated your little comment last night."

"Not a problem," Mark laughed.

After the chores were completed Johnny and Mark started back towards the house. A few feet from the barn, Johnny realized Mark had “forgotten” his crutches.

"Stay put," Johnny ordered as he went back into the barn. "I'm starting to think you want your ankle to stay the way it is."

After a while, Johnny said he needed to get back to town to take care of a few things and said goodbye to Lucas and Mark. After he left, Mark turned to talk to his Pa, but hesitated.

"Is there something wrong, Mark?" Lucas inquired as he looked curiously at his son.

"Pa, Uncle Johnny and I talked for a while in the barn. He kinda helped me understand some
things that I hadn't thought about before..."

"And?" Lucas asked.

"And I'm sorry I didn't tell you about my ankle. I was just trying to relieve any pressure from you to do anything, and I see that it just ended up making things worse. I should've remembered what we said about secrets, and I promise to tell you next time something happens."

"Thank you, Mark," Lucas said. Lucas felt so much relief knowing he didn't need to worry about Mark hiding his injuries, he hadn't done it in so long it had made Lucas wonder if something had happened between the two of them. "Ready for me to beat you at cribbage again?" Lucas asked.

"I'll play ya, I just hope you can take it when I break your winning streak."

9MC9

A few weeks later Mark rode into town after school and headed towards the Marshal's office.

"Hello, Mark," Marshal Osborne greeted.

"Howdy. Hey Micah," Mark said as he waved to Micah who sat sipping his coffee.

"Good to see ya boy, we were starting to miss you around here. What brings you to town?" Micah inquired.

"Pa told me to wait in town for him after school. I'm not really sure why he did, but I figured I could drop in and say hi while I was waiting."

"Are things going alright at the ranch? I heard your uncle mention he had to come out and help a few times," Micah commented.

"That was just while my ankle was still healing and Pa was still pretty much stuck in the house. Pa's been using his leg a little here and there, and he's still using the buck board to get around, but at least he's getting out."

"I heard Stephan say you were graduating this spring? When did that happen?" Osborne inquired.

"Mr. Griswold told Pa over Christmas break. Apparently all that extra reading he sent home over summer break and the extra assignments he's been giving me have put me ahead," Mark informed him.

"How is your Pa handling it?" Micah asked.

"Better than I would've expected. He had to kinda make himself accept it, but I think he's experiencing those “growing pains” again," Mark replied.

"Growing pains?" Marshal Osborne asked in confusion.

Mark looked to Micah, asking him to explain.

"I don't even know how Mark heard about those conversations, but it's a term I used with Lucas to explain the pains of watching someone close to you starting to spread their wings. A bittersweet time. Both Lucas and I want to see Mark thrive as a man, but it's hard not to miss the rambunctious ten year old we used to have running around town," Micah explained.

"Never thought of it like that, but I guess it is like growing pains. Mark, I'm glad you stopped in," Osborne said, changing the subject. "I saw how good you were with trained horses when we brought all mine to my place a few months back, but I was wondering how good you were with training them."

"I've had experience with a few. Oat Jackford taught me quite a bit a few summers ago. Why do you ask?" Mark replied.

"Long story short, I've got about seven or eight untrained fillies and colts I'm buying off my brother. Cassie's doing good with the two she's raising now, but she can't take care of or train that many, especially all at once. I also need someone to do odds and ends around the property. I know you've got school and work at your own ranch, but I'd like to ask you to talk to your Pa 'bout working for me part time. After school, weekends and such. I can't keep on top of the horses and everything else needing to get done at the homestead, as well as keep up marshaling in town, but I can't hire a full time ranch hand either. Would you be interested?"

"Yes sir, very interested. I'll talk to Pa as soon as I can and give you an answer."

"I'd really appreciate it Mark. They won't be here until about May, but I'd also like to hire you come beginning of March to start on a second barn and corral. Not the ideal time to start construction, but it's what I've got to work with," Osborne stated.

"Mark, I think that's your Pa," Micah said, gesturing out the window.

"Thanks, I'll see you two Sunday," Mark replied as he started heading towards the door.

"Stop by if you want talk 'bout those books we've been lendin' ya," Micah added.

"Sure thing!" Mark waved as he left the office and headed across the street towards his Pa.

"How was your day son?" Lucas asked as Mark approached the buck board.

"Good, Mr. Griswold assigned us a five page report to write over the weekend though."

"What's it supposed to be about?" Lucas inquired.

"He said any subject we want."

"What are you going to do?"

"I'm not sure. I'd much rather he assign us something so I had an idea of where to start."

"I'm sure you'll figure something out," Lucas assured.

"So why'd you want me to wait in town for you?"

"I'd say it's about time you got a haircut, I didn't notice until the other night how long it's getting. I figured we could afford a hair cut in town."

"Oh Pa, it's not that long."

Lucas just chuckled at his son and nodded his head towards the barber shop.

10MC10

That evening Lucas and Mark sat in the front room of their home as Mark continued to try to convince his Pa he hadn't needed a haircut that afternoon. Lucas just sat there and laughed, he would never understand what Mark had against haircuts.

"It's not long hair I like, it's just sitting that long, with the scissors that close to my ear that I don't like," Mark stated.

"I feel sorry for the woman you end up marrying, having to put up with all your complaining."

Mark just sighed and stared out the window, then caught sight of the barn.

"Pa, I visited with Micah and Marshal Osborne while I was waiting for you to show up in town and Marshal Osborne offered me a job. He of course told me to talk to you about it and I told him I'd give him an answer as soon as I could."

"Well what kind of job?" Lucas inquired, sitting up a little more.

"Well at first he needs help building a barn and corral, then he said in May he's getting a bunch
of fillies and colts he wants me to train and take care of, as well as just do a few odds and ends around his property. He said just after school, on weekends, and stuff like that."

"So a part time ranch hand, right?"

"Yeah, I guess that pretty much sums it up."

Mark watched his Pa closely for a minute, waiting for him to say something.

"Well?" Mark finally asked.

"Well what?"

"Can I take his offer?"

"Is it something you're really wanting to do?"

"I think it would be a great opportunity to get some more experience with horses, and save some money up, and I really think I'd enjoy it."

"I don't see a problem, as long as you keep up on your responsibilities around here and your grades stay good in school. I don't see why I'm even mentioning it though, you've really matured and grown up the past two years, I know I don't have to worry about you slacking off in other areas. John offered you the job, you can make the decision."

