PARTNERS

By AEIU

Mark McCormick knew he was about to do something stupid; something that he would later regret. He, also, knew that there was little he could do to stop himself once he let his temper take control; even if he knew it was going to cause him trouble.

It wasn't like he believed Hardcastle was deliberately trying to be a bully. He had already put a lot of money into Whistler's Pride, the horse he had inherited from Willy the Whistler, a pickpocket who was undoubtly laughing himself sick, even in the hereafter, for the vengeance he had taken from beyond the grave by foisting a white elephant of a horse on the judge who had sentenced him.

Hardcastle had hoped to recoup some of the horse's outstanding stable fees by entering it in a race. He had been shocked that it would cost an additional ten thousand dollars just to enter the race. He was doubly shocked to learn that someone was trying to fix the race by intimidating the jockeys and owners. It was a testament to the judge's love of justice that he had been willing to throw good money after bad and keep Whistler's Pride in the race in an attempt to bring the bad guys to Grey Block Hilton.

He just didn't like how Hardcastle sounded when he was arguing with Casey O'Bannon, Whistler's biggest fan who was trying to get her first break as a jockey. She believed in Whistler's Pride and didn't care why the judge had wanted to race the horse; only that Whistler would finally have a chance to prove what he could do. Only now that Lenore Alcott had been caught red-handed, the judge didn't see the reason to carry through with the race even if Casey was willing, no begging, for a chance to ride Whistler's Pride in the race.

He knew it wasn't his place to argue with the judge but when he saw Casey pleading for a chance to show what she and Whistler could do, he felt he had to, at least, try. He knew Hardcastle was already getting angry but he hadn't been prepared for the reaction he got.

"Aww, come on judge," Mark said as he added his plea to Casey's. "You've already got the horse entered in the race. Let Casey ride him."

"The entry fee is ten thousand dollars, McCormick," said Hardcastle, "half of that is five thousand. Are you going to put it up?"

"You know I don't have that kind of money," Mark admitted feeling a bit ashamed with his lack of resources. It was a rich man's world.

"I know someone that will take that car of yours as collateral. We can drive over there right now and do it."

"Risk the Coyote," thought McCormick. "How could you even suggest such a thing?"

Hardcastle knew what the car meant to McCormick and he hadn't meant to say what he had said in such a manner. But he was tired of the whole mess and just to get out of the world of horse racing as quickly as possible. He didn't need O'Bannon and, now, McCormick making him feel guilty. Best to end it quick.

"I didn't think so," he said and quickly turned away so he wouldn't see the hurt the rebuke might cause.

But instead of causing hurt, it had lit a fuse to a stockpile of buried anger and resentment that bubbled deep beneath McCormick's easy going exterior.

McCormick could feel the fury begin to build deep inside of him. All of his life, he had to face down a long line of people who thought they were better than him because they had the power and the money and that gave them the right to call all of the shots. He had thought better of the judge but now all he saw was red.

"Fine," shouted McCormick to Hardcastle's back. "I'll do that."

"What," Hardcastle said as he turned back to face the enraged man.

"I said fine. Wait right here," Mark ordered as he stormed past the judge toward the gate house.

"Where do you think you're going, McCormick," shouted Hardcastle. "Get back here when I'm talking to you." He saw his words were not having any effect so he ran after McCormick leaving Casey behind who wondered where she and Whistler's Pride would be after the storm had passed.

Hardcastle was completely exasperated as followed closely on McCormick's heels into the gate house. He didn't know what bug had gotten up McCormick's nose but he was going to find out and put a stop to this temper tantrum. His own anger started to burn more intensely as he entered the gate house and watched as McCormick pulled out the desk drawer and dumped its contents on the floor.

"What do you think you're doing?" he demanded.

Without comment, McCormick turned over the drawer and pulled off and envelope which was taped to the bottom.

"Here, count this," McCormick said as he shoved the envelope into the judge's hand.

Hardcastle opened the envelope and started counting out a small wad of ten and twenty dollar bills. "This isn't going to be enough to buy that horse more than a few bales of hay," he said to McCormick who was already gone.

Mark went to the couch and pulled off the middle cushion. He reached his hand deep into the interior of the couch and pulled out another envelope which he handed to Hardcastle.

Hardcastle didn't know what to say as he watched McCormick pull out one envelope after another from various hiding places which were unceremoniously shoved into his hands with an order to count it.

