The Rifleman
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Fan Fiction

The Graveyard of Hope
Written by Klara's Boy

The man with the rifle in his left hand stood on the flat rock, looking through his scratched binoculars. The sun was already high on the sky and they would … yes, now he could see the tense dust cloud between the stony hills near the river. His boots broke some dry branches as the man stepped forward. And now he could see the first rider, followed closely by a second and a third …
He started counting. Twelve men were guarding the heavy wagon that was pulled by four horses. Yes, they were approaching fast. The man lowered the binoculars and smiled. Everything went according to his plan. He turned around and moved down to the foot of the hill, watching his steps on that sandy ground. When he looked up, he saw the timid eyes of his son, a mere boy, who tried bravely to show at least a weak smile.  The father nodded and put his big right hand on his son´s shoulder.
“Make me proud, son, I know you will.”

Again the kid smiled, although his youthful face was terribly pale. He had a hard time keeping his stomach from turning for fear. No weakness now! His father counted on him.
“I … I will try my best, Pa …”

The man nodded again. He was hot of excitement and thankful for the cool breeze that came from the river that flew peacefully nearby.
“Yes, that is all a man can ask for, son.”

***

The dusty path split up here. One way led up to into the barren hills, the other down into the arid arroyo. Micah shook his head.
“No tracks on that kind of ground. Any ideas, LucasBoy?”

Lucas pulled the rifle out of the scabbard. His glance moved over the brown rocks of the canyon.
“We have to split up. I ride up into those hills for ten minutes; you go down there also for ten minutes. Then we turn back and come here again. The one who finds something stays there and wait for the other. Do you agree?”

Micah was still not convinced. It was still early in the morning but the heat was already unbearable. Exhaustion and sleep-deprivation had taken their toll on the old lawman. Three days are a long time if a man spends it hunting down a gang of outlaws, especially when he had no posse to back him up.
“Dean Carrow is dangerous and after all I hear is The Dutchman even worse. I don´t know about that Mexican but I can figure that he won´t drop his gun that easily once we catch up with them. And now we should split up?”

Lucas was biting his lips. His uneasy horse moved nervously under him.
“If we follow the wrong trail together we lose too much time. And I don´t want them to get away. I knew one of the coach drivers we found yesterday, you know that, Micah …”

Micah had known Bill Kelly too, a good boy, blond, slender, smart and always friendly, a man who had planned to move to the East some day to study there. Saying a prayer over the grave of such a good fella was simply not enough. They had to catch his killers …
“Alright, I go down there. I think the shadow in the gorge will do me good. I´ll see you in twenty minutes right here, LucasBoy.”

The rancher with the Winchester didn´t answers, but turned his sweat-covered horse around and began his ascent over the narrow path, up into the naked rocks. Micah sighed. For a moment he felt really old. He promised himself that he would give up his badge after their return to North Fork once and for all. There was no sense in fighting age. That grueling manhunt had also Lucas worn down. The Rifleman seemed testy and even aggressive. Maybe it was the land, that terrible land with all its endless violence. It was said that this would be a great nation, once the West was tamed, a land where everybody could live free and in peace. But deep in his heart Micah doubted that. No, he knew that it was just not true. Men like Carrow would always be around, now and in hundreds years. Nations could change but men couldn´t. Yes, it was that cursed land that made people kill one another. That land was built on killing and so was the nation that grew on that bloody soil. And Micah was a part of that nation, rooted in that terrible land. Maybe it needed their bones in the ground before a better time could ever come. Micah remembered now: an old school teacher once had spoken those words: Maybe it needs our bones in the ground …

After pulling the shotgun out the lawman drove his horse down over the sand covered ridge, passing by huge boulders and desiccated bushes. After a few moments he was all alone. His horse set its hooves cautiously and so the ride was slow and hard. After exactly five minutes Micah reached the deepest point of the rocky canyon. It was refreshingly cool in the gorge and even larger trees managed to survive here. Yes, those green trees even formed a small forest and Micah realized that that place would be the perfect place for an ambush. He looked around and saw not a trace of a human soul. The branches of the trees moved gently in the smooth wind.

“Better drop that nice scattergun of yours, Torrance …”
Micah stopped his horse. He had heard that deep voice before. He turned his head and saw two men behind him, standing casually between the boulders only a few meters away. One was a man in his forties, wearing a black hat, a white shirt and brown pants. His Colt 45 that was still holstered at his right side. The other man was considerably younger, slim, wearing a leather jacket and black pants. That thin boy held his both guns in his hand and when Micah hesitated to drop his shotgun he cocked his Colts. The older man stepped forward and pushed his black hat back over his neck, smiling gleefully. He looked like a wealthy lawyer of the East, but Micah knew that he had been riding right into the trap of one of the most ruthless killers West of San Antonio. Carrow pointed up to the giant rock, which was half covered by the lush trees.
“You better try nothing stupid, Mister Torrance. Felipe is pretty good with his rifle.”

