The Rifleman
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Fan Fiction

Deadly Promises
Written by Klara's Boy


Joseph got increasingly nervous. The sun was sinking behind the barren mesas, warming the whole enormous landscape with a soft red light. He sighed and promised himself that it would be his last job. He was now 44 years old and he felt that he was over the hill at least for that line of work: guarding prisoners on their way to Yuma.
The dim light sank into the armored vehicle through the iron bars of the only window. The road was rough and Joseph could feel every rock in his bones. And the massive wheels kept on turning, mile after mile, across the open country, rising tense clouds of fine dust in its path.

He tried to calm himself. Two armed deputies on horseback accompanied the transport and two more men were on driving the heavy wagon, equipped with double barreled shotguns. But Joseph was supposed to keep an eye on the sleeping man inside. A long barreled Colt was holstered at the deputy’s side. But now he relied more on his flask. Once again he pulled it out of his breast pocket and took a swift sip.

“Do you think that whisky will calm your trembling hands, Joseph?”
The voice of the man under the blanket was serene, almost tender.

Joseph eyed the man in the corner while his pale face was lit up by the sinking sun. The wagon kept on heading North without any break and the air inside was terribly stuffy.
“I thought you were asleep.”

The prisoner remained motionless. His face was covered with a black hat.
“You know I would not mind some of that whisky. It has been awfully hot all day.”

The guard hesitated for a moment but then Joseph walked over to the man and handed him the flask. The prisoner got slowly up and nodded thankfully. With his cuffed hands he took the tiny bottle and enjoyed the sharp refreshment before giving the flask back to the nervous deputy. The whole wagon was rocked when the wheels rolled over a massive stone in their path.

“Thanks a lot, lawman.”
Joseph put the flask back into his pocket and even managed to smile.
“I figure you won’t get much booze where you´re going.”

Despite the fact that he was locked up with a notorious criminal there seemed to be no hard feeling between the two men. Maybe under different circumstances they could have been even friends.
The man under the blanket was in his early twenties, unshaved, with tousled hair, wearing a checkered shirt, dusty pants and old boots. In the weak light his charming smile was hardly noticeable.
“You know, all that time you have really decent. In fact you are the only lawman I have come to respect so far. Therefore I would like to tell you a little story.”

Joseph shook his head and pointed at the badge on his brow vest. Again the wheels hit a rock.
“I am not interested, Bronson. We are still on different sides of the law.”

The prisoner sank calmly back on the floor and put his black hat over his sweaty face.
“You will like that one. When I was a kid I met an old preacher. He was working as a missionary for the Apaches. He told me that every man has to face a fateful decision: to choose God and Life or Satan and Death.”

The armored coach entered now a long narrow pass and slowed down a bit because of the broken ground. The looming rocks on both sides of the road were blotting the sun out and within a second it was almost dark in the wagon which didn´t help Joseph´s nerves.
“I fail to see how that affects me, Bronson.”

The prisoner´s hands moved down to his belly and the iron cuffs made an eerie sound.
“You will find out soon enough, my friend.”

That very moment the wagon stopped in its tracks without a warning and Joseph almost lost his balance. The nervous guard could hear the curses of the drivers. Joseph fingers went down to his hip, touching the grip of his gun.
“What´s that? What´s going on out there? Hey, Billy, why have we stopped?! Anything wrong?”

Then all hell broke loose: an earsplitting volley of shots could be heard. Bullets hit the iron plates of the wagon, ricocheting off, while men were screaming and horses were neighing in fear. Joseph pulled the Colt out and dropped to the ground in an attempt to get some cover. The prisoner on the other hand was totally unfazed by the bloody mayhem. He didn´t even lift his hat. The shooting was still going on and gun smoke could be smelled. Another scream outside way quickly silenced by a rifle shot! Joseph felt unspeakable terror. He knew he had been a coward all his life and now he …
And suddenly all was over and deadly silence filled the narrow canyon. Joseph was still on his haunches, holding the Colt in his sweat-covered hands, saying a desperate prayer.
“O God, that can´t be! What was that? O God! No!”

Now the prisoner removed the hat from his face, got up and looked at the terrified deputy.
“You have to face such a decision now, my friend. You can either hand me that gun of yours and keep on living or you will be dead as soon as the boys out there come in here. I advice you choose quickly. I am sure your kids would love to see their father again. How old are they? Eight and ten, you said? Is that right, my friend? So you better make up your mind.”

Joseph was at a loss. All of a sudden the badge on his chest seemed terribly heavy when he heard steps coming nearer and nearer. A fist banged against the iron door.
“You´re in there, Bronson?”

Bronson raised his cuffed arms.
“Just remember that man of the cloth I just told you about. The key and your gun, Joseph …”

The fear-stricken guard uncocked the Colt and pulled the tiny key out of the breast pocket. A moment later the heavy manacles dropped to the ground and Bronson smiled thankfully. It sure felt good to be free again. Then he slowly pushed the barrel of Joseph´s gun into his belt. He was ready.
“Get me out of here, boys!”

A big key was turned in the rusty lock and then fresh air streamed into the wagon when the heavy door was pulled open. The prisoner stepped outside. His legs were still stiff and his rips were aching a little after the long trip in the iron prison on wheels. But it sure was a pleasure to be able to move the arms again. The sun had already disappeared behind the sandy hill and the air was still filled with the intense scent of gunsmoke. Three men were standing in front of the wagon, every one of them armed with a Winchester. The leader of the gang was a rawboned fella who almost looked like a boy.
“It´s good to see you, Mister Bronson.”