"Thanks Pa."

"...Just as long as there's not a repeat of what happened with your job at the livery," Lucas added.

"I learned my lesson last time, there won't be," Mark replied.

11MC11

That Sunday brought the people of North Fork a break from the freezing cold weather. The sun shone brighter than it had in weeks and a warm southern wind was gladly welcomed. Before church, Mark told Marshal Osborne he'd gladly accept his offer. They agreed on thirty cents per afternoon, and a dollar for every full day he worked.

After church the Osbornes invited Mark and Lucas over for Sunday dinner and soon the two families were finishing up the meal.

"Pa, since the weather is so nice today can we go for a ride? It may be a while until we can get
out again," Cassie asked.

"I suppose, just help your mother with the dishes first," John replied.

Cassie stood and started to clear the table along with Anna and her mother, then Mark began to help too.

"Mark, you sit down, we can handle it," Mrs. Osborne stated.

"It's alright, I don't mind," Mark said as he began to carry dishes into the kitchen.

Lucas looked curiously at his son. It wasn't strange for him to help out when in someone else's home, even if it meant doing the dishes. Mark also often said he didn't mind, but that was just it. This time it seemed like he really didn't mind at all, Lucas almost thought Mark wanted to help. Maybe he just wanted to get outside quicker, but maybe it was something else.

Despite Mark and Cassie's best efforts, they couldn't convince Anna to go with them and soon the two were off, headed towards town. They slowly led their horses around the outskirts of town as they talked about the sermon that day, school, and the horses the Osbornes were getting. Cassie was ecstatic and couldn't wait to see that many foals galloping around in her backyard.

"Oh, I can't wait!" Cassie exclaimed.

"We're going to have to get that barn and corral built though, and that'll be quite a process."

"So you did accept Pa's offer then?"

"Yep. Start first Monday of March."

"Good, maybe we can finally get some other stuff done around the ranch then too."

"We who? I can't quite see you out fixing a fence in freezing cold weather."

"And why not? I may be a girl, but I'm not incapable, and certainly not afraid of the cold."

"Well then, I'll look forward to watching you freeze to death as “we” fix a fence," Mark laughed

"And “we” will. You know Mark, I'd like to see you..." Cassie began.

"See me what?" Mark asked. When he didn't receive a reply, he looked over and saw Cassie staring off in the distance."Cassie?"

"Mark, isn't that you uncle?" Cassie inquired, pointing to a buggy coming down the road.

"Where?" Mark asked.

"In the buggy, with Miss Lou," Cassie clarified as she continued to point.

"I think you're right," Mark said after seeing what Cassie was pointing at.

"What are they doing?"

"It looks to me like they're going for a buggy ride," Mark sarcastically answered.

"You know what I mean," Cassie said as she rolled her eyes. "What are they doing together?"

"Lou and Uncle Johnny are sweet on each other, though they'd never admit it. ...And don't tell my uncle you heard that from me."

"Are they serious?" Cassie asked, intrigued.

"You tell me. They may not be kissin' but..."

"Mark!" Cassie exclaimed as her cheeks turned red.

"Sorry..." Mark said as he stifled a chuckle.

"Why don't we head back?" Cassie suggested.

"And miss a chance to tease my uncle?"

"Yes," Cassie replied as she turned Storm around.

Mark soon followed and the two headed back towards the Osborne's. Mark and Cassie continued chatting, but both purposely avoided the subject of Lou and Johnny.

As Cassie latched Storm's stall door shut, she asked if Mark wanted to see the colts.

"Sure, haven't seen them since June or July," he replied.

Cassie led Mark to the other side of the barn where they had two more stalls.

"The one in the stall on the right is Lightning, the other one is Thunder. I guess they're getting close to not being colts anymore, but they're still adorable," Cassie said.

"I don't think you can call a horse a-"

"Well I did, and that's what they are," Cassie said with a teasing smile.

"So... Storm, Lightning, and Thunder. What's with the theme?"

"I don't know, it just happened. But I love stormy weather."

"Me too, it's so... peaceful." Mark commented.

"Wow, never thought I'd ever hear anyone say that."

"I guess it doesn't make much sense, but..." Mark began.

"No, no. I agree."

"You do?"

"Yep. Everyone in my family thinks I'm weird for finding storms serene, but I do, and never thought I'd find anyone to agree with me."

"Well, you should get plenty of storms the next few months, if the weather ever gets warm enough, that is."

"We better get back inside if we want to eat any pie, they might just finish it off without us," Cassie said as she began walking towards the barn doors.

"Pie?" Mark asked.

"Ma made an apple pie last night for this afternoon."

"Why didn't you say something before we left?"

"Because then I would've lost my riding partner," Cassie laughed.

12MC12

"Mark, what are you doing up this early?" Lucas asked through a yawn as he stepped out of the bedroom.

"I start with Marshal Osborne today and I need to get some of my afternoon chores done now so I don't have to do them tonight. And it's only 'bout half hour before we usually get up. Sorry, I didn't mean to wake ya, I'll try to be quieter in the future. How's your leg?" Mark said in one big
rush.

Lucas watched his son rush around the house and tried to wake himself up enough to process what Mark had just said.

"How's what?" He finally asked.

"Your leg," Mark repeated as he put his coat on.

"Fine, I don't think we need any more visits to Doc's."

"Good, I'll be back in a bit," Mark grabbed his rifle and headed out the door.

Lucas scratched his head and yawned before making his way to the stove to start some coffee. He eventually chuckled at Mark's energy. If only Mark had gotten out of bed this way to go to school three years ago.

Mark came back into the house with the milk and eggs, and Lucas started breakfast as Mark set the table.

"What did you end up doing that report on a few weeks back?" Lucas inquired as they ate.

"The letter of the law versus the spirit of the law. Micah and Marshal Osborne helped me out a bit."

"What'd Mr. Griswold say about it?"

"He asked if he could send it to some of the universities he's writing. He thinks he might be able to get me a... I think he called it a scholarship or something. Anyway, he thinks I might be able to go to a university without having to pay tuition so he's been writing some of the universities and colleges he's attended and worked with."

"Are you considering going off to school somewhere that seriously?"

"Honestly... no, it just doesn't feel right to me. But Mr. Griswold still wanted to write them even after I told him that, so I said it wouldn't hurt."

