The John Wayne Syndrome

By Lizabeth S. Tucker

1.

Mark McCormick walked across the yard, his face set in a pained grimace. He was clutching his right side, pressing his palm against the throbbing there. He had been doing his usual yard work on the back half of Gulls-Way when it first appeared. Bending made the pain worse, so he decided to take a short break.

He walked into the main house through the back door leading to the kitchen, wanting a glass of cold water and a damp towel to drape over the back of his neck. He was overly hot and sweaty on one of the coolest days in L.A.'s recent history.

Despite the constant complaining he did to Judge Hardcastle about the mundane chores delegated to him, McCormick never really minded the work. He paced himself to prevent over-exhaustion and to aggravate the Judge. In fact, though he'd sooner eat steak tartare again than admit it, he enjoyed the fresh air, and the heavier work helped to keep him in shape. But now, all he wanted was a soft couch and a long nap.

Once he got the water, McCormick slumped at the kitchen table, holding his head in his hands, his fingers digging tightly into the brown curls plastered against his skull, trying to will the catch to go away.

It was so peaceful in the sunny, air-conditioned room that he fell into a half-awake, half-asleep state, daydreaming about his present life. McCormick was content for the first time he could remember, the restless yearning he had grown up with gone. It had been replaced by the first real roots he had had since his mother died when he was thirteen. Even before, it was hard to get attached to a neighborhood or apartment when you were forced to move periodically to avoid bill collectors. He was happy, truly and without reservations.

"What are you doing here?" Hardcastle's voice jolted McCormick out of his pleasant doze, coming up behind him and bellowing in his ear. "You're supposed to be trimming the hedges at the rear entrance. Goofing off as usual, McCormick?"

"Jeez, give a guy a heart attack, why doncha?" McCormick had jumped back in his chair, his hand now at his chest. He could feel the rapid thumpity-thump of his heart easily through his drenched t-shirt. To hide his trembling hands, he again clutched his head.

Judge Milton C. Hardcastle, retired, chuckled. "Wanna go for twenty?" he asked, referring to their long standing routine where they compared heart rates after a basketball game or a car chase.

"You've gotta be kidding," McCormick replied.

"Well, why are you in the house?"

"I've got a stitch in my side, Judge. I'll go back out as soon as it goes away. No big deal, slaves always have them." McCormick's voice was muffled by his hands, too used to his friend's griping to give him more than superficial attention. "Anyway, I thought you were meeting Frank Harper in town for lunch. What happened? Weren't you gonna check on our guest 'witness for the prosecution' appearance?" This time he did look up, interested in hearing about their mutual friend in the Los Angeles Police Department. "Trouble?"

"Nah, just a last minute meeting with his captain." Hardcastle pulled a chair out across from McCormick and sat down. He continued, not about to forget the fact that his yard was only half-finished. "Yesterday it was a slight case of heatstroke. The day before it was that sprained ankle. When the hell can I expect this work to be finished? When I'm fed-up and hire a gardener? Or am I complaining too much?"

McCormick climbed stiffly to his feet. "Now, your honor. And as far as your complaining, I doubt if a Sherman tank could stop you."

"You've got it too soft, kiddo. Maybe I'd better find something else for you to do with your time, if the daily stuff isn't keeping you busy or boring you. A new case, maybe?" Hardcastle said in a teasing tone.

"No, don't bother, Judge. Wouldn't want to put you out or anything, now would I?"

A snort from the Judge told McCormick that he had scored. His hand fumbled at his side as the ache began to make itself know again. He would just have to favor it, keeping any bending to a minimum.

Finally finished, McCormick trudged wearily back to the main house, having showered in the gatehouse as he got ready for dinner. It was his turn to cook and, though not particularly hungry, he'd decided that he might feel better with something in his stomach.

He could hear Judge Hardcastle's voice as he walked in the back door and headed for the den. He stopped outside the door from the dining room to the den when he heard his name mentioned. Eavesdropping wasn't something he usually avoided when the opportunity presented itself. And particularly when it concerned him, so he leaned carefully against the wall and pressed closer.

