The Rifleman
Welcome to The Writer's Corner
Fan Fiction

“Long ride to North Fork”
part 1
Written by Klara's Boy

Micah closed his office´s door of and stepped out on the almost empty street, listening to the blissful silence. He always enjoyed the last minutes of the day when the sun finally sank and the cool breeze brought some refreshment after a hot afternoon. Following his daily routine Micah walked slowly down the street. Once in a while he stopped and checked if the doors of the stables were properly locked. Everything was alright only in Sweeney´s saloon some boisterous cowhands kept exchanging anecdotes about the tough life out there on the plains with the cattle. When the sun was gone he reached the last houses in the outskirts of North Fork. Everything was peaceful, only a crying baby could be heard behind a lit window on the second story of a building on the left. The grandfatherly lawman smiled: the little son of the Garners was growing fast indeed. Micah took a deep breath and decided to head back to his office and have dinner.
That was when he heard the stranger approaching. Micah turned and saw a rider slowly entering the quiet town. In the dim light it was impossible to make out any details. Micah frowned and paced carefully back into the shadow of the next house in order to avoid being a good target. After a few moments however it became plain that the stranger didn´t pose any threat. The man on horseback was a tall fella, lean and rugged. His tensed posture revealed that something was not right about him. While he was pressing his left hand against his right shoulder he clung to the reins of his obviously exhausted animal. The newcomer was an aged and haggard man, maybe in his seventies, wearing a shabby coat, a grey shirt and pants that were covered with fine dust up to his knees. After cautiously stepping out of the dark, Micah faced the man who stopped his nickering horse right in front of him. Now the Marshal could finally see the old man´s half-closed eyes and sharp cheekbones. The experienced lawman turned immediately suspicious.
“Evenin', mister. You ran into some trouble?”

The rider slowly raised his head with a painful effort and looked down on the Marshal.
“Howdy, sir. I reckon you can call it that. Back in ... Albuquerque some drunken injun didn´t like the way I refused his plea for some cash to buy himself some more booze. When I rode off he drew a gun and nailed me. First I figured it was not that bad ... but now ... not even at Chickamauga I... felt that rotten. I figure you folks have a ... doctor here... in your charming little town... sir?”

Micah shook his head in disbelief. Something sounded definitely mighty fishy about that whole story.
“Albuquerque you say? You wanna tell me you came all the way with that lead in your shoulder? What´s your name, mister?”

The wounded man straightened himself while he pressed his right palm down on the saddle horn.
“Woodson ... Henry Woodson from Alabama... now how about that ... doctor?”

Micah looked around but the anguished old-timer was alone. He came closer and took the rein of the sweat-covered animal. Now he could see that Woodson´s shirt was soaked with dark blood around the right collarbone. Woodson moaned when the horse started moving again. Micah led the animal down the dark street until he spotted Burrage´s house. Despite the pain the stranger proudly refused Micah´s helping hand and dismounted on his own. Heavily panting Woodson leaned against the damp flank of his mare, while the lawman hurried over to the door and knocked. All the time Micah was thinking where and when he had heard the name Henry Woodson before.

***

The rabbit scurried over to the thorny bushes but the keen eyes of the towering man sitting at the campfire had already spotted the animal in the bright light of the moon. Lucas put the cup away and stretched his long legs. His saddle sore hips were still smarting a little after the long ride.
“How about some roasted hare, son?”
Mark, who was already lying on his bedroll, took the hat off his face. The boy grinned and nodded.
“Why not? Would make a nice dinner when we come home, Pa.”

Lucas got up and took his Winchester. The cool air here at the riverside was a welcome break after a hard day of travelling through the parched land.
“I will be right back, son. In the meantime you might wanna put some more wood on the fire. It´s gonna be a chilly night. You don´t want to return to school running a fever, now, do you?”

Mark watched his father vanishing in the dark going after that rabbit in the copse. The boy was now almost 16 years old but the long ride home to North Fork had taken its toll even on him despite his youth. It sure had been nice meeting the other cattlemen in Santa Fe and discussing the politics in Washington with them but now he was longing to get home as soon as possible. One wealthy rancher from Texas had offered Mark a well-paid job as cowhand on his huge estate near Austin but Mark had refused after a moment of thinking about that generous proposal. No, North Fork was his home and no matter what some rich fella from Texas promised he would never leave his father. Deep inside Mark was proud about his steadfast refusal. He smiled as he got up and put another dry stick on the fire to keep the aromatic coffee boiling. The biting smoke made his eyes watery and he started him coughing. Yes, it was really time to get home at last and...

“Evenin'....”

Mark whipped around but his burning eyes made it tough to see where that husky voice had come from. After a moment of eyeing the surroundings he made out a man standing under the weathered rocks at the riverbanks. It was a burly and uncouth fella in his early twenties, wearing a black hat, a leather vest and black pants but his massive paunch covered the buckle of his belt. He was armed with a Colt 45 holstered at his right side. The strangely uncanny appearance terrified Mark instantly. The pot-bellied stranger seemed to sense the boy´s fear and raised his left hand to calm him as he came closer. Despite his unattractive looks the man´s tone was amicable and soothing.
“No need to get scared, friend. I just could not help seeing your fire from the ridge and I would not refuse a cup of that coffee if that´s possible. I haven´t had any for quite a spell. I can pay.”
Mark stood up and watched the fat man casually approaching, using a narrow path through the lush thicket, that grew alongside the mighty river. The boy desperately tried to stifle a twinge of panic. Suddenly he felt terribly lonely but he did his best to show good manners.
“Please... of course ... sir... help yourself.”

When the bloated man reached the small fire his glance scrutinized the boy for a couple of seconds.
“Much obliged, friend. I came a long way straight from the Singer´s place but that should not bother you. I understand you, I really do and I would have joined in if you had told me sooner.”

The stranger kneeled down and took the pot off the flames to pour himself some of the steaming coffee into the tin cup Lucas had placed next to the blankets. Mark was not sure what to do. The stranger got up and took a sip. His full cheeks were covered with a thin layer of dust and sweat. He looked and smelled as if he had spent the last night in some gutter behind a saloon. While he slurped the hot brewage the man looked around and pointed to the horses that were grazing nearby.
“As far as I know you are on your own, friend. What do you need two horses for? Where did you get the other one? Doesn´t matter to me though...”

Before Mark could say anything the man drew his gun and aimed it at the terrified boy.
“Hand it over...”

***

Burrage professionally examined the badly swollen shoulder while Micah wiped away the fresh blood that kept oozing out of the festering wound. Henry Woodson was lying on his back and bit his lips in pain but after a couple of minutes Burrage smiled in relief and started washing his bloodied hands.
“You sure have been real lucky, mister. That slug is right there under the skin and didn´t even hurt a vein. It could have been much worse. We’ll have you fixed up in no time, you´ll see.”

