The Rifleman
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Fan Fiction

The Next Step…
Chapter 82 - The Debt Repaid
Written by Deanne Bertram

Renolds helped an exhausted Mark from his horse. With a supporting arm, Renolds led him to a stand of trees next to a bubbling brook.

“Sorry for the rough ride,” Renolds stated apologetically.

“I know it couldn’t be helped.”

“I got some provisions, gonna have to settle for a can of cold beans.”

Mark nodded.

After finishing eating, Mark watched while Renolds carried the cans to the brook and used one of the cans to dig a hole big enough for both cans and covered it over.

“No sense us carrying dead weight or leaving proof we stopped here,” Renolds answered of Mark’s unvoiced question, while he walked to Mark’s horse and pulled down his bedroll.

“Renolds, Pa nor Micah ever said why you were supposed to be hung?”

“The law called it murder.”

“Murder is murder,” Mark responded.

“I said they called it murder, because to me, I believe it was self defense. But I didn’t have any friends around to stand up and testify for me. Maybe I did pull my gun first, he called me a card shark, said I was pulling cards. I thought he was going for his gun. I don’t remember pulling my gun, just going for it. Afterwards, I woke up in jail with big lump on the back of my head. The sheriff informed me I had killed the judge’s son. The judge tried me and the jury convicted me.”

“The judge didn’t recuse himself from the trial?”

“When the judge owns the town and most of the land around, what do you think?”

“Guess you should be thankful they didn’t hang you without the benefit of a trial.”

“If you can call it a trial. No matter the truth, I was going to swing.”

“How’d you get away?”

“The Sheriff got sloppy while they were building the scaffold, and I was able to break out of jail.”

“Were you on the run when… we first met? After I’d been snake bit?”

“Yeah.” Renolds cast his eyes downward. “Continue to be on the run until I met up with your marshal a few years later. It was actually a relief to know it would all soon be over.”

“But you don’t think you killed him? The judge’s son?” Mark asked.

“They said I did. My pa always preached that I’d end up swinging for being too free with my temper and carrying a gun… Said someday I’d end up buried six feet under and I’d have no choice than to lie in the bed I‘d made.”

“But if you didn’t kill him…”

“Boy… Mark, being on the run for all those years, it takes something out of a man. I didn’t care to live anymore. Knowing my pa’s prophecies came true. Besides, who’d believe my story?”

“If you didn’t care to live anymore, why convince me to let you get away when Pa and Micah were checking on the horses?”

Renolds gave a brief laugh as he scratched his head, “I don’t rightly know. Maybe I didn’t want you to know that no matter what I done to help you out that the law wouldn’t think it mattered. I guess I wanted to protect you from the harsh realities of life. If you could know that I was out there… alive. I heard your Pa talking to you…”

“And once you were free?”

“What do you mean?”

“If you were resigned to swing, why kidnap me and head to Mexico…”

“Guess I thought there was something to live for. Mark, I can’t explain it, because I don’t understand it myself. Let’s just leave it at that.”

"I can't. I remember when you took that first drink from the canteen, you went for your gun," Mark stated.

"But I didn't pull it..."

"No, you didn't. You laughed and said 'wait until the boys get a load of this'. What boys?" Mark wouldn't let go.

"Friends down in Mexico."

"Your gang?"

"Not exactly. Just friends I visit when I need to try to lie low."

"Have you ever killed anyone?"

Renolds was surprised by that question.

"Why didn't you stand up for yourself when we went to the governor?" Mark asked.

"He was a judge's son..."

"You've never heard of crooked judges or people who try to manipulate the law for their benefit?" Mark yawned as the events from the past week took their toll. "I'm not letting this drop." Mark's eyes drooped heavier and heavier. Renolds watched as sleep overcame Mark.

'What if he's right?' Renolds thought to himself. 'First, I gotta get him home.'

*****

Smoke still rose from what remained of Wilkins’ home and hung heavy in the morning air, blanketing the land like a thick fog.

“Which way do we go?” Tom asked as he looped his reins over his horse’s neck.

“He told Wilkins he was going to get Mark home,” Lucas answered climbing into the saddle.

“Then to North Fork it is,” Johnny commented as he too stepped into the saddle.

“Wilkins, I’m sorry you got pulled into all this trouble,” Lucas stated. “I can’t ask you to ride with us.”

“You don’t need to ask. Besides, you didn’t pull me into this trouble; I jumped in feet first when I thought I was lucky enough to get the drop on an outlaw.”

The four turned their horses towards North Fork and prayed they would eventually catch up with Renolds and Mark.

