The Rifleman
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Fan Fiction

Deadly Hands
Written by Klara's Boy


The fire was slowly going out. The four men sitting around it seemed tired and worn out, but when hoof beat approached the men grasped their guns, jumped up and starred into the night, ready to take on any adversary. After a few seconds however they relaxed and lowered their weapons.

“Rest easy, men, it's just Ben. It's really about time.”
A young man reined his horse and dismounted. When he stepped towards the fire one of the waiting man greeted him.

“Welcome back, Ben, took you long enough. I am glad you did it without getting your head blown off. That would have been quite a loss.”
“Bad weeds grow tall. No need to worry, Jake. Is the coffee ready?”
“Help yourself, Ben. After that I am eager to hear your report.”

Ben, a buck toothed boy with freckles and a snub nose, was obviously unsure what to say while enjoying his coffee.

“Well, you were right about the name of the town, Jake. It's North Fork, alright. Nice little town. And there is the bank too. The manager's name is John Hamilton. Looks like a typical clerk. Won't give us any problems, I guess. The way I see it, butter wouldn't melt in his mouth.”

“You did fine, just fine, Ben. I am proud of you, my friend. Any lawmen?”
Ben scratched his head before taking a sip. Then he sheepishly grinned.

“Just a pretty old marshal, Micah Torrance. Carries a double-barreled shotgun but is clearly over the hill. I think we can handle him easily. But frankly … we ought to reconsider the plan and maybe … chose another town. There are other banks, you know. Jake, I don't mean any disrespect but I have a bad feeling about that one.”

For a moment Jake was slack-jawed before starting to grin.
“Well, Ben, I can't talk for the boys here but I for one ... I am quite positive that we can take on a lonely old man. What do you say, boys? Would you be hard-boiled enough to master your fear when push comes to shove?”

The other three men, heavyset hulks in their prime just laughed. Jake was obviously satisfied about his choice to hit the bank of North Fork. He was a grizzled outlaw, lean and dressed in black, self-confident and disingenuous, an experienced gunfighter who knew perfectly well how to use the two Colts 44 hanging at his sides to achieve his goals. Jake had shown to his young friend on more than one occasion how ruthless he could be. Ben on the other hand could have been a choirboy, blond and simple minded, anything but eager or ambitious. He was not even evil or iniquitous, only inexperienced and uneducated, therefore easy to manipulate. He had joined the gang in order to gain protection, recognition and maybe some money to start a new life after being driven away from home by his abusive father, a heavy drinker. Now the young man was carrying the Colt, Jake once had presented him as a gift and as token of his esteem. The old outlaw's friendship was the only thing Ben valued since it gave his life a certain meaning.

The other three bandits standing at the fire were brawny goons, rough-hewn and implacable, maybe brothers, since they bore a strong resemblance with their full beards and bushy brows. They didn't talk much but their fearsome appearance and their guns spoke loudly for their nasty disposition. All things considered Ben's meek traits seemed strangely incongruous among those killers.

“Jake, I am serious. North Fork, that's the town where that man, Lucas McCain, lives. That's exactly why I do have a very bad feeling about your plan, sir.”

Jake showed a presumptuous smirk.
“Now you have us even more scared, Ben. Who's that fella?”
“Have you ever heard about the … Rifleman, Jake?”
The grizzled bandit stopped grinning. He didn't even notice his own knee-jerk reaction: his right hand moved down to his holstered gun.
“What did you just say? The Rifleman?”
Ben nodded eagerly. For a moment the boy hoped that Jake would call off the planned undertaking. Maybe McCain's reputation could make him go in another direction. For a heartbeat the grey-haired killer was clearly on unsure footing, showed even signs of anxiety.
“I heard about that sodbuster back then in Yuma. No man with a handgun …”

Ben interrupted his boss.
“Any men with a handgun who was foolish enough to go against the Rifleman never went anywhere after that except to the graveyard.”
Jake seemed to contemplate. But then he sneered. His anxiety was gone.
“Well, I'd say … this is one more reason to pay North Fork a visit.”

***

The old man on horseback was waiting, looking down the grassy hill. Impatiently he pulled his pocket watch out and sighed: half an hour late. Then he noticed a movement downhill. A second rider, a young man, approached, beginning the ascent on a buckskin horse. After a few minutes he reined his horse in front of the old man, grinning, tipping his hat. The man on the top of the knoll remained motionless, giving the young man a hairy eyeball.

“You´re pretty late, Larry. I am not in the habit of paying for sloppy service.“
“Sorry, my dear sir. Came as quick as I could.”
“Well  …?”

Larry grinned, obviously enjoying himself. He was barely older than 19 years, blond, lithe and lissome, sweaty and dusty.

“I found him. He is a well-respected citizen in a town nearby. Everybody there knows him.”
“What´s the name of the town?”

Larry gazed up to the relentless sun covering his eyes while his horse was whinnying loudly.
“Well, ain´t it hot today, my dear sir? I intend to visit the nearest saloon after our meeting in order to get myself a cool beer. But being an honest man I don't wanna do it on the nod …”

The old man hesitated for a second before taking a small pouch out of his breast pocket. He looked at it before reluctantly tossing it to Larry who caught it in the air.