"Yeah," the Judge was saying to the unknown party. "The kid is slowing down. He's always complaining of some minor sprain or ache like it's a major injury. They don't make 'em tough anymore, do they?"

When McCormick didn't hear a reply, he knew that Hardcastle was on the phone.

"Nah, there's never anything wrong with him, Frank, he's just goofing off, trying to get out of work." The Judge continued with his complaints.

Stung by the remarks, McCormick backed away from the door, his cheeks burning. It's true, he thought, you don't hear anything good about yourself when you listen to private conversations. He silently swore that he would do all his work, no matter what, without complaining one iota. If he were gut-shot, he'd walk about as if there was nothing wrong. If the Judge wanted John Wayne, he'd get him!

McCormick was banging pots and pans around when Hardcastle appeared in the kitchen. He didn't look up or in any way acknowledge the older man's presence, concentrating on his dinner preparations and nothing else.

"Hey, are you alright?" Hardcastle asked after standing by the refrigerator for fifteen minutes without being subjected to the usual list of complaints and gripes.

"Yeah, I'm fine. What do you think? I'm cooking and I like to do it without an audience, okay?" McCormick replied sharply.

"Yeah, considering your culinary talents, I can understand that."

There was silence as McCormick let the remark go by without so much as a dirty look. He chopped potatoes into a pot of boiling water, stopping to check on the steaks sizzling under the grill in the oven. There would be time before dinner, but there were things that had to be done before McCormick could sit down and rest.

"Kiddo, is something wrong?" Hardcastle's voice hardened. "You didn't screw up the bushes, did you? They've been here since this house was built."

McCormick looked up, frowning and a little hurt. "No, I didn't mess up your precious plants. Just go out to the den and let me get on with this, willya? I'll give a call when it's done."

He turned his back on the Judge, forcing himself to keep calm, not to make any of his smart remarks. He was determined to be the perfect handyman, even if it killed him and exchanging insults wasn't the way to do it.

"Boy, we're really touchy today," Hardcastle commented, leaving after he waited fruitlessly for any replies.

Dinner was a stilted affair, the worst that Hardcastle could ever remember having with McCormick. He tried over and over again to bring the younger man out of his depressive slump, but the jokes, insults, and questions seemed to fall on deaf ears. McCormick's eyes were firmly fixed on his dinner plate, answering only when he couldn't avoid it. As soon as he had stuffed the last forkful into his mouth, McCormick had the plate up and in the kitchen.

Hardcastle sighed. It was going to be a long night. He followed McCormick into the kitchen, but after slamming the dirty dishes in the washer, McCormick looked distantly at the Judge and said goodnight.

"Aren't you gonna plague me for a game of pool like you've been doing for three nights straight?"

McCormick shook his head. "No. I've got some things to do out in the gatehouse. You wanted me to fix that broken window sill, remember? And there's the wash to be collected. Then I want to check to see what I need to clean the gutters tomorrow. So I think I'll get started right away."

"McCormick?" Hardcastle watched stunned as his friend left with barely a civil nod. Despite his complaints, he enjoyed their games. "What the hell is going on?"

Tempted to go after McCormick, Hardcastle was distracted by the ringing of the phone. After talking on it, he forgot his earlier intentions, settling down in front of the television for a basketball game instead.

2.

The next morning found McCormick in pain, his side feeling as if his guts had been caught on his ribs. He doubled over as he tried to put on his shoes. Breathing deeply, he finally could sit up.

When he went outside, he had every intention of telling Hardcastle about it, but at the sight of the Judge's face, the one-sided phone conversation came back and he bit his lower lip, walking past Hardcastle as if he hadn't seen him.

"McCormick! Get over here, now," the Judge barked, his fists on his hips.

Unable to ignore that command, McCormick turned about-face. "What? I've got a lot of things to do today, Judge, so I'd appreciate it if this didn't take too long."

