The Rifleman
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“Long ride to North Fork”
part 2
Written by Klara's Boy

Micah was relieved despite the nuisance he caused the injured man. Finally there was the breakthrough he had been waiting for and he could get it out of his system at last.

“But I recall well that you had at least one great success. When I was still a young fella I had a good friend, not very bright but decent and honest. He got himself mixed up in a troublesome situation to say the least. It was back in Alabama, in a saloon called “The Southern Pride”. There was a shootout and my friend ended up with a smoking gun in his hand and two dead local bullies at his feet. He was drunk and a stranger in town and when he was arrested it was pretty evident what the verdict of the jury would be. But you accepted that hopeless case and you got him out of that prison after proving that it had been a clear case of self-defence. You saved his life back then. I just wanted to tell you after all those years how thankful I was back then and I still am. You did a great job back there.”

The former corporal of the Confederate States of America exchanged a long glance with the Marshal and gradually his thin lips formed a smile. At least he could feel a little pride about his career.
“Yes, I remember now. That was one of my first trials and I was scared out of my mind when I saw that judge the first time. Well, I am sure glad I could help that defendant to avoid the noose.”

Micah wanted to say something but the former lawyer interrupted him with a gleeful smile. For the first time during the last days his wound didn´t hurt anymore. Only that itching grew even peskier.
“No need to thank me, my friend. If you really figure that you´ve owed me some kind of favour over all those years, consider us even now. You´ve repaid me by bringing me here. Well, I learned something myself back then. I saw what booze can get a man into and so I swore never to touch a drop as long as I live. That was the reason why I caught that bullet. That drunken injun didn´t like my firm principles about alcohol and was pretty riled up about my refusal to buy him a drink.”

Micah stretched out his right hand and after a second his friend grabbed it with his left shaking it.
That precious moment of harmony and thankfulness between the two men was brutally interrupted by Burrage who tore the door open and stormed in.
“Micah, you´ve gotta come quick! It´s Lucas!”
“What happened?!”
“I can´t say but he´s run into some trouble, plain as day!”

Micah got up in a hurry and left the room. When he ran out of the house he stopped in his tracks and opened his eyes in horror and surprise. For a moment he was blinded by the scorching sun so all he could see on the other side of the dusty street were four horses and each of them was carrying a man. Two of those men were lying across the saddles with their arms dangling; the other two riders seemed also more dead than alive for sheer exhaustion. The Marshal dashed towards the sweat-covered animal with the tall man on its back. When he saw his friend´s pale face, Micah was shocked.
“Lucas Boy! What happened out there? Are you alright?! ”

The tired rancher didn´t answer right away. He looked as if he had barely enough strength in him to keep the reins in his hands. In fact he sounded as if he was running a fever.
“Howdy, Micah, it´s sure good to see again. Check out those bodies, will you? We need to know who they are. But there is no need for any warrant now. We´ve got him. It was all or nothing that time but the man´s money is gone and that is a bad thing. We´ve gotta find... those savings...”
“Sure, as you say, Lucas Boy... what are you talking about? What money?”

Lucas didn´t answer. He was just too weak to talk anymore but Mark was in an even worse state. Burrage reached up and pulled the exhausted boy carefully out of his saddle.
“It´s alright, son, easy now, everything´s gonna be alright. You´re home.”

In the meantime Micah went over to the other two horses. One was the beautiful brown stallion he had already seen before so identifying the body on it didn´t take longer than an instant.
“That´s “Wild Bill”. Too bad, it seems to me that his new and honorable life didn´t last that long.”

Then he walked over to the other animal and grabbed the hair of the body on it. After pulling the head of the corpse up he stared into the youthful face of the young assassin who had not been as fast with his Winchester as he had figured. Three bullet´s had gone clean through him.
“Can´t say who that kid is. I´ve never seen him before.”

“His name was Frank Hudson from Texas, Mister Torrance. He was... my friend.”
Lucas and Micah turned around and watched Woodson slowly approaching. Mark had finally gathered enough strength to stay on his feet and looked at the old man with the white dressing around his right arm and shoulder. He had no idea who the haggard fella was but the mere thought that somebody could call that varmint his friend infuriated the boy with the smarting ribs.
“Some friends you have, mister! He was a thief and killer! He stole money from a girl and her father!”