The injured man was apparently not only worried about that ugly hole in his shoulder.
“First I thought it was not that bad but I could not stop that bleeding, no matter how hard I tried. My dressing was too loose I suppose. I can pay you for your efforts, doc, you´ve gotta believe me...”

Woodson grabbed Burrage´s wrist and shook it firmly to get his point across.
“You hear? I´ve plenty of money. Just get that lead out of my flesh. Make that pain stop, I beg you.”

Micah threw the soiled dressing into a bucket under the bed and tried to calm the anxious stranger although the Marshal was still not sure about the story he had heard earlier.
“Our good doc´s services ain´t that costly. You rest easy now and let him work in peace. If it wasn´t for him I would not be around anymore myself and that goes for many folks in these parts as well.”

Woodson groaned and closed his eyes in sheer exhaustion. His wrinkled face was terribly pallid and his feeble voice was not more than a whisper.
“Three days ago I went to see that sawbones in Silverton but he told me that he would charge me $30 for cutting that bullet out and I didn´t have that kind of money back then. That's sheer robbery, that´s what it is. That´s what you get for serving your country on the battlefield. Not even the surgeons at Chickamauga were that heartless. But now I can pay, I promise, I can pay, just help me.”

The physician exchanged a swift glance with the Marshal before he began to clean his instruments. Burrage was far too experienced and hard-boiled to get annoyed by that constant pleading of his desperate patient. Micah on the other hand was still sorta musing. While he was getting the scalpels ready Burrage started a casual conversation to distract the old lad. A nice talk was always helpful. The war was maybe not the best topic for some chat but he had to go along with it.
“So I understand you fought at Chickamauga, mister?”

Woodson lifted his head and nodded with pride. Micah noticed that the memory of that gruesome carnage back in 1863 seemed to give him new strength. At least he was not longer babbling about the expenses. He moved his right hand up to his temple and performed a formal salute.
“I sure was, doc. I served in the 45th Alabama under General Bragg, that miserable fool. Everybody loathed that varmint. But we kept fighting anyway. We sent General Thomas running for the hills, yessir! I once even had that so-called Rock of Chickamauga in my sights but I hung fire. A humble corporal from Alabama could have changed the war in our favour, yessir. I could have made history.”

Burrage grinned and took the little bottle with the chloroform out of the cupboard on the wall. Each time he came to use it he thanked The Almighty for that priceless invention.
“Such are the fortunes of war, creating kings and beggars. As a matter of fact we´ve something in common there, mister. I was at Chickamauga as well.”

The grizzled soldier opened his eyes in disbelief before he laughed cheerfully.
“You were? Well, it´s a pleasure meeting an old comrade here in North Fork. I´m mighty glad making your acquaintance, sir. Now I know that I´m in good hands. That is a better sedative than any whiskey or some of those newfangled pills, doctors sell for a fortune nowadays. Medical care is usury these days. I realize that you´re not like that. I´d be honoured even if you cut off one of my legs, yessir.”

The seasoned physician walked over to the bed and readied himself for the surgery.
“It is my considered opinion that that won´t be necessary. Soon you will be on both of your legs again, mister. Yes, I was at Chickamauga too. Only... I was at the other side, wearing federal blue.”

***

“What do you mean... mister?”
Mark stepped back in horror and raised his arms. The Colt was aimed directly at his chest. The porky man dropped the still half-filled cup, causing a loud clattering noise on the rocky ground at his feet before he cocked his gun. The barrel gleamed in the shine of the fire as the fat fella´s small eyes narrowed into slits, making him even more look like a disgusting pig.
“You know what I mean, my young friend. Get one thing straight: I ain´t playing games. Hand it over or I shoot you right here and now. You figure I´m gonna go back to that old fool ever again? I aim to go back to Sacramento from here and for that I need it so for the last time: give it to me!”

Mark´s throat was tightening up so he could hardly breathe. The aghast boy would never have thought that his demise would look like that. It sure was a cruel world.
“What are you talking about, mister? I don´t understand.”

The grinning stranger stepped closer until the muzzle of his gun almost touched Mark´s shirt. The faint boy sensed the foul breath blowing straight into his pallid face.
“If you play any tricks with me I kill you and look for it myself. You´ve time to tell me until I´ve counted down to one so you better make up your mind fast, you little fool: five ... four ...”

“You ain´t getting down to one, mister.”

The man turned his round head and spotted a towering figure between the trees amidst the copse. Lucas swung his rifle around and stepped closer with the utmost caution, ready to fire. His threatening voice made it very clear that he would do anything to save his son´s life.
“Drop that gun. I won´t say it again, mister...”

Lucas was approaching cautiously, step by step, ready to release a hail of lead. His cold glance seemed to pierce the repulsive critter whose goofy grin froze for an instant while he nervously rubbed his sweaty shirt. His double chin wobbled while he laughed manically.
“So that´s why they are two horses, hu? Doesn´t matter to me though! If I´ve got to I get rid of both of you just to get back what´s mine. Nobody´s gonna stop me, hear? Nobody!”

Lucas stopped and pressed the butt of the rifle firmly against his right hip. In the bright shine of the fire the bloated man was a formidable target but he was apparently too stupid to take that into account when he made the fatal mistake. Despite his considerable weight the stranger jumped surprisingly fast aside and aimed his gun at Lucas but before he could pull the trigger three deafening rifle shots cut him down. Pushed back by the impacts of the bullets the man collapsed with a piercing scream. For a couple of heartbeats there was still life in him. Looking like a grotesque turtle that had been turned around the mortally wounded man tried to get up again. His fingers still held the gun but his attempt to lift it was futile. With his stumpy legs still kicking the would-be killer moaned for the last time before he sank back into the sand never to rise again.
Lucas, engulfed in grey gunsmoke sighed in relief before he hurried over to his son who buried his face in his father´s shirt. Lucas gradually lowered the Winchester until the muzzle touched the shaft of his boot. His soothing voice revealed his unconditional love for his only child.
“Are you alright, Mark?”

The sobbing boy nodded before he turned around and looked at the corpse. The danger was over.
“Who was he? What was he talking about, Pa? Was he just loco?”

Lucas let his left hand glide gently up and down his boy´s back to comfort him.
“I´m grateful that I didn´t follow that rabbit through the bushes when it got away from me so I returned just in time. You are still alive and that´s all that counts now, son.”

***

“How is he, doc?”
Micah had waited outside during the whole surgery. Burrage left the building, toweling his hands with a white cloth. The canny physician closed the door behind him and nodded, satisfied with the outcome of his work. No wonder everybody in the territory respected and even loved him for his tireless efforts to keep folks healthy and sound.
“He is sleeping now. That bullet had been fired from a greater distance so there was not much power in it anymore when it hit. That made my work much easier. In two or three days he´s gonna be on his way again. Those rebels are one tough breed I´ll say that for them. They gave us a bad time more than once before they finally realized that they were licked. Much obliged for your help though.”

