The Rifleman
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Fan Fiction

Heart-sick
Written by Klara's Boy

Hundreds of muzzleloaders were spitting fire, spreading death among the approaching enemy lines. Cannons answered immediately, obliterating whole units within seconds. Shrapnel balls and bullets cut the attacking soldiers down like grass. The deafening screams of the wounded men seemed to come directly out of hell. And hell it was. The grey gunsmoke grew thicker by the second, covering the vast meadow like a shroud. The vile stench of blood and gunpowder almost suffocated the young officer who had a hard time keeping his terrified men together. A rider on a dark horse approached trough the mist, reining his rearing animal right in front of the officer.

“Lieutenant!”

“Right there, captain.”

“Seems to me we are in for a heavy fight. The Rebs are trying to flank us. They gonna hit us hard. Never saw them fighting like this. You gotta hold the position otherwise Lee gonna break through and occupy the hills behind the town. We can't let that happen. Understood? Not another step backwards!”

“Yessir.”

“Reinforcement is on the way. Within an hour two more of our corps will come up. Until then … hold at all costs. By the way, we two are the last officers of this regiment still alive. So make the best of it. I am counting on you. Deploy your men right here. Don't let any of the Rebs through.”

“Yessir.”

“Gotta ride back to the Major for new orders. I'll be back as soon as possible.”

A second later a cannon ball hit the captain, killing him and his horse in a heartbeat. Stones and dirt rained down on the soldiers standing by. Now the horrified lieutenant was the only officer left, alone with an overwhelming responsibility on his shoulders. But he refused to let on any sign of fear. He beckoned to a meager soldier behind him who seemed to be untouched by the gory bloodshed around him.

“Sergeant!”

“Yessir.”

“You heard the captain! Deploy the men! We gotta hold till hell freezes over. Help is on the way.”

“Yessir. By the way, what's the name of the town back there, sir?”
Three more cannon balls ripped the ground open, sending screaming men flying through the air like leaves in a storm.

“What was that?!”

“The name of the town, sir! When this minor skirmish is over, I would like to write my gal back home in New York about it. Id hate to get the location wrong, you know, sir.”

“Gettysburg, I reckon!”

“Much obliged, sir! Martha will be pleased as punch!”

***

The man sighed but he knew that he had to do it. He was well aware that the next minutes would change his life. He pulled the Colt out of the holster and checked it a last time. The dark brown buckhorn grips bespoke the high quality of the gun. Four notches on the side revealed that it was in fact a deadly beauty. The man whipped the sweat from his forehead. Calmly he put the loaded gun back into the holster at his side, bracing himself for the action he was forced to take. He looked around. The street was empty so early in the morning. He shook his head and took a deep breath. Then he headed for the bank.

***
Lucas stepped out of the Marshal's office, wearing the shiny badge on his white shirt and carrying his trusty rifle. The towering man looked nervously around. But everything was quiet. People on the street were following their normal course of life. Deep inside Lucas was glad that there was no trouble in sight. Since Micah was absent for two more days he was in charge.  The old Marshal had traveled to Silverton, a little village 40 miles to the West, to support an inexperienced lawman there. Now he was already gone for almost a week. That was nothing unusual but this time Micah had taken Mark with him. Since allegedly Billy the Kid had once set up one of his hideouts near Silverton, Mark had been eager to see that rough place so Lucas had reluctantly given his approval for that journey. Now the worried father felt uneasy, lonely and vulnerable.

To top it off he had plenty to do at the ranch. Two days ago a nightly rainstorm had caused severe damage at the creek that ran over his property. But his sense of duty forced him to spend as much time as possible in town to keep the peace. Lucas closed his eyes. Normally he would have enjoyed a cool beer on such a hot day but he didn't feel like. He missed Mark so much. On days like that the love for his boy was almost painful. But now was no time for being sentimental. First Lucas had to buy some new tools to repair the damage. But when he walked over to the bank the stagecoach arrived, this time even on the dot. When the doors of the stagecoach were opened Lucas grew curious about the newcomers.

Lucas regretted that Micah was out of town since he instantly knew that the two strangers would mean trouble. One of them was slender fellow in his late forties. He was wearing a dirty white shirt, an old leather jacket and a black hat but he was unarmed. His hair was about getting white. Even his grey moustache was turning thin.

In his company was a seedy woman, wearing a flower covered hat and a black gown which seemed to be a little too narrow for her wide hips. It was obvious that the years hadn't been too kind on her appearance. In former time she must have been a pretty lady but now she had gained weight. Her dark eyes showed no warmth or kindness and her sharp nose gave her the eerie look of a hungry hawk. The full cheeks were covered with cheap make-up. Lucas got the impression that she was just a slovenly woman who tried desperately to maintain her youthful look well aware that it was to no avail.

Both travelers seemed weary and chippy. Especially the woman with the well rounded face looked highly petulant.

After looking around, the man with the thin moustache walked up to Lucas, tipping his black hat.

“Excuse me, sir. You don't happen to know where I might find Mister Hamilton? John Hamilton? I understand he lives around here.”

Lucas was highly alerted. His grip grew tighter around the barrel of his rifle. But of course he maintained friendly.

“Yes, I do. Mister Hamilton runs our bank. As a matter of fact I have to go there myself to make a withdrawal, mister. You can come with me, if you wish.”

