The Rifleman
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Fan Fiction

The Cross on the Hill
Written by Klara's Boy

The afternoon was unusually quiet and the distant sound of the sporadic canon fire didn´t upset the colonel: the Yankees knew that they had the upper hand and so they were in no hurry right now. They were taking it easy, gathering all their forces for the final blow. Custer did his worst to cut the last supply lines and Sherman´s infantry was closing in relentlessly. When would all that end? For a moment the colonel closed his tired eyes. He was now 34 years old but he felt like 100. He had seen it all: Fredericksburg, Petersburg, Cold Harbor and many other blood clashes. For a moment he felt dizzy and his stomach was acting up again. His once grey uniform was torn and covered with dried mud. The air was filled with fine dust and smoke and sometimes the man had troubles breathing.
“Sir?”

The colonel turned around and spotted the scarred face of his captain: a gaunt mask of desperation.

“What is it, Wallace?”

The captain was only the shadow of the man he once was. Born in Virginia he had used to be a bullish daredevil nobody would mess with. Now he seemed to have a hard time staying on his bare feet.
“Your … orders, sir?”

The colonel sighed and pulled himself together despite the terrible pain in his guts.
“Yes, of course, come here, Wallace.”

The captain stepped closer and looked down on the map on the small table. The colonel needed a second to summon enough strength before he started to explain the hopeless situation while the hot spring sun warmed his shoulders. His right forefinger glided slowly over the filthy paper.

“We are here, right here. The Yanks have surrounded us but we are far from being beaten. General Lee plans to break out to follow this road up here. That should not be too hard.”

The finger moved along the line on the map while the captain was listening carefully.

“Our orders: to dig in right here and defend the rear of our retreating army, no matter what. Lee needs all the time we can buy him so he can get to safety. The Yanks will hit us with all they´ve got, but we will hold them at all costs. We will give them hell. Tell the men, Wallace. No retreat. Clear?”

The captain nodded. A gust of warm wind was playing with his unkempt hair under the dusty hat. The artillery behind the hills intensified the deadly pressure on the Confederate lines now. Soon the blue cavalry would close in with relentless force. Wallace´s feeble voice was nothing more than a whisper.

“Where exactly does the General plan to go? Is there any place where we are safe, sir?”

The colonel didn´t answer. He only lifted his head and looked over to the decimated regiments of his desperate and starving men, brave veterans of countless battles. Wallace caught another glimpse on the map, studying the names of the cities and villages along the road Lee planned to use for his desperate attempt to escape. He frowned and after a second he even managed to smile.
“I was born there, sir.”

The colonel lowered his head and rubbed his smarting belly. The sun started to burn and blinded his eyes. The earthshaking thunder of Grant´s guns became louder. Grant himself was out there somewhere, poised to strike. If only Lee could escape and make a run for it. Richmond had already fallen. When would all that end? While the guns kept firing, he looked down on the paper.
“Where?”

Wallace pointed to a tiny spot on the map, grinning while hoarse orders were shouted behind him.

“Right here, sir. My folks still live there. It sure is am mighty nice place, yessir.”

The colonel felt the need for a cigar to calm down his nerves. His voice sounds edgy, almost angry.

“And how is that place called, Wallace, if you don´t mind me asking?”

“Appomattox, sir.”

***

“Anymore coffee, Plummer?”

Micah filled his tin cup and looked at the man sitting on the other side of the fire. The pale moon was covered with black clouds and the crickets had already started their nightly concert. Sparks were flying into the darkness, lighting up the men´s faces. Micah took a sip of the hot coffee. After a long ride it felt good to relax. The double-barreled shotgun was lying on his knees, just in case. Tomorrow they would be in North Fork and Micah could not wait to see his prisoner behind bars.
Here under the dead trees between the boulders Micah could not see the expression on the man´s face. Plummer was a big fella with and each time he moved his strong arms the massive shackles that kept his hands together made a tiny sound. His deep voice sounded almost bored.
“Do you have a timepiece, Marshal?”

Micah nodded and pulled the little watch out of his black vest. He opened it and in the bright shine of the flames he could make out the small hands on it. A coyote was howling somewhere behind him.

“It´s exactly 9:14 now.”

The other man remained motionless, leaning against the rock, not saying a single word. Micah allowed himself a grin not knowing if the Plummer could see it. Again the coyote howled.

“You don´t have to be worried. You will get there in time. They won´t start without you, Plummer.”

Micah closed the clock and put it away. Smoke drifted in the cool breeze as the coyote continued.

“I have never seen a killer who was late for his own hanging.”

***

“Twenty-two …. twenty-three …”

Mark smiled: the herd had grown since the last headcount. Now he was hungry and since his task was finished out here on the lush pastures he turned his horse and headed home. Homework for school was waiting: some equations and a story about a “remarkable day in his life”. Then he spotted the tiny item in the fine sand right in the middle of the narrow path, glittering in the bright sunshine. Mark stopped his horse and looked down. First he thought it was some sort of trinket, a diamond or a piece of gold. He dismounted and picked it up, gently removing the fine dust from the metal surface. He grinned proudly and then he remembered that he always had wished to own something like that. He slipped his newly-found treasure into his breast-pocket and mounted up again. He could not wait to show it to his father. Then something else caught his attention on the road ahead. Two riders seemed to be heading to North Fork but he recognized only one of them.

***

Lucas rolled around and lying on his back he fired: three cans were sent flying up in the air by the impact of the bullets. Yes, he was content. He slowly got up and blew the dust away from the barrel of the gun while he walked over to the house: after the shooting practice it was time to prepare supper. When he opened the door he saw his son heading for the ranch. The boy stopped his horse and dismounted in youthful haste. Lucas smiled and put his arm around his son´s shoulders.

“Howdy son, how is our herd?”

Mark´s pride was obvious when he reported to his father about the marvelous state of the livestock. But after a short pause he delivered his message.
“Pa, I have to tell you something else. On my way home I met Micah. He was not alone: there was a prisoner with him, a big fella in chains. And Micah wants you to know: it is Dan Plummer. I am supposed to tell you that you can talk to him in the cell, if you still feel like it.”