"I'm glad you're still staying open..." Lucas said, stopping himself from saying the rest of what was on his mind.

"But more glad I'm not planning on leaving?"

"Yes. I don't want to influence your decision Mark, but can't help but want you to stay."

"I know, I find it hard to even think about leaving one day, but I have to decide what I'm going to do with the rest of my life."

"You'll find your way, it'll all become clear and everything will seem... “right”. But all in good time. Right now you just need to worry about making it to school on time."

"Alright," Mark said as he stood and took his dishes to the sink.

Lucas watched his seventeen year old son put on his coat and hat. He continued to watch as Mark grabbed his rifle from the stand and toss it from his right to left hand. Mark was headed out the door when he turned back to say something to Lucas.

"Love you Pa, see ya tonight."

And with that, his boy was out the door. Lucas felt like the past seventeen years had gone by just as quickly as the last few moments had. So many things had changed, so quickly it seemed... so many things, including his son. Or had he? From the small baby Lucas had held in his arms, to the man that had just walked out the door, there definitely appeared to be quite a difference. But as Lucas thought on the last seventeen years, he knew that there had always been, and still was, his mischievous, rambunctious, little boy inside Mark. His son may have outgrown Lucas's lap, but they still stayed connected in their hearts. The growing pains still hurt, but Lucas knew it was good “pain”. It was becoming harder to let Mark go, but Lucas knew he had to.

"I love you Mark," the father tenderly whispered as he stared watched his son take off on BlueBoy.

13MC13

Mark hurried to make it to school on time and arrived just a few minutes before class began. The only thing that made that day “eventful” compared to most other school days was the fact that a group of boys started firing spit balls during the older students' math test. Mr. Griswold of course wasn't very happy, and made them chop wood during recess. Mark remembered back to when he was younger and got caught doing the same thing... quite often. His Pa was never too delighted when Mark brought home another note from school.

As soon as school let out, Mark mounted up and headed for the Osborne's. As he approached their home, he saw Marshal Osborne coming out the door and waving at him.

"Afternoon Mark," Marshal Osborne greeted.

"Afternoon," Mark cheerfully replied. "Well, where do we start?"

"You can put your horse in the barn, then we can get started on that second barn."

"Alright. I'm glad it's warmed up a bit since last week," Mark commented.

"You and me both, we would've just 'bout froze to death."

After looking over the plans, Mark and Marshal Osborne set to the daunting task of beginning construction for the new barn. Marshal Osborne wanted to keep it fairly small, seeing as how the horses would be out in the pasture most of the time, but it was still going to be quite an undertaking for only the two of them.

Not long after they had begun working, Cassie and Anna rode into the yard. Marshal Osborne told Mark he'd be right back and went to greet his daughters. Mark continued to work, but his eyes followed the Marshal who was now helping Anna down from her horse. Cassie, of course, was already down from Storm and chattering away about her day as she led him into the barn. John disappeared into the barn for a few moments, then came out and rejoined Mark.

"I forgot to tell you, we have another hand to help us out," Osborne stated.

"Who?" Mark asked as he looked around.

"Seems Cassie decided she wants to help out."

"Does she know how to... well..."

"Build anything? She's actually not that bad with a hammer and a nail. She begged her brother to let her help build a fort he was making a few summers back, so he taught her some basics."

"Huh," was all Mark said in reply.

"I guess it's not very traditional, a young woman spending her time building, but my wife and I both want our daughters equipped to handle whatever they may have to face when they're off and married."

"I guess it makes sense."

Anna and Cassie soon came out of the barn and went inside, but Cassie quickly returned to help.

"This isn't freezing cold weather," Mark whispered as she passed him.

"I know, it's not a fence either. I just happen to want to do something productive this afternoon,"
Cassie said over her shoulder.

The three worked all afternoon. Mark was surprised with how much Cassie could actually do on her own. She couldn't work as fast as John or Mark, but kept a decent pace. As the afternoon progressed, Mark found himself enjoying watching the father and daughter interact... Mark wondered what it would be like when he had children of his own.

Cassie did eventually have to go inside to help her Ma, and not too long after that Marshal Osborne said it was about time Mark head home if he wanted to make it there by dark.

"Thanks for giving me the job, Marshal Osborne, I really appreciate it," Mark said as he mounted up.

"Thanks for accepting the offer, I don't know how I would've been able to do this without help."

"Well I'll see you tomorrow then," Mark said as he turned BlueBoy around.

"Have a good night, tell your Pa I said hello."

"I will." Mark kicked Blue Boy's flanks and headed home.

14MC14

Lucas was stirring the vegetables on the stove when Mark came into the house and began to remove his hat and coat.

"Well, how was working with John?" Lucas asked.

"Cold and long, but good, he told me to tell you hi. Cassie helped us out a bit today..."

"Was that a good thing or a bad thing?" Lucas asked.

"I don't know... I mean, I guess it was good, she can hammer straight and didn't mess anything up... I guess I just didn't realize how independent she really was."

"Cassie? Independent? Never," Lucas said sarcastically.

"I mean, I knew it before, but I guess I'm starting to see she can do more than you'd expect an average woman to be able to do.

"You still don't seem too sure whether it's a good thing or bad thing."

"Good. I mean look at Lou or Miss..." Mark stopped short. It had been quite a while since he and
Lucas had talked about her. Mark thought about the woman quite often, but didn't know if bringing her up would bother his Pa or not.

"Or Miss...?" Lucas asked as he set dinner on the table.

"Miss Milly..."

Lucas and Mark sat down and Lucas said grace before continuing their conversation.

"So how do those two relate to Cassie?" Lucas inquired.

"Well they needed to know how to do types of things women wouldn't usually take the time to learn because they never got married and have to keep their businesses and homes in order. So my point is, Cassie will know how to build or fix things if she's ever in a situation where she needs to."

Lucas nodded in agreement, but Mark looked at his Pa's eyes and saw his mind wandering far away. Mark knew he was thinking about Milly. She had been so special to both of them, and Mark honestly thought that if Milly had stayed in North Fork, he would've had a new Ma. In some ways, that's what she already had been to Mark.

"Sorry Pa, I didn't mean to bring-"

"It's alright Mark. It's always good to remember," Lucas replied as he faintly smiled.

"...You miss her?"

