A/N: A big thanks goes out to Angela Kaiser who rescued this story from obscurity. Thank you!! This story was originally printed in the fanzine Back-to-Back Addenda #1 back in the 1980s.
Pleasant Valley Sunday
By: Lizabeth S. Tucker
"McCormick, what are you doing? It's almost noon. Don't you have classes today?" Judge Milton C. Hardcastle, retired, walked out of the garage where his classic, midnight blue Corvette was once again in residence, after two years on the antique car circuit.
"Not til late this afternoon. Wednesdays are the only half-day schedule I have, and since you won't hire a full-time housekeeper or gardener, it's the only day I can do the menial chores around here.'' Mark McCormick yanked the bright blue wheelbarrow over the low curbing, nearly decapitating the newly planted hibiscus bush he had convinced the Judge to buy.
"I'm looking for one, kid,' but you don't just take the first person off the street. You need somebody with experience, a good track record. We'll hire a gardener first, then worry about a housekeeper.
McCormick gave him an annoyed look. "Experience? Track record? You didn't worry about that when you blackmailed me into doing this job."
"We had Sarah then, remember? She could direct you on what to do, and when. Frankly, McCormick, I don't know that much about plants and the like."
The frown disappeared as McCormick hooted. "You mean the great Judge Hardcastle admits to not having the know-how about something? I'm in shock!"
With an answering smile, Hardcastle waved a hand at McCormick. "Get back to work. Lord knows, all you've been doing around here is lazing about." When the words were out of his mouth, Hardcastle wished them unsaid. He saw his young friend's face harden, stalking off across the lawn stiffly.
While Hardcastle knew in his heart that McCormick was working very hard, what with studying for his finals in his first year of law school and taking care of the household chores as well. Hardcastle tried sincerely to help, but he just couldn't bring another person into their world, not without checking that stranger out carefully. And that reluctance was caused mostly by fear, fear that, as McCormick made new friends, explored his new options in life, that he would begin to grow away. It was the natural thing to do, all children leave their parents at some point in life; but his relationship with McCormick was more than parent and surrogate son, much more than ex-con and Judge, and considerably more than employer and employee. They were friends, good friends, as well as family. That was a relationship that Hardcastle didn't want to lose, but he also knew that hanging on tightly wouldn't keep them together. As he attempted to stay active in McCormick's life, the arguments had begun. The Judge was interfering with McCormick's studying; he needed time alone so he could concentrate on the important papers that had to be written for some of his more difficult classes. There were long evenings spent, not with the latest girl, but in the library at the college, researching obscure legal precedents that even Hardcastle would've been hard put to recall.
All offers to help had been refused, politely at first, then with increasing annoyance as Hardcastle persisted. Those evenings alone were Hardcastle's first indication of his life to come. He had never realized just how much McCormick filled his life until he was pulling away. Oh, he knew there had been glimpses earlier, during their two previous fights they had had when McCormick had walked out on him. "Damn it, I threw him out. Both times it was my fault; and it's gonna be again, if I don't back off." Hardcastle sat on the stone bench, watching McCormick hacking the hedges to death.
Hardcastle sat until the cold, damp concrete began to seep through his slacks. "Don't stay out too long, kid, looks like it's gonna rain!" He shouted, receiving a half-hearted wave in reply. Shrugging, Hardcastle headed into the main house. "The least I can do is the laundry. McCormick hates the sorting, always puts everything in the same pile and jams it in the washer."
Mark McCormick trudged across the far reaches of the estate, pushing the wheelbarrow filled with plant clippings and tree limbs ahead of him. His day had started off badly, and was fast getting worse. After laying out a bundle on tickets to a local production of "Cats", his date had cancelled out. Then Hardcastle had started in on him about the work around the estate piling up while at the breakfast table, someplace that McCormick preferred to have peace and quiet. And, despite interviewing over twenty different people, male and female, the Judge still hadn't hired a gardener. He always came up with excuses as to why the last wasn't good enough, or wanted too much money, had a family to support.