Woodson reached the group of men and walked over to the body on the horse. While he let his left palm glide over the bloodied shirt of the dead outlaw he turned to Mark who was more than upset.
“He did really do that, son?”
“He sure did! We saw it! What do you know about all that? Speak up! We got almost killed several times on our way home because of him. He almost shot my Pa out there at the fork of the road. It´s a miracle that we are still alive, mister! It was a long ride home to North Fork but here we are!”

Lucas finally dismounted and put his right hand on his boy´s shoulder to calm him. He was aware of the fact that Mark took everything personal as far as Julie Singer was concerned.
“Easy, Mark, let him talk now.”

Micah´s firm voice revealed that he was once again the lawman in charge.
“I agree with Mister McCain. You better tell us your story now. After that we decide how we will handle that whole matter. Seems to me that you´ve got some explanation to do.”

The old man shadowed his eyes with his left hand. Only three more paces and he could touch the dirty shirt of the body. The tired horse carrying the kid nickered nervously. Thick foam was dripping from its sore snout. All of a sudden the former lawyer broke out in tears while leaning against the sweaty flank of the animal. He covered his wrinkled with his left palm, sobbing like a child.
“I had no idea Frankie would do such a thing after all I had taught him about valor and honesty.”

Lucas walked over to him and looked straight into his watery eyes. The towering man was just too exhausted to feel any anger. He only wanted to know the truth after all what had happened.
“What did he teach him, mister?”

It was time to come clear after all. Woodson felt that the fabric of his dressing was warming up quickly out there in the sun and for a moment he felt like fainting, but he pulled himself together.
“I met Frank about a year ago in the outskirts of San Antonio. He was drunk and lonely and had nobody in the whole world. He had run away from home because his father had beaten him once too often. Frankie had already some troubles with the law for minor offenses so I took him with me and… well, he became something like the son, I never had. We traveled together and I told him over and over again that the bottle could ruin a man and he promised me to be a good lad and stay proper. But he always kept practicing with his rifle to be able to defend me as he put it.”

Mark butted in. Despite his normally good manners he felt like kicking the distraught fella.
“You did a swell job there. Out there is a young girl who can hardly make a living now because of your so-called friend and she´s gotta take care of her father who is quite sick.”

This time it was Micah who interrupted his fury, pretty surprised that Mark could get so agitated.
“Easy now, we haven´t heard the whole story yet. Let him talk. Go on, Woodson.”

The former rebel nodded. There were still tears of shame and humiliation running down his face.
“You´re right, son. I am a failure. I can see that now clearer than ever. All my life I´ve tried to help people and I kinda hoped to be able to keep Frankie out of trouble. I had seen too many youngsters go to prison and he was also that wild and reckless, sometimes even violent and trigger-happy.”

Burrage shook his head. He knew enough about the often troublesome relationships between fathers and sons so he could figure it right away. Was it the heat that made him lose his temper after all? Or was it the haunting memory of streams of blood that had soaked the earth years ago?
“Yes, a homeless youngster and a war hero of the South: I can imagine him hanging on your lips when you told him all about your gallant deeds. He liked that, didn´t he? He believed all your tales and saw you as his role model. You spent hours telling him about battles and generals, how you licked those doggone Yankees at Chickamauga and so many other places. You told him all about valor and what it means to be a man. Yes, I saw it all myself. Did you also tell him what hate and violence can do to a man? Did you tell him how wounded soldiers yell for their mothers while their guts are hanging out? No, you just made it clear to that immature youngster that only killing makes a real man. I know your tough breed far too well, you brave heroes with your fancy stories!”

Lucas had never seen the good doctor that riled up. What had that seemingly harmless man who was still leaning against the flank of the horse done to make people talk that way? Micah exchanged a fast glimpse with his best friend before he kept tormenting Woodson with another question.
“What happened in Albuquerque, mister?”
“Well, when we were about to leave Albuquerque I was shot by that drunken injun but we hightailed it like scalded dogs. When we reached Silverton I wanted to see the doctor there but I couldn´t afford the surgery. I had a hard time keeping Frankie from gunning down that gent for refusing me his help. That would have been the end of everything although I could understand Frankie. He was furious about it. He wanted to prove to me that he was a man nobody could mess with.”

