Echoes from the Past

It was the start of another beautiful day in sunny California. After their usual early morning guerrilla basketball session, Mark and the judge showered and changed, then had breakfast on the patio. Mark finished the last of his eggs and stood, gathering the plates. "Okay, Kemosabe, I'd better get started on the lawn before it gets too hot."

Hardcastle nodded. "Okay. I'm gonna work on some bills and … oh, hey, I think I left my overnight bag in the back of the truck. I'm gonna need that next week for the retired judge's convention in Santa Monica on Thursday 'cause I think I'll stay over for the breakfast the next morning. Can you bring it in?"

"Sure," Mark said amiably, then gave an impish grin. "Just what the world needs, a bunch of old judges reliving the past and discussing the virtues of pioneer justice." He mimicked an elderly man, adding in a wheezing voice, "By gum, I wish we could hang 'em from a tree like in the good old days instead of just giving them a fine!"

Hardcastle's mouth twitched. "You'd better get moving or I'll show you some pioneer justice!"

Mark laughed and headed out.

A little later Mark entered the den, where the Judge was sitting at his desk amid a pile of papers. "Well, this is ready for the garbage can," Mark said ruefully, holding up the small piece of luggage, which was ventilated by several holes.

"What did you do to it, McCormick?" Hardcastle asked with a frown.

"ME?! I didn't do anything to it!" Mark protested indignantly. "Are you forgetting only two days ago, we were being chased by some bad guys who took a bunch of pot shots at us? We got lucky not to get hit but I guess the bag wasn't so fortunate."

"Here, let me look at it," Hardcastle growled. Mark obligingly handed it over and dropped into a chair, watching as the judge looked it over, fingering the various areas of torn fabric carefully. "It's not too bad. Just a few small holes. I think I can still use it next week."

Mark stared at him in disbelief. "Really, Hardcase? Do you really want the other judges to get peeks of your underwear when you check in?"

Hardcastle sighed, eying the bag regretfully. "I guess not."

Mark nodded. "Okay, then, you'll have to buy a new one …" He smiled slyly, adding, "unless you just want to use a plastic bag."

"Very funny!" Hardcastle huffed with a glare. "Nah, I must have some more luggage around here somewhere. Go up to the attic and see if you can find anything up there I can use. Nothing too big, mind you. Just an overnight bag will do."

"Can't you just get something new? Nice and shiny and without a rusted zipper?" Mark countered.

"Yeah, right, easy for you to say, it's not your money," the judge retorted. "And why should I buy a new bag and waste a perfectly good piece of luggage that I might already have?" The judge made a shooing gesture. "Now check out the attic!"

"Unbelievable," Mark grumbled as he turned to head upstairs. You'd think the man was living at poverty level.

Mark flicked on the attic light and tromped up the stairs, looking around the dusty room with a sigh. Various items were strewn haphazardly around, from clothes to books to small pieces of furniture and abandoned sports equipment, with no apparent order. He doubted he could find the Coyote in the room, let alone any small luggage. But he gamely started poking around, giving a grin when he came across an old photo of a much younger version of the judge, dressed in fishing gear, proudly holding up a nice but small fish in the classic fisherman's pose. "Good catch, judge. Bet you went hungry that night," Mark muttered, placing the photo back.

After several minutes he came across a small blue overnight bag. Blowing the dust off it, he gave it a good look. Geez, it must be over 20 years old and looked like it had been up here for almost that long, although it appeared to be in pretty good shape. When he pulled it forward and picked it up, he frowned. Felt like there was something in it. Sliding open the zipper, he saw to his amazement that it was full of things. Slowly he pulled out a couple modest nightgowns, some toiletries, and a pair of slippers with a light bathrobe. Digging further, he found a paperback romance novel as well as some paperwork … forms of some kind, it looked like.

He gave a small gasp as he realized what he was holding. It must be from Nancy's last visit to the hospital. The yellowed papers were various hospital forms, dated over a decade ago, her name still clearly visible on them. But the last item he found was the most startling: a cream-colored envelope, with the words "My Dear Milt" written on it in neat but slightly tremulous handwriting. Turning it over, Mark realized that it was sealed and had apparently never been opened. He sank back, his heart aching. He had to share this with the judge, but how could he do it without hurting him?

Mark slowly entered the den. Hardcastle was still sitting at his desk, scowling at some bills. He looked up when Mark came in and his eyes took in the bag that he carried. "Good, you found something …" he began, then abruptly stopped, his eyes widening in apparent recognition.

"I … yeah, I found …" Mark stuttered, setting the bag down on the desk carefully. "Judge, I'm sorry, I didn't know it was … umm, well, it has some clothes and stuff in it and –"

Hardcastle waved his hand and pulled the bag a little closer, his face pale and set.

Mark said hesitantly, "I … uh … found this in there, too. Looks like it was never opened." He slowly offered the envelope to Hardcastle, wincing at the pained look on his face as he obviously recognized the handwriting and read the words. Since the judge looked frozen and unable to reach for the letter, Mark placed it on the desk and hastily started backing out of the den, saying quietly, "I'll leave you alone, but if you need me …"

The judge barely acknowledged him or noticed his departure, staring at the envelope in front of him, unable to move for a few minutes. Finally he picked it up, his hand trembling slightly, and slowly slit it open. The sight of the familiar handwriting made him catch his breath, and he could almost hear the soft lilt of Nancy's voice echo in his mind as he read the letter.