It was always one thing or another and, in the meantime, McCormick had to take up the slack. After sleeping very little due to late nights studying, McCormick felt as if he were on the edge, and his easy-going humor with Hardcastle's annoying little habits was fast disappearing. They had already had a rousing argument two days before, on McCormick's only truly free day, Sunday, when Hardcastle teasingly accused him of goofing off. Instead of snapping back with some smart-ass remark that showed the Judge that he understood, McCormick had lost his temper, shouted some gutter profanities that earned him a shocked and slightly disapproving stare, and blurted out that maybe he should have stayed in the dumpy apartment he had taken when they'd misunderstood each other's intentions regarding the ending of his parole He hadn't meant it, but Hardcastle wasn't sure and didn't say a single word for the rest of the day, secluding himself in his den while McCormick worked a bit on his latest mock-case summation. He'd wanted to apologize, to explain, but the words wouldn't come. Then, the following Monday morning at breakfast, the Judge had acted as normal. McCormick knew that he should've said or done something to let the Judge know that he would never leave, not like that. But it was difficult to broach the subject and finally, he decided it was better to drop it, and let Hardcastle forget about it, too.
Sometimes, it seemed to McCormick that Hardcastle was being so careful to keep his feelings hidden, to avoid ridicule for his marshmallow interior, that it was becoming true - he didn't understand or care. But that wasn't the truth, McCormick knew that for a fact. He'd just have to keep reminding himself of it. However, McCormick mused, staring up at the overcast sky, he might not be too concerned if McCormick got pneumonia, as long as it didn't inconvenience him.
McCormick brought himself back into a bad mood and continued grumbling as he dumped the trash into a handy crevice that was left over from an earthquake tremor that was from before McCormick arrived at Gull's-Way. "Nah, he wouldn't even notice I was sick; not until he needed something done and I didn't hop to it."
"Talkin' to yourself, Mark?" A cheery teenage voice came from behind him, and McCormick grinned at two of Hardcastle's major headaches.
"Hiya, Tommy, Ross. Whatcha guys doin'?" McCormick greeted the two 16-year-olds. The teens would sneak onto Hardcastle's property to use his beach-front for swimming and even, when the Judge was absent, use his target range. Today they were carrying .22 rifles over their shoulders.
"Honing our skills;" Ross smiled, running his hand through the thick thatch of red hair that reached to his shoulders. "Never know when we might decide to take up bank robbing."
Tommy Costello laughed. "Yeah, sure would give ol' Hardcase fits if we went sour."
"Yeah, since you're both sons of cops, it would make his day to find out that you went over the line. You'd better call off target practice today, though, guys; the Judge is in residence. And not too happy, either; so I doubt if he would be thrilled with you guys shooting up the place.
"Rats. The target range won't let us in any more," Ross Winslow said, "Seems that Uzi we 'borrowed' from Dad destroyed part of their safety wall. Hey, how were we to know? It's a shooting range. We were shooting."
"Guess we'll head on home. I don't feel like hassling with the Judge if he's in a bad mood. Take it easy, Mark." Tommy waved; heading back the way they came, through the thick woods to the less expensive houses at the bottom of the cliff
"Yeah, catch ya later." Ross threw an arm over his friend's shoulder, suggesting places they could use for practice.
"Better find a place indoors, this storm's gonna break!" McCormick yelled.
Distracted by his visitors, McCormick rested as he watched the gulls flying inland from the ocean. The clouds were dark and threatening, the storm on the verge of breaking, but not ready to deluge the coastline yet.
The water churned on the rocks, the anger beautiful to watch. He walked a bit further sway from the crevice and took an old path to the beach. McCormick went to the very edge of the water, his feet getting soaked when he didn't retreat fast enough from one of the larger waves. The salt air and tanginess was helping to lighten his mood, along with the unexpected encounter with the teenagers. Their fathers were cops, and McCormick knew both of them from his short stint as an undercover officer. They were good kids, and McCormick liked to work with them on their 1953 Chevy hotrod.
McCormick didn't know how long he stood there, enjoying the show Mother Nature was putting on, but he was rudely awakened from his daydreaming by the crack of thunder that followed a blinding flash of lightning. The skies opened up and in seconds McCormick was drenched. He looked up at the heavens in resignation.
"You and Hardcastle must be a lot alike, both of you like to dump on me.''
He climbed back to the crevice to pick up the wheelbarrow and drag it back to the garage. He was already soaking wet, so it wouldn't hurt to be out in the storm a little longer. The rain was falling so hard that it was hard to see two feet in front of him. The thunder made him jump, McCormick never having been fond of thunderstorms. He reached the spot where he thought he had left the wheelbarrow, but couldn't see it. He stumbled about, flailing about with his hands. He rammed his shin against it, painfully finding it.
