The Writer's Corner
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
“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
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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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."
"Not exactly. Just friends I visit when I need to try to lie
"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
“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
“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
“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.”
“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
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.
”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,”
“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
“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
“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
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
“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
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.
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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.
“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
“Okay, Mark let’s get you back home, so we can get bathed,
shaved, and then enjoy our wives,” Lucas stated while opening
“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
“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
“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?” 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
“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
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,
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.
Mark Warren McCain
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
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
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
“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
“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
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.”
“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,
“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.
“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
“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!
around The McCain Ranch