Burrage gulped. He had never thought that there was so much more about that simple bullet wound. After a pause Woodson continued speaking although his voice was hoarse and as dry as the air out there on the street. The sun was high over their heads and burned down on the men. Some folks of North Fork had gathered around them eager to find out what was going on but Micah didn´t pay any attention to the men and women around. Even the Garners were there among the other people and Missus Garner, a beautiful lady, was tenderly rocking her sleeping baby in her arms. Woodson looked into some more curious faces within that crowd before he kept on talking.
“A couple of days ago we made camp and I fell asleep right away. When I woke up in the morning Frankie was there, all excited and happy. He showed me some money and urged me to get up and see another doctor. Naturally I asked him where he had found all that cash and he told me that he had friends in those parts who had helped him out. I didn´t believe him but I was simply too weak to ask any more questions and the pain in my flesh grew even worse by the minute. I refused to think that he had done something wrong to achieve that sum. I was such a blind fool, lying to myself. I could not stand another disappointment. But whatever he did, it did it out of love for me.”

Micah nodded. From there on everything was evident to the experienced lawman.
“That´s the reason why you came in alone, right? Your friend suggested staying out of town and waiting for you for a couple of days until you could join him again at some place you agreed on before. He was afraid that news about that robbery would reach the law here and questions would be asked. After your recovery you would have left us without raising any suspicion. Very smart.”

Lucas turned to Micah to make his report about the murder out there on the road.
“It would have worked if that kid hadn´t taken a liking to getting money by robbery and even killing folks. We found “Wild Bill” hidden behind some trees. His elegant outfit was his undoing.”

Mark had calmed down. Now that he knew what had happened he felt sorry for the former lawyer but he was just way too tired to grasp it all. The exhausted boy asked only one more question.
“What now, Micah?”

The experienced lawman shrugged knowing very well that he had to play by the rules despite his personal feelings. He looked into a pair of youthful eyes that were waiting for a solution.
“Well, that´s for the judge to decide, son. In any case I take our fine Mister Woodson into custody. Our physician will keep caring for him until his state allows him to stand trial. The subject´s gonna stay in that cell until the judge arrives. I will send him a telegraph right away to hurry things up.”

The Marshal put one hand on the lawyer´s wounded shoulder and turned him around to face him.
“Now see to it that you´re fit to stand trial soon, Woodson. Don´t do anything stupid like trying to make a run for it during your recovery. I sure would hate to put another bullet into you.”

The lawman looked over to his friend.
“I await your full testimony tomorrow after good night's sleep, Lucas Boy. I want to know anything that happened out there. In the meantime I have to get the undertaker here as fast as possible.”

Lucas, Mark and Burrage watched Micah leading the broken man through the crowd back to the Marshal´s office. It was all over and the good citizens of North Fork scattered, trying to get out of the sun back into the shadows or they headed to Sweeney´s saloon to enjoy a cool beer. After a short while only three lonely figures were alone in the middle of the street. Mark looked up to the dust-covered face of his father who smiled vaguely despite his exhaustion. Then he said the words the tired boy had waited for all that time.
“Let´s go home, son.”

On their way across the street Woodson kept his eyes closed and pulled himself together to stay on his feet, remembering the discipline he had needed to make all the forced marches during the war.
“Please tell me, Marshal: how´s your friend I saved back then in Alabama? Is he still alive, sir?”

Micah felt that the injured critter was in desperate need for some encouragement after that terrible blow life had dealt him. Losing a son was just about the worst thing that could happen to a man but his feelings didn´t count now. He took the key for the cell from the wall and unlocked the door.
“In you go and make yourself comfortable. Burrage will drop by later to change your dressing. We don´t want to lose you after all. As a matter of fact I don´t know where your client lives nowadays but I am sure he´s been doing fine though. When I heard of him the last time he was raising cattle. He owns quite a ranch somewhere. He´s alright and at least for that you ought to be proud of yourself.”

Woodson smiled stoically. At least there was one human being he had been able to help.
“I can´t even recall his name anymore, a sign that I am getting old. Age catches up with all of us, I reckon. Do you remember your friend´s name, Mister Torrance?”

Micah nodded matter-of-factly while he turned the key in the lock to close it.
“I certainly do. His name is Singer, Peter Singer.”

***

Summer had passed and the dark clouds promised even more rain. The first heavy drops fell and hit the heads of the people who had gathered around the small and humble grave with the wooden cross on. Micah finally broke the silence and looked at the young girl standing right next to him.
“Well, I´m sure Peter would have liked it that way: he was never much for fancy things, Missus Singer. He used to be such a modest man and I am proud to call him my friend now more than ever.”