Bronson calmly looked around. It had been a clean and fast job: the bodies of the four guards were lying in the dirt. They had never stood a chance. The narrow road was still blocked with a heavy tree. The lanky leader of the killers smiled while shouldering his Winchester.
“I guess we just earned ourselves some cash, boys.”
Bronson eyed the small man suspiciously.
“You´re Little Pit, right?”

The tiny man grinned and tipped his brown derby.
“I sure am, sir, at your service, sir. My boys are glad that we could be of some help here.”

Before the Bronson could do anything about it, one of the killers entered the wagon and pulled the terrified Joseph out.
“He, Pit, look what I have found: another lawman.”

Joseph was unable to speak. Seeing the corpses of the other deputies in the sand made him tremble and he was almost incapable of staying on his feet. His knees nearly gave in. Bronson shook his head.
“Don´t harm him. He is my friend and that is a fact.”

Pit frowned. In the darkness he looked like a disfigured goblin.
“And leaving a witness alive so he can tell the tale? I don´t think so!”

The killer cocked his rifle in a swift and fluent movement and pulled the trigger without hesitation. The bullet hit the chest of the deputy and threw him against the door of the wagon. Without a scream Joseph sank to the ground.
Bronson looked down at the body and bit his lips before turning to the grinning murderer.
“Well, you took care of him, Little Pit. But now we better get the hell out of here.”

The boyish goblin with the sharp nose nodded showing his charming smile again.
“After you, Mister Bronson …”

The former prisoner headed over to one of the horses of the dead deputies. But then he stopped, seeming to think for a second. An icy gust of wind was playing with his black hair. Little Pit ejected the empty shell out of his Winchester.
“I can´t wait to collect the reward, men …”

With lightning speed Bronson pulled Joseph´s Colt out of the belt and swung around, firing three times. The outlaws were caught totally by surprise and collapsed in the deadly hail of lead. The gun flashes lit the narrow canyon. Little Pit dropped his rifle and let out a painful scream when his bony body hit the ground. Bronson´s face was a mask of hate and disgust. Little Pit was still alive when Bronson stepped closer. The goblin was gasping for air when he pressed his right hand on his bloody shirt. He made an attempt to crawl away on his back but his life ran out of him.
“Why …? You … why?”

Bronson looked down at him. His eyes were small and full of disdain.
“He was a decent man, a father of two kids and I promised him his life ...”

The wheezing outlaw tried to say something. Finally his pale lips managed to form a single word.
“… money …”

Bronson enjoyed cocking the Colt. It felt good to hold a gun again after such a long time.
“… and I always keep my promises.”

Little Pit´s hand glided to the pistol that was still holstered at his right side. With a cold grin the former prison watched his futile attempt to pull the gun out. Bronson still could feel the burning sensation of the whisky in his throat. Then he pulled the trigger...

***
“… and yesterday the teacher told us about the political system over there in Europe. They have no President like we do but kings and emperors. There is one man called Bismarck and he lives in Germany. Although he works for some emperor people say he is even more powerful than his boss. What do you think about that, Pa?”

Lucas smiled. He was proud of his son and the success Mark achieved at school. And he knew what would come next …
“Gosh, I would love to go there one day and see that fella Bismarck. He must be fine man.”

Lucas knew his son all too well. And the boy was right: maybe one day he would go over there and see all those old cities described in the books. It was a good thing that Mark had so many dreams. The boy was almost fifteen years old now and full of plans. Lucas filled another canteen with fresh water.
“Well, son, why not? When you perform that well at school you can earn enough money later to travel and see the world. I am sure Mister Bismarck would like to shake your hand and show you around. Don´t forget to write when you are in Europe. I would appreciate a letter about your impressions once in a while, you know.”

Mark started to contemplate.
“How much money do I need to travel to Europe and meet Mister Bismarck?

The canteen was well-filled now and Lucas strapped it to the saddle horn of this horse.
“Certainly more than we can afford. And now get your gear ready. We have a long ride ahead.”

Father and son had been busy all morning preparing for the counting of their cattle. During the summer months many cows had given birth and now Lucas and Mark were about to leave in order to get an overview about their livestock. Mark was well-aware of the importance to stay well-informed about the health state of the cows and calves. Such a trip could last one or two days and it was crucial to take enough food and water with them.
“Would you mind if I get my 22, Pa?”

Lucas slipped his own Winchester in the scabbard.
“Not at all, maybe you spot a coyote on the way. A little practice would not harm.”

Mark ran back into the house and opened a drawer. Two handfuls of cartridges were enough. Then he grabbed the barrel of his own rifle. He loved that gun and he was not a bad shot. He saw the rider coming down the ridge when he left the building.
“Looks like we got a visitor, Pa.”

The rancher looked up and then he saw the lonely horseman as well. It was an elderly fella wearing a fine suit. He looked like a wealthy businessman from the East. Lucas was not happy about the disturbance at that point of time but hospitality was important to him under any circumstances. Therefore he smiled when the brawny stranger arrived and stopped his horse in front of the house.
“Morning, Mister.”