McCormick could hear the sound of yelling from the main house. He smiled. "Hardcastle's worried; probably wants his wheelbarrow back safe and sound."
The barrow was stuck in the gooey mud and McCormick yanked at it, standing close to the crevice lip. There was a sudden, brilliant light, then a strange pain that went through his whole body, and the sensation of falling. The world spun around and around him until it was too fast for McCormick to take in and he passed out.
Judge Hardcastle peered out through the rain-streaked windows for a sign of McCormick, but he couldn't see past the driveway. "I don't see him anywhere, Frank. I yelled out the back door, but I'm not sure he could hear me if it wasn't raining. Of course, he might not have answered me 'cause he got caught in this deluge and doesn't want me to know about it. Probably in the Gatehouse doing a fast change ... and knowing him he'll no doubt electrocute himself on the blow dryer. "Hardcastle's voice wasn't convincing to himself, much less to Frank Harper. He remembered their fights, and his earlier not-to-well-taken comment, and wondered if the ex-con had decided to take off for a few days; but he knew that McCormick wouldn't leave without saying something.
"Hey," Harper interrupted his thoughts, "How about some lunch? That is why you invited me here, isn't it?"
"Yeah, of course. Come on, McCormick fixed up a bunch of sandwiches; they're in the kitchen, along with a pitcher of lemonade. Made it myself from fresh lemons, none of that canned stuff."
"Sounds good to me." Harper and Hardcastle went to the kitchen, discussing the previous night's baseball game, a laughable fiasco.
"He's taking a long time getting here", Hardcastle said, having finished his lunch. He was at the back door, staring through the rain.
Harper joined him. "I tend to agree. I've never known Mark to willingly miss a meal. The rain's let up a bit, wanna go look for him?"
The Judge bit his lower lip, thinking. "Yeah, I've gotta a bad feeling about this."
"Let's get our raincoats, then we'll search the grounds."
The two men walked along the perimeters of the estate, calling McCormick's name in between crashes of thunder, which was moving further away. They checked the beach, the greenhouse, and the garage, but there was no sign of McCormick anywhere. The rain was slowly becoming a sprinkle, which was improving the visibility, but it wasn't helping their search.
"Okay, let's go about this logically. What was he gonna do while you were in the house?" Harper asked, looking out over the estate's vast grounds.
Hardcastle shrugged. "He was trimming the hedges, some of the smaller trees."
"What would he do with the refuse?"
"Well, he'd dump it in the crevice. We've been making it into a mulch pile."
"Pretty deep mulch pile; I've seen that place. It's more of a ravine than a crack. Mark says he thinks it goes to China, it's so deep." Harper started toward the rear of the property, "Let's check there, see what we can find."
"Don't bother. When we were searching before, I glanced over that way. There's no sign of him or the wheelbarrow."
"So what now? It's a little soon for me to put out a missing person's on him."
Hardcastle frowned, turning away. "I guess he might've gone to town, or maybe to a neighbor's house. Some of them have taken quite a liking to the kid. He might be there." The last part was muttered, but Hardcastle knew that Harper probably caught it. "I hope he is."
"Okay, Milt, you wanna tell me what's going on here?" Harper asked, then put his hand on his forehead. "Don't tell me. The two of you had another fight?"
"Not really. I mean, it wasn't a fight, not like we've had before … But --"
"I was sorta getting on the kid's nerves," Hardcastle replied sheepishly.
"You always get on his nerves; what else is new? What made this time so different?"
"He's tired. I was supposed to hire a gardener, help take some of the load off him, so he could concentrate on his law school stuff. I've been looking, really, but I just haven't found anyone right for the job yet."
"Uh huh, translation: You couldn't find anyone cheap, who'd put up with you, but wouldn't cramp your style with McCormick. Right?" Harper grinned, well aware of the unusual, almost family-close, relationship that had developed between the crusty old Judge and the smart-ass ex-con.
There was a reluctant nod in reply, then Hardcastle looked straight into his friend's eyes. "He wouldn't take off without telling me. Iknow this is stupid, but I feel there's something wrong ... that Mark is in trouble."
"Whenever you use his first name - even with me - I get worried, too. Let's see if the Coyote is still parked out by the Gatehouse. "
They found the red sports car where it had always been when not being used. Harper shook his head. "Without the Coyote, I doubt if he'd go far. Come on, we'll have a drink. He'll probably call in a few minutes, or come walking in wondering what the uproar is all about."