The stranger smiled gratefully.
“Excellent! Much obliged, mister. Florence, my dear, I figure it would be the best if you wait in the saloon for me. You'll like it in there among the other bar flies, I am sure.”

The woman glared daggers at her smiling companion.

“Sure, whatever you say. You always know what's good for me, honey.”
“And please do me the kindness and don't drink the place dry in the meantime. It won't take long, darling.”

“If I do, I leave something for you, sweetheart. I promise.”

Her voice was surprisingly deep, raspy and full of hostile irony. It was clear that they shared an uneasy relationship. In any case, they didn't seem exactly like a newlywed couple on their honeymoon. The stony-faced woman picked up her small suitcase and headed for the saloon while Lucas and the stranger walked over to the bank. Using his withdrawal as a pretext Lucas was glad to have the opportunity to keep an eye on the man. While they walked over the boardwalk the stranger eyed down on the rifle.

“Do you always make your withdrawals with a rifle in hand? That could cause a serious misunderstanding about your intentions in there.”

“Well, Mister Hamilton is a good friend of mine. Don't worry.”

“It always pays to have friends, Mister McCain.”

“How do you know my name?”

“Your famous Winchester is a … dead giveaway, I'd say. With friends like you, Mister Hamilton doesn't have to fear for his security, I guess. Well, I have some important business to do with him. I sure do hope he will hear me out.”

Before Lucas could learn more about the nature of that business, they reached the entrance of the bank. The stranger bowed slightly forward.
“After you, Mister McCain.”

Lucas entered and saw Hamilton at his desk dictating a business letter to one of his accountants, right under the beautiful picture of Abraham Lincoln. When he saw the Rifleman he interrupted and smiled.

“Hello, Lucas. Nice of you to drop by. What can I do for you?”

“I have to get some of my money, John. I gonna need a couple of new tools. The thunderstorm two days ago caused quite a damage at my place.”
 
“Sure, anything you say.”

When the stranger came in, he respectfully took off his hat, looking around curiously. Lucas stepped aside.

“By the way, I brought you a new customer, John. This is … sorry, I didn't catch your name, mister.”
 
Hamilton rose from his chair. His eyes became wide and his face turned crimson in an instance.

“You don't have to introduce that … gentleman to me, Lucas. I know him all too well. Get out!”

Lucas was totally taken by surprise. He had never seen his friend so incensed. The stranger smiled while raising his arms showing his empty palms, trying to smooth the banker.

“Keep your cool, John. Mister McCain might get a wrong impression about me. I just came a long way to have a nice talk. And to make you an interesting proposal about …”

Hamilton's fists hit the desk hard.

“There is nothing we should talk about. Get back where you came from. Otherwise I have to be seriously worried about my reputation with no-good scum like you around my bank.”
 
“Is this our last word? I mean, you are not …”

“Out!”

“Well, I can take a friendly hint. Mister McCain, it was a pleasure meeting you. It really was. You’re a fine fella. So long.”

Then the man left the office, seemingly unimpressed by the wrath of the banker. When he was gone, Lucas turned to Hamilton, still flabbergasted.

“Well, I never would have expected such behavior from you, John. I am sure you have your reason for treating a future customer the way you just did.”

Hamilton laughed ironically.

“Future customer, sure! The only customer he should become is the hangman's!”

“What are you talking about, John? Who was that man?”

Hamilton tried his best to calm down. Suddenly he felt embarrassed for losing his temper that easy. For a moment his tongue became tight. After a pause he sighed.
“That was my brother Dave, the family's black sheep.”
 
Lucas was more than bewildered. Suddenly he felt hot … and kinda sorry.
“Your … brother? Well, I couldn't help noticing that you are not on best of terms.”

John Hamilton was still fighting to not lose his temper again and his voice was almost trembling.

“With Micah away you might wanna check the wanting-posters in his office. I am sure you will find Dave's ugly mug on one of them. Whatever the reward is, I double it.”

That very moment Sweeney came running. The bartender was covered with sweat.
“Lucas! You gotta come quickly!”

“What is it, Sweeney?”

“It´s Billy Benson again. The boy is smashing up my whole place. Hurry!”

“Excuse me, John!”

Lucas left the bank and ran over to the saloon. He could hear the rumpus already on the street. When he looked through the door he saw a young man throwing a chair against the wall. The mirror's shards were covering the floor. Three tables were overthrown and empty bottles were rolling all over the place. The stench of whiskey was filling the destroyed room.

With his rifle ready to fire Lucas carefully entered the saloon.
“Alright, Benson. That's enough! Drop the chair and come here!”

The violent man froze for a second, when he noticed the Rifleman. Then he lowered the chair and smiled threateningly making his youthful face that was disfigured with dozens of deep small box scars even more daunting.

“Lookey here, if it isn't the big man with his big trick rifle. A man with a big ranch, a big reputation. Me on the other hand … I ain't got nothing. Kinda unfair, don't you think, sodbuster! Nothing!”

“That´s enough, Benson. I'll lock you up till you're sober again. After that you have the opportunity to figure out a way how you gonna pay for the damage you caused in here.”

Lucas stepped closer. Benson was a tall guy, infamous for his short temper and his penchant for cheap booze. He lived somewhere outside the town but it was the best to avoid his company. With his sparkling eyes and his big hands, he even impressed Lucas for a moment. The unruly goon lowered his muscular arms, goggling viciously at Lucas.

“Well, you got that right, sodbuster. It's enough. I ain't gonna take it anymore. But you take it … right now.”