Lucas´ cheerful grin vanished in a heartbeat. He swiftly released Mark out of his grip and headed over to the barn to get his horse. The man saddled swiftly his animal and put the rifle into the scabbard. With one foot in the stirrup Lucas turned around and looked to his son, still standing on the porch.
“Mark, I want you stay here and take care of things. I gotta go to town and maybe I will stay in the hotel for the night. Don´t worry, everything will be alright.”
Mark felt terribly lonely for a moment as he entered the house. The hasty departure of his father had happened so fast that he not even had the opportunity to show him his new treasure.

***

Lucas swung his tall body out of the saddle in front of the Marshal´s office and opened the door without any further ado. The old lawman had already expected him. Lucas pointed to the cells.

“He is in there, Micah?”

Micah put down the wanted-poster and nodded. Without an answer, Lucas hurried in and found Plummer sitting on the bench, his shoulders hunched and his hands folded as if he was in prayer. When he lifted his head he gazed at the rancher´s face. Slowly the prisoner got up and stepped over to the bars that separated the two men. His voice was calm and deep as he eyed the rancher.

“Howdy, lieutenant. You look great.”

Micah was now standing next to Lucas, paying attention to each detail. He knew that Lucas and Plummer had been really close and so he had summoned his friend as promised. The rancher was obviously uncertain what to say. He almost seemed frightened. His right hand performed a salute.

“I am sorry that we meet under these circumstances, captain.”

Plummer shrugged. His prominent chin was clean-shaven, his blond hair was already turning grey and his face showed many tiny wrinkles around the brown eyes. But there was still power in him.

“The Lord works in mysterious ways as my grandfather used to say. But it´s sure good to see, Mister McCain, yessir. Marshal, would you leave us for a moment? I would like to have a word with my former lieutenant, if you don´t mind. I haven´t seen him for quite a while, please.”

Lucas turned his head and exchanged a swift glance with the old lawman.
“It´s alright, Micah. He is behind bars.”

Micah hesitated knowing how dangerous Plummer was: his drawer was filled with wanted-posters, old ones and a new one. Despite his concerns he slightly nodded. His hands were sweaty.

“If you need me, I am right outside, Lucas-Boy.”

Plummer´s eyes followed the old man as he left the room. He shared a moment of silence with Lucas before he gradually reached out between the bars and offered his massive hand to Lucas.
 
“How is that leg of yours, you ugly no-good shavetail?”

“It´s still there, thanks to you, Dan. Without you I would still be on crutches, I reckon, sir.”

And then the ice was broken by a warm smile, which almost turned into a childish horselaugh while the two men shook hands. Dan gently pulled Lucas closer to the bars. Their grinning faces were only inches apart and now Lucas felt Dan´s powerful grip on his arm. Dan kept laughing.

“You are still a giant. It was not easy to get you out of there. Can you remember? Those rebels sure put up a fight. How could you be so stupid to catch a bullet only three days before Lee surrendered?”

Luca´s face also was a big smile as he placed his left hand on Plummer´s shoulder.
“I woke up in that tent and you were there right by my side and told me that the war was over at last. The doctor was still worried about my leg and you told him.”

“… that he would need a doctor himself if he could not save it. Well, maybe my good old Navy Colt did most of the persuasion. Those were the good times back then, you no-good shavetail. Without you we would have won that doggone war much sooner, you pathetic excuse for an officer.”

Lucas shook his head over those charming insults, still grinning. His right arm still sensed Dan´s grip.

“I still don´t know where you stole those crutches for me, Dan.”

Dan lowered his glance and playfully put his forefinger on his lips.
“That should stay our little secret. I was so glad when you finally got the permission to get up and walk around. The first steps were pretty tough but you made it. Four days later you didn´t need me anymore. And now you look like as if you could outrun any doggone Apache.”

Lucas finally freed his hand and pulled his arms back. His grin vanished.
“You did a lot of running yourself, Dan. I read in the newspapers all about your deeds and your escapes. When I heard that you got caught got at last I needed to talk to you, from friend to friend.”

And after a pause he added the tormenting question.
“Dan, is it true? Did you really murder your partner? Did you really shoot an unarmed man?”

Dan´s voice became gloomy again and he looked straight into his friend´s eyes.
“The papers say it, the judges said it and … yes, it is true. I killed Clint and I would do it again anytime. Rochester was a crook. First he talked about giving me a new chance after my serving my time in Yuma and then he turned on me, betraying my trust. He had it coming. That´s what I told the jury.”

McCain could see the fire of wild determination in Plummer´s glance.
“You never told them where you hid those $3000. You could tell me and I would try my best to …”

Plummer stepped back and lowered his muscular arms. The muscles in his faces slightly twitched.

“You got yourself quite a reputation too. I would love to see that fancy rifle of yours one day. My colt and your rifle … we would have made quite a team, yessir. The money is mine and mine alone. Clint Rochester double-crossed me and I made him pay for that. I am still no man who likes to get cheated. There are a couple of fellas out there who thought they would get the better of me and they have now all eternity to think again in their graves. If any other man looked at me like you do now …”

When he saw the merciless expression of the killer´s face Lucas´ eyes turned hard and cold.

“Yes, Deadly Dan they used to call you in Dodge. They even sang a song about you and your deeds. I saw your posters, I read the articles and I felt so ashamed. The best friend a man can have turning into a killer. You even shot three deputies in Alabama when they tried to arrest you, three men with families. Now hear me and hear me good: don´t you ever compare my rifle with your gun, Dan.”

Dan´s fingertips gently touched his hip as if a colt was holstered there.
“Being a Yankee officer and fighting those rebels taught me a lot about life. You remember those Virginias when we stormed their positions? Their cause was lost and they knew it and still they kept on fighting and one of them used you for his target practice. I am like that: I keep on and on and nobody should get in my way. A life can become meaningless when a man loses all he loved. I have no cause anymore just like those rebels and that made fighting and killing easy, real easy. Maybe one day you will understand that. Men without a cause are dangerous. If a man loses his cause he gets reckless and nasty. I bet your leg still hurts a little when the weather changes, ain´t that right?”

Lucas paused for a moment. The outlaw was still a man to reckon with even in a little cell.

“I guess there is no use asking you as a friend to tell me where the money is?”

Plummer casually turned around and let his massive body sink on the hard bench again. The bars between the two men were now like an impenetrable wall. Dan crossed his legs and leaned back.

“How come you know about that song about me?”