Micah shrugged pensively. The full moon was up and all of North Fork was asleep.
“That´s just fine. As soon as he gets to I intend to ask him a few questions with your permission of course. I heard that name of his once before but I´ve no idea when and where. I just can´t get it out of my head. It really bugs me and reminds me that I am getting old after all.”

After inhaling the numbing scent of the chloroform for over an hour Burrage took a deep breath. Again the crying baby could be heard far away. Micah and Burrage were evidently not the only ones who didn´t get much sleep that night. But the Garners were very caring and loving parents.
“You figure our soldier boy is wanted for anything?”

The tired lawman shook his head, still at a loss, growing slowly but steadily sullen. Such nagging slips of the memory were a disturbing sign that age was catching up with him and he was not exactly fond of that notion. Was it already time to retire?
“No, I would know that. It goes with the badge to recognize the regular outlaws but there is something strangely familiar about that tough critter. I just can´t recall when I saw him the last time.”
“But...”
“You just keep an eye on him, doc. We don´t want to lose him after all, do we?”

***

“Still no clue...”
Lucas closed the empty saddlebags and shook his head. It had not been too hard finding the dead man´s horse that had been hidden behind the rocks near the water but there was nothing that disclosed a single hint about that maniac´s identity or purposes. The Rifleman caressed the animal´s neck and turned to his son who was still kinda pale after that nightly shock.
“Are you sure? He really did say something about the Singer´s place?”

Mark was still bewildered but he did his best to remember all the things that man had said to him.
“Yes, Pa... he mentioned an old fool he didn´t want to go back to and that he would have joined up with me for some reason. It didn´t make any sense at all. What are we gonna do now, Pa?”

Lucas looked over to the crest. The moon was still up and lit the path that was leading up to the rise.
“I´ve never been there before but I heard once that a family called Singer actually lived up there. Old Man Singer runs a small farm not too far from here somewhere behind that ridge over there. I understand that he is a nice and honest fella. I figure it´s the best we drop by and ask what that was all about. Maybe they can tell us more. When we come home we´ve got to report to Micah anyway.”

Mark was not too fond of that unpleasant idea. Again he wished nothing more than being at home.
“You don´t mean to get that heavy body across that saddle? I don´t fancy the idea of touching him. He was gross enough when he was still alive and now that he is dead ... what I want to say is: let´s bury him and head on home. Back in North Fork we tell Micah and everything´s gonna be fine.”

Lucas kept contemplating about that proposal while he heard the distant howling of a lonely coyote in the rocky hills somewhere in the North. The dead man´s horse snorted nervously and again the big hand of the rancher calmed down the uneasy animal while he made up his mind.
“That fella, whoever he was, was not loco. He knew exactly what he was doing. You´re right about one thing though: there is no way we can get the corpse to that farm. We bury that fella as soon as the sun is up and then we notify the Singers about his death before we ride on home.”

***

“Is he already awake?”
Micah was glad that he met Burrage in front of his house. It was early in the morning and the sun was about to rise but Micah didn´t look as he had slept at all. Burrage shook his head.
“You better leave the corporal alone for now: he is still drugged. Don´t worry, he won´t go anywhere. The wound was not too serious but he lost a lot of blood on his way here. I know that incompetent doctor in Silverton all too well. As strange as that may sound: Mister Woodson was sorta lucky to be broke otherwise that butcher there would have made it even worse. But now he´s gonna be alright. I sure do hope they got that varmint who took that shot at him. Nailing such an old man who was not even armed just in order to get some money for booze is just about the lowest thing a man can do.”

The old Marshal wanted to say something but then he felt a little stupid about his obsession to find out more about that mysterious patient. He tried to get used to the fact that Henry Woodson was just a harmless drifter who had run into some bad luck. That was all to it, simple as that. There was no need to be that stubborn so he asked a question to change the topic.
“I had no idea that you fought at Chickamauga as well, doc.”

Burrage looked at the man with the badge as if that question was an insult but then the physician sighed. All of a sudden his usually light-hearted and optimistic disposition seemed to have vanished.
“It was actually at Chickamauga when I took a personal oath to myself. I swore to become a doctor to do my best to ease human suffering in case I survived that carnage...”

***

When Mark saw the Singer´s place for the first time he realized once again how much he missed his own home. The seedy farm consisted of a dilapidated house and two small stables. Five or six hens were searching for food between the ramshackle huts. A pig was feasting on potatoes in a dirty fodder rack. The farm was located in a parched valley between the rocky hills. Mark and his father looked down on that desolate place from the ridge. Dust was drifting in the warm wind. Lucas seemed to be uncertain what to do but then he grasped the reins of the unknown man´s horse tighter and drove his heels into the flanks of his own, leading the animal with him. After a moment of hesitation his worried son followed him. The two riders directed their horses down the stony crest and soon they reached the Singer´s place. Lucas looked around but he couldn´t see anybody. The farm looked deserted. Only the pig welcomed them with a sullen grunting. Lucas reached back and pulled his rifle out of the scabbard, just in case. Suddenly he regretted his decision to come here but then his need to know more about the nightly attempt on his son´s life got the better of him.
“Howdy! Anybody home?!”

For some reason Mark was tempted to ask his father to remain silent to avoid attracting unwanted attention. The anxious rancher turned in his saddle but still no human being could be spotted.
“We´re weary travellers and would like to ask a few questions! Anybody here?”

Lucas waited for a couple of seconds before he dismounted. His eyes were moving from one side to the other. No sound could be heard except for the grunting of the pig behind the oblique fence.
“Wait here, son. I better take a look. Stay with the horses. Don´t go anywhere until I´m back.”

Mark nodded before he also got off his nickering horse and kept the reins in his hands. Lucas casually stepped around the corner of the barn but still there was no sign of the family. Only a big dung heap
was rotting in the sun, spreading a very unpleasant smell all over the place. Broken tools were lying on the ground near a wood pile. The rancher´s forefinger touched the trigger of the rifle as he kept sneaking forward, avoiding to step on a branch. Something was definitely not...
“Pa!”
Mark´s frantic scream made the rancher turn around and ran back to the horses.

***

Micah let himself sink into the chair behind his desk and opened his top drawer. It couldn´t hurt to take a look at the old posters anyway. But before he took the pile out to check the ugly mugs on the yellowed papers he randomly looked out of his window and...
The old lawman froze for a second and closed the drawer. He knew that that day would eventually come. The dutiful man with the badge got up and walked over the counter where he kept his double-barreled shotgun. That fella who was just riding into town out there looked like regular citizen but Micah knew better. He opened the shotgun and pushed two shells into it. He was well-aware that even the meanest killers respected the devastating blast of that murderous weapon. Torrance remembered however that there was one gun outlaws feared even more: a fast rifle with a big loop. And that was the very moment when Micah missed his best friend´s help the most.