"Yes, I do. I'd be lying if I said otherwise, but I know it was what was best for her. She had a lot of things to figure out and needed to be with her family. She needed to grieve instead of continuing to run away."

"You think we'll ever see her again?" Mark asked.

"I don't know, Mark... I don't know."

The rest of supper lacked conversation, as Lucas and Mark both were thinking about what life “could have” been like. Deep down, Mark held onto a little hope that one day he'd see her again.

After doing the dishes and completing the evening chores, Mark went to bed, soon followed by Lucas.

This schedule became typical for the McCain's over the next few weeks. On Saturdays Mark would spend all day at the Osborne's, and Sunday after church became the only real time Lucas
and Mark had together.

Lucas was glad Mark had taken the opportunity to work, but he missed having Mark around, sometimes Lucas saw Mark for less than an hour a day. Mark was aware of this as well and made special effort to keep Sundays open.

One Thursday evening in early April, Lucas sat at the table working on his books when Mark came inside the house.

"You're home early," Lucas commented as he looked up. "Didn't hear you ride up."

"Uhuh," was all Mark said as he walked to his chair and sat down.

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

"Oh no, we just finished the barn and he said to head home for the night," Mark replied.

Lucas smiled at his son. It looked like Mark could barely keep his eyes open.

"What time did you get up this morning? I didn't see you before you left," Lucas said as he stood to check on supper.

"I don't know, Mrs. Donalds was needing some things fixed around her house so I got up early so I could stop by before school," Mark said as he stifled a yawn.

"You know Mark, there is a point where you have to tell people “no”. I don't mind you helping people out, but you're getting to be pure exhausted. The Humphreys yesterday and the Millers last week. It's getting to be too much on you."

"Alright, Pa," Mark replied as he got up to set the table.

"No excuses?" Lucas asked in a little bit of amazement.

"I'm too tired to think of any."

After supper, Mark began reading a book while Lucas did the dishes. After a while, Lucas asked Mark if he wanted to give him a hand with drying and putting away the dishes, but received no response.

"I guess it's not really a question. Come help-" Lucas stopped when he turned and saw Mark curled up, peacefully asleep in his chair.

The father remembered back thirteen years when he entered his home in Enid to find his wife
and four year old son curled up on their sofa in a similar way. Lucas smiled at the memory and quietly finished the dishes as he continued to remember special moments like those. The two most important people in his life, safe and with him.

When Lucas was ready to turn in, he walked over to wake Mark. He had half a mind to leave Mark be, but knew his son would wake up with a kink in his neck if he slept like that all night.

Still half asleep, Mark followed the directions his father gave him and soon was sound asleep again. Lucas laid across the room, and before falling asleep, took a moment to thank God for giving him Mark.

15MC15

Lucas rode with Mark to the school the next morning, then continued into town to run errands, which ended up taking him most of the morning and early afternoon. Lucas stopped in to talk with Micah for a bit before heading back to the ranch. As Lucas rode, he noticed a change in wind direction and drop in temperature. Lucas figured they were in for the first of many spring storms that night.

As Lucas started supper late that afternoon, he heard the rain begin to fall and thunder beginning to roll. Lucas figured Mark would probably be home early, since he and John were supposed to be working outside on the corral that day.

...But Mark didn't come home early. In fact, supper was on the table getting cold and Mark wasn't anywhere to be seen. Lucas scanned the property looking for a horse and rider heading towards the house for what felt like the hundredth time, but saw nothing except rain, which was coming down harder and harder by the minute. Lucas went inside and paced. He wasn't sure what to do. Maybe Mark had decided to simply stay in town and wait the storm out... or maybe something was wrong.

Finally, Lucas heard someone riding up outside.

"Mar-" Lucas began to call. "Johnny? What are you doing here?"

"Came out for a visit, unless I'm not welcome," Johnny jested.

"Always welcome, you know that. Come on in," Lucas said before the two went inside.

"Something wrong?" Johnny asked, noticing Lucas was a little... tense.

"Did you come in from town?"

"No, came from Oat's," Johnny replied. "Why?"

"Mark is overdue coming home from the Osborne's, I was hoping you had seen him."

"How late is he?"

"An hour. With the weather the way it is, I could understand if it slowed him down, but even if that is the case, he should be here."

"Well you think we should go look for him?"

"I don't know..." Lucas said as he sighed. "I could be overreacting."

"Or your instincts could be right and something's wrong."

"If he's not back in twenty minutes I'm heading out."

"I hope I don't have to, but if you go out, I'll be right behind you."

"Thanks Johnny."

Twenty minutes later, the two men were headed into town. Johnny was concerned about his nephew, but knew Mark could take care of himself if he got stranded somewhere. Johnny hoped Mark was in town, maybe even more for Lucas's sake than Mark's.

They had passed the school on the way into town, and found no one there. The two separated and started looking for Mark, then met back at the hotel. Johnny had gotten there before Lucas and was at the desk talking with Lou when Lucas entered the establishment.

"Didn't find him?" Lucas asked as he removed his hat.

"Sorry Lucas, no sign of him," Johnny replied.

"I stopped in at the Marshal's office and John said Mark headed home almost four hours ago," Lucas said in defeat.

"Well, what do you want to do?" Johnny inquired.

"Retrace his steps, I suppose. Any tracks he would've left are washed out by now."

Johnny said goodbye to Lou and quickly followed Lucas out the door. They rode to the Osborne's and followed the road Mark should've taken home. Both tried hollering for Mark, but their voices were so quiet compared to the thunder and rain. Even after making it back to the ranch, Lucas and Johnny continued to search until it was too dark to continue and headed back
to Lucas's home. Johnny sat and watched Lucas impatiently pace for about an hour before he finally convinced him to try to get a few hours of sleep.

"Mark's smart and resourceful, I'm sure he's fine," Johnny assured.

"I pray you're right," Lucas replied.

16MC16

Mark rode slowly down the road as the rain pelted his body. He was already soaking wet, so he figured he might as well enjoy a laid back ride home. He listened as the thunder rolled and lightning cracked; the wind howled and stung his face, but the constant stream of rain brought a peaceful calm to it all.

The corral had been going well until the rain started, so Marshal Osborne said they would quit for the afternoon, meaning Mark could take a little slower pace on his ride home.