The stranger tipped his fancy hat.
“Good Morning, gentlemen. I am looking for a man by the name of Lucas McCain.”
“You found him. What can I do for you, sir?”

The man on the horseback was a sturdy fella with grey hair and an elegant moustache.
“My name is Mortimer McPherson from Santa Fe. Mister Torrance in North Fork told me that I could find you here, Mister McCain.”

Lucas stepped back and for a moment he could not believe his ears.
“McPherson? You are the senator who was sent from Washington to protect the interests of us cattle breeders out here, aren´t you?”

McPherson humbly lowered his head and grinned.
“I am happy that you have heard of me. Yes, I am in charge of this country as far as the situation of the ranchers in New Mexico is concerned. The President has a great interest that all the hard-working men in this hostile country get all the support they need.”

Lucas smiled again. Without knowing it he stood to attention as if the senator was an officer of the army.
“Please be our guest, Mister McPherson. It´s an honor and a privilege. We read a great deal about your awesome work in the newspapers.”

To most folks out here politicians were money-hungry hypocrites who knew thousands ways to make a fortune while the honest people had to work hard to make a living. But McPherson was different: a former farmer who had started a remarkable career. He had the reputation of an intelligent and educated man who always was prepared to listen to all opinions before giving his orders.

The heavyset gentleman dismounted and took his hat off.
“As a matter of fact I am already planning my retirement. 17 years of serving the nation takes a heavy toll on a man. But I aim to give my successors a detailed report about the difficulties and opportunities here. And who have we got here? Good day, young man.”

Lucas turned his head and saw his son totally in awe.
“This is my son Mark, Mister McPherson. He is my partner and the only man I can rely on.”

The elegant politician smiled and shook Mark´s hand. The boy was utterly stunned by the uncommon visitor.
“Howdy, sir … and welcome to North Fork, sir. We would have never expected … that … would you like a cup of coffee, sir?”

Both men exchanged glances before they smiled at each other. McPherson put his big hand on Mark´s shoulder.
“Well, I guess I can take that as an invitation. Lead the way, son.”

“Yes, sir … right away … sir …”
The senator frowned.
“Anything wrong, son?”

Mark pointed at McPherson´s sorrel mare. The animal was snorting nervously and seemed tired.
“I just admire your horse, sir. It´s really beautiful.”

McPherson turned around and caressed the head of his mare.
“Tulip is a fine horse. I bought her cheaply a couple of years ago in Houston. The family had no use for her anymore. She gets easily spooked because one day her barn caught fire. She was rescued in the nick of time but since then she cannot stand loud noises or people shouting, especially strangers. She just needs a lot of love. Isn´t that right, my girl?”

Mark was truly touched by the affection the wealthy stranger showed towards his horse and touched the soft snout of the mare. Tulip jerked her head back and stepped swiftly aside.

***

Mark was used to uncouth cowboys and rough ranchers therefore he was fascinated by the aura of the elegant senator.
“Thanks for the coffee, Mark. You are really a fine boy. Your father can be proud of you.”

Lucas nodded enjoying the warm scent of the steaming coffee.
“I sure am. Do you have any children, sir?”

McPherson´s voice became somber and dark for a moment.
“Sadly no. I was engaged once but my bride succumbed to cholera when we were on a trip through Europe and …”

Mark was all ears and blurted out his question.
“Europe?! Did you meet any kings there?!”

Lucas gave his son a strict look.
“Mark! It´s not polite to interrupt other people! You know that.”

McPherson managed to smile.
“It´s alright, Mister McCain. The youth is entitled to questions. But I have some questions myself, if you don´t mind. How many heads of cattle do you own? Your Marshal told me that you have built up quite a herd during the last years. My colleagues in Santa Fe and Washington would appreciate a figure to estimate the budget in order to help the ranchers out here. This nation keeps on growing and is in the need of good beef. Beef is money and money means civilization and progress. Therefore I would be interested in the state of your livestock. I even brought my official notebook with me to write my final report for the authorities.”

Lucas put the cup down.
“As a matter of fact, my son and I are just about to leave and start an exact head count. You can come with us and take a look at our property yourself, sir.”

The man from the East emptied his cup in one go. Lucas heard a hardly noticeable change in McPherson´s voice. There was a certain pressure in his tone. It seemed like the man was in a hurry but was determined not to let on anything.
“I would appreciate that. And there is something else. I am very interested in the history of the Indians, Mister McCain. I think there is not a book I have not read about them yet. I plan to start writing my own history of the Natives as soon as I find the time. The thing is I would love to see a place called Apache Den. I understand that it is near your property.”

Lucas was surprised. Was that the reason for the clandestine hurry? A godforsaken ridge in the middle of nowhere?
“Apache Den? Well, why not? I know it but I am afraid that there is nothing but rocks and sand. No wonder the Apaches picked that place as one of their hideouts. It took the army a lot of sweat and blood to smoke them out there. Today it´s paradise … if you are a coyote or a rattler.”

McPherson´s deep voice revealed once again his unquestionable authority.
“Nevertheless I would like to visit that place. We must never forget that we are the intruders here. But as I said: we have the obligation to make the most out of this country now, fair and square. So if you could show me the way there I would be very grateful. When can we ride?”