“15 dollars as agreed, Larry. Now, what's the town's name?”
The smart boy enjoyed teasing his partner.
“You really wanna know, sir. You strike me as someone who wants to settle a score, ain´t that right? Well, that's what I am normally getting paid for: providing information for people who have killing on their mind. Am I right?”

The old man didn't dignify that statement with an answer but Larry kept on swanking.

“That´s an exciting feeling. I've always enjoyed that. It's almost like pulling the trigger myself. Maybe one day I will work for Pinkerton. I got the talent for that line of work, though I am much underestimated at times. Maybe it's time to make a living out of it in an official way. Do you know what I mean?”

His client remained motionless. His hands were calmly resting on his saddle horn but his eyes glare daggers at Larry.
“The name of the town? Stop needling me. I am not exactly famous for being a patient man, Larry. And you are about to harsh my mellow. You would not like that.”

“North Fork, about 10 miles from here, straight to the south. You can't miss it, my dear sir.”
The client frowned, seemed to contemplate. Then he allowed himself a smile.

“You did fine, Larry, real fine.”
Larry didn't care for the threatening sound of his client's voice.
“When I'm paid, I always follow my job through. Seems to me that I have to refresh your memory: my last client was so satisfied with my service that he recommended me to you. That's the soul of my business: the satisfaction of my customers.”

The old man was unimpressed.
“Well, I heard that after receiving his money you went straight to his victim and warned him about your client's intentions … for a little price of course. That way you earned yourself a pretty penny from both sides.”
For a moment the sleazy snitch seemed embarrassed, even exasperated.
“I figure you as far too clever to believe such stinking lies. I would never turn on my clients as long as they pay me as handsomely as you did, my dear sir.”
“You´re the without any doubt the most barefaced liar I've ever met. Now you will forget that you have ever laid eyes on me, understood? You have never heard of me.”
“Of course, my dear sir. Discretion is part and parcel of my business.”
“Promised?”
“Sure. I´ve already forgotten how you look like, sir.”
“That´s the way it´s supposed to be. Now beat it, Larry. We will never see each other again.”

The snitch smiled and put the pouch into his shirt's breast pocket. Then he respectfully tipped his hat and turned his horse in order to ride down the knoll. That very moment, his client felt compelled to remind him once again about his promise.
“Not a word to anyone. Got that, Larry?”
“Cross my heart and hope to die.”
“Have it your way, Larry.”

Without hesitation the client drew his revolver and pulled the trigger. The bullet hit the informer in the back, throwing him out of his saddle. With arms widely spread the young man dropped to the ground, gasping and screaming. For a moment he was lying on his face then he tried to get back on his feet. His client calmly cocked the gun and took aim. When Larry looked up, the old man fired a second shot, killing the young man instantly. After the smoke had cleared the murderer dismounted and walked down to the body. With the tip of his right boot, the turned Larry around. He bowed forward and took the pouch out of the victim's shirt.

“Any physician can tell you that too much beer is unhealthy anyway, Larry. And don't you forget: not a word to anybody.”

***

“Hurry Mark, Micah will be here any minute.”
“Ready in a minute, Pa.”

Lucas was in front of his barn, chopping wood while Mark was preparing the meal. It was a hot day and the rancher was enjoying a short break. Today Micah would join them for lunch and Lucas was looking forward to have a nice talk with his best friend.

Suddenly Lucas noticed a movement from the corner of his eye. He looked up and saw a rider approaching the ranch. Lucas frowned. He had never seen the man before so he put the axe aside and made sure his rifle was in reach.

The stranger was a slender man, almost as towering as Lucas but much older. The most prominent features of his weathered face were a grey moustache and high cheekbones. He was wearing a leather jacket, a red shirt, a black hat and grey pants. At his hip a long barreled Colt with a beautiful ivory grip could be seen. His charisma was that of a man who had kept authority over other people. Maybe he was a former officer or retired politician. When he reached the house, he tipped his hat.

“Excuse me, sir. Would you mind telling me where I might find the town of North Fork?”
“Not at all, mister. You just follow the street down the hill. It's just a couple of miles. But you look weary. You would be more than welcome to join us for supper.”
“No thank you, mister, but I would be grateful for a drink of water. The heat sure takes its toll on me.”
“The well is over there. Help yourself.”
“Much obliged, sir.”

The stranger dismounted from his grey mare. His smooth movements, though slowly and tired, were still indicating the strengths that once had made his impressive body resilient and vigorous. Without any further remarks the reticent man led his horse behind the barn heading for the well. But Lucas had no opportunity to ask further questions because a second rider approached. This time it was Micah Torrance. The old Marshal smiled when he dismounted.

“Is lunch ready, Lucas boy? I could eat a buffalo all by myself.”
“I hope so. How are you, Micah?”
“Can´t complain, Lucas. In town things are alright.”
“I am glad you could arrange it, Micah.”
“Grateful for the hospitality, Lucas boy.”
“You should come up here more often. You're always welcome.”