As Mark continued down the path, he heard what he at first thought was some sort of animal, but as he got closer to the sound, it sounded like someone was crying. Mark peered through the trees, trying to find the source of the noise.

"Is someone out there?" Mark called.

Ever so faintly, Mark heard a small child calling out for help.

"I'm coming, keep calling out so I can find you!"

Mark followed the small voice into the woods. He could hear the call more clearly now, and eventually found a little girl standing outside a stagecoach, which appeared to be stranded. The child was shivering cold and soaked to the bone, she looked frightened and took a step back as Mark knelt in front of her.

"It's alright, I'd like to help you," Mark gently told the child.

The little girl stood back in her previous spot, but didn't say anything.

"My name's Mark. What's your name?"

"...Sarah," the girl quietly replied.

Mark could now tell she had a distinct Irish accent, explaining her bright red hair and green eyes.

"Nice to meet you Sarah. Do you know where your parents are?"

"Mum hit her head."

"Where's your Ma?" Mark asked her.

"In there," Sarah answered as she pointed to the stagecoach.

"I'm going to check on your mother, stay right where you are," Mark calmly told her.

Before getting into the coach, Mark gave his jacket and hat to the girl and made sure she was bundled up tight. When Mark opened the door to the stage coach he found a red haired woman lying on the stagecoach floor, very pregnant. Mark found a pulse, but it was faint and weak. Stepping out of the stagecoach, Mark turned towards the little girl.

"Was there anyone else riding with you?"

"No, just me and Mummy."

"Where's the driver?" Mark asked, slowly and gently, careful not to show worry or concern.

"He grabbed his bottle and walked away after the bad men left."

"What bad men?"

"The ones that made mummy hit her head..."

Sarah was on the verge of crying and Mark slowly put a comforting hand on her shoulder.

"It's alright, they won't hurt your mama or you anymore. Sarah how old are you?"

"Four..." the girl replied as she tried to calm her breathing.

"You're being so brave, I almost wouldn't believe it. Now, we need to get your mother somewhere that's not so wet, so can you help me by keep being brave for your Ma? When she wakes up, we don't want her to have to worry about you being scared. Can you do that for her?"

The little girl nodded and was soon helping Mark create a travois from blankets and parts of the stagecoach. Mark didn't see the team anywhere, so he knew BlueBoy was going to have to do the pulling.

After hooking up the travois to BlueBoy, Mark carefully moved the woman from the stagecoach to the travois. Even though she was pregnant, Mark found her to not be very heavy and carried the woman with ease. Mark now could see the woman's face better and saw dried blood that had dripped from her forehead.

Mark walked with the reigns to BlueBoy in one hand and Sarah's hand in his other. Mark knew it was going to be a bad idea to try to return to town that night. The rain was coming down harder and BlueBoy wasn't handling the travois very well in the storm. Besides that, what little you could see of the sun was starting to set, and before too long it would be dark. Mark found a cave and set the travois flat on the ground. He made sure Sarah was settled next to her mother before he went out to see if he could find anything to keep a fire going. Unfortunately, all he had were the matches in his saddle bag. Mark took his rifle out of the scabbard which at first frightened Sarah, but she soon relaxed and fell asleep next to her mother.

Mark knew he was going to be in for one long night as he sat on a rock where he would spend the next several hours keeping guard. Mark watched as evening slowly turned to night and for the first time since he had started helping Sarah and her mother, wondered what his Pa was doing and if he was out looking for him. Mark didn't want his Pa putting himself at any risk, the weather as bad as it was, but part of Mark wished his Pa could be there to tell him what to do, tell him how to handle things. Most of all, Mark wanted his Pa there just... just to be his Pa.

17MC17

Early the next morning, as soon as the sun came over the hills, Johnny and Lucas set out once again looking for Mark. There was so much land to cover, and at this point Mark could be anywhere. Johnny tried to assure Lucas that Mark was fine, and Lucas hoped that his brother-in-law was right, but as a father, he simply couldn't not worry. The two spent all morning searching, but to their dismay, Mark wasn't anywhere.

Finally, Johnny convinced Lucas to turn back towards town so they could get a formal search party together and cover more area. Lucas at first insisted on continuing while Johnny went to town, but finally gave in to Johnny's persistent demands that Lucas come to town so he could eat something as well.

"Alright, but if Mark..." Lucas stopped himself, he knew this whole thing was out of his hands.

"If...?" Johnny asked.

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

18MC18

The sun couldn't be seen yet, but Mark saw the sky beginning to turn an orange hue as the rain finally turned to a light sprinkle. Knowing he needed to get Sarah and her mother into town as soon as he could, Mark took Sarah off his lap and began hooking the travois up to BlueBoy. It had been a long night and Mark was struggling to stay awake as he worked. He had almost accidentally fallen asleep at some point that night, but caught himself when he heard Sarah crying. He had her come sit on his lap and he comforted the child as she told him about the “bad men” that had robbed the stage. Sarah had soon fallen asleep curled up in Mark's lap, but Mark had done everything he could to keep himself from falling asleep.

Mark didn't let the fact that it wasn't dark anymore put him at ease. They could still easily run into trouble with an animal, and even though he doubted it, there was the possibility that they would run into the men that robbed the stage.

Mark looked at the red haired woman once again and was pleased to see her breathing had improved, but he was still very concerned that she hadn't woken up yet. She had stirred some throughout the night, but that was it.

Mark was about to wake Sarah up when he heard two men talking outside of the cave. Mark gently shook Sarah awake and told her to be quiet and go sit by her mother. Mark crept along the cave wall and cautiously approached the voices.

"I told you this whole thing was a bad idea, but you didn't listen!" One man complained.

"I wasn't the one that lost the compass and lost the horses," the other man retorted.

"Rob a stagecoach, you said. It'll be easy, you said. We're supposed to be across the border tomorrow night!"

"Relax, it'll be fine."

"Easy for you to say, you don't have every lawman in the territory gunnin' for ya.l! This was supposed to be a quick little “bonus” and all we got was some jewelry and a few hundred dollars."

"Would you rather be back in the rat hole? And because I broke you out, I've got the same people looking for me."

"You just better be able to get us across the border."

"Trust me, I've got it all figured out."

The two men froze when they heard a gun being cocked behind them.

"Drop your guns and raise your hands," Mark ordered.

One man began to turn around and Mark shot his hat off.

