This story is a small gift for the people who provide constant encouragement and support to fan fiction authors – our readers. Comfort and joy be yours!
Author's Note: Thanks to the three Wise Women for their help with this small Christmas offering.
"Here's another bill from Howard for more damn repairs. And look at this!" Judge Hardcastle waved a paper in McCormick's direction. "Another set of tires! Do you have any idea how much those damn tires cost?!"
Mark looked up from the wing chair at the end of the desk. "Actually, I do." He put down the popcorn he was stringing for the tree and gazed at the judge impishly. "If we didn't leave so much of the tread on the pavement, they'd last longer, ya know. But," he sighed theatrically, "that's life in the Lone Ranger business. Hey! How about if I rig up a plug for the lighter in the Coyote and we can run a string of green lights around it? I'll let you drive it around town in a fake beard and we can throw candy at the kids?"
"And property taxes went up another three percent last month. Three percent!" Hardcastle leaned back in his chair and scowled ferociously. "The fees for garbage pick-up and water and sewer go up the first of the year. The electricity bill for last month--"
"Ah, come on, Uncle Scrooge," whined Mark. "It's Christmas Eve. Can't we have a little more coal on the fire?" He looked up from under his eyebrows at the glowering face behind the desk. "Tell ya what. Let me finish this string and I'll get us some eggnog, okay?"
The judge sniffed huffily. "I don't want any eggnog. Some of us have work to do, ya know."
Mark grinned at him. "You keep this up and you'll have Marley's ghost weeping and moaning and clanking chains at you tonight."
"Har, har, har." Hardcastle pushed a stack of bills to one side and reached for the next set. "I just want to get all this paperwork done and all the mess cleared out of here." He waved a hand vaguely.
"Mess? What mess?" McCormick scanned the den for heaps of trash and debris and found one small plastic garbage bag filled with scraps of wrapping paper. "That? I'll get it out of here in a minute, okay?" A puzzled expression crossed his face as he looked at the fireplace mantel. "What did you do with the cards?"
"What cards?" Hardcastle glanced up, then back at his papers. "Oh, those. I threw 'em out. They kept falling off whenever anybody slammed the front door, which I've told 'em not to do about a million times."
Mark was astonished. "You threw out the Christmas cards? Judge . . . is something wrong?" He cocked his head and leaned forward slightly. "What's going on? You weren't like this before lunch."
"Nothing's going on, McCormick, except for a bunch of whining and mess-making and excuses for not getting your chores done." The judge glared at the bowl of popcorn on McCormick's lap. "We got enough stuff on the tree now to choke a horse and you're doing that stupid popcorn and getting little bits of it all over the place. Why the hell do we have to have popcorn anyway?" He shoved a few papers aside and reached for the next folder in the pile. "Insurance. Property, automobile, personal. All going up again. Dammit." He grabbed the top sheet and fumed at it.
McCormick sat, hands stilled, for nearly a minute. Then, in a toneless voice, he said, "We always went out the day after Christmas to find a tree. Some people throw them out, you know, the day after Christmas. They usually still had some tinsel on them, too. We'd drag it home and up the stairs, and put popcorn strings on it and a star on the top made out of tin foil from the diner. It looked real nice. Smelled great, too. We'd put the presents we'd opened on Christmas Day under it and sing carols." He smiled wistfully. "Then, on New Year's Day, we'd take the popcorn to the park and feed the pigeons. Mom called it the Pigeon's Christmas." He sat quietly for another few moments as the judge stared down at his papers and rustled them irritably. "If you don't want those cards, I do. After all, most of them were addressed to both of us." He stood, balancing the bowl of popcorn and the incomplete string in one arm. "I'll put this stuff in the kitchen and take the cards to the gatehouse. You want the stew at six, right?" He gathered up the discarded Christmas cards from the trashcan at the end of the desk and headed up the steps toward the kitchen.
Hardcastle sat, motionless, at his desk and listened to the steps fade toward the kitchen and then approach again down the hallway to the front door. The door opened, then closed, almost noiselessly. He shut his eyes, pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed heavily.