The towering rancher headed back to the door to leave the room. Maybe it was a mistake to come here after all. For a moment he felt anger and disappointment rising in his soul.

“Sometimes the kids here still sing about Deadly Dan. I once heard my son humming the melody himself. But I told him to stop it and never do it again.”

The stubborn prisoner folded his hands over his belly and kept eyeing his former comrade in arms, enjoying himself while his thin lips formed a gleeful smirk.
“Why?”

Lucas stopped and turned around, clenching his fists and giving his rescuer a cold look.

“Because I don´t like the idea that my son honors a killer.”

***

The moon was up when Mark finished his chores at last. He was still thinking of Micah´s prisoner. His inner voice told him that there would be trouble because of him. And suddenly his worries turned into fear. He was now 13 years old soon he would be a man but still he missed his father so much.

Somewhere in the hills a hungry coyote was howling. It sounded like a gloomy harbinger ...

Far away, Micah stepped out of his office, stretching his stiff legs and enjoying the cool air. Lucas had promised to spend the night in the hotel and Micah was glad about his friend´s presence. The dark street was empty and everything was peaceful. Even Sweeney had closed the saloon for the night. Micah felt tired and decided to go to bed. For a moment he closed his weary eyes.

***

Lucas was lying on his bed and starred up to the ceiling of the room. His troubled mind was floating in gruesome memories of death and devastation. He saw the tense gunsmoke covering the bloody battlefield again, saw the scarecrows of the South starting their ill-fated counterattack, heard men screaming when they got hit. The half-starved Confederates stormed against the advancing blue wall. They raced like demons out of hell over the green meadow under the leadership of a colonel who was waving his saber. Lucas saw how that officer was cut down by the hail of Yankee bullets almost immediately. The hapless man vanished in the grey wave as if he had never existed. And still his desperate Confederates kept coming, screaming their heads off as they always did.

“Long live General Lee! Hurrah for General Lee!”

Men fighting for a lost cause …

And then there was that searing pain in the leg. Lucas looked down and saw the blood shooting out. He tried to keep on running but after two steps the knees gave in and fell into the lush grass. He could sense the wet soil on his face, saw hundreds of dirty boots all around him, saw blue soldiers firing their muskets into the enemy ranks. He screamed for help while he tried to get up before collapsing again. And then he felt arms around his chest, strong arms pulling him gently aside, while the two armies clashed in bloody mayhem for the last time. As the blue avalanche tore the thin grey line apart, he bit his lips in agony, trying to stay awake. Lucas could hear a deep voice right next to his left ear while the murderous thunder of canons made the earth tremble.

“I get you out of here, lieutenant. Don´t you worry, you stupid shavetail.”

Lucas shook his head. The war was over! But his friendship with Dan Plummer wasn´t. There was a still a strong bond between them. Plummer had to give the money back. Lucas decided to beat the secret out of him if necessary. With the money returned, the jury would reconsider the sentence and maybe Lucas could save his friend from the gallows that way. He left the room in a hurry and walked down the stairs, rifle in hand. He opened the gate and was welcomed by the cool night air. The street was empty and not a soul could be seen. Even the saloon was closed. For a moment the rancher stopped and took a deep breath before stepping off the porch of the hotel. Then he walked over to the Marshal´s office and … then he saw that the door was ajar. Lucas frowned and picked up the pace. His towering figure was nothing but a shadow when he stepped into the silent darkness of the office. His shoulder carefully pushed the door open.

“Micah …?”

No answer. Lucas listened before he repeated his call, louder this time.

“Micah?! It’s me.”

Out of a natural reflex he lifted his rifle and looked around. He froze and only his eyeballs were moving nervously. A cool gust of wind entered the room through the open window and Lucas felt an icy chill on the back of his neck. His eyes were not yet used to the darkness. His forefinger sensed the hard iron of the trigger. He was ready for anything that might have waited for him somewhere in that room. One more step forward …

Then his attention was caught by something on the floor right in front of him and he needed a long moment to realize that it was blood, a lot of blood, soiling the tip of his boot.

“Micah?!”

When he spotted the motionless body under the fallen chair he opened his mouth in horror.

***

Mark left the house and headed over to the barn. Saddling his horse and mounting up was only a matter of five minutes. At a night like that it was impossible to find sleep. And he knew that his father was in trouble. Who was Dan Plummer? He remembered that he once had sung a nice song about a man by that name not thinking anything about it. But his father had turned kinda testy when he heard it without giving Mark a reason for his anger. And now a man called Plummer was in North Fork, in Micah´s cell. Mark drove his heels into the flank of the horse as he rode off into the night.

***

Hamilton and Sweeney were talking with each other in the dim shine of a lantern, but Mark could not understand their words. Like all the other upset people he was waiting outside on the street, praying. He had arrived just in time to see Lucas running over to the doc´s house, hammering with his fists against the door to get the doctor up. In the meantime many drowsy citizens had gathered in front of that door, but no one was allowed to enter. Mark didn´t listen to the murmuring of the uneasy voices. More and more people left their homes and came over and soon the whole town of North Fork seemed to be there. To them the mysterious attack on their respected lawman resembled a terrible nightmare. Mark wished that his father would soon come out and tell the crowd that Micah would be on his feet again. But the door remained closed.

Inside Burrage shook his head and covered Micah´s body with a soft blanket.
“I did all I could for now, Lucas. He sure is lucky to be still alive. A blow like that can crack a man´s skull like an eggshell. We gotta wait. From now on it´s all in God´s hand.”

Lucas walked around like a wounded wolf. His face was red and covered with sweat. All of a sudden he stopped in his tracks and turned against the physician with a swift movement.

“I heard that sentence before. You want to know when? It was the day when my wife died.”

Burrage didn´t answered and lowered his tired glance. It was still dark outside. Lucas walked over to the bed and kneeled next to Micah, tenderly taking the hand of his old friend.

“Micah, can you hear me?”

Micah nodded weakly. Turning his head was hard but he managed to open his eyes and even to grin.

“Good to … see you, Lucas-Boy … I am afraid … that´s not such … a good night. But I will … be … be alright in no time. I was hurt … much worse in my life… I am glad you are … here with me.”