With a last troubled look at the deserted estate grounds, Hardcastle followed Harper into the house. The lieutenant's rationalization left him far from reassured.
McCormick came to slowly, his mouth filled with grit. He tried to rollover, to sit up, but he couldn't seem to move. Half his face seemed to be covered with dirt. He lifted his head, and felt a sharp stab in his throat. His eyes opened to darkness, and after a few moments for his vision to adjust, he realized he was under the inverted wheelbarrow.
Most of his body was buried in sand and mud, the weight pushing down on his chest uncomfortably. He tried to move around, but nothing budged except his right foot and his left hand, both of which seemed to be free of the mud. His head was cupped underneath the wheelbarrow, chin resting on the edge that ran between the handles. It was an awkward position. He could feel his left leg turned at a sharp angle under his body, but from his various aches and pains, it didn't seem that anything was broken, just bruised.
The rain was still pouring down, he could feel it on his free foot and hand, but his face was relatively dry other than for a steady drip that came from a rust hole over his head, about two inches south of his right eye. The water was running back into his eye as he was hanging upside down, the blood pressure from that position almost as bad as the weight of the mud on his chest.
McCormick shouted for help, but the thunder and roar of the ocean was drowning out the feeble croak. From the pain across his throat, it seemed that the barrow had slapped him badly on his throat, destroying any voice he might have had. The odor of death and decay surrounded him, and he wondered if he might not add to that graveyard soon. With his body completely, or nearly, buried, the wheelbarrow covering his face, and no sound out of his throat, how would anyone find him?
The silence was almost as frightening as the darkness.
And the darkness was suffocating, much to close to solitary, he 'hole' as it was referred to in prison. It brought back bad memories, and McCormick began to wish Hardcastle would hurry. He had drifted off a couple of times, but whether it was sleep or semi-consciousness, McCormick wasn't sure -- and that wasn't helping his peace of mind.
The rain had stopped, the soft pinging of the drops on the bottom of the wheelbarrow having died away. He could no longer feel his left leg, the nerves having shut down. His right foot was sopping wet in the sneaker, a cold and clammy feeling that wasn't doing much for McCormick's body warmth. The shivers were fairly mild now, but if he continued to stay wet and out in the cold afternoon air, it would get worse. The ground was shifting bit by tiny bit, taking him down farther into the crevice; he could feel it, barely discernable though it was.
He wriggled the fingers in his free left hand to keep the circulation going. That and his foot might be the only way to catch someone's attention. If anyone came close enough to find him.
Something sticky and warm was running down his face and he wondered if it was blood. His whole body was falling asleep, and he was dreading the awful pain that would come when he was freed. If he was freed, he amended.
Faint sounds of people calling and yelling reached him, but the crevice was so far away from the house and close to the ocean where the waves hit the rocks, that even if McCormick did have a voice, he doubted if they could hear him.
He listened carefully, straining his ears for signs of alarm, of discovery, but the voices began to fade away. Desperate, he took in a deep breath of air, screaming it out again in a frantic call for help. All he accomplished was to choke at the incredible pain that ripped through his throat. Gasping weakly, he waited for the pain to subside. He felt the warmth of the sun beating down, knew that the packed mud would soon begin to dry and harden. When the drying process was finished, he might be able to break loose, or he could slip further into the crevice. Hardcastle had mentioned once that it wasn't known how deep the crevice might be. McCormick knew he'd have to keep trying to move about, but carefully, until he could, tell the dirt was loose enough to attempt a climb out.
McCormick wondered how far he was from the surface already and gave a sickly smile. There might not be a way to climb out.
"Anything?" Hardcastle asked as Harper and some of his officers came back from searching the beach. He poured more freshly made lemonade into glasses and handed them to the cops.
"Not a sign, Milt. I hate to say this, but we may have to start searching down the coast." Harper refused his glass, motioning his men to leave him alone with Hardcastle.
"What are you saying?" Hardcastle growled, his eyes cold.
"He might have been swept into the water, drowned. You know as well as I do that lots of people misjudge the strength of the ocean during a storm. If a wave hit him, dragged him out ..." Harper didn't look at the Judge as he described the events that could've surrounded McCormick's mysterious disappearance.
"I can't believe he'd be that stupid. McCormick has lived here for over three years. He knows how dangerous the water is off this coast," Hardcastle protested.
