Synopsis: Mark experiences his first true love, and heartache.
Category: The Rifleman
Word Count: 9,590
This story takes place after The Rifleman’s five-year television run.
I was always disappointed with the two episodes aired with Mark having a ‘potential’ girlfriend. The first episode was A Young Man’s Fancy where Mark was portrayed as a 13-year old love-struck teenager when Miss Milly’s 16-year old niece, Sally, came to town. The second episode was Old Tony, the very last episode. In that episode, the girl Mark was riding and hunting arrowheads with ended up getting herself stuck in quicksand, and ultimately, Mark got stuck too. Neither episode was what I would have in mind for Mark’s first girlfriend.
Lucas and Mark McCain entered the Mallory House Hotel, their bodies briefly shivering as the warmth of the lobby penetrated through their heavy coats. Closing the double doors from the street into the hotel behind them, they stepped into the restaurant where hotel owner, Lou Mallory, met them at the entrance, “Evening Cowboy, Mark,” Lou offered as she led them to a table inside.
“Evening Miss Lou,” Mark answered.
“Evening Lou,” Lucas replied as he and his son took off their heavy gloves and jackets before sitting down at the table.
“Care for a cup of coffee and hot chocolate?” looking to Lucas first and then to Mark, she asked.
“Yes please,” they answered together, as each one rubbed together their hands to encourage them warm up. Lucas removed his hat before reaching over to remove his son’s hat and placing both on the opposite side of the table.
“Kind of quiet in here tonight?” Lucas asked and smiled pleasantly at the redhead.
“First real cold snap of the season and most people stayed home in front of their fireplaces. Hotel is even empty tonight. I’ll be right back to take yer order,” Lou’s Irish accent lilted as she quietly answered before turning and walking away. Lou shortly returned carrying two cups on saucers, steam rising from the hot beverages inside.
“Well McCains, what can I get ye?” she asked, happy to have customers, especially this set of customers, enter her restaurant.
“Mark’s choice tonight; whatever he’d like to order since it’s his day,” Lucas answered.
Lou observed a different gleam in Lucas’ eyes and saw a slight embarrassment in Mark’s face towards his father’s words.
“His day?” Lou inquired.
“Well, it’s not every day that my only son turns sixteen.”
“Mark, Happy Birthday! If I’d of known, I’d of planned a big party for ye.” Lou being Lou, was a little upset in finding out about Mark’s birthday so late in the day. For as long as she’d been in North Fork, she’d never witnessed Lucas nor Mark celebrate either of their birthdays.
“That’s okay Lou. Pa and I’ve always quietly celebrated my day and not made that big of a deal about it,” Mark answered her quietly. The look in Lucas’ eyes asked Lou to respect Mark’s wishes.
“Well, order whatever ye like, it’s on the house, both of yer meals.” Lou took their order and before she returned to the kitchen, she said, “While I’m in back, I’m going to make notation on my calendar that December tenth is Mark McCain’s birthday. You won’t catch me unaware next year.”
After Lou left, Lucas spoke to Mark, “I’m sorry Mark. I am proud of you and like I said, it’s not every day that my only boy turns sixteen. So please, allow me some leeway and let me share a little bit of fatherly pride. I think you’ll survive.”
As they waited for their meal, a small family walked into the restaurant. Lucas nodded to them as they looked around.
“Folks go ahead and have a seat, Lou will be back shortly,” Lucas voiced.
As the family was removing their coats, Lou re-entered the dining room.
“Oh, Mr. and Mrs. Dawson, AnnaLee, how nice to see ye this evening. Have ye met the McCains? – No – Come on, I’ll introduce ye.” Lou barely gave anyone time to answer before she was set on making introductions.
Lou escorted the family over to the table where Lucas and Mark sat. As they approached, Lucas and Mark stood.
“Lucas, Mark McCain, I’d like ye to meet Andrew and MaryBeth Dawson and their daughter AnnaLee, she’s fifteen.” Lou’s eyes sparkled as she introduced the girl to Mark. “They just moved to North Fork from Chicago, Illinois.”
Mark noticed how quiet and shy AnnaLee appeared to be. He also noticed how her dark hair, framed the light complexion of her face, before it fell down her back to her shoulder blades. Her big blue eyes didn’t shine as he had expected, it was as if she held something in reserve.
After pleasantries were exchanged, the family went to sit at their own table and placed their order for dinner.
After Mark and Lucas had finished their meals, Lou brought in a small piece of chocolate cake with a single candle on it. “Mark, I hope all yer wishes and dreams come true,” Lou wished and placed a small kiss on Mark’s cheek and left.
“Well my little calf or should I call you a bull by now? I did get you a small gift for today,” Lucas stated.
Lucas pulled out a plainly wrapped package from the inside pocket of his coat that hung on the back of his chair and handed it to Mark. As he watched Mark take his present, he remembered back to the last birthday that Mark celebrated before Margaret had passed. He remembered, Margaret calling Mark a kitten, before Lucas decided, instead, he was more like a bull calf.
“Pa, you shouldn’t have,” Mark replied looking at his father, before looking at the package in his hands.
“Go on,” encouraged Lucas.
Mark carefully removed the wrapping paper around the gift to find inside a book, “David Copperfield” by Charles Dickens. Mark’s eyes widened as he realized the gift was a book he had desperately wanted to finish reading. “Pa, how’d you know?”
“Mr. Bullock told me a few months ago that you had the chance to read the start of the book, but never had the time to come back and finish reading it. He was quite pleased to be able to have a small part in celebrating your birthday. He helped me order the copy you have in your hands.”
Mark leaned over and gave his father a big hug. Shortly, they rose to leave the restaurant. As they passed the Dawsons they said good night and tipped their hats.
As they stepped outside Mark stated, “Gee almost wish we didn’t have to ride home.”