***

Mark was lying on his back in the dirt while the horses reared in panic. Their trampling hooves raised a cloud of dust. Lucas fired within a heartbeat. The bullet shattered the handle of the axe the old man was swinging and knocked the rusty weapon out of his hands. The attacker lost his footing and dropped to the ground, yelling something in a language Lucas could not understand. Mark, desperately panting, was still struggling getting up but after a moment his father´s strong arm pulled him back on his feet. The shrieking man was lying on his right side and stared at the towering rancher who kept aiming his rifle at the would-be murderer. Lucas stepped in front of his son in order to protect him. He didn´t want to kill the old man unless he was forced to. That scary critter was apparently drunk. Lucas had never seen such a wretched and sickly looking fella before.
“Easy now, mister. Don´t move. The next slug will go right into her head if you try something like that again. Do you understand? We came here only to ask you a couple of questions, hear?”

The attacker, an unshaven and filthy man, was wearing a patched shirt and dusty pants. Strangely enough he seemed not to be intimidated by the rifle trained at him. The old fool appeared however absolutely terrified of Mark. He pointed at the pale boy and kept screaming like a madman.
“Das ist er! Das ist der Junge! I muss ... ihn umlegen sonst tut er es wieder! Julie! Hilfe! Er war es...“

Lucas frowned and exchanged a quick glance with his son who was also at a loss. Lucas carefully stepped closer but kept the muzzle of the Winchester still pointed at the stranger.
“I can´t understand you. Can´t you speak English? What is this all about? Answer me, mister!”

The bony man tried to crawl back, still yelling something that didn´t make any sense at all. It became plain that he had lost his mind. Nothing what Lucas said to keep the situation under control did any good. That was the moment when another voice could be heard, a very different one.
“He can´t understand you. He only speaks German anymore. I´m sorry, sir. Please put that gun away. We won´t harm you.”

Lucas and his son turned and opened their mouths in awe. A young girl had appeared out of nowhere, standing right behind them. She was very tiny and slim. Her straight brown hair was dirty and unkempt but her hazel eyes were full of calm composure. The girl´s green dress was dusty and torn. She was not older than 15 years but despite her youth and frail frame she had the aura of a fully-grown woman. Lucas lowered his rifle. The confused rancher was totally taken by surprise.
“What did you just say, ma´am?”

The girl came closer hastily rubbing her filthy hands in her brown apron to clean them but to little avail. Her timid glance revealed that she was actually ashamed of all that dirty mess she was living in. The foul stench of the rotting dung heap behind the barn was still in the air.
“My name´s Julie Singer and that´s my father, Peter Singer. He just called for help because that boy of yours reminds him of something terrible that happened to us only two days ago. But it´s clear that there is a serious misunderstanding. Please excuse that rough welcome, Mister McCain.”

Lucas eyed the young woman furiously. Still he was mighty distrusting. The axe, lying on the ground was still in reach of that deranged fella with the crazed glance.
“How come you know my name, girl?”

Instead of answering right away Julie hurried over to her heavily panting father who was still unable to get up. Mister Singer´s bloodshot eyes were still wide and showed how alarmed he was. Only after some calming words his daughter whispered in his ears he managed to stand up at last.
The old man rushed over the dead man´s horse and grasped the reins of the uneasy animal.
“Das ist Simon´s Pferd! That is his horse! Wo ist Simon? Where is he? Wo ist mein Junge?”

Julie turned and faced Lucas whose rifle was still trained at the agitated farmer who kept yelling mere syllables with a grating voice. Mark had remained silent throughout that upsetting encounter. He realized that Julie seemed as if a terrible inkling came over her before she faced her guests.
“Where is the man who rode that horse? Did you run into him on your way?”

Lucas put his arm around his boy´s soldier and nodded, lifting the Winchester.
“We sure did. He tried to kill my son for no reason and he would have nailed me too but I was faster with this. But before he died he said something about your place and that´s the reason why we dropped by. What you are doing out here is not my business but as soon as my son gets in harm´s way I become kinda keen on explanations as you might figure. So for the last time: how come you know my name? And who was that fella we buried this morning? Speak up, girl!”

Julie´s eyes became wide as she gazed at Mark. She looked as if she felt personally responsible for that attack last night. Her shy tone revealed how shocked she was about the horrible truth.
“What´s your name?”
“Mark, ma'am, Mark McCain…”
“I´m truly sorry, Mark. I would have never thought that he would go that far. I´m glad you´re alright. Although we don´t know each other yet I feel that my family did you a great injustice.”

The bewildered boy shivered despite the blazing heat. He had never heard a girl talking like that. There was definitely something about that young woman. Lucas however didn´t seem that fond of her. Julie could feel that hostility as well. The man with the rifle was in no mood for any games so she straightened herself and gave him the explanations he was waiting for.
“Four years ago my father had to see the doctor in North Fork and you were there too, Mister McCain. You were busy loading some barbed wire on your buckboard. Well, that´s when I heard your name and learned about your reputation with that rifle of yours. Too bad you were not here two days ago. I saw you with your rifle when your Marshal arrested a bank robber before we left town.”

Lucas tried to remember. Yes, about four years ago he had helped Micah to arrest William “Wild Bill” Saxon when he made an ill-fated attempt to get rich in an unlawful way. Saxon had been more a reckless bully than a killer, just a short-tempered kid with a gun who had chosen the wrong company. It had not been too hard to disarm him after the first shots had been fired. Sadly one of Hamilton´s tellers had caught a bullet during the shooting. Later Saxon had been sent to the territorial prison. Too bad: with the right guidance he could have been a useable cowhand.

Mark butted in. He just had to since he felt the strangest mixture of feelings rising in his soul.
“Why did your father attack me with that axe? We´ve never met Mister Singer before.”

Julie nodded sadly and looked over to her father who was leaning against the fence, still gasping for air. The old fool lifted his head when he heard his name and again he seemed to be ready for a new struggle. Lucas noticed his crazed temptation to put up a fight once more and lifted his Winchester, a silent warning not to do anything stupid. The softheaded man babbled something in German that sounded like a swearword but Lucas didn´t listen to his pointless mumbling. Julie tried her best to take the edge out of the dire situation. The embarrassed girl mustered all her strength to answer.
“Two days ago my dad was chopping wood out here in front of the barn. That´s the only chore he can do anymore since that … ailment in his head has grown that serious. He used to be a decent fella but now he´s just the shadow of the man he once was. You know my father came over from Germany more than 25 years ago and started a new life here in America. Sure, he once ran into some trouble with the law but that was long ago and from that on he was the finest gentleman you can imagine.”