Still grinning Benson slowly pulled a shiny knife out of his belt.
“That´s for you, sodbuster.”

Lucas fired instantly and seemingly without aiming. The bullet hit the broad blade, shattering it. The stunned troublemaker screamed but before he could react, a powerful blow of Lucas´ right hand sent him to the wet floor.

“Sweeney!”

“Yes … Lucas?”

“Get two more men and gimme a hand, will you?”

Even for four men, it was not an easy undertaking to track the unconscious bully to the Marshal's office. While doing so, Lucas was watched by a pair of dark eyes among the gathering crowd on the street.

***
After locking Benson up, Lucas headed back to the bank only to find it closed. When he gently knocked he heard a feeble voice from within.

“Who´s there?”

“It´s me, Lucas. I would like to have a word with you, John.”
After half a minute the distraught bank manager opened the door. When entering, Lucas looked around. The office was empty. Hamilton noticed Lucas frowning.
“I gave the staff a day off. They earned it. Besides … I didn't feel like working today.”

Lucas felt uneasy. The unpleasant incident with Dave had shown him how little he actually knew about the man he entrusted with his hard-earned money, the man who was his best friend besides of Micah. Hamilton sat down, starring at the wall.

“If you wanna talk about my brother, you could have spared yourself the trouble of coming here. The bank will be open tomorrow as usual anyway. Until then I am fine.”

Lucas shook his head. He had to unravel that mystery.

“Not the way I see it, John. I have to cheer you up a bit on behalf of our citizens. In a state like that you might up mix your deposits and many customers would lose their nest eggs. Besides … I am supposed to be your friend, wouldn't you say?”

The banker managed to smile.  His mind went back to the day when Lucas stood by his side while worried customers were about to storm the bank reclaiming their money.

“What was that din in the saloon about? I heard a rifle shot. Is someone hurt?”

Lucas shrugged.
“Nothing special. Billy Benson was doing what he is best at. He is sound asleep in a cell now and he will stay there for the time being. At least until Micah returns.”

The banker bared his teeth.
“Billy Benson … another deadbeat, another needless existence. Just like my brother. How many more are out there, bothering hard-working men, making their life miserable?”

Lucas realized that it would take a lot of effort to make his friend feel better. He put his rifle on the desk and looked into Hamilton's eyes.

“John ... to me and many others you are the very embodiment of a noble gentleman. Talking like this about other people isn't your style at all. You should not get used to it. So you better tell me what's on your mind.”

John Hamilton sank into his chair, avoiding Lucas´ glance.

“I was six years old when Dave was born. My mother almost died during the birth. I cooled her forehead while she was slowly recovering. I never left her until she was well enough to get up again. When Dave grew up he was nothing but trouble for our parents.  He was never any good. My mother often cried when she heard about his foul deeds. To me it was a crying shame that the child who had given her so much pain was nothing but a nuisance to anybody. So I decided to make something out of my life. Mother should to be proud at least of one of her children. I swore to become the opposite of my brother. The way I see it we all owe that to our mothers in order to repay them for the pain they had to suffer in order to give us the precious gift of life.”

Lucas was carefully listening. Now John's strange behavior became more understandable.

“So your brother was a role model for you … in a negative way.”

“I tried my best to achieve the utmost. Now I am a bank manager. I gained the trust of my fellow citizens and I can call honest men like you my friends. I am rich in more than one way. Dave has always been poor and always will be.”

“Well, isn't that a little too hard? After all he is your brother.”

John was now totally composed. Memory can be a man's personal hell.

“Mum died from a heart attack after receiving a letter from Dave. It said that food in prison is not as bad as people always claim. And that he had already made a new friend in there.”

***
Shortly before midnight a stranger rode into town. He was a burly man, almost obese, with a double chin and big hairy hands. A white hat covered his bald head. In front of the saloon he stopped his horse. Dismounting was apparently troublesome for him due to his considerable weight. But before he could step into the saloon he heard a voice behind him.

“Hello, Bud. It has been a long time. Last I heard you were in Oklahoma Territory.”

Surprisingly fast the fat man spun around, his right hand on his holstered gun. Again the voice could be heard.

“Still a little spooky, aren't you, Bud? Well, who could blame you with such a past?”

“Dave Hamilton, is that you?”

“Sure, Bud. Nice to see you again. Still handy with a gun, I reckon.”

The fat man smiled when he shook hands with the banker's brother.

“I have managed to stay alive so far, Dave.”

“Enjoying a pretty good life as far as I can see. Planning to stay here?”

The fat man shrugged. It was clear that the saloon attracted him magically.

“For the time being at least. Maybe I even manage to earn a little money. Beggars can't be choosers.”

***
Early in the morning, Lucas left the Marshal's office. Billy Benson was still asleep. Lucas was well aware of the fact that he needed some support so he walked over to Nils´ place. The blacksmith was enjoying his breakfast when Lucas stepped in.

“`Morning, Nils. Are you quite busy at the moment?”

“`Morning, Lucas. No, can't say that I am.”

“You need to do me a favor, Nils. I am in a tight spot right now.”

“Name it.”

“Well, I would like to deputize you in order to keep an eye on the jail if you don't mind. Billy Benson is still in there. Most of the time he is sleeping but sooner or later he will get hungry and suffer from a massive hangover. I must take care of my ranch today but I will come back as soon as I can.”