*****

Renolds poured a cup of coffee, “How you doing this morning?”

Mark stretched out his arms and legs, in doing so he felt his hip pop and the pull of skin from where he had seared his leg. “Anxious to get back where people aren’t going to think I’m an outlaw and try to kill me without giving me a chance to prove who I am.” He worked to unwrap his leg, cringing at the smell of burned fleshed escaping from the bandage. He let out an involuntary groan.

“What happened to your leg?” Renolds asked. “Wilkins stated you were shot.” He carried a cup of coffee and handed it to Mark.

“Yeah, someone took a pot shot at me. It got infected.”

“It looks a whole lot worse than an infection.” Renolds cringed his nose.

“We tried to cauterize the wound to kill the infection.”

“Think I’d rather deal with the infection than that.”

Mark rewrapped his leg and took the cup of coffee.

“You ready to get back in the saddle?”

“Anything to get me back home so Doc Burrage can take a look at this,” Mark answered.

Within a short time, they were riding and hoping to continue to evade the bounty hunters.

*****

Mark and Renolds saw the dust cloud on the horizon behind them and realized the bounty hunters were still after them, when they stopped for a break. Spying a fallen tree at the bottom of the ravine, Renolds ordered, “Mark, get down from your horse.”

“Why?”

“You’re going to hide in that hollow log. I’ll take your horse and lead them away from you.”

“We ride together,” Mark tried to insist.

“Sorry, but with your leg… You’re struggling to stay in the saddle and we can’t ride as fast as we need to.” Stepping down from his horse, Renolds walked to Mark and helped him down into the ravine.

After seeing Mark into the tree and covering it over, Renolds picked up a leafy branch and began wiping away their tracks leading down and his leading back up. Grabbing Rainmaker’s reins and tying them to his horse’s saddle, he kicked the horse into a gallop and heading south.

*****

Following the trail, Lucas, Johnny, Tom, and Wilkins heard the unmistakable sounds of a gunfight and urged their mounts faster. During the momentary pause in the gunfight that their arrival caused, Tom yelled, “Drop your weapons, I’m a U.S. Marshal.” A few chose to holster their weapons and run for their horses while two others continued to fire in both directions, to their original quarry and towards the new comers. The last bounty hunters’ gun was silent when Lucas yelled, “Mark!”

A few moments later, he yelled again and brought his rifle to bear on the solitary figure walking from behind a stand of trees, hands raised above his head, holding a rifle.

“Mr. McCain?”

”Renolds, where’s my son!” Lucas demanded when he jumped down from his horse and pulled the rifle from Renold’s hands.

“I left him back on the trail. He was slowing me down.”

Lucas held both rifles in his right hand when he threw a left punch, knocking Renolds to the ground.

“Renolds I swear…”

“Let me finish…” Renolds pleaded as he rubbed at his jaw.

“Finish? I thought we were finished with you a long time ago,” Lucas remarked.

“I left him buried at the bottom of a ravine,” quickly he added, “In a dead, hollow log. I covered it over hoping those bounty hunters wouldn’t pay any mind to it. I assure you, he was as good as he could be when I left him.” Seeing Tom Benton approach, Renolds added, “Guess this means I’m in your custody?”

“For your sake, and for Lucas’, you best pray Mark’s okay.” Tom followed Renolds to where he had hidden the horses.

They returned to be informed that Lucas and Johnny hadn’t found any identification on the dead ‘bounty hunters’, “But I recognized both of them. They used to ride with the Ketchum Gang,” Johnny offered.

“Curry?” Renolds asked.

“Naw, two others.”

Tom spoke after he’d had a few moments to assess their situation, “Lucas, why don’t you, Wilkins, and Renolds head back to where he left Mark. Johnny and I’ll bury these two and catch up with you.”

“Bury them? Leave them for the vultures,” Lucas declared.

*****

The three backtracked their route in order to reunite Lucas with Mark.

“I’m fairly certain this is the ravine, see…” Renolds pointed to the bottom, “there’s the log I covered over.”

Lucas half ran, half slid, into the ravine, calling out “Mark!” in his rush to get to the bottom. Renolds was soon beside him, helping to dig out the opening.

“Renolds, if he’s…” Lucas started to say.

“I had no choice. In his condition, he was a sitting target.”

Mark’s head and shoulders finally came into view. Lucas reached for his son and slowly pulled him from the log. “Mark,” Lucas fearfully called as he held his son and placed his hand over his son’s heart.

“He’s breathing, he’s alive,” Renolds called watching Mark’s chest rise and fall. “I’ll get a canteen.”