Micah looked up and saw the ragged Mexican standing up there in the broad daylight, aiming a Winchester at him. Micah was surrounded and he knew that he was doomed. Slowly he dismounted. For a split second he thought about drawing his revolver: at least he would die with a gun in his hand. But Dean Carrow seemed to be able to read his mind.
“No, Mister Torrance, you are too smart to try that. I once told you that when you arrested me back in Missouri. You were the only man who could catch me and I respect you for that. Remember?”

Micah exchanged a hateful glance with the elegant outlaw. Yes, the memory was still there in his brain, burning like a hot brand in the hide of a steer. That bloody night in Missouri …
“Seven years in Yuma didn´t teach you nothing, did they, Carrow?”

Dean Carrow´s sneer disappeared as he stepped closer. His sharp spurs clinked with every pace. Now his small eyes showed the ruthless killer in him.
“Those years taught me that a man should never underestimate anybody. Seven years in a stinking cell can break a man. But I didn´t break. Each night when I couldn´t sleep I prayed in that stinking cell that you wouldn´t die of old age in the meantime so I could come back and get even with you. That was the only thing that kept me going down there … in Yuma.”

Then he turned around and beckoned the younger outlaw to come nearer.
“See Dutchy, that´s the gentleman I told you about, the honorable Marshal of North Fork. He is no good anymore though. An ugly sodbuster does all the work for him there, even without payment. I told you about that sodbuster too. The one with the rifle, remember?”

Dutchy nodded slightly. Carrow put his hand on the young friend´s shoulder and looked at Micah.
“Dutchy, I know your sentiments about killing kids but shooting such an old fella is not murder. He lived his life, saw many days and many nights. And now he would soon meet his maker anyway. Shooting him is just speeding things up. Ain´t that right, Dutchy?”

The Dutchman didn´t say a word. His lovely blue eyes didn´t reveal anything. He just stood there and in his youth he seemed even more fearsome than his boss. Micah knew that this was the end. He had known Dean Carrow too well to expect anything but death from him now.
“I am tired of your talk, get it over with, Carrow.”

Dean Carrow smiled cruelly as he came closer until he could see straight into Micah´s face. Micah could smell the killer´s warm breathe. Then the killer slowly pulled his Colt out of the leather, enjoying the moment he had been waiting for. Seven years at that place called Yuma ….
“My pleasure, Mister Torra ….”

He couldn´t finish the name. Two bullets hit Carrow´s back between the shoulder blades, yanked his body around and knocked him brutally to the soft sand. The Dutchman turned around with lightning speed but before he could fire, his chest was pierced by two more shots. He was kicked back by the impacts, he screamed out in pain before he sank down on his knees.
Micah jumped to the side, trying to get out of the line of fire. But he was too slow: Felipe took aim and his rifle bullet grazed Micah´s right shoulder. The old man gasped for air as the pain ran through his body like a hot iron. Micah dropped to the ground, trying desperately to stay conscious. The Mexican ejected the shell and pulled the trigger again. The lead missed the lawman only by inches.

Lucas ran out of his cover between the red rocks and seemingly without aiming he fired his Winchester out of the hip at Felipe: three times, four times … the reports of his rifle were earsplitting in the narrow gorge. Empty shells rained to the ground. Another shot rang out, filling the area with more gunsmoke. The Mexican dropped his gun and for an endless second he stood up there on the rock, holding his chest. Then his legs gave in, he dropped on his face and rolled around over the sharp edge of the rock. His lifeless body fell like a stone before he disappeared somewhere in the tense brushwork at the foot of the rock, breaking some dry branches while he kept rolling deeper and deeper until he was gone.

The Dutchman still kneeled in the white sand and starred at Lucas, unable to grasp the situation. While he pressed his left palm against his rips he slowly raised his right hand that was still holding the Colt. His pale lips formed silent words, mere syllables, hardly understandable.
That sod … buster … from North Fork … you are … sod … b …”

But before Dutchy could pull the trigger his slender body sank to the ground, never to rise again. Lucas looked down at him with cold contempt. Then he hurried over to Micah who was still lying on his side, desperately trying to get up, maybe even draw his revolver. Lucas noticed the blood when gently helping him up on his feet again.
“You are hurt bad, Micah?”

Micah looked at the bleeding wound next to his neck. It smarted like hell, but he had been more than lucky. A few inches further up and Felipe would have hit his target just the way he had intended. But it was all over now. The canyon was silent again and the trees kept moving in the cool wind.
“I am alright, thanks to you, LucasBoy. I am mighty happy that you showed up just in time. But I reckon those twenty minutes are not over yet, right?”

Lucas carefully wiped the fine dust from Micah´s black vest.
“No, my path up ended after a few more meters so I figured it was the best to follow you. I am glad I did.”

While holding his wounded shoulder Micah could feel warm blood running over his fingers.
Carrow ´s body was lying spread-eagle in the warm sand. Fresh bones in the ground …
“You shot him in the back without calling out to him first. As a deputy following the letter of the law you were supposed to give him a chance.”

Lucas looked at The Dutchman who was still holding the revolver in his lifeless hand. Blood was trickling into the sand. The rancher got some cartridges out of his pocket and reloaded his Winchester.
“I am pretty sure I can live with that guilt. They didn´t give Bill Kelly an even break either. Now we can at least tell his girl that his killers are dead. And I have no notion to bury them right now. We have to get you to a doctor, Micah. That wound looks pretty nasty although that bullet only touched you.”