Father and son turned up their collars to the cold wind blowing along the street.
“Why don’t we just spend the night in town, son. Let’s ask Nils to stable Razor and BlueBoy, we’ll head home in the morning.”
Father and son walked their horses to the livery and returned to the hotel. Lou met them on their way back in.
“Lou, how about giving us a room for the night? My boy here doesn’t feel like riding all the way home in the cold out there.”
“As well he shouldn’t on his birthday. How about room ten. It has two beds in it. I think at sixteen Mark’s a little too old to be sharing a bed with his Pa.” Lou had a ‘devilish’ gleam in her eyes as she spoke.
Mark McCain woke before his pa the next morning. He headed downstairs, putting on his coat and gloves before he walked out the front door.
Seeing Lou behind the counter, Mark called, “Lou, tell Pa that I went to the livery to see if I could help Nils out this morning. I’ll be back shortly.”
Mark walked out the front of the hotel and turned his collar up to the morning breeze. The sun made the day appear warmer than it really was.
Having helped Nils pick out the stalls and feed their horses at the livery, Mark was returning to the hotel when he encountered AnnaLee coming out of the General Store with her mother, both having several packages in their arms.
Mark smiled and tipped his hat and stammered out, “G-Good Morning Mrs. Dawson, AnnaLee.”
“Good Morning Mark,” Mrs. Dawson replied.
AnnaLee just smiled in return.
“May I help carry those for you?” Mark asked.
“So polite, we’d be pleased to accept your hospitality Mark.” Mrs. Dawson handed her packages to Mark. As they walked along, Mrs. Dawson opened up the conversation, “Mark, do you go to school or does your father have you working?”
“He sees to it that I go to school. He knows the value of a good education. Though when I was younger, it was somewhat of a hassle to get me understand. What I wouldn’t try to do in order to get out of going to school.” Mark heard a small giggle from AnnaLee. Then, he thought to himself, ‘Why did I have to go and say something like that?’
“We have AnnaLee enrolled and she’ll start school on Monday. Do you like your teacher Mark?”
“Oh yes Ma’am. Mr. Griswald is a good teacher. He has me working through some advanced studies and helping out with the younger students at school.” Again Mark thought to himself, ‘Why am I telling them so much?’
As they stopped at the front door to the Dawson’s home, Mrs. Dawson invited Mark inside.
“Thank you all the same Ma’am, but I’m sure by now my Pa’s looking for me so we can head back to the ranch.”
“You don’t live here in town?” AnnaLee asked. It was the first time Mark had heard her voice and to him, it sounded like a symphony.
“No, we have a cattle ranch a few miles outside of town. It’s not as big as some of the other spreads around, but we call it home.” Mark tipped his hat as he turned to walk away.
As Mark returned to the hotel he found himself whistling, before he pushed his gloved hands into the pockets of his jacket. He was happy. In his mood, the cold breeze felt warm.
As he passed the livery, he found his father waiting for him, arms crossed and tapping his foot, holding the reins to both Razor and BlueBoy. “Boy where’ve you been off too? Lou said you’d be here.”
“Well I was heading back to the hotel and I met up with Mrs. Dawson and…, well I helped carry their packages home.”
“Oh!” Lucas could only smile as he saw the look on Mark’s face. “Okay, let’s get going home. We have plenty of Saturday morning chores to do once we get home. Have to make up some time for staying in town last night.”
Lucas and Mark mounted their horses and rode back home. As they rode, Lucas occasionally looked to his son and couldn’t repress the smile on his face as he witnessed the smile his boy wore.
When Mark arrived at school Monday morning, AnnaLee was already in the schoolhouse, sitting at desk that was just behind the seat that Mark always sat in. Mark took his seat as Mr. Griswald called the class to order.
Mr. Griswald introduced the new student to the class and explained that during the next few days he would be evaluating her level of education compared to the rest of the students.
Morning lessons consisted of reviewing the children’s homework assignments from Friday and before proceeding to American History. Soon it was time for recess. Mark started to leave the schoolhouse and play with the boys when he saw that AnnaLee wasn’t getting up from her seat.
“AnnaLee, you want to come outside?” Mark asked.
“No, I think I’ll just stay inside and read. I need to catch up on some of the assignments that you’ve already been working through.”
Mark left the schoolhouse and played ball with the boys for a little while, but his attention drifted back to AnnaLee. As she sat reading from her lesson book, Mark saw loneliness in her posture. Mark excused himself from his friends and went back inside to talk with AnnaLee.
Mr. Griswald watched as Mark tried drawing AnnaLee into conversation. He’d watched Mark grow up from a mischievous boy to a young man who was eager to help with the younger student and now… He smiled to himself and then went back to reading a book.
“AnnaLee, if you’d like, I can help you get caught up to where the rest of us are. I know how you must feel being the new student in school and not sure of yourself. We can work together afterschool if you’d like?”
“Mark, I’d really like that, but don’t you have work to do at your ranch after school?”
“Sure I do, but Pa’s always given me a little time to go fishing with either Freddie or Billy, as long as I’m home by four o’clock he’s alright.”
“I don’t want to be any trouble, Mark.”
“Oh, you won’t be any trouble. Over lunch I help Mr. Griswald with the younger students in going over their lessons. Mr. Griswald really appreciates the help. Tell you what. Why don’t you help me at lunch today?”
“Really Mark?” It was the first time Mark witnessed the girl’s eye light up.
“Sure, you’ll do fine.”
Soon class was called in from recess. Studies continued until lunch. After they had eaten Mark, AnnaLee, and the younger students sat down by the side of the schoolhouse and started to work through their grammar lessons. AnnaLee was surprised at how well Mark worked with the younger children and how they were so attentive. She found herself drawn into the lesson. At Mark’s urging, she started working with the two youngest children on their alphabet. Mr. Griswald was taking his usual lunchtime stroll and stopped as he realized what Mark had done. He’d taken AnnaLee’s uncertainties and without her knowing, had convinced her that she could be a value in helping with the younger children.