“As soon as Mark has finished his coffee …”

***
“It´s amazing what men like you have made out of this country, Mister McCain.”

McPherson was truly impressed by the size of the herd. Young calves were jumping around, chasing each other playfully. Frisky steers were testing their strength and kept ramming their heads against each other. Lucas was happy to see how his cattle had prospered during the last weeks.

Mark was still fascinated by the noble charisma of the man of the East.
“What will you report back to Washington, sir?”

McPherson seemed to consider how to formulate his answer.
“That we need to support you folks out here in the any way possible. I am thinking of tax incentives for ranchers for example.”

Lucas turned his head and smiled.
“Well, as far as I am concerned I would appreciate that.”

But the senator was not finished yet.
“And that we need more law and order around here. Only one Marshal for such a town is just not enough. Our citizens need protection. As soon as we can establish a regular police force here people would not need to carry their own guns around all day in order to protect their property.”

Lucas´s attention was caught by that unexpected remark.
“What do you have against fire arms, sir?”

McPherson leaned forward in the saddle and caressed Tulip´s mane.
“I hate guns. I would never carry one. If you have to fire a gun you have made some sort of mistake before. The existence and use of guns is the sign that something is not right.”

After a pause he continued.
“My cousin served under Sherman. After the capture of Atlanta he never spoke a single word again. Violence can never be the answer to anything. If I had my way I would ban guns in all states.”

His deep voice was so determined that Lucas thought it would be the best to avoid a discussion about the role of guns in the society of the West. But he appreciated the senator´s honesty. The senator looked down to Lucas´ saddle where the butt of the Winchester could be seen.
“I know that I am straightforward and that´s why some people don´t like me in Santa Fe. But I don´t care. We need honest and plain men who dare to speak their minds if we want to build this country for our children.”

Lucas felt that it was best to change the subject.
“Would you like to see Apache Den now, sir?”

The senator slowly pulled a small pocket watch out of his vest and opened it.
“How long will it take us to get there, Mister McCain?”

Lucas was still not too fond of the idea. Out there the merciless desert began. But he wanted to avoid anything that could change the favorable atmosphere.
“About two hours, sir.”

The senator let the pocket watch disappear in his vest again.
“That is just about right.”

***
The rotten cadaver of a rabbit had attracted some starving coyotes but they took off when they caught the scent of the approaching humans. Lucas reined his horse and pointed to the majestic lump of sharp rocks that seemed to be burning in the relentless heat.
“Well, that place is called Apache Den. As I said, we can find nothing but dust and stones here. Beyond that is just the desert for countless miles.”

The sun had already reached its peak. Lucas felt uneasy. After six hours of inspecting the herds he felt tired and worn out. McPherson had taken some notes about the state of the newly born calves and once in a while complimented Lucas for the great work. Lucas admired the stamina of the politician. The man was an excellent rider who handled his shy horse very well. McPherson took a handkerchief and cleaned his sweat-covered forehead. Finally the man showed signs of exhaustion and as did Tulip. The poor animal suffered from the heat more than Lucas´ or Mark´s horses. And still the senator seemed to be eager to go on although his voice was hoarse and dry.
“I still would like to see it, Mister McCain. I always have been fascinated by the desert, you know. They say that is the perfect place to come closer to your God. Just think of the Bible …”

Lucas nodded and showed his visitor a white cliff that was formed like a giant´s thumb.
“Under there is a good place to make camp. I think we all could use a cup of coffee. And the horses need some rest too.”

Under the looming cliff the three riders found some shadow which was a true blessing. Mark dismounted first and was glad to find some dry wood for a fire. Lucas got off his horse and stretched his sore legs. Still on horseback McPherson looked around: they were all alone. And yet he seemed to become strangely nervous. He turned his head and peered around while caressing the sweat-covered neck of his exhausted mare before letting his body sink out of the saddle. Mark noticed the unexpected uptightness of their visitor from the East and smiled.
“You don´t need to worry, sir. There are no Apaches anymore. And if they were any … my Pa could take them. He is the best shot you will ever meet. Maybe you could mention that in your book.”

McPherson didn´t answer. Instead he started walking around, wiping the sweat from his forehead once again. And then he spotted the narrow ravine that was leading between the barren boulders.
After a moment of thinking he pointed up to the barren crest.
“I would love to follow the path there. I am sure the view from up there must be magnificent.”

Lucas looked up. He didn´t understand why the politician would be interested in that tiresome walk but he was too wearied to ask any question about that.
“Go right ahead, sir. Mark and I will stay here and make some coffee in the meantime. You should be back in about ten minutes, sir.”

Again the stranger didn´t answer. Without turning around once more he went over to the huge boulders, leaving deep traces in the soft sand. While Mark started to collect some try branches McPherson started the ascent. Lucas looked after him. Why did the politician seem to be in a hurry again? There was nothing but rocks and dust up there and after such a long ride …
Lucas walked over to his horse and pulled the rifle out of the scabbard. Then he joined his musing son at the fire where soon the coffee started cooking.

Father and son sat down enjoying the break. Mark´s eyes wandered off, admiring the feral beauty of the landscape. Clouds of white dust were drifting in the wind.
“I think we are really lucky to have Mister McPherson with us. Do you think his report will change things here, Pa?”

Lucas stretched his long legs. After such a hard ride it was quite a relief. His mind went through all the challenges a rancher had to face all his life and for a short moment he was wondering if he was getting old.
“He is right about the growth of our nation. I sure hope that we can get more support in these parts when diseases among the cattle break out or when a storm hits the herds. To be honest: sometimes I think of leaving and go to the East. You could attend better schools and maybe go to university one day.”