"I don't miss and I mean what I say. Drop your guns, and your knives for that matter too," Mark ordered, figuring at least one of them carried a boot knife.

Turned out Mark was right. The men did as instructed and kept facing forward.

"I don't have time to deal with any games so let's get this straight. You do what you're told, when you're told, and we'll get along fine. And just so we're clear, you see that branch about forty paces out?" Mark asked before shouldering his rifle and shooting five little twigs sticking off the branch of a tree. "You stay right where you are and do not move a muscle."

The two men didn't dare flinch. They didn't know who was behind them, but whoever it was knew how to shoot.

Mark put Sarah on BlueBoy's saddle then mounted up in front of her.

"Sarah, hold on tight and keep an eye on your Mama, alright?" Mark asked gently.

"Yes, Mark."

Mark urged BlueBoy to the opening of the cave and stopped behind the men.

"Alright, start walking," Mark ordered.

"Where?" One man asked.

"Forward. I'll tell ya when to turn."

The small group ventured into the woods, heading towards town. At first, Mark's two prisoners kept quiet and didn't say anything, but soon Mark heard them starting another quarrel.

"I tell ya, it's gotta be him!"

"First off, while you were in prison some gang finished him off. There were newspaper articles about it all over the place. Secondly, this kid is too young, can't be more than eighteen. And the rifle is all wrong."

"Maybe he switched."

"The Rifleman? Carry a Spencer? You're joking, Thomas!"

"Sorry to disappoint you, but I'm not the Rifleman," Mark piped up.

"Told you," one man mumbled.

"But if you'd like to meet him, I can bring my father by the jail when we get to town."

The two men looked at each other in unbelief.

"The Rifleman ain't no family man!" One man declared.

"That's where you're wrong."

"But he's dead!" The same man argued.

"Don't believe everything you read."

The two criminals kept quiet after that, they didn't know whether to believe what Mark said or not.

"Sarah, how's your Ma doing?" Mark asked.

"She's moved around a little bit. Is that good?"

"Yes it is, Sarah," Mark assured her.

Mark was hoping they would come across someone on the road into town to help him get everyone into town, but the roads were deserted.

As Mark made his way down the main road through town, he breathed a sigh of relief when he saw Micah walking down the boardwalk.

"Hey Micah, could I get some help?" Mark hollered.

Micah turned around and couldn't believe his eyes.

"Mark, what is this?"

"I'll explain later, but I need to get someone to Doc's. Would you mind taking these two off my hands?" Mark asked.

Coming out of his somewhat stunned state, Micah escorted the two men into the jail, then helped Mark carry Sarah's mother into the doctor's office.

Surprised, but glad to find Doc in his office at such an early hour, Mark started explaining as they brought the woman into the back room with Sarah following closely behind Mark.

"I found these two in the woods by an abandoned stage. The mother hit her head somehow according to what Sarah told me, and has been out ever since. She moved around a little last night, but didn't wake up at all. It got pretty cold in the cave we stayed in, there wasn't any dry wood for a fire."

"Alright, why don't you three go wait in the front room?" Doc suggested as he walked them to the door.

Mark sat down in a chair and Sarah came up to sit on his lap. Micah sat across from them and looked at Mark.

"Well?" Micah asked.

"Well what?" Mark replied.

"You care to explain how you captured the Ketchum brothers?"

"The who?" Mark asked.

"The Ketchum brothers. Every lawman in the territory has been looking for them the last week. Jake broke his brother out of jail while Thomas was waiting for his trial. ...And you apprehended them?"

"Well obviously I didn't know who they were, and I wasn't trying to catch them, it just kinda happened. I was on my way home last night when I heard Sarah here calling out for help. Apparently, the Ketchum's robbed the stage and left the passengers and driver stranded in the woods. The driver walked off, I'm guessing drunk from what Sarah told me. I got Sarah and her Ma into a cave for the night, the weather was too bad to keep going. Shortly before we headed out for town this morning, the Ketchum's stopped and talked outside of the cave we were in, so I brought 'em into town with me."

"So you've been gone all night?"

"...Yeah?"

"Your Pa came into town last night looking for you."

"I'm going to have a lot of explaining to do," Mark said as he sighed.

"Mark, are you alright? You look exhausted."

"I am."

Mark and Micah continued to talk as they waited for Doc Burrage to come out. When he finally did, Mark asked how Sarah's mother was.

"Stable," Doc replied. "She hasn't woken up yet, but I think she and her baby should be just fine. Why don't you take her daughter to get some breakfast at the hotel? You both look like you could use something to eat. Just tell Lou to send me the bill."

Mark nodded as he yawned and Sarah slipped off his lap. As they walked out of the office, Mark put his hat on her head, which made the little girl giggle.

"Doc, that boy has yet to cease to amaze me. He not only got that mother and her daughter to town, but he also captured two wanted criminals along the way," Micah stated.

"He's a McCain alright, this is one case where I'm glad he has his father's stubborn determination. If Mark hadn't gotten them to town when he did, the mother and baby could have died."

19MC19

"Aunt Lou!" Sarah exclaimed as she let go of Mark's hand and ran to give Lou a hug.

"What are ye doing here? I wasn't expecting ye fer another week," Lou said, surprised and delighted.

"Mum wanted us to come early."

"Where is yer Mother? And what are ye doing with... Mark! Mark, has your Pa seen ye?" Lou asked as she rushed towards him.

"I came across Sarah and her mother in the woods last night. Doc says she will be fine, but Sarah's Ma hit her head and is unconscious. We just came into town and no, Pa hasn't seen me. Doc sent me over with Sarah to get her something to eat."

"He told Mark ta eat somethin' too," Sarah added.

"I don't need anything, except some quiet. I'm tired from being up all night," Mark said.

"Well ye get somethin' ta eat first, then I'll give ye room-"

"It's not necessary Lou, I'll just-"

"Six." Lou finished firmly. She gave Mark a look that dared him to argue with her.

As Mark and Sarah ate some oatmeal, Mark explained to Lou what had happened in a little more detail. After they finished eating, Lou made a pallet for Sarah on her office floor, so she could keep an eye on her. After closing her office door, she turned to Mark.

"Now off ta room six with ye," Lou ordered.

"Lou I couldn't, I'll just-" Mark began to argue.

"Mark, ye do as I say. Ye go get some sleep, I'll let yer father know yer fine when he gets into town," Lou said with finality.