“Sure. Anything you say. Just let me finish my breakfast. Gotta keep up my strength, you know.”

“I owe you, Nils.”

“Not at all, Lucas. You are looking forward to seeing Micah and Mark again, aren't you?”

“More than you can imagine, my friend.”

After pinning a tin star on the blacksmith's sweaty shirt Lucas headed back to the Marshal's office to get his horse. When he passed the saloon, he heard a voice from within.

“Mister McCain, care to join me for a drink?!”

First Lucas hesitated but then he entered. Sweeney was still busy cleaning the place up after the rampage. Dave Hamilton was sitting at one of the few tables left undamaged being in a cheerful mood. Lucas was glad for the opportunity to have another talk with Dave so he took a chair and put his rifle on the table. The crook ogled at the famous gun again.

“I guess my brother was talking quite a bit about me yesterday?”

Lucas tried his best to stay diplomatic. After all it was not his family and he was glad about that. For a moment his heart reminded him once again how much he loved Mark.

“Well, you can call it that. He is not particular fond of you, to be honest. But I reckon that's not exactly a family secret.”

That very moment Dave turned serious. His smile froze and for a moment, Lucas felt sorry for the two brothers.

“Hardly. The point is … my brother is right about me. I never was any good, at least in his eyes. I needed my freedom and saw spending time at school as a waste. I settled with reading and writing and that was about all. I never tried to change that. I was proud about my life style.”

“You ended up in prison once.”

“That´s right.  I had been drunk and broke into a house, got myself a little money. Unfortunately the old lady who lived in there recognized me afterwards during the trial.”

“Are you proud about that too?”

“No, but I don't try to hide it either. Because after that my life became … stable, almost honorable. My cell mate was handy with machines. He made me interested in technology. After serving our time we started a small company as partners. As I said, it pays having friends. But when things started to turn out he was stabbed by a mugger. So I left again everything behind. That's the way my luck runs. Each time I try to make something useful someone comes along and destroys everything. So I moved on. Finally I was figuring on settling around here, building up a ranch or at least a little farm. That's why I wanted to have a talk with John after such a long time.”

“You wanted to borrow money?”

“I was thinking about a regular loan with a reasonable interest rate. I would have paid it back, of course.”

“What about your wife?”

“Florence? We are not married. We are … let's say … partners, maybe friends. In fact she is the only person I care about. Come to think of it … she is the only good thing that ever happened to me. Without her, my life would really be worthless.”

Lucas frowned. Something was really awkward about the man.

“Well, that may be, but I was under the impression that she is not extremely fond of you.”

“Florence is not good about showing her true feelings. She is not interested in technological developments either. Last month I told her about a fascinating article I read in a newspaper. She interrupted me in order to get a drink. Sometimes she really gets me riled up, I can tell you. But she is a good girl, tough she enjoys henpecking me at times.”

“What was the article about, Mister Hamilton?”

“Oh … it was really intriguing, Mister McCain. There is that gentleman called Bell, Alexander Graham Bell. He claims to work on a machine that can send human voices over a great distance.”

“You mean like a telegraph?”

“Something like that but far more advanced. Instead of manual signals over a wire you can actual hear a person speak which such a machine. Your partner can be miles away and still you can listen to him. You can hear what he is talking about even over a mountain or across a town. Imagine the possibilities …”

Lucas found it hard not to laugh. The idea sounded too absurd. Those fancy city slickers in the East were really … loony at times. At the one end they had shiny shoes and on the other end restless minds. But hearing a voice over a mountain … that was definitely off the wall!

“Well, I gotta admit, that's hard to believe. A real voice …”

“Yeah, it makes you wonder what they will come up with next.”

***
Around noon an obscure figure slid into the shadowy yard right behind the barn. From the near-by saloon laughter and a piano terribly out of tune could be heard. The person in the dark lit a match at a post and a moment later a cigar started glowing.  Grey smoke was rising into the air. The woman didn't look up when Dave Hamilton joined her.

“Florence, darling, I was looking for you all over the place. Where have you been all day?”

The woman was buffing her cigar calmly leaning against the wall of the barn.

“Just thinking, Dave. I came to like this place. North Fork isn't so bad after all, I gotta admit.”

Dave nodded. He looked up to the relentless sun, taking a deep breath.

“Well, if that's the way you figure about it we really can settle here.”

The portly woman smiled but there was no kindness in it, only disdain and hatred.

“Well, I aim to settle here but surely not with you, Dave.”

Dave turned his head. For a moment he was stunned.

“I don't think I follow you, Florence.”

“Listen, you wretched deadbeat: after three years and after hundreds of broken promises I am sick and tired of you, Dave. Where is the money your brother would most certainly loan us to start all over? Nowhere! Your brother kicked you out and I surely don't blame him for that. We are at the end of the line. You are at least. All you've come up with so far is just a bunch of harebrained ideas. Do you still see yourself as the famed inventor with his factory producing all that mechanical stuff you keep talking about? You knew that would never work. Now we don't even get the money for an ordinary farm where we can settle. Do you really think I have ever respected you with prospects like those? Did you really figure I gonna stay with you until the devil gets blind? No way! I am not getting any younger, you know!”

Again Dave seemed totally unfazed. With his hands in his pockets he was leaning against the wall, seeking shelter from the terrible heat.