Micah turned around and pointed down to the other end of the twisted canyon.
“I know that territory. I was here before a couple of years ago. Five of six miles in that direction we may find a doctor, I figure. There is a small town called Hope. Maybe we also find something to eat and can stay for the night before we ride back to North Fork.”

Although he was listening to Micah´s words, Lucas still looked at the dead outlaws in the sand. Bill Kelly had been a good man and maybe he would have become somebody in the East one day. Just shooting his murderers didn´t seem enough to Lucas anymore right now. Was it that land that made people kill the best men? Would folks ever change? And he felt the hard and cold steel of the Winchester in his hand when he picked up Micah´s shotgun.

“Alright, Micah, let´s try our luck.”

***

Hope was no town, not even a village, but just a miserable accumulation of five shabby huts with broken windows, oblique roofs and missing doors. Lucas and Micah approached slowly. Their horses were tired and so were their riders. Lucas looked at his friend: Micah was still holding his shoulder while he clung on to the reins of his animal with the other hand. It was obvious that the old man had a hard time staying in the saddle at all. Lucas prayed that there would really be a doctor around but he doubted it. Hope was the seediest place he ever had seen. And he hoped that the inhabitants would know the meaning of the word “hospitality”. He lifted his rifle prepared to defend Micah´s life at any time. Micah shook his head. His wound was burning like hell and his collarbone was bruised too.
“The last time I was here it looked quite different. Now it´s a ghost town. Too bad …”

Lucas stopped his horse and waved.
“No, there is at least one fella, coming out of that house over there right now.”

Micah looked up. There was really a lonely inhabitant, an old man in a brown shirt and torn pants. He returned Lucas´ waving and hurried over to the newcomers. Now Lucas could see the man´s face: curly white hair, bushy eyebrows, green eyes and a round nose. The man looked friendly and Lucas relaxed a little. The man politely tipped his white hat that looked like San Francisco of the moths-nation.
“Howdy, folks. It has been a long time since we could welcome visitors. You ran into some trouble, right?”

Micah nodded weakly. At least the bleeding had stopped but the throbbing pain in his collarbone was still torturing him. The sun was now high up on the cloudless skies, making the rocky hills around glow in the relentless heat.
“Some Mexican found me suitable as target for his shooting practice.”
The old man noticed the bloody sleeve and rubbed his hands.
“So I see. I will take a look at that wound right away. The name´s Scott, James Scott. Welcome to Hope, gentlemen.”

Lucas dismounted, still holding his rifle in his right hand.
“I am Lucas McCain and that is Micah Torrance. We are from North Fork and mighty grateful for your help, Mister Scott. We really are.”

Lucas quickly stepped over to Micah´s horse and the lawman slowly let his body glide out of the saddle into his friend´s strong arms. It was obvious how weak the old man was. For a moment Lucas seemed to hug his friend, holding him against his chest. It was just a short instance but it revealed the strength of their friendship. After giving Micah time to catch his breath Lucas started walking towards the shabby huts, still guiding the wounded man. Scott went ahead them, leading them to the biggest hut.
“Right in there, gentlemen. That´s the town hall, the salon, the storeroom, the place where I sleep and many other things and today it´s a hospital, I reckon. Here I will to patch you up in no time, Mister Torrance, you´ll see.”

But right before they entered a huge shadow blocked the entrance, stepping out of the building into the open. Lucas jumped back, taken totally by surprise by the big man who had appeared in the doorframe. Micah hand reached down to his holstered gun. Only Scott´s calming voice kept him from shooting.
“No need to worry, gentlemen, it´s only my servant.”
That uncanny figure was almost as towering as Lucas but much heavier and muscular. His black hair and his dark complexion revealed that he was an Indian, maybe even an Apache although he was unusually big for a Native. Micah looked at Scott, still worried.
“Your servant?”

The giant Apache eyed the two visitors suspiciously without saying a word. He was armed with a long-barreled Sharps 50, a massive gun that made Lucas´ rifle look almost tiny.  Scott smiled.
“It´s alright, Juan, those two are friends and our guests. And they need our help. Will you let them in?”

The silent Indian stepped aside and gave way to Micah and Lucas, never taking his murky eyes off them. The two friends walked in. The room was dark and cool. Lucas could make out a big table and some old chairs in the middle of the stuffy chamber. Scott pointed to a low bed at the wall that was covered with a grey blanket.
“Right over here, Mister Torrance. That´s the best place in all of Hope. You will sleep in that bed like in a fancy hotel room somewhere in the East, I promise you.”

Micah sank on the bed and stretched his leg, closing his eyes, thankful for the relief. Lucas was still worried and alarmed. Juan´s presence made the rancher feel mighty uncomfortable and not just because of the menacing Sharps in his hands. Juan was wearing leather pants, a brown jacket and a blue scarf around his neck, covering the upper part of his broad chest. Lucas was not sure if the servant really considered Lucas and Micah visitors and not intruders or even enemies. Scott nodded in order to calm Lucas down.
“You better go out and leave us alone while we take care of your friend. Don´t worry, Mister McCain. Juan is the son of a witty medicine man who had some nice tricks up his sleeve to get a man up on his feet in no time. And this is not the first time I take care of a bullet wound either, I can tell you, yessir.”