"Alright," Mark gave in before starting towards the staircase. "I do have one question though."

"What is it?"

"I thought you didn't have any siblings that could travel this far, and Sarah called you “Aunt Lou”."

"Sarah's mother, Tara, and I have been friends since we were both wee lasses. I lived with them a short while before coming to North Fork. Tara asked if Sarah could refer to me as “aunt”, and of course I was greatly honored, that's what Sarah's called me since she could talk. does that answer yer question?"

"Yes."

"Now off ta bed with ye!"

MC20MC

The ride to town was agonizingly slow for Lucas. All he could think about was how he should be out looking for his son. Johnny tried keeping Lucas's mind on other things, but wasn't really succeeding. The two rode up to the Marshal's office and simultaneously dismounted before heading inside.

"Micah?" Lucas called as he hurried into the office.

"Lucas, I'm glad you're here-"

"Micah, we still haven't found Mark, we need to get a search party together and -"

"Lucas, calm down, it's alright."

"It's alright? Calm down? Micah don't you understand that my son is missing??" Lucas asked, ready to burst.

"He was missing, showed up in town this morning."

"He- he what?"

"Showed up in town this morning, are ya deaf?" Johnny asked.

"Is he alright? Where is he?" Lucas urgently asked.

"He's fine. He came across a lady and her daughter stranded out in the woods last night and couldn't bring them into town until this morning. Doc had Mark take the little girl to the hotel for something to eat."

Lucas started to turn around to leave the office, but Micah stopped him.

"I checked over there a little while ago, Lou put Mark up in a room and he's sleeping now, let him rest while I fill you in on the rest of the details."

Micah motioned for Lucas to sit. Lucas hesitated, he desperately wanted to see his son.

"Sit," Micah ordered.

Lucas complied and he and Johnny listened as Micah told them what had happened.

"...Mark looked pretty exhausted when he brought those two criminals in," Micah concluded.

"I came in about an hour ago," Osborne started. "But from what the little girl said, and if I know Mark, he was up keeping guard all night. He was exhausted when he headed home last night, I can't imagine what he is now."

21MC21

When Mark woke up and looked out the hotel room window, he was surprised to see that it was dark. Realizing he had slept all day, Mark quickly pulled his boots on, grabbed his hat and rifle, and walked down to the hotel lobby.

"Lou, how's your friend?" Mark asked as he approached the front desk.

"Good, Mark. Doc just came by to say she woke up. I was gettin' ready to get Sarah to go see her mother."

"Does Doc think there'll be any complications with her pregnancy?"

"He didn't say anything about it. Said mother and baby should be just fine."

"I'm glad, I was really worried about her."

"And I know a father who's still worried about his son," Johnny spoke up as he walked up next to Lou. "Good to see ya, Mark. Your Pa had us looking for you all last night and then first thing this morning. Micah told him you were fine, but I don't think he'll believe it 'till he sees it."

"Where is Pa?" Mark inquired.

"I finally convinced him to go to bed about an hour ago, though I doubt he's asleep," Johnny replied.

"Room five. Ye better hurry before he wears a hole in my floor from pacing," Lou added as she handed Mark a key.

"He didn't check in on me while I was sleeping?" Mark asked, somewhat surprised.

"We didn't tell him what room ye were in. I wasn't going ta let 'im wake ye," Lou answered.

Mark started to walk away, but paused and looked back.

"So..." Mark began. "Did you two enjoy your carriage ride a few weeks back?"

"Mark, go see your Pa!" Johnny ordered as he pointed upstairs.

"You can send me away, but it won't change anything," Mark called over his shoulder.

Lou and Johnny watched Mark walk up the stairs before Lou started laughing.

"What?" Johnny asked.

"He knows we've been seeing each other, face it Johnny."

"Honestly, right now I wouldn't care if the world knew," Johnny told her as he turned to face Lou directly. "Because right now, I'm in love with the most beautiful woman on earth."

"Well I'm glad ta know ye enjoyed that ride as much as I did."

22MC22

Lucas laid on the bed in his hotel room, wide awake. He knew everyone told him Mark was fine, but he needed to see his son for himself, he needed Mark to tell him everything was alright. The
thousands of different thoughts and scenarios that had ran through Lucas's head the night before were still prominent in his mind. He was just about ready to go talk to Lou again when he heard someone messing with the lock on his door. Quickly and calmly Lucas grabbed his rifle and pointed it towards the doorway as the door opened.

"Lou was right, you are pretty wound up," Mark said as he shut the door.

"Mark?" Lucas asked and stated at the same time as he put his rifle down.

"Hello Pa," Mark said as he put his rifle by the door.

Lucas walked up to his son and put his hands on Mark's shoulders.

"Nice of you to show up," Lucas said as he pulled Mark into an embrace.

"Pa, I'm sorry about last night, but I found this little girl in the woods and-"

"Micah explained, it's alright."

"I'm sorry you were out all night."

"I'm just glad you're alright, and were able to help that lady and her daughter."

"Did Micah tell you about the Ketchum brothers?"

"Yes, he did. I wasn't really glad to hear you were in that situation, but I am glad you were able to handle it."

"I wouldn't have been able to without everything you've taught me... thanks Pa."

"I love you Mark," Lucas stated. "Are you hungry?"

"Actually, now that you mention it... I'm starving!"

"Let's go downstairs and see if we can't find you something to eat."

23MC23

The next few weeks flew by for Mark. Between school, chores, working for the Osborne’s, and now branding and keeping track of the cattle with his Pa, Mark didn't really have much free time. On a rare day when he would get an afternoon off from both his Pa and Marshal Osborne, Mark went swimming or fishing with his friends.

When Lucas's birthday came around, Mark made sure they celebrated it, but didn't tell anyone else when it was... his Pa had warned him many a time not to tell anyone, especially Lou, when it was coming up.

The night of Mark's graduation finally arrived, and Lucas stood waiting in the front room for Mark to come out of the bedroom.

"Mark, we're going to be late if you don't hurry!" Lucas finally hollered.

Lucas found it strange that Mark was still in the bedroom, he never took this long to get ready to go. After another five minutes, Lucas headed into the bedroom to get Mark.

"Son are you..." Lucas stopped short when he saw Mark leaning on the desk, apparently ready to go.

Lucas didn't need to see his son's distraught face; he didn't need to see the tear stains on his son's cheeks. Lucas could tell something was wrong, and he knew what it was.