Mister Singer moved his head from one side to the other and stared into the cloudless sky. His bony chest under the torn shirt was moving and anybody could count his ribs under his tanned skin. Julie needed a pause before she could keep on talking about his tragic fate.
“Eventually we had to sell our ranch since he couldn´t run it anymore and so we settled here. Today he often can´t even recall my name or his own anymore. He´s like… some violent baby and needs a lot of love and attention. Sometimes I feel like his mother and not like his daughter.”

Lucas´ wrath was gone within a second. Now he felt truly sorry for Mister Singer. No wonder that farm was such a filthy mess. That lady with the dirty hair had been trying her best to run that place but without some more support it must have been a hellish situation. Lucas felt awful for yelling at her like that earlier. Whatever had happened at the river it was certainly not her fault.
“What else happened two days ago, Missus Singer?”
“One hour after sundown a masked stranger appeared with a Winchester in his hands. He forced my father and me back into the house and took all our savings. He could have killed us easily but then he settled for just our money. The terrible thing about it: that outlaw with the black cloth over his face was just a kid. It was plain to see that he was not much older than you and me, Mark.”

Mark guessed the rest of that sad story right away as if he tried to impress her with his quick-wittedness. He would have jumped at any occasion to have a conversation with her.
“So that´s why your father was so riled up when he saw me here with the horses. He probably figured that that outlaw had returned. And your rifle just increased that impression, Pa.”

Lucas could not believe it. He needed a moment to grasp that explanation but he felt that his son was right. But there was still one thing he was unsure about.
“That bloated man who attacked us last night at the river was surely no kid, Missus Singer.”

Julie kept explaining things although she obviously felt a great deal of pain in her heart.
“No, that was Simon. An hour after the robbery he returned from the field and saw what had happened. He took the old gun my father had kept under his bed and saddled our only horse to retrieve our money. Simon had never been any good with a gun but he promised that he would get our savings back, no matter what before he followed that thief into the darkness. I reckon he mistook your son for that young outlaw. Simon had never been very bright to say the least.”

Lucas turned and glared at the dead man´s horse. For a moment he could see the pot-bellied maniac again, collapsing in the hail of bullets. There was suddenly a ghastly notion on his mind that he made him almost afraid of asking his last question. He did his best to make his tone sound friendly and soothing well aware that Julie could have been his own daughter so he wanted to go easy on her.
“Julie, please tell us: who was Simon?”

Julie looked over to the farmer who was still hugging that fence post in order to stay on his bare feet.
“Simon was my brother…”

***

“Bill?”
The handsome newcomer in the three-piece suit turned around and when he recognized the Marshal a wide grin appeared on his lips. The stranger politely tipped his bowler hat and bowed slightly.
“Mister Torrance… it is such a pleasure. You are just the man I wanted to meet on my journey to Santa Fe. I am exceptionally glad indeed that you are still in charge of law and order around here. North Fork sure has changed for the better during the last years as I realized when I came in.”

Micah kept his right forefinger on the triggers of the powerful shotgun under his arm while he cautiously approached the smiling fella who took one of his leather gloves off to shake hands with the law. Micah ignored that friendly gesture and came closer.
“That´s right and we still don´t put up with the kind of yours, Saxon. So you better get back on your horse and ride on. You would be bored anyway in these parts. You wouldn´t even like the brand of whiskey they sell here these days. You had your fill of our whiskey long ago and there is no need to taste the new brands so you better leave town now, unless you want a taste of my buckshot again.”

William “Wild Bill” Saxon was not too impressed by the deadly weapon that was pointed at him.
“Please, Mister Torrance, there is no need for that. Sure, I wear a gun again but I would never use it around here. I am a different man now. Did you not get my letters from prison?”

The suspicious lawman stepped closer, not paying attention to the folks who gathered around them. He was all the more concerned about the beautiful Colt 45 that was holstered at Saxon´s right hip.
“I did. I received three letters on each anniversary of your arrest. I´ve kept them all together with the envelopes but I still don´t believe what you wrote in your cell about… living down your past.”

Saxon was a strapping fella in his thirties looking like some wealthy business man from the East. He evidently enjoyed the attention the lawman´s suspicion had gained him among the citizens.
“But it is true indeed, I can assure you. Getting arrested by you and Mister McCain was the best thing that had ever happened to me. The time in prison kept me from following further down the wrong road. That is the very reason why I came here to visit you. I wanted to express personally my thanks to you. “Wild Bill” is now a figure from the past. You are looking at a newly-hired detective, working for Cooper&Smith in Santa Fe now. Quite remarkable how things can turn out, isn´t that so?”

Micah was not too happy about the many curious men and women who came closer to catch a word the two former enemies spoke. Such unpleasant encounters always attracted a lot of attention.
“Cooper&Smith? Never heard of them. You´re making that up, ain´t you?”

Saxon laughed and took off his hat, another attempt to appear as refined and honest gentleman.
“You really ought to read the newspapers as well, Mister Torrance. Cooper&Smith are well-respected and honorable lawyers from Chicago who intend to open a new office there and I will be their first agent in Santa Fe. That is my second chance and I intend to make the most out of it, sir.”

Micah finally lowered his shotgun and shook his head in disbelief.
“So you´ve really changed, hu? You work for some lawyers? That´s mighty hard to believe with such a past. I wonder what strings you pulled to get such a job.”

Saxon smiled again and headed back to his animal, a beautiful brown stallion. He felt very clearly that with Micah around ex-convicts ran out of their welcome rather quickly in North Fork.
“Mister Cooper is in need of somebody like me who knows that land and the lowlife around here. His trust means more to me than the money I will earn working for him and his partner. And now if you excuse me: duty calls and I want to be in Santa Fe as soon as possible. Whenever you need a good attorney at law you know now where to find us. It was indeed a pleasure meeting you again, sir.”

After mounting up the dandy tipped his hat again to say farewell.
“Please be so kind and give my regards to Mister McCain as soon as you see him. So long, sir.”

***

“Are you ready, son? We better get going now. It´s still a long ride home, remember?”
Lucas was still flabbergasted about the story he had heard here. After slipping his Winchester into the scabbard he looked once again at Peter Singer who was now sitting on the bench in the shadow of the barn. The retarded man had started carving a new handle for his axe and wasn´t paying any attention anymore to his visitors. Perhaps the farmer had already even forgotten about them. Simon Singer had surely been a mean very unpleasant character but he had tried to help his kin by getting their money back. Lucas sighed. Life could be so cruel. As soon as he would be in North Fork again he would notify Micah about that robbery to issue a warrant. He could not help feeling awful for killing Simon Singer and justice had to be served now more than ever. But who was that masked kid who was responsible for all that tragedy? The rancher felt a great deal of guilt as if he had actually helped that unknown thief to escape. Lucas looked around, turning in his saddle. Where was Mark? After a few moments he saw his son following Julie into the ramshackle house. The boy showed a mighty peculiar behavior since he had met that gal with the dirty apron. Lucas was pretty annoyed by that.
“Mark! Hurry it up! We need to tell the law what had happened here!”
“Just a minute, Pa!”