That very moment the aloof stranger returned from behind the barn. His black hat, the sleeves and the upper part of his red shirt were soaking wet in order to cool him for at least a few minutes.
“Much beholden, sir. I have to leave now. So long.”
“Don´t mention it, mister. So long.”

But when the old man was about to mount he noticed Micah's presence. The Marshal was utterly bowled over.
“Tom Tonoson?”
With one foot in the stirrup he angular stranger frowned in disbelief. His dark eyes widened.
“Micah … is it possible? I can't be …”
“Yeah, it's me …Tom.”

Lucas had never seen Micah act so spontaneously. Micah stormed forward and hugged the other man. For a moment Lucas was flabbergasted. After some seemingly endless seconds the two old men looked each other in the eyes. Micah was almost sobbing for joy.
“15 years. It must be 15 years by now. Wouldn't you say, Tom?”
“Make it 17 years, Micah. I would never have thought that I might find you here. Still wearing a badge, I see. Years have been pretty friendly to you, you old no-good rustler. How are you doing, you old horse thief?”
“Don’t use such names, Tom! Lucas might get the wrong impression. I am a much respected citizen in these parts. And I would like to be reelected next year, you know!”

Still hugging the much bigger man, Micah turned to Lucas, who was still rather bewildered.

“Lucas, I want you to meet Tom Tonoson. I used to be his chief deputy a long time ago. He taught me everything a lawman has to know. Back in the days …”
The towering stranger was laughing. All his dignity displayed only minutes ago had vanished.
“I hope the invitation is still standing, Mister …”
“McCain, Lucas McCain. Of course it is still standing. Micah's friends are also my friends.
The three men went inside, greeted by the delicious smell of Mark's lunch.

***

“Do you remember how it was back in Salinas? There was that claim jumper hiding in the mine firing at any man who was foolish enough to come into rifle ranch. What was his name again?”
“John Harriot. He was a fast gun but against us he didn't stand a chance, Micah. Nobody had the guts to get him out of there but when we arrived at the scene …”
“… the matter was settled within ten minutes.”
“Make that five minutes.”
“Let´s agree on seven but not one single second more.”

During the meal Micah and Tom kept on refreshing their memories about staggering adventures, wild shootouts and ruthless criminals long gone and buried. The whisky Lucas had served kept the tongues wet and so the atmosphere was hilarious at least for the two buddies.
Lucas and Mark were the hosts but they had hardly the opportunity to utter a word in order to join the conversation. Of course Lucas was happy for Micah for having such a pleasant reunion but at the same time he felt a galling feeling rising deep inside his heart. Was it jealousy? He used to be Micah's best friend, but now he felt that that friendship was about to enter a new stage. The unexpected arrival of the mysterious guest had Micah turned seemingly at least 20 years younger.

“Tom, can you still hit a coin thrown into the air?”
The old man shrugged smilingly.
“Well, I am totally out of practice, I am afraid.”
That was the only time Tom addressed his host who was a mere mute during the whole meal.
“But I heard a great deal about your shooting skills, Mister McCain. The man they call the Rifleman. I wonder if you are as good as I used to be. What do you think, Micah?”
“I would hate to live on the difference.”

Lucas smiled politely but at this point the guest was starting to test his patience. He caught himself looking for a plausible excuse to get rid of Tom Tonoson. But he was well aware that Micah could take amiss any sign of impoliteness towards his old boss. So Lucas decided to wait and play his part as fifth wheel in that fold. Mark on the other hand seemed to be fascinated by the stories, the two old men kept exchanging. This time the boy didn't even point out that his father's shooting skills were second to none. He was obviously charmed by the overwhelming charisma of Micah's friend.

“You were really that good with a gun, Mister Tonoson?”
“I sure was, son. Sadly there are not many men left to confirm my claim.”
Micah let out a ripple of laughter.
“You know, Lucas, Tom was famous for two things: his fast draw and his success with the ladies. He was … well… a … “
“Why don't you spell it out, Micah … a philanderer. Yes, I was a strapping guy. Wouldn't you agree, Micah?”
“Sure, but that ended in a heartbeat when you met that Mister Grierson and his fetching daughter … what was her name again? I am sorry but sometimes my memory lets me down lately, Tom.”

Suddenly Tom´s voice became deep and somber, almost gloomy.
“Cathy, Cathy Grierson.”

Micah couldn't help leering at his old friend before explaining the fateful event to Lucas.
“Yeah, there was that stagecoach hold up and we turned up just in time to stop those fellas. Tom here showed me how to deal with four robbers at a time. Well, after an instant, there were only two of them left. When we asked the passengers if they were alright that lovely young lady and her father left the stagecoach and

***

Lucas smiled, anticipating the end of the story.
“Love at first glance I guess, Mister Tonoson.”
“More than that, Mister McCain, far more than that.”
Micah nodded eagerly.
“Well, the angelic lady changed Tom completely. After a couple of weeks he gave up his job and left me in charge. He said I knew enough to do the job on my own, without his guidance. That made me very proud back then, I gotta admit. Tom gave up everything and followed Cathy back to the East. Sure a shame that I missed the wedding. Well, how is Cathy? Why didn't you bring her along? I would have loved to see her again.”

After a painful pause Tonoson uttered a barely understandable explanation.