"Don't you talk to me in that tone…" Hardcastle stood in one spot, breathing deeply. Then, in a calmer voice, he continued. "Look, you're not yourself. I wanna know what's wrong and I wanna know now. What's eating you? You didn't come out and play ball with me last night, you didn't come over for breakfast, and now you rush by me like I'm not even there. I want an answer, McCormick, and I want it now!"

McCormick swallowed, too tired to deal with one of the Judge's tantrums. He had been up half the night with stomach spasms, which was why he hadn't participated in one of their 'to-the-death' matches. He didn't think it would improve the Judge's opinion of him if he had thrown up on him during one of their fights for control of the basketball.

"McCormick?" The Judge laid a gentle hand on his shoulder.

"I've got a lot to do, Judge. Can we talk about this later?"

"What do you have to do that's so important?"

McCormick waved toward the roof of the main house. "The gutters, you've been on me for three years to clean them, and this is a good day to do it. So, if we can do this later, I'd appreciate it."

"You're so eager to get to them that you're skipping breakfast? Are you sick?" Hardcastle laid his hand on McCormick's forehead.

The sharpness in Hardcastle's question hurt almost as bad as his abdomen. McCormick jumped back quickly. "Look, do you want me to do them or not? If you'd prefer to hire someone, fine. I'll clean the garage out. Well?"

When there was no answer from a dumbfounded Judge Hardcastle, McCormick brushed by him with a long look at the height of the roof. He really wasn't looking forward to climbing up there, but considering there were lots of people who did that sort of work for a living, he couldn't admit to another fear in front of the Judge. He would just grit his teeth, something he was doing already, and do it. He didn't really have a choice, did he?

Hardcastle stood watching as McCormick, carrying a long-handled broom with a lawn hose tied to it, went slowly up the tall metal ladder. He was worried, the man's forehead had felt hot to his touch and Mark wasn't acting normally. But no matter what Hardcastle said, McCormick took no offense, clamming up in that special way he had that made Hardcastle feel he had crushed a small child. It didn't happen often, but it was usually something that Hardcastle had said to him that McCormick would take umbrage at. The silences would last a couple of hours, one night at the most, then things would return to normal and, refraining from the mock insults that normally flew about, the two men would talk it out. Yet, this morning, there was a barricade between them that Hardcastle neither liked nor would tolerate for much longer. As soon as the gutters were done, he'd drag the kid inside and, if necessary, shake it out of him.

McCormick reached the roof, making it safely off the ladder. He smiled weakly as he looked over the side, sweating profusely, and he hadn't even started yet. Hardcastle remembered that McCormick wasn't fond of heights. He found himself watching every move with his heart in his throat. McCormick didn't look well. The Judge began to wonder if he shouldn't order him down from the precarious perch.

Waiting to see if it wasn't some con job that McCormick had devised, he peered closely at him, noticing the sunken eyes with the deep shadows under them. He saw McCormick pause at the corner above where the concrete patio ended and the thick grass began, his tongue darting over his lips. He wavered, dropping the hose and grabbing his side.

"What is it?" Hardcastle shouted, his heart leaping as saw the blood run out of McCormick's face, leaving it pale and sickly-looking. "McCormick? Sit down on the roof. Now!"

But it was too late. Weaving, McCormick slumped over, bending in half. He gasped as the sudden movement caused him to lose his balance and he tumbled off the roof, a frightened form rushing to meet the ground.

A bush blocked his sight, a sick crunch as a heavy body slammed onto the ground, letting him know that McCormick had landed. Hardcastle skidded to a halt, his stomach churning.

McCormick, eyes closed, sprawled half on the concrete, half off. Luckily, his head had landed on the grassy side, but his eyes were closed and his leg bent awkwardly under him.