Mark was amazed that the dark and smoky room was actually pretty tidy and clean. Julie had really done her best to keep her home comfortable. But no matter how much that girl had cared for her deranged father, the interior showed clearly how poor the Singers actually were. Mark gazed at the few pieces of furniture in the stuffy chamber: just a small table with two old chairs, two beds and a closet. Julie turned around and looked into Mark´s big eyes.
“What is it, Mark? There is something you wanna tell me, ain´t that so?”

Mark hesitated but then he nodded vaguely and took his dusty hat off. No matter how miserable the life of the Singers was: he was still just a guest under their oblique roof. It was not easy finding the right words but he just could not leave without telling her.
“Julie, there is something you ought to know. I didn´t tell my Pa but you´ve got a right to know.”

The young woman stood there in the gloom of the small chamber and tilted her head in a way Mark had never seen before. He thought of all the pretty girls back home he had been interesting in but now they all appeared so… childish and immature to him with their silly giggling and never-ending laughing about pointless gossip. Julie however was a true lady despite her smelly hair and her dirty outfit. And she was way smarter and tougher than any other girl Mark had met so far.
“Something about my brother, I suppose?”

Mark was kinda glad that it was much cooler in here than outside. That helped him making his point.
“That´s right. Before he got shot he told me something about Sacramento. He was kinda obsessed of going there. Actually his last words were about some plan of going there but I´ve no idea why.”

Julie turned away and walked over to the table. After sitting down she closed her watery eyes. The tone in her shaky voice revealed that she had expected something like that but the disappointment was very painful after all. Her long fingers started to play with the white tablecloth with the pink roses embroidered on it. That lovely tablecloth was a like a reminder of a better life.
“You don´t need to go on. I knew it. When he rode off going after that kid I had the hunch we would never see him again. When Pa was still sane he and Simon had once made a trip to Sacramento to sell some of our cattle. That was when we still owned that ranch in California. Simon had fallen in love with that place and always dreamed of living in Sacramento, starting fresh all over again, with or without us. If he had caught up with the real outlaw he would have taken our savings and would have gone straight back to Sacramento without even looking back once. He was always only interested in his own benefits, never wasting a thought about our father. In fact you´re really lucky that you´re still alive. Simon had always been a nasty and unstable character. I liked to pick on folks who seemed weaker than he was. But your father sure was a bit more than he could chew.”

Mark needed a moment before he understood that back-handed kind of treason within that family.
“You mean he would have left you here all alone? Does Mister Singer know about all that?”

Julie pressed her long and dirty fingernails into the fabric on the table, still fighting her tears.
“His son meant the world to him although Simon did little to earn that love and trust. Even if I told him he would never believe that Simon would have run out of him like that. It would break his heart, perhaps even deal him the last blow. Please leave now, Mark. Your father is waiting for you. He is a good man and I envy you for his love for you. You must never disappoint him, you know that.”

Mark looked down and saw a fat cockroach running over the tip of his left boot. The boy lifted his other foot and crushed the insect. Was all that misery reason enough to run out on one´s family? He sure had a lot to think about now on his way home to North Fork. For now all he could do was nodding in heart-felt compassion before he put his hat back on. Suddenly he felt terribly sick and not just because of the stench of the rotting dung heap behind the barn. That gross smell remembered Mark of the revolting stench that would-be murderer had on him. He realized that it had been a mistake to tell Julie about her brother´s devious plan to betray his family. Without saying one more word he turned around and headed for the exit in a hurry. He had to get out of there right now.
“Mark?”

Julie´s tender voice stopped him in his tracks. The girl got up and walked over to him. Her old shoes made the boards of the floor crack as she came closer. Now their faces were only inches apart.
“Thanks for telling me about Simon´s plan to hightail it with our money. You were right: I needed to know. It´s easier now to deal with that loss. I know it was not easy telling me and I appreciate it.”

Mark wanted to express that it was alright and that he was sorry about Simon´s death after all and that he would do his utmost to catch the real thief and bring the savings back under all circumstances but he couldn´t because his lips and hers…
Lucas snorted impatiently and used his left sleeve to wipe the salty sweat off his forehead. His nickering horse under him was already uneasy as well. What on earth was taking that boy so long?

***

“Feeling better already, Mister Woodson?”
Burrage walked over to his patient who was sitting in a chair near the bed and checked the fresh dressing around the man´s shoulder. The former rebel grinned despite the still smarting tissue around the wound. Woodson placed the now empty water glass on the table after drinking up.
“Much better, doc. I would have never figured in my wildest dreams that I would be that grateful to some doggone Yankee one day. No offence meant, sir.”

Burrage smiled. The physician was obviously satisfied with the healing progress. Almost no blood had reached the top layer of the white fabric and the festering had stooped too.
“None taken, rebel. Maybe we bluebellies are not that bad after all. It was sure a good thing that Marshal Torrance brought you straight to me. And yes, I sure appreciate your prompt payment. If only all my patients were that eager to pay even before the treatment.”

Woodson nodded pensively and bore himself some more water. The temperature was soaring.
“Yes, your Mister Torrance is certainly a good man and it was a stroke of luck that I met him.”

Burrage seized the opportunity to find out more about their mysterious relationship.
“Have you two met before at some other place?”
“Can´t say that I´ve although I wouldn´t have mind running into him earlier. Say, I heard some turmoil out there on the street while I was sitting here. Was anything wrong?”

Burrage matter-of-factly shook his head.
“No, it was nothing of importance. Marshal Torrance just made sure that a critter who had once been interested in making a withdrawal at our bank without having an account there left town. As you said: we could not wish for a better protector of law and order around here that´s why he gets re-elected every time. If it wasn´t for Torrance I would be way busier around these parts.”

Burrage walked over to the cupboard to get some more of those painkilling pills.
“Are you a family man, Woodson? Should we notify any kin about what had happened to you?”

The former soldier closed his eyes as if that question had hurt him deep in his soul. It took a moment before he could reply. He tried to make his raspy voice sound firm but too little avail.
“No need for that but thanks anyway. I appreciate your concern. No, my wife ran out on me a long time ago. Claire went back to her folks in Kentucky. We never had any kids so you can say I am free as a bird. Sometimes it´s a little lonesome living like that but I can put up with that. No, I am not made for settling down somewhere. And to be frank: I´ve never been too fond of children anyway.”