School commenced for the afternoon and soon the day was over. As the other students left the room, Mark and AnnaLee stayed behind. Mark worked with AnnaLee until he heard his father’s voice calling from the doorway.
“Pa, I’m sorry, is it really that late? I must of lost track of time. I was helping AnnaLee with her studies.”
“That’s okay boy. I had to come into town unexpectedly. Razor threw a shoe today. So, no you’re not late, just wanted to let you know I was in town. Finish up and meet me at Nils’.”
The week flew by with AnnaLee and Mark working with the younger children during lunch and then Mark helping AnnaLee with her own studies after school. Soon AnnaLee was caught up and not too far behind Mark’s ratings in schoolwork.
Saturday dawned a beautiful morning. The temperature gave the hint that it was going to be warmer than it had been recently. Mark finished his own chores shortly before lunch. As he and Lucas sat down to eat, Mark asked, “Pa, do you think I could borrow Razor this afternoon?”
“Borrow Razor? Something wrong with BlueBoy?” Concern was etched in Lucas’ voice.
“No, nothing’s wrong, it’s just that, well. I wanted to take AnnaLee out for a ride this afternoon. She’s not ridden before and I wanted her to ride BlueBoy. You know how surefooted he is. I thought it best she ride him instead of one of the horses at the livery.”
“Okay, Mark, we’ll have to do some adjusting to the stirrup lengths before you head out.” A smiled played at Lucas’ face as he watched his son.
Mark rode Razor and led BlueBoy to North Fork. He stopped in front of the Dawson’s house and tied both horses to the hitching rail in front of the picket fence. He opened the gate and across the stone steps before stepping to the porch. He removed his hat before knocking on the door.
Mr. Dawson answered the door and invited Mark inside.
“Good Afternoon Mr. Dawson. Is AnnaLee ready?” Mark asked.
“Sure, she’s upstairs with her Ma for a few minutes. I wanted a chance to talk with you before you head out,” Mr. Dawson said.
“Sir?” Mark asked.
“Now Mark, you know that AnnaLee’s never been on a horse before.”
“Yes sir, that’s why she’s going to ride my horse. He’s surefooted and a smooth ride. We won’t do more than walk sir. It takes time to develop the knack of riding properly.”
“And just how long do you plan on being gone?”
“Oh, no more than two hours sir,” Mark started fidgeting with his hat.
“Andrew, now don’t grill the boy. He’s just taking AnnaLee out for a ride. They’ll be fine,” MaryBeth said as he addressed her husband while coming into the front room with AnnaLee.
Mark and AnnaLee left the house. Andrew and MaryBeth watch from the front room window as Mark assisted AnnaLee in getting in the saddle. Watched as he adjusted the stirrups to fit AnnaLee. Then Mark climbed into the saddle on his Pa’s horse and they rode away.
Mark and AnnaLee rode away from North Fork, asking each other questions and answering. They laughed as they realized how much they had in common. Finally, AnnaLee asked if they could sit down for a while.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t of asked you to ride for so long.”
“It’s not that Mark, it’s just that, well…. This is the first time in a long time that my parents have allowed me to go out like this.”
“AnnaLee, there’s something else isn’t there? I see it in your eyes. I see you wanting to be happy, but something holds you back.”
“Oh Mark, Can we talk? I mean really talk. I need to talk to someone and I can’t talk to my parents. Please Mark?” AnnaLee was almost in tears.
“Sure, we can talk. But I don’t understand why you say you can’t talk with your parents. They seem like nice folks. My Pa and I, we talk all the time.”
“Mark you don’t understand, but I think you will. See before coming to North Fork, we lived in Chicago.”
“I remember Lou, Miss Mallory, telling us when we first met you at the restaurant,” Mark interrupted.
“Well… Ma and Pa kept taking me to lots of doctors all the time. Since I was twelve, I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t going to a doctor. The last time, they ran some kind of special tests on me. Doc said I was going to be fine. But later that night, I overheard Ma and Pa talking.” AnnaLee started crying, she turned to Mark and he held her in his arms until she was ready to continue.
“Mark, I overheard my parents say I was going to die, that there was something wrong with my blood that had made me sick all these years and there was nothing the doctors could do about it.”
Mark continued to hold AnnaLee in his arms.
“My parents brought me out west in hopes that the warmer and drier climate might help me feel better. But it’s not a cure.”
“AnnaLee, I’m so sorry. You don’t look sick,” was all that Mark could say.
“I don’t feel sick right now. But my parents say it could flare back up at any time and I can get really sick. Mark, I’m scared. I don’t want my parents to know that I know, but I just had to tell someone… Will you keep my secret?”
“Sure I will. AnnaLee, there’ve been some tough times in my life, especially after my Ma died. I know I didn’t help my father any when I kept pleading for him to take me back home to Oklahoma and to my Ma, I was only six at the time. But Pa’s always turned to the bible for answers. Every time we’ve faced an obstacle in our lives, we’ve turned to the bible. Even when times are good, we believe and live by the Good Book. Do you believe?”
“We used to go to church all the time back home, but we haven’t been to regular services since I got sick, and never since we left Chicago.”
“AnnaLee, why don’t Pa and I pick you and your family up tomorrow morning? I think its time you meet the Reverend and Mrs. McCafferty. They’re real nice people.”
“Oh, Mark, could you?”
Mark realized that it was getting close to the time he had promised to have AnnaLee back home. He helped her mount BlueBoy and again they rode. By the time they returned to the Dawson’s, AnnaLee had dried her tears and showed no signs of having cried.
Lucas and Mark did meet the Dawson’s and walked with them to church services Sunday morning. Afterwards, they introduced them to the Reverend and Mrs. McCafferty and their children Jake and Sarah.