Lucas forced himself to smile in an attempt to calm the old man.
“Sure you will be alright, Micah. Sure you will. But you have to think now. Who did that to you? Tell me. Plummer? Was it Plummer? I will get him for what he did to you. I promise you, Micah.”

Micah closed his eyes but his lips kept forming soft and silent words.
“Not Plummer … I was outside and then I was … I was attacked from behind … I tried to stop him … but … he kept hitting me … Lucas … you have to get them … there was nothing I could do. I am sorry.”

It was hard for the rancher to stay calm now. His hoarse voice turned louder.
“Who was the other man? Who broke Plummer out of his cell? Could you see his face?”

Again Micah opened his eyes in an attempt to recall what had happened.
“No, it was dark but … he was so fast and vicious … but I think they rode off to the South … I heard their horses … when they left the town … after stealing also my colt out of my holster … it hurts …”

Burrage put a hand on Lucas´s shoulder, feeling the sweat on his shirt.
“He has lost a lot of blood. Let him sleep now. I drugged him so he can bear the pain. In the morning you will raise a posse and track those varmints down.”

Lucas didn´t answer. He grabbed his Winchester and left the house. The people of North Fork froze when the door was opened but nobody dared to ask a question. Lucas didn´t pay any attention to them. After mounting his horse he looked down into all the worried faces.

“I go alone. No one here stands a chance against Plummer. If don´t come back …”
Lucas stopped as he saw his son standing right next to Hamilton, now only a mere child, terrified and pale. Lucas leaned forward in the saddle and stretched out his left arm.

“You will stay with Micah and see that he gets all he needs, Mark. I will be back soon. Understood? ”

The worried kid nodded and Lucas could see tears shimmering in his eyes.
“Yes … Pa, you can count on me. Micah will be alright, sure he will.”

Lucas felt the love for his son like a warm flame in his heart. He dismounted again and hugged his boy like never before. A minute later he vanished into the darkness, going after Dan Plummer.

***

José Rodriguez had lived for decades in that desert. Many years ago he had served in Santa Anna´s army but one day he had seen enough of soldiering. He had quit and started to run a small cantina near Veracruz. But things had not worked the way he expected it and somehow he had ended up in the desert, had built a little cabin near a river and led a humble but happy life in the wilderness. He made a good living by growing corn and hunting in the mountains. Morning was breaking and the sun shed its golden light over the vast landscape. It would be a hot day. José Rodriguez was joyriding in the hills on his best mule. He loved the loneliness out here so he was pretty surprised when he spotted two riders coming his way over the narrow path. He halted his brown mule and shadowed his dark eyes. José Luis Rodriguez was a peaceful and God-fearing man and a friendly talk with some gringos would have been a nice change in his daily routine. The two men approached fast and soon he could see their faces: the bigger one was a strong fella, the younger one was still a mere kid. When they were close enough he politely took off his mothy sombrero and greeted them. The two gringos stopped their horses right in front of him. The old Mexican smiled modestly.
“Buenos días, señores. ¿Le puedo ayudar en algo? Soy …”

But before he could finish the sentence the younger rider drew his gun without any hesitation. Two bullets hit the Mexican´s chest. His mule reared in panic, turned and ran off into the hills while the lifeless body of its master dropped to the stony ground. The two men grinned and dismounted to search the dead Mexican. The only thing they found was a small crucifix, José Luis Rodriguez wore around his neck. The younger killer threw it into the air, drew his gun again and the bullet shattered the trinket right in the air over their heads. While the smoke cleared the two men sneered again and led their horses into the cool shadow under the rocks. The animals were enjoying the short rest under the cover of the massive boulders while Plummer stretched his stiff legs and rubbed his muscular arms. His companion filled the canteen at the little creek between the grey rocks and handed it over to the outlaw. Plummer nodded thankfully and quenched his thirst while the kid reloaded his gun. He was considerably younger than Plummer, lanky, blond, wearing a black shirt and black pants. He was armed with two beautiful colts 45 with buckhorn grips, holstered at his hips. Plummer gently caressed the sweaty neck of his horse.

“That crucifix reminded me of the little harmonica I once gave to you, Charlie. Do you still have it?”

The younger man hesitated for a moment before he sadly shook his head.
“I just noticed yesterday that I must have lost in somewhere. When I was looking in my saddlebags I could not find it. God knows where it is now. I am really sorry. I became pretty good playing it.”

Plummer smiled pensively while his big hands glided over the animal´s wet fur.
“Never mind, I will get you another one. I gotta tell you, Charlie, it makes me proud that you remembered the old Mexican saying: Los muertos no hablan. I love the irony of that, I must confess.”

Charlie eyed the silenced Mexican whose sombrero was still lying next to him.
“Do you think they have found the body of that old lawman already?”

Plummer looked to the North. The sandy hills seemed to glow in the warm sunshine of the new day.

“They sure have, and soon we will have a posse on our heels. Killing a Marshal makes people kinda angry out here. But we will give them a slip. No posse will ever catch up with us, Charlie.”

But Plummer was not that confident that time. It was not some posse Dan Plummer was afraid of, not of a group of inexperienced deputies. There was worried about his old friend who was really fast with that rifle, maybe too fast. But he knew better than to show any uncertainty to the kid.

“You did good tonight, real good, Charlie. You did exactly what we agreed on: come to North Fork with two fresh horses, getting rid of that old man and taking the keys to my cell, just as we planned it. Knowing that you would be around to get me out of there sure was a good feeling. Soon you´re gonna be a real man nobody messes with. You even got faster since the last time I saw you.”

Charlie nodded. His youthful face showed how proud he was of the praise.
“That old fool never saw me coming in the darkness. Pity that that takes the entire thrill out of the business. But we have to think ahead now. Any idea where should we go from here?”

Plummer turned his head and pointed to the desolate plains in the South.
“Where the money is of course. Clint has no use for it anymore so we will try to make the best of it. We gonna have a fine life in Mexico, you will see. I know some real nice places with some mighty pretty señoritas. Just do what your old man says and you will be alright, son. Your old father knows all the tricks. And very soon you will be just like me and I am mighty proud of you, son.”

Charlie smirked again and exchanged a loving glance with his father.
“What are we waiting for, Pa?”

***

Micah´s breath was steady and calm and Burrage explained to Mark that that was a good sign.