Burrage let two pills drop into a glass filled with cool water and waited until that bitter beverage against the pain was ready for drinking. While he stirred the medicine with a small spoon he was wondering why the old man had sounded as if he had been lying.

***

The hooves of the horses sank deep into the fine sand between the rocks of the narrow arroyo, making the journey home even more wearying. When the two riders finally emerged they were once again greeted by the merciless sun. There was no real protection from the heat on those exposed plains that lied ahead of them. Mark opened his canteen and quenched his thirst for the third time within an hour. There was unspoken tension between father and son, something that had never occurred before. Mark craved something or wished to talk about a matter that was new to him, wished to hear his father´s opinion about a certain and unfamiliar topic. Lucas felt that it was best to leave the boy to his thoughts but after more than three hours of silently riding side by side Mark was still musing about what he had seen back there at the farm and Lucas felt the urge of finally breaking the silence between them. After soaking the upper part of his shirt with lukewarm water out of his own canteen Lucas directed his exhausted horse to his son´s side. The time for frank talking had finally come and the rancher was sorta curious about Mark´s thoughts.
“What´s on your mind, son? Is there something you wanna talk about? I´m all ears.”

Mark seemed to be thankful for that question and he took a deep breath. He hoped that he wouldn´t make a complete fool out of him. Sometimes frank talking between men was sure not easy.
“From here it´s only two hours more back to North Fork, ain´t that right? Well, it ain´t not such a great distance and I was thinking. I mean, Julie´s farm ain´t that far away and maybe she could drop by once in a while if that was alright with you, Pa. It sure must be awfully lonely at that God-forsaken place and maybe we could even use an additional hand. She seems to be much stronger than most men and she would be of great help. I am sure she would enjoy it and you always told me that we should give folks a hand to move up in life and go places. Wouldn´t you agree, Pa?”

Lucas couldn´t help smiling. That boy was trying anything to stay in close touch with that remarkable gal, even if that meant giving her a job on their ranch. Yes, Mark was no child anymore after all. So he figured it was best to take it easy by not putting any more pressure on the troubled youngster.
“Well, I must confess you´ve got a point. I would not mind welcoming her to our family and she might like living closer to North Fork. Maybe she could even become our third partner. Of course she would have to wash up before moving in but I am sure you would not mind giving her a hand there.”
“Pa!”

The laughing father reached over to his son and touched playfully his blushing cheek.
“Sorry, I am just teasing you. Well, as dedicated she is to Mister Singer I kinda doubt that she would be prepared to leave him, no matter how good the pay would be. You know now how sick he is. Apart from that I would not mind if you saw her again under better circumstances. As soon as we catch the real thief you can bring her the money back. Simon Singer was dead wrong but at least he tried to do the right thing going after that lowlife and we have to give him credit for that although I admit that that´s anything but easy after seeing him aiming his gun at your chest.”

Mark preferred to remain silent. He lowered his head and felt miserable again. He was now sure that had come to hate that fat man for his terrible treason. After another hour the two riders reached a fork in the road. Lucas stopped his horse and looked up to the scorching sun. The high trees around were moved by a gentle breeze and father and son enjoyed the cool shadow under them.
“Mark, you ride straight to our place and see if there is any fixing to do. Check out our cattle and prepare some food for supper. I go to town and see Micah. I am sure that we can catch up with that thief pretty soon. Hopefully there is still something left of those savings when we do.”
“Alright, Pa. I am sure glad we´re home soon.”
“So am I, son, so am I.”

That was the moment when Mark spotted the broad drag mark in the fine pebbles on the path ahead, only a few meters away leading into the tense bushes. The yellow grass was trampled and there was definitely something large and heavy under those trees, hidden behind the huge roots.
“Look, Pa, over there...”

The rancher frowned and raised his head. His son was right: there was something big lying within the dried vegetation near the side of the dusty road. Lucas reached back and pulled his rifle out of the scabbard before he cautiously dismounted. Lucas looked around but there was no sign of any danger. The big man walked deeper into the high grass, always on the alert until he reached that mysterious object. Lucas froze when he spotted a pair of black boots with the tips on the ground.
“Stay behind, Mark!”

Lucas kneeled down and turned the body gently around. The dead man was wearing a fancy suit but the blood still coming out of three bullet wounds had soiled the fine fabric of his white shirt. The lifeless but handsome face looked kinda familiar but he couldn´t say who that man was.
Lucas was terrified. He would have never expected to stumble across a murder scene so close to North Fork. Now there was another reason to see Micah as soon as possible. He got up and looked around but he could not make out any more tracks. All he could do now was get to North Fork and return with the law. Lucas turned around and hurried back to the horses. He felt very tired all of a sudden. It sure was a terrible day. The rancher left the copse and ran over to his animal. Mark had also dismounted in the meantime and kept eyeing the surroundings. But everything was peaceful.
“Pa, what is it?”

His father shoved the rifle into the scabbard and turned to his worried son.
“There is a dead man covered with grass behind these trees and somehow I think I´ve seen him before. Forget about that thief for the time being. We´ve got to find a killer now.”

“No need for that, sir. I´ve never left.”

Lucas and Mark turned their heads. The long barrel of a Winchester was pointed at them, sticking out of the bushes only a few meters away. It was the perfect place for an ambush. Without saying a word Lucas slowly stepped in front of his son, covering him with his own body. Before he could do anything a hand separated the thin branches and a slender figure appeared, still keeping the gun on them. Lucas bit his lips. The murderer was not older than 18, slim, not too tall but with a charming smile on his youthful face. The black scarf with two little holes in it around the man´s neck gave Lucas a hunch.
“Why did you kill him, mister? For money?”

The youngster came closer, never taking his blue eyes off father and son. The unknown criminal was wearing a checkered shirt that seemed to be at least two sizes too big for him and pants still stained with the traces of his latest crime. But the fresh blood didn´t seem to upset the lad in the slightest.
“Sure, I can use any cent I can get. That fancy city slicker just made the stupid mistake to go for his gun when I stopped him here but I blew him right off his horse. He had looked so classy so I sorta had figured him loaded but he wasn´t after all which I noticed when I went through his pockets. He must have spent all his money for that suit of his. So I just took his horse and hid it behind the rocks.”

Lucas realized that the killer appeared kinda curious about the two travellers he had in his sights. That was perhaps their only chance for survival now. The assassin could pull that trigger at a moment's notice but he still gazed at the towering rancher with a strangely playful interest. Especially the butt of rifle that was sticking out off the scabbard had caught his attention.
“You don´t happen to be Lucas McCain, sir? That big loop there on your shooting iron makes me think since there is only one man who carries such a trick rifle. So I want an answer right here and now, sir: are you Lucas McCain, the one I´ve heard all those great legends about?”
“Maybe...”