The three families headed to the Mallory House Hotel for an after church services lunch.
After everyone had their fill, Mark and AnnaLee excused themselves and went outside. Jake and Sarah asked their Ma if they could go with Mark, “I think you should stay here with us. Let Mark and AnnaLee have some time together.”
Through the window Lucas watched as the two sat down on the bench in front of the hotel and started talking.
Finally, it was time to head home for the day. As they rode, Lucas asked Mark about AnnaLee and how she was settling into school and life in North Fork.
“Pa, she’s doing real well. I helped her catch up in her studies and now her grades are almost as good as mine. I even have her helping me with the younger students. Mr. Griswald sure seemed pleased.
“Pa, do you mind if I spend more time over at the Dawson’s? I mean I’ll make sure my chores are done first.”
“And what do you plan on doing while you’re there?” Lucas inquired.
“Well AnnaLee and I had planned to do some studying and just reading to each other. I showed her my birthday present you gave me and she was delighted to see a copy. So we’ve just been reading from it to each other, once we finish our studies at school. Anyway, it doesn’t seem right to keep Mr. Griswald at school just to keep and eye on us.”
“Alright Mark, you just make sure you keep up on your chores at the ranch.”
“Thanks Pa!” Mark kicked BlueBoy into a lope and headed home.
Mark spent Monday after school at the Dawson’s. Before he left, MaryBeth had given him a note for his Pa.
When Mark arrived home, he handed the note to his Pa and then headed out to do his chores, but stopped as he heard the tone in his father’s voice.
“A note? It’s been a long time since you’ve come home with a note boy.” There was a look of disapproval on Lucas’ face.
“Pa, it’s not from Mr. Griswald, it’s from AnnaLee’s Ma, Mrs. Dawson,” Mark laughingly replied.
Lucas opened the envelope, pulled out the note and read:
We want to thank you and Mark for everything you’ve done for us since our arrival in North Fork. Please accept our invitation to a Christmas Eve dinner at our house. We would be honored to have you as our guests.
MaryBeth and Andrew
“Pa, what does it say?” Mark asked.
“Seems like we’re invited to Christmas Eve dinner at the Dawson’s.”
“Are we going?” Mark asked with eager anticipation in his eyes.
“Yes boy, we’ll go. Just need to make sure we get you a haircut before hand.” Lucas stated as he ran his hand through his son’s hair to see just how long it had gotten.
Mrs. Dawson out did herself over dinner. She’d cooked a wonderful goose, with yams, dressing, fresh-baked rolls, and for desert, she’d baked an elegant apple cobbler with lattice-work crust across the top. After dinner was over, the adults headed to the living room to enjoy their coffee and talk. AnnaLee and Mark stayed in the dining room and started to clear the table and wash/dry the dishes in the kitchen. Once they were done, Mark pulled out a small package from his shirt pocket.
“AnnaLee, I got this for you. Merry Christmas,” Mark quietly said.
AnnaLee took the package from Mark and opened it. Inside was a silver chain necklace and the pendant was a delicate silver cross.
“Mark, it’s beautiful. Thank you,” AnnaLee squealed. “Oh, here, please help me put it on.” She turned her back to Mark and lifted her long, dark hair. Mark fumbled a little bit with the latch, but soon the necklace was hanging around AnnaLee’s neck. She turned around with a smile beaming from her face.
Soon it was time for Lucas and Mark to head home.
Christmas morning dawned bright as Lucas and Mark did their chores around the ranch. They worked together to clean the stalls and feed the horses. They collected any eggs and put them in the cool room until they went to town the next day.
They went back into the house to read from the Good Book and reflect on their blessings during this past year.
The week between Christmas and New Year’s saw Mark and AnnaLee together, a lot. They were either studying or reading or just out riding, enjoying each other’s company.
Mr. and Mrs. Dawson watched as their daughter blossomed into a confident young woman. It had been months since she’d shown any signs of her illness. She was enjoying life.
Mark had asked AnnaLee to accompany him to the New Year’s Eve Dance being held out at Oat Jackford’s place, with her parent’s permission of course.
“Sure Mark, you can take AnnaLee to the dance. In fact, I was thinking of asking my wife to accompany me. It’s been too long since we’ve enjoyed ourselves at a dance. Will your Pa be coming too?”
“As President of the Town Council, he has too.” Mark laughed as he replied.
It was a grand evening out at Oat’s place. Mr. and Mrs. Dawson enjoyed themselves immensely. Lucas and Marshal Micah Torrance stood watch over the punch bowl, making sure no one spiked it for the night.
Lucas smiled as he watched Mark and AnnaLee dance every slow dance that night. When ever the music was too, up tempo, they would sit in chairs set out around the ranch house. Lucas saw the look in his boy’s and the girl’s eyes. It reminded him of Margaret’s eyes from so long ago.
Micah brought Lucas back to the present when he said, “LucasBoy, you’re supposed to be keeping an eye on the punch bowl. How can you do that when you’re standing there daydreaming? Seems you’re worse than Mark.” Micah was laughing.
Soon the colder temperatures of winter gave way to the renewal of the land as spring arrived. The grasses out in the pastures were starting to turn green again. Trees were budding and flowers were blooming. The cows were calving and the horses were foaling. The promise of new life was everywhere, not just on the ranches, but out in the hills and valleys.
Mark and AnnaLee continued their weekend rides out along the countryside. She’d become a competent enough rider that she could now trot and lope BlueBoy with ease.
Farmers were finishing planting their spring crops of corn, green beans, and other vegetables, as well as wheat and barley.