“Micah, Cathy died a long time ago.”

For an endless minute there was a mournful silence in the room. Micah was the first to speak again. At one fell swoop all the gleeful atmosphere was completely gone.

“Well, Tom, I don't know what to say. I cannot express how sorry …”
“It´s alright, Micah. I took me years to get over it. But I made it. It was unbearable but I made it … somehow.”
“How did she …”
“She just perished. Not to matter. No need to talk about the circumstances.”

Lucas felt compelled to say something since he knew that kind of sorrow all too well.
“And what did you do after your loss, Mister Tonoson?”
“My wife and I had put a considerable amount of money aside to buy a new house in order a raise a family. Well, I used the money to see the world. I bought a ticket and left for Europe. I couldn't stand staying at home where everything reminded me of Cathy. But Cathy was with me, everywhere I went.”
“Where did you go?”
“It´s not important right now. I … don't want to be a disturbance any more. Micah, is there a hotel in North Fork you can recommend?”

***

Lucas and Mark got off their wagon in front of the blacksmith.
“You go ahead to the hotel, Mark. I'll join you there when the horse has got its new shoes.”
“Yes, Pa”
“Everything alright, son?”
“Sure, Pa.”
“Well, go ahead then Mark. I will be there as soon as possible.”
When Mark stepped out on the street he noticed Tom Tonoson leaving the hotel. First Mark was not sure what to do but then he walked up to the old man. Tonoson smiled when he saw the boy.
“Morning, Mark.”
“Good morning, sir.”
“I must say, I like your town’s hotel. I have slept like a log. By the way, Mark … I really enjoyed your lunch yesterday. I hope you're also as talented at school as you are as cook.”
“I … try to be, sir.”
“That´s what counts in life, son. If you are prepared to study hard and constantly broaden your knowledge I am sure you will go places. Maybe you can even become a doctor some day. The relationship between a physician and his patient is like no other in the world. Always remember that, son.“
“I will, sir.”

While they were talking, Tonoson noticed a group of five horsemen entering the town. A grizzled man, dressed in black and armed with two Colts was calmly riding point on a buckskin stallion. A blond boy with freckles and a snub nose was riding right next to him, nervously peeking around. Three dangerously looking goons with long beards were following them, covering their leader from behind by slowly fanning out on the street on their dusty horses. It was a well coordinated move, almost in a military style. The bunch resembled a pack of hungry wolves determined to bring down a moose. The former lawman frowned. His right hand went down to the holster at his side.

“Mark?”
“Yes, Mister Tonoson …?”
“I want you to take cover. Get into the hotel and stay there until it´s over. I am afraid we are about to get into serious trouble.”
“What do you mean, sir …?”
“Do as you're told. Hurry! They're poised to strike and ain´t gonna be pretty.”

That very moment Mark noticed the strangers too. But being curious he remained where he was. Tonoson stepped in front of the boy, covering him with his own body. Now the riders passed the former lawman, ignoring him. But Tonoson tipped his hat their grey-haired leader, vaguely smiling.

“Hello, Jake Sterling. Long time no see. Heading for the bank, I presume?”
The outlaw turned his head and reined his horse. He gazed down on Tonoson. After a few seconds of contemplating he recognized his old foe.
“Tom Tonoson? You here? What …?”
“Yes, it's me, Jake. Let's settle things once and for all.”

There was no need for further conversation. Within a second both men drew their guns and fired at each other without any hesitation.

When the first shots rang out, Lucas stormed out of the barn where his horse was about to get new shoes. While running he cocked his rifle. He came just in time to watch one of the bank robbers aiming at Mark. Before Lucas could fire, the killer pulled the trigger. The bullet missed Mark's head only for inches hitting a wooden post instead. Sharp splinters flew over the boy’s head. Mark dropped to the ground. Lucas could not see if his son had been hit since a tense cloud of grey gunsmoke covered the shooting men. Tonoson kept on firing undaunted by the bullets hitting the wall behind him missing him only by inches. The old lawman was still trying his best to protect Mark. The noise was earsplitting. Lucas lunged out in the middle of the street, went down on his knees and released a hail of lead. That way the bandits were caught in a deadly crossfire. Their desperate attempt to escape proved to be futile. One by one they fell off their rearing horses never to rise again. Jake was the last one alive. The old bandit was already hit in the left shoulder but he turned in his saddle and aimed his gun at Lucas. However the furious ranger gave him no chance to shoot anymore. Two well-aimed bullets knocked Jake off his whinnying horse. Moaning and gasping he tried to get up but after a few seconds he sank back into the bloody dust, surrounded by the corpses of his comrades. With fading strength Jake turned his head. Only ten feet away Ben was lying on his face, still holding the smoking gun in his right hand. With breaking eyes Jake starred at his young friend's lifeless body.
“Your bad feeling … you were … right about … the Rifleman … Ben ... I am … sorry ... didn't want that …”

When Lucas rushed over the street and kneeled next to his beloved son, hugging him, Jake had already breathed his last.