Hardcastle knelt next to him, checking to see if he were still alive. The pulse was there, much too fast, and his skin had the cold, moist feel that was all too familiar to someone who had held three partners and a young child in his arms after they had been injured: shock. Leaving Mark as he was after checking for breathing problems and any bleeding, Hardcastle tore into the den to call for an ambulance. Then he returned to sit by McCormick's side, useless to the unconscious man. It was a feeling that Hardcastle didn't enjoy at all, one he could remember all too well at his late wife Nancy's deathbed.

Hardcastle felt McCormick's pulse again, straining to count the faint but rapid beats, but they were too fast for him to do more than become more worried. His frown deepened as he noticed the unusual swelling of the man's stomach. It was pushing against McCormick's jeans, the top snap of which was undone.

McCormick's eyelashes fluttered as he came slowly back to consciousness. The deep blue eyes stared about in confusion, then cleared. He began to push himself upright, but the Judge held him down by grabbing his shoulders.

"Lemme up, Hardcase!" McCormick snapped, struggling weakly against the constraint.

"Not a chance. The paramedics are on the way. You were knocked out. They need to check you over, find out why you fell."

"I tripped. Come on, I've been knocked out before. I mighta wrenched my knee, but that's all." McCormick tried again to sit up.

"Kid, you passed out before you hit the ground." Hardcastle studied the pale face and clenched teeth. He poked McCormick's abdomen, yanking his hand back when the younger man choked back a startled scream.

"Don't…do that!"

"How long has that hurt?"

McCormick shrugged, his face turned away.

"McCormick, answer me."

They were interrupted by the arrival of the paramedics and an ambulance crew right behind them. The next fifteen minutes became a free-for-all argument. Hardcastle insisted that McCormick be transported to the hospital. The potential patient protested that he didn't want to go, while the Emergency Medical Technicians explained that they couldn't force the man to go.

As one of the men said, "As long as he's in control of his faculties, he's within his rights to refuse."

Hardcastle snorted. "He's never been in control of anything, other than his car and that's iffy."

McCormick had managed to get to his feet, though he was favoring his right side, his arm curled protectively around his stomach. "I'm just sore, nothing important. Certainly nothing worth bothering a hospital with."

"Oh, yeah, then why is this hurting you so bad?" Hardcastle grabbed for McCormick's stomach to show the emergency personnel the extreme tenderness, but misjudged and jabbed him sharply there.

There was a soft gasp, then McCormick became even paler, his legs crumpling under him as he slipped towards the ground. The Judge stepped forward, barely catching him in time. "Mark?"

He was dead weight. The paramedics took over, stretching McCormick back onto the ground.

"He's not conscious now. I want him taken in," Hardcastle ordered, frightened by the collapse.

"His breathing's irregular," the older paramedic began with the vitals, radioing the hospital while his partner signaled the ambulance attendants to bring their stretcher back.

Hardcastle stared at his drawn, exhausted face in the bathroom mirror. He had had a quick meeting with the emergency room physician on arrival at the hospital, but wasn't reassured. "His appendix, and it's ruptured. Damn." Hardcastle's voice was filled with self-loathing, low and bitter as he spoke to his image in the glass. "Probably when I punched him in the stomach."

He couldn't understand why McCormick hadn't told him he was sick. Over and over the doctor kept asking him if McCormick had complained of constipation or pain in any part of his body, whether he had been throwing up. But the Judge couldn't answer them, couldn't explain that they hadn't said two words to each other in more than two days. Now the realization came to Hardcastle, Mark McCormick could die! He went back to the waiting room, standing in the doorway.

Peritonitis. That's what the doctor said to him. His protests that now that McCormick was in the hospital, everything would be okay fell flat in the examining room.

Looking up, Hardcastle saw his favorite doctor striding down the hall. Dr. Freedman had become the family physician ages ago and McCormick had begun to go to him also. On staff at the hospital, Freedman was keeping Hardcastle informed as to his friend's condition.

"How is he? Have they taken him to surgery yet?" Hardcastle asked.

"There's a slight abscess. They want to drain it before operating. Plus, his fever's high. Honestly, Milt, how could you let this go so far without bringing him to see me?"

"I didn't know he was sick." Hardcastle sighed, shoving his hands in his pockets. "Can I see him?"