Mark started to rouse as Lucas wiped the dirt from his face and clothes.

Barely having his eyes open, Mark called, “Pa?”

“You gave me quite a scare, son.”

“Renolds, he saved my life again.”

“I know son, he and Wilkins told me. Are you okay?”

“Guess I fell asleep, with the sun beating down on the log and the ends closed over, it got kinda warm inside.”

“You awake enough to get heading for home?” Lucas asked.

“I sure am. But how are you going to get me out of this ravine?” I can’t climb…”

“After you fill yourself with water, we’ll tie this rope around you Mark,” Renolds said as he returned to the father and son. “We’ll be up top, pulling you up while your father helps to steady you.”

“We’ll?”

“Wilkins is up top with the horses, son.”

*****

After getting Mark into the saddle, Mark called, “Renolds, you’re still under arrest. You’re in my custody.”

“Sorry to trump you Mark,” Tom Benton called as he and Johnny arrived. “He’s in my custody.”

“Didn’t know you were here,” Mark half smiled.

“I thought you were going to bury them?” Lucas asked, observing the dead bodies hung over the saddles.

“We were, until we found their horses. Figured save ourselves some time and sore backs by taking them with us back to North Fork, we should be there by mid-morning tomorrow,” Johnny answered.

*****

Thadd asked, “Have you heard any word from Mark?”

“No,” Hope replied. “And it’s been over two weeks since he left. Lucas and Johnny have been gone for a week as well. Thadd…”

“Hope, I’m sure if something had happened that they would have sent word,” Thadd stated, he heard the fear in her voice.

“Unless…”

“Don’t think of that. Keep that from your mind. Just send prayers for God to watch over them, all of them.”

After listening to Hope describe her symptoms, and completing the examination, Thadd started quietly laughing as he told Hope to get dressed. As she came from behind the partition, she asked, “Doc, what’s so funny?” Her tone indicating she was a little upset at Thadd’s amusement.

“Well, I remember back in November you wished you weren’t suffering food poisoning…,” Thadd raised his eyebrows as he continued to laugh.

“Then I am pregnant?” Hope asked, a smile beamed across her face and she ran her hands over her belly.

Thadd nodded. It was all he could do before they heard a knock at the door and saw it open to have Abigail stick her head inside and state, “Thadd, we need you in room two.”

“Tell them I’ll be there in a few minutes. Let me finish with Hope,” Thadd stated.

“Oh, I didn’t realize Hope was in here, you should know, Lucas just brought Mark in.” Seeing Hope’s expression Abigail quickly added, “He’s okay, just that he’s injured his leg pretty badly by the looks of things.”

Thadd, Abigail, and Hope entered examination room two.

“Mark?” Hope asked as she saw the tattered pants that Mark wore and the bandage around his leg.

Mark reached his hand to Hope and invited her into his hug.

“I missed you,” he replied.

“I missed you too. What happened?”

“Hope, why don’t you come out into the waiting area with me,” Lucas stated as he placed a hand on her shoulder and led her to the door she’d just come through.

*****

Johnny Drako saw to it that Harlan Renolds was securely locked in his jail.

“Well, Benton, what do we do with your prisoner?”

“Not exactly sure. Mark put up a convincing argument last night. I’m tempted to leave him here until I can further investigate Renolds’ story.”

“Seems you’re going to be our guest for a while,” Johnny called to his prisoner.

“Right comfortable bunk you have here,” Renolds replied as he stretched out, pulling his hat over his eyes.

“Well you have yourself a nice nap. I’m going to go to the clinic to check on my deputy,” Johnny spoke.

As he walked out the door, Johnny encountered Milly stepping to the boardwalk, “Milly?” he called.

“Johnny, you’re home. Where are Lucas… and Mark?” she asked worriedly while looking through the door.

“Lucas is fine, Mark took a bullet to the leg that became infected, they’re having Doc check him out over at the clinic.

*****

Once they were alone in the room, Thadd asked Mark what happened.

“I was ambushed. It was better than two days before the bullet got removed. But by then, all up and down my leg felt as if it was on fire. Doc, I don’t know if it’s right or wrong, but the wound didn’t look so good and I remember reading about searing flesh to kill an infection…”

“Cauterizing?” Thadd asked as he finished cutting through the bandage and pulled it away. He averted his eyes as he looked into the wound.

“Doc?” Mark asked.

“Well, it doesn’t look pretty. Whoever did this did a pretty good job. A little bit of it still needs to be treated… It’s going to hurt while I work to clean it up a bit.”