“How can you talk that way? When I teamed up with your late brother to start a new life after jail, you …”

“Paul used to be a sorry excuse for a man, just like you.
 No wonder you bonded so quickly back there in that cell. He should have rotten in there together. Getting himself stabbed was the best thing he ever did. But yesterday I met a real man, a true marvel of a man.”

“What are you talking about?”

Florence kept on smiling derisively. She enjoyed herself humiliating her companion.

“When I was in the saloon this morning a young drunkard started smashing up the whole place. The towering man with the trick rifle came in and set things right in a heartbeat. He was cool like a skunk in the moonlight. I have never seen a man like him. And that means something, let me assure you.”

“You mean Lucas McCain?”

“That´s his name. A wonderful fellow: handsome, spunky and most important of all … a lonely widower. I did some research about him. Some fellows around here are pretty garrulous, once they see a new woman around. He has a ranch three miles to the North. With a man like that at my side, I really have new prospects.”

“What makes you think he would be interested in you, my dear?”

“I have my ways, you know that.”

***
Nils entered the bank, proudly wearing the tin star on his shirt and carrying the double barreled shotgun under his arm. There were no customers around and so Abraham Lincoln was looking contently into a quiet room. John Hamilton was studying one of his ledgers, a giant tome full of numbers. When the portly blacksmith entered Hamilton seemed almost glad about the disturbance.

“Howdy, Nils. So it seems to me you turned out to be the replacement for the replacement.”

Nils smiled. He was not the bravest man in the world but aboveboard and reliable. Apparently he was proud about the trust, Lucas had put in him.

“I just wanted to see if everything is alright in here. The town is attracting strange people at times.”

“You don't know how right you are, Nils. Please stay focused!”

After Nils had left the office John was contemplating. Then he opened a drawer of his desk and took a framed photo out. The contemplative banker starred at the picture while his eyes became watery.

“He will not hurt you again, Mum. I promise you. He will not hurt anyone again …”

***
Lucas stood at the shores of the creek, now a peaceful brook. But three days ago, a heavy cloudburst in the mountains had turned it into a torrential river, rooting out big trees and washing away valuable soil. Now the sandy banks were covered with dried mud, dirty rocks and broken branches. The stench of dead fish, drowned animals and rotting grass was in the air.  The whole area was a terrible mess. It would take a long time and a lot of work to set it right again. The rancher sighed. For a moment he felt even tears coming up. Hurting his land was almost as hurting himself. Mark would also be upset after his return. When he was calculating the expenses he saw a horseman riding up the shore, carefully leading his horse around the boulders. Lucas was in no mood for a friendly conversation and since he didn't know the man he took his rifle, which was leaning against a rotten log. When he stranger stopped in front of the lonesome rancher he starting grinning before exploding into laughter.

“That's an absolute scream! I don't believe it! He was right! Lucas McCain himself. After all those years … yessir. That's what I call a surprise!”

Lucas was not exactly gleeful about the disturbance and the senseless laughter got his temper up.

“I have no idea what's so funny, mister! I never saw before! Who are you?”

The man finally calmed himself. Still sitting on his horse he lifted politely his hat and slightly bowed forward.

“I am the one who should kill you, Mister McCain …”

***
Nils returned to the Marshal's office. He felt weary and thirsty. Although being the blacksmith, who was used to heat the relentless sun had taken its toll on him. Wearing a badge was quite a responsibility. He sank back into Micah's chair and closed his eyes promising himself that the nap would only last maybe ten minutes or maybe twenty or half an hour. But before he could enjoy his forty winks he heard a deep voice out of the cell.

“Can I have a word with you, deputy?”

***
Doc Burrage was still worried when he locked down on his patient lying on the bed in his office. He was feeling her pulse once again, when the door swung open.

“What is it, Doc? How is she?”

Doc Burrage turned around and eyed the intruder suspiciously.

“Who are you, mister?”

“The name is Dave Hamilton! This woman is my … fiancée. People told me she was here! What happened, Doc?”

“Well, Mister Hamilton, folks found your fiancée lying on the street. She had collapsed after leaving the saloon, obviously drunk. Now she is coming gradually around. But she is in dire need of a lot of rest after all. Her breath is still weak.”

Dave Hamilton took off his hat. His eyes showed true apprehensiveness and fear.

“Is it something serious, Doc?”

“No, as far as I can tell. Not yet anyway! But I strongly advise her to stop drinking and smoking. Her heart and her lungs need a break. Her heart in particular worries me. Just a little excitement right now could be too much. Next time she might not get away that easy. Each shot of whisky can be fatal from now on. Just keep that in mind and take better care of your lady.”

Still highly anxious Dave looked down on Florence's pale face.

“Well … in that case … could I have moment in privacy with her?”

“Sure, but only a few minutes. Your lady needs a lot of sleep, mister.”

After the physician had left, Dave kneeled next to the bed and began gently touching her sweaty forehead. Florence weakly opened her eyes recognizing the man, she loved to insult.

“Why did you come here? After all I said to you …”

Dave smiled sheepishly scratching the back of his head.

“Well, a man gets used to about anything. Even to slander and constant humiliation, if it comes from a dogged woman like you. And you are right. From now on I will do my best to provide for you, I promise. We will leave as soon as you are well again.
 Let's go to California together. Maybe ….”

“You still would do that … with me?”

“Sure, even a miserable deadbeat like me could bring home the bacon in California, I am sure. Maybe we hit pay dirt over there. And when we are rich we send my brother a letter that he should pay us a visit. He will so begrudge us. I promise you we will prevail this time, Florence.”