"Well, I guess it wouldn't hurt. He's got a couple of tubes in him and he's not very coherent when he is conscious, so don't get excited if he doesn't recognize you, okay?"

"Sure, sure. Where is he?"

"Come on, I'll take you there."

He was cold. That was the first thought that passed through Mark McCormick's mind. The second was the fact that he was wet, chilled to the bone. What he couldn't seem to remember was how that had happened. Water. Frantic diving. Hardcastle was dead!1 Flashes of memory came to him and McCormick turned his head into his suede jacket, trying to muffle the sobs that were bursting out of him like hiccups. But there was no soft leather rubbing comfortably against his nose.

No, he thought, that wasn't right. Hardcastle had survived, albeit a bit disappointed and saddened by the betrayal of his childhood friends, but alive and well. Mark shivered uncontrollably, wrapping his arms around himself. He couldn't seem to remember what had happened to him and he was scared. It was so dark. Where was the Judge?

McCormick tried to push himself upright, to move, but there were hands holding him down. Why couldn't he see them? The room was so dark, frightening. He struggled helplessly, scared to be alone. He was sick, he knew that much. And Hardcastle didn't like sick people. The Judge had said that, said that Mark was always complaining. He fought the unknown hands, crying out in desperation. He felt a sharp pain in his arm, then drifted off to oblivion, still fighting.

Lieutenant Frank Harper paced the waiting room anxiously, hurrying down the hospital corridor when he saw Hardcastle come stumbling out of a room, leaning against the wall. "What happened? How's he doing?"

"He's out of his head. The fever is draining his strength faster than the doctors can fight it with their wonder drugs. I should have known. He was so moody, but I knew he wasn't up to his usual grouchiness. I just never guessed it was --"

" -- a burst appendix. Milt, don't blame yourself. Mark hates doctors, you know that, but even he must've known how ill he was."

"He was afraid of what I'd say. He's delirious, ya know. I was in his room and he was crying, calling my name. Then, when I was trying to reach him, let him know that I was there, he said that I didn't like sick people. He was in his own private hell, Frank, and I couldn't help him out of it. Where did he get the idea that I'd hate him for being sick?"

"He'll be okay, won't he?" Harper asked, watching Hardcastle walk to the waiting room window and stare blindly out at the evening sun.

"They don't know."

Those words hung in the air. "Surely the doctors can give him antibiotics, penicillin, something? I mean, Mark McCormick felled by simple appendicitis?"

"They're doing their best, but there are lots of complications."

"Milt? The surgeons have scheduled Mark for his operation first thing in the morning." Dr. Freedman appeared behind the two men, smiling wearily.

"What about the abcess? And the fever?" Hardcastle asked.

"The abcess is almost drained. They're hoping the fever will break tonight, or come down enough to make it safe for surgery. But he has paralytic ileus…his intestines are paralyzed. And he was dehydrated badly, which is being corrected by Ringer's. None of which interests you in the least, does it?"

"Just as far as you're saying that he's okay and will come home." Hardcastle turned his back on the window. "Well?"

"I think it'll be a long recovery, a couple of weeks minimum, but I don't foresee any real problems, providing he makes it through the operation. He's responding well to the antibiotics. To tell you the truth, that fall may have been a blessing in disguise. He could've hidden the pain until it was too far gone to correct the problem. Speaking of which, why was he being so close-mouthed about it?"

Hardcastle shrugged. "I don't know. But I guarantee you that I'll find out."

3.

Now he was hot, but not as bad as he had been at the house. McCormick knew he was in a hospital, that his simple 'catch' was a case of appendicitis. He had been very sick, he could remember that, and he was sure that Hardcastle was around, though he never seemed to be awake whenever the Judge came on a visit. In fact, McCormick admitted to himself, he wasn't awake when anyone came in. He was so tired. His eyelids were heavy, but he heard a familiar bellow from outside his hospital room and tried to stay alert just a little while longer.