Julie kept looking at the letters on the cross and nodded after a moment of thinking.
“You´re right, Mister Torrance. Wherever he may be now, his suffering´s over and he´s happy.”

Then she turned to Mark and smiled at him, knowing exactly how to tease that eager boy.
“There is one thing I really like about you: you´re so smart so please tell me again what those words meant the judge said. It´s sure a mighty strange language. I´m sorry, I seem to forget each time no matter how hard I try to keep them in mind, stupid me. I´m sure you can tell me once more.”

Mark jumped at the occasion to impress that gal with the brown hair once again.
“In dubio pro reo means that a judge is obliged to give a man the benefit of the doubt. Whenever it´s not clear if a fella is guilty or not the judge must let him go. I am sure glad that judge remembered that back then in court. And you´re right, last week when I got the grade for my essay about General Bragg the teacher told me that he had never read such an excellent work before and that he was...”

Lucas interrupted his ranting by putting his big hand on his son´s shoulder.
“Don´t forget that Mister Woodson helped you quite a bit, Mark. You really ought to mention that.”

That very moment a sweaty and dirty but grinning man came stepped out of the barn behind them.
“Look at this: the sack is empty. If that stupid pig gets any fatter it´s gonna burst one day. It ate all the potatoes that were left. Well, at least it´s gonna bring a pretty price at the market tomorrow.”

Lucas turned around and smiled at the hired hand in the filthy shirt.
“How is your shoulder, Mister Woodson?”
“Right as rain again, Mister McCain. That reminds me: shouldn´t we get inside soon? Those mean clouds up there look like a horde of Yankees: dark blue and soon they´re gonna shed some tears.”

Micah nodded while he grinned.
“You´ll never change, will you? But you´ve got a point, Henry. We really need to get in and celebrate Missus Singer´s last evening out here. I must confess I admire that gal´s guts to make such a decision and face such a radical change in her life after staying here for so long. I would feel a little shaky being in her boots but I hear Santa Fe is a good place to live though. At least there are enough good schools so she soon will be even smarter than Mark although that will not be easy to accomplish.”

Doctor Burrage also smiled cheerfully while he looked up the black sky and a gust of cool wind caressed his forehead. It sure felt good to sense such a change after all those hot months.
“According to the last telegram Cooper&Smith sent, my patient will make quite a penny in Santa Fe so he will be able to afford the best teachers for her in Santa Fe. Those slick lawyers must really be in need of a good attorney at law. Tell me Mark, what did Mister Cooper ask again?”

Mark frowned and didn´t even notice that all the others grinned at him.
“Gosh, sir, you know that as well as we all do. That telegram just said: “When can W. start?”. I sure am glad that the judge and Pa had that idea of sending that letter to Santa Fe during the trial asking if Cooper&Smith still have plans about opening that new office there.”
“That´s right, son, and now we really ought to get in and eat.”

The little group headed towards the hut. Only Julie stayed for a moment longer, looking back at the cross while her lips slightly moved. Another drop hit her sleeve and the first thunder roared behind the crest. But then she hurried to the house to catch up with the others. Mark took his hat off before entering. He waited of her and together they stepped over the threshold. Woodson saw the two young people coming in and put his arm around the girl´s shoulder, pulling her tight. Seeing the deep affection between the aged veteran and the orphaned girl the Marshal shook his head wistfully.
“Too bad: it seems to me that we´re gonna lose you after all, Henry and not only you.”

While spreading the lovely tablecloth Lucas shrugged.
“That´s not the way I see it, Micah. Whenever you need a good attorney at law you know now where to find one. And Mark won´t need any such reason to write a lot of letters to Santa Fe.”

Julie´s laughter lightened up the whole gloomy room.
“You´re right, Mister McCain. Maybe Mark would like to join me for a nice walk later after dinner?”

Mark could not help blushing once again.
“Sure… sure, I would … be pleased, of course if you don´t mind, Pa. We would be back soon.”

Micah walked over to the anxious boy and looked deep into his big eyes.
“Mark McCain, as Marshal of North Fork I order you to do whatever that young lady says so she keeps our little community in good memory.”

The End

These stories are based on the TV series The Rifleman
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