My Darling Milt,

I've just had a visit from the doctor and I know there isn't much time left. There's so much I want to say to you, but we both know how close we are, and how words aren't really necessary.

I am so sorry to leave you alone to deal with the pain of loss of not only Tommy but now me as well. But sweetheart, I want you to listen to me. I want you to be happy. I know that will be hard, but please don't close yourself off. You still have so much to give, and love is so very important to have and to share. Grieve for me, but don't let it consume you. Cherish your friends and hold them close and let people near you and know you. It's okay to care for others, and it will help your heart smile again.

Hardcastle stopped reading, his eyes blurred. "Oh Nancy," he whispered. He sighed, swiping at his eyes. He could almost see her in front of him, and the ache in his heart seemed almost unbearable. Swallowing hard, he continued reading.

I had hoped that we would have many more years together, my love, but it seems that won't be the case. I will be happy to see Tommy, though, and know that we will both be watching over you.

I have loved my life with you and could not have found a better mate. You have made me happier than I ever thought I would be. You are the finest man I have ever known, with such integrity and commitment, always ready to help those in need. Share that with others and be happy. I will love you always, my darling.

Your Nancy

Milt leaned back in his leather chair, letting the tears fall freely down his face. It had been a long time since he had allowed this indulgence. "I miss you so much, Nancy," he murmured brokenly. He sat there for a while, analyzing his life. He had lots to think about …

An hour later Hardcastle went in search of Mark. Opening the front door, he found him adding some gasoline to the lawn mower.

"McCormick, come in here for a minute," the judge called. Moments later Mark entered the den, an anxious look on his face. "Sit down, kiddo."

Mark dropped into a chair by the desk, taking in Hardcastle's worn and tired face. "Are you okay, judge?"

"Yeah. Yeah, I am. Uh, there are a few things I wanted to tell you."

"You don't have to tell me anything – " Mark began, stopping when Hardcastle held up a hand.

"No, kiddo, there are some things you should know. But I'd appreciate it if you just listened until I finished, okay?"

"Sure, judge," Mark agreed quietly.

Hardcastle sighed and fingered the letter from Nancy, now back in the envelope. He began quietly, "Back then, the day I lost Nancy, was … well, difficult. During her hospital stay, the nurses were angels – always very helpful, trying everything they could to make her more comfortable, and even taking care of me because I was just about camped out there. When … when she passed, I sat there with her for a long time, just holding her hand until it got cold. They finally made me leave, and one of the nurses was kind enough to gather up her personal effects and hand them to me." He made a gesture to the overnight bag which was still perched on the corner of his desk. "The days that followed were a blur, but I remember that I couldn't bring myself to empty out the bag, because it was just too much of a reminder of her being in the hospital and everything. Eventually I put it away in the attic. I guess I just wanted it out of sight. I never looked in it, though, so I had no idea that Nancy had left this letter for me."

Mark sat silently, unmoving, feeling his heart ache for his friend. And as he sat there, he wondered if it was a good thing that he had found the letter and brought the bag down, or if it would have been better to spare the judge a reopening of that painful time. Before he could figure that out, Hardcastle was talking again, still in an unusually low voice.

"I started my parolee rehabilitation project in part because I was frustrated with how some criminals escaped the justice system through procedural mistakes, poor lawyers, and inadequate investigations and I wanted to fix some of those injustices. But that wasn't the only reason why. I wanted to keep busy. I felt empty, and I needed something to distract myself, to bring me out of this empty and lonely house, where I'd been essentially hiding out for several years after Nancy passed." He drew a deep breath, looking out the window at the beautiful expanse of lawn and the restless ocean beyond it. "See, I did withdraw for a long time, and that wasn't healthy. But I was finally willing to make a move, figuring that if I couldn't be happy personally, I could at least get some satisfaction professionally by rounding up criminals, and maybe reforming a few ex-cons in the process." He paused, looking at Mark, who sat quietly, his blue eyes fixed with compassion on the judge. "Nancy said in her letter that I should try to be happy, to care about others. After she died, I didn't do that – I couldn't do that. I was too angry, too hurt. But now …" The judge stopped, his thoughts clearly distant.

"Now?" Mark prompted softly after several long moments had passed.

Hardcastle blinked, coming back from his reverie, and eyed Mark, a gentle smile curving his lips. He continued firmly, "Now it's better, and that's because of you, kiddo. See, I didn't plan to pick someone who could make me laugh and feel alive again. It was just business, and I was gonna remain aloof and in charge. I thought I was just getting a fast gun and partner in crime fighting. But you became so much more, and it's made my life so much better." He gave a deep sigh. "Nancy was right. Caring about others is important, and I wanted you to know that you're the reason I can live the life she intended. You've made me care and made my life good again. I just thought you should know that."

Mark sat still, overwhelmed, his own eyes suspiciously misty. "Thanks, judge. I feel the same way," he managed to croak out.

The judge nodded, then gave a big exhale and said gruffly, "Okay, enough of this mushy stuff. The lawn isn't gonna cut itself, ya know. Get back to work!"

Mark grinned, standing, eager as well to get things back to normal. "Okay, Kemosabe. Back to slave labor in the fields!"

Hardcastle smiled. "Now you're cookin'!" And as he watched Mark depart, he said to himself softly, "I made it – I found my happiness again, Nancy."