Lucas looked over to Micah who seemed to be already asleep after such a hard and dangerous day. Then he nodded. Suddenly he felt terribly tired himself too. The tension during the last days had been too much. His eyes were burning and … he missed Mark. For the first time in days the face of his son in front of his inner eyes was not pleasant but almost painful, like a reminder of a better life far away. What would he had given to be at his ranch right now, sitting on the porch, smoking a good cigar? And hearing Mark´s beloved voice …
“Well, there is nothing but I can do but trust you, Mister Scott. Do all you can, please. If you need me, I am outside and take care of our horses.”

The old man with the curly hair smiled again and ordered Juan to get some water from the well. The giant servant left the hut without a word and when he stepped over the threshold his enormous frame blocked the sunlight for a second.

***

Lucas was sitting on a weathered tree trunk that lied half covered with sand next to the small graveyard. His rifle was leaning next to him. Over and over again he could see Felipe´s fall, see Carrow drop to the ground, see Micah lying between the rocks, bleeding and helpless. Once again he had saved his friend´s life in the nick of time, this time by shooting a murderer in the back. Maybe it was the task of his lifetime: rescuing Micah …

And then he started reading the names on the five crosses again: Hawks, Ford, Aldrich, Mann and Sturges. Those crosses looked old but the names were carved in deep and were still readable. Lucas wondered who those men had been and why they had died at such a god-forsaken location. Hope was not a place where he wanted to be buried. And again he saw Mark´s face, heard his youthful laughter about some childish prank …
Lucas promised himself that would never go out to hunt outlaws ever again, not even with Micah. He had a son he had to care for. Mark was the future …

“Mind if I join you, Mister McCain?”
Scott sure knew how to move without a sound. Lucas turned and saw the old man approaching.
“Not at all, Mister Scott …”

The old man sat next to Lucas on the tree trunk. A hot gust of wind played with his curly hair.
“You don´t have to worry about your friend. He is asleep now and he will be alright very soon. The wound was painful but not really dangerous and not even the collarbone was broken by that lead. He had been lucky. Juan took care of him. Juan is a good man. When he was nineteen years old Mexican soldiers burned his village down and a bullet hit his Adam´s apple so he never could speak a word again.“

Lucas remembered the blue scarf around the giant´s neck. Scott sighed before he continued.
“I took him in and he became the only person I rely on. I gave him shelter, he gave me his loyalty. And I am glad about that: Juan helped me on more than one occasion, I can tell you, just as you helped your Mister Torrance.”

Lucas nodded. Again he felt the recoil of the rifle in his hands when he fired up to that rock to kill Felipe. If his path up to the top of the rocky hill in that canyon had been any longer …
“Yes, Micah Torrance is my best friend and I can´t wait to get him back to North Fork where he belongs. Not that we are ungrateful, Mister Scott, but home is home, you know”.

Scott hesitated before he asked a question that seemed strangely important to him.
“Are you a family man, Mister McCain?”

Again Mark´s smiling face flashed through Lucas´ mind. That boyish smile was all that counted …
“I have a son, 14 years old, back at my place near North Fork.”
“Is he with his mother right now?”
Scott´s questions were pure torture for Lucas and for a moment he was tempted to tell Scott to mind his own business. But he stayed tempered, still feeling very grateful. Scott was a hospitable gentleman despite his rough outfit and there was no reason to insult him after all he had done for Micah. And Juan would not like men who offended his master.
“No, my wife is dead. I am just a rancher and try to make a living by honest work. Only sometimes I give Micah a hand when he is after some outlaws. Torrance is the best Marshal a town can have.”

Again warm wind came down from the rocky hills. It was a barren land, hostile and lonely. Scott closed his green eyes for a moment.
“And today that got a little out of hand, I reckon. It´s a rough life with little money and a lot of worries.”

Lucas was too tired to answer. Again he wished to be at home at his porch and smelling the scent of a fine cigar and not be forced to listen to the meaningless prattle of some old man, no matter how nice he was. Scott on the other hand had not even started yet.
“I know that you are an honest man. I could tell by the way you cared for your friend. And you have a son you are responsible for. You are the first decent man I have met in quite a while. And that´s why there is something I want to talk about.  I am sure you will spend it in a proper way. If there is anybody who will use it fair and square it´s you.”

Lucas lifted his tired head and rubbed his chin. His dislike for Mister Scott became stronger.
“Use what? Stop speaking in riddles, Mister Scott. I am not in the mood for that right now. What are you talking about, straight from the shoulder?”

Scott´s voice was calm and deep now.
“I am talking about gold, Mister McCain, at least half a million, right here in your lap.”