The pain Mark felt while Thadd tended to his leg was nothing compared to the pain he experienced earlier. After wrapping Mark’s leg in a clean bandage, Thadd stepped away and stretched his back.

“I think I have some medication to help fight any further infection. Who was the doctor who did this?”

“Wasn’t a doctor,” Mark answered.

“Anyway, it’s going to be painful for a while as the dead skin sloughs off and new healthy skin grows. Keep it wrapped during the day and keep this ointment on it day and night. Of an evening, I think it would be best to leave it unwrapped. Fresh air would be the best thing for it.”

Doc finished re-wrapping the leg and asked Abigail to go get Lucas and Hope, “Bring his family back in. I’m sure Hope is worried sick.”

“Doc, what was Hope doing here?” Mark asked. “Is she alright, and the children?”

“Yep, your family is fine and growing like wild flowers,” Thadd answered with a laugh.

Abigail showed Lucas, Hope, and Milly into the room.

“Well Doc,” Lucas started to ask, “How bad is it? Did Mark searing his leg make the injury worse?”

“Mark… searing his leg?” Thadd looked to Mark after hearing Lucas’ question. “You did this? You cauterized your own wound?! My God! Mark.”

“Is he going to be okay?” Hope asked.

Thadd shook his head in disbelief.

“Doc?!” Hope asked in alarm, thinking Thadd’s headshake was an answer to her question.

Thadd answered, “Hope, relax. It’ll take time, but yes, Mark will be fine. Just going to hurt like the dickens until it fully heals. The leg will always have a bit of a scar, but in time, new flesh will grow over the wound.” Thadd stood and washed his hands in the basin. “Lucas, you still have those crutches don’t you?”

Lucas nodded.

“Good. Mark, use them as you feel the need. Don’t avoid using you leg, but if you feel it starting to weaken… You’ll know. Now, if you’ll excuse me. I think Hope would like to have a little privacy to share her diagnosis.”

“DOC?!” Mark exclaimed as Thadd and Abigail walked out the door. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong,” Hope said as she smiled towards Mark.

“But Thadd said he had diagnosed…” Hope placed her fingers over Mark’s lips. She looked over her shoulder and extended a hand towards Lucas and Milly.

“He did diagnose… honestly he just confirmed my suspicions.” Hope paused as she felt Mark’s hands squeeze hers. “An after effect, if you’ll remember back to February, when two of you got me drunk. I’m pregnant!”

Mark broke out laughing. Milly started giggling and pulled her hand to her mouth as she realized what else had transpired that night. Lucas coughed in an attempt to hide his laughter. Their mirth caused a little bit of hurt to Hope. “That’s twice in the last half hour that people have laughed at me. Just what do you see that’s so funny?”

“Just that before Abigail brought you in, I asked Thadd why you were here, if everything was okay with you and the children. He replied everyone was fine and the ‘family was growing like wild flowers’. Hope, I love you.” Mark pulled his wife into his arms and attempted to kiss her.

“Not until you get rid of those whiskers. I want to kiss the Mark I married, not some saddle tramp,” Hope pushed herself away from her husband.

“You’re that set against my beard?” Mark replied.

“It’s not very becoming on you, now Uncle Johnny, he can wear a beard, but you… I’m sorry, my love, but that has to go!” Hope declared. “And you could stand a bath, really.”

Lucas laughed as he watched the interaction between his son and Hope. He tried to steal a quick kiss from Milly only to be pushed away. “You too can use a shave and a bath before I’ll allow you to kiss me.” Milly laughed as Lucas pulled her into a hug.

“Okay, Mark let’s get you back home, so we can get bathed, shaved, and then enjoy our wives,” Lucas stated while opening the door.

“From the news I just heard, someone has already ‘enjoyed’ his wife. Congratulations Mark, Hope!” Johnny Drako declared as he pulled Hope into an embrace.

“What are you doing here instead of being with your wife?” Hope asked teasingly. “You’ve been gone for over a week and you probably haven’t even stopped by the hotel to tell her you’re home. And that you missed her!”

“Oh, uh… I’ll see you Sunday, at church!” Johnny laughed and exited a quick retreat.

*****

Once Mark was settled in the back of the buckboard, Lucas gave a steadying hand while Hope climbed in back. He walked to the front, turned, and helped Milly to the seat. Before climbing into the seat himself, Lucas tied Blade and Rainmaker to the back of the buckboard.

“I take it Jake and Gwen are watching the children while you two were enjoying yourselves in town?” Lucas asked.