***

When Mark and Lucas watched the bodies being removed from the street they heard a familiar voice behind them.
“Lucas Boy …”
“Yes, Micah …”
“I am sorry. I should have … well, I was asleep in my office, when Jake Sterling and his bunch arrived. I should have faced them, not Tom. He is not wearing a badge anymore, I am. It is all my fault.”
Lucas smiled, trying to calm Micah, knowing how dutiful the old man normally was.

“There is nothing you have to apologize for, Micah. Mister Tonoson recognized them when they rode in and took charge of the situation. I understand now why you are so fond of him. He must have been really a great role model when he was younger.”

But Micah was far from being satisfied.
“But Mark! I could never forgive myself if Mark was hurt because of my laziness. It is my duty to protect the citizens, not Tom's. How are you, Mark? What did Doc Burrage say? What about your head?”
The boy shrugged. Except for a few scratches on his temple and his forehead he got out of the gunfight totally unharmed.
“I am alright, Micah. Don't worry. I just got hit by a few splitters. Mister Tonoson protected me. Pity that you didn't watch him during the fight. He drew his gun with lightning speed. He is so calm and self-confident. I think I shall become a lawman just like he is.”
Micah lowered his glance. Suddenly Lucas was aware of the fact that his best friend was going through in a deep crisis.
“Micah, don't get upset. Every week Mark comes up with a new idea about his dream job. I think there is no profession my son hasn't considered yet.”
Micah shook his head. The hapless Marshal was deeply disturbed, full of self-doubts and despair.
“Well, maybe you should persuade Tom to stay in North Fork for good. Then you can vote for him. Why don't you put him in charge, with Mark as his deputy? Maybe it's time for me to leave the job to somebody who is … older than me.”

Micah turned around and headed back to his office, with shoulders hung. Lucas tried to hold his friend back in order to comfort him.
“Micah, please, nobody has said anything about replacing you. Come on, you will always …”
But the old man didn´t listen. Lucas realized that important changes were about to affect not only his own life.

***

As usual the saloon was empty after a shootout. Only a silent figure was sitting motionless at a table, staring at the wall, holding a shot of whiskey between the fingertips. Sweeney just had brought another bottle. Lucas sighed before walking up to the lonesome guest.

“Mind if I join you, Mister Tonoson?”
Like suddenly awoken from a beautiful dream the former lawman looked up.
“Not at all, Mister McCain. Sit down.”
Lucas put his rifle on the table and took a chair.
“Well, I just would like to thank you for your help this morning. Without your support … who knows what would have happened.”
Tonoson shook his head. His dark eyes were lying deep in their sockets.
“I did nothing. I was just pretending to be a lawman again, Mister McCain. That´s what I also told that Mister Hamilton when he shook my hand to thank me. But I have to compliment you: your reputation is richly deserved. You are even as fast as I used to be back then before I met Cathy.”
Lucas felt very uneasy so he chose his words with extra care.
“I would love to hear about your travels. How did you manage to end up in Europe anyway?”

Tonoson´s voice was calm and deep, warm and … strangely ominous.

“I got myself a ticket in New York and went onboard. It was an icy evening and snow was falling. After arriving in Europe I spent several months in France but I didn't like it there. That strange language was not to my liking. And then somehow I ended up in England. I found myself a job and made myself a living. But I never managed to get my wife's face out of my head. I still can hear her voice at the wedding when she whispered “I do”. Nobody can fathom the insufferable pain I still feel inside me after all these years.”

“I can. I lost my wife too, Mister Tonoson.”
“Really? Mark's mother? How did she die?”
“Well, she became sick when Mark was still almost a baby and …”
“Mister McCain, I am deeply sorry about your loss but my wife was murdered and I didn't even notice it.”
“It was … murder?”
“I am not sure if a jury came to that verdict but I am firmly convinced about that. I became very late aware of the fact that my wife fell victim to a killer, but not too late.”
“Who did it? Maybe you should tell Micah the identity. Perhaps we can …”

“There are only two men who know the killer's name: me and God. And I am not going to change that. The murderer can't hide from the both of us. I cut a special deal with the Good Lord: he will help me to find the killer and in return I will fulfill His will. So I can be sure to catch up with the killer. My only comfort during the last maddening years was to meet Cathy again some time. In fact it´s the only wish I have left in this world.”
Then Tonoson seemed to come out of a haunting nightmare. He looked up and grinned sheepishly. His deep voice changed its tone once again becoming softer and smoother.

“My apologies. I forgot to ask how Mark is. I trust he was not badly injured during the gun battle?”
“Mark is fine, thanks to you. Our physician took care of him instantly.”
“It was good luck that the doctor was around, Mister McCain.”
Lucas nodded smilingly.
“Doc Burrage is a good man, the best doctor you can imagine. In fact, I don't think that there is anybody around here who was not saved by Burrage at least once. He cut a couple of bullets out of me too, I have to admit.”
“Has Micah also gotten hurt in his line of duty during the last years?”
“More than once, I can assure you. He has got a lot of guts. Only a couple of years ago, this town was not as quiet and nice as it is today. Today it's off limits to most of the gunmen thanks to Micah. But before that Micah went to great lengths to drive all kinds of scum out. It seems to me that you had trained him very well. Therefore our citizenry owe you a great deal of gratitude, Mister Tonoson. Me in particular.”
“I am glad that I could be of help.”