Lucas frowned. What kind of fairy tale was that? Gold at this seedy place? Scott didn´t look exactly like a millionaire. Lucas shook his head. He was even too tired to answer. The old man nodded.
“Yes, you haven´t expect you to believe me but it´s the truth. So I tell you the whole story and after that you will believe me. I once had a son too. His name was Erin. During the war I was a captain in the Confederate Army and Erin was my lieutenant. In October 1864 we received orders to intercept a shipment of gold, guarded by a weak force of the Union cavalry. We set an ambush and waited for those bluebellies. And they came, riding right in. We sprang the trap and wiped them all out. It was swell, really swell. All went according to our plan and we suffered only minor casualties. But one of those was Erin. He fell with a bullet in his head fired by a Yankee sergeant during that engagement. Erin was just 17 years old and I still miss him so much. We had been mighty close, yessir.”

Being a former officer of the Union army Lucas felt mighty uncomfortable when he heard about that fight. The war was still in his heart and again Scott showed a special talent to bring unpleasant memories up. But Lucas managed to show at least a little sympathy. Following orders was one thing, losing a son another.
“I am sorry about that, Mister Scott.”

After a pause Scott continued his tale about gold and death.
“Anyway, when we were busy burying the dead one of my scouts brought the message that a regiment of Union infantry was approaching, outnumbering us at least five to one. So we did the only thing we could do: Taking the wagon with the shipment and pull out. The Confederacy needed that money really bad and we were proud of our service. But the only way we could go was through the desert. All other ways were blocked by the Yankees because they were eager to get their gold back as you might figure. So I ordered a retreat through the desert. After three days we ran out of water, after four days my men started dropping like flies. But we kept going across the burning sand and the rocks. Some fellas went mad and ran away, others shot themselves out of sheer desperation. At the end there was only a handful of men left. And then, after more than a week of pure hell we arrived here. We held a meeting and decided to hide the gold. In Hope lived only a few trappers and a family of Pimas and there was no problem. After recovering I ordered my men to go back to the nearest post of our army and report to the staff about what happened so they could send an outfit to collect the shipment. But my men never came back and I stayed on my own here until today.”

Lucas´ mouth was open in awe. He had listened carefully and Scott´s voice sounded honest and serious. Lucas could not discover a sign of lying in his words.
“Alright, I believe you. Color me impressed. But why did you tell me that story?”

Scott shrugged and his voice became sad and thoughtful.
“For over twenty years I have kept this secret. Hope is not much of a town but it´s my home. Once in a while I go over to Mexico and provide supplies. Juan is a good hunter and I swap some of his meat for corn, ammunition or tools. It´s a hard life here but we can make a living. However I am an old man now and sooner or later I will face my Lord. Maybe the Good Lord did send you here so I can hand that gold over to you. I know that you will use it in a proper manner being a father yourself.”

Lucas´s burning eyes were closed. That day was just too much.
“Provided that gold is really somewhere hidden in these parts and you really let me have it: don´t you think it would be the proper way to return it to the government? The war is over. Do you want to keep it going?”

The old man shook his head.
“We took it from the government once and now I should return it? Erin would have died for nothing. Besides: what will they do with that gold? The government would only pay more soldiers so they can kill off the last Apaches. Why would you give it back? So they can build more railways to destroy this land even faster? No, that gold should belong to you, Mister McCain. Your son could go the East and get a really good education and never will have a worry in his life ever again. Gold is a wonderful thing if it is used right. Your want your son to be happy, right?”

Lucas slowly got up, contemplating. Mark would soon become a young man, and maybe he would really like the thought of going East and make a living there and maybe he would have to get a job to earn the money to do that just like Bill Kelly did and … maybe he would run into somebody like Dean Carrow just like Bill Kelly did. And suddenly fear made Lucas´s heart throbbing. Maybe that gold was really the solution to everything, meaning a new life without all those petty troubles and big difficulties a rancher had to face from dawn till dusk. Maybe the West was no place to bring up a kid at all, maybe it was really the best to move to the East, leaving North Fork for good. That way gold would save Mark´s life. Bill Kelly had been already murdered, should Mark McCain become the next victim?
“Alright, Mister Scott. I agree to come with you and take a look at that treasure. After that we will decide together what we can do so everybody can be happy. How about that?”

Scott also stood up, smiling again. He rubbed his hands and Lucas could see true joy in his green eyes.
“Alright, let´s get our horses and I will lead you to your new life. It´s only a short ride.”

***

Micah lifted his head from the pillow when Lucas stepped in. The big man looked at his best friend and even managed to smile a little.
“How are you, Micah?”

The old fella almost seemed cheerful showing a dopey simper.
“Much better, LucasBoy. I don´t know what that talkative little injun exactly did, but the pain is already almost gone. I figure he soaked the poultice with some plant sap, that´s why I am feeling so wonderful. Must be some crazy old Indian remedy but it worked. I am feeling ten years younger. You´ll see I will run another term as Marshal, you´ll see. You better watch out in case you intend to break the law one day, Mister Lucas McCain, you old horse thief.”

Lucas placed the shotgun near Micah´s bed. He was not in the mood to share his friend´s humor.
“Listen Micah, our host would like to show me something. I am not exactly sure what it is but as long as I am gone I want you to keep this near you, better safe than sorry.”

Micah noticed the weary look on his friend´s face even here, in the stuffy darkness of the shabby hut.
“What are so worried about, LucasBoy? There is nobody around within 40 miles.”