“Sure Pa, it’ll be good practice for when they start their own family,” Mark teased as he pulled Hope into his arms. “After watching after the McCain seven, maybe they’ll decide not to have children.”

“Not have children! And what’s wrong with having as many children as God provides us?!”

“Nothing, nothing at all,” Mark answered as he tried to sneak a kiss. “Pa, hold up!” Mark hollered.

Lucas halted the team and turned in the seat. The family saw Robert Wilkins and Seth Lane walking up the street towards them.

“How’s the leg, Marshal?” Wilkins asked.

“It’ll mend. Mr. Wilkins, thank you. Thank you for what you did to help save my life.”

“Wasn’t much, glad to help get you home. The deputy here said you had a beautiful wife to get home to. And I can see he weren’t lying.”

“I think he might be a little bit prejudiced,” Mark replied.

“Mr. Wilkins,” Hope spoke as she swatted at Mark. “I’m Hope McCain, Mark’s wife and the deputy is my father. Thank you for helping save his life.”

Wilkins removed his hat and nodded, a little embarrassed at the fuss that was being made over him.

“Mr. Wilkins,” Milly stated. “I’m Milly, Lucas’ wife. If you don’t have to get home soon, we’d love to have you out to the ranch for supper…as a way to thank you.”

“I’m pleased to make your acquaintances and that ain’t necessary ma’am. I best get on home, got to figure out what to do.”

“To do?” Hope asked.

“Nothing… Nothing…”

“Nothing?” Lucas asked.

“Nothing. I’ll be heading back to Red Wing in the morning. I’m glad I was in the right place at the right time. Little gal, you keep an eye on him.” Old Man Wilkins smiled. “He sure has a knack for getting into the darnedest trouble.”

“I will,” Hope answered as Mark pulled her back into his arms.

*****

The boys and Mykaela were excited to see their father finally home. Lucas started to help his son to his chair, but Hope asked for him to sit at the table instead. Mark lifted his daughter to his arms and tried to give her a kiss, only to have her protest.

“No, you scratch me!” Mykaela called.

Hope brought out a bowl, a towel, and Mark’s shaving kit. While lathering up the brush, their three sons sat on the floor in front of Mark, watching, while Mykaela sat in Mark’s chair.

“Papa’s got a white beard,” Eli laughed and pointed.

Lovingly, Hope ran the blade across Mark’s cheek, wiping off the shaving crème on the towel, before making another pass.

“I ain’t ever letting a woman take a knife to my face,” Josh stated.

“And why not,” Hoped asked.

“She might cut me,” he answered.

“Not if she loved you…” Hope replied as she scraped another pass along Mark’s cheek.

“Ouch!” Mark exclaimed.

“What?” Hope asked.

“You almost cut me,” he teased, causing all three of his sons to roll on the floor in laughter.

“Mark McCain, you do realize, I AM holding a knife in my hand? And I know how to use in!” Hope teased back as she pointed the knife to Mark’s Adam’s apple.

“Mama cut Papa!” Mykaela called.

“I wouldn’t hurt him. I’m just taking off his whiskers,” Hope answered.

*****

While Hope began fixing supper, Mark enjoyed a shower using the cistern he had installed behind the house before he had left. Allowing the water to roll off his body, Mark stretched and dreamed of sleeping in his own bed.

Later that evening, Mark was relieved that Doc Burrage stated his leg would heal. He returned to the front room after helping Hope put their children to bed. His mind returned to his first meeting with Renolds, an outlaw on the run who didn’t have to stop and save his life. “How does one pay that kind of debt?” he had asked his Pa so long ago.

The next time Renolds came into their lives, Micah had him in custody. After hearing that cougar scream, Lucas and Micah went to check on the horses, leaving Mark to find himself in a situation that no one could have foreseen… Should he yell for his Pa when he realized that Renolds found the key to the handcuffs or should he repay a debt, long overdue? Renolds had been a smooth talker. Yes, as a thirteen-year-old child, Mark knew what he was about to do was wrong, but still… if it hadn’t been for Renolds, he would have died from that snakebite.

With his lips pulling at a smile, Mark remembered how livid his Pa had been and how Micah had tried to stand up for him. The whole time they rode to Abe Merar’s place, there was an uneasy silence between the two. Mark knew his Pa was upset, but he just couldn’t get his Pa to understand. He remembered when Lucas turned to ride way, he didn’t even say goodbye… just, ‘Be back when I can’. Mark remembered how the tone of voice Lucas used in speaking those words hurt him, probably about as much as his actions had hurt his Pa.