School was finally out for the summer. Mark’s Saturday afternoon rides with AnnaLee became a daily occurrence. The people of North Fork smiled as they saw the two riding out together. Each person thinking back on various memories they had of Mark McCain growing up. In the beginning such a small boy with sorrow in his heart, to the mischievous Mark, to a boy trying to please his Pa and show that he was growing up, to the young man helping out Mr. Griswald, to helping various ranchers with their herds. As with any life, some of the memories were tragic. Mark’s growing up, watching his father protect the town and its people time and time again, by putting his life at risk. How many times had young Mark been forced to deal with the aftermath of Lucas being shot? Yet with all that Mark had experienced, he was growing to be a fine young man.
One evening shortly before the Summer Social, Lucas and Mark were sitting on the porch of their home. Mark asked his Pa, “When did you know that Ma was the one?”
“Just curious, I know that we’ve talked in the past about the love you and Ma shared and what it meant for the two of you to be married, but before that. How did you know that Ma was the one?
“Well now son, I don’t rightly know. If I remember correctly, I fancied your Ma, but felt I didn’t deserve to have such a woman as her. I’d lived a rough life. I’d served in the war and seen things that I didn’t want to share with anyone. The more Margaret talked with me, the more she made me see the good in myself. Eventually, she changed my mind. She had a gentleness about her, a way of seeing through a person’s exterior and into their soul.” Lucas stopped talking as he remembered Margaret, his beloved Margaret.
Mark knew the look on his Pa’s face and knew he was remembering, so Mark let his Pa remember in peace, he waited until his Pa’s thoughts came back to the present.
“Mark, you have a lot of the same qualities as your Ma. I see her in you every day. I look at you and thank the Good Lord that a part of her is kept alive through you.”
Lucas paused and took a long look at his son.
“Mark, there’s something more than you just wanting to know about me and your Ma. Want to talk about it?”
“Pa, I don’t know if what I’m feeling is truly love, but with AnnaLee, we can talk to each other and sometimes, she’ll finish what I was saying as if she knew my mind. I remember what you said, it’s more than just being in love, you have to be there for each other and listen. You have to be able to talk with each other and cry with each other. Working together, side by side to make the marriage last.
“Pa, when they first arrived, AnnaLee was so quiet, she almost seemed scared, now… Pa she laughs and her eyes sparkle.”
Before Lucas could say anything Mark continued, “Pa, I remember how I acted when we met Miss Millie’s niece and how infatuated I’d become with her. But this is different, I’m older. I don’t feel butterflies; I feel contentment inside when I’m with AnnaLee.”
This was a different side of Mark McCain and maybe Lucas had seen it coming at the New Year’s dance, but he felt he wasn’t ready to deal with his son and dating, not just yet.
“Pa, I’ve asked AnnaLee if she’d go to the Summer Social with me,” Mark finished saying.
All Lucas could say was, “As if there would be anyone else that you’d ask?”
The dance was held right down the middle of North Fork’s main street. Banners adorned all the buildings and lanterns were hung to illuminate the night. A band had come all the way from Las Cruces to provide the evening’s music.
It was a wonderful evening for the people of North Fork. The women had outdone themselves in baking and cooking for the event. The men arrived in their Sunday best and the dresses the women wore spoke volumes, colors and pastels, florals, and patterns, and simple yet, elegantly plain dresses.
Mark and AnnaLee spent the evening together, whether dancing slow dances or just strolling along the street of North Fork. Mark noticed that AnnaLee started to take a chill and appeared to be tiring, not so surprising, the festivities in town had been going on since four o’clock and it was now close to ten. Mark escorted AnnaLee to sit on a bale of hay placed to the side of the area roped off for dancing. As they sat down, Mark wrapped his arms around AnnaLee and she leaned into the comfort of his arms.
They talked. They talked of making plans of going to college and, maybe have a life together once they were out of school.
“And Mark, just what college would we go to. What would we study to become?”
“Oh, Mr. Griswald has talked with me about Harvard and there’s a whole bunch of Universities back East. As for a field of study, I think we both love reading and writing and working with children, why I don’t see why we both can’t be teachers. I won’t even make you give up teaching once we get married.”
“And just why would I have to give up teaching if I got married,” AnnaLee asked, a little peeved at the thought. Mark felt her body stiffen in his arms.
“Well, when I was younger, we had a teacher, Ms. Adams, I really liked her. She understood me from the beginning. Anyway, she ended up getting married and had to give up teaching to be with her husband. Pa said that married women weren’t meant to hold jobs, they needed to tend to their husbands and families.”
“Don’t you think a wife can do both, tend to their family and teach?”
“I think if my wife sets her mind on it, I’ll do everything I can to see that her dreams come true.”
Mark and AnnaLee didn’t know that her mother was listening to their entire conversation. But she couldn’t bear to listen to any more and ran away. MaryBeth found Andrew over in front of the saloon, where most of the men had finally gathered before heading home with their families. Andrew watched his wife approach and excused himself from the group.
Seeing the tears brimming his wife’s eyes, the Dawson’s went home.
“Now MaryBeth, what happened to put such a sad expression on your beautiful face,” Andrew asked as he tried to draw his wife into a hug and plant a kiss on her lips.
He felt resistance from his wife to his advances and was a little hurt when she turned her back and pulled away from him, “MaryBeth?”
“Andrew, I…” Tears were falling down MaryBeth’s face as she turned to face her husband. “I heard Mark and AnnaLee talking tonight. Now I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but something I heard them say… drew me to their conversation. Andrew, they were talking about going to college together, becoming teachers, and maybe getting married.”
Andrew walked to his wife and pulled her into his arms. All he did was hold her. Unashamedly, tears started falling down his face.
“Andrew, we have to tell him, he has to be told, there can’t be a future between him and AnnaLee,” MaryBeth cried.
“I don’t know how to break it to the boy. Maybe we should talk to his father tomorrow. I heard Lucas say he plans to be in town to help with the clean up. We just need to make sure that Mark and AnnaLee go for their Saturday afternoon ride. But for right now, we have to put our best faces back on. We can’t have AnnaLee walking in here and see the two of us crying.”