Lucas stepped back. For a moment he was afraid that Micah would even start to sing as he always did when he was drunk. Micah´s singing voice was the worst sound he could imagine.
“That´s exactly the reason I want you to keep your shotgun right by your side, Micah. I will be back as soon as possible.”

“Sure, LucasBoy. If it makes you happy I will use my shotgun as soon as any nasty old outlaw sticks his ugly head through that door. Yessir, I will blow his head right off, just like that, without any warning, just like you do, without giving anybody a fair chance.”

Lucas frowned and for a moment, he was deeply hurt. How could his friend say such a rotten thing? Without Lucas Micah would have been dead by now as fate. Yes, he had shot a ruthless killer in the back, something he normally would have never done, that was the truth. But Bill Kelly would not ask about that. Maybe not even God would. He saw Dean Carrow going down once again, saw the Mexican dropping his rifle up on the rock again, he saw it again and again with his inner eyes. And he saw the fresh grave of Bill Kelly. It could have been Mark´s grave just as well … or Micah´s.

Without any further ado Lucas left the hut right in time to escape Micah´s cheerful song.
“Shaaaaall We Gaaaather at the River, the beeautiful the beautiful river, that flows by the throooone of Gawd …”

Lucas remembered that he once had heard that song at a funeral, a long time ago, maybe somewhere in Texas. And his keen instinct told him that there would be another one pretty soon …

***

Scott was out there near the smallest hut and he had changed his outfit. He now was wearing the long grey jacket of a Confederate officer and was armed with an old Navy Colt, holstered at his right side. He had already mounted a sorrel mare, waiting for Lucas to mount up too. Lucas´ horse had recovered a bit and seemed to be fit for a short ride.
“Well, Mister McCain, let´s go and see that gold.”

Lucas didn´t answer and followed Scott who rode up to the black rock formation that loomed over the sandy hills at both sides. The ground was soft and the hooves of the animals left deep tracks. After half a mile the narrow path led up to a twisted runway. At the end of that runway a couple of huge boulders were leaning against each other, forming a narrow cavern between them. Tense bushes framed the entrance to that cave. Lizards disappeared in a hurry between the stones when the men approached. A lonely buzzard was circling up in the blue sky. Scott pointed to rocks.
“There it is, right there. Each day I come up here and enjoy the shining beauty of that gold. I just have to so I never can forget that Erin didn´t die in vain. My son was a brave man, such a good man.”

Lucas felt excitement rising in his soul. Was that really the start of a new life? Or was the old man a liar? Had he lured Lucas out here for some unknown reason? It was afternoon now and Lucas could feel the merciless heat of the sun on his right shoulder. Lucas turned his head and looked to the West: somewhere out there behind the horizon was North Fork where his own son was waiting for him. Scott showed the rancher at a small clearing between a couple of dead trees.
“We leave the horses there.”

The two men dismounted and Lucas pulled the Winchester out of the scabbard with a smooth and elegant movement. For a moment he pointed it at his guide.
“Mister Scott, I don´t mean to be harsh or anything but I am still rather suspicious about that whole story. I would appreciate it if you left your gun out here until I am sure that you are telling the truth. I advice you not to try anything funny. I am pretty good with that rifle.”

For a moment the former officer´s eyes showed amazement, even insult but then he smiled. His right hand pulled the Navy Colt out of the holster and put it on a flat rock under a dead tree.
“Sure, Mister McCain, there is nothing to worry about. Permit me to lead the way.”

Lucas nodded and lowered his Winchester following Scott into the cave. The sun sent its warm shine into the cavern that was bigger than Lucas had expected. Scott stopped and pointed to the three heavy crates in the deepest part of the cave.
“There it is. Half a million dollars, the stuff dreams are made out of. Do you believe me now?”

Lucas raised his eyebrows. He hadn´t believed it, not really until now. It was indeed an intriguing view. Still careful he stepped nearer, watching his head under the low ceiling of the cavern. Yes, all three chests were marked with the writing “Property of the Union Army”. Lucas felt the hairs on his arms stand up. He was close, so close now. There was the gold, half a million, maybe even more.
“With your permission …”
The old rebel nodded, smiling cheerfully.
“Sure, go right ahead and tell me what you think. Isn´t it like the smile of a beautiful woman, only much more precious?”

The chests were not locked and so Lucas opened the first one. The metal lid was heavy and he needed a great deal of strength …
After looking into the first chest he lifted also the second lid and after a silent moment the third. Lucas slowly turned his head and looked at Scott.
“It seems to me we Yankees tricked you once again. You rebels robbed the wrong shipment, I reckon. This one was just a decoy to distract you. The real shipment must have been sent over some other way. Bad luck, I guess. In here is nothing but sand and stones.”