Mark remembered how he thought he was so smart in putting kerosene instead of water in the canteens. The dread returned, when he feared for his life as Renolds spit out the kerosene and hollered, "You figured on slowing us down, didn't you boy?! Well you did! In fact you slowed yourself down to a stop." Renold’s hand went for his gun, but he hesitated. After spitting out the taste of kerosene, he ended up laughing, said ‘it took guts’.

Mark stood from his chair and limped over to his desk and pulled out paper and pen.

William Taylor Thornton
Territorial Governor of New Mexico
Albuquerque, New Mexico

Dear Governor Thornton,

I write this letter in an effort to pay a debt to a man who three times, has saved my life.

The first time I was but eleven years old and had been bitten by a rattlesnake. At that time, I didn’t know he was on the run when he came across me, already unconscious. He could have left me for dead, but instead, tended to the wound and took me to a doctor in the nearest town.

The second time I was almost fourteen. I was torn between right and wrong, all because of the debt I felt I owed this man for saving my life. As a confused child, I watched as he slipped from his handcuffs. I should have alerted my father or the marshal, who had him in custody, but I didn’t. This man ended up saving my life again by rescuing me from a burning building in a ghost town, though as my father stated later, had I not interfered in the first place, I would not have needed rescuing. At that time, the Governor Sheldon ordered Harlan Renold’s sentence be commuted from hanging until dead to life in prison. Because he had twice saved my life.

I am enclosing a written copy of the report I am filing with the U.S. Marshal’s Office in Denver. Though I believed my quarry to be Hannibal Heyes, it turns out the Ketchum Gang erroneously broke Harlan Renolds from the prison transfer wagon. There are extenuating circumstances surrounding the third time Mr. Renolds saved my life, but I do know, had it not been for the Ketchum Gang breaking him out of prison, he would not have been in the position to save my life, as well as the life of a friend, Robert Wilkins.

Sir, there has to be something good deep down in this man for him to keep risking his life to save mine. The burden of the debt I feel I owe to this man weighs heavy on my conscious. I ask that you consider a parole for Harlan Renolds. I’ll take full responsibility for his actions, if you require this as a condition of his parole.

Respectfully submitted,


Mark Warren McCain
U.S. Marshal
New Mexico Territory

Mark had just placed his pen on the desk when he heard Hope call his name. “Mark? Aren’t you coming to bed?”

“I am now.” Mark stood, blew out the lantern and limped his way to their bedroom.

“What were you doing?”

“Trying to repay a debt,” Mark answered as he climbed into bed. Though he was tired, his mind wouldn’t let him sleep.

“Can you tell me what happened?” Hope asked as she rested back against him.

Mark proceeded to tell Hope all that had happened while he was tracking the escaped outlaw. He told her of his first meeting with Renolds, and the events that happened during their second meeting. And now, for a third time, Renolds had saved his life.

*****

The following morning, Lucas rose early and rode into town, hoping to arrive before Wilkins left. Lucas saw him leading his mule from the livery.

“Wilkins, wait a minute!” Lucas hollered.

“Yes Mr. McCain?”

“Why leave so soon?”

“Don’t you remember I burned my house down? Gotta figure out what to do now.”

“I can’t forget. I feel I owe you more than a thank you, for all you’ve done. Stay here a while.”

“Don’t want no charity,” Wilkins offered.

“It isn’t charity. Robert, twice now you’ve had a hand in helping to save my son’s life. You burned down your home in an effort to make sure he got away from others who would just as well kill him for the bounty.”

“I don’t know…”

“Stay here. What I’m offering you isn’t charity, its gratitude and friendship.” Lucas held out his hand.

*****

Two weeks after Mark mailed his letter, Seth stepped from the Marshal’s Office to see an Army detail stopping in front of the Mallory House. The citizens of North Fork also took note as the captain handed out orders and his men promptly went about their business.

The captain and his lieutenant headed to the Marshal’s Office, once inside they inquired about Marshal Mark McCain.

“He’s off duty today. I’m Deputy Seth Lane, can I help you?”

“We need to secure your town for the next two days.”

“Trouble coming our way?” Seth asked.

“No sir, not trouble. The Governor William Taylor Thornton is coming for a visit. He’ll arrive on the train tonight.”

*****

The army detail made their way to the McCain ranch as the sun rose pink in the eastern sky. In the midst of the procession was a carriage and men in black suits.

Mark and Lucas were working up a sweat by chopping wood. Strike for strike, they kept up a steady rhythm, chop, set another log to be split, pick up the ax, raise and swing. They would stop for a drink, allowing their sons to run around, picking up the split wood, and stacking them, as neatly as small boys could.