Now Mark was surprised.
“But this is our home. I see it as our duty to make the most of it.”

Lucas took a cigar out of his breast pocket and lit it up. A moment later a thin grey cloud of smoke engulfed his face.
“No taste for going to Europe anymore, Mark? Don´t you think Mister Bismarck would like to meet you and ask questions about North Fork? I bet they don´t even know how to rope a cow over there.”

Mark didn´t even notice the subtle irony in these words but was obviously thinking mighty hard about the future.
“I don´t know. Mister McPherson made me change my mind, I guess. After all North Fork is our home. On the other hand … our teacher told us a lot about Germany and France and Austria and all that but it doesn´t seem right only to read about those countries. One must go and see them. On the other hand I think Mister McPherson has a point when he talks about our own nation. We should stay here and make the best of it without traveling around.”

The rancher closed his tired eyes for a moment. The relentless heat was getting to him and the fabric of his shirt was stained and wet under his arms. He longed for a cool beer in Sweeney´s saloon. Lucas was wondering what Micah was doing right now and he hoped everything was alright in town. Micah was an old man and all alone. Nevertheless he appreciated the opportunity to talk to the boy in private out here at Apache Den.
“Mark, of course North Fork is our home but I would not mind if you could see a little more of the world. If you feel the need to go somewhere else I would not hold you back. You are no child anymore and free to settle down wherever you want.”

The kid looked up and exchanged a long glance with his father who was buffing the cigar.
“What about you, Pa?”

Now the warm scent of the coffee rose and a gust of wind made the tiny flames dance.
“What do you mean, son?”

Mark had troubles to find the right words.
“Well … what I mean is … all my life you have been around to get me out of trouble. It seems to me that starting a new life without you would be hard. Maybe the thought of leaving and living somewhere else scares me a bit. And without your rifle …”

Somewhere in the tense bushes up the ridge a lonely coyote was howling and a reflexive movement made Lucas´ fingers touch the butt of the rifle that was leaning next to him. Lucas listened for a couple of seconds but the coyote remained silent again. The rancher relaxed.
“My rifle is just a tool for hunting, nothing more, no matter what our friend says about guns.”

Mark looked up and frowned.
“North Fork has not become a dangerous place for outlaws because of some tool for hunting.”

***
He could feel the small pebbles moving under his boots. On more than one occasion he almost slipped but he kept on going. The senator grabbed the arm-thick branch of a desiccated tree and pulled himself up. The ravine was narrow and steep but he was almost there. Excitement grew stronger and stronger. Again he could hear the hungry coyote, further away that time. McPherson was forced to take a break. All those years behind desks without any exercise had made him lazy and sluggish. He looked up and noticed that the top of the ridge was only a few more steps away …

The summit of the rocky crest formed an open and flat plateau. From here the Apaches had a good view over the whole valley, able to make out any approaching force of the US Cavalry. The senator needed a few seconds to calm his breath. Cool wind refreshed his reddened face.
He glanced around nervously. No human soul could be seen. A snake disappeared behind the weathered stones and lizards were taking a sunbath. The senator took off his sweaty hat and listened. Just the soft whispering of the wind could be heard.

“You are late. And you are not alone. You came here with the sodbuster as we agreed on?”

McPherson turned slowly around. Then he saw the man sitting in the soft sand between two giant boulders. The senator wiped the fine dust off the sleeves of his brown jacket.
“I came as fast as possible. Where are the others?”

The man slowly got up and stepped closer. His tense mop of black hair moved in the gentle breeze.
“You didn´t pay them in advance, right?”

The politician sneered and shook his head disdainfully.
“No way. Little Pit would have taken the money and got away before breaking you free. But now each of that lowlife has $ 50 coming.”

Bronson grinned, showing his yellow teeth. The cool wind kept on playing with is long hair.
“In that case I saved you $ 150. I hope you don´t mind.”

McPherson contemplated for a second before starting to smile.
“Well done. I could not stand that money-grubbing scoundrel anyway. You´ve got a horse?”

Bronson nodded and pointed at a spent animal between the rocks.
“I picked two at the scene of the ambush. One broke his leg about four miles from here and I put it out of its misery. The other one is just about to collapse from sheer exhaustion. That´s why I left it in the shadow over there. Poor creature. But I wanted to reach this place just in time.”

The senator stepped closer and now the two men looked straight into each other´s eyes.
“That sodbuster owns a good mount so it´s there for the taking. I even brought you the hostage we talked about. McCain down there has come all the way together with his son. Shoot him and take that kid with you until you reach the Mexican border. Such a boy is a good life insurance just in case the law catches up with you.”

The senator waited for an answer but when Bronson didn´t say anything he grew impatient and testy. His dark voice revealed his anger.
“At least you can thank me for what I did for you.”

Bronson looked up to the cloudless sky. The sun was in his back, warming his shoulders. Then he slowly pulled the Colt out of the belt and aimed it at the senator. McPherson opened his mouth in surprise. Bronson slowly cocked the gun.
“I like killing people when they least expect it. I shot Little Pit when he was still dreaming of your money and I will shoot you while you are still waiting for me to thank you. I like seeing the expressions on men´s faces when they are caught by surprise. And I particularly will enjoy the expression on your face, sir. I sure will, yessir.”