The young man tipped his brown hat and smiled at Lucas as if they had been old friends.
“Yeah, you´re that tall sodbuster people talk even in Texas about. To be honest I´m mighty happy to meet you out here. I wouldn´t have gone to town to see you but this here is way better anyway.”

Lucas was not sure what to do. The mean young man looked reckless enough to kill both of them without any qualm so it was all about winning time now.
“I figure you already have some money that doesn´t belong to you. I can´t think of anything lower than robbing a defenceless old man at his farm, taking all his savings.”

The kid was utterly surprised and opened his mouth, showing his beautiful white teeth.
“You heard about that?”
“We sure did. We just come from the Singer´s place. You´ve got no idea what you´ve caused back there, mister. Drop that gun and come with us. I promise you that the Marshal and I will see to it that you get a fair trial. I´m convinced the judge will go easy on you considering your age.”

The young killer finally lowered his Winchester and scratched the back of his head. He looked kinda ashamed like some unruly child who had been caught stealing candy in a store.
“I must confess I do feel a bit sorry what I did to that stinking fool but I assure you I was in desperate need for money. You´re right though: I´m gonna do differently with you since we both know how to handle a rifle and I sure do love challenges. Robbing some softheaded dog was no challenge at all but gunning Lucas McCain in a fair fight sure is, yessir. Too bad we´re a little short on witnesses here on the road but that is fine with me. I wanna warn you though that I´m real quick with my 44-40. That poor fella under the tree was also pretty fast but not as fast as me... just ... pretty fast.”

Lucas had never faced such a situation. The robber was only a little bit older than Mark but there was absolutely no doubt that he was already a full-fledged outlaw. Whatever happened: Lucas had to protect his boy, no matter what. And Julie had to get her money back if that was possible.
“A fair fight? I would have never thought that would be your style. For the last time: hand that gun over and don´t start any more trouble. You´ve done enough harm. I won´t say it again, son.”

The expression in the vicious lad´s eyes changed and his still child-like face turned crimson in anger. His shaky and rattled voiced showed that Lucas had touched a sore spot.
“Don´t ever call me son again, sodbuster! You´re not my father! Get your rifle and face me!”

He looked as if he felt like shooting the rancher outright but that fit of rage only lasted for an instant. The assassin turned to Mark who still was too scared to say a word.
“Stand aside, friend. I wouldn´t want you to catch a bullet. You´re the only witness who´s gonna confirm my claim later. Who would have thought that I would run into Mister McCain while waiting out there? After gunning you down I´m gonna take your canteens too since staying out here all day makes a fella awfully thirsty. But come to think of it... there is something else that just came to my mind and I´ve gotta say it troubles me a little bit, it really does and I´m awfully sorry about that.”
“And what might that be?”
“I just figured that I´ve gotta kill your boy after all. It´s just too bad but a fella in my line of work can´t use a witness who could cause trouble back in town. Can´t exactly afford that right now, nosir.”

Lucas looked over his shoulder and beckoned his distraught boy to take cover behind his horse. Then he slowly pulled his own rifle out of the leather. He knew what he had to do and he felt terrible about it. With his gun in his hand he turned around and faced his grinning opponent who had the considerable advantage of the sun in his back. The kid slightly spread his thin legs to gain a better footing on the sandy ground, showing that he was experienced enough when it came to a gunfight. Lucas swung his rifle around, cocking it. The rancher felt a twinge of anxiety but he didn´t show it.
“Suit yourself.”

The kid on the other hand was apparently enjoying himself, happy to face a challenge with so much at stake. All hope for a peaceful settlement was gone.
“Your money and water, your horses, your life and that of your boy... it´s all or nothing this time, sir.”

Lucas nodded using the only thing he knew to make that self-confident enemy make lose his cool.
“All or nothing... you´re right about that, son. Wait until your father learns about all this, son.”

Instead of another outburst of rage the killer lifted his Winchester and let his right forefinger glide to the trigger. A gentle gust of wind played with his black hair and for a moment a terrible silence was around them. Mark closed his burning eyes in sheer horror while he pressed his face into the sweaty fur of his animal. His silent prayer was interrupted by the calm voice of the challenger.
“The time has come to show some valor, sir. All or nothing, remember? Go for it, McCain.”

Only a second later the deafening blasts out of two rifles tore the silence. Mark screamed when was pushed back by the abrupt movement of the spooked horse. The desperate boy lost his balance and dropped to the stony ground. His back hit a sharp rock and a wave of excruciating pain ran through his ribcage. He looked up and saw that the air above his head was filled with grey gunsmoke.
“Pa!!”

***

“Can I talk to him now, doc? I´ve got to see him.”
“Sure, Micah, but take it easy. He is still pretty weak.”

Micah entered the room and promised to make it short while Burrage left, figuring correctly that it was the best to leave the two men alone. The former rebel was again sitting in his chair, snoozing. The heat had taken its toll on him but he was on the on the road to recovery. He somehow looked even ten years younger. When the Marshal came in the veteran lifted his head and smiled.
“Howdy, Mister Torrance, it´s always a pleasure seeing you. What can I do for you, sir?”

Micah humbly took off his hat as if he had come to a preacher to confess some sin.
“Yes, as a matter of fact there is something I would like to talk about. Mind if I sit down?”

Woodson rubbed his sore shoulder and invited the gloomy lawman to take a seat. Micah still had no idea how to start so he figured it would be the best to ask an initial question to break the ice.
“Your name is Woodson, Henry Woodson from Alabama?”
“That´s right.”
“You worked as an attorney at law once, a long time ago. Ain´t that right? Because today a former outlaw passed through North Fork. After serving his time he now works for some honorable lawyers in Santa Fe. That made me think and finally I remembered where we met before.”

Woodson rubbed his sore shoulder. That pesky itching under the thick dressing was a sign that the healing process had already started but that was not the only thing that bothered him. As fond he was of the protector of law and order, he wished that he would go away and leave him alone. There was no need to bring it all up again. For a moment he was tempted to get up and leave the town for good. But then he lowered his glance and faced the facts. There was no use running away.
“There must be some mistake, Mister Torrance: as I told your good doctor, I´ve never laid eyes on you before I came here with that doggone lead in my body. But... you´re right about one thing. Yeah, a long time ago I was a lawyer. I was never any good but at least I tried to bring each of my cases to a good end for my clients. Often that didn´t work out and a couple of folks went to prison or even to the gallows because the other side had the better arguments. I don´t fancy thinking back and remembering all my failures.

Long Ride to North Fork - part 2

These stories are based on the TV series The Rifleman
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