The pale woman nodded weakly and took her man's hand, caressing it gently.
“I was wrong about you. I can't believe I've needed such a long time to recognize your true self. I'm so sorry, Dave …”
“So you’re with me again, Florence? From now on until the devil gets blind?”

“Yes, dear … I feel so embarrassed, what I said about that sodbuster, that … Lucas McCain. I must have been out of my mind. I was so blind about everything.”

Dave abruptly got up, suddenly getting somewhat edgy.
“Yes, about that … maybe we should hurry, darling. How much money do you have left, Florence?”

***
Lucas swung his rifle around with lightning speed, cocking it. Now he was prepared to shoot the fat man off his horse as soon as he went for his gun. The barefaced approach of the bald fellow made his blood boil.

“I say one thing for you, mister, you sure got nerve. But killing me may not be that easy.”

The bloated man grinned, showing enough sense not to move his right hand down to his Colt.

“Keep your cool, Mister McCain. I don't aim to see the job through. That would be against my principles, you know.”
The rancher was totally bowled over. Still aiming at the stranger his right forefinger was gently touching the rifle's trigger. Just a little more pressure …

“Is that some kind of joke? If so it could prove dead funny for you.”

The bald man shook his head, still smirking. He didn't seem a bit afraid.
“If you hear me out, I would explain things to you. My name is Marlow, Bud Marlow.”

Lucas frowned. He grew more and more high-strung. Did he know a fat man named Bud Marlow?

“That doesn't mean anything to me, Mister … Marlow.”

“I don't blame you tough I served under you during the war. Well, I gotta admit I have rounded up a few pounds since then. Do you remember that hot summer day in Pennsylvania? The whole army of Northern Virginia hit us outside that nice little market town called Gettysburg. Does that name ring a bell? I am rather sure it does! Captain Carr got killed right in front of us after giving you the order to hold the position. Well, those are the fortunes of war, yessir! Remember?”

Lucas nodded and slowly lowered his rifle. Still he was prepared to kill but now he realized that the stranger didn't pose any immediate danger. At least he was an interesting character with an interesting story.

“I remember. Carr left a widow and two little daughters behind to whom I had to write after the battle. He was a formidable officer. The army was blessed with such a man.”

“None better. After he was killed I asked you about the name of the town so I could write my gal about it.”

Lucas was thinking hard but then he recalled the gory details of that horrid day, the tense smoke, the bloodcurdling screams, the roaring cannons …

“Yes, that rings a bell, Mister Marlow. But that doesn't answer the question why you wanna shoot me right now.”

“Well, at least it explains why I don't wanna do it. A would never harm a man who fought alongside of me. If you picture the most depraved man The Good Lord in His grace has ever created you get a pretty good impression about my personality. You may not believe it but even despicable scum like me has his principles. Besides ... I don´t figure, I would stand a chance against your rifle. You got yourself quite a reputation, I must say. So I better ride on now, never to return. Maybe there is a way for a poor sinner just like me to make a living in Santa Fe. Just for the record: when I returned home after the war, Martha was already married to my cousin, a chicken-livered politician from New York with quite a wealth. Well, it wasn´t love after all between us, I guess.”

“I am sorry about that, Sergeant.”

Marlow shook his head musingly, scratching his double chin.

“That yellow varmint was the first man I killed as a civilian. Anyway … it sure was nice seeing you again, Lieutenant. May the Good Lord in His grace protect you.”

He was about to turn his horse but Lucas angry voice stopped him.

“Just a minute! Who gave you the order to kill me? And why?”
 
The obese man shrugged. Sweat was running over his round face. Nauseated he looked at the mud-covered ground under the hooves of his animal.

“What a stench! You really ought to do something about that creek. The reek is pretty awful. The reason? Beats me. The idea was to make it look like a deed of an unknown assassin who disappeared as quickly as he appeared. A man like you is honored with a lot of enemies, I guess. Many young guns would be more than eager to make themselves a reputation by killing you, yessir.”

Lucas lifted his rifle again, ready to fire. The coolness of his former underling infuriated him. Just a little more pressure …

“But who? Who gave you the order? You are testing my patience, Mister Marlow! Don't try any tricks!”

The killer looked straight into the rifle's barrel.

“I wouldn't pull any pranks on you, not me, no sir! The order came from a sly fella in town I used to know in prison tough he was never my friend. I would exactly trust him with my life. But he handed me a neat little pouch with 20 dollars in it and told me how to get here. He claimed it was his last money. Well, I don't intend to give it back to him. I guess he ain't gonna have the opportunity to spend it anyway.”

Lucas closed his eyes for a split second feeling a terrible fatigue coming up. The fat man scratched again his badly shaved face, looking down on the distraught rancher.

“I'll wager you are interested in his name, Lieutenant?”

“You bet, Sergeant …”

***
Doc Burrage was used to stubborn patients but now even he was worried more than usual.

“As your physician I strongly advise not to take any unnecessary risks, ma'am. Your heart should be properly examined by a real doctor in the east, one of those new-fangled specialists.”

Florence was still exhausted but she was well enough to stay on her feet. Her cheeks were red again and her dark eyes were sparkling. Love had always been a great source of strength.

“I appreciate your concern, Doc, but now I gotta go. I thank you kindly for your effort.”