“Maybe it is not so bad after all. He will suffer from a terrible headache when he wakes up but I think he will be alright. He was real lucky that your father found him early enough so I could stop the bleeding just in time. It looks worse than it actually is, don´t worry, son.”

Mark was not that convinced when he saw Micah´s pale face in the soft pillows.
“Is there anything I could do for him, sir?”

“Just stay with him and be there when he wakes up. He needs a lot of rest with such a concussion.”

Mark took a chair and sat down right next to Micah´s bed. Micah murmured a few words Mark could not understand. But then he had an idea. He took his little treasure out of his breast pocket and pressed it against his lips. He had never played a harmonica before but Burrage thought it was the most beautiful music he had ever heard. And Mark kept playing it to bring pleasant dreams to his injured friend. At last the old man opened his eyes and turned his head. Mark lowered the little instrument and didn´t know what to say. Micah smiled and moved his hands slowly over the soft blanket that covered his chest. His face was not that pallid anymore and his voice was clear.

“Keep playing, Mark …”

***

When he saw the vulture circling, Lucas carefully dismounted and left his horse between the boulders. He was hoping that it was just the carcass of some coyote or a deer that had attracted the bird´s attention but when he found José Rodriguez´s body he sighed and closed his eyes in desperation. The lonesome hunter had no time to bury the dead Mexican. He needed to stop the men who had almost killed his best friend only hours ago. He climbed a rock to get a better view and looked to the South where the trail of the two killers led. Thorny bushes covered the sandy plains. The rancher raised his Winchester and bit his lips in deadly determination.

“Dan, I swear you will pay for all that.”

***

Burrage had a hard time keeping all the worried visitors away. Especially the ladies were persevering: they kept walking in all the time and almost all of them brought some sort of present for the hurt lawman. Soon Micah had more apple pie around his bed than he could eat in a whole week. Hamilton came over three times and ensured Micah how great he looked considering the circumstances. Half an hour later Sweeney brought a bottle of his finest whiskey assuring the doctor it was the best cure against headache. With so much affection it was no wonder that Micah recovered amazingly quickly. Around noon he already entertained the follish idea of getting up and walking a few steps but the strict physician forbad that. So the exhausted lawman kept shaking hands and receiving even more pie while he was still lying in the soft sheets. Despite the throbbing pain under his scalp he somehow enjoyed all the attention. Finally the last visitor had left and Micah chewed slowly a piece of pie. Burrage was glad that the old man already showed signs of appetite. And while Micah gorged himself with even more cake, Mark kept playing his harmonica all the time.

***

The vast plain ahead was a strewn with huge boulders, some big as houses. Between those rocks only some tried bushes resisted the force of the elements. Charlie was not sure what to think of that god-forsaken desolation. The heat began taking its toll on the young killer. He took another mouthful of warm water out of the canteen while he was waiting for his father in the shadow of a dead mesquite tree. Attracted by the salty sweat flies were buzzing around Charlie´s faze. Soon Dan Plummer appeared between the rocks and hurried over to his son who stepped out of the cover to greet him.

“Is the waterhole free, Pa? Can we go there now?”
 
Plummer looked back and shook his head.

“I am afraid not, son. They are four, as far as I could see, probably a family, not an armed war party. We can´t go around, our horses need water real bad. If we don´t let them drink they perish on their way to the money. Time is running short if there is really a posse behind us. We have to be careful.”
The young killer took off his black hat and wiped his wet forehead with his sleeve.
“I can do it, Pa. You know I can. Let me go. I take care of that red vermin.”
Plummer slowly drew Micah´s revolver out of his belt and signaled his son to stay down.

“I take care of things this time, Charlie. You stay here and watch the horses. You only come out when I call you. After watering the animals and filling the canteens we go on to the money, alright?”

Plummer cocked the gun he had taken with him the night before and turned around, heading back to the waterhole. Charlie watched his father vanishing behind the rocks and waited, nervously caressing the black mane of his thirsty mount: one minute, two minutes … Charlie grew impatient and slowly drew one of his own guns. He was about to follow his father to give him a hand. Avoiding any noise he set out to climb up the narrow path and … a rapid sequence of shots rang out. Charlie jumped back and cocked his colt. Two more shots could be heard where the little waterhole was located, somewhere behind the barren ridge. Out of a reflex he counted the shots. Again he stuck his neck out of the hide-out. When the sixth shot was fired he knew his father was out of bullets. Now he lost his patience, ran to the path and started climbing over the loose rubble. His hands were sweaty and he almost slipped. Then came the relief: he heard his father´s deep voice behind the grey cliff.

“Bring the horses, son! Plenty of water here, guaranteed free of any pesky redskins!”

Charlie let out a youthful holler of joy, hurried back to the animals and led them cautiously over the rocky path to the small lake. He could smell the fresh water already and the air was a little bit cooler here. The way to the money was free and the kid felt new courage in his heart.

Three hours later a towering man dismounted at the muddy banks of the waterhole and kneeled, rifle in hand, next to the lifeless bodies of four Yaquis. Again a vulture was circling over his head.

***

Charlie swept the sweat away from his forehead. His black shirt was covered with fine dust.

“How long have we to go from here? I can´t help wondering where you hid that money, Pa. Maybe you can tell me now. As you may gather I am growing pretty curious.”

Plummer was tired but he was sure that they had lost the posse. So he and his son could afford a short break. He dismounted slowly in the shadow of some trees near a dry wash and stretched his smarting back. On hot days like that he felt that age was sinking in after a violent and troublesome life. It was time to start a quiet life in Mexico, leaving the past behind. His son would go to school there and he would sit on his porch all day in a rocking chair, drinking tequila and smoking one cigar after another. Charlie´s voice was harder now, full of impatient tension.
“Where is that money, Pa?”

Plummer looked to the hills in the South without facing his edgy son.
“Don´t you worry. It´s safe. Nobody knows the place where I buried it.”
“Where?”

Plummer walked around in the soft sand, enjoying the cool wind on his wrinkled face.

“I buried it at our old farm where you were born, son. It´s right next to the grave of your dear mother, right next to her wooden cross on the hill. Your mother guards the money for us, son.”

There was a blissful moment of silence. Plummer gazed up to the sky and admired the white clouds up there. A new life was about to start … and then he heard a soft thud right in front of his feet. He looked down and saw a revolver lying in the white sand. The outlaw turned around and saw Charlie´s handsome face. The young man´s eyes were strangely cold and determined.