Andrew pushed his wife to the bedroom so she could compose herself before Mark brought AnnaLee home.
By the time that Mark did get AnnaLee home, she was leaning against him for support. Mark could see the tiredness in her eyes, the tiredness he had originally mistaken for loneliness when he first met her. As he said goodbye on the porch, he dared give her a quick kiss on the cheek before her parents opened the door. As he walked away, he turned back to look, just to see if she looked back towards him. She did. AnnaLee’s parents walked her inside and shut the door.
As MaryBeth brushed AnnaLee’s hair while sitting on her bed, AnnaLee talk wit her Ma about her feelings towards Mark. She told her Ma some of the stories that Mark had told her about when he and his Pa first arrived in North Fork. Stories of some of the adventures, some of the sorrows, but ended with the happy memories.
She told her mother she had never felt so ‘alive’ with anyone before. To her, it wasn’t that the sun set and rose upon Mark McCain, but because of Mark McCain, the sun showed her how glorious the days could be.
Settling her daughter under the cover, MaryBeth kiss her upon the forehead and bid her goodnight. Before leaving the room, she turned down the lantern on the dresser top, and looked one more time to the smile upon her daughter’s sleeping face.
Mark and Lucas had finished their chores at the ranch and rode into North Fork to help with cleaning the town after the festivities from the night before. Upon their arrival, Andrew Dawson met them and said “Since we have plenty of people here to help do the work, Mark, why don’t you go ahead and take AnnaLee for a ride.”
“Pa?” Mark inquired, unsure if it was okay for him to forego his promise to help clean up the main street with the other men and their sons.
“Go ahead boy, have fun, I’ll slave away all day,” Lucas said as he stepped down from Razor and shortened the stirrups.
They watched as Mark rode to the Dawson’s home. AnnaLee was waiting for Mark on the front porch. A smile beamed across her face as Mark offered his arm and he escorted her to their horses. Soon they were out of sight.
“Lucas, if I could, I think my wife and I need to have a word with you. Right now, it’s more important that we talk, than help clean up.”
“Andrew, what’s up?” Lucas asked.
“Not here Lucas, please come with me to the house.”
Lucas could tell by the way that Andrew was talking that there was something serious that needed to be discussed. He’d hoped and prayed that Mark had behaved as a true gentleman the night before.
Andrew led Lucas into the kitchen of their home. As they entered, Lucas saw MaryBeth sitting at the kitchen table, evident that she had been crying.
“Andrew, MaryBeth, has Mark done something to disrespect either of you…? Or AnnaLee? I’ve tried to raise my boy to be a gentleman and if something happened last night that has offended you…”
“Lucas, please, let us talk. First off, Mark’s been nothing more than a true gentleman when it comes to our family, especially towards AnnaLee. You’ve raised yourself quite a young man. He’s so different than any of the other boy’s AnnaLee’s age that we knew back in Chicago.” Andrew spoke while looking at his wife, his hand resting upon hers.
“I’m pleased to know my son hasn’t done wrong. But something’s on your mind.” Lucas looked from MaryBeth to Andrew.
“Lucas,” MaryBeth spoke, “I overheard Mark and AnnaLee talking last night and well, they were planning a future together. We hold Mark is very high regards, but it’s a future that can’t happen!”
“I don’t understand, my boy’s been a gentleman and I know how he feels about AnnaLee, I’m sure he’d do nothing to make you feel less about him.” Lucas was concerned. These people held Mark in high regards, yet they were against a possible future between his son and their daughter.
“Lucas, AnnaLee is dying!” MaryBeth blurted out.
Saying there was a look of shock on Lucas’ face was an understatement.
Andrew continued, “As a child, AnnaLee’s always been a frail child, when she turned twelve, she started getting sick. We’ve been from one specialist to another to another. Finally, last summer one of the specialists told us she probably didn’t have a year to live. There’s something in her blood that’s going to kill her. She doesn’t know it Lucas. We didn’t have the heart to tell her.
“The doctor told us we could make the last year of her life easier on her if we got her to a warmer and drier climate. That’s how we ended up coming to North Fork. You might think that your winter was cold, but it was nothing compared to the winters in Chicago.” Andrew stated as he stood behind his wife, he’d wrapped his arms around her shoulders as she sat at the table.
“Lucas, we never expected to meet a young man quite like Mark. He’s brought a strength to our daughter and a light to her eyes that we’d not seen since before she took sick.” MaryBeth continued, “We’re happy, the last six months have been so happy in this house that we forgot she was sick. She’s been so much stronger since she met your boy. She even reads from the bible before going to bed each night. She never did that before meeting your boy.”
Andrew continued when his wife couldn’t, “Lucas, last night when Mark brought AnnaLee home, we saw the strain in her face. She was trying to hide it, but I think her illness is taking hold again. Lucas, we don’t know how to break this to your boy. We don’t even know how to break this to our daughter.”
Lucas knew his boy cared for AnnaLee. Lucas remembered back to how he felt when he lost Margaret. He remembered how long it took to get the ‘child’ Mark to understand and accept his Ma’s death. How would he get the ‘young man’ Mark through this?
“Andrew, MaryBeth, I want to thank you for talking with me. I know it couldn’t have been easy. I think I need to do a lot of reading from the bible in order to understand how best to break this news to Mark.”
Lucas left the Dawson’s home and headed for the church. Reverend Mark McCafferty was working on putting the finishing touches to his sermon for the next day. He stopped as he saw Lucas enter.
“Morning Lucas, see you got out of helping clean up the t…” he stopped mid-sentence as he saw the look on Lucas’ face. He’d witnessed many of Lucas’ expressions in the few years since he and his family had moved to North Fork, yet he didn’t recall ever seeing this expression before.