McCormick was rewarded when Hardcastle stomped into the room, attempting without much success to enter quietly. There was a worried frown line between his eyebrows, and a weary cast to his face. When Hardcastle saw McCormick was awake, the shields went back up. But it was too late, McCormick thought. He had seen the concern and what he hoped was affection shining out of the tired blue eyes.

"Hey, kiddo, how're you feeling?" Hardcastle asked, a bit nervously.

"Better." McCormick's voice was harsh, raspy.

"You won't feel that good when I get you home. Stupid stunt, not telling me you were sick. Okay, you don't like doctors, but you still could've told me, hotshot." Hardcastle's growl was muted, in deference to his surroundings.

"I thought you…that is, you told…" McCormick stopped, aware that he had just came within a hair's breath of letting Hardcastle know that he had been eavesdropping.

"I told who what?"

"Nothing."

"Let me guess, you thought I'd toss you out on your ear if you admitted you were human enough to get ill? Because you overheard me talking to Frank, didn't you?"

McCormick stared wordlessly at Hardcastle.

"How, you ask, did I know that?" Hardcastle chuckled. "You were delirious for quite a few days, kid. I heard a lot during that time, some that I would rather not have, but you seemed to be overly concerned that I not find out that you were sick. Though how you planned to keep that a secret escapes me."

"I thought the pains would go away. Then when I fell, all I wanted to do was find the nearest bed and crawl into it." McCormick fought the ever-present drowsiness, trying to explain himself to Hardcastle. "I'm sorry I got sick. But I'll be fine, honest. Give me a couple of days and get me off this I.V., let me have some real food and I'll be back at work in no time."

"Yeah, I know." Hardcastle stood by the hospital bed, his hands on the side railing where the I.V. was tied before entering his friend's arm. "You know I say a lot of stuff that I don't really mean, to you and to Frank, 'cause I know you both understand that I'm just blowing off steam. I was upset at how our last case was going, kid. I didn't mean any of what I said." Hardcastle smiled, shaking his head. "You can barely keep your eyes open. Go to sleep. We'll keep this discussion till later."

"Hmmm," McCormick's lips quirked, the energy to smile too much for him.

4.

He was warm and happy, though he couldn't remember why. There had been something that Hardcastle had said to him, while he was falling asleep right after he came out of recovery. The thought would come to him when he was on the edge between waking and dreaming, but could never quite focus on the words, just the feelings behind them. And that feeling was love.

McCormick rolled over, frowning as the movement caused him to cough, the breath escaping in painful bursts. He was back in the main house, Hardcastle playing nursemaid. And jailer, as well. Hardcastle was still annoyed at him, not for getting sick like McCormick had supposed he would be, but for not telling him or anyone else about it. While McCormick knew that Hardcastle wasn't really mad at him, still, the older man was annoyed and that was bothering McCormick more than usual. Maybe when he was fully recovered, it would be different.

He slid down under the covers, snuggling against the soft cotton quilt. There was a fresh smell, a mixture of sun and sand and surf on the material and just a faint hint of Hardcastle's aftershave. Earlier, McCormick had crept to the window, opened it, and had enjoyed the chill air on his skin. He had another fever, a slight one, but enough to give him alternating chills and heat waves. Now he pulled himself up into a ball, careful not to pull the newly healing scar-to-be. Most of the self-dissolving stitches were gone, but a few still remained at the ends of the cut.

Hardcastle had lectured him about keeping the window closed and not moving out of this bed unless he needed to use the bathroom. The Judge was a little over-solicitous since McCormick had been released from the hospital. With his usual disregard for direct orders, McCormick had been caught twice hobbling down the stairs in search of food and books. He was bored and the attraction of being the center of the Judge's concern was already paling.

A person could only sleep so much before it was boring as well. Fidgeting, McCormick coughed again, then put his hands behind his head, stretching till the ache in his side sharpened. He started counting the speckles in the ceiling, one square at a time.

A knock at the door startled him. "Come in."