After he had received the fifth envelope, he grabbed McCormick by the shoulder and turned him until they stood face to face. "Where did you get this money?" he growled.

"Are you asking me if I stole it?" McCormick responded his voice flat and angry.

"Don't be ridiculous. But I want to know where you got it?"

"You're not the only one that knows bookies, judge. Wait here." McCormick rushed up the stairs and returned a minute later with a black backpack.

Hardcastle watched as the contents of the backpack were spilled into the growing mess that was scattered throughout the house. "Couple changes of clothes, socks, tool kit. Everything he might need if he planned to leave in a hurry," observed Hardcastle. "I wonder how close he ever came to using it."

McCormick rummaged through the mess and pulled out a blue envelope. "Here," he said, "there should be about four hundred in there."

Hardcastle counted through the various denominations of bills. "Only a nine hundred and eighty-five dollars, hot shot."

Mark reached into his wallet and handed over a ten dollar bill, four one dollar bills, and four quarters. "That's one thousand dollars."

"That only makes you four thousand dollars short."

With a smug smile, Mark held up a piece of paper for the judge to see. "Here's the pink slip to the Coyote. Let's go see your friend."

It was too much for Hardcastle. "Have you lost your mind, McCormick?" he yelled. "You're not putting that car into hock."

McCormick's voice to rose in response as he stood nose to nose with the judge. "It's my car and you can't tell me what to do with it."

"Well, I can tell you that you aren't paying the entry fee because I'm going to pay it!"

"Not all of it! I've got one thousand dollars in this. That makes me a partner."

"It's only ten percent. That makes you a junior partner."

McCormick straightened to his full height, thumped Hardcastle in the chest with a pointed finger for emphasis as he shouted, "A partner! And your partner says we should let Casey ride!"

"Of course, Casey's going to ride. Who else could we get with such short notice? But you make sure you stick close to her because got a feeling that we haven't gotten to the bottom of this race fixing thing."

And then the storm was over. As he felt the anger fueled adrenaline seep from his body he remembered that this was not the first time he had been in this position with McCormick. They had both been angry, they had fought, and now he wasn't sure what they had been fighting about. "Are we good?" he asked.

"Yea," Mark answered as he felt the fury which had spurred him to action suddenly abandon him leaving him tired and slightly confused about what he had just done. He could see the mess in the room, as he looked around and realized the judge was holding every cent he had in the world.

"Including my emergency escape money," he thought. "I can't believe I showed him that."

He had packed it the first night he had returned from Las Vegas after bringing Cody Martin to justice. He had agreed to an indefinite parole working for the judge bringing criminals to justice and he fully intended to honor his word but a lifetime of disappointments had taught him to always be prepared for the worst. He had not even had the backpack well hidden. He had spent the first few weeks waiting to be confronted by Hardcastle holding the backpack that had been discovered during an expected search of the gate house. But it had never happened. Either Hardcastle had trusted him enough not to search the gate house or trusted him enough that he would not to take the backpack and go on the run. The judge didn't know it but he had passed a second test during those weeks. Now McCormick, himself, had drug the evidence out in the open. He could do nothing but wait for the questions and accusations.

"McCormick," Hardcastle said with a grim voice.

"Here it comes," thought McCormick.

"Remember," the judge continued, "if Whistler's Pride doesn't win; I don't want you whining about losing this."

"One last time to change your mind kiddo," Hardcastle thought as he waited to see what Mark would do. He already knew that the backpack wasn't worth mentioning.

McCormick took a deep breath as he looked at his money clenched in the judge's hand. "I won't."

Hardcastle suppressed the urge to grin as he put McCormick's money in his pocket. The kid always had the ability to surprise him. He knew McCormick really would have put his car into hock because he believed it was the right thing to do even if it was done in his 'damn the consequences' reckless impetuousness.

As they started to return back to the main house, Hardcastle muttered, "I can't believe I just gave you a raise."

"No take-backs," McCormick muttered back.

They went back to the main house and gave Casey the good news. She wrapped her arms around both of them, in turn, as she thanked them for giving her and Whistler a chance. The judge's suspicions about the case being far from over were proven when they got a telephone call from the LA Police department that supplied the name of Tony Barlow possible involvement in the horse napping of Whistler's Pride. So the Lone Hardcastle Ranger was off again in a cloud of fiery dust to capture all the bad men.