Doc Burrage was far from being satisfied. He tried one last attempt to make the sick woman understand her critical state.
 
“But you can´t be serious about going to California right now. There is no way …”
“Sir, the first time in my life I really belong to a man. My folks are all long dead and gone. Dave may not be the smartest business man or the most talented farmer but he stayed with me when he had every right to leave me behind.  When I fainted back there on the street I knew it was a punishment for being so rotten. But he is a good man, a man a woman can count on. From now on, everything will be fine. Maybe he will hit the stride this time with all those machines I don't understand anything about.”

“Suit yourself, ma'am. Just lay off the booze.”

Florence smiled. For a moment her face showed something of her former beauty and graze.

“I promise you, Doc. I reckon I couldn't afford it anyway right now. So long.”

***
The slender man was enjoying the cool air inside the barn while was busy saddling two horses.

“Hold it right there, Hamilton!”
Dave turned around. The Rifleman was standing in the door of the barn, a towering angel of vengeance, a dark shadow against the relentless sun. His cocked rifle was ready to spread deadly lead.

“Mister McCain … what can I do for you?”

“I am afraid, Marlow didn't see the job through. The next time you send someone to do the dirty work you ought to pay him better.”

Dave frowned, but then the crook continued saddling the horse, calmly, without even breaking a sweat.

“I am afraid I am not well enough versed in the sense of humor in these parts. Would you mind explaining you point, Mister McCain?”

The Rifleman stepped into the barn, still aiming his Winchester at the charming criminal.

“Aren´t you surprised to see me, Hamilton? I am supposed to lie in front of my house by now, shot by an unknown killer. It sure is a pity it didn't work out. Marlow showed enough sense to ride on keeping your blood money. I am kinda surprised that you still could spare 20 dollars. My death must mean a lot to you. Why? Answer me! Why?”

Hamilton was unimpressed. He horse in front of him was loudly whinnying.
“I don't have the foggiest idea what are you talking about. By the way … Florence and I are about to leave North Fork, heading for California. And who is that … Bud Marlow anyway you keep talking about?”

“Somebody you know well enough to know his first name although I haven't mentioned it so far. Let's go. Our prison is not as big as Yuma but you will learn to love it until our Marshal is back.”

Hamilton checked the girth a last time while the animal was nervously nickering.

“Mister McCain, as I mentioned before, we are about to go to California. A stay in your prison would be most inconvenient right now. Florence and I are now officially engaged and we want to start over again. Florence sold her precious pocket watch and some other trinkets so we could afford these two old horses. She even sacrificed four gold coins, the only heirloom from her beloved brother, who shared a cell with me. I told you about him. Paul had been quite a man, yessir …”

Lucas stepped forward. Now the muzzle of his Winchester was almost touching Dave's sweaty shirt.

“I ain't gonna say it again, Hamilton. Hands up and don't try anything …”
That very moment a shovel hit his left temple from behind. The blow was not powerful enough to knock him unconscious but still strong enough to drop Lucas to the straw-covered ground. His rifle fell to the floor but before Lucas could regain it Dave had already picked it up and was aiming it at the torpid rancher. Florence had emerged out of a dark corner between the hay bales and cunningly used Lucas wrath to catch him unaware. The fat woman was still week and heavily breathing but seeing her lover in danger gave her the right amount of strength to surprise the livid rancher. Dave nodded contently.

“Thank you, my darling. I knew I could rely on you. Get up, sodbuster!”

Florence´s trembling hands dropped the shovel while she tried to catch her breath. Her round face was again turning terribly pale. She tried to say something but instead she just gasped. Leaning against a hay ball she starred hatefully at Lucas who had troubles getting back on his feet. His temple was hurting bad. When he touched it cautiously he felt something warm running down his face. But he didn't show any pain to his enemy.

“You didn't answer my question, Hamilton. Why?”

The killer gently caressed the butt of the rifle.
“I gotta admit: I have been admiring your Winchester all the time. It sure is a beauty, yessir. 44-40, isn't it? I am glad I could lay my hand on it after all. Do you remember my words, sodbuster? Each time I try to make something useful someone comes along and destroys everything. This time I simply couldn't let that happen. I just couldn't! I had to get you out of my way, since Florence grew fond of you. I can do without a lot of things but not without her! I should have known about Bud. That potbelly has always been a two-faced coward. Well, if you want something done properly, do it yourself. Without you at our heels we surely stand a chance. This time we gonna hit pay dirt.”

“No, you don't, Dave …”

Three deafening gunshots rang trough the dark of the stable, making the horses neighing in panic. Florence screamed and jumped aside, hiding between the hay bales. For a few seconds gunsmoke filled the narrow space. Hit by all three bullets Dave Hamilton stumbled against the wall, dropping the rifle. He opened his mouth in surprise starring at the lonely figure in the door who was holding a smoking Colt in his right hand. The crook was not able to grasp the situation when he recognized the face.

“You … but why … you are … I just tried … to … always tried …”

Then his lifeless body sank to the ground, leaning against the wall, the eyes still open in astonishment. Slowly the savior entered the barn, lowering the revolver.

“You´re alright, Lucas?”

“Yes, John, thank you. That was a close shave. Where did you get that gun? It's not yours, is it?”

The banker handed it over to the man, he had just rescued. Lucas looked at the beautiful dark brown buckhorn grips with the four notches on it. Hamilton's voice was calm and serene.