"Milt, face the facts; Mark is missing. Whether he took off on his own, on foot - which isn't likely - or some other reason we haven't discovered as yet, he's still missing. We have to cover all the options. I wish … I hope he shows up with some cock-and-bull story, but I find the chances of that happening slim after all this time."
"He's not dead." Hardcastle's vehement statement was muttered, but still clearly heard.
"I hope you're right, Milt; I really do."
Hardcastle walked out onto the back patio, his emotions in a turmoil. No matter what Harper and the rest of the police said, he knew McCormick was alive. But where?
The darkness was closing in on McCormick, and so was the dirt. He thought it would get easier to get loose, to escape, but the mud was becoming as hard as concrete, and just about as yielding. He finally accepted the fact that he wasn't going to get out on his own. And the Judge was obviously searching everyplace but the right place; and no doubt becoming angrier and more worried with each passing hour. No more worried than he was, McCormick thought, as the warmth on his hand began to diminish, the sun beginning to set. The heat trapped within the barrow was becoming intolerable, his breath becoming harder and harder to find. There was no way to cool off, and the closeness was making McCormick drowsy.
He tried not to fall asleep, he didn't want to miss a possible rescuer. He fought it, but was never quite aware when sleep claimed him.
"Milt, 'did you get any sleep?" Harper rubbed a hand over his eyes, having spent the night at Gull's-Way, keeping Hardcastle company. But the Judge, on the off-chance that McCormick would return, had been watching television in the Gatehouse most of the night.
"Sure. Dozed off in the chair." Hardcastle replied, his red eyes belying his words. "Anything?"
"Coast Guard says they haven't found a body yet, but the way the storm was raging off the coast, they don't hold out much hope of finding one."
Hardcastle chugalugged his coffee, gasping as the hot liquid coursed down his throat. "He didn't drown; they won't find his body in the ocean. Or if they do, it won't be McCormick's body. I meant, did your APB turn up anything?"
"No. I tend to agree with you. If Mark left, it wasn't voluntarily. Either he's somewhere on this estate that we haven't looked yet, wherever that could possibly be, or somebody grabbed him, dragged him off forcibly. You know what means, don't you?"
"Yeah, whose enemy, mine or the kid's, and which one?" Hardcastle shook his head, "I feel that he's still here. I know it sounds crazy, but I think he's still here on the grounds. But if he is, why didn't he answer when we were yelling for him?" He poured another cup of coffee from the warm thermos, sipped it slowly. "I know he … wasn't in a very good mood, but he wouldn't just ignore us, wouldn't stay away, not this long. Unless ... unless he wasn't able to answer."
"Okay, Milt. We'll do another search this afternoon if we can't find him anywhere else. Satisfied?"
"Guess I'll have to be."
A sharp sting against his cheek and forehead woke McCormick. He looked up and saw starlight above him, then frowned. No, it couldn't be starlight. It was a network of holes in the barrow, but how'd they get there? A tapping, inconsistent and infrequent, made him think of rain, but he didn't feel it on his left hand. Another stinging across his forehead, and he knew. It was Ross and Tommy, target shooting.
"Hey! Tommy, Ross, I'm down here! Tommy, help!" McCormick's voice was still weak, the words no louder than a gasp. He had more voice after going to a Lakers' game with Hardcastle, but not by much.
He listened to the ammo hitting the wheelbarrow with mounting horror. One 'lucky' shot, and he could lose an eye, too lucky a shot and he could be killed. The muffled splats of the near misses showered him with tiny stings of dirt. So far, he hadn't been hit by the bullets, but McCormick couldn't hope for that to continue for long. Both teens were fairly good shots, and would soon narrow in on him. Only they didn't know that he was under their new target.
"What are you two doing?" Unable to wait around the main house any longer, Hardcastle had decided to take a mid-morning stroll; hearing the shots, he walked to where Ross Winslow and his constant friend and companion, Tommy Costello, were taking potshots at debris in the crevice.
"Uh, Hiya, Judge," Tommy smiled as charmingly as he could.
"We figured you'd be gone by now. Mark said you'd be heading for the State Capital today." Ross added when Hardcastle was silent.
"Change of plans. Can I see that?" Hardcastle took Ross's rifle and stood next to him, firing at limbs lying in the crevice. "The wheelbarrow is in there. Storm musta blown it in. Fulla holes, now." Hardcastle sighed, firing the .22 at the handle and cracking the rubber cover off it.