“Lucas, can I help?”
“I’d appreciate it Mark. I think I’m going to need all the help that you can offer me to get through this.”
Lucas sat down in a pew in the front of the church. The Reverend sat down next to him. Lucas repeated the news he had just heard from the Dawsons.
“How do I break this news to Mark? He’s become genuinely attached to AnnaLee. I just remember everything Mark and I went through that first year after Margaret died. I didn’t know how to get through to him through his grief.”
“Lucas, trying to explain the death of a mother to anyone is difficult; even more so to a six year old boy. But Mark’s grown, he’s almost a man. You’ve raised him right and seen to it that he’s lived by the Good Book. Don’t underestimate the love that the two of you share. And Lucas, don’t underestimate how much your son has grown up.”
“I know, but still… How do you tell someone that someone they care about is going to die?” Lucas asked.
“If you feel that my talking with Mark would help, I’m here Lucas.”
“Thank you Mark, but I think this is something I need to do as his father.”
Mark and AnnaLee rode through the countryside. They hadn’t gone too far when AnnaLee asked Mark if they could just sit for a while. Mark saw the look in AnnaLee’s eyes. He dismounted from Razor and helped AnnaLee down from BlueBoy.
“AnnaLee, are you okay?” Mark asked as he escorted her to sit down under ‘their’ tree.
“I don’t know Mark. Everything’s been going so wonderfully. Then yesterday, I just started not feeling well again. Oh, Mark I enjoyed our day together, dancing, strolling through North Fork and talking. But I think my illness is coming back again.”
AnnaLee turned and threw her arms around Mark’s neck, he held her tight in his arms. He let her cry as long as she needed.
When AnnaLee finally stopped crying he asked, “Do your parents know?”
“I think Ma realized it last night after you brought me home. It’s been so long since we sat in bed together with her brushing my hair. She always did that whenever I got real sick.”
“If you’d like, we can ride back to town and get you home.”
“No Mark, I just want to sit out here in your arms and enjoy the quietness. I remember in the past, when I would get really sick, Ma and Pa would try their best to cheer me up, but their hearts weren’t really into the happiness they were pretending and it made me feel sad. Feel sad that they couldn’t tell me the truth. I know how hurt they must be in knowing that I’m going to die someday.”
Mark quickly added, “But AnnaLee, that’s just it. We’re all going to die someday. We don’t know exactly when. When my Ma got sick from the epidemic, there was so much death going on in Enid, but the adults didn’t give up, they kept trying to make those who were sick better. My Ma took sick because she was trying to help, she could have stayed at home and ignored everything, but she didn’t. She lived to help people. Pa said that was part of her gentleness, she couldn’t stand to see anyone suffer. AnnaLee, no one knows God’s plans for us. We could live to be one hundred or God could call us home tomorrow.”
It was late afternoon when Mark finally took AnnaLee home.
Lucas was still working up the courage to speak with Mark later that night. A lone wolf could be heard calling in the distance as they sat on the porch. Mark looked to his Pa, “Pa, you look like need to say something.”
“I do boy, just don’t know how to say it.” It pained Lucas to know the heartache his boy was going to feel after they talked. “Mark, earlier today, when you and AnnaLee were out for your ride, her parents and I had a talk.”
“Oh, what about?” Mark asked.
“Mark they told me some bad news. I just don’t know how to tell you and not cause you any hurt.”
“Pa, I guess they told you she was dying?” Mark asked as he averted his eyes from his Pa.
“She overheard them talking one night when they were still back in Chicago. Pa, she told me that first time we went on a ride together. She told me she was scared. It made her sad that her parents couldn’t tell her. I’ve been helping her find comfort in the bible. When were not studying, we’ve been reading the bible together.”
“But Mark, if you knew… Mrs. Dawson said she overheard the two of you talking last night. She didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but she heard you making plans, college and maybe getting married some day.”
“Pa, life is for living. Why shouldn’t AnnaLee make plans for a future? We both know the truth, but should what ‘might’ happen tomorrow, keep us from living today? Pa, she says she’s never remembered being happier or felt more alive than she has since she moved here.” Mark’s voice quieted and his father saw the change in his mood.
“Mark, I’m listening.”
“Pa, I think she’s getting sick again. She told me when we were out today. She didn’t want to do much riding, so we just sat under a tree talking… and crying.”
“Mark I want to protect you from this hurt, I know you care for her, but…”
“Pa, you can’t protect me from living. When you knew Ma was getting sick, did you walk away from her? Pa, don’t ask me to walk away from AnnaLee. Pa, please, I want to be there for her, for as long as the Good Lord let’s her be here.”
“Mark, I understand. I’m here whenever you need me.”
“I know Pa, I know I’m going to need you a lot more, afterwards.”
As the days passed, Mark and AnnaLee’s summer afternoon rides weren’t as frequent. They chose to spend their afternoons sitting together under a tree in her back yard. They’d read books borrowed from Mr. Bullock; eventually, the weaker AnnaLee became, they read more from the bible.
One day having held AnnaLee in his arms, she surprised Mark by asking, “Mark, do you think that when I get to heaven your Ma will be there to greet me? Do you think she’ll approve of me?”
Mark didn’t hesitate to answer, he had already known what his Ma would feel.
“AnnaLee, I’m sure Ma will be there to greet you with open arms. And it’s not a matter of her approving of you, she’ll love you. How could she not love the girl her boy’s fallen in love with?”
Quietly, with breathily words AnnaLee asked, “Will you make me a promise?”
“When I’m gone, don’t leave North Fork. Don’t run away from my memory. Stay here and plant flowers on my grave.”
It was a day towards the end of July when Lucas McCain stepped to the front porch to see Billy Davis riding hard down the road.
“Mr. McCain! Mr. McCain! I got to find Mark. Mr. Dawson sent me,” he yelled as he pulled his horse to a stop.
