Before The Debt…
Written by Deanne Bertram
This short story
is based on characters created by Levy-Gardner-Laven Productions for The
Rifleman television series. (The citizens of Red Rock Creek are purely
from my imagination.) This was my first foray into writing fan fiction. It
is a prequel to the fifth season episode of The Rifleman entitled,
The Debt. It is written as a first person narrative through the eyes of
young Mark McCain, however, somewhere in the middle the story needed to
change to the third person narrative, before returning back to the first
In The Debt,
15 year-old Mark McCain and his father, Lucas McCain, are enroute to the
county fair only they have to make a side trip to give a message to Marshal
Micah Torrance regarding the prisoner he is transporting. Upon meeting up
with Micah, Mark recognizes the prisoner as the man who had saved his life
several years prior when he was bitten by a rattlesnake. Mark feels guilty
that Mr. Renolds is going to hang for a crime, with no consideration that he
had once saved a young boy’s life; Mark struggles with how it’s so unfair.
During the night, a cougar harasses the horses, drawing Lucas and Micah from
their bedrolls, and in the process, Micah drops the keys to the handcuffs.
Renolds manages to convince Mark to let him escape, asking him to keep quiet
for a few minutes, “You would have died if it weren’t for me.”
to camp and finding the prisoner gone, Lucas verbally berates Mark for
knowing right from wrong and he had no business in allowing Micah’s prisoner
to escape. Lucas takes Mark to Abe Merar’s place and leaves the boy so he
can return to Micah and help track down Mark’s ‘friend’, the escaped
prisoner. Unbeknownst to Lucas, Mr. Renolds was listening in the barn.
After taking supplies, two horses, and Mark as a hostage, Renolds sets
course for Mexico. Only to have to detour to a ghost town upon finding out
Mark had filled the canteens with kerosene instead of water.
Renolds’ trail of footprints to Abe’s place, Lucas and Micah are informed
Mark is now a hostage.
Hoping to make
better time, and feeling Lucas and the law will give up the chase, Renolds
decides to leave Mark tied up in the ghost town saloon. With Mark tied up,
Renolds dumps the contents of the canteens as he exits the saloon. Mark, in
an attempt to get away, tries to reach the candle on the table to burn
through the rope that binds his wrist. Ultimately, Mark knocks the table
over, the candle falls to the floor, and ignites the kerosene. As Renolds
is filling the canteens across the street, he smells smoke. Turning around,
Renolds runs back into the saloon, calling out “Where are you boy? Don’t
worry, I’m gonna save you!”
carries a sorely coughing Mark from the saloon and drops him to the ground,
he takes off running as Lucas and Micah race into town on their horses. As
Lucas kneels beside his son, Mark declares, “He did it again, Pa. He saved
In the episode,
we never found out why it was that Lucas wasn’t there to rescue his son once
he was bitten by the snake; thus, the idea for my story. I felt the need to
delve into why Lucas was not there, and why Mark McCain felt as he did
towards Mr. Renolds. This story was written purely for fun with no intent
for a profit to be made.
Pa and a few
other cattlemen were taking a small herd of three-year-old cattle to the
Army Post to help supply the soldiers for the upcoming winter. It had been
about a week before when a telegram came in from the Army asking if any of
the ranchers in the area would be willing to sell a few head from some of
their herds. Pa immediately called a meeting of the North Fork Cattlemen’s
Association. I was so proud of how Pa led the discussion and took the tally
on how many cattle each Rancher would contribute and then called for
volunteers who would ‘man’ the cattle drive. All told, thirty beef cows
were going to make the trip to the fort; it had been a good year for all the
ranchers around North Fork. Since Pa was the chairman of the Cattlemen’s
Association; the other ranchers stated it was only fitting that Pa should
make the trip, along with Mr. Merar and a couple of other ranchers’ hands.
Can you believe that in the short amount of time we’d been living in North
Fork, the other ranchers thought that highly of Pa?
Since school was
in session, Pa said I couldn’t come along because I needed to tend to my
studies. He always said that it was important that I receive a proper
education. Before he left he told me, “Be good, mind your manners, and do
everything that Micah and Miss Hattie tell you.” I gave him a big hug
around the neck and didn’t want to let go. I was proud that I didn’t cry as
I watched Pa and the others head out.