"Have you guys seen McCormick lately?" Hardcastle asked the question casually, sighting in on a tennis shoe stuck in the debris.
"Sure, yesterday afternoon, right before the storm hit," Ross replied.
Hardcastle lowered the rifle. "Where was he?"
Ross shrugged, turning to Tommy. "Here, right?"
"Yeah. In fact, he was dumping stuff in there with that wheelbarrow down there. I was surprised to see it, I thought he was gonna take it back to the house. Mark told us to hurry home, before the storm hit. Man, did it ever hit!"
"Betcha I can hit that shoe 'fore you do, Judge," Ross challenged, taking his friend's rifle and sighting it.
It suddenly came together, and Hardcastle grabbed the rifle. Its aim deflected, it fired harmlessly in the sky. He took Tommy's arm, pointed to the main house. "The cops are at the house, go get them and some ropes - three or four. That's McCormick down there!"
Ross took a quick look down and paled. "We've been shooting at that for at least half an hour. If you're right, we may have killed him."
Tommy took off at a breakneck pace, while Hardcastle shouted, "McCormick! Can you hear me? Do something! Move!" He watched carefully and saw the barest twitch of the shoe he had planned to shoot, a shoe that covered McCormick's foot. "Hang in there, kid, help's on the way!"
Hardcastle waited impatiently until Tommy and Harper ran from the house with ropes, followed by a small group of officers who had stopped by to resume the search. Hardcastle ordered them to stay back. "After all that rain, the ground around the edge isn't too firm; too many of you tramping about night cause it to collapse."
Harper unshouldered two coils of rope, one yellow nylon, the other a heavier, thicker rope. "This was all we could find, of any length." He handed the heavy rope to his officers to secure. "Who's going down?"
"Me, of course." Hardcastle was surprised that there was any question about it.
"Uh, excuse me, Judge, but you're a little heavy, both for those men and that crumbling edge. If you step wrong, the whole chunk of McCormick's ledge could slide away. I think I should go." Tommy gestured to the cops who were gripping the rope, since there was nothing to tie it to, no nearby trees or boulders.
"Are you crazy?"
"I've climbed before. Have you?"
Hardcastle shook his head. "What do you need?"
"A small, easy to handle shovel. And that other rope; I'll need to tie Mark, just in case this whole thing gives way while I'm digging him out. And you'd better call the paramedics, we don't know if he's hurt or not. Maybe a first aid kit I can tie to my belt."
Tommy got what he wanted, secured the rope around his waist and started his descent, the first aid box hanging on a make-shift climber's belt opposite the army-style shovel.
The ground was shifting, and McCormick slid a bit further down the crevice. He was now completely hoarse, unable to utter a single word or sound. The thought of falling into a bottomless pit, compounded by the darkness, not being able to see when it would happen, was terrifying. The ground moved again, and McCormick broke out in a cold sweat.
There was a sudden glare of sunlight, blinding him; the wheelbarrow had been thrown off, the edge clipping his chin painfully. Although clouds filtered the light, after the total darkness of the past several hours, it was as bright as a strobe light.
"Hi, Mark. You okay?" Tommy leaned down to look at McCormick closely, his blond bangs falling over his eyes.
McCormick nodded with a grimace. He looked past Tommy to see Hardcastle and Harper holding two lines of rope, Hardcastle's face drawn with worry. McCormick tried to smile reassuringly.
"Are you hurt?" Then, in a lower voice, he added, "Did we hit you?"
McCormick shook his head, and the teenager gave him a closer, puzzled look.
"Can't you talk?"
McCormick shook his head again.
"Okay. Look, I'm gonna have to dig your shoulders out so I can get the rope around you. You've gotta let me know if you start to slide. Not sure how you're gonna do that, if you can't talk -- move, or something." Tommy hooked himself in place, unclipped the shovel and gingerly began digging the dirt away.
The top of the shoulders were almost completely uncovered when McCormick began to slide down the crevice in earnest. His eyes widened, and his mind screamed the words he couldn't voice as he descended headfirst into oblivion.
"Mark!" Tommy threw himself forward, and, using a wrestling hold, slid a wiry arm under McCormick's chin and held tight. "I'm gonna need some help down here, and fast. Ross, get down here!"
"How? We've only got two ropes; we won't have one for Mark if I use the other one." Despite his questions, Ross had already yanked the extra rope up the side and flipped it around his waist. He lowered himself quickly down next to Tommy.