"That looks good," said McCormick under his breath. Nearly a dozen cards were laced onto a red ribbon and dangled against the gatehouse fireplace. "But . . . maybe over here? Hmm." He held the string of cards over the archway into the tiny gatehouse kitchen. "Nah. Fireplace is best."
As he secured the ends of the ribbon to the corners of the mantel, he heard a tentative knock on the front door. "Yeah, Judge. Come on in." He stepped back to admire the cards as the door opened behind him, then turned to see Hardcastle standing silently in the doorway. "You don't usually knock."
"Yeah, well," the judge shrugged and walked slowly into the living room, "seemed like maybe I ought to, this time."
McCormick waved him to the couch. "Just 'cause you were being Scrooge?" He chuckled. "I'm used to it. Hey, you really don't want your Christmas cards?"
"Nah. They look good there, leave 'em." Hardcastle lowered himself onto the couch and stretched out his legs under the coffee table. "I, um . . ." He took in a deep breath, then let it out slowly. "I guess I was in a kinda bad mood. Didn't mean to take it out on you, though. The popcorn's a good idea."
Mark eased himself onto the arm of the chair next to the couch and waited.
"See, I was doing the bills and a couple more cards had come in." The judge rubbed at his nose and frowned. "Got one from a couple of people I haven't seen in, oh, twelve years at least. They moved to Costa Rica and we lost touch with them." He leaned his head back and looked at the wooden beams of the ceiling. "They hadn't heard that Nancy died and the card was addressed to the two of us. Said something about getting together with us since they were back in California for a few months."
McCormick slid down on the seat of the chair. "That's what you were . . . upset about?"
"Partly. Made me think about some stuff." Hardcastle clasped his hands over his stomach and sighed. "I remembered the Christmas parties we used to have, all the fancy dinners she and Sarah would fix and how she'd always have some little trinket for everybody at their place setting. How we'd end up with music from the radio and people would dance and there'd be lights strung up around the patio and we'd go out after everybody'd left and sit together and listen to the surf and look at the lights." He sighed again, and continued. "Then I got to thinking how all that was in the past and wondering how many more Christmases I was gonna see. How many more years I got left. And, I guess, I got a little morbid and depressed and did my world-famous Scrooge act."
"Well, I can understand you feeling sad, I guess. I mean, thinking about your wife and the Christmases you had with her." Mark frowned commiseratingly. "Seems to me you miss the people you've lost even more at Christmas. But the rest of it, the years you've got left and all?" He narrowed his eyes and lifted an eyebrow. "If I didn't know you better, I'd think you were serious about that."
"I am serious about that!" The judge sat up straight and gave McCormick an injured look. "I shouldn't've given you a hard time about it, but I was damned depressed. Still am," he grumbled, subsiding back against the couch.
McCormick grinned at him. "You've got to be kidding. What are you now, sixty-seven? And people in your family tend to live into their nineties? You're good for at least another thirty years, Judge." He shook his head disparagingly. "You got another third of your life coming up and you're getting all sappy on me. Give me a break, Hardcase."
Hardcastle frowned at him. "Well, math's never been your strong suit, has it?" He sniffed loudly and swiped at his chin. "But I think I get the point." He cleared his throat loudly and squinted at the younger man. "Thirty years, huh?"
"Minimum." Mark chuckled and added, "You'll be waving your cane around and yelling about Miranda rights when you're a hundred, Judge."
"Well, I don't know about that." The judge frowned, considering. "I don't think I'll need a cane."
Mark laughed, then rose and gestured toward the archway. "I've got some of that instant cider. You want some?"
"Yeah, sounds good. Then, maybe we should get those strings of popcorn finished up." Hardcastle's eyes lit up. "Hey, it's almost four o'clock. There's a good Christmas movie on in just a coupla minutes. We can watch it here if you want."
"Depends on what it is." McCormick looked back as he paused in the archway. "'How the Grinch Stole Christmas?' 'Santa Claus Conquers the Martians'?"
The judge leaned forward to pick up the remote control. "Nope. 'It's a Wonderful Life'."
"Sure is," murmured Mark as he turned away.
Judge Hardcastle heard him and smiled in agreement.