The muzzle of the revolver almost touched the victim´s belly. McPherson´s eyes became wide in sheer terror. He had underestimated Bronson´s ruthlessness. His deep voice trembled.
“But we have a deal!”

Bronson nodded calmly.
“We still have … with this little alteration.”

That was the moment when McPherson turned around and started to run. He knew he did not stand a chance but he wanted to try at least. He ran like over the flat plateau like never before in his life. He slipped, fought to stay on his feet, murmured a desperate curse, kept running. His sides hurt and cold sweat was covering his forehead. He knew that he had made a fatal mistake. He ran and …

The first three bullets hit him his back, making him throw his arms in the air and brutally yanked his body around. The pain in the flesh was terrible. Air was pressed out of his lungs. Bronson fired again. Shot after shot stroke the senator. Bronson felt the heavy recoil in his palm. Each bullet was driven by pure hate. When McPherson´s lifeless body was pushed to the stony ground by the deadly impacts, Bronson smiled gleefully. Killing was fun. He dropped the empty Colt and walked back to his tired horse to get another gun. There was no shortage of shooting irons. Little Pit ´s gang had been heavily armed …

He pulled another pistol out of the saddlebag and holstered it. For a moment he saw Little Pit´s boyish face again, heard his dying voice in the shadow of the wagon. Bronson turned around and looked at McPherson´s body once more. The senator was lying spread eagle in the bright sun. The killer scratched his skin and walked over to the corpse. He turned it around with the tip of his dusty boot. After searching the pockets of the dead man he found the pocket watch but a piece of lead had smashed the glass. After dropping the worthless item he pulled out a bloody wallet made out of fine leather. He realized instantly that it contained a thick bundle of banknotes. Bronson let his fingertips glide over the paper.
“I always keep my promises.”

***

“Pa, what was that shooting about?!”

Lucas covered his son with his body, rifle in hand.
“I don´t know but there must be someone else up there. Mister McPherson does not carry a gun. Maybe he has run into a bunch of Apaches after all. I go up there! Get your 22 and stay here with the horses. Shoot at anything that moves and don´t think you make a mistake by doing so.”

Mark hurried over to his horse and pulled his own rifle out while Lucas ran over to the path that led up to the crest. After a moment the towering man vanished behind the giant boulders and Mark felt terribly lonely. But it was good to sense the cold iron of the barrel between the fingers. He sure was glad that his saddle packs contained two fists full of additional ammunition. Mark was sure that McPherson was dead by now. Up there an invisible enemy was lying in wait ready to kill anybody who dared to go up that narrow path. Mark´s urge to follow is beloved father was overwhelming but he had to protect the horses. If anybody had managed to steal the animals while he was up there trying to give his father a hand they were doomed.
“Pa … be careful … please …”

***
Lucas reached the summit. His rifle was ready to fire. Expecting anything, he tried to stay in cover between the dense bushes that grew between the heated boulders. Lucas bit his lips. His right forefingers touched the trigger of the Winchester. No sound could be heard. Then he stepped out off the steep ravine and entered the open plateau. Lucas kept the muzzle of the Winchester in the direction his wary eyes looked. Not a sign of any human being could be seen. All was quiet and …
and there was the body lying motionless in the bright sun.

Lucas, still prepared to shoot at any time slowly walked over to him. Yes, it was McPherson, lying on his back, with his mouth and his eyes wide open. His jacket showed a couple of bullet holes. Lucas shook his head when he gently closed his guest´s eyes. And only a half a meter away Lucas found the smashed pocket watch. It looked as if the man had just checked the time when he was hit by the first shot. Did he wait for anybody? Out here in the desert? Ridiculous! But Lucas was too spent to give that broken watch any more thought.
“You have found God in the desert, sir.”
Lucas raised his head. If the killer was still nearby he would not have hesitated to shoot the rancher in the back. Lucas hoped to be able to dodge the first bullet before returning fire. But everything remained peaceful. There was no sign of the unknown murderer.

“I will find him and he will pay, sir. I promise you that …”
Lucas was too tired to spot the already circling vulture up on the cloudless sky.

***

Walking down the sand-covered ravine was even harder than getting up. Constantly looking around Lucas paid attention to any sign of a possible threat. The loose pebbles slipped under his big boots and the big man was in permanent danger to lose the balance and roll down the hill. But he stayed on his feet and soon the looming finger-shaped rock could be seen again. Lucas stopped and listened. But still there was only silence around him. The branches of the dead trees moved in the gentle wind.

Now Lucas stepped out of the ravine and hurried over to the camp.
“Mark! We have to get out of here! Mister McPherson is dead and …”

“Yes, I know that. I just killed him. And now you better drop that rifle of yours, Mister McCain.”

Lucas froze. He had never heard that voice before: deep and dark, raspy and cruelly calm.
After a moment of hesitation his fingers let go of the barrel and the rifle dropped into the sand.
“And now turn around real easy. I want to be able to count the hairs on your arms, mister.”