“Lucas, we have visitors,” Milly called as she, Hope, and Myra worked on the laundry.

“Seth?” Lucas inquired, as he led the procession stopping in front of their homes.

“Lucas, Mark, the Governor is here to talk with Mark.”

“Governor?...” Lucas stopped talking as he saw a well-dressed man in a top hat step from the carriage, followed by two other men.

“Mr. McCain?” the man asked.

“Governor,” Seth started the introductions, “This is Lucas McCain, and on the left is his son, Mark McCain.”

“The Rifleman and The Lawman, if I remember correctly. I’m Governor William Thornton.”

“Pleased to meet you sir,” Lucas stated as he extended his hand.

“Welcome to our homes,” Mark said as he wait for his turn to shake hands with the governor. “Sorry neither of us are properly dressed to be presented…”

“Non-sense. I’m the one who came here unannounced. If you’d like some time to freshen up…” He motioned as he saw two women bringing linens and fresh shirts from their respective homes.

“Governor,” Lucas stated as he took the wet washrag from Milly and began wiping himself down. “This is my wife, Milly. And tending to Mark is his wife, Hope. Who also happens to be Deputy Lane’s daughter.”

“Pleased to make your acquaintances.” He bowed slightly, removing his hat. “Quite an abundance of children you have here.” He smiled as he watched the boys mimic their fathers, standing tall. Myra had stepped to the porch and was leaning up against the post.

“Governor, we’re honored. May we offer you something for breakfast?” Milly asked.

“No ma’am, we’re too large a group to inconvenience you in such a manner. However, I would like to have a conversation with the Marshal. If you’ll excuse us?”

The last remains of Mark’s limp, caused by his recent ordeal, had disappeared. Mark showed the Governor to a chair on his porch. From inside, they heard a young child start to cry. Hope hurried past them, without so much as an ‘excuse me’. A few moments later Hope carried their daughter from the house and went to Lucas and Milly’s.

The Governor shook his head slightly, amazed at all the young children on the property.

“I’ll get right to the point Marshal. I’m intrigued by the letter you wrote. Surprised that a lawman would take the side of an outlaw, regardless of their past. I understand one of my predecessors, Lionel Allen Sheldon, commuted this Harlan Renolds’ sentence from hanging to life in prison… Why should I consider paroling or pardoning him?

“Sir, I know you have a reputation as a hanging governor… You’ve not commuted one request for clemency…”

“Damn right! These outlaws need to know we mean business! Guilty of murder, means you hang!”

“Yes, there are circumstances where I’m all for seeing that the sentence is carried out. But sir, since I sent the letter, I’ve found out some interesting facts on Mr. Renolds’ behalf. I was prohibited from traveling, so my boss, Marshal Tom Benton did some investigating and we’ve received sworn, written testimony from the man who was the sheriff, according to him it was self-defense as Renolds claims. No one at that time would dare go against the judge, so they all allowed an innocent man to be convicted of murder. The sheriff tried his best to see that justice was ‘delayed’ by allowing Renolds to escape. Hoping he’d just leave the territory and never come back.”

“Well, this does put a whole new light on the matter,” the Governor spoke as he mulled over Mark’s statements. “Where is this testimony and Renolds?”

“Back in town, in our jail.”

“Would you mind accompanying me back to town? I’d like to meet this man for myself. I’ll give you a few minutes to get dressed and your horse saddled.”

Seth accompanied the detail, Mark, and the governor back to the Marshal’s Office.

Johnny escorted Renolds from the cell and told him to have a seat in front of the desk.

“Do you know who this man is?” Johnny asked as he pointed to the man sitting in his chair.

“Never seen him before,” Renolds answered.

“He’s the Governor of the territory and he wants to ask you a few questions. And you will answer him, truthfully.”

Renolds nodded.

“I want to know why, if you were on the run from a murder charge and a hanging, why did you help a child?

“Guess it was all my growing up years, my Pa preaching about caring for the innocent and less fortunate. I guess one of his sermons finally rubbed off on me.”

“And the second time… you used your previous encounter to convince him to let you escape?”

“Not at first, I accepted my lot in life. But listening to the boy try to convince his Pa and the Marshal that he felt it wasn’t fair. That my saving his life would have no affect on the fact that I was set to be hung. I listened to his Pa talk to him about the good in life, and the bad. And when the opportunity presented itself, I thought it would be better for him to know that I was out there somewhere, and not delivered for a sure, fire hanging.”