Frank Harper stuck his head in the bedroom. "Want some company?"

McCormick grinned, scooting upright in the large bed. "You bet. To what do I owe this pleasure? Things slow down at the station?"

"Funny. No, I just thought you might like a break from Milt's bedside manner," the police lieutenant replied.

"I might if I ever saw him. The only time I see him is pill-time, meals, and a goodnight before he goes to bed in one of the spare rooms. And sometimes I miss that 'cause I'm asleep," McCormick complained.

"I thought everything was back to normal?" Harper frowned, sitting in a nearby easy chair.

"It's just that he's trying to keep up with the yard work and those two cases of ours that are coming to court soon. We don't get to talk much. That's what I miss the most."

"Oh. Well, I'm here. Wanna talk to me?"

McCormick pulled his knees to his chest, his arms wrapped around them over the blanket. "I guess you'll do," he said doubtfully, his lips twitching in a barely suppressed smile.

"Gee, Mark, thanks a lot."

Judge Hardcastle peeked in the master bedroom, seeing Harper engrossed in a newspaper while the portable television blared in the corner of the room. He glanced at the bed. McCormick was hunched over to the side, his face turned toward the set, his eyes closed and his mouth slightly open.

"Isn't this a great visit? You're reading two day old papers, the kid's off in dreamland -- again -- and…" Hardcastle looked at the tv. "…Kirk Douglas is beating up somebody. Or is that his son? Hard to tell on a black-and-white set."

"It's the father," Hardcastle said, folding the papers onto his lap. "Mark seemed happy just to have company. And since you invited me to dinner while my wife's visiting her mother, I figured this was as good a place to wait as any." Harper reached forward and lowered the sound on the set.

"He complaining about being neglected?" Hardcastle asked, a frown addiing to his already tired features.

"Not really. Mark understands more than I do. He says you're busy with this, that, and the other that came up while he was in the hospital, even when he was officially out of danger. Now? You're rummaging for a new case for when he's back on his feet."

Hardcastle interrupted. "Is that what he said?"

"It's what he thinks, I imagine," Harper said.

"Dumb kid. I'm clearing all our cases so we can get away for some quiet fishing at the lake. There were two court trials coming up. I was hoping the judges would take depositions since our testimony, while important, wasn't crucial. That took time."

"Why haven't you told him about it?" The lieutenant motioned toward the sleeping McCormick.

Hardcastle shrugged. "I never thought about it." He walked over to the bed and shook McCormick roughly by the shoulder.

"Wha…?" Two cloudy blue eyes blinked up at the Judge.

"We're goin' fishin', okay?" the Judge said gruffly.

"Now? 'S alright with me." McCormick started to roll out of bed, only Hardcastle's quick push plopped him back on the mattress.

"Not now, hotshot. In about a week, when you're a little steadier on your feet. I've got it all planned. We go to the courthouse, give our testimony for our last two cases, drive up to the lake and rent a cabin fro a month. Unless you get bored, of course, or the doctors think you need to check in with them."

McCormick blinked, yawned, then rolled over. "Sounds great," he mumbled, yanking the covers around him.

"Pay attention, willya? Now, there's a bait shop on the opposite side of the lake from where we'll be staying. We can get gas for the boat engine and cold beer there. Oh, yeah, did I mention that we'll also have a boat? The fresh air will do you wonders."

"Milt?"

"And we can eat what we catch. I know you don't like fish much, but the wife had a few recipes that'll change your mind."

"MILT!"

Hardcastle looked at Harper who was pointing at McCormick. The patient was totally relaxed and sound asleep, a faint smile on his face. The lines around his mouth and eyes were faded and his breathing deep and regular.

Hardcastle's smile was gentle as he tucked the covers around the bare shoulders. "I'll wake you when I'm ready. Come on, Frank, you can help me carry the table up so we can eat with the kid. I think he's been alone long enough."

A/N: This was printed in a fanzine, but it has been so long ago, I can't tell you which one. Hey, it's beenat least 20 years since then!