The trapped man could breathe, barely, but knew that Tommy wouldn't be able to keep him from falling to his death. His gaze locked with Hardcastle's, his fears mirrored in the Judge's eyes.
Tommy maintained the uncomfortable hold as Ross frantically dug around McCormick's shoulders with his hands; the shovel had fallen into the blackness of the abyss when Tommy's quick thinking and quicker reflexes prevented McCormick from falling. It seemed an eternity, but soon Tommy was able to release his stranglehold and slipped his hands under McCormick's shoulders.
"What now?" Ross asked, leaning back and wiping the sweat off his face.
"We hook up on the same rope, use mine to bring Mark up."
Ross considered it, shaking his head. "Tricky."
"We've done it before."
"Yeah, and it was tricky then - and we didn't have to worry about the ground falling from under us. Guess we don't have much of a choice, though, do we?"
"Nope. You ready?"
Ross nodded, winking at McCormick, who had listened with a concerned expression.
"Give us some slack on both ropes!" Tommy shouted to the waiting cops.
When slack was given, Tommy slipped out of his rope, letting it hang; Ross dug his heels into the shifting dirt, looped his rope around Tommy's waist. He grabbed the loose rope, holding on tightly to it while Tommy adjusted his new lifeline. When he was done, Ross checked his line, then began to run the rope around and under McCormick's shoulders.
"Pull up the slack, both ropes!"
The police did so, McCormick's body bending in half as the rope tightened and pulled. His legs were still buried, resisting the effort to pull them out. He winced in pain, unable to cry out.
"Hold it!" Ross shouted, seeing the spasm pass across McCormick's face. "We've gotta dig some more; otherwise, we could break something."
Tommy and Ross set to work, scooping dirt in large handfuls to one side. Discovering Mark's left leg bent under his body, Tommy carefully felt it from thigh to ankle as it appeared from under the caking mud. "Doesn't seem broken. Does it hurt?"
McCormick shook his head, breaths coming in labored gasps. He motioned with his hand to hurry up. The position was uncomfortable, almost painful, as his body began to come back to life again. His legs were still numb, but his arms were tingling something fierce, and the pins of fire were almost unbearable.
Using the downward movement of McCormick's body toward the yawning crevice for momentum, Ross and Tommy finally slid his buried legs out into the open. The ground crumbled and slid dangerously under them, and Ross held McCormick against the side of the cliff as the ground gave way. Pressed against the sloping side, the three were nearly suspended in space, the police officers holding the ropes barely reacting in time.
"Get us up!" Ross yelled.
They were pulled up slowly, the combined weights of both Ross and Tommy making their progress even slower. The rope with McCormick was lighter, but he couldn't help by climbing, his legs still useless after the long hours in one position. They finally reached the edge of the crevice, and Hardcastle reached down to pull him over while Harper helped the two teenagers clamber up.
The Judge's strong grip kept him from falling flat on his face, as his legs folded. Needlepoints of pain indicated returning life, and McCormick leaned heavily against the Judge, gasping.
"What is it? What's wrong?" When McCormick shook his head, not answering, Hardcastle's grip tightened, his fear evident to all present, "Say something, damn it! Are you okay?"
McCormick reached over to Harper, who was also watching in concern, and removed a pen and notepad from the lieutenant's shirt pocket. He scribbled on the sheet for a few seconds, then handed it to the Judge.
Hardcastle read the scrawl out loud. "I'm okay. My throat was hit, gave me...' What's that word?" The Judge showed the paper to Harper while McCormick frowned.
"I think it's supposed to be laryngitis. Right, Mark?"
McCormick smiled tiredly, slumping to the ground when Hardcastle's grip loosened. He was just able to sit up, the strain of staying still for all those hours catching up with him. The shivering was also beginning again, part cold and part shock.
"Let's get you inside and in some clean, dry clothes. You look like hell, kid. The paramedic team is probably here by now, I'll have 'em check you over."
McCormick shook his head, silently protesting, which Hardcastle ignored. He helped McCormick to his feet, supported him back to the house. Once inside the den, Hardcastle dumped McCormick on the couch, then went to the Gatehouse for some clean clothes. Ross and Tommy, accompanied by Harper who had dismissed the rest of the police personnel, came into the den. McCormick waved at them, smiling.
"You okay, Mark?" Ross asked, sitting next to McCormick.