Lucas tried his best to cut into the topic as carefully as possible.
“In fact, maybe you should have a private talk with Micah. I am under the impression that he is … upset that he was not by your side during the fight. Perhaps his self-confidence is now somewhat …”

“If you are trying to say that Micah is deeply ashamed because of the fact that he was sound asleep while his friends had to defend their town against the most ruthless gang of bank robbers west of Chicago on their own… well, I inclined to agree with him. We were lucky today, Mister McCain, very lucky indeed. Jake Sterling was one of the most dangerous criminals I have ever seen. And that means something, let me assure you. He used to be an officer in the Army of Northern Virginia. It´s said that after his younger brother's death at Chancellorsville he was on the crazy side. After the war he gained quite a reputation as rustler and bank robber. He killed two of my best deputies during a meticulously planned holdup in Colorado many years ago. Micah helped me burying them.”

Lucas grew indignant and shook his head. His right hand moved to the rifle's butt.

“You better get two things straight, Mister Tonoson. First: Micah is my best friend and I hate to see him in such a miserable state. So I strongly urge you to help him. How is up to you. Second: Micah is also the best Marshal a town can have. There should be more lawmen like him. He surely deserves your respect and your support. Just talk to him.”
Tonoson seemed to ruminate for a while.

“So, what are you trying to say is that the town has an outstanding Marshal and an outstanding doctor. Ain´t that right?”
“That´s right. Life around these parts wouldn't be the same without those two men.”
Lucas got up and was about to leave the saloon when Tonoson came up with a last question.
“By the way: How old is Mark?”
“Just turned 15.”
“My sons would also be at about that age.”
“Your sons?”
“My sons were murdered together with their mother, Mister McCain.”

***

After cleaning the dishes Mark stepped out on the porch, where his father was sitting, buffing a cigar and starring into the summer night, which was hot and humid.

“What are you thinking about, Pa?”
Lucas looked up.
“I sure am glad that you are alright, son.”
“But … what do you think about Micah, Pa?”
“We were lucky today but I figure we have to keep an eye of Micah and Mister Tonoson. The incident today has changed their friendship fundamentally. Micah might be afraid that he has lost his touch. He thinks he has embarrassed himself. He always has tried to live up to his role model but now …. “

“ … now you are afraid that Micah my resort to his old most trusted friend again … booze. Ain´t that right, Pa? It sure is an iffy situation. Micah gotta find his pride again, I suppose.”

For a moment Lucas didn't know what to say. But then he nodded.
“One thing is for sure, Mark: you are no child anymore. I've decided to spend the next two nights in town in order to keep …”

“… an eye on a bemused friend who is going through a rough time because of another friend? Sure. I take care of things here, Pa.”
“I appreciate that, Mark.”

After going to bed, Lucas thanked God that there was always one person in his life he could rely on.

***

Tom Tonoson stepped out of the hotel. The night air was crisp so he took a deep breath. A cool wind suddenly sweeping through the street was an enjoyable change after the searing heat of the day. Nobody was outside. Only two houses were lit: Doctor Burrage´s home and the Marshal's office. Tonoson smiled. All was set.
“It´s all for you, Cathy.”
Micah was sitting at his desk, starring at the bottle right in front of him, when he heard the knocking.
“Who is it?”
“Open up, Micah, it's me.”
“Tom?”
“Let´s have a talk, Marshal. It's kinda urgent, I'd say.”
***
“Can´t you sleep, Pa?”
“That´s right, son. I have to go to town right now. I have a bad feeling. Micah might be in trouble. If everything is alright, I come right back. I promise.”
Lucas picked up his rifle and rushed out of the house.
“Take care, Pa …”

***

Micah did his best to control the paralyzing fear that arose in his heart. A lean, menacing figure was sitting right in front of him. That was not longer his best friend and role model but an unearthly angel of death. Tonoson´s haggard face was just a gloomy shadow under his black hat. The shadow was covering his eyes completely. Micah had to gather all his strength to be able to speak.

“So, what is it you wanna tell me, Tom?”
“I have a confession to make, Micah. Does the name Larry Simpson ring a bell?”
“No, I am afraid not.”
“Well, he used to work for me. A young promising man, smart as a whip and money-grubbing. He acted as my snitch. His information made me come here. You will find his body about 10 miles from here, straight up to the north, on the top of a knoll. Larry sure chose a really nice place to get himself killed.”

“His body …”
“When I didn´t need him anymore I shot him in the back. He was unarmed to boot. Consider this my confession. I murdered a man in cold blood. Seems to me you have to take me in so I can stand trial. Ain´t that right?”

“I guess so. Tom … is that supposed to be a joke?”

“I won´t dignify that inane question with an answer, Micah. But before you lock me up, I have a second confession to make. So I guess it's the best I explain things to you.”
“I would be grateful for that, Tom.”
“Soon after the wedding Cathy told me that she was pregnant. You can't image how happy we were. Everything was perfect. Two days before labor set in, I brought my wife to a hospital in a big city in the East. I have never seen such a dire place: dirt, noise, unfriendly doctors and heartless midwives. I was so worried but Cathy tried her best to comfort me. Everything would be alright. After three days she was dead. She had been expecting twins, two boys. When the midwives carried the covered bodies away, something in me died too.”
“I understand that, Tom. But that can never be an excuse for killing an unarmed man.”