After school, I
had to tend to the stock and do my homework. On the weekend, Pa expected me
to do my regular chores around the ranch. Pa also asked that I ride the
fence line on Saturday and if any section was down, to tie up a rope across
the opening to keep our cattle from straying; we’d fix it proper, together,
when he got back. Each evening I was expected to be back in town before
dark to spend the night with Miss Hattie.
Pa had been gone
since Monday and I missed him something awful. Each night when I got into
town, Micah took me to the hotel and made sure I ate a good meal, including
my vegetables. While I ate, he told me stories of his marshalling when he
was younger. He also wouldn’t let me order any chocolate cake until my
plate was clean. After dinner, he’d walk me over to Miss Hattie’s before he
left to walk the town. In the morning, Miss Hattie made sure I got up early
and had a clean face and hands, and was properly washed behind my ears.
She’d fix me a good breakfast and then shoo me out the door to get to school
earlier than the others.
Miss Adams met
me at the school door and asked how I was doing and if I had done my
homework. She checked my work first thing, since she knew that Pa wasn’t
home to check it for me. And if I had gotten any of my math problems wrong,
she’d sit with me and work me through them until I understood where I made
my mistake. During lunchtime, she’d work with me on my grammar studies. I
guess since Pa wasn’t around to watch over me, Miss Adams felt I needed a
little more attention than her other students.
Finally, it was
Saturday -- no school. I got up early on my own and surprised Miss Hattie
as I jumped down the stairs.
“Oh, Mark, I was
just getting ready to call you to breakfast. My, you’re already dressed,”
stated a startled Miss Hattie.
“Yes, ma’am.” I
replied, “I want to get to the ranch and get my chores done early so Freddie
and I can go fishing later this afternoon. That is, if it’s okay with
you?” I guess it would only be proper for me to ask permission to go
fishing since I’d of had to ask, if Pa were here.
“Why sure Mark,
I’ll let Micah know your plans, however, you’re still to be back here before
With that, I
quickly ate my breakfast, and ran out the door to go get Blue Boy from Nils
at the livery.
pardner.” I heard Nils call out, “Where’s the fire?”
“Oh, hi Nils,
just in a hurry to get to the Ranch, Pa said I had to do my Saturday chores
and wanted me to check the fence line today.” With that, I saddled and
bridled my horse and jumped in the saddle and rode out of town. As I left,
I yelled, “See you tonight!”
It was a pretty
day, the only way it could be any better was if Pa was riding Razor beside
me. The sun was just above the hills, the sky was a beautiful shade of blue
with big, white, fluffy clouds floating along in the breeze.
When I got to
the ranch, I turned Blue Boy and the wagon horses out in the paddock and
went inside the barn, cleaned the stalls, put hay in the mangers and filled
the water buckets. After I fed the chickens, I took some of the firewood I
had stacked earlier in the week and put it inside the house next to the
fireplace. I wanted to show Pa that I could take care of our ranch while he
was gone. Once I was done with my chores around house and barn, I got Blue
Boy saddled and headed out to check the fences.
I’m not sure how
long I’d been out riding, but I found myself daydreaming of me and Pa out
riding on a big spread with thousands of head of cattle and it would take
days to finish checking the fence lines. It was well past noon, when I
realized I hadn’t kept track of time or packed a lunch and I was hungry.
Just then, I spotted a break in the fence line up ahead and some of our
cattle had already made their way through the fence. I kicked Blue Boy into
a lope to round up the cattle and get them back on our property.
Unfortunately, the cattle decided to run away from me.
“Dang them cows,
if Pa were here…” I stopped myself. Pa wasn’t here and we had a
partnership, so it was up to me to figure this out.
I realized that
if I stopped chasing the cows they would settle down and then I could ride
around them and get them heading back in the right direction. I brought
Blue Boy to a walk and soon the cows stopped running and began to graze. I
decided to get off Blue Boy and walked him over to a stand of trees on a
small hill and wait in the shade. Once I got to the hill, I realized there
was a ravine with a trail on the other side that I hadn’t seen before. My
curiosity got the best of me; I tied Blue Boy to a tree branch and decided
to go exploring while I let the cows settle down a little more before I
drove them back home.
I had just come
to an outcropping of rocks when I heard the noise and knew it was too late;
I felt a pain in my leg and looked down to realize I had just been bitten by
a rattlesnake. I was so far away from home and no one knew where I was. I
was surely in a predicament. I had to get back to Blue Boy. I had to go
slow. Don’t run. I tried to keep from panicking, tried to remember what Pa
had said about snakebites, but it was hard. I was scared. I wanted my Pa
there, to pick me up in his strong arms and tell me everything was going to
be all right. I remember getting back to Blue Boy, but didn’t have the
strength to climb up out of the ravine. I fell to the ground right there.