Lucas saw a man in a checkered shirt standing between the bushes, a double barreled shotgun in his right hand while his left hand kept Mark´s mouth shut. Additionally the outlaw had a Colt 45 holstered at his right side. The man had obviously waited for the rancher. Lucas cursed himself for not being more careful. And now Mark was in the hands of a killer. Lucas knew that he had no prayer to help his son. But deadly anger and hate started simmering in his troubled soul.
“You better let me son go, mister …”

Bronson nodded and released the grip around Mark´s sweat-covered face.
“That’s fine by me. Son, go to your father. He is missing you.”

Mark dashed over as fast as his feet could carry him and after a moment he felt Lucas´ hug.
“Son, are you alright? What happened?”

For a moment Mark pressed his dirty face against his father´s chest.
“I am sorry, Pa, he was behind me before I could do anything. He took my rifle and …”
Lucas could see tears of shame and fear shimmering in the boy´s eyes.
“It´s alright, son. It´s not your fault.”

Then he eyed the ruthless killer who was still standing between the thorny bushes, leaning casually against the side of a rock. After gently pushing Mark behind his back to protect him with his own body Lucas turned to the stranger.
“Who are you? Why did you kill Mister McPherson?”

The murderer smiled before lowering the shotgun.
“The name is Bronson and you ought to be grateful. It was part of his plan to kill you and take your son hostage …”

Lucas and Mark could not believe their ears.
“What!?”

Bronson obviously enjoyed the effect of his stunning explanation.
“See that nice shotgun? I took it from the body of a deputy who was killed in an ambush last night. Three cutthroats had been hired to get me out of the wagon that was heading for Yuma. It worked and before we rode off I killed my rescuers. Apache Den was the meeting point. The honorable McPherson had told me to come here today. In order to increase my chances to cross the border he said that he would use a believable reason to bring the nearest rancher and his son out here so I could get my hands on some hostage. He picked you and you naturally fell for his lies.”

Mark was stunned. Salty sweat was torturing his burning eyes.
“So the whole story with the plan to support the ranchers in these parts …”

Bronson grinned while his fingers glided playfully over the massive butt of the shotgun.
“… was all made up to win your trust. It is true that that old crook used to work as a high-ranking official in Washington and Santa Fe but apart from that he was the meanest varmint you can imagine.”

Lucas shook his head in disbelief.
“Why should an official help a common prisoner to escape?”

Bronson seemed to be strangely insulted by that question.
“You sodbusters are really as dumb as he had told me. Isn´t it clear? Because we cut a deal.
I get into trouble with the law and he gets me out again. In exchange for his help I was supposed never to mention my real name. A high-ranking senator cannot afford an outlaw as son. He knew all the judges, and a little envelope here and there can influence justice in an amazing way. You have no idea, sodbuster. Washington and all the other capitals are filled with all kinds of rats on two legs. I am sure he told you about the growth of our proud nation. Well, did he? Don´t believe a word of it. You think rustlers and bank robbers are the lowlife in your world out here but the true scoundrels are somewhere else. And last night four honest deputies got killed by that kind of corruption.”

Mark was choked up. His eyes were still filled with tears of wrath.
“That cannot be the reason for murdering your own father? He was not even armed!”

The outlaw shouldered the massive shotgun and scratched his unshaved chin.
“As a matter of fact my mother wanted him dead. Some years ago he had left her for a younger woman and on her deathbed I promised mum to make him pay for running out on her. I always keep my promises. By the way: my real name is Michael McPherson but I still prefer Bronson as you can figure.”

Lucas´ glance wandered off to his Winchester that was lying on the ground.
“And now you aim to shoot us too, right?”

Without a warning the killer drew his gun with lightning speed and fired. Lucas could feel the energy of the bullet on his scalp when it pushed his hat into the sand. Mark let out a short scream but the outlaw just grinned before holstering the smoking pistol again.
“Only if I have to. I am just gonna take your rifle and the horses and head for the border. By the time you reach North Fork I will be safe and sound and start all over again in Mexico. And now I have to ask you to step back, sir, so I can pick up your Winchester. Please don´t make me use that shotgun. I´d hate to do what my father had in mind. I am not like him. With all honesty: I respect you, Mister McCain. You are a decent and loving man unlike that wealthy scum we call our government.”

The outlaw let his right hand rest on the grip of the Colt that once had belonged to a greedy goblin called Little Pit. Lucas looked down on his sobbing son.
“We better do what he says, Mark.”

Bronson nodded politely and with his shotgun still trained at his two prisoners he picked the Winchester with great loop up.
“I would have never thought that I could get my hands on that famous rifle. You got yourself quite a reputation. That´s why my father chose you, Mister McCain. He was probably figuring that there would be gunfight between you and me. I guess that was his real plan: to get me killed by your rifle here. My old man was quite a fella. I almost admire him for his resourcefulness. But now he is just food for the vultures up there. You better get going. Don´t try anything funny.”

Mark and Lucas slowly walked over to the horses, while Bronson was staying behind them. Lucas knew that any resistance would be futile and fatal. Now that Bronson had a shotgun and the Winchester there was nothing the distraught father could do.

Bronson signaled Mark to untie the animals.
“Get on your animal and take the reins of your father´s horse too. We don´t want him to get to town too fast to notify the law. As far as you are concerned, Mark: as soon as we are in Mexico you can go wherever you want. Until then you do as you´re told. If you behave yourself you have nothing to fear. I promise you that and I always keep my promises.”