Scott´s face froze and he closed his eyes. His voice was nothing but a ghostly whisper.
“Sand and stones, sand and stones, that´s what Mann and Hawks and Ford and the others started to shout after opening the chests in here, sand and stones, we risked our lives for nothing. At that moment I started to hear Erin´s voice in my head, over and over again, telling me that it was gold, that the men were wrong, that he hadn´t died for sand and stones, but for real gold. And then Hawks and Ford started to shout at me and Erin told me that they were traitors if they didn´t believe that it was real gold. I could hear my son´s voice so clearly. Erin was everywhere, everywhere, I tell you! They are traitors if they don´t believe, if they don´t see it. It´s real gold! Gold …”

Lucas let the heavy lid of the third chest drop. The sound of the heavy metal sounded like a gunshot in the narrow cave.
“I tell you what happened. You lost your mind over the loss of your son. The fight and that death march through the desert made you crazy. You still can´t accept the fact that Erin died for a shipment of worthless stones. Tomorrow we will bring you to a doctor and maybe there is still hope for you.”

Scott eyed Lucas with mad hate in his green eyes.
“Erin is right: you are all traitors, all of you who don´t see that gold. And I know how to handle traitors. Hawks, Aldrich and Sturges were the first to die. I pulled out my gun and started executing them for their yellow treason. Ford and Mann tried to make run for it but I nailed them too. There are five lonely graves in Hope and soon there will be another one. I should have known better than trusting you, sodbuster. Erin tells me that you I have to kill you like those traitor!”

With a swift movement the madman reached down and pulled a sharp knife out of the shaft of his right boot. But before he could thrust the shimmering blade into the “traitor´s” breast, a bullet hit his arm, knocking him to the hard ground. Lucas swung his rifle around.
“You are crazy, Mister Scott and you are a murderer. But maybe it´s not your fault. Get up now and we bring you to North Fork.”

Lying on his back, the former officer started to move away from the rancher. Blood ran down the torn sleeve of his grey uniform. His eyes were wide open, revealing his full madness now. His blood-curling shrilling was like that of a wounded soldier on some battle field.
“No, you want to kill me! Erin talks to me all the time! And he warns me of men like you! You are the one who is crazy! Erin is right! You are crazy! You are a traitor! Erin …”

And then, before Lucas could do anything about it Scott jumped up and stormed out of the cave, shrieking like a devil. Lucas reacted too late. He could try to follow the bleeding man, keeping him from …
Then he heard the single gunshot out there right in front of cave and he knew that there was nothing he could do anymore …
Lucas lowered his head. The war was ended with that one shot, but not without claiming a last victim, a desperate father.
“I hope you can embrace your son again where you are going now, Mister Scott …”

***

Micah woke up with a pulsating hangover. He looked at the white poultice at his shoulder. The pain was gone and sank back on the bed, heaving a grateful sigh. But then he remembered that Lucas … or was that just a dream? No, there was his double-barreled shotgun leaning against the bed. Micah decided to get up. He took his blood-stained shirt and vest and got dressed. He felt lonely. Hope was surely no place to stay. Where was Lucas? Micah´s legs were still a little stiff and weak and so he leaned against the doorframe for a moment before stepping out into the sun. Hope was without life, a seedy village in the middle of nowhere, a place forgotten by the world and left to the eternal desert. He felt the urge to go home, to see real people, to hear their voices in the street. He wanted to see North Fork again and never ever leave it again. The wind drove fine dust into his face. Micah looked down at the shotgun under his arm and he could hear Carrow´s disdainful voice again.
(“He is no good anymore though. An ugly sodbuster does all the work for him”).

And he felt that that outlaw had been right …
He turned his head. Where was Lucas? And then he saw the horseman coming slowly down the path. Lucas was riding his animal, leading a second horse, a sorrel mare with a lifeless body over the saddle. Micah was stunned. Wasn´t that dead man …?
Lucas looked exhausted, salty sweat was running over his face when he entered Hope. Thus he didn´t notice the giant shadow behind the huts, moving without any sound and nor did Micah. The figure glided silently through the window into the darkness of the hut which had been sheltering the wounded lawman. Lucas stopped his horse right in front of Micah. Dismounting was troublesome, even painful.
The two friends exchanged a weary glance. Finally Lucas pointed over his shoulder.
“When we were up there he started to talk about his dead son who had been killed during the war. At some point of the conversation the pain became unbearable and suddenly he turned away, pulled his gun and put a bullet in his head. There was nothing I could do about it. It happened far too quickly and totally unexpected.”

Micah frowned. He had a keen sense for stories that weren´t entirely true.
“Is that all to it? He didn´t seem like the kind of men who would do such a thing.”

Lucas shook his head. He wanted to forget what really had happened up there in that cave knowing that he never could.
“Are you feeling alright again, Micah? The last time I saw you, you acted pretty … goofy. And you will never become a singer no matter how hard you try so please spare my ears those funeral songs for God´s sake.”

Micah frowned. His memory was strangely sketchy and his collarbone started to burn again.
“What are you talking about, LucasBoy?”

The exhausted rancher started to scream. The simmering tension in him broke free at last. There was no way to go to the East now. Not even a little reward from the government was possible. He had nothing. Only the youthful face of his son was in his mind, torturing him more than ever before.
“I am talking about digging a grave for that old screwball right now! I get him over to the graveyard to his fellow soldiers and you look if you can find a shovel somewhere! And after that we get the hell out of here! I have a ranch to take care of. And you have a town to protect, Mister Torrance!”