“After a week of trying to commit suicide by drinking I decided to start a new life and left America. When I arrived in England I got the opportunity to work as orderly in a hospital. I was a sign of God. I decided to help other people to bear their pain and their fear. It was a ghastly job but I did my best to ease the suffering by helping the physicians. Despite the horror I carried out my duties the best I could. After more than a decade in that English hellhole I befriended a young doctor with an open mind for new developments. He gave me a book about medical treatments. One of the chapters was about a Hungarian physician called Ignaz Semmelweis.”

“Never heard of him, Tom. Sorry.”

“Semmelweis had died in an Austrian asylum about twenty years ago. But he had been a misunderstood genius and a godsend. He had discovered that many women giving birth perish because the doctors often work with dirty hands. By washing your hands you can save lives. It's just as simple as this. But most of the doctors refuse to consider such safeguards due to their ignorance and conceit. They ignore Semmelweis´ advice and women keep dying. They had gotten rid of Semmelweis by declaring him mentally ill so he could bother them no more. That's when all suddenly became clear to me.”
Now Tonoson seemed to be little more than an unearthly specter, a bloodthirsty creature made of darkness.

“If the American doctor in the East had washed his hands before treating my wife, Cathy would be still alive together with our sons. I still would be the happiest man under the sun. But that obnoxious doctor had destroyed my existence back then.”

Micah was playing for time. He was the most lonesome man in the world that very moment but he knew that something terrible was about to happen and he had the duty to avert that no matter what.

“What happened after that, Tom?”
“After earning enough money to buy a ticket I returned to America and started practicing with my gun. Larry just happened to be my first victim. Jake was my second. Soon there will be a third.”
“Tom, I am your friend and proud of it. Why didn't you tell me the whole story sooner?”
“I didn't want you to warn my wife's murderer, Micah. As Marshal and as his friend … you are obliged to protect him.”
“You aim to kill Doc Burrage!”
“I recognized him this morning, when he came to see after Mark after the shooting. Larry had been right. Burrage is the man I am after. That damnable sawbone wiped out my entire family literally with his bare hands and he is still alive. Can you image? He killed my Cathy simply by not using water and soap. The most senseless death I can think of. However he is gonna die in a more merciful way tonight.”
“I can´t let you do that, Tom. You know that. You better hand over that beautiful gun of yours.”

The killer´s right hand was resting near the holster but he didn't do anything but smiling.

“Here is your situation, Micah. I will now leave your office and go over to Burrage to kill him. You only can prevent this by shooting me. If you not I will certainly hang for killing two unarmed men. Either way I win because I will see Cathy again. I am looking forward to that, as you may figure. Under normal circumstances I would shoot your reputable doctor without any ado, but since he has already saved so many lives around here I grant you the opportunity to rescue him.”

“You´re crazy, Tom. I haven't noticed yet but you are crazy. Totally cracked up.”

“Let´s call it logical. What's the matter, Micah? You just have to use your shotgun. But frankly I don't think you have the guts to kill me in order to save Burrage. So I guess it will be the gallows for me.”

Tonoson got up, a giant figure, uncanny and eerie, looming in the dark, looking down on the fearful Marshal with invisible eyes.

“You used to be a top notch deputy but now you are just a feckless Marshal. You became effeminate and spineless. I figure without that sodbuster with his trick rifle you can't even arrest a flea infested hobo let alone win a shootout. Without McCain backing you up, you would be fair game for any third rate gunfighter. You are a buffoon with a badge in a shabby town. It's about time to prove equal to your task, I'd say!”
“Tom, don't force me to do it. You are my friend. You can't …”
“Enough with the begging, Micah. I taught you better than that. In a minute Burrage will be dead unless you do what you are getting paid for which in your case is definitely too much.”

Then Tonoson turned slowly around and opened the door. Cool air streamed in. He calmly stepped outside and walked over to Burrage´s house. Micah desperately grabbed his shoulder but Tonoson spun nonchalantly around and knocked the much smaller man into the dust.
“Get you shotgun and do what you have to do if you wanna stop me, you dastard.”

“That´s far enough, Tonoson!”

The former lawman quickly turned his head. Lucas was standing in the middle of the nightly street, the cocked rifle in his right hand.
“I don’t´ know what's going on here but as long as I am around, nobody treats Micah that way. Get your hands up.”
For a moment Tonoson seemed surprised but then he smiled at the distraught man, who was lying at his feet.
“You may consider yourself lucky, Micah. Seems to me that the sodbuster came to back you up once again after all.”
“Lucas, you have to stop him! He wants to kill Doc Burrage!”

Lucas frowned. The rancher was highly alerted since he was well aware of his opponent's outstanding shooting skills and ruthless audacity but nevertheless he was prepared to do anything to defend himself and his friends.

“Doctor Burrage? Why? What's that supposed to mean? Answer me, mister!”