“Pick it up, old man.”
 
Plummer opened his mouth in surprise. Suddenly he felt very hot but not because of the burning sun.

“What´s the meaning of that, boy?”

Charlie waited a couple of seconds without saying a single word. He elegantly swung out of the saddle and walked over to his father. His left holster was empty now.

“Remember when you taught me to shoot a gun? You told me over and over again that there is never a prize for second best. You were the fastest gun alive but today I will take your place, Pa. Pick it up and then I gonna show you what I learned from you. I take after you, old man. Ain´t you proud.”

Dan Plummer could not believe it yet he knew that it was true. It was his fault that his son had turned into a killer and now he was about the pay the ultimate price for it.

“Why do you do that to me, Charlie? I am glad that your dear mother doesn´t have to see that.”

“Today is my day. Either you kill me or I kill you, building my reputation as the man who outdrew Deadly Dan. You see: I´d hate to share that money. I want it all. You killed Rochester for it and I will kill you. Today I will get rich and famous … after I buried you right here. It´s a fine place to die.”

Plummer looked down to the gun with the precious buckhorn grip in front of the dusty tips of his boots. His voice was now nothing more than a raspy whisper.
“I should have known. Yes, you take after me, and maybe I ought to be proud of you.”

Father and son stared at each other. For Plummer it was like looking into a blurry mirror, showing his younger reflection. Charlie slowly went a few steps backwards, leaving deep tracks in the white sand. Then he stopped and nodded, while he pressed his fists into his hips.
 
“I give you a fair chance, old man. I would not murder my own father in cold blood. Pick it up and put it in your belt. Let´s see if you could still live up to your reputation. What´s the matter? Feeling yellow all of a sudden? That would be a real disappointment to me: I´d hate to shoot a coward.”

Finaly Plummer bowed down and grabbed the gun. He felt the deadly weight in his hand when he let the barrel slowly glide between his belt and his checkered shirt. For a moment he felt terribly sick.
“Don´t make me do it, son, please, I beg you …”

The young outlaw spread his lean legs a little and lowered his right hand to the holster before he enjoyed striking his last devastating blow.

“There is one more thing you ought to know, old man. There was a time when you and Clint Rochester were close friends after your time in Yuma. Well, mother agreed with you there. I guess even the wife of an outlaw can get bored and lonely sometimes and Rochester was a good friend … a real good friend. She died giving birth to his child, not yours, you yellow cuckold. Too bad you learn that now, when you are about to meet her and him again. What a lovely reunion.”

For the first time in his life, Plummer´s evil heart was standing still in horror and the shock was more than he could bear. His tongue was dry and he felt cold sweat running on his cheeks. He saw Caroline´s beautiful face and then the charming sneer on Rochester´s fat face and he saw himself digging that grave on the hill near his house and then his watering eyes spotted Charlie standing there in the wonderful sunshine, only a few meters away, a black angel of death, ready to kill him. Plummer´s arms were paralyzed and for the first time in his life he felt utterly helpless.

“Charlie, please, don´t do it. I am your father.”

Charlie drew with lightning speed and the silence of the desert was torn by the sound of one shot. It echoed in the huge rocks around the dry wash and faded away until all was silent again.

***

“So how is he, doc?”
Hamilton rushed over to Burrage, eager to hear any news about Torrance´s state. In no time some of the other citizens had gathered in the street and Burrage looked into a dozen worried faces.
 
“It´s alright, people. I dare say that our good Marshal is out of the woods now. I must confess when I saw him first it didn´t look too good but now it seems that our good Marshal will soon be able to carry out his duties for the good citizens of North Fork, according to the letter of the law. But whatever he earns it´s not nearly enough. Now let me through, folks, I need a drink real bad.”
Hamilton shook his head.

“You can´t leave him alone right now, doc.”

Burrage allowed himself a smile and pointed over the shoulder to the door of his house.
“He is not alone.”

***

Lucas turned in his saddle and looked back into the direction he came from. Somewhere out there was North Fork. And he knew that there was a worried son and an injured man waiting for his return, a return that was more than unlikely. For a moment he felt the temptation to turn back and see Micah and Mark again. But then his eyes searched the barren horizon again. Dan Plummer was somewhere ahead of him and he needed to be stopped, no matter what.

Lucas drove his heels into the animal´s sweaty flanks and kept on following the trail in the sand. He was constantly on the alert. Any time a well-aimed shot out of an ambush could throw him off his horse. Death was lying in wait: he could feel it. The circling vulture up on the cloudless sky seemed to confirm his perception. He raised his rifle and his eyes became narrow. His head kept moving from one side to the other. He was sure now: there was something near the dry wash. Lucas dismounted and took cover behind the rocks, waiting for any sign of danger. But everything was quiet and peaceful. Very carefully he moved closer to the dry wash. His gun was ready to fire.

He stopped in the pleasant shadow of the high trees. The thin branches moved in the gentle wind. Lucas finally relaxed. Whatever had happened here: it was over. He directed his steps through the bushes and after a few seconds spotted the corpse in the trembled sand. When he cautiously approached it he instantly noticed the little round hole in the forehead. The trail kept leading straight south right through the desert. And the vulture was still circling up there …

***

“Micah, may I ask you a question?”
Mark had waited for the moment when Micah opened his eyes. The old man´s head was still covered with a thick layer of white bandages. Micah just nodded. Mark had troubles finding the right words.

“Who is Dan Plummer? I know there is a song about Deadly Dan but Pa was so anxious to see him. He rode off right after I had delivered your message. But what is so special about that man?”

Micah took a deep breath and gazed up to the ceiling of the room.
“Dan Plummer and your father marched in the war together, side by side. They used to be the best of friends. Later Plummer became an outlaw folks sing still songs about. When he was arrested at last after killing his partner, a wealthy farmer in Silverton, I promised your father to let him have a talk with him. But that doesn´t change the fact that Deadly Dan is the most ruthless killer I ever brought in. Not even Wyatt Earp had dared to drive him out of Tombstone a couple of years ago. Later I asked Wyatt why he didn´t do anything against Plummer and Wyatt answered that he would have never gone to the OK Corral if Plummer had been there too together with the McLaurys and the Clantons.”