Micah heaved a sigh. Without saying a further word Micah turned around and went over to a little shack at the end of the street. Maybe he could find a spate there …
Lucas led the mare with Scott´s body over to the graveyard. Again he started to read the names of that madman´s victims: Ford, Mann, Aldrich …
Now he knew why those men had to die here in Hope. Lucas lifted his head and the hills were so silent and peaceful and yet so hostile and …
And then he heard the blast of a shotgun. Lucas swung around. The sun shined into his eyes. For a moment he was blinded. And then the second blast rang out.
“Micah!”

Lucas started running towards his horse. He could see the butt of his rifle sticking out of the scabbard. Only a few meters more. Running was hard in the soft sand. His fingers closed around the hard wood of the gun. He pulled the gun out and aimed it at the huts. Now the fear became overwhelming. Sweat soaked his shirt. How he hated that horrible place!
“Micah!”

And then he saw his best friend with the shotgun in his hands standing right in the middle of the street. Lucas started running. His rifle was ready to fire. Micah opened his weapon and removed the two empty shells. When the terrified rancher reached him the old lawman pointed into the darkness of the hut.
“It´s alright, LucasBoy, I took care of him.”

Lucas saw a huge body lying on the floor inside the ramshackle building, still holding that massive rifle in his right hand. Micah wiped away the sweat from his forehead with his bloody sleeve.
“When I walked by I saw that he aimed that Sharps at you, when you just reached the cemetery. One second later and you also would have found your grave up there.”

Lucas was shocked. Juan´s brown face was covered in darkness and Lucas was grateful for not being forced to look into those murky eyes.
“He must have thought that I killed his master and he wanted to avenge him. That Apache really was a loyal friend.”

Micah nodded thoughtfully. His shoulder started to hurt again. The mysterious plant sap in his poultice had gradually lost its effect and his mind was totally clear again. The sun was sinking after a hellish day full of death and suffering. Micah sighed. Again he remembered the wise words of the old school teacher. Then he went looking for a shovel …

“Micah …?”

The lawman stopped in his tracks and looked back. Lucas was standing in the soft light of the sinking sun, right in front of a bedraggled house at a god-forsaken town called Hope in the middle of the desert. Micah waited for Lucas to say something but there was no need for words. Micah smiled.
“It´s alright, LucasBoy, maybe it is the task of my lifetime: rescuing you …”

***

Micah woke up when Lucas shook his arm. In a heartbeat the old man was up, pulling the blanket away, grabbing his scattergun.
“What the matter, LucasBoy?”
The rancher was hunkering down behind a grey rock looking down to the path that led through the flat hills, aiming his rifle down to that horseman who was approaching fast.
“We got company …”
It was their second day after leaving Hope, and they wished nothing more than reaching North Fork as soon as possible. A man can get pretty tired of sand and stones. And now perhaps new trouble was at hand …

The rider came closer fast, following the rocky path, looking right and left. Lucas and Micah became increasingly nervous. After their experiences during the last days the two men were more than jumpy. But at last Lucas recognized the rider. He jumped up and hurried down the rise as fast as his long legs carried him. Micah tried to hold him back but then he saw why Lucas had left his cover. Micah also got up and walked down the hill, slowly, still holding his wounded shoulder but gladly smiling. At the foot of the rise he looked at father and son, still hugging each other. Mark seemed to have grown in the meantime. Lucas old face revealed all his relief. Lucas was still holding his son, not giving a dam about male pride. Mark had a hard time to free himself from that firm grip eventually.
“Pa, am I glad to find you! Half of North Fork has been looking for you two. Hamilton was about to call the army for help. Are you alright?”

Lucas´ eyes were still teary. Only now he realized how much he had really missed his son.
“We are fine, son, just fine. Micah on the other hand caught a bullet when … he saved my life in a canyon.”
Micah was a little embarrassed but he understood. Mark looked at the smiling lawman.
“Well, in that case we have to get him to Doc Burrage as fast as possible, I reckon.”
“I reckon so, son.”

And then Mark felt the strong arms of his father around him again. Mark´s fingers could feel the sweaty fabric of his father´s shirt.
“I missed you too, Pa …”

***

The moon was up and Lucas enjoyed the chill of the night air. Soon fall would come and then the terrible heat would be over at last. Mark was still busy doing the chores of the evening. Lucas watched his son working at the stove. And then the towering man slowly got up.
“Mark …?”
“Yes, Pa?”

Lucas remembered the blurry words of an old man, now dead, gone and buried next to his victims and his faithful servant somewhere out there at a lonely place called Hope.
(“It´s a rough life with little money and a lot of worries. Erin talks to me all the time! Your son could go the East and get a really good education and never will have a worry in his life ever again. I could tell by the way you care for your friend. You are a traitor! Gold is a wonderful thing if it is used right. Your want your son to be happy, right?”)

“Say … if we had the chance one day to move to the East to one of those great cities, I mean, if we had the money, would you be happy to leave this land here?”

Mark hesitated for a moment before he continued his work.
“No, I don´t think so, Pa. I think I would like to stay here. This land is our home.”

Lucas smiled.
“Yes son, you are right.”

The End

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

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