“It´s Billy Benson's Colt. A couple of days ago, he pawned it in my office in order to get 15 dollars for it. It used to be his last and most precious possession. It reveals quite a bit about his character that he spent the entire money in the saloon before he started his rampage. Anyway, when I saw you riding into town asking for Dave I knew there was serious trouble at hand. How right I was. So I followed you and came here just in time. He would have killed you without any qualm. Well, I made sure he won't hurt anybody anymore.”

The rancher looked down on the dead body. Once again he felt sorry for the two brothers.

“It was not just any man you killed, John. You shot your own brother. What would your mother say?”

John's voice showed no sign of remorse or sorrow. Instead he felt release and satisfaction.

“She would have pulled the trigger herself. He was my brother but he never was much of a man, Lucas.”

That moment Nils came running into the barn, with his shotgun already cocked, prepared to take on any enemy.

“What´s going on in here? Lucas! John! What happened?!”

The rancher turned around, returning the revolver to John.

“It´s alright, Nils. It's all over. John here just stopped a vicious killer in his tracks together with his fine fiancée.”

When Lucas picked up his rifle he realized that there was a second lifeless body lying between the hay bales.

***
After making his withdrawal at the bank Lucas walked over to the hardware store. The very thought of the awful stench at his creek made him cranky not to mention all the work he had to organize somehow. To top it off his head still hurt even after Doc Burrage had taken care of the wound. But all bad notions were gone within a heartbeat when he saw two riders coming down the street. One of them was an old man with a tin star on his black vest and the other one ….

“Howdy, Pa! We're back!”

After dismounting Mark felt even a little embarrassed about being hugged so tightly by his father in public. After all he was not a little kid anymore. But it sure felt good being home again.

Micah was wise enough not to disturb the heart-touching scene. He looked around, smiling contently: the town was as peaceful as he had left it.

“So … Lucas Boy … was anything wrong while we were gone?”

***
Nils handed over the badge he had worn so proudly. But after all he was glad that the responsibility was not longer his.

Micah showed an appreciatory smile.

“You did good, both of you. It makes the old heart of mine proud having friends like you.”

Lucas smiled, holding his rifle. Mark one the other hand could hardly wait to tell his father everything about the cave Billy the Kid allegedly had sought refuge in when Pat Garret was tracking him. But then Nils had to bring up one more thing.

“There is someone who would like to have a word with you, if you don't mind, Lucas.”

All four of them entered the room with the cells. A young man awaited them behind the bars. First Lucas was a little suspicious.

“What is it, Benson?”
 
The brawny bully with the scarred face seemed sheepish but it was obvious that he was trying to say something that meant a lot to him.

“Well … Mister McCain. Sitting around here gave me a lot time for thinking. It sure does. And there are things that can mighty hard for a man. Well… and apologizing is one of them. I … just wanna say how deeply sorry I am. I was out of my mind, pulling that knife on you.”

“Why did you do it in the first place, Billy?”

“Well … I had no money, now real home, no family, never even had much schooling, if you know, what I mean, sir. Finding a decent girl with a face like this is also not easy. That gun was the only thing I hold dear. My Dad gave it to me, when I turned fifteen. I avenged his death with it. That was the first notch on it. The point is … I wanna start a new life, sir.  First of all I wanna make sure you don't hold a grudge against me, Mister McCain.”

“I accept your apology. But what are you planning about earning money, Billy?”

The young bully was clearly at a loss. Starting an honorable life was far from being easy.

“Search me. I surely wouldn't accept charity, that's for certain. I just wanna replace the damage I have caused over there in the saloon. What do you think, sir?”

Mark smiled. Of course he had already a pretty good idea about his father's plans. Everybody deserved a second chance. Lucas looked down on his beloved son, exchanging glances with him before turning again to Benson.

“First of all … I figure in a very odd way you saved my life by pawning your beautiful gun.  And secondly I just might have the job for you. And it gonna be anything but charity, let me assure you.”

Then the rancher turned to Micah.
“Marshal, would you release this prisoner into my custody until he is able to repay the damage?  Sweeney would appreciate that, I guess.”
Micah however was uncertain.

“Well, maybe it is unwise to release such an unruly individual but considering the sorry state of your creek it might be highly educational for him, I reckon. After that he will think twice before breaking the law again. Listen, Benson, yesterday we buried a man who had been a seedy rascal. He got killed by his own brother. If you don't behave yourself I personally see to it that you suffer a lot much worse. I hear there are still some free cells in Yuma.”

The now docile bully was nauseated.
“I promise I gonna behave myself, Marshal! And I won't touch a booze ever again. Last time I got drunk Lucas … I mean … Mister McCain could have killed me easily. No more booze for me, nosir! I am mighty beholden for such a chance, don’t you worry, sir.”

Nils and Mark remained silent, anxious to hear the reaction but after contemplating for a few seconds Lucas nodded.

“Send him to my place tomorrow morning, Micah. See to it that he have a good sleep tonight because he gonna need it. Once he is finished with the work I have in mind for him, he will be a mighty useful hand.”

After leaving the office Lucas and Mark headed for their buckboard. Mark was still eager to tell his father anything about the trip to Silverton.

“So, when Billy saw Garret's posse coming over that ridge he rode up to that cave and found some cover behind that rock. Then, when they were close enough, he …”

“Mark …”

“Yes, Pa …”

“It sure feels good that you are home again, son.”

The End

These stories are based on the TV series The Rifleman
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