The next day, McCormick was beyond melancholy. Once again fate had lifted him to the highest heights as Whistler's Pride had defied the odds and won the race. In the next instance fate had dropped him to the bowels of the dregs as Hardcastle had waltzed up and told him that after taxes and outstanding debts that not only didn't he win enough money to relax on a tropical beach but he still owed one hundred and eighty dollars and was flat broke. Again he was a loser in life's big game.

He thought he would have had a problem keeping a smile on his face as he said goodbye to Casey but she was so happy for Whistler's Pride and for herself that he couldn't help but share her joy. It was another setback in his life in a long series for setbacks but he had had less in in his life and he wasn't going to start whining about how unfair it was. He was really going to need the money from his recent raise and would have to put college off for a few more semesters but he had given his word and he wasn't going to back down.

It was with a little less than heavy heart and smelly shoes that he prepared to leave the stables. There had been talk of Casey riding Whistler's Pride in upcoming races and, if he was lucky, it might only keep in a little debt for the rest of his life.

When he got to the judge's truck, he was surprised to see a large envelope sitting in the front passenger seat with his name on it. He cast a half glance to Hardcastle who was trying a little too hard to look innocent. He opened the envelope and pulled out ten one hundred dollar bills.

"What this?" he asked suspiciously.

"Weren't you listening to anything I said," Hardcastle griped. "I told you that Whistler's Pride paid off most of his outstanding debts. One of the debts was the entry fee. So that's your reimbursement."

"Reimbursement," Mark said with a small laugh of relief.

"Yeah, reimbursement. Now we're going to get you to the bank so you can get that into an account."

"A bank account," whined Mark. "Judge, I don't want to put my money in the bank. I like to have it where I can get it when I need it."

"Look, McCormick, it's your money and you can do with it what you want but a bank account keeps your money safe where you can get it when you need it and build up some interest."

"And what? In ten years, the interest on this might buy a hamburger at McDonald's."

"You can use it to start building your credit. It'll be your private account. It's security for the future, not a trap. I'm not going to be snooping into it."

McCormick couldn't explain why but he felt a wave of fear shudder through his body at the judge's words. Security was another word for stability which was something he had lacked his entire life. The few times he had found people and places where he had wanted to be, fate had taken it all away. But it, also, was a way for the judge to monitor him about things he might want to keep private, a way to trace him if he did decide to go on the run, and an additional bind to this place and this life. Opening a bank account was a small thing but was it a commitment he was willing to make?

McCormick lifted his head and locked eyes with the judge as he tried to gauge what fate and the future held for him. "Okay, okay,' he said. "Don't nag. I'll open an account."

Hardcastle reluctantly broke eye contact with Mark. He wasn't sure what had happened but it felt like one or both of them had just passed another unspoken test. It often surprised him how one smart mouthed curly-haired car thief had made a simple 'quid pro quo' deal so complicated and fulfilling. "Good and when we're done doing that, you've got a date with a garage door."

"What do you mean? We already did that."

"Yeah and it looks like a drunken gorilla attacked it with a paint brush."

"Judge, you did half of it."

"Your half is so bad that it makes my half look worse than it is. You're going to have to fix all the mistakes and repaint it."

"How is that fair? Your side is a lot worse than my side and now I have to repaint all of your mistakes."

"Tiny mistakes, McCormick, tiny mistakes. Not like your side where it looks like you threw a can of paint across it."

"If they're so tiny then you should be able to fix them in no time," McCormick said with a gleam in his eyes as a plan began to formulate in his mind.

"I could but…"

"Want to bet that I can get my side fixed up and repainted before you."

"I don't want to steal your money, McCormick."

"You sound scared, judge. Don't want to put your money where your paintbrush is?"

"Okay, wise guy. Twenty says I can finish before you but the job has to be done right this time."

"Judge," McCormick said in a voice that dripped of pure innocence, "when have I ever done less than my very best on the chores?"

Hardcastle could not suppress a snort of disbelief to that outrageous question.

"Bet you forgot that we never cleaned those brushes after you got that registered letter. Fortunately I know where the last clean brush is. You're about to be had, Hardcastle," McCormick thought as he leaned back into the truck seat and tried to hide his smile.

"I'll bet he forgot we used the last of the stripper. Fortunately I got a new can in the back of the truck. You're about to be had, McCormick," thought Hardcastle as he tried to suppress his own urge to smile.

The judge and parolee turned and smiled at each other and the game was on again.

THE END