Mark mounted his horse without saying a word. All the time Bronson kept a watchful eye on the helpless rancher. The muzzles of the shotgun were pointed at the rancher´s chest. Bronson had the upper hand and he enjoyed his triumph.
“Well, McCain, I am sure you understand that I cannot leave you anything. I need all of your water and all of the guns. I threw that cute little rifle of your son´s into the bushes with the long thorns but not before breaking the butt on a rock. So I am afraid you have to make it back to North Fork on foot and unarmed. But such a big man like you should do it within a couple of hours unless you lose your bearings during the night. That sure would be a shame.”

Lucas didn´t answer. He turned to his son who was terribly pale.
“Don´t worry, Mark. I get you out of that whole mess. You will see.”

Bronson admire Tulip´s beauty before he mounted his father’s horse. He smiled when he noticed Lucas´ hateful glance.
“I licked the Rifleman without firing a single shot at him. Maybe my old man would be even proud of me.”

That was the moment Mark had been waiting for. With a swift movement he reached into his saddle bag and pulled five cartridges out. He dropped them into the glowing embers of the fire. Within a heartbeat Lucas grasped the situation and jumped aside. Bronson turned his head uncomprehendingly.
“What is going on, son? What have you …?”

All hell broke loose when the cartridges exploded in the flames. And Tulip went mad. The panic-stricken animal reared. Bronson was caught totally by surprise by the crazed fury of the mare. His body was catapulted out of the saddle and hit the stony ground. He felt his ribs cracking in the brutal impact. Suffocating dust was raised. For a moment he was blind and could not catch his breath while he was rolling around in the warm sand. Trembling hooves missed his face only by inches. The terrified outlaw gasped for air and tried to get back on his feet. He had dropped the Winchester and the shotgun and there was no time to look for those weapons. He coughed while his right hand reached for the holstered Colt at his right side. Still on his knees, Bronson drew as fast as he could, cocked the gun and fired blindly, hoping desperately to hit anything while his broken ribs started to send shockwaves of spasmodic pain through his chest.
When he made an attempt to open his eyes for a second Bronson spotted rapid gun flashes out of the muzzle of a rifle. He felt the bullets piercing his belly. Bronson not even managed to scream when his body was pushed around by the hail of lead.

While the dust was slowly settling father and son hugged.
“Pa, are you alright?”
“I am thanks to you.”

At last Mark turned his head and looked at the corpse in the sand.
“I wonder who was worse: father or son.”

Lucas slowly got up. The rancher was covered with a thick layer of white dust. He put his right hand on the boy´s shoulder and pulled him close while his left hand still held the Winchester. Suddenly he felt terribly thirsty and exhausted. But he and his son were alive and that was all that counted.
“That´s not for us to decide, Mark.”

***

“Mister Torrance …?”

The woman in black opened the door of the office. Micah looked up and forced himself to smile.
“Yes, that´s me. Please come in, ma'am.”

Micah got up and shook the lady’s small hand before he signaled her to sit down. He felt a great deal of sorrow and pity for the tiny woman.
“First of all let me tell you how sorry I am. How are you doing?”

The woman showed a certain dignity despite her grave loss.
“Well, my children are with my parents now. They still miss their father terribly, as you can figure.”

Micah nodded and looked at the pale cheeks of the widow. The woman was not young anymore but he was sure that she had been really pretty once. Her bony face showed many wrinkles and her haggard figure make Micah´s heart tremble. But he stayed calm and kept his duty in mind.
“I know that nothing can replace your husband but maybe we can help you.”

The old lawman opened a drawer of his desk and took a big envelope.
“Here are $ 150 for you. That should help you for the time being, ma'am.”

The woman was flabbergasted and for a moment tears could be seen in her grey eyes.
“How did you manage to collect that much money, Mister Torrance?”

Micah had been afraid of that question but he knew that it was better to hide the real origin of that cash.
“Well, let´s just say we have our own ways to handle things out here and as long as this money is of help everything is fine, I can assure you, ma'am.”

The woman hesitated but then her long fingers took the envelope out of Micah´s hand. The Marshal smiled before getting another envelope out of the drawer.
“We also managed to sell a beautiful mare to a horse trader and we want you to have that money too. In here you will find additional $ 30 for your kids.”

The homely woman was stunned. Obviously she had not expected that. Micah leaned back and for a moment he sensed even a bit of joy.
“There is no need for words, ma'am. I have known Joseph for a couple of years. He was a good man. Maybe your husband was not cut out to be a deputy but he showed courage and always faithfully fulfilled his duties. That´s what´s carrying a badge is all about. May I invite you for a coffee in the saloon now, ma'am?

***

After the meal Mark got up to wash the dishes but his father signaled him to remain seated.
“You remember the three calves I sold last month, son?”

“I sure do. How much did you get for them, Pa? I hope it´s enough to buy a ticket and go over to Europe anytime soon.”

Lucas grinned. The moon was up and its soft light spread harmony and peace in the house.
“I am afraid Mister Bismarck has to be patient for a while. But it was enough to purchase you a little surprise. It´s under the blanket on your bed, son.”

Of course Mark jumped up and hurried over into the other room. After a moment he returned to the table holding a brand new 22 in his shaking hands. The boy was too overjoyed to say a word but there was no need for any thanks. Lucas lit a cigar.
“I hope you like it, son.”

When the boy still didn´t manage to say anything the proud father smiled through the grey smoke of the cigar.
“You earned it.”

The End

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

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