Mark was horrified. He jumped up and ran to the window but there was still no sign of his father.

***

Lucas stopped his tired horse on the crest of the stark hill. Right in front of him was a deep hole in the ground, right next to the narrow grave. The broken cross of that grave was lying a few meters away and Lucas could read the weathered letters on the rotten wood:
“Caroline Plummer, 1855 – 1882, in eternal love”

Only now he understood his friend´s words back in that cell. Yes, a man loses just about everything when his wife dies. He knew that feeling all too well. But he still had his son and a good ranch. That was his cause, his reason to live. Lucas realized once again how rich he actually was.

Then the rancher spotted the rusty shovel lying right to the broken cross, half buried in the hot sand and suddenly he became aware that that cross had been torn out and broken with that shovel. Caroline Plummer´s last resting place had been deliberately desecrated. Lucas looked around. The burning sun blinded the rancher and so he needed a few seconds to make out the ramshackle farm down there between the trees near the creek. Once it must have been a fine place but now the building was nothing more than a ruin, half covered with sand. Even from up here Lucas could see the broken windows and the collapsed chimney. Lucas slowly let himself glide out of the saddle and pulled the Winchester out of the scabbard. He felt terribly tired now but his senses were keen as ever. He was ready to react to any danger any time.

“My life was once a well-oiled pocket watch but somebody has taken it apart, piece by piece.”

Lucas didn´t swing around and fire. He just closed his eyes. That deep voice behind him tortured him since he knew that moment of truth had arrived after all. He slowly turned around and saw Plummer standing only a few meters away with a filled saddlebag thrown over his left shoulder. Plummer was only the shadow of the man he once had been: he was somehow hunched, appearing smaller and kinda sick. His sharp cheekbones covered the lower part of his haggard face in black shadows.
“I knew you would come after me, my friend. You are the last. Caroline cheated on me, before she died, my partner double-crossed me and my own son called me and so I had to kill him.”

Lucas opened his mouth. He remembered the corpse near the dry wash a couple of miles away.

“That was your son out there, Dan?”

The killer shrugged. His weary glance wandered off to the little ruin at the foot of the hill.

“I don´t hold any grudge against Charlie. I would have done the same if I had been in his place. He was a good boy, but sadly a little too reckless. You came for that, Lucas?”

His chin touched the dust-covered leather of the saddlebag. $3000 were a lot of money.

Lucas, his rifle in hand, tried to keep the glaring sun out of his view when he stepped closer.

“I came for you, Dan. I will be there when the hangman puts the noose around your neck.”

Plummer´s right hand slowly glided down to the beautiful colt that stuck in Charlie´s holster. The fingertips of his other hand pressed against the roughened leather of the saddlebag on his shoulder.

“I am rich now and I still have my reputation. Very soon I will be the man who killed that sodbuster folks called the Rifleman. That´s my cause now and it´s worth fighting for. Now I have you right where I wanted you from the start, sodbuster. Today a new life begins and I plan to enjoy it.”

Lucas fingers felt the warm steel of the trigger of the rifle. He knew Dan´s reputation all too well.

“Don´t make me do it, Dan.”

For a moment the outlaw´s brown eyes became teary and his voice shaky.
“That´s exactly what I told my son today. He didn´t listen. Charlie just tried to make me proud.”

Lucas felt no pity at all. For a second he could see Mark´s beloved face and then the blood-covered floor of Micah´s office appeared in his mind. Suddenly Burrage´s voice was in his ears again, saying that terrible phrase all doctors say about God´s hand. Now the hate was reborn in the rancher´s heart, hate against former comrade who was responsible for so much suffering.
“His fate should teach you a lesson now, Plummer. Drop the money and the gun belt. Don´t try anything stupid. In Virginia you pulled me out of there and I don´t want to kill you. The hangman will take care of that. I will be there when you go up those stairs to the rope and I will be there when you drop through that trap door. And soon that song about Deadly Dan will be forgotten as well.”

Plummer´s voice was now deep and raspy again, full of self-confidence.
“All folks I ever respected and trusted are dead. What makes you think you will live, sodbuster?”

Lucas didn´t answer. Instead he slightly lifted the Winchester. The outlaw grinned. His thumb now touched the cock of the colt at his side. He was ready to kill once more.

“Sure, your rifle and my gun. We would have made quite a ….”

Right in the middle of the sentence Dan Plummer drew and fired. But the bullet went off into the air. The impacts of three shots hit his chest and turned him around. Without a scream he collapsed and fell on his face. Gasping for air he tried to get up again. His right hand reached out and grabbed the saddle bag that had dropped on the soft pebbles. There was the money, the start for a new life in Mexico. He clung to it. He needed Clint Rochester´s money bad. It was his money and he had killed his only son for it. It was rightfully his. But then his bloodied fingers lost their strength and let go. Plummer´s body slid smoothly down the sandy crest, overturning again and again, rolling deeper and deeper, until a heavy rock stopped it. Lucas lowered his rifle and waited a couple of seconds before he started his walk downhill. Plummer was lying on his back, still alive. When Lucas kneeled next to him the killer lifted his head. His right hand grabbed the arm of his former friend.

“What´s … your son´s name … lieutenant?”
“It´s Mark, sir.”

Plummer coughed and closed his eyes. His pale lips formed his last words.
“Family … that is all … that is worth fighting for … never lose it … Lucas … never …”

The rancher nodded gently as the fingers on his arm finally sank into the sand. A cool breeze caressed his sweaty cheeks. Dark clouds were drifting on the endless sky, promising rain at last.
 
“I never will, Dan.”