“And you later kidnapped him?”

“It wasn’t planned. I don’t know why, but I ended up at that farmhouse and there he was. I figured there had to be some reason. Little did I know how mischievous a young man he was.”

“Tell me,” the governor stated.

They listened while Renolds recounted the Kerosene and their trip to the ghost town. In the end he stated, “Guess the Good Lord brought Mark McCain into my life so that I could get a second chance at living. I mean, prison ain’t no easy life, but at least its living.”

“What if I were to tell you that there’s a possibility that your sentence would be commuted?”

“You’re going to re-impose the hanging sentence?” Renolds asked.

“From the reports I’ve read and based on new evidence presented, I believe you were wrongly convicted of murder. Usually, requests for clemency that come across my desk are tossed out, but the letter that Marshal McCain wrote on your behalf, intrigued me. Felt I needed to come and see for myself, how is it that these two strangers would keep encountering each other. The Marshal stated there had to be some good in you, to have saved this life three times.”

“You did that for me?” Renolds asked.

Mark nodded.

“Tell you what. I’m going to parole you to the Marshal’s custody for six months. You keep out of trouble during that time and I’ll grant you a full pardon.”

“I don’t know what to say,” Renolds stated as he stood to shake the governor’s hand.

“You can start by thanking a young boy who grew up to be a Marshal for believing in you.”

“Believe me, I do thank him.”

“Marshal, it’ll take a week or so to get all the paperwork processed, so he’ll still be in your ‘official’ custody until then. During the days he can come and go, maybe get an honest job.” Governor Thornton looked hard at Renolds to let him know that there was no ‘maybe’ about it.

*****

The governor and the army detail had left town the evening before. Mark arrived at the jail earlier than normal.

“So, are you set to be a free man today?” Mark asked.

“Just as soon as you unlock the cell,” Renolds commented as he stretched.

“Ain’t locked. Just pushed too.”

Renolds stood from the bunk and tentatively pushed at the door, truly surprised when it moved freely.

“My Uncle Johnny states you have a job waiting for you over at the Hardware Store, if you want it.”

“Me, holding down a real job,” Renolds laughed as he scratched at his head. “Can I ask you why?”

“Didn’t you hear the Governor suggest you get a job?”

“No, not that. Why’d you go out on a limb for me?”

“Didn’t go out that far on a limb for you.”

“No, but you’re the only person I’ve ever met, who cared about the truth or asked if I ever killed anybody. Everyone else just kind of… presumed I had… What made you do it?”

“A debt. Mr. Renolds…”

“No, I’m not Mr. Renolds. My name is Harlan.”

“You saved my life a long time ago. You didn’t have to stop or go out of your way to get me to a doctor. It’s been fourteen years that I’ve been carrying that debt around.”

“I can understand how I used you as a child into letting me get away that night. But you’re a grown man now…”

“Like the governor stated, there had to be something that kept pulling us together at different times. Why couldn’t it be for you to keep saving my life until I could be in a position to save yours? You’re a free man, at least, you’re sort of free for the next six months. Why don’t you find out if your father is still alive and if is he, wire him that one of his sheep is soon to return home to the flock.”

Renolds looked to Mark curiously.

“You said how your father preached… I presume he’s a minister…”

“Yeah, a preacher’s son turned outlaw.”

“No, not an outlaw, you just had some unfair trials. Do us both a favor, live this second chance at life and make something of yourself. Look forward to going home and let your father know he raised his son right.”

*****

Mark stepped from the Office to see Robert Wilkins stopping his mule in front of the hitching rail.

“You’re heading home?” Mark asked.

“Don’t you think it’s about time? You and your family been good to me. The meals your wife and yourMa cook, umm. Almost makes me want to stay.”

“Why don’t you? You’ve friends here.”

“But my wife… she’s back in Red Wing,” Wilkins spoke quietly.

“I didn’t know you were married,” Mark answered apologetically.

“She and my son are buried there. Their graves are up on the hill, behind the barn. My boy, he’d be about your age, maybe a little older. Cholera got them when he was four. No, your life is here. My life is in Red Wing.”

“I’ll see that the reward money is sent your way.”

“Reward money?” Wilkins asked.

“Sure. There was a reward out on Renolds… I hope it will be enough to help rebuild your home.”

“I won’t take it. Put it towards college for your children. If you don’t mind, I best be getting home.”

“Robert, thank you. You’re always welcome in North Fork,” Mark answered as he stepped to the boardwalk and waved goodbye.

The Next Step — The Defenders

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

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