Synopsis: A prequel for the fifth season episode, The Debt.
Category: The Rifleman
Word Count: 4,700
This 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 VERY first foray into writing fan fiction.
Before the Debt 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 person.
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.”
Upon returning 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.
Following 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 wrists. 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!”
As Renolds 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 my life.”
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.
Before The Debt…
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 dark.”
With that, I quickly ate my breakfast, and ran out the door to go get Blue Boy from Nils at the livery.
“Whoa, there 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 up ahead and some of our cattle had already made their way through the opening. 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 snake bites, 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?”
Freddie came 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.
“Micah,” Hattie tried to keep the fear out of her voice. “Something’s wrong, Mark didn’t meet Freddie and it’s 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.”
“Now, Hattie, 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.”
“Now, that 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 door.
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 Sunday morning.
Sunday morning, 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.
Micah was 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.
“Micah, we’ve looked everywhere.” Nils said.
“Then we’ll just have to look harder tomorrow,” a tired Micah replied.
Monday morning 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?”
“Lucas Boy, 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?”
As Lucas 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 the child.”
As Lucas opened the door and entered the darkened room, he saw the outline of Mark, unconscious in the bed.
“Mark….” Lucas 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 his voice.
“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.
Lucas then asked, “Doctor, thank you, how can I ever repay you for saving my son’s life?”
“It’s not me you need to thank; the man who brought him into town saved his life.”
“Is he still here?” Lucas asked.
Doc Hayden 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.
Then another 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 my life.
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 special.”
“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.
Later that 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?”
“Pa, Mr. 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?”