***

Micah listened to the heavy rain. The pain was almost gone and with the ability to think clearly again terrible quilt set in. He let his best friend go after Plummer all on his own. And now fear made him freeze. The old man gathered all his strength and pulled the blanket away. He turned his head and listened: a gentle snoring revealed that Mark had fallen asleep at last. It was almost midnight now and the darkness in front of the window was like a massive wall. The icy wind drove hundreds of raindrops against the pane. Micah´s feet touched the ground. For a moment he felt dizzy. His fingertips massaged his temples through the warm poultice. A bolt of lightning lit up the room for a split second quickly followed by rolling thunder. Micah pressed his palms against the white sheets and managed to get up. He was afraid that his knees would give it but he managed to stay on his feet. After a couple of breaths he started walking towards the door. He needed to do it: he had to gather a posse, swear the men in and go out there, despite the inclement weather. Maybe they would find Lucas´ body somewhere in the desert. Lucas deserved a decent funeral and he would get it. Micah was still in charge, still responsible for law and order and he considered it his duty …
And then his fingers touched the door knob in the darkness. He pressed his shoulder against the door and his face felt the fresh air streaming in. Cold raindrops hit his forehead. Micah took another step and looked around: the street was empty again. The yellow light of the lantern next to the window shimmered in the growing puddles. Micah shivered. In no time the white poultice around his head was soaked. He closed his weary eyes and moved out into the rain.

“Micah …?”

The old man didn´t hear the weak voice that came out of the dark like the whisper of the wind. His arms trembled. Over there was the Marshal´s office. He had to make it over there. He needed guns and badges to equip the posse. He needed to get there. He needed to act accordingly to the letter of the law. Lucas was out there all alone and he had to find him and so he started walking.
“Micah, you better take it easy.”
 
Now he felt it: a big hand on his shoulder. A towering man was standing next to him, looking down on him. Micah´s eyes became wide while a tense curtain of raindrops engulfed the two men.

“Lucas-Boy … you are back? You are no ghost?”

In the shadow of the soaked hat, Micah could not see the warm smile on his friend´s face.
 
“I don´t think that ghosts can ever feel as hungry and tired as I do right now, Micah. It´s sure good to see you back on your feet. Burrage must have done a marvelous job on you.”

Lucas pulled the old man close and Micah pressed his face against the wet shirt of the rancher.

Then they looked each other in the eyes. Micah´s lips trembled while raindrops run down his cheeks.

“Plummer …?”

Lucas closed his eyes for a second while his arms massaged gently the old man´s shoulder.

“His time was up. I´ve got the money with me. It´s still in the saddlebags, all of it.”

Micah stepped back. For the first time he grinned and eyed the man he had figured dead by now. The pain in his temples had faded away and he didn´t feel cold anymore. Micah shook his head.

“The blow was not that bad but while you were gone the nice ladies of North Fork tried to kill me by over-feeding me with pie. There is plenty left for you, Lucas-Boy. Come with me.”

Lucas followed Micah into the house out of the pelting rain. Lucas looked around and his eyes needed a few seconds to get used to the darkness. His boots left little puddles on the floor. Then he saw his son sleeping on the old couch still holding a harmonica in his left hand. Micah pointed to the sleeping boy and his voice was now just a caring whisper.

“He stayed with me all the time while you were gone and played for me. Let him sleep for now.”

That moment another bolt of lightning tore the nightly sky apart and Mark lifted his head.

“Pa …?”

“Yes, I am back.”

Lucas kneeled next to his son and when he felt the hug around his neck his eyes became watery. He didn´t even hear an angry Doc Burrage entering the room and guiding Micah back to bed.

“I told you not get up, Marshal. You still need a lot of rest. Good to have you back, Lucas.”

***

“It´s sure nice doing business with you, Mister McCain. Those cows you sold me sure are pretty.”

“That´s the reason why I made you pay such a good price, Mister Wallace.”

The two men shook hands once again, not aware of the fact that they had met before under very different circumstances. Lucas was very fond of the cattleman from Virginia whose eyes revealed that he was an honest fella with a great sense of humor. Wallace´s appearance was that of a wealthy man from the East: fancy suit, a grey bowler hat, a little portly but with a firm grip. An old scar ran down his cheek, a personal keepsake, reminding everybody that his life had not always been that good. Wallace had never told anybody that at some nights those upsetting nightmares returned: blurry visions of screaming men in grey, storming against blue demons, again and again and there in the midst of that bloody mayhem was the colonel, swinging his saber, hollering orders while men kept falling all around him. And those were the nights when Wallace kept tossing and turning in bed until the soft voice of his beloved wife calmed him down and made him fall asleep again.

“Whenever you are in need of cattle you know where to find me, Mister Wallace.”
Lucas pointed to the vast grassland in the bright sunshine that was covered with grazing livestock.

“I sure will, Mister McCain. My cowboys will be here next week and drive the cows to my land.”

Then Wallace turned his head and spotted a boy coming from the grassy hills.
It was almost noon and Mark returned just in time from fishing. With his rot over his shoulder he hurried over to his father to show him the three trout he had caught that morning.

“That´s my son and partner Mark, Mister Wallace. The only man I rely on when it comes to breeding cattle. Without him I would not know what to do. That´s Mister Wallace from Virginia, Mark.”

The boy was impressed by the appearance of the rich man in his expensive suit.
“Howdy, sir, it´s sure an honor and a privilege meeting you, sir.”

Wallace was pleased with Mark´s fine manners and shook his hand. Then Wallace took a closer look and pointed at the harmonica that stuck out of the boy´s breast pocket.

“Are you any good with that, son?”

Mark had not expected that such a noble gentleman would notice his instrument.
“Well, I keep practicing, sir. I am already pretty good with it.”

Wallace nodded smilingly.

“You should. After the war I learned that Honest Abe Lincoln also had owned one.”

***

After eating their dinner Mark seemed kinda pensive. Lucas lit up his cigar and watched his boy.

“What are you thinking, son? Is anything troubling you? There is no need to be sad.”

While Mark carried the plates away his mind was distracted.
“Well, do you think it´s true: that President Lincoln also had such a harmonica? A president playing the harmonica … that is something. I would have never thought of that.”

Lucas knew what would come next. He blew out the tense smoke and enjoyed the harmony of the evening. The moon was up and hundreds of stars lit up the black sky.

While cleaning the dishes Mark kept on contemplating about his future.
“Do you think that I could become president one day, Pa?

Lucas smiled listening to the nightly concert of the countless crickets around the house.

“We had a president from Kentucky so perhaps one from North Fork would be a nice change.”

It was obvious that Mark kinda grew to that exciting idea.
“Yes, as soon as I am president I will appoint you my minister for cattle breeding. How about that?”

Lucas lowered his glance and shook his head as if serious concerns were troubling him.

“I don´t know how I could ever prove myself worthy of that tremendous honor, sir.”

THE END

These stories are based on the TV series The Rifleman
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