Mark felt a firm, comforting hand on his shoulder. He stood there for a minute, simply taking in the moment. It took Mark a while to find his voice, but he eventually did turn and talk to Lucas.

"It's going to be hard without her there. It's been hard not having her here. Pa, how are we supposed to do it? Live every day with that much of you missing?" Mark asked as a tear escaped his eye.

"I'm not exactly sure how to answer that Mark. I think everyone is different, even you and I, about how they live after they've moved on. I'm not sure how, but somehow, we've done it. We've let go and lived facing forward for quite some time. Neither of us want to go backwards, don't let yourself lose ground, Mark."

"I know, I just wish she could be here tonight. I don't think it's hurt this bad in a long time. This is something Ma wanted done, and we did it, but she won't be here to see it. Pa, why does love have to hurt?"

"Remember what I told you when you said you were afraid of losing me?"

"...To not let fear run my life, to use love to redirect the fear."

"Don't let the grief or pain run your life. Use the love you have for your mother to redirect that pain."

"But redirect it where?"

"Only you can answer that question son. You have to decide where to redirect it."

"But..." Mark stopped as he suddenly understood, he knew where and how to redirect that pain. He had actually already been doing it for a long time. His pain had motivated to help others avoid their own pain, when possible. If he continued to turn his pain into compassion, and not let himself get buried by the grief, Mark knew he could live “foreword” like his Ma would've wanted.

"Thanks Pa," Mark finally stated.

"You're welcome son," Lucas said as he gave Mark a hug. "Now let's get going, or we'll be late for your ceremony."

24MC24

The ceremony itself only lasted about fifteen minutes, much to the students' delight. Afterwards, everyone headed outside where the reception was held. It was like any other town social, and had not so many people been congratulating him, Mark would've forgotten that the whole thing was in honor of him.

When Mark got another break from talking with people, he headed back to the food table for his third time. As Mark filled his plate he looked around and took in the scene before him. People were dancing, children were playing, the ranch hands were, of course, arm wrestling... and it appeared his uncle was currently undefeated. Mark knew there was something special in North Fork, he wondered if he would ever be able to bring himself to leave it. Mark didn't want to, but yet there was so much more to see.

Mark suddenly felt someone tapping him and turned around to see Sarah and Lilly behind him, trying to hide their giggles. Sarah nodded to Lilly, who skipped away gleefully.

"Well, hello there.l," Mark cheerfully said as he squatted down to Sarah's level. "And what can I do for you, lovely lady?"

"Mark, why aren't ye dancin’?" Sarah asked.

"Because I'm eating," Mark said as he lifted his plate of food. "And I don't have a partner."

"If someone else be needin' a partner, would ye dance with them?"

"I sure would," Mark replied as he set his plate down. "You wouldn't be needing a partner, would ya?"

"No, I was just wonderin'," Sarah replied before pleasantly smiling and skipping away in the same manner as Lilly had.

Mark watched Sarah skip away and disappear into the crowd. He was quite confused by the conversation he had just held with Sarah, but shrugged as he decided to just let it be. Mark picked up his plate of food and made his way to sit on a hay bail that was part of the perimeter for the dance floor. As Mark was finishing off his Apple pie, he saw Cassie making her way towards him.

"Hello," Mark said as he stood and lifted his hat.

"Hi..." Cassie replied as she stood there, waiting for Mark to say something.

"...Well, what is it?" She finally asked.

"What's what?" Mark asked.

"Sarah said you wanted to ask me something?"

"I didn't say that."

"Well it's what she told me, I was talking to Lilly and then Sarah came up and said you really needed to talk to me, right away."

"I don't..." Mark started to reply. "Oh."

"Oh what?"

"What was Lilly asking you about?" Mark inquired.

"...Does it matter?"

"She was asking you about dancing, wasn't she?"

"Yes... but what does that have to do-"

"I think two little girls are trying to get us to dance," Mark replied as he pointed behind Cassie.

When Cassie turned around, she saw Sarah and Lilly, giggling and laughing. Mark called the two over and they quickly ran to where Mark and Cassie stood.

"Very funny. Understand that just because he's a boy, and I'm a girl, and we're friends, doesn't mean we like each other," Cassie stated.

"Well that's what-" Lilly began.

"SHH!" Sarah quickly said as she put a finger to her mouth.

"That's what who said?" Mark asked.

"No one," Lilly and Sarah replied.

"Well then, don't be getting any ideas, or spreading any rumors," Cassie stated.

The girls nodded and ran away before their smirks turned to laughter.

"So, how many pieces of pie have you eaten so far?" Cassie inquired.

"Three. You?"

"Ha!" Cassie exclaimed, then quieted as she saw her mother look her direction.

"Well?" Mark asked.

"I'm up on you by two and a half," Cassie whispered. "But if you tell my mother..."

"I won't have any reason to, because there's no way I'm ending my winning streak tonight.

"We'll see."

Mark was able to eat one and a half more pieces of pie, but that was it. He was too full from his other three plates.

"What even started this pie competition? We both just end up with stomach aches afterwards." Mark stated.

"I don't know, but admit it, I won."

"Alright so you won. Big whoop. The score is still three-one, my favor."

"It won't be that way for long."

"They're starting the square dancing," Mark commented.

"So?" Cassie asked.

"We may just be friends, but we can still do a little dancin', right?"

"I guess."

"Would you do me the pleasure of joining me for this dance?" Mark asked sarcastically as he dramatically bowed.

"It would be my honor," Cassie replied in an acerbic manner as she curtsied.

"You know, if Sarah and Lilly really want to do some matchmaking, they should try my uncle and Lou," Mark said as he escorted Cassie to the dance floor.

"I don't think they really need any help," Cassie replied as she pointed behind Mark.

Mark turned around and saw the two walking together, arm in arm.

"It's about time they stop trying to hide it," Mark stated.

"Just take it easy on the teasing, we still need Lou on our good side."

"You still afraid of your mother finding out about our little incident?"

"You bet I am."

After dancing, Cassie and Mark spent the rest of the evening together... mostly just because they both had stomach aches. It was a good reception though, and Mark enjoyed every moment of it.

That night marked the close of a special chapter in Mark's life, one he almost wished he could hold on to. He couldn't help but wonder though, what would the next chapter hold?

Choices

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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