“That’s okay Billy, I know where Mark is. You go on back to town. We’ll be in shortly.”
Lucas rode out to the range to find Mark. As he approached he saw Mark had a calf lassoed and BlueBoy was dragging the calf out of the muddy end of the watering hole.
“Mark,” Lucas called as he rode up.
Seeing the expression on his Pa’s face, Mark answered, “AnnaLee?”
Mark jumped down from his horse and untied the calf. He quickly mounted BlueBoy and raced to town; his Pa at his side.
As they arrived in front of the Dawson’s home, Mark untied his jacket from behind his saddle and ran inside.
Already in the house were the Reverend and Mrs. McCafferty and Doc Burrage. Lucas waited with them in the front room as Mrs. Dawson led Mark upstairs to AnnaLee’s bedroom. He tried hard to keep his tears from falling.
Mark sat down at the headboard to AnnaLee’s bed. She sat up to lean into him. Mark wrapped her in his arms and gave her a gentle kiss on the cheek.
Mrs. Dawson sat in the chair, while Mr. Dawson sat on the arm of the chair. They held each other’s hands; tears falling freely.
“Mark, I’m not scared any more. I’m… at peace with dying. I look forward to meeting your Ma and telling her how much you mean to me. I only regret that I won’t have a chance to get married and have children and grow old with you.”
Not acknowledging the tears falling down his face, Mark reached over to his jacket and pulled out a small box and handed it to AnnaLee. As she opened the box, she saw a paper ring. On it Mark had printed “AnnaLee + Mark = Love”. Mark removed the paper ring and carefully placed it on her ring finger.
“Oh, Mark, it’s beautiful” she quietly said as she looked at the ring on her hand as she held in out front of her. “Remember your promise…” Soon AnnaLee pulled her hand to her heart and closed her eyes. Her breathing became more labored and soon, her breathing stopped; a look of peace settled across her face.
Mr. and Mrs. Dawson held each other tightly as they realized their precious child had passed. Their sorrow wasn’t just for themselves, it was also for Mark. They had come to consider him a part of their family. They knew how much Mark had come to love their daughter.
Mr. and Mrs. Dawson stood up and left the room. As they looked back they watched Mark hold their daughter even tighter, tears falling unashamedly.
As they entered the front room, Doc Burrage stood and picked up his bag to walk to the bedroom. He placed his stethoscope to AnnaLee’s chest, then looked to Mark and said, “I’m sorry boy, she’s with your Ma now.”
Doc Burrage lifted AnnaLee up so that Mark could slip out from behind her and get off the bed. Lucas stood at the doorway and watched his boy stand up. Lucas remembered back to when he lost Margaret and knew his own heartache, now he had to be strong for his boy, again. Lucas walked to Mark and placed a hand on his shoulder, “Come Mark, let’s go home.”
As they rode home, Lucas let his boy grieve. Mark took care of tending to the horses while his Pa fixed a simple stew for dinner. They ate quietly. Lucas knew it was better to wait until his boy was ready to talk rather than forcing him to talk right now. He remembered back to Enid, when people tried to get him to talk after Margaret’s death. He got angry! They couldn’t understand his hurt in losing his wife and dealing with a child who didn’t understand death. He ran away. This was the first time that Lucas had really admitted to himself that he had run away. Oh, he told himself he was running to something and that something eventually became North Fork, but first, he ran away from the memory and the hurt.
Lucas stood up and cleared the table and did the dishes as his boy went out to sit on the front porch. Lucas joined him shortly.
“Pa, is this how you felt when you lost Ma?” Mark quietly asked. Tears were still streaming down his face.
“I reckon you’re feeling a lot like I did after your Ma died.”
Mark woke to a morning looking a lot like he felt; as a gentle summer rain fell from a grey sky. As they prepared their horses to ride to town for AnnaLee’s funeral, the clouds broke and the sun shone bright. This change in the weather didn’t do anything to brighten Mark’s feelings.
Lucas and Mark, and most of North Fork, arrived at the cemetery to say their goodbye’s to AnnaLee. Frank Toomey had crafted a beautiful coffin for AnnaLee. She was buried still wearing the paper ring that Mark had placed on her hand.
After services, most folks headed back to the hotel to enjoy the meal that Lou had prepared and to share their memories of AnnaLee.
Outside the cemetery, Mark wasn’t ready, “Pa, I think I’d like to be alone for a while. I’m gonna go for a ride. I’ll come back to town later and we can go home together.” Mark got in the saddle and kneed BlueBoy to walk on.
Mark rode out to the range and stopped at the tree where he and AnnaLee had stopped that first ride. He sat down under the tree and cried some more. Soon, a calmness came over Mark. He felt the presence of his Ma standing with her arms around AnnaLee. He sensed both his Ma and AnnaLee smiling at him. Mark soon got up and rode back to town. He knew it would take time to get over the sorrow, but as he told his Pa, ‘Life is for Living’. He also heard the words his Pa spoke to him when they first arrived in North Fork, “There’s no looking back.” To which he replied, “I’m not looking back, I’m just remembering.”
Mark returned to the hotel and went to stand next to his father. Lucas placed an arm around Mark’s shoulder and smiled. They stayed at the hotel until they were the only ones remaining, other than the Dawsons.
The Dawsons approached the McCains, “Mark, my wife and I’d just like to say thank you for making the last few months of our daughter’s life so special. If it could have been, we’d of loved to have accepted you into our family as a son-in-law. But just know that you will always be a special part of our family.”
Mrs. Dawson placed a kiss on Mark’s cheek and said “We love you boy,” as she turned and walked away, arm in arm with her husband.
Lucas and Mark walked to their horses to return home. They watched as the sky turned all sorts of wonderful colors as the sun set. Mark took contentment that it was AnnaLee painting the sky to let him know everything was going to be okay.