I got out my pocketknife that Micah had given me and cut my pant leg to see
how bad the bite was. And, I guess I must have passed out.
Next, I felt
strong arms picking me up and talking soothing words. I couldn’t open my
eyes, I just wanted to sleep. It had to be Pa, he knew I was hurt and came
for me. I drifted in and out of sleep. Once, when I woke up, I realized I
was in a bed, but it wasn’t mine. I remember hearing strange voices ask,
“Who is the boy?” “Where’s his family?” “Such a nice looking boy, it’s such
a shame,” another said. “The boy is fevered and delirious, and needs
family,” a woman said. Then another voice said, “It’s a miracle that the
boy was found at all. A stranger passing by, seeing a saddled horse tied to
a tree, then looking and finding an unconscious boy in the ravine. Not too
many strangers would go out of their way as that man had.” Stranger? But
it was my Pa who found me. The words they were saying didn’t make sense
anymore. As I fell back into a restless sleep I kept hearing that snake and
calling for Pa to shoot it!
Back in North
Fork, it was getting near to be evening when Miss Hattie saw Freddie with
his fishing pole walking on the other side of the street and called out,
“Freddie, where’s Mark?”
over to the porch in front of the general store. “Gee, Miss Hattie, Mark
never showed up. I thought maybe you kept him in town to keep an eye on him
since his Pa’s gone.”
A worry crept
into Hattie as she ran over to the Marshal’s Office.
tried to keep the fear out of her voice. “Something’s wrong, Mark didn’t
meet Freddie and its almost dark. He left early this morning to go to the
ranch to do his chores and then was going to check the fences. He knows
he’s supposed to be in town before dark.”
you know Mark, he probably lost track of time or fell asleep, he’ll be here
soon enough.” Micah responded.
“But you don’t
understand, he planned to go fishing with Freddie this afternoon, after he
finished his chores. When Mark didn’t show up, Freddie said he thought I
had kept him in town to keep an eye on him.”
doesn’t sound like Mark to miss an opportunity to go fishing. I think I’ll
ride out to the ranch and take a look.” With that, Micah headed out the
Micah arrived at
the ranch to find it quiet, except for the farm animals moving about. Micah
hollered, “Mark….Mark.” No reply. Micah checked the barn. Then he walked
to the dark house to see if Mark might have left a note. Nothing. Micah
got back on his horse and headed back to North Fork as fast as he dared to
go in the dark. He had to get a posse together to go looking for Mark.
Word went out to all the town folk to meet Micah at the McCain ranch early
most everyone from the town was waiting at the McCain ranch for the sun to
come up. The women folk brought food and since the circuit preacher was
already in town, he came to lead a prayer vigil for Mark’s safe return.
Micah separated the men folk into small groups. Not knowing which direction
Mark went, he wanted as much terrain covered as possible.
telling everyone, “We have to find Mark before Lucas returns. That boy is
his life and he left Mark in our care.”
As the riders
returned throughout the day, the dejected looks on their faces told the
story, no one asked any questions.
looked everywhere.” Nils said.
“Then we’ll just
have to look harder tomorrow,” a tired Micah replied.
dawned and the town folk returned to the ranch. Miss Adams canceled school;
the children were too concerned about their schoolmate and couldn’t focus on
their studying. Everyone knew that Mark wasn’t just a part of the town, he
was part of its heart; everyone felt an obligation to find him. Not just
for Lucas, but for themselves. Just as they were about to head out, a small
cloud of dust could be seen on the horizon. Everyone held their breath that
it was Mark coming back, safe. As the cloud of dust moved closer everyone
realized that it was Lucas and the others returning. How would they explain
to Lucas that Mark was missing?
As Lucas rode
up, a look of concern was on his face. “Micah, what’s this all about?”
Looking around, “Where’s Mark?”
we’re just about to head out to search for him. He left town Saturday
morning to do his chores, and …” Micah continued to tell Lucas what had
happened and that they had spent all Sunday searching for Mark, and they
were just about to head out for the second day. Lucas filled his canteen
and then got back on Razor. He thanked everyone for coming; it meant a lot
to him how much the town cared. Lucas headed out with Micah next to him.
He knew the route that Mark generally took when he rode fence, so he had a
good idea where to go.