"Yeah, you need anything else? If not, I think Ross and I had better get home. Our dads are going to be looking for us," Tommy added.
McCormick reassured them as best he could, that he was fine and didn't need anything, and the teenagers left. Harper, having watched the exchange with amusement, took Ross's seat on the couch next to McCormick.
"Were you telling them the truth? I know you, always tryin' to be Mr. Tough Guy, either for your own, or for Hardcastle's benefit. Well, hotshot, heroes can get hurt and often do, so it's okay. You don't have to play the strong and silent type." Harper grinned, "Although I think Milt's gonna like the 'silent' part."
McCormick slumped down into the couch, grimacing, making no effort to hide the shivering, now that only Frank Harper was present. Harper was about to continue his teasing when he noticed it. "What is it?"
McCormick didn't answer, content with trying to keep his teeth from chattering too hard.
Harper got to his feet, yelled out the door to Hardcastle as he left the Gatehouse, "Milt, better bring a blanket; I think Mark's caught a bad chill." Then he headed for the kitchen, leaving the door open for the Judge.
Hardcastle dumped the clothes onto a chair, continuing on through the room and upstairs to the master bedroom.
Harper came back into the den with a hot mug of coffee and a decanter of brandy. "Milt'll have our heads for this, but it is the best way to warn up fast. I won't tell him if you don't. Drink it down."
McCormick wrapped his hands around the mug, sighing; resignation became pleasure as the liquid fire spread through him, bringing a welcoming warmth.
"I swear, you can get into more trouble than anyone I've ever seen." Harper said, his voice soothing despite the tired refrain. "I mean, this wasn't even one of Milt's cases, just you doing some yard work. How do you manage it?"
"With him, it just comes natural." Hardcastle brought a large, fluffy dark blue blanket, and wrapped it around McCormick's shoulders. "Get upstairs, if you can make it, and get cleaned up. You look like a kid who's been playing in mud pies."
McCormick pulled himself to his feet, standing there for a moment while he decided whether he could make it up the stairs without assistance. Smirking at his success, he picked the clothes up and walked stiffly out of the room, heading for Hardcastle's shower with the power-massage. A coupla hours, maybe he'd feel half-way human again.
Judge Hardcastle closed the French doors to the Gatehouse quietly, leaving the lights off so McCormick wouldn't wake up and catch him 'mother-henning' it. However, that wasn't too likely, as McCormick was a sound sleeper when he wasn't exhausted. When tired out, an atomic bomb blast wouldn't wake him. The paramedics had arrived shortly after McCormick finished his shower, and they gave him general once-over. A follow-up visit to his own doctor was suggested, much to McCormick's annoyance, but he agreed to go the next day or so. The Judge paused at the second floor landing, and looked at the scrubbed clean face half-buried in quilts and blankets, instead of dirt and mud. There was a bruise on his chin, another bad one on his throat, and dark patches under his eyes, but other than that, he looked surprisingly good considering his recent activities. It had taken several sheets of the small notebook paper for McCormick to relate the experience. The Judge could still feel the chill that went through him when he realized how close he had come to losing McCormick this time, hit by lightning. If the lightning hadn't killed him, the fall should have; how could someone be so unlucky, yet so lucky, at the same time?
Hardcastle had hoped that McCormick's law classes would keep him out of trouble, out of danger; but leave it to McCormick to find trouble in his own backyard. Satisfied that all was well, he started back downstairs. He looked at the mess in the Gatehouse, perversely pleased at the lived-in look of the place. The young man had brought life back to Gull's-Way from the first day he arrived; and Hardcastle knew he could never go back to the lonely emptiness of before. And, luckily, he didn't have to. With a sense of awe, Hardcastle realized that McCormick actually loved him ... had as much as admitted it during their most recent argument and reunion in a jail cell. It felt good to be needed.
Leaving the Gatehouse, Hardcastle hummed softly as he headed back to the main house to his own bed and welcome sleep. He'd need the rest; tomorrow he was going to see about getting a teaching certificate from the State, and then, look for an opening at a certain law school in town. After he called that same school to have McCormick excused from classes for the rest of the week; all that would be simple compared to dragging the recalcitrant patient into the doctor's office. It would be worth it, though, Hardcastle chuckled to himself; because for the next few days he'd have not only some peace and quiet, but he'd also be able to finish his sentences without constant interruptions or complaints.
That would be nice ... for a while.