The vengeful killer was unfazed and smiled boastfully. His right hand's fingers were gently touching the grip of his beautiful gun.
“It´s all about Cathy … Cathy!”

With lightning speed the implacable lawman drew his Colt but before he could pull the trigger, three rifle bullets threw him to the ground. When Micah bowed over him, Tonoson was already reunited with his beloved family.

***

“The years … creep slowly by, Lorena … Lorena … the snow is on the …”
Micah was singing terribly off-key to his already half-emptied bottle, when Lucas entered the office. Never before had the rancher seen his friend in such a sorry state. Micah was barely conscious; his blood-shot eyes were half-closed and watering. His feeble hands clang to the glass on the table.

“The sun's low … down the sky, Lorena …”
“Micah …?”

The old man didn't react. Instead he kept singing although being almost asleep. After a few seconds Lucas plucked up enough courage to take a chair and sit down. Micah was still unable to get his mind off the bottle only inches away from his sweat covered face. Lucas had no idea how to comfort the lawman in order to breathe new life into him.

“Micah, I had to do it. He threatened you and what's more … he would have killed Burrage without a qualm. Would you like to be responsible for Burrage´s death? It was the only way. Tom was out of his mind. Sure, he used to be an honest man but the was crazed. I had no choice. You know that.”

Micah looked up and shook his head, ironically smiling.
“Burrage was never in any danger, Lucas boy.”

The Rifleman was stunned.
“What do you mean, Micah?”

Instead of an answer the old man opened a drawer and took a beautiful gun out. Lucas recognized the long barreled Colt instantly. Micah was fighting his tears while he was gently touching the elegant grip of the fancy weapon.

“It was not loaded.”
“What?!”

Lucas picked up the gun and checked the chambers, unable to believe the statement. But it was true: not a single bullet was inside. Micah balled his fists, feeling a sense of helpless ire.

“Can you believe that, Lucas? Tom fooled me. He wanted to trick me into killing him. But if he wanted to take revenge for the death of his wife … why …?”

Lucas put the empty gun down and interrupted Micah´s desperate contemplating.

“I don´t know. Maybe he wanted to prove something. Maybe he was for some reason able to forgive Burrage after all. In any case he sure gave us a lot to think about. If his plan was to see Cathy again, then he might be happy right now. If so we ought to be happy for him too.”
“But why …”
Lucas realized that he had to get his listless friend out of the desolation before it was too late.

“There is only one thing I know for sure! Maybe Tonoson was indeed your best friend … but surely he was not your only friend! Let me tell you that. Do you understand?”

Micah looked up and for a long moment he exchanged a long glance with Lucas. Their eyes spoke volumes. Then a little miracle happened: Micah shifted the bottle away, only a few inches but the gesture was unequivocal. And then he even smiled, grapping Lucas´ wrist, pressing it almost forcefully.

“Yes, I understand. Thank you, Lucas. Now I feel better.”
“So … no more of that appalling singing? Frankly I don't think you should give up your day job as the best Marshal in the territory in order to pick up singing. To be perfectly honest your voice reminds me of a lovesick polecat in a bear trap. And I put that in the most respectful way, Mister Torrance.”

Micah kept on smiling when they heard a quiet knocking.

“Come in.”
A very familiar face appeared in the doorframe. Micah nodded gleefully.
“Come in, Doctor. Sit down. Care to join us? We just had a very important conversation. How are you?”

Burrage harrumphed.
“Micah … Lucas … I just wanted to say how grateful I am that you saved my life tonight.”
Micah stood up and placed his hand on the physician's shoulder.
“That´s what friends are for, Doctor.”

***

“Pa … I would like to ask you something?”
“What can I do for you, son?”
Once again Lucas was sitting on his porch, enjoying a cigar. The night was noticeable cooler than the evenings before heralding the oncoming fall. Clouds were covering the waning moon.

“Pa, do you think I would be a talented physician?”
Lucas smiled giving his son an adolescent son a friendly noogie.
“Not that again.”
“Pa, I am serious. Mister Tonoson once told that the relationship between a doctor and his patient was like no other in the world.”
“That might be correct, Marc, but it takes a lot of studying before one can carry out that kind of work. And booklearning is not the only thing. There is much more you would have to understand about your patients. I am sure you realize that.”

Mark was apparently at a loss.

“Pa, why, do you think, did Mister Tonoson such a thing. I mean, he seemed to be such a strong-arming man. He was so stout-hearted and self-confident. He had worked in that hospital in England helping other people. Then again he had no qualm to put a bullet in that young man´s back. Do you think he was … you know … mad?”
Lucas nodded without hesitation.

“Yes, in a way he was, I guess. I understand his feelings about Cathy, though. I remember how I felt when your mother passed away. I was so distraught. I hated the whole world. In such a crisis you feel your life gliding out off your hands. From there it is not unlikely for a man to become weird, even reckless and brutal in some way. That's what happened to Mister Tonoson.”

“But why didn't that happen to you back then.”
Lucas looked into his son's eyes.
“Because I had someone who kept me going.”

The End

These stories are based on the TV series The Rifleman
Here are some other great stories. Enjoy!

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