After a while,
Lucas and Micah came to the break in the fence. Lucas dismounted from Razor
and searched the ground for any signs indicating which way Mark went, he saw
Blue Boy’s hoof prints in the dirt and was able to follow the tracks and
eventually found where Mark had tied him up to the tree. Then Lucas
followed Mark’s footprints down into the ravine and saw Mark’s pocketknife
and an impression in the ground where Mark had laid down. Then Lucas
realized there was another set of boot prints, tracks from a stranger, it
looked as if someone had knelt down next to Mark. Lucas realized the tracks
leading back to where Blue Boy and another horse had been tied were deeper;
someone carried Mark… Lucas and Micah got back on their horses and slowly
followed the two sets of hoof prints, away from North Fork, the Ranch, and
away from his Pa. Someone had Mark. “Whoever has Mark, if he’s harmed in
any way…?” Lucas couldn’t say anything more.
It was late in
the afternoon when they finally came to a small town. They headed for the
Sheriff’s office. As they dismounted and prepared to tie their horses to
the hitching rail, the sheriff came out to greet them. “Good day gentlemen,
what brings you to Red Rock Creek?”
searched the faces of the town folk walking along the street, Micah made
introductions and said they were looking for a boy, “He’s almost twelve
years old. His name is Mark McCain, he was supposed to return to North Fork
Saturday night, and we’ve been looking for him for two days now.”
At that point,
Lucas interrupted and said it was possible that someone had taken the boy
and described how they had followed the tracks to the town. “Please, could
you round up a posse to help me find my son?!” Lucas pleaded.
Seeing the worry
in Lucas’ eyes, the sheriff said, “I don’t think it’s necessary to get a
posse together. Late Saturday afternoon a stranger brought a young boy into
town; said he’d found the boy out on the trail and that he’d been snake
bit. Right now, the boy’s over at doc’s. He’s been fevered, but the doc’s
made sure he hasn’t been left alone.” As they headed for the doctor’s
office, the Sheriff described how the boy keeps talking in his sleep about
his Pa and a rifle and then yells, ‘Pa, Shoot it! Shoot it!’ “I guess he’s
talking about you and that”, as he pointed to the rifle Lucas was carrying.
The town doctor
was closing the door of a side room as they entered the office. “This
here’s Doc Hayden,” the sheriff said towards Lucas and then looked at the
doctor, “Doc, I think this here might be the boy’s pa. Let him in to see
As Lucas opened
the door and entered the darkened room, he saw the outline of Mark,
unconscious in the bed.
strode over to the bed and sat down.
The look on his
face couldn’t hide the pain he was feeling, seeing his boy like that. He
took Mark’s hand in his and then swept Mark’s hair from his face. “Doc?
He’s… he’s going to be alright, isn’t he?” Lucas asked with a hesitation in
“I believe he
made a turn for the best earlier this afternoon when his fever broke. He’s
been quieter and is asleep. With a little more rest and the medication I’ve
given him, he should make a full recovery,” Doc Hayden replied.
asked, “Doctor, thank you, how can I ever repay you for saving my son’s
“It’s not me you
need to thank; the man who brought him into town saved his life.”
“Is he still
here?” Lucas asked.
replied, “Why, yes, I think he said he was going to stay at the hotel for a
while, at least until he found out if the boy was going to recover.”
As Lucas sat
next to Mark, Micah told Lucas that he was going to go back to the ranch and
to North Fork to let everyone know that Mark was found and what had
happened, “Don’t worry about the ranch; just stay here with Mark. We’ll
take care of everything else, LucasBoy.”
It was almost
lunchtime Tuesday, when I finally opened my eyes to see my Pa sitting next
to me in a chair with his eyes closed and his hands folded in prayer. I
thought I saw tears on Pa’s face. “Pa?” I whispered. When Pa didn’t stir,
I said it a little louder. “Pa?” With that, my pa’s eyes opened and he was
holding me in his arms. Those strong arms, the arms I dreamed about,
holding me close and Pa saying that I was going to be okay.
“Pa, I knew
you’d come for me and find me; that you’d make everything right.” Then I
saw a strange man enter the room, wearing doctor stuff. “Where’s Doc
Burrage?” I asked.
Pa told me that
I wasn’t in North Fork, that a stranger had found me out on the trail and
brought me to Red Rock Creek.
I was confused,
“It wasn’t you who found me and comforted me?” I asked. I knew my words
had hurt Pa, not that they were mean words, but he answered me with his eyes
down, “No son, I wish to God I was there to protect you when you needed me,
but I wasn’t.”
I tried to tell
Pa how I had taken care of the ranch and what had happened when I was out
checking the fences, but he just put his hand to my mouth and hushed me. He
said I could tell him later, right now he just wanted to hold me.
tall man came into the room, he had a sparkle in his eyes and a funny smile
on his face, he was happy to see me and my Pa together… I didn’t
understand. I didn’t know him. At that point, the doctor introduced us to
Mr. Renolds -- the stranger.
“Glad to see you
awake boy, you sure gave me a scare when I came upon ya. If you hadn’t cut
your pant leg, I wouldn’t have realized what was wrong. Saw the puncture
marks and realized you were snake bit, I took the pocketknife from your
hand, cut your leg a little. Then sucked and spit out as much of the venom
as I could. Then I carried you up onto my horse and rode with you in front
of me until we got to this here town. Sorry for the rough handling, not
used to caring about someone.”
Pa got up and
reached for Mr. Renolds, strongly shook his hand and thanked him for saving
Then the doctor
said I needed to rest some more, “But Doc, I’ve been asleep. And Pa just
got here, and Mr. Renolds…”
“I said you
needed more rest, and that’s what you’re going to get!”, as I watched the
doctor move Pa and Mr. Renolds to the other room. The doctor hesitated by
the door, “Your Pa’s seen that you’re going to be okay and he needs to eat.
He’s not ate since he arrived yesterday.”
I was startled
by those words, “Pa!”
“Son, the doc’s
right. You need your rest and since I know you’re going to be okay, I’ll go
get something to eat. I’ll be back soon and bring some broth for you to eat
and if the restaurant has any fresh baked bread I’ll bring that too. Mr.
Renolds, would you care to join me for lunch?”
“Thank you all
the same, I just stopped by to see how the boy was before I headed out. I
just can’t seem to stay in one place long… I’ve been here too long as it
is.” After a moment he continued, “Never cared about anyone else before,
funny… Finding your boy in that ravine brought out a feeling in me. Never
felt that way before. Always looked out for number one, me. I can see
that the two of you have something that I never had with my own father.
Guess I shouldn’t ramble on. Mr. McCain, take care of that boy, he’s mighty
“Yes, I thank
the good Lord every day that he gave him to me. And thank you for giving my
son back to me.”
They shook hands
again. Mr. Renolds turned away, walked out of the doctor’s office, got on
his horse, and rode out of town.
It was two more
days before the Doc said I was well enough to return home; however, he
refused to let me ride Blue Boy. Pa had sent a wire back to North Fork and
Nils came with our wagon and team. Pa propped our saddles under the
blankets and pillows he placed in the back of the wagon for me to lie on,
since the doc didn’t want me sitting up on my own for the trip home. After
Pa and I said our goodbyes to the doctor, he carried me to the wagon, tied
Blue Boy and Razor to the back of the wagon and we headed home. Pa and Nils
talked a lot, but I didn’t pay much attention to what they were saying. I
couldn’t get Mr. Renolds out of my mind. He’d saved my life.
When we arrived
back at the Ranch, Miss Hattie and some of the women folk had gone out of
their way to fix a big meal to welcome me and Pa back home. Tables and
chairs were set up outside. Micah, Sweeney, Mr. Hamilton, Miss Adams, Doc
Burrage, and everyone who had helped search for me was there. I was
embarrassed for causing so much trouble; I tried to apologize to everyone.
Pa lifted me out of the wagon and carried me into the house; Doc Burrage
stated he wanted to take a look at my leg to make sure it was healing proper
before he gave me a “clean bill of health.” Nils unhitched the horses with
help from some of the other folks and got the wagon and harnesses put away
before Pa came back outside with me to enjoy our homecoming meal.
evening, after everyone had left, I was sitting on the porch when Pa came
out from tidying up inside and saw me looking past the hills. He sat down
next to me and asked, “What’s on your mind son?”
Renolds, he didn’t have to stop and help me. He could have just kept on
going to wherever it was he was going.” I was quiet for a few moments, “I
could have died out there. I owe Mr. Renolds my life.”
“I know son.
Sometimes it’s not just family and friends who show compassion...
Sometimes, something stirs inside a stranger that makes them want to help.
I’m thankful that he cared enough.”
“Pa